The forest was like another world entirely. Rather than grasses, the ground was covered with a thick, springy moss, where it wasn’t interrupted by bursts of flowers, bushes and spreads of leafy ground plants. Trees rose all around, their bark an almost reddish brown, the lowest branches several times a human’s height above. They created the illusion of a cathedral, almost, a soaring space bordered by graceful columns. Only a relatively few yards into the forest, the intervening shade of branches and obstructing stands of underbrush almost totally cut off the outside world; the flat prairie might as well have been the fading memory of a dream. Here, even the light was green, and the air filled with birdsong and the earthy smell of moss.
“I thought I knew the beauty of nature at home,” Shaeine murmured, interrupting the quiet of their walk. “In the sun caverns, and in my House’s garden, lit by sunstones. Then I came to the surface world and saw how much vaster, more vibrant plant life is under the true sun. But even the prairie seems nothing compared to this. I wonder what glories are there in the world that I’ve never thought to dream of?”
“Nature is variety,” Juniper said. Contrary to her frenetic performance in the University greenhouse, and in other places where they had encountered plant life, she seemed almost half asleep, gazing languidly about as they strolled deeper into the woods. “Not all forms of life thrive, or even survive. It’s violent…brutal. They’re all beautiful, though, in their way. Alone, and especially in connection. The web is intricate, and life is different in every place.”
“I have to say I feel a little foolish,” Teal admitted. “Here I’m supposed to be the bard, and nothing I can add beats you two for poetry. I’m kinda stuck on ‘flower pretty, tree big.’”
Shaeine smiled at her. “There’s a purity in such stark observations. Remind me to introduce you to Narisian poetry when we are back home.”
“How deep do we have to go to meet elves?” Fross wondered.
“Oh, there’s a guy who’s been stalking us since we passed under the trees,” Juniper said blithely. “Don’t worry about it, he’ll say hello when he wants to. You can’t rush elves.”
Teal came to a stop, glancing around warily. Shaeine stepped up next to her, calm as always but with a pointedness to her expression that hadn’t been there before.
“You didn’t have to spoil my fun,” a voice complained, and then an elf materialized out of a bush. He was dressed much as Robin had been, in shades of green and brown, though the dyed patterns on his vest and leggings were purely abstract, obviously meant as camouflage rather than decoration. They certainly worked at that, blending into the shrubbery behind him even now, though how he had hidden his pale skin and long golden hair was an open question.
“Aw, sorry,” Juniper said, grinning. “Some other time we could play a nice long game, but we actually wanted to speak with your tribe.”
“It is, of course, an honor to host you, Juniper,” he said gallantly, bowing.
“You know him?” Teal said in surprise.
“Nope!” the dryad replied brightly.
“I’ve not had the pleasure before,” the elf said, his expression much more cool as he settled his gaze on her. “But we know of all the dryads, of course. It is curious that Juniper has left the Deep Wild; Naiya keeps the younger ones close to her.”
“We’re classmates! I’m Fross! It’s nice to meet you! Wow, this place is really pretty, it must be wonderful living here!”
“Fross,” he said gravely, nodding to her. “Such an interesting group. Dryad, pixie, human, and…” He trailed off, staring flatly at Shaeine. “You.”
“I am Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion,” she said, bowing. “It is my honor to be a guest in your grove, cousin.” There was a subtle emphasis to the last word; the elf’s eyebrow twitched as she spoke it.
“A kudzu, I should have known,” he said. “Well, that means I shouldn’t kill you, I suppose. Is that a good thing or a bad?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be killing her anyway,” Juniper said earnestly. “Shaeine’s my friend. I’d pretty much rip you in half if you tried. And that always feels like such a waste, y’know? There’s just no point in killing elves. They take forever to grow, there’s hardly any meat and what there is is all lean and stringy. It seems wasteful. I hate that.”
“Then it’s a good thing,” he said gravely. “I certainly would not want to distress you.”
“No, you really wouldn’t want to do that,” Juniper said breezily.
