First Quarter Moon (on or about Nuwmont 6, 998AC)
I had just dropped into slumber after my turn at the watch when Sera’s wards vibrated. I had time to rouse myself, and had just laid fingers upon my staff when the campfire roared to life, followed by a shrill shriek.
It was not the voice of anyone from the camp.
Varis and Gilliam approached at a run from opposite sides of the camp, where they’d been at watch, weapons at the ready. The vardo’s door creaked open, and I felt the familiar glow in my stomach, the tingling along the back of my neck. I squinted, a brightness among the threads of Matter and Energy at the fringes of my vision. Sera held a weaving of earth and flame ready to loose, then.
“Shrike, stand clear, I can’t get a decent shot,” Gilliam said.
“What is going on out here?” came Demarra’s sleepy voice from the shadows inside the vardo.
“Assassins in the night,” Aurora hissed. She sat atop a struggling form, dragonstones bright as she pinned it by the neck, pressing its face into the wet earth by the camp’s fire. The flames snapped and crackled, though there was nothing but ashes and coals to feed them.
“Is this what you were after?” She pressed the tip of her knife to the figure’s cheek — all that was visible of the face beneath the dark cloak’s hood. “It was unwise to try to use my own blade against me.”
“No, mistress! Your pardon! Your pardon!” The figure’s voice was muffled, male but in a higher register. And, judging from the size comparison, a bit shorter than the shrike herself.
“Aurora, he’s just a child!” Ana had apparently made the same deductions I had, and spoke before I could.
“A child that thought it could take the knife from my belt? Goblins have been known to start slitting throats not soon after they gain their legs.”
Beneath the cloak, feet kicked, accompanied by a muffled clanking. “This one is no goblin! Please, mistress! One begs the chance to explain!”
“Well, he’s too well spoken to be a goblin,” Varis murmured, lowering his sword. “Don’t think there is even a word like ‘please’ in their tongue.”
“The words are formed all wrong for one speaking through pointed teeth,” Gilliam said, relaxing his half-draw on the bow. “Let the boy up, let us hear what he has to say.”
The dragonstones’ glow ebbed, and the campfire gradually dimmed, though it brightened again as Varis and I fed it more wood.
Slowly, reluctantly, Aurora stood, and backed away from the cloaked figure, the knife held in a low guard.
Ana, Sera, and Demarra descended the steps of the vardo, but Aurora stepped in front of the doorway when Silva tried to follow. They argued, briefly, in the High Thonian, but Aurora crossed her arms, Silva rolled her eyes and each remained where they stood.
The cloaked figure struggled to his hands and knees, and then regained his feet, his motions stiff, jerky, almost as if he were worked with strings. The hood turned this way and that. Gilliam pulled back on his bow’s string.
“Just take a seat by the fire, friend,” he said. “Slowly.”
Slowly was about the only way the figure could move, and as the cloak — which dragged upon the ground behind him— lifted away, we could see the reason for his halting, somewhat automaton-like motion: leg irons, the chain between them wound ‘round with cloth to muffle it. His wrists were likewise bound.
Varis and Gilliam exchanged glances, brows raised. Sera glanced over the figure’s hooded head, at me. The flows and tendrils drifting at the corner of my vision had changed, reds and browns fading to deep blue, traced with white. She readied the air to harden around our visitor if need be. I nodded, and a corner of her mouth quirked.
“Well, now, friend, let us have a look at your face.” Gilliam still held the bow at a half draw.