III - The big bad wolf

She could have left whenever she wanted. She had all the tools at hand: enough bolts of fabric to fashion a rope as high as the tower, an endless supply of food, valuables. She could have walked away. Maybe not survived — what with the basilisks and werewolves and bandits — but she could have left. Climbing down proved easy for her. She laughed as she was sliding down the rope (lengthened, now, by several feet of fabric). Yet, until today, she stayed inside.

Maybe she needed a hand to hold.

Maybe she did not know that there was a way out of the forest and into the world.

We can‘t discuss it, but someday we will. In the meantime, I’ll be her guide.

“This is Scout,” I inform her as soon as our feet touch the ground, not that I have a choice: he is zooming around us, barking excitedly.

Valerianella is stepping away from him, eyes wide. He‘s probably the first dog she ever saw, and there’s quite a lot of him to process.

I grab her wrist before she can stumble back and impale herself on the spikes. Let’s not lose the princess during her first five minutes of freedom. There will be plenty of opportunities for that while we trek through the forest.

Scout circles us twice, sniffs her hair and belly, then sits at her feet and begs for pets. Valerianella squeaks.

“He’s a nice boy,” I tell her, hoping my tone will convey my meaning. “Look.”

I scratch Scout‘s head, behind the ears, which has him headbutting me for more scritches. She hesitates and raises not a hand, but a braid. She taps Scout’s other head with the ribonned tip of it.

He chomps down on the braid.


I do suppose it looks like a toy.

The princess is paralyzed. I drop to my knees and force Scout’s mouth open. He was playing, and releases the now slobbery braid. She pulls it back slowly and hides it behind her back.

Welp. This could have gone better.

“He didn‘t mean to,” I babble, toying with Scout’s jowls and patting his tongue to demonstrate how harmless he is.

She is still tilted away with wide eyes and a pinched mouth. I clear my throat.

“Let’s pack,” I mutter.

We lowered the bags of food to the ground before coming down, so all I have to do is fit them and everything else we own on Scout. His saddlebags are pretty large, so it goes well. I can‘t get my rope back: that frees up a lot of space. I’ll have to carry the cooking utensils and the rest of my tools, but Valerianella herself will be spared the heavy lifting. She has her own luggage (fabric and sewing supplies, which she would not leave behind), and that‘s all. Well, she might have to carry whatever game my snares caught, but that’s no sure thing.

Once I’m done with the packing, I return to the princess. She is standing at a safe distance, inspecting my glaive.

I grin at her.

Do I show off? I want to show off. But we shouldn’t be lingering.

I take my weapon back and lead her to Scout, making sure to stay between the two of them. I’m convinced my adorable boy will conquer her heart soon.

I turn towards the cliffs and point at the path we can take to climb up. The zigzag I draw in the air does not seem to scare her. She is pretty athletic and will handle herself just fine.

I take her hand.

“Let’s go!”

She starts humming mid-climb, and dancing two minutes later.

It would be mesmerizing if she were not doing that jumping from ledge to ledge on a cliffside. Well, it is a bit mesmerizing. She can afford to frolick: I‘m ashamed to admit she is much faster at getting up this ravine than I am. Then again, I can’t grapple around with my hair. I can’t even grow my hair.

“She’ll kill herself,” I mutter to Scout.

I know she won‘t. I’m just jealous.

He barks.

Thirty minutes pass. We drag ourselves, strenuously, to the top of the canyon. Valerianella is already there, rolling in the grass and sniffing the flowers.

She whirls to me as soon as I peek above the top of the cliff.

“What is dat?” she exclaims, pointing at a buttercup.

She‘s doing much better with the Thandin language already. Enough to ask me to teach her some more. And I’ll be happy to! As soon as I catch my breath.

I drop on my ass next to her and breathe. “Flower.”

She immediately puts a stone under my nose.

“Rock,” I say.

I take out my canteen and offer her some water before she can ask more questions. She takes the hint. I get to drink and rest a little while she wanders around the grassland, taking in everything. She stops at the edge of the canyon, looking at the tower she just escaped.

I watch her hug herself, first with her arms, then with her hair. She nearly vanishes behind all that motley fabric.

Should I say something?

I turn away instead and massage my shoulders. I should be planning the best route out. I get my map of the forest out and start considering our options. I‘d rather go towards Thandyr, but it would mean returning to the area where I met the caped men. Running off into basilisk territory would be bad, and I still don’t know where the werewolves went.

We might as well make a beeline for the closest town, northwest from here. And we need to move fast, even after our sleepless night. It looks like Valerianella was “trusted” to stay put, but the witch must have contingency plans in place in the event of an abduction, or whatever else.

“Scout! C’me here, boy,” I call.

