Path of Honor
The Path Trilogy, Book Two
Path of Honor
Open Road Media
Originally published by:
Roc (December 2004)
eBook: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | iBooks | Kobo
For the Audio version: Audible | iTunes
Two years after Reisil’s arrival, Kodu Riik is decimated by plague and famine. And now a race of sorcerers is trying to take over. Reisil’s power is feared by the nobility, others wish to exploit her, and her fellow ahalad-kaaslane begin to doubt her loyalty, as her healing magic fails to stem the rising plague. But Reisil will discover that although she has lost her power to heal, she now possesses a surging new ability-to destroy.
Praise for the Path of Honor:
“The tone of PATH OF HONOR is darker than that of its predecessor, for the personal and political problems in it are much harder to fight against. But, well plotted and exhibiting superior characterization, it is definitely a worthy sequel that Path of Fate readers will want to read.” —Booklist
“World-building is strong and characters are multifaceted – fans will be particularly pleased by Reisil’s slow-building relationship with the commoner Yohuac.” —Romantic Times
“…likeable characters and plenty of action keep things entertaining.” —Locus
The rain drove the wind through the canopy and washed down the mountain in fierce torrents. Nicxira bent crablike and struggled up the path. Water ran over her bare feet and hands as she grasped tiny outcroppings to pull herself along. Her fingernails tore and her long hair clung to her arms and back. At last she came to the lip of the sacred road girdling the top of the mountain. She turned to the right and jogged along, her feet splashing in the swift river of rain water. She came to the south basin, skirting it carefully. South for speaking the dead. She paused at the shrine on the other side to offer a handful of kalmut grain from the pouch at her waist. She continued on, pain stitching beneath her ribs. She passed the east and north basins, repeating her offering, stopping at last at the west. Far-seeing. She piled the kalmut offering in the shrine and stripped, leaving only the tiny, chipped-obsidian knife dangling on a leather thong between her breasts. She slid into the warm water. Comfortably so, with the mix of rainwater cooling its heated depths. The bottom was curved like two cupped hands, making it impossible to stand. Nicxira bathed quickly. Somewhere ahead on the path was Kinatl.
She hoisted herself out of the basin and returned to the path, leaving behind her clothing. She found the stair upward. It resembled a waterfall more than anything else. The steps seamed upwards, on and on up the mountain. More than once Nicxira thought to rest, but though her legs burned and her lungs ached, she dared not. If Kinatl succeeded . . . . She groaned. It was her fault. Taunting Kinatl, making such a show of having greater powers. Kinatl was new to being nahualli, and would grow in strength. But she craved more, desperate to prove her worth, and knowing that, Nicxira had flaunted her own waxing power. Now Kinatl was going to ask the gods for more, for greater magic. As if the gods were so easily prevailed upon.
At last the stairs ended. Nicxira stepped out onto the mountaintop, the rain and wind battering at her, driving her back. She inched forward, feeling the ridges in the stone beneath her feet. Long ago, the Monequi had been the sacred gathering place of the Teotl, the fifty-two gods. The top of the mountain had been sheered off as if sliced by a knife. The names and faces of each of the gods had been etched in the stone.
Nicxira hunched her shoulders, cold making her flesh prickle like a plucked bird. She could not see Kinatl, but that meant nothing. Nixcira could hardly see her own outstretched hands through the streaming rain. She started toward the middle of the sacred circle toward the image of Ilhuicatl. Father of the gods and creator of the nahuallis, he was the one Nicxira would choose if she was seeking favor. She inched slowly against the pummeling wind, hoping she’d be in time.
Of all the Teotl, only Ilhuicatl was represented in his entirety. Man-shaped, his body stretched more than 100 paces. Around his legs and arms were wrapped serpents. His penis stretched in a great staff, sprinking rain and life from its head, shaped like a spearpoint. In his hands he held a sun and a moon. On his head he wore a feathered headress, and around his neck was a necklace of skulls. His mouth gaped open. A trick of the mountain drained it so that the rainwater did not collect inside. Nicxira staggered around the god’s likeness, searching for Kinatl. But there was no sign of the other woman. Her stomach tightened and she knew what she must do.