“I’m Teal Falconer,” said the bard with a slightly tense smile. “Which makes me the second to last person here to give a name.”
“Oh?” His answering smile was equally tense. “I imagine you’re accustomed to being a person of importance in other company, Miss Falconer. Be assured, your surname carries no weight here.”
“I’m, uh, actually pretty surprised you’ve even heard of my surname. We don’t sell a lot of carriages to elven groves.”
“Ooh! Maybe he has a lot of human friends!” Fross buzzed in an excited circle, apparently not noticing the way the elf’s expression hardened.
“Let me guess,” he said. “You’ll be a group of Thaulwi’s foundlings, come to try to cajole the elders?”
“What’s a Thaulwi?” Fross asked.
“It’s a songbird. Dark feathers, with a distinctive red patch on the breast.”
“Oh!” said Teal. “You mean a robin—oh. Right.”
“I thought so.” The elf took a step back, his patterned clothing beginning to fade into the green shadows behind him. “I suppose I could go ask the elders if they want to talk to you. Or perhaps you would find a few hours spent wandering in the woods instructive.”
“You’re being mean,” Juniper said, frowning.
“More to the point, he is being an ass.”
The new voice came from directly above; even as they craned their necks to look, another elf dropped from the thick branch hanging over them, landing almost soundlessly on the moss in their midst. This one hadn’t made even an attempt at camouflage; she wore a loose blouse and trousers in silvery white, the latter tucked into snug moccasins, with a tight black vest embroidered in patterns of gold and red leaves.
“I’m Thassli,” she said, bowing with a sardonic grin. “This is Fraen, and for the record, he’s just trying to show dominance by giving you a hard time. I gather he’s been chewing the wrong kind of leaves if he thinks it’s a good idea to play that game with a dryad.”
“I wasn’t actually going to turn them away,” Fraen said testily.
“Welcome to our grove, daughter of Naiya,” Thassli said, ignoring him. “It’s a rare honor; none of your sisters have been through the area in many seasons. Welcome, daughter of Ashaele. I suspect whatever you’re here for is going to make a lot of dignified people very upset, which makes you aces in my book.”
Shaeine met her grin with a polite bow. “I very much fear that I shall not disappoint, despite my best efforts.”
“As a point of curiosity, did my sister actually send you here? I gather your well-groomed friend here,” she nodded to Teal, “recognized her Tanglish moniker, but actually sending a human into the grove is a new one even for her.”
“We have met Robin, yes,” Shaeine said smoothly. “Last we saw her she was introducing some of our friends to the townsfolk. She did not attempt to stop us from entering the forest, though in my opinion she didn’t seem excited about our plans to visit.”
“Feh, she’s never excited about anything,” Thassli said dismissively.
“Wow, you’re Robin’s sister?” Fross exclaimed. “It’s a small world! And a small forest. Well, even smaller. By definition. Obviously.”
“I think some tribes address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ by custom,” Teal said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, though. I don’t know how you guys do things around here.”
“You’re not wrong,” Thassli said gravely. “Thaulwi is my sister in the sense of being a fellow member of the tribe, of our extended family. Also, by a strange coincidence, we have the same parents. It’s funny how the surly, unfriendly one is so fond of humans and tauhanwe and outsiders in general, while the upbeat, outgoing one is less sanguine about people who behave like children as a cultural imperative, except with weapons.”
“Wow,” Teal muttered. “Hint taken.”
“So, you want to see the elders?” Thassli went on, not responding to her.
“Yes, thank you,” said Shaeine.
“Then so you shall. Right this way.” Sketching a mocking bow in their direction, she took off into the shadows of the forest at a languid pace, the visitors falling into step behind her. Fraen waited till they had passed before settling in at the rear of the group.
“So,” Teal said after a quiet few minutes, as it seemed their guides weren’t about to start a conversation. “That’s the second time I’ve heard you called a kudzu. Is that, uh, some kind of racial epithet?”
“Nothing so harsh,” Shaeine replied with a faint smile. “And it refers to my family, specifically, not my race. It could be fairly described as an epithet, though I like to think there is a certain wry fondness behind it.”
