I stepped into the passage and Ayglos closed the door behind us. I could still feel that nightmarish presence despite the utter lack of blood or ash in sight. Extreme fatigue from the night’s events must be messing with my senses. I was so afraid of running into the Queen in the palace that I was imaging her—or her demon—everywhere. I reached to scratch Hew’s head as he paced beside me. There was nothing here; Hew would be howling if there was. We had no reason to think anyone was in these passages and we hadn’t seen a soul since leaving the guards at the room. My heart was just starting to calm when a woman shrieked, “Look out!” and Ayglos stumbled hard.
I whirled, catching a glimmer of gold out of the corner of my eye.
Ayglos leaned against the wall, grasping at his left shoulder. He looked back and cursed so colorfully I blinked. We weren’t far from the alcove yet and could see figures in the now open entryway behind us. The crawling sensation of being stalked by your worst thoughts grew stronger as the figures entered the passage and merged with the darkness to block out the alcove doorway.
These must be the Huntsmen.
“Run!” hissed Ayglos, pulling away from the wall and starting toward me, “Run!” he said again, loud enough for the others to hear. We obeyed.
I could see Hesperide just ahead of us with the lantern, Trinh and Rakov on her heels, arms full of small lives. They were running, but it was a labored pace set by a pregnant woman whose lantern swung with the force of her efforts. It was a bad dream in which we fled swiftly but covered no ground. I could feel the Huntsmen gaining on us, but slowly. As if they weren’t putting a lot of effort into their own pace. They were not worried about losing us. And why should they be? They could see the lantern as well as I could. I scrunched up my eyes. Eloi. We would not be caught. We would escape. It would not end this way. Eloi wouldn’t allow that, would he?
I heard a clatter behind me.
“Damn it,” said Ayglos.
I looked back to see him twisting to look at his left shoulder, there was a small hilt protruding from his bicep. He caught my look, “Second throw missed,” he jerked his chin at the wound, “This was the first throw.”
“They’ll pick us off like geese,” I said, falling back and yanking the knife out of Ayglos’s bicep. He yelped and cursed again.
It was a tiny, savage, throwing knife. I tried not to look at the blood slicking the tip.
“Lose the lantern,” said Ayglos through gritted teeth.
I nodded, picking up pace to pass the word up the line. I didn’t look Quill in the eye as I did for fear he’d see the plan growing in my mind and argue. But I did give Naran an assuring pat as I pressed Hew’s leash into his little hand. A few moments later, the lantern rose above our heads and stopped. Illuminating a little junction with a passage was twice as wide as the one we’d traveled down. Hesperide and the others disappeared into the darkness beyond.
Without needing to consult, Ayglos and I stopped just past the circle of light. I unclasped my cloak and let it fall to the ground, it would only be in the way for this. Ayglos did the same, drawing his fighting knives.
I waited, holding the bloodied throwing knife at the ready.
The seconds stretched into eternities as we listened to the sounds of our party retreating. My skin crawled as I felt, more than I heard, the faint footsteps of our pursuers. They slowed to stop well short of the glow of the stationary lantern.
One of them laughed. A low, cold sound. “We can sense you, Fox,” said one. “Are you treed at last?”
“Did you steal eggs from the henhouse?” asked another.
“I’ve been wanting to meet you,” breathed Ayglos, his voice soft, resonant, and unmistakably deadly in the darkness. “Come closer.”
Laughter replied. “It speaks!”
They edged forward.
It was game. Which of us would enter the light first.
“We want the children back,” said the first voice.
“That’s a pity,” replied Ayglos. “I’d wanted us to be friends.” He was projecting his voice, he sounded closer to the light. When had he learned to do that? Had he spent time with the singers in the circus that I hadn’t known about?
I felt them. So close now…their presence was oppressive. I felt them so clearly that I could see them. Three men, if they were still men, stalked closer in a v formation. Two carried short swords that leeched blackness, and I saw crossbows slung on their backs. The third, the leader, carried his crossbow at the ready, waiting to shoot us down if we made the first move. Lightning coursed through me, driving away the creeping terror of the Huntsmen. Without hesitation, I hurled the throwing knife at the leader. The knife struck his neck, and the Huntsmen hissed in surprise. The leader released the crossbow and lifted his hand to his neck, gagging.
I reached back for Shiharr and Azzad, a snarl on my lips as the other two charged, spitting with fury. Ayglos and I leapt to meet them. They wore leather breastplates and vambraces, but their attire was made more for speed and silence than combat. Getting around it would be easier than fighting the armored guards on the walls had been. Or would be, if they weren’t also superior fighters to the guards on the wall. If the space wasn’t so cramped.
Armor, blades, walls…dive, parry, strike, block. Repeat. We hissed and grunted, snarling like cats, but none of us cried out.
Ayglos wasn’t using his left arm well, otherwise I thought his fight might be over already. We dodged and bounced off walls, hurling blows. I could feel myself growing angry. These creatures hunted my family. Hunted my friends. I would not let them hunt any longer. I fell back a step, as if dazed, baiting my foe. The Huntsman saw the opening and lunged, bringing his sword down toward my head. I was ready, slamming my forearm recklessly under the hilt of his sword as I ducked forward, my other hand bringing Azzad up under his breastplate.
He slammed my back against the wall, his momentum driving the dagger deep inside him as the tip his own blade wedged with alarming force into the wood above my head. He didn’t move to pull it out, just froze there. I straightened slowly until we stood face to face. His pain had drained the cruelty from his face for a moment…but then his eyes focused on my face. “You…the ghost of Nelia…” His breathing became labored even as his face turned ugly, “No ghost at all. Just a girl.”
I withdrew Azzad, the curving blade covered in blood.
“Just a girl,” he said again, sagging.
“And you’re just a man,” I replied, stepping away.