Into the West
Kaia jogged through the rustling shoulder-high grass, her gaze scouring the landscape as she cut west. Urgency lent strength to her legs as she waded through the early dawn. Stubby trees dotted the sun-streaked expanse while waves of rolling hills loomed in the near distance. A dry breeze rustled the morning’s early hush through the stretching plain, but it carried no clues of Klaus’ whereabouts.
She had crossed the river to the south of Direfent, and Madoc had pointed her along the fork in the river, down the stream to the Rastgol stronghold of Nathollus. The same way he’d steered Klaus. But that was all the guidance she could get. It had been two days since she’d last seen Klaus, and even on foot, he could cover a lot of ground.
She adjusted the small pack on her shoulders, a clammy sweat clinging to her forehead as she considered what she would do if the Rastgol scouts discovered her. Would she run? Fight? How many could she handle on her own? And what if the Lost found her? If she burned them, the Rastgol were sure to find her.
Her only option was to move as quickly as she could, and get out of there even faster. Letting her feelings and thoughts dry up with scant morning dew, Kaia focused on putting one boot in front of the other, stooping low to stay under the cover of the swaying blades of grass. The plains swelled into low hills, and she skirted a herd of gazelbras leaping in flashes of gold and brown stripes.
She tried not to think about what she would do if she didn’t find Klaus. How long would she look before she was forced to turn back empty-handed? Her heart clenched at the thought and her boot slid into the river shallows, startling a flock of pink-horned storks from their nearby bed of reeds.
Her hands balled into fists with another wave of anger. How dare he leave her alone like this without even the common decency to return when he promised? He better have a good excuse for staying out here, at least. She was already mulling over the choice words she would say to him when she finally found out what had kept him—no matter how long it took. She would search for Klaus until she found him… alive or dead.
Night was falling again before Kaia found Nathollus, and any worries she had of missing it were completely washed back down the river. It was easily twice as large as Direfent. The fading sun cast long shadows from the thick red walls of clay that surrounded the compound. Fires burned from every towering guard post as if to announce its presence to the stars, and even from a distance, Kaia could make out the silhouettes of hulking guards walking behind the turrets. The buildings must have been small though, for Kaia could only see the walls and their warriors. But from what she knew about the Rastgol, perhaps that’s all they wanted her to see—the defenses, the warriors, the arms. Maybe that’s all they were—muscled creatures of death that strode out of the hills fully formed.
That was all well and good, but where was Klaus?
Kaia knelt in the mud, searching in vain for tracks in the failing light—as if Klaus would be clumsy enough to leave tracks in the first place. She, on the other hand… Kaia’s gaze swept along the soft river banks toward the way she had come. Well, she had kept to the shallows the best she could and would just have to hope for the best.
Because she needed to get closer.
Her stomach twisted, but she could see no way around it. If the Rastgol had captured… or killed Klaus, surely the gossip would fly from tongue to tongue. She just needed to get near enough to hear it. And not get caught. If she had to use the dragon fire for any reason, the Rastgol would be on her in minutes, chasing her back to Direfent. But she couldn’t leave without Klaus. There was no room for mistakes.
Squeezing the smooth iron hilt of her sword for reassurance, she moved toward the Rastgol torches beckoning to her in the night. Glancing over her shoulder, she quailed inwardly. Now that she was leaving the safety of the water at her back, she could be ambushed on all sides. And there were sure to be Rastgol sentries hiding in the dark.
Luckily, the years of training with an invisible Shadow Heir had sharpened her other senses. She pressed her ears and nose to the wind, sifting through its contents for anything out of the ordinary. The shuffle of a small animal, the croak of another, a faraway grunt of a larger creature. The scent of smoke, river mud, and below that… yes she could just faintly smell it… the rancid stench of rot—of the dead.
She quickened her pace. The Lost were almost certainly drawn to Klaus. If she could find them, they would lead her to him. She just needed to find them before the Rastgol found her. Stifling a groan, she wiped the sweat from her forehead with a sleeve. What a ridiculously awful plan. This was why they didn’t split up. Klaus was the one with the plans.
