He led her up the mountain, the storm-tossed landscape on their right. They climbed for hours, branches creaking overhead. Distantly, ravens cawed and foxes barked. Tiny prints in the drifting snow marked the recent passage of mice and rats and badgers. Larger prints followed: bear and lynx. And wolf.
The storm damage ended and the slope of the mountain steepened. Klya found a thick branch, tore off the few leaves that clung to it, planted it against the ground ahead of her, and continued on.
Up and up.
The sun rolled higher in the sky, the heavens still a searing blue and empty of any clouds.
Klya dug into her pouch and pulled out hard bread and frostberries to munch on while she climbed.
A howl, low and ululating, rolled through the trees.
The wolf stopped, his ears pricked. His nose twitched, his head turning to look back and to their left.
Klya bit down on the question that had formed on her tongue.
A second howl, closer.
“Hasten your steps, Red Cloak. It is not much further to the Hag’s Teeth.”
Klya jammed her staff against the ground, and tried not to think about the fact that the wolf was more afraid of what lay behind them than what lay ahead.
The howling followed them up the mountain. As the sun passed its greatest height, the Hag’s Teeth loomed out of the bare trees. An upthrust of rock through the earth, the sheer face of the stone was a sickening yellow streaked with white, vertical cracks giving the wall the appearance of a maddened smile. The rock should have shown brightly in the early afternoon light, but instead had turned an even uglier yellow, as if bile had set into the rocks.
The cliff face extended for miles in either direction, the trees coming to an abrupt halt well clear of the shadow cast by the stone. Even the snow ended there, leaving a bare patch of brownish ground. There was only one way to continue: through a narrow, twisting canyon barely wide enough for the passage of a single horse. Centuries earlier, Red Cloaks had used this canyon to steal into the Witch’s lair. One hundred of them had entered the passage. Only fifty had emerged on the other side.
More had died while crossing the Glass Lake.
Klya didn’t realize that she had stopped to stare up at the awful yellow stone until the wolf snarled at her. He already stood on the bare ground, the grass dried and wilted beneath his paws.
The howls were closer now.
Klya kicked her feet, pushing her way over the last of the snow. It crumbled beneath her weight, softening and thinning until she was standing next to the wolf. She shook the snow from her cloak, clacking the staff against her boots to knock them clean.
“This way,” the wolf snapped. “Follow.”
He leaped forward in a quick lope, following the stoney teeth to the left. Klya hastened to follow, her steps unsteady at first. But she found her feet again and raced to keep up, cloak flaring behind her, the cold stinging her cheeks and throat.
Movement in the trees, hungry shapes in the corner of her eye.
She darted a glance, saw the wolves. Three, four, no, five. Varying shades of brown, black, and white, lips pulled back to growl and snarl. They raced along the edge of the trees, parallel to Klya, and then leaped forward, across the snow. It cracked beneath them, pulling at their legs. They stumbled, howling, snapping —
“Here! Here, Red Cloak!”
Klya spun, chest heaving.
The opening in the cliff was narrow, so narrow. She could touch each side with her hands. It ran up towards the sky, a jagged cut, and deeper into the mountain, the rocks darkening from yellow to brown like a horrible throat.
The wolf snapped at her hip.
Klya jerked and tumbled into the opening, staff in hand. She turned, looking over her shoulder to see the wolf backing in behind her. He faced the other five, who had pulled themselves free of the snow and now advanced across the bare ground. His fur bristled and spiked, his tail thumping against the walls of the canyon as it lashed back and forth.
The first of the wolves, his fur a patchy brown and black, reached the entrance of the Hag’s Teeth. He jumped, fangs gleaming, claws extended. There was a terrible crash as their bodies slammed together within the tight confines of the canyon. The others piled up behind him and just outside the Teeth, snarling and drooling, their growls and howls echoing.
The sound pounded at Klya’s ears. Frantic, she backed up another step, quiver rattling against her back, staff and dagger clutched in her hands. She looked around, searching the steep walls for something, anything, to drive the wolves away.
