Recap: Camlin and Edana’s rivalry comes to a head during the first night’s watch on the fringe of the jungle. Camlin not only makes it clear that he doesn’t see Edana as a worthy opponent, but suggests a very different type of partnership. Edana, less than impressed with his proposal, is nonetheless distracted by the encounter, and neglects to follow up on or report her men’s observations of a mysterious presence outside the encampment. What’s causing the rustling just outside the reach of the nightwatch’s flames?
Edana clawed her way up out of a restless sleep haunted by directionless skittering and distorted echoes of Camlin’s voice, Aislynn kneeling over her.
“I’m awake. What?”
“From a log to a wildcat in ten seconds flat. Crazy.”
“Well?” Edana scrambled to roll up her blankets, get dressed and armed, and knot her hair back out of the way all at the same time.
“As you may have noticed, it’s morning.”
“’Lynnie. The point.”
“Father wants to get everyone moving. If you intend to do that nutty practice thing of yours, you’d better get moving. Oh, and Camlin’s just about to take his men off perimeter duty. Thought you might want to touch base there.”
“Great. Awkward. Just what I need first thing in the morning.”
“You’re a big, tough captain now. Comes with the territory. Have fun.” Aislynn handed her a piece of bread and waved her on her way, grinning all the while.
Edana debated taking some time out for a workout, or meeting up with Camlin right away. It couldn’t hurt to let him cool his heels a little longer. Besides, ugh. He’d had hours to come up with more obnoxious ideas. She decided she needed a little boost before confronting whatever challenges Camlin had dreamed up for her today. She’d run an abbreviated practice, and only then seek out Camlin to hear his report and arrange the day’s patrols as they moved out.
Edana headed off northwest through the Connarii encampment, edging deeper into the jungle. She didn’t pass any sentries; Camlin must’ve just pulled them off duty, since a few watchfires were still smoldering. A little premature, actually. She’d have to speak to him about that.
The terrain proved tricky. Although she’d managed to find a slight clearing, the jungle growth was dense and layered. It tricked the eye and made it hard to swing a weapon; her whips would be next to useless here, and the sword and staff strapped to her back caught on vines and hanging branches as Edana shouldered through. Throwing knives, though she hated to risk losing any, and the longer daggers would have to do.
Edana flicked mold and leaves from her shoulders, wiping her hands in disgust. Her palms were already clammy, and she hadn’t even started yet. She wound rags around the palms of both hands for grip and took a two blade stance to start with. Her scalp felt hot and itchy, sweat dripping from her hairline and making her vest and waistband chafe, though she’d long since abandoned her boots. She rolled her shoulders, casting around for a suitable target. The jungle felt like it was smothering her, a soaked blanket muffling her in suffocating heat. As she stood, shifting her weight slightly for balance, just breathing and feeling her muscles loosen to start with, she heard… it was barely a rustle, at first.
Edana tensed, dropping lower into an attack stance. The sound built slowly as she turned, measuring the jungle, sifting past each leaf and vine as she tried to peer past the rust-dark shadows and deceitful sway of vegetation. The rustling became a roar, like riding towards a waterfall, though it seemed to come from every direction at once. Edana gritted her teeth in frustration; the jungle swaddled her, dulling her senses. She sought for patterns, but every flicker of movement was a lie, the shadows empty, the scent on the air a thick, hot reek of rot that revealed nothing in its cloying consistency. As she shifted, her foot caught on something, an upthrust root or rock, and as she spun to catch her balance, a sharp pain at her calf drew her gaze down even as the rushing sound peaked. And passed.
Edana scrambled for footing, blades on guard, a fraction of her attention on the long, shallow scratch along her leg and the dull, rusty glint of the something that had bit her, up thrust from the ground. The rest of her cast around for an attacker, picking up on the heavy crashing approach so early it took her a moment to identify what she was hearing.
She just had time to straighten, lifting her chin and sheathing one knife to leave a hand free when Camlin burst through a wall of vegetation, roaring wordlessly.
“Where is it? What…?” Caught off balance and surprised by her presence, he tripped, falling toward the spike that had nipped Edana’s skin some few moments before. She kicked him sideways as he fell, knocking him clear, and watched as he hit the ground and rolled, cursing.
“You- you-!” Camlin fought to his knees, sputtering and seething, though he darted glances from side to side, in between glaring at Edana as he rose. “What was that for? Where is it? Where’d it go?”
“Wrong question,” Edana said. Ignoring him, she crouched to examine the ragged spike. Following her gaze, Camlin froze, his skin paling. She knocked the flat of her blade against it with a dull clonk, scraping off orange flakes to reveal dark grey underneath. The spike left the earth at an angle, and when she pushed against it, moved not at all, so firmly was it planted. Its shape was uniform along much of the length, a weirdly hollow angle like two sides of a square, though it tapered unevenly at the exposed end. Edana thought she’d do well to clean the scratch it had produced at the earliest opportunity, filing away the thought for later before turning to look at Camlin over her shoulder. His breath came in pants, and he was wild-eyed as he stared back.
