Justin nearly gagged on the reek of wine that spilled from the man’s lips, along with his words. The hand on his shoulder was thick-fingered, soot-stained, scarred and calloused, and he was immediately reminded of Old Padrig, the smith at the garrison.
The great rat’s tail thrashed harder, its gaze darting this way and that. Justin craned his neck, to stare over his other shoulder.
Three more men crouched nearby, dressed in dirty skins, crude spears clutched in their hands. One of the men wore a necklace of strange leathery patches and beads around his neck.
“Not quite the beastie we was looking for, but at least we won’t get back to town without supper,” one of the men said, his Traladaran accent so thick, the words so slurred Justin had trouble making out what the man said. Beneath the bushy tangle of dark hair, the man’s equally dark eyes were bleary, bloodshot.
The man hefted his spear, and Justin made to rise, but was pushed down hard by the hand at his shoulder.
“Not safe, boy! Just let Mitri take care of it and we might share.”
The man with the strange necklace -- Mitri-- drew back his arm, teetering, and let the spear fly.
It flew plenty wide, and the other men laughed.
“Should have aimed at the one in the middle!” one of them slurred.
“It moved! Shifty beast!” Mirtri’s Traladaran was barely understandable.
Another of the men drew back to throw his spear.
“No!” Justin shouted, finally pulling free of the man behind him. “You can’t!” He scrambled to his feet. The dark-haired man lowered the spear, his bushy brows drawing together. His grip shifted on the shaft-- still holding it at the ready -- but ready to be used against Justin rather than the giant rat.
“An’ why can’t I?” the man slurred.
“Because--” Justin glanced between the men. Another behind the speaker still held a spear, and Mitri, who’d missed with his, had his hand on a hilt of carved bone tucked into the wide strip of leather that served as a belt. The biggest of the men leaned against the tree, plucking at a tangle in his great red beard.
The young lord closed his hand over the hilt of his sword. At this, the red-bearded man raised an eyebrow.
“Seems the boy means to challenge you, Quinias,” he said.
Quinias feinted to his left, and Justin turned, hand tightening on his sword’s hilt. The man bared his teeth in a wide grin. He took a couple steps to his right, and Justin drew his sword.
The ring of the steel as it came free of the scabbard hung in the air between them.
“He can barely even lift that blade,” Mitri crowed.
“Well, now you’ve drawn it, you have to use it,” the red-bearded man said.
“If you even know how,” Quinias said, sneering.
“Of course I can use it!” Justin spat. “And don’t call me ‘boy.’ I’ve been Sheared. I make my own way in the world now.
“And you won’t be going anywhere near that rat--”
“Neither will you, boy,” Mitri said with a hiccup.
“It’s mine to kill!” Justin said, taking a step towards the man.
“Then you’d best turn ‘round and run,” the red-bearded man said, indicating the direction with his chin. “It’s gettin’ away.”
* * * * *
The Man reeking of overripe grapes missed with his sharpened stick, and the others chattered excitedly. The iron-smelling Manling finally broke free of the Man-pack’s leader, and engaged the other Men in more chatter. He drew is long tooth of iron, and while the other Men stared at it, Petra turned and dashed for deeper cover.
The Men and Manling hooted, giving chase. But they were unbalanced on their twoleg run, had no tail to offset their gait, and wasted much motion keeping their heads high when they should be low to the ground, to taste the path ahead. They relied on their eyes rather than whiskers to warn them of dangers ahead.
The woods were not as Petra remembered them. They did not have the sickly sweet smell to them, the trees did not seem as broad or tall, their cover quite as dense. There was little foliage under which to hide, the fallen trees fewer.
She turned her nose towards the smell of water. Water and fish and stone. And… something else. Wet fur, but not the fur of her own kind. It held a different weight in the air, the spice of it tickling her nose.
Petra spotted Man-high trunk, splintered, the rest of the tree twisted at its base. There was a dark hollow beneath it. She dashed towards it. In the dark, there was safety. And maybe some grubs. Or some juicy meal worms, or even a centipede.
Even at a run, her ears twitched in anticipation.
The thoughts of food distracted her from the odd fall of shadows beside the tree between her and the shelter beneath the fallen tree.
There was a sharp ‘twang,’ and then Petra’s forward motion stopped, a white-hot loop of fire clutching her rear foot, biting deep. She squealed, in equal amounts of pain and surprise, clawing at the needles and leaves and much beneath them. She jerked her rear leg several times, but the pain encircling her foot only increased, causing her to squeal again.
The Men’s chattering came to her ears, but the pain made it impossible to make out which of them was speaking. The sharp tang of iron grew larger in her nose, and the Manling approached, jostling the others aside. The long tooth was still in his hand.
He drew the tooth back, and then lashed out with it.
More hot pain blossomed in Petra’s side, and she felt the iron shudder as it struck a rock, buried in the forest floor beneath her.
A foot came down on her injured leg, pressing down hard, and she squealed again, scrabbling at the ground for purchase, to get away, to run.
The Manling leaned down, muttered something in her ear, and then the long iron tooth withdrew when he stood up.
He turned, saying something to the Men, who chattered and made excited noises, clapping the Manling on the shoulder, wanting to see the long iron tooth.
Petra breathed as shallowly as she could, trying to keep as still as possible. The ring of fire around her foot had bitten even deeper. She could barely feel the toes of that paw, and though she was getting colder with each breath, the ground beneath was warming. She twitched, huddling in the growing puddle of warmth, wondering why the sky should be going so dark when it was just a bit past high sun….
* * * * *
“Where did it go?” Katarin asked, again. Her concentration wavered, and the ball of light flickered once, and then collapsed, the threads falling away from her control. She let them go, felt the pull of the Spheres fall away as well, and she blinked against the sudden darkness that claimed her vision.
Brynne squeezed her hand. “Don’t.”
“I wasn’t going to--”
“You were going to poke at the Spheres again. There’s no need. There’s nothing more to see here. Now turn around so we can go back.”
Katarin sighed. It was warm, in the trancelike state of weaving. She didn’t feel the cold. Or the aches in her back and shoulders. Or the pounding of her head. Everything just felt… better there.
The winds keened, on the mountain trail, and Katarin clutched her cloak tightly about her. Brynne stepped up next to her, wrapping half of her own cloak about the girl and hugging her close, their heads nearly touching. They stared over the edge of the trail, at the lake below, the surface glimmering in the high sun’s light.
“It’s beautiful from up here,” Katarin said.
Brynne nodded, though Katarin wasn’t looking her direction. “You could almost see Tarnskeep from here. You know, if it wasn’t ruins.”
“I don’t even see those,” Katarin murmured.
She straightened, a moment before Brynne did the same.
“Where is the fog? The gold and blue lights?”
“Where is the town?” Brynne asked.
* * * * *