Thirteen people, for all their efforts, make much more noise than two people when darting from one shadow to the next. If I had had time to fuss over it, I would have. Jemin had given me directions and I led the way quickly through alleys, pausing at the cross streets to look and listen for patrols. It was hard to be sure, with so many people panting behind me, that the coast was ever clear, but we had to keep going. My senses were on edge, and I strove to keep us close to the river as we wove our way through the dark places. At least the running kept us warm, for our wet clothes were useless in the cold night air.
The large homes and walled gardens gave way to narrower roads crowded by hodge-podge buildings with big windows. There were awnings and porches along the bigger roads to hide us now, so we moved more quickly. The shopping district, I guessed, though all the windows were covered with curtains. Just a little further and we’d cut back west–before the burned out forges and the bridge, since that was doubtless guarded.
Then the drums started.
If anyone in the garrison had still been asleep, they weren’t any longer. Doubtless they had figured out we’d left the garrison; it didn’t matter if they had figured out how. I imagined a fast rider was being sent to the city gates this very moment—if one hadn’t gone already. And the drums told the guards on the city walls that something was afoot. My heart beat faster and I took the next alley that led west toward the river. It was time to get back to the Tryber anyway. The alley was so narrow that if I tucked my hands into my armpits and spread my arms, my elbows would scrape against the buildings. Trash littered the ground. I stopped at the end of the alley to watch and listen. The river glittered in the moonlight ahead of us. Between the drums, the gaggle behind me, and the hammering of my own blood, listening for patrols was almost pointless. I forced myself to wait and watch carefully.
I had almost decided to move on when I noticed three men in helmets walked abreast on the little road by the riverbank, their silhouettes clear against the river. A round lantern bobbed along above the middle soldier as if by some dark magic. They were talking. I glanced behind me and gestured for the women to squeeze against the wall and hide as best they could. One of the girls tripped, and a broken bit of crockery shattered under her foot.
Everyone froze like rabbits. Olena’s eyes met mine from deep in the alley, she gripped the knife I’d given her. I turned back to watch the patrol, fingering the hilt of Azzad. The soldiers had definitely heard the crockery and were moving toward the buildings. Could I take three by myself in the open? These men were wearing armor, unlike the men in the garrison. I wondered when Jemin would return and if they had those little crossbows which had wounded Quill.
Quill. An idea started. I released my daggers and cast about the alley for a bottle of any sort. Finding half a glass bottle, I turned back to the coming patrol.
Two of the soldiers had drawn their weapons—swords, mercifully—and were moving cautiously ahead of the one carrying the lamp. I guessed they weren’t completely sure where the sound had originated. Or perhaps they were thinking of the fight on the bridge just a few days ago. Now that they were closer I could see the poll and chain that held the lamp aloft—not dark magic after all. That was a relief.
With a deep breath I swaggered into the open, holding my broken bottle and mumbling any words that came to mind about “too much wine” and “go home.”
“Halt!” cried the closest soldier.
I recoiled sloppily, “Oh, no!” and covered my mouth with my free hand.
The three soldiers approached, lowering their weapons. “No one is allowed to be out at this hour.”
“Trying to go home,” I slurred, my head down and the broken bottle dangling in my fingers.
One of the soldiers sheathed his sword, stepped close and took my free arm. “You have to come with us.”
Savagely I twisted my hand free and with my other hand propelled the broken bottle full force into his face. He toppled backwards and the other two looked stunned. I made for the lantern—grabbing the pole with both hands I aimed a kick at the man’s knee and twisted the pole away from him. He collapsed with a cry, grasping at his knee.
The last man leapt at me with his sword. I blocked the sword with the lamp pole–the light doused with a slosh of oil—and then hurtled the butt of the pole into the soldier. He stumbled back, bringing his sword up at my side. I slipped to one side to avoid it and smashed the lantern on his shoulder. The oil splattered harmlessly and the soldier attacked again. I blocked, my eyes on the oil. I threw the pole at him and jumped back to draw my daggers. Deflecting the pole he charged after me. My flint hilts smashed together, scattering sparks and turning the soldier’s oil-soaked shoulder into a sheet of fire. He yelped and stumbled back beating the fire with his hand.
I didn’t get to gloat. The wail of a horn started behind me. I spun and saw the lamp-man, sprawled on the ground, one hand still clutching his knee, the other holding a curling horn to his lips. In two steps I kicked the horn away from him, sending it skittering away on the cobbles. I stood over him glaring. Fear pinched his face as he gazed up at me. “The Nether Queen is not the only women you should fear,” I snarled and clubbed him with Shiharr’s hilt. He dropped to the ground unconscious.
I turned, looking for the man I’d set on fire. I found him face first on the ground, the fire burning out, and Olena standing over him. Her face was deathly pale as I approached. “Are you alright?” I asked.
She dragged her eyes off the soldier and met my gaze. “I killed him.” She gestured to the body and I noticed Jemin’s knife hilt sticking out of the soldier.
“You did what you had do.” I bent and, retrieving Jemin’s knife, cleaned it quickly. “Come on, we need to get going,” I squeezed Olena’s shoulder, hoping that would help ward off the shock of killing.
She nodded, her face was grim, but she met my eyes evenly.
I trotted to the alley and beckoned. My gaggle of stolen women trickled out and followed me across the little open road down to the river’s edge. Along the way I paused to scoop up the pole with the shattered lantern, it wasn’t a buoy but it would do.