When Avarron woke up, he found himself leaning against the tree trunk he and Eleana had used as seat when reading the book. He had fallen asleep while reading. The sun had just risen, mixing the sky’s blue with a soft orange. Its rays warmed the left side of his face and reflected off the dew on the grass.
Eleana was still sleeping, leaning on his right side and with her head lying on his shoulder. Why she hadn’t found herself a more comfortable spot to sleep, he could only wonder. Looking at her, sleeping peacefully, he didn’t really want to wake her up. Yet he knew that they had to move on, and that Tufas would not allow them any choice in the matter.
He softly nudged her and called her: “Lady Mantione?”
Slowly she opened her eyes. “Oh, it is morning already?”
“I’m afraid so, my lady. I would’ve let you sleep, but I think we should not delay.”
She softly smiled at him. “You are both kind and right, my knight.”
Eleana slowly got up, allowing Avarron to do the same. She tried to brush off her dress, but the lower part was wet from the dew and the grass and leaves stuck to it. The wet fabric clung to her body, which further accentuated her shape.
Avarron averted his eyes and swung his cloak around Eleana’s shoulders. “Will this keep you comfortable, my lady?” he asked.
“Yes, it will. Thank you, dear knight,” she smiled over her shoulder at him. Her eyes lit up in the morning light, and Avarron smiled back at her. She was beautiful indeed.
“Done playing dress-up?” Tufas asked impatiently.
Avarron had not seen him approach, but that was no surprise anymore. “We are ready to leave, if that’s what you’re asking,” he answered.
Without another word, Tufas turned around and continued trough the fields in the same line of yesterday.
“Some breakfast would have been nice,” Eleana muttered to herself as she placed a hand on her stomach.
“Forgive me, my lady. I have nothing on me,” Avarron told her. “If I had anticipated such a turn of events…”
Eleana shook her head. “Do not blame yourself. I shouldn’t complain, but our guide seems to care little whether we starve or not.”
“Spoiled greenlanders,” Tufas growled. “Expecting to receive three meals a day regardless of the circumstances. This place is teeming with so much life, you walk across the food you crave.”
Avarron couldn’t really argue with that, so he decided to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open for any food. It was too early in the season to expect a lot, especially here in the open field. Still, he did find some bushes of strawberries and raspberries. They had just started ripening.
He fell somewhat behind and then sprinted to catch up. He presented Eleana with his finds and she gratefully accepted his offer. The look on her face told him the berries had indeed been very sour. But she quickly put on a warm smile for him. “Allow me a second demonstration.”
She took a small vial and placed a few drops over their breakfast. “It will taste much better now.”
Avarron tasted another berry. At first, it was sour, but after a moment, became perfectly ripe with sweetness.
“What do you think, am I any good as a cook?” Eleana asked him hopefully.
He gave her a broad smile. “You are incredible, my lady.”
They ate their simple breakfast as they followed Tufas through the forest. It was around noon that Avarron realized they were actually still in the same forest. It marked a significant change with the day before, when they had travelled through a much more diverse landscape. The forests had been rather small, passed through in no more than two hours, often less.
This forest was obviously much larger. It was darker too, with the canopy covering almost the complete sky. It reminded him of the forests at home, which he took as a sign that they headed in the right direction.
Lost in thought, he didn’t notice Eleana put the cloak back on his shoulders. “Thank you for borrowing,” she said.
He realized a moment too late that she was standing in front of him and walked right into her.
The accidental push made her lose her balance and she fell backwards. Instinctively, he gently placed his hands on her shoulders, picking her up in the middle of her fall, and pulled her back on her feet.
She was now leaning against him, startled. Before he could apologize for his clumsiness, she placed a hand on his shoulder a smiled brightly. “You’re even more handsome up close.”
Looking down on her, he noticed his hands still firmly held her shoulders. She looked amazing in that shimmering sky-blue dress, despite the damage from the undergrowth. Her golden hair flowed down her back as her bright blue eyes looked up into his.
Yet he was uncertain how to respond. It was unusual for noblewomen to be so forward regarding their interest. He was used to bar maids flirting with him, but he wiuldnt dare to compare Lady Mantione with peasant women.
Again she seemed to read his mind as she answered his unspoken question: “In Nevarus, we tend to be more direct. Formality and etiquette only take away valuable time that could be spent in study,” she smirked.
“Truth be told, I do tire of it sometimes. Except…” his mouth clicked shut again. That was not a topic he should be bringing up. One word seems to be enough for Eleana to perceive him, though.
She suddenly pulled away from him. “I’m sorry, I should have understood that princess Lannvaire would not take just any knight to lead her escort,” she said, face colouring into a blush.
“No, my lady,” Avarron said soothing as he stepped towards her. “There is nothing between me and princess Lannvaire. I am not exactly of the right family to marry into royalty, you know,” he offered her a warm smile.
“I suppose you are not,” Eleana said, giving it a moment of thought. “But there is another lady, awaiting your return with a sigh?” she asked carefully.
“Dozens, Rogan would have me believe,” Avarron laughed. “I’m afraid I do not know any of them though, and the boy does like to exaggerate.” He almost smacked his forehead for his own stupidity. That was only the correct response if Ferdiag had asked the question.
Eleana simply smiled and returned her hand to his shoulder. As she opened her mouth, there was a sudden voice above them: “Love dulls the senses, sir knight.”
Avarron recognized it as Tufas’. Looking up, he saw a dark silhouette that could only be the assassin, blocking out the sunlight and casting a shadow over him and Eleana. Usually his first response to a sudden shadow was to draw his sword, but Eleana had taken up all of his attention and he had completely failed to notice it.
“Have you any idea how long you’ve been standing here?” Tufas complained, dropping down from the tree he was sitting in.
Avarron had to admit to himself he hadn’t the slightest of clue, so he turned the question around: “Not that long, since you waited for us.”
“If I didn’t want you to follow me, you wouldn’t have been able to,” Tufas pointed out as he walked past them and continued onwards.
With a shrug and a smile at each other, he and Eleana followed the assassin. As they walked through the forest, Avarron’s mind wandered while his eyes glanced as much at the beautiful woman besides him as at his surroundings. While he made an effort to keep his eyes out for potential treats, time flew past. Lost in thought, the hours had simply vanished until dusk started to set in. It was getting late and he noticed Eleana yawning, no matter how much she tried to hide it. “When will we stop for the night?” he asked Tufas.
Tufas looked over his shoulder and though Avarron’s eyes could not penetrate the darkness under the hood, he was almost certain the man was grinning. “We’ll reach a village soon. There’ll be an inn. No more cuddling under a tree. Just because I’m cruel like that,” he said with a certain pleasure. “Or could it possibly be that I’m simply on a tight schedule?” he added sarcastically.
Indeed, only a short while later they found themselves at the entrance of a small village, in the middle of the forest. It was surrounded by a sturdy palisade which covered most of the village from sight. As Tufas headed for the gate, Avarron wondered how he usually got into towns. Looking like he did, he doubted the assassin would be able to simply pass by the guards.
Yet he headed straight for the two guards of the village, both equipped with a short spear and a round, wooden shield, somewhat smaller than Avarron’s. As the trio stepped into the circle of light, created by a pair of torches set into the ground at the gate, the assassin was suddenly nowhere to be seen anymore.