Excerpt from MISTELLE

            “Hey, Mist.”

            She glanced up from where she was cooking the squirrel she’d brought down and had cleaned earlier in the day, to find Nevo standing on the other side the fire.

            “Hey.” She added a smile as she stood. A quick check around them confirmed they were alone and could talk without being overheard. “Mom told me you were leaving.” Checking the orange sky, she could tell the sun was slipping below the horizon. Darkness was approaching fast, and would envelope them within the hour. “Any idea how long you’ll be gone?”

            This was the first chance they’d had to talk since leaving Alta Novis. Seeing him standing there, nervously fingering the hilt of his sword as he was prone to do, she realized how much she’d missed being with him. There had been days, a couple of times more than a week, and one time a full month, when they hadn’t been able to get together for even a few minutes. Those days had felt incomplete. So much so, that when they finally reconnected, it was a time to laugh and share stories of what they’d seen and heard and experienced, eventually catching up on what had happened to the both of them.

            She wanted to do this now. To sit down, share dinner, and just chat. Or go for a walk. Anything that would mean spending time in his company for a little while.

            But it was not meant to be. Not this time, anyway.

            Nevo shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

            “Mom says you’ll meet up with us again.”

            “Yeah. I’m looking forward to seeing my grandparents again. It’s been a few years.”

            “Be prepared to hear them exclaim how tall you’ve grown, and how handsome you are, and all that embarrassing stuff,” she teased.

            He laughed, and she joined him. She loved his laugh. It was the sound of good times and happy moments. Even when he played tricks on her, causing her to stomp off in anger, she didn’t mind hearing him laugh at her retreating back, because it meant their friendship wasn’t over. Far from. In a day or two, they’d be thick as thieves again, as Mastin often referred to the two of them.

            Nevo gestured off to her left. “I heard about the Cullum guy taking a hike. What do you think happened? Think it was deliberate?”

            Crossing her arms over her chest, she rocked from side to side. Something bothered her, but at the moment she couldn’t tell if it was something she needed to be worried about or not. “I don’t know what to think. I haven’t spoken more than two words to the man since they arrived. I was planning on seeing if Rayburn would talk with me later, but I doubt he will. He’s been avoiding even looking at me ever since Dad and Cullum clashed.”

            “Yeah. I noticed you spent today riding with Atty.” He cocked his head. “Hey. Are you okay? You look like you’re…”

            “I’m fine. I’m fine. I just got a tingly sensation all over me.” She grinned. “You know. One of those feelings I get when something’s about to happen. Mom calls them ants running across her skin.”

He fiddled with his hilt again. “Listen, there’s been—”

            A loud cry of warning suddenly interrupted them. “Alert! Alert! We have incoming! Incoming!

            “Incoming what?” Mistelle yelled back. All she had was her knife. Her bow and arrow were back at the tent. She checked around the campsite, looking for her parents, but neither of them, nor her brother, were in sight.

            “Rats! We got rats!” Rollufski cried out as he ran past them. “Take cover in the trees!” No sooner had he told them, than she heard the sound of squeaks approaching from the northeast.

            There was a hard tug on her arm. Mistelle stumbled, but Nevo caught her and led her toward the nearest large tree. “Come on, Mist!”

Lacing his fingers together, he crouched down and presented his hands for her to step into. Placing her boot in his palms, she jumped. At the same time, he boosted her upward, onto the nearest limb. She managed to scoot over in time for him to take a running leap. His hands found the limb, but he struggled to maintain his grip. Grabbing him under the arms, she pulled, hauling him up next to her, leaving him bent over the limb at the waist.

The first wave of rats appeared, filling the air with their squeaks and chirps as they swerved to avoid the trees. One suddenly jumped upward, snagging the bottom of his breeches. Nevo shook his leg to dislodge it, but the creature doggedly hung on. Slowly, it began climbing over him as he tried to remain on the limb.

It took Mistelle a couple of seconds to make her decision. If she reached for it, the thing might bite her, and rats were notorious carriers of disease. But if she used her knife, that would leave her weaponless.

However, she did have one advantage no one else had.

“Hold on!” she ordered him and quickly slipped off one boot. Grabbing the tree trunk, she inched her way down until she was almost even with him. “Don’t move!”

Swinging her leg outward, she kicked at the large rodent with her trimmed, hooved foot. The nail’s sharp edge caught the rat on the side of the neck, and with a jerk, she slit it, nearly separating the head from the body. The rat loosened its grip and plummeted to the ground just as more of the things stampeded through the campsite.