Keeva found the dead man first. Melara could tell she’d picked up the scent by the way she extended her neck, suddenly keen on the trampled path of snow they were following.
“Show me,” Melara said, and the leopard bounded ahead.
Melara followed more slowly, less sure-footed in the deep snow than her silent companion. When she caught up, Keeva was digging in a snow drift. Melara’s heart sank. She’d been hoping whoever they’d been following had made it to safety, but she should have guessed from the blood spattered along the trail that things had ended poorly.
The man Keeva pulled from the snow was thin, almost emaciated, and shredded half to bits—no doubt mauled by that wolf pack they’d found dead not long ago. None of these things gave her pause, but as the man’s face came into view she sprang back. One hand flew to the hilt of her knife. Before her lay a man with obsidian skin and hair as white as the snow he lay in. A deeplander.
Melara’s eyes swept the surrounding hills, heart pounding. The sparsely wooded landscape was still. Nothing moved but the wind.
“Guard,” Melara said to Keeva. The snow leopard yawned.
“I don’t care if you don’t smell anyone, there’s no such thing as a lone deeplander.”
Keeva gave her a supremely unimpressed look and settled on her haunches, tawny eyes scanning the horizon.
Despite Keeva’s calm, Melara couldn’t shake the knot of tension in her gut as she knelt to examine the deeplander’s body. Dried blood stained his left side and right leg. The long, curved knives on his belt were of exceptional quality and spoke to the fate of the dead wolves. Yet his once-fine travel leathers had seen far too much wear even before the wolves’ claws and teeth. Finely made gear, but old and unmended. And far, far too thin for winter in the Vale. The thought of him traveling like this all the way from the nearest Deephollow entrance was laughable.
Melara looked up to scan the area once more, the knot in her gut coiling tighter. If there was an unknown Deephollow entrance nearby, this man could be a scout, perhaps even the prelude to an invasion.
Intending to roll him over and check his pockets for clues, Melara took hold of his shoulder.
With a gasp of breath, the man’s eyes flew open, shockingly red against his monochrome features. Melara jerked back, her belt knife at his throat in a flash of motion. The deeplander’s eyes flickered closed once more.
The hand that held the knife trembled. Now that she was looking, Melara could see the faint rise and fall of the man’s chest. Damnation. What did one do with a living deeplander? She sent a worried look to Keeva as though the snow leopard might have answers.
The great cat seemed unconcerned, choosing to wash her paw instead of offering any help.
Melara glanced up at the darkening sky, listening to the howl of the wind. The blizzard would hit soon. No time to get back to Westerly-by-the-Sea. She’d have to work with her original plan of staying in the old lodge. And as for the deeplander…
Melara bit her lip. If there was an entrance to Deephollow nearby, someone would have to be told. Perhaps this man could be coerced into revealing it.
Mind made up, she sheathed her knife and unslung her pack. She’d need to stop the bleeding and keep him from freezing to death if he was going to be telling anyone anything.
Melara began to dig through her pack. She’d need bandages, blankets, and...and maybe some rope. She glanced at the deeplander again. Yes, some rope would make her feel better.
Even before opening his eyes, Solaern was confused. His fingers and toes still pulsed with pain but his breath no longer stabbed his chest like a frozen knife. He was somewhere warm, somewhere quiet. Shouldn’t he be dead?
He cracked one eye open, and a rush of mixed emotions overcame him when he found a ceiling overhead. Back in the caverns, somehow, out of the biting cold and burning sun…
But no, that wasn’t stone above him. He was staring up at wooden beams.
He tried to sit up. A burst of pain flared across his chest and left arm where the wolves had scored him. He gasped out loud and tried to press a hand against the injury. His breath faltered as he noticed his bound wounds—and his bound hands.
The cold was back, this time in his veins. Someone had found him. It didn’t matter who; the end result would be the same whether his people or surfacers. Bound, caged like an animal, tortured, executed…
He forced himself to sit, gritting his teeth against the pain. His frantic eyes took in the scene.
The room was small, hardly larger than the hovel he’d once called home. He was lying on a bed of furs, wrapped in layers of blankets. On the far end of the room was the closed door, shuddering against a howling wind. Between him and escape, however, was a woman crouched in front of a crackling fireplace. Green eyes watched him intently out of a tawny face framed by dark hair. A surfacer.
Solaern cast about for anything nearby he could use as a weapon, but came up short. The woman had removed his knives along with most of his clothes. His gaze snapped back to her as she rose from her place at the fire and approached. Gods, had surfacers always been so tall? Solaern’s eyes drifted to the exit, but he couldn’t be sure his right leg would hold after the bite he’d received, and the woman was sure to grab him if he tried to make it past.
She stopped a few feet away and looked down at him with a stony expression. He tried not to cringe back. “Vyr la phainon xur amunen?” she demanded.
