“Will there be time to eat breakfast?” Erinael asked, scrubbing the grit from her eyes.
“Yes. We just can’t make a day of it.” Idriss answered, handing Erinael her cloak before shouldering their packs.
The dining area was quiet, the revelers from the night before still asleep. Erinael and Idriss took a seat near the bar and the door beyond. A moment later, one of the kitchen maids came out with a tray bearing sweetbread and sliced fruit with cream.
At the stable, Dasa whinnied an eager greeting to them as they came in. Erinael laughed at the jovial spirits of the mare, a marked improvement in her behavior over the past two days.
“That horse is a mean one!” the hostler complained, striding over to Idriss. “Biting and kicking!”
Idriss arched an eyebrow, watching Erinael as she went to tend the mare. “She likes the girl well enough.”
Erinael ran her hands along Dasa’s neck and shoulders, down her back and her flanks. As she bent to check her legs and feet, the mare playfully swung her head against Erinael’s behind, almost knocking her over.
Once she had been saddled, Erinael led her from the stall toward the door. As they moved past the hostler, Dasa’s ears flicked back and her eyes rolled. Lips curled up to expose twin rows of white teeth. Just as she was about to lift a foot to kick at the man, Idriss stepped between them, slapping the horse on the flank. Ears swiveling, Dasa continued on as Erinael led her outside.
Idriss passed the man some coins, noting the scowl still on the man’s face. Outside, Erinael was strapping the packs to the mare’s back. She glanced at Idriss, a concerned expression on her face. Dasa’s reactions to the man were no minor occurrence.
They said nothing as they approached the gate and waited patiently for it to be opened. The gate-keeper regarded them with disdain as he unchained and opened the gate. Strangers coming and going were very much a necessary evil, but some made it clear that they could do without. Once they had left Tuce and had rounded a bend in the road removing them from sight of the town, Idriss led them into the woods.
“There was something peculiar about that hostler.” Erinael said quietly. “Aloof and indifferent, yes. Outright ill-tempered…” She was mostly speaking to herself, one hand on Dasa’s neck as they went along. The mare had calmed significantly since their leaving of the Tuce stables, even playfully lipping at Idriss shirt.
“She is a good read of people.” Idriss said. “That man was more than a little shifty.”
“Will there be trouble?” Erinael stopped then, looking pointedly at Idriss.
He nodded. “More than likely.”
They pressed on, eating on the move at noon, but even then not much. Erinael was too nervous to eat more than a few bites. They were alert to the woods around them, even Dasa, whose ears swiveled this way and that. They didn’t stop until it was almost too dark to see, and even they lit no fire. At Idriss’ insistence, Erinael lay within easy reach of him should he need to wake her quickly.
They started off again at first light, both of them yawning more and more as the day progressed. Neither one had gotten much sleep, Idriss lay awake to keep watch and Erinael because of her guilt. He was willfully putting himself at risk to ensure her safety.
“Come here.” Idriss said at their first break of the day. “Grab my shirt.”
Curious, Erinael did as she was bidden, taking hold of his shirt near the neckline. “Now what?”
“Hold your arm straight.” He instructed, taking hold of her wrist. Idriss then took a step toward her, forcing Erinael to step back. “That is a means to catch an attacker off guard,” he began. “And this is to force them to let go.” He then began to apply pressure to the tendons of her wrist, and Erinael’s hand snapped open.
“What if they don’t step back?” she asked, taking hold of his shirt again to show what she meant, bending her arm instead of keeping it straight.
“Then you slam your elbow into their face.” Idriss said plainly. Erinael smiled weakly.
They continued onward, Idriss showing Erinael various methods of defending herself during rest stops. Flips, pins and holds, against armed and unarmed attackers. Using sticks to represent weapons, he would show her the movement, and then have her perform it. He would then have her practice them at their next stop and build on them from there.
Erinael was nervous through the drills, but Idriss was relentless. He would insist and cajole her until she would agree. He would only settle for perfection, forcing her to do the same thing over and over again until he was satisfied with her proficiency.
They had stopped for the night in a small hollow, and Idriss was having Erinael practice flipping him. There was a notable size difference between the two of them, and it had proven difficult for her to do properly. She had just begun to get the hang of it when he added something new. She had flipped Idriss over her shoulder, just as she had done several times before, only to have him catch her about the waist and take her to the ground with him. And there she lay, the wind knocked out of her.
“Are you alright?” he asked, helping her up.
“Yes.” Erinael said quietly. She brushed hair from her face, brushing leaves and grass out of it.
