8 – 19

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Principia caught Ephanie’s eye and tilted her head significantly. The other private straightened up and stepped to the side, where the elf joined her.

Farah was busy tending to the girl’s injuries, which were extremely minor—no more than abrasions from the cords that had bound her wrists and ankles. She wasn’t even bruised, as far as they could see without further disrupting her clothing. She mostly appeared frightened, which was reasonable. Casey knelt beside her, murmuring encouragingly and keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder. Merry stood to one side, lance in hand and eyes constantly roaming.

“What do you think?” Principia asked softly.

“I don’t know what to think,” Ephanie replied in the same tone. “I can’t imagine her story being true, for reasons we’ve been over. But I don’t know how she got in that bag if it wasn’t, or why she would lie.”

Principia studied the shaking young woman critically. The girl lifted her eyes, noticing her stare, and quickly averted her gaze.

“This whole thing stinks,” she murmured. “She didn’t place herself in that bag, obviously. I’m sure the Sisters would have words with me about victim-blaming, but I’m inclined to regard that girl as an accomplice in whatever we’re being herded into.”

Ephanie nodded, her expression dour.

They rejoined the group as Farah was helping the erstwhile captive to her feet.

“Can you tell us what happened, ma’am?” Casey asked. “I know this has been a hard day for you, but we need as much detail as you can remember if we’re going to help the others.”

“I…it was…” She broke off, swallowing, then nodded. “I’ll try.”

“What’s your name?” Farah asked gently.

“I’m Ami. Ami Talaari. I’m a student at the bardic college in Madouris.”

“That’s a good few miles from here,” Principia noted, raising her eyebrows. “Were you abducted from there?”

Ami shook her head. “No, I wasn’t far from here. At least, I don’t think… I was camping in the woods. It’s part of bard training, we do that regularly, but this was my first solo camp. Ah, where are we now, exactly?”

“Half a day’s walk from Tiraas itself, maybe a little more,” Casey replied, pointing. “That way, east by southeast. Or, there’s a longer but safer route; just head due south a couple of hours until you reach the highway and follow that back to the city. Don’t worry, we’ll take you there.”

“But the other girls!” Ami said, her eyes widening. “You can’t leave them!”

“We’re not going to,” Farah said firmly. “Please go on. How did you come to be in this bag?”

Ami swallowed again, closing her eyes and shuddering. “I was just walking, you know, practicing navigating, and they popped up out of nowhere. There were four, all Huntsmen. With the fur and leather, you know, and the bows?”

“Out of nowhere?” Merry asked, still scanning their surroundings.

“Well, I didn’t see or hear anything until they were right on top of me. I guess professional Huntsmen are more capable in the woods than an apprentice bard.”

“Go on,” Casey said encouragingly.

Ami wrung her hands in front of her, keeping her eyes down as she continued. “They wouldn’t talk to me. Just slapped me when I tried to yell or even talk, pushed me along ahead with those bows. They put a blindfold on me so I couldn’t see… It was at least an hour like that, I got completely turned around. But we came to some kind of camp. At least, I could hear more men, and other girls. Crying, mostly.” She swallowed heavily and drew in a shuddering breath. “They hit us again when we tried to talk to each other. Then they put me in that bag, and I could hear the other girls struggling as they were being tied up, too. They brought me out here and…left. That was the last I heard until you came along.”

Casey nodded solicitously. “Well, you’re safe now. We’ll take you back—”

“But the others!” Ami said, raising her head and staring up at her in alarm.

“We will rescue the others,” Farah said firmly, “but we’re not about to abandon you here in the forest, after all you’ve been through.”

“Can you give us any idea which way their camp might be?” Casey asked.

Ami shook her head. “I was in the bag when… I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

“It’s okay. We have trackers, we’ll find ’em. For now, we need to escort you back—”

“But who knows how long they have!” Ami said tremulously. “I don’t even know what they were doing with us. You can’t leave the others that long, they may be gone before you can come back with reinforcements!”

“You want to come with us, then?” Merry asked mildly.

The girl blanched, shaking her head violently. “I can find my own way back, it’s no problem. South to the road, you said?”

“Yes,” Farah said slowly. “But—”

“Got it, that’s easy,” Ami said hastily, taking a step to the side. “South is…this way?”

“Right,” said Casey.

“Good, I’ll be safe once I reach the highway. Please hurry, you have to help the others! And thanks again!”

The five Legionnaires stood watching her as she vanished into the shady distance. The forest was well-cleared of underbrush; there wasn’t much to impede their view of her until she was lost among the trees.

“Well,” said Casey, “that was an abrupt exit. So!” She turned to face the others. “Shall we count all the ways that was full of shit?”

“That story was more holes than story,” Ephanie said, glaring after Ami. “She wasn’t blindfolded and hadn’t been beaten.”

“I’ve only had the basic first aid courses,” Farah added, “but I’m pretty sure she had not been tied in that bad all that long.”

“And Huntsmen wouldn’t use their bows to push someone,” Ephanie said as an afterthought. “Their equipment is fae-blessed and highly personal; they treat it with respect.”

“Seems really peculiar that she’d be so eager to go off alone into the woods after that alleged experience,” Merry commented. “Not to mention the insistence that we go after the other girls right now, specifically without going for reinforcements.”

“Have you found something?” Ephanie asked Principia, who was prowling around the tree to which Ami had been tied, studying the ground.

“Well, the tracks don’t explicitly contradict her story,” the elf said, eyes still down. “At least, not all of it. She was put in the sack here, not dragged here in it.”

