Posted August 21, 2019
The black-haired elf crept slowly down the rocky wall of the slope, moving silently. Ahead of her, a mother bear was foraging among the berry bushes with her two cubs, apparently unaware she was being watched. The elf looked across the slope to a similarly green-clad halfling, and once she was certain she had the other's attention, made a motion with her free hand.
The halfling closed her eyes and mouthed words in an archaic language, her hands moving at her sides, almost unbidden. The bear suddenly looked up, away from the two women, and lumbered off with a huffing noise. Her cubs looked confused and bawled for a moment, then followed their mother at a bumbling trot.
After a minute, the elf moved down the slope again, and the halfling followed suit. They reached the bottom of the hill, and the elf pointed. "Look there, as I thought. Dragon tracks."
The halfling crouched down and ran her hand softly over the depressed ground. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Wouldn't a dragon scare the bears away?"
"No, it's old. Days, maybe a week. We're on the path, though." She stood upright and shaded her eyes to look up the valley. Trees blocked her view, but the halfling had the impression the elf was perhaps not looking with her eyes alone.
"Keep following." The elf tucked a strand of black hair behind her ear, and looked up at the peak of the hill to their right. She nodded, and they walked on, following the bear which had been lured away by the halfling's magic.
They spotted the bear another half-dozen times as they walked, each time stopping before she noticed them, and waiting for the mother to move on with her cubs. Only once did the halfling again invoke the spirits to encourage the bear on its path.
They made camp that night in a grove of ash trees.
The elf unplaited her hair and shook it out, her face momentarily disappearing in the black waterfall. "I love it out here, but there are times I would also love a bath."
"Taedryn," said the halfling, pausing, uncertain how to continue.
"Yes," said Taedryn.
"Um... What... What will we do if we catch up to this dragon?"
Taedryn parted her hair, and her face appeared again, nearly invisible in the fading light as the sun sank below the horizon. The halfling was looking at her with anxiety plainly written on her face despite the gloom.
Taedryn pulled her hair back and quickly braided it back against her skull. Once she'd tied off the end of the plait, she took a breath to speak.
"My hope is that we will catch it unawares, see what we can about it, and report back on it to the council. Why do you ask, Bree?"
"Only, I've heard so much of dragons. Of their... cruelty. I... I don't want you to think I'm not brave," her voice faltered exactly when she didn't want it to, and she pressed on quickly, "but I have no wish to find out at first hand how cruel they can be."
Taedryn smiled into the gathering darkness. "Nor do I Bree, you may rest assured. I believe this dragon to be an adolescent, so it will not have developed its full powers, and it may be easier to observe without attracting its attention. Should we find we are mistaken in its observational prowess, I will distract it with the firework arrows I commissioned in town, and you will perform your trick with the magical doorway."
"Oh yes, of course, the magical doorway." Bree's voice did not ring with confidence. "You asked special about that, you did."
"You have performed admirably so far, Bree, do not doubt yourself so."
"Oh," said the halfling, staring unseeing into the developing darkness of the night. "No, it's not... I do not doubt myself. It's just... the magical doorway cannot take us so far. Only five hundred paces or so. It will not take us back to town, nor so far that a dragon could not find us again moments later. I'm sorry, you didn't ask how far it would work."
Taedryn was silent for a moment. "Then we shall be as vigilant as possible." She reached out and took Bree's hand, clasping it in her own. "Never fear, Bree. We have one another, and I know dragons well. The council's fee will keep us both clothed and fed for some time to come."
"You have the right of it, of course. Oh, we have walked so far today. I am right mazed at your endurance, Tae." The halfling yawned mightily. "Sleep well, my dear."
"Sleep well, Bree," said Taedryn, smoothing the halfling woman's hair back as she curled up at the elf's side, cloak wrapped tight about her body. Taedryn looked out into the night and slowly dropped into her sleeping-trance.
Bree the halfling stood about three and a half feet tall. She had curled brown hair, though it was lank from so many days spent in the wilderness, and she had lately been tying it back with a strip of cloth. She was dressed simply in a plain green dress with a belt about her waist bearing a variety of small pouches and a pair of daggers. Her cloak was a dirty brown color which blended in wonderfully with the ground so that when she was curled up sleeping, it was hard to tell her from a rock or feature of the ground. Her boots were simply made but stout, out of brown leather.
