The Valley

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Rainhart sat by the campfire, lulled but not soothed by the banked flames. Another long day of riding, the scouts ranging at the edge of his perception--not that they knew that was the reason for their formation--every nerve strung tight.

But nothing. The scouts saw none of the usual marks--trampled leaves, scuffed out fires--that would suggest the passage of a war band, and Rainhart had sensed no unfamiliar minds in their vicinity.

It seemed as if Valdon was willing to barricade himself in Traumwald and wait for Tancred to come to him. But that made no sense. Valdon would not want a long siege, and by leaving the army to pass unmolested through the narrow valley, he was wasting a valuable opportunity. Rainhart rested his head in his hands.

"Your highness, if you're tired, please do go to sleep."

Rainhart looked up at the sentry. "Hm?"

"We've all noticed that your highnesses are taking shifts to stay awake and we are grateful for your care, but you needn't do so. It is our pride and pleasure to guard the camp."

Rainhart smiled. "Of course. You're a Mullrose man, aren't you?"

"I am, your highness."

"Then you've seen your share of skirmishes." At the man's nod, Rainhart continued, "Why hasn't Valdon attacked us yet, do you think? If we were riding into Wendia, the Wends would be all over us."

"Perhaps Baron Valdon is not familiar with the tactics of warfare."

"Then why withdraw to Traumwald?" Holle said. Rainhart looked up to see her roll over and sit up. "I couldn't sleep," she said with a half-smile.

"For..." the soldier hesitated.

"Go on," said Rainhart. "No need for formality."

"Well, Breg is loyal to Reuz, isn't it? There'd be enemies inside and out if he met King Tancred there."

"True," said Rainhart, "but the advantage of holding the capital..."

"Tancred sits in throne at Breg now," said Holle. "Valdon gave up that legitimacy to withdraw to Traumwald."

"And yet he is content to wait for us to arrive." Rainhart shook his head. "He showed us he was a snake by poisoning father instead of meeting him on a battlefield. So why does he now wait when he could strike without risk to himself? And why flee a siege at Breg only to sit in Traumwald and wait to be besieged there?"

"Either he is a fool--" said Holle.

"Did he seem foolish to you?" Rainhart interjected.

"--or we have missed something." 

Silence reigned briefly. Holle frowned and seemed as if she were about to speak, but she was interrupted by footfalls in the leaves. In an instant, they were alert. The man from Mullrose put himself between them and the intruder. 

Then, a bark, and Briga bounded into the clearing. Rainhart almost choked in shock. "What on Aea are you doing here, you mad hound?" he said, taking her head between his hands. Briga licked his face and tilted her head up. "What are you doing?"

"She carries a message," said Holle, pointing.

Rainhart untied the leather pouch from Briga's collar and unrolled the slip of paper inside. As he read Tancred's scrawled note, a frown pressed itself between his brows. "Double the watch," he said.

The guard nodded. "At once."

Wordlessly, Rainhart passed the note to Holle. She read it, then folded the paper and threw it into the fire. "Well, that is what we missed," she said eventually. "Darkwood. Great gods damn the stuff. Tancred is right--there's no point our remaining with the advance guard if we can't do anything useful here."

"Our king commands us back," said Rainhart, gritting his teeth. He looked up at the sky. "It's almost dawn. I suppose we leave as soon as it's light." He shook his head. "I reckon that we are two hours' ride from the camp, if they are where they planned to be by now."

"You're not abandoning the men," said Holle. "You're going where you're needed and letting them do their jobs."

Rainhart didn't reply. Instead, he leaned his head against Briga's shoulder and said, "How did they make you into a tracker, girl?"

"She's a hound," said Holle as if this were the obvious answer. "She came to her master."

Rainhart snorted. "Awfully trusting of Tancred to tie such an important message to a dog in the hope that she would wander towards me, with no recent trail to follow."

He leaned into Briga's warm side, feeling the emanation of pleasure at their reunion, the fun of her dash through the forest, and the completion of the task given to her by the small human. The last thought came with an indistinct image of a slender woman kneeling in front of Briga.

"Philomena did it," Rainhart said, sitting upright. Then he looked quickly around the camp to see that nobody was listening. "She found Briga's mind somehow."

Holle sighed. "It is dispiriting to be constantly outclassed by an Alysine brat," she said, "but she does make life so interesting."

Puffing up, Rainhart said, "You should be more respectful."

"Stand down, brother." Holle put up her hands and went to start packing her things. "I have nothing but the greatest respect for Lady Philomena's resourcefulness."

"What about her kindness?" said Rainhart.

Holle didn't turn around. "Well, I have less use for kindness, as a rule."

Rainhart got to his feet. "We leave now," he said. "Briga will show the way, and the dawn will catch us soon enough."

Parting from the advance guard was a wrench. He had thought, finally, that this would be an opportunity for his gift to be useful. Instead, he was leaving his men behind to fend for themselves, without the protection he could--he had thought he could--give them, and down two more men who insisted on guarding them on the ride back to the main camp.

Briga was beside Rainhart's horse. They knew where Tancred planned to make camp the previous night, and the images and impressions from Briga helped Rainhart guide them through the pre-dawn darkness.

Because he was in the still place, his thoughts half-mixed with the sense-memory and impressions from the hound, Rainhart caught a flash of strangeness, an alien smell that made the dog raise her hackles.

It was all the warning Rainhart had to dive from his horse and pull Holle from hers before the first Cimbra arrow struck a tree opposite them.

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