The road swung away to the west, and at that point Taka led them off it, tromping through the ragged grass into the foothills northward, where the trees began to thicken. No one offered any commentary at the change, including Rainwood, who presumably also knew where they were going. It was in the general direction the monks and other travelers had indicated the lodge could be found, so Ingvar saw no reason to debate their route.
He was debating, at least inwardly, asking Taka how far they had yet to go. Orange sunlight still streamed across the foothills, but the sun was sinking rapidly and within another hour it would be wiser to seek a campsite rather than risk trying to continue. This sort of hilly, rocky terrain was particularly treacherous in the dark; it was challenging enough to find footing when one could see one’s feet.
It wasn’t Ingvar, though, who broke their silence, half an hour or so after they left the road.
“I’m impressed,” Tholi said.
Ingvar, Aspen, and Rainwood all glanced back, where he and November were bringing up the rear. Taka, leading the way ahead of them, did not seem interested in the discussion.
“Get this into your head right now,” November said curtly when she found Tholi addressing her. “Nothing I do, ever, is calculated to impress you.”
Tholi sighed. “Yeah, you actually did manage to convey that already. My mistake, thinking you might respond to civil conversation rather than shouting.”
“Your mistake was not trying civil conversation the first time! You don’t get a second first impression.”
“You didn’t make a spectacular one yourself, princess.”
“Don’t.” Ingvar didn’t look back at them again, but projected his voice enough to be clearly heard. “There was good advice hidden in that exchange. If you can’t speak to each other politely, just keep quiet. I don’t know why you two are so determined to needle each other and it doesn’t matter. If you’re going to be traveling with others, I expect you to show them some basic consideration and not make tremendous pests of yourselves.”
He glanced meaningful at Aspen, who rolled her eyes and sneeringly waggled her lips in a silent mockery of him.
“Don’t you?” Rainwood mused.
Ingvar gave him a look. “What?”
“You said you don’t know why they’re determined to needle each other. I don’t see a mystery, there. A Shaathist and an Avenist, and both teenagers with all the maturity and restraint that implies. Everything that’s followed from putting them in proximity has pretty much been arithmetic.”
“I am twenty-two years old,” November said acidly.
“Oh, sorry,” Rainwood replied in a tone of purest innocence. “So only he gets to use that excuse, then. My mistake.”
Aspen and Taka chuckled aloud; Ingvar, out of simple politeness, contented himself with a smile which the two following were not positioned to see.
“It was just a compliment,” Tholi said after a pause. “I actually am impressed. I was thinking you’d start whining about your feet and tripping over them immediately, but you’re clearly an experienced hiker. Maybe not up to Huntsman standards, but then, nobody is.”
“Have you ever trekked into the Golden Sea and back, boy?” she retorted. “I have, multiple times. You just worry about your own feet, mine are more than capable of doing their job.”
“Don’t call me boy,” he growled.
“Ooh, struck a nerve, did we?” she replied. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize a big, strong man’s man like you would be so easily offended.”
“It is a matter of serious import in Shaathist faith,” Tholi explained, the clenching of his teeth audible in his tone. “A man who has undergone the rites of adulthood is recognized as such. Claiming otherwise is a serious insult.”
“Ah, I see,” she said solemnly. “I didn’t realize that. Well, live and learn! So now when I call you boy you’ll know I mean it personally.”
Ingvar slammed to a halt and whirled, and even so by the time he turned around Tholi had grabbed his tomahawk and November had braced her feet in an Eagle Style combat stance, which even he knew wasn’t the best choice for someone not actually holding a sword.
“You’re entitled to your opinion of Shaathists, Stark,” he said flatly. “The gods know I have had my own issues with them. But whatever else you can say about them, Shaathists do not express themselves through spiteful, disrespectful, juvenile insults. Until this day, I would have comfortably said the same about Avenists, and I have rarely found reason to compliment the Sisterhood. I don’t know enough of your story to even guess where this venom comes from. It isn’t Avenist and you certainly weren’t taught it by Tellwyrn or anyone she employs. Whatever your issues, you are an adult, and as such expected to conduct yourself with a bare minimum of courtesy toward other people, even those you dislike. If you refuse to be civil for the sake of your traveling companions, or out of simple decency, perhaps you will at least refrain from being an active embarrassment to Avei?”
By the end of that, her cheeks were burning and she had clenched her fists at her sides. Ingvar held her stare anyway. Tholi, though he had to have been itching to pile onto that, at least recognized he could not do so without making himself guilty of exactly the same failing, and in fact it represented a growth in his maturity that he understood that fact before it was pointed out to him. He kept silent and did not add to November’s embarrassment even by looking at her.