He doesn‘t look too tired, despite the heavy load he had to carry up there. His tail (the one on his rear side) is wagging. I got him used to having the front one tugged safely under his harness, so it can’t get injured so easily. It’s wiggling under the leather, but he is not trying to free it. Good.

I scratch his head.

“We‘ve a long road ahead,” I explain. “Let’s get you something to drink.”

Valerianella joins us while he is drinking from his two bowls (they are mandatory, or he’ll bump heads with himself trying to drink). She crouches five feet away with her hands under her chin and just watches.

I scoot to her.

Sorry dog do mouth am,” I try. “Are you hurt?

I don’t remember the word for “okay”.

She smiles softly and shakes her head.

“Soft moud. Good boy.”

I sigh in relief. She’s so sweet.

“So, we’ll be going this way,” I announce.

I spread the map between us, confident that she can read it. Thandin aside, she seems to have had a better education than mine. I point at the tower symbol in the middle of the map, then drag my finger through the forest and to a village. I switch languages.

There. Quickly.”

She taps one of my annotations an inch to the side.

“Egei Basilisks zo illa?”


I really didn‘t want to have to tell her about the basilisks. I shake my head and trace our path again, to show that we won’t go anywhere near the breeding site. Then I grab my glaive and wave it, with my cockiest smile and an assured thumbs up.

Her hand reaches for her temple, and she runs it nervously along one of her shortest braids. The ones at the back of her head get as long as twelve feet, but the rest of them only go as low as her shoulders or waist.

The braid curls itself against her hand.

She frowns and looks at me up and down, inspecting the mismatched parts of my armor, the dagger at my belt, and even my boots. Whether her judgement is favorable or not, I can‘t tell, because her expression doesn’t change when she nods.

“We go,” she says in Thandin.

Inquisitive. That‘s the word. She’s inquisitive.

We‘ve been walking for three hours, and every single thing we saw, she asked me to name. The trees, the leaves, the birds, everything. I have never met anyone above the age of six who was so eager to learn. She brought a notebook and a pencil, and writes down every translation as she walks. It slows us down some, but I am so baffled by the way she moves about that I don’t think of complaining.

She spread her longest braids around her, in a loose circle maybe five feet large. She uses them to scan her surroundings. The circle of braids bumps into something? She changes course, sometimes without even taking her eyes off her notebook (occasionally, she ends up running in circles between a handful of trees, and I have to snap her out of it). As for the rest of her hair, it pushes low branches out of her way and covers her eyes when some sunlight manages to reach us through the trees.

This is so weird.

I don‘t know how to tell her that a dense forest is not the best of places for note-taking, so I don’t say anything. I just translate everything.

“Squirrel,” I say when one of the fluffy tree rats zooms past us.

Valerianella writes that down, biting down on her lower lip.


And then, a second later…

“What is dat?”

This time, she is looking at something moving up the trunk of a tree. Some kind of brown bird.


“Yes, but what bird?”

I stare at her, first because that is her best sentence in Thandin so far, second because are you kidding me?

“I don’t know!” I yelp. “A bird!”

I whirl to the critter. It‘s small, and brown, and blurry, and do I need glasses? It’s climbing faster and faster, too. Possibly because I yelled.

Valerianella raises her hand as an apology, chuckling at my reaction.

My deepest apologies,” she blurts out. She corrects herself. “Am sorry.”

I make a face. I keep it there through sheer will for a whole two seconds, then I burst into laughter. It gets Scout’s attention: he turns to us, yapping, and sits by our sides, panting happily. I scratch his head as I turn to Valerianella.

“You will have plenty of books on birds in the city.”

The royal library must be gigantic, and I know she will love it. I bet her parents will have to pry her out of the place.

She smiles and nods, though I know she has no clue what I just said.

“Let’s go,” I say. “Up, Scout.”

I’m looking down at my compass when I hear a dry branch snapping.

It could be nothing, really. It could be an animal: the squirrel we just saw, maybe. Scout isn’t showing any signs of alarm. He tends to sense danger before me.

Valerianna hasn‘t noticed anything. She’s pointing at a burrow.

“What is dat?”


“A rabbit burrow.”

Someone approaching from downwind. That‘s why Scout hasn’t reacted.

I reach for his harness and stop him while our princess is merily wandering away. I try to listen. I sense Scout tense under my hand. His eyes dart around. His ears turn. Then he whines.


“MIKHA! HIDE!” I scream, pointing at the canopy.

I catch her eyes for a second — the fear in them — then she flings her braids at a thick branch and shoots up into the foliage.

That’s when the werewolves come out.

I drop my backpack and spin around, glaive at the ready. There‘s three of them, large, and I don’t know how strong they are compared to humans of the same size. And humans of the same size don‘t have claws, don’t have the same muscle ratio, don’t have the fangs. I never saw a werewolf before, just artwork of them, and the artwork depicted them more… wolfish. While they have wolf ears, and tails, and fur, their features are still clearly human. But they are still wolves.

