Miter had nearly fallen into the stagnant water when Gove had pushed him aside, and he hadn’t seen the arc of her throw — it was like Mabek had disappeared when he turned around again.
She must have connected, though, from the way she was gasping into her hands.
He gently touched her shoulder, and she twitched violently.
“I’ll go get your ax.”
The water was deep and murky; here and there splintered trunks of dead trees loomed beneath it, and Miter was very careful as he crept along the huge rotten cedar. Mabek was unresponsive — had she thrown well enough to kill? Miter had trained for years and never been that good.
But as he crept up and knelt near the hole the rogue guard had carved into the rot as he fell, all of Miter’s thoughts of humble human combat fell away.
What lay in the hole, limbs akimbo, ax buried deep in the side of its neck, was not Mabek.
It was undeniably a black bear. Its eyes had rolled back in their sockets; blood dribbled from its neck down around its forelimbs. It was not at all a guard.
But Mabek wasn’t entirely absent. In its gaping, toothy jaws, the bear held most — but not all — of his head.
The mist pooled into the cavity of the tree as Miter knelt there, transfixed with horror.
And then he slipped, just enough to lose his balance, and flattened himself against the trunk instead of falling in the water — and the tree shuddered beneath him, cracking and snapping — and Miter looked up in time to see the bear, with its grisly prize still wedged in its mouth, and Gove’s ax still buried in its neck, slip through the broken wood into the murky waters below, and disappear.
He gently crept backwards from the hollow, where bubbles were slowly drifting up to the water’s surface, and pushed himself back to his feet.
Beside him, Gove had gone still; she didn’t seem to register his voice as he whispered;