Anthony returned just before sunrise, collapsing against the rough-hewn doorframe of the shack, scratches and bruises littering pale skin illuminated only by the faintest of pre-dawn light. He shook his head. "I couldn't catch him. He had help, Your Highness."
The prince nodded curtly. "Go get some rest. You'll need it."
Saluting, the young soldier staggered into the shack, utter exhaustion evident in his posture. Daniel followed the lad inside, closing the east-facing door and effectively cutting off all light reaching the living room after he was sure Anthony could reach his cot in the dark.
Apparently, he misjudged. A crash resounded in the tiny living room, followed by a yelp and a curse, producing the result the exact prince had hoped to avoid by keeping the cabin dark: everyone woke up.
"Blast it, Daniel! Get some light back in here!" Joshua growled, then swore. "Get your carcass off my arm before I hack you to pieces, boy!"
"Watch your mouth, Joshua," Michelle barked.
Kathryn shrieked. "Stop pulling my hair, Michael!"
"It wasn't me!" the accused rejoined.
Daniel winced and opened the door.
The impossibly cramped room, which he realized was actually larger than double horse-drawn wagon they had been travelling in for more days than he cared to count, appeared more like a battlefield than guest quarters; while before the seven travelers had occupied every available measure of space in an orderly fashion, the chaos resulting from Anthony's fall reminded the prince of the pile of bodies remaining after a war. Sobered by the thought and the memories that resulted, memories of the countless search-and-rescue aid missions he'd helped run after border skirmishes with neighboring bloodthirsty tribes and warmongering monarchies as part of his diplomacy training, he helped the soldier off the pile and surveyed the damage.
Joshua's eyes danced with fury, an expression only the prince knew to be a mask for intense pain. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes. "If that arm wasn't broken to begin with, it is now."
"What's all the commotion?" Alexander's voice pierced the chaos.
"The brilliant prince, third most powerful man in the kingdom, closed the door," the princess explained. "And this brilliant swordsman, despite his extensive footwork training, tripped."
"Somebody turned the sun off," Anthony whined.
The old man chuckled. "Ain't much y'can do 'bout that now, children. Seems to me y'all oughta get yerselves outta here before yer captured wolf runs cryin' back to its momma."
"Back into local dialect so soon?" Daniel inquired cheerfully, helping Anthony move away from the pile.
"Can't afford to git outta practice, sonny," Alexander responded with a wink as a woman entered the room, easily slipping back into clipped, semi-formal City speech. "This is m'wife, Martha. Dear, the royal messenger has a little scratch; can you see what you can do for him?"
Joshua yelped as Martha knelt and touched his arm. "I'd hardly call a broken arm a 'little scratch,'" he hissed.
"Son, you all could've, and probably should've, died. Compared to death, a broken arm is a mere scratch. Prince, while Martha tends to the messenger, I can assist you in loading the wagon. You have a long journey yet, to the best of my knowledge."
Daniel nodded his thanks, helping the girls roll up the bedding and handing two of the rolls to the old man. "I don't suppose your knowledge includes where we should go next, considering that our map has already turned out to be wrong."
"Wrong?" Alexander laughed heartily, dumping his load into the wagon. "I doubt it, your Highness! You're still mostly on the right path. Follow this road north a ways, and there will be a path heading southwest. That'll get you to where you need to go."
Joshua screamed, startling the prince. He ran back into the shack; the messenger was lying on the lumpy couch, Rebekah kneeling by his arm, now in a splint, and Martha tottering back into the kitchen. " . . . promise, the pain'll be good for you," her voice trailed off as she disappeared.
Rebekah looked up. "We had to set his arm."
"It hurt less before," the messenger complained, a tear slipping from his eye. "Are you sure that was necessary?"
"Grow up, Joshua," Michelle teased.
His countenance suddenly changed and a grin lit his face. "All grown up. Any other requests, milady? 'Fraid I'll have a bit of trouble sweepin' you off your feet right now, but I can handle just about anything else for you."
"Try shutting up."
He rose. "And silence my confession of undying love for you? Never, milady!"
"Joshua, stop pestering Michelle," Daniel ordered. As he turned to go out the door, he saw the lord's daughter stick her tongue out at the royal messenger, who winked in return. He rolled his eyes.
And then smirked. "It won't be long until the wolves return, my friend, and it'll be mighty hard to protect your lady with a broken arm."
He let the door close just in time to muffle Michelle's indignant protest.
It had begun to rain, drops of water steadily cascading from a gray sky like tears on a father's mourning face. The sorrowful atmosphere clashed with the peace Rebekah had earlier felt, deadening her newfound hope while the cold autumn rain chilled her body. She shivered, watching the trees and their turning leaves fly by.
"Path to the southwest!" Michael announced, halting the horses.
"Take it," Daniel mumbled, yawning as he uncurled himself from his sleeping position.
"Sure it's the right one?" Rebekah asked, studying the break in the otherwise dense woods. While trees on the main road were just beginning to shed their former green glory of summer, these trees were already dormant for the cold season. Dark branches hung low over the road, dead wood shadowing dead foliage on the forest floor.
The weary prince carefully climbed over the unconscious messenger, Martha's hastily concocted pain medication still working on Joshua. "It's gotta be. Alexander said to go north then turn southwest."
"Maybe there's more than one path," Michelle suggested, exchanging glances with Kathryn. "That road looks scary."