And I never felt quite so much like a mouse before.

I grit my teeth.

They are going down.

Not a single ranged weapon between the three of them, just swords and daggers and some mix of leather and iron armor. Nothing better than my own equipment — a glaive unsuited for combat in a cluttered environment — and Scout. The werewolves are trying to trap me between them while keeping him at bay. He’s scared shitless, but he will stand by me if I fight.

From the shuffling I hear above me, Valerianella is way out of their reach, so I don’t have to worry about her.

I charge directly at the largest of the werewolves.

He didn‘t expect the tiny mouse girl to take the initiative, but here’s the thing: that‘s what polearms are for. They’re intimidating and they will scare an unsuspecting opponent shitless. I jump mid-run, holding my glaive up so I can bring it down and slash through his skull, so he panics and raises his sword to block me, with two hands… and I flip the weapon as I land, shove the pole under his sword, and smash it straight into his groin.

One down, two to go.

I whirl and take a defensive stance against the others, who ran at me. There‘s some room to swing my glaive if need be, but I’ll have to stand my ground. If they force me into denser greenery, I’m dead.

“Ie mikhaeona!” the first one snaps, stopping his companion with one arm.

The other wolf steps back and raises his head, while the first steps closer and stands between us.

He talks to me in Pyrean, but it barely registers. My mind is stuck on his first words, on the extreme honorifics around ‘mikha’. They know she’s the princess.

I glare at my opponent. The other man bolts to a large tree, but Scout jumps in his way and growls at him with all the menace a hellhound can muster. Werewolves are massive for humanoids, but hellhounds are downright gigantic. Scout is looking down at the wolf, this while barring two impressive sets of teeth.

And then I don’t get to watch anymore: my opponent comes at me, swinging at my head, but I force him to withdraw with a thrust of my glaive. He dodges — narrowly — but is reminded that I have got the range. He is not as inexperienced as the first man, unfortunately.

He takes a few swipes to test me, getting nowhere near me, making me dance around. I do some of that dancing on his friend‘s sternum, because my low blow won’t keep him down forever and I‘d rather not have him surprise me when he recovers. By the frown on my foe’s face, he was hoping to keep me busy until that moment.

He gets more aggressive, moves faster, kicks the dead branches my way and — when he judges I am nervous enough — flings his sword at my head. I throw myself to the ground. He throws himself at me.

His sword is gone but he still has claws.

My dagger is out before he can touch me, and I slice at his stomach as he rolls away from the blade. It only scratches his armor, but the scare keeps him at bay for long enough for me to grab my glaive and thrust at him. He moves back some more.

I get back to my feet and sheathe the dagger, correcting my stance and readying myself for the next round.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Scout recoiling from the other werewolf, who is growling. Then a log wrapped in a colorful braid crashes into the man’s skull. He stumbles and drops like a stone.

I think that might just have killed him. Wow.

Well. Let‘s not let a good diversion go to waste. I swipe at my opponent, who can’t sidestep fast enough. My glaive slices through his armor and into his side, though not as deep as I had hoped. Blood drips from the wound and his steps falter. I press my advantage.

He is skilled enough to keep dodging and parrying, but the wound is slowing him down. I land a few light hits: I feel like we‘ve had enough death for the day, and I’d rather not take his head clean off where the princess can watch. She was not prepared for this kind of violence, who knows how she‘ll handle it? So the fight turns into a game of “incapacitate or die”, which I win, when I stab through the werewolf’s thigh. He goes down. I kick him in the gut for added effect.

“Scout!” I call.

I gesture at the first werewolf, who has no serious injuries to keep him down. Scout jumps on him and lies there, crushing the man under his full weight.

I crouch next to my opponent. He‘ll need bandaging or he’ll bleed out, but he‘ll live. The idiot tries to claw at me. I smash his hand with the shaft of my glaive, then press down on his wound. He calms down when he realizes I’m trying to help. I tug on his sleeve — plain cotton cloth — and he’s nice enough to tear it off himself.

Above us, branches are creaking. Leaves and sticks rain down all around us.

I‘m busy applying pressure to the werewolf’s injury when Valerianella lands, so there is not much I can do but watch her as she steps towards the man she knocked out. Her whole frame is shaking. She is holding her hands to her mouth, her eyes are wide and wet with tears.

She stops at arm’s length from him. I can hear her hyperventilating from ten yards away.

“Mikha!” I shout, startling her. “Mikha, here!”

She stares at me, unseeing. I motion at the wounded werewolf and wave at her to join me. It takes a few seconds, but she snaps out of her trance and runs to me.