The winds shifted ever so slightly, and a deep rumbling carried across the plain. Thunder? Kaia crouched lower, straining her ears, but when she put her fingers to the ground, she felt it instead—a trembling of the soil. Which could only mean something was moving… a big something.
Though she could barely see anything above the grass, her head swiveled as she sensed its direction. A barrage of grunting rumbled through the air, and she gasped with sharp realization—it was not just one something. It was a herd of big somethings. And they were carving up the river bank with the furious drumming of many feet.
Swearing under her breath, Kaia turned and raced through the long grass, the blades lashing at her arms and legs. So much for stealth now. She could only hope that a Rastgol would have the sense not to be in the path of whatever was stampeding her way.
The deep brays drew nearer, and Kaia caught her first look at the creatures. Her eyes widened. While she had gotten a glimpse of the bulky buffalen from afar, this one was massive. The line of its back was nearly a head taller than her, and its large eyes darted to and fro as its thick legs tore through the grass. Even more concerning were the four long horns that protruded from its bulky head—two long and reaching and two curving closer to the short black curls lining its hide.
It veered in her direction, jabbing with its sharp points. Kaia pulled up short, letting it cross in front of her while the rest of the herd crowded up behind. Adrenaline squeezed her heart. If she didn’t get off the ground soon, she would be crushed, or gored, or both.
A wild shout somewhere in the darkness drew her gaze, then another and another. The Rastgol were here. Were they after her? Sweat ran down her cheek as the buffalen pressed together in a solid wall of muscled meat around her. Please, Odriel, at least let the beasts hide me.
Then, she caught sight of a rider still far off in the distance with a torch in her hand. She let out a series of high-pitched shrieks as her horse galloped alongside the herd, and Kaia realized this wasn’t a stampede. The riders were herding these creatures toward Nathollus. Breath rushing out in sharp bursts, she whipped her head around and counted five other torches in the night before dodging another bucking steer. If the Rastgol managed to pen her in with the rest of their cattle, they would almost certainly spot her from up on the walls.
Her heart hammered in her chest as she frantically searched for her escape—a boulder, a hut, a tree… anything. But even the stubby trees couldn’t withstand the onslaught of animals, bowing down under their weight as their hooves crushed the willowy trunks.
One of the animals knocked into Kaia’s shoulders, and she almost fell to the ground. Another butted in on her other side in a sudden crush, knocking the air from her lungs with an audible crack of her ribs. Gasping for air and panic blinding her, she heated her hands just a touch and pressed them against the beasts like a cattle brand. They separated instantly with wild grunts.
Dragging in desperate breaths, Kaia staggered diagonally away from the fortress, providing whatever heat necessary to spur the buffalen out of her way. But she could only go so far before the torches swayed too close.
“Hey, what t’be that?” one of them called in the dark.
Kaia nearly froze. She had to get out of here.
“T’beastie?” another called out.
Finally, Kaia saw it, the buffalen dodging around a tree just sturdy enough to part the stream of their bodies. She raced for it.
“Looked t’human,” said the first.
Weaving through the cattle, Kaia’s legs burned and her ribs ached. A sharp horn tore across her back, and she clamped her teeth down on a cry.
“Where ‘tid go?”
Finally, Kaia reached the pathetic excuse for a tree and pressed herself against the lee side. The shrubby branches fanned out less than an arm’s length above the buffalens’ heads, and the trunk was only half as wide as her shoulder blades, but it was better than nothing.
Another horn raked her arm, and Kaia gritted her teeth through a silent scream, crouching down low. Above all the thundering, her ears still strained for the voices.
“I don’t see t’anymore.” The torch edged closer, somewhere on the edge of the crush of animals.
Stinging sweat mixed into Kaia’s blood, and the dust of the stampede coated her slicked skin. Don’t stay. Move on. She tightened her grip on her hilt. Even if she could take them down without her flames, they were too close to the walls for their absence to go unnoticed, and the herd was starting to thin. Soon they would be able to see her. Keep riding.
A companion torch drew alongside the first. “Eh t’was probably one of those dead’uns.”
