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Bring on the pine marten.
The Hungry One
THE FIRST THING Hawk did after he was released was hold up his arm. The sparrowhawk was there almost before he moved. Cupping his free hand around Cyrus’ fragile back, Hawk lifted his arm and buried his face against his mage-beast’s orange chest. Cyrus rubbed his beak along Hawk’s nose, then tenderly preened his curls. They were back together again. They were safe.
“Enough.” Irissa rose from cleaning the knife on the old man’s cloak and jerked her head at the cage. “You’d best handle that, I think.”
Despite having just saved the lives of two young mages, it seemed the witch still had a problem with mage-beasts. She was crouched before Sidony now, checking the girl for injuries and avoiding looking at Hawk and Cyrus. Hawk shrugged. As long as her prejudices didn’t stop her from doing what needed to be done, she could think what she liked.
While Sidony and Irissa talked, Hawk shifted Cyrus to his shoulder and approached the copper cage. Closer up he could see that it was a pine marten inside. Bigger than a ferret, with more triangular ears than a polecat, it also lacked the bandit mask. The large splash of cream beneath its chin and down its chest was the biggest clue, along with the thickly furred tale.
It watched his approach with bright, intelligent eyes, but didn’t spit or growl. Its whole body tensed, but it didn’t move when Hawk reached for the cage.
“Mountains!” It was Hawk who growled when he touched the copper wire. “That hurt.”
“What happened?” Irissa demanded, crossing the dell to look at his hand. A line of welts rose on his fingertips. Irissa frowned, turning it on the pine marten when the beast gave a low growl. “Quiet,” she muttered, and prodded the wire.
The cage swung, but she didn’t recoil. “Mage cursed.”
“Mage what?” Sidony asked, coming closer and tickling the pine marten through the wire. It inclined its head towards her touch, but kept its eyes on Irissa. Hawk noticed the beast was very careful where it put its paws and stayed away from the sides of the cage as much as possible.
“Mage cursed,” Irissa repeated. “Cursed against mages.” She ducked to look underneath, a touch of revulsion on her face as she straightened up. “Mage-beasts too.”
Hawk tilted his head and grimaced. The pine marten’s sensitive paw pads were a mass of weeping welts. Keeping a creature in a cage too small for it was one thing, using that same cage to torture it was beyond evil.
He wanted to tear the cage into tiny pieces, but a glance at his hand stopped him. He didn’t know if he even could break the wire, and if he shook it up too much he would just cause the marten more pain. Taking a deep breath, he turned and looked Irissa in the eye.
“Will you help him?” he asked, knowing the witch didn’t owe him anything. She’d already saved both his and Sidony’s life, while her beloved Ren had died.
For a long moment Hawk thought she would refuse. She stared at the forest floor, then took a long look at the caged beast. Finally, she glanced over her shoulder at where the old man had finally fallen silent.
Sighing, she reached up and unclipped the cage from its holding chain – all made from copper. Putting it on the ground, she stepped back and the front fell off.
With a happy grunt, the pine marten dashed away through the leaf litter, scrambled up the side of the dell and vanished amongst the trees.
“After it!” Irissa ordered, scooping up the big knife and grabbing Sidony’s hand. Hawk paused only to launch Cyrus in pursuit before he started to run.
* * *
THE CHASE HAD barely begun when Cyrus came darting back through the trees, keening his warning cry. Hawk looked up briefly before he was shoved to the ground. Sidony landed next to him, while Irissa crouched over them, a knife in either hand.
“He sent three men to fetch the Hungry One,” Sidony whispered.
The witch nodded. “Wait here.” Tucking one blade in her belt, Irissa crept to the nearest tree. Once there she straightened up and eased around the trunk to take a good look.
Nudging Sidony with his elbow, Hawk began to belly-crawl forwards. They were back beneath the widely spaced pines and the ground was strewn with waist-high bracken. As long as he moved slowly he shouldn’t cause too much movement. Sidony waited for him to crawl past her, then slithered after him.
Irissa saw them moving and frowned, but there was little she could say without giving them away. A little way overhead, Cyrus hopped cautiously through the branches, keeping a lookout.
While the sparrowhawk focused on what lay ahead, Hawk watched him worriedly from below, and it wasn’t until his hand landed on something cold and clammy that he looked down.
It took all his page training not to yelp. The lifeless arm had been thrown out as the body fell and insects were already crawling over it. A slack face was twisted towards him, the eyes open, staring at nothing. A shiny beetle crawled over the parted lips, while ants investigated a sunburnt nose.
The man was most definitely dead. Hawk swallowed as he stared into the lifeless face and recognised him. He was one of the men the old man had sent to retrieve the Hungry One.
A rustle of undergrowth was his only warning as Sidony crept up beside him. “What’s the matter, Hawk?” she whispered, inching forward on her elbows to look around his shoulders. “Did you find -”
Hawk clapped a hand across her mouth. “He’s dead,” he told her bluntly. “No screaming.”
Green eyes widened as the shocked breath she’d sucked in got trapped in her lungs.