I hand her my dagger, then point at the bloody fabric I am crushing against the man‘s leg. I demonstrate how to apply pressure to the wound, then reach for her hand and get her to replace me. Some miming and some gesturing get her to understand that I’m going to check on the other guy and she should stab this guy if he tries to move. She’s sobbing, but now lucid enough to focus on her task.

Scout is still sitting on the third werewolf.

As for the one Valerianella took down… He has a pulse! I doubt he‘ll ever be able to utter a coherent sentence again, but she doesn’t need to know that. I grin at her and give her a thumbs up, then mime falling asleep with my hands as a pillow.

“Hold on!” I say, running to my backpack to get some twine.

Two minutes later, the man Scout was keeping down is tied up tight. I turn to the prin—

She’s threatening the injured werewolf with my dagger. She is still pressing down on the wound, so I doubt he attacked her, but man does she look furious.

He’s talking to her.

“Mikhaeona,” I hear when I rush to them, amid a string of whispered Pyrean.

She reacts to the term by pointing the dagger at him more firmly. She doesn’t know it is meant as a title. To her, Mikha is her name, said politely, and she must be wondering how he knows it.

I kick him in the ribs so he’ll shut up (but not too hard, because Valerianella is watching).

“What did he say?” I ask, putting my hands above hers to take my turn caring for the wound. “What?

She takes a deep, angry breath, lets go of the bloody makeshift bandage and storms away. She tears a ribbon out of her hair and uses it to wipe her hands, then goes rummaging through my backpack. She stomps back to me and the wolf, waving a snare at us and pointing at his mouth.

A trap? Lies?

He tries to protest, but she cuts him off in Pyrean with a shrill “Silence!” yelled as loudly as she can. She repeats it over and over again, hissing between her teeth. I emphasize her words with a little nudge of my glaive under the werewolf’s chin.

He remains silent for the next ten minutes, at which point I am satisfied with the clotting of his wound. I bandage it, then go wrap my arm around the waist of the still seething princess and lead her to Scout.

He is lightly injured but he will have to endure: we need to get as far away from here as possible, right now. Which means we‘ll have to ride rather than walk. He doesn’t protest at all when I help Valerianella climb on his back.

The talkative werewolf calls after us, but she covers her ears with her hands and refuses to listen. I collect my backpack, get on Scout‘s back, and we’re gone.

We make good speed. We make extremely good speed in the middle of a forest, on a mount that is larger than the space between some trees, overburdened, and hungry and injured to boot. But Scout is as eager as we are to get away from the werewolves, so he pushes himself past the limits of his endurance. I have to stop him so he can rest.

Valerianella quickly gets used to riding (even if, to her, it means clinging to my back for dear life and dodging every single low branch in the forest). Her hair comes in handy: she loops some braids around Scout’s harness as safety ropes, which saves us both from being thrown off on several occasions.

We’re lucky enough not to cross paths with other werewolves.

We slow down at noon, when it gets much too hot for Scout to keep moving. It takes us twenty more minutes to locate a pond — thanks to moorhens squeaking in alarm — and we stop there.

Scout does not even let us dismount before he runs into the pond to drink.

Valerianella unwraps her braids from his harness, holds me firmly by the waist, and lifts us both into the air by lassoing a branch with her hair and tugging. We land on dry ground (on our asses).

“Uuuuh, thanks?” I blurt out, stunned.

She can lift me, and my backpack, and herself. For some reason, blood rushes to my cheeks.

I stumble to my feet and extend my hand to help her up. She flinches seeing the blood on it and pushes herself off the ground on her own. My hands vanish behind my back before I can think, which is when I realize they are empty.

I sigh and join Scout, without getting into the water.

“Boy, my glaive!”

I secured it to his harness and I don’t feel comfortable without it.

He comes to me, nudging my face with his muzzle. He earns a hug for his trouble. I inspect his injuries next. Thankfully, the claw marks aren‘t deep. They just need to be cleaned. I’ll canvass the area first. We’ll lick our wounds once we are safe.

“Don’t lick that wound,” I instruct before retrieving my glaive. “And keep an eye on the princess.”

She is kneeling by the pond now, ten steps from us. Trembling, she dips her bloody hands into the water, rubs them together, then starts scrubbing. I wash my own before joining her.

Her cheeks are wet but she‘s no longer crying. They are streaked by smudges of blood that she hasn’t noticed yet. They should go. I give her shoulder the lightest tap. She turns to me.

“Can I?” I ask, motioning at the bag of sewing supplies she is still carrying.

The question puzzles her. She needs a moment to answer, and the answer is a single sharp nod. I open the bag and take a large ribbon out. I cut a piece of it off, plunge it into the water, then wring it dryish. I run it on her face, under her eyes first, on her cheekbones, then cheeks, then chin, as softly and carefully as I can.

