“The horses are gone,” Brynne said. “The entire campsite is gone.”
She and Katarin stood at the wide spot in the path before it doubled back on itself, where they’d narrowly escaped being overwhelmed by the goblin scouting party.
“And no signs at all of passage,” Katarin said. “It is very hard to hide a horse’s passing.”
They continued down the path. They kept their eyes on the ground, but there was no sign of a single paving stone. Brynne even went so far as to kick at the ground, but clearing away the scree and needles from the few trees only revealed more dirt.
They squeezed through the gap in the granite, the final stretch before the woods that bordered the southern shores of the lake.
A rustling and telltale rhythm of footfalls echoed through the notch in the stone ahead of them.
“That’s got to be one of them,” Brynne said, and dashed forward.
“Wait!” Katarin hissed. She hiked up the hem of her gown, and ran after the other girl.
She made perhaps a dozen steps, and crashed into Brynne’s back, causing them both to stumble forward.
Not ten steps from them, the gnoll’s shoulders nearly brushed the sides of the narrow gap in the stone. It bared its fangs, rearing back, standing even taller over the two girls, and began the chittering cackling call.
* * * * *
Jasna stopped, leaning on the spear. Two fur-clad men, dark hair peeking from under leather caps, approached from the edge of the cluster of… well, Jasna supposed calling them “buildings” would be extremely generous.
The men kept hands on bone-handled knives in their belts, the taller of the two taking another step closer to the girl.
“Who’re you?” he asked.
Jasna looked up at the man, turning his words around in her head. He was talking like those papers that Petra insisted she read, in the Old Traladaran.
“I am Jasna,” she said, cobbling together what little of the old tongue she remembered. Brynne would be better at this. Or Petra. Well, Petra-the-younger, she supposed she’d have to start calling her. She glanced again over the sluiceway, where the dark-haired woman loped along Fisherman’s Isle, towards the natural weir at its tip, now the only way across the Waterolde.
The two men glanced at each other, then back at the girl.
“You don’t have the Northern accent. Which tribe are you from?”
“Tribe?” Jasna asked, not sure she translated the word rightly. “You mean family? I have none.”
The hands tightened on knife hilts.
“From which town do you hail?” the shorter man asked, his eyes narrowing.
Jasna pointed across the river. “Threshold, silly. It’s right over….”
Across the river, she could clearly see Fogor Island. The mill was gone, though. As were the docks. And the bridges. The walls of Threshold weren’t visible, either.
“Thought we found all the survivors from Lugsid,” the man said, to his fellow guard.
“Even if we did, what’s she doing on this side o’ the river? Tiny lil’ thing like her’d be swept away like a twig.”
“Unless she’s one o’ them nixies. In disguise.”
“Oh, for Korotiku’s sake,” the girl said. “I’m tired, and cold and--” Her stomach growled. “Hungry. I see your cook fires. Do I have to give the beggar’s oath?” She knelt, setting down the spear, adjusting the dagger further back on her hip, hiding it from their view.
“Fell for that one a week ago. Lost nearly a dozen men to a skinchanging wolf. Had fair hair, just like yours. For all we know, you could be his pup.”
“Khoronus’ pity, let the poor girl through.” The woman approached, dressed in hunting leathers and a thick fur cloak, her dark brown hair plaited in a long braid down her back. A bow of ash was slung over one shoulder, a leather quiver with gray-fletched arrows over the other.
“I will take responsibility for the girl,” the woman said. She turned, motioning for Jasna to rise. “Take up your spear. It would not be good to be caught unarmed on this side of the river, as you discovered earlier.”
She waved Jasna ahead of her, and as the girl passed, she whisked the dagger from its sheath in the small of her back.
“I know you cannot wield that ungainly thing,” the woman whispered at Jasna’s shoulder. “But this, I’m sure you are quite familiar with.”
“That is mine!”
“Not while you are among my tribesmen. Not until you have proven yourself trustworthy. And hiding this was not the best of starts for such a task.”
Jasna’s stomach interrupted her attempt at apologizing, and the woman smiled.
“Come. Let us get something warm inside you, and then the General, the Huntsman and I shall hear your tale.”
* * * * *
More howls echoed around the girls, and they turned to see two more gnolls crowding through the gap. Shadows flickered above them, and they saw two more gnolls leap from the rocks above, crouching on the lip of stone opposite two more, whose dog-like heads were all the girls could see, peering down, dark eyes bright with hunger.
“Stay low. Stay behind me,” Brynne said, turning a slow circle, her back to her friend.
“You’re -- you don’t even have a weapon!” Katarin hissed. “Let me--”
“No! Save your strength for healing.”
Brynne glanced about, snatching up a jagged stone from amidst the scree along the path. She hefted it, and cocked her arm back to throw.
“Give me that!”
Katarin plucked the rock from Brynne’s grip, took a deep breath, and fell through the tuning process, watching the world become a shimmering tangle of threads from the Spheres.
She clutched the dragonstone at her breast, letting its heat surge through her, bending the threads of Energy through will alone and channeling them into the stone in her other hand. She twitched her fingers, drawing threads of Thought around her hand, eddies of air carring away the growing heat of the stone.
Another breath, and the stone began to glow, brighter orange seams gleaming through the deep red light throbbing across the surface of the rock.
“Get behind me,” Katarin murmured, her voice distant, cadenced in the sing-song of a weaver at work.
Brynne did not argue, dropping to her haunches, bringing her arms up over her head as Katarin drew back to throw.
Another twitch of her fingers as she released the stone cradled it in threads of Thought, and she sent the currents spinning about the stone, feeding the Energy it as the smith’s bellows would feed a forge’s coals.
The glowing rock careened off the wall of the small canyon, ricocheting upward, and Katarin’s fingers moved again in another pattern, while she ducked, lifting her cloak up over herself as she turned her back.
The stone detonated with the sound of a dragon’s roar, completely drowning out the howls and yelps of the gnolls. Bits of molten stone rained down over them, bouncing off the shell of hardened air Katarin held in place.
Brynne looked from beneath her arm. A haze of smoke from the still-smoldering pebbles hung in the air. The gnolls were nowhere to be seen.
She tapped Katarin on the shoulder, and the girl gave a start, collapsing against her friend while gasping for breath, clutching her sleeve with shaking fingers.
They huddled together for several long moments, while Katarin caught her breath.
“Silva’s dragonstone helps with fire, but manipulating air still leaves me… winded.”
Brynne groaned. “If you’ve got breath enough to make bad jokes, that’s breath enough for us to get moving again.” She hauled the girl to her feet.
They were still brushing dirt and needles from their clothes when more shadows flickered above them.
A dozen faces peered down at them from the top of the ridge, spear tips poking up among the leather-helmed, bearded faces.
“Piss in the forge!” growled one of the figures -- the accent clearly dwarven. “They’re just man-whelps! She-whelps at that!”
“Doesn’t matter,” said another, his beard darker than the first speaker. “We have our orders. Take them.”