“Are we really landing there?” Trent asked, skepticism in his voice as he stared at the rocky shore in the distance.
The Northern Reaches weren’t much to look at. What wasn’t covered in snow was grey and rocky. There was little to no vegetation. Just dirt and rock and ice. Hardly an inviting place to make port.
“I’d like to say it’s better than it looks,” Riply said, resting his forearms on the railing beside Trent. “But I’d be lying. The land doesn’t get better the further inland you go. Just more of the endless same.”
Jost listened to the back and forth with half an ear. Most of his attention was on the small cluster of crew near the foredeck. While the men had been relieved to leave the far north seas, they weren’t happy with the lack of profit. They were in this life for the spoils and adventure. Without either, the mood had gotten increasingly dangerous.
None seemed to enjoy the thought of hunting one of the great snow cats that resided on this stretch of isolated land. Jost found it interesting that Roger hadn’t added his voice to the growing faction expressing dissatisfaction, instead choosing to stay in the background watching. Waiting like a giant spider until conditions became favorable and its prey waltzed closer and closer to the web it was spinning.
Jost could see why Darren had expressed concern over Roger’s loyalty. The man was tricky. Too bad Jost was an old sea dog used to eating deception and subterfuge for breakfast.
Jost had a feeling the crew was going to be a bit thin heading home. How much thinner was still up for debate.
He didn’t relish spilling blood, but he wouldn’t let them take what was his either. If it came down to it, he’d kill every last one of the bastards and sail the ship out of here by himself. He doubted it would come to that though. He had too many loyal men still on the crew.
“Make sure you stick close to Trent,” Jost murmured to Riply. The boy was young, no more than fourteen, and he hadn’t been with them long. Jost had picked him up in some no name town. His mother had been desperate for help and Jost had taken to the boy. He’d given him a job as a cabin boy. It was a simple enough thing and would give him a start in cultivating skills for the future, while allowing allow the boy to send money home to help his mother feed the rest of her children.
Jost didn’t want him getting caught in the middle if things went bad. Riply had been with Jost for a long time. He was loyal and would keep the boy out of harm’s way if possible.
Riply looked in the direction of the knot of men clustered not far from them, his eyes knowing and watchful. He gave Jost a nod acknowledging the order.
Jost stepped back, his hands clasped behind his back as the men prepared the ship for anchor. A small crew would stay aboard while the rest went ashore. Since this wasn’t their standard port with a dock, they would have to anchor in the inlet they’d found and then row the long boats to shore.
Jost had decided the landing party would make camp a few miles inland. It would protect them from the freezing wind blowing off the water and give them a chance to look around the area. See if there was anyone else up here hunting.
It was unlikely there would be snow cats this close to the ocean. They tended to prefer the interior where hunting was plentiful and the wind wasn’t as rough.
He wanted to find an easily defensible spot by nightfall. Hunting snow cats was dangerous business. It was best to be careful or they’d turn the tables on you pretty quick. They were canny hunters and had been known to track those that hunted them back to camp before attacking.
The beast was as big as a horse, with paws the size of dinner plates. Jost’s head would only come up to the snow cat’s shoulders. It had two oversize fangs and a bite that could create enough pressure to crush a man’s skull. It was white as the snow and blended into the landscape. Few saw one coming until it struck.
“Anything I should know?” Darren asked.
“Just keep your eye out for anything that doesn’t belong.”
Darren’s eyes sharpened. “You think our friends might be here.”
“If you were operating out of this area, wouldn’t you want a solid base to work from?” Jost asked.
Darren’s face turned thoughtful. He stared at the men lowering the long boats and preparing for their departure.
“I sure wish I was going with you. There’s a strange feeling in the air.”
“I need someone loyal to me to remain with the ship.”
Darren’s sigh was heavy.
“You know what to do?” Jost asked.
“Yes, I’ve already got the contingencies in place if it comes down to it.”
“Good.” Jost didn’t say anything else.
“Since I’m staying here, do me a favor and keep Danny close to you. I don’t like the idea of you going out there with no one you trust at your back.”
“Aren’t you turning into the mother hen?” Jost murmured.
Darren’s smile was a brief flash of teeth. There and gone between one blink and the next. It was a rare sight. Jost’s first mate was a taciturn fellow, not given to large displays of emotions.
Jost clapped Darren on the back. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“I’m counting on it. No way do I want to be left on my own with these slatterns for the duration of the voyage home.”
