The good news was that they had finally found a way to take some of the attitude out of Taka.
“It might be better if you let it out,” Tholi suggested when she spun away from the group and fell to her knees, covering her mouth with a hand and heaving. “If your body wants to do something, it’s not a good idea to deny it. And the forest can absorb anything you spew.”
Ingvar had been impressed by Tholi today. The young man’s regard for November had increased markedly when she demonstrated that she knew how to build a proper snare and had no fear at all of skinning and dressing the rabbit whose fate had just rendered Taka almost incapacitated. At any rate, he hadn’t launched any barbs at her and had even shrugged off a couple of her own without rising to the bait. He was doing well with Taka, also, not only refraining from mocking her lack of wilderness skill but also not trying to woo her or suggest she should be tending someone’s firepit, as Ingvar would have expected a young man raised in a lodge to do. Tholi was impetuous and hot-headed as only a youth not yet in his second decade could be, but still he was showing surprising depths. Ingvar himself had needed the Rangers and their vision quest to truly confront how wrong the Shaathist cult was about its concept of the world, but so far it appeared his own say-so had been enough for Tholi to take on faith.
“I’m fine,” Taka grumbled unconvincingly after swallowing a couple of times. “I just never… I mean, the insides of animals are supposed to stay on the inside.”
“That’s hard to arrange, if you intend to eat them,” Tholi said, grinning.
“You’ve had meat before, haven’t you?” November added, raising her eyes from her work with the bloody skinning knife still in her hand.
“I don’t need shit from you,” Taka snapped, starting to round on her and just as quickly averting her gaze from the sight of the half-dressed rabbit.
“Whoah, hey.” November raised both hands peaceably, a gesture that was somewhat sullied by the dripping knife in one of them. “I’m not getting on your case, sister. I had just about the same problem the first time I had to do this. I’m just telling you something I was told, that helped me get used to it. If you eat meat, you’re better off knowing firsthand how it turns from a living thing into tasty food. All the steps, especially the nasty ones. Being kept in the dark about harsh truths is for children.”
“Well put,” Tholi agreed.
“Indeed,” said Ingvar, stepping over beside Taka. He had planned to kneel beside her, but she straightened upon his approach, trying to look defiant despite still looking queasy. “This is about being involved in every step of your own existence, having knowledge and respect for the chain of life that sustains you. And yes, parts of that are ugly, which is the point. Everything lives because something else died. The way of the wild demands that those sacrifices be honored.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered. “And the upside is…?”
“Hard to see, from your position,” he replied, smiling. “It’s just difficult and gross when you’re introduced to it the first time. The satisfaction that comes from being a conscious part of the chain is difficult to express in words. A lot of the details of a life connected to life are really only comprehensible through experience.”
“Now, that’s Shaathist mumbo-jumbo if I ever heard it,” she said skeptically.
“I can see how you’d think that,” he said. “Let me just double-check with the least Shaathist person here. November, am I right?”
“He kind of is right, Taka,” she said, addressing herself to the other woman rather than answering him directly. “Though I personally would’ve pointed out that being self-reliant and able to survive on your own is a plenty good deal and not hard to put into words. But…yeah. Food you have to out and get yourself does make you feel, I dunno…linked to life.”
“I’m always astonished at how people fumble around trying to grasp the most basic concepts of existence,” Aspen said.
“That’s the result of people growing up separated from nature,” said Ingvar. “It leaves an absence in us, and that is part of what the way of the wild seeks to repair. You don’t truly know what you’re missing until you confront the lack. But people can and do live getting all their food from markets, with money they earned doing work that brought them into no contact with anything living. That seems like a barren sort of life to me, but I think it’s best not to judge anyone else’s path. I just want to make it clear, Taka, that if you can’t handle this, that doesn’t reflect badly on you as a person. But this kind of thing is going to be central to what we’re doing out here. If it’s not for you, then probably none of this is.”