Nicxira paused beside Ilhuicatl’s gaping mouth. She dropped down inside. The flat, moist bottom was warm against her bare feet. Without hesitation, she lifted the obsidian knife from around her neck and sliced across her wrists. Blood ran from the wounds, mixing with the rain. Nicxira sank to the hot floor. As she did, it grew warmer. She closed her eyes and began to pray, using the old words, those Ilhuicatl had given to the nahualli before the scattering.
Time passed. The heat intensified. If not for the rain, she thought she might have burst into flame. Her blood continued to trickle. Dizziness crept over her and her words slurred. She felt her heart slowing and struggled to breathe.
“You have sought me. You have given me your blood. Your life. Tell me your need.”
The words rumbled through her like an earthquake. Nicxira blinked. She found herself sitting on a vast gold plain. Above there was blackness and coiled in front of her was a tiny snake. It’s head was triangular shaped. It was the color of fresh grass, its stomach as red as her blood. It stared at her with brilliant yellow eyes, the tip of its tail twitching. That this tiny serpent spoke with the voice of Ilhuicatl could not be doubted.
Nicxira licked her lips, sitting up straight. What to say? She’d been prideful and foolish and now Kinatl had risked herself, perhaps thrown herself away. There was no asking forgiveness, but only help in restoring balance to the tribe. There were too few nahuallis anymore to chase even one away, and with her actions, she might have lost the tribe two. How could she balance that?
“I seek aid for my sister. She sought greater powers because I goaded her. If she has been punished for overstepping, then I ask to take her place so that she may return home.”
“Ah.” The snake’s bright yellow tongue flicked out. “She did not come to me. I have nothing to give you.”
Nicxira stiffened. Kinatl had not gone to Ilhuicatl? But surely she knew how capricious the others were? How little they cared for the nahuallis? Nicxira swallowed, aware of the snake’s unwavering gaze.
“I fear for her,” she said. “How can I help her?”
There was the faintest pause.
“She has made her choices. She will become was she is meant to be. But what about you? Have you nothing else to ask?”
Nicxira shook her head. She’d been proud and greedy. She would not be so again.
“Nothing for all the blood you spend? Even now your body dies.” The voice was cold and reproving.
“I would serve,” Nicxira said, goaded. “I would ask you for a task. For balance.”
“Ah. And what if that task required great sacrifice?”
“I am nahualli.”
“Then you shall have your wish. There comes that which even the Teotl may not stop. Does that frighten you? Good. Because it will remake everything, including the gods. There may be no hope. I cannot see so far. But the Teotl takes what steps it may to salvage what we can. Go now to she who waits; serve her well. For in serving her, you serve us all.”
The snake’s mouth opened, tiny teeth shining. It struck her wrist where blood continued to spill. Nicxira screamed, pain sluicing over her in rising waves.
She woke again, this time in a glade. Pillars of silver and gold circled around her, hanging heavy with flowering vines. The grass was thick and soft. She dug her fingers into it. Never in all her wanderings had she seen a place like this.
“You are welcome here.”
Nicxira startled, yanking her head up. Standing before her was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her hair was the color of honey. It spilled down her back to her feet, and was twined about with flowers and leaves. A silver crown made of leaves circled her forehead. Her pale face was austere as she examined Nicxira with cold appraisal. Her eyes were an unworldly green from corner to corner and her fingers were tipped with talons of shining crystal. Beautiful as she was, she looked every inch the warrior, and around her the hair was heavy and thick with choking power. Nicxira trembled and bowed her head.
“I am to serve you.”
“Are you? So says the one who sent you, but you must choose. I require your heart and your mind. If you cannot give me both, you are useless.”
Nicxira nodded, mouth dry.
“You came here a powerful witch. You are no longer.”
Nixcira’s stomach clenched and her teeth closed on the agonized protest that rose in her throat.
“Only farsight remains to you. Even this close to me, I can feel the talent sparking in you. It shall not be so strong as before, for in my lands magic is forbidden. You shall go among my people and live as one of them. When you’re visions come, you will tell me all you see, down to the smallest detail. When it is necessary, you will act as my hands.”