But there was nothing.
Snarls turned to yips of pain.
The brown and black wolf lifted up, his golden eyes fixed on the white wolf. There was red on that white fur now.
Gritting her teeth, a sob of fear and determination catching in her throat, Klya lifted her staff. Shoving herself as close to the white wolf as she could, she stretched forward. She brought the staff down hard, slamming it against the nose of the brown and black wolf.
The animal reared in surprise, eyes wide.
The white wolf lunged forward, teeth sinking into his attacker’s throat.
The other wolf struggled, twisting as blood darkened his brown fur. His hips banged against the stone walls and he swiped with his claws, scraping the shoulders of the white wolf. His struggles slowed. Snarls turned to whimpers of pain, and then gurgles. He fell, but the white wolf did not release his throat
More howling, outside the Hag’s Teeth.
Klya looked up, clutching the staff to her chest.
More wolves, how many she couldn’t see. But the wolves who had been chasing them turned to face the new arrivals. Fur drifted through the air and blood splashed the ground.
The white wolf lifted his head. He turned to glance back at her, and Klya saw that his snout was stained red and bits of flesh and fur dangled from his teeth.
She swallowed hard, suppressing a gag.
Outside the canyon, a handful of wolves bolted, disappearing back into the trees. Two lay dead on the ground, and a third bled so badly from his leg that he couldn’t walk. Klya had no doubt that he would be dead soon, too.
A single wolf remained standing, fur a dark, dark red with flecks of white on the ears and tail. Eyes so deep a yellow that they shaded to bronze fixed on the white wolf.
“I have come, Grandfather, as promised.”
Female, Klya realized. The reddish wolf was female, her voice slightly higher and softer.
The white wolf — Grandfather — dipped his head, perhaps in acknowledgement, perhaps in thanks.
Did wolves say thank you?
The red wolf continued. “Those who stand with you are gathering on the southern slope, in the field of the bees. Ravens have been sent to call the foxes and the bears in their dens, and to warn the deer and the elk.”
“And the owls?”
“Content in their nests, too sleepy to be bothered.”
The white wolf made a sound of disgust. “Join the others in the field of the bees. Kill any who would stop you. With the dawn tomorrow, you will know if we have succeeded or failed.”
The red wolf dipped her head. “Yes, Grandfather.” For a brief moment, her bronze gaze settled on Klya. There was no fear those eyes; only burning strength and pride.
Klya straightened her shoulders, and forced her fingers to loosen around the staff and dagger. She slid the knife back into its sheath.
If this wolf, whose fur was so like her cloak, could be brave, than so could Klya.
The female wolf turned, pelt rippling, and ran for the trees.
Grandfather stepped onto the dead wolf sprawled in front of him. When he was clear of the narrow canyon, he turned around and immediately stepped back in again. He stopped when Klya failed to move.
She cleared her throat. “The wolves who attacked us?”
“They serve the Witch. If she awakens, they believe her power shall be theirs.” He shook his head violently. “Fools.”
“And … Grandfather? Is that how I should address you?”
The wolf’s lips tugged back, showing the tips of bloody fangs. “I am no kin to you, Red Cloak. If you would address me as something other than wolf, choose. And do so quickly.”
Klya nodded once. “Very well. I shall call you Suncup.”
The wolf’s ears bounced straight up.
Klya nodded again. “Your eyes, and your fur. You remind me of the bowl-like depressions that form in snow when it has been touched by the sun. Bright, but also shadowed. Cold, but warmed. Suncup.”
The wolf made a low, rumbly sound. Laughter? Annoyance? Klya wasn’t certain.
He shook his head, poking his snout further down the canyon. “We press on. You shall lead. The markings upon the walls left by the Red Cloaks of old show the way.”
Klya turned. Despite her resolution just moments earlier, fear lanced through her belly.
The canyon walls soared straight up. Only a few steps from the entrance, the sun faded, turning the yellow stone to brown. Cracks and striations in the stone gave it the appearance of a monstrous gullet.
