“Are we in danger?”
“You mean, more than usually and aside from the obvious?” Rainwood made a wry face, glancing back at the others trooping along behind Ingvar and himself at the head of their loose formation. His expression quickly returned to the pensive frown he’d worn all day, though. “I don’t think so, specifically.”
“I realize we’ve not known each other long, but based on what I have seen from you in the last few days, the fact that this development clearly alarmed you stood out in my mind,” Ingvar said, watching him sidelong as they walked through the patchy brush toward the ridge. “Whatever happened… The main thrust of what I’ve asked you involves reaching out through these spirit companions of yours. Obviously I have to wonder whether this will affect our business, but more immediately, I don’t want you to do something that might expose you to harm on my behalf.”
“I wish I knew,” Rainwood murmured, shaking his head in frustration. “I don’t…think this is dangerous, at least not immediately or to us. It’s all whispers and portents, great events in the offing, something big having begun up in the Wyrnrange. Something quite sudden, unexpected. I’ve lived long enough to have seen this sort of thing before, and it can take years to lead to anything concrete. If it’s the birth of someone destined to be a great hero, for example. Or the death of one, or the forging of a magic sword, just to list a few specific incidents I remember.”
“So you don’t think we will be affected?”
Rainwood narrowed his eyes. “That’s the part I can’t exactly tell, Ingvar. I…think not. My intuition tells me it’s not to do with us directly. It is complicated because the spirits are agitated over my own link to this event; fae magic in general responds strongly to connections. But that, I think, is because a relative of mine was present and involved.”
“We’ve already leaned on your power considerably, my friend. If you need to go aid your kin, please don’t let my business stop you.”
“The spirits directed me here, to you, not there to her,” the elf said, waving a hand airily, then grinned. “Anyway. The kinswoman in question is one of the most capable individuals alive, and has gotten along just fine without my help for nearly her entire life. No, I believe we should proceed as we agreed.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” Aspen said petulantly, pushing forward to walk between them.
“Is there a reason you would?” Ingvar asked, patting her on the back. “You’ve never indicated you were sensitive to oracular portents before.”
“Well, if it was that big a deal and had to do with fairy magic, surely I would’ve felt something.”
Ingvar and Rainwood glanced sidelong at one another around her, saying nothing.
“I saw that,” she snapped.
“What I’m curious about,” Taka said from behind them, “is precisely what fuckery you’re wanting to get us into that might be affected by giant fairy nonsense up in the mountains.”
“All life is connected through the Mother,” Tholi murmured.
“Oh, very profound,” she said scathingly. “Now tell me what it means.”
“It’s an old Shaathist truism, something recited to give us comfort in painful times. As for what exactly it means, the elder Brother I asked that same question told me it meant to trust the shaman, if you’re lucky enough to have one to listen to. If Rainwood says it’s fine, I’m going to assume it’s fine.”
“I said I think it’ll be fine,” Rainwood clarified.
“And we have no reason not to trust him,” Ingvar added in the tone he’d developed to put an end to pointless discussions. He had rapidly gotten very good at it in the last couple of days. “Please let us know if anything changes, Rainwood. Barring that, we can do nothing but press on.”
“Sounds good and all,” November piped up, “but on the subject of pressing on, it’s still not clear to me why you think this is going to go any better than the last time.”
“In fact,” Ingvar said, gazing up ahead at the place where the Ranger lodge lay hidden atop the ridge, “I rather expect it to go worse. But circumstances have changed, and therefore so must our strategy. I wish I could be more certain this is the right thing to do,” he added in a softer tone, “rather than just the best thing I can think of.”
“We definitely trust your judgment, Brother,” Tholi assured him.
“Ingvar is very smart,” Aspen said proudly.
He patted her back again, saying nothing. With the rest of the group behind him, he could not see November or Taka’s expressions, and at that moment felt he was probably better off.
The lodge wasn’t any less hidden now that they were approaching it in daylight; Ingvar still had nothing but Taka’s say-so to tell him they were going in the right direction, and might have actually doubted had they not met five lantern-bearing Rangers descending toward them from that same ridge in the twilight.
Paradoxically, it seemed the Rangers were better at hiding in the daylight. Of course, it probably helped when they were not carrying lights and trying to be seen.
Ingvar stopped; behind him, Taka muttered a curse and November yipped softly in surprise. He glanced over at Rainwood and Aspen, who had surely been aware they were approaching a human, but hadn’t seen fit to say anything. From that, he interpreted a lack of danger.