Idriss laughed at her expression. “You’re doing well for no longer than you have been at it.” he said, attempting to reassure her as he helped to pick the greenery from her hair. He brushed some hair from her face and behind an ear, making her flush and look away. “That’ll be all tonight.” he said quietly, turning away.
She was full of fury once the fire had snuffed out at the end of the spell. The Prince had alerted the Dead Hunters, and now they were in active search for the princess. With the network they had in place, it would be soon.
“No.” she whispered, calming herself. “The blood of Eraltes will suffer!”
She would make this work for her plan. It had to.
Again Erinael had to lie close to Idriss, and again she was aware of his wakefulness through the night. He had a kind of stillness, a restlessness about him, like there was a lot on his mind. She could sympathize. His act of brushing her hair back had been no random thing. It was deliberate, lingering.
None of the Elven men had shown an interest in her beyond courteous respect, going so far as to treat her like breakable crystal. Her life force was too brief, too bright and quick burning as Andraes had explained. She was like a spring flower among a forest of trees. Young and beautiful, but gone all too soon. She had also met very few humans during her life. Most of those had been Elf-Friends of Andraes, and old with grown children of their own. Yet they treated her no differently than the Elf-men.
However, Idriss was different. Confoundedly so. Yes, he treated her as a frail thing to be protected and sheltered, but more like butterfly almost. He did not insist upon doing every little thing for her, and more importantly, did not treat her like a child. It was very new, and left her feeling scared.
She turned her head to look at him in the tree-dappled light of the swelling moon. He breathed shallowly, as if on the verge of sleep, eyes closed. He was attractive, in a rough, road-worn sort of way. Nothing like Nolan or his detachment when they returned from patrols. They always looked like they had been nowhere at all. He was dusty, scruffy, and real. She had not realized how surreal her life with the Elves had been until now.
Erinael ran her fingers through her hair, brushing it back in the manner similar to how he had earlier. He had set her heart beating quickly and a warmth to flood into her cheeks. Remembering it now did much the same.
“Go to sleep.” Idriss murmured, turning onto his side, facing away from her. Erinael smiled, doing the same.
The next day was the same as before. Whenever they would stop for a rest, more for Dasa’s benefit than theirs, Idriss would drill Erinael on defense tactics. He kept himself professional, showing concern when he thought he may have hurt her, but no casual touching. Erinael found herself to be disappointed, yet relieved at the same time. She did not yet know how to respond.
They had found a berry patch and stopped for a break, Idriss leaving Erinael to pick the blackberries while he went looking for other edibles. He had been gone for a short while when Erinael heard rustling in the underbrush off to her left. She glanced at Dasa, seeing the mare’s ears swiveling to and fro as her nostrils flared. Not how she typically greeted Idriss when he returned to them.
Taking Dasa by the bridle, Erinael began to go the way she had last seen Idriss. Her heart pounded as the rustling began to come ever closer, on two sides of her now. She wanted to cry out, but didn’t want to show her fear. Idriss, where are you? She tried to will the thought to carry to him, for him to hurry back to her.
She could make out a figure among the trees ahead of her and hurried faster, only to have Dasa pull against her. That could only mean that it was not Idriss. “Get me out of here!” she hissed as she scrambled up onto the horse’s back, gripping tightly with her knees as Dasa wheeled and bolted through the trees.
Erinael crouched low over Dasa’s neck as the horse thread through the trees, branches and bushes whipping past. As soon as she had bolted, the dogs had torn after her. They yipped and howled as they followed, gradually beginning to catch up.
They had dogs. Idriss knew they had dogs. That was why he hadn’t hurried them the next day. They would have caught them eventually, and Idriss wanted her to stand a chance. Oh, where is he?
They broke into a clearing only find more hunters and their dogs. Ropes were thrown over Dasa, holding her from two different directions. The mare bucked and reared, flailing her hooves at anyone who dared to get near. Erinael did her best to hold on, but found herself toppling to the ground as the men forced Dasa backwards the next time she reared up.
Erinael rolled clear as the horse landed on her back, screaming as she floundered to get back up. Erinael tried to get to her only to be grabbed and hauled away. “No!” she screamed, struggling against their grip. “No! No!”
She twisted and writhed, kicking at them when she could. They bent her arms behind her back, almost snapping her wrists in the process, and binding them with a leather cord. It was after they had tripped and pushed her to the ground to get her feet that she saw him. He lay still, on his belly and turned away from her. Two arrows sticking out of his back.
“Idriss!” Erinael screamed, tears immediately streaming down her face. “Idriss! Get up!” But he didn’t move. And then everything went black.