Everyone had been silent since leaving the small encampment of refugees from Hommlet. They had ridden non-stop, and it was mid-afternoon now. They would need to find another place to camp in a few hours. They had been following the river west, but it was slow going. There were no paths or roads here, and it was unusually quiet.
“I’m not complaining, but I’m surprised that we haven’t encountered anything since leaving that refugee camp,” Aaron said.
Rarsirrien glanced around. “It might be because we are close to Rothcor’s lair.”
“Who or what is Rothcor?” Kirk asked.
“A surprisingly intelligent green dragon with a very nasty disposition. Rumor has it that he took advantage of the current situation along the Wild Coast and took up residence in Welkwood. According to my map, his lair is not too far from here. Not to worry, we are headed in the opposite direction.” He glanced at Desprae, who just looked at him and shook her head.
Aaron looked back over his shoulder. “Still, I feel we are being followed, but I haven’t seen or heard anything that should make me think that.”
“I feel it too,” said Desprae.
Rarsirrien signaled to stop. “A half-elf and a Drow feel we’re being followed. That is good enough for me. Let the horses get some water from the stream. We can take a bite to eat, check our progress on my map, and see if anything that might be following us makes a mistake.”
Kirk and Desprae tied the four horses to a tree at the stream’s edge. If anything should spook them, they couldn’t run off. Rarsirrien took his map out of the case, and after a moment, lines and geographic features began to appear. Their position was marked, and a small dragon symbol appeared eastward along the edge of the Welkwood forest.
Aaron marveled at the magic that had to be behind something like this. “That’s probably the most useful magic item I have ever seen.” Desprae and Kirk joined them, and Rarsirrien held the map out so they could all see.
He pointed to a faint blue line running east-west where the small red dot indicated their position was resting. “Here we are. It’s about another day’s travel west, and we can meet back up on the main road. That would be the quickest route, except we have one problem.” He looked at Desprae.
Aaron looked up, “Yeah, the elves of Celene are not going to be as oblivious to a Drow as our hosts last night.”
Rarsirrien sat back, “I have something that might work for a short time.” He paused and thought for a moment. “I was hoping to save this in case we needed it, but it seems we will need it sooner rather than later.” He got up and walked to his horse, opened one of his saddle bags, and brought out a loaf of the bread they had been given. He broke it in half and removed a small glass vial containing a blue liquid. He walked back and handed it to Desprae. “Keep that on you. If we see, we will encounter someone, drink that, and concentrate on being a grey elf.”
Desprae took the vial and tucked it inside her cloak. “What is it? An Illusion potion?”
“Close. A potion to change self. It’s a potent one and will last at least a day.” Rarsirrien stood and scanned the opposite bank and the area around them. “Well, you two, if anyone is following us, they’re damn good at staying hidden and quiet.” He rolled the map and placed it back in its tube. “We need to move on. We have a lot of ground to cover. We can be on the main road leading to Enstad tomorrow. We’ve lingered here long enough.”
They untied the horses and resumed their westward course. As they traveled, the area near the stream remained relatively flat, and they were able to make time, covering almost thirty miles before they stopped for the night. Kirk and Aaron took the watch this time, with Kirk going first. Desprae remained free and finally began to get some needed sleep. Months on the run and then days of captivity had taken their toll on her body. She didn’t fully trust her rescuers but felt safe with them. The first time she could remember feeling safe since she had decided to flee the Underdark.
Rarsirrien woke just as the sky began to grow lighter on the horizon. Aaron was on watch, and Kirk was still asleep. He went to his horse, took the cylinder with the map, spread it out again, and studied it. When they started, he hadn’t counted on avoiding the grey and sylvan elves in Celene, but with a Drow in their company, they were now forced to find another way. Due west lay the Kron Hills and beyond them the Lortmill Mountains. Behind them was the Welkwood Forest. Traveling south would take too much time and bring them too close to the Wild Coast and Pomarj. No. They needed to continue westward and try the Ulek Pass, which meant passing Enstad, the capital city of Celene. He sat back and thought for a few minutes. He looked at the map again, tracing a course due west from where they were. They could try and follow the edge of the Kron Hills, but they would have to watch for patrols. Celene’s soldiers were known to be quite capable. Then he saw it. A small square on the map, about forty miles southwest of where they would meet the main road if they continued on their current course. He couldn’t believe that he had missed an obvious, possible solution. Tillahi’s Estate. That might work. He tried to think of the possible ways this could go wrong and if it would be worse than taking chances and moving openly.
“What is it?” Aaron asked.
“A possible workable solution to our problem if she agrees to help us.”
