Excerpt of Dagger…

~From Book 2 of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~

She lay still for an hour then rose to make her way around the camp, a fist wrapped around a length of her skirts to keep the excess cloth from rustling or snagging as she crept.

The soft whicker from her horse betrayed their approach. She slipped behind the closest tree and made her way slowly toward her mount, kept her body concealed in the deep shadows of the boles. She could see three men approach their camp from the fields, their forms visible in the starlight outside the shelter of the grove.

There was no trace of Miina in her motions now. Karhu pushed the thoughts of the courtier to the corner of her mind as she reached her pack and drew her dagger silently from its sheath. Her sword she bared, careful to keep the blade from touching the metal rim of the scabbard.

She stepped between the sleeping bodies. They were lumps barely illuminated by the dying embers of their small fire and stood by the edge of the light facing the path the men seemed to have taken. She simply stood and listened intently, eyes closed to protect her sight from the firelight.

She knew she left herself at a disadvantage staying near her companions, but she could not bring herself to leave them. Should there be more than just these three assailants, the older couple would have need of her. The thought was wholly Miina and she pushed it aside and waited until she could hear the rustling approach of men through the grove.

They paused, as she knew they would. They could see her standing in the half-light. It was probably too dark to see that her kept eyes closed still, but a woman standing alone, with sword and dagger bared was unnerving when they slipped in by cover of darkness.

For the briefest moment, she panicked. Her face was fully visible. If they turned away now, her identity as Miina was useless. These men may be simply bandits, hoping for easy spoil from the travelers, but if they were soldiers, if they had duties within Ragnor’s court, then her guise was useless to her.

Now they must come within the circle of light. She must kill them. She brought her dagger hand up and gestured toward the ground before her.

“Why do you wait?” she called out. Launo gave a snort as he woke and sat up on the other side of he fire.

“Mistress?” Kalle’s voice called out with a muffled sound. She looked back at him and saw his big eyes peering over the edge of his blanket.

“Get up, but keep the fire between us. Launo, throw some more wood on, quickly now! We have guests,” she barked, and turned her face back to the trees. She heard them move forward and step out of the thicket.

They were soldiers, not bandits she saw. They moved well, their training evident. One man stepped forward while two emerged to either side, far enough apart that she could not see them all with ease. She shifted her body to keep the cart between her and one of the men while she watched the other two.

Bandits would have been better, she thought.

Soldiers who took up raiding in this manner were underpaid, simply bored or both. They looked for entertainment as well as gain and it made them far more dangerous than mere thieves.

“You have a moment to leave this camp,” she stated. “After that, you are responsible for the deaths of your men, not I!”

She lied to them, boldly, brashly. She would not let them leave the grove alive. Her mission demanded their lives now.

The first man into the clearing laughed at her. She could see no insignia upon his worn leather armor, no emblem of who his lord may be, but that did not surprise her. She would have removed all such markings herself, had she been employed by a king and decided to pillage traveler’s camps by night.

His nose had been broken, perhaps several times and hung, twisted above his mouth, turning the smile there into a sneer. He gestured to his two companions to approach her from either side and they obeyed, their acquiescence another sign of soldiery. They obeyed without hesitation.

She could hear the hushed, worried voices behind her as Launo dropped some of the kindling he had gathered for the morning’s fire upon the embers. The tiny flames that sprouted from the smaller bits of wood as they began to smolder cast flickering red shadows across the faces of their invaders. They looked like beasts.

They are little more than that, Karhu thought.

She had given them warning and they had ignored her. She half turned to look over her shoulder at Launo and saw him but a pace away, scythe in gripped in hands tight with fear, his eyes wide. She smiled at him and shook her head.

“I have them,” she whispered. “Stay behind the fire and protect your family. I will need more room to tend to them. You will not be safe this close to me.”

It was Kalle that threw wood on the fire. The boy darted around the flames adding chips and smaller sticks to the pile and stirring up the coals from beneath the ash layer that had built up since their dinner. He the threw the last of the smaller wood on the flames as they grew and put the knotted end of one thick bough into the flames, leaving the handle of the brand angled out toward Miina.

Clever lad, she thought. Always have extra weapons to hand!

