*Author's Note: To say that this chapter has been long delayed is more than an understatement. Forgive me! *dodges flying bricks* I've been working gradually on it over the summer, but I've never been happy with it, which is why I think I was so reluctant to spend more time writing. Quite frankly, I've taken much to much time to say very little, if I've even said anything worthwhile at all. This is not even the whole chapter in its entirety. I hated it too much to finish typing. But I recognize that some people have been waiting for a development, so I thought it only fair to post it for now. Being far too lazy to scrap it and start over completely, be expecting a revision in the (near? *fingers crossed*) future, with a lot less fluff and more stuff, as my favorite high school teacher used to say. ^-^ *

Chapter 10

By nightfall the ominous shadow of the forest had crept forward, looming in the pale dusk as if hurrying to meet us. The only thing that stood between the three o' us and the wood was a small manorless village that had somehow managed to thrive despite the fact that it was not a port town like Devlin or Isleen. In the dwindling light there could be seen a miniature chapel and an inn with no name, for 'twas the only inn in for miles and it needed none.

The Main Way ran straight through the village. Although there was little travel this time o' year, the spring and summer traffic on the road must have been just enough business to keep the little town afloat. There was a cobbler's shop, a tailor's, a bakers, and a smithy's. The inn nestled on the far side o' town. 'Twas nearest the menacing shadow that grew ever more black as the last rays o' the sun disappeared beneath the horizon.

A lump o' fear crept into my throat, despite my attempts to swallow it down. I looked questioningly at my companions. Neither looked as if they had any intention of stopping, although I knew it was what we had agreed on earlier. Hadn't Derry warned about entering Dubhwood after nightfall? Wasn't Sloane due to pull on Jamie's reigns and halt us for the night any minute now?

I eyed the approaching inn longingly. What I would have given to sleep in a real bed for the night.

I was turning over in mind whether or not I should be the one to mention something, when it was Jamie, of all creatures, who beat me to it. Recently she had become anxious, shying up and making as if she wished to turn back, but Sloane kept her moving forward. Now she reared up and whinnied and would go no further, despite any efforts that we made.

"Well, that settles it!" I said aloud, trying to sound cheerful. "I guess we can't go any further tonight!"

Derry shot Sloane and "I-told-ye-so" glance. Then I understood that Derry in her stubbornness, refused to warn Sloane more than once of the dangers o' our going on, and Sloane in his contempt o' her had tried to scare her into being the first one to halt us. How foolish! 'Twas my job as usual, being the eldest, to set them both straight.

"Oh, I see what ye two have been up to now. It seems Jamie's smarter than the both o' you eejits! If she's a horse, then the two o' you must be asses, and no mistake! She's not taking a step closer to that wood this night, and neither am I! Come on, then, Sloane, we'll sleep at that inn tonight!"

First they glared at me, then at each other, but I could sense through the falling darkness that they were as relieved as I.

"If it pleases ye Mistress, we'll stay at that inn tonight and start through the forest come the morning," Sloane succumbed.

"Aye, that sounds fine," admitted Derry.

And that was that. We approached the wooden, two-story cabin that was the inn. Just next it was a small stable - where the horses o' guests were kept, no doubt. Chickens clucked about in the front lawn. There, Sloane bid Derry and I wait outside while he went in to arrange for us a room. Derry, to my amazement, allowed him this show of masculinity without so much as a complaint. Surprising, considering they had bickered since the instant they met.

A few minutes later, Sloane returned followed by a plump, bearded man, who looked to be about in his mid-forties. He had a stern façade, but was not what one would call fearful. This man took Jamie's reigns from Derry's hands and helped me down from my mount. I was slowly but surely getting better at alighting and descending from the horse while wearing a dress. The man, who I assumed was the innkeeper, led Jamie away toward the stables. He spoke to Sloane as he walked.

"Go on inside and my wife will show ye to your room. There ye can get settled and come back down in half an hour. Supper should be ready by then."

Supper! What a lovely sound the word made in my ears. We immediately obeyed. Inside we found that the inn opened into a main common room with a crackling fire and four home-made wooden tables with mismatched chairs encircling their unusually round shape. I had never before seen tables in the shape of a wagon wheel and the sight was odd to me and Sloane, although Derry appeared unsurprised. To the right, there was a staircase ascending to the second floor. From a door to the left, came a plump, stout, middle-aged woman who must have been the innkeeper's wife, for she greeted us and led us up the stairs to our room. I noted that she and the innkeeper together made a perfect match.

"We don't get many travelers these days," she chatted in a nice, friendly voice. "What with the war and all, and all the men being sent to the King's army. Why, 'twas only four weeks ago that the soldiers marched through our little town and took my only son away with them!" She sighed, the twinkle in her pleasant round eyes visibly fading. "And he just about to be married . . .."

We murmured our understanding as we stepped into the small lightly furnished room. It was similar to the inn in Isleen, with little furniture save for a single comfortable-looking bed. It looked as though Sloane would be sleeping on the floor yet again while Derry and I received the comfort of a warm, soft mattress. The woman left us alone to work out the sleeping arrangements.

