In Skinwalkers, Wendy N. Wagner returns to chronicle the further adventures of Jendara, who was first introduced in the web fiction story "Mother Bears." As a young woman, Jendara left the cold northern isles of the Ironbound Archipelago for fame and fortune on a pirate ship, only to return home to find her family slain by raiders. Now, many years later, she's forsaken her buccaneer ways and sails the islands in search of a simpler life, hoping to raise her young son in peace. When a strange clan of shapeshifters begins pillaging the islands, however, the past comes crashing back, and there's no choice for Jendara but to take up her axe and help the islanders defend all that they hold dear...
The thwack of wood against wood jolted Jendara awake. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the sound reverberated throughout her whole head.
"I shouldn't have had so much of that lingonberry wine," she grumbled.
Wood cracked outside again. Jendara pushed back the furs and swung her feet over the side of her bed. She padded out into the hallway. Kran's door was open and his bed stood empty, his clothes missing from their hooks.
She sighed. He'd avoided her all day yesterday, and skipped the going-away feast. She shrugged on her sheepskin coat and trudged into the main room of the cottage.
But he wasn't to be seen. His latest woodworking project sat on the plank table, the tools neatly in their case. A half-eaten slice of bread sat beside it. Jendara reached for her sword belt, hanging by the door, and buckled it on.
"Kran?" She opened the door. A swath of mist swallowed up the rest of the village. It cast a wintry pall over the summer morning, and Morul's house, just a few hundred feet away, was so shrouded in fog that it may well have been on the other side of the world. Fog was common here in the islands, but she never enjoyed the otherworldly cast it spread across the landscape, or the clamminess it left on everything.
With a sigh, she stepped out into the damp morning. Her toe squished on something wet and ropy on the doorstep, and she whipped her bare foot back.
It was the neck cord for Kran's slate. If the boy had taken it off, it was a sure sign he didn't want to talk.
Jendara's lips compressed. She didn't have the luxury of waiting around to settle this. In a few hours, the tide would change and she and the crew of the Milady would take their last trip to the mainland before winter's snow and ice hit. The thud resounded again, and she followed the sound to the back of the house.
She rounded the corner of the little cottage and saw Kran's shape, the woad-blue sweater and shaggy black hair. He stood just past the wood-chopping block, his attention on a stick of firewood balanced on top of a fence post. His pants, she realized, cleared the top of his boots by a good half an inch. He was going to be tall, like his father. Like her father. The boy was made up of the best of both sides of his family.
She didn't know where the muteness came from. When he'd been littler, she thought it was something she'd done wrong before he'd been born. Maybe she should have made offerings to other gods beside Besmara, dark l0ady of pirates. Maybe she should have stayed on land instead of climbing so much rigging. But she'd never found a real reason for Kran's inability to speak, and she had to admit that as he'd gotten older, it didn't seem to matter much to the boy.
Kran wound up his sling and lobbed a shot at the firewood. It hit dead center and launched the wood far out into the mist.
Kran spun around. His face, for one instant bright with his own success, went dark. He spiked two fingers toward his eyes, then pointed out over the fence line. The gesture spoke for itself: See?
"I saw. You've got a nice release." She held out her hand. "Can I take a look at your shot?"
He reached in his coat pocket and held out a handful of wooden marbles. She rolled one between her fingers. It was smooth and heavier than it looked.
"You carved these?"
"Makes a world of difference, using shot that all weighs the same. Can really improve your aim." She tossed the marble in the air. "May I keep this? I need a good shooter if we play marbles on the ship."
He tapped his full belt pouch, suggesting he had plenty more.
"You still practice with rocks at all?"
He shrugged a shoulder.
"You should. What if you run out of shot while you're out hunting? Be sad to miss out on a really good snowshoe hare just because you forgot how to adjust for the weight of an off-balance stone."
At the word "hunting," his face crunched into a scowl. He reached for his chalk and board and made an exasperated sound when he realized he'd left it behind.
Jendara took a seat on an old driftwood log and patted the spot beside her. Kran didn't sit. "Look, I'm sorry I didn't take you hunting yesterday. I was afraid. Boars are trouble. I've heard of too many things going wrong on a boar hunt."
Kran was quick to tap his ear, then raise his eyebrow and point at his eye. He didn't know much of the sign language other mutes used, but he was good at finding his own ways to communicate.
