Their horses had been abandoned miles ago. They were too precious to risk on a swampy scouting mission, so the company continued on foot. How Stefan’s robe remained pristine despite dragging over the ground was a testament to the powerful magic imbued in it. Perhaps if Aris cut up the robe and turned it into socks, his feet would stay as warm and dry as Stefan appeared to be right now. Their bond might have been closer than if they’d been born brothers, but Aris would do anything for dry feet right now. He pulled one boot from the mud with a long squelching sound, wincing as he stepped forward.
If Aris had to spend one more second slogging through the backwater muck of Aclines, he was going to go mad. As it was, the continuous onslaught of the mosquitoes and the leeches and the interminably soggy boots was far worse than any enemy troops they’d encountered. Patience had never been his greatest virtue—not that he was particularly virtuous in any sense of the word—but his mood was quickly becoming as foul as the sulfuric air around them.
“Stefan, if you don’t stop that fucking whistling, I’m going to knock your teeth out,” he growled, smacking yet another mosquito that dared to land on his neck. His toes squelched in his boots, making his feet blister, and they were freezing cold despite the hot sun on his neck—a sun that was setting rapidly. His feet, he knew, would be healed by morning—his mood would take a lot longer.
His Mage turned and looked at him, grinning cheerfully, the bright yellow of his robe a stark contrast to their swampy surroundings. A wolf’s tooth, as long and thick as Aris’s thumb, hung on a leather strap around Stefan’s neck, a trophy from the single worthwhile skirmish they’d had in this gods-forsaken country.
“Aw, do you have wet paws?” Dimitra asked, smacking his shoulder as she passed, an otherwise silent wraith in the fading light. Technically, she was leading this expedition, and she was not going to let anyone forget it.
Aris grunted a reply and watched her appreciatively—they’d shared a bed often over the past few years. The fading light glinted off the twin steel blades strapped to the round shield on her back, beautiful and deadly. She was more lethal than any other Shield on this pointless mission, besides him.
“Easy, friend,” Stefan said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You can have your fun after we’re done with this mess. You’re not the only one looking forward to a warm bed.” He glanced over at Dafni, one of the Water Mages. She arched an eyebrow, looking him over skeptically. Stefan grinned widely in response.
“There’s nothing here,” Aris grunted, shrugging off Stefan’s hand. “We should go back.” His feet were cold and wet, and he was going to have mosquito bites the size of copper coins all over his body by the time this was done, and all for this damned futile task. The past few months of Aris and Stefan’s partnership had generally been the stuff of ballads—daring assignments, the kind that brought them glory and women in droves. Their current task, making sure the way was clear for King Leonidas’s army to move through to the capital of Aclines, was the most lackluster job they’d had yet. There was no road, no path at all that they’d yet found through the swamp. The army was going to have to slog through, wagons and horses and everything. Aris was more than ready to turn back.
But then something moved in the grass.
A slight ripple along the tall blades, a new scent wafting on the breeze, as faint as an echo.
“Stefan,” Aris growled, on alert.
His Mage came to him, his usually cheerful face now stern, his damned robe still spotless. “What is it?” he asked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Aris saw Stefan’s hands twitch, readying. Aris drew his blades, the short gladiuses that his kin had used to defend their Mages over generations. He left his eponymous round shield on his back, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
“What do you see?” Stefan breathed.
Around them, Dimitra and the other dozen who’d been traveling with them paused.
Bullfrogs croaked. Far off in front of them, a crow cawed loudly before taking off, startling a whole treeful of birds into flight.
Aris scanned the horizon, practiced eyes looking for anything out of place. Dimitra and her Fire Mage came to his other side.
“What is it?” she asked, golden eyes flashing as she surveyed the swamp.
A prickle ran along Aris’s spine. Something was out there. Something was lurking in the muck. Waiting.
