The squadron that Master Pritchard dispatched silently scanned the Tywyll. Bowmen and crossbowmen walked behind the dagger-hands and swordmasters. Their feet made little to absolutely no sound as they crossed the cursed forest.
Not many could venture deep in the forest without becoming afflicted with madness. The utter silence could make one’s brain weak. Only, this was deep in the Tywyll; Caislín and her Solitary had stayed within the outskirts.
The specialist squads, such as the Sïon, trained mercilessly to keep their minds healthy in such a dark, silent place. Sergeant Rohese motioned behind her for the men in her command to stop, and they all crouched to blend in with the grass.
To an untrained eye, the Solitary were nothing more than randomly scattered rocks in the forest, not living beings. Their eyes followed everything that surrounded them.
Rohese could have sworn something was amiss. Her deep blue eyes shifted from tree to tree, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. In fact, the forest looked tranquil, as if it were sleeping. In that case, it had been sleeping since it sprouted into existence. A feeling crept down her spine. It was an unfamiliar, unwelcome feeling of, “We’re going to die here.”
“False alarm,” she said. “Proceed.”
The Solitary stood again, but before anyone took a step forward, a howl like a tortured soul and a growl tore through the woods and the maker of the sound pummeled three Solitary behind her. Their screams were cut off.
Just as quickly as it happened, Rohese and the remaining two Solitary whirled around and aimed their weapons at… the tree. Nothing was there. Not even the bodies of their comrades.
Rohese was shaken as she sheathed her longsword. “By Qamatash, what was that?” she demanded.
The Sergeant’s language was loose and, for the most part, shamed sailors to hide their faces in their hats, but only if she were in a foreign country. Her list of coarse vocabulary derived from various stories of foreign myth.
Arn and Sheridan looked at her with fearful surprise in their eyes. “No idea, ma’am,” Arn said, his voice shaking.
Rohese was just about as scared as him, but she hid it behind concern. “Bram! Ian! Delmar! Call back if you can hear me!”
“Bram! Bring your men back!”
No one called back.
Rohese’s heart pounded in the tips of her boots and her eyes were wide now. “Bram!”
Sheridan sighed to calm his own nerves. “We may have found our killers, ma’am,” he proposed.
The Sergeant nodded reluctantly. “Aye, you may be right.” She took her crossbow off her back and cocked it. “Whoever you are, come out with your hands over your head.”
The three circled the vicinity in vain. Then, Rohese heard the howl again and she ducked. This time, Arn’s scream lifted into the canopy of the forest. By the time she got to her feet again, his scream had ended and a guttural growl circled Sheridan and the Sergeant.
“Are you properly frightened yet?” inquired a rich Údaen voice.
“We’re not afraid of you,” Rohese spat, training her aim at the source. “Come on out, coward.”
The Údaen showed himself to be a tall Sahra’an with a sword. “I’m not afraid either,” he said plainly, hands behind his back. “No, no, no, you’re afraid of Seph.”
Rohese knew who Seph was. It was one of her exclamations.
Seph was an ancient Údaen god who took the shape of a giant wolf with green eyes, and his disciples were given the power to turn into wolves at will. He was known as the god of destruction and of the hunt, and most never worshiped him so much as feared him and his wolf race, known as the Manhunters. She had seen the wolves of Úda that had inspired the myth; they grew to be twice as large as Destrean wolves. No wonder they struck fear and the people saw them as deities.
“Seph ain’t a thing,” growled Sheridan, holding his longsword’s tip against the Údaen’s throat. “There ain’t no god but the Protector.”
The Údaen frowned. “No, I don’t believe in Seph either, but, I named my pet aptly.” He batted away Sheridan’s sword. “And has the Protector protected your men? I fail to see them anywhere.”
Out of the trees stalked a gargantuan timberwolf, which stood as tall as a Shire horse. Its fog grey fur was bristled and its gleaming teeth bared. Its yellow eyes were wide and crazed, and foam dripped from his mouth.
“It may as well be rabid,” Rohese whispered in horror.
