Niyol slipped her stave under Laith’s guard and behind his calf. With a flick, she sent him backward. Laith Lus’ breath left him in a whoosh as his back impacted the dirt of the practice yard.
“She beat you … again,” Rriveag said from the sidelines.
“I noticed,” Laith gasped.
“Barely,” Niyol added from where she stood bent at the waist with half her weight resting on the staff held in her hands. “That was a good strike you landed just before.”
Laith sat up though it sent his head spinning. “Are you all right?”
Niyol straightened as she shook her head. “You are the one on the ground pale as beach sand, and you are asking me if I’m injured?” She offered her hand to help him stand. “I think we should call a truce for a bit?”
“Agreed.” Laith took her offered help. She caught his shoulders as the horizon tilted and kept him from tumbling back to the dirt.
“Are you okay?”
“Just give me a moment.”
Laith kept his eyes closed to keep the out-of-kilter world from twisting his senses. Instead, he focused on the warmth of Niyol’s hand on his chest. She stood as close as when they danced. Only with both of them out of breath and grimed by sweat and dust, this felt far more intimate. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
“Will you help instruct the other fighters?” He asked as he opened his eyes.
She blushed as he caught her gaze and realized she had been watching him. “Happily.”
Today was the sixth they had tested each other with staves in the practice yard. Niyol was decidedly tricky to beat in a match. All the Haessu fighters were. It lent credence to Niyol’s claim they fought karosh. Which made him wonder why Ceadhru and Aaindriu did not give aid or even acknowledge it.
He pushed aside the thought, promising he would ask her later when they met at the nightly dance that was as much a part of the khat’zi as the assembly of the three tribes. The morning passed instructing younger warriors. Laith was accustomed to Aaindriu’s gaze following him. Occasionally, the elder of the Tadhg fought him as well or joined with the instruction. But today, Aaindriu merely watched with a keen eye on the handful of potential successors to the leadership of the Tadhg. Laith did not miss that Aaindriu’s gaze followed him as often as the Tadhg in Aaindriu’s kahl’vil.
Laith knew it was midday when Esyll arrived carrying a satchel and walking at Caedhru’s side. The warm smile that rose to his lips was not forced. Away from the khat’zi and the watchful eyes of Fiachra and Aaindriu, Esyll was joyful company. So he compromised with the duty he had as Caedhru’s tey’bahl and the role both Caedhru and Aaindriu expected by spending afternoons with Esyll away from Sithchaine. The only problem he foresaw was running out of places within a close walk. That, and when the khat’zi ended, and he chose no one again.
Because that was his plan. They would not force him. He would see if he loved Esyll when no pressure weighed on him. Hopefully, Bannyl would help explain that to Caedhru. If not, Laith was willing to bear Caedhru’s displeasure alone.
Esyll wrinkled her nose at him. “Must you fight every morning? You smell of sweat and are covered in dirt.”
“If I remember correctly, you were the one who pushed me into the river on our first walk and got me covered in mud.”
“Hah. I think I should push you in again. It would do you good!” Esyll skipped forward out of arms reach.
As Laith chased after, he caught Niyol’s gaze on him. His pace slipped. By all measure, he and Esyll were courting. At least by all measure but his real intent. He should tell Esyll, Laith knew that. It would be better if she understood his plan, but he had yet to find a way to explain it.
And part of that stemmed because he knew if he spoke, it would be a promise. And he wasn’t ready for that. He glanced back at Niyol. She gathered discarded staves and no longer looked his way.
“Are you coming?” Esyll yelled. She’d nearly reached the edge of the woods.
“I thought I’d let you lead,” Laith called to her. “It will be interesting to see how lost you get!”
Esyll flashed him a look that was more than a little mischievous before bolting toward the woods. Laith swore under his breath as he laughed and gave chase.
Esyll was fleet-footed and powerful. Ferns bent out of her way to whip backward and try to trip him. He leaped over a branch that twisted upwards to catch his leg. Laith resisted using power to undo her attempts to slow him. She didn’t really wish to lose him, so he leaped and whirled as he dodged a forest that tried to slow his pursuit.
