Chapter 6

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"Follow me." He took off, running his stallion, making straight for the foothills of the Burning Mountains.

Lassuni leaned down next to her horse's neck and kicked her heels into the horse's flanks. "Go Andromethea, fly," she whispered to the horse.

As if she'd understood, the mare took off after Vercingetor. The Ghost Guard had completed vanished into the snowstorm, blending in completely in their white cloaks. Lassuni was grateful for the borrowed cloak that helped camouflage her as they ran. As she crouched low over the horse's neck an arrow whizzed past her ear. Vercingetor's instincts were good, it seemed. But where were their guards? Vercingetor pressed on, either unaware or uncaring about the fact they were being shot at. No more arrows followed; perhaps the Ghost Guard had dealt with their attacker.

They ran for a quarter of an hour, snow swirling around them, as the winds grew and thunder and lightning began. No sooner had Lassuni begun to relax a little than she saw the general pull up short a few meters ahead of her. She reigned her own horse to a slow walk, staying well back from where Vercingetor had stopped.

"General," she called, "What's the matter? Why have we stopped?"

Before he could answer she began to make out the shape of an gray horse carrying a rider in black armor slowly walking towards them. She put her right hand to her sword, ready to draw, and with her left hand she hefted her shield. Let them come, she thought. Not half the day had passed and already their enemies were on them.

Without warning, Adovana was knocked from her horse. She hit the ground rolling through the snow. She didn't see who had hit her, but she'd taken the blow in the middle of her back. The wind was knocked out of her, and for a moment she couldn't move. Knowing the risks of lying motionless she forced herself to take a gulp of air and rolled to her left side to push herself up. As she got to her feet, she crouched in battle-ready stance, pulling her sword from its scabbard. Her vision was still dark from the fall and her ears rang. Whoever their attackers were, they were quiet, staying far enough away that they couldn't be seen through the thickly falling snow. Finally the spots faded from her vision, and she saw Vercingetor charging towards her on his horse, his sword upraised. She wheeled to see what he saw: a group of three horsemen bearing down on her. Standing her ground she gripped her sword tightly, waiting for them to get within striking range. Two of the riders charged towards her, clearly intending to attack her simultaneously. The third rider had broken off, his course taking him straight toward Vercingetor to engage him solo.

As the two riders bore down on Lassuni she held her shield high with her left arm, and giving a cry of rage, swung her sword with her right as the riders passed on either side of her. She felt a heavy blow on her shield from the attacker's sword, but her own sword had hit its mark. Blood poured from the second attacker's leg, leaving a red trail in the snow. She watched as the man slid from the horse, and fell to the ground. She'd hit an artery; he would be dead in moments. That evened the odds a little, even though she was still on foot. The second rider had wheeled and was about to start a run for a second pass, but before the horse had gone two steps, the rider slumped forward in the saddle. The horse reared in fright and the rider fell off, with an arrow protruding from his back.

The exchange had lasted only moments before all three of the assailants lay dead. Lassuni was still breathing hard, both from the exertion and the excitement of the short battle. She waited as Vercingetor retrieved her horse and led it to her. She grabbed the reins and quickly remounted.

"Whose arrow struck down the last one?" she asked.

"One of the Guard's," he said, looking her over. "You're bleeding."

"What?" She looked down at her torso and legs but saw nothing, until a drop of blood fell from her chin. Sheathing her sword, she pulled her glove off and felt her chin. She'd been gashed across her chinbone during the fight, but had never felt it.

"A small scratch," Vercingetor told her, "I'm sure you've had worse, Captain."

He raised his right arm and waved it forward, as if directing someone to approach. Out of the snow and fog, one of the Ghost Guard, the one who had presented Lassuni with the cloak, appeared. "Let Grannus stop the bleeding. An open wound will take longer to heal."

Grannus rode up next to Lassuni, and with her still in the saddle began to work on her wound. Lassuni sat still as he stitched the gash closed, then applied some herbs and a small bandage to her chin. She was grateful for the help with their attackers, but this habit the Ghost Guard had of appearing and disappearing was starting to annoy her. "How many others were there?" she asked as he finished applying the bandage.

"Not many," he said. Although she could only see his eyes, she had the distinct impression he was smiling behind his face wrap. She gave the slightest smile in return.  The Guard then turned his horse and rode back off, out of sight. 'Not many' could mean anything from just the three they saw or fifty others the Ghost Guard dealt with before they ever reached the plain.

She kicked her horse to move over next to Vercingetor. He sat motionless, looking at the bodies scattered in the snow. "Who were they? Any ideas?"

"The usurper's agents, who else?"

"Have they been following you all along?"

"Most probably. But I wonder that they didn't strike before, and attacked when we were together."

A good question, for which Lassuni had no answer. It didn't make sense. "Perhaps they'd only just stumbled on us."

"Possibly. If so, ill luck and poor judgement on their part."

 That level of work had only one reward, and the dead men were reaping it. Lassuni tried not to smile to keep from pulling the stitches in her chin.

"Should we examine the corpses, see if we can find anything of importance? They may have been carrying messages, or orders."

With the snow falling hard, Vercingetor shook his head. "Let the Guards handle that. We'll continue on to the foot of the mountains. There's a series of caves there that we can shelter in."

Lassuni nodded. Her adrenaline was starting to subside, and the pain of the blow that had unhorsed her was starting to arrive. She'd been through far worse on the battlefield, but that had been only yesterday, and fatigue was starting to claim her. She followed Vercingetor closely and noticed that once again their Guards were moving in closer. Perhaps the surprise attack had put them on edge as well. Two of the Guards had taken the dead men's horses and lead them by their reins.

The group rode on to the foothills of the Burning Mountains through the day, with the snow still falling. On one hand it would help to cover their tracks if anyone was still following them, but as deep as it was becoming they had to slow down for the horses to trudge through it. Lassuni was grateful for the cape the Guard had given her. Without it, in the wind and snow she would be half-frozen by now. Vercingetor didn't seem to notice the cold; perhaps he had more layers of clothes than she realized, or perhaps he simply didn't mind the frigid air. That was one tough old bastard, she thought.

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