I'll try to sort out some formatting issues with this one.
[/INDENT]She led off as the snow fell harder. It did not become a blizzard, but neither did it relent. Before long the trees were laced with it and the ground was covered. It was midafternoon when Tatyana stopped and crouched to look at something on the ground. The others joined her. She was looking at a huge paw print in the snow, perhaps the diameter of a bucket. Snowflakes were just starting to sift into it. There was a trail of them going from her right to her left, off into the trees and up the slope.
“Dear Blessed Father, what made that?” one of them said.
“A cat,” Tatyana said. “Judging by the size, a saber tooth.”
“Why hasn’t the snow covered them?”
“Because it just passed this way a few moments ago.”
Dread settled on the priests in a dense silence. Tatyana rose to her full height, spear in hand.
“Will it bother us?” Gannon asked her. She shrugged.
“I cannot say. We’re in its territory, so perhaps it’s just curious and wants to keep an eye on us. Or it could be stalking us.”
“It wouldn’t dare attack us.” Fisk sneered.
“Why not?” Tatyana countered. “A flesh eater living in such an extreme climate cannot afford to be choosy. It’ll take whatever meat it can get its jaws around.”
“Perhaps our party is too large?” Gannon suggested. Tatyana shook her head.
“They’ll go after great herds of elk, so it certainly won’t fear us.”
“Fear not,” Fisk assured them. “The Blessed Father looks out for his own.”
“Piatists die just like everyone else,” Tatyana said. “It can just as well be under the fangs of a beast as in a warm bed. Be on your guard. No one goes off alone. If it is stalking us, that is just the sort of opportunity it’s watching for.”
They continued on. The overcast sky meant that darkness came that much sooner, so Tatyana kept an eye out for a good camp site and amused herself by considering sending Fisk out alone to look for firewood. Perhaps she could tie several pieces of meat to him to court the odds. The idea of Fisk ending up as a steaming pile of cat dung brought a smile to her lips.
She located another group of trees in a spot sheltered from the wind. She halted her party about fifty yards from it.
“Let me scout it,” she told them, “and make sure the saber tooth hasn’t taken up residence.”
“You said no one should go off alone,” the young dark haired acolyte reminded her.
“I’m the only one who’s armed. If we all went in I’d have to watch all of your backs in addition to mine.”
She went towards the trees, brynthvari held in both hands and low, by her left hip, point forward. Snow crunched and squeaked under her boots. She scanned the trees as she got closer, looking for likely hiding spots the saber tooth would use. It was getting dark, but her night vision was as good as any cat’s. She was ten feet from the trees and saw no signs of the predator. The whole stand of trees was perhaps thirty feet by twenty feet, so it wouldn’t take long to search. Tatyana entered through the most open spot she saw and moved through the copse, slowly and carefully, brynthvari held low and poised to impale anything that came at her. Each step was accompanied by constant scanning of her surroundings. She breathed through her mouth so she could hear better, though she occasionally sniffed the air, her sense of smell being superior to a human’s, but she detected nothing, not even the scent of the cat marking its territory. She passed through the entire stand of trees without detecting any sign of the great saber tooth. Relaxing a bit, she returned to tell her charges all was well. She stepped out into the open and saw that Fisk had drifted away from the others. His gaze was frozen on something. Tatyana followed his gaze and saw it.
The great saber tooth was there, a massive six hundred pound predator. It had stepped out from some boulders and scrubby bushes. Its white hide was striped with brown and grey and dark green. It had blended in with the snow and bushes perfectly and had been watching the entire time. Its shoulders and forelimbs were massive, its hind legs disproportionally small, its tail a comical stub. It was a wrestler, not a sprinter. Tatyana had the bearing of a predator, so it had ignored her and focused on the others, trying to decide which one to target. Then Fisk had unwittingly volunteered when he drifted away from the others. Tatyana’s natural impulse was to let him get eaten.
Then you will not sufficiently answer your challenge, she reminded herself. You will not become a Morriganian. You will fail.
