Jasna looked up, as the glow from the lantern wavered, dimmed.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going, Stableboy?”
Justin was halfway across the small clearing, lantern held high, his sword drawn.
A hand on Jasna’s arm stopped her from following the young man. Moonlight glinted oddly off curves and swirls of golden metal. Jasna glanced back, saw the same discolored reflection from eyes nearly the same color.
She caught her breath. The shrike’s pupils were no longer round, but elongated, like those of a cat.
“Something is in there.” The voice was no more than a breath in Jasna’s ear. The tiny thief felt a pang of envy as the shrike danced away with hardly a rustle of cloth or a crackle of leaves under foot. The sound of her sword clearing its scabbard the thinnest whisper of a silvery tone. Jasna did not even see the shrike’s shadow as she dashed through the flickering circle of yellowish light shed by Justin’s lantern.
She pressed her back against the uneven stone wall by the doorway, fingers flexing to check her grip on the strange sword’s hilt. She motioned — twice, before the young man responded to her gesture — and Justin circled around to the other side of the doorway.
A gust of wind sent trees creaking, leaves dancing through the lantern’s light just as the clouds did the same with the moonlight.
Beside Jasna, Petra sniffed, then sniffed again, leaning into the wind.
The shrike tensed, and Justin set his lantern down, bringing his sword up, both hands on the hilt.
“Wait!” Petra cried.
Were the shrike’s gaze daggers, Jasna thought, they would surely have dropped the younger thief where she stood.
Petra simply ignored the furious glance, and dashed from the treeline, pulling the hood of her cloak further down as the clouds raced away from Matera’s shining face.
The shrike extended her sword arm, the flat of the blade slapping against the far side of the doorway, nearly catching Justin’s arm.
“Sixth, there could be danger here, I cannot allow you to—“
Petra slowed, but only to duck beneath the shrike’s arm.
“I know that scent,” she said. “Morana, come out before one or the other of these two try to spit you.”
Justin lifted his lantern. The flickering yellow light showed an uneven dirt floor peeking from beneath an age’s worth of wind-blown leaves and tumbled stone from one of the walls.
“There’s nobody here,” he said. The young warrior stepped past Petra, pushing the lantern’s illumination into the far corners of the cabin. “See? Noth—”
Justin stumbled backwards as the shadow from the darkest corner of the room rose up, skirting the circle of lantern light. Justin fumbled for his sword, but the shrike slapped the back of his hand with the flat of her own blade.
She turned, reaching out, and caught the dark gray cloak, giving it a sharp yank.
The figure gave a very un-shadow-like choked-off squawk, and then plunked very un-shadow-like into a pile of drifted leaves.
Large blue eyes blinked up from a tangle of shoulder-length golden locks. The girl scrambled back, but the shrike followed her move, bringing the sword up to the other girl’s throat.
“You will show me your hands,” the shrike said.
The girl’s eyes flicked from the shrike, to Justin, but the tension did not ease from her shoulders until she saw Petra and the rest of the Handmaidens. But rather than smile, she frowned.
“Petra? Jasna? What are you doing here?”
The younger thief blinked in surprise. “What are we—?”
“What are you doing here?” Jasna said, stepping past Petra and crossing her arms.
The other girl gathered her feet skirts billowing as she made to rise.
“I did not bid you rise,” the shrike said, and gave the sword a flick of her wrist, the tip dangerously close to the clasp of the girl’s cloak.
“Morana, maybe you should—” Petra did not get to finish her warning.
The girl — Morana — narrowed her eyes, her lips meeting in a firm line that turned up at one corner as she smirked at the shrike. She swept an armful of leaves up into the shrike’s face.
The shrike barely batted an eye, the sword flashing in the lantern light as it cut through the swirl of leaves.
The leaves were all the sword cut through.
The Handmaidens cried out in shock, and they were met with a giggle behind them.
The shrike turned, bringing her sword around in an upwards sweep.
There was a flash of green-tinged gold, and the weapon flew from the shrike’s hands, clattering against what was left of one of the cabin’s low stone walls.
Clattering, like wood, rather than a ringing of metal on stone. In place of the shrike’s sword a hefty, crooked branch of about the same size settled amidst the leaves and stones.
