Concern niggled at Adal like a pebble in his boot. Riss’ reaction to Vosk’s revelations worried him. He’d been expecting her to boil over with anger–and hells, who could blame her–but instead she’d just… crumpled. She would never have done that in front of her unit, be it soldiers or mercenaries. Or so he’d thought.
They had too many pieces in play to afford a breakdown. He had to know he could count on her.
He stepped up and took over leading the group back to their campsite. With a recaptured moa in tow, they were able to pack the tents and provisions. They wouldn’t have to dial back on rations just yet. Losing all the meat meant they’d have to eat more to fill themselves up, but they’d manage. The dog followed them at a distance, visible sometimes through gaps in the foliage. They had no scraps to spare it, but it didn’t seem deterred by that.
They returned to the ruined logging camp. Vosk admitted he could lead them out from there, as the routes he and Lukra took were well-trod enough. Calay glared sunken-eyed murder at him. Gaz just trudged along, silent.
He again refused Calay’s offer of eyedrops. The stars dancing across his vision had mostly subsided.
“So what did you do with all the cloth?” Torcha asked, gazing at the lumpy, doubled-over remains of a crawling tree, faint traces of bone bubbled beneath the surface of its bark. Adal thought he could spy a legbone of some sort, a femur perhaps, warped and curved as it had bent beneath the tree’s bark.
Torcha made a good point. If Vosk and his few survivors had looted the caravan, they couldn’t have snuck that past Tarn.
Vosk paused, silent, as if he might object. Torcha growled low in her throat. Adal had always found her voice too high, too young to be remotely threatening. But he supposed Vosk hadn’t known the girl since she was fourteen. The growl had the desired effect on him.
“There’s a series of caves in one of these hillsides, on the route back.”
Torcha swung an interested look toward Riss.
Encouragingly, Adal nodded. “We might as well salvage something out of this. If nothing else it’s proof of our version of events for Baron Tarn.”
Riss huffed. “What kind of caves?” she asked Vosk. “I am tired of things trying to eat me.”
“Shallow caves,” Vosk promised. “More like overhangs, really. Likely can’t even fit the lot of us.”
They paused for a short break, eating slices of cheese on hardtack and dried fruit. No one spoke, each likely contemplating just how close they’d come to making the march on starvation rations.
The walk to the caves was blessedly uneventful. Adal brought up the rear, vision fully recovered. None of the prisoners tried any funny business. Nothing leapt from the shadows intending to make a meal of them.
And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the environment turned almost beautiful. They gained elevation gradually, walking through clumps of reedy, bug-infested marsh and into a slightly drier area. Rolling hills surrounded them, dotted with low bushes. The strange, fragile-looking paper lantern fungi returned.
A small burbling creek bisected their trail. Vosk nodded down toward it.
“Cut left along the creek here, off the path. That’ll take you to the caverns.”
Though Adal couldn’t help but be wary, they did as instructed. Vosk had lied about nearly everything when they’d first met him. It was risky to trust him now. But they had reached a point where the second he ceased to be useful, he’d be crippled and trussed up on the moa and carried to Tarn as a screaming, wounded wreck. He seemed to grasp that.
The sound of running water was a relief. Adal, a child of the Deel River and its temperamental god, had grown up around it. It meant an end to the rank stagnation of the swamp. It meant a way out–if things got truly dire, they could follow the creek to its source, most likely. Higher ground.
Running water always meant good things.
The caves were in the correct location and just as described. Adal would have described them more as crevices, really. Little overhangs and cracks in between some rocky outcrops that made up a perilous, crumbling hillside. The hill had crumbled at some point, forming a natural dam in the creek, and a rocky pool now glimmered in the sunlight.
Adal glanced up. The sight of blue sky took his breath away. It had been days since he’d seen more than a glimpse of it. Riss noticed him looking and glanced up too. Soon, all six of them were staring upwards, marveling at the stretch of blue overhead. Trees still crowded in on three cardinal directions, but it was as close to a glimpse of the outside world as they’d had in a week. That patch of blue sky felt like the first breath after a long underwater swim, a sensation of coming up for air, of resurfacing, of re-emerging into the world.
“Would you look at that.” Calay gave a delighted little laugh, turning his face into the sunlight. A thin haze of clouds zig-zagged across their little slice of sky, diffusing the sunlight. But Calay bathed his face in it regardless, still chuckling. In fresh natural light, he looked ghastly. Recovered from the state he’d been in earlier, sure, but that was like saying a freshly-deceased corpse looked better than a Meduese mummy.
For a fraction of a moment, Adal almost forgot what Calay was. Almost let the secret slip from his mind. For a blink, he was just another mercenary relieved to see the sun come out. A brother-in-arms emerging from the muck alongside Adal and Riss and Torcha.
The sorcerer took Adal’s eye as an invitation to conversation, like he’d caught a glimpse into that vulnerability and intended to seize it like a viper.
“The Janel coast is a dreary, foggy place,” he said. “This much sunlight makes a fine day back home.”
“Mm.” Gaz grunted agreement alongside him. “A day you could put the washing out.”
“We’re in a swamp,” Adal reminded them. “I wouldn’t hang your laundry out regardless of the amount of sunlight.”
Riss grabbed everyone’s reins then, clearing her throat and hooking a gesturing hand toward the series of crevices and outcrops. She didn’t bother speaking, just whipped her hand and everyone followed. Apart from a nap and a couple aborted nights, Adal had barely slept. Nobody else was in any better shape. A strong grunt and orders to follow worked wonders when one was half-asleep on one’s feet.
