The looks Riss aimed toward Geetsha were anything but subtle. Adal shared her suspicions, but he wondered if it might be worth asking his commander to tone it down for the sake of diplomacy. Then he thought about the shit-storm that might stir up and the completely inappropriate timing of such a shit-storm given their present predicament. He opted to keep his mouth shut.
Not that Riss never listened to him, or that she considered her behavior beyond criticism. Hardly. She relied on Adal for just such advice. But Adal knew how Riss operated. If he broached the subject, there was a high chance she’d decide the best way to deal with her suspicions would be a direct confrontation. She was much like the machete she carried: a heavy, blunt blade that saw to cut to the bone of whatever ailed her. It was just not the time or place for that.
Marching along on foot beneath tendrils of wispy moss and high, straight-stalked trees, Adal tried to keep his mind off the possibilities of what could be lying in wait beyond the reach of their lanterns. The flickering lantern glow deepened every shadow, lent some shadows a writhing, living quality.
He also tried to ignore the exhaustion that weighted his boots, made his every step an act of effort. His body had fought hard to rid itself of that venom–with Calay’s help, of course–and he was now paying the price.
If he turned his head and glanced behind him, he could see the same exhaustion writ on the tight, tired lines that framed Harlan Vosk’s eyes and mouth. He walked with the same heavy, deliberate steps that Adal took. Perhaps the painkiller he’d been given was some sort of sedative.
Adal decided to try to take both their minds off it.
“So tell me,” he said, conversational. “You’re a logger. You work with a crew of other loggers. Clearly we don’t practice the same methods of tree disposal given you require the wood to be usable afterwards.”
Vosk glanced up. He nodded along as Adal spoke, then grunted out a semblance of a laugh after.
“That is true.” He took a deep breath and adjusted the strap of his bag so that it fell lower across his abdomen. Adal caught the faint wince that tightened his features.
He’s still in pain, he thought. Good to keep him engaged.
“So how do you do it?” He pressed.
Vosk made a small gesture, lifting a hand and then letting it fall.
“Same as you kill any tree, at least in the end. With an axe. Metal blades, that’s the important part. They seem to have difficulty absorbing metal. But first you light a fire near them, if you can. Smoke bothers them. Seems to settle them down, makes them move slower. Hells if I know why, or how it works.”
Adal slid his tongue across his mouth, pursing his lips in thought. Perhaps that explained the dozens of campfires dotted all along the crossroads. If fire kept the trees at bay, it could be the locals lit excessive fires even outside their territory. A sort of just-in-case. Adal could hardly blame them.
“I see,” he said, still thinking it through. Vosk continued talking. Apparently Adal had struck a vein of conversation worth mining. The man had certainly softened some since they’d first met. He’d radiated a sort of military chilliness when first speaking to Riss. But a few days on the trail together and he’d loosened up, spoke more readily.
“Ideally you get one alone. Hack down everything near it so it can’t absorb more wood. Then burn what you’ve cut down until the smoke puts it to sleep. That’s why we travel through here in crews of seven to ten. You have to move quickly if you want to kill them quick enough to keep them in one piece.”
“It sounds less like logging and more like hunting to me.” Adal cast a look forward, his eyes falling onto Riss’ back. She walked ahead, speaking quietly to Geetsha, and while it could have been his imagination, she seemed to be walking a little taller, her shoulders held high, her chin up. The fight had invigorated her. As fights always did.
“You know,” he said to Vosk, pointing at the woman in question. “Riss here was a hunting guide some years back.”
Vosk let out a grunt that could have been faint surprise or just acknowledgment. Before Adal could speak again, a flurry of activity on the trail before them stunned the walkers into jittery silence.
Suddenly, up ahead, fluttering. Movement and the patter of wings in the air, just beyond the reach of their lights. Riss jerked back in surprise. Geetsha beside her smiled cautiously, then pointed at something. A fraction of a second later, a small flock of crows erupted from the ceiling of trees, spiraling upward, sleek black bodies outlined against the faint starlight.
“Look,” Geetsha said. “Birds. Birds are a good sign.”
Adal tilted his head, unsure for a moment what that meant. He put two and two together at the same moment Vosk chose to explain:
“Because birds won’t land where the tree branches absorb their feet. They tend to steer clear of the crawling groves.”
Helpful elaboration or not, the mental image sent Adal’s heart quickening for a few beats.
They walked for what felt like half a day but was likely only a few hours. Adal had more than a few zero-energy, dead-straight marches under his belt. There was a place in his mind he could recede to, letting his feet do all the work. Every soldier had it. Even the ones who’d been brought up in the Academy and sidestepped most of the harder work of soldiering.
When his mind receded to that distant, rhythmic marching place, he thought of Riss. How much better she seemed to be doing. How it warmed him to see her lead again. To see her trusting her instincts and her capabilities. She was healing. They all were. But her wounds had been carved deeper than his. A glimmer of quiet affection warmed him from the inside out at the thought. She’d be all right. He’d known it all along, of course, but it was good to see the evidence before his eyes.
They were, he thought, like the land itself: rebuilding after conflict. Picking up the pieces. Shoring up what had been damaged. Saying goodbye to the things they’d lost for good.
Geetsha led them up the steep side of a crumbling plateau, twisted roots protruding from its eroded hillside. Fragile white puffball fungi dotted the exposed root structure, reflecting their torchlight like sea jellies brought to the surface.
Were it not for the fact that Adal had resigned himself to the belief that every single thing in this gods-forsaken swamp was primed to kill them, he might have paused to appreciate their beauty.
Even if he had, he was interupted shortly after.
“Adal? Calay? Everybody up here,” Riss hollered. “We’ve found our camp spot, but Geetsha’s pretty sure she hears something. Can any of you hear it?”
Adal couldn’t hear a damn thing beyond the usual: the stomp of their feet, the huff of his exhausted breath. Everyone poured out into a flat, ash-dotted clearing to see what was the matter.
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