The night passed swiftly, as the group gave way to the utter exhaustion of their flight. Mack and Kobi were steadfast in their watchfulness, but there were no signs of pursuit, no echoes of the wildmen’s calls. The barren hills of Bor-Takan stood silent and empty behind them, and they slept without disturbance.
When dawn broke, clear and brilliant over the eastern horizon, they rose and rubbed their eyes. The wincing pangs of hunger clawed at their stomachs, but the three children made no complaint.
“Is it morning already?” Sim groaned with a yawn. “I feel like we just laid down.”
“Well, you don’t get the best sleep on ground like this,” Sir Mack chuckled. “In fact, I wasn’t sad to sit up and take my turn in the middle of the night, what with the rocks under my back and the—”
He paused mid-sentence, his eyes darting up toward the road from Bor-Takan. “Quiet now!” he hissed, motioning for them to get back off the trail and into the shade of the bracken.
It didn’t take long for the threat he had foreseen to emerge: the sound of hoofs on the hilltop road. They held their breath, watching intently until they saw the head and mane of a war-horse break the line of the ridge’s crest. But this horse had no rider.
Sir Kobi gave a laugh and jogged out onto the road. He clapped his hands and the horse stopped for a moment, perked up its ears, and whinnied. Then it dashed down toward Kobi, kicking up little plumes of dust with every strike of its hoofs.
Mack relaxed with a sigh and cast a smile toward the children. “It looks like your plan worked in every respect, Joe.”
Joe grinned. “I’m glad he made it back.”
“And that those wildmen didn’t catch him!” Lady added.
“And,” Sim said, his eyebrows arched to underscore the importance of what he was about to say, “all of our food was in his saddlebags! Breakfast time!”
With a chorus of laughter, the children spilled out onto the road and welcomed back Kobi’s horse, which had so nobly and ably provided them with the means of escape the night before. Digging into the leather saddlebags, Kobi produced a few loaves of waybread and passed them out. The children devoured the bread without stopping to say a word, delighting in the simple pleasure of having something to eat.
A few minutes later, having quieted their bellies and stretched out their aching limbs, they were back on the road again. Ahead of them the rocky hills changed into a rather different landscape: a flat sea of scrub-brush forest, cut through with low canyons and dry streambeds. And there, miles beyond, the green glow of the coastal plains and the faintest glimmer of the sea where the land met the blue horizon.
“The canyonlands,” Kobi mused aloud. “Or, as some call them, the burning lands.”
“Why do they call them that?” asked Lady.
“Maybe it’s really hot here,” Sim guessed.
“No,” said Kobi. “It can get hot, but that’s not how it got the name. There are deep caves in these regions, cracks in the earth that run below the canyons. Strange gases leak out from the rock deep below us and fill up the streambeds—invisible but dangerous. One is not permitted to leave the high road in this country, because that’s the only place where you’ll find breathable air. If you step down into the channels, you suffocate. They also warn everyone not to carry a torch or build a fire here. If anyone does, the whole landscape bursts into flame when the gases ignite.”
“Have you ever seen it happen?” asked Sir Mack, regarding the younger knight.
“Not I. It must have been a decade since I last heard news that the canyonlands were ablaze.”
“Aye, nearly a decade. I was there that day, and nearly perished.”
Joe cast an eye up and down the landscape. “It doesn’t look like anyone else is out here today, though. And it’s only a few miles across, right? As long as we don’t light a torch, we should be safe.”
“And since it’s not burning, that means the prince must have gotten through safely too,” added Sim.
Mack nodded. “We can be in the coastal plains by lunchtime, I think.”
The two knights took a few moments to carefully wrap several pieces of their armor, wanting to cut off even the rarest chance of an accidental spark being struck by their metal. Kobi took several long strips of cloth and wrapped up his horse’s hoofs, knowing that the metal horseshoes could pose that same danger if they scraped over certain types of rocks. With those tasks done, they set off.
The road in this region had been built up so that it traced its way atop a long, sinuous mound of earth. Below them, on either side, stretched the brushy canyonlands with all their low channels. They looked entirely unassuming—charming, even, with little purple wildflowers interspersed with the dry bushes, giving the barren streambeds a lovely flair. But despite how fair and inviting those weaving passages of blossoms looked, the children knew that to wander from the path, whether to the right or the left, was to court disaster.
They marched on in silence, with Kobi at the lead and Mack taking up the rear. The sun ascended slowly in its long trek up the dome of the sky, but with every passing minute the heat of the day became ever more intense. They were about halfway down the road when Mack suddenly gave a fierce hiss. It was an unmistakable signal, and no words were needed to convey the message: get low and be quiet. The travelers immediately dropped to their bellies, and Kobi pulled his obedient horse down to kneel. Then, without a sound, they turned their heads to see if they could catch a glimpse of what Mack had spied.
