Lily made it to Yellowstone. But she wasn’t sure she’d make it any farther.
Tired, cold, hungry, and pursued, she’d lost her pack last night, when another group of frost hunters had ambushed her as she was climbing through a narrow, snowy pass. By some miracle, she’d managed to fight them off with her machete, killing two of them and severely wounding four more. But she’d taken a punch to the face and a knife to the arm, and one of them had grabbed her broken wrist and wrenched it painfully. At some point, she’d stumbled over some rocks hidden in the snow cover and had nearly broken her ankle. Now she was hobbling and bleeding and exhausted having carried on through the night.
But she was here. At last. Yellowstone. She’d managed to find the path that led to the Shoshone Geyser Basin and was now hurrying along as fast as she could go. She stopped here and there along the way to stuff some snow into her mouth so she wouldn’t get dehydrated, but every touch of ice made her shiver all the more. Her clothing was torn and damp from the fight in the pass, and she’d long lost feeling in her toes.
A little frostbite didn’t matter though. The still weeping knife wound in her arm didn’t either. All that mattered was that she kept going until she reached the Taurus Geyser.
In the distance somewhere behind her, she heard echoing grunts and muted footsteps. The remaining twelve hunters had never stop chasing her, even through the pitch black darkness of the night, even through the shrieking gales that had swept through the mountains last night, even through the thickening snowfall. They were immune to pain, immune to exhaustion. The Winter queen’s magic kept them going, even as their bodies fell apart. As long as they could walk, they would keep following her.
The geyser, Lily. Just reach the geyser.
From out of nowhere, an arrow shot past Lily’s head and embedded itself in a nearby tree. The tip cut her ear, and warm blood rand down her chin and neck. She ignored the sting and sought out the bowman—he was on a shallow incline about fifty feet ahead of her and thirty feet off the beaten path. But there was no way he’d come from the group that had been in pursuit all night. There was no shortcut, just dense woodland all around, interspersed with wide, flat terrain around the various geysers and other water features. So where had this hunter come from?
A second group, she thought, a deep pit in her stomach. They’re coming at me from two directions.
Lily dodged a second arrow, this one narrowly missing her neck, and then broke out into a sprint. As she neared the bowman’s perch, she scooped up a sharp rock, waited for the man to nock another arrow, and then hurled the rock at his head as he was pulling the bowstring. The rock hit home with a sickening crack, and the man wavered, then tumbled down the hill. He landed at the wrong angle and snapped his neck.
Lily abruptly changed direction and raced up to the dead bowman, eyes darting every which way as she search for signs of another ambush. But none came. The man must’ve been an advanced scout, seeking out Lily’s exact position so the others could get into the best positions to cut off her advance to the geyser. Lily swiped his bow and quiver—he had six arrows left—and then headed back to the path. Her wrist ached badly, reminding her she was going to have a terrible time using a bow, but she had no choice. She needed a long-range weapon.
They geyser. Just reach the geyser.
She prepped the first arrow, being as gentle with her wrist as possible, and continued down the path. The sounds of the group approaching from the rear were getting louder; they were having an easier time traversing the snow. It was getting deep, about a foot and a half now, and Lily wasn’t particularly tall or exceptionally strong. These large-built men had her beat in the brute-strength department. So if they all caught up to her at once, she was toast. She had to keep some distance between her and the bulk of their number.
At a small curve up ahead in the path, she spied movement, and with a wince of pain, she pulled the bowstring back and aimed the arrow. She intentionally made a loud crunch with her boot, which caused the person behind the tree thirty feet ahead to peek up from his hiding place behind a tangle of snow-covered vines. The second his head was fully in sight, Lily fired the arrow.
It struck his left eye, burrowing into his brain, and he went down with a faint gasp. His limp body flopped back onto the…not the snow. He didn’t fall far enough. He landed on top of another person.
Lily quickly nocked another arrow as a second hunter sprang up from behind the vines, carrying a crossbow. They fired at the same time, the arrow and the bolt passing each other in midair. Lily’s shot was true, and struck the second man in the neck, severing his jugular vein. He went down in a spray of blood that was startlingly red against the white, hazy backdrop of the landscape. But Lily didn’t have time to think on the morbidity of it all. Because the crossbow bolt struck her in the chest.
The tip tore through her clothing like it was tissue paper and sank into the flesh at the top of her breast, and Lily, stunned, slipped and fell backward, landing with a thump in the powdery snow. For a long moment, all her senses were on the fritz, and her limbs wouldn’t respond to any commands. She could do nothing but stare at the cloudy sky, rippling like static on a TV, and hear the beating of her own panicked heart drowning out the sounds of the world.
Then her brain righted itself, and pain flooded Lily’s body. She cried out—and didn’t catch herself until the shout echoed off through the trees, giving away her location. Swearing under her breath, Lily forced herself to sit up, clenching her jaw so hard at the pain resonating from her chest that she nearly cracked her teeth. Taking three deep breaths to dismiss the pain, she dared to glance down. The bolt sticking straight out from her skin taunted her.
She had a vague idea of how long the bolt was and didn’t think it had gone too deep to remove—she could breathe, and her heart was still beating fine—but if she was wrong, and the tip had severed a prominent vein or artery, she could bleed out. She sat the bow in her lap and raised her shaking hand, fingers just brushing the end of the bolt. Pain lanced up her chest, and she suppressed a shrill whine.
Behind her, heavy footsteps drew closer.
Just do it! she yelled at herself.
She wrapped her fingers around the bolt and yanked it out in one quick motion. She couldn’t stop herself from screaming, but it didn’t matter now. They already knew where she was.
Lily examined her chest, pulling the fabric of her clothing away from her body and peering down. The hole in her chest was bleeding, but not heavily. She wasn’t going to bleed to death quite yet.
Swallowing the faint taste of bile, Lily climbed to her feet, ignored the growing cold that had seeped into her body from the fall, retrieved her bow, and then started running.
The geyser. Just reach the geyser.