“We’re agreed then. What says the Telroi?”
Shea tuned back into the conversation to find twelve sets of eyes on her. She blinked at them and looked around with unease as she fought the urge to shift. The Trateri favored pillows instead of chairs. It made sitting for long periods painful for those not used to it. Shea had chosen to kneel since she’d assumed this meeting wouldn’t last long. Her mistake. It was an assumption she really should have known better than to make.
“Do you have an opinion on this?” Gala asked, giving Shea an expectant look—one shared by many at the table. It was unfortunate Shea didn’t have an opinion one way or another. Mostly because she’d stopped paying attention fifteen minutes into the meeting when it became clear that she had little to contribute.
Gala was a middle-aged woman, plump and soft with curves. Her brown hair, threaded through with grey, had been bound back in a smooth bun that Shea couldn’t hope to ever replicate, even before she had chopped off all her hair in an attempt to disguise herself as a boy. Though that subterfuge had been uncovered several months prior, Shea’s hair was at that weird length where it was considered neither long nor short. It had been unruly at both lengths but at the in-between stage it was a mess of curls that refused to be tamed.
Youngest at the table by a few decades, Shea’s presence would normally not be required nor appreciated among the elders of the Trateri clans. Her status as the Telroi, beloved of Fallon Hawkvale, warlord of the Trateri and conqueror of the Lowlands, had afforded her certain responsibilities—uncomfortable and outside her normal skill set though they might be.
Daere, a woman several years older than Shea though still much younger than the rest, leaned forward from where she sat behind Shea. Since she wasn’t a clan leader, she didn’t have a seat at the table and was forced into the role of observer. In a low voice, one only meant for Shea’s ears, she said, “They’re discussing where to house the new clans that have joined us.”
Shea gave a slight nod, her face creased in a thoughtful frown. Or at least she hoped it was thoughtful. This was the third such meeting she’d been forced to attend, and she felt no more comfortable than she had at the first one.
Unfortunately, she’d also been unable to convince Daere of the uselessness of her presence. Daere was Fallon’s cousin on his father’s side and had been assigned to be Shea’s shadow. Well, technically she’d been assigned to mentor and guide Shea in her new role in Trateri society.
The woman saw Shea’s lack of social graces as a personal affront and had set about trying to integrate Shea into their way of life. She’d started with these meetings, and Shea was already trying to think of several ways to avoid Daere for the foreseeable future. It was difficult since the woman evidently had eyes in the back of her head.
Daere was a tall woman, even taller than Shea who towered over most Lowlanders. Since the Trateri people as a whole grew tall and muscular, this wasn’t unusual. Her reddish brown hair was tied back from her face, setting off her sharp features and giving her no nonsense glare an extra push as she aimed it Shea’s way, telling her without words to pay attention.
Shea turned back to the assembled elders. Though mostly women, there were a few men scattered into the mix. Shea heaved an internal sigh. She missed the days when she was a pathfinder and scout, one who wasn’t expected to comment on anything but the possible obstacles on her chosen routes.
“You want my opinion,” Shea stated, hoping someone would volunteer some information on the particulars of what had been discussed. A few stared at her with expectant expressions. Others verged closer to outright hostility at having to listen to a stranger, someone who wasn’t even Trateri.
Gala eyed her with a vexed expression and pointed at a spot on the map. “As we’ve discussed, we’d like to add the additions to this side of the camp.”
“I still say that’s a mistake. The Ember clan and the Rain clan both have blood feuds with the Earth clan,” Calvin said, his mouth turned down into a sour frown.
Shea looked at the map, grabbing one side and sliding it closer to her. She ignored the slight huff from the woman from the Lion clan—a woman whose name she had forgotten. Again.
Hm. Camp was a little cramped already. The Forest of the Giants lived up to its name. The giant soul trees that were the size of mini mountains made finding adequate space for Fallon’s army difficult. With roots the size of houses poking up out of the ground, it was a challenge keeping the camp from breaking into several spaced out settlements. It was too easy for any isolated sections to be attacked by beast or man.
It had forced the Trateri to adapt. They’d packed the smaller tents so tightly together that they were nearly on top of each other while the larger tents the Trateri were known for were left packed away. The tight quarters had left many feeling irate.
