“I like this place!” Schwartz announced, leaning over the carved stone bannister to grin down at them.
“Oh, you do,” Basra said tonelessly, not lifting her eyes from the Governor’s folder, which she had been studying almost non-stop since receiving it. “Great. That’s a load off my mind. I was very concerned.”
The residence granted them by the Governor was spacious, but compactly fitted in its genteel neighborhood due to is efficient layout; it came furnished, and its size and style of décor suggested a middling level of wealth. Lower nobility or a fairly prosperous merchant might own such a home. It was altogether very typical of Viridill—and thus Avenist—sensibilities, being built of simple local granite with white marble accents in the interior, its trappings of fine quality but not ostentatious in style, and running toward the faux militaristic. The walls were adorned sparingly with banners heralding no House, nation or military unit that actually existed, plus a few mounted weapons of fanciful design clearly not meant for actual battle; the corners of the main hall were guarded by stands bearing suits of Avenic-style bronze armor inlaid with silver and ivory.
Schwartz, looking a little crestfallen at Basra’s chilly reception, ducked back behind the balustrade, then continued down the stairs to rejoin the group on the ground floor.
“Well, it is a nice place,” he said somewhat defensively. “There’s plenty of room for everyone, and even a serviceable library!”
“What makes a library serviceable?” Jenell asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, I mean, it’s…stocked? Just from a cursory look I gather the books were collected more for showing off than reading. It’s all classics and very fine editions of unremarkable literature. Not to sound conceited or anything, but I rather doubt I’ll learn much from browsing there!”
“You’re not here to browse books,” Basra said curtly, turning a page. “And with regard to how much room there is for everyone, Branwen, exactly how many people did you recruit for this operation?”
“Just the two, Bas,” Branwen replied with an amused little smile.
“And I’m ready to be of service in any way I can, ma’am!” the newest member of their party said stiffly. Variations on that theme had been the primary thrust of her commentary thus far—she seemed to be growing nervous at Basra’s persistent disinterest.
Ildrin Falaridjad was a woman of remarkably middling appearance; her nondescript brown hair, light brown eyes and pale brown complexion supported the mixed ancestry hinted at by her Stalweiss name and Tiraan surname. She wore the simple white robe of the Sisterhood’s civilian clergy, without even a weapon, though she seemed to be trying to mimic a military bearing. Unsuccessfully, if Basra and Covrin’s unfriendly regard were any indication.
“Any way you can?” Basra asked, finally lifting her eyes to give the priestess a very level stare.
“Absolutely, your Grace!” Ildrin said firmly, nodding.
“Good,” Basra said, returning her attention to the papers. “I’m placing you in charge of KP.”
“Um.” Ildrin glanced at the others; Schwartz and Branwen looked as nonplussed as she, while Covrin made a show of smothering a smile. “I’m sorry, what does that mean?”
“I note that the Governor did not see fit to provide us any domestic staff along with this residence,” Basra said, still reading. “That’s your job. Keep our facilities in order, see to provisions.”
“B-b-but that’s…cooking and cleaning,” Ildrin sputtered. “That’s housekeeping work!”
Branwen sighed. “Basra…”
“I know who you are, Sister Ildrin,” Basra said, looking up at her again, her face ominously expressionless. “You have a certain reputation in certain circles. I know exactly where this one dug you up,” she paused to jerk a thumb at Branwen, who made a wry face. “I have a pretty good idea what to expect from you, and only the fact that I have an actual use for a warm body to deal with domestic tasks prevents me from chasing you right out of here. Prove that you have further use and won’t cause trouble, and I’ll find more interesting work for you. Otherwise, you can leave and resume whatever you were doing before Bishop Snowe disrupted your orderly little life. It is very much all the same to me.”
A bell rang from the foyer beyond the main hall, and Branwen rose smoothly from her seat against the wall. “I think I had better answer that,” she said, giving Basra a pointed look as she passed on the way to the door. Her fellow Bishop made no acknowledgment, turning another page and resuming her study.
