Tower of Dawn Page 108

And exactly as she’d planned, the wolf flew from the stairwell, heading for the open archway to the woods, not even looking behind.

The spider leaped. Gold flashed from the skies.

Kadara’s war cry sent the pines trembling, her claws ripping right into the abdomen of the kharankui and sending her toppling off the stairs.

The wolf darted away as Sartaq’s roar of warning to his ruk was swallowed by the screaming of bird and spider. The kharankui landed on her back, precisely where Kadara wanted her.

Leaving her underbelly exposed to the ruk’s talons. And her blade-sharp beak.

A few vicious slashes, black blood spraying and sleek limbs flailing, and—silence.

Nesryn’s bow dangled from her shaking hands as Kadara dismembered the twitching spider. She whirled to Sartaq, but his eyes were turned away. To the wolf.

She knew. Right as the wolf limped toward them, a deep gash in its side, and she beheld its dark sapphire eyes.

Knew what it was, who it was, as the edges of his gray coat shimmered, his entire body filling with light that shrank and flowed.

And when Falkan waved on his feet before them, a hand pressed to the bloody wound in his ribs, Nesryn breathed, “You’re a shape-shifter.”

35

Falkan dropped to his knees, pine needles scattering, blood dribbling between his tan fingers.

Nesryn made to rush to him, but Sartaq blocked her with an arm. “Don’t,” he warned.

Nesryn shoved his arm out of her way and ran to the injured man, kneeling before him. “You followed us here.”

Falkan lifted his head, pain lining his eyes. “I listened last night. At your fire.”

Sartaq snarled, “No doubt as some rat or insect.”

Something like shame indeed filled Falkan’s face. “I flew here as a falcon—saw you go in. Then saw her creep up the hill after you.” He shuddered as he glanced to where Kadara had finished ripping apart the spider and now sat atop the tower, studying him as if he were her next meal.

Nesryn waved toward the bird to hop down with their saddlebags. Kadara pointedly ignored her. “He needs help,” she hissed to Sartaq. “Bandages.”

“Does my ej know?” was all the prince demanded.

Falkan tried and failed to remove his blood-soaked hand from his side, panting through his teeth. “Yes,” he managed to say. “I told her everything.”

“And what court paid you to come here?”

“Sartaq.” She’d never heard him speak that way, never seen him so furious. She grabbed the prince’s arm. “He saved our lives. Now we return the favor.” She pointed to the ruk. “Bandages.”

Sartaq turned those livid eyes on her. “His kind are assassins and spies,” he snarled. “Better to let him die.”

“I am neither,” Falkan panted. “I am what I said: a merchant. In Adarlan, growing up, I didn’t even know I had the gift. It—it ran in my family, but by the time magic vanished, I’d assumed I hadn’t gotten it. Was glad for it. But I must not have matured enough, because when I set foot in these lands as a man, as this …” A gesture to his body. To the twenty years he’d given up. He winced against what the movement did to his wound. “I could use it. I could change. Badly, and not often, but I can manage it, if I concentrate.” He said to the prince, “It is nothing to me, this heritage. It was my brother’s gift, my father’s—I never wanted it. I still don’t.”

“Yet you can change from bird to wolf to man as easily as if you trained.”

“Trust me, it’s more than I’ve done in my—” Falkan groaned, swaying.

Nesryn caught him before he could eat dirt, and snapped at Sartaq, “If you don’t get him bandages and supplies right now, I’ll give you a wound to match.”

The prince blinked at her, mouth falling open.

Then he whistled through his teeth, sharp and swift, while he strode for Kadara, his steps clipped.

The ruk hopped from the tower to land upon one of the owl statues anchored into the archway walls, stone cracking beneath her.

“I am no assassin,” Falkan insisted, still shaking. “I’ve met a few, but I’m not one.”

“I believe you,” Nesryn said, and meant it. Sartaq hauled the packs off Kadara, searching through them. “The left one,” she barked. The prince threw her another look over his shoulder, but obeyed.

“I wanted to kill her myself,” Falkan panted, his eyes glazing, no doubt from blood loss. “To see if … that might return the years. Even … even if she is not the one who took my youth, I thought maybe there was some … joint system between them, even across oceans. A web, as it were, of all that their kind has taken.” A bitter, strained laugh. “But it seems my death blow was taken, too.”

“I think we can all forgive Kadara for doing it instead,” Nesryn said, noting the black blood splattered over the ruk’s beak and feathers.

Another pained laugh. “You are not scared—of what I am.”

Sartaq strode over with the bandages and salve. And what seemed to be a jar of a honey-like substance, to likely seal the wound until they could reach a healer. Good.

“One of my friends is a shifter,” Nesryn admitted—just as Falkan fainted in her arms.

They were airborne within minutes of Nesryn cleaning out the gash down Falkan’s ribs and Sartaq indeed packing the wound with what seemed to be some sort of leaves and a coating of honey. To keep infection away and stave the blood loss as they swiftly soared back to the aerie.

She and the prince barely spoke, though with Falkan propped behind them, the ride didn’t afford much opportunity. It was a tight, perilous flight, Falkan’s dead weight occasionally listing far enough to the side that Sartaq had to grunt at holding him in the saddle. There were only two sets of buckles, he’d told Nesryn when they climbed onto the saddle. He wasn’t wasting either of their lives on a shifter, life debt or no.

But they made it, just as the sun was setting and the three peaks of the Dorgos were aglow with countless fires, like the mountains were crusted in fireflies.

Kadara loosed a shrill scream as they neared the Mountain-Hall of Altun. Some sort of signal, apparently, because by the time they landed, Borte, Houlun, and countless others were gathered, armed with supplies.

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