“That’s right under the Airabel village,” Shea observed. The Airabel village was built among the treetops of the giant soul trees—trees so tall and wide that it was said only giants could tend them. The Lowlanders who made this place their home rarely ventured to the ground, and then only if it was in a hunting party. They’d been more than happy to let the Trateri set up their encampment below.
“We’re aware of that,” Sharri, an elder from the Earth clan, said.
“Then you don’t care if the Ember clan and the Rain clan wake up with human waste decorating their tents,” Shea said with a neutral expression.
Twelve sets of eyes looked at each other before aiming Shea’s way. She greeted them with a pleasant expression.
“What do you mean?” Gala asked.
Shea slid the map back to the center of the table and began to lean back before catching herself at the last minute, remembering just in time that she wasn’t in a chair. Her thighs screamed in protest.
“The Airabel have no way to build latrine pits since their homes are built into the branches of the great soul trees.”
Their expressions said they had never considered how the Airabel handled waste. Shea wasn’t surprised. The Trateri had never seen a sky village built into the canopy of a tree so tall it was difficult seeing the crown of it when you were standing right next to it on the ground. They had probably never even thought of the logistics of life up there. Unlike Shea, who’d spent many visits living and learning about the Airabel during her time as a pathfinder. Then, she’d lived in one of the tree top homes, instead of camping out on the forest floor as the Trateri did.
Shea sighed. They still weren’t getting it. “They use chamber pots that they empty over the side of the village every morning. Anything below gets a nice coating of whatever they ate the previous day.”
It was why the land below the village was so lush. Flowers and other vegetation had taken advantage of the nutrient rich soil derived from generations of fertilizer.
“They can’t go there,” Calvin said, staring at the map. “We’d never hear the end of it.”
“I say put them there,” an elder whose name Shea hadn’t bothered to learn said. “They deserve what they get for waiting so long to join us. They should have been here months ago, instead of waiting to see if the Hawkvale’s plans would succeed.”
There was a murmur of agreement around the table.
Shea didn’t know the particulars of the situation or why the two clans were just joining the other five now. She did know that putting them there was a disaster in the making. If nothing else, it would lead to additional meetings such as this as the newcomers aired their grievances. Shea would like to avoid that.
“What about here?” Shea asked, pointing to a corner of the map.
Gala and the rest leaned closer, frowning thoughtfully at the spot Shea indicated.
“That’s the horse pasture,” Calvin said.
“That we don’t use,” Shea said. “There are too many dangerous plants that could kill the horses. The horse master said he planned to move them further afield where there was less danger.”
“So you’re saying the horses are more important than Ember or Rain.”
Shea fought down a sense of frustration. That wasn’t what she’d said at all.
“Not at all. Merely that they have the tools to make this spot safe for their people whereas the horses do not.”
One elder harrumphed. “I say the horses are more important than either of those clans.”
“They could see it as an insult on our part,” another cautioned.
Shea forced herself not to roll her eyes. Because putting them in a spot where shit would be dumped on them every morning was less of an insult.
She couldn’t take her sitting position any longer and shifted, easing her weight off her legs. They prickled with an angry buzzing sensation as feeling rushed back into them.
Daere aimed a disapproving stare her way. She probably thought Shea was showing weakness she couldn’t afford, but Shea shrugged off the other woman’s disapproval. If they chose to see her inability to kneel in one position for an indeterminate length of time as weakness, they would learn the exact depths of her strength should they choose to test her.
She propped her chin on her hand and listened as the elders debated the merits of the two spots. Daere gave her another frown and tilted her head as if to invite Shea to insert her opinion. Shea gave her a blank expression and feigned confusion as if she didn’t know exactly what Daere wanted. Shea wasn’t a peacemaker. If Daere wanted this fixed, she’d have to do it herself.
Daere’s lips tightened before she aimed a serene expression at the rest of the group. “How about we give them a choice?” Daere said, stepping into the blossoming argument. “Let them decide which of the two areas would fit their needs best.”
Gala and Calvin listened with attentive expressions before sharing a look with the rest of the group. They both nodded as a chorus of agreement came from the rest of the elders.
Shea kept her heartfelt thanks that the meeting was over inside. She placed her hands on the table to begin leveraging her way to her feet.
“On to the next issue,” Calvin said.
Shea froze. No. They were done. How could there be more?
Her eyes swung to Daere’s, who gave her a meaningful stare combined with the barest hint of a victorious smirk before turning her attention back to the conversation. Shea’s shoulders drooped and she settled back into place. Her chance to escape the tedium had disappeared.
