Sprinting alongside Pieter, Leopold gave a look of confusion as he saw him change direction. Glancing back over his shoulder, his eyes widened as he saw how close the knight was coming.
“****!” he exclaimed. Feet skidding in the wet dirt of the road, he too turned aside, running for the trees. The horse was slower to change direction than a runner, and came looping after them in a great, galloping arc.
Feet barely touching the ground, Illiiya came crashing in through the low doorway of the shrine, sending dribbled candles tumbling as she came to a hard stop against the rear wall. Pieter was not far behind her, but the speeding warhorse covered in moments what the runners could only make in seconds. It was after him, no doubt about it – as Ithelus ran for the bridge and Leopold dashed into the trees, the horse kept straight as a bow-shot after the muddy figure running for the shrine.
Legs screaming, Pieter saw the doorway of the shrine mere yards away, Illiiya’s pale face staring out from the shadows. The pounding hooves behind him were all he could hear, drowning out even the hammering of his heart – still running, he felt a warm snort of animal breath on the back of his neck. Behind Illiiya, the crude triptych of the dove, the maiden and the bleeding heart looked awfully like nothing more than a piece of wood.
Screwing his eyes shut, he leapt for the shrine.
Ithelus wasn’t looking at Pieter. Even if he had been, the trees would have obscured his view as he turned the corner, running for the bridge. There it was in front of him, its weathered old stones looking as if they had lasted out a dozen centuries without once feeling the need to come alive and eat people, or vomit out little stone-daemons... and beyond it, the village. Lights were burning in the windows, and there in the square around the well, figures in foul-weather clothes had gathered in a lantern-lit huddle. There was a horse among them – Ricard’s horse. With the rain flying in his eyes as he ran, he couldn’t see if Ricard himself was among the gathered crowd.
They had neither heard nor seen him, too busy talking among themselves – he could hear the fearful babble of their voices already. Feet still flying down the muddy path, he ran without slackening his speed, sprinting straight towards the ragged huddle. If he shouted now, they would hear him. They’d have to.
Picking himself up off the earthen floor of the shrine, Pieter gladly took Illiiya’s hand to pull himself to his feet. Rubbing his skinned knees, he heard the whinnying of the horse die down outside – and then the solid, jingling thud
of two steel boots hitting the ground.
There was only one way out, and the knight appeared in it like a prison guard. The blank visor swept from Pieter’s face to Illiiya’s, then back again. There was a long moment of stillness.
The knight took a sudden stride forwards and stretched out his hand, reaching for Pieter. The initiate flinched back, but there was no need – a moment or two after the grasping gauntlet crossed the threshold, it stopped. Flecks of dirt were dancing on the scratched steel, like an unwashed skillet held over a fire. There was a smell of singeing incense, and the knight snatched his hand back as if in pain.
Stepping back from the door, he stared at the hand in silent incredulity. Then, slowly, his gaze returned to the two panting creatures still cornered in the shrine, and his grip tightened on his sword.