Jaysh didn’t so much yank back his hand as he threw himself backwards and let his hand follow. After that, he sort of lost his senses. But it seemed like he landed on his haunches and fish-flopped through the prairie, paying no heed to the tearing briars or biting feather-grass, knowing only that it was back there—the Beast-Crusher!—and that it had almost got him.
     Thrashing and flailing until he could thrash and flail no more, he stopped and peeked over the top of the grasses, staring back at the place where it was still lurking. His eyes met with the sea of green around him, the ocean of blue above, and absolutely nothing in between.
     Panting heavily, he squatted in the reeds and waited for the monster to move, waited for something black to rise from its hiding place and come barreling towards him. So far, that wasn’t happening.
     A few times, he thought he heard the killer—rustling in the feather grass as it tried to flank him on either side—but each time he turned his head to listen, he heard either the drone of the insects or the thud of Iman’s boots.
     I din’t imagine that, Jaysh thought, standing shakily to his feet. I saw somethin in them weeds. Somethin black an’ quick.
     But if that were true, and if the thing he had seen was, indeed, the savage beast-crusher, why then had it allowed him to escape? Why had it not pursued him across the prairie?
     Jaysh pulled his knife from his pack and took a single step towards the depression, his eyes trying to look everywhere at once as he  waited to see what would happen. When nothing did, he took another step forward and stopped, repeating the process until he could see the matted grass once more, watching as the stygian back of the swarm rose and fell like a wave.
     He squeezed the handle of his knife and realized he wasn’t breathing. He took a breath and thought about the weapon in his hand, knowing full well that the sort of creature that was capable of crumpling an animal twice his size was not the sort of creature you killed with a skinning knife.
     A broadsword, on the other hand…   
     To his left, the sound of thumping footfalls was closer still, the good captain sprinting down the hillside. Jaysh kept his eyes on the circle of crushed grass, wondering bleakly if Iman would reach him in time or if the beast-crusher would make its second assault fro—
     Ahead of him, at the edge of the tall grasses that lined the kill zone, something small and black emerged from the thicket, a creature that moved like a cat—sort of looked like a cat—but lacked the tail and ears typical of the species. And no cat, at least that Jaysh had ever seen, had a pair of eyes like those.
     The cat-thing slunk to the center of the circle, sat back on its haunches, and directed its huge, yellow orbs at the woodsman.
     With his own eyes swelling with delight, Jaysh let out an exultant, “Zeph!”, and went bounding into the hollow, scooping the animal in his arms and nuzzling her with his beard.
     As she nestled her head in the crook of his arm and closed her citrine eyes, Jaysh interrogated her about where she’d been, speaking in a falsetto voice and telling her that he’d never let the mean old shadow scare her like that again. Then he let the questions go and began bobbing on his knees, scratching the ragged flesh where her ears had once been and stroking his hand along the scar tissue of her spine.
     Zeph’s chest vibrated against his, the sound of a hundred tiny lumberjacks sawing a hundred tiny logs. As far as Jaysh was concerned, nothing sounded better than the hum of Zeph’s chest, that soft and gentle purring that told him everything was okay.
     The sound behind him, however—the one that sounded like boots crashing down a hillside—had the exact opposite effect on the woodsman, a sound that put his nerves on edge like the scraping of nails on slate.
     From out of the boot falls, Iman said, “Jaysh—Jaysh are you all right!
     I was, Jaysh thought, wishing that he and Zeph could vanish from the valley and reappear in a quieter section of the Sway. He could now hear the chinking of chain mail and the rattle of shoulder plates.
     Iman screamed, “Are you hurt!
     Only my ears, Jaysh mused, and turned to his protector.
     Iman had reached the base of the hill and was running across the valley, sword at chest height and hair bouncing off his shoulders. On his face, a wide expression of alarm as his bulging eyes searched the woodsman for distress. When his eyes fell to the creature in Jaysh’s arms, however, the look of alarm quickly vanished.
     “Ah…,” he gasped, breaking into an uninterested trot, “…I see.”
     Following Iman’s gaze to the cat-thing, Jaysh said, “Yeh see what?
