The path was steep,climbing up one of the narrow valleys cut by glaciers at the dawn of time. Thick forest surrounded them, and the well-worn path quickly turned muddy when the rain began to fall. Ava saw no signs of life. No tire tracks or footprints. The only indication they weren’t completely alone was the occasional rustle in the forest that could have been an animal… or something more.
Damien walked with grim purpose, never ceasing, turning only to check that she was still with him. Luckily, Ava had always been a good hiker. Her years of work in remote places left her as comfortable outdoors as she was in the city. The boots she wore were almost a carbon copy of the ones she kept in her room at her mother’s house, only less worn. She marched with Damien, never slowing as they climbed.
They’d almost reached the crest of a hill when she saw him stumble. Damien halted for a second, then took a step back, his foot sliding in the mud.
“Keep walking.” His voice sounded strained. “Just keep walking, Ava.”
She walked closer, noticing that the strain in his voice was evident on his face, too. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Good. Keep walking.” He looked as if every step he took pained him. A vein began to pulse on the side of his forehead. With a low grunt, he picked up his feet, the mud sucking at them as he forced himself farther up the hill.
His jaw clenched, he said, “She knows we’re here.”
Ava looked around but could see nothing. The hill they’d climbed led into a small meadow, then the muddy path led up another hill.
“With her magic, she knows. This is her land.”
Ava thought she heard a howling sound whip through the wind, like the cry of a bird high in the air. The rain fell harder, soaking her collar, even though her hood was drawn up. Damien grabbed her hand, pulling her along the path. The forest seemed to close in the farther they walked. The green meadow narrowed as they approached another rock-strewn hill, the path twisting back and forth up the mountain. Ava pulled back, worried that Damien was hurting himself. His face had gone pale under the dark stubble he hadn’t bothered to shave.
“Ava, we have to keep walking.”
He shook his head and said under his breath, “I’ll hurt worse before this is through.”
The cry on the wind died away, and Ava heard what Damien had been talking about. A low hum drifted down the mountain and brushed along her body. Goose bumps rose on her skin, and the hair at the back of her neck prickled with sudden cold.
“What is that?” she asked. “Where… where is it coming from?”
“Irina,” Damien whispered, his eyes rising. “Now you’ll see why they are feared.”
Ava followed his gaze to see three grey figures at the top of the hill. They strode with purpose; the one in the center carried a long staff that struck the ground with each step. Another carried a sword, and the third held nothing, hands tucked out of sight. All three wore heavy coats in dark colors, but as they approached, Ava could see they were women.
The one in the center was tall, with strong, square shoulders and legs that ate up the ground beneath her. She pushed back her hood and the wind whipped long blond hair across her face, but Ava could see her eyes, vivid blue as the northern sky, piercing Damien where he stood. The woman’s stunning features were frozen in anger.
He stepped forward and took a ready stance as Ava saw the woman’s mouth open. Her lips moved, and a second later, a whisper wrapped around Ava, forcing her to the side as Damien was flung back, tumbling down the hill.
“Damien!” She started toward him, only to be held back by one of the woman’s companions. The dark-skinned woman with the fearsome sword grabbed Ava’s arm, and when she looked up, it was into cold black eyes and a face scarred from the cheek to the throat, as if the woman’s neck had been ripped open by a wild animal. She said nothing but only gave a small shake of her head. Ava tried to loosen the woman’s hold, but she might as well have been struggling with the mountain itself.
“Calm yourself,” the other woman said, putting a hand on Ava’s shoulder. She was shorter and her soft brown hair curled around her cheeks, but her grip was still firm. “Let them… talk.”
Damien had come to a stop in the meadow below, rolling to his feet as the tall blond woman strode toward him. He reached to the ground, taking up a thick branch of a tree that had fallen a moment before the blonde’s staff struck.
They parried for a moment, Damien forcing her back with quick blows before the woman’s superior weapon cracked the branch and swept Damien’s feet from under him. He rolled away a moment before the staff would have come down on his skull. He jumped to his feet, shoulders braced as he locked eyes with his opponent.
She was almost as tall as he was, a formidable woman who was clearly familiar with the weapon she held. She circled Damien, her eyes never leaving his. Another movement of her lips, and her staff split in half. She tossed one half to him, and they began again.
The two crashed together, their weapons evenly matched as they dueled, using arms and legs to try to trip each other. Yet even as they battled, Ava could sense the connection.
She swung the staff at her mate’s head, only to be stopped by Damien’s forearm. He winced but grabbed her weapon, pulling it toward him and forcing her closer. But Sari countered, sweeping her leg between Damien’s and hooking one of his ankles, causing him to stumble back and release her staff. They went back and forth, both falling in the mud over and over again, only to rise and continue fighting. Ava, standing between the two strange women, felt as if she’d stepped into a battle older than time.
Damien was physically stronger, yet he held back when Sari aimed a punch at his face. His lip was split and his eye bruised, but he leashed his power, refusing to hit back. The wind whipped around them and the rain fell harder. Both were slipping in the mud, and though the humming had stopped, the chilling power had not dissipated.
With a hoarse cry, Sari struck his knee and Damien fell with a grunt. Dropping the staff, he held out his arms in supplication, looking up at his mate with such obvious adoration that Ava felt her breath catch. Sari halted, her staff at his neck, as Damien watched her with bruised face and bleeding lips. Mud coated his hair and cheeks, the rain making tracks as he knelt before her.
Ava heard the woman at her right whisper something in the Old Language, just as Sari dropped her staff and went to her knees. She grasped Damien’s hair and pulled him into a searing kiss.
They clutched each other, and Ava could hear Damien’s low groan even from up the hill. He wrapped his arms around his mate, grabbing her coat and pulling her closer, as if his life depended on her touch. Sari was just as voracious; she pulled at Damien’s neck, holding his lips to hers in a ravenous kiss. Then, just as abruptly, she shoved him back and stood, spinning around and reaching for her staff. Ava could see the tears rolling down Sari’s cheeks as her lips moved again, and she held her staff out. The piece she had given to Damien flew through the wind and melded itself to the piece in her hand.
She marched up the hill, eyes flickering to Ava’s once before she barked out an order to the two women and walked past, up the hill and into the driving rain.
The woman at her right turned to Ava. Rosy lips parted in a small smile. “English?”
“American.” She glanced over her shoulder at Damien, who was still kneeling in the mud, looking as stunned as Ava felt. He finally looked at her and gave her a small nod before he struggled to his feet and walked back up the hill.
“My name is Astrid,” the short woman said, giving Ava a small push as she began to lead her up the path. “Mala and I will escort you and Damien to Sarih?fn. You are welcome here.”
Astrid’s eyes held laughter, but her voice was serious. “Yes, really.”
Damien was only a few steps behind, and Ava saw the woman named Mala nod respectfully as he fell in step beside her.
Ava glanced at him. “So that was Sari.”
He shrugged and wiped the blood from his lip. It had already healed. “It went as well as I’d expected.”