Chapter 5

Evening crawled in at a snail’s pace, the sky slow to darken. Riss wasn’t in a strict taskmaster kind of mood; when Torcha and Calay suggested a hunt she let them go. In the meantime she made camp with Adal and Vosk.

When the time came to see the Baron’s soldiers and the horses off, Riss waved them off. She watched the small herd of animals and their shepherds ride away down the road, and once the sound of hoofbeats receded into the twilight, something felt… different.

Adal seemed to feel it too. He stepped a little closer to her and put a hand to her arm.

“I can tell you’re thinking what I’m thinking,” he said.

Riss curled up a smirk. “Oh? What am I thinking, Mister Altave?”

Adal’s voice held a subdued, pensive quality. “That this now feels much further away from the glow of civilization than the map says.”

… That was a closer approximation than she would have given him credit for. She grunted, an admission.

“It’s less how far we are now and more how far it’s going to feel when we’re four days on foot into the marsh.” She turned away from the road and walked back toward their campsite, passing by the dozens of spent and scattered fires.

The only real route into the marsh, if you could call it that, lay upon the same crossroads where they made their camp. A faint trail wound through the sparse trees, venturing deeper if one knew where to look. Vosk had directed them to its trailhead and they’d camped not far away.

Riss made herself busy: checked on the moa, unfurled her bedroll beside the tents, set to building the fire. Just as she unhitched her hatchet from her pack, Adal emerged from the woods, arms laden with kindling and branches. He’d beaten her to it. Of course he had.

Together, they dug a shallow firepit and built a pyramid of kindling. Riss unpacked her firestarter kit and chipped flint against the fire-steel until it sparked. As her hands worked the shard of flint and the small steel cylinder, the world seemed to melt away. She and Adal could have been sitting by any fire at any time, years in the past or years in the future. Something about the clink of flint on steel and the smell of fresh kindling and the tickle of smoke, it all became a gateway to another time and place. Every other time and place.

“Are you hungry?” Adal asked, clearing his throat. Riss blinked.

“Of course I’m hungry,” she said. “We’ve been riding all day.”

Reaching into his satchel, Adal produced a small apple. Its skin was waxy and shiny, striated pink and red. Some local variety Riss didn’t know the name of. She took the fruit in hand and smiled her thanks.

Adal busied himself with the fire, stoking it and adding progressively thicker branches. As he settled onto the bedroll beside hers, he spoke to Riss in a quiet, offhand way:

“You’re doing fine.”

The words were like a crossbow bolt. She shivered. Am I?

He knew. He somehow always knew.

The apple was tart, its flesh crisp. It made one’s teeth work for their reward, and eating it proved to be a much needed distraction from her thoughts. When Torcha, Gaz, and Calay tromped back into camp whooping triumphantly, lifeless swamp hens dangling from their hands, Riss was grateful for the noise.

###

Swamp hen wasn’t exactly a well-known delicacy. Riss had eaten it before–in the field, one couldn’t be picky–and found it nothing special. But she hadn’t had Deel swamp-dweller wisdom on her side in the past, and whatever Vosk had done to the birds was nothing short of extraordinary.

Riss tore chunks of flavorful dark meat off the bird’s thigh, each bite tender and tangy. Vosk had stewed the birds in some sort of broth that was mostly vinegar, a technique Riss had never heard of, and it had turned the tough, tasteless game tender and moreish. They ate the birds over sweet potatoes, digging in with such enthusiasm that conversation around the fire ground to a halt.

Finally, Riss broke the silence with a heavy sigh. She slouched back onto her bedroll and set the plate of picked-clean bones aside.

“Well,” she said. “If you cook like that every night, I don’t know if Baron Tarn will get you back.”

Vosk chuckled modestly, licking some sauce off his thumb.

With the fire burnt down to coals, the campsite glowed with a rosy red-orange color. Beyond the fire’s reach, the forest wasn’t terribly dark. A half moon and scattered stars gave light enough to see by. Enjoy it while it lasts, Riss thought.

“I hate to disrupt the mood…” Calay’s voice was muted, thoughtful. “But you were there, weren’t you?” He was looking at Vosk. Vosk seemed to take a moment to process the specifics of what you were there meant, but then he nodded.

Calay sought out Riss now, speaking with a lift of his palms. He was a constant gesturer, she’d noticed, a man who spoke with his hands as much as his mouth.

“I feel like Gaz and I are a little late to the party with what actually happened.” He sat cross-legged, regarding Riss across the fire. “And given we’re marching into that marsh tomorrow…” He trailed off, inviting Riss with a lift of his eyebrows.

He had a point.

She’d been sparing with details on the job listing. And Tarn had been sparing with details in his original letter to her. It was the old army way of doing things: everything that happened was on a need-to-know basis and the grunts didn’t need to know until they were just about in the thick of it. She’d planned on giving a more formal briefing when they entered the marsh proper.

Beside her, Adal pulled a face, his eyes narrowing at Calay. She twitched her hand a little, a tiny gesture meant to stave him off. Relax, the man’s asked a valid question.

They weren’t in the army anymore. Apart from the fact that she and Adal were the bosses, there wasn’t much of a hierarchy in place. Everyone had their assigned job. Everyone had their expertise. No one sitting at this particular fire was expendable cannon fodder.

“You aren’t that late to the party,” Riss told the man. She shifted her attention to Vosk. “In fact, I have yet to hear a first person account, myself.”

Vosk seemed to take that as a cue. He sniffed, then reached into his coat pocket. Withdrawing a small steel flask, he unscrewed the cap.

“Happy to tell you all I know, although I admit things are a little jumbled.” He took a nip from the flask and offered it aside to Gaz and Calay, who both shook their heads. Torcha, sat on the other side of him, accepted.

Riss reclined back and listened. She declined the flask when it made its way to her. Adal declined as well, possibly just following her lead.

Firelight played across Vosk’s features as he turned his head, staring off toward the trailhead for a time. Riss took a moment to study him. That cold, closed-off quality she’d sensed in him on the road had opened up some when he’d cooked their supper, but now he seemed to retreat again, as if he were less turning to look at the trailhead and more turning himself away from the fire.

“I don’t know how much you all know about the wood here,” he said at last.

Torcha cleared her throat. “I grew up outside Semmer’s Mill.” A small town a ways up the river, closer to the Deel than Riss’s hometown, at least. When Vosk didn’t speak up immediately, Torcha continued:

“You hear all kinds of stories about the woods.” She took a tiny sip from the flask. “Hunters that go in and don’t come back out. Witches living in bogs that are just as likely to eat you as grant you wishes.”

Vosk shook his head.

“Not the woods. The wood.” He grasped a small twig and twirled it between his fingers. “The Crawling Wood, they call it. That’s the place and the trees both.” Vosk braced the twig between his thumb and two fingers, then snapped it. “Trees grow different in the Crawling Wood. It’s tough to explain. You may have seen some examples at the castle, Riss. Strange grains, trees that aren’t seen anywhere else in the land.”

She did recall the gleaming, dark-veined wood of Tarn’s many bookshelves.

“Local legend has it that at some point in the distant past, something happened there. Back when the forest was druid homeland.”

Torcha chimed in with a quiet snort. “So back when druids were supposedly real.”

Riss gave her a look, mouth flat. Let the man continue.

“Look,” said Vosk, to Torcha. “Regardless of your views on druids, or magick, or any of the like. Everyone knows there are places where things are just… different. Wells of power. Or…” He seemed to fumble for the correct word for a moment. “Corruption.”

The word traced icy fingers up Riss’s spine.

“The groves in the Crawling Wood got corrupted somehow, way back when. And now they sort of… grow together.” Vosk set his jaw then, a fine line of tension standing out upon his throat. He shifted, drawing his shoulders a little tighter in. “They call it braidwood or meldwood. And it is extremely, extremely valuable. A good haul of meldwood sold to the right buyer feeds a man’s family for half a year.”

Tarn may not have been a man with an appetite for luxury, but he’d know a valuable resource when confronted with one. It made sense that Tarn would try to secure that trade, especially now that he had a castle to pay for.