Shea strode down the small path sandwiched between several tents as she tried to ignore the woman pacing by her side. Daere was the epitome of the perfect Trateri woman—graceful with just a hint of that ferocious fire that said she would eviscerate any who got in her way. Adorned in the abundance of jewelry preferred by those Trateri not of the warrior caste, Daere’s clothes were complex and yet simple, speaking of the highest craftsmanship.
Next to her, Shea felt like a homely usurper, wearing the pants and blouse she normally wore when on the trail. She’d had a much different plan for the day before Daere forced her into that meeting using placid smiles and artful words.
“We have time for a quick break for the midday meal and then we’ll need to meet with the blacksmiths and armorers,” Daere said as she smiled and nodded when three women greeted her in passing.
Shea stopped and turned to Daere. “What are you talking about?”
Daere was too refined to huff, but Shea was beginning to learn her expressions. The other woman was frustrated with her.
“The blacksmiths and armorers,” she said in a patient voice even as the pleasant expression on her face grew strained. “There is a dispute that you will need to mediate.”
Shea tilted her head. “I know nothing of either discipline. How do you expect me to mediate when I don’t know any of the particulars?”
This time Daere’s sigh was long suffering. “You just need to listen and then offer your best opinion.”
“But if I don’t know what I’m talking about how can my opinion matter.”
Daere’s smile dropped from her face. “I will be there to guide you.”
That’s what Shea was afraid of.
Daere gave her another smile, this one a thin stretching of lips that in no way reached her eyes. “Now, I suggest we visit the cooks’ tents to grab something to sustain us for the afternoon.”
Daere turned to set off but didn’t get far before a man called her over to look at a tool in his hand. Shea glanced at Trenton, the ever present shadow that Fallon had assigned as her guard. Trenton’s lean frame and pretty hazel eyes belied the lethal swordsman who had tried to hammer some of those same skills into Shea’s stubborn head. He had a thin face and pointed chin. Right now he seemed preoccupied with scanning their surroundings for potential threats.
Seeing both of her keepers distracted, Shea slipped away, quickly merging into a stream of people heading in the opposite direction. Daere had claimed her morning; she wasn’t getting her afternoon too.
An hour later Shea leaned back on one arm, her legs swinging over the edge of her perch. High above in a soul tree, Shea allowed herself to relax. Daere wouldn’t think to look for her up here. The Trateri weren’t big on heights, being from the grass plains to the southwest where trees weren’t common, and trees of this height were nothing but a myth.
Shea bent forward, cocking her head as she peered down. It was just a guess, but a fall from this height would probably result in her death. Not a cheery thought, but Shea counted the risk as acceptable. Solitude in the Trateri camp came at a high price—one Shea was willing to pay for an afternoon free from unwanted responsibilities.
Her perch was a knob of growth the Airabel villagers had turned into a resting place for travelers journeying to the crown. Even as high as she’d climbed, she was still only a third of the way up and Airabel was barely visible through the branches of the soul tree it called home. A hundred men standing shoulder to shoulder wouldn’t be able to surround the trunk of the tree completely. In a world filled with many odd and wondrous beings, it and its brethren were totally unique.
Fallon had marched his army halfway across the Lowlands to this Forest of the Giants after hearing the story of this place. He’d decided that he needed to see the truth of her words for himself. She still hadn’t gotten quite used to the power her words held, but that was what she got for claiming the love of the most powerful man in the Broken Lands. She needed to be careful with what words she shared in the future.
If she could take the man and leave the warlord she would, but that was as likely as the sky falling to the ground. He’d poured his heart into the Trateri people, united the clans and forged them into a unit capable of not only surviving the dangers of the Broken Lands but thriving in them. Getting him to walk away would be impossible.
Shea leaned back and sighed. She was bored. Bored and stifled. Of all complaints, she hated that one the most. It made her sound like some ungrateful child who needed to be entertained.
She would have settled for any small excuse to scout. A resupply mission. Maybe even something to do with reconnaissance. She’d even accept ferrying a letter to one of the Trateri squads on the outer perimeter of camp.
She’d tried. She’d been denied. Oh, they were polite enough—she was the telroi after all—but they made it clear in only the ways a fellow soldier could that her presence was a hindrance rather than a help. It had taken only one debacle of a mission to bring that point home.
