The horse beneath her pranced, full of too much energy and clearly overly impressed with his own dignity. Pulling sharply on the reins had no effect, as the horse merely shook his head, gave a protesting snort, and continued to prance.
Exhaling, Bharia turned her attention to the road. The pounded earth stretched into the distance, flanked on either side by empty grassland before being swallowed by the looming pines of Lomenpic Forest. Few travellers passed this way, and those that did were skittish and unfriendly, more than willing to travel a wide berth around Bharia and Stahg while casting furtive looks at the broadsword Stahg carried and the daggers that adorned Bharia’s hips. She couldn’t fault them, she supposed. Many had been ambushed on this road, for all it held the protection of the King. Protection, however, required protectors, and the last road guard Bharia had seen was half a day and three towns back.
Before her, Stahg picked the way, his horse uncommonly well behaved. Back bisected by his broadsword, he held himself straight, straighter than he had when they’d departed Dyerston, a sign the wounds he bore were healing. Her own ills plagued her little, though her head still reminded her at times that she had suffered a blow.
Stahg leaned forward over the horse, the long muscles of his back stretching beneath his gilet. Mouth abruptly dry, she ran her gaze over his form, the strength in his shoulders, the curve of his flank. Powerful thighs gripped the horse, subtle movements urging the mount forward.
Cursing herself, she averted her eyes. Warrior’s blood, why were these thoughts in her head? For an age she’d kept them at bay, allowing herself no more than the occasional dispassionate admiration of his form. He was what his profession made him, and sometimes she allowed herself to acknowledge the wide shoulders, the narrow waist, the strong hands. However, something had changed these last few days, since Thalia had been taken and she’d woken with an aching head. Perhaps the blow had dislodged her sense, making it so these inconvenient musings were no longer willing to be silent.
Stahg pulled to a halt before her, the shoulders she couldn’t tear her eyes from stiffening. She stopped beside him. “On the tree line,” he said quietly.
She followed his gaze. They were being shadowed, five by the look of it, and none too good at stealth. “Do you think they’ll approach? They’ve been following us this last hour.”
“I’m not certain. They seem content simply to watch.”
“Maybe we should engage them.” She glanced at him. “We don’t want them following us all the way to Rivermouth.”
A slight smile took his lips. “Don’t we?”
“Stahg, you’re getting senile in your old age.”
The smile widened, becoming close to full-fledged. “You’ll always be my elder.”
“Finally, a truth is spoken.” She grinned, but sobered when her gaze wandered to their shadowers once more. “So we’ll let them follow?”
Stahg gave a nod.
In thought, she rubbed her lip with her finger. It made sense. They didn’t need to expend energy they didn’t possess. She was still recovering, and Stahg moved stiffly. If it took their company another day or two to gather the courage to attack, it would only be to their benefit.
In the distance, their pursuers started, clearly realised they’d been spotted. Abandoning any attempt at covertness, they urged their mounts to a gallop, drawing their swords as they bore down on them.
Bharia sighed. “It was too much to hope they would be in agreement with our plan.” Dismounting, she tucked her braid into the back of her vest.
Stahg had already dismounted and set his horse to the side. Drawing his broadsword, he shifted his grip on the hilt, the enormous sword looking wicked-sharp in his grip. “Be ready.”
Bharia drew her daggers. “Always.”
They attacked from the front, abandoning any element of surprise. A man rushed Bharia, leaping from his racing horse and brandishing a sword almost like he knew how to use it. It was easy to disarm him, and even easier to knock him unconscious.
The woman who attacked her next had some experience. A slice, and her sword angled towards Bharia’s neck. Raising her daggers, she blocked, forcing the woman back into an unsteady stance. Heart pounding, blood a rush in her ears, Bharia advanced, slashing at the woman’s throat. The woman flinched and Bharia took advantage of her distraction, kicking at her knee and her balance. The woman dropped to the ground, raising her sword quickly but not quick enough. She hit the dirt beside her colleague, knocked cold.
Bharia turned. Stahg had dispatched two in the same short order she had, and looked seconds away from dispatching the third. His sword sliced into the man’s shoulder and the man screamed, dropping his sword to fall to the ground. Face wreathed in pain, he cradled his shoulder, blood pouring over his hand as he tried to scramble away.
Grimly, Stahg stalked him, his broadsword held loosely in his grip. The man, exhausted, gave up his retreat, staring at Stahg in defiance.
Bharia looked over the felled. It hadn’t been a fight. They had been woefully unprepared for two trained Guardians, even wounded Guardians, and the speed of their defeat bore witness. None were dead, though all would wake with sore heads.
Except the man before them now. Stahg grabbed him by the chin. “Who sent you?”
The man moaned.
Stahg shook him. “Who sent you?”
“You may have defeated us,” the man gasped, his face twisted in pain. “But we are many. You cannot defeat us all.”
“You’re probably right, friend.” Bharia crossed her arms, already tired of such dramatics. “And who is this many?”
“We are the needle, and the eye. We are many. You will never defeat us all.”
“You are of the Spindles,” she said softy. The Spindles objected to the king, pushing for an end to the monarchy and a move to a society where all were equal and all shared wealth. Unfortunately, they had yet to outline how such a society would be reached, and their attention seeking had become more violent with each passing year.
The man’s eyes flashed with fanaticism. “The king will pay for his crimes, and the Guardians with him. You will never survive the uprising. You—” His eyes rolled to the back of his head.
Stahg flexed his hand. “I grew weary of his rants.”
Bharia looked over the five fallen. “The Spindles grow bold.”
Wiping his sword, Stahg sheathed the great weapon, adjusting the strap over his chest. “They know Thalia’s Confirmation is upon us. They wish to make noise, and this is how they choose to do so.”
Bharia replaced her daggers in their sheaths. “We should return to the palace for more reasons than one. We should let them know of this.”
“Yes.” Stahg fell silent a moment. “She is well, Bharia.”
He always knew her, even better than she herself did sometimes. “I know.”
A large, strong hand cupped her shoulder. “We will find her soon.”
Almost absently, his thumb traced her collarbone. A shiver rushed through her skin, her blood a fire. She wanted to take his lip between her teeth, wanted to shift so his hand covered her breast, her nipple brushing his palm. She wanted to take the passion roused by battle and turn it to another kind, one where was naked and beneath her. Inside her.
Heat a burn on her cheeks, she shrugged him off. “We should get to Rivermouth.” She did not want these things. She could not want them.
Retrieving his hand, he curled his fingers into a loose fist. “What shall we do with them?”
Did she hear disappointment in his tone? By the warrior, now she was inventing fancies. “Leave them. They’ll wake, and maybe they’ll think twice about attacking Guardians where they are clearly woefully inadequate.”
He glanced up at the ridge. “We should take their horses, bring them to Rivermouth. We don’t need them following.”
She nodded, her gaze somewhere left of his.
“I’ll do it.” He swung himself on his horse and headed in the direction they had first seen the assailants.
She watched him go. She would conquer these feelings. They would reach Rivermouth before the day’s end, be on a ship to Queenstor with the first tide and everything would be as it was. They would find Thalia, they would guard her once more, and she would no longer feel such things.
She knew it in her bones to be true.