From Chapter Four…

The wind picked up once they left the shelter of the trees, and Venn pushed her hair out of her eyes to take in the evening scene. The sun had reached the tops of the trees, dousing the birch bark in gold. Birds twittered around them, rising up into the sky like a black cloud to dance on the air currents before settling down. Ravens cried out their afternoon debates, and somewhere in the distance a wolf howled, raising the hair on Venn’s skin as she closed her eyes and followed the call, waiting for the reply.

The sounds brought her back to the days before the Feldall twins had arrested her and brought her into her new life — the days when she had lived outside, only hiding from bad weather by sleeping in stables in exchange for useful information or fresh game.

As much as she liked having a roof over her head and food in her belly, she missed the freedom of the past. Then, she had to work for survival, honing her skills to track and hunt.

She lapsed into an old habit, listening to the chattering squirrels and joyful birdsong.  There had been a time when it was second nature to know what these calls meant, but now she had to work to remember which cries were for hunger or direction. Or panic.

Venn’s eyes flew open at the sudden rush of raven cries as they took wing, abandoning their roost. She scanned the road ahead, looking for what might have set them off.

Under the discontented caws and quorks, she heard a steady thrum of hoofbeats on the road rushing towards them.

“Remy, guard up,” she said, shifting her grip on Corsa’s reins to grab a knife with her free hand. “Will, either arm up or stay back. I think we’ve got company.”

Remy leaned forward and squinted, then tightened her control over Shalla as the band of riders rounded the corner. “I’ll never understand how you always know these things.”

The approaching riders sped on black horses, dressed in scarlet from head to toe. They looked like soldiers, but the armour was nothing Venn had ever seen. Moving bloodstains on the dirt road, catching the sunlight in ways that seemed to absorb it instead of reflect it.

Something about them filled Venn’s gut with unease, but she shoved the feeling away, guessing the armour had been designed to make their enemies feel that exact shade of dread. She had never been one to give in to expectation.

They charged without slowing, and she thought they might rush right past them, perhaps en route to some important show down. Seven riders weren’t enough for a war, but maybe they were contestants in some lord’s fancy tourney. Sure, it would be strange for them to be riding in full gear, but not if they wanted to make an impressive entrance.

Unable to come up with any other reason for these soldiers to be coming at them, she clung to the idea right up to the point when they unsheathed their weapons, the sharp edges glinting in the afternoon sun.

Venn bared her teeth and tied Corsa’s reins around the pommel, steering him with her knees as she pulled a second knife.  Remy released her sword, and Will nudged Hollis to the side of the road, holding a vial in each hand that Venn hoped did more than smell pretty.

“Hooded thieves and armoured bears, now these freaks? Why do I get the feeling we set out at an odd time?” Remy asked between clenched teeth, loud enough so only Venn could hear.

Venn laughed and readied herself for the fight, feeling the blood rush through her veins, speeding up her heart, sharpening her vision. People might think she was crazy for always throwing herself into danger, but nothing beat the buzz of battle.

“The best time you mean,” she said. “Meet you on the other side of this, Rem. Either here or in the afterlife.”

“I love your optimism,” Remy replied, before she spurred Shalla forward.

Venn let out a whoop and bolted after her, two riders against seven.

One soldier broke off from the rest, leading the charge, and headed for them with his sword raised. Venn threw her first knife, cursing as it glinted off his helmet, but ready with the second blade, grabbing a third.

Remy clashed swords with him, and the soldier made a quick second swing towards her horse. Shalla danced away in time, but he pressed on, giving neither horse nor scout a break.

Venn didn’t have time to watch them before two more soldiers reached her, both with raised swords that looked ready to cut her in three. Corsa turned at the last moment, and Venn felt the edge of one blade graze her arm, cutting through her tunic to slice the skin.

“Move!” Will yelled, and Venn ducked out of the way as a vial flew over her head, smashing on the road to turn the earth slick under the horses. One crashed to the ground, taking another with it, but the riders used their mounts to steady themselves and approached on foot.

Feeling hindered by Corsa’s bulk, Venn slid off and smacked his rear — her order for him to do his own thing and stay alive. The white stallion reared up, his front hooves catching one of the approaching soldiers under the chin so he fell back onto the road, his neck at an awkward angle. His fall spooked another horse, which reared back, his heavy rider tumbling to the ground in a whirlwind of colour.

Venn saw the easy mark and pounced on the soldier before he could regain his feet. Steel plating covered him from the neck down, but a small gap showed beneath his helmet, and she plunged her knife into the weak spot. Blood spurted out of his neck when she yanked out her blade, seeping into the armour until it disappeared, leaving nothing to stain the road beneath him.

The sight baffled her, distracting her enough that she didn’t notice one of the other unhorsed soldiers come up behind her until she caught sight of his shadow. Kicking her leg out behind her, she tripped him up and rolled out of the way so he fell face first onto his dead companion. Venn climbed onto his back and wrapped her hand around his helmet, tugging his head back to widen the gap between his armour.

Before she could drag the knife across his throat, a weight come down over her head. She rolled onto her back, raising her hand to block out the glare of the sun. Another soldier stood over her, the hilt of his sword still angled to hit her, as the first regained his footing.

Shit.

Her heart slammed against her ribs. She tried to tighten her hand around her knife, but realised she had lost the blade in her fall. Not bothering to try and find it, she snaked a hand to her hip for another one, freeing it just as both soldiers raised their swords.

Two of them? That’s a bit much for one little girl.

Despite the buzz of fear in her veins, she grinned and flipped onto her feet, spinning out of the way as the heavy metal swung towards the empty ground.

“Must piss you off that all your weight slows you down,” she said, dancing out of their reach. “My grandmother moves faster than you do.”

Behind her, Remy still battled the same soldier, but she was tiring, her arm slowing while the soldier appeared to gain energy. Will and Hollis remained away from the fight, but the last two soldiers were caught in some sort of glue, unable to lift their boots from the ground.  He launched another vial in their direction, this one releasing a vile smell that moved one of them to push his helmet up to retch onto the road. Venn noticed his pale skin, the dark bruises under his eyes, and took the opportunity to throw a knife his way. It lodged in his eye, and he slumped to the ground, blood pooling beneath his head.

She whipped around to face the other two soldiers, her energy flagging. She forced the fatigue away and replaced her thrown knife, searching for her best shot.

“Don’t suppose you care to tell me why you want to kill me?” she asked, trying to give herself a few extra seconds to catch her breath.

The ploy didn’t work, the faceless soldiers remaining silent, plodding forward with their heavy steel tread.

“Good thing I didn’t get my hopes up,” she muttered, and threw herself at one of them, taking him down with a clatter that made Venn think of pots and pans.

The image made her laugh, but the amusement faded quickly as she felt a shooting pain in her arm. Glancing down, she saw his sword had pierced her bicep.

“Guess you’re not as slow as I thought,” she said.

Not giving either soldier time to prepare his next strike, refusing to consider herself out of the game, she used the numbness of shock to get to her feet, the steel of the blade grinding against bone as it pulled from her body. Pain pumped adrenaline through her blood, and she knew it was only a matter of time before it gave out.

Might as well make the most of it.

She swung her good arm out behind her, striking the second soldier across the head. It hurt her more than it affected him, but he shifted on his feet to regain his balance and she used the chance to get out from between them.

The soldier on the ground stuck out a foot and tripped her, sending her flying into the dirt. She shook her head and tried to regain her footing, but behind her, a low, ear-rumbling growl made her freeze. A shadow appeared over her, and she only had time to drop onto her belly before the paw came down.

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