“I didn’t say I was quitting, did I?” she retorted. Her eyes fell on the rabbit and she flinched, but then visibly steeled herself. “You guys are starting to sound like the Omnists. Well, like the parts of their lecturing I found the least annoying. Appreciating the chain of life is a whole other matter when you’re growing carrots than when you’re gutting fluffy bunnies…”
“It’s true,” Tholi agreed. “Look, don’t force yourself. Getting used to bloody work can take some acclimation; if you want to start by just watching, hey, that’s a place to begin.”
“You’re more laid back about this than I would’ve suspected, listening to you and this one tear into each other,” Taka commented, glancing at November.
“Any Huntsman worth his salt knows how to indoctrinate a woman into his cult,” November said, resuming work on the rabbit. “They always need more women. Can’t imagine why.”
“Is it really that hard to not needle at Tholi?” Aspen asked. “Come on. Half of everything you people say sounds like mad nonsense to me, but do I go and tell you about it every time?”
“Yes, you damn well do!” November exclaimed, earning a laugh from Tholi.
Ingvar was spared having to intervene in yet another argument by the appearance of a flurry of sparks in the air around them. The whole group bolted upright clutching whatever weapons they had at hand, save Rainwood and Aspen, who just watched curiously as streamers of reddish-gold light swirled through the air, fading to a pale green before dissipating.
“What was that?” Tholi demanded.
“Fairies,” said Aspen. “Little ones, not very interesting. I think they were here for him.”
“On the contrary, my dear, that was rather interesting,” said Rainwood, shooting her a smile. “My little friends rarely show themselves to others. I guess they like you.”
“Oh. Well.” November looked nonplussed. “Lucky us?”
“Lucky indeed,” Tholi said reverently. “The messengers of the Mother are a rare honor to behold. Any sign of their favor is a great occasion.”
“As the only one here whose mother she actually is,” Aspen said dryly, “I think you would be pretty disappointed.”
“I wonder what brought that on?” Ingvar kept his tone light, but fixed his stare on Rainwood, who was frowning pensively at the trees around them.
“That’s the other thing that’s interesting,” said the elf. “That was a warning: we are being hunted.” He turned his own gaze fully on Ingvar. “I don’t hear or smell anything dangerous out there. If the spirit guides hadn’t warned me, I would never suspect a thing.”
“So…it’s magical?” November straightened up, subtly shifting her grip on the knife in unconscious preparation to stab someone with it. “What kind of magic threats live out here? Taka, this is your country, isn’t it?”
“I’m from Onkawa, and as I think I’ve mentioned, I like travel on roads, sleep in inns, and work in towns. Hell if I know what kind of creepy-crawlies lurk out here in the boonies.”
“There are ways to conceal ones movements specifically from the senses of elves,” said Tholi. “I know that craft.”
Both women turned openly skeptical looks on him.
“I can’t work that craft,” he hastily clarified, “but I know it. That’s shaman stuff. Anyone raised in a lodge would be aware of it.”
“I’m grateful to your friends for the warning, Rainwood,” said Ingvar, looking around at the trees and deliberately projecting calm. He had found that nervous people would take cues from anyone who appeared to know what they were doing. “If the local Huntsmen wish to pay us a visit, I see no reason why they should not. These are the wilds they hunt; we are only passing through. Come, let’s be about our work. If fellow travelers approach us, so be it.”
“And if they ‘approach’ us by shooting arrows out of the trees?” November demanded.
“I can’t think of a single reason why Huntsmen would do such a thing,” Ingvar replied.
“I can think of several! And no, I’m not just being an Avenist. Aren’t you specifically kind of a Shaathist heretic, Ingvar? What exactly does your cult do to people like you?”
“That’s a question,” Aspen agreed. “This whole project of yours for Shaath is kind of a threat to the people in power in your cult. And the way Tholi describes what’s happening in Tiraas these days, they really like being in power.”
Ingvar deliberately breathed in, and then out.
The elf closed his eyes and his lips began to move in a few silent whispers. As if in response, a slight breeze sighed over the group, carrying an oddly minty scent.
