66 THE SECOND COMPANION
They had only been traveling a few minutes more (Morrow kept glancing back to where Narodnaya drifted along at Christian’s side) when the Rover king stopped so suddenly that Christian and Rowan ran into him.
“What is it?” Rowan asked.
For a long moment, nothing. Then something creaked nearby.
“Branches moving in the wind, that’s all,” Rowan said, but Christian shook his head.
“There is no wind.”
The Rover wagon rolled forward as Graham Chelsea touched the horse’s back with the reins. “Can’t stay here forever. We’ll miss the portal.”
Morrow held up a hand to stop him and said, “Wait.”
They listened as the creaking drew closer and closer. Then there was a squeal and a thrashing of undergrowth as something tore through the Sunforest toward them. Morrow drew his sword again.
“Get behind me,” he said.
Christian complied. Narodnaya bared her spiky teeth and rose up beside the Rover. Liza appeared in the wagon doorway again with her mouth open in question, but Christian put a finger to his lips and pointed toward the thrashing. She bit her lip and peered around the side of the wagon.
A moment later, a giant spider smashed through the trees before them, black and hairy, the size of a thoroughbred. Christian stiffened at the sight of it, but as it saw them it gave another squeal and tried to turn the other way so sharply it lost its balance and flipped over, end over end. It skidded through the grass and stopped only when it hit a sycamore tree several yards away from them.
“Oh, no,” Liza said, darting back into the wagon. “No. No, thank you. I do not do spiders.”
It lay there on its back, waving its legs about feebly but unable to roll itself over and get up. Christian felt sorry for it. It was such a pathetic sight, a spider that should’ve been able to kill them unable to right itself. Then he saw the black shaft sticking out of its backmost leg.
“It’s hurt,” he said.
He hurried over to the spider, ignoring the shouts of Rowan and Morrow as they demanded to know what he meant by approaching the beast. Narodnaya, however, followed him with a look of intense concentration on her face.
He is frightened of you and your friends, she said.
“There’s no need for that,” Christian said to the spider soothingly. In fact, now that he was so close to it, he felt frightened again himself, but it continued to squeal and wave its injured leg uselessly. He danced around the legs until he reached the arrow.
“Hold still, now,” he stammered as a hairy leg brushed against his ear.
“What the hell are you doing?” Morrow asked. Christian saw him and Rowan a short distance beyond the legs. The Rover king still had his sword bared, but he hung back. Rowan took one step closer and then stopped.
“He’s hurt,” Christian repeated. He placed one hand gingerly on the spider’s injured leg, the only leg no longer moving, and with the other gripped the shaft of the arrow. “Oh, dear. Oh, dear, this is not going to be pleasant at all.”
“He?” Morrow said. “What are you, an expert in spider anatomy?”
“Narodnaya told me,” Christian said. “Oh, dear. Alright. Oh, I am so sorry for this. Here it goes.”
He tugged on the arrow, gritting his teeth against the distraught squeals of the spider and saying over and over again “just a second—almost got it—hold on” until finally the shaft and head of the arrow came loose from the spider’s leg. He threw it down on the ground and then put his hands against the spider’s abdomen and pushed. It rocked back and forth, still flailing, but did not flip over.
Christian looked back at Rowan and Morrow. “Help me. Please.”
“Very strange company,” Rowan said, but she was already at Christian’s side with her hands against the hairy beast.
“Oh, for God’s sakes,” Morrow muttered. He sheathed his sword and joined them. “On three.”
Together they rolled the spider over. It tried to stand up, wobbled under its own weight, and toppled over. Morrow eyed its injured leg.
“Could use a splint.”
“We haven’t any bandages,” Christian said.
“Field splint,” said Morrow, holding up a stick. “Graham, you know what witch’s bane looks like?”
The horse-master did not reply; instead he hopped down from the wagon to root around the base of the sycamore.
Christian racked his brain but couldn’t remember such a plant in his field guides. “What’s witch’s bane?”
A horrid plant. Narodnaya shuddered and drifted a safe distance away. It stings something awful.
“It’s got healing properties,” Morrow said. “We’ll pack the wound with it. Here.” He pulled a penknife from his pocket and handed it to Christian. “You’re tall. Reach up there and grab me some of that vine.”
He pointed at the honeysuckle snaking around a nearby catalpa. Christian hacked at it until it fell away from the tree. He and Graham brought their plants over to Morrow, but the spider began squealing and flailing again as the Rover neared.
Morrow sucked in a breath and looked at Christian. “He’s not going to let me touch him.”
He dumped the leaves and vines in the accountant’s arms.
“What?” said Christian. “Oh, no. No, not me. I haven’t any idea how to—”
“Easiest thing in the world. I’ll tell you just what to do.” Then, impatiently as Christian stood in indecision with his arms full of leaves: “Do you want to help him or not?”
