The snow fell lightly against the frozen windows of Abban’s inn, as if to mock the heavy burden that weighed on his heart. Whiterock Mountain rose in the distance, like the giant spiky ridge of a dragon.
Abban tore his gaze from the window and rubbed a copper tankard clean. His eyes searched the faces that filled his dining hall with roaring laughter, rude jokes, and rasping banter. They were the faces of men, young men who had traveled long and far to reach Abban’s inn—the last place in the barren snowy plain where they could fill their bellies and rest their bones before they presented themselves to the tourney master at the foot of the mountain.
A fresh winter had arrived, bringing with it another tournament that promised to paint the slopes of the looming snowy crags with hot young blood. Abban had learned the rumors much later than he would have liked: a monster prowled the mountain city of King Rogdan, and he had summoned the finest warriors of the realms, promising great glory and riches to the one who brought him the monster’s head.
The oaken door swung open, revealing the silhouette of a young man with hair and beard as red as fire. Silence descended upon the room. The endless clang of beer tankards and the unceasing buzz of chatter lifted as all the men regarded the newcomer. For a moment, only the crackling sighs of the great fire in the hearth filled the warm and stale air.
The man at the door shook his head, sending loose snowflakes flying off his fiery hair, then raised a twice-folded parchment in the air. “From the summer city of Tarn, here goes its champion, Jorg, to fight you all and win!” He grinned, a crooked smile of cocky youth.
The men blinked.
“Ah, shut your trap, and the door with it!” a gruff voice blurted from the back.
Abban smiled and watched the auburn-haired youth drop his parchment-holding hand to his side. No sooner had he pushed the door shut with the heel of his boot than the noise returned as the men went back to their bickering.
Abban felt his dire mood lift. He swayed his head in greeting and beckoned the young man to approach.
Jorg’s smile was broad when he sat himself down on the stool before Abban’s counter.
“What will it be for you, young warrior?”
The youth glanced around him, judging the drinks the other men held in their hands. “The stories say you serve the spiciest beer. I should like to have some.” He placed the parchment on the counter carefully, as if it was of great importance.
Abban tipped the flagon to his right, filling the copper tankard he’d just cleaned to the brim. “You shouldn’t leave that on the counter, you know,” he said to Jorg, eyeing the parchment. “Should it get wet, it would be useless.”
Jorg snatched the parchment off the counter just as Abban served him his drink. Golden froth licked the tankard’s brim and slid down to where the parchment had been mere moments before.
“Thank you,” Jorg said, looking unsure of what to do with the parchment in his hand. “I shall want to keep my eyes on it all the time.” He looked around nervously. “I’ve heard stories of light fingers that rid you of your pockets’ belongings.”
Abban snorted. Then he extended a friendly hand. “Why don’t I keep it safe for you while you enjoy your spicy beer?”
Jorg eyed him suspiciously.
“What? You’re afraid I might take your place at the tourney?” Abban jested. He rounded the counter’s corner and limped his way toward Jorg. “I am too old for this. This season marks my fortieth winter. Besides, my leg is lame, as I am sure you can see.”
Jorg gave him a faint, embarrassed smile and surrendered the parchment. “Here. I … I thank you. I’ve heard only the nicest things of you. Abban, isn’t it? Abban, the master of Shorttooth? They say you won four tourneys in a row once …”
Abban waved a dismissive hand and climbed onto the stool beside him. “Stories of the past. They matter not. Let us see what you have here.” He unfolded the edges of the parchment to reveal the drawing of a majestic griffin. Colors of scarlet and green painted its wings, which stretched to each side in their full glory, and two beady eyes glared at him over a crooked beak of gold. Abban whistled. “A mighty beast this,” he said. “A rare and exotic sight.”
Jorg set the tankard down and made a funny grimace. “This is spicier than I imagined.” He coughed the words, sticking out a tongue the shade of crushed raspberries.
Abban laughed and then folded the parchment once more and handed it to the southern weakling. “Now I understand why you guard this beast so. It is a fine possession.” He stood and resumed his place behind the counter.
Jorg looked around and dropped his voice to a low grumble as he leaned closer. “His name is Nereus. I have a mind to unleash him only once I’m up in the mountain. From his back, I’ll have the perfect view. The monster won’t escape me.” He banged his chest with the tankard. “And then, once I’ve laid eyes on it, I’ll send Nereus swooping down on it before the monster can even screech. His hold is fierce. My Nereus has never let me down. I am the best hunter in all the realms!”