“She never said dragged,” Merry pointed out. “Might have been carried.”

“There are two sets of tracks leading to this tree, and one matches her shoes,” Principia replied, pointing at the ground in the direction Ami had vanished. The others peered at the earth, then at each other, having failed to discern any clear footprints—the ground was dry and the springy moss and ground cover not conducive to leaving traces. “Plus… here’s where it was done, against the side of the tree there. And it doesn’t prove anything, strictly speaking, but I do not see signs of a struggle. She got in the bag willingly.”

“Could’ve been under duress,” said Merry. “Just to play demon’s advocate.”

Principia nodded. “So, two possibilities. There is a very slim chance that we are actually dealing with rogue Huntsmen in these woods, but a much greater likelihood that this is a trap aimed at us specifically, in which case that girl has at least one accomplice.”

“Presumably others,” Farah said grimly. “Wouldn’t be much of a trap for the five of us if it’s just one.”

Prin nodded again. “In either case, we need to assume there are hostiles up ahead.”

“What if we broke off here?” Merry suggested. “We’ve got a story from one witness which we can tell is a load of crap. Doesn’t the fact that we know it’s a trap give us cause not to charge into it?”

Ephanie sighed and shook her head. “The fudged details in Ami’s story are consistent with the kinds of things traumatized witnesses often come up with. Considering what’s at stake—half a dozen women allegedly abducted—we’d be considered derelict of duty at least if we didn’t investigate.”

“There is also the fact that this whole thing is stupid and an obvious setup,” Principia added. “If Syrinx can arrange to have us sent out on this bullshit, she can arrange to cast it in the worst possible light if we refuse to go for it. We’d better press on. Remember what I said, ladies: there’s a risk of physical harm, here, but also a very good chance this is a subtler kind of snare. Making us look bad would be more consistent with Syrinx’s pattern and better serve her goals than roughing us up. Still, be ready for anything.”

“Be ready for anything, she says,” Merry groused. “I think that’s the most meaningless statement ever uttered. How can you be ready for anything?”

Principia grinned at her before turning to study the ground again. “All right, well… The tracks come from this way, but after Ami was tied to the tree, they head off to the north… Avelea, fold up that bag and bring it along, will you? It’s evidence at minimum.”

“On it.”

“We’ve got our path before us, then, ladies,” Principia said, slinging her shield over her back. “Stay alert, call out if you spot anything. Keep in loose formation, but don’t spread out too far. Let’s move out.”

As they progressed through the trees, more signs appeared. Principia mentioned and pointed to other tracks in the vicinity, some crossing the one they followed, though only Ephanie could discern any of these, and not all of them. However, there appeared traces which were apparent to all of them in the form of more Shaathist talismans hung on the trees.

“This is alarming,” Ephanie said as they paused to study one of these. “I’m almost certain they’re genuine. Locke, do they have magic in them?”

“Yup, same as the first one.”

Ephanie frowned. “If we’re assuming no actual Huntsmen are working here… Just who has Syrinx hired and how did they get their hands on all these?”

“Can you tell anything about the pattern in which they’re placed?” Casey asked.

“It’s not necessarily done in a specific pattern,” said Ephanie. “Mostly just to define an area… I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here, though, or we wouldn’t keep spotting them unless we happened to be skirting the perimeter of whatever’s going on…”

“Not impossible,” said Principia, pointing to the barely discernible path of crushed undergrowth she had been following. “We’re following this guy.”

“Also, that assumes this is an actual Shaathist operation,” said Farah, “which I thought we weren’t assuming.”

“Right,” said Ephanie. “But this means there are actual Shaathists at the back of this somewhere. Either corrupt enough to give out their talismans, which I can’t see happening…”

“Or going to be very pissed off when they find out about this?” Casey suggested. Ephanie nodded, her jaw set.

“Keep alert, ladies,” Principia murmured. “Theorizing is fine, but don’t forget to watch the trees.”

Merry rolled her eyes, but nobody offered a reply. They followed her in silence, dutifully scanning the forest. There seemed to be nothing in the vicinity but songbirds.

Less than five minutes later, Principia came to a sudden halt, staring around.

“Um,” said Farah. “Are we there yet?”

“The trail ends here,” Principia said, frowning.

“What do you mean, it ends?” Merry demanded.

“Just that,” the elf said, exasperated. “It ends. Stops. There is no more trail.”

“Are you sure you were following an actual trail, city elf?”

“Yes,” Prin said curtly, now bending forward to carefully examine the underbrush. “Stay back, don’t trample anything…”

“How could the trail just end?” Casey asked. “I mean… There’s nobody here.”

Farah craned her neck back, peering into the trees above them.

With a sigh, Principia straightened up. “Well, there’s a simple enough explanation. Teleporting or shadow-jumping would do it. I was looking for some sign of either, but… It’s actually rare that they cause any after-effects to the environment, and teleportation only leaves arcane traces for a few minutes.”

“Shit,” Merry muttered. “You’re sure there was a—”

“Yes, I’m sure there was a trail!”

“Why go this far from the tree where they tied up Ami and then suddenly teleport out?” Ephanie asked, frowning.

“No telling,” Prin said, then sighed heavily. “But assuming that’s what happened, and I don’t have a better idea, it means there was a mage involved in this. Or a warlock.”

“Portal mages come pretty cheap these days,” said Casey, “especially the less-than-reputable kind Syrinx would have to bribe to scry on us.”

