Ray snuggled into her blanket. She loved this place. The happy place where she could drift in and out of dreamland, let her mind wander. The blanket felt like a giant warm fuzzy hug that kept the crisp morning air out. She lazily opened her eyes to the giant pine trees above her, then closed them and lost herself in the aroma of the camp. The smell of last night's campfire lingered in the air and mixed with the smell of bacon wafting over the camp from the cooking tents. It was almost enough to drag her out of bed, but then she pulled her pillow in close and buried her head into it once more to savor the moment. She listened as the camp awoke from its slumber. Pots clanked together as people began their morning routines.
“Ray, Baccus would like to see you.”
Ray opened her eyes reluctantly and looked up to a freckled face framed by chestnut braids. These new members just looked so young. Was it possible they were getting younger? It was more probable that she was just getting older. Ray sighed to herself, then said, “Thank you Sophie. I'll be right there.”
Ray grabbed her bag and put her warmer clothes on underneath her blanket. Then she quickly packed up her camp so she would be ready to go. If Baccus wanted to see her, it usually meant he had somewhere he needed her to go in a hurry. She had wanted to go fishing this morning for her breakfast, but the early meeting and probable early departure would mean dropping by one of the cook's tents for breakfast. After a loud growl escaped from her stomach as she walked the camp, she decided to grab a roll before the meeting. She was just finishing the roll when she reached Baccus' tent. Entering the small cloth room, she watched as Baccus finished putting on his boots.
“Ah, Raysunda. Good morning! Sleep well?” He said smiling as he stood up from his bed roll. Ray wished he would just drop the formalities. She hated meetings where people stood around saying a lot of polite things and never got to the meat of the situation.“Yes fine thank you. What did you want to see me about?”
Baccus walked to the far side of the room and picked up on of the many tubes that lined the tent wall. Opening the tube, he replied,“I have a new job for you.”
“Oh?” Ray answered with false surprise. Over the years, she had grown fond of this dance.
“Yes, and your abilities make you the perfect one for the job,” he stated. She smiled in his direction, but his eyes were focused on what he had taken out of the tube. One glance told her it was map. It looked like it had been drawn in a hurry. He continued, “I just received a message from Tyal. Last night a group of Harkon's men invaded the village and kidnapped two girls. I need you to go to Tyal and gather as much information as possible. Send me a report, then see if you can track them. We need to get those girls back.”
“How do we know they were Harkon's men?” Ray asked.
“We don't. Thats just what I have been told,” he said. Then he looked up. His grey eyes were like steel and his face was serious. “Between you and me, Ray, this raid sounds a bit fishy. I need you to get to the root of the situation. You tend to notice things most wouldn't.”
“Well, you know me, Baccus. I like to be where the action is.” Truth was, she was way past due for a vacation. She needed a week without running through the forest, fighting off bears, and taking down bandits. But she did what she needed to in order to get the job done.
“Here,” he said, handing her the map he had been looking at. “Its a map of Tyal and the surrounding area. You will need it if you want to get into the village.”
“Are the village gates coded?” She asked. Baccus occasionally forgot little things like that. It made her life interesting to say the least.
“The passwords will appear on the map when you reach the northern entrance,” he answered. Looking at the map, she realized the town would be undiscovered to those just passing through the Byten Mountains. It was in an area considered to be haunted and dangerous. Baccus told her of the guards and sentries she would need to greet on her way up to Tyal. It seemed strange to her that a rural mountain town would be so well guarded. Stranger still, that someone would go through all the trouble of breaking in just to take two little girls.
“I am sending Sophie with you. She needs the experience,” Baccus said as he led her to the door-flap of the tent.
“Surely you can't expect me to take a green one with me on a job like this, Baccus. I bet she can't even shoot a bow. She will get herself killed.” Baccus had never given her a green before. She couldn't believe he was starting now.
“Well, make sure that she doesn't. We need more hunters Ray and I have watched this girl. I think you will be surprised.” Baccus clasped her on the arm. “Return safely, I will be needing you again soon. Those girls are very important and I am putting my trust in you. Please do what you can,” and with an air of finality, he opened the flap and bid her goodbye.
