A Murder of Shadows

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In the northern forests of the Kingdom of Montshire, a country situated in the middle of the continent of Nengled, stood a castle. It was old, the blocks of its walls cut from the same granite as the mountain bedrock it was raised on. While not overly large or pretentious, it instead projected an air of stability, of safety and security. The dressed stones of its main tower and battlements looked as if they had just naturally extruded from the ground itself. It was called Castle Fearnaught.

Fearnaught had served many masters over the centuries of its existence, but its longest-running inhabitants were the many generations of the DelaCrotia family. On this morning, in the near-perfect weather of late spring, the current patriarch of the family, Lord Rucian DelaCrotia, descended to the first floor of the castle, passing through the main dining hall, which was empty except for a few servants polishing silver, and then proceeded to the family’s private dining room, where a lavish breakfast was being laid out.

His wife, the Lady Jean, was already seated at the table, her plate of food untouched as she read an unrolled script of paper, her head bent over the letter in concentration.

Filling his own plate with fluffy scrambled eggs, thin strips of fried beef, a thick slab of fresh bread lathered with newly churned butter, and, as an afterthought, a small bowl of applesauce, he moved to his spot at the table. The last item was more to forestall any comments from his lady wife, who felt it among her duties to comment on his diet.

He took his place at the head of the table, noting that Jean was still absorbed in whatever sordid gossip one of her many friends in the court of the king had sent her. Happy to avoid conversation, Rucian tucked into his meal just as his eldest son, Gracid, appeared in the doorway, followed closely by son number two, Tallen, and then their only daughter, Jolanna.

One of the servants filled Rucian’s cup with strong tea, a drink he favored over the current court favorite, caffe, which was a relatively new beverage. Grown on the many islands off the southern coast of the continent, caffe was just beginning to make inroads in Montshire. Rucian wasn’t interested in changing his morning beverage of choice at this point in life.

“Ah, the family gathers,” Rucian said. “Except for Savid. Where is that boy?”

“I would gather that he is still abed, Father, as his door was closed,” Gracid said.

“He is gone,” Lady Jean said, raising her head at last. Immediately Rucian saw that tears had left tracks down the light powder she applied to her cheeks each morning and her eyes still glimmered with unshed liquid. Her expression, however, was something much, much closer to anger.

“What do you mean—gone?” Lord Rucian asked, his own temper rising.

“Perhaps it would be easier if I simply just read his letter,” Jean said, a sharp note in her voice.

Dearest Mother,

By the time this note finds its way into your hands, I have long departed Castle Fearnaught.

By way of explanation, I must tell you that I had a rather lengthy conversation with Father last night, following our evening dinner. He asked me to join him in his study, something which, as you know, he rarely does. It was, he explained, time to acquaint me with the facts of life.

Specifically, the facts of inheritance as they impact important families such as ours.

We discussed the concept of Inherited Duty and focused upon its direct application to my own circumstances as third son. I had, of course, touched upon its essence in my studies with our tutors, but must admit that it failed to register as being an actual consideration for my own destiny. You see, I had falsely, as Father so carefully pointed out, assumed that the ancient Montshirian tradition of Inherited Duty had morphed into something else, especially as I noted what occurred among my peers with the other High Families in recent years.

Despite the decisions made by the Lords Grantell, Bonlee, and Sayer to employ their extra sons as important parts of the family structure, Father assures me that this is wrong and leads to confusion regarding inheritance. As the saying goes: the First is the heir, the Second is the Spare, of the Rest— Beware.

As such, in two years’ time, upon my sixteenth birthday, he will send me forth into the world with, as he pointed out, an excellent education, my hard-earned skills in weaponcraft, any lessons in managing estates that I may have managed to glean, as well as my personal possessions, weapons, clothing, and my horse. It will be upon my own honor to seek out the highest and best use of my personal skills and abilities for service to the Kingdom of Montshire—my Inherited Duty.

Mother, I will admit that it came as something of a shock. But upon further reflection, I realized that Father had done me great service in assuring I understood my station in life now, at this point in time. As I gave the matter further thought, I came to an epiphany of sorts. I understood exactly what I had to do, exactly what my Duty was to be. It also explained much about my life to date, especially Father’s distance from me all these years. In my childhood, I thought it was because he wanted a second daughter for trade in marriage and was thusly disappointed with a less-than-useful third son. But now it is clear.

