Chapter Two: The Oath

Lightning flashed through black clouds in a dark sky, turning slow spirals above her. A storm was coming. No rain fell, yet the air was thick with moisture. Maple found she could hardly breathe.

A lone, cloaked figure moved along the edge of the horizon, drifting slowly, lazily, in no hurry to get anywhere.

The figure stopped and stared up at the sky. There was a pull toward him and Maple called out, without thinking. The instant the call left her lips, she regretted it. The cloaked figure turned and looked at her. Maple began to feel her breath coming shorter and realized too late that she couldn’t move.

She could feel his focus on her as if he’d already bound her with chains, and knew he was coming for her before the figure wheeled his mount in her direction. She felt tears streaming down her cheeks. The helplessness was greater than anything she had felt inside Handlee’s guild.

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t scream.

Far off, a voice called to her; a warm, familiar voice that seemed to be searching for her. She tried to call out, but no words came. Terror gripped her and she tried to move once more. Nothing.

The figure approached steadily. “You’ve gotten slow,” he said. “Or has my training finally begun to take hold? An interesting thought. I’ll have to prove it.” Her throat constricted, choking back tears. She knew what would happen when the figure reached her, yet she couldn’t form it into thought. It was a horrible thing whatever it was. Worse than anything she had felt before.

She heard a shout in her ear and the pain was great enough that the terror freed her for a moment and she found her voice. A scream pierced the darkness and she felt the clouds close over her.

Her cheeks felt wet. She couldn’t open her eyes and she didn’t know where she was. A familiar voice crooned in her ear, and strong arms held her tightly.

“I’m sorry,” that familiar voice said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

She tried to speak, but her voice was lost again.

She felt warm lips press against her forehead, and realized she was covered in cold sweat. “You need to rest,” the voice spoke again. Familiar, this voice. Warm, comforting. She shook her head at its pronouncement. She would have the dream again. She was sure of it.

Hesitation, then, “I will sing to you, and the darkness will stay away.”

A beautiful tenor voice filled her mind with images of vast grasslands; beautiful creatures that looked like Doriel dancing in moonlight, singing in daylight; of fantastic mountains; crystal blue lakes; but most of all, of the joy of being together with loved ones. She cried freely, but not out of fear. She cried out of longing for a feeling she had never had, and joy that she had finally found it.

For a moment, she thought she was home.

Asleep once more, she held to those images, letting herself wander in places her waking self would claim she’d never been.

***

Doriel sat and stared at the fire.

“You want something to eat?” Callio asked. It was the first words he’d spoken since Maple had whimpered and Doriel had sung to her, first sitting next to her, then as he walked a slow circle around their camp.

He shook his head. What had happened made very little sense and he had to think it through before he took action.

Callio sat next to him. “What’s the plan?”

He wished he knew. Everything had been waiting until morning. Now, they didn’t have that much time. “I don’t know.”

If he’d said elves could lie and Handlee was still alive, Callio couldn’t have been more shocked. “You don’t?”

Yet again, everything had changed. He’d expected remnants of the old war to take action once Maple was known among those with power, but not this. What had reached out to her was strong magic, of the kind Magnus Corellion had employed: ancient, formidable. And no one practiced that kind of magic anymore.

Not to mention, there had been a moment, very brief, when he thought he’d heard a portion of the man himself within the spell. He hoped that was only his imagination and logic would say it was. Magnus was dead and the dead couldn’t do what had just happened. “We’re being tracked.”

Callio blinked. “What?”

“Was there a noise in the air that jangled your nerves?”

“Maybe. I’ve been a little jumpy ever since you brought a Corellion here. That’s why you walked the circle?”

“The only good that did was it made it clear she had a magic user near her. Whoever it is that’s looking for her moved away.”

“But not far, otherwise you’d be saying more.”

“No,” his voice was soft. “Not far.”

Had he brought someone here? Was he the one being tracked?

