Sleep was far off, visiting someone else. Avi laid awake, curled up on her side beneath thick woollen blankets, staring at the closed tent flaps. Bremi had retrieved his cloak, another blanket, and his lute from the tent before Avi had settled in for the night. At first, she'd left the flaps open and watched Bremi as he added wood to the fire, cleaned out the laundry pot, hung his clothing over a nearby branch, and taken care of his horse. After the sun had completely gone down, however, small biting flies found their way into the tent and made a feast of Avi's blood. Bremi had smoked them out, using a clump of dried leaves whose smoke was quite fragrant. Then he'd firmly tied closed the tent flaps. Avi watched his silhouette as it settled next to the fire and listened with closed eyes as he crooned softly to his horse, accompanying himself on the lute.
Now that he had apparently gone to sleep, however, Avi was alone with her thoughts. She found she had much to think about. Where was she? Was she in Europe still? Was she in some forest in New Zealand? Or was she indeed in some other world? She didn't think Maisie would be so cruel as to keep her drugged for the twelve hour flight to New Zealand and then dump her in the middle of the woods. She and Maisie had known each other since before birth—their mothers were sisters and were pregnant at the same time. Avi was closer to her cousin than she was to her own sister, and while she and Maisie had played some pretty nasty pranks, she didn't think Maisie would be this mean.
So, the alternatives were that she had been kidnapped. Someone had sneaked into her flat while she was sleep, drugged her, and shipped her off to some foreign land, dumped her in the middle of nowhere and... And what? What could they possibly think to gain from doing this? Avi wasn't rich, nor were her parents. Her mother worked as a secretary to the headmaster of the primary school Avi and her siblings had attended. Her father was a retired U.S. Naval commander, who was now employed at as an engineer at Hunterston nuclear power plant. He didn't make a lot of money, either. Maybe whomever had taken her was a psycho, someone who kidnapped girls and then tortured them by dumping them and...
Avi sat straight up, clutching the blankets to her chest. What if Bremi was the psycho? What if this was a way to subdue her? What if he was softening her up, only to hunt her later, like in that horrible book, The Most Dangerous Game? She looked around the tent, hoping to see some sort of weapon she could use to defend herself, but the only thing she'd seen that even remotely resembled that was the sword that Bremi kept strapped to his waist.
She took a deep breath and slid back down into the bed. That was ludicrous. Bremi wasn't a psycho, he wasn't going to hunt her like some animal. It was more believable that she was... Well, that she was still dreaming. Or, yes. Yes, she was in some other country or continent, which was only slightly more believable than Bremi being a psycho. But only slightly.
Eventually she relaxed enough that she could fall asleep. She was warm and dry, her belly full of good food and amazing wine. She was safe, and in two days' time, she would either be in some city in some country she'd never heard of, or she'd be home. Either way, it made the most sense to just go with the flow. She didn't dream that night, mostly because she thought she was already dreaming, and this wasn't some scene out of Inception.
* * *
The next morning, birdsong woke her. She sat up, stretched, and climbed out of the tent. She was greeted with the scent of frying bacon and smiled as her stomach rumbled in anticipation. It seemed a strange thing to have a fry-up in the middle of the woods, but considering all the other abnormal things about these past two days, she wasn't going to look askance at it.
“Good morning,” Bremi said from his spot next to the fire. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did, thank you. I heard you singing and playing last night. It was lovely.”
Bremi's smile grew and he ducked his head in a grateful bow. “Thank you. It's how I earn my keep, so I thought it the perfect time to practice a new song I've heard.”
Avi approached the fire and sat down next to Bremi. There was a large cast iron skillet with a rasher of bacon and some slices of what looked like apple frying away happily. “What was the song?” she asked, turning to Bremi. She saw the lute was still at his side, and she nodded towards it. “Can you play it for me?”
“I would love to.” He picked up the lute, plucked a few of the strings, as if making sure it was still in tune, and then began strumming a light melody. It was gorgeous, lush music that belonged in a cathedral, and yet still fit perfectly in the rustic setting of the forest clearing. Bremi's voice was well-suited for the instrument; it twined and danced with the lute, taking the harmony lines and letting the lute star. It was an unusual arrangement for an instrument to take the lead while the voice provided counterpoint.
She watched Bremi as he sang and strummed. He looked as though he meant every word of the song, which was about a man whose lover had left him and how he was pining after her. He lauded her looks, praised her sweetness, her gentleness, and he wept and pleaded with her to come back. Avi couldn't fathom anyone leaving Bremi, unless he had really horrible personal habits. Maybe he picked his nose, or clipped his toenails in bed.