“Well,” said Principia, “we have a couple of options, ladies, and both involve backtracking. We can go back and try one of the trails that crossed this one, which could be anybody at all… Or we can go all the way back to the tree where Ami was and follow her tracks and this one to wherever they came from in the first place.”

“Come on, that’s not a choice,” Merry said derisively. “Second option’s the only one that makes any sense.”

Casey heaved a sigh. “Well… Time’s wasting, girls.”

Indeed, the afternoon was beginning to fade by the time they returned to the tree still carrying scraps of cord which had held up the wilderbag. Principia stopped there, looking critically around.

“I’ve got a feeling we do not want to be out here doing this after dark,” she said.

“Agreed,” Ephanie said emphatically.

“Hang on,” Prin said, narrowing her eyes and turning to stare off into the woods. “Quiet for a moment, please.”

They waited while she stood stock-still, peering into the distant shadows, then suddenly started forward.

“You hear something?” Farah guessed, falling into step behind her.

“Some kind of struggle up ahead,” Prin reported. “Stay alert.”

“We never stopped,” Merry grumbled. “Too much staying alert is going to make my face freeze this way…”

“I bet you’re a joy to serve a night watch with,” Ephanie commented.

The squad fell silent as they proceeded, catching Principia’s intent mood. They naturally slipped back into loose formation, moving through the forest in a rough arrowhead with the elf at its point.

Several minutes before catching sight of it, they could hear sounds from up ahead, in a rather creepy parallel of their initial discovery of Ami’s wilderbag. There was no voice this time, however, and as they came in sight of it through the screen of trees, they found another hanging wilderbag thrashing far more violently than Ami’s had been.

The squad stopped within ten yards of it, studying the bag intently. As they watched, it squirmed again, straining the cords binding it to the tree.

“See or hear anyone else nearby?” Casey asked in a whisper.

Principia shook her head. “Huntsmen have ways around elvish senses. So do the Black Wreath.”

“Gods, don’t borrow trouble,” Merry groaned. “Syrinx and the Huntsmen are enough. Why would the—”

“I was just making the point that my senses may be sharper, but they aren’t infallible,” Principia said shortly. “Come on, same as before. Watch for any traps or ambushes, but don’t dawdle.”

Again she led the way, approaching the bag cautiously with her squadmates fanned out, weapons aimed at the surrounding forest.

“Take it easy in there,” Principia said quietly. “We’re here to help.”

The bag only thrashed harder. She glanced around at the others, then slung her shield on her back, planted her lance and drew her belt knife. When she touched the bag, however, its squirming redoubled, forcing her to step back.

“Calm,” Prin urged, frowning. “We’re with the Silver Legions. Hold still and I’ll have you out of there in a minute.”

If the message was even heard, the prisoner gave no sign, only thrashing harder. She narrowed her eyes, studying the wilderbag. “Avelea… Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“Can you be more specific?” Ephanie asked, glancing over at her but immediately returning her gaze to the forest.

“I…don’t think this is a person in here. The way it’s moving… Would actual Huntsmen put a live animal in one of these bags?”

“Sure, there are several rites that call for that. It would make a lot more sense than putting women in them.”

“Hm… Have a care, ladies, I’m not sure what’s about to come out of here.”

Tucking her knife back into its sheath, she shimmied lightly up the tree and out onto the branch to which its drawstring was tied, seemingly unhampered by her armor. A few quick strokes severed the cords, loosening the top of the wilderbag.

It was still tied to the tree, but no longer secured at the top. Almost immediately, the thrashing of the bag’s occupant wrenched open its mouth, and a pair a flailing hooves attached to slender legs appeared.

“Yikes,” said Casey, backing away. “Good call, Locke.”

“Should we—” Farah broke off as the fawn got its head out, managing to hook one long foreleg over the lip of the wilderbag. From there it only had to flail for a few more moments before finally dragging itself free and tumbling gracelessly to the ground.

The four Legionnaires on the ground backed further away, Principia remaining on her perch up above, as the fawn rolled to its feet. It took one look at them and bounded off into the woods.

“Aww,” Farah cooed, gazing avidly after the creature. “It’s adorable!”

“You are such a girl,” Merry commented.

An arrow thunked into the tree next to her head.

Reflex took over; instantly they all had shields and lances up, falling into formation facing the direction from which the arrow had come. Afternoon was fading into early evening; the shadows beneath the trees had deepened, revealing nothing of their attacker.

Then Principia hit the ground beside them, her own shield already out; no sooner had she landed than another arrow slammed into it.

“We’re flanked!” she snapped. “Crescent! Form up on the tree!”

She snagged her lance out of the earth and slipped into their line even as it bent backward, wrapping them into an arc with the thick old oak at their backs. It was a purely defensive formation; keeping their shields locked together in a convex arc that tight crammed them so closely together that none had room to draw swords, or even thrust with their lances. This was done only when taking fire from multiple directions, to buy a squad time to identify their attacker’s positions and adjust their formation accordingly. Unfortunately, the size of their squad severely limited their options; five women simply couldn’t form a shield wall large enough to protect in multiple directions.

“You dare?” roared a voice out of the darkness. Another arrow slammed into Ephanie’s shield, followed by more, striking them from three directions.

“Three angles of attack,” Ephanie said tersely. “On my signal, form a long wedge—Locke, you’re point, aimed at the center—” She broke off with a grunt as another arrow thudded into her shield. “Then step left past the tree and retreat. Ready?”

