“You see that?” I yelled, moving my team closer to Samuel’s. Tiago sat beside him.
Samuel nodded. “I’ve been keeping an eye on them.”
I had too. They were a good distance away but had been riding parallel to us for a while, riding out of a copse of trees we’d passed a quarter mile back. We were on a little-used trail. We hadn’t expected to see anyone out here. Mason had moved far ahead of us, out of earshot, and the riders were staying just out of his line of vision. I was certain he hadn’t seen them or he’d have slowed down and fallen back with us.
“I count ten,” Samuel said. “Eleven,” Tiago countered.
It was hard to count. They were far away and bunched close together. However many there were, it was too many to be riding without a wagon. And they weren’t herding stock. They had no purpose out here, and I didn’t like the way they stayed in a tight pack. They were conferring. Planning. Raiders.
I took a deep breath, put two fingers in my mouth, and let out a shrill whistle, trying to get Mason’s attention. He didn’t hear it. The wind blew the sound back at us.
“They’re going for him first,” I yelled to Samuel. Take out the stray before they hit the rest of the pack. We were closer to Mason than they
were, but draft horses pulling a wagon couldn’t move as fast as lone riders. “Toward Mason’s right,” I said. “Ready?”
“Let’s go,” Samuel answered.
“Ha!” We snapped our reins. “Ha!” As soon as our teams took flight, so did the riders, heading for Mason.
“Ha!” I yelled, over and over again. The teams pounded across the plain, the wagon beds bouncing, the rocks we put on the back for weight flying off behind us. Samuel yelled for all he was worth too. But being upwind and with the noise of his own wagon and horses, Mason still couldn’t hear us. Even if he turned around and spotted them, he’d be one against ten. Or eleven.
And then a shadow flew past on the other side of me. I drew my knife, but it was already a black blur far ahead of me. Two more shadows followed, and I thought it was an ambush from all sides—until I realized it was Kazi, Wren, and Synové. They raced toward the raiders to shake them off Mason. As they neared, half of the riders split from the pack and came for us.
We kept our wagons thundering forward, but in seconds they were upon us. Two headed for my wagon, one racing beside me. He jumped onto the back, coming toward me, and I had no choice but to let go of the reins and draw my sword. I jumped over the seat onto the bed, a weapon in each hand, the wagon still racing ahead. We were both jostled, our aim off as the wagon bumped over ruts, but my steel still met his, our edges slicing, juddering against each other. The clangs reverberated with all the other noise and shouting surrounding us. His swings were vicious and strong, someone trained and determined to overcome at all costs.
I caught a glimpse of Samuel and Tiago, in fights of their own, overrun with riders surrounding them. A bump threw me to my knees, and then the whole wagon lurched as the other raider jumped on board. I was caught between them, turning, meeting their blows, and then a third rider approached. I couldn’t hold off three. I lunged, knocking the first attacker off balance, then swung my other hand, plunging my knife into his thigh. He screamed and fell from the moving wagon. I spun again, ready to meet the other raider, and now the third one was on the wagon too, trying to pull the spooked horses to a halt.
The second man jumped forward before I could get to my feet. I swung, knocking his sword from his grip, but he had momentum and sprang toward me, throwing me backward, his knee jamming into my ribs. My head hung over the side of the wagon, perched precariously close to the spinning wheel. Dust flew into my eyes, and our arms strained and shook against each other as he pressed a knife downward toward my chest. The knife tip pricked my skin again and again as the wagon bumped on the terrain. My eyes watered with grit. I could barely see, but behind him I glimpsed the blurred hulk of third man coming toward us, and then a fourth—
I blinked, trying to clear my vision. It was Kazi. When she jumped onto the wagon, the other raider spun toward her and advanced, their swords crashing, but he was twice her size and his attacks sent her backward. I jammed my leg upward, trying to unbalance the man over me, trying to get to her, but when he tumbled he dragged me with him, and both of us fell from the back of the wagon, rolling in the dirt. When I finally came to a rest, I spotted his knife lying between us. We both lunged. He was closer and got to it first—but he was still stretched out on his belly, and I wasn’t. He rolled, but my fist was already flying, knocking him senseless, and I hit him again, and again, until his face was a broken, bloody pulp, and the knife in his hand no longer mattered. I took the knife and ran for one of their abandoned horses.
The wagon had already gone far ahead, and even from atop my galloping horse I couldn’t see Kazi or the raider on it. As I rode I saw blurred glimpses of the others, Wren fighting by Samuel’s side, her ziethes flashing, blood spurting from a raider’s neck, Tiago and Samuel bringing their attackers down. In the distance, more riders circled Mason’s wagon and Synové was letting loose with a volley of arrows. I saw one raider fall and another, and Mason engaged with a third. Up ahead my wagon had finally come to a stop, the horses still prancing nervously, but neither Kazi nor her attacker was on it. I rubbed my eyes, grit still making them water. My lungs seared with fire, and then the last of my breath was squeezed from them. I spotted her on the ground, almost buried beneath him. I jumped from my horse, the knife tight in my fist, praying to the gods I wasn’t too late, a thousand prayers and pleas uttered in a few frantic seconds—Not her, please not her—the knife ready to slice the raider’s throat, when I heard Kazi say, “He’s dead. Get him off me.”