She paused, stepping closer.
“You will never see your homeland again. You will live amongst strangers, in a land that is completely different from all that you’ve known. You must do this willingly, without reservation. For what is coming is dangerous, and my weapons must be strong and true. They must not break in the heat of battle.”
Nixcira didn’t have to think. Despite the shock of this god’s first words, Nixcira meant to serve her, heart and soul.
“I am yours.”
The god nodded, a smile softening her austere expression.
“I will give you my language and I will send you to the town called Kallas. There you will live and wait for what comes next. Henceforth you will be known as Nurema. Call on me and I will answer.”
Then she extended a hand. The crystal claws curved around Nixcira’s head. Darkness swirled around her and she felt herself falling down a great hole. As she fell, a name came to her. Amiya. The Blessed Lady.
“I don’t understand.” The sharp complaint in Reisil’s voice made Indigo’s ears twitch. The dun gelding tossed his nose reprovingly.
“Give it time. They will come around.” Sodur reached over and patted her knee. Reisil frowned. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d brought the subject up in the last year, but Sodur never seemed worried, always giving her the same answer. The longer it went on, the more stale his reassurances became. Then again, he didn’t know bad it had gotten to be.
“It’s been a year. How long does it take to welcome a new ahalad-kaaslane? Besides, they were fine when I first arrived. Then like that,” she snapped her fingers, “things changed. Now I might as well be a ghost for all they look right through me. I can’t stand even going to the Lady’s Temple anymore. It would be different if Reikon and the others were still around. Or the magilanes.”
Sodur shrugged, his thin, drooping face shadowed beneath the brim of his floppy hat. “Reikon, Bethorn and Fehra were all there when you destroyed the wizards. They saw your bravery and what it cost to challenge the wizards. They felt the Lady inside you. How could they doubt you? As for the magilanes—” He broke off, shrugging again. “They’re a breed apart. No one rules them; no one frightens them. It was enough that Saljane made you one of them.”
And it was true. The magilanes, those ahalad-kaaslane who shared a bond with predator birds, had sought her out. But being among them was like being a single bird in a silent flock. They spoke seldom, conveying much by a flick of the fingers, a turn of the wrist, a tip of the head. Reisil hadn’t had time to learn this silent language of spies and explorers. So she sat mute, watching, listening, alone but for Saljane. If there had been time—
Sodur interrupted her thoughts. “You have to be reasonable, Reisil. The stories of what you did in Patverseme are frightening. After Upsakes’s betrayal, it’s no wonder the rest of the ahalad-kaaslane fear you. Think about it. They thought they knew him. He was everyone’s friend. Not one of us doubted him, not even me and I was his closest friend. And all the while he was plotting with the wizards. How he could imagine killing another ahalad-kaaslane…” Sodur shook his head, lips pinched. “All this from a man we trusted without question. And then you come along and incinerate a hundred wizards without battling a lash…” Sodur sighed. “I was there and it still curls my hair to remember. The story only grows in the telling. Can you really wonder why you frighten them?”
He glanced over at her. Reisil glared back, unbent.
“Because I killed our enemy, I cannot be trusted. Should I have just let the wizards attack us? What more do they want?”
“Of course not. You did exactly what was required.” Sodur scratched his jaw. “Try looking at it from their point of view. The wizards were our greatest fear in the war. There was nothing we could do to defeat them. We had no magic of our own, and they were merciless. The only thing that kept us safe was the Blessed Amiya’s prohibition of magic within our borders. And even then, look what they did at Mysane Kosk. The magilanes had managed to killed wizards before, but usually at the cost of their birds. Here you kill a hundred in one blow. You must know how frightening such power is. But then you came to Koduteel and—” He gestured meaningfully.
But Reisil was determined to say the words aloud. “The Lady disappears and my power drains away. Do they think I chased Her off? That I’m pretending I lost my power?”
