Broud woke up with a start.
He lay in silence for a moment, just listening. Kyani was asleep in his arms, her long hair spilled like a dark screen over his broad chest. Baby Oga was nestled beside Kyani. The fire had burned down to a dull glow. Nearby Uba and Vorn slept soundly, and further off were the separate furs of Brac and Durc, and Ebra and Asha. A cold wind blew in from outside, which felt wonderful to those wrapped in warm furs beside hot fires. There was nothing but the peaceful sound of the Clan at their rest, a sound that usually comforted the leader.
But Broud felt no peace. He felt himself transported back to the steppes, before he had loved Kyani as a man to a woman, when the pain in his thigh was an agony and the fear was thick on his tongue. He remembered waking up in the night, sure that something was out there, coming for him. For the first time in a long while, his thigh ached. He tried to banish his thoughts by stroking the smooth slim back of his mate, and she stirred softly, her full lips curving up into a small sleeping version of the smile he rarely saw anymore. She snuggled unconsciously against his body, ready to come awake in a moment if he pressed his suit. It was difficult to resist the young woman he loved and lusted for, and most of the time he couldn't. Yet tonight, his mind was not in her lovemaking.
Broud ever so carefully disengaged from his mate, setting her down into the soft furs, where she moaned a little and hugged her baby close for warmth. He sat up fully beside them, and looked across the cave. It was then that he saw the mog-ur, also up, eyes narrowed, staring at the opening of the cave. Their eyes met for a moment. Goov was disturbed, clearly. Broud stood, and made his way quietly to the mog-ur's hearth. Ovra slept beside young Ura, and pregnant Ona huddled in Goov's fur, and both of the women and the child were lost in their dreams, and were not the cause of the mog-ur's restlessness.
"They are coming," Goov gestured in complete silence.
Broud sucked his breath, his heart's pounding growing harder. "Now? Tonight?"
"Ursus woke me," Goov said. "I saw the skull-faces, creeping through the snow on the steppe, and then I saw Ursus coming out of his cave and standing tall. I woke then, and I've felt the most awful feeling of unease since. They are coming, Broud. I think… I think they are here already."
Broud drew another deep, sharp breath. It would be now then. In the dark of night, in the dead of winter, at the time he would least expect it. Well, why not, he thought. If Broud had learned anything, it was that the absurd was more likely than the ideal, the incredible more possible than the ordinary. At least it was this way in his life, his leadership. "Wake Grod," Broud said quickly. "I will wake Droog, and the two men of Varn's Clan." Broud frowned and added, "And I will need your spear, Goov; mog-ur or not."
The men assembled on the promontory under a silvery waxing moon. They could not see into the forest, or to the steppe beyond. They did not know when the attack would come, or how close the Others were, how many there were, or even if mog-ur was wrong in his vision. Broud had woken old Zoug but not the women. If the returned to the cave with the morning sun, the women need never know about it. And if they did not return, the old man would wake the women and bring them to the back of the cave, before the narrow tunnel that led to the sacred chamber.
Broud told Goov, "Bless us."
"Bless you… How? As if we were preparing for a hunt?"
"As if we were going off to die, Goov," Broud said softly. "As if we were going to the spirit world."
Under the cover of darkness, Drakav directed his nine men to split apart. He had learned during his reconnaissance that there were but two ways up to the cave on the mountain where the firelight flashed, stupidly giving the animals' hideout away. Under the pale moon, they divided into two groups. Kieran would lead four other men, and Ilona with her child, up the long way, on an easterly track up over the rising slopes. Ilona had her own instructions, which would serve to capture at least the foul woman, if not the mate. Drakav, Drugan, Daren and two others would approach straight on, between the cliffs and into the valley, climbing the path that cut to the side of the sheer wall of the mountain. He thought that he would easily outnumber the men of the Demon People. The plan was to overcome any resistance, and then take the women and children. There were to be no survivors, not even the least babe in arms. And Drakav had a special punishment in mind for Kyani. She would not leave this mountain alive either, but her death would be slow. She would pay for trading on her race, for mating with the animals who had burnt the People alive. Yes, she would pay, Drakav thought, a chilling smile crossing his pale, chalk smeared face.
