Wrench stepped into the clearing with Frederick’s arm over her shoulder and hers behind his back, not supporting his weight entirely but helping him gingerly along. James dragged the remains of his lute across the ground behind them, in his despondency not noticing or caring when it got snagged and tore itself further into pieces.
Bringing up the rear was Kelly, who was walking backwards and watching their retreat with a keen eye, looking more stern than usual until she caught up with the rest of the group. The sight of the foresters brought a smile to her face that shone through the blood drying on it, and her exhaustion seemed to fade as she celebrated what could only have been a reunion with close friends.
“Are they alright?” Zane said, white as a sheet as he took in the sights of Frederick’s posture, Kelly’s face, and James’ mood.
“Well he’s winded and bruised somet'in’ fierce, but he’s tough,” Wrench said, playfully placing a fist on Frederick’s jaw. “Kelly jus’ got grazed. And James, he’s jus’ poutin’ about his lute dere.”
“Thank goodness,” Zane sighed, but anxiety still pulled on his shoulders.
“But lookit ya, all worried! I t'ought dis was yer big plan?”
“Well evidently events didn’t transpire as they were meant to!” Zane said. “What happened? How did you escape?”
“Well, ya were right about da Crown not much carin’ about us wit’ Ori not dere. But I don’t t'ink dey believed fer a minute dat we had not'in’ ta do wit’ her. More dan likely dey just wanted ta follow us ta her. Seems deir Shade buddies were impatient dough. Dere was a fight.”
Zane waited for Wrench to go on, watching her grin widely as she helped Frederick into a sitting position in front of a nearby tree, but she seemed too excited to even continue the story.
Zane, eye wide with curiosity, jerked his head between the four of them, waiting for someone to explain what had happened.
“You… won, I take it?” Oriana asked, clueless as to how they could have but taking no other conclusion from the glee on Wrench’s face.
“But at what cost!”
Everyone turned to the source of the outburst and watched as James fell to his knees, cradling the remains of his instrument to his chest.
“Damn right we did,” Kelly answered, stepping back toward the group with her friends in tow. She was trying to wipe the blood from her face with a scrap of cloth she had been given but was only succeeding in spreading around and diluting it. Her entire cheek looked like a grim painting.
“Thanks to James here, jumping to my rescue like a real hero,” she beamed, clapping him on the back.
“But at what cost…” he repeated in a whimper.
Kelly rolled her eye and crouched in front of him, clasping his shoulders. “Chin up James! After that performance, I’m sure the gang will all chip in and buy you a new whatsit.”
“Lute?” Oriana said—half informing Kelly, half asking the question she was sure was on everyone’s mind.
“Yeah, it made a hell of a weapon while it lasted. It wasn’t the lute, though, it was the gold on it,” Kelly said, rising to her feet again. “And there wasn’t much there either, so they must be pretty sensitive. Wrench there halved one with one swing, when she put some jewellery on her weapon.”
“And Frederick punched one’s head right off!” Wrench raved. Seeing the wide eyes, slight frowns, and outright slack-jaws this revelation invited from the group, her brow momentarily furrowed.
“Oh. Dey just turn ta dust an’ float away. Wasn’t dat bad.”
While the news that they could finally fight the Shades was sinking in and quiet celebration was flowing through the clearing, Zane frowned.
“So they simply retreated?” he asked. “They weren’t actually destroyed?”
“Well, no, I guess not,” Wrench said, tilting her head. “But dey’re gone an’ we’re okay. Dat’s pretty good too eh?”
Zane stared at his feet instead of answering. He shook his head slightly and looked up, a tight smile on his face.
“It’s wonderful. I’m glad you’re relatively unscathed.”
“But how did you get away from the Crown’s soldiers afterwards?” Oriana inquired. “They wouldn’t have just let you go, after that.”
Oriana raised an eyebrow. Wrench had suddenly gone from spirited and victorious to sheepish, and she couldn’t imagine what would cause such a drastic change. The fact that Kelly was now chuckling at Wrench did not clear things up at all.
