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SHIELD OF REMEMBRANCE
Quinn ran through the forest, moving softly and swiftly. It was past dawn, though the sun had not yet risen over the mountain peaks to the east. The light was cold and pale, casting everything in shades of gray. Quinn fogged the air with every measured breath.
There were no paths through the untamed woodlands that spread like a blanket across the foothills of the Eastweald Mountains. Ferns and ivy concealed moss-slick rocks, rotting logs, and wild tangles of roots, but Quinn was more at home here than she was in any city or town, and was not slowed by the rough terrain. Despite her speed, there were only a handful of rangers in Demacia—all of them trained by Quinn herself—who would have had any hope of tracking her, so light was her step.
She caught a flicker of movement to her right, and dropped into the undergrowth, instantly motionless. Her eyes were golden, unblinking, and intense, missing nothing.
For ten breaths she remained still, all but invisible among the brush. She glimpsed movement again, and tensed… until she saw it was a greathorn stag. Big one, too, with a rack of antlers easily two arm spans across. Already its fur was starting to change, turning pale and silvery in anticipation of the rapidly approaching winter.
Some said that encountering a greathorn was a good omen. Quinn was not sure that was true, but she’d take it. These days, Demacia needed as many good omens as it could get.
In recent months, Quinn had been helping the Eleventh Battalion hunt rebellious mages—emboldened by the king’s murderer, Sylas of Dregbourne—through the wildlands of northern Demacia. Her rangers were too few, however, and the Eleventh’s strength did not lie in chasing an enemy that didn’t stand and fight. There had been running battles and skirmishes, but it was like trying to grasp smoke.
Quinn had lost three rangers in the last weeks, and their deaths weighed heavily upon her. Thus, it did not sit well with her that she had been ordered away from the hunt for rebel mages, and tasked with escorting Garen Crownguard and a detachment of the Dauntless Vanguard on some diplomatic mission beyond Demacia’s borders. She was due to meet up with them three days hence, on the south side of the Greenfang Mountains.
It hardly seemed the time for such an exercise, and Quinn would much rather have reassigned this mission to one of the others in her command—Elmheart, perhaps. However, the writ of order, delivered by swiftwing, had named Quinn specifically.
And the seal of High Marshal Tianna Crownguard brooked no argument.
She watched the giant stag a moment longer before pushing herself back to her feet. The greathorn saw her now. It held its ground, unafraid.
“Honor and respect, noble one,” she said, with a nod.
It was a long way to the Greenfang Mountains, but the skies were clear. She was confident she would get to the rendezvous point ahead of schedule.
The sun had finally climbed over the peaks, with golden light filtering through the canopy and dappling the forest floor, when the wind changed. It carried a distant, familiar scent.
A keening cry cut through the morning air. Quinn glimpsed Valor above the canopy, through the branches of the immense firs.
“What do you see up there, little brother?” she breathed.
The azurite eagle circled twice, then struck eastward like a blazing blue arrow loosed toward the rising sun. Without pause, Quinn turned and followed.
A short time later, she stood atop a ridge, where a rare break in the trees revealed a valley below. It was partly cleared, and scattered livestock could be seen in dry-stone partitioned fields. Under other circumstances it would have been a peaceful, picturesque view, but Quinn’s gaze was drawn to the smoke rising from the dark shape of a cabin. Her expression hardened.
She began picking her way down the steep incline, descending into the valley.
Quinn warily circled the smoking cabin. She’d known bandits to light fires like this to lure unsuspecting targets, and so she would not approach until she was certain it was not a trap.
She had her repeater crossbow in hand, bolts loaded. It was a one-of-a-kind weapon, lovingly crafted. It was nowhere near as powerful as a traditional heavy crossbow, but she could wield it one-handed, on the move, and without the need to reload after each shot, which made it worth ten times its weight in gold to Quinn.
She frowned as she came across a series of tracks on the ground. There’d been a lot of activity around this cabin in the last day or so, but it seemed she was alone here now. Quinn approached cautiously, crossbow at the ready.
The cabin was a humble abode, but had been built with obvious care. She pushed open the heavy front door—still smoldering, and hanging off its hinges—and stepped over the threshold.
