Rain fell steadily from the skies, running down the dark teal needles of the lahm forest before dropping to the ground with gentle pattering sound. The sky was obscured by a thick, dull blanket of clouds, cutting the light from midmorning brightness to the dim of dawn. Along with the rain, the air was so full of moisture that a thin mist hung under the trees, a feature that soaked through any number of layers to chill the flesh and bone underneath. In all, it was as unlike the clear, sunny skies of yestermorn as a bed of moss was to a briar patch.
Jessi smothered a sneeze, giving the dripping foliage a glare that probably would have set it on fire if it had been any less damp. It was miserable weather for anything that involved going outdoors; she certainly hadn't hear any plans for the normal sparring and weapons drills when she had been gearing up this morning. But even if it was unpleasant, scouting and foraging were just as necessary as they would be any other day. There was nothing to do but to fold her wings tightly to her back and soldier on; when she was back inside, she could complain, but out here it was less than pointless.
With a deft twist, she broke one last branch and stored the precious bundle of oval leaves in her satchel. There was no need to strip the olpi bush bare, not for a small watchpost like hers. Doing so would limit the nourishment the plant could receive from the sun, and delay the growth of fresh leaves, as well as alerting any Kaarin raiders that there was a settlement nearby as clearly as a signal pyre. The longer they went unnoticed, the less of the disinfecting salve made from the leaves would be needed.
The Zitra reached for a fallen lahmcone, only to have a shower of cold water drench her back as her movement startled a creature in the tree above. By the sunshine and moonshine, she was going to have Holza's /hide/ for this! Of all the days to discover an infected clawstrain! If she hadn't known his working habits so well, she would have suspected him of ducking the duty to stay out of this horrid weather.
Her thoughts of vengeance were rudely interrupted by the harsh cracking of fallen wood and a muted hiss. Jessi swiveled her ears and caught the low sound of voices, conversing in a sibilant tongue that made no sense to her. Raiders? This close to Halegrove? She retreated slowly, trying to disturb the undergrowth as little as possible as she cast about for a low-hanging tree limb.
In a forest at this stage of growth, it was not too hard to find, and it was a matter of heartbeats before she was perched on a branch three heights above the ground, obscured the needle clusters on the lower limbs of the lahm tree. The scout waited anxiously, hardly breathing as a full clawspan of minutes ticked by. Her patience and precaution were rewarded. Two shapes loomed through the mist, slowly solidifying into the upright feline forms she had been taught to distrust. Kaarin!
Despite her efforts, she had been heard; the two were moving cautiously and looking in all directions. Jessi huddled closer to the limb, tensed for action if she was discovered. But the kaarin did not seem to be able to pick her shape out through the fog and the foliage, and the scent of the mud and rotting plants covered her own well enough. They moved closer, and discovered the olpi bush she had been harvesting from. The smaller of the two fingered the raw, sappy ends, his headspines lifting as he growled something to his companion. The taller examined the area closely and gave a harsh, gutteral bark, thumping the other as he pointed at the imprints she had left in the mud. Both seemed to relax, and in the tree above, Jessi did as well. The wrappings on her feet had done their job, softening the distinctive Zitren clawprints into something much more like the hoofprint of a forest grazer. The noise she had generated was dismissed as a non-threat rather than evidence of a lurking enemy.
The conversation grew louder now that the Kaarin thought they were alone, and Jessi took the opportunity to examine them from her vantage point. They both had fur of a brownish shade, though the exact color was lost when it was damp and slicked to their bodies from the rain. The Kaarin race had little need for clothing since their bodies were naturally covered, but by the quality of what they did wear and the minimal ornamentation to their tails, she guessed that these two were relatively low-ranking. Scouts then, like her. They did not carry much other than their spears and daggers, so they must be based nearby. She wished she understood their language; it was highly unlikely that they would be talking about anything of great import so openly, but even the slightest bit of information could be useful in the right hands.