Her face was notable for its large sea-blue eyes, and also for its bulbous nose and thin mouth. Taedryn was fond of her smile, which came often in conversation. The halfling's face was much rounder than the elven faces Taedryn had grown up with, and she found herself pleased with the difference.
Taedryn, on the other hand, stood two feet taller than Bree, with arrow-straight black hair plaited down to her waist. Her face was a dusky olive color, in contrast to the halfling's light, freckled skin. Her clothing was similar, though she wore trews rather than a dress. Her cloak was green and blue, and when she stood still, it became quite hard to spot her. Her throat was adorned with a silver pendant in the shape of a stylized oak leaf. Leather bracers protected her forearms from the slap of her bow's string.
When Bree awoke in the morning, Taedryn had already filled their waterskins, and prepared a small breakfast from their supply of preserved rations and some black-purple berries she'd gathered from the surrounding forest. Bree gladly took a swig of water before she tried to speak.
"Thank you," she croaked. Her voice was always sore in the morning, though it came back after a short while.
"We should move on soon," said Taedryn, daintily licking berry juice off her fingers. "The sun will be cresting the hills before long, and we have a distance to travel today."
"Could you do that thing?" Bree stood up and raised her arms expectantly. Taedryn hid a flash of a smile from her face, and grasped the smaller woman by the hands, picking her up and shaking her quickly from side to side. There was a cracking sound from somewhere in Bree's back, and she exclaimed, "Aaaah, that was it. I may never get used to sleeping on the ground. Maybe I can learn that trance thing you do."
"I can try to teach you. But not now, now we should move."
"Alright." Bree bent over and picked up her satchel and her walking stick. Taedryn picked up her staff and small knapsack. Her bow and quiver were already slung about her.
As they walked, they talked quietly. Taedryn walked in front, constantly scanning for dangers around them. Bree asked questions about dragons, and Taedryn did her best to answer, though some of Bree's questions stumped her.
"No," Taedryn responded, "I don't think dragons usually hoard maps. Why would they?"
"Well, treasure maps, you know. They like gold so much, I thought maybe they also like the idea of where to find gold, even if they don't have the gold itself."
"I don't think that's how dragons think..." her voice trailed off, and she held up a flattened hand as she came to a halt.
"What's...." Bree's question was cut off by a silent but emphatic gesture from Taedryn.
The elf was looking around, her face intent on something. Bree tried to see what had alarmed her friend, but couldn't see anything amiss.
Taedryn crouched down so her lips were just at Bree's ear and whispered, dead silent, "Listen." The halfling strained her ears, but couldn't hear anything. Then she realized: there was no sound. No insects buzzed, no birds called, nothing moved, just the wind whispering through tree branches; just at the edge of hearing, a brook babbled to itself.
They waited in silence, looking around. Suddenly Bree tugged on Taedryn's cloak, and pointed upward. The elf looked up, and the sky was filled with dragon.
The dragon passed over the frozen Taedryn and Bree, the noise of its passage barely audible even in the stunned silence of the forest. Only a faint flapping sound trailed after it, and Taedryn noticed it had a rent in the trailing edge of its right wing, which was vibrating with its passage through the air.
Minutes passed, but the two women remained rooted in place. The forest stayed silent. Gradually, gradually, the insects started buzzing again. A tentative bird chirped far away, and as if they had never been missing in the first place, the forest sounds slowly returned.
Bree was the first to move, glancing up at Taedryn, hard to spot even standing right next to her. When the sounds of the forest seemed to be back to normal (and suddenly deafening after the silence of the dragon's passage), the halfling spoke: "Did 'e see us?" The noise of it caused them both to wince.
Taedryn slowly unfroze, and looked down at her companion. "She, I think." Her voice was hushed, and shook slightly with reaction.
"You could tell?"
"The coloring is a bit different, and the horns are a different shape. And... I don't know. Dragons can see for miles and miles, some of them. If I saw right, she was a copper dragon, and as I hoped, juvenile. Still immensely dangerous." She lapsed into thoughtful silence, staring at the entrance to the valley the dragon had flown up.
Bree fidgeted, twisting the hem of her cloak in her fingers. "Is that enough? Can we go back now?"
Taedryn looked down again, a hint of a wry smile twisting the corner of her mouth upward. "Are you afraid, my little heart?"
