The norn believe you should laugh in the face of death, that danger is one big adventure to be conquered, and that having songs sung of your deeds is worth the price of battle. I, on the other hand, follow a more asuran line of thinking: death is not something to be sought, so don’t pick fights you can’t win.
Except, it seemed, I just had.
The ranger – who I was calling ‘Deathwish’, for lack of a better name – had crouched down on the outcrop he’d claimed, an axe held ready at his side. He was still swaying from blood loss and exhaustion, though, and his other hand was useless, bound across his chest. That’s what having Spark shoot you in the shoulder will do to you, after all. I had to get to him, and fast.
Easier said than done, of course. I slipped into invisibility and started to run across the valley, but a great howl went up from the grawl and they started to charge up the hill. Whether they could sense me or not, I was about to get squished under their stampeding feet – and besides, they were heading straight for Deathwish.
I shadowstepped away, once, twice, again, pushing myself further until my head was fuzzy and my legs shaking. Still, not far enough. I’d reached the edge of the grawl stampede, but I’d not cleared it, and their drumming feet were about to pass right overhead. Not only that, but I couldn’t hold my invisibility much longer; already, dark spots of strain were crowding across my vision.
I was about to attempt an ignominious scramble into the undergrowth when I heard a feline growl at my shoulder. The jaguar was only a shimmer in the grass beside me, barely visible even in bright sunlight. I had the horrible feeling its jaws were about to close right around my head when I felt the surprisingly gentle tug of teeth closing in the back of my coat. A moment later, I was being pulled aside, out of the path of the grawl; once we were clear, the jaguar even circled me, curling its bulk around my body in a protective wall.
The grawl thundered past in the same instant, shaking the ground with their footfalls and whooping battle cries as they ran. The jaguar didn’t move until they’d gone, only then releasing me and stepping delicately away. My strength was returning quickly, and I looked up the hillside, to where Deathwish was still directly in the path of the grawl.
I didn’t dare pat the jaguar on the shoulder, but I did shoot it in a grin. “Thank you, my furry friend. Now, let’s go rescue that stupid ranger of yours.”
If it’s possible for a cat to do such a thing, I’m fairly certain the jaguar rolled its eyes.
The grawl were closing in on Deathwish, but they’d been forced to detour west to clear the rocky ground. I cut across their path, shadowstepping straight up the outcrop to the ranger’s side.
“You’d have been dead if I hadn’t sent Whisper after you,” the ranger chided, in a rough voice.
Given that he was still woozy, one-handed and glistening with feverish sweat, his reprimand didn’t carry much weight. “Shut it, Deathwish, and give me that bow.”
The ranger unhooked the shortbow from his back without complaint, handing it to me. The weapon felt comfortable in my hands, but also clumsy – it had been years since I’d handled one. Still, there was no better weapon to sow a little chaos in the ranks of the grawl, so I began to loose.
Arrow after arrow, combined with every powder and concoction I had left in my pockets. My supplies were dwindling, after so long away from a city, but I still had enough to throw the grawl into disarray. Poison gas, blinding powder, even my last handful of cluster bombs, which popped and flashed in the air like festival fireworks. Beside me, Deathwish did what he could with his single axe – and he was deadly with it, moreso than I’d believed possible, in his exhausted state. And yet…
And yet, we were in trouble. The grawl seemed numberless, and the shaman looming at their back, in rattling bones and feather headdress, was driving them on relentlessly. For every one that fell, two more took its place. In any normal situation, I would have tried to reason with them – grawl are stupid, but they’re not entirely witless – but I could already see that maddened shaman was going to be a problem.
I shot straight for him, but the shortbow’s arrow fell far too short, thudding harmlessly into the earth. I tried again, but managed only an extra foot, my arms and shoulders protesting at the effort. Only then did I feel the ranger’s hand on my arm.
“Let me have a go,” he suggested, and I saw he already had a second bow in his free hand, this one nearly as long as he was tall.
I loosed a few diversionary arrows into the mass of grawl as I said, “How are you going to use that in your condition?”
Deathwish, it seemed, was once again living up to his name. He shrugged off the sling on his injured arm, rolled his wrists to loosen then, then propped the longbow on the ground as he reached into a quiver for arrows.
“This is a bad idea,” I warned.
The ranger actually grinned at me, though he looked like he was in agony. “I never have any other kind.”
