The woods grew dark around the party of soldiers as they traversed winding dirt paths, treading through dense thickets beneath the watchful gaze of animals camouflaged in the leaves shadows. Armored men and women on foot cast wary glances as the shadows stretched long, gaining ground as the sun disappeared from view, lanterns held by the cavalrymen creaked with each sway, joining the horses' grumbling, the clanging of metal and the insects singing. At the head of the group, a young woman rode on with her head held high and reins clutched firmly in one hand.
She paid no mind to the encroaching darkness nor the denizens of the forest, guiding the soldiers through the trails and into a clearing where the thickets gave way to a small glade. Flowers swaying in the light breeze, trampled beneath hooves and carriage wheels as the soldiers emerged from the wood, milling about in the small enclosure. Without sparing them a backward glance, she rode to the edge of the clearing and set her sights upon a village a few yards away from the sloping hilltop.
A few floating lights wandered about the rice fields but the village itself was lit by a warm amber glow, the distant sound of voices carrying into the hills. Behind her, the soldiers were exchanging their own private conversations, a soft murmuring between them and try as she might to imagine herself within the village — the smell of wildflowers and horses ruined the illusion. She dismounted with a light pat to her horse's side, holding the reins in one hand while the other rested on the pommel of her ax, her shoulders pulled back and back ramrod straight although her steely gaze softened.
Amidst the soldiers, an aging man barked orders upon horseback and watched with a hawk's eye as supplies were unloaded from the carriages. Stragglers quickly hastened to work as he passed by, some who'd been resting snapping to attention, busying themselves with setting up tents, checking the perimeter or digging firepits. He ran his fingers through his beard, surveying the encampment as one of the cavalrymen rode over and began relaying her report. Half-listening and grunting every so often with acknowledgment, he turned and noticed a lone soul standing at the clearing's edge.
"Who is that?"
The cavalrywoman followed his line of sight and said, "Rhea Dunamis, Captain Daliternos."
The cavalrywoman shrugged. "She was appointed as a guide by the magistrate," she replied coolly, casting a disinterested glance at the woman's back. "It is by her advisement that we do not light a fire, sir."
Captain Daliternos grunted out a reply, looking about the enclosure silently.
"I want a six-man patrol and every soul on their guard," he ordered, leveling the cavalrywoman with a narrow-eyed glare. "And don't a single one of you even think of sparking an ember without my say-so."
The cavalrywoman recoiled, eyes wide and lips parted as if wanting to question though her mouth snapped shut a second later with nary a word. She nodded tersely and gave a quick salute, uttering, "Understood, Captain," then riding away as Captain Daliternos dismounted and tethered his horse to the posts hammered into the ground. He marched towards the clearing's edge, cupping a hand around the side of his mouth.
Her head jerked up as she turned sharply to look over her shoulder, hand grasping the hilt of her blade. Daliternos smiled wide. It wasn't every day that he found himself threatened for a simple greeting. Although with the eerie feeling of eyes on his back and the soldiers' restless murmuring, it was hard not to feel a sense of uncertainty. Slowing his pace and raising his hands, stepping from beneath the shade of the trees and into the faint moonlight, he slowed to a halt beside Rhea.
Rhea's eyes narrowed, following Daliternos' movements until he stepped from the shadows, her hand slipping from her sword's hilt as she stood upright and pressed her fist to the left side of her chest.
"Captain Daliternos, sir."
Daliternos' eyebrows furrowed and his smile softened, waving a hand, “Now now, none of that.”
Rhea blinked owlishly, slowly lowering her hand, fingers grazing the pommel of her sword before firmly coming to rest at her side in a closed fist. Daliternos sighed. That was the best he would get for now. Turning to face the open plains, his eyes scanned the horizon as he breathed in deep. There was something different about the air outside of the castle and away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Out in the open where nature was at its freest, amidst animals and creatures alike. His lips pinched together as the feeling of eyes on him returned and from the corner of his eye, Rhea's steadfast gaze lingered.
"I wasn't aware that you were selected for this mission," he smiled faintly, tilting his head forward toward the village in the distance. “This is your hometown right?”
Rhea's lips parted then shut as she stole a glance in the same direction, then nodded. “Yes sir.”