She sat in the fork of a tree, some ten feet up, motionless; even having spoken, Ingvar might not have spotted her had she not moved her head. It was a good hiding place, giving her a vantage over the surrounding area while concealing her behind a convenient spray of leaves. Her traditional hooded cloak, a garment that more resembled elven camouflage than any Tiraan or Jendi attire, certainly helped.
“Good day,” Ingvar said. This woman’s voice was familiar, now that he focused on her. Yes, in fact, she was the Ranger who had paused to direct them to a safe campsite even after her lodgemaster ordered them away. “It’s…Dimbi, am I correct?”
“Not bad,” she said, not sounding particularly impressed. “Last time, you seemed pretty adamant you weren’t going to push your way into our business. What changed your mind?”
“Your leader did,” Ingvar replied. “I am certainly able to deal with Huntsmen of Shaath, but I was very surprised when the master of a Ranger lodge deliberately sought them out and set them after me. For this, I feel, he owes me an explanation.”
With her hood shadowing her dark face, he couldn’t make out her expression. “That’s a hell of an accusation, Huntsman. If you had trouble with your own kind, why would Arjuni have been behind it?”
So he had a name, at least. “The party of Shaathists who intercepted us said they were sent at his urging.”
She let out a soft huff. “And you believed them?”
“I am very familiar with Huntsmen; I know their virtues and the faults to which they are prone. If you are like most Rangers, I suspect you have some insight into both those things as well, do you not?”
“What of it?” Dimbi asked in a more guarded tone.
“Well, of all their flaws, have you ever found the Huntsmen to be prone to political maneuvering?”
She stared down at him in silence, her eyes hidden.
“Personally,” he went on after a momentary pause, “I have found them more likely to err on the side of pride, and not likely to give Rangers credit for anything if it wasn’t warranted. When a Huntsman of Shaath tells me he was sought out and warned by a Ranger of my presence, especially when said Ranger has already expressed surprising hostility toward me, I see little reason to doubt him.”
More silence; she might as well have been part of the tree. Had he not already spotted her shape among the leaves Ingvar could still have failed to detect her.
“Am I wrong?” he asked in a deliberately mild tone. “If so, I’d like to know it. If not, I think I am sufficiently entitled to an explanation to insist. This is very strange behavior for a Ranger, is it not? I would be foolish indeed not to investigate closer, when I don’t know what other out of character hostility your lodge might produce.”
Still, she said nothing, just staring down at them.
Finally, Tholi snorted. “It appears this is pointless, Brother. Let’s be on our way.”
“Hey, Aspen,” Taka cackled, “can you knock down that tree she’s in?”
“I’m not gonna hurt the tree,” Aspen snapped, offended. “The tree isn’t hurting anybody.”
Dimbi suddenly surged into motion, spooking Tholi into nocking an arrow. She plunged straight to the ground, her cape streaming behind her. The Ranger landed as fluidly as a drop of water, compressing her body into a deep crouch to absorb the impact, then just as quickly straightening back upright.
“Arjuni sent up the signal smoke first thing on the dawn after your visit,” she stated. “A Huntsman came within the hour. He spoke to him alone, then he left, and Arjuni told us all to forget about it.”
“I see,” Ingvar said. “Perhaps you are finding it as difficult as I to forget these things?”
“What’s so dangerous about you?” she asked softly.
He spoke slowly in answer, buying time while his brain tried to race ahead. Ingvar was too long away from Tiraas and the currents of Veisroi and Andros’s maneuvers among the city folk; his political instincts were slow to reawaken, and yet he was keenly conscious that this was a delicate moment within a more broadly delicate situation.
“Don’t take this for a deflection, but why is it you think I am dangerous? Aside from the obvious, I mean.” He patted Aspen’s shoulder, and she tossed her hair proudly. “For months, Aspen and I have been traveling across the continent, visiting Ranger lodges and finding welcome. Even the elves have hosted us gladly, and I’m sure you know they are not over fond of strangers. Arjuni’s reaction to us is very strange. I’m wondering if it makes some sense to you?”
“He’s frightened,” she said, grasping her bow in both hands. “Arjuni is no weakling; he doesn’t scare easily. But he has some gift toward witchcraft himself, and I think he sees a portent of something dire in you. I don’t see it myself,” she admitted. “I don’t know what to think. Do you? I have a feeling you have some idea why it is you’d scare him. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we were told of a Huntsman traveling with a dryad, and instead you show up with an entire party of followers?”
“Oh, are we followers, now?” Taka muttered.
