The Party Grows
Clasping her hand to Caelia's mouth, Rhyli hissed, "You know this man?"
Caelia nodded and Rhyli released her grasp. "It is Evandri, the captain of the guards at Aelhall."
Because of the expression on Caelia's face as she spoke the name Evandri, Rhyli made the very rash decision to preempt Kal'en's plan to take care of this tracker. Rhyli sighed to herself and quickly and quietly lowered herself two branch levels.
Luckily the mounted captain of the guard was so intent on following the trail that he was oblivious to the movements in the tree above him.
Once she was situated just right, Rhyli swung herself down and seated herself directly behind the stunned Evandri. Simultaneously, she had unsheathed her blade and was now pressing it gently, yet meaningfully, against his throat.
"I do not wish to spill you blood, so please do not give me cause. Around yonder bend is a bowman with deadly aim who will fell you before you even detect his presence, so be smart and answer my questions."
Evandri sat on the horse with his arms slightly raised as a sign of compliance so Rhyli continued.
"Why do you track us?"
"I know not what you mean. I was merely lost and attempting to study the road just here…"
"So, you are not going to be smart?" Evandri drew a painful breath as Rhyli's blade pressed deeper into his flesh. "I know you are Evandri, Captain of the Guards of Aelhall."
"Rhyli, no!" Caelia came into view as she climbed to a lower branch of the tree still overshadowing the two on the horse. "Let him go."
Evandri's arms both dropped and Rhyli sensed a significant level of battle-readiness from her supposed opponent instantly leave. It was almost as if he had completely forgotten there was a knife at his throat.
"Here, Lady, let me help you down."
Evandri took the reigns of his horse and moved over to where Caelia was attempting to helplessly lower herself to the ground. Rhyli, in the meantime, was knocked somewhat askew. Flailing her weaponless arm in an attempt to keep balance, Rhyli looked as if she was trying to fly.
In the end, it failed to work as she slid backwards when Evandri knocked into her helping Caelia into his arms and then gently clucked his tongue, urging his horse forward. Sitting there in the dust of the trail, watching Evandri and Caelia walk off, Rhyli heard the warm chuckle of Kal'en beside her.
"Well, are you just going to stand there and laugh at me?"
Rhyli stuck out a hand which Kal'en grasped and pulled her up with. He didn't let go right away, however. Instead he just smiled and looked her straight in the eyes for a few moments. Then he chuckled some more, clapped her on the shoulder, and the two of them made to follow the rest of their ever growing party.
Evandri walked his horse several yards to a copse of trees by the side of the road. Nodding to the foursome, Evandri indicated the shelter of the trees.
"Perhaps we had better get off the road momentarily while I get some answers."
He dismounted and helped Caelia to the ground beside him.
"Get some answers? YOU were following US! Why should WE give you anything?"
Rhyli glared at Evandri. The captain of the guards towered over Rhyli's five foot-eight inch frame, yet Rhyli did not appear to flinch at the warrior before her.
Evandri gazed at Rhyli, his clear blue eyes studying her face. He removed his helm and brushed his hand over the top of his head. He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a brooch on a chain and showed it to Rhyli.
Pointing at the elaborately decorated brooch Evandri said, "I am Evandri Osc, Captain of the Guards of Aelhall, champion of Lord Ael, and protector of Lady Caelia Eld-ar. This is why I follow you. Not for your sake, but for hers."
Turning to Caelia, Evandri put away the brooch. "Lady, you have potentially been in danger since the moment you left Aelhall. You were sent away for your own safety, but I was sent after you to make sure you were not running into even more trouble. Aelhall is lost, so we must seek refuge elsewhere."
Rhyli stepped forward and thrust herself into the conversation once more. "Let me get this straight. You are Captain of the Guards and you were sent to follow Caelia? Isn't she just a maid or something?"
Caelia's face reddened and she shot back, "How dare you! I was lady-in-waiting to Ael's sister and am noble in my own right."
Kalen finally stepped into the fray and put a hand on Rhyli's arm.
"Perhaps we had been listen to more of the story."
With a curtsey, Rhyli grinned at Caelia. Looking at Evandri, Rhyli swept her hand in a broad arc.
Evandri chuckled under his breath while Caelia still glared at Rhyli.
"These two do know how to bait each other. I do not know why I was sent after Lady Caelia, but I received my orders from Ael himself in his private quarters just as Lady Caelia received her orders to leave Aelhall. I was told to follow at a distance, see to Lady Caelia in all circumstances, and make sure that she got out of trouble at every turn all the while not showing myself. Ael told me that should Caelia's identity be discovered, it could destroy the future of the country. Though I puzzled over this, Ael did not elaborate. He simply told me to guard her life with my life."
Caelia's eyes narrowed. "So it was you who got me out of the jail in Prydell?"
"Yes. But I never imagined you would take it upon yourself to bring along a friend when you got out."
"Well, here we all are and yet we have no more answers now than we did before. You followed me because I am in danger from someone or something undetermined. I just don't understand why Ael would care about my safety so much that he personally assigned his Captin and Champion to follow me. It just doesn't make sense."
"This is all utterly fascinating, but I would suggest that considering the circumstances you just described, we get further off the road and find a place to hide out for a while. For reasons I have yet to figure out, I too am a fugative. You may have your champion, Caelia, but I am not so blessed. I would be a bit more comfortable getting a few more leagues behind me and Prydell today."