The thought of failure, of disgrace before her sisters, her people and her family, sent the cold shard of fear through her guts the way death did for other people. She charged forward. The great cat ignored her, but neither did it make a move towards Fisk. It could reach him with only a bound or two. Tatyana’s long legs ate up the distance. She had been running as fast as she could for three seconds when the cat charged at Fisk.
Tatyana halted and slid through the snow, coming between Fisk and the saber tooth, spear held before her. The cat came in low, reaching Tatyana as she slid to a stop. She had a fraction of an instant to see its crystal blue eyes before it hit her. Her breath was driven from her and pain wracked her chest.
The priests ran past Fisk and up to the inert cat. Tatyana’s unmoving legs stuck out from underneath it. Steaming blood slowly oozed out into the snow.
“Get it off her!” Gannon shouted. The priests moved forward to comply, but they had no idea how to move the huge beast. Then the beast itself began to move.
“Blessed Father, it’s still alive!” someone cried. They scattered from it, turning to look only when they thought themselves a safe distance from it. Then they saw a curious thing. The saber tooth was getting up, yet its legs were limp.
“What in the seven hells?” one of them wondered. They came forward hesitantly and finally saw Tatyana was pushing the great cat up off of her. Her arms were straight and the cat’s feet off the ground. Then she heaved it off to the side and let it thump to the ground. Her spear was driven almost entirely into its throat. Less than a foot of haft protruded from its throat while the point had emerged between its shoulder blades. She sat up, grimacing and putting a hand to her chest. She was coated in the saber tooth’s blood.
“Blessed Father, you’re alive,” Gannon said, amazed. The others gathered around them as Tatyana shook her head and coughed.
“She’s not dead?” Fisk asked.
“No such luck, Fisk,” she replied between coughs. She hauled herself to her feet, still coughing. She walked around to where she could see her spear tip sticking out of the cat’s back. Then she got a loop of leather around it and slowly pulled her brynthvari out through the animal’s back.
“Let us make camp,” she said as she walked towards the trees. Wordlessly, the others followed. They gathered wood and got a fire going. Tatyana slowly took her armor off. Her face was expressionless, but her pallor indicated the pain she was in.
“Here,” the acolyte with the dark hair and eyes said. “Let me wash that off for you.”
Tatyana looked at him, searching for signs of sarcasm or hostility, but all she saw was a genuine desire to help. He took her cuirass, stiff from having been boiled in wax to waterproof and toughen it, and began using snow to rub the blood off of it. She then unlaced her fur tunic and let it fall around her waist, revealing a linen undershirt and a teardrop shaped lump of amber hanging from a gold chain around her neck.
“What are you doing?” Fisk asked, alarmed.
“Seeing how badly I’m injured, you fool.”
“You’d bare yourself here, before a dozen men?”
“Have you never seen a woman before?” she yelled, her pain loosening her restraint and raising her voice. “Look away if you find the female form so offensive.”
She removed her final garment and inspected herself. Most of her chest was one giant bruise. She pushed on her breastbone here and there, looking for breaks. Though very sore, she detected none. The worst pain, though, was low on the left side of her chest. She lifted her left breast and felt along her ribs, stopping suddenly. She did not so much as gasp, but she again turned pale. She resumed her inspection, pressing here and there, then put her shirt and tunic back on.
“It is safe to look,” she informed them, not bothering to keep the scorn out of her voice.
“How badly are you hurt?” Gannon asked.
“Two of my ribs are cracked.” The young man who’d cleaned her
armor handed it back to her, most of the blood scrubbed off. “Thank you…”
“Adrian,” he told her.
“Thank you, Adrian.”
“It could’ve been much worse,” Adrian said and pointed out two parallel cuts along the back of the shoulder. They didn’t cut through the leather, though they came close. They were nearly a foot apart.
“That’s where his fangs grazed you. If you hadn’t had that armor, or if he’d gotten you somewhere else…”
She looked from her armor to the young man and smiled at him. He flushed and looked down.
“That’s why I wear the armor! And he didn’t get me somewhere else, so brood not upon it.”
They ate supper silently, though the priests were clearly disturbed by their brush with death. They started like cats at every little sound. Finally, one of them could hold his silence no longer.
