The night’s dew made the grass slick; Deoryn Ai’Hael stumbled as she blocked a heavy blow aimed for her head. It was a costly error; the nagrat brute she was fighting slammed his club against her back, knocking the air from her lungs. She found herself on her hands and knees fighting for breath; vaguely heard a snarl as Kota tackled the creature, savaging it with his razor-sharp claws. Her vision cleared in time to see it fall, all shredded skin and blood.
It was almost an improvement from how it usually looked. Nagrat were gray-skinned, hairless, bulky creatures that resembled men, if a man had been disassembled, damaged beyond repair, and then mushed back together haphazardly. Their only drives were to hunt and to serve their Val’gren masters; looting, kidnapping, and attacking travelers along the small roads that crisscrossed Laendor and its surrounding countries. Ryn felt no remorse at all culling the barbarians.
She was tired. The strain of the weeks-long hunt was in her black knotted staff, exhausted arms shaking with each blow she dealt. It was in Kota’s breaths, heavy as he panted in between victories. It was in her feet, sore and swollen with too many miles traveled in too short a time.
The woman grunted as she forced her legs to obey her; to lift her from the soaked ground and stand to meet her next foe.
It was a near thing; she barely got her balance before a massive, chipped battleaxe came flying at her head. Ryn rolled without thinking, came up with her back against a stunted, splintery tree, cursing.
She had definitely lost the element of surprise, she had to move fast.
Save the younglings.
It was her driving force, what kept her moving much farther north and west than she cared to travel, deep into Val’gren territory. It was the reason she and Kota had run themselves ragged, braving storm and beast and heartless terrain, and the very thing that had led them to this craggy boulder field where the nagrat had pitched camp. It was what kept her pressing forward even now, despite the pain, the big ugly brutes in her way, and odds that were not stacked in her favor.
The brother and sister.
Victims of unhappy circumstance, like so many others in these lands, but nothing more than strangers to her. Their caravan attacked and parents slaughtered on the road, and they themselves kidnapped to be delivered to the Val’gren, a sacrifice to their god, Skeðu.
Children, of an age to her own brother when he had died. She could not let them go, not without giving her fullest measure of skill, courage, and resolve to save them. It would be akin to abandoning him.
Ryn snarled, shook off her own ghosts, focused on the battle before her.
Nagrat prisoners were kept in the center of camps to prevent escape or rescue, so that’s where she set her gaze. She found it almost immediately, a ragged shelter comprised of hide and wooden stakes—
Her heart thumped hard as she spotted one of the few remaining monsters stagger toward that little shelter, knife in its hand, death in its expression. She drew her bow and let fly her arrow toward it. Her aim was true, and barely in time. She heard the prisoners screech their terror as the monster fell half-into the shelter, her arrow buried in his temple.
Another nagrat rushed her from the left, and it took long enough to deal with him that Ryn grew frustrated.
The nagrat intercepted the swing she took at his head, grabbing her staff and yanking it from her grip entirely. He smiled at Ryn’s growl, beady black eyes squinted with vicious mirth.
If he thought her disarmed, he was sorely mistaken.
With a scrape of steel against leather, her hunting knife was in her hand. Ryn stabbed high, into the thing’s chest, aiming between the ribs. It was a wild blow; too wild, for the blade struck the monster’s sternum instead and broke jaggedly.
Ryn grunted angrily as the nagrat howled in agony; she yanked the knife out and tried again, an inch lower and two to the right. This time the broken steel met its target, sinking to the hilt in the nagrat’s heart.
Pain exploded on the left side of Ryn’s face, and she found herself sprawled against a rock, sucking in ragged breaths and blinking hard. The brute she had stabbed was on his knees, snarling at her, the death blow having sapped the last of his waning strength. She watched him die wordlessly, trying to get her bearings. It took her a moment to realize the battle was won. The nagrat were dead.
Only now did she notice the tiny pinpricks of cold on her exposed face, the shrill howl of the wind, the unyielding rock surface she had landed on—and exactly how bad it had hurt. She groaned as she pushed herself upright and straightened. Her ribs twanged painfully on the back of her right side; she would bruise spectacularly, she could tell already.
Kota trotted to her, his face bloodied and his stubby tail high. Her lynx was still on guard; his tufted ears twitched this way and that, alert for any sign of danger. Ryn scratched between his shoulder blades—praise for a job well done—as she cast about, locating the prisoner’s shelter again. Her last skirmish had pushed her further away from it, as she was sure it had been intended to.
For all the good it had done. Now the nagrat were all dead and she had won.
Her lynx whined, his bloody nose pressing to her thigh in concern. Ryn shushed him; no time for triage until the mission was complete.
She stumbled to the ragged little pavilion. The flap was heavy, cold and wet from the freezing rain, and Ryn’s shoulder screeched a protest as she pulled it back.
The world shrank to a pinpoint. Ryn’s knees hit the hard stone.
She didn’t even feel it.