Chargas step lightly on their soft, padded paws. Dry autumn leaves may rustle under their feet, their claws may click once in a while on a stony road, but when they walk on grass you can not hear them at all because your human hearing is not sharp enough for something so subtle.
Two charga riders followed a well-trodden trade road up to the crossroads where they turned north. The narrow path they chose was a remnant of the gold rush times. Back then, when thousands of people travelled that way, their heavy boots had worn the ground down to the rock. Like an old scar, the forgotten, overgrown path was still visible through the young green undergrowth. It didn’t snake around the hills and trees, it boldly went straight through every obstacle in its way, be it a meadow or a forest. Close to the obscure border of the Burnt Region the path emerged from under the grassy carpet of weeds and flowers and headed up, turning into a wide two-track road littered with innumerable shell cases that still glinted in the dust. Gold rush times were rough times…
“What’s in the Burnt Region now?” Kangassk asked Vlada. “Is it abandoned, since no one seems to go there any more?”
“Don’t get your hopes high.” Vlada shook her head. “Yes, it’s mostly a wasteland now, but people still live there.”
“I wouldn’t,” Kan said with a lot of confidence.
Sasler was cleaning his rifle, carefully wiping every little lens in a clever device attached to its barrel. The very device that made him the most feared man in the Burnt Region: a scope.
Finally, satisfied with his work, he replaced the lid of the black case protecting the delicate lenses. When fully assembled, the scope resembled a bulging, unblinking insect eye.
As usual, before setting off for the hunt Sasler peeked into his house and waved goodbye to his wife and little son. This simple ritual was extremely important to him, for many reasons.
In the dense pine woods these hills were covered with the sunlight reached the ground in patches. Sasler avoided stepping on them, he preferred to stay in shadows where he felt more comfortable.
The weather was fine, not a single cloud in the sky. Sasler chose a comfy spot at the edge of the cliff in the shade between two blackberry bushes. He could see the whole meadow from there. All he needed now was to wait for some hungry animal to show up.
His bulge-eyed rifle lay next to him, its “eye” covered with cloth. Comfortably sprawled on the grass, Sasler waited for his prey. In such beautiful weather he could see further than usual, as far as the old road.
The old road… someone was there, heading into the heart of the Burnt Region…
“The old road goes up into the mountains,” Vlada explained. “People used to wash gold there, in the icy-cold springs, and build houses around them. Most little villages are abandoned now, but some people have stayed. I doubt they would like to see us, though. That’s why we’d better make a little detour through the forest.”
Kangassk sighed pensively and scratched his charga behind the ear. The mighty beast answered the stroke with a loud purr.
Sasler didn’t care about the old road, but he did care about his forest. Those two had just left the road and entered his territory! He grabbed his rifle, ripped the cloth off the scope, and took a closer look at the intruders.
He was glad he hadn't rushed to pull the trigger. The strangers looked very much like old Crogan's bandits, kevlar cloaks and all. It took him a whole minute to realize they weren't a part of the gang.
These two carried no guns with them, just three swords and a short bow. Plus, their chargas were heavily laden, obviously for travelling purposes.
Fools. Two young fools either seeking adventures or trying to make a shortcut through the Burnt Region despite all the warnings they no doubt got. Or, maybe, they are not fools at all, but in fact, someone much worse than Crogan’s thugs are…
Sasler tarried, balancing in indecision. The riders, two tiny black specks on the yellowish-green grassy carpet of the valley, were slowly moving in his direction. He couldn’t just kill them, not while them being innocent young fools was still a possibility. He needed more info. Having noted where they had entered the forest Sasler left the cliff. He decided to follow and watch those two, closely.