“How can you just sit there and eat like nothing happened?” he demanded of Tatyana. She cocked her head as she looked back at him, frowning and puzzled.
“What else am I supposed to do?” Her tone was every bit as uncomprehending as his.
“You nearly died not two hours ago. Does that not bother you at all?”
She shrugged and shook her head.
“How can it not?”
“My training has prepared me for death.”
“How?” Gannon asked.
“By killing me,” Tatyana replied, looking him in the eye. “It is standard training for Morriganians to be stabbed in the heart and killed. Powerful sorcerers are standing there with healing spells and potions to bring us back, but every one of us experiences actual death as part of our training.”
“How daunting can it be,” Fisk wondered, “if you know the sorcerers
will save you?”
“Because they sometimes fail and the candidate remains dead,” Tatyana said, turning her gaze on him. “There is no guarantee the spells or potions will work.”
“Are you prepared to so easily accept death without the protection of the Blessed Father?” Fisk continued. Tatyana shrugged again.
“I’ve done it once. I can do it again.”
“Those who die without accepting Piat’s truth can only be condemned to one of the seven hells of their choice,” Fisk insisted.
“Which of the seven hells did you see?” Adrian asked, eyes wide with morbid fascination.
“I saw a fine country,” Tatyana said, her gaze going distant. “Great blue seas, mighty forested mountains, and vast green planes. The spirits of my foremothers hailed me and promised me a seat of honor among them if I went back and made them proud. If that is one of the seven hells, they have been grossly misnamed.”
“You lie. Those were demons deceiving you.”
Tatyana’s eyes blazed with suppressed rage as this self-righteous fool dismissed her most profound moment as a lie and her most beloved people as demons. She’d wanted to take her axe to him before, but now she wanted to sink her fangs into his throat. She could bite hard enough to break his neck.
If I didn’t need you to complete my final challenge…
“She saved your life not two hours ago, Fisk,” one of them pointed out.
“All to get you to trust an infidel and lead you astray from the Kingdom of the Truth. She is not even human.”
Tatyana didn’t waste her breath replying. She made herself as comfortable as she could and tried to sleep, though the pain of her broken ribs only allowed her to sleep in short, fitful bursts, and those were so light the only way she knew she’d slept was if she’d dreamed. She did not know how long she’d been staring at the sky before she realized it had gone from black to grey. Enjoying the feel of being wrapped in her furs, she forced herself up, refusing to groan as her cracked ribs shifted. She got the others up and moving.
She kept them moving every day after that. Those who bothered to consider it knew her ribs must pain her terribly, but she gave no sign of it. For her part, Tatyana simply focused on her goal and kept plowing ahead, reminding herself it was almost done. Her pain, her fatigue and her irritation at Fisk combined to torment her, like a physician poking at an open nerve, but her will had taken root and refused to relent. Death itself hadn’t stopped her ambition from becoming a Morriganian. Neither would any of these irritants.
Nothing short of the end of the world itself will stop me.
It was perhaps two weeks after she’d killed the saber tooth and they were stopping for the night when they heard a mournful howl rolling out from some higher elevation.
“Dear Blessed Father, what was that?”
The howl repeated itself.
“Ogres,” Tatyana said.
“What makes you think there is more than one?” a priest asked.
“Ogres are tribal,” she told them.
Another howl sounded, this one a bit further west than the first.
“The first howl was a query,” Tatyana went on. “That last one was an answer.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’d be a poor mountain guide indeed if I didn’t know the howls of ogres when I heard them.”
“What evidence do we have you are not a poor mountain guide?” Fisk sneered.
“She’s gotten us this far, all of us, alive and unharmed,” Adrian pointed out. “She’s been true to her word.”
“Adrian, how can you be so naïve?”
“Truly, Fisk, what has she done?”
“She has rejected the holy word. What further evidence do you need that she serves the Kingdom of the Lie?”
“She saved your life when you’ve shown nothing but contempt for her,” Adrian pointed out.
