Lyca grasped a handful of coarse black feathers and yanked hard. The crow – stiff and half covered in drifting snow – was frozen hard to the ice. Finally, she tore it away, leaving a black stain where it lay. Then she wrapped her bare hands in the folds of her coat and headed back to her cabin, carrying the biggest meal they had seen for weeks.
Geoffrey was shaking in his bed when she got there. He was mumbling in his sleep with words she could not decipher. She wiped cold sweat from his forehead and puled the blankets tighter around his neck. The fever was getting worse.
Featherless, the bird looked a sorrowful scrap of scrap. Tight-drawn skin. Sharp edges of bones jutting out at awkward angles. With slender hands she gutted the crow, keeping what she could, and tossed it into a pot with some root and salt. Slowly, the bubbling mixture released a scent into the air that seemed foreign and forgotten – cooking meat. Her mouth watered. Noticing the fire was getting low, she wrapped herself in layers again to fetch more wood.
As she filled her arms with wood, she noticed that things felt oddly still. The wind had ceased and the bay seemed quiet in the crisp winter air.
At that moment, a shrill sound tore through the forest – a scream. Instinct kicked in. Lyca readied herself to run back to the cabin and defend against whatever beast might have made it, but then she listened more carefully. It was a woman’s voice.
Heart pounding, she ran in the direction of the scream. It was full of pain and fear and crackling in an inhuman way that filled Lyca’s mind with dread. She ran hard, hoping beyond hope that there was some way she could help whoever it was. Down the path. Through the trees. Onto the shore trail.
Another shriek pierced the frosty air – it was coming from the river. Somebody has fallen through the ice!
She forced her legs to carry her faster, biting back the sharp pain that was stabbing in her lungs. Finally, she broke out of the trees and onto the shoreline at the mouth of the river, and her eyes widened in horror.
A stones throw from shore amid great boulders and chunks of ice lay Mavis’ Uncle Locke – trembling and covered in blood, his hands clutching at his throat. His wife, Sherylen, was standing her ground to the right of him holding an axe and swinging it wildly about as a lynx the size of a bear was brandishing its red-stained fangs at her, ready to attack.
Without thinking, Lyca started scrambling toward the ghastly scene – frantically trying to reach them before the cat made its move.
“HEY!” she bellowed, closing in on the confrontation. “Sherylyn, run! GET BACK!”
At that moment Sherylyn spun around, sobbing uncontrollably and still brandishing the axe like a sword. The lynx saw it’s chance and sprang forward, reaching out with massive paws and revealing claws the length of carpenter’s nails.
“BEHIND YOU!” Lyca screamed.
The older woman swung her whole body her attacker, the axe gliding through the air like a club. Just as the great beast would have torn into her and taken her to the ground, the blunt of the axe head smashing into one of its outstretched paws – hooking a claw and ripping it loose.
The lynx roared – a terrible, ear piercing shriek – and fell to the ice, taking Sherylyn down with it.
Lyca had reached them now. Not knowing what else to do, she yanked her small knife from its sheath and threw herself onto the pile. She stabbed frantically into the grey fur of the cat’s back. One… two… three… four times she plunged the blade into its flesh. More terrible shrieks. A second later she was lying dazed on her back. The lynx had thrown her off and was now focused on her. Her head was throbbing and there was a gash in her lower leg that felt as though hot coals had been forced inside.
“GET AWAY!” came Sherylyn’s voice, trembling with fear and anger. “AWAY FROM THEM!” She raised the axe high, ready to cleave the lynx’s ribs.
It was no use. Before she had even begun to swing the axe the great cat had whipped back at her, knocking her to the ice and opening fresh wounds on her arms and hands. It didn’t seem to faze the lynx that Lyca’s knife was still driven to the hilt in its back.
Lyca rose unsteadily to her feet. Her leg was weak, and she was dizzy. Bracing herself against a rock, she saw Locke lying a few feet behind her. An enormous chunk of flesh had been torn away from where his neck met his shoulder. As his head lolled sickly from side to side, he reached out a shaking arm. Lyca thought for a second he wanted her help, but then she realized he was pointing at something on the ice.
The axe, which had been knocked out of Sherylyn’s hands, was lying just a quick sprint from the rock Lyca was leaning against. She made a move for it but stopped. The lynx had returned its attention to her again. For a moment it stood still as some nightmarish statue in three legs, its injured paw dripping red onto the ice. Orange slit eyes stared into hers. Tufted ears pointed straight up. The ragged, blood-matted fur on its back quivered horribly as it produced a low, scraping hiss. Slowly, its mouth stretched into what seemed an evil, hungry grin.
Lyca heaved herself at it.
The lynx pounced to kill, and an instant before its claws and teeth would have shredded her neck, Lyca lunged down onto the ice, sliding under the cat’s airborne body. She grabbed the axe before lurching to an abrupt halt against Sherylyn’s limp figure. Forcing herself to her feet, she swung the axe back over her shoulder in preparation to deliver a killing blow. Instead of the expected heaviness at the end of her swing, however, she felt a sudden jerk and the handle went light.
The axe head and slipped off.
Wounded and holding a useless stick, Lyca stared as the Lynx wheeled round and charged at her. There were voices of other villagers shouting from the shore, but she couldn’t pick them out. Tears burned in her eyes as she watched her attacker leap into the air with every intention of tearing her limb from limb.
“Geoffrey…” she whispered.
Something black streaked over her head – just brushing the hood of her fur coat. There was a sickening squelch of dry metal on bone as a long spear slid effortlessly into the roof of the cat’s mouth and out the back of its head. The lynx crumpled in mid-air and fell limply to the ice at her feet.
Trembling, Lyca turned around.
Before her stood a young man holding a second spear. Behind him stood other men and women, brandishing spears and bows at the ready. They were all standing in front of sleds with three skis towed by six huge moose, which snorted steam from their frosted nostrils.
“Are there others?” asked the man.
Lyca couldn’t speak.
“I said are there others? Other beasts?” the man asked, louder this time.
She tried to say no but couldn’t. Instead, she shook her head.
“Lower your weapons!” he shouted to the crowd of strangers. Slowly, they lowered their spears and unstrung their arrows, looking cautiously at their surroundings. “These people are injured – we must help them back to shore.” Then, to Lyca, he came closer and said, “Is that your village, there? Where are we?” There was kindness in his voice.
Now grabbing the bleeding wound on her leg, Lyca finally forced herself to speak.
“Rivermouth,” she managed. “This is Rivermouth.”