The attack came from all around them, all at once. Where there had only been moss-covered trees and muddy bogs, men in leather armor now stood like ghosts, yelling and shaking their weapons. They didn’t look like much of an army—they were ill-equipped, with broadswords and shields that had seen better years. Their armor appeared scraped together, mostly leather with rare bits of metal.
There were a damned lot of them, though.
The first wave was on them in between one heartbeat and the next, yelling like banshees as they ran—until a blast of flame twenty feet long and as hot as fabled dragon’s breath cut a swath through them, sending curls of smoke and screams and burned flesh up into the evening air.
Dimitra’s Mage, Rafael, had cleared a path back toward the king’s army—which was miles away and of little help now.
Aris, though, was itching for a fight. They’d been on the trail for weeks now, with no sign of the Aclinese army, no resistance at all. Now, a horde a hundred strong was coming at them through the muck. They would be no real match for Aris, but he’d take this over another day battling mosquitoes.
“Let’s go,” Dimitra said, quickly dispatching a man who dared come too close, thinking a woman easy prey. His fatal mistake made the rest of the horde hold back for a moment as they watched his body fall. “There are too many.”
A roar went through Aris, the primal surge of his own magic coming to the surface. He felt powerful, ready to take on the world if he needed to. There would be no retreating for Aris, no matter what Dimitra said. He felt Stefan’s solid bulk behind him, back-to-back, as they’d always fought. Around them, Mages and Shields paired off the same way. Blasts of flame and earth and water took down men by the score, but still the enemy came.
“Ready for a little fun?” Stefan yelled over his shoulder.
Aris tightened his grip and lashed out at a leather-clad barbarian, severing the man’s arm at the elbow. The man howled and desperately launched himself again at Aris, coming close enough that Aris could see the decayed teeth in the man’s mouth, could smell his rank breath—before Aris severed the man’s head from his shoulders with a single powerful strike. Blood sprayed across the ground, making the footing treacherous. Another man slipped in it—a fatal mistake, as Aris’s sword cleaved his neck. Blood spurted, catching Aris across the chest. The coppery tang in the air was intoxicating.
“About time we had a proper fight!” Aris yelled back, baring his teeth.
They made their way toward Dimitra and the rest of their party, making steady progress back to dry ground and the road back to the Ocronian army. Still, on the rabble pressed.
“They remind me of those wolves back in Fremulon. Do you remember?” Stefan said, grinning. He shot out his hands, uttering a single word laced with power: “Pull.”
The three men nearest him fell to their knees, hands clutching at throats that would not allow air to pass into their lungs. One of them fell face-first into a puddle, scratching for the air that Stefan denied him.
“Those rabid fuckers were ten times the challenge that this lot is,” Aris shot back. He gave the downed men the mercy of a quick death—a sword through their hearts—as Stefan gathered his strength for another attack.
The enemy was waiting now, their line receding a bit, seething like a boiling pot.
“What are you waiting for?” Aris yelled. Blood soaked his tunic, ran down the grooves of his swords, but his grip did not falter.
“Arrows!” one of the Earth Mages, Niko, shouted.
A moment later, mud was flying through the air, clods of earth deflecting each buzzing projectile with unerring accuracy. Niko’s aim was flawless, and not a single arrow reached its target.
Until a hurled javelin caught Niko in the shoulder.
He fell, a scream of pain cutting through the chaos. His Shield, Thekla, roared. She stood over him as Rafael tended quickly to the wound, pulling the spearhead from flesh, which shredded as the barbed head came out. Niko screamed again as Rafael applied pressure, his fire magic cauterizing the wound. The smell of charred flesh permeated the humid air. Thekla bared her teeth, clanging her own javelin against her shield as she guarded her downed partner and roared out her rage.
