Chapter Sixty-Nine

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The soldiers had just loaded another net into Girtha's firing mechanism and were winding it back when a shout made Orven turn. At first, he did not recognize the disheveled girl sprinting across the courtyard as his cousin. She was so filthy, blood-spattered and wild-eyed, there was almost no resemblance whatsoever to Ygrael.

Varyn, however, he recognized instantly. She had murder in her eyes, a sword in her hand, and was running right at him.

"Guards!" he yelped, and ducked behind Girtha just in time to avoid being disemboweled.

The four guards not occupied with winding the enormous spring loaded firing mechanism drew their weapons. However, to Orven's dismay, even outnumbered two to one, Ygrael and Varyn were apparently consumed by such a paroxysm of homicidal rage that it didn't look as though the men would last very long.

The captain growled, hissed and slashed savagely at her opponents, backing both men into a corner of the yard. Ygrael dodged and jabbed, employing what Orven thought to be rather underhanded tactics with her short sword and dagger. He winced as she plunged the thin blade between the chinks of her nearest assailant's breastplate and shoulder pad. While the captain was using brute force and battle-strategy, Ygrael's approach was more akin to surgical butchery.

He'd always suspected that Ygrael hadn't been entirely sincere when she'd told him all those years ago that she was borrowing so many anatomy charts from the library to help with her watercolor studies...

He had to get out of the courtyard before either madwoman got past the guards and slaughtered him. He had to find Istenra, wherever the blazes she was, and—

Orven's thoughts were interrupted by the shuddering bang of Girtha's firing mechanism springing into action. Her poison-beaded net flew into the air, spinning and glinting in the morning sun. The flagstone courtyard shook with the resulting recoil.

Overhead, the dragons screamed in shared rage. Had one of them been hit?

Instinctively, Orven glanced skyward. Apparently he was not the only one seized by such an impulse, because moments later he heard a cry and glanced back to see Ygrael skewering her nearest opponent. The idiot had let his guard down. Now she was attacking the second—tearing into him with quick, savage jabs, making him back away, lose his footing, and fall.

Ygrael screamed like a pitfiend and plunged her sword into the man's throat. When she raised her blood-spattered face again, her eyes sought out Orven's and pierced him with their cold rage.

Orven's stomach dropped into his shoes.

The two men who had been operating Girtha were drawing their swords, stepping forward—but he knew without a doubt that they would be too slow. Inebriated fools. They wouldn't be able to defend their king against this murderous beast in a girl's skin.

There was only one sensible option. And, being a sensible young man, Orven took it.

Without another moment's hesitation, he turned, and ran.

_____

There was nothing on the other side of the wall.

With Lorn's fingers in one hand and the book in the other, Guin staggered forward. A glance back revealed only swirling grayness. The room, the bed, and the old man were gone.

"We're back where we started," she gasped. Her limbs shook, and her breathing was irregular. She tried to take deep breaths, calm her racing pulse, but it didn't work.

"You're back in Ther, yes." Kevin's voice floated out of the Fog. His words sounded thin, and distant. "This is the only place left to go."

Guin squinted, trying to make out Kevin's shape. She thought there was a tall shadow standing a few feet from them, but in the flat, colorless light, she couldn't be sure if it was really there or just her eyes playing tricks.

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