Jost snorted. They both knew Darren was perfectly capable of captaining this ship and this crew should Jost not return. It’s why Jost trusted him as his first mate. It’s why Jost chose him for that position. Darren had been a ship captain once upon a time. It meant he could step in when Jost’s second job for the empire called him away from his duties on the ship for long periods of time.
Jost made his way to one of the long boats, climbing down the rope ladder on the side of the ship to the boat bobbing in the waves. Danny, Riply and Trent and two others waited on him. In addition to the men, the boat was filled with supplies for their brief stay on land.
“Captain,” one of the men said in greeting.
The man gave a sharp nod before giving the ship a firm push to get the long boat to drift free. The others took his lead and picked up their oars, dipping them into the water as they rowed toward shore. The waves buffeted the small vessel, making it a bumpy ride. The spray was like chips of ice against his skin, sapping any heat from him.
The boat bumped against the rocky shore and the men, including Jost, hopped out to help drag it up onto the beach. Every time a wave hit a new part of him got soaked, chilling him further.
It didn’t take them long to get the long boat settled out of the water where it wasn’t in danger of floating away. Since Jost had been in the last boat heading for shore, they didn’t have to wait for others to arrive after they beached the little vessel.
Jost grabbed his bag and gear for the trek inland. It was a good thing they weren’t camping on the beach. Beyond the fact that the wind from the ocean bit through their clothes as if they were wearing the thinnest of materials, a fire from here would be seen for miles out to sea. If by some chance his original quarry was lurking anywhere in the vicinity, he didn’t want to scare them off or alert them to their presence. It was a long shot, but he’d gotten lucky on worse odds before.
“The men should be ready soon, Captain,” Danny reported.
In Darren’s absence, Danny was second-in-command. It was a fact that chaffed some others in the crew as Danny acted as quartermaster in his normal duties. Jost’s ship wasn’t known for following the normal hierarchy as on other ships. That sometimes created jealousies when some in the crew thought they should be closer to the top of the chain in command.
For Jost, he trusted Danny which was why he was third-in-command. Simple as that. Any malcontents could shut their trap or be thrown overboard.
“Good. I want to be off this beach in the next hour.”
Danny turned to the men, “You heard him. Fall in. Form two lines. No one wanders off. Anybody who falls behind has latrine duty when we stop.”
There was a chorus of groans. No one wanted to dig the latrine in frozen ground like this. It would be back breaking work that would probably take a good bit of time.
Jost took his place at the front of the line. He would lead and it would be on his say so that they stopped for the night.
Finding a way off the beach was going to be tough as it backed into a series of cliffs and rocky inclines. Jost studied the terrain in front of him, not liking what he saw.
They could climb the cliffs, but they’d have to come back down the same way. He’d like to avoid that if possible. Lugging a snow cat or being chased by enemies was no way to navigate such dangerous terrain. The last thing he wanted to do was lose half the crew on the descent to the beach.
A flutter on one of the cliffs caught his eye. It was a small movement. Easily missed unless one was staring right at the spot where it occurred.
He stared at the spot for a long moment, waiting for whatever was up there to move again. It could be a bird or a nest. There wasn’t much living up here to attribute the movement to. No vegetation and few animals. He didn’t think the spot was big enough for a snow cat but he wasn’t willing to rule anything out.
His wait was in vain. Nothing moved while he watched.
“Captain, the men are ready,” Danny said.
Jost stared up at the spot for another long moment. Nothing. It could have been a figment of his imagination. Either way, they needed to be off this beach come night fall and he couldn’t afford to waste time.
“Understood. Let’s get moving then.”
Jost set out for the opposite end of the beach from where he saw the movement. One of his men had said he thought he saw a small path up into the cliffs from there. It was as good a direction as any to start.
* * *
It took several hours to make it far enough inland for Jost to be satisfied with their progress. Accustomed to ship life, the men didn’t move fast on land. They were strong, but not used to walking the long distances up hills and down into ravines. They were starting to show their exhaustion.
He was tempted to push on. Exhausted men didn’t usually try to mutiny. Then again, exhausted men made stupid mistakes and got themselves killed.
There were times when Jost missed not having to take into consideration every permutation of any given situation. Life had been simpler then. There was less worry and less excitement. These days he could barely remember a time when he hadn’t considered every possible outcome of every action.
“We’ll stop here for the night,” Jost told Danny. He didn’t really care about the men. Most of them, with the exception of those he trusted, were disposable. He was more interested in the fact that the hills and cliffs would shield the light from any fire.
