They had been human once.
They were hungry.
And they were on the hunt...
The wind thrust mercilessly down from the arctic, howling bitterly of its birthing on the bleak white stretches of tundra and of its escape over knife-edged mountains, and carried to the grasslands of Rastrygg all the lashing ferocity of the savage northlands.
Feef pulled her fur-lined cloak more tightly about her thin frame.
She wished that she was young again, so that she could snuggle close to her mother for warmth. But she was fully nine years of age and the daughter of a Hold Lord. So she must face the biting wind with as much calm authority as she could muster. Even if her teeth did clatter when she relaxed her jaw and if her nose was beginning to run.
"Cold, my child?" To her right, Aralita, her mother, looked down at her. Aralita's golden hair billowed out behind her as their open carriage rushed across the plains. Her exquisite face was reddened slightly but seemingly not numbed like Feef's. But then, Feef reminded herself, her mother was from Fihlka. And everyone knew that in that mountainous country even the children ran half naked through the first snowfall to toughen themselves against the long winter.
"No," replied Feef. Nor was her answer a complete lie. Something else -- a strange feeling she could not have explained -- was reaching into her with a more frigid grasp than ever the wind could. An ill-boding sense of danger.
Feef looked intently ahead -- beyond their fur-coated driver and the four hornless pomes that were pulling their carriage.
Summer had fled the plains and the waist-high grass about them had already turned a dry brown that rippled and hissed at their passing and smelled bittersweet of decay.
There was no break in that undulating brown field that rolled clear to the horizon. No break to warn of a lurking predator. And, she knew, her mother had the witchy faculty of sensing the approach of any of the great beasts that hunted the prairie. Yet--
Niblan, her brother, who sat brooding on the other side of their mother, looked fretfully out from his bundled furs and spoke. "Liar! You must be cold, Feef. I am freezing!"
Aralita luaghed. It was low, guttural sound, but filled with mirth. "And what, my son, if you cannot face the change in clime this early in the season, will you do when the blizzards come to ravage this land? As a warrior in training, you must learn to face the worst the Elementals throw at you. Remember, I brought you out here as a favor to you."
"You brought us out here to escape the tongue of Gandmother!" rebuffed Niblan. He said more, but Feef failed to catch it.
Her attention had been attracted by a curious agitation of the grass ahead and to her left. When a form appeared there, sudden horror drove all else from her mind.
It had been human once. Now it was little more than a living skeleton with a thin, tortured face. Its eyes were white all around the piercing red irises. Rotten teeth showed against pale skin that was unnaturally hairless. It wore a filthy jumble of tattered cloth and animal skins that whipped about it like living things. In its gaunt hand, it grasped a long, yellow bone shaped to a club.
Yes, it had once been human, that vrygon -- before being caught by others of its kind and submitted to the hellborn ceremony of blood transfusion with them -- blood that carried an alchemical metamorphic substance that even the greenfriars from the north had difficulty counteracting. And, because of the Wars, it had been years since a greenfriar had been welcome in Rastrygg.
Her voice constrained, almost a whisper, Feef managed to give warning: "Ahead -- a vrygon!"
"What? No!" Aralita stared in disbelief to where Feef weakly pointed. "How could they get this close without my see--" She choked off her words. Beside her, Niblan screamed.
Their driver cruelly reined the lead pair of pomes to the right and lay his rawhide whip along their backs. "Hang on! I'll get us out of here," he called back to them.
Feef grasped the seat with all her strength and watched the creature as they rushed by it. Behind it and running fast were more of its kind, perhaps twenty. Raising their crude clubs above their heads and yelling in vampiric voices that made Feef feel weak and empty, they leapt out onto the trail of flattened grass behind the carriage.
Feef couldn't take her eyes off them.
"Faster, damn you!" commanded Aralita.
Though the pomes pulled with all their might, the vrygons showed a sudden and frightening burst of speed. With each quick step, the creatures drew closer.
One threw its club at Feef -- she felt it brush her hair. Then it was leaping at her. Long, clawed fingers curled over the polished leather back of the seat. Feef, screaming, fell to the carriage floor, looking back frantically at the snarling face that appeared against the blue of the sky.
"Take the reins, Lady," came the driver's husky voice. As her mother climbed forward, the driver stepped over Feef, swinging something -- a long knife -- at that face.
At the howl of pain and outrage, Feef closed her eyes and huddled on the jolting carriage floor. "Save us, Allfather," she whispered in a quivering voice. "I beg you. Save us."