Goov, Grod, and Tag moved in silence to the grove of pines just before the place where the shallow mountain stream widened and crossed the western trail. "You all understand," Goov motioned. "There is to be no warning, no sound, no questions. Whoever comes up this trail must die. We are the only thing standing between these monsters and the women, children, and the old man who wait in the cave behind us." Goov looked carefully into the eyes of each man, to be sure that they had no doubts in their minds. None of them had ever killed another man before; they had never even thought to before Broud brought them into this fight. But Grod had seen first-hand the work of the Others. And Tag was a hunter of the finest caliber, a man who could be counted on to hamstring a mammoth or even leap onto the back of a running bison. He had been specially chosen by Varn and blessed by the mog-ur of his cave to go on this mission, and he was ready to execute it to the best of his potential. The men exchanged a long glance, and then, under Goov's instruction, they bowed their heads and sent a last prayer to Ursus and to their individual totems. And then they fell apart, their faces and bodies painted in black, and they slipped into the shadows of the pines.
Kieran led his men up the rocky trail, along with Ilona who carried her frightened child, smacked repeatedly by the mother into a terrified silence. The first rays of the sun were hidden by the mountains, but the darkness paled around them with each soft step they took. The warriors behind them were hardened against fear and eager for action, but with each step Kieran's heart was less and less in the fight. He grimaced angrily and pushed on. He did not want to answer to Drakav for failure, but he had sacrificed too much already. He had never wanted to leave his people in the first place, and not a night went by when he didn't think that if he had been there, he could have helped when the fire came. He had not agreed with the men Drakav had chosen for this venture. They were worse than coarse and unkempt; in their speech and deed and thought they violated the Mother, and Kieran, if he had not been such a coward, would have told Drakav that he would be ashamed to die beside such men. And then, when the high priestess had been killed, Kieran had felt the world rock beneath him, as if a fiery chasm were splitting open beneath his feet. Last of all, he had watched his own mate be corrupted day by day with Drakav's bottomless hate. He had watched her beat his child into silence, his poor little girl who could barely speak even though she was over a year old, and he had felt sick to his soul. But still, he said nothing, he did nothing to defy his leader. Now, as he crept up the rocky trail, crossing through a wide clearing with a gorgeous view of the deep dark sea to the south, he cursed himself for a traitor to his very self. He stopped for a moment, gazing out on the endless black water, broken only by pale foamy crests pushing along the surface. The abyssal darkness was nothing more than a reflection of the depths he had fallen to in Drakav's service.
"Too tired, eh?" one of his men snorted. When Kieran didn't respond the man gave a little laugh and snatched the point position for himself, bursting with great speed and vigor across the flat crest of the first hillock and then bounding smartly down the slope.
And then, it was as Kieran's vision of the earth opening came to life. Before their eyes the soil gave out and swallowed the lead man, and he fell, and then his cry of surprise turned into a blood-chilling scream of shock and agony. The men rushed forward and down the hill, where they skidded to a stop and peered down upon a horrific sight.
"Help me!" the warrior gasped, blood gurgling over his lips. He flailed about terribly, but his every motion caused him to slip further down the sharpened sticks impaling him. One was in his gut and the other through his thigh, and all around him was a forest of sharpened stakes sunken into earth with cruel precision. As the men and the one woman-and her dumbstruck, silently sobbing child-watched on, the warrior's strength ebbed and then vanished, and he screamed no more.
"Come on, then!" the gruff man beside Kieran snarled. "They know we're here now, make ready! Move on!"
