“If Avelea has the map,” Merry grumbled, “why is Locke in the lead?”
“Seriously?” Farah gave her a wide-eyed look over her shoulder. “Really? We’re walking in the woods, and you don’t want the wood elf to lead?”
“That,” Merry said accusingly, pointing at Principia, “is a city elf. Deny it, Locke!”
“How about just leaving me out of your little sideshow routine?” Principia suggested.
“Really, though, I mean it. Why is the person with the map not navigating? Knowing how to find your way through the woods doesn’t mean knowing how to find your way to specific coordinates.”
“I already told her where we’re going,” Ephanie remarked from the back of their little column. “And all of you, for that matter. If Locke knows the way, I’m fine with her leading.”
“It isn’t hard,” Principia said reasonably. “I’m quite familiar with these forests, anyway. Being a city girl, and specifically an Eserite city girl, I’ve had all kinds of good reasons to know how to disappear from Tiraas or Madouris in a hurry.”
“Finally, an explanation I can believe,” Merry muttered. “I guess if you’re a hundred years old, you can’t help picking up a few tricks.”
“Two hundred and forty-eight,” Principia corrected. “Wait, no… What year is it? Oh, right, then yes. Two hundred forty-eight.”
Casey let out a low whistle.
“That is so weird to think about,” Farah said in an awed tone. “You were around before the Consolidation. You were alive and working during the Age of Adventures!”
“There’s a lot of difference of opinion concerning when that ended,” Prin commented. “It was already winding down when I started out. Not everybody’s convinced it’s over yet, either. I have it on good authority that some people still go adventuring in the Golden Sea.” She turned to grin at Merry.
“Not smart people,” Merry said with a sigh.
“Shouldn’t much matter who has the map, anyhow,” Casey added. “We’ve all had wilderness survival training.”
“You’ve all had very basic wilderness survival training,” Principia said disdainfully. “I am minimally confident you could manage not to get killed in these extremely tame woods in the time it would take you to reach a settlement. In a real wilderness, what they teach in basic won’t get you very far.”
“Yep, we Legionnaires are constantly being set up for horrible death,” Merry groused. “Oh, no, wait, that’s just this squad.”
“And that’s just basic training,” Ephanie added. “There’s plenty of advanced training available for scouts and others. You have to qualify for that, though, and have a reason you need it.”
“Is that where you learned?” Prin asked.
Ephanie frowned. “Pardon?”
“C’mon, I’ve seen you checking trees for moss, and I know what those herbs you stopped and picked are for.”
Ephanie pursed her lips in displeasure, then sighed. “I…no. I had some training from… From other sources. Yeah, you’re right, though, I’m confident I’d be okay alone in the woods.”
Principia glanced back at her. “That being the case, why don’t you let somebody else hold the map? If we should happen to get separated, it makes sense to add an extra advantage to whoever doesn’t have those skills.”
“That’s a pretty good idea,” Ephanie said, producing a folded sheaf of paper from one of her belt pouches. She lengthened her stride, moving up in the formation, and handed it to Farah. “Here.”
“What? Me?” Farah frowned, but accepted it. “Thanks…I guess. I’m a little bothered you think I’m the most helpless person here.”
“It’s not that,” Ephanie said with a smile. “Locke’s a wood elf and Lang was a frontier adventurer. I figure they have less need. Plus, you and Elwick tend to stick together, so giving it to one of you has a better chance of aiding both.”
“Oh. Well. I guess that makes sense.”
“If it makes you feel better,” Merry said sardonically, “I’m just as helpless in the woods as you are. I was heading into the Golden Sea. The total number of trees there is between zero and one, depending on whether the World Tree is a real thing.”
“It is,” said Prin, “but it’s in the Deep Wild, not the Golden Sea.”
“Well, I guess the knife-ear would know.”
“Whoah,” Casey said, frowning. “Let’s not with the racial slurs, okay?”
“There are regulations about that,” Ephanie added.
“Don’t say that to a plains elf unless you want a tomahawk up your ass,” Principia said, grinning back at them, “but I’m not much bothered by it. Usually when someone insults me, it’s a lot worse and a lot more deserved. That’s just friendly joshing as far as I’m concerned.”
“Do they actually do that with tomahawks?” Merry asked curiously. “Up the ass?”
“Yes,” Principia said solemnly. “Then they scalp you and do a rain dance around their teepees while the squaws make wampum—”
“All right, all right, I was just asking! No need to be a bitch about it.”
“Gendered insults,” Ephanie said mildly. “Also addressed in regulations.”
“There are no regulations in the woods, Avelea.”