"Little has nothing to do with it. And yes. That was a juvenile? It blotted out the sky all around!" She punched the elf in the hip, somewhere between playful and terrified. "Don't mock me for my size, or I'll pull out your hair strand by strand as you sleep. What will you look like then, I wonder?"
"But I don't sleep. You know that."
"Quiet, let me have my fantasies in peace."
They journeyed farther up the valley, sticking to cover as much as they could. Taedryn thought the dragon had probably seen them, but perhaps didn't care as it flew over. She didn't want to be spotted again.
As she explained to Bree while they walked, the dragon would probably have some kind of a den up the valley, in a cave or a protected crag. Bree knew a spell to remotely look in on something if she could properly envision it. They had to get closer before it would work, though.
The walk up the valley was unremarkable. The bear they'd seen the previous day had moved out of their path, and they found no more sign of it. They did find signs of deer and a variety of smaller animals, and late in the day they spotted a doe drinking from a stream ahead of them.
"I could do with some venison," said Bree, eyeing the deer as it lapped at the water.
"Are you going to eat the whole carcass? Will you have it raw?"
"What do you mean? I know three, no, four ways to kindle a fire. We both have sharp knives. No need to be savages about it."
"Bree, you have lived too long in the town. Between the two of us, we could eat at the very most half of a haunch, and I have no desire to eat raw meat."
"Why do you insist on raw?"
"What happens when you kindle a fire and start cooking venison, dear?" Taedryn's little smile was back.
"The meat cooks! I'm no simpleton, you daft elf! It tastes good, by Erathis!"
Taedryn laughed, a bright tinkling sound that Bree had only heard a few times in the several years they'd known each other. The drinking doe raised her head and fixed the two women with a steady gaze, one ear twitching. "And what goes up in the air, pray?"
"Smoke, I suppose. And, and, it smells delicious..." Bree trailed off. "Oh. And I guess that would bring the dragon calling, who smells the delicious cooking meat aroma. Fine, have it your way. I've about had it with nuts and berries, though, I'll tell you."
Taedryn watched the doe dart away as they walked closer. "You'll have to be patient for a few more days. We've only got three days' rations left, and the forage grows sparse as we climb. See how the trees stop?" She pointed up the slope, where the treeline was visible, far above them.
"Ugh. Three more days, then. That means we should turn back today, though."
From some hidden recess, Taedryn produced a strip of brown material and handed it to Bree. "Here," she said.
"Jerky!? You've had jerky with you this whole time and fed me nothing but twigs!?" She punched the elf again, though half-heartedly as she chewed on the dried meat. "Mmf. Salty. We should stop for water soon. My skin is nearly empty." She hefted her waterskin, which sloshed with a few more mouthfuls of water.
They walked on in silence, stopping when the stream crossed their path again, to fill the waterskins. As the sun sank toward the mountains again, Bree broke the silence. "You honestly enjoy this?"
"Enjoy what?" Taedryn's eyes were on a figure far in the distance, silhouetted against a hilltop.
"This walking through the wilderness. Tramping around fighting off Kord knows what and getting ants in your clothes as you sleep."
Taedryn considered as they walked. "Yes," she said after a time. "I like being in the forest. It feels like home." She fingered the oak-leaf pendant absently. "Though I'm usually alone. It feels different with you here, I see the forest through your eyes and it looks strange."
"Do you mind that I'm with you?"
"No," answered Taedryn, perhaps a trifle too quickly. "No, I enjoy your company. We move slower, I will admit, and I worry that I will let you down in some way. You have done well," she added hastily. She took the halfling's hand and they walked side-by-side. "I enjoy your company," she repeated. Bree, thoughtful, didn't respond.
The next morning, they reached the mouth of the valley the dragon had flown up, and Bree sat down on a fallen log to attempt her scrying. She closed her eyes and muttered under her breath, faint sparkles of magical energy coalescing about her as she waved her hands in front of her.
Then she was still. Taedryn waited, not sure what to expect. Scrying took each practitioner differently. She didn't know how to do it herself, but had heard it described numerous times, and each description different.
"I see it," said Bree, her voice distant, concentrating hard on the spell. "It sleeps. It is... I suppose it could be copper-colored. There is something underneath it. I see bones, broken bones and remains. Could be it sleeps on treasure like in the stories. It is in... in a cave. It is dark, but not truly dark, there is an opening nearby." She fell silent.
