“Oh, what the hell is this now,” Lance muttered. Ahead, Jim was already bringing the lead wagon to a stop. Between the gentle downward slope of the Sea and the height of the tallgrass, they hadn’t seen what was coming up until they were right on top of it. Or for that matter, maybe it hadn’t been there before.
He hopped down from the wagon seat before it had even fully stopped moving. “Stay put,” he said curtly to Bella when she began to rise, too. “And keep your eyes on those kids, I don’t want any surprises at this point.” Not pausing to see her reaction, he strode forward, around the other wagon, and approached Jim, who was standing on the ground as well.
“What do you think?” asked the half-elf as he approached. Lance panned his gaze around at the expanse of flat, rocky ground that had opened up before them. It looked like granite—uneven, marred by cracks, pits and protrusions. “This’ll play hell with the wagons. Won’t be great for the oxen, either.”
Lance cursed under his breath. “Can you see how far it extends?”
“Nope.” Jim shook his head. “Not in front or to the sides. Of course, how big it objectively is has little to do with how long we’ll be in it if we try to cross.”
He glanced back at his own wagon, in which they had laid out the kids from Last Rock. “Bella reckons we can maybe keep ’em asleep a bit longer with her hoodoo, if it comes to that. The last thing we need is for our passengers to start waking up… That’ll play bigger hell than anything this does to the wagons.”
“Unless we throw a wheel, or lame an ox,” said Jim, “in which case it’ll all go to shit anyway.”
Lance glared at the plain of stone, thinking. They were between the proverbial rock and an annoyingly literal hard place. “Risk damaging the wagons in the badlands, or risk getting lost as fuck and adding days to our trip if we try to go around. Both mean we have some angry and very dangerous people to deal with… Looks about the same level of risk to me either way, with more or less the same consequence. Unless you disagree.”
Jim shook his head. “Sounds about right to me.”
Lance heaved a sigh. “Then I say we go for the risk that gets us out of here quicker. Make sure everything’s lashed down tight and let’s move on. You best stay in front, I want your eyes findin’ us the safest route.”
The other man nodded mutely and climbed back up onto his wagon seat while Lance turned and walked back to Bella.
“I heard,” she said. “Everything’s secure back here, and it doesn’t matter too much if the passengers get jostled a bit. The wagons were in good shape when we set out and Elroy’s been looking ’em over at every stop. We should be fine.”
“Any chance of the bumpy ride waking our sleeping beauties?”
She grinned. “Not till dusk at the earliest, and even then they’ll be too groggy to be useful for hours. Best we get a move on.”
Jim’s wagon was already moving, and Lance prompted the oxen to follow suit.
“Try not to distract me,” Bella said, closing her eyes. “I’m gonna keep my attention on a little charm work, to help the wagons bear up under the abuse.” Already she had to raise her voice to be heard under the aggressive rattle of wheels over uneven stone. Lance gave her a sidelong look, holding onto his seat.
“Shouldn’t you have got out and laid that on the wheels before we started moving?”
“I don’t actually know a spell that’d do that, though you can bet I’m gonna look one up after this. I’m just using general buffing magic. Strength, endurance, good fortune, all that. Remember what I said about distracting me?”
He grunted irritably, but fell silent. It wasn’t worth arguing, especially when they had to almost shout to be heard, not to mention devoting serious effort to holding on. The noise really was incredible; it seemed the entire wagon shuddered with each little jostle, and not all of the jostles were little. Jim set them on a weaving course that sought to avoid the worst of it, but there was simply no good ground. The stone itself made the wheels grate ominously as they passed over its flatter stretches, and seemed to delight in tossing little cracks and rocks under them.
In the shady back of the covered wagon, Ruda cracked an eye, surreptitiously studying their captors even as she and the others were jostled roughly against each other. Neither were looking back at them, and the noise and shaking made the best cover she’d found thus far for any action. This was clearly the time.
It wasn’t that simple, though. She could probably take out Lance and Bella, having the element of surprise as she did. The others would be another matter, though; they had staves. Ruda could grab one of those in this wagon, of course, but the best case scenario was still a firefight, which would put her sleeping companions at serious risk even if the enemy didn’t deliberately target them.
