(Another bit from an apparently unfinishable project.)
After Sharrec had fed the horses, he and Kayli ate breakfast together. Feris was still asleep after his shift on guard duty. Then Sharrec prepared to continue the previous day’s work. “There isn’t much left to do, so tell Feris there’s no hurry,” he said. “He can come along when he’s had something to eat.”
“Be careful of those dogs,” Kayli told him.
He nodded, and picked up his bow and quiver. “I’d guess they’re not wild enough yet that I can’t scare them off, but better safe than sorry.”
Kayli stepped outside with him. It was still early, but the sun was over the eastern horizon and shining brightly. There was barely a trace of cloud in the sky. “Another fine day for traveling,” Sharrec said. “Let’s hope we get to do some soon.”
After he had driven away with the wagon, Kayli stayed outside for a little while longer. It was easier to be out here now that there were no bodies lying around. But the near-silence was eerie. Her own village had been quiet; most small ones were. Any place where people lived could never be truly silent, though. Even at night, when it seemed everyone was asleep, there would still be sounds: restless animals in their stalls and pens, hungry babies crying, voices and stirrings. There was a world of difference between quiet and silence. It was the silence which finally drove her back into the house.
She found herself missing her home now, more than she had since leaving. To her surprise she realized this was more due to boredom than anything else. There would have been work to do at home; there was always work to do. If she wasn’t helping her mother in the house or her father in the shop, she would be visiting her patients. There hadn’t been much time to think about that daily routine while she was concentrating on following the marauders’ trail. Now it seemed she could think of little else. What she’d been doing since arriving in this village felt like a parody of her old life, and made her uneasy.
When Feris woke up he had his breakfast and then went to join Sharrec. Less than an hour later she became aware of a faint new smell in the air, a combination of wood smoke and something sweeter. She knew what it was, of course; she and her companions had left that smell behind them a number of times on the trail. This time, though, it was stronger, and thicker.
The man on the floor coughed suddenly, struggling to sit up. Kayli hurried to his side. “Careful,” she said, as she propped his head up on a cushion. “You shouldn’t move too much.”
“Some water, please,” he said, his voice husky.
When Kayli had helped him drink he lay quietly for a moment, studying her and the rest of his surroundings. She felt his pulse and listened to his breathing. His eyes were clear again and he seemed comfortable.
Finally, smiling a little, he said, “So you’re still here.”
“Sort of thought I dreamed you.” He looked around the little house again. “I must have dreamed the bear though, right?”
Kayli chuckled. “No, the bear was here.”
“No. You’ll see him again later.” Now that she had finished her examination, Kayli made herself comfortable in the chair again. “I just remembered, we haven’t really met,” she told him. “I’m Kayli; my friends are Sharrec and Feris.”
“And which of them is the bear?” he asked. His tone suggested that he still wasn’t sure if he believed her.
“Feris. That is, part of the time he’s a bear. Part of the time he’s a man.” Kayli laughed a little again. “I’m sorry; I know that must sound mad.”
“No, I remember now – I saw him change, didn’t I? Before. So he’s fyorri?”
Kayli shook her head. “No; lycan.” She saw by his puzzled expression that he didn’t know the word, and she added, “He’s a werebear.”
The man frowned. “I heard of werewolves before – evil beasts. Never heard of a werebear.”
“Feris is a good man; you’ll see. And you?”
“And me, what? A good man?” He smiled. “I like to think so.”
She smiled back. “I meant, what’s your name?”
“Ah. It’s Yvan,” he replied.
“How do you know about fyorri, Yvan? I never even knew they were real until a short time ago.”
“One of my best friends was a fyorri wolf. Well – still is, I suppose. Haven’t seen him for years.” He sounded sad, and Kayli had one of her intuitive flashes again. Somehow his sadness was connected not only to his absent friend, but to the lovely portrait she had found in his bag. She wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she was certain of it.
“What do you remember about what happened here?” she asked, sensing it was best to let the other matter rest.
“I’ll tell you, Miss: I seen a lot of fighting in my life. This was some of the worst.” He shook his head. “Wouldn’t even call it fighting so much. More like slaughter.”
“We’ve seen the same in other villages,” Kayli told him. “Five now – or is it six? Including my home.”
“I’m sorry,” Yvan said, and it sounded heartfelt. “How long you been following them?”