“I won’t disappoint you, your Grace,” Ildrin said with grim certainty, having taken advantage of the momentary distraction to compose her features.
“Not twice, you won’t,” Basra murmured.
The sound of voices echoed from the foyer, muffled by the inefficient acoustics and the heavy velvet drapes decorating the doorway, but the sound just served to highlight the chilly silence that fell across the group in the hall. Jenell stood calmly at parade rest, while Basra appeared fully engrossed in her study of the Governor’s reports. Ildrin, however, was a portrait of unhappiness, and Schwartz kept glancing around, looking increasingly awkward.
“So!” he said after a tense few moments. “I, uh, I wonder who that is at the door.”
“Mr. Schwartz,” said Basra, again not lifting her gaze from the reports, “I am a career politician; my life’s work involves listening to a lot of bloviating, lies, obfuscation and self-congratulatory noise. That, I suspect, is the only reason your last comment is not the single most pointless use of human breath I have ever heard.”
Jenell bit her lips, repressing a smile with more sincerity this time, but the look she gave the crestfallen witch was oddly sympathetic. Sitting upright in his slightly unkempt hair, Meesie puffed herself up and squeaked indignantly at Basra. Predictably and fortunately, this garnered no reaction.
Before the situation could become any more awkward, the voices from without grew louder, and Branwen and the new arrival entered the hall.
“…no disrespect, of course, your Grace, but this has been the most frustrating morning. I appreciate the message you left for me at the Rail station, but no one at the Temple of Avei had any idea what I was talking about, and the personnel at the Imperial government office were most unhelpful until I finally got in touch with ohhh no!” Coming to a stop in the doorway, the new arrival dropped the expensive carpet bag in her left hand to point melodramatically at Basra. “Absolutely not! I’ve had quite enough of this one’s antics for one lifetime, thank you! Good day.”
She was a tall, strikingly pretty young woman with waves of luxuriant black hair tumbling down her back, which she immediately showed them by turning on her heel. Branwen caught her arm before she could take another step—if, indeed, she had actually intended to, considering her bag was still on the floor.
“Now, Ms. Talaari, please wait a moment,” the Izarite urged placatingly.
“Hello, Ami,” Basra said, raising an eyebrow sardonically. “I was told you’d be coming. Is there a problem?”
“Oh, you were told, is that it?” Ami Talaari replied, half-turning again to give her a haughty stare. Her position was well-chosen, giving the group a view of her impressive profile as well as allowing her a dramatically sidelong glare at them. “How marvelous. I’m sure you’d just love another opportunity to try to have me scalped by Huntsmen of Shaath, since it didn’t take the last time.”
“Scalped?” Schwartz exclaimed. Meesie cheeped in mirrored alarm.
“Um…” Ildrin frowned. “Huntsmen don’t do that.”
“Young woman, what in the world are you talking about?” Basra asked, closing the folder and lowering it to her side.
“Oh, that’s rich,” Ami spat, tossing her head. “You offered me a task in good faith, and instead of the simple Legion training exercise you promised, I found myself waylaid by the Thieves’ Guild and informed I had come within a hair’s breadth of infuriating a party of heavily armed Huntsmen—men belligerent enough to attack a unit of the Silver Legions!”
“Wait, Huntsmen attacked Legionnaires?” Ildrin demanded. “When was this? I would have heard about that!”
“You would have,” Basra said dryly, “because no such thing took place. Ms. Talaari did indeed help me with a training exercise for a small special forces unit, and performed rather well. Better than they did, anyway. It’s also true she subsequently ran afoul of interfaith politics that I failed to anticipate—I did not actually expect the Thieves’ Guild to interfere in that. I made arrangements for you to be amply compensated for the trouble, Ami,” she added, narrowing her eyes. “I was told the Guild did not mishandle you unduly. Was that in error?”
“Oh, they were very polite,” Ami said scathingly. “As a bard, I quite admired their skill at making it clear I was one wrong move from a slit throat without actually saying anything overtly threatening. Such wordplay! It would all have been deeply educational, had I not been terrified for my life!”
