Note: This is a barbarian story that originally appeared at That’s What I’m Talking About as part of her Mistletoe Madness celebration. It takes place after The Beast of Blackmoor but includes no spoilers for that story.
At the inn beyond the mountain pass, Laina found death instead of a midwinter celebration. Around the building, the snow had melted, exposing a dark ring of earth. Acrid smoke rose from the timbers. A sickly-sweet scent joined the smoke on the wind. That scent was not a roasted midwinter pig.
Travelers had been trapped inside. Perhaps the flames blocked their escape or they were too drunk to know death was upon them. Either way, a grisly task lay ahead. Silver-fingered Rani would carry their souls back into Temra’s arms, but that goddess did not take flesh with her, and Laina could not leave the bodies to rot. A pyre would finish what the fire had begun.
She dismounted, her boots sinking ankle-deep into the soft powder. Beside her, Dorn shook his head and snorted plumes of steam. His big hooves stamped the snow in an uneasy, muffled beat.
The steadiest of horses in battle, Dorn wasn’t often unsettled. If he was now, then so should she be.
She drew her sword, gaze sweeping the moonlit clearing. The hem of her red cloak whispered across the snow as she approached the smoldering ruins. Except for the occasional soft crackle of charred wood, all was quiet.
Yet this had been no mere fire. Blood stained the trampled snow nearer to the inn. Shadows and the ring of dark earth around the walls had concealed the carnage until she was upon it. An arm lay in the mud. A leg. The joints were ragged, the flesh torn away in chunks.
The frigid mountain air skimmed over her teeth on a sharply indrawn breath. There were many beasts that would kill and consume a human. Laina’s own blade had recently tasted the blood of a long-toothed cat that had stalked her over the mountain pass. But one animal—or even a pack—would not attack an inn. Scavenge the remains after a fire, yes. But these remains were not burnt, so they had been dropped here before the flames started—as if, after killing everyone inside, the beast had gone in search of more.
Swiftly she circled the inn. The stable stood behind it. The wide doors were ajar, held open by a horse’s bloodied hindquarters. A slaughter lay inside.
No animal would do this. No mere animal.
Cold settled into her chest. Outside, she trudged north across the clearing. Snow had fallen that morning and yet new tracks marked the road. Three travelers, who had been lucky enough to depart before those at the inn met their unhappy fate.
Bloodstained tracks followed them. The beast had walked on two feet, but its bare, padded soles were bigger than any man’s. At the broad toes, sharp indentations in the snow indicated long, sickle-shaped claws.
An ice walker—and that abominable beast was on the hunt.
Now Laina was, too.
* * *
It was said the ice walkers were created after the insatiable god Hanan mated with a long-toothed snow cat and a Tarian ape, then spat the seed he’d drawn from both into his own godly womb. The monstrous beast he whelped had not even opened its eyes before slashing at the god with deadly talons, rending Hanan’s flesh and spilling his silver blood. Enraged, the god grasped the beast in his fist and hurled its hulking mass into the far northern reaches, where desolate plains shivered against mountains of ice. There the beast lived, and as the ages passed, its descendants began hunting farther and farther south, making dens in caves of ice upon snow-capped mountains, their hatred for Hanan’s favored creatures feeding the fire that warmed their flesh.
Hanan’s blood also ran through Laina’s veins, though hers bled red rather than silver. The name of the ancestor who’d lain with the god had long since passed from human memory. The strength of Hanan’s seed had not yet faded, however, and the combined might of ten warriors did not equal her own.
So she would hunt alone. Dorn was the best of mounts, yet he would slow her down—and if he was unsettled now, his great heart might fail when they faced the beast.
She removed his saddle and packs before collecting feed from the stable. Rubbing his neck, she tried to ease his nervousness, but she could not use her voice to soothe him as she often had before they’d begun this journey. When Laina had set out upon this sacred quest, Vela’s demand that she couldn’t speak a word until her task was finished hadn’t seemed such a hardship. Now, when her horse shivered and she couldn’t say a word to reassure him, the goddess’s demand was a much heavier burden.
But the path was never easy—and she still had a long distance to travel before she could even begin her task. This ice walker would be nothing compared to that.
She took only her sword and bow. The red questing cloak and her furs provided warmth against the cold, and Vela’s full moon lit her way.
The goddess protected those who quested for her. Laina only needed to have faith in that protection—and to have faith that, when her task was completed, the goddess would give her what she most needed: the power to defeat Anumith the Destroyer. Rumors of the sorcerer’s imminent return from across the western sea had reached every ear in Krimathe. Laina’s people looked to her now to lead them, not as High Daughter, but as their queen.
By law, Laina couldn’t claim her throne until she had completed her sacred quest—and she didn’t know how they would defeat the Destroyer if the goddess Vela did not stand at her side.
So she quested. She quested and tried not to think about how, a generation before, Laina’s mother and many of the Krimathean people had fallen before the sorcerer, despite believing the goddess would save them.
The path was never easy. Faith was not always easy, either.
But with Hanan’s blood pounding in her veins, running through the snow was easy. The road wound past jutting stone crags, always turning. Heavy flakes began to fall, clouds darkening the sky. Shadows deepened. Still she followed the ice walker’s trail; she could not be far behind. The wind was in her favor, and on some breaths she could smell the beast, its foul scent like rendered fat gone rancid.
The slope of the mountain gentled. In a snowy vale below, orange light flickered—the travelers’ fire.
Where was the ice walker? Her gaze searched the dark mountainside.
Dread clutched her chest. A shadow moved at the bottom of the slope. Not on the mountainside. The ice walker was already almost upon the travelers, and she could make out their figures in the light of the fire. They faced the flames and did not see the beast approaching from behind.
Without thought, a shout of warning rose in her chest—but she snapped her teeth together before it could sound.
She would sacrifice her throne. She would not risk her people.
Instead she ran. Raced down the mountainside, and oh—she had been so proud of the god’s blood that had made her so swift, but she would not be swift enough now.
The figures did not turn, though the ice walker was close enough that it would be visible to them in the orange glow of the fire.
Look around and see, you fools! The cry did not leave her mouth but it screamed from her mind.
Anger joined it. She would not risk her people, yet she was risking the three travelers by keeping this silence. Had Vela known this would come to pass? Was this why the goddess had demanded that she not utter a word until her task was complete? Did the goddess test her faith now—or was this punishment for every time Laina had raged at Vela for not standing by her mother and her people the last time the Destroyer had come to Krimathe?
The people ahead did not deserve to pay for her anger and doubt. She only needed to shout, and perhaps they would reach their weapons and hold off the beast long enough for Laina to arrive—or she would draw its attention and it would come for her, instead.
She plowed to a stop in the snow and dragged in a breath.
A howling scream stopped her shout.
The travelers had turned. Now they were tearing the ice walker apart, and the beast shrieked and flailed, but its long claws skated over hardened and emaciated flesh. Not humans.
Laina choked on her breath, desperate to stop any sound from passing from her lips. The racing of her blood stilled. Sudden cold sweat chilled her skin.
If they saw her, if they heard her, she would be dead. Not even Hanan’s might could protect her from their deadly grasp.
The ice walker stopped screaming. Her body shaking, not daring to breathe, she crept toward the deeper shadows at the side of the road. Every crunch of snow under her boots stopped her heart but the creatures below could not likely hear it over the crunch of bones and the tearing of flesh.
Yet she would have shouted.
Had Vela known this would come to pass? Laina did not know. She still did not know.
But faith might come a little easier now.