The little voice in Oskar’s head wondered constantly on their way back to Druvenlode. He said: Maybe you should have left her behind, Oskar. Maybe you should leave her behind now.
On his own, without need for stealth, he might have covered the distance from where he’d washed ashore in a day and a half. Moving as he was to avoid any unwanted attention, perhaps three days. But Guinevere was the killer. She was unused to survival, to covering great distance at speed and going to ground to avoid detection. Not that she was one of those soft city types who’d complain about blisters and dirt—at least there was that mercy spared him. But she was slow, and she made a great deal of noise as she moved. He was forced to move at her pace. They had been walking for two days, now nearly three, and though they’d already had some close encounters with orcs patrolling the forest, looking for them, they were still some distance away from the town.
They left the river behind them, opting instead to trek cross-country, relying on Oskar’s sense of direction to bring them home. Deep in the woods, the sky was all but blotted out behind a green ceiling. In the daytime, sunlight was only a rumor. Come nightfall, the moon and stars might have died away for all the light they gave.
So it was now. Guinevere walked slowly behind him, her small, soft hand in his, shivering from the cold. Wind howled, like mocking laughter that cut through the trees, biting at them, trying to claw them down into the ground. Though Guinevere couldn’t see it in the darkness, Oskar cast his eyes about frantically, looking for a tree hollow or an overhang, anything that might ward off that wind for another night.
“Are we still going the right way, Oskar?” she asked from behind him. The only sound in the night air was the savage wind—her voice broke into it like thunder.
“Yes”, he murmured. There was no way he could know that, not at night, in a forest this thick. Even his eyes weren’t that good, to pick up the small signs that had kept him on his way. But somehow, he did know it. Slowly, but surely, and with many detours along the way, they were working steadily northeast, back to Druvenlode. And back to Alessia. Perhaps she was the only compass that he needed.
Her stomach growled, quiet but audible. He felt his doing likewise. “We’re going to need to stop for the night soon”, she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep on.”
“First place we find, we’ll stop”, Oskar said. That seemed to satisfy her, and they walked on in silence for a few more minutes.
“Are we going to die out here, Oskar, do you think?”
Almost without thinking about it, he began to speak lightly, to laugh off her concerns. The very notion! Dying ignobly out in the wilderness, running for your life! But even as the words formed in his mind and he summoned up a big belly laugh, he remembered who it was that he was speaking to. She was no giddy socialite, to be placated by a show of wild-man bravado. And she could smell a lie just as well as he could. “Maybe.” They were in hostile land, moving slow, almost blind at night, with no supplies or food. Their prospects were grim.
She snorted. “You do always know just what to say to a lady, Oskar. A true talent you’ve got there, dear.”
Oskar shrugged, invisible to Guinevere behind him. “I figure you deserve the truth.” Suddenly, he stopped in his path. He dropped his voice low, almost silent. “Wait. I think I see something.”
“A cave. Somewhere to bed for the night.”
“Occupied, no doubt.”
“No doubt. We’ll see soon enough. Come on. Quietly.”
They crept through the underbrush, as silent as they could. With his keen orcish eyes, Oskar picked a path around the thickest patches of bush, edging nearer to the dark patch that he had seen. It was sat at the base of a stony hill, a little darker patch against dark rock the only thing to mark the presence of a hollow. A thin gap in the tree cover let fall a sliver of moonlight, illuminating it just enough for Oskar to have picked it out—if not for that, they might have passed it by altogether.
They drew near to the cave with the stealth of shadows. Every breath was a hurricane, every footfall was a thunderclap.
Oskar’s eyes strained in his head. Then: “Occupied once. But not for a long time.” He said it scarcely above a whisper, but it was a booming shout in the utter stillness.
The cave was daubed with crude tribal symbols of his people, but they were old, flaking away. Unmaintained for some time. The most recent signs of habitation stretched back years. And yet, as he explored the cave, Oskar waited for the unseen enemy to leap upon him with cruel blades, cutting him down. And yet it never came. The cave, only stretching a few dozen yards back into the rock, was empty—and what’s more, it was defensible, hidden from sight, and out of the cold.
Quickly, he built a small fire. It smoked only a little, but it was more than he would have liked—but their clothes needed to dry, and they were still frozen almost to the bone. Soon they were naked, sitting across from each other. Guinevere huddled around the fire gratefully, her eyes unbelievably tired.
“Don’t expect me to thank you, by the way.”
“Hm?” Oskar looked up from the fire. He had been contemplating it, wondering where Alessia was. If she was safe.
“For saving me. I wouldn’t even be here but for you, you know.” Her voice was light, leveled evenly, but he could see in her eyes as they glinted in the firelight that there was hurt there deeper than he had known it could go.
“I didn’t ask to be turned over to Garuk.”
“No. But you did burn my boat.”
“You used me for blood sports!”
“And you—“ Whatever she had been going to say, she thought better of it, biting it off in her mouth. “I believe you’ll find we used each other, dear.”
Oskar tilted his head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Guinevere let out a tittering laugh, high and clear, that rang in the cave. But there was venom in it. “How’s Alessia, Oskar? I know how much you care for her.”
At first there was blank surprise. Then something like recognition. Then at last came confusion. “Alessia? What—How do you—“
She darted forward, near to the fire, like a striking serpent. “Yes, I know. Of course I know. Use me for whatever you could get from me, was that the plan? Leave me to the Crownsguard, or would you let me keep a few gold pieces to make my escape?” Guinevere’s eyes were wide, her chest heaving. Her skin danced in firelight, new visions of a body he had come to know well. Her mouth hung open, quivering as though with tears.
Now, after all else, came understanding. It spread like poison through Oskar’s veins. “Guinevere. Lady Guinevere. I am sorry if I hurt you.” He stretched out his hands slowly, taking hers. She flinched once, but did not pull away from his touch. “As you say, we used each other, I think.”
“I heard you—speaking in your sleep. I thought... I, I thought you were calling for me. I’ve never felt—”
“You’ve always had to be strong. Once you faltered, even once—“ He trailed off to silence.
“Do you love her?”
He remained silent. But he nodded.
“The real kind?”
Again he nodded.
Now she fell silent.
There was only the crackling of embers. Somewhere faraway, a wolf howled. Or maybe it was an orc war-call. They sounded similar.
“Is it nice?” Guinevere said.
Sadly, he nodded. “Yes.”
Tears that had been welling fell down her face now in cascades. “You go to sleep, Oskar. I’ll keep watch. I don’t imagine I feel much like sleep just now.”
“Wake me when you need me, Guinevere.”
Despite the tears, she laughed, still high and clear, still the cutting laugh of a noblewoman, one born to better things than those she was given. “I have no need of you any more, Red-Eye.”
When Oskar awoke, Guinevere was gone.
Her trail was easily found. She had left in the night, her footfalls hidden by the sound of their small fire. But she had slipped from the cave and began to walk. She hadn’t been careful.
Not a mile from the cave mouth, he found where she had been taken by orcs. There was blood splashed on the ground, but no signs of a struggle. It didn’t take a master trailhand to figure out what had happened—nor did it take a master poet to understand why. She had nigh killed herself. No, Oskar realized, thinking on it. He had nigh killed her.