“Weeks, I suppose.” Kayli’s shoulders slumped; she felt the burden of all that time and distance. “Too long. I wonder if we’ll ever catch them.”
“And what happens if you do? If a whole village – or five villages – can’t beat them, what can the three of you do?”
Kayli smiled, but without humor. “I’m hoping we’ll work that out by the time we get there.”
Yvan seemed to think that over for a moment, and then he nodded. “You’d be surprised how any times I seen that kind of plan work out. But it might work better if you had a little extra help.”
“I couldn’t let you do that,” Kayli protested. “You’ve been badly hurt – ”
“And the fellow who hurt me won’t be hurting anybody again.” There was a suggestion of a growl in the big man’s voice, and Kayli wondered for a moment if he might not be fyorri as well.
“You said yourself that we don’t have much chance,” she reminded him.
“Probably not. But I ain’t one to walk away fom helping someone who needs it – especially after they help me first.”
For the time being, Kayli decided not to discuss it further. Of course she and the others could use Yvan’s help. But with his injuries, just getting on a horse would be risking his life all over again. She didn’t want that on her head because of a hasty decision.
“The first thing to do is get you healed and rested,” she reminded him. “After that we’ll worry about the next part of the journey.”
Yvan frowned. “If I’d been quicker in that fight, I wouldn’t be slowing you down waitin’ on me.”
Kayli felt herself blush. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean – ”
“No, no.” The big man waved a dismissive hand. “It’s nobody’s fault but the man who cut me … if you can call them men. Seems too good for ‛em if you ask me.”
His voice cracked into hoarseness again as he spoke, and Kayli got up to fetch some more water for him. “Yet you couldn’t call them animals either,” she said as she brought the cup back.
“Animals kill for food, or defense. These men say they kill because their god tells them to do it.” She remembered Sharrec’s anger when she had called him an animal once. Maybe they had both been wrong.
Yvan nodded, and took a long drink of water. “No good ever come of a man forgettin’ how to think for himself.”
“Or a woman either,” Kayli added with a smile.
“Women are less likely to do it, though.” Yvan’s expression grew thoughtful, and he looked around the room.
“What is it?” Kayli asked.
“Well, it ain’t important but … I don’t suppose one of you could fetch my saddlebags from the inn, could you?”
Kayli smiled. “Sharrec already found them, and your horse as well.”
“Ah, good.” Yvan’s face brightened. “I sent him off when the fighting started; he must’ve got tired of waiting for me.”
Kayli brought the two bags to him. “Was there something in particular that you needed?” she asked, guessing she knew what it was.
Yvan pulled the smaller bag close, then dug through it until he found the little portrait in its wrapper. He carefully unfolded the silk, his hands surprisingly gentle for their size. “I pack this careful so it don’t get broken, but I still like to check sometimes.” He held the portrait so Kayli could see it.
She studied the face for the second time. “She’s very pretty.”
Yvan grinned. “She’s prettier than this, really. I’m no artist, and I was only workin’ from memory.”
Kayli looked up as Sharrec and Feris entered the house. Their hands and faces had been freshly scrubbed, but their clothes still carried a strong smell of smoke. Neither of them looked to be in a mood for conversation, so Kayli only nodded to them as they went to get dinner from the pot. She didn’t think she would have been able to eat if she’d done the work they had done today. On the other hand, their bodies would demand to be fed after their hard morning.
She turned back to Yvan. “You painted it?”
“Had somebody else try once, but he couldn’t get it right. So I had him give me some lessons instead.”
Kayli watched as Yvan carefully tucked the portrait away again. “She must be important to you, if you were that determined to get the portrait right.” She sensed Sharrec and Feris listening as she asked, “Who is she?”
“Her name is Zania. Zania Corthinn-Aldien. She’s an old friend.”
Something in his tone encouraged her to press further. “Another friend you haven’t seen for a time?”
Yvan nodded. “She’s … Well, she’s like no one else in this world.”
The phrase sounded unexpectedly poetic, and told Kayli much more than the rest of what Yvan had said. Here was a man who had been away from home a long time, as Sharrec had guessed earlier, and away from this woman too. Though he called her a friend, clearly she was much more to him than that. He loved her, and for some reason he had been forced to leave her.
“Is she … I mean, she’s still alive, isn’t she?” Feris asked quietly.
