I had known the tree was likely to act. That was the whole point of getting captured by these fools. But knowing it was coming and seeing it happen were two very different things. The roots of the tree crept forward—its movements smooth, and undulating like snakes, and it was terrifying.
“These are Adelheid Wuhn’s lands, her trees, rocks and hills—and they like her and her family. The forest hesitates to do violence without her permission,” Ilya had explained. “If it hears her side with me, it will listen to me.”
Ilya Terr and his elves couldn’t be seen doing violence to an Angari lord. A fight between the Bulgar’s twenty men and the Countess’s four would be bloody and its outcome unlikely to be good. But just the forest and one half-blood leanyod? That could hardly cause a problem.
The roots of the cedar tree curled around Adorjan Bulgar’s shoulders. He tried to shrug off the touch, snarling, “Let go,” without turning to look at who touched him.
The Countess saw, though, and her mouth opened in shock.
The men behind me saw, too, and I felt them pull away. One cursed, another began to pray. “What’s wrong with you?” demanded Adorjan, seeing his men recoil, but not understanding. Then the tree yanked back, Adorjan’s body slammed against the trunk so hard his head cracked against it. He blanched and cursed from the pain, turning utterly ashen when he looked down and saw for the first time what held him. “Cut me down!” Adorjan twisted to try to cut the roots with my knife. The moment the metal touched the roots they tightened brutally and he cried out, the knife falling from his fingers as the tree bound his upper arms more firmly.
Several of the men dashed forward to help him, while the others stared in shock. No one was looking at me as I got my feet under me, and stepped through the circle of my bound hands. The knots at my wrists were sloppy, and it wasn’t hard to get my hands in front of me. I dove for the Countess. She was so transfixed by the roots that now held Adorjan’s chest and were curling around his legs that she startled when I grabbed her hands and yanked her to her feet, “Run!”
She looked like she would protest, but her objections died on her lips when she saw the rest of the campsite behind me. The men who should have stood between us and the wood were gone.
The Countess followed me at a run to the edge of the clearing and into the little opening the brush left for us—no more than a deer path. The shouting of Adorjan and his remaining men faded behind us as we ran along the little path in the growing gray of dawn. The Countess was gasping for breath when we heard the stamp of horses and then burst into another little clearing where Ilya Terr and Quill waited with all the horses from the Bulgar’s company.
We didn’t take time for pleasantries. Quill boosted the Countess onto the only horse they’d taken the time to saddle and in moments we were all mounted and headed back the way we’d come at a gallop, towing the rest of the horses behind us on their leads. The Bulgar’s horses were tired and were soon flagging, but we didn’t have to go too far before we saw Druskin and Ilya’s sister, Aurel, coming toward us with the rest of our company.
Everyone relaxed when they saw their lieges riding toward them unhurt. This time Quill took the time to cut the bonds on my wrists and the Countess’s before we remounted on our own horses. The elves quickly stripped the Bulgar’s horses of their remaining gear and we set out, leaving the weary animals behind to find water and forage on their own. We didn’t go back to our old campsite, instead cutting deeper into the foothills to head straight for Gar Morwen from our new starting point. There wasn’t conversation as the sun broke the horizon and brightened the forested hills. No one had gotten much sleep the night before. Besides that, the very serious matters of what had happened, and the Countess’s real identity overshadowed any thought of casual conversation, choking it as surely as shade choked grass. For myself, my whole head had begun to throb out of solidarity for my cheeks and jaw. As the morning wore on, I began to feel ill managing the pain on an empty stomach.
When we finally stopped at a stream late morning, I slid off my mount and dropped to my knees beside it to splash water on my face and drink. At the moment, I was too tired and achy to care overmuch if my skin turned blue in front of everyone. The cold water soothed the roiling of my stomach. I sensed Quill kneeling beside me but didn’t look at him as I cupped my hands in the stream and drank some more.
I was vaguely aware of Galo fussing over the Countess, and the fact that I should probably be doing the same thing. And I would. In a minute.
Quill touched my shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Straightening, I gingerly touched my cheeks. “I’ve had worse. But my head is pounding, I lost two knives, and I need to eat.”
He turned me toward him and inspected my face. “You really took a hit,” he said, then he stood and started rooting through his saddle bags.
I stayed by the stream, giving Luza a grateful smile when he came to lead my horse away. He nodded gravely at me before catching up the reins of Quill’s horse also. I was somewhat surprised when Quill returned to sit beside me, a small jar in his hand. “Face me,” he said in a businesslike tone, “We’ll take care of your bruises.”
I shifted, tucking one leg under me, keeping the other in front, knee bent. My cheeks were already burning from the blows, but they flushed hotter as he leaned forward and took my chin with one hand. His fingers were cool and gentle as he began applying salve with the other hand. My heart hammered with each stroke of his fingers on first one cheek, then the other. His eyes were fixed on his work. They were deep brown flecked with emerald. I had forgotten the look of his soul, always so visible in their depths. My breath hitched.
“Sorry,” he said, mistaking the cause of my breath, the brush of his fingers over my tender skin becoming even more gentle.
Don’t be stupid, I chided myself. This was Quill. He was just good. Yes, we’d flirted, but…But still, this job…I remembered the way he’d touched my face just hours ago—as if I were a treasure he’d thought lost. Unbidden, my mind conjured another time he’d taken my face in his hands and pulled all the air from the room with the intensity of his concern. A long time ago. When things were different.
He tipped my head so he could apply salve to my jaw. “Did you have to let them land quite so many blows to the face?” he asked. “Did anyone even bother aiming anywhere else?”
“The worst of it is from Adorjan, I couldn’t very well have stopped him without revealing myself,” I managed, wondering if I sounded breathless.
He stopped and looked at me, “Adorjan?”
“You didn’t see?”
“I was busy clearing the way for you.” Ilya had asked the cedar his favor before he and Quill had left me to go pick off the rest of the Bulgar’s men. While I got the forest the answers it wanted—and kept all eyes on me—they had taken the men one at a time, leaving them bound and muzzled—but alive—in trailing vines in the woods. I hadn’t really considered how little attention they’d be paying me in those moments.
“Oh, well,” I cleared my throat, “Bulgar has a temper.”
Quill fell still, his hands on my face.
“Could have been worse,” I added brightly, “He almost struck the Countess but I distracted him. Could you imagine having to cover the bruises for the wedding?”
His fingers resumed their gentle work, but his brows were furrowed and his eyes hard. “I have a mind to ride back and teach that little tick a lesson.”
“He did get attacked by a tree. Which I feel was more stunning than my revenge might have been.”
“Not enough,” muttered Quill. He finished applying salve, but held onto my chin a moment longer, searching my face. I swallowed hard and looked up at the branches above our heads, afraid that if I met his gaze, he’d see more than he wanted to.
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