Copyright © 2013 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Ice glazed the road, crackling as I slid over its glassy surface. After several days, the crush, crunch, crush, crunch of snow underfoot made my back teeth ache. But I’d rather set my jaw and persevere than break a leg in this miserable weather. Snug inside my thick, lepus-fur-lined boots, I wiggled my toes. At least I thought I did. Glancing down, I watched while the supple leather flexed.
Well, I could say this much for my feet. They were still attached.
Gods above and below. What had I gotten us into this time?
A shove from behind rocked me onto my tiptoes.
“Frown much longer and your face will freeze that way.” Ghedi’s chapped lips curved.
I punched him in the chest hard enough air whistled through his teeth. “Then my face would match the rest of me.” I squinted against the sun. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Have you?”
“No.” Rubbing his chest, Ghedi winced. “Only fools cross the veil into the northlands.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “And yet, there you stand.”
He gestured toward me. “And yet, here we both are.”
We shared a brief smile.
A final visual sweep of the area to either side of the road added no contrast to the landscape.
“White and more white,” he muttered. “Where is all the green?”
“Forget green. Gold is what we’re hunting.” I glanced past his shoulder. “Our contract ends the moment we relinquish our ward. What then? All we have to our names is a modest purse full of coin to split six ways since someone failed to collect our fee upfront last time. When word leaks how our previous employer died at our feet, we’ll have a bloody difficult time finding work. People are strange in their expectations of mercenaries. They expect them to be, I don’t know, capable. We can’t afford to waste an opportunity. I say while we’re here, we hire on with the Araneidae clan. Let that lot feed us while we decide where we go from here. Gods know they can afford to toss a few coins our way.”
He scowled. “You’re still pissed about Hishima? He was the Segestriidae paladin for gods’ sake. His city is made of priceless crystal, and a single ring from one of his hands could have paid our fee. If I’d known he was going to die, I would have doubled our price and demanded he pay on the spot.”
I snorted. “I hate to point this out, but if Hishima had known hiring us was one of the last things he would ever do, I doubt you could have used that information as leverage to demand higher pay.”
Ghedi wrung his hands in my face. “You have a gift for twisting sense from every word I say.”
“Of course I do. I’m your sister.” I patted his arm. “Besides, you make it easy.”
“You don’t have to be here, you know.” He brushed off my hand. “You could go home.”
Home. The word pierced my heart. We could not return to Halcidia yet. Perhaps not ever.
I noted the grim set of his jaw and tensed. “What’s wrong?”
Usually it took more than a good-natured ribbing before he threatened to send me packing.
“It’s nothing.” He glanced over his shoulder, the way I had been staring. “Nothing at all.”
Four males identical to Ghedi huddled into their heavy coats as they went about their work. Two males tended the six ursus I had purchased for us to ride during this trip. Two more stared with rapt attention at the knotty pinewood box set at their feet. It resembled nothing so much as a fresh coffin.
Truth be told, it might as well have been one.
I jerked my chin toward the box. “How is she?”
“Malik and Tau are dosing her now.” He tugged his hat down. “The herbs are working, too well if you ask me. Our brothers are all but chewing her food for her. When that fails, they brew a tea to pour down her throat. The weather makes her sluggish, and the herbs do too. If we don’t reach Erania soon…” He shrugged. “I hope you negotiated rates based on whether she arrives dead or alive.”
“If you ask me,” I muttered, “a corpse is as good as a live specimen.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.”
My exhale left a plume of white fog between us. “We ought to get moving.”
His eyes narrowed. “We only just stopped.”
“Now we’re just starting.” My nape prickled. “We’re too exposed on the open road.” Now that I had ranged ahead, I knew, “There’s a stand of trees farther down. That will put limbs between us and the sky. It’s not much protection, but it’s the best we can manage until we reach the city.” Ghedi’s mutinous glare made me chuckle. “Shoo. Make our brothers see reason and be certain Fynn tethers the box securely between your mounts. The litter wobbled far too much for my comfort last time.”
He ruffled snow from his beard. “I’ll never hear the end of this.”
My throat tightened. “I would gladly share the burden of their complaints.”
“I wish I could teach you mkono, I do,” Ghedi said, “but I would like to honor one vow I made to our father.” He withdrew with a sigh almost too soft to hear. “One, when I have broken so many.”
“I understand.” I did, but I didn’t have to like it.
Learning mkono was a rite of passage for Deinopidae males. As a lowly female, that knowledge was denied me. Even now when their sign language made all the difference, I was still kept ignorant.