A simple ceramic vase stood upon a fire-blackened hardwood table, holding a handful of wilted wildflowers. The remnants of hand-sewn curtains, mostly burned away, hung mournfully from window frames. Those curtains had been drawn shut, Quinn noted, and the surviving shutters pulled closed. The fire had started after dark.
On a solid oak door frame, Quinn noticed tiny notches carved into the wood. That brought a memory long forgotten, of Quinn’s parents doing something similar to record the growth of her and her brother.
This was not some rarely used hunting cabin—this was a family’s home.
Chairs and cabinets had been overturned and smashed. Drawers had been ripped open, and their contents strewn across the floor. Nothing of value remained. On the wall above the hearth, Quinn noted the sun-bleached outline of a shield.
As she turned, something in the ashes glinted in the sunlight streaming through a hole in the burned roof. Kneeling, she saw an object—a coin, perhaps?—wedged between the hearth and the blackened floorboards. Quinn holstered her crossbow, and used the tip of her hunting knife to pry it free. Likely, it had fallen down there, and been lost—she’d only seen it because the fire’s heat had twisted the floorboards out of shape.
Finally, it came loose, and Quinn saw it was a palm-sized silver shield that bore the winged sword emblem of Demacia. There were words engraved on its reverse: Malak Hornbridge, Third Battalion. Demacia honors your service.
It was a Shield of Remembrance, given to the families of soldiers who fell in the line of duty. Quinn had delivered more than a few of them to grieving spouses and parents herself.
Pocketing the medallion—it didn’t feel right to leave it amid this destruction—Quinn continued looking through the cabin. In what was clearly the family bedroom, which had escaped the worst of the fire, delicately woven garlands were strung across the rafters above the main bed.
In a corner, a smaller, child-sized bed had been overturned, and Quinn’s eyes narrowed as she knelt beside it. Charcoal markings were drawn onto the floorboards where the cot had once stood. The symbols were barbaric, of a sort not generally seen within Demacia. Bones and small pebbles were placed at intentional positions upon the runes, and she was careful not to disturb any of the lines. She had seen such runes before…
Valor’s piercing call sounded, high above, drawing Quinn away from the strange and unnerving display. Keeping low, she returned to the cabin’s main room, and pressed her back against a wall. With a quick, careful glance, she peered through one of the burned-out windows.
A cloaked and hooded man was approaching the front of the cabin, a rangy, pale gray hound loping along at his heels. The dog gave a low growl, but he silenced it with a word.
Moving soundlessly, Quinn repositioned herself in the shadow behind the smoldering front door. The man stepped inside, then froze, like a deer tensing as it feels an unseen predator’s eyes upon it.
“That you, boss?” he asked the seemingly empty room.
Quinn smiled. “What gave me away?”
The man turned, lowering his hood. He had the look of someone who spent most of his time outdoors, his face tanned and his short beard unruly. Just outside the threshold, the hound whined in excitement. “Don’t see many azurite eagles anymore,” he explained with a grin.
“True enough,” admitted Quinn.
“It’s good to see you, boss.”
Quinn knelt on the ground outside the cabin, ruffling the hound’s ears. It had been over a year since she had last seen the Greenfang warden, Dalin, and his faithful dog, Rigby.
The warden had given Quinn his assessment. He’d arrived at the cabin only an hour before her, and after a quick look around, had set out to speak to those living nearby.
“A woodsman saw a group moving through the trees last night, about half a mile up the valley,” said Dalin, pointing. “The moon was full, else he wouldn’t have seen them at all. Raiders, it looks like.”
“Setting a cabin on fire is not a good way to remain unseen,” observed Quinn. Rigby rolled onto his back, looking up at her with adoring, eager eyes.
“Perhaps they were more concerned about alerting anyone to their approach than remaining unseen afterwards? Or perhaps they lit the fire to draw attention to it, while they slipped off?” Dalin glanced over his shoulder. “Careful now—I think someone’s getting jealous.”
Valor was staring at her, unblinking, from a branch of a dead tree.
“Valor knows he’s my one true love,” she said, looking at the azurite eagle, her eyes smiling, even as she vigorously scratched the hound’s exposed belly. “Has there been much banditry in these parts of late?”
