33-All in One Place

This evening we were all wearing purple, our faces silver from the nose up, our eyes thick with kohl. Even Pontikel’s. The banquet thrown to officially welcome the elves and the Wuhn for the wedding was in an enormous hall in the Palace of Spires. It was the same hall, Druskin informed me, where the wedding would be held. Above our heads, the vaulted ceiling was painted with moors and mountains and illuminated by enormous, glittering, chandeliers. Three tiers of balconies wrapped around three sides of the hall, joined by sweeping staircases. Three tiers of balconies where courtiers walked and mingled and looked down on the dancing and feasting below. I groaned inside. A gifted bowman could easily slip into the furthest corner of the room and have a clean shot at the dais.

I didn’t allow myself to look long, none of the other leanyodi did more than glance at the golden, ornamented room. It was not all of us, this time; just me, Brell, Karolya, and Hadella. The Countess was announced by a crier, and presented herself to the royal family before taking her place at their table. Hadella sat with her, and the rest of us sat at the next table down. The tables were piled high with bread and decanters of mead and jugs of beer crowded around them. Brell poured us both glasses of mead. I accepted with a smile, and turned my attention to the rest of the people in the room.

There was certainly plenty to look at. All the clothes were spectacular, silks in rich colors, ornate brocades—full skirts and long coats everywhere. The royal family were all in red, with high golden feather collars and gold circlets. Their faces had a faint gold sheen, as if they’d been powdered with gold dust, and even the king’s eyes were winged with kohl. Gray twisted through King Keleman Magyar’s black hair, but not yet through Queen Olyami’s. They looked regal, exotic, and keen eyed. Prince Domonkos and Princess Sarika were also at the high table. Domonkos was handsome, Angari black hair shining in a pair of long braids, strong jaw, probably thirty years old, and looking at the Countess with the pride of an older brother. Sarika was younger than I’d expected, she looked perhaps fourteen, though it was hard to tell for certain under the makeup.

There were guests from other countries, breaking up the sea of black hair and painted faces of the Angari nobility. I spied a group of Magadarians, in their tailored waistcoats, Haimish lords in their robes, red-headed dwarves from Anlor, and a small group in sleek, deep blue clothes, and draped in pearls. I realized after a moment that they were nymphs—probably from the Azulimar Sea which made up Angareth’s western border. Then, of course, there were the elves. The entire company from Terrimbir was dressed in shades of green, their black hair in hundreds of tiny braids, or teased into shapes, or shaved entirely. They practically dripped in gold. The High Lord Istvan Terr, his Lady Yrzabet, and of course Ilya and Aurel, were seated at the high table with the Angari royals and our Countess. I looked for hints of Ilya’s irreverence, but he was as cool and polished as a stone in the Juni River.

“I think I’m going to enjoy this treaty,” said Brell.

I turned to look at her.

She gave me an impish grin, “Well, look at them.” She tipped her chin toward the elves. “I love their hair.”

I arched a brow, but smiled, “Their hair is pretty spectacular.”

“Brell,” scolded Karolya.

“I know,” Brell waved her hand, “Momentous. Controversial. Blood of generations. Forgive me for accepting the future and finding joy it.”

“Could you accept the future a little more quietly for now?” said Karolya, sipping her own mead.

“Why? Hadella can’t possibly hear us from the head table.”

“There are other people in the room,” Karolya’s tone turned dry.

I put down my glass. “Hadella disapproves?”

Brell scoffed.

Karolya gave her a sharp look, but I got the feeling it was more for being loud. She turned to me, “Hadella…” she sighed, “…thinks that this whole thing is a tremendous insult to our ancestors.”

“Which is ridiculous,” Brell leaned forward, “Since I’m sure our ancestors would see this as conquest.”

My lips tipped up, “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.”

“While we’re keeping our voices down,” said Brell, “How did you end up in the company of Ilya Terr on the way here? Galo wouldn’t tell us anything.”

I took a slow drink, looking at Brell over the edge of my glass. “We bumped into him,” I said at last. That’s all Galo had said that first night, as the leanyodi began to arrive and each gave her a questioning look when they saw our companions.

“That’s it?” asked Karolya.

“Apparently, we were not the only ones who saw the need for stealth on the journey.” I shrugged, “It’s strange, but true. It was entirely accidental.”

“You are all hiding something,” said Brell.

“But not this,” I replied. I didn’t really know why we’d gone from asking the king to disgrace Adorjan to not even telling the leanyodi the full extent of what had happened on the road, but we had. Then again…perhaps it was for fear of all those rumors I kept hearing about.

Brell dropped her eyes to my cheek for a moment before looking away. They all knew about my bruise, though Galo’s cream had prevented coloration quite effectively and it was just a bit sore to the touch now. I’d told them one of the horses tossed his head and accidentally hit me in the face. Some of them believed me.


The banquet was everything I’d hoped—huge roasts, mounds of root vegetables, even more fresh bread, all spiced to perfection. Once the food was mostly cleared away the dancing started. Lines of nobles, all glittering in their finery, turned in the intricate steps of line dances. Even the king and queen participated. I saw Ilya Terr approach the Countess and invite her to dance. When a good-looking young man approached us and asked Brell, I decided it was time to move. I didn’t know these dances, and any leanyod would. Discretely, I excused myself to Karolya and made my way to the nearest stairs and went up to the second level.

There were plenty of people on this level, but nothing like the main floor. Curtains and tapestries helped contain the noise, and also created little alcoves where people could have private conversations. I kept my steps silent, uninterested in drawing attention to myself, listening to the snatches of conversation around me.

My ears snagged on a man’s voice, speaking Terrim, and my stride faltered.

“…it’s not as if you’re having to marry an Angari.”

“It’s disgraceful! Linden thus polluted.”

“Keep your voice down, Balint,” the man sounded amused, “You’re not in Terrimbir anymore, you might start a fistfight here if someone hears you.”

A snort. “As if they would understand our tongue.”

Balint was the name of Terrimbir’s ambassador. But the other voice…I forced myself to keep walking. I couldn’t be sure. It’d been years, and hearing his voice in a different language…perhaps I was imagining it. The men were leaning on the balcony railing, so I angled toward the outer wall and paused to admire a tapestry. Then I turned around and swept my eyes casually over the area as if I were looking for an open spot on the balcony. The ambassador from Terrimbir was standing at the railing, his black hair shaped into a tall column, his posture stiff. Next to him, a broad-shouldered man in a dark jacket lounged against the wall, looking over the balcony with his arms crossed. I could just make out his familiar high cheek bones, though his face was turned away. “By Fornern.” Bel Valredes.