“What you meant to saw was, “Thank you for saving my life,”” she knocked her knuckles against the metal shard for emphasis. Camlin swallowed, took a deep breath in through his nose, and narrowed his eyes in a moment’s silent acknowledgement of what could have been. Then he visibly dismissed his near-brush with death, his face hardening as he drew himself up.
“I’ve got bigger problems than your ego, princess,” He said. “What are you even doing out here? Did you see it?”
“You had to have – I heard it, had almost reached it when you distracted me… Wait. Is this your doing? Some kind of joke?”
“Look, if you’ve been sleeping on duty, I can’t be held responsible for your nightmares-“
“Four sentries missing.” Camlin bit out the words, cutting the argument short. Edana stopped breathing. She drew her shoulders together and locked her knees, fighting the wave of horror. Not good. “No one saw or heard anything except for what your men reported – subdued rustling and clicking about ten feet from the perimeter. The fires were extinguished at the deserted posts.”
Not good at all. Edana felt sick. She should have done something, doubled the watch, forced Camlin to recognize the danger. Instead, she’d been so distracted by bickering with him, she’d… she’d… stomped off in a huff. Gossiped with her sister. Gone to sleep like a good little girl without a care in the world. Unacceptable.
Edana swallowed back the guilt and braced herself. She’d failed in her duty last night, failed as a leader. It was time to do better. Starting now. Starting with him.
“We need to move,” She stepped into the bushes, forcing Camlin to scramble along to keep up.
“There’s something out there, Edana.”
Edana hoped whatever it was, it wasn’t nearby. The way Camlin was crashing along, it would be able to track them without even trying, and worse, she’d never be able to hear it coming. She kept a dagger at the ready as she slipped through the buses and around the trees.
“Looks like our ghosts are real. That or the sentries wandered off to relieve themselves and got lost.” Edana immediately felt bad for the teasing comment. Verbally sparring with Camlin was second nature, but it did nothing to defuse the tension and less for her attempt at mastering the situation. For some reason, though, Camlin just let it go. He tromped along behind her without another word as she led him through the camp, marshaling the troops as they went. The group arrived en masse in front of Toryn. Edana paused to single out sixteen of the oldest and best-trained warriors from both Camlin’s and her groups.
“Pair up and take up posts around the tribe. Space yourselves as evenly as possible and keep the fires burning. Be prepared for anything.”
“What is this?” Toryn eyed Edana and a pale, uncharacteristically silent Camlin. Edana glanced at Camlin out of the corner of her eye, surprised as his lack of response, then stepped forwards.
“Four sentries have gone missing. We believe that there is an enemy in the jungle that has taken them.”
“Just before first light.” Camlin said, finally breaking his silence. “The fires were out when we discovered they were missing. No sign of a struggle. No way of knowing who or what did this – but suspicious noises were reported. I pursued, but the princess here distracted me.”
Camlin’s chin tightened, resentment writ clear on his face. Toryn frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but-
“We need to go after them.” Edana said, interrupting hastily as she saw her father’s attention shift. It wouldn’t surprise her if Aislynn had found time to mention last night’s little encounter to their father, and she wasn’t about to be derailed by matchmaking of all things. “My men will search the jungle around the encampment. We may be able to save them, if we go now. At the least, we have to identify the threat. Camlin can guard the perimeter until I return.”
“No,” Toryn said, throwing up a hand against Edana’s immediate protest. “No, one complement of guards is not enough to ensure the safety of the tribe if these mysterious attackers return. We will proceed through the jungle and hope to run across the sentries as we go. Captains – your recommendations?”
“Same formation as yesterday.” Camlin seemed pleased that Edana’s plan had been shut down so quickly. “Full perimeter around the tribe as we travel – it’s the only thing to do.”
“Torches.” Edana hurried to add, frustrated but quick to try to regain the upper hand. “The attackers only moved when the fires were out. Warriors should move in pairs, with at least one torch to a pair. A double line of guards should be placed at the front of the column to beat down the underbrush and expose anything that might be hiding in the darkness.”
Toryn regarded the pair silently. Edana resisted the impulse to fidget under his gaze, steeling her spine and lifting her chin. She was very aware of the attention of the troops, and even more aware of her own failure to report the danger when she should have – last night. She wondered how many of them knew of her shame – and why Camlin hadn’t seized the opportunity to publically call her out on it.
“Go ahead. Arrange your men. We move in one hour.” Toryn said.