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The two spread out, cutting me off from town and with the cold river on the other side. The heavy-browed man raised his knife. His companion’s face was hidden in a scarf, his head covered in a traditional wrapped turban, not unlike mine. The first flicked his weapon at the ground. “Drop the spear. Two of us, one of you, and this isn’t worth dying over.”
“Hurry it up,” the second man said to his companion. “He’ll be along soon, and he don’t wait.”
“He’ll wait. He don’t get paid if he don’t wait,” the first replied. He kept my gaze. There was no fear in his eyes. “See sense, boy. Put it down.”
There was no surviving a surrender. My heart began pounding. A cool, tingling wave flooded through me. It was fight or die. “If I put down my spear, you’ll kill me anyway.”
“Naw.” The man spread his arms unconvincingly. “Boy, if you–”
It was the only chance I’d have. I drove at him with the spear.
By this time, I’d been training for months, daily, often for many hours each day. My muscles had become hard and solid. The thrusts of my spear were fast and confident. The shield on my arm was familiar as my sleeve.
The thrust caught him in the side, slid past. He moved faster than any sparring partner. Before I could recover, the scarfed man hit my side and drove me into the snow cold. I struggled against him, dropped the spear and struck out with the shield, but then the first was on me too. They caught my arms, despite a few glancing blows I landed.
Almost any warrior will tell you that fighting two at once is quick passage to a funeral. I’d been told this. I just thought I was better.
The second man straddled me to hold me down. The first swore and held his side, where blood welled out in rivulets between his fingers, dripped in trails on the snow. In the night and dark, it was black. “I’ll cut this dog-milker’s throat.” He groaned. “Lonnie ox-shit. He cut me. It’s bleeding.”
I fought back, but the second man held me down. The first knelt and put his knife to my neck.
Their faces glared down, two pale demons in the black of night. Two foes at once is a match for even the best warrior standing alone.
It’s good I wasn’t.
They looked up at the Tash’s roar. She raced upon us out of the dark like a black-winged hoza. Her cry took them off guard. The spear flashed out, an oily glint, and skewered the man atop me. He fell away, grunting, gasping, trying to clutch the spear. Tash fell on me and my legs and arms tangled up with hers and with the skewered smuggler’s.
The stabbed one backed away. He staggered a few steps and shouted. Before I could extricate myself, he ran. The family waiting nearby ran as well, but at their attempt to follow he slashed out wildly with his knife, warding them off.
Meanwhile, the man atop me flailed with his knife. The blade caught the Tash a glancing blow and something flared in me at her cry of pain. I caught his arm, felt fire in my hand, but pulled the blade away. The Tash reared up, jerked her spear free, then fell back and drove at him with all her weight. The point tore through him and his gasps became gurgles. She stabbed again while I ripped myself free of them. Beneath wild hair and her helm, the Tash looked up at me, and her black eyes flashed with life like I had never seen in her before. A black line, the knife’s cut, marred her cheek and lip, but she was alright.
The shouts had attracted attention. Hamed and Fahil arrived, out of breath, staring in shock. I didn’t wait or explain, however, but ran after the fleeing smuggler. “Tash, Fahil, get them!” I pointed at the weeping family. “Hamed, with me!” Without pausing to see if they followed my orders, I redoubled my haste.
The smuggler darted through the nighttime shadows between the low houses, headed into the city from the river. His form flashed in the snow. I chased footprints, a few black dots of fallen blood on the snow. I squinted in the dark and gritty cold. All around us, alarm bells began to sing. Other Lonireilan soldiers shouted and called to one another. I raised my voice, hoping to draw others to me, to box him in, but my breath caught with cold and effort.
I stood at an intersection. In the gusts of snow, the deep cloud, the street and houses were nothing but a gray haze and low, squat shapes. Lamps were lit in a few windows, casting out soft yellow glows, catching the snowflakes to flash like embers for a moment as they whipped past. The cries of my fellows were all around. He would have to have gone to ground. He would try to hide.
I looked behind me. No Hamed. I needed his bow, but doubted anyone could shoot straight in this dark and wind anyway. It was then my glance caught blood droplets again, a few quickly-disappearing dark spots. I ran to them, saw footprints that were too fresh to be anyone else’s, and followed.
A shout came from an alley. I spun. Where was my spear? I’d dropped it, hadn’t I. From the alley emerged not my quarry, however, but Urnan, his bow in hand and an arrow nocked. “I might have used you,” I hissed. “They saw you leave.”
“Well I’m here now, aren’t I?” He peered into the dark. “Where is he?”
I looked about, found the vanishing prints. They led to an alley. “Through here.”
At my voice and approach, a shape moved. The man leapt up from behind some refuse and ran. Before I could shout or chase, Urnan fired.
In the alley, the wind was blocked. The way was narrow. It was hard to miss, even in the dark.
The bowstring snapped and the man fell with a yelp. I ran, bore down on him, tackled him. He’d already dropped his knife, so I snatched it up and held it to his neck while he grimaced and groaned and held his leg. There, the arrow protruded from his thigh. Blood, far too much blood, boiled out into the snow.
“There.” Urnan stood behind me, another arrow ready. “Told you I’d shoot him in the leg.”
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