The Alliance said they were gonna WALTZ through Serenity Valley.
There are monsters around every corner, creatures in every shadow, and more dark conspiracies and secret wars going on than you can shake a really big stick at.
SIMON R. GREEN
Daemons are Forever
Bloody, this druid thing.
In Sylvan Shadows
Cleo & Malcolm
“Here we go again.”
Beyond Westwood Forest
Diamond (April) 26, 2013
There was still a full hour before the first hints of dawn would streak the sky over the camp, but if someone had been paying attention – Captain Knight, in days gone by, or perhaps Alarick – they would have to concede that the first light of the new day belonged to Cleo Bright.
In truth, she’d been awake a while already: Long enough to bathe, pray, do the morning reading. The broadsheet from Fairlawn was delivered only once a week, not as often as she or many of her elders would have liked. When it arrived, the newsprint was still fresh on crackling pages.
She was just in the midst of scrubbing said print from her fingernails.
Any other day, she might have slept until a more suitable hour: Uncle Creed was a late riser, and sometimes – more rarely, now – Thean fell into the same habit. But she had heard murmurs of some important visitor soon to arrive, and surely she would be summoned before him. Or her—
Or, she couldn’t help but think, maybe “it.”
The Republic, though secure for now, was living in strange days.
Plucking the silvery hand-mirror from her dressing table, Cleo widened her eyes and tilted her head this way and that before taking the well-worn stub of a lipstick from the drawer and freshening her lips. Icy rose, the same she’d been wearing the day she met Captain Talabray.
She’d gotten the mirror back, sooner or later, but it’d never been right after that—
—trying to shake that thought away, she pulled open her wardrobe and eyed it critically. A page shouldn’t dress too brightly, but if there was a dignitary, only the colors of the Republic would do. The right cloak, the right brooch, maybe something for her hair, short though it was.
She pulled on a hat – old-fashioned, but very official – and checked her reflection again.
No, it’d never been right. It was all hazy now, and her eyes no longer matched her uncle’s.
Everyone knew they were supposed to be—
Blue. There was a faint hiss as the flaps of her tent were gently whisked aside to toss something in. It was an envelope tied with blue ribbon, as diplomatic parcels often were: She let a satisfied smile onto her face. Surely this would be her invitation to see the visiting dignitary.
Whoever that might be.
Her lithe little fingers had just finished tying a bow at her neck when she turned and pounced.
Landing, rather more gracefully than one would think, with the letter pinned just under the toes of her boot. She slid from that stance to approximate a courtly bow as she plucked it up: Brought it level with her eyes as she rose. Sure enough, the writing was Creed’s, though it bore no seal.
She held out her hand an instant, checking her nails before using one to split the envelope at the top. By the time she finished reading, her eyes were wide; her hands shook as she compressed the note. She thought, ever so briefly, of tearing it up.
Or simply ignoring it.
With an effort, she returned it to the cubbyhole in her vanity where all official notes went. Cupped her hands over her mouth and took a breath so deep it seemed to rattle her delicate form. And she stepped out into the space would dawn would eventually be.
She was standing there, willing the morning breeze to steady her, when she saw it.
A sleek black carriage, unadorned by any sign, coasted smoothly out of the half-dark and swept past her like an omen. In the instant it was near enough, she had the briefest impression of fine, dark wood, intricate carvings, and pitch black windows.
She hardly saw the horses – fine ones, no doubt, but not half the equal of Outrider steeds.
It was already past her by the time she thought to look up toward the driver.
Then it rounded a corner and was gone.
In the silence it left behind, the faintest first stirrings of camp life greeted her ears.
She reached up to loosen the bow at her throat—
Her mission, she’d just learned, was one considerably different.
“—And a damn sight more dangerous,” Alarick was saying.
“Hmmm,” said Mac Caulurn, standing beside him. The two men could have been brothers, if one judged only by their massive builds, their beards, and the knowing in their eyes. But Mac had learned how to wait, still as a standing stone when his strength was not needed.
Alarick, for his part, was bouncing in place, stretching, and—
Caulurn glanced his way, but only from the very corner of his eye.