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I related our escapade to Eliah, both of us sitting on the desk like ruffians while we finished cleaning and sharpening my knives. Eliah made noises of crowing delight at each exciting moment. When I’d finished, Eliah said, “Eloi’shand is clear as day in bringing them together on the road. Just think how hard it would have been to rescue her without Lord Terr’s help.”

I stood and stretched, “We would’ve managed. But I must say having the help of the trees was incredibly nice.”

“Could you imagine if we’d had a gifted elf with us when we did that job just south of Kelphas?”

I moaned in agreement. “Perhaps I should recruit someone,” walking to the bed I stretched out on my stomach, facing Eliah. “Next time I’m up north—someone from Salionel.”

“What are you going to do, hold a tree charming contest?”

“Precisely so.”

“And which of your secrets will you let that person in on?” asked Eliah, moving from the desk to sitting backwards on the carved chair, folding her arms across the top.

I made a face at her and changed the subject, “What about your quiet three-day ride through the countryside? Did you learn anything useful?”

“That the Countess’s people love her, and love their tribe, and they are surprisingly consistent in this. They support the treaty to support her—but they hate that there must be one, and they kind of hate Terrimbir for existing.” She stopped to rub her nose, “I think they’d happily kill Ilya Terr and take the consequences if they thought she wanted them to. We were all pretty bewildered when we arrived at the river and saw her sitting so relaxed with the elves. I don’t think they knew how to react.”

I smiled. “I suspect their sentiment will quickly shift to just being on call to avenge a broken heart if necessary.”

“Do you think she loves him?” asked Eliah, surprised. “Have they known each other long?”

I could almost see Eliah calculating, spinning a version of their story where they had met up north, fallen in love and come south to mend their countries. “No, don’t be silly,” I waved my hand to dispel the narrative, “I think that the seed has been planted. They will be quite happy together if they can live through this.”

Eliah gave me an evaluating look. “I’m not sure I could ever forget I didn’t choose him.”

“Ah, but she did choose. The considerations just weren’t romantic.”

“Alright, in her place, would you do the same?”



I hesitated.

“You wouldn’t.” She leveled an accusing finger at me, “I bet you almost had to marry someone hideous and now you’re thinking of him.”

“Eliah!” I rolled to a sitting position, “Honestly. We didn’t even get to marry off my sister. If I could end centuries of warfare and secure an ally for my king by marrying a surprisingly good male who was also good looking and funny,” I matched Eliah’s accusing finger, “I would do it and probably also fall in love with him.”


“But,” I conceded, “I’m a little glad I don’t have to.” We fell silent. I had, in fact, thought of Quilleran Rhydderick’s brown eyes, and knew a choice like the Countess’s would be harder now than when I was a child. I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Eliah gave me an amused look. “I can’t picture you doing what she’s doing. I mean…I’m sure you would if you had to…but I can’t picture it.” She reached over and picked up one of my knives.

“Times have changed somewhat.” For a moment we were quiet again, probably both wondering what the world would have been like if Narya Magnifique had not set out to build her empire—much less succeeded. The differences were too staggering to think on long—even if Eliah’s presence itself was reminder of the most terrifying reality: We were born ten years apart, but the age gap had been closed to a mere four years when the empress made her first conquest: She’d caused Shyr Valla, the jewel of the mountains, to disappear without a trace. We, of course, had no idea how the Empress had wiped an entire city out of existence, but apparently the fabric of time was involved because then-Prince Trinh Kegan and eight of his knights had been caught by the shockwave from the spell. When they got up, six years had passed. How could you fight a sorceress who had bent time? You couldn’t. The thought tasted bitter.

I stood up abruptly, “Got time to spar?”



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31 – Settling in

The afternoon was almost entirely consumed by frenzied preparation. First, an entire wardrobe change for everyone to formally greet the royal family in a small receiving room packed with courtiers. A short ceremonious greeting, barely long enough to surreptitiously study the king, then the Countess mingled with the crowd, greeting as many people as she could before we had to leave again to prepare for the real event. The evening would see a welcome banquet in the throne room for the Countess and the elves. Apparently, the High Lord and Lady of Terrimbir had arrived yesterday. I wondered if they had traveled many weeks out of their way, or if they, too, had snuck across Wuhn land under the cover of night.

Fortunately, I was not one of the leanyodi tasked with helping the Countess prepare for the evening. Galo probably figured my skills didn’t include the finer points of elaborate hair—she was correct—and she released me for the few hours before I’d need to get dressed myself. She’d given me a room just a couple doors down from the Countess’s suite. “Druskin wants you to sleep in the sitting room,” she’d said, a critical purse to her lips, “but at least you won’t have to go far for your closet or bath.”

I closed my door behind me and threw the bolt, sagging against it for a moment to savor being alone. The chambers were a little larger than the rooms in Wuhnravinwel, and the walls appeared to be wood covered in tinted plaster—rather than stone. A covered feather bed was tucked against one wall, between bookshelves, a wardrobe, and a small desk. A stone fireplace took up half the other wall, a door beside it likely led to the bathing chamber. All the wood was finely carved with images of hounds, horses and falcons. A tall, slim, glass window looked outside. I collected myself and gave the rooms the same inspection I’d given the Countess’s, finding no peepholes or false walls. The stone fireplace indeed formed one wall of the bathing chamber, with another hearth on that side, warming the blue tiled space and the tub right next to it. I returned to the bedchamber and opened the window, then I sat at the desk to think and sharpen my knives. Shiharr and Azzad first, then the myriad of others. The rhythm and familiarity of the task relaxed me and focused my thoughts. I reviewed the lords who’d sent nasty letters to the Countess and wondered if we’d seen the last of Adorjan Bulgar. Given his attempted kidnapping, I thought it unlikely he’d tried to hire the Breaker. He might try something else, but he wasn’t who we were looking for. It was possible the Empress had commissioned the assassination, but I thought it far more likely she would use one of her Hunters for the job rather than pay top price for third party. But I could be wrong on that. If she wanted to be clever, perhaps she would find a lordling in debt and pay him to hire someone or to the deed himself. It was very easy to kill people, and even relatively easy to not get caught if you were clever about it…why hadn’t anyone tried poison? I shuddered. That was something I could not protect her against. I had only a very rudimentary skill at recognizing poison, having had no good way to learn. The surest way to protect against that was to have someone tasting all your food and all your drink before you did. I shuddered again.