Sodur shrugged. “Before you came, the Blessed Amiya was always present, offering guidance, answering prayers, giving us new ahalad-kaaslane. Since your arrival, there have been no new ahalad-kaaslane and none of our prayers go answered. Is it any wonder they blame you? No,” he said, forestalling her reply with a raised hand. “I’m not saying you’re responsible. She gave you power and I think there can be no doubt that She’s withdrawn so you could learn to use it. Her very presence suppresses magic and you could not do what She wants you to do if She remained. But the result has been devastating. The other ahalad-kaaslane have become powerless. Those amongst the nobility who have long resented our power in Kodu Riik have begun to move against us and we have no means to stop them. And all wonder if you have plans of your own…”
“Like Upsakes,” Reisil said, her lips twisting.
“Yes. And no one would—or could—challenge you after your annhilation of the wizard circle. And what if you really are the Lady’s Chosen? The ahalad-kaaslane dare not go against you either way. So instead they hold their distance. It is unfair, but not unreasonable given all that’s happened.” Sodur brushed away a biting deerfly. “Maybe if destroying the wizards had been the end of it, everyone could start healing. But with the loss of the Lady, the plague and the nokulas, not to mention the Mesilasema’s death and the Iisand’s withdrawal from rule, no one feels safe. They have to blame someone. The main thing to do now is to learn how to control your magic and heal the plague. That will prove your loyalty like nothing else.”
Reisil didn’t answer, gritting her teeth together. Her chest was tight and her stomach felt hard as a stone. Even the relief of being out of Koduteel and in the mountains couldn’t melt away her bitterness. In those early days when she’d returned to her hometown of Kallas, she’d been able to do so much. She’d spent long days just healing, her instincts guiding her. But now her magic rarely came to her call and when it did, she didn’t know if she would accidentally light the whole world on fire. How would she ever control it enough to heal the plague? Nor did it help that many blamed her for the Mesilasema’s death and the Iisand’s self-imposed isolation. But that wasn’t her fault. The Mesilasema had refused to let Reisil even be in the same room during that awful childbirth.
Reisil thrust the thought away, reining herself in. She was not going to start pitying herself. She drew a deep breath, turning her face up to the afternoon sun and pushing back her hat. The cloudless sky arced like a brilliant ocean above. The morning had dawned cold and frosty, but the autumn day had warmed nicely. The air was redolent with the smell of evergreens and aspen, meadowgrass and damp earth.
She drew another breath, forcing her shoulders to relax. Sodur’s explanation made sense, but the relentless snubbing from the other ahalad-kaaslane was a wound that never stopped bleeding. Between her own failures and their constant suspicion, she had begun to feel as welcome in Kodu Riik as a Patversemese wizard. Except a wizard would be able to do something with his magic. But this trip was to change all that, she reminded herself. And outside of Koduteel, with Sodur’s unfailing, stalwart support, surely she’d find a way to tap into her power and heal the plague.
She pulled her hat back on and straightened her spine. Whether the other ahalad-kaaslane trusted her or not, she still had her duty to do, and whining wasn’t going to help.
“Has anyone heard from any of them?” She asked as she pulled the cork on her water bag and drank the sun-warmed water. “Reikon? Fehra? Bethorn?”
Sodur frowned, nudging the liver chestnut with his heels as the gelding dropped his head to snatch a mouthful of grass. A flurry of tiny gnats swirled up around his head and the rawboned beast shook his head vigorously, rubbing his head against his forelegs.
“Not for awhile now. Not since late spring. No news is probably good news. Most ahalad-kaaslane don’t send word except in an emergency.”
“How long do ahalad-kaaslane usually ride circuit?” Reisil startled herself with the question. It seemed she ought to know after more than a year in Koduteel. But then how would she find out? Except for Sodur, none of the ahalad-kaaslane would even speak to her, and Sodur spent most of his time in the palace these days, trying to keep the nobles from squabbling, trying to keep them from revolting against the failing power of the ahalad-kaaslane.
“There’s no set length of time. No set place to go. Each ahalad-kaaslane comes and goes as he is called and travels wherever the Lady guides him.”
“Juhrnus wasn’t called.”
“No. But then it is a tradition for new ahalad-kaaslane to spend time learning about Kodu Riik by traveling its length and breadth. I suggested Juhrnus make such a journey, listening to what calls guided him as he went.”
