The attempt had been bold: a clever dagger jutting toward her ribs, poised to puncture, but the wielder was not as clever as the weapon. It was destined to be thwarted from the start: the miscreant a cowardly trapper, and their foil a seasoned ranger. She caught their hand in a relentless grip, squeezing the bones at the wrist’s base until the hand seized, splayed, and dropped its weapon into the dirt. Her other elbow drew up beneath their breastbone, knocking the very breath from their lungs as, locked in their struggle with the ranger, their back hit the thick trunk of a tree.
Tanjaa did not relish such altercations. They provided her with no thrill or pleasure. To be sure, apprehending unauthorized poachers was one duty of hers among many, but it was a tiresome one. They were a defensive sort, eager to prove their right to kill and steal from the land.
There was a time when the Great Forest was not so dangerous, but that was before the magnates had begun grasping at war. Taking advantage of the mobilizing forces, trappers and hunters rode along behind until their paths split from the army’s, turning northwest at the mountain pass and disappearing into its heavy shadow.
Along the winding roads, they sought the riches of the wood. The skins abounding from it were much-loved: the white deer, the black foxes, even the bark and roots of the trees.
The animals’ numbers were yet to dwindle, for their cleverness far outmatched most hunters’, but the trees had no swift legs on which to run, and they bore the marks of blades ever more severely with each passage of the moon. Their bark had been stripped, the new-shoot green of their inner flesh left exposed and raw.
Tanjaa glanced at the fistful of springy bark in the trapper’s hand. “Couldn’t catch a fox, could you?” She asked, her voice low and patient but for the hint of a sneer. “Drop it, if you please.”
“Announce yourself!” The trapper gasped, squirming in her grip. Tanjaa pulled aside a lock of hair at her right temple, baring the mark of her station: the red-ink tattoo of a northern ranger. She was documented. She was known.
The trapper shrunk back; the tension began to leave their shoulders. They grimaced. “You’re not going to…?”
“I’m not going to kill you.” Tanjaa drew back without loosening her grip. She raised a brow. “You were caught by surprise; you drew a weapon. Many do.” Slowly, Tanjaa allowed her grip to slacken. It was a calculated risk. “Tell me one thing, then, will you?”
The trapper nodded, mutely, eager to appease.
“Why have you soiled my land?”
Their eyes widened, and Tanjaa was surprised to see a flash of guilt. “It sells well,” the trapper explained quickly. “I didn’t want to kill any creature, but the money — my child is ill.”
Others had made such excuses before. “Ill?”
“It will get worse. The medicine… I am not a well-to-do mother.” The trapper stepped forward gingerly, rubbing her wrist. She scanned Tanjaa’s face for compassion and found the hint that would bolster her.
“What has waylaid your child, sister? I am an herbalist.”
Hope entered her eyes, gleaming dully. “The fever has sought him out — his skin is still pure, not yet tainted, but he’s become weak. He was bled from the arm, and they found the sickness in his blood.” She looked with uncertainty from Tanjaa to the stallion she had dismounted, a looming gray beast chuffing with anxious impatience. His rider looked over her shoulder and made a low, soothing noise. He lowered his head.
“You are the one being bled,” Tanjaa murmured. “These chirurgists offer you chemicals that will weaken him even as they heal.” She spread her hands in a peaceable gesture. “If you’ll accept my advice: you should have sought levenbranch bark. Brew it with powdered sweetroot, and see that your son doesn’t go a day without oil of garlic. Turmeric as well, sister, and mix it all with honey.”
The mother nodded, resolute trust forming in the bow of her lips and the tension of her brow. “I have honey — and garlic, and plenty of sweetroot.”
“Good, good. You are well on your way. I can give you the rest — I will charge you nothing, but on his life you must promise me that you will not defile our mother again. Chemists have forgotten to give back what they take.”
“I make the promise,” the mother whispered. “I am so ashamed, my lady, to have —”
“We are all desperate in one way or another, sister.” Tanjaa’s hand rose and rested lightly upon the mother’s weary shoulder. “I cannot begrudge you this. Now — from where did you come?”
“The caravan from my town tarries to the north of here, five miles. It will remain for two more days.”
Nodding, Tanjaa withdrew her hand. It curled into a fist over the center of her chest, a stark promise beside her beating heart. “I will come to you, then. Return, and await me by nightfall; you have business with a ranger, now.”
Tanjaa watched her go, bemused. She supposed she could admire this woman, cloaked in black, masking her gait to mimic the tread of a standoffish bandit or hunter. She was no coward after all.
Tanjaa advanced toward her horse. “Steady, Baruquil, my proud boy,” she whispered. “Be calm, now.” The stallion’s withers quivered beneath her hand as she mounted, but he softened with her comforting weight upon his back.
The fabric of the universe was carefully woven, a tapestry of dry grass and wheat and hemp held together with the blood of the earth. This, Tanjaa knew, and long had she known it. So too did she know that the great giver was not fickle — but it lived for itself, and not for the humans swarming its surface. To live, a human had to understand their small place, and to defend that which gave them life; that was what all rangers knew with utter certainty. For everything taken, they were accountable. Tanjaa remembered this lesson from her earliest days. It was the basis of survival.
Tanjaa knew that the world did not cater to her, or to anyone — yet it sustained such vibrant life, from the smallest insect to the greatest of mammoth beasts. For this, she respected it, and for this, she had sworn her eternal service to the land.