Get an uncut first look at Windswept, Gryphon Riders Book Two, below!
“This one’s dead too.”
Eva looked at Sigrid who knelt beside another one of the bodies, a look of anger and vengeance stitched into her already stern face. Lying on the ground beside her, the old man lay still, late season flies buzzing around the dried blood on the back of his head. It was mid-autumn and the sun still shone bright on Rhylance’s eastern frontier. A cloying smell of death filled the air from the heat.
Eva scanned the remains of the small outpost through the haze of dust and smoke. Charred, half-burned shacks were the only remnants of a once thriving trading village, the shells of its occupants lying wherever the arrows and spears felled them. Men and older boys made up most of the dead, along with one or two old women. Eva guessed the children and younger women had all been carried off as slaves if Eva had to guess.
“Juarag?” she asked Sigrid, twisting her hand around the hilt of her sheathed sword.
The dark-haired girl snorted. “What else? Fourth one this month. I don’t understand how those stinking cat people are hiding from our patrols. We’ve had riders in the sky all over the frontier.”
Fury let out a disgruntled cackle and clicked his beak. It didn’t take much to rile the young gryphon and Eva knew Fury had been looking forward to a fight almost as much as she’d hoped to avoid one. Instead, they ended up with the worst of both circumstances — no fight because there was no one left to protect. The orange sunlight winding through the smoke cast Fury’s blood red feathers in a fiery glow, making him look like some kind of demon as he clawed at the earth and flapped his wings in frustration.
Eva wandered through the remnants of the outpost one last time, lips moving in silence as she double-checked her count of the dead. She winced, hearing the far-off bark of a coyote, no doubt drawn by the smell of blood and death. The king’s patrols would bury the deceased, Eva knew — it was her and Sigrid’s job to scout and report, nothing more. It still bothered her that some of the scavengers would have their turn before the dead were put to rest.
Even now, after almost two full years among the Windsworn, Eva fought to breathe through her mouth and fight back the rising gorge bubbling up from her stomach. Meanwhile, Sigrid strolled through the corpses looking for tracks the way a young girl might stroll through a field searching for wildflowers. Eva didn’t know how her friend did it. She no longer had nightmares for days after upon seeing a dead body, but still felt her skin crawling whenever something like this happened.
Which seemed to be happening more and more of late. It used to be, or so the veteran Windsworn said, that the Juarag only raided in the height of summer, and focused more on stealing than killing. Now, however, they weren’t so much raids as full-blown attacks. Caught between the anvil of Rhylance’s Windswept mountains and the hammer of the Juarag coming west on the plains, the frontier had been hit hard.
“Not a single dead Juarag,” Eva muttered. By the look of things, the villagers hadn’t even had time to arm themselves with what little weaponry they might have had. Eva doubted they’d even wounded any of the raiders, let alone killed one. On the backs of their gigantic sabercats, the Juarag were opponents even a gryphon rider thought twice about tangling with.
“Seen enough?” Sigrid asked.
Eva nodded. She’d seen more than enough.
Sigrid swung into the saddle of her brown gryphon, Sven. Eva strode over to Fury, who was still sniffing around the buildings and stepped into the saddle strapped to his back where feather and fur met. Although not yet fully matured, he was almost the size of Sven and, if his wings and talons were any indicators, would easily surpass the brown before he was done growing. As soon as she settled into place, Eva felt a calm that chased away the anxiety of the battlefield. On Fury, there was hardly anything in Rhylance that could hurt her. Except for a Juarag on a sabercat, she reminded herself, once again twisting the hilt of her sword and scanning the smoking ruin for any sign of movement.
“It can’t have happened that long ago,” Sigrid said. “What do you say we take a look east before heading back to make our report?”
Eva wanted to say that was technically against their orders, but Sigrid outranked her and the dark-haired girl generally did whatever she storming wanted to, anyway. So, in spite of the nagging nervousness clenching her gut, Eva shrugged. “As long as we’re quick about it. You know we’ll catch hell if we’re back late after some wild goose chase.”
Sigrid grinned through her mess of braids and her eyes shone from behind the black liner she wore to give herself an even more intimidating look. “Of course, grandma.”
Sven leapt into the air, spreading dust and smoke everywhere. Eva felt a jerk as Fury followed close behind, wings beating with unnecessary exertion to catch up to the other gryphon and defend his pride. Airborne, Eva looked down at the village once more, hoping to find some sign of life even though she knew better by now. Nothing stirred below.
Sigrid swung her gryphon eastward and Eva followed, the early evening sun warm on the back of her mail shirt. Ahead of them lay nothing but rolling hills and empty grassland: the western edge of the Endless Plain, home of the Juarag.