“I think I understand,” Ingvar said, nodding slowly. “Well. Perhaps Arjuni is not wrong to be alarmed. But I believe he has the cause and effect mixed up.”
Dimbi shifted her stance subtly, sliding one foot backward and putting more weight on it. Poised to flee.
Ingvar kept his voice low and calm, as if to soothe an animal, or a child, but deliberately avoided any cadence that she might take as condescending. It was coming back to him after all. “Until a very few days ago, it was just Aspen and myself on a journey to gather knowledge. With no schedule and no end point in sight, the ultimate goal distant and so unattainable… Well, I confess I got myself through the days by focusing on what was right in front of me, and not on that. I saw no way to it.”
“Ultimate goal?” she asked warily.
“Shaath is bound,” he said. “Imprisoned by his own believers—who are, themselves, imprisoned by belief. The code of the Huntsmen has been corrupted, used against our own god. He reached out to me to seek a solution. Tell me, wouldn’t you be awed by the scope of it?” he added with a self-deprecating little chuckle. “I’m just a hunter, not a prophet or even a priest. I know more than I want to of the ways of people; I would rather just know the ways of nature, and immerse myself in it. Who could approach such a task? How would you even start?”
“By asking questions, I suppose,” she acknowledged, though he hadn’t really expected an answer. “Elves and Rangers are a good enough starting place if you want to learn secrets the Huntsmen have tried to bury. Why does that make you dangerous?”
“I have the impression you’re aware of at least some of what is wrong with modern Shaathism; the Rangers in general are experts on it, or so I’ve found. Tell me, how do you think they will react to being told their faith is built on lies? If Arjuni is in contact with their lodges and aware of their movements, then yes, I am likely to create a stir he will feel directly.”
Behind him, Tholi shifted in muted agitation, but held his peace. Ingvar wanted to reach out comfortingly to the lad, but he sensed it would be a mistake to divide his attention away from Dimbi.
“These last days have brought sudden change on me, though,” he said. “It has been made vividly clear that my sojourn will not be indulged any longer. With me is Rainwood, a shaman of the line of the Crow, who was directed by his own spirit guides to seek us out and lend aid.”
“Just Rainwood to my friends,” the elf added wryly. “In fact, it’s worth knowing that elves of the line of the Crow don’t generally care to be reminded of it.”
“Tholi is an old friend from my previous lodge,” Ingvar continued, finally turning to give the young man a nod, which he returned. “He had an experience amazingly similar to my own: dreams and visions, directing him to find me. November is a follower of Avei, and was given the same from her goddess, who I am frankly astonished to learn knows or cares of this at all. I might be skeptical of both their claims, except they were both sent exactly to the place where they could meet me, here in the back wilds of N’Jendo where even I did not expect a month ago that I would be. And then Taka just sort of invited herself along.”
“Nice,” Taka said irritably. November and Tholi both grinned at her.
“And so, to my own amazement, it’s as you said: I have followers, now. More alarmingly, they are being sent to me by gods and spirits of various sources. And others are beginning to accrue, apparently just of their own will.”
He turned back to face Dimbi directly. “So it sounds to me like Arjuni is both correct, and mistaken. There is a storm coming. Gods know I want nothing to do with it, but I’ve been placed at the center of this thing, and I have better sense than to try to flee. I have never yet encountered a storm that obligingly blew the other way when I turned my back on it. What I would tell your leader is that I’m a messenger, nothing more. None of this will go away if I do. The next time the storm roils over his lodge, it may come in a shape less willing to hear him out.”
She stared at him in silence a moment longer, then lifted one hand from her bow to pull back her hood. Dimbi was younger than he, to judge by her face, though not so young as Tholi or even November. Her expression was troubled, but focused.
“So you’re going to…what? Reform Shaathism? How, exactly?”
The others all shifted minutely, looking at Ingvar.
“I have no idea,” he admitted. “The wind is at my back, here. I am following what guidance I am given as best I can, and trusting that I was chosen for this for a reason, as little sense as much of it makes to me.”
She nodded once. “The storm cares not.”
“Old Punaji proverb,” he said, nodding back.
“Heh…not many people know that. Around here the sea folk are the Tidestriders. But a well-traveled fellow like you… Arjuni is not going to listen to you,” she said abruptly. “He’s a good leader and a good man. But he’s the most godawful mama bear, and it never occurs to him that he doesn’t know best.”
Ingvar let out a slow breath. “The last thing I want is to get into a confrontation with Rangers. Do you think Arjuni will continue to create trouble for me?”
