6. Tokens

The next morning, Valentine wakes to a note from Xardic: “Urgently need your help. Please come to my office as soon as you get this. I will meet with you when you arrive.” Instead of sending the man back with a reply, Valentine says, “He wants to see me immediately? Give me five minutes. I’ll return with you.”

As promised, Xardic’s secretary ushers Valentine into the inner office right away. Xardic grasps Valentine’s hand, asks him to take a seat at the conference table. “I wouldn’t have disturbed your rest unless it was urgent.”

“How can I help?”

Xardic opens a folder containing a sheaf of handwritten reports. “Mindartis has collected evidence of unusual Drow activity. I’ve briefed you on some of the routine reports. This appears to be something more.”

Valentine glances over the file. “I don’t know these place names — you’ll have to show me on a map.”

Xardic calls his secretary, who returns with a stack of maps. Xardic rolls out a large-scale map of the area. “Five nights ago activity was reported near the known egress point for Physryk — where you came out. Before daybreak, a dairy farmer over here reported seeing a large raiding party headed West on foot. He estimated 15-20 armed individuals. Two nights later, a wood elf sentry observed three Drow scouts and went for reinforcements. They were unable to locate and track the enemy when they returned. The next night, Mindartis’ troops were on the alert. Two different pairs of sentries observed a large raiding party exiting wood elf territory and heading further West.”

“They didn’t engage?”

“No, they withdrew unobserved.”

Valentine nods. “That was the night before last?”

“Yes. A courier left Xilomelia yesterday morning on horseback, travelled all day, arrived here just after midnight.”

Valentine whistles. “My geography is still poor. How far is that from here on foot?”

Xardic pulls out a detailed map. “You tell me. It’s rough terrain.”

Valentine checks the scale on the map. “Hand me a ruler. OK. Call it three nights’ travel. They’ll try to time any attack for a new moon, which is — what? — four days from now.”

“Do you think they’re headed here?”

“Do you?”

“There’s not much else once you leave wood elf territory. Could they do it?”

“We have to assume they have maps and a guide. I doubt they have weapons and food cached. They probably know any safe houses or hiding spots only by reputation or word-of-mouth. It’s tough, but they could do it. When was the last Drow attack in this area?”

“Just over 150 years ago. There used to be an egress point 20 miles from here. Gray engineers undermined the passageway, forced it to collapse.”

“Makes sense. I’ve never heard of raiders from Physryk coming this far. But they may have two or three individuals with them who have carried out overnight raids in this area.” He studies the map. “They must have a target in mind. Drow don’t travel that far aboveground lightly. Has there been any activity around the old egress point? Anything unusual observed?”

“I can find out.”

“Send a couple people over to check around. Drow always have their retreat planned. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re planning to come home by a different route.”

“Are they coming for you?”

Valentine sits back from the map, considers. “If so, I’m flattered. If I were them, I’d wait until I had good intelligence on my location, then I’d send a couple of slave catchers. A party of 15-20 Drow warriors is excessive.”

“You’re inside a walled city.”

“They’d use someone who already has a cover established and can get in and out. Knock me over the head, drag me out in a rolled-up carpet. Or just send an assassin, bring back a severed hand and a lock of hair. I’m a lot of trouble to take alive — an escape risk, no real skills beyond combat. I’m speculating, but that’s what I would do. I wouldn’t risk good troops.”

“Then what do they want?”

“Do we know they’re heading here?” They both glance back at the map. Valentine muses, “What the fuck do they think they’re going to do with 15-20 troops? What other intelligence do you have? Anything about their clan identity? That would tell me a lot.”

“How would we know?”

“They’re carrying or wearing clan tokens. A group that large, led by someone senior — you might see a ring or cloak pin with insignia. Coming out of Physryk, it would be one of three images. For my esteemed hosts, the Xyrec, crossed rapiers. The Cyrx use a whip with three lashes. Avril is a stylized image of a poisoned mushroom. Avril are primarily traders, but they’ll put the hurt on anyone who threatens their supply routes.” Xardic flips back through the folder. Nothing. “Send a courier back to Mindartis. Have his re-interrogate any witnesses. If his people capture someone, get their token before they can destroy it. If the Drow hit anywhere, get an accurate report of the scene — send someone you can trust. They may leave a calling card.”

“Are you concerned?”

Valentine hesitates. “Yes. I am. If they’re sending troops, they’re sure of their target, and they’re playing for keeps.” He pauses, surveys Xardic’s face. “I’ve never asked you about the city’s defenses for obvious reasons, and I won’t now. But you should step up patrols, double up all your sentries, notify any allies or outposts.”

“It’s already been done.”

“You have four days. Let me know what you find out.” As he’s leaving, Valentine almost groans out loud — he realizes that he barked orders to the mayor of Liamelia.

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