“Wait,” Farah said tersely. “Try talking to them, Avelea! You know something of their ways, don’t you?”

“These can’t actually be Huntsmen—”

Principia hissed in displeasure as an arrow slipped through a minute gap in their shield wall, grazing her helmet. “They’re not elves, and nobody else still handles bows this accurately.”

“Hold your fire!” Ephanie shouted. “Parley!”

“You can parley with the damned, slattern!” snarled the voice which had first spoken.

Immediately after that proclamation, a ghost wolf bounded out of the trees, landing before them with its hackles raised, snarling.

“We mean you no harm!” Ephanie tried again.

“You defile our hunt, and dare claim that?” demanded another voice. Finally, a figure emerged from the dimness. It was a Huntsman of Shaath, all right, or at least appeared to be. He wore a ragged pelt over his sturdy leather armor, carrying a bow with arrow nocked and aimed at them. Beneath a snarling cap made from a bear’s head, his bearded face was painted with lines of green and black.

“Oh, shit,” Principia whispered. “I see what she did.”

“What?” Merry demanded.

“Those who defile the hunt shall become the hunted!” bellowed the first voice, its owner appearing. He was an older man, his beard more than half-gray, but looked no less sturdy than the other, and if anything, more angry. He also had a bow trained on their tiny formation. Around them, other figures began to materialize from the woods.

“Girls,” Principia said tersely, “I need you to trust me, here. If you value your lives, do as I do.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Merry grated.

Principia raised her voice. “We surrender!”

With that, she lowered her shield, dropping her lance, and placed her hands atop her helmet.

“We what?” Merry snarled.

Ephanie immediately followed suit, however, dropping her weapons and putting her hands on her head. The Huntsmen slowed, a few of them narrowing their eyes to study the Legionnaires suspiciously.

Farah and Casey exchanged a wide-eyed stare, then slowly followed Principia’s example. Merry was the last, cursing under her breath the whole time. “So help me, Locke, if this gets us killed I’m haunting your ass…”

The five Legionnaires were already down on one knee due to their defensive posture, having braced shields against the ground. With their weapons down, they were in an obviously submissive position, and keenly aware of their vulnerability. At the range into which the encircling Huntsmen now stepped, even their armor might not have stopped one of those arrows, and these archers were more than capable of aiming for exposed flesh through the gaps.

There was also the ghost wolf, which still snarled, but had yet to attack.

The older man stalked forward, baring his teach in a furious growl. “None of your tricks, Avenist harlots! Draw your blades and die like warriors.”

“Stop!” shouted another voice.

From the half-dozen Huntsmen now encircling the Legionnaires, a much younger man stepped forward. Indeed, “man” might have been a generous description; he was clearly well under twenty, with a short and patchy beard. He, too, had an arrow nocked, but unlike his compatriots, his bow was aimed at the ground and not drawn.

“Hold, Grauvan,” the youth ordered. “They surrendered.”

“We are not Avenists, pup!” the old man spat. “We do not accept terms from deviants and defilers. Those who defy the Wild die beneath its fangs!”

“This is my rite,” the young man shot back, stalking right up to him. “That was my catch they despoiled.”

“You be mindful of your elders, boy!” the gray-bearded one roared, turning to face him. “You are in no position to challenge me!”

“I will not be party to the killing of disarmed, kneeling women!” the youth shouted right back, stomping forward and pushing himself into his elder’s face. “Before I see Shaath’s honor defiled this way, I will put an arrow in you myself!”

“You dare offer—”

“ENOUGH!”

Silence fell, and two more figures entered the scene.

The assembled Huntsmen respectfully made way for them, most finally lowering their weapons, though one kept the five Legionnaires covered. A tall, powerfully built man strode straight into the middle of the scene, followed by a beardless fellow, both also carrying bows.

“It seems I am barely in time to prevent a true disgrace,” the tall one growled. “Well spoken, Tholi. Grauvan, you are justly rebuked by the lad—think on that. That we are not soldiers does not entitle us to be monsters. There will be no violence toward surrendered enemies.”

“As you say, Brother Andros,” Grauvan said curtly, stepping back from him. He did not lower his head or eyes, though, holding Andros’s gaze with his own.

The Bishop stared right back at him for a long moment before turning to the young man. “Explain this display, Tholi.”

“We came upon these women interfering with my hunt,” the youth reported, casting a contemptuous glance at the five kneeling Legionnaires. “They destroyed my wilderbag and freed the offering I had placed within. Grauvan and Rhein fired upon them, they made a defensive posture, and then surrendered.” He glanced over at them again, this time more critically. “Apparently without injury.”

Andros turned to study the soldiers. “Do you contest this account?”

“No, your Grace,” Principia said immediately. “However, there’s—” She broke off as he peremptorily held up a hand.

“Remove your helmets,” the Bishop ordered.

Principia did so immediately, prompting murmurs from the gathered Huntsmen as her ears were revealed, followed more slowly by her squadmates. This time, Ephanie was the last to comply.

Andros fixed his gaze on her specifically, a heavy frown falling over his features.

“Ephanie,” he said in a deep tone of patrician disappointment. “Does Feldren know where you are?”

“With all respect, your Grace,” she said stiffly, “it is no longer Feldren’s concern what I do. Or yours.”

“Hnh,” he grunted. “That is clearly not the case if you are interfering in the rites of the Huntsmen. You, girl.” He returned his stare to Principia. “Explain yourself, quickly.”