Careful not to move too much—no telling when one of the bastards would glance back to check on them—she swept an eye around the interior of the wagon. She’d become quite familiar with the layout during the long morning. Two wooden chests were set against the right side of the wagon bed, with herself and her fellow captives laid out like logs filling the rest of the space. They were cargo; the rest of the adventurers’ belongings, including nearly all their supplies, had been moved to the lead wagon and piled in to make room. Ruda was pressed between the chests and Toby; blessedly, nobody had been laid on top of her, though Juniper’s legs half covered her own. The front end of the wagon held sealed barrels, lashed in place, and ahead of that was just the driver’s seat. Her sword was tucked carefully between two barrels, its pommel barely visible; Bella kept the bottle containing Fross with her.
She lifted her eyes at a sharp rattle from above her head. The rear gate of the wagon was held in place by a long, thin iron bar which fit into metal fixtures attached to either wall of the bed. It was all one piece, meaning it could be conveniently rotated to open both sides of the latch and lower the gate with a single motion. As she watched, the wagon went over a bump and the latch nearest her jumped again, nearly coming loose.
Ruda glance at the chests, back at the latch, then forward at the drivers. A plan fell into place. Well, the rough outlines of one, but she hadn’t the luxury of time to dither and refine.
She lifted one hand and wrenched the latch open, then swiftly lowered her arm and shut her eyes. By the time the unfastened gate banged open, she gave no sign of ever having been awake.
“The hell was that?” Lance shouted. Bella said something in reply, her voice muffled beyond audibility. “Oh, fuck, the gate’s popped open. Signal Jim to stop, I gotta grab that before something falls out.”
He kept up a chorus of grunts and curses as he picked his way back across the bed, his efforts becoming easier when the wagon eased to a stop. Ruda barely managed not to make a sound when he overbalanced and stepped right on her stomach; it helped that it drove the breath right out of her. Growling, he clambered over her, finally, leaning over the end of the bed to grab the fallen gate, pull it back up, and re-set the latch.
Ruda concentrated on her breathing, keeping it as deep and even as she could. That footprint was going to become a respectable bruise. It occupied plenty of her attention while orders were shouted and the wagons pulled forward again.
She had long since learned the value of patience. Ruda waited until she judged they’d been moving again for a good quarter of an hour, and then opened the gate again.
“Goddamn it!” Lance shouted from up ahead.
“Just leave it,” Bella replied, raising her own voice to be heard over the racket. “The kids aren’t gonna slide out and the trunks are too heavy.”
“Those trunks are our haul, dammit! If one falls—”
“Too heavy,” she repeated firmly. “If the latch has popped twice it’ll just do it again. Unless you plan to balance back there and hold the damn thing shut, leave it.”
“I can lash it shut!”
“With what, your belt? Elroy’s got the rope up there with all the rest of the supplies. We’ll deal with it when we stop next, let’s not waste any more time with this.”
He replied, but it was muted enough that Ruda couldn’t make out his words, and anyway it didn’t result in the wagons stopping again, or him climbing back into the bed. Good, that was the easy part dealt with.
The trunk wasn’t large, thank Naphthene, otherwise she’d never have managed, as it was full of rocks. Jewels, anyway. The bigger one, behind, held uncut stones salvaged from some kind of old mining operation the adventurers had found; the one closer to the back of the wagon contained their much smaller haul of cut and polished gems. Ruda wasn’t clear on what exactly they’d found and didn’t particularly care. All that mattered right now was that the trunk weighed far too damn much, and she couldn’t risk getting herself into a proper position to shift it. She managed to hook her right hand around its end and pulled.
For the most part, it was reluctant to budge. It wasn’t beyond her strength, but she was in a bad position and it was an uphill battle. The roughness of the ride actually helped; some of the worst bumps were bad enough to lift the trunk momentarily off the wagon bed, and in each of those little gaps she managed to tug it a few more inches.
Ruda kept one eye open and constantly on the seat up front, now. The two sitting there appeared to be having an argument, which was lucky. If not for their distraction, they would surely be keeping a closer eye on their cargo, and then she’d be in trouble.
