BY JAY REQUARD
It sounded again, high and mournful, across the steppes of the valley.
A cat’s high screech carried over the scrub and hardy trees, above chilled peaks where shaggy goats dared the sheer sides of cliffs, most a steep plunge into hard oblivion. Reverberating, the cry could have originated from anywhere along the length of Blustun Valley. The blustery wind deadened its echo.
Bjorn leaned on his horse, Montolio, to gain some measure of the far-off noise. More than familiar with the various beasts and monsters inhabiting the gloomy forest and barren plains of Helmland, he surrendered whatever it was to the cruel vagaries of nature. He diverted his attention to the valley’s verdant basin, almost pristine if not for the gray ascent to the northwest, where mineral mines fell off on the other side into the foreign lands not recognizing his ranger’s seal. He steered his wheat and coal-patched steed down a worn track according to the map sandwiched to his thigh with a fist, which had been had called an “official” road, though by the poor condition of its muddy edges he worried what he’d find once he tracked into civilization.
It grew worse past the first farmsteads, where tilled fields of dry dirt lay fallow for the autumn season. He spotted a few locals, all men who offered little more than a scowl. Bjorn kept a tight grip of Montolio’s reins in his left hand, his right drifting up to the knotted thong of his bear-whip as they ambled into town. A sparse center with no more than six timber buildings, though substantial in their size and thatching, dozens of earth homes and lodges crowded where the few hundred of the town’s population roosted, not counting the miners up the hills. The three intersecting paths that served as streets met in front of a large rectangular cabin with a placard reading “City Hall.”
He dismounted and led Montolio to the nearest hitching post, near the bottom of the porch’s steps up to the wide, green door. Paying no attention to its weathered coating or the bare spot where the large brass clapper had fallen off, he instead focused on the three men in front of it. One of them, dressed in the skins of a seasoned woodsman, stepped forward with hands gripping the lapels of his goat-hide mantle.
“Ho there, traveler,” he said, a sinister grin cracking his sun-aged face. A short sword and knife stuck from the wide girdle around his stout waist, showing no harm, though his two fellows in the back made no effort hide their hands on their hatchets. The edges on both wedges glinted in the sinking sunlight.
They blocked the entrance.
Armed with an unstrung bow and a camp ax bound to his quiver of goose-fletched arrows to supplement his main weapon, Bjorn stood guard beside Montolio.
“What are you doing around these parts?” the lead man asked in accented Skadian, the tongue of the Helmlanders.
Bjorn opened his woolen green mantle to reveal a pocket sewn into the brown vest layered over another woolen shirt. He extracted a small medallion, an emblem of a broad-winged eagle clutching an arrow in one claw, a dead fox in the other. The symbol of the High King of Helmland’s Territorial Rangers, he displayed it to the ruffians.
“This is the town of Blustun, isn’t it?” he asked in fluent Dager, the tongue of the horsemen over the border.
The lead man snarled a mean noise in the back of his throat and spat a glob to the side. “You must be that hunter the mayor sent for,” he continued in his native tongue, no more impressed.
“Ranger,” Bjorn replied. “Are you three the town guard?”
One of the hatchet men chortled.
“You could say,” the lead man answered. “We’re the current help while the mayor pays us what we’re asking. Just keeping the peace in this sleepy little town while the good men work the mines for all that iron and those pretty, pretty rocks.”
Bjorn grunted in understanding, his pale blue eyes fixed on the lead. “You all have the look of horsemen.” He sniffed, taking in their smell of manure and woodsmoke. “And not clean ones.”
“It’s dirty work,” said the lead, his expression darkening. “What’s your name, ranger?”
Bjorn checked the brutes flanking the rough. “Bjorn Vidarsson. It’s been reported this town has a—”
“Wait a second!” The man on the left raised a swarthy finger at Bjorn. “I heard of you! You’reÖ you’re that monster-killer! What they call you? Whiplash! That’s it! They call this one Whiplash!”
The third man laughed as the lead man re-appraised Bjorn again, more seriously than before.