“We were dispatched to this forest,” she said immediately, “to investigate rumors that Huntsmen had been abducting women.”

“Lies!” Grauvan burst out. Andros held up a hand to silence him, nodding at Principia to continue.

“Earlier today,” she said, “we found a young woman suspended from a tree in a wilderbag—”

“This is slanderous filth! I will not—”

“You will be silent!” Andros roared, turning the full force of his glare upon Grauvan. “I will hear their account before I judge it. Go on, girl.”

“She was in a bag,” Principia said, keeping a careful eye on the bristling Grauvan. “When we cut her loose, she claimed to have been abducted and held against her will by Huntsmen, along with several other women.” Angry murmurs rose from the other men present.

“And where is this girl now?” Andros demanded.

“Absent,” Principia said flatly. “In fact, she was oddly insistent on leaving, alone, as soon as she was freed. Your Grace… We were regarding this assignment as a mere formality to begin with. As Private Avelea explained, the idea that Huntsmen would be taking women was highly improbable.”

“To say the least,” Andros rumbled, giving Ephanie another look.

“The girl we rescued,” Principia went on, “made us revise our assumption. She claimed to have been abused in ways for which she bore no marks, and the fact that she was eager to go off alone in the forest among allegedly predatory Huntsmen was telling. It’s our opinion this is all some kind of trick.”

A few moments of quiet fell, in which mutters were exchanged among the Huntsmen present. Andros simply frowned, studying Princpia in silence. The beardless man who had accompanied him paced forward slowly, examining the kneeling women with a more calm expression than any of his compatriots wore.

Finally, Andros nodded as if coming to a conclusion, and spoke. “Men, lower your weapons. Girls, you may stand, and take up yours.”

“You don’t believe this fairy tale?!” Grauvan burst out.

Andros gave him another withering look. “Know your enemies, Grauvan, and do not assign faults to them that they don’t possess out of your own dislike. That is the path toward defeat. For all their failings, the Silver Legions are not prone toward elaborate intrigues, or deceitfulness in general.” He returned a more contemplative gaze to the five soldiers as they slowly straightened up and retrieved their lances and shields, the last Huntsman having lowered his bow. “I find it no stretch to believe they were tricked. These girls are not our enemy, men. Furthermore, upon realizing their mistake, they offered a proper show of submission, which shows honor and an unusual degree of good sense for Legionnaires.”

“Nice to be appreciated,” Merry muttered sullenly. Ephanie gave her a sharp look and shook her head.

“I don’t know whether this trap was aimed at the Legion or the Huntsmen,” Andros continued, his face falling into a deep scowl, “but whoever the target, someone has taken the Huntsmen of Shaath for fools. This urgently requires correction. Tholi!”

“Yes, Brother Andros?” the young man replied.

“I’m afraid fate has spoiled your rite; it will have to be redone another time. For now…”

“For now,” Tholi said, a grin breaking across his features, “we hunt?”

Andros nodded firmly. “We hunt.”

“WE HUNT!” roared the assembled Huntsmen in unison. As one, they turned and formed into a loose ring, surrounding the five Legionnaires.

“Oh, good,” Farah mumbled warily, “they hunt.”

“Peace,” Ephanie murmured. “Don’t be provocative.”

“Come,” Andros said curtly to the soldiers. “We will return to Tiraas, and seek out the one who has arranged this. Do you know who might attempt such a prank?”

The two groups set into motion, eying each other warily as they walked. The Huntsmen remained in a wider ring, ranging before, behind and to the sides of the group and keeping the Legionnaires encircled in their center.

“That’s a deceptively complex question, your Grace,” Principia said carefully.

He grunted. “No, it isn’t.”

“What I mean,” she said, “is that we’re in a rather tense position. Making anything that might amount to an accusation could have severe consequences for us. Especially since we don’t have evidence to prove one.”

Andros glanced at her. “I am no stranger to the politics of Tiraas, girl. Anything you say to me will go no further. Give me a direction in which to hunt, and I will find the tracks you need. I infer, from your guarded comments, that you know such a direction?”

Prin glanced over her shoulder at her squadmates. Ephanie nodded encouragingly.

“Just out of curiosity, your Grace,” Principia said, “are you acquainted at all with Bishop Syrinx?”

Andros’s frown deepened into a truly fearsome scowl. He drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh that ruffled his beard.

“So,” he growled, “the plot thins.”

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33 thoughts on “8 – 19

  1. At first, I thought the trap was to have the five of them happen across Andros and Ingvar, and not only have the accusation of the Bishop being a wife-kidnapper, but the utter INSULT of suggesting Ingvar was a woman (and to be stolen). I’m glad that that wasn’t it. And I’m gleeful that Andros is going to be pissed at Syrinx!

    So.. we know the Shaathist belief in and respect of a man born to a woman’s body–was it ever mentioned what they think of trans women? I can’t remember if that was brought up before.. but if it WASN’T, I wouldn’t imagine Shaathists would take as kindly to someone they see as being born a manlymanman “daring” to want to be an insignificant woman.. (note my exceeding levels of sarcasm).

    I have a headcanon right now that Ephanie is trans, and that she left life born to the Shaathist cult because of the torment of living as a trans woman in such a male-revering society where she would be likely to be shunned, at kindest.. (and also the whole being-a-woman-means-you’re-insignificant-or-that-you-always-come-second-and-aren’t-as-important thing). So she left to seek sanctuary with the Avenists, where she could be herself and empowered as a woman like she never would have had the chance to be before.

