The wicked heroine, p.13
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.13

           Jasmine Giacomo


  Meena walked tirelessly, keeping up with the horse. Sanych started each day trying to keep up, and ended each day footsore, astride the mare.

  Three days out from Meena’s cave, Sanych began to realize how many sides there could be to a person after four hundred years. The travelers found themselves a day outside of Miln-of-the-Snows, the capital city of the small monarchy of TethNarra. Once in the city, they would book passage aboard ship to cross the wide Bay of Whales. For now, they needed to make camp again. Meena picked a nice hollow in the back side of a small rise, from which she could see for miles in any direction.

  “You could see Miln, if not for the forest there,” Meena said, pointing north as they gathered wood for a small fire.

  Sanych wished with all her heart that it was already tomorrow and they were on the ship out of these cold lands.

  Meena built a fire more efficiently than Sanych ever had, and they ate rabbit-and-tater soup and chewed some of the dried meat Meena had brought. The mare munched de-snowed grass nearby, enjoying the fire’s warmth.

  After the meal, Meena sat on her rock, found a switch and started flicking small bits off the end with her knife. They landed on the low fire, flaring with a momentary bright yellow, then dying to a smudge of dark red coal. She did this for about half an hour, Sanych guessed, without saying a word. And Sanych watched, fuming.

  Why do I not just tell her how I feel about how she’s treating me? I am a journeyman on my Archivist quest, and I am employed by the Temple of Knowledge. If my Master saw how cowed I am… After all, she is just another person, if only a mysterious, long-lived changer-of-history. That’s not so much, is it? Why am I sitting here like a lump on a log? I am a lump on a log, Sanych concluded, looking at where she was perched. While she pondered, the mare gave a low whinny.

  “Meena, listen. I know you’re really old and really wise, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world isn’t useful to you. If I hadn’t come to your cave, you wouldn’t even know that the Magister might be going to find the Dire Tome. And you’re treating me like I’m some mewling child, like I’m a piece of baggage hampering your journey. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even know where you’re going–”

  Meena’s eyes flicked up from her stick. “Shut up.”

  “Wh—how dare—” Sanych began, spluttering.

  “Shut up!” Meena hissed urgently, leaping across the fire at her. Sanych dropped her wooden bowl in surprise. Meena’s hands struck her shoulders and carried her back into the snow-bent grasses behind her log. Sanych braced for an impact that was much softer than she expected, and when she opened her eyes again, Meena was crouched over her torso, a hand holding her shoulder down. Meena drew a longer, more deadly-looking blade than her utility knife, from a sheath along her thigh.

  Sanych froze, eyes wide with shock. Belatedly, she realized the Shanallar’s eyes were not on her at all, but were fixed at a point off to her left.

  “Stay here until you can’t hear me, then make your way around the side of the hill to the sempergreens,” instructed Meena, her eyes not moving from their target. “Be silent at all times or you will die.”

  And then Meena vanished into the night. Sanych took the opportunity to panic. She realized she couldn’t hear Meena; in fact she’d never heard Meena leave. Afraid to look–afraid not to look–Sanych gingerly rolled over next to the log, acutely aware that her boots scraped the bark as she did so. She was terrified she would suddenly feel some kind of edged weapon plunging into her torso.

  Peeking over the log, Sanych surveyed the area. The sky held low, scudding clouds. The fire gave off minimal red light. Meena had told her to crawl away from the fire pit; she could stay in the grass and not cross the trampled-down campsite. Down the hill, opposite the campsite, were several old shrubs, which were blocking their fire from the wind. That was where Meena had presumably gone, but the worst part for Sanych was that she couldn’t tell what was out there, or where.

  But she had no choice. She started to crawl back into the grass, toward the sempergreens. Then a stifled cry came from downhill: a man’s voice. Another voice asked a muffled question. Then another cry. The mare snorted, uneasy, and Sanych paused, listening.

