The Chosen, Chapter 2D

Wolf spoke as soon as the exterior door clanged shut – “What is it you want?”

“You are in no position to ask questions.” The New Frisarian stood outside her cell, just outside of her reach. “I am about to offer you a deal, Prisoner Three, and when this proposition is made, you will be able to respond in one of two ways.” He lifted his right hand up to head level, and lifted his index finger – “Yes” – then his middle finger – “No.” He lowered his hand. “It really is that simple.”

“What if – ”

“Tomorrow morning, you will be tried, found guilty, and executed. The only way to avoid that fate, is to accept my proposal.”

“Which – ”

“After your trial, you will be placed in my custody, and your place exchanged with one of my prisoners. A thoroughly nasty woman, murdered her own children – the world will be a better place without her. While she is being hanged, I will bring you to New Frisaria, where you will help us locate your former employer.”

Wolf blinked. “Yungen.”

“We are not pleased, at all, with the encroachment of his criminals into our territory. Philos, and its pathetic Safety Committee, have proven incompetent to stop him, so we must rely upon ourselves to bring him to justice. When we heard that the Safety Committee had somehow captured one of his top lieutenants, we saw an opportunity to gain inside knowledge of his operation.” He spread his arms wide. “Which brings me here today, to this lovely place.”

“And when Yungen’s brought to justice – ” Wolf walked up to the bars of her cell – “justice will then come to me.”

The magistrate’s face brightened. “Ah, you are intelligent! How charming. Until Yungen is captured, you will be in our prison – we’re not barbarians, your cell will be much nicer than here – and afterwards, we’ll send you to the penal colony.”

“So what you’re offering me, is a life of imprisonment.”

“Your only alternative, is death.”

From the exterior gate, Deputy Stenson called into the jail. “Jerdain – your time is done.”

“Very well.” The magistrate from New Frisaria, Jerdain, pointed at Wolf. “I will be outside the courthouse, as you are led to your trial tomorrow. Just say the word ‘yes’ to me at that time, and all else will be done.”

The exterior gate opened, and Jerdain disappeared from his site. Before the gate closed, Wolf called out to Deputy Stenson, who walked swiftly to her cell.

“The nobleman, from yesterday.” Wolf realized she had lowered her voice, and realized the folly of that decision. “I have reason to believe, he is an Imperial spy.”

Deputy Stenson laughed. “As do I! He was just in the constable’s office, telling us he was a Guardsman, and trying to have us turn you over to him!”

Wolf couldn’t hid the disappointment from her face. “I take it – you said no.” The deputy let out another laugh, and quickly exited the jail.

The Chosen, Chapter 2C

***

Wolf was lying on her cell’s wooden bench, staring up at the ceiling, when she head the clanging of the exterior prison gate. Judging from the angle of the sunbeam rectangle, she guessed it was some time around mid-day. She suspected the Safety Committee had come with another prisoner, as her trial would not be for another day. But after the gate closed, she heard only a single pair of footsteps walking up the narrow corridor.

“Top of the morning, guv’nuh.” The prisoner in the cell next to Wolf’s sounded surprised, and when the solitary figure stepped into her view, Wolf understood her reaction.

He was a slender man, with a neatly trimmed goatee, and he was wearing the cloak and tunic of a New Frisarian magistrate. New Frisaria was a large colony, along the southern border of Philos; the two colonies had been rivals since their near mutual founding half a century ago, and had narrowly averted war just two years past. Wolf had no interest in the political rivalries among the colonies, yet knew enough to appreciate the oddity of this man’s appearance before her.

“Prisoner Three?” The New Frisarian spoke the language of Philos with the distinct accent of his country. His tone was polite, almost deferential.

Wolf sat up on the bench, her knees propped in front of her. “That’s what they call me. And what do they call you?”

“That is not your concern.” His voice was now harsh, dismissive. “I’ve come to discuss your situation – ” he paused, and glanced over at the other cell – “and with you alone. Prisoner Two, what crime have you committed?”

