“Those two men are not to be trusted.” Fendor said to the empty space left by Vindicius and Titus. “No matter what you may see in the future, Elyria, remember their behaviors to you now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I may say no more.” Fendor turned from the cave entrance and walked back to where Elyria sat. He took her hands in his and brought her to her feet.
“You must go back to your hut without being seen. Gather your belongings and retreat to the village on the lake.” He guided her to the mouth of the cavern. “Vindicius and I are already enemies. He believes you have aligned yourself with me, therefore, he counts you as his enemy, too.”
“I have a duty to this shrine and any visitors who wish to visit it.” She pulled from his hold. “I must stay and perform my duty as my oath requires.”
“Does your oath require that you die at the hands of men without honor?”
“If my death occurs in the service of my gods, then, yes, that is what is required of me.” She raised her chin in defiance and looked him in the eyes.
Fendor stood transfixed by her stare. Time seemed to slow and sound muted. He had visions of galloping into the western hills with Elyria in the saddle in front of him. He raised his hand, about to stroke her cheek, when the clank of metal and horses neighing disturbed the air. The sound of many voices soon followed.
“Stay here while I see what all of the noise means. Perhaps you could wash the blood and dirt from your face and arms.” Fendor left the cave assuming Elyria would obey his orders.
She, on the other hand, knew herself to be more than a simpering maid. She went to the pool that formed from water seeping through the crack in the cave walls. Splashing water on her face and neck, she scrubbed and rinsed until she thought most of it was gone. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and then followed Fendor out towards the commotion which seemed to come from the clearing where Fendor had left his horses.
She edged along the mountain slope that curved away from the entrance to the cave. Trees concealed the base of the wall and created a perfect hiding place to steal back to the clearing. Elyria, lost in her wonderings about the noise, ran into the back of Fendor, who had hunched down behind bushes along the clearing’s edge. He nearly fell over from the impact.
Both managed to stifle their cries. Fendor pulled Elyria down beside him, giving her a scowl as he did so. He pointed through the bushes to the space in front of them.
A great party of horses and men congregated in the clearing. In the center of the milling hoard, a fine sedan chair rested, draped in purples and reds. Gold threads sparkled in the last of the setting sun’s rays. On the ground around the majestic assemblage lay a pile of plain wool fabric, dusty and dirty from the road. Behind the chair sat an empty flatbed cart, ropes trailing on the ground around all four sides. Two great oxen were being unharnessed from the wagon. It seemed that the elegant traveling couch had been strapped to the wagon and covered in plain stuff to give the whole the appearance of a poor supply wagon.
Workers, men and women, wrapped only in cloth sheets and bare footed, toiled around the caravan: some rolling up ropes, others folding the coverings. These were placed on the empty wagon bed. While these people worked, five men on war horses fidgeted in their seats and the great beasts stomped their great hooves where they stood. Most had their backs to the wagons, searching the forests that surrounded them. The sedan chair remained still.
“It seems the party has arrived.” Fendor spoke close to Elyria’s ear. “I do not understand this turn of events.”
“Who…” Elyria began. Fendor held his hand over her mouth.
“Later. Now, we will move around to the front of the clearing and enter it directly, so that those warriors do not kill us in ignorance.”
They moved quietly past the bushes until they reached the path. Fendor rose up straight, and brushed himself off with his hands. Elyria rose beside him. She looked down at her plain chemise and smock, smudged with dirt, torn and freckled with twigs. There was not much help for her garments, so she did not even try to adjust their appearance. Besides, who would notice her in this throng of people and animals?
Fendor called out in a language unknown to Elyria. The men on horseback looked in their direction, hands on swords, but did not move forward in alarm. Fendor began walking into the clearing, and then stopped when he noticed Elyria did not follow. He stopped, held out his hand to her and waited for her to join him. She hesitated only a brief moment more. She moved up to him, took his hand and smiled up at him. Together, they entered the dell.
All eyes looked in their direction as they came closer to the equipment. People stopped their tasks and turned to face them. Fendor came to a halt when Vindicius rounded the edge of the conveyance. He touched the chair’s draperies with a possessive air. He put his face close to the hangings and whispered into them. He cocked his ear to listen to a reply that no one else heard. Vindicius snapped his fingers at two men dressed in brown tunics and sandals. They ran to his side, bowed at his quiet instructions, grasped the edges of the curtains and pulled them back.
The interior lay in shadows, but Elyria detected movement. She waited with held breath. Slowly, a dainty covered foot emerged followed by shimmering, flowing fabric in dramatic reds and blues. The fantastic array held at its top a head of massed brown ringlets, ribboned and bejeweled. This majestic vision stood straight and erect, chin pointed high.
Great, deep brown eyes looked down a long, straight nose at her and lingered on Fendor’s hand on hers. She spoke to Vindicius, but Elyria did not hear the words. She suspected she would not have understood even if she had heard. Vindicius leaned towards the woman and had to tilt his head up to reply to her: she stood a half head taller than him.
The woman gazed at Elyria, but spoke to Fendor. To Elyria’s surprise the woman spoke and Elyria could understand her.
“Fendor, we are well met.”
“Madam, you are well come, but unexpected at this time.”
“Our plans changed. We will discuss this later.”
“As you wish, madam.”
“Tell, me, Fendor, what gift do you bring? Who is this lovely little wild flower you deliver to me?”