"Ilona," Kieran said softly, recalling for a moment the woman his mate used to be. He did not recognize the creature before him, who was prepared to work such evil against her former friend. "It's best you go off your own way now, off trail. They're obviously prepared for us. They'll be coming soon. You remember what Drakav told you to do?"
Ilona's senses were heightened by the scent of fresh blood. Her blood raced and flushed her pale cheeks, and she nodded in her excitement. "Go into the woods. Count the peaks. Count my paces, and then wait until… Until the time is right."
Kieran closed his eyes. He invisioned Kyani at the ceremony celebrating her passage into womanhood, so fresh in her cream and indigo dress and leggings. He thought of her tending to her ailing, grouchy father, never complaining, always smiling, always with a kind word for anyone she saw. And then Kieran quivered, and looked at his mate holding their child, and he told her to go to her terrible business; and he knew himself to be dead already, beyond any redemption the Great Mother could offer .
Broud squatted a ways back from the trail leading around the low cliff overlooking the valley. Knowing his men to be in position, he watched the five small figures creep along the stream-side trail. In the distance he could hear the soft but eternal thunder of the straight falls pouring into the pond, and the warbling music of the cascading falls leading from the pond into the stream beyond. He could feel the wind turning moments before it blew his thick waves away from his face. He felt the delicious icy clarity pouring over him, the clarity of the coming kill that he alone of all others felt. He watched the five fell figures creeping forward, his eyes automatically sizing them up, cataloguing their traits and weaknesses as if they were so many tiny bison creeping through his valley. And then, like a roar of true thunder, a great crash echoed off the cliffs and up the mountain, and Broud peered forward eagerly.
He hissed through his teeth and sneered his lips. The great cloud of dust diffused and five men came out, whole and unharmed though shaken, now pressed close together, closing their ranks, their eyes on the cliffs above waiting for the next strike. Broud slunk back deeper under the cover of the evergreens, knowing that Kirn would be seen running across the low cliff trail. They would be coming soon.
"Stay quiet, stay calm," Zoug counseled the frightened women. He had heard the great crash of the boulders, a sure a sign as any that Broud's deep fears had finally been proven true. For the first time, Zoug was grateful for his leader's strange temperament and odd abilities. Zoug even regretted the age and infirmity that kept him from the coming fight. But he had a job to do. He was to protect the women and children with his life, and he had been instructed to give his own call if they came under attack. Great Ursus, would these Others truly enter their cave to kill women and children? Zoug could hardly believe that any human could be so cruel, so wicked. Zoug paced the cave slowly, anxiously caressing the leather sling which had always served him so well. If Ursus willed it, the weapon he had long ago mastered might give those chalk-faces something to think about!
Zoug nearly tripped over Uka, huddled and shaking at his feet. He tapped her shoulder quickly, and she looked up with wide eyes. He could recall the child she was so many years before. She asked with silent gestures, "They won't get past Broud, will they? Broud will protect us, won't he, Zoug?"
Zoug looked about the cave, at the frightened faces of the women, peering up from the hearths they so lovingly tended. At last he met the violet eyes of Broud's mate. The young woman, who looked no more than a girl to Zoug's ancient stare, held her red haired baby tight to her chest. The other women were frightened, but there was a glaze of agony and unspeakable terror over Kyani's pale face. She more than anyone knows what we are facing, Zoug thought. She knows the men coming against us. She knows they won't hesitate to kill her, the other women, or even the little babies. Zoug looked back down to Uka, but he spoke to all of them.
"Don't worry, woman," Zoug said with dismissive gestures and gruff words. "They won't get past Broud."
But in his heart, he simply did not know.
The approached cautiously, silently, spears in their throwers ready to be loosed or thrusted as needed. The trail suddenly reached a fork; it seemed that the older trail had been covered some time ago by fallen trees and boulders and other debris, and the debris field went on for some while, as if an avalanche had caused it. Another part of the trail, one that looked newer, turned deeper into the pine forest. The men cursed in silence, knowing that their vision and the range and effectiveness of their missiles would be greatly reduced in such confines. It almost seemed as if it were intentional. But the animals surely couldn't plan such a thing, could they? They moved on, trying to keep their steps from sinking into the icy layer of snow, even though a freezing rain the night before had left a thick coat of ice over the land.
