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Chapter IX

The next week of the caravan trip passed in relative peace, and the supply train arrived in Cilis with only a few burn marks and one guard to bury as a memory of the attack. They’d buried what was left of the archers in the field, stripped their weapons and gear, and left them there in unmarked graves.

The gear had given him new reason to worry. One of the supply wagons was now stacked with it. It was all fairly uniform and in good repair. Not the sort of thing a casual bandit gang could finance. And the longbows suggested they were trained archers. So where had they received the training? And who had financed it? There was enough trouble in the kingdom already without a noble getting it into his head to disrupt the kingdom’s supply lines. Push that a bit too far and there’d be another war between the nobles and the king, which meant the king and his supporters against the newer nobility along the sea coast and in the northwest.

Cilis was effectively where the king’s centralized authority began to drop off. The farther you got from Rylar, the less influence the king’s will had and the more he depended on the legions to keep the peace. The farther they marched, the more likely it was that other bandits would attack the caravans, private armies or not.

The questions had been chewing at him the whole week to Cilis, and his temper was frayed. It was probably a good thing the priestess of Anya was there to keep an eye on the prisoners, or he might have been more inventive about encouraging them to answer his questions. So far they’d stuck to their fake story.

He wondered if there were any priests of Alyssa attached to the barracks here. They were supposed to be able to wrangle the truth out of stone. The Goddess of Peace granted her followers gifts that made them useful interrogators as well as negotiators, if you could convince them to help. They never used brute force; and you could hardly expect them to considering the goddess they served. But they could tell if someone were lying.

He reported to the Guard captain at the barracks, a Senior Captain Peia, and voiced his concerns. She studied him gravely over the scarred surface of her oak desk, from where she sat in the center of a cramped office. Space was always at a premium in barracks. “You couldn’t have waited a couple of weeks until my replacement was here, I suppose?” she asked. She looked unamused.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he replied. “Do you think it’s safe to continue the supply caravan to the north?”

“The supplies need to get there, so they’re going one way or another. But we’ll double the Guard contingent just to be sure. Another hundred just arrived as well, headed in that direction, so that’s convenient. The legions forming there have been drawing men from the south fairly steadily. Yours isn’t the first caravan to be attacked by bandits, real or supposed, but it’s the first that’s brought word of such a concerted and well-armed attack, and that’s worrisome. We haven’t lost any caravans yet, so let’s hope this was a fluke.” She scribbled out a series of lines on a piece of paper in front of her before she passed it to him. “Here you go. You get a new junior officer to share the fun with. He’ll report to you on the way north. Name’s Jaret. Apparently his commission’s as new as they get. Try to teach him something on the way. Don’t let him get killed. And I’ll send the messenger you asked to the king.”

He saluted with his fist over his heart and left. Well, she’d listened to his concerns and the defense of the caravan would be strengthed. How fast anything happened beyond that was anyone’s guess. But he didn’t think it would hurt to send a second message, using the courier service that the king’s dagger gave him access to. It might even get there faster, and it’d go into Juslir’s hands, who seemed to be a rather effective individual.

He’d left the two prisoners in the Guard’s jail, and he wanted to check on them before he got a late dinner and some sleep. Perhaps the jailers had learned something. He’d heard that the Guard did indeed have a priest of Alyssa on call to listen to prisoners’ claims. It was a useful policy: the threat of having their lies exposed by the priest kept the riff-raff from causing too much racket. And if an innocent person ended up in a cell, the priest could verify their story. Sometimes they even got confessions.

It was as he was walking through a quiet hallway towards the jails that he heard the scuff of a foot behind him, and under the prompting of some warning instinct, he fell to the ground and rolled out of the way. Something clattered off the stone above him, and he glanced up just in time to see a figure in a dark cloak sprinting away. A knife lay on the ground at the base of the wall where it had fallen. For an instant he was torn between checking on the jails and chasing the assassin, but it didn’t last long. He left the knife where it was and went after the cloak.

