Chapter Seven

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She ripped off her helmet and shook out her hair, the red catching the glint of the late morning sun. At the bottom of the hill, a Guardsman cut down the first captive. Some of the prisoners toward the back of the group stopped when they saw, but didn't turn back, and still others didn't see and reached out. They were cut down as well.

Harbaud was right — the helmets made the captives look too much like Tevarians. Without the hair or the eyes, there wasn't enough to give them away as Coretians. Rinnet clutched the thick leather helm in her hands, harder as the captives' yells of exhilaration were replaced by screams.

At last a few tried to run away, removing their helmets too late for the Guardsmen to stop their heavy swords from swinging down. Harbaud managed to escape the fray and sprang in Rinnet's direction, not fast enough. He took a blow from a horse's hooves followed by a slash to the neck that dropped him. 

Rinnet gritted her teeth. Harbaud had led the Guardsman right in her direction. She wanted to go unnoticed, try to find the Tevarians in the chaos, but at least she had the sense to remove her helmet early on. This Guardsman would recognize one of her own and leave her be.

That is, she should have. But the woman kept her stocky warhorse on path, and Rinnet had to dodge and roll to avoid the broad hooves. The Guardsman was not as good a rider as her Tevarian counterparts and took a while to turn her horse around on the steep hillside. Still, Rinnet had little time to get back on her feet before horse and rider surged toward her again.

"Stop! I'm Coretian!" Rinnet tried to hold her ground in hopes the Guardsman would see her better, but the horse did not slow. She swerved away from the Guardsman's sword as the horse thundered past.

"Traitor!" The woman yelled, tilting in the saddle and swinging her shield to clip Rinnet in the side.

Rinnet stumbled. She bent at the waist, locking her unsteady knees to keep from collapsing, and blinked hard to disperse the hazy spots in her vision. Gasping, she stayed low in the grass and spun in case the Guardsman came back.

She was in luck — all she saw was the horse's hooves retreating down the hill. She scrambled for the helmet she had dropped and tucked it over her head. It offered scant protection, but it was better than nothing now that she knew the Guardsmen would attack her anyway. They thought the captives were traitors.

As Rinnet's vision slowly cleared, she saw why. The Guardsmen below were surrounded by the Tevarian riders, outnumbered and distracted by the original onslaught of foot soldiers — the disguised Coretian prisoners. Few of the captives remained, their numbers dwindling. The ones who tried to run were chased down by Tevarians and Coretians alike.

Rinnet had no allies and, worse, no weapons. Scouring the fringes of the battle, she saw a collapsed Guardsman outside the circle of Tevarians. He still clutched a Coretian broadsword. Rinnet had never used one, never even held one in her life, but she was outmatched. She had to get down there.

For once Rinnet was grateful for her small size. With her knees bent and her head down, she could keep up a walking crouch and take cover in tall patches of grass. Moving quickly, she skirted far around the main clash and reached the Guardsman at the base of the hill.

He was alive and paralyzed. Rinnet approached with caution until she realized he could not move. Then she crossed into view and pried the sword from his hand — easy, since he couldn't resist.

"Tevar will suffer for this," he gasped. "You and your people will see a fate worse than Hatawa."

Rinnet paused in testing the weight of the sword to remove her leather helm. "I'm no Tevarian," she said. "Though if this is what it is to be Coretian, perhaps I'm not that either." She removed the man's steel helmet, taking care to wipe his blood from the opening at the neck.

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