“Grandstanding and bluster,” Basra sad dryly. “Ironically, you’re only at significant risk of having your throat slit by the Thieves’ Guild if you are in it.”
“Which is all well and good now,” Ami continued, glaring down her nose at the Bishop. “And they didn’t lay a finger on me, it’s true. I was rather more perturbed to learn you deliberately set me up to profane a Shaathist religious rite and antagonize a cell of Huntsmen!”
“I say,” Schwartz muttered, blinking rapidly.
“Who told you that?” Basra demanded.
Ami seemed taken aback by her suddenly sharp tone. “I… That is, the Eserites were actually quite informative while they…”
“So you’re telling me,” Basra said scornfully, “you believed a story spun for you by the armed thugs holding you prisoner?”
“Well—I— Why would they lie?”
“How is that even a question?” Basra shot back, her tone disparaging. “Ami, I truly am sorry you were caught up in that fiasco—as I said, I did my best to make sure you were compensated for your hardships. The truth is, both the Huntsmen and the Thieves’ Guild were butting in where they had no business being; the Legionnaires being trained scarcely avoided conflict with both. Honestly, I thought better of you than this based on your performance. Both cults had to begin spinning stories to make themselves look innocent of wrongdoing. By the time everyone got through filling the air with contradictions, the story was so muddled we were never able to prosecute anyone for their actions, nor even lodge a complaint with the Church that would have been taken seriously. Frankly, I missed my best chance to have investigators dig into the mess while it was fresh enough to do so because I was busy making sure my Legionnaires and you were unharmed and properly cared for. Please tell me you received the remuneration I requisitioned for you?”
“Well, yes… And that was appreciated, but…”
“But?” Basra planted her fists on her hips, bending the Governor’s folder. “You are actually holding out for more?”
“Now, see here,” Ami protested more weakly.
“You performed your duties competently, but it wasn’t as if the dramatic chops the task required were that substantial. Honestly, Talaari, I am not certain why Bishop Snowe contacted you for this task, and I am increasingly unconvinced that your help will be needed.”
“Basra, really,” Branwen said reprovingly. “That is enough. Don’t badger the girl, she’s already had a hard enough time, it seems. Ami, dear, could I talk with you for a moment?” Smiling up at the taller woman, she gently tugged her toward the side door into the dining room. “In here, if you please. I believe we can clear all this up.”
“I’m not so certain I want to clear anything up,” Ami complained, even as she was led unresistingly away. “Quite apart from the trouble I’ve already had, it doesn’t sound like…”
Branwen shut the heavy oak door behind them, cutting off sound.
Basra heaved an irritated sigh. “Well, how marvelously helpful Branwen has turned out to be.”
“Shall I ask those two to absent themselves from the mission, ma’am?” Jenell asked.
“No,” Basra said curtly, rapidly sweeping her glance across those still in the hall. “The common theme I’m detecting among the personnel available here is that each may be specifically useful in this task, if you can all control some of your more annoying habits—Snowe included. I’ve been considering strategy while perusing the Governor’s reports. So far, there’s nothing in them I didn’t already learn at the Abbey. Right now, the problem is that we are stuck waiting on others: on Hargrave to report back with his findings, and worse, on the shaman responsible for these problems to carry out more attacks, and hopefully make a mistake. This is not an acceptable state of affairs. I intend to go on the offensive.”
“I say,” Schwartz said worriedly. “That does sound rather…well, unsafe.”
“This is war, Schwartz,” Basra retorted. “It’s not meant to be safe. But this particular conflict is spread widely through a civilian-occupied area, and quite apart from the risk to life, limb and property posed by these attacks, it’s going to be necessary for us to manage the perceptions of the local populace while hunting down the perpetrator. In particular, we have to find a way to be magically aggressive in the fae realm without antagonizing Viridill’s resident witches, who can either be tremendously helpful in this, or make our tasks far more difficult. Schwartz, we need to have a long discussion about the possibilities there; I require a full briefing on certain aspects of fae magic.”