But there wouldn’t be any calls. Not since the Lady had withdrawn from Kodu Riik. Reisil didn’t say it. “How do you know what to do then? What the Lady wants you to do?”
“For me, being at the palace is the best way I know how to serve Kodu Riik. Without the Iisand on the throne, the Verit Aare jostles for the regency. It would devastate the land. He’s hungry for war and he hates the power of the ahalad-kaaslane more than the other nobles. He’s already developed a substantial network of supporters. If he became regent, the Arkenik would soon bend to his will—and then we’d be in much worse trouble than we are now. If the Lady was to speak to me, I believe this is the path She’d choose for me.”
“How can you be sure?”
Sodur grimaced. “Who is sure? But what does it matter? We know we must protect Kodu Riik. Even without the Lady to guide us, we must answer our oath to Her. Certainly we cannot sit on our hands doing nothing. Your path is to find a way to use your power, and mine is to give you the time to do so while keeping the court from tearing itself apart.”
Reisil nodded, thinking of her experiences with the court nobles. Most didn’t like her any better than the ahalad-kaaslane, only they didn’t mind telling her so. Or they cultivated her for what they thought she could do. On those rare occasions she’d accompanied Sodur to the palace, she couldn’t escape a feeling that she was prey, and lions and wolves stalked in the shadows. Sodur had shouldered a staggering task. She slanted a look at him. He looked like much as he had when she first met him: clothing patched and threadbare, now covered with the dust and dirt of nearly two weeks travel. His shoulders were slouched, his thin figure unprepossessing. He felt her eyes on him and glanced up, a smile illuminating his haggard features, his eyes twinkling.
“Not the most impressive looking diplomat, am I?”
Reisil grinned back, shaking her head. “But I’ve seen you. You know how to manage people. And you don’t make them angry when you do it.”
“That’s because they don’t realize what I’m doing. That’s the key, Reisil,” he said sobering. “They are a prickly bunch. They’re born to lead and they know it. They don’t take interference well, even well-intentioned. Some would rather burn in the Demonlord’s third circle. Better to herd them slowly in the direction you want and teach them to see reason—but never let them know what you’re up to.”
Reisil fell silent, thinking. Then asked, “You didn’t say—have you heard from Juhrnus?”
“You’re not worried anything’s happened to him? To any of them?”
Sodur turned his head to look for Lume, his ahalad-kaaslane. The silver lynx wound through the shady grasses along the treeline, leaping after grasshopers and tree lizards.
“Of course I am,” he said at last. “Things have changed in Kodu Riik. People do not welcome the ahalad-kaaslane as they used to. They still haven’t recovered from the war and the drought hasn’t helped. Bandits and thieves prowl the land. Nokulas appear everywhere, slaughtering entire villages. And then there’s the plague.” He drew a breath. “As I said, no news is probably good news, but yes, I worry.”
There didn’t seem to be an answer to that and so Reisil settled back in her saddle, thinking about the two weeks since they’d departed Koduteel. The people they’d encountered thus far had welcomed them, offering food from their meager stores. They did not seem to blame the ahalad-kaaslane. Not yet. But that didn’t mean everyone felt the same. Reisil closed her eyes, sending a prayer to the absent Lady to protect her friends.
She tipped her head back, making an effort push aside her worries and enjoy the breeze on her face and the smell of the summer grasses. Saljane had disappeared several hours before and now Reisil could feel the goshawk’s happy satiation.
Fat girl. Are you going to eat all the squirrels in the forest?
Marmots. Two, came Saljane’s smug reply.
Two? How are you going to fly?
Before Saljane could answer, a sudden prickling ran up Reisil’s arms. The hair on her neck stood on end. She jerked around, eyes darting to the trees swathing the hills to the left and the right. Behind and before, the long grassy channel they’d been following snaked away between the rising foothills, the tall, heavy seedheads waving in the breeze. She could see nothing. Dread closed a hard fist around her throat.
“What’s that?” she whispered. The birds and insects had ceased their chatter. The only sounds were the creak of the saddles, the thud of the horses’ hooves, and the rustle of the wind. Sweat slicked Reisil’s palms and she tightened her hands on her reins. Indigo pranced and tossed his head, snorting. “Do you feel it?”
