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(Continued from A Wolf Arrives at the Cottage and A Wolf Meets a Cat)

Once past the cottage, [Hex] saw Catriona in conversation with the girl, Aerin, while the two direwolves and the shadowcat watched each other with a certain wariness.

At Hex's approach, Shade lifted his head and stared thoughtfully at the Dornish.

Just before Catriona heard Hex's footfalls herself, she noticed Keir and Mist perk their ears in that direction. She turned to see who approached, and raised a hand in greeting. When the Dornish grew closer she inquired, "Trouble, Hex? Or just tired of listening to the bickering of Houses?"

"No trouble other than the onset of boredom," Hex replied. "I thought we might reconnoiter, if you'll accept the offer of a second bow. Two, now three, visitors in such a short time could mean more wait outside of easy sight. And with all due respect to the steward, if Thelbane or others do mean to attack the cottage we should have a ranging force."

"Aye, I'd be glad for your company," Catriona replied with a nod. "I prefer to be the hunter rather than the lure."

Low growls from Keir and Mist alerted Catriona to a rider's approach before she herself was aware of his horse's pounding hoofbeats and his faint yells. She pivoted to see what approached, and noticed the rider's fervent attempts to get attention. "Easy, Keir and Mist," she murmured. "Hold."

Hex turned to watch the incoming rider, and continued speaking to Catriona. "I also have some coin and possesions from the men holding the crannogs. They mean little to me, but perhaps they would mean more to you."

"My thanks, Hex," she answered. "When we have some time, I'll see if I can glean anything extra from their belongings, although I'll be surprised if my eyes spot something that you did not."

As Catriona tracked the rider's forward progress, she kept her bow at her side. She could raise it quickly if necessary, but she was already recognizing the form as one of the lads from Marshend. She glanced at Aerin and said in an aside, "We'll watch to ensure this isn't a ruse, but our concerns are for those with a more subtle approach."

As first Binnder, then Keary, strode away from the Clearwater-Bolton-Manderley conference to greet the rider, Catriona kept steady watch, within range should Keary signal that he wanted Mist or her to come closer.

She was in an excellent position to observe ...

"What's going on?" asked Aerin in a low voice. "Who is that boy?"

"He's one of the villagers from Marshend," Catriona replied in a low tone matched to Aerin's. "Something's riled him up to ride out here the way he did." She gave a slight nod towards Keary. "If it's something we need to worry about, Keary will let us know if he needs us."

Aerin nodded, and tightened the grip on the dagger she had half-drawn from its sheath.

"Oh!" she said in sudden surprise. "He's mounting up!"

"Aye, that he is," Catriona replied. "Whatever this is about, it's something elsewhere." As Derron called out to Keary, she kept looking in Keary's direction for any sign that he wanted her help.

Keary mounted up on the horse, behind the boy, called back to Derron, then turned his horse; the wave he gave towards Mariam was turned in Catriona's general location, as well. As they took off back towards Marshend, he whistled; Mist's ears perked up, and she touched noses to Keir. Then she suddenly bounded off in a roughly parallel direction to the horse.

"No Shade!" shouted Aerin, for the shadowcat, seeing the canine flee (as he thought it), sprang up to give chase. At the sound of Aerin's voice, he hesitated, then sat down and began to wash as though he had merely been looking for a more comfortable position to do this from.

"Where's he going?" Aerin asked Catriona.

"Into the village for some reason or another," Catriona replied with a shrug of her shoulders. "His business, not ours, at this point."

She studied Aerin for a moment, then glanced over towards Hex. "I feel the need to stretch my legs. Want to go on a walkabout and see what we can see?" She looked at the girl again. "Depending on what we find, I'll try to show you some basic tracking skills along the way."

Aerin nodded eagerly, glancing first at Hex to see if he was staying with the crannogs and not joining them. Shade, after all, could only be expected to be comparatively restrained - and the insult of the cage had never been forgiven.

"I'd love to!" she said eagerly to Catriona.

"Aye, a walk would do me good." Hex replied. The dornish nodded towards Corryn and the other rider as he said. "Two separate riders, two separate horse tracks might be a good starting lesson. And I wouldn't mind seeing where these two came from and who may be waiting for their return."

"I doubt the Steward would condone a further search for Thelbane." Hex continued. "And the best we know is that they'll be looking for you. Likely be safest to avoid the fens, unless Thelbane said something that makes you think otherwise."