He started to draw back the string, arms trembling with the effort. The bandage on his wounded shoulder was stained with blood, his knuckles white on the bow. Hurriedly, I started firing on the grawl again, attempting to keep them back with clouds of blinding powder. If I could just keep them occupied long enough-
Deathwish grunted with effort, and loosed. It was a magnificent shot, the arrow soaring over the heads of the grawl cadre, flashing once in the sun, then curving back down to earth. I don’t know whether the shaman saw it coming: perhaps he did and was too shocked to move, or perhaps he was simply too busy to look up. Either way, when the arrow fell, it was straight between the shaman’s eyes, exploding his headdress in a shower of rust-red feathers.
There was a pause, as if all the world stood still. The grawl turned as one, watching as their leader keeled over like a felled tree. Silence reigned long enough for the thud of the shaman’s body hitting the ground to be audible… And then chaos broke out.
I’d expected the grawl to be cowed by the death of their shaman in such spectacular fashion, but if anything, we’d must made them angrier. The howl that went up from their ranks made our jaguar companion mewl and disappear. Deathwish’s bow arm dropped, before he actually started hiccoughing with alarm. I lifted the shortbow again, but this time even my aim wavered. Being faced with a score of angry, slavering grawl will do that to you.
Deathwish took a step back. “I think – hic – we should – hic – run.”
I was about to fling the bow to the ground in agreement when I realised the pounding I could hear wasn’t just my pulse in my ears. The ground was trembling, dry grasses shaking and rattling around my ankles, with what could only be the drum of running feet – and lots of them.
The rear of the grawl ranks exploded apart with a force quite extraordinary to behold. Several were flung into the air; the rest dived out of the way, yipping and shouting in surprise. As the commotion continued, I grabbed Deathwish by his uninjured arm and started pulling him in the opposite direction, almost tripping over the skulking jaguar in the process.
The ranger, though, wasn’t going anywhere. He seemed utterly transfixed by what was happening behind the grawl; the grawl themselves seemed to have completely forgotten us. It wasn’t long before their line parted and I could finally see what Deathwish had spied over the heads of the grawl: Erin, wielding a hammer bigger than I was.
And not just Erin. The entire guard contingent of the Priory camp seemed to be at her back, heavily armoured and armed to the teeth. The anger of the grawl had melted away at the sight of them, and now they were scrambling over one another in their haste to flee. Only a handful stayed to fight, but within moments Erin had flung them aside, other soldiers rushing forwards to pin them to the ground with sharper blades.
The fight was over within seconds, the grawl vanishing into the scrubland as if they’d suddenly learnt the jaguar’s trick of invisibility. Beside me, Deathwish sagged to his knees and started to laugh, a sound of relief only slightly tinged by hysteria. I was tempted to join in.
Down the slope, Erin planted the head of her hammer in the dirt and propped herself on the haft. She was breathing heavily but she couldn’t hide her grin. I shook my head, bewildered. Only a norn could find smashing sense into grawl skulls an entertaining activity.
“Getting yourself into trouble again, cub?” a voice called up the hillside. Spark stood below the outcrop, looking every bit as amused as Erin did.
“Don’t blame me,” I said, prodding the giggling ranger in the shoulder. “I just turned up to sort out this mess.”
Spark snorted, and I narrowed my eyes at her. It hadn’t escaped my recollection that the charr had deliberately avoided our fight with the grawl, staying in the vicinity of the Searing crystal instead. But what had she been doing down there, and why did she look so pleased with herself?
“Come on, let’s get this idiot back to the camp.” Erin had slung her hammer across her back as easily as if it were a toy, and now hooked a hand under the ranger’s arm, pulling him to his feet. He’d stopped laughing and was now swaying again – I wondered how much more blood he’d lost and, for one dark moment, whether I should have just left him to the grawl, if he was so determined to kill himself. He was certainly living up to the nickname I’d given him.
I began to follow Erin back up the hillside; when I drew level with her, she cleared her throat. “Amber, there’s something I need to tell you. I’d appreciate it if we could sit down and talk.”
I gaped up at her, wondering what was coming. “Spit it out,” I ordered. “What’s going on?”
For several seconds, Erin wouldn’t meet my gaze and stared fixedly towards the camp as if I wasn’t even there. Finally, she looked down at me, with what I could only describe as a sad smile. “Very well, I will tell you. I am leaving.”