And yet, even if he asked that question, it still made little sense. It had been twelve years since the war had ended. Humans had short memories of such things. Already, the Northlands had pieced together the remains and moved on. Magnus was dead, so either he’d managed to find a way to work magic from beyond the pyre (for whatever purpose he had in mind) or someone was pretending to be him.

If it was the latter, they were very convincing.

Callio’s face looked pale in the firelight. “Do we need to leave?”

He considered that. Leaving would mean safety, but not leaving…he didn’t want to think about that. Leaving was the only option. But how to tell Maple (did they really keep her name?) without either panicking her or…she didn’t even know who he was yet. Didn’t remember. “What did you find out in Refuge?”

“I just want to make sure this one thing is clear first. You pledged your life to her family?”

“As long as one member remains—” Doriel didn’t finish the thought. The oath he’d sworn was something out of myths. That he’d been bound in such a manner was unbelievable, even among his own people.

He’d never known their reaction. Once bound, he’d left without a farewell. He’d had no choice.

“But this doesn’t change,” Callio said, watching the sleeping girl on the other side of the fire, “what you and I agreed on.”

No, he wanted to say. But he’d made a promise to Callio when they’d first met. It was, for a time, his purpose when all others had been destroyed and left behind. Peace for the elves through Callio’s contacts among the aristocracy and Doriel’s knowledge of his people. In return Callio would be the elves’ liaison. Doriel felt it was an empty promise from Callio’s side, given he’d never named those aristocrats he supposedly knew, but it was still a promise and something he could toy with when life became especially difficult.

Until another, stronger promise had returned.

“The oath is undeniable,” Doriel finally said, “and stronger than any other promise I’ve made. I apologize, but my duty to her is written in my very soul. I must obey it.”

For a long time, they said nothing, and Doriel stared at the fire, trying to decide what was best. “You know,” Callio said slowly, “you haven’t told me much about your past.”

“I’ve told you as much as you’ve told me about your friends.”

“Point taken.” Callio shifted uncomfortably. “There were some people whispering in Refuge that an important thief is dead. Leader of a whole guild. There are some people whispering an elf did it, and some saying that he poisoned himself. Which of that is true?”

“He killed himself with a vial of poison.”

“Damn, Doriel,” Callio whispered. “No one goes into Handlee’s guild without his permission. He’s got the entire city in his sights with all the magic he’s placed around it, and he’s got enough on every priest ruling there to make sure things stay the way he wants. No one betrays him, no one goes against him, not within Refuge. But even a hint of that family and he ends it all before…well, before whatever tended to happen to those who crossed them.”

For just a moment, the desert was gone and Doriel was in the dark forest that surrounded the Keep, the spring runoff filling the river, causing it to rush by so very swift, faster than him, and he stopped the thoughts before he remembered what he had seen that day.

The past no longer mattered. The oath was real. And Maple Corellion was also real. Alive, and real, and here now.

The question was not if everything had changed. The question was how much.
Hardly believing the words he was about to say, he kept them to the point. “There are reasons to be afraid of Magnus Corellion.”

Callio glanced at Maple, eyes wide and uneasy. “I thought he was dead.”

“He is.”

He watched Callio fit together the pieces he must have learned after the final battle between the two great houses of the Northlands. “And you—”

“I’m a mercenary. I was then. I am now. Just for a different employer.” He didn’t feel like smiling, though his tone was light enough for it and in other circumstances he might have done so.

“Well,” Callio said, trying to get a better view of Maple without being obvious about it, “does she know?”

Doriel hesitated. “I want to find out what she wants before I tell her anything.”

“Why?”

Because he knew she didn’t remember him. She had been very young when everything had been destroyed. It didn’t surprise him. In fact, when he thought back on that past, he was glad she didn’t remember. But Callio didn’t need to know this. So he told a different part of the truth. “Because of who she is. She’s Corellion, and I serve her.”

Callio stared at him. “You’re serious. Look, it doesn’t matter what she wants. I know you don’t want to hear that, but, given what happened and what you’ve told me, when word gets out–”

“No one is going to find out.” He was surprised at the strength of those words.