“Far as I know, yes.” Yvan smiled briefly. “I like to think I’d know if she wasn’t.”
He seemed lost in thought for a moment, and the others waited to see if he would say any more. When he spoke again, though, he changed the subject. “Kayli and me were talkin’ about where you’re going from here,” he told the other men. “You planning to stay on your trail?”
“We’ll get back on it as soon as we can,” Sharrec said. Kayli thought he sounded more confident now than he had when they discussed the question earlier. Perhaps the work he and Feris had done had helped make up his mind? She wondered if Feris felt the same way; she even wondered if she could find that same resolve in herself.
Yvan nodded. “I’ll be going with you, then. It’s been a while since I had a good path to follow.”
After dinner Feris and Sharrec went to finish their work. Yvan slept on the floor – “I’ve had worse beds,” he told Kayli – and Kayli surprised herself by doing the same on the crude bed.
(Another excerpt from my fantasy novel River’s End, which is available on Lulu.)
The rest of the afternoon passed slowly. From the noises outside, it seemed the Hrel grew livelier as the day went on. I had hoped they might get drunk enough to make our escape easier. But there were so many of them, it probably wouldn’t make any difference.
The air in the prison tent remained humid and hot throughout the afternoon, and we all kept as still as possible. Palven stayed with Niniena, talking to her quietly, telling her what he had been through to find her. Little by little, she seemed to take more interest in his story, and he kept talking steadily, as one would to a frightened horse. She calmed down, but clung to Palven as if desperate not to lose him again.
I talked with Dalia and some of the others for a while, trying to convince them we would all be rescued that night. Dalia was the only one who appeared to believe me. I found out she was Aril’s wife. The rest of their family — their parents, their young son and Aril’s three sisters — had all been killed during the raid on the village.
Late in the afternoon, there came a disturbance outside the tent. We had been hearing, off and on, the sounds of the game going on between the guards. Occasionally I noticed a different voice as someone else joined in for a time, but the game never ended.
Suddenly, though, we heard a shout: “What’s happening here? You men are supposed to be on guard, not emptying each other’s pockets!” The accent was clipped but musical, like the southerners I had sometimes heard in the marketplace of Ocrisia.
"We’re just passing the time, Vanvir," one of the guards protested. I remembered that name from before. Escolt or his partner had mentioned it; they had wanted to bring Palven and me to the Chief "before Vanvir finds out."
"You’re more likely to pass out, the way you’ve been drinking," Vanvir said. "Get out of here. I’ll get somebody sober to replace you."
We heard some low grumbling, but apparently the guards didn’t dare argue with the man. I heard them walking away, and then the tent flap was eased open. A tall, dark-skinned man stepped in, then quickly looked around outside before closing the flap again.
Palven jumped up. “What in the name of —”
"Quiet." Without another word, Vanvir pulled a long knife out from under his scarlet cloak and handed it to Palven. To his credit, Palven didn’t try to take advantage of this. He simply took the weapon, and waited with the rest of us to see what would happen next.
"I believe these belong to you, Miss," Vanvir went on. He handed over my knife belt, my bow and quiver, all of which had been hidden under the cloak.
"What are you doing?" I didn’t take my eyes off him as I returned my weapons to their proper places.
"What does it look like? I’m going to get you out of here tonight."
"Why?" Palven sounded as suspicious as I felt.
Vanvir smiled. “Let’s say I’ve got a score to settle with the Chief, and you’ve given me the chance.
“I have to go now, but I’ll be back.” As quickly as he had entered, he left the tent. Soon afterwards, we heard the new guards take up their positions.
"Do you trust him?" Dalia asked.
Palven examined his knife critically. “If he’s planning to cheat us, he’s also given us a way to repay him for it. I’d say we can trust him for now.”
I quickly made contact with Kahri again and informed him of this unexpected development. Do you believe you can trust this man? he wanted to know.
Do we have a choice?
We will be there after dark. You can wait for us.
We may need all the help we can get.
He paused for a moment, as if he needed to consider that. You are right, of course, he went on at last, but take care. Keep your eyes on him.
Of course I will.
It seemed a long time until dark. Of course, it was dim all the time inside the tent, but we knew when the sun finally set because our prison grew somewhat cooler then. There seemed to be more men coming into the camp too: the noise outside doubled in volume. Apparently, the Hrel planned to carry on their daytime revels into the night as well.