Dalin shook his head. “Been mercifully quiet, until this. The unrest spreading from the capital has got people nervous, but the sight of so many soldiers has driven most of the brigands into hiding. Small blessings, I guess. I hear you and yours have been busy, though, back west. Bad times.”
“Bad times,” agreed Quinn. Her jaw clenched, and she changed the subject. “A soldier’s widow and her child lived here. Anyone know where they are?”
The warden gave her a look, then shook his head with a laugh. “I shouldn’t be surprised you already figured that out,” he said. “The woman’s name is Asta. Her man died fighting mages when everything flared up in the Great City. She lives alone with her daughter.” He glanced back at the cabin, and sighed. “I didn’t see evidence of bloodshed when I looked around here earlier, but it doesn’t seem good.”
“No friends or family nearby who they could be with?”
“Seems not,” said Dalin. “The woman’s foreign-born. Keeps to herself. Her husband was from Lissus, back west. No family in these parts.”
“One of the independent nations to the east, apparently. No one seems to know exactly where.”
Quinn grunted and stood. She turned around on the spot, considering, then looked back toward the forest. She paced toward the tree line, studying the ground as she went.
“Here,” she said, coming to a halt. Dalin joined her, and she indicated a number of confusing, overlapping scuff marks. “They came out of the forest, and stopped here.”
Dalin dropped to his haunches, nodding. “At first I figured they were watching for the right moment to approach,” he said. “But then I saw these tracks here.”
Quinn circled around the tracks that Dalin indicated, careful not to let her own footsteps obscure them.
“A second set, lighter than the others,” she murmured. “Our widow and her child.”
“My guess is she confronted them—then they looted and burned her cabin.” Dalin’s eyes narrowed. “I couldn’t find the woman’s tracks returning to the house…”
“They don’t,” agreed Quinn, her expression grim. “Looks like they took her with them. Her and the child. See there? The little girl’s footsteps stop. Someone picked her up.”
She looked back at the cabin. “But these raiders didn’t approach the cabin, either. The ones who burned it approached from the other side. It’s possible the raiders split into two groups before their attack.”
Dalin folded his arms, thinking. “There’s something else,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s any truth in it, but it seems at least some folk ’round these parts believe the woman was… different. A mage.”
Quinn thought of the runes drawn onto the floor underneath the child’s cot. They seemed more like archaic superstition than sorcery… though she could not be certain. This was not her area of specialty.
“The local gossip is that the raiders were allies of Sylas,” continued Dalin, “and they came to collect one of their own. It could explain why it doesn’t look like there was a fight, but why burn the cabin?”
Quinn frowned. She was missing something, she was sure of it. “Could be retaliation,” she mused, “for her husband fighting against mages. Perhaps they were looking for some payback.”
“Killing him wasn’t enough?”
“Whatever the case, I’ll be going after them,” said Dalin. “They’re at least half a day ahead, but if they’re carrying the child, they’ll be slowed.”
Quinn glanced at the sun, judging the time and how far she still had to travel to rendezvous with Garen. It would be cutting it fine, but…
The woman, Asta, had been made a widow by the mage conflict, and it seemed likely she’d been abducted. Quinn could not in good conscience ignore that.
“I’ll come with you,” she declared. “There’s at least five of them, by my count. You’ll need help.”
“Mighty pleased you happened by, boss.”
“Let’s get going, then,” said Quinn. “And don’t call me boss.”
Technically, as a ranger-knight, Quinn was Dalin’s superior, but rigid hierarchy and honorifics had always made her uncomfortable.
“Whatever you say, boss,” Dalin said with a wry grin, knowing exactly how uncomfortable it made her. “C’mon, Rigby! Let’s move!”
Rigby loped alongside his master, tongue lolling seemingly of its own volition, while Valor sliced between the trees, flying low overhead.
The majestic azurite eagle streaked past the two running rangers, tucking his broad wings to avoid branches. In the blink of an eye, he was gone, disappearing into the distance. A few minutes later, Quinn and Dalin found him perched on a branch, waiting. The eagle watched impassively as they ran below him. Only when they were almost out of sight did he launch back into flight, zigzagging at blinding speed, once again shooting by them.