When Thekla caught sight of the man who claimed the shot—a broad man reaching for another spear—she shifted, her cropped hair turning into black fur that rippled down and across her skin in the space of a breath. One moment she was guarding her Mage; the next, she was racing across the mud to the man, a blur of giant black cat. Before the man could comprehend what he was seeing, she launched herself at him. Teeth like daggers tore out his throat before he could even raise his weapon. Blood sprayed like mist across the swamp grass.
Knowing about Shields and their shifting magic was one thing—seeing it in action was another thing entirely. The enemy balked, retreating from the great cat, who bared teeth that now dripped with blood. She let out a roar that shook the air like a thunderclap. More than a few of the enemy soldiers fell to their knees, weapons dropping to the mud, their hands held up in surrender before her.
Aris whirled from the scene, turning his attention back to his own Mage. Stefan was breathing hard as he sent a blast of wind that toppled trees like a miniature tornado, splitting the remaining enemy forces in two.
The enemy was untrained, but they were as damned persistent as the mosquitoes.
Niko was being held upright by Rafael and another Fire Mage, who took turns shooting progressively smaller fireballs into the enemy as they limped backward with him.
Another volley of arrows was loosed, seemingly from all over the swamp.
“Wall,” Stefan said, throwing out his hands.
Aris saw too late that Stefan was not as accurate as Niko, hadn’t fully recovered from his last strike—
About half the arrows stopped in midair, deflected like they’d hit a stone barrier, and dropped to the swamp below like so many harmless flies. The rest fell around them unimpeded, a lethal steel rain.
The bond between a Mage and their Shield was one forged in the sands of the arena, a partnership that went deeper even than blood. Aris had always pictured that bond like a thread or a wire between him and Stefan. Even when they’d been just boys, before they’d ever been accepted to the School of the Silver Flame, they’d planned their claim. While Aris had learned his craft swinging with wooden swords and practicing his shifting ability, Stefan had pored over his books, all day and night. They had been determined to be the best—to lead the crop of Shields and Mages that the king deployed, to achieve glory. It was an honor that they had earned, together. That wire between them was forged stronger with each victory, each mission.
Now, the wire between them twanged and pulled, like a bowstring stretched too far.
Aris turned toward Stefan, but he already knew what he would see. He’d felt it, as surely as if the arrow had struck his own heart.
Stefan stood pale, the color leached from his ruddy skin, mouth open as his hands grasped the fletched shaft protruding from his chest.
Aris rushed to Stefan’s side, his hands desperately applying pressure to the pulsating wound, which did nothing to stem the tide of frothing blood coming from Stefan’s gaping mouth.
He missed the man coming right at him, bringing down a broadsword with all the force of a lightning strike.
Chapter 1: Wren
The day starts like any other—at dusk. I head outside, braiding my hair back as I go, ready to get to work. Again.
But there is something different in the air today, something that has nothing to do with the strange weather or the superstitious townsfolk. I listen for a minute, trying to decide what is different, what has changed. I can still hear the crash of the restless ocean on the rocks, the howl of the wind along the unforgiving coast. But something is not right. It’s like the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for something.
That’s when I realize—the cannon fire has taken a pause. It’s been going on pretty much constantly for days now. Instead, there is now a heavy, waiting pressure in the air, like the kind before a storm hits, the ebb before a tidal wave. The air feels thick, and the flag atop my lighthouse hangs limp.
I can feel him watching me before I see him—a prickle runs down the back of my neck, a ripple of gooseflesh along my arms. A feeling of anticipation clenches in my gut.
I turn, my back to the lighthouse, and gaze into the forest, trying to discern the source of the sensation. If there are enemy soldiers out there, waiting to ambush me, well, I guess it’s better to face them head-on than to run and get an arrow in the back. I wonder if they’ll let me keep working here, these Ocronian soldiers, if they are in fact coming here. I can’t bear the thought of my lighthouse falling into someone else’s care.
