Chapter Sixty-Four

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As the Alavardian palace guard waded through waist deep water in the lower halls, few were able to contain their disgust.

Around every corner was yet another bloated corpse, bobbing along like a child's discarded beach toy. The corridors were choked with flotsam--undulating draperies, garments and bedding, jagged carcasses of broken furniture, bits of decomposing seaweed and even the occasional darting fish. 

Near the back of the line, someone gasped. "Something just touched me!"

At the head of the procession, Captain Turl rolled his eyes. "Well, be grateful, Nefsen--we all know you can't get a woman to do it, and a fish is the next best thing!" he called back, eliciting sniggers from the other guards. 

The man in the back muttered something inaudible, and lapsed into sullen silence. They continued to press onward, splashing and grumbling as they went.

Some minutes later, the same man cried, "Again! It happened again!"

Captain Turl took a deep breath, turned and snapped, "Nefsen, I swear by all the--"

"There's something in the water!" the man shrieked, paying no heed to Turl's sharp words. "It's moving! There's somethi--" Nefsen's voice cut off abruptly, replaced by gurgling and wet thrashing.

Turl craned his neck to see what the commotion was. At the back of the line, men were beginning to jostle forward, pushing others aside in their panicked haste. In the narrow, flooded, debris-choked corridor, their orderly procession was quickly descending into chaos.

"By the blazing stars, what are you mugheads doing?" Turl barked. "Get back in line!"

His orders fell on deaf ears. The men continued to press forward, fighting, jabbing, clawing to get ahead. Turl found himself roughly shoved aside, slammed into the wall--

One by one the flailing, screaming guards began to vanish. Blood bloomed in the dark water. Turl felt a strong grip wrap around his leg. In the time it took him to draw breath for a scream, his world filled with cold, drowning darkness. 

As his lungs drew in fetid saltwater, the very last thing Captain Turl saw was a set of smiling golden eyes.

_____

"To your left, M'Lady!" Varyn barked.

Ygrael spun and lashed out with her blade. The Alavardian soldier parried her easily, but was unprepared for the long, thin, lethally sharp dagger in her other hand. She jabbed up and under his raised arm in three quick lashes.

The man gasped, eyes widening with pain behind his visor. With luck, she had pierced his lung.

Ygrael swung her sword again, hilt first, and rammed him in the chest, sending the soldier staggering backward before he fell to his knees. She hit him once more, in the head, and plunged her dagger into the opening of his visor.

As her opponent collapsed screaming on the cobbles, Ygrael was knocked sideways by a man carrying a child in his arms. He barely spared her a glance, but barreled ahead, down the winding street. In his wake, more Svards rushed past. Coated in dust and soot, some limping or being carried--all desperate to seek shelter from dragonfire and stray arrows, flaming tar and falling masonry.

Ygrael stumbled out of their way and pressed herself against a wall until the fleeing crowd had passed. Across from her, Varyn crouched over an Alavardian soldier, her hands busy with a knife.

Ygrael looked away, directing her gaze to the castle wall. They were close. Another city block, and they would reach the main gate. Behind that gate, they would find Girtha--and, hopefully, the traitor, Orven Ardov. 

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