“And then the damn goat came ‘round with the key!”
Roars of laughter echoed through the trees as Vlad finished telling his story about his time in Makendam with a prostitute, a bomb scare, and his least favorite animal.
The tale of seduction and the craftiness of Vlad’s hairy adversary seemed to grow with each telling, but Meira couldn’t help the fond smile that stretched across her lips. Edgar began his own story, boisterous voice carrying the exaggerations across the line of horses weaving through the forest underbrush. The last two days had been the same, the slow canter punctuated by stories and jokes as the party pushed further into the unclaimed territory of the Hegyk range. Though the narrations were inflated by ego and the group’s relative isolation, the taut muscles and careful gazes sweeping the forest belied their thinly laced amusement.
The horses stopped nearly as one at Anton’s signal, their riders falling silent. Birds cawed in the distance and early morning sunlight sparkled across the dew-dappled leaves. Meira’s hand tightened on the reigns as she watched Shadow’s ears swivel. Her own strained for a hint of what made their commander stop the progress, but the surrounding thicket remained still.
Finally Anton dropped his hand, turning over his shoulder to remark, “We’re getting into Vadek territory, stay alert.”
The team pulled rifles across their laps as they rode on, returning the forest’s silent, watchful scrutiny. It was well past mid-day before they stopped to let the horses rest and the tension of the past hours burned in Meira’s shoulders as she attempted to replait her dark hair that had come loose. While the military was no place for vanity, the past two years hadn’t quite rid her of her mother’s strict lessons on propriety and grace.
At least the dirt smudges blend in with the uniform she thought as she brushed off her pants and stood. Meira rejoined the men in their loose circle, leaning against a tree and waving off the cigarette that Grigor offered. He shrugged and took another long drag.
“I’m not going to leave Ryokovik until I own the town or I’ve lost all of my money,” boasted Edgar. For the past two weeks he’d been talking about using his month of leave in the city notorious for its gambling halls. His attempts to convince the rest of the unit to join him in debauchery hadn’t been as successful as he’d hoped.
“Lena’ll have my head if I don’t see her and the kids, mate,” Grigor protested after Edgar tried again. The short but persistent man turned to Meira, pinning her with devious excitement.
“Meira, come on! You’re the best at Gon Dau and you know you want to,” he cajoled. Her head fell back with a laugh as Edgar tried to sling an arm around her shoulders and missed, settling for leaning against the tree and into her space, “I’ll even let you invite that fiancé of yours as long as he brings your cute brother too.”
Edgar winked heartily and Meira ruffled his short blond hair, getting the rise out of him she was after. He gave her a scandalized look as he smoothed his hands across his shorn scalp before turning to Anton and beginning his wheedling of the commander as the latter tried to dodge him gracelessly through the trees.
The rest of the unit continued chatting easily but Meira was content to listen, soft smile pulled from her thoughts. Meira tugged on the chain around her neck, feeling for the locket that always rested against the top of her sternum. It had been a gift from Dorian before he’d left for his service--a promise to keep him close while she had stayed at home in Datran. By the time she had joined him for her own compulsory service two years later, the small etching had disappeared under her worrying thumbs.
It had become a habit to pull the locket out and toy with it whenever they were apart, which was more often than not in the last six months. He had advanced to Captain and had used his new rank to ensure that they had their month leave together as soon as she finished this scouting trip. Meira’s heart beat sharply in anticipation. His last letter had suggested going to the Fasillian coast and she ached to smell the salty tang of the sea breeze. The pendant scratched soothingly across the chain and her toes stretched in her boots as she imagined the sensation of warm sand beneath them instead of the damp mountain earth.
“I know that look,” Grigor said, scratching his beard around a teasing smile. Feeling her cheeks heat, Meira pushed off of the tree she was leaning against and joined the older man as they returned to their horses.
“I bet Lena still gives it to you when you go home,” Meira replied.
“She sure does,” Edgar yelled with a laugh and vulgar gesture before leaping out of range of Grigor’s less-than playful punch. Returning to Onyx, his aptly named coal-colored mare, Grigor let his face soften as he leaned towards Meira.
“I don’t know how I got her to look at me in the first place, but three kids later and somehow she is still glad when I come home.”
The rest of the unit finished adjusting their packs before taking position. They were continuing mostly on foot, Ioan leading the horses behind them as they traversed the steep terrain near the summit. Edgar, Vlad, and Grigor spread in the formation behind Anton with their rifles resting loosely in their grips. Each had a finger hovering near the trigger, the threat of a Vadek ambush present in their movements.
Meira was in the middle of the group, her own rifle held similarly, though her confidence with the weapon was significantly less. As a military medic, she was not usually sent with scouting groups, but the generals in Uzhberd had insisted after the last unit had lost four members to the fierce warrior clans that inhabited the woods they were now silently crossing. The Vadek were ruthless and had been pushing back against the Empire’s attempts to cross the mountains into the unclaimed territory east of the range.
The group continued their slow trek, muscles burning against the sharp ascent. Shadows lengthened in the gray light and Meira felt the icy fingers of anxiety caress her spine. One of the horses whinnied softly, and Ioan let out a hiss as the leather reigns bit into his hand with the harsh pull of the lead horse. Meira couldn’t help the jerk of her head at the noises behind her, the hush of the deep, snow-covered woods unnerving after the easy conversation of the past few weeks. At Anton’s questioning look, she shrugged her shoulders and they continued on.
It was a few more miles before a keening cry stopped each of them. Grigor thought it was a rabbit or a deer. Vlad was sure he had misheard something.
“It’s someone crying,” Meira stated with certainty. The group had converged, backs together as they tried to source the foreign sound.
“Who would be out here besides us,” Edgar asked.
“They may be hurt,” Meira pushed.
Anton was grim as he surveyed the trees around them, “It’s a Vadek trap. And even if it isn’t, it’s probably still a Vadek.”
Meira was torn. If someone was hurt out here, they wouldn’t survive, no matter who they were. That was the reason her military had ordered her along in the first place. But her duty was to her unit and the commander to her left. The wailing grew distinctly more desperate, pain seeping through each syllable.
“What if we just check it out,” Edgar suggested. “Not too close, but just to make sure. It sounds like it’s just over the ridge.”
Anton looked at the faces of his unit, the howling putting them all on edge.
“Fine. Ioan, tie up the horses. We’re going to spread out in pairs as we go over the ridge and see what we find.”
In a blur of practiced precision, the six split off and approached the ridge two hundred meters above them. Stealthy steps brought them to the crest, and they peered down towards the source of the noise. The pairs crept closer to the edge of a clearing, the crying sharper as they descended towards the lone figure huddled beneath a copse of trees in the center.
Meira and Vlad watched as Edgar took Anton’s signal and left his position near Grigor, sliding carefully down the shallow hill towards the small child bawling against a tree. The child was wrapped in deer brown hides and was struggling with something that Meira couldn’t see from her position. Edgar got closer and the child’s screaming stopped for a moment as he tried to talk to her.
“I think she’s caught in a bear trap,” he yelled to his team, kneeling down by the figure that made even Edgar look large.
The commander motioned them closer, and each group approached slowly. Meira was pulling gauze out of her bag when she heard a soft “oh,” from Edgar. She looked up to see his wide eyes no longer trained on the child, but instead on his stomach where red was blooming from the knife she had sunk into his core.