"Does it have any prisoners? Anything that looks out of place?"
Bree's forehead creased with redoubled concentration. "I think you asked about prisoners. I see no prisoners, it is... just a dragon in a cave. I can't tell how big it is, the scale makes no sense, it could be the size of a child's toy or the size of a castle."
Taedryn lightly touched Bree's hand. "Can you describe it carefully?"
"I... yes. It has a hooked beak, like a hawk, and six horns atop its head, one large pair and a small pair flanking on each side, leaning far back like barbs on a spear. Colored in jagged stripes of red and coppery-brown. Six claws on each foreleg, five together and one up the leg, like a dewclaw. Oh, it twitches! What a tail, covered in shining scales, with spikes at the end, it curls like a cat's. The stripes go right down the tail to the end. The wings... wings are folded up at its sides. Can't really see them."
Bree suddenly sat more upright and her eyes fluttered open. "How was that?" She smiled at Taedryn, who was sitting on the ground a few feet away.
"That was excellent. Would you like to come with me on more of these adventures?" The faint smile was back.
"Ask me again after I've had a chance at a real meal and a bath." Bree slumped a bit. "I need a little nap. Scrying takes it out of me."
"We still need to map the dragon's cave," said Taedryn. They were walking, to Bree's distinct discomfort, toward where she'd found the dragon in her vision. Taedryn had been sketching on a map as they'd moved, though it looked to Bree more like cryptic written notes than a proper map.
"Wait, we need to go inside the cave and map it?" Bree stopped walking. Taedryn stopped a few feet further on, then came back to take up Bree's hand as she had before.
"No, I'm not suicidal. We need to map where the cave is. The council want to know details of the dragon, but mostly want to know where the dragon is making its home. With any luck, we can climb a peak a mile or two distant from the cave and see down from the top. Come, it's not that bad."
"Well," said Bree, considering, but reluctantly moving forward again, "I thought you said we only had a few days' food left. Surely climbing mountains will take a long time."
"No, we're not going to climb that," Taedryn pointed at a towering peak to their right, to the south. "More like that," she pointed at a much lower ridge to the north. "Never fear, I have the food situation in hand." She looked down at her little companion. "But you want to go back. It's not about food, is it."
"I'm sorry, I really am," said Bree, twisting a corner of her cloak and looking down at the ground. "I'm trying to keep up with you, but this is not my life, Tae. I haven't properly slept for most of a week, I feel like I haven't eaten in as long, and I miss drink with a stronger bite than water from the creek. This is your life, and you fit well here, but it's not mine, and I... I do not."
"You are brave to have gone so long without complaining, dear heart. I understand." She leaned down and kissed Bree lightly on the forehead. The halfling leaned in and closed her eyes. They kissed properly for a moment, coming face to face and pressing against each other. Bree subsided.
"Tae, I'm sorry. I do want to go home."
"No need to be sorry, Bree." Taedryn ran her hand over Bree's hair, smoothing down the curls and watching them pop back into shape. "Here is what we will do: you said the cave was about four miles up this valley. Let us climb this ridge here to our left, I see a little peak that should show us the flow of the valley. Perhaps you can point out where you think the cave is, and I can sketch it out, then we turn around and head back to town. We've looped a bit, so the return path will take less time than the time to get here. Alright?"
"Alright. Thank you for... just, thank you. You're wonderful and I'm sorry to cut your trip short." Bree briefly leaned her forehead against Taedryn's chest, then stood upright again. "Let's climb that hill!"
They set off to the top of the ridge.
By the time the sun was setting, they had climbed the ridge, mapped as much of the valley as they could see (and Taedryn creatively filled in what she couldn't see, explaining that it was a common cartographic convention when it wasn't possible to see every aspect of a landscape), and climbed back down. The dragon had not shown itself again, and before sleeping Bree scryed on it again. It was sleeping, and Bree thought she could see fresh bones on the ground.
They slept curled together, Bree snoring gently as Taedryn drifted into her resting trance. The forest around them made the gentle noises of night. Taedryn tried not to think of what an angry dragon might do to them.