Riss shoved Vosk to the fore of the group, marching him ahead of her. She kept a hand clasped on his shoulder despite his bound hands, clearly just as aware as Adal was that the man could not be trusted. Vosk led them past the pool and a pair of shed-sized boulders which had tumbled down the crumbling hill in whatever landslide had dammed the creek. They passed from sunlight into shadow, the shade noticeably cooler. But here, with stone underfoot, it was a dry cool. It was refreshing in its own way. Adal sniffed the air, breathed in the aroma of sun-baked stone. It smelled somehow clean, or at least less terminally damp.
The path between the boulders was a tight squeeze; they had to take it single-file. Vosk led them through, Riss following closely behind. They filed into an area just as Vosk had described: a shallow cave, more of an overhang than anything. It was perhaps the size of a small wagon-hold, or a cabin on one of the Altave paddleships, with a low ceiling that twisted with gnarled roots. Vosk, Riss, and Gaz all ducked inside–Gaz with some difficulty, the large man having to adopt a slight crouch–but Calay hesitated. He fixated on the roots, hand tensing at his side, and that little twitch of trepidation made Adal pause midstep. Were it anyone else, his instinct might have been to ask if he was all right or offer some words of assurance. Instead, he glanced away, studying the lichen-dappled stone until the man moved on.
As Vosk promised, the cave was a tight fit. They spilled into a second overhang, another nook in the same eroded hillside. Torcha wasn’t able to get the moa through the narrow passage, so she tethered it just outside and left it to nose at the ground. They unpacked their things. Nobody needed to discuss it–they were camping here long enough to rest.
Sunlight. Dry air. The sensation of sinking down onto a bedroll. Adal had to consciously remind himself that they were still in the shit. Circumstances may not have been as dire as when the war was at its worst, but they were far from home clear.
Once everyone was settled, Riss clucked her tongue his way.
“You got a minute?”
“Rather busy,” he said, glugging water from his canteen. “I have an evening massage scheduled as well as supper with the Generals.”
Riss stared at him like she’d temporarily forgotten what a joke was. Then she laughed, a tiny disbelieving sound, and rose up with a groan.
“That’s where I’m headed soon as all this is over,” she said.
Much of their time on Entitlement had been spent in a particular massage parlor, enjoying perfumed baths and endless rub-downs and therapeutic needles and teas that were likely laced with something only semi-legal.
“Well, all we gotta do is stay alive a few more days.” Torcha’s cheery interjection came with a little wag of her pistol, which was still trained in Gaz and Calay’s direction.
Riss cast a look down the barrel of Torcha’s gun as she headed out.
“I’m too tired to give anyone a speech about what a bad idea it would be to try anything,” she said. “Torcha, if anyone moves, just do what’s gotta be done.”
Riss led him out of earshot of the cavern, following the rocky edge of the pool. All the old Recce tricks were second nature: walk on bare stone when you could, put moving water between yourself and anyone you didn’t want to hear you. They stood where the creek emptied into the pool, watching it flow, a couple of river kids taking solace in the sound of home.
As always, Riss wasn’t one to waste time with small talk.
“I’ve made up my mind about the witch,” she said. “I’m giving you an opportunity to reason me out if it if you disagree.”
Adal hiked his eyebrows up and listened.
“If they’re traveling on foot and taking odd jobs, I reckon there’s a price on this fellow’s head.” Riss scratched at her teeth with a thumbnail. Adal watched her reflection in the rippled surface of the pool. “If he hadn’t run afoul of someone, he’d still be doing whatever the hells they were doing back in Vasile. A fellow that educated doesn’t just pack up and hop south to do merc work. Unless they’re you, I suppose.”
He couldn’t argue with any of that.
“My only concern is whether he deduces that and decides there’s nothing left to lose.” Blood sorcery was such a seldom-practiced art that nobody knew the true extent of its capabilities, even in Adal’s family circles. If Calay felt himself cornered, he was likely capable of defense measures they couldn’t counter.
“There’s the question of what we’d do with him once we returned to Adelheim,” Adal added, thinking aloud. “Whatever bounty there might be on him definitely hasn’t reached the Deel or else we’d have heard. I can’t remember the last time I heard word of a sorcerer in these parts. Possibly never. Tarn would have heard.”
Riss’ brows lifted. She kicked a pebble into the pool and made a thoughtful sound.
“Tarn. There’s an idea. Maybe we just hand him over to Tarn.”
Adal searched the cobwebbed recesses of his brain for any provincial knowledge. Was sorcery in and of itself illegal in the Deel? It was certainly feared and hated, the way all bogeymen from childhood nightmares were. But sorcerous practitioners themselves were so rare that most places who hadn’t dealt with one in living memory didn’t even bother to outlaw their presence. What was the point of making something illegal if it didn’t exist outside of spooky stories?
“We’ve been out here long enough,” Riss said, turning from the pool and walking toward the treeline. “Let’s gather some firewood and at least put up a pretense we weren’t plotting behind Calay’s back. He’s a canny guy. I think he’ll be aware.”
Adal followed her, seeking out a few thick branches among the deadfall. The wood here would burn better, dry as it was. If it weren’t for how completely to shit everything else had fallen, this might be their first pleasant afternoon on this whole damned expedition.
“So we’re staying the night?”
Riss shot him a look across the clearing. Her eyes were deeper set than usual, framed with harsh, tired lines.
“I don’t know about you,” she said. “But I’ve needed real sleep ever since Vosk tipped this expedition on its ass.”
They returned to camp with the Calay question as yet unanswered.