I.xxiv

The arrow hits so hard it knocks the air out of my scream, and the moment freezes. I’m dead, I think. Then I look down and realize the arrow hasn’t buried itself in me. Instead, it’s shattered and is falling to the ground. Blunted? It’s the only thought, the only strange how I can muster. But who in all the hells would fire a blunted arrow at me? And then the arrow shards have hit the dust, and I’ve drawn a dagger into my hand almost without the thought to do so.

On the other side of the camp, I hear a thud. Like something hit the earth. I take in a deep gasp to scream again, trying to wake the rest. By then I see the bowman moving again—just a shadow of a shadow in the night pulling his bowstring taut and setting another arrow to fly at me.

I move. Forward, pivot left, forward, jump into a roll that ends up with me back on one knee and dagger out. Seems an arrow’s missed me by a ways, but the gray form of the bowman is readying again and the other two are moving in. They’re close enough that color starts to come back to them in the light of Eledia. Diaphna’s gleam gives them a violet look. The air is cold and sharp. It’s then I manage to let out another bit of a scream. I keep moving, though—gasp again, duck my head low, and sprint flat out around the outer circle of the wagons.

It wonders me how Tius hasn’t seen ought or called out. Then I think of the thud I heard. The thud of the body, I realize as I run headlong around our wall of wagons. Means there’s more shadow-men out there than just the three I spotted. I grab the side of the wagon with my left hand and use it to swing down the splinter of open air between these two wagons. My speed, the more-than-narrow gap—it’s enough I skid my shin as I lift it over some jut of wood, but I manage to get through by just a clossie’s tit.

When I’m through, and dizzy, I let my back fall against a wagon as I let out the biggest scream I can manage. Shrill, too. Looking round the camp I see some of the rest up already. All’s barely illumed by the last embers of the campfire and by Diaphna above. The smell of ash hangs on the air.

A rattle on the wood of the wagons says clear enough that the ones outside have no thought of leaving us in peace. For a beat, I hope they haven’t ways to start our wagon circle to fire, but it seems by the sound they prefer to climb the wagons instead. A couple others have come round to the small opening we left between wagons. By then a few of our camp have steel in hand. My breathing’s so heavy it scalds the back of my throat with cold.

The horses seem to figure right then that something’s going on, so they start to call and whine, though they’re tied up and can’t do much besides. Willow’s there too, somewhere. And then the sound of horses is joined by sounds of blade on blade as our guards bare steel. I see one of the shadowed men put a blade through the throat of one of our company. Then I see two others having got to the top of the wagons beside me. One knocks an arrow. I keep moving.

Eledia ducks behind a cloud and the scene goes purple dim. I hear battle all around me, but in the chaos I seem only to see one thing at any moment. The long shadow cast by the bowman at the wagon’s top. The man leaping from the top of the wagon toward me. I keep moving.

A crossbow bolt flying across the campground, fired wrong, and sinking into the flank of one of our horses. The horse rearing up so fierce it threatens to topple the wagon it’s tied to. The way the wagon’s shake gets the bowman off his mark and sets the arrow in the wagon just left of my head. I keep moving.

Samuel cuts his blade between the shoulder and neck of one of the attackers, so fierce he’s jammed the blade in the bone. The guard with the crossbow dodges aside, but not quite, so the blade gashes into his forearm and elbow. Someone—I don’t know who—falls. I keep moving.

Before I understand what’s happening, I see the archer jump back off the wagon, back into the night, away from our camp. Two more run toward the narrow gap we’ve left between wagons. One gets sliced at by Rethi, though it doesn’t halt his escape. But there’s one more who doesn’t run away. Eyes grim. Face the color of thick dust. He runs toward me.

I throw my blade at him and it buries in the loose robes he wears, though I don’t know if it gets through skin. I search for another anything to hurl at him. I’ve only the one dagger left. I throw my cloak at him instead, tearing its clasp to get it off my neck. It slows him, but only just. He cuts through it and casts it aside.

And then he’s right on me, and I’ve got only the one blade left in my hand. For a moment, part of me freezes. Wants to curl into a ball, scream, plead for him to stop. I crouch down. I lose any want at all. All I can see is him. He’s right on me, raising a blade.

The shift is so fast. Like the moment a stone breaks water. My body twists up. I’ve little sure knowledge of what’s gone on. Only that he’s falling, grabbing at his neck. My arm’s out, my dagger in my hand. And my skin is half covered in his blood.

Next section.

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