Years earlier, only a few years after Florian had disappeared in the oak tree attack, the village of Treyvont had been set upon by a dragon. A great lumbering red dragon had rained down fire on the village, killing some, but mostly reducing the village itself to smoking ruin. Most of the elves of the village had escaped, thanks to someone spotting the dragon and raising the alarm before it arrived.
They tried to repel the beast, but without great success. Taedryn thought she scored a few hits with arrows, but nothing that produced a tangible effect except to make the dragon more angry. Unlike the myths, there was no magical weak spot in the dragon's armor -- it was many tons of well-armored angry reptile, breathing fiery death, and it razed the village to the ground. In the aftermath, the Treyvontians were amazed so many had survived.
No one knew what caused the dragon to go away, but eventually it did, flying off with a screaming elf from the village gripped in one horrible red claw.
The local villages had banded together after the attack and embarked on a program to locate dragons in the vicinity, eventually coordinating with Cragkeep's governing council. They sought to find the dragons, but not necessarily to eliminate them. The assembled elves felt that they should live peacefully with the animals if possible, but suddenly combat magic became a much more popular field of study, and most of the villages came to possess some variety of heavy projectile-thrower which would cause real damage to a flying target.
Taedryn had already been in training to be a scout, and it was not a substantial modification to her training to specialize in dragons. She had no special aptitude for magic, though she was able to find some magical arrows which would do more than just annoy a creature as large as a dragon, and her archery training came to focus more on moving targets.
Her parents had both escaped with their lives, but her father Dornan was badly burned, and much of his joy for life seemed to drain from him after the attack. Her mother had been out of the house when it started burning, and had found Dornan after dashing through the smoking door, a damp cloth tied across her face. She got her shots off against the dragon, but like the other villagers, hadn't caused any real damage to the wyrm. Her attention was split by caring for her burnt husband, plying what healing magic she knew, to reduce the damage.
Taedryn gladly volunteered for scouting missions to find dragon dens after the attack. She had no illusions about her ability to do any damage to such dragons as she might come across, but her cartographic experience proved useful in developing what came to be a comprehensive map of the area. She had close calls, but managed to avoid catastrophe in the numerous dragon-spotting excursions she made.
And now, as she lay curled close to Bree in the darkened forest, she reflected on those close calls. She thought of what the halfling meant to her, and pondered on the folly of an elf, who could expect to live many hundreds of years, developing bonds of affection with a halfling who had a tenth the life expectancy. She squeezed Bree tighter to her. Around them, the sounds of the night continued, unconcerned.
Their return path to town, as Taedryn thought, should take about two days to travel, but she had to revise her estimate longer and longer as they walked. Bree's fatigue was showing, and they moved slower even than on the way out.
The path she'd determined took them along a river, which she had thought would be the more pleasant way, since it avoided climbing unnecessary slopes. However, she'd forgotten about the falls; it was one of the reasons she had not come this way in the past, and somehow it had slipped her mind.
"What now?" asked Bree, looking expectantly at Taedryn. They were seated on a rock several hundred feet upstream of the falls, looking out over the oddly smooth water. Across the river, something scrambled on the slope and sent a small cascade of stones down the hill to splash into the water. The river was wide enough at this point that Taedryn didn't seem concerned, so Bree wasn't concerned either.
"I'm sorry Bree, I don't know just now. I feel such a fool. We can return the way we came, there's a pass we could reach in a day or so, but it will add two days to our trek. I have no tricks for crossing a hundred-foot waterfall." Across the river, more stones bounced into the water.
Bree glanced across the water, concern registering on her face. "What is that, do you suppose?"
"I know not. Something stagger-footed, it would seem. I doubt it is threatening." Even so, Taedryn found herself staring at the trees, willing them to become transparent to her senses. She could think of several dozen different creatures who might be there, walking about in daylight near a river, stumbling enough to cause rockfalls, and at least half of them were an immediate danger. Her only consolation was that Greybeard, her danger-sensing dagger, had not yet given her any indication of a problem.
"Well, sitting and staring at the trees will not help us. Let us go examine the situation we are in at a closer remove." Taedryn stood up and Bree followed her lead.
Upon closer examination, it was as bad as Taedryn had thought. The waterfall cascaded over a sheer cliff, covered in damp moss and plants that would make climbing deadly even if either of them had been skilled climbers. The waterfall itself broke into mist halfway down, mostly obscuring the rocks that occasionally came visible, like blackened teeth in a white mouth. A small pool at the base of the falls quickly descended into shallow river further down the valley floor.
