Chapter 14: The Gambler's Route

The clan would reach its destination tomorrow, and there was still no sign of Kirana. As she often did these past weeks, Svara felt responsible and helpless to fix anything. She supposed that’s why she was here, instead of sleeping like the rest of her adoptive family.

They assured her it somehow wasn’t her fault that she lead a troup of Breathers to their camp and embroiled them in her private war. It was only coincidence that a so-called ‘enforcer’ appeared on the very same night those Breathers attacked the clan, and if Svara hadn’t killed the beast and provoked the Curator’s attack, somebody else in the family was bound to do it in her place.

According to them, there was no meaning behind the fact that she’d been the last to see Kirana, that nobody would have been able to stop her or get her to say why she needed to go into the Dawnless Woods after the battle.

This wasn’t what she had in mind when she joined the clan. Were her ambitions just naive delusions? Svara wanted to contribute, to bring something to these people that wouldn’t normally be available. What they got was just a liability.

“It’s diff’rent out here,” Cascata had scolded her. “When things’re bad, they’re worse. But when they’re good, they’re the best you’ll find anywhere. They ain’t great right now, Svara, but it’s got nothin’ to do with you. Don’ be so dramatic! The woods were mean long before you came here.”

The lecture was a continuing comfort, but it wasn’t enough to get Svara to sleep. So she Breathed, ran far ahead and behind the caravan. That’s how she’d come here, memorized the layout of their destination even before she was introduced to its famed residents. She had no idea what kind of oddballs would build such a large home that was still so classically cottage, but it did make for a charming homestead.

It was built on fertile soil, and the residents ran a wonderful farm and orchard. There was far more produce than the two people living there could ever grow on their own, and certainly more than they could use. Svara was no longer mystified by the clan’s surplus of fruits and vegetables.

As big as it was, it never took a Breather long; she’d already scouted the clan’s campsite, too, a large stretch stretch of hilly field with a very defensible and long ridge between it and the woods. The woods were still a good distance away, too. She could only see their constant cloud cover on the horizon. The Elder had been wise to skip the site between this one and their last. If the attacks began again, their chances were much better here.

With their destination scouted, the only practical chore she had left was to patrol the forest’s edge. The enemy had shown a tendency for attacking from the west, and while they may have killed the commander responsible for that strategy, the warriors still agreed the enemy would emerge from the woods from somewhere ahead of the caravan. Svara would keep her patrol centered around the homestead.

Word spread quickly about Trent and the others meeting with the Curator. A few claimed Trent was a genius for walking into enemy lines, but most - Svara included - considered it madness. Perhaps her perspective was skewed, because Trent couldn’t be educated on subjects like morale or hostages and therefore his calculations would be different. Still, no normal human would look at those monsters and think it was reasonable to assume they would not harm him. Even if their stated purpose was limited to a few specific targets, the natural reaction should be to keep a safe distance.

Common sense proved faulty, and that worried Svara. Trent was granted safe passage to their leader, safe passage back, and then permitted to return to their leader with his friends. No sensible general would do such a thing, so how had Trent concluded this one would have such a whimsy? If logic worked differently out here, then what good was her schooling?

There had to be a way to reconcile this wild math with her civilized schooling. The whole world had been wild once, so there should still be some wild wisdom buried in her Breather’s training. If she could find it, maybe then she could redeem herself for all the trouble she’d caused.

Her patrol brought her to a very old road, overgrown but still discernable from the surrounding field. It must have been a trade route between Midway and the West before the Dawnless Woods had sprouted. It made for a good landmark, so Svara decided it would be the northern edge of her patrol. She turned around.

Maybe Cascata and the Elder were being honest. Maybe all this trouble was just an unlucky string, and Svara had actually come along when the clan needed her most. It seemed too good to be true, but it was still a comforting prospect.

Whatever the case, she doubted all this brooding was the path to becoming useful. She wanted to be useful, but she also couldn’t do everything. Maybe she’d just been overstepping her bounds a bit. She’d focus on what she was good at and hope it would yield some results soon.

The wind was blowing into the woods; it didn’t often blow out, and if it did, the angle was shallow. The wind may be her favorite sense, but she’d need to keep the others sharp when it wasn’t favorable.

The hunters could stalk prey in total darkness, and Svara had been assured their noses weren’t what helped them do it. They’d learned to hear and feel the things sight was better for, and they also claimed Svara could learn. It was an exciting promise, even if learning the skill meant venturing into those woods again. She knew firsthand how terrifying the place really was, but she also knew how powerful its survivors were.

Whether or not they kept her on the current warrior path, those hunter traits would make her more potent. With all the clan’s recent losses, she found it more likely they’d change her mind and begin teaching her to hunt as well.

She hoped so. Didn’t she? Cascata and her hunters were all so incredible, she’d give almost anything to be like them. There was no such transaction though, no guarantee she had that sort of potential. She might give everything she’d ever had and still not reach that peak. If all that waited at the end of such a terrifying road was failure, maybe it was better to never travel it.

Life is such a gamble. I wish I knew a surefire way to win it.