The man in the cloak sprinted out a side door and into the evening street, where his cloak blended into those of the passers-by. The streets were packed, and he almost lost him amidst the shoppers and revelers, but he caught a sight of the cloak and barreled after it as it turned a corner into a blind alley, where the person in the cloak ran straight at the wall before seeming to disappear.

A door hidden in the shadows? He ran after him, and when he got to the spot he nearly slammed into the wall before sliding to a stop. It looked like solid brick. He searched in the shadows, poking and prodding at the bricks. Where had he gone, and how? And how had the assassin gotten into the Guard’s barracks in the first place? Come to think of it, why hadn’t there been any guards at the side-door?

His questions were halted abruptly by the feel of a noose tightening around his neck. He choked and grabbed at it as he was hauled off his feet and dragged into the shadows. A voice spoke quietly beside his ear. “My master sends this one warning, prey. Do not seek your lady. Obey this, and you may live out your life with his blessing.” The face of his assailant came into view, vaguely aesthetic, clean, strong lines, pronounced cheekbones, lean skin with tendons visible at the beneath. But what really took his attention were the eyes. They were gleaming with a red fire like embers giving off light in the darkness.

The sight made his blood run cold. And suddenly, he got the feeling that this assassin had nothing to do with the attack on the caravan. This was a different matter entirely.

“Who are you?” he choked out. The assailant hadn’t drawn the noose tight enough to strangle him yet. A single twist was all it would take

His attacker’s mouth curled into a slight smile. “One of my lord’s huntsmen. Should you come to his wood, you will find many more. I leave you to consider his offer, prey.”

The noose disappeared from around Allen’s neck, and the huntsman jumped, simply jumped, thirty feet into the air to land atop the wall at the end of the blind alley, before he looked back down at Allen and winked one of those gleaming red eyes. He’d done it just to show off. Then he was gone.

Allen stood up slowly, rubbing at his neck and watching the space where the huntsman had been. The man had been deadly silent, strong, and could apparently leap walls. He’d never seen anything like it before. He stared at the wall for a minute, and debated how much force it would take to jump thirty feet. He decided he didn’t want to meet the man again in anything resembling a fair fight. What by all the gods had he been? Certainly not human. And what had he meant about not searching out his lady?

It was on his way back to the jail that it struck him and he grunted in realization. Hunstman. Lord. Lady. Wood. Red eyes. Inhuman abilities. It had to be connected to Nitharn. And it looked like the huntsman had just confirmed the story from the council of priests. The lord and lady the man referred hadn’t been nobles; they’d been a Lord and Lady. God and Goddess. One of whom was supposed to be asleep in Nitharn, guarded by her brother Cerias. He nodded slowly. Perhaps it was coincidence, for the message to come now, when he could understand what it meant, but probably not. Cerias had been sending a message, now that Allen was coming closer to Nitharn. Cilis was one of the cities closest to the Ghostwood.

And it looked like Cerias had more than hounds to help him on his Hunt. The huntsman had disabled some of the finest guards in the land in order to get into the barracks, deceived Allen into chasing him, and then taken him down without even a whisper of sound to reveal the effort. Allen had a healthy confidence in his abilities, but he knew when he was outclassed. And in that match, he’d been outclassed by an order of magnitude. It had been like one of the demons of the snow that the northmen told tales about. Fast, silent, awesomely strong, and deadly. Very, very deadly.

He wondered why he was still alive. If Cerias wanted him to stay out of the wood, the simplest way would have been to kill him and permanently remove the problem he presented.

The question was what he was supposed to do now. Chasing down the huntsman wasn’t going to work. He’d just tried that and been snared like a fool. If the forest of Nitharn was guarded by more of those, he didn’t stand a chance in getting to the goddess. If he was going after her at all, of course. He had a duty to this caravan to do first, and a posting to the north.

He headed back to the jails to check on the bandits. At least he could occupy his time with regular duties, and he wanted to know who had sent these two. Maybe the priest of Alyssa would be around and he’d be able to get a confession out of them.

When he got to the cells, he was too preoccupied to notice that the guards outside the door were gone.