Father once warned me to never, ever grow attached to each Spring’s piglets and lambs, as they will only break your heart when Autumn arrives and they are slaughtered, salted, and stored for Winter.

Clearly, he foresaw my own Autumn approaching and thus guarded his heart. But by telling me this now, while something of my personal Summer still remains, he has given me time to prepare for my Autumn. You see Mother, my greatest skills have always been those of combat. Yes, I have a certain modicum of talent for metalwork as taught to me by Mastersmith Neld, but I will never excel in that endeavor as I might in a position of soldiery. And I have you to thank for my time away with your Drodacian friend, Jellaquin, in the ancient mountains of Drodacia, an education of an entirely other sort.

I don’t know if she told you, but Jella has always maintained that I have a bit of natural talent for the woodscraft of the Foresters. So, now, while I have a few years left, I will travel to Drodacia and seek out Jella, imploring her to continue my education in the craft. I will offer the work of my body and what simple smith skills as I now possess in exchange for a chance to learn. Then, upon my sixteen birthday, I will present myself to the King’s Army for induction.

Mother, I know I will be accepted to the ranks of infantry. My education in the arts of war has been quite good. But my true goal is to excel in training and thus present myself for consideration for the Ranged Reconnaissance Squadron. As one of the king’s elite fighters, I will serve the royal family of Montshire and make you proud. With Drodacian training layered over my existing skills, I feel, without exhibiting excessive pride or unfounded overconfidence, that I would make a most excellent soldier for the king.

Thank you, Mother, for a wonderful childhood. Your family connections to the Drodacian Nation have provided me some of my best memories and an extraordinary introduction to the secret skills of those most dangerous Foresters. And I will always hold my summers dear, as they have been wonderful as well. I will miss relieving Brona’s boredom this year, which brings me to begging a favor, that of having you explain some of my decision to her when she and her father, his majesty, King Helat Warcan, take up their summer residence in a few weeks’ time. I have attached a personal message for her, but as you know, the crown princess is possessed of a temper far in excess of her personal stature. She will be most wroth with me and I fear she won’t read my letter without you providing some context. Hopefully she will find time to enjoy Jolanna’s company and she will realize that I am, after all, only seeking to serve her royal self to the best of my ability.

So, Mother, it is time to cast aside my childhood and move into the world of adults. I promise I will make you proud.

With all my love, devotion, and respect; your son always,

Savid DelaCrotia.

Lady Jean finished her reading and looked up to spear her husband with a sharp glare that left no chance of a misinterpretation regarding her feelings.

In fact, the tension was so palpable that silence occupied the entirety of the dining room for some few moments. All of the kitchen servants were now standing at attention, faces attempting, and failing, to mask the fear of what might follow.

“Ah, Savid is quite correct, Mother,” Gracid finally offered into the mounting quiet. When her hooded eyes turned to regard her eldest, he rushed to complete his thought. “Savid is really quite naturally gifted at all of the combat arts.”

“Are you saying, Gracid, that my youngest boy, at the advanced age of fourteen, is ready to decide upon a future of armed service to the crown, to volunteer for the most dangerous ranks in the King’s Army, based simply on the concept that just one of his skills is possibly advantageous for such work?”

Gracid wisely decided to keep his mouth shut and offered no further ammunition for his mother’s temper. Tallen, on the other hand, opened his own mouth and stepped bravely and foolishly into the line of fire. “Mother, Savid regularly beats me at swordplay, and I am three years his senior. He’s not just good at finding missing stuff; he’s also very good at fighting too.”

Her sharp eyes found his and he visibly shrank back without saying a word. “Because woldlings, with their claws and teeth, carefully abide by the rules of civilized combat?”

He shook his head, mouth opening but no words coming out. Lady Jean DelaCrotia stared him down for a span of ten seconds, then returned her gaze to the primary target of her ire.

“Did you, in your wisdom, not think to consult me in regard to my son’s future, before you told him that he would be thrown out in two years’ time?” she asked in a dangerous tone.