“There,” said Rainwood, opening his eyes and grinning. “Arrows out of the trees will not be a problem. For the record, I think Ingvar is right; that wouldn’t be characteristic behavior for Huntsmen. Still, better safe than pincushioned.”
“Thank you, Rainwood,” said Ingvar, nodding to him. “All right, back to what we were doing. Taka, I suggest you take Tholi’s advice and just watch for now. November, you clearly have that well in hand; Tholi, start on the other rabbit, please.”
“And who’s going to prepare the squirrel, then?” Tholi asked.
“Ugh, why even bother?” Aspen groused. “There’s not enough meat on that thing to have been worth killing it.”
“That was what the snare caught,” said Ingvar, “so that is what we eat. If you don’t care for squirrel, that’s more for the rest of us. Would you like to help, Aspen?”
“I’ve watched you do it enough times,” she said disinterestedly. “And you know I like my meat just as well raw.”
“You also like it just as well prepared, unless you’ve misled me about your preferences. Take Taka’s reaction to heart, Aspen; you’re going to be around people more and more, and even seasoned hunters will be put off if you just bite the head off something.”
“One time I did that!”
“And do you remember what I said, then?”
Aspen stomped over to sit down next to Taka, who eyed her warily, but the dryad just planted her cheeks in her hands and made a production of staring at November, who was again working on the rabbit.
Ingvar lightly patted her hair. “Thank you, Aspen.”
In the end, fortunately, there were no arrows out of the trees. November and Tholi finished preparing their rabbits at about the same time, he being a good bit faster at it than she, and another debate had just begun regarding the fate of the unfortunate squirrel when five Huntsmen of Shaath approached out of the trees. Well, three, accompanied by two youngsters in their teens who had neither longbows nor wolf’s head pins. The five of them moved deliberately, making no effort to hide their approach, and aside from carrying their bows as usual had no weapons drawn. They crossed the space between the treeline and Ingvar’s small hunting camp at a pace which gave the group ample time to put down what they were doing and turn to face their visitors.
“Well, met, brothers,” Ingvar said, nodding once.
“Well met, brother,” replied one of the men, marking himself as the leader among them. Unlike the Rangers they’d met the previous day, who had approached in a neat wedge formation, these were a more casual party; he was actually at one end of what varied between a line and a cluster as they navigated around underbrush. “We’ve heard a certain Brother Ingvar and some…allies of his might be in the area. Would that be you?”
“I am Ingvar,” he replied simply. “I apologize for trespassing on your hunting grounds. We intend to pass through without staying long.”
“There’s game enough for everyone,” the leader replied neutrally. “I am Brother Djinti, master of our lodge. Greetings, daughter of Naiya. You honor us with your presence.”
“That’s what they tell me,” Aspen replied.
“I wonder if we have offended you in some way, Brother,” Djinti said, again focusing on Ingvar. “Is it not custom for a Huntsman new to a forest to present himself at the lodge before hunting in its environs?”
“It is, and I apologize if any offense was given,” Ingvar replied. “You have given me none, and I meant none. As you can clearly see, I am traveling with…well, a rather peculiar assortment of companions, somewhat to my own surprise. I have found it the best policy to avoid introducing them to people unless necessary.”
“Guests are always welcome at a lodge,” said Djinti in the same deliberately calm tone.
“I think that’s for your sake more than ours,” said Taka. “These two fight like a pair of strange cats, and while I haven’t actually seen the dryad eat somebody, we all know they do.”
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“Taka,” Ingvar said reprovingly.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s very bad of me to say it,” she drawled, folding her arms. “But be honest: am I wrong?”
“Perhaps I take your point after all, Brother Ingvar,” said Djinti, finally cracking a smile. “You do keep unusual company. I am surprised to see this, in truth. I wouldn’t have expected the Shadow Hunters to speak truth to us, especially when they spun a tale such as this, but…here you all are, exactly as described.”