“Don’t!” Morana warned, as the shrike reached for the sheathed dagger at her waist.
The girl stood slightly crouched, one hand outstretched, the other held close to her breast. A thick gold chain wound about that hand and part of her wrist. A multifaceted gem filled her palm, her fingers curled loosely around the stone. A green-gold glow seeped, scintillating, from between her fingers, bringing out the bronze in her complexion, painting her eyes the dazzling blue-green of the waters of the Sea of Dread.
The hair caught in the stone’s light gleamed the deep and glossy black of a raven’s wing.
“I said ‘Don’t!’” Morana hissed, when the shrike’s fingers twitched, close to the hilt of the dagger. “Unless you want your arm to join the sword over there.”
“Maybe you’d best do as she says,” Katarin said, edging closer to the shrike.
A trio of howls rang through the woods.
“They’re getting closer,” Brynne said, turning away from the group to keep her eyes on the doorway.
“This is stupid,” Jasna huffed. “You—“ she jabbed a finger at the shrike. “Sit down over there.” She pointed to the corner farthest away from the sword-turned-branch. “And you—“ she rounded on Morana, “Just…. got taller,” the girl finished, the heat leaving her voice as she frowned. “Didn’t she?”
“Everyone is taller than you,” Petra said, but her smirk didn’t stay in place as she leaned slightly closer to Morana. “I’m more interested in how she turned her hair black like that.”
Another chorus of howls was joined by several other voices.
“Explanations later,” Brynne said. “Kat, if you’re going to magic us up a barrier, now would be a good time.”
The weaver looked over from where she’d been talking quietly with the shrike, clearing her throat. The other girls tried to hide their smiles, and Petra dug an elbow into Jasna’s ribs.
“Don’t,” she whispered.
“It’s not like I was going to whistle,” the other thief muttered through her pout.
“You remember what happened last time Katarin was distracted when she…” Petra wiggled her fingers in an imitation of the other girl’s weaving.
“The fire wasn’t that big.”
Petra pointed to the piles of leaves.
Jasna blew out a breath, puffing her bangs from her eyes. She rounded on Morana.
“Turn it back,” she said. “If those things break through Katarin’s shield, we’re going to need Goldy’s sword.”
The others voiced the question at nearly the same instant.
“What?” Jasna asked. “I can’t keep calling her ‘shrike of the Homeguard.’ It takes too long to think, let alone speak.”
“Jasna thinking. Never a scribe to take note when we need one,” Brynne snorted.
“Almost as rare as you doing it, I know, Brynne,” the other girl spat.
Another chorus of howls cut off Brynne’s reply, and she turned her attention back to the moon-lit tree line, shifting her feet, bringing her quarterstaff to the ready. “The sword would really help us, Morana.”
“Hey, what am I? Chopped liver?” Justin asked.
“Not yet,” Jasna said. “Where did you learn how to swing that thing?”
Howls filled the night.
“We’re out of time!” Brynne called. She stepped to one side of Katarin. Justin drew a deep breath, and took up position on the other side of the girl, sword held in a low guard.
Katarin reached out, her hand held flat, resting it against the door that no longer filled the doorway. The hand shook. The weaver drew several deep breaths.
“I don’t know if I have the strength left,” she whispered.
Three shadows blackened, darkening from the bluish-purple of moonshadow, six greenish-white points of light burned higher up in each mass, and then the space below each pair split, daggerlike teeth shining brightly in the night.
The jaws opened in a trio of howls, and then the heads lowered, the forms hunching, shadows rippling as the creatures dropped to all fours and charged the tumbled-down hut.
“Back!” Brynne shouted, hauling on Katarin’s cloak, spinning the smaller girl behind her as she stepped over to block the doorway.
Justin shouldered her aside.
“They’ll chew right through your leathers,” he hissed. “They won’t have such an easy time with Halgrin’s chain.”
Brynne scowled, but before she could reply, Justin brought his shield up, bracing his feet, and then leaned forward with a sharp cry as a mass of fur and claws slammed into the metal. The young lord slid nearly a full stride with the impact.
“By the sword, sea, and the land!” Justin shouted, bringing his sword up and over the top of the shield, stabbing downward.
The creature’s howl rose in pitch, climbing to a whine, as the young man pressed his way back into the doorway.