Aerin looked eagerly at Catriona, clearly expecting her to take the lead in examining the tracks of Ser Corryn and the arriving Boltons.

Catriona walked over towards the path that led from the road towards the Septa's. Both the Bolton party and Ser Corryn had traversed this way, and there should be ample trail signs from their horses. Keir moved at a leisurely pace alongside her, occassionally casting a glance Shade's way to ensure that the Shadowcat did not come too close to her human.

The hunter knelt down to study the tracks, then after a nod of satisfaction, motioned Aerin to come close. "Hex is right. The horses of our latest visitors will prove a good first lesson. The first rule of tracking is to be observant."

Aerin nodded earnestly.

She picked up a loose twig to use as a pointer. "Here, see the outline of this hoofprint? Notice the shape of the horseshoe and the pattern of its nails. From the orientation of the U, it's clear that the horse was heading in that direction." She pointed towards the Septa's yard, then flashed Aerin a short smile. "We already knew that, but it's good confirmation in a lesson like this."

Aerin again, more slowly, her eyes narrowing slightly as she absorbed this.

She motioned towards another hoofprint, which was part of a set of tracks a few horselengths off to one side of the first. "Now look at this one, and then compare it to the first."

After Aerin studied both prints intently, Catriona added, "The second print has a shoe that's a little differently shaped, and the nails are positioned a bit differently. And the hoofprint isn't quite as deep as the first one."

Her twig pointer gestured towards the second print. "Because this print is far enough away from the first set of tracks, this print came from a second horse. Since the print is lighter than the first, it might be from a smaller horse, or from one that's favoring a leg."

She tapped the twig against her other hand. "The sharpness of the depth is also sometimes a sign of the age of the tracks, too, but in this case we know that all of the horses passed this way within a short time. And if these prints were spaced further apart -- like these," she pointed to a third set of prints, which were even deeper than the first two, "the depth can also indicate that a horse was galloping or running instead of just walking."

Catriona looked at her student to see how much she had gleaned. "See if you can follow one set of the tracks back to the road to show me when the horse turned onto this path."

"Very well," said Aerin, and she set off. At first she moved confidentally; a grassy tussock threw her for a moment - but she found the track again the far side, and moved further with renewed confidence.

As Aerin followed the trail, Catriona followed along several paces behind, Keir beside her. She had no intention of interfering with her pupil's efforts unless Aerin had trouble. She had learned from previous teaching efforts that the best and fastest way to understand any errors her students made was to follow along behind them. Here, close to the Septa's cottage on this open path, a wrong turn was unlikely to cause harm, but elsewhere a novice's mistakes could prove deadly. She glanced at Shade, who sat pretending that he was more interested in his paw than in Aerin's motions, and remembered a lesson in more mountainous terrain that had nearly resulted in the loss of a pupil to one of the shadowcat's mature brethren.

Suddenly, however, Aerin stopped dead - and stared up at the hillside across from the cottage.

"Did you see it?" she said in a low voice to Catriona - although her next words suggested that this was an unncessary precaution. "Over there - a flash of light on the hill ... like armour."

Catriona's brief distraction with the past must have caused her to look away at just the moment Aerin noticed the flash of light, although when the girl stopped suddenly she came alongside her. "Look around and point at the ground here, and then at the tracks you folllowed to get here," she replied. "Pretend that you've lost the trail and are frustrated. Exclaim your annoyance, but occasionally lower your voice to tell me anything you can about the flash without pointing to the hillside."

The hunter positioned herself so that she appeared to be facing the girl more than the hillside, although she directed her eyes so that she would have a good view of the area in question. From all appearances, she was intently listening to her pupil. "Let me see if I can figure out what you did wrong, Aerin," she replied in a normal tone of voice. She gave Aerin a nod, and then crouched down, gesturing to a track with her twig, but kept her peripheral vision attentive to what she could glean of the hillside and who lurked there.

"You did well to notice that, Aerin," she replied in a murmur as she proceeded to pantomine giving Aerin further instructions about tracking. "I suspect that whoever is on the hillside is too far away to hear us, but until we know more, I don't want our actions to betray our knowledge of them."

She stood up, motioning for Aerin to follow her, and then moved back a few paces to "inspect" the part of the path where Aerin "went" amiss. Again her body was positioned so that she would be able to discreetly observe the hillside. She flashed Aerin a smile. "We may have to advance our lessons. Noticing something unusual is key, but controlling your reactions so that the watcher doesn't realize he's being watched can sometimes be the difference between life and death."

