They emerged in a small clearing within the southern border of Darkroth Forest. The instant Aefion dashed up the sandstone steps, with Cassandra clinging tightly to his left arm, he could feel the chill in the air. It was quiet, only a slight rustling amidst the upper branches of the surrounding pine trees breaking the deadly silence. All around them the forest was cloaked in shadow, preventing them from seeing far in any direction.
‘Which way?’ Cassandra glanced around nervously.
Aefion’s eyes gained a far away look, and he was still for a moment.
‘We go south. This way will lead us out.’ He unsheathed his sword, feeling the warm tingling of Cassandra’s touch flowing through his body. He realised how much he had missed that particular stimulation, and made no move to break her grip on him. ‘Though I can’t be certain how deep into the forest we are.’
He eyed Cassandra. She had picked up the axe and was holding it steadily in one hand. Her hair stirred ever so slightly in the breeze. Regretfully, the rips in her dress were beginning to arouse him. She noticed him looking at her.
‘Is something the matter?’
Aefion shook his head slightly before speaking.
‘You are a Galladorian princess. I take it you can fight?’ Aefion switched his gaze to her eyes.
‘All Galladorians are expected to undertake martial training,’ she replied, turning to face him. ‘When my body heals fully, I’ll also have my spells to aid my prowess.’
‘Your prowess?’ Aefion chuckled lightly.
‘Yes,’ Cassandra said haughtily. She squared her shoulders. ’I’m quite capable.’
’That’s good.’ Aefion broke eye contact. He hoped she was as good as she boasted. ‘I won’t be able to protect you all the time.’
‘As if I need protecting,’ she hissed back. There was silence and Cassandra’s face softened. She dropped the axe to prod him playfully, persuading a flicker of colour to redden his cheeks. ’Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.’
Regaining his composure, Aefion scanned the trees.
‘We should go, make use of the daylight. Are you healed enough to walk again?’
‘I was healed enough to walk when you dragged me out of that cell.’ Cassandra sniggered. ‘But yes, I think I’m good.’ She detached herself from Aefion and hefted the axe in both hands. The tingling sensation vanished.
Without further conversation, they started walking into the pine-choked depths.
For the rest of the day they travelled south. Aefion’s elven instincts had aided them. The pines were already thinning and ahead he could see a crevice of murky blue.
’Let’s stop here,’ he said, crouching down on the pine needle strewn forest floor. ‘You should rest, Cassandra.’ He looked up at her like an inquisitive child.
‘But we’re so close. The plains are just…’
‘Darkroth is deceiving. We are headed in the right direction, but it will take longer than you think. You look weary.’ His hand patted the ground.
‘So would you if you’d been chained up, raped and beaten for two days.’
’Oh…I’m sorry.’ Aefion looked away. A stray lock of hair wandered across his face.
’It’s okay,’ Cassandra murmured, striding around Aefion in a circle. Her legs felt better now. She discarded her axe and stretched, feeling the forest’s cold grip on her skin. The elf was certainly something to look at, she thought, squatting down next to him. Tenderly, she brushed her hand across Aefion’s behind. Suddenly her hand touched something hard and round. Without thinking, she plunged her hand into Aefion’s back pocket.
‘What are you doing?’ Aefion glanced around suspiciously.
‘This,’ Cassandra held up the artefact. The polished metal circle gleamed as she turned it around in her hands.
‘I have no idea,’ he replied. ‘I found it amongst the satyrs’ hoard. Perhaps your father will know when I return it to him.’
‘No! He will simply take it and hide it away in the treasury. You will never see it again.’
‘There is more treasure to be found than simple relics, Cassandra.’
Cassandra smiled gently at him and handed back the symbol.
‘Keep it, Aefion. It didn’t come from Vigilance.’
Aefion’s eyes never left her face as he took the artefact and, wrapping it back up in its purple silk, slid it back into his breeches.
‘Cassandra…I think you’re very beautiful.’ He returned her smile. He couldn’t think of anything to compare her with, so he simply reached forwards to touch her cheek.
‘Thank you, Aefion.’ She blushed. ‘I…’
‘For the love of life.’ Aefion rose to his feet and squinted into the branches above. Dark shapes moved through the canopy, and the trees creaked like the masts of a sailing ship. ‘Did you hear that?’
Why did they have to choose the most inconvenient moments to attack? It was bad enough that he hadn’t had any female company for the last three months. Three months! Had it really been that long? That was harsh without the comforts of female companionship.
‘I heard it.’ Cassandra quashed her disappointment as she stood, snatching up her axe.
‘Look up,’ Aefion told her, preparing himself for combat. ‘And don’t scream.’
Flicking her head back, she examined the shadows closing in.
‘Time to test my reflexes,’ she snarled.
The air filled with a scuttling sound, and several figures materialized from the gloom. They scurried down the trunks of the pine trees like giant, black spiders, claws clicking on the bark.
‘What are they?’ Cassandra stepped back, horrified, only to find others coming down behind her. The creatures looked like squat, hairy humanoids covered in coarse, black fur. They had eight jointed limbs, which ended in hands sporting wicked talons. Insect-like mandibles gnashed hungrily as the monsters descended. Each of them had eight eyes that glinted with inhuman evil.
‘Spider Monkeys,’ Aefion spat, ‘get behind me. We’ve a better chance if we protect each other’s backs.’
Quickly, Cassandra complied, glancing up anxiously at the approaching foes. There were more now, swarming down the trees like vermin. Aefion gritted his teeth, powering up his vambraces. He felt extremely vulnerable. Normally, he wouldn’t have entered Darkroth Forest alone. It was near on suicide. But it was too late to have regrets now.
The Spider Monkeys attacked in a wave of high-pitched screeching, leaping from the trees to pounce upon their prey. Two bright flashes lit up the forest as Aefion fired, each arcane arrow bringing a monkey down in a tangle of hairy appendages. Then there was little Aefion or Cassandra could do except try not to get smothered by a confusion of limbs and the stench of unwashed fur as they were knocked from their feet. Soon they were swamped beneath the masses of monsters as more of the creatures piled on, hoping to drown the pair in a blanket of squirming bodies.