16. Running Late
The commander chuckled at the newlywed scenario Justin and Tam presented to him. He insisted they keep the supplies and clothing as gifts while Justin argued over the needed amount of chips he wanted to return payment of once they’d reached Tam’s imaginary family. Almost as an afterthought, and with Justin and Tam both animatedly refusing, the commander pushed a sword and knife each into their hands, cautioning them against bandits in the area.
“This is too much, on top of everything you’ve already given us,” Justin said, trying to hand the weapons back.
“I wouldn’t sleep well knowing that I’d sent you out unable to protect yourselves,” the commander said, preening at his own graciousness. Justin smiled at the new weapons and the commander as if unable to believe his good fortune, while privately hoping the Fengus twit knew the difference between the good steel and the decoys.
“These weapons, you have to allow me to send payment for them,” Justin argued further, holding up the ruse as he clipped the knife to his belt.
“Not required, not required,” the commander announced, beaming at them and waving his hands as though batting at a moth. Tam snapped her weapons to her belt and smiled at the man, blinking as if she was holding back tears, and then hugged him.
“Thank you so much,” she whispered, so genuine that even Justin almost believed her.
“Of course, of course,” the commander said as he patted her back. “I’m always ready to help those in need,” he added when she stepped back and brushed a real tear off her cheek with the back of her hand. Justin smiled down at her as he clicked his new sword to his belt and then wrapped his left arm around her, reaching to clasp hands with the commander as she hugged his waist.
“We owe you our lives,” Justin stated, holding the commander’s hand firmly. “I can’t thank you enough.” The gearblocked commander praised himself and his own generosity as they stepped outside, warm and dry, to start on their way again.
The nearest guards complained about the wind picking up for what looked like another storm as Justin and Tam stopped to wave and call more thanks at the foot of the bridge, hiding the exhaustion of even the small exertion of walking this far when they beamed smiles at the commander. He waved back, and then they turned and crossed over to the side where Justin could feel Tor waiting.
They stuck to the road ringing the top edge of the pit, Tor pacing them through the trees from a distance. Justin made sure to thank every guard they passed, and only glanced into the mine as much as typical curiosity would allow when a couple of guards muttered about the bad weather halting work and then yesterday tromping through the woods to bring people back after a few slaves escaped into the storm which had just passed.
The door to the next outpost burst open just after they walked by and Justin didn’t even have time to look why when Tor’s thought for them to run blasted through his mind. They staggered four steps on legs which were aching and cramped from shivering for so long before the silent command switched in frustration to fight. Justin unsheathed his new sword as he spun around to face whatever was coming, hoping the blade was good steel, and barely ducked under the swing of the scout who was attacking him as the sword in his hand snapped off cleanly where the scout’s sword struck it. Tam stabbed over his head and surprised the woman in the black uniform by burying a badly made sword in her chest and pulling Justin clear of the back swing that broke the hilt off the decoy weapon Tam had been given.
Justin lunged forward and grabbed the scout’s wrist as she stumbled to her knees. He ducked around her arm and twisted her hand, forcing her to drop the sword into his waiting palm. He stabbed her again to be certain she was dead before turning his back on her to face the little outpost building. Two sets of long planks with boot caps in the middles and curves at the top ends were leaning against the nearest wall. “Scouts use skis” Tor had said, and these looked exactly like what he’d described.
The second scout hesitated in the door, clearly not wanting to make the same mistake of rushing into the fight that her partner had just made. Then she simply stepped out of the way for six mine guards to rush out of the cabin past her.
Tam pulled on Justin’s pack to lead him into a position closer to the trees, and then abruptly changed direction as swords clanged in quick succession where Tor was. Guards poured out of the next outpost and pounded over the bridge as the first six started their attack. Justin fought as well as he could with the unfamiliar curved blade, and was rewarded with a lucky stroke that took off a guard’s hand and gave him a straight blade he was familiar with. He quickly procured a sword for Tam the same way.
Yells and cheering from behind him – in the direction of the pit – created a confusing mix of hollering until Justin realized that the slaves in the top cage below could see the guards running and hear the fighting. Tam killed the last of the first six and then turned so she was back to back with Justin, each of them facing the next force that was arriving from both directions. They dropped their packs as the scout in the nearest outpost rested her hands into her pants pockets and leaned her shoulder on the door frame to watch the next wave of guards arrive, waiting casually to see how events would unfold.
Justin wasn’t sure if he admired or loathed her for acting exactly as he would have had their places been reversed.
The cheering below grew louder as he and Tam were forced closer to the edge of the pit and the slaves in the cage below could see some of the fighting. Justin marked the distance to the edge of the road in his mind’s eye and tried to push the fighting closer to the trees… which worked as well as pushing water uphill with his hands. It seemed like two guards arrived for every one that they were able to kill. The edge of the pit loomed closer as they were driven toward it.
Tor crashed out of the trees, swordless, obviously having been thrown, and rolled into the back of the pack of guards around Justin and Tam. He came up to his feet holding the curved blade Justin had dropped and cleared a swath of guards as he stood, opening a space around himself that gave him a good swing radius simply by killing everything within it. The scout in the doorway took her hands from her pockets and nearly stepped out, but stayed put when whoever Tor had been fighting with charged out of the trees and attacked.
Justin’s internal warnings clanged loudly about the edge of the pit as he swung and blocked, Tam’s shoulder digging into his ribs as she did the same. Then suddenly she wasn’t there. He twisted and dropped, ducking under the incoming blades, and reached over the edge. Tam was already too far down for him to grab. She spun and curled in the air, the short distance she was falling giving her almost no time to prepare to land, and crashed into the top of the highest cage in an awkward roll.
Justin dove off the edge after her as she sprawled to stop herself. Her ass and legs met with nothing but open air. Her sword bounced off the cage and spun away into the pit as her hands slipped over the smooth bars, unable to grab on to anything because of the angle she was reaching from. Justin threw his sword as he landed on the cage and lunged to grab her.
He was too late.
A weekly blog updating on Saturdays with quick personal blurbs about me, as in what's going on during my life as an Author and mom, and that doles out my short stories and novellas in bite-sized parts for everyone to read for free!