Felted wool, Grey decided, once rent and twisted by gnarled little claws, made disturbingly effective restraints.
Bloody grakken gnomes, he fumed, shifting his shoulders against the rising ache in his limbs. Why? Why had he not been more cautious? The little beasts were a plague upon these northern reaches—he knew that. But Grey had been tired, and the gnomes had been patient. And the cover of forested darkness had found him stripped to his skin and strung up like prize game.
He forced his hands open and closed against the cold prickles snaking down his arms, not wanting to fall victim to yet another disadvantage. The gnomes had stretched him nearly to his limit between two trees, and the tingles setting into his fingertips promised imminent loss of sensation.
He tried to lift his gaze to his bonds but was brought up short by the tight gag pulling against his jaw. Trying again, he strained his neck until he could just make out the contrived ropes wrapped around his wrists. Bloody, bloody gnomes; he had liked that cloak. And the rough texture of his own shirt against his tongue served as a vivid reminder of how his evening had so suddenly mutated out of control.
Furious, Grey thrust his weight to the side, succeeding only in pulling the knots tighter into his skin. The numbness in his fingers intensified, and he grumbled a muffled obscenity, dropping his gaze.
He jerked back at the sight of a curious grakken gnome standing at his feet. It stared up at his spread-eagled state, tipping its warty head back and forth like an inquisitive chicken. Thick claws drummed down the shaft of a crude obsidian spear in its grip.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Grey tried to blame his sudden rush of gooseflesh on the chill of the mountain air. It was a pointless effort though, and a dangerous one, considering the way his knee-high adversary was eyeing his exposed legs.
Quick as a rat, the gnome darted forward, jabbing at the taut muscle of Grey’s thigh. He twisted on instinct, turning the stab into a glancing blow, but not enough to keep the ragged blade from slicing across his flesh. Sucking in a hiss, Grey bit down on the rags between his teeth.
The spindly grakken hopped back, capering on knobby legs as it fizzed out a mocking chortle.
Grey spared it one venomous glance before returning to the task at hand—escape. Working his mouth, he focused on expelling the thick gag.
A deep whoosh issued from the fire in the center of the clearing. Grey looked up, sagging in dismay as yet another of his possessions was deemed worthless and tossed into the flames. Black smoke billowed up in thick clouds, curling between the branches of the trees in murky tendrils. Another rumble drifted over the peaks, and the air shifted, driving the caustic smoke directly into Grey’s face.
He choked, lungs spasming. Vomit threatened in the back of his throat and he turned away, fighting to suck a clean breath through the layers of cloth, unable to purge the blinding sting from his eyes.
The wind shifted again.
Swallowing back his gorge, Grey drew a deep breath through his nose, the scent of burning leather a pungent indication that his saddle had just joined the conflagration. The heat intensified, and Grey cast a nervous, watery glance up at the two fat-pines he’d been strung between.
Fates, those flames had better not get any closer or these trees are going to go up like torches—and me along with them. Grinding his teeth, Grey looked back to the fire.
A point of stillness caught his attention, noticeable only by its contrast to the surrounding pandemonium. Another gnome was watching him—a bit larger than the first and decorated with a feathered armband.
Chief Grakken, Grey surmised, focusing on the new threat.
It moved then with deliberate intent, reaching to withdraw a length of burning wood from the fire. Hefting it in its gnarled grip, it turned back to Grey.
Cold sweat bloomed over Grey’s body, fear quickening his pulse.
The feathered gnome began its approach, searching Grey with bulbous, yellow eyes. The intensity of the look had Grey’s insides squirming, and he tightened his jaws as the gnome’s attention flicked from foot, to knee, to…
He blinked when he saw the chief’s intent and looked down. Oh, bloody shades… Frantic, Grey jerked at his ties, searching the area for anything, anything that might be of some use.
A scuffle broke out among the gnomes rifling through his things, and Grey looked over to see two of them fighting over his saddlebags.
Oh, no, no, no…
The chief lunged.
Grey cried out in agony, heat searing up his thigh. Bright spots popped before his eyes and he gritted his teeth, gasping when the sensation finally withdrew. He blinked, attempting to clear his vision. Slowly, the figure of the grakken chief wavered back into view.
Grey worked to maintain his focus, watching in growing trepidation as the chief ran an introspective claw over its teeth before quirking up one corner of its mouth.
Incentive reaffirmed, Grey thrust his head to the side, not wanting any part of what had just flitted through that sadistic little mind. He scuffed at the gag with his shoulder, pushed at the twisted rags with his tongue, cut through soggy fibers with his teeth… Desperate, he craned his head to stare into the trees. Where are you, Steed?
A guttural croaking jerked his attention back down. These things speak?
The chief repeated the phrase, more intense this time.
