Bad Hunting (Daughter of the Wildings #2)

By Kyra Halland

Fantasy, Action & adventure

Paperback, eBook

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632
7 mins

Bad Hunting Sample

THE BADS. THE lowest, hottest, driest part of the Wildings. After six days of traveling through the badlands, the only explanation Silas could think of for their existence was that the Maker had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed the day He made them.
This part of the Bads was known as Onetree, because it was within sight of the only full-size tree known to grow in the Bads. From this distance, the tree looked like nothing more than a thick trunk splitting off into several crooked, bare branches. The dusty track Silas and Lainie were following stretched southwest past the tree and on endlessly into the distance through bare, rocky dirt, sparse scrubgrass, and low-growing cactuses. Eventually it would lead them to the town of Ripgap, where, according to the message from the Mage Council, Garis Horden would meet them. The track showed no signs that anyone had passed this way in days, if not months.
The midafternoon sun beat down mercilessly. The sky was empty of all but the thinnest wisps of clouds, even above the distant, scattered clusters of jagged hills, where rainclouds would have formed first if they were going to appear at all. Rain would have been welcome for the relief from the heat and to refill their canteens and the horses’ waterskins, which were running low.
At least the absence of clouds meant there was no chance today of dust storms. The giant dust storms that blew up when powerful downdrafts from summer thunderstorms swept down from the hills might not be as deadly as heat or thirst, but they were pretty damned unpleasant. Silas and Lainie had already ridden out one such storm, huddled with the horses behind a shield to keep the blowing dirt and sand from stinging their eyes, scouring their skin, and clogging their noses and lungs. Rumors said that the heaviest storms could bury a man, or even a house, two measures deep.
According to Silas’s sketchy map of the Wildings, Ripgap was only two more days away, and Silas had never looked forward to reaching civilization, or what passed for it out here, so badly.
Lainie sat slumped in her saddle, looking worn down. The Bads were much hotter and dryer than the Bitterbush Valley where she had been born and raised. Even beneath the shelter of her hat, her face was flushed from heat and sunburn, and her lips were dry and chapped.
“Hey, darlin’,” Silas said.
“Yeah?”
“We’ll be in Ripgap in a few more days. There must be a well there, otherwise there wouldn’t be a town, so we can get plenty to drink, and maybe sleep under a roof for a few nights. Think you’ll make it?”
She gave him a weary smile. “I’m fine.”
No matter the heat, no matter how hungry and thirsty and tired and dirty she got, she never complained. She was one strong woman, he thought again admiringly, as he did so often, though she herself would have just put it down to being practical. No point complaining when there was nothing to be done about it, she would say.
They approached the Onetree, following the track as it made a slight curve around the tree. As they came around the bend, Silas saw something about the size and shape of a man dangling from one of the limbs on the far side of the tree –
“Hold on,” he said, but Lainie’s sharp gasp told him it was too late. She stared at the body hanging from the tree, her eyes wide with shock. Her hand moved to her throat, as though feeling for the noose that the hanging mob in Bitterbush Springs had put around her neck. Silas knew what she was thinking – it could have been her, hanging dead by the neck at the end of a rope. If he hadn’t stayed around Bitterbush Springs those extra days, trying to decide what to do with her, if he hadn’t heard the commotion down on the street as the townsfolk ganged up on her and dragged her to the gallows, it would have been her.
He reached for her hand and lowered it away from her neck. “Don’t look at it. Wait here.”
She snapped her head around towards him as though startled out of the horrifying memory, then nodded.
Silas kneed Abenar to turn towards the tree, but the big gray flattened his ears and tensed up, not wanting to go any closer to the corpse. To spare the horse’s nerves, Silas climbed down from the saddle and left him with Lainie while he walked over to the tree. They had seen no other signs of life the whole time they’d been in the Bads; the question of who the hanged man was and how he had ended up like this made an unpleasant tickle crawl up the back of Silas’s neck.
He got close enough to the body to take a good look at it. Abruptly, the world seemed to shift around him. In spite of the ravages of death, Silas recognized the dead man’s face. It was Verl Bissom, a mage hunter he knew. They had crossed paths on a difficult hunt several years ago and teamed up for a few days. While he couldn’t say he and Verl had been friends, they had developed a solid respect for each other. Verl was a big man and an experienced fighter with magic, his gun, and his hands. Not a man who was easy to kill. But here he was, hanging dead from the Onetree in the middle of the Bads.
It could be a coincidence that another mage hunter was hanging dead from a tree along the road Silas had been sent down on an unusual errand. Bissom could have been coming through this way on business of his own and run afoul of a group of Plain travelers who had taken advantage of the only tree in nearly two hundred leagues to solve their wizard problem. But it would have to have been a pretty large and determined group of Plains to get the better of Bissom, and a party that large would have left plenty of tracks. The signs of their passage could have been erased by a dust storm, but the lack of an accumulation of dirt and sand in the folds of Verl’s clothes told Silas there hadn’t been any storms since Verl was killed.
Or it could have been a rogue mage. Or, more likely, two or three. Rogue mages seldom teamed up, and when they did they were more likely to turn on each other than to successfully carry out any cooperative ventures. But it wasn’t unheard of, and the presence of a team of renegades working out here would explain Garis Horden’s call for assistance.
Silas’s back prickled, right between his shoulder blades. All at once, two days to Ripgap seemed far too long. He reached out with his mage senses, checking for signs of power or power-concealing shields, and found none. After Carden, though, he knew better than to assume there really were no other mages around.
Lainie walked up behind him. “Well?”