     “Oh…nothing,” Iman panted, trudging towards the swarm of insects then stopping as he noticed the circle of matted grass. His eyes followed its circumference in an observant arc. “What have we here?
     Without looking over, Jaysh said, “Lie down.”
     Iman ran his eyes around the perimeter a second time. “And that means…?”
     Jaysh glanced at him to see if he were serious. When he found Iman searching the circle and wearing not so much as the precursor to a grin, he said, “Means somethin lied down.”
     Still panting, Iman moved to the swarm. “Something like…,” he trailed off, his eyes searching the buzzing infestation, “…like this?
     Jaysh shrugged, watching as the captain waved his sword back and forth and a channel opened in the swarm. He continued waving until the creature below showed through. The captain’s hazel eyes flooded with wonder.
     “Is that a cow?
     Jaysh nodded.
      “Really…,” the captain breathed, moving around the kill. “Really…,” he said again, stopping as something else caught his eye. He winced mildly, then said, “There’s a hole on this side.” He swept his blade a little faster, winced a little harder. “Two of them,” he said, looking across the buzzing hoard at his involuntary accomplice.
     Jaysh held his gaze.
     Iman said, “Any ideas?”
     Jaysh looked to the bugs for inspiration. When none came, he said, “Looks like a spear.”
     “A spear,” Iman said, thoughtfully, backing away from the buzzing black fog and wiping his sword in the grass. “Spear point,” he mumbled, lifting his blade to the sky and inspecting both sides. He must not have been satisfied, because the blade went back into the grass and was inspected a second time, and then a third.
     As the captain began the fourth cleaning, Jaysh lost interest and turned to watch the dark knot of insects, listening to them hum and chitter in the reeds. When he had lost interest in this, he turned back to the captain and found the man staring at him.
     Jaysh said, “Yeh don’t think it were spears?”
     Iman shrugged. “It could be,” he conceded. “But it’s not the spears that are giving me trouble right now, Jaysh. It’s trying to justify the two spear holes and then the rest of the cow. I mean, come on, Jaysh, spears are used by people, and people can’t do that.” He gestured to the crushed cow beneath the swarm. “And even if they could, why bother to jab a spear in something if we’re going to turn around and fold the thing in half. That’s just…That’s…,” he made his tense face and clenched a fist as his side. “I’m having trouble with that, Jaysh. I am. I wish you could give me more.”
     Jaysh gave it a try, looking to the swarm and stroking Zeph’s back for inspiration, but nothing was coming to him. Worse yet, he was aware of Iman staring at him from the side, staring at him in the same scrutinizing way with which he’d stared at the cow. And if there were any doubt in the skepticism of that gaze, it was laid to rest when he spoke.
     “So there’s nothing you can give me? Nothing you can tell me that might wow the council into thinking I know what I’m doing out here, because—here’s a nasty little secret, Jaysh—” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “I don’t know what I’m doing out here. I’m a soldier, not a scout. This…,” he waved to the pasture, “…this is not my area of expertise. I’m not sure why they even sent me. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’m happy to have the opportunity. Oh, I’m ecstatic. I just wish I could cash in, you know? I just wish I could go back, tell them I got you to help out—cause they really wanted you involved—and then hear them say, ‘Hey, you know, that Iman’s a real go-getter. Why don’t we use him more often?’
    “But what I don’t want—or need—is to go back and hear them say, ‘Sweet Pit on a Stick, that Janusery boy is a walking hammer. How’d he make it to captain?’ You see? You see that, Jaysh? So let me ask you again—kindly,” he added, making an effort to drop the attitude, “is there anything…and I do mean anything…you can tell about this?”
     Jaysh looked at the swirl of bugs, then at the circle of matted grass. He seemed to remember the grass all of a sudden and locked eyes with the captain. “Whatever done it,” he said, “it din’t leave no tracks.”
     Iman’s look of anticipation remained fixed on his face for a time, then collapsed in a grimace. “Doesn’t leave tracks,” he said, holding the woodsman’s stare. “It crushes its victims, but doesn’t leave tracks.” He walked around the remains, examining both the round depression and the ball of insects. When he reached the far side, he stopped and turned his quizzical gaze on Jaysh.
