Twenty-seven – 01

Maybe I should’ve been worried about those clouds after all.  Bryant frowned up at the sky from the shadows of a tree.  This is not a safe place to be standing.  And yet, the tree was providing some protection from the rain, despite the increasing wind and thunder, and until he knew which direction he was about to sprint in, here he’d stay.

He’d wandered further afield than he’d intended and wasn’t entirely sure where he’d ended up.  He could see a watchtower and the wall off to his right, so he was fairly certain he was still within the official boundary of the village itself.  Even that wasn’t a sure thing, though, and it was hard to gauge the distances and which was closer—the wall or watchtower—through the pouring rain and the increasing darkness that came with the storm.

There was a pavilion closer to him, though, further from where he thought the village proper was, perched in the shadow of a strange hill that seemed to curve back in on itself.  Beyond it, he thought he saw some kind of longhouse or barracks of some kind and he thought—perhaps—he could see the flicker of a campfire through the rain.  It left him puzzled—and almost incurably curious in a way he thought had died in him.

He could either sprint for the village, for the watchtower, or that pavilion at the next break in the rain—and pray that he’d have enough time to reach it before rain increased again or something worse happened.

Bryant took one breath, then another, jaw firming.  I knew I should’ve stayed with Issy and David.

He listened to the sound of the raindrops, waiting for it to ease for even a moment.  Thunder grumbled, vibrating the tree, the ground.  The hair on the back of his neck rose and a shiver skated down his spine.

This is bad.  No time.

The sound changed just enough, coupled with a fresh gust of wind and he sucked in a breath, sprinting across the summer grass and a gravel path toward the shelter of the pavilion.  The air crackled with a lightning strike close enough that he felt and heard the boom even as the flash left him momentarily blind, skidding to a halt as soon as he felt the rain stop falling on him.

A hand grasped his arm and he jerked backward with a curse, ears ringing from the thunder.  His back slammed into one of the pavilion’s support posts and stars exploded behind his eyes.  As his hearing started to return to normal, he could hear the quiet chuckle of another man—one still holding onto his arm, as if to steady him, apparently.  As his vision cleared, Bryant could make out his features in the dim—grizzled, a scar slicing across his cheek, leaving a rift in an otherwise full beard of dark, curling hair.

“Easy,” the stranger said, the scar tugging as he smiled.  “You moved at the right time, traveler.  If you’d lingered a second longer, we’d have been pounding on your chest in the hopes that your heart would start again.”

Bryant blinked, sucking in a breath as the words registered.  He twisted slightly, back pressed against the post, and looked back.  The tree he’d been under hadn’t been struck, but there was a patch of ground he’d crossed that was blackened and steaming.

His stomach turned over and it was all he could do to keep himself from emptying it right there.

“Come on,” the stranger said, tugging his arm gently.  “We’ve got the cookfire lit and I’m thinking we’ve got some tea that’ll put that stomach to rights and help your heart settle down after that.  Maybe I shouldn’t have drawn your attention to it.”

“No,” Bryant said, swallowing once, then again.  “No, thank you.  I—it’s good to occasionally be reminded of your own mortality, right?”

Because that didn’t just happen a few days ago when those things—the camazotzi?—attacked us on the road.

The stranger smiled wryly and nodded.  “I’d suppose so.  Come on, lad.  Come by the fire and you can tell us why you found yourself caught out in a summer squall when you seem the sort to have enough sense in your head to know better.”

Bryant started to answer but swallowed the words.  He just nodded and let the stranger lead him toward the fire pit he’d glimpsed through the blowing wind and rain.

There were a few others gathered by that cookfire—two men and a woman—with another woman off to one side, nearer the edge of the pavilion, working on dressing a deer.  Bryant stumbled a step, blinking at the sight of them.  These weren’t the village folk that he’d seen so far in his time here—these people were something else, he could tell.  Oh, they looked as if they just might blend in if they tried, but as he took in the cut of their clothing and the bits of armor and weapons that each carried, he knew.

These people were different.  These were soldiers, mercenaries—something else, something other than the civilians he’d seen and the leaders he’d met.

The man who’d brought him from the edge of the pavilion waved him toward a bench next to the fire pit.  “Have a seat.  That’s Bastien there on the left, Miriam, Jakob, and then Ariel there with the deer.  I’m Caleb and you’re quite welcome by our fire.”

“Bryant,” he said, sinking down into the proffered spot.  Jakob was already reaching for a kettle that perched near the edge of the fire’s glowing embers, reaching into an old picnic basket for a mug—enameled steel or aluminum, Bryant guessed, watching as the man filled it with tea from the kettle.  “Sorry to intrude.”

“Eh, you’re not,” Bastien said, his grin broad as he regarded Bryant with bright green eyes, like sunlight through bottle glass.  “We were taking bets on when one of the visitors would finally stumble across us.  I don’t think any of us had it during the storm, though.”

Caleb took the mug from Jakob and passed it to Bryant.  “Trying for a breath of air, I’m guessing, and get caught?”

“Something like,” Bryant said, studying them.  “I—I don’t mean to be rude.”

Miriam barked a laugh.  “Whenever a man says that, it’s always a prelude to something offensive coming out of his mouth.”

Heat washed into his cheeks.  “I just—sorry.  This is going to come out wrong.”

“Try anyway,” Bastien suggested, starting to lay some cast iron pots out on the stones that surrounded the fire.  A gust of wind sent embers and smoke swirling toward him.  He deftly shifted to one side, avoiding the worst of the embers, only a few winking to darkness against the leather of his sleeve.

“You’re not like the others here,” Bryant said, the warmth of the mug bleeding into his fingers.  The tea wasn’t so hot that the cup was burning his hands, but if it’d been poured any earlier, it easily could have.  “Like—like most of the people I’ve met so far.”

“It’s an astute observation,” Miriam said.  “It’d be because we’re not.”

Caleb slanted her a look and shook his head.  “We’ve been a part of them, for better or worse, for nearly two decades.”

“But you keep yourselves apart,” Bryant said, his gaze wandering.  The long building that looked like a barracks.  A few cottages clustered around it neatly.  Two large stables beyond.  “Why?”

“Habit,” Jakob said, his voice like sifting gravel.  “Centuries of habit, lad.”

“Centuries,” Bryant echoed.  “So—so you’re like the Aes Dana?”

Bastien started to laugh.  “Far from,” he said through his chuckles.  “Thank you for that, though.”

“What’s so funny?”  Bryant asked.  His stomach began to sink.  There was something tugging at the very tip of his memory, something just beyond his reach.

“We’re not like the Otherlanders,” Caleb said, his voice gentle.  “We’re the Wild Hunt, Bryant, and the Valley’s been the first place we could call home in as long as any of us dare remember.”

Liked it? Take a second to support Erin on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
This entry was posted in Ambrose Cycle, Book 8, Chapter 27 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Got thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.