Heart racing, she dashed into the fog. The chilled mist closed around her like a fist, allowing her only the barest glimpses of the frantic townsfolk flowing up and down the steep, slick hillside road. Some raced up the hill and others down, all silent except for the urgent puffs of their breath and splash and sluck of their feet through the mud.
Caoinlin hung there, searching through the fog. In the distance, a rumble of shouts.
She hurried toward it. She’d donned her mail and breastplate but had left off the rest of her armor. Was it better to go into battle without it or miss the battle entirely to fumble about with straps and buckles?
She didn’t know. And the closer she came, the louder the noise of war—the thrum of the arrow strings, the crack of steel blades, the shrieks of agony—the less certain she felt. Perhaps the men at the inn had been right. What did she know about battle? Who was she to come here and think that she could make a difference?
Half-running, half-sliding down the hill, she reached the bottom only to find herself standing at the top of another hill. At the bottom of that hill, through the gray mist swirling off the river, a bevy of shadows roiled, indistinct, nightmarish.
Halfway down, a fortification of wood and stone had been erected. There a reserve of men stood behind, in case the marauders should break through. Archers balanced on the scaffolds, between the spiked timbers, firing at the long, shallow boats barely visible through the dense shields of fog.
She stumbled down the hill, slipping and sliding. Icy mud soaked through her trousers, collecting on her boots in clods, sucking at her feet as if trying to stop her.
A heavy hand caught her before she lost her footing and tumbled into the wooden wall.
“Are you ready to die, ma wee un?” the green-eyed man asked.
Even if she’d had the breath to answer, she wasn’t given a chance before he steered her to a pile of rough-hewn boulders that lead up and over the wall. He shoved her up the makeshift steps, past the archers and warriors guarding the way.
At the top, he gave her a shove. Over.
She barely had time to gasp before she was tumbling ten feet to the ground.
“Sinnsirean protect you!” he called.
She landed on the other side in a heap and immediately began to slide downhill, carried by her momentum straight into the snarling, screaming knot of battle at the riverbanks. Mud flew into her mouth, cold and thick.
The moment she came to rest, amidst the stamping feet and clattering weapons, the air above her hissed as it was sliced by the edge of a blade. Throwing her body back, she hefted up her shield.
Splinters of wood rained down on her face. The deadly glint of metal winked down at her through the back slats of her shield. Its gleam brought the world into sharp focus. The blur of limbs and weapons slowed, every motion carving itself through time unhurried. Sound receded, diminishing to distant echoes, until only the thunder of her heart and the rasp of her breath registered in her ears. Even the dull ache from her fall, the frigid weight of mud, the strain of her muscles pushing against her attacker—still bearing his weight down upon his weapon and the shield and her beneath—faded to the back of her awareness.
A roar built in her chest and erupted out of her mouth.
She would not die. Not today.
Not while she had a promise to keep.
Kicking out, she knocked her attacker off his feet.
He fell onto his back in the same slow-drift motion, like an autumn leaf drifting on placid air toward the ground.
But she leaped to her feet in a flash.
She did not see.
Coal-black eyes widening.
She did not hear.
The gasp. The murmur of foreign words. A prayer? A name?
She did not feel.
When the silvery steel of her blade rose painted crimson, the color burned through the blue-gray phantoms of fog. And when it whooshed around to meet the next invader, it trailed like a banner.
The hours, the years, spent training evaporated from her mind as she dodged from curved blades that seemed to come from nowhere.
Acrid smoke bit at the back of her throat, spiced by the salt of sweat.
Someone kicked her in the gut, below her breastplate, and she dropped to her knees, a lightning bolt of pain lanced through the numbness of the battle-spell.
Her teeth gnashed together. Her ears rang. Her heart sprinted. Her breath heaved.
And then it swept away again.
Twisting, her sword swung out, stopping the blade that arched for the back of her neck.
On her knees, she blocked and parried. When she had the opening, she drove her weight behind her blade and into the marauder’s stomach.
Tumbling, she landed on the marauder's legs.
The eerie blue curve of his sword lashed down at her.
Her forearm rose. But her shield was gone. When had she dropped it?
A wild-animal screamed. A wolf, howling in anguish.
But no, it was her. The blade had struck her arm, cut to the bone.
It rode upon her like a black rider at full gallop. Pain. His sac-cloth cloak snapped over her vision. Bile burned her tongue. Her head wobbled on her neck.
Time raced suddenly, bodies and swords melding into an indistinguishable blur.
Her lungs ached to pull breath, but it wouldn’t seem to come.
Then, as though a ghost knelt beside her, whispering, she heard him. Fee.
“Not today,” he said.
Like water pouring from a rain-swollen gutter, air gushed into her lungs.
Growling, she dropped her sword, seized her enemy’s wrist, and in one sharp twist, fractured his wrist.
Then her sword was in her hand again. Her feet on the ground.
The world slowed again before her.
And after, all she could remember was a crimson banner fluttering through the fog.