The tent somehow amplified the tremors; if it didn’t, Inga doubted she’d have noticed them. The dinner fire was always a rowdy occasion, so she was used to strange noises at this hour, but this wasn’t part of the usual cacophony. In fact, it seemed to be killing the sounds of merriment.
Trent, bless him, was too immersed in his work to notice. Were it not for that unshakeable focus, Inga was certain they’d both be rushing to see what was causing the rumbles. At least this way she had time to consider whether or not they needed to know. Unfortunately, time was not yielding much inspiration.
She’d discussed Svara’s enemies with Matron Cascatta, had concluded that the girl had underestimated the time it would take them to traverse the woods. The noise was likely part of their attack. How, though? How could they make good time while travelling with a beast or war machine big enough to make these sounds?
Inga’s thoughts were interrupted as someone breezed through the tent’s flap. The light was too dim to see his face, but Inga was immediately certain this was an intruder. There was no time to think.
“Good evening,” she greeted, hoping to disarm him with courtesy.
“Good evening.” He didn’t sound hostile.
“Are you among those looking for Svara?” Inga asked.
“I see.” Inga pondered her response. Cascata would want her to send him straight towards Svara - straight for the hunters who guarded her. What if they were wrong about the enemies’ number? Should she really increase the hunters’ burden? “You may confirm, if you like, but she is not in here.”
“I’m aware, thank you,” the stranger was courteous, but there was also regret. “I’ll need you to come with me.”
Ah. This was something Inga hadn’t accounted for; their plan had been made assuming that everyone would be at the dinner fire. Inga hadn’t considered Trent’s obsession with his project, and thereby hadn’t considered the possibility that the two of them would be late. Now they were unguarded, and could be used as hostages.
Had the stranger noticed Trent’s tiny figure, hunched over his work? If not…
Inga groaned as she stood. “Very well. Would you like to lead, or do you need me to show you where to go?”
“Elder.” Trent turned, and Inga’s heart sank. “Where are you going?”
“I need to show this young man-” Inga started.
“No, that’s alright,” the stranger interrupted. “The boy will work better. Get up, you’re coming with me.”
“No, I’m not,” Trent denied. “And neither is she.”
“Come, young man,” Inga implored the stranger. “They value me. I will make a sufficient hostage.”
“But you’ve lived a long and full life. The boy’s loss would be a bigger tragedy, and that makes him a better bargain.”
“People are not currency,” Trent declared. “People can’t be bought with currency, either. Finally, we don’t even use currency here. You want Svara? Go talk to her about it. She’s at the dinner fire.”
“What?” The stranger didn’t understand Trent’s logic. “Don’t argue, lad. Get up.”
“Young man, Trent is unusual, I think you’ll find-” Inga tried.”
“Quiet.” The intruder drew his sword. “Boy, come.”
“My name is Trent.”
“I don’t care.” The stranger walked closer. “Stand.”
The intruder grabbed Trent by the collar and lifted him off his feet. “I’m not giving you a choice!”
“You don’t have the authority to take choice away from me!” Trent argued.
“This is my authority!” He brought the blade to Trent’s neck.
To both Inga and the stranger’s surprise, Trent swatted the weapon aside. Blood trickled down his arm, but Trent seemed too angry to notice. “Your authority is pathetic!”
Inga almost laughed. Trent was putting himself in mortal danger, but she was still proud of him. The little man had a monster inside him, she’d recognized that from the moment he started speaking. This was a sign of hope, evidence that he’d leashed his beast.
There were a thousand other ways she would have preferred to solve this problem, but Trent wasn’t wrong. This stranger had no right to make demands. Compromise or subversion would be safer, but it was morally just to refuse outright.
The clan hadn’t been first to resort to violence, but that didn’t mean they were incapable. She’d never done this before, and Trent was the last person she’d want to witness it, but she was out of options. Inga approached and placed a gentle fingertip on the back of the man’s neck.
“Please try to forgive me, and know that you are loved,” Inga said.
Purity burst from her finger and through the man’s spine. His light, flame, and spark flashed against the far side of the tent before he crumpled to the floor with a neat, perfectly-circular hole punched into his neck.
Inga reeled. The spell was exhausting, and it was also the first time in this obscenely-long life that she’d killed someone. She staggered backward and fell to the dirt.
“Elder.” Trent seemed mystified and - was it just her? - even a little concerned. “What did you do?”
“Light, child,” she breathed heavily. “Purest energy, loves and lusts, remember? I gave him all I could spare.”
“What’s going on?” Trent looked towards the tent flap as the rumbling intensified. “Nothing like this has happened before.”
“Listen to me, Trent.” Inga clinged to consciousness. “I killed that man. What I did was wrong. You musn’t-”
“I know, Elder,” Trent interrupted. “What do we do now?”
“Trent, please listen,” Inga pleaded. “It was wrong. I shouldn’t have killed him, and you shouldn’t kill anyone either.”
“It was wrong, Elder, but he was more wrong. He wasn’t going to change. Sometimes the best we can do is just less wrong than the alternative. That’s why we hunt. I promise you, Elder, I get it.”
He really has come so far.
“Thank you, lad.” Inga breathed a sigh of relief. “Get to the dinner fire. Don’t let the enemy find you before you find the hunters.”
“You need protection too, Elder.”
“Remember what I taught you about light, Trent.” Inga closed her eyes. “I need to sleep. We use less when we sleep, stockpile more from the wind. I just need to sleep.”
“Elder, if they find you-”
“No.” It was difficult to find the words as she succumbed to fatigue. “I’m old. Fainted. Just a burden…”
“They might just kill you,” Trent suggested. “Their reason is weak.”
“Not worth the effort, trust me. Please, Trent, just go.”
There were some vague, mumbled protests as he struggled to lift her off the ground. He was far too small to carry her very far, but even his clumsy fumblings couldn’t keep her from slipping into unconsciousness.