When the mountain fell out under them, the only one of the three who didn’t fall was the Gévaudan hound. She bounded up to the next stable place. Saoirse saw that the beast would have taken Toiréasa with her, if Toiréasa’s cloak could have withstood the canine’s teeth.
Maybe it meant she was in a better position than Saoirse though, who fell straight down. The rocks and dirt scraped against her and she knew if she grabbed with a finger she would break any of them. She slowed herself down with her boots on one side and her shoulder on the other.
Finally she slowed. It wasn’t that bad, once Saoirse had the ability to look over her situation. She could climb right back up, once she caught her breath.
Toiréasa called down to her and Saoirse toyed with the idea of pretending this was it. The corner of her mouth twitched.
She opened her mouth.
“Why haven’t you ever tried to kiss me?”
Perhaps she should have been embarrassed to ask such a thing. She could imagine her father’s reaction to such a thing. So forward! Not that Toiréasa had ever given much thought to propriety, not in a long time. Yet Saoirse had been so forward in everything else. She had been the one to approach Toiréasa first. The woman had tried nothing. Not a kiss, not any other sweet romantic gesture.
Toiréasa didn’t want the other sweet, romantic gestures. That wasn’t important to her. Not that she’d turn them away. However, considering what her other suitors had wanted, it was important to her to know Saoirse’s thoughts on the matter.
There were those teeth, showing in that smile. “Is that a request?”
Toiréasa looked her companion over, before absently reaching for the Gévaudan hound at her feet. Her boot rubbed against the fur of the beast’s side. The bitch continued to sleep. “It’s a question.”
Saoirse shrugged. “I’m in no rush. I’m going to be the only one and I’m going to have all of them. When that starts is of no consequence.”
“Still very certain, aren’t you.”
“Tell me I’m wrong.”
She couldn’t, because she couldn’t imagine it being anyone else but Saoirse now. “Your patience might not be rewarded.”
Saoirse grabbed her by the shoulders, holding her where she stood. Those lips were on hers, that tongue meeting hers, those teeth somehow not ripping her to shreds.
When they parted, Saoirse looked as smug as she ever did. “I think it was.”
It was. Toiréasa couldn’t complain about that. She returned that smile with one of her own. “Who won what now?”
Saoirse was already soaked. The torrent coming down past them as they climbed the cliff made everything wet. It had made her more cold than this weather really should have allowed for. And a bit more distracted.
The waterfall covered their tracks, even as it made their journey vertically more and more difficult. The beast that followed them wouldn’t be able to make it the same way. If it wanted them, it would have to find another way. Saoirse had no doubt it would. However, by then they would be in control of the situation.
She heard Toiréasa swear. Saoirse couldn’t help but grin, pulling herself up with the only sort of grip that could hold onto the stones, slick with water, worn by the continuous splatter.
“What? Need a break?” she called down to her partner.
Toiréasa’s retort was full of fire. “If you slow down here, I’ll break your neck myself.”
Saoirse chuckled. Shoving the thoughts of cold aside, replacing them with Toiréasa’s fire, she kept climbing.
Saoirse watched the minhocão move, fast enough despite its size, but not as fast as the first one they had taken down.
“Easy.” She rose to her feet in one fluid motion.
“You always say they’re easy.”
Saoirse had a wide grin on her face, an expression that occasionally matched the expression of the Gévaudan beast which followed Toiréasa – blood thirsty and eager. Teeth, lots of teeth.
“What could beat us?”
Slowly, Toiréasa’s smile matched the other two.
The minhocão was a giant, black, serpentine creature with massive jaws. Pushing up from the earth below, it snapped in the air with its sightless head.
Toiréasa tapped her fingers against her belt. She stood, looking down at the forest with little concern for the humongous problem facing them. “What do you ken? They actually drove it out.”
While Toiréasa appeared lax, she still looked much more prepared for a fight than Saoirse, who sat perched on a boulder with knees up to her ears as she stared down at the carpet of forest below. “Remember the first minhocão? That was a trial, I reckon. Not like this one.”
Toiréasa rolled her eyes. “Like I could forget. That muppet wouldn’t have been dragged out so easy.”
She wanted to get moving, Saoirse could tell. Toiréasa had always been impulsive like that. That was why Saoirse was in charge.