Rhyli looked each individual in the face and then mounted up on Perseus. Kalen mounted behind her. Giving Caelia his hand, Evandri eased Caelia up into the saddle of his horse and mounted behind her.
After two hours of circuiting hills, rocks, trees and a lake, the foursome stopped at an abandoned goat hovel set on the edge of a clearing backed by the forest and a great cliff overhead.
"We had better stop here and make a camp. By the time everything is ready, it will be dark." Rhyli lept from the back of Perseus with a careless ease and Kalen followed suit. Evandri shrugged and did the same, followed by Caelia. The horses were tethered and Caelia examined the interior of the hovel. There was straw covering the floor but not much else. It would sleep two people, and the other two would be on their own for the night. Ducking back out of the cramped quarters she gave her report.
"Well, the hovel will slept two quite comfortably, in a manner of speaking. I'm afraid two of us will be by the fire tonight."
Kalen shifted his weight. "I am used to sleeping in the open air with the stars as my only blanket. I will sleep by the fire. It only makes sense that you ladies have the hovel."
"I will be on watch much of the night anyway, so I agree with Kalen."
Evandri swung the packs off his horse.
"Well, there is no sense standing around here starving while the forest teams with game. I will go find us some dinner. Someone should get a fire started and gather some wood."
Rhyli turned and walked into the forest. Caelia watched her go, unsure how Rhyli would catch game without a bow or spear.
Glancing at Evandri, Kalen quickly added, "I think I'll go help her," and walked quickly off in the same direction that Rhyli had just gone.
Caelia spent the next few moments gathering some firewood which was plentiful along the forest edge while Evandri saw to the horses' comfort, rubbing them down with dry grass and fetching water from a nearby stream. When she had enough to get a fire started, she proceeded to set a blaze in the small fire ring just outside the door of the goat hovel.
Evandri returned from the care of the horses and was taken aback by the roaring fire.
"How does a lady such as yourself know how to build such a brilliant blaze?"
Caelia shrugged. "I may be a lady, but that doesn't mean I also don't know how to sneak out of the fortress to do a little camping on my own. I spent many pleasant evenings alone on the side of the cliffs near the sea. When my duties were over of course."
She smiled at Evandri as she remembered those happy days. Caelia pulled the blankets from her horse's pack and made a soft spot by the fire on which to sit. She motioned to Evandri to sit as well.
"So did you tell me everything when you said that you truly do not know why Ael took it upon himself to see to my safety personally? It just does not make sense."
Evandri gazed intently at the fire as if answers could be discovered there. He had no answers to give Caelia, but he had some suspicions. How much should he reveal to her when he had no real answers himself? As Captain of the Guards and Ael's champion, his duty was to remain at Ael's side to the death.
But Ael himself had insisted upon his seeing to Caelia's safety. This was the farthest thing from being typical. Ael loved his household and was a generous, caring and conscientious lord. His sister, Ilassa, loved Caelia like a daughter. She was Ael's older sister but had acted more like a mother to Caelia than anything else.
Caelia had led a life spared from the harsh realities of the world. Caelia herself was aware of this, which is probably why she spent some many evenings alone along the cliffs of the sea. None of this, in and of itself, would explain why the lord's champion was to personally see to the safety of a lady-in-waiting of the household.
"I told you all I know, lady."
Evandri sat by the fire at ease with his surroundings. He was a leader of men, had the best his position allowed. His weaponry was the finest, his horse, a powerful beast.
He had comfortable lodgings at Aelhall, was well-liked by all his men, and cherished as a son by Ael himself. Yet a campfire by a goat hovel in the wilderness suited his tastes just fine.
Caelia studied Evandri across the fire. The sun would set within the next hour and a half, so the sky was streaked with color. She was aware of the existence of Evandri, as was every female at Aelhall.
He was the Captain of Ael's powerful warriors. They were renowned throughout the land as the strongest, bravest and most well trained guard anywhere. And he was handsome. He had been the target of many a maid's flirtations, yet he somehow stayed mysteriously aloof to their efforts. No one in the household knew much about Evandri.
Yes, he was a leader, but that was by training. He did his job with a cool confidence that elicited respect and awe from those who followed him. But he was a quiet man who kept to himself if duty did not call him.
"Evandri," At his name, Evandri came out of his contemplation of the fire and looked at Caelia directly. "I thank you for your care and watch over me these last few days. I have found out just how vulnerable I am. Prydell held many more surprises for me than I was ready for. Rhyli and I were thrown together by happenchance, but she and I escaped that city together. We each did a favor for the other, and I cannot easily forget that. It seems I owe the two of you my life."
Evandri dropped his eyes to the fire again.
"I do my duty, my lady."
"It must have been difficult for you to leave the side of Ael to watch after me."
"My duty is to Ael, yes, but he had another task for me. I will fulfill my task if it cost me my life."
He looked at Caelia again, his clear blue eyes hard as steel. Caelia felt a chill rush down her spine and looked away, her cheeks warming.
"Evandri, I now must ask you to help me again. I need to go back. Back to Aelhall. The story you have told me adds to another mystery, and I fear that if I keep going farther and farther away from Aelhall, I will be getting farther and farther away from any answers."