Uraseil smiled at Vael's last comment, a habit he had picked up whenever he spoke to the nobility. Apparently it made a good impression on them. Pretty much pointless now of course, Uraseil was well aware that Vael would be thinking that he had no choice but to do as Uraseil suggested. Moving his thoughts to the future, Uraseil quickly decided that testing Vael would be out of the question unless they were sure that they would not be attacked within a few days of the testing; Uraseil would be able to approximate Vael's skill with a sword the moment he drew his blade, and any more in depth testing would require time and effort.
"Best that you stay behind me if we get attacked then. Defend my back and point out anyone doing anything sneaky. I wouldn't want a sneaky dwarf with a crossbow to catch me unawares." said Uraseil.
There was a short pause, then Uraseil burst out laughing.
"Not much chance of being attacked by a sneaky dwarf of course." he said, shaking his head.
The Elves approached the top of the hill they were climbing, and Uraseil paused for a moment as the view reached his eyes. They could see for miles, apparently having climbed further than Uraseil had thought. A river wound south towards the oceans, after forming at the bottom of the hills the Elves stood on. A deep green forest stretched further than they could see, a forest which covered most of the southern half of the Elven Kingdom. It was a beautiful sight, but Uraseil quickly picked out where the Elven cities were, his keen eyes darting from place to place, making out the blurred outlines of each city built among the trees.
Pillars of smoke still rose from most, darkening the sky and marking the places where the Dwarves had concentrated their assaults. A large portion of the forest near the capital city had been burned and chopped away, leaving a large area for the Dwarves to make permanent camp. The thought that the dwarves would probably build a city of their own on the ashes was more than Uraseil could handle right then, and he turned away, leaning on a nearby tree and looking along the ridge that the pair would be following, taking note of where the end of the forest was and realising that there was no way the pair would reach the edge before nightfall. Also knowing that they would be at a disadvantage if they fought at night - due to the Dwarves ability to see clearly in the dark, developed over millenia of living underground - Uraseil knew that they might be trapped in the forest for the next two nights, if they couldn't find a way to pass the dwarves in time.
"We won't reach the edge by nightfall. We need to make good progress for the rest of the day then break camp at dawn, the moment the sun rises. At least we will get a good sleep, no point in keeping watch around here, the noise of a dwarf moving will wake us up before we see it."
Uraseil glanced over to Vael, not really seeing him, and motioned for them to continue.
Vael was about to add a humorous comment about sneaky dwarves when he reached the top of the hill and closed his mouth again at the sight of the view. He too looked south over the lands that were overrun, having no problem picking out the smoke over the elven cities considering all the time he had spent with the maps as of late. For every one of them he had been informed quickly, he knew where they were, when they were attacked and how they had fallen. Even though the terror and pain of losing them and the war had already come ever him once when the news had arrived, the sight still made him feel faint. He did not hesitate to follow Uraseil at his sign, forcing himself to not look back at the scene.
The shadows continued to grow longer as they continued, seemingly doing equal part climbing and walking. Part of Vael wanted to find something to talk about, but the grimness had come over him again and didn’t pass for a few hours. Nothing seemed important enough to say then. He sometimes strayed from the path that Uraseil led, to look for something edible or otherwise useful. Not so far as to be completely out of sight even in the thick forest.
It was still before nightfall when he came across a hole in the ground. It looked like it could have been the home of a bear, or similar large beast, but it did not smell strongly of animal, suggesting it was currently vacant. Even though he had heard nothing but their own footsteps and the sounds of the forest for most of the day he still walked the short way back rather than raising his voice.
“General. I’ve found a good place where I think we could rest. I know we would probably be able to walk for a little longer, but perhaps we could use some time to look for real food? Maybe set up some traps.” He waited for the general’s response, not yet deciding if he should insist. “We have food to take us through tomorrow, but not in decent health.”
Along with Vael, Uraseil felt the pressure and emotion of the last few weeks become almost too much to handle, and was relieved that Vael did not try to continue talking as they continued along the ridge. A few times over the next few hours, Uraseil almost burst out shouting in anger, but those feelings faded as quickly as they came, leaving behind a sense of darkness that Uraseil knew he would not shake off any time in the near future.
As the sun neared the horizon, Uraseil started to worry that they had not made enough progress towards the edge of the forest, knowing that they would need to stop soon to rest, but not being able to bring himself to start looking for a good resting place properly. Because of this, Uraseil took a few seconds to respond when Vael suggested they stop, trying to judge how far they had to go. Eventually deciding that they would not enough ground to be useful in the next half hour, he sighed and turned back to Vael.
"Alright, we will rest here until just before sunrise." he said.
The two Elves made their way to the hollow, stopping to pick up some dry sticks for firewood, as Uraseil decided that they were far enough from the edge of the forest to make a small fire, as long as they put it out before it was completely dark. Uraseil looked around for some small stones, then announced that he was going to see if he could find any rabbit, preferring hunting to trapping. Though he knew that Vael might be good at hunting, Uraseil decided to go alone, as he had an innate distrust of the practical skills of nobles. He made his way downhill and upwind from the camp, keeping careful note of where he had traveled.
The moment Uraseil was out of sight Vael half sat down, half collapsed on the ground, leaning against a tree. Hunting was something he had done quite a bit of, but he was too tired to be offended that he was not trusted to be brought along. The reason he had suggested traps in the first place was you could set them up and then sleep and have them fix the food on their own. However setting snares was not something he had learned so he doubted he would figure it out himself while Uraseil was gone. He didn’t even know if it actually was less work or if he had just assumed that in ignorance.