It wasn’t hard to follow the outlaws, particularly with Rigby chasing their scent. There were five of them with the widow, and they’d made no attempt to cover their trail, choosing speed over stealth. The rangers tracked them over a ridge to the north, into a neighboring valley of unbroken forest. The trail then cut due east, following an icy stream that writhed its way down from the mountains.
For hours, Quinn and Dalin ran, closing the distance. The land gradually rose as they climbed higher into the foothills. They didn’t speak, only pausing to check that they were still following the trail. Rigby happily bounded back and forth on these occasions, snuffling through the undergrowth, while Valor watched the dog aloofly.
When the sun was just past its zenith, Quinn stopped, kneeling in the soft loam beside a few boulders. Some moss had been scraped away from one, most likely by a careless boot. Quinn inspected it, and picked something off a flat rock, looking closely.
“They broke bread here,” she said. “I’d say it was only an hour ago. Maybe a little more.”
“We’re getting close,” said Dalin, sitting down and sucking in deep breaths. Rigby was taking the moment’s respite to lap from the nearby stream, while Valor watched. “We’ll overtake them by sundown.”
“Not fast enough,” said Quinn, balling her fists in frustration. “They’ll be over the border by then.”
“You think they’re trying to leave Demacia?”
Quinn shrugged. She pulled a hard trail biscuit from her pack, bit off half, and tossed the remainder to Dalin. He caught it deftly and nodded his thanks. The rations didn’t taste the best—in truth, Quinn could imagine sawdust had more flavor—but they’d sustain them. After a moment, she broke out a second biscuit, and launched it at Rigby. The pale dog snatched it out of the air, jaws snapping, devouring it instantly.
“It’s possible,” she said. “If they were just trying to hide, they’d have done better turning north. There are chasms and ravines up there that would take weeks to scour.”
Dalin chewed his tasteless biscuit thoughtfully. “The closest border crossing’s half a day’s march to the south, though,” he said. “And there’s no way they’d get through. The gates have been locked since the king’s murder. There’s nought but sheer cliffs and watchtowers this way.”
“Unless there’s another crossing we don’t know about,” said Quinn. She glanced down at the dog, now panting beside Dalin. “You think your master can keep up, Rigby, or should we ditch him?”
The hound looked at her quizzically, turning his head to the side.
Dalin snorted. “Funny,” he said. Then, with a groan, he pushed back to his feet.
A short time later, Quinn and Dalin stood on a bluff, overlooking a ravine. A massive rocky spire rose above the forest canopy in the distance.
“There,” said Dalin, pointing.
Climbing around the circumference of the spire was a group of people. It was hard to make out any details—at this distance, they looked like ants—but it was clear that they would reach the border before the rangers.
“If I can get in front of them, I can slow them,” said Quinn.
“The only way you’d be able to do that is if…” started Dalin, but his words trailed off as he saw Quinn staring at him, a half smile on her face.
“Oh,” he said. “Right.”
Quinn soared through the air, borne aloft by Valor. The eagle’s bladelike talons were latched tightly around her shoulders, and she squinted against the biting wind as they sailed over the trees.
“Take us around to the north,” Quinn shouted as they approached the spire. She leaned her weight in that direction, and Valor obligingly angled their descent.
The raiders had circled around to the south of the spire and disappeared into the trees, but Quinn didn’t intend to follow their path directly. No, she needed to get in front if she was to slow them long enough for Dalin and Rigby to catch up. Two rangers against five were not great odds, but it was better than confronting them alone.
Valor continued to come down, and Quinn lifted her legs to avoid hitting the highest branches. The spire loomed before them, and Valor banked around its northern flank, gaining a little height as updrafts buoyed them. Then the rocky ground rose rapidly to meet them. Spying a likely place to land, Valor shifted their approach, and angled his wings back to slow their descent.
Two powerful beats of his wings, and Quinn’s feet touched down, ever so gently.
“Thank you, brother,” she breathed as Valor released his grip. Then she was running again, into the cover of the forest. The azurite eagle, unshackled by her weight, took to the air once more.
Quinn leaped over tangles of roots and burst through stands of ferns and hanging lichen. She ran along the length of a fallen tree, using it as a bridge to traverse a cascading waterfall, before bounding off it and charging up the rise on the other side.
