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Shadowblade: (A Dance of Fire and Shadow Book 1) – Chapter 15


I FOLLOW MARIN WITHOUT a word as he leads me back to a different section of the city wall, dodging away from the deadly patrols with uncanny skill. It must help to know the streets the way he does. We run up the stone steps to the battlements near the section where I climbed in. I can still feel Marin’s anger in the air between us and don’t dare ask how we are going to down-climb the outside.

“Here.” He squeezes a pair of thick leather gloves over my hands, then clips a short length of rope onto my harness. He stands on the edge and points below. “There’s another rope fixed to the wall, twice your height below you.”

He braces my rope against the stonework and pushes me over the edge. The rope comes tight, scraping my body against the rough blocks. I scrabble to turn myself towards the fixed rope, reach out and grip it with the strange gloves. Marin immediately drops the rope he is holding and I start to slide.

This would be a lot easier if I had the sort of practice and advice Deris gave me with climbing. The gloves prevent friction-burns on my hands as I descend but they are getting painfully hot. I grip tighter and slow down. I know I must not stop because I can hear Marin fighting the guards on the top of the wall and he is going to have to jump for the rope any minute now. I may not have much experience of ropework but I know he’ll have a better chance of grabbing it if it doesn’t have my weight on it.

A scream suddenly bursts on my ears as a body flies past to hit the ground below with a sickening crunch. Too close to how I imagine my own descent ending if I don’t get this friction-ropework right. I look up. Marin is leaning over the edge, trying to see how far down I am. I loosen my grip and fly down the last section almost in free fall before clamping my fists closed at the last minute.

It’s all I can do not to scream with the burning in my hands as I let my knees fold under me and roll clear of the wall, letting gravity take me down the grassy slope. When I look up again, Marin is halfway down the rope and there are two guards above him, jostling each other to get their crossbows at the right angle to hit him while he is so close to the wall.

It’s a long shot from here. I shouldn’t have rolled so far. Hastily, I let fly an arrow. In my hurry it misses but at least it makes the guards duck back out of sight. The next arrow is nocked and I steady my breathing to focus on the moment the silhouette shows against the moon. A scream, and the outline of the head disappears.

Marin is beside me now, dragging me towards the trees as the bolts start to fly from above. He reaches the cover of the forest and whistles. The black stallion emerges from the shadows and he leaps onto its back, pulling me up after him. The cool night wind brushes my face as we turn northwards, heading deeper into the wild.

It’s a relief not to have to think for a while. Marin’s palpable anger is intimidating but the thought that he came back for me wipes away the fear in a rush of warmth and hope. I lean back against his chest as we ride, letting my body relax against his powerful muscles, aware of his strength and skill, reassured by his experience and command of his team.

If I could just stay with him I could let go of having to be tough and alert and constantly forced to learn more efficient ways of killing people. Marin’s decisions always feel like the best actions to take in dangerous situations, as if he was born to lead.

Maybe I can find a way to give the Shadowblade back his lethal gift and just creep off to a quiet corner of the forest to hide while the professionals sort out this invasion…


I MUST HAVE FALLEN asleep for a while because when I open my eyes again the first rays of sunrise are filtering between the misty trees. Marin suddenly dismounts and pulls me off the horse after him.

“Wh––? Where are we?” I rub bleary eyes. I had been running on adrenaline for most of the night and must have faded out the minute I started to relax.

“The foot of the mountains.” Marin stands facing me. I catch the glint of crysteel sword in his right hand. Instinctively, I take a step back and reach for my own blades, only to discover that he must have taken my harness while I slept. I struggle to wake up, wondering what has been happening and why my mind can’t seem to catch up with it fast enough. His gaze doesn’t waver from my face.

“Tell me what happened in the city.”

“I climbed over the wall, Kashia found me and took me to the Rose Mansion. I climbed on the roof to get inside, found my sister and––”

I’m finding it hard to admit this but I know he’ll sense the minute I try to distort the truth.