“See here, woman. I am lord of this castle and you will not talk to me so!” Rucian blustered. His outburst caused more than one servant to jump in fear, but had no such effect upon his lady wife, who studied him with deadly calm.

“Yes, my lord, and as such, you are responsible for the safety and growth of this family—every member of it. Did you have any idea that Savid had felt your disappointment in the sex of his birth? Do you know your son at all?

“Had you consulted me, I would have told you that my father, Lord Leica, was very much desirous of bringing Savid to my family’s estates for training and employment upon his adulthood. Had you ever listened to my reports on our youngest boy, you would know that one of Savid’s greatest talents is that of working with others. That he can move between people of all classes and races with a natural ease that almost every lord in this kingdom would pay greatly to employ. He is one of the very few who can interact with Drodacians without ever offending them. That skill alone is more valuable than that of any mere soldier. Dealing with Drodacians is what my family does, that and mining valuable minerals from the mountains that border their lands. His duty was already there to be laid out, a duty that would see him as a valued member of two families, instead of fighting woldlings on the fringes of Montshire.

“So much for your vaunted business acumen.

“Oh, and when I deliver this message to her royal highness, I will be sure she understands why her best friend in life has left his home and country.”

“Why, she should be grateful to me. The boy will, indeed, make an excellent soldier in her father’s army and perhaps even her own when she ascends the throne,” Rucian said defensively. “Plus, the boy is getting too old to be alone with the crown princess. The odds of youthful indiscretion are too great to risk the shame and danger it would bring upon the DelaCrotia name.”

Lady Jean pulled back, disbelief upon her face. “You really don’t know him at all?”

Rucian turned to each of his other sons but Gracid just shook his head minutely and Tallen stared down at the table in front of them. Upon his daughter’s face, he found a frown.

“Jolanna? You have something to say?” he challenged.

She paused before forging ahead. “Father, Savid is Brona’s greatest friend and champion. He would give his life for her. Do you not remember two years ago when they were swimming in the river, and she was caught by the branches of that fallen tree? He never hesitated. Swam right to her and pulled her free.”

“Her fancy Wenkroy guard, Salis, was there; she would have saved the princess. Savid himself said that Brona wasn’t yet in danger, and he praised her poise and calm.”

“Father, I was there too. It was much more dangerous than he made it sound, and Salis was too far away and too covered in metal weapons to get to Brona in time. But he would never allow any to question her honor.”

“Jolanna is right. Savid beat the Preston family boy badly once for an ill-considered comment concerning the princess,” Tallen said. “And that boy is two years older than he is.”

“Well, the boy is gone. He has made his decision. What’s done is done,” Rucian said.

Two Weeks Later

The scream that echoed through the summer palace of the King of Montshire was one of outrage, hurt, and enormous anger. Yet not a single person ran toward the source of the sound; in fact, many of the palace’s staff turned and headed as far away, and as quickly, as possible. For virtually every inhabitant of the king’s court knew instantly who had produced the sound and was very familiar with the unpleasant implications.

Unfortunately for the ladies and servants who surrounded the screamer, there would be no escape. Crown Princess Brona Olivia Tersi Warcan stood in the middle of her suite, looking from the letter in her hand to Lady Jean DelaCrotia and then back again.

“Savid feared you would be too upset to read his letter with a clear head,” Lady Jean said in a low but firm tone. Of all the court, perhaps no other lady could have gotten away with such an explanation to the volatile princess. But Lady Jean had partially filled a gap in the young princess’s life, a gap left when her mother, Queen Ilana, had passed away ten years earlier.

Brona, average of height, slender of figure, was a very pretty teenager, with dark brown hair that curled softly about her face and shoulders and vivid green eyes that shone bright with razor-sharp intelligence. Just now though, those eyes were softening from anger to something sadder.

Lady Jean took one look at the tears beginning to brim and spoke. “Ladies, could we have the room please.” It was a most welcome request, and the suite emptied in record time, leaving just Lady Jean, her daughter Jolanna, and the princess.

“Why?” Brona asked, the threatened tears now flowing freely.

“Let us sit a bit, dear, and discuss that. I have had several weeks to digest this decision of his and have exchanged raptor-borne notes with both my son and my friend Jella. Savid is doing well by all accounts. Jella reports that he seems to almost thrive on the training and is working hard to help pay his own accounts through his smithing efforts.”