  A crash crackled through the night as something fell hard against a bush, loudly snapping its slender trunk. The sudden noise startled her, and the mare whinnied, trying to edge away despite her hobbles. Sanych realized that now was her chance to move quickly, while the bush and the mare were making noise. She crawled through the freezing grass, making an irregular path. Her body heat melted snow along her entire length, and she became cold and wet. More than half the time she was looking back in fear, instead of where she was going.

  The sempergreens weren’t far; she was over halfway there when another large cracking sound reached her ears, along with a cry from Meena. “No,” she whispered, before she could stop herself. If her protector died, she would be next. Sanych instantly felt shame for her selfish thought. This was the Shanallar, legendary healer and wise woman. If she died now, it would be Sanych’s fault for bringing her away from her safe cave. She risked a peek over her shoulder. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as she feared.

  No, it was worse. Sanych saw Meena sprawled on the ground next to the dying fire. Her bow had been knocked from her hand. A line of blood darkened her cheek in the coals’ light. Two men advanced on her. One held the broken trunk of a shrub like a churn handle, planning on ramming it straight through Meena’s body.

  “No!” Sanych screamed, not aware that she had gotten to her feet. She began to run back along her new-made path, advancing two steps.

  Meena’s head flicked up; she saw the shrub-lance’s wicked tip approach her body.

  Sanych made it another step.

  Meena twisted on the ground, her feet blurring like hummingbird wings. Her hands flashed upward. The makeshift wooden weapon went flying from the man’s hands. Meena curled and arched, flicking her feet, landing in a crouch. She caught the shrub-lance and whipped one end, then the other, into the closest man’s face, quicker than he could block. The double blow spun him around and he landed on his face, unmoving.

  While the second man gaped, Meena snatched up her bow and nocked an arrow drawn blindly from her quiver. She drew back on the string and aimed at his heart.

  “Stop!” came a voice, as Sanych’s head jerked to a stop. Her feet flew out from under her, yet she didn’t fall. A hairy arm had grasped her around the neck. Where did this one come from? Meena’s close opponent grinned, and the Shanallar lowered her weapon.

  Blood pounded in Sanych’s ears, too loudly to grasp the words that were being said between her captor and Meena. All she could do was tug ineffectually at the strong, thick arm that held her head. And then there was a knife, flashing in front of her eyes, catching the warm red glow of the fire, making it look evil.

  Foolish, thought Sanych. I’m just too foolish to make it out here. I never should have left the Temple! I’m failing my quest! If this man doesn’t kill me, Master Godric will!

  Meena’s arrow pointed to the ground; her eyes slid to the man approaching her, then back to the one who held Sanych hostage.

  The man’s arm tightened around Sanych’s throat, and he ordered, “Take her out; she’s too much trouble.” The other bandit raised a short sword and advanced toward Meena.

  Sanych’s eyes bugged, and she clawed and kicked frantically. I’m going to lose her! The world is going to lose the–”Shanallar!” she squeaked. Her captor’s knife tapped her cheek, but still she struggled. He merely chuckled at her efforts.

  Meena remained still until the man beside her drew his arm back to stab her in the kidney. With a shift of her feet and a blur of arm and arrow, she spun and skewered the bandit with an arrow through the gut.

  Sanych’s eyes widened.

  Meena spun again, facing Sanych and the bandit who held her. One hand brought her bow to bear, while the other fetched another arrow from her hip quiver. They met in a ma
rriage of deadly efficiency as she drew back the bowstring and let the arrow fly directly toward both people.

  The journeyman gasped.

  The bandit began to turn his hostage into the line of fire. The arrow struck, sliding through Sanych’s collar. The shaft of the arrow came to rest against her throbbing jugular as its head blasted through the man’s heart. The fletching, pale with flecks of brown, quivered before her terrified eyes, and she heard the man gasp in agony and surprise. His weight dragged at her, and the dagger in his hand sliced across her throat, leaving a burning line. Warm wetness sheeted onto her chest.

  With a last, dizzy look toward Meena, who was running toward her, Sanych collapsed to the snowy grass, landing next to her attacker.

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