“The Baron sends regular parties for it,” said Vosk. “Three or four a year, usually. We don’t go near the Wood during the rainy season. It’s too unpredictable. But any other time, well.” There was a tic at the corner of Vosk’s mouth, Riss noticed. Subtle but present. His lip twitched.

“The Baron put his son, Lukra, in charge of the expeditions. And whatever you might think about nobility glad-handling their kiddies through their first jobs, this wasn’t that. Lukra Gullardson was a skilled logger. He had a real eye for the marsh, too. Before the war, the old Duke, his logging parties lost double the men Lukra’s did.”

Tarn was hardly nobility. But Riss kept that thought to herself. It was clear her old commander had made a name for himself as a highblood in these parts.

“It was an uneventful expedition. We went five days in. No problems with snakes or bugs. Nobody got sick. We could hear the panthers howling some nights but they leave groups our size well enough alone.” Vosk seemed to grind his teeth a moment. That tic twitched at his lips again. “I’m still not sure whether we were tracked in or whether they stumbled across us and our cargo by accident. Bandits. I never saw how many. It’s all a little scrambly from here on out. They jumped us after nightfall. They had guns.”

Vosk pursed his mouth and let out an annoyed breath.

“In broad daylight it would have been nothing we couldn’t handle. But they caught us with our trousers down. They wanted our haul. Forced us all onto our knees. Took our birds and most of our supplies. We knew we couldn’t track them in the dark, so Lukra waited until dawn. He ordered three of us back home, to inform the Baron what had happened. He said if they couldn’t dredge up the thieves, they’d be back in a matter of days.”

Riss knew the story from there.

“Has there been any sign of them at all?” Calay spoke up after a few moments. His brows knit.

“Baron Tarn sent two separate scouting parties, but they haven’t turned up a scrap. No evidence of Lukra’s loggers, or a bandit camp. Nothing.” Vosk shrugged. “It’s possible they became lost. Or were overpowered by the bandits. Or perhaps they ran into something worse. I’ve seen what those trees can do.”

“What the trees can do?” This time it was Adal.

“Aye, sir.” Vosk looked Adal in the eye, and there was a minute shift in his face. The tic at the corner of his lips, Riss realized, had been anger held back. And it vanished when creeping traces of fear sneaked in.

“The meldwood doesn’t just meld with wood, if you get what I’m saying. They call it meldwood because it’ll meld with anything it touches. Other trees. Animals. Men.”

Stifling silence fell over the camp. The fire alone crackled.

“Some of the trees are more awake than others. They’ll seek out movement, heat, however it is they find people. It’s like they want to absorb things. Like they’re feeding.” He hid it well, but Riss could smell the residue of withheld trauma. It gleamed on some folks like sweat. Perhaps because it took one to know one.

“That’s why they call it the Crawling Wood.” Vosk’s voice lost some volume. “Because at night, sometimes, you can hear the trees moving. Little creaks and cracks like someone’s walking toward your camp, but you look up and no one’s there. The three of us Lukra sent back…” He paused. When he finally spoke again, Riss could tell the words he chose weren’t the first that came to mind. He’d sifted through them, each word spoken with care.

“We’re lucky the trees only got one of us on the way home.”

###

Riss had faced worse things than walking, hungry trees. Hadn’t she?

With each breath, she felt herself drawing closer and closer to sleep. Yet she couldn’t quite get there, jolted into semi-consciousness by little hypnic jerks and every creaking branch on the wind. She hated to admit it, but Vosk’s story had spooked her.

Little puff-snort snores drifted over from one of the other bedrolls. Torcha.

“That’s my cue,” Riss muttered to herself. She could fall asleep once the others did. It didn’t make any logical sense, she knew, but she hated being the first to drift off. Old superstition from her new-boots days.

“It is a rather soothing sound.”

Riss jolted at the voice, snapping her head to the side. Adal lay on his side, tucked up under a blanket, his back to her. She hadn’t realized he was awake.

“Can you believe this shit.” Riss shifted so that she was facing Adal’s back. He was visible as a slumped silhouette in the half-light of leftover coals. “Murderous trees.”

“Mm.” Adal was silent for a beat. “And to think I gave up a riverboat empire for the honor.”

“You’re mad.” Riss ducked deeper down into her blanket, smothering a yawn in her forearm.

“You’re worse.”

The retort was so juvenile Riss could only chuckle until it tapered off into a yawn.

The night passed without incident. She woke to the sounds and smells of someone fixing breakfast.

<< Chapter 4 | Chapter 6 >>

Chapter 4

Later, Riss would wonder if the dog was some kind of omen. When she first set eyes on it, though, it wasn’t anything special.

Their ride out of town was an uneventful one, horses clopping along at an unhurried pace. They’d be camping at least one night before entering the heavy marshland and it was less than a full day’s ride, so no need to rush. The ride gave Riss a chance to gather her thoughts and to observe her new hires. Calay and Torcha had settled in to riding two abreast, conversing as much as one could while riding. Adal rode slightly behind her, alone with his private thoughts. Gaz, the big fellow, he’d fallen back and was chit-chatting to the porters.

As they descended Adelheim’s hill toward the lowlands, the landscape changed quickly. Gone were the signs of a settlement on the rebound, the smell of fresh sawdust and the sounds of hammers. Past Adelheim’s immediate reach, nobody had bothered to clean up after the war passed through. They rode past razed farms, burnt shacks, structures that had been so thoroughly demolished she couldn’t even guess at their original purpose. The northerners hadn’t fucked around. Anyone who didn’t submit and pay fealty was forcibly removed, and if the occupiers had no use for what got left behind, they left nothing but rubble.

So when Riss first rounded a bend and spied a tall, shaggy-furred dog sniffing by the roadside, her first thought was wow, he’s been living on his own a while if this used to be home. The dog–the first living thing they’d seen since leaving Adelheim–glanced up as the riders approached, lifting its big square-muzzled face. It sniffed the air, then threw its head back and loosed a pair of resounding barks.

The horses certainly weren’t dog-shy; they just kept on walking. Torcha gave the dog a wave as they passed.

Rather than staying put, the dog fell into stride, hustling a little to pace Riss’ horse at the lead then settling into an easy heel.

“Well you’re well-trained,” Riss said, glancing downward. She wasn’t entirely sure what to do. But in the end, since it wasn’t getting in the way, she didn’t see the point in wasting time and energy to shoo it. It would wander off on its own eventually.

“Looks to me as though you’ve made a friend,” called Adal from behind her. Riss laughed so low he likely didn’t hear it.

“More like a hanger-on.” Her tone was good-naturedly teasing. “I seem to acquire those.”

She didn’t see Adal’s reaction, but she imagined the look on his face well enough: that little pinched blink he made when he was annoyed, then a roll of his eyes.

Below her, the dog’s ears pricked. It picked up its pace, then broke into a loping run and took off down the road. Riss couldn’t tell what prompted it.

“Friendship is fleeting,” Adal said as he watched it go.

The forest grew more dense, the trees more pressing as they continued. Curtains of moss draped from twisted, cracked branches that bore the starts of budding new growth. The air had a moist, humid density to it. These sorts of murky, mushy places were always a little more humid than Riss liked.

Who ruins a perfectly good castle by building it in a swamp. The memory, a fleeting snatch of Gaspard’s voice, whistled past her ears like a gunshot. There and gone again. The impact of it felt like a gunshot, too. Riss squared her shoulders and set her eyes on the road ahead, focusing on the horizon. It was then that she noticed the rider ahead.

“Rider approaching,” she called over her shoulder. Not that she expected anyone to come of it. There were dangers on the road, of course, but bandits would be suicidal to attack a group this size. Especially a group plain as day outfitted as mercenaries.

The rider turned out to be riders plural: a lightly-armored man on a big roan horse and a pair of footsoldiers behind him. All wore the deep green cloaks of Baron Tarn’s garrison. The dog burst out of the underbrush and circled the lead horse, yipping twice. The lead rider loosed a sharp whistle and the dog padded slowly beside him, coming to a halt when his horse did. It plopped down on its ass in the dust, tail wagging.