As the telroi of the Trateri warlord, her position in this society had changed from that of a highly respected scout to someone tied to the most powerful man in the Lowlands. She still wasn’t sure what place a telroi held. Somewhere between a wife and a mistress from what she could tell.
She couldn’t even take her complaints to Fallon. He’d snuck off into the night after their last conversation—fight really—about her place and had been gone for a month and a half visiting his strongholds throughout the Lowlands and doing who knew what.
Shea certainly didn’t—because he’d left her behind.
There was a commotion below. She leaned over the edge of her perch and frowned at the sight of two Trateri men hacking at a series of vines hanging from one of the giant, upraised roots. The vines were a deep verdant green and the smallest tracery of pale violet ran along the edges.
They really shouldn’t be doing that. The vegetation in this forest was unpredictable and deadly if handled wrong. Those could be normal vines or they could be sleeper vines, whose purpose was to hunt and capture prey before dragging it back to the carnivorous flower at the vines’ heart. The flower’s pollen would sedate the prey as it slowly digested the animal while it was still alive.
“Oy, down below,” Shea shouted. “You shouldn’t be doing that. It’s dangerous.”
The taller of the men looked up and frowned before saying something to his companion. They both went back to hacking.
Did they not hear her? It was possible. She was pretty high up.
She narrowed her eyes at them. Some of the clans tended not to recognize Shea yet. She wasn’t as well-known as Fallon and hadn’t been with him that long. She thought it more likely they had ignored her.
She debated leaving them to their fate. The old Shea wouldn’t have hesitated. She would have said their death was on their own heads if they chose to ignore her. Actions had consequences. New Shea was willing to give them a bit of reasonable doubt. These were her people if Fallon had his way. She needed to do her best by them even when it was a gigantic pain in the ass.
She grabbed the rope ladder she’d pulled up after her and tossed it over the edge, sending the secondary rope, which was anchored nearby after it. Gripping the second rope with both hands, she hooked one leg around the thick rope and slid down.
Moments later she reached on the forest floor. She released the rope and flexed her hands. They were a bit sore but she hadn’t gone so fast as to rip skin off, which was a relief. Injuries to the hands, even small ones like rope burn, hurt like hell and made even simple tasks difficult.
She turned to the men. They had given her descent a sideways glance but hadn’t paused in their task.
Shea gave them a polite smile. “As I was trying to tell you earlier, what you’re doing is dangerous. It would be better to get one of the Airabel villagers to spot you. They have a lot more experience with the flora and fauna in this forest and will know if you’re messing with something that should be left alone.”
The men shared a look before continuing with their hacking. Shea took a deep breath then released it slowly. That answered that. They’d definitely been ignoring her earlier. Should she continue to warn them or leave them to it?
She ran a hand through her hair, leaving the half tamed mess disheveled and sticking up in odd directions.
She studied the plant. It was possible it was harmless. If so, confronting them was pointless and could lead to trouble later. On the other hand, if she let them continue and they managed to disturb a sleeper vine, they might die. Then there would be all these questions and accusations about how she’d failed them.
It was so much easier when she kept her own council and didn’t care about getting along with the people she served.
“Are you really going to ignore me right now?” Shea asked. She pulled a face at her own stupid question. Of course they were.
She could try ordering them to listen, but she had a feeling that would make her feel even more stupid and ineffectual.
“Hey,” she shouted.
“What?” one of the men finally snapped.
“Did you not hear me? You’re hacking away at something that could kill you. Stop until someone can verify this is safe.”
“We got mothers. We don’t need the warlord’s bed warmer telling us how to do our job.”
Shea’s eyebrows rose. She wanted to say the sentiment shocked her, but it didn’t. She was only surprised that it had taken so long for someone to say something. It was a fact of life that people were going to assume what they wanted to.
Had she been someone different, those words might have hurt. Made her question her self-worth and position. The thing was, she’d earned her stripes through blood, sweat and tears. Her friends knew she wasn’t just some pretty face to warm the warlord’s bed. They knew what she was capable of. These men’s words said more about their little minds than it did her.
Though she did wonder why they weren’t afraid to say such things to her. Most Trateri treated her like fragile glass, fearing word of their disrespect would get back to the warlord. He was not a man you wanted to make angry. She made a note of their clothes and the crest announcing their clan allegiance that decorated their backs. She’d have to investigate which it belonged to. She didn’t think it belonged to any of the ones she knew. Perhaps one of the newcomers?
