Caroline Hepworth was nettled. Uncompromisingly, categorically, demonstrably nettled to the core.
Diving into the undergrowth had been a simple and appealing enough idea. It was the closest hiding place that she could spring for, and had the advantage of being beneath a bush almost certainly thick enough to completely shield her from sight. Less evident, but equal in importance as far as Caroline was concerned, was the embracing congregation of nettles that sprang up cheerfully to enfold her as soon as she entered, also profiting from the bush's generous protection.
Nettles! The latest in a long series of discomforts to be countenanced and borne. The Gallian countryside was not, Caroline had rapidly concluded, everything that one would have expected from tourist prospectae. It contained very few smiling, waving folk with barrels of apple cider waiting for the parched passerby, and made up for this not entirely unforseen lack with an extraordinarily variegated range of low-slung, thorned flora and fauna whose chief goal in life appeared to be swiping murderously at one's eyes when one least expected it. Sophie, George and Thèo had all performed a stupendous volley of screams on discovering this tendency, a spectacle from which Caroline had been saved solely because her teeth were stuck tightly together with the mandatory daily spoonful of molasses when a clawed brown something had grabbed for her face and swept away. While she was hardly the city-bound, primped young lady with whom many appeared to delight in confusing her, she still felt a mild shock each time they had to camp on thickly mudded ground because there was no dry land to be found for miles, or to fend off wolves in the tender small hours before daybreak. Nothing on the estates where she had explored with her various instructors had been properly natural, she now realised, unless it was also desirable, and picturesque, too, while it was about it. Overall, she now concluded, as welts began to spread along her arms and legs, her situation rated high upon the "To Be Improved" scale.
Her fellow clandestine travellers also scattered at the sound of the heavy footsteps tramping through the patch of forest via which they planned to access the South, and from there negotiate the Channel. Caroline turned cautiously to confirm that they were safe, scrutinizing the area for their silhouettes, and was relieved that this took considerable effort. Sophie, who had been at the front of their party and heard the ominous noise first, had a hand clapped to George's mouth, dragging him behind an oak èo dived headlong into a shallow cave, scrambling to press himself against its wall. A pistol was clutched in his hand. She tried to catch his eye, shaking her head as emphatically as possible without rustling the plant's branches. In the past week, they had already left a scattered trail of unconscious soldiers and civilian Gallians as they made their way on foot towards the south. While she was thankful that as yet they hadn't needed to resort to silencing those who came upon them in a more drastic manner, she was unwilling to let the trend continue. They couldn't afford to draw attention to themselves.
A massive leather-booted foot stamped into Caroline's field of view, unexpected, and she narrowly missed biting her own tongue off. Careless, she chided herself. Regaining a shred of her control, she contemplated the boot, trying to judge from it the size and build of its owner. Before she could, the boot moved on and was replaced by another. Over the ringing of blood in her ears, she heard orders, snapped in Holmlandish: "Move over the area. Nobody is to exit."
A restricted area? Caroline chewed the inside of her lip, which had, over the last five days, been reduced to a mess of dead tissue and bleeding. What was special about this area in particular? If the area was being restricted now - and it must have done so some time today, given that they had been allowed entry undetected - something must have changed.
What could constitute such a development? Caroline longed for information, even the clipped and by nature uninformative missives that had come to her makeshift signalling booth in Divodorum. Even had they not been operating secretly, and constantly moving onward, however, their band could not possibly have been worse placed to received outside communication. According to Sophie, they were currently following the line of the Saint-Didier region of Montsacre, an area infamous for its untrustworthy terrain. So far, they had yet to come across a square half-mile that was less than filled with knobbly rises of stone and slippery pits stubbled with lichen. Despite the fact that the surface of the land seemed specifically designed to funnel water off to somewhere else - the wide, ruler-flat Draselle plains below came to mind - it was abundantly populated with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, mosses, and more alarmingly, snakes. Its dramatic lack of any even ground whatever made the zone completely unfit for habitation or travel, which was precisely why they had ventured into it as far north as possible. But what would Holmland forces want with such a route - and, an allied question of greater importance, why had they moved ahead of their invasion front?
The nettle stings began to bloom in full now, rounding into bright pink bumps that itched. She shifted, trying to apply pressure to an elbow where a particularly irritating clump of stings had appeared, but in the process her torso was nudged a little way along the ground.
It was a very thick bush. The leaf litter beneath it was dry despite the night's fitful rain, and made a sound like paper tearing in a silent room, making her freeze in hushed alarm. Additionally, the nettles were now brushing the underside of her neck, softly, so softly that one could almost believe they meant no harm. Caroline grimaced.
The boot in front of her stomped off to join its predecessor beyond Caroline's field of view, followed by another, and another, and another four after that. A dozen troops moved past, inches from her nose, and clatterbashed off through the woods. Then silence. She risked a minute turn of her head. The nettles caressed her jawline as she did so - ignoring them was becoming more difficult now. George and Sophie's outlines were just visible in the pattern of the tree-trunks, heads turned toward the direction of the infantrymen's egress. She thought she saw George give a minute nod, then the pair emerged from their hiding place. Thèo, too, slunk into vision, his pistol still half-aloft as though he couldn't quite persuade himself to put it aside. Caroline gave a mental sigh of relief, swatted away the nettles and stood up.
And that was when everything went wrong.
Aubrey Fitzwilliam was standing in front of her with an expression that mixed arrogance, superliciousness and something that Caroline had trouble dissociating in her mind from the concept of perfection.