Esseath Evellienn: One
It had seemed a straight passage, simple enough from a distance, but confusing once her feet finally began wandering through. Into the thicket and winding trees, along the wall, toward the platform looming over the stream that cut through the woods and rejoined the river on the other side. She could still see the watchtower, but no matter which path she took, they all led her away, back toward the high stone walls around the city. Sloshing through the stream, her worn shoes splashing, cold water seeping through and making her already numb toes feel as if they’d fallen off, she stopped again and stared at the distant platform Iorveth told her to go to when he set her free.
It was too silent in that place. The wind still, the few birds that hadn’t flown south perched quietly in the branches above, watching her meander endlessly through the frozen mud until she found herself right back where she’d started. Their silence felt like mockery, cold black eyes staring at her from above, but she supposed it could be worse. Something she hadn’t counted on had happened: she was alive and free.
All she needed to do was get to the watchtower above Lobinden. She would find safe harbor there.
Winter quieted the world, dulled even the gurgling of the stream until it felt like a whisper all around her. A twig snapped beneath her careful feet, citing a guttural growl that rustled through a hollow burrow beneath the leaves.
Helti’s entire body stiffened as if she were frozen. She closed her eyes, willing the sound to go away, telling herself she’d come so far from death, it would be stupid to die there in the winding streams so close to freedom.
Nostrils flaring wide, she quieted the sound of her breath, willed her heartbeat slower, but it was no use. They could smell her, and one by one the nekkers came up from their frozen burrows, hungry, their beady red eyes glowing in the dull light of morning, claws clacking and teeth gnashing as they crawled slowly toward her.
She had no weapons, no way of defending herself. She could turn back around and run the way she’d come. Nekkers weren’t necessarily fast, but they attacked in droves, popping up unexpectedly from their burrows to circle all around and descend upon unsuspecting victims.
The one closest to her seemed to leer, revealing a gaping mouth of jagged, angry teeth. Saliva dripped from its blackened lips, stretching in a long strand that reached its knees before breaking off and snapping back into its mouth. Its breath steamed the frigid air, head and shoulders weaving back and forth in a near hypnotic dance that was cut off by the sudden and metallic snap of a trap in the water.
The nekker screamed, flailing its arms in raging surprise and agonizing pain as it snarled and shrieked. Another trap snapped jagged jaws around the leg of a second beast, and another. A fourth and fifth, until she was surrounded by trapped, angry nekkers dragging wounded legs and still attempting to hobble toward her with clawed hands slashing at the air.
He burst into the wet, marshy brush in an arching dance of flashing silver that cleaved through flesh and sinew in a spray of blood. Spinning with almost expert precision, black braids whirled around his face, whipping his cheeks as he let loose a terrifying war cry and hacked their heads off one by one with delightful accuracy and precision. They rolled through the water, bodies rigid in unwitting protest as they flailed arms until they lost balance and sunk headless into frigid puddles of ice and blood all around her.
The last head, that of a nekker warrior, flew well over her and landed somewhere in the trees at her back.
Winter’s uncanny silence rose again as their eyes met. He was an elf, the worn, silver sword in his grip slicked red with blood, the black braids of his hair hanging against the sides of his blood-flecked face.
“Ceádmil,” he greeted as he lowered his sword at his side, lifting his other hand in a gesture of peace.
“Hello,” she said softly, scanning once again the carnage of fallen bodies that lay at her feet. “Are you… Scoia’tael?”
He had tattoos, like Iorveth’s, a pattern of leaves, larger in their design and winding up his long neck, stopping just below the line of his strong jaw. Disappearing beneath the bright green collar of his tunic, she found herself staring at that tattoo curiously until he tilted his head thoughtfully and shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Once I was Scoia’tael, long ago, but I am no more.”
“Will you help me, please?” Relief was evident in her tone. “I am trying to find Lobinden. I’ve been walking in circles through this place for hours. I’m cold and weary and I’m so hungry.”
“Do you have friends in Lobinden?”
“I’m looking for an elf there who is called Cedric.”
“You are in luck then,” he smiled at her, his dark, shapely eyes lighting up. “I not only know the way to Lobinden, but I know this elf called Cedric, for I am he.”
Taking a step toward her, Helti shied back, instinctual fear making her tremble with distrust after everything she’d been through at the hands of the Scoia’tael. They’d burned her village to the ground, taken her hostage and put her skills to the test healing their commander, Iorveth, who’d lost his eye to a spear and nearly lost his life to rampant infection.
She’d spent endless weeks shivering in a cage with little more than a threadbare blanket to keep her warm and an old pair of shoes that barely fit to cover her feet, which had been bare the night Iorveth burst through her cottage and asked her to help him while a hungry fire devoured all she’d ever known and loved.
She believed she would die at their hands, they’d promised her that death at least hundred times while she was their prisoner, but she’d been given a second chance, set free by the elf she’d saved with her healers’ touch.
Cedric was still thoughtful, unoffended by her apprehension. “You know, I had the strangest feeling this morning when I woke,” he told her. “’Go to the forest,’ a voice inside me said. ‘You will find something you did not know you were looking for there among the trees.’ So I came to check my traps, to see what I would find that I didn’t know I was looking for.”
“You were looking for me?”
“I must have been, for I have found you,” he laughed. “What is your name?”
“Come, Helti,” he held out his hand. “It is not far to Lobinden. I will show you the way.”
She stared at that hand for several minutes, the winter silence so severe she swore she could hear his heart beating inside his chest. And then she reached for his outstretched hand. Iorveth said he would help her, and though she didn’t know why she trusted him, she just did. Cedric curled his fingers around hers, gently squeezed and drew her away from the fallen bodies and blood-stained stream.
“Watch those traps there,” he warned. “Some of them are still set to go off.”
Helti glanced down at the ground, scanning through the grass and water until she spied a trap she might not have otherwise seen. The took a few steps, Cedric carefully guiding her around the traps in the water, and then he stopped and let go of her hand.
“Just a moment,” he said. “If you could just stand here where it’s safe, there’s one more thing I need to do.” He drew something from his pouch, round and large as an apple, then he walked back toward the nekker nest, knelt and dropped it inside. He hurriedly stepped backward, reaching hand gripping her dressing gown at the shoulder and drawing her away as he passed her. “We must go now. Hastily.”
“What?” she shook here head. “Why?”
Ten steps, he seemed to count them aloud just under his breath, and then the earth shook beneath their feet in a furious explosion that startled a small, shrieking scream from her. She gripped his tunic in her hands, pressed her body close to his as she stumbled into him.
“That’s why.” Cedric laughed and lowered a hand onto her shoulder. “And that will take care of that, for a little while anyway,” he nodded. And then he lowered his arm across her back and led her stumbling through the wet, uneven path leading closer to the watchtower Iorveth pointed out to her before he set her free.