Jendara dropped onto a fallen log and eyed her companion. "Are you ready to give up?"
The young man's ever-present grin widened. "Already? We haven't shot anything yet!"
Jendara sighed and scrubbed mud off of one jolly roger-tattooed hand. She'd grown tired of the stink of mud over the past two weeks. She was used to the sea, to sailing on the trading ship Milady, or hunting on the wind-battered island of Sorind that she had come to call her home. But she and Vorrin, the Milady's captain, had both agreed that this summer they'd look for new stops to add to their trade routes, and old friends in Trollheim had convinced them to sail upriver for good deals on garnets.
Lugh squatted down so he could meet her eye. The boy—young man, she corrected herself—was nearly as big as a bear, and almost as hairy. "You've got your cursing-the-locks face on."
She sighed again. "I just can't believe we're still waiting for the damn locks to be fixed. It's bad enough having to sail up a river. Being stuck out here in the mud is just ridiculous."
"What's ridiculous is that we didn't find any ducks." Lugh stood up, stretched, and looked around himself. "The villagers said this marsh is packed with ducks and geese, but we haven't even seen a blackbird."
Jendara stood up. At her feet, a small stream ran by, hurrying toward the wide marsh she and Lugh had trekked around. If she squinted, she could just make out the headland separating the marsh from the solid ground the village of Big Cascade stood upon. Vorrin and the rest of the crew were probably drinking in the village's pathetic excuse for a tavern by now.
She turned back to Lugh. He was a new friend, a passenger they'd taken on as a favor to his father, who ran a canvas mill in the capital city of the Ironbound Archipelago. The Milady had too many sails not to curry favor with a man like that, and besides, he'd paid them well. Lugh's family was enormously proud of the fact that Lugh and his twin brother had been selected for a year's service in the Blackravens, an elite border guard here on the mainland. The brother had gone ahead while Lugh had been delayed several months by a leg broken during the testing, and now he fairly vibrated with his eagerness to catch up. The youth's boisterous good spirits irritated Vorrin, but Jendara didn't mind. The boy was no great philosopher, it was true, but she enjoyed practicing her swordplay with someone who could laugh about it afterward.
"I don't like this place much," she admitted. "Everything feels damp and smells musty. The clouds look so heavy, I can feel them weighing down my shoulders."
Lugh clapped her on the back. "Let's get you back to the village. The food might be garbage, but the ale will cheer you up."
The ale wasn't much better than the food, but Jendara knew he was trying to bolster her spirits. She gathered up her bow and quiver and led them back toward the rutted logging road that followed the edge of the marsh. The mud sucked at their boots, and she swore under her breath the whole way. Lugh chuckled as he pushed back a branch of a young alder and held it aside for her to step out onto the road.
As she did, a pair of riders rounded the corner. She waved at them, a neighborly gesture, but neither the man nor the woman looked like they could be the neighbor of anyone in Big Cascade. The villagers earned their keep via the locks, and were as soft as people got in the Linnorm Kingdoms. These newcomers were anything but. A battered but polished halberd hung on side of the man's saddle, and the woman had a fine bow slung across her back, along with an array of blades. Neither spoke as they passed by.
"Beautiful horses, weren't they?" Lugh asked Jendara. He looked after them wistfully. As methods of transit went, Jendara would always choose a boat over a horse.
The woman turned around in her saddle, dark eyes wide. "Caul?"
Lugh beamed. "You know my brother?"
She laughed. "Merciful Desna! Caul said he had a twin, but I never expected you'd be his copy." She dismounted and stuck out her hand. "Irlu Icewine, tracker and Blackraven. Caul's assigned to our patrol! "
Lugh's shook her hand with an exuberance that threatened to take her arm off. Jendara stepped forward. "Jendara Eriksson. Pleased to meet one of the Blackravens."
Irlu gave her a quick glancing-over, her eyes pausing on Jendara's belt axe and sword, then smiled. With her dark hair and dark eyes, she didn't look like the natives of the region—she could almost pass for Tian. But her face was open and friendly, and her handshake firm. Several dark feathers had been woven into her hair. "Just doing my part to keep the witches of Irrisen and their accursed beasts out of the Linnorm Kingdoms. But any friend of Caul's is going to be a friend of mine. Grotnir!" she called to her companion. "Come down here and meet these fine folks!"
The other Blackraven dismounted to join them. "I see you've found Caul's twin," he said, his voice a low rumble. "Did you get held up on your journey to Blackraven Hall? We heard the locks were down."
"You guess correctly," Lugh answered. "We've been waiting two weeks for the repairs to finish. Jendara and I escaped the harbor to try our luck at duck hunting."
Irlu eyed their muddy clothes and empty game bags. "It looks like your luck failed you."
"It was oddly quiet out there." Jendara said.
The two Blackravens exchanged glances. Grotnir's lips tightened.
"Do you know something?" Jendara's hand went immediately to the axe in her belt. Anything that upset two experienced Blackravens was bad news.
Irlu's face darkened. "We've been tracking a white wolf that's already killed two of our patrol members, and injured another. Caul's with our hurt man, maybe twenty miles back; he took him to the nearest healer. We're headed to the logging camp up this hill, because one of the loggers reported a sighting."
"A white wolf?" Lugh's eyebrows knitted. "How could a wolf kill two Blackravens?"
Grotnir shook his head. "Not an ordinary wolf, son. A white wolf. Nothing natural about those. They're bigger, smarter—they can even talk."
"And they can breathe ice," Irlu added. "They use it to stun their prey."