The woman in the next cell growled before answering. “Obscenity.”

“Ah, a misdemeanor, then.” He reached into a pocket in the interior of his cloak. “Punishable by a fine, of how much?” The prisoner told him the amount, and the New Frisarian went back to the main gate, calling for the guard. Within minutes, the prisoner was led out of her cell, the amount of her fine in her hands, leaving Wolf alone with the magistrate.

The Chosen, Chapter 2B

The man, whom until just now both the constable and deputy had believed to be a continental nobleman, laid the helmet of an Imperial Guardsman on the constable’s table. “My name is Archilochus. I am on a pilgrimage to the temple on Eighth Hill, with my sister, Crim, who is an acolyte of the temple in Eyrini.”

Deputy Stenson had overcome his surprise. “I’d expect a member of the Imperial Guard to be back on the continent defending what’s left of your realm, rather than going on holiday in the colonies.”

Archilochus did not seem at all perturbed by the deputy’s challenge. “Not all Guardsmen are needed to protect our borders. The Empire may not be as expansive as it has been in the past, but it has survived for a millennium, and retains the strength to endure. Guardsmen like myself who are not on active duty, nevertheless are bound to protect the Empire’s interests.”

“And does your duty to the Empire – ” Constable Gent waited for Archilochus’ full attention – “include spying?”

Archilochus snorted. “If I were a spy, why would I reveal my identity to you?”

“Only after lying about your identity first.” Deputy Stenson folded his arms across his chest. “We have no way to verify this new story you’re telling about yourself. For all we know, you could have purchased this helmet, or taken it from a Guardsmen you slayed.”

“An Imperial Guardian would rather STARVE, than sell his armor!” Archilochus’ voice had risen with indignation. “And impersonating a member of the Guard is a capital crime, surely you know this! No, if you must, send a messenger to the temple in Eyrini – the priests there will corroborate my story.”

Constable Gent picked up the helmet from his desk, and turned it over in his hands as he admired its craftsmanship. “You’re leaving out one important detail.” He looked up at Archilochus. “As I told you yesterday, your presence for that woman’s trial tomorrow is unnecessary, since my men saw her attack you and the boy. There was no reason for you to come here today, no reason to reveal your identity.” He handed the helmet back to the Archilochus. “So tell me, Archilochus – what business does the Imperial Guard have with us this day?”

Archilochus took the helmet from the constable, and returned it to his sack. “I’ve come to demand that you release the prisoner into my custody.”

The Chosen, Chapter 2A

[I’ve had so much fun with the first chapter of “The Chosen” that I’ve decided to forge right ahead with the next chapter. No title yet — I expect that will come some time before I’m finished.]

Constable Gent was in his court house office, reviewing the Safety Committee role with Deputy Stenson, when a stable hand entered the room and announced the arrival of a visitor. “He didn’t say what his name was,” the young man said, “but he did say he was one of the pilgrims who were attacked yesterday.”

Deputy Stenson stepped towards the window, and peered out. He then stepped back, and nodded at the constable. “It’s the nobleman.” Constable Gent ordered the stable hand to invite the visitor inside.

A moment later, the large man entered the office, both constable and deputy standing in greeting. Stenson noticed he was wearing the same clothing as yesterday, but carried a large sack, containing a bulky and weighty object, under his right arm.

Stenson extended his right hand. “I trust you and your companions found the Two Brothers Inn to your liking, Lord Aegis.”

“It was splendid, thank you.” The man inhaled deeply. “I’ve come today to offer you an apology, deputy, and you as well, constable. For reasons that I hope to make obvious to you, I lied to you yesterday, about my identity.” He took the sack from under his arm, and held it forward. “If I may?”

