Two miles later, they rode into the ambush.
The silence that had reigned over the world, silence that came with the silent shift toward winter, meant that they had little warning. Thy hadn’t heard any birdsong in days, nor any other sound other than the occasional rustle of the wind through the trees, the hoof beats of their horses, and the sound of their own voices, their own breathing.
“Cameron! Hold up a second.” Neve’s horse raced along at a gallop as his plodded on at a trot. She’d stopped to investigate a bush a half mile back and told him to ride on ahead.
Cameron laughed as he reined up, twisting in his saddle to look back at her. “Misjudged how fast I was going, huh?”
Their only warning was a bird’s call.
Then the tree came down.
Cameron’s horse reared, shrieking in startled fright. He cursed, suddenly on an organic roller coaster that he wasn’t strapped into at all securely. His fingers convulsively tightened around the reins in his hands and his knees gripped his mount’s flanks as he tried to ride out the creature’s panic.
Neve’s horse barreled straight on toward the fallen tree.
Cameron caught the barest glimpse of Neve’s determined expression as she flashed past, only feet from the tree.
They’re going to jump it, he realized, about to shout at her.
Her mount shied at the last second.
Cameron’s eyes widened in horror as he watched Neve fly from the saddle. She somersaulted through the air, sailing into a pile of brush at the base of another tree.
She hit with a sickening crunch that slammed Cameron’s heart into his throat.
A rumbling voice sing-songed from the shadows of the woods to his right.
Pretty pretty Neve, apple of her brothers’ eye, got lost so far from home
Tried to jump a fallen tree while she was out alone.
Princess of the princes, pretty little Neve
Never learned the lesson of when to just go on and leave!
Now pretty pretty little Neve, apple of her brothers’ eye
Can do little more than shut up and wait to die.
Cameron’s blood boiled. He jerked harshly on his mount’s reins as he groped for the sword that should have been within easy reach. His hand fell on the shotgun instead. He risked a glance toward the brush where Neve had landed and saw no sign of movement.
She’s not dead. She can’t be dead.
Breath burned in his lungs. He summoned the last ounces of his courage and control.
“Come out and face me like a man!” he shouted at the hidden voice. His heart hammered against his ribs.
At least if I die, I’ll do it defending her. It wouldn’t have pleased her or her brother, but he didn’t quite care.
Laughter that sounded like a rockslide answered him and a figure about as ugly as the same lumbered out of the shadows. It—he—was easily eight feet tall, carrying a club as thick around as Cameron’s thigh. A mop of gray-green dreadlocks clung to the creature’s scalp, its flesh the color of lichens. Its eyes glinted gold even in the dim of the cloudy morning. Its squashed, ugly face was dominated by a nose the size of his fist and a mouth that was almost just a gash in its flesh—except for the two tusks peeking out from beneath its lower lip.
“Oh-ho, little princeling. Our quarrel is not with you but with yours. Leave now and you might be spared a painful death!”
Please let guns work on this thing. Cameron cast another desperate glance toward the brush before refocusing on the monster and chambering a round. “How about no?”
I pull the trigger and this horse is going to throw me, too. I’ve only got one shot at this.
The monster roared a laugh, apparently amused. “Do you think your iron tube will hurt me, youngling of old blood? Your toothpick arms can not strike me hard enough!” It twitched a massive hand irritatedly. “Begone and leave me to my vengeance, sweet so sweet! The Wanderer she is not, but wronged us all the same has she.”
“Fuck no,” Cameron said, enunciating each word as precisely as he could, forcing his voice not to shake. One shot. Make it count.
He aimed for the chin and pulled the trigger.
His horse bucked under him and he lost his grip on the weapon, tossed unceremoniously from his saddle and onto the road, the shotgun bouncing once before it landed a few feet away.
From the scream he heard, the shot had been worth it.
The blast caught the creature in the neck and face, and the scream was a wet, almost gurgling sound. It dropped its club and stumbled back toward the woods from where it’d come, crashing and splintering sounds marking its passage.
Scrambling to his feet, Cameron grabbed his startled mount’s reins, jerked hard, then flung himself at the tree that blocked the road.
Still no movement from the brush.
No, no, no, no, no! Don’t do this to me, Neve. Don’t do this to me.
Cameron cursed again. He grabbed both horses and dragged the skittish creatures around the fallen tree, then darted toward the brush.
Please be alive. Please.
A giant hand wrapped around his heart and squeezed painfully at the thought of Neve being dead.
He crashed through the brush, ignoring the thorns and brambles that grabbed at his pants, at his bare hands. I have to get to her. We have to get out of here as fast as we can. Once that thing comes back, it’s going to be fucking angrier than a bee-stung wolverine being chased by a gaggle of angry badgers.
She lay in a crumpled heap against a tree trunk, face deeply scraped by the bramble bushes she’d landed in. A little blood trickled from her nose and the corner of her mouth. One leg was canted at a somewhat strange angle.
All he could think was, Please, still be breathing. Please.
He saw her chest rise and fall in a shallow, shuddering breath.
Thank you god.
He didn’t think as he scooped her up. She gave a startled, pained gasp, eyelids fluttering for a moment.
“It’s all right,” he murmured as he carried her clear of the brush. “I’ve got you, Neve, but we’ve got to move. No time.”
She’s not going to be able to sit in a saddle. Cameron swallowed bile. This isn’t going to be an easy ride for either one of us. Got to put miles between us and that thing, though—and ride through a river or three besides if we can, in case it can track us by scent.
He loaded Neve onto his horse, sprawled on her stomach with arms and legs dangling. Only for a minute, he promised her silently as he untied the pair of mounts.
Then he swung up into his saddle and looped both sets of reins around his hand. He gathered Neve tenderly against his chest and rode on into the west.