Esyll’s startled cry and the sudden inanimate behavior of the foliage gave Laith an extra boost of speed. He dodged out of the undergrowth to see Esyll pinwheeling her arms as she grabbed for a nearby tree that reached for her as she stood at the edge of steep gorge. Laith darted forward and caught Esyll by her waist as he spun her away from the edge and into his arms.
She fell against his chest with a relieved sigh. “Thank you.” Her voice was a husky whisper from the run as well as the frightened moment as she’d struggled to keep her balance above the chasm that fell to a rushing stream far below. “I guess you were right that I’d get myself lost. I almost ran off the edge.” Esyll closed her eyes and trembled in his arms.
Laith’s heart sped from the run and how close he held Esyll. Her hand rested on his chest and her waist against his hip. She opened her eyes and tilted her face upward. His gaze brushed her lips.
“You should be more careful,” Laith said as he released her and stepped away to pick up the satchel she’d dropped a foot from the ravine’s edge. “We walked the path along the gorge two days ago. I thought you knew where you were.”
“Did we?” Esyll asked glancing down the trail. She shrugged. “I just ran and didn’t pay attention to which way. Since we are here, do you want to have lunch next to that quiet pool again?”
“Where we ate yesterday? Don’t you want to see something new?”
Esyll stepped closer and placed a hand on his arm. “Do you think I care where we go? Besides,” she added with eyes laughing. “It is a nice swimming place, and you could use a bath.”
He relented, but only because of her teasing. Otherwise, he would have returned to Sithchaine. He did not know Esyll’s feelings, but her actions were more serious than he felt. Guilt that he continued to spend time with her because of Caedhru and Aaindriu more than because he enjoyed her company left a taste like sour berries in his mouth. Tomorrow, he should invite others with them or simply not go.
When they reached the secluded pool, Laith walked passed Esyll and waded in. He heard her say his name as he dove in. The cold water shocked his mind to the same alertness of his emotions. Instead of rationalizing why he saw Esyll, he needed his logic to agree with his heart. No matter the problem it caused, this could not go on.
Laith swam along the pebble bottom of the clear pool to come up on the far side near where the stream fell in sheets along the broken bedrock.
Esyll sat with her shoes off on a rock and timidly dipped a toe into the water. “It is colder than I expected. Otherwise, I would join you.” She blushed and glanced away as Laith swam slowly toward her.
“Esyll …” Laith began as he found his footing and stood to wade through the shallows.
Esyll rose to her feet as if she were a bird taking flight. She stepped decidedly into the water and met Laith a few feet from shore, tripping so that he had to catch her or let her fall into the cool water.
“You are soaked and cold!” Esyll said with a laugh as she leaned against him. “But you do smell better. If I knew you’d get me this damp, I would have just dove in with you.”
Laith steadied her with his hands on her shoulders. “Here, I’m sorry. I’ll help you to shore.”
She glanced at him with knitted brows and said nothing as he helped her walk along the slippery bank. As soon as she stood on the dry grass of the bank, she turned to face him. “What is wrong, Laith? It has been over a week since the khat’zi began. We can be … more serious than this.” Esyll gestured to the space between them. She stepped closer. “We could dance the promise dances and we could—”
“Yes, it has been more than a week,” Laith said as he stepped back.
Esyll’s confused gaze faded into one far more heated. She glared at him. “You don’t intend to choose me? After a week? I’ve gone on these stupid walks with you to be alone with you. My dress is soaked! And you—” Esyll spun on her heel, jammed her feet into her discarded shoes, and hurried toward the trail leading toward Lus na Sithchaine.
Laith waited until he heard only the sound of the waterfall splashing over the rocks and the ever-present rustle of leaves sliding together in the breeze before he slowly released his breath. That wasn’t how he meant to tell her. And she deserved to know all of it. Maybe she would understand his hesitation if she knew the pressure Caedhru and Aaindriu caused.