But it was hard to miss the fact that the bandits, or to be more precise what remained of the bandits, was a bloody splatter across the walls. He slammed his fist into the wall and swore again. For the love of Kaisa, if it wasn’t one thing it was another! There went any chance of finding out who’d attacked the caravan and who might be trying to disrupt the trade in the kingdom. He wrapped his hands around the bars of the jail cell as he stared into the interior, looking over the remains of the bandits. They’d been messily eviscerated, and their rib cages torn open. It looked like something had driven its hand through their stomachs and up into their chests, and then ripped their hearts out with brute force. He felt a little sick.

It didn’t bother his conscience much to see the bandits dead, but it was a bad way to die. He shook his head as he gripped the bars of the cell and frowned down at the mess.

If didn’t mistake his guess, the hunstman had been behind this. So now he had to go tell the captain that a demon had killed her prisoners, and she hadn’t look like she wanted to be bothered twice in one night. He massaged his neck where the noose had grabbed him. It was always a good day in the Guard. So much for grabbing a late dinner.

He pondered as he walked back towards the captain’s office. The question was why the huntsman had killed the prisoners. What would Cerias gain from these men’s death? One option was that they had been working for Him in that band to attack the caravan. But why would Cerias need human guards when He had creatures like the huntsman at His beck and call? Perhaps the numbers of the huntsmen were limited? Maybe. He doubted it mattered. One huntsman could have taken out the entire caravan while they were asleep with no one the wiser. If they were anything like the demons in the north that the Luesi called arvalhim, they might even enjoy doing it. Whole camps had disappeared that way before, when blizzards rolled in and brought the demons south.

Things weren’t making sense, and he didn’t like it. Why the hunter, why now, and how was it connected to the raid on the caravan? Maybe the hunstman had just killed the bandits to distract him and keep him from Nitharn.

The Guard Captain took his latest report with a look in her eye that asked if he was joking, and told him he’d better not be. “A demon. Killed the prisoners,” she repeated, flatly. “Do you know what that sounds like, lieutenant? It sounds like you’ve been drinking too much.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I know it’s a bit strange. I don’t have any more information besides that. I saw him with my own eyes. He nearly strangled me. His eyes were glowing red, and he jumped a thirty foot wall when I chased him.” He left out the part about the huntsman’s message to him.

“You look like a trustworthy lieutenant, Delais,” she said, her eyes narrow. “But if you keep coming into my office with problems I can’t solve, I’m not going to like you. I take it the prisoners are irrecoverable?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I think it’ll be a while before we get all the splatters out of the walls.”

“If you weren’t an officer, I’d tell you to get a mop and a bucket and do something useful to keep yourself out of trouble for the rest of the night. But since you are an officer, go find a couple of men and tell them to get a bucket, and then go with them and keep yourself out of trouble for the rest of the night. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. It could have been worse. At least she hadn’t ordered him locked up under suspicion of drinking too much. People never seemed to believe the stories about demons until they’d seen one. Just something about human nature. There was a lesson in there somewhere. “Do you believe me about the demon, ma’am? Have you ever seen anything like it before?”

“Lieutenant, there’s a lot of weird things in that forest to the east of us, and in my book, they don’t much appreciate being talked about. So keep your tongue in your head and whatever you saw might not come back. Got it?” She returned to studying her ledger and didn’t glance up at him again. Apparently he was dismissed.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. Whether she was just threatening him into silence or not, he got the message. No more talking about demons. Too bad she hadn’t answered the question.

On his way out, she stopped him. “Lieutenant, seeing as you saw what you did, I’d recommend you stay as far from that Wood as possible. Most people don’t live to tell those stories twice.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, before he closed the door behind him.It thunked closed with a solid sound. A comfortable one in the old barracks.

Unfortunately, staying away from the Wood probably wasn’t going to be an option. He had a goddess to find eventually. And however long he could stay away from that duty, he had the feeling that she wasn’t going to wait forever.

He rustled up a couple of men from the caravan guard who’d been unfortunate enough to be back in the barracks early, and hauled them and some cleaning supplies down to the jail cell. The guards had returned from wherever they’d disappeared to while the huntsman had been there, and were apparently none the wiser. A nice trick that.