Since that took little time, we wandered downstairs again and seated ourselves around one of the round tables. There was a single window in the whole room and I could see that outside night had completely descended upon the land. We chatted little, the three o' us lost in thoughts of the journey we would embark upon come morn. Presently, the innkeeper's wife entered and brought us each a steaming hot bowl of stew and three chunks of bread with some ale.

"I'm afraid it's not my best dish," she apologized, although needlessly. We were so grateful to have warm food, it seemed to us a feast. "I've got little food to work with now that soldiers take more than their fair share. They've become careless lately and don't even care if we notice or not." She spoke all this as her hungry guests gobbled down the first warm meal they'd had in weeks.

The plump woman watched us, quite startled. "If ye don't mind me asking," she ventured, "where do the three of ye be going at this terrible time?"

I took a draught of bitter ale and paused long enough in my eating to answer her. "To the King's Town, mistress. Do ye know how much longer a journey lies ahead o' us?"

"Oh, about two more weeks I'd say, at the least," she said, pleased to have been answered.

At that moment her husband came into the room and sat down at a table next us. He produced a pen and some parchment and proceeded with his own business – perhaps settling the household accounts.

"Laird," the woman called to him. "These three are headed to Kingstown away north. Now what do ye think about that?"

Laird grunted his reply and scribbled on the parchment.

Derry finished up her ale and made a satisfying though unladylike belch. "Tell me mistress," she asked the wife, "at what time should we leave tomorrow if we wish to be out o' the wood by nightfall?"

The woman's face visibly darkened, and the innkeeper stopped his scribbling to glance up at Derry with a wary eye.

"You'll be traveling that way, will ye?" asked Laird's wife.

"Aye, that's right," Derry replied slowly, obviously confused. "Why? Is there another?"

"There is," spoke up Laird before his wife could respond. "It goes around the wood. It adds about four more days to the journey, but . . .."

"But what?" I urged him to finish.

"But it's a much smarter choice than to wander into that dark forest."

Sloane started to speak, but Derry's mind was on other things. "But how can there be another way? Murron and I have traveled this road many a time, and ne'er have I heard o' this other road!"

"That's because it's fairly new," said the wife. "When travelers stopped coming because they refused to go through Dubhwood, some men started a new path around it. Trade and commerce must go on, y'see. When the King's soldiers' came, they took the long road. The only folk that go directly through the wood any more are vagabonds and bandits."

Derry leaned close to speak to me and I saw the glint of relief in her eyes. "Mistress Brenna, we'll take this new way then and avoid the road that goes through the forest!" I knew 'twas coming.

"Nay," I said decisively.

"What?"

"I'll not waste any more time than need be," I hissed back at her.

Sloane was looking at us, and I knew he heard me. He turned to our hosts and said, "What is it that makes the Blackwood so dangerous?"

"Alas, no one rightly knows," Laird shrugged his thick shoulders. "Those who find out don't live to tell the tale. But it is said that strange things, fey things, dwell there."

The firelight reflected in his eyes, and his low voice made me shiver.

He continued, his voice so low that it was barely audible. "While day lasts, they keep to themselves, but after nighttime, they deceive travelers with eerie visions and fell lights into wandering off the path. Even during the light, those who leave it, seldom find their way back."

An idea formed itself in my head. "Wait a moment! Lights? Willow-the wisps live in bogs and marshes, not in forests!" I raised an eyebrow, trying to put on that I had believed none o' it all along.

Sloane nodded in smug agreement, but Derry shook her head at me as if I were the one who was acting foolish.

"Maybe so, maybe so," Laird held his palms forward like he was preparing to defend himself from my verbal haranguing. "I'm only telling ye what I know. And I do know for certain that a child wandered into that wood about six years back and never returned."

"That could very well be for some other reason," Sloane muttered. "A bear, perhaps, or maybe – ow!"

Derry kicked him under the table.

Laird's wife moved to take our empty platters and drinking vessels and then disappeared behind the wooden door.

Derry glared at Sloane, then questioned me, "Are ye sure ye want to go through Dubhwood, Mistress?"

I felt a tiny pinpoint of fear in my stomach, but my mother's stubbornness was potent. "Aye, I'm sure." Anything that would get me to Calum, and fast.

"Well, then," said Laird, kindness recognizable in his voice for the first time that evening, "ye must be leaving at daybreak if ye wish to reach the other side before evening."

"By Heaven, that's early!" Sloane exclaimed. "We best be off to bed."

The innkeeper's plump wife reentered and asked if we would be needing anything more.

"Nay, that's fine. And thank ye for dinner," I smiled. Then I stopped at the base of the stairs as Derry and Sloane were already making their way up to the second floor. "Actually, there is something. Could ye bring some extra blankets and a pillow, please?"

From upstairs my companions heard, and Derry gave a quick, spiteful laugh. She thought she had won a little victory.

* *

Derry and I shared the cozy bed, while Sloane slept with his blankets and pillows on the floor next to our bed – on my side, and no less. What Derry didn't realize was that Sloane would have insisted on sleeping on the floor, even if she had not been here to usurp his place in the bed.