Her tone was pitched in a question but Solaern was damned if he knew what she’d asked. Her words sounded vaguely Lurish, but definitely not what he’d been raised with. Some barbaric surface dialect, no doubt.
The woman dropped down beside him, brows swooping in like hawks. “Oye! Xur salanir?”
“I don’t speak your festering language, alright?”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Dianur. Larehan xur nan?” Her brow furrowed again and she muttered something equally unintelligible. She stood, and this time Solaern noticed a knife sheathed at her belt.
Acting on instinct, he threw out his bound hands and managed to snatch the weapon free. He was on his feet in another instant. The woman froze when she felt the blade at her throat. Those green eyes turned pale with fury.
Solaern’s pulse thudded in his ears as he shuffled sideways, forcing the woman to turn with him. His right leg screamed in pain with every step he took but he pressed on, pushing the woman bit by bit towards the exit. When he reached it, he held her at arm’s length, eyes still fixed on hers. She kept still, though she was trembling with rage.
Fumbling behind him, Solaern turned the handle of the door and pushed it open. Icy wind tore at his bare skin. Distantly, some part of him knew he was going to freeze to death. Still, better a quiet end out in the cold than whatever fate awaited him at the hands of surfacers.
He stepped back from the woman and turned to run.
He hadn’t made it more than a step when out of the swirling snow loomed the biggest leopard he’d ever seen. He barely had time to note its snow-crusted fur, its wide, glaring eyes, and the bloodied deer dangling from its enormous jaws when it sprang, knocking him flat on his back. The knife flew from his hand out into the snow. Baleful orange eyes held him transfixed as the beast’s maw descended.
“Na gan! Na gan, Kee’va!”
The woman’s shout seemed to have an effect. The leopard’s jaws halted with the points of its teeth just brushing Solaern’s exposed throat. The beast issued a low growl and backed off, leaving Solaern gasping for air.
He curled on his side, pressing his bound hands to his chest as he struggled to breathe. Dimly, he could hear the woman still speaking in her strange language. When at last Solaern struggled to his knees, he found the point of the knife beneath his chin.
“Vies nir kesh,” the surfacer snarled. She jerked her head towards the bed of furs. “Niren.”
Solaern thought it best not to resist. Painfully, he stood, and, still wheezing, limped back into the small shack. He could feel the leopard’s burning eyes tracking his every move. Only once Solaern had collapsed on the furs did the woman sheathe her blade. The leopard, meanwhile, fetched the deer carcass it had dropped and dragged it into the front of the room before abandoning it once more and moving to lie just across from Solaern.
After watching Solaern with narrowed eyes, the woman slammed the door shut and crossed over to the dead deer. She began to skin and clean it, glancing up every so often as if making sure Solaern was behaving himself. He was. The presence of the leopard had dashed any hopes of escape or a quick death. Even if he made it outside into what looked like a building blizzard, the beast would catch him and drag him back just as it had the deer. Instead, Solaern pulled the furs around himself and tried not to think about what would come next.
At some length, the woman finished her work with the deer and began cleaning up, burying the less savory pieces outside in the snow and laying out fully half the meat for the leopard. The beast took its time with the meal, seemingly finding joy in turning Solaern’s stomach. Even so, when the woman set the rest of the meat to cook over the fire he practically wilted at the scent. How long had it been, he wondered, since he last ate? Days, certainly, and even longer since he’d had a full meal. He’d grown accustomed to the twist of hunger during his time alone underground, but the smell of roasting meat called far too much attention to that empty pain. Was she doing it on purpose? Was this the beginning of his torment?
Melara decided a simple stew would be best. She was in the mood for something more than hardtack and venison.
She pulled a few provisions from her pack and got to work. Gradually, she became aware of the deeplander’s gaze on her. Glancing up, she saw his red eyes held a feverish intensity as he watched her. She looked down at the knife she was using to chop carrots, then back to him. Surely he wasn’t still thinking of escape? But no, she realized as she hung a pot over the fire, his gaze wasn’t on the knife, but the food. He wasn’t plotting, he was starving.
Melara didn’t quite know how to feel. He had seemed so threatening to her at first, but looking at him now, battered and hungry and huddled in the furs for warmth, he just seemed pitiable.
She dug through her pack and came up with an extra bowl. Filling it with stew and a fork, she approached the deeplander and set it in front of him. He fell on it immediately, devouring stew as if his life depended on it and scarcely pausing to chew. His bound hands made his motions clumsier still.
Melara huffed in disdain and returned to the fire to portion out her own stew, which she ate with far more dignity.
When the deeplander was done, he pushed the bowl and utensil away with a sigh. He caught her eye with a serious expression. “Tzarn.”
