Jasna slowed, her breath coming in short, painful gasps. She’d run as if… well, as if she’d had gnolls at her heels, and put quite a bit of distance between herself and the hunting pack.
Her heart sank, as she saw it was all for nothing. The bridge wasn’t there. It was no trick of the fog, either, for there was no clinging gray mists, no flickering blue lights within. The bridge wasn’t washed out -- it would take a giant to make the arching stone bridge budge even the littlest bit. The bridge simply was not there. As if it had never been built.
Jasna gripped the spear hard, trying to remember what Brynne had taught her. If she dug the end of the spear into the ground, and held it out in front of her, braced just so, the gnolls would skewer themselves like one of those Thyatian kebabs she’d had at last year’s Festival of Lights.
Her stomach growled, and it was echoed by a growling and yipping of the approaching gnolls. OF course, they wouldn’t just run into her spear. They’d stand well back and just skewer her on their own spears, from a distance.
She squeezed the shaft tighter, blinking.
I will not cry, she told herself. The wind gusted, tossing her hair in her face, and the sweat from her exertions felt as if it were turning to a glaze of ice. I am cold, and hungry, and lost. Well, not lost. I know where I am, but it is… different. Koritiku, she prayed. Please, aid me. I’ll give anything! She reached up, and clutched at the silver pendant that hung about her neck.
Almost anything, she amended. It was pure silver. Surely, even Koritiku could understand a time might arise when she would be in need of coins.
The gnolls drew up, well within a spear’s cast of her, fanning out. One or another of them would catch her if she tried darting in between. The lake lapped sluggishly against the rise in the land, and it was perhaps a twenty-foot drop into the beginnings of the Waterolde. Even if she survived the fall into the rocky waters below, she would surely drown. She was not part mermaid, like Brynne, or part fish like little Petra.
She clutched the medallion harder. If Koritiku wouldn’t aid her, then maybe…
She closed her eyes.
Petra, she prayed. I am your handmaiden. Please, come to me in my darkest hour… even though it’s a bright winter day. Please, aid your humble handmaiden and I swear upon my life that my friends will serve you faithfully in whichever capacity you deem fit for them.
The gnolls barked and yipped among themselves, their voices rising into the chilling, keening cackling. She’d heard the adventurer’s tales. She knew that sound was usually the last thing lesser adventurers heard when facing gnolls.
Jasna sank to her knees, the edges of the medallion biting into her fingers.
The lead gnoll’s cackling stopped, mid-breath. There was a brief whistle, and then another fell silent. A third, sharp whistle, and the third gnoll gave a yelp, like a kicked dog. The last one’s voice faded as it turned tail and ran back towards the woods.
Jasna peeked from beneath her bangs. Two of the gnolls lay on the ground, arrows protruding from their throats. The third lay, whining, an arrow lodged deep in its great barrel-like chest.
Slowly, the girl rose. She glanced down at the medallion, still clutched in a white-knuckled grip. Then she looked up at the sky.
“Thank you, Petra!” she cried. It was the glare of the sun that brought the tears to the corner of her eyes, she was sure of it.
From behind her, a voice answered.
“No thanks are necessary! Any enemy of the Beast Men is a friend of mine, but you are quite welcome, just the same!”
* * * * *
The wine was quite sour, but very strong, and Justin didn’t much mind the taste after long. A lord must observe proper etiquette, after all. It would have been rude to refuse the offered drink. And the last thing Justin wanted was to anger his newfound hosts.
They were a raucous and rowdy bunch, all of them dressed in furs and skins. Had their hair been blonde rather than brown and black and red, he would have thought himself amidst a crowd of Northmen.
The group made its way to the logger’s village at the gentle first curve of the Windrush. It seemed at once smaller and busier than Justin remembered. Several large common fires burned in the middle of the makeshift village, and men, women, and children huddled about them, most holding clay cups or bowls that steamed, the smell making Justin’s mouth water.
A large space had cleared between two of the fires, and a crowd of men cheered and called various insults at two combatants within the ring. Two men, clad just in loincloths, circled each other, their wrists bound each other by a length of braided leather. Judging by the sheen of sweat gleaming from under few patches of skin clear of mud, they’d been wrestling for quite some time.
A cup and bowl were thrust into Justin’s hands, wine spilling over one hand, and hot broth over the other.
“Eat. A man needs more in his stomach than just wine after his first kill.”
Justin tasted the broth, found bits of vegetable and chicken floating in it, as well. He hadn’t realized just how cold it was until the warmth seeped into him from the soup.
“How did you know it was my first kill?” he asked between sips.
The red bearded man gave a snorting chuckle. “Boy, you would think you’d spitted your best friend, the way you looked out there.”
“I-- stop calling me ‘boy.’”
“You remind me a lot of my younger brother. He said the same thing, growing up.”
“So his eagerness to prove himself got most of the village burned to the ground. You’ll have plenty of time to grow into that shirt of metal, boy.”
* * * * *
Petra awoke to searing pain in her side, white bolts of agony burning from just below her ribs, snaking up and down her right side. The cold breeze against her sweat-slicked face and arms felt good, as did the soft furs beneath her. She was burning up, yet shivering at the same time. The pain and hunger had her stomach tied in knots. She tried to close her hands, had no energy to do so, had barely enough breath to whimper into the fur.
A heart was beating, beneath the furs. She was wrapped in some of them, she realized, pressure along her back and legs indicating that she was somehow lashed in place.
“So you are awake.”
She felt the voice, resonating against her breast. She was being carried, then, on the man’s back. She tried to take in a breath, to reply, and the agony spiked.
“Save your strength for holding on,” the man said. He shifted her a bit higher on his back, and Petra gasped, sucking in a short, painful breath.
“I am sorry, Little One, but now I must run. You must bear with it. The sun nears alignment with Pavel, and there is someplace I must be.”
Petra hitched a breath, and buried her face in the furs about the man’s shoulders. His pace picked up, and the agony poured from her side, becoming a steady stream of fire.
* * * * *