“She, who?” Aaron tried to keep his voice down, but Desprae was already stirring.
“A special friend. She has an estate about a day’s journey from here. If I could convince her to help us, traveling to the Ulek pass would be much easier and less risky. If not, we will be discovered much sooner, and our task will likely fail. I would owe her a favor.” Rarsirrien smiled, “Yes, she would like that.”
“How is a person supposed to get any sleep with you two carrying on over there?” Kirk was awake now.
“Just as well; I was about to wake you anyway.” Aaron took Kirk’s outstretched arm and helped him up. Desprae was awake now and packed her blanket.
The four were back underway in a few minutes, skipping breakfast for now. Aaron let the other three move ahead, and he drifted back towards the group’s rear. After a moment, he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. The woods were still, and there was no breeze, but he saw several branches on a small bush swaying. He was convinced now that they were being followed, but by who or what, he didn’t know. He rode up to Rarsirrien.
“We are being followed, but I still don’t know by what. I just glimpsed something moving away on our left.”
“Okay.” He thought for a moment. “Assuming it doesn’t know we are aware of it, we might get an advantage if we can force a confrontation when the situation favors us rather than waiting and potentially playing into its hands.”
“It. Or them? I can’t tell if some thing or some things are following us.”
“Better to find out sooner rather than later. We’re in Celene now, so traveling with a Drow, we look like the enemy. We have to be careful not to become the enemy.”
“I have an idea. Next time we stop for a rest, I’ll move off as if I am relieving myself; then you, Kirk, and Desprae can have a disagreement, create a little diversion, and I can see if I can circle around and find out who or what we are dealing with.”
“Risky, but we need to know, and I don’t have a better idea.” He paused for a moment, trying to think of something. “Very well, but don’t get in over your head. Better to bring back information alive than try and be a hero.” Rarsirrien rode up to Kirk and informed him of Aaron’s plan. Kirk looked back at Aaron and shook his head, then continued on.
They rode for another hour, and by then, Aaron really did need to stop. He moved off into some bushes and took care of his business. He could hear raised voices and realized that Rarsirrien and Kirk were having a loud argument about Desprae. That was his cue, and he moved off and circled. Moving through the forest silently was one thing he was very good at. He saw a dark shape moving nearly silently between the trees, trying to understand better what was happening between Rarsirrien and Kirk. When he got a clear view of what was following them, he nearly gasped in amazement.
There, in full armor and standing over six feet tall, was the fallen Paladin from the other night. Aaron wondered how such a large human in full armor could have moved quickly and quietly. He reached for his sword, but before he could even begin to draw it, the large man had swung around and had his sword out, pointing at Aaron’s chest.
“I may be old and look slow but be assured that I’m not.”
The large man realized Aaron’s gaze was not on him or his sword but just over his left shoulder. He lowered his blade slightly as he felt another at his back.
Desprae stood behind Aaron’s assailant, Kirk’s sword in her hand, and the blade’s tip aligned with a gap in the large man’s plate armor. “I’m not slow. I’m not old either.” With that, she shoved the blade forward.
“No!” Aaron and Kirk exclaimed as they heard the sword slice through the man’s flesh, and the tip came out of his chest and hit the man’s breastplate. Unexpectedly, the man spun around on her, and she lost her grip on the sword. She jumped back to be clear of the blow she expected coming from the man’s sword, but there was nothing. Instead, he stood there looking at her.
“Unfortunately, you’ll have to do more than that to kill me. I have no desire to fight you at the moment. I’m curious about what two men and a half-elf are doing traveling in the company of a Drow and headed deep into the elven kingdom of Celene. Your behavior suggests you’re not up to anything evil, which is out of character for a Drow.”
By this time, Rarsirrien had joined them, having tied the horses so they couldn’t run off. “I’m Rarsirrien. Who are you?”
“I no longer use my given name. It has been so long that I’ve forgotten it anyway. I’m known ‘round here as Dread Naught.” Kirk snorted, and the large man glared, “It’s meant to be ironic.”
Kirk smiled, “In that case, may I have my sword back? No pun intended.” The man turned his back slightly to Rarsirrien, who withdrew the blade from the man’s back and returned it to Kirk, who replaced it in its scabbard.
Rarsirrien had been prepared to staunch the blood flow from the wound when he removed Kirk’s sword, but none came. “Now, that’s interesting.”
“I don’t bleed anymore. I thirst. I hunger. Aside from that, I don’t feel much of anything else. I’m a cursed soul seeking redemption and unable to die until I find it.”
“Why were you following us?” Aaron asked.
“To make sure you weren’t up to no good. I watch over the good folks in these parts. Even if they aren’t always good to me. As I said, traveling with a Drow and not murdering or destroying seems unusual.”
