The gravel crunched, echoing back into the cave. Counting footsteps, Eytan stared into the dark. When the four of them appeared in a loose line, he wasn’t surprised. The first man had a heavy sword at her hip, and passed Eytan without realizing. The woman behind him, a shadow in her dark leathers, caught the glint of bare steel in Eytan’s hand and murmured one word to pull them all to a stop. The other two stopped immediately, glints and echoes ten feet back and Eytan stayed where he was, borrowing some of the bulk of the stone wall while he stared at them.
“Lost, sister?” Eytan asked, and kept his voice low so that it was mostly echo as well.
The woman didn’t answer, tilting her head to get a better look at him.
“Are you?” the man behind her asked Eytan.
Eytan shook his head. “Stopped for a rest on the way to Eruldin. You?”
“We’re here on king’s business,” the man said. He motioned for the others to come forward, as if he might introduce them, but the two of them stepped closer, turning gray on the edge of the light, and spread out to lock positions around Eytan. Two women. One was dressed in heavy chainmail, the other in a lean leather coat made for moving.
Eytan took one step forward, letting them measure the breadth of his shoulders, the reach of his arm. One of them judged him and rocked back a step.
“We’re looking for a woman named Riva Atanos,” the man told Eytan. He pointed toward Riva, lying out on the floor. “Looks a lot like her.”
Eytan turned to follow his finger, then looked back eyebrows raised. “She’s dead,” he said slowly, clearly.
The man’s eyes narrowed, just a little. Then he looked Eytan over from head to toe, considering his clothes, his hands, the clean sheen on his sword. When he met his gaze again, he was sure. “We both know she won’t be for long.”
Eytan shook his head, slow.
“Then why carry around a corpse?” the man asked.
Eytan shrugged. “Haven’t dug the grave yet.”
“Hard to dig in stone.”
Eytan shrugged again. “Was thinking about giving her a tomb. The cave wasn’t very obliging though.” He pointed up at the broken ceiling.
The man looked at him dully. “We’re taking her.”
The four of them stepped forward in unison. Eytan rushed toward them, arm up, sword angled down for a stroke to the knee. The man whirled toward him, drawing and swinging his sword in one motion. He flicked the sword out, to push Eytan back with the edge.
“No,” the man said. He shook his head while Eytan pulled a breath back into his lungs. “You’re not going to die for someone who can’t.”
“I might,” Eytan said.
Tilting his head, the man looked at him with doubt and pity.
A bowstring creaked above them. “You might, too,” Kennet said, arrow nocked, drawn all the way back to his lips. He was far enough back to catch easy sights on all four of them. Eytan glanced up, measured the distance, and carefully stepped out of the way of the woman behind him. Kennet smiled.
“It’s a curse,” the woman closest to Eytan said. “There’s no good in letting her run around, touching the world with it.”
Eytan looked at her. “No good in letting you take her either,” he said flatly.
Riva had told him once, about what king’s wanted with her. She hunted down battlefields all by herself, by choice, had already seen more of her own blood than any natural order would have allowed her. Kings locked her under floors. Kings chained her in windowless rooms with drains in the floor. Kings invited talented killers to try to put her permanently into a grave, a contest in packing pain into the hours before a body broke.
Riva had only told him once. Then she pretended she hadn’t, as if that could take the acid out of both their mouths.
Eytan considered asking them if they knew what they had been paid to drag her into. He didn’t, already disgusted.
The quiet stretched wider, swallowing the six of them while the trees whispered.
Then Eytan dove forward and cut low. The first woman dropped to one knee, bleeding. Two arrows whistled past him, quick, one chasing the other. Another moment, and there was a third, as Eytan spun to catch the man’s sword. Metal ground on metal, and he pushed hard. Another low swing, and he dropped him, too.
One of the other women had stumbled back against the edge of the cave, an arrow high in the right side of her chest. She breathed wrong, as if she had lost a lung.
The last sat awkwardly on the ground, an arrow through her left heel and her right thigh. She was trying to pull the notched arrowheads free, and screaming curses.
Eytan ran for his pack, and then for Riva. “South!” he shouted up to Kennet. The archer disappeared. Eytan gathered Riva, and folded her over his shoulder. Then he dodged past the scattered soldiers and slipped into the dark.
“We shouldn’t have left them breathing,” Kennet said, trudging up the next hill beside Eytan on the seventh day. Eytan didn’t bother to point out that he hadn’t been the one to decide how he aimed.
On the fifteenth day, Riva gasped. She choked on air, and coughed it out. Kennet raised his head from the other side of dead cook fire. Eytan grabbed the water bag from his pack and crossed her while her eyes flickered and finally flashed open. She sat up, hard, as if something had dug hooks into her shoulders. She stared at the trees, the ground, her hands.
“Hey,” Eytan said, crouching beside her.
She jerked to look up at his face, surprised by his voice, and then suddenly, like something in her had snapped, relieved. She laughed, still trying to fill her lungs with a real breath.
Eytan pushed the water bag into her hands. Her fingers closed, remembering some reflex, and fumbled trying to hold onto the weight. Then she lifted it to her mouth and spilled it over her tongue, down her chin. She swallowed as much as she could without taking another breath, then dropped it back into her lap.
“How’s the other side?” Kennet asked lightly.
She looked at him, gave him another tight, unstrung smile. “Twisted,” she said. Her voice croaked on the second syllable.
Kennet nodded, as if that was what he had expected. “Well, this side is still…” He waved a hand at the trees, the hills, the sky, the dirt, the breeze, lacking a word to catch them all.
Riva nodded. She swallowed, working some taste out of her mouth. “I’m sure you tried to muck it up,” she told him. “You’ll do better next time.”
Eytan smiled crookedly.
“Well, I did lose twenty moiet,” Kennet told her. He glared at her lightly.
She blinked, glared back after a moment, not knowing why.
“And there are about five really good reasons to run for Eruldin tomorrow,” Kennet said.
Riva stretched her legs in front of her. “Good,” she said.