For a while, though, nothing happens. I scan the rocks and the trees—there is hardly any underbrush in the thin soil—looking for a sign of movement, for a shape that doesn’t belong. Years of scanning the seas have given me an appreciation for those subtle signs. The way a fin barely breaks the surface, the brief flash of silver that indicates schooling fish. Before me, I see nothing now but scrubby pines and gray rocks.
Then, there, looking back at me, is a pair of predatory blue eyes. The prickling sensation down my spine intensifies, as does a vague feeling of wrongness. The eyes are so bright they seem to glow in the fading light, and they are definitely not human. No white surrounds them as they regard me.
As the rest of him emerges from the shade, I take a step back. The vision before me is impossible, and I wonder briefly if the lighthouse fumes or constant fatigue have finally pushed me over the edge.
The long feline shape coils through the edge of the trees, his movements slow, fluid, but … arduous. I hold my breath, not daring to move, to do anything to draw his attention further, but the creature does not take his eyes off me. I’ve heard of rabbits having a similar response when frightened by a predator—they freeze, unable to move out of fear. The cold grip of it seizes me now, from my spine to my feet, and I couldn’t move even if I wanted to.
But I don’t really want to—even if I am about to die, I can’t help but admire the animal before me. If this is a hallucination, it’s a darn realistic one. The sleek shape, the play of black stripes over snow-white fur that camouflages him so well in the faded light, the ripple of muscle. He moves steadily toward me—but not in a pounce. His left shoulder dips as he walks, and I can see he is heavily favoring that paw. As he approaches, his injuries become clearer. I see that his left side is caked in dark blood, running from one or maybe several gashes down his side. His breathing is labored, coming out in short, sharp grunts.
I swallow hard. I’ve always been good with animals—they often seek me out—but this is a stretch. Was he caught in the crossfire of the battle somehow? Did some cruel person use him for sport? That’s something the Aclinese nobility is fond of, for whatever reason, like it is some big accomplishment to kill animals. Usually it is large elk, for their racks of antlers, or sometimes bears or wolves, which are also found in the inner part of the country.
But how did a tiger get to this part of the world? There are hardly any animals at all here on the Spit, and certainly no large predators. Did he escape some convoy? Is he some prize of the king’s for display? Is he a strange part of the invading army, like the fighting dogs and horses of Aclines?
So many questions, but right now the only one that matters is, what am I going to do with him now that he’s found me?
The tiger pauses, either to catch his breath or to size me up. He has such remarkable blue eyes, though the fur around them is matted with dirt and probably more blood. He keeps those eyes fixed on me, lowering his head as if to say, See? I am not a threat. His ears are pricked forward, not laid back in warning.
I take a step toward him. Whatever has been done to him, whatever is going to happen to me, he is still the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. So out of place on my dreary peninsula.
He takes a step toward me, nearly stumbling as he tries to bear weight on his left paw. I extend a hand to steady him, without thinking, and as he rises back up, I realize my fingers—which look hopelessly small and frail now—are just inches from a mouth full of teeth like daggers. I take a deep breath and slowly pull my hand back, fingers shaking. Too fast, and he might think I am prey trying to escape, and bite. I have never been bitten by an animal, and this is not the time to tempt that record. My pulse pounds in my ears, too fast and too loud.
He moves suddenly, and I flinch, waiting for the pain, for the teeth to sink through the bones of my hand. I wonder if I’ll lose it entirely.
But the touch on my fingers is soft, just the gentle nudge of a head as big as my chest against my cold skin. The trembling in my hand eases, and I let out a breath, slowly, letting my fingers sink into his fur, so soft and thick where it isn’t filthy. He is still watching me, sizing me up. Somehow he knows I can help him. Animals always know—though this is the first time any kind of predator has shown up on my doorstep. Usually it is a rabbit with a broken foot, or a bird with an injured wing. I’ve only read about tigers in books, never expected to see one in my lifetime.
I smile, relieved and a little giddy at my good fortune.
“Come on, handsome,” I say, scratching his forehead a little. “Let’s get you fixed up.”