“This was Lord DelaCrotia’s idea?” Brona asked. It was a simple question, but Lady Jean knew there were no simple questions when they came from the crown princess.

“No. Rucian brought up the concept of Inherited Duty. Had I any notion he would do such a thing, I would have headed him off. He has never been close to Savid and had no idea how our son would handle such a deadline.”

The tears were wiped away and the coldness that filled those emerald green eyes gave Jean a sudden fear for her husband. While true love might be absent from her marriage, she still did not want anything untoward to happen to him. The court had been observing Brona from birth and was very well acquainted with her temper. But most failed to understand just how very hard and dangerous that anger could be. Lady Jean was very aware of the princess’s dark edge.

“Then he knows him not at all,” the princess said.

“Mother said as much,” Jolanna said.

“Have you not told him of his other options?” Brona asked, glancing from daughter to mother.

“I have now. He is, however, locked into this idea. I fear, Your Highness, that he has decided his best use will be to serve your family as a weapon.”

“The kingdom has plenty of soldiers,” Brona said.

“You mistake me, Princess. He wants to serve the royal family, you specifically. Savid is maybe more devoted to you than you even know.”

Brona sniffed. “I know he is my best friend. I know that I can send him a message and he will always answer, at least until these past two weeks.”

“You can continue to send him messages, just as I do. My personal covey of raptors is trained for delivery to and from the Drodacian mountains. They stand at your service.”

Brona absorbed that, then nodded, composure returning rapidly. She glanced back down at the letter in her hand. When she lifted her head, the other two could clearly see the sharp intellect at work.

“Thank you, Lady Jean. Thank you, Jolanna. I will most certainly take you up on your offer. I have much to say to your son. But first, I should read this letter most thoroughly and carefully. Would you excuse me?”

“Of course, Princess,” Jean said, moving to curtsey but stopping when the princess put her hand out and shook her head.

“Not from you, not in private. Either of you. You are family, if not in blood, then by personal choice.”

The mother and daughter exchanged a glance, then moved forward and hugged the princess simultaneously before taking their leave.

The palace staff would later mark that day as a turning point in the life of their crown princess. After spending half a day in solitude with the letter, Brona emerged with a message to be sent by DelaCrotia raptor. Within two days, the first reply came back. From thence on, the princess was different.

Whereas her normal summer would be one of forest explorations, boating on the small lake in front of the palace, picnics with her ladies, quiet teas, loud parties, and time daydreaming with her childhood friend, instead, a new regimen took over.

Brona began to attend her father’s court sessions, begged Helat for inclusion in his council meetings, studied in the library, and became highly engaged in all of the functions of the kingdom. It was as if in one day, she had set aside her youth and chose to accept all of her royal responsibilities.

Chapter 1 Ten years later.

The town of Brown’s Feld died loudly, fighting its demise with everything it had. Screams of terror, pain, and rage filled the night along with the bone-chilling roars of the village’s murderers. Bright fires, burning out of control, lit the night, throwing shadows of horrifying violence that matched the sounds of the community’s death throes.

Deep inside the mayor’s home, back in the kitchen, a single small child hid under a thick chopping block, her back against the stone of the outside wall. Dark-haired, dark-skinned, with deep black eyes much, much older than her face, she hugged herself and waited.

In the next room, the mayor’s wife was dying noisily, her body being torn apart by the horrid power of the beast that had sunk its claws deep into her torso. The enormity of the violence itself guaranteed that the death was quick. The woman’s screams ended suddenly, which was both a blessing and a curse to the little girl, because though the kind woman’s personal pain was now over, it left the girl herself as the next target.

The growls and snarls quieted gradually, followed by loud sniffing sounds. Then the click of clawed feet on wooden plank flooring, moving closer.

From under the butcher block, the girl could see two thick legs, covered in black-bristled fur layered over corded muscle, step into the kitchen. Then the two forelegs dropped down, five cruel claws on each front foot, as the creature went to all fours. A horrid odor wafted ahead of it, overpowering the already alarming scents of smoke and blood. It was a stomach-turning combination, reminiscent of a moldering midden pit mixed with the worst of an old outhouse.