The riders waited for Riss’ party to approach. As she rode up, slowing her own horse in the process, she searched their cloaks and the breasts of their jerkins for some sort of rank insignia but didn’t spy any. Not that the lack of such meant much–she wasn’t sure the local garrison even bothered with that sort of thing, beyond the fellow in the nice plate is probably an officer.

“You must be Riss Chou and company.”

She sized up the man on the roan. He wasn’t big, but the way he held himself in the saddle and the way the men at his flank sat utterly silent lent him a presence that made up for it. He was blond, broad-faced, hale. Blandly symmetrically handsome, if she thought on it for long. The Baron’s envoy. It had to be.

“And you are?” She put on a smile. The sound of hoofbeats gradually wound to a close as everyone stalled.

“Harlan Vosk.” He nodded by way of introduction. “Lieutenant of the Adelheim Garrison. I’ve been sent as assistance, and my men here will help the porters get the horses back to town.”

He sure didn’t look like a Harlan. Harlan was a friendly-sounding name, and despite the smile he gave her she couldn’t sense a degree of warmth radiating from the man.

“Appreciated,” she said. Vosk glanced past her.

“Uneventful trip?”

Everyone nodded and mumbled. Riss doubted he could hear anything they said, given the distance.

“I’ve been to the crossroads already.” Vosk gestured to a small crossbow hooked to his saddlebags. “Since we made good time, thought we’d have a sniff about for deer.”

“Any luck?” Riss didn’t see any carcasses slung across their saddles, but it seemed the polite thing to ask.

“Luck doesn’t stop by here very often.” Vosk chuckled ruefully, then glanced over his shoulder, further up the road. “I suppose we may as well get on. Call the hunt a bust. We’re well-provisioned. I’m not worried.”

“The Baron has been generous,” said Riss, unsure exactly how formal to be. She had no idea what Tarn had told his staff of her, if anything. She played it safe.

“Moving out,” Riss called to the group. “The Baron’s envoy will accompany us. Good to know the road’s clear.”

They set off down the well-worn path, two groups joined as one. The dog circled the riders some ways off, not seeming bothered by the distance. Vosk must have noticed her looking, because he spoke up without being asked.

“That’s Eight,” he said, nodding down toward the hound as it loped alongside Calay’s horse.

“Eight?” Riss tilted her head. Weird name for a dog.

“He’s the eighth dog in the Baron’s tracker stable.” Vosk lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I’m sure the trainers have given him a more familiar name, but I don’t know it.”

Hell of a name for a dog. Riss kept riding.

 

###

 

Of all the things Riss had lost when Gaspard died, she missed her sense of competence the most. In better days, when leading a hunt back in her hometown or leading her scouts behind enemy lines, Riss had a damn grip on herself. She had a keenly-developed sense of her own abilities, an internal bullshit barometer that rarely failed her. Since leading her mentor, their clients, and the last of her employees into that disaster of an ambush, she felt so unsure all the time.

And that’s what rankled her as she rode along, making good time toward the crossroads. Something about this job had her hackles up. But she wasn’t sure if she could trust herself. Were her instincts really tugging at her, or was she just being overcautious? She’d been nervous as a gun-shy horse her first few jobs after Gaspard’s death. While the jitters had settled some, they hadn’t settled entirely.

At least it didn’t seem to show on her face. Small victories.

The road southwest out of Adelheim terminated bluntly in a crossroads, intersecting with the main north-south thoroughfare through the lowlands. They reached it with plenty of daylight to spare. A cursory examination of the road dust told Riss no wagon traffic had been through.

She left Adal in charge of organizing the porters and the horses, unpacking her own saddle and heaving her bags onto her shoulder. Stepping off the road and into the scrub, she searched for a suitable spot to make camp.

Small, twisty-trunked softwood trees sprouted irregularly from the red, iron-rich soil. All the larger trees this close to the road were stumps, dotting the landscape like big lumpy scars left over after some sort of illness. Good enough metaphor for a war, Riss figured. The war effort needed wood, so large chunks of the forest astride most major roads had been felled.

The lack of foliage made for piss-poor shelter while camping. And piss-poor cover, too. Riss could see the remnants of every campsite the road had hosted in months. Little heaps of ash, leftover stunted logs for seating, scraps of tallow and a few bones and hoofs.

“This place is a mess,” Riss muttered.

“It’s bad luck is why,” chirped a female voice from beside her. Riss’ shoulders twitched. She mostly suppressed the urge to jump entirely out of her skin.

Turning sideways, she narrowed an eye at Torcha, who had materialized beside her like a puny ginger ghost.

“Don’t do that,” said Riss.

“Do what, boss?”

Torcha was chewing on a stalk of fan grass, peering up at Riss sidelong like a chastened schoolkid. She was about the height of one, too. Riss almost said sneak up on me aloud but decided to drop it. It’s possible Torcha hadn’t been skulking. Maybe she’d just been too far lost up her own thoughts to hear her.

“Nothing. What’s bad luck?”

Torcha looped a slender finger through the air, drawing a little curlicue that indicated some of the spent fires that littered the roadside.

“It’s bad luck in these parts to make camp where someone else has. They say building a fire on the ashes of another is like uh, building something on a bad foundation.” The tilt of Torcha’s drawl tended more toward observation than fervent belief, Riss noted.

“But making camp right next to a hundred other camps is fine so long as the fires don’t touch?” Riss had to laugh.

“Peasant superstition, bosslady.” Torcha hefted her narrow shoulders in a shrug, hands upturning. “Don’t ask me.”

Stomping over grass and ash alike, Riss kept an eye out for a suitably flat patch of ground. As she strayed further from the road, she found herself looking for spots with a polite few meters’ distance from the closest aged campsites. Ridiculous. Yet once the suggestion was in her head…

A sudden flood of excitable, high-pitched barking sounded from the road. Riss turned her head just in time to watch a grey-brown blur streak off down the roadside and into a patch of undergrowth. Eight the dog, bounding away to where the forest thickened.

Vosk loped up seconds later, chasing after the hound as quick as a lightly-armored human could.

“That-a-way,” said Torcha, jerking her thumb.

Rather than continuing on, Vosk paused a beat. “He’s never done this before,” he said, brows furrowed.

Riss glanced off into the bush. It wasn’t typical behavior for a tracker dog to sprint off into nowhere like that. Was it possible he’d scented something? That seemed so unlikely, so coincidental…

But she’d had that weird feeling, that strange uncertain itch in her gut. It had been pulling at her a few hours now.

Ah, what the hell. Riss gave chase.

 

###

 

Chasing after a dog on foot sounded easier than it was. Bounding along, Riss could only run in the vague direction she’d seen Eight run. Torcha and Vosk hurried behind her, the clunk of the latter’s armor obvious. A bark rang out; Riss veered toward it. Dead twigs and leaves crunched under her boots. She noticed in a peripheral blur that the tree cover was back. Taller, twiggier, gnarled old trees that had made it through the war rose up around her, obstacles in her path which she ducked and weaved with ease.

A clearing broke into view and she slowed, spotting the dog in the center of it. The dog and… something moving.

Flies. A living carpet of them. As the dog charged up, they lifted in unison, moving like a single living organism for a moment until they dispersed. As they cleared, Riss spied what they’d been resting upon: the bloated remains of a horse, tangled in some roots.

Eight lurched forward on all four big paws, yipping excitedly. He didn’t quite alert in the same way Riss’ old dogs had, but the change in posture was enough. He thought he was leading them to something they’d been searching for.

“Not quite, ol’ boy,” Riss said as she took a few steps closer. Not too close, though, as the stench wasn’t pleasant. She couldn’t see a saddle on the horse, but that didn’t mean much. Bandits would have made off with that in a heartbeat.

Pacing through the clearing, Riss kept to the perimeter of it, eyes sweeping over the ground. The dog, seeing her disinterest in the horse, followed her. Vosk thundered up and into view, letting out a displeased ugh.

At the very edge of the clearing, Eight whuffed and shot in a straight line toward a particular tree. Riss followed, watching the dog’s body language.