“Dere was a man in armour…” Wrench began, hesitant to go on but roused by Kelly’s increasing merriment. “He was ridin’ a giant pig wit’ horns! Swear it!”
“…you mean a war hog?” Oriana said.
Now it was Wrench’s turn to be confused. “I guess? Is dat a t'ing? I t'ought maybe I was seein’ t'ings, what wit’ dem all gigglin’.”
“Yes, but they’re uh… special… Crown soldiers… What is so funny?!”
Everyone was laughing now—even the graceful and thus far reserved Linda had an amused smile on her face.
“John,” said a few of the Carmine Ledger in unison, exchanging knowing glances.
“John charged the line and drew most of them off,” Kelly elaborated, though it was more like she was explaining the joke to those familiar with the man but not the event.
“Of course he did…” Zane sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Who is John!” Oriana demanded.
“John is a friend,” Kelly explained. “Ex-soldier from the Crown’s Special Cavalry. He has a habit of pulling stunts like that. Sorry I let you wonder, Wrench, but there wasn’t much time to explain anyway. I take it they don’t have hog cavalry in Viducia?”
“Didn’t even know pigs could get dat big,” Wrench said, eye wide.
“Well anyway, it was pretty easy to slip away from the few soldiers left behind. And now we’re here.”
“And John is…” Zane said, forehead in hand as the answer he fully expected came out.
“Somewhere. Who knows? But I’m sure he’s fine. He always is.”
“Of course,” Zane sighed. “Well, nothing went as planned, but all things considered the outcome could not have been much better. A large scale battle was avoided and our wounds are few and shallow.”
As Zane spoke, with purpose and no small amount of grandiose, Oriana became aware of the fact that he was commanding the attention of a group of dozens. She had known they were there the whole time, of course, but it hadn’t sunk in while more important information was coming to light just how many of them there were, or what their presence meant.
They were attentive and seemingly happy. Zane was definitely in charge (despite appearing to be the youngest in the group), but not one of them looked as if their attendance had been coerced. They seemed, from their bright looks and eager posture, to be pleased to listen to him speak.
“I know I summoned you all here with the urgency of an impending battle with the Crown, but I would imagine I speak for us all when I say that despite your presence being ultimately unnecessary, this is by far the more preferable outcome. Regardless, I do apologize for any undue stress and wasted time.”
“I believe I speak for us all when I say it was not at all a waste of time,” Linda assured him. “After all, it isn’t every day one meets a young lady with two eyes.”
Oriana watched in a panic as everyone’s gazes swivelled toward her. She was used to passing as ‘normal’ from her time spent hiding her second eye in Viducia, and it hadn’t even occurred to her until now that she was no longer in disguise. The sudden attention hammered home that these people were here because of her. She could feel her temperature rising.
However, as the initial panic receded, she noticed that the looks were cursory, nonthreatening… at most, politely curious. She had expected outright shock and staring; though now that she thought about it with a slowly clearing head, they would have been staring when they first appeared, not now.
It made sense, she had to admit, that they wouldn’t be surprised by her presence. While Cynics as a whole were disbelieving, they placed a great deal of faith in their system of contracts, and knowing Zane there were undoubtedly signed papers confirming her existence and trustworthiness in each of the group’s ledgers.
Still, the attention was disconcerting. She had spent years trying to avoid being under scrutiny and having such a large group staring at her—undisguised and isolated—was making her squirm. She put on an uncomfortable smile, trying to act natural, but her eyes shot to Zane and begged for an out.
Whether by sudden miraculous understanding of Oriana’s signals, or just because he liked to talk, Zane took control of the conversation again.
“Everyone, you’re aware of Oriana already. And I would imagine many of you have heard tell of her companion, Wrench. Those who haven’t, I can only imagine you will soon enough, given her prowess in battle.”
Wrench looked up from tending to Frederick, her proud smile accompanied by reddening cheeks.
