When he returned to the tree, he called up to her. “I have food!” he shouted. “Toss down the rope!” As he left, he had thrown the rope back up over the branch. Now, he bounced on the balls of his feet while he waited for her to send it falling to him. It did not come. Craning his neck, he cursed – she had fallen asleep.
He tucked the leaves into the pockets of her coat and laid the berries carefully at the base of the tree. Then, he ran at the tree and jumped. He did not make it high enough for the branch, but he was able to push off and grab it, barely, with the ends of his fingers. Letting himself drop, he touched a crystal in his wrist guards and did it again. This time, the added strength allowed him to hoist himself up.
Straddling the tree, he eased his way toward her. “Sira?” he asked, reaching out. He shook her gently, getting no response. He shook harder, spoke louder, but still she did not rouse.
This was not good. Her skin was still patchy and hot to the touch, sickness burning in her. He felt for her pulse and found it racing. He was no doctor, nor was he a healer, but he knew she needed some kind of attention. He thought of Darrowmere, but realized the mercenaries would still be stalking the woods. If he ran into them with an unconscious woman in tow, there would be no escape, and who knew what they would do to her.
Signaling for help was equally inadvisable.
There were the feywild paths…
He shook his head to clear the thought from his mind. That was crazy. They wanted nothing to do with humanity, only desiring to be alone. But…
Sira moaned in her sleep. What other choice did he have?
He looked at his dwindling supply of crystals. There was nothing else for falling, and strength would do little to help, though he activated it anyway. He untied the knot, gathering the rope up impatiently and throwing it over his shoulder, then pinched another crystal from its setting and crushed it between his fingers. He sprinkled this over his feet. Gathering Sira into his arms, he jumped.
The landing shook him, but not as badly as it ought to have. Magic to enhance jumping enhanced landings as well. Knocking his boots together, he shook off the remaining dust and started walking back the way they had come.
The bluebells grew not far from their resting place. He eyed the path, gripping Sira closer to him, and took his first, hesitant step onto the feywild. The path was like all the rest, at first. Tiny blue flowers grew along its edge, but there was nothing else special about it. He trudged along slowly, in part because he was carrying the dead weight (bad phrase, Ice…) of a woman and in part because he did not want to do this. Every part of him did not want to do this. He had fled this place – one like it – a decade ago…
Flowers started appearing with greater frequency. The underbrush became greener, the dirt underfoot becoming a squishy moss that gave, gently, with each of his footsteps. A breeze drifted past him, and he felt a compulsion to freeze in place that he pushed through with determination.
“I call for sanctuary and aid!” he said as he walked, raising his voice without shouting. Sira shifted in his arms. “I seek the hospitality of the fae for myself and my companion.”
A twitter of laughter sounded all around him. “Why,” came a voice that seemed to echo from all directions, “would we help you? You, who smell of smoke and iron and civilization. We do not offer our hospitality to humans.”
He swallowed his first response. The fae offered hospitality when it suited them, but arguing with them would not help his case right now. Ignoring the voice, he strode forward, pulling Sira closer toward him. In the distance, he saw what he knew were the thatched rooves of cottages, though they blended into the woods and would be difficult to spot if he hadn’t known what to look for.
A gust this time, and a man stood before him. James scanned him briefly as he stopped; he looked human, with dark brown hair and pale skin, vivid green eyes the color of the leaves, a head taller than James was. With a moment of study, he found the man’s tell: ears that tapered to a subtle point. Elfin fae, then. He sighed as the man leveled a rapier at his face.
“Our hospitality is not yours,” the elf intoned, looking at him with narrowed eyes. “Humanity is no friend of ours, not any longer.”
“I imagine you remember those days, friend,” James said softly. The elf snorted. “My hands are full, but if you will lift the goggles from my head, I believe you would find something interesting.” The elf tilted his head to one side, studying him with narrowed eyes. In her sleep, Sira moaned, a low and painfilled sound. “Please. My friend is ill.”
With a flick of his wrist, the elf snagged his goggles with his rapier and pulled them from James’ head. That James did not feel the parting of the magic was telling; still, his magic was shut off from him. Damned mercenaries and their damned poisons. When he made it home, he would have to speak with the Tripower about their contracted crews.
The elf’s eyebrows rose, and he sheathed his rapier. He bent and retrieved the goggles from the ground, studying them for a moment. “You are fae,” he announced. “My apologies for the affront.”
“Half-fae,” James corrected him, “but don’t worry about it. Please. My friend.”
“Is she also fae?” he asked.
“Not that I am aware of, but she is under my protection.” It was not quite true, but they were more likely to help Sira if they felt there was some obligation to do so.
“Come.” The elf spun on heel and walked deeper into the woods. James followed, glancing over his shoulder to look for other watchers. He was certain there were more, but none of them were willing to reveal themselves just yet.
Stepping between a pair of trees, he watched the air shimmer briefly as he stepped through the glamour. Where he once saw just a few thatched rooves, now a bustling town came into being. Cottages, some stacked two high, were scattered around a thinning of the trees. Glancing up, treehouses sat in the air built around thick trunks, rope bridges criss-crossing between many of them. Everywhere, there was color – flowers of all colors and all seasons growing together, dyed tapestries, and many colorful people. The crowd of fae was thick in the evening; a fire was lit in the middle of a wide circle, and many sat singing and laughing around it. Others were on their feet, dancing in singles and pairs. Some were sitting overhead, feet dangling down and waving freely in the air.
James hated that a part of him felt like he was coming home.