“You will hear our brothers speak again,” he assured me, “and you will rue the day you do.”
Despite the sore spot in my chest, I forced a smile. “I’m sure you’re right.”
While he went to prod the others into action, I studied the way we had come.
For a second, I thought I glimpsed a shadow darken the road behind us.
I spun toward Ghedi, but he had wandered too far. At such a great distance, I would have to yell to be heard over the winds. Not wise if a beast was stalking us. If it was no beast… I swallowed hard.
Another time I might have relished a good hunt. Wild ursus roamed the north, a quarry that had eluded me, but only a fool spilled blood where a more lethal predator might become aroused by it.
No trophy kill was worth riling our ward. Nothing was if you asked me.
Holding as still as the icy gusts allowed, I narrowed my eyes against the blinding sunlight.
Ghedi’s breath warmed my ear. “What do you see?”
I almost jumped out of my skin. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
“Are you sure?” His nostrils flared, scenting the air. “We can’t be too careful.”
“It was a shadow.” A shiver rippled up my spine. “Too small for an ursus. A canis?”
“Hmm.” He stood at my shoulder. “They’re rare in the northlands these days, or so I hear.”
“The plague,” I said softly, my gaze drawn to where our brothers hefted the litter into place.
He nodded. “The larger predators followed healthy game south.”
“All the same…” I elbowed him in the gut. “Keep your eyes open.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” He rubbed his middle. “It will make walking so much easier.”
After he ambled past me, I scooped up a handful of snow and packed it into a tight ball. I let him get several steps ahead of me before I reeled back and hurled it at the base of his skull. He stumbled on impact, swearing while he cupped his neck. The withering glare he shot me promised retribution.
Say what you will about siblings, they do have their uses. Target practice was one of them.
Feeling smug, I performed a mock curtsey that made Ghedi roll his eyes. Glancing at the others, I noticed they wore matching scowls. I returned their ill humor and bared my fangs in a pointed grin.
Pity about never learning mkono.
The language barrier made it much harder for them to order me around without breaking their vows of silence.
I jumped when hot breath blasted the back of my neck. As I twisted, a frigid nose left an icy trail across my cheek, and I found myself staring into beady, black eyes that reminded me a smidge of our current employer, Paladin Vaughn of the Mimetidae clan. I say he was our employer. His mother had held a dagger to my jugular and folded a few coins into my hand. I suppose that meant she’d hired us.
Either way, gold was gold and I couldn’t complain. Much.
Farrow huffed more of her rank breath in my face while I rubbed her tufted ears. She was tall for an ursus. Her shoulders stood equal to mine. Reddish fur masked her eyes and her snout. Brown hair covered the rest of her. Her black lips quivered in ursine pleasure when I scratched under her bridle.
“All right, you.” I smoothed a cowlick on her broad forehead. I could have put three more hands to either side of mine and still not spanned the width of her skull. I crushed a kernel of fear before it took root. Beasts of her size were rare in the south, but I handled carnivores often enough to keep her from biting a chunk out of me. With a final pat, I grasped the saddle horn and swung astride her.
As I settled, an earsplitting horn blared in the distance.
Farrow’s eager shudder made me clutch her ruff. Her head shot up, and white clouds huffed from her flared nostrils. A throaty growl was all the warning she gave before breaking into a hard gallop.
Twisting her reins free of their loose knot, I grasped them tight in my hands. “Whoa, girl.”
The crazy sow ignored me, barreling past Ghedi, who dove in the snow to avoid being trampled.
Behind me, the other ursus roared. Soon after, the slap of their paws matched Farrow’s. Kaleb’s mount jostled mine when she loped past. Tau’s mount ran on our heels. Malik and his ursus shot past Kaleb and stole the lead. Each sawed at the metal bits clenched in their mounts’ teeth, but their silent commands went ignored by the stampeding ursus. Where they ran, we had no choice but to follow.
“The box,” Ghedi bellowed from the ditch. “Gods’ web, Zuri, secure the box.”
On the edge of my vision, I glimpsed Fynn’s struggle to gain control of his frantic ursus. On the litter strung between his mount and Ghedi’s riderless one, the box swayed. Bolted onto thick poles, it was fastened through sleeves sewn above the stirrups on either saddle. But if Fynn’s ursus outran his partner, the latches could slip and send the rails splashing into the slush under their thundering paws.
If that box shattered, our ward would escape, and there would be no apprehending her.
It had taken all six of us to capture her in the first place. Even then, we had been very fortunate. She’d been too busy feeding to notice us. No point risking fortune’s favor twice if we could avoid it.
