Fire Ch. 11

byEnithermon©

"This way." He turned back to his men and shouted out orders until he felt he'd restored at least a shred of his dignity, though he doubted very much that any of his men would have done much differently in his shoes. Besides, this strange assassin, whoever, or whatever, he was, seemed to have just solved the bulk of his most pressing problems, the least he could do was oblige him for the time being.

He took the fastest route to the upstairs bedrooms and started with some surprise at the fire iron wedged across the door.

"Well?" An impatient voice snapped behind him.

Othwyn shrugged it off, deciding the guard must have abandoned his post to fight, and removed the iron. He stepped into the room and the dark man stepped in beside him. They both stared at the disgruntled warrior sitting at the edge of the bed. He looked up at them from under his brow, his expression a mixture of anger and embarrassment.

"Where is she?" Othwyn demanded, his tone short with anger and fear. Anger for the obvious reason, and fear that the assassin would be unhappy with this development and take it out on their sorry hides.

The man bowed his head slightly and shook it. "She tricked me...the damned little witch."

Othwyn winced and didn't dare look at the dark man. He suspected this wasn't about money, and he wasn't sure the man would like hearing the girl cursed.

"What do you mean, tricked you?" Othwyn bit out through gritted teeth, his hands clenching at his sides.

"She...she faked jumping out the window, and had me run in...then ran out the door before I could stop her...she locked me in." The guard stood, his head still bowed in shame.

Othwyn was about to lay into him when a strange sound startled him from his anger. Laughter. The assassin was chuckling. They both turned to him in horrified fascination, something which apparently made him laugh harder. Othwyn couldn't look away, though the sight of that fanged smile and those black eyes glittering with mirth was very nearly as frightening as his previous expression of rage.

Eventually his apparent humour tapered off and he smirked with a shake of his head. "I'm sorry, you must forgive me."

The guard, annoyed at being laughed at, bristled. "She tricked me." He muttered again mulishly and rolled his shoulders in discomfort.

The dark man waved him off. "I'm quite sure she did." He smiled with a decidedly sardonic twist to his mouth, though his teeth were blessedly hidden once more. "I'm merely glad to know it isn't just me. That woman Never stays where you put her." He chuckled again. "I considered tying her down once...but really it's a waste of rope. She'd manage to find a way to be difficult." His face grew serious and he sighed. "Did she go out the window or the door then?"

"Door." The guard grunted, still looking askance at the stranger.

He only nodded and stepped abruptly out the door before pausing and tilting his head as if listening very carefully for something. Both Othwyn and the guard followed as he turned and strode down one of the passage ways. They arrived shortly after in the barracks and he paused again before retracing his steps and leading them eventually into a bathing room. They all noticed the out of place stool immediately, sitting overturned beneath a ventilation shaft. The dark man paused beneath it, running his hand up along the wall.

"Take me to where this leads." He said softly, still looking up at the shaft.

"She couldn't have possibly squeezed up there and managed to open the vents, how would she stay up?" The guard asked, looking to Othwyn for support.

"She did." Othwyn answered, knowing that if this man thought so, then it was foolishness to disagree. Besides the fact that this...being, was anxious to find the woman, which in itself marked her as unusual in Othwyn's mind, she had escaped Darius's men and avenged herself on the warlord all unscathed. they were all factors which indicated that she was not to be taken lightly. He was dying to ask the assassin why he was so determined to find her, but caution won again over curiosity, so he instead led them out onto the walls as asked.

"There," he pointed at a gap in the stones which marked the exit of the vent and watched fascinated as the man walked towards it, tipping his head as he did before...his nostrils flaring almost imperceptibly and his eyes burning once more. An eerie sight to behold, to be sure.

"She was here....and she went down...there." He murmured aloud as he crossed the wall and slid his hand along one of the ropes. "Bleeding..."

"She's injured?"

He glanced back toward them with an appraising expression, then jerked his head toward the vent.

"Cut her hand on that hook."

