CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT – No Time to Talk

Walking through the forest after such an adventure put my mind at ease. We were all still alive, and we had the Cythras Dowra with us. No-one could know where we were, and no-one could have followed us. At the moment, things were going well.

Idly I wonder what the next step of the mission would be. We had two choices that I could see. Either try and locate and secure the Cythras Ayr, or intercept Washucktah and the others on their way to the Fire Elven. My instinct was toward the latter, but obviously that would be a matter to discuss.

Suddenly I spy a wild apple tree, and smile. Climbing carefully to the top, I gather several beautifully ripe apples to carry with us. Looking down from the treetop however, I spy something rather strange.

A perfectly straight set of hoof prints, running through the forest.

I leap down, my sleeves and pockets full of apples, - my side suddenly hurts. Not ache from a bruise, but a sharp pain bad enough to cause me to stop and wince, putting my hand over my side.

Ignoring it, I examine the tracks closely. They were made by a galloping horse, probably mounted but tired, and had been made perhaps an hour ago.

The tracks puzzled me. They obviously had a purpose to be here, because that was the only reason to enter the forest instead of skirting around it. But at the same time, what in the forest would possible necessitate such speed as evidenced in the tracks?

Whatever it turned out to be, it most likely did not concern us, I eventually decided. I begin to walk back to the camp.

"Hey, Tarnien! Guess what you forgot about?" Kendra greets me with a smug face as I walked back into the clearing. I notice the fire built up again, and my food pack at her feet.

I play along for the moment. "What did I forget about?"

Out of my pack, she pulls out three young rabbits, the ones I had caught the day before yesterday and preserved with herbs. "One each?"

I laugh, and throw her an apple. "Maybe two and save the third for the evening." My side twinges vaguely as I do so, but I stubbornly ignore it.

As I come back to sit down, I notice Kendra staring at me slightly out of the corner of her eye as she bites into the apple. "What?" I ask.

"You are COVERED in bruises." she admits hesitantly, a hint of guilt in her voice.

Drawing my small knife, I look into the reflection. She was right, my face was marked with several large purple spots, including one over my right eye.

After a moment, I shrug simply. "Bruises wear off after a time."

"Yeah... I still feel bad about -"

"Be quiet and eat your apple." I say, gesturing with the knife and smirking slightly.

Kendra sticks her tongue out at me. "You know I won't do what you want anyway."

"Fine. Do not help me cook these rabbits."

She rolls her eyes. "Nice try."

I start gutting and preparing the rabbits. "By the way, we need to figure out where we intend to go after breakfast."

"Yeah, and where exactly would you suggest?"

I shrug. "I will talk more about that after we eat."

Fifteen minutes later, Blue wakes up to the sound of roasting rabbits.

"Ehhh... where are we, guys?"

Kendra speaks up. "Away from anyone, and pretty close to breakfast."

"Breakfast?" Blue spots the roasting rabbit, and he almost starts drooling. "Awwh mon... dat looks so good!"

"It'll be ready in about ten minutes." I say, holding back a chuckle.

"How do you feel?" Kendra asks him, a small flash of concern in her eyes.

"Well..." Blue begins, then pauses for a while. "Mah head is spinny, and have to say I'm still a bit shleepy. But nuttin' a good dose of breakfast von't feex!"

I smile, and roll an apple to him along the pebbles. "Here. That'll keep you from trying to devour the stones before the rabbits are cooked."

Standing up and heading into the forest, I call back. "You two have what you want of the rabbits, I shall be back in a bit."

As I leave, I hear Blue ask "Hey, vhat happened to his face?"

Going back into the forest, a good distance away and well out of sight or earshot of anyone, I remove my cloak and shirt, taking a good look at my torso.

My chest and stomach is covered in bruises and welts from the tunnel flooding – one in particular on my side, exactly where I'd felt the pain a few moments ago. I gently lay a hand on it, and press on it gently.

Pain runs across my side, forcing me to bite my lip to stop myself crying out.Oh kawgh! Probably a broken rib..., I think.

Thinking on for the moment, I quickly scan the ground for the herb I need.

Nothing. I will just have to live with the pain for a while until I find that herb.

I pace around aimlessly for a while, mentally forcing the pain down to the back of my mind. I put my shirt back on, and tie a strip of cloth securely around the rib, wincing as I do so. It may hurt now, but it should help in the long run.

Slinging my cloak back on carefully, not disturbing my side just to be on the safe side, I begin to walk back when I hear a noise that chills me.

A horse. On rough ground. Not fast, but still in my direction.

Looking around, I leap into a tree and hide myself away. The sounds were following the horses trail I'd spotted earlier, and I had clear view of it – it passed directly under my tree.

I glance back over my shoulder, and catch a glimpse of the fire at the camp site. Luckily it wasn't smoking too much, but it was still noticeable.

Creeping forward through the trees, I spot the source of the noise in the distance, and my jaw drops.

It is a unicorn!

Unicorns were meant to be scarce beyond belief in this day and age, but the sight of one was a blessing according to human folklore. And it was understandable, unicorns were the finest animals left in Norvystir. Beauty, speed, grace, combined and embodied into one form.

