I have interesting dreams. It’s not often I remember enough to piece together any kind of story, but I woke from this one remembering everything.
My father had a warhorse, black as sin and twice as beautiful. He and that horse were heroes, and when they left me in the small town of merchants and traders, I never knew if they died or moved on to greater things.
Hunting is how I made my way. Hunting parties would go out in search of deer hiding beneath the marshes. It took a keen eye to spot them, and a quick wrist with the lasso to keep them from bounding away. I had both, so they let me join earlier than most and didn’t give me grief for being a girl.
We’d made it all the way to Altena only capturing a single deer–meager pickings by any measure–when I wandered down to the arena and saw Sangre the first time. He was a warhorse, just like my daddy’s, but white splattered with a muddy red the color of dried blood. The horsemen had him corralled and no fewer than four ropes trailed from his neck – trophies from those who’d tried to capture him and failed. One man leveled the crossbow at the beast, so I knocked the wood from the man’s hand.
I knew as well as they did that the warhorses were outlawed. Kill on sight, the regent had said, and so it had been, but never for me. I remembered my daddy’s horse and I knew they weren’t demons. Regent probably got a platter-hoof to the face, and he’d probably deserved it.
They didn’t kill Sangre that day, nor the next, though I had to sleep next to the corral that night to keep him safe. Two days of soft words and apple slices bought me Sangre’s trust, and the trust of a warhorse brought more with it than just a steed.
The brass elephant head sculptures on the arches around the animal corrals had their trunks lowered when I started. It seemed to me as those days passed that the trunks had twisted a bit more each time I glanced up to see them. By the time I mounted Sangre the first time, they were fully raised.
The elephants carried luck in their trunks, said the faithful. They’d been trunk down every time I’d seen them, even when I was so young my daddy had to lift me up so I could rub my hand against the sun-warmed brass. I hoped the faithful were right, and the elephants were now holding their luck instead of spilling it out into the ground. Hunting had been frightful bad.
Sangre liked me, but didn’t much like a saddle, so I rode bareback the way back home. The hunting party crossed themselves and fingered their crossbows, but no few of them owed me favors, and I’d be damned if I’d let them hurt one hair on his spotted back. He was mine and I was his, and that was always the way of warhorses.
Halfway home, Sangre paused, nostrils wide. I let him stop and watched his ears flick to the side. The hunters bellowed about the delay, but I slipped off Sangre’s back and walked to the side of the path, parting the tall grasses there with one hand.
My heart raced. A swamp. A big one, and the tiny brown “lilly pads” dotting the surface made me dizzy to see. Deer. Dozens of them. No, hundreds of them. The deer hid in the swampwater when predators were near, only the tips of their flat, leaf-like noses above the surface to breathe while they waited.
I’d never seen this many in one spot in my entire life.
I slipped back to the road and gestured to the hunters for silence. A good crew, they hushed immediately, one man breaking off mid-complaint. I pointed to the two lariats on the squad and lifted my fist in the air, flashing my full hand open once, twice, thrice – the signal for a massive haul that I’d never actually seen anyone use.
The men grinned and reached for their ropes, leather saddles creaking as their horses caught wind of the tension too, nostrils flared.
I held up my hand again – wait.
Why would there be so many in one spot? Too many, and they’d never be hiding from us. We’d been loud enough to give them plenty of time to escape.
If they weren’t hiding from us … I gestured again, this time at the rest of the hunters. I gave the thumb-and-pinky out signal that meant for them to ready their crossbows, then swung the gesture in a circle. I didn’t know where the danger might come from (if it even did) but I wanted them to be prepared.
They listened, a chorus of stretching string and clanking metal as they readied their weapons. I strung my own crossbow and held it loosely at my side, finger away from the trigger.
If I was wrong, we should have been loud enough to send the deer flying from us, but no splashes came from the marsh. No frog or birdsong, either.
I didn’t think I was wrong.
I leaned down and whispered something private to Sangre and felt his muscles collect beneath me. A deep breath, and I gave a high-pitched yip and plunged him through the tall grass on the border of the swamp, hissing as the cold water rose up around my legs. Mud splashed in front of me and the deer rose up from their prone positions beneath the water’s surface, the smooth lake transforming into a chaotic brown and black vista as panicked deer fled our onslaught.
I saw the first ropes flick out, aiming for deer I couldn’t see, but I knew my crew and I knew they were after the buck and the lead doe if they could find her. Control her, and you controlled the herd. This had to be multiple herds, though. I’d never heard of any grouping so massive.
A roar split the air, furious and bone-vibrating deep. The other horses whinnied and half-reared up, eyes rolling white. Sangre only snorted, though I felt his muscles bunch. A dragon–scales a muddy brown color that probably meant it was one of the cavern wyrms, though I was no expert – rose OVER the tops of the tree tops, larger than anything I’d ever seen save the largest buildings at the capitol.
This was what the deer had been hiding from.
Crossbows thwacked and a rain of arrows sped to the beast’s head, which snaked toward us with menacing speed. A few arrows lodged in his lip and the soft skin around his eye, but none hit home.
I lifted my bow and whispered a prayer to my father as I let my arrow sail.
As the arrow flew for one of the dragon’s golden eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder why a cavern wyrm would be here, out in the open, hunting marshdeer.
If we survived this hunt, I resolved to find out.