    But of course this is all based off of my patchy memory and making assumptions at this point. Though I think no matter what, I’m still gonna have the headcanon of her as trans. -shrugs-

    Anyway.. ooooh, go Prin, knowing what to do and stuff! Sometimes it’s easy to forget that she’s hundreds of years old, even when she flat-out SAYS it, until she demonstrates she has sound knowledge and experience of things most people of her apparent age wouldn’t.

    Hey, Webb? First off, thank you again times a billion for this wonderful and fantastic story–I adore it so much that I’m starting to annoying my friends by pestering them to read it. ^^;; Second.. are you participating in NaNoWriMo? I mean, you already hit epic word counts EVERY WEEK, and I bet you’d breeze past the normal 50k goal easily.. Just wondering! I hope all is well with you, and that you get a tremendous stroke of excellent fortune with an extra dose of happiness coming to you soon!

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    1. I seem to recall it was mentioned at some point (during one of Tellwyrn’s lectures on the aspects of the major deities iirc) that trans women could be priestesses of Avei, but couldn’t serve in the Silver Legions? Or maybe I’m misremembering, and it was the other way around.

      So anyway, we have Basra, Darling, and now Andros involved in these shenanigans. I’m holding out for Branwen to get mixed in somehow or other, to round out the set.

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      1. You are remembering correctly. I think it would also be a fair assumption that any who had been raised in an Avenist orphanage would likely also only be women, as we saw no evidence to the contrary in Triss’ bonus chapter (obviously, that’s less solid, just pointing out the possibility).

        Beyond that, I think she was described as being notably curvy when introduced at the start of this book, which would imply being born a woman. Could be wrong though; we have no indication of whether gender-swap surgery is a thing or if Ephanie just pads herself out to appear more feminine.

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      2. They would all be women, yes, but there’s no indication either way as to whether or not any of them were trans women.

        Surgery or not, I think any society with the science/technology/magic to produce a process like the one described during Prin’s recruitment (altering elves to be more humanlike) could easily come up with something comparable to HRT. Ingvar seems not to have availed himself of any such thing, given how much is made of his beardlessness, but I can easily see Shaathists being doctrinally opposed to it, particularly among the priesthood.

        Actually, you know, that brings up an interesting point–Tellwyrn’s phrasing, iirc, is “only biological women” are permitted to serve. We’ve already seen that the Legions are prepared to foot the bill for an elf to become more human in order to serve; perhaps trans women who wish to join the Legions are required to undergo a similar process, with similar caveats. In that case: the priestesses are permitted to serve regardless of the state or form of her transition, but a Legionairre has to commit to a full medical transition before she’s accepted. That’s not precisely how Tellwyrn put it, but the context in which it was mentioned wasn’t exactly ideal for that level of detail.

        I mean, I’m all for trans headcanons on principle; this one just requires a tiny bit more footwork to make it work.

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      3. i still find it very interesting that avenist discipline explicitly denies trans women access to parts of the cult; this fear of trans women’s bodies is a moral failing real world feminism exhibits in all areas, big and small, and i’m fascinated that they replicate it as well as their other faults – and that the shaathists, ruled as they are by patriarchal disciplines and binarist logic, are indulgent if not outright tolerant of having trans men among their ranks, as organizations like that tend to be in real life as well.

        those real life organizations – men’s right’s groups, radical feminist communities – however, tend to be homicidally hostile to trans women, not just baseline hostile. i do wonder if that’s the case here. if so, ephanie almost certainly isn’t one of us. especially as someone explicitly in the position she’s in because she bears political ties outside of the cult of avei; i doubt that’s a grudge she’d be able to hide, much less gain any situational advantage from having that experience to use in interactions with them.

        @Ben – haha, someone doesn’t know many trans women at all, do you, to be assuming things about women’s bodies like that (much less using words like “born a woman” to imply, intentionally or not, that trans women weren’t).

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      4. @tara: oh, of a certainty–that kind of attitude is sadly common among real-world feminism, though I didn’t know trans men could find welcome among MRAs, that’s interesting. Still, it’s also possible that the Legion’s sensibilities don’t align one-to-one with radical feminists; this is, after all, a world with magic and we do have concrete examples of magical transfiguration (the dragons; Tellwyrn casting a baleful polymorph on that poor adventurer schmuck) so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they have ways to transition that aren’t even possible in the real world. Would a radical feminist concede that a trans woman who has been magically reconfigured perhaps down to her very chromosomes is, in fact, a woman? Maybe, maybe not. Personally I agree with you, actually: probably not, in this case. But it’s a matter of cultural mores and sensibilities, which are as often pretty arbitrary from an outsider’s view–you could make an argument otherwise while still remaining within the bounds of known canon, which is the nice thing about headcanons.

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      5. You are correct, I know approximately none at all. I apologize for any and all offense I may have given, as it was very much not intended.

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    2. In my admittedly limited experience, trans women are eager to take up feminine habits, and raised among the Huntsmen of Shaath that’d mean being the one being protected rather than the one doing the protecting. Sure in Tiraas or this world as a whole women are soldiers – but not in that society. In my headcanon Ephanie is and always has been physically female.

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    3. From the descriptions and the knowledge we have of the legions, it is highly unlikely that Ephanie was ever not a woman. From Andros’ comment we can infer that she was part of the shaatist community at some point, probably married to this Feldren he mentioned.

