We rode at an easy trot past the edge of the western fields. The night was quiet and still, but I felt restless, almost like I was being watched. I couldn’t see anyone, but the feeling of people waiting in the night made my blood run cold. I drew in a deep breath and tried to shake it off, urging Varya faster and losing myself in the feeling of the wind rushing through my hair and her powerful muscles rippling beneath me.
She swept across the open ground, the soft drumming of her hooves disappearing as we turned away from the main road. The high field grasses danced in the wind, stroking my boots in the stirrups. We rode out of town, winding our way alongside paths and through farm fields, anxious to avoid being seen. Finally I turned her up the rough-cut dirt path into Haftan’s pass, riding for the higher bluffs alongside the pass overlooking town.
We rode for almost an hour until we neared the top of the first large bluff and slowed, letting Varya choose her way forward. I watched the sides of the trail, studying the soft bushes for some of the rarer night flowers, hoping to find mountain shade, or some moon lilies. Most people in town didn’t climb these hills after dark and I could easily sell the rarer flowers to one of the local herb collectors or mid-wives.
The path steepened around us and thick ferns began to crowd the ground along the path. I eased Varya to a stop, sliding from the saddle and leading her forward toward the clearing on the side of the pass. Originally it had been a camp site, well used and regulated by the King’s patrols, but since the town had grown it was largely left to the use of the romantic and the restless. The lack of firelight gave me good reason to hope it would at least be void of the romantic. As for the restless, they usually left you alone if you knew what you were doing.
I let the reins fall from my hand on reaching the empty clearing, patting Varya’s neck and leaving her to range freely on her own. She snuffled my hand gently and moved across the clearing toward a patch of wild carrots. I watched her wander off, trusting her to stay close. I drew in a deep breath. The night was calm and clear, but the feeling of something wrong still tickled the back of my neck, a subtle warning of danger, like a heavy weight hanging in the darkness. I closed my eyes and shook it off, heading toward the edge of the bluff. An old worn trail swept down the front of the cliff, ending at a small ledge of rock overlooking the town.
I rounded the last corner in the path and came up short, my breath catching in my throat. A man stood near the edge, nearly invisible in his dark cloak. One of his feet rested casually on a stone in front of him. His face lit only by the glowing embers of his pipe. He turned to stare at me, his face blank and his eyes lifeless.
We looked at each other wordlessly for a moment as time seemed to slow. I could feel the hatred rising from him like a foul stink. A dozen signal lamps rested against the outcropping wall behind him. The feeling of weight in the night drew my eyes downward. In the valley below I could see moonlight glint off the occasional exposed sword or polished piece of uncovered armor. The shadowed ground was alive with cloaked and covered soldiers, surrounding the town. Clouds drifted toward the moon and the man’s hand slid toward his sword hilt. Below us, one of the soldiers disturbed a sleeping bird and her angry scream echoed. I turned and ran.
I felt the swift rush of air behind me and the tip of his sword whistled past my shoulder to collide with the rock face. Desperately, I scrambled up the rocky path, waiting for the instant when stinging steel would pierce my cloak. I could hear the rock slide under the man’s heavy footsteps behind me and I managed to gain the clearing. I raced toward the place I had seen Varya disappear, thinking only of escape. If I could reach her we could run, if there was time we could even warn the town. The shadow of a tree moved in front of me a split-second before I saw the pommel of a sword glimmer in the moonlight and slam into my nose.
I went limp, my world exploding in pain. I heard the bone break, felt the weird angle of my nose splayed across my face and the cold ground rushing to meet me as I fell backward. A large, rough hand grabbed me by the front of my dress, heaving me to my feet and pulling me toward a large jowled man with gleaming teeth. My world swam with pain and the sudden harsh motion made me empty my stomach, vomiting down the front of the man’s armor. He threw me to the ground with a snarl and harsh laughter broke from the trees in front of me as another man stepped into view.
A rough hand entwined in my hair and yanked, pulling me along the ground as I struggled, slapping against the hand that held me. The large jowled man stopped a short distance into the trees and threw me to my back on the ground. The world swam and my head pounded with pain. I looked up, struggling to focus. He stood over me, his iron breastplate smeared with vomit. One of his hands fumbled open the armor’s clasp and dropped the heavy metal plate to the side as he sneered, snaking out a booted foot and kicking open my legs; his hand fumbling with the flap of his pants.
Even through the haze I knew what he was going to do and rolled to my right, trying to get free. The man chuckled cruelly and kicked me flat again. I twisted, rolling with the kick and using the extra speed to snap my foot upward with all my strength.
The hard tip of my riding boot found the manhood he’d been reaching for, knocking the breath from him with a grunt. His thick face twisted in agony and I scrambled to the side as he doubled over, reaching weakly after me. Before he could straighten I raised his vomit smeared breastplate from the ground and swung it, the heavy iron ringing against his skull and knocking him from his feet. I dropped the breastplate and ran blindly into the forest, biting off my screams.
The sounds of pursuit caught me seconds later. My heart pounded and I was half blind with pain, running through the trees, gasping for air. The world swam in my vision and the clarity that had come with the shock of the attempted rape was quickly wearing off. A heavy hand caught at the shoulder of my cloak, spinning me sideways. I slammed hard into a tree, momentum carrying me forward to the ground. Pain flashed through my mind and I looked up. A pair of fallen trees crossed each other on the ground in front of me. The point where the two trees touched almost seemed to glow in my vision, shadowing the open ground beneath them with dangerous power. I threw myself forward, scrambling to crawl beneath the deadfall and screaming for help as a gloved hand closed around my leg.
I could feel my scream echo into the forest and the world slowed. The moon slipped through the clouds to bathe the area in silver light and more than a dozen silhouetted forms shimmered into existence, rising up out of the ground or simply sparking in the air. My blood turned cold. I had never seen so many restless in one place. Old spirits of men who had died in the mountain mist, cursed to wander until their bodies were found.
To the wary, who knew not to get too close or look too deeply, they were relatively harmless, but to the ignorant they could be deadly, leading people off the paths or stealing away your breath in the cold.
I screamed again in terror, twisting back the way I had come, desperately reaching toward the rapist behind me. “Help me! By the New Gods, help me!” It would be an easier fate than being stolen away by hungry ghosts.
The voices behind me cursed and yelled. Blades whistled in the air as the soldiers tried to fight, but it was no use. Their screams grew desperate as the silver bodies pressed against them. One of the men fell, clawing at his eyes as the sounds of his screams faded.
Silence enveloped me. I could feel myself still screaming but only the numb echo of silence surrounded me as I watched two more men fall dead to the ground. Thick, cold, fingers of mist wrapped across my body and I gasped for breath, suffocating as my vision faded, wrapping me in darkness.