—toying with a cigarette he refused to light. It bobbed between his fingers like a cork lost in a storm, rising toward his lips now and again but never coming close to rest. It was part of a gift from Cedwyn, one of many he’d bestowed in those last few days.
Caulurn didn’t know if his friend was conserving or quitting, but decided not to ask.
“You don’t believe that sort of thing, do you?” Alarick asked at last, looking over.
“Hard to say,” Caulurn mused. He let himself lean back against the makeshift lean-to that had become their private shelter from the summer rains. Not far away, targets were set up in precise formations for the legion’s archers to practice, but no one was there now.
Alarick’s coiled energy was like a lighthouse scanning to and fro in the gloom.
“You know, back in Long Halo, just that sort of thing used to happen,” Caulurn added.
“Aye, but Long Halo—it was a bloody bombing range. Certainly, in real life ...” Alarick’s hand flapped irritably. “In real life, things as seen stay seen. Mountains and valleys and whatnot don’t just change because nobody’s been lookin’ at ‘em. That’s daft.”
He continued to batter the air a moment, as if facing off against an invisible fly.
“My gran-da used to say,” Caulurn started slowly, “time was you’d be able to cross the whole sea in nothing but a hand-made raft. So much for now, eh?” Alarick startled a tad, brought his attention back up. “Things change, Al. Best t’have the likes of the Outriders t’check up on it all.”
“I s’ppose,” said Alarick. “But it’s been months and nae so much as a peep from ‘em—”
Caulurn raised a massive hand to ask for silence. A lingering somebody across the road caught his attention; he recognized the girl, but only vaguely, and he wasn’t sure from where. One thing was sure, though: She was dressed for an occasion.
“Bloody ‘ell,” Alarick interjected, “that lass about to lead a parade or something?”
The girl was staring at them – no, at the empty archery range.
Caulurn turned his head just enough for politeness sake and then let out a roaring laugh.
Alarick was jigging his cigarette from one hand to another, but looked up with a smile.
“Yer grand da was daft, too,” he announced. “No one’s ever crossed the sea.”
Caulurn let his silent smile linger.
“Not ever,” Alarick went on.
“Perhaps,” Mac conceded, and watched carefully as, with a flick of the wrist—
Alarick’s much-abused cigarette was gone, no doubt to reappear soon enough.
“I just wish,” he said, scratching his chin. “They’d get word to us. We’re living in strange days.”
But Caulurn was looking beyond, now, to the great, dark carriage moving steadily up the path. An aristocrat – Bren excepted, of course – had not been to the camp in months. They’d grown all the scarcer since word reached Telminster of occasional raids from the enemy’s dead-enders.
Even Bren had up and gone, lately. And now this.
“Strange days, indeed,” he agreed.
Cleo had hoped against hope there’d be someone training at the targets—
Someone, she scarcely wanted to admit, who could help her.
But there were none, and deep down inside, she knew there’d be none. For all the tales of the thousands of hours a fair archer had to practice in the bloom of youth, that’s not how the best of the best spent the rest of their lives. No, there came a point where ten good shots was enough.
The man she was seeking was just that kind: A sharpshooter.
Cleo Bright was well familiar with Veil’driel’s sharpshooters. In a family of distinguished officers, they’d held a certain fascination: They were the best bowmen in the nation, or perhaps in all the world, but they were unknown to their enemies and aloof to those they protected.
She’d never expected she would have the chance to meet one—
During her time in camp, she’d learned the truth behind the fearsome reputation.
“Stay in your center,” she whispered to herself, but the icy feeling in the pit of her stomach would not relent. As she walked, she scanned the sides of the road for any distraction, anything she could say she had to look into or help with, but the day’s work was only just beginning.
Her attention elsewhere, she lost her footing and slid the first few steps down the slope toward the little nest of tents set aside by their lonesome, no more than ten. Serenity Valley, the veterans called it: A place perched on the outskirts, where the symphony of camp life lost some of its more strident notes. Alarm bells reached here only if the situation was truly urgent.
Of course, it was also just within the shadows of the walls.
Its inhabitants first to see the enemy.