Abban cocked his head and gifted the youth with half a smile.
“I have offended you—”
“Not in the least, my brave lodger,” Abbas reassured him. “The days of tournaments have passed for me. I live a quiet life now.”
“And your beast?”
Abban had heard the question many a time, but each time hurt him more than he would have liked. He waved a dismissive napkin-holding hand and made to move down the counter.
Jorg slapped his forehead. “Again I cause you grievance. Apologies.” He scrambled to his feet and reached a holding hand to Abban. “Tell me, have you seen a beast as great as my Nereus so far?”
Abban scanned the crowded room, his eyes looking at the folded parchments. Every man in this hall had one with him. Some held them tightly in their hands, much as Jorg did, for fear of losing them, and others had them stuffed into their pockets, under layer upon layer of wool, which kept the cold of snow out and the warmth of their bodies in. Most of them wanted to keep the nature of their beasts hidden from the others, but Abban knew that once the night fell, so would the men’s defenses.
It had always come to this. Once the spicy beer ran plenty in their veins, the men would unfold their parchments and brandish them for all to see, bragging about their beasts and their ferocity. They would swear they’d be the winners, and when simple contentions turned into brawls, the men would charge outside to prove their points. One touch from the tip of the owner’s fourth finger was enough to make the beast jump from the paper and materialize in all its glory. And when all the beasts crammed into the small, flat plain that lay between Abban’s inn and the mountainfoot, a collision would be inevitable, and the earth would shake with their fights.
Abban placed a calloused hand on Jorg’s moleskin glove. “Take my advice and go to bed early tonight, and pull the covers over your head. Whatever you hear, pay it no heed, for it is those well rested who stand the fight and win.”
Jorg nodded gratefully. “I thank you for the advice.” After a swift gulp of his drink and a twist of the features on his face, he took his leave up to the lodgings, his fingers all the while tightly curled around the parchment.
Abban saw more men come and go, but he spoke to none of them more words, other than to learn what he should serve them.
The night fell soon, and as Abban expected, most of the men charged out, parchments in hand and quips on the tips of their tongues. He sighed.
Just as Abban was pondering if he should now clean up the mess of half-empty plates and spilled drinks, the door swung open once more, and this time, it admitted a man whose sight Abban had wished never to behold again: Zedikus—an olden enemy of Abban, one who fought in the tournaments of the past with foul means. It was known, among those who were old enough to remember, that Zedikus’s blade was fast to descend upon monsters and innocent men alike, for Zedikus didn’t take losing easily.
Zedikus, clad in heavy bear hides that left only his curved nose in sight, sauntered inside, a small man trailing him like a frightened shadow. Abban didn’t recognize the man, but he noticed his fearful eyes darting left and right as if he expected a sudden and unprovoked attack. When he saw that the hall was empty, he sighed and closed the door behind him and his master.
Zedikus strolled to one of the clean tables and sat himself down. His shadow joined him and waved a nervous hand at Abban.
Abban approached with caution and didn’t deign to offer a greeting. “We don’t serve the likes of you.”
Zedikus offered him an icy stare through onyx eyes. “A spicy beer for me and Carn, and keep your poison out of it.”
“I don’t think you heard me right.”
“I heard you all right, Abban.” Zedikus unsheathed a sharp steel blade and placed it on the table. “A beer, and we shall be on our way to sleep. It is late, and the tournament awaits. You have changed little. The years have been kind to you. Tell me, how fares your leg?”
Abban clenched his fists. With a loud bang, the men who had been measuring their beasts against each other entered the hall, forcing Abban to give a fake smile to Zedikus and take his leave to prepare the order. It wasn’t wise to start a fight with so many witnesses around. Zedikus now worked for the king, last Abban had heard—although what dealings a king would want with a cutthroat like Zedikus eluded Abban’s mind.
He served them quickly and without a word, and to his relief, his old enemy stood soon after and took his leave to the upper stories after throwing some coppers on the table. Once they had stopped spinning, Abban took a full tankard and a plate filled with a leg of roasted pheasant, and approached the man Zedikus had called Carn.