She’d been going South for a while. It was probably time to find a good landmark and patrol back towards the road. Nothing looked suitable, particularly in the dark. She drew her scimitar and mutilated enough flora to be sure she’d recognize the spot on her return trip. Then she headed back north.

A guarantee wasn’t something a clanswoman should waste her time pining over. They were a hardy people, used to doing the best they could with what they had. More importantly, they showed such wonderful grace when the dice didn’t roll in their favor.

If she wanted their powers, she’d better learn to embrace that grace. Huh; I woulda thought a Breather should the one to teach these guys on that subject.

The idea that bad things could happen - no matter how good she was or how hard she tried - was more liberating than she expected. The stakes were high enough, so why should she have to bet her pride, too?  She’d do the best she could, and Dahlia and the matron and everyone else would still call her ‘family.’

Svara skidded to a stop. There were traces on the wind. She took a deep Breath and focused on what they told her.

Two living things, one certainly too big to be human. Outside the woods, heading west. Scouts? Advanced troops preparing another ambush? Stragglers for one that’s about to happen? Her heart clenched at the thought, but another Breath told her of their speed. They weren’t in a hurry. Were they just wild beasts?

The monsters’ methods were inscrutable. She’d get a closer look, and be very careful in the process.

The grass blurred around her as she streaked straight west, looking for a good place to survey her targets without being seen. Maybe these were just roaming animals, but if they weren’t she was glad for her insomnia.

She found a suitable hill when she was just a short distance ahead of her targets. Once at the base, she lay prone and crawled arm-over-arm up the slope. She couldn’t help feeling a little undignified slithering like this. Breathers were meant to skim the ground as they raced over it, not awkwardly embrace it like a snail.

She finally reached the top and parted the weeds to peer down on the road; she hadn’t realized she’d come this far north. There wasn’t any movement, but her frame of vision was limited by how low she was to the ground and the amount of brush surrounding her.

The wind did not lie. Svara waited, and before long, a man leading a lizard-drawn cart came into view. She recognized the feathers and wondered if this was one of Bo’s cousins. They ambled along the road away from the woods. The cart was full of random household objects. A merchant and his wares? Seeing such an innocuous sight out here felt really remarkable for some reason. At least the clan was safe.

Wait. This decrepit road, this close to the woods, walking west? Did they come out of the woods?

Svara hadn’t spent long in the East or South, but she knew they more-or-less shared the North’s aversion to the Dawnless Woods. There wouldn’t be so much turmoil in the clockwork nations if people still traveled through Midway. Was this merchant insane, or was this some kind of trick?

The man ordered his lizard to make an abrupt stop. He scanned his surrounding warily, squinting in the moonlight like it would help him see better. Had he detected her somehow? She was way too far for him to hear her; she couldn’t even hear the beast or the cart. The only way he could detect a trained assassin with her abilities was by elemental means.

While he might still be a merchant, he was no ordinary merchant. Was he dangerous? A more relevant question: was he dangerous to the clan? If not, maybe Svara should just let him pass.

The merchant turned to unhitch his lizard, revealing an enormous crossbow on his back. He kept scanning his surroundings as he worked, obviously agitated.

What was his art? Not likely to involve the wind, as Svara only detected him because she was downwind. Nobody ever really taught her how the elements could be used, not in any meaningful detail. If he was scared, though, maybe he wasn’t confident in combat, and she doubted it would even come to that. The poor man was probably still on edge after his ordeal in the woods, and it was wise to be wary this close to them. She’d probably be a welcome sight.

There was always the chance that he was something else, though, something dangerous. To approach was to gamble. Was she ready to bet that she could defeat or outrun him?

She knew what the matron would tell her to do. She also knew Dahlia would do the opposite. And while the matron would tell me not to risk it, there’s no way she wouldn’t investigate.

Svara climbed to her feet and raised her arms high. She took a deep breath and bellowed as loud as she could. “Hail!”

The merchant whirled around, shielding his eyes as if it would help. Svara chuckled and shouted again.

“Hail! I mean you no harm, may I come down?”

The merchant exhaled; Svara thought it looked like a sigh of relief. He raised his arms in greeting, then made an exaggerated beckoning motion. He turned back to his lizard and began to retie all the knots he’d just undone.

Svara took a deep breath and ran down the hill. “I mean you no harm, sir,” she called when she came close enough. “and I’m sorry if I startled you. I just came across you on patrol and didn’t know if you were, well, human.”

“Quite alright, young lady,” he grunted as he pulled one last knot tight. “I started feelin’ a little paranoid there. This close to the Dawnless Woods, ya never know what to expect when your mule starts sniffin’ the air, am I right?”

Yeah, right. You noticed me long before the big guy ever did. Calling him on his lie wouldn’t do any good. In fact, it would betray her own secrets. It’s not like she blamed him, either. If she was allowed to protect her art, then he was allowed his.

“Spoken like a man who knows his way around the forest. I didn’t think many merchants dared use the old routes anymore. I hope such a steep risk gives you just as much advantage at market!”

“Oh, no, I’m no merchant m’lady. Although…” he laughed and put his hands on his hips. “I guess maybe I am! I’m a treasure hunter, you see.”