Shea disregarded the first two things she wanted to say. There were entirely too many curse words and threats in them. After a moment she disregarded the third response. It was still a little bloodthirsty.
“I know you didn’t show such blatant disrespect to someone who outranks you,” a woman’s voice barked from behind Shea.
The men snapped to attention in a way that was at complete odds with how they’d treated Shea.
Shea turned to find a shorter woman with dark brown hair pulled fiercely back from her face in several interwoven braids. Her amber eyes were flinty and fierce. There were three parallel scars across the line of her jaw. Her gaze flicked to Shea then back to the men.
“Who is your commander? Does he know the disrespect his men show their superiors?”
There was no answer.
“I’m sure Darius Lightheart or Fallon Hawkvale would be happy to personally discuss your lack with him at length.”
The men glared at the woman. Shea eyed her as well, surprised at the unexpected interference.
The woman looked familiar. Shea could have sworn she’d seen her before but she couldn’t have said where or when.
“I don’t speak just for my own amusement,” the woman said in an acerbic voice when the men failed to do more than glare. “Answer.”
“Our commander is Patrick Cloud.”
“Never heard of him,” the woman said. To Shea, “You?”
Shea shook her head. “Not familiar to me either.”
The other man looked impatient to have this over. “We’re out of Dark Cloud under clan Rain. We were told to clear these vines out to make room for sleeping quarters and storage space.”
The woman shot Shea a questioning look. Shea frowned and tilted her head in thought. Clan Rain. Wasn’t that one of the new clans? The ones discussed at the interminable meeting this morning? She looked around the area. This wasn’t either of the places they’d discussed hosting them.
It occurred to her that she should point that out. One look at the sullen faces before her convinced her to let someone else be the barer of bad news. She’d done all she planned on doing.
“We don’t have time to humor a mother hen,” the first man said. “We need this done by midafternoon so they can move some of the supplies in here before it rains again.”
The second man looked at the trees above. “This place seems to have no shortage of rain.”
A vine jerked. It was a small movement, easily missed. Shea’s gaze sharpened. Was that her imagination or did it really move? The vine looked different than the ones the Trateri had been hacking at—some of which were strewn about the ground—the violet two shades darker and edged in white.
It flicked again and then rose. The rest of the vines shifted as if disturbed by a strong breeze. Only there was no breeze. Several of the dark purple vines, thicker and a deeper color than the rest, parted the curtain. They were silent as they snaked across the ground.
“Look out,” Shea shouted.
She darted closer to the men. Both of whom were just now realizing the danger they were in. A small vine closed around the tall Trateri’s leg and jerked. He screamed as it dragged him toward the nest of vines.
His friend tried to help, hacking at the rest as they swarmed across the ground to him. Shea drew the short sword Trenton insisted she carry and rushed forward.
This was why she hated getting involved. Saving stupid people was a thankless task.
The woman darted past her, swinging a sword the length of Shea’s arm. She cut one vine in half and then reversed her slash to take care of another.
Shea let the woman and the other man fight the vines while she concentrated on the one wrapped around the captive’s leg.
She hacked at it, losing the proper form her sword instructors had tried to engrave in her body. All she cared about was getting the stupid vine to let go.
Her cuts fell in a flurry of strikes, a pale yellow substance oozing out of the wounds. It quivered and then released the man’s leg before slithering back behind the curtain of vines. The cloth the vine had touched was partially torn and bright red welts formed on the man’s leg.
Shea grabbed his shoulder and heaved, half dragging him as he crab walked backwards with her.
“Let’s go. Get out of range of the vines,” Shea shouted at the other two.
She’d only taken two steps before a vine struck, wrapping around her leg and jerking. She hit the ground with a grunt, the sword falling from her grip. Her hands scrabbled at the dirt as the vine tried to drag her back toward the flower that was beginning to peek past the curtain of green.
A whistle cut through the air, ending in a thunk. The grip around her leg loosened and she scrambled forward.
“Move your ass,” Trenton shouted as she gained her feet and raced away from the flower. She grabbed the man she’d saved and half dragged him across the forest floor to safety as Trenton, the woman and the second man worked to hold off the other vines.
