Her lungs burned, and the muscles of her thighs and calves had turned to water. She no longer felt them beneath her.
Alit did not know how long she had been running, did not know where she was. Clouds had passed over Nin, and her silver light was wan. Points of torchlight in the streets retreated away from the erratic bounce of her own brand. People ducked into alleyways or flattened against walls. She could see, at times, the winking gleam of eyes swiftly averting, or, when the light was close enough to make out features, mouths set in guilty frowns.
She did not call for help, even though the man in the checked tunic was close enough behind that she could hear his ragged breaths in between her own. She expected that at any moment a hand would grip her shoulder, and pull her to the cobbled street. A cry for help was a breath she needed, and in any case, who would listen?
It was not until a clump of night-fires in the direct line of her vision were blotted from the sky that Alit knew she had neared the swell of The Bridge, and recognized her surroundings. She had not the breath to whisper thanks to Chagasha.
The walls of houses suddenly rose to loom before her, and she turned to her right, rounding the corner of a street she knew was there but could not name. Another left, and she would be running directly over the bridge.
Almost there. Almost there. Almost…
She struck something as she turned the corner, turning her wrist painfully against cold bronze. She heard a hiss of indrawn breath, and a curse she did not understand, and then her knee struck painfully against the street’s flagstones.
Alit struggled to control her breathing, to gasp out words. “Help. Murderer. Help.”
A skirt of bronze scales passed through the field of her vision. The ringing echo of a sword swiftly drawn still hung in the air when she heard a sharp cry, and then the hollow thud of a body striking a door. The man in the checked tunic fell to the ground.
“It’s done.” A crossguard clacked against a wooden scabbard. “We should leave, now, before too much curiosity.”
The man who had killed her pursuer turned towards her. In the torchlight, she could see that he wore no livery, only a traveler’s cloak over his heavy armour. His head was bare, hair and beard close-cropped.
“She burned me.” A second voice, behind her, heavily accented.
“I think we can forgive that, under the circumstances.” A third, a woman’s voice, another heavy accent.
“You’re not … not guards?” Alit asked, suddenly fearful again. Strong, thin hands slipped under her arms, and guided her to her feet.
“You are better off with us than with them.” The woman’s voice, close enough that her breath tickled Alit’s ear.
“Not with me. She burned me.”
Alit turned to apologize, and gave an involuntary start. The face of the woman who had helped her up was a pink canvas cracked with scars. Alit saw a flash of something sad in her eyes, then a wan smile pulled at a curving weal that started at an ear, passed under a flap of leather dangling from her helmet, and led to her mouth.
“Let us go,” she said. “Ignore Niko. We will talk when away from here.”
The man she had burned sighed and nodded. Another foreigner, young and clean-shaven, with short, curly hair. She recognized him as an Akrosian, a man from the mysterious islands that had warred for so long with her country’s Sarvashi invaders.
A fourth man was already walking away. She had not seen his face; only the outline of a broad back and a peaked cap. The hand on her shoulder pressed gently, and Alit followed its pressure, stumbling when her legs quivered, a testament to how hard she had pushed them.
“I am Perelka,” said the woman. “You are safe. Niko, you already know. Our leader is Belshanu. The man already so far ahead we call Mute. I think you will be able to figure out why.”
“Amdug!” Alit exclaimed, her memories refocused by the ebbing of fear.
“My brother.” Anki, please. Amdug! “He will be in danger. Please, help me again.”
“Go to the guards,” said Niko. “We’re mercenaries.”
“I can pay you!” she said, desperately scrabbling at her belt. She pulled from her coin-purse the shekel that Tukulti had given her to buy beer, and bile began to twist her stomach.
“A life costs more than this,” said Perelka, gently.
“I have more. At home. Please, please come with me. I will give you anything you want.”
A hand grasped her shoulder, and she turned to look into Belshanu’s grinning face.
“Never say that to our kind,” he said. “Or this will happen.”
Suddenly, his lips were on hers, only momentarily. As he drew away, she tasted smoke and rosewater.
“I am feeling heroic,” said Belshanu, waving his hands about with all the floridness of a stage actor. A surprisingly girlish laugh rang out beside her, then a grunt and curse from up ahead. “We have horses at the inn. Your legs must only carry you a little farther.”
“Fuck, Bel. Is our time worth so little to you?” Niko, an edge to his voice.
“Stay behind if you wish. Let’s go.”
Alit ran once again, half by the flagging power of her shaking legs, half by the support of strong hands at either shoulder. Her stomach writhed, and her mind offered up memories of a little boy with a severed spine, bleeding in the dark.