"That's true: I've only ever heard stories, I haven't seen anything. But I know a man whose uncle—" She broke off, suddenly reminded of Yul's ridiculous story about the skinwalker. "Look, Morul's dog was almost killed yesterday. Hunting is dangerous."
Kran shook his pointer finger at her and then crossed his arms. He must have picked the gesture up from Yul over the last few summers spent ashore. She wondered, not for the first time, if perhaps she should have insisted the boy accompany her on trading journeys. He was the son of two sailors. He should practice his seamanship.
She reminded herself to focus on the problem at hand. Her son was angry. She had only a few hours before the tide turned and she set out on a two-month-long journey. She rubbed her head and wished it would stop aching.
She switched tactics. "You're going to be eleven in spring. That's pretty grown up." Really grown up. At age eleven, she'd gone with her father on her first raid, sailing to the mainland and stealing five sheep and a gallon of Chelish brandy. He'd let her drink it, too.
The boy kept his eyes on her face, his own expression guardedly neutral.
"If you can show me that you're ready for hunting big game, then I'll take you hunting with me. Maybe moose, down on Flintyreach. They're dangerous, but you haven't lived until you've made your own moose jerky."
He tapped his belt, beside his belt knife. She knew just what he meant.
"Yes, you'll get to take your own weapons. I'll even make you your own hunting spear. A good ash one, like my father made me."
Kran frowned and made a gesture with his hand like a half-closed fist, the thumb lifted. Jendara cocked her head, mimicking him. He repeated the gesture, raising the fist to eye level and giving it a little snap. She stopped in the middle of raising her own.
"No." She shook her head, even though it hurt. "My father didn't give me my belt axe. I took his when he died. To remember him."
Kran stepped over the scraps of wood and put his arms around her. She leaned her head against his. He normally considered himself too mature for babyish hugging.
He released her and beckoned toward the house. She got up off the log and paused a moment to brush wood chips off herself. Beyond her own small garden space, kept tended by Kran and Leyla, the fog was lifting. She could see all the way out to the harbor now, although the view was hazy. The Milady's yellow-and-blue pennant already waved. She smiled a little. She'd bet a gold coin Glayn had raised it before the sun had even reached the horizon. The oldest member of the crew, the gnome loved the Milady as much as she did.
She scanned the path leading up to the village. A familiar figure was approaching, the ridiculous peacock feather in his felt cap bobbing along. Vorrin, of course. That must mean the Milady was ready to set sail.
Jendara waved at Vorrin. She was happy to see him, even if she wasn't ready to leave Kran just yet. But she knew a good way to buy a few more minutes with her boy. "Kran!" she called. "How would you like pancakes for breakfast?"
"Pancakes?" Vorrin asked. "You know I can't resist pancakes." He gave Kran a friendly punch in the shoulder.
The boy punched him back with a grin. Vorrin slung his arm around Kran's shoulder. "You sure you don't want to go with us? We're going to swing south a bit to meet Boruc—he's Morul and Yul's brother, and some kind of hermit-artist-genius. He lives in a mine."
"A quarry," Jendara corrected. She stooped to gather up Kran's slate and pass it to him. "I guess he lives in Averaka most of the year, but in the summer, the quarry reopens and he goes out to get first dibs on the best stone. Yul says all Boruc does is carve rock, drink mead, and chase wo—" She eyed her son. "Chase parties," she corrected herself. "He likes to have a lot of fun."
"Maybe we're glad you're not going," Vorrin said. "Boruc doesn't sound like a very good influence."
Kran rolled his eyes. Boats are boring, and so are statues, he wrote.
Jendara ruffled his hair. "I love you, Kran."
You, too, he wrote. Pancakes???
Vorrin laughed. "It's good to know the lad's mind is in the right place."
∗ ∗ ∗
Flintyreach, one of the largest islands in the Ironbound Archipelago, lived up to its name. Off the Milady's bow, the gray rock of the island's bones stretched down to the water, no softness of soil or grass to invite a sailor off her boat. A few stunted shrubs sprang up out of the cracks in the rock. But although these plants were small, Jendara felt certain she'd never seen any such a happy green. The people of the islands were like that: a hardscrabble lot, quick to fight, but quicker to reach for the mead. Every day was a celebration when you worked so hard to survive.
"I can't see why Yul's brother wants to live in a place like this," Vorrin said, leaning his elbows on the deck railing beside her.
She reached into her pouch for a bundle of leftover pancakes and passed him one. "Boruc's a stoneworker."
"He could go anywhere to find stone." Vorrin waved at the gray expanse. "There aren't even trees here."