I concentrated on sharpening my fighting-knives, checking the edges with my thumb in the dark. It helped me keep my patience, and ignore my increasing hunger. Palven sat silently playing with his own knife. I sensed his nervousness clearly in my mind. Niniena and some of the others were asleep.
When I had finished with my knives, I held one of them out to Dalia. “Can you use this?”
She hesitated, then took it from me. “I’ll do what I can.”
"Do your best; that’s all I ask. Just be careful if you’re using it in the dark. You want to hit the right targets."
She smiled faintly, and seemed about to reply when we heard a disturbance outside the tent. We had barely hidden our weapons – knives concealed by our clothing, my bow and quiver under a blanket — when the door flap was flung open. Three men stood outside with torches in their hands. Smoke stung my eyes as one of the men walked into the tent with his torch held high enough that I could see his face. It was Escolt.
He looked around at us, then pointed with one finger to Niniena, two other girls, and myself. “You four, come along. The Chief’s having a little party tonight, and he wants some company.”
None of us moved at first. Then Escolt took hold of Niniena, who was closest to him, and yanked her upright. Palven jumped up too, and I saw in a flash what he meant to do. He had not yet reached for his knife when I gathered my power and shouted at him mentally: STOP!
I didn’t know whether he would be able to hear me, but he hesitated and looked over at me as I stood up. Escolt gave him a shove, and he stepped back without resisting. The other two girls got up too, and Escolt motioned us out of the tent ahead of himself.
As we walked through the camp, surrounded by the three Hrel, I breathed a sigh of relief that Palven had stopped in time. If he had attacked, we might all have been killed. Seeing Niniena threatened had caused a predictable response: he had temporarily lost his good sense. I would never have that problem with Kahri, thank goodness. He wasn’t the sort to let emotions get the better of thinking.
We were led to the largest tent in the camp, much bigger than the one where Palven and I had been presented to the Chief earlier. Half a dozen small braziers lighted the interior, and the Chief and several of his men were sitting or reclining on cushions all around the floor. All of them were busy drinking and eating; most of them already appeared drunk.
"Ah, here they are!" the Chief shouted at our arrival. "The pretty village peasants. Come over here, Niniena, my love." The girl stepped over to him as if in a trance, and knelt down on a cushion next to him. I wondered how she could still be so subservient to the man, knowing as she did that her husband had come to rescue her. Perhaps even now she still didn’t believe that rescue would happen.
"Who’s that one?" the Chief went on, pointing to me.
"One of the spies we caught today, sir," Escolt replied, pushing me forward a bit.
"What’s your name then, girl?"
"Zania Arathel Onisar-Corthinn," I answered, proudly stating my full name, as I almost never did.
"Sir," Escolt prompted me with a poke in the small of my back.
"Sir," I replied through my teeth.
"Well, ain’t she pretty," the Chief chuckled. "Who should I give her to, boys?"
"Too mean for my taste," the man sitting closest to him said. I silently applauded his good judgment.
"Not as nice as those village girls," another added.
I could see by now that the Chief wasn’t interested in me as a spy. This was just a game to him, and I was the prize he would award.
Suddenly I caught sight of Vanvir, in a rear corner of the tent. I only looked at him long enough to see his nod, but the Chief noticed my glance. He interrupted the increasingly noisy comments from the other men. “Hey, boys, I think she’s taken a fancy to Vanvir there! How about if I give her to him?”
The others seemed to find this funny, and the Chief was laughing too as he went on. “You wouldn’t like him, girl. He couldn’t keep hold of his last woman, and you look harder to handle than she was.”
"Ah, let him have her," said one of the men who had brought me to the tent. "She’s only fit for that much."
The Chief seemed to be tiring of the game too. “Go on then, girl. See if you can’t toughen him up.”
If not for Kahri’s training on controlling my emotions, I could have cheerfully knifed the man right then, for his bad manners alone. Instead, I turned without a word and headed toward Vanvir’s corner. A few of the men made half-hearted grabs at my ankles or further up my legs as I passed, but none of them actually stopped me. The Chief had already returned to his wine cup, and the noise grew again as I sat down on a cushion at Vanvir’s side. My back was to the wall of the tent, exactly as I wanted.