“Kudzu is a crawling vine,” Thassli said from ahead. “Attractive, has a pleasing smell, and renders several alchemically useful reagents. It also grows at an absolutely phenomenal rate and is incredibly durable, all but impossible to kill off if you miss so much as a fragment of the root. If left unchecked, it can choke whole forests. I have seen abandoned human towns completely smothered under kudzu.”
“I’m…not sure I see the resemblance,” Teal said carefully.
“When my people entered into the treaty with the Empire, the Queen determined that we must undergo a fundamental change in the way we relate to all the races on the surface. My family being the diplomatic branch of Tar’naris, much of this work has fallen to House Awarrion. Making headway with the dwarves has been slow and difficult; they blame us in part for their current economic woes, and several of the dwarven kingdoms have actually declared war.”
“Wait, you’re at war with the dwarves?!”
“They have declared war,” Shaeine said, smiling. “To prosecute war, they would have to either cross many miles of Imperial territory overland, or tunnel through multiple Underworld enclaves of Scyllithene drow who would like nothing better than for someone to bore then a convenient hole into the dwarven caverns. The hostilities are effectively limited to the dwarves refusing to speak with the emissaries we send to sue for peace. They have hosted them quite generously while keeping them waiting, however. It cannot be said that the dwarves are anything less than civilized. We have had much greater success overall, however, in approaching our surface-dwelling cousins.”
Fraen snorted loudly, Thassli actually laughed. “They just won’t quit,” she said, grinning at them over her shoulder. “You no sooner chase out an Awarrion than another one comes visiting. We’ve had a party of them camp at the edge of the forest for weeks, trying to flag down passing adventurers to carry gifts into the grove. Sadly for them, humans are even more leery of drow than we are.”
“Persistence pays off,” Shaeine said serenely. “In a mere ten years we have worn down virtually all the forest tribes from attacking us on sight to permitting our emissaries to approach. They still refuse to conduct any official correspondence, but my mother is confident that with time and continued goodwill—”
“I’ve always thought kudzu was an inappropriate metaphor,” Fraen said from behind. “Some kind of invasive fungus, perhaps?”
“Oh, stick a plum in it, Fraen,” Thassli said dismissively. “If you want to be passive-aggressive, do that, but don’t be churlish in front of the diplomats. It just makes us look bad.”
“Well, forgive me for having an opinion,” he said, raising his voice slightly. “I get a little worked up when we’re leading a human and a drow right into the grove.”
“He’s very young, yes?” Shaeine said.
“Very.” Thassli glanced back at her again, smiling. “I think of him like a puppy.”
“Excuse me?” Fraen demanded.
“You lack subtlety,” Shaeine said to him. “I’m certain your tribemates were aware of our approach already; all your warning accomplished was to let me know we are within earshot.”
“Which I let you do because it doesn’t matter,” Thassli added firmly. “There is no subterfuge going on here; we’re taking visitors to see the elders. If this were some kind of sensitive operation, I wouldn’t have kept you along.”
Fraen subsided into a sulk.
“Juniper? Where are you going?” Thassli asked when the dryad peeled off to splash across a creek.
“Um, to the grove?” she said, looking back and pointing in the direction she’d been heading. “Where the elves are?”
“That’s where I’m leading you,” Thassli said patiently. “This way?”
“Um, no, they’re over here.” Juniper pointed more insistently. “Elves smell really distinctive. Even in an elven forest like this, it’s not hard at all to tell where the settlement is. Are you lost, maybe?” She tilted her head curiously. “Were you trying to get us lost? ‘Cos I’ve gotta tell you, that would be really silly.”
“Good thing there’s no subterfuge going on,” Teal muttered.
“It is a very common thing to disguise the approach to one’s home when escorting visitors of uncertain intention,” Shaeine said soothingly. “Don’t be rude, Juniper; they have a right to their security.”
“Oh…gosh, I’m sorry.” Juniper splashed back across the creek toward them. “My fault, I just didn’t think. Okay, we can walk in circles in the woods a while longer; it’s a very pretty forest. Just, not too long, please? We do need to get on with our business.”
