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Chapter X

“Lieutenant!” the Priestess of Anya called to him, walking over to where he was standing with Jaret beside the wagons. He sighed to himself, but tried to hide it from her. It didn’t pay to tick off your only healer. The woman had better eyes than half his scouts, and she wouldn’t stop following him around and trying to get him into bed with her. He wondered if she hadn’t missed her calling. Kaisa surely would have appreciated her.

“Lieutenant,” Nalia said again as she stopped beside him and placed her hand on his arm. She was carrying a basket. “You missed breakfast. I’ve brought you something.”

He took the basket with another pent-up sigh, turning his attention toward her for a moment and away from the Wood that he’d been studying in the distance now that they’d camped. “Thank you, priestess. Have you met Lieutenant Jaret yet?” He nodded to the young man beside him. If he was lucky, maybe he could redirect her attention. He’d feel bad for the boy, but he’d get over it.

The boy couldn’t possibly feel that bad about it. Nalia was a beautiful woman.

She probably didn’t understand why Allen was ignoring her advances, but it hadn’t phased her yet. She seemed to be the patient type. He didn’t quite understand it himself, truth be told. Jaella had been interesting enough. But this priestess just put him off. Maybe he had a jealous goddess and she didn’t want him getting interested in any other gods.

He looked the boy over again while Nalia turned to greet him. There had to be at least ten years’ difference in their respective ages, though he honestly had no clue how old he was. About thirty, he supposed, from looking in the mirror. Maybe a bit older.

“I believe I saw him riding with you earlier, but I don’t believe so,” the priestess said, turning slightly towards the other lieutenant. She offered her hand, and Jaret did a gallant rendition of bowing over it without tripping himself. Apparently they were teaching that in the capital now.

“Lady priestess, a pleasure,” the young man said. He had a quirky sort of smile. Rather like Kilin, Allen’d decided. “If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.”

Nalia glanced back at Allen for a moment, who was determinedly not watching the two of them, and then turned back to smile at Jaret. She seemed amused. “I will, Lieutenant, you have my word. Perhaps you could tell enlighten me about Lieutenant Delais here sometime. I hear he’s quite well-known with that Mark. And he always seems too busy to tell me any stories.”

“It would be my pleasure, priestess,” the lieutenant replied, glancing at Allen for confirmation, but all he got back was a slight shrug. He continued, “I’ve only known him for a few days, but I heard a few rumors during training that should make for an interesting tale. He’s pretty well-known for some harrowing scouting raids he did last year. Or least the tales make them harrowing.”

Allen tried not to glare at the boy. He’d wanted him to distract the priestess, not help fuel her imagination with wild rumors. Some of the Guardsmen last year had thought it was funny to spin up tales about the daring Marked Guard on solo patrols. It’d gotten a little out of hand. “Priestess,” he said, trying to change the subject. “Why don’t you give us your opinion. What exactly is out there in that Wood?” He nodded at the Ghostwood, which lay only a few hundred yards to the east. Even from here, he could see sharply where the plains ended and the Wood began. The division between the two was stark. There was no brush or shrub that slowly built up as it approach a wood proper, no young trees or seedlings growing in the shade of older trees. In one place there was the grass of the plains, and in the next there was a wall of ancient oaks stretching into the sky. It was as if a blade had made a division between the two.

He wondered what sort of force was in that forest, and what Cerias might do to those who visited. He’d already had a taste of it with the hunter, and he wasn’t inclined to push his luck. Getting strung from a tree wasn’t going to help anyone, him or his goddess. The question was if his goddess would aid him, if he went in to search for her. He wasn’t at all certain about that. The stories said she was asleep. But she had aided him at least twice in the past, with premonitions, and she’d apparently given him the ability to heal without a priestess around. Which, he thought, glancing at Nalia, was a good thing at the moment. He didn’t know if he’d make it out of her tent with any of clothes left intact.

Nalia caught his glance, and gave him a warm smile. Yep, he decided, she was trouble. He’d have to tell Jaret that. No woman should look that good while plotting. It was unfair to the opposition.

Nalia raised her hand to shade her eyes from the sun and studied the forest as she answered his question. “There isn’t much known about the Oakwood. Just myths. It seems to be true enough that those who go into it don’t return, or return mad. Some say that Cerias hunts the ones who enter, and that they can escape if they survive until dawn, but they’ll never have their wits back.” She shook her head, her long auburn hair waving in the sun. “I can’t tell you anything more than that. This is as close as I’ve ever been.”

Allen nodded. “That’s what I’ve heard too, priestess. Do you know anyone who’s tried it? Or do you know if a priestess of Anya has ever tried to heal someone who’s returned from the forest?”

Nalia shook her head again, and offered him a smile. “My apologies, Lieutenant, but I don’t. Perhaps I could make it up to you over dinner? I’ve brought some fresh vegetables from Cilis and one of the drivers has offered to cook a chicken.”

