Sometime later during the night, Caroline heard the ringing of steel being drawn and a loud battle cry. She was awake and on her feet, immediately sizing up their opposition.
A pack of wolves. Levine, Rhona and Dawn were valiantly fighting them off, but for each one they struck down another lunged in to take its place.
Caroline found herself chanting the words to a protection spell before she could stop and think about how she knew them. That lack of hesitation probably saved their lives. Just after the shield shimmered into existence, several wolves leapt toward them and bounced off the barrier, yelping in pain. The rest stopped and circled warily.
“This won’t hold them back for long, so we should get to the horses and make a run for it while we can,” she said.
Dawn slid her sword home in its scabbard and knelt to pick up her bedroll. “We could have taken them,” she assured Caroline.
Quickly gathering her own travel gear, Caroline smiled as she considered the wolves just beyond the shimmering barrier. “I’m sure we could, but we need to conserve our strength,” she said.
As they hurried over to the horses, the wolves stalked them. Occasionally, one of the eager stalkers ventured too close and was turned away by the shield.
The horses were being harassed by a few wolves but were otherwise unharmed. Caroline cast the protection spell again, the shield this time encompassing a wider area, so that the four of them could mount up and be on their way.
The wolves gave chase as they rode off through the forest. With a clever spell which gave a phosphorescent glow to the moss growing on the trees, Caroline illuminated the path before them.
For a while they had to hold to a safe pace, the wolves never far behind. As they passed beyond the northern outskirts of the forest and urged the horses on faster, their pursuers soon fell behind.
“You think we’ve seen the last of them?” Rhona asked as the night of escape wore on into morning, the rising sun just beginning to light the grassy expanse around them with a warm glow.
Caroline glanced over and said, “I cast a spell to leave a false trail, so it may have thrown them off.”
“Well, just to be certain, maybe we should shake them the old-fashioned way too.”
“Very well. Follow me!” Levine led them off in a detour from their straight path north. She found a stream and they slowly made their way up that, making it more difficult to follow them.
After sloshing through the water for a while, the sun had risen some more and the cloudy sky to the east was cast in hues of red and gold. They turned back onto dry land and set a brisk pace, coming steadily closer to the hills Caroline had seen in her vision.
Though there were some gentle contours, the soil had over time been eroded away exposing bare rock. Levine had to slow down and steer them onto a safe path up and over. It was slow going, and as midday approached they took a short break to rest and eat.
Caroline unfurled her bedroll, lay down on her side and sighed with relief. She was a little bit saddlesore and sleepy. But Levine, who’d barely had a half-hour’s sleep all night, looked exhausted as she chewed her food.
“I’m going to close my eyes for a bit,” the archer said after she was finished with her ration, lying back on her bedroll with her arms folded over her chest and doing just that.
Caroline agreed with the sentiment but didn’t follow suit. “I’d say you’ve earned it,” she commented.
Levine smiled. “As have you, Caroline.”
“I helped too,” Rhona said.
“Indeed. The wolves saw you and instinctually went for the short one,” Levine replied with a chuckle, her eyes still closed fast as the sun shone from overhead.
“The smallest of the prey is not always the weakest,” Rhona shot back with a grin.
Levine shrugged her shoulders and dozed peacefully.
Though it was only a brief stop on their journey, it was revitalising enough for them to carry on through the hills for much of the afternoon and early evening. Progress was steady, but slower than their dash across the plains.
Ahead of them lay yet another challenge – snow-capped mountains with a narrow and winding pass. With night falling, they decided to make camp before traversing that arduous route.
That night it was noticeably chilly and all four of them sat near the warm fire. It seemed strange to see Dawn in just a plain vest and pants after two days of seeing her only in metal armour.
“It’s very uncomfortable to sleep in,” Dawn explained, noticing Caroline’s curious gaze. She added, “And besides that, on a cold night like this I might as well be wearing a suit of ice.”
“It’s just that I’ve never seen you out of it, that’s all.”
“Well, that I can understand,” Dawn said with a smile.
Rhona stirred the contents of the cooking pot, a hearty broth to keep their strength up. “We could use some more wood for the fire,” she said, looking at the others.
“I’ll go,” Levine said, immediately getting up.
“How about I give you a hand?” Dawn asked.
“That would be wonderful,” Levine said with a grin, setting out to find something suitable. “See you two in a little while,” she added to Caroline and Rhona.
“I’ll just sit here and watch you cooking then,” Caroline said.
Rhona smirked as she tended to their dinner and replied, “I suppose Wilma takes care of your meals at home, does she?”
“I defer to her superior skills. If you want something burnt, I’m the expert,” Caroline said, deflecting the comment about her lack of contribution.
Rhona laughed and shook her head slowly. “I suppose it’s just as well you’re not rescuing this princess on your own. I mean, it would be terribly embarassing for you to serve her blackened offerings for the whole of the return journey.”
“What would you have me do, conjure up some roasted potatoes with a wave of my hand?”
“You’re a wizard. Isn’t there something you can do to make this journey a little easier?”
“Did you think that we would be sleeping in roadside taverns every night? With warm fluffy blankets?”
“No. Of course not. I’m just saying, if we’re to work as a group, then everyone has to contribute. Even outside of battle.”
“Fine. What do I have to do?”
“Oh, I know. Here’s something you can’t possibly mess up,” Rhona said, throwing Caroline a rag. “Dawn’s armour there, it looks like it could do with being cleaned. Get to it.”
“You’re enjoying this far too much,” Caroline muttered. She got up, sat beside the discarded boots, and proceeded to scour the accumulated dirt from the metal as best she could.
While she was still working on the boots, Levine and Dawn returned with modest armfuls of branches to feed the fire. They seemed out of breath, as if they had returned in a hurry.
“Something wrong?” Rhona asked them.
“No, we were just eager to get back and sample more of your fine cuisine,” Levine answered, laying down the wood and adding a little of it as fuel for the dwindling fire.
Dawn sat down, glancing at Caroline, who was still scrubbing away. “Oh, you didn’t need to do that,” she said, smiling her thanks.
“Rhona insisted that I do my share.” Caroline glanced up and noticed Dawn’s flushed cheeks. “Oh, you two really did come back here in a hurry, didn’t you?”
“It’s really cold out there,” Dawn explained.
Rhona cheerfully announced dinner. “Here, this should help warm you up.”
She filled their bowls from the pot and passed them out. Even Caroline stopped her menial work on Dawn’s armour to accept the offering with muttered thanks.
“I’ll take first watch tonight,” Rhona said while they were eating.
Caroline nodded her assent, as did Levine and Dawn, so after finishing her bowl of broth Rhona stood to patrol around the camp.
It was a clear night and the campsite offered clear views, so Rhona could give her companions ample warning if someone were to come their way. Unfortunately, it would also be much easier to find their camp by the light of the fire.
As she maintained her vigil and occasionally warmed herself by the fire, Dawn and Levine eventually settled down to sleep. Caroline turned in as well after finishing her task.
Rhona listened intently, and thanks to her ears she could hear much that the others could not. For now, what she heard were the sounds of nature all around them. It provided a good baseline to help her pick out anything unusual.
Thankfully, her watch ended hours later without incident, and she roused Caroline.
“What is it?” Caroline said, “is it more wolves?”
“No. First watch is up. Time for some fresh eyes.”