“All to gain your trust, and she seems to have succeeded, particularly with you, Adrian.” Fisk’s disappointment was obvious. Adrian looked down, then back up at him.
“You may be right, Fisk, but if someone had stood between me and a saber toothed cat I’d be grateful, no matter what the motive.”
“Grateful?” Fisk said as he gave Adrian a speculative look. “I think lustful might be more appropriate. I saw you when she shamelessly bared herself before us. I saw you looking at her, wide-eyed and open mouthed. A pair of bared breasts and suddenly you’re willing to copulate with demons.”
Adrian reddened and again looked down. Fisk slowly shook his head.
“Of all the people…”
“My suggestion stands, Fisk,” Tatyana said. “If you find my company so objectionable, you are free to leave it.”
The chilling howl echoed across the mountains again. Again it was answered. They all looked around with frightened eyes, all except Tatyana. She looked at Fisk, who made no effort to leave the company. She nodded slightly to herself, then turned to make camp, as did the others.
Though they still ached deeply, the pain of Tatyana’s ribs had subsided enough to let her sleep better. She was enjoying this improvement, brynthvari clasped in her hands, when someone touched her shoulder and woke her. Her eyes flared open and glared at Adrian. His face was pale with fear.
“What is it?” she asked quietly.
“There’s something out there,” he whispered, “beyond the firelight. We can hear it move.”
Tatyana slowly sat up, her injured ribs stabbing at her, though she gave no sign of pain. They had three campfires, all of which had burned low. She held still, listening. A faint sound reached her. Was it snow crunching under a foot? Moments later she heard the swishing of something moving through the bushes. She stood, brynthvari held low across her thighs. Another sound reached them, like something huffing through large, wet nostrils, followed by something that sounded like it was rumbling from a very deep chest.
“Build up the fires,” she told Adrian.
“Yes, my lady,” he replied with a slight bow and hurried off to obey. She gave him a curious look.
Yes, my lady? Now what in the seven hells was that all about?
The others were coming awake and milling around.
“What is it?” Gannon asked.
“I believe the ogres have finally come calling,” Tatyana replied.
“What rot is she going on about now?” Fisk grumbled, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
A stone the size of her head shot out of the darkness and slammed into Tatyana’s back, knocking her off her feet and dropping her face down into the snow. The priests exploded in all directions as an ogre came charging out of the dark, another rock held in his hand. The priests had a brief impression of something at least as large as Tatyana, with dark skin and wearing flapping animal hides. Tatyana had gotten to her hands and knees and was trying to get her breath back when the ogre was upon her. He kicked her in her right side, picking her up and dropping her on her back. It bellowed as it raised the rock in its hand. Tatyana shot from the ground and coiled around his right leg like a serpent. She held his calf with one hand and wrenched it as she slammed her other hand into his knee. They all groaned as they heard the leg break. The ogre shrieked and fell to his good knee. Tatyana rose behind him, grabbed his head and broke his neck. The creature flopped to the snow as his three companions joined the battle. They all had dark skins and wore animal hides. Their brows were low and sloped back. Their ears were small and pointed, their wide, frog-like mouths rimmed with pebbled lips and snaggled fangs. They glared about with small, piggish eyes.
Tatyana had lost her spear when the stone had hit her, so she drew her axe. An ogre even bigger than she came at her, his stone axe raised high. He bellowed as he brought it down in a mighty blow. Tatyana slipped off to her right, her own axe held low and cocked. She brought it up behind her right shoulder and down into the ogre’s skull, splitting it like a coconut. Another one cast his stone-tipped spear at her. She twisted to get out of its way, but she was not entirely successful. The flint tip sang past her but sliced deeply into her upper right arm, an area covered only by her tunic and undershirt, not her armor. She was about to charge him when a scream brought her about.
Another ogre had seized a priest by his upper arms, picking him up and roaring in his face. The man was babbling prayers to the Blessed Father for deliverance. The ogre pulled the man close and was opening his mouth wide to bite the priest’s face off when he suddenly dropped the man and screamed. Tatyana had come up behind him and brought her axe down upon his shoulder, severing his arm. The beast whirled and backhanded Tatyana with his remaining arm, knocking her sprawling. When she slid to a stop in the snow, she realized she had dropped her axe. She drew her knife as she rose.