Thassli stared at her in silence for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Well! And that is what happens when I start to think I’m clever. Perhaps I’ll actually learn the lesson this time. Ah, well, no point in it now, is there? Let’s go upstream a bit, though. There’s an easier place to cross.” She smiled a little too broadly at Teal. “I know how humans wilt when you get them wet.”
“Well, what a complete waste of a morning that was,” Ruda groused.
“It wasn’t wasted,” Toby said thoughtfully. He wore a slight frown of concentration. “We walked into a complex situation we didn’t understand; obviously, our first round of meetings would be spent getting a handle on things.”
“Yeah? Well, now we’ve got our fucking handle, and I think I may have spotted our problem.” Ruda savagely kicked a rock; it went sailing down the road ahead, clattering off the side of a farmhouse in need of repainting. “These bastards all hate each other.”
“Told you,” Robin said noncommittally.
“They don’t, though,” said Gabriel. He, too, was frowning in thought, mirroring Toby. “We’ve talked to seven families, that’s not everybody in town, obviously.”
“They’re the big movers and shakers,” said Robin. “Before the Riders came and all this went down, they were the closest thing the town had to political factions, below the level of the Sheriff and his cronies. Even now they’re the ones who matter. Everyone else who’ll be willing to take any action will be looking to one of those men for a lead.”
“Right.” He nodded. “And they don’t all hate each other. It’s just that several of them hate each other specifically, and most of the rest have complex relationships, and all of them have their own extended family stuff to deal with, and all this is complicated by the fact that the town is besieged, terrorized and basically starving.”
“Oh, good,” Ruda deadpanned. “That’s just fucking great. Thanks for chiming in, Gabe, before you explained all that I was afraid this was gonna be hard.”
“My point is,” Toby said patiently, “this was a preliminary. We know who we’re dealing with, now; we’ve got a general sense of what the tensions are.”
“They were a lot of tensions,” Gabriel admitted. “Uh, I don’t suppose anybody was taking notes? I’m not positive I’m gonna remember…”
“I will,” said Ruda.
“I can spell it all out for you anyway,” Robin offered. “Probably more logically than you’ll get it from any of the men themselves.”
“And once we have that,” said Toby, “we can start negotiations. Diplomacy. I really wish there was a way to be sure we could get Shaeine into this without upsetting anybody. She’s much better at it than I am, but treaty or no, I don’t expect the folks around here will react well to meeting a drow.”
“That is the problem,” said Trissiny. “We have a starting point for what’s sure to be a long, involved process. We do not have time for this. The town is falling apart now, and there’s no telling how long we’ve got till the Empire reacts to all this. In my opinion we are already pushing that deadline. These men and their petty vendettas are going to be their own death.”
“These are the issues they’ve lived with for years,” Toby said gently. “None of it seems petty to them.”
“Oh, please.” She glared ahead, setting her feet down with more force than was necessary on each step. “Did you hear the things they were upset about? This man’s son eloped with that one’s daughter a generation ago. A dispute over a border fence; a dispute over ownership of a cow. Two housewives who got in a public brawl over who stole whose mincemeat pie recipe. Those are just the ones that stuck in my mind.”
“I’m with Shiny Boots here,” said Ruda. “I am just about out of patience with these assholes. Seriously, all of this is small-town bullshit, most of it’s from years ago. And they’re all still so fucking worked up about it, half of ’em were about ready to pick up their wands and round up a posse to go lynch their neighbors.”
“And all of this,” Trissiny concluded grimly, “while their town is a war zone. How can so many people be so utterly devoid of basic common sense?!”
“But that’s exactly it,” said Toby. “The situation has kept everyone tense, armed and afraid, prevented them from talking to each other. It’s not talking things out that causes little offenses to escalate to deep tensions, and then to violence.”