Small feeler vines slithered across the ground after them but gave up the chase after a few feet.
Trenton’s face was coldly furious as he looked back at Shea. His eyes held an accusation that she had no doubt would reach Caden and Fallon’s ears when they returned from their trip. When she’d eluded Daere and Trenton, she’d known he wasn’t going to be happy when he found her. It was just her luck that he caught up to her as she was being dragged to a grisly death. He’d no doubt have some choice words for her later.
“What the hell was that?” the second man asked in a shrill voice, interrupting Trenton’s lecture before it could begin. His friend was seated on the ground, his hands hovering over the welts on his leg as he stared at the nest of vines that writhed and swarmed like a den of snakes.
Shea sighed and gave him a long suffering look. “Had you bothered to listen, I would have told you that several of these types of vines are attached to a carnivorous plant, but hey, you seem to know what you’re doing. Next time I’ll leave you to it. I’m sure your families will be very proud when they’re told their sons were eaten by a flower.”
Both men stared at Shea in shock. They seemed almost as surprised at her response as they had been that a plant had tried to kill them.
The woman snorted. “You two louts should have listened to the stories. She’s the scout who saved the Hawkvale’s life from a spinner nest and from a village of crazy lowlanders. When she tells you something, it’s best to pay attention.”
Several Trateri joined them then. There were exclamations of shock as they viewed the still writhing vines with something close to fear. It was one thing to be wary of the beasts that inhabited the Broken Lands, but a plant that could kill? The Trateri had no frame of reference for that.
“I’d leave the vines alone until you can get one of the villagers to help you safely clear the area,” Shea said. Fire should do it, but she kept that part to herself. She didn’t want to get drawn into this anymore than she was already.
Before they could ask her further questions, Shea walked away. The woman who’d interfered joined her, and Trenton trailed behind them, a grim and glowering shadow.
“Thank you for your help,” Shea said after a beat. “I’m not sure it was needed but it was appreciated regardless.”
The woman’s small grin flashed white teeth against a tan face. Her eyes crinkled with some private amusement.
“Don’t mention it. I was in a nasty mood before I happened upon you. It gave me a chance to work through some of my aggression before I took it out on the men under my command.”
Shea doubted that. The woman had seemed calm and collected when she dressed down those men. There hadn’t been an ounce of unnecessary anger or aggression.
“You seem familiar,” Shea said, saying what had been on her mind since the woman interceded.
The woman’s grin became a full-fledged smile. “I should. We’ve met before.”
Shea glanced over at her, startled. Had they? She took a closer look, trying to place the face. It was right there, but the memory wasn’t coming.
“Let me see if this jogs your mind. Revenants and pickleberry juice.”
The memory smacked her in the face. Shea’s jaw dropped.
“You’re the second command in Sawgrass. Perry’s your commander, right?”
Shea remembered now, the woman had been in the company that had taken on a huge revenant pack on Shea’s first mission as a Trateri scout. They’d have all died, despite every precaution taken and a hard battle fought, if Fallon hadn’t joined the battle at the right moment.
“Yeah. My name’s Fiona in case you don’t remember. You were just a Daisy then.”
A Daisy was an untried scout, named for the yellow ribbon sewn into the collar and edges of the green jacket that all scouts owned. The jacket had been in a pack Shea had stolen on her way out of camp and was the reason why Eamon had assumed she was assigned to his scouting party.
Needless to say, she hadn’t worn the yellow long. Only until the Trateri realized the extent of her skills and promoted her to a full scout.
“I’d forgotten the name, but I do remember the face,” Shea admitted.
“Is that normal? How those men talked to you?” Fiona asked, tilting her head back at the Trateri they’d just saved.
Shea shot a glance over her shoulder. The Trateri massed around the vines. Most kept a careful distance but some intrepid individuals poked at the vines with swords and jerked back when the vines tried to grab them.
“I’ve never had anybody be quite so blatant with their disrespect before.” Shea’s response was slow and careful. She wasn’t one to talk about such matters, especially with strangers. Lately, she’d been trying to be a little bit more open, having experienced some of the friendships with the Trateri scouts she had worked with. It was a work in progress.
“In other words, there has been disrespect.”
Trenton looked over with a frown. Shea ignored him and shrugged. Fiona could make of that what she would.
Fiona walked beside her in silence for a moment, her forehead wrinkled in thought. Shea was content to leave her to her internal musings, instead preoccupied with looking around the camp.