As it turned out, he wasn’t the problem.
“You,” Aspen announced, pointing at November, “have just been told.”
Ingvar sighed heavily. “Aspen.”
“Yeah, yeah, fine,” she said, throwing her hands up. “Well that was fun and all. Let’s just keep moving, we don’t have a whole lot of daylight left.”
When the party resumed walking, Tholi and November drifted away, both behind the rest of the group and off to both sides so they were not within convenient earshot. After a momentary contemplation, Ingvar decided to let them be. He’d have to call them closer as it got darker, but for the moment he’d take whatever kept the peace.
“So,” Taka drawled after they had hiked in silence for a couple more minutes, “who’s taking bets on how long it’ll be before those two are sharing a bedroll?”
“What are you talking about?” Aspen demanded, mystified.
“Oh, please,” Taka snorted. “You could cut the sexual tension with a wooden spoon. When two healthy young people go at each other like that it usually means they’re too awkward to admit how much they wanna bone.”
“Nope, she’s gay,” the dryad said immediately, then hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at November, who was trudging along almost ten yards away. “And weirdly…defiant about it. It’s been interesting getting to know new people and sensing information about their sexuality, but some of ’em are muddled up in ways that just confuse me.”
“Wait, dryads can actually sense things like that?” Taka glanced back at her. “I always figured that was a myth.”
“Yeah, people have some really strange ideas about dryads. That one is true, though. I’ve never smelled anything quite like November. It’s like she’s…I dunno, wanting to fight with somebody about it. I don’t mean she’s sexually aggressive, actually kind of the opposite. But more generally aggressive, in a way that’s tangled up in her sexuality. I don’t understand it. I haven’t met anybody else who’s…that way.”
Taka gave her another look over her shoulder, this one distinctly wry. “Haven’t you?”
“We haven’t had the opportunity to meet a lot of Avenists,” Ingvar explained.
“Ah,” Taka said, nodding in understanding.
“That’s not true, we met a whole mess of them at Athan’Khar,” Aspen objected. “There were hundreds!”
“You went to Athan’Khar?” Rainwood said in clear surprise.
“Just within a mile or so of the border,” Ingvar explained. “There was a Silver Legion there. So yes, I suppose we did meet quite a few Avenists, but mostly from a distance. Bishop Syrinx was the only one we spent any significant time around.”
“That woman was just off,” Aspen opined. “Cold and empty. A healthy enough sex drive, but not connected to anything or aimed at anything, just roiling around in an empty space inside her like bees in a bottle.”
“Aspen,” Ingvar interrupted, “I would rather you didn’t reveal other people’s personal business. Sexuality is private. That applies to people in general, but especially people we’re going to be traveling with.”
“Yeah, you’ve said,” she replied with a sigh. “Sorry, Ingvar. I’ll try to do better at remembering. It’s just interesting to me, is all. I don’t really understand people very well yet; that is something I can grasp just by instinct. About how much farther is this place, anyway? I don’t really see anything that looks like a human dwelling. Can we get there before dark?”
“Not far, in fact,” Taka said. “And actually you can sort of see it from here, it’s on that ridge under the mountainside straight in front of us. The actual lodge isn’t visible due to the terrain, but you can see its location.”
“That may be farther than we can travel in the daylight that remains,” Ingvar said, frowning.
“Yeah, maybe,” Taka agreed. “But not much farther. If you wanna call a halt and camp, I’m game. Not like I’ve got anywhere to be. But if you’re comfortable going on after sundown, we can probably make it not too long after that.”
“Pretty close to the Omnist temple, isn’t it?” Tholi observed, having wandered close enough to join the conversation. “I thought these Shadow Hunters liked to hide away from other people.”
“The Rangers,” Ingvar emphasized, “probably chose this site because of its proximity to the Omnists. There is also a Shaathist lodge not too far from here, and Omnists are great peacemakers.”
“I thought the whole point of this site is being distant from anybody,” Tholi grunted.
“Yeah, but it’s not like these guys are the first ones to have the idea,” Taka said lightly. “The whole Wyrnrange is dotted with temple complexes all up and down its western edge. Especially near the big cities, and we’re a bare few miles from Ninkabi here. There’s a big, super important Izarite temple up north in Thakar, on the falls, and little retreats and lodges peppered the whole way from the Deep Wild’s frontier to Onkawa’s northern coast. It’s just the right balance of remote but still accessible to civilization that most of the cults have planted a flag somewhere along the way. Good place for peaceful retreats, or shifty business they don’t want in the public eye. Either one. Sometimes both. I’ve been hiking up and down the western row since I was fifteen. I never stopped in with the Shadow Hunters, though, so this’ll be interesting.”