Dimbi nodded, her expression unhappy. “Until you either leave the purview of our lodge, or something happens to make him listen. If you’re being pushed along by gods and the spirits of the wild, that might actually… What kind of storm are you talking about, Ingvar?”
“I don’t know that either,” he said, shaking his head. “I came here to find answers, not bring them. Whatever agenda is pushing these matters forward now isn’t mine. We’ll all find out what kind of chaos gods and spirits can unleash at the same time. All I can do is try to position myself to ride it rather than be swept away, and bring as many as I can with me.”
She chewed her lower lip for a moment, glancing to the side. “There…are others who will listen to you. A lot of us have complicated feelings toward the Huntsmen. We have ample reason to be hostile toward them, but also…attached. Arjuni seems to think you’re going to try to agitate the Rangers into some kind of war against the Shaathists, and I know a few of our number would be up for that. But a lot more of us would be interested in helping cut the rot out of them, trying to save what’s worth saving…. If you truly think you can do that.”
“An inquisition is absolutely the last thing anyone needs,” he said firmly. “Shaath can’t be freed by destroying the Huntsmen, but by showing them the truth. And leading them to accept it for what it is, which will be the harder part. You can’t persuade anyone by declaring war on them. I also didn’t come here looking to incite a schism within your lodge,” he added.
Dimbi snorted softly. “No, just within the Huntsmen, I suppose. It’s different with us. Arjuni won’t listen to you, but if you can reach enough of our number…even if it’s just a few. He’ll listen to us above an outsider.”
“You’re taking this awfully well,” Taka said, wearing open skepticism on her face. “I’ve been following this guy for a couple days now and I’m still not a hundred percent on these shenanigans. Why’re you so eager to believe him, if your own leader isn’t?”
“Willing,” Dimbi said with a soft sigh. “I wouldn’t say eager, but…willing. I gather you don’t have a background in the nuanced philosophical differences between Rangers and Huntsmen. In light of that, all of this makes way too much sense. And besides, even so I might dismiss someone showing up making these claims as a con artist or a madman, but neither of those is likely to hoodwink an elvish shaman. Let alone a Crowblood.”
“Why does everyone insist on bringing that up?” Rainwood complained. “You wouldn’t find it nearly so nifty if you’d ever met the meddlesome old bag.”
“If you go to the lodge,” Dimbi continued, again addressing herself to Ingvar, “Arjuni will just get his back up. I doubt he’d try to shoot you, not with a dryad and a shaman right there, but any direct confrontation with him will only make all of this harder. I can persuade some of our number to give you a chance, though. Quietly.”
“And you would do this?” Ingvar asked. “Forgive me, but it does seem the more logical action in your position would be to warn Arjuni against this.”
“You’ve got some face,” she retorted, “to show up out of nowhere asking for this kind of trust and not offer any in return.”
“Yes…I see the fairness in that. You’re right.” He made a shallow bow toward her. “Forgive me.”
“We have less need to offer trust, too, as long as I’m here,” Rainwood added, now watching Dimbi through half-lidded eyes. “She means well, and speaks truly.”
“I’m not sure whether that’s an honor, or creepy,” the Ranger muttered, giving him a wary stare before returning her focus to Ingvar. “So. When I gather a few sympathetic souls, where will we find you?”
That made him hesitate; it was a question to which he simply did not have an answer. Providential as her offer of help was, it jumped him farther ahead than he had planned. In truth, Ingvar had refrained from planning in detail beyond the point where he could straighten out just what the local Rangers were up to, which he had assumed would involve a tense encounter with their standoffish leader at the very least. Now he was suddenly two steps past that, and needing to fit these new developments into a framework he hadn’t even built yet.
But that feeling was still there, the sense guiding him toward what he was sure was the right path, even if he couldn’t have said why to save his life. In this case, it prompted him to make use of an old training exercise he had used to induct Huntsman initiates.
“By the end of today, at dusk,” he said, “I intend, with Shaath’s blessing and Rainwood’s assistance, to reveal a truth you Rangers know well, which has been kept hidden from the Huntsmen. The truth about wolves. You know of what I speak?”
It was very slight, but her eyes did widen and she leaned her head back. That was all the acknowledgment he required.
“It was revealed to me through the Ranger ritual with which you are familiar; our method will be somewhat different. But we will do this at the proper time and place. And anyone who has a purpose in being there will be able to find us.”