A croak sounded at the open window and I turned to see my brother’s raven, Rabanki, perched on the sill. I smiled, “Well met. I’m actually glad to see you, feathered menace.”

The raven guffawed and took that as an invitation to fly to the desk. Instinctively, I put my hand over Shiharr and Azzad in case the bird was feeling mischievous.

Rabanki cocked an eye at me critically, then proffered his clawed foot. The little message canister caught the fading the light. I gave up defending my blades and used both hands to unfasten the canister and open it. Uncurling the tiny paper, I read, Welcome to Gar Morwen! Hook is stabled at Farman’s Ferrier on South St. Best tavern is Lute and Bowl, if you can get away. I smoothed my thumb over Ayglos’s scrawl, surprised at how happy it made me to see my brother’s hand.

Looking up at Rabanki, I asked “How many windows did you try before you found mine?”

The bird lifted his wings in a shrugging motion.

“The Countess is two doors that way, might be more like three windows,” I jerked my chin, “I’ll be sleeping there, most likely. If you have an emergency in the middle of the night,” I trailed off, “or something.”

Rabanki’s black eyes bored into me, and I began to be less glad to see him. I flipped over the paper, inked a pen and wrote, Pageant tonight, exciting trip here. Rakov and Rae’d with elves. Sent to fortify against Emp. Will slip out one night if can – Z. I blew on the ink, as soon as it was dry, I returned the paper to the canister and fastened it to Rabanki’s ankle. “If you please, take this to my brother.”

A knock sounded at the door and I spun, knives out. Rabanki croaked indignantly. When the door didn’t open, I shook my head, put down Azzad, and walked to open it, Shiharr tucked in the folds of my coat.

Eliah stood in the hallway, looking completely out of place in her breeches and jerkin—fresh ones—her hands tucked behind her back. “Leanyod, I was told to give you,” she produced a folded paper, “this update on the investigation for the Countess.”

I opened the door wider, “Please, come in.”

Eliah hesitated, then stepped in. When I closed the door behind her, she smirked at Shiharr in my hand.

“Is there anything on that paper?” I asked.

She handed it to me, “See for yourself.”

I opened the paper and smirked, “This is a decent rendering.”

“Thanks, I was going to leave it in a tavern, but Quill thought the Countess might not appreciate the circumstances of the Bulgar tangling with a tree getting out. I told him the trees didn’t need a reason.”

“I might keep this, an artistic rendering of the time a cedar tree avenged my face.”

“Technically, I think the tree was avenging the Countess,” Eliah walked toward the desk, “Rabanki, where’s your handsome perch?”

The raven croaked, hopping off the desk and flapping to the sill.

“Tell them to save me a seat!” called Eliah, as the black bird leapt into the sky.

“Aren’t you going to the pageant?”

Eliah sighed, “Yes. So, they save a seat for days.”

“Days!” I laughed, “It’s not that long.”

Eliah flipped her blonde hair and gave me a look. “It’s not my world.”

I walked to the desk and set Shiharr amongst my other knives. “And you wouldn’t be here if your king hadn’t ordered it?”

She stiffened.

I tipped my head. “Don’t be upset. I think it’s a good thing.” I tucked Eliah’s sketch in the desk drawer and closed the drawer a little too forcefully, “A sign of life, so to speak.”

“You know I can’t say anything about him,” Eliah looked at me, her hazel eyes raw.

“I know,” I sheathed a knife with a click. Then I stopped and sighed. “I know,” I said again. I met Eliah’s gaze. “We’re friends. But we’re other things, too.”

She sagged. “Believe me, I wish…” she trailed off.

“I know.” I sheathed another knife. “So, did you visit just to bring me your pretty picture?”

“And to see your pretty face and get your version of events.” She gave me a faint but wicked smile. “I got Quill’s, but I want yours. And this might be the only chance for a while. The week is pretty packed with nonstop madness.”

“I suspect Quill’s version already covered the awful stories of which our elf lord was so fond.”

“Oh yes,” her grin got bigger, “Did you know Ilya Terr spent his teenage years in Lillonna and Salionel learning language and diplomacy—and apparently a completely different outlook on life.”

“That certainly does explain some things,” I replied. “Do you know why he was sent?”

Eliah shrugged. “Perhaps because he has cousins in both courts? Perhaps because the High Lord is far-sighted and thought a fresh perspective was needed? Or maybe he was an exceedingly annoying child and they just wanted him far away.”

I laughed again. “That seems unlikely. But help me with these knives and I’ll tell you my side.”


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30 – Gar Morwen

Gar Morwen had one foot in the hills and one in the plains, the Juni cutting through it’s center like good blade. The capitol had once been two cities, and as such it had two of everything. Two market squares, two warehouse districts, two cathedrals, two huge gates in the same side of the city, two libraries, and two palaces. A thousand years ago, when the cities merged, the king had moved the Palace of Spires stone by stone from its place on the southern side of the city to a new spot across the river from the Palace of Domes. Three splendid bridges connected the palaces over the river, and the most ornate docks I’d ever seen spindled along the banks, full of graceful watercraft and large barges for parties on the river.

We had arrived just after noon, a day and half after Quill and I had…scouted…on the riverbanks. After much discussion, the Countess and the Lord of Linden chose to enter the city in tandem. They weren’t ready to comingle their trains, so the Countess’s train entered first, and the column of elves rode in behind. Crowds grew as word spread through the city before us. From my place riding beside the Countess’s carriage, they seemed curious—there was no tension as there had been riding out of Wuhnravinwel. These people were just eager to catch a glimpse of the bridal train and get a peek at the Countess and the elves. We arrived without incident at the Palace of Domes, and were received by a black robed steward who conducted an army of servants to unload and show the parties to their respective accommodations. I was not the only one to notice the look the Countess and the Lord of Linden exchanged before parting ways. It was a look of solidarity. We hadn’t told the rest of the staff the whole story of Adorjan’s kidnapping, and I could sense the confusion from the others at their closeness.

