Raven bowed respectfully to the two mercenaries. Hog raised an eyebrow and almost instinctively stretched out a spirit essence laced hand to touch Raven’s shoulder. She sensed the hand coming and for a moment fear filled her.
‘He wants to check my cultivation?’ Raven’s mind reeled. ‘This is bad. . . .’
Although the limiters would stop her cultivation from being exposed, they would do nothing to hide her spirit connections. Raven hadn’t thought this would be a problem since, at the academy, she could use her spirit essence to block her soul from being inspected, but if she did so now, Hog would notice and realize that she was a spiritualist.
Her options at this moment were quite limited. She would have to make a gamble on Hog’s perception of her “personality”.
As the hand approached, Raven glanced up from her bow. The moment her eyes met Old Man Hog’s hand – now only centimeters away – absolute terror filled her face and she staggered backwards, falling to the ground in the process.
“Ah!” The initial terror in Raven’s face faded quickly and was instead replaced by embarrassment. “S-. . . sorry. . . . I . . .”
As Hog observed the seemingly scrawny boy on the ground, his look of surprised interest shifted to that of understanding and he glanced over at Heron, who nodded back to him with a sad smile.
Hog pulled back his hand.
“No, I’m sorry, kid. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Hog smiled slightly at Raven and backed away.
Seeing his change in demeanor, Raven felt relieved and she didn’t bother hiding it. Her plan had worked; as she fell, her trousers had shifted upwards and thus clearly revealed the Limiters around her ankles. Being a veteran mercenary, Hog had instantly drawn the same conclusions that Heron had the day before: Raven was a slightly traumatized, escaped bandit slave. Heron’s nod had confirmed it.
“Go check the horses, Raven.” Heron ordered, or perhaps more accurately, suggested.
“Yes, sir.” Raven leaped from the ground and hurried away, honestly happy to put some distance between her and the spiritualists.
Despite moving away, Raven had no problem listening to the conversation behind her.
“Sigh, he’s a good kid, but he seems to have some issues with sudden touches. . . .” Heron explained.
“Most escaped slaves do,” Hog replied.
“Has he been in your service for long?” Twig had also noticed Raven’s limiters and now joined the conversation.
“No, not really. He helped me spot a thief I missed yesterday. When I realized his history I figured I’d help him back.”
“How noble.” Twig sounded quite sincere.
At that moment another merchant called for Heron so he excused himself and walked away. Once alone, Twig focused his attention on Hog.
“So, why the sudden urge to scan the boy, old man?” he asked. He had, just as Raven, felt Hog fill his hand with spirit essence.
“Remember the bar fight the other day? That kid was there.”
“Your point being . . .”
“He was standing next to the man who stated our cultivation, but the boy was gone by the time we turned to look. His . . . Raven, was it? Raven’s nimble movements got me a bit curious as to what kind of training he’s been through. His shackles explained it though. Poor kid.” Hog sighed.
“Poor? He’s better off than most, what with the merchant taking him in and all.”
Their conversation soon moved on to the journey at hand, and Raven couldn’t help but release a heavy breath. Naturally, she had never stopped listening in on their conversation and since they had bought her background story, hopefully they wouldn’t investigate the matter further.
Shortly thereafter, Heron’s wife and daughter arrived together with another woman Raven hadn’t been introduced to – apparently she was the wife of one of the other merchants that had bought room on Heron’s caravans. Once the whole group was assembled, no more time was wasted and they immediately set out towards the gateway to the passage. In the driver’s coach of the first carriage sat Heron and Raven, while the three ladies sat comfortably inside it. While in town, the mercenaries simply followed behind the carriages – there was no point in keeping a protective formation while within the town walls.
It didn’t take long before the caravan reached the gate. As they were arriving, Heron leaned over to Raven and whispered “Keep your head down.” into her ear. He even handed over one of the horse’s blankets for Raven to hold on to, efficiently hiding both her legs and arms in the process.
‘You didn’t have to tell me that, old geezer,’ Raven thought to herself with amusement, but she said nothing.
Even without Heron’s warning, Raven had already stimulated the Fox’s Veil to make her seem less important and more forgettable than before. She kept her gaze absentmindedly fixed on the tip of the horse tail swaying a few feet above ground in front of the carriage, while her other senses worked on high drive to observe if anyone reacted to her presence.
The carriage came to a halt.
“Declare your goods and passengers.” An-official sounding voice spoke on the ground next to Heron.
