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Shadowblade: (A Dance of Fire and Shadow Book 1) – Chapter 12

THE STREET LEADS DIRECTLY into the main city square and the source of the smoke. Fires burn at every corner and teams of soldiers are emptying carts of bodies, stripping them of anything valuable before throwing the corpses into the hungry flames. A few of the bodies are still draped in the bloodied remains of the blue surcoat designating the city guard, but most are civilians.

Men, women, children.

“What happened? I thought the Rapathians marched in without a fight?”

Deris lets out a long breath of resignation.

“Kashia told us this morning. The city guard stayed at their posts and were slaughtered to a man. Then the invaders were set loose to claim the loot they had been promised and anyone trying to defend their homes or daughters died under their blades. By sunrise today the Emperor’s military commanders and the aristocrats had grabbed what they wanted and now need to safeguard it, so Purmut ordered the looting and killing to stop. He needs to preserve enough potential slaves to get his road built to the Northlands. Seems he wants better transport provision to remove the gold in bulk and ship it out to Rapathia.”

I look again at the silhouettes wavering in the red light of the flames like a scene from the deepest hell. In spite of everything I have seen in the wake of these invaders, I still had not expected anything like this. The threats the patrols are making to anyone they encounter take on a new and sinister edge. With the means of corpse disposal so conveniently nearby, they have immunity to kill anyone on a whim, armed or not.

Deris drags me back into the maze of grubby alleyways until we reach the end of a narrow street. He points. The slave pens are ahead, no more than a hastily-converted warehouse whose wide doors have been replaced by a metal grille, heavily padlocked. A woman’s hand stretches through the bars, her wavering voice begging for water. One of the guards walks past, slashing carelessly at her arm with his whip. A scream and the hand withdraws.

All the white-hot fury I have been holding back since the moment I walked into my devastated village erupts, tearing through my limbs like a bolt of ice-lightning. I’m suddenly afraid I will have no control over what is about to happen. I manage to get a grip on my rage for a few seconds, just enough to push Deris back against the wall.

“Give me what backup you can with your arrows but whatever you do, don’t get anywhere near me.”

He must feel the tightness in my hand or my voice because he doesn’t argue. He looks quickly around for a vantage point, then grabs a rain-gutter and swings himself silently onto a low roof where he has the corner of the next building to provide some cover.

I have already marked my own route onto the roof of the warehouse before I sprint across the intervening space, heading straight for the guard with the whip. The soft hiss of drawn crysteel makes him turn but my blade is across his throat and he goes down without a sound beyond the low gurgle of escaping blood.

I don’t even need to use my hands to gain the roof. They haven’t moved the pile of barrels stacked against the wall and I leap from one to another as easily as using a staircase. I run silently along the tiles towards the group of guards near the entrance. They are getting careless in their victory already, sitting around on a ring of smaller barrels, gambling and drinking. Two flaming torches illuminate their table, blinding them to anything outside the pool of light.

I carefully loosen one of the roof tiles and throw it over their heads to crash into the street on the far side. As soon as their eyes are turned away I drop to the ground behind them, blades swinging. A rush of ice-cold runs through me, my limbs humming with impatience from three days of hard training, melding my fury into a whirlwind of precision and power.

Everything around me seems to slow down, everything except my own thoughts and movements and the splattering of hot blood on my face and clothes. I see guards falling away around me in scattered images of shocked faces and red severed limbs as if I am watching it all in a dream.

The blur of anger and movement is over so quickly. A hand on my shoulder makes me turn to see Deris standing beside me, trying to keep his face impassive as he stares at my handiwork. It’s messy. I suppose with his intensive elite training he could do a tidier job of it. I push aside the sense of revulsion my old self would have felt at what I’ve just done.

“Thanks for the backup.” I indicate the two arrows he helped out with. I had sort of noticed them arriving at the time.

“Keys?” he stoops to search the fallen guards. Before I can clean my blades and join him he finds them and turns to work the lock on the door. Excited whispers pass among the crowded prisoners as they shuffle towards the entrance. The door swings back. Deris glances over his shoulder.

“I know the best way so I’ll lead. Make sure everyone gets out of the pen.”

He turns and runs into the shadowy street, the slaves following. I need no encouragement to stay, hovering by the door and checking each face as people pass. Every village along the invaders’ route between the coast and Corinium must have been raided as there are far more people here than I expected. Every now and then someone I know shuffles past, pausing to smile and squeeze my arm briefly before moving on. The miller’s wife breaks step to give me a hug before running to catch up with the others.