He didn’t dare turn around and let her see his own shock and consternation. If she found out the dead man was another mage hunter, someone he knew, that might scare her more than she could bear. She had enough to deal with as it was; he didn’t want to burden her with this as well. “Could be a cattle rustler,” he said, trying to sound unconcerned. Cattle rustling was a hanging offense no matter where you were in the Wildings.
“Maybe.” It was clear from her voice that she wasn’t buying his explanation for a copper bit. She looked around at the empty desert surrounding them. “I don’t reckon there’s enough cattle in all the Bads to be worth rustling, or hanging a rustler over.”
“Or a horse thief,” Silas suggested. Another crime worthy of death, especially in a place like this, where a man’s life could depend on his horse.
“Don’t lie to me, Vendine.” Already he had learned that when she called him by just his last name, that meant she was dead serious. “I haven’t seen no signs of cattle or horses or people for days now.”
He sighed. She was right. He shouldn’t lie, not even to spare her feelings. And, for her own safety, he had to let her know what they might be dealing with. “All right. It’s someone I know, Verl Bissom. Another mage hunter.”
She sucked in a sharp breath and clutched at the back of his duster. “Damn.”
“I’m not saying his death had anything to do with him being a mage hunter. There’s any number of things that could have happened. So don’t worry yourself over it. I’ll bury him, then we’ll be on our way.”
Silas walked back to the horses and coaxed them over to the meager shade of the tree’s bare branches. They snorted and fidgeted at being so close to the body, but Lainie set about watering them from the skins and giving them some oats and dried apples, and they soon settled down. Silas took his hunting knife from his saddlebags and climbed the tree to where he could reach the hanging rope. He cut the rope, and Verl’s body fell in a crumpled heap on the ground.
He climbed back down and dug into the magically expanded space in his saddlebags for his collapsible shovel. “This might take a while, darlin’. You sit in the shade and rest.”
The horses cared for, Lainie sat down, leaning against the tree trunk on the side away from the sun and Verl’s body. Silas shrugged off his duster and started digging the grave. The dirt was hard-packed, baked solid by the sun, so he used a little magic to help break it up. He didn’t want to signal his presence to any rogue mages who might be in the area, but he also didn’t want to spend the rest of the day and possibly a good part of the night in this spot. Even with magic, digging a grave big enough for Verl Bissom was going to take a while.
“Do you think this has anything to do with what that other hunter wants help with?” Lainie asked.
Silas took off his hat and wiped sweat from his face. Had Bissom also been coming to help Horden? Or had Horden received a call for help from Bissom? He would have to ask Horden when he saw him, and tell him what had happened to Bissom. “Maybe. Could be rogue mages at work. Or it could just be that he came across some settlers on the move and they found out he was a wizard.”
“Huh.” She didn’t sound any more convinced of that last notion than he was.
The sun had gone a considerable way down the western sky by the time Silas finished digging the grave. He rolled Verl’s body into it and arranged him properly. Bissom’s mage ring wasn’t on his hand or hidden in his clothing, but that didn’t mean anything. Plain folk could have stolen it as easily as a mage once he was dead. His gun, another likely item to be stolen, was missing from its holster.
Silas covered the grave with dirt, then recited the proper prayers to the Sunderer and the Gatherer and the Avenger to appease Bissom’s murdered soul, torn from his body by violence, and guide him safely to the Afterworld. He was no priest – far from it – but as part of the requirements for being authorized as a mage hunter, he had learned the proper burying of the dead. You kill them, you bury them, was the rule.
His duty to the dead man carried out, Silas sat down in the shade next to Lainie to rest. A light breeze blew up, drying the sweat on his face and body and bringing a brief moment of blessed coolness. They drank sparingly from their water flasks and ate a little jerky and flatbread, then Silas got out his message kit and sent the Mage Council a message informing them of Bissom’s death.
The whole time, that prickling sensation kept running up and down his spine. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched. But there was nothing anywhere in the area, no big rocks, no other trees or tall brush, that would give cover to someone watching them. He checked again for shields, this time also looking for the heavier shields that would hide a person’s physical presence.
Nothing.
A sudden creaking sound from the branches above them made him glance sharply upwards. “Look!” Lainie gasped.
A knapsack dangled from an upper branch of the Onetree, swinging gently even though the breeze had died away. Silas could have sworn the knapsack hadn’t been there before. Had he just missed seeing it, or had a mage whose shields he was unable to detect, who was able to come and go unheard and unseen, put it there just now? He didn’t like that idea at all. “Wonder if it’s Bissom’s,” he said, trying not to show how much the knapsack’s sudden appearance had unsettled him. For Lainie’s sake, he had to try to appear calm no matter how he felt inside.
“I’d lay money on it,” Lainie said.
Silas climbed the rough-barked tree to where the knapsack hung. He reached for it, then pulled his hand back. It was too convenient… He probed thoroughly and carefully for any magical traps that might have been set on the pack, and found none. Gingerly, in case he had missed anything, he unhooked the pack from the branch and climbed down. He was tempted to go through it right away, to see if it held any clues to what had happened to Bissom or information about how to contact Bissom’s family. It was an unwritten rule among mage hunters that, if at all possible, no man’s family would be left wondering why they never heard from him again. But he also didn’t want to spend one more moment out here in the open than he had to. Someone had put that knapsack in the tree, and that someone had to still be close by even though Silas couldn’t find him. The contents of Bissom’s knapsack could wait until he and Lainie had the safety of walls around them.
He strapped the knapsack behind Abenar’s saddle, and mounted up. Then, with a silent nod to each other – neither of them seemed to want to speak out loud – he and Lainie rode on southwest along the endless, empty trail towards the slowly-sinking sun.


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