“Esyll!” Laith yelled as he ran after her.
Laith must have waited longer than he realized or Esyll had decided to run. She was not along the path atop the gorge. As he jogged toward the meadow, growing shouts quickened his pace. A grating roar pitched him to a full-speed run.
Laith burst from the undergrowth into sunshine and a sight that stopped him as if he’d hit a wall. A scaled karosh that would have towered over an elk opened its beaked jaw and roared. Its ornamental mane of feathers spiked with its fury. Beneath its feathered legs and curved talons, Esyll curled into a ball with her hands protecting her head. The karosh lunged forward.
“Get away from her!” Niyol smacked the karosh’s curved beak with a stave.
The karosh blinked at her. Niyol looked equally as surprised as it. With a hiss, the karosh darted its head forward. Niyol’s staff broke under the power of its curved beak.
“Help her!” Laith yelled as the surprise that kept him rooted broke.
He ran toward Niyol as she ducked under the karosh’s flattened tail with its blade sharp edge. Her staff regrew in her hand, but to do so, Niyol needed to make it thinner. Her meager weapon would not harm the beast that pivoted between Esyll and Niyol. The karosh eyed Niyol before turning toward the crumpled figure of Esyll where she sobbed on the ground. A rock exploded against its cheek.
“I said leave her alone!” Niyol hurled another rock at the karosh, this time hitting it between its eyes.
The karosh roared as it scampered after Niyol, who lead it away from Esyll in a quick chase before she turned to face the raging monster again.
As he paused to check Esyll, Laith’s gaze stayed on Niyol who faced a beast twice her height with something that looked like a twig. It slashed at her with talons, which she blocked with the staff. The wooden pole held, but it only could have done so if Niyol used power. And that was the danger of it and what the karosh wanted. Not blood or meat, but magic.
The karosh struck at her with its tail. Niyol twirled to the side as if she danced, her split and shortened dress flared around her as she dodged.
Esyll’s shoulders heaved with her sobs, but she was alive and looked to bear no more than scratches. Niyol faced far worse and stood alone.
“Get Esyll away,” Laith yelled to the few watchers who hovered at the forest edge. “And then leave to get help.”
Even as he spoke, Laith saw Rriveag run from the forest. A translucent sword flashed sunlight in his hand. That was where the warriors who had been practicing had gone. To get something more lethal than sticks. Laith stood, but Esyll grabbed his hand.
“Don’t leave me!” she begged. “It will kill you.”
“My warriors do not fight without me,” Laith said as he pulled away. He sprinted to join Rriveag.
Rriveag glanced at Laith in surprise as he slowed outside of the karosh’s reach. “Take the sword. I’ll fight with …”
“Keep it,” Laith said, gaze on Niyol who had gained a bloody slash but managed to stay a few twisting paces away from the karosh’s talons. “I’ll help Niyol distract it. You sneak in to kill it.” Then Laith’s heart stopped.
The karosh lunged forward with both front claws open to grab Niyol while striking with its hooked beak. Niyol had nowhere to dodge to, so she dropped to her knees. The karosh’s taloned paw hit her on the side. She rolled, but not out of range as it surged forward and swiped at her again. On her back, Niyol blocked the attack with her staff. Power flared around her as she strengthened the fragile length of wood with magic. That was when the karosh charged forward with open mouth.
The karosh’s beak snapped on the bright aura that surrounded Niyol. She screamed. Convulsing in agony, Niyol writhed on the ground as the karosh raised its head. Bands of light dripped from its beak.
“No!” Laith charged forward.
Rriveag stopped him by grabbing Laith across his chest. “It is too late.”
Laith pushed Rriveag aside and ran toward the karosh. As it dipped its head for another bite of Niyol’s magic, Laith grabbed a rock. Wrapping it in magic, Laith hurled it at the karosh’s head. The impact sent the karosh staggering. It turned with crown feathers flared as it growled at him.