"How..." Othwyn frowned at the hook then looked back at this very strange man, but he was already looking away and peering over the ledge. How in the blazes could he know that? Even the best trackers wouldn't have found her path this quickly. He shook his head internally...he probably didn't want to know.

He muttered something else that Othwyn couldn't hear before stunning them once again by grasping the rope in one hand and leaping over the side, vanishing into the darkness without a sign or sound. Part of him waited for a cry or the soft thump of a body hitting the ground, but there was nothing.

They stood in stunned only a moment before Othwyn collected himself and grunted. "Get men together and meet me at the base." The guard blinked over at him, still lost in wonder. "Ten minutes ago." He snapped and strode off, looking for the nearest set of stairs.

**

Thea groaned at the sight before her as she came though another thicket of trees and brush. The frozen creek, it seemed, had come from a half-frozen waterfall. A waterfall trickling weakly down from a high sheer cliff face which now stood in her way.

"Son of a..."

She had no idea how long she'd been moving since she left the keep, or how far she'd managed to come. There were no sounds of fighting anymore, but she heard the occasional voice in the woods behind her.

Her eyes whipped between the line of trees and the wall of stone. It might have been almost funny...the irony there. This was how it was supposed to end, not that long ago...but he'd found her. Found her and taken her with him. Brought her into his home...and she'd only brought...she growled out a frustrated cry and roughly pushed the threatening tears out of her eyes with the palm of her hand, swallowing back the rest.

She fisted her hands next to her and turned to face the woods around her with a stiff back and determined glare. Somewhere in her mind an image formed, and she saw a circle of hard packed earth instead of icy snow, a circle surrounding a great fire whose hungry flames licked up around her, lashing across her numb flesh.

But this time there was no sacrifice, no rope, and no fear. And this time she was ready for them. She hardened her gaze as her fingers shifted their grip on the blade handle of the dagger, and decided that there would be no more running. This was her death, hers to accept passively or to take, not theirs. They had no right to it. At the very least she would chose where and how.

It would be here, in this clearing with the wall of stone at her back and the dark of the woods before her like it was meant to be. And how? Not meekly, not waiting...alone and frightened. When she went down, it would be fighting...and so help her she'd take at least one more of those bastards with her.

Another call rang out and she tightened her grip reflexively. The shout was returned. Like hounds baying to one another excitedly as they captured the scent of the fox.

Her heart leapt up into her throat and stayed there, pounding out a stiff, fast, and primal rhythm of fear and expectancy.

Any minute, any minute, she thought. And then they were there, loud and bumbling, as they stumbled upon her. There were three, and they looked surprised.

One caught himself and yelled out "found her," telling her there were more. This one moved forward, his step sure. She let her fear show and quailed away from him as he reached for her, taking her by the wrist and tugging her toward him. Just as Darius had done, confident and glaring at her in his superior way. He sneered and glanced back at the other two behind him.

"I don't see what all the fuss is about...she's practically shaking. If Darius let this kill him, then he deserved his death. You sure this is the heir?"

"Yes, she must be. Just hurry up and kill her Flin, don't screw around."

He turned back to her just in time to throw off her aim and she missed, slashing him across the side of his cheek instead. He cursed and his sword arm came up instinctively, but the long blade was useless to him in such close quarters.

He tried to push her back, but she didn't let him and surprised the man by clinging to his wrist instead and taking another half-wild swipe at him. This too went wide, nicking his jaw, but doing nothing in the way of serious damage. He cursed and finally did manage to throw her away from him.

The force of his shove sent her to the ground, and she rolled out of the way as a sword blade glinted overhead then sunk itself into the impression her body had left in the snow. The drag of the snow slowed her, but she still moved with more speed than they could and was out of sword range instantly.

Another came at her, and she dodged. Once again they seemed so much slower and clumsier than the man who had begun to teach her how to avoid the blade as she did. She had to fight not to let this make her too confident, and she was glad she did since the third fighter was more careful and flanked her while she was occupied with the second.