     “Well, Jaysh, I—I really hate to tell you your job, old friend, but I’m afraid that anything large enough to crush,” he let that sink in, “a cow,” he let that sink as well, “something that large is almost certainly heavy enough to leave behind tracks, or markings, or—or whatever it is that Serit Branmore thinks your so good at finding.”
     Jaysh nodded amiably. He knew all of this. He knew it before he’d crawled around on all fours and ran his eyes along the ground. But for today, at least, what he knew and what he saw were two completely different things.
     “The council won’t like this,” Iman was saying. “They’ll want to know what happened. They’ll want to know how to fix it. And ‘I dunno’ won’t cut it with them, not with these guys. I’m going to need an answer, something substantial, something they can use to keep what’s left of the populace from running for the borders, and right not all I have is a spear-toting giant that smashes cows and doesn’t leave tracks.” He shot Jaysh a look and shrugged. “I don’t know what to do with that, Jaysh.”
     Jaysh didn’t either, but he didn’t want to speak it aloud and risk another boring lecture. What he wanted to do was fall back on his tried and true tactic of staring-without-talking. If anything would shut the captain up and end these tiresome rants, it was a good hard stare.
     Unfortunately, though, he didn’t have time. It had been a long day—a lot of looking without finding—and now he could see the yellow scoop of sun threatening to slide from vast blue plate of the sky. He needed to get back to the hill, nestle in for the night, and get as much sleep as he could for Swim Day. Because Swim Day was quite a workout, at least until he reached the island in the lake and stretched himself out on the sho—
     “Jaysh,” Iman snapped, “are you even listening to me?” 
     Jaysh looked at him, then back to the setting sun. “I gota go,” he said, and began marching to the north.
     “Oh, come on,” Iman cajoled, trotting up beside him. “Hey, I was just kidding. A little joke, right. Don’t even worry about it. You did you’re best. No harm done. I’ll, uh…I’ll just make stuff up. It’ll be fine.” He tried slipping his arm around Jaysh and Jaysh stepped away from him.
     Iman said, “Hey, you know…I might have misled you earlier, about the Westpost investigation. And if I did, I apologize. But I don’t really have to prove myself on this mission to earn that one. I get to go no matter what. I just…I really wanted to you find me something,” he said, making his tense face. “I just wanted to go back with the good stuff, you know, maybe get some recognition.”
     Jaysh didn’t look over, didn’t even nod, and not because he didn’t understand. No, it was because he did understand that he kept his expression blank. In fact, Jaysh understood so well that he could have stopped the good captain at any time and finished the speech for him. He could have taken his hand from Zeph’s back, held a finger to Iman’s constantly moving lips, and said, Save it, old friend. I ah’ready knew. I knew this mornin when yeh chased me down in the prairie an’ I knew yes’erday when Gariel was tellin me at her place. So save it, huh?
     But he didn’t say those things. He was too busy not talking to his dear old friend, because not talking usually worked better.
     “So are we good?” Iman asked, his voice warm and cozy. “No hard feelings?”
     Tickling Zeph under the chin, Jaysh thought about his answer, decided it would do no good to tell Iman the truth, and settled with, “We’re good.”
     “There we go,” Iman said, trying to drape an arm around the woodsman’s shoulder. “Hey, by the way, what are you doing tonight?”
     Sidestepping the captain’s arm, Jaysh said, “Sleepin.”
     “Hey, me too,” Iman said. “But you know what? Before we do that, you know what we should do? We should go down to the Wound and socialize a bit. You know, throw the cubes for awhile, drink a few drinks—Just like old times, huh? You could bring your little friend.” He pointed at Zeph. “They bring pets in all the time: Dogs, ferrets, ravens,” his lips broke in a grin.
     “Remember old White Streak, that nut with the crow on his shoulder, had all the crap down his back?” He shook his head, still grinning. “Anyway, you could come down, bring your little friend, and then you and me could tell everyone about today, we could tell them about the circle and the bugs, and the carcass. Of course, by we I mean me. You’d just back me up, right? You know, nod your head and grunt, say things like, Yep. That’s what happened. You were always the best at that.”