“…that’s so wrong I’m actually at a loss how to begin responding to it.”
“Point to Lang, then,” Principia said cheerfully, coming to a sudden stop and then changing course, heading into the trees to their right. “C’mere, there’s fresh water up ahead. It’s nearing noon and we’re a ways off from our search zone yet. Good time to break for rations before we’re in potentially hazardous territory.”
“I don’t hear any water,” Casey said, though she followed Prin without hesitation.
“You also don’t have ears as long as your foot,” Farah said with a smile.
“Yes, okay, fine. Well, the good news is, that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever said.”
“Oh, up yours.”
They reached a small stream within minutes, but Principia led them onward along its banks until they came to a flat slab of well-worn rock extending partially over it. There was a ring of blackened stones arranged in its center, with fallen logs encircling it as obvious seats; the evidence of a fire wasn’t recent, but hadn’t been there long enough to have been completely washed away by the region’s persistent rains. This was clearly a popular campsite.
The five Legionnaires were in good shape for hiking, but it was still with groans of relief that they seated themselves. They had well-stuffed belt pouches rather than backpacks, so there wasn’t reason to put down their supplies, but this was the first opportunity they’d enjoyed in several hours to set aside their lances. Farah removed her shield, but the others left theirs slung on their backs.
While they chewed dried meat, Casey picked out a small runed charm from her pouch, turning it over in her hand and studying the markings. “This is it, right? The tracking thinger?”
“Yup,” Principia said, idly scanning their surroundings. There was not much to see except trees; the cheerful sound of birdsong and the rushing of the stream below made it a remarkably pleasant place for lunch.
“It’s about noon,” Casey murmured, looking up at the sky through the gap in the trees around them. “Captain Dijanerad said she’d be sending someone out after us as soon as she cleared up the mess with our orders…”
“The captain is not going to rescue us,” Principia said quietly. “We’re on our own out here, ladies.”
“How hard can it be?” Farah asked, frowning. “I mean… Avelea was right, this mission is nonsense. Surely someone in command will see that.”
“That is exactly the problem,” Principia said with a sigh. “It’s blatant nonsense, which means it should, in theory, be simple enough to get it scrubbed out through the chain of command. Therefore, the captain will do that, and run into whatever roadblock Syrinx put up to stop her from succeeding. Because Syrinx is definitely clever enough to do that. The mission is a trap for us; the foolish nature of it is a bait-and-switch trick aimed at the captain.”
“She’s always backed us up before,” Merry pointed out.
“Shahdi Dijanerad is a solid woman and a good soldier,” Principia said. “If we were going into a battle, I’d be glad to do it under her command. But when it comes to shady maneuvering, she just doesn’t have the right mindset to take on Syrinx. I’m just hoping whatever the Bishop’s doing back there is only designed to slow her, not to get her in actual trouble.”
“Again,” said Merry, “she managed before…”
“She had Covrin sneaking her intel before,” Prin said darkly. “I have to say I wasn’t best pleased to learn that. I’d been thinking the captain was savvy enough to hold Syrinx off, but if she was just getting help from a spy… I don’t know. The point is, that’s back there and we’re out here.”
“Locke’s right,” said Ephanie. “Even if Dijanerad manages, it’s best to keep our minds on this situation rather than counting on some outside influence to save us.”
“Which brings us back to the big question we’ve all carefully avoided discussing,” said Casey with a grimace. “Save us from what?”
“Anything we could say about that would be pure conjecture,” said Principia. “So it’s best not to. Keep a clear mind and don’t get attached to any theories; we’ll have a better chance of facing whatever it is that way.”
“Elwick does make a good point, though,” Merry said seriously. “This isn’t Tiraas. There’s nobody out here to witness anything that happens to us. If Syrinx’s stake in getting rid of us is as serious as Darling suggested, we could very well be in actual physical danger, here.”
Principia shook her head. “She won’t go that far.”
“She is fully capable of ordering us killed, or…anything else,” Casey said, grimacing.
“Psychologically, yes, I don’t doubt she is,” Principia agreed. “But the situation isn’t that simple, from her point of view. As I’ve mentioned, these are old and well-traveled woods. The Imperial foresters probably go over every inch of the province every few years. Think what would happen if a squad of Silver Legionnaires went missing around here. Everyone would be sent out to search for us, not just the Sisterhood. Anything dangerous enough to take down five Legionnaires this close to the capital would be an immediate security issue to the Imperial government. There would be no way to hide the bodies that Avenist scouts and Imperial scryers wouldn’t be able to track down.”
“The bodies,” Merry muttered, wrapping her arms about herself. “That’s just fuckin’ lovely.”