After leaving the tent, Ray walked over to the horse master and told him to ready her mare, Blue Shoes. Then, remembering the green that would be under her care, asked if he had a horse Sophie could use. He informed her that Sophie had her own mount and he would ready it for her. That done, Ray started walking briskly towards her bedroll at the other end of the camp. She had already made it half way through the camp when it occurred to her that she should probably take a spare mount. Jogging back over to the tethered horses, she ran into Sophie.
“Get your things together green, we leave in an hour,” Ray told her. Grey eyes looked at her with surprise.
“We do? Where are we going?”
“Baccus has a job for me and he is putting you in my care,” she said. Then added with a smirk, “You get to be my new project. Meet me at the horse master's as soon as your are packed.”
Ray was already walking away when Sophie shouted, “Where are we going? What do I pack?”
Not stopping to turn around, Ray answered back, “The mountains! Pack warm but pack light. We need to move quickly!” And with that she was gone, having turned the corner at the nearest row of tents.
Sophie just stood there for a moment watching Ray's dark wavy hair sway as she walked out of sight. Then her brain went into overdrive. This was her chance! This was what she had been waiting for. To prove herself to an elder of the force. And to be taken in by Raysunda Azure was a great honor. As far as Sophie knew, Ray had never taken a green under her wing before. Sophie ran to the long tent she shared with the other greens who had yet to be chosen by an elder. She quickly packed her bed roll and clothing, then gathered the few weapons she had. If she was to be riding with one of the greatest hunters in the land, she figured she ought to be prepared. Sophie had been assigned to Baccus' force over a month ago. During that time she had become well liked within the camp, but she was worried that this would be it for her. All of her closest friends had been taken in by elders within the first two weeks. The only elders in the camp who had looked at her so far were Bennit, the cook, and the blacksmith, Goldie. She didn't want to be a cook or blacksmith, so she had decided she would just make herself useful for the time being as a message runner. She had hoped that one day one of the battlers would notice her, but she never imagined that she could be a hunter like Ray. When she had finished all her packing, she brought her packs down to the horse master so that he could load them when the horses were ready.
She had all this with time to spare, so she decided to say goodbye to some of her friends in the camp. Since it was so close to breakfast, she thought some of them might still be in the dinning tent. Walking into the huge tent, she noticed a group of brown ranks tormenting a smaller green boy. As she neared the group, she recognized the green. It was Jordie, the newest addition to the force. After spending three nights listening to him cry himself to sleep, she knew he wasn't going to handle this problem very well. The others towered over him, calling him names and occasionally striking out at boy.
“Leave him alone,” Sophie stated.
The brown ranks looked over at her for a moment, then started to laugh. One of the brown ranks answered,“What are you going to do to stop us sprout?”
Sophie didn't the situation. Sure they were older and bigger. But they had no right to pick on Jordie. The force frowned on anything they considered inner turmoil, and violence within the ranks always qualified as inner turmoil.
“I'll do whatever I have to. Let him go,” Sophie replied. They were starting to turn on her now, Jordie forgotten. They circled Sophie, taunting her with rude remarks. That didn't bother her. What did bother her was that there were five of them, and she had only wrestled her three older cousins before. She was worried how two more might complicate things. Suddenly one of them grabbed her from behind. She stomped on his foot, then smashed his nose in with the back of her head. Another decided to join in and Sophie blocked his leg while grabbing the wrist of the third brown rank who had just thrown a punch at her head. She continued the force of the punch by twisting the caught wrist while locking his arm, and sent him running into the fourth brown rank who had tried to come up behind her like the first brown rank. Then it hit. One of them had landed a kick right in her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She staggered back, surprised, then attacked him with everything she had. Kicks, punches, they were messy and frantic, but she was mad.
“STOP!” a loud, willful voice commanded. They all stopped to find the source of the command. Baccus stepped forward out of the crowd that had gathered around them. Sophie, now fearful of what might come, looked through the faces of the crowd. Standing by the entrance, she saw Ray. Sophie's heart was pounding.
