Dry leaves crunched beneath the soldiers’ feet as they patrolled along the edge of the wood. Their faces were turned toward the trees, their eyes scanning through the bare branches for any sign of movement or threat. The Khadorans carried wide-mouthed blunderbusses at their waists, occasionally pointing them into the woods when they thought they saw something amiss. They were good soldiers, silent and disciplined, young in their features but weary in their eyes.
A voice spoke from behind Aleph, the sound like logs hissing in a dying fire, “My men are ready when you are.”
“Hold,” Aleph answered in a whisper, “Wait for the carriage.”
Aleph didn’t have to turn to picture the displeasure in her companion’s face. Zayin was a fine ranger, but he was also a strider, and so now, as always, he was on the hunt. Zayin did not care what mission they were on or how it might favor his master’s plans, he cared only for the number of bodies he would fell that day and the feathers he might add to his cloak. Striders carried one feather for each kill they made. Zayin’s feathers already swept the ground as he walked.
She heard Zayin move away from her, his careful footsteps only the lightest rustle amongst the fragile leaves. Zayin was disciplined as well as any Nyss, Aleph knew he would keep his men’s bloodlust in check…until the time was right.
The Khadoran squad moved on, completing their circuit around the field and then returning to a cluster of buildings squatting along the rutted route of a dirt and gravel road. Beyond fields of withered brown grass stood a barn, a farm house, and a small chapel with a broken steeple. The chapel had once served as a Shrine to Morrow, but from the peeling paint and sagging roof it was apparent that it had been many years since it had seen any worshippers.
Aleph had discovered through weeks of careful investigation that the chapel was now used for a much different purpose—a discrete meeting place between the Khadoran military and what remained of the Llaelese government. She had found that there were some in western Llael that would not mind if the Khadorans returned. For some it seemed that an iron hand was necessary to keep the fraying knot of Llael together. She pitied them for their weakness.
Aleph whistled into the cold air, making the call of a nesting dove. She then moved up to the edge of the woods, confident that Zayin and his men would have heard the call and followed in kind. Aleph came to a large, broken tree at the very edge of the field and used a quick kick of her double-bent legs to launch her up onto its sagging trunk. The claws at her toes sunk into the dry wood as she found a perch. Her shadow-gray cloak split to reveal her mercurial bow and to allow a slender hand to pull a blue-feathered arrow from amidst her satin black hair.
The regional Llaelese governor, a tall, thin, gray-haired woman, had been waiting nearly an hour at this point. She stood on the steps of the chapel, looking anxiously down the empty road. Her guards, two older men wearing battered armor and shouldering rusting muskets, sat on the steps on either side of her. One smoked a pipe while the other tinkered with the mechanism of an old pistol. Aleph’s golden, hawk-like eyes could make out every worn line on their faces, every etched scar of tragedy and loss. Were these three patriots forced into a last way of serving their people, or were they traitors for inviting a second Khadoran occupation?
Aleph frowned at the thought. Either way, they’d be dead soon.
It was another half hour before there was movement on the road. By this time the Khadoran infantry had finished their sweep of the surrounding woods and had moved back to the buildings. For a while they seemed at ease, Aleph could hear the men talking and laughing among one another. But military discipline returned when the armored Khadoran carriage rolled into view, flanked on either side by crimson soldiers in clanking, steam-powered suits.
There was a hint of movement beneath Aleph, and she knew without looking that Zayin had returned for orders. She said quickly, “Have your men target the infantry, leave the shocktroopers. They are to wait for my arrow, then kill as many as they can. When the shocktroopers come, and they will come, your men are to fall back through the woods and disappear. We will regroup in the yew grove at twilight. Tell them arrows only…no one is to be seen.”
“Yes mistress,” Zayin answered, then skulked away.
The carriage took an interminably long time to make its way to the chapel steps. As it rolled closer, the officer among the Khadoran guard rallied his troops into two straight lines with their axes held in a ceremonial pose across their chests. The men with the Llaelese governor stood as well, though their version of attention was less rigid and more resentful.
As the carriage drew closer the clatter of the men-o-war drowned out the rhythmic steps of the carriage’s steeds. These crimson war suits belched puffs of white steam with every heavy footfall. Mud splattered up to tarnish their blood-red shields and sucked like tar at their piston-like feet. Massive axes, twice the length of a man and the weight of a dozen, swung like thresher blades at their sides.