Fynn’s boar flung its great head side to side until he caved to the beast’s will, slacking its reins. Abandoning hope of slowing their mad sprint, he groped desperately for the poles held by the saddle.
“No,” I yelled, tugging on Farrow’s reins. “Don’t.”
Fynn caught the poles as they slid through their straps, yanking him from his saddle, tossing him onto the road and knocking the breath out of him. Behind him, the box went tumbling. Its hinged lid flapped open, and its wooden sides splintered as the box collapsed and its occupant tumbled bonelessly into a snow-filled ditch yards from where Ghedi had scrabbled up its icy sides back onto the road.
Our ward laid still, held captive by the fabric cocoon she had woven from her blankets.
My heart stuttered when she turned onto her side.
“No you don’t,” I growled. “Not yet.”
I freed my net and fumbled the latch securing my glaive, gripping the staff in hand. I wound the ends of Farrow’s reins around the saddle horn so she wouldn’t trip over them, then sent up a prayer.
Grant mercy unto me, gods of old, gods of river and wood, gods of sand and stone.
Farrow didn’t slow when I swung a leg over her side or hesitate when I leapt from her back. I hit the slick ground hard, rolling my ankle. A crisp snap made my gut lurch. I had broken enough bones to understand the sound. Agony was all I knew for the first step, but the glaive made a decent crutch.
Gritting my teeth, I limped toward Fynn. Ghedi reached him before I could and turned him onto his side. Blood covered the road where ice shards or a stone had sliced open his scalp. Fynn blinked, a bit dazed, but he sat upright with help. Once I was certain he was in no immediate danger, I rallied.
“Leave him,” I called to Ghedi. “The box is ruined.”
He patted his pants pockets. “A flint. That’s all I’ve got.”
“I have a glaive and a net.” I grimaced while hobbling past him. “We’ll make do with those.”
Ghedi’s scowl told me what he thought of my plan, but I didn’t hear him offering an alternative.
“Hurry.” I pushed myself harder, thankful for the numbing cold. “We must secure her.”
“I told you the herbs have made her…” He trailed off when he spotted the squirming bundle.
“Not docile enough.” Small weights were attached to the edges of my net to aid in casting. I ran those smooth stones through my fingers while Ghedi closed in on her. Wincing as I forced my ankle to bear my weight, I tossed him the glaive. Silk mesh slid over my hands while I shook the net loose.
Ghedi couldn’t hit the broad side of an ursus, even with a spear. My aim was our only hope.
“Hold,” a masculine voice barked from behind me.
I tensed with my arms outspread, the weight stones clacking in the wind.
Ghedi’s voice was as familiar to me as the silence kept by the others. Whoever this male was, he was not one of us. Oh how I hated being at a disadvantage, but I trusted Ghedi would guard my back.
“Give me a minute,” I called over my shoulder. “Then I’ll hold whatever you want.”
“Is that right?” His voice rose over the eager grunting of an ursus. His mount, I was sure, since ours had abandoned us. “Tempting offer, but since I can’t see your face, I think I’ll pass. Lower your weapons. Both of you.” His mount jangled its harness, primed for the chase if either of us bolted.
As a hunter myself, I appreciated the beast’s thirst for the kill.
But not when my brothers and I were its intended prey.
“Zuri?” Ghedi awaited my order.
“Drop the glaive.” No sense in getting both of us killed.
He watched for signs I would do the same. “Let you play martyr? Not a chance.”
“Do it.” I tested the wind with my net. “Someone has to get Fynn and our ward to Erania.”
Ignoring me, Ghedi called to the guard. “We’re transporting a prisoner.” His lips twisted on the word. “We have papers from Paladin Vaughn of the Mimetidae. I trust you will find them in order.”
“Paladin Vaughn sent you?” the guard asked at length.
Ghedi reached into his coat and flashed the carefully folded sheaves. “That’s his seal there.”
“Drop your weapon,” the guard repeated. “Bring your papers. Hands out. Very slowly.”
With a nod, Ghedi let the glaive clatter between us, close enough I could swipe out a leg and toe it to me. But I’d have to trust my bad ankle to prop me while I did, and I couldn’t. It was too wobbly.
While Ghedi attempted to secure the guard’s goodwill, I returned my attention to our ward. The promise of violence saturated the air, and she must have scented potential for a fresh meal. Her cloth cocoon began writhing. Not good. I cut my eyes toward Ghedi. He was almost in reach of the guard.