“The Rangers told you we were here?” Ingvar demanded incredulously. “Why?”
“This one’s demanding,” muttered one of the boys, edging closer to his leader and leaning over as if to whisper, but not quite managing to lower his voice. “Djinti, I think this is a woman.”
He was the only Tiraan in the group, the rest being dark-skinned Westerners, and appeared to be at least three years younger than Tholi to judge by the patchy state of his beard.
Djinti gave him a look of long-suffering annoyance with which Ingvar sympathized, having led more than a few youngsters on their first hunts. “Brother Ingvar is twinsouled, Samaan. Close your mouth before you catch a fist in it. I’m not going to protect you from the consequences of any insult you give.”
The lad grunted derisively. “Oh, please, twinsouled. Where I come from, superstitions—”
He staggered froward, Djinti having roundly slapped the back of his head. “If I remember rightly your reasons for fleeing your last lodge, I don’t care to hear any of their superstitions. Brother Ingvar has passed all the trials of manhood Shaath requires, which is more than you can say, pup. Be still while your elders talk. My apologies for the boy,” he added to Ingvar with a deep nod. “He has much to learn, and to un-learn.”
“None necessary,” Ingvar replied. “I’ve shepherded teenagers, too.”
Djinti smiled again, though the expression quickly faded. “I’m concerned to see that the Shadow Hunters spoke at least some truth, Brother. I’m not inclined to give them much credit, but the rest of what they said about you was… Troubling.”
“Oh?” Ingvar tilted his head back. “And what would that be?”
“The story I was fed is that you are traveling the land with your dryad companion, and now these others, trying to dig up ancient secrets from their lodges to discredit your own faith.”
“Is that how they put it,” he mused, narrowing his eyes.
“That’s a lie,” Tholi snapped.
“It’s a misrepresentation,” Aspen corrected. “You could argue that’s what we’ve been doing, but anybody who chose to put it that way is just trying to stir up trouble.”
“I was beginning to suspect it was something along those lines,” Djinti said, nodding. “You understand, Brother Ingvar, the threat of a heretic prowling my forests is something I have to address. Firmly. Perhaps you could explain what you have been doing, and shed some light on why the Shadow Hunters would try to maneuver you into conflict with my lodge?”
“As to that, I have absolutely no idea,” Ingvar said frankly. “Aspen and I have visited several Ranger enclaves over the last year. While their ways are a little strange by the standards of Huntsmen, I found them to be as hospitable as I would expect from any proper lodge, and generally not inclined to court trouble.”
“Well, those guys we met last night sure weren’t friendly,” said Taka. “You must’ve done something to set them off.”
“I wish I understood what,” Ingvar said, frowning.
“I wouldn’t concern myself too much with the opinions of people like that,” Djinti grunted. “What, then, have you been doing with them? These are heretics and degenerates, Brother. They have nothing to teach a true Huntsman of Shaath.”
“On the contrary,” Ingvar replied, “they know a great deal, Brother Djinti. The Rangers collect libraries and practice healing arts as well as walking the wild as we do. Their enclaves are like a proper lodge, mixed with an Omnist and a Nemitite temple. There’s a great deal a true Huntsman could learn from them—provided he doesn’t keep a mind so open his brain is in danger of falling out. I have been taking advantage of their collected knowledge, but I assure you, I do not uncritically accept anything said to me, by anyone. Most especially not someone with an obvious agenda.”
“Mm.” Djinti’s face had gone impassive again; his two fellow Huntsmen were likewise still and completely silent, while the two youths had grown increasingly fidgety the longer the conversation wore on. To someone familiar with Shaathist ways, they presented an image of carefully controlled aggression. “You are not reassuring me, Ingvar, especially as you have not answered my question. What do you seek to learn from the Shadow Hunters?”
Ingvar thought rapidly, keenly aware that every second that passed without him answering was just digging the hole deeper. He was better at politicking than most Huntsmen, which meant he understood very well the importance of not doing so with them. Shaathists would be offended by disingenuous doublespeak even more than outright lies.
