The Stone by the Stream (Part 33)

Clouds hung gray just above the treetops, now and then descending in banks of fog that choked out the light of the sun. Beyond the clouds, the light of the sky had climbed to the height of midmorning, yet all around a twilit gloom settled across the land. The forest loomed dark, heavy, obtrusive. And among the trees there now and again appeared armed men searching for an unarmed girl.

A makeshift command tent had been set up in the ruins of an old sacred site. In the area marked by four ancient columns and a crescent-moon dais of stone, couriers would enter and depart. And in the command tent the commander sat, acknowledging the messages he received with all the cool restraint of one who was used to concealing his reaction to bad news.

At last a lull in the messages came.

Red-haired Bartholomew stood and told his aide, “I’ll be out stretching my legs.”

Emerging from the tent, he could make out the dark outline of the dam in the distance, just beyond a fog-swept valley.

Four men dead.

Four men dead on the damned girl’s account! And if she wasn’t found soon…

She couldn’t have gone far, though — although doubt hung in the back of his mind even as he repeated that comforting line to himself. Surely his men would manage to find her, surely they’d cut off every means of escape.

And Bartholomew did not plan on asking his men questions about the manner of the girl’s capture.

Pacing, more or less at random, he absentmindedly headed toward the stone column nearest the dam.

Two guards made their rounds about the perimeter, holding their spears a little straighter as they passed by their commander. They muttered to one another, quietly enough that Bartholomew had to strain to hear.

“ — heard this was the place where the oracle received the Goddess’s command to build the dam, back in the old days.”

“Ah, shuddup, professor. What I’d like to know is why the whole guard’s been turned out — and for what, a little girl?”

“A little girl who killed a dozen of our best men. Anyway, you should take more interest in local history. You never know…”

Rumors. Yet another thing to watch out for.

But then again… maybe it was better to let the men think what they wanted than to let them know what they were really dealing with.

They had to find her soon. For the ten thousandth time, he reminded himself he’d done all he could and made the best of arrangements. That finding her was inevitable and only a matter of patient waiting. Still… the worry that he’d let something pass haunted him.

And anyway, the Temple women were working on the problem too. Getting up to… whatever unspeakable sorcery they got up to.

The dam loomed in the distance, holding up water against the flow of time. He stared at it, as if expecting it to speak the answer to a riddle.

“Sir, we’ve found something.”

Loosed from his reverie, Bartholomew turned to face a squat courier with a large nose.

“Well, what is it.”

“It’s out in the woods over that way,” the courier said, pointing in the general direction of the dam. “Hard to explain, but your presence is requested.”

Bartholomew frowned. “Very well. Lead on, courier.”

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