There wasn’t enough room in the treetop village for the entire Trateri army, though the villagers had offered hospitality to Fallon and his top officials. They’d rejected it, giving the excuse that they needed to stay close to their men.
The truth was that they didn’t trust the villagers, who had treated the Trateri horde as odd friends come to visit. The Trateri were used to at least a token resistance and were flummoxed at the lack of one upon their arrival.
Shea suspected that was because the villagers didn’t see the Trateri as a true threat. While their military prowess would guarantee them victory on the ground, it would be difficult to fight a battle where the opponent had the advantage of the high ground. Quite literally in this case.
The moment the Trateri tried to ascend to the world above, the villagers could fade into the forest, using the numerous interlocking branches that created a network of paths. The Trateri would be hard pressed to follow.
Fallon and his generals knew all this which was why they couldn’t understand why the villagers had agreed to provide him with a tithe and a few of their hunters. Had in fact seemed overjoyed to do so.
Shea suspected it was because the villagers saw in the Trateri an opportunity. In many ways the tree people of the Forest of the Giants were advanced, more so than any in the Lowlands. They’d managed to build houses that defied gravity and logic. They did this because the dangers on the ground far outweighed those of the air.
There were two worlds in this forest, that of the below and that of the above. The forest floor had its beauty, but it was filled with numerous more dangerous plants and beasts than the canopies. Because of this danger, only the best hunters ventured to the forest floor. It led to their people being isolated with little trade with the rest of the Lowlands.
The Airabel saw the relationship with the Trateri as a way to become connected with the outside world again. Their population was small and they were in danger of inbreeding. They hoped the exposure to the Trateri might lead to an influx of new blood.
Until the Trateri became a direct threat to the Airabel, they would act in good faith with Fallon. Since Shea was sort of responsible for their discovery, she hoped that continued to be the case. She’d like to avoid having their blood on her hands.
“I’m amazed these people could build that,” Fiona said gesturing to the village suspended high above them.
Shea looked up. It was impressive. Breathtaking the first, second, and third time you saw it. A feat that defied the imagination as it integrated seamlessly with the nature around it.
This place was one of Shea’s favorite to visit. She respected them and for her, that was rare. They worked with nature instead of against it and it paid off.
“Are there more places like this?” Fiona asked.
“I’m not sure. I think there are a few other villages throughout the forest, but this is the only one I’ve ever visited.”
“I was always raised to see Lowlanders as weak, ineffectual people who wasted the abundance of riches their lands provided. For the most part, that view has held true.”
Shea kept her own council. Fiona wasn’t necessarily wrong. Shea had said something similar to Eamon and Fallon once. Still, it was more complicated than that and Shea knew that you couldn’t make sweeping assumptions with any accuracy.
“And now?” she asked. “How do you see them now?”
Fiona flashed a smile. “Still ineffectual and weak. Cowards for the most part.” They walked several more steps. “But I’m beginning to realize that might not be true for all Lowlanders. That maybe there are a few exceptions.”
Shea threw her a questioning look. That sounded like it was directed a little closer to home. Fiona looked back at her with an open expression.
“We Trateri are a hard race. We think we know a person’s measure as soon as we meet them and can be slow to change our minds.”
Shea looked away, wondering where Fiona was going with this.
Fiona continued after a beat. “Once you have our loyalty, though, it’s forever. You’ve already started on that path. Don’t let a few stupid people convince you to stray from it.”
Ah, Shea saw now. Fiona was trying to comfort her, give her something to hold onto when things got rough. Shea was tempted to tell her it was unnecessary, that she’d been here before and the things said then were much worse. She hadn’t had friends like Eamon, Buck and Clark to stand up for her. She hadn’t had the support of a warlord.
She didn’t say any of that though, taking the advice in the vein it was meant. She gave Fiona a respectful nod.
“Don’t worry, I’m a lot more stubborn than I look. It would take more than a few harsh words to run me off,” she assured.
Fiona snorted. “Good. I’d expect nothing less from the warlord’s telroi.”
The two parted ways shortly after, Fiona heading to see if her commander had any need of her and Shea off to see the scout commander of the Western Wind Division. She wanted to see if she could twist the commander’s arm into sending her out on a mission. He owed her a favor or two from all the times she’d saved his ass.