“Evening, Lieutenant,” one said, who was standing guard over the jail. “What are the slop buckets for?”

“Special duty,” he replied, keeping his mouth shut like the captain had suggested. “You mind opening the door? Captain’s orders.”

The guard glanced at the man on his left, who shrugged. Not their problem. He turned back to Allen. “Sure thing, Lieutenant. You going to show those two bandits how to use a bucket?” He chuckled at his joke.

Allen gave the guardsman a flat stare. “Just open the door, guardsman, and you’ll see for yourself.”

The guardsman blinked and looked at him uncertainly before he turned around and unlocked the door, holding it open. “Everything all right, Lieutenant? Lemme just check on those bandits and make sure they aren’t going to throw a rock or something when you walk in.”

Allen let him enter, and then followed him inside, gesturing to the two bucket holders to come along.

“Holy mother of Solen!” the guard shouted. “What in the name of Yoneth’s putrid ass happened here?”

The other guard ran through the door to look around, then blanched. “Mother of Solen!” he added, agreeably. “We were standing right here the entire time!”

Well, if they really believed that, it was an interesting trick on the huntsman’s part. He supposed he could commend the demon for a job well done.

“That’s what the buckets are for, fellows,” he added. “Why don’t you go back to guarding the doors so it doesn’t happen again.”

“How’d it happen in the first place, sir?” the second guard asked, looking nervous.

“Can’t tell you,” Allen replied. “Captain’s orders to keep quiet about it. Might mention that you shouldn’t stare too hard in the direction of the forest right now though.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the east. Maybe it was just his imagination, but as he turned his attention to the forest for that instant, it felt like the forest was looking back. He shrugged his shoulders to get rid of the feeling of something breathing down his neck.

“Uhh,” one of the guards said intelligently, glancing over his shoulder. “Right, sir.”

“Back to your watch,” he told them. “We’ll take care of this.”

The guards saluted and resumed their post, but he could hear the mutterings behind him. “New lieutenant there, haven’t seen him before. Came in with the caravan probably. Wonder how he knew about this before us. And he’s already talked to the Captain about it. That’s not going to look good come review time.”

“Less talking, more watching,” he called back over his shoulder. He didn’t care if the guards were talking, but there were appearances to uphold.

“Uhh, yes, sir,” came the reply. The mutters faded to a quieter level, but he could still catch parts the conversation echoing from the stones in the jail as he found a spigot and directed the men to start pumping water into the buckets to sluice down the cell. “Forest-blighted demon did it, I tell you. Those buggers’ll show up like this now and then, just to leave a message to stay out of the place. At least it was just a couple of prisoners.”

Allen glanced over his shoulder at that. They’d got there faster than he’d suspected. So much for keeping the stories about demons quiet. At the rate those two were going, word would be all over the barracks by dawn. Not much more was to be expected, he supposed. Guards talked. It was one of the mainstays of an army. If you couldn’t find something out officially, you could always try the rumor mill. There’d be a dozen rumors about this soon enough. He wondered if they’d know anything about this specific sort of demon.

The two chattering guards gave him an idea. Maybe he should listen to some of those rumors floating around the barracks before he left tomorrow with the caravan. Someone might have a better idea about what was going on than he did. He might find out something.

For now though, they had a cell to scrub down. He glowered at the wall as he grabbed a long-handled brush. The men brought over some buckets of water and sluiced the walls down before they joined him with the long-handled brushes. He set to work and the men joined him. He supposed he could have made them do it while he watched, but he preferred to lead from the front. Even when it came to scrubbing down jells.

That wasn’t going to stop him from complaining about it though. First the demon strangled him and killed his prisoners, and now he and his men had to clean up the mess. There were times when it seemed fate had a sense of humor. His men were swearing quietly under their breath as they worked beside him. Apparently they had the same opinion, though their reasons were undoubtedly different. He added a few choice curses of his own. Morning would be there soon enough.

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