Chapter 2: Soldiers Without Honor

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THIS WAS WRONG. This shouldn't be happening. Neighboring tribes and villages attacked each other sometimes; of course they did. But Draebard was not involved in any disputes at the moment. There were no blood feuds or water shortages causing friction in the area. Besides, no self-respecting Eburosi warrior would ever countenance such a cowardly attack on a village in the middle of the night. It was beyond dishonorable. The gods would strike down any tribe that tried such a thing with a plague of boils, or worse.

I had been frozen in place with shock, but now I clambered to my feet and silently made my way back to the edge of the village, keeping close to fences and walls. I had to see what was happening. The screams were horrible, and as I approached I saw flickering light and smelled thick, greasy smoke. Whoever it was had set fire to some of the huts on the far side of the settlement.

I made my way closer to the center of the village and peeked around the edge of the wall I was hiding behind. Moonlight and orange firelight illuminated the strange, silvery metal chest armor favored by Alyrion soldiers as the figures pressed further into the village in orderly ranks. There looked to be at least three dozen men, armed with swords, pikes and torches.

Oh, gods. They'd drawn Volya and his retinue of warriors away from the settlement, and now they were attacking. Did they mean to kill us all and burn it to the ground, or was this supposed to be some sort of lesson? A warning to other Eburosi?

The horses.

They would steal the horses, or slaughter them. I turned and ran back toward the pens as fast as I could, all thoughts of stealth abandoned. My lungs were burning—as much with fear as with exhaustion—when I reached the gate of the first pen and threw it open. Cassira snorted, trotting through the gap in the fence and making straight for the rest of the herd, which was still milling around in the largest corral. I followed her as fast as I could and opened that gate as well, entering the pen and skirting along the fence to get behind the herd so I could drive them out.

"Hyaah!" I shouted, herding the animals through the gate and away from the village, along the track that led north, toward the summer pastures and the foothills beyond. Within seconds, the mob of horses had accelerated into a panicked gallop, the thunder of their hooves slowly fading beneath the sounds of the battle behind me as they disappeared into the distance.

The wolf had better watch himself, I thought, slightly hysterically. He'll be trampled in the stampede if he's not careful.

With the horses as safe as they could be under the circumstances, I hurried back to the post I'd been resting against to grab the horsewhip, then ran toward the village, and the screaming.

In my absence, the remaining warriors who had not gone with Volya had stumbled out of their huts, with swords, spears, and axes in their hands. Their furious battle cries echoed through the village. It was strangely jarring to see Eburosi warriors fighting in whatever clothing they'd been sleeping in, without any war paint smeared across their bodies or faces. Unadorned skin made them no less fierce, however, and the Alyrions' steady progress through the village was slowed as they engaged with the defenders.

Looking around, my attention was caught by a single armor-clad soldier with a torch, moving purposefully toward the cookhouse. Without stopping to think, I ran forward and let fly with the long-tailed lash of the horsewhip, aiming for the man's eyes. When he cried out and dropped the torch in favor of clawing at his face, I bared my teeth in what might have been vicious satisfaction. It was short-lived, however, as another soldier saw me. He closed in even as I tried to back away, sword in hand and anger twisting his face.

I cracked the whip again, aiming for the sword in hopes that I could pull it out of his hand. I missed, though, wrapping the lash around his forearm instead. He hissed at the sting, but immediately used it to drag me forward, off-balance and staggering. Before I could right myself, the pommel of his sword swept up toward my face. Pain exploded in my temple where it hit me and I dropped like a stone, ears ringing. Through blurry, wavering vision, I saw the flash of the blade as he lifted it for the killing stroke.

This is it, then, I thought, feeling surprisingly calm about the whole thing as my awareness flickered in and out, in time with my pounding heart.

Just as the blade began its downward arc, a large, gray shape slammed into the soldier, knocking him to the dirt with a cry. The wolf snarled, tearing at the man's throat, scarlet liquid soaking its jaws as I struggled to make sense of the scene before me through eyes that wouldn't focus properly. The red stain seemed to spread in my vision, reaching out to meet the soft, gray fog that was swirling inward from the periphery. I slipped into darkness with every expectation that I would never wake again.

* * *

When I did wake, sunlight was stabbing into my eyes. My skull throbbed in time with my heartbeat. I tried to groan in pain, but it emerged as a dry croak. An answering whimper made me turn my head. A mistake, as my vision swam again. When it cleared, I was staring into the wide, dilated eyes of the wolf, half-hidden behind a broken cart a few feet away from me, and cowering like a guilty hunting dog expecting to be whipped by its master. Its muzzle was coated with dried gore from the fallen soldier lying in a heap across from us.

Shouting and hoof beats echoed along the central roadway, and the animal flattened itself even further against the ground, obviously terrified. I rolled painfully over to lie on my back on the packed dirt, craning my neck until I got an upside-down view of Volya's returning party. Andoc was at the front. He reined his galloping horse to an abrupt halt even as the others rode past, heading further into the village where the destruction was greatest.

Easy on that poor gelding's mouth, I thought as Andoc jumped down and raced toward me, his worried expression looking almost comical upside down. He skidded to a stop midway between my body and that of the wolf, looking back and forth between us as if torn. A moment later, he was kneeling at my side, lifting me to cradle my shoulders carefully in his arms. I smiled up at his warm, brown eyes, feeling giddy.

"Careful, there's a man-eating wolf here," I said, and promptly slipped back into unconsciousness.

The next time I awoke, I was inside a hut, lying on a straw mattress on the floor. I stared up at the golden brown thatch visible through the rafters overhead for several moments, blinking. A snug bandage circled my forehead, and I could feel the cool stickiness from some sort of poultice pressed against my throbbing temple. My vision seemed steadier, and the earth was no longer moving in stately, ponderous circles beneath me.

I wasn't alone. I could hear the sound of retching followed by ragged, unsteady breathing from across the room. Someone else was whispering a litany of soothing reassurance. I rolled gingerly onto my side, lifting my aching head with considerable effort and propping myself on one elbow so I could see. Seated on a wide, low bed frame against the far wall, Senovo was slumped sideways with his forehead resting against Andoc's shoulder, breathing heavily. Andoc's hand cradled the back of his neck, steadying him, and a chamber pot rested on the ground in front of him. The priest was naked from the waist up, a blanket thrown carelessly over his lap. His face was canted toward me. I could see dried blood coating his jaw and neck, along with a livid bruise above his left eyebrow. His eyes were tightly closed as he struggled for composure.

There was something... something about the blood and the bruise... but no. My wits were still too addled to make whatever connection it was that dangled tantalizingly just out of reach. Andoc turned slightly, and his eyes met mine. His fingers tightened around the back of the distraught priest's head for a moment, then relaxed.

"Senovo," he said softly, "she's awake."

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