“Others call me that.” Bjorn did not wither under their dangerous gazes. “And you are?”
“I am called Taufeeq,” answered the lead man, tilting his head to the side as he matched the ranger’s ready stance. “This is Umar on my right and his cousin, Jeddir, on my left. And like you said, we were horsemen—”
“Until we lost our horses,” Umar jibbed.
“Ain’t nobody’s business, Umar,” Taufeeq said with a glare at his compatriot. “But it’s true. We lost our horses a few months back. Terrible accident with the last horse clan we affiliated with.”
“I’m sure,” Bjorn said. “Is the mayor inside?”
“That he is,” said Taufeeq, squaring his shoulders, pleased by the few inches in height he had on Bjorn. “Come aside, men. Let’s let the ranger get on his way.”
Bjorn broke ahead, paying no mind to their amused sneers.
“You know,” said Jeddir, “he really does have a pretty horse.”
Bjorn stopped right in front of the door, the iron-wrought handle there for the taking if not for the raised hairs on the back of his neck. Three sets of foot falls pounded the two steps and beat the earth near Montolio. The steed snorted his displeasure through wide and heavy nostrils.
“Aye, Jeddy, a real pretty thing,” said Umar. “You know, this is the exact kind of horse we’ve been looking for.”
“You know, it right is!” replied Jeddir.
“I’d be sweet to him,” Taufeeq said, more measured than the brothers. “Being so fine, after all.”
“And look at this coat,” Umar said.
The rough smack of a palm on Montolio’s dappled shoulder sent Bjorn into movement.
In a twisting turn he loosed the whip from its coil around his body and lashed out. The length sped, wrapping around the outstretched arm of Umar. Wrist and arm tight, the ranger snapped his entire body in the opposite direction, spinning in a complete circle as he yanked the ruffian off his feet.
Smarter than the rest, Taufeeq kept his distance from Montolio, facing Bjorn the entire time. His cocksure smile never flagged as he watched Umar struggle against the bear whip around his arm, its stinging grip leaving him in tears. His cousin Jeddir rushed over, kneeling in the dirt, too shocked to be of any assistance.
“Walk away from my horse.” Bjorn flicked his wrist and the whip uncoiled from Umar’s hide-covered arm. “Now.”
Jeddir dragged his kin away from Montolio and city hall.
“Give him room boys,” said Taufeeq, hooking his thumbs in his war-girdle. “It is a pretty horse, after all.”
Bjorn watched, cold and coiled, until the three men collected themselves and staggered around the next corner of the building. He let their footfalls, loud and clumsy, fade into the distance before he entered the lonesome timber building, far less enthused about civilization than before.
“It sure is a good thing the mayor sent you out here, Mr. Whiplash,” the lad said as he led them between the two wooden pens, bare feet squelching in the mix of soft earth and cow shit. He looked back at Bjorn and gave a toothy smile.
Bjorn matched it, picking his way more carefully but keeping pace as they crossed the pasture. A few hours past a misting dawn, he had slept overnight in town on a soft mattress and a belly full of stew before he ventured into the outlying farmlands upon the steep western slopes of the valley. The high eastern crests still blanketing the town below in thinning gloom, golden rays broke past purple and salmon clouds to bathe the grasslands and terraced fields, cool and fresh in the crisp air. Higher in the north, near the border of Dageria, the wind bit colder than in the valley’s basin, chilled by the breeze carried over the snowy mountains.
Checking on the last of their train, Montolio came behind his rider, compliant as he marched along. Nose in the feed bag hung from his handsome brown and bronze head, his alert eyes kept to the places Bjorn stepped.
Pleased by his companion’s calming presence, Bjorn looked ahead over the youth’s shoulder. The heady smell of his horse and the dew breaking the earth under his feet filled him with a breathe he savored. The stark beauty of Blustun Valley shifting to vermillion leaves on the trees and graying hills enraptured every sense, soaking into his pores where leather or hide did not cover flesh.