Daliternos hummed softly, clasping his wrist behind his back. “What a lively place,” he said, arching a brow with a wry grin. "Doesn't need us soldiers hanging around, huh?"
Rhea’s jaw tightened and Daliternos worried that if she stared any harder at the horizon, she would bore a hole in it that would swallow the sun. A beat of silence passed between them and even the forest seemed to hold its breath.
“Mm, looks like there’s going to be a party of some kind soon?” Daliternos offered weakly, looking between Rhea and the village with earnest, clearing his throat. “Bet you’re itching to get back to that special boy?”
At that, Rhea’s shoulders hiked and her eyes went wide, head snapping to the side as she regarded him with a scrunched face. “Sir?”
“Or girl,” Daliternos said, raising a hand with a soft chuckle. “Doesn’t matter to me either way to be fair.”
Rhea blinked at him owlishly and though he could barely make out the change, the faintest curve to her lips brought him unbridled joy. Her gaze lingered on the village and Daliternos watched her quietly as the smile grew minutely as if she was having a pleasant dream. Looking away, he trained his sights on the horizon as he hummed thoughtfully, “So it is a girl then.”
Rhea made a noise crossed between a strangled cry and a cough, Daliternos’s shoulders shaking as he laughed.
“No need to be shy, we all have someone we want to fight for,” he said softly, casting a look over his shoulder at the soldiers milling about the encampment. “We’ll be out searching for a few days but you’ll be no good to us if your mind is elsewhere.”
He caught the tenseness in Rhea’s shoulders, the way her eyes widened then narrowed, leveling to meet his own with a fierceness that almost made him regret his words. She squared her shoulders, back ruler-straight and the reigns clutched in her fist had his condolences.
“Sir, I’ve been appointed as a guide for this party,” she said, a thread of steel in her voice. “I cannot and will not abandon my post— “
Daliternos clicked his tongue and lowered his head, glancing at her from the corner of his eye, his hands returning to behind his back and clasped at the wrist. “You’ll be undergoing your pilgrimage soon, right? Which means you won’t be back here for awhile.”
As if to punctuate the phrase, a gust of wind picked up and swept through her hair though her face remained unchanged despite his words. He almost wanted to commend her for her bravery, for her service, but the lights dancing in the distance were inviting even to him. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to someone who actually lived amongst them. Nonetheless, Rhea remained unmoved and he sighed, turning to face her and droppng his hands at his sides.
“Now, I don’t know who this little lady is but you’re not a soldier just yet, Dunamis,” he said, tone firm but words soft. Rhea’s lips curved downward and he pressed on, ignoring the pang of guilt as her shoulders fell. “You signed on for this mission but if you wanted to skip out, well, a tongue-lashing for not speaking to a superior would be the most of your troubles.”
Her face softened and the faint glow of moonlight cast shadows across her features, haunting and reverent, her eyes reminded him of a child. Wanting but unwilling to take. He huffed, trying not to smile.
“Sir…” she muttered, voice pitching as she spoke up, her words strained. “I mean no disrespect but our orders were not to disturb the locals. As generous as the offer may be, the mission— “
Rhea snapped to attention at his tone, Daliternos’s eyes narrowed as he looked down at her, all hints of teasing and good-willed questions gone from his voice. Many of the soldiers nearby looked on, stopping what they were doing all at once, gaze transfixed on the pair. Rhea tilted her head back to meet his eye and Daliternos’s features softened.
“This is an order,” he said. “Go have fun.”
Surprise colored her features and he chuckled, the soldiers nearby returning to their tasks with shakes of the head and murmured words that were lost on the pair who looked on at one another.
“While you’re out there, you’re a local, so you won’t be bothered,” he teased, folding his arms across his chest, smile wide and a mite friendly. “But you’re to return in three days time, got it?”
Rhea stared at him with wide eyes and for a moment, Daliternos worried that she missed his meaning. Then without a word, she turned and hoisted onto her horse’s saddle, holding the reins tightly with her eyes set on the horizon. Daliternos’s heart warmed as the smile that’d set itself so faintly on her lips returned in full force and it seemed as if all life had been breathed into her.