Surprised, Grey stared. …Hooka choppa—what? Daring to hope, he unclenched his fists, spreading his hands and raising his eyebrows in an attempt to communicate. Maybe if he knew what they wanted…
Beyond the fire, a gleeful cry rose from the region of his saddlebags. Grey looked over in alarm. …Oh, Fates… He felt his face drain of color. …They found it…
Two of the grakken had unearthed Grey’s staff and were holding it triumphantly between them, multicolored glints of firelight reflecting off its jeweled head.
Panic-stricken, Grey shook his head. He could not allow that to fall into the hands of the grakken, not under any circumstances.
The chief’s lips peeled back into a disturbing leer as it took in Grey’s expression. Tipping its dusky head back to the others, it gave a sharp grunt. A muttered comment followed, and, hissing in acknowledgement, the pair with the staff began to scratch and scrabble at the stones.
Heedless of the potential consequences, Grey shouted past his gag, scuffing and rolling his neck in wide circles, working with single-minded purpose to push the binding down.
It shifted, but not enough. He kept an eye on the little beasts as he worked, trying to convince himself he shouldn’t worry; the staff was spell-crafted wood. It would take a great deal more than those grimy claws to wrench them loose.
A fingerbreadth more progress on the gag and Grey was able to shove the dirty mass of cloth out from behind its cord. It fell to his feet with a soggy flop. Tipping his head back, he heaved a triumphant breath. A thin strip of twisted homespun still remained between his teeth, but with the bulky wadding now out of the way, it was much more maneuverable.
Checking the staff again—he froze.
The enterprising little beasts had given up on their attempts to pry the gemstones loose by main force and were now levering the heavy staff between them to hover over the fire.
Grey flung himself forward, shouting and thrashing against the ropes.
Chief Feathers cocked a warty brow at him, considering, then thrust its torch directly at Grey’s inner thigh.
He screamed. Hair shriveled and flesh seared, flames licking right up to—and over—exactly where Grey had most feared.
The contact was brief, but blinding. Sweat poured down his body, pain warring with exertion as phantom sensations went on burning beneath his skin.
Evidently content with the state of him, the chief turned back to the fire. Jeers and chants were rising from the rabble, all watching in wild anticipation as a thin film of char began to spread across the head of the staff. Grey didn’t know if the wood was durable enough to withstand fire, but he knew he couldn’t afford to find out.
Panting, he lifted his head once more and began methodically rolling his neck around, scraping the side of his face against his shoulder. Over and over he pushed, forcing the band out, rolling it down over his lips, then his chin…
The binding fell. His dark hair, no longer restrained, spilled forward to hang in lank, sodden tendrils over of his eyes. Tossing it out of the way, he spat a few remaining fibers from his tongue, curled his lips tight against his teeth, and whistled—loudly.
The gnomes all stopped, staring.
Grey hung there awkwardly, spread wide between the two sturdy trees—an offended silence the only accompaniment to his shrill outburst.
The fire crackled and popped.
Grey held very still.
The chief muttered something back to the startled clan, and a wicked laugh rippled back. As one, they turned, moving to slowly converge on him en masse, Chief Feathers in the lead.
Grey threw his head back over his shoulder. “Steed!”
The gnomes were closing in on him. Panicked, he whistled one last time, the piercing call breaking off as he fought to escape the chief’s advance.
Hoofbeats sounded in the distance, rising in a measured two-part beat.
Grey twisted to search the deep shadows but found no evidence of impending aid. Of all the Fate’s-blasted times to— He recoiled as he turned back, finding the entire mob at his feet, all clawing and jostling at each other for a better view of their chief.
“Steed!” he cried as the flames became tangible again, “put a little effort into it!” And the cadence increased to a heavy, pounding canter.
Heat blossomed. Grey dropped his chin, gritting his teeth as he tried to send his mind somewhere else. Waves of fire seared up his thigh and between his legs, fracturing his senses, blinding him to any thought except the pain. Then the glowing tip hissed against his skin and he reared back, howling in agony.
The underbrush exploded to his left, scattering the clan before an onslaught of shadow, muscle, and mass. Steed, Grey’s giant black charger, danced among his foe, striking out at the disoriented gnomes with his massive hooves.
The flames fell away and Grey gasped, panting as the world spun to drift in and out of focus. He hung limply from his ties, staring at the sky and concentrating on his breathing while he waited for the ground to steady beneath him. Sweat poured from his brow as he dropped his head back down, eyes drifting to a blur of light hovering at the edge of his vision. He blinked, squinting at it.
…The chief’s torch… The little gnome had apparently discarded it in favor of his spear—now being brandished at the large stallion—but the torch, so quickly and carelessly tossed aside, had come to rest at the base of one of Grey’s trees, inches away from his bound left leg.
Desperate, he thrust his foot forward, angling the rope to hover over the sputtering flame.
Thunder echoed from the peaks, and a cold breeze rippled along the forest floor, lifting the hairs at the base of Grey’s neck as leaves brushed by his ankles. The suddenly heavy air smelled of water and dust, and Grey looked up in time to feel a single wet droplet plop onto his face.