“Alrrajul al'uwal,” ordered the Údaen.
Without hesitation, the wolf, named Seph, roared and pounced on Sheridan. The Solitary had no time to shoot and hardly enough time to scream before he was dead. Rohese shrieked in terror as Seph finished off his meal. With shaky hands and blurred vision, the Sergeant cocked and fired her crossbow. Unfortunately, it was far from target. Seph caught the arrow out of the air and snapped it in half with his powerful jaw. At the order of his master, he threw Rohese into the trees with the back of his paw.
Rohese grunted and fell back to the earth, feeling like she was wrapped in a blanket of pain. She attempted to get back up, only to fall onto her stomach.
Seph was about to devour her, when the Údaen yelled a halting order. The wolf craned his head to gaze pleadingly at his master, but he did not get his wish to eat the last Solitary.
“Let her go back to Bryngaer,” he said, staring at Rohese. “Let her warn the queen that Breixo wants more than just a petty tiara and the death of her father.”
Caislín waited in the covert stables.
Aloysius, Wynne, and the Praetor and his squad came riding from the south on sturdy stallions. Chance was taken from his cell and was given a docile Shetland pony. He was indignant on it, given he could very well have been tall enough to walk over it. Rather him ride on short legs should he try to escape, Cairbre had said while he laughed so hard. Shay had stayed in Baric-Tref with Lieutenant Niall to train the newcomers, and Cairbre announced he had nothing better to do, so might as well stop terrorists. That was enough to wring a smile from their queen, who became quieter and quieter every passing day.
Cairbre escorted Chance with Wynne to converse over the Údaens, and Praetor Boniface and his squad wandered Bryngaer for the morning. As always, Aloysius and Wynne were a double package.
Caislín was alone. The early morning was refreshing to her, and waiting right outside the stables, the queen could hear the birds singing, smell the morning dew, and feel the chill of the night. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be content for the first time in about a week.
The feeling was short lived.
The sound of a weak hoofstep made her open her eyes. Through the central gate and up the cobblestone Giât Canolog, a weak brown horse limped towards the stables. Caislín saw the figure riding struggle to sit up, and she rushed to the horse’s side. The figure’s cloak was bloody, and that was enough to know the Solitary needed help. Caislín quickly unbuckled the Solitary’s stirrups and eased the soldier into her arms, and led both to the stables.
“It’s all right,” reassured Caislín. “You’re in Bryngaer.”
“Bryngaer,” gasped the female Solitary. “No, I have to be Baric- Baric-Tref.” She raised her head, and Caislín winced at her injured face. A telltale swelling covered one of her blue eyes, and a healing gash on her forehead seeped red into her matted blonde curls. “Your Highness.”
Caislín ordered the stablehand to fetch a healer, and she guided the Solitary to a clean hay cot. “Don’t worry about a thing, Sergeant…” She read the soldier’s identification tag. “Rohese.”
Rohese smirked a military smirk. “Don’t worry about a thing? Even when I’ve lost all sense of feeling in my arm?”
The queen stepped aside for the urgent healer. While the doctor closed Rohese’s wounds, Caislín ran after Aloysius and the company.
Chance shook his head, wide-eyed. “Breixo wouldn’t do something so destructive.”
Rohese sat up to the best of her ability, aided by the healer. Her side, right arm, and almost a whole half of her blonde head was bandaged tightly. She looked in need of sleep and a long bath, but otherwise, seemed to recover enough to be her snide self.
“Said ‘is name was Breixo,” she protested. “He ‘ad control of a devil dog straight from the Book of Alqudama'.”
Wynne’s head snapped up. “A Manhunter?”
Rohese nodded. “If you call the real, live, Shire horse height wolves that, then yes. This Breixo had a Manhunter. A timberwolf that had a glare of death. He killed and ate off my whole squadron.” She half yelled it, and a couple tears rolled down her face. She quickly composed herself and sniffed. She faced Chance. “I don’t know how you know this Breixo person, but I don’t trust him or his kin. He’s straight from the Depths, he is! Straight from the Depths!”
