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A COLD WIND CHASED AFTER RIESE.
She drew her worn brown cloak, lined with faded remnants of imperial red, around her to keep out the chill. A pair of tinted brass goggles rested on her brow. She depended on her weathered leather tunic, wristbands, and trousers to protect her from the elements. The knife she kept strapped to her thigh provided protection of a different sort.
The wind blew her long dark hair across her dirty face. Years of hard living had not erased the somber beauty beneath the soot and grime, but few of her former admirers would have recognized the homeless wanderer she had become. Her slender frame was lean and taut, any unnecessary plumpness stripped away by privation. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a decent meal, let alone a warm bath. It was only fall, but already the wind had a bite to it. She was not looking forward to another rough winter in the open.
She trod wearily through a bleak autumnal wilderness; her scuffed black boots were worn thin in places. She hiked beneath skeletal oaks and beeches that offered little in the way of cover or concealment. Fallen leaves crackled beneath her soles. The leaves were hidden by a clammy gray miasma that clung to the ground, while clotted black clouds obscured the sun. The air, which reeked of smoke and chemicals, stung her eyes. She lowered her goggles.
They helped a little.
The desolate terrain and acrid fumes depressed her. Geffion had once been a green and fertile realm, known throughout Eleysia for its thriving fields and farmlands, but that had been a long time ago. She paused atop a secluded rise to gaze down upon the remote valley below. Billowing black fumes belched from the smokestacks of ugly factories and sweatshops. Barren hillsides, stripped clean of timber, bore the scars of brutal mining operations. A handful of crude hovels clung stubbornly to the sides of the pillaged hills amidst squat wooden dormitories that had been erected to house the factories’ impoverished laborers. A steam whistle announced the end of one shift and the beginning of another. Streams of downtrodden men, women, and children trudged joylessly past one another on their way to and from work. Some of the children looked like they were barely old enough to walk.
Riese watched from behind the trunk of a withered elm. A sooty film coated the bark, leaving it greasy to the touch. Despite the raw weather she was not at all tempted by the promise of shelter. Rather, she had gone out of her way to steer clear of the settlement below.
She had no desire to end up as forced labor.
A wolf growled nearby.
“Don’t worry,” she assured Fenrir. “We’re not going anywhere near that pit.”
The great gray wolf padded at her side, his head level with her hip. She scratched him between the ears, just the way he liked it. His dark ears and ruff were almost black compared to the rest of his fur. She took comfort from the wolf’s presence. He had been her only companion for longer than she cared to remember.
A second growl, this time from her stomach, urged her to make camp for the night. She glanced to the west, where the sun was only beginning to sink below the horizon. Smog tainted the sunset, creating lurid purples and oranges. Night was falling earlier and earlier these days, but she judged that she still had light enough to travel by, at least for a little while longer. Perhaps she should put more distance between herself and the dismal factories.
Then again, she was cold and hungry. A warm fire and a bite to eat were tempting. She could always continue on in the morning. What did a few extra miles tonight matter anyway? It wasn’t as though she had anyplace to go. . . .
“All right. That’s enough for today.”
She turned away from the rise and the oppressive vista it offered and gathered enough fallen branches and kindling to make a small campfire. With any luck the smoke from the blaze would be lost amidst the noxious effusions from the valley. She removed her goggles and tried to focus the fading sunlight through the lenses to light the kindling. Doing so would spare her flint, which was ground to a nub. At first she feared the polluted sky was too overcast, but then the clouds parted momentarily. She thanked her ancestors as she swiftly captured a feeble sunbeam and directed it onto a single crisp brown leaf, which blackened and smoked before igniting into a tiny orange spark. She blew gently on the spark, fanning the ember into a flame that spread quickly to the surrounding twigs and branches. Within moments a small fire glowed within a shallow pit. She warmed her palms over the blaze. Fenrir settled down beside her.
A brown leather belt was slung low about her waist. The pouches on the belt were not nearly as full as she would have liked. She fished through them to find only a few tough strips of smoked squirrel and a single stale biscuit she had bartered for several days ago. Her canteen was nearly empty too, which did not make chewing the dry, gristly jerky any easier. She would have killed for a cup of hot tea, or maybe even a skin of wine.
Wine . . .
Once, she had sipped the finest vintages from a crystal goblet. A servant would have refilled her cup before she even knew it was empty. Now she’d settle for the dregs of any old bottle.
A weary sigh escaped her lips, along with a muttered profanity. Fenrir could fend for himself, of course, and necessity had made her a skilled hunter as well, but there was no denying that her provisions were running low, as was her purse. She would probably have to risk visiting some small trading post soon, if only to get a new flint. Preferably some insignificant hamlet far beneath the Empire’s notice, where she could come and go unnoticed.
She had spent years being no one. She hoped to keep it that way.
“Feel free to go bag yourself a plump hare,” she told Fenrir. “You don’t need to keep me company.”
The wolf remained by the fire.
A girlish scream startled Riese. She sprang to her feet, her hand going instinctively to the hilt of her knife. Fenrir instantly went on alert as well. His hackles rose and his lips peeled back to expose his fangs.
