A sharp jab in the side snapped Jasna awake, and she choked as she drew in water with the sharp intake of breath. She coughed, sputtering, rolling onto her side.
She blinked against the high sun’s brilliance, and then it was blotted out by a shaggy long-snouted head.
Jasna scrambled back, floundering in the shallows of the lake, and the other figure leapt back, bringing a flint-tipped spear down in a ready position, lips drawn back as it growled low in its chest.
Three more growls joined it. The shaggy hyena-headed creature was not alone.
Jasna clutched at her waist. There was a hole in her tunic, where the gnoll had poked her. Her side didn’t hurt any worse than her pounding headache, so she pushed the pain aside, and gripped the hilt of her silvery-bladed knife.
The gnolls’ growling grew deeper, louder, as she drew the weapon.
“I don’t want to fight you if I don’t have to,” she said, through chattering teeth. She was soaked through, and the wind coming across the lake raked at her like a wight’s claws.
Two of the gnolls, the biggest of the group, growled and yipped at each other. Their exchange grew heated, but the larger of the pair cuffed the other’s snout, and then barked something at the gnoll wielding the spear. It pointed towards Jasna when the other gnoll hesitated, barked again.
The gnoll adjusted its two-handed grip on the spear, and sank on its haunches, further into a defensive crouch, the spear tip extended before it. It began to advance.
“So that’s how you want to play it,” Jasna muttered. She flexed her fingers around the hilt of her knife.
Then she turned, and splashed away along the lake shore.
* * * * *
Brynne blinked, spitting hair from her mouth. She brushed at the stray locks, to find that only part of it was her own hair, and that one of her arms would not move.
The brief moment of panic abated as she saw that the hair belonged to Katarin, who was also laying across her other arm.
They were curled together amidst a cluster of boulders. Brynne slid her arm as gently as she could from beneath the other girl’s shoulders, wincing as the gash in her arm reopened.
From between the rounded stones, she could see a dirt pathway, and beyond that, a lake down the winding slope. She squeezed between the rocks, hopping down the ledge to the trail below, staggering at sudden rush of dizziness. She blinked it away irritably, looking off to her right. Sure enough, there was a deep crevice in the rocks, over which hung a beak-like projection. The large stones, which Katarin still lay between were the telltale Dragon’s Nest formation.
Brynne reached up, grasping the weaver’s booted foot, giving it a tug.
“Hey. Wake up, sleepyhead!”
The other girl sat up, pushing her hair from her face. She yawned, wincing as she stretched.
“It feels like I slept on a bed full of rocks,” she said through another yawn.
Brynne pointed, and Katarin glanced up at the stones around her.
She got to her feet, brushing dirt from her gown, and accepted Brynne’s help from the ledge.
“Yep,” Brynne said.
“It’s nothing. A scratch. It will--”
A fiery prickling caused Brynne to suck in a quick breath.
“I don’t need--”
“Hush,” Katarin said. “And stop squirming or it will scar.”
Another moment of prickling fire, and then a shiver that had little to do with the cold wind sweeping down from the Black Peaks left both girls gasping for breath.
Brynne flexed her arm. She hadn’t the stomach to actually watch the healing process, but the skin was smooth and unbroken, as if the blood that soaked her sleeve belonged to someone else.
Katarin glanced up and down the trail. “Where is everyone else?”
Brynne shrugged. “Still inside the temple?”
They joined hands, and squeezed through the split in the rocky hillside, following the slope back down to the entrance to the Temple of the Shield.
* * * * *
Justin groaned, pulling his cloak closer about him, turning onto his side. A few more moments of sleep wouldn’t do any harm. He snuggled closer to the furred pillow, letting its warmth seep into his aching head. The throbbing and rush of his heartbeat pounded like a pair of dwarven hammers. He slowed his breathing, trying to get his heart to quiet, but the thrumming would not slow.
Justin blinked. He’d never owned such a coarsely covered pillow. And certainly not one that rose and fell against his cheek. Or had its own, racing heartbeat.
He opened his eyes, staring into a hazy gray mass of fur. A large round ear flicked, at the edge of his vision.
The young lord scrambled away, sending leaves and loam flying. He backed painfully into a tree, the breath rushing out of him in a frosty cloud. He fought for breath even as he wiped at his face with a gloved hand. He had rat hair in his mouth and couldn’t get enough air to spit it out.
The giant gray-furred rat crouched more or less where he’d left it, but it’s reddish eyes were open, the tail thrashing this way and that in the wet leaves and mess of damp needles littering the forest floor.
A hand clamped down over Justin’s shoulder, squeezing, keeping him from rising.
“Easy, now, boy,” came a gravelly voice at his ear. “Just you stay there, and let me and my men handle this beast.”