On instinct, Eva glanced back and saw a black dot drawing toward them. Anyone but a Windsworn might have brushed it off as a raven or other carrion bird winging toward the aftermath of the raid, but Eva knew better.
“Rider incoming!” she shouted to Sigrid. But the girl was too far ahead to hear. Instead of calling out again, Eva reached down for a small horn slung on the side of Fury’s saddle and gave it a single sharp blast. Sigrid and Sven turned almost at once, and Fury banked with them, soaring on an updraft.
The figure drew closer and Eva recognized the charcoal black of Belarus. The gryphon had once belonged to a Windsworn commander named Celina, a woman who taught Eva almost everything she knew about combat…and then tried to kill her after becoming possessed by an ancient relic. Eva and Fury managed to defeat Celina with the aid of Eva’s own relic, a glowing white stone that had once belonged to her mother. Celina died in the exchange, crushed beneath a giant golem she’d brought to life. In a strange twist of fate, Belarus’s new rider was another of Celina’s victims, not a Windsworn, but a young Scrawl from the cold south.
As soon as she recognized the gryphon and his rider, Sigrid wheeled to the ground, Eva and Fury close behind. They landed and waited, still mounted as Belarus glided to the ground nearby. A teenage boy with blue rune tattoos covering his head, face and arms peaked around the gryphon’s neck.
“Where in the sky are you two headed?” he asked.
Sigrid frowned. “I don’t take orders from a Scrawl, Ivan. Even one who pretends to be a gryphon rider.”
Although Sigrid was only posturing, Eva knew Ivan riding Belarus was a point of contention among many of the other riders. Only Windsworn or the royal family were allowed to ride gryphons but when it came down to it, the creatures were free to bond with whomever they wished. Belarus and Ivan’s relationship was a strange one to be sure, but beyond contest.
Ivan’s face split into a wide grin and he hopped from Belarus’ back and walked over to them. Eva smiled as well, knowing how much he liked to rattle Sigrid’s nerves whenever he got the chance.
The Scrawl boy winked at Eva. “Hey, Eva. Going for a little evening flight?”
“Who’s asking?” Sigrid cut in, still frowning.
Ivan held up his rune-marked hands. “Just me. The Wing Commander sent me out here to check on the two of you, see if everything was okay.”
“Did you see the village?” Eva asked.
The smile faded from Ivan’s face. “Yeah. Guess not.”
“We’re handling things just fine,” Sigrid said. “If you can keep up, we were going to take a little peek out east before sunset.”
“Sounds like a fine idea to me!” Ivan said. “Lead on, fearless rider!”
“This is between the three of us,” Eva warned the Scrawl as he returned to Belarus. “Vance doesn’t need to know.”
“Eva, whatever happened to that quiet girl who never put a toe out of line?” Ivan asked, shaking his head in mock disappointment. “The Wing Commander doesn’t need to know? For shame!”
“It’s not my fault you’re all bad influences,” Eva said. She shot Ivan a jaunty grin as Fury gathered himself beneath her to launch into the air. “Keep up, rune-boy!”
Fury and Sven took flight, pumping their powerful wings to leave Belarus and Ivan in the dust. But the older gryphon and younger boy weren’t about to be outdone. For partaking in very little flight training, Ivan held his own and gave Belarus his head. Although the older gryphon lacked some of the the raw strength and stamina of his younger counterparts, Belarus knew how to ride the thermals and soon caught up, soaring effortlessly above Eva, Sigrid and their gryphons.
“Hope you two can keep up!” Ivan yelled down at the others
Screeching in challenge, Fury shifted his wings and shot straight up toward the Scrawl. Breathless, Eva clutched to the saddle holds, stomach dropping and heart leaping all at once. Even after months and months of flying, she still hadn’t gotten entirely used to her gryphon’s wild antics.
The three gryphons wheeled and twisted around one another, enjoying the warm skies and endless expanses of open air. Eva let out a whoop and Fury climbed higher and higher, only to pin his wings down and dive toward the earth. They sped downward faster and faster, tears streaming from Eva’s face as she screamed to keep her stomach from tightening into a knot.
With only yards to go before the crashed into the golden prairie, Fury snapped his wings open, streaking over the ground so that the grass parted behind them like a wave. Eva laughed and stretched out her arms above her head. It’d taken her a long time to get used to it, but nothing matched the freedom and exhilaration of gryphon flight.