All the while, she looks at me with so much distress that I find it hard to swallow.

But I know I have to secure the place before anything, so I boop her nose with the wet cloth.

“I need you to help Scout,” I blabber to distract her from what I am doing, namely shoving the bloodied ribbon underwater and washing it. “He’s cut.”

She looks at Scout, then at me, and I hand her the now dripping cloth.

“He is hurt,” I say. I mimic clawing at my arm, then get a bottle of alcohol out of my backpack. I point at it, then at myself, then at Scout. “I do strong drink on him after,” I attempt to explain, mangling Pyrean. “You do water on dog. Just clean him up a bit. I‘m gonna check the perimeter, I’ll be right back.”

I draw a circle in the air to illustrate my intentions, then squeeze her hand and smile.

Quickly here.

She nods and stands up, already on her way to Scout.

That should keep her mind occupied.

The area proves safe enough. I luck out and stumble upon a bird nest, so we‘ll have eggs for lunch (and hopefully duck if I can find the mother). Otherwise, the place is unremarkable, and there is a nice spot between reeds and bushes that we can hide behind while we rest. If someone arrives from the same direction we did, they won’t see us immediately.

I show the place to Valerianella, and we settle there.

She is still out of it, so I distract her with a lively show of “cleaning a hellhound‘s wounds with alcohol”, followed by a presentation on how to best bandage a cranky dog’s leg without being chewed to a pulp.

Once I‘m done with that, I have her help me start a campfire to cook the eggs. We won’t keep it lit for long: I don’t want the smoke to give our position away.

I sit by her side while the cooking pan heats.

“You okay?”

I‘m desensitized to the whole killing thing. I’m a warrior, and even if I weren‘t, city life isn’t rosy. But she is not from the city. I think she might have some warrior in her, though.

She looks at her hands. There’s still some dried blood under her nails, and she scratches underneath them to get it out. I grab her hands, then softly pull them towards me, cradled between mine.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur.

I didn‘t warn her. It would be easy to pretend that she wouldn’t have understood, that our respective vocabularies would have made it impossible, but the truth is that I could have drawn all of the danger we would face on that blackboard. She’s sharp. It would not have taken a masterpiece of a sketch.

And she is not naive. She answered that werewolf‘s pleading with suspicion and a dagger to the throat. Which begs the question: why did she follow me? She doesn’t even know where we are going.

She takes my hands.

“Dank you,” she murmurs.

I lean against her shoulder, just a bit. She is a head taller than me, so the effect isn’t quite as protective as I hoped for. She relaxes against me.

I stare at the fire.

“The first time I killed someone, I was sick,” I confess. She won‘t understand a word I say. “It was… three years ago. I’m a thief-taker, ’bit of a mercenary. So you get a bounty that says ’dead or alive‘, and you try for ’alive‘, but…” I shrug. “Sometimes, the criminals won’t cooperate. It‘s pretty much a given that there will be casualties on the job, so I went in knowing what I signed up for. I come from a rough part of town, too. It wasn’t unusual to see the city guards run petty thieves through. I was kind of… numb.” And angry, oh, so angry. “I still puked my lunch out when it happened.”

Valerianella is looking at me intently, without saying a word.

“You… do your best not to think of them outside the context of the fight,” I continue. “As long as they don’t exist as people to you, as long as you remember they choose to fight, you can get over it.”

To be honest, it surprised me that I even cared to begin with. I won‘t go and murder cutpurses who need a little cash to get through life. The professionals, though… The gang leaders, the hitmen… It’s kind of a given that, if you pick that line of work, you should eventually get your just deserts.

“What I mean is…” I scratch the back of my head. “It‘s not your fault. They attacked us, you did what you had to do. You’re a good person, Mikha.”

How much vocabulary did she build over half a day? Did she understand me at all?

She tilts her head to the side and considers my words.

“So. I am ‘good boy’?” she asks.

I swallow the wrong way, choke and start coughing. Better than bursting into laughter, I suppose. I wheeze for a solid minute after that, then shake my head.

“Not ‘good boy’,” I correct her, clearing my head. “Good person. Good woman.”

“‘Good’,” she repeats.

I smile.

“Yeah.” I pull away and take the eggs. “Now, are you hungry?”

We start moving again three hours later, when I get paranoid about the birds’ activity. Too many of them taking off at short intervals, in the direction we came from. Scout feasted on the rabbits I collected from my snares earlier today, then napped. Even the princess managed to sleep, laying in the grass with her braids curled under her like a pillow.

I kept watch.

This time, we are pacing ourselves. I‘d rather be out of the forest before dark, but there is no possible way for us to make it, so there is no point racing, as long as we keep moving. Running would only exhaust Scout. I’ve elected to walk, but to have Valerianella remain on Scout’s back. A life spent in four rooms does not prepare someone for endurance workouts. Heck, I have spent half my life training hours a day, but my legs are still killing me. Also: my socks have merged with my feet.