“She wouldn’t come with me. She found a way to use her… skills… to extract information from the Rapathians who visit her. All she needed was a courier.” I hand him the folded paper, hoping the ink hasn’t run from contact with my damp clothes. He takes it but doesn’t read it.

“Have you spoken with any of the invaders?”

I wrinkle my nose in disbelief. “Of course not. I would be dead if they had caught me walking the streets kitted out like a walking weapons store.”

“Ariel, that mission was a test of your loyalty. To see if we could trust you. And you failed. You put everyone in danger by running off like that.”

I can’t find an answer. All the time and effort and risk the Eldrin put into training me––of course they expected me to reciprocate. It seems so obvious now, but at the time my focus on Alina and the confidence the Blade’s power infuses into me… somehow it swept everything else aside, changing the whole way I think and feel. I have seen kayin addicts on my trading trips to Corinium and I’m starting to understand how hard it must be for them to escape the clutches of the drug that has taken control of their minds and bodies.

Marin steps closer, pressing down on my shoulder.

“Kneel.”

My legs fold under me until I’m on my knees on the dew-wet grass. I look up at him, searching, hoping for any sign that this is no more than an empty threat. I am doomed to disappointment. The pain on his face is greater than the day I found him close to death on the battlefield.

He really doesn’t want to do this. The inner conflict with discipline and obeying orders is tearing him apart but he is desperately trying to force himself to see it through.

Part of me just wants to give up, accept that I’ll never fit in, always make a mess of things. But something inside me is still defiant. I’m not ready to die.

Not like this.

“No!” I push his hand away and twist out of his reach, back on my feet in an instant. “For a start, I never actually agreed to obey you. I have sworn no oath of allegiance to the Eldrin. You don’t even want me in your precious Order.” I reach into the pouch at my waist and drop two dried nightbane berries into his hand. They are rehydrating a bit after soaking in Alina’s bathtub but they are still deep red and potent.

“See. I didn’t go unprepared. I do have herbalist skills you know. I don’t have to be part of the Eldrin to understand the need to avoid being captured alive, for my own sake as well as yours. So I wasn’t putting any of you at risk. And I didn’t ask you to rescue me.”

He lets out a long breath of exasperation and leans back against a tree, staring at me.

“What am I supposed to do with you now?”

I can tell he is used to making decisions that are a bit more straightforward than being trapped between uncompromising orders from above and dealing with unpredictable human weapons when he tries to comply.

“Well, if I’m a sort of experiment, you can’t expect everything to work out exactly as you want, can you?”

He gives me a look that warns me not to push my luck. Time for a hasty bit of distraction again.

“Marin, read that note from my sister before the ink smudges too much.”

To my relief, he decides it might be a priority and unfolds it carefully, studying the contents in silence. He looks up.

“Have you read this?”

“Not properly. I barely had time to glance at it and then I had to go hide in a bathtub before General Akadian walked in on me.”

He hands it back. “Two minds better than one. This is incredibly valuable information and the ink, as you say, is not going to last much longer.”

I stare at the greying letters until every name and location lodges firmly in my memory.

“Does my mental ability mean I get a reprieve for another day?”

He glares at me. “One more day. Just don’t mess up again. I’ll be handing you over to someone with more experience at this kind of decision making.”

I know I should bury the indignation but I still think he is being a bit harsh.

“It’s not all mess. I helped you to free over two hundred slaves and introduced you to a well-placed spy.”

He pulls me up to the saddle in front of him, urging the black towards the mountains.

“They will have replaced every slave by noon today, the way they were hunting last night.”

“What?”

“Who do you think those teams with nets were after? Only a few guards went after the people we set free. Most of the effort went into rounding up anyone they could get their hands on within the city.”

I ride with Marin in silence for the rest of the morning. Even with the heady reassurance of being held close to him, the exhilaration and confidence of the night is fading to bleak emptiness as I take in the meaning of his words.

What can anyone do against an enemy as ruthless as this?


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