Lewis raised his head from the map full of markers that showed the result of their scouting and faced the six people gathered at his table. His captains. Excluding Edrich, who was with him since the beginning of this expedition, he’d had them summoned right after that skirmish with the beasts. Them, as well as most of the army garrisoned at fort Marlingue. Of course, he’d wanted to summon all of them, including the last three captains, but with the trouble brewing there...
A long sigh escaped his lungs. A sigh of regret? Helplessness? He wasn’t sure. Trouble wasn’t a new thing for those living at the edge of the savage lands, but the world around him had been spiralling out of his grasp far too fast for him to react.
He’d be twenty-eight at the end of the year. Young for a knight, or an overseer of a fort protecting the border, but he sure felt old.
“So,” he began, shaking off that thought, “now that everyone is aware of the situation we face, if any of you have any good suggestions, feel free to offer them.” Most of his captains opened their mouths at his invitation, but he held up his hand. “Remember, good suggestions only.”
The captains looked at each other. Half of them shook their heads, taking to the stools placed around the table, content to observe, at least for now. Lewis turned to the mage, Edrich, who was among the remaining three.
“You want to figure out the cause of this… beast riot, am I right?”
“Yes, sir.” Edrich nodded. “Only that way we can solve this—”
“I disagree!” thundered Jared Slovic, a tall, wiry man with muscles coiled like an ancient tree. His loud, aggressive mannerisms were nothing like a tree, though. There, he resembled a lion. “You also know what’s coming. We don’t have the time to spend researching some rabid beasts.”
Edrich frowned, his tone grave. “It is not just ‘some’ rabid beasts, rather, an entire forest full of them. This is an issue that requires our attention. Whatever the cause, what if it spreads further into our homeland?”
“Nonsense! I bet it’s connected to that incident. As long as we solve that, these beasts would return to normal.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Lewis pinched his temples as the bickering continued. This was precisely the situation he’d hoped to avoid when he asked for ‘good suggestions’. He had a mind to stop them, but the third person standing acted in his stead.
Raela Greyclad, the priestess of Afrika, the patron goddess of Rosente, gave the table in front of her a slap. Not a loud noise but a sharp, precise one, enough to draw the attention of the two debating men.
“Those matters can wait,” she spoke in a low but clear-cut voice that matched her chiselled features well. “Caramis comes first. We need to resolve the trouble the village is facing.”
Jared tilted his head, looking at her. “Do we need to?”
“What do you mean?” Raela frowned.
“Most of the beasts are concentrated around Caramis, while the other villages are facing far less resistance from them,” Jared said, turning to Lewis. “I feel we should focus on them first.”
Lewis frowned as he considered the words. “Are you suggesting giving up on Caramis?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow. “You know how hard it would be to direct the other villages without them, right?”
“Yes, but we don’t have enough manpower. We may be able to force our way through the beast encirclement and reach Caramis, but we will lose a lot in the process, and without expunging the threat completely, we can never accomplice our goal there.”
“That is why we need to find the root of this incident,” Edrich said. “Only then we can safely accomplice our goal, not only in Caramis but all of the villages.”
Jared shook his head. “We don’t have that time. Rescuing the other settlements would be far easier and quicker. Trying to reach Caramis would be more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Trouble?” Edrich glowered at the man. “There are thousands of lives at stake here. Giving up on them because of some 'trouble' is nothing but callous.”
Jared matched the mage’s stare. “And what about the lives of our soldiers? Should we sacrifice them in a battle we might gain nothing from?”
“Enough!” Like the crack of a whip, Lewis cut through their verbal war. “What’s your opinion, Raela?”
Raela looked down, staring at the map spread on the table for a moment before opening her mouth. “Though I dislike it, I agree with Jared here. We should start with the other villages for now.” She held up her hand, stopping Edrich, who was about to speak up. “But we should return to Caramis once we are done with the others. Because, as Edrich said, no matter how difficult it is, we can't let that many people face sure death without even trying to help.”
Lewis turned to the captains, who had kept themselves out of the conversation. “And you?”
The three captains exchanged glances before agreeing with the priestess.
“Hmm…” Lewis scratched the stubble on his chin, once again addressing her. “How about purification? It should have some effect on the beasts, shouldn’t it? The horses are still fine after all.”
“The horses...” Raela’s eyebrows furrowed. “I do not know if they are sane because of the purification. I have tried purifying the wolf Edrich tamed, and it had almost no effect on the symptoms,” she said, shaking her head. “I could try arranging a major purification ritual, but I am not hopeful.”
“We don’t have the time for rituals.” Lewis waved his hand. He also didn’t like it, but Jared’s suggestion seemed to be the best one. “Caramis would have to fend for itself for now. We should prioritize the other villages first. If we have time left, we can come back for it.”
“But sir, what about the guardsman from Caramis?” Edrich asked, his thin jaws drawing a hard line. “Are we to tell him we cannot rescue his village after he braved such dangers to reach us?”