"Even scarier, I imagine, now that the royal messenger is unable to protect you," Kathryn said smugly.
"Not you, too!"
Prince and princess chuckled, the siblings' laughter almost identical.
"It does look scary," Rebekah offered quietly, wiping a stray raindrop off her forehead and trying not to associate this darkness with the darkness of her past – the eerily similar roads she had been forced to take, the secretive nature of the slave trade, the windowless rooms she had been locked in for "disciplinary purposes." If a single woodland path were ever capable of embodying evil, it would be this one.
"Take it, Michael. I think we should take the old man at his word this time," Daniel announced, glancing at Rebekah, a hint of guilt in his eyes. "Somebody bigger than us is directing this nonsense, and I'd rather not repeat the consequences for not heeding his warnings."
A shouted command to the horses and the wagon turned, creeping forward along the darker path. Rebekah rested her head against the sideboard, flinching as dark branches swatted at the wagon like hands reaching out to grab her.
The princess screeched.
Daniel and Michael both sprang up from their respective places in the wagon, the latter shoving the reins into Anthony's hands as he scrambled across the wagon bed. Kathryn was clutching at her hair, half-standing and leaning over the edge of the wagon. "I . . . can't get . . . my hair loose!" she whimpered.
The prince appeared to study his younger sister's head. "Rebekah, the lantern."
Rebekah lifted the lantern above her head off its stand and crawled across the wagon, holding the light on the other side of the princess. She cringed as the lantern illuminated the mess; the branches had indeed reached out and grabbed Kathryn's long blonde hair. Daniel began playing with the hair, but only succeeded in creating more of a mess.
"Let me try," Rebekah offered, handing Michael the lantern. She carefully tugged at a strand of hair and began unraveling the knot. "You have too much hair," she muttered, twisting some of the hair around her hand in a vain attempt to get the last large chunk untangled. "We might have to fix that. Kathryn, do you feel where this is pulling on top of your head? Hold it down."
Kathryn nodded slightly, yelping at the pain even the slight movement brought, and pressed down on the top of her head with both hands. "Please don't rip all of my hair out."
"I'll try my best." She began rapidly separating sections of hair, ripping apart tangles as necessary. Within seconds, the princess was free, and a knot of blonde hair hung conspicuously on the branch. Rebekah ripped it off and tossed the clump onto the forest floor, where it was less likely to be noticeable.
"Carry on," the prince announced softly. "And girls, stay low and away from the branches, or Rebekah will have to rip your hair out."
He smiled at her, eyes twinkling in the lantern's dim light.
"Too bad my hair's not longer. I wouldn't mind having it ripped out by Rebekah," Anthony commented, settling in on the driver's seat and jerking the reins.
"Whoa, there. Watch it!" Michael cooed to the horses, attempting in vain to mollify the wild beasts.
Daniel sat up, rubbed his eyes, and climbed to the front. Stepping down to the front lip of the wagon, he reached out and gently stroked first his mount, then Joshua's, mumbling nonsense to the two horses as they gradually calmed down. He half-smiled at a particular memory involving these two horses, a cat, a foreigner, and a flock of chickens that came to mind, then turned to Michael and hopped back on the wagon. "What spooked them?"
"Your Highness, um, were you just talking to the horses?"
"It calms them down. What spooked them?"
"I didn't think royalty talked to horses."
The prince blinked.
The villager continued. "Actually, I didn't think royalty talked to anyone below them, but you've mostly proven that wrong. And as to what probably spooked the horses, I saw a flash of light just up the road. Then . . .."
His voice trailed off as a spark of light, seemingly hovering in the air, grew larger upon the road. The horses began slowly backing up, preparing to bolt; the prince grabbed the reins. "Show yourself!" he yelled, mustering as much authority as he could while tightening his grip on the reins.
The glow stood taller than himself, and steadily growing larger. The prince repeated his command, but the shout drowned out by the strange rushing wind now blowing around the light and the wagon – wind that silenced all other sounds but touched not a single tree.
A man materialized within the effulgence, strong yet obviously weary. "You will follow me!" The power in the being's voice made all of the prince's authority seem less significant than a young child's temper tantrum. Daniel fleetingly decided he liked that as he fell to his knees alongside Michael.
"I serve the Son of the Living God, Whom your people have forgotten and forsaken. Great is His wrath towards this land that has turned its back on His mercy. Many times did He call His people to repentance, and many times did they turn away.
"Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before Him, and around Him a tempest rages. He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that He may judge His people.
"The LORD speaks! 'Hear, O My people, and I will speak; I will testify against you: I am God, your God. Be still, and know that I am God! I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me!'
Prince and commoner alike lay prostrate, trembling.
"Though nations are in uproar and kingdoms may fall, fear not! The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress! You shall wander far in safety, though you do not know the way, for the LORD your God will lead you.
"Fear not, precious children. For though the LORD is mighty, He is also gracious; He is loving and kind, slow to anger. You have found favor in His eyes, and He will use you to do mighty things and to proclaim His name throughout this land.
"Peace, children of the Almighty. The Glory of our LORD will be your rear guard . . .."
A/N: Ha, so it's ten days short of a year in the coming. Oops. I'll try to be better about that next year, er, time. Um, the angel quotes some of . . . three different psalms, mixing them together and such, but for the life of me I can't remember which ones. I have it written down somewhere, I could probably find it if I had to. Hope you liked!