Her feet made little noise in the ice and snow as she padded lightly up the mountain, Roffe at her heels. Judging by the marks on the trees, she was in the territory of a girkalon. Veronika sniffed at one of the marks. The odor of the bark was acrid. Fresh then, probably no older than a day or so.
Next to her, Roffe scented the wind. He sneezed, then sniffed again before glancing up at her. “Urf?”
“What are you smelling?”
He shook his head and sneezed again before taking the lead. She followed as he veered slightly westward. Between the trees ahead she caught a glimpse of firelight.
Veronika emerged to find a dais containing three stone pillars. The pillars on either side held metal sconces ablaze with flame. The third pillar had a young man, wrists chained above his head. He wore nothing but a pair of trousers and a strange glyph painted on his chest. She frowned. His head hung and his form was slumped as he shivered in the freezing cold. “What are you doing out here?”
He made a startled noise at the sound of her voice, and his head came up. “What are you doing out here?”
She shrugged. “I asked you first.” She walked closer. The dais had been swept clean. There was a stone altar behind the pillars, containing two baskets filled with various items. She squinted at the closer of the baskets. It looked a bit like the handiwork of the river people.
“You should get out of here.” He shook his head at her. “The beast will be coming.”
“Why are you chained out here if the beast is coming?” She raised an eyebrow at him.
“I am chained out here because the beast is coming.” He straightened, making the chains binding him to the pillar rattle. She took another look at him. He was smaller than she was, and standing fully upright the top of his head barely came up to her nose. His dark hair and the olive tones to his skin marked him as one of the River People. His lips were blue, and more worrisome was the fact that other parts of his skin were also starting to show signs of exposure.
Roffe made a coughing sound, and lifted his leg on the altar. She nodded to the wolf. “This is one of those we feed the monster it doesn’t wipe out our entire village things?”
The young man gave her a confused look. “Yes, which is why you should get moving. It will undoubtedly be here soon.”
“Aren’t you cold?” She frowned at him. “I mean, they could have left you with a cloak or something.” Sacrificing him was bad enough, but leaving him out in the ice with no protection was just cruel. Was he a criminal of some kind? That didn’t seem to fit. A criminal would probably be trying to convince her to free him. Her hand went to the haft of her axe. “I could set you free.”
“And when the beast comes looking for its tribute?” He sighed, and shook his head in resignation. “My lot was drawn fairly.” Something in his voice suggested the opposite was true.
“Why chain you up?” She leaned on the pillar. There was a brazier near the altar. She wrapped part of her cloak around her hand and dragged it closer to him. “I mean, why not give you a sword?” She gave him an appraising look. He certainly wasn’t built like a warrior, though looks could be deceiving. She pulled her cloak off her shoulders and moved to drape it around him.
“Are you insane?” He stared at her. “What part of a monster is on its way here, right now, are you failing to understand?” He shook his head as she fastened the cloak around his neck. “Your cloak is going to get eaten.”
“Nah.” She shrugged. “So why the chains?”
“I imagine they are worried that without them, I’d run.” He looked down at his feet. “In the past, they did give the sacrifices weapons. And some did run. Denied tribute, the beast went down to the village. Better the loss of one than let the beast rampage.”
“Hunting it down never occurred to them?” She adjusted how the cloak hung on him, making sure it wrapped around him better and bending to tuck it beneath his feet so he could stand on the cloth rather than the icy stone.
“It’s a monster.” He shook his head. “All that have crossed its path have died.” He nodded to her. “I appreciate your kindness, but you really should be running –” There was the sound of something moving in the trees, and he turned towards it as much as the chain would allow. The blood drained from his face. “You need to run.”
“I thought you were okay with this sacrifice thing.” She chuckled.
He glared at her. “Accepting the necessity doesn’t mean I’m particularly looking forward to be eaten.”
The wolf growled, and looked up at her. She nodded, and then smiled at the young man. “Well, on the bright side, you’ve saved Roffe and me the trouble of finding bait.” She strapped her shield to her arm, and hefted the axe. The silvery metal head gleamed lightly in the darkness. Immediately, the wolf took up position on the other side of the pillars.
“Bait?” He looked from her to the wolf. “You…” He shifted his eyes back to her. “Who are you?”
“Veronika.” She nodded to him. “Princess of Sanbera.” She shifted to a battle stance. “Heard you folks had a tough monster around these parts, came to see for myself.”
“Oh.” He hung his head. “Lovely. The cold is making me hallucinate.”
Ahead, the underbrush rustled at the approach of the creature. It burst from the underbrush and then halted. It lunged as if to gauge her reaction, and seemed confused when all she did was set her feet and smile. The big wolf raised its hackles. The girkalon’s massive fangs clacked together twice before it threw its head back and howled.
