Varlaine kept his head bowed as they passed the spired heads, wanting nothing more than to be away from them. As they grew closer, a stench sent a shudder through him, the smell something he’d read about in books but never had the displeasure of experiencing: rotten meat.
“That one isn’t… human.” Eryn acknowledged, gesturing with her thumb to one of the pikes. Her voice had softened considerably, and Varlaine wondered if she was taking the situation more seriously now. It was strange to him, at least, that he was more unsettled now than he was when he’d seen those highwaymen die.
“Alra. Looks like some kind of deer.” Naz responded. She did not point out that Eryn was not obeying the direction the mercenary had issued. Briefly, Varlaine flicked a look as well; when he saw the carrion birds perched on the sun-bleached antlers, pecking away at the mostly white skull, he tore his gaze away. Not all of what they were getting their beaks into was bone. The thought disgusted him.
“I thought there were not very many Alra around. I have never… met one.” ‘Laine deliberated over his wording for a moment. Naz snorted behind him as the horse carried them forward according to her pulls; just off the main road, there looked to be an empty encampment, a few scattered tents and firepits, and behind them was a wooden shack.
“You wouldn’t. Your king was not fond of them.” She answered. Their presence didn’t seem to be drawing any attention, but she placed the reins in his hands anyways, to put a hand on the pommel of the blade she bore at her hip. “There are many, though, especially far to the west. I’ve never been, but I hear they are setting up a country of their own. City-states. Not unlike Lor’tsun.”
The prince let that all process a moment. His platinum brows creased in disdain for a moment; what had she meant with her comment about his father? Lor’tsun, the nation to the north of his home, was well-known for its unstable governance, with Lords and Ladies claiming dominions and brushing shoulders with one another in boundary skirmishes. If Alra were setting up a nation, why hadn’t he heard much about it in the castle?
Another awkward silence fell on the group. It took ‘Laine a moment to realize the expectation was on him to further the conversation, and when he did, he smiled awkwardly. “Is that where you’re from? Lor’tsun?”
Naz watched the area around them for a while as she guided with a hand towards the rickety base they were coming up on, before nodding her head slowly—yes. Then she was putting a hand on his back, which gave him a jump. “Stop. Both of you.” When that made Eryn cast her a frustrated glance, she frowned right back. “Traps on the ground.”
Varlaine’s eyes widened and he pulled on the reins, issuing a ‘whoah’ command. His horse, tired from the journey and dusty, in dire need of a brushing, slowed to a halt, while Cassius also followed Eryn’s direction and stood still. With a kick, Naz was no longer at his back, and instead had metal boots on solid ground. She drew her sword, and carefully, carefully poked it into the underbrush.
The grinding sound of metal was pain in the young prince’s ears as a serrated, awful metal trap sprang closed around the tip of the blade. It was made of some dark iron, easy to miss in the longer and untamed grass of the wild, which left his chest tight; if his horse had stepped on that by mistake, it wouldn’t be carrying anyone anywhere.
“Keep your eyes open. Follow me.” Naz’ looks were trained on the ground, following the lines of grass with her eyes as she moved. Slow, sweeping scans of the grass, then another hand up and another jab of her borrowed sword. Snap. Another trap triggered, and she waved for them to follow.
* * *
When they made it to the doorway of the cramped building, it was after a thorough clearing of all the traps. Eryn had broken a handful of them with her axe, while Naz tripped the overwhelming majority, finding and activating them with practiced efficiency. She was fast enough that she didn’t need to spend as long looking as the others. It was almost like she already knew where some were, which ‘Laine was positive filled Eryn with distrust.
Once they were at the door, Naz took point. ‘Laine stood behind her, and Eryn behind him, all preparing to enter the somewhat sizeable single-room building in their own way. Eventually, Naz flung it open and brandished her weapon, preparing to strike at the first thing she saw, while Varlaine found himself hiding behind her and looking to Eryn, who was still watching their rear.
When the door swung wide, it showed off the room behind. It was unoccupied, and did not appear to be much of a home. In the corner, a cot with fur blankets bundled at the foot rest inconspicuously. Against one wall was a line of wooden barrels; some were cracked open and ‘Laine could see food and drink within.
Opposite that, on the other wall, stood a small armory of gear. Swords, shields, plate and chainmail of varying sizes, axes and spears, a small collection of hunting bows. At the foot of that was a collection of bags that spilled across the floor, against the wall and out into the center, wrapping to the ends of the wall and bleeding out into the others. He could see treasures in the lumped bags, small chests, glinting jewelry that shined in the little light cast by the opened door.
“Thank the gods,” A short exhale of relief from Naz. She looked something between excited and concerned, and deliberated a moment longer to check for any hidden enemies; finding none, the mercenary abandoned ‘Laine and Eryn at the door to move to the assortment of weapons and armor on the floor. She rummaged through them briefly, while ‘Laine exchanged a look of confusion with Eryn, before finding one large leather bag in particular that she pulled from the lot and opened. Callous fingers undid laces quickly, and when she was done, she pulled free a pristine but worn leather sheath with an embossed grip, and in it was a glittering silver sword befitting someone of renown. Varlaine did not know much about weaponry, but he could tell that it was valuable, even without the weary glimmer of adoration in Naz’s eyes. It was like she was in a different world, a faraway place, but that relief faded quickly and she gestured for them to come inside with a swish of her hand.
“Leave the door open.” She instructed. ‘Laine obliged, moving in and shuffling to stand near the older woman, while she pulled a pair of silver gauntlets from the bag and set them aside. Eryn stuck to his side, one hand gripping his shoulder to keep him close.