Jendara moved through the dense forest, following Irlu as the tracker floated through the bracken and brush. Jendara was an able tracker; the dark-haired Blackraven made her look like a novice. Despite the hill giant's size and ungainly burden—Lugh stood six and a half feet tall—the creature had left little spoor. It might be huge and ungainly, but the giant clearly knew the woods.
"Irlu will find him." Grotnir's voice was a soft rumble from behind Jendara. She glanced over her shoulder to see his face. She hadn't noticed the gray in his beard earlier.
Jendara watched the woman pick a flake of lichen off a branch and look closely at it. "She's a great tracker."
"The best I've ever worked with. And she doesn't give up. She'll comb these hills all night, if that's what it takes. He's Caul's brother, so he's as good as her own."
He caught the questioning look on Jendara's face. "Irlu's family was killed when she was just a little girl. She's never said what happened to them. A Blackraven patrol found her in the woods, surviving on her own."
No wonder Irlu had joined the prestigious border guard. And to have survived at such a young age in these woods—here, so close to the Irriseni border, where creatures like giants and white wolves were a constant threat—only made Jendara's admiration for the woman grow.
They moved through the forest in silence for a few minutes, crossing a stream at the bottom of a steep ravine and then climbing up again. They'd left behind any trace of loggers or hunters long ago: this was wild country, a rough and uninviting wilderness. Even the trees looked shorter here, their trunks twisted and wind-battered.
"I have a son a little younger than Lugh," Grotnir said, suddenly. He leaned against a tree for a moment. "He wants to join the Blackravens."
Jendara caught something in his tone. "And you don't want him to?"
He shook his head. "He's a good man, but no warrior. He'd make a fine smith or farmer, but I can't tell him that. Not after hearing Blackraven stories all his life."
Jendara picked a bit of moss out of the end of her braided hair. "I have a son myself. He's ten."
He reached out and caught her hand, pulling it close to study the tattoo. "And do you want him to follow in your footsteps?" He tapped the inked spot. "Besmara is a cruel goddess."
She pulled her hand away. "You know her sign."
He shrugged. "I've known a pirate or two. Bad men, all of them."
"We'll lose Irlu if we don't get a move on." She pushed past him without making eye contact.
He was right, of course. There were good reasons she wasn't a pirate anymore, and her boy was only one of them. But that didn't mean she'd apologize for it.
Irlu picked up her pace, and after a few moments, Jendara understood why. They were following some kind of game trail that snaked up the steep hillside. There was very little ground cover here, and bits of broken rock and debris marked the paths of long-ago landslides. The trail ran between little heaps of scree and dead leaves, looking well used.
Irlu hesitated and looked back over her shoulder. "I don't like this."
"What?" Grotnir asked.
"There's no sign of the giant anymore. I don't know how she lost us, but she has. We're only following the wolf."
Jendara frowned. "But the wolf didn't have Lugh."
"I think it does now." Irlu squatted. "I've seen a couple of scrape marks alongside the trail. I think it's probably Lugh's boots, dragging as the wolf carries him. I don't know when they switched off. Before they left the tree cover, certainly."
"Why didn't you say something sooner?" Jendara snapped.
"I wasn't sure." Irlu paused to cough. This walk uphill after breathing as much smoke as she had—it couldn't be good for her. She cleared her throat. "They're planning something."
A sudden rumble made them all turn to stare up the hill.
"Move!" Grotnir bellowed. A massive boulder bounced down the rocky slope, stirring up clouds of dust.
Jendara grabbed Irlu's hand and pulled her off the trail. They skidded for a second before Irlu caught a scraggly brush and stopped their descent. The boulder careened past them, hitting a stony outcropping and exploding into shards.
"Merciful Desna," Irlu breathed. Then she doubled over in a coughing fit.
"Too much dust." Jendara fumbled in her belt pouch for a handkerchief and offered it to the tracker. "We can probably expect more of that."
Another boulder, much smaller, soared out over their heads, landing a few feet beyond the remains of the other. It bounced down the hillside and disappeared into the trees.
"Now we know where the giant went," Grotnir said. "How the hell are we going to make it up to the top of this hill? Except for this game trail, it's all rock ahead. Not a bit of cover."
Jendara studied the terrain, then pointed out a thin, tall larch that somehow clung to the steep rocks of the hill. The game trail ran away from the tree as it headed up the hill's soft flank on the other side. "There's a chimney in the rock about halfway up the slope. If I shinny up that tree, I can jump to it and make my way to the top. That's got to be where the giant is."
Irlu's eyes widened. "Climb that? You're crazy."
Jendara grinned. "I'm a sailor. Climbing is what I do." She eyed the vertical crevice again and took off her sword—she didn't want to risk getting caught in the narrow gap. "Just give me a few minutes' head start."
Keeping low to the ground, she ran to the larch and scrambled up into its branches, which were thin, weak, and few. Despite her bravado, she felt her stomach twist. It was one thing to climb a stout oak mast, but this tree wasn't much thicker than her ankle. She'd better hope her luck held.
The trunk narrowed and began to lean. Jendara bit down on the inside of her cheek and eyed the rocks. There was a sequence of ledges leading up to the chimney—she ought to be able to jump onto one. She closed her eyes for a second and leaped.