“Did you enjoy it?” he asked after finishing.
“Oh, yes. It was beautiful. Did you write it?”
“No, I heard it from another bard in a small tavern in Kespijian.”
“Kes... Kespijian? Where is that?”
Bremi's soft chuckle made Avi smile, despite the fact that the laughter was aimed at her. “It is south of here. The tavern was in Otterholt, which is on the edge of the Dim, the huge swamp between the southern coast and this forest.”
She nodded slowly, filing this information away. “So, we're leaving today? Heading for Litsey? What can I do to help get us on the road?”
Bremi carefully laid aside the lute and leaned forward, using a piece of bread to sop up some of the bacon grease. Then he laid a few of the apple slices across the bread and topped that with three slices of the bacon before handing the whole thing to her. He also handed her the same stone bottle from last night, unstoppered and sloshing lightly. The decadence of drinking wine at breakfast was something Avi knew she'd remember forever. “Eat something,” he said. “I'll take care of things.” Before she could protest, he stood and moved into the tent. As she sat and ate, Bremi cleared out the tent, stuffing the blankets and her nightgown into his saddle bags. Then he rolled up the bedrolls, tied them to the back of the horse's saddle, which was already on her, and collapsed the tent. That, too, went onto the horse.
“At least let me do the washing up,” Avi said once she'd finished her meal. The fruit had indeed been apples, and they tasted as though they'd been sprinkled with cinnamon while they fried. It was a delicious, simple meal, one that she'd have to remember when she got home.
“All right. Take them to the stream and be sure to scour them out with some of the sand from the bottom of the stream.” He handed her the skillet and she did exactly as she was told, pleased to see how clean everything was using just the sand and the water. She returned to the campsite, amazed that there was almost no trace of their stay. The fire had been completely covered with dirt, and the stones had been returned to their previous places.
“Can you ride?” Bremi asked.
Avi nodded and mounted the horse with a little help from Bremi. He made her stand in the stirrups to check their length and then handed her the reins. “She's an easy gait, friendly as a kitten, too. But if we come to some sweethearts, you'll have to keep her reined in, or we'll be stuck until she's eaten the whole patch.”
“Yes, they're a small flower, pink, heart-shaped. Grow in the shade, low to the ground. Sweet to the taste. I'll point them out if I see any.”
They set off, Bremi walking in front of Avi and the horse. He was silent mostly, his head swivelling on his neck as he looked back and forth in the depths of the forest. Avi watched him, tried to figure out what he was looking for. “Are there more of those poisonlings about?” she asked after a few minutes.
“There might be. There could also be taintbugs, or cloudspawn.”
“And what are those?”
She could hear his chuckle float back to her and shook her head. “Taintbugs are about the size of a squirrel,” he said. “On their own, they're killed easily enough, but since they hunt in packs, they're dangerous.” He glanced over his shoulder at her and saw the fear on her face. He stopped walking and gave her a comforting smile. “They rarely sneak up on people, though.” He waved his hand in front of his nose and made a face like he'd smelled something awful.
Avi grinned and nodded her understanding. “I see. So taintbugs aren't called that just because. And cloudspawn?”
“They look like mist or fog. But once they get around you, they steal all your body heat and you freeze to death.”
“So how can you tell the difference between them and regular fog?”
“You can't. Once they're on you, you can only burn them away with naked flame. Otherwise...” He shrugged and turned to walk back to the front.
“Well, isn't that lovely,” she muttered and gently kicked the horse back to her steady walk. The rest of the morning's travel was silent; with things like cloudspawn and taintbugs and poisonlings about, she wanted to keep distraction to a minimum.
They stopped at noon for a quick meal of small, hard apples, and some strips of dried meat, washed down with the last of the wine. Avi ate in the saddle and Bremi ate while standing and looking into the trees. She couldn't decide if his constant vigilance was chivalrous or disconcerting. Were these woods full of so many dangers that he had to remain on guard at all times? Was the entire world like that, too?
“Will we come to a road or something soon?” she asked once they'd picked up their pace once more.
“Tomorrow morning, most likely. We'll leave the forest and come to the River Road, which runs alongside the Bryn River. We'll take that until the road turns south, along Glannyn Creek. Night after, we'll be in Litsey. Day after that, we'll go see Father Toliver and get you home.”
Avi smiled and heaved a great sigh, happy to hear that.