Dahlia brought an armload of wood back to camp.
"I heard the scream of a wounded man," Rone said to her offhandedly. "And you did not have that knife or pouch on your belt when you left. Did you encounter trouble?"
"Don't you have some of your own business to mind?"
"My business is watching patterns. Your pattern is to encounter trouble. How fortunate that our goals so frequently intertwine."
"Fortunate wasn't the word I was thinking of," she said. "But to answer your nose, I encountered no trouble. A bandit trio, however, suffered significant losses." She gave them a brief synopsis, and then couldn't resist showing her haul.
Azurdanak's eyes narrowed when he saw the scrimshaw. "May I see those teeth?"
She paused. "You can look at them while I hold them."
"I don't want your spoils, just let me see." Nonetheless, Dahlia held them up for his inspection without letting them go. She rotated the canines slowly so he could see the whole carving.
"Some Urugan shaman is likely smarting at the loss of these," he said after pulling away from the inspection. "You left a bold thief alive."
"He was too good at talking to be any good at fighting," Dahlia said, unworried. "He's no threat."
"So long as you never sleep, I agree." Azurdanak's thin lips drew down to lines. "Vigilance will be at a premium tonight."
Rone snorted. I'll take first watch."
Dahlia placed the teeth in her bosom. They were worth even more than she'd thought! There was no way the Urugan sneak thief would get them back now.
Despite concerns, the night passed uneventfully.
As did the next two days' travel to the Crosian border.
The trading post on the border was engorged. The Urugan moot was fully underway. Urugans are not quite the barbarians their victims make them out to be. They are grim, harsh people, with fleet horses and tempers. Their gods are dark and fearsome, and as the god, so the people. Their civilization occupied the Uruguan Steppes for nearly a millennium; dashed ruins still litter the tablelands amid high grass and stunted trees wind-swept into strange shapes.
A calamity befell the entire civilization for reasons enshrouded, although to this day Urugans look on agriculture with deep suspicion, and only eat plant matter when scorched by fire. Nomads now, they follow herds of elk and bison across the rugged steppes.
For most of the year, any Urugan this close to the Crosian border would be considered a raider. The trading post was fortified for such a springtime contingency.
A quarter mile beyond the post walls, however, stands a great horseshoe of weathered menhirs, some as tall as 20 feet, so old that even legends of their original meaning are dead. Now they mark the border between Crosia and the wild steppes, though the Crosians build nothing near the stones out of vague superstition.
At the autumnal equinox each year, the Urugan tribes convene around the standing stones. For two weeks they conduct dark rituals celebrating and placating the underworld god, Veles, stealing the cattle of their sky god, Perun, and driving them into the underworld. They drink and fight and carouse and help each other prepare for the coming cold before drifting back into the wilderness to hole up for winter.
Azurdanak explained all of this to his companions as they stood by the trading post gate. Rone had been watching the Urugans who came into the trading post, while Azurdanak and Dahlia busied themselves with stabling the horses and securing provisions.
The next day they laid out plans. Then just before sunset, Rone, Dahlia, and Azurdanak strode into the Urugans' camp and stood out like cardinals among crows.
Rude stares were their primary greeting. When it became clear they were more than Crosian gawkers, a tribal chieftain was summoned.
The chief approached Rone (the largest of the band, and therefore, the leader). "Night is falling, and outsiders are not welcome in our moot," he said. "Why are you still here?"
"This is where my travels take me," Rone said gruffly. "I'm no kin, but nor am I an outsider." The Urugans grumbled in reply.
"One of my servants found this knife," he pointed an open palm at Dahlia without looking at her. She stared at his hand until he barked, "Woman! The knife."
She sullenly handed him the knife from her belt. "Learn when I'm talking to you," he said, eyes shot sidelong toward her smaller frame in his shadow.
Azurdanak stared wide-eyed at Rone. His voice, posture, and demeanor had changed like the rainy season sky--from calm to brooding in seconds. He looked nothing like an Urugan, but in a day had learned to mimic their behavior like a true son.
"Chieftain, do you recognize this knife?" He said, holding it out to him handle first. The Urugan chief took it, drew the blade, and admired the quality.
"It looks well-made," he begrudgingly offered.
"It is a gift to you and your clan in thanks for your hospitality," Rone said.
The chieftain eyed Rone. "You can stay for one night. Unless you want to trade that sword as well...."
Rone sneered. "You'll get the sharp end for free if you enter my tent. I'll be here two nights if it pleases me."
"Be gone before the sun two days hence," the chief said.
Both men grunted satisfaction.
"How did you do that?" Azurdanak asked.
"Quick study is not the sole provenance of wizards," Rone said. "You must both treat me as your master while we're here. Begin setting up the tents while I look around. Azurdanak, if you begin your work tonight, slip away while I am occupied."
"Every time Rone plays shapechanger it costs me money," Dahlia grumbled. But Rone was already gone, swaggering toward the Urugans' bonfire.