Chapter One: The Monster in the Woods

 

“FIVE AGAIN,” Ainya said.

She shook her bone dice in her loosely closed fist and then studied them when she opened her hand. She cupped the dice in both palms to make sure she didn’t drop them where they could be crushed beneath the horses’ hooves. The rattling noise plucked at Tarquin’s already frayed nerves, but the distraction was better than thinking about the dying shareblood they’d left back in the village—or what the villagers told them had attacked her.

“Three and two or four and one.” Ainya let out a deep, thoughtful breath before she finally tucked the dice back into one of her belt pouches. “The number of transformation. I know it means something.” She looked at Tarquin with her night black eyes, obviously waiting for his reaction.

“Maybe it means you need new dice,” Gretta said. She grinned when Ainya arched an eyebrow at her.

“Is it about Faladir?” Tarquin asked Ainya, trying not to hope too much as he watched his breath drift away on the midwinter air.

Ainya shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said sadly. “I wish I did.”

“Me too.” Tarquin managed a nod of thanks, despite his disappointment. He absently patted Hop’s shoulder, running his fingers through the mare’s shaggy fur. Hop bobbed her head as if she appreciated it.

Tarquin, Ainya, and the shield Gretta rode abreast, so close together that their legs touched, with Tarquin in the middle. It wasn’t the easiest way to ride, but he was happy for the frail bit of warmth and sense of protection.

It was very cold. It had gone full night while he’d tried to help the shareblood, and the woods on either side of the road were as dark and silent as the deepest part of a cave. It reminded him of the Kawj, which only made the oppressive black more unpleasant. The three of them had cast simple hearth magic spells for light, but the little glowing balls seemed as useless as embers against this much darkness. Tarquin kept glancing right and left anyway, looking for a glimpse of gray scales among the trees. “Do you think it followed us?”

“No,” Ainya said with gratifying certainty. “The matriarch said the creature her grandchildren saw was skulking around the animal pens. If it’s hungry, it’ll be more interested in snatching a chicken or two than coming after us.”

“What about the firu back in the village?” Gretta said. “I doubt the monster was hungry when it ripped off her wings.”

Tarquin shuddered. “Maybe Ainya’s been rolling fives for the monster.”

“Oh, I hope not. I really hope not.” Gretta turned to look at the forest the way Tarquin had. The old winter-stripped trees stretched thick as a wall on either side of the road.

“It still sounds like a haldur,” Ainya said, as if the word hurt her mouth. “Only haldur are cruel enough to rip out a firu’s wings. It was their favorite torture during the war.” She released a breath that hissed through her teeth. It burst into ice in the air. “They liked leaving them alive afterwards.”

“They said it was too small to be a haldur,” Tarquin said, and he was grateful for that. The haunted look in Ainya’s eyes was horrifying enough.

“The haldur are gone. Burned to greasy ash at Telir,” Gretta said with relish. She’d fought there with Ainya. “The farmers said it was some human-sized, likely male gray thing with a tail. That doesn’t sound like a haldur. Haldur are hermaphrodites. It sounds like some sort of vyr.”

“The number of transformation makes sense if it’s a vyr. Vyr change their form from human to animal,” Tarquin said.

“It doesn’t have to mean anything at all,” Gretta said, but her gaze still searched the woods.

“There were five villagers who stopped us to ask for our help,” Tarquin said. Not that he’d been able to give them any, in the end. Nothing he tried had eased the poor shareblood firu’s torment. The girl never stopped screaming.

“Then there were the five siblings, and the rooster and four hens in the village. And my dice, don’t forget,” Ainya added. “It means something. I can feel it.” She ran her hand over her close-cropped hair. The thick black curls were dusted with snow.

Tarquin leaned forward in his saddle to look at Ainya. “Maybe all the transformation stuff is because it’s some kind of vyr thing.”

“I don’t know what it’s for yet,” Ainya said.

“You’ll find it.” If Ainya said something was a portent, then it was. The only question was if the portent would lead to anything good. The gods were capricious enough to render any fate uncertain. Tarquin was painfully aware of that.

He smirked, trying to lighten his mood. “Maybe it’s referring to the number of days it will take before your sister and her shields find our bodies, frozen to our saddles and covered in frost.”

Gretta chuckled. “If you’re cold, Mage Tarquin, I’d be happy to trade places with you.”

