Smoke tainted the fog, pricking at her eyes.
She left Flegel a quarter of a mile downriver, though she did not know the distance precisely, only that she dismounted when the screams first reached her ears. She fastened a rope around the axe, slung it around her back, and secured it. Flegel stamped his hooves in protest when she left, but the thrum in her blood gripped her now; anticipation coursing through her faster than the winter-bloated current of the river.
She didn’t look back.
She stayed to the river’s edge and the cloaking mists that clung to the water. The only noise she allowed to escape her was the soft rasp of her breath between her lips.
The shouts grew more distinct. Before long, the rapid, tongue-twisting language of the Ulic distinguished itself from the shouts and roar of wood burning. Their words seemed to be nothing but ul’s and ah’s that came in long unbroken breaths. The sounds made her heart race and her chest heave. But then she reminded herself of what Nevan had said and took her fear in hand. Their language was not the enemy, no more than their black eyes. It was their actions. Their invasion. Their thieving. Their murdering. That was what she fought. Not even the men themselves. For men could change. No, she was not here to stop men. But stop the terror they brought. And once this revelation settled in her, the fear seeped away like water draining. Her limbs lightened and her mind quieted, leaving her senses room to expand and react.
Spires of orange flame pierced the thick smoke and thicker fog uphill.
Like Greggory, Orisand was perched on a hilltop that rose steeply up from the river. Not far ahead, the shadows of ships lurked. She feared if she continued along the bank any further, she would be spotted.
Stopping, she eyed the fast-moving, winter-gray water.
Removing her leather jerkin and the boiled wool tunic beneath and her boots, she weighted them under a rock and hoped that she’d be able to find them again. It would better to have dry clothes waiting for her, if she survived.
Securing the axe, her teeth started to chatter. She jumped up and down, slapping her skin and focused on the sounds of the Ulic, attempting to measure how far they were. Their voices were echoes, coming down the hill. It seemed Nevan had been right—if there were any Ulic on the ships, they were silent.
Once her pulse thrummed down to her fingertips, she let out a deep breath and waded into the frigid water.
The cold stole her breath and stabbed like an icy blade at the heat in her belly, trying to pierce and extinguish it. But she plunged deeper, remembering the lessons Fee had taught her.
The bottom dropped off only a few paces from the shore. It was colder than she remembered from three weeks ago.
The river pushed her forward as she swam, wiggling her fingers and toes as she went to keep them curling in on themselves against the cold. Her cotton mask clung heavily to her face, but she would not remove it. As the river bent away from the town, it tried to pull her toward the middle. She fought to remain in the shallows, close to the steep embankment beneath the town, but the current had her. It swept her downriver, faster than she’d anticipated.
Fog boiled on the water and clouded everything.
She could hardly hear the Ulic for the river’s susurrations in her ears.
Throwing all her effort in, she swam hard until her feet touched the bank again. But it took her a moment to sense it. She’d lost feeling in her toes. The brume closed in around her. Silently, she cursed. She’d lost track of where she was. What if she’d gone too far?
She glanced over her shoulder, squinting through the mist, searching for the fires devouring the town.
The back of her head thudded against the hull of a vessel. She nearly cried out. Her hand flew to the top of her head, which rang doubly, from the blow and the cold.
And then a voice stopped her where she was, hand on her head, teeth gritted, unforgiving water surging around her torso attempting to drag her away again.
An Ulic voice.
It sounded as though it was right above her. She didn’t dare look up to see if she’d been spotted.
Sucking in a quick breath, she plunged under the water and the boat.
Eyes closed, she felt along the belly of the ship, following its shallow keel toward the river bank.
When she popped up on the other side of the ship, she gritted her teeth to keep from gasping from the shock of cold needling into her skull.
She found herself lodged between two vessels.
Their single masts skewered the mist and towered over her, dark and blunt. Nevan had been right. They were not like ships she’d seen. They were like half-submerged sea beasts, painted with strange geometric symbols in bright cobalt and crimson that made her dizzy as she scanned their sides. She ran her hand over the hull. It was hard to determine what was harder and colder, the planks or her fingers.
She waited and listened, trembling from some deep place close to her heart. Holding her hands above the water, she curled her fingers, open and close, open and close, until they began to sting with feeling again. Footfalls thudded in one boat and then the other.
She thought perhaps there was only one guard, moving from boat to boat.