“Having trouble picking a cult?” Rainwood asked.
“Yup,” she said laconically.
“I still don’t understand why we’re doing this, Brother,” Tholi muttered. “Shadow Hunters? I know you said you’re looking for secrets to help Shaath, but… These people are a disgraced offshoot who couldn’t keep to the ways of the wild.”
“Bear in mind, Tholi, that I have spent much of the last year journeying around the Empire and meeting with various lodges of the Rangers—which is what they prefer to be called, and I’d like you to start using the term. You know nothing about them but what you’ve been told by your brother Huntsmen, who regard them as a doctrinal threat. The truth is more complex.”
“They have women in their ranks!” Tholi insisted.
Everyone instinctively snuck a glance back at November, but she was tromping along behind them, still out of easy range of hearing.
“Have you ever considered that the way our lodges treat women is pretty hypocritical?” Ingvar replied. “What is the point of valuing a wild spirit, if our entire approach is to domesticate them?”
“You’re talking like an outsider,” Tholy protested. “That’s not how it is at all! A spirited woman is more valuable than a meek one, but in the pack the female yields to the dominant male. That is the way of the wild, the way emphasized by wolves, Shaath’s sacred animal sent to teach us his path!”
Ingvar drew in a slow breath and let it out just as slowly. “There are things about wolves that you don’t understand, Tholi. If you’re going to come with me on this quest…that’s going to be one of the hardest lessons ahead of you. It’s something I don’t think I can convey with words alone. You’ll have to learn it the way I did. And it is the Rangers who hold the means to do so.” He patted Tholi firmly on the shoulder, giving him an affectionate shake for good measure. “Have patience, Brother. You obviously trust my opinion, if you went to the great trouble of hunting me down all the way out here in N’Jendo. I will do my utmost to be worthy of your regard, but for the time being, I have to ask you to be patient and believe I am leading somewhere with this.”
“I do trust you, Ingvar,” Tholi said, not without reluctance. “Well, you’re right, I am already well into it now. I guess it would be pretty foolish to run or start arguing at this point. Just don’t ask me to address one of these women Rangers as Brother.”
“I don’t expect they would greatly appreciate it, anyway,” Ingvar said gravely.
As it happened, they did arrive before the fall of full darkness. Apparently it helped their speed that the party mostly strode along in tense silence for the remainder of the journey, with the sole exception of Rainwood, who passed the time by telling them stories of his days as an adventurer. And he, of course, could both see in the dark and balance on one toe on a marble, so the falling light did not impede his speed.
It helped further that they did not need to trek the entire way. Twilight had descended and the remaining sunlight morphed from red to an eerie faint gold when they first beheld the lamps descending the ridge which hid the Ranger lodge. Taka fell back without comment (for once), allowing Ingvar to take the lead. He kept them going, now to meet the figures who were approaching them from ahead.
There were five, arrayed in an arrowhead formation like migrating geese. The lamps were held by the two flanking the central figure; as they came closer, those on the edges were revealed to be carrying longbows very like those used by Huntsmen of Shaath. The tall man striding in the center, instead, held a staff which towered over him, its carved head containing a sizable chunk of crystal. All five of the Rangers wore hooded cloaks like those Ingvar and Aspen had encountered elsewhere, these dyed in a lighter green that blended well with the local terrain. The archer on the left end of their formation looked Tiraan, but the rest were Westerners.
“Hail, fellow travelers,” he called as the two groups neared, raising one hand.
The leader of the Ranger group lifted his staff once in acknowledgment, its crystal head glinting in the dying light. “Hail. What brings you to this wild corner of the world?”
“We came seeking the Rangers at the local lodge,” Ingvar replied courteously. They had come within three yards of each other now, and they stopped, so he did likewise. When meeting armed strangers in the wilderness it was wise not to press closer than they were comfortable with. Fortunately, the rest of his group followed his lead. He had been far from certain that they would, considering that they were all either fae creatures far older than he or unpredictable, poorly-behaved youths.
“You’ve found them,” the man replied, planting the butt of his staff in the dirt and tilting his head back to study them. He was of thin build, taller than most Jendi, with his wiry hair trimmed close and a neatly cut beard outlining his jaw, just beginning to be tinged with gray. “And by description, you must be Brother Ingvar.”