Heron pulled out a roll of parchment and handed it to the owner of the voice.
“These are our goods. The passengers are myself, my wife and daughter, my servant, two more merchants and a wife. All our names are written on the last page.” Heron spoke in a calm voice. He didn’t need to declare the mercenaries, they would pass through on their own accord.
There was silence as papers were being looked over, sometimes interrupted by the scribbling of notes or questions raised for Heron to answer. Everything seemed to be going well. But eventually . . .
“The name of your servant is missing.” The voice sounded a bit annoyed at this.
“Is it? Sorry. . . .” Heron sounded genuinely surprised. “Must have forgotten to add it. . . . Oh, well. He’s called Crass.”
Raven’s mouth twitched ever so slightly into a smile. She was impressed by Heron’s will to protect the supposed bandit slave by his side from being found out. She hadn’t really cared if her real name was registered here – the name was too normal to be a problem for her down the road – but Heron’s consideration warmed her.
“Very well. That will be one gold for passage through the Gate.”
“One gold!? It was only 70 silver last time!” Heron protested.
“More bandits out there now,” the voice replied. “We need to hire more guards to keep the city safe.”
Heron snorted, but paid the price nonetheless. There was no point in haggling with the Gate officials – they would only raise the fee instead.
The group started moving once more, but Raven didn’t change her posture until Heron spoke again.
“You can relax now.”
But Raven didn’t relax quite yet. Keeping her senses on high alert she took in every sound and movement around her. None of the guards even so much as glanced at her.
‘This Fox’s Veil is quite handy,’ she thought to herself as she finally relaxed a bit.
Raven looked up just as they passed through the huge metal gate that separated the town from the only passageway between Black Talon Prefecture and Rock Wren Prefecture that could be used on foot. Beyond the gate stretched a narrow road in between rows of densely packed trees that slowly climbed their way up the enclosing mountain walls. The walls were not as steep here as they were on the other side, so the trees managed to grow almost all the way to the top. Even though the walls weren’t steep – relatively speaking at least – the amount of flat ground suitable for carriages was still very limited.
As she observed the terrain they would be traveling through the next couple of weeks, Raven could understand why the bandits liked it here; there were so many hiding places for them to hide in, and those who traveled through the passage only had that narrow road to use. All in all, it was easy pickings.
Most likely, the bandits lived in caves along the mountain walls and only left the Passage every once in a while to sell the goods they had gathered. By just paying a little extra to the gate towns, they would be allowed to pass through undisturbed; the towns didn’t really care where the money or goods came from as long as appropriate taxes were paid.
The two gate towns would however, every once in a while, send soldiers through the passage to clear out any bandit crews that had grown too large or had constructed too strong settlements. After all, it was bad for business if people didn’t dare travel through the passage at all.
As Raven contemplated this, the white-garbed group led by Old Man Hog moved up past the caravan and took point, while Twig’s red men covered the flanks and rear. They were surprisingly well-coordinated in the formation.
“Keep your eyes open, men!” Hog called from the front “We’re expecting more trouble than usual this time around!”
“How much trouble is normal?” Raven asked Heron, but before the merchant could give an answer, Twig’s horse came up from the rear and walked next to where Raven was seated.
“Normally, not that much – perhaps one or two attacks – but now it’s likely to be at least the double.” The big man smiled an oddly gentle smile. “But don’t worry – we’ll keep you safe.”
With a wink, Twig rode on ahead and started discussing the night shifts with Hog. Raven couldn’t help but quietly snort at the notion of being protected, but said nothing.
After three days of relatively eventless progress, the traveling caravan and its guards started to relax a bit; people talked more and began to make jokes and other merriment with each other.
Raven had at first been disappointed by the mercenaries’ lax approach to their situation, but as she observed them more closely she noticed a well-hidden vigilance. Underneath all their fooling around they were never truly relaxed. Whether the act was for the benefit of the merchants they were guarding or if it was to fool the bandits in the passage to think they were incompetent, was hard to say.
The caravan eventually stopped for the day and the now routine hustle of setting up their night camp was set into motion. Every member had something to contribute with; some stood guard while others set up tents, gathered firewood and so on. The merchants and their wives were responsible for the food.
Mayeri, however, was an exception to this rule. She was free to do whatever she wished and that usually meant that she would force a very reluctant Raven to accompany her as she “explored” the new campsite.
