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~ Previous Chapter ~
THE WOODS WERE pitch dark and the snow deep, far deeper than the last time Mouse found himself out on the mountain. It was strange. The cold bit into his bones, reawakening his half-healed hurts and stiffening old injuries, making his limp worse than ever, and yet his heart was almost light.
He was outside. For the first time in what felt like forever, he was under the night sky, staring up at the burning bright stars. There were no walls here, no caves, no tunnels, no heavy stone ceilings, nothing between him and the sky, no boundaries at his sides. Nothing but uneven, frost-packed snow beneath his boots and glistening, blizzard-buried trees all around.
This was freedom – and it was bloody freezing.
“Anything?” Silveo hissed up one particular tree, reaching out to catch their sole dragongift globe as Imaino dropped it, then swung down through the last few branches to land in the heavy snow.
The lieutenant shivered and shoved his soaked gloves beneath his armpits with a shrug. “Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s difficult to tell in these conditions.”
Despite the host of difficulties surrounding them, Mouse was pretty certain Imaino wasn’t talking about the cold, the snow, the icicles hanging off every branch or even the fact that it was the middle of the night. More likely he was referring to the fact they were still in the first quarter of the month, which meant the moon was just reaching half full, throwing weak shadows across the night. This was further hampered by the freezing fog drifting through the trees.
With the world an uncertain, shifting curtain of silvery smoke there was no way they could tell if there was anyone else mad enough to be tramping about on this mountainside, perhaps even risking a fire. They couldn’t even tell if anything out there was moving.
As they trudged on through the forests that surrounded the lake above Aquila, Mouse looked back and down the valley at the fog casting everything into a world of silver and midnight. It was beautiful, in a deadly way.
The sudden twang of a bowstring whipped his attention forwards again, just in time to see Silveo and Imaino scamper off through the snow.
Cursing his inadequacies, Mouse scrambled after them as best he could, thankful that up here at least the fog wasn’t thick enough to cover the ground. Reduced to tracking, he soon deduced that some sort of deer had been hit by Imaino, and they were giving chase in the hopes of bringing it down.
The prospect of fresh meat got Mouse moving faster than anything else, and he slithered down a bloodied slope into a glade just as the others finished off their kill. The poor wretch must have tripped and fallen in the darkness, breaking its neck on landing. Spilled blood steamed in the darkness, but where once Mouse might have been squeamish about such things, he was quick to help with the butchering. They didn’t have much time before the blood and noise of the chase attracted other predators. Though the bears would still be hibernating, wolves and lynx still hunted these high slopes, not to mention far more dangerous things.
While Silveo packed the prime cuts into skinned-off sections of the deer’s hide, and buried the blood trail in the snow, Imaino and Mouse got on with the messy chore. They were barely a quarter of the way through when howls shivered through the night.
Hunting howls, far closer than was comfortable.
In an instant they switched from butchering to gathering, packing what they could easily carry into their two packs, cleaning their knives on the snow and covering most of the kill. All finished, they scrambled to the steep sides of the dell and began the difficult task of climbing out with Mouse in tow.
More howls, getting closer.
Imaino hauled Mouse onto a frost-rimmed shelf and stopped, steel singing softly as he unsheathed his sword. “That’s no wolf.”
THE NIGHT WAS frigid as a corpse as Willym skulked through the darkness, hating everything he could think of. This damned mission, this pox-riddled mountain, that weak-willed, imperious bastard sulking high in the warmth of Aquila’s towers. Aquila itself. The creatures that now inhabited it, both human and other. He was the first to admit that things had gone wrong in the Riders, not just the readmission of females to the ranks, but the wealth of commoners diluting its purity in increasing numbers each year. Why, look what it had done to Prince Lyrai. He was positively liberal, with his peasant friends and his ridiculous ideals.
Willym spat in the snow, the moisture freezing before it even reached the ground. Foul place. Yet he was stuck here for the foreseeable future, unable to get out while Mercata was still missing. Not that he considered for one moment that his miryhl had left him. She wouldn’t. She was his. She’d be back, probably after the worst of the winter had passed, and then he’d finally leave this scum-filled dump behind. It hadn’t been his choice to stay, but damned Fredkhen and his bloody sergeant had had him tied so firmly to their apron strings that he hadn’t stood a chance during the evacuation.
In Willym’s world it was every lord for himself, but he’d no sooner got rid of his cloying sergeant than the kaz-naghkt were upon them. From then on Willym had known what choice to make – which ever one assured his continued survival.
