I had spent three days perched in a gnarly oak tree watching for monsters, and I was bored. My branch extended over a little river, commanding clear view of the river and the fields on either side—not that there was anything to see. Cattle lazed peacefully in tall green grass to my left. Plowed earth filled the world to my right. Behind me, if I looked, I would see the distant blue ridge of the Phas Mountains. A pretty view. The river in front of me was wide and lazy and had many places where the banks dipped low, and many other places you could swim in deep, clear pools.
And no monsters in sight.
I chewed on a stalk of grass, absently watching the tip toss. The thing about hunting was that you couldn’t bring a book.
Spring was bleeding into summer and the days were warm enough that I’d ditched my leather jerkin on the first day out here. The breeze obligingly licked through the linen shirt I wore under my harness of knives, soothing the burn of the late afternoon sun.
A three-note whistle came from upriver. My brother, Ayglos, checking in on his younger sister. I removed the grass long enough to repeat the three-note whistle back.
My brother had gotten us this monster hunting job. We were fresh off a job tracking down a bounty—a murderer we’d caught up with just a few days ride from here. Ayglos had gone into Tanglewood Springs for supplies while I took a nap in a puddle of sunshine. Of the two of us, he was less notable, so he did most of the errands when we were riding together.
At the outfitter, he’d struck up a conversation with a Master Hadrake’s foreman. Turns out, Master Hadrake’s cattle were disappearing, and his herdsmen swore up and down that a scaled beast with hideous claws had risen from the river to claim the cows. It had gotten so bad most of the herdsmen refused to come anywhere near the river and the foreman was hitting up all the taverns and outfitters in Wimshell looking for new herdsmen. Ayglos had offered a different service. “Can’t pass up an ‘easy job,’” I muttered, biting down on the grass. Any chance to earn good money. It’s not like we had anywhere else to be for a few months. It was only a small comfort that Ayglos was sitting in a tree at another major watering spot. Just as bored as I was.
If I hadn’t seen massive clawed, webbed, tracks, in the soft river bank I would have assumed Master Hadrake was being robbed. I’d never heard of a river monster this far north. Though, despite being half-nymph, we’d spent rather less time hunting water monsters than one might suppose.
After three days of sitting in a tree by the herd’s favorite watering spot with nothing but insects and my thoughts for company, I was returning to the cattle rustler theory. We had tried to question the river itself when we first arrived, but it had been vague and uncooperative. Maybe the river thought we were crazy.
My stalk of grass snapped, and I nearly fell off the branch as I lunged to snatch it before it fell out of reach.
An uncertain moo sounded below. I looked down to see a cow craning her head to look at me, her large brown eyes set in a wide piebald face, ears flicking attentively. The whole herd was behind her, having picked their way over to the river while I’d been engrossed in my thoughts.
“It’s alright,” I told the cow, “I’m not the monster.” I waved vaguely at the river.
Her ears flicked. Unconvinced.
“I’m not. Go drink, I’m sure you’re thirsty.”
Cows were such skeptical creatures. I supposed they had a right, having lost several of their compatriots to the river in the past few weeks.
I swung my legs over the side of the branch and bowed at the waist, “Word of honor, my good cow, I, Zare Caspian of Galhara, am not the one killing your sistren.”
Eloi help me. Three days alone in a tree, and I, Zare Caspian of Galhara, Daughter of Zam the Great, Ghost of Nelia, Curse of the Empire, was losing my mind.
The cow blinked at me, as if agreeing with my thoughts. Then, with a shake of her head she turned and strolled to the water. Three others followed her down the slope to the water’s edge, and two waded in to drink half submerged. More from the herd started to amble over. I watched them, grass dangling from my fingers as my mind wandered far away to another river, swift and deep, that ran beside a breathtaking stone palace.
One of the cows vanished under the water with a bovine shriek. I cursed. Water churned, the black hooves of the cow breaking the surface in a desperate kick before a scaled ridge arched over them and both disappeared in a cloud of silt…and then blood…bellowing filled the air as the other cows fled. Leaping to my feet I drew a long knife and barely remembered to whistle for Ayglos before diving into the river.
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