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    4. Thanks, I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

      I really don’t have time to do NaNoWriMo, given as much as I’m putting into TGaB. But several people I know are, and I follow their efforts. Honestly, every month is NaNoWriMo for me, pretty much.

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  2. Typo:

    “I’ve only had the basic first aid courses,” Farah added, “but I’m pretty sure she had not been tied in that (bad) all that long.”

    Let me hahahaha on Darling’s behalf. Remember that time when he said he wanted to provoke an argument between Andros and Syrinx when he learned about Brother Igvar? Looks like he will get his wish.

    Thanks for the chapter!

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  3. “So,” he growled, “the plot thins.”

    Lol! I believe that is the first usage of that particular line I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to see how this goes, and as hoarous said, if Branwen gets mixed in somehow.

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    1. Which is interesting. He doesn’t have Darling’s elven insight (by means of Flora and Fauna, I mean) to help him realize how ruthless Basra is. So did he guess from his interactions with her or has he heard about some of the accidents that befell her competitors?

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  4. … I just had an interesting idea about a possible _positive_ goal for Bishop Syrinx’s meddling. This is now 3 of the 4 “special” bishops who squad 13 have had meetings with, and they have some reason to be grateful to the 2 that aren’t in their chain of command. And one of the assignment was at the Izarite temple, so perhaps Bishop Snowe was supposed to meet them during that posting.

    Of course, the fact that Mary Crow had to lead Andros to this spot make the theory much more tenuous, but it would explain the seeming clumsiness of her political maneuvering.

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  5. “She never said dragged,” Merry pointed out. “Might have been carried.”

    This struck me as strange, as Ami had said “They dragged me out here and…left. That was the last I heard until you came along.”

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  6. In some chapters Basra seems helpful, in some she enjoys violence way too much, in some she seems an adept politician and in some she stumbles around like clueless beginner.

    I’m starting to wonder at which level Basra actually is at. Underestimating her is just as dangerous as overestimating her and the fact that she can not keep up her mask when presented with the opportunity to kill makes me believe this isn’t a scheme within a scheme within a scheme.

    One theory is that everyone in the chain of command at the legions is involved to some degree. They gave Basra free hand because she is their expert but the purpose of the entire mess was seeing if S13 can scheme, can be diplomatic and can still uphold the values of the sisterhood. So Basra is blunt and clumsy on purpose, because this is an entry level test where the “victims” need to have a chance.
    Problem is, I don’t see Captain Dijanerad being able act well enough to fool Principia. While Jenell Covrin does have some experience at politics, I don’t know if she and Basra would go as far as staging a rape scene just for Casey, especially not when that happened long before Casey was part of S13. So that part is probably real and calls Basra’s aptitude into question.
    Even more potent is the fact that Mary takes the entire situation at face value and she has been snooping around enough to know what’s up.

    So if I look at all the facts (as far as I can trust the characters to deliver them), then … someone above Basra is involved. It would be very unlike her to mobilize this amount of resources, calling in favours etc… and then be so clumsy about it. If her goal was to get rid of S13, then there would be easier, more efficient and less risky options open to her.
    One could start at their reputations: Make it public that Principia is the Queen of Thieves. Tell everyone that Casey used to be Black Wreath. Mock Merry for being a clueless adventurer who had the choice between jail or the legions. Show that Ephanie comes from a shaatist background. Question Farah’s abilities because she was into books and not weapons for most of her life.
    That wouldn’t stop S13, but it would alienate them even further from the legions. If everyone distrusts them, they would never be able to work with them.
    Next step would be increasing the pressure, getting them into situations where they’d rely on their background instead of the legionnaire’s training. Or set up crimes that could only be done by them. Like stuff vanishing and Prin being the prime suspect. Traces of infernal energy in their barracks pointing to Casey.

    I don’t really know. The Basra we saw in Darling’s company, the Basra who talked to Vadrieny and Trissiny and the Basra we see here seem to be different people. I have trouble believing Basra would play such a clumsy, risky game and practically wasting her resources like this all on her own. There isn’t any profit in it. If her goal truly was getting rid of S13, then it would be massively short-sighted. Avei herself demands change, the legions won’t stop because the first batch turned out badly. So at most Basra could postphone this by a year or so. And then she’d be in a much weaker position because her inept schemes this time drew too much attention.

    So maybe this is a test but it was designed by a committee and someone went overboard in the execution of those orders or tried to subvert them. Maybe this is another plot where several opposing factions make a mess of things.

    I am sure I’m overthinking things here but it is very rare that I don’t even have a theory that makes sense. Either half of the puzzle pieces haven’t been shown yet or I completely overlooked them.

    Like

    1. Another interesting point to consider is that by putting them in the situation where they could interrupt a Shaathist ritual, they were put in a position where the only “right” way out would be taking the political approach of doing what is necessary to defuse and excuse the situation. Mary seemed to know what S13 was being led into, and implied that the move she would make would be what made the process easier. Disregarding Grauvan the grouch’s over-the-top antics, the squad seemed making progress in clearing up the situation even before Andros appeared. I’d believe that she’d set them up to encounter that group due to Grauvan and the need to treat the entire encounter cautiously. Actually… *starts new post.

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  7. I think that this has all been a test, since the first round of getting shouted at for interacting with Darling, and the only reason it became aimed more at Prin was because she kept taking the lead each step of the way. It certainly escalated due to the veiled antagonism from both sides, but still. Up until now, each trap or test that Basra laid has had a one or a couple proper way(s) out.