There were more screams. And the subhuman voices of the vrygons as they called to one another in words almost intelligible. Hiss, hiss -- their footfalls through the withered grass seemed only a pace to her side. A stink of hellish foulness came at her contrary to the direction of the wind.
"Stop that one, Jid!" Her mother's voice was beginning to show strain.
"He's too far out, Lady. I have only my knife."
"Where is your ax?"
"You ordered the team prepared so fast. I left the ax --"
"Lamewit! I'll have you whipped when -- there! Stop those!"
"If only I had a crossbow."
"Oh, blessed Ashmu! They're trying to cripple the team. Stop them, Jid!"
A pome squealed and the carriage lurched.
Despite her fear, Feef managed to open her eyes and lift herself up on her elbows.
Vrygons were sprinting on both sides of them, their tongues hanging from wide-open mouths. Jid, kneeling in the seat, was desperately slashing at those that leapt for the carriage and her mother was putting the whip to both sides of the pomes to keep the savages away. One grabbed that whip as it touched him and the rawhide whip flew from Aralita's hand.
Feef shut her eyes again and burried her face in her arms. Beside her, Niblan began to cry.
"Can't you do something?" shouted Aralita in a voice pitched abnormally high. "If they cripple the pomes, they'll have us all!"
"There is nothing I can do, Lady!"
After a moment, her mother spoke again, voice deeper now, colder. "There is one thing."
"What is it?"
"You can jump."
Jump! Feef felt a sudden surge of hope. If he jumped off the carriage, the things would go for him. Whether they hunted for meat or for victims for a worse end, they might be satisfied with one.
One death so that three may live. It was a fair bargain. Fairer still, because they were the family of Lord Merakul. And Jid -- she had not even known his name until just now -- was only a bondsman. Normally, one of Aralita's rover men drove this carriage. Until today, she had seen Jid only from a distance. He worked in the fernery and at the fields. Yes! Jump! Feef found herself silently pleading to him. Jump!
"It is your duty!" said Aralita. "Save us with you life and your family will be rewarded. Refuse me, and they will be hanged with you!"
"If you make it to tell the tale," came Jid's grim voice.
"I command you to jump! Do you refuse me?"
The girl had the feeling that he was looking down at her. His voice was low, sad. "No, Lady."
The carriage gave a sudden bounce as it was relieved of weight.
The driver was gone.
At once, the sounds of their attackers fell away from them. There were screams. But Feef liked to think that their champion had gone down silently, taking many with them. Those hidious yells grew weaker with distance. Was it true? Was their ordeal over? But-- Were some of those yells growing stronger again? Closer? Closer. Closer!
With feelings of despair and anguish, Feef knew the chase had been taken up again.
Once more, the creatures fell in on both sides. The carriage jerked down on Feef's side. She opened her eyes and gazed across into hungry red eyes. Hungry for her.
Aralita was beside her, kicking frantically at it until it fell off. "You will have to defend yourself," she snapped, returning to the team.
Feef pulled herself shakily to her knees.
Niblan was a hunched, shivering form in animal fur that pressed against her.
The vrygons were beside the wild-eyed pomes, beating at them with their bone clubs. She could plainly hear each blow fall; each pitiless, relentless thud. It was only a matter of time before a pome was crippled and then --
Feef whimpered. She felt as if she was going to vomit and realized with a vaguely critical part of her mind that she had already wet herself. I don't want to die. Allfather, please don't let us die. She wondered if it would still be blasphemous to call on Mother Ashmu, now that the Wars were over. It was no secret that Aralita worshipped the Great Mother.
"Niblan!" cried Aralita. "It's--" Her voice faltered, choking on something. "It's you turn. You must jump now."
Niblan looked out from his furs and gazed at his mother, his face bloodless. His answer was a wailing "No!"
Their mother continued, "All your life -- your father has prepared you. Prepared you to be an officer of his regiment, Niblan. Now the time has come. To prove your worth."
"No. Please, no."
Aralita stepped back and kicked him heavily in the ribs. He fell against Feef, who grasped the underside of the seat behind them, lest she fall off.
"Coward!" came their mother's voice. Such a changed voice.
"Please --" Niblan reached out and grasped Aralita's foot.
Ahead, a pome squealed and stumbled. One step, two, it staggered off-stride as if were going to fall. A third misstep -- it's head thrown back, mouth flecked with foam, eyes wide in terror -- its footing worstened by the wild speed of the other three pomes connected to it in harness. But then -- it regained itself at the last moment and continued at a gallop.