Chance backed away and held his forehead in one hand. Caislín joined him and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“When I knew him,” Chance said, breathless, “Breixo wouldn’t have hurt a fly. He was a victim of dictators. He had a wife he cared for so dearly and a daughter he cherished so closely. His brother only wanted to be like him. When the Turbans raided our camp…” He grew far away. “Nadia and Yatie were killed. Breixo snapped. He… he grew progressively more violent, and- this was a huge jump, though.”
Caislín laid a hand on his shoulder. “People we think we know change drastically when we aren’t looking.”
Chance winced at that.
Wynne had trouble breathing. Manhunters? Manhunters? How unlucky could this operation get?
The girl had her own experiences with Manhunters. The colossal wolves - a whole pack of them - had ravaged Nahrin once before. She was but four then. Her older brother, Saif, had been killed by them. Her village paid a sacrifice to the pagan god Seph to keep them away, but those who feared the Protector prayed long. Wynne knew who really kept the monstrous beasts away.
Still, a Manhunter meant complete trouble. Timberwolves were the worst; their forms were strong enough to pummel trees to the ground and jaws powerful enough to break boughs in half. They haunted every Údaen’s nightmare.
How an Údaen managed to control one was a new story.
Aloysius placed a concerned hand on her shaking shoulder. “You all right?” he asked quietly. “It’s not all that cold any longer.”
Wynne looked into his eyes with fear. He never let go of eye contact; it was his way of making sure he didn’t miss an important detail. All she wanted was to disappear from worry, to forget she heard anything about battling a Manhunter. To be a child and hide in Aloysius’ cape, to hide from the world, would make a difference. Her dear friend would not mind, but it would never be proper. She settled with leaning forward just enough to pound her head against his strong chest.
“Wolves. Are. Stupid.” She groaned and kept her forehead against his chest. “Sius, hunting Manhunters aren’t like hunting rabbits. They’re big, raucous, and they fight back. Hard. Not even a whole village of disciplined yd biad practitioners could bring down a pack of nine.”
Aloysius patted her shoulders reassuringly. “How about a whole squad and a half of highly disciplined, short-range and far-range Solitary?”
Wynne sighed and stood straight again. “Maybe, but don’t count on it. Their fur is thick and they spend wee hours rubbing sap on their backs. This mattes it and hardens it, making an armor against arrows and it takes the brunt off of the swing of a sword.”
Suddenly, she noticed her company was listening. She blushed and took a step backwards.
“Continue, please, Wynne,” requested the queen with a hand gesture, asking her to proceed.
Wynne hugged herself and rubbed her arms. The chills came through the stable and her fog jacket wasn’t doing a great job.
“Manhunters are formidable foes,” she continued, “and reliable allies. They stay close to those they know and don’t betray very well. They never trust outsiders unless their Alpha wolf accepts them. There seems to be this whole initiation Údaen observers have seen. When tamed - and that’s rare; like, a star falling straight in the middle of a flower rare - they treat their master like their Alpha. Their initiation includes a Manhunter from a different pack needing to bring an offering of peace. If the Alpha accepts, the pack circles around the new wolf and begin to attack it. If it can defend itself, then it is initiated.”
Boniface, who had stayed silent this long, nodded slowly. “Ace, Sabri. Ace.”
His squad smirked and gave her pats on the back of approval. She smiled at them and looked at her queen.
Caislín was amazed at the savagery of the creatures. She had never seen one, but after Wynne’s and Rohese’s descriptive images of them, she wasn’t all that excited to see one in person. On a page would be more than enough.
“My,” she whispered, massaging her queasy stomach. “Ah, Chance, I’m feeling rather dizzy. I- I think I’m going to-”
Chance caught a fainting Caislín promptly. Securing her in his arms, he returned to the crowd. Boniface almost stepped forward to smack Chance in punishment for hurting the queen, but he changed his mind by the time he saw that she was not harmed.
“We may have a problem,” he said.
Okay, this is as dark as it gets. Goes to show how far Breixo is falling as a character.