Then Drakav felt a chill running up the length of his spine. It was the feeling he felt when he was hunting and a four-legged predator was stalking on a rise just above him. A feeling of being watched. Drakav stopped for a moment, scanning the dark forest. He could see nothing but tall, snow-covered pines, he could hear nothing but a waterfall somewhere in the distance and the sound of melting ice. He raised his hand again in signal, and moved on.
Suddenly there was a squealing scream. The men spun to see the last in their company doubled over and clutching his waist. Blood rushed through the useless dam of his fingers. He had been slashed gut to groin, and he folded and crumpled into the snow, screaming, his blood pooling out around him, steaming as it hit the icy air. Frantic and furious the men looked wildly about, but all they saw was a dark shadow moving back into the blackness of the forest.
"They're demons!" the next to last man moaned, rushing up towards the middle of the group like a panicked deer.
"Shut your mouth," Drakav growled, but he was frightened now. Just then one of the animals burst out from cover and thrust a spear into another of his men, breaking his spine with the force. "Get him, get him! Fight, you women!" Drakav cried, tearing off after the man who was painted black and wearing dark furs as it bounded silently over the ice and snow. Drakav himself couldn't be sure if it was truly a man, an animal, or indeed a spirit. It had made no sound, not even a grunt as it thrust the spear into Sagan's hard backbone. Even the whites of the creature's eyes had seemed completely feral, horrific. But Drakav chased the creature down, even as it zigged and zagged through the trees, at last disappearing entirely. Drakav stopped, spinning about, spear in one hand and his knife in the other. His heart beat in his throat, furious, wild with fear at this unexpected attack. Now we're three, he thought. Now we're three. Cautiously, he backed up against the thick trunk of a tree, watching and listening. Cries came from the trail where the two men were left with the bodies of their companions. He could hear a clash of spears. Battle had been joined at last, but Drakav had other plans. The animals were smarter than he had anticipated, much smarter. Warily, he shouldered his spear and jogged deeper into the forest, heading up the mountain.
Broud circled the man with fluid, deft steps. On the periphery of his senses Droog finally trapped his opponent against a tree and Kirn delivered the killing blow with his long flint knife. Broud's focus was soft, taking in everything from the chalk-face and his spear to the pines around them, shivering in the wind, to the tiny crunches of their light footsteps as they wheeled around each other on the ice.
The chalk-face was big, and Broud could smell the stench of his unwashed body. His leering sneer showed rotten teeth. But he was quick and strong, and Broud caught the tiny shift of the chalk-face's shoulder a second before the spear was thrust. Broud smacked it easily away with the end of his own spear, and then he leveled his dark gaze on the man, shaking his head softly as if to tell the man what a fool he was. The chalk-face, furious, came on hard. He thrust and even swung with his spear, and Broud danced, blocking and ducking, letting his enemy waste his energy. At the first lull, Broud threw a light, quick thrust towards the man's throat. The chalk-face swung his spear up and easily blocked Broud's blow, but it was a feint. Quick as the wind, Broud thrusted again, this time at the man's soft belly. The spear sank deep, easily tearing through skin and fat and muscle and pushing out the other side. It was over. Dark eyes bulged in a lime-bleached face, and red blood gurgled then rushed from the man's lips and over his whitened chin.
Broud surveyed the scene quickly. Four bodies lay in various places on the trail, but there had been five. He narrowed his eyes, peering into the trees. He knew the one who had run. It was the same one who had run before, nearly two years ago. "He's out there somewhere," Broud gestured in silence.
Droog, panting slightly, said, "What can one man do?"
