The twins hadn’t gone far from camp – by the time Caleb got around ten foot past the treeline he could hear raised voices, and a few steps more brought him close enough to ascertain beyond a shadow of a doubt that yes, that was Alak and Kala, and yes, they were still arguing.
That couldn’t be the source of the feeling he was having, though – it was the same argument they’d been having back in the camp and, from the sound of it, an argument they’d been having for years before today and would probably continue to have years into the future.
He pressed on, deeper into the woods.
It was cooler here than it had been in the clearing, and darker too: the sun was almost completely obscured by the thicker canopy, and what little light filtered through was tinged green by the broad leaves of the trees, speckling the forest floor with patches of eerie dappled glow.
He looked back over his shoulder, almost surprised to still see the clearing visible between the trees. It felt as though he’d entered another world entirely, even with the camp still in site and the twins’ shouting voices still clear on the edge of hearing, and he found himself reminded, somewhat against his will, of every tale he’d ever been told of people who wandered off the path and into the outer reaches of the Land Behind The Sky, where creatures far beyond the wit of mortals lurked in shadows darker than a moonless night.
Without meaning to, he reached up to the small wooden amulet around his neck. It wouldn’t protect him from any mortal threats, but if the pricking at the back of his neck and the sudden thudding of his heart in his ears was anything to go by, it might not be dangers from the mortal realm he had to worry about right now.
He jumped, spinning round with fists clenched – and then breathing a sudden sigh of relief and dropping his hands as Tam’s familiar form appeared out of the shadows.
“Sorry! I thought you were-” He wasn’t quite sure what he’d thought she was, other than ‘something dangerous’, but the words died on his lips as he caught sight of the expression on her face. “What’s wrong?”
For an answer, she held out her hand. There was a piece of black fabric in it – a patch, torn from some larger garment, with a design worked on it in red thread. For a moment he couldn’t make out what the picture was; then he turned his head a little, and it resolved itself into the spread wings and open beak of some great bird of prey, rising out of what looked very like flames.
Which was all very interesting, but didn’t explain why Tam looked so… hell, there wasn’t another word for it. She looked scared.
He looked down at the bird again, and felt his own mouth starting to go dry. It made no sense – he’d never seen the symbol before, he’d no idea what it was, there was no reason for him to have any reaction to it – but, as he stared at it, he started to think that the feeling he’d been having was almost certainly inextricably linked to that scrap of fabric.
“…What is it?”
“Wrong question.” Tam’s voice was tight, hard. “It’s not a what, it’s a who. And she’s bad sodding news, is what she is.” She looked around, clenching her fist tight around the piece of fabric. “Sah akelha serai, I thought we’d managed to lose her when we crossed the border!”
“Who-” He swallowed hard, tried again. “Who is she?”
“The thrice-damned curse-blooded Phoenix,” Tam snarled. “And if there was any justice in the damn world she’d be dead and rotting in a ditch by now with a spear through her sodding throat.” She turned her face away for a second, and spat into the leaf-litter. “And even that’d be too good for her.”
He was going to regret asking, he knew as much. But at the same time, he couldn’t not. “Is she the one who- Did she kill the rest of your company?”
Tam’s expression hardened, but she kept her voice level. “Our company, farmboy. And she might as well have done.” She took a breath, unclenching her hand enough for the skin over her knuckles to flush back to its normal colour. “She sent spies in. They et with us and drank with us and fought with us – and then, when they’d won us over, they waited until a group of them was together on watch and everyone else asleep. Then they took their knives, and went through the tents, and-” She looked away. “Kitten wasn’t the only kid we had, farmboy. We were families and lovers and parents and kids and they didn’t sodding discriminate.”
Caleb closed his eyes, fighting back the wave of nausea that the images Tam’s story had conjured up had provoked. He’d not thought he’d had many illusions left about what being a mercenary was likely to entail, but the idea of some stealthy figure creeping into the wagon while Rethan and Kitten slept, taking a knife and-
No. That wasn’t- he couldn’t-
“Sit down before you fall down,” Tam said, curtly but not unkindly. She took hold of his arm, pulling him down onto the leaf litter. “This is who we’re dealing with, Caleb. She ordered that. We know she did. And now she’s coming after the rest of us. That piece of fabric? Found it in the belt-pouch of one of the bandits when we were burying ’em. Checked the others, and they’ve all got ’em. They’re tokens. Mean she was paying ’em.”
“Why does she hate you so much?” he managed, after he’d taken a few deep breaths and cleared the worst of the imagined horrors from his mind.
Tam frowned. “Something to do with the Captain. It was the Phoenix’s assassins did…whatever it was that left her like that.”
“She’s not going to stop until she’s destroyed her. And us.” She looked down at the patch of fabric again, then balled it up and shoved it into her belt pouch. “We need to get back to camp and warn the others. This just got a whole lot more complicated.”
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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