“Just call me Bjorn, lad,” he said, jovial on a fine morning. “I don’t think I got your name.”
“Rolfnar, sir,” said the lad. “After my ol’ granddad.”
“That’s a Skadian name. Father’s side?”
“Mother’s, sir,” answered Rolfnar. “Came here before I was born. Married my Pa when he stopped riding horses for the clans across the border.”
“Your father is a Dager horseman?” Bjorn asked with no condemnation in the question.
“Was, Mr. Bjorn. We just raise ponies and mules now to help the farmers with their planting.”
“A fine life, either path. So tell me, when did the killings begin?”
“‘Bout three or four weeks ago, right when we brought the cattle in from the hills in time for harvest. We found a calf dead at the edge of the north field, then a few more the next week, then one of our ponies disappeared. We miss her—she had a little one she was carrying. Took a team of dogs the mayor brought in to help keep things safe at night. Until the beast dragged them off, one by one.”
“Oh, we found all sorts of tracks, but there’s so many things in these hills it’s hard to tell if it weren’t a pack of wolves from a wild cat. Whatever it is drags the bigger animals far enough to chew off a portion to take deeper into the hills.” Rolfnar slowed as they reached the rear of the paddock and turned left. “Down here is where we found blood a few nights ago. A mule this time. Found her a few miles into the woods missing a hind leg.”
“Is the hunter taking the innards too?”
They halted at the edge of the field. A ditch before a small berm of old earth scooped up to lay the natural borders of the farm, the climbing miles of swaying grass led to the peaks of the eastern slope, pocked by small clusters of scrub trees before the next ridge terminated. Beyond it lay the land of the horsemen, of valleys and steel, and rougher law than the refined considerations of Helmlanders. A ruck full of gear and food secured to the cantle of Montolio’s saddle, he led the horse a little bit ahead.
“Well, Rolfnar, this is where we part,” he said as he mounted the steed. He reset the reins so they did not bother Montolio’s eyes and ears. “Thank you for the company but I can go on from here.”
“Pardon me, Mr. Bjorn, but where are you going? As I said, what track is there to follow?”
“A ranger must have more than his eyes and ears,” Bjorn pressured his thighs into the horse’s flanks. Montolio clopped forward until he hopped the ditch in one easy spring. Without pause he started to climb, his rider leaned against his back as they left the wondering teen behind.
A quick descent, then they broke into a trot into the high heathers. Alone again with the only friend he needed, Bjorn reveled in the solitude.
He discovered a series of clawed tracks smattered about the edge of the forest bordering the farms and the wooded hills. Separate from the cloven imprints, he kept extra attention for them, forgoing a series of wolf tracks had been left more in passing, the pack daring to look out at Rolfnar’s farm while they migrated hunting grounds overnight. Remembering the cat’s cry on the descent into Blustun, Bjorn estimated the sun’s southerly position to his own. Certain the animal did not head deeper into civilization when the easy catches lay in the fields, he signaled Montolio into the gloomy heights.
He pitched his lean-to and built a fire several hours later, giving himself enough time before sunset to get his meal started. Supping on some eggs and a loaf of bread, he boiled stream water in a small kettle stuffed with pine needles and juniper leaves. After the potent tea settled his stomach, he put his weapons to the side and curled on a mattress of leaves. Eyes half-shut, he meditated on the noises in the wild, Yan’s chorus. The plethora of the natural world sang the god of seasons’ nocturnal songs.
But the longer he listened, the more he tired, and all Bjorn found was silence.
Waking before dawn, he rebuilt his fire in the frosty night, patient as he knacked sparks from a fire-rod and his hatchet. After a breakfast of a little bread and more pine and juniper tea, he redressed in his navy leggings, shirt, old leather vest, and woolen mantle, finishing with his boots and weapons before he set out into the woods. He led Montolio to the base of the rising hills on foot, taking time to forage for honey suckle and small insects along the way.