"There are more," Broud said. "Probably on the western trail. He'll be going to join them, best guess." The leader looked at his two warriors. "Good work, men. Now let's get up to that western trail and take care of whatever chalk-faces are left."
Broud and his men left their mountain and rushed westward.
Up on the high trail, nearly a mile to the west of the cave, the fight was coming to a bloody close. The hit and run tactic of the Clan men, after the horror of the pit trap, had a demoralizing effect on the Kieran, but Daren and Drugan were hard men. They took down one of the demons and made short work of him with their cruel knives, and then, realizing that they were not demons but men who could bleed and die, the men of the Others fought their way up the hill. One of the demons was wounded and he slunk back into the forest and was not seen again. Kieran struck another black painted man in the head and he crumpled to the ground.
Kieran didn't think the man was dead, just knocked unconscious. Kieran realized with the first bit of calm clarity he had felt in a year that he didn't want to kill. Drugan and Daren's knife work had brought bile up from Kieran's belly, reminding him of the priestess Drugan had murdered. Now the two were bounding upwards, keeping to the side of the trail and watching the ground for traps. They were anxious to reach the highest peak, anxious for the females they would take their sport with before killing them. There were no more demons swooping out of the forest to interrupt their race to the top. But in that moment, as Kieran stood on the rocky, icy slope, something in him snapped at last. In that second he had made a choice that would likely mean the end of his life; but at least, when the veil between the worlds burned away, he would be able to stand before the Mother and know himself to be a man. Carefully but quickly, he crept over the mountains behind the brothers Drugan and Daren.
The last of the shouting had stopped, and Durc was eager to look down from the promontory. He was sure Broud had killed all the bad men. He looked over at Zoug, who was clutching his amulet and thinking in his slow, circular way, debating the virtue and danger at moving the women and children to the sacred chamber. He too had heard the last cry echoing over the mountains a long while ago, and he had not heard any whistle of warning. Zoug hoped fervently that the fight was over. He knew that the silence either meant that Broud had won, or all was lost. Zoug wanted to keep the women and children safe in case of the latter, and if they were in the sacred cave, they would not be seen. But they might anger the spirits, and this would bring a greater danger than any band of chalk-faced invaders.
The other women were trying to be calm for the sake of the little ones, Groob and Vorn, Suki and Oga, Asha and Ura and Grev. They made tea and attempted quiet conversation, even as their ears strained for the sound of feet beating on the trail's end outside the cave. Durc moved quickly through the relative darkness, and out into the cold, pale light. But he wasn't unwatched. Little baby Vorn, who only understood that everyone was supposed to be very quiet, was bored and eager to play outside. He idolized Durc, his kind adopted brother, and as the medicine woman was bringing Uka a drink to soothe her nerves, Vorn got up and toddled after Durc.
Kyani looked up from her own sleepy baby just as Vorn disappeared towards the promontory. Quickly she got up and ran towards the little boy, snatching him in her arms. "Durc! Durc!" she hissed. The boy turned guiltily, flinching at the anger in Kyani's eyes. "Come back now!" the woman gestured. She bundled the two boys back inside, commanding them to sit on Uba's fur. But then she heard a strange sound, the call from a past life.
The young woman froze. She had not heard her name pronounced properly in nearly two years, and as the faint, weak call came again, recognition clicked and she heard the voice of Ilona, her cousin and close, dear friend. Kyani frowned. She looked behind her, to the cave, sure that she should return. But how ever had Ilona come to this place? For a wild moment, Kyani thought that maybe they weren't being attacked at all, but that her family had come to find her, to discover if she lived still. Maybe they had news of her father!
As the wind grabbed and whipped her long hair, Kyani shook her head. Her longing for her home, smothered and ignored all this long while, was now returning fiercely and leading her to foolish conclusions. Of course the Others had come to fight, to kill. But still, what was Ilona doing with them?
"Kyani, help me, please! I'm hurt!"
