Kellen Ward huddled beneath the leaf-heavy branches of an oak. The other three members of the Crowmaker scouting party crouched close enough that she nearly brushed knees with them.
“If they catch on we’re out here, they’ll try to lure us out. Nobody’s gonna be stupid enough to fall for any shit.”
William Jennett, whip thin and blond-headed, paused and planted his forearms on his thighs and leaned forward. He fixed icy blue eyes on Johnny Rawle.
Kellen hid a smile. This was serious business. Nothing was supposed to be funny right now.
“Nobody.” Jennett’s voice rasped like frayed rope against chafed skin.
Rawle scowled in response to Jennett’s emphasis, creases rippling across his round face. Kellen didn’t figure Rawle to be much younger than she was, but when you counted in the expressive face beneath the mop of brown hair and his overabundance of naivete, he was mostly an overgrown boy.
The fourth Crowmaker of their party only grunted at Jennett’s admonition. Viktor Kalvis was a fair sight older than the rest of them, with lines of hard living etched across his typically-dour face and thinning blond hair. Add in Kellen’s slighter build and chopped-short hair bristling around her softer face, and there wasn’t much alike about them.
Except one thing. Despite their differences, all four of them wore the same uniform, white linen shirts and coarse gray linen pants with muslin hunting frocks a shade darker. Their gray uniforms and black hats merged into one over-sized shadow within the shadows.
“You are an
awful big boy
to be such a
They wore the uniforms easily by now. Kellen had grown so accustomed to the slanted black lines etched in v-shaped slashes across the Crowmakers’ faces that she often struggled to remember what any of them had looked like before, without the tattoos. The only time she thought much of it anymore was when catching sight of her own reflection reminded her that those same tattoos criss-crossed her face, too.
Jennett kept his voice down, although Kellen wasn’t sure their voices would carry anyhow. The Kentucky forest south of the Ohio River was more dense than anything Kellen could have imagined before the Crowmakers had left Philadelphia. Branches laced together like fat fingers overhead, blocking most of the meager light–but somehow none of the rain. Undergrowth snatched at her uniform jacket and tripped her feet. Sometimes the air smelled warm, like earth. Others it reeked of rotting vegetation.
And they couldn’t use the paths, of course. Those belonged to the renegade Cherokee responsible for the attacks that had brought the Crowmakers here.
The Cherokee were also why the Crowmakers kept their voices low. Nervousness wrapped its fingers around Kellen’s throat.
Don’t need to be scared. Not anymore.
Over their heads, just above the treetops, four Crows circled tirelessly. Made of metal that was blacker than black and carried by massive wings, they were held in place by mental tethers. Kellen’s felt like an irregular tug in the back of her brain. The sensation wasn’t entirely comfortable, but she’d gotten used to it. If nothing else, it reminded her that she was strong now. No more need to run and hide from trouble if it came her way.
The part where they went looking for trouble, though–that she was still adjusting to.
“Perhaps we send a single Crow only, to check their position. This might lessen the chances of being noticed.”
Kalvis’s Lithuanian accent stilted his words and turned them formal. No smile tilted his mouth or crinkled the corners of his eyes. The deep lines carved in those places had to have come from too much frowning. He looked even rougher with two days of dark blonde stubble marring his usually clean-shaven jaw.
“I’m getting to it, old man.” But the hard edge had gone from Jennett’s voice, replaced by a mildness Kellen read as respect. Maybe even affection.
Kalvis’s only reply was a grunt. No wasting words, not him. And although he included both Jennett and Rawle in his acknowledging nod, he didn’t so much as glance toward Kellen. Nothing new there. She thought where Kalvis was concerned, she might be invisible.
Gnats swarmed Kellen’s face, drawn by the sweat beading her brow. She squinted to keep them from her eyes and resisted the urge to fan her face. You couldn’t hit the little bastards, and they’d only come back as soon as you stopped swatting them away. She hated to wish for rain, because it had been ever-present all this long summer, dripping from leaves and hat brims and down collars, inspiring the plants to overgrown, over-green heights. Between the rain and the humidity it left behind, Kellen couldn’t remember the last time she’d been really, truly dry. But at least the rain discouraged the bugs.
Kellen snapped her head up and peered through the cloud of gnats at Jennett. “Yeah?”
Probably she should have called Jennett “sir” or something like it. He was in charge of their little squad, after all. But if her failing bothered Jennett, he didn’t show it.
“We’re gonna go high and have a look at the banks of that creek just to the west. You know what to look for?”
Hot-tempered and crass as he could be, Jennett looked Kellen in the eye and talked to her like she was just another person. Just another soldier. The whole reason for keeping her hair chopped short was to encourage the men to forget she wasn’t just another one of them. With Jennett, she thought maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, that even with long hair and something more girlish than a Crowmaker’s uniform, he might still look her in the eye.
Which was funny, because the man could sure be a complete ass when he wanted to.
“Anyplace that looks like a crossing.” Picking out where a trail came out of the woods on one side and went back in on the other wasn’t anywhere near as easy as all that, of course. But it was an answer to Jennett’s question.
Jennett nodded. “With a little luck, there’ll be a big enough encampment that we can’t miss spotting the Reds.”
“Wouldn’t it be better luck if there wasn’t so many of them?” Rawle’s voice wavered. Kellen thought about reaching over and punching his arm, but that would qualify as the something stupid Jennett had been talking about.
“You are an awful big boy to be such a little chicken-shit, Rawle.” Jennett’s gaze shifted to Kalvis. “Me and Ward are reaching out–two of us, so we can watch each other’s backs up there. Kalvis and Rawle, you’re watching our backs down here. Last thing we need is any scouts sneaking up on our asses while we’re in the Crows.”
Kalvis’s nod was solemn, and his face showed nothing of whether he agreed or disagreed with Jennett’s plan. Rawle nodded too, and maybe he was trying to look stoic, but his eyes were so big that the whites showed. His right hand drifted to the Ellis .36 on his hip, and he brushed his fingers across the holster like a preacher might touch the crucifix on his chest for reassurance.
Jennett fixed Rawle with a hard look. “Just make sure if you shoot somebody, it’s a Red and not one of us.”
Kellen might have been tempted to smile again, but her own nerves were jangling now.
Jennett turned his icy eyes on Kellen. “Circle wide until you’re high enough they can’t tell we ain’t real birds. If you have to come down for a closer look, circle wide again until you’re buzzing the treetops. We ain’t showing ’em what we got if we don’t have to.”