“You’re not writing,” I tell Valerianella, in a desperate attempt to distract myself from the discomfort. “No questions?”

She blinks, confused. “What?”

I mime scribbling in a notebook. “Why are you not writing?”

“I am no nobook,” she replies, turning on Scout’s back to motion at the woods.

Scout spins into place to see what is going on. I point him back in the right direction.

“‘I have no notebook’,” I correct. I am baffled by her proficiency. No teacher ever managed to get a foreign language to stick into my head. “You lost it. Um.”

I stop Scout and open my backpack, which is attached to his side with the saddlebacks. I needed to carry both my glaive and crossbow. I rummage through my supplies.

“Here!” I exclaim. “‘Map’ and ‘pencil’.”

I unfold the map and flip it. Plenty of white space to write on.

Valerianella beams and takes it. “Map,” she repeats, jotting that down. “Pencil.”

I have never met a more adorable nerd.

She‘ll need something flat to put that map on. Scout’s saddle won‘t do. It gives me a great excuse to lower my head before Valerianella can notice my silly grin. I take my fishing box out of the backpack: it’s flat and large enough to use as a board.

“Don‘t open it!” I warn her as I place it on Scout’s back. I put the map on the box. “This should help.”

This earns me the warmest smile. “Dank you, Persia.”

Even the way she mangles her words is adorable. I breathe in and give Scout a few pats to urge him forward.

“Let’s go.”

Valerianella remains quite silent after that: she is too focused on writing down every word she remembers. I peek at the map and spot terms such as “skwirrel” and “badjer”. They’re listed with their pyrean version, too. That will come in handy.

Overall, the mood is good, and I make sure it stays that way. However, I’m quite sure we are being followed. Birds alarm calls carry much farther than the sound of footsteps and broken branches, and blue jays have been shrieking their little heads off behind us. Smaller birds too: robins, nuthatches, and little songbirds I do not recognize. You have to pay attention to details like that.

Our pursuers will catch up with us if we camp, and we will have to camp. Even with a lantern, navigating those woods at night would be impossible. My compass won‘t save us from stumbling down unexpected slopes. Bolting won’t carry us far enough: people familiar with the area would travel faster than us after dark. Another option would be an ambush, but what if we are followed by a group large enough to overpower us?

I need to know what we are dealing with: how many enemies, the weapons they are equipped with, their means of transportation. That they haven’t yet charged straight at us might mean we are evenly matched.

It may be the one werewolf we didn’t cripple.

“Persia?” the princess calls. Has she picked up on my tension? “Okay illa?”

She has.

I give her a pinched smile and shake my head.

“We’re being followed,” I murmur, pointing behind us. “People.”

Her hands clench in Scout’s fur. Her hair wiggles nervously. I hush her.

“We’ll keep going,” I whisper, motioning into the distance. “Then I will surprise them.”

I act out some tiptoeing, then hide behind a tree and “jump” out from behind it “roaring”.

Valerianella nods.“Trap.”

“Trap,” I confirm, lifting my crossbow. I point at her and at the canopy. “You hide. I attack.”

One of her braids slides to the ground and curls around a dead branch. I shake my head and pull the branch out of her hold.

“You hide. I’ll do the fighting,” I say, grinning.

Though my glaive is hanging from my shoulder right now, I spin around and demonstrate my polearm moves… with my crossbow. Well. It conveys my intentions just fine. I give her a thumbs up.

She frowns and rambles in Pyrean, gesturing at me, my feet, my knees, then pillowing her head on her hands and motioning at me again.

“I am not tired!” I protest.

She glowers at me.

Nice to see that not only did she absorb the basics of my language like a cute multicolor sponge, she can also channel my mother’s spirit from half a country away.

“I’m not,” I sulk.

That doesn’t convince her.

I grumble something about knowing what I am doing, and press forward. We need to find an area suitable for an ambush. I’m thinking “room to move”, sparse trees with a larger one that could make a good vantage point. Flat, dry ground. Good light.

An opportunity presents itself when we find a small clearing. It‘s not what I hoped for. It’s muddier than I’d like, which will make fighting trickier, but the mud is not so slick that I would slip every other step. Some areas are grassy, others rockier. It will do.

I lead us through it, leaving a straight trail of deep tracks in the mud, and stop as soon as we are back on the forest floor.

“Up you go,” I tell Valerianella. “Up, up, up.”

I wave my hands as high as I can, so she‘ll know to stay far above, where the eye can’t see. She eyes me with disapproval, and there is a bit of a standoff where she insists she won‘t leave me alone, and I won’t have it.