“Hadjaa ghas…” he swore through clenched teeth. Not nearly satisfied with the expletive, he continued to swear in the common tongue, stretching his leg to the very limit of its reach, closing the distance between his ropes and the rapidly shrinking flame.
Another gust blew through the clearing, billowing the central fire to further illuminate the battle. Steed had seized a wooden club in his teeth, its owner howling and screeching as he swung it wildly through the air. A different gnome had gone high, leaping and snagging a handful of dark mane only to be tossed away when the stallion spun and reared his massive head.
The torch stuttered. Grey held his breath. It steadied again as the wind eased, but the flame was beginning to die, Grey’s hopes along with it. No, no, no—please…
It flickered again.
And then the brush at the base of the fat-pine whooshed into flames.
“Hah!” he cried in triumph, hopes soaring as the fire began licking at the twisted wool. Bracing himself with the ropes around his arms, he kicked his foot out over and over, jerking at the smoldering fibers until they finally gave way. Cold rain began to patter on his exposed flesh, and his body gave a convulsive shudder.
Shaking off the sensation, Grey returned his attention to the torch. He reached out with his foot, hoping to drag it to the opposite side, but it remained just out of reach, rolling and shifting beneath his efforts. He leaned and stretched, but the more he struggled, the farther away the torch slid.
Grey made a desperate swipe with his foot. The torch spun, and with a flash of heat, the bark of the fat-pine ignited. Tendrils of burning sap raced up the papery bark in fiery rivulets, consuming the towering, resinous pine.
Grey could only gape in disbelief. “This really! Can’t! Be happening!” he shouted, gritting his teeth and punctuating each word with a furious jerk.
Steed was still lunging and kicking at the attacking gnomes while Grey fought in vain to escape the trees. Rain was beginning to fall steadily now, causing a new level of horrid sensation as the icy water ran down his overheated skin, under his arms and down his body.
And yet doing nothing for this bloody fire!
Grey’s veins pulsed in his temples as he pulled with all his strength, arms bunching and shaking before the attempt died. Gasping, he tried again, but the heat was overpowering him, and he soon began to sway and sag against his bonds, fatigued muscles twitching with involuntary flutters.
A stray grakken, having been unwittingly turned into a projectile by one of Steed’s massive hooves, tumbled against Grey’s legs, dazed. He pushed it weakly away with his free foot and it flopped over, spear still gripped in its knobby fist.
Grey took one heavy breath. Then another. Then one more…
The rope holding his wrist was actively burning now, but his hand felt like it was about to burst open, leaving Grey with serious doubts as to which would burn away first—the ropes, or his skin.
Raindrops hissed as they fell against the flaming trunk, misting impotently away on contact. He wouldn’t be getting any help from the sky.
Rotating both hands around in desperation, Grey wrapped his fingers around the twisted wool and pulled with all his strength. His muscles quivered with strain. Flames licked at his clenched fist, shooting white-hot pain down his arm and across his chest. He screamed through gritted teeth, his whole body shaking, but still, he pulled harder.
The tie snapped.
Grey collapsed, falling to one side as the press of heat gave way to the icy prickles of rainfall. He panted, leaning against the far tree, cradling his burned hand against his chest. Blisters were already rising on the abused flesh, and some of the skin along the outside of his palm had blackened and peeled away. The scent of charred skin and hair hit him, and the resulting wave of nausea nearly took him to his knees. Breathing deeply, he fought to remain conscious.
The sound of Steed blowing in challenge penetrated through the distant ringing in his ears, and he shook the stars from his eyes. Sucking in a ragged breath, Grey turned to stretch his free leg toward the spear held by the stunned grakken at his feet. He struggled until he hooked it with his foot, drawing it to his side and up into his free hand. The tool was difficult to manage, badly burned as he was, but after a moment, Grey was able to begin sawing at his remaining bonds.
The chief, having finally caught notice of what was taking place between the trees, gave a furious howl and charged at Grey, spear upraised. Grey didn’t slow in his work but gathered up what little strength remained to him and coiled it all into the kick he delivered to the chief’s bony head.
His balance faltered a bit from his momentum, but the blow was sufficient, and Grey savored a moment of vindictive pleasure as he watched Chief Feathers tumble out of sight.
Not pausing to gloat, he turned back to his work, continuing to saw at the remaining tie. As the last of the fibers finally gave way, Grey let out a primal, choked exhalation.
Not stopping to consider his injuries, he pushed himself into motion. Rocks and detritus bit at his bare feet as he stumbled through the rain toward the fire and his coveted staff. A breath away, he dove for it, skidding on his knees, feeling his skin tear open against the forest floor. His fingers closed around the shaft, and he snatched it to his chest. Safe.
Nearly, at least.
Grey swung his staff like a club, cutting a path through the remaining grakken as he struggled over to Steed. Reaching him, he grabbed a fistful of black mane and heaved himself up, digging his heels into his ribs. Wheeling him around, Grey fled; burned, bleeding, and naked, into the stormy night.