Chapter 3

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The giant shape stepped into the light, the metallic glint of a sword in its hand.

Stefan’s bowstring twanged.

“No!” Ancel reached a hand out to the arrow in desperation as if he could draw it back.

The arrow flew true. It pierced armor adorning an oak-trunk chest like a blade through silk. The most beautiful armor Ancel had ever seen.

The giant was a man. Tangled black hair hid his features, more akin to Charra’s fur than a mustache and beard. The stranger’s eyes widened at the shaft jutting from his chest. A massive hand rose to snap the wood in two before he pitched forward. He landed face down with a resounding thud and a shower of snow.

Stefan nocked another arrow, spurring his horse into a trot.

“Da. Stop.” Frantic, Ancel ran toward the giant.

“Come back,” Stefan yelled. “You don’t know who or what he is.”

“Yes, I do.” Ancel continued his run without looking back but made sure to veer where he thought he could block the next arrow. “It’s him. He’s the one. I can feel him.” He stopped over the man.

“What?” his father called from behind him.

“The link,” Ancel stressed, trying to hide his excitement despite the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach at the sight of the giant. The bitter scent of the blood spattered amongst the bush and on the ground set his heart racing. More often than not, when his father shot, he did so to kill. Another odor emanated from the giant. Ancel cringed at the reek. The stranger stunk like death or worse, but the strength of the bond to him said he was alive. Barely. He glanced over his shoulder. “He’s the one I’m linked to … my teacher …” A thrill ran through him when he uttered the word.

“Oh Ilumni.” Stefan slung his bow over his back and swung down from his saddle.

Ancel resumed his inspection of the giant. Artwork in dizzying colors and vivid detail covered the back of the man’s form-fitting leather armor. There were depictions of landscapes, battles, unknown beasts, weapons, celestial bodies, and words in scripts. Ancel could not begin to fathom any of it despite his extensive studies. The drawings flowed from the short-sleeves of the giant’s chestpiece onto the skin of his muscular arms in one seamless design. Ancel sucked in a breath, gaze riveted on the artwork as he brushed the ones on his own right arm. These too were Etchings. He was sure of it.

“We need to get him off the arrow shaft,” his father said, boots crunching in the icy grass. Stefan hawked and spat. “In Ilumni’s name, he stinks.”

They worked in concert, trying to flip the huge man onto his back, but he was too heavy, his armor like chunks of ice. Even his massive rune-etched sword resisted their efforts to relinquish it from his grasp. With a whine, Charra trotted over. Head down, the daggerpaw pushed the body by the waist. Ancel placed himself near the thighs and Stefan at the chest. Together, they heaved and rolled the giant over.

An awful stench wafted from the man like stepping onto a corpse-laden field days after a battle. Body convulsing, Ancel retched, covering his mouth and nose at the same time.

Long scars marred the left side of the giant’s face. Discoloration seeped across the exposed portions of his skin. The parts of the man’s hands not covered in tattoos were a bluish black. So were his fingers where they gripped his sword’s hilt. A similar tint showed from his neck up. The areas not affected by frostbite were tanned a deeper brown than Stefan’s skin. His chest rose and fell, slow and uneven. A liquid gurgle escaped his lips. The arrow must have punctured a lung.

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