It was two nights later that Andrei’s foresighted words about the dangers of the land were proven accurate.
Clustered around their nightly fire, the small group of travellers were turning in for the night when an ugly snarl punctuated the darkness.
They had heard the mournful howls of wolves every so often on their journey, but this was different: a throaty, bone-chilling growl more like a lion’s roar than anything else. A sound that reached into the dark recesses at the bottom of the mind and threw the humans are just clever food switch. The horses tethered a short distance away whinnied and attempted to bolt, straining against their tethers in equine panic.
“What was that?” Jildiz asked, feeling like she already knew the answer. A childhood fear, one that her life in Muskograd had papered over but not erased.
“Simatar,” Andrei said, reaching for his gun. “And it’s a moonless night, and here I’ve been sitting with the fire in my eyes the whole time! I can’t shoot what I can’t see!”
Another hideous snarl sounded on the other side of the camp. “Two of them!” Yevgeny exclaimed. “Andrei, it looks like you have your work cut out for you. However, I may be able to do something about the lack of light.”
As Yevgeny darted back into the tents, Jildiz glanced around nervously. A pair of eyes glowed menacingly in the firelight on one side; no doubt the match of an as yet unseen companion to her back. She couldn’t make out the animal in the darkness, but childhood fear filled in the spotted brown-grey pelt, the sloped back, the terrible bladelike fangs…
A shot rang out beside her – Andrei aiming for the only part of the creature that could be seen – but his shot went wild and missed. Cursing, he chambered another round and took aim once more.
Jildiz screamed as the other beast sprang into the circle of firelight with a ripping snarl. It seemed huge – big as a horse with fangs as long as her arm – though in truth the pair were only about as big as one of the leopards of the south, long-boned and rangy without the muscle of a full-grown cat. A pair of juvenile males that had not yet learned to be wary of humans with guns, but all the more dangerous for that. Mature simatar would have probably backed down as soon as the first shot were fired, unless they were really hungry. And at this season there was plenty of easier prey, from wild sheep and cattle to the newling fawns of giant deer and the calves of steppe bison and indrik.
Jildiz’ scream brought Andrei whirling around to fire at nearly point-blank range, and this time the bullet struck home in the animal’s shoulder, penetrating down into flesh to spear the young simatar’s heart. It dropped, just as the other creature sprang, blade-fangs bared.
Yevgeny emerged from the tent with a lantern in his hand, turning a crank-handle at the side to energise the internal dynamo. Energy crackled into a glass-enclosed filament, which blazed into a sudden incandescence, sending a searching beam right at the creature.
Simatar were active by day as well as being nocturnal, and light was normally no barrier to their hunting; however, the sudden appearance of a new sun shining in the young male’s face confused and blinded it. Checking its advance, the beast’s snarl took on a note of fear. Andrei quickly chambered another round and fired, but this time the bullet grazed the skin, glancing off the shoulder blade but not penetrating.
The simatar, however, evidently decided that these creatures were prey too troublesome and dangerous to be worth the effort, and turned, loping away in a ground-eating run that soon let it disappear into the blackness.
While Andrei took a couple of the other guards to go and calm the horses, Jildiz sat shaken and trembling but glad to be alive. Simatar weren’t the largest predator of the steppe – both bears and full-grown cave lions were larger – but their protruding bladelike fangs, swiftness and endurance made them by far the most feared. She was in a far better state than the formidable housekeeper Mira, though; the poor woman was evidently unused to roughing it through a wild land and had swooned at the first snarl.
The redoubtable Andrei Grishkin returned from calming the horses and examined the carcass of the beast he had shot.
“Do you want the head as a trophy, my lord?” he asked of Yevgeny.
“So I can put it on my wall like that mindless twit Aleksandr Lyukin?” Yevgeny asked in return, snorting somewhat contemptuously.
“Crown Prince Mikhail is supposed to think highly of the younger Lyukin,” Andrei cautioned. “He considers him a sterling hunter and a man to emulate, and his influence at court is waxing great.”
“Oh, he’s a great hunter,” Yevgeny grudgingly admitted. “But his knowledge of and interest in anything he can neither shoot nor track rivals a pinworm’s concerning the Khitai Imperial Court!”
Andrei thought about it, then nodded grudgingly himself. Boyar Aleksandr was famous throughout Holy Orousska as an outdoorsman and trophy hunter, but his passions seemed to have only that single outlet.
“Well, if you don’t want the head, we should at least take the skin,” he said. “Simatar pelts are warm as well as decorative; it’ll be worth a pretty rouble in Muskograd.”
Yevgeny nodded. “See to it, then, Andrei. I’m going to see if I can get any sleep.”
Jildiz, however, could not get to sleep. The excitement and terror conspired to keep her awake well into the night, tossing and turning and starting at every small noise.