I catch my breath at this sudden reminder of a time before everyone I knew regarded me with suspicion. I shake off the urge to get sentimental about it and focus on finding the one person I have sworn to get out of this place. I can sense the space inside the pen is emptying and with a sinking feeling I somehow know that Alina isn’t here.

So much for the Blade always telling the truth!

A hundred thoughts are running through my head. How could she have died? Maybe there is hope, maybe she escaped? Why did he say captive but unharmed? What should I do now?

Jared the blacksmith, Gendel’s erstwhile employer, comes out last, checking that no one is left inside. I grab his arm, pulling him after the rest of the captives, whispering as we run.

“Jared, where is Alina?”

He looks at me sharply. Of course, he would have assumed I somehow knew everything after appearing almost magically outside the slave-pen.

“She was separated from the main group as soon as we reached the city.” He hesitates, and I sense there is something he is reluctant to tell me. I nudge his arm.

“Go on. Please. I have to find her.”

“She was taken away with six other young girls. They were all… very pretty. I didn’t hear much, except that one of the guards said something about the “Rose Mansion,” but I don’t know what it is.”

“Doesn’t take much imagination to guess what it is! I need to know where!”

“Sorry Ariel. I don’t know. I only visited the market a few times, same as you––”

An angry shout echoes off the dark stone walls as two guards appear from a side street. Another delay.

Hells! I don’t have time for this!

I push Jared ahead of me and walk backwards warily, shielding him while keeping my attention on the approaching Rapathians. I can see they don’t take me for much of a threat in spite of the glint of crysteel in the moonlight. They show complete confidence in their heavy swords, almost twice the length and probably four times the weight of the blades in my hands. I could swear one of them is grinning as he speeds his pace to close the gap between us. For a moment I feel a clutch of fear as I hear Jared’s footsteps change rhythm.

“Jared! Don’t try to help. Stay out of my way and catch up with the others!”

I breathe a sigh of relief as I hear his pace increase and sense the empty space opening behind me, giving me the room I need to move around. The heavy swords have started swinging. Dodging and dancing is the only way I’m going to stay alive for the next few minutes. The illusion of my opponents slowing down adds to the fact that these bulky characters are moving more slowly than my Eldrin sparring partners. Easy to dance aside as I move backwards, heading to the city wall. Not so easy to find a way between the two blades and into the weak spots in the chainmail within the constraints of the walls either side of the street.

If I get out of this in one piece I’m going to insist Marin runs some practice sessions in a tight spot like this. Nothing I have learned so far quite fits and my ability to improvise is not happening fast enough to be effective.

Or maybe I’m too distracted. Too busy wondering whether I should turn back and try to find my way to the Rose Mansion. At the same time I need to get these guards out of the way before I draw them any closer to the back of a queue of people trying to cram into a narrow tunnel––

One of the guards goes down with an arrow in his eye and I see my chance.

Thank you Deris.

I jump aside, duck under a sword-slash that would have cleft me in two had it touched me––and the towering grunt in front of me goes down to Deris’ second arrow.

I feel cheated!

There is no outlet for the ice-fire raging through my limbs. I run the short distance remaining to the tunnel entrance, struggling hopelessly against the urge to attack the first thing that moves––which happens to be Deris, waiting for me beside the iron-plated open door to the tunnel.

“Ariel! Focus!”

Deris’ voice cuts through the maelstrom of thoughts and feelings like a crysteel blade. He must have known from his experience with other adepts what would happen once I became immersed in a fight. It gives me just enough mind-space to get the bloodlust back under control. I reach his side as he pushes the last two prisoners into the dark passageway.

“Marin is waiting on the other side to guide them into the forest. Keep the stragglers moving and safe.” He doesn’t waste time reproaching me for my lack of control, turning abruptly to run into the darkness and squeezing past the line of escaping slaves. I know he is hoping to warn those at the front about the deadfalls threatening their lives from above, but I can’t help feeling that survival is going to be a matter of luck. Or not.

Just as I’m about to step into the black hole, Kashia appears from the shadows of the city streets and hands me a small stick painted with firefly phosphorescence.

“Hurry, I have to lock the door again behind you before the guards catch up. Good luck.”

I feel a wave of encouragement from those last two words. She seems to have dropped some of her earlier suspicion of me.

I turn my attention to the dark passageway threading a line of escape through the city wall.


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