The afternoon was darkening. Fog rose from the wet trees. The earth steamed in the cold air, like a great beast breathing in winter. The trail through the forest grew dim, obscured by drifting wraiths of mist.
Carefully, slowly, Torben climbed down a few feet. His feet found new anchors against the wet bark. The cloak was faulty; he was shivering.
A crow called. The archer tensed. There was a slight movement in the forest. A shower of droplets fell from laden vine maple leaves. He drew his bow, arrow poised and ready to fly.
The figure of a woman stepped into view, clad in a long green, hooded cape that hid her face. Torben could see no weapons. But from what the warlock said, she didn’t need any.
She paused for a moment, looking around. He would regret this kill. But he was bound by oath.
His fingers loosed the arrow.
Instead of the soft thud of impact, instead of the target crumpling, instead of readying another arrow for a finishing shot, Torben felt the tree give way beneath him, and he was falling.
His arms flailed, trying to slow his fall. Wet branches smacked his face and arms. The spider-wool cloak caught on a limb and tore. He struck the ground with a thud that drove the air from his chest.
Instinctively, he rolled over and pulled his dagger from his belt, struggling to get a breath. The ground was wet. Mud seeped into his clothes.
His target was smiling slightly. She had thrown back her hood, revealing a young face and long red-gold curls. She was not dead, not wounded. Torben looked around feverishly for his arrow. In answer, a hawk landed on the girl’s shoulder, the missile in one talon.
She looked up at the tree Torben had fallen from and nodded. “My thanks,” she said graciously. Torben looked up at the tree and caught a slight bow from the big fir, a motion that could have been merely the tossing of boughs in the wind. But the evening was still. The tendrils of fog drifted untouched by breezes. Even the gentle drizzle had paused for a moment.
Torben pushed himself to his feet and drew a long, ragged breath. He pointed his dagger at the girl, but she just laughed and came towards him.
“Drop the blade, archer,” she said. “I would leave you unhurt.”
Torben gripped it tighter. She would see that he could fight with a knife as well as he could shoot. And no bird could swoop from the sky to seize it.
But she stopped before she was close enough to stab. “Do you know who I am?” She stood tall and proud, but her voice was gentle.
“No. I do not need to.”
She took the arrow from the hawk on her shoulder, and with a quick wave, released the bird to fly free into the trees. There were no straps or jesses. She turned the arrow over, examining the black head, edges sharp enough to pierce a dragon’s wing. “Who is the maker of this arrow?” she asked. “The same who wove your cloak?” The spider-wool cloak lay, torn and muddied, at Torben’s feet.
“Yes,” he said shortly.
“It is ill sewn,” she said, and turned back to the arrow. “But this was carefully forged.” She looked directly into Torben’s eyes, and he knew that any attempt to lie would be useless. “Do you know why he sent you to kill me?”
“I ask no questions,” Torben said. “I am an archer of Camden, sworn to serve the lord of Great Mountain.”
“An archer of Camden?” Her eyebrows rose. “Then you have elf blood in you, bowman.” She tossed the arrow lightly into a clump of moss and it stuck fast, sending dewdrops quivering to the earth. “Does it not gall you to serve a mortal?”
Torben frowned. She knew his people. “Who are you?”
She lifted her head. “I am the last of the elf-queens,” she said, her voice ringing through the trees as if each living thing in the forest sang with her words. “I return to take my throne in the Great Mountain.”
Torben lowered his eyes. The dagger slipped from his hand. His people had long awaited the return of the elf-rulers. The warlock was indeed a galling lord to serve.
He picked up his bow from the mud, the string wet and useless, and laid it at the queen’s feet, bowing deeply. “My queen,” he said, “I plead your forgiveness.”
“Stand,” she said.
He straightened and met her eyes.
“I do not fault you for obedience to your people’s vow.” She hesitated only a moment before adding quietly, “I loose you from your oath. You are free to choose whom you serve.”
Torben stared at her for a long moment. Freedom was unfamiliar. Confusing. He bowed again. “I-I thank you,” he stammered.
She smiled. “If you choose, I would welcome your free service when I claim my throne.”
He nodded, lifted his bow, and walked away. He stopped once to look back.
The woods were growing dark. Mist rose high into the forest. Beads of water fell in a fervent shower as the trees bowed before the queen. Rain began to fall once more, a cold drizzle against his skin.
The queen pulled her hood over her hair and disappeared.