“Right then, loves,” Enilor said, stepping closer to the flame and looking around at her comrades. “What’s the plan?”
“Nayr and his men will have gone around the mountains,” Ameryn explained. “My plan was to go through the mountains and cut them off.”
There was silence, followed by scoffing.
“Not on your life are we going through there.”
“Haven’t you heard what happens to people who go through those mountains?”
“Are you out of your head?”
“Look, I know what the legends say,” Ameryn exclaimed. “But they are only legends.”
“Ameryn, have you ever been anywhere near those mountains?” Narina asked from her seat in the shadows. The circle stopped their chatter, turning to face the red-headed Sprite girl. The girls’s dark eyes were fixed on Ameryn’s. Every word fell heavily from her tongue, like the words of a prison sentence.
“Death walks those hills. There is no life for miles around the mountains’ roots—not a single village; not even a bird’s nest. Strange sounds echo into the night, sounds that no animal we know could possibly make. There’s the grinding of stone on stone as the crags and boulders shift, changing the pathways, rearranging the labyrinth every minute. Those who go in never come out. I lived as close to those mountains as my people would venture. Ameryn, lead us where you will, but don’t lead us there.”
“If we follow Nayr and his pack around the range,” Ameryn protested, “we’ll not reach them in time. We can cut our route in half if we go through.”
“Or we may double it,” Zon countered, grimly. “Going through them may kill us all, Ameryn, and we’re not any use to the Princess as corpses.”
Ameryn swallowed. “I—I was told to take the pass through the Mountains.”
Zon and the company raised their eyebrows. “Told?”
Ameryn found herself looking at her feet again. “Yes. I was told by—by a wizard.”
Enilor wrinkled up her nose. “A what-zard?”
“I had never heard of them either,” Ameryn continued, her face feeling very red. “His name is Arato. He called himself the Keeper of the House of Hounds.”
“Was he of that House? What was his Beast?” Zon asked.
“He didn’t exactly have a Beast. He—he’s a tree.”
“Come off it,” scoffed Enilor.
“No, honest,” Ameryn said. “I mean, most of the time he’s a tree, but he turns into a human when he—when he’s needed.” How could she explain this without making her friends think her insane? “He’d been asleep for years, but awoke just before they took Aileen.”
“Whoever heard of a talking tree?” snickered Enilor, slapping her tail on the ground for emphasis.
“A Keeper?” said Claritas, her brows furrowed in thought, hunting her memory.
“You know of Keepers?”
“Yes, I know of them. They’re creatures from the fairy tales Taurlin mothers tell their children. Every herd has a storyteller who keeps our history and teaches the children. I remember stories of the Keepers—there’s one for every House, and they can turn into things like trees and rocks. The Keeper for the House of Hooves became a great obelisk of sandstone.” The Taurlin girl shook her head. “But I thought they were only stories.”
“Whatever he was, I believed him,” Ameryn said. “Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but his words—they were words of truth—the only truthful words I heard in those last few weeks.”
“How do you know he was speaking the truth?” asked Zon.
She looked him in the eyes. “I just knew. I always know.”
He looked back into hers. She knew that he understood.
Ameryn took a deep breath. “I know it sounds ridiculous and dangerous and—well, utterly stupid—but Arato came to me and told me to take the road through the Mountains, but not around. And I have to believe that his instructions were worth following, no matter how impossible they seem.”
“I know I’m asking too much.”
“I should say,” said Narina, standing up and stepping into the firelight. “My friends seem to know you well, Ameryn, but I have only just met you today. I am not of a trusting nature, and I’m half tempted to think that you’re deliberately leading us to our deaths.”
“Easy, love,” Enilor said, putting a paw on the Sprite’s knee. “Ammy’s all right. Remember, she was planning to go that way herself, long afore she met us.”
“Friends, it’s late,” Zon said stepping forward and spreading out his arms. “We’re tired and addled, and that’s no proper mindset for forming any kind of plan. Let’s get some rest and sort this out in the morning. Loui, you’ve got first watch.”
“Humph. I always get first watch.”
“I’ll be second,” piped Enilor.
“I’m third,” said the faun.
“Right, then. Don’t let the fire die, friends—it’s frosty tonight.”