This was not her usual, mile-eating pace that she could sustain for hours on end. This was a full sprint, and her heart was hammering in her chest. After racing up the hill, she hurled herself to the ground, concealed among the bracken. Elbowing herself to the edge of the rise, she peered down into the hollow bellow.
A lone figure appeared, bow in hand. It was a man, bearded and bedecked in furs. A bronze torc around an upper arm glinted in the dappled light filtering through the trees, and Quinn glimpsed swirling warpaint or tattoos on his pale flesh.
The ranger-knight instantly knew this was no Demacian rogue mage or bandit. This was no Demacian at all.
The raider paused, surveying the way ahead, and Quinn felt his gaze flit over her. She resisted the urge to crawl back, knowing the movement of the ferns would draw more attention than if she remained motionless.
Seemingly satisfied, the outsider lifted a hand and gestured forward before continuing on. Quinn stayed where she was, waiting as the rest of the group appeared. One of them had a gleaming Demacian shield strapped across his back. That was the shield that had been stolen from above the cabin’s hearth—a shield that had belonged to a noble soldier who’d fallen in battle. Seeing an outsider wearing it as a trophy filled her with a cold-burning anger.
It wasn’t hard to pick out the widow. While the others were bedecked in furs and leather, she was wearing a simple but elegant woolen dress, rolled up to free her legs. A fur shawl was wrapped around her shoulders, and she wore a pair of practical, tall boots. She looked exhausted, stumbling forward with her head down. With a breath of relief, Quinn saw the child, a toddler with a mass of golden curls, asleep in the thick arms of one of the marauders.
The ranger-knight watched them for a moment longer, then crawled slowly backward, a plan formulating in her mind. She knew where they were going, for she’d been here before, years earlier.
In her youth, she and her twin brother, Caleb, had roamed the wilds around their home of Uwendale, several days’ march to the northwest. The pair had often disappeared into the wilderness for weeks at a time, exploring the forests and mountain foothills, hunting for their own food, and sleeping under the stars. Their father had been none too excited about it, but their mother had always encouraged them. She was a big believer in the importance of self-reliance and resourcefulness, and both children had accompanied her on hunts from a young age.
Their father had come around eventually—it probably helped that the family larder was always well stocked with venison and boar after they returned—though he never stopped worrying for them.
And it turned out he’d been right to worry.
Quinn had been here only once, a month before Caleb’s death. And so she knew that if the outsiders continued on their path, they’d have to make their way up through a narrow ravine, half a mile farther on.
Running low and fast, hidden by the crown of the rise to her right, Quinn sprinted on a path parallel to the raiders. She made it to the ravine before they did, and ran up the side. She’d just set herself up at the top of it, her back against a concealing rock, when she heard the first of the outsiders begin his ascent.
Quinn took measured breaths, slowing her thumping heart. She left her repeater crossbow holstered, but drew her large hunting knife. The blade was long and broad, almost the size of a shortsword.
The outsider was good—he made almost no noise as he climbed steadily up the rocky gulch—but not good enough to realize Quinn was waiting for him. As he hauled himself up the final, steep climb, Quinn stepped from concealment. She was to his side, and he didn’t see her until the last moment. He tried to turn, drawing back the string of his bow, but he was too slow. Quinn struck him in the temple with the pommel of her knife, and he dropped without a sound.
She hastily dragged him out of view. He was bleeding, but he was alive. With swift, practiced movements, the ranger-knight bound the unconscious man’s wrists, before yanking them back and tying them to his ankles. Then she resumed her position, back against the rock. She drew her crossbow, and flipped the knife around in her other hand so that its point was down.
With a quick glance, she peered down the ravine before ducking back. Three raiders were climbing the steep rise below, with the widow between them. The one Quinn presumed was their leader—he was bigger than the others, and alone among them wore chainmail under his furs—was at the front. He was the one who bore the Demacian shield upon his back.
Quinn ground her teeth in frustration. There should have been four of them left. Where was the last one? Was he simply acting as a rearguard, or could he be approaching from an unexpected angle? She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. It was too late to change her plan. She’d deal with him if and when he appeared.
As the leader of the outlanders neared, Quinn stepped out in front of him, crossbow leveled at his throat.
