The Golden Wolf

          By Queen of Sarab

Chapter Five

             Outside, the predawn sky, bare of moon or stars, was a deep, relentless ebony. Without the benefit of seeing the boy she was following, Rayne was forced to grope blindly towards the light sound of his footsteps. Rayne's training as a priestess allowed her the benefit of silent steps, but in this dark abyss she didn't have much of an advantage.

 It seemed like days before the sky finally began to lighten, streaked with  the brilliant oranges and reds of early morning. Although Rayne had anticipated this being easier, as she would at least be able to see Bryar, she didn't realize until it was light what a disadvantage it actually was.  Now that she could see him, he would be able to see her. It was now that Rayne's training really came into play- her silent, gliding steps were the only thing saving her from discovery.

 Bryar didn't stop for breakfast. Instead, he chewed a piece of dried meat as he walked, swigging water from a flask at his hip. Rayne followed suit with some of the supplies he had left her, although she had to do without the flask, eventually resorting to lapping up drops of dew and rain from where they had gathered on leaves to quench her thirst.

            The trees around them, sparkling in the morning sun with dew and the remnants of the night's storm, began to grow more and more sparse. With every step, Rayne was losing vital cover, and had to hang farther and farther back.

 As the day progressed, following Bryar became more and more of a game; staying just far enough away to lose sight of him, and then darting forward from tree to tree to catch a glimpse of her ignorant guide. Rayne began to enjoy it more and more, and used it to break the monotony of the journey.

            The day passed quickly, and before Rayne knew it, the sky overhead had darkened into the beginnings of night. She set up a quiet camp just in sight of Bryar's small fire. Unable to light a fire of her own for fear of discovery, Rayne ate the remainders of the stew cold and fell asleep quickly.

 A cold, harsh wind blew against Rayne's face, forcing grit into every crevice of her face. She spit to rid her mouth of the substance, but more was instantly forced in. With a cry of disgust, she covered her face with her arm and began to run against the wind, muscles straining with the added pressure.

 It was too much; she soon fell to her knees with the effort, burying her  head in the crook of her arm to prevent more dirt from entering her mouth.

 And then it stopped.

            Rayne looked up cautiously, taking in her surroundings with a careful eye.  She appeared to be in  a clearing, brimming with vegetation and animal life. Where she was, or how she had gotten here, she didn't know; it seemed too real to be a dream.

            And yet it must be, Rayne reasoned. How else would she have gotten here?

 Very suddenly, she heard someone approaching at a run. Spinning to the sound, Rayne prepared to defend herself if necessary- and ended up jumping back in surprise as a young woman ran past her. The woman's hair, falling loose down her back, was a deep, solid ebony; her grey eyes shone with a silvery fear as she stumbled to a clumsy halt, glancing back over her shoulder in the direction she had come. Biting her lip, she clutched more tightly at the squirming bundle in her arms, and ran on.

            It took Rayne's mind a moment to grasp what she had just seen, but the form was too familiar for mistake. She had just seen her mother. Younger, and possessing much less of the  grace and poise she was known for, but Myati, nonetheless.

 Rayne choked back a cry of pent up emotion as she watched her mother pass, turning her face to avoid the wrenching sight. And saw the commotion in the other direction.

 There was a cabin there, a small house she had somehow missed in her former surveillance. In fact, she somehow doubted it had been there a moment before. But here it was now, and, bursting through the front door into the woods ahead of it, a group of fighting men.

 There were nearly a dozen armored guards, fighting a lone man. A slender young man, with a head of golden curls that gave him the appearance of a defending angel..

 Rayne's father.

            And it was then that it hit Rayne very suddenly what she was seeing. It was her mother's story; the royal guards, coming for her father while her mother fled with her- that was the squirming bundle held so tightly to her mother's chest.

 She turned her attention with rising horror back to the scene before her. Her father was fighting valiantly, gaining ground on his assailants. He ran his sword easily through a weak spot in one guard's leather armor, immediately turning his attention to another. It was obvious, even to her inexperienced eyes, that Orlo's skill was winning against their great numbers.

 And, very suddenly, he stopped, baby blue eyes widening in shock and fear. Although the men and cabin partially obscured her view, Rayne was aware of a new presence; a tall, dark shadow approaching the group. But the scene was beginning to blur; and however much she strained to see, Rayne was losing her view of the scene. All she heard before the picture disappeared was a low, menacing hiss.

            Rayne awoke in a cold sweat.

            The dream had disappeared, but its impression had not. The images she had seen burned in her brain, leaving her shaking with combined rage and fear. Whatever her mother had told her, actually seeing her story had a much greater impact on her mind.