He had never been one for scruples, so joining the pirates and Yullik hadn’t troubled him. As long as he lived, that was all that counted. Besides it was worth it to see that sanctimonious prig Marshall finally get his due. Not to mention those blissful few days he got to spend in Healer Nehtl’s delightful company. Death was so sweet, almost as lovely as torment. He could still recall the exact tenor of little Mouse’s screams.
A shiver passed through him, which had nothing to do with the cold, and Willym allowed himself a private moment in which he simply remembered and revelled. Ah, the power of life and death. Such a heady intoxicant; the sweat, the fear, the pleading and begging. Better than sex. Then again, after being stuck in Aquila for over a year, the kind of sex he’d been having hadn’t been worth noting. Dominating one’s partner palled when they already worshipped you. Boys. He much preferred unwilling men, one’s who tried to fight against their desire, when Willym knew they thought him beautiful. Like Lyrai. Oh the plans he’d once had for that blond little prince.
Sullenly, he lashed at the frozen undergrowth with his flying crop and wondered yet again why that useless Yullik had sent him out here. Perhaps he saw him as a threat. The thought almost made Willym smile, until he felt the tug of his still tender scar, given to him but that self-same bastard sitting brooding in Aquila’s towers.
Yullik. How he hated him. He knew the feeling was more than mutual, and had been more than happy to spy on the yellow-eyed freak. If only he could get an idea of just what Yullik was, or what he wanted. There was magic there, and so much power, yet Yullik didn’t have the wit to use it. He’d taken Mouse away, the dim-witted bastard, and healed him. And this from the man who claimed to have created the kaz-naghkt. Unthinkable.
Although he couldn’t deny the man did control those monstrosities. Willym would give anything to know how he manage that.
Instead he was stuck in this frozen wasteland, with those same monsters as flitting shadows in the trees above him. Every so often they would cackle and whisper amongst themselves. It was not a comforting sound. Nor was standing directly beneath them a comforting place to be.
Just what kind of orders had Yullik given then, anyway?
“Kaz,” they whispered, scuttling up and down the icy trunks.
“Kaz,” more of them agreed, leaping between trees and slithering down to Willym’s level.
Red eyes glowed, teeth glistened in the weak moonlight. Deadly claws rasped at ice and bark to his left, while wings of shadow flexed in the darkness on the right.
“Kaz,” came the whisper in Willym’s ear, and he realised he’d stopped and was completely surrounded by the starving beasts.
They looked at him with hunger in their burning eyes. The kaz-naghkt were always hungry.
Across the valley a predatory howl rent the night.
A rustle of branches and Willym was alone.
His heart pounded, his knees felt weak and yet he smiled, even as the blood thundered in his ears. “The hunt is on.”
THE HOWLS TURNED to bays and the sound of running filled the trees, getting closer and closer.
Silveo reached the top of the slope and turned to offer Mouse his hand. Imaino shifted to boost him from beneath, but then the lieutenant paused, holding Mouse back. “Silveo, up a tree,” he commanded, pushing Mouse down into a dell and the shelter of tree roots, handing him the glow globe while flexing his other hand around his sword hilt.
Confused but obedient, Mouse shrank against the cold earth and tried to keep out of the lieutenant’s way.
The howls and bays died to menacing growls as dark shadows appeared over the far edge of the dell. Teeth glinted in the low light, pale highlights catching on the hunting beasts’ coats.
“Steady,” Imaino whispered over the rush of their own heavy breaths. “We have to make sure. Riders do not jump to fatal conclusions.”
At the word Riders the first beast raised its head, then the next, then the next. A questioning yip echoed in the dell and, as one, the creatures crept closer to the edge.
There was a flurry of yelps as one stepped on a pocket of unstable ground and tumbled over in a flurry of silky white and black feathers.
“Bumble!” the three Riders cried, and the nakhound pup bounded across the dell towards them in an ecstasy of welcoming whines and licks.
Flattened to the earth by the exuberant pup, Mouse could only laugh as Imaino put his sword away and slithered back down to the deer carcase, wading through a sea of happy nakhounds. Then came human voices, familiar greetings and relieved exclamations over the freshly caught food. There was still life on Aquila’s mountain, and plenty of it was friendly.
Mouse let Bumble lick away his tears and buried his face in the layers of her thick, beautifully soft coat, unable to believe he’d found some luck at last.
~ Next Chapter ~
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