“This was your idea,” Cuylor panted. Dark humor threaded his voice. Blood speckled his face. Annia wasn’t sure if the blood was his, hers or a wolf’s. “When it comes to weighing your soul, I’m going to make sure the goddess knows it.”
“You’ve got a few marks that will weigh down your soul too, you know,” Annia said through clenched teeth. She could not imagine why they were both finding this funny, but there was no denying it was so. She made a swipe at a wolf that was getting too close. It dodged her iron blade easily. She was wearier than it was.
“I’m the picture of virtue,” Cuylor said with a grim grin. “Name one thing that shows I’m not.”
“The Darin sisters,” she said, watching the wolf back away.
“What?” he said, showing his teeth again. “I loved them.”
“You can’t love two sisters at the same time.”
“I can. I did. Too bad they found out. And now I’m going to die and they’ll never know how much I cared and it’s all your fault.”
“It’s not my fault,” Annia said. She watched as two wolves seemed to communicate between each other, one going one way, the other the opposite way, as if trying to see whether they could get around her. She’d never known wolves willing to attack humans before, but it was winter, this pack was large and they were far enough into the elven territory that the wolves may never have seen a human before.
“It was your idea to come here,” Cuylor said. She could hear how raw his voice was, ragged with exertion and desperation. Still he spoke lightly. “We could be back at camp with food and drink, but you wanted to follow the elf into the woods.”
“And you’re the one that wanted to keep going when I was ready to turn back.”
“It was wounded. We should have been able to catch up.”
“Should’ve just killed it when it was in bow range.”
“Should have,” Cuylor agreed. He took another swing at a wolf that was edging forward. It ducked under his blade and snapped at his shin. It didn’t get through the rough leather of his boots, but it didn’t hold on long enough for Cuylor to get a good blow in on it either.
“It’s started,” Cuylor said, his voice now devoid of humor. She knew what he meant.
The wolves would worry them now, bite and dodge, tear and retreat until she and Cuylor dropped from exhaustion.
“Goddess keep and hold you,” Annia said.
“And you,” Cuylor responded. He leaned his back against hers, the only contact they dared have at the moment.
Annia shivered. She would miss living, but more than that she did not want to die this way. She had always expected to find her end on an elven spear. This seemed so ignoble, to end up meat for wolves.
The first arrow came from nowhere, streaking like a falling star, head ablaze. It a skimmed over the wolf closest to Annia, not hitting it but coming close enough that the smell of burning hair stung Annia’s nostrils.
Annia started back and bumped hard into Cuylor. The burning arrow lodged its head into the ground, but rather than going out, its flames began to spread, catching the dead leaves that blanketed the ground.
A second arrow flew—this one not on fire. It struck the flank of a big, brownish wolf that was edging toward Cuylor. The wolf let out a high, yipping cry of pain and retreated, snapping at the arrow shaft protruding from its side.
The third arrow hit another wolf, sticking deep into its neck. By now, between the slowly spreading flames and the panic of the injured animals, Annia had the leisure to follow the flight of the fourth arrow.
The arrows were coming from a cluster of shattered boulders, several yards past Cuylor.
“There,” she said, tilting her head in that direction. Cuylor nodded, never taking his eyes off a thin, vicious looking wolf that was slinking toward him. Another arrow came down, missing the thin wolf, but distracting it long enough for Cuylor to bury his blade in its shoulder. It let out an eerily human wail and staggered away.
“Let’s go,” Cuylor barked. He broke away, heading toward the boulders. Annia followed.
The threads of flame that were spreading across the decaying detritus of the forest floor trailed after them.
“Will of the goddess protect me from elven magic,” Annia muttered, more to herself than to Cuylor.
She scrambled up the boulders behind him, glancing back once more to see that the fire was now ringed around the base of the rocks.
At the top, in a hollow made where two boulders met, was the prone form of an elf. Annia looked down at it.
The elf was wearing leather armor, mottled grey. Its hair was the greenish gold of a leaf just as summer turned toward chill. Its eyes were greenish gold too, but metallic, with a sheen like an animal’s. The elf did not look well.
Annia had known it was injured. That’s why they’d left the safety of their troop to track it. She’d hoped it would lead them to an encampment onto which her captain could bring down their remaining forces. However, despite its injury, the elf had moved quickly and surely once it had entered the trees.
Now its fair skin looked grey and gleamed with the sheen of sweat. It lay on its side, panting, eyes half-closed. Fresh, red blood oozed across old bloodstains at a breach in the shoulder of the elf’s armor. A bow lay on the ground across one of its lax hands, and a quiver had spilled arrows in the dust.
“I’ve heard doing magic saps their strength,” Cuylor said, staring at the elf. Annia nodded. She’d heard that too.
At the sound of Cuylor’s voice, the elf barely moved its head, tilting it just enough to look at them. Annia could not read the emotion in its golden eyes.
“I’ve heard they can charm you,” Cuylor said, “like a snake charms a bird.”