Jendara pointed to the south, where greenery climbed up the steep flanks of Flintyreach's inner hills. "The beaches look harsh, but most of Flintyreach is forested. Unfortunately, the interior is also infested with trolls, giants, and ettins. The folk down in the villages organize hunting parties, but it's still dangerous. People stay close to the sea here. It's safer."
The Milady began to swing around, preparing for its approach to the docks. In a few minutes, the ship was tied up and the twelve-man crew ready to explore the little fishing village of Alstone—or at least, its tavern. Vorrin consulted with Tam, the big blond first mate who'd grown up on Flintyreach, and then met Jendara at the edge of town, where a little cart road ran off toward Alstone Quarry.
"Tam says he and the crew will pick up our other trade goods, so there's no rush to get back to town." He eyed the sun, about three fingers above the horizon. "But let's try to be back by nightfall."
Jendara nodded. Morul claimed there hadn't been any major problems with giants or trolls in this part of Flintyreach lately, but she didn't want to risk a run-in. Wild animals were bad enough, but giants...Jendara could definitely live without running into any of them.
As the cart road snaked away from the shoreline, the scrubby trees grew taller and the undergrowth thicker. Still, the place didn't feel anything like Sorind, the island she'd just left behind. The trees here had grayer bark and twisted limbs. They did little to soften the wind coming off the ocean.
Jendara glanced over at Vorrin. He had gone quiet, his teeth working the edge of his mustache like he did when he was worried. She watched him a minute longer.
"All right, what's bothering you?"
"Nothing. It's just getting awfully late in the season."
"It'll be fine," she said. "Sure, we've had a busy summer and it's kept us moving more than usual. Maybe we're a few weeks behind, but it's no big deal. And you've been wanting more variety in our trade goods. Boruc's carvings might be just the moneymaker you've been looking for."
He sighed. "I understand the logic, but that doesn't make me any more comfortable. We playing it close this trip, Dara. You and I both know summer fades fast out here."
She gave him a particularly winsome smile, one that rarely failed to soften him. "This is our last stop before we leave for Varisia. We'll be fine."
"It's going to make for a hard trip back to Sorind, and you know it. That's why you've been so awkward with Kran. Because you're worried."
"I'm not worried, and I haven't been awkward." She paused, her eyes scanning the brush. "Did you hear something?"
Vorrin shook his head. "No. It's perfectly quiet."
"Now it is. But just now, I thought..." Jendara trailed off. She sniffed at the air, but smelled only smoke and the faint scent of roasted meat. "We must be getting close to the quarry."
"I hope Boruc's work is as good as Yul claims it is. Our shipment this fall is too ordinary. Too many furs and wines, not enough ivory. If we could get some walrus—"
Jendara cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Hush." She listened for a long moment, head cocked. "Don't you think it's too quiet?"
He didn't answer. There were no birds calling, no squirrels rustling the branches. Jendara broke into a run. Vorrin hurried after her.
The road tilted downhill. A few ruts showed where carts loaded with rock must have dug into the surface, and Jendara avoided them, glad it hadn't rained lately. The smell of smoke intensified, as did the heavy smell of roasted meat.
Vorrin grabbed her shoulder. "Wait."
"It's a long time till dinner. Why would anyone be cooking right now?" He shook his head. "Something feels wrong."
"We should be careful." Jendara moved closer to the edge of the road, ready to dive into cover at any moment. She crept forward.
A crow exploded from the bush in front of her, its scream launching her backward. She fell onto her backside and pushed herself away. The crow rose up, cawing once, twice as it cleared the treetops.
Vorrin helped her to her feet. "You okay?"
They moved forward again. The cart road turned a sharp corner. Jendara and Vorrin stopped, staring down at the encampment at the edge of the quarry. Nothing moved.
"It's too quiet," Jendara murmured.
"Jendara," Vorrin whispered. He pointed.
Beside a cart, a man stood awkwardly, head hung low, arms behind him, legs too straight. It took her a minute to make sense of the strangeness of his pose, to see the stake running through him, lifting his feet inches off the ground. To see the black puddle beneath, clotted with flies.
A crow settled on his shoulder and nipped at his cheek.
Even as she ran, she knew it was stupid, knew it couldn't change anything. But she couldn't just watch the bird eat his face. Her sword jumped into her hand.
The bird fluttered aloft, but the sword was already swinging, already biting into its neck. For a second, the crow hung in the air, eyes fixed on her face. Then its head soared out over the brink of the quarry. Its body fell to her feet.