A warcry came from her own lips in response, a wild, joyous sound that echoed through the trees. She spun as it charged, using her shield to knock it off course before slicing her blade along the back of its leg. It turned towards her, raising its massive fists, and the wolf dove in, nipping at its heels.
In and out, wolf and woman fought and struck, wearing the massive beast down. Bleeding from a dozen slashes, it was starting to slow. It raked claws out, catching the woman’s shoulder and sending a spray of her blood across the snow. She grunted, and then launched a furious counter attack, driving it backwards.
The back of its foot hit the edge of the dais, and it stumbled. Immediately, she was on it, her axe biting deep into its throat while the wolf tore a gash in its leg. It swung its fists out again as both moved backwards, avoiding the blow. It tried to roar, and succeeded only in a bloody gurgle.
And it fell. She lifted her weapon above her head triumphantly before going to her pack and pulling out several small jars. She knelt, filling them with the still flowing blood.
“You killed it.” The young man on the dais stared down at her. “You actually killed it.”
“It’s what I do.” She pulled out a dagger, and began prying the teeth from its jaw. “Anything good in those baskets behind you?”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Some food. Trinkets, mostly. Each house has to make an offering.”
“And the key to those?” She rose, and pointed her sword at the shackles binding him.
“The high priest wears that around his neck.” He looked down at the beast again, and gave a small laugh. “You actually killed it.”
A few leaves served to wipe the blood from her axe. She replaced it in the sheath, and gave the shield a critical look. It had taken quite a battering, and would need to be replaced soon. Roffe stood near the creature, lapping up blood and wagging his tail. Welcome to it, the fight could have gone the other way without the aid of her strange new companion. “How long before this priest comes along to check on things?”
“He’s down at the base of the pathway.” The young man tried to turn to keep facing her as she walked to the baskets, but the pillar blocked his view. “I imagine he will be on his way soon, hearing that racket.”
She picked through the basket. Trinkets, but some could perhaps fetch a fair price. A decent knife in a beautifully worked sheath got tucked into her belt. “Good. I’m going to want that cloak back.” She sniffed at a small packet of incense, then shrugged and added that to her belt pouch as well. “What would a beast want incense for?”
“I…” He frowned. “Have absolutely no idea. If the beast leaves anything behind, it is claimed by the priests.”
“Ah.” She smirked. “Well, since it doesn’t go back to the owners, guess it’s mine now.” She hefted the baskets, testing their weight. Too big to carry, but she could rig a travois easily enough. There were plenty of nearby branches to serve.
The crunching sound of footprints and a low growl from Roffe had her looking up from where she’d nearly completed loading up her newly gotten gains. There had been several clay jars in one of the baskets, and she’d filled them all with the creature’s blood. She’d found a pair of mittens, and had put them on the captive. He hadn’t stopped staring at her since she’d killed the beast.
Unfortunately, she still hadn’t located the keys to his manacles. She was starting to consider how to break the chains loose from the stone when a man in black robes stepped into clearing, followed by a half dozen others in gray. “The beast…” He stared down at the cooling corpse. “It is dead.”
She rose and dusted the bit of snow off her hands. “You’re welcome.”
The high priest turned towards her, his jaw falling open as he did. “You…” He gave her a disbelieving look. “By yourself?”
“He helped.” She pointed to Roffe, who stood up from where he’d been laying on the prisoner’s feet. The massive wolf sneezed and shook his head. “Mind letting…” She frowned. “I never did get your name, actually?” She looked up at the prisoner.
“Fadekya.” He nodded to her as he gave his name.
“Anyway, mind letting him loose so I can get my cloak back?” She smiled.
The high priest continued staring at her for several seconds before walking up to the dais. He drew the key from around his neck and unfastened the chain that secured Fadekya’s shackled wrists to the pillar. “This is…” The high priest shook his head. “Momentous.” His eyes lit up. “Surely the gods sent you.” He spread his hands.
“Yeah. Sure.” She shrugged, and held her hand out for her cloak.
The high priest all but snatched it off Fadekya’s shoulders and brought it to her. The other priests moved to where Fadekya was standing, and one put a hand on his shoulder and looked him over. She frowned slightly when they gave no indication of removing the shackles still binding his hands. Or of putting anything around him to protect him from the cold. The high priest shook his head as he handed her the cloak. “We have prayed to the river god, and he answered with you. You must come to the village. We will feast in your honor.”