“I am,” Ingvar said with some surprise. This was the first group of Rangers to indicate that they had heard of him. “And this—”
“Aspen, daughter of Naiya,” the leader interrupted, nodding to her. “An honor. More than that, I was not expecting.”
“I’m surprised to learn you expected us at all,” Ingvar replied. “Truthfully I wasn’t expecting any of these companions, either; Aspen and I have known them all for less than a day.” He stopped, letting the silence hang expectantly. That this man had not introduced himself yet verged on rudeness.
“You and your dryad companion have stirred up a fair amount of curiosity, Ingvar of the Huntsmen,” he said, his expression inscrutable. “Enough that the lodges of the Rangers have begun sending messages to one another, forewarning fellow Rangers of your coming, and the general course you have set. We have ways, also, of tracking the movements of strangers in the areas we hunt. Your imminent arrival was known to us days ago.”
“I see,” Ingvar said slowly. Something about this situation was beginning to make his hackles rise. Thus far, he had found Rangers to be insular folk, but courteous and hospitable. These were standing rigidly, two with weapons at the ready, and their tension was infectious. Aspen had gone quiet, frowning. Ingvar trusted her not to be aggressive without cause, but Tholi was high-strung and November seemed even more so. “Of course, I’ve learned by now that the Rangers are custodians of a great deal of lore that the Huntsmen have forgotten. We would be greatly honored at the chance to learn from you.”
All four of the companion Rangers shifted their hoods, turning to look at their leader. He inhaled slowly and deeply, his hand working unconsciously on the wood of his staff as if he were gearing himself up for something dangerous.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice abrupt after the silence. “There is no welcome for you here, Ingvar. You and your companions must go. The lodge of the Rangers cannot harbor you.”
“I…don’t understand,” Ingvar said, frowning. This was totally unlike any previous reception he had received from their order.
“I’m sorry you have come so far for nothing,” the lead Ranger said, his voice almost curt now. He turned to go.
“Hey!” Aspen exclaimed. “None of the rest of your guys were this rude!”
“And I have apologized for it, daughter of Naiya,” he replied, having paused. “But my word is final.”
“I am a dryad,” she said incredulously. “You can’t tell me what to do!”
“I cannot compel you,” he agreed. “Nor must I offer you anything.”
“You know,” she said, more angry by the second, “if we really want to go into your lodge there’s not really anything you can do about it, now is there?”
“Aspen!” Ingvar barked. “We will not force ourselves upon them.”
“You may of course do as you choose,” the Ranger said evenly. “If you decide to press on…then fate will decide what follows. For now, we return, and I ask you again to go.”
“The world has changed even more than I had allowed myself to see,” Rainwood said quietly, “if a lodge of Rangers turns away travelers at sunset.”
The leader hesitated again, but then finished turning around and set off back the way they had come, offering no further answer. His companions followed, with some hesitation. The lantern-bearers backed away for a few steps before turning to catch up with him and the man on the edge of their formation, who had already started moving off.
The other archer hesitated, and then actually stepped forward instead of back.
“You see that tree?” she said in a low voice, pointing with her longbow. “The Kharsa pine with the cleft top? Camp within sight of it, and on the southeast side of the ridge. That’s well within our territory, in sight of the lodge. None of us with bother you, and as long as you are that close, the Huntsmen won’t, either.”
“Dimbi,” the lead Ranger called. She turned and strode away after them.
“Thank you,” Ingvar called after her, and received no response.
“What was that all about?” Aspen demanded as the Rangers disappeared back into the trees below the ridge on which they lived.
“I don’t know,” Ingvar said slowly. “Rainwood, you have known of Rangers longer than I. Can you offer us any insight?”
“My spirit companions may know something,” the elf mused, “though I would prefer to find a place to camp before invoking them. That was very strange, Ingvar. Hospitality is an important virtue among all decent people, and has been an agreed value among the wardens of the wild since long before any of their present names. Before there were Shaathists or Rangers or even Silver Huntresses, the archetype existed, and they offered succor to travelers in need. This is a new and troubling development.”
Tholi grunted. “I can’t say I’m impressed with your Shadow Hunter friends, Ingvar.”
“Every group of Rangers we have met before now was glad, even eager to host visitors,” Ingvar said, frowning after the bobbing lights that still flickered between the trees ahead.
“Well, I don’t know what you expect,” Tholi said disdainfully. “These are from a corrupt tradition that couldn’t manage to keep Shaath’s ways.”
“They claim it’s the other way round,” said Aspen.