“I dunno,” Gabriel mused. “They did seem like rather petty grievances. But… Usually, if you give people a common enemy, you’ve got a ready-made way to bind them together. Did you hear the way those guys all talked? They were all for standing up to the Riders, but they know they don’t have the strength to do it alone, and they balked at siding with other families they have a feud with. It…smells wrong.”
“I still say it makes sense,” said Toby. “I mean, what common enemy do they have? The Riders are guerrilla fighters; their identities are kept secret, their meeting places are secret, they might as well be wraiths. They rule through fear. When fear is the enemy, reason is the first victim.”
“Very pithy,” said Robin, grinning. “I’ll have to remember that one.”
“What I meant is,” Gabriel went on, “maybe the Riders are doing something, or did something, to play on these tensions? It’d be a tidy way of preventing any resistance from organizing. That, and working up hatred against the elves.”
“That’s true,” said Ruda with a frown. “And since nobody knows who they are…they’re probably folks who can move around the town openly with their hoods off. Fuck, why did I think of that sooner?”
“I’ve thought of it,” said Robin. “As have others. It makes little difference, though, how all this came to be. As Trissiny pointed out, we no longer have the luxury of time to engage in this maneuvering. This knot must be cut through, soon. Somehow.”
“Horses,” Gabriel said suddenly, frowning. “The Riders actually ride horses, right? It’s not just a euphemism?”
“They ride, yes,” Robin replied.
“Okay, well…how many horses can there be in a town this size? Hasn’t anybody figured out who was on whose horse? Even if the men are masked, surely somebody must’ve recognized one of the animals.”
“No luck,” she said, shaking her head. “In the beginning they only struck at night and didn’t let anybody get a good look. They’ve gotten bolder, but by this point they’re using mounts stolen from the rich families that were the first ones killed. Probably stabling them at one of the old properties, too.”
“It was a good thought, though,” said Trissiny.
“Hm, what if we tracked them to this stable?”
“Then we’re right back where we started, Ruda,” Trissiny said wearily. “Yes, if we can get these Riders to face off with us, we can almost certainly take them…but that is beside the point. What we need to do is unite the town against them. And as for that… The more I see of these people, the more I think it’s not possible. Honestly, I’m starting to question whether they even deserve the help.”
“That’s not like you,” Toby said quietly.
“It’s pretty much like me,” she replied, not meeting his eyes. “I find it hard to have patience for people who bury their heads in foolishness when their whole world is coming apart around them. But…it’s not a thought worthy of the Hand of Avei.” She heaved a deep sigh.
“We’ve just gotta change the situation, then,” said Gabriel. “We’ve got the ready-made enemy to hold up as a target. We just need to…engineer a scenario where they’re not all scared of the boogeymen and are inspired to fight back.”
“Hmf. Yeah, maybe that’d do it,” Ruda said. “Any ideas?”
“Yeah. Me either.”
Abruptly, Robin stiffened. “Only three. Stand your ground.” As swiftly as a fleeing squirrel, she shot across the road, vaulted over a dilapidated picket fence and vanished into a tiny patch of scraggly bushes that seemed hardly big enough to conceal her.
The four of them had another few seconds to be confused before they could hear the hoofbeats.
They were on one of the outer roads of the town, lined on one side by intermittent structures that were mostly abandoned, and on the other by the backs of houses. All four drew together as the first White Riders they had seen wheeled around the corner ahead and galloped toward them. The outfits were definitely impressive, white cloaks with the hoods up and masks covering the lowers parts of their faces, over loose white robes. They were windblown and dusty, however, and doubtless got that way minutes after being put on in this prairie town. Compared to Imperial or Avenist soldiers, the three men were not much to look at. Bearing down on them on horseback, though, they made a solid impression.
Light flared up around Toby and Trissiny; Gabriel hissed in pain and stumbled backward away from them. Ruda unsheathed her sword but didn’t take a step, leaving the two paladins in the forefront of the group.
The Riders came to a stop far closer than was safe, horses prancing restlessly.
“Leave,” said the one in the middle. The voice was terribly wrong, echoing cavernously and with a hissing resonance like the wind through the tallgrass. However cheap their theatrics, a little enchantment could go a long way if one knew how to use it properly. Nobody would ever place that voice as belonging to a human being, much less one they knew.