Their examination point was free of trees or overhanging vegetation, and Taedryn wasn't entirely surprised when she felt the familiar tingle in her mind from Greybeard. "Bree! Cover, now!" she hissed, turning back to the forest, a few dozen yards behind them. "Come on!" She grabbed the halfling's hand as something clattered into the rocks upstream of them. She spied the coarse fletching of an orcish arrow and started to dart toward the forest when she realized that Bree was not with her.
The halfling was standing, completely exposed, staring at the group of orcs across the lip of the waterfall. More arrows were sailing through the air. "Bree!" she shouted. The halfling turned part-way around, then fell to the ground, a feathered shaft protruding from her leg. She cried out and Taedryn dashed forward, side-stepping around an arrow she had tracked from its launching point, hoping she wasn't missing the one that would hit her. She managed to pick up Bree bodily, and moved as quickly as she could toward the cover of the forest as what seemed like a hail of arrows skipped and smashed themselves to bits on the rocks around them.
For a miracle, Taedryn wasn't hit in the barrage. Bree was grasping at the orcish arrow in her leg, her face white with pain and fear. "Stop," said Taedryn. "I'll support you on this side, can you hop on your other leg?" Bree nodded, making a huffing noise through gritted teeth as Taedryn set her down. "We must move, and quickly. One of the orcs was trying to cross the river, the others may well follow. I don't know how deep it is, I can only hope they will all be swept over." They were moving now, Bree hopping painfully on her right leg, the arrow in her left leg swinging grotesquely with each movement.
After only a few yards, Bree stopped, and said, "I can't Tae, it hurts too much! Can you get it out?"
Taedryn looked quickly around, and led Bree painfully to a large tree trunk bounded by a bush at its base. "Stay here. Don't pull at it, you'll make the wound worse, it'll be barbed. I'll get it out in a moment."
Across the river, two orcs were trying to cross the rapid water, and three more were staying on the far bank. Two had bows, and one had some kind of spear in its hand. Taedryn examined them quickly from the cover of a tree trunk a hundred feet upstream from where she'd left Bree, then pulled back an arrow and let fly. One of the orcs in the river jerked and grabbed at its arm, flailing for a moment as the water threatened to sweep it away. It recovered its balance and ripped out the arrow, ignoring the barbed broadhead. Taedryn cursed under her breath.
The next arrow was aimed with greater care, and she was pleased to see that her targeted orc on the far shore dropped its bow and flailed at its neck, where her shaft showed as a glint in the sunlight and a speck of red from the dyed fletches. The red color increased as the orc started bleeding, and dropped to its knees.
Unfortunately, the other orc with the bow had now spotted her hiding place, and she hurriedly ducked behind the tree's trunk as two arrows thudded into it, distressingly well-aimed. She could still hear the two orcs crossing the river as they splashed through the water. At least they were concentrating on her, and not on Bree.
She nocked an arrow, carefully selecting a bodkin to pierce the armor of her intended target. Swinging around the tree, she lined up the shot on the orc she'd already shot, easily identified by the red streak down his arm. They were already more than half-way across the river. Why wasn't the river deeper here!? The arrow flew true and slammed into the orc's broad chest. Losing its balance once again, it flailed its arms to stay upright, but the river's flow was too strong, and it fell into the water with a splash. There was a brief, guttural cry, quickly cut off, as it went over the waterfall. The other crossing orc seemed to reconsider its choices, and faltered in its passage for just a second. Taedryn loosed another arrow at it, but it moved out of the way so that the shaft flew through the space its head had occupied a moment before.
Yelping despite herself, Taedryn jerked back behind the tree as she spotted the incoming arrows. The spear-wielding orc had picked up the fallen bow and was shooting with its companion, and Taedryn felt something tug at her leg. Looking down, she saw a ragged cut in her trews, and blood beginning to trickle down her thigh where an arrow had just missed piercing her.