This third sword missed her by only a fraction, and she realized that trying to stay away was not going to work, so she opted for what worked with the first man and got as close as she could to the new assailant. He caught on and gave up trying to use his sword and made a move to grapple her instead. She twisted out of the first grab just as he caused her aim to miss once more. When he finally did manage to get an arm around her, she backed into him, gripping and twisting his wrist in such a way that when she sidestepped, his body followed and twisted past her shoulder. He thudded down onto his back with a grunt. She might have had him if one of the others weren't already there, forcing her to dodge several more sword blows.

One blow finally caught her arm, sending a sharp stab of pain running up her shoulder and on into her chest, making her to stumble. She went down and as she did they fell upon her like the vultures they were. She kicked at one while another held her arm, twisting her wrist painfully and forcing her to drop the bade she held. Her struggles bought her precious few seconds though she knew they were ultimately pointless. Out of the corner of her eye she saw at least another two emerge from the trees. One scoffed.

"We were chasing a woman? It takes three of you to catch a woman? That's embarrassing."

Indeed, it had seemingly taken three as one was holding her wrists while the other was sitting on her legs. The third was snatching up his dropped sword in order to use it on her now exposed middle. She whimpered and twisted, trying to wrench free...but it did little good. All she managed to do was cause her shoulders to ache all the more from the force of her yarding on them.

The situation suddenly struck her as bizarrely familiar. More so when one of the new men dropped his sword and went suddenly stiff. They all turned their eyes as one and watched in horror as his head twisted sharply and unnaturally to the side, his mouth gaping in a silent cry. His large body dropped limply into the snow as a tall, dark, hooded figure materialized from the darkness behind him, his cloak shifting around him, obscuring his form so that he seemed for a moment as if he were merely a shifting shadow in the night.

For a moment she was as stunned. A pang of shock...and then something much stronger...warmer ran through her as she gazed at the newcomer. Luckily for her she wasn't the only one staring in stunned silence.

Her moment of shock passed more quickly than theirs. The almost palpable aura of menace spilling off of Jairus was too familiar to her to be terrifying...and she knew it could be no one else. No one else felt like that, or made her skin crawl with excitement like that. She realized she was breathing harder, nearly panting...and it had nothing to do with her struggles. That thought and the sensation of the cold snow in which she lay broke through her benumbed haze and she snapped out of it and back into the world.

She was able to break free as the one threatening her with the sword and the one holding her legs turned away to face Jairus. She kicked back away from the later and managed to loosen her wrists from the grip of the third who was equally distracted. Rolling away and on to her knees, she remembered herself enough to snatch at the dagger she'd dropped when they'd fallen on her.

She got far enough from the lot to pause but found herself suddenly unclear about what her next move should be. She had a clear chance to make a run for it as they were all suitably distracted, but that was easier said than done.

Now that Jairus was here, and with him a new hope for survival, she found her determination to stay and take on all comers dwindling rapidly as her sense of self preservation emerged once more. Such a dangerous thing, hope is, she thought with some bitterness.

Yet despite this renewed hope and this urge to run, she found she couldn't quite tear herself away. Not when he was there, right in front of her. She couldn't see his eyes past his hood, but she could feel them boring down on her from across the clearing. His hidden face was still turned toward her as a hidden blade left his hand and found its home in one of her abandoned trio.

The other two rushed forward, finally drawing his focus away from her.

So intent was she in watching him, watching the swift and deadly grace with which he disarmed and dispatched his opponents, and the almost lazy brutality of the act, that she failed to notice one of the men moving toward her until his blade was nestled against the base of her jaw.

Jairus, who had barely moved from his original position, and who now loomed over three lifeless bodies like an avenging wraith, turned very slowly to face them, his left hand raised to push his hood back just as a glint of silver announced the appearance of another blade in his hand.

The movement caught her eye as he twirled the knife in his hand, pausing it so that it faced backward just as her eyes dipped down to notice it.

A glance back at his face showed little to the untrained, or at least unfamiliar, eye. There was just more of that impassive, deadly ice. But there was a tightening of the jaw, a glint in the eye, and the faintest tilt of the head, all of which screamed out at her to pay attention.