The sincerity of his tone surprised her. “You’re welcome,” she said. She leaned back against Keeva’s flank.
The great cat was contentedly chewing on deer bones and purring softly. Every now and then the deeplander’s eyes would drift over to Keeva just in time for the snow leopard to crack a bone open between her teeth, causing him to flinch.
Reaching a decision, Melara stood and crossed the tent. She knelt in front of the deeplander, who regarded her warily. She stared into his red eyes, searching for the malice so legendary to his kind. All she saw was unease.
He stiffened but didn’t move as Melara reached for his hands. She struggled with her own knotwork for a moment, then unwound the length of rope from around the deeplander’s wrists. He pulled away when the last of the rope slipped off, rubbing his wrists and staring at her with no small amount of confusion. “Naze?”
“Because you didn’t kill me,” Melara said. “You could have, when you grabbed my knife, but you didn’t.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I was angry then, but I suppose yours was a reasonable reaction to waking up in a strange place with your hands tied.”
Having understood nothing, the man continued to watch her with apprehension. Melara sighed and returned to sit next to Keeva.
“I’m Melara,” she said to fill the silence.
He looked up at her, but no comprehension crossed his face.
She pointed at herself. “Melara.”
“Mae-lah-ra,” he repeated carefully. He nodded and pointed to himself. “Solaern.”
For the first time, she thought she saw the ghost of a smile cross his face. He stifled what was either a laugh or a cough behind his hand and repeated himself. “Solaern.”
He made a so-so gesture with his hand. “Zakesh iir ma faerlan.”
Encouraged, Melara pointed at the snow leopard next to her. “Keeva.”
The deeplander—Solaern—said nothing at that, but drew the furs more tightly around himself.
Melara glanced between him and Keeva. “Oh, she’s really quite sweet...” She sighed. “Although for all you know, I’m telling you how much she enjoys eating deeplanders.”
Keeva helpfully cracked another bone.
The silence that fell over the tent felt a bit strained, but better than the mute hostility from before. Melara allowed herself to relax against Keeva’s warm sides. She alternated between tending the fire and staring at Solaern. Now that she knew his name, she could no longer think of him as just a deeplander, nor could she feel comfortable calling him her prisoner. What exactly he’d be after the blizzard let up remained to be seen. Still, with Keeva by her side she didn’t fear him.
Taking comfort in the deep purrs that rumbled at her back, Melara allowed her eyes to drift closed.
The fire was low when she woke, and for a moment she thought it was the cold that had roused her. Then she heard the low noise from across the room.
Melara opened her eyes on a strange scene. Solaern still lay on the bed of furs, but he’d kicked off the blankets and was both shivering and sweating in the cold night air. His eyes darted around the room, frantic and unseeing. He made the noise again, a strained, choked-off sob.
The man made no indication that he’d heard. Melara rose from her nest at Keeva’s side, ignoring the cat’s grumble of protest. Solaern flinched as her shadow fell over him.
“Szirnen,” he muttered. “Szirnen!” His hands began flailing over his arms and chest as if trying to brush off insects.
Melara knelt at Solaern’s side and pressed a hand to his forehead. She gasped at the scorching heat beneath her fingers.
“By the Undying, you’re burning up!” She snatched her hand back and hurried to where she’d left her pack. Tossing tools and provisions aside, she dug to the bottom of the bag until she found her med kit and the dusty bottle sealed with wax. She hurried back to Solaern.
He whimpered in pain as she pulled him into a sitting position. Struggling weakly, he clawed at her arms.
“Easy, now,” Melara said softly. She leaned him against her chest as she peeled off the bottle’s wax seal and uncorked it. The potent smell of herbs reassured her that it hadn’t gone bad. “You’re just fine. I need you to drink this, though, before your fever gets any worse.”
Though it was unlikely that Solaern understood any of her words, he seemed to react to her gentle tone. He stopped fighting and allowed himself to slump back against Melara. When she brought the bottle to his lips, he drank without protest.
Once he’d drained the contents, Melara set the bottle aside. Solaern shivered against her, so she laid him back down and covered him loosely with blankets. He shuddered, and as she pulled away he suddenly gripped her hand.
“Mzar kash iir las,” he said in a small voice. “Ninen.”
Melara couldn’t tell for certain whether or not he was truly seeing her with his wide red eyes. Still, it was plain enough what he was asking for. Her heart squeezed in her chest.
Cautiously, she pressed a hand to his forehead. He still felt far too hot. Solaern sighed, eyes closing, and leaned his head into her touch.
“You’re okay,” Melara told him. “You’re going to be just fine.” She brushed his pale hair out of his face and squeezed his hand.
She continued to sit with him, speaking soft words and making gentle gestures, as his fever came down and he slipped once more into a peaceful sleep.
When the dawn came, they faced it together.