Three days passed and the moors gave way to rocky hills scattered with trees. I stayed close to the Countess whenever we rode, and Galo stayed close to her whenever we rested. Once or twice we saw figures in the distance and moved to lower ground to avoid detection. If the elves thought it was odd that we were just as eager as they were to remain unseen, they didn’t mention anything. Quill told me he’d learned Ilya Terr had divided his wedding party in the hopes of slipping across Wuhn territory unnoticed, rather than traveling in high estate on the main roads. There were several other groups of elves traveling across the moors under the cover of the mists, some had left a week ago to make up for their indirect path. The wedding would only be the beginning of peace, I realized.
Ilya’s unrelenting good humor had eventually eroded the Countess’s sense of propriety and she told him an awful story about elves stealing naughty children in the night to enslave them. He’d laughed. Their retinues had breathed a little easier. The evenings saw more conversation, and even the soft notes of a woodwind one of the elves had brought. No one was over-eager to talk about themselves, but hunting, fishing, and the best way to cook rabbit provided lively enough discussion. Ilya often looked at the Countess intently, like he’d forgotten something, staring at her thoughtfully until she noticed and he was forced to look away or say something witty.
At dusk the third day, we made camp in the shadow of a boulder near another little brook. The hills was covered thinly with tall pines, but they grew thick enough near the stream to hide the horses from casual eyes. We were in proper hills now. Boulders jutted from the earth in large and small mounds, offering additional protection from the wind and eyes. Clouds had rolled in that afternoon, and as the twilight deepened it became evident it would be a very dark night. As we watered the horses I turned to Quill, “Think anyone will notice if I disappear for an hour and come back a different color—but clean?”
“You’re very fastidious,” replied Quill.
I snorted, “For a person talking about bathing in a cold hill stream, you mean?”
One of the horses began to paw gleefully at the water, splashing everywhere and causing its neighbors to recoil as water hit their faces.
Quill tossed me a grin, and took a step closer to be heard over the splashing, “Three more days and we’ll be in Gar Morwen. Your quarters grander than those you left behind.”
“Big as a city fountain.”
“But…will you still cook for me?”
His turn to snort. “I’m certain you won’t be disappointed in their cooks.”
I gave him a skeptical look, just for effect, before backing my horses—who had finished drinking and were weeding—away from the water. “Your rabbit is exceptional, Quill, I’m just not sure I can live without it.”
After dinner I set up my bedroll next to the Countess, Galo on her other side, as usual, and fell asleep quickly.
I awoke with a start, Shiharr singing from its sheath as I bolted upright. Druskin recoiled with a startled grunt, losing his balance and landing on his rear in the dirt hand raised to ward my blow. I blinked at him, then quickly checked my knife for blood—it appeared clean, mercifully. “What is it?” I asked lowering Shiharr but not putting it away. “Are you alright?”
Druskin ran his hand over his face and picked himself up into a crouch, “The Countess,” he whispered, “She got up to relieve herself and hasn’t returned.”
Looking around, I saw that the Countess’s bedroll was, indeed, empty. Galo was looking up at us, her eyes foggy with sleep. We’d probably woken her when I’d nearly stabbed Druskin. A yawn clawed its way out of my mouth, and I stretched before sheathing Shiharr and slipping my harness of knives over my shoulders. I fumbled with the buckles. “I’ll go find her.” I pulled on my boots and laced them loosely before climbing to my feet and heading into the darkness in the direction Druskin pointed.
It took a moment to adjust to the utter dark away from the fire, but once I did, I could make out the black forms of rocks and trees. I made my way toward the boulder we’d used for this purpose earlier in the evening, taking care over the uneven ground. I called out quietly, “My lady?” as I rounded the edge of the rock.
She wasn’t there.
I turned and scanned the area. Trees climbed the hill to my left, and thinned to grass on my right. It was hard to tell much in the darkness with rocks casting lumpy shadows around. Could she have somehow tripped and hit her head? “My lady?” I raised my voice this time, “Adel?” I moved carefully around the whole area, expecting at any moment to step on a hand or trip over the Countess’s prone body.
I should have brought a torch.
My sleeve caught on a sapling and when I reached to free myself, I noticed a piece of folded paper twisting on the wind, tied to a branch. A moment of fumbling untied the string. The paper was very finely made, and sealed with wax. I cursed under my breath and headed back to the camp at a jog. Druskin was waiting at the edge of the firelight, tense and already concerned by my long absence and rapid approach. I thrust the letter at him and he stared, confused. “That’s…the Bulgar seal…” he said.
I nodded, “And addressed to you,” I pointed at the fine black ink now visible in the firelight. Druskin tore open the seal and skimmed the letter. His face turned red and he cursed, and I snatched the letter from his fingers before he could tear it in a rage. Druskin spun helplessly and kicked the earth as I read the note, my heart sinking.
Galo sat up from her bedroll, “What’s wrong?”
The elf on duty, Mihalak, Ilya’s second, stood up from where he’d been leaning against a tree. “What is it?”
“It says, ‘Druskin, she is safe, don’t come for her. I will preserve the purity of the moors and springs, and bring strength to the line of Wuhn again. Cordially, Adorjan Bulgar, Count of Bulgarrinwel.’”
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