I dropped to my knees and shoved him off. She was drenched in blood and my fingers instantly searched for wounds.
“His blood. Not mine.” I saw the knife clutched in her hand. She was still gasping for air, hardly able to speak, her lungs as drained as mine. I brought my lips to her skin, her forehead, her cheek, choking breaths coming from my throat. “You’re all right?”
She nodded. “The others?”
“Still standing. We got them all.”
* * *
There were twelve of them altogether. Kazi and Wren had each killed two, Synové, three. Mason, Samuel, Tiago, and I had killed the remaining five. We were all spattered with blood and had nicks, cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but Samuel was the only one who had received a serious injury, a deep cut across the palm of his hand. It would require stitching when we got home. Wren was tending it and had commandeered Samuel’s shirt for a bandage. A knife thrown by one of the attackers had grazed Synové’s scalp, and while it didn’t seem to be a serious cut, it bled profusely, and her head needed to be wrapped. Kazi ripped Samuel’s shirt into strips. My own shirt had a small stain of blood over my heart where the raider’s knife had pricked me. I thought about the seer’s warning, Guard your heart, Patrei. I see a knife hovering, ready to cut it out.
He nearly had.
As Mason and I loaded bodies onto the back of one of the wagons, we looked at each other, still in wonder. We’d never seen anything like it. The raiders had numbers and surprise on their side. We had Rahtan watching our backs.
“I’d be dead if not for them,” Mason said.
“All of us might be. I bet you’re glad you gave Synové her weapons back now. You’re right; she could shoot the shadow off a fly.”
He glanced over at her. She was holding a rag to her head. “But she needs to learn how to duck.”
He told me Kazi had killed one of the men who was about to split his skull in two with an ax. “What she lacks in stature, she makes up for in speed. She’s fast.”
I’d been on the receiving end of that the first day I met her.
All of them had flown into that valley with no thought for themselves, driven like furious demons. I knew Rahtan were well-trained and disciplined soldiers, but until I saw the aftermath of all the bodies, I didn’t quite appreciate how skilled they were.
How many have you killed? Two. I try to avoid it if I can.
Now she had killed four. There was no avoiding death today. This was no ragtag group of bandits who attacked us. They’d been a team on a mission. We’d already gathered their horses and gone through their bags looking for some clue about who they were. They were suspiciously clean. Even their saddle blankets gave no clue as to where they were from.
Kazi walked over, bruises on her neck beginning to darken. The last attacker had choked her before she stabbed him. She grabbed a skin of water to take back to Samuel, who was still being cleaned up by Wren. “You should flush out your eyes again,” she said. “They’re still red.”
“I will. After this.”
She paused and looked at the bodies we were stacking. “Why would they attack empty wagons? There was nothing to steal.”
“Large empty wagons are sometimes the greater prize,” Mason answered. “They’re headed to market to buy goods, and that means they’re carrying fat purses.”
When she walked back to where Wren nursed Samuel’s wound, Tiago said what we were all thinking. “Or it was another staged attack to discredit the Ballengers.”
We made a point to look at each face as we loaded bodies to see if we recognized any league hands. Was this a chance raid by bandits, or an attack to stir fear—or was there another motive? An attack to specifically kill the Patrei and his brothers?
Whatever the motive was, we had to take the bodies and dump them in a gorge. We didn’t want other traders who might pass this way to see the bloodbath. News would spread through the arena like wildfire. Every trader there wanted to earn a profit, but like the Candoran ambassador, they valued staying alive more and didn’t want to be caught in the middle of a power war.
Mason shook his head. “Something about them is strange,” he said. “Something—”
“They’re shaven and clean,” I said. “Their clothes don’t stink. These aren’t men who’ve been lurking on the trail for a long time waiting for prey to come along. They came here for this purpose. They knew we’d be here.”
But how? And who sent them?
We moved the wagon ahead to pick up the last body—the one I had shoved off Kazi. He was facedown. Mason and Tiago grabbed him and threw him up on the wagon. I rolled him over and his head lolled to the side, his eyes still open.
The three of us recognized him. Tiago hissed through his teeth. “Son of a bitch,” Mason said.
It was Fertig—Jalaine’s beau.
* * *
We threw Fertig’s body into the gorge first. It disappeared into the rocky ravine. No one would ever spot it. I told Mason and Tiago not to say anything to the others, including Samuel, about what we had discovered.
As far as we knew, Fertig didn’t work with any of the leagues. He was a groom at one of the arena stables. Tiago said Fertig liked the gaming tables and had a weakness for dice. Maybe someone had taken advantage of that and paid him to keep his ear to the ground. Was that what his interest in Jalaine had been all along? She managed the arena office and was usually discreet, but there was no better source of news than her.
We pieced it together. She had bragged about the queen’s letter, and then mentioned Gunner’s message telling us to come home.
That was how Fertig and his gang knew we would be here. Jalaine had told him.
Strangely, racing side-by-side with my rage was a sense of relief. I already knew there were conspirators, but at least now we had a clue. And one clue always unveiled more. They had a habit of leaving messy trails. Now, we had one to follow.