“Are you sure? What about tonight then? What just happened?”

“The only reason you know of my connection to the Corellions is because you’re a Northman yourself. Here, I’m only an elf for hire, and she’s a thief. And we don’t know for certain what happened. Not yet.”

Callio looked at Maple for a long time, no expression on his face. “The Corellions were a powerful family. Even the people of the South know they’re an ancient name. And how many Southlanders are called Maple?”

“Those with parents from the North, I imagine.”

“See? You imagine. You may have traveled a ways, Doriel, since you left their service, but this is going to be a trick to navigate. People are going to find out.” He paused. “Does she know any magic?”

The question was like a knife through Doriel’s chest. “Perhaps.”

“Well, I imagine she has a talent for it, being a Corellion.”

“If that’s who she wants to be.”

“And if she tries to be an ordinary thief with a talent for magic?”

“Then that’s all she’ll be.”

Callio stared at the sand around them. “There’s one more thing to consider, Doriel.”

He didn’t like Callio’s tone, but in spite of any foolishness, the man occasionally showed very good sense. “And that is?”

“Her family wasn’t just known for their magic. That, plus the fact she wasn’t raised by a kind, loving family…you know who she once was. You don’t know who she is now.”

“No,” Doriel agreed. “I don’t.” He remembered how she’d freed the children in the guild, how she’d picked up a sword to defend them. “I will serve her, regardless.”

“Just like you served her father.”

“Now that, I can assure you, will not be the case.” And this time he did smile, genuine and full.

Callio shook his head. “You’re taking an awful big risk if you try to keep her a secret from the world, Doriel. It’d be better to get her somewhere she can be protected. Maybe marry her off to—”

“No.” His words had never been that sharp before when speaking with Callio, but he made no apology. “I do as she wishes. I’ll make no plans for her without her knowledge or consent. I’ve already seen what marrying for political reasons can—”

“Practical reasons, Doriel. Practical.”

“You think there’s a difference in the result?”

“Then she doesn’t have to be married. You’re fantastic with a blade, but you’re only one person. How many enemies did the Corellions have over the centuries before the Albraics destroyed them? Well, almost all of them.” He looked at Maple again. “You’re right. It needs to be her choice, but families like the Corellions don’t get the average pickpocket set against them, I imagine.”

Doriel stood. “Enough. We’ll protect as we can tonight and see what she says when she’s feeling better. In the meantime, you’re sure no one followed you here?”

Callio shook his head. “Everyone’s too busy trying to grab onto what’s left of Handlee’s empire. The city’s too chaotic right now for me to even think about going back. I put enough in the wagon to last a few days, but we’re going to have to move soon if we want to keep eating.”

“I can hunt if need be. Bows and arrows are more to my liking than crossing swords.”

“Could have fooled me,” Callio muttered. For a moment, the air between them seemed lighter. “Would it be wrong to ask if you got my money back?”

Doriel laughed and reached into a small crevice in the rock that he’d placed a mild ward around, just enough to keep animals and insects away. “Did you think I’d forget?”

Callio grinned. “Forgive me. I should have known better. Once an elf makes a promise, you can count on him keeping it.”

Doriel hoped he was only imagining the edge in Callio’s voice when he said that.

“Let’s say she does decide to listen to you,” Callio said. If Doriel had thought there was an edge, it was certainly gone now. “Where would you take her?”

He paused. “Oasis, first.”

“First?”

“There’s a man there I need to see. He knows the current state of the Northlands better than I do.”

“You know, my contacts—”

“Forgive me, Callio. I am sure your contacts are very well acquainted with the current affairs of the Northlands and there’s a strong chance I’ll have need of them,” which was the truth but he didn’t like it. “However, there are some things I need to confirm, and in order to confirm those things, we must go to Oasis first.”

“First?”

“First.”

“And after?”

“That depends on what we find there.”

Callio took a deep breath and looked at the star-filled sky. “If I were to send just one message, you’d never need to worry about her again.”