Svara cocked her head to one side. Why’d he look so proud of that? Maybe it sounded like a more prestigious title in other cultures? “Oh? Is there treasure in the woods?”

“Oh my, yes! There always is when risk is involved, isn’t there? Midway was a prosperous place, you see, and a lot of wealthy people left a lot behind when they… departed. It’s not doing the current residents any good, so I figure there’s no harm in putting these items back into circulation.”

“No, I don’t see any harm in that,” Svara inspected the goods in his cart. Some were made of fine materials, but others didn’t seem very special. ‘Always treasure when risk is involved;’ maybe mundane items became more valuable when mystery and tragedy were attached?

“You said you were on patrol. Aren’t you a little young to be a soldier?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Probably,” she shrugged. “I’m watching out for my family. We’ve had some rough incidents with those ‘residents’ you mentioned earlier in the last couple of weeks-”

“You live out here?” The treasure hunter narrowed his eyes. “That must be a recent occurrence. I’ve only ever known two people to live out here, and you aren’t one of them.”

“You must not come all that often then,” Svara challenged. “We call the whole western edge of this forest our home. We may not always be in this area, but it’s still part of our home.” Two people… “You know the residents of this cottage up here? The mother and son?”

“Oh, so you do know them,” the suspicion left his eyes. “Not particularly well. It’s been a few years, but they usually offer me their security. I, uh, was hoping they were still around and still hospitable. Forgive a guy for intruding, but sometimes he can really use a safe place to sleep, am I right?”

“Sure, seems polite enough to ask. We’re actually on our way to see them too. Would you like to come to our camp?”

His eyes lit up. “May I? Young lady, I’d be in your debt. It’s been a long opportunity, you see. Fruitful, but a little disappointing compared to what could have been. Alas, I’m prattling. Are you certain about that offer, young lady?”

“Sure,” Svara shrugged. The Elder might want to have a chat with this guy. “It’s about as far North as they are South. Your cart gonna have any trouble with that?”

“No, the plains are barely any worse than this road. We’ll get there!”

With a bit of cajoling, the stranger got his cart turned in the right direction. At one point, Svara thought the treasure hunter was going to lose an arm to his grumpy lizard, but soon they were off.

“Ah, ya can’t know I relieved I feel!” he exclaimed. Svara rolled her eyes; the clan had sheltered her from more than just imaginary threats when she was exhausted. She expected she knew his relief pretty well. “I may have been pushing my luck more than ever on this excursion. I thought I was dead for sure, more than once! I came so close to the motherlode, you wouldn’t believe it. Next time. If there ever is a next time, I won’t fail!”

“What, ya looking for something specific?” Svara asked casually. She didn’t much care; the clan couldn’t make much use of treasure, unless an item had a practical use. They had a long walk ahead of them, so some idle chatter couldn’t hurt. Even if it did amount to empty boasting.

“Yes! Well, sort of. I don’t know what’s in there, but I know it’s gotta be good!”

“Yeah?” Svara feigned interest. “Find a nice building, like a mansion or something?”

“Better! But here’s the strange part: I don’t really know what you call it! It’s shaped like a building, see, but it’s more like it’s carved out of marble. Only marble doesn’t jut out of the ground like this. It isn’t like you find pillars of it just sittin’ there so you can carve a house out of it, am I right?”

“So what is it?” Svara felt just a little annoyed that his description caught her interest.

“Well, I’ve been to all four nations over and over, right? And all of ‘em have their magic scholars. You know, sorcerers and such. They say a gifted earth magician erected it from underground and shaped it to his liking! It’s a wizard’s stronghole, young lady! Knowledge or fortune or ones-of-their-kinds, magicians are known hoarders, am I right? And Midway was known to have the craziest most talented sorcerers of them all!”

More like the craziest magicians fled there when they did something to get exiled from their own lands. And what’s with all this “Am I right?” Are ya really asking, or does that mean something else where you’re from?

Svara wondered why she was so grumpy. Was she disappointed that she hadn’t found actual danger? “That does sound like quite a find. So you’ve heard of this place, or you know where it is?”

“I’ve been there, now. All around it, even came right up to the front door! That’s closer than I’ve ever been, see, ‘cause the guards were away-”

“Wait, guards?” Now he really had Svara’s attention. What would denizens of the woods be guarding? “Like, monster guards?”

“What other kind would there, am I right?” He laughed. “In all my years of checkin’ of watchin’ that place, I’d never seen the guards away. All I knew is they went west! Somethin’ must have happened, so I came to see what had their attention and how long things were gonna be this way...”

Svara’s mind raced. We won the battle by killing the leader. There was a leader above him. There were guards, they’re gone, they went west - this way!- but left their charge unguarded. Well, at least less guarded, who knows what’s inside? Well… I might!

If it worked in the battle, couldn’t it work for the whole war?

“I’m glad I found you, stranger. What’s your name?”

“Maita Bolon, ma’am, at your service! You’re glad, you say? You wanna buy somethin’?”

“Nah,” Svara shook her head and smiled. He had his secrets, and he hid them behind an irritating front, but… “But I think we might be able to help each other.”

The End

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