It took him a moment to register her presence. His eyes widened and he halted, reaching instinctively for his axe, hanging over his shoulders.
“Don’t,” warned Quinn. She wasn’t sure the man would understand her, but the shake of her head was a universal language, and the outlander’s hand froze.
He was a big man, two heads taller than Quinn, and easily twice her weight, but she had the higher ground, and was unintimidated. She’d brought down far bigger prey in her time.
His hair was straw-colored and long, hanging in elaborate plaits, and his beard, streaked with gray, was bound with bones and stone beads. His eyes were like slivers of slate, and he stared up at her without blinking.
There was a shout of alarm from the raiders half hidden behind his bulk, but the big man barked something over his shoulder in his own clipped, harsh language. He looked past the ranger-knight, searching. Probably trying to see what support she had.
His gaze returned to her. He licked his lips, and Quinn knew he was judging the chances of closing the distance without taking a fatal bolt.
“You speak my language?” asked Quinn. “You understand my words?”
The outlander stared at her for a moment before giving a slow nod.
“Let the woman and child go,” said Quinn, “and we won’t have to see how long it takes you to bleed out from a bolt to the throat.”
The big man snorted in amusement. “You’ve been tracking us? Alone?” His voice was deep and heavily accented. “You may kill me, if you are lucky, but my men will tear you apart. I do not think I will do as you ask.”
“I wasn’t asking,” said Quinn.
The outlander grinned. Two of his teeth were made of gold. “There is steel in you, Demacian. I like that.” His smile dropped abruptly. “Where’s my scout?”
“Alive,” said Quinn.
“Good. He is my brother, by oath. My wife would be angry if I had let him get killed.”
“What’s going on?” the widow called up.
The leader of the outlanders barked a response in his own language, though Quinn did recognize something amongst that garble of words: Asta. The widow’s name.
The woman begged. “Please, I don’t want any—”
“Be silent!” shouted the leader, half turning, his face flushing a deep crimson. When he looked back at Quinn, his expression was angry. “You should not have tried to stop us by yourself.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Quinn saw the fifth raider rising to his knees atop the ridge to her left, bow in hand. Quietly he nocked an arrow and drew the string, weapon leveled at her.
Quinn, still holding the leader’s gaze, gave him a smile. “What makes you think I’m alone?”
There was a flash of blue, moving like a thunderbolt, and the bowman gave out a strangled cry. His arrow, loosed in haste, sailed into the undergrowth, and he fell back, clutching at his bleeding hand.
The widow screamed, and everyone broke into motion.
One of the warriors threw a hand axe, sending it hurtling end over end toward Quinn. She swung aside, dodging it, but that was enough of a distraction for the leader. He sprang forward, swinging his axe off his shoulders. Quinn loosed two bolts in quick succession, but the first missed its mark, slicing harmlessly by his head. The second took the raider in the meat of his shoulder, embedding itself there, but it did nothing to slow his charge.
With a roar, he brought his weapon around in a lethal arc. It was a heavy, double-handed axe, and the strike was meant to hack Quinn in two. She swayed back from the wild swing, then reversed her momentum—she was far quicker than the outsider, for all his power—and stabbed him in the chest. It should have been a killing blow, delivered right to the heart, but the tip of her knife caught in his chainmail, stopping it from sinking deep.
The big man drove Quinn back with a swinging elbow, sending her reeling, then brought down his axe in a heavy overhead blow. Diving to the side, Quinn avoided the strike, and let loose a bolt at close range as she rolled. The bolt plunged into his flesh just above the knee, and the warrior collapsed with a growl of pain.
Quinn was on him instantly, knife at his throat.
That gave the other raiders pause, and they traded glances, unsure what to do. One of them was still cradling the woman’s child, though the infant was now wailing loudly.
The widow scrambled forward on her hands and knees. “No, no, no,” she cried. “Please, don’t hurt him!”
Quinn blinked. “You… know this man?” she asked, looking at the exhausted, tearful woman before her.
“Of course I do,” the widow said. “He’s my brother.”