Toiréasa led a giant man-eating hound, but Saoirse was in charge. Step one, completed.
She fed the beast raw meat, because as far as Toiréasa was concerned, the Gévaudan hound was like a dog. At least, in some ways. There were few similarities she would actually make, but when it came to parts of the care of the hound, she treated the bitch like any other dog.
“Why didn’t you name her?” Saoirse asked her, watching the beast tear into the food with a look of disinterest. Saoirse was the only one Toiréasa had known to show no fear around the canine. Simply caution.
Toiréasa shrugged. “I don’t know. She comes when I whistle. If she didn’t, that’d be fine. I’m not sure why she follows me.”
Saoirse smirked. “Good taste?”
They watched the beast lick all of the juices from the ground and break through the rest of the bone with those teeth.
If she injured Saoirse then there would be one less hunter to bring in food at this critical juncture. That didn’t make Toiréasa hesitate. If she was better, than that would be her job.
Her feint was read. Saoirse followed up with her own, which didn’t fool Toiréasa for a second. They continued their exchange of feints and parries for thirty seconds before they were both satisfied.
“Be back by nightfall with as many kerit as you can carry,” Toiréasa proclaimed. “I will have brought more.”
There was something about Saoirse’s smirk, the hint of teeth there, that caused a new rush of energy inside Toiréasa not caused by their bout.
“I’d like to see you try.”
Toiréasa signaled for the beast to stay. The Gévaudan wasn’t happy about that, but left her to her own devices. As one, both women turned to prepare.
“This is boring!”
Toiréasa would have thrown her blade aside, but her black anger wasn’t directed at the weapon. Simply at everyone else’s. She glared at her father, who had to go pick his up. He hadn’t thrown his aside. She’d disarmed him.
Again. He hadn’t been protecting his eyes when she jabbed them.
“Give me a challenge!” she barked, much like the beast she had trained who watched the proceedings. The Gévaudan beast didn’t even move, though watched her intently with her small ears which were directed in Toiréasa’s direction. “Or I’ll go kill more kerit!”
Before he could speak, someone else did. Toiréasa wasn’t surprised about the witnesses. Even when her father wasn’t instructing others, people couldn’t seem able to resist watching. If it was less for him now and more for her, well, that wouldn’t surprise her either.
Especially when what was spoken was for her. “Kerit? Easy pickings. Try me on for size.”
Saoirse vaulted the fence, drawing her own sword. Toiréasa didn’t even care to respond. Shifting her hold, she went at Saoirse with every intent to win.
For a moment, everything was quiet. Then a tooth dropped from the beast’s mouth. It landed for a moment on Toiréasa’s cheek, then slid off and into the icy ground. She saw where it came from and the larger tooth underneath that had pushed it out.
Just a pup? She considered, kneeing the bottom of it’s jaw. With another snarl, those teeth went to close down on Toiréasa. Perhaps it was by luck that she had thrust her sword forward, but the teeth bit down on the blade and not her arm. The beast retreated at that, though taking Toiréasa’s weapon with. Toiréasa struggled to her feet.
Slowly, she backed away until the beast was out of sight. As much as she wanted to fight, she would be defeated. As much as she wanted to run, the beast would be faster.
When Toiréasa got home, she had to get a new blade.
Toiréasa was made of fire.
That was what her father had always said. It was what kept her going in the increasing chill of what should have been summer. What kept her going when the food came scarce. What kept her going when she was face to face with a beast, the likes of which she had never seen before.
It was a hound of some sort. A wolf, maybe. Too large for either of those, Toiréasa reckoned. Red fur, except for the black of its back, made it obvious against the backdrop of snow. Enormous teeth that fit into a similarly enormous mouth. Another odd beast, like the many others which now had accompanied the strange weather shifts.
The beast would eat her. Toiréasa wouldn’t make it easy. She screamed, a throat-tearing sound as she readied her practice blade. The canine’s wide chest looked ready to deflect any strike, but Toiréasa didn’t care. She was ready to strike with what limited abilities she had.
With a few bounds, it was upon her. Toiréasa yelled again and put her sword out, though she had already fallen on her back in the white cold, those teeth snarling above her. She brought a foot up and kicked the creature in the stomach. The beast didn’t budge, merely roaring in Toiréasa’s face.
Toiréasa roared back.