And yet, the Rangers had put him in a real bind with this maneuver. In hindsight, he understood very well why Mary had led him on such a roundabout path to the truth. She had been completely right: there was zero chance of him accepting it had it simply been told to his face, and there was just as little chance of it here. Telling these men what he was up to would as good as confirm their suspicions. And they were right, of course; his goal was nothing less than heresy. Pointing out that their entire religion was the true heresy was not going to help his case.
It had to be truth, though, and not just because trying to weasel out of this would antagonize the local lodge. Ingvar had no idea, as yet, how he was going to introduce his new ideas to the Huntsmen as a whole, but that was the ultimate agenda. They had to know the truth, somehow. Throwing them off the scent was worse than useless, it would be progress in entirely the wrong direction.
This was the situation he was in, whatever he wanted. Sometimes nature sent you a juicy elk and the perfect companions for your quest; sometimes you got a squirrel and a group of suspicious Huntsmen.
“I set out from Tiraas guided by dreams,” he said. “Visions sent to me by Shaath.”
“You’re remarkably blessed, then,” Djinti said tonelessly.
“I resisted them for a long time for exactly that reason,” Ingvar agreed. “Who am I, anyway? The idea of an important destiny is no part of what I see for myself. Shaath did not relent, though, and eventually I had to obey. This quest has taken me places I could not have imagined—places I would have specifically refused to go, had I known in advance what was coming. Even now I do not feel that I am someone who deserves an important role in the world; all I want, all I have tried to be good for, is to walk the wilds and be of service to my lodge as it needs me. At every step, though, I keep being forcibly reminded that there are greater powers in this world, and that they expect me to serve as called. I’ve been guided on this quest by the shaman we know as Mary the Crow. And more recently, her younger kinsman,” he added, nodding to Rainwood, who made a face. “That makes two shaman of that line whose spirit guides have pushed them to give me guidance. I was led to Aspen, here, who is a companion I could never have expected to share a journey with. I’ve walked with elves, with the Rangers, with a green dragon and a kitsune of Sifan. Most recently,” he continued, turning to look at November, “and most surprisingly yet, I’ve been prompted by Avei to continue in this quest, the absolute last being whose input I expected, or would have asked for.”
“That’s a lot of eloquent justification,” Djinti said, “which continues not to tell me what you are doing.”
“What I am doing,” Ingvar said evenly, “is facing extremely difficult truths. That is the long and the short of it, Brother. The world is not as we were taught. I’ve learned things about the gods and about Shaath in particular that have shaken me to the foundations of my soul. I’m sorry for my roundabout way of speaking; I don’t intend to mislead. I am simply aware that baldly throwing a shocking truth in someone’s face invites revulsion and not much else. It has taken me all this time to come to grips with the things I have learned, and I still don’t truly know how to face them. I have even less idea how to go about telling anyone else. That is the answer I am trying to find.”
“With the Shadow Hunters,” Djinti said grimly.
“The Rangers, the elves, the University at Last Rock. The Bishop of the Thieves’ Guild, the Sarasio Kid… And now, you. I continue to be constantly surprised at the people I meet and the things I learn from them.”
“Well, perhaps you don’t give us enough credit,” Djinti suggested. “Tell me your frightening truth, Brother Ingvar, and we will see how repulsed I am.”
And there it was. He had already deflected too much, Ingvar realized; there was nothing for it but the plain facts, and whatever disaster he suspected would follow.
But a strange sensation had come over him, a feeling he knew well from other kinds of hunts. A prickling in the spine urging him into action; a certainty that something in him knew the right way to proceed, even if that thing was not his conscious mind. He might be more surprised than anyone by what he did next, but he had faith that it would be the right thing.
“Angthinor the Wise was a liar,” he said simply.
A stir rippled through the five of them. Samaan and one of the full Huntsmen bared teeth angrily; Djinti held up one hand to insist on calm from his fellows, though his attention remained fixed on Ingvar.