Still hungered by noon, he allowed the ache in his stomach to focus him to the land and its smells, the currents of the wind and how it wound through the trees. Finding a few dead deer picked over by wolves, his curiosity roused when he discovered the remains of a pony caught between two trees. Guts dragged from the massive wound where the cat had eaten out the liver, teeth marks around the missing foreleg indicated the beast had kept some on its trek north to northwest.
Away from Helmland, toward Dageria.
By nightfall Bjorn rested in his lean-to, but this time he kept his hatchet and knife by his sides. A gentle breeze rustled the forest, but somewhere, he thought he heard a screech and a cry.
The cries still echoed in the morning.
Drawn by the noise, Bjorn and Montolio dashed into the foothills. The paths narrowed, growing craggier with each new steppe. The grass slowly receded, the soil thinning to hard stone, and broken rock. Bjorn lead his horse through a small ravine, and reaching its top, spotted the source of the chaos.
A narrow crevice opened, splitting the base of the next series of hills. Gouts of steam escaped from a fissure out of sight, the white trails ghostly against the ascending light of the sun. The famed Steam Crags, known to natives that roved the border between the age-old advisories of west and east, lanced to the northwest.
A star-cat roared before its hot gates, daring some foe with long claws. The size of a panther, she growled up at a dead, leafless tree held up by the rocks anchoring its exposed roots. A healthy mother with an oily black coat terminating into points of silver around her paws, mane, and the tip of a bushy tail, her topaz eyes widened in half-rage, half-desperation. About her the bones and rot of half-eaten horses, calves, and more than six dogs decayed under the autumn sun, the stink diminished by the day’s chill.
Bjorn startled when he saw the black roc.
Winged shoulders up by a long, sharp head, the ancient creature stared at his quarry, but not the star-cat herself. He fixed on whatever lay beyond her in the crevice.
Downwind, Bjorn hid behind a small stone ridge and surveyed the obvious culprit to the farmer’s dilemma but vexed more on the winged monster and its long, whipping tail. He snuck forward, head down as he tried to get a better angle when the breeze shifted. Slants of sunlight spilled to illuminate two small humps just inside the entrance and he knew: her cubs, lost in the daze of their first weeks. Sheltering them in the warmth of the heated crevice, the star-cat had gone to the farmlands for easy prey.
Whenever the roc appeared, things turned desperate.
Until they caught his and Montolio’s scent, foolishly standing in the eddies where the current carried their smells onto the battlefield. Startled, the star-cat scuttled into the crag’s entrance to shield her young. The roc simply looked over its shoulder and found Bjorn and Montolio atop the ridge.
Dispassionate as before, he returned to his wait on the felines below.
“Damn,” said Bjorn, foiled by an easy but sometimes unavoidable mistake, even for the most skilled trackers. The suspect in the livestock murders found, the challenge of removing her cubs from the scene under the deadly watch of the roc—an equal threat for him and the star-cat—weighed his thoughts as he ducked behind the ridge again.
With enough food in reach and knowing she had two pursuers, the star-cat would stake her position. Making camp in one of the nearby ravines, whether bright or dim, frozen or thawed, they’d still be there with the dawn.
A soft nose roused him before dawn broke. Montolio’s thick upper lip lifted as he brushed down Bjorn’s face, spreading the stale, stinking breath of the horse deep into the hood around his head. He grunted, eyes scrunched and breath held before the worst of the stench dissipated, bringing his hand up in time to block the next loving kiss. The great animal lifted his long head a bit to give him room to sit up but remained close so their noses touched many times.
Bjorn patted his dearest friend’s powerful neck. “You want to go deal with it and let me sleep more?”
The steed snorted and backed away.
A small breakfast of eggs with a block of cheese he had saved for the occasion filled his belly with the energy for what came next. After letting Montolio eat what was left in the feedbag, he set the stallion free upon the hillside around the camp, leaving the gallant charger to forage and guard the site. Setting out, he heard the cries of the star-cat at war with her children’s hunter long before he reached the destination.
