A/N: And… the second chapter is here, along with the introduction of some more characters. The formatting for scene splits is weird, so I am titling new sections with declarations of whose mind we've jumped into. Enjoy! Oh, and a warning for violence ahead.
Chapter Two: The Break
She did not get to spend the money on lavish things. She tried, but with no success. She stood in the market, morning dew glistening off stalls as the sun rose, and all she could bring herself to approach was the food cart.
This one stacked bread loaves high up along with tumbling piles of fruit. The myriad of colors whetted her appetite more than anything else: red, orange, green, they all lay there like gems in the morning light. Elissa fingered the pouch tied at her waist. She had stashed her leathers in exchange for a shirt a trousers and had washed up before braving the streets. With a little work, Elissa looked like a plain citizen.
She untied the coin pouch and approached the cart. The vendor looked up at her with a sleepy expression. She kept her attention focused on the fruit and kneaded the pouch full of silver. "Can I help you?" asked the vendor. Elissa looked up at him.
"Yes," she said slowly. She pulled the opening loose of the drawstrings and stared down at the silver coins before drawing out two of them and plunking them on the cart edge. The red fruit looked good. Elissa could not remember the name of it, but she picked it up and hefted it, testing the ripeness. "This one," she said, gesturing to the vendor.
He nodded at her and pocketed the two coins. "Have a good day."
Elissa retied the pouch of coins and walked farther into the markets. She bit into the fruit experimentally. She could not quite remember the taste. When the tangy splash hit her tongue, she smiled. It was almost as good as she had imagined. Juices ran down her chin and she wiped her face with her sleeve, staining the flaxen shirt a dark red. It looked better that way, she mused. A scrawny girl eating fruit without a care was certainly less threatening than the scrawny thief who had possibly made a fatal error in her career.
The fruit was good, not as sharp a flavor as she would prefer, but nothing would probably wash the bitterness from her mouth. Elissa knew she probably had to leave the city. She was more shocked that the man had let her leave in the first place. Then again, she was not much of a threat unless she warned the people she stole from that the Hand was in possession of the journal.
Elissa shook her head and looked around the major road. People had begun to trickle onto the streets in a larger force. It had been a quiet morning. More people would be better for concealment.
A man walked along the side of the street up ahead. He looked different from the surrounding people, considering he wore a deep, black vest over a rough tunic. Most people learned to avoid those wearing a black vest. It usually meant trouble. His stride was purposeful and he glanced over at Elissa more than once. She held the fruit up to her face and ducked down an alley as casually as she could. If a hand wanted her dead, she needed to speed up her departure.
She clutched the fruit too tightly and the juices ran over her fingers. Elissa tossed it aside into a trash heap and dunked her hands in a rain trap, shaking the cold droplets of water from her fingertips.
Footsteps clacked down the alleyway after her. She refused to look and continued in the opposite direction. Looking back would only provoke an attack sooner. Instead, she took a series of pathways that led to the busiest street of the city. At this time of morning, it was choked with carts and foot-traffic of people setting out for work. Don't look back, don't look back. By the gods, did she want to though. People pressed into her. Hands slipped by. She shoved aside the hand of a man who reached for her purse. The hand took hold of her wrist and the man yanked her aside with a wrench that nearly popped her shoulder out of place.
"Hey!" She pulled her arm free and got a better glimpse of her assailant: another Hand, a man in a dark vest. He stared at her with mock confusion, as if he did not know what he had done. She retreated into the larger groups of travelers. The Hands would not risk causing a scene in the middle of the market. It would work better than going to the guards, who would only defer to the authority of the Hand. If she could just disappear, she might live to see the next day.
She followed the flow of traffic leading out of town. It mostly consisted of traders setting out to do business with the outlying villages. That was what she needed to do, get out with one of those trader caravans and dissolve into one of the many villages. She made it most of the way down the main road without drawing attention. Elissa picked a larger caravan and integrated herself with the people. She matched pace, demeanor, and managed to pick up a large sack of something and hoist it over her shoulder. I look just like one of the lackeys, she thought. The contents of the sack shifted: potatoes, she decided. They were hauling produce.
While they walked, she thought up a backstory, who told her to help and why, vague locations that would keep any nosy task managers busy. A motion on the edge of the street drew her sight. Someone pointed directly at her, no one from the caravan, a man standing on the side of the street. Elissa kept walking, sack over shoulder. The man who pointed moved out of her line of sight. She focused on the rear of the wagon again. They moved out from the market and to the opening leading to the town gate. This was by far the most dangerous part. The crowds thinned out in the suddenly wider roads and the market stalls fell away. The traffic still kept up because of the morning rush, but it still felt like stepping out into an open field as a mouse. An owl would most likely swoop down and snatch her up.
But the caravan stumbled on toward the gates with no interrupts. The caravan passed through, Elissa walking through the gates with them. No one moved to stop her. Still she could not breathe easy. She felt naked out on the field. No tools. No leathers. Keep moving. The caravan quickly branched off the main road for a smaller path heading south. They moved toward the forest, a perfect place to get lost in. Elissa looked around at the smaller group. She estimated thirty people remained, though not all of them likely worked together. The caravan rode into the forest that surrounded town, the large pine trees towering over them at immense heights. It was not the thickest of cover, but one could easily lose themselves within. Elissa had barely ventured into the woods during her stay in the city. She knew a few markers and destination points, but not enough to claim competency.