“The truth, as usual, lies in the middle,” Rainwood added. “It would be most accurate to say that the Rangers and the Huntsmen are both heirs of much older traditions.”
“What was that about Huntsmen?” November added nervously. “What did she mean? Surely they wouldn’t be in this area, not with a Shadow Hunter lodge that close. I thought you were kidding about that, Ingvar.”
“Actually, nearly all Ranger lodges are positioned close enough to Shaathist lodges to cause some overlap of hunting grounds, and general friction,” said Ingvar.
“See, I was right,” Taka chimed. “Putting themselves right in the Omnists’ backyard would keep them out of a lot of trouble, if they’re bumping up against the Huntsmen.”
“Why would they court trouble that way in the first place?” November asked.
“Disaffected Shaathists are their major source of recruits,” Ingvar explained. “Lodges recruit pretty aggressively from cities and outlying farms, in part because they constantly lose people. Women run away fairly regularly, and for exactly that reason young men are often cast out. The rites of manhood that Tholi insisted upon you acknowledging are not easy. Shaathist marriage customs depend on a lodge having more women than men, particularly among the young. Conditions for a man to be initiated into Shaathist traditions as a man are harsh. Many fail. And once they have failed, they have no place in the community of the faith.”
“That sounds like a pretty damn terrible idea,” Taka said dryly. “Not to mention kinda dickish.”
Ingvar nodded. “Among other things, it’s the main reason the Ranger traditions still exist, as I said. Shaathist lodges constantly bleed a trickle of apostates and rejects, and a few of those always find their way to the Rangers.”
“Well, if there is a true lodge nearby, that solves that problem,” Tholi insisted. “They, at least, keep to the law of hospitality! A lodge would offer shelter to even a shrill, abrasive Avenist whelp without criticism or judgment, even if she didn’t have us with her.”
“I don’t know why you’re talking like we need a place to stay, anyhow,” Aspen said petulantly. “Have you seen who you’re traveling with? A dryad, two Huntsmen, an elf, and a couple of girls who obviously aren’t half as useless as they both act. Nobody here is uncomfortable sleeping outdoors.”
“I don’t think I wish to approach the local Huntsmen until we know more, anyway,” Ingvar agreed. “The Rangers do honor the law of hospitality, Tholi. This turn of events is strange for exactly that reason. I want to learn the lay of the land before risking that the next group of people from whom we should be able to expect welcome greet us with worse than these. Come, let’s look for a sheltered place.”
The group followed him east, toward the mountains. Ingvar set a much slower pace now, making sure to keep the pine tree with the split top in view, but mostly being wary of where he stepped. In truth, they needn’t be very picky about a campsite. Aspen alone was ten times as dangerous as anything that prowled these hills, and any threat on more than two legs would instinctively avoid her anyway. All they needed was a flattish space big enough for everybody not on watch to lie down around a small firepit. Still, he kept going, seeking a spot that could be easily secured.
Unnecessary, perhaps, maybe even irrational, but something odd was afoot in these hills, and Ingvar wanted every small piece of security he could grasp. There was no objection from any of the group, now straggling after him in single file. Most of them were smart enough to observe that they weren’t in any direct danger; he interpreted their silence as a reflection of his own unease.
“Rainwood,” Ingvar murmured into the darkness, barely audible even to himself. In moments the elf was at his side, strolling along as blithely as if he had always been there. “You are a shaman.”
“Thanks for noticing!” Rainwood said, cheerful as always.
“If I described to you a sacred rite based at least in part upon fae magic,” Ingvar continued quietly, “could you replicate it?”
“Almost certainly not,” the shaman said immediately. “Fae magic isn’t like arcane; it’s made of feelings and relationships, not math. There are no formulae. But if you can describe to me what this rite is meant to do, there’s a good chance I could devise one that achieves the same end.”
“I’m a little afraid to improvise,” Ingvar murmured, “but then again, it may be appropriate to make a break with older traditions. I suddenly find that I have…followers. It has occurred to me that the specific needs of what I must accomplish will require me to either change the thinking of a lot of Huntsmen of Shaath, or build my own splinter sect. I have been avoiding that realization as neither is a comfortable idea for me, but…here it is.”
“You’ve got spirit guides and apparently Avei herself deciding this is the time,” Rainwood agreed. “It might not be smart to procrastinate any further.”
Ingvar nodded. “And so, I have pups who must be shown the truth about wolves. I know the way this must be done, to make it a meaningful revelation. I only lack the means.”
“Be sure of what you are doing,” said the shaman, “and be careful. Wolves don’t bite nearly as hard as truth.”
He could not disagree.