Down at the entrance to the Steam Crags, the mother staked her place. Bleeding from rents in her shaggy coat, a harrowing battle had taken place in the wee dawn hours, the sandy ground between her and the roc’s tree littered in gory tufts and torn feathers. A nick near her green eyes leaked, causing her to wince through the blinding pain as she faced the tree, certain to defend whether she saw the roc’s descent or not.
Faring better but tail dripping, and one wing clearly damaged by her claws, the giant bird remained impassive to his wounds. He simply waited, letting her bluster until weakness, thirst, or hunger broke her watch.
The oath of every ranger in his order, sworn to protect and preserve the wildlife of Helmland, extended to all its creatures. Unable to shirk his duty, Bjorn unwound his bear-whip from around his torso as he crested the rocky ridge. Aware of him in an instant, the star-cat made no noise, but the roc croaked high and loud, spreading his expansive wings to flap in warning.
A fearsome sight, any other beast slayer would have attempted an arrow to the organs of the six-foot tall dagger of sinews and feathers. Instead, Bjorn opened his arms, cawing as he picked his way down the ravine’s steep decline. Leaving the whip loose in case his quarries responded, he kept his gaze locked on the roc.
The bird closed his wings and repositioned atop the dead tree, the stiff movements rocking the trunk as his weight shifted on the uppermost fork. Black shining eyes fixed on the ranger, he pressed his sharp beak forward, aligning a flight path.
Stepping on a loose stone, his weight broke dirt in the hillside. He slowed as the soil rained, scattering over the rocks.
“Come on!” He cracked the whip. “Come on, you mangy bastard!”
The monstrous bird reared and opened his wings again, threatening with great sweeps as he screeched an angry reply.
Bjorn snapped the whip toward the bird, harmlessly out of reach but cracking a second time like lightning. Startled between her intruders, the hackles of the star-cat rose as she backed right into the crack where her cubs recovered, deep asleep or too weak to run. He reached the level ground and paused. The roc faced him completely, no longer interested in the wounded cubs.
Bjorn patted his belt in soft, short movements. His fingers brushed the flat of his camp ax. Drawing it out slowly, he froze when the roc dipped his head.
Daring to draw his ax out in a smooth motion, he exhaled through his nose when the roc remained atop the tree. Bjorn pressed it outward like a torch, hoping naked steel would deter the bird long enough to gain a better study of the star-cat.
She half-slipped out of the crack, heavy on her front paws. The slits of her eyes widened to full circles to take in every shift of movement in the barren ravine. Thankful for the small bunches of clouds covering the sun to shadow the sharp depression, Bjorn nonetheless rounded toward her, keeping distance between him and the roc. An obvious draw and stupid, he braced in anticipation.
One of the two beasts had to respond, deciding their mutual destinies.
The roc dove first, wings outstretched as he sped toward Bjorn. Claws extended, he screamed in fury.
Bjorn whipped for the oncoming predator’s narrow head, stepping to the side as the roc struck. Retracting his whip with the flick of his wrist, he threw it behind him as one of the large wings buffeted against his body, pushing him off balance. The leather length snapped for the bird, but faster than its end, he flapped hard to reascend.
Black and huge against the blue sky, the roc wheeled for the next attack.
The star-cat charged from her hiding spot. A streak of black and silver, she roared as she leapt.
Anticipating, Bjorn rolled the moment she landed on his back. Claws ripped holes in the thick woolen mantle around his neck and shoulders, into the dark green fabric covering his throat. He threw her far enough to recover his base and sling cracking strikes on the ground to keep her away. Rearing with a snarl, she swiped, too far to score his arms or legs. Never ceasing, he pressed, pushing her further from the entrance to the Steam Crags.
The roc flew for the cubs.
Torn between the defense of his life or the weakest, Bjorn sprinted for the crevice. Without pause the star-cast chased, whining in horror as they raced for her children.
Closing the distance in seconds, Bjorn shouted in pain as her claw caught in the meat of his left calf. He leapt, both from desperation and seeing the roc’s trajectory, and slashed his whip for the gliding monster.