As they walked on, Elissa noticed some movement farther in the forest. She turned and tried to see what lay out there, but as soon as she shifted her gaze, the movement stopped. One of the caravan members must have noticed her, because the man leaned in and said, "You'll never catch sight of 'em."
Elissa turned and looked at the man. He looked the part of a farmer with his roughly patched up clothes and unshaven face. His eyes held a glint of intelligence she could not quite place, however. "Catch sight of who?" she asked.
"The damn treewalkers, that's who," said the farmer. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it's nice to have them keeping the nasties at bay, but they're just a little unsettling, you know?"
"I don't," said Elissa. She turned from the man and focused on the road ahead of her once more. The farmer did not notice his dismissal, however.
"See, that's the thing of it, though," he said. "They move through this place, completely untraceable thanks to their charms work."
"But that's illegal." She readjusted the bag of potatoes.
The farmer shrugged. "Doesn't stop them."
"What about the king's scryers?"
"They can't touch the treewalkers."
Elissa shook her head. "That's impossible," she said.
"They found a way though, just saying." The farmer finally turned away from her and caught up with his friends. Elissa looked back over to the forest. She could have sworn she saw movement between the trees. It should be easy to see them with the trees so widespread. They had to be using charms. And the Hand had not killed them for it.
The cart rolled onward. They had to be close to a town. Elissa slowly approached the edge of the cart and lay down her sack of potatoes. No one seemed to notice. Maybe they thought she needed a rest. Elissa let her gait slow down so she fell behind the rest of the travelers. As soon as they moved a ways ahead, she moved off the path and into the forest, toward where she thought she saw the movement. She expected to see a person behind every tree trunk. Movement kept catching the corner of her eyes. Still, nothing revealed itself. She walked deeper and deeper into the forest, out of earshot of the caravan. When the silence of the forest seemed to press down on her, she thought about turning back. She looked up at the canopy then glanced over her shoulder. She turned to leave.
They materialized from nowhere, three men, all of them dressed as members of the hand. Before Elissa could react, they had her. Two gripped her arms tightly while one other stooped, delivering a crushing blow to her stomach. The wind flew from her lungs and she gasped at nothing for a few moments. As soon as she drew in a lungful of air, however, the onslaught resumed. An elbow connected with her shoulder, forcing her down to the ground while the fist returned to her face. Spots dazzled her vision and her jaw radiated a new pain. Someone kicked her back. The blows picked up quickly and though they tried to make her, Elissa did not cry out.
The man in front of her grabbed her by the chin and the pain spiked from her jaw again. He forced her to meet his gaze and he sneered down at her. "Don't have anything to say?" he asked.
Elissa did nothing. She looked down and waited. The smack to her face came just as she knew it would. Her jaw felt like it was on fire. She could only hope they would kill her. The next punch came her to chest. She had hoped he would stick to her face, that way she might fall unconscious, but the Hand would never be so stupid when punishing an unruly citizen. She should have never taken the job. Too late for regrets.
One behind her struck the back of her skull. This time she cried out and her sight wavered. Neniton, take me from this world. The god of subterfuge did not reward failures. Still she doubted all the godly might in the cosmos could intervene now. One more punch, and she knew nothing more.
Her arrow hit its mark easily. Usually, the Hand was so careful in their territory, but something distracted them today. It allowed the arrow tip to pierce the man's heart and startle the other two. They dropped whoever they held and looked around wildly, reaching for weapons. Kalanat drew another arrow from her quiver and aimed, but she was not so lucky a second time. The men dissolved before her eyes, though the last arrow she released skimmed an arm. They ran.
"Damn their charms," she muttered. Kalanat lowered her bow. The abandoned figure slumped forward next to the dead Hand member. Two other archers dropped down from the trees. "And where were your arrows?"
"They had wards for overhead attacks. I guess they did not expect a ground assault." The woman who spoke approached her. They all wore cloaks dyed a deep green and carried longbows as tall as themselves. "Kalanat, they had someone."
Kalanat glanced back over at the slumped figure. "A traitor trying to escape the city, most likely." The three women approached. The figure on the ground was a woman, a severely beaten woman. Kalanat ran forward a knelt down. She reached out and gently touched a shoulder. "Sosux," she whispered. Her senses flared, briefly extended into the life of the woman laying before her. She turned to her comrades. "Fetch a litter," she said, removing her hands. "There are too many broken bones to carry her back." She glanced back down and tried to get a good look at the woman's face. She reached down and brushed aside the feathery black hair. She was pale, her fair skin marred with fresh bruises from the assault. Her jaw looked crooked, broken severely. As the others ran back to the village, she sighed and pulled her hand from the woman's face. "You made the Hand very mad, whatever you did," she said. The small woman winced, though she remained unconscious. Kalanat shook her head. The Hand could easily decide that retrieving this broken woman was worth taking on a few treewalkers. They had to get back to the village quickly.