Sitting still became impossible quickly, the situation came with an unshakeable restlessness and Vael started to wander around the resting place, collecting twigs and leaves and anything else you could burn or eat or sleep on or that was marginally useful some other way. Within an hour he had a fire burning and then decided against leaving it. Even though he was near falling asleep sitting by the fire the unrest was still there and he wished now that he could have joined the hunting just to have something to occupy himself with.
After hunting for something close to two hours, Uraseil made his way back to the small camp site with a single rabbit. He had hoped for more, but his exhaustion was starting to catch up with him, and his movements became uncoordinated enough to scare off the already scarce small game in this part of the woods. After realising that had they continued for another hour or so there would be better hunting, Uraseil decided to give up on the hunt for now and hope he would get a chance sometime in the next few days.
As he approached the small fire Vael had made, Uraseil felt the adrenaline he had been running on fall away, and felt like sleeping right then. With effort, he forced himself to stay awake and got to work skinning the rabbit without saying a word to Vael. Soon after, the rabbit was being cooked just above the fire, with Uraseil holding it over the flames with a skewer made from a small branch of wet wood, taking care not to burn the wood. Once it was cooked enough, Uraseil pulled off all the edible portions of the rabbit, and buried the rest a short distance away from the camp. While not well cooked, the meat was enough to sustain the two Elves for a while at least, though Uraseil wished there was more that they could take with them to eat on the journey.
Once he had finished eating, Uraseil lay down next to the fire and closed his eyes, the sudden lack of activity allowing his mind to wander back to the scene they had seen a few hours earlier; the view of several Elven settlements in ruins, destroyed by the Dwarves. Uraseil realised that he had unconsciously been keeping himself busy the whole afternoon to keep his mind away from these thoughts. Considering himself lucky that he did not suffer from nightmares, Uraseil tried to get to sleep, finding it surprisingly difficult given his earlier lack of energy.
Vael made an attempt to speak, but stopped before he had started, seeing that Uraseil seemed to purposely avoid conversation. Instead he just gratefully ate his rabbit parts in silence. Just as he was too tired to be offended by being left out of the hunting, he was far too hungry to be disgusted by something that he could eat, even if it had just been turned inside out before his eyes. Silence was more troubling to him now with someone he did not know well than it had been with his own familiar team of guards. He was not going to start bothering his guide unless he started to fear for his own sanity though, and hopefully the silence would not last for quite so long.
With the larger team there had always been a continuous watch, and Vael had a hard time feeling safe without one, even as the forest was silent and Uraseil had said it was unlikely there would be any dangers. He still fell asleep quickly from exhaustion, but kept waking up every few hours, listened, looked for fires in the distance, and then quickly fell asleep again only to wake up an hour later. He did, at one point, see something he thought might have been a torch in the darkness, but it was far distant and soon gone. There was nothing to be heard at all. Once there was a hint of light in the sky he decided it was not worth trying to go back to sleep again, and the general had been concerned they were not making good enough progress anyway. He woke his travelling companion.
“I think this may have to do as dawn, general. I would like to get moving.” He paused for a while, wondering if he should bring up the light he saw, not knowing if it was a torch, a lone firefly or his own imagination. “How likely do you think it is that we will run into a scout or a patrol before we reach the edge of the forest?”
Uraseil had been sleeping lightly and opened his eyes as soon as Vael attempted to wake him, noting that the sky was only just starting to get light, feeling happy that he would be travelling with a man who would not oversleep. As he sat up, Uraseil noticed Vael looking thoughtful for a moment before speaking again. Uraseil was still drowsy, and it took him a moment to fully understand when Vael asked him about the danger facing them over the next few hours.
"Before we reach the edge? Not very likely, the Dwarves will probably just be watching the edge of the forest. They will be very well aware that we aren't well supplied or rested, and they will want to catch us just as we leave the cover of the trees."
Pausing for a moment to kick dirt over the remains of the fire in a halfhearted attempt to hide it, Uraseil considered the next part of the journey.
"Once we leave the forest, there is about a quarter mile of plains before we reach a cliff face. I know of a path up the cliff face, but we will be very visible for around an hour. As long as we reach the path before they spot us I don't think we will face any immediate danger, but then they will put about ten men in charge of guarding the entrance in case we double back, and send everyone else immediately after us, over rocky terrain, which the Dwarves are very good at crossing. If possible we need to get up onto the top before they see us, at least it will be a while before they realise we have left."
Once he had finished talking, Uraseil took one last look around their campsite, then motioned for them to continue along the path, heading towards the end of the forest for what Uraseil guessed would be around four hours.
“Well, good. I saw something that might have been a torch, but it could also have been my imagination. It is not strange for my senses to be unreliable now, but I do not wish to dismiss something that could be a danger.” Veal said, but nodded to show he accepted Uraseil’s judgment. They were indeed probably safer in the forest than anywhere else.
He listened to the general going over the day’s journey and nodded silently to that too, trying to picture the road in his head based on the description and what he knew of the area from before. He gave a faint smile before following.
“You sound certain, I hope our enemies will indeed act as you plan they will. I shall think of unpleasant what-if scenarios while we walk, just in case.” In this he was only partly serious, as while unpleasant possible scenarios did come to his mind whether he liked it or not, his thoughts mostly drifted towards how often they should stay to hunt and how likely it was for them to pass a still standing village or other residence. Deeper thoughts still avoided him.