You’re the one that whupped Galdran Merindar?”
Unbidden, Shevraeth’s voice spoke inside my head: “You have never lied to me…” I thought desperately, Better late than never! And for a brief moment I envisioned myself snarling Yes, ha ha! And I minced fifty more like him, so you’d better run! Except it wasn’t going to stop them; I could see it in their eyes and in the way the woman gripped her sword.
“No,” I said. “He knocked me off my horse. But I’d taken an oath, so I had to do my best.” I drew in a shaky breath. “I know I can’t fight forty of you, but I’m going to stand here and block you until you either go away or my arms fall off, because this, too, is an oath I took.”
The woman muttered something in their home language. Her stance, her tone, made it almost clear it was “I don’t like this.”
And he said something in a hard voice, his eyes narrowed. It had to mean “We have no choice. Better her than us.” And he took up a guard position again, his muscles tightening.
My sweaty hand gripped my sword, and I raised it, gritting my teeth--
And there came the beat of hooves on the ground. All three of us went still. Either this was reinforcements for them, in which case I was about to become a prisoner--or a ghost--or…
Blue and black and white tunicked riders thundered down through the trees toward the wagons. On the other side of the road, another group rounded the rise, and within the space of ten heartbeats, the wagons were surrounded by nine ridings of warriors, a full wing, all with lances pointed and swords at the ready.
One of them flashed a grin my way--Nessaren! Then my attention was claimed when the wing commander trotted up, stopped, and bowed low over his horse’s withers. “Your orders, my lady?”
He was utterly serious, but the impulse to dissolve into helpless laughter was shaking my already watery insides. “These gentle people may unload their stones, and pile them neatly for the locals to collect,” I said. “And then the drivers and their companions are yours. I think local villagers might be hired to drive the cargo of the wagons to the sea. Brine-soaked kinthus won’t hurt anyone and becomes mere wood. The wagons then might be offered to said villagers as partial payment.”
The wing commander bowed again, turned, and issued orders. I noted from the salutes that Nessaren had risen in rank--she now appeared to have three ridings under her.
Within a very short time, the prisoners were marched off in one direction and the wagons trundled slowly in another, driven by warriors whose fellows had taken their horses’ reins.
All except for one riding. Nessaren presented herself to me and said, “My lady, if it pleases you, I have specific orders.”
“And they are?”
“You’re to come with us to the nearest inn, where you are to sleep for at least two candles. And then--”
I didn’t even hear the “and then.” Suddenly, very suddenly, it was all I could do to climb back onto my pony. Nessaren saw this and, with a gesture, got her group to surround me. In tight formation we rode slowly back down the mountain…
And I dismounted…
And walked inside the inn…
I don’t even remember falling onto the bed.