“Are you still here, Dunamis?”
“Forgive me,” Rhea continued and Daliternos was only half-sure that he’d seen her roll her eyes. “But it would be wise not to light a fire.”
Daliternos quirked a brow, looking about their surroundings, “How so?”
“The Wood does not take well to disturbances, Captain,” Rhea sighed wistfully, tilting her head to regard from the corner of her eye. “She does not approve of those take from her without her permission.”
A shiver ran down Daliternos’s spine but he willed himself to stay upright and to look her square in the eyes. Yet he couldn’t deny the creeping feeling of eyes that were watching him. Complaints from soldiers as they’d been marching, whispered words and hushed fears as they glanced into the darkness. Though all men were accounted for, there was still fear amongst their ranks.
Rhea nodded and looked over her shoulder, Daliternos following her gaze to the faint outlines of the soldiers.
“They will want to take firewood, and if they even swing a blade at the tree’s bark, she will take it as a slight and kill us all.”
He stroked his beard and grumbled softly. A fire would have been the trick to lighten their spirits. Give them hope amidst the darkness, a way to avert their attention, and yet he couldn’t help but feel foolish that it would likely lead his men to their untimely end.
“You didn’t strike me as superstitious, Dunamis.”
“Not superstitious, sir,” Rhea corrected gently yet firmly, grimness in her tone stealing away Daliternos’s smile and the snideness in his words. “Experienced.”
Daliternos huffed, shaking his head. “I will take it into advisement, thank you Dunamis, now be on your way.”
She turned towards him and nodded, thanks lost on the wind as her horse burst off into a gallop speeding down the hillside and towards the village oft in the distance as if in a race against the wind towards home. Daliternos threw his head back, shoulders shaking as he laughed, his voice echoing off the trees and the silence of the encampment with the soldiers looking on as if their commanding officer had gone mad. He wiped a tear from beneath his eye, watching as Rhea became nothing more than a shadow on the horizon.
“Kid is just like her mother,” he mumbled, eyes half-closed as he glanced up to the heavens as if they would deign to him with a reply. “Gonna try to look after her, Reya. But she doesn’t make it easy. Neither did you… or them.”
Heavy footfalls preluded the arrival of another man dressed smartly in armor, his cape billowing on a crisp gust of wind that whistled through the tree tops and caused the horses to stir, fighting against their reins tied to the posts staked into the ground. A hushed silence fell over the camp and for the first time since Rhea had vanished down the hill-top, Daliternos turned to look over his shoulder towards the tree line past their camp. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and his breaths were harsher, chest heaving as he tried to take in as much air as possible before exhaling through his nose. At his side, the soldier who stared off into the distance with narrowed eyes, glanced up at him.
“Captain Daliternos, where is Dunamis going?”
Daliternos closed his eyes, tilting his head back. “To perform reconnaissance,” he said after a brief pause. “Our objective is out here in these woods, but who knows if the locals are hiding it or not.”
If there was any doubt in him before then it was gone now, resolutely turning his back on the village and gazing into the darkness cast by the dense trees.
“Dunamis is one of them, the quicker she can find some trace of it, the quicker we can get out of here.”
The soldier nodded and turned his back on the village as well, though he glanced over his shoulder before facing Daliternos. “Very well,” his attention snapped to the ambling soldiers and his voice raised, echoing off the trees. “You heard him! Start making camp, keep the fires burning low, we don’t want to attract any unnecessary attention.”
"No fires," Daliternos interjected, and the soldier made a soft noise of confusion, looking up at him with wide eyes.
Daliternos shook his head, the soldiers who’d been walking about had stopped and looked to him confusedly. "No fires, close quarters but do not spark even a pebble."
The soldier frowned, at odds with himself for rebuking his captain’s commands, his voice soft as he spoke up. "The night grows cold, sir."
"As do corpses, Lieutenant," Daliternos looked his way. “If you do not wish to be one of them, you’ll heed my words.”
Turning back towards the village, Daliternos clasped his hands behind his back and the stiff wind that greeted him made his heart sink to the pit of his stomach. The crawling prickling at the back of his neck felt naught of the cold but of a warning.
"We are not alone in these woods."