There, far behind them, at the margin where the hills of Bor-Takan gave way to the canyonlands, a small troop of soldiers stood clustered together. The colors and insignia of their uniforms were recognizable even from that great distance: these were more of the Steward’s guards, sent from the city to pursue them. Already they had faced one troop at the river, but now it seemed that another had caught up with them.
These soldiers were talking amongst themselves, gesturing at the barren landscape before them. Then one of them motioned to the pathway, and for a long moment they were all bent over, studying the patterns in the dusty track. The fact that the canyonlands road was built on a line of earthen mounds meant that the surface of the road was softer and sandier than the rocky stretches through the hills; their footprints would be clearly visible. And, sure enough, they could see the soldiers’ heads turn as they followed the tracks with their eyes—down from the edge of the canyons and out onto the high road.
One of them raised an arm and pointed directly to where they lay, flat against the ground but apparently still visible even at that distance. A shout went up, and one of the soldiers drew his sword in a flash of motion. But another guard held up a hand to restrain the first. They talked for a brief moment, arguing back and forth, and then the travelers saw the second guard pull an unlit torch from the leather bag strapped to his waist. Until that moment, there had been the chance that the guards would choose to chase them down the high road. But now it seemed they had settled on a far more dangerous plan.
“Up!” Mack shouted urgently, and the five travelers popped to their feet. “Here’s what we’re going to do: Kobi, grab the waterskins and start pouring. Children, up onto the horse. Go, go, quickly now!”
Mack was tearing off his armor with one hand while he hoisted the children up, one by one, with the other. Meanwhile Kobi had taken the waterskins from the horse was spraying them out over the horse’s back, over the children’s heads and clothes, and then over himself and Mack, until everyone in the company was well soaked through.
They cast another glance back at the guards just in time to see them pitch a lighted torch out into the dry streambeds. The flaming brand spun into space for a haunting moment, and then, as it began its downward arc, the air itself caught fire, and the torch fell to the earth like a comet, with a river of living flame pouring out behind it.
“Go!” shouted Mack. He slapped the horse’s hindquarters, and the brave animal charged forward with a fierce whinny.
The children hunched down as close as they could to the horse’s wet back. Lady was riding first, her arms clinging to the charger’s neck. Then came Joe in the middle, his hands holding the reins as he tried to squeeze his legs around the saddle tight enough that he wouldn’t fly off. Last was Sim, his arms locked around Joe in a crushing embrace. The horse snorted and heaved, its powerful muscles working like an unbreakable machine as it tore down the high road toward the plains.
Joe turned his head to glance back, and all he saw was a world aflame. The blaze from the torch was sweeping over the canyons like a series of waves, running down the streambeds in rivers of blue and orange and white as the gases ignited. The fire moved so fast that it could hardly be believed: it surged toward them like a tidal wave, and the roar of its movement was louder even than the pounding of hoofs beneath them. Joe couldn’t even make out the road behind him, so bright and fierce were the walls of flame on both sides. Mack and Kobi were nowhere to be seen.
All of the sudden a blast of rising temperature overtook them, as if they had opened the door to a furnace-room. The air grew blisteringly hot around them. Steam hissed out of their clothes and hair as the water Kobi had dumped on them was licked away by the torturous heat. Then the flames caught up with their flight, and to their right and left the wave of fire rolled over the canyons and the streambeds, eating up the invisible gases with an insatiable hunger. Walls of bright, blazing orange rose on both sides of them, so full and so high that they met far above their heads to create a tunnel of fire.
Now the air through which they rode started to sear their skin; the edges of their clothes began to smolder. But the horse ran on, stride after stride, never flagging for an instant. Lady whimpered with pain, her eyes screwed tightly shut and her head bowed low against the horse’s neck. Sim had his head pressed against Joe’s back, his arms still locked tight around his brother’s chest. But Joe looked ahead, his eyes held open in narrow slits, as he stared down the final stretch of road.
Light and heat rolled in undulating waves all around them, making his vision of the road dance and waver. But the road was still there; he could see it; and now, far ahead, he could see a pinprick of green light appear in the absolute center of the tunnel of flame. He clenched his teeth and prayed, holding on with all his might as that green light grew steadier and larger. The horse’s hoofs flew like wings over the last stretch of sandy road, while all around them the world burned. And then, suddenly, they burst out of the tunnel of fire like a rock shot out by an explosion. Out into the open air they flew, the horse lathering beneath them and steam rising like incense from their clothes.
Once they were passed the fiercest wave of heat and into fresh air at a low bluff where the canyonlands gave way to green plains, they turned and looked back. The whole landscape was on fire, with flames as high as the trees of the great forest licking up into the sky.
“Mack,” whispered Sim hoarsely. “Kobi.” His wide, dark eyes were suddenly bright with tears.
Lady looked back too, watching the opening of the tunnel of flame intently. But there was nothing there. No movement; no hope. The children had had the speed of the horse to help them out, and their own blistered skin was testament to the fact that they had barely made it out alive. Joe knew, as he looked back at the burning canyonlands, that there was no way Mack and Kobi could have made it through. They couldn’t have run fast enough.
They were gone.