To read the story up to this point, check out Parts I, II, and III!)
The town stretched farther and farther behind them, as they rode silently past the surrounding farms, unseen as most of their neighbours were inside– like reasonable folk, Deryn thought as she tightened her cloak around her. After a while, the farms and sheep pastures gave way to the hills. The dark grey clouds above provided a stark contrast to the lush green grasses blanketing the hills, and the clusters of trees interspersed among them. A small stream wound its way through the landscape and seemed to serve as a sort of guide for her grandmother. An hour passed, then two, three. Deryn’s thoughts were abuzz with questions and unease. What friend were they going to see, and why had she never met him, if he was so important to the family? Does he understand the dreams,… the way Gran does? Why does he live so far from town, in the Verdillan Hills? The landscape around them slowly became rockier, slicker, and her grandmother eased the pace a bit, to allow the horses to tread more carefully. Despite the rain, Millie was sure-footed and quick, as if she had made this journey before, while Breck, in comparison, seems to have lost the eagerness he had earlier in favour for a more ginger approach to the winding, slippery path. What seemed like hours of riding in maddening silence, Millie finally slowed to a stop. Deryn allowed her thoughts to wander, trusting Breck to follow the mare faithfully, and jolted back to reality when she felt him halt. “We’re here”, Renata declared, dismounting.” Where “here” was, Deryn still wasn’t sure. They had stopped in front of a small cave, framed by a few trees. She dismounted and led Breck into the cave, following the old woman and Millie into the darkness.
The cave was, predictably, dark and wet. Deryn heard the striking of a match and, within moments, bright flames blossomed within a small lantern, lighting her grandmother’s face and illuminating the cave around them. “There’s a place to tie the horses up ahead. They’ll be fine here until we return.” She said, turning away once more to walk towards the back of the cave. With growing suspicion about this ‘old friend’, Deryn wondered if her grandmother was going mad at last, and stubbornly assured the old woman she was going nowhere before drying Breck. The last thing she needed was for her companion to get stiff from the rain and injure himself before the race. The steed blew softly into her face as she did so, as if to confide in her that he, too, thought her grandmother was crazy. “So this ‘friend’,” she began, unrolling a blanket, “if he is so important, why have I not met him before?” Renata paused in the middle of drying Millie, turning to glance at the girl. “He is a private man, devoted to his studies.”
She stopped for several moments, before continuing. “Deryn, you are about to learn more about this family than you probably realize…”. Deryn looked up at this, more confused than ever, to see sorrow– and possibly fear– lining the old woman’s face.