The Princess led the boys straight up alongside the river and stopped only when they came to a few trees and bushes where they could tie off the horses. They went on foot and Vilder expressed surprise that the Jaccar had no men out to watch, but the Princess figured as much. They probably had all of their men out on the other three sides of the village prepared to surprise any returning hunters or other such arrivals, but they probably figured they were safe on the river side where the river would be as effective as a wall.
The Princess handed her long knife to Kined with the hope that he would not have to use it. She handed her sword to Vilder and pulled out her bow. She noticed she had plenty of arrows, and they were good ones, too. A couple of arrows even had silver tips, so she knew Artemis was alive and well, somewhere in the world. After hunting and tracking, the Princess’ chief talent was with the bow, and hers had been designed by Athena and approved by Apollo. Once upon a time in the future, Artemis would gift the Princess as surely as Odin gifted Wlvn. Fortunately, she always carried the gift with her, even when she traveled back into the past. So, she could hunt and shoot like the goddess, and beyond that, she had practically been born on horseback.
“Why have we stopped?” Vilder interrupted. He appeared to be getting anxious, and that would not be a good thing.
“Patience,” she whispered in her military whisper. “Practice patience before you do something stupid. Now listen.” They were close enough to hear two Jaccar who guarded something or someone. The boys could not understand the language, but the Princess caught the gist of it which sounded something like this:
“You better stay extra sharp tonight. The Wicca says there are boys out in the wilderness, and she wants them alive when they return.”
“I know my job.” The second man sounded grumpy. “The Wicca wants everything, but it won’t be our fault if some of those boys get killed. You know that can’t be helped, sometimes.”
“Maybe I know that and maybe I don’t,” the first said. “But I wouldn’t say it again if you don’t want the Wicca to turn you into a frog like poor Chuang. You just stay alert, that’s all.”
“I know my job.” And the one man stepped away.
The Princess nodded and took back her long knife with instructions to stay put until called. She snuck up behind that alert man and cut his throat so he could not cry out. A wave of her arm brought the others, and she wiped the blade clean and handed the knife back to Kined, who almost did not want to take it. He stared at the dead man.
“Don’t dwell.” The Princess risked another whisper. “It isn’t healthy.” She moved on.
“I can’t help it,” Kined said, as he followed. “I will see that even in my sleep.”
The Princess looked at Vilder. He got stoic. He looked determined. He also took her arm. “Pinn’s house is this way.”
The Princess shook her head. She pointed to Thrud’s house, which was where Pinn, Thrud and Vinnu should still be, probably worried to death. They hurried, pressured by Vilder’s nervousness, though the Princess should have known better. As they came around a corner, they bumped into three Jaccar. One got a knife in his chest. One got sliced across the guts, and the third had an arrow rammed into his throat. The Princess whipped out her boot knife even as the man cut in the belly began to raise his head. She made a near perfect throw into that man’s neck before he could cry out. Then she snatched her sword out of a stunned Vilder’s hand and finished the job before handing the sword back to Vilder. She raised her hand, and her long knife vacated the one man’s chest and flew to her hand. She cleaned it and handed it back to Kined again with some words.
“I would appreciate it if you would take better care of my things.”
“Now I’ve done it,” Kined confessed once his mouth closed. “Now I will have my own nightmares.”
The Princess leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “That’s from Flern,” she said, before she retrieved her boot knife. “Now shut up and come on.” They moved more slowly then, and kept to the shadows, until at last they came to a window at the back of Thrud’s house. “Pinn. Thrud.” The Princess called through the window shutters. They could see a light on in the room, so they knew it was occupied.
“Who is there?” The voice sounded a bit loud, but they heard Pinn’s voice.
“Flern, sort of. Come on out. We have to get moving.”
“You don’t sound like Flern,” Pinn came back.
“Pinn.” Vilder sounded much too loud, and for his efforts he got the Princess’ boot pushed hard into his foot.
The shutters came open and Pinn popped her head out. “Vilder.” She seemed sensible enough to keep her voice down. The Princess turned to watch both sides of the house, an arrow on the string and her senses on full alert.
“Are Thrud and Vinnu there?” Kined whispered. “Hurry.”
Pinn came out first and dropped easily to the dirt. She had her bow and arrows, good girl. Vinnu followed and accepted Vilder’s help to the ground.
“No, Thrud, no!” Someone, a woman inside started shouting. “We are safe in the house.” They all heard a loud slap followed by some angry whispers. Thrud might not be the prettiest thing on two legs, but she was no dummy. Her mother would get them all killed if she did not shut up!
Even as Thrud clambered out the window with her bow, having forgotten the arrows, a Jaccar came around the corner, perhaps attracted by the noise. The Princess made her usual perfect shot, and the man went down without a sound. “Come,” she said, before Thrud’s feet were fully on the ground, and she led them back the way they came, even if it meant the girls had to notice all of the dead bodies. Once they were free of the last house, the Princess stopped them and spoke, still in her military whisper. Then again, she gave military orders.
“Vilder and Pinn. Work back to the others and mount up. Take my horse. I will meet you by the riverbank just this side of the hill, only stay out of sight and keep quiet.
Vilder nodded, and Pinn accepted his assessment and nodded with him.
“Who is that?” Thrud asked.
“I’ll explain in a minute.” Kined said as he handed the Princess her long knife. He took Thrud by the elbow and escorted her away from the village. Thrud kept looking back.
“What about you?” Vilder asked.
“I have one more thing to do. I will meet you. Go.” She took back her sword.
Vilder nodded again and led Pinn and Vinnu after Kined and Thrud. The instant they were out of sight in the dark, the Princess changed to Diogenes. Diogenes looked like the Princess’ perfect genetic reflection, like Wlvn and Flern, even sharing the same hair and eye color, what some have called an identical twin of the opposite sex. As such, Diogenes also reflected to a lesser degree whatever gift the Princess received from Artemis. He was known in his day as a great hunter and great with the bow. Though not as skilled as the Princess, in this case, he had mastered this type of covert operation. He was the one with all of the experience of sneaking into an enemy camp and causing havoc.
Diogenes considered the village, which he knew perfectly from Flern’s memory. He knew the fenced in field where the men were being held, but it was too far away to risk and probably heavily guarded. Much nearer sat the public corral and the big barn near the village center, the place where the whole village stored hay through the winter. Diogenes moved swiftly. He knew it would only be a matter of time before the dead men got found. Two guards watched the barn and corral as well, but they did not last long, and they never raised the alarm. Diogenes made sure of that.