He had thrown his headfur back, and sweat glistened on his balding pate among wisps of gray hair. He glanced warily up at him and made to stand, but Abban forced him down with a firm hand on his shoulder. “Carn, is it? This is on the house.”
The man nodded, his crazy eyes moving about like caged animals. He didn’t dare touch the offered beer, but his eyes lingered hungrily on the cooked game.
Abban leaned back to give the man some space and shrugged. “You seem famished. I caught it fresh myself this morning, meat so soft it melts in the mouth.”
That was all the man could stand to hear before he snatched the bone off the plate and buried his teeth into the meat. Abban motioned to the tankard, and Carn took it to wash the game down.
“Thank … thank you,” he muttered. “Ofttimes Zedikus forgets to have us fed—” He bit his tongue then, as if he’d overspoken.
Abban leaned closer. “You can have all the food you like. I have cheeses and figs and wine to keep you warm for the lasting of the tourney.” He gave him an earnest smile. “The tourney, that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
Carn jerked his head. “Yes, yes. I am to carry Zedikus’s things up to the mountain.”
“Tell me, Carn,” Abban said, placing a hand on Carn’s shoulder to steady his trembling. “What business does a man like Zedikus have in the tourney?”
“Why … why, to take part is all.”
Abban spread his hands. “Look around you. These young men are the best hunters the realms have to offer. What chance does your old master stand against them? Why embarrass himself now?”
Carn fiddled with the tankard’s handle and raised the beer to his lips to avoid giving an answer. He coughed. “This … this drink is strong. I am getting tired. Mayhap it’s best I go to bed.”
Abban’s stomach lurched. There was something this man was hiding, and he wouldn’t let him get away without first bursting it out. He pushed his chair back and pulled back the woolen cover of his breeches, exposing the maimed skin of his right leg. A silver scar ran across it, stretching from his ankle to the higher place of Abban’s thigh.
Carn’s eyes twitched.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the days Zedikus and I used to fight each other in the tourneys. We were young then, like all these men around us.”
Carn nodded repeatedly, keeping his eyes rooted to his beer. He took another gulp and almost choked. The men around were singing now, crude songs that would make a maiden blush.
Abban banged his fist on the table. “Look at them, Carn. So young, so full of life and dreams of glory and a good name. Zedikus is old and cunning, and his methods aren’t always clean. Don’t they deserve to know if he is to be their rival?”
“They … they can’t know!” Carn blurted. “He will … he will …”
“He will what? Speak now, damn you! What is his real purpose?” Abban had his hands around Carn’s collar.
Carn’s face turned red, then blue, and as Abban released his grip, he gasped for breath. “The king … it was all the king’s idea.”
“There … there is no monster.”
“If there’s no monster, then what are all these men here for? What does the king want with them?”
Carn looked about to cry. “He wants nothing with them. Just their lives.”
Abban raised his chin. “He means them harm?”
“Zedikus … he … he will kill me.” Carn’s eyes were mad with sorrow now, racing left and right. “What … what did you give me? I swear I’ll never touch a drink of yours again in my life!”
Abban held his tongue. He didn’t dare mouth the question that ran in his mind, for he was sure the man would refuse to answer. His crazy twitching and complaining had already drawn the attention of the surrounding men. He pressed his firm hand on Carn’s shoulder again. “A warm bed awaits you upstairs, dear friend. Sleep well, for tourneys are heartless things and the mountain is cold.”
Carn shivered. His eyes were haunted and unseeing. He nodded a few times, his trembling relenting, and took his leave, dragging heavy feet behind him.
Abban pressed a thoughtful palm against his chin. Just their lives. If what Carn had said was true, and there was no monster, then all these men had been brought here to be butchered. He took a good look around. These were the finest men the realms had to offer: important young blood, heirs to kingdoms. Together now, they seemed strong, singing with their arms around each other’s shoulders. But separated up on the lonely and slippery crags, there was no telling how these men would fare against the swift and murderous blade of Zedikus. For Zedikus was here to kill—of that Abban had not the slightest doubt. The question was, why? Why would the king want the best men dead?
Early that morning, Abban had risen with sorrow in his heart. These tourneys always reminded him of days of old glory. But now his heart was heavy with dread. What was he to do? What if he stood now and shouted before the men the king’s unthinkable plans? Would they believe him? Would they pay heed to the demented words of an old champion, or would they think him mad with jealousy, for he wasn’t able to fight in the tourneys anymore?