Sooner or later, to see them everywhere.
Cleo half-crushed her hat to her head in the fall. She kept it in her hands as she walked, playing with it idly, but the felt was irreparably dented. It gave her something else to think about, at least.
Besides the fact that she was about to wake a sharpshooter from a sound sleep—
A man whom, she knew, had been out on a mission only two days earlier.
“A man who spends days—” she started, then forced herself to quiet down. Lying motionless through sun, snow, and storm, waiting for the right moment to take a single shot. A moment that could mean death, no matter how cautious or ...
She slapped the hat back onto her head and skidded to a stop.
Malcolm Hawkins’ tent. A wry smile came to her lips.
She’d imagined seeing it, but not like this.
Her hand was glazed with clammy perspiration by the time she rapped on the side.
“Senior Bowman Hawkins,” she said, “are you awake?”
In the silence that followed, she cursed herself for the wavering of her voice.
What she wouldn’t give for a solid door between them.
Something that would prevent what she now had to do.
“I’m coming inside,” she announced.
Waited a moment more.
“Right now, in fact.”
Cleo parted the tent flaps with both arms and stepped through, lingering just one more moment.
“Right ... now,” she said one last time, painfully aware of herself framed in the passageway.
She took her first steps across the threshold, half-expecting a loud creak to announce her despite the rough, soft floor of the tent. The page paused again, but not in hesitation: Simply letting her eyes adjust to the gloom. A dim lantern spread its pulse of lonely light from the far corner.
On the sharpshooter’s table: Dozens of letters, far more than his own family could have sent.
Half of them unopened, she couldn’t help but notice.
A few figures hand-carved from wood, each just a few inches high: Some in armor, some cloaks.
Books, too—only a few, but they were each bulky tomes.
From the library in Fairlawn, no doubt, she thought; and this bit of idle curiosity drew her forward into what would have to pass for Malcolm’s study, a luxurious two paces wide. She picked up one of the books, turned it over; opened the inside cover.
A TREATISE ON
The Sovereignty of Men & Monarchs
Legis Aleister Duchenne
There was no stamp from Fairlawn, much less the gaudy signature of Tillian Bren, whose name had been attached to the building to honor his work while stationed here. Cleo pursed her lips. He couldn’t have brought something like this from home, could he?
“If you wanna borrow that—”
Cleo stood ramrod-straight, the heavy book falling to the floor with a resounding thump—
“—you’re gonna have to wait,” said a sleep-heavy drawl. “I’m not half done with it yet.”
Cleo’s attention was all at once on the bed; she nearly forgot to grab the book, bending at the knee to do it. Once she was steady again, she hardly noticed herself holding the thick volume against herself like a shield. Tilting in the suggestion of a bow, she made her announcement.
“General Creed requests your—”
A loud snort interrupted her.
“... presence,” she concluded.
Only now, with her eyes narrowing in the dark, did she realize that Malcolm had never shifted from what she assumed was bed: A helter-skelter nest of natty animal pelts that left only his face and one foot visible. His voice had seemed so close, but there he was: Inert.
“E-excuse me,” said Cleo, nervousness and indignation jockeying for control.
“Yer excused,” Malcolm said, turning over.
Her cheeks reddened as she realized he was naked to the waist.
Bobbing in place, she quickly set the book down where it had been, exchanging it for something nestled in her cloak: A wooden canister that radiated warmth and a faint, but savory smell. Now bearing this prize before her, she drew nearer.
“Good morning, Bowman Hawkins!” she said, as cheerfully as she could muster.
Mrph, went Bowman Hawkins.
“I’m sorry to wake you, but I’ve been sent by the general himself.”
“Hey, yeah – how’s it goin’?” he asked, shifting faintly to regard her. Still half-asleep, no doubt.
“I brought ... this,” she said, handing over the canister. Now, for the first time, he looked at her in earnest. Looked down at the thing, not quite understanding. And then flicked it open, leaving the steam to carry the scent of corn chowder throughout the tent.
“You pick this out?” he asked.
She straightened a little. “Why, yes.”
“Thought so. Not a hint of beef. And after we finally got some around here, too.”