The elf breathed deeply in and out, and twirled around the tree to shoot again, but had to pause to take in what she saw: the orc which had been in the middle of the river was gone, and the two upright orcs on the far bank were doing an odd sort of marionette dance, paying her no mind. She loosed a half-dozen arrows, only hitting on three of the shots, but it was enough. One arrow pierced an orc through the eye, and the hunched, bulky figure fell to the ground, lifeless. The other received an arrow to the back, and another to the leg. It roared in pain, but didn't seem to be much slowed by the hits. Then suddenly it jerked again, and seemed to fling itself into the water, drawn almost as on an angler's line through the water until it flopped unceremoniously over the falls.
Taedryn listened hard, but could hear no further movement. Two orcs lay dead across the river, and the other three were gone. She'd seen two go over the edge, and one had disappeared while she was behind the cover of the tree. In a moment of pure terror, she realized she didn't know if it had been swept over the falls, or had reached their side of the river. Reached Bree.
She tore through the forest, to where she'd left Bree. The halfling wasn't there, but was leaning behind a tree as if covering from the attacks of the orcs. She favored her left leg, which still had the orcish arrow protruding from it. To Taedryn's surprise, Bree's dress was not soaked in blood. She looked up as she slid down the tree's side, and smiled tiredly. "Did you get them?" Her eyes closed as if she was about to fall asleep.
"Oh no! No falling asleep for you!" Taedryn kneeled next to Bree, slapping her face, and the halfling opened her eyes again.
"Do not fear, I'm tired, not dying. Can you help me get this damned arrow out of my leg now?" She waved at the arrow, and as Taedryn looked closer, she saw that the shaft of the arrow protruded from what appeared to be undamaged skin.
"What is this?" Taedryn asked, confused at what she was seeing.
"I healed it," said Bree, smiling again. "But I didn't think about the fact that the fucking arrow was still in there. I can't magic away the arrow." She blew a frustrated breath through her teeth. "I just wanted it to stop hurting."
Taedryn rocked back, laughing suddenly, tears of fear and relief in her eyes. She hugged Bree close, the laugh turning into a sob. "Oh gods, Bree!" she said, voice muffled by Bree's hair, into which her face was pressed. "I'm so sorry. I'm so happy you're alright." She held the halfling close, her tears running down the smaller woman's hair. She pulled her head back, wiping away tears and sniffing undecorously. Bree smiled timorously at Taedryn.
"So I did alright?"
"Was that you?" Taedryn waved across the river to where the orcs had been.
"Yes. Once I had the leg under control," she shifted and grimaced, "I remembered that I knew telekinesis. That's where you move things with your mind, and, and... I just started jerking at them. I couldn't see them well enough to pull away their bows, but I could tug at their arms and legs. I tried to get them to fall into the water, hoping they'd go over the falls. Must have worked, eh?" She closed her eyes again. "This bedevilled arrow still hurts. Any idea how to get it out?"
"Yes, but you're not going to like it very much."
Bree groaned. "We don't have to push it through, do we?"
"No, and that would be a bad idea. I'm not sure how halflings are built, but if you were an elf and it kept going, it would hit the artery here," she touched the inside of Bree's thigh, which caused the halfling to jump. "And you would die very quickly."
"Ow," she said. "Well, let's not have that. I don't think we're built that different. What's your idea, then?" Bree contorted her body around to take a closer look at the arrow protruding from her leg.
"I'm afraid it's going to be field surgery. I'll sharpen my smaller dagger as fine as ever I can, and cut along the shaft until we find the arrowhead. Clipped shafts of feathers will fit over the barbs, then we can pull it out. Can you heal it again?"
Bree's face had gone white. She nodded, gulping, but didn't say anything.
"You've been so brave, Bree. You can do this." Taedryn stroked Bree's face gently.
"Alright," said the halfling, taking a deep, shaky breath. "Let's get it over with. I don't suppose you've got a flask of whiskey hiding somewhere, do you?" Taedryn shook her head. "Figured. Go on, don't make me wait."
They retreated further up, away from the river, once Taedryn had gotten the arrow out of Bree's leg. Bree had clamped her teeth down on a stick, biting most of the way through it in her effort not to cry out, but the arrow was out. The halfling nearly fainted when she saw the size of the arrow's bloody head, which was as big across as the length of her own thumb. However, she'd kept herself conscious and healed the wound with another incantation.
Now they rested, several hundred yards above the river's edge. Taedryn had scouted around their resting spot for nearly twenty minutes, setting tiny snares that would alert her if anything large passed too close. Bree just lay back on the dead leaves, letting her head swim as it clearly wanted to do.
