Saril put the letter down, closing her eyes as she did so. She forced herself to breath slower, releasing the tension in her body and allowing the heat of anger to subside. It wasn’t working.
A burst of rage surged through her body and before she knew what happened her gauntleted fist had slammed down hard upon the table. It creaked against the force of it, splinters pulling free as she removed her hand from where it had embedded itself in the wood. She sighed, letting the last of the emotion fade into the ether. Rarely did she lose control, but this was an exception.
‘This parchment,’ said Saril, one finger pointing at the scrunched up paper accusingly, ‘the words it holds upon it are treason. Where did you find it?’
Surprisingly, Sergeant Abram appeared unaffected by his commander’s outburst. In any other circumstance that would have made her suspicious, but one glance at his expression told her all she needed to know. There was no room for fear in amidst the soldier’s outrage and sorrow.
‘Tawkran had it,’ said Abram. He spat the name out like it was toxic. ‘I found it inside his coat.’
‘Could it have been planted there?’ Saril asked. ‘A distraction to hide the identity of another?’
Saril knew Tawkran of old, had even trusted him with sensitive missions. The knowledge that he was now dead did little to sate the fear that he may well have been a traitor all along.
Abram shook his head.
‘The envelope was bloodstained,’ he said. ‘It’s from his wounds, that I’m sure, and you don’t want to know how I know that. The flesh was ripped apart, ripped all over and there were bite marks too. It’s consistent with a killing by wolves. It was lucky the other watcher caught wind or they’d have dragged the body off and we’d never know. We’d all be crying over the bastard’s grave.’
‘Then it’s as bad as it looks,’ said Saril, her voice adopting her usual cold tone. ‘Tawkran planned to sell us out. That letter contains detailed notes of our journey, all the stops we’ll be making, the number of men, what supplies we’ve brought with us. There’s even a section with that ambassador’s name on it. He was doing this all right under our noses the whole time.’
‘Well, it shouldn’t matter now at least,’ said Abram.
Saril glared at him incredulously and the sergeant recoiled slightly. Perhaps there was still some room for fear at least.
‘What I mean is they never got it,’ he said, then pointed at the letter. ‘If he had to write all that down it means they didn’t know it already. We can keep going like nothing happened. We got lucky. Tawkran, no so much.
For a moment it looked as though Saril was about to lose her cool again, but instead she simply sighed and shook her head.
‘It’s not that simple,’ she said. ‘We don’t know that they didn’t have some of the information already. The letter could just have been to confirm it. Even assuming they genuinely didn’t know any of this to begin with, we now know we’re being watched. We don’t even know for sure that Tawkran was alone in this. We could be infested with traitors and never know it.’
Saril closed her eyes again. This time the anger passed more quickly. It served no purpose to allow her emotions to take control of her. She needed her wits about her now more than ever.
In front of her, the sergeant licked his lips, a futile gesture given that just like her, his human form was merely a projection, but nonetheless it made his agitation clear. It had often amused her to see how her fellow sans corpus attempted to imitate the mannerisms of those who had been born with bodies. For herself, she saw no need for it. Perhaps that was another reason she had never truly been accepted by them.
Now the sergeant was examining the letter. His brows furrowed as he came to a stop.
‘The information on our numbers is correct,’ he said, ‘down to the last man, all except one that is. My guess would be he planned to make a run for it either last night or sometime later. Maybe he hoped we would assume he had been dragged off by wolves and things just took a turn for the worst. If there are any other traitors they’d have to do the same. He’d mention them in the letter, but he doesn’t, so either there aren’t any…’
‘Or he didn’t know,’ Saril finished the sentence for him. ‘Either way we still have to change our route. It’s too dangerous to keep to the original plan now that we know an ambush was planned. They might still decide to hole up somewhere on what they suspect to be our most probable course. That’s something I plan to deny them, so from now on we’re taking the long way.’
Abram nodded solemnly. She sensed he had more questions, but this time he managed to restrain himself and remember that he was in the presence of a superior officer.
‘You and I are the only ones that know about this letter?’ Saril asked.
Again the sergeant nodded.
‘We’ll keep it that way,’ she said, and she started to pace about her tent as she did so. It remained a possibility that they might be overheard, but her keens eyes kept watch for unexpected shadows while her ears pinpointed every minute movement. There were some definite advantages to her condition. It gave her an awareness few humans could ever achieve. ‘That only leaves that other watcher,’ she continued. ‘I want you to keep a close eye on him.’
‘Yes, commander,’ said Abram, and he raised his fist in salute.
She dismissed him with a hand gesture and then watched him walk a metre before stopping and turning back to face her.
‘Yes, sergeant?’ she asked before he mustered the courage to ask whatever question was troubling him.
‘Sorry,’ he said, looking away, ‘but I have to ask why you’re trusting me with this. If there are traitors in our midst and they could indeed be anyone, then I’m as good a candidate as any. I brought you the letter. You’ve only my word on any of this.’
Much to the sergeant’s surprise, Saril’s lips curled into a smile.
‘A good point,’ she said, ‘but in fact I don’t, trust you, that is. Right now I don’t trust anyone. What I know I can trust though is that expression you wore when you gave me that letter. As a sergeant you were closer to Private Tawkran than I was. He was your brother-in-arms, and before last night you would have thrown your life on the line for him. And for all that, I believe that if the bastard wasn’t dead you’d happily kill him anyway. You see, Sergeant Abram, vengeance is something I have a good eye for. There is nothing more pure in a person’s heart than their need to seek blood from those who wronged them. Now wake the others. It’s time to move.’