By late afternoon they had finally reached Abbotsford, as large as a small town and full of similar buildings to those around Lrial. Celene had expected it to be a bit more prosperous, perhaps, since the forest was not far off. She wondered why the trees weren better utilised for timber and paper. It would make so much sense. There could easily have been a thriving market for lumber. The business was probably going well enough that the elves didn even need to come down the river to collect what the dwarves could not produce.
Or it could all be for show. Abbotsford might have looked like a poor town because the elves did not want their visitors to become too enamoured with their location. It might simply have been a stop on the way back from somewhere else. Her thoughts were interrupted by another question.
”Did the book say anything about elves in this city? ” she asked. ”Or on the other side of the mountain? ”
”I don think any of the books listed cities where they live. I tried to find some information, but none of them was particularly detailed. You know as well as I do that most people don travel unless they must. ”
Celene shook her head. ”I should have been more prepared for this part of my journey. How will I find them if we cannot cross the mountains? ”
Roxy took her hand in hers again. ”That is not your problem to solve, Celene. It is mine to deal with. I can ask a few questions, but I am afraid I have already told you everything there is to know about how elvish cities operate. ”
She released her grip before pulling the locket from under her clothes. Celene managed to snatch it away just as she was taking the chain over her head. Then, without a word, the bard wandered off into the crowd.
Celene did not care. She hurried after her, scanning faces and hoping against hope that she would see Roxy again. A few times she nearly lost sight of the elf. As the afternoon turned to even, however, she started to feel less worried. By the time they entered a large, well-lit tent at the edge of town, she had even managed to convince herself that everything would be fine.
As they crossed the open space between the entryway and the stands, Celene felt something hard under her feet. She stopped at once, looking down, and saw an arrow sticking out of the ground. It was coming from one of the arrows fired by the archer stationed near the entrance. The guard was dead, lying in a pool of blood, his eyes wide open and staring into nothing.
Celene stood still for a moment, so overcome with fear that she could not move. When she finally did step forward, the others had noticed what she had seen. They stopped moving, too. Celene motioned them to follow her and walked quickly to the table where they were supposed to pay the entrance fee. There she opened the cashbox, withdrawing a handful of gold coins.
”There has been an incident, ” she announced. ”I will need this payment for my friend and me. ”
The guards glanced at each other. One stepped towards Celene and took the coin pouch from her. He dropped it in with the rest of the money when he looked away, then returned his attention to the wall as if nothing had happened. Celene thanked him and they continued to the entrance. She counted off four coins and then handed them to Roxy.
”Would you please keep these safe for me? ”
Roxy shook her head, raising her hands in surrender. ”But . . . ”
Celene didn listen. She left the tent without looking back. As she hurried down the street, she heard voices behind her and ducked into the shadows beside the nearest building. Two men approached on horseback, talking amongst themselves as they made their way through the streets. She caught snatches of their conversation.
Watch your back, Trahan, one said.
You stay alive. Don die like the fool you are.
They talked long enough for Celene to figure out who they were. When they reached the edge of the market, they spurred their horses towards the road to Telchin. It did not occur to her until after they were gone that she should have followed them. If Roxy had fallen prey to a stray arrow, it could only mean one thing: one of the assassins from the compound in Lrial had come to kill her.
It was late evening before Celene made it back to the inn. She slipped into the room by the window and found Roxy fast asleep in bed. The bard had curled around one of the stuffed pillows and was asleep in an instant. Celene settled herself next to her on the mattress and watched her sleep.
She stayed awake for hours, staring into the dark, trying not to think too hard about what might be happening just beyond the walls. Eventually, her body gave in and she fell into a deep sleep, exhausted from the stress of the day.
In her dreams she saw the caravan leaving Lrial, crossing over the river and into the woods. She could see them clearly—her father sitting on the edge of the wagon, smiling at the bards as they sang along with the music. They passed by a small town, people staring as they carried the chests of precious cargo. Then she noticed something strange: no one was following them. There was nobody in the streets except for the townsfolk. Even the guards had given up.
Celene smiled and waved at them all, feeling like she was playing some grand role. Then the dream shifted. She was lying on a bed made of straw. The room smelled foul, but Celene was comfortable. A young girl ran in and out of the room, offering drinks and food and clothes. None of it was very nice, but she didn care. She fell asleep again and woke once more when someone shook her shoulder.
”Stop! ” The words were sharp, clear in her mind. ”Do you want to wake Roxy? ”
A deep voice came from the shadows and Celene recognized it at once. This was her vision, the story she had told her sisters in the waking world. It could not end like this. She pulled herself away from the edge of the bed, afraid to move. The room seemed so strange in the night, too bright from the moonlight and the fire. She tried to look past the headboard, but everything was blurry.
”I know you are there, ” the voice said, and Celene realised with shock that she was no longer speaking in the waking world. He was on the other side of the wall. She stared into the darkness for several moments, trying to come to terms with the fact that he knew her name, and how he would have known. She stood still until she heard him turn on his heel and leave the room.
”I am here, ” she said.
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