A loud thump within the second boat would’ve made her flinch if she hadn’t felt as solid as stone. Someone swore, or at least, that’s what she imagined the blunt exclamation to be, and then a second someone laughed.
He laughed. Cold as the river was, the laugh sent a chill straight into her heart like a needle of ice.
She treaded along the hull. It had a shallow draft and she was nearly on her stomach to keep out of sight. She pulled out her dagger from her hip. When a thick billow of fog rolled over, she dared a glimpse over the top.
One Ulic tossed a bulging sack to the other, who caught it and turned. Her gaze swept up and down the decks. Only two. She ducked again. She had to act now, before any more returned.
Pushing away from the boat, she floated along the bank on her back to a point where the fog obscured her again. Then she dragged her half-frozen body out of the water. She stripped off her wool socks and left them on the frozen-firm sandy shore. She took the axe in her left hand and a dagger in her right.
Crouching, she waited, catching glimpses of the two men as they loaded their ship with their spoils. They were unhurried, at ease. Whatever was happening at Orisand, clearly these men had no fear for themselves.
Her legs were stiff as marble columns and her feet unfeeling, but she wouldn’t stumble.
She waited, poised. Blood pounding through her hotter than before, stinging as it pushed into her numb limbs.
Another dense swell of fog piled up on the river.
As it pushed over the boats, she started forward, low to the ground.
The one onshore handed off a jute sack. His back was to her. As the second turned away from the shore and lugged the sack onto the boat, he submerged into the fog.
She let her axe down within two paces away. It hit the ground with a soft whomp.
At the noise, the first Ulic half-turned. She uncoiled, springing from the mist, crushed her hand over his mouth and slashed his throat. His last gasp was warm, painfully so against her palm. She wrapped her other arm around his body and his blood hit her arm, hot as blue flame.
As she eased him silently to the ground, another drift of fog generously enveloped them.
Two steps back and she retrieved her axe.
Barely a sound.
The one onboard ambled back, calling inquisitively.
She ducked behind high prow, carved like the head of a bird—a hawk or an eagle maybe. She didn’t pause to distinguish. She waited and felt his steps reverberate through the planks. He spoke again, his companion’s name perhaps. Another step. Her hand squeezed the dagger’s hilt. One more step was all she needed.
He took it.
She leaped up. He stumbled back and exclaimed.
Less than a second to aim.
The dagger whipped through the air and stuck into his shoulder. Off target.
In the time that she took to scramble into the boat, he had fallen but was shouting. He ripped the dagger from his shoulder and was about to turn it on her, but her axe met his neck. The blade slid through flesh and bone as clean as it had through a seasoned cord of wood.
Less time now.
From high up and far away, a voice called down to the ships.
She hurried to the belly of the boat.
With both hands, she raised the axe and hacked at the planks until the silver water began to pour in around her feet.
Then she bounded from the sinking vessel to its sister.
Her bare feet slipped on the slick wood as she leaped. She sprawled, landing on her stomach, her legs dangling off the edge of the vessel.
She didn’t have to look up to know they were coming. She let go of the axe, heaved herself up, took up the axe again.
Teeth bared, hot sweat battling the cold river water, she whacked at the planks. They were stubborn, resisting her efforts.
Her arms tried to go limp, her back screamed, her head ached. But she didn’t stop until the planks were splintered and jagged and the hungry river rushed in to claim the invaders’ vessel.
She panted, the axe melded to her hands.
Shouts suddenly deafened her. The mist wafted from the hillside.
A steady stream of men poured down the winding track toward her. Swords flashed against torchlight.
She pushed the axe away and pitched herself over, back into the river.
She swam harder than she’d known she was able, plunging beneath the surface for as long as she could and pressing against the current.
When her lungs cramped and the cold seized at her throat, threatening to steal her breath for good, she crawled onto the bank, forced her lips together and blew until a whistle came out.
Although it seemed an impossibility to get back on her feet, she needed to move. Lurching to her bloody and bluish feet and managed to take a few staggering, agonized steps before she stumbled.
She didn’t hear Flegel approach but felt his warm breath on the top of her head. Unable to do anything else, except maybe lay down and die, she clung to his tack and pressed her face to his warm neck. As the heat sunk into her cheek, the white numbness retreated.
“Not today,” she breathed.
In bursts, each blinded with its own searing pain, she heaved herself onto Flegel’s back and drooped limply against his back.