Veronika exchanged a look with Roffe, and saw his golden eyes turn eager. His tongue hung out of his mouth. A feast would definitely be welcome. “I suppose we could do that.”
“This day will be remembered for all time.” He spread his hands, then gestured to Fadekya. “We will sacrifice to the river god in your honor.”
She started to nod, and then blinked. “Wait, what?”
“A properly sealed tribute will…”
“Hang on…” She raised a hand. “You are going to kill him…” She pointed at Fadekya. “In my honor?”
The high priest nodded eagerly. “He has already been sealed as tribute. His life belongs to the temple.”
Her eyes narrowed. Something else was at work here. “No.”
There was a murmur from the priests. The high priest looked taken aback. “No?”
“Look, I could almost get behind the whole ‘sacrifice one to save the village thing.'” She shrugged. “It’s stupid and cowardly and frankly just a bit pathetic, but almost understandable. But I can’t think of anything that would offend my honor more than some…” She waved a hand at him dismissively. “Sacrificing to it.”
Fadekya gave her an odd look, and then glanced at the priests surrounding him. They were looking at her with confusion. The high priest shook his head. “I…” He blinked, and then nodded. “Well, I see. If that is how you feel, then…” He glanced at Fadekya. Fadekya turned his head away from the priest, shaking it before giving a resigned sigh.
“What happens to him now?” She folded her arms and raised an eyebrow.
“He is the property of the temple, of course.” The High Priest nodded, and shrugged. “I’m sure we will find some use for him.”
Property of the…? They left him out here to freeze or be eaten, and once she’d made him safe all they could think to do was kill him again? He was shivering again and they were just ignoring it. No way was she going to leave him for them to find ‘some use’ for him. He’d probably be dead before they made if off the mountain. Her finger drove into the priest’s chest, sending him stumbling back a foot. She waved a hand at Fadekya. “You left him up here. I won him. That means he’s mine and I said no. And you can take your feast and dump that in the river.”
Roffe made a whining sound, and then growled when the priests started putting hands on their daggers. The high priest glared at her. “You offend and shame the gods.”
“And yet, I killed the monster your gods couldn’t.” She smiled, showing her teeth, and had the pleasure of seeing his eyes widen. Her hand caressed the haft of her axe as she shifted into a combat stance.
The high priest swallowed, and then gestured at his subordinates. One shoved Fadekya into the snow at her feet. “Take him, then.” The high priest sneered before turning, and heading back down the mountain at a brisk pace, followed quickly by his underlings.
Well, so much for a hero’s welcome at the village. She looked down at the man laying in the snow. “I don’t suppose you can cook.”
He looked back up at her. “I will learn.”
She offered a hand, and hauled him to his feet.
She spared a glance over her shoulder at her new companion. Fadekya’s pace was slow, and he was shivering under her cloak. The rags they’d wrapped around his bare feet weren’t providing much protection from the occasionally jagged ground. Though she doubted he could feel much in his extremities at this point. “Not much further.”
“Glad to hear it.” His teeth were chattering.
“Left the fire banked. Should be able to get it going fast.”
Aysi lifted her head as soon as they came within sight of the camp. Her beady eyes fixed on the newcomer. Fadekya stopped in his tracks. “Merciful waters, what is that?”
“That’s Aysi. She’s my unicorn.” Veronika took a few more steps before she realized he wasn’t following. “Hey, come on. We need to get you warm.”
He nodded before he started moving again. Roffe headed into the camp, though he kept a wide berth between himself and the massive Aysi. Aysi turned her head to keep the wolf in sight. Veronika grabbed some of the kindling she’d gathered earlier and headed towards the fire.
“A…” Fadekya gave Aysi a wary look. “Unicorn?”
Veronika blew on the fire, getting the twigs going before setting one of the logs to catch. “Uh huh.” She gestured at the stump near the fire. “Sit, I’ll find a blanket and the kettle.”
Within a few minutes, she had the fire blazing and a kettle of water going. She’d retrieved her cloak, and Fadekya was now wrapped in one of the thick wool blankets. Roffe lay comfortably near the fire, though he kept a wary eye on their guest. The tea was almost ready when Fadekya spoke. “You are wounded.”
“A scratch.” She glanced down at the gash on her shoulder. It had mostly clotted, but was going to need stitches.
“If…” He looked up at her. “I can make a poultice and handle the stitching, if you require.”
“You’re a healer?” She blinked at him.
“I would not go that far.” He shook his head. “But the wound does not appear beyond the skills I do possess.”
She shrugged before rising and retrieving the small healing kit from her gear. A glance over her shoulder revealed he had moved away from the fire to begin stripping some of the inner bark from a nearby tree. “What are you doing?”