For a moment, Doriel was tempted to listen, even though Callio had yet to produce any true proof of his friendships with those in power in the new North. He would have listened, if only because it made the world appear more safe than it actually was and because he wanted to believe the best in everyone. But time had proven to be a fine teacher of all things human. “First, Oasis.”

Always ready to run when trouble came, Callio began taking things to the wagon.
“I doubt your man’s information is going to be any more accurate than mine.”

“Depends on the information,” Doriel said softly. Callio apparently hadn’t heard him. He continued packing the wagon with a nonchalance that Doriel hoped was sincere.

He only hoped the information Tanner could give him was accurate, and that he’d seen enough of the death of Magnus Corellion to tell him whether Hushweather had actually finished the job as he’d declared he would, oath or no, or if the oath had bound them all more than they’d expected.

***

Maple woke to the sound of chirping frogs in the distance. She opened her eyes and saw a fire burning what had to be scrub trees, gnarled things that never grew more than a few feet off the ground. The woody smell drifted away from her, but was still strong enough to sting her nose. She looked around. A few spiny mudsippers dotted the landscape here and there with some scraggly needlebushes scattered between them. The elf had chosen this spot well. The wagon was hidden from what appeared to be a well-worn trail by an enormous rock. Two drameds carefully plucked the soft fruit off the needlebushes with their long tongues. Another rock formed a natural shanty just a few feet away and this was what covered her from the sun. It also, she noticed, kept her out of sight of the trail as well. But she could see the stars clearly, the sky full of them.

They all dance, she remembered Marrish the Mouse saying once. If you watch, you’ll see they’re all turning round and round the pointstar.

Why is that, she’d asked.

Because it points north, idiot.

She was glad she remembered that now. Slowly, she got up. No dizziness. Still a little weak. A few steps? Good. She could walk. Very good. Bandages wrapped her foot. Someone had been taking care of her. The elf? He’d looked concerned when he’d last seen her. Why? Why would he care about a thief who was dying? And Handlee, he’d been terrified just before he’d died.

It didn’t matter. She’d be on her way and he wouldn’t need to worry about her anymore. Or for any reason.

A quick look showed no one around. Odd. She made her way slowly toward the wagon. Supplies for her journey.

But where?

An image in her mind answered the question. Before her lay a rich, green valley, tall, snow-capped mountains in the distance with one towering above the others. In the middle of the valley was a castle, surrounding by such a large moat that it almost seemed as if they’d built it in the middle of a lake. The castle was sparkling white in the sunlight with a strong outer wall. The Keep inside was sturdy and simple, but strong, with an impossibly tall, single tower that rose like an white smoke into the sky. She’d seen the picture once in a book she had stolen from a traveling bookseller and had dreamed of it ever since. She’d always wanted to see it, though she never knew entirely why.

No, she admitted as she began going through the small sacks in the wagon. She wanted to see it, only because it was beautiful and it wasn’t here.

She closed her eyes. It was too much for her to think through right now. Her head was starting to hurt and the pain that had faded was coming back bringing the nausea with it. If she didn’t hurry, she might end up vomiting on all their stuff and it would be obvious she had been planning to leave.

She avoided a large blanket that covered half the wagon and focused on a series of smaller ones. Easier to move and less likely to be noticed if it wasn’t exactly straight. She found a bag of foodstuffs: cheese, bread, and some odd grain that smelled heavenly, in spite of her unsettled stomach. Must be Elven Grain, she thought, amazed they would have such a delicacy. Only a few families in the Northlands grew it. Here in the Southlands? No one. She put her hand under the bag and found a waterskin, colored dark-purple, which usually meant wine. She gazed at the dry land around her and decided she would be better off with water if she could find it.

Yes, that’s a better choice. She smiled.

“You might as well take whatever money we have, as well. We don’t need it.” Doriel said behind her. Maple didn’t move, though she could hear him coming closer. She was terrified of looking at him again, of wanting answers to questions that no longer mattered, not when she was well enough to create a new life.

