Chapter 29: Contact
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The sounds of conflict bounced off the tall trees from somewhere beyond the edge of camp.

“Danger,” Sen said as she ruffled her feathers.

“I can go see, if it’s bad we might need to move camp,” Ghisé suggested.

“We should move now, it can’t be good,” Cee pointed out. “It could only be humans.”

They turned to me with a questioning look. We weren’t all that far from Redwall, and between the yelling voices and clashes of metal on metal, I knew Cee was right.

“Let’s go see together,” I said. Cee gave me a disapproving look in response. “There could be captives for all we know,” I offered Cee some reasoning she could agree with.

“Fine,” she relented. “Ahbe, carry Tali, we’ll stay to the trees.”

Sen led the group, darting from branch to branch, with Cee, Ghisé, and Ahbe with me following her movements.

“Blessed Tali, please stop squeezing so hard,” Ahbe said. Her comment made me aware that I was using my braids to help me stay in place and ignore my injuries.

I was riding on her back, allowing Ahbe full use of her wings and legs for flying and vaulting. That meant it was up to my strength to keep me from plummeting to the ground below despite her sudden landings, vaults, and flutters. Being carried like a sack was embarrassing, but at least I felt much more secure that way.

“S-sorry!” I quickly apologized and tried relaxing a bit, which turned out to require more concentration than hanging on for dear life.

Our group came to rest on a large sturdy branch with a good view of the developing scene below. There were two wagons pulled up next to a dying fire, one open-topped and full of crates, sacks, and other items. The goods inside were being carried off by a couple figures, their hauling path brought them not far from our current position in the tree. The second wagon was covered, making it impossible to see inside. I could see it rock with movement, but there was nothing entering or exiting.

At one end of the tiny caravan, near the open wagon, was a short stocky figure waving around a large hammer-like weapon. The figure was facing off against three large wolves, occasionally throwing a look back at the caravan. When they did, one of the wolves leapt forward but was battered away with a mighty swing and a mightier curse that reached all the way to our position.

On the other end, near the covered wagon, another figure stood taller and leaner than the first. That one held out a complicated looking weapon—my best guess from this distance was a large crossbow. It must have needed a reload since it was dropped after a moment and replaced with a large two-handed sword. That figure was facing off against a wolf, and two other humanoid figures.

I pointed down towards the group and spoke to my companions with a hint of agitation, “Merchants probably, being attacked by [bandits].”

“[Ban-dits?]” Cee asked.

It was like when I mentioned criminals all over again… “{Bandits, criminals, thieves…] People who take from other people by force!”

“Why?” Sen asked.

“Because… look, there’s no time, we have to help them,” I pleaded.

“Which ones?” Ghisé asked.

“It’s too dangerous,” Ahbe pointed out wisely. “We have no duty to help them.”

Ahbe wasn’t wrong in her reluctance, and neither was Ghisé in her confusion. It didn’t sit right with me though. As much as I struggled recently with knowing where to push forward and where to resist… a merchant caravan being attacked by bandits was a black and white situation. Taking action had to be the right thing to do. Right?

It’s barely been a day since I was injured in the mines, and the logical part of my brain yelled that doing something stupid would only exacerbate them. The part of my brain that just wanted a fight and something simple to believe didn’t listen though. I tapped my braids and leapt from the perch. One of my group called out to me, but I didn’t even listen hard enough to hear who.

Keeping my forward momentum, I only had to flap my wings in a flutter to land safely off to the side of the skirmish taking place. I gathered the mana I spent all day and evening recovering, and prepared myself to spend it all again. As I approached, the silhouette of the stocky figure revealed itself to be what was most certainly a dwarf—or if it was a human it certainly played the storybook part.

I saw a glint in their eye when they shifted slightly at my approach, though my focus was on the offensive team—the wolves. They noticed me too. The nearest one positioned itself a bit more toward me. Though, if it was considering attacking, it never got that chance as lightning erupted from my lips in a cone that split the air and lit up the camp with a flash.