“Well, I mean, that is,” he stammered, “it really depends on what exactly you intend…”
“We’ll go over it. The other relevant concern is that the specific skills of an Izarite priestess and a bard will be exceedingly useful in the days to come. In addition to pacifying the natives, we need to be reaching out into the community and fishing up answers. I don’t mind admitting that wrangling bumpkins is not part of my skill set.”
“I can definitely help with that,” Ami announced, reemerging abruptly from the dining room with her chin held high. Between her bearing, her obviously detailed personal grooming, and her expensive taste in dresses, she managed to look positively regal, despite her recent outbursts. “People talk to a bard even if they’ve no intention of talking to anyone, including themselves.”
“I…wait, what?” Ildrin said, frowning.
“She means,” Branwen said from behind Ami, “we will both be glad to help.”
“So you’ve decided to stay on, have you?” Basra dryly asked the bard.
“Yes, well.” Ami shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance, inspecting her nails. “Bishop Snowe explained what has been happening here, and the importance of the task. A true bard does not flee from hazard.”
“Wow,” Schwartz muttered, “that was fast.”
“Uh, really?” Ildrin inquired. “I think we’ve read some very different stories about bards.”
“In any case,” Ami added more loudly, “this being a worthwhile duty and not a silly training exercise, if it does prove to be dangerous, at least that will serve as an appropriate and worthy use of my talents.”
“Great,” Basra said with a long-suffering look. “Then Schwartz can lead the way to this alleged library; we all need to have a discussion. I’ve the bones of a strategy in mind, but I need a deeper understanding of the assets I’m working with before we can move.”
“I have my things in the foyer,” Ami said haughtily. “I’ll need those taken to my quarters.”
“Oh, will you,” Ildrin said, folding her arms and staring disapprovingly. “Is there a reason you can’t pick up after yourself?”
“Yes, Sister, there is,” Basra said, giving her a chilly little smile. “We happen to have someone on staff whose job that is. Hop to it, KP.”
By early afternoon, Ingvar had mostly gotten over his disgruntlement at Darling’s continued physical performance. Admitting how childish and irrational it was in the first place helped, as did assuring himself that recognizing Darling’s abilities imposed upon him no obligation to like the man. And indeed, it enabled him to be properly amused at the sight of the city-dwelling Eserite hiking through the mountains in his loud suit. No matter how uncomplaining and unwinded he was by the exertion, that remained funny.
Ingvar mostly kept his peace on their trek, aware that the Shadow Hunters—or Rangers, or whatever it pleased them to call themselves—were leading them on a wide arc into the mountains rather than a straight route across the valley ahead, the purpose for which he could not see. He wasn’t about to speak up and ask, though. Raichlin would surely have said something up front if he had intended to, and if he were up to something shifty…well, there was no sense in revealing and Ingvar had spotted it. That didn’t seem likely, though; they surely wouldn’t expect a Huntsman to be so easily misdirected in a mountain forest. Whether Joe and Darling had noticed anything he couldn’t say, though he strongly suspected not.
“Ah,” Raichlin said suddenly as they rounded a rocky outcropping and a view of the valley below opened up. “Stop here a moment, gentlemen—this is worth seeing.”
“It’s quite a vista,” Darling agreed, stepping up next to him. “You don’t see this kind of thing in—oh! Wolves!”
Ingvar and Joe pushed forward to join him, while Frind and Liesl backed away, smiling. The three men crowded together at a narrow point between pine trunks, gazing avidly down into the valley.
It wasn’t hugely far below, just distant enough that their presence would not be evident to the creatures there, but close enough that they could see the wolves clearly. They were typical Stalweiss mountain wolves, though perhaps a little larger (it was difficult to gauge the distance exactly) and with maybe a bit more brown in their coats than those Ingvar had heard and read of. Then again, he’d not seen the wolves of the Stalrange in person before. These could be utterly typical, for all he knew.
Typical or not, they truly were magnificent beasts. There were six of them, lolling about in the mountain heather; they rolled and nipped playfully at one another, seeming completely at ease, while the two smallest—doubtless the youngest—chased each other in circles around the rest of the pack.