“My husband was in the capital when the king was murdered,” said the widow, Asta. She held her daughter in her arms, and was gently swaying back and forth, trying to calm her. “He was defending the palace. The mages killed him.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” murmured Quinn, as she bound a length of cloth around the outlander leader’s leg. His name was Egrid. His chest wound was only minor—his chainmail had saved him from worse harm there—and he’d torn out the bolt from his shoulder himself.
The other warriors were sitting on rocks nearby. One had some ugly cuts on his hand, and was staring balefully at Valor, perched on a branch overhead, while the one Quinn had tied up was rubbing gingerly at the side of his head.
Standing near Quinn, a deep frown on his face, was Dalin.
“I met Malak when a diplomatic contingent came to my homeland, six summers back,” said Asta. “In Skaggorn, I was a chieftain’s daughter, but when Malak returned to Demacia, I came with him as his wife.”
Quinn finished tying the bandage, then sat back to inspect her work.
“You are fast, and strong, and you stitch wounds well,” said Egrid with a grin, his golden teeth flashing. “Marry me, and come back to Skaggorn with us, yes?”
Quinn didn’t even dignify that with an answer. “But why try to leave Demacia now?” she asked Asta. “You must have known that would bring trouble down upon you.”
“My people left the Freljord many generations ago,” said Asta, “traveling over the mountains and settling in Skaggorn. Yet the old blood still runs in my veins. My grandmother was a seer, one you would call a mage, or a witch. I do not have that power, but what if my daughter develops the sight? I have heard what is going on. She would be taken from me. The Frost-Bringer knows what would happen to her. I could not risk that, so I sent word to my family by hawk, begging them to get us out.”
“Mageseekers,” Quinn hissed, shaking her head.
She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. If the child manifested arcane powers, the mageseekers would take her. Were she in the widow’s shoes, Quinn would likely have already taken her child far beyond the reach of that insidious organization. She couldn’t blame Asta for what she was attempting.
“You understand we can’t let you go,” said Dalin. “The borders are closed. No one is allowed to leave without express permission from the high council itself. It’s the only way to ensure the traitor Sylas and his associates don’t slip away, and escape justice.”
“My husband died fighting against the traitor!” said Asta. “Everything here reminds me of Malak. Without him, I don’t wish to stay. And the small-minded farmers of our valley hate me. They already think I’m a witch.”
“You didn’t ransack your own home when you left, did you,” said Quinn. It was a statement, not a question. “And you didn’t set it ablaze, right?”
“What? No, of course not.” Asta paused. “Did someone truly do that?”
Quinn nodded. “And the markings under your daughter’s cot,” she said. “They were not of a… sorcerous nature, were they?”
Asta laughed, shaking her head. “A blessing of protection. A mark all Skaggorn mothers make for their children.”
Quinn nodded again, finally understanding. “But that runic blessing might seem like sorcery to those who wouldn’t know any better. Even I was suspicious of it.”
“I was careful to keep the old traditions to myself, but my neighbors were always wary of me,” Asta said. “And with all that’s been happening…”
It seemed clear now that the second set of tracks leading to the cabin had not belonged to any warrior of distant Skaggorn. Maybe the locals were seeking evidence of Asta’s sorcery. If so, perhaps they saw those charcoal runes, and set the house ablaze in a clumsy attempt to burn away what they thought was dangerous magic.
Quinn sighed, shaking her head. On the whole, Demacians were good, honorable people, but fear and distrust were spreading like a plague, and bringing out the worst in the kingdom’s scared citizens. It needed to end.
“I found something that I think you should have,” Quinn said, remembering what she had recovered in the wreckage. She handed over the Shield of Remembrance, and tears appeared in Asta’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, clutching the medal to her chest. “I thought it had been lost. It broke my heart to leave without it.”
“I’m sorry, but we cannot allow you to leave,” said Dalin.
“We are leaving, Demacian,” growled Egrid, pushing himself unsteadily to his feet. “Do not try to stop us.”
“Egrid, enough!” snapped Asta. “These two rangers are just doing their duty.” She turned to Quinn. “But please, I beg you, at least let my daughter go. She should not have to suffer for something beyond her control. Let her go with my brother, and I will return with you.”
Dalin and Quinn traded a look. The law was firm. No one was allowed to leave Demacia, not Asta, her daughter, or the Skaggorn warriors.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” said Dalin.