"Damn it, Jenny!" Vorrin spun her around by the elbow.
"Don't call me Jenny." She shook him off and began pacing, too upset to hold still. "I've seen this before."
"We need to scout out the camp," Vorrin said, keeping his voice low. "We need to know if there are any survivors."
"Or worse, any attackers." She took a deep breath, regaining a little control. "You're right, we need to go through the whole place."
"Do a quick perimeter check. I'll head west, you go east. And don't take any chances." He reached out for her, brushed his fingers against her cheek. "I don't like this."
"Me neither," she whispered, but she was already turning away from him. She still couldn't hear any sounds save for her own footsteps crunching the gravel underfoot. That was bad.
She sank into her hunter's crouch and approached the nearest building, the largest around. The presence of a tin stovepipe suggested it might be the kitchen and mess hall for the quarry workers. Jendara pressed her ear to the wall and listened hard. Still quiet, save for a faint drip-drip-dripping. She wished she could look through the window, but the shutters were closed.
Jendara's fingers trembled as she reached for the doorknob.
She snapped open the door and almost staggered backward at the overpowering stench of blood and offal. The kitchen looked like a scene from a nightmare. Bloody handprints covered the counters. Flies buzzed over raw-looking heaps that she didn't want to name, and blood slicked the floor. Jendara swallowed hard and took a step inside.
"Is there anyone here?"
She didn't know why she called out, except in the faint hope that someone hiding might hear her and come out to explain that this was all a joke, this was all animal blood, those weren't human intestines curled around that sack of onions, there was nothing horrible in the big pot sitting on the stove. She kept her grip on her sword, but her knees wobbled a little as she picked her way across the room. She had to look. Had to know. She peered over the lip of the pot.
It was empty.
Jendara sagged. She had expected...she shook her head. Silly perhaps. Whatever happened here, it must have happened fast, and whoever did it hadn't stopped to cook. They weren't that civilized. She knew they weren't that civilized.
After all, she'd seen this before.
She shook her head and pushed forward.
A door opened up into the dining hall, and she stepped out into the space. The dripping was louder here. With only a few windows, the big room was almost too dark to see into, but she saw enough. Something squelched under her boot as she crossed to the nearest table and righted a bottle of milk. The puddle on the table kept dripping, a soft slow pattering onto the tin mug lying on its side on the floor.
The door burst open. Sunlight poured in, lighting up a long sweep of blood leading outside. Vorrin stopped in the doorframe. He took in the empty room. "I see you forgot we were just circling the perimeter. Any survivors in here?"
Any survivors. Such a flat way to say the worst. She shook her head. "It's empty. Just blood and parts."
The dripping stopped.
"This must have just happened," she realized. "A lot of this blood is still wet. And the milk bottle couldn't have been knocked over more than a few minutes ago."
"We must have scared someone away. A looter, maybe. From what I saw, I think most of this was done longer ago. Maybe this morning."
"Most of what?" Her voice sounded faint even to her own ears. An attack at dawn. That was what happened on Crow's Nest, her father's island. Her sister's island. She thought of the man tied to the stake and felt sure it was no coincidence. She stiffened her shoulders. "Show me."
They stayed silent as Vorrin led her around the side of the nearest building, passing by a clothesline with a few limp garments hanging in the still air. An open door showed a basket of dirty shirts and a washtub. Ordinary items in an ordinary washhouse.
They rounded the corner. A heap of bodies lay ahead, a raw mound of broken and bloody dead.
"Gods," she breathed. "That has to be eighteen or twenty men."
Vorrin circled around the pile. "Some of these bodies don't look...whole."
He waved her over. Jendara knelt to look at a body on the bottom of the stack. She was glad she couldn't see his face; only his feet and legs stuck out—or more aptly, his mutilated legs and foot. Jendara's stomach twisted. "Is it just me, or do his legs look like the meat's been cut off in strips?"
"I don't want to think about it." He pointed to the remains of a small campfire. "Someone definitely built a fire here, like they stayed a few hours."
Jendara stooped to hold her hand above the ashes. She nudged a flat rock in the center. "Still warm, and if I had to guess, I'd say those were grease stains on this stone."
Vorrin blanched. "I don't want to think about it," he repeated. He pressed his fist to his mouth, skin pale.
Jendara felt her own gorge rise, but swallowed hard. "We should check out the rest of the camp."
