Big Marron's trail was not hard to follow. The bruin had spent his whole adult life in captivity and was unused to the forest ways. He might have fooled the casual observer, but Borysko had spent much of his free time tracking bears better at concealment than he. Sliding through the undergrowth, he could not help wincing at every crackle of twig underfoot or rustle of leaf overhead; his illness forbade him the silence he had once commanded, and as for Alastor...well, he had lived in a palace, and the only times he had hunted he had been on the back of a fine horse, pursuing deer or foxes who could be run down by hounds. Only the silver-haired Vagari spy who should be dead was as silent as he should be, securely tied and prodded along in front of Alastor with a bramble-switch cut from a bush. Surely Urska and Marron could not fail to realise they were being chased...
He held out a hand for halt, and gave a grim smile.
"We've found it..."
"I tell you, Captain, we cannot continue on this fool's venture!"
"We will continue!"
Sergeant Esben slammed his fist upon the tree stump that served as the Captain's table and roared.
"WE CANNOT! The men will not follow you further! Not you, nor this Vagari witch who has you so tightly in her grasp you would thow away your own men's lives in pursuit of nonsense! You will order our return to the town garrison, now!"
For a moment, the Captain looked irresolute. He would not have become a Captain if he did not have some intelligence and charisma, and at this moment they were fighting against the enchantment wrapped around his soul. Esben watched him intently, hoping beyond hope that he had finally got through to his superior officer.
"What's going on, my honey?"
Sergeant Esben swore violently inside his head. That Vagari witch had emerged from the tent behind the Captain, wearing very little. In an instant, the Captain was lost to him; his face reflected utter mindless adoration. Khoreia all but purred as she swayed towards him, leaned down and striked his cheek. The sergeant scowled darkly as she whispered something in his ear, especially as he saw the Captain's face change.
"Captain, if I may say something-"
"No, Esben, you may not."
The Captain rose to his feet and folded his arms, as Khoreia stroked his hair and smirked over his shoulder. Esben could think of nothing to say that wouldn't make the situation worse, so he sat in silence as his superior officer began to pace in front of him.
"I cannot tolerate your constant attempts to divert this squad from our true mission, Sergeant. Your attitude is causing a serious drop in morale; I firmly believe that our soldiers would follow us to the ends of the earth if you would simply encourage them. As it is, I must ask you to leave us."
Stunned, Esben surged to his feet.
"Leave? Are you insane? I am the only one keeping these soldiers together at this moment! We have had three desertions as it is. Send me away and you will be alone within hours. I thought you had become foolish, but I did not know you had become this foolish!"
"Do not insult me!" the Captain thundered, "I have told you to leave you you will leave! Do not make me force you!"
He strode around the tree-stump table and towered over his much shorter sergeant. "If you leave now, I will not tell our superiors about your poor attitude. If I force you to leave, you will not be a sergeant for much longer, I will make sure of that."
They stood in sharp silence for a moment, and then Sergeant Esben turned away.
"As you wish, sir," he replied stiffly, and strode away through the camp, ignoring the calls of the soldiers who wanted to know what was going on.
The Captain watched him go, a tendril of doubt that had been creeping into his mind swiftly banished by the feel of Khoreia's arms around him and her warm breath, scented with some strange and alluring odour, brushing his cheek like a carress.
Everything would be all right. Of course everything would be all right, as long as Khoreia was there.
He did not notice the worried mutterings amongst the men, or the way they exchanged glances and whispers as they watched their trusted sergeant pack his tent and walk away.