The sun settled on the western peaks, kissing the white snows with red-gold.
With the last of the day came a reflected message.
They had her.
“Her?” Ean asked.
“The trackers say it’s female,” Trin replied, dropping the binoculars to hang around her neck. “They found the tree where she shifted to human just now, and the dogs are sure the new smell is a woman. Now that it’s running on two legs like us, the Zdaroun will find it before sunrise.”
“Can you send the message to avoid confrontation again?”
Trin eyed the sun, her big Vaxin charger shifting slightly underneath her, then nodded and took aim at one of the mountain towers and reset the scope on her binoculars.
Ean waited while his sister clicked away for at least a minute.
“It’s done,” she said. “They’ll get the message out once it’s dark. Are you sure you want to talk to this thing?”
“Her,” Ean said. “It’s a her now. And we know they’re human.”
“Human or no, it would be much easier to take her down…” Trin stopped and made an expression like there was a bad taste in her mouth and her horse shifted about like it was suddenly uncomfortable. “You’re right. Saying “her” does make a difference. Thek. Can I feather her if she tries to eat you?”
Ean smiled and nodded.
“I’ll pray that doesn’t happen.”
He reined his own Vaxin around as a flurry of wings announced Kaim’s return, along with two Tixeries.
“The trackers are right behind me,” Kaim said. “A full squad of lancers and two of cav archers as well. If it comes at us that should give us a chance.”
“It probably wouldn’t,” Trin said. “And it’s a “her” now, Kaim.”
“So we’re really not gonna just chase it off?” Kaim said. “It’s human now. Any of our men could make the shot. It’d be really easy.”
“No,” Ean said. “She hasn’t killed anyone, she doesn’t die.”
“Really, really easy. We might not get another chance.”
“Kaim…” Ean said, looking straight at his cousin and right hand man. Kaim returned his gaze and held it for a long moment, then nodded.
“Your highness,” Kaim said.
“Mount up,” Ean said to him and the Tixeries. Kaim got on a tall, barded Vaxin like Ean’s own, while the tiny Tixeries, barely more than half a height high each, furled up their painted wings and mounted two of the ponies Ean and his group had been leading behind.
“So we camp near her overnight and then you talk in the morning?” Trin asked. “Is that the plan?”
“I guess that works,” she said, and checked over her bow again, making sure the wheels swiveled smoothly and the nuts were all tight.
A muffled rumble announced the approach of more horses and two of the trackers, Kentinshirs, rode into the small clearing on Vaxin mounts with rubber-booted hooves, surrounded by their hip-high Zdarouns. The two shiftskins, presently the black of arousal and effort, quickly spotted Ean and saluted. The dogs sat down quietly, using the pause to rest.
A moment later thirty more horsemen poured in around them, two-thirds sporting wheel-bows like Trin and the other third carrying long kren-shafted spark-lances.
The head archer saluted and rode in next to Ean.
“General Jobin sends his regards, your highness. He prays it will be a glorious hunt.”
Ean gave the man a cool stare.
“Tell the general he has my thanks when you see him again. Do you understand that you are under no circumstances to attack without my permission?”
“Of course, your highness. As you say.” The archer flattened his ears out to the side of his helmet in submission.
“Good,” Ean said and let his expression warm again. “Trackers, lead us out.”