Home > The Princess Knight (The Scarred Earth Saga #2)(9)

The Princess Knight (The Scarred Earth Saga #2)(9)
Author: G.A. Aiken

Gemma ran halfway up the middle mountain and stopped. She took a moment to catch her breath before pulling out her sword and axe and dropping to one knee. Burying the head of the axe and the tip of the sword into the ground, she sent out her prayers to the main god of her order, Morthwyl. But, as usual, her plea felt hollow and empty.

Before the past year, it always felt as if she were talking directly to her god. It felt as if he stood before her listening to her words. She could almost feel his hand on her head or her shoulder.

Then . . . nothing. She hadn’t lost faith. That was different. She knew her god existed. She knew he still had a hand in the workings of this world and others. Instead, it was as if he’d turned his back on her and walked away. Yet she continued to pray to him every day. Each kill she made during a battle, she offered to him. Each waning moon, she fasted in his honor. And, most importantly, when she managed to raise a body to do her bidding, she knew it was through the power of his spells.

So why did she feel he had deserted her? What had she done to disappoint him? Was it leaving her order to protect her family? The monks of her order would probably say yes, but she knew what she had done was the right thing. Letting her order murder her family—which was what they would have had to do if they’d come for Beatrix—would have gone against everything she believed as a Smythe and as a war monk. She’d followed her gut, because she had to. It was her only option.

And, two years later, here she was . . . praying to a god who no longer heard her.

With a sigh, Gemma got to her feet and went through her daily drills. She’d been doing them since she’d started with her order, working to perfect them each and every day. At first, she’d thought she’d get bored by them. The first year, she did get bored. But now, all these years later, she found them comforting. The one thing she could rely on.

After finishing her drills, she returned her weapons to her belts and started running up the mountain paths again. She decided to go higher than usual. Which was especially hard, now that she was carrying the extra weight. But she was in the mood. It was a beautiful, cool day and she needed the extra push.

She wasn’t trying for the very top—the air was simply too thin—but the mid slopes would do nicely and would provide the added benefit of revealing where their security was weakest down below.

When she reached the point she wanted, Gemma placed her hands on her hips and gasped desperately for breath. She looked out over the town but her legs began to cramp from the climb, so she turned in a circle, her breath still coming out in harsh—

It came at her from a mountainside burrow she hadn’t seen, the size nearly double that of any male. Giant fangs snapped in her face, the creature’s growls and barks startling her, making her swing her arms out, hands raised to protect her face. Those damn blazing eyes of fire forced her back and back . . . right off the edge of the mountain.

* * *

Keeley was bathing with the centaurs in the Eagle River when something crashed into the water from above. She brought her arms up to protect her face from the deluge, assuming it was some poor animal dropped by an eagle or owl that had lost its prey. It was called Eagle River for a reason.

Until Quinn sauntered forward, his tail splashing water on his rump as he stared at the spot where the water had been disturbed.

“What’s wrong?” Laila asked her brother.

Frowning, he glanced at Keeley. “I think that was your sister.”

“What?”

He abruptly shifted to his human form and dove into the water. It took him a bit, but when he returned to the surface, he dragged a sputtering Gemma with him.

“Gods!” Keeley cried out, swimming over to the pair and helping Quinn drag her sister to the river’s edge.

Once they got her on the dirt, Keeley first ripped off that stupid bag of rocks before placing Gemma down onto her stomach so her sister could bring up any water trapped in her lungs. Which turned out to be quite a bit.

“Are you all right?” Keeley finally managed to ask.

“Those fucking beasts!” Gemma screamed.

“She seems fine,” Quinn drily remarked before sitting on the ground.

Keeley immediately looked up at the sky. Ever since she’d discovered the existence of actual dragons in the world, she’d been terrified they’d attack her lands. She still had nightmares. The one she’d met had been huge! And spit lava! And could talk! Of course, why would a dragon drop Gemma when it could have just gobbled her up in one bite? Like a snack.

“What kind of beast?” Keeley asked her sister. “A dragon? Did you see a dragon?”

“Not a dragon!” Gemma gasped out. “Your damn dogs!”

“Wolves,” Quinn corrected.

Slowly, Keeley refocused on her sister. “The wolves? The wolves aren’t around. Unless you’ve been bothering that nice new pack about six leagues away. But they’re just normal wolves. You should leave them alone.”

