Rowan suppressed a shiver as she came to the command tent, or rather to its remains. She crouched, pulling away a charred piece of canvas to reveal the burnt remnants of the furniture inside. She was no tracker, but even she could tell that they were a few days late at the least. The fires had stopped smoldering, the blood had long since dried. She knew what it added up to, but, even if she hadn’t, the unit’s hunters had confirmed it. Every hour that passed dimmed their chances of picking up a trail and they were already days behind.
Once they had caught the scent that something was wrong, Rowan had sent their hunters scouting ahead before bringing in the main force. They were spread out now searching for clues while the rest of their host stood anxiously waiting at the edge of the camp. More people would have meant more eyes looking for survivors, but they also needed answers. Too much time had been lost already.
Rowan looked around, hope mingling with fear. There had clearly been a fight, but there were no bodies. Maybe that meant it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but maybe it was somehow worse. She couldn’t imagine what that might mean for her people, but growing up with the war had taught her that the unimaginable was, often, all too likely.
She saw her emotions mirrored in the faces of her comrades. Confusion, anger, guilt. Everyone here had friends or family in this camp, and she could almost hear thoughts echoing in the minds of her soldiers. ’If only I were here...’, ’We could have stopped this...’, ’Why did I leave?’.
Her eyes met Peter’s, and she could tell they were in the same place. Neither of them knew what to do or how to move on if their friends were dead. The idea that their group might be all that was left was paralyzing. At that moment a cool breeze swept through the camp. It seemed to chase away the smell of blood and ash and, just for a moment, replaced it with the scent of grass and pine. Peter’s face firmed and his eyes narrowed. He shook his head ever so slightly and Rowan nodded in silent agreement. They would not let despair seep in and take over.
At that moment two panthers came trotting up to her. The shifter of the pair assumed human form before standing at a crisp attention. “Ma’am, we’ve found tracks, and lots of them.”
“Enough for the whole camp?” Rowan made it a question detached from any emotion. She needed to seem in control, confident. Even hope in a commander’s voice implied uncertainty.
“That and then some. From the prints and the scents it looks like both Bonded and Tribes alike passed through, but there was something else.” The scout took a deep breath and Rowan waited patiently for the young kit to compose himself. “It was a scent we’re not completely familiar with.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, they covered their tracks well. Very well, in fact, but if I had to guess I’d say it smelled like... Eternals.” Rowan glanced down to his bond who sat straight, staring back at her. “Ma’am...” The shifter’s voice took on a slight tinge of fear. “I was under the impression that they supported our cause... or at least agreed with it. If they’re the ones who took our people...”
Rowan took note that he had just spoken about everyone in the camp as ’our people,’ Bonded and Tribe alike. It was a small victory, and possibly just the reflection of her own thoughts reading too much into his comment, but she gratefully accepted the hope that the moment offered. “I’ve never seen a force perform like ours has over the past couple months. I don’t care who took our people or why. We are getting them back and we’ll move through whoever we have to in order to do it. Scary bedtime stories notwithstanding. Your pride found the trail so you’ll take point. Let the shift commanders know we move out in ten minutes.”
He looked slightly reassured as he saluted and ran off. Rowan felt sorry for him. He was one of the younger recruits in her unit, and Eternals were creatures from legend. Leading the mission to hunt them down was not an ideal first assignment, but his pride had picked up the trail. Assigning a different group to follow would have shown a lack of confidence. Besides, robbing the young of their youth was one of many tragic realities of war.
Rowan took one last look at the remains of the tent and turned to go. “Scary bedtime stories?” Peter said falling into step next to her, somehow managing to poke fun and sound deadly serious at the same time. “Owen’s not Titus, but he’s a good fighter. That wasn’t a bedtime story that made him look like a joke the other day. That was one scary individual.”
“One step at a time.” Rowan said as their guard began forming around them. “Let’s go hunting.”