“Beautiful creatures,” Joe whispered in a tone of awe, and Ingvar once again felt a surge of fondness for the boy. For a young man raised outside the faith, Joe had a good head on his shoulders. He was already more sensible than Tholi in a number of ways.
“Aren’t wolves nocturnal?” Darling asked after a few minutes of watching the creatures gamboling in the heather.
“Largely,” Ingvar murmured. “Their behavior varies somewhat; dusk is their favorite time to hunt. It is peculiar to see them so active this close to midday…”
“Kind of exposed out there, ain’t they?” Joe added. “Not that I’m any kind of expert. Biggest things we’ve got out where I’m from is coyotes. But I always figured wolves liked forests more than open spaces.”
“They are supremely versatile hunters,” said Raichlin. “Wolves prosper in an amazing variety of environments. Still, you’re correct; this isn’t exactly typical behavior for the species. We are the second party to head out from the lodge today; those who got an earlier start were out encouraging the pack to gather here.”
“Really?” Darling asked. “You herded them here on purpose?”
“You don’t herd wolves,” Raichlin said in amusement. “You can drive them, but not usually for very long. The central difference between herd animals and pack animals is whether they run from or at you. In any case, no—we don’t do anything so brutish to these, nor allow anyone else to tamper with them. This pack is special. We have a long-standing relationship with them; they know the Rangers who operate in these valleys, and we have an understanding of sorts. To an extent, they accommodate us, and vice versa. For the inconvenience of being out today for our purposes, they’ll be provided with an easy meal.”
“You brought the wolves? This is what you wanted us to see?” Ingvar demanded, refusing to let his sudden unease show on his face. Wolves were not merely sacred in Shaath’s faith—they were considered nigh-mystical creatures, mysterious, unapproachable, untameable. That these Ranger could establish such a rapport with a wild pack was a claim he had trouble crediting.
And yet…there they were, relaxed and happy, showing no signs of having been driven from their preferred habitat, despite this being the wrong time of day for them to be out.
“You don’t really bring wolves,” Raichlin murmured, watching the animals as closely as the others were, now. “But friends sometimes choose to indulge one another. Yes—these play a central role in the rite we brought you up here to observe. But this isn’t the place, gentlemen. Come along, further up and farther in! It’s not much farther now.”
They only tore their gazes away from the wolf pack with reluctance, but Raichlin had already headed off into the trees, Frind and Liesl trailing him. It was follow or be left.
He was true to his word, anyway. They hiked on for less than another half hour before the trail arrived at a ledge overlooking the valley, with a natural cave mouth behind it. A few feet in, heavy hides had been tacked over the entrance, indicating that this place saw regular use. Their arrival was clearly awaited; another woman in Ranger gear sat on an improvised stool consisting of an uprooted stump, stirring a pot of something. Ingvar noted with disapproval that she wasn’t using a proper fire, but an arcane camp stove. Well, on the other hand, it produced no smoke or scent, which might be an issue if they were trying not to alarm the wolves below.
“There you are,” she said softly, smiling up at them.
“What’s that supposed to mean, there we are?” Raichlin demanded in mock offense. “I know you haven’t been waiting that long, Tabitha.”
“On the contrary,” she said, winking. “I expected to be up here longer. You three and Brother Ingvar would have no trouble in the mountains, of course, but you were bringing a couple of city boys…”
“Beggin’ your pardon, miss,” said Joe, tipping his hat, “but I’m a small town boy, personally. Makes a difference.”
“I stand corrected,” she said gravely. “Liesl, the mugs are inside the waystation, there, if you would.”
“Oh, yes, I see,” Liesl said, nodding. “You can’t fetch them because your legs are broken. I’m so sorry, Tabs.”
“Yours could end up that way if you sass me, youngling!”
“Ladies,” Raichlin said reprovingly. “We’re here on spiritual business. Flirt on your own time.”
Liesl stuck her tongue out at him, but turned and flounced into the cave, shoving the hanging bear pelt aside.
