Tower of Dawn Page 127

It went silent.

And she had seen horrific things, things that had made her sick and kept her from sleep, and yet that baby ruk, terrified and pleading, in pain and dragged away, going silent—

Nesryn whirled, feet slipping on the shale as she scrambled toward Kadara, toward Sartaq, who beheld the hatchling being snatched behind that rock and screamed at Kadara to fly—

The mighty ruk tried and failed to rise.

“FLY,” Sartaq bellowed.

Slowly, so slowly the ruk lumbered to her legs, her scraped beak dragging through the loose rock.

She wasn’t going to make it. Wasn’t going to get airborne in time. For just beyond the web-shrouded tree line … Shadows writhed. Scuttled closer.

Nesryn sheathed her sword and drew her bow, arrow shaking as she aimed it toward the rock the hatchling had been hauled behind, then the trees a hundred yards off.

“Go, Kadara,” Sartaq begged. “Get up!”

The bird was barely in shape to fly, let alone carry riders—

Rock clacked and skittered behind her. From the labyrinth of rock within the pass.

Trapped. They were trapped—

Falkan shifted in her pocket, trying to wriggle free. Nesryn covered him with her forearm, pressing hard. “Not yet,” she breathed. “Not yet.”

His powers were not Lysandra’s. He had tried and failed to shift into a ruk this week. But the large wolf was as big as he could manage. Anything larger was beyond his magic.

“Kadara—”

The first of the spiders broke from the tree line. As black and sleek as her fallen sister.

Nesryn let her arrow fly.

The spider fell back, screaming—an unholy sound that shook the rocks as that arrow sank into an eye. Nesryn instantly had another arrow drawn, backing toward Kadara, who was just now beginning to flap her wings—

The ruk stumbled.

Sartaq screamed, “FLY!”

Wind stirred Nesryn’s hair, sending shards of shale skittering. The ground rumbled behind, but Nesryn did not dare take her eyes off the second spider that emerged from the trees. She fired again, the song of her arrow drowned out by the flap of Kadara’s wings. A heavy, pained beat, but it held steady—

Nesryn glanced behind for a breath. Just one, just to see Kadara bobbing and waving, fighting for every wing beat upward through the narrow pass, blood and shale dripping from her. Right as a kharankui emerged from one of the shadows of the rocks high up the peak, legs bending as if it would leap upon the ruk’s back—

Nesryn fired, a second arrow on its tail. Sartaq’s.

Both found their marks. One through an eye, the other through the open mouth of the spider.

It shrieked, tumbling down from its perch. Kadara swung wide to dodge it, narrowly avoiding the jagged face of the peak. The spider’s splat thudded through the maze of rock ahead.

But then Kadara was up, into the gray sky, flapping like hell.

Sartaq whirled toward Nesryn just as she looked back at the pine forest.

To where half a dozen kharankui now emerged, hissing.

Blood coated the prince, his every breath ragged, but he managed to grab Nesryn’s arm and breathe, “Run.”

So they did.

Not toward the pines behind.

But into the gloom of the winding pass ahead.

43

Without the brace, Chaol was given a black mare, Farasha, whose name was about as ill-fitting as they came. It meant butterfly, Yrene told him as they gathered in the palace courtyard three days later.

Farasha was anything but.

Yanking at the bit, stomping her hooves and tossing her head, Farasha savored testing his limits long before the desert-bound company finished gathering. Servants had gone ahead the day before to prepare the camp.

He’d known the royals would give him their fiercest horse. Not a stallion, but one close enough to match it in fury. Farasha had been born furious, he was willing to bet.

And he’d be damned if he let those royals make him ask for another horse. One that would not strain his back and legs so much.

Yrene was frowning at Farasha, at him, as she stroked a hand down her chestnut mare’s night-black mane.

Both beautiful horses, though neither compared to the stunning Asterion stallion Dorian had gifted Chaol for his birthday last winter.

Another birthday celebration. Another time—another life.

He wondered what had happened to that beautiful horse, whom he had never named. As if he’d known, deep down, how fleeting those few happy weeks were. He wondered if it was still in the royal stables. Or if the witches had pillaged him—or let their horrible mounts use him to fill their bellies.

Perhaps that was why Farasha resented his very presence. Perhaps she sensed that he had forgotten that noble-hearted stallion in the north. And wanted to make him pay for it.

The breed was an offshoot of the Asterions, Hasar had tittered as she’d trotted past on her white stallion, circling him twice. The refined, wedge-shaped head and high tails were twin markers of their Fae ancestry. But these horses, the Muniqi, had been bred for the desert climes of this land. For the sands they were to cross today, and the steppes that had once been the khagan’s homeland. The princess had even pointed to a slight bulge between the horses’ eyes—the jibbah—the marker of the larger sinus capacity that allowed the Muniqi to thrive in the dry, unyielding deserts of this continent.

And then there was the Muniqi’s speed. Not as fast, Hasar admitted, as an Asterion. But close.

Yrene had watched the princess’s little lesson, face carefully neutral, using the time to adjust where she’d strapped Chaol’s cane behind her saddle, then fiddle with the clothes she wore.

While Chaol was in his usual teal jacket and brown pants, Yrene had forgone a dress.

They’d swathed her in white and gold against the sun, her long tunic flowing to her knees to reveal loose, gauzy pants tucked into high brown boots. A belt cinched her slim waist, and a glinting bandolier of gold and silver beading sliced between her breasts. Her hair, she’d left in her usual half-up fashion, but someone had woven bits of gold thread through it.

Beautiful. As lovely as a sunrise.

There were perhaps thirty of them in total, none people Yrene really knew, as Hasar had not bothered to invite any of the healers from the Torre. Swift-legged hounds paced in the courtyard, weaving under the hooves of the dozen guards’ horses. Definitely not Muniqi, those horses. Fine indeed for guards—his men had received beasts nowhere near their quality—but without that awareness the Muniqi possessed, as if they listened to every word spoken.

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