Around the other side of a half-rotted trunk, she found the body. She presumed it was the rider of the horse based on nothing but proximity. He–well, it, the gender was indiscernible–sat upright, slouched against the tree with its head lolled onto its shoulder. It had been there for some time, most of the flesh withered away to husk and bone and hair. It was wearing studded leathers. The sort of cheap, easily-produced armor common to these parts provided one could afford more than rags.

But as disrespectful as it was, it wasn’t really the body that caught Riss’ eye. At least not in and of itself.

Coiled around the corpse’s neck, thrust up through some tatty holes in the linen cloak it wore, a flowering vine bloomed. The thickly-slithered thing was the size of Riss’ wrist in diameter, with deep purple blossoms that sprouted off it at random intervals. It snaked out along the roots of the tree, bathing the area immediately around the body in purple blooms.

Someone had suffered horribly here, but it was breathtakingly beautiful all the same.

“Well I’ll be damned,” said Torcha from behind Riss’ shoulder. “Ain’t that the prettiest thing.”

Riss rubbed at her chin. The old battlefield desensitization did her no favors when she tried to tell herself this might be a crime scene.

“You know,” she said to Torcha, “it really is.”

That odd itch in her belly only intensified. She stood there in the clearing for some time, admiring the corpse and its many flowers amid the shafts of sunlight that plunged through the trees. The dog’s whining finally broke her spell.

“What kind of luck do you think the peasants would call this?” she finally asked.

At her side, Torcha bent down and plucked a flower from the corpse’s brow.

“I reckon it’s good luck for us.” Torcha’s tone was definitive. She tucked the flower into the folds of her headscarf. “You always said I looked good in purple.”

<< Chapter 3 | Chapter 5 >>

Chapter 3

Calay Maunet sat upon a heavy wooden fence, puffing a stick of sliproot and gazing at the stars. Gaz loomed beside him, a bearlike silhouette backlit by distant torches. After an uninspired supper of stew and root vegetables they’d retired out to the yard, ostensibly to discuss the upcoming job. There hadn’t been much discussing though. Just a lot of smoking and wary silence.

“You still feeling good about this gig?” he asked Gaz with a tilt of his head. Gaz shrugged a single, quiet time.

“Suppose it’s too late to back out now.” Calay answered his own question and took another puff off his smoke. He’d cut the root with a bit of clove, both for flavor and to take the edge off the sedative effect. What it produced instead of sedation was now a mild, comforting drowsiness that calmed the scramble of his thoughts and made the stars twinkle just a little brighter. For the third time that evening, he offered the little cigarette to Gaz.

“I told you,” said Gaz, his voice a deep, amused rumble. “I don’t have trouble falling asleep.”

“Would that we could all be so lucky.” Calay rolled his eyes, though the dim lighting likely made it all for naught.

“You won’t have trouble falling asleep either, as of tomorrow.”

Calay grunted at that. “Yes, marching oneself through a marsh on foot tends to have the happy side effect of exhaustion.”

Gaz shifted in his lean against the fencepost. He peered sideways to Calay, the craggy blocks of his face visible in profile.

“If this contract is giving you so much grief, why take it?”

Of course he’d ask that. Like taking any work in their particular situation was a bad idea. Calay slouched over some. Fleeting desire swept through him to lean over so far that his head ker-plunked onto Gaz’s shoulder. The fur trim on his jacket looked so cozy.

All right, perhaps he’d double the cut of clove the next time he rolled smokes.

“It’s a calculated risk,” he said, trying to sound less stoned than he felt.

“So’s everything.” Gaz could be a man of few words at times, but those few he did speak had a way of getting under Calay’s skin like fishhooks.

“I know so is everything,” he snapped. “But this is a calculated risk I think we should take on purpose.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts, reeling them in.

“This particular company run by Riss Chou. It’s a good risk. She has a reputation. Or well, the company does. It isn’t all hers. But it’s a known name and she’s running it now. Captain of the Baron’s garrison says the Baron rode home specially to meet her. Soon as I heard that, I figured it was our ticket.”

Their ticket to what, exactly, Calay still hadn’t worked out. What they needed a ticket to was less important than what they needed a ticket away from. Though this was a one-contract job, Calay hoped to finagle a way onto the woman’s roster of mercenaries in a more lasting capacity. It was the cover he and Gaz needed for a while, until things blew over at home.

If things blew over at home.

“It’s a good plan,” said Gaz.

“It was your plan,” Calay reminded him.

“The basics were mine.” Gaz lifted a hint of a smile, barely visible in the half-light. “You filled in the details.”

They made a good pair. That was, Calay supposed, why they still drew breath. Who knew how many Guard back home were looking for them. And who cared, anyway. Home was a long way off. Home was a couple hundred miles and a whole war zone away.

“You think she picked up on our accents?” he asked, absently curious. He wasn’t sure exactly how the war had affected the mercenary types this far south. He’d stayed out of the whole thing.

“Undoubtedly.” Gaz shrugged again. “But she didn’t say anything.”

This far into the marshlands, anyone from Vasile–Calay and Gaz’s hometown–was considered a northerner. And northerners were the ones who started the war, you see. Peasants were stupid. They didn’t understand nuance. Calay could have sat them down and told them that he was no more a Narlish invader than they were South Coast fisher tribes, but it was a lost cause. The fact that Vasile hadn’t contributed a single soldier to the war didn’t matter.

Fortunately for Calay–if unfortunately for the locals–the region appeared to still be in a state of turmoil. His and Gaz’s weren’t the only Vasa accents he’d heard since arriving in town. And Riss and her people certainly weren’t locals. Hellpits, even the Baron was a mountain man.

The Deel Valley seemed like a good place to disappear for a while. Until Calay got word somehow that it was safe to slither back home.

“You hungry?” Gaz asked, absently fishing an apple from his satchel.

“Not particularly.” Calay tapped ash off his smoke on the fence post. “Sliproot is also an appetite suppressant.”

Gaz smoothed a hand over his bald head with a snort. “Suppose that’s why you look the way you do.”

Lurching more upright, Calay squinted at his childhood friend in the murk. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

But he knew what it meant. The pair of them could not have looked less alike if it had been deliberate. Gaz was a rock-hard beef tower; Calay liked to think of himself as having a swimmer’s build. That sounded better than lean and approximately three-quarters Gaz’s height. Gaz kept his head shaved to stubble; Calay wore his silver-blond hair in a tidy ear-length cut, parted to the side as was fashionable back home. Gaz had that hideous face tattoo. Calay’s features were as yet unsullied. Gaz’s face had also been sullied by fists, boots, and a brick or two over the years, treatment that Calay had mercifully been spared despite running wild in the same slums.

“It means you should eat an apple,” said Gaz.

Calay swept a couple fingers up and flipped him a lewd gesture. He toked the last worthwhile bit off his cigarette, then ground the paper out on the fencepost. He held the smoke in for a moment, then exhaled in a vaporous billow. Gazing up at the stars through his smoke, he took a moment to marvel at just how many there were.

“You don’t see stars like this in Vasile.” Gaz’s voice was a low, pensive murmur.

“Please stop reading my mind. You’ll run into something horrible.” Calay hopped down off the fence post and shrugged his duster higher up his shoulders, burrowing into the collar of it.

“Something horrible or just something crude?”

“Probably both.”

Gaz lumbering along at his side, Calay set off across the grass to the beckoning warmth and light of the inn’s interior.

 

###

 

The quantity, the concentration, and the combination of substances Calay imbibed before bed never seemed to make a difference. Despite the comfortable woolen cloud he’d smoked up around himself, sleep remained elusive.

Snores rumbled from many of the bunkroom’s occupied beds, Gaz’s among them. Never let it be said that man has a guilty conscience, Calay mused. Gaz could sleep through anything. Not that his own conscience was the thing that prodded him awake at night. He suspected his insomnia was hereditary, as much as he understood such things could be. It had been a constant companion since his childhood, an ally on the mean streets where an ill-timed nap could be the difference between life and death.

Well it was an ally no longer. Like many childhood friends, it had turned against him when the right opportunity came along. That’s how kids in gangs were, though, weren’t they. Insomnia was just another initiate among the ranks who’d sell its closest friend to the Guard for a chance at being the boss.

