Winter Rain, part 42

It’s a scent trail only, and barely that—at least a couple of weeks old, maybe more. But every time I think I’ve lost the trail, I find another marker, still potent, after all this time.

Brennan follows behind, true to his word. Fucker. If ever he was going to challenge my authority, this would be the time. But I guess it’s like he said—that’s my bit.

With each step forward, my uneasiness grows. How can this intrusion possibly go unpunished? Especially when it’s so clearly marked? I start to lay my feet down more heavily, just in case.

I’d rather not surprise anybody.

The trail leads down into a wide gully, so choked with tall grasses and mullein, that it must be utterly invisible from above. The ground closes in around us as we descend, and the wind drops, or, at least, whistles softly past us, overhead. The herby scent in the air grows much stronger, but, then, so does the scent of the trail. We thread our way through.

As we climb out, the trail grows suddenly fresh, and sharply intense. I freeze, every hair on my back instantly upright at the story it tells—of a vicious, gleeful hunter—strong and huge.

Someone who will not welcome us as friends.

Brennan bumps up against my flank and stops, then leans down to take a sniff for himself. He’s nearly two stone bigger than me, but he still backs off from the marker. I hear his tail flick nervously at the weeds behind him.

I look back. Our eyes meet—mine tense, his apprehensive, but steady. His tail gives away more.

If these people are so reclusive, we could probably just go back to the car, and head straight through. They’d never know we passed through their territory. We could just drive until we were clear.

But that would be a monstrous slight. Maybe even an act of war. And we’d have to run the same risk through every territory until Carrigan’s, because nobody would be vouching for us.

He flicks his tail again, but shows no sign of leaving.

I nod and turn back to the path, take a deep breath, and set out again. Brennan’s footsteps resume, behind.

The trail leads off to the left, along the bottom of a small rise, becoming more solid—more trodden—in short order. The scent markers grow less frequent, but also more intense. I sniff at one that is no more than a day old—sharp and pungent, full of all sorts of little details that had aged out of the earlier ones. They needle at me with a thousand tiny daggers of warning, but I push on. We’re invited, I tell myself, though that’s only a half-truth.

We round a corner into a wall of earth. I leap up and everything comes clear. Across a small flat area, a house is built into the side of a hill. A heavy wooden door hangs in a wall of rough-sawn timber, and leaded glass. The scents of fur and old meat hang in the air, mixed with the scent of burning peat, all hidden from us earlier by an unhelpful wind.

Brennan leaps up beside me, almost silently.

I glance at him and take a step forward. Then another.

A loud bark startles me from behind, above, on a rise. I spin to look as nearly a dozen Faolan-sized wolves emerge from nowhere around us.

To a one, fangs drip saliva and malice onto the ground.