“Oh Naysha sha Torale, ri’a’a te’athra mital’ef sha va’a,” the elf murmured in a voice as thin as thread.
A spell, Annia thought, stepping back a little. Nothing happened but that the elf closed its eyes and sighed deeply.
“Is it dead?” Cuylor asked.
“I don’t think so,” Annia said hesitantly. She thought she could see the barest rise and fall of its breathing.
Cuylor nodded, then pulled the knife from his belt. It was an elven blade, made of bright steel instead of black iron. He’d looted it from the corpse of an elf he’d killed last spring. Cuylor squatted down next to the elf.
But it saved our lives, Annia thought. He’s an elf, but he shot at the wolves. He used magic against them when he was already weak. He saved our lives.
Then she closed her eyes—feeling like a coward for doing it—and waited for Cuylor to slit the wounded elf’s throat.
“What do you have we can use for bandages?”
Annia opened her eyes. Cuylor had used the dagger to cut the straps of the elf’s breastplate. He pushed the breastplate aside and slit open the elf’s shirt.
“I’ve got some clean linen,” she said, and slid her pack off her shoulders. She pulled out an old shirt and tossed it to Cuylor. He grabbed it and started tearing it into strips.
Annia sat down on her heels on the other side of the elf. Cuylor looked up. They looked at each other for a long moment. Neither spoke. Then Cuylor started tearing Annia’s old shirt again and Annia lifted the elf’s head a little. She dribbled a bit of water into his mouth from her water skin.
At first she thought the elf wouldn’t drink, that he was too far gone, but he coughed suddenly and his golden eyes snapped open. He stared up at her, eyes wide; his pupils were huge, their black swallowing almost all the gold of his iris. Annia had never been this close to a living elf and not been fighting for her life.
“It’s all right,” she said, wondering if he understood her at all, hoping her voice was soothing. Whether or not he did, he suddenly reached up and closed his hand over hers. She started back, but after a breath saw that he was just squeezing her hand over the water skin to force more water from the skin into his mouth.
His hand was long and elegant but surprisingly strong. It felt slightly hot, as though he had a mild fever. He drank greedily from the skin, eyes open, never looking away from her face. When he stopped his hand fell away from hers and he closed his eyes again, as though the effort had been too much for him.
“You need to use the rest of that water to clean out that wound before I bind it up,” Cuylor said. He did not look up at her as he spoke. Annia rinsed the elf’s injury. It had partially healed but then been torn open again, perhaps from climbing the boulders, perhaps from drawing the bow.
“Could be worse,” she said, and Cuylor nodded.
“Lift him a little so I can get these bandages around him,” Cuylor said. Annia hoisted the elf up by the armpits. The elf’s eyelids flickered a little, but he did not open them. Annia suspected he was asleep, but it was possible he was unconscious. Cuylor bound his wounds. Annia carefully laid him back down.
“I’m going to look for firewood,” Cuylor said, standing abruptly. He pulled off his pack and set it next to her. “You keep an eye on him and figure out what food we can part with.”
“Watch out for wolves,” she said.
First Annia took the elf’s bow and arrows and the long, graceful sword he carried and put them far enough away that he could not reach them if he were only pretending to be unconscious.
Then Annia looked through her pack. She had some dried mutton and two rounds of strong bread, a concoction of rye flour, dried fruit paste and nuts that could last a whole campaign if kept dry. Cuylor had another round of strong bread, some greasy cheese and four, slightly shriveled apples.
Annia put aside a round of strong bread, two apples, a handful of dried mutton and all of the unsavory looking cheese. The rest of the food she loaded back into the packs.
It was just starting to get dark when Cuylor returned with an armload of deadfall wood and dry twigs and leaves. He piled it all on a flattish area of rock.
“The fire the arrows started is out,” he said.
“Magic,” Annia said, nodding. He shrugged and started building a fire.
Neither of them slept that night, only sat by the fire, both lost in their own silences. The elf barely stirred. So much so, indeed, that Annia found herself glancing over occasionally to make sure he was still breathing.
When dawn came Cuylor carefully put out the fire. Annia gave more water to the elf, who opened his golden eyes and looked up at her. His color was better and his skin dry. When she moved away from him, he sat up on his own and looked around. The way he moved and tilted his head reminded Annia of the falcons her father used to train.
Cuylor looked over, saw the elf was sitting up on his own power.
“Let’s go,” he said. Annia nodded, pushed the food she’d set aside next to where the elf sat, and then shouldered her pack. She and Cuylor scrambled down the boulders.
The air smelled of damp ash. Annia stepped carefully over the precise lines burnt into the forest floor, uneasy with the remnants of the elven magic.
“We lost him at dusk last night,” Cuylor said suddenly. “You know how damned sneaky those elves are. We lost it at dusk last night in the trees. We camped. We headed back at first light.”
©2012 Deborah Cardillo Do not reproduce without permission.