He stood so abruptly his chair fell backward with a thump. The men stopped singing and looked at him.
“Warriors,” he began. “A warm bed awaits. Rest these bones before the tourney, for Shorttooth and I are of a mind to face you all in the field. And we plan to win.”
For a moment, a disbelieving silence lingered, which slowly gave its place to cheering and celebratory laughter.
Abban ascended the stairs to his chamber and closed the door tightly.
What had he done? What madness had driven him to declare such a thing when he could barely climb the stairs without flinching from the pain his lame leg gave him?
He strode to his bed, went to his knees before it, and stretched a searching hand below the wooden frame. His fingers met with the carved surface of a wooden chest, and he pulled it out. It was much smaller than he remembered, but thankfully, it seemed intact; the dust had spared its surface. With hands that trembled, he lifted the lid and stared at the rolled parchment inside. The scar on his leg pulled at him now, a faint pain of old that revisited him when memories were stronger in his mind.
He took the parchment out gently and found the courage to unfurl it.
The beast that stared back at him hadn’t changed at all. In truth, he seemed much fiercer and more alive than Abban remembered: white fur striped with rays of black coal, a sturdy neck that held a proud head with ice-blue eyes and thick fangs that stuck out of the beast’s mouth, a strong tail that helped the beast keep his balance, and sharp talons in his paws that reached for purchase in the soft snow. His Shorttooth.
That night, he went to bed with Shorttooth’s drawing pressed closely to his chest. Tomorrow he was of a mind to join the tourney.
“One last tourney for us, my friend,” he whispered before sleep took him.
The next day dawned crisp and clear.
Abban waited until he’d heard the last of his lodgers leave the place before he started dressing himself in his old armor: first, a thick fur around his body to fight the vicious claws of frostbite, then leather caps around his knees and perfectly molded rerebraces over his shoulders, gauntlets of moleskin leather sewn with metal plates over his wrists, cuisses of splinted leather over the precious vessels that ran across his thighs, and metal greaves with a soft felt padding around his shins. Around his head he placed a velvety rabbit hide, tucking his ears under its white protection. His mouth and eyes he left uncovered to summon and command his beast and to guide their way through the mountainous forest.
Last, he unsheathed his sword, a steel piece engraved with runes, spellforged in the heart of a cave, and given to him by his father when he had reached his fifteenth birthday. The sword’s edge was jagged from the many times it had slashed monsters and met the steel of other contestants’ blades. His own reflection stared back at him from the polished surface, eyes filled with anger and fear.
He slid the sword back into its sheath and stood. He had best get going—it was the waiting that made his heart tremble.
Once outside, and when he was sure he was alone, he unfolded the parchment once more. His finger hovered over Shorttooth’s snarling snout. The pain in his leg returned, and he shifted uncomfortably. Doubt tugged at his heart, and for a slight moment, his mind screamed for him to back away. Who did he think he was to fight at his age and face a trained assassin? Perhaps a better way would be to alert the rulers of the south … but the journey north was long, and by the time the armies arrived, it might be too late.
The smiling faces of last night’s men came to his mind’s eye. Zedikus couldn’t be allowed to finish his duty.
He closed his eyes and pressed his finger to the parchment. A mighty roar tore the silence of the plain, and Abban felt a swift gust of cold air across his face.
He opened his eyes and regarded his beast for the first time in twenty long years. He looked every bit the same as the drawing that the painter had made for him when Abban was but a boy.
“Abban, my old and only friend.” Shorttooth’s words echoed in the valley and in Abban’s heart. To the other men, Shorttooth’s words would sound as mere growls, but Abban had learned their meanings, as only a true master could of his beast’s language.
“Shorttooth.” He bowed before the mighty winter tiger. “King Rogdan has laid out a charade of a tourney, a nasty trap to kill the finest youths, and for the work, he’s summoned Zedikus.”
The tiger growled and kicked the snow with his forelegs. “Then we shall pay him with his own coin.”
“It’s been so long …” Abban started. “My leg …”
“Fear not, old friend, for I will be your legs. Even your sword if need arises. My fangs are ever sharp, and I shall not let you down.”
A cocky smile twisted Abban’s lips, much like the one Jorg the fiery youth had given the men when he’d first entered Abban’s inn. “Let us go, then.”
