“Perhaps we should begin with introductions,” the tall man said.
“You are Zirchev, called the Huntsman.” Brynne pointed towards the pair outside the Circle. “That is King Halav Red-hair, and his Queen, Petra of Krakatos.”
The Huntsman looked momentarily shocked, then smiled. “King? His queen?” His smile turned into a laugh. “Perhaps it is good that we sit within this circle of silence, lest either of them hear you say that.”
“But--” Brynne looked over at Katarin, who shrugged.
“Huntsman I may be, but Halav’s eldest brother sits upon the bronze throne in Lavv. And while Petra is Queen, her heart is as much within Halav’s grasp as the moon above. Their two kingdoms have been at war for generations.” He peered at the girls intently. “Anybody within two days’ ride of Lavv knows the only sharing of hearts between those two involves knives.”
“The… stories we have heard say it differently,” Brynne said.
“And you say you are from Lugsid?”
“Yes,” Jasna said, quickly.
Zirchev frowned. “I fail to see how we could have missed one girl, much less four of such… distinction among the survivors.”
“He means our hair,” Katarin said, holding up one of her wavy locks. “We don’t exactly blend in, here.”
“Your accents are not of the northern tribes.” The Huntsman leaned forward. “Speak the truth. Let me help you, or they will strand you here, and leave you to Flaghr’s horde.”
The girls stared at each other for a long moment. Petra gave a deep, ragged breath, and began coughing. Katarin rose, and turned the girl on her side. The cloth she used to wipe Petra’s chin came away a deep crimson.
“Shall I fetch the Queen?” Zirchev asked.
Katarin shook her head. “No. She has already done all she can. I have done all I can.” She looked over to Jasna. “We need Silva.”
“If there is another of your number out there, we need to find her,” Zirchev said, rising. “Those woods are infested with Beast Men… and worse things.”
“Believe me, Silva-- if she was here-- could handle a few Beast Men,” Jasna said with a grin.
“This is not ‘just a few.’ It is an invasion.”
“We know,” Brynne said, taking Zirchev’s hand. “Sit. We have a tale to tell you.”
* * * * *
“So you weren’t lying to the Queen when you said you were from here,” Zirchev said.
Jasna shook her head.
“But you have not told me everything.” He inclined his head towards Katarin. “Her strange powers. She invokes no prayers in her workings, yet no wizard could work magics of that sort. She shows no signs of the corruption.”
“The Alphatians won’t make Landfall for another three months,” Katarin said.
“But what of your seeing stones?” Brynne asked. “You mean to say you haven’t even peeked the littlest bit into the future?”
“From the Lost Valley?” Jasna provided.
Again, Zirchev shook his head.
“It’s all right. You can tell us about them,” Brynne said.
“Stones? Valley? This is the furthest north I have ever been. And I never would have come this far if Petra had not dragged me. But she insisted on wading into this war zone. Somebody has to watch her back. Imagine our surprise to find the Lavvites already on this side of the river, rounding up the survivors from Zadreth.
“You are mistaken, if you think that this was any sort of mission of mercy. The truce between Lavv and Krakatos is temporary, only lasting until we can get far enough downriver to escape the longest teeth of Flaghr’s van.”
“And what happens then?” Brynne asked.
“They divide the spoils, splitting the slaves evenly.”
Jasna leapt to her feet. “Slaves?”
“You don’t think the walls of Krakatos will raise themselves, do you? Osric has no more able-bodied men to fight for him, so he sends Halav to round up more.” Zirchev shrugged. “Such is the way of things in times of war.”
“But… but they should be fighting together. Against the Beast Men,” Brynne said.
Zirchev leaned back, laughing.
“Don’t be naive, girl,” the Huntsman said. “There is too much blood spilled between these two, too many old grudges. Besides, the Beast Men number ten of them to every one of us. It is hopeless.”
Jasna felt her stomach turn. She swallowed the moment of dizziness. She looked past the dark-haired Zirchev, to see Halav and Petra, standing nearly nose to nose, both red in the face. She sat down hard, clutching her stomach.
Zirchev put a hand on her knee.
“Do not fret, Little Jasna. I can assure you, you will be well treated. All of you will be, even the skinchanger, provided she lives. With your knowledge of future events, of weapons, such as the young lord possesses… We will not need to buy our freedom from either of those two. We can simply take it.”
“It isn’t supposed to be like that,” Jasna whispered.
Zirchev shook his head. “This is how it is. There are no heroes here. Only survivors.” He rose, turned, and walked out of the Circle, to bow towards the Queen before departing the tent.