Laughter cut across the fading hooves. “Well, if t’wasn’t dead before, t’is good and dead now.”
“You’d think Goldie t’would keep a better eye on ‘em.” A steer swerved away from the herd and the rider broke away to turn it back with a shrill cry.
Time stretched as Kaia crouched at the base of the tree. Trying to quiet her rasping, painful breaths, she counted the torches passing ahead of her in the darkness until she could see all six trailing after the straggling cattle. She waited another few breaths, her back and arm still burning and the right side of her ribs already swelling.
She sighed. This was a setback. While she could still draw her sword, this definitely put her at a disadvantage, and she wouldn’t be able to cover as much ground this way, much less flee with any kind of speed. The odds of this already far-fetched rescue were slimming by the minute. She’d have to be more careful.
Kaia was about to push herself to her feet when someone whispered from up in the branches. “Not yet—stay down.”
All the fear and disappointment suddenly clogged Kaia’s throat in a knot of hopeful recognition.
“Shh! They always have a far-rear scout, and their ears are sharp like you wouldn’t believe.”
Kaia ducked lower, her heart thudding once again in her chest, but this time with joy. The wounds didn’t matter, her weariness didn’t matter, Klaus was here. And now they could leave. Odriel must’ve been looking out for them.
She was about to let out a breath of relief when the flicker of a torch caught her eye. Kaia froze as the horse trotted up not fifteen paces from where she sat.
She resisted the urge to sink farther, keeping her body as still as possible. The woman was already close enough to see the stark white scars peppering her ruddy skin. Her head was bald just like the men, with the same bulging muscles filling out her buffalen-hide vest and her hard, feral eyes glinted in the torchlight.
Kaia had almost thought the Rastgol woman had passed them by when she pulled up short and looked back toward them. She raised her nose to the air as though sniffing it, and Kaia’s stomach twisted. What did she smell? Blood? Sweat? The rations in Kaia’s pack? Surely she couldn’t smell any of that through the lingering odor of the buffalen.
She took another step closer, and Kaia tensed. Would she have to kill this woman?
Then, a shout rang out from the herd, and the woman turned. She spared one last glare for the darkness behind before turning her mount once more and cantering toward her companions.
Kaia waited until she was nearly out of sight before she spoke again. “All clear?”
“We have two hours,” Klaus whispered from somewhere in the dark. “Then the next herd will be by.”
Kaia stood and peered into the branches. She could just barely make out the outline of his body stretched in the crux of the tree, his dark clothes melding with the shadows. “The next herd? How many are there?”
“At least three dozen and they keep two of them running around the walls at all times. It makes for a tight guard.”
“Please don’t tell me you’ve been sitting here counting cattle for two days.” Kaia pulled a knife from her hip and dug into the bark, using it as a foothold to pull herself up the tree. “I’m not sure that’s the kind of information Madoc was hoping for.” She paused, her voice lowering as she found her next handhold. “You’re not hurt, are you?” Her chest tightened at the thought of how she had once found him bleeding and hanging from a cell.
“As intriguing as buffalen are, especially ones this size, I have to say I got my fill of herding them around as a boy.”
Kaia hauled herself onto the branch next to him and peered into his face in the dim light of the moon. Exhausted yes, but still in one piece. “You’re okay,” she breathed, the all-encompassing relief swamping through her in a light-headed rush. “Thank Odriel.” She let her forehead sink onto his shoulder, and then slapped him half-heartedly. “You nearly drove me half-mad with worry.”
“As much as I do love driving you mad,” he pressed his lips to her forehead with a chuckle, “I really didn’t mean to worry you.” He pressed another kiss to her temple.
He stroked the line of her jaw with the back of his hand, and she looked up into his face. “So why didn’t you come back?”
He frowned. “I was thinning the sentries when a bunch of them jumped me. They ran me into the stampede, and I nearly got trampled. Luckily I got out with just the busted foot, and I’m pretty sure they think their hell cows finished me off.”
