Twilight descended on the abandoned town and shadows stretched long over the grass. Glowing embers pocked the evening darkness, creating an eerie map of the buildings that had been burnt to the ground by the invading marauders.
“At least we have somewhere to sleep tonight,” Marcus said. He gestured toward one of the intact buildings.
“Are you serious?” Polly screeched. “I wouldn’t sleep in the house of a dead person if you paid me.”
“We don’t know that they’re dead,” Marcus protested. “We haven’t found a single body to suggest they are.”
“As much as I hate ta admit it,” Garrett said, “the lad has a point. We’ll be safer if we’ve got solid walls between us and whatever’s out there.”
“I’m with Polly.” Danil shuddered. “Give me an open sky and plenty of room to run away any day.”
“Of course ye’d run, ye pansy,” Garrett retorted. “But I’m not freezin’ me arse off just cuz yer a wee scaredy-boy.”
“Freeze?” Danil scoffed. “You spent last night complaining it was so humid that your ball sweat kept dripping down your ass crack and making it itch.”
Polly slapped him. “Thanks, Danil. I spent all day trying to get that image out of my head. Now it’s stuck there forever.”
“I can jump in there and take care of that for you if you want,” Danil said with a wink.
“Not a chance.” Polly slapped him again, this time hard enough to make him wince. “After what you did last time you were in there you’re banned for life, Mister.”
Julianne arched an eyebrow. “And what exactly was that?”
Danil coughed, Polly blushed, and both shuffled their feet. Neither answered her question.
“Look, whatever kinky mind-sex play you two are up to in your spare time, that’s your business.” Marcus winked at Danil. “Until later tonight, anyway—then I want all the details. But right now I feel like I’ve been dragged ass-backward through a meat grinder, so I’d really like to settle in and get some sleep for the night. Can we just decide where we’re going to be sleeping, and be done with it?”
Julianne just watched as the fight erupted. Polly and Garrett argued and Danil backed Polly up, which only seemed to make the rearick more stubborn. Marcus occasionally threw in a point in Garrett’s favor but seemed half-hearted about it.
“We’ll sleep outside,” Julianne decided, using a touch of magic to make sure they listened to her. “Danil, Polly, would you please set up camp on the outskirts of town? I’d like to have a look around before we settle in.”
Julianne waited until the young couple had disappeared before gesturing to Marcus and Garrett. They followed her over to one of the smoldering buildings.
“What exactly do you think went down here?” she asked. “It doesn’t make sense. How would you coax an entire group of remnant into one building?”
Marcus shrugged. “Maybe they set a trap of some kind. If the remnant thought there was an easy mark in there they’d be on it like flies on a turd.”
“If the people ‘ere were expectin’ an attack they might have fled ta safety.” Garrett scratched his whiskers as he thought. “Not a bad plan, really. Get the old an’ the weak to safety, lure the bastards inside, an’ trap ‘em in there.”
Julianne nodded. “Maybe these smaller settlements aren’t as helpless as we thought they would be.”
“When you’re on your own you learn to survive.” Marcus brushed her arm gently. “And I’m sure they did survive this. There’s nothing to tell us otherwise.”
Hot timbers cracked and popped in the cooling air and Julianne shivered. Indecision tugged at her . If they had abandoned Tahn to come on this wild goose-chase for no reason she would never forgive herself. Of course, if they saved just one life it would all be worth it.
Garrett let out an irritable grunt and stomped away. Marcus edged closer to Julianne and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
“We’re doing the right thing out here,” he murmured in her ear. “These people may have gotten away, but we don’t know who else is out there waiting for help.”
“I know,” Julianne said with a sigh. “I just hate not knowing what’s going on.”
They wandered toward the campsite. Polly had already erected the tents and Danil blew on a small pile of sticks that was just beginning to smoke.
“What’s for dinner?” Julianne asked. She stole a glance at Garrett, willing to use a compulsion spell on him if he insisted on cooking again.
“I err… I have ta be…” Garrett’s face turned beet-red and he scowled. “I’m busy, all right? Some other ugly bastard’ll just have ta cook dinner.” He stomped back into the town.
Danil laughed. “Thank the Bitch for that.”
“I suppose I should slap you for that.” Polly giggled. “But I’m as relieved as you are. Now, you two toddle off and do whatever it is you do while Danil and I make up for that awful breakfast.”
“Just keep an eye out,” Marcus told her. “We don’t know what’s lurking around out there.”
Polly rolled her eyes. “We know, soldier boy. I swear you’ve reminded us of that every five minutes since we left.”
Marcus gave a wolfish grin. “Then you‘ll expect me to remind you every five minutes for the rest of the trip too.”
“I’m sure they’ll be careful, Marcus,” Julianne said. “Why don’t we go find something to eat? If we don’t replenish our stores we won’t last the week.”
“Wait a minute,” Polly begged. “You’re not going to look for food in there, are you?” She pointed toward the empty buildings.
Julianne shook her head. “No. There’s a small chance the people who lived here will return. I don’t want to take anything that belongs to them. They’ve lost enough.”
“Try to catch something bigger than a rabbit this time.” Danil ducked away from Marcus’s glare.
“If you’re going to complain about what we bring back, next time you can go hunting instead,” Marcus growled at him.
“Let’s go,” Julianne said, “before you two find anything else to argue about.”
Julianne unstrapped her staff from her horse and slung it over her back, then pulled a pair of shiny daggers out of her pack. Marcus raised an eyebrow.
“I haven’t seen those before,” he said.
Julianne shrugged. “Bette had them made for me. She said that as much as I enjoy beating things over the head with my stick, I at least need something sharp to cut my meat with.”
Marcus snorted. “And I suppose it had nothing to do with the mess you make when you beat things over the head.”
“You really think disemboweling with a sharp blade is going to be any neater?” she asked.
Marcus chuckled and walked into the dense forest surrounding the little town. Despite the late hour, a full moon hung low in the night sky. Shafts of moonlight speared the canopy, allowing them to see.
“You do remember where you set the trap, don’t you?” Julianne asked quietly.
Marcus shot her a dirty look. “Of course, I do. Mostly. I mean…I know the general direction.”
Julianne was glad he couldn’t see her roll her eyes. He and Garrett had set the trap before they’d reached the small town. They had hoped an offering of fresh meat would make the townsfolk more welcoming. When the two men had come back they were arguing loudly over the best way to prepare salmon. The discussion had nearly turned into a good-natured brawl. Polly had immediately laid a wager on them not being able to find the trap again.
Danil was the only one to take that bet, and this time he might have lost his money. It seemed that in the excitement of finding the town deserted and in ruins, Marcus really had forgotten where he’d laid the trap.
“I’m sure it was just around here,” Marcus muttered. He squatted.
Behind him, Julianne slipped into a trance and embraced her magic, filling up to the world around her. In this state she had a tangible connection every leaf, every stick, and every grain of dirt. The sharp metallic scent of blood reached her nose and her eyes immediately cleared.
“Marcus,” she said in a low voice. You did leave your trap here, she sent to him, but something took your prize.
Marcus froze, then silently stood up and drew his short sword.
Didn’t you bring your rifle? Julianne sent.
Marcus grimaced. It’s back with the horses. I didn’t think I’d need a rifle to catch a rabbit.
I think we’re about to catch more than a rabbit, Julianne sent.