“Perhaps we can talk—”
“Leave,” the lead Rider repeated, cutting Toby off. “This town doesn’t need your help. It’s no place for you. Go back where you came from.”
“No.” Trissiny said flatly.
All three Riders raised their wands.
“Oh, fuck this,” Ruda snorted, and stabbed Gabriel in the foot with her rapier.
He let out a shriek of pure surprise and pain, his face twisting—then twisting further, hardening into defensive ridges of bone protecting his eyes, which suddenly went coal black and faintly reflective.
The horses screamed in panic, wheeling about despite the imprecations of their riders; the one in the lead reared, nearly unseating its master and almost falling over before it managed to get turned and moving. All three dashed away back where they had come, one nearly falling out of his saddle, all of them flailing without success to get their mounts back under control.
“Stay here,” Trissiny said curtly, running two steps past them and vaulting into Arjen’s saddle.
“What the f—where the fuck did that thing come from?!” Ruda squawked, stumbling backward and incidentally yanking the sword out of Gabriel’s foot, prompting another yowl from him. “Where did she—did she have that fucking horse on the Rail?!”
“You stabbed me!” Gabriel shouted. He was clutching at his head with both hands, hopping about on one foot.
“Oh, you’re fine, y’big baby. We’ll have Shaeine heal you up when she gets back and you’ll be good as new.”
“Why the fuck did you stab me!” he roared directly in her face. Ruda didn’t back away, but gripped her sword tighter. His eyes were still bottomless pits of darkness.
“Gabriel.” Toby turned from watching Trissiny, who had already galloped out of sight. “You’re getting angry. Nobody likes you when you’re angry.”
Gabriel glanced at him, breathing heavily through clenched teeth. Slowly, with visible effort, he forced himself to relax. He closed his eyes, taking deeper, slower breaths while the armor plates on his cheeks and forehead melted back into the skin; when he opened them again, they looked fully human.
“All right,” he said more calmly. “Let me rephrase that. Ruda, dear classmate and colleague, why the fuck did you fucking stab me?”
“Well, it’s something,” Toby muttered.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding sincere but in no way remorseful. “Tactics, though. This house behind us is smoking from the chimney; there are people in there. If shooting started, there’d be bystanders hit. Had to scare ’em off and they didn’t look too impressed by Trissiny’s sword.”
“And that leads by what circuitous logic to you fucking stabbing me?!”
“Animals don’t like demons,” she explained, grinning. “And horses are jumpy beasts at the best of times. I figured, we show them a bit of your inner monster, and they’d take the decision out of the Riders’ hands. Went off perfectly, by the way. Don’t everybody thank me at once.”
“That really hurts,” he complained, still holding his injured foot off the ground. “How the fuck did that even break the skin?! Did you have your sword blessed?”
“If it was blessed, you’d be burning,” said Toby. “Mithril is a natural magic-blocker. That’s why it’s so valuable; that sword could cut through a dragon’s scales, too.”
“Stab,” Ruda clarified. “It’d stab through a dragon’s hide. Rapier’s not a slashing weapon.”
“Okay, well, forgive me, but I’m still kind of hung up on the part where you fucking stabbed me!”
“So I noticed,” she said dryly. “Look, I am sorry, but I needed to upset you spontaneously. I figured that was more reliable than going off on a spiel about how your mother’s a whore.”
“My mother is a hethelax demon, you lunatic!”
“Oh. Really? I’d always assumed… Well, my mistake.” She grinned broadly. “A spiel about how your father’s a whore.”
“Ruda,” Toby said firmly. “Enough.”
“Man, you ruined my shoe,” Gabriel said petulantly. “I like these shoes.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I will buy you new shoes, just for being a good sport.”
“I am not a good sport! I’m whining and bitching and carrying on and I intend to keep doing it!”
Toby turned his back on them, staring in the direction Trissiny had gone, his face creased with worry.
