She was wrapped in the tunic of young soldier, scarce more than a boy, who had died in one of the first engagements with the besiegers. It hung on her like a cloak.
In tales, the Knight reflected, young women could be mistaken for boys simply by chopping short their hair. That would never work for the Princess, her frame was too supple by half, her skin too unclouded and fair. This winter will put paid to that, he thought, and had to look away. Despite the thick tunic and the bed of embers she wouldn’t stop shivering.
The night was darkest, an hour, perhaps, from dawn, but she didn’t shiver from the cold.
“You should sleep,” the Knight said. The defenders had launched an attack just before dusk, a suicide attempt to break the invaders line, staged to give them cover to ride north. They’d ridden until it had gotten late, then kept going until it got early again.
“They’ll be looking for us.” the Princess said. There was no life in her voice.
“In time they will”, the Knight agreed. “But they’ll not spare the men this night. The keep’s not so ripe a fruit as they thought. On the morrow they’ll know you’re gone, but not early.”
“Where are we going?” The reflex of courtly manners asked the question, not interest.
“And farther. We’ll winter in the high country.”
The Knight could see her trying to force her mind to consider his answers, to care. “You’re a highland man, by your accent.”
“Indeed, born and bred, before my service to your family. It won’t have changed since my youth, change comes hard to the hills. If we make the Gelden Broke before snowfall they won’t have a miser’s chance of finding us.”
“If–” There were volumes spoken in that syllable.
“No certainties this side of the grave, lass.”
“They’ll kill my father.”
The Knight nodded. “They will, if he not be dead already.”
“They kill us.”
“If they find us. Me first, and then you at their leisure.”
She lifted her eyes to his and what lurked in them was no longer dead, but wounded. “Why North-east? Why not South to the Guywairne, and take the river to Eldenstadt? My family has allies in Eldenstadt.”
“Your family, in its entirety, is contained in that dead boy’s tunic you wear. Any allies you once had are either false or fled. We make for the barrens. Now sleep.”
The wounded thing in her eyes glared. “You’ve grown very free with giving orders this night.”
The Knight settled his cloak around his shoulders and turned away. Indeed, he thought, and I’ll grow freer yet. You’ll hasten to obey them, as well.
You have no choice.