Chapter 37

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'Go!' the man shouted. 'Go now. They're coming!'

'But how?' Eleri asked, unable to move. She couldn't make sense out of what she was seeing.

Out of all the faces she expected to be revealed as the leaves gave way, his wasn't one of them. The last time the priestess had seen Rhad, he had been lost in the grips of a fever caused by the wound in his side. A wound given to him by Arwel's men.

'Aderyn and Taran can only hold them for so long. You must go! Now!'

Eleri quickly snapped out of her confused daze. There was no time for questions or explanations. For now, all there could be was her gratitude that the Free Folk had come to her aid.

She scrambled to her feet, and broke out into a run. The sound of sword clashing against sword echoed somewhere to her right. A dog barked, then whined and was silent. A roar from behind her caused her to stop and turn. A man Eleri thought she recognised from Arwel's entourage was fighting hand-to-hand with Rhad. She watched, strangely fixated, as the Free Man wrapped an arm tightly around the Riverlander's neck and stuck a dagger between his ribs.

'What are you waiting for?' Rhad exclaimed, dropping the dead body on the ground. 'Go!'

Eleri set off again, but she had only taken a dozen or so steps when another warrior of the River Folk stepped from around the Dead Oak, sword in hand. He moved purposely towards her. For a moment she wished she was holding her bow rather than a short knife, but the bow was unwieldy and would have made it difficult to reach for her pouch and Dewines' charm.

Slowly she stepped backwards, trying to maintain the distance between the advancing swordsman. He had a wolfish face, and a grin that made Eleri's blood run cold.

'My queen,' he half-growled, half-said, a mocking look upon his face.

'What do you want?'

'Come now, it's not what I want. It's what your king and husband wants. You were meant to return to his bed last night, but we find you here in the forest, in the company of bandits.'

'I was detained, as I will explain to my king and husband when I see him. And these are no bandits, but my protectors.'

'Detained? How so?'

'You think I owe a churl like you an explanation?'

'I'd watch my mouth, if I was you. Arwel gave us permission to use force if you cause any trouble.' As if to make the threat clear, the thug swished his sword through the air between them.

'That may be so, but I doubt the king would be happy if you cut me in half. After all, he has gone to a lot of trouble to make me his wife.'

'Good point.' He returned the sword to its sheath and removed from his belt a smaller, sharper, pointier blade, and took three great long strides towards Eleri.

He moved so quickly, that the priestess had only taken one step back when the soldier suddenly lurched. She stepped to the side and watched as he stumbled. He tried to turn to face her, but his eyes were glazing over. A trickle of blood dribbled out of the side of his mouth. As he collapsed to the ground, face down, Eleri saw the cause: an arrow was sticking out of his spine.

She turned in the direction from which the arrow would have come only to see Taran already walking away, notching another arrow to the bow as she moved. The Free Woman caught Eleri staring. Eleri nodded her thanks, and was offered a nod in acknowledgement. Then the woman was lost to the trees.

Eleri's focus was now on the Dead Oak. She would not squander this chance she had been given. She would not dishonour the gift Rhad, Aderyn and Taran had granted her.

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