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A Dark Sacrifice
Voices of ice giants, thundering, tremendous, boomed in the distance.
Prince Kivik shivered and wrapped his patched green cloak more closely around him. The western sky had cleared, allowing the sun to shine out brightly, but a wicked, bitter wind blew down from higher peaks to the northeast. Gritting his teeth at the thought that this killing cold—unexpected, unseasonable—was likely to continue, he leaned across the pitted white stones of the parapet.
From his present vantage point, high on the outer walls, he could see a wide swath of snowy ground below the fortress and before the gates, where the enormous footprints of giants and the bearlike Varjolükka coming and going were pressed deep into the drifts. And even though he could not see them, he knew that a host of fierce white bears and blue-haired giants would be somewhere very near, patrolling the valley floor just beyond the range of his vision, or lurking in pinewoods along the valley walls, maintaining this siege that kept him and his men confined inside the ancient fortified city like rats in a trap.
Standing there with the wind lifting his light brown hair, King Ristil's son felt a familiar rage and frustration building inside of him. Before him lay the muddy chaos of the snowy fields, littered with the frozen bodies of men, horses, and things that were neither beasts nor men, behind him a vast landscape of towers, spires, parapets, balconies, peaked roofs, and cupolas, all arrayed in a glittering, improbable armor of ice.
Far in the distance, he spied a bright splash of color, green and gold, against thewhite glare of snow. For a moment he felt his spirits rise, thinking it might be some vanguard of his father's armies. But as they advanced, growing ever sharper and brighter, Kivik could just make out the indistinct forms of five—no, six men riding their horses at breakneck speed down the throat of the valley. He felt his hopes sink, a cold lump begin to form in the pit of his stomach. These were his own scouts, sent out many hours earlier under cover of darkness.
But what madness, he wondered, could have possessed them to return in broad daylight, when they risk being seen by the giants and the skinchangers? Then he saw what followed in pursuit: two of the Varjolükka, moving along at an incredible speed considering their ungainly, bearlike bodies, gradually narrowing the distance between them and the scouts.
Turning sharply on his heel, Kivik moved swiftly toward the stairs, meaning to alert the men who minded the gates. He had descended only two or three steps when a murmur of voices and a rattling of chains down in the gatehouse told him that the guards had seen everything, were already preparing to throw the gates open. Realizing he had no other help to offer, he returned to his vantage point by the parapet, to watch the race and shout encouragement at the riders.
As always, it disturbed him to see how the were-beasts moved: the way bones and muscles slid beneath the skin; the uncanny action of the limbs, apparently clumsy but deathly efficient, as if magic rather than sinew held everything together.
On came the men, their green cloaks whipping in the wind; on plunged the frantic, wild-eyed steeds, their flanksgleaming with sweat. Only when they drew near enough for Kivik to see foam flying off their bits did he realize that at least two of the horses were not so much running as running away, terrified to the point of madness by the proximity of the Varjolükka. It would not take much to spook them into throwing their riders.
"Hold on," he whispered around a hard knot in his throat. "Hold on!"
To his horror, a grey mare near the rear of the pack stumbled. By sheer force of will, it seemed, her rider just kept his seat, gripping with his knees while he fumbled for his sword. Before he could yank the blade more than halfway out of the scabbard the skinchangers were on him. Man and mare disappeared under a snarling pile of dirty white fur and bloody muzzles. The grey screamed once and then was silent.
Kivik spotted his cousin Skerry (the one dark head among so many shades of blond) twisting around in his saddle to see what was happening. He began to rein in, as if to go back and render assistance, but a glimpse of the carnage was enough to convince him it was already too late. Skerry gave his sorrel gelding its head, and the big red horse flew across the field. Not far behind, the bear-men left what remained of the scout and his mare in a tumbled, bloody heap and went lurching after him.
With a last desperate rush, Skerry and the others reached the gatehouse and disappeared inside, only moments before the iron gates slammed shut in the very teeth of the enraged Varjolükka. Rising up on their mighty hindquarters, the were-bears bayed their fury to the skies.
A short time later, just long enough to cool down thehorses and stable them in an alley of makeshift stalls in the outer bailey, the cousins met by the second gate.
"Another man lost," Skerry ground out between clenched teeth. With his red nose and wind-bitten ears, he looked every bit as chilly and miserable as Kivik felt.
The Prince nodded wearily. The tally of his dead grew longer and longer as the days went by. Twice he had gathered together some of his hardiest fighters and attempted a sortie out through the main gate; twice he and his men were beaten back. Though the numbers each time seemed to favor him, the axes and war hammers of the giants, the immense strength of the were-bears, somehow prevailed. He and his band of stalwarts had been forced to retreat back through the gate, staggering under the weight of wounded and nearly lifeless comrades they carried in with them. Reckoning up his losses now, he found them much too great to justify a third attempt.A Dark Sacrifice. Copyright ? by Madeline Howard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.