She caught the rock with her fingertips and felt her boots skid before she steadied. She grunted. It would have been a nervous shriek if she didn't know the giant was someplace over her head. But after a moment, she pulled herself up to the next ledge and slipped into the jagged crack. She was glad she'd left her sword behind. The rocks pressed tight against her body—but that actually helped her. She braced her palms against the rock and pushed herself upward.
A ribbon of sunlight ran down the narrow gap between the rocks. Jendara felt as if the light itself pulled her up the tiny space. She kept her eyes fixed on the glittering bit of sunshine, filling her mind with its brilliance and not her precarious position.
Suddenly, the ribbon of light went dark.
A guttural voice boomed down the tube. Jendara craned her neck. Something blocked the top of the crevice. The giant, peering down at her. She could smell its filthy stink. Her heart thudded in her chest.
The giant pulled back and Jendara climbed faster. Then suddenly the huge voice bellowed in pain. Jendara threw herself up out of the crevice just as volley of arrows peppered the stones. Jendara pressed herself to the ground. Irlu must have raced up that hill while Jendara was in the tree.
The arrow storm paused. Down below, a cold voice shouted. Jendara couldn't make out the words, but she knew that voice. They'd found the wolf.
The giant was peering over the edge of the hilltop once more. The ground here was wind-scoured rock, dotted here and there with lichen-dappled boulders and rocks—the perfect lookout for an ambush.
Jendara got to her feet and drew her handaxe just as the giant spun around to face her. An arrow jutted out of the creature's arm, but it didn't seem to notice anymore. Its piggy eyes narrowed and it roared in rage, then pulled back its leg and kicked a chunk of rock at Jendara.
She threw herself aside, but the rock still hit her shoulder, jolting her hard enough to make her teeth rattle. The giant snatched up another rock.
Anger boiled up inside her. She charged the creature, dropping low at the last second and chopping into its kneecap with a crunch. The giant screamed. Jendara wrenched the axe free and shoved against the thing's hip. It stumbled backward.
For a second, its arms windmilled and it balanced at the very edge of the cliff. Then it flew backward. There was a thud as it hit the ground, just missing Grotnir as he rushed the white wolf.
The wolf bit into his hand, and Grotnir bellowed in pain. He wrenched himself free and stumbled away. Arrows streaked toward the wolf, and the creature retreated beyond Jendara's limited view. She glanced around herself. She had to get down off this hilltop, and she didn't have time to risk the crevice.
A mound of dirt caught her eye, and she hurried toward it. This side of the hill wasn't half as steep, and she could see the giant's footprints in the dirt. She followed them down and around the hillside. A few feet ahead, Grotnir's green cloak stood out against the rocky outcropping he was sheltering behind.
Jendara sank down behind a larch sapling. A few dozen yards beyond Grotnir, Irlu was creeping uphill. Jendara followed Irlu's gaze up the hill, beyond the sprawled corpse of the giant. A dark slit stood out against the rocks making up the hill, a horizontal version of the crevice Jendara climbed up. That had to be the wolf's den.
If Lugh was still alive, he was almost certainly in that cave.
She sprang up from her cover and burst into a run. It wouldn't be expecting a head-on charge, not from her, and this would distract from Irlu's stealthy approach. She realized she was bellowing like a berserk raider, but couldn't make herself stop.
The wolf burst out of the cave, snarling. Its teeth flashed as it lunged toward her, and for a second she feared its ice breath attack, but her handaxe was already slamming down on its face. The blade bit into fur and meat. The creature twisted aside, ripping the blade free with a splatter of blood.
But Jendara hadn't lost her grip on the weapon. She rolled under the beast's counterattack, her knees grinding into the broken gravel of the cave's entrance. The white wolf shrieked in sudden desperate pain.
She didn't pause to wonder why, just pushed herself up, slamming into the beast's belly and sending it flying. It fell on the rocks beside the dead giant. Blood trickled out of its mouth, and an arrow jutted out of its ribs. Irlu crept toward it.
"Finish me, Blackraven," it gurgled. "Like you finished my mate."
"I'm no Blackraven," Jendara spat.
"But I am." Irlu jammed her knife into the wolf's blue eye. The wolf convulsed once and went still. Irlu grinned savagely, and then a coughing fit made her double up as well.
"Irlu! Are you all right?" Grotnir ran to her. His arm hung limply at his side, blood running down his fingers.
Jendara turned away from them and hurried inside the shallow cave. "Lugh?"
A groan answered her. She couldn't make out his face in the dim light, but the sound was comforting. "You okay?"
"My head hurts."
"At least you didn't hurt anything important." She found his shoulders and began dragging him out into the light. He chuckled once, then groaned with pain again. When he was out of the cave, his skull bloody and knotted but still intact, Jendara sat down beside him and stretched out her legs.
"You know," she said, "you have a lot more of this to look forward to once you become a Blackraven."
Lugh chuckled again, then touched his head. "Like you said, no one ever said my brain is my best feature."
"Still," Jendara said, "you have to admit this was more interesting than hunting a bunch of ducks."
At the entrance of the cave, Irlu laughed. "Jendara, are you sure you're not a Blackraven?"
Jendara grinned. She was pretty sure that was a compliment.
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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