Vilhylm took his belt knife and cut the Countess free. “Are you unharmed my Lady?” He said, smiling into her face.
Instead of giving the kind of response that might have been expected the Countess Adbar burst into bubbling laughter the moment she was freed. Gasping for breath, she took his face between her hands and planted an impassioned kiss on his lips that lasted for much longer than propriety would allow for.
“Oh darling, I could withstand anything as long as you were the one to come and rescue me.” She said, clinging to him with the fervor of a devoted lover.
Callindra turned away, feeling slightly embarrassed at the wanton display but caught concerned looks fleeing from the faces of the other two men. It seemed her friends shared her discomfort.
“I think she is a bit ill.” Tryst said, peering into the Countess’s eyes. “I think we might take a moment to ascertain her condition before we continue.”
In order for the priest to actually examine the woman, Vilhylm had to physically restrain her. She writhed and moaned, burning with what seemed to be a fever only it was impossibly hot. In addition, she was either insulting them with the vilest profanity or demanding carnal favors almost equally repellent. Callindra and Cronos had moved aside, sitting next to the fire the men had started and going through their bags.
The only items of interest were small pouches of platinum and notes found on each of their bodies. The notes simply said ‘Bring her back at any cost.’ There was no signature.
“Where’s Adbar’s keep?” Callindra asked.
“I have no idea.” Said Cronos, pulling his map from the protective oiled case he kept it in and rolled it out for them to study. “I think we’re about here.” He said, pointing his finger just north and west of the town of Maple.
“Isn’t this where we were headed?” Callindra asked, pointing to the map. “This says ‘High Forest’ and it looks like it’s less than a day’s ride away.”
“I think you’re right.” Cronos said, “I thought it was a lot further away than that.”
“This is good news.” Said Tryst, his face grave. “She needs attention that goes beyond my capabilities. I hear that the leader of the elves is a most skilled healer.”
The screams of the Countess grew even more shrill and angry, “You won’t take me to that accursed place! I’ll rotting kill you first!”
In spite of her screams of outrage, they tied her to one of the spare horses and rode toward the forest. The further in they walked, the more desperate Adbar’s screams became.
“Vilhylm, are you sure about this?” Callindra asked, “She’s really hurting herself.”
He looked at the blood that was darkening the rope around the Countess’s wrists, her struggles having torn the skin. “Stop it Countess, we are going to get you help.” He said imploringly, “Please, the Elves can make you better.”
“I’ve had about enough of this.” Callindra said, and before anyone could stop her she brought the heavy pommel of her sword down sharply on the back of the woman’s head. She slumped into unconsciousness and Callindra checked the pulse at her neck calmly, as though she did this kind of thing every day.
The others were staring at her in shock. “Callindra, wasn’t that a little extreme?” Tryst asked quietly.
“She was putting all our lives in danger.” Callindra responded, “Do you want whatever beasts lurk beneath these trees to be drawn to us because of her screams?”
As if in response to her question a group of Elves melted out of the underbrush, bows strung with arrows knocked to the string. They were dressed in woodland greens, grays and browns and moved without a sound.
“Stay where you are.” Their leader said, “You will not bring evil into the High Forest.”
“Haven’t we already entered into the Forest?” Callindra asked, looking at the trees that surrounded them.
“No.” He said shortly, “You have yet to enter the Domain of Jorda. You have yet to enter the High Forest.”
“Then let us enter!” Vilhylm shouted, “We have a sick woman! She needs help!”
“She carries a taint that I would deign to poison this pristine wilderness with.” The Elf said, “Take her and go. Bring her to one of your mortal priests.”
“I am a mortal priest.” Tryst said, “Whatever ails this Lady is beyond my purview, but beyond that I am on a mission from my Holy Order and I must speak with the Druids who reside here.”
The Elves spoke to one another in a language that sounded like water bubbling over rocks mixed with birdsong. Finally the leader turned back to them with a grave look on his face.
“We will allow you to approach until the Goddess can decide if she is worthy of treatment.” He glared at them, “If you insist on bringing her forward you shall be judged along with her.”
“That is a risk I will gladly take.” Vilhylm said without hesitation.
“I think she is a risk, but allowing something to infect her like this and go unchecked is a far worse risk.” Tryst said, “If whatever has taken root in her is allowed to spread it could mean trouble, even for your kind.”
“We will leave if we are unwelcome.” Cronos said stiffly, “But we were told to come and speak with you by the Dryad Tyreen. We have traveled long and through much danger to come here and I won’t allow that to go to waste. There are things happening in the world that shouldn’t go unreported or unnoticed.”
Callindra looked over the Elves who were arrayed around them in a semi-circle. “You haven’t seen them have you?” She asked, “The creatures with the eyes of emerald fire?”
The leader shifted, a movement so slight that she would have missed it if she hadn’t been specifically looking for it. His men didn’t move so either they didn’t have a clue what she was talking about or hadn’t heard her. She was betting on the former.
“Come.” He said, “My name is Latoran. I am the leader of these warriors, the elite of the High Forest guard. I will bring you to see Luaga and he will decide if you are to be shown out of our domain or allowed into the presence of Jorda.”
“That’s fair enough.” Tryst said, and then turned to give Vilhylm a reassuring smile. “I’m sure Luaga will decide to help her.”
“Yeah, because these others are so bedamned friendly.” Cronos muttered.
They were led through a screen of thick brush and found themselves in a beautiful woodland that almost seemed manicured. The trees rose far above their heads, seeming impossibly tall with trunks dozens of feet thick. It looked nothing like what it had when they were on the other side of the screen of brush.
Callindra tried to conceal her surprise, but knew she had failed when she saw the smug look on one of the Elf archer’s faces. Instead of trying to pretend, she decided to try and get some information out of the woman. “Why? How? This is amazing!”
“Mortals tend to despoil things that don’t fit into their narrow perception of how things are supposed to be.” The archer replied, giving her a frosty look. “I don’t imagine you would understand as fleeting as your life is, but we have to take a much longer view of things.”
“What do you mean?” Callindra asked, knowing what the Elf was likely to say.
“These trees are our home. We must ensure they are here for us forever, as we live until our lives are cut short by unnatural means.”
“Death isn’t unnatural.” Callindra said, “Everything dies eventually, isn’t that part of the whole circle of life thing?”
“I don’t expect a mortal to understand.” The Elf said, “That is why we have ensorcelled the forest as we have.”
Callindra thought on that for a few minutes. “If you don’t explain something, how can you expect someone to understand?”
The Elf woman didn’t respond and Callindra rode on in silence. The concept of immortality was one she had never considered before, living the way she had made her see death around every corner and with the dawn of each rising sun. She knew there was a limited time for her to be graced with life and every minute had to be lived to the fullest. Living to an old age wasn’t something she had ever thought of.
“It must be hard for you.” She finally said, “Trying to think of everything all at once and always worrying about making a mistake that you’ll have to deal with forever. I can’t imagine living like that; someone like me can hardly believe the miracle of living to another sunrise let alone thinking of a thousand sunrises in the future.”
The Elf woman didn’t respond, but gave her a look that had slightly less condescension than it had before. Well, at least that was a start. With Elves there was no way she could expect to change centuries of prejudice in just a few hours.