“You free children who will probably end up in another prison in another guild, yet you steal water and food from two strangers in the desert, knowing they will probably die from your actions?” The ice in his voice reminded her of when they first met yet there was a thoughtful undertone, as if he were weighing her out.

“Why did you save me?” she asked, still not turning around, but with just enough humility to, hopefully, throw him off-balance, or at the very least, buy her some time. As if that had worked before.

There was a long pause.

“Twenty years ago,” Doriel said, “my life was in jeopardy through a foolish decision I had made. The decision does not matter now. What matters is that I was saved by a powerful family, to whom I pledged my service for the rest of my life. For five years I served them. I thought I had been released from that service.” Doriel paused and Maple turned to look at him, surprised to see him looking at her as if he still wasn’t quite sure she existed. “I was wrong.”

Maple wasn’t sure what to say, though she opened her mouth in several attempts. “I’m part of your pledge?” He nodded, slowly. “So that’s why you saved me?” He nodded again. She shook her head angrily and felt the dizziness hit her full force. Her knees buckled and before she touched the ground, he was holding her up, leaning her against the wagon.

Maple stiffened in Doriel’s arms as the memory things Handlee had done to her flooded her mind and made her already queasy stomach turn. They were too close. He was too close. She pushed him away, and to her great surprise, he let her, waiting patiently as she covered her mouth and waited for the nausea to subside. Eventually, she lowered her hand, able to at least breathe without losing what little was in her stomach.

“Feeling better?” he said.

Afraid the nausea would come back if she moved her head even slightly, she kept very still. “Yes.”

“I apologize, mistress,” the title flowed naturally from his lips and she wondered how many others he had called by that name. “I thought my healing was greater than it is.”

“I’m no one’s mistress,” she said, though the words came out as little more than a whisper. A shaky one, at that. In a stronger voice, she said. “You saved me…because of a pledge you made to a family?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

Giving up on any escape plans tonight (treacherous stomach) she went back to the bedding, not bothering to pull the covers back over herself in spite of the increasing chill in the desert air. Her head throbbed. “I’m guessing that family is mine?” A small hope had begun to form. Long ago, in her earliest memories, she had wanted someone to appear and take her away. She could remember waiting, hoping, until that hope finally died. But perhaps…no, it didn’t fit. Why would an elf be guarding a merchant if he worked for a powerful family?

Instead of answering her question, Doriel studied her closely. “What are your plans, mistress?”

She couldn’t tell him she didn’t have any, that she would have simply begun walking in the direction of the next city and the next, always heading north to see that one thing she was somehow sure existed. “To live my own life,” she said after too long a pause.

“Then there is no need for me to tell you of your family.”

A little disappointed, she tried to laugh and grimaced instead. “Are you saying they don’t care about me?”

The elf looked away. At first, she thought he was avoiding her question, but then he said, “You’ve been up a while?”

“Not long,” a man said from the wagon. From under the blanket she’d avoided earlier emerged the somewhat portly merchant she’d tried to steal from before. “Maple, may I present Callio Carvati, originally of the West Coast region.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Maple.” He sat up a little straighter and gave a small bow.

The elf frowned, which surprised Maple almost as much as what he’d said. “I don’t remember telling you my name.”

“He knows all about you,” Callio said, getting out of the wagon and waddling groggily to the fire.

“Not all, or she wouldn’t have been here.”

His words touched a part of her she didn’t want to remember existed. Someone, it seemed, had once cared about her.

No. No one cared, or he would have found her long ago. “And what’s your name?” she demanded.

He paused, just long enough for her to wonder why. “Doriel.”

“No family name?”

“No.” He moved to stand close to the fire. “We have enough to stay here a few days, but no longer. When we move, we shall go with you.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Because I am pledged to your family—”

“If I had a family, why didn’t they send you sooner?” Before he could speak she answered her own question. “They either don’t want me, or they’re dead. Either way, there’s no need for you to remain.” She grinned, her disappointment giving it an edge. “Unless, of course, you’re going to put me up in a mansion.”

