Nobody demanded that I wear a dress for the hunt, so I wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a green men's shirt, which I left unbuttoned and rolled up at the sleeves. I wore my belt with an array of herbs in small pouches, my leather wrist guards were full of silver needles, and I had taken both Slayer, which was on my back, and my second saber, which I wore on my hip. Anybody who had a problem with my extra hardware was welcome to make my day.
Hugh dropped back through the procession. He was riding a monster of a horse, a massive stallion, a darker bay than mine, with a white blaze on his forehead and white feathered stockings. There were shades of Shire horse there, and Clydesdale, but the lines were cleaner and the chest was more developed. It was the kind of stallion a knight would ride into war.
Hugh drew even with us. He wore a long black coat, the same as Hibla's werejackals. Belted and tapered at the sides, with bandoliers filled with bullets across the chest, the coat made his shoulders wider, his waist slimmer, and his body taller. He seemed to loom rather than ride. Since he pretended to be the lord of the castle, he'd probably decided to dress the part. No dagger, though. Instead he had a full-length sword in a scabbard. I could only see the hilt, simple functional leather with a cross-guard.
Andrea moved aside to let him ride next to Desandra.
Hugh bent forward, concern on his face. "How are you feeling today?"
Desandra sat straighter. It was like she couldn't help herself. Anything male instantly made her come to attention. And Hugh was handsome, in an aggressive masculine way: blue eyes, dark hair, and a clean-shaven square jaw so solid that thinking about punching it made me wince. He was surrounded by people who turned into nature's best equivalent of intelligent spree killers, but he was completely undisturbed by it, as if he knew with one hundred percent certainty that if all of us ganged up on him, he could handle it.
Curran had a feral edge. You sensed instinctively that he was never too far from violence. It simmered under his skin, and when he wanted to intimidate you, he looked at you like you were prey. But Hugh was steady as a rock. He would laugh, in a good-natured easy way, and lop your head off.
"I'm fine," Desandra said. "Thank you for asking."
"Let me know if the ride gets too rough. One word and I'll turn this parade around." He winked at her.
What are you planning, Hugh? What's the deal?
"I'm very sorry about yesterday," Hugh said. "My people are investigating the matter. We will find whoever sent that sonovabitch."
"I'm sure you will." Desandra smiled.
I'm sure he won't.
"We'll do our best to guarantee your safety."
I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. "According to the pack contract, we are the ones guaranteeing her safety. You are"-dragging-"encouraging her to exert herself on this hunt."
"I love hunts," Desandra squeezed through her teeth, and gave me a pointed look.
"There is very little risk," Hugh said. "Nobody would try anything with all of us out here."
"She's eight months pregnant." What the hell was the rationale behind pulling her out of the castle anyway?
Hugh grinned at me, displaying even, white teeth. "You have to stop measuring a shapeshifter by human standards."
"I'm perfectly fine," Desandra said.
Oh, you idiot. "If the mare throws you . . ."
"That's why you've brought a medmage," Hugh said, nodding toward the back, where Doolittle rode on a chestnut. "He seems very capable."
Curran turned and was looking at us with that stonewall Beast Lord expression of his.
"Well, I shall leave you to the skilled hands of your guards," Hugh said. "Someone has to lead this expedition, or we may end up in some wilderness and have to steal sheep for dinner."
Desandra giggled again.
Hugh clicked his tongue, and the stallion smoothly carried him to the front of our parade.
"What's your problem?" Desandra stared at me.
I leaned to her and kept my voice quiet. "That man is dangerous." And if someone had asked me six months ago what would happen if the two of us met, I would've said that Hugh would attack me on sight. Instead we were now riding on a hunt, exchanging barbed pleasantries.
"He's a human," Desandra sneered. "I can rip out his throat with one bite."
And we were back to ripping throats. I thought of telling her that I was a human and in a throat-ripping contest between us, she'd come in dead last, but people were listening to us. Besides, threatening the body you were guarding was never a good idea. She would resent me, and without her cooperation keeping her breathing would be much harder.
"Not all humans are the same," Andrea said.
If Desandra thought she could fight off the preceptor of the Iron Dogs, she would be in for a rude awakening. Hugh would end her with one cut, carve his way through all of her relatives and husbands, and then celebrate with a nice bottle of local wine.
* * *
The road climbed higher and higher until we finally came to a clearing lined with huge slabs of gray stone. Tucked against the sheer cliff of a mountain, the clearing fanned out in a rough trapezoid shape, with the narrow side facing the mountain. A corral built with rough timbers was set directly against the mountain. Below us woods stretched, green and lush, climbing up and down mountain curves as far as we could see.
Three stone thrones stood at the edge of the clearing, chiseled from rock with rough strokes smoothed by centuries of rains. The middle throne towered, huge, as if made for a giant, and the other two were smaller. They felt ancient, just like the stone slabs under our feet. This was an old place, permeated with age. Centuries ago some kind of king must've sat here, on the stone throne, surveying the mountains.
Hibla's djigits dismounted and came for our horses. They led them to the enclosure by the mountain and tethered their feet.
Hugh sat on the throne. Oh, spare me . . .
"Ladies and gentlemen. The forests you see before you are rich with game. They're teeming with red deer, tur-the king of mountain antelopes-gazelles, mouflon or wild sheep, and wild goats."
He clearly had experience with public speaking. His voice resonated through the clearing, loud enough to be heard by everyone but still friendly and perfectly understandable. He must've given speeches to his troops. "Tonight we rape, kill, and plunder . . ."
"In these mountains we have a fine tradition of the summer hunt. The rules are simple: Teams of hunters depart in the morning and return by the end of the day. Their game is examined and judged. Only mature animals may be hunted. Those who kill juveniles or females with young will find themselves and their team disqualified. The team that wins the hunt wins the prize from the lord of the castle."