Over the next week, they travelled through the forest. They might have travelled faster but Cassie had become listless and walked slower than before. They stayed away from the main road where possible, but always James and Kieran kept their daggers close at hand. They took turns keeping watch, though sometimes it seemed pointless. It was also abundantly clear that, though she didn’t talk about it, Gemma’s death plagued Cassie. She had slept little since waking up in the forest after the storm and hearing that fateful sound of the river flowing nearby. Dark smudges were painted beneath her eyes and she seemed to have only enough energy to do what she had to each day. She smiled little and laughed even less. And when she does, it’s almost always for James, Kieran thought bitterly. They had now been walking long enough that they were out of the forest and the high stone walls of Dokapen could be seen in the distance.
The walls rose out of the ground suddenly, as if someone had deliberately swept anything else of even the slightest significance out of the way, to make the city seem even more imposing. Small fields of wheat and other crops were scattered around the city, some distance away from the walls, but none seemed to be flourishing as they did back in Ar-ken. Rising above the walls was the citadel and at its centre some of the taller towers of the castles and noble buildings could be glimpsed. That was where the Council reigned over Tarraneia and so that was where they were headed. James spoke:
“We should reach the city by nightfall, but they shut the gates at sunset so we’ll have to walk quickly to make it in time. I don’t suppose either of you wants to stay in the forest for another night?”
Without waiting for an answer he strode off along the road leading to the entrance to Dokapen. Cassie made to follow him but Kieran grabbed her arm.
“Do you really think we should, Cass? Wouldn’t it be better to arrive in the daytime, so we still have light whilst we search for somewhere to stay, rather than arriving at the same time night does? Maybe we should stay another night in the forest.”
Cassie shrugged him off.
“James has been here before, and you haven’t. I think it’s best if we do what he advises. He knows. You don’t.” Her voice was devoid of emotion.
She had been this way since Gemma died. Only when James was talking to her did she show any flicker of life. At all other times she spoke and moved in a mechanical manner. Kieran had tried time and again to coax her to smile, or to talk about it. He felt sure that on the inside she was close to breaking. All that kept her going was her quest. He hated it, but she wouldn’t let him be close to her or help her. He hated even more the way that James seemed to have appeared from nowhere and weaselled his way into their friendship. Though as much as it pained him, he was glad someone could make Cassie smile occasionally, even if it had to be James.
“Are you two going to stand there having a lovers’ quarrel all night or are we going to go find a proper bed to sleep in?”
Kieran blushed furiously at James’ words, glad the setting sun cast a ruby glare over everything in such a way that his reddening checks were not noticeable. He glanced at Cassie and quickly realised he shouldn’t have worried; she had already turned and was walking after James again. Perhaps she hadn’t even noticed his jibe.
Kieran set his shoulders, hoisted his bag more securely onto his back and trudged off behind the two of them, glaring heatedly at the back of James’ head. As if he sensed Kieran’s gaze, James turned and smiled at him. His face was open and innocent, eyes bright and clear, and for a moment Kieran felt his anger was unjustified. He let his eyes drop, focusing on the ground beneath his feet.
In the end they reached the gates just minutes before they swung closed. The guards standing on either side of the gate barely glanced at them, eager to end their shift and head back to the barracks for their evening meal. The sun was fast setting behind the distant hills as James led them swiftly through the outer streets into a slightly more respectable looking area of the town. It certainly was not one of the upper class areas frequented by the nobles, there were just fewer beggars and stray animals sheltering, ragged and thin, in the shadows.
James led them to an inn he said he knew was safe and served a good cheap meal. They booked a room and Kieran led Cassie upstairs as they followed James. She immediately lay down upon a bed, total exhaustion written clearly across her face. Still, she didn’t fall asleep or even close her eyes. James and Kieran each took one of the other beds. Though all three said nothing, none of them fell asleep straight away. Kieran lay awake, listening to each breath Cassie took, waiting and worrying until finally her breathing grew even with the pace of sleep. Only then could he relax and do the same. James was awake for some time afterwards, staring unblinkingly into the shadows of the room.
The next week passed in much the same way. Cassie did little but walk around the small room they had hired, as if aged far beyond her years. She showed no interest in attempting to contact the Council. She didn’t say why, but Kieran could guess easily enough. She was torn apart inside. Gemma had come with her on this quest, which may yet be nothing but a wild goose chase, and she had died. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t Cassie’s fault, Cassie felt as if it were. She blamed herself.
Kieran tried talking to her, over and over again, but she only looked at him blankly, eyes devoid of any emotion but the hint of raw pain which sometimes slipped through. She talked to James a little and though it hurt Kieran to see her do this, when he tried so hard to help her, he was glad that she was at least talking.
During the days Kieran often went out. He had not given up and hoped Cassie would soon come to her senses and try again to take action and warn people of the coming Immortals. He spoke to people, trying to find out ways to contact the Council. He was devastated about Gemma’s loss, but he knew she would not want them to lose all hope and fail to achieve what they had left the safety of their home town for. Gradually, Kieran gained knowledge about the workings of the city, who truly ruled within the Council, who only obeyed orders, who led the army and who, outside the Council, held power to be reckoned with.
He felt like he was getting somewhere, though he didn’t yet know what exactly he would do, especially if Cassie did not accompany him to see the Council. Kieran felt tense with fury every time he saw Cassie and James together, but he would give anything, do anything, to help her.