“There’s something . . . .” came Sodur’s hushed answer as he slid his sword free. Reisil grimaced. Would that she had any ability to fight, but there’d been no one to teach her in Koduteel. Sodur was the first to admit his own paltry skills. Which left them nearly defenseless now. Stupid, stupid arrogance . . . . Her hand fell to the hilt of her dagger. It was sharp enough, but in her hand would do little damage against—what?
A fierce yowl sounded from the trees and Lume bounded through the grasses, tufted ears pricked, teeth bared. At the same moment, Sodur’s horse squalled, eyes rimmed white. He spun around, haunches crushing Reisil’s leg against Indigo. Fire spiked up to her hip as the dun gelding staggered, his braying neigh echoing. Reisil lurched against the pommel of her saddle. Pain bit into her stomach, the air gusting from her lungs.
“Run! By the Lady, Reisil, run!”
Sodur’s hand cracked down on Indigo’s rump. The terrified dun leaped and Reisil clutched her reins, her left leg dangling loose from its stirrup. Indigo flattened into a thundering gallop. Reisil clutched his mane, wobbling in the saddle. Sodur shouted behind. She twisted to look. Like her, he hunched flat over his gelding’s neck, the horse stretched long in panicked flight. Behind them Reisil could see nothing.
They raced up the fold in the hills, slowed by the high, thick grasses. Foam lathered on Indigo’s neck and his ribs bellowed with effort. By the time they crested the hill, Sodur’s long-legged chestnut had pulled even. Blood ran from a long slash in the animal’s neck and freckled Sodur’s pale face.
They plunged down the swell, leaping a trickling creek at the bottom. A narrow game-track opened on the other side and Indigo slotted himself into it, racing up the slope. Sodur fell in behind.
Fury. Fear. Purpose.
The goshawk dropped from the sky, skimming past the galloping duo with another shriek. Reisil twisted around, but could see nothing except Sodur’s bloodstained face.
“Go!” he yelled, waving, his sword still clutched in his hand. Reisil faced back around, patting Indigo’s sweat-slicked shoulder. Neither horse could keep up this pace much longer. The gelding’s breath came in rasping gasps and his gait was becoming more choppy as exhaustion shortened his stride. Sodur’s taller chestnut thumped against Indigo’s haunches and the smaller horse bounded forward only to slow again.
But their pursuers had not given up. Reisil could feel them closing in. Her skin prickled warning and her blood went cold with sudden certainty.
Saljane! What do you see?
Reisil’s head whirled as she found herself looking out through Saljane’s eyes. They were close above the grass, flying behind the fleeing horses, the ground a sweeping blur. Glinting shapes fanned out behind, their bodies alternately silvered and transparent like moonlit water. Saljane winged upwards, circling and returning to dive at the foremost of the beasts. It reared up, eerily silent, swiping at the goshawk with ruthless talons longer than Reisil’s fingers. It’s nose was blunt and full of needle-like teeth, its eyes an uncanny opaque silver.
Even as Saljane twisted away, Reisil snarled, yanking on Indigo’s reins. The gelding swerved and stumbled. Sodur’s chestnut veered away into the tall grass. Too late, Reisil realized her mistake. The nokulas swarmed through the grasses, surrounding each rider in a ring of gnashing teeth and knife-edged claws.
It was hard to know how many there were. Their shapes flickered and shifted like shadows on water. Reisil caught a glimpse of a head, a paw, a haunch. There a curve of shining starlight, here a distortion in the grass. They sniffed and circled, silent as hunting cats. Reisil’s stomach churned, her breath thick in her throat. Beneath her, Indigo tensed. She held him still. Any movement would invite an attack.
As the beasts circled, she began to pick out details. They were graceful, muscular things, all teeth and armor, with sharp spines spiking down their necks and backs. Long, snaking tails whipped from side to side. None looked alike, except for their coloring, if the patchwork translucence could be called coloring. She sensed from them malevolence and amusement. They prodded in closer and seemed gloat at Indigo’s stricken moan.