Shorttooth kneeled, and Abban jumped onto his back and grabbed hold of his fur. “To the tourney master!”
Later, after Abban had watched with pleasure the tourney master’s eyes bulge out of their sockets with surprise from witnessing the old champion’s return, Shorttooth led them along the twisting path that was etched into the slopes of Whiterock Mountain.
The snow crunched with every step, so deep that Shorttooth’s sturdy legs went in up to his knees. But the tiger was ever strong, and he kept his pace against the icy wind that tugged at the fur that covered their bodies.
Soon they found themselves upon a barren plain and among the rest of the tourney’s champions, mounted on their beasts. Abban counted a dozen of them, as many as there were kingdoms. He was surprised to see their beasts were all tinted with the brightest of colors: three bears of deep-purple fur, four lions with manes of azure and bodies covered with silver stripes, a horse with thick black legs the size of tree trunks, two mighty stags with fur that glistened with the colors of the rainbow, a green cougar with red-spotted fur and luminous eyes of gold.
Last, he regarded Jorg’s griffin, its red-and-green wings stretched open and ready to fly with the slightest nudge from its master’s heels. A smile twisted Abban’s lips as he watched all these resplendent beasts. Back in his day, the champions chose animals the colors of snow—white, gray, and the occasional color of light mud—to better blend in among the snowy slopes. Shorttooth looked plain before the glory of the other beasts’ colors, but Abban knew this mattered not. Shorttooth had the heart of a thousand men and the grace and resilience of another thousand.
Jorg greeted him with a slight nod of his head as the others exchanged looks of surprise. Abban ignored the raised brows and the looks of contempt he received from some of the men he had served the night before at his inn. He knew that once the champions were in the field, each was to his own; this was the only tradition he didn’t expect had changed, even if twenty years had passed since he’d last stepped on this mountain.
“Hey, innkeeper,” the man atop the black horse called out to him. “Nice kitty you have there.”
The men burst into laughing, all except Jorg, but Abban didn’t care. His mind was elsewhere, for he’d expected to find Zedikus among the waiting men. Yet he was nowhere to be seen.
He flipped one of the coins Zedikus had thrown over his table as payment and brought it close to Shorttooth’s muzzle. “Zedikus must be in hiding, lurking. Can you track his scent?”
“Toss his filthy piece of copper away,” Shorttooth said, his voice sounding like a booming growl. “His scent is something I’ve not forgotten. Not since what he last did.”
Abban nodded and shaded his eyes against the morning sun. It had almost reached its peak above the spiky top of the mountain. “It’s almost time.”
As soon as he’d said this, the low tone of a war horn resounded in the valley—a signal that signified the beginning of the tourney.
The men didn’t lose time; they sent their beasts in all different directions, their paws and hooves kicking behind the snow. Cries of war left the men’s mouths, and screeches and roars came from their beasts. Abban felt the coolness of shade on his face as Jorg’s griffin took to the sky, hiding the glaring sun.
“It is an honor to race you,” Jorg called down at him before disappearing over the distant treetops.
Shorttooth lurched forward, snow on his feet and the nasty stench of Zedikus in his muzzle. Abban felt the thrill of the hunt return, stronger than ever, despite the icy wind that whipped his face. He raised his arms in the air, clenching his thighs around Shorttooth’s back. This pose had always given him the freedom to wield his sword, and should Zedikus come into sight, this would be his first move.
Shorttooth pushed onward tirelessly, jumping over big lumps of snow, veering his way through the trunks of trees with branches like sharp fingers, and swimming across small lakes that pocked the surface of the mountain. He emerged from the water, shaking his body, sending Abban into a crazy dance.
“Easy there, friend!” Abban said, his voice a song of happiness.
“It’s been so long,” Shorttooth roared. “Why don’t we do this anymore?”
Abban scowled. Why indeed? After his leg had been slashed from ankle to groin, he’d spent a month and then another in the hands of the best healers in the realm. The pain was so severe that all Abban could do was lie helplessly in a bed of straw, listening to their endless bickering about which treatment would suit him best. As it turned out, it was none of them, although all the men told him he was lucky he had survived. Lucky and crippled.
Once he could put his feet together, he returned to the mountain. It was a trip of agony and despair, and when he finally arrived and drew Shorttooth out of his parchment, he tried for days to mount him, only to find himself repeatedly falling face-first into the snow.