"No more!" Mercy was gone from Aralita. Fear showed in her eyes as wild as their pomes. Digging her fingers into her son's hair, she twisted his head back until he let go of her.
"No, Mother," he pleaded. "Take Feef. Do it to her. Not me!"
With all her strength, Aralita flung her son into the air.
Feef heard him hit the grassy ground. His voice was almost as twisted as twisted as those of the hunters. "Mother! Feef! Come back!" The shout turned into a bestial shriek that was mercifully drowned out by the triumphant cheers of their pursuers.
Again the noises fell away from them.
The only sounds now were the thud of hoofs and ragged breathing of the pomes and the hissing of the tall grass under the carriage.
Feef listened, waited.
This time the hunt was not picked up.
"They're satified. They've given up." Feef could hardly believe her own words. But -- Oh, poor Niblan. Niblan!
She stared up at her mother.
Aralita had not returned to the team. She stayed as she was, leaning against the seat. Her face was pale and haggard. She looked suddenly old, like Grandmother Anpeth. Her cold blue eyes held her daughter's.
She said, "Do you know what your father would do if he learned of Niblan? That I had bought my life with his son's?"
Feef looked at the floor boards.
"He loves me, does your father. But that love could not restrain him if he learns the truth of today."
And then Aralita grabbed Feef by the hair.
Feef kicked out at her mother. But the arms that lifted her contained more strength than she ever imagined.
"I'm sorry, my daughter. I've lived too long in this land of my enemies. I hate what I've become."
"Farewell, my little Feef."
"With you goes the last of my love."
Aralita's fists were like two rocks in Feef's back. She felt those fists open and push her away.
The trembling yellow grass rushed up at her, swallowed her. The ground smashed her, rolled her about, punished her with hammerblows of pain, then seized and held her.
Dazed, she lifted herself up.
Back along the trail, lean and starved faces pointed in her direction. Mouths opened in ravenous delight.
In desperation, she looked about.
She saw the carriage fleeing over a knoll. Aralita's long golden hair was the last she saw of her mother.
Rustling grass clear to the rolling horizon. And a Pinnacle. To the south, glittering above the waving yellow carpet, was an outcropping of smoky rock crystal, like immense fingers of glass pointing at the sky.
The vrygons were coming for her.
Too far, she told herself as she began to run on weak legs for the crystal Pinnacle. And even if she did reach it, what use its meager shelter? She was no witch, to call on its powers. Still, she ran, sobbing as she went.
And as she ran, her mother's last words ran through her: "Farewell, my little Feef. With you goes the last of my love..."
The pome came to a halt atop the grassy hill, lowering its great horned head as its rider unfolded a copper telescope and searched the horizon.
It was a creature of perfect build, that stallion pome. Fully nineteen hands high, its coat was a pure frosty white except for black streaks across the slanting rump. Its silky mane blew out in the prairie wind like coursing snow. Two cruel black horns curved out from its forehead just above its golden eyes, almost as long and sharp-tipped as Cimbujan sabers. The head was perfectly formed, the goatlike ears perhaps a little too large for a pome show purist. But now those ears fluttered fervidly, listening as acutely as its rider watched. The muscles trembled across its haunches and down its limbs and its silky tail twitched in anticipation. It began to paw at the ground with a bronze-shod hoof.
Its trappings matched the quality of the mount. The saddle: no war saddle of cracked rawhide that, but a thing of lordly design, with seat and stirrup hoods of uli leather. The straps were polished black leather decorated with silver stitching that glittered in the late afternoon sun. The face plate and other metalwork were silver-finished. The spreading saddle cloth was blood-red, bordered by a black stripe and silver chain-links. And on the rear off-side corner of the cloth was the escutcheon of the famed Rastryggian Mounted Axmen. Steel ax and crossbow were strapped on the right side; a quiver and sheathed long knife on the left. The cylindical crimson-leathered valise was strapped behind the saddle.
How strange then, was the rider in comparison.
For, except for the fine riding boots, his clothing was the worn and oft-repaired yellow softhide of a common soldier. The face beneath the black fur cap certified that impression: it was somber and craggy, grimly sculpted by the Northern elements and too many campaigns. The grey eyes that looked at the sky thoughtfully as he lowered the telescope were sharp and alert enough and yet somehow weary.
Jarlin, son of Jarlin, had been away soldiering most of his life and was at last going home.