“She can’t risk drawing that kind of attention. No, this is more of the same,” Principia said, frowning. “We’re probably in more physical danger—whatever she’s got set up out here is likely something that could hurt us. It would make sense for her to have arranged something to justify this asshat mission after the fact. It’s probably more character assassination, though, not the literal kind. Syrinx isn’t yet cornered hard enough to try something that risky.”
“What do you think she has waiting out here?” Casey asked, staring intently at the elf. “You’re the craftiest of us, Locke. What would you do if you were Basra?”
Prin shook her head again. “No idea. No data. She doesn’t scheme like an Eserite, either; she’s underhanded, but has a very Avenist approach. Find the enemy, smash the enemy. There’s no sense of flair or playfulness like a good Eserite con would have. Anyhow, with the world as her potential arsenal… Just too many options.” She shrugged. “This could be something as simple as having us waste a day wandering in the forest to demoralize us. Since we have good reason to expect a trap, that’s gonna be plenty demoralizing on its own, and if nothing happens, it could serve to soften us up for the real hit later on.”
“Uh huh,” Merry said with a scowl. “And does anybody really think that’s all it is?”
Farah sighed. “About how far are we from our destination?”
“Less than another hour on foot,” said Prin. “From there…”
“It’s a fairly sizable chunk of territory,” Ephanie added. “Standard search protocol would have us split up to comb the area.”
“Yeah, we will not be doing that,” Principia said firmly.
“If it’s another dereliction of duty kind of trap,” Merry began.
“I don’t care,” said Prin. “Should that happen, I’m comfortable taking punishment for failing to adhere to search protocols if it means Syrinx explaining why and how she found out we did. We are not going to set ourselves up to get picked off one-by-one.”
“Even though you don’t think she’s going to try that?” Farah asked.
“Even then,” Principia replied with a grim nod. “We have to make plans based on available information, but any assumptions about what an enemy is or isn’t willing to do should be considered tentative. Any disagreements?”
There were none.
He walked in no hurry, simply enjoying the quiet, the openness, the harmony of being surrounded by natural things. In the wild, even a lesser wild such as this, the point was not to get somewhere, but to be somewhere. It disappointed him, the span of minutes it always took to immerse himself in it after departing the pressure of humanity in the city. In his youth, it had been the other way around.
If not for these regular excursions into the forest, Andros sometimes feared he would truly lose himself.
But Tiraas was a crowded and complicated memory, by now, its tensions seeping from him and into the earth. He and his companion walked along over the moss and grass, beneath swaying boughs, listening to the voices of birds and of the wind. They spoke little and only at need; Huntsmen did not fill nature’s stillness with chatter. Talking was for when there was something to say.
They came to a break in the trees, where the land rose up in a small ridge. A low, rounded ridge, to be sure; the ancient hills of the Tira Valley were gently rolling things except along the very edges of the canyon through which the River Tira flowed. Andros stopped, standing still and feeling the mild wind caress his hair and beard. They hadn’t yet gotten around to any actual hunting, the alleged purpose of this trip. But then, it wasn’t as if they needed meat or hides. The hunting was simply a way to reconnect with nature. There were other, smaller ways, and it was worth pausing to savor them.
Ingvar came up stand next to him, gazing down the incline before them to the forest below with the same expression of calm that Andros felt on his own face. He was good company—a good Huntsman, and a good agent even in the treacherous currents of city politics, which was a large part of why Andros had offered him the honor of joining his hunt. Ingvar was a solid enough companion that his beardless face was slightly jarring, though Andros had learned to look past it to the man within. He had succeeded admirably despite his disability. Indeed, that was another mark of a good Huntsman: the men of Shaath turned opposition into strength.
And so, he was a man with whom to enjoy a hunt in the forest, but also a useful tool who’d proven himself able to navigate the politics of Tiraas without losing sight of his own tie to the wild. A contact Andros was taking pains to cultivate. Even here, politics…it was maddening. Still, it was what it was. Complaining was for women clucking around the hearth. A man’s role was to take on the world as it came to him.
“It’s not the true wild,” he mused. “But after the city…”
Ingvar smiled faintly, nodding. “Tiraas makes me miss Mathena Province. I never thought anything could.”
“Unfortunately, your inconvenience is the lodge’s gain,” Andros rumbled. “You’ve done very good work these last months.”
Ingvar smiled slightly more broadly, turning toward him and giving a shallow bow. Then they moved off, down the hill and back into the trees.