A sign of discomfort marred the knight’s stony features as he recalled the injured man resting in the nursing tent, just three tents away from this one. “He...”
“Tch!” The sound of the clicking of the tongue broke the escalating awkwardness. The seven people at the table jolted, remembering the eighth person sitting on a stool in one corner of the tent.
Her interruption came more as a shock than a surprise. After all, she’d been silent since the beginning. And after pointedly ignoring her, immersed in their discussions, they had almost forgotten her existence. An existence they wished they could’ve left forgotten.
Bloom stood up and sauntered towards them, her mind not nearly as relaxed as her demeanour. She’d never intended to speak, especially in a tent full of strangers, but all this ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ was getting pretty frustrating.
“From what I heard, you’re facing some great crisis or something, right? And it’d probably affect this area too…” She snuck a peek at the virtual map with a flick of her mind. “There're seven villages other than Caramis in this area. Have you got enough time to rescue them one by one? Or can you divide your forces and go at them all at once?”
The only answer her questions received were silent stares, and she returned them, stopping on each face for a brief but equal amount of time. By now, she’d become accustomed to ignoring those ‘looks’ the people around these parts gave her. But in close quarters like this, she couldn't just not confront them.
Her eyes stopped on the face of the knight, who, along with Edrich, had the most accommodating expression; though, obviously, he wasn’t exactly thrilled at her interruption either. He’d asked her if she’d like to join them, more out of politeness than anything else. And much to his chagrin and the obvious displeasure of his captains, she’d taken him up on that offer.
Still, she'd helped them out, and regardless of her identity, ungratefulness went against his principles.
“If you have a better suggestion, then please,” he said, extending his hand to welcome her to speak.
Bloom turned her eyes to the map on the table, her long, slender index gliding along the red-topped pins marking the villages. “These villages follow Caramis’s lead, right?” she asked Lewis, who answered with a brief nod. “Then instead of going to them one by one, solving Caramis’s crisis is the best option.”
Lewis pursed his lips. Wasn’t she listening to their discussion? “We don’t have enough resources to fight against the beasts surrounding the village.” His voice was slow and patient, and slightly condescending as if explaining something blatantly obvious to a dimwitted child. Somewhat infuriating, but Bloom kept her calm.
“You don’t need to fight with them.” She tilted her head towards Edrich. “Just go with his suggestion.”
“We have already discussed this,” Raela spoke up before Lewis. “We don’t have the time to search for the cause. Now if you have nothing new to add, please stand aside and let us do our work.”
Bloom tilted her head, fixing her eyes on the older woman, and though Raela tried to keep her demeanour impassive, a slight crease of her eyebrows betrayed a distinct dislike for Bloom, one not present in the others’ more wary gazes.
That seemed... odd. She didn’t remember offending the woman, at least not more than how her existence offended everyone else around here. Curiosity nudged at the back of her mind. She ignored it, and Raela, and once more turned to face Lewis.
“If I’m right,” and she probably was, “it shouldn’t take too much time to figure out the cause.”
Lewis narrowed his eyes. “You know something?”
“I... can’t be sure.” At least the idea she had wasn’t one she wanted to share. Not yet, anyway. “But I feel the reason lies in Caramis. After all, the bulk of the beasts are targeting that place.”
“You can’t be sure?” Jared’s voice boomed. “This is absurd. Are you asking us to risk the lives of our soldiers because of a feeling?”
Bloom measured him briefly. Being the tallest man in the tent, he stood half a head taller than her. Along with his gaunt frame and voice... kinda intimidating.
Well, he's got nothing on Ragnar.
She took care to keep her expression neutral and addressed Lewis once again. “I mean, you don’t need to put all your chips in one place, do you? You could try to search for the reason and rescue the other villages at the same time. You should have enough people.”
Lewis frowned, pondering her words. But Jared took a more vocal approach. “That’s nonsense!” he snapped. “Thousands, no, tens of thousands of beasts surround Caramis. How could we have enough people for that?”
“She doesn’t mean that, probably.” Edrich had a thoughtful look on his face. “We do not need many people to research the cause of the beast riot. We also do not need a lot of them to get to Caramis.”
Bloom nodded. “Yeah, with more people, it’d be harder to bypass those animals.”
A spark of understanding lit up Lewis’s eyes. “Are you suggesting a stealthy approach?”
“I don’t trust her.” Raela turned to look at Bloom. “I can tell you are hiding something. I think you know something about the cause of this incident. Or maybe,” a hint of severity entered her voice, “it was your lot that started all this.”
Bloom arched an eyebrow as the air of the tent grew visibly tense. The suspicion everyone should’ve already harboured subconsciously now reared its head through Raela’s words. Not that she could blame them. If what she suspected was right, then the players probably had something to do with the incident.
“Well, it’s your call what you do. I’m going to Caramis, either with you.” She turned around, heading towards the tent entrance.