Fury tipped his right wing and they drifted over the plains, the gryphons front talons and rear paws skimming the tops of the golden grass. Still elated from the dive, Eva looked back and saw the Sigrid and Ivan speeding down toward her. She wasn’t sure, but it sounded like they were shouting. Puzzled, Eva drew Fury to a halt and he beat his wings to hold them in position.
“Below you!” Sigrid yelled, close enough to hear.
Fury wheeled around and Eva glanced over his side. A dark figure rose in the tall grass below, twirling something overhead faster and faster until it was a circular blur. Just as the person released whatever it was they were spinning, the gryphon twisted to the side. Not fast enough.
Eva felt the length of rawhide rope and stone weight smack into her gryphon’s legs. Twisting and tangled in the bola, Fury careened into the dirt.
They landed hard, the impact jarring Eva to the side, even with her leg straps still secured. Guided by instinct born from hours upon hours of practice, her hands leapt for the two quick release buckles on her legs as Fury thrashed to free himself from the weighted rope. Ripping the last strap open, Eva kicked herself loose and leapt free from the gryphon.
As she pulled her sword free, their assailant burst from the grass in front of her, spear at the ready. Eva swallowed hard, fighting the rising fear in her. It was a Juarag, a girl about her own age, by the look of it, a wild look in her eye.
The two circled each other for a long moment. Eva studied her opponent, trying to decide how to get inside that spear’s awfully long reach. She waited for her opponent to attack, knowing that making the first move would play into the Juarag warrior’s advantage. Whooshing sounds marked Ivan and Sigrid’s landing nearby and the two rushed to join their companion. Sigrid let out a snarl and came to Eva’s side, her own spear at the ready. Out of the corner of her eye, Eva saw Ivan struggling to hack through the tangled mess of rope wrapped around Fury as the gryphon continued to struggle.
Belarus and Sven landed behind the Juarag girl. “We have you surrounded,” Eva said. She doubted the other girl understood her but wanted to at least give her the chance to surrender first.
To her shock, the Juarag nodded and rose out of her crouched stance, jabbing her spear in the ground beside her. “I give up,” she said, in a perfect rendition of their tongue.
Eva stared, confused and unsure how to respond .“What in the sky?” she heard Sigrid mutter beside her. Before she could think of a response, however, a blur of copper charged past her toward the Juarag.
Enraged at being knocked out the sky, the gryphon dipped his head and flipped the Juarag woman into the air. As soon as she hit the ground, Fury was on top of her, slamming his front talons over her arms to pin her to the ground.
“Fury!” Eva shouted again, rushing forward to the gryphon’s side. Side heaving, Fury looked at her through narrow slits of his yellow eyes but refrained from tearing the Juarag apart.
Whatever calm the Juarag woman had before was gone. Her sun-browned face looked pale in the dying light, the whites of her eyes stark and large. Her breath came in ragged gasps as she stared up at the angry gryphon above her, the wicked curve of Fury’s beak less than a foot over her.
“Fury, back,” Eva commanded. The gryphon continued to stare at his prey, hissing.
Back!” Eva shouted again. Fury’s head whipped in his rider’s direction but Eva didn’t back down. After a long moment, Fury let out a disgruntled hiss and stepped away, but his eyes never left the Juarag woman.
“Do you speak our language?” Eva asked.
The Juarag nodded. “I know your tongue, sky girl.”
“What are you doing out here?” Sigrid demanded, pointing her spear down at the woman’s throat. “Were you part of the raid on the outpost? Are you alone?”
The Juarag woman shook her head, and Eva realized they were close to the same age. “I am…not raider,” the Juarag said. “I have come for you, the sky warriors.”
Eva, Sigrid and Ivan shared a glance.
“What do you mean you’ve come for us?” Eva asked. “Do you mean you’re a scout?”
“I am not Juarag warrior,” the young woman said. “I have come alone, seeking the…” she paused as if struggling to think of the word. “The Windswear.”
“Windsworn?” Eva suggested. The woman nodded.
“Well, you’ve found them,” Sigrid said, not moving her spear tip from the Juarag’s. “Now what do you want?”
“I have a message,” the Juarag woman said. She took a deep breath and her halting words seemed to come easier. “I have come at the bidding of a man who was once one of you. He has a warning.”
An unexplainable tingling sensation spread across Eva’s body. “What man?” she asked in a rush. “What is the message?”
“His name is Aleron,” the Juarag woman said. “His message is for your commander An-Andor only.”
“Holy storm.” Eva felt the words pass her lips but it was like someone else had said them. She staggered backwards and stumbled, landing hard on the ground.
“Aleron?” Ivan said. “Eva, wasn’t that your father’s name?”