Hex had followed along with Aerin's lesson, the subtleties of horseshoes proving more interesting than the dispute at the cottage. He had paused briefly when he noticed Niko begin to speak, as in his brief experience with the young captain words tended to preceed sudden action. His attention returned to the lesson at Aerin's sudden declaration.

The dornishman moved closer to the women, and tried to position himself such that he had at least a peripheral view of the area in question while still appearing to be looking at Catriona. Hex spoke quietly with a smile that contrasted his tone. "Whoever they are, they let your friend leave Keary without challenge."

"Yes," said Aerin quietly, her dark head lowered as she gestured vigorously at the tracks. "But I think they might have been too far away to stop him."

"And they are coming from the opposite direction that Keary rode," Catriona added quietly. "From the hills."

As though to underscore Aerin's words, there was another flash of light on the hillside - perhaps half a mile away.

"That's closer," said Aerin, without seeming to lift her eyes from the track.

"We need to warn the others," Catriona replied, with a flamboyant gesture at the tracks, and then a motion in the direction of Marshend. "Unless you're a bandit yourself, nothing good wearing armor comes from those hills. Casually follow my lead, Aerin. You have the most important job of us all."

She started walking back along the path, pausing occasionally to point out a "track" ever so briefly while surreptiously keeping a watch on the flashes. She kept her voice pitched low as they moved. "Aerin, as soon as we reach that tree, your movements will be concealed from whoever is on the hillside. At that point, I want you to go quickly to warn Derron. Tell him to be alert, but to try not to look alerted. Hex and I will..."

Catriona cast a sidelong look at Hex. "I prefer to be the hunter rather than the hunted. We can either circle around that way," said with a subtle nod of her head, "to see who approaches as well as perhaps lay an ambush on their flank, or we can rejoin the others. Once we reach the tree, we can do either. Your call."

"I would rather be the hawk than the hare, lady hunter." Hex replied. "Being penned up in the cottage may provide us with some cover, but I think we will be of greater assistance as a moving target sniping from the flanks. The Steward seems a doughty fighter, but his tactics may be more of a knight than a bandit."

~Which is to say,~ Hex thought. ~Stand in a straight line and swing steel at each other until someone falls down.~

"The most important thing is, as you've said, that the Steward and his men are alerted." Playing to Aerin's pride, the dornish added doubtfully. "If you think we can trust that to the young lady then I'll support your judgement."

"I can do that!" said Aerin, clearly stung by a challenge to her competence. "Although I do think I'd learn more being out her with you. But I suppose someone has to go back and warn the others, and it had better be me."

She said nothing more until they reached the tree - and then it was only a swift "Good luck!" as she turned to make her way back, staying to the line of concealment. Shade, after a disdainful yawn directed at Keir, turned and padded after her, no more than the tip of his tail visible above the grass.

"And the hunt's afoot," Catriona murmured as they reached the tree. "If we head this way, we'll be out of view, and then can swing around their flank." She flashed Keir a hand signal to stay close, then led Hex on a path around the hillside. Despite the swift pace she initially set, her footfalls fell as silently as those of Keir beside her.

When the dornish and the woodswoman reached a good observation point, Catriona motioned for a halt. She checked that her bow was readied, then slowly and quietly eased forward at a crouch through the grasses, taking care to remain as concealed as possible. She took advantage of the blowing of the wind to try to conceal her forward motion.

There was another flash now - and then a second, a little way to the left of the first. It was still perhaps a good half mile away - and the nature of the country well disguised whoever - or whatever - was approaching.

Hex followed Catriona's lead, first crouching and then moving forward on his belly until he found a place that provided some cover as well as a view of whatever should approach. He was careful to position himself close enough to the woman that they could still communicate sotto voce or hand signals, but with enough space between that a single bowman would need to aim for one or the other.

The dornish left his shield flat on the ground beside him and slipped the bow from his shoulder. After setting the bow near his shield, Hex removed a pouch from his belt and began to assemble the far eyes, again silently thanking his cousin's wisdom.

While Catriona's attention was mostly focused on trying to discern the source of the flashes, eventually she did realize that Hex was fiddling with something unknown to her. She glanced over at him, clearly curious, trying to make sense of whatever it was that he was assembling.

