Antrandis stood at the edge of the forest, the river rushing by. His gaze set on the darkening sky. Ribbons of cloud decorated the eastern horizon, the already snow-capped mountain of Scarosant shining as the rays of the sun setting through the western slopes hit it, lighting its peak like a beacon.
Sian stepped out beside him, concern on her face, ‘Winter?’
‘Not yet, she should be back at any moment.’
A sudden howl split the air nearby. Long and drawn out. Antrandis quickly looked across the river at the opposing shore, his expression hardening as his keen eyes picked out movement among the trees.
‘We don’t have long.’ Sian noted.
‘I know.’ he said while keeping his eyes on the sky, looking for wings.
Another howl from further up the valley echoed across the river.
‘Silvast?’ he asked.
Sian looked back at the trees, ‘She is sleeping again. But if Winter takes any longer, you will have to go by yourself.’
Antrandis nodded, ‘Regardless, Silias and her team should be close by. Maybe only an hour away by foot.’
He felt Sian stand closer, her warmth right beside him as she also watched the sky, ‘If it is a short distance, Winter should be able to carry Silvast to them.’
‘While flying?’ asked Sian.
Antrandis nodded, his attention still on the sky. Another howl from nearby cut through the trees. Sian turned, glaring at the forest.
‘Antrandis, that was…’
‘That was our side, we now have a problem.’ he said, his voice calm.
‘There are two different groups.’ said Sian as she looked back up the river, ‘My love, there were tracks on this side, but they did not follow the children.’
‘They must have stayed in the tree line. Keeping to the shadows.’ he looked to her, an increasing level of concern in his eyes.
A sudden flurry of large wings could be heard breaking over the trees. The sharp whistle of wind through feathers as Winter came in fast across the river, dropping her body down, wings out, breaking her speed. She alighted forcefully in front of Antrandis and Sian, throwing up shale and sand. Settling her wings quickly, she walked up to them. She took notice of their expressions.
‘Silias and company, they are not as close as we hoped. Two hours by foot. They are on the valley floor down from the pass to Scarosant. On the road and riding. They have seven riders and two flat wagons.’
She caught Sian’s look and nodded, ‘I can fly it and carry Silvast. No gliding though.’
‘Are you sure? It has been a long time. It is not a short flight.’ asked Antrandis as they started walking back to the forest.
Winter glanced at him, ‘If she were wearing armour, it might be a challenge.’ she smiled, her features starting to twist, becoming sharper and more purposeful as her form shifted slightly to that of the Valkyrie, ‘I have my power, and today you both gave me a gift beyond measure, you returned my purpose to me. I could lift a horse with rider if I had to.’
They stepped into the tree line, Sian quickly going to Silvast. Winter held out a hand, grabbing Antrandis’s arm, pulling him aside.
‘The far side of the river, it is crawling with wolves. Maybe eight or more packs now. Numbering more than eighty but less than a hundred.’ her face close and voice sharp.
‘What of this side?’
‘I heard it, I spotted movement, but they are like shadows. A dozen, maybe more. I am not sure. All are heading for the ruins of the village on the river.’ she looked in the general direction.
‘Enough of the bridge remains, and there are shallows too, where the river splits around the village and through the forest. It is defensible by the skilled. But for a gryphon defending two children, the wings will be a problem in the tight quarters.’
She paused for a moment, thinking carefully, ‘Antrandis, these children are not normal. They may be able to put up a fight, elemental magic, and powerful at that.’
He met her eyes, ‘Do you think we can head off the main company of wolves on the other side, and hope their gryphon can get them to safety?’ asked Antrandis.
She looked at him, shaking her head, ‘Not enough time. You are going to have to fight your way to them.’
‘She is awake. Winter?’ said Sian, calling out.
Winter looked at Antrandis, her steel eyes on his, she suddenly came in close and embraced him, her brows knitted, ‘Thank you, Antrandis. I will keep her safe, Sian told me, about her and, you were,’ she stopped mid-sentence and kissed him quickly, looking him in the eyes intensely before turning to Sian.
She grabbed Sian’s hand and squeezed it firmly.
‘I will see you back at the camp, stay safe, ‘Shadow.’
Winter nodded to Silvast, her eyes barely open and wavering on her feet, Winter slipped her arms around her and lifted her, cradling her. Silvast tried her best to weakly hook her arms around Winter’s neck. With surprising strength, Winter settled Silvast and walked through the trees with Antrandis and Sian following her. Unfurling her wings as soon as she was clear of the trees. Winter gave a quick nod and dragged at the air with her wings, kicking off and launching herself and Silvast above the forest. As she flew out of sight, another howl cut the air from close by. Antrandis and Sian briefly exchanged glances.
‘Winter confirmed that there are now two groups.’ he said to Sian.
She nodded silently as she looked to the last of the direct sunlight in the valley.
‘The dire wolf?’ Sian asked.
‘She commands even more packs, they now number close to a hundred strong.’ he finished.
Sian looked at him, stretching her shoulders, ‘It is getting serious.’
She continued to stretch her limbs, ‘I am concerned about those we do not know about. They may not be great in numbers, but they move in the shadows.’
Sian looked over the water, easily spotting movement among the trees, ‘The dire wolf is not concerned about secrecy, her wolves are moving openly, brazenly even.’ she smiled grimly at Antrandis, ‘We can see them coming.’
‘That is what concerns me. They are openly moving in numbers. She is letting them move openly in numbers.’
She looked at him, the expression on his face, ‘No, don’t even suggest it. I can feel what you are thinking.’ she took a deep breath, ‘We secure the children and get out of there, or at least slow the wolves so that their gryphon can get them to safety.’
Sian swore under her breath, she could feel Antrandis’s aggravation growing while he watched the wolves in the tree line.
She shook her head, ‘My love, this could turn into a bloodbath. If it is what you are thinking.’
‘Could, not will.’ he said.
Sian watched him sidelong.
‘We leave now. If we have to fight our way through, we will. At the least, we buy them time to escape in the confusion.’
Sian nodded, her lips a thin line. He was right, she also felt familiarity. Unwelcome familiarity. As she turned he had already swiftly transformed, his body a little bigger, and more muscular than large example of a male snow leopard, his pelt, a little more vivid, his large stormy-blue eyes watching her. Willing her own change, she dropped to all fours as it took place, but the work of seconds. She rubbed herself against him, under his neck and along his side, before breaking into a paced lope along the bank of the river. Snowshadow felt him at her side, his pace easy, looking across at her, he nodded once and picked up his speed, spearing off along the river bank. His run fast and measured. Scouting ahead while she kept an eye on the advancing wolves.