     Without looking over, Jaysh made a face like he’d stepped in something.
     “Hey, and you know what,” Iman said, giving Jaysh a mischievous nudge with his elbow, or as much of one as he could before Jaysh went scampering away from him, “Gariel will be there. Gariel, Jaysh. Come on, you can see your old woman-friend. I know you two still see each other. She told me so. So maybe, in between drinks and stories, you can…I don’t know…take her out back, show her the finer points of the alley. Or take her down in the cellar to look for a certain bottle of wine.” He placed the last four words in his patented finger-quotes. “Or take her next door to that empty lot, the one with all the weeds and old crates, maybe the two of you could count the sta—”
     “I doan’ need no filthy bar,” Jaysh said, taking a few healthy stomps away from the captain. “I see Gariel plen’y,” he said. “Matter’a fact, I seen her jus yes’erday. Seen her at her place.” He shut his mouth and braced for the retort. It would be quick and hurtful and much better than his own, but if he held his breath and clenched his jaw, he’d find the strength to power through.
     To his surprise, though, he heard only the listless sound of his dear old friend passing through the reeds. And when he looked over, he found the captain grinning lasciviously at the sky, a response far worse than any retort.   
     “Ah,” the captain was sighing, “the old blackmail of love. I know it well, Jaysh. I’ve been there myself. Sometimes, when the mood hits just right, I’d give my very own sword just for one—”
     “It weren’t like that,” Jaysh said.
     Iman frowned at him. “Are you sure? Because you know, Jaysh, there’s nothing wrong with a little—”
     “We jus talked,” Jaysh said, not bothering to explain that carnal knowledge had, indeed, been the purpose of his visit…at least until Gariel had gone off on him about this Sway job. And speaking of which, Jaysh could just kick himself for not agreeing with her. Had he known he’d be shackled to this idiot anyway, he could have just told her yes and enjoyed the carnal knowledge. As it were, he was heavy on idiot-time and running very low on carnal knowledge. 
     “Talked,” Iman said, nodding slightly as he turned to survey the pasture. He appeared to be looking for something. “That’s probably for the best,” he said. “I don’t see how you’d manage, what with your big blue friend following all the time. That would certainly stifle my passions.” Still panning his head around the prairie, he said, “Or would it leave if you asked? If you told it you had urges?
     “No,” Jaysh said, ignoring the latter question, “it doan’ never leave.”
     “Well, I don’t see it now,” Iman said, his head still craning.
     “Trus’ me,” Jaysh said, speaking as one who knew, “it’s still there.”
     Iman searched for a moment more, clearly not believing the woodsman, then sighed and began tapping his lips with a long and pensive finger. “Well, anyway, I’m going tonight—I go every night, by the way—and I wanted you to know you’re more than welcome to join me. I do have this report to make,” he rolled his eyes, “but it won’t take long, not really, and then—if you should see fit—we could spend some time together. I mean, come on, how often do I get the chance to hang out with my dear old friend, Jaysh, Greatest Tracker In All The Land?”
     Iman put his arm around the land’s greatest tracker and had it shrugged off hurriedly. He said, “And speaking of tracking, I have this golden opportunity at Westpost tomorrow—lots of scouting involved, a whole gold mine of scouting really—and I when I mentioned the idea to Gariel last night, she just loved it, couldn’t hear enough about it, so…,” he said, slowing his pace, “…I thought that maybe…if you weren’t doing anything tomorrow…and you were up for a bit of scouting…out there in the great Western Sway…”
     To his surprise, Jaysh found himself actually considering the captain’s offer. It was unthinkable really, in light of the many times he’d been burned by Iman Janusery, but for whatever reason Jaysh could actually see himself out there in the tall grass of the west, far away from the city and its people, far away from market trappers and field laborers, a land where he might be able to scout bison and deer and not worry about stumbling into any weird circles or finding any wadded-up animals.