Ainya grinned and then reached over and gave Tarquin a few friendly thumps on the shoulder. “We’ll be there soon.”

“Did you hear that?” Gretta said suddenly.

Ainya nodded, all humor buried under her role as Shield of the Crown. That ability to focus so quickly and completely was one of the many reasons she’d earned the honor of leading the elite royal bodyguards. All shields were excellent soldiers, but the Shields of the Crown were exceptional. “Something’s following us.”

Tarquin couldn’t hear anything beyond the creak of leather, the horses’ hooves on the stones of the road, and the occasional hushed whisper of the wind. Even straining his ears, there wasn’t a sound that didn’t make sense in a forest at night, including the quickening thud of his heart.

He drew his mage knife, but Ainya saw it and gave him a shake of her head as she eased her bow off her shoulder. “Don’t bleed ’til you need to.” She nocked an arrow. “Fall behind,” she said to Gretta. “On my signal, we run.”

The other shield nodded and dropped back.

“Stay close,” Ainya said to Tarquin and then pressed her heels into Southwind’s flanks, trotting ahead. Tarquin was left in the middle. He could see the back of Ainya’s head, and how she shifted her body in readiness.

Tarquin’s brother was often called the “Gold Bear,” for his fair, handsome features and his strength. But if Faladir was a bear, then their cousin Ainya was a wolf: dark-skinned and lean and densely muscled, fiercely beautiful and dangerous. At twenty-five, she was just five years older than Tarquin, but she still seemed infinitely more sober and far wiser. He felt less terrified just knowing she was there.

He looked right and left and got ready to put his heels to Hop on Ainya’s signal. Then Gretta’s horse screamed.

Something wet and shockingly warm splashed the back of his head. One of the hearth lights went out.

Tarquin wheeled Hop around so fast that she reared up onto her back hooves. He stayed on only through luck and years of forced riding lessons.

Gretta’s horse was fountaining blood from its jugular, which something had gouged like a shovel through snow. The poor, doomed animal dropped to its knees, dying almost faster than Tarquin could take in what was happening. The thing that had killed the horse grabbed Gretta by her face as she tried to leap away from her dead mount. Its claws pierced her skull, and then the haldur drove the back of Gretta’s head into the trunk of the nearest tree.

Tarquin sat rooted to his saddle, so shocked he could barely register what he saw. “But, they’re gone,” he said, as if the words would somehow change what was happening. “The haldurs are gone. Burned. The dragons—”

The haldur tossed what was left of Gretta aside, then came at Tarquin. He had time to catch a glimpse of wide-set snake’s eyes in a face like a rotting prune, something amber on its corpse gray back, and a mouth full of teeth like serrated knives. Then an arrow was sticking out of its chest, and Southwind shouldered Hop aside so Ainya was between Tarquin and the certain death coming at them.

Run!” she shouted and let fly another arrow. This one hit the haldur in the arm. It half spun with the impact before it howled in rage and leaped right at her. Ainya loosed her third arrow into the haldur’s stomach. At that range, it would have gone through a human’s belly and out their spine, but the haldur didn’t even pause. It swiped its claws across Ainya’s face, pulling her right out of the saddle. She hit the stone of the highway with the haldur on top of her and Tarquin automatically made a mage warding for her, despite how he hadn’t bled at all to pay for it.

The haldur’s next strike snapped its claws on the cobbles next to Ainya’s head instead of going through her half-open eyes, and Tarquin silently begged Gretta’s forgiveness before he asked the gods to take the dead shield’s blood as payment. Magery didn’t work like that, but if he were lucky, maybe the gods would be kind and allow it anyway.

He hadn’t been very lucky of late.

Tarquin couldn’t tell if Ainya was still breathing, but then the snarling haldur snapped its head up and came after him, and he could only worry for himself. He kicked his terrified mare and yanked the reins so that Hop whipped around again. They galloped off with the haldur right behind.

Tarquin was sure he’d never been this frightened in his life. But he knew that if the haldur didn’t follow him, it would go back for Ainya, and he’d rather die than have to tell Prea that her sister was torn apart because he’d been too afraid to run.

Of course, dying himself seemed increasingly likely.

Tarquin was a good rider, at least for a crownling who hadn’t been trained to go to war on horseback. But while it was easy to hold his mage knife as well as the reins, not slicing off his arm while galloping full tilt wasn’t a skill the seminary had thought worth acquiring.