“Your personal introductions to them will have to wait, however. The danger has not yet passed and a gathering of this size will not go undetected. Disperse as best you can and await further contact. We may have weathered the initial infiltration, but your help will undoubtedly be needed again soon. This is our home, but it is also enemy territory, and from this point on we wage silent war.”
No one needed to be told twice. Kelly said a quick goodbye and departed in good cheer with the rest of the foresters. The giant mess of red clothing practically carried James from the clearing, a few other Carmine following along. Frederick, mostly recovered, was assaulted anew with a hearty hug from Wrench before being led to a new cart on the nearby road by two other members.
As Frederick left and the last remnants of the group scattered, Oriana, Wrench, and Zane were left alone with Linda and her colleagues.
“I will be along shortly,” Linda said, and the group of Veils faded into cover of the trees like a fog receding.
“Oriana. I understand you wish to come to your mother’s rescue in Owvry? To make her disappear from under the Crown’s watchful eye in the middle of a bustling village? And to do so while your presence is fully expected?”
Oriana frowned. “Yes, I want to find my mother. If Zane couldn’t talk me out of it I don’t know why you think you’ll be able to.”
“While I would otherwise happily take your wishes into account, I’m afraid it’s not you I am indebted to. I owe Zane a great deal, and it is because he wills it that I will help you.”
Oriana narrowed her eyes. Linda’s serene smile gave little away, though, so she turned to Zane instead.
“You were going to attempt it anyway,” Zane shrugged. “You may as well do so correctly.”
“I suppose you didn’t tell me this either because you ‘weren’t sure if she would make it here’?” Oriana accused, her tone scorching any semblance of reason from the excuse.
“Not at all. She would have met you in Owvry Village eventually. This time I simply wanted to surprise you with good news.”
Oriana made a face at Zane, but Linda received a smile instead when she shifted her attention back to the woman.
“Thank you for your help. Am I coming with you, then? What about Wrench?”
Wrench, uncharacteristically quiet with the rest of the crowd gone, gave a little wave upon hearing her name. She was lying back against a tree, eyes half closed, but there was still a happy look on her face.
“No, you three will need to find your own path to the village before I can be of any help. I have many obligations to attend to in the meantime, and a two-eyed girl—even a well-disguised one—would not escape notice.”
“Three? So you’re coming with us?” Oriana asked Zane.
“Of course. You’re quite capable of sneaking your way across the countryside unaccompanied, but you seem also to possess an uncanny attraction to trouble. I should be there to help extricate you from it.”
“Well, that’s what I have Wrench for.”
Zane stared in silence at Oriana’s blank face, his mouth trying and failing to start a sentence.
“Oh,” he eventually managed. “Well it’s not imperative I travel with you, but…”
“I’m kidding, Zane. But if you’re coming with us you’re going to have to learn to share your plans. I’m actually surprised you’d be so secretive in the first place, being a Cynic.”
“Most Cynics see a difference between being open and being honest,” Zane said. “Much success in life depends on what is not spoken of, but a direct question will never be answered dishonestly, and a promise will never be broken.”
Linda gave Zane a stern look. Zane stumbled to add to his speech.
“But yes, of course! I will attempt to make you more aware of my plans. Apologies. I suppose I have a tendency to wax poetic and miss the initial point.”
“You are a little wordy,” Oriana said, a grin softening the blow. “Much different than when I first met you.”
“Overcompensation,” Zane laughed.
“One last thing before I go,” Linda said. “The Crown may not have your prowess, but the rich do like to dabble with their toys. I was able to secure this.”
Oriana whooped as Linda pulled from beneath the cloak on her back a beautifully ornate quiver filled with well-fletched arrows. She immediately slung it on her own back with her bow and revelled in the comfortable weight. She felt complete again.
“Thank you so much!”
“Happy to be of assistance,” Linda said. “But we really should be going. John may be a miracle worker, but even he can’t keep the Crown busy indefinitely.”
They said their goodbyes, and Linda followed after her companions, silent and graceful as a falling feather.