You’ll want to be well-rested in the morning, a little voice in the back of his head reminded him. As if he’d forgotten the looming prospect of a day of marsh trekking.

Temptation, like insomnia, was a constant companion of Calay’s. Presently that temptation reminded him that a sound night’s sleep was only a glyph away. A quickly-sketched sign in the right admixture could put him down for as many hours as he required, were it not for the fact that using blood magick on something as minor as sleeplessness was insane. Even if blood magick weren’t illegal in these parts–he wasn’t sure on the finer points of Sunnish law–all it would take was the wrong superstitious prick spotting dried blood on his pillow. Then he and Gaz would be fleeing another district. Presuming he got away with all the necessary body parts to run.

Somewhere in the middle of imagining all that, sleep grabbed him and pulled him under. Working his way through what-if nightmare scenarios had become such a routine part of everyday existence that the exercise soothed his mind into slumber. Maybe this is what it feels like when normal people talk about meditating, he wondered before drifting off.

 

###

 

Calay is unsure how many days he has spent in the dark.

The cell is five paces long and just under three wide. Apart from the door and a few high slots for ventilation, the old stone walls are featureless. They are ancient and cold, old as Vasile’s foundations. The palace jails are a new experience for him, and frankly he thought there would be something to differentiate them from the others. But no. A cell is a cell is a cell when one is hungry and sore.

He wants to say it’s been two days because they’ve fed him twice, but he knows the guards at St. Loyorda’s like to fuck with the prisoners by staggering meal times. The palace fellows could be cut of a similar cloth.

Little do they know their treatment of him will be their undoing. The wounds they inflicted aren’t much in terms of jailhouse beatdowns: a few bruised ribs, a knock to the jaw that was already tenderly swollen, a split lip. But the split lip is enough.

They don’t know what they were dealing with, and in opening his skin they have opened the door.

Gritting his teeth, Calay tongues at the wound upon his mouth. He flexes his jaw and grinds his thumbnail into the cut, squeezing his lip with his fingers so a thin trickle of blood finds its way into his palm. He spits to assist the flow.

Pain itches through his mouth, but it is no worse than the pain throbbing through his jaw and ribcage. It is a sharper pain. A more welcome pain. The pain of progress.

The gathered smear of blood in his palm is pathetic. There was a time in his life when he’d have derided it as barely enough to practice with. But times are a little more dire than that presently. He spits into his palm to thin the blood yet further. It will dilute the effect as well, but he doesn’t need much. Far more important to get the glyph correct.

He stirs the blood and spit together in his palm, then dips his index finger in. Working from memory and praying he doesn’t fuck it up, he sketches the glyph upon his forehead. Then he holds his breath and waits.

The sensation that tingles through his eyes isn’t quite pain. It resembles the pins-and-needles blood bubbling of a limb fallen asleep. Except in the eyeballs. Calay flutters a series of hard blinks in the dark, and in stutter-stop motion the details of the room become clear. His vision sharpens and intensifies, every line of grout in the stone walls now apparent. The night vision spell has worked. It’s fainter than he would have liked, but more than enough to work with.

Flexing and curling his fingers, he wipes blood and spittle from his palm. His stomach growls, and by reflex his eyes are drawn to the bowl of stew and mushy bread which sits uneaten on the floor.

Unfortunately, he needs that for more important ventures than feeding himself. Even as the weak, nauseating aftereffects of the magick stir unpleasantly in his gut, he is hungry. Hunger cannot be a priority now.

With dirty fingers, he scoops a few bits of meat and gristle from the bowl. Then he climbs atop his cot, edging toward the cell’s sole window. He plops the meat chunks there between the bars. Mouth a tight line, he resists the urge to lick his fingers. Tasting anything will only grant his hunger an audience.

He bides his time there in the dark.

He doesn’t know if he’s quick enough to catch a rat bare-handed. But now that he can see, he’s got more of a chance than before. And if he manages to get his hands on one, well…

There’s enough blood in a rat for him to sketch all kinds of things. Things not even a hundred guards and a hundred walls of stone a hundred feet thick can contain.

 

###

 

Calay snapped awake just before dawn, as usual. He felt sluggish and thick-headed, as if his every movement were hampered by cobwebs. The dreams—the racing, chasing dreams where he was constantly pursued—hadn’t helped.

By breakfast, though, he’d steeped himself the right herbal blend for tea and was sharpening up.

By the time he and Gaz met the others outside the inn, he was a finely-honed blade.

Riss Chou led a small procession down the hill. A loosely-gathered pack of riders on horseback followed her, with a couple darkly-feathered moa bringing up the rear, their harnesses laden. Calay tugged on the brim of his hat as they neared, tipping it in greeting.

Atop a horse, Riss looked like she meant business even more than usual. And Calay got the impression by the cast of her face that she looked that way pretty much all the time. She had the tall, fit construction of a born-and-raised soldier coupled with the high-boned face of a family much better bred than his own. Only her deep tan and the piecemeal kit she wore ruined the illusion that she was some Inland Empire Praetorian Guard, here escorting one of the Emperor’s personal boot-lickers. Or perhaps licking those boots herself. The second in command she toted around looked much the same, except with snappier hair and leathers that matched.

With them this time was a woman Calay had never seen before. A pale, freckle-dotted ginger whose mop of curls was desperately trying to escape her headscarf. Calay pursed his lips. She looked younger than Riss and Mr. Altave, although part of that could have been simply how short she was.

She noticed him looking and narrowed her eyes just a little. Calay hiked up a grin to show he meant no harm.

“Calay,” said Riss, ticking a hand between him and the redhead. “This is Torcha Lupart, our long arms specialist. Torcha, this is Calay. He’s our sawbones for this expedition.”

That tiny scrap of introduction was all it took for the woman—Torcha, Calay committed to memory—to flash him an easy smile rather than that wary squint.

Just like that, he was part of the squad.

Gaz chose that exact moment to burst forth from the inn’s doors, carrying both their bags. Glass rattled in Calay’s satchel and he grabbed at it eagerly. They’d have a lot of explaining to do if Gaz cracked open two dozen vials of human blood right there in front of the gods and everybody.

“And this is my lovely assistant Gaz,” he said to the riders. “In case anyone hasn’t yet had the pleasure.”

“It is a pleasure,” said Gaz, grinning wide. “Ignore him.”

Riss expelled a little air through her nose, a restrained laugh. She whistled to a porter, who emerged from the rear of the small crowd leading a pair of horses.

“We’ll be riding up ‘til where the road ends.” Riss lifted her voice to explain to the entirety of the small group. “From there, we’ll make camp at the crossroads. The Baron’s sent for a guide to meet us and take us deeper into the marshes. He’s also graciously donated an envoy from his personal guard who made it back from the original expedition. Between the two of them we should have more than half a clue about which direction to walk.”

She did have traces of a sense of humor, then. That was a mark in her favor.

Calay packed his things to his horse’s saddle. There was something disconcerting about traveling so light. Their contracts included all provisions, so he imagined most of that was packed on the pair of moa. But instinct twitched in his fingers, a wary dislike of traveling separate from his own food and water. He always had a couple days’ emergency rations packed away in his satchel in case events necessitated a quick escape. That would be harder to do atop someone else’s horse in unfamiliar marshland.

But Gaz was right. He’d said the magick words when he and Calay had been poring over the notice board for job opportunities: if we’re going to lie low, at some point we have to stop actively running away and establish some sort of cover. Mercenary work was an ideal way to do that.

And mercenary work that assisted the Baron in charge of these parts was a thing that could buy them necessary time if the time came to flee in some other direction.

So Calay swallowed his anxieties and saddled his horse. Nothing about their present situation was inescapable.

“You think one horse is gonna be big enough?” Torcha called over to Gaz as he slipped a boot through the stirrup and mounted.

Oh, Calay liked her.

<< Chapter 2 | Chapter 4 >>

Chapter 2

Riss had not seen Tarn Gullardson in some time. She sat there in one of his many sitting rooms and wondered exactly how it would feel to set eyes on him again. Perhaps more accurately, she wondered what he would feel when he first set eyes on her. Would it be pity? The line of her mouth hardened.