Not that having to choose between having his spine ripped out and slashing an artery was difficult. Tarquin put the reins in his teeth, then made two more hearth magic lights. He sucked in air as he flipped his tunic sleeve back and drew the point of his mage knife down the inside of his arm. He used one of the long white scars for a guide, reopening the older wound. His blade was sharp, and he barely felt the skin parting in the knife’s wake, but now there was plenty of his own blood to bargain with. He hoped he could make up for using Gretta’s blood before. The Mother and Father didn’t appreciate mages shirking their obligations.

Tarquin snatched the reins from his mouth with his blood-covered hand and considered his few options. He couldn’t change direction because the forest alongside the road was far too thick for a horse, but if he kept going at this speed, he’d ride Hop to death before the haldur did it for him.

The haldur snorted like a bull when it smelled Tarquin’s blood, but it wasn’t coming any closer. Tarquin was terribly certain that it should have caught up to him by now, and Hop was already sweating despite the cold, her powerful lungs billowing icy vapor. Was the haldur toying with them? Why was the thing still lagging behind?

The light, of course. How could he have forgotten something so simple?

Tarquin would have laughed if he’d enough air for it. Haldur hated the light, everyone knew that. Even the three little floating balls of hearth magic were enough to keep this one back. They had likely saved Tarquin’s life, but light made by hearth magic was nothing like real daylight. It was just a matter of time before the haldur braved the brightness to get its kill.

Red mist rose from the wound as Tarquin’s power gathered at the source of his bleeding. He formed an image in his mind, but the haldur swiped at Hop’s rump before he could complete it.

Hop made a terrible noise and stumbled, stepped wrong, and fell when one of her legs snapped. She landed on her bent neck and went silent.

Tarquin landed hard and rolled on the stones, somehow getting his ankle tangled in the reins. He ended up with most of his body off the highway, stunned and scraped from the icy ground.

The haldur squinted down at him with its hand dripping blood. It grinned.

Tarquin gritted his teeth and made light.

Casting light was hearth magic. Hearth lights were like floating candles without the heat or flame. Small children used the spell to light their bedrooms at night. Farmers used it so they wouldn’t burn down their barns.

Anyone could learn hearth magic. A few were talented enough to learn more powerful spells than those. Those people become magicians: alchemists, or witch skalds, or animists, or seers.

Almost no one became a mage.

Mages were the most powerful magicians because they didn’t cast spells. They manipulated pure magic into what they needed. This was the power mages paid for with their blood. The skill was in knowing what to use the magic for, and especially in knowing how much blood to give in return. Recompense for the gods’ gift. Blood for magic.

Tarquin imagined himself standing in a circle of sunlight, and then used his blood to make it real. Instantly he was lying in the center of a disc at least ten paces across and as bright as if he’d summoned back the day.

The haldur howled and staggered backward, smacking its hands over its eyes. Tarquin kicked the reins off his throbbing ankle and scrambled to his feet. He spun awkwardly to face the haldur, backing up a few steps to keep himself firmly in the center of the light. He still had his mage knife in his right hand. His left arm itched where he’d cut it, and the blood oozing from the wound felt bizarrely warm.

The haldur forced its eyes open. Its lips pulled back in a snarl that made its face even uglier. “Magician,” it spat, then loped toward him, angry enough to ignore the pain of the light.

Even half-blind, the haldur only missed because Tarquin used his magic to keep it from gouging out his heart. The next strike, a swipe upward meant to disembowel, only managed to rip his tunic.

Enraged, the haldur drew its arm back for a blow that would’ve carried off half of Tarquin’s head, except that gave him enough space to shove his mage knife blade deep into the haldur’s chest, above Ainya’s arrow, and right into its malformed heart.

The knife was sharp and long, but it turned out the haldur was bigger and thicker than Tarquin had estimated. All that happened was that it jerked and staggered a step, then bent its massive head to squint at the knife.

It looked up at Tarquin again and smiled like a fistful of broken glass, then used its thumb and forefinger to pluck the knife out like removing a splinter. The haldur dropped it onto the road.

“Oh hells,” Tarquin breathed. He turned to run again, give himself enough space for more magic, but when he leaped a tree root that had grown across the road, his already aching ankle gave out. The haldur grabbed his cloak hood in its fist when he stumbled, then used it to yank him backward so hard, it felt like his head would rip right off his neck. Tarquin heard the cloth tear, and then he hit the ground headfirst. His mage light went out.