They were far enough in, now, that Andros began to look around in seriousness for signs of game. The Imperial foresters had long ago wiped out the bears and wolves of the region, but populations of deer, rabbits and fowl remained. In fact, they thrived, lacking any predators but humans. The meat they provided was important to citizens in rural areas, but even with the native hunters active year-round, the Huntsmen of the city found plenty of prey for their rites and recreational hunts. Rabbits and deer in particular were fecund creatures, requiring substantial pressure from predators to keep their numbers in balance.
It was doctrine for Shaath’s followers that the definition of a tamed land was that all the significant predators were sentient. Such lands were not considered esteemed places to live, by any means, but Huntsmen who found themselves there were expected to do their part to maintain the balance.
Unfortunately, the two Huntsmen were interrupted before finding any promising tracks.
Both men drew to a stop as a black bird fluttered down from the forest canopy, alighting on a low branch just above their heads and cawing furiously.
Ingvar reflexively lifted his bow, but did not nock an arrow, peering at the crow through narrowed eyes. They weren’t good eating, and were very clever; killing crows was done only ceremonially or when individual birds decided to make pests of themselves, as the species sometimes did. On a general hunt, they should be left alone. Still, it was unusual that such a bird would draw such attention to itself, as Ingvar now commented.
“Strange behavior for a crow.” He grasped his bow at one end and used it to poke at the bird. “Shoo!”
The crow hopped deftly to one side, evading the desultory thrust, then turned its head toward Andros and made a disgruntled sound in its throat.
“Very strange,” Ingvar said, frowning. “No wild creature would just stand there…”
“Some corvids might, if they are used to people,” Andros mused, staring at the bird through narrowed eyes. “I think, however, that I know this particular crow. Do I not?”
She bobbed up and down twice, cawed once, then took wing, fluttering off ahead to land on a bush some yards distant. The crow turned back toward them, cawing furiously.
“It wants us to follow,” Ingvar guessed. He turned a questioning expression to Andros. “You say you know this bird. Do you trust it?”
“No,” the Bishop said firmly. The crow clucked to itself in exasperation, ruffling its feathers and staring beadily at them. “No… However, if it is who I think, I have come to no grief and in fact some profit by following her.”
The crow cawed again, hopping up into the air, then fluttered about in a small circle before landing back on the bush and croaking insistently at them.
“Not what I had planned for this outing,” Andros said with a sigh, “but fate cares not for our plans. Come, Ingvar, I think it will prove important to see what she wants.”
They moved off, deeper into the woods, the crow pointedly keeping just in sight ahead of them.
“Is it…authentic?” Farah inquired, peering at the talisman.
“You’re asking us?” Merry exclaimed. “You have more book learning than probably the rest of us combined.”
“Not in Shaathist iconography!”
“It’s authentic,” Ephanie said quietly. “At least… It’s accurate. Huntsmen on ritual hunts use these to mark territory in which they’re active. It would take a cleric of Shaath or wildspeaker to interpret this, though. I can’t even tell if it’s magically active.”
“It is,” Principia said. “Or att least, there’s a fae charm on it, but I can’t tell what it does. I do arcane enchantment.”
The talisman pinned to the tree in front of them resembled a small elven dreamcatcher in design: it was a wooden disk, carved with a wolf’s head pictograph, with strings of beads and feathers trailing below it.
“This is creepy,” Merry muttered. “Either Basra’s got resources in places a bishop of Avei has no business being, or there are actually Huntsmen up to something in this area. Avelea… Is there any chance this mission is for real? Could they actually be kidnapping women?”
“The idea is insane,” Ephanie said curtly. “Wife-stealing is a real tradition, but it’s centuries dead. No lodge would do such a thing; an individual Huntsman might, if he were isolated from his fellows for too long, but that’s a good way to become the target of a Wild Hunt. Grandmaster Veisroi is too politically minded to allow any of his people to endanger the whole faith that way.”
“Plus there are the practical concerns,” Principia mused. “Women going missing is the kind of thing that attracts notice, and this is a heavily patrolled area. A Huntsman who went this rogue would have a very brief encounter with a Tiraan strike team before he got around to marking territory.”
“And he wouldn’t mark territory if he were doing something obviously illegal and guaranteed to provoke the local lodge,” Ephanie added, poking the talisman with the tip of her lance. “These are used for ritual hunts. If it’s a true example of its kind, it means there are multiple Huntsmen in the area, and doing something spiritually significant, not just camping in the woods like they like to do.”
“If they were abducting women,” Casey said, frowning, “wouldn’t that be spiritually significant to them?”
“In theory, I suppose,” Ephanie said grudgingly.
“The more I learn of this, the less I like it,” Merry growled.