It was the one thing the girl could not resist. The same selflessness that had driven her to tend to Broud when she knew him only for an enemy, perhaps even a demon or a monster, now lured her away from the safety of her cave. Before anyone could call her back, Kyani clenched her fists to banish her fear and she rushed into the forest. She was a clever girl, but utterly guileless, a girl who rarely imagined deceit in others because she herself would never commit a betrayal. It would never occur to her that Ilona would try to trap her. For some reason, Kyani's cousin had been made to come along with the band of hunters, and she had been hurt on the mountain. Now Ilona was calling out in despair to the one woman among the Old Ones whom she knew would help her.
"Ilona?" Kyani called softly, her heart hammering in her chest. "Ilona, where are you? Say something, so I can follow your voice!"
"I'm here, Kyani, hurry! The baby is with me and I'm bleeding bad…" Ilona let her voice trail off to a whimper, a moan. She pinched her baby and the child began to cry, frightened and hurt.
Kyani ran forward. Soon she saw Ilona, but the tall blonde woman was not lying in the snow bleeding. She was standing strong and square, ignoring the baby hugging her leg. So consumed by her guilt and the evil she had succumbed to, she had forgotten all traces of friendship and knew only a bitter jealousy of the beautiful girl before her. A cold little smile played over her lips. "Stupid girl," Ilona hissed. "You always were a stupid girl."
"What-?" Kyani demanded, realizing horribly that she was betrayed, deceived. She whirled around in pure terror, and it was at that moment that Drakav seized her around her waist and pressed his ten inch knife to her throat.
"Now I've got you, dirty little minx!"
"Drakav! Drakav please… You sent me away, I left like you said…" Kyani's heart was hammering, her mouth had done impossibly dry. She was terrified. She could hardly speak for the sharp blade chafing her soft skin. He wouldn't kill her, he couldn't…
"You make me sick!" he hissed. "You will pay for what you did, for what your beast did to us!"
Bewildered, the girl tried to shake her head. "I don't know… I did nothing… He did nothing…" Panic set in, and she couldn't make sense of his words. They had done nothing! They had left Kantak's camp and made their own way, started their own life!
"Call him. Call out to your beast-mate!"
"No!" she whispered harshly, crying now. Drakav's arm was locked so hard around her tiny waist that Kyani could barely breathe. The knife was pressed painfully against her neck, and she was sure in a moment the obsidian blade would cross her throat and she would live no more. She thought of her little girl, of her dreams to make the child a medicine woman of powerful lineage and mixed spirits. Her mind flashed on Broud, his dark eyes glowing with love and strength and trust. She would not do it. She would not summon her beloved to his death.
"Don't play around with me, you filth! You are not one of us anymore, you're not even human anymore! I'll gut you as easily and carelessly as I would a deer. Call your mate! Call him now!"
"No," she breathed, closing her eyes, imagining her family as they had settled into their furs the night before, warm and happy.
Drakav didn't want her dead; not yet, anyway. "Last chance," he warned, hissing in her ear, aroused by the scent of her even though he could smell the beast on her skin as well. He imagined them together, Kyani on her knees like a sow as the demon worked and grunted behind her. As the rage he had summoned up with this image pumped into his blood, Drakav drew the blade across Kyani's soft neck and dragged it over her collarbone, and for all her protests and all her feigned nobility, the young woman's scream tore from her lips like he knew it would. He hadn't cut her too deep, or in the right place. He held her up-she was shaking now, sobbing, panicked and in pain-and he felt the warm trickle of her blood over his hand. He held her up when he felt her near fainting. He clutched her cruelly hard, and he waited.
