Brangien shook her head, her face a blur of dark eyebrows and red lips. "There was a jumble of boulders an hour back. Like a giant had been playing a child's game and left his toys behind. I remember it very clearly. This is the same road." A leaf drifted down from the trees, landing as lightly as a prayer on Brangien's shoulder. Brangien squeaked with fear.
It was a simple matter to reach out and pluck the leaf from Brangien's shoulder. The girl wanted to lift it to her face, to study the story in its lines. But, touching it, she instantly sensed that it had teeth. She dropped it to the forest floor. She even checked her fingers for blood, but of course there was none.
Brangien shuddered. "There is a village not far. We can hide there."
"Hide?" They were a day from their destination. She wanted this to be over with. Everything to be done and settled. The idea of huddling with these men in a village while they waited to—what, fight a forest?—made her want to tear off her shoes, her veil, to beg the trees for safe passage. But the trees would not understand.
They were on opposite sides now, after all.
I am sorry, she thought, knowing the trees could not hear her. Wishing she could explain.
Brangien cried out again, putting her hands over her mouth in horror. The men around them stopped abruptly. They were still surrounded by green, everything filtered and unclear through the veil. Shapes loomed out of the forest, enormous boulders covered in moss and trailing vines.
Modesty be damned. She tore off her veil. The world came into startling, perfect focus.
The shapes were not boulders. They were homes. Cottages much like ones they had passed before, made of lime-washed cobs and beams with thatched roofs sloping down to the ground. But where smoke should have been drifting up from the roofs, there were flowers. In place of doors, trailing curtains of vines. It was a village reclaimed by nature. If she had to guess, she would say it had been abandoned generations ago.
"There was a child," Brangien whispered through her fingers. "He sold me bread weighted with stones. I was so cross with him."
"Where are the people?" Sir Bors asked.
"We must not linger here." Mordred veered his horse toward hers. "Surround the princess! Quickly!"
As she was carried by the momentum of her guards, she saw one last vine-covered boulder, or perhaps a tree stump. Just the right size and shape for a little boy, offering bad bread.
* * *
They did not stop until dusk claimed the world far more gently than the forest had claimed the unfortunate village. The men regarded the fields around them with suspicion, as though trees would spring forth, impaling them.
Perhaps they would.
Even she was unnerved. She had never before viewed the green and secret things of the world with fear. It was a good lesson, but she wished that the village had not paid the price for her education.
They could not go much farther in the dark without risking injury to the horses. Their first night together, they had stayed in an inn. Brangien had slept beside her in the finest bed the inn had to offer. Brangien snored lightly, a friendly, companionable sound. Unable to sleep, the girl had longed to pad down the stairs, to find the horses in the stables, to sleep outside.
Tonight she would get her wish. The men divided the watch. Brangien fussed setting up bedrolls, complaining about the lack of proper sleeping arrangements.
"I do not mind." The girl once again offered Brangien a smile that went unclaimed in the darkness.
"I do," Brangien muttered. Perhaps she thought the veil obscured hearing as well as vision.
Even with the fire crackling in defiance of night, of cold, of beasts and creeping things, the stars were waiting. Men had not yet figured out how to beat those back. The girl traced her favorite constellations: The Drowned Woman. The Swift River. The Pebbled Shore. If any stars winked a warning, she did not see it through the sparks the fire sent heavenward.
* * *