“Alright, then,” Christian said.
Morrow walked him through the process of chewing up the leaves and flowers of the witch’s bane (so bitter they made Christian’s mouth pucker as he chewed), packing them into the hole the arrow had left, and splinting the wounded leg with the stick and vines. When he had finished, the spider stretched its leg once or twice, took a few steps without collapsing again, and then rubbed up against the accountant like a giant cat. A deep rumbling issued from its body.
Rowan gave a shout of laughter. “I do believe he likes you. What a funny turn!”
There was an answering shout from the wagon: “Is that awful beast gone yet?”
“Gone?” the ringmaster called back. “Oh, no, my dear. Mr. Abernathy has decided to keep it as a pet.”
Christian had, of course, decided no such thing, but before he could say so, an arrow whizzed through the underbrush and struck the sycamore with a thunk. Morrow drew his sword. The spider’s purring (if that was what it was) gave way to the keening of before. Christian threw his hands up to its eight eyes as if trying to catch the head of a rearing horse.
Then a voice rang through the trees.
“That kill is mine.”
67 THE WOOD-ELF
A man stepped out of the underbrush with his bow drawn. He was tall and lean, with skin as brown as a ripe hickory nut and eyes as green as a linden leaf. Tribal tattoos of deep blue covered the bridge of his hawkish nose and wound around his forearms; his hair fell in thin black braids to the small of his back.
“Step away,” he said to Christian in the same ringing baritone. “The spider is mine.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes,” Liza said, popping out of the wagon with a glare (despite the continued presence of the spider). “What is it now?”
No one replied. Christian felt the spider trembling behind him.
“Don’t worry,” he told it. “I won’t let him shoot you.”
“The spider is mine,” the man repeated.
Morrow sheathed his sword and stepped forward. His face had paled at the sight of the man; his nostrils flared and his fingers were shaking again, but his voice was steady when he spoke.
“You can’t shoot the spider, Tirion. My friend has taken a shine to him.”
A look of surprise crossed the man’s face as he noticed the Rover, but a moment later it had gone; the stranger’s expression was inscrutable. He raised an eyebrow at Morrow and said, “Him? Since when do you have such a soft spot for Goblin’s allies?”
“He’s not with Goblin,” Christian said. The stranger turned his green eyes on him with such fierceness that he blushed.
“Oh, no?” he said, but before he could say any more Narodnaya drifted in front of Christian and glared at him.
You would do well to believe him.
The man eyed her warily.
“You’re the marsh-witch,” he said. “You keep no pact with Goblin.”
No. No more does this creature. Now stand down. You frighten him.
The man lowered his bow. “Even now, Goblin’s allies encroach upon our lands as they once did. Two days ago I found this spider within our borders and gave chase through our lands and out of them, and now I find myself stymied by a marsh-witch, a drunkard, and a ringmaster’s troupe. Men of little consequence. But so be it. I suppose, as this particular spider is not Goblin’s, he cannot explain why our old enemies are on the move?”
How rude, Christian thought. Morrow may have been a drunkard, but he was still a king. He himself was not of much consequence (so he thought)—but, after all, hadn’t he undertaken this journey?
“He can’t,” Morrow said, “but I can. Goblin has escaped the prison in which my father ensnared him on Earth.”
He sounded melancholy as he spoke—so melancholy the man’s gaze softened and he said, “I always thought he was too hard on you, knowing as he did you would one day have to correct his mistakes.”
Morrow looked at the man with his dark eyes blazing in such a way that Christian felt the two of them had momentarily forgotten the presence of the others. A blush rose in his cheeks at their intensity.
“I’m not asking you to come with us,” the Rover king said.
His black eyebrows were drawn in stubborn lines across his forehead. A smile twisted across the man’s face at his expression.
“But I will.”
They stood staring at each other for so long that at last the accountant cleared his throat and said awkwardly, “Well, now that that’s settled, perhaps introductions are in order? I am Christian Abernathy, and the woman in the wagon is Liza—”(she glared at the man from the doorway, evidently unimpressed by his behavior)—“and you’ve already met Narodnaya and the, er, spider.”
“This is Tirion Greendale of my mother’s people,” Morrow said. “Prince of the wood-elves. Someday he will rule them.”
Tirion shrugged as if to say this was unimportant. He bowed to the others. “Forgive my manners. I have been two days without food or sleep in pursuit of this creature.”
“Apology accepted,” Liza said promptly, though her expression was still one of extreme displeasure. “We’ll forgive your manners if you’ll forgive our haste, but the portal should be nearly open by now and we’ve stopped far too many times already.”
“Come along, then.” Tirion nodded off into the forest, to the right of the path. “We’ll have to run.”