The last three feet of leather-bound cord wrapped around the roc’s right talons.
Batting wings wildly, the roc kept aloft and climbed. The shocking strength of the creature ripped Bjorn from the earth. Kicking in panic, the star-cat swiped at the soles of his boots as his distance from the ground doubled. Twisting at the end the bear-whip’s handle, he lost sight of the trouble below.
Up and up, over the rocky hills, but too low to reach the wind currents, the roc flapped toward an outcropping of rock. Bjorn lifted his feet up to accept its hard surface before he was dragged over, back into the air by the monster’s preternatural power. Legs dangling, the ranger braced as a pine rushed toward him. Crashing into the needles stung, but willing past the pain, sap in his eyes and mouth, he clung to the narrowest portion of the tree-top. Latched to it, he squeezed arms and legs with all his might as the momentum of the roc halted in mid-air.
Bjorn flicked his wrist, freeing the whip from the warty ankle.
Liberated, the roc flew east into Dageria.
Waiting until the beast disappeared from view, Bjorn relaxed around the tree-top until gravity swayed the trunk under his weight.
“Damn,” he said, his victory deadened by the prospect of a long climb down.
When he reached the entrance to the Steam Crags a few hours later the hot gates of stone lay empty and the cubs gone.
Bjorn’s hip ceased smarting when Montolio cried, his equine bellow echoing over the ridge of the next hill.
Driven by the panic in his closest friend’s voice, he hurried up the steep slope, the toes of his boots knocking aside rock and dirt. He climbed, hands over feet, faster when the mighty steed whined loudly in the hills south of the Steam Crags. The hike had taken many hours with his aching body and withered stamina, including a stop by a stream where he ate some mushy grubs under a rock and supped from a snow melt. Half-starved and needing sleep, his will nonetheless fueled a frantic energy. He surmounted the ridge.
None of his fury flagged when he looked down upon the campsite he had left under Montolio’s watch. The tent trampled and the fire doused, three familiar figures danced around the noble creature. Chopping iron-shod hooves anytime one of the Dager “guardsmen” from Blustun reached for the long, blond main running the length of the stallion’s neck, he defended well but showed the first signs of slowing, no longer kicking up his back legs.
The lead man, standing the farthest from the fray, spotted Bjorn atop the hill.
“Boys,” Taufeeq shouted, bringing Umar and Jeddir to a standstill as they realized they had been caught.
Bjorn descended. Confident in their numbers, he pulled his camp ax from his belt and unwound the bear whip from around his body. Ribs searing from where he had struck the pine tree, both feet hurt, the miles of rocky terrain taking its toll. Nonetheless he stood before the three braggarts. Montolio used the moment to flee toward him.
“Ho, ‘Whiplash!’“ Taufeeq pulled out his short sword when he saw Bjorn’s weapons, but also revealed a small sack of linen, heavy on its bottom and closed by a drawstring. “There you are! We three were worried about your wellbeing! It’s very good to see you hearty and hale.”
“Why are you bothering my horse?”
“Oh, oh, sir, we weren’t bothering it,” said Taufeeq, sharing smirks with his two friends. Umar and Jeddir had unsheathed their hatchets, slowly taking steps to spread out their avenues of attack. “But you do have to admit how things looked. We came here, waited for you to return from wherever you went in this terrible wilderness, and who is to say you did not meet a terrible fate? We were simply deciding who would care for your fine horse.”
Bjorn nodded to the sack in the horse-raider’s hand. “And that?”
“Ah, this!” Taufeeq shook its contents, the clear clink of coins widening that mean smile. “The mayor, like us, had full faith that you would succeed in handling whatever dire beast set itself against the herders. We convinced him to let us bring your reward, as stipulated for all rangers of the crown, out of largess and thanks.”
“Leave it on the ground and go,” Bjorn said. “Thank you.”
“Well, well, a moment,” said Taufeeq, abandoning his sugary tones. “I would seek to propose business. My friends and I threw a few more coins in there, hoping you might be considerate enough to sell us your horse.”