Vanvir put one arm around behind my back, though without touching me. I moved over closer to him, realizing he was trying to make it easier for us to talk without being overheard. “Are your friends ready to go?” he asked, without taking his eyes off the Chief.
"As soon as you say so."
"Good. I hope you know how to use those weapons of yours."
I fingered the reassuringly solid hilt of my remaining fighting knife, carefully hidden under my tunic. “Don’t worry about me. Anyway, I didn’t have a chance to tell you earlier —”
"As soon as he’s drunk enough, we’ll leave," Vanvir interrupted. He didn’t seem to have heard my last remark. "By that time, it should be dark enough to keep us hidden, too."
I quickly probed into his mind, and saw one overwhelming image there: himself, killing the Chief in this tent. The escape wasn’t important to him at all. It was just an added strike at the Hrel before he left them.
"You can’t beat them alone," I said. With that, he finally took notice of what I was saying. "Even if you manage to kill him, the others will have you down before you make it to the doorway."
He stared at me, plainly surprised. “How did you know —”
"Never mind!" We were still speaking in whispers, but I felt the strain in my throat as I tried to keep from shouting. "I was trying to tell you: we have friends outside the camp. They may even be in the camp right now. They’ll help us all escape."
"How many of them?"
"Enough." I hoped it was true. "Now, will you please reconsider your plan?"
"All right." He nodded abruptly. "I’ll help you escape, if you’ll help me do the same. Just let me do a little damage on my way out, will you?"
I smiled. A new contact with his thoughts told me he was willing to settle for “a little damage.” “I promise you’ll get your chance. All we have to do now is wait.”
We sat for what seemed hours, watching the other men carefully. They grew still more uproarious as the wine continued to flow, and I guessed it wouldn’t take long before we could walk out without being noticed. Occasionally the Chief or one of the others remembered to make some joke at Vanvir’s expense. To my surprise and relief, the man beside me remained outwardly calm, though I sensed the anger growing in him.
At last he stood up, slowly, and took my hand to pull me up after him. “Come along. It’s time.”
We were halfway to the door when the Chief called out. “Not tired of us already, are you, Vanvir? Hey, the fun’s only beginning!”
"He’s got to try out the new goods," one of the others said.
There was general laughter, which stopped abruptly as something hissed through the air above the men’s heads. A feathered arrow buried itself in the center post of the tent and stuck there, quivering.
"Don’t move!" a voice called from outside, while the Hrel were still struck speechless. "We want your prisoners out here now!" I could hardly believe what I heard: it was Kahri. So much for not letting his emotions get the better of him; this uncharacteristic recklessness had just made our escape much more complicated.
The Chief, as might have been expected, didn’t take the orders seriously. “Come and get them, coward dogs!” he shouted, with a slur to his words. “We fought for them once; we’ll do it again!” His men drunkenly seconded this brave speech.
A second arrow struck right below the first. This one was burning, and it soon set fire to the tent post as well. The Hrel stared as if unable to decide what they should do about it.
Enough was enough. In two steps I was at the Chief’s side, the point of my knife pressing against his chest. “We’re leaving now, and I’ll be taking the other girls with me. Do yourself a favor and don’t follow us too quickly.”
Niniena seemed to still be in her strange trance, though I couldn’t tell now if it wasn’t more drink than fear that had caused it. I didn’t know if Vanvir had a weapon handy or not, and in any case I didn’t want to take a chance on him stopping to kill the Chief. “Take the girls out,” I told him, never taking my eyes off the man under my knife. “I’ll follow you.”
The fire had nearly spread to the roof. I listened with more than my ears to be sure Vanvir and the three girls left the tent. “He wanted very much to kill you, Chief,” I said. “If you come after us, I may let him.” Then I quickly turned to follow Vanvir.
Maybe the sound of the flames distracted me, or perhaps it was my own haste. But one of the men must have been less drunk than he appeared. I didn’t sense the knife coming until it was too late. I twisted aside enough that it only stuck in my right shoulder instead of my neck, but the damage was done.
I stumbled out of the burning tent, almost falling into Fenik’s arms. “We have to get away.”
"Are you all right, Zania?" He tried to turn me around, then I felt him grasp the handle of the knife protruding from my shoulder. Before I could stop him, he pulled the blade out. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.