“Our lore tells us that the Hag’s Teeth is a treacherous passage. The ground shifts. The walls move. Rocks fall from above and rise up from below.” She reached out with her staff to tap the ground. Finding it solid, she moved forward. “The signs left by the One Hundred show the safest path, but even that is dangerous.”
The wolf was silent behind her, but she could feel his weight and heat pushing at her, ever forward, deeper into the mountain.
Klya looked up, gaze darting from one wall to the other and then back down to the ground. Tap, step, tap, step, look up, down again, tap, step.
The canyon split, one branch breaking off to the right. Glancing up, Klya spotted the mark, just at the height of a Red Cloak astride a stallion. A circle, quartered by a vertical and horizontal line. A spiral had been carved into the upper left quarter, an x into the upper right.
Klya turned down the right passage.
With that turn, they lost the last of the direct sunlight. Only a haze of reflected light reached them from high above. Klya slowed, reaching into her pouch. Her hand brushed the smaller pouches of nuts and dried fruit, the loose frostberries, the flint and tinder, the little tin of salve, and the single precious apple. Finally, at the bottom of the bag, she found the bundle of honeygrass. Holding the bundle between her teeth, she continued slowly forward, and reached back into the bag for the flint.
Pausing, she cracked the flint against the wall of the canyon, leaning forward to catch the sparks.
The honeygrass smoked, then flamed.
Klya shoved the flint back into the pouch, puffed to expand the flame, and then lifted the bundle high into the air.
Tap, step, tap, step.
There was a flicker of light, a pale blue, further down the canyon. Then another flicker, this one a bright yellow.
Tap, step, tap, step, the wolf silent at her back.
More lights, smaller even than the fireflies that liked to congregate over the pond behind the library. Dozens and dozens of them, then dozens more. The mass of them swirled through the air, filling the canyon above them.
“The Little Stars Who Live in the Earth,” the wolf said, his voice low.
“Hunh. Is that what you call them?” Klya spoke low, as well. “We call them Fire Sprites. Shy creatures. They spend virtually their entire lives underground. Only a few things will bring them out into the open: a dragon, a forest fire — and the scent of burning honeygrass.” She twirled the bundle, leaving a smokey trail.
The sprites moved closer, following from above. They dipped down, leaving eddies in the smoke, falling and rising and falling again. Their light filled the canyon all around Klya and the wolf, illuminating the rocky floor and the walls, and the next carved symbol.
“We must take care, Suncup.” She ignored the wolf’s rhuff. “The walls move here.”
She flipped her staff, rapping once against the stone.
A dagger of rock erupted from the wall, spearing through the air just in front of her.
With a gasp, she stumbled back, hitting the wolf’s snout. He huffed and shook his head.
Grinding and scraping, the sharp stone slowly withdrew, sinking back into the canyon wall.
Klya licked her lips, the arm that held up the bundle of honeygrass shaking..
Their progress slowed even further. Tap the ground, tap the right wall, tap the left wall, look for a symbol, take a step. Tap, tap, tap, pause, step. Tap, tap, tap, pause, step.
Sweat ran down the inside of her sleeve, down the back of her neck. Her legs started to shake, too.
Another spear of rock, this one just missing her belly. Klya bit her lip so hard that it bled. The sting made her eyes water.
When the rock withdrew, they continued forward.
And forward. And forward.
More daggers of stone. One ripped her cloak, another just missed her knees.
At last, at last, a symbol appeared, marking the passage ahead as safe.
Klya dropped her arms, a sob of relief crawling up her throat. The fire sprites dropped down around them, dipping and diving through the smoke.
“Why do you stop, Red Cloak? We must press on.”
Before the Witch awakened.
The Hundred had not stopped. Though they were only fifty when they emerged on the far side, they had not abandoned their duty.
Nodding, Klya pushed herself upright and raised her arm again and continued forward, deeper into the mountain.
[End Part Two. Continue to Part Three.]