“All onlookers may leave. I wish to speak to only those involved,” Baccus announced. Jordie walked up to join Sophie and the brown ranks, while those not involved left the tent. Baccus approached the group.
“What happened here?” he said. When no one answered, he shook his head then said, “You all must report to the camp keeper for extra duties this week. Sophie, I'll see that Ray provides you with an accurate punishment while you are gone. Now, I'm sure you all have things you should be doing, so go. But remember, next time the consequences will be far greater.”
Ray watched as he left the dinning tent. When Baccus saw her on his way to the dinning hall, he said she might want to come with him to see what was happening in the dinning hall. She did not expect to find little Sophie taking on five brown ranks. As she was watching the fight, Jordie told her how Sophie saved him. It was clear that he was smitten. Once in the tent, Baccus had told her he would wait for her signal to stop the fight. He knew Ray would want to see how Sophie handled herself. When it was clear the girl had lost self control, Ray signaled. Maybe it was time to take on a green. She could use the company.
“Sophie! Hurry up girl, your late!” Ray said as she walked over to her. Something on Sophie's face seemed to soften a little and her eyes lit up.
“Sorry Ray, I'll go make sure the horses are ready,” she said. Then she took off running in the direction of the horse master. She was gone before Ray could say anything else. Baccus found Ray on her way to meet Sophie. He had a knowing grin on his face and Ray could tell how satisfied he was with himself.
“So, what do you think of her now?” he said. They slowed their walk to a stroll.
“She will do fine. Now tell me what you haven't said about her,” Ray prompted. “What should I know? Why has she caught your attention?”
He looked at the ground for a moment, then took a deep breath, “Ray, the girls that were taken from Tyal are her sisters. She knows the area and has grown up with the guards. I know her father and when I took her into my force, I promised him I would look out for her. She is good with a bow, but she has no formal training. That's where you come in. I need you to teach her. Its the best way I know to look out for her. She needs to be able to look out for herself.”
“Why didn't you tell me all this before?” Ray asked. She thought she was going to be training a green, not babysitting. Well, she entered the force as a green, so Ray would treat her as one. Besides, she just proved she has the guts of a hunter, maybe she could learn the skills as well. “It will be fine Baccus. I'll look out for her.”
He seemed to relax a little and as they neared the horse master's tent their pace quickened. It was time to go. Ray saw Sophie looking over the horses as she walked up. The horse master said, “That girl knows a lot about horses for a green. She's looking over your extra mounts now.”
“Thank you horse master,” Ray replied.
“No problem. Name's Leo by the way. Pleased to be of service Lady Azure.”
“Ray. And thanks again, Leo.” Turning back to face Baccus, she said, “Its time. I'll send a report as soon as I can. Goodbye Baccus. Stay well.” She walked over to Blue Shoes and expertly mounted the horse. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Sophie slide into the saddle in one easy move.
“Ya ready girl?” Ray said.
“All set here, Ray,” Sophie answered. They got the horses in motion and headed out of camp. Ray led the way and the two spare mounts, tethered to Sophie's horse, made up the rear. They passed the dinning tent and the new green's tent before they reached the gate. Waving as they passed guards, they left the camp and then headed north.
They hadn't gone far before Sophie asked, “Ray. Do you mind if I ask where we are going?”
“We are headed to the Byten Mountains. To Tyal. Baccus tells me that you are from there. Do you miss it?” Ray replied. All around them the forest was silent except for the steady beat of hooves the horses made as they walked. A slight breeze gently caressed the trees and the day was warm.
“I haven't been there in a long time. Most people don't know it exists. They think we are bewitched or something. They think the town is evil.”
“Why would they think that?” Ray said. She was getting curious about this place already. Usually when people labeled a place as evil, it was because they didn't understand something there. People tend to fear what they don't understand.
“Oh, you will see when we get there,” Sophie said. She didn't seem to want to talk about it. Ray guessed that there was a reason she didn't openly tell people she was from Tyal. People probably treated her differently once they knew.
“But it will be good to see home again, won't it?” Ray prodded. They had just crossed over a hill and they could see a river not far ahead.
“Well... It will be interesting. So, whats for lunch?”