Winter – Chapter 24 – 01

            “Something’s tracking us,” Thordin said, crouched next to a patch of bare earth where most of the snow had melted away.  He glanced back over his shoulder, back into the woods they’d crossed through, then looked up at Cameron and Neve.
            Swaying slightly on her horse’s back, Neve swallowed hard and asked, “How long?”
            “Probably since the bridge.  Maybe before.  Three, four days at least.”  Thordin straightened and walked over to take his mount’s reins from Cameron.
            “Can you tell what it is?” the former pilot asked.
            Thordin looked between the two of them, frowning slightly.  “I have a couple theories, but they’re not pleasant ones.”
            Cameron arched a brow and Thordin exhaled, staring at the road they’d already trodden, back through trees and brush.
            Then he turned his gaze to Neve.  “Will he believe me if I tell him?”
            She canted her head to one side, hands gripping the rim of her saddle so hard her knuckles had turned white.  “That depends on what you’re going to tell him.”
            “I think it’s a pack of hamrammr.”
            Neve sucked in a shallow breath, looking at Cameron.  He frowned slightly and looked between the two.
            “You might as well tell me.  Either I’m going to believe you or I’m not.”
            Thordin glanced at Neve again before he shook his head, turning to Cameron.  “They’re a touch like werewolves.  They’re not that, precisely, but that would be the best frame of reference for you.”
            “Werewolves that sound like some kind of…strange sneeze.”  Cameron’s head spun a little.  Werewolves?  What’s next?  Harpies?
            Oh wait.  Been there and done that.  Ghosts?  Vampires?
            He suppressed a snort and reminded himself that he needed to keep an open mind, no matter how crazy things started to sound.  “How dangerous?”
            “It depends on whether or not we’re their quarry.”  Thordin’s jaw tightened as he looked toward Neve.  “Would they be hunting you?”
            “Maybe,” she said, brows knitting.  “Though I haven’t crossed one of the Sisters in a long time—not since before we all went away. Have you?”
            Thordin frowned, looking off into the distance again.  “Maybe.  It’s possible.  I’ve been stumbling around for a while, anyway.  I could have crossed one of them inadvertently while I was still figuring everything out.  I don’t think so, but I can’t rule it out as a distinct possibility.”  He glanced toward Cameron again.  “What about him?”
            “I couldn’t run afoul of anything if I tried,” Cameron grumbled as he swung back into his saddle.  Neve gave him a sharp look and he smiled a self-deprecating grin.  “Except for the Dirae, apparently.”
            “Except for the Dirae,” Neve said quietly.  She closed her eyes for a moment, still swaying.  Cameron reached over and put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
            “You’re tired,” he said.
            “If something’s chasing us, we need to keep riding,” she said, opening her eyes.  “Especially if it’s hamrammr that’s doing the chasing.  The firbolg was child’s play compared to them.”
            “Unless it’s got the scent of blood in its nostrils,” Thordin said as he remounted.  “Then they have a tendency to turn into mindless berserkers out for…well.  Blood.”
            Christ, what have I ended up in the middle of?  Cameron frowned.  “And they’re chasing us?”
            “Could be.  Could be something else.  Wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.  I’m not omniscient.  Just good at what I do.”  Thordin shook his head.  “Neve’s right, though.  Something’s following, we need to keep riding.  Just in case.”
            “Just in case,” Cameron echoed grimly.  He shook his head, looking at Neve for another moment.  “All right.  You two win.”  He kicked his horse into motion.  “I’ll take point.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and cross a few streams.  Shake the scent.”
            “We can try,” Thordin agreed.  “Not a bad idea.”
            “Occasionally, I come up with good ones,” Cameron said with a grim smile.  “What else could it be?” he asked as they got moving again, heading steadily west.  It was as if some kind of tether was tugging him onward, westward.  “If it’s not a hamra—whatever you said it was.”
            Thordin considered the question for a long moment, then shook his head.  “I’d say a pack of wolves, but the last I’d heard, they were still a bit rare up here, especially the type the could transform into men.  I suppose it could be some local skinchangers or something similar, but that begs the question about why they’d be following us.”
            “We’re still trying to figure out why a pack of hamrammr would be following us, Thordin,” Neve reminded him, her voice barely audible over the sound of the horses navigating the brush-laden game trail.  “It could be anything, couldn’t it?”
            “Whatever it is, it’s a predator of some kind,” Thordin said, shaking his head again.  “Lupine, cat, otherwise—I can’t quite be sure. But there’s human—or other—intelligence guiding it.  There are both paw and footprints that’re evidence of that.”
            “Could be a few someones with hunting hounds,” Cameron said.  His stomach settled a little at the thought that it could be something entirely mundane.  A mundane threat would certainly be a change.
            “Aye, it could be,” Thordin agreed.  “Pray it’s that, I’m thinking.”
            I will.  Believe me, I will.  Cameron glanced toward Neve.  Not sure that the three of us could handle anything more than a few hunters and their hounds.  Not as ragged as we are, suffering like she is.
            Try as she might to hide it, he knew that Neve wasn’t recovering as quickly as she should, and he blamed the stress of the road.
            Though the sooner we get to where we’re going, the better off she’ll be.  That doesn’t do us any good if I lose her on the road, though.
            He dropped his mouth back half a length and reached across the gap, catching Neve’s hand in his.  She gave him a wan, brave smile and he smiled back, squeezing her gloved hand in his.
            “Stop worrying so much about me,” she whispered.  “I’ll be fine.  Just get us to where we’re going.”
            “That’s what I’m trying to do,” Cameron said quietly, then lifted her hand to his mouth to kiss the back of her hand.  “But not at the cost of any of us.”
            She smiled and squeezed his hand again.  He let go a moment later and concentrated on the road.
            Just get us to where we’re going.  That I can do.  It may be all I can do, but that I can do.

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