Lord Gaelan Sexton kicked his horse into a gallop. Behind him, two of his soldiers rode close on his heels. Flames flickered to one side of them and the cries of dying men filled the air. Jokiya, please be safe, Gaelan thought as he rode through the night.
The war between King Royston and Queen Anthousa was in its fifth year. It was only natural that it would reach even here, this isolated part of Anthousa’s kingdom where Gaelan kept his estate. Royston’s soldiers were killing and burning everything in sight, hoping to steal Anthousa’s strength.
The hooves of Gaelan’s horse crunched on the gravel drive up to his estate. A single light burned in the nursery window. The front door was broken off its hinges. Three dead servants lay just inside the door. Gaelan handed the reins of his horse to one of his guards. “Stay here,” he said. The second guard followed Gaelan in. Both men drew their swords.
Though most of his household lay dead on the floor, he could see the uniforms from Royston’s soldiers as well mingling with his servants. He crept up the stairs, listening intently to the silence around him.
As they progressed up the stairs, Gaelan checked every room. He and his guard looked for survivors but found only the dead. They reached the nursery. The door was partially ajar. Gaelan pushed it all the way open. He peered into the room.
“No,” he moaned. He rushed into the room and scooped the body of a pale haired woman into his arms. “Jokiya.”
“My lord, we must go,” the guard said. “Queen Anthousa must be made aware of King Royston’s attack here.”
Gaelan rocked back and forth, holding the broken body of his young wife. He buried his face in her neck and sobbed. Suddenly, from the tipped over cradle, there came a thin wail. Gaelan carefully set his wife down. He picked up the flickering lamp and made his way over to it.
There, half covered by the blankets, was an infant. Large blue eyes peered up at him, full of tears. The infant opened its mouth and let out a pitiful cry. Gaelan gasped as he dropped his sword. He carefully lifted the infant into his arms.
“Yulianna,” he breathed, holding the infant close to his chest. He looked at the guard. “We’re taking her with us.”
“My lord, a flight across the contested area with an infant will be too dangerous,” the guard said.
“I am not leaving Yulianna behind,” Gaelan said. “I should have taken Jokiya and Yulianna with me when I left this last time. I didn’t, and Jokiya is dead. I’ll not leave my daughter to the same fate.” He glanced out the window. “We’ll take the path through the Wyrmwood.”
“My lord, you must be mad. We’ll never make it out of the forest,” the guard said. “It is more treacherous than the road through the contested area.”
“We’ll be perfectly safe in the Wyrmwood,” Gaelan said. He set down the lamp and picked up his sword. He sheathed it and wrapped his daughter tightly in her blanket. He grabbed a small satchel and filled it with her clothes. He handed the baby to the guard for a moment. He scooped Jokiya’s body back up into his arms.
Gaelan kissed her cold lips. He reached behind her neck and unfastened a strange glittering pendant that shone with green fire even in the dim light of the lamp. He tucked it into his pouch and took his daughter back. The guard led the way down the stairs and back to the horses.
“My lord, we must leave quickly before Royston’s soldiers return,” the second guard said, holding the lord’s horse steady.
Gaelan laced Yulianna into his tunic. “They won’t return tonight. They have no reason to,” he said.
“Where to?” the second guard asked.
“The Wyrmwood,” Gaelan said. “It’s our only passage out of the contested region.”
“My lord you’re mad,” the second guard said. “No one has ridden through the Wyrmwood and made it out the other side.”
“Jokiya and I have made the trip several times,” Gaelan said. “I know the path.” Yulianna cried out again. “We don’t have a choice. The main road is too dangerous.”
“Yes my lord,” the second guard said.
“Seth, Connell, have I ever led you down the wrong path?” Gaelan asked.
“No my lord,” Seth said. Connell echoed him.
“Then trust me. We’ll make it through the Wyrmwood,” Gaelan said. He pulled himself onto his horse.
They rode back the way they came. When they reached the fork in the road, they turned right. The massive forest known as the Wyrmwood loomed in front of them. Gaelan led the way onto an unseen track beneath the trees.
For several hours they rode slowly through the shadows. Strange noises often spooked the horses and the men held tight to their reins. “My lord, are you sure you know where you’re going?” Connell asked. “I can barely see my horse’s ears in this darkness.”
“I’m sure. We’re on the right path,” Gaelan said. “Just be patient.”
There was no warning. Darkness turned to day and several shapes materialized from beyond the trees. “Lord Gaelan, why have you come to the Wyrmwood? Where is Jokiya?” A fair haired man with a long sword stepped forward and took hold of Gaelan’s reins.
“She’s dead, Tiedenn,” Gaelan said. “The mad king’s soldiers killed everyone in the house.”
“Why do you carry Jokiya’s heart then?” Tiedenn demanded.
“Because Yulianna lives,” Gaelan said. “I intend to give Jokiya’s heart to Yulianna when she is old enough to wear it.”
There was a murmur like the sighing of wind through the leaves, yet no breeze stirred the air. “You would uphold the pact through your daughter?” Tiedenn asked.
“Yes,” Gaelan said.
“Then we will open the way for you,” Tiedenn said. “Do not forget your promise. We will watch Yulianna, and come to her aid if she ever needs us.”
“Thank you, Tiedenn,” Gaelan said. The strange beings parted and the light faded. A clear path spread in front of them. “Let’s ride. The path will only remain open until dawn.” He kicked his horse into a trot, his guards right behind him.