“Gently, Sid,” he murmured, easing his hand away.
She let it out a shuddering sigh. “What happened?”
He shook his head. “If we keep going, maybe we’ll find out.”
* * *
SIDONY LAY STILL while Hawk crawled on and stared into the dead eyes of the man who’d carted her over his shoulder for most of the afternoon. He was a slaver and had never meant anything good to happen to her, but he’d never directly hurt her either. Now he lay in a forest far away from his home and she didn’t even know his name. No one here did. There would be no stone left to mark his grave.
“What is it?” the whisper, coming just before a hand touched her back, was all that stopped Sidony from screaming. Irissa crouched beside her and Sidony pointed at the body.
“Ah.” The witch’s grip relaxed around the knife she was holding. “One less for us.”
Sidony frowned, wondering where the softly spoken woman who liked to tease had gone. This Irissa was completely different from the one she’d come to know and like. This woman was hard, uncaring and never smiled. Sidony had a feeling the witch would never smile again.
Ren, she thought and fought back a sob. She didn’t think she would ever forget the look on his face as the head slaver thrust his dagger into his chest, then callously shrugged his body to the ground. Poor Ren.
“Hawk’s found something,” Irissa muttered and moved on, darting from tree to tree, leaving Sidony to crawl through the undergrowth.
* * *
MORE BODIES, BUT these were men Hawk didn’t know. They’d been killed while sitting up, their legs still crossed as though they’d just settled down for dinner. They’d been hit from the front and simply fallen backwards, a look of horrified surprise on their faces. One still held his spoon.
Whatever had happened here had been quick and unexpected. Hawk looked up as Cyrus shifted uneasily on a branch. He felt edgy himself, but a quick check of the bodies turned up a couple of throwing knives and a long dagger, which made him feel better.
Secrecy seemed foolish now, so Hawk rose into a crouch and scurried to the base of the tree Cyrus was perched in. Reaching the trunk, he glanced back and saw Irissa crouched over the two bodies, Sidony by her side. Trusting the witch to take care of the girl, Hawk eased around the tree to look ahead.
The bracken here had been trodden down to make a small patch of habitable ground. There were signs of a camp – a rudimentary shelter rigged up between three trees, a fire pit where the embers still glowed – and more bodies.
Sat in the middle, chained at the waist, wrists and neck to a sturdy young tree, was a boy. His mouth was gagged and there were bruises on his face, not to mention several bloody lines staining his clothes. He was ragged, dirty and beaten.
Yet his eyes when they found Hawk were black, black holes. They matched the pine marten that was curled up on his lap.
Staring into those eyes, Hawk dropped his weapons and walked out from behind the tree. Falling to his knees before the boy, he held out his hands. Golden light gathered on his fingertips, the welts from the copper cage already healed away. Something tugged at his magic and Hawk smiled. He was a healer. This boy needed his help. He looked into those eyes and sighed.
He was so hungry…
* * *
SIDONY STARED AT the bodies and wondered what in the world was going on. Cricket huddled at the edge of her collar, his whiskers a tickling tremble against her neck. She reached up to sooth him and jumped as Irissa leapt to her feet.
“Don’t touch him!”
Sidony looked up. Cyrus was shrieking, a panicked orange and blue blur flapping anxiously around his kneeling mage.
In two long strides Irissa was there, shoving Hawk aside and revealing the figure beyond. It was a boy, Sidony realised. A boy chained to a tree, and for some reason Hawk wasn’t supposed to touch him.
Irissa dragged Hawk away, fighting as he struggled and growled.
Had the world gone mad?
“Leave him alone!” Sidony grabbed Irissa’s arm. “He’s a healer. The boy needs help.”
Even she could feel his need tugging at her magic. Her magic was barely formed, still too new for her to be able to use it, but the constant, bubbling stream of it added lightness to her day. Yet here, in this horrible forest, she felt it suddenly welling up. It wanted to get out. It wanted to be free.
Dizziness swept over her and Sidony sank to her knees, her hands dropping from Irissa’s arm to rest amongst the pine needles.
* * *
THE SLAP WAS a short, sharp wake up call and Hawk was so stunned he stopped fighting. He looked up into Irissa’s furious face and shook his head. “What happened?”
Brown eyes narrowed angrily. “You were being stupid. Do not touch the boy.”
“But he needs help,” Hawk murmured dazedly, feeling the pull on his magic again. Except there was something else there this time. Something building. It crackled like static before a lightning storm, powerful and deadly.
Hawk’s eyes widened as he turned and saw Sidony kneeling beside them.
Irissa dragged him to his feet and pushed him away. “Run.”
“But the boy -” Hawk started to protest, earning another hard shove.
“He’ll survive. Run!”
Hawk did. He’d felt Sidony’s magic glowing inside her from the moment he met her, but he knew that without the right training it couldn’t get out. Except something was pulling it, all of it, all at once, and unlike him Sidony was no healer.
“Down!” Irissa shouted.
Hawk threw himself forward and covered his head.
The forest exploded.
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