High above, Reisil felt Saljane’s fear and anger as the goshawk circled.
No. Wait, she said as she felt Saljane preparing to dive in for another attack. It’s too soon to move.
Reisil glanced over at Sodur. He held his sword out to the side, still as marble. His mount pawed at the ground, sawing his head against Sodur’s taut hold. No! Reisil cried silently. Stay still!
Suddenly the horse gave a braying neigh and reared. He spun to the side and bolted through the ring of nokulas. The beasts whirled and dashed after, flowing through the grass like flood waters down a steep mountainside. They romped after the desperate pair, teasing them, driving them. The nokulas herded the frothing horse first one way then another, then round in a circle. Reisil was left to watch or run as she chose, all the nokulas joining in the sport.
Frantic, she reached for her power, praying it would answer. Nothing happened. She tried again, demanding, pleading. Still nothing. Like calling for help in an empty room. Tears ran down her cheeks and she sat helpless.
Sodur’s gelding slowed and staggered to a halt, head dangling, his breath coming in great, echoing pants. Sodur whirled his sword about himself, driving the nokulas back. But as one dodged aside on the left, three more rose snapping and snarling on the right. Reisil gasped as the chestnut sagged to the ground. Sodur lunged clear, sweeping around himself with his blade until one of the nokulas snatched it scornfully in its claws and flung it aside.
Reisil’s nails dug gouges in her palms. Sodur backed away, falling back to lie prostrate over his collapsed horse. A nokula pounced up on top of him. Horror swept Reisil and her mouth dropped open in a silent cry. Gone was the shimmering watery transparency. The creature crouching over Sodur was molten silver. It had a long, narrow head. Tusks protruded from its mouth and curved like scythes along its jaw. Narrow horns sprouted from behind a bony nob on the top of its head. There was a rough texture to its hide, with odd lumps and bumps running down the length of its body, ending in a stubby tail. Ridges rose like serrated mountain peaks down its spine.
It crouched over the fallen man, a snakelike tongue slithering out to taste its victim. Sodur lay still, eyes wide, his neck soft and pale and white. The nokula‘s lips pulled back in a sinister smile. The beast drew back its powerful foreleg, claws shining in the afternoon sun, tongue sliding over its muzzle as if revelling in Sodur’s moan of terror.
For a long moment the nokula did not move. Reisil’s legs clamped around Indigo and he stuttered forward a few steps in response, then stopped, digging in stubbornly. The other nokulas closed in until Reisil could see nothing of the fallen horse and only glimpses of Sodur’s clothing. She dashed at the tears on her cheeks and kicked at Indigo. The gelding refused to move.
A shape flickered past her. Lume. The lynx burrowed through the grass, a low growl sounding in his throat. Reisil jumped to the ground to follow, ignoring the pain ravelling up her leg. She yanked her dagger free and dropped down to scurry after, watching the scene through Saljane’s eyes.
The nokula on top of Sodur remained motionless as ice, muscular foreleg levered back. It would take only one swipe to tear out the terrified man’s throat. The seconds ticked past. Still the blow did not come. Reisil edged closer, hunching down as Lume fell silent. Saljane swooped lower. Not far ahead in the grass, Reisil could hear the sound of the nokula pack sliding through the grass, and the shuddering breaths of the chestnut gelding.
Suddenly the nokula on top of Sodur moved. Reisil bit her lips to stop her scream as its forelegg dropped. But it didn’t strike. Instead it pinched Sodur’s face in its claws. It bent forward, snout a bare inch from Sodur’s crooked nose. Saljane shrieked and dropped until she was barely ten feet above the tableau. Reisil clenched her fist around the dagger and squirmed forward.
Then inexplicably the nokula leaped from Sodur, landing silently amongst its companions, leading them away through the grass. Straight toward Reisil. She stiffened, crouching ready, but they parted around her. In moments they were gone.
Reisil stared after them, her mouth hanging open. Then she lurched to her feet, legs shaking. Sodur had slid to the ground, one arm looped tightly around Lume who nuzzled at him furiously. Sodur turned his head and began to retch. Reisil dropped to her knees beside him, instinctively lifting her fist to catch Saljane.
