The arrow slashed through the sleet and caught the Akrean
mercenary just below the ear. Even as it quivered Malva sounded the
alarm, and three of her Lowlanders peeled off, charging in the direction of
Porett watched them go, into the gloom. "There might be tracks
Malva frowned after her riders. "Or an ambush. These Elets are
practising on us, testing out ideas before they come up against Justan's
army." Ice was forming on her furs.
He nodded. "Possible, yes. They can't like what they're
learning, though; even from snipers, we're pretty well invulnerable."
Malva glanced down at the body. "Tell that to him."
Porett didn't follow her eyes, began gesturing. "Point armour
has to be close-fitting, and it works by instantly stiffening when it's
penetrated." - fist, fist, palm - "That tightens it up." - wrist,
palm - "Therefore, you can only use it on parts of the body that can tolerate
sudden, wrenching jolts." - fingers, fist, wrist - "Put it round someone's
neck, and a pinprick would snap off their head." - fingers, point! The
corpse burst into flames.
Malva grunted. "Why couldn't you have done that to the
"I inverted the retardant in his armour..." Idiot.
The three horsemen returned. Malva didn't bother to ask; even
Porett could see that their faces shouted failure.
* * *
Her surveillance of environment routine was interrupted by
"I have a theory," he announced, "that there's only one sniper
hassling us. There's never more than a single shot per attack, and the
choice of target has been gradually refined, like someone's been patiently
searching for a suitable weak spot."
She grunted. "If you'd let us put on our helmets..."
"Then your heads would be numbed full of cold-aches. Metal
and low temperatures don't mix; even the thickness of padding wouldn't
stop you feeling like you were wearing an ice box." He leant back,
unbuckled the top of a saddlebag. "Use them only when we're under
She looked about. Her troops were quiet, their cloaks drawn
about them, heads down, thoughts private. Ahead, through the falling
snow, she could make out the shapes of her two secondary scouts in the
darkness. Beyond them, invisible from here, would be the three primaries.
Safe enough: so far, the sniper had struck only at the group's main body,
either side of the mule-towed wagons.
Porett was holding something out to her. She took it. "An
arrow? What's this for?"
"It's zipped, it won't miss. If you release it in roughly the right
direction, and don't undershoot your target, it'll hit. Be careful, I only have
She slid her bow off her shoulder. "Reusable?"
"I have to pass a few gestures over it after each shot. Five
"I see." She cocked her bow, gave a test pull. "So what do we
do if there's more than one sniper?"
He grinned, pointed to his ear. "Only one set of footsteps;
heavy, so probably male. They fade in and out, he must keep a horse just
beyond my hearing. He takes a shot, then he rides off before we can react,
waits for us at the next ambush point along."
"And are the footsteps in or out at the moment?"
"The snow deadens them, but they're in." He pointed. "Over to
the ri - "
The arrow thudded into the rib-cage of the leading mule.
Instinctively, Malva drew, loosed her reply more in rage than intent. It
curved a beautiful trajectory, disappearing behind a clump of trees.
She heard a small cry - an infant's?
The three flank guards followed her as she galloped through the
whitened rough, towards the sporadic bawls. Was Porett behind her? She
didn't care, discarded - lost - all thoughts, all notions from her mind, but
one: save him!
The sniper had taken it in the back. Her long, braided hair was
already accepting its covering of snow, giant flakes aging the blonde to
silver. Under the tree was her baby, wrapped in ragged folds of linen,
whimpering. Malva became aware that she'd dismounted, was running to
the youngster. Gods, let him be unharmed!
* * *
She looked up. Porett was standing before her, magic arrow in
hand. How long had he been there? Where were her men? Ridden off? She
cradled the baby, soothing, snuggling. "He's hungry," she said, like it
"You want to go back to Trilith?"
Trilith? "No, of course not, I..." She stopped. What in heaven
He reached out, ready to pull her up. "They had you sussed
good and proper, didn't they? Cracked you open like a coconut."
"They? Who's they?" She took his hand, still clutching the babe
to her, tightly. "We can't leave him here."
"The Elets. They must have been watching you for months,
cooked a neat way to neutralise you without creating a martyr to unite the
rest of your mercs. I'll have a hard time holding the band together now,
without your leadership to bind them."
"What? But I'm staying! How could - " The baby had cried
again, sudden, she'd broken off to calm him.
"It's over, Malva, you've got the miracle you always wanted,
you're useless here now. Take him with you, stay on as my agent in Trilith.
Tell Kenrith he's now relieved of that duty - it'll only please him, he never
liked it anyway. Better, have him call me, I want to arrange the death of an
erstwhile associate of mine..."
* * *
The snow was drifting. Sometimes, Porett thought he could
hear distant horses, their whinnies carried by the wind. Where were the
Elets? Were they deliberately keeping away? Surely they'd have to use the
road now, with this life-awful weather? Carts can't possibly be moved over
unpaved terrain with a knee's depth of Winter dumped on it! Did they have
sleds? Where were the tracks?
He'd sent a volunteer out on a sortie, to find someone - anyone.
She'd not returned. He'd tagged her, knew roughly where she lay, but
didn't retrieve the body. It was too close.
Things were tumbling out of control, free, spiteful. And yet, he
still preferred the malevolent cold, the dark skies, the gnawing danger, to
the safe, bland solitude of com-3 isolation.