The two other men in the room nodded, the nobleman responding by opening the sack, reaching into it, and retrieving an object both wondrous and instantly recognizable. It was a bronze helmet, the top and back side forged from one piece of metal, the cheek plates covering the entire face save for a narrow vertical opening from the chin to the bottom of the narrow horizontal opening for the eyes. Its craftsmanship, as well as its inscriptions, was an unmistakable sign of its origin.

His eyes wide in disbelief, Constable Gent commented with an awed whisper. “The Imperial Guard.”

The Chosen, Chapter 1H

After the Safety Committee had disposed of the brigands, Deputy Stenson had personally escorted the pilgrims into Philos. The wounded boy obviously could not make the entire journey to Eighth Hill that day, so the deputy suggested they stay at the Two Brothers Inn, which specialized in lodgings for pilgrims. The Inn had a room large enough for all four travelers.

Long after the sun had sunk below the western horizon, the nobleman and Islander sat by a small table in the center of the room, as the boy reclined on a bed. The two men stood abruptly as the door opened, then relaxed upon seeing the priestly woman enter.

The woman’s face was bright with satisfaction. “I have good news – ”

“You had us worried.” The Islander sounded as if he hadn’t heard her words.

“Indeed.” The nobleman exhaled deeply. “When Ukhala and I came back, and saw you had gone, we were not pleased – and when Billy told us you hadn’t said where you were going, we were especially displeased.”

The woman’s face lost its brilliance, but showed no sign of regret. “We need to find Yungen quickly, and sitting in this room wasn’t getting us any closer – ”

“Crim.” The nobleman’s voice was sharp, stern. “You might be our leader, but you’re also my sister, and I don’t think it’s wise for you to travel alone. Especially at night.”

Crim nodded, as she walked over to the boy’s bed. “Archilochus, my dear brother – I don’t think anything we’ve done so far, has come anywhere close to wisdom.” She sat on the bed, and carefully removed the bandage over the boy’s leg wound. “The apothecary that the innkeeper recommended – he hasn’t been here, has he, Billy?”

Billy shook his head. “No, Miss Crim.”

“Good. And it’s just Crim, please. Or Sister Crim, in public.” She touched the incision made by the stiletto, and as the scent of cinnamon filled the room, the wound healed. She reached for the bloodied bandage, and wrapped it over the location of the healed skin, then looked up at Billy. “Keep that in place for a few days, to keep anyone from asking questions.” She turned back to Ukhala and Archilochus – “Well I don’t know about you gentlemen, but I’m famished.”

Archilochus waved at the small table. “We found bread, cheese, and fruit in town.”

Crim rose from the bed, and looked up at Ukhala. “And any familiar faces?”

Ukhala shook his head. “The faces are different, but I know enough about Yungen’s men to recognize them on sight. And they’re everywhere – just like I remembered.”

Archilochus nodded. “Your years in Yungen’s service – ”

“I served no man, Archilochus.” His companions had become accustomed to Ukhala’s abrupt voice. “Everything I did back then, was just for survival.”

“None of us is interested in judging you, Ukhala.” Crim walked over to the table. “None of our pasts, have any relevance now. Apples – how nice.” She picked up one of the golden fruits, then paused after raising it to her lips. “I spoke to that woman, who attacked us on the road today.” Crim bit into the apple, her eyes smiling.

“You WHAT?” Anger flared in Archilochus’ face.

“Have you lost your mind?” Ukhala pounded the table with his fist. “She’s a criminal, she tried to rob us, KILL us – you can’t go to her alone!”

Crim swallowed. “Who said I was alone?”

Archilochus blinked. “You had Gil with you?”

“Yes.” The voice came from the room’s window on the south wall. The pane was open, and in the darkness the room’s occupants could see the outline of a familiar head. “But no worries, I was not seen.”

Billy sat up in his bed. “Have you been here, the whole time?”

The outline of Gil’s head turned towards Billy. “No. I only came when I heard my name called.”

Crim tore a handful of bread from the loaf. “She agreed to help us find Yungen.”

Archilochus widened his eyes. “And you trust her, to follow through on that agreement?”

