The path was long disused, and it showed in the sounds of their passage: the dry crunch and soft rustling of a thick layer of leaves, the occasional soft clop of hooves on unpacked dirt. It looked it, too. Heavy leaf cover, fallen branches, thick foliage crowding in the path and over it, young shoots fighting with fallen leaves to make a life on the trial. The world was soft, quiet. Spring was around them, but here it seemed subdued. They were in a silence shaped by gentle noises.
The silence was disturbed by a loud rustling crunch and a snap, as Carmel’s hoof came down hard on a old, thick branch that had been concealed by leaves. The horse snorted and shook his vain head, making his blond mane fly.
Ahead, two blue jays took off, squawking in distress. Rushkanas jingled his bells, the chimes underscoring the screaming jays. A squirrel scampered down a long branch and stopped above them. It started to screech accusingly.
Rushkanas snapped at his bit and whistled sharply. The squirrel fled.
Dahmed snorted and shook his head, unconsciously mimicking Carmel. “Temper, Rushkanas. Temper.”
Rushkanas jingled his bells again, as if in response.
Maledia pushed her smile down.
“I’m just trying to help you out, lad.” Dahmed explained, all wide eyed innocence.
Rushkanas kept walking, slow gait swinging side to side. Carmel gave a low wicker.
“See lad?” Dahmed said, as if Carmel had said something in support of him. “We’re all thinking it.”
Maledia pushed harder, but the smile squeezed out around the edges of her mouth.
Dahmed gave her a bright grin, his square face turning round at the cheeks. He looked like a little boy who had, after hours of careful negotiation, been given a sweet. Maledia’s smile grew at the image, despite her determination to be sober.
Dahmed shifted, dark brown saddle and leathers complementing Carmel’s light roan. His mail clinked softly. The sun broke through the foliage momentarily, and as they rode through the pool of light his great sword, strapped to the side of the saddle, seemed to glow.
Maledia didn’t sigh, but her smile faded. The sword was a reminder of who her companion was, more even then the light armor, the fine horse. She’d had time to resign herself to it. Dahmed himself wasn’t that bad. She knew he was avoiding wearing his jacket so she wouldn’t be reminded of his rank. It was the invisible army behind him that bothered her. The looming military hierarchy and its cold-eyed reason. And its blackmail.
She looked up and away, into the flourishing green that surrounded them. Maledia had lived a long time in the deep woods, and by experience she could pick out the shapes of plants and call them by name. Not all of them though. Tireless pursuit through field guides, catalogs and the journals of naturalists and woodsmen hadn’t yet filled every gap. She caught sight of a plant she’d never seen before, a dark green vine with sharp leaves. She took a moment to pursue it, mind flicking along a new path. Some relative of the blackberry?
Maledia slid her right hand off of Rushkanas’ reins and down, where it would be hidden by his body. She walked her fingers across the Warp, found the strings she was looking for. They buzzed at her touch. She stiffened her fingers, pulled them up gently and twisted. Her sight strengthened. Colors crystallized. Dim forms became sharp. Each leaf on the path was a distinct shape, knocked edges distinct enough to count. From the saddle, passing as they were, she could see the long guard hairs that lined the steams and the tiny buds only beginning to bulge.
He was speaking. The words were distracting, fluttering around her head like unwanted flies. Maledia closed her eyes to listen.
“—are you looking at?” He was curious, as always, but something else as well. There was motive behind it.
Maledia pointed, letting her eyes drift back open. “The trailers of that bush. I think perhaps it’s a kind of blackberry.” It was, no doubt about that. The pattern of branching on the vines was even the same. She dropped the strings and shook her hand out, still hidden. Her eyesight dimmed. Her hearing faded. The world blurred. She looked over at him.
He was leaning out, trying to catch sight of what she was talking about. “Which one now?”
“The vining bush with the three long leaves and the red petiole. It’s hard to spot.”
He shrugged and grinned. He was constantly asking about the landscape they were passing through, memorizing plants names and grasping uses and habitats like he was born doing it. “I’m going to take your word for this one. Your eyesight is better then mine!”
Maledia smiled politely. Despite herself, she could feel her discomfort easing.
Then his smile was gone, replaced by a frown and a furrow of concentration. He held up a hand. Out of habit, presumably, since there were no troops to command. Carmel halted as Dahmed kneed him. Maledia reined Rushkanas’ in gently. He stopped a few steps ahead.
Dahmed had closed his eyes, still frowning. After a moment he spoke, Carmel’s ears flicking back at his quiet words.
Maledia took a deep breath and let it out in silence, tightening her lips. The captain’s reliance on his instincts drove her wild. He was always right and he could never explain it. His long combat experience probably made him more perceptive then he realized. She concentrated on not grinding her teeth for a moment.
Ahead of them, the trail curved. The right side of the trail was shadowed. Sunlight broke through the canopy on the left in a long strip. Something rustled. Two bear cubs, large for early spring, fur deep brown, trundled out of the growth and shadow and into the sunlight path.
Dahmed breathed out, very carefully.
Maledia heard something shuffling behind them. She looked slowly over her shoulder, in time with the captain.
“Well alright then.” He said, voice weak.
Maledia looked into deep, dark brown eyes. The bear gave a low growl.
“We need to get off the path.” Maledia said, calmly and softly, but at her normal volume. “This is broken ground. If she feels the need she can run the horses down.” She titched brightly to Rushkanas and pulled his reins to the side. He started turning, moving forward.
“Yes ma’am.” Dahmed said, response as sharp as it would have been for a superior. He turned Carmel. Carmel’s ears were flat, his nostrils flaring and his eyes wide.
“You need to calm Carmel down.” She said, her tone still soft and calm, keeping her eyes on the bear. “If the horses panic, she may react.”
“Hey there, we’re okay.” Dahmed said, leaned over and patted the stallion as they broke through the thick underbrush on the sides of the trail. “No need to get angry.”
Rushkanas snorted and jingled at the change in ground. Maledia looked around, but there was no way they were making progress in growth this thick. They would have to wait for the bear.
She was moving past them slowly, watching suspiciously. Ahead, her cubs wrestled in the sunlight.
Dahmed breathed out, a long, silent breath. “Lords above.” His voice was heavy with awe.