She moved to the next building, a woodshed. Jendara freed her sword to circle it. Behind her, Vorrin moved quietly, only the occasional crunch of gravel giving away his movement. There was no blood in the woodshed.
Jendara steeled herself to walk past the mound of dead again, but Vorrin caught her eye. He tapped his ear and nodded toward the gaping pit of the quarry.
She listened. She heard nothing at first, but then caught a small sound: a scrape of leather against stone. "Do you think it's our milk spiller?" she whispered.
He nodded. They crept toward the cart road. As they passed behind the washhouse, Jendara felt a momentary gratitude that its bulk hid the grisly mound, a feeling which passed all too quickly was the tiny sound of a foot crushing gravel caught her ear. There really was someone down there. She wondered how deep the quarry went and tightened her grip on her sword.
The cart road led to the rim of the quarry—a deep stony bowl cut out of the hillside. It stretched a good quarter of a mile across. Jendara peered over the edge. The narrow track continued down into the rocks, following the curve of the walls. For the first hundred yards or so, mounds of yellow sandstone lay piled up on the shoulders of the road. Trees and brush obscured the turn beyond. Jendara leaned out farther. The bottom of the quarry looked empty, the flat expanse of sea-green stone like a placid lake.
Jendara turned back to Vorrin. "Whoever went down there, they haven't reached the bottom yet."
He glanced over the edge. "I don't like that descent. It's too easy to rig an ambush on a road like this."
Jendara laid her hand on his arm. "If the person we're chasing is dangerous. This could be a survivor, scared out of their mind after what they saw back there. Or it could be a witness, some woodsman who just walked into a nightmare. No matter who they are, I want to talk to them."
"Let me go down."
"No. I'm a local, they're more likely to trust me." Jendara pointed to the far side of the quarry. "I think you'd better follow the top of this cliff around to the far side. The ground's rough, but I think that looks like a footpath leading out of the quarry, don't you?"
Vorrin squinted a moment. "I see it. Good plan." He gave her a sharp look. "You'll be careful, right? You're not running down there with your sword half-out just because of what you saw back there?"
Jendara began walking down the steep path without sparing him a backward look. "I know I'm doing, Vorrin. Just watch the trail."
As she went, she studied the path ahead for clues. There was no way to make out tracks on gravel this heavily traveled, but blood would stand out. No way to kill that many people without getting bloody. And it was hard not to leave tiny signs of passage that a good set of eyes might pick up: with every step, a person shed spoor like hairs and threads and fragments of the foods they ate.
She paused to listen for other footsteps. The quarry was silent. Jendara took a few steps forward, focusing on the sound of the gravel beneath her boots. She knew how to step lightly, but the tiny stones made a certain amount of noise no matter what. She paused again. There. That might have been the rustle of a foot passing over pea gravel.
She resisted the urge to run toward the sound. It would be all too easy to think of those bodies piled up by the wash house and let hot rage whip her into a run, but she pushed the anger aside. If she ran toward a survivor, it would only further terrify the poor man or woman. And if it was a killer, well, it would still be just as easy to die by falling to the bottom of this pit as it would be to get jumped by a slavering cannibal.
Cannibalism. Just the thought of it sickened her. The only cannibals she'd ever heard of were the Kalvamen, those reclusive island dwellers far to the north. Few risked the trip to Kalva to see the massive barbarians with their milk-white eyes and sickening eating habits, and no Kalvamen had raided the islands in generations. Morul and Yul weren't the only ones who thought the Kalvamen were nothing to fear. If asked, most islanders would agree that the people of Kalva were too deranged and inbred to manage a sea crossing.
Maybe they should be more afraid, Jendara thought. After she'd returned home that day to find her father dead and her sister missing, she had taken to her ship and scouted the island of Kalva from the sea. It was true she had seen no sign of ships large enough to travel the ferocious seas between Kalva and the Ironbound Archipelago, but it was also true that plenty of islanders had sailed remarkable distances in small raiding vessels. She had never discounted the Kalvamen just for lack of seafaring ability.
She tripped on a stone jutting out of the worn path, and at the last second caught herself on a massive boulder. She clung to it a moment, trying to catch her breath. She needed to pay better attention if she didn't want to kill herself.
A few feet beyond her, someone had cleared away the piles of fallen rock and brush, and she could clearly see the bottom of the quarry. The current work zone stood out from the rest of the rock floor, with racks of gear and tools stacked around a square perimeter. Piles of rock sat waiting to be loaded onto carts. Jendara knew little about stones or masonry, but thought the green stuff might be soapstone. It was always in high demand, being easy to work.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. All those piles provided easy cover for an ambush.