I win. Not as easily as most of my battles with some hardened criminals, but I win.

Once she’s out of sight, I circle the clearing with Scout, moving to the right of our entrance point. I bury him under leaves and add a small fallen tree to the pile. Hopefully, it will make the hellhound-shaped mound seem less out of place.

“Quiet, boy. Lie down,” I whisper.

I pick myself the best perch — a tree with thick foliage and strong branches, where I can have the sun at my back — and hide my glaive behind it. I climb up, find a comfortable spot and lie in wait.

Twenty minutes go by. It‘s hard to say if our pursuers (if they exist) are getting close. Sure, the birds still act weird, but there could be a hawk circling them. Scout is getting bored from waiting: he regularly lifts his head or wags his tail, which is now sticking out of the leaves. It’s too late for me to get down and fix it. Valerianella is also getting restless. I hear her climbing up and down to see if something is happening. She’s not as silent as she tries to be.

The first sign of our enemies is a horse whinny. It’s distant, still.

I ready my crossbow.

Our pursuers are careful. When they appear, they do it at the slowest of paces, studying their surroundings. There‘s three of them, on horseback. One is the werewolf I left tied up but uninjured hours ago. There’s another man, an archer on a dun horse, wearing some shoddy leather armor. The third is a woman, and the one I will have to take down. She‘s a werewolf too, but much better equipped than her companions: she has a full set of plated mail armor and a black shortbow that’s a lot more on the “military issue” side than what the two men’s weapons.

Her ears flit towards every noise, and she doesn‘t just look around, but also up. I’m glad for my strategic position. She has to squint when she turns my way, and I know all she can see are deep shadows behind a cloud of leaves.

She‘s not close enough for a headshot, nor to pierce through her armor. I’d take her horse down, but it is armored too. Better not to waste my only shot.

I wait.

She doesn’t enter the clearing. She stops her men when they try.

For once in my life, I’m not being underestimated, and it has to be now.

The woman sends one of her men to the left, the other to the right, but they stay behind the cover of trees. She readies her bow and inspects the edges of the clearing. The swordsman is getting close to Scout, and I have maybe a minute before we are spotted.

I don’t have a clear shot.

My best chance is taking down the archer on the other side of the clearing. If I manage to. I squint, aim…

Scout whines.

I shoot.

My bolt grazes the archer‘s shoulder. That’s it.

The woman returns fire. She hits the spot I was in a split-second ago. I’ve already moved to shield myself behind the trunk. I span my crossbow. Might as well try another shot before Scout is unearthed. I fumble with a bolt, crouch, and fire at the swordman before he can get too close. I hit his horse in the shoulder.


While he is busy trying to calm his injured mount, I slide to the ground and grab my glaive, then charge. There’s no getting close to the panicking horse. I just want it to throw its rider. I sidestep, stab its hind leg from afar, and run to cover.

The horse trips and falls on his side, crushing the werewolf’s leg.

I keep moving from cover to cover, checking where my other enemies are. The woman has moved into the clearing, bow at the ready, waiting for me to misstep. The other archer lost his weapon. I see it drop from the trees, stringless.


Well. One less bow is good news. The man still has a sword, though, and both wolves have horses. They regroup in the center of the clearing, where the princess can’t strike them from above.

I peek at Scout, who is whimpering but not moving. The woman would take him down the second he shows himself, so it’s best that he stays there.

What can I do?

I can‘t take two people on horseback. In the city, it would have been an option, with the narrow streets and easily accessible rooftops. Here, I’m at a major disadvantage. Even a glaive won‘t give me enough range to take down trained warhorses. And they are trained. Werewolves cannot get near horses that were not prepared for it from youth. They are monsters more than beastlings, pretty much the apex predators of our kind. If you’re gonna go through the hassle of training a horse not to get spooked by werewolves, you might as well go all in and ensure it can’t be spooked by anything. They are not even fazed by the cries of the man with the crushed leg.

I‘d get to higher ground but there’s no easy tree to climb. I’d get shot down on my way up. Might have slightly miscalculated this entire plan.

“Let‘s not draw dis out, little race traitor!” the werewolf woman shouts, with a strong pyrean accent. “You’re outmatched. Surrender and we’ll spare you.”

Talk about starting a conversation on a friendly note.

A pinecone hits her in the face. It startles her, but it’s not enough to distract her from me. It might prove a nuisance if Valerianella can do that again. I look up and search for her. I spot her a few trees away, close to the clearing. The garish colors of her braids stand out among the leaves.

She throws something else. It smashes on the ground a few feet from the horses. She swings to another branch and tries again with another projectile. This time, it hits the ground between the legs of the woman’s horse. It neighs and shifts in place, disturbed but still calm, though it is trying to see what exploded under its feet. It was an egg.

