Rumpelstiltskin (Timeless Fairy Tales, #4)
K. M. Shea
When the hellhound howled, Stil climbed a tree. Branches scratched at his face, and the cold wind further chilled his wet clothes. He positioned himself on a branch, held his breath and clung to the tree trunk. The dull thud of horse hooves pounded in the forest like a war drum. When the animal snorted, its nostrils flared like an ember, placing the beast and its rider three trees over.
Stil’s lungs ached as he watched the horse paw at the ground. He was almost to the border. He couldn’t be caught now!
The hound howled again, the noise traveling away from Stil. The mount and rider retreated, cantering after the hound in the darkness of night.
When Stil could no longer hear the horse, he gasped for air. His chest heaved as he climbed down. He wanted to sit and rest, but he couldn’t take the chance. The rider would be back. Stil needed to get across the border and into Verglas before then.
Leaves crunched under Stil’s feet as he blindly made his way through the forest, his soaked cloak sticking to him like slug slime.
As Stil slunk along, he snatched up a leaf and rubbed it between his hands. It turned into the finest silver before cracking and twisting, shaping into an intricate snowflake the size of Stil’s thumbnail.
“Home,” he whispered before blowing on the magic-made snowflake. It glowed and lifted out of Stil’s hand, twirling and gliding through the air like real snow.
Stil almost lost sight of it several times. The snowflake was tossed through the dark forest by the rough wind and torrential rains like a toy boat bobbing on an angry ocean, but the tiny beacon of light led Stil closer to Verglas—closer to safety.
The snowflake bobbed ahead, and Stil smiled when he saw the silvery blue light of the Verglas border, glowing in response to his magic.
A short distance behind him the hound howled.
Stil gave up all pretenses of stealth and ran, the heavy pants of the hound snapping at his heels. Lightning illuminated the forest, and Stil barely avoided a fallen tree.
The border was within reach when the hound caught up. It snapped down on Still’s arm, yanking the mage off his feet.
The dog wasn’t a normal hunting animal. It was a hellhound—huge, dangerous, and deadly. Red foam dripped from its mouth as it clenched Stil’s arm, breaking his skin and drawing blood. The hound snarled. Its eyes glowed red in the darkness, and deeper in the forest the horse screamed an answer.
Stil kicked at the canine’s chest and grabbed a handful of mud. “Be rock,” he said between clenched teeth as the pounding of horse hooves drew closer. The mud hardened into rock, and Stil bashed it against the hellhound’s skull. The hound staggered, but it bit down harder on Stil’s arm. Stil held in a shout and hammered on the animal’s skull, using the rock like a mallet.
The hound let go, snarling and shaking its head. Stil stumbled backwards over a stump, which sent him crashing head over heels to the muddy forest floor.
Lightning flashed again, illuminating the nightmare when it arrived, carrying its rider. The nightmare was a horse—if it could be called that—which fed on nightmares and craved absolute darkness. It was skeletal, but its nostrils glowed, and its eyes were the same white as spoiled milk. It screamed (a sound more similar to glass breaking than the neigh of a horse) and gnashed its abnormally sharp teeth before its rider pulled it back.
“Craftmage,” the rider hissed.
Stil reached into his soaked clothes and slapped a red feather on the soaked stump. “Ignite!” he shouted before rolling away.
Even though it was old and saturated, the stump exploded into a roaring fire.
The horse spooked and shied away from the dazzling flames, shrieking in pain as the light burned its eyes.
Stil leapt out of his roll and ran forward, his eyes hooked on the glimmering Verglas border. Behind him the rider growled, kicking the nightmare forward. After a moment’s hesitation, the mount edged around the stump and chased after Stil, closing in for the kill. When Stil could almost feel the nightmare’s sulfur-scented breath on the back of his neck, he threw himself forward, diving across the Verglas border as the nightmare lunged for him. Stil hit the ground just as ice crunched, and giant stalagmites popped out of the ground—almost impaling the nightmare with sword-sharp tips and edges.
The rider reined in the nightmare as the ice wall formed, popping and cracking as more ice and snow gathered to create an impenetrable barrier that glowed unnaturally. The rider could travel up and down the Verglas border until his mount dropped with exhaustion, but he would never get inside. The Snow Queen’s magic wouldn’t let him set foot inside the country.