“Your wolves,” her sister insisted.

“My wolves aren’t here.”

“They’re up in the mountains.”

Keeley blinked. “How did you know that?”

“Because one of them attacked me!” Gemma screamed hysterically.

“Well, what were you doing up there anyway?” Keeley screamed back.

The siblings glared at each other until they heard Quinn’s raucous laughter.

When they focused their glares on him, he barely managed to get out to Gemma, “I . . . I love how you . . . you thought . . . she was going to be on your side about . . . about . . . this.”

Then he fell back on the ground and continued to laugh.

* * *

Gemma hated to admit it, but the bastard was right. Her sister was never on her side when it came to those fucking demon wolves.

She’d already been in training at the monastery when Keeley had discovered the first one alone in the woods near the family farm. A pup being tormented by priests trying to destroy the demon. Gemma was sure those priests could have made it a quick, clean kill but had probably delayed it, hoping to bring themselves closer to their chosen god. A mistake her sister would never understand or forgive. Gemma could imagine the whole thing and knew her sister well enough to know she’d thought she was saving an innocent soul, not rescuing the offspring of a pit demon.

From what her siblings told her, Keeley brought the pup home until its wounds had healed but returned daily to where she’d found it until the mother came back looking for its young. Smiling at the fierce-looking mother that stood as tall as Keeley despite being on all fours, Keeley had handed the pup off to its imposing mother, expecting never to see the creature again. But the pup did not stay away. He returned to her again and again, and soon began to bring friends. All of them with fire for eyes and blood for drool. Yet she treated them as she would any friendly wolf or bear or deer. It was Keeley’s way.

Gemma’s mother wasn’t really a fan of those wolves lurking in the forests around their home but her father took to them immediately. Although he wouldn’t let them near his pigs. Apparently that was a problem until Keeley told them to leave her father’s pigs alone . . . and they did. Her father was quite pleased, but Gemma didn’t understand why no one saw a problem with wolves understanding the meaning of human words.

These same demons had followed Keeley and her family to their new lands. They watched over the territory and the queen, so it was strange when the whole group of them seemed to vanish one day without warning. Even stranger that Keeley didn’t say a word about it.

It made sense, though—now—that Keeley had known exactly what had happened to the wolves that were as close to her as their father and her centaur.

“Why are they up in the mountains, Keeley?” Gemma asked her sister.

She shrugged. “The pack has a new litter. They were born about eight weeks ago. They went up there to keep the pups safe until they were old enough to care for themselves.”

Appalled, Gemma demanded, “You’re letting them breed?”

“Letting them? It’s their right. Just like it’s our right.”

“In one of the hells. They can breed in one of their hells, but not here.”

“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard from you, and I’ve heard many ridiculous things!”

Gemma tried to get up but she’d hit the river hard and her body wasn’t exactly cooperating. An arm appeared in front of her. She grabbed it, using the support—and Quinn—to get herself to her feet.

“Do you think I’m just a horrible person?” Gemma asked her sister.

“Yes.”

“Keeley.” To Gemma’s surprise, this came from Quinn himself.

“You don’t mean to be,” Keeley clarified. “And you never were before. The old Gemma would have found wolves with eyes of fire interesting and strange. Something to explore. But then you became a monk and everything now is pure evil or not evil. There’s no in between for you anymore. And the world we live in is all about the in between.”

“You think the denizens of the hells are in between?”

“I think all animals are in between. The she-bear that mauled Old Matheson wasn’t evil. She just thought he was a threat to her cubs. The wild boar that kept eating Da’s piglets wasn’t evil, it was just hungry. Remember? That was the bad year we had the drought. Or the time Da chopped that bear’s head off and roasted it on a spit, he was just pissed it kept eating the piglets. Da wasn’t evil then either. So do I think the wolf female chased you off the mountain because you were too close to her pups and she saw you as a threat? Yes. I do. I’d see you as a threat, too, if I was her. It’s the in between, Sister. You used to understand that.”

Keeley shrugged and walked off, while one of the centaurs handed her a long piece of linen to dry her wet body.

“Why’s my sister naked around a bunch of bathing centaurs?” Gemma asked Quinn.

“I told her centaurs don’t care about the naked human body.”

   
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