"Always playing the damsel in distress, poppet...when will you learn?" He drawled out, almost casually, his voice that smooth, rolling murmur she still remembered from the night he'd first found her struggling to free herself from that post. She felt a odd pang at his tone and choice of words, but pushed it away in order to play along. She commanded herself to focus.

She let out a gasping laugh and twitched, shifting her body to hide the movement of her hand. "You're right, we have to stop meeting this way. Men holding knives to my throat is beginning to get tiresome. Though as I recall, you were one of the first to try it." Was that what he wanted her to do? What she had done that night?

He gave her that ghost of a smile and cocked his head. Yes. He did.

"Then you should stop letting them." He confirmed in a low, deadly purr.

She heard in his words another ghost of the not so distant past...'throwing me in snowbanks...' 'you should stop letting me...' and envisioned that night when he had first tested her abilities to defend herself. The knife to her throat...him adjusting her grip...surprising her in his room...his naked body beneath hers....

She blinked back the rest, not willing to face the rest of that memory, and focused back on the task at hand.

The Huroth behind her must have sensed the subtext of their words, or at least that there was subtext because the knife at her throat pressed in tighter forcing her to keep herself still or suffer a slit throat.

She could see Jairus's eyes darken even as he smiled, exposing a hint of fang. She fought not to be drawn in by that smile, or distracted by its striking similarity to those he'd given her in the past, though in a very different context. It wasn't meant for her this time. The knife in his hand spun, theatrically she thought, and she felt her captor inhale sharply as his attention slide to what she realized must be for him a terrifying sight, rather than an enticing one.

Thea could hear a noise not far off that told her more Huroth were upon them.

The combined distraction of their blundering into the clearing and Jairus' threatening presence caused the man holding her to lose his focus, letting the knife drift away from her neck. Two more Huroth came at Jairus and the man holding her yelled out a warning to them, but too late. Jairus had already engaged them and, she knew, it would not be long before they joined the grisly heap collecting at his feet.

Her captor was distracted for only a moment, but it was more than enough time for her to take advantage of his error. She pressed against his body even as the steel in her hand cut through the layers of cloth and leather. He grunted and stumbled, the knife at her throat nicking her before she could pull his wrist away completely and twist her body around it. She followed by shoving her foot behind his, just as Jairus had taught her, in order to push at him and send him off his balance. His priorities were no longer trying to hold her as he fumbled to regain his equilibrium and she took further advantage of that fact.

Pulling away, Thea pressed a hand to the cut on her neck to stem the blood. It wasn't deep, but it bled profusely.

As she was twisting her body toward Jairus she noted with satisfaction that the Huroth behind her was down on his knees. A split second later she watched as another Huroth fell in a similar fashion as a sword slid through him, its bloodied tip protruding grotesquely from his back.

She hadn't taken more than a step toward Jairus when she found he had already cleared the space between them in a flash of movement.

She caught sight of his eyes widening at the same moment his hand reached for her. His touch came but was overwhelmed by a blow from behind.

Time slowed and the world was thrown suddenly out of focus as a fire exploded from her back and shards of screaming pain shot through her body. She opened her mouth to cry out, but all she managed was a tight gasp that caught in her throat.

She stumbled as her legs weakened and buckled beneath her. She half expected to fall, but strong arms already held her fast.

She collapsed against his chest, shuddering, unable to voice anything but a long moaning whimper of pain. Her vision swam with stars and her skin crawled nauseatingly as waves of tingling numbness spread out from her center to the tips of her fingers.

"What..." she gasped, panting for breath, and burying her head against his shoulder, clinging to his cloak as the hot shards and cold nausea fought for her attention.

"Shhhh...be still."

He whispered something against her hair. She couldn't hear what, but they were soft, encouraging sounds. The wave shifted and she felt something else, a pain in her chest that wracked her with choking coughs. It was suddenly hard to breath. The taste of blood filled her mouth.

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