Gil responded with a voice that sounded too pleasant for his dark outline. “She seems like a smart person. Smart enough to realize, that working with us is probably her only way to avoid being banished to the penal colony.”

Crim swallowed the bread she had been chewing. “This has always been the plan, to find someone in Yungen’s gang who would lead us to him. And when Archilochus subdued that woman, I felt certain we had the right person. If the Safety Committee hadn’t arrived – ”

“I could have stopped them.” Gil’s voice had become mocking, and the room’s occupants saw a toothy smile emerge from the dark shadows of his face.

Archilochus pointed toward Gil. “You were wise to follow orders. The last thing we need, is a confrontation with the authorities.”

“Oh, and I agree! I never considered interfering with the Safety Committee. I was just letting you know – that I could have stopped them.”

“As I was saying – ” Crim waited for everyone’s attention – “I knew that woman was our best opportunity to get to Yungen. And after talking to her tonight, I’m even more convinced.” She quickly scanned the other faces in the room, and seeing no trace of her own certainty, she continued. “I know who she is, and that she’d just as soon try again to kill us as to help us. But I also know what we’re up against, and you know it as well – we have to find Yungen, and he’s notoriously elusive. If we play it safe all the time, we’re never going to get any closer to him than we are now. Having this woman be our guide, is not something any of us would normally elect to do, but if she can help us accomplish our mission, then I think our path is clear.”

“So this is your choice?” Archilochus folded his arms across his chest. “You choose – to trust this woman?”

Crim swallowed. “I do not choose we should trust her. But I do believe, because of our mission, that we have been chosen to trust her.”

She scanned the faces in the room again. Still no certainty, but acceptance. It would have to do.

“Well then, sister.” Archilochus unfolded his arms. “I believe our next step, is to get this woman you spoke with out of jail. And I believe I have a plan for doing so.”

End Chapter One

The Chosen, Chapter 1G

Lying on the bench in her cell later that day, Wolf tried to understand how the ambush had failed. The Safety Committee had arrived from the Philos side of the road, which had been Red Trout’s responsibility; he was too good of a scout to have failed to see them coming, or raise the warning signal. Had he betrayed them? Perhaps, but there was no way for her to know for certain. Yungen’s gang didn’t visit prisoners in jail, or attempt rescues. Once you were captured, Yungen was done with you.

“You heard about the Pentapolis?” Her fellow prisoner’s question caught Wolf by surprise, as it had been hours, or so it seemed, since either of them had spoken.

“Not sure I care what happens over there.” Wolf rolled onto her side, facing away from the other prisoner’s cell.

“They’re about to declare independence.” The other prisoner laughed, amused at the sound of her own words. “Been threatening to leave for years, but that young fella, Thurgood, he has the five cities believing they can make it on their own.”

Wolf shut her eyes. “No surprise there. The Empire’s got too many problems at home, to control the Pentapolis.” Then her eyes snapped open, and she propped herself up on the bench. Talk of the Empire prompted a memory from that morning, the nobleman advancing at her, with an Imperial blade. A weapon he had sheathed before the Safety Committee’s arrival. She called out to the other prisoner – “Does the Safety Committee still post a bounty, for information about Imperial spying?”

The woman in the other cell thought a moment. “Three grand, if’n I ‘member correctly.”

Wolf smiled to herself. The Empire may have been reduced to little more than a city state on the continent, but its influence was still feared, even in the colonial world. If she could convince her captors to investigate the nobleman, and if they did determine he was working on behalf of the Empire, they’d be disposed to dismiss the charges against her. And if she collected the bounty as well, she would be set for life, could even leave Yungen’s service if she desired.

“You know of any Imperial spies?”

“Perhaps.” Wolf reclined fully on the cot, and continued engaging the other prisoner without revealing any information about the failed robbery attempt, or the nobleman wielding the Imperial blade. The less anyone else knew, the better. After a while the other prisoner gave up her attempts at prying, leaving Wolf to her own thoughts again. As dusk filtered through the narrow barred window, she gave in to sleep.