Kaia’s eyes widened, and she followed his gaze down to where his right boot lay propped up on another branch. At first glance, it didn’t look so bad. No bones poking out, nothing bending the wrong way… but that didn’t mean his foot wasn’t broken. Kaia gingerly prodded it with her fingers, and Klaus let out a low hiss. She felt his good leg to compare. His foot and ankle were at least twice their normal size, swollen tight against the leather of his boot. She wasn’t sure they’d even be able to get the boot off.
Wincing, Kaia drew her hands away. “Can you walk on it?”
He made a face. “Not well. I was going to rest here for another day before trying to hobble my way back.”
Kaia snorted. “Walking for a full day on a foot like that?”
“What choice did I have?”
Kaia settled next to him again in the cramped space, wincing at her tender wounds. “Well, you could’ve not gone off on your own, for one.”
“I could say the same for you.” Klaus’ fingers moved along the gashes in her arm and her back. “Looks like the buffalen didn’t let you escape either.”
She folded her arms. “Well, in case you’ve forgotten, I have extensive experience in saving you, so there really wasn’t a better choice.”
He chuckled at that.
“And now,” she continued, “we can get you out of here and back to Direfent.”
“Not yet.” He wrapped her fingers in his. “Madoc was right, the Lost are here.”
Kaia turned to stare at him, the dark hazel of his eyes intent on hers. She let out a long breath, turning to look at his busted foot once more. “We’ll get you to Direfent first, and then I’ll return for them.”
He shook his head. “That’s too risky and you know it.”
“Then we wait for you to heal and then we come back and take care of it,” she said stubbornly.
“And how many villages will burn in the meantime? How many more Lost will swell their army?”
Kaia hid her face in her hands with a suppressed groan. The plan had been to torch the place, and then run like Idriel himself were on her heels. But with Klaus’ leg, there was no way they would make it.
He peeled her hands away from her face. “Firefly, it’s going to be all right. We can do this.”
Kaia pressed her lips together. “The Lost. Where are they?”
“They have them locked up in some buffalen pens outside the walls, on the other side of the Nathollus fortress.”
Kaia nodded, her mind churning through the changes in the plan. “I burn the dead. Steal some horses. And we ride back to Direfent.”
Klaus raised an eyebrow at her. “With the Rastgol army on our tail? Not exactly the stealthiest of plans.”
“Not even a little.” Kaia poked him in the shoulder with a smirk. “You had a chance to do it your way. Now we do it my way.”
His smile widened, and he took one of her long brown locks between his fingers. “I’m really glad you’re here, Firefly.”
Kaia glanced around their cramped perch. “In this squat little tree in the middle of Rastgol country, about to set a match to the barn while we’re still in it?”
He shook with silent laughter. “And here I thought we were done risking our lives in impossible situations.”
“No,” Kaia whispered, her voice falling. “It won’t ever be done, will it?” Her mind flashed to the nightmares that haunted her—the clawing fingers of the Lost and Mogens’ eyes in the dark. She thought of all the Heirs whose lives had been cut short. Their grandfathers, their parents, the Time Heirs… She thought of Madoc pleading with her to stay and fight with them. “It’ll always be the two of us risking our lives against the world. Finding the most dangerous places in Okarria and rooting out whatever abomination lurks there. Will there never be peace for us?”
Klaus swallowed, his thumb rubbing across the back of her hand. “I don’t know if there will ever be a time when we’re not fighting, or in danger, or you know, in a tree trying to avoid cannibals.” He chuckled, his gaze meeting hers. “But while I can’t promise I’ll always be right next to you,” he squeezed her hand, “I can promise that you’ll never be alone in this. That, no matter what might happen to us, I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.” He trailed his fingers down the braid of copper lying against her cheek. “And that, no matter where I am, my thoughts will always be of getting back to you.”
With that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. Her heart bursting in her chest, and his heat twisting with hers, Kaia could not have dreamed more perfect words.
But even such love could not banish the pall of death that lay over them. The fear that soaked them. The pain and exhaustion that followed them wherever they wandered. She wanted more for their lives than that.
Even if she had to banish it all herself.
Thanks so much for reading! New chapters posted Mondays and Thursdays! Also, if you’ve found a typo, please feel free to give a shout, and I’ll be sure to correct it. Thanks again!