Chapter Fifteen: Wherein we take the road less traveled.
The following morning found both Jholeira and me awake and refreshed. So we made an early start. It was not as early as Ellwood Cyrene who had left at the crack of dawn. However when I went down to the common room that morning, not only did I find that my friend had paid for breakfast for my elf girl and myself, but he had left a package for me as well. Wrapped in a large oiled cloth, were several pounds of dried beef, a wheel of yellow cheese, two or three pounds of raisins and a small cloth sack with a half dozen coins in it.
Ellwood Cyrene never seemed to be in need of money, despite the fact that he seldom took payment for his many acts of manly heroism. I have seen a bucket of gold coins gathered together by a town to pay the hero that saved them from the threat of a raging monster, only to have it politely refused by a smiling Ellwood Cyrene. I have seen him pass out coppers to every orphan in a six block radius of the inn in which he was staying. To be fair I have seen him plunder more than one baggage train, and on numerous occasions he has rifled through the pockets of a man he has just stabbed—but who hasn’t done that, when you get right down to it.
I was not able to procure any oats for my poor steed, which is to say Hysteria, but I did get a small bundle of dried hay to supplement the small amount of forage we were likely to find in that country in winter.
We set off on the East Road, but following the advice I had been given, we soon turned off to the north, following a cattle path that wandered over the hills and down into the valley. Our new path veered off from our previous course, but not enough that I thought we would lose our way. In fact at teatime, we stopped among a small copse of trees at the top of a hill. From this point we were able to look down to the south across a vast valley. True to Ellwood’s warning, a great battle was being fought. It was impossible to tell who the two sides were, as their banners at this distance were too difficult to read. All that was certain was that both sides were humans. I took some small pains to make sure that we weren’t spotted, but considering the distance and the chaos on the battlefield, I judged that there was little chance of it.
After journeying the remainder of the day, we made camp just off the path in a little hollow which had been formed by three massive boulders piled one atop of the other two. I can only imagine that some giant piled them up thus as there was no nearby mountain down which they might have slid to come to rest in such a fortuitous configuration, which is to say a pretty good shape.
“We should reach the edge of Elven Wood tomorrow,” I told my companion.
“Really? I don’t seem to recognize any landmarks.”
“Maybe when we get closer,” I offered. “How long since you’ve been home?”
“Six or seven years I would suppose.”
“That must be tough, being without your family for so long.”
“Yes.” She sighed. “And what about you? You’ve been without your family for quite a while now too.”
“How long has it been?”
“How long has what been?”
“How long has it been since your family disappeared?”
“Oh. That. I really can’t say.”
“You know, I’ve been thinking.” Jholeira stood up and began to pace back and forth beside the campfire. “The purple drops on the floor, as I’ve already said, could be from the blueberry pie you were expecting.”
“Fiends!” said I.
“As far as Gervil’s knife being stuck in his bed is concerned, that could be an indicator of foul play or of nothing at all.”
“The floorboards being pried up however tells us something. Whoever the culprit or culprits were, they were looking for something hidden under the floor. Money maybe? Family jewels?”
“The unpublished manuscripts by the world famous Eaglethorpe Buxton,” I offered.
“I suppose that is conceivable,” said she. “What I don’t understand is the onions in the rafters. The only thing I can think of is that they were trying to ward off vampires.”
“Monsters!” said I. “But wait. Isn’t that supposed to be garlic?”
“Maybe they couldn’t find any. Or maybe they didn’t know the difference. Garlic looks a lot like an onion.”
“Oh, my family would know the difference,” said I. “My poor old father was a fine onion farmer. In fact one variety, the Winter Margram onion was named for him. My cousin Gervil wrote an epic poem about onions, though I was never able to memorize more than the first five hundred twelve lines.”
“Is that all?” she wondered.
“Tuki was Onion Queen three years running.”
“So it is possible that your family would have had onions around? Say, hanging from the rafters?”
“Only at harvest time.”
“Was it harvest time?”
“Was what harvest time?”
“Was it harvest time when your family disappeared?”
“It could have been.”
“So there really are no clues at all,” postulated the half-orphan.
“What about the tracks?” I asked. “What about the tracks that ended mysteriously after only fifty feet?”
“You said it was a stormy night. The rain probably washed the tracks away.”
“You’re right,” said I. “The next time it will be morning.”
“What do you mean next time?”
“You mean the next time your family gets kidnapped or the next time you tell about it?”
“Your family never was stolen at all!” She stood up with back straight and finger pointed accusingly. She looked quite intimidating. “You lied!”
“It’s wasn’t a lie,” I explained. “It was a story. Well, it was a first draft.”