Valerianella pelts the horse with several more, then everything on hand. The warhorse shifts to avoid the projectiles. Its rider is already trying to move back, out of reach. I take my one chance to move.

“SCOUT!” I shout, rushing at the woman while she’s unable to aim.

There‘s a growl behind me, and the sound of running. I don’t have to look back. I know he‘ll cover me. I zigzag to the clearing. The woman is aiming at me, but reluctant to loose an arrow that might miss its mark. Scout has charged at her partner and is keeping him busy. So I dash. She shoots once I’m within ten feet. I drop. I survive.


I don‘t get trampled either, though she set her horse on me the instant I dodged. For ten seconds, I’m a weird caterpillar thrashing on the ground and stabbing things at random. Once I get to crouch and point my glaive at a point of my choosing, things get better. My blade scrapes against the horse’s nose, and it rears.

I watch his feet go down. I slash at the ground where they will land.

Sorry, boy.

It goes down. Its rider has already dismounted, her hand on her scabbard. She draws her sword and comes at me. I parry.

“Lucky little rat,” she comments.

“You want me to go for the pet names too?” I snort, counterattacking. “Because there’s a word for female canids.”

She blocks me and steps back to dodge my immediate followup, which was to slide my glaive over her sword and through her throat. She reaches for the staff while the blade is inches from her face, sword still raised to block me. I pull back.

We gauge each other. She‘s in her forties, but athletic and healthy. She’s not afraid. She has experience against polearms. I hope Scout can keep the other werewolf at bay, or things will get complicated.

“I’m not letting you take her,” I state.

“What did de humans pay you, that you’d work for dem? Did dey promise not to treat you like vermin?”

This is so far off the mark I nearly laugh. I do smile. If it was meant to hurt, Gods, she needs to work on her trash-talk. Especially when she’s going against a glaive with a one-handed sword and no shield. She needs all the help she can get.

I slash at her head with full force. She blocks, I swing in the other direction, in an arc, to swipe at her legs. She jumps back just in time. She stumbles, I thrust my weapon straight at her gut. She knocks it away with her sword. I flip my glaive, push her sword away with its shaft, and hit her in the shoulder with the end of it. Missed the throat.

She grabs the pole, I tear it out of her hands and use the momentum to swing and slash at her. She dodges. Now, she understands she is in deep trouble. She is stepping away from me, trying to get the sun behind her like I did earlier in the tree. Here, however, it would be too high to blind me. I don’t let her lure me between her and the other werewolf, either. At this point, Scout has killed his horse, so he is on foot, trying to scare my dog away.

The she-wolf moves to stalling tactics.

“Do you have any idea what dey are making you do, you foolish child?” she spits.

Once again: I am twenty-one.

“Yeah, uh, you‘re talking to a bounty-hunter,” I comment. “There’s no ‘they’.”

She narrows her eyes.

“What? You—”

Scout whines, loud enough for both of us to pause and glance his way. His nose is bleeding from deep claw marks. I pale, but can’t watch more: my opponent charges at me. I stop her with a swipe and we return to our standstill.

Then I see Valerianella swing down from the trees and land in the clearing like a tiny goddess of wrath. Her longest braids rip through the air and swat the male werewolf like an insect, which is only the beginning of his problems. She can lift me and herself and my backpack, and — as it turns out — grown-ass men twice her size, though she stumbles doing so. She flings him away like a ragdoll and runs to hug Scout.

Why did I even bother to fight?

The werewolf rolls and props himself up on shaking arms, stunned.

I think we are all stunned. Even my ruthless veteran of an opponent is stunned.

“Mikhaeona!” she shouts, which is the wrong thing to say.

Not that there was a ‘good’ thing to say. When an enraged foe with magical powers has forgotten about you, the wisest thing you can do is shut up. Valerianella whirls to her and slaps her in the face with a braid, from a whole ten feet away. I follow that up with a hard blow to the temple with the shaft of my glaive, then a kick to the stomach. And now she’s down.

I roll the woman on her belly and straddle her, twisting both her arms behind her. She makes a weak attempt at freeing herself.

“Stay down,” I hiss. “The only reason you are even alive is that she doesn’t like it when people get hurt.”

She can’t answer me through her wheezing.

Valerianella runs to me, her face streaked with tears.

“Persia!” she cries out. “Sikeo de illa?”

She kneels next to me, shaking, checking me for injuries. There‘s quite a bit of blood on me, but it’s not mine.

I smile.

“I’m okay,” I tell her. “All good. Sik nen. Sik nen.”

Her lower lip trembles. She takes a shaky break, collapses into sobs, then throws herself at me and hugs me close (which I would appreciate a lot more if I was not restraining an enemy).

“I‘m okay,” I whisper in her ear. “I’m okay.”