“If you’ll excuse ...” Cleo started, and stopped herself. “It’s barely six in the morning.”
“For me,” Malcolm said patiently, “that’s like ... noon.”
But he bowed his head over the canister presently and started to sip – even slurp – the proffered meal. In three great gulps, it was gone. When he looked her way again, it was to take a deep breath. Just as easily, it seemed, he was awake.
That’s why it was all too obvious to her just what was going on when he laid back again.
She cleared her throat. “The general requests your presence immediately, Mr. Hawkins.”
“Yes, I figured, Miss Cleo.”
He shifted under the blankets and tossed up the empty canister—
—and she fumbled only a little before catching it in both hands.
Hawkins slid around to put his feet on the floor, nodding a little bit to himself. His body was still mostly concealed by the pelts, but his bare, wiry shoulders were on display. “He sent breakfast, which means I’m going somewhere within the hour. I’ll be ready.”
Cleo didn’t move a muscle.
“I promise,” he added, too sweetly.
“It’s Miss Bright. And in my experience, breakfast hardly guarantees a forthcoming mission.”
Hmm,” Malcolm said. “You waitress a lot, then, I take it?”
Cleo didn’t answer. Malcolm didn’t move.
“Right. Like I said. I’m wide awake, Miss Bright.”
“Should I inform His Excellency that you’re on your way then, or …?”
“Definitely,” Malcolm said, his gaze drifting to her hat and waiting there. “You do that.”
He didn’t meet her gaze when she set the canister down on the desk.
Cleo lingered still and silent for a moment as if expecting something more.
Then she turned without another word, slapping the flaps out of her way as she departed.
The path to General Thaddeus Creed’s command tent was short and narrow, the end point of many well-worn trails that snaked across the camp. All roads lead to Creed it was said, and that was never more true than since the Night of the Outriders had added even more to his renown.
Malcolm trod over those paths lightly, with no sense of urgency whatsoever.
The pre-dawn air was already heavy with the muggy promise of a long, hot day.
It wasn’t that long ago, he thought as he sipped he soup, you coulda just slept in.
He stopped, blowing out a breath. “Now look at you,” he told himself irritably.
There was something else wrong with the air. A certain smell. Malcolm turned—
“Creed’s tent ... again?”
Malcolm narrowed his eyes, pinpointing the voice instantly in the gloom.
He could’ve done that anytime, anywhere – but he realized that he had been waiting for it, expecting it. A crooked, familiar grin regarded him, one with teeth bright enough to put an arrow through from twenty paces hence.
Between those teeth, a clove cigarette bobbed – making Malcolm turn a little in disgust.
“Yeah,” he said to the voice. “How’d you know, anyway? I guess I shouldn’t even ask.”
“Simple enough,” said Albinus. “You wouldn’t come down this far for anything else.” He took a step forward: In Malcolm’s peripheral vision it seemed like he leaked out of the alleyway like something vile. “That and the fact they’ve been calling on so much, you might as well move in.”
“Livin’ the dream, I guess,” Malcolm said stiffly.
“I heard you were on a mission only two days ago. That’s not right, brother.”
Malcolm shoved one hand into his cloak, trying his best to shrug.
“I only fired one shot.”
“Don’t worry about it, Albinus. Listen, how’s your uncle doing?”
Albinus’ heavy brow crinkled in a flash of uncertainty. “My ...?”
“You know?” Malcolm said sharply. “I need to get going.”
“G-good to go,” Albinus said, realization dawning. “You gonna need our help?”
Wordlessly, Malcolm held up the redwood canister that had held enough soup for three men.
It was bone dry now, and the artilleryman nodded down at it as it was handed over to him.
“Be waitin’ for ya, then.”
As Albinus slid back into the shadows, Malcolm was walking on, up the gravelly slope. Exactly a dozen paces before the sentinels would step aside to reveal the entrance of the general’s tent. He had counted them many times, in fair weather and foul. And this is as foul as it gets.
Just a pace or two out of earshot, he let himself sigh.
Looked down to the ring he’d earned on the day he became a sharpshooter.
And told it: “Here we go again.”