            But it was just a dream, she reminded herself. Simply visions of the past. And the past was over, done. To survive, she had to live in the present.

 The next day began much like the first- Rayne kept her distance from Bryar carefully, only stopping for absolute necessities. The difficulty of the terrain was beginning to wear on her muscles, unused to any more physical labor than the everyday chores of a priestess. She had awoken to feel them tight and screaming with the strain, and as the day continued the burning pain crescendoed, sending stabbing cramps through her legs.

 Around noon, she found the end of the trees.

            She had lost sight of Bryar a few minutes before, and was hurrying to catch another glimpse of him and confirm her position when she dashed through a clump of trees... and found herself very suddenly out of the woods.

 Tall, flaxen grass stretched for as far as Rayne could see, cut through by a winding dirt road that swelled and dipped with the low hills that covered the seemingly endless area. Rayne drew in a surprised gasp of air as a light wind rippled the grass against her skin. She had to pause a moment to take it all in- the forest was not only the only home she had ever known; it was the only place she had ever seen.

 It was the first time she had seen the skyline unobscured by trees. It seemed enormous, a vast expanse of perfect blue broken only by a few wisps of silver clouds. The sun, a burning ball overhead, cast a golden glow into the air around it. It seemed surreal, too beautiful to be true, and Rayne felt as if she was discovering a new part of herself, taking it all in.

 She continued cautiously on the road, overly aware of her complete lack of cover. She felt exposed and naked, but tried to ignore the feelings, using the swell of the hills to block herself from Bryar's view.

 Rayne kept sight of him for nearly another hour, and it wasn't for several minutes more that she realized she had lost sight of him. Suddenly afraid and feeling very lost, she quickened her step, nearly running down the road in her panic to find her guide.

 And then she stumbled over him.

            As she dashed over a particularly high swell, Rayne found herself having to skid to a stop at the sight of a waiting- and very smug looking- Bryar, lounging on the side of the road in the hill's blind spot. From the other side, it was impossible to see him.

            "Hello again," Bryar smiled. "I thought that was you back there."

            Rayne cleared her throat nervously. "I was just trying to..."

            Her guide laughed. "It's fine, Rayne. I guess I underestimated you. I don't know how you did it, but I didn't even realize anyone was behind me until a few hours ago. I'm really impressed."

 Relief washed over Rayne like a tidal wave, and she smiled warmly. Bryar returned the grin with a cocky one of his own, some unidentifiable emotion flickering momentarily across his warm brown eyes.

            "You should really smile more," he commented lightly after a moment. "It's very flattering."

 Heat flared through Rayne's cheeks, and she smiled again, this time with acute embarrassment. She mumbled an incoherent response before stumbling around Bryar to walk farther down the road. "Come on," she called back over her shoulder, regaining her composure. "Let's see if you can keep up with me."

 The sky was beginning to darken before they caught their first glimpse of  Jacoma.

 It was as they came over a hill that they saw it- distant still, but close enough to stand out, a dark lump against the brilliant horizon. The obvious immensity of it, apparent at even such a distance, pulled a delighted laugh from the astonished Rayne.

            "It's beautiful," she breathed.

            Her companion smiled wryly. "From a distance, yes," he said. "But it's not nearly as impressive inside."

 Rayne glanced at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"

            "It's the people that make a place what it is," Bryar returned thoughtfully, eyes still turned towards the city. "And there's enough corruption in Jacoma for a hundred cities. Not that there aren't good people- there are many- but in a place like the capitol, they tend to… get lost in the crowd."

             Furrowing her brow in comprehension, Rayne tore her eyes away from their destination and concentrated her gaze instead on the lacings of her boots. Her mind ran over Bryar's words again and again. Rayne knew little of corruption or evil- any that had existed in her tiny world had been shielded from her young eyes since she was a child. She knew what evil was- but she didn't understand it, or why it existed. But apparently, in Jacoma, it ran rampant, if she was to believe what Bryar was telling her. So she would have to get used to it.

 "We can just make camp here," Bryar said a few moments later, motioning to a fairly level plot off the side of the road. Rayne nodded, swinging her pack gratefully to the ground. Bryar did the same, sinking to sit next to it immediately.

 It was several seconds before Rayne realized Bryar wasn't moving to build a fire. "Don't we need to gather wood or something?" she asked doubtfully.

 "We're too far from the forest," Bryar returned. "It would be too much trouble. Besides, it shouldn't get too cold tonight."

 "What about dinner?"

