Waiting in the Bear Empire

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“Shhh,” he murmured, and sat down next to her.  He moved his hands for a moment in military sign she didn’t recognize, and then, with a frustrated expression, drew in the dust on the ground.

She could read Deklegi script just fine: one man, hunter or farmer.

Not a threat – but right now they wanted nobody to know they had been there, much less to be able to give a reasonable description of their appearance.  She nodded and lay flat on the ground, concentrating on being as quiet as she could be. Next to her, Carrone did the same.

In the silence, she could hear the occasional twig snap as the man below them moved along.  He had the quiet step of someone used to the terrain, but she had the ears of someone who was being hunted and had been many times before.  From Carrone’s expression, his ears were nearly as good.

The man was tracking something – she hadn’t left tracks, had she?  It was too late to fix that, if she had. If he came up here…

Well, she had options, but none of them were particularly good, either for her or for the man.  And she had not told Carrone not to kill people, and he might take things into his own hands before she made a decision one way or the other.

He turned towards the stand.  She tensed, reaching for a weapon.  Next to her, Carrone was a statue. Where was the man going?  What was he doing?

The farmer turned away.  She let herself breathe again. He moved out into the forest, moving in circles that seemed to have their tree as part of the route.

She lay pressed against the floor, pressed against Carrone, her hand on a knife and her breath as shallow as possible, for what seemed like an eternity.  She could feel every place that a bone touched the wood, every joint and every ache from the days of surreptitious travel and occasional battles. She wanted to shift, but the floor was too creaky; a shift might betray their hiding place.  She wanted to sneeze, but buried her face in Carrone’s shoulder to muffle it. She wanted to sleep, but then she would have no control over what her body did.

Eventually, the farmer left their area.  They waited longer and longer still, until they were both sure that the man was not coming back.

She looked at Carrone.  He looked back at her. She nodded, still silent.

Without a word, making as little noise as they could, they packed up and climbed down from the tree-stand.  From the look of the sun, barely an hour had passed. From the feeling in her joints, it seemed like several days.

They walked quickly through the forest, both of them making sure they were leaving no backtrail.  They moved along a dried-up creek when it presented itself, the rocks unstable under their feet but quieter than dead leaves.  And for what the sun in the sky said was another hour, neither of them spoke.

“Bet you never thought you’d be sneaking through your own country,” Carrone jibed, his voice sounding rough against the silence.

Deline snorted.  “Not the first time.  Probably won’t be the last.  Maybe this time we can find a camping spot that isn’t complicated by other people.”

“Now you sound like a bounty hunter.”  He stopped where the dead creek met up with a living one and stretched.  “Do you want wet boots or a visible trail?”

“Do your friends the bounty hunters use dogs or sniffers?”

He shook his head.  “Too obvious. That’s for short-run hunts in the nation setting up the bounty.  In the Empire, we want to be low-key. Let’s skip the wet boots.”

“I might have a trick or three up my sleeve, too,” she admitted.  He’d figure it out sooner or later, anyway.

“Yeah?  Are we talking like, knowing the land sort of tricks, or the sort that explains how you almost managed to lose me?”

“Neither.” She smiled mysteriously at him.  “Because those were the same thing.” She reached into an inner pocket in her pack and pulled out a small pouch of powder.  She pulled out two pinches and whispered a series of words over the powder before sprinkling it on their feet. “This sort of thing is illegal in Dekleg and in Halor it can get you hanged and then burned – if you’re lucky, it’s in that order.  But in the Empire, it’s neither of those things, and it’s kinda handy.”

He was frozen to the spot, staring at his feet. “Is that sorcery?”

“It’s magery, technically.

“You did sorcery on me?  You used deadly arts on me?”

She coughed.  “You’re wearing a Bear-stone bracelet.”

“But those are made of magic.  They aren’t doing sorcery.”  He sounded almost plaintive.

“It’s going to do us no good to hide our tracks-” from everyone but a really astute magery-sniffer, but that was beside the point “-if we stand here arguing.”  She took his hand with hers. “Walk. We’re taking the path, all right? Just walk forward.”

“But you did sorcery on me.  On me!”

“Magery.”

He was walking anyway, although she wasn’t sure he realized it.  Still, she repeated herself. “Walk forward. All I did is make your boots unlikely to leave a trail, and make the trails that come out a little more confusing for anyone that seeks to follow.  I didn’t change your feet.  I just changed the trail.”

“This is why Halor hates the Empire,” he muttered.

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