From one moment to the next, it was morning.
Ean knew it, but how was another matter.
The light had been getting brighter for some time before then, so it was not that. It also wasn’t sunrise, as the sun wasn’t visible over the mountains yet, and probably wasn’t visible over the horizon beyond the mountains either.
Maybe it was just the moment when all the living things that loved the day and weren’t asleep for the winter woke up as one.
Or the moment a silent voice told them to wake up.
Was the garagran still sleeping?
Then he prayed that she had slept well. It would probably give her a better temper.
“Why are you kneeling over there?” Trin asked, rolling over in her sleeping bag and looking at him.
“I felt compelled to pray,” Ean said, struggling to rise on tingling legs.
“Not looking forward to meeting a garagran anymore?”
“Never was, but that’s not it,” Ean said. “I needed to.”
“Hmmm,” Trin mumbled in reply as she arched her back in a long, writhing stretch, looking for all the muscles that the cold had locked up and tearing them back into usefulness. Finally she sat up, looked over at Kaim, who was still asleep, and threw a rock at him.
Kaim thrashed out of his bag and then leapt to his feet, punching out with half extended wings.
“Whah! Who? Trin!”
“Thirty years and he still does that,” Trin said to her brother. “Are you sure you want this man running your affairs?”
Ean shook his head at his sister’s humor. She had been picking at Kaim for as long as they had known each other. The poor man only got a break when she went on adventures in the outside territories.
With Kaim’s exclamation the rest of the camp rose, all far more quietly. Most of them had slept in their gear, barring metal armor which they quickly put back in place. Ean had never taken his own armor off as drax scale was comfortable enough to sleep in, if only barely. He instead used the time to check the edge on his longsword, razor, and test the pull on his wheel-bow, smooth and quiet.
A short span then followed while men munched at jerky, cheese and other items while horses munched at nose-bags of grain. Ean had similar provisions to his men, including a honey-murako nut bar and a small canteen of haxat some servant had thought to include. He was grateful for that. It wasn’t morning without haxat, though he preferred it hot. On impulse he stowed the nut bar in a pouch on his belt, saving it for later.
As soon as he finished, Kaim approached, fully equipped in black, platelike scale armor similar to his own.
“The squads are ready,” Kaim said. “The trackers sent word that she hasn’t moved all night. She may still be asleep right now.” He paused. “Are you absolutely sure you don’t want to end this quickly?”
Ean almost snapped at Kaim, but caught the urge and handed it over to Aihay. Unlike himself, Kaim had actually lost someone in that previous Garagran incident. An aunt, out shopping when the attack started.
It colored Kaim’s views on garagrans strongly.
Ean prayed silently, reaching out.
A question would do better than an answer.
“Who owns this kingdom?” Ean asked.
Kaim shifted, thrown off balance. He studied Ean for a moment, then gave the official response. “Aihay does.”
“And what does he expect of us?”
Kaim dropped his eyes. “To obey.”
“No,” Ean said, and waited until Kaim looked up and met his eyes again. “To believe. Without believing, we cannot obey. Believe that his way is better, and you will.”
Kaim’s eyes sparkled with rebellion. “We are charged with defending this kingdom. That is his way too.”
“Yes. And we defend this kingdom by making peace, by any right means. Can murder make the peace of Aihay?”
“It would be easier that way.”
One of Ean’s ears flicked out involuntarily and he cracked a smile.
“Yes. I’d get rid of you and find a chief armsman who listens better.”
Kaim smiled slightly in return.
Ean sighed. “Wait back with the archers. I’ll do the talking. Keep Trin nearby. If talking doesn’t work, she’s the only one of us who’s ever actually fought a garagran.”
Kaim started to open his mouth again.
Ean shook his head sharply. It was time to clamp down.
“I’m the prince here. If this goes bad and I don’t get home, you tell my father you were following my orders and I was doing what I thought was right.”
Kaim looked sick, but he nodded.
“Good. Signal the trackers to lead us in.”
Kaim went over to the archers and Ean heard the distinct pop and hiss of a portable signal lantern starting. While the message was sent to the watch towers for relay, Ean rolled up his bedroll and stowed it on his horse, then checked the rubber muffling boots to make sure they hadn’t come off in the night.
What would happen if he was wrong? How many of his people would die?
The thought pressed in suddenly and picked at him as he moved from the boots to the harness.
Maybe he should go with Kaim’s idea.
Worry clenched at his heart and he wavered. A vision of fire and teeth danced on the edges of his mind.
“Yasaw, give me strength,” he whispered.
The teeth remained. Ean mounted his horse anyway.
“Thank you, Dar,” he whispered as he settled into the saddle.
Kaim ran up with a green and brown kertak perched on one arm.
“The trackers sent this to lead us in.”
He held up the creature, like a small fox with wings and feathers. Ean stretched out his arm and the kertak gave his hand a sniff then climbed on.
“Guide,” he said in Jarain, the native language of Kentinshirs.
The kertak looked around for a moment then chose a direction and pointed, graceful neck stretched ahead, tufted tail straight out behind.
Ean took the reins and signalled with his knees for his vaxin to move out at a trot. The muffled crunching of other horses quickly joined his own and the whole group proceeded through the forest, almost silent in the fresh powder.
The journey was surreal, mounted white ghosts slipping between trees, barely visible in the dim light. Ean continued to pray in his heart as they moved in a stillness broken only by the occasional trill of birdsong or the cry of a wild rooster. The air was impossibly crisp and chill, but there was little to smell until a wisp of woodsmoke and baking bread wafted to his nose.
Telensgrove. The city had to be nearby if he was smelling the bakeries.
The sky was still gray and the sun was still hidden when a pale Kentinshir appeared from behind a tree and the kertak flew to his arm. He transferred it to his shoulder and then told Ean with a complex series of hand signals that the garagran was just ahead, was still human, and was awake but unaware.
Ean signalled to the tracker to keep watch as he approached, but remain hidden and not interfere unless there was violence. He gave the same signal to the soldiers following him, then dismounted and strode in the direction the tracker pointed. A short walk, half a feld at most, brought him out into a moderate clearing near the edge of a bluff that overlooked Telensgrove. Ean glanced down at the city, then scanned the trees along the edge.
Standing under a young, spreading murako, leafless for the winter, was a young woman in a gray-white cloak with the hood down. Her long black hair was gathered back in a rough ponytail and fell down her back over the hood, revealing round, lobeless ears like a common Bortin or Manalein. Her skin was a pale beige, smooth except for the black scales running along the outside edge of her ears, along the bridge of her nose, and just over her eyebrows. From the side her face was sharp, with the arched brows and fine nose seen in the aristocracy of much of the lowlands, but her expression as she gazed down at the city was indiscernable. The same for her stance.
Then the sun rose over the distant eastern mountain peaks, striking through the great trees and warming the open bluff and everything on it.
For an instant she glowed and her amber eyes lit with the dawn, and Ean saw what she was feeling.
Longing so deep and aching that Ean felt it reach out to his own heart and twist inside him.
Longing that showed not only in her eyes, but also her stance, which leaned toward the town below as if pulled, but at the same time braced to run away any moment.
The silence whispered of shepherds and lambs, of the proper response to broken and lost things.
Then she covered her eyes against the sun and the moment was gone.
A second later she spotted him and drew her sword.