***

She was not sure how long she had been out, when she woke with a start. She looked around her dark cell, feeling she had been jostled awake, but quickly determined she was alone. There was, however, something distinctly different. An odor.

Cinnamon.

“Mind if I have a word?” At first, Wolf thought the other prisoner had been speaking, but this voice was softer. “I promise, this won’t take long.” And it wasn’t coming from the next cell, but rather, the window.

Wolf approached the window cautiously, as if the speaker were about to leap through the narrow opening. “You were on the road today.”

“I’m not here to talk about what happened.” Wolf wished she could see this woman’s face, evaluate her sincerity. “I know this may seem unusual, but my companions and I have – a favor, to ask of you.”

“A favor?” Wolf snorted. “I’ll do you a favor, the courthouse has night guards, better watch yourself.”

The voice on the other side of the prison wall laughed. “Don’t worry about the guards. Just, tell me if you can help us, find Yungen.”

This was hardly the first time Wolf had been asked to lead someone to her gang’s leader. Usually, though, the request came as more of a threat. “He’s not a particularly easy man to find.”

“But – we can count on your assistance?”

Wolf bit her lower lip. She had no reason to trust this woman, but given her current situation, she had no other choice. “I don’t owe Yungen any loyalty. You get me out of here, I’ll help you find him.”

“Thank you.” Wolf could feel the woman’s smile in her voice. Sensing she was now moving away, Wolf called out to her. “How do you plan – ”

“Silence, Prisoner Three!” She recoiled at the sound of the gravelly male voice of the guard.

The Chosen, Chapter 1F

Wolf felt the nobleman pounce on her, his knees pressing down on the back of her shoulders, his hands taking her daggers. He then looked back, calling to his companions – “I’ve got this one down.”

Twisting her head, right cheek scraping the dirt, Wolf saw Viper battling with the Islander. Both men were wounded and tired; neither seemed to have an advantage. She was about to yell at her companion, order him to leave, when the priestly woman, who had been tending to the boy’s knife wound, stood and advanced towards the two men, then announced in a calm and patient voice, “This battle needs to end.”

A scent then came to Wolf, one she had only rarely come across, yet was still instantly recognizable. “Cinnamon?” At the same moment, Viper yelled, and dropped his sword. He then stared at his hand, confusion on his face.

With everyone’s attention focused away from her, Wolf attempted her escape. Flexing her right leg backward and up, she kicked the nobleman in the back of the head, startling him enough to allow her to flex both legs back and lock her feet around his throat. She then pulled him off her body, but before she could rise to her feet, she heard horses approaching, and looked up to see the banner of the Philos Safety Committee coming up the road.

She was immediately surrounded by officers. One of the officers dismounted, and addressed the nobleman – “Are any of you hurt?” The nobleman waved toward the boy, now being attended by the priestly woman again. The Islander was approaching as well, his face dusty and weary. In the distance, she also saw Viper and their bowman, attempting to flee, and soon to be cut down.

The Chosen, Chapter 1E

Wolf hurled the dagger in her left hand at the nobleman, who swept his right arm across his body to deflect the missile, then brought the arm down and back across to draw the sword from his hip scabbard. A beam of sunlight glistened off the sword’s blade as he walked forward, holding the grip of his weapon with both hands.

Drawing another dagger from a back holster, Wolf recognized the make of the sword being brought against her. “That’s an Imperial blade.”

“Indeed.” The nobleman stopped his advance. “I feel it’s my duty to inform you, that surrender is an option.”

Wolf drew her lips back in a snarl, as she twirled the daggers in her hands. “I’m gonna carve the word ‘prick’ backwards on your face, so that you remember me every time you look in the mirror.” And with a yell from her gut, she charged.