“Adding the bark to the water I will use to clean the wound.” He glanced back at her. “It will help prevent infection and scarring.” He frowned. “Is there a willow nearby?”
“Adding that bark to your tea will help with the pain and any fever.”
“There was one back near that frozen waterfall. I think.” She glanced at the wolf. “Roffe, you mind?’
The wolf padded quickly out of camp. Fadekya watched him go with a slightly bemused expression before returning to the fire. He added the strips of cloth and the bark to the boiling water, waiting a few moments before fishing a rag back out and using it to begin cleaning the blood from the wound. “It is not as deep as I feared.”
“Good.” She glanced up when Roffe reentered the camp. “Did you find it?”
Fadekya started at the sound of Roffe’s voice, nearly dropping the healing kit. He stared, jaw hanging somewhere around midchest.
Roffe held out the bark. “This enough?”
“Merciful waters…” Fadekya nearly choked on the words. “Where did you… why aren’t… what?”
“Oh.” Veronika chuckled. “Guess I should make introductions. Fadcha, this is Roffe. Roffe, this is Fadcha.”
“I…” Fadekya blinked up at her. “I thought Roffe was the name of your wolf.”
“It is. He just…” She shook her head and accepted the bark Roffe was holding. “Your bark?”
He stared at it blankly before taking it from her. Roffe headed back to the fire, shifting back into the form of a wolf. “He’s…”
“Right. Alright. I think. I…” Fadekya shook his head, and then set the bark down. “I think perhaps Mykola was not honest with me about what type of mushrooms those were.” He finished cleaning the wound before neatly stitching it back together, hampered slightly by the shackles still closed around his wrists. The bandages stung just slightly as he applied them and fastened them in place. He poured out that water and started the kettle going again, this time adding the willowbark.
When he sat back down, she tilted her head at him. “So, Fadcha…”
“Fadekya.” He rose when the water boiled, and brought her a cup of the tea.
She wrinkled her nose at the taste, but drank. “Where is the next nearest village?”
“A day’s walk in summer would bring you to Chownyk, but the route is not traversable once the snow begins. The city of Zierski lies two days east.”
“You know the way?”
“Simply follow the road. There are markers that are visible until the drifts reach ten feet in height.” He glanced back at the wolf by the fire, and then returned his gaze to her. “May I ask what brought you hunting the beast?”
“They told me it was dangerous, ate people, and had really big teeth.” She grinned.
“Most would consider that reason to travel in a different direction.”
“Good thing for you I’m not most people.” She removed her axe from his sheath and began running the whetstone over the blade. “I needed the teeth.”
“I see.” He gave her a somewhat skeptical look.
“Hopefully, Zierski has a decent blacksmith. I need a new shield, and we should probably get those things off you.” She gestured at the shackles. The cold metal had left marks on his skin. He’d be lucky if he escaped scars. “I don’t have anything in the way of shoes other than some scraps of a wool blanket, but I’ve got a couple extra tunics and a spare cloak.”
“Don’t worry about the watch. Roffe or Aysi will let us know if anything interesting gets within a hundred yards of the camp.” She tossed a second blanket at him.
She woke to the smell of food cooking, and sat upright. Fade was tending to the fire, and had set a flat rock in the fire pit that he was using to cook something. “I thought you said you couldn’t cook.”
“I said I would learn.” He quickly transfered a couple of the items from the rock to the plate before offering it to her. “I am learning. I burned the bread.”
A smile came to her face as she accepted the offering of two sausages and some kind of flatbread. As he had noted, the bread was cooked somewhat unevenly. It quickly proved to be edible despite that, and she divided it in half, using it to wrap the sausages into rolls. “Not bad.”
“I should change the dressing on your wound.” Fadekya indicated the nearby kettle. He set a similar plate down for Roffe, and the wolf quickly made the contents vanish into the bottomless pit that served as his stomach before staring longingly at Fadekya’s plate.
Veronika waited for him to finish his own breakfast before shifting position so he could tend the wound. There was only a little redness around the edges of the wound, and he added willowbark to the dressing. It was clear he knew what he was doing. Without his assistance, that wound would have left a nasty scar. “The road is about half a mile that way.” She gestured haphazardly. She frowned when she realized he was limping. “How are your feet?”
“The frostbite is fortunately minor.”
She reached out and caught his arm, and frowned at the marks the shackles had left on his wrists. “Wrap a dressing or something. Rather that not get worse.”
“As you wish.” He nodded before complying with her instructions.
“You can ride Aysi.” She nearly laughed at the expression on Fadekya’s face. “Roffe bites. Aysi doesn’t.”