The trunk inched past her head; she had to adjust the position of her arm to keep pulling. Surely the end of it had to be past the edge of the wagon bed…
Then they went over a particularly bad bump, the trunk actually bounced off the bed for a moment, landed in a slide, and overbalanced. It tumbled over the back, hitting the ground with a very satisfying crunch of breaking wood.
Not nearly so satisfying as Lance’s cursing.
He brought the entire wagon train to a stop this time, calling the others back to survey the damage. Ruda hardly dared to breathe. The tension of her situation was actually a benefit, as she felt more than a small amount of pleasure at the situation of her captors, and this would be a bad moment to accidentally crack a smile.
“Too heavy,” Lance snarled after a long, silent moment in which the four of them had stood there, staring down at the mess. The wagon had creaked forward a few yards before it could be brought to a stop, so they at least weren’t standing right over Ruda and the others.
Bella sighed and didn’t respond to his accusing tone. “What do you think? Can the box be salvaged?”
“Kindling,” Jim said curtly. “And we don’t have another.”
“We got barrels…”
“None that aren’t in use.”
“Food, right?” said Lance. “We’ve got more’n we need. Dump some hardtack, just enough to make room for this. We’ll be out of the Sea by the end of the day.” Jim turned and trudged past without another word. “Elroy…clean this up. Just forget about the trunk. Gather up the gems in a pile, move ’em over there so we won’t have to carry the barrel far once it’s loaded. Oh, and when you’re done with that, bring out some rope or something to lash down this fucking gate.”
“Uh, the rope’s all packed away,” Elroy said nervously. “I mean, it’s under a pile of—”
“Son of a bitch, can’t anything today go right?”
There came a moment of silence, and then the crunch of boots on gravel, approaching the wagon.
“This is all awfully, specifically inconvenient,” Lance remarked, standing right at the edge of the wagon bed.
“I’m tellin’ you, they’re out,” Bella said from behind him. “The dryad’s bound and the others aren’t gonna be getting up anytime—”
She broke off at the loud slap of a hand striking flesh.
Ruda managed not to tense, not to react at all, despite the rush of white-hot rage. Toby was laid with his feet toward the end of the wagon bed, as was Rafe. If that hand had hit a face, as it sounded, it was Shaeine’s.
Her wondering came to a stop seconds later when a similar slap landed on her own cheek. Her head was knocked to the side by the force of it, cheekbone bouncing off the wooden floor. Ruda stayed limp, let herself roll with the blow, kept her face neutral. This wasn’t the first time she’d played dead, under more pressure even than this. The University wasn’t nearly the beginning of her training.
“Satisfied?” Bella asked dryly. “I really hope so. I’m sure the ride won’t wake ’em up, but you’re pushing it.”
Lance grunted. “Come help me find the goddamn rope. Elroy, get to work. Jim!” he shouted, stalking away. “Where the fuck is that rope buried?”
Ruda listened to them move past, listened to Elroy’s muttering and grunting as he bent and hauled handfuls of jewels over to pile them by the end of the wagon. He was loud enough to give her a clear idea what he was doing. She waited until the fourth trip, as he was turning away to go back for another batch.
After a long, nearly sleepless night followed by a long trip in the bumpy back of a wagon, she was a solid knot of bruises, sore spots, and stiffness in general. Her whole body screamed in pain, rebelling at the speed with which she suddenly demanded that it move, which was just too damn bad. Ruda came upright, less smoothly than she would have liked but still her athletic self, lunged off the back of the wagon, and closed with Elroy while yanking her boot knife free.
One hand over his mouth cut off his cry of surprise; with the other, she reached around and ripped the knife through his throat before he even knew what was happening. Ruda pushed him away, letting him flop to the ground, clutching at his ruined throat. Not dead yet, but that didn’t matter; he was well and truly silent. She turned her back and crawled as swiftly and silently as she could manage into the wagon and over the prone forms of her friends.
Her luck continued to hold. Bella had had the sense to leave her prize behind while going forward to forage in the other wagon. Ruda had to hide herself behind the barrels, watching surreptitiously, and time her grab for when the three were all facing away, but when the moment came she reached out quick as a striking snake and grabbed the bottle off the wagon seat. Hopefully Bella wasn’t looking back to check on it every minute; as enamored as the woman was of her captive pixie, Ruda wouldn’t have put it past her.