Once Hex was satisfied with assemblage of lenses and leather tubes, he used the far eyes to further investigate Aerin's discovery. Feeling Catriona's eyes on him, he said quietly. "It's a talisman given to me by a maester as partial payment for some cargo."

As the dornish continued to study the area in question, he added ruefully. "I normally put little stock in a maester's spell, but this one at least has proven surprisingly useful."

Catriona studied what she could see of the contraption, a quizzical expression on her face. Noticing that Hex had it pressed against his eyes, she tracked along Hex's line of sight with the talisman. He had the object pointing right at the area from which the flashes of light had originated. She studied that area herself, trying to catch some glimpse of whatever approached.

Seeing that Hex continued to keep the talisman on his eyes, she asked in a wondering tone, "Does the spell project your eyes so they see better?"

What Hex was seeing was the bowing of the grasses and movement to suggest that a small party - perhaps no more than two people - were moving steadily down the hill. The height of them suggested that they were riding - another flash of light ...

One was wearing armour.

Hex kept the far eyes in place as he said to Catriona. "Two riders, one in armour. Might be scouts for a larger group."

The dornish removed his eye from the leather tube and turned to the hunter as he responded. "It doesn't so much project the eye as make something seen at a distance larger. The image is often not as clear as it would be if your eye was truly closer. The maester did his best to explain it but I fear the details were quite beyond a simple trader."

He paused for a second and then handed the far eyes over to Catriona. "Tell me what you see."

Catriona accepted the tube from Hex, and inspected it, turning it over end to end and then back again. Finally she cautiously raised the talisman to her left eye and peered through it, aiming it at the far hillside. The effect was a bit disconcerting with her other eye open, so she closed her right eye. The distant grasses zoomed closer. She pulled her head back from the glass for a brief look, checking to ensure that the hillside really was still at a distance. Then she peered through it once more, scanning the hillside with its lens.

"This maester of yours must be a skilled magician to bring the far so close," she murmured in appreciation.

"The grasses leap closer as I look," she began her narration in a low voice. "Upon a tree a hawk rests, but now it takes to flight. The grasses move in a pattern not just from the wind. Something disturbs them." She paused, tracking the movement through the grasses. "There, the flash of light."

She opened both her eyes as she handed the talisman back to Hex. "What is this wonder called?"

But just as she was handing it back, she saw something with her naked eye - something that looked incongruous against the green.

"Wait - I see something with my eyes alone," Catriona interjected. "Over there, a brown amidst the green, to the right of that giant oak."

Through the far eyes it resolved intself against the green and then because stronger as ... someone pushed through the grass. Another such movement and then it became plain.

A small, stout main on a battered mare - and then a tall, thin grey horse, carrying a tall, thin grey knight in battered armour. A hedge knight.

"That's unexpected," Catriona muttered as she passed the fareyes back over to Hex. "Somehow I doubt those two plan to lay siege to Clearwater by the Septa's. At least not by themselves."

After taking a moment to examine the approaching figures through the far eyes, Hex replied. "Wonderful, a hedge knight. Combining the best features of knighthood and banditry. I agree they're unlikely to try much on their own, but no harm in keeping an eye out for a larger force until they've had a chance to parlay at the cottage."

The hedgeknight was coming closer now - they could challenge him, or possibly head back to the cottage and get there first (or one could do one thing and the other the other thing).

"I'd prefer to keep Keir away from their notice for now," Catriona murmured. "Keir and I will pull back further out of sight, then swing around the hill behind the hedge knight to keep watch for anyone trailing him. You may join us if you wish, or chose another path if another approach calls to you."

"I have little interest in knights," Hex replied. "Hedge or otherwise. I can stay here at least until you're in place, and keep a look out in the distance with the far eyes."

The dornish rummaged in a belt pouch for a moment before pulling out a silver coin. "Do you have a bit of polished steel or perhaps a silver coin? Something that would reflect the sun? I'd suggest we agree on a signal perhaps two flashes for a sighting, three for stand ready, four for all clear, and a single flash to let me know that you're in place."

Catriona patted the hilt of the long knife at her belt. "The blade of this should do. Your signalling system sounds good to me." After a slight pause she added ruefully. "Too bad we didn't have enough time to give Aerin some signals, too. I wasn't expecting Keary to leave so suddenly."

