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When the sun touched the horizon, we rode. It was the work of a few moments to race up the hill just to the west and drop down the other side into an arroyo, a broad, dry creek bed on the other side. Behind, Yamurik and his people built up their temporary camp, circled their wagons and posted guards and watchers. The mercenaries took to a training exercise on the east, at my suggestion. They raised a great cloud of dust, a yellow haze behind us. In front, the sun burned in a towering flame of red. I hoped the glare and dust would conceal us.
Once down in the arroyo, we turned north and paralleled the road back the way we had come. I sent Estevo ahead on an extra camel to scout and see. He took the glass.
We reached him as the sky turned violet, streaked with cloud, and faded to a deep indigo in the east. The stars were not yet out. The silver moon was a sliver, the red remnants of the Khren’s Brow little more than a crimson glitter high above. I dismounted and climbed the dirt and dry grass up to Estevo, on the side of the riverbank, and there looked east. Already it was too dark, and the glass showed me little more than bleak shadows and the outlines of hills. I cursed.
“They haven’t moved,” Estevo whispered. He pointed. “At least not before the sun dropped. They were still where we last saw them, on the east side of the road.”
“Nothing there but grasses. So they haven’t built a fire, or we’d see it.”
“Or they found a low spot, or a cave, or…”
“Fine. But they’re still there.”
“I’d lay money.”
I returned the glass to him. “But you’re a shit gambler.”
“Better than you.”
I chuckled and led the way back down the hill. There we gave Estevo a fresh camel and he and I mounted up. I gathered the squad about me. They sat atop their camels and waited, having guessed what we were about.
I stared, taking everyone in in turn. Estevo, Ecena, Ahdan, and many others. Everyone here had been with us since we first took Onappa-ka; Serehvani like me and paler Lonireilans and westerners with their black eyes. The night whispered around us, finally cooling. The wind shook the grasses and dried our sweat.
“We,” I said, after a long silence, “are the Hand of the Knife. Yamurik and his soft porters back there are our responsibility. We are being hunted. You’ve all seen.” I glanced about again, looking for nods of agreement. “Do you like it?” Heads shook. “Do you like being prey? Nor do I. Tonight, the Hand will strike.”
There was a murmur of agreement, a rustle of hands touching spears and shields.
“After we leave this river bed, there will be no speaking. We ride,” I pointed. “You’ll follow me. We will hunt these stalkers. We ambush them. We’ll kill them all, all but one. This one, we leave alive to tell the tale. This one will spread the terror of our name. Understand?” Again, nods. “Questions? Speak now.”
Ecena. My teeth clenched and I hoped in the dark no one saw. “Corporal?”
She squinted a bit and waited before speaking. “Yamurik’s caravan. Are we certain they’re adequately defended?”
“If his mercenaries can’t protect him, he should hire better ones.”
“Corporal. Do you have a question or an objection?”
She closed her mouth. “Neither, sir.”
We rode up and over the rise, moving slow to keep the camels from protesting. As we went east, I pulled up my scarves to hide my face from the dust. I readied my spear, the familiar grip worn smooth and solid in my hand.
At the head of the group, I led us south once I judged the place right. My shield came up in my right hand. I motioned for those following me to spread out, to keep their eyes up and watching.
Far ahead the mountains of Avandeil rose, black shapes in the south. We guided our mounts through the knee-high grasses, slow and steady, maneuvering around rocks and over the low hillocks.
My squad spread out around me. I glanced down the line, back the other way. No waves to signal signs of scouts or sightings of the stalkers. I stopped beneath a small tree atop a hill, a frondy, spreading thing with new, thin leaves. The gnarled trunk twisted and curled like a serpent. I squinted out through the foliage and scanned the terrain below, more hills and shadows and hunched rocks. Amongst them, though, in a little dip between the hills, I saw shapes moving, a glow on the ground as of a hooded lantern. Our shadows, the ones who’d been stalking the caravan.
I was about to move on when someone, quite close, coughed.
I snapped my head toward the sound and my spear came up. There, at the base of the tree, was a young woman. She stared, eyes wide and white, a sheen of sweat showing on her brow in the sliver of moonlight. She was dressed like a Nabani fighter, in a deep blue turban and long robe and scarves. A sword was in her hand.
Our eyes met. She lunged up. My camel grunted and brayed as the sword nicked into it, but even as it did, it wheeled about. I thrust with my spear, skewering her through.
The woman fell off the blade, her blood showing black on the deep blue cloth of her robe. She sputtered and crawled for a moment, but soon fell and squirmed in the dirt.
One of the other riders burst in through the tree branches. To his credit, he said nothing as his mount grunted and mine continued to complain, but his eyes asked the question. I jabbed the woman again, stilling her, then pulled my mount around. It grunted, but responded, and I leaned out and down, trying to see its wound. The cut could not be deep; only a little blood stained its chest.
I pointed, and the rider departed the way he’d come. He made no sound, but began twirling his spear over head. I did the same, but rode out the other way. I guided my complaining camel into turning a circle and swept my spear overhead. Down the line, as far as I could see in the dark, my squad did likewise. I pointed and started moving, bringing my beast up to a trot.
Halfway down the hill, my squad began to fill in around me. They came closer, their mounts puffing, their spears and shields up. I pointed and they did likewise for the benefit of the rest. Our speed increased. The hoofbeats sounded in the grass and dirt. The wind streamed past us. Grasses swished and shook.
Below us, the five shadows stopped. Were they looking up in the dark at the line of approaching, silent phantoms? One of them shouted, words of panic in Serehvani echoing in the night.
With a Lonireilan battle cry, I spurred my mount to top speed. We thundered down the hill, spears bright and gleaming, as our enemies raced to draw swords in time.
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