Groggy and aching and numb all over, Elsie Abrilsson fluttered open her eyes. She blinked a couple times, then tried to shift her position.
This effort was severely hampered by the fact that she now found herself tied up.
"Oh....honeysuckle!" snapped Elsie, trying desperately to wriggle free, but to no avail. Whoever had tied her up had known what they were about.
She looked around her. She seemed to be in a clearing of thick forest in some sort of very hilly land, but besides that she could tell naught for certain. She tried to recall the last thing she remembered. There was sneaking into Lady Marella's room......rifling through her stuff.....oh! Orders, there had been orders for the services of an assassin, signed by Lady Marella's own hand! Ooh, she had to tell Caihanna - wait, where was Caihanna?
"Caihanna!" she hissed. Could she be on the other side of the tree?
"Elsie!" came the voice of her companion. "Are you all right?"
"Yes! - but, where are we-?"
"Well, well, well," came a far too familiar voice from above. "I see our little spies have finally woken up."
Lady Marella stood looming and smug over the two. In her right hand, she absently twirled an ornate dagger between her fingers.
"You!" shouted Elsie, straining desperately at her bonds. "You almost killed the Queen Katherine!"
"And I killed the late Queen Illiandra, too," came the mockingly smooth deeply melodious voice, "I feel I don't get enough credit for that one." She sounded almost mournful.
"For you see, dear Elsie," she continued, "Illiandra never trusted me, and I knew I could never get anywhere in Carpenchian power whilst she - or any of her descendants - were in charge. Oh, I tried to convince Illiandra, but it appears she was too off-put by my murdering several of her servants years back....? I tried telling her to put the past behind us, but the fool woman just wouldn't listen. She invited her own death - food poisoning. Delayed action, so her taste testers couldn't catch it. I consider it one of my best accomplishments....it was in the raspberry pudding, in case you cared to know."
"Illiandra may have made all the wrong enemies, but she was nevertheless a strong leader, and Avaldor could never have won a war against Carpenchia with her in power. As I obviously would never have gotten anywhere with Katherine, and after that failure assassin couldn't manage to simply stab her in the throat, I decided my best bet was with Avaldor. Single-handedly offing the queen in charge of their worst enemy and putting her fool daughter in charge, and thereby making Carpenchia prime for invasion, does win you some approval in Avaldor. When they do take over Carpenchia - as will happen soon - I will be granted the position of Governor of Carpenchia. Rather clever of me, don't you think?"
"So now," and she gripped the dagger firmly, "you will both tell me everything about Katherine's plans. And that Celine's too, while you're at it. All you know about the two of them and the plottings of the Council of Ladies. Otherwise, we start carving." She resumed twirlingg her knife in her fingers. "And once I've cut out your tongues and toes - might even go fingers while we're at it, who knows! - I'll happily turn you over to General Eldinar, who's been looking for some companions lately."
"Hmm," said Caihanna. "You know, you may be one evil bastard, but you've got style."
"YOU!" shrieked Elsie, frantically trying to escape. "You killed Queen Illiandra?!?!"
"That's the gist of it," Lady Marella replied, sounding bored. "Elsie, dear, do keep up."
"I will never tell you anything!" shouted the servant. "NEVER!"
"Suit yourself," said Lady Marella absently. "I'll be back with General Eldinar, then. Don't worry - I won't be but a few minutes." She smiled mockingly and swept away.
"That little-" gasped Elsie. "Oh, when I get my hands-"
"Shhh!" hissed Caihanna, from the other side of the tree. "It'll be about ten times harder to escape if they get us inside that tent. Our best chance is now, and we have precious few moments to act. So you shut up and listen very carefully to what I say."
"I've been rubbing some of the rope on my side against a splinter from the tree. It's frayed and about to rip - when it does, I'll quietly sneak away and make for the cover of the forest, as I'm closer to it. It'll be your job to watch and make sure no one comes. Then, once I'm over, I'll whistle twice like a barn owl if no one's watching - which will be your signal to move. Got it?"
"Got it," whispered Elsie shakily.
"All right, I'm moving now."
Elsie felt the rope go slack around her.
Caihanna slowly eased out of her bonds.
Eventually, Elsie heard the signal.
"Quickly now, Elsie," she told herself, "before anyone turns and sees you!"
She quickly yet stealthily made off.
Finally, she made it to the forest cover, where she breathed a giant sigh of relief. "Now where?" she asked.
"Away from here," came the grim response.
And off into the forest they went.
As the morning wore on into afternoon and the sun beat down more strongly, Elsie slowly became more hot, sweaty, and irritable. "When will we rest?" she asked Caihanna.
"When we know that the bloodthirsty and merciless soldiers of our archenemy are no longer foll-"
She paused suddenly. So did Elsie, and then she heard it too - the unmistakable sound of horse hooves trotting along on the forest floor.
Someone was following.