The Outcast Part IV

The woman’s eyes followed the dragonet’s lithe form as she wove around and through their clustered group.  Bastion couldn’t tell at first if she were afraid, or merely curious, but quickly came to the conclusion it was indeed curiosity.  She hadn’t struck him as the kind of woman ruled by fear.  If more lowlander women were like her, he thought, more lowlander men might be worth a damn.  Then again, that was asking a lot of the women.

“They were taken four days ago.”

He considered it.  Two days to the northern edge of the Great Sward, then two more days through the Sward itself.  It put him six days behind them, no matter how he sliced it.  It was too much to hope they didn’t have enough mounts, or that they’d be so foolish as to use wagons or carts.  Possible, he thought, but unlikely.

What he couldn’t figure out is why they’d stolen away two noblewomen.  Woman or no, a noble wasn’t easily broken.  They had a lifetime of haughty superiority to get past in order to turn them into a useful slave.  Seemed like a lot of work.  Unless someone had specifically requested noblewomen and sent the slaver troop out after them?

That made a little more sense, he decided, but still… Something about this really didn’t sound quite right.

Lucius Du Chalagne was back on his horse, his face streaked with yellow, his eyes cold and angry as he glared at Bastion.  Bastion pretended not to notice.  He’d taken the noble’s measure.  As long as Vex kept an eye on his back he’d be safe enough.  Looks couldn’t kill.  But slith could.  Something the silly noble had best keep in mind.

“You’ve got yourself a  thief-taker,” he told Mina, thinking all the while that something still didn’t quite fit.  He’d worry it over and figure it out soon enough.

As he accepted the purse of coins from her, she met his gaze, smiled slightly. “If we succeed, the next bag will be more than twice as heavy.”

Not really doing it for the gold, he thought, but he said nothing as he tucked the purse in his jacket.  They rode on in silence.

It wasn’t until he woke for his watch that evening that it struck him what had been bothering him.  Nightsong was no kind of noble surname that he’d ever heard.   Granted, he didn’t know every noble house in the Broken Empire, but that didn’t really even follow the pattern of most of the noble houses.  The Du Chalagne he’d heard of, as they’d been named for a river in eastern Cair.  But there was nothing of the nobility’s traditional naming conventions in the woman’s surname.  Geographical features, prominent animals or trees, legendary creatures—these were the things from which most noble houses took their names.  Something like Nightsong made no sense.  Yet here were the Du Chalagne treating her like another noble, and if they’d known her all her life.

He was missing an important detail about their relationship, and who this woman actually was.  And the worst part was that he wasn’t sure if it was because it was being deliberately hidden from him, or if it was supposed most lowlanders would know automatically and he’d somehow just missed finding out about it.

They fell into a rather easy rhythm on the road and at camp.  Watches were claimed and passed with little incident, though he had a feeling that would change once they approached the Great Sward.  The place was uncanny, and not only because its name didn’t match its reality.  A sward was a grassland, and the largest forest on the continent stood wasn’t certainly not in any way a grassland.

Yet that’s what every map he’d seen had always called it.  And no one knew why.

The forest itself had a fell reputation.  Oh, it wasn’t as though caravans and riders didn’t pass through all the time.  The South Kingdom Road, the single guaranteed path through the heart of the great ancient wood, seemed to hold within it a charm that kept the forest’s less hospital denizens at bay.  But everyone had heard the stories of those foolish enough to step off the road.

Tales had it that the road’s access had been negotiated with the beings that lived there, though the legends didn’t say much about what or who they were.  Only that the road couldn’t have been built without their approval.  He’d been surprised to discover that the Empire had been willing to accept this deal, given that it had razed every other land that dared to stand against it.  But whatever lived in the Sward had been powerful enough that they’d only been able to get a single road.

Small campsites could be found from time to time along it, apparently included in the original plan, but people ended up spending much more time in the saddle than they would anywhere else.  More than one poor horse had been lamed by its master’s inability to sleep while within the forest’s boundaries.

As much as he wanted to, Bastion knew they wouldn’t be able to ride straight through.  Even trying to divide it in half, stopping only once in the middle, he knew they wouldn’t be able to make it.  Their horses wouldn’t be able to tolerate it and unlike those people in those legends, he had no intention of sacrifice his horse for nothing.

He hadn’t accounted for Vex, though.  She didn’t seem to care one whit about the ancient treaty, and she roamed on and off the road at will.  She ranged far enough ahead to verify the scent before falling back to scout their rear, but he lived in constant worry that the threatening clouds would finally burst and drown any scents the dragonet could follow.  Once they reached the southern border of the Sward, they’d face a dilemma trying to figure out where they’d gone from there.  Even if it stayed dry, enough of the scent might not remain for the slith to follow.

It was his primary concern, after his fear that Vex would anger something that lived in the forest and it would forget all about whatever treaties and safe places and murder them in their sleep.  Not for the first time he wished the dragonet could talk.  She understood the common tongue well enough, of that he’d been sure since before they’d come down out of the hills together.  She was far smarter than even the smartest dog, and the Barrakai hill folk were known as much for their dogs as for their sheep.

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