 With a small, indulgent laugh, Bryar replied, "Just eat some jerky, if you're hungry. We'll be in Jacoma tomorrow- you can buy a hot meal then.  G'night." And with that, he stretched lazily and lay down in the tall, concealing grass.

 Buy. The word sent off a trigger of alarm in Rayne's brain. It was another thing rarely mentioned in her old village, and something she knew very little about. She did know, however, that she would need money. And that she had none.

            But Rayne couldn't deal with that now. She was too tired, and one worry more seemed insignificant at the moment. It was simply too much to handle.

 So, without even bothering to eat any of her few remaining rations, Rayne laid in the grass next to her pack, and fell asleep immediately.

 With a gasp of held breath, Rayne's eyes shot open.

 "No," she whispered.

            She was back in the dream, the nightmare of her parent's separation. The clearing surrounded her, teeming with vibrant foliage and lively animal life. Myati's young apparition bolted past, stopping only for one last glance at her courageous lover.

 And there was the cabin, her father fighting so valiantly to defend himself against a dozen men.

 Without giving it a second thought, Rayne darted forward, running full speed to the cabin. This time, she was determined to see her father's assailant, the dark shadow from her last dream.

 Orlo's sword slashed through one guard's armor easily, and he was turning to the next when Rayne felt a distinct chill race along her spine. Cold seized her body, racking her in violent shivers, and she rubbed desperately at her arms in an attempt to gain some body warmth. A low, menacing hiss of air filled her ears with a deafening "Sssss..."

 The figure still hadn't appeared. And, suddenly, Rayne realized why.

            She had seen him from behind, before, because he had come from her side, a little farther off through the trees. In fact, Rayne realized, right about...

 Where she was standing.

 She spun around to meet the attacker, but it was too late. The shadow was there, indistinct and dark, so close to her face she could feel it's icy breath against her bare skin. Rayne gasped and pulled back, but the figure was walking through her, sending her willowy frame into violent spasms of fear and cold. Ice shot through her veins like fire, and she could feel her skin tighten against her bones, contracting brutally with the sudden chill.   

 And suddenly, through it all, there was a warmth, beginning at her throat and spreading quickly, thawing the ice that had begun to take control of her body. Rayne felt above the pain, and, very suddenly, she found herself literally hovering above her body, watching the figure pass through her fragile frame. Her head was thrown back in an expression of bewildered pain, dark gold curls tumbling like a waterfall down her slender back. Her blue-grey eyes flew open, burning with a smoldering fire that frightened the hovering Rayne, and, at the center of her collarbone, a stormy light shone like a beacon through her tunic.

 And, all of a sudden, if was over. The apparition had passed through, and Rayne collapsed to the grass in utter relief. Her hovering spirit very suddenly returned to her body, and she turned her head to look after the shadow, rage suddenly flaring in her heart.

 "Show yourself, coward!" she cried.

            The dark shadow turned.

            And Rayne let out a piercing scream.

             "Rayne! Rayne!"

 Rayne's eyes flew open.

            She was shivering violently still, the aftershocks of her fear still coursing through her body, but this time, there were warm, comforting arms around her, slowly returning her to reality.

 "Rayne!"

             "Bryar," she whispered, burrowing her head against his strong chest like a frightened child.

 With a half-fearful glance at the top of her head, Bryar began to run a comforting hand through her thick curls, murmuring comforting words and soothing noises low against her ear.

            After a few minutes, Rayne's fearful shivers subsided, and she pulled away from her comforter slowly, embarrassment coloring her cheeks.

 "Are you alright?" Bryar asked softly, brown eyes filled with concern.

Rayne nodded quickly, managing to force out a weak smile. "It was just a bad dream," she half lied, nervously pushing loose curls out of her face.

 "Just a bad dream," she repeated, this time more to herself than the boy still watching her with acute worry etched across his face.

 "You'll be alright?" he asked.

            Rayne nodded again. "I'll be fine, Bryar," she lied again. "You can go back to sleep."

 With an unsure glance at her still haunted face, Bryar nodded and returned to the patch of grass a few feet away where he'd been sleeping.

 Rayne lay back with a disturbed sigh, still remembering the sight of her body below her, dark apparition halfway through it. She strained to remember the attacker's face, the image that had torn the scream from between her lips, but her mind was a blank. She could only recall the image of her smoldering eyes and the light at her throat...

 With a sudden thought, Rayne's graceful hand flew to her throat, where her mother's silver necklace hung, tucked beneath her tunic. Her fingers traveled down the chain, coming finally to rest on the blue-grey stone, so close to the color of her own eyes.

            The jewel was still warm.