“If we let them go, then we are the ones violating the law,” whispered Dalin.
The two rangers walked behind as the group trekked eastward.
“We need to know how they got across the border,” replied Quinn in a low voice.
Dalin looked troubled, but he gave a clipped nod and fell into silence.
It wasn’t long before they reached the cliffs marking the edge of Demacia. The Skaggorn party led them to a secluded location, tucked just out of view of the guard towers to the north and south. Every inch of these cliffs should have been visible to one of the dozens of Demacia’s watchtowers, but clearly this was a blind spot.
Quinn leaned over the edge. The drop was several hundred feet, but heights had never bothered her. She could see pitons hammered into the rock. “You approached the base of the cliff at night, so as not to be seen by the sentries?” she asked.
Egrid nodded. Quinn grunted, impressed.
“Quite the climb to make, even in daylight,” she said. She looked down at the big man’s strapped leg. “Sorry about the knee. Are you going to manage it?”
“Of course! We of Skaggorn are strong,” boasted Egrid. “You are strong, too. You should return with us. The two of us, we would make strong warrior children. Yes?”
Quinn stared at him without speaking, her expression unreadable. Eventually, he shrugged and turned away.
“Worth asking the question,” he muttered. With a shout, he ordered his men to retrieve the ropes, hidden in the undergrowth nearby.
“I thought you just wanted to find out how they crossed into Demacia unseen,” hissed Dalin, taking Quinn aside. “We’ll be breaking our oaths if we allow them to go!”
“I’m uncomfortable with forcing a woman to stay and risk having her child taken simply because of a quirk of her bloodline,” she said, her voice low. “Besides, our first oath is to protect Demacia.”
“And letting them go protects Demacia?”
Quinn flashed him a fierce glance. “If we try to stop them, this plays out in one of two ways,” she whispered. “Either they kill us and leave anyway, in which case Demacia has lost two of its best rangers—or we defeat them, and Demacia gains an enemy, for the people of Skaggorn will know we are holding a chieftain’s daughter against her will.”
Dalin glanced at the big warriors, and conceded the point. “Doesn’t make it right, though,” he muttered. “And still makes us lawbreakers.”
Quinn regarded him. “If you want things to be simple, then you’d be better off in the regular infantry. Things are always more complicated out on the fringes.”
“The laws be damned,” snapped Quinn. “It does not weaken Demacia in any way to let them go, but it will if we try to stop them.”
Quinn rarely enforced the power her rank allowed her… but she did so now.
“Stand down, soldier,” she growled. “I am letting them go. That is an order.”
He stiffened for a moment, then gave her a sharp salute.
“As you will it, ranger-knight.”
The sun was starting to set as the Skaggorn party commenced climbing down the cliff. Quinn waited till they were all on their way—tied to each other, with the widow Asta’s child strapped tightly upon Egrid’s back—before she turned away. As good as their word, Egrid’s men removed the pitons they’d hammered into the stone as they descended.
Quinn had less than three days to get to the meeting point with Garen. She’d be forced to run through the night to make it in time, but had no doubt that she would. She gathered herself, readying for the journey ahead.
Before she left, Quinn paused, glancing over at Dalin, who was sitting near the cliff’s edge, Rigby at his side. He was looking eastward, away from her. They had barely spoken since the Skaggorn began their descent.
“I don’t expect you to feel good about it,” Quinn said, “but letting them go was for the best.”
He looked at her. “I understand,” he said. “Matters just aren’t as straightforward as I’d like them to be, I guess.”
“For some, they are,” said Quinn, shrugging. “But we are rangers.”
The Greenfang warden gave a slow nod, then stood to see Quinn off.
“You watch out for her, Valor, you hear?” he said, addressing the azurite eagle perched nearby. “Demacia needs her.”
Valor clacked his beak in reply.
“Speak to the local garrison,” Quinn said. “See that they build a watchtower here. Best make sure this gap in our defenses is closed for good.”
“Pulling rank on me again, boss?”
Quinn snorted, and scratched Rigby behind the ears. “Something like that.” She looked the warden in the eye. “Stay safe, and stay vigilant, Dalin,” she said. “Demacia needs you, too.”
Then she turned, and started running once more.