Wind blew through Lan’s hair, mussing it like a woman’s fingers. He clicked his tongue in irritation and scooted along the tree branch, closer to the trunk. There, the leaves grew thick enough to block the persistent breezes of spring.
He reached back for his sword. It would be a while longer before he could act. But the simple act of touching the pommel acted as reassurance.
It had been nearly an hour. Lan was not accustomed to waiting for anything. He was similarly unused to the peculiar itching of a week’s journeying with no opportunities to bathe.
Scratching the small of his back through his tunic, he promised himself that he would find an inn. After he had his quarry.
Below him, the high grass swayed. His ears pricked up at the sound of that same grass, further afield, crunching. Animals would have been avoiding the area. As natural as Lan’s scent was steadily becoming, he was not quite one with the forest.
He let go his sword to better maintain his grip on the tree. More footsteps crushed the grass, snapping some stalks and merely bending others.
All it would take was one little, deadly leap. A flash of steel through the man’s neck.
But that wasn’t why Lan was there.
A tow-headed man walked confidently past the tree. His clothing was rich, but gaudy. It marked him as a man who wanted to show his wealth, but could only perceive the maths of a purchase. Numbers beat sense, and numbers dictated bright reds and purples.
Lan wet his lips. He was only there to listen, but his mouth felt dry all the same. This man matched the description that the mayor had given of the one called Fetlock. His was the face for a suspected group of con artists.
After a week of investigation, Lan had managed to uncover the meeting place where Fetlock met with the group’s bagman. This meeting would be enough evidence either to bring in Fetlock to the Madis Watch. To prove that he was more than just an unlucky actor forced to work for thieves.
It was difficult to see why anyone would believe a story of ill luck from such a fat, brightly attired man.
He rocked on his heels and whistled while he waited. Like a little boy with nothing to do. Lan squinted at Fetlock’s back. Suspicion and unease began to settle into his stomach.
He drew a knife from his belt. It was a small throwing knife, from a set gifted from his little brother. It would be difficult to kill Fetlock with one of the knives, but it would incapacitate him.
As he raised his arm back to throw the knife, Lan saw Fetlock turn. Light glinted off of his hand as he threw a sharp projectile of his own.
Lan kicked his feet out from under him and straightened, allowing his body to flop back. He wrapped his legs around the tree while the rest of him swung downwards. As his head dropped, he saw the spinning metal disc cut through the foliage.
His drop became a complete spin, flipping him through the air as he released his legs’ grip on the branch.
But as he landed, he saw another flash. Rather, a blur–dark red, the size of a very large dog.
The blur slammed into Fetlock, so quickly that the man did not have time to exchange his triumphant grin for a dismayed look of horror.
Sword already drawn, Lan stood rooted to the ground. As the blur had collided with Fetlock, it had revealed itself to be a great red fox. It tore into the fat man’s flesh, shaking and pulling.
Shock seemed to grip Lan’s ankles as though a pair of hands had risen from the ground to hold him. He crouched into a fighting stance, eyes on the beast.
Fetlock had already ceased to move. His arm waggled limply as the red fox, his fingers held in its teeth, shook him.
Two of his fingers came loose with a sound that made Lan wince. He backed away, knees trembling.
The fox stalked up to him. Somehow, it seemed to shrink as it came closer. By the time it had come without an arm’s reach, it was nearly as small as a house cat.
It dropped the fingers at Lan’s feet, then sat up. Its tail twitched slightly as it watched him.
He picked up the fingers, quickly, careful not to come too close to the fox. It blinked at him, cocking its head to one side. There was no blood on its coat or mouth.
As Lan looked away from the fox and down at the two fingers lying in his palm, a blue spark passed through them. Little lightning. The sign of a witch. Only a short lifetime of training kept him from yelping at the sharp prickling that passed through his own skin.
When it had stopped, half a handful of small twigs lay in his hand. They were burnt black and smoking, as though he’d just pulled them from a fire. But they felt cold as stone under shade.
Lan dropped them on the ground and stood up, hoping to intimidate the fox with his height. “Just what’s–”
The fox was already gone.