The one-armed ogre was stomping towards her. Her knife was a large version of the standard Amazonian fighting knife, a double edged blade slightly curved, resembling the limb of a strung recurved bow. The ogre swung at her with its remaining arm. Tatyana ducked and slid behind him, stabbing him repeatedly in the upper back, her long, broad blade penetrating deeply into his chest cavity. Then something seized her knifearm, wrenching it almost to the breaking point and forcing her to drop her knife. It was the last ogre, the one who’d thrown a spear at her. He was a foot taller than she.
Tatyana shot a kick into his gut to make him release her. He did, but then his right fist shot towards her head. She slipped past it and grabbed his chest by the animal hide he wore. Her other fist struck him repeatedly and quickly in his left rib cage. Her fangs were bared as she drove him back, hanging onto him with one hand and driving blows into his ribs with the other, breaking several of them. Then she tightened her grasp in his animal hide and grabbed his leg behind the knee, picking him up off the ground and charging forward. Her battle cry rising in volume, Tatyana rammed his back against a broken tree limb, impaling him and leaving him hanging. Then she turned to the one she’d been stabbing, but he was down. He’d succumbed to the severed arm and multiple stab wounds she’d inflicted. Gasping for breath, looking around with blazing eyes, Tatyana saw the battle was over. She recovered her weapons while the priests swarmed around her.
“You’re hit!” Adrian cried as he ran over to her. The other priests followed. Blood had soaked her right sleeve.
“Get over to the fire,” Gannon told her. She did so. She again took off her leather cuirass and gingerly removed her fur tunic. Then she delicately pulled her arm from its sleeve in her undershirt, leaving the rest of the shirt in place. The cut was deep.
“We’ll need to stitch this shut,” Gannon told her.
“Well, if you’ve needle and thread, do so.”
Gannon, Adrian and two others set to work. They cleaned the wound and began stitching it. Tatyana did not betray the slightest sign of pain or even discomfort as she was repeatedly punctured. The priests, she could see, were not so comfortable. She could see how nervous putting their hands on a woman made them, even though she wasn’t human. Having one arm out of her shirt made the garment somewhat awkward. She felt her right breast about to slip free and smiled, tempted to let it for the sole purpose of tormenting the priests, but the ones who were treating her deserved some respect, so she reached across her chest with her left arm and caught herself. Gannon noticed.
“Thank you,” he murmured.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, a small smile on her lips.
“Tell me,” one of the other priests tending her said, “what is the meaning of that necklace?”
The amber she wore on a gold chain was again visible.
“It is a talisman through which my mentors can monitor my progress so they will have absolute proof I have succeeded with my challenge.”
“It would also make it easy for them to find you,” Fisk said. “Rather useful for an ambush.”
A hot irritation squirted through her heart.
“Yes, Fisk,” she sighed. “I’ve spent weeks leading you and protecting you, getting injured in the process, so I could lead you into an ambush. That makes perfect sense.”
“This will leave a scar,” Gannon said, trying to change the subject.
They gave her a puzzled look. She smiled.
“Scars are not cause for embarrassment among Amazonian women. Indeed, they are badges of honor, proof of valor, and considered quite attractive by Amazonian men.”
“Bizarre creatures,” Fisk muttered, shaking his head. The others agreed with him. It was some hours before dawn, so they all went back to sleep.
Tatyana’s right arm felt as stiff as a tree limb when she got up in the morning. Her arm, her back, and her ribs all hurt mightily. She did not wince as she got up, but Gannon noticed how carefully and slowly she moved.
“You know, it would be all right if you took some rest,” he told her.
“No, it wouldn’t. We haven’t the time and I haven’t the inclination.”
“Are Morriganians not allowed to recover from wounds?”
“Of course. What we are not allowed to do is fail.”
“Everyone fails sometime.”
“The only acceptable excuse for failure is death. I’m not yet dead. Therefore, I’m not yet allowed to fail.”