Druskin and Luza were on their feet in a heartbeat, weapons flashing in the firelight. I was slower, delayed by the consideration of whether or not it would be better to keep my skills a secret from whoever was approaching. I decided my appearance gave enough away, and stood with unhurried confidence, sliding a throwing knife into my hand.
“Peace,” said a voice from the darkness. “We mean you no harm.”
“Come ahead, and slowly,” growled Druskin, hefting his sword in a decidedly unfriendly fashion.
A man stepped into the orange glow; his hands spread before him to show they were empty. He was dressed in drab traveling clothes, and had black hair like the Wuhn, except trimmed short, like Quill’s. He was definitely not Wuhn. I darted a look at Quill whose face betrayed nothing. Especially when another figure stepped into the firelight. Tall, broad shouldered, umber skinned, with hair in tight braids close to his scalp revealing his pointed ears…an elf.
The Countess scrambled up behind me. “Lord Ilya Terr.”
The elf froze, cocking his head to look at the Countess. “You know me?” his voice was resonant, like the thrum of a musical instrument. I had never seen the Lord of Linden before and had to agree with Brell, he was well to look upon.
Druskin reached a hand back toward the Countess, as if to block sight of her. “What are you doing here?” he demanded, glaring at Ilya Terr.
“I am traveling to Gar Morwen for my wedding,” answered the Lord of Linden.
“Across Wuhn land?”
A wry smile twisted the elf’s lips, “Wuhn lies between Linden and Gar Morwen, if you recall. To go around adds weeks to the journey.”
The Countess laid a hand on Druskin’s elbow, he glanced back at her and made an attempt to relax his stance, but only managed to take up slightly less space than he was previously.
“You’re traveling alone?” asked the Countess, stepping around Druskin.
“No more alone than you are, my lady,” replied Ilya. I didn’t think he’d recognized her, but it was obvious that she was in charge. “My people are further north along the bluff. We saw your fire and came to see who camped near us. We have seen so few on the moors on our journey.”
A breath of silence filled the circle of firelight, and I imagined everyone was thinking the same thing I was: That it was an incredibly good thing the elves hadn’t run into anyone on the moors. There would certainly be no treaty if Ilya Terr was killed on the way to his wedding by vengeful Wuhn tribesmen.
“You’re welcome at our fire,” said the Countess, “If you wish,” she added hastily.
Druskin shot her a look. Quill sheathed his sword with an emphatic flick. Druskin got the point, and a heartbeat later sheathed his own weapon, nodding to Luza to do the same.
Ilya Terr watched them, then said, “My gratitude,” and bowed slightly. Then he whistled a few notes. A songbird’s call, I thought, though I hadn’t any idea which one. “Whose fire are we enjoying on this night?”
“I am—Adel,” the Countess replied, with only a slight hitch in her breath. “I am also traveling to Gar Morwen for the wedding. Come sit with us and share our food.”
I supposed the hunting party ruse would have never stood up to this encounter anyway. Druskin and Luza were stiff as five more figures leading horses emerged from the darkness behind Ilya Terr and his companion. Ilya’s companion gave orders to see to the horses, then he, Ilya, and two of the newcomers took the Countess’s invitation to sit.
Galo and I sat on either side of the Countess, Druskin sat beside Galo and Quill beside me. Ilya sat directly across the fire from the Countess, a female sat to his right, and a male to his left, and the man sat between the male and Quill. Ilya gestured to his companions in turn, “This is my sister, Aurel, my Second, Mihalak, and my friend, Rakov.”
Aurel was as beautiful as her brother, but more skeptical of their welcome. Mihalak was broader than Ilya, and carried an air of danger around him that reminded me of a wolf.
“You are welcome at my fire,” replied the Countess, formally. After everyone said thank you, no one said anything else. The sounds of tending the horses and the crackling of the fire started to feel deafening in the quiet as the Countess and Galo served up our rations to the company. The other elves soon joined us, and we ate. There were spurts of conversation about the weather, the stars, and the quality of the journey so far. Ilya was watching the Countess as if he was absolutely certain he knew her, but didn’t quite know why. She spoke as little as possible, having chosen not to tell him her full name but clearly having no idea how to function as anything but herself. The rest of us were saddled with her deceit, and disinclined to talk not knowing the extent of deception she desired. Plus, there was Rakov sitting on the other side of Quill in silence like a stranger. It was not a comfortable dinner. As soon as the food was finished, the Countess excused herself…except there was nowhere to go except a few feet further from the fire. She lay down in the bedroll without another glance at us. Galo gave me a look that simultaneously conveyed how tired she was and how irritated she was to have the elves with us, then went to lay down beside the Countess.
I scooted back from the light a little bit—enough to remove myself from any possible social obligation to talk to the people on the other side of the fire but not so far it would look strange if I spoke to Quill instead of retreating to my bedroll.
Quill leaned back to recline on his elbows, tipping his head back to look at the night sky.
“Why are we in Angareth?” I asked quietly.
He didn’t answer immediately.
“Why were you in the south?” I asked, not to be put off.
Quill’s eyes slid over to me, then over to Rakov, then back to me. “I think I’ll go check the horses.” He pushed off his elbows and got to his feet, walking into the darkness without a backward glance.
I chewed my lip for a long moment before realizing that there wasn’t anyone here whose rumors I needed to worry about. Standing, I nodded reassuringly to Druskin before walking into the night. I found Quill by Brimborren, his bay solidly taller than the rest of the horses. He was leaning on the bay’s shoulder, and turned to me when I walked up.
I stopped next to him and crossed my arms.
He took a deep breath. “Someone tried to hire the Breaker to kill the Countess.”
“You mean the assassin we’re trying to stop is the Breaker?”
“No!” Quill scoffed, “No, he didn’t take the job. But that’s why we’re in Angareth.”
“Because the Breaker suddenly decided to take an interest in the workings of the world?”
Quill chose not to answer that, but I could hear the tension in his voice as he continued, “When we found out about the wedding, we thought there might be a threat of equal weight against the Lord of Linden.”
“So Rakov went to Terrimbir and you went to Angareth?”
“Something like that.”
“How many more of you are on this expedition?”
“Ra’ed was, though obviously he’s not in this group. Since Rakov doesn’t look like death, I’m assuming he’s still alive somewhere.” Ra’ed was Rakov’s twin brother.
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“I specifically asked you where Rakov was!”
“You asked me who I was traveling with—I was traveling with Eliah and Jemin.”
I glared at him even though he couldn’t see me. I was certain he was glaring back. “You realize that even if we find who is trying to hire an assassin, they may have already hired someone just as skilled as the Breaker.”
“I’m aware of that, why do you think I brought you in?”
My irritation was dissipating in the face of a challenge, and I groaned, mourning its passing.
“That’s my notorious ghost,” a smile filled his voice.
“There are things I shouldn’t have to ask in order to know, Quill,” I retorted, “Facing the likes of the Breaker shouldn’t be a surprise if you’re pulling for me to win.”
“I have complete confidence in you,” he replied, “But fair enough.”
Special thank you to my Patrons, I am so grateful for your support! Thanks for coming on this journey with me.
Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.