The suite provided for the Countess and her retinue was enormous and ornate. Apparently, it was her usual rooms, because the leanyodi bustled about like they were already well familiar with the place. I prowled through the bedchamber, inspecting the walls for hidden peepholes, compartments, panels, doors…any vulnerabilities. I got a third of the way through before Druskin joined me, “There is a false wall beside the bed, do not reveal it. It leads to a passage and a hiding place.”

I nodded. He stayed with me, also tapping the walls and looking for holes or cracks. If he wondered why I was behaving like a bodyguard after insisting for so long that I wasn’t, he didn’t say. He also didn’t seem surprised that I knew to do these things. He hadn’t asked questions when Quill and I turned up clean and damp after scouting, either. I was glad enough of his silence. I still felt off balance after my conversation with Quill. Everything about it had shaken loose emotions long filed away and I didn’t feel like concocting explanations for my truly unique skillset. When Eliah had arrived at the riverside with one of the retinue’s carriages, I had wanted both to embrace her and to punch her—But couldn’t do either. She, too, was one of Trinh’s sworn before she was my friend, and I shouldn’t be mad at her for keeping her king’s actions to herself. Even when he was moving in a direction that might mend the rift between us exiles. I had sat and shared a tent with the leanyodi, she had stayed close to Quill after giving me a look that said she was glad I was alive. I hadn’t seen her reaction to seeing Rakov and the elves in our company, though I wished I had.

Finding nothing in the bedroom or the sitting room, I stopped by the great arching glass windows and looked out at the domes of the palace. The dressing room was too full of people for me to check thoroughly so I would wait and do it later.

Druskin came to stand beside me, “What do you think?” he asked.

“About the rooms?” Looking around, I noted the high ceilings painted to resemble a sky rolling with thick clouds, the enormous feather bed, the exquisitely carved furniture, and the beautiful windows rimmed with colored glass. “They are extremely fine.” Druskin cut me a glare, and I smirked. “I think these rooms are as secure as we’ll get without invading the royal apartments.”

For a moment, Druskin looked as if he was considering the idea. Then he let out a breath. “Even so, will you be willing to stay here at night?”

“You really need to find some female guards, because I’m not staying past the wedding,” I replied, and turned back to the window.

“Believe me, Hian Ruddybrook, I have been cursing my lack of foresight for months,” said Druskin.

“I am still here to investigate,” I said, keeping my voice low, “I will sleep as close to her as you can get me, but I am going to be sleeping, Druskin.” I cared very much if the Countess lived or died, but I also cared very much, who, precisely, had tried to hire the Breaker. Happily, the King of Angareth cared, also.


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If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share! Also, consider supporting on Patreon for as little as $1/month.

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29 – Bravado

I slunk through the shallows, hidden by silt and shifting currents until I was close enough to get a clear look at the person on the log. When I did, my lips curled into a smile. I rose out of the river, the water sluicing from my body as if it had given me form. I was water made flesh, painted by Fornern of the Seas, and gilded by the setting sun. A nymph in her element.

Quill, however, watched me appear out of improbably shallow water without even a glimmer of surprise on his face. I walked closer, till I was standing in inches of water only a few feet away from him. He was sitting on the same log I had used earlier. He’d clearly been waiting for me, but he hadn’t been idle. Four knives glittered in the sunlight before him, a fifth and a strop quiet in his hands. His shirt was half open to his bare chest beneath and his hair was damp. Quill returned my inspection; taking in the blue tendrils that covered my legs and torso, then curled savagely up my face and down my arms. He’d never seen this much of my stripes, I realized. Despite my fishing him out of multiple rivers over the years. He’d never seen this much of me. My ears heated and I hated them a bit for reminding me that I was raised on land—and was more culturally human than nymph.

“Are you the search party?” I asked.

Quill glanced at the sky, at the sun that said we’d be late for dinner, then looked at me. “No, but you’ll owe me. When you didn’t come back in five minutes, I thought you might’ve succumbed to the river’s call. I told Druskin I was going to get you and scout the area.” A crooked smile touched his lips, and his eyes flicked over me again. “I’m afraid there’s no hiding we did more than scout.”

I glanced down at my mostly naked, now perfectly clean, blue striped body, and put my hands on my hips. I had not thought through my excursion. But I refused to regret it. “Why is your hair wet?”

“I took a bath while I waited. Thought it might be odd if you came back clean and I didn’t.”

With a groan, I walked the rest of the way out of the water. “There will be talk for sure.”

“There was already talk,” scoffed Quill, then he jerked his chin to the other end of the log where my shirt was laying in the sun, “I tried to wash out our shirts a bit, too. Should be dry by now.” He looked at me again, “I was starting to wonder if you’d come back. But Shiharr and Azzad are here so I wasn’t too terribly worried.

I smirked, “Of course I came back.”I hopped up on the log with the knives between us and began to squeeze the water out of my hair, trying to decide if I should ask about the “talk” or thank him for washing my shirt.

Before I came to a conclusion, Quill put down the knife and reached behind him, producing another shirt and offering it to me.

Eyeing it, I said, “And if I come back wearing your shirt, no one will think we scouted at all.”

Quill’s smile broadened, “We didn’t scout.”

“That’s not true. I’m now well acquainted with the river bed,” I countered.

“Ah, my mistake. We were both hard at work for hours.” When I still didn’t take the shirt he said, “I couldn’t steal a towel from the Countess without people noticing, but I figured you could use the help drying off.”


“Clever.” I accepted the shirt and patted the water off my arms and legs before starting in again on my hair. The shirt was better than my hands at coaxing water from my dark curls. I felt Quill watching me while he slid the knife along the leather of the strop, but I ignored him. I was too busy confirming that I was, in fact, feeling self-conscious—and trying to remember the last time I had. Living on the road, fighting, hunting, and occasionally thieving for a living I was always either formidable or entirely unnoticed—as the job required—I was good at it. I had worked with all manner of people, bled and fought and bandaged wherever there were wounds…Of course, it’d also been a while since I’d cared what someone thought just because I cared what they thought. It’d been awhile since I’d been around someone who knew the real Zare Caspian. I didn’t dare think about what I wanted his opinion on.