Her right dagger jabbed at the nobleman’s chest, but he easily deflected the attack – as well as the slash of her other dagger towards his belly. His parries were economical, using only as much force required to protect him, and he continued using both hands on the grip. Seeing the nobleman step back, Wolf spun and slashed with both daggers, the first catching against the sword’s blade, but the second deflecting and slashing the nobleman’s right sleeve and forearm.

Wolf continued attacking, the nobleman retreating at each blow. The priestly woman and boy had backed up along with their companion, and were now almost back to back with the Islander, locked in battle with Viper.

The nobleman’s strategy was now evident – maintain a safe distance, stay defensive, and let his opponent tire herself and weaken before initiating his own attack. Blood oozed from the slash on his forearm, but that was his only wound. Wolf knew his plan was working, and she needed an effective counter to avoid defeat.

“You – ” holding both daggers high, she took several steps back, and exaggerated the exhaustion in her voice – “are more – than you seem.” She sat into a low crouch, and let the dagger in her right hand fall to the ground.”

The nobleman remained wary, his sword held close to his body with both hands, blade pointing up. “We really don’t want to hurt you.”

She wiped her brow with the back of her right hand. “How kind – of you.” Then her right hand flew down to her boot, retrieved a stiletto, and hurled it forward.

The small knife was too low to the ground for the nobleman to deflect it with his sword, and was well wide of his legs, so he let it pass. Almost immediately, the boy behind him screamed; the nobleman glanced back, and saw the boy falling to the ground, the stiletto lodged in his right calf.

Wolf fell upon the nobleman again, her left dagger slashing across his other forearm before he caught her blade. His parry this time was more forceful, knocking her backward, and with anger in his face he advanced, holding his sword forward with his right hand only. She took a step back, and finally realized another reason for his constant retreating – he had moved them back to level ground.

He thrust the sword at her, and she deflected the attack with her right dagger while slashing at him with her left, missing by less than an inch. The nobleman closed the distance between them, then slashed powerfully at her right arm; Wolf caught the strike with both daggers, then watched helplessly as the nobleman’s left fist flew down at her, striking her square across the jaw, and sending her sprawling down onto the dirt road.

The Chosen, Chapter 1D

Wolf swiftly reached the base of the tree, then edged quietly along the ground in order to prevent startling deer or other forest animals, and potentially alerting the pilgrims to her presence. Reaching a cluster of small trees, she crouched down and waited for Viper to join her. The trees were at the summit of an incline in the road, the point chosen by the brigands for their ambush; the pilgrims, should they decide to resist, would literally be fighting an uphill battle.

A moment later, she heard Viper creeping up behind her, and glared back at him, her unspoken question evident in her face – Is everyone ready? He tapped her twice on the shoulder to confirm. Before climbing down from their perch, Viper had risen above the tree line to flash the attack signal to the scouts and another brigand, armed with a bow and positioned closer to the ambush point. Having given the signal, the brigands needed to act without communication until engaging their victims; they could still signal each other through trunk tapping, but that practice was not entirely reliable and also fairly easy to detect.

Wolf and Viper waited silently for several minutes, then finally heard the sound of approaching footfalls. For the first time, Wolf saw the pilgrims Viper had identified through his telescope. In the front was a large man, a nobleman from the continent judging from his clothing and bearing; behind him was a frail woman, with an intelligent yet soft face, wearing priestly robes; walking beside her was a boy, dressed in peasant clothing and looking no older that fifteen, who was leading a mule laden with sacks; bringing up the rear was another man, nearly as powerful looking as the nobleman and dressed as a colonial merchant, but whose dark skin clearly identified him as an Islander.

As the pilgrims approached, Wolf estimated how much wealth they’d be carrying. They would certainly be carrying an offering of a two, maybe three hundred for the temple priests, and somewhere between ten and twenty more for their personal use; their clothing and equipment might garner an additional ten on the black market. They’d let them keep the mule, an animal too easily recognizable. If they were lucky, they could score two-fifty from this raid, not anything close to the raids in the days before the Safety Committee escorts, but still more than they could hope to obtain in a week’s worth of other activities.