Even on four legs, the body was too high off the ground for her to see any real detail other than black fur, twisted muscle, and long black claws. Something dripped onto the wooden planks right in front of her, a crimson mix of blood and drool. Then the legs lowered and the twisted creature descended into sight, the short, wide mouth unable to close because of too many teeth, above which were horrid red eyes that were bright with madness and sharp, pointed ears on either side of its head that flicked forward, listening.

The girl reacted not at all. She simply hugged herself and waited, a reaction most unlike every other victim the beast had come across. Despite its savage rage, it paused to consider, head tilted with unusual intelligence.

The little girl unwrapped one arm, pointing her finger and raised thumb at the beast. Then she dropped her thumb and made one tiny puffing sound.

The beast had no time to react to this odd turn of events as almost instantly it was hit from the side by the heavy barbed bolt of a war crossbow. Designed to pierce plate armor from any angle, the heavy crossbow had made wearing the ungainly suits of expensive metal a virtual death trap. Faced with mere flesh and blood, even that of the monstrous beast, the bolt blasted completely through the creature’s shoulders, breaking all the bones it encountered and sticking the monster to the interior wall.

Still alive, the creature vainly tried to pull itself free. From her protected space, the girl saw human legs, clad in leather, move swiftly into the room. The sound of something heavy and metallic hitting flesh and bone immediately followed. The beast shuddered to stillness.

The human legs paused for a moment, wet sucking sounds ensuing as if something was being withdrawn from bone and flesh. Then a big man crouched down rather suddenly, looking under the chopping block at the girl.

He was muscular and fierce looking, with a thick black beard, light blue eyes, his body wrapped in leather armor and weapons. An odd crossbow was held easily in his left hand while his right hand flicked a Drodacian Forester’s axe free of blood with one smooth snapping motion. Then he carefully wiped the steel clean on the fur of the beast. The haft of a long sword poked up over one shoulder. Hard icy blue eyes regarded her, but the girl took just one look and then held out a small hand.

Surprise flickered through the man’s eyes and he let go of the crossbow to take her soft little hand in his thickly calloused one.

“What have you found, Savid?” a woman asked from the doorway. The man shifted so that the girl was revealed, his thick eyebrows raised.

The woman was just average height, maybe slightly less, her body lithe and fit, clad in fitted furs and leather, a short, carefully crafted bow in her left hand. Savid saw the girl eyeing first the woman’s bow and then his crossbow, both weapons fitted with strange, off-centered wheels at the ends of the bow staves, both seeming to have too many strings.

The girl frowned for a second, but it cleared as she looked the female warrior over.

The woman also carried a Forester’s axe as well as numerous other blades, and a quiver of arrows was strapped to her back. Her eyes were almost too large for her face, tilted at the ends and possessed of a deep yellow, almost golden color that complemented the light brown of her hair.

“A survivor, Jella. Perhaps the only one,” Savid said.

“You found her so you get to escort her. But come on… we have many more woldlings to kill,” the woman said, then slid out of view with smooth grace.

Savid helped the girl out from under her hiding spot. Then he paused to cock the odd crossbow and load it with another heavy bolt, holding it easily in his right hand while holding the girl’s little hand with his left, the deadly axe thrust back through his belt. Then he carefully led the girl out of the wreckage of the building and into the disaster that was the village.

Jella was standing guard, her bow ready with a nocked arrow, eyes watching, head tilted as she listened.

A dark shadow moved out from the corner of a nearby blacksmith’s shop, but the horrible head had just hardly come into view around the corner when the fletching of a white-shafted hunting arrow appeared in its right eye. The girl turned to look from the dying beast back toward the woman, but Jella’s attention was already turned in a different direction, a new arrow nocked in the deadly bow.

Growls from the opposite direction, where the baker’s shop burned on the corner of the main road and a side street, caught all of their attention. Another shadow prowled in the flickering light of the fires, a gross parody of a humanoid shape, wide and twisted. A second shadow, this one long and lean and shaped much differently, leapt onto the first’s shadow’s back. Instantly, the sounds of beasts fighting erupted in the night, deep growls and a higher yowl that rose briefly before the growls suddenly ended with a sharp snapping sound.