When I was able to speak again, I said, “I’ll be all right now.” I turned around, and saw that Clondird and Heth had captured Vanvir. Clondird had one arm around Vanvir’s throat, as if awaiting a signal to break it.
"Let him go," I said, as Fenik led me away from the tent. "He’s helping us."
The pain in my shoulder left me lightheaded, and for some time I didn’t know exactly what was happening. Someone said, “Take her to the trees,” and I heard a sudden uproar somewhere behind me. I turned around, intending to go back to the fight, but I was irresistibly led away from it. Then I found myself standing in the forest outside the clearing, with Jain.
"Risch made me stay back as a rear guard," she told me in mock-disgust. Then she saw my wound. "Zania! What happened?"
"It’s not serious." Ignoring my protests, Jain carefully wiped the blood away from the wound, and applied pressure to slow the bleeding.
The cool night air cleared my head a bit, and I tried to look back toward the battle as Jain worked. But there were too many tents between the middle of the clearing and the edge of the forest, where we were standing. I could hear the noise, but the action was out of my sight.
"Have you gotten anyone else out?"
"No. Fenik and Kahri decided to go for the biggest target first."
I cursed under my breath. I hadn’t expected an all-out attack like this; I had thought it would be a quick escape. Otherwise, I might have let Vanvir kill the Chief. I couldn’t imagine why Kahri would do this. Perhaps his thirst for revenge had taken over after all.
"There’s a tent full of prisoners somewhere around here," I said. "Palven is with them."
Jain finished with my shoulder, and dropped the bloody cloth she had used on the ground. “Well, then, why don’t we go and get them?”
“My thoughts exactly.”
As we started back into the camp, a group of shadowy forms loomed up in front of us. My hand moved automatically to my knife-hilt.
“Zania, is that you?” Vanvir’s voice.
“Vorraine monith! You almost had a blade in your heart.”
“Sorry. I’ve brought the girls here to keep them safe; I have to get back to the fight.”
“What’s happening?” Jain and I asked together.
“It’s hard to tell … There are so many people all of a sudden.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Just point us toward the prisoners’ tent, and you can get back there.”
Jain and I had been heading in the wrong direction; Vanvir showed us which way to go. The guards still stood outside the tent, though even from this distance they looked fidgety. Vanvir set off at a run for the center of the camp, while Jain and I led the girls around the back of the tents.
It seemed to take a long time to get to the right place, and my shoulder was hurting again by the time we stood behind the tent. Jain patted the back panel to make sure no one was leaning against it, then stuck her knife through the canvas a little above shoulder height. I joined her in cutting an opening there.
When we had made two parallel cuts down to the bottom of the tent wall, an arm poked out underneath the flap. Then the canvas was flung aside, and Palven stood there with his knife in his hand. If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have laughed at the astonished expression on his face.
“Come out,” I said. “We have fighting to do.”
He didn’t move. “Is she with you?”
“Yes. Vanvir helped us get out. But we have to get moving now.”
He disappeared back inside, and then Dalia came out, with the rest of the women after her. Finally, Palven came out again. He stepped over to Niniena and put his arms around her. She stood still for a moment, then hid her face against his shoulder as he spoke softly to her.
“What is that noise?” Dalia asked.
The fight was moving closer now. As Jain and I stepped toward the front of the tent, we saw the two guards go running off. When we came around the corner, the whole fight lay spread out before us. In the center of the camp, the big tent still burned. All around it, the Hrel fought our friends. But many of them were also fighting with each other; apparently Vanvir wasn’t the only one who had a “score to settle” in this violent band.
I saw Lodniel go down with a knife in his throat. Kahri was nowhere in sight.
“We’re outnumbered,” Jain exclaimed. “It’s all gone wrong!”
“We have to get them out of the fight,” I decided.
Dalia had come up beside us. “What can I do?”
I called to Palven, and he joined us too. “We have to do something before they’re all killed,” I went on.
Suddenly, as if answer to my words, a long, wailing howl sounded in the air. I knew that ghastly sound well, though it had been a long time since I’d heard it. Palven’s face went white. “Mar valos! What was that?”
“The merrindo,” I answered. “It means death.”
“Death.” He stared out at the battle for a moment. “It can’t last much longer,” he said. “What can we do against so many?”