For all of their clatter and menace, Aleph was glad to see the shocktroopers. The men of Khador had always put too much faith in steel and steam. Let them think they are safe, Aleph thought to herself. Let them see what good their metal coffins do them against the raptors of the north.
The carriage master reined the horses to a stop. A thick metal door on the side fell open into the mud, splattering thick globs of dirt toward the Llaelese governess. Aleph raised her bow and nocked an arrow. She pulled back on the bowstring and felt the lethal tension build in her arms.
The Khadoran field marshal was a thick, burly man with a bristling coal-black beard. As he stepped down from the carriage he spread his arms warmly, as if welcoming an old friend. Aleph took careful aim and said a word of blessing over the arrow. Her fingers opened, and the arrow leapt away into the distance.
There was a sharp ‘THOCK’ as the arrow hit the Khadoran square in the temple.
There was shocked silence for a moment as the man crumpled with a heavy thud. Then came screams and urgent shouts as more Nyss arrows began to find their marks. Men in the line of soldiers began falling in ones and twos, each with an arrow jutting up from their chests. The Llalese governor rushed forward to the fallen marshal, kneeling into the mud and reaching down to his lifeless form. When she saw the arrow standing up from the wound she had the presence of mind to look back toward where it would have come.
Aleph put her second arrow between the woman’s eyes.
The Khadorans began rushing for cover, a few firing their blunderbusses ineffectually toward the trees as they ran. Aleph heard the heavy shot cutting through the branches above her, but did not shrink from it. She knew the weapons were far too inaccurate to hit at this range. Instead she nocked a third arrow and sighted down it to a man barking orders to several others. He had taken cover at the side of the chapel, but had not pulled back far enough to evade her line of fire. She punished his mistake with an arrow to the chest.
The metal-clad shocktroopers formed a line together, pushing their shields forward and out so that only their helmets and boots were visible. They then started marching forward, thick puffs of steam rising from the stacks on their backs. Despite Aleph’s orders to the contrary, she saw a few Nyss arrows plink uselessly off their armored faces. They walked into the falling arrows, like men shouldering forward into a heavy rain.
A bellowing horn sounded from somewhere on Aleph’s right as a signal for the striders to fall back. The hail of arrows stopped for a moment, allowing the surviving infantry to rally and fall in behind the advancing shocktroopers. Aleph took a few seconds to count the dead, then raised a final arrow to target a shocktrooper wearing rank chevrons on his shoulders. She studied him for a moment, then let fly. The arrow hit the trooper in the neck joint just above his shield—not deep enough to kill, but enough to hurt.
Aleph smiled to herself, Something to remember me by.
Aleph jumped down from her perch and ran back through the woods. Her bird like legs carried her through the underbrush with uncanny speed even as she heard the shocktroopers open up with their shield cannons into the trees behind her. A minute more of running and she was out of their sight entirely. Aleph considered finding a new perch to set a second ambush, but quickly thought better of it. The light was fading and Zayin and his men would be waiting for her.
She slowed to a walk, careful to minimize the signs of her passing. The din of gunfire and explosions slowly faded behind her, leaving only the sounds of birds above and cold blood pumping in her chest.
- * *
An hour later the striders had gathered in the yew grove as planned. A few of the men were already sewing new feathers into their cloaks. The striders smiled vicious smiles as Aleph came among them.
Zayin nodded to Aleph from a slouch against the trunk of a tree. He said appreciatively, “You shoot well.”
“As do your men,” Aleph replied.
“What now?” he asked, “Circle around and finish off the stragglers?”
“No,” Aleph answered confidently, “We need someone left to tell the story. The assassination of the marshal will sow panic and chaos, even more so for how he died. The Khadorans certainly can’t afford to devote any more resources…they will pull back across the border and regroup. Without their threat from the west, all of Llael will be vulnerable.”
Aleph swept her gaze around the clearing to find each of the other striders, “No…today’s hunt is over. Now we return to Mistress Lylyth. She’ll have another mission for us.”
Zayin stood straight, “Very well. As long as you can find more men for us to kill.”
Aleph found a predator’s smile, “We’ve just started a war Zayin. They’ll be plenty more to kill before it’s over.”