“I meant no insult, milord. As a tracker, I am well aware of what the realms would be like without the specter of the Black Lords of Argental hovering in the shadows.”
Connor turned and looked her over again, closer than he had the first time. Trackers were common enough among the forest elves. Female trackers, though, were highly prized and not often seen outside of the woodlands without a guard. He looked around, suspicious that this doe didn’t have one. She wasn’t garbed as a tracker, but as a lowborn servant.
“I don’t have permission to be here,” she admitted reluctantly.
“Then why are you here?” he asked suspiciously.
“I told you. I need your help,” she growled. “My brother and I are the last of our family. It would not bode well for me or our clan if he were to be killed by the wolves for an unintended slight. We are willing to make reparations. We just need someone to work out the details with the pack, preferably before one of them kills him.”
Connor nodded his understanding at her disguise. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the right to travel unescorted. She was seen as too valuable to be risked—a ridiculous view, he thought. Male trackers bred true, so there was no need to put the full burden of continuing the bloodlines on females.
“The easiest answer out of your predicament would be to find a mate,” he observed dryly, not wanting to involve himself. He needed to get back in the field. Faolchu may not be willing to let him lead a hunting party but being part of the main group was better than being left behind completely.
“That would save me from an unacceptable marriage,” she agreed. “But my brother’s safety is my concern right now.” She paused for a moment, then muttered, “He would not have been at risk had I simply allowed myself to be mated to the first buck who asked for me. Instead, he hired himself out to earn money to pay our tithe.”
“You could request the tithe be reduced. It is not usually set so high that a clan must farm themselves out to pay it,” Connor said.
“It is set correctly for a full clan,” she rebutted. “You missed my point. We don’t want anyone knowing we are the last two members of our family. And the point is moot. Seraiah is already in grave danger from the wolves.”
“Ah,” Connor said, finally understanding. “He is more than just your family patriarch. He is also the clan’s chieftain.”
“Yes,” the doe replied, sounding relieved. “If he dies, not only would I lose the last of my family, I would become chieftain. Being unmated will put me at the king’s mercy. I would be forced to marry to his liking, something that will likely not be in the best interest of me or my clan.”
Connor looked at her closely now. That did change things. It also explained why she felt guilty. Generations of being told it was the female’s responsibility to keep families big tended to result in females buying into that ideal. If her family had been larger, her brother’s situation would not be quite so dire.
“Is your brother somewhere safe at the moment?” he asked carefully. The doe looked up, a spark of cautious hope lighting her wary brown eyes.
“Are you going to help us?” she asked tentatively.
“Be careful what you ask for, lass,” Connor replied. “The help you receive may not be what you would have wanted.” He turned and continued down the narrow corridor. “I asked if your brother was somewhere safe.”
“Yes,” the doe said, stumbling as she tried to keep up. He slowed his pace a bit so she could keep up. There was no sense losing her in the throng of the foot traffic now that he had decided to help her.
“Where are you going?” she asked after a few minutes.
“I need a bath and a feeding before resuming my hunt,” he tossed back over his shoulder.
“You are going to seek a bathhouse?” she asked, a note of some deep emotion creeping into her voice, though he wasn’t sure which one. He didn’t know her well enough to tell, so he didn’t reply.
“If I fed you, would you reconsider? Talk to my brother at the very least?” she asked nervously.
“I was planning on talking to your brother,” Connor said, careful to keep his satisfaction out of his voice. Even Faolchu wasn’t cold enough to steal a hunt from him if he developed the lead. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been this excited about anything, even a female. “But if your offer of a feeding is sincere, I would be grateful. It would save time.”