…Night had fallen by the time they approached DarkSkull Hall. Alyx was almost asleep against the chest of the warrior at her back, hanging on to the saddle with exhausted fingers. Her entire focus was on the horse before them, step after step, the steady rhythm rocking her into a doze.
The trees lining the road seemed to press in on them, shadowy and sinister. Alyx would have been uneasy if she’d been able to summon enough energy to think about it, but in her current state of exhaustion, she wondered if she’d ever feel energized again. The sucking sounds of the horses’ hooves on the muddy road were unnaturally loud in the silence since the rain had stopped.
Then, just like that, they rounded a corner and were confronted with a stunning sight.
The road ahead of them led onto a bridge stretching across a deep gorge. Wooden support struts crisscrossed down from the bridge to the valley floor, disappearing into darkness. Moonlight shone down on the deserted bridge, which had to be wide enough for at least six carriages travelling abreast. At the other end of the bridge stood a pair of gates and beyond them was darkness.
The gorge stretched away to the left and right, encircling a row of hills. Looking more closely, Alyx caught the glimmer of moonlight reflecting off water far below.
“Where to from here?” Finn wondered.
Ladan kicked his horse ahead, going to investigate the bridge more closely. Tijer joined him, and they had a whispered conversation that Alyx couldn’t quite catch.
“This is your stop, I believe,” Dashan said, reining his horse to a halt beside her. “And here is where we leave you.”
Alyx swung her head towards him. “You’re going to leave us here?”
“I’m sorry, Alyx.” Concern softened his voice. It had been days since their fight, and Alyx was far too tired to be angry with him anymore. It seemed he felt the same way. “We got you safely to DarkSkull, but we can’t stay. Those are the rules.”
“I know,” she managed around the sudden lump in her throat. The despair she’d been feeling for days deepened at the thought that the one remaining familiar person in her life was also about to leave. With a helping hand from the warrior behind her, she slid down from the saddle. He rode away without a word but Dashan kicked his horse closer.
“If it’s any consolation, it means I won’t be around to infuriate you anymore.”
“Sure, I’m feeling better already.” She fiercely fought back tears.
Uncharacteristic compassion flashed in Dashan’s brown eyes, almost undoing her. She looked away, trying to prevent the tears welling in her eyes from falling.
Abruptly, he reached down, pulling her roughly into his arms. “You be strong, Alyx. I know you can do this. Remember who you are, and have faith in yourself.”
Her fingers gripped the rough weave of his shirt and she nodded against his chest. He smelled of damp and soil, yet he felt warm and strong.
He pulled away then, looking almost embarrassed. “That was for Cayr. He would have wanted me to.”
Not far off, Finn and Dawn dismounted too, both looking lost and alone on the dark road. Dashan waved a goodbye to both of them, which they returned dispiritedly. He then leaned down, touched Alyx’s shoulder and dropped a warm kiss on her forehead.
“That one is from me.”
And with that he was gone, kicking his horse into a gallop and heading back the way they’d come.
“Goodbye, Lady Egalion,” Tijer pulled up his horse beside her. “Lord-Mage Casovar gave us firm instructions not to proceed any further than the bridge, but Lord Ladan has assured me he’ll see you safely through to DarkSkull.”
“Thank you for everything, Lieutenant,” she said sincerely. “I hope to see you all again back in Alistriem.”
He tipped his hat. “We hope the same thing, Lady Egalion. Good luck.”
Tijer urged his horse after Dashan and the other Bluecoats fell in after him, each with a wave or a smile for Alyx and the twins as they passed. The Madman’s men, insubstantial as shadows, raced down the road after them.
Silently, Alyx and the twins turned and followed Ladan, who had already stepped out onto the bridge. The rough stone rasped under her boots and a strong wind whipped around her, ruffling her skirts and hair. They walked down the middle, steering clear of the edges and the enormous drop below.
Eventually they reached the gates on the other side. Lichen crawled over the iron surface, and some of the bars were a deep red with rust. Two enormous trees stood on either side of the gates, their branches hanging almost to the ground, whispering to each other in the breeze.
Alyx couldn’t make out anything beyond the gates except the shadowy outline of the hills. A shiver wracked her, as much because of her damp clothes as the eerie atmosphere.
Something in her felt drawn to this place. It held an air of mystery and quiet power, like nothing she’d ever felt before. Deep down, she tensed at the feeling, unsure whether the instinct was something to be feared or welcomed.
Finn rubbed his hands together and blew on his fingers. “I hope they have warm beds in there.”
“How do we get in?” Dawn walked over to peer through the bars of the gates.
Alyx did the same, grimacing as she touched slimy moss on the iron. Recoiling, she glanced up at a bell hidden amongst the leaves of the left tree. Looking back down, she met Dawn and Finn’s fearful looks.
Ladan looked at the three of them contemptuously and reached up to pull the bell hard. Alyx and the twins startled as the bell pealed much louder than expected, sending a nearby flock of ravens flapping into the air in alarm. For a few seconds, the echoes of the bell through the hills competed with the thudding of her heart in her chest.
Then, a loud screeching broke the silence.
Alyx and the twins scrambled backwards as the gates slowly swung open, the horrifying screeching only growing louder. In under a minute, they stood open, the shadows beyond beckoning.
Ladan strode inside without another word, leaving them standing there looking at each other. Tired, hungry, and cold, Alyx simply straightened her shoulders and walked after him. The twins followed behind. They continued along the road, which took them straight ahead and through a canyon that had been etched out of the hillside.
They kept walking, the summit of the valley wall towering over them on each side. At one point, Alyx glanced up and swore she could see two shadowy figures standing at the top of the eastern valley wall, staring down at them. When she rubbed at her tired eyes and looked back though, they’d gone.
It felt like they walked forever, but eventually they reached the other end of the gorge, where the road began winding steadily downwards into a wide valley.
DarkSkull Hall became visible down below them, a massive, hulking shape in the blackness. Tiny flickers of light indicated torch-lit rooms, but there weren’t many of those at this late hour. The main hall sat in the centre of the valley, at the top of a wide lake which glimmered in the moonlight. The school’s grounds fell away on all sides, and Alyx could just make out the shadows of other smaller buildings in the distance.
“It doesn’t look very welcoming, does it?” Dawn said.
Another shiver skittered down Alyx’s spine. “No, it doesn’t.”
A bobbing lantern light appeared on the road below, making its way towards them. Alyx tried to quell her nerves and look calm as the light resolved into a person holding a lantern. It wasn’t long before a woman stood before them. Short and slightly stooped, her grey hair was tied back sharply in a bun.