Ducking back down behind the barrels, she brought the jar to her face. It was still iced over completely on the inside, but the pixie’s glow was visible nonetheless. “Fross, I’m gonna get you out. We’re still in trouble here, so I need you to stay low, out of sight, and be quiet.”
She ripped away the thin chain binding the bottle, set the tip of her knife into the lead stopper and viciously levered it loose.
Fross could at least follow directions. She zipped out, immediately diving to the floor of the wagon, and managed to keep her voice low, despite the fury filling it. “I am just so mad!”
“Me too,” Ruda said tersely, having turned to face her other somnolent companions. “…fuck. That’s two of us now, and one of them down, but these are still not odds I like. We’ve gotta protect the others, which is a major handicap…” Her eyes fell on the form of Juniper, who was wrapped in thin cords decorated with little charms and bits of marked paper. “…how do you unbind a dryad? Do you know enough about witchcraft to counter the spell?”
“Just rip the cords off, they’re holding the magic.”
“Cake.” She sliced through them, careful not to nick the dryad, and pulled them aside. “C’mon, Juno, rise and shine.”
The dryad made no response, even when Ruda leaned over to pat her roughly on the face. “Juniper! Up, girl, we need your help. June!” Finally, in desperation, she slapped her.
“She fell asleep cos she was overtired, remember?” said Fross. “Maybe she hasn’t rested enough yet.”
“Well, that’s a shame, because she is out of time,” Ruda said grimly. She reached forward between the barrels and grabbed the handle of her sword, tugging it out. “…doesn’t breathe, no heartbeat. Fross, do dryads have vital organs at all?”
“How should I know?”
“Wh—you’re a fairy too, aren’t you?”
Fross buzzed a complete orbit of her head in agitation. “There aren’t more than three dozen dryads in the world, and they’re all cozy with Naiya herself. This is like me asking you how the Emperor takes his tea. You’re both humans, aren’t you?”
Ruda sighed. “All right then, looks like I’ll have to test a theory. Juno, I’m really sorry about this. If it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll be really, really sorry.”
She placed the tip of her rapier at a point just under Juniper’s right breast, and before Fross could say anything, shoved down, impaling the dryad until the mithril blade bit into the wood below.
Juniper sat bolt upright, eyes flying open, drawing in a desperate gasp. The sword moved with her body, wrenched out of Ruda’s hands, but that was fine, as she immediately clapped them both over Juniper’s mouth.
“Welcome back,” she said cheerfully. “Here’s the short version. We’ve been kidnapped, everyone else is drugged and won’t be awake for hours, and we’re a few seconds from being in a major fight.”
“You stabbed me!” Juniper said, disbelieving, when Ruda took her hands off her mouth.
“Yeah, sorry about that. I couldn’t get you to wake up. Desperate times, desperate measures, all that shit. Are you… I mean, obviously you’re not okay, but is this, like…debilitating?”
“It’s a hole through my chest,” the dryad grumbled, probing experimentally at the point where the sword entered. “It doesn’t feel good.”
“What I mean is, can you fight? Is it safe to pull the—well, there you go,” she finished as Juniper yanked the blade out and handed it to her. Streaked across its length, and oozing from the tiny wound, was a thick amber goo. Ruda wouldn’t go quite so far as to taste it, but couldn’t resist lifting the sword to have a sniff. She’d been taught about shipbuilding and repair from the cradle, and knew the smell of tree sap very well.
“Right,” Juniper said grimly, dragging herself upright. “Kidnapped and drugged. If I really hated these guys, we could just let them do it and have to deal with Omnu, Tellwyrn, Naiya and Blackbeard later.”
“I’d rather take care of my own shit, thanks. Especially if it means I get to live. You, uh, all right there? You’re moving a little stiffly.”
“I’m exhausted,” the dryad said shortly, “and recently stabbed. I’ll cope. Oh, here’s a dead guy,” she noted, hopping down from the back of the wagon with Ruda and Fross right behind her. “Your doing? I’m kinda surprised, I was starting to think you humans were squeamish about everything.”