She picked her way forward and kept low to the ground as she came out into the flat stone-working area. A massive chunk of green rock sat beside the edge of the path. There was no way to see behind it.
Jendara brought out her handaxe. She pressed her back to the stone and reminded herself that whoever was down here might not be a white-eyed cannibal killer.
"I don't want to hurt you," she called out. "I just want to talk."
She threw herself around the side of the stone with her axe ready. She saw no one.
The jolt of unused adrenaline made her legs go to jelly. She ignored it, kept her axe at the ready, and began to walk the perimeter of the quarry. She'd expected the worst. It felt strange not to face a monster when she was ready for one.
She stopped. She'd reached the side of the quarry bottom almost directly below its entrance, and a dark blot lay on the ground. The crow's head she'd lopped off at the top of the quarry. An ant crawled over the still-glossy bead of its yellow eye.
She had to avert her gaze. Beheading the crow had been a bad idea. She'd been raised to uphold the old clan traditions, and the crow had been her clan's totem. Life at sea had been one way to escape the bird's constant presence on dry land—the only time she had to look at them was when the ship docked, or when she saw someone wearing one of those crow-shaped traveler's pendants. She tried not to look at those necklaces for too long. She'd bought one once for Kalira, her sister. The younger girl had adored it.
Jendara had circled most of the way around now, and still hadn't seen anyone. Where was the person who'd gone down into the quarry?
Above her, something scraped. Jendara looked up and swore. She'd missed the entrance to the little footpath, and now her prey was escaping up it.
"Vorrin!" She had to warn him.
But a roar answered her shout: the rumble of something huge rolling down the hill. Vorrin might not be in danger, but she was.
She somersaulted over the soapstone block, pressing her face against its rough surface. Dust filled the air. She couldn't see. Or breathe. The soapstone shuddered as something massive hit it and stone shards rained down on her. Jendara hissed as one pierced her sleeve and drove into her forearm.
Coughing, she managed to get to her feet. Chunks of rock lay all around the soapstone block. If she hadn't moved behind it, she would have been crushed.
She scanned the trail above. Dust obscured all details. She was going to have to climb it blind.
Jamming her axe back into her belt, she scrambled forward. The ground was steep, the yellow sandstone of the main cliff walls unstable. She kept sliding backward in the stuff. Jendara grabbed for a handhold and dug her fingers into a gnarled root. The dust was clearing.
Something dark moved up ahead.
Jendara reached for the next handhold. Until she got her feet under her, she didn't dare try to attack the thing. She had a good arm, but on a nearly vertical path, the odds of her hitting him with her handaxe were small. She pulled herself up over a knoll of solid stone and caught her breath.
There he was. A man—a tall man in a long, shaggy cloak—hurried up the trail. He pulled himself up the steep hillside, snatching at the branches of the overhanging trees like rungs on a ladder.
"Hey!" she shouted, and reached for her belt axe. She'd never really believed she was chasing was an innocent bystander, but the man's grace and mass made his guilt a near certainty in her mind. No islander would have just stood by to watch his friends be ripped apart and eaten, not unless he was sick or crippled.
He leaped forward and disappeared between a pair of bushes. A rock as big as Jendara's head rolled out of the brush, bouncing and tumbling straight toward her.
"Damn it!" She threw herself aside and skidded on the path. She caught herself on a tree and raced up the hill.
Up above, Vorrin gave a sudden shout of surprise. Jendara hurried, but by the time she reached the top, Vorrin was just picking himself up, pinching a bloody nose and swearing.
"It got away," he growled. "I turned away for a second—I thought I heard something behind me—and it jumped me. Looked like a bear."
Jendara shook her head. "A bear? I was following a man. A big man, but a man."
Vorrin shrugged. "It happened fast, and there was a lot of dust in the air. Could have been a man, I guess. But it looked furry. And it had claws." He held out his hand. A gash ran down the back of it.
Jendara looked out into the forest. Some kind of trail continued into the forest, but here the trees were thick and the bracken dense. If anything wanted to disappear out here, it would. And back at Alstone Village, the crew of the Milady were waiting.
"Let's get out of here," she said. "Someone should know about this."
Coming Next Week: An all-new story starring Jendara!
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Skinwalkers and the web fiction story "Mother Bears." 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.
Art by Eric Belisle.