“Where did you get that scar?” Quill’s quiet question brought me back.

I twisted to look at the pale slash on my left forearm. “It’s a long story.”

He paused to pantomime a thrusting blow with the blade.

I grimaced. “Well, that’s certainly the short version.”

“How in Serrifis did someone land a blow like that on you?”

“Because,” I exhaled, the memory rising, “I thought he was my friend.” Maybe more than a friend.

Quill went quiet, but I heard his question.

“Do you remember when Ayglos and I first started taking jobs?”

He nodded.

I took another deep breath. “After the first couple jobs paid the family’s passage to Villaba, and Ayglos and I decided to keep working, we linked up with a hunter named Tadrow Grea in Wimshell. He had connections and jobs…we were extra muscle for him and pretty decent at sneaking and finding information. We hunted criminals and monsters together happily enough for a few months. Then we chased a man too close to the Empire. Tadrow found out about the bounty on my head—and it was worth more to him than I was.” I said the words lightly, as if it hadn’t hurt.

 “What happened?” Quill prompted gently.

I looked out at the river; the waves golden in the evening sun. Tadrow Grea had been young, handsome, charming, and competent. I had liked him. A lot. Of course, I’d been seventeen at the time. “He told me my bounty didn’t matter, he told me that he liked me far too well to think of betraying me. We had a few drinks.” A shake of my head, “I let him kiss me goodnight I was so charmed by him. Then he tried to put a knife through my ribs.” I lifted my left forearm to demonstrate the block that had saved my life. Not a move I’d recommend under usual circumstances, but it was that or take the blade somewhere more important. “We fought. I killed him.” A short fight. Decisive. Before I could bleed out.

Quill grimaced in sympathy, packing away the strop and returning his knives to their sheaths. “Was that the first time someone tried to kill you?”

“Not the last.” I hadn’t thought about Tadrow in ages, but the memory still felt raw. A hard lesson well learned. I touched my hair, absently checking the wetness. “We changed how we worked after that. The others I was better prepared for.”

Reaching out, Quill took my hand and brought it to him so he could stroke a finger down the scar on my forearm. A shiver ran through my whole body in response. “I think I’ve heard that story,” he said, voice low, “it made you out to be a terrifying outlaw—murdering allies when they were no longer useful.”

“You didn’t believe that,” I said.

“No,” a smile as he traced the scar again, this time his finger looped through one of the fading blue sworls also. “You know, they tell stories about you as far as the southern tip.”

“Do they?”

“Stories of brazen rescues, incredible heists, mixed in with the odd bounty or monster slain on behalf of some helpless village. Some say you command a ghostly army and are only biding your time for revenge on the Empress who cost you everything. Others say you’re a just a vagrant now, who has abandoned your people in favor of ill-gotten gold.”

I quipped, “They are very inconsistent. Bounties and thefts? Seems sort of odd.”

“According to one story, you’ve slain a dragon.”

“That’s the least true thing you’ve heard, I can assure you.” I fluffed my hair with my other hand, then cocked my head. “However do you manage to hear so many stories about me?”

He met my gaze, a guilty twinkle in his eye. “I might ask.”

“Do you add to them?”


I huffed. But laced my fingers through his.

“Zare,” Quill turned serious, “Your bravado…your stories, good and bad…it’s important.”

I swiveled to face him, tucking one leg under me to mimic his position, our hands still clasped. “I know.”

Quill started to smile, then stopped. He blinked, his brow furrowing. I went very still as he stretched out his other hand toward my chest and touched the gold pendant I always wore. Its chain was dulled from never leaving my neck, the pendant hanging well below my collarbone. I felt the heat of his fingers as they brushed my skin. “You still have this.”

“Of course, I do.”

As if he couldn’t stop himself, Quill picked up the pendant and ran his thumb over the three ships stamped into the gold, sailing in an eternal circle of trade. I was conscious of every rise of my chest as he lingered. I stole a glance at his eyes, and they were filled with emotion. The pendant had been a gift from a man we’d both called friend. Whom we’d both been helpless to save when the Empress killed him with her own hand. I wore it to remember. To carry him with me. A talisman. As dear as Shiharr and Azzad.

“He loved Dalyn,” Quill spoke at last, “And believed in you.” He looked at me, then, “We’ll go back one day.”

Something in me chilled at the words. It was an empty promise. “How can you?” bite crept into my tone as anger rose inside me, “When you are bound to the Breaker?”

Quill’s eyes hardened as he said, “Do you think that vows mean nothing?”

“He does.” I spat back, pulling away from Quill’s touch. He let the pendant fall and I hopped off the log, grabbing my shirt from where he’d spread it to dry. This was an old argument. This was why we could only be friends. I was an idiot to forget. I stalked around him to where my clothes and gear were still tucked in the cleft of the tree, snatching them with more force than necessary. “Half the world thinks I’m a selfish coward, but he really is one.”

“You’re not being fair.”

“Am I not?”

“There are things you don’t know.”

“I can’t help that, can I?”

“Zare, give the man some grace—he lost everyone.”

“So did you!” I snapped, yanking on my trousers.

Quill stopped, his mouth opening and then closing again.

“And you were a child!” my voice dropped to a whisper, trembling with the ferocity thrumming through me. “He left. He does not deserve you or your unflagging loyalty.”

“Vows,” replied Quill stiffly, “Are for just such times.”

I pulled my shirt over my head, roughly tucking it in before scooping up my boots and knives. I was too angry to sit next to Quill to put on my shoes so I stormed up the shore to a different log and wished there was a way to impressively shake out socks.

Quill followed me, stopping a few feet away just as I finished putting on the first boot. “By Fornern, don’t you know why we’re here?” he demanded.

“Why should I when you have dodged every time I’ve asked?”

“If Terrimbir and Angareth keep bleeding one another they will be too weak to resist the Empire when it comes marching—even with the Terrim Mountains at their back. But together they have a chance.”

I tugged on my other boot, glaring at him. This, I knew.

Quill scrubbed a hand through his hair, “Someone is trying to stop an alliance from happening, it doesn’t matter who they are, but they must fail. We’re here because Trinh Kegan sent us here specifically to ensure that treaty is made and their wars stop. Because we cannot allow the Empire to get any stronger.”

