24-face to face

Bulgar’s men had made camp under an outcropping of rock that was split by a gnarled cedar tree. The tree hunched over the splintered rock like an old man, reaching only tentatively toward the graying sky. They had made no fire, though it was clear they’d been resting a while. Some of the men were still watering the horses at the tiny rivulet dripping from the rock, they were filling waxed canvas buckets in order to get decent swallows—and the thirsty horses drained the buckets faster than they were offered. But most of the men were sprawled on the ground, trying to get a little sleep. In the pre-dawn dim, I could make out the slim form of the Countess, sitting straight as a spear with her back to the stone. Someone had given her a heavy cloak, which she held close against the chill of lingering spring. A man sat beside her, his black hair in a long braid like the others. I assumed this was the infamous Adorjan Bulgar because in the time I’d been watching he’d offered his arm to the Countess, as if for warmth, but she’d stiffly refused. He’d tried anyway and gotten an elbow to the nose for his efforts.

I moved closer, keeping my steps silent. I had asked Ilya Terr his intentions with this rescue, and found that I very much liked the Lord of Linden. If I closed my eyes, I could feel the trees moving around me—without wind to stir them, it was thrilling. There were no sentries on top of the outcropping yet, so I choose to approach from the side and crept close. If the men by the horses stayed focused on their work, I could probably take out the men who were sort of alert on the edge and be right in the heart of the camp before the rest noticed. From there, I could control them with a knife to Adorjan Bulgar’s throat. My lips twisted in a wicked smile as I drew a long knife from the sheath on my thigh. It wasn’t just that Adorjan was being treasonous. The hate he had for the elves reminded me of the hate the Empress had for the nymphs—that she fed and fueled until the waters of Daiesen cringed away from the land because of the taste of nymph blood. Perhaps it was my own guilt, too, that drove me forward, knife angled to bleed the Angari leaning against a skinny tree.

A branch snapped under my foot with a loud crack.

The man whirled to meet me, his sword barely blocking my blow. I struck again, but he blocked, and shouted, “Leanyodi!” Another Angari dashed over and grabbed at me. I twisted away but lost my chance to do any damage to the man with the sword. They tried to grab me but I struck at their arms—one yelped as my blade bit into his vambrace. I didn’t think I’d drawn blood, I sneered at him, then ducked and spun away as the other man made to grab me from behind.

“Zephra!” cried the Countess.


Adorjan. Probably.

“Take her alive!”


I made it to the clear patch before the rock overhang when three of them rushed me at once. My attempt to deflect them was feeble against so many, someone struck my jaw and I whipped to the side to soften the blow. I was vaguely aware of them wresting the knife away from me, and taking the other from its place on my thigh. My arms were twisted behind me and ropes dug into my wrists. Roughly, the men pushed me to my knees before Adorjan Bulgar and the Countess. Five of them stood behind me, having each taken part in my submission. It was hard not menace them, so many needed to contain one woman, especially when I glanced around and saw the entire company awake watching our little drama. The Countess’s face was contorted with dismay. Adorjan looked smug. He was probably in his thirties, and probably good looking if you liked clean jaws and full lips and noses red from bludgeoning. No, he was very handsome even with the red nose. I just really didn’t like him and was inclined to hold even his best features against him.

“Do not hurt my leanyod, Adorjan!” snapped the Countess, struggling against her bonds.

Adorjan ignored her. “How did you follow us?”

“You leave a trail like a sleigh in winter,” I replied, trying to blow my hair out of my face. It was half loose and wild as a colt in spring. I’d shaken out most of my braid when I’d given Quill my harness of knives. I wanted to look mysterious, but feral would do.

“I don’t recall the leanyodi being skilled trackers. Who else is with you?”

“I am not a leanyod,” I said.

The Countess stiffened, shaking her head and darting a glance at Adorjan.

He leaned forward, accepting my knives from one of his men. “Really? What are you, then?”

“I am the voice of the springs,” I fixed my gaze on the Countess, “I have a question for my lady.”

Adorjan scoffed.

The Countess blinked at me in astonishment as I said, “Do you approve of Ilya Terr and his offered peace?”

Adorjan’s hand snaked out and slapped me so hard my head snapped to the side and I saw stars.

“Adorjan!” cried the Countess.

“Faithless whore,” snarled Adorjan.

“Treacherous snake! You’ve gone mad. Free us both at once.”

“No, I’ll not let you pollute the honor of Angareth with that leaf-ear.”

“Ilya Terr has more honor in one hair than you do in your entire self,” retorted the Countess with more venom than I’d ever heard. “He will be my consort, not you. Never you.”

Adorjan reeled back as if to strike her but I spoke again, lowering the tenor of my voice, but not the volume, “I am the voice of the moors, and I am tired of bloodshed.”

The trees tops tossed above us as Adorjan struck me instead of the Countess. The blow rung my head and I thought I tasted iron in my mouth. “Who else is with you?” demanded Adorjan.

I let my head hang for a moment as I absorbed the sting of the blow. This was something I was very good at. Dramatics. I rolled my neck, then I looked Adorjan in the eye and let some of my otherness show. That tang in my soul that was not human. “I am the voice of the forest, and we do not approve of you.”

The Angari lord snarled, lunging forward to put my own knife under my chin, “Witch! Tell me who is with you.”

I flinched away from the blade, but grinned at him—wild as the sea in a storm, “The trees.”

He scoffed. But behind him, the cedar tree—the old one which split the rock they sheltered under—was moving.

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