Dead. That word keeps recurring to me, insisting that I have not suffered most. Pain is privilege granted to the living. Of the three the smilodon gored, only I survive.
We were hurrying through another boulder-field. A blizzard howled down just behind us, dropping as we did. I was last in line, but never last of all. Each day Jerem Cozak posts two Never-born fore and aft of the column, men light of foot and quick of eye, to guard against rear attack.
I did not know what danger he suspected, and so I cursed them daily. For in their frequent contact with the column they urged me to hurry on. They who never stopped to rest and in their ranging likely doubled any distance I ever managed. They were not kind. The Never-born are never kind, or cruel. They simply do not understand why I am so different from them, so unfit and terrified.
The rearward pair had just rejoined the column, to report to Marcus their captain, and then were lingering to be certain that I kept the pace. Jerem Cozak never liked it when our column stretched so thin. We jogged single and double-file between boulders the size of houses, on paths themselves of rock or gravel. My lungs ached from altitude and my knees hurt from jouncing and my brain burned with curses for Jerem Cozak and all his men.
I barely knew when I passed a new boulder, let alone that death was creeping near. The first sign of danger was the thud of one of the rangers falling to the ground. It sounded like someone dropping a heavy bag of seed. Then there was the other ranger’s deep shout as I turned and the quick rasp of a sword clearing its scabbard – and a snarl that would have stopped a demon in its tracks. I smelled blood on the wind. My hair stood on end.
The ranger named Cratyus lay dead or dying, sprawled on the snow-dusted ground not thirty feet behind the rest, his throat cleanly torn open, head nearly severed and rolling loosely on the hill. Atop him stood the smilodon, gathering to pounce again, its feline shoulders higher than my waist, coarse fur tawny and grey in the shadows between the rocks. It snarled again, showing two curved canines as long as my head was tall.