“Since when does he care?” I muttered, sitting with my boots unlaced before me.

Quill came forward and stopped in front of me, arms crossed, “He cares.”

Standing, I leaned in so I could snarl into Quill’s face, “Like he cared when he left us to cross the continent alone while he went to lick his wounds? Like when he left Hesperide?”

“People change,” replied Quill, leaning close enough that his breath brushed my face, “People grow. And he didn’t leave Hesperide alone.”

I knew that he’d seen that Hess was cared for before riding off. I just didn’t think he should have ridden off. But then again, he wasn’t good company, so maybe it had been a kindness. Even if almost all the fighting men had been sworn to him. I stared into Quill’s face, trying to process Quill’s words and my own anger. Biting back a dozen more nasty comments that I didn’t really want to say to Quill, but to the Breaker. The one who’d lost no more than any of his men, but had decided he was only good at breaking things, at causing death, and undoing. I could admit, Trinh Kegan was good at breaking things. I could even admit that he’d lost more than I had in the wars that made the Empire. I sighed, sagging as the anger began to seep out of me. Finally, I managed, “That’s actually why Trinh sent you? He’s trying to slow down the Empire?”

Quill nodded, his body relaxing as he saw the fire leave me. “Saving the lives of one woman and one male could save the lives of thousands.”

“Why not tell me?”

“Because involving the Galhari wasn’t part of his plan. I brought you in because you are perfect for this job. Also, we haven’t really been alone to talk about it.”

I smiled dryly. “Because we weren’t supposed to see Rakov up close,” I corrected.

That earned a grimace from Quill. “Because my king and yours aren’t on speaking terms.”

That was true.

Quill lifted a hand and brushed his knuckles against my cheek. “Your face looks better. Not much discoloration.”

Quickly, I raised both my hands to my cheeks. They were still a little tender but didn’t feel swollen any longer.

“And I’m sorry he left the Galhari to fend for themselves.”

I let my hands fall, feeling drained now that the anger was gone, “It wasn’t your fault.”

Quill touched my face again, his other hand brushing my forearm where the scar was, the air stretching taut between us. “And I’m sorry I couldn’t go with you.”

If he had, would I have been kissing Tadrow and nearly getting myself killed? If he had, would he still be the honorable, good man I trusted more than anything? I dared to run my hand up his arm, savoring the feel of his strength. “That wasn’t a fault,” I said hoarsely. He’d stayed with his cousin Hesperide and her collection of children for a year before rotating out to work jobs with his king turned breaker while others rested at Hess’s little enclave. He’d been given that, at least, by his useless king.

Quill moved closer, till our bodies were almost touching. Emotions swirled around us like waves around the rocky promontories of Galhara.

“Quilleran?” a shout drifted along the riverbank and Quill’s head snapped up.

We stepped away from one another as I said, “That sounded like Druskin.”

“I suppose we’re done scouting,” said Quill wryly.


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28 – The River

I sensed the Juni River hours before we finally crested a hill and saw it glittering in the valley beneath us. A part of my soul begged me to urge my horse to a gallop to reach the riverbanks more quickly. I resisted, and instead savored the scent of the water as we slowly drew closer. It had been months and months since I’d visited a water of consequence. The descent into the valley was steep in places, and we took our time. Summer had a stronger hold on the valley than the moors or hills. At lunch, Ilya’s crowning achievement was goading Galo into telling one of the Angari bedtime stories that featured wicked elves. His second achievement was convincing his sister, Aurel, to tell an elven story in return. The discomfort that filled the glen dissipated slowly as everyone failed to get angry at the offensive stories. Ilya was still the only person who laughed because he thought it was funny, but there were a few real smiles.

We arrived late afternoon at the meadow where the Countess had predetermined to wait for the rest of her party. It was part of the river’s floodplain, and we had to ride down a particularly steep hill to get there. The grass was brilliant green, and tall trees lined the meadow and ventured to the riverbank. In the middle of the meadow someone had dug a fire pit and lined it with stones, but green grass was sprouting between the stones as if it’d been a while since anyone had stopped here. The road, Galo told me, was close by but hidden by a bend in the river.

The Juni River spread before us, wide and glittering, large pale rocks bursting from the water here and there like teeth of a truly unfortunate monster. I was pleased when Galo mentioned a series of pools a short way downriver which we could use to bathe before heading into the city. We unsaddled and made camp with a feeling of permanency that really wasn’t warranted. Still, the thought of an entire day without saddling a horse made the camp feel festive for man and beast alike. I helped with rubbing down the horses while others started working on the fire and arranging bedrolls, tack, and saddlebags around the pit.

Once the horses were seen to, I begged off to go relieve myself and headed into the woods downriver. I hadn’t gone terribly far out of sight before I saw the pools Galo had mentioned. The pale stone formed a shelf that jutted from the banks deep into the river. Bowls had been carved into the shelf close to the bank, far too uniform to have been the river’s doing. The water rolled over the shelf, filling the bowls and flowing through them clear as glass before tumbling back into blue-green depths. I pressed on a little further, getting past the shelf of rock, and really did find a place to relief myself before returning to the banks.

The Juni was strong, and deep, and ancient. She was cold and bright with snow from the Terrim Mountains, which she carried down to the Azulimar Sea. Well met, Lady of Moors and Mountains, I gave her a courtly greeting as I trailed my hand in the chill water.

Well met, Daiesenda. You taste of a hundred waters.

How did she know me? The “hundred waters” line I’d heard before from other rivers…but to recognize me as Daiesenda—Granddaughter of Ulmuren Daiesenda, King Under Daiesen. Then I remembered; My brother, Ayglos, had been through here already. He’d probably spent a good bit of time with the river since arriving in Gar Morwen. I caressed the current, asking permission to enter. A river such as this, old, with a voice so strong and distinct, should always be asked. She had nymphs of her own who had given her this voice. She granted my request, a gentle eddy of a laugh giving welcome.

Withdrawing, I retreated to a log and quickly shed my weapons and my clothes down to my under clothes, tucking it all in a careful bundle in the cleft of a tree. Then I walked into the river. The current moved around me, allowing me passage till I was deep enough to submerge. My nostrils sealed before the water closed over my head; its cold touch felt amazing on my face. My blue stripes began to bloom, and I dove to the river bottom, swimming and reveling in the feel of it. I had missed this.