At last he surrendered and placed a hefty pouch that clinked with golden coins—prizes he had won from all his tourneys—into the hands of the innkeeper, taking the place for his own. If he couldn’t take part in the tourneys, at least he could be as close to them as possible.
Shorttooth lurched to a sudden stop.
“What is it?” Abban said, his eyes searching the area. They had arrived at a small clearing, but there was no sign of their foe.
Shorttooth bared his fangs. “I can smell blood.”
Abban caressed his mount’s soft fur. “Take us there. Slowly.”
The tiger did as he was bidden, treading the white ground softly, the sound of his footings drowned in the snow.
The stench of death hit Abban’s nose as Shorttooth said, “Over there.”
Abban jumped down, landing on his lame leg and collapsing. He gritted his teeth and fought to stand. After a few steps, he saw them: the black-haired youth of the west and his black horse lay dead in the snow. Snow that was painted crimson by the blood that had spurted through their slit throats.
Abban covered his nose and kneeled beside them. He dipped a finger in the blood. It came away sticky. “They have been dead for quite a while,” he told Shorttooth. “Can you pick up his scent?”
Shorttooth growled, and Abban clambered onto his back.
Off they went once more, and this time, Abban curled his fingers tightly around his sword’s hilt.
A roar tore the air from a hill down to their right.
“Over there!” Abban yelled.
Shorttooth raced over, and when he crested the hill, Abban saw one of the striped lions below, lying on the ground. Its azure mane was drenched with blood, and its chest rose with breath no longer. Zedikus, atop the most hideous snow lizard Abban had ever seen, was sneering, his woolen cape billowing behind him.
A few feet away, disoriented, was the rider of the lion. He staggered to his feet and brandished his sword. “Who are you?” Abban heard him call.
And then Zedikus’s lizard raised its tail, a long whip with razor-sharp spikes at its end.
“No!” Abban yelled, urging Shorttooth to leap.
They landed with a heavy thump as the youth’s scream tore the air. Abban turned and watched him fall, cradling his slashed neck. Hot drops of blood rained on Abban and Shorttooth as the great lizard’s tail recoiled.
“Murderer!” Abban yelled. His veins throbbed with feelings of vengeance, yet his body dared not give Shorttooth the nudge to charge. This filthy lizard’s tail had the range of ten feet, and Abban knew his tiger’s voluminous presence would make him an easy target.
Zedikus cackled. “How do you like my new mount, Abban? He’s ten times faster than that meek old spider of mine. I had them put her down. Tore her apart limb by limb. One for every defeat I suffered against you.”
“Why?” Abban screamed. “Why are you doing this?”
“I have my orders,” Zedikus said, shrugging. “I see that you still ride your old one. It’s a pity. So many good beasts nowadays. Look at my Koxl.” He stroked the lizard’s pearlescent scales between the eyes. “So strong, and swift, and with a tail to match ten swords. I really need to carry no weapon with me. Koxl is all I need. If you stick around till the end, we might come for you, Abban. Give you a cut on your left leg to match the other. But now I’m afraid I must leave you, old friend. Duty awaits.”
Abban dug his heels into Shorttooth at the same time as Zedikus made his lizard turn and leap off the ground. “Follow him!”
Shorttooth did his best to keep pace with Koxl, but the lizard, despite its sturdy-looking body, sprang ten feet ahead with every step, its sharp tail swinging ominously behind it, threatening to slice open anything that came close.
“Faster, Shorttooth!” Abban yelled.
“I’m trying.” Shorttooth had dropped his head close to the ground to better tear the surrounding air, and Abban lowered his body against his fur. The force of their run blinded him. As Shorttooth charged forward, everything twirled around him, an endless white landscape that had no beginning and no end. He only hoped Zedikus’s scent would still be strong in Shorttooth’s nose.
After a while, Shorttooth slowed, his hind legs giving in. They sprawled to the ground, Shorttooth’s chest heaving as he struggled to catch his breath. “I … have … failed you,” Shorttooth said through sharp intakes of breath.
Abban leaped down and placed his forehead against Shorttooth’s. “Easy now,” Abban whispered. His voice trembled along with his body. The racing wind had crept inside his furs and frozen him to the core. He whirled and looked around him at the barren landscape. There was no sign of Zedikus, and gods only knew if his lizard’s tail was now attacking yet another unsuspecting contestant.