A servant scuttled near-silently into the chamber and executed a curtsy Riss only saw from the corner of her eye. The woman poured a cup of tea and set it upon the side table.

It took much of Riss’ self control–not a small reservoir by any means–to bite back a piss off. She wanted to be alone. But Tarn’s servants didn’t deserve her wrath. If their boss had called her all this way for the mercenary equivalent of a pity fuck, he was the deserving target. And he’d get it all right. She took the teacup by its stem and cradled it in both hands.

The sitting room was a handsome one, she had to admit, focusing on the decor to take her mind off less pleasant things. Shelves of some dark-veined wood she didn’t recognize lined the walls. The windows had fine, un-bubbled glass that offered a clear view to the courtyard below. She couldn’t tell if the glass was original or a particularly clever replacement. The furnishings–brass-bound leather, gleaming candlesticks that could have been silver or pewter, a geometrically-patterned rug that was undoubtedly Some Sort of Foreign–were certainly not what came to mind when she thought of Tarn.

Of course, when one is gifted a castle as a spoil of war, it probably comes with whatever’s inside it, she wagered.

Riss sipped her tea and moved her mouth around. She tried on a few expressions: mild smile, flat line, something she hoped looked contemplative and serious. Should she greet Tarn as a friend? As a former superior officer? She wasn’t going to let his newfound title push her around. At least not inside her own head. She’d pay the proper respects if his hangers-on demanded them. More than anything, she needed to feel the man and his offer out. She needed to gauge whether this job had been given to a competent mercenary or an old friend fallen on hard times or a poor brokenhearted dear who needed a pick-me-up.

Bluntly, it bothered her that she wasn’t sure how angry she was supposed to be.

She was stewing on that when the heavy wooden door swung open and the man himself stepped in. The Baron of Adelheim, no longer some hypothetical she could debate the pros and cons of. He was a flesh-and-blood thing she just had to suck it up and deal with.

The sight of him still inspired a reflex to salute. Riss clenched her teacup a little tighter for a beat.

Leaving the army had shaved ten years off Tarn’s face. The eyes that settled on her–dark, narrow, hooded beneath a heavy brow like a turtle peeking out of its shell–were lively. Like a man much younger than his five and some odd decades.

“Captain,” she said. Her mouth found that mild smile she’d tried on earlier. It came naturally. She found that, all her concerns about the job aside, it felt damn good to see him.

“That’s Baron to you.” Tarn’s voice was a rich boom; his laugh ricocheted off the walls.

“Oh, yes.” Riss placed her teacup carefully aside, then unfolded from her armchair. When she rose to her full height, she was still a few inches shorter than Tarn. Stooping forward, she swept a curtsy of her own in the southern style: cloak to the left, toe dipped.

“My apologies, Baron of Adelheim,” she said, lowering her voice a shade to really yuk it up.

Tarn groaned like she’d kicked him in the family jewels.

“If you never call me that again it will still be too soon,” he said. Riss straightened. Amused, she gathered her tea once more, then gave Tarn her full attention.

“Civilian life treating you that grandly, sir?”

Tarn brushed past her, stepping through the small sitting room and toward the door opposite the one he’d entered through. He gestured for Riss to follow, a brisk little officer’s swish of his hand. She fell in behind him and he led her into a larger chamber. It probably had a proper name, but Riss didn’t know it. More bookshelves lined the walls. A fire crackled in an impressive stone hearth. Beside it sat a spindly wooden liquor cabinet, the Baron’s target. He marched himself up and pulled the door open, taking inventory of the bottles within.

“You know half these books are in Sunnish?” He snatched a bottle from the cabinet and a pair of glass tumblers. “Civilian life means living in a castle with forty rooms full of books you can’t fucking read.”

Riss snorted. Tarn sloshed a measure of dark amber liquid into the tumblers and passed one to her. She took it, now holding a cup in either hand. He certainly didn’t seem to have changed much.

Still nursing the tea for the time being, she followed Tarn to the fireplace. There was only one chair, but he pulled the ottoman aside and offered it to her. Sinking into the high-backed leather seat, Tarn sipped his drink and let his eyes fall momentarily closed.

In that moment, he looked much the same as he had in his Inland Army days: a well-groomed officer of the stereotypical barrel-chested, broad-shouldered build that officers always seemed to have. But his mustache was no longer trimmed to military precision; he’d grown it out in the long and drooping style that was common to his new home.

She settled herself onto the ottoman and placed the liquor down beside her boot. Riss considered herself lucky in that moment to have a subordinate’s quiet to fall back on. Tarn was in control here; she didn’t have to break the ice. Which was fortunate for her, because she had no idea how to pursue this conversation.

“It’s good to see you,” Tarn said after some time. Something had shifted in his voice, a subtle turn away from conversational and toward… Riss couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Were he a stranger in a bar on ale three or four, she’d have anticipated he was coming on to her. But this was Tarn, so no.

“I don’t want to say I was worried because I know damn well you’re capable of taking care of yourself.” Ah. So the word she’d been searching for earlier was paternal.

“And here I am, fully taken care of,” said Riss for lack of a better response. Humor was a crutch in these situations. She wondered if he’d dare voice why he’d been worried.

How long are we going to dance around it? She sipped her tea, watching her old Captain, waiting with a crocodile’s patience.

There was a gulf between them that wasn’t there before. This gulf existed between Riss and everyone she’d served with. So more accurately: a gulf existed around Riss. She felt as though she stood on a narrow ledge, a plunging canyon to either side. Everyone from her old unit, and everyone she knew before the war too, they all resided beyond the canyon’s drop. On stable ground that was no longer familiar to her boots.

It hurt a little, seeing Tarn through the lens of that distance. She could tell it hurt him too. Tarn could talk to anyone under any circumstance. Yet now he regarded her like he had no idea what to say.

Gaspard had died almost two full seasons ago. Two seasons since Riss had taken over the company. Since she’d tried to gather up the pieces and build a functional whole with what was left over.

If he tells me it wasn’t my fault, I’ll slap him. The thought leapt into her mind like that reflex to salute: unbidden and undeniable.

Fortunately for the future of their relationship, he didn’t.

“Regardless,” said Tarn. “I’d be up the creek without your help, so I appreciate that you came.”

That caused her to sit up some. “It’s just wood, Cap. Thanks for thinking of me, but a lot of crews could do this job.” She downplayed things reflexively and wasn’t quite sure why.

“If it was just a logging trip and a case of a missing person, why do you think I called you here?”

Riss blinked. “Because it’s a particularly dangerous area? I’ve talked to the locals. I know most won’t venture into the marshes.”

Tarn took a deep breath then exhaled, a lengthy wheeze of a sigh that seemed to deflate the broad boulder of his frame.

“I mean called you here to this meeting, Riss.” The words had a sarcastic edge to them, though he blunted it some as he continued. “If I’d called you here to chop wood, we wouldn’t need a briefing beforehand, would we?”

For the first time since she’d unfolded the letter addressed to her and marveled at the seal of Adelheim upon the envelope, Riss wondered if there might be more to Tarn’s errand than he’d let on. She had never considered it before. Tarn was… Tarn. He had about as much artifice to him as a hammer. Or at least Captain Tarn had. Perhaps his Baron days had changed him.

“I assumed you wanted to, ehm. Catch up.” When she said it aloud, it sounded rather lame.

Tarn breathed out a quiet laugh, then downed the remnants of his drink. Riss still hadn’t even tasted hers. She didn’t even know what it was.

“That is true,” he said. “But I intended to save the catching-up for after you’ve returned. Better to do it when we have something to celebrate, no?”

Riss merely nodded to concede the point. She was interested now.

“The essentials of the job as described in the letter are correct,” said Tarn. “But there were some details I didn’t put to paper. And for good reason. These are the sorts of things one has to keep in mind in my new… hah, I hesitate to even call it a profession.” They shared a smirk.

“So yes: my eldest son Lukra did indeed disappear while leading a logging trip in the southern marshes. But things are a bit more complicated than that.” Tarn paused. Riss saw his eyes dart toward the liquor cabinet again, but instead she just nudged her cup toward him with the toe of her boot. She wasn’t in a drinking mood.