    – To start with, the initial encounter where Sweet showed up with F&F in tow Principia handled properly – polite and respectful, setting up a time to talk when she is not on duty; likely reported as such by the CO of that assignment due to no further issue being made of it.
    – Next, the dressing down after meeting with Sweet. Basra no doubt received the report in time to set Covrin to watching the main sanctuary of the temple, with orders to bring Prin straight down to speak with her. She does well, in that she does not blatantly antagonize a superior (for all that she’s outside the chain of command, Basra is a superior and could get Prin in trouble). During that, the next trap/test was laid by reminding Prin of the fact that she can’t take part in operations undertaken by either organization that she is a part of against the other. This is the point at which Miss Queen of Thieves is targeted for a command position, and things begin escalating.
    – The following morning, S13 are given orders to take part in an op that Principia cannot participate in. They are also intentionally cut off from any superior officers who would excuse either Prin or the Squad as a whole from that particular duty. Here, they make a misstep. I don’t know if they would have encountered an officer in the field or not, but by faking an injury and not reporting I suspect they actually failed that particularly test.
    – Which brings us to the falsified Shaathist kidnappings. One woman is set up, intentionally, with tracks laid that an elf could follow, that also lead to a trap with real Shaathists in the midst of a ritual hunt for an initiate; a grave trespass indeed. Grauvan makes the situation harder to defuse than it would otherwise have been, but the arrival of politically savvy Andros makes dealing with the situation far easier than Basra no doubt intended. Beyond that, going out in their heavy gear saved their lives as they had their shields to protect them during the start of the encounter.

    Am I wrong?….. Yeah, probably, and I’ll welcome the hole-poking in my theorizing. But, it would make far more sense for this all to have been a series of escalating tests to put pressure on an officer candidate than for Basra to suddenly become far less competent than we know her to be.

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    1. It’s what I thought about this at first, too.There are several problems though.

      First of all, I can’t see anyone signing off on a plan that would set the legions against the huntsmen, with a very real risk of someone getting killed. If their captain hadn’t intervened and changed the order to proper gear, they would have died before they had a chance to surrender. I can only imagine the mess that would have caused between the two cults. It would also mean that Basra would have to deal with the diplomatic side of it, trying to find an accord with the huntsmen. I very much doubt she’d enjoy that job.

      What would that test prove anyway? That Principia can weasel her way out of trouble? That’s not news. There isn’t much about the entire situation that even remotely resembles a training in politics. Which is my next point: You train people before you test them. Having a talent is not the same as having an ability. Doesn’t matter how musical you are, without practicing you still won’t impress anyone.
      They haven’t even been told what exactly is expected of them. Troops without a leader, making up their own training? How’s that supposed to work out?

      I’m fairly sure most other squads would have complained by now, it’s only S13 that can’t make any waves because if they get kicked out, half of them would go to jail or lose the protection they need.

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      1. You make excellent points. They were likely what hung around just out of reach when I was thinking about this last night that made me pretty sure I was wrong.

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  8. On the author’s behalf, is everyone voting? This wonderful serial seems to have dropped a place in the rankings. Don’t let them beat us!

    Now, Basra is certainly savvy, but this can’t possibly be training. It’s a situation where someone in a position of power has an axe to grind, and enough savvy to make the actions appear defensible, while not exactly able to be called out as vindictive.

    However, this seriously looks like an attempt to get them killed, and has already backfired with the intervention of Mary. Whether this is salvageable, with the thieves and the huntsmen looking for ways to bring her down remains to be seen. If not, I’m sure she’ll fit in nicely with Justinian’s little hit squad. Unfortunately, that isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

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    1. Even if they didn’t get killed (though I’m not sure even Principia would have managed to escape Huntsmen in the woods) Basra set it up so that she’d get what she wanted. If S13 had escaped after wounding or tricking the Huntsmen, it would have turned into a larger mess between the Legions and the Shaathists – and the Legions aren’t going to use anyone who was a cause of that as Basra’s replacement.
      What I find strange is that Bas didn’t know Andros was going to be around to be the voice of reason. It seems pretty obvious that a man as high-placed in his cult as he is would be part of the crew for a rite like this, and the obvious blowback he can cause would make this a pretty risky gambit for her. Either she didn’t think this through or she’s more desperate than S13 thinks she is.

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      1. Well, Andros wasn’t actually PART of the rite–he was in the woods with Ingvar for an unrelated trip. But still, your questions remains, why didn’t Basra know he’d be out there? It was established that Andros takes these woods trips with some regularity, and he mentioned to.. someone.. I can’t remember whom, that he was going on this trip in the first place. What with Basra being in close proximity to Andros a lot, she should have known he goes to these woods, and with how she seems to practically spy on everyone and know what everyone’s doing, she should have known he’d be there during this whole setup. So either that was factored into it and the plan was supposed to include S13 doing something involving him as well, or Basra entirely overlooked it and made a (possibly fatal) mistake. So what gives?

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  9. Typos:

    more angry
    (spell checker recommends ‘angrier’)

    Princpia
    Principia

    Reactions:

    (out of town Wednesday, wasn’t able to respond until now)

    OK, fairly straightforward trap – use minimal manipulation to get S13 to piss off a real group of Shaathists. Perhaps the part about the bait being a bard is truth – that sort of acting makes sense for a bard. I bet the rest was a lie.

    I am with the other commenters who say that we don’t know the whole story with Basra and S13 yet. Too many unexplained problems.

    Andros vs. Basra! Fight!

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