I turn, keeping one hand on his head, and go to my lighthouse. He walks with me, as gentle as a lamb, his tread silent.
Getting a massive tiger into my lighthouse is no small task. He looks at me with something like skepticism in his eyes when I open the door.
“Come on,” I say. “You can’t stay out here, where anyone could see you, and I need the supplies upstairs.”
The lighthouse was not built for tigers. However, it was built very sturdily. It needed to withstand two grown men carrying three-hundred-pound barrels of oil up its winding staircase. The stairs are therefore broad and shallow, winding around the walls of the circular rooms, and the tiger has no trouble navigating, save for his limp. I lead the way, slowly, not wanting to tax him. Outside, a roll of cannon fire starts up again. The tiger’s ears twitch toward the sound, but he continues to follow me.
We make it to the kitchen, and I push the table back against the far wall. It’s a sparse room, and I haven’t spent much time here in years other than to store supplies or grab a quick bite. My latest attempts at bread making roll across the tabletop like rocks.
“Lie here,” I say, and he needs no further encouragement to sink to the floor. He is so exhausted that his head thumps down against the weathered pine. He can’t muster the strength to hold himself up anymore.
I gather the things I’ll need without thinking too much. A bowl of water from my rainwater reserves near the sink, a rag. I grab the ancient sewing kit from its place in the cabinet—and blow a thick layer of dust from it. I’ve sewn up animals on rare occasions before, but there is a difference between a scrape along a rabbit’s side and this kind of … carnage. Still, the principles can’t be that dissimilar. Right?
I kneel by the tiger, and my supplies plop down beside me, the sewing kit popping open and a bobbin of thread skittering across the floor. I grab at it—I don’t think he’d appreciate being sewn up with bright green thread—and he eyes me, barely raising his head.
“This is going to hurt,” I warn, and I raise a finger in the air. “Don’t you snap at me.”
He lets his head fall back down and lets out a whuff of breath. Do it, he seems to say. Just get it over with.
I look at the expanse of striped fur in front of me. He has to be over five hundred pounds, all thick muscles covered with the softest, thickest fur I’ve ever seen. If it weren’t for the gaping wounds at his shoulder, down his ribs, and into his abdomen, I’d want to bury my face in it and wrap myself in his warmth. I shake my head and dip the rag into the water, then dab at the first bit of scabbed blood I find. He winces, and claws longer than my fingers and as sharp as razors extend from his paws, the movement as fast as a lightning strike. I remind myself that he is in fact an animal designed for killing, not a cuddly bunny for me to snuggle with. My hand starts to shake. What in all the hells do I think I am doing? I take a deep breath. He trusts me; he knows I can help him. That gives me strength.
“I did warn you it would hurt,” I say as I pick off the scab.
The claws retract, slowly.
I work my way around the wounds, wiping off the caked blood, throwing in a stitch here and there, making steady progress, sewing muscle and skin where I can. I don’t notice that the light is dimming until I go to rethread the needle and can’t make out the eye.
“Son of a …” I jump to my feet.
The tiger opens an eye to look at me, questioning.
“I have to go,” I say, wiping my damp hands—I hope that it’s water and not blood, but it’s hard to tell in the dark—on my pants. “I just have to light the lamp. I’ll be back soon.” I don’t know why I’m explaining myself to a tiger, but I do know that animals seem to appreciate being told what’s going on, just like people.
I fumble up the stairs, adrenaline making my movements jerky. I completely lost track of time and am in danger of breaking Rule #3. There are three rules I live by, three rules that were drummed into my brain over and over and over, passed down through generations of lighthouse keepers. Eat when you can. Sleep when you can. And, most importantly, Light the lamp every night, and don’t let the light go out.