“Another to Yawl then. That makes, what? Four?” Savid asked.

“Five. I have seven and you are the one stuck at what… four?” the woman asked, her voice holding a challenge.

“Five with that last one. No fears, Jella. I have lots more to catch up with,” he replied.

“Not burdened with her,” Jella answered, nodding at the girl.

No sooner had she spoken when the girl suddenly let go of Savid’s hand and pointed to the crossbow he held.

Instantly it was in both his hands, ready to be shouldered. The girl pointed at another street corner, held up three fingers, and then closed them one at a time in an obvious countdown.

When she reached one, a shaggy head appeared right at the indicated place and the man feathered the trigger gently, releasing the bolt.

The force of Savid’s shot knocked the beast sideways, its head almost split by the bolt.

“Six. And if she can do that again, it won’t even be a contest,” he said, smiling.

Jella, for her part, was studying the girl carefully with narrowed eyes. “She’s eslling.”

“Hah! And here you thought she’d keep my numbers down,” he said.

Now Jella’s eyes narrowed at him. “Outside help doesn’t count.”

“But if she’d simply been a burden on me, you would’ve been okay with me being penalized? Nope, not fair. Can’t have it both ways. In fact, it’s the same as if I picked up a new, better weapon.”

He watched her for a reaction while continuing his own scan for trouble, but the woman simply sniffed once before turning and moving on.

“Come along then,” Savid said to the girl, who just nodded and moved quietly alongside him.

He decided she must be about seven or eight years of age. Her shirt and pants were worn beyond the filth of the catastrophe, like they had already been on their last legs. The dead bodies in the house were all lighter of skin tone and had the light brown hair common among the Mandrigan people. Which was only right as the town was in Mandrigo itself, just over the border from Montshire.

But the girl was obviously from Lachia, the southernmost country on the continent, her black hair, dark eyes, and brown skin all common there.

He was still watching her when she turned suddenly and looked west. She didn’t tense up like she had when she’d somehow sensed the woldling. Instead, she merely looked curiously at whatever was coming.

Savid had a pretty good idea of what should be in that direction, so he wasn’t surprised when a wide-shouldered man in battered leathers came around the corner of another burning house, a crossbow that could have been the twin of Savid’s in his arms. A vest of loops adorned the man’s torso and small paper-wrapped stick-like objects were carefully secured there, as if they were weapons. A short sword was strapped to his waist.

“Hey Sarge,” the man said, then caught sight of the girl. “Oh… hey there, little one. No points for rescues though, Sarge.”

Savid snorted. “Report, Corporal.”

“No survivors on the west side. Looks like a larger than normal horde. I’ve already killed six,” the man said with a grin.

“Much larger than normal, as I have six, Jella has seven, and Yawl has five,” Savid replied.

“I don’t get it. Why send almost twice the normal horde against a little backwoods village?” the newcomer asked.

“Your fearless leader likely has the reason tucked against his side,” Jella said, her voice soft amid the crackle of the burning houses. “Ask him how he got his last kill, Cort.”

The girl suddenly spun and pointed again, tense but not exactly fearful. This time, when a woldling appeared in the place where she pointed, crawling over the peak of a roof, it was hit simultaneously in the shoulder by a war bolt and in the head by a hunting arrow.

Jella looked at Savid in triumph but he didn’t concede the point so they both looked at Cort.

“Whoa. How’d she do that? Craft?” Cort asked, staring at the girl.

“She’s obviously eslling,” Jella said impatiently. “But who got the kill?”

“Oh,” Cort said, rubbing his mustache as he thought about it. Then he nodded once, to himself. “She did,” he said, pointing at the girl. “You both were just her weapons of choice.”

“Hmm, not sure about that particular interpretation at all,” Savid said. “Game aside, let’s finish sweeping this place and pull out.”

The other two nodded and went back to business, weapons and eyes focused on the dangerous environment. They moved past the center of the little town; the spot marked by a common well in the center of a green space where the two main roads crossed. A pair of dead cows lay on the common green, throats torn out, stomachs eviscerated.

Without discussion, the woman, who was scouting ahead, moved onto the southern road and the two men and girl followed. Six more times the girl alerted them to woldlings, and all six were killed on sight.

