Morning Outside Marshend-- Catriona
(Continued from Hex Seeks Catriona)
After awakening from a fitful, but undisturbed night in her makeshift hiding place, Catriona did a quick check of her immediate surroundings to ensure that no one had crept close when she was unawares. As she did so, she saw Hex signal that he was heading back to the cottage, and responded with a wave of her own.
She then took care to muddy the signs at her hidey hole so that all but the most discerning eye would have trouble figuring out what manner of woman or beast had dwelt within.
Keir at her side, she glanced back towards Hex's trajectory back towards the cottage. She noticed him readjust his approach. She knew that the hedge knight had not departed the previous evening, and suspected that it was too early for him to have yet continued his journey. The past several days had already strained the hunter's preference for solitude to the breaking point, and she had little interest in meeting yet another complication with a social standing not her own.
Rather than return to the cottage, Catriona notched an arrow to her bow and gave Keir a signal. The black direwolf's ears perked up -- the hunt was afoot. At Catriona's nod, Keir moved forward, the grasses parting with barely a rustle beyond that of the wind at her passage Her mistress was her silent shadow, ready to observe, and if necessary confront trouble.
The hills seemed calm and peaceful enough ... but as she looked towards the marsh, there was suddenly a brilliant flash of colour - like a purple jewel had caught the sun. A long pause, long enough for her to wonder if she had really seen it.
And there it was again - right where the Ghost Fens became the ordinary shore marshes.
Catriona's eyes narrowed, since a purple flash like that could not be natural in any way. Either the light came from an unintended reflection, or else it was a signal. She turned to glance behind her to see if there was any flash in response from the hills. She then studied the area from which the original flashes had come, looking for anything more that she could discern from a distance.
There was no response from the hills.
Perhaps it was a random flash, accidental, from someone who was trying to stay hidden. Perhaps it was a signal for someone to take some action - and no answering flash was needed.
Perhaps it was a signal directed at her.
Her efforts to discern the meaning of the flash from afar thwarted, Catriona decided that it was time to investigate more closely. She beckoned Keir back to her side, and then set out cautiously to scout the marshes. She circled around the perimeter of the Septa's lands, close enough to come to the cottage's aid should the flash indicate an attack was brewing, but at enough of a distance to be out of the line of sight.
She and Keir moved as surreptiously as possible as they travelled, intending to carefully approach the area where she saw the flash at the edge of the Ghost Fens to see what it signified.
Niko had trained his own team well in how to move silently in grassland, Catriona realised, as Keir suddenly stiffened slightly in warning.
"Clearwater," Catriona called out softly. "Please tell Steward Thorne know that I go to investigate a strange light in the marsh. Be wary."
At first the man started, wary, holding his weapons defensively ...
"Huntress," he said. "Word shall be carried. Do you desire an escort?"
Catriona paused for a moment. Her reflexive response was to decline, but after a moment's consideration she reconsidered. If this man was any indication, at least one of the Clearwater cohort was capable of some measure of stealth under the right circumstances. And Hex could also be respectably silent when he wished. Another set of human eyes would be valuable, especially if any warnings needed to be relayed back to the cottage. For all of Keir's talents, communication with those not familiar with the nuances of direwolf was not among her skills.
"Aye," she finally answered. "That would be appreciated. Someone like yourself or Hex, capable of moving swiftly and silently when possible." After a slight hesitation, she added, "No one with bells in his hair like your Niko -- if the wind from the lake shifts suddenly in the marshes, the bells would sound out our position for all to hear."
Catriona continued, "And don't let the strange hedge knight and his squire know about any of this. They came from the bandit hills. Whoever they are, nothing good comes from there."
The man nodded grimly. "Very well, Huntress. I'll stay with you."
He turned and gave low voiced instructions to the one who had followed him, who looked concerned, but then nodded and slipped away.
"Lead on, Huntress," said her new companion.
"Before I do, what's your name?" Catriona inquired.
"They call me Galt, Huntress," he replied.
She acknowledged his answer with a nod, then motioned towards the direwolf. "Meet Keir." The direwolf gave their new companion a barely tolerant look, then vanished into the grasses at a subtle signal from her mistress, heading toward the marshes.
Galt watched her go with something like relief.
"This way," Catriona murmured as she followed Keir's path. "Keep close and quiet. The marshes can be treacherous. And the least of the dangers of the fens are the desperate men who may lurk there."
Galt nodded grimly, and prepared to follow her as she took the trail to the marshes.
Catriona set out at a brisk pace, melding into the grasses in Keir's wake. Her strung bow was at hand, an arrow at the ready. She spared nary a backwards glance to see if Galt followed, but seemed almost to instinctively sense where he was, pausing just long enough so that he was able to follow her. Galt caught neither sight nor sound of Keir during the trip through the grasses.
Around them the terrain slowly shifted. The fens were heralded by sentinel sedges abuting the dry grasses of the plains and the trill of a marshbird. The soil beneath their feet transitioned from rich red clay to a black-brown, growing damper with each step.
They stepped around a bend and found Keir sitting on her haunches, waiting with an expectant air. Her black eyes flickered lazily over Galt, dismissing him quickly before glancing back at her mistress.
Catriona gave the direwolf a light touch behind her ears, and listened for a moment. The chirp of birds and the throaty call of bullfrogs signalled a lack of alarm among the denizens of this outpost of the fens.
She partially turned towards Galt, her tone low. "From here we follow Keir more closely and cautiously. Her footsteps are more steady than our own in this treacherous land. Step where she and I step. There are sections of this marsh where the grounds can suck a man under."
An unseen signal passed from hunter to direwolf, and Keir trotted forward into the fens, moving steadily and surely. Catriona took care to follow in the direwolf's footsteps, leaving as little trace of her passing as Keir. By silent communication borne of long familiarity, the pair led Galt deeper into the marshes, towards the area at the edge of the Ghost Fends from which the purple light had flashed. A slight tightening of the brow and a bit of tension across the shoulders betrayed that Catriona remained ever vigilant for any signs of danger.
She became aware of something up ahead - something that felt like a presence in the marshes rather than a sound or anything seen. But Keir did not seem hostile; her eyes pricked up, but she moved forward steadily, without any threat.
Catriona took her cue from Keir, noting the direwolf's anticipation, and wondered if it signified the presence of a mutual friend. She leaned close to Galt for a moment. "Wait here as I scout ahead," she said in a low tone. "There's no imminent danger, but I need to check on what's peaked Keir's interest." She gave the Clearwater man a wry grin. "Probably something tasty for her to eat."
The hunter then slipped further into the marshes, keeping alert for signs of the presence, or anyone else.
Keir moved steadily forward as though she had some definite goal in mind ...
And then the swishing reeds parted to reveal a small clearing. A man was sitting there - as Catriona saw him, he lifted his head, and she saw his eyes ...
(Catriona's thread resumes in The Return of Catriona)