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CHAPTER SIX

They gathered in the fog, riding across sodden ground in heavy cloaks and grim moods. Their mounts were bred from the horses of the Southern Shaar, a powerful breed coveted in many places across the Realms for their speed and stamina. These warriors, expert riders and archers, came in ones and twos to the gates of Brookhollow. The Hunters of the Hidden Circle arrived to heed the call of the high oracle, to gather and bear witness. Such a call they had not received for as long as any of them cared to remember. By tradition, none would enter until all were accounted for. They called out their names to the gate master as they arrived, some embellishing their names with titles, boasts of recent victories, or family legacies. The majority remained silent and calm, patiently suffering the soft patter of a sprinkling rain. Their numbers were large when judged against the small towns they protected, Brookhollow being the most populous as it was the home of the primary temple. Among this elite group rode the standard bearers, seven in all, wielding long spears with loops of braided rope hanging from their blades. The ropes were knotted four times along their length, the hunter's symbol for the Hidden Circle.

The knots represented the four precepts of their faith-the past, present, future, and fate. Hanging within each braid was a single dried fethra flower, its bell upside down in the belief that the blessing of Savras would pour out and give them luck in battle. The standards held no individual markings, no sign of clan or leadership.

This was a new tradition and belied those ancient times when the hunters were of the Shaaryan tribes and fought amongst themselves for position and status. The lack of decoration made them all equal and reminded them of their oaths of service and the humility of their chosen profession. Each hunter wore traditional archer's armor. The primary piece was a shoulder and arm guard called an eshtahk, made of layers of lacquered leather and decorative cloth. The opposite arm required free movement for drawing arrows from back-slung quivers.

This side was protected by a special cloak woven from wool and the fibers of the ironvine plant that grew on the southern borders of the Qurth Forest. The cloaks were flexible but resistant to the bloodthorns and razorleaf bushes that thrived in the forest. They'd even been known to deflect a blade now and then, though this was often attributed to the oracles who blessed the garments. Dreslya Loethe stood on the wall with the gate master, prepared to officiate the gathering. In truth, she awaited the arrival of her younger sister, Elisandrya. Some said the Loethe sisters would be the next high oracle and lord hunter, though only out of earshot of Sameska, who discouraged such wild rumors. Dreslya grew more and more impatient, hurriedly acknowledging the calls from below with a sign of welcome as the other hunters announced themselves. She knew Eli was prone to tardiness, but she worried all the same. She did not understand her sister's love for the open plain and always tried to hide her concern when they met-with little success. Ever since the loss of their parents, Dreslya had withdrawn to service in the church and Eli had run wild, sparked by wanderlust and a sense of adventure inherited from their late father. They spoke little of their lost parents, though the subject seemed to hang between them like a net of thorns.

Soft thunder rumbled far to the west, beyond the edge of the forest.

Dreslya pulled her cloak tight, turning her head to the east and the empty balcony outside the stained glass dome of the temple. She imagined Sameska stood hidden behind that glass and watched as the hunters came from far and wide across the Reach. Dreslya shivered, remembering the cold in the high oracle's voice and demeanor. She needed no divination or cup of fethra petals to tell her that something was wrong.



***** | Bloodwalk | *****