“Cheers.” Tarn collected the drink then lifted it to her. “I’ll get to the point. Lukra’s disappearance alarms me not only because he is my heir, but because I can’t be certain it wasn’t an act of man rather than an act of marshbeast, so to speak.”

He had Riss’ undivided attention now. The faint tang of black tea on her tongue suddenly tasted far away and uninteresting.

“So rather than a rescue mission, you think we’ll be searching for a body?” Riss wasn’t sure how diplomatic to be. She knew Tarn had a whole litter of children. She didn’t know how emotionally attached he was to any of them. He told her all the stories on their long marches, of course, but every soldier waxed poetic about his kids. Kids were an ideal. Kids were a sign. They meant peacetime and retirement.

“I have no idea.” Tarn lifted a burly shoulder. “All I know is that when I was preparing to put this expedition together, I kept finding reason after reason not to trust any of the local talent.”

Riss took that unspoken compliment to heart.

“Do you have any enemies?” She knew little of Tarn’s life since the war. Only that he’d received this great parcel of land and crumbling castle as thanks for his services to the Inland.

Tarn lifted his tumbler and gestured all about the book-lined room. “Riss,” he said, as though he were speaking to a child. “I am living fat on the backs of thousands of peasants. I live on occupied land which we took by force.”

“A lot of people saw the seizing of the Deel as a liberation,” she said. That was how she remembered it, at least. Two years? Was that all it took for her to view wartime with nostalgia?

“Many did, but many did not.” Tarn tossed back a little of his liquor, swirling it in the glass. “My point is that anyone in the valley could see me as an enemy, were they the right stripe of fanatic.”

“So anyone could, but nobody personal springs to mind?” That was a good thing.

Tarn shook his head. Riss raked her teeth along her bottom lip. “Huh.”

They sat in silence for a while, the crackling fire a backdrop to their private thoughts. Riss considered promising him directly: we’ll find him. And if we find him dead we’ll find who killed him. But she worried such a direct appeal to emotion would invite one in return. She did not want him holding her hand about Gaspard. Not now, not ever.

“Is there anything further I could help you with?” Tarn asked after a while. “Equipment? Men?”

“I don’t believe so.” Riss made a quick mental inventory. Tarn’s writ had paid for it all anyway. “I’ve got some of–” Fuck, she almost said Gaspard’s name. She dodged the other way. “–a couple of the old team with me. Hired a couple here in Adelheim. A medic called Calay and some muscle called Gaz, in case you know them.”

“I’m not familiar, no.” Tarn regarded her curiously. “Who from the old team?”

“Well, it probably comes as no surprise that Adal never left.” She smiled, faint but fond. “And Torcha Lupart, the sharpshooter. If you ever met her. I can’t remember.”

Tarn bellowed out a laugh. “Adalgis.” The crows’ feet at the corners of his eyes deepened with amusement. “Thank Loth he grew up into something useful when you fed and watered him properly.”

That he had. Riss could still remember the first time she set eyes on her Second, back when he was introduced to her as Lieutenant Altave. She’d never served under anyone less competent in the field and swore she never would again.

“You two are odd friends,” said Tarn non-judgmentally.

“We complement each other.” Riss pressed a thin smile. “I’m not taking any dead weight on this trip. I respect you too much to bleed you dry.”

Tarn focused on her, fully sober despite the two measures of liquor he’d sipped thus far.

“And I respect you too much to ask anyone else to do this.”

Riss tilted her teacup toward the man. “I’ll drink to that,” she said. She was offering a cheers, but instead he retrieved the bottle from the liquor cabinet and spiked her tea. Riss let it happen. The bottle turned out to be some sort of almond liqueur, sweet and a little nutty. It softened the bite of her tea in a rather pleasant way.

For the duration of that bottle, they were no longer Baron of Adelheim and Mostly Failed Mercenary. They were simply two old friends looking back on better days. At one point Riss did promise him that they’d find his son, no matter what. And to Tarn’s credit, he never mentioned Gaspard’s name once.

Riss didn’t start the long, slightly stumbled walk back to the inn until long after night had settled over the village. Tarn left her with the promise that he’d arranged for a guide to meet them, as well as one of his officers.

She took the path slowly, hands buried in the deep pockets of her cloak. Candles guttered in the windows of the squat buildings she passed. Torches and lanterns lined the road, as if lighting the way, a special procession just for her.

The southern marshes were a bit of a mystery to Riss. Her unit never had reason to scout that far south. Few roads circled close enough to the region to even offer a glimpse of them. Torcha, the closest thing their team had to a local, said they were a place of mystery and bad luck. The locals left offerings at the nearby shrines and hurried in the opposite direction.

But of course, as she always did, Fortune had a sense of humor. Valuable things grew in these dark and wild places. Lukra Gullardson had gone off in search of such specimens. Fine-grained exotic woods, valuable medicinal herbs, that sort of crap. Riss wondered what he’d found. If anything.

For a moment, on that lonely torchlit path, doubt skipped through Riss like a stone. What was she thinking, promising Tarn I’ll find your boy like that. Like he was some lost little lamb. Like she was some brave shepherd.

Yet framing it that way helped her. He wasn’t a lost lamb, no. But he was a lost person. And they’d tracked down plenty of those in the war. Fugitives, prisoners, the movements of enemy scouts–everything left tracks. She would follow Lukra’s into the mud. And even if she couldn’t find him–which she would–they’d fell the trees Lukra died for. Marshwood fetched prices high enough that Tarn’s fees would be but a pleasant bonus by comparison.

Riss slowed some on her walk back to the inn. She savored the light. Where they were going, the trees grew so tall one couldn’t even count on stars.

<< Chapter 1 | Chapter 3 >>

Chapter 1

The moa tracked Riss Chou across the hardpack with dark, too-intelligent eyes. She was not a short woman yet the bird still towered over her, a quarter-ton of muscle and talon. She could feel it watching her even when she turned her head away.

Beside her, the stockman continued on with a sales pitch that she hadn’t really been listening to. He was a short, soft-bodied man with a blond bowl-cut and slightly pink cheeks. The sort of man who clearly didn’t work with his own animals. The sort of man you’d find in any general store, prone to giving sales pitches that weren’t worth the breath it took to pitch them.

“And they can feed themselves in just about any terrain.”

Riss looked the bird up and down, her thick eyebrows arching. “I bet.”

The stockman laughed. “They’re herbivores,” he reassured her. “Forage on leaves and berries mostly.”

She knew that. There were moa native to the mountains of her homeland, too. Bigger ones. But herbivore or not, she got the feeling those talons meant business. Besides, horses weren’t carnivorous and they killed plenty of people. The birds looked mean.

Wary as it made her, Riss kind of liked that.

“She’ll get you anywhere a horse can’t,” said the stockman. He’d followed Riss step by step into the yard, leaning just close enough into her personal space that the urge to give him an elbow lingered like an itch.

For a moment, Riss considered the logistics of whether the moa would be worth it to ride. She hadn’t ever done so, but she knew plenty of people who had and none of them said it was any tougher than riding a horse. But they’d be what, seven or eight riders? Hiring eight moa meant paying for eight moa. Hiring two as packbeasts and taking the journey on foot meant a much larger cut for Riss and her crew, and this job wasn’t exactly taking her cross-country.

Eight birds also meant eight times the opportunity for something to go wrong. If one broke a leg or fell sick, they’d all be at walking pace anyway.

“I’ll only be taking a couple as packbeasts,” Riss decided. In the fenced-in yard, the moa continued to pace, its eyes never leaving her. It churred softly, a sound that could have been equal parts beckoning or warning. Who knew. She’d never observed one in the wild.

“Males or females?” asked the stockman.

“Pair of females,” she said. The males were about half the size–and only two-thirds the price. Which was tempting, but there was no way they could fit eight people’s worth of logging kit on only a pair of them.

Far up the hill, in the church nestled up against the breast of a crumbling castle, a bell chimed the hour. Nearly ten, then. Time to get a move on.

“If you can ready the birds by first light tomorrow, I’ll send my Second to make the necessary arrangements.”