“Pff, I killed my first man when I was seven. C’mon, there’s three more to—”
“Hey, Elroy!” Lance bellowed. “Jim doesn’t know where the rope is either, and we don’t have all day to fuck around with this. Get over here and lend us a hand.”
“Only three?” Juniper said grimly. “Easy enough.”
“Wait!” Ruda exclaimed as the dryad stepped around the wagon to face the others, then winced at the storm of shouted curses that rose.
Above them came Bella’s frantic voice. “Wait, no! No! Don’t shoot!”
A thunderclap ripped across the badlands and a blast of energy struck Juniper right in the midsection, hurling her backward two yards.
Ruda clapped a hand over her mouth in horror. The lightning bolt had clipped the dryad right below the ribs, blasting a large chunk completely out of her body. Almost a third of her abdomen was gone, its edges seared black and smoking.
“You big—mean—JERKS!” Fross howled, taking to the air. In the next instant, a blizzard roared out of the clear sky, pounding the lead wagon with sleet and jagged shards of flying ice. The three remaining adventurers, Ruda saw as she stepped around to look, scrambled into its meager shelter to avoid the worst of it. They hadn’t let go of their staves, though. Two more lightning bolts ripped out of the wagon, of course not getting anywhere near Fross, but sending Ruda diving back into cover.
Such as it was. One of those staves would rip apart a wood and canvas wagon, along with her sleeping friends inside. She cursed monotonously to herself; now the luck chose to desert her. This was exactly the situation she’d been trying to avoid.
A soft sound from her left caught Ruda’s attention. Juniper was dragging herself laboriously up, staggering as she got to her feet. She listed slightly to the right, as if her torso couldn’t quite hold itself up on that side. Finally she lifted her head, and even Fross fluttered back from her expression. There was no hint of the cheerful openness her face usually held.
“That,” the dryad snarled, “really…really…HURT.”
Then the earth split apart.
The lead wagon was tumbled onto its side as an enormous pillar of wood burst from the ground beneath it, sending shards of stone flying in every direction and causing the rocky ground to crack and shift for dozens of yards on all sides. As it grew from the very stone, the tree twisted itself over to one side, unfurling thorny vines like tentacles to wrap around the damaged wagon and rip it apart, sending the oxen fleeing, braying in terror. The pair yoked to the wagon containing the students tried to bolt, too, but were stopped by tangles of vines tethering them to the earth. There they stood, bellowing piteously.
The three adventurers were plucked from within the wreckage by thorny curls of vine and slammed to the ground, where more brambles twined around them, digging into flesh and holding them firmly captive. Lance’s stream of cursing was cut off as a thick vine wrapped around his head, covering his mouth.
Juniper limped toward them, glaring. Seeing her approach, Bella frantically redoubled her struggles against the vines holding her down. “I told them not to shoot!” she babbled. “It’s not my fault!”
The dryad wasn’t moving smoothly enough to kneel with any particular grace; she more fell to one knee beside the bound woman. “It wasn’t me!” Bella wailed. “I’m sorry!”
“Don’t care,” Juniper said curtly, drew back a fist, and slammed it straight through Bella’s chest into the ground. The woman emitted a strangled croak that was all but drowned out by the sound of breaking bone and tearing flesh. Her body thrashed once, weakly, as Juniper yanked out a moist handful of meat studded with bits of ribs, and then fell still.
Actually, everything went comparatively quiet at that point. The sudden thorn tree, its work apparently done, had stopped growing. Fross settled on Ruda’s shoulder; not minding the cold, the pirate turned her gaze away from Juniper to the two bound men. Blood pooled under both of them, and neither was so much as twitching. Those vines had very large thorns.
“Guess that’s one way to do it,” Ruda said grudgingly. She glanced down at her sword; sheathing it wasn’t going to be an option until she’d cleaned all that sap off. What a mess. A sudden, sickening pop caught her attention; she looked up again just in time to see Juniper tug the sleeve off Bella’s arm, which she’d just pulled free from her body. “Augh… Juno, please don’t do that.”
“What?” The dryad half-turned to face her, scowling. “Oh, for the… You people and your nonsense. Look, I’m sorry about your funerary customs or whatever, but I have an actual, real problem. I’m exhausted and injured, I need protein and calcium and mass. I killed this, so I’m eating it. That’s life. That’s how it works.”