Footsteps, hammering up the last legs of the trail, then growing cautious and stopping entirely. Brac swallowed hard, praying that he would hear his father's voice. He was ashamed of himself for refusing to accompany Broud to inspect the pit traps and newly cut trails, and he was ashamed that he had been left behind with the women and babies when Broud had needed him to be a man. Brac loved Broud more than anyone in the world, and he had sat in stoic but anxious silence as the battles raged deep in the forest. Now he crept up to his own hearth, near the mouth of the cave, and he stood before the fire to be the first to greet Broud. At least he could show the mate of his mother that he was not a complete coward. Brac remembered the first attack only vaguely; like Grev, he had blocked it from his mind the way children will traumatic events. His biology and his memories were not crafted to expect a lethal threat from another human being. And to Brac, Broud was a god. Brac was certain that no one could defeat the mate of his mother in any contest of strength.
And then he heard a strange, rough voice making a quick, rolling pattern of sounds. A keening horror and sadness rose from the women as they grabbed their children and pushed towards the back of the cave. "Brac, Brac!" Uba screamed, calling the boy. Zoug, snow haired, arthritic and slow, loaded his sling even as he stumbled forward to snatch the boy. But he was clumsier now; he had no business defending women and children or loading a sling. He tripped a little as he ran, and the stone fell to the ground.
Brac was frozen. Suddenly he didn't need to understand the threat, it was as real and terrible as the fear he felt at his manhood hunt. He felt himself unable to move. He felt his hands sweating, his chest tightening in panic. And then, like something out of the depth of a nightmare, a bleach-faced giant came out of the bright, icy cold, appearing in the mouth of the cave, eyes crazed, a huge bloody knife in his heavy fist.
The women screamed. Baby Oga began to sob, understanding the hatred and evil intentions radiating off the frightening looking intruder. The man stalked forward, invading their home. His small, feral eyes locked on Brac and the boy shuddered and stepped backwards in a horror, nearly falling over Broud's furs. In his thoughtless fear Brac backed himself to the wall of the cave, knocking over a neat stack of wooden and bone dishware. The man was laughing now, chanting horribly to himself in his babbling language. He tormented Brac with a feigned slash and the boy skidded sideways, feeling his way along the wall of the cave. He heard a clatter as he bumped into Broud's collection of spears, lined up neatly in a row.
"Come here, little cub! I've got a gift for you!" Drugan taunted, swinging viciously now, slicing fur from the boy's winter wrap. Brac cried out in horror, staring into the skeletal face, the dark, inhuman eyes.
In that terrible moment, as Drugan hovered over the terrified boy with plans to slice him to pieces, Brac lost all sense of himself. It was as if Ursus had shoved the boy's spirit aside, allowing something deeper and more eternal than the mortal soul of Broud's son to take over. Brac's fingers, formerly pressed in terror against the cold stone wall, suddenly sought and curled around one of his father's heavy spears. The part of Brac that was still there gave a wild cry of terror and anger as he spun the spear and then pushed it as hard as he could into the belly of the chalk-faced monster.
Drugan was stunned. He turned his face down and then looked back up again, amazed at the sight of the spear sprouting from his gut. Amazed at the boy before him, sick with a terror that Drugan could smell but yet standing victorious. Drugan laughed madly as his blood spilled, reaching out and grabbing Brac's shoulder. And then whatever evil light was in the man went out, and he felt to the floor, his sweaty hand smearing down the front of Brac's chest.
Brac gasped as the enormity of what he had done struck him. He could hear Zoug calling to him, hailing him as a man, a great man who had saved his people. But the moment was short lived. They heard more monsters outside, shouting to each other but yet out of sight. Brac and Zoug came together and stood before the common hearth. The boy looked up at the old man. He was sure he was going to die now. He didn't feel like a man, he felt like a frightened baby, he wanted to hide in his fur until it was all over. But there was no one else to protect the Clan now.
Zoug put his arm around Brac briefly. "For your people, Brac," Zoug said, and then he loaded his sling.
Kieran jumped out at Daren, spear in hand.
"There you are!" Daren snapped. "Just in time for the fun, eh? Drugan's already inside."