She heard racing footsteps pounding through the woods, growing louder by the moment. Riese threw dirt onto the fire, extinguishing it, and stomped out the embers with her boots. She drew the hood of her cloak over her head and retreated into the shadows of the surrounding trees. The lenses of her goggles had been finely crafted to amplify the dying light, allowing her to see in the dark. Fenrir stuck to her side.
The disturbance, whatever it was, grew nearer. She hesitated, torn between investigating and slipping away in the opposite direction. The latter was undoubtedly the smarter course of action, yet she could hardly ignore the naked fear and distress in that scream. Someone was obviously in trouble . . . and perhaps running for his or her life.
She knew the feeling.
“I’m going to regret this,” she muttered before heading cautiously toward the commotion. Fenrir whined unhappily but did not attempt to steer her another way. They clung to the shadows as they stalked through the forest. Stealth was second nature to them both now. There was no point in showing themselves until they knew precisely what they were getting into. Perhaps they wouldn’t need to get involved.
We should be so lucky, she thought wryly.
The footsteps seemed to be heading toward a small glade nestled between the surrounding woods. Riese and Fenrir crouched down behind a moss-covered log that offered a discreet view of the clearing. She kept her head down. “Quiet now,” she hushed the wolf, probably unnecessarily. Fenrir knew when to be still.
They did not have long to wait. The source of the ruckus soon dashed into view—a young girl, ill dressed for the weather. Her dress of coarse brown wool looked stitched together from rags. A fraying shawl, on the verge of unraveling, clung to her shoulders, while her hair had been cut short so that only light blond stubble covered her scalp. She was breathing hard, and kept glancing back over her shoulder. She ran as though pursued by her worst nightmare. Her smudged, dirty face was a portrait in terror, as she watched anxiously for . . .
A trio of menacing figures pursued the girl. Their heavy overcoats of dark oil cloth provided far more protection than the threadbare garments worn by the pursuers’ frantic prey. The men’s faces were obscured by wide-brimmed hats and woolen mufflers. The men stomped through the bush and bracken, wearing gloves and heavy boots. They gripped cudgels, hatchets, and a net of knotted rope.
Fenrir bristled beside Riese. Her expression darkened as well. They both recognized the newcomers at once.
The ruthless mercenaries served the Sect, a fanatical religious order whose influence had transformed Eleysia into a place Riese barely recognized anymore. Her blood boiled at the sight of the Huntsmen. She had good reason to hate the Sect and all its minions.
“No!” the girl gasped as the Huntsmen closed in on her. Frantic to get away, she tripped over a root and fell onto the ground. She tried to scramble to her feet, but wasn’t fast enough. The Huntsmen threw the net over her, entangling her. “No, please!” she shrieked. “Let me go! Don’t take me back!”
The men ignored her pleas. Moving silently and efficiently, as though they had done this many times before, they drew the net tight. She flailed wildly but succeeded only in snaring herself further. She clawed at the ground, trying to find something to hold on to, to keep from being dragged away. But she could not dig her way to freedom.
“Let me go! I can’t go back there! I can’t!”
Riese could not turn away. The Huntsmen outnumbered her, and she knew better than most how dangerous they could be, but she had never been one to turn from a fight. The desperate fugitive reminded her of another girl, many years ago . . .
Despite the chill, Riese quietly shed her cloak. Experience had taught her that the cumbersome cape only got in the way in a fight. She tied back her hair and drew her knife. Its edge reflected the fading light.
It had tasted Huntsmen blood before.
Intent on their victim, the Huntsmen did not hear her approach until she seized the nearest mercenary from behind and yanked his head back, exposing his throat. She expertly drove her knife beneath his scarf and slashed across his jugular. Blood spurted from the wound. It steamed as it met the cold air.
The man died as wordlessly as he had stalked the girl. Only a muffled gurgle conveyed his final regrets, whatever they might have been. He stiffened in shock, then dropped limply to the ground. A studded metal club slipped from his fingers.
Riese kicked it away.
She did not mourn the Huntsman’s passing. His kind had inflicted too much harm on her and hers, as well as the whole of Eleysia, to expect any mercy at her hands. No amount of retribution could ever balance the scales as far as she was concerned. Nor, she suspected, would anyone ever miss such a creature. Had there been time enough, she might have spit on his corpse. At the moment, however, there were still two more Huntsmen to deal with.
She had struck so swiftly and stealthily that her victim was cooling at her feet before his fellows even realized they were under attack. Startled by the sound of his body hitting the ground, they spun mutely around to confront her. No threats or angry curses escaped their scarf-swaddled lips. The one on the right gripped a hatchet, while his partner let go of the net and drew a small handheld scythe from his belt. The curved blade of the scythe resembled a crescent moon.
Riese stood over the lifeless body of their comrade, whose spilled blood glistened wetly on her knife. She beckoned them with her free hand, keeping their attention on her long enough for a sleek gray shadow to lunge from the woods. Fenrir slammed the Huntsman on the right to the ground. The wolf clamped his powerful jaws on the man’s arm, and the hatchet flew from his fingers. The Huntsman thrashed beneath Fenrir, frantically trying to defend himself, even as the wolf snapped and snarled at him. Lupine fangs and claws tore through his heavy leather gear. His hat spilled from his head, revealing greasy black hair. Bloodshot eyes bulged in fear.
