“You are damn lucky I like you,” I jabbed Quill’s chest with my finger.
“Is that why you work with me?”
“When you still work with them?” I jerked my chin toward the fire where Rakov was sitting.
“Indeed,” Quill was still smiling, I could hear it in his voice, but he shook his head. “You’re a snob, Zare.”
“And that’s why I work with you.”
A laugh chuffed out of him. “Is that so? What’s Eliah’s pass on censure?”
I shrugged, “I like her, too.” Eliah was also the only female friend I had who cared as much about weapons and horseflesh. Not that I had many female friends.
“Do you like anyone else from my company”
“Jemin,” I answered.
“I like Brimborren.”
“Is there another Brimborren?” The horse snorted and I reached over to pat his neck. I actually didn’t know most of the company very well, but I disliked the Breaker and his methods, and Rakov was one of his closest associates. I disliked being kept in the dark. “Is there anything else I should know about this little venture?”
“That the plan,” Quill straightened from leaning on Brimborren’s shoulder and turned to face me, his tone serious, “is to not need to face an assassin. I didn’t expect to see Rakov and Rae’d at all. Not up close, anyway. Of course, the plan also didn’t include angry mobs, bloodthirsty zealots, and sneaking across the moors.”
I moved closer, lowering my voice to avoid even the faintest chance of being overheard, “You’re slipping, Quill. Your plans usually go a bit better than this.”
He also bent closer, “Nonsense. I wouldn’t want you to get bored.”
I put my hand on Brimborren’s neck to steady myself, wishing I could see his face, rather than just imagine the look in his dark eyes. “She claims she has no jilted lovers, at least.”
“Not even that lovesick loon who wrote a letter?”
“Not even. Though he certainly mourns not gaining her alliance for himself.”
“So, still jilted. One way or another”
“I’ll find out in Gar Morwen, it’s possible Ayglos and Jemin already know.”
We fell quiet for a moment, then I said, “It’s certainly going to be an interesting journey now,” I tilted my head toward the fire and our elven company.
“What are you talking about?” Quill leaned so close his breath brushed my face, “It was an interesting journey before.”
Quill and I returned to the fire at different times, though I was certain no one was fooled. Humans and elves shared the watch duties, neither trusting the other to watch alone. Without the leanyodi ruse, I took watch duty with the rest. My eyes wandered often from the dark moors to Quill, sleeping with his saddle for a pillow. My mind kept returning to how close we’d stood and all possible interpretations of “interesting already.” When I noticed the elf watching me, a faint smile in his eyes, I made a determined effort to look elsewhere for the rest of the watch.
Eventually, I woke Luza for his turn and gladly gave myself back to sleep. In the morning, low clouds shrouded the dawn in shades of gray and blue. The Countess and Galo were bleary eyed and moving slowly. They ate in silence while the rest of us broke camp, and wordlessly accepted Druskin and Luza’s help mounting. I sidled my horse close to them, “Riding again will help,” I said, keeping my voice low.
“A day at the hot springs would help, too,” replied Galo.
I smirked and started to sidle away but Druskin caught my eye. Ilya Terr was riding over to the Countess and I was to stay by her side.
“Lady Adel, are we ready to leave?” the elf bowed slightly in the saddle.
The Countess nodded, “Yes, I believe we are.”
He fell in beside her and we led the procession out of the hollow and continued south. Druskin and Galo rode immediately behind us. Elves and men mingled in the informal train, no one willing to be far from their lieges. Today, with exhaustion and soreness wearing at her poise, the Countess was having an easier time playing the part of a lesser noble. She and Ilya Terr exchanged polite conversation sporadically all morning, and I faithfully rode at the Countess’s side in silence.
“There is a copse of trees to the south,” said the elf, pointing. “There is likely water there, we could stop there and water the horses.”
He was right, there was a stream there. I said nothing.
The Countess squinted in the direction he pointed, and then started to look uncomfortable. “I do not see trees.”
“I can feel them,” explained the elf.
“The stories we have about your people,” began the Countess, hesitantly, “Say that the forests do the bidding of the elves. That you can tell the trees to guard your borders, and they will—to not grow in a glen, and they won’t.”
Ilya looked at her, “They do, but not just any elf’s bidding.”
“It’s like,” he paused, searching for words, “Some are good musicians because they practice, some are good musicians because they are gifted—but it’s also like training an animal or making a friend. You must learn to speak to the trees, and then they must also respond to you. The forests do not bend just to anyone who can speak to them.”
“Does the forest respond to you?” asked the Countess.
A proud smile flickered across Ilya’s face, “It is my forest.”
The Countess turned back to the moors, “Our stories also say mankind was given the land, but I have never heard it speak.”
“Our stories,” replied the elf, “say mankind wasn’t satisfied with the dirt and asked Shaddai for a different gift, so losing their connection with the land.”