I wanted to shake him, shock him back to the real world. “We have to do something!”
The merrindo screamed again. Then Palven seemed to pull himself together. “Dalia, take Niniena and the others back to the forest,” he ordered. “If we don’t come back, find your way to the river. We’ve left horses there; you can get away.”
I expected an argument from Dalia; instead, she nodded and moved away. Palven turned to me. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s nothing important.”
He shrugged. “Then are we ready to go?”
Jain and I nodded, and we all three stepped out into the light of the fire.
We separated in order to work faster. I made my way to Heth’s side first, and helped him draw his opponent back into the shadows. When that Hrel was finished, we went back to the fight as a team. Palven and Jain worked hard too, freeing first one, then another of our allies from their fights. I ignored my wound as well as I could, though it was beginning to feel like a hot iron against my shoulder. The merrindo wailed continually in the background, the eerie sound somehow carrying over all the noise of fighting and fire.
After a long time, Fenik, Risch, Jain, Clondird and I gathered in the shadows between the tents. Fenik and Jain were both trying to stop me from going back to the fight. I was busy arguing with them when Clondird shouted, “Look!”
We all turned to see what he was pointing at. There, near the collapsed, smoldering tent, were Vanvir and the Chief, fighting alone. Some of the other fighters had stopped to watch them as well, and soon the whole battle came to a halt as all attention centered on those two men.
Both had long knives in their hands, and they slashed and parried furiously. But both seemed to be losing strength and slowing. At one moment Vanvir had a clear advantage, and I heard one of the Hrel say, “Keep back, boys. It’s the Chief’s fight now.”
Aril, Palven and Heth joined my group. “Now’s our chance to escape,” Palven said.
I looked around at my friends. They were all wounded, Aril and Clondird barely keeping their feet. But I could tell by their faces that they felt the same way I did. “Not without Kahri and Vanvir,” I said firmly.
Palven seemed about to protest, then looked around and shut his mouth. We watched the fight go on.
Both Vanvir and the Chief appeared to be on the point of collapse by now. Suddenly the Chief reached out and shoved Vanvir backward. Vanvir stumbled and fell flat on his back.
The watching Hrel moved forward as the Chief raised his blade to finish Vanvir off. The long knife had reached the top of its arc when something hissed out from the shadows. An arrow sprouted from the Chief’s raised arm, followed by another that slammed into his heart. He stared toward the place where the arrows had come from with a stunned expression on his face, as his arm fell.
He staggered sideways and crumpled into the dying fire as Kahri stepped out of the shadows. “It is finished,” my partner said sternly, as if defying all of the Hrel to contradict him.
“Aye, it is,” said one of the bandits. “Looks like we have a new Chief, boys.” He stepped forward and helped Vanvir up. “Here he is.”
I watched with a growing sense of unreality as the Hrel cheered Vanvir. Two of the men grabbed Kahri; he didn’t resist as they led him to the new Chief. “We’ll catch the others soon enough,” one of them said. “What should we do with this one?”
“Let him go,” Vanvir said. “They are no longer our prisoners. And we have more important things to do; there are too many dead and wounded here.”
He started giving orders, as though this outcome had been planned for. My friends and I slowly moved out into the light, ignored by the busy Hrel. “I don’t know whether to believe this or not,” Risch muttered. He was probably expressing the same feeling all of us had.
Fenik turned to me. “You don’t look well, Zania.”
I couldn’t answer him. All I wanted to do was fall unconscious, if possible. Anything to stop the pain.
“Come on; we’ll take her to one of these tents,” Jain said. “We all need looking after.”
Fenik caught me as I collapsed, and picked me up in his arms. I was only half-conscious during the short walk to a nearby tent. Somebody brought a light in as Fenik lowered me onto the cushions covering the floor. As soon as I was lying down, I let myself go. Everything immediately went black.
The blackness didn’t last; before long, I felt a gentle touch on my mind. Zania, my cousin. You will be well soon.
I should have listened to you, Kahri.
There was a hint of laughter in his voice, even with his concern for me. I could not have stopped you; I know that.
I roused myself enough to ask, Are you hurt?
Only a small wound, he assured me. Do not worry. I will care for the others as well.
You saved Vanvir. How did you know?
From you. I felt your concern for him.
You saved all of us.
Rest now, he said quietly. You will feel better in the morning.