He blinked woozily in the moonlight, barely able to see, but he could hear the haldur’s leisurely approach, feel how every heavy smack of its footfalls vibrated like a bowstring through his skull. Hearth magic wouldn’t help him now, and he wasn’t bleeding enough to pay for more magery. His mage knife was somewhere on the ground, but even if Tarquin could find it, it was tainted from stabbing the haldur. With his fingers, he tried to reopen the cut he’d made, but the haldur got to him first.

It yanked him up by his neck, then pulled its free hand back with the fingers hooked, ready to disembowel him with its claws.

Then suddenly, instead of being dead, Tarquin was coughing on the ground and the haldur was on its back, fighting for its life. Something had attacked it, but Tarquin could only see shadow on shadow, with flashes of pale gray as the two combatants rolled like cats on the ground. They both screamed like cats too: loud, grating screeches of anger and pain. It was impossible to tell which of them was winning.

Tarquin crawled out of the way, then used the trunk of a nearby tree to pull himself up, trying not to put weight on his bad ankle. The world swayed, and his head hurt so badly that he wanted to vomit. But the gods had spared his life, and he wasn’t stupid enough to waste it by just standing there sucking wind.

He cast another hearth magic light so he could see, lifting it overhead with an unsteady upsweep of his hand. The haldur was fighting something far more human in size and shape. Likely male, with hair so black it seemed part of the night around it, and skin so pale it glowed like silver under the moon. He wore some kind of robe like a person, but he fought like a haldur—all teeth and strength and claws—and the sounds that forced their way out of his throat were nothing remotely human.

He had the same hatred of light too, because as Tarquin’s hearth light fell on him, the monster bared his teeth, squinted in pain, and missed his next strike. The haldur lunged forward and slashed through the cloth covering his side to the silvery body underneath.

The monster cried out and automatically curled over the wound, which allowed the haldur to grab him by his thick black hair. Then the haldur used its favorite tactic of smashing its victim headfirst into something hard. The monster hit the stone of the highway and stopped fighting.

Tarquin could see he was still alive, but too stunned to move. The haldur grinned and put its knee on the monster’s chest. Even Tarquin could hear the creature’s bones creak as the haldur pressed down with all its weight.

For the first time, Tarquin could see the haldur’s back, and that the amber he’d glimpsed earlier came from the tattered wings strapped there like a grotesque, mocking souvenir. There were chunks of freeze-dried muscle attached to the bones that had been wrenched out of a shareblood firu’s back. The wings were the same color as the young woman’s eyes.

“Gods above!” Ainya was right. Whatever this monster was, whatever harm he had done, he hadn’t taken the firu’s wings: the haldur had. And Tarquin had accidentally helped the haldur kill him.

He’d already bled so much he didn’t dare use more magery, but there was always hearth magic, like the little spell he cast now, to set fires on the shafts of Ainya’s three arrows, still embedded in the haldur’s body.

The haldur bellowed and reared back, slapping wildly at the flames. Its knee slipped off the monster’s chest. The monster drew one shaking foot up and kicked the burning arrow in the haldur’s stomach, driving it deep into its body.

The haldur bent forward, howling, and the creature rolled out of the way, sprang to his feet, and leaped onto the haldur’s rounded back. He grabbed the haldur’s head, and then he bit the back of its neck so ferociously that Tarquin heard the haldur’s spine break. The haldur slumped over on its side, dead. The last two arrows were still burning.

The monster slid off the haldur and flopped onto his back on the highway, turned his head, and spat a gob of bloody flesh out of his mouth. His arm was trapped beneath the haldur, but he dragged it free while Tarquin was trying to decide if he should help or run.

The creature—man? Was it a man?—sat up slowly, holding his side, then carefully gathered his legs under him and stood, squinting in the light.

He and Tarquin stared at each other.

The silvery man-creature monster-thing really didn’t look much like a haldur, Tarquin decided numbly. His skin was far more pebbled than the leathery haldur hide, and far too pale, though it was hard to tell its true color under the rime of filth that covered him. The creature’s hair was pure black, which might have been yet more dirt. He wore a too-long robe that looked like he’d found it in a ditch, and now that Tarquin had time and air to notice, the monster stank like an unwashed dog. His features seemed pleasant enough and definitely humanlike, but thin and sallow and just as grubby as the rest of him. His eyes had the same attractive slant of any person from the far north, but with narrow pupils like a cat. Instead of the northern deep brown, they were bright yellow, like a wyvern’s.