Frind snorted a soft laugh. “C’mon over here, boys, your journey is at an end.”
“This is a lovely spot,” Darling said, following him toward the protruding edge of the flat outcropping. “Is this natural, or did you carve it out?”
“A little of both,” said Frind, seating himself on a rounded, flattish rock set into the ground and pointing at a few others nearby. There were eight of them, arranged in a semicircle and clearly having been placed there deliberately. “The ledge and the cave were just here, but we’ve made some improvements for our purposes. Now, pick a rock and pop a squat, elven style.” He demonstrated by crossing his legs under him. “About face, Joe, you’ll wanna be looking out at the valley.”
“Oh, sorry ’bout that,” Joe said quickly turning himself around somewhat awkwardly without getting up. Ingvar had already seated himself, and Darling was in the process of folding his legs under him. Oddly enough, he seemed slightly uncomfortable with the position—the first time in this trip Ingvar had seen him so.
“Not at all, don’t worry about a thing,” Frind said easily.
“There are no mistakes here,” Raichlin added, joining himself and taking a seat on the other side of the group from his fellow Ranger. “It would be very hard to mess this up—any personal touches you add to the rite will only serve to make it more meaningful to you. We don’t go in for a lot of needless ceremony.”
“This rite,” Ingvar said carefully, settling his palms on his knees. “What, exactly, does this entail?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll guide you through it,” Raichlin assured him. “In a moment Liesl will be back with—and there she is. No, don’t worry about them, gentlemen; we’ll arrange everything. For now, keep your eyes on the wolves.”
“What am I looking for?” Darling asked curiously, though he obeyed, leaning forward slightly to peer down at the great hunters below. The wolves seemed less playful and more sleepy now, a couple of the younger ones still bouncing about but the others mostly curled up together in the heather.
“Just the wolves,” Raichlin said. “This is the beginning. We’ll have something for you to drink momentarily—just sip at it, it’ll help calm the mind and invigorate the spirit after that hike. But keep your attention on the wolves themselves. Don’t worry about any particular aspect, just focus on whatever seems most interesting to you. Consider them, wonder about what you don’t know, ponder what you do. Imagine the sensation of that fur under your hands, the sound of their howling. If you’ve never heard or felt the like, don’t stress yourself. Let your mind supply whatever images it finds most relateable.”
As he droned on, Liesl appeared silently, bearing cups of the steaming brew Tabitha had apparently spent the morning preparing. Its scent was mild, a savory herbal aroma with earthy undertones, but matched what had wafted from the pot. Ingvar accepted a mug, lifting it to his nose to sniff at it before taking a tiny sip. The taste wasn’t exactly pleasing, but…not bad.
But then, taste wasn’t the point. This wasn’t exactly like any rite of Shaath that he knew, but parts formed a pattern that was familiar. The warm drink, Raichlin’s softly droning voice serving to keep them on the subject. For a fleeting moment, suspicion and unease flared up again, but he quickly let them go. He was here. This was what he had come for. The trail was before him; he walked it willingly.
It was not hard at all to follow directions; the peculiar tea was indeed calming, seeming to help his mind focus. He studied the great predators lolling in the heather below, taking in every detail his eyes could discern at that distance. The pattern of their pelts, the way they moved, they way they interacted with each other…
As he watched, taking occasional sips and listening to Raichlin drone on, it seemed that more details came to him, flashes of insight and perceptions that should have been beyond him. The warmth of the canines’ breath, the sounds they made to one another. Thick, coarse fur beneath his fingers, rubbing against his skin. The wild scent of them. Golden eyes, clear and piercing in the daylight. Golden eyes, glowing in the dark.
Howls echoing from the hills, as the pack called to one another. Panting and the quick pumping of legs as they raced through the darkened forest, the eagerness of the hunt, the scent of prey guiding them.
Trust in the brothers and sisters running alongside, the pack a single organism. The night, the hunt, hot breath, warm blood.
Trust, hunger, joy, freedom.
When the mug slipped from his fingers, he didn’t even notice.