He wanted to make camp as soon as he could. Except for whatever meager nourishment it got from the prairie grass, his pome had not been fed in four days. As hardy as its breed was, he didn't want to tire it until they reached the next fernery.
But the creature didn't act tired. In fact, it had been restless since he had first spotted the Pinnacle in the distance. It sensed danger somewhere ahead. Or something...
"We need shelter, Moonfrost, my lad," he muttered to the animal. "And the farther south we go, the fewer the crystal stands. We must make camp there."
Jarlin again raised the telescope and reconnoitered the sea of grass and the Pinnacle that rose from its wind-rippled surface.
It was then that he saw what Moonfrost had sensed long before.
Lean forms, like wolves on two feet, running through the grass.
"Vrygons?" he guessed out loud. "This far north?"
He could see the break in the grass where the skeletal figures ran. And ahead of them, their prey. A tumi, one of the huge rodents that roamed the plains? Or a prairie cat? Or--
"By Allfather Jassem! Human! A child it looks like--"
The pome needed no prodding.
The stallion broke into a charge as soon as he nudged it, making it difficult for him to put away the telescope and unloose his battle ax. How well the soldier knew the ability of a horned pome to sniff out the product of the unclean sciences. Here again was the proof. Moonfrost sped through the tall grass like the slashing firebolt sent by an avenging god of the clouds.
As he got closer, Jarlin read the signs of a tragedy. He saw a line through the tall grass where a coach had passed. And along that line, two groups of vrygons, five to a group, hunched over mutilated bodies. A third pack of nine or ten chased what now appeared to be a girl. The soldier kept tight control of the pome as he flew between the first two groups and, before they knew of its presence, he was on the third.
Jarlin gave up any attempt now of controlling the beast in its rage. As it leapt squealing into their midst, rearing up and then bringing bronzed hooves onto two and slashing down at another with its horns, he had to be content to act as flank guard. Giving voice to the battle cry of his onetime regiment, he leaned out to one side, back-slashing his ax at one ferocious visage. Steel bit into cheek and eyesocket.
Truly like the instrument of some avenging god, the two stormed among the ten. The vrygons fought bravely enough -- or madly enough, for their resistance seemed born of starvation and desperation more than courage. But, though joined by their screeching companions, the pack was no match for the wrathful two. Hoof and horn and ax rose and fell and rose to fall again until at last only smashed bone and butchered flesh lay in the miniature battlefield.
Even then, the pome wasn't satisfied. It ran about the corpses, snorting, searching for movement. It took all of Jarlin's strength to turn its head aside. And to do that, he had to reach out and grab one of the cruel horns in his fist and pull it roughly to one side.
"Away!" he snapped at it.
Reluctantly, Moonfrost trotted from the grim circle.
After restrapping his ax, he followed the narrow trail made by the fleeing girl.
He found her outstretched on the ground, unconscious.
Perhaps she had fainted when she heard the pome's battle squeal and turned to see her deliverers.
Jarlin slid out of the saddle.
She was young, perhaps ten, he thought, as he picked her up and walked for the Pinnacle. By her clothing, which was finely cut and sewn, she seemed of high birth. Her face was drawn and pinched by the calamitous experience she had been through, earning the soldier's pity. And pity from Jarlin, who had witnessed tragedy these many years, was a rare thing.
The outcropping was perfect for camp. Sixteen crystal pillars reached jaggedly for the heavens, forming a protected clearing at their center. Fresh water was gathered in rock basins. Like every other pinnacle where he had made camp, the area was bare of life. No animals, no grasses, not even mosses, lived here. Nothing. But as long as he did not spend a full day in its confines, he was safe from its ancient sciences. Wild predators would avoid it.
Wrapping the girl in blankets from his valise, he placed her carefully were the relentless autumn wind could least find her. In a short time, he had a fire going, balls of grass soaked in slow-burning jelly of camphene mixed with tumi fat gave off a yellowish flame that glowed softly in reflection from every pillar. Over it, huf tea and the last of a jug of hafflekar soup bubbled merrily in pots.
He spent almost until sun-out combing and cleaning Moonfrost, noticing as he did that the pome had thrown a shoe. Too late now, he would have to search the battleground for it in the morning. Making his own bed from the decorated saddle cloth and the sweat- and leather-stained blanket that went under it, he lay back and waited for the fragrance of the cooking food to rouse the girl.
Just as the sun imploded and only the drifting stars and a low and crimson moon added light to the fire, she stirred.
Big blue eyes stared across at Jarlin.
Watch for MOONFROST Pt 2: Starfall