Abban limped his way to a hill and climbed it, hoping to get a better view of the valley below, yet the ground was deserted. He clenched his fist around his sword’s hilt and cursed the moment he had allowed himself to think he’d be strong enough to do this.
“Nothing I can see from here,” he declared as he made his way back to Shorttooth.
The tiger’s breathing had calmed, and he raised his head, nose up in the air, sniffing. “We should get moving. I can catch the smell again.”
Just as Abban was climbing onto his friend’s back, a cool shadow shaded the snow plain before them. Abban raised his gaze to the sky. Jorg’s mighty griffin flew with a blinding speed above them. Abban watched it cross over the hill and disappear as it swooped suddenly downward.
“Over there!” Abban yelled as he urged Shorttooth forward. “He must have seen something!”
Shorttooth lost no time and charged forward, his tiredness overridden by the thrill of a fresh hunt. They had rolled down the hill and then another when they saw Jorg stretching his longbow, aiming at a racing Zedikus atop his lizard. The arrow sliced through the frozen air and hit Koxl’s back, splattering the snow with steaming green mucus. The lizard slowed.
Jorg, satisfied with a good hit, led the griffin down, and for a moment, Abban was certain the griffin’s claws would snatch the lizard off the ground as easy prey. But Koxl twirled and swayed his tail, the sharp blades on it catching the griffin’s haunches and sending him tumbling to the ground. Jorg fell face-first in the snow, his bow twirling through the air and landing three feet away.
“Charge!” Abban yelled. He couldn’t let Zedikus have his way. Not this time.
Koxl’s tail aimed at fallen Jorg, and Abban watched him roll to his side just as the tail landed with a sickening thump next to Jorg’s body, scattering snow into the air. Jorg crawled to his griffin, which whimpered on the ground. The hit was great, but thankfully not deadly.
“Stay out of this, Abban!” Zedikus cried. “I’m saving you for last!”
He turned Koxl toward Jorg, and the lizard’s tail took one more bite of the griffin’s flesh. The animal growled with pain.
“It’s best I get off,” Abban said in Shorttooth’s ear.
“No!” the tiger yelled. “Unsheathe your sword. We ride together.”
Koxl twirled to face Shorttooth. Shorttooth’s claws ripped the lizard’s leathery skin open right between the eyes. Abban ducked as the lizard answered the insult with a vicious swing of its tail.
“Back, Shorttooth!” Abban ordered. Staying in range of Koxl’s tail gave them no real advantage. They had to circle the beast, tire it out, let the bleeding from its wounds take its toll before they could attempt another slash.
The lizard jerked and twirled as green mucus flew from its back. Abban saw Jorg raise another arrow and, with a swift twang of his bowstring, unleash it. This time, he’d aimed the arrow at Zedikus, who growled in pain as the shaft pierced his shoulder.
“Koxl, finish him!” Zedikus ordered through clenched teeth.
With a gigantic leap, the lizard was upon Jorg, driving him to the ground with its forelegs. Abban watched in horror as a slimy tongue flicked out of Koxl’s mouth and wrapped itself around Jorg’s neck.
“Get me close!” Abban yelled, and Shorttooth charged at the lizard’s back.
Once close enough, Abban brought his sword down on the lizard’s tail with a swift swing that tore it loose from the lizard’s body. The tail twisted through the air, like a giant bleeding tentacle, and Koxl jerked its head high, Jorg still swinging from his coiled tongue. Blood gushed from the stump, and Koxl finally gave in, collapsing on the ground.
Abban flinched. Koxl’s mute suffering made him wince. Why was the cursed creature not making any sound?
Zedikus let out a howl, as if he were the one that had been hurt. He vaulted from Koxl’s back and darted for its tail, which had finally landed, painting the snow green all around it.
Abban dismounted Shorttooth and ran to Jorg. He was clutching the lizard’s tongue with both hands, his knuckles white with effort. “Can’t … breathe …”
Abban raised his sword to slice the lizard’s tongue. Jorg’s eyes widened with warning, but it was too late. Abban felt the pain explode in his left leg. He swung around.