Fish, large and small, flitted around me, their scales ranging from silver, to green, to ruddy. I swam deep, allowing the current to take me, then twisting out of it and swimming back to where I could just see the stone shelf. Diving and turning and weaving. I reveled in the motion as I played with the river. When I got tired, I hooked my fingers over a rock and lingered, letting my body sway in the current. Closing my eyes, I let my mind conjure memories while I rested. In my mind’s eye, the shining turquoise harbor of Cartahayna rose into view. Then the dark water of the Bandui River, gilded with fire. The stink of the kindly Tryber River. The glittering water of Galhara choked with flotsam. If I dug further in my mind, I found white sand, blue green expanse, and the scent of salt. The memory was fuzzier than I’d like. I felt the call of the sea trembling through the Juni’s waters—she was whispering about the beaches on her estuary—far from here. Sand. Marshes. A small harbor and a shoreline elsewhere dominated by cliffs. I could let go of the rock and she’d take me there. Sure and swift. I was tempted. Then adrenalin jolted through me, shattering my river-induced serenity. How long had I been out here? When I looked at the surface, the gold light of early evening was glittering above me.

I cursed silently. I hadn’t brought a towel. Drying off would be much harder without the sun. Not only that, but what if they had all panicked and gone hunting through the woods to find me? Cursing my foolishness again, I darted back toward the shore where I’d entered. Before I broke the surface, the river pressed me down. Wait.

Someone was sitting on the log on the river bank.

Between me and my knives.

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We rode until dusk, then made camp again rather than ride through the night. Everyone was completely paranoid about letting the Countess go anywhere alone. Druskin was shaken enough by the experience that he wouldn’t let her out of his sight, and even threw propriety to the dogs when he charged Luza with escorting her should she need to get up while I was sleeping. I caught amusement glittering in Ilya Terr’s eyes, but he said nothing. Indeed, how could he, when Mihalak was shadowing Ilya with just as much conviction. Just…quieter.

The party felt more like a single group than it had before. The experience the night prior had driven home that we were already on the same side, working toward the same goal. Nothing unites like a common foe. The Countess and Ilya Terr conducted themselves a little more shyly, but they fell out of formal tones the way people fall back into their native tongue when they forget themselves.

I sat between Quill and Luza but further from the fire than usual to keep my face away from the heat. My cheeks were stiff. Probably would be for at least another day even with Quill’s salve. Then we’d find out just how good Galo’s salve was at keeping the color down. I wished we’d stopped near a stream. Nothing sounded better than the icy touch of a mountain stream. What we’d found was a trickling rivulet not unlike the one presided over by the cedar tree. I’d wet a handkerchief and patted my cheeks, relying on the dark to hide any blue that bloomed, but there wasn’t much relief to be had. Just one more day and we’d come to the Juni River. Abandoning my dried meat, I leaned back on my elbows, closing my eyes to imagine myself in the cold arms of the river.

“Are you alright?” asked Quill.


“I’ve just never known you to leave off food.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a swollen face before.”

“Is it that bad?”

I opened an eye. “Horrendous. Please tell me you have terrible bruises from last night’s adventure.”

Quill spread his hands, “My style involves significantly less getting caught than yours does, Lady Azu Kaban.”

“Because only prisoners take wounds,” I scoffed.

“Are you calling my bluff?”

I snorted. Even as the thought of him providing proof of his unmarred skin made my ears flush. “Maybe I will.”

He gave me a grin. Then, to my surprise, slowly, dramatically, he presented his arms, then began to roll up his sleeves. He showed me first his left arm, then his right. There were deep purple bruises. Finger shaped, here and there on his arms, from where men had struggled against his grasp as he choked them unconscious. A narrow white bandage was wrapped around his right forearm. “One man got to his knife before he passed out,” Quill explained, noticing my eyes snag on the bandage. “Just a scratch.”

Before I could stop myself, I sat up and gently ran my fingers over his forearm until I reached the bandage. He went very still beneath my touch. My stomach flipped, but I didn’t pull away. Neither did he.

“If it’s any comfort,” his voice was soft, “your face doesn’t look terribly swollen.”

“I’m glad to know my beauty is preserved. In stone. As it feels.” I removed my hands, making a conscious effort to move slowly instead of acting scalded, “It’s not that bad.” Reclining on my elbows again, I looked at the fire and breathed deep, “Tomorrow it will be even better.”

“Is that bravado or faith?” Quill peered at me, arching a brow.

“It’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?”

He was quiet for long enough that I turned my head to look at him. He looked thoughtful. Perhaps even concerned.

“I’m fine, Quill. This is hardly the first time I’ve taken a cheap shot and it’s not likely to be the last. I could have bashed his face in if I wanted, but I played a longer game.”

Quill shook his head. “I know. That’s not it.”

“Then what?” I demanded, bewildered by his expression.

He rubbed his hand through his hair and turned to look at the fire for a moment before saying. “Nothing, Zephra.”

I stared at him. He’d tripped over “Zephra,” the name stilted like he’d almost said something else. He’d almost used my real name. Here. At the fire. With Luza just on the other side of me. Quill gave me a half smile and turned back to the fire. I sighed and laid back, draping my arm over my eyes. If Quill wasn’t talking, there was no making him talk. Not here. I had to content myself with only imagining dragging answers out of him, but I didn’t even do that very long before I felt sleep tugging at me. My bedroll was over by the Countess’s, so I dragged myself to my feet, and patted Quill on the shoulder before turning in for the night. One good thing about being clobbered in the face, no one expected me to keep watch.


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share! Also, consider supporting on Patreon for as little as $1/month.

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

26 – So Human

The throbbing in my head subsided considerably after Quill’s ministrations, some water, and some breakfast. Matters were further improved when Quill handed me my harness of knives, and then we made camp to rest for a few hours. I was asleep almost before I lay down on my bedroll, the Countess snugly tucked between myself and Galo. My dreams were fitful and full of trees marching across the land and rivers running with blood. When I awoke, it was midafternoon, horses were being saddled again. My face felt stiff, but I could tell that Quill’s salve was doing its work. Quill was talking to Rakov by their horses. As if he felt my gaze, Quill turned and gave me an appraising look. I put the effort into a small smile to show that I was feeling fine.