Over the past few days Raven had learnt a great deal about Mayeri and grown accustomed to her jubilant personality. Even when on the road, Mayeri would constantly seek Raven out and try to coax Raven into talking about her past, or join some childish game Mayeri had thought up. By now, Raven didn’t have to fake her discomfort at the girl’s relentless presence.
At this moment Raven and Mayeri – on Mayeri’s insistence of course – had climbed a smaller tree that stood slightly hidden across the road from the campsite. They sat there and observed how the setting sun was disappearing between the several mountain peaks in the west.
Today Mayeri had been uncharacteristically quiet and Raven could guess that the girl was working up her courage to ask something important. It didn’t take long before their silence was broken.
“Raven . . .” Mayeri started carefully, “are you happy with us?”
That was not what Raven thought the girl would ask.
Raven opened her mouth to respond as ‘Raven, the enslaved boy’ would – with a disinterested “sure” – but she halted before the word was formed. At the border of Raven’s senses she had detected subtle movements. By reflex, Raven closed the distance between her and Mayeri and covered the girl’s mouth with her hand.
“Shhh. . . .” Raven hushed the struggling Mayeri and focused on the movement she’d sensed.
‘. . . twenty-two humans are approaching from the north. Roughly four hundred meters out.’ Raven counted carefully. ‘They are impressively quiet. If not for my excessive spirit connections, I might have missed them… there must be spiritualists along them, and with a good Divine Skill at that.’
“Trouble?” Hoatzin asked excitedly – he was growing quite bored because of the silent treatment Raven had to give him due to their constant company.
Raven nodded and then frowned; the mercenaries were, not unexpectedly, not reacting to the coming ambush. If this continued, the situation would turn bad, and soon. Raven glanced down at the confused Mayeri in her arms.
“Time to sleep.” Raven whispered and used two fingers on her free hand to put pressure slightly above the girl’s collar bone. In less than a quarter of a second, Mayeri’s body slumped as she drifted into unconsciousness.
“How practical.” Hoatzin mussed. “You must have been wanting to do that for days.”
“Can’t deny that. . . .” Raven muttered.
Carefully, Raven positioned Mayeri’s body so that she would remain on their branch on her own. Her movement had been swift but the assumed bandits were now only three hundred meters away from the camp. Considering her options, Raven only hesitated for a second before she pulled out three small daggers from within her robes. She had snatched these daggers from inattentive mercenaries over the past few days and hidden them in her garments, so that she could use them for self-defense without drawing attention to her spacial ring.
Now she poured some of her spirit essence into two of them and threw them all into the middle of the campsite. She only used one hand and one movement to accomplish this, but the daggers shot towards completely different locations. The first dagger swiftly grazed the bag of grain Ardea was carrying towards the open fire. The second and third dagger, both filled with spirit essence, headed to the vicinity of the two mercenary leaders, Hog and Twig, but passed them almost a meter over their heads before disappearing into the forest behind them.
Ardea hadn’t noticed the dagger that had ruptured her bag but she did notice the sudden grain leakage. Her surprised yelp gave perfect reason for the sudden movement of the other two. Both Hog and Twig sprang to their feet the instant the daggers passed over them – any spiritualist with at least three spirit connections would have no problem sensing spirit essence activated within a radius of a couple of meters. Hog and Twig were apparently not the only spiritualists in the group, because several other reacted to Raven’s daggers and focused their attention on their leaders for commands.
The following moments proved how experienced the two crews were; no verbal instructions were given, so with nothing but hand signals and body language it still only took a few breaths’ time for all the mercenaries to move into formation prepared for an ambush. Heron and the other merchants were at the center, with their backs to the carriages, and the mercenaries fanned out in a half-circle around them. Heron was holding his struggling wife and firmly covering her mouth, undoubtedly to stop her from calling out to Mayeri.
‘Good.’ Raven thought, pleased at both their fast reaction and the choice they made not to call attention to the two kids.
Silence spread. Shortly after the people in camp had stopped moving, the approaching humans did the same. No doubt they realized that they had been discovered somehow.
‘Well then, the element of surprise is gone. Will you attack anyway or wait for a better opportunity?’ Raven pondered as she remained on the branch next to the unconscious Mayeri.
There were barely a hundred meters left between the ambushers and the campsite and if they attacked it would only take them a few seconds to reach their target. Apparently a decision was made, because in the next instant the silence was broken by the rustling of leaves and branches swiftly being pushed aside – there was no longer any need for them to hide their approach.
“It’s an ambush!” Twig bellowed as the mercenaries also sprang into action.