We were already running when a sentry shouted the alarm. More torches followed the first and the carriage started to smoke and burn. I drew my knives and saw blades flashing in Quill’s hands as we charged—barefoot—back toward the camp. Men ran toward the burning carriage, themselves just silhouettes against the dying campfires.
“It’s a distraction!” I panted.
“Make sure Druskin has the Countess!” commanded Quill, “Then we hunt!”
I nodded, increasing speed as Quill peeled off to my right to circle around the outside of the camp. Shouting increased and one of the figures running past the fire dropped to the ground with a cry. Arrows from the darkness. Given the general lack of trees, our ambushers must have crawled in through the tall grasses, and driven off the horses so they couldn’t be pursued. Then they torched a carriage to turn all eyes there…I ignored everyone as I cleared the circle of carriages and ran across the flattened grass to the tents. Off duty guards were stumbling out of their bedrolls unarmored and with swords in their hands. They were drawn immediately toward the commotion at the burning carriage. No one paid me any mind. The flap to the Countess’s tent was loose and I hesitated only a second before diving in, knives out.
It was dark except for the brazier.
I crept forward; my bare feet soundless on the woven rugs. The Countess stirred in her nest of cushions; alive. Good. I scanned the shadows of the tent as I approached.
Shifting my knives into the same hand, I dropped to my knees beside her and touched her shoulder. “Grofnu,” I said, “Wake up.”
The Countess jolted, eyes flying open, and fixing on something over my shoulder.
I spun, to see a figure charging from the tent entrance sword raised. I just had time to shift my knives into both hands and rise to meet him. He’d expected no resistance and died in two strokes, his eyes were wide in shock as his sword fell from his grasp and he crumbled to the ground. The Countess shrieked. I pushed his body away from her bed, ignoring the slick of blood on my hands and clothes. Black hair and eyes, olive skin, and the square jaw of the Wuhn. I don’t know why I’d expected anything else. He wore leather armor, but it wasn’t anything special, and not the same quality or color as the Countess’s retinue. I glanced at the Countess, she was pale, clutching her nightgown around her throat, eyes fixed on the dead man. “Do you know him?” I asked.
She shook her head.
She looked like she was going to be sick.
I grabbed the bowl off the folding table and offered it to her. Her gaze shifted from the body to the bowl—only to fixate on the bloody trail my fingers left on the rim. She seized the bowl and turned away, retching. I rolled my lips together and tried to block out the sound. I’d seen enough death to be hardened…I would never understand why vomit was still a problem. Focusing on the shouting outside, I turned to face the entrance and wait for the next attacker. The Countess was still gasping when the tent flap flew open and Druskin burst in. He was shirtless, and the sword in his hand was bloodied. His eyes were wild as he saw the body, my blades, and then the Countess behind me—alive.
“Grofnu!” he cried, barely making it to her bedside before dropping to his knees. “Are you hurt, grofnu?” he almost reached for her, but his hands were nearly as dirty as mine.
“I’m fine,” she managed, voice croaking.
Galo ran in, her face white and clothes completely disheveled. “Grofnu!” she covered her mouth with one hand as she beheld all the blood, but she kept coming, clutching her jacket closed with the other hand. The Countess reached for her and she dropped onto the cushions, wrapping both arms around the Countess.
“Stay with her,” I ordered starting toward the tent flap, “I’m going hunting.”
Druskin looked up at me, a faint glitter in his eye at my tone, but he nodded. “Find them all,” his tone was the unyielding ice of winter.
There were more bodies at the tent entrance, evidently Druskin had arrived in time to keep me from fighting more. The one carriage was well and truly burning, and I could see other fights and casualties in its glow. I glimpsed the leanyodi emerging from our tent as I made for edge the camp, slipping outside the circle of carriages to where darkness awaited. I crouched, letting my eyes adjust and wiping Shiharr and Azzad on the grass.
Slowly, the hills resolved into a deeper black than the sky and I began to move forward, head cocked to listen. From the camp I could still here the roar of the fire, shouting, and the clash of steel as the guards dealt with the intruders.
It had only been a minute or two since the stream raised the alarm. The most efficient retreat would have to be over the bluff, where they could disappear from view on the other side far more quickly than if they first crossed the road. I slowed as I neared the top of the bluff, not wanting to a be silhouette against the night sky.
The sound came from my right, and I turned, just making out the pale hair of Eliah.
“Quill’s already started down, we can hear horses,” answered the hunter. “The Countess?”
“With Druskin,” I answered.
“Good, let’s move.”
We moved quickly, crouching lower until we were crawling through the grass over the ridge and down the other side. We could just see the horses, heads high as they marked our approach. There was a figure moving among them. I stood up. “Quill, you didn’t leave any for us!”
The figure stopped, “There was only one, what was I supposed to do?”
I walked forward, Eliah coming behind me. “Did you kill him?”
“No,” Quill lifted a rope and waved it, “Help me tie him up and carry him back to camp.”
“Oh sure,” Eliah grumbled, “We get to help you carry things.”
I lingered with the horses while Eliah helped Quill tie up an unconscious man. I stroked the animals, making introductions and scratching under their manes while I looked over their tack. The gear was reasonably well made, but nothing special. Just like the armor.
“Zephra, are you going to play with the horses all night?” Quill said.
I paused my collecting of reins, “I’m the proud new owner of—I don’t know, twenty?—Angari horses. If you ask nicely maybe I’ll let you use one to carry your prisoner.”
“I don’t think they’ll let you keep them,” said Eliah.
“That didn’t sound particularly nice,” I replied.
“Don’t provoke her, Eliah,” grunted Quill. “Help me lift this man.”
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