“Whoah, whoah, easy there!” Ruda said soothingly, holding up her hands. “Sorry, knee-jerk reaction. You take care of yourself however you need to, hon.”
“That’s okay, I forgive you,” Juniper said brightly, and just like that she was as cheerful as ever, despite the carnage around her and the burned chunk missing from her own body.
“By the way, I, uh…didn’t know you could do that. Call up trees to fight for you.”
“Oh, I can’t,” the dryad said offhandedly. “That wasn’t me.” She lifted the arm to her face and bit off the thumb, and Ruda instantly decided to find somewhere else to busy herself rather than continue that conversation.
“Did you know she could do that?” she asked Fross as she strode back to their wagon. The oxen now seemed as placid as ever, which struck her as odd, but what did she know about beasts of burden? Maybe it was something else Juniper did.
“She…that wasn’t her. She told you that.” Fross buzzed her wings somewhat weakly, and it occurred belatedly to Ruda that she might have exhausted herself again with that wild torrent of ice and wind. “Do you… You don’t know much about dryads, do you?”
Ruda paced around to the back of the wagon and clambered up, bending down to check on the others. They were all still out, but breathing normally and she detected no wounds. “Fross, I’m from the sea. I can tell you exactly how to kill a mermaid, but why the hell would I know anything about dryads?”
The pixie emitted a soft chime that Ruda had learned to recognize as laughter. “Yeah, well… Let’s just say that killing a dryad is an exceptionally bad idea. You, uh, didn’t realize that Juniper’s technically a demigoddess, then, I guess.”
Ruda stopped short and looked over at Juniper, who she could just see over the barrels out the front of the wagon. She immediately looked away again; the dryad was sitting amid the ruins of somebody, chewing busily and holding up two red, dripping handfuls.
“She…are you serious?”
“I don’t know if… I mean, probably not the way you’re thinking. They’re not a species; they don’t reproduce. But, yeah, Naiya created each one individually. Some people call them daughters of Naiya, which is pretty much the relationship. So, yes, never kill a dryad.”
“She wasn’t killed,” Ruda protested, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Juniper. “There she is.”
Fross buzzed her wings briefly. “Um, yeah. That’s why. In the first place it’s pretty pointless; it doesn’t exactly…take.”
“And in the second, very, very bad things happen to people who kill dryads. If nature itself is mad at you, well, you pretty much don’t get to be alive anymore. As you just saw.”
“Well, I’m learning all kinds of fascinating new shit today,” she muttered, picking her way carefully back to the rear and sitting on the end of the wagon. “For future reference, Fross, that’s the kind of information I’d really like to have about someone before I stab them.”
“How was I supposed to know you were gonna do that?! I don’t usually assume my friends are going to act like crazy people!”
Ruda grinned at that. “Well, it hasn’t been a total wash. In fact, hell, I’d say we came out of this pretty good.”
“Did you… I’m sorry if this is too personal, but did you really kill somebody when you were seven? That’s, uh, that’s pretty young for a human, isn’t it?”
Ruda snorted. “Oh, that? Wasn’t my idea. Some asshat assassin or thief or something broke into my father’s fortress, and just happened to come in through my window. Punaji kids sleep with knives under their pillows. Fucker got blood on my teddy bear.” She scowled. “I’m still pissed about that. Why, seven’s not young for pixies?”
Fross chimed again. “I’m three years old.”
“…oh.” She cleared her throat. “Well, anyway, as I was saying, we’re doing pretty good. Obviously, I’d have been happier if June hadn’t gotten hurt, but it looks like she’s gonna be okay, with some rest and…” She glanced back at the dryad and winced, averting her eyes again. “…nutrition. The rest of our gang are having their beauty sleep. And as a bonus, we scored a free wagon, two oxen and a shitload of jewels!”
Fross buzzed down to the scattered gemstones, avoiding Elroy’s cooling body, and then returned to the wagon. “Those, um, jewels…have blood on them.”
Pulling a bottle of rum from within her coat, Ruda grinned, yanked the cork out with her teeth, and took a swig.
“And that, my beauty, makes ’em the only kind worth having.”