"You'd better not, Daren," Kieran said, shaking his head. "This whole thing is madness. You can't kill women and children! I'm going to get Drugan out, and you're not going to stop me."
"What's all this?" Daren demanded. "Gone traitor on us? Gone soft? Get out of my way, you fool! There's knife work to be done here!"
"I can't let you do that, Daren," Kieran said sadly, shaking his head. He stepped into Daren's path, and they clashed liked like two bulls locking horns. They grappled and swung, too close to make use of their spears. Their long knives came out and skin was torn, and blood spilled, and finally the loser fell to the ground.
Brac stood his ground, though his eyes were wide, and if he could have wept he would have. He was shaking, both with terror and with some strange new sensation, almost like joy but stranger and dizzying and cold. He held a spear in his hand as finally, the second chalk-faced monster came into sight. Brac tightened his grasp on his spear, but he shook his head too. He didn't want to do this. He didn't think he could.
And then, the chalk-face, bleeding, threw his knife to the ground and held his hands up in the air. He spoke, and his voice was soft, and Zoug stepped forward to give his old eyes and hands a better chance at hitting the invader. But then he frowned in wonder. One of the other monsters, the last one, lay dead just feet behind the chalk-face who had his hands up in the air. And now the living one fell to his knees and bowed his head, and put himself at the mercy of the old man and the little boy who clutched his spear so tightly in his small but strong hands.
At the sound of her scream, the cool calm that Broud felt gazing on the dead invader drained immediately. Droog and Kirn looked at Broud, shocked.
"Go back to the cave! Keep them safe!"
"Broud, you need us with you! It could be a trick, a trap, like your pits!"
Broud shoved Droog angrily. "Go, go! Protect your mate, her child!" And then he turned on his heel and tore sideways over the mountain, his feet slipping, losing purchase on the icy rocks and snow.
He put his free hand out to catch himself as he slid down a rocky bank, and then he raced through the forest, chasing the dying echoes of her scream.
He saw the woman first; the blonde, the tall blonde with the piercing blue eyes, her face so like the one he had hated and yet now, for the first time, he saw true wickedness in a woman and he knew he had misjudged it all. His vision danced before him, the blonde spinning evil out of the sky, and it was not the one he had always feared to be his doom, but this woman before him with her sobbing filthy child and cruel laughter on her lips.
Drakav stepped around a tree, and a low growl of pure anguish and fury rose out of Broud's belly. Kyani was weak in the chalk-face's hard clutch, her head hanging sideways and her face stained with tears. And then Broud saw the blood streaming from her throat and staining her white fur shawl. There was no thought. There was no care. He charged down on Drakav as he had the cave lion. At the last moment, Drakav threw Kyani off and sunk the black blade deep into Broud's stomach.
Kyani screamed and ran for him. Ilona's laughter cackled, the baby sobbed violently. Broud gasped and sneered as the hot rush of pain sliced through him. A red screen blurred his vision, and his strength ebbed quickly, spilling with his lifeblood into the snow. But with the last of his strength, and the last of his fury, he grabbed Drakav and pulled him close, though the blade pressed mercilessly deeper. That didn't matter, only one thing mattered. This monster wouldn't touch her. The thought beat hard in his head, and Broud grabbed Drakav's hair, staring into the cold depths of the man's eyes. It was only a flash of a moment that he held the man of the Others, but in that moment he saw all manners of things in the foreigner's blue eyes. He saw hate and rage and lust and loss, and strangest of all, Broud even saw some small reflection of himself, of the potential within him unchecked by love and duty. Broud felt disgust, and then he felt pity. And then he snapped Drakav's neck with one quick twist of his powerful arms. He released Drakav as he would release a piece of dirt picked off his furs. He turned to Kyani, looking her over, then staring into her beautiful violet eyes sparkling with tears. He could not speak. Darkness came quickly, closing it at all sides. But before Broud fell to the ground his lips quivered and pulled up into a smile.