She gave the man fleeting smile, just a brief upward hook of the mouth, and fished a thrice-folded document from the inner pocket of her coat. Unfolding it, she displayed the writ in all its glory: hand-painted stationery, the masterful calligraphy of whichever scribe had drawn it up, then the blunt strokes of Baron Tarn’s signature below.

“We’ll add it to the garrison’s account, then,” said the stockman, pleased. He’d likely bill the Baron higher rates than he would a customer who had the option of going elsewhere. Riss had factored that in when sorting out the pay scale of this endeavor.

“Been a pleasure,” she lied.

She wasn’t able to shake the sensation of sharp, intelligent avian eyes on her back until she was halfway up the hill toward her next destination.

###

From the stockyards, Riss took the dusty road that climbed the gentle hillside toward Adelheim. The castle itself had seen better days, recovering still from the damage it had sustained in the war, but the little village clustered within its outer walls teemed with fresh construction and commerce.

Her destination was at the halfway point between the wagonyard and the castle doors, a hole-in-the-wall tavern the locals just called the Pub. Riss had been in and out of town for just under a year and she’d yet to hear its formal name. If it even had one.

Like much in the Deel Valley, the tavern was built from red claybricks and a motley assortment of wood. It had a fenced yard with a few hitching posts, none of which were presently occupied. Which meant that anyone turning up for Riss’ job offer was likely to be a local. Interesting.

Riss tried not to hold the locals’ present situation against them. Really, she tried. It wasn’t their fault that the war had robbed them of too many of their able-bodied men and women. It wasn’t their fault that the Deel wasn’t quite so fertile as the land upriver in the textile regions. They were making the best of the shit hand they’d been dealt. That the so-called best they coughed up tended to be knock-kneed teenagers and deserters was to be expected, really.

Expected, yet still somehow disappointing.

Her second in command, Adalgis Altave, stood beside those hitching posts and mingled with a rather mixed crowd.

Not counting Adal, there were five in total. Four men and a woman. Frankly, Riss couldn’t tell them from any other sack of five random assholes from the Deel. They all looked healthy enough. Nobody was missing any limbs. She didn’t spy any coded army affiliations nor did any of their faces ring a bell. All were dressed in a similar enough assortment of leathers, suedes, and linens. The homemade kind. Poor town kind. Riss had been hoping that some feature or another would provide her enough to approve or reject candidates at a glance, but this lot looked frustratingly average all around. The one exception was a big fellow with a stubbled head and a small trio of tattoos beside an eye. He stood out by virtue of being a good six inches taller than the rest.

“I suppose I’d better get to interviewing,” she called to Adal across the yard. He ticked two fingers off his brow in an informal salute.

“I suppose you’d best,” he said. “They’re called Zelindo, Toger, Linta, Gaz, and Calay.”

She couldn’t begin to guess at their heritage with simple commonfolk names like that. Not that heritage mattered quite so much since the war got won and all. Two years was long enough for most mercenaries to forget they’d ever favored one side over another–if they had.

Not everyone could be Adalgis Altave, of the House Altave. Which said enough about her Second’s pedigree. If his almost suspiciously blemish-free skin didn’t say it at a glance.

“Wait,” one of the potentials said to Adal, reaching up to scratch through his beard. “You’re telling us you ain’t the boss? After all that?”

“A common misconception,” Riss replied, answering on Adal’s behalf to really drive the point home.

“So I gotta tell you everything I just told him?” The man’s sun-dark face crinkled in annoyance. Riss shrugged.

“You don’t have to. You can always leave.”

He stayed put. She figured he would.

Riss cleared her throat. It was easy enough to lift her voice, to force that backbone of command back into it. In some regards, two years wasn’t long at all.

“Right,” she said, sweeping a look over the hopefuls. “Soon as the Baron’s back in town I’ve got a meeting, so I don’t have all day.”

Tonguing at her teeth in thought, she considered the easiest way to weed through the crop until she had two or three left with the skills she required. She supposed she could start with the easy questions.

“First thing’s first: any of you have warrants out for your arrest?” A couple hands went up. Riss clarified: “For anything other than desertion?” And all the hands went back down again.

Loth’s watery grave, this was a law-abiding bunch.

“Baron Tarn Gullardson is sponsoring this expedition,” she explained. That hadn’t been on the notice board. “Is there any reason, professional or personal, why the Baron would be displeased by your presence on this expedition?”

Of the five, the lone woman shuffled her feet. Though she didn’t say anything, a certain thread of tension tugged at her body language and she pointedly looked away from Riss.

“All right, out with it,” Riss said toward her. The woman snapped back to attention.

“Please don’t keep us here all day,” Adal chimed in.

Sniffing inward once, the woman squared her shoulders and hefted a diffident shrug. “I was in his House Guard,” she admitted.

“And he let you go?”

“Aye, ma’am. Well, not him. His Lieutenant.”

Riss watched the woman steadily, the sort of blandly critical look she’d mastered in the ranks. The woman fidgeted. Riss really hoped she didn’t have to ask for an explanation. Perhaps Tarn had her sacked because she was daft.

“It was an… insubordination… thing,” the woman concluded, delicately.

“… Right.” Riss mentally crossed that one off the list.

Normally ‘insubordination’ was a concept Riss held right up there with desertion. She didn’t give two wags of a mermaid’s tail about insubordination or desertion so long as the mercs she hired were loyal to her. And even then, that loyalty was only required on a per-job basis. She was an easy enough woman to get along with.

But Tarn was a friend. And a former respected senior. No sense pissing in his porridge. She sent the woman on her way.

“Next question.” Riss glanced over at Adal. “Did my Second ask any of you about your proficiency with firearms?”

Adal shook his head a single, curt time.

In the end, it was the guns that winnowed them down. Which wasn’t much of a surprise. In a province this poor, firearms were a luxury of title-holders and the rich. And there weren’t many of those.

Two remained: Calay and Gaz, a pair from the northern coast who’d traveled down together. Sellswords who knew their way around both flintlocks and the newer cartridge models. Calay had experience as a medic–and the kit to prove it–and Gaz… well, Gaz was the gigantic one. Riss was unsure exactly what she’d encounter in the marsh, so a muscle-packed schooner of a man seemed a wise option.

“Congratulations,” she said to the pair, addressing them as a single entity to save time. “The job is essentially just as described on the notice. We’ll be attempting to recover the load and the remains of the Baron’s old logging party. And we’ll have a sniff around for any survivors as well. Adal will prepare your contracts.”

Calay, the much-shorter one, chimed in: “I’ll be signing for both of us.”

Riss tilted a look up–way, way up–to Gaz, as if awaiting confirmation of this fact. The big man nodded and smoothed a hand along his buzz-cut head.

“I can’t read,” he admitted. He didn’t look particularly broken up about it.

“These things happen,” said Adal. His tone took a turn for the less reassuring when he addressed Calay, who watched him avidly from beneath the slouch of a flat-brimmed hat. “You’d best not try to fuck him over,” said Adal.

“We’re mates, Gaz and I,” Calay promised.

Riss caught the hint of a bristle up Adal’s back. Great, she thought. Too many swinging dicks in the barracks already. But she wouldn’t intervene unless she had to. Adal didn’t have to like the guy.

They didn’t have much time to get acquainted. A distant horn bellowed from the drawbridge, signaling the Baron’s imminent return. Riss peered down the hill. Past the scrub and leafless, twiggy trees, she could spy a cloud of dust fluffing up the far-off horizon. Many horses. The Baron’s carriage and its escort.

“That’s my cue,” she said sidelong to Adal. “I trust you can finish the contracts and skip down to the general store? What’s-his-face at the yard is getting the birds ready.”

“Consider it done,” he said, his quick smile a promise. She couldn’t have asked for a more competent Second. Horrible as he’d been at giving orders back in the day, he could follow them like a champ.

“Riss?” he asked as she started up the hill.

“Hm?”

“Give Cap my regards, eh? It’ll be good to sit down when all this mess is over.”

“Of course.” Riss’ smile was a little softer for him now. “He’ll need it, I think.”

If their mission was a success, the Baron would need to host either a celebration or a wake of record-breaking proportion. There would be time for drinks and sitting then.

Chapter 2 >>