The guide was not what Riss expected. She couldn’t have been older than twenty. And when she spoke, she sounded more like a teenager, speaking in a faintly squeaky voice that recalled nothing so much as a kid with a sore throat. This was the best Tarn had been able to find? Or was the region simply so sparsely populated that she was the only person familiar with the swamps that was willing to take the job?
At Riss’ side, Vosk seemed just as puzzled. Riss stepped forward and took the lead. The group behind them slowed to a gradual halt, gathered under the boughs of the twisted, bone-decorated tree.
“Hello there.” She gave the girl a breezy, confident smile. “You must be Geetsha. I’m Riss Chou. The Baron sent us.”
Now was not the time to project anything but calm, smooth confidence. Whatever their reservations were with Tarn’s choice of guard, that horse had bolted. They couldn’t back down now. Regardless of the money she’d lose, Riss wouldn’t do that to an old friend. And Tarn must have chosen her for a reason. He was a lot of things now, newly-titled and settling into civilian life, but their long talk in the castle had assured Riss that his edges had not been dulled. Settling into a noble’s life had barely even blunted him. Tarn must have chosen her for a reason.
“Riss, hello.” Geetsha shook her head back and forth for a moment, an odd gesture. She hadn’t said anything worth disagreeing with, had she? After a couple repetitions of that motion, it became clear that Geetsha was actually clearing her hair out of her eyes. She just used her whole body to do it, shaking like a dog emerging from water.
“You chose good days to come,” said Geetsha after a moment. “There shouldn’t be rain. Trails will still be fresh.
Riss glanced aside to Vosk, who gave the slightest nod.
“I could get us to where the skirmish took place,” he said. “But you might have a better or quicker way to get us there.”
“Skirmish. The skirmish.” Geetsha repeated the word a couple times. She had a trace of an accent, although Riss couldn’t place it. Just a faint wisp of difference to Vosk’s. The southern manner of speaking common tongues always sounded so thick and cottony, like they were speaking through a mouthful of mashed potato.
Geetsha momentarily closed her eyes. Riss studied her openly, unconcerned with being polite.
She looked about eighteen, with fair skin that seemed a stranger to sunlight. Her hair was shockingly white, like bleached flour. Though the clothes she wore were somewhat tatty–ragged edged canvas and hemp, it looked like–she was clean. Perhaps she was some sort of nomad. Riss had heard tales of them, during the war: mobile camps of swamp dwellers who moved through the thickest marshes on canoes, camping on dry land as they encountered it. Subsistence hunters. Rarely anything worth trading. Kept to themselves.
“So you live in here?” Riss asked, hoping to coax a bit more information from her.
“Yes,” said Geetsha. “We all do.”
“Your family?” prodded Vosk.
“There are more of us than you think.”
For some reason, Geetsha’s answer sent a little shiver up Riss’ back. What a weird way to phrase it. Weird and slightly ominous, however unintended.
“Do you have anything you’d like to pack on the birds?” Gesturing back toward the moa, Riss stepped aside some, so as to grant Geetsha a view of the crew at large.
“No.” Geetsha patted a heavy, drooping satchel that hung down at her hip. “This is it.”
It sure didn’t look like much. But Riss supposed that if the girl was native to these parts, she hadn’t need to pack much. Maybe she foraged most of what she ate. Perhaps she’d even share that knowledge, or trade it. They were well-provisioned, but it paid to keep a constant awareness of that sort of thing.
“Everyone,” Riss addressed the group with a lift of her voice. “This is Geetsha, the Baron’s guide. She’s a local in these parts.”
The mercenaries gave mumbled greetings. Torcha waved. There would be better time for introductions once they made camp for the night.
Riss peered past the sign, down toward where the trail descended into the swamp proper.
The change in scenery was drastic. While things had grown gradually murkier and wetter as they’d descended the incline, there was little standing water. The trees had still been sparse enough. But down past the sign, things grew wilder. Great, bent willows with twisted and exposed root structure seemed to jostle with one another for available soil space, like crooked teeth crowded into a child’s too-narrow jaw. Drifts of thick grass sprouted up seemingly at random, stiff and bladelike, and further off in the distance the first of the puddles reflected their brown-black environment.
As creepy as the bone-strewn sign in the trees was, Riss supposed it made sense. This was truly the boundary. Any further in without preparing and one was taking serious risks.
“So, Geetsha, the path my loggers took follows the trail, mostly. We stuck to it until we hit the spring, then–”
Geetsha cut Vosk off, nodding excitably.
“The spring, yes! I can get you there. Or the braided copses. Or the groves.”
Riss assumed they were speaking some sort of logger shorthand. Eyebrows arching some, she stepped a little closer to listen.
“Which groves?” Vosk sounded a little unsure. “The crawling groves, or…?”
“There are many groves.” Geetsha tilted her head, staring up at the sky for a time. “I speak of the grove where there were gunshots. And the fire was disturbed. And the tree ate your friend.”
It was quick, the way Vosk’s eyes went wide. And equally quick how he shuttered his expression, forcing his mouth flat. He inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring, and then nodded a single time.
“So you saw,” was all he had to say to that.
However young their guide may have been, Tarn had chosen her for a reason. She’d already been to the site of the attack.
“Take us straight there,” said Riss. “The quickest possible route.”
“I can do that,” Geetsha said. And then, a moment later: “What are you looking for?”
“We’re looking for the Baron’s logging party. And his son. Didn’t he tell you all that?”
“The Baron told me to meet you here. He said you were coming. He didn’t say why.”
Well, it was a sort of need-to-know basis operation. Still, that surprised Riss. Tarn hadn’t thought to warn her that there were bandits running around? Or perhaps he’d assumed that someone as well-traveled in these parts already knew. Either way, it was an intriguing detail.
One aspect of Tarn’s command she had always appreciated in the army was that he had respected her enough to give her details. He understood the unique working relationship she and Adal had developed, understood that they weren’t quite a standard sergeant and lieutenant, and he’d worked with that peculiar chain of command rather than demoting Adal for all but ceding the unit to her.
Tarn had let her into the map tents during meetings she hadn’t technically had rank worthy of attending. He’d shown her trust and respect.
It was time she proved worthy of that once more.
“It is a thick, wet walk,” Geetsha said, prompted by nothing.
“You’re right.” That must have been her way to hurry them up. Riss gestured to the others. “We ought to get moving.”