She had known there would be no laughter—she’d never been able to tell a joke—but she hadn’t expected the frown Doriel gave her then. “I have no mansion to give you, mistress.”

It wasn’t what she wanted, and she fought against the need to tell him that. There was no point in explaining anything, not if she was going to be gone soon. “Then I release you from your pledge. You’re free to go.”

Doriel stared at her with an almost amused look on his face. Callio sat and looked from one to the other, more obviously entertained.

Doriel, however, was the one to speak. “Do you know what that means?”

She had a pretty good idea and the rest came soon enough. “That you’re free to go? It should be simple, shouldn’t it?” He looked down, as if hiding laughter. “It is, isn’t it? What’s the use of pledges if you can’t be released from them when a person doesn’t want a servant anymore?”

“What indeed,” Doriel said softly. “It’s not as simple as that, at least as far as I go.”

She felt a small coil of dread form, making her queasy again. “What do you mean?”

“It means you’re trapped,” Callio said.

“Nonsense,” Doriel said. “If she wants to leave, she can.”

It didn’t sound like nonsense to her. Sitting up enough to lean her elbows on her bent knees, she said, “What are you going to do when I leave?”

“I will go with you.”

“And if I tell you I don’t want you to follow me?” She stared hard into his eyes. She thought she could see a wide desert stretching toward a city with high walls and steady traffic going in and out. She dropped her eyes, ignoring the images. She wouldn’t fall under his spell.

He paused. “I will obey your wishes. But I would beg you to let me come with you, or at least follow at a distance behind you.”

“And if I said no?”

Doriel’s smile grew and Maple could see clearly that he was highly amused now. “I would get down on my knees, prostrate myself before you and beg you by every god known to elves and men to let me fulfill my pledge.” His smile turned from easy to tight. “You don’t know the torment of an elf who cannot fulfill a duty the gods have blessed.” Pain was filling his eyes and Maple began to feel that pain in her own chest.

Was this part of the pledge her family had made? If so, it was an evil one, worse than anything she could have imagined.

She closed her eyes and let her chin drop. I’m losing my mind, she thought. Everyone talks about how beautiful elves are, but no one mentions their insanity. And it’s rubbing off on me. She massaged her forehead, just to have something to get her mind off the current situation.

Callio rubbed his arms. “You might want to consider taking him up on his offer, considering what’s out there.”

She wasn’t some innocent running away from home. She knew exactly how difficult life could be. If you didn’t work or steal you starved. Not everyone could be trusted. In fact, she could probably come up with a whole book listing the dangers of the world if she knew how to read and write. “And what do you think is out there?”

“Evil things.” The tone of Callio’s voice made her want to shiver. “Things that only exist in legends and myths.”

Eager to avoid that topic, she turned back to Doriel. “How do you fulfill your pledge?”

“I serve you until the High God calls me back to the North where he dwells. As long as you do no evil, I assist you in whatever you wish to do. I give you advice when you ask for it,” his smile turned briefly mischievous, “and sometimes when you don’t. I protect you and comfort you. In essence, I give you everything you need that is good.” He shrugged, and it stirred his unbound hair slightly, catching the firelight and making it almost seem to glow.

“So, if I do something awful, some great sin against the gods, that’ll break the pledge?”

“No.”

She hissed through her teeth in disgust. That brought a chuckle from Doriel, but he quickly turned serious.

“I leave you when the High God says to leave you. Doing ‘something awful’ will only bring distance. It won’t destroy the pledge. When you die, if I haven’t been released from my duty, then I will serve your children, if you have any. Is any of this confusing?”

“No.” A wave of exhaustion swept through her. There had to be a way out. He needed her for something, it couldn’t be as simple as a pledge or an oath or…there had to be some other reason he needed her.

Doriel straightened, looking concerned. “You’ve gone pale.” She was beginning to feel light-headed, so it was easy to believe him.

