Perisalas rode into the clearing that had the crumbled ruin in the centre, a single cabin stood open, under the trees, door banging gently in the wind. He stopped his horse on the edge of the clearing, flinging up his hand to stop his escort behind him. “Even if they are long gone there might be some evidence of how long they were here or where they went. I won’t have any traces messed up with fresh horse manure.”
The escort, by right, should have spoken one-down to him, but even as fessas he was in command, so they equal to equaled him. In the long moons of hunting Minis they’d gotten to know him and he, them. They’d even followed up a lead sailing out past the Rock and north along that dangerous ocean shore and found… nothing. If I’d been Kurkas, I would have put him on a ship and he’d could be anywhere. With blunt honesty he had to add the thought, including on the bottom of the ocean, so perhaps not.
He dismounted, peering at the ground all around him. The horse stood, ground-tied and his escort waited, setting the two solas boys on the ground, sliding down from the back of their father’s saddle, should he need to call them as his witnesses.
The rains and sun had left little sign. Ah. A tent had been set here. And… another. Perisalas wandered the periphery, bent and picked up a single rusted green bronze hairpin. There was nothing inside the cabin at all but a drift of leaves and rodent droppings.
Perisalas emerged and cast his eye around the clearing in front of the cabin. His eye settled on a pair of posts in the ruins and he paced over and examined them, then beckoned the two solas boys.
“So, sers. Will they choose to tell this one how they managed to spy on the Mahid here without being captured and killed?”
“We… we told you, ser. We were camping out and we were playing Capture the Barbarian and then Fen here got tired of being the Barbarian…” The older boy indicated the younger. “He decided to switch to playing Irefas Triumphs and snuck away from me and I’m older so I was responsible but I didn’t yell, I tracked him and snuck after an’ he was good and then I caught him and he was lying up there, ser.”
The younger point indicated with his chin, pointing at a pile of rocks across the valley and away from the clearing. “’n da didn’t like us playing up here ‘cause we could have a rock fall on us in the ruin and no one would hear… so I was going to ambush him and I knew Paralas was going to yell at me good but…”
“’n I was going to yell, too but…” The older boy.
“…I saw ser. I saw onyxine an’ it scared me so I was still and still and still, ser and Paralas saw me so still and snuck up and we lay and watched.”
“We were scared, ser. They were running a bunch through the woods, after one kid… not much older and the kid was in onyx armour, ser…. An’ he was armed and the one Mahid made him run from t’others and then climb the rocks an’ then spar him, ser.” We lay still and quiet even though we had to… p—um, relieve ourselves.”
The younger chimed in again. “…it was so close to dark we stayed still until dark fell, ser and snuck home ser.”
“And didn’t tell anyone until this one came asking. Very sensible of you, boys.” Perisalas sat down on the ground to make himself less threatening. It had been sheer chance that had brought their story out.
He’d been in the community hall at Feron-at-Ulafas, talking to an oldster who had yet another wild story to tell him, about a Mahid okas buying flour at the mill.
The old man had spun his story and made out Minis… waiting for his okas Mahid outside of town… to be eight feet tall and clothed in starlight when the solas boy had blurted out “But he’s just a kid!”
Perisalas had heard the oldster out and mentally thrown the story in the fantasy trash file in his head. Then he turned around and asked. “That boy… the solas boy who spoke. What’s his name? Where has he run off to?”
His father… a solas guard permanently assigned to the town… had fetched his boys from their hiding place.
“So, Fen and Paralas. You were very smart to speak up when you did. Did you ever come back here again?”
Paralas shook his head, no. “No, ser. Too dangerous to play out here at t’ruin, an’ the snow got deep, ser. We stayed home and minded our da, ser.”
“Very sensible. This one thanks you for your care.” Perisalas sent them back to their father who had joined his escort for this little expedition. He stood up and made one more circuit of the place before getting back on his horse. I need a dozen men to properly comb these hills and into the mountains and a dozen more to even have a hope of sorting the wheat from the chaff of Minis stories. I need more men and more money and the Imperator, He Whose Will is Now the World's has given me pittance to find such a dangerous criminal.
“The Shadow Prince was here,” he said conversationally to the centurion in charge of his escort. Dagasas Raitas, solas. A solid fellow who didn’t seem to mind in the slightest escorting a bureaucrat all around the hinterlands of the Empire. And a good listener.
“So… how does that honourable one know for sure?” Dagasas kneed his horse to one side around a patch of rough ground as the headed back toward the road. “They were merely children reporting something they think they saw. How are they different than these soused-and-smoke filled old men’s dreams?”
“Quite simple really, centurion. This one noted slit trenches dug into the hillside, sufficient for the use of a number of people. The growth of thistle showed this one where a number of men repeatedly relieved themselves. There are no rejins near here of a size and no reason for a remnant fleeing the end of the war to dig in to stay. No reports of bandit groups of that size preying on what little traffic along the road there is.
“This is a terrible place for a bandit hide-hole. Not enough traffic to prey on, nor choke points, nor ambush points in striking distance of this place. And the quality of the boys’ story and their fear of telling it, gives it credence in my mind. They recognized Mahid.”
Dagasas shook his head thoughtfully. “All too complicated for me. I’m impressed.”
Perisalas eased his aching legs as as they turned north, the escort and witnesses jingling along behind. The solas and his boys would turn off to their little town when they hit the turn-off. “This one intends to inquire at Ulafas, centurion. This is a broken track. It only goes so far and no further. Ulafas is a large town and a major crossroads both there and up at the Tunnel under the mountain and the passes over them. To the south… similar… Our elusive young fox… or his Mahid are long gone. From here they could be hundreds of malas away.”
Dagasas just shook his head. “It’s still amazing to me, how you put these tiny clues together into bigger pictures, when you keep getting these… these Antasas’ Bedtime Tales,” he said, harking back to a children’s book popular in the city.
Perisalas, already thinking of where he might find his next track or thread to follow, merely shook his head. “Don’t be impressed until this one catches them, centurion. Not until then.”