This skinny, filthy creature hardly looked like the deadly brute the villagers had described, and he certainly hadn’t ripped off the poor firu girl’s wings. And he’d saved Tarquin’s life and been wounded for his kindness, and he was probably colder than Tarquin was, considering how he shivered in his flimsy robe and bare clawed feet.

One of them really needed to say something.

“Thank you,” Tarquin said, because that seemed the best way to start, given the circumstances. “My name’s Tarquin. What—”

One of Ainya’s arrows stabbed deep into the monster’s side, in almost the same place the haldur had gouged him. He cried out and then leaped straight up into the high branches of the tree spreading over them. Tarquin caught a glimpse of the tip of a pointed tail, and then he was gone, scrambling away through the winter limbs. A drop of his blood splashed onto Tarquin’s cheek, as warm and red as anyone’s.

“Quinny!” Ainya lurched up to him. Her blood had frozen red streaks in her hair and down her arm, and the torn skin of her face looked like streaks of paint. “Quinny, are you all right? The monster….” She trailed off, grimacing in pain.

“I’m fine. He saved my life,” Tarquin said.

He wasn’t fine—he’d watched Gretta die and his mare was likely dead too, and there was a haldur in the Realm of Kelor, and he was dizzy and aching and trembling from cold and fear. He was better off than Ainya, who looked like the next breeze would knock her over, despite how she’d still managed to use the bow that was now dangling from her hand.

“He saved my life,” he repeated when Ainya only blinked. “Look.” Tarquin gently turned her so she could see the haldur’s back. “He killed the haldur before it gored me. And he didn’t kill the firu either. See?” He pointed at the remains of the girl’s wings, on the back of the haldur.

“Oh,” Ainya said. “I shot him.”

“You thought he was hurting me.” Tarquin hoped the man with lizard skin was all right, but he had to worry about Ainya first. “Can you get on your horse? We have to go back to the village.” Tarquin could probably heal her, but not now. He felt like the next breeze might knock him over too.

“Ensi-Var is closer. And Prea and Faladir should be at the animist’s house by now.” She slid her bow slowly onto her shoulder, then whistled faintly for her horse, who plodded over. Of them all, Southwind seemed perfectly fine, if understandably spooked.

When Ainya pushed herself up and swung her leg over Southwind’s back, she almost slid off the other side. Tarquin darted forward and grabbed her ankle, then yelped as his own hurt ankle took his weight.

“Are you sure you can ride?” he asked her.

“We don’t have a choice.” She reached down. “Take my hand.”

“I need to check on my horse,” Tarquin said.

“Hop’s dead,” Ainya said. “Her neck’s broken. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, no.” Tarquin put his hand over his mouth, blinking hard to force back the sudden tears. “It’s my fault.”

“The haldur would’ve killed her if you’d been riding her or not,” Ainya said. “Just be glad it was quick.” She reached down again, gritting her teeth as she moved. “Come on. We can’t stay here. Wolves’ll smell the blood and come.”

“Gods above.” Tarquin hadn’t even thought about that. “We can’t leave Gretta here.” Bad enough they couldn’t do anything for the horses, but the idea of leaving Gretta to be eaten made him want to throw up. “What if the wolves tear her body apart before the collectors come?”

“I don’t want to leave her either, but I can’t help you get her on Southwind’s back,” Ainya said. “I’ll send shields back for her. The collectors must have her by now.”

Tarquin nodded, hoping it was true. He let Ainya help him onto Southwind’s back, ignoring her sharp breaths and his own discomfort. Ainya made sure he wouldn’t fall before she clucked her horse into a slow walk.

He tried not to look at the dead bodies, intensely grateful that Prea had agreed to go on ahead with her husband, instead of coming with them.

If it hadn’t been for the gray-skinned monster, the haldur would have killed Tarquin and Ainya, and then maybe gone to Ensi-Var to kill Prea and Faladir—

“Souls in hell!” Tarquin gasped as his tumbling thoughts fell into sudden, awful realization. “The village!”

“What?” Ainya sounded more alert, Tarquin’s anxiety sharpening her wits.

“A haldur killed the firu girl, not the monster,” Tarquin said. “And—”

“Haldur don’t hunt alone,” Ainya finished.

She reined Southwind around and kicked the horse into a dead run, going back the way they’d come.