She let her gaze linger over the small family huddled by the fire. Pudgy, florid Launo stood before his wife, his ashen face fierce. Kielo stood behind him with her cooking blade in one fist, the other hand clasped around the tunic of the baby holding tightly to her skirts. Kalle was furthest back just along the shadows of the trees and inched along the line of firelight. His eyes shifted from her and moved past to watch the men behind. His face grew suddenly afraid.

She wanted to time her movement just so. Too soon and he could stop short or worse impale himself on her blade and it would take precious moments to remove the sword from his body. Too late and he would run within the circle of her swing and strike her arm aside or could take the force of the blade on his upper arm, protected by the flaps of leather riveted to the shoulder of his armor.

If she were stronger, the leather covering the shoulders would not have helped him enough. The same type of blow from a man, with more strength to the strike, could cut through the leather to damage the arm.

She could hear him as Kalle’s eyes widened. The man’s sudden intake of breath and quick steps to close with her were loud in the stillness. She spun around and used the momentum of her body to swing her sword arm in a wide arc. He strode toward her, arms raised to grab her, dagger in one hand.

She had his pacing aright. The tip of her blade dug a neat furrow across his chest as it sped through the last of her turn. A heartbeat after, her left hand whipped around, dagger rigid in her fist. The tip of the knife found the newly carved seam and, with the weight of her spin behind it, plunged into the side of his chest, almost beneath his raised arm. The leather had been weakened enough that the force of her thrust broke through, though not with ease.

She felt the jar of the strike through her arm and shoulder and could feel the shudder of metal as the blade struck a rib and slid over the narrow bone and past. It was done in an instant. She yanked her hand back the moment she felt her momentum cease. To wait would let his muscles clench with pain and try to keep her blade stuck fast in his side.

A rush of air and blood came with her blade and she knew she had punctured his lung even before his ragged wheeze sought to take more air. It was a slow death, but death would take him as his lung filled with blood from the wound.

He fell to his knees and tried to draw a breath. She brought her knee up as he fell and struck his chin a sharp blow.

It was a space of moments. She could see Kalle give a start as he watched her brutal strike then dart into the blackness at the edge of the grove.

The remaining warriors stopped short and drew their blades, as far from each other as they could be without letting Launo get behind them. They were cautious and that was bad for her. As soon as one lunged at her the other would have a chance to strike unseen.

They were sure of themselves; she could see it in their eyes.

They have made a habit of this, it seems, she thought, but they have never hunted bear on these secret nightly jaunts.

She narrowed her eyes at the man closest to her and grinned at him as she stooped for the limb Kalle had left in the fire pit moments ago. It was a sapling, she found, as she grabbed the wood from the fire. The boy had shaken the dirt free from the roots earlier in the evening, but even still damp from the earth the roots had begun to burn a bit in the moments it lay in the embers.

She threw the brand end over end at the soldier. He yelled as the charred roots struck his chest and sparks flew up into his beard and face.

Karhu turned to face the last assailant the moment she threw the makeshift torch, but she could hear the flapping of the second man’s hands on his face and chest, his curses rising in volume.

The last man already darted toward her. He sped toward her with a growl, arms spread and sword low, an experienced fighter. He slowed before he reached her and slid to her left, well beyond the range of her sword. She would not last in a prolonged fight with the two of them so she made step forward, much closer than he expected her to be.

He made a swipe at her with his blade. It’s longer reach should have been an advantage to him but her sudden closure made for a sloppy strike. She used the flat of her own blade to beat his aside and stepped closer still.

The blade clinked sharply against hers and yielded, just a hands breadth, enough for her to wrap her left arm around his right. She pulled his sword arm down and hugged it against her hip.

It was a dangerous game for her to play against a man. She was strong, but lacked the weight she needed to grapple with him in this manner. It was only his surprise at her maneuver that kept her safe for a moment.

She lifted her sword and beat the pommel against his cheekbone. He had a helmet on his head but it was little more than a small metal cap with strips of leather bound to it. He wore it to protect his head from a blow from above, but never his face. He let out a roar of pain and rage. She heard his drop to the ground behind her as his other hand wrapped around her waist. He squeezed her, tried to crush her ribs, but she did not give him enough time. Her sword arm was still free and she struck him again with the pommel, and a third time. She felt his arms loosen as his head wobbled back. His knees buckled and he fell as she stepped away.

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