"If we're satisfied the knight and squire travel alone, and pose no threat to the cottage I'd welcome the chance to search out Thelbane before he takes a mind to come back here in force." Hex finished. "No disrespect to the lady Aerin, but I think Thelbane is a quarry ill suited as a lesson in hunting technique."

"Agreed," she replied. She motioned to Keir, and moved off as quietly as she could to take up her new position from which she would flank the hedge knight and his squire, and have a better view of anyone that trailed in their wake.

It appeared, though, that as the hedge knight and his squire made their way steadily down towards the cottage, they were followed by no-one. No-one close that was, who was a member of their party - although the squire could be seen to turn in his saddle and shoot several wary looks over his shoulder.

Catriona turned slightly so that she would be able to signal to Hex without attracting the attention of the knight, his squire, or anyone else who might be heading from the hills. She pulled free her long knife, and allowed the sun to reflect off it with a single flash of light. Returning the long knife to her sheath, she then redirected her attention to the hills from which the squire had come, searching for any sign of whoever or whatever it was that he feared.

As yet there was nothing to be seen, or heard. But Keir was restless, glancing up the hill, as though she was expecting ... something.

Noting Keir's unease, Catriona laid a calming hand on her direwolf's shoulder. She then pulled out the long knife once again, taking care to shield it from the hill. She sent a series of three flashes back in Hex's direction. The hunter then returned the knife to its sheath as her attention refocused upon the hillside and whatever it was that Keir sensed.

For long moments, all was still, and silent. And then ... Catriona saw the faintest of movements, like a shiver in the grass on the hillside.

Hex noted Catriona's signal and used the far eyes to confirm her location. On seeing the three warning flashes he turned his attention, and the far eyes, back up the way the knight and his companion had come.

But he was aware of nothing. All seemed breathlessly hushed and still - there was only the wind, blowing through the long grasses.

A glance in the other direction told him that the knight and his squire had reached the cottage.

Hex continued to scan the area with the far eyes, passing over the huntress' place of concealment from time to time. The dornish had spent years as both the hunted and hunter, impatience could be fatal for either.

Suddenly, there was a quiet movement near at hand, and then he saw Catriona, making her way towards him.

As soon as she was within low earshot of Hex, she held up a finger to her lips. "Go warn the others. Wildlings approach." She paused, then added, "I'd go too but I don't want that hedge knight to see Keir. If I signal you at all with a flash of my knife, I need help."

"How many did you see and what of their composition and arms?" Hex asked. "The steward will want to know. And how close, I suppose, should I run or try to keep under cover so as not to prompt them to charge the cottage?"

Catriona just stared at Hex for a moment, disbelief on her face. "It's not the wildling I saw that counts...the unseen ones are the ones to fear. Wildlings don't raid alone." She shook her head as if to refocus her thoughts.

"Go swiftly and zigzag your course. Until they grow closer, you have the most to fear from the wildling bows, which have a much further range and more power than any bow made in the Seven Kingdoms." She paused for a moment to check her own bow. "I'll cover you as best I can."

She glanced over at Keir for any signs that the direwolf was on alert again.

"And if you hear me call like this," she mimicked a distinctive bird trill, "just run as fast as you can."

Hex spent a further second removing the extra quiver at his waist to leave behind for Catriona, then slung his shield over his back for whatever slight protection it would provide. Raising to a crouch, he offered a last "good hunting," to Catriona and set off for the cottage.

The dornish stayed low at first, hoping the tall grass would offer some concealment and that his movement would not draw attention to Catriona's hide. Once clear of the grass, he increased his pace running towards the cottage.

As he ran Hex remembered Catriona's advice, and was aware of its value from his own experience on both sides of the bow. Running a zigzag pattern provided some increased safety, but only until the watching archer discerned the pattern. The trick was to move as randomly as possible. The dornish kept his eyes on the cottage as well as the ground in front of him, wary of uneven ground or roots that might trip him up.

And every three rocks he saw he zigged to the right, every two flowers he zagged to the right, always moving to stay on course to reach the relative safety of the cottage.

And soon he saw Niko standing guard at the edge of the cottage lands.

Left behind on the hillside, at first all Catriona was aware of was the wind in the grass. Then came an anxious whine from Keir - and another sound - the cry of a bird of the far north.

(Hex's thread continues in Returning to the Cottage)

Page last modified on May 16, 2007, at 04:57 PM