The dwarf leapt back in response, but it didn’t need to—the tendrils of my breath never neared that position, the blast was expertly confined to the small pack of three wolves. The one nearest me took the brunt of it, dropped without even a whimper. The other two yelped but were merely grazed, singing their fur and possibly some surface level burns. They shook off their injuries and turned to face me after only a couple seconds. Maybe not “expertly” aimed…

The wolves ran close, but stopped short when I heard two more figures land next to me. I turned to see Ghisé and Cee. Ghisé helped me to my feet as Cee took up position between me and the wolves.

“What are you doing Tali? You can’t fight right now,” Ghisé growled in annoyance.

“I’m fine,” I bit back with a bit of ferocity.

The dwarfy person looked between our group and the wolves, confusion evident as he swayed his mace uncertainly between.

“[Go help your friend!]” I called out, which caused it to jump slightly. It wavered a little, taking the time so stare. Eventually, it took a few uncertain steps to the side, then darted away to the other side of the caravan.

“It’s running!” Cee took a step to pursue.

“No!” I called out to her, stopping her from following. “Don’t hurt that one, get the wolves.”

She growled an acknowledgement and pointed her spear back at the wolves, who started their slow approach again. “Stay with Tali,” she ordered. Ghisé nodded as she pushed herself in front of me protectively.

Cee approached slowly herself. She had her reach advantage, but the wolves were fast and there were two which split to approach from different angles. We didn’t eat much wolf in the village since their pack tactics required coordination for hunters to take down, and there was safer game to hunt in the Redwoods… Not much choice now though.

They had numbers, but Cee was fast. She kicked off the ground and dropped her spear, catching it in her foot and transitioning her jump into a low glide toward one of the wolves. Her maneuver made it a one on one for a short time, but it was all the time she would need. When she was near her target, she flared and tilted her wings, pulling her momentum up and swinging the talon-held spear with the same moment. The wolf didn’t have a chance as her spear cracked through its jaw and bit into the flesh of its neck.

A sharp whistle pierced the air, causing the lone remaining wolf to change direction and start fleeing. When I looked to the source of the whistle, a gruff human stood opposite us. In his hand he held the reins of two muzzled wolves. He was removing those muzzled as the wolf returned to his side, meaning we’d have three opponents again.

Just when I thought that though, an arrow shot through the open air and took the fleeing wolf in the side. Ghisé and I grinned at each other—Sen was a damn good shot.

The houndsman was shook now, cursing with anger and confusion at his pets being dispatched, and by a group of fighters he probably never expected. He loosed his dogs, siccing them on us and ran off towards the men looting the open wagon.

I patted Ghisé on the shoulder, “Go with Cee. I can move.” Ghisé gave me a hesitant look at first, but relented with a nod and advanced with Cee. With the two of them intercepting the newest pair of wolves, I took the other way around the caravan to follow the dwarf.

When I finally caught up with it, they had already dispatched the wolf and one of the humanoids—and it was definitely a human. My gaze went to the unnaturally still form of the dead bandit, a strong reminder of the poacher, of the court mage, of the manor guard—all humans I have already killed. When the dwarf and their companion turned to look at me, the last remaining bandit took the opportunity to flee.

The taller figure’s eyes went wide at my arrival. “[Cover me!]” she ordered the dwarf and began reloading her crossbow.

“[Hold!]” the dwarf yelled back, and studied me carefully. I froze under his gaze and slowly raised my arms.

“[It’s casting a spell!]” the woman shouted. The dwarf put his arm across the crossbow before she could raise it.

“[N-no… I’m not!]” I lowered my arms slowly. “[You… looked like you could use some help.]”

“[It really does talk…]” The dwarf continued to study me and scratch his beard. “[It talks well.]”

“[I’m not an ‘it.’]”

The woman looked uncertainly between the dwarf and me, then pulled at his shoulder, jerking her chin towards the bandits still looting the caravan. The houndsman was barking orders the the other bandits, causing them to stop their looting and flee.

“[We can’t chase Jules. Let them go.]”

“[…Should I stop them?]” I asked. I turned my back to the dwarf, hopefully a sufficient show of my intentions. I shot a look over my shoulder for confirmation.

The dwarf scratched his beard again then said, “[If you want… girlie.]”

“[Uhm, okay… They are bad right?]”

He just shrugged.