But as the magnificent creature drew closer, I see something that should not be happening.

The unicorn was bearing riders.

I couldn't see them clearly at first – a female, probably, and perhaps a child clinging to her back?

They drew closer. Yes, it was definitely a female riding. A bit too short for a human – and she seemed to have an affinity with the unicorn...

They drew closer still. Wait, was the child bearded, and armoured?

Suddenly, the recognition snaps into place. How could I be so blind?!

I am about to leap down when I stop, catching myself. Remember, caution is the traveller's best friend, and the Ranger's sixth sense. I have to make sure this is no deception.

"Krystal? Dhilith?" I call softly.

I see them stop about thirty feet away, obviously confused.

"Dhilith, did you -?"

"Aye, but I don't like it. Don't respond, keep moving."

They begin to move forward again, and I call to them again. "Krystal! Dhilith!"

Again they stop. "Dhilith, it sounds like Tarnien!"

"I know, that is what I don't like!"

"Do you think -?"

The dwarf snorts. "For us to encounter each other again throughout the whole of Azurania, with no knowledge of where the other is? No, it is absurd! Walk forward, and ignore the voice."

The unicorn seems to toss its head back, signalling something to its rider. She leans forward to stroke its neck. "Hey Lily, what do you think?"

Lily, for that is apparently what the unicorn is called, trots forward directly under the tree I am hidden in, and stops.

Dhilith is confused and beginning to be angry. "Why are we stopped? Walk on, I say!"

Krystal turns in her seat, her eyes flashing fire. "And you want to make her walk on how, exactly? She's got a good reason for us to stop here, so let's find out!"

I call to them the third time. "Krystal DeLancre? Dhilith Stonegramme?"

They jump visibly, and twist their heads to look into the dense tree. Lily just whinnies slightly, almost as if laughing at her riders.

"He used our last names, Dhilith! It has to be Tarnien!" Krystal dismounts from Lily and walks around. "Tarnien? Tarnien!"

Dhilith seemed to be convinced. "Aye... only Tarnien would be privy to both our last names..."

I jump down from the tree, smiling broadly. "I am here, friends."

Krystal turns and sees me. Giving a small cry of gladness, she hurries over and actuallyhugs me. "Tarnien! I... I feared you were dead!"

Wincing as the broken rib feels the pressure of her arms, I still wrap my arms across her shoulders. For once, I am speechless.

Dhilith just stood back a way, determinedly examining the stains on his axe

Krystal took a step back, and concern grew on her face. "My, it looks like you have nearly died already! What happened to you?"

I smile briefly. "It is a long story, and one that should only be told once. Where is Washucktah? And who is this glorious creature?" I ask, gesturing towards Lily

"Oh, Chuck's with an old friend of his who turned up about an hour ago. And this is Lily," Krystal paces over to her flank, smiling widely. Lily shakes herself, and seems to almost strike a pose. "We aided her of an imp infestation, and she's stuck around since then."

"No help from the interference of a certain Fire Elf..." Dhilith mutters.

I pause to glance between Krystal, Dhilith and Lily "Well, I see I am not the only one with a tale to tell. Come, we shall tell Kendra and Blue and Washucktah..."

"Washucktah and his friend don't want to be disturbed at the moment." Krystal says, nodding as if she had memorized that phrase to be repeated on cue.

I frown slightly. "Why ever not?"

Krystal opens her mouth, and hesitates. "You know... I don't think they actually said... Do you remember anything, Dhilith?"

"Of course!" grunts the dwarf. "It was... er... By Hezna, I can't recall it!"

"Well, what was the friend's name?" I ask.

"Er..." they both say.

The hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand on end. "Well, can you describe him?"

"Oh yeah, we can do that. He looked to be fifty-five or so … moved like he was forty or fifty ... Brown monks robes and a staff, a lot like Chuck's actually, wouldn't you agree? … White hair, small beard..."

My heart grows cold.

"...What? What is it, Tarnien?" Krystal asks, again concerned.

"The man you just described... I have met him..."

"What?"

"And if you value Washucktah's life, we need to get back there. NOW."

Krystal's eyes dilated. "And we just left him alone with him? What were we thinking?!"

"I will explain later." I say, my mind already racing. "Krystal, you go to our camp over there, tell Kendra and Blue what's happening, collect our packs and get Blue to teleport you straight to Washucktah. Dhilith and I will go on Lily. If that is permissible, of course?" I ask Lily the question directly.

Lily bows her head, and paws the ground with her front hoof.

"All right." I say, and I stride over and mount her.

"Durdallodhy'hwi, ughelor margh kellek." I whisper into Lily's ear as I do so. Pulling Dhilith up onto Lily's back, Krystal says "We'll follow as soon as we can. Go safely!"

I nod. "We will do."

At the exact same moment, Krystal ran in the direction of our camp calling "Kendra! Blue! Hurry!", and Lily gathered herself, and set off at a full gallop back down the trail.

Towards Washucktah. When I had last seen him, I had tried to slay him.

Now, I hoped I could save him from that fate from the hands of another.

If we were not too late.