For a moment, just a moment, he was tempted. Fresh food sounded a lot better than the trail rations the Guards had been given to see them through the journey. But he shook his head. “Another time, perhaps, priestess. Thank you for the offer, but I need to eat with my men.” At least that way, they could watch his back and make sure she wasn’t sneaking up on him. Although he might forgive her if she came with a basket of chicken.

The priestess nodded graciously, smiling again. “Of course, Lieutenant. Your devotion to duty becomes you. Do let me know if you change your mind.” She inclined her head lightly to Jaret and him, and walked away with a light sway in her step.

The two men stood watching her leave until Allen muttered to the boy. “That’s a dangerous woman, Jaret.” To unmarried officers, anyway.

“You think so?” the younger lieutenant asked, oblivious to Allen’s tone. “She seems nice. What’d she bring you?”

Allen glanced down to his hand. He’d forgotten the basket she’d given him. He flipped the cloth back from the contents, from which steam was gently rising, and then looked back to the boy. “Hotcakes and cream.” He shook his head. “Any woman that can find fresh cream a week into a march and no cows for miles is definitely a dangerous woman.” And he had no intentions of getting married.

He held the basket up for Jaret. “No point in wasting them though. Hotcake?”

The two of them finished the inventory on the wagons as they passed the basket back and forth, and debated about the forest.

“Have you ever seen a demon?” Jaret asked, glancing over his shoulder towards the Wood.

“There are lots of things out there, Jaret,” he replied, avoiding telling the young man about Cerias’s huntsman visiting him. “I don’t know what they all are. No one I’ve asked does either. Most of them don’t give you any warning before they try to kill you. There are demons in the northern snows, of that I assure you, but the seers up there know how to ward them off. The northmen don’t speak of them much. They think it’ll bring them to you faster. They might be right about that. They say they take the shape of whatever you fear. I’ve also heard there are things in the mountains to the south that hide in the stone beneath your feet, waiting for you to step on them before you’re never seen again.”

“Did you ever see one in the snow?” Jaret asked, looking pensive as he tied down the flap of a wagon.

“One of the arvalhim? No. But they say if you see an animal that’s not acting like it should, watch out. It might be one in disguise. They’re suppose to have human eyes, but to be so evil that you can’t look into them without losing your soul. And if they turn sideways, they’re supposed to disappear. Sometimes you’ll see the bark ripped from trees or great scrapes in the ground, and the northmen say the animal that did it was possessed.” Allen paused to pull another hotcake out of the basket. It was fun to frighten new recruits.

A shout from the north side of the caravan jerked his attention around, and he dropped the hotcake back into the basket. “Jaret!” he called to the young man, who’d been nervously pacing and staring at the forest. “Come on!”

The other lieutenant stood stock still for an instant until his training kicked in, and then he was running beside Allen as the two of them sought out the source of the commotion.

One of the wagons had been completely knocked over, its tires shattered under the weight. He let out a blistering curse when he saw it. Hopefully its axle wasn’t broken and they had some spare tires. The traces and the front tongue were splintered and lying abandoned, but they weren’t broken. The horse team must have been tied to the wheels and broken away, overturning the wagon. He’d have to talk to the drivers again about properly hobbling them. But what had spooked them?

Another shout grabbed his attention, coming from the other side of the wagon, and the two lieutenants sprinted around the corner. Then they froze almost as one, staring at the creature that had one of the drivers pinned under its front claws.

It was an enormous cat. It must have been six feet high at the shoulder, and it was striped with alternating pale and green slashes, causing it to blend into the grass of the prairie and the oncoming dusk.

Allen drew his sword, and next to him, Jaret mimicked him. “Hold steady,” Allen ordered, quietly. He glanced around the area, and found what he was looking for leaning against a wagon a few feet away. He started sliding towards it, moving steadily and calmly.

The great plains cat stared up at him with slitted green eyes that reflected the glow of the campfires the men had started to cook dinner, and its gaze tracked him as he moved.

“There you go, cat,” he muttered as he slid to his right, “keep looking at me.”

His free hand settled on a long shaft, and he slid his sword back into its sheath. The cat tensed up at the sound, and the man on the ground let out a groan as its claws dug into him.

“Hai!” Allen shouted, as he pulled the spear over by him and spun it in a circle over his head, startling the cat into rocking back away from him. It started to drag the man back with it, and Allen shouted at it again. “Hai!”

He didn’t know how wounded the man on the ground was, but if he could get him to the healer in time, he’d probably make it.

He stepped forward, keeping the spear aloft and spinning. He just wanted to scare the cat off, but if it stayed right there, he’d have a clear throw at it. “Hai!” he yelled again, and the cat abandoned the downed man to slink backwards towards the grass, one foot moving at a time, lifting off the earth and settling down again a little ways back. The thing had to weigh at least three hundred pounds.

It continued to crouch there, staring at him and unmoving, so he took a step forward and launched the spear at the cat. It hurtled through the air and seemed just about ready to pierce the cat’s side before the cat twitched and slid aside, causing the spear to miss by a hair. The thing was more agile than he’d given it credit for. Its green eyes stayed fixed on him, and he remembered the stories he’d been telling Jaret a minute before. Eyes that could steal your soul.