In these circumstances and with his delivery, it had a suitably mystical sound, but it was also simple practicality. Anyone who deserved to call themselves Ranger or Huntsman would have no trouble tracking down a party of six people in the woods, especially when two of them were November and Taka.
Dimbi regarded him pensively for another long moment. Then her full lips suddenly quirked in a smile, and she reached up to pull her hood back into place, casting her features in shadow once more.
“Till the proper time and place, then, Brother Ingvar. I guess we’ll see…what we will see. You’d better impress, or this reform of yours may not get off the ground.”
She turned and bounded off into the trees heading toward the ridge and her hidden lodge without waiting for any response.
“Twerp,” Taka muttered.
“Sooo…once again, we’re not going to the mysterious Ranger lodge?” Aspen asked irritably. “I’ve gotta say, all this bait-and-switch is getting tiresome.”
“The truth about wolves,” Tholi murmured to himself.
Ingvar had narrowed his own eyes in thought, letting their chatter pass him by. Still hovering in that fugue-like state, as if being urged forward by unseen guides, he was suddenly aware of connections and patterns that had not occurred to him before, but now seemed obvious.
“Rainwood,” he said, turning to the shaman, “I am about to ask you for another favor.”
“You’re always so polite,” the elf chided gently. “They’re not favors when I’m explicitly here to help you, of my own free will. What do you need, Ingvar?”
“If your guides are not too disturbed by whatever has upset them, can they reveal whether another party of Huntsmen of Shaath will be intercepting us tonight? Not, perhaps, to offer hostility, but to see whether I do indeed have truth to offer them is something they want to hear, out of sight of their leadership.”
Rainwood let his eyes drift closed and leaned his head back, drawing in a slow breath that made his thin chest swell to its maximum extent. Sunlight shifted through the leaves above, a stray beam illuminating his face directly. Seemingly from nowhere, a small cluster of white butterflies danced about the elf for a few seconds before dispersing into the trees around them.
Then Rainwood opened his eyes and turned an incredulous frown on Ingvar. “Now, just how exactly did you know that?”
“I can’t say that I knew it,” he admitted. “But the shape of it was there. All of this… It’s politics, it’s organized religion, and there’s a certain predictable kind of theater to both. All the more so when we’re being ushered along by divine and fae influences. I just had to make a very similar speech to the one I made to those Huntsmen. All the same points, but an opposite tone. These two encounters…they are a parallel. It’s a pattern, leading to a point.”
“Man,” Taka muttered, rubbing her palms unconsciously on her tunic, “every time I start to convince myself you’re full of it, you come out with something like that.”
“I told you Ingvar was smart!” Aspen added.
“Rainwood,” Ingvar said, “are you certain it will be well?”
“No one can have certainty of anything,” the shaman demurred. “I promise you, Ingvar, I won’t deliberately lead you into trouble. I have trust in my spirit friends, and I will take every possible precaution. What more can we do?”
“What more indeed,” Ingvar murmured. “Well. Back the way we came, I supposed. Those who will be coming after us will have to find their own way, but they’re well suited to do so. We have the whole day, but by the end of it we need to be positioned somewhere suitably distant from both Shaathist and Ranger lodges, and in proximity to the wolves we must call.”
“And then we’ll learn this mysterious truth about wolves you’ve been hinting at?” November asked.
“One way or another, we will,” he replied, deliberately keeping the grimness he felt out of his tone, and turned to lead the way. “Come along. There should be plenty of time to find and cook something to eat before tonight, and we should have our strength at its fullest.”
Inwardly, he could not help but worry, despite Rainwood’s reassurances. They were proposing to perform an improvised variant on a Ranger ritual without the alchemical component that he knew made it work, trusting the elf’s spirit guides and guardians to enable them. And now, they would be doing so when the spirits were unaccountably agitated by something which had evidently sent unknown shockwaves across the magical world. Common sense told him this was no time, that they should wait for a calmer certainty.
But now, there was the pattern of events already set in motion and too late to stop. Come dusk, he would be found by the young and inquisitive among both the Huntsmen and Rangers, and would have to prove the truth of his mission to them. If they showed up and Ingvar failed to produce dramatic results, that would be the end of it, and likely, the end of his entire quest. He had been around the circles of clerical power enough to know the damage such an embarrassment could do to a young spiritual movement. It had to be tonight. Whatever was wrong in the spirit world, they would have to risk it.
And hope that what awaited them in the wolf dream was only truth, which he knew from experience would be painful enough for many of those who saw it. If there were some additional danger caused by whatever had just happened in the Wyrnrange, there was no telling what might unfold.