Danny was quick to call the men to a halt, splitting them up into work teams to prepare camp. They moved with the coordination of a group who had worked together many times for the same purpose. Camp would be up and running within an hour or two. Plenty of time to prepare for the coming night.
Jost observed the hills around them as the others moved to get the area ready for night. All day he’d felt like he was being watched. Like something or someone was following them. It was an itch on the back of his neck that wouldn’t go away.
He’d learned the hard way to pay attention to his gut. It had warned him of many a dangerous situation, and right now it was saying that there was something out there. Whether that something was dangerous or simply curious was a question that remained to be answered.
The men felt it too. They’d gotten quiet and watchful as the afternoon deepened. The idle chit chat had fallen off and more than one man had kept a hand in easy reach of a weapon as they walked, eyeing the land around them with a deepening suspicion.
He’d bet anything that feeling wasn’t just a superstition derived from being in the Northern Reaches, a place said to be haunted by the battles of their ancestors. It was an old land, one not settled by any of the three peoples of this world.
Many said that Northern Reaches was where the war between the Creators, a race who had created many of the peoples in this world and used them as slaves, and the Saviors, those who had fought against them to free the three peoples, began and ended.
It was said that some of the Creators’ monsters still resided here, protecting their masters’ interests. It was why only traders looking to make their name by killing or trapping a great snow cat came up here. Every once in a while a scholar from one of the Academies ventured near looking to uncover the secrets of those long dead. Most of the scholars never came home and those that did told wild stories that defied belief.
There was an eerie feeling to the Northern Reaches—as if it was waiting for something. Jost could see how the stories of this place began. This wasn’t a place that welcomed strangers.
Danny came to stand beside him. “We’re being watched.”
Jost grunted. Yes, they were. He just had to decide how they would respond.
“I’ll have the men set up watches through the night. You think we’re in danger?”
“When aren’t we in danger?” Jost asked, turning away from observing their surroundings. He watched the men as they set up small tents and prepared a fire pit.
“You think it’s our friends or maybe one of the snow cats? They’ve been known to stalk their prey for days before attacking.”
Jost frowned, his forehead wrinkling in thought. “I doubt it’s either. Our friends aren’t this good at hiding their tracks and it doesn’t look like a snow cat.”
Danny cocked his head at Jost, his face questioning. “You’ve seen it?”
Jost nodded. “Briefly. A shadow more than anything. It’s hard to tell, but I’m willing to bet it has a human form.”
They’d both had encounters with the creators’ monsters in the past. None had been pleasant and all had resulted in the monsters’ death.
“Only one way to tell.”
Danny’s grin had an edge of anticipation to it. “A trap.”
Jost grunted in assent.
Jost looked up at the darkening sky. They were fast losing the sun.
“It’ll have to be. There’s not enough light left to set a good trap.”
Danny nodded in agreement. “I’ll pull a couple of men together for tomorrow. I’d better make it only the old guard.”
The old guard referred to those of Jost’s crew who weren’t replaced every few years. Most of the old guard knew Jost’s real identity and purpose as a privateer for the Aurelian Empire. They knew he got many of his missions directly from the emperor or his closest advisors.
For Danny to decide only on their use meant there was more upheaval and mutterings in the crew than Jost had suspected.
“Make it so. Have the ones not part of the trap start planning their hunt.” Jost went back to watching their surroundings. Danny, sensing the dismissal, headed back to the others to give out the new orders.
Giving up on seeing anything out there, Jost turned back to camp, taking note of who was preparing for the night and who was standing around talking.
Roger stood apart from the rest, watching Jost. He was a tall man, though not as tall as Danny, and had a sour looking face. His hair line was receding, though the hair at the back of his head was long and bound into a greasy ponytail.
Jost gave Roger a friendly nod before heading to his pack. Roger returned the nod and lifted one hand in acknowledgment. Jost felt a modicum of respect for the man’s acting skills. If he hadn’t been at this for so long he might have fallen for the other man’s seeming good will.
Jost picked through his belongings, readying his spot for sleep. They were traveling light on this trip. There would be no tents or shelter built to shield them from the elements. He wanted to be able to pick up and move at a moment’s notice.
The air snapped at the skin on his face and hands, letting him know they were in for a cold night. The temperature would drop by as much as twenty degrees once the sun went down. He’d faced worse conditions but some in his crew had not. Maybe the temperature would keep them from getting up to something during the night. One could only hope.