The town was tiny, and by the time they covered several hundred spans of ground, they were through it, actually almost out of it.

Jella led the way, moving so quietly that the girl couldn’t hear her steps as they entered the forest. Savid was just as quiet, while Cort was almost as quiet as he followed behind, his head turning to watch their back trail.

Savid saw the girl turn her head, expression curious, looking toward the brushy vegetation that now bordered the edge of the trail they were following. A second later, a tawny four-legged form slipped from under a bush, darted across the trail in front of them, and disappeared into the woods on the other side.

Despite the fact that the big cat was over two spans in length and almost a span tall at the shoulders, none of the warriors paid it any mind at all. It even brushed Jella with its tail but she didn’t so much as flinch.

After a few minutes on the southbound trail, Jella slipped off into the forest in the same direction that the mountain cat had taken. When they came even with the spot where she had stepped off the trail, Savid guided the girl into a previously unseen gap between two trees.

The girl stumbled once, then suddenly turned and held up her arms at the exact moment that Savid crouched down. He blinked twice, having only just arrived at the decision that it would be easier to carry her rather than let her bang around in the poorly lit terrain.

Shaking his head, he scooped her up and moved smoothly through the dark forest, his steps careful and almost completely silent, even burdened as he was.

The group circled to the west, traveling carefully and quietly. Finally, after two hours, they emerged on a road not far from the big river that ran north of the village.

“What’s your name, girl?” Savid asked, his quiet voice almost startling after the long span of silence.

She studied him for a moment or two. “Sydney,” she said in almost a whisper.

“Nice to meet you, Sydney. I’m Savid, this is Jella, and that guy there is Cort. We’re going to take you to meet someone special. She’ll take care of you.”

“Who?” she asked, head tilted.

“Don’t you already know, Sydney?”

She shook her head. “Too far.”

“Too far? What’s that supposed to mean?” Cort asked as he shifted his backpack around. It was small but looked heavy.

“Too far forward in time,” Jella said. “She’s a see-er. She’s talking about her time range.”

The little girl didn’t say anything, but she nodded twice in agreement.

“Do you know how far ahead you see, Sydney?” Savid asked her.

She froze up, worry in her eyes. Savid sighed. “Have you seen me hurt you or get mad or do anything mean to you next?”

She shook her head but still waited, letting the seconds tick by. Then, ten seconds later, she tilted her head and studied him. Finally, she nodded, as if to herself, clearly reaching a decision. “Three,” she said, holding up three fingers.

“Three minutes? Hours? Days?” Cort asked, eyes bright.

“Minutes, I should think,” Jella said. “Any longer and she would have gotten herself out of the village or warned everyone. Plus, I think she just looked ahead to see how Savid responded to her answer. When he didn’t yell or do anything too stupid, she realized that it was probably safe to speak of it.”

“But she did… she did tell the sergeant,” Cort said, scratching his head. “Wouldn’t she see herself telling him?”

“It’s complicated. She likely looked at what would happen if she told and what would happen if she didn’t. Plus sometimes, when you look at the future, you change it,” Jella said, checking the fletching on her remaining arrows.

Sydney was nodding vigorously, eyes wide as she looked at the Drodacian Forester.

“I need more arrows,” Jella said to Savid before giving the little girl a quick smile.

“We all do. Be a lot easier if their damned blood didn’t corrode the arrowheads,” he replied. “Border is up ahead. Our horses are in Connawa, just a few t-spans down the road. We rest and re-equip there. Tomorrow we head north, and we’ll send a raptor to report.”

“Montshire? You’re taking me to Montshire?” Sydney suddenly asked.

“Yes. You’ll be safe there.”

“With the woman?”

Cort was taking a sip of water and almost spit it out. “Woman? The woman. Bet herself would love to be called that! Humph,” he said, wiping his mouth on a stained leather sleeve.

Savid ignored him. “Yes, the woman.”

Sydney looked from Cort to Savid to Jella. “Okay then.”

“You believe this kid? Lives through a woldling slaughter, travels with nasty bunch of blades like us, and completely trusts that everything will be okay,” Cort said.

Jella shrugged. “She’s eslling,” as if that explained all.