Both the Countess and I looked at him. Ilya was relaxed, looking at the moors with a peaceful expression, as if he hadn’t just insinuated that mankind was greedy. “And what gift was that?” said the Countess, her voice guarded.
“Foresight,” continued Ilya, “The gift of seeing the future. Truly, the other children of Shaddai were upset they had not thought of asking for this gift. But Shaddai was so angry with man for the insolence that the land shook, the seas rose and fire rained down. No one dared asking for the same gift. Not even when, determining that mankind clearly needed the help, Shaddai granted it.”
For a moment, only the sound of hooves thudding on earth and stones filled the air around us. Ilya stole a glance at us, the Countess was thin lipped, and I was fairly certain my expression was similar. And then he laughed.
The Countess jumped like she’d been slapped, then she exclaimed, “You don’t really have that story about us!”
“Well,” Ilya laughed again, “We do. But we have other versions. Less unflattering.”
“Why would you tell me that one?” she demanded. “It’s insulting.”
Ilya didn’t have an answer for her, but his eyes were twinkling and I decided I liked him. After a long moment he said, “My apologies, lady, please, tell me a bad story you have about the elves and I will not be offended.”
She stared at him, clearly taken aback by his humor. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am!” Ilya assured her.
“I…Our stories…” she stammered, blushed, and fell silent.
“If you don’t tell me a story, I will assume that they are all completely hideous.”
“You are very improper,” retorted the Countess.
My lips were twisting into a smile and I couldn’t stop them.
Ilya noticed. “What about you? Will you tell me a story?”
“I will,” I replied, “But my story is not an Angari story, so it should offend men and elves equally.”
The Countess darted a worried glance at me.
I ignored her, “Eloi made the sea, and raised from its bed mountains and valleys, and filled it with forests that bent in the current. Then he raised some of the mountains higher, and formed from them the land, which he also filled with mountains and valleys and forests that bent in the breeze.
“Eloi made the nymphs, and gave to them the sea to guard. Then he made the elves and gave to them the land. The nymphs spread throughout the whole sea; some took the mountains, some the valleys, still others went to tend the streams and rivers on land that forever return to the sea.
“But the elves liked the forests best, and neglected the mountains and the open places, so Eloi made dwarves to tend the stone slopes and man to tend the earth.”
Ilya grunted critically, “This is a nymphish myth.”
I ignored him, too, “Each of the land peoples thought their duty was most important, and they sometimes fought about who was foremost in Serrifis. It was after one bloody battle between the peoples that the human prince, Benedek, went to a river to drink and wash the blood off his face. It had been a brutal conflict, and he was tired. He did not see the nymph weeping on the banks of the river until he was kneeling on the shore with his hands in the water. He was struck by her beauty, and even moreso by her sorrow, and he asked her why she was crying. ‘My river is filled with blood,’ she told him, and her sorrow was so great that it filled him with sorrow also. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘let me help you clean the river.’ He said this because he wanted to make her happy, not because he understood why she cared so much about the river. Yet, his words encouraged her, and she told him her name was Ayglara, and she was the princess of her people. While he helped her strain the blood from the river, he tried to explain what the battle had been about. She did not understand and while he was talking to her, Benedek did not understand either.
“Benedek found that he desired to live in peace, caring for both the open places and the river with Ayglara by his side. He loved the river because he loved Ayglara, and thought that perhaps he could learn to understand the other peoples if he had a little help. So, he prayed to Eloi and asked for another gift—the gift of Sight, so that he could see and understand the peoples and bring an end to the bloodshed.
“Eloi was so impressed with Benedek’s request and the honor in his heart that he granted the request. True to his word, Benedek used his gift to make peace between the peoples. He made a home for his clan by Ayglara’s river. Eloi saw the peace between his children, and was pleased. As a reward for Benedek’s honor and wisdom with his gift, Eloi allowed Benedek’s gift to flow into mankind and spread to their children and grandchildren for the rest of time.” I finished, then added, “It was much more dramatic and beautiful when I heard it from a minstrel.”
“I thought this story was supposed to be equally offensive,” said Ilya mildly, “It favors mankind.”
“I could tell it again and make it a bloody tree and have Ayglara be an elf.” I just wouldn’t let my grandfather know I’d done it.
“Yes, that would be much better,” said Ilya, smiling. Brell would have fainted, I thought, if she had seen the way his face lit when he smiled.
“I don’t understand,” said the Countess, “You aren’t…bothered…you’re so…flippant.”
“Not what you pictured?”
I thought she might be also be thinking he wasn’t like the elf she’d met in Gar Morwen during formal treaty negotiations. But here, on the moors, as a stranger, she was seeing a different version of the elf she was marrying.
Ilya paused before answering her, “Truthfully, I am not normally quite this light. But I’m on the way to my wedding and I’m about to end a blood feud myself. Not unlike Benedek. I think I’m allowed to be generous in my opinions for a few days.”
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.