“Very well,” he said, “I see why you hesitated to just blurt that out. What, exactly, did the father of our organized faith lie about?”
“Very nearly everything,” Ingvar said, more nervous with each word but still trusting that feeling. “From the nature of wolves and women, to the nature of gods. I have been traveling the world asking questions of every ancient source I can find because the lore I was taught as a Huntsman contains almost nothing true. And the worst part is that I cannot even indulge my own desire to flee from this and go back to my simple life, because the corrupt state of the Huntsmen today has damaged our very god to the point that even Avei weeps for him. We must change, Brother. We must change everything.”
“You—” The Huntsman who had started to lunge forward came to a halt as Djinti again held up a hand.
“Then what the Shadow Hunters said was true,” the lodge master said quietly. “You’ve come here bringing heresy.”
“My brother,” Ingvar replied in just as soft a tone, “you have been raised in heresy. I come bringing the truth.”
Djinti sighed softly through his nose. “You know what I am forced to do with a heretic, Ingvar.”
All three of them drew arrows and nocked them. The light in the clearing shifted gold as November embraced the divine and Tholi drew an arrow of his own.
There it was. That prickle intensified; this was the defining moment. And suddenly, Ingvar understood what he needed to do.
“You’re not going to do anything,” he replied calmly. “You are caught between two of these lies I speak of, Brother, and can’t move in either direction. Because the way of the wild, as you were taught it, ultimately respects nothing but strength. And yet, the other lie insists that you cannot possibly be brought to heel by a man who hides behind a woman’s skirts. But here we are. Aspen?”
She stepped forward, grinning unpleasantly, and began systematically cracking her knuckles.
All five of the Shaathists widened their eyes; the three Huntsmen stepped back once, and Djinti elbowed Samaan back before he could open his mouth again.
“You’re not going to impress me by playing clever word games, Ingvar. I live in a world where warlocks and wizards exist; it isn’t news to me that an honorable man can be undone by unnatural powers.”
“Unnatural?” Ingvar shook his head. “Brother, do you hear yourself? What is more natural than a dryad?”
He let that hang in the air for a few seconds, watching Djinti’s expression darken and those of his companions grow more uncertain, before continuing.
“I can have your entire party—your entire lodge—demolished at a word, without raising a hand myself. You do not even dare to retaliate, because you know what Naiya will do if you so much as scratch my friend. So which is true, Brother Djinti? Is strength and dominance the only final truth? Or is it the place of a woman to submit and surrender?”
“You know well that different rules apply to the fae. And especially to a dryad!”
“But you are not contending with the dryad, Brother; she would take no interest in you at all, if not for me. You are dealing with a fellow Huntsman who lets her stand before him—and yet, still successfully holds your fate in his hand.”
“I can put an end to all this right now,” Djinti snarled, drawing back his arrow and aiming it right at Ingvar’s face. “Your dryad might well kill us all, but your heresy would be stillborn! That might be good enough.”
The expressions of the other four, particularly the two teens, suggested they didn’t necessarily agree with that analysis.
“You are angry, now,” Ingvar said calmly. “It is worth asking yourself why.”
“Enough of your mind games!”
“You are a man of honor and of action, Brother Djinti; if you deemed it justified to shoot me you would have done so, not told me about it. You respect strength and do not fear pain. Nothing here should disrupt the poise of a Hunstman of your rank except the thing I have already said: you are caught between the falsehoods of your doctrine in a way that forces you to confront them. And I know this outrage, Brother, believe me. I know it well. There is nothing more traumatic than having to face the fact that something fundamental to your very identity is false.”
Djinti loosed his arrow. November yelled and Aspen took a step forward, but neither Rainwood nor his spirits intervened. The shaft whistled past Ingvar’s ear to disappear into the foliage behind him. There was no way a hunter of Djinti’s experience could have missed that shot, at that range, unless he had wanted to.
