The silence woke her.
Gwen lay still for a moment, curled up beneath her dragon’s wing, listening. Pale morning light filtered through the translucent membrane above her. No birds sang- though that was hardly surprising, out here where anything could and would eat any small creatures foolish enough to make their presence known. Still, the silence was deeper than that. Gwen could recall other times she’d heard such stillness, and all had been in the wake of a monster.
Without waking the dragon, Gwen grabbed her sword and slid out from under Icetora’s wing. Better see what’s wrong. She reached out mentally for Jake-
Nothing. Of course. He’d left weeks ago. Still, to not have him there felt strange. I’ll get used to it. She’d have to. And it was better that he’d left anyway.
She extended her mental search to scan the surrounding woods for any signs of other sentient minds. She found nothing but herself, Icetora, and a few terrified or sleeping animals, but that meant less than the silence. How many of the monsters in these mountains had no more mental presence than a squirrel? Too many. And they’re all twice as dangerous as the ones you can sense.
Gwen searched the camp, walking in ever-widening circles around Icetora and studying ground, sky, and trees. Most people, she suspected, wouldn’t even call what she had a camp. There was no fire, no tent. Just a spot of relatively flat ground where she and Icetora could sleep. Without Jake, there was no need for fire, not when she had nothing to attempt cooking. And even when he’d been here, they’d been happier to sleep under Icetora’s wings than under canvas.
She found the footprints all around the edge of the clearing: almost birdlike, but far larger than any bird she’d ever seen. She measured them with her hands; they were smaller than Icetora’s prints, but the holes and scratches from the talons were deeper.
And they went all around the clearing. Why? Had the creature been stalking them, deciding if they were foe or food? Why hadn’t it attacked while they were sleeping and vulnerable? Was it frightened of Icetora? But if it was, why would it have lingered? Even from sleeping dragons, most creatures ran.
The prints led away from the clearing, along a trail of crushed foliage and broken branches. Jake would’ve warned her to head straight the other way, or at least to let him investigate first- as if she weren’t twice as stealthy as he. He surely would’ve wanted her to wake Icetora- though why bother? She could call the dragon later if need be, and she didn’t need help to follow a trail.
She returned to her sleeping spot to retrieve her weapons: bow, knives, and the sheath for her sword. Then, satisfied she was well-armed, she set off along the trail. She carefully avoided stepping on any of the prints, just in case. Not a twig cracked beneath her feet as she walked. Every few steps, she reached out mentally, just in case- but each time, found nothing.
Before long, however, her ears detected heavy breathing up ahead, along with a wet snapping sound. Finally! Putting one hand on her sword hilt, Gwen crept closer, peering through the trees.
And then, there it was.