"I'm not cut out for this adventuring thing," she said, eyes still closed, as Taedryn re-entered the little hollow they'd selected.
"Honestly, you're doing well. I did not reckon a city-bred halfling like yourself would do half so well as you are. Here, drink this." Taedryn sat down and pressed a waterskin into Bree's hands and the halfling took a long draught.
"What, did you figure I'd fall apart? Why did you bring me, then?" Bree's voice was annoyed under the blanket of fatigue that overlaid it.
"Of course not. I brought you because you wanted to come, and... I wanted you to be with me. You volunteered, remember?" Taedryn laid a hand on Bree's shoulder.
"Ugh, why did I do that?" Bree handed the waterskin back and crossed her arms over her chest again. "I'm sorry, I know why I did it. I wanted to be with you too. I didn't think this wilderness thing would be so hard. It sounded glamorous. I always hear you describing your adventures, and I think I wanted to see you in action. At least that hasn't been disappointing." She peeked under a heavy eyelid at Taedryn, who was smiling down at her. "Shut up."
"I spoke not a word."
"Didn't need to." Bree heaved a little sigh. "I'm sorry to be slowing you down so much."
Taedryn leaned down and kissed Bree on the forehead. "Not to worry. We'll get ourselves home in a few days, turn in our report to the council, and go to the bath house. Scrub all that dirt off each other."
"Throw in a steak dinner, and you've got a date."
"Speaking of which, I'm going to see what I can find for dinner. It's probably still not safe to have a fire, so it is likely to be more twigs for us. I will be in earshot; call out if anything arises." Taedryn rose in a single, smooth motion.
"Taedryn," said Bree, her eyes still closed.
"Yes, Bree," said Taedryn, pausing as she slung the bow over her shoulder.
"I love you." Bree, hearing nothing, opened her eyes to look up at Taedryn, but the elf was nowhere to be seen.
Bree awoke with a start, and had a moment of disoriented panic when she couldn't see anything. She tried to sit up and had only begun the motion when she realized where she was: in the woods, curled into Taedryn's arms. It must be after midnight. Her leg tingled where the orc arrow had been embedded earlier in the day. She must have fallen asleep, and Taedryn had let her sleep rather than wake her for a meal. At the thought her stomach rumbled, and she tried to gently extricate herself from Taedryn's arms. As usual, the elf came to life almost as soon as she started moving.
"Bree," she said, surfacing quickly from the trance. "What troubles you?"
"I'm sorry to wake you, dearest. Were you able to find anything to eat? My stomach feels like it has space for an entire roebuck inside it."
"Oh, yes." Taedryn made some rustling noises, moving confidently in the pitch black under the trees' canopy. Bree felt a moment of envy for the elvish ability to see in the dark. "Here," she pressed something into Bree's hand. The halfling raised her hand to her nose and was greeted by the most unbelievable aroma: some kind of roast meat with onions. She greedily scarfed it down. "I was able to snare a hare, and roasted it over the littlest fire along with some wild onions. I thought you might approve. Truly, I'm surprised the smell of cooking didn't wake you."
"Is there any more?"
"Well, I was hoping to save it for tomorrow..."
There was a moment of frustrated silence, then Bree said, "I"m trying to think of something sufficiently debasing that I would do for any more of that rabbit. Perhaps I could wash your feet in ass's milk? A thousand days in a row?"
The sound of tinkling laughter echoed in their little hollow. "No need for that. Here you go, love." Bree ate the remainder of the rabbit, a warm glow spreading through her at the welcome taste of real meat.
Suddenly, she found she was surrounded with Taedryn, who had moved to sit almost cross-legged around her. The elf's arms closed softly over her stomach, and she breathed in her ear, "Bree." Her voice wavered, and Bree thought she could feel a slight tremble in Taedryn's arms.
Butterflies suddenly fluttering through her belly, Bree murmured, "Right here."
Taedryn gently kissed her, and whispered, "What you said before. I..." She inhaled faintly. "I love you too. Don't... Don't go away from me. Please?" Bree felt hot tears on her cheek.
In response, Bree turned and kissed her back; after a long, busy silence, she whispered, "I promise."
Around them, the night forest went about its business, unconcerned.