“Are you all right?”
Sodur nodded, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Beneath the spatter of his horse’s blood, his face was white. There were four bleeding holes on his jaws where the nokula had held him.
“Horse is worse off than I am. Got to get him up or he’ll founder for certain. Hate to have to walk the rest of the way.”
Reisil paused a bare moment and then stood, allowing him his privacy. She heard him retching again as she coaxed the exhausted animal to stand. She loosened the saddle and dropped it to the ground and then led the animal in looping circles. Slowly the big chestnut’s breathing slowed, the sweat dried and the trembling stopped. He walked with his head down, his hooves dragging and catching in the grass. The slash on his neck continued to seep, but Reisil was pleased to see the wound was shallow. Indigo soon came to join them, nuzzling his companion and then dropping in behind.
By the time the horse was cool and out of danger, Sodur had regained his composure. He’d washed his face and hands in a little rill and recovered his sword.
“Let’s take the horses up into the trees and camp,” he said.
“What if they come back?”
He shook his head, looking off into the distance, expression remote. “They had their chance.” He sounded quite certain and Reisil wasn’t sure how much farther they could manage anyway.
They built a roaring fire and picketed the horses close by. Reisil cleaned the chestnut’s neck and applied a salve, not bothering to use her magic for a healing. She turned, feeling Sodur watching her. She felt herself flush hotly and averted her face.
Saljane brought back a fat grouse and retreated to a low branch to preen herself. Reisil set the grouse over the coals in a pot with water and rice. Afterwards she gathered more wood, piling it in a small mountain near the fire.
When there was nothing left to do, she sat down opposite to Sodur who hunkered back against a tree, whittling at a piece of pale birch, Lume flopped over his outstretched legs. The sun had slid down behind the mountains and the moon rose like a sickle blade, reminding Reisil of the nokulas, of their eyes, the sly, cruel knowingness behind them.
The silence stretched thin, Reisil looking alternately at the fire, at the horses, at Sodur.
“I thought they were going to kill you,” she said finally, twisting a stick between her fingers. Even saying it made her skin turn cold. Sodur had mentored her since leaving Kallas. But he was more than that. He was her friend. Aside from Juhrnus, he was the only one she had left. Tears trickled down her cheeks and she swiped at them in annoyance.
“I thought they were too.” He never looked up, scraping the wood gently with his knife.
“Why didn’t they? Why didn’t they kill all of us?”
“They didn’t want to, I expect,” was the unhelpful answer. Reisil stared, unnerved by his diffidence.
He shrugged, finally looking up. “Isn’t it enough the Lady sent them running?”
Reisil stiffened, taken aback by the reproof in his tone. She opened her mouth and then closed it. The Lady is gone. The nokulas left for some reason of their own. Finally she settled for, “no one has ever escaped a nokula pack before.”
“Not that we know of. I just thank the Lady for Her aid.” Reisil squirmed. Though his tone was even, she thought she heard a cold reproach in his words. She should have helped. She was supposed to be the Lady’s hand, using her magic to protect Kodu Riik. And she’d done nothing but watch. She flushed again, her mouth setting in a thin line.
When the food was ready, they ate in silence. Hungry as she was, Reisil could barely keep her food down.
“Tomorrow we should get to Veneston. They’ll have word on where the plague might have struck recently,” Sodur announced, wiping his fingers on his thighs. “Might get a cup of kohv there too.”
He sounded more like his usual self and Reisil looked up at him, startled. He smiled at her, eyes twinkling once again. “Good food. I don’t remember being so hungry.”
She didn’t answer. It was as if he’d donned a mask. Or put one aside. She frowned. He wanted to be strong for her, she knew. But pretending the attack hadn’t happened— She wasn’t going to forget it. Still, she didn’t want to force him to relive what he chose to put aside.
They said little else to one another, tying the horses close and curling up to sleep on opposite sides of the fire, counting on Lume and Saljane to keep watch. That night Reisil dreamed of a hovering black presence, a green snake with yellow eyes and a blood-red belly, and invisible beasts that gnawed the flesh from her bones. In the morning when she woke, her clothes were drenched in cold sweat.