“You can leave it on the ground and go.” The order repeated with deadlier conviction, Bjorn eyed the three. “The quicker the better.”
Shocked by the refusal, Umar and Jeddir gaped in rage.
“Oh, sir,” said Taufeeq, dropping the bag of coins to the rocky soil. The binding on its mouth split, dumping the Skadian silvers across the rivets in the crab grass. “We made this offer out of kindness. We could simply take the horse too.”
The long-handled hatchets of Dager raiders to the two cousins, a sword and dagger for Taufeeq, against Bjorn’s long whip and the half-dulled camp ax. The ranger placed his right foot back in the soft earth, loosening old mold.
He waved them in with his ax. “Who goes first?”
Jeddir shrieked a loud note, his hatchet held high. Before he stepped forward the bear whip bit into his face, tearing a line of skin from forehead to neck. Bjorn reversed his swing and jerked, reloading the whip for the next strike.
Umar threw a rock he had plucked from the rough ground.
Dodging the projectile, Bjorn lashed at Umar’s wrist, knocking the hatchet from the Dager’s hand. Instead of folding like his brother, Umar held in place, wincing through the agony as he lowered his weight.
The muddy ground of the campsite shifted under his hide boots as Bjorn bent under the man’s impressive strength. Letting go of the whip to let Umar fall backward, the Dager mired in the muck as he slipped and slid.
Bleeding from the score on his head, Jeddir recovered for a second attack.
Hatchet still held too high, Bjorn caught him by the forearms. He blocked a rising knee and hugged the Dager, throwing himself backward with his entire weight. He landed on top of Jeddir in the roll, raised the camp ax, and ended their struggle in a skull-splattering instant.
His wind knocked from his lungs as Taufeeq slammed into him from behind, a dagger point pierced the many layers of Bjorn’s woolen mantle and clothes before it touched flesh. The ranger snatched the offending arm in one fluid motion and threw forward, like he had with the star-cat.
Taufeeq flew over him, slamming on his back in the mud.
Bjorn recovered his fallen whip as Umar found his hatchet. He threw a hard overhand strike, the whip leaving a cut like the one his brother bore across his head, a killing stroke. He lashed the raider’s corpse in the mud for a second time, but braced when he sensed Taufeeq looming, his sword already back for a strike he could not block.
Montolio interceded, rushing the horse-raider. Before Taufeeq could flee he reared on his hind legs, forward hooves chopping. The skull exploded in a flowering gush of bone and gray matter.
Given time to regain his balance in the slick mud, Bjorn collected the dead man’s short sword. Exhausted, he plopped onto the ground at the last raider’s feet, letting his head fall back to take in the endless skies.
Montolio appeared, equine face blocking out the rest of the world as he nuzzled his boon-companion’s nose.
“Good ranger,” he whispered to the horse while looking about for the fallen sack of silvers. Spotting them in the soil and mostly together, he used his new blade as a crutch to stand.
By sunset he and Montolio had risen out of Blustun Valley’s steppes and blighted civilization, riding westward after he had reported his deeds to a much-relieved and thankful mayor, and more than a few silvers added to his reward. They traveled together as one, watching the fiery disk drain the gold and red from the sky as it plummeted. Smiling as he returned to the climes of Helmland, Bjorn breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, sensing something upon them, Montolio flicked his head toward the west.
Perched atop a ridge, the star-cat’s eyes gleamed in the dusk. Emeralds shining like the peeking stars, they followed Bjorn before vanishing into the silent night.
Jay Requard is an award-winning author of Epic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, and Urban Fantasy located in New York. The host of the YouTube shows PONDERING THE ORB, which surveys books, music, and more, and the Star Trek: TNG-focused WHERE NO BUBS HAS GONE BEFORE, he is already off on the next adventure full of long hikes through the hills, delving into the darkness of the soul, and onward to that bright horizon. He also has a star-cat named Mona.
You can join the adventure at jayrequard.com
© Whiplash at the Steam Crags!, 2023, Jay Requard