What the hell!? Why was he making this more complicated? Use more words! Was there something that made this act of banditry okay? Maybe this was a Robin Hood kind of thing. Maybe the merchant slept with the bandit’s wife and he didn't get to watch. The window for stopping them was closing…

I tapped into a braid which was deceptively complex in spite of its small effect. Despite the distance between us, in a small sack the houndsman carried, the metal inside took on a charge. That charge built up over the period of a couple seconds until it reached a great enough voltage where it made the jump from the sack, into his hip, and through to the ground—His run was crippled and he fell to the ground with leg spasms.

That braid vexed me—I didn’t really understand how it worked. How did it force the metal in the sack to take on a charge, but completely ignore the space between? Thinking Magnet and this spell—Charge—were similar was flat out wrong. Magnetism didn’t “skip space”. Even something like radio waves didn’t  “skip space”, they only varied in intensity. Charge broke my ideas of how “force” worked… cause and effect. Was it creating a sort of wormhole? That was something I definitely didn’t understand.

How long was I standing here thinking? I looked back towards the caravan guards again, and yeah… they were still staring at me. “[The bandit should be alive still, but let me tell my sisters to relax. They aren’t very good at telling humans apart.]”

“[Come back after if yer still feelin’ chatty,]” the dwarf offered. I responded with a wave and ran off.

When I did meet up with Sen and Ghisé, they were already making their way over to me. I guessed the wolves didn’t give them much trouble in even numbers, both their spears were wet with blood.

“The fight is over. The only ones left are the ones we helped,” I said.

“What about captives?” Cee asked.

“I didn’t get a look in the wagon… but I will. They want to talk, but I want to make sure we don’t attack them either. Tell Sen and Ahbe too.” Cee gave me a long look in response. I wanted to her to trust me, learn more trust in general.

“You’re giving me that look again…” Cee said.

“What look?”

“Nothing… keep Ghisé at least, I’ll talk to Ahbe and Sen,” she said, then just left without another word.

“What was that?” Ghisé asked me. I had no clue.

———

The houndsman bandit was unconscious, but breathing. He must have been knocked out when he fell or maybe when spasming on the floor. Either way, it was easier for Ghisé to carry him back to the caravan guards with us.

Ghisé dropped the bandit rather unceremoniously near the caravan and came up to my position, where I stood several paces away from the guards. The tall woman quickly ran over and tied him up before returning to the dwarf’s side.

My guardian shifted nervously, her hand twitching for her spear, so I reached out and grabbed it in mine. I patted her lightly on the back of the hand and said quietly, “It’s okay. This isn’t like that day with the poachers.” It wouldn’t be, right? Ghisé and I aren’t the same as back then… and Sen, Ahbe, and Cee were out there ready. I wasn’t alone.

“[Yer friend going to be okay? She’s seemin’ a bit jumpy.]”

“[My sister and Guardian, Ghisé. She’ll be fine,]” I answered. “[My name is Talivi. What did you want to talk about Mister uh-?]”

“[Just ‘Benny’ is fine. This is Jules.]” He rubbed his bald head as he asked with uncertainty, “[Not sure to be honest… Didn’t expect ta run into a talkin’ Hesht. Well mannered too.]”

“[Well, then maybe some tea would be proper? I really need to sit down.]”

A grin broke out on his face and he chuckled, “[Aye I suppose it would. You look a bit tiny for a proper drink anyway.]”

He stepped to the side as gestured, inviting us in towards the fire, now stoked back to life. Jules protested, “[You can’t be serious Benny.]”

“[Eh lighten up Jules! I’m thinkin if they’re gonna hurt us they woulda tried already.]”

Ghisé tapped me on the shoulder and jerked towards the covered wagon. I nodded. “[First, who’s in there?]”

“[Just some scared travelers. That’s mostly the bandits’ fault. Hope ya don’t mind.]” He held his jovial expression.

“[Not as long as they’re willing travelers, human or otherwise,]” I said evenly.

“[Oh don’t you worry lass, this isn’t that kind of trip. Just some simple folks tryin ta get outta there before things get real nasty.]” He pointed towards the human settlement off in the distance.

“[Wait… What’s going on at Redwall?]” I asked.

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