He shook his head, hard. They were just foolish stories. And this was just a cat.

The cat chose that moment to spring away, curving back almost the length of its own spine and disappearing into the long grass with a swish of its tail.

He glowered after it for a minute before he shouted for the healer and walked over to retrieve the spear he’d borrowed. He didn’t need plains cats attacking his drivers and scaring the horses, or overturning his wagons.

He was surprised it had attacked at all. There had to be easier targets than a loaded caravan. Maybe there was a shortage of food on the plains. Or maybe the cat just had a taste for men. He’d heard they could get that way sometimes, and this one had apparently been daring enough to risk it.

Nalia came running. She must not have been far away. Good for her, he thought, staying where she might be needed. He appointed two men to guard her in case the cat came back, and then he knelt with her beside the downed driver.

The man’s face was pale. He had the half-beard popular in the western port cities, where it stopped at the jaw and was close-cropped. There were long gashes running down most of his body, especially thick across his chest. It didn’t look like any marks that cat left behind were small enough to call scratches. One of his arms was mangled by the cat’s jaws where he’d apparently been successful in keeping it away from his neck, and there was a deep bite on his leg.

“What’s your name?” Allen asked him, as he tried to stay out of the priestess’s way. She was kneeling on the other side of the man, and her hands were skimming over his body, hovering over the wounds, as she muttered something to herself. Prayers maybe. Though, fires and shadow, she could be swearing about the cat for all he knew. He didn’t really know much about priests. Maybe they didn’t have to pray to heal someone?

“Yease,” the man gasped out. “From Topar.” Allen nodded to himself, his guess about the man’s origins confirmed. Topar was on the western shore of the kingdom, about midway between the borders with the kingdoms of Leale and Karn. He’d been there a few times on the Dhara. Big city, busy.

“Will he be all right?” he asked Nalia.

She glanced at him and shook her head, not interrupting her muttering or stopping her hands, and he took it as a sign to quit asking questions more than as an answer.

“You’ll be fine,” he told the man, looking back down at him. “She’ll put you right back together. Don’t worry about it. A few days easy work riding in a cart maybe.” He looked back up and gestured for one the other drivers to come and keep the man company. Then he stood up and assigned two more Guards to watch them and to get whatever the healer needed.

“Don’t interrupt her,” he said. “Just do what she tells you, and if she needs anything, go and get it.”

“Yes, sir,” the Guards replied. One of them glanced down at the wounded driver, and made a face of sympathy.

Allen gave him a rap on the breastplate with his knuckles to tell him to cut it short, and a sharp shake of his head to tell him not to give the man any doubts about his eventual recovery.

“He’ll be fine,” he repeated, giving the Guard a hard look. From what he could tell looking over the Guard’s shoulder, the man’s bleeding was already slowing, and his breathing was easier. He didn’t know how much of the damage Nalia could repair immediately, but he’d leave her to it.

“Yes, sir,” the Guard replied. Hurie, he thought his name was. A couple of weeks hadn’t been enough time for him to learn all the names of the Guard contingents with him, especially with the doubling of the numbers at Cilis. So he just nodded to him, and then went to look at the damage to the wagon.

Jaret was already there, checking the base of the wagon, and he was surrounded by a squad of Guards, who were picking up broken pieces, untangling the traces, and restacking the crates that had fallen off when it tipped over. The wagons all had an oilcloth tarp that could be pulled over them in bad weather, but this one had been stowed when the wagon had overturned.

“Axle broken?” Allen asked. Hopefully not. They had a few replacement axles in the caravan, but refitting it would be a pain. One of the drivers might have some carpentry skill and be able to plane it into shape. He didn’t know if any of his Guardsmen could do it, but he wouldn’t put it past them. The Guard tended to collect people with an assortment of skills.

“Don’t think so, but we’ll need to put some weight on it to check,” Jaret replied, running his hands along the thick oak shaft that ran between the wheels. “I can’t see any obvious damage to it from here.”

Allen nodded, and called to one of his sergeants who was nearby, “Asair, gather your squad up and bring them over here! We’ll need the help.”

Asair saluted in reply, and jogged off to collect his men.

If they wanted to do this the easy way, they were going to need enough men to pick up the wagon and hold it while they set blocks under it to hold while they replaced the broken wheels. Fortunately only the two wheels on the one side looked damaged. He didn’t know what you called the port side of a wagon, so he settled decided to make things simple and just use the nautical term for it.

In short order, Asair came back with his ten men, and with them and the help of the Guards already there, they got the wagon set back right side-up and resting on a set of crates they’d pulled off the wagon.

A short while later, one of the drivers finished replacing the wheels and they were able to remove the crates and repack the wagon. By the time they finished, the sun had dropped completely, and the full moon was riding high in the sky. It cast an eery luminescence onto the grassy plains below, turning the shadows into long-toothed monsters that leapt at passing men.

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