As the sun rose in a misty yellow band. Redthorn was three days behind them. Caoinlin sat stiff and cramped on Flegel’s back. The brat dragged his hooves, more exhausted than his rider. Through the cool blue veil of morning mist, a dense forest rose like a fortress wall.
Caoinlin dismounted and led Flegel into the woods. The trees had long shed their leaves. Their muscular branches, gnarled and bugling, flexed up at the sky. Leaving the rising light behind them, Caoinlin and the brat crunched softly through the leaf litter and into the ever-present forest gloom.
But for the scattered harp of crickets and the distant echo of lonely birdsong, a hush embraced them. Caoinlin’s throat scratched for water. She paused to drink from her flask, Flegel watching her reproachfully.
“Where there are trees, there’s water.” She gave him a reassuring pat on the neck. He tossed his head, snorting in impatience.
Sighing, she poured the rest of her water into her cupped palm. Despite the water, she could feel the dryness of his tongue on her skin.
Two hours of searching and they discovered a trickle of a stream. The brat tugged away from her and plunged his nose into the deepest pocket he could find. While he drank, she removed the saddle and her supplies, including her armor. Her flask full again, she leaned back against a tree. Aches knotted through her limbs, even the soles of her feet pinched in discomfort. Dropping her head back against the tree, she closed her eyes.
Only for a moment, she told herself. And then promptly, she fell into a deep sleep.
Flegel’s alarmed neigh woke her.
Her eyes flew open in time to see the dark blur of movement right before a fist smashed into her face. Hot pain exploding across her cheek, she tumbled onto her side. She stretched, searching through the drifts of dried leaves for her sword.
Before she could find it, there was a knife to her throat.
Panting, she froze, on her back, steel biting at the tender pulsing flesh of her neck.
“Good evening,” a polite, smiling voice drawled.
Pain knocking through her, she blinked to clear her vision. The scantest moonshine filtered through the forest’s thick branches. A thin silhouette revealed itself, but nothing more.
“You seem a fine, wealthy fellow,” the thief said. Then more loudly. “What have we?”
His companion . . . no, two of his companions were tearing through her supplies.
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to take the lot?” She growled low to conceal her gender.
“It might,” the leader answered, conversationally, “but as I’m about to kill you, well, we’ll aim to travel light.”
“Kill me then.”
“In a hurry, are you? Well, I’m not one to rush if you don’t mind.” He drew back and struck her again. Lightning flashed across her vision, her eardrums thumped painfully.
His tone dropped to a lover’s whisper. “I like to soften my meat before I cut it.”
A dizzy wave swirled between her temples and the iron tang of blood touched her tongue.
And then his weight shifted.
He’s going to hit you again, a voice in her head that sounded very much like Fee said. Don’t let him.
Her arm flew up to block. The other whipped up and cracked against his jaw, throwing him off balance.
She lurched up to seize his knife. They tussled, rolling across the forest floor.
One of his companions grunted and approached. His silhouette like a boulder’s.
Caoinlin was bitten and pummeled, but she wrapped her fingers around his wrist—the hand that held the dagger—and didn’t let go. And then her assailant managed to latch his hand around her throat.
Her entire body bucked like a foal against him, but his grip dug, cutting off her air.
Her head felt as if it were swelling. But she kept his other arm extended away from her, the knife away from her. Her nails pierced his skin, blood trickling down her palm. Her lungs screamed for air.
Heart smashing against her chest, her free hand flung out in desperation, clawing at his face.
Unable to disengage the fight for the dagger, he released her throat to knock her hand away from his face. She gasped in a frantic breath.
Now! the voice urged.
Tucking her chin, she drove her forehead into his nose.
A hot, wet spray splattered her face. A choked gurgle left him. He dropped the dagger and toppled off of her.
She grabbed the dagger just as the second man moved to drive his foot down upon her.
One quick roll, a half-turn back, and she plunged the dagger into his calf.
His scream pierced sliced like razors against her eardrums.
She yanked the blade free, scrambling to her feet.
The third man froze, assessed the situation, and ran.
The second got back onto his feet and tackled her.
She hit the ground with an oof! Crushed beneath his mammoth body, she thrust the blade wherever she could.
He stiffened long enough for her to wriggle out from under him. As she was staggering away, her boot kicked against a rigid shape in the leaves. Sweeping the sword up form the ground, she spun and ran him through.
He jerked, made a hissing sound, thumped to the ground, and was silent.
Dizzy, she wove and collapsed.