“What if I left right now?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if I got up and tried to walk away, would you try to stop me?”

He didn’t tell her she couldn’t. He didn’t tell her he could. He just looked at her with a face that seemed to be trying to figure her out, and that was something she understood. “There is one thing I must tell you, mistress.”

“Yes?”

“Last night, you were attacked in your sleep.”

She must have paled even more than before because Doriel quickly continued. “Not physically. But inside your heart and mind. In your dreams.”

She remembered that. Darkness. A voice. What had the voice said? “How do you know this?”

He hesitated again. “The Song.”

She shook her head. The Song was something the priests were always on about. It lived through everything, gave life to everything and made everyone dance to its tune. At least, that was what she’d gathered from the way they talked about it. Everyone who talked about the Song was, in her opinion, a fanatic.

Her thoughts must have showed on her face. Doriel sighed. “It doesn’t matter if you believe in it or not, but someone is looking for you. I don’t know who. They didn’t stay long enough. But they were here. And if you leave, especially if you insist on going alone, they might be waiting out there.” He tilted his head toward the desert around them. “Before anything else, though, please.” And he handed her a waterskin from beside a rock. A waterskin that she hadn’t noticed was there. So now she knew he was good at hiding things.

After she had drunk a little of the water, she regarded Doriel closely. He didn’t seem fanatical. Devoted, yes, but not a fanatic. She’d seen the ones who were true fanatics dancing through the streets of Refuge, sometimes torturing themselves with whips, sometimes engaging in a sort of moving orgy, and sometimes wailing gibberish at the top of their lungs. All of them had a certain look in their eyes, an energy, as if they’d been taken over. But Doriel’s eyes were calm and his words were to the point. If he was a fanatic in his heart, a corner of her mind whispered, that would only make him more dangerous.

But she didn’t believe it.

“While you’re thinking over your options,” Callio said, “I think you should know,” she noticed Doriel stiffen, waiting, “that Doriel is an excellent tracker. There’s no place you could go where he wouldn’t find you.”

He relaxed. “Thank you for horrifying her even more than she’s already been.” Doriel’s dry tone made her smile in spite of herself.

In spite of everything, she liked him. Elves might be considered a bane to farmers and loggers in the north, but so far she hadn’t seen any reason to hate him simply because he was an elf. He’d helped heal her, he’d gotten her what she needed, he’d even admitted that she could order him to go though she’d have to deal with his begging in return (who knew how long that might last). And there were moments when he seemed familiar. Strange, yet familiar.

What kind of family would allow an elf to serve them? She watched as he settled back into position to watch over the camp, facing out toward the desert while Callio stretched his legs, talked with him briefly, then went back to his bed in the wagon. And the more she watched the more questions she had until finally she called him over. The action appeared to surprise him, though he remained calm and matter-of-fact as he approached. She noticed Callio watched and kept her words low enough he couldn’t hear. Only Doriel.

She wasn’t sure how to ask this question. There was no hope behind it. Knowing wouldn’t change her plans. And yet… “You knew my parents?”

A slight hesitation. “Yes.”

Was he reluctant to talk about them? She was getting that impression. “Who were they?”

He sighed deeply and looked at the ground. Yes, he was very reluctant to talk about them. Trying to keep her tone light, she said, “What, were they thieves, too?”

He frowned. “The situation…has weight. It will require some time to explain.”
“I’m feeling up to it.”

“I want to be sure you’re able to travel. It’s said that demons can hear their names on the wind. Speak them, and they’ll come for you.”

She’d seen him enter Handlee’s den and get out with no fear at all. But fear is what she saw now in his eyes, and a man with dark red hair and a smirk that terrified her. Or was he a demon?

Doriel looked again at the ground, breaking whatever hold the image had. “If you like, I’ll tell you in the morning. If you’re well enough to travel.”

“I’d like that.”

He nodded and left and there was something in the way he stood, in the way he moved, that once again made her wonder where she had seen him before.

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