They stared at each other, Niobe sick to her stomach. He had done it. He had gone out into the eseteij and cried out for change. Why now?
No, she knew why. Either the Teeshlawat Fyareng had survived or one of his followers continued in his name. Which didn’t matter. They were recruiting again, both children and from the old ranks of child-soldiers. Even if she rescued the child, she couldn’t let this soticheij live or else he would tell the others about her. It didn’t matter how they would use that information; they would destroy everything she cared about, everything she’d built since her escape.
Except, without the other knights, her and her sword would not be enough to fell the beast. Wound it, yes. Scare it off, yes. But, to kill it…
“A samyot for the child,” she said. In a secret pocket, she still carried the one possession that remained from that part of her life.
He sneered. “We’re not children anymore.”
The soticheij sighed, but nodded assent and stepped back. Niobe sheathed her sword and retreated behind the dogwood. Off came her coat. Then the leather armour. Inside the coat was her identification as a knight of the Royal Militia, at the back of which was a pocket. With a nudge at the pocket’s spell, an oval of red jasper wrapped in a criss-cross of pale leather emerged. Her talisman. This Niobe held in one hand as she removed and put all her clothes but the coat into the pocket, the enchantment shrinking each to fit.
Beneath the surface of the talisman was the silken feel of common magic, of an incomplete spell. Niobe returned her identification to her coat and clutched the leather-crossed stone tight. She manoeuvered a key of magic into the spell’s lock and turned.
The talisman’s intricate power flowed over and through her body in waves. Fur sprouted, her back lengthened. Claws extended from hands and feet that morphed into paws. Her mouth filled with the teeth of a predator, her pupils became black slits in a field of yellow. The magic contorted her limbs, reshaped her muscles until, only heartbeats after the spell had begun its work, she stood on all fours. With her nose, Niobe nudged the talisman under her coat.
From behind the dogwood, a grey lion leapt at the soticheij.
He lowered his antlers.
When Niobe landed on them, he brought his head up to throw her to the side. She twisted to land on her feet and swiped at his forelegs. They weren’t her target – her aim was to get at his neck – but he didn’t move them. Instead, he brought his antlers down.
So, he still over-relied on his headgear.
Niobe leapt into the cedar behind the soticheij. As he turned to face her, she dropped and slammed into his side, enough to make him stagger. His antlers swung to the side and, while moose are agile, he wasn’t a moose. Not in the way she was a grey lion. She could see his very human Adam’s apple under that thick neck.
Darting under his belly, Niobe escaped the antlers to his other side. With a snarl, she clamped her jaws on the underside of his neck.
Now he remembered his limbs. As she tried to crush his windpipe, he grabbed her with thick fingers to wrench her off. This only served to cause her teeth to tear his skin. He squeezed her ribcage – that was how he’d broken bones and almost killed that knight before she and the others had intervened.
When she felt the crunch of his larynx, Niobe let go. She twisted in his grasp, clawing at his face. The soticheij threw her. From the wounds on his cheeks, she could tell she had almost gouged his eyes.
He put a hand to his throat and tried to speak, but his voice was so hoarse as to be nearly unintelligible. With each laboured breath came the harsh vibration of broken cartilage.
“Take-” he said. “Take the child.”
Left in this condition, he would seek out another eseteij and let the icewater hold of storm magic return to him his strength. The samyot may be over, but Niobe’s work was not. She sprang at him, the top of his neck now between her teeth. Using her claws to keep hold of him as he struggled, she repositioned her grip to just under the base of his skull and bit into his spine.
The soticheij screamed; the sound was stomach-churning with his maimed throat. As it faded, a chipmunk chattered. No, not a chipmunk.
Niobe let go and retreated from the soticheij. Though she hadn’t managed to break his spine completely, his movements had become clumsy.
With a dash behind the dogwood, Niobe signalled the knights with the jays again. Come, be ready to fight. She fitted key to lock and the talisman returned her body to its natural form. Hands shaking, she dressed herself and hid the talisman in its pocket.
The other knights arrived as she stood over the soticheij, sword drawn. He had fallen, succumbing to the injuries of his spine and larynx. Niobe directed two of them to attend to the child, who still lay huddled in the cedar.
“She was in – the cult!” said the soticheij to the knights. “She fought for – for…” he coughed blood. “The Teeshlawat Fyareng.”
But the knights didn’t speak his language. Niobe, Champion of the Royal Militia that had defeated the cult of the Teeshlawat Fyareng eleven years ago with ease, didn’t translate.
She decapitated him instead.
The Storm-Dance is a planned four-book series in which the people of the country Asebei uncover, over the course of their history, the secrets of the eseteijo, the magic storms that plague their continent. The first book will be about Niobe.
Work on this series is currently on hold for the White Changeling series, but when a short story pops into your head like this one did and demands expression, you write it. I hope giving a teaser this far in advance wasn’t too evil. :D