Arjen was a draft horse, not built for speed; but then, he wasn’t just a horse. Despite the lead the Riders had, and the extra time they’d had to sort themselves out and turn their mounts’ panic into a controlled retreat, Trissiny was gaining on them. At least until, a few minutes after they had left the town behind, Arjen suddenly skidded to a stop.
“What?” she demanded. “What are you doing?! After them!”
He twisted his head around and gave her a look.
Up ahead, the three Riders also stopped, wheeling their mounts around to prance back and forth—not the behavior of fugitives fleeing a dangerous enemy. Trissiny glanced around, quickly taking in the scene.
Between her and them, the path narrowed into a small pass between two little hillocks, each crowned with a small thicket of trees. Plenty of space to hide armed men in each, and a good spot to rig a trap. It was still too open for a proper ambush, but with modern weapons, they wouldn’t need to enclose her fully.
“I see it too,” she said softly. “Thank you, Arjen. Good work.” She patted his neck and he whickered softly, lowering his head to stare at their foes and pawing at the ground with one massive hoof.
A golden sphere of light sparked around them as it was struck by a lightning bolt, then a second. It was reflexive, now. In hindsight, Trissiny understood how she had used so much divine magic against the centaurs without burning herself out; elves could carry and channel huge amounts of energy. She probably couldn’t match a full elf, but her capacity was clearly high enough to make a significant difference. Blocking the wandshots barely even registered.
“What’s wrong, paladin?” called the lead rider in his eerie, magically enhanced voice. “Lost your nerve?”
Goddess, they weren’t even being subtle about it. How had these amateurs managed to suborn the entire town so completely?
Trissiny considered her options. She could probably withstand whatever they had waiting, to judge by the way their wands were making no impression on her shield, but charging into a trap of unknown nature was deeply foolhardy. She could easily go around the hillocks; the forest was too thick on one side but there was plenty of open prairie on the other. That would take precious moments, however, and they’d flee as soon as she started. She’d lose them for sure; they knew this land, and she didn’t.
She could, of course, retreat, and it seemed to be the logical option anyway. This wasn’t the time or the place for a confrontation. But there was more to war than tactics and strategies; symbolic victories counted, and Trissiny now realized she had been maneuvered into this place for exactly that reason. If the Hand of Avei backed down from them, the White Riders would gain untold credibility and tighten their grip on the town without shedding a drop of blood.
The leader sat his horse patiently, watching her, but the other two wheeled their mounts back and forth, whooping and hollering. Daring her.
Trissiny nudged Arjen forward, taking him around in a wide arc to approach the gap from an angle. The Riders’ shouting rose in pitch and they mirrored her approach, wands up and aiming.
She drew back her arm and, with all her strength, hurled her sword at them.
The blade arced through the air, spinning end over end, and struck the earth equidistant between them, sticking upright out of the soil directly between the two little hills. Trissiny continued her wide arc, wheeling around again to regard the Riders from a greater distance.
Yipping and hollering in triumph, one of them galloped forward straight at the sword, leaning far to the right out of his saddle. It was an impressive display of horsemanship; held in place only by one foot in a stirrup and a hand on his saddle horn, he swept his other arm out, low enough he could have dragged his fingers along the ground.
The leader shouted a warning in his creepy voice, but too late.
The Rider closed his fingers around the hilt of Trissiny’s sword.
The world dissolved in light.
It wasn’t a bolt so much as a tower of lightning, a single shaft of blinding energy like a bar of solid moonlight, burning with the intensity of a furnace. For one fiery instant it connected the sword with the sky above.
The horse, now riderless and screaming in panic, went galloping away across the prairie, leaving behind the blackened and still smoking corpse of a White Rider, lying beside the sword stuck upright in the ground.
Both the remaining Riders spun their mounts and took off as fast as they could move.
Trissiny sat in her saddle and watched them go. When she finally nudged Arjen forward, leaning down to retrieve her sword, there came not a peep from either hillock, and she didn’t bother investigating them. Sheathing her weapon, she turned her steed and headed back for the town.
Behind her, the fallen Rider continued to smoke.