“Hsst,” Principia said suddenly, straightening up and turning to frown into the distance.
“Did you just hsst me, woman?”
“Will you hush? I hear something! Let me listen.”
They all fell silent, Merry with a scowl, watching their elven companion as she stared fixedly into the trees.
“Come on,” Prin said abruptly, starting forward.
“What do you hear?” Ephanie demanded as she followed.
“Not sure, but it could be a voice. Sounds distressed. Everyone stay alert.”
The range of elven hearing was uncanny; it took many long minutes to draw close enough that the sounds were audible to all five of them, but eventually they did. The squad instinctively drew closer together, falling into formation and fixedly scanning their surroundings as they approached the source of the noise. They were guided as much by the quieting of birdsong as by the sound itself; clearly something up ahead was alarming the local wildlife.
Past a fallen log, over a tiny brook and at the far edge of a small clearing, they came to a stop, staring at a large leather bag tied to a tree. It was bound to the trunk with braided cords, the leather drawstring holding its top shut being fixed to an overhanging branch above. The bag was old, dyed in now-faded but stereotypical Stalweiss motifs of stylized animals, and several charms were affixed to it and the cords holding it.
It was also squirming faintly and emitting the kind of muffled noises a person might make while trying to talk through a gag. The voice, though heavily dampened, was clearly feminine.
“This screams ‘trap,’” Merry muttered.
“It’s a wilderbag,” Ephanie whispered. “Used in some kinds of ritual hunts. Fresh game will be put in it and hung up to attract bigger predators to the meat. Depending on the ritual, the point may be to get at the predators themselves, or to leave it up for a set time and see whether any come for it.”
“There aren’t any predators big enough to go for that in this area,” Principia murmured. “Avelea, if wife-stealing were still an active practice, might a woman be put in one of those bags?”
“It’s sure big enough,” Casey said.
“I don’t know,” Ephanie said, scowling at the writhing sack. “Like I said, it’s a dead custom. I don’t know what the actual practices were. But based on what those bags are used for, I can’t see any reason for it.”
“You know a lot about Shaathist practices,” Farah observed. Ephanie made no reply.
“Well, it doesn’t sound like an animal,” said Casey. “It’s obviously a human woman in there.”
“Or an elf,” Merry pointed out.
“An elf would wriggle out of that without making a loud fuss,” said Principia.
“Ugh, fine, or a dwarf or gnome. You know what I meant.”
Prin nodded, her attention still on the wilderbag. “Well, bait or not, we obviously can’t leave a woman tied up in that thing. Let’s do this smart, ladies. Fan out, approach in a trapground spread, outliers keep weapons up and eyes on the flanks and rear. I’ll take point. Agreed?” She turned to look around at them, waiting till they all nodded. “All right, let’s move.”
The squad armed themselves, moving forward with shields and lances up. Principia, in the front and center of the wide formation, alone kept her shield over her back, drawing her sword and holding her lance in the left hand. The five of them approached the wilderbag in a trapezoidal formation, spread far enough that any trap sprung was unlikely to ensnare them all, facing all directions and ready to call an alarm if they were attacked.
She had to hop to do it, but severing the cords binding the top of the bag to the branch above took Prin only a second. The bag began wiggling and squealing even harder at that, but the slumping of its upper edge wasn’t enough to reveal its contents. After glancing around at the others, who were still watching the forest all around, she sheathed her sword and reached up to tug the remaining drawstring loose and pull the bag open and down.
It revealed the sweaty, gagged face of a young woman with dark hair plastered in streaks to her forehead, eyes frantic but blinking in the sudden light.
“Take it easy,” Principia said soothingly, “we’re with the Third Silver Legion. Hang on, I’ll get that off. Hold your head still, now.”
She had to plant her lance in the ground and draw her belt knife to cut away the gag, but in seconds, the girl was spitting out the wad of cloth that had been held by it in her mouth, and gasping for breath. She was apparently local, a human of Tiraan coloration, not much more than twenty and rather attractive.
“Oh, thank the gods. Please, get me down from here before they come back!”
“Before who comes back?” Ephanie asked tersely while Principia got to work on the cords.
“Huntsmen,” the captive babbled. “There are others! All over this forest! I don’t know what they want, but they have half a dozen of us! Please, you’ve got to save everyone!”
Principia made no comment, continuing to cut the bag loose. The other soldiers glanced at each other uneasily.
“Sounds positively textbook,” Farah said quietly. “Imprisoned young women, villainous kidnappers, and heroic Legionnaires to the rescue. It’s right out of a bard’s story.”
“And that,” Casey said grimly, “is how you know we’re being played.”