Glancing back at the road, I swore when a pale arm burst through the fabric to claw at the snow-covered ground. Forget diplomacy. Either we acted now or lost our ward and the tatters of our once-sterling reputation. Losing an employer was unfortunate. Losing our cargo? That was unforgiveable.
Praying Ghedi’s letter kept the guard occupied, I eased closer.
“You there,” the guard bellowed. “Don’t move. Drop your—is that a net?”
“Zuri…” Ghedi warned.
“See that?” I pointed at the struggling bundle. “If I don’t restrain our ward before she gets loose, we may not live to regret it.” I lifted my hands over my head. “This is all I have. Let me contain her. I swear that’s all I’ll do. Let me toss this net. After that, you can take your time reading our papers.”
“Am I not reading fast enough for you?” A stubborn note spiked his tone.
“It’s not that.” I forced patience into my voice. “But I must—”
“All you must do is stand still until I’m satisfied of your purpose.”
Sounds of material shredding turned our heads as a second flailing arm join the first.
Time was up. I had to act.
Exhaling, I forced myself one more cautious step forward.
“I’m warning you, female,” the guard growled. “Hold.”
Dirty blonde curls popped from the rip in the fabric.
I spread my legs as far as the pain allowed and took aim.
“Throw your weapon,” he warned, “and you leave me no choice but to do the same.”
Beneath the wild mane of hair, a delicate face as pale as the moon lifted toward the sun.
“Then neither of us have much choice.”
I cast my net.
She twisted aside at the last second, and the mesh glanced off her back. That ethereal face flushed with rage, and her red lips parted on an earsplitting wail of fury.
“Zuri,” Ghedi cried. “No.”
Pain slammed into my shoulder, and I staggered forward. At first I thought it was Ghedi shoving me aside, but this hurt. My hand crept upward until my fingertips touched warmed metal. The hilt of a slender dagger stood proudly from the joint, its length piercing through my back. A wave of nausea threatened to buckle my knees. An accidental brush against the grip sent agony racing down my arm.
The howling wind, the stark landscape, my brother, all of it faded to welcoming blackness.
Until a shrill voice near my ear jolted me back from the edge.
“Hungry.” Fetid breath blasted my neck.
I turned my head slowly and found myself nose to nose with our ward. Her fair complexion did nothing to mask the network of yellowed veins pulsing in her neck. When she leaned closer, her pink tongue darted out to wet her cracked lips. The sharp metallic stink of old blood burned my nostrils.
Her citrine eyes glittered while she crooned deep in her throat.
“There’s food in my bag.” Not that I knew where my ursus had gone. “I’ll get it for you.”
I stumbled backward in my haste.
“No.” She grasped the hilt of the guard’s dagger where it protruded from my shoulder and tightened her grip to prevent my escape. “Hungry now.”
With a vicious twist of her wrist, she ripped out the blade.
I tried to scream. I did. But there wasn’t enough air in the world for me to make a sound.
“What in the gods’ names is that thing?”
I shook my head to clear the ringing. The guard. Had he asked me something?
“Hang on, Zuri. I’m coming.”
Now that voice I recognized. Ghedi. Fear for my brothers cleared the panic shrouding my mind. I locked my knees and studied my opponent. Her tongue curled around the blade while she licked the blood from its razor edges. That dagger was my only chance at surviving. I knew that. Ghedi was too far away, and her teeth were far too close. Mercy be. Before she finished savoring her treat, I lunged.
Clasping her spindly wrist, I wrenched her arm until I gripped the dagger’s hilt in my palm. Her startled cry rattled my eardrums. Never had I been more grateful that she had been kept as a pet. Oh, she had a hunter’s primal instincts. But she had never been left to fend for herself against the likes of me. Already I saw the herbs had done their work. She was moving slower than before, not by much, but enough that her drug-induced lethargy gave me an edge. It was keeping me alive, and I knew it.
“Don’t.” Ghedi slid to a halt. “Zuri—no.”
Making good use of the distraction, our ward tackled me, and we toppled onto the ground. Tangled as she was in her blankets, her greatest advantages were still bound tight to her back, and I planned to keep them that way. Before she shredded the material, I brought my knee up hard beneath her ribs. She grunted and rolled aside, onto the snow. I crawled to her, straddling her. Her claws tore chunks from my coat while she thrashed under me. When I raised my arm, I heard Ghedi bellowing.
“Wait,” he cried.
I didn’t dare. I sank the blade through her shoulder, pinning her to the frozen road.
“The net, Ghedi.” I scrambled off her. “Get the net.”
