* * *
Color catches my eye. A flutter of yellow cloth, then the rain again.
I crouch behind a broken wall jagged as a giant's teeth. Knife in my left hand. A stone in my right.
It might be an old pennon, left from some forgotten war.
Spy another flash of yellow at an open window a spear's throw away.
It must be one of his minions. They are lesser than he and they wear yellow mantles just as his is orange.
I do not know the extent of their powers, or the arms they carry. Several in the castle had crossbows and I'm tempted to ready my shield. It hangs on my back underneath my cloak, blocking some of the wind and rain.
If I need to run the shield on my arm will slow me. I leave it beneath my cloak.
When you've spent your life in the forest, moving quietly through the sodden streets of a dead city is easy. I flank the building until I spot the hood of the yellow mantle peaking over the rim of a wall. The mantle moves and I duck, then creep forward.
The rain comes down hard again. I take a deep breath, then dart through a gap in the wall. Cast the stone, then lunge forward to finish him with the knife. Stone strikes stone and a pile of rocks spill over, dragging the yellow mantle into the mud.
It's a ruse.
Something tugs at my cloak. A crossbow bolt stabs the ground. Violet syrup drips from the bolt head. Poison.
I spin and the minion is in clear sight, one foot in the stirrup of the crossbow, rushing to reset the string.
Must retreat and flank.
I leap the wall to put some stone between me and his next bolt. My right boot strikes something and my ankle turns. Ignore the pain and run. There is a second low wall ahead of me. I hurdle it. Cold pain shoots through my hand, foot and knee. Roll over on my back and see a four-pointed iron caltrop sticking out of my right palm.
He sowed my escape route with caltrops.
I pull another caltrop from my knee, and a third from my boot. Peek over the wall, see him and throw the bloody caltrop at his face.
He ducks. Levels the crossbow.
I crouch and wait.
He laughs. The sound is high and weird and foreign, and it has no force in this doomed place. He leans around the wall, three steps from me. The crossbow comes up. He squeezes the lever.
The catgut string snaps.
He leaps back.
I reach for his throat.
Feel a hard blow to my back, the wind knocked from my lungs as I fall. The acolyte turns and flees, the broken bow held close as he scrambles through the rubble.
Someone shot me from behind. Another yellow mantle.
There are two minions and one fool in this world.
Cursing, I crawl through the small field of caltrops, gathering them as I go. Drop them into my pouch, slither around a corner and slip up a steep ramp into the remains of a tower. Squat beneath a window, push my cloak aside and bring my shield around. The bolt protrudes just above the brass boss in the middle of the sturdy shield. Some of the same venomous slime coats this bolt, so rather than break it off with my hand, I use a stone to snap it. Use handfuls of rainwater from a puddle to wash the shield clean.
My boot gets tighter as my ankle swells. If I remove the boot, I may not get it back on, but cutting it off would be worse. I tug the boot off. My ankle is swollen fat. The cut on my other foot and my knee are minor, but my hand bleeds. I cut a strip of my cloak off and bind it. I'm lucky he didn't have time to tip the caltrops with the same poison as the bolts.
An old sergeant once advised me to count the other side before the brawl starts.
They are two to my one. They have crossbows. I have a knife. They have magics. I have none. They are determined. I am desperate.
Desperate men go beserker, kill the nearest five enemies, then drop dead of their wounds. Another bit of wisdom from my old tutor.
* * *
(Watch for the exciting conclusion. Coming soon!)