by Joanna Taylor Bankson
Juniper smoke, heavy with spice and turpentine, hovered over the three hunters, clinging to Onja’s fur and gambeson alike. The scent brought blurry memories of her grandmother’s funeral; they’d burned it until she never wanted to taste one of the wretched little fruits again. The birch timbers of the lodge’s walls hunched about them as Madek did over his kitchen table, head in his hands. It didn’t matter how many times she saw it. The sight of someone grappling, not with loss alone, but with the grisly cruelty of the loss itself— the animalistic indifference— still kindled seething fire in her chest.
“It was only two weeks ago she was seventeen. My little Iga…” His voice was low and measured, the strain of keeping his composure clear. His nervous claws plowed furrows between the black and gold stripes of his forearm. “Ser Vitak, if… i-if there’s anything you can bring back—“
Vitak leaned back in a chair, boots on the grieving father’s table and a briar pipe dangling from his mouth. His impatient tail swept arcs into the dusty floor. “Not likely. Not after this kind of time.” Madek took in a sharp breath and dropped his ears flat. “Anything it hasn’t eaten is probably—”
“We’ll return whatever we can, Madek.” Onja cut him off with a glare. “But for your sake, we’ll bring it to your Astor. You won’t want to see.”
“I shouldn’t have let her go.” He broke at last, sobbing into the table. “I thought there was light enough, that she’d make it home in time. I shouldn’t have let her go.”
“No,” Elitsja whispered next to her, quiet enough so Madek couldn’t hear, “he shouldn’t have.”
Every Lashet knew to fear the firnwraiths. Some civilians were under the foolish impression that the beasts didn’t come out during the day; they were half right. You certainly couldn’t see one in daylight. Some also said that Hunters like Onja and her comrades, rigorously trained to protect them from such demonic threats, were the only ones who didn’t fear them.
Well, that was half true as well.
Tamping his pipe with a claw, Vitak stood, scabbard clacking against his chair. “No one goes outside tonight, Madek. For any reason. Understood?”
He made no reply, only nodded. Vitak straightened his belt and headed to the door. “Two hours and a quarter, ladies. Southeast gate.”
Onja’s whiskers twitched. “I don’t recall you being put in charge, Vitak.”
“Oh? You wanna hunt in the day?” he growled. “Go on. There’s still light. I’ll watch.”
“Enough.” Elitsja stood. She was taller by barely an ear, but they both knew it bothered him nonetheless. “Both of you. Vitak, if we’re ready, you should go tell the warden.”
Onja swept out behind her, exchanging fierce glares with the more ‘senior’ hunter. Elitsja ignored him. She could be still as fresh powder when she was annoyed, but Onja knew her tells; the faint wrinkle between her eyes, the way her lip lifted on the left side, under that little cross her elegant stripes formed along her cheek.
The girl’s grave waited by the gate, surrounded by juniper needles and star-wort. In Sjarkivsk, the dead slept in neat lots; out here, people still buried their dead near the door, but the rites were the same. The lost would be lain as if they were asleep in the womb, fur washed and combed. The grave should be kept open to the sky, safe from decay thanks to the frost, for two days. The Astor had already given permission for whatever was left of the poor girl to be covered at once, should she be found.
Luto, her steed, perked his ears and sat up at her approach. She drew the bear-fur collar of her gambeson longcoat tighter around her and hopped onto the great lupine’s shoulders in sync with her comrades. Vitak whistled, spurring his vilkhund in a gallop towards the warden’s hall. Onja kept stride with Elitsja towards the hostel, frustration smarting. Shaking her head, she tugged Luto’s reins down a side street.
“Onja?” Elitsja called after her. “If we’re going to wait, we may as well wait without freezing our tits off.”
“I’ll be there. Don’t get too drunk before the hunt.”
Houses hunkered low together along the road against the biting wind, steep-pitched roofs and carved lintels studded with stars and scalloped edges. Flowers graced some of their doorposts; snowdrop for birth. Hellebore for marriage. Even now, with a wraith about, people made joy.
Luto padded north, towards the treeline. The few folk still out at this hour dipped their heads at the sight of her hound and longsword, muttered salutations of ‘ser’ meeting her ears. She straightened at their reverence, returning curt nods. She’d earned this just as much as Eli’s smug beau had.
Reaching the village’s edge, she drew a pistol from her brace and primed it. Luto slumped against the fence behind her, saddle jangling with shot. Returning both of her guns to her belt, she faced the line of scraggly trees. 60 yards, maybe. She picked out the thinnest, imagined it as a slender silver torso, its leaves blades, two pinprick white eyes among its branches.
CRACK. Splinters exploded from its base. She chose another and drew. CRACK. Right on a second; no time if it saw you, even from this distance. She reloaded her brace, teeth grit.
“Onja.” She spun, fangs bared. Elitsja stood behind her, a mug of hot wine in hand. “You lose.”
Dammit. The only creatures that could sneak up on a hunter were wraiths, and other hunters. Eli may as well be both, the way she glided over the snow. She held out the mug, concerned amusement twinkling in her eyes. “You’re frightening the locals.”
Onja tamped down another shot. “They should be frightened.”
“Then you’re making it worse. Here; drink.”
“Not before the hunt.”
Elitsja snorted. “A woman like you can handle one mug of thin wine. You have hours. Drink with me. I’m not taking no for an answer.”
Much as she begrudged it, the wine warmed her belly, coriander and cardamom invigorating her frozen sinuses. The spice would wake her senses even as the alcohol tried in vain to dull them. A hunter without a nose was as useless as a hunter without an eye or an ear. Everything had to be at the ready. Anything else meant death— for her, or for the whole trine.
“Don’t let a twat like Vitak throw you off. He’s just on edge because it’s been so long.” Elitsja watched Bitor, her hound, nuzzle Luto awake, tail wagging playfully. “One hunt, two day’s ride, you’ll be rid of him.”
“I don’t see why I have to ride with ‘a twat like Vitak’ regardless.”
“The Zkietsiy can see how you feel about each other clear as day.”
“So I’m being punished.”
“Taught.” Elitsja drained her mug and set it on a fencepost, crossing her arms in front of her. The chevron of her longcoat bunched against her breast, giving her the appearance of an orange snowman. “They’re looking out for you, whether you believe it or not.”
“And do the ever-wise Zkietsiy see you ‘looking out’ for Vitak?” Onja smirked into her wine, even as she choked on it when Elitsja’s fist found her shoulder.
“Let it go.”
“Let him go. Get someone who deserves you.” She teased, but the image of that high-born brat touching Eli turned her stomach.
Elitsja drew an exaggerated sigh. “If it makes you feel any better, he’s just as fiery in bed.”
“He’s very attentive.” She smirked.
She laughed and put a hand on Onja’s shoulder. “Be the better woman. When we get back, I’ll chew him out good. But you need to be able to ride with any hunter, skylark. So does he.”
Skylark. Her stars. Only mother and Eli could get away with calling her that. They watched the sun creep lower, as they had when they were girls, when she had first pointed out the constellation to her new friend. Back then, the knights riding through on their wolves mystified and delighted them. The thaw of her sixteenth summer had barely taken when they took everything they had to the capitol to learn from the Zkietsiy, those hunters who had honorably stepped down after age, injury, or sheer exhaustion to guide the next generation of protectors. It would be years to come before either of them did the same— but they would do that together, as well. They had sworn it.
“Keep it to myself.” She mused into the last sip, already cold, straining cloves through her teeth. “I will if he does.”