The Kaarin glanced upwards and Jessi's heart leapt, but they were only checking the sky for the position of the sun. With a start, the scout realized that the rain had stopped altogether; the pattering now was the sound of moisture dripping from where it had collected in the needles of the trees. Gaps were appearing in the cloudbank, and a very few beams of light were lancing through the mist. Below, the Kaarin turned and headed back the way they came.
Jessi waited until they were out of sight before she began to decend inch by inch down the tree. She blessed the training that had seemed so dull once the basics had been grasped; it had probably saved her life. Now she was faced with a decision, and she unhesitatingly chose the longer of the two choices. She could return now and report her sightings, but it would be infinitely more useful to have the location of this raider base by the time she returned to the watchpost. Now the trail was fresh, and not muddled by time and forest animals as it could be by the time a proper patrol got out here. She focused intently, and rewarded herself with a satisfied smirk as her skin and scales faded from their bright blues and tans to a duller, grayish color the same shade as the lahm bark. With this and the mud from before dulling her scales, she stood a chance of following them undetected. With as much care as she could manage, she crept after the Kaarin.
In a distressingly short amount of time, she picked up their trail. They were making no efforts to hide their presence, which did not bode well for the Zitra of this area. Such a thing only happened when they had no need to hide, which argued for a large and well-prepared force. Her post might have to call for help on this one. Still, she kept to the trail, looking for more information to help her people.
The sun had broken through the clouds by the time she found their camp, and she almost cursed the light as harshly as she had condemned the earlier rain. It illuminated a clearing swarming with Kaarin, more than twice the size of her watchpost. It was impossible to count the enemy as they went about their allotted tasks, but the sentry count was a good estimate, and already she was mortally certain that if they attacked now, her people would be crushed. Even more concerning was their equipment; the armor was uncommon enough for mere raiders, but not only did every Kaarin have a set, they all matched. This was no raiding camp. This was an army.
Jessi knew little of the politics between the Zitra and the Kaarin, but never before had they been so antagonistic. At odds, yes; both groups possessed territory and resources the other would like to claim. Kaarin were not native to the forests, but coveted the easy source of wood and access to the coasts. The Zitra longed for the fertile grasslands that made farming so easy and the mountains that made such good places to build cliffside cities. But neither had been willing to risk a full-fledged war before, and made at least token efforts to control the bandits and raiders picking at the borders. But this was something new, and it was frightening. The post needed to know about this right away.
If it was possible to be even more careful, she was now. The droplets beaded on every branch of every tree caught the light when they shook, and it would be easy to give herself away. The scout crept as far as she could stand away before taking to the air. It was risky to fly on patrol; the sound of wingbeats gave the enemy advance warning. However, it was far more preferable that she get caught than drawing a line of tracks straight to her base. And right now, speed was of the essence, and it was something she prided herself on. Nobody in the scouts could touch her when it came to speed and agility together.
She could only pray that she'd give them enough time to prepare.
Her hand dropped from the handle of her axe in numb disbelief as she tried to reconcile the deserted and mauled camp with the orderly and efficient watchpost she had left this morning. Even the treefolk had not escaped harm; knotted ropes swung from the platforms, abandoned once they had served their purpose, and the blood inside the shelters did not bode well for the escape of those who had slept there. The officer's building was empty, with gaping holes smashed through the wooden walls; the hospital only held maroon smears and broken beds. And everywhere there were bodies, piled in careless heaps to have them out of the way for whatever looting had taken place. The dead and lifeless faces of her former comrades and friends stared at her with blank eyes, silently accusing. The Kaarin she had seen were patrolling for survivors. She had no right to be alive.
But she was. And short of walking into the enemy camp to change that, it was how fate had fallen out. There was no time to wallow in grief, as much as she wanted to. If she wanted to protect her people, she had to act now.
Jessi delayed only long enough to grab a kit of supplies. With a last look and a mournful apology, she left the red-smeared mud below her and flew south, feeling as if the trees were full of eyes and aimed arrows.
The Zitra must be warned.