Chapter Eighteen: Burnt Lands

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Chapter Eighteen:
Burnt Lands

Like all good things my relatively peaceful time with Soren ended. I stood at the mouth of the cave, a hand shielding my eyes against the glint of sun off the snow. The clothes Skadi gifted me fit perfectly; a hooded tunic lined inside with rabbit fur, leather armor that covered my chest and shoulders, trousers made of bear skin, and a cloak of wolf skin around my shoulders. At first, the wolf skin cloak struck me as odd—Skadi's family were wolves—but that was the nature cycle, Breki explained. When the pack died, they went on to continue to serve their goddess. Besides, he mentioned, the wolf I was wearing wasn't well liked anyway.

Soren was beside me, pushing jerky in my hands. "You need to eat. Your hand will heal faster."

Despite the charred skin and the pain that never truly went away my bad hand healed well enough for me to grip a bow. Nerves made it impossible to eat, but I choked down a few pieces of jerky anyway. The moon hung almost invisible in the sky like a cat's claw.

"Seppo." Soren looked back into the cave. "Are you almost ready?"

"Ah—In a moment!" There was a scuttle of claws across the cave floor and Seppo came out, Hreppir on his heels. Both of them looked slightly haggard, Seppo sporting a black eye and scratching his arms raw. The younger wolf was nibbling on his shoulder like he too had an incurable itch.

The black eye was my fault. When Seppo came back from his time trying to rid the wolf pack of fleas, he noticed Soren and I as we'd been before I fell asleep. His laughter and declaration that he knew it would happen was enough to wake me up and charge at him—completely naked—until I gave him a few bruises. In the end, Soren made me stop. But it took a while.

"How long do you think it'll take to get out of the mountains?" I asked the dark wolf beside me. Breki's shoulders were a bit higher mine so he bent down to look in my eyes. "And to find the path of the Stag?" There was a feeling spreading through me ever since last night, my own insatiable itch, that nothing mattered more than finding the Stag before Lydian. Nothing. In the swirls of the snow the shape of the animal formed and swirled before bounding away. In the wind a voice was beckoning me forward. We needed to find the Stag. We needed to do it soon.

The wolf snorted. We'll be there before new moon.

Soren glanced at them from the side of his eye. "Are you sure you didn't pick up any fleas?"

Seppo hissed as he dug his nails into his shoulder and continued scratching. "Skadi said that fleas don't bother goblins."

Soren blinked slowly and took a deep breath. "Of course she did. Well, just stay away from us until you sort yourself out, you understand?"

Seppo harrumphed and pointedly turned his back on Soren, rubbing Hreppir between the ears.

Beside me, Breki knelt so I could mount him. It was like riding a horse, if that horse were ten times more agile and swift, with a thousand times the ferocity and predatory grace. I gripped his thick, gray-black fur; it was warm in my freezing hands. I'd gotten a pair of leather gloves too, like Soren and Seppo had, but I preferred the fingerless gloves I always had. Even if they were threadbare, they were better when it came to using a bow. I was already in bad shape due to my hand; I didn't need anything else holding me back.

Breki took the lead and Soren and Seppo climbed onto their wolves. It was the first time I'd been in the lead of anything. As a human child, I trailed my sisters, as an adolescent, I tracked the men of my village, as a captive, I was dragged behind Lydian's horse, and as a slave and companion, I was always one pace behind Soren wherever we may be.

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