Laith stood his ground as he called enough power that the world around him brightened as if he stood in fire. Nearby pebbles rose into the air. “Do you want a feast?” Laith asked. The karosh stared at him without blinking. “Come for me.” Laith held out his arms, empty hands splayed. The karosh barreled forward.
Laith waited until the monster was a yard away. He spun sideways as its leg feathers swept over his chest, but he was too close to dodge the sharp scales of its tail. Rriveag stepped in front of him and took the impact on his sword.
“You are insane,” Rriveag hissed through clenched teeth. Blood marked his arm, but the cut did not look deep, certainly not as deep as it would have been if the karosh’s tail had struck Laith’s chest.
“The plan hasn’t changed,” Laith said as he pushed Rriveag further from the karosh. “I’ll distract. You kill.”
Rriveag’s eyes were wide, but he didn’t argue. It usually took at least four seasoned warriors to bring down a karosh, seven was preferable. Just the two of them against a beast who had a mouthful of power to tempt it and add to its energy was ill planned. But Rriveag nodded and backed away.
The karosh eyed Rriveag before turning to Laith. It was smart enough to know which of them was unarmed and held more power. With magic wrapping around Laith like starlight, the karosh bobbed its head as Laith paced sideways, turning with him until Rriveag stood near its rear quarters.
This time when it charged, Laith swept up a handful of dirt and stone and hurled it at the karosh’s eyes. It snapped at the debris, aiming to grab the power Laith threw with his attack, but the sharpened grit hit its open eyes and tongue before it could bite. Rubbing its eyes against feathered legs and mouth agape to show a bloody tongue, the karosh paused only a moment before turning its attention to Laith again. Every feather on its mostly scaled body tensed. Then Rriveag stabbed it in its side.
The karosh erupted in a flurry of movement, striking Rriveag with a rear leg. He flew backward and hit the ground hard but managed to roll to miss the slashing tail of the beast. Curled around its wound, the karosh scratched at the sword lodged in its side while snapping wildly at the pain as if fighting an invisible attacker.
Laith needed a weapon but had none. Rriveag moved slowly, rolling to his side to put a hand under him. Now was their best moment to attack and win. Laith searched for something that could kill a karosh. The karosh’s rear leg reached the sword. Finally finding the cause of its agony, the karosh paused. A javelin struck its neck, the tip emerging from the far side.
The karosh writhed like an injured snake, striking with legs, tail, and beak; it was a fury of promised death. Niyol struggled to stand from where she knelt. Laith hurried to her side.
“You are injured. Get to the forest.” Laith said as he helped her to her feet.
Niyol shook her head though the motion was slow. “It is more dangerous injured. We have to kill it.”
“Fighters will come,” Rriveag promised as he staggered to join them. “They are coming.”
“We are here,” Niyol said.
Laith met her gaze, his heart full of a hundred things to say. All he could do was nod. “We keep our distance and spread out.”
Laith grabbed stones and sticks as he walked to the opposite side of the creature. The frantic movements had slowed. Mouth agape, it panted as its wounds leaked blood, but its eyes watched him with malice that promised it would kill and feed to heal and not be the one to die today.
Rriveag threw a stone that hit its wounded side. As it turned, Laith hurled a sharpened stick, adding power to fuel its speed and impact despite the danger. The weapon buried full length into the karosh’s shoulder. Screaming, the karosh charged him in a limping rush. Niyol’s thrown stone burst against its side but did not distract the creature.
Laith dove to the side, rolling away as it scratched after him. Niyol raced by him, a new pointed staff in her hand as she protected Laith. The karosh’s hooked beak caught the end of the stave, threatening to break it or grab Niyol’s power again.
Laith scrambled to his feet and placed his hand on the staff with Niyol, his other hand supporting her. He added his power to hers, risking both of their lives and magic to fuel the staff to grow. The diameter of the pole shrunk under his fingers as the spike burst through the back of the karosh’s skull. It fell at their feet.
Niyol released her breath in a rush. With a tremble, she rested her forehead against Laith’s neck as he held her. Across the dead body of the karosh, Rriveag sank wearily to his knees.