Year of the Reaper

“Are you hurt?” he called up urgently.

“No! Are you? Where is that awful cat?”

“Dead. Your hand is bleeding.” Cas could see it from where he stood. If she had been bitten, the day would not end well for her.

“What?” She held up both hands for inspection. “It’s from the tree bark,” she explained. “Just scratches. It did not touch me. Have you seen my horse?”

Her question silenced him for a full five seconds. “My horse is by the road.”

“Oh. Excellent. Is she safe?”

Cas felt a little more charitable toward her, seeing her concern for his horse. “It wasn’t horse meat it had a taste for.”

The thief grimaced, understanding. Lynx normally fed on rabbit or duck. Sometimes fawn. But in the past year, animals had been tempted by the human corpses that lay unburied, or not buried deep enough. The results were that all sorts of beasts—dogs, pigs, goats, cats—were left with bloody eyes and foaming mouths. Animals that must be avoided when necessary, killed when possible, and always, always burned.

With her back against the trunk, the thief slid down onto the branch, legs stretched out before her. “I don’t know how I’m up here,” she confessed. “I’ve never climbed a tree before. Not even a tree stump.”

Fear could do that, Cas supposed. Have you racing across a clearing and up a tree like a squirrel, death nipping at your heels. “Can you climb back down?”

She gauged the distance from her branch to his boots. “No” was her definite response. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the trunk.

Cas pointed out what was obvious. “You can’t stay up there forever.”

“I’m aware.” Her eyes remained closed. “What do you propose?”

Huh. Cas considered. He could climb up the tree, but then what? He would not be able to climb down again, not without footholds, not with the thief hanging from his neck. Only one solution presented itself. Sighing, he held out his arms. “Jump,” he ordered.

Her eyes snapped open. She looked down at him, appalled. “You’re mad. I will not.”

“Fine.” Cas kept his arms out. His words were testy. They would not be in this predicament if she had not stolen his horse. “What do you propose?”

“A ladder . . .” She stopped, immediately realizing the absurdity of her request. They were far from any village, any farm, any ladder.

Cas let it pass. “Come on, then. Jump.”

She did not budge. “Why would you help me? I stole your horse.”

“Oh yes? I thought you borrowed her.”

Silence followed, accompanied by a sour glance.

Cas was beginning to feel like a fool, holding his arms out, talking to a tree. “Listen,” he reasoned, “if there was one lynx here, there might be others. You’re lucky its claws had fallen out. They’re usually excellent climbers.” He let her think about that one, adding, “I’ll count to five and then I’m off. And I’m taking my horse with me. One.”

His words had her bolting upright. “You’ll drop me,” she said with unflattering certainty.

“I will not. Two.”

A note of panic. “You’re not strong enough—”

“How kind. Three.”

“Wait, please!”


Cas would not call what happened next a jump. She merely scooted off the limb and allowed herself to fall. He caught her. The impact knocked the air from his lungs and sent him staggering backwards, where he tripped over his own feet . . . and dropped her.

Cas landed on his back with a pained grunt. The thief tumbled past to sprawl face-down in the grass. She groaned. Directly overhead, the lammergeier circled, closer than before. It was some time before anyone moved or spoke.

The thief pulled herself to her knees. Cas watched her pluck several blades of grass from her tongue. The royal shield had been embroidered onto her tunic. Black thread on blue, it depicted a snarling bull beside a pomegranate flower in full bloom. “Well,” she said, rising gingerly and rubbing her backside. “That is the first and last tree I’ll ever climb.” She smiled down at him, a dazzling smile full of relief and goodwill, and offered a hand to pull him up.

Cas did not smile back. Rolling to his feet with a grimace, he took her hand in his and turned it palm up so he could inspect the blood and scratches.

Her smile faded. “I told you, it didn’t bite me.”

“Good.” Cas had to be sure. He released her hand, far smaller than his, and reached for the other. This one, her left, was worse off. No bites, but more scratches, more blood, and one nasty-looking sliver embedded deep in her thumb.

Cas lifted his gaze, waited for her to do the same. Her skin was golden, a shade lighter than his, and her eyes were a deep brown, as dark as the innermost part of the woods. I’m dead and I can see it, Izaro had said. Yes, Cas could see it now too. “What is your name?”

“Lena. What is—gah!” A yelp silenced the rest. She watched him flick aside the sliver he had pulled from her thumb. A drop of blood bloomed in its place. She yanked her hand away, sucked on the wound, eventually offering a resentful “Thank you?”

His smile startled them both. He tucked it away beneath a frown and said, “We need to burn the cat.” Cas pointed to the lammergeier. The vulture had landed high up on a juniper, waiting patiently for them to depart before it began feasting. No good could come from eating something so rotten. The thief, Lena, spotted the bird and made a face. “I’ll do it.”

The lynx had died on the far side of the clearing. She ran past it into the copse and returned with her cap and saddlebag. From the latter, she retrieved stones to strike a spark. Within minutes, the lynx was burning, flame and smoke drifting toward the sun. They stayed well back and watched. She did not see what Cas did, for in the smoke there were human faces. Ten or so swirling about, their features indistinct, leaving behind the impression of wide, frightened eyes and gaping mouths before dispersing into the wind. Lena might have been one of them, if the day had turned out differently. He glanced at her and found her studying him with a frown.

“Your face just lost all its color,” she noted. “Do you feel faint? Here, lean on my arm—”

Cas walked away to fetch the mare. He could hear Lena hurrying to catch up.

She offered his back, “I’m very sorry about your horse.”

“Not enough to return her.” Cas spoke without turning or stopping.

A pause. “Yes, well . . .”

Cas halted. When she drew up beside him, he said, “How do you know I didn’t have urgent business of my own? Hm? Visiting my sick grandmother, maybe, before it’s too late?”

She blanched. “Is that where you’re going? To see your dying grandmother?”

“No.” Cas had never known his grandmothers. They had died before his birth. But she did not know that. He continued on.

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