Good boy, Riese thought.
The remaining Huntsman attempted to come to the other’s defense. Raising his scythe, he charged toward Fenrir, but Riese had other ideas. She snatched a rock from the ground and hurled it at the Huntsman, barely missing his head. The missile caught his attention, and she sprinted between him and Fenrir. She brandished her bloody dagger.
“Don’t forget about me.”
The Huntsman accepted her challenge. Abandoning his comrade for the moment, he turned his efforts to subduing their original attacker. They circled each other warily, looking for an advantage. She knew better than to underestimate his skill and experience. She had fought his ilk before.
Stay cool, she reminded herself. Don’t let anger make you careless.
She did not bother taunting him or trying to negotiate a truce. Huntsmen were driven only by greed and a perverse pleasure in stalking human prey. Before the rise of the Empire, they had been the scum of the kingdom, mere cutthroats for hire. But now that the Sect had bought their loyalty, they had free rein throughout the land. There was no point in wasting words with these men. They would claim their bounty or die trying.
Works for me, she thought.
Hers was a stabbing weapon, while the Huntsman’s scythe was made for slicing. She kept a close eye on it while searching for an opening. His hard, flinty eyes offered little hint of his intentions, so she was almost caught off guard when he suddenly darted forward, swinging the scythe at her skull. She ducked beneath the blow, which whistled above her head, and drove the point of her knife into his gut.
Tedious evenings spent honing the blade paid off as it sliced through the man’s heavy clothing to the tender flesh beneath. She twisted the knife to inflict the most harm. A soft tearing sensation rewarded her efforts.
He grunted through his woolen muffler but did not immediately fall. He kneed her in the chin, and she tumbled backward onto the hard earth. Her knife came away with her, still clutched in her grip. The blow left her dazed and blurry. She tasted blood on her lips.
Where was Fenrir? Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed him a few yards away, still grappling with the second Huntsman, who was also proving stubbornly hard to kill. The wolf snarled furiously, no doubt scaring away every rabbit or deer for miles around. Fenrir had his own scores to settle with the Sect.
The wounded Huntsmen lurched toward her, clutching his stomach. Dark venous blood seeped through his fingers, while his other hand raised the scythe high. It swung down at her.
A warrior’s reflexes came to her rescue. Shaking off her grogginess, she rolled out of the way of the descending crescent, which sank into the earth exactly where her head had been only heartbeats before. Lying on her back, she kicked out at her assailant, driving the heel of her boot into the very knee that had collided with her chin before. The Huntsman lost his balance and toppled backward, leaving the scythe wedged in the dirt.
He hit the ground hard and did not get back up.
Gasping, she climbed awkwardly to her feet. Chances were that the gutted Huntsman would not rise again, but she needed to be certain. She spat a mouthful of blood onto the forest floor and wrested the discarded scythe from the earth. The prospect of finishing off the Huntsman with his own weapon appealed to her. Why waste her own blade on the task?
She staggered toward the fallen man. With the light fading she couldn’t tell if he was already dead or not. Maybe she wouldn’t need to deliver a final blow.
“Watch out!” The girl’s voice startled her. “Behind you!”
Riese spun around to see a fourth Huntsman charging out of the woods, bearing a hatchet. She hurled the scythe at the straggler. The crescent blade sank into his chest, eliciting an agonized grunt, but did not halt his momentum. He kept on coming, his axe held high. Riese readied her knife.
Fenrir spared her another duel to the death. The wolf pounced on the newcomer, who went down in a flurry of teeth and claws as Fenrir ripped the life from him.
Riese let out a sigh of relief. That had been a close call. She turned toward the girl, whose warning had come just in time. “Thanks for that.”
Silence fell over the glade. She waited tensely to see if there were more foes to contend with, but it appeared the battle was over, at least for the moment. Huntsmen littered the ground. Riese checked to make sure they were all dead. Judging from the shredded remains of Fenrir’s first victim, the wolf would not need to feed on a hare or squirrel tonight.
Confident that the men had joined their ignoble ancestors, Riese cut the girl free from the net and helped her to her feet. “Is that all?” she asked urgently. “Are there any more?”
“I don’t know. . . . I’m not sure.” Confused, she stared at Riese with wide blue eyes. “Who are you?”
“Later,” Riese said curtly. She had questions of her own, but the three survivors needed to keep moving, just in case there were more stragglers. Taking a moment to catch her breath, she contemplated the gory scene. She and Fenrir had fared well against the Huntsmen, but she was not inclined to tempt fate. “Can you still run?”
The girl tested her limbs. “I think so.”
“Good.” Riese took the girl’s arm. “You’re going to need to.”
So much for a quiet night by the fire. Along with Fenrir, she and the girl left the glade and the dead Huntsmen behind. The rush of battle still heated Riese’s veins as they ran through the darkening forest. She wanted to get far away from here.
“I don’t understand,” the girl said. “Why are you helping me?”
Riese wasn’t sure how to explain.
“I was your age once. . . .”