23-The Trees

For the space of a few heartbeats, we stared after Ilya Terr like owls blinking in the sun.

Quill turned to me, “What was in that note?”

“Nothing flattering to the elves,” I said. After a beat I added, “Drivel about purity of the moors and bringing strength to the Wuhn.”

“You Angari,” muttered Mihalak, then he switched to grumbling in Terrim and bent to help Aurel, Ilya’s sister, to her feet. The other elves were stirring and Mihalak snapped something in elvish that jolted them all to wakefulness. Aurel barely reacted at all when Mihalak told her what had happened. She only glanced into the woods after her brother, and I wondered if she could somehow see him in the darkness.

“We can’t let him go after Adorjan Bulgar alone,” said Galo. She was standing now, trying to wrap a rag of cloth around the stick I’d tossed her.

“The Lord of Linden is never alone if there are trees,” Mihalak put in turning back to our side of the fire.

Galo bit her lip, and I guessed she hadn’t been thinking of Ilya Terr’s safety. She confirmed this by saying, “If Lord Terr kills Adorjan Bulgar he will jeopardize the treaty—a treaty which will save the lives of hundreds.”

“It is not the elves who stand in its way!” retorted Mihalak. He turned back to the Wuhn company, the elves, and Rakov, starting to rise and belt on their weapons.

I caught Quill’s eye and inclined my head in the direction Ilya Terr had gone. He dipped his chin a fraction and I started to move away from the light of the fire while the others continued in a furious hush.

“It will be if he murders an Angari lord!”

“Bulgar is a wretched traitor unfit to bear the title of lord—even an Angari title.”

I stepped into darkness and started moving into the woods.

Behind me, I heard Aurel say, “Mihalak! You aren’t helping.” A pause, then in a more measured tone, “Your Bulgar has already jeopardized the treaty, and will destroy it entirely if he harms either my brother or your lady.”

“We will hunt together, then, for we all wish…” Quill’s voice.

I was too far away to make out the rest. My eyes adjusted to the night, and I could make out the trees and the earth beneath them. Even so, I moved carefully, keeping my hands out to find branches and spider webs before my face did. The way in front of me was surprisingly clear. No roots, brambles, or vines snagged at my feet. I had run through plenty of woods in the dead of night, and it was never this easy. Immediately I thought of swimming in the tidal creeks of Galhara. We were not allowed to redirect the currents to suit our playing, but if we asked, the water would let us slip through it without clinging…The Lord of Linden is never alone if there are trees. My feet slowed and I hoped fervently that Ilya Terr did not mind my presence. Perhaps the forest would deposit me back at the camp if he did not want to be found. Or perhaps I would wander aimlessly in the wood until morning. A shiver ran through me. At least I wouldn’t drown like those who got lost in the sea. I reached out to touch the nearest tree, “I’m a friend,” I whispered, my voice loud in my ears. I felt silly. I resumed walking.

When I saw the form of Ilya Terr ahead of me, leaning one hand against an enormous pine as if on an old friend, I nearly sagged in relief. He was standing with his back to me, his sword dangling loosely in his other hand.

I approached cautiously, taking care to scuff my feet on the off chance the trees hadn’t told him I was coming. I stopped ten feet away and waited a moment. When Ilya didn’t acknowledge me, I ventured, “My lord?”

“Was it funny?” his voice was a growl.

“What?”

The elf-lord half turned toward me; I could sense more than see the anger on his face. “Was it funny? The Countess pretending to be a lesser lady and watching me none-the-wiser?”

“No!” I scoffed, “We were all wildly uncomfortable the whole time.”

Ilya snorted, “You were uncomfortable?” He turned away again. “I thought…I thought I recognized her. I have been going out of my mind because I knew her. Shaddai, I’m such a fool. And I told her such stories…”

His tone had become less feral, and I took it as an invitation, stepping a few feet closer and saying, “To be fair, she looks very different when she’s in her make up.”

“Such a ridiculous custom.”

I managed not to agree out loud, barely.

“Does she have…feelings…for this Bulgar?”

“No, my lord,” I was sure of that.

“Does he for her?”

“Her, or her power.”

Ilya leaned his forehead against the tree, and after a moment asked, “Tell me, did she flee?”

“My lord,” I dared another step closer, “She did not flee. She would not flee. Even if she had discovered you to be a monster she would not flee.” I added quickly, “And she has smiled more in the past three days, in your company, than I have ever seen her.” In the short time I’d known her, at least.

He seemed to relax a little. Leaning heavily on the pine for another long moment. “Can you fight?”

“I can,” I replied warily.

“Good,” the elf lord straightened and started belting on his sword. “They carried her on foot to that boulder over there, then got on horses and rode east. They are still in the hills. So long as they stay in the woods, I can track them easily enough. Don’t bother with torches, they don’t need to know we’re coming.” He raised his voice, “Mihalak!”

I jumped when Mihalak’s voice sounded behind me, much closer than should have been possible.

“My lord.”

“Tell Aurel to come behind with the horses, I will leave a trail for her.”

“Yes, my lord.”

I turned around just in time to see Mihalak bow and head back toward the camp. Quill’s familiar form was just visible in the darkness, striding the last few feet to my side.

“You two, with me now, the rest will follow.” The elf lord strode away.

Well, then. I hurried after the elf, aware of Quill just behind me. Again, despite the dark, we didn’t trip over roots, or vines, and branches didn’t catch our clothes. What had Ilya said to the trees to impress them so much so quickly? And if this was his effect on a grove he just met, how terrifying must the forest of Linden be.

Even with the congenial assistance of the trees, it took all of my focus to keep track of Ilya Terr’s shadow as it slipped from one depth of darkness to the next. We were nearly running, and as time passed, I began to put more and more effort into breathing and care less about making noise. I was stumbling blindly by the time Ilya stopped. I halted, bending to prop my hands on my knees while I contemplated my deep desire to lie flat on my back in the moss until morning.

“They are on the other side of the hill,” said Ilya, quietly. “Idiots stopped for a rest. It will be dawn soon. We will need to be silent from here on.”

Quill came to a stop beside me, I listened to him catch his breath before he said, “Do you intend to attack immediately, my lord?”

“Do you know Adorjan Bulgar? Will he harm her?”

Quill and I looked at one another, then Quill said. “I don’t know.”

“Then we attack immediately.”

“Can we get close enough to get the lay of their camp first?” I asked.

I felt Ilya’s gaze fall on me incredulously. “Do you routinely strike without scouting first?”

“I’m a leanyod,” I said, almost tripping over the word.  

Ilya scoffed, “I’ve never seen a leanyod wear knives or tend horses or keep watch. You’re a bodyguard.”

I crossed my arms. I avoided outright bodyguarding work because I didn’t want to throw myself between an arrow and a wealthy merchant’s heart. But Ilya was right enough about this job. So much for an undercover investigation gig with a little luxury on the side.

“We don’t mean to be rude, my lord,” said Quill, “But we aren’t accustomed to your methods.”

“I will forgive you, just this once,” said Ilya, briskly enough that I couldn’t be sure if he was serious and balked at asking the real question. Did he intend to kill Adorjan Bulgar? Worse, I wasn’t even sure I could convince him not to, since I myself sort of liked the idea.

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