Deep in the Forrest of the Shun and early on the following day, Jaysh the woodsman found it necessary to put the day’s events on hold and take a moment to collect his thoughts.
     Until then, the day had proven no worse than the previous three days—not a good day, by any stretch of the imagination—but at least it hadn’t been so bad that he couldn’t cope.
     For example, when he awoke this morning to find his pack gone, his arrows scattered, and his pet missing, he had coped. He had found the shadow standing with the statues, he had given the horrible thing a passing scowl, and he had gone patiently about fining his gear.
     Later that morning, when his regularly scheduled hobby—Hunt Day—turned out to be another regularly scheduled disaster, he had coped again. He had taken the vine from his shirt, he had bit a piece from the end, and he had let the juices do their work.  
     Later still, after wasting half the morning by traipsing through the Shun and finding nothing but empty runs and barren meadows, he’d continued to cope. He’d bitten off a little more of the vine and he’d chew it a little longer and he’d told himself that things had to get better. Sira knew they couldn’t get worse…Could they?
     A few empty valleys later, he found a pack of scabe-wolves scattered about a clearing, and realized that things could get worse—a lot worse. And if there was any doubt, it was quickly squashed when he marched two valleys deeper and found what appeared to be a shaggy mound of fur lying in a heap.
     It was then that his day finally reached the breaking point and he could no longer cope. Because it was then, after spending some time poking the blob of hair with a stick, that he realized the scarcity of wildlife in the Shun had nothing to do with withering resources or changing seasons. The deer hadn’t left the wilderness in search of edible vegetation and the geese hadn’t migrated in search of acceptable climes. 
     They had fled.
     Jaysh laid the stick down and stepped back from the lump of hair, unable to look away. After some time, his despair got the better of him and he had to look away. He found a place several yards away from the shaggy lump and dropped himself in the leaves, his head spinning.
     He stared at the crunchy brown carpet between his moccasins and waited for the dizziness to fade. It was not the good kind of dizziness associated with the vine. It was the bad kind. The kind associated with puking up his guts and lying nauseated on the ground. The dizziness did not abate.
     For a fleeting moment, he felt an urge to scan the woods for the lump’s maker, to run his eyes along the clogging underbrush and the colonnade of trunks, positive that the thing was still here in the forest and creeping upon him from the rear.
     He resisted the urge, reminding himself that the creature he sought had crept upon, and dispatched, two major predators of the Shun, leaving behind no tracks or markings in the process.
     Instead, he turned his gaze to one of the shattered trees above, the closet being a young birch that looked to be as thick as a man’s thigh at its base and not much smaller at the place where it forked into its boughs.
     Jaysh couldn’t imagine the force necessary to snap the thing in two, but that was exactly what had happened. His eyes scoured the area where the top of the tree now hung down from the trunk. There, the wood had splintered into a broad fan of wooden teeth, some of the splintery shards as long as his forearm.
     On his very best day, he couldn’t have torn the smallest of those shards from its base. And yet something had cracked the whole of the tree like a campfire twig, and had done so without leaving a single track in the soil.
     After crawling around the lump of fur, the only clue Jaysh could find involved the oval of flattened undergrowth in which the mound lay, the leaves smashed flat, the briars laid smooth, the dead fall broken and driven deep into the dirt. Seeing it, he could not help but think of the circle of matted reeds in the Sway,
     Jaysh tried to imagine how something like that had happened and could only think of the grist stone from the mill. He imagined someone unhooking it from the gearing and rolling it into the Sway, then the Shun. He spat vine juice from the corner of his lips and let the matter go
     Thinking about it was exacerbating his dizziness, and he didn’t think he could handle much more without spilling his breakfast in the leaves. He let his mind wander and his eyes lose focus, listening to the forest to the north.
     Someone up there was moving around.
     Jaysh had been hearing snippets of the intruders for quite some time, but hadn’t given them much thought. For one thing, he’d been too busy with the blob and, for another, they had hadn’t sounded threatening. Lost, perhaps, but not threatening. They would wander to the east for awhile, march back to the west for a time, then stop abruptly and turn back the east.
     The chances were good that these were not Jaysh’s people, meaning that they were not trappers or hunters or scouts. More than likely, they were city folk who’d wandered off the trail and gotten lost in the woods. In which case, Jaysh would have to lead them back to the Lathian Road and point them in the right direction.
     On most occasions, he did this to get them out of his woods and away from his game, but today he’d be doing it because leaving them there would be nothing short of murder. And he was already having enough trouble sleeping at night without murder on his conscious. Unless of course they were merchants…
     If they were merchants, he’d have to think about it.
     He absolutely hated merchants. The last band of wayward travelers had been merchants and they’d nearly bartered him out of the shoes on his feet and the shirt on his back. They’d hassled him for his knife, his pack, asking him what was in his pack, asking him if he had anything at home he would like to trade.
     Judging by the jingling of their packs and tinkling of their bags, Jaysh didn’t reckon they dealt in pelts or roots or shiny bits of rock, and surely to goodness they could take one look at the woodsman and see that he did. Never the less, the hounding had continued and Jaysh vowed to avoid them at all cost.
     Or in this case, he mused, to keep em from treadin over the top of me.
    Moving behind a giant elm, Jaysh stilled his jaw and cocked an ear to the side, listening for the telltale sounds of clinking metal wares and clacking wooden goods. What he heard instead was the sound of voices, the sound of grown men speaking in the forest.
     Jaysh shook his head and wondered what in the world the man could be talking about. Outside of trees, briars, and the occasional dead fall, there wasn’t much going on out here. He held his breath and sat up straight, squinting at the voices and, at first, seeing nothing more than e He distortion in the leaves. But after a few moments more, the outline of two men emerged from the trees.
     Jaysh slid behind the elm and released a sigh. Merchants never traveled in tandem and seldom in groups smaller than five. In this way, merchants reminded Jaysh of the dead scabe-wolves he’d found a few valleys over, always traveling in packs so that the hounding was more efficient. But if’n they ain’t merchants, he wondered, what are they?
     For a time, Jaysh toyed with the idea that they were hunters or scouts who had heard about the attacks at Westpost and who had decided to watch each other’s backs. But the more he thought about it, the less likely that seem.
     Hunting wasn’t the sort of hobby one performed as a couple. First of all, the less noise and body odor one brought into the woods, the better. And second, hunting by one’s self cut way back on mistaking one’s friend for a prized buck and shooting them squarely between the horns. So if they weren’t hunters…
     Jaysh peaked back around the elm and found the strangers no more than twenty paces away, close enough to see that he was correct. They weren’t hunters. Hunters never wore that much chain mail and body armor and they seldom hunted with throwing knives and short swords.
     These two buffoons were soldiers—officers, judging by the green feathers pluming from the one man’s helmet and the three jagged stripes chiseled into the other man’s shoulder plates.
     From where they were walking now, Jaysh could see these markings as plainly as he could see the green battle-axes on their chest plates and the long dark hair of the man without the helmet, the man who was apparently leading the procession and who’s mouth couldn’t hold still for…longer than…
     Oh, no.