Rarsirrien turned and started back across the stream. “I see your point, but we best return to our horses. Sorry to have troubled you, but we had better be back on our way.”
“Not so fast, old man. You don’t think you can stab me in the back and then go on your way, do you?”
Rarsirrien continued walking back to where the horses were tied. “You were following us. While a little overzealous, our Drow colleague wasn’t totally out of line. You did have your sword pointed at our friend there.”
The four of them walked to the point where they had crossed the stream. “No harm, no foul,” Rarsirrien said and then looked over his shoulder to see the man’s reaction, but he was already gone.
“How can he move that fast and silently?” Aaron asked.
“Perhaps skill or some enchantment. It doesn’t concern us. We have lost too much time and must make it up by moving on late into the evening. I expect we’ll be followed until he’s certain we told the truth.” With that, Rarsirrien walked to the opposite bank and back to where they had left their horses.
They rode westward until they came to the forest’s edge just before the sun dipped below the hills in the distance. Below them was a wide, paved, and well-traveled road. Opposite the road were open plains leading up to the Kron Hills beyond. Their timing had worked out that they could cross the road and ride in the evening shadows toward the hills, making it difficult for anyone or anything not actively looking to see them. They rode in silence until they reached the edge of the hills. Desprae took the lead since her Drow eyesight enabled her to see details they would have missed, even Aaron with his better half-elven vision. She found an outcrop that would give them shelter and cover from above. Not that they would need it this night. The skies were clear and full of stars, even brighter because the moon was just a sliver of silver rising in the night sky.
Kirk unpacked a few small twigs he had kept as kindling, and Aaron returned from gathering deadfall to use for the fire. That night they ate in silence. Their meal was cold, leftovers from the previous days, but the fire was warm, and the ground was soft. Rarsirrien looked at Aaron and Kirk, then Desprae. “You take the first watch tonight, and I’ll relieve you after midnight.”
Desprae agreed and took the first watch. She moved far enough away from the fire that it didn’t impair her Drow vision. She could see nearly to the road, and for a moment, she thought she saw something cross it, but then it was gone, and there was no sign of anything moving. She figured Rarsirrien was right, and it may have been Dread Naught, or maybe nothing. She looked up at the night sky. Both moons were waxing and so allowed even more stars to be visible. She glanced back at her three sleeping companions. It struck her that they were all actually sleeping. They trusted her. It had been a long time since anyone had put their trust in her. She liked them. A lump formed in her throat, and she held back the tears welling up in her eyes. At that moment, she felt happy. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt that way. In fact, she couldn’t ever remember feeling that way. Most of her life had been filled with fear, punctuated with moments of terror and more fear. She sat, looking at the night sky, scanning their surroundings, and feeling at peace. Nothing was going to harm her friends on her watch. She sat there, unaware of the passage of time, until Rarsirrien placed his hand on her shoulder, giving her a slight start.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s fine; I was only thinking. Are you going to tell them?”
Rarsirrien shook his head. “Not yet. They don’t need to know.”
“Don’t wait too long. In my experience, keeping a secret like that may come back to bite you if someone else outs you first.”
Rarsirrien stared at the young Drow. There was something different about her. The lines on her face were fading, and her voice had a genuine concern and caring tone. He nodded. “You best get some rest. Tomorrow will be a long day, and I’m unsure how it will end.” Desprae turned and walked back to where Kirk and Aaron were snoring. Rarsirrien stared after her, somewhat surprised by their conversation. He didn’t know why, but she appeared to trust them. She hadn’t tried to run off or to harm them when she easily could have. At least Kirk and Aaron, anyway. He assumed she hadn’t because she had no better alternatives, especially in an area where all would have hunted her. Maybe there was something more. Maybe she had joined them in a way more than just because they had rescued her and become her new captors.
Once he knew the others were asleep, he moved away from the light into the darkness and resumed his natural form. Springing into the night sky, he made increasingly wider and higher circles above their campsite looking. He didn’t have to look long before he spotted what he expected. A small, dark impression in the grass not far from where they had crossed the road. He had expected him to follow them for a while. He just hoped that wouldn’t become a problem tomorrow. He had known Tillahi for a long time. Long enough, she might accept him showing up with a half valley elf and a Drow, but if she thought he was trying to deceive her by not mentioning Dread Naught, things could go very badly for them in a hurry. He thought about flying toward her estate but then decided against it. She would have detection spells, and he didn’t want to give himself away yet. Instead, he returned to where he could keep an eye on things from the ground until dawn. The time to deal with Tillahi would come soon enough.