Zedikus was staring at him through eyes filled with rage and madness. In his hands, a blade from Koxl’s tail glistened, tainted with Abban’s fresh blood. “I promised you another one, Abban. You just couldn’t stay away. You couldn’t wait your turn. Well, now it has come.”
Abban sidestepped as Zedikus charged at him. His old enemy stumbled but kept his balance.
A faint groan left Jorg’s mouth.
“Fight me, damn you!” Zedikus spat.
Abban’s eyes flickered to Jorg. His consciousness was fading fast. “Shorttooth!” he screamed as he charged at Zedikus’s feet, throwing him to the ground.
He felt a whoosh of frozen air above their tangled bodies as Shorttooth leaped above them. And then Zedikus dipped his teeth into his ear. Abban cried out and rolled off him. His hands came away sticky with blood. Both of his legs were throbbing now, one with fresh wounds and the other with memories of old.
Zedikus lost no time. He came at him, hands raised in the air, brandishing the severed tail blade. The blade had dug crimson rivers in Zedikus’s palms, but he didn’t seem to mind the pain. Abban rolled to the side just in time. Zedikus came at him again and again, screaming and growling, the foul stench of lizard blood steaming around him. Abban’s luck ran plenty, as he avoided every blow, but he knew luck didn’t last forever. Not unaided.
Abban let him get close this time and stuck his leg between Zedikus’s calves. He kicked one of his ankles, making him trip and fall face-first into the snow. With a swift leap that made his leg bones creak with agony, Abban landed over Zedikus’s back. He pressed his knee against his writhing form.
“Why, Zedikus?” Abban spoke next to his ear, pressing the blade against his neck. “Why did the king make you do this?”
Zedikus only growled, and then hot blood sprayed Abban’s face as an arrowhead lodged itself in Zedikus’s skull.
Abban raised his eyes to see Jorg standing there, bow in hand, his chest heaving. “For my Nereus,” he said, tears streaking his cheeks.
Later, after Abban and Jorg had buried Nereus’s body under heaps of glistening snow, Shorttooth carried both of them back down Whiterock Mountain. Neither of them spoke a word until they reached the valley where it had all begun.
As the sun fell behind the mountain peaks, the remaining warriors made their return, frustrated with a hollow and fruitless hunt. When all of them had gathered, Abban relayed to them the duplicity of the king’s plans.
That night, the palace was stormed by bears, lions, stags, a cougar, and Shorttooth, and after a swift fight that left most of the king’s guard dead and the king begging for his life, Abban strode forward and threw the heads of Zedikus and Koxl at the king’s knees. “Here are your monsters.”
It didn’t take much threat for the king to confess his crimes. Once he had seen he was surrounded, and his mighty warrior lay dead, the king told them of his plans to invade the rest of the kingdoms after he’d slaughtered their best warriors. His head rolled next to Zedikus’s before he could finish his last pleading words.
The sun had almost risen when Abban opened once more the doors of his inn. The warriors came in later, exhausted and wordless, after they’d laid to rest the bodies of the less fortunate that’d lost their lives to Zedikus’s blades.
Jorg sat on the stool before the counter, silent, watching Abban prepare the cauldron that warmed the spiced beer. In front of him lay the parchment that had once held Nereus’s drawing, now empty and soulless, just a yellowed piece of parched paper.
Abban laid a hand over his shoulder and a cup of beer before him. “Drink,” he ordered. “You did well yesterday. Without you, all of us here would have perished.”
Jorg shook his head in disbelief. A tear twinkled at the edge of his eye. “I had such hopes …”
Abban looked at the youth—broken, defeated, his fresh dreams crushed beneath the heel of the cold mountain. He imagined that Jorg didn’t look much different from himself that cursed night when he’d resolved to give up the tourneys forever after his leg had been slashed. His fresh wounds still throbbed, but Abban didn’t care. He’d faced Zedikus one last time, and it had proved to be his greatest tourney yet. The pride he felt for himself was all he needed to lift the heaviness in his heart. He reached a steady hand into his pocket and drew out his parchment.
“Here,” he said to Jorg, laying the parchment on the counter before him. “Shorttooth needs a new master. Mind you, his color isn’t as bright as other beasts’, but his heart is fierce, and his loyalty can make a kingdom kneel. Use him, and don’t forget to tell me all once you return.”
Jorg placed his hand on the parchment and grinned, a crooked smile of cocky youth.