I go up to the lantern room, where the crucial workings of the lighthouse are installed. My family has worked this lighthouse for four generations, and my fingers trail over the worn wooden railings, the small door in the stone wall. Each divot, each crack, and each worn spot is a place I’ve touched a thousand times before, and I like to imagine my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents doing the same motions as they started their days. I swing the outer-wall door open and am greeted by a view of the town. The door itself leads to nothing. It is just a gap in the wall forty feet above the ground—but the view is amazing, especially now, with the glow of sunset to my right bathing the sea in radiance. The worn dirt path from the lighthouse spirals back, coiling through the gray rock of the spit of land until it meets with the main road for the town. Low stone homes sit in uneven rows, housing the two thousand-odd people that call this place home. People are milling about at this time of day. Smoke is curling up from stone chimneys, the sounds of donkeys braying and hammers pounding reaching me, louder than usual. There are fewer people today than I normally see—those who could afford to left weeks ago—but those that remain seem to be working in a fury, like a freshly kicked anthill.
And beyond the buildings are the small gardens the townspeople jointly farm, where they grow the famed Tamdosan roses. Past that is just gray rocky plains, reaching on for miles and miles, until they merge into the mountains to the far north. I’ve never been to the mountains—few people in Spit have—but I know they are harsh and inhospitable, especially this time of year, when the weather is turning cold. No one in their right mind would cross the mountains now; they look like foreboding sentinels, keeping the Spit in as much as they keep others out.
I fling open the door as wide as possible so I can get a little more light into the room, and I grab my flint and steel. I go up the last few steps to the wick, a massive twist of rope that dips down into the oil reservoir below. I kneel, grasping the steel tightly in my right hand and the sharp flint stone in my left, and strike. The most pitiful spark I’ve ever made flickers and dies in mockery. My hands are still shaking, and my next few attempts are not better.
“Come on,” I say. I’ve never had trouble with this before. However, I’ve also never stitched up a wounded tiger or had my country invaded by enemy soldiers, so I’ll just say it’s been a strange few weeks.
Strike, spark, nothing. Strike, spark, maybe it will catch, and … No, no. That one’s out too. I am so eager to get back downstairs, so distracted, I worry that I’m going to scrape off a knuckle against the flint. It’s happened before, and it wasn’t pretty. My hands still carry those scars.
“Come on,” I mutter, and I hit the steel against the flint again. “Light.”
A shower of sparks pours from the steel like a swarm of tiny fireflies, and the wick roars to life, firelight filling the room and shining off the lenses like the light of dawn. I breathe a sigh of relief, and a little thrill flutters through me.
“Better,” I say, standing.
In the light, I can see streaks of blood down my tunic, and dark spots on my knees and shins where I was kneeling in it. I wince as I think of how long it’s going to take me to get the blood out of the kitchen floorboards.
Satisfied that the flame is going to be all right for a while, I go back downstairs and find my tiger asleep—or unconscious—on the floor of the kitchen.
All night, I work on his wounds, going back upstairs every thirty minutes or so to check on the flame, to refill the reservoir, or to add oil to my lamp. By dawn, I am done with both. My tiger is still a mess, but his wounds are more or less closed, and nothing seems to be actively bleeding anymore. He has a patchwork of stitches now, from a gash in his shoulder that nearly went down to bone to several shallower cuts along his ribs, into the muscle of his abdomen. An inch deeper, and he wouldn’t have made it to me. He needs a good bath—and so do I, but it will have to wait. I pat his head, and he leans into the touch, but his eyes don’t open. He breathes easily, though. I stand up, feeling suddenly ancient. My back aches. My knees are trembling from kneeling all night. And I’m soaked in blood and sweat. But I’m not done yet.
I hadn’t planned on rescuing a tiger that day, or on being caught on the edge of a war, but no one ever asked me what I wanted. It had been that way for so long—I wasn’t even sure if I knew what I wanted anymore. I pause for a moment, looking down at the tiger sprawling on my kitchen floor, and shake my head. For now, I have work to do. No time to dwell on daydreams.