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.
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.”