“This is what I bring you,” Ingvar said, taking one deliberate step forward. “I bring pain. The rites of the Huntsmen send us out to face the worst the wild has to offer. Privation, danger, struggle, suffering—because it is by enduring it that we prove we are men, and grow stronger. I bring you a pain like nothing you have ever known, a pain of the mind and the soul, not the body. I’ve been sent to reach into your life and claw away the lies that form every comforting thing you think you know. You’ll suffer for this, Brother; we all will. But just as with any of our rites, those who have the strength within them to endure will emerge from this tribulation wiser and stronger than you could have imagined before.”
He took another step. As one, all five took two steps back from him.
“What I offer you is far worse than heresy, my brothers: I offer you truth. I can promise you two things. Before this is done, you will hate me. And when it is done, you will thank me.”
The Huntsmen continued to retreat, all of them looking uncertainly to Djinti now.
“You’ve called down hell on your own head, Ingvar,” Djinti said, clutching his bow as if for comfort. “I must send to the Grandmaster himself about this. You’ll be the prey of a Wild Hunt before this month is done.”
“Call them, then,” Ingvar replied. “The truth will break them, just as it broke me. But I emerged from my breaking stronger. Will you?”
Djinti held his gaze a moment longer, then finally turned and loped off into the forest, his fellow Huntsmen following. In seconds, even the sound of their passage was gone.
Taka let out a long, low whistle.
“That,” Ingvar said quietly, frowning after the departed Huntsmen, “was far too easy.”
“Easy?” November said incredulously. “You thought that was easy? I thought somebody was gonna die!”
“A simple rhetorical trick shouldn’t have so ensnared him,” Ingvar murmured, eyes narrowed in deep thought. “I have dealt with far too many faithful of many different faiths to believe they would be so easily cowed. Unless…”
“Unless?” Aspen prompted after he trailed off.
Ingvar turned back around to face the rest of the group. “Unless he, and the rest of them, were already primed for it. If they were already grappling with uncomfortable questions, then I could see that small reminder pushing them over the precipice.”
“I keep telling you,” Rainwood said with an amused little smile, “the spirits know what they’re doing. As, in my experience, does Avei. There’s reason all this is coming to a head right now, and right here. I suspect we haven’t begun to learn the full reason yet.”
Ingvar drew in a deep breath and then let it out in a rush, expelling some of the accumulated tension. “Well. If nothing else, that also helps pin down our next step. I want to have a talk with those Rangers, and this time I don’t mean to politely back away if they get shirty. That little ploy was entirely uncalled for.”
“Not to mention downright weird,” Tholi added. “Shadow Hunters approaching Huntsmen that way is just… I never even heard of such a thing. Why the hell is it so important to those clowns to get rid of us?”
“It’s like he said,” November murmured. “If you confront people with a truth they don’t like, they get really nasty.”
“Time enough for that tomorrow,” Ingvar decided. “For now, we hunt.”
“Yes!” Tholi grinned. “We’ll teach them to mess with us!”
“No, Tholi,” he said patiently, “I mean we literally hunt. Two rabbits and a squirrel will not feed six people, especially when one eats like Aspen.”
“I’m glad you said it and not me,” the dryad agreed. “Apparently it’s unseemly for me to want stuff, even if it’s just food.”
“The word is ‘greedy,’” Taka said helpfully.
“Rainwood,” said Ingvar, “please stay here with the girls. Tholi, Aspen, we’ll go bring down some proper game. It shouldn’t be too terribly difficult once we’re not shepherding two neophyte hunters; I’ve seen evidence of a lot of deer in these woods. And that way, there’s one person with each group who neither Huntsmen nor Rangers will be likely to challenge even if they decide to do something rash.”
“Speaking of that,” said November, “this Wild Hunt business sounds…serious. How worried should we be, exactly?”
“For today,” Ingvar said firmly, “we will address the immediate needs of survival. And then, very soon, we are going to have to deal with the question of who is going to be the hunter, and who the prey.”