A firm hand grasped my collar and tossed me aside. I lay panting with my cheek mashed against the road while Ghedi hurled my net over her. With supreme patience, he began spinning fine strands of silk from his fingertips and sewing our ward inside the net. The flimsy cage couldn’t hold her, but it would slow her down. Erania must not be much farther if armed guards were patrolling this road.
We had only to make it that far.
The guard stood at my hip, watching the spectacle. “What is that thing?” he asked again.
I rolled onto my back and stared up at him. “That is a private matter for your maven.”
He offered me his hand. “You need help up?”
“No. I think I’ll stay here a while longer.” I waved in Ghedi’s direction. “Help him.”
To his credit, the guard didn’t hesitate. Crossing to Ghedi, he knelt and held our ward still while Ghedi continued his bindings. While they worked, I tilted my head back and sought Fynn. He lay with his back to me. As thick as my brothers’ skulls were, I still worried he might have cracked his.
Nothing short of having his brain scrambled would have kept him out of a fight.
Ghedi leaned over me, his hand hesitating above my wound. “How bad is it?”
“Not bad,” I panted. “I’ve had worse.”
“Stop bragging. Tell me the truth.” When none was forthcoming, he sighed. “Your ankle?”
“I won’t make it to Erania on foot.” For that matter, I doubted I could stand again.
“She can ride Gris,” the guard called. “He’s stout enough to carry two and drag…that.”
“Drag?” I craned my neck to spot our ward.
Ghedi nodded. “We’re going to use the poles and the net to make her a new litter.”
“Good.” I let my eyes close. “Very good. Especially the part where I ride the ursus.”
“Oh no, you don’t.” He shook my shoulder. “Don’t even think about nodding off.”
I hissed at him through my teeth.
“Asher will be leading Gris since he knows the way. I will be guarding our ward and our backs. That leaves you to keep Fynn alert until we reach Erania.” Ghedi frowned down at me. “What is it?”
“Asher?” I scowled at the guard. “When did you two have time for introductions?”
“A grunted name is not an introduction.” He clasped forearms with me. “Brace yourself.”
Using his weight as leverage, Ghedi leaned back and, with a loud grunt, hauled me onto my feet.
I found the scream I had swallowed earlier, crying out until my voice went hoarse.
“Shh.” He wrapped his arms around me. “The worst is over.”
I cleared my throat. “I might have lied about the having-had-worse part.”
His chuckle was deep and soothing at my ear while I rested my forehead on his shoulder.
“Come on.” He hooked an arm about my waist. “Loop your good arm around my neck.”
“What about Fynn?” I winced at how my stretched muscles pulled against my wound.
“Let me worry about him.” Ghedi led me to Gris, who snuffled my coat with interest.
“Knock it off.” Asher strode to his mount and thumped the boar’s nose. “You’ve already eaten.”
Together Ghedi and Asher lifted me onto Gris’s saddle and helped me gain my balance.
“Don’t use your heels.” Asher made certain my feet were out of the stirrups. “He hates that.”
I grasped the collar of Asher’s coat. “What about the others?”
He wrenched free of me. “They’ll be in the stables by now.”
I tried to read him when I asked, “They won’t be harmed, will they?”
Asher patted my thigh. “As long as they follow orders, they’ll be fine.”
I groaned. Following orders was not what my brothers did best. Still, until they knew our fate, I believed they would behave. Failing that, they were brawlers who knew how to handle themselves.
“How far are we from the stables?” I would rather arrive before their tempers got the best of them.
He scratched his chin. “About a half hour as an ursus walks.”
“Can we get there faster?” Thirty minutes was a long time to leave them to their own devices.
“Dragging a litter, no, we can’t. Why?” He waited. “Do your brothers listen as well as you do?”
“They’re males,” I scoffed. “They listen half as well and understand even less.”
“I understand perfectly well.” Ghedi glared where Asher’s hand still rested on my leg.
“We males do speak a common language.” Asher tightened his grip. “Who is she to you?”
“My little sister,” Ghedi said, fangs punching through his gums.
“Merciful gods.” I aimed a kick to Asher’s gut that sent him stumbling. “I appreciate your help, but not that much, and not in that way. Keep your hands to yourself, or I will snap off your fingers and feed them to Gris, who, by the way, doesn’t seem particular about where his next meal comes from.” Though I listed to one side thanks to that kick, I straightened my spine. “If you don’t mind, I have a delivery to make and fees to collect. Ghedi, bring Fynn and secure our ward. Asher, lead or get out of my way.”
Asher took the reins.