Buckling on my harness of knives, I woke the Countess and Galo before getting to work rolling up the bedrolls. Luza showed up at my elbow to take the bedrolls, and I didn’t argue but joined the Countess and Galo on a log eating a bit of dried fruit.

Galo handed me a water skin when I sat down beside her. “How do you feel?” she asked, surprising me with her concern.

 “Sore, but I’ll be alright.”

Galo clucked and produced a little jar. “We were waiting for you to wake up.” She opened the jar and the scent of calendula and something else tickled my nose. She clucked again as she patted the cream onto my skin, “This will help head off the worst of the bruising. Keep you from having a purple cheek.”

I flinched a little as she touched one of the more tender spots, but Galo kept on as if I hadn’t.

The Countess reached for my hand. “I’m so sorry for what Adorjan Bulgar did to you.” Her dark eyes were large and earnest. “I had no idea what he was capable of.”

I thought of all the times I’d been stabbed or nearly impaled by people much more bent on hurting me. The blows to the face were almost insulting by comparison. “You needn’t apologize, my lady, he kidnapped you. Please make more polite enemies in the future.”

Both the Countess and Galo smiled at that, if weakly. Galo finished applying the cream and looked my face over with a critical expression before putting her jar away. “I’ll apply more tomorrow.”

“Have you spoken with Ilya Terr?” I asked, taking another drink of water.

The Countess shook her head. “He has kept his distance, even during the ride before we stopped here. Galo told me that he knows who I am—knows that I lied to him.” Her lips trembled, expressing the fear that she’d broken something irreparably. Possibly something she hadn’t even considered in her grasp.  “You were with him when you came to get me…did…did he say anything? Was he very angry?”

“He was upset.” I considered, taking the time to pick up a piece of fruit and chew it thoroughly. At last I said, “I think that you will find him quite reasonable if you apologize.”

She nodded, but didn’t look like she believed me. After a pause she said, “Ilya was the one who told the tree to do that to Adorjan.”

It wasn’t really a question, but I said, “Yes.”

Her gaze met mine, “But you aren’t human.”

Galo looked at me in surprise.

I drew a deep breath. “I am half human.” Ilya hadn’t known I really was half-blooded. I wasn’t surprised the Countess had seen at least part of the truth, and judging from the way she was studying me she was on her way to seeing the whole of it. My rounded ears, no longer hidden by loose hair, would clue in even Galo if she looked. Unsure I was ready for that, I stood up, saying, “We thought a half-blood leanyod would be less likely to jeopardize the treaty should Bulgar decide to bring up this little incident.”

“Why did you never mention you were half-blooded?” asked Galo.

“It wasn’t relevant,” I replied, my tone a little harder than I intended.

Galo blinked, “I didn’t mean offense.” Then, as if to prove it, she asked, “Can you sense trees like Ilya Terr?”

“My gift is not equal to his.” This was true. I could sense water and commune with it, but I had never spent enough time with a single body of water to wield it the way Ilya did the forest. The waters of Cartahayna couldn’t be counted because they were well in my mother’s thrall, so my influence stemmed mostly from belonging to her—Ilya either already knew these woods well already or was too charming for anyone’s good.

“He is very strong, isn’t he?” mused the Countess. “I didn’t trip over a single root when we were running, and we didn’t get any scratches on our faces or hands from the underbrush.”

“I do what I can, my lady.”

At the sound of Ilya Terr’s voice, the Countess jumped liked a scalded cat and whirled to face him. She was so flustered that I felt a little bad about not warning her of his approach. Galo gave me a wicked look before also standing and turning to face the elf lord.

“Lord Terr,” began the Countess, she was wringing her hands, “I must apologize for my conduct toward you. I should have told you my full name when we met. I was embarrassed to be caught sneaking across my own land. I meant you no insult and am gravely sorry for any embarrassment I have caused you.” Ilya opened his mouth to reply but the Countess hurried on, “I have great respect for you, and it has only grown these days traveling with you. You are a very diverting companion and I’ve enjoyed getting to know you better,” She paused, “And I wish you to know that I have no tie to Adorjan Bulgar and decry his actions as disloyal and despicable. I am grateful to you for both your forbearance and bravery in rescuing me from his treachery. The King will not let his actions go unaddressed. I will bring the matter to him and demand that he remove Adorjan’s title and make him pay restitution for his despicable and dishonorable actions putting the treaty in danger and insulting both your title and mine…”

I wasn’t sure she was making sense anymore, and she stopped talking as if she realized the same thing. A hot flush crept up the Countess’s cheeks.

Ilya waited a moment to make sure she was done this time before holding out his hand.

The Countess stared at it, then raised her eyes to his and hesitantly placed her hand in his. Then, holding her gaze, Ilya lifted her hand to his lips and slowly, tenderly, kissed her fingers. In Daiesen, a bow and a kissed hand were owed to royalty. But here, a kiss on the hand was an entirely romantic gesture, and Ilya had imbued it with sensual grandeur. I struggled to keep my smile restrained to my eyes. I thought it likely that Ilya had heard the words that had moved the cedar tree to quick and decisive action.

“Countess Adelheid Wuhn, I, Ilya Terr, Lord of Linden of Terrimbir, am delighted to see you again.” Ilya released the Countess’s hand, but she kept it extended, as if frozen, “Please allow me to escort you to Gar Morwen. For your company would be a boon, and shorten the days of travel.”

The formal greeting and formal invitation were an eloquent acceptance of her apology and acknowledgement of who they really were. But the kiss was from the Ilya Terr who’d spent the last three days laughing at inappropriate stories with a young noblewoman he’d met on the road. The kiss was not entirely appropriate. The kiss was perfect.

The Countess remembered herself enough to lower her hand and say, “Nothing would please me more than traveling with you and your companions.”

I grabbed Galo by the elbow, “We’ll help with the horses,” I said just to say something. Without waiting to be dismissed, I walked away, dragging Galo after me.


Thank you to my lovely readers!

You keep me writing!

If you like Zare’s adventures, don’t forget to like, comment, and share! Also, consider supporting on Patreon for as little as $1/month.

Patrons, don’t forget to check out Zare’s Patreon for chapter format, maps, first looks, and other cool extras.

25-Cedar Trees and Bruises

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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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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You keep me writing!

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