     Clearing the top of a rise, Jaysh looked out at the flat sprawl of the Mela and said, “Tomorruh, huh?”
     “Tomorrow,” Iman confirmed, face lighting up at the sound of Jaysh’s voice. “We can set out at first light, set out while the disturbance is still fresh—What do you say?
     Normally, Jaysh would say no, because tomorrow was Swim Day, and he could no more miss Swim Day than he could miss Hunt Day or Hike Day. But right now he wasn’t feeling very normal. Right now he was feeling like a man who’d lost two of his most precious hobbies and, for all he knew, was about to lose another. He hadn’t had much luck with waterways here of late.
     “What’re yeh scoutin’?” he heard himself ask.
     “You know,” Iman said, “they didn’t tell me. It’s classified, I think…,” he scrunched up his face, “…yeah. Yeah, it is. Something to do with not starting a panic and driving out more subjects.” Lowering his voice, he leaned in close and said, “But I did hear someone was killed. It’s all rumor, you know, so who knows how much of it’s true, but that’s what I heard, that someone was tore up pretty good.”
     “Tore up good, huh,” Jaysh said, his eyes staring absently at the grass, his hand slowing on Zeph’s mutilated back. The more he heard, the better this job sounded, so much so that he was already half-tempted to go. Swim Day was wonderful and all, but it wasn’t exciting, not in the least. It was one of his relaxing days, like Fish Day.
     “I’m telling you, it’ll be a good time,” Iman said, “so what do you say?”
     Ahead of them, Jaysh could see two four-legged shapes tethered at East Bridge, one midnight black and one the color of fresh butterscotch.
     “There’s your horses,” Jaysh said.
     Iman looked up. “Yeah, there they are,” he agreed, “so how about it, you going or what?”
     “Think I’d like to,” Jaysh said, “but doan’ wait on me. I got this other thing I’m s’posed to do. Ain’t sure if I can skip ‘r not.”
     Iman made a face. “What thing is this?” he said, skeptically. “What could be better than tracking a mankiller?”
     Shrugging, as if he wasn’t sure, Jaysh said, “Swim Day.”
     “Swim day,” Iman said, nodding derisively. “Where’s this swim day?”
     Jaysh shot him a guarded look. “In water.”
     “And where’s the—”
     “Yeh ain’t comin.”
   “Okay, okay. Relax,” Iman said, shaking his head. “But what about tonight? You sure you don’t want a quick drink.” He raised his brows. “Quick drink and a story?” He moved a little closer. “Quick drink, a story, and some cubes?
     “Cain’t,” Jaysh said, looking to the west. “Gota get some sleep.”
     Iman paused to search the blue of the sky. “You know, Jaysh, again…I hate to tell you your business, but it’s no where near nightfall.”
      Jaysh nodded. “Will be,” he said, “by the time I get to the hill.” And even as the words came out, Jaysh knew it was a mistake. He could see Iman’s head jerking around like he had a hook in his jaw, could see the look of disgust marring his eyes and mouth.
     “You’re sleeping on the hill?” the captain balled.
     Jaysh’s head only fell a little, but his insides felt like they’d sank into his shoes. Those words felt like icy blades embedding in his chest. He didn’t look over at Iman—couldn’t look over at him, not right now—but he didn’t need to. The captain was stammering and stuttering and Jaysh could imagine his pained expression by the apologetic tone he heard ravaging his voice.
     “Not, uh…Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Iman was saying, taking a step back. “It’s a fine place. Very, very quiet. Great for, uh…for sleeping.”
     As pathetic and silly as that response was, Jaysh was actually relieved to hear it. The acceptance in those words, though obviously fake, had somehow melted the daggers in his chest and he found that he could breathe. At least, he could until next the captain spoke.
     “On the Hill,” Iman said. “Hmmm...
     And just like that, the ice daggers were back, not so much because of the captain’s words, but because of that quiet little hum at the end. It wasn’t the polite hum of a man indicating he’d heard you and simply had nothing more to add. It was the hum of a man who finds something useful in his pocket. A hum, Jaysh knew, that would come back to haunt him.