"We think it's been through here before," Grotnir said. "Another patrol passed through this area a few months ago and dealt with a particularly vicious pair of white wolves. One got away."
"It wouldn't have if I'd been on that patrol," Irlu snapped. "Their tracker ought to be ashamed of himself."
"Are the white wolves a big problem in this area?" Jendara asked. There weren't any such creatures on Sorrind. She knew this part of the Linnorm Kingdoms had more than its share of dangerous creatures, but this beast was one she'd never encountered.
"They're nomadic," Grotnir said. "But they're bad news. If that logger really saw a white wolf, the people of Big Cascade don't even know the kind of trouble they're in."
Jendara cocked her head. "We've been standing here talking for a good ten minutes. That's long enough for most birds to stop worrying about a person's presence. Why haven't we heard any?"
Grotnir's eyes narrowed. "You're right."
"Help! Please, help!"
Lugh stared up the road. "What the—"
A woman raced down the hill toward them, her brown jacket streaked with blood. She tripped on a rock and fell hard. With a little cry, she jumped back to her feet and kept running. "Help!"
Lugh raced forward and caught the woman as she stumbled again. "Are you all right?"
She gasped for air. Blisters dappled the left side of her face and the skin was puffy and pink, as if she'd been splattered with hot oil. "Something attacked the camp," she managed to say, although it clearly hurt to talk.
Irlu balled her hands into fists. "The white wolf."
The woman's fingers went to her cheek. "Its breath burns, it's so cold."
Grotnir was digging in his saddlebags. He tossed Lugh a container. "Ointment. Help her." He caught Irlu's eye. "We've got to get to that camp."
"Most of us are still in the woods—it's just cooks and them's too sick to work today. I'm not sure they can hold it off much longer." The woman winced as Lugh slathered the cream on her face.
Irlu swung up onto her saddle. She looked unhappy. "Looks like we caught up with it after all."
"Finally." Grotnir smiled without humor. "No beast brings down a Blackraven and lives."
"We'll help!" Lugh said.
Irlu frowned. "You're not a Blackraven yet, boy."
"We can tend the wounded," Jendara said. "If you've got supplies."
"Me too," the logger added. The presence of four armed warriors seemed to have calmed her. "The beast took us by surprise, but with you four..." She began marching back up the hill toward camp, her mouth set tightly.
"The white wolf is probably gone already. They prefer sneak attacks to drawn battles. I'll go ahead." Irlu urged her horse into a quick trot and raced past the woman.
"I don't like this," Grotnir growled at Jendara. "I should send you back to Big Cascade for reinforcements."
"Let's take stock of the situation, and if need be, I'll head back to town and organize a hunting party," Jendara told him.
He rubbed his beard and gave her a measuring glance. At last he said, "Well enough. Irlu's right—the beast's probably disappeared already. Let's go."
The hill climbed sharply away from the marshes and lowlands of the Rimeflow River valley. The country here was rugged, all craggy hills and steep ravines. The dense evergreen forest crowded down to the edges of the logging road, a muddy track cut out of the woods, just wide enough for a horse-drawn skid. When the locks were up and running, the road was probably much busier. Lots of barges and small craft went up and down the Rimeflow, and the towns and cities of the Linnorm Kingdoms were hungry for quality timber. These trees, no matter how dark and ominous they might feel to Jendara at this moment, were worth a great deal.
The woman from the logging camp gave Jendara a sidelong glance. "You're no Blackraven."
"No," Jendara answered. "Just a sailor out for some hunting."
The woman put out her hand. "I'm Nola. Good meeting you."
Jendara shook on it. Nola gave her a smile, and fell silent, lost in her own thoughts. As Grotnir's horse pulled ahead of the three walkers, Jendara peered into the woods. The late morning sunlight that dappled the logging road ended at its edges. The forest beyond sat in twilight gloom.
A thin, piercing howl split the air. Nola went pale.
She broke into a run. Lugh tore after her.
Jendara walked faster, the hairs on her neck prickling. Everything felt wrong about this situation. The too-quiet forest, the attack on the logging camp, and now the wolf's triumphant call. She unslung her bow and pulled free an arrow.
The road went up one last switchback and then widened out into the logging camp, a cleared space filled with at least a dozen canvas-sided tent cabins. People darted from tent to tent. Someone screamed in pain. Over the top of it all, the panicked braying of mules added a cacophonous note.
Jendara stood on the edge of the madness, unsure where to go or how to even start to help. She couldn't see Irlu's horse or Grotnir's, and Lugh was nowhere to be seen.
The wolf's call resounded again, and the earth shook beneath Jendara's feet.
With a tremendous crashing noise, the stand of trees on the far side of camp burst into splinters as a boulder blasted through it. The massive stone bounced once, twice, and landed in the middle of the road, just inches from Jendara. Her heart lurched and she stumbled backward.
A club the size of a small tree smashed down on a tent at the edge of camp. Jendara stared at it.
"Hill giant!" someone screamed.
Somewhere nearby, the wolf howled again.
Want more Jendara?
Preorder Skinwalkers now!
Coming Next Week: A deadly hunt in Chapter Two of Wendy N. Wagner's "Winter's Wolves"!
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Skinwalkers and the web fiction story "Mother Bears," both starring Jendara. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Armored and The Way of the Wizard, and in many online magazines. Wendy lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, where she also teaches writing for youth. An avid gardener and board gamer, she can be found online at winniewoohoo.com.
Illustration by Ian Llanas