The pilgrims finally reached the ambush point, and Wolf sprang out from behind the cluster of trees, and raced out into the road, several yards in front of the nobleman. Drawing a dagger with her right hand and raising it high above her head, she waved her left hand at the pilgrims – “Welcome, travelers, to the city of Philos!”

The nobleman stopped a moment, and examined the figure who had just stepped in their path. He glanced back at his companions; the priestly woman nodded. Then the nobleman faced forward again, and resumed walking.

Snapping her head up and to the left, Wolf whistled sharply. A second later, an arrow hummed down from the forest, striking and sticking in the road no more than a foot in front of the nobleman, who stopped and looked down with a smile on his face, as if he had just come across an interesting plant.

“Three-feather fletching – ” the nobleman grabbed the arrow, pulled it from the road and examined its end closer – “and yes, we have nocking and cocking. “ He waved the arrow and looked up in the direction from where it had been launched. “Nice work.”

Wolf whistled twice, the signal to attack, but the nobleman turned to her slowly, shaking his head. “Oh, that’s not going to work any longer.” Wolf looked up, and from the archer’s position saw a struggle among the leaves; a moment later her archer’s broken bow fell to the ground, followed by his quiver of arrows, and then, with a panicked scream, the archer himself.

Drawing the other dagger from her belt, Wolf crouched down into attack position. Behind the Islander, she saw Viper leap into the road, sword drawn. The brigands were thieves, not warriors; skirmishing was not their strength, but Wolf realized they had no choice. Whoever had taken out their archer knew how to get around in these woods, so running was not an option; they’d have to fight their way out of this situation.

The Chosen, Chapter 1C

“Are they armed?” Wolf’s question that morning was directed at Viper, one of Yungen’s most adept scouts, as he peered into his telescope. The two bandits were lying on a perch constructed near the top of a large oak, high above the road from the Pentapolis, and had been alerted to the coming group of travelers by a signal from Red Trout, the band’s advance lookout.

Viper grunted. “Men are carrying swords. The woman and boy, no. There’s other weapons packed on the mule, but it won’t be easy to get to them.”

“Just those four, and the mule?” After Viper nodded in response to her question, Wolf rose to her knees, and taking from her vest a small mirror, round and no larger than her fist, she climbed the oak until her head was above the tree line. Raising the mirror high, she twisted her wrist until the sunlight reflected toward Red Trout’s position.

A moment later, she received the all clear signal (two short flashes, followed by a long) from Red Trout. Twisting back toward the uproad scouting position, she soon received the same message from Talon. Viper was collapsing his telescope when Wolf returned to the perch. The bandit leader smiled, exposing her white teeth – “Pity, those pilgrims chose not to pay the escort fee.”

“Probably figure the road’s safe, even without an escort.” Viper picked up his sword from the platform floor, as Wolf gathered two of her daggers. “The road hasn’t seen a successful robbery in two years.”

“Politics.” After loading her two daggers into her belt, one at each hip, she collected two more daggers, shorter than the others, and inserted each into a holster on either boot. “We could’ve taken down any escort, but Yungen didn’t want to risk open confrontation with the Safety Committee. Plus, he knew they’d eventually charge a fee for their service.”

Viper laughed, as he adjusted his tunic. “And people never like paying for what they’ve come to expect for free.”

Wolf had reached the edge of the perch, and stopped herself before beginning her descent. “Pilgrims, most of all. They feel they have the right to make this journey to their precious shrine on Eighth Hill. Paying for protection – they take that as an offense.” She began climbing down the tree.

“Hey.” Wolf stopped, looked up at Viper. “I’ve – it’s good to be raiding again.”

She frowned in response. “Those pilgrims, they need to pay someone. Whether it’s us, the Safety Committee, or this god of theirs. Nobody travels these roads for free.” And raising a finger to her lip, she continued her silent descent.