Coin had almost reached the old Imperial highway when the drumming of hooves and yells of encouragement told him he'd been spotted. Giving up any pretence of concealment, he bent double and put on a burst of speed. Arrows hissed past him, showing a fine disregard towards leaving him in any state to answer questions. That meant they'd found his horse then. He'd sent it thundering off south towards the Great Swamp that morning with packed saddlebags. Or maybe they already knew what he was carrying. Either way it didn't matter now. He ducked amongst the rocky columns and redoubled his efforts to scramble up the steep hillside.
The Crown's Barrens were as crumpled as a carelessly thrown blanket spread across a floor. Here the eastern foothills of the Zarhast Mountains met the flatlands rolling north of the Great Swamp. It was rocky, barren moorland, sparsely inhabited by the barbarians who'd overrun the old imperial province. Even the imperial highways wove around the contours of the land rather then slicing straight through. There was just too much rock. He'd thought about that quite carefully last night.
Coin scrambled up over boulders and down along a dry run-off for water. The arrows had stopped now. His pursuers knew they'd be wasting their shafts. He cleared the last of the rocks and half-stumbled, half-sprawled on blessed flat stone. His breath came in sharp, shallow pants. The air along the road seemed still and heavy, like a hot summer afternoon before a storm. A small pair of sandaled feet, wispy hair between the toes, stepped into his vision.
He scrambled to his feet, sending the halfling leaping back with a clatter of pots from her pack. She brought a wooden walking-staff up warily between them. Coin's heart sank. Why, by Fir, in the middle of this entire wilderness, did there have to be a damn halfling tinker in dusty robes standing right in front of him? He couldn't deal with any distractions now. He yelled the first thing that sprang into his mind to get her scrambling.
There. Any local in this country would take to their heels at that cry. Coin wasted no more thought on it, but span around and looked down over the valley he had just run through. He knew he was silhouetted against the sky but didn't care. The search party already knew he was here, and the old wards still ran through this stretch of the road. The great engincerer Tains had built these paved stone roads along imperial trade routes, and to mark the boundaries between one province and another. The half-elf had built to last.
He saw his hunters had reached the base of the hill that the road ran along. The sheerness of the slope and its rockiness defeated their horses. It would be all too easy for them to break a leg and throw their riders. The hunters would need to clamber up here on foot.
There were five men in the party that followed him. Four were typical Kauld family clansmen, broad rather then tall, with thick stocky legs and powerful shoulders. Their hair, red or brown, was cropped back close to the skull, and through their ears were the little wooden pins symbolising the enemies they had killed. They were dressed in jerkins and trousers of padded leather. Swords and long knives glinted in their hands. Only their leader bothered to carry a target, the small steel shield used to ward off sword blows.
The fifth man stood taller and leaner then the clansmen with him, and his hair was gleaming black, not rusty brown. Coin saw him and knew at a glance how he'd been tracked so quickly. The man was a Beshtel tribesman, a native of the Zarhast range. Their rangers were said to be able to track the passage of a horse over dry rock. The tribesman also carried the bow that had shot the arrows at Coin minutes earlier, a fresh arrow notched and ready.
Clearly the ranger was still angry at missing the running man. At the sight of Coin standing outlined against the sky, he gave a shout of excitement and swift as a striking snake drew back the bow string and let fly. It was a good shot and flew straight at Coin. In spite of himself he flinched away from it, but the shaft never reached him. Instead the arrow struck something a good three feet away from his face, in thin air, and clattered away as if it had just bounced off a boulder. Coin blinked his eyes. Had the air gone opaque in front of him for split second?
The ranger yelped and leapt back, dropping the bow. Coin had forgotten how superstitious the mountain tribesmen were. The Kauld clansmen had been more exposed to the effects of magic, and in any case knew their own lands and history. They came on, leaping from rock to rock with the ease of people born in the Barrens. Their leader barked something at the tracker in Beshtel as the clansmen started up the slope without him.
The tracker jumped onto his bare-backed horse, too cowed to even pick up his bow. Coin understood the leader's reasoning. No Beshtel warrior would fight a magician unless one of his own spiritmen was there to protect him, but they were excellent riders. The other search parties would quickly learn he'd been cornered. He wouldn't have been so confident if he'd known what was strapped to the pack Coin had been dragging behind him. Coin untied the bow and quickly strung it. From the wicker basket of arrows he selected one of the ones with a black mark running down the shaft.
Calmly, the way he'd been taught, he lined the arrow up with the first clansman coming up the slope, and drew back the string. The man was having trouble with the light, loose stones in that part of the hill, and wasn't looking up. Perhaps he didn't know that while Tains's spells wouldn't let missiles in, the old half-elf hadn't stopped them going out.
"Why are Kauld men leaving their lands and setting foot in ours!" rang out a loud voice "You need a sidon's permission to enter here, or do you forget your own holdings end at the Bright Stones?"
Underneath the stiff words the speaker was astonished. And very angry.
Coin darted a sideways look. The halfling tinker was standing in the road staring fearlessly down at the climbing humans. Her bag of pans and the walking stick had vanished, and despite her stern expression, she was completely unarmed. The Kauld leader was a quick, practical man, who wasted no time.
"Get the thief! And the kill the halfling, we don't want any witnesses we were here," he called out.
Coin had already loosed his first arrow. He had known what the man's response would be. The tinker had doomed herself with her own stupidity. Still, with any luck she would buy him some time. His shot was an awkward one, hitting his target in the soft flesh of the neck beneath the ear. Blast it. He'd been aiming for the throat. The man's head snapped back, and he fell, bouncing down the hillside. Perhaps he could have stopped himself before he died, but the poison had already set his body convulsing. He did not get up.
Coin's shot brought a yell of horror from the other clansmen. They scrambled faster up the loose scree at the top of the hill. Coin found the leader and loosed a second arrow, but incredibly, the bearded man's target deflected the shot into the long grass at the edge of the road. The two ordinary clansmen had veered away along the slope from the threat of Coin's bow, and clambered onto the road away to his right. He had run out of time. They found the halfling in front of them, still standing and waiting. Well, she'd hold them up for a few seconds, he thought.
He dropped the useless bow and drew his sword as the hairy Kauld leader crested the hill right in front of him.
Hunnah let her body relax and drain away the mind's fear with it, the way her old sidon master had taught her so long ago. She waited in the seeming limpness that the enemies of the Order so often mistook for frozen fear. It made them sloppy with their aim and careless with their footwork, while the monk gained a terrifying mechanical focus about which exact order of blows would kill the attacker in front of them.
The two humans scrambling up the hill where typical Barrens warriors, with the heavy shoulders of brawlers and the heavier bellies of hefty drinkers. Their arms were as thick as her legs, and they each carried a short sword and a long stabbing dirk. They went straight after the stranger who had shot the other clansman, virtually ignoring her. On seeing her still barring their way, one snorted softly and skirted around, heading towards the obvious danger. The other paused and swung with his sword, thinking to dispatch an annoying intruder who'd blundered into something she had no business with.
He wasn't used to fighting a halfling, and the sword sailed over her head as she crouched, spun under his guard, and rose upwards in a blur. One hand shot out, palm first, and slammed into the man's nose. There was a hideous crunching sound as she drove a splinter of bone into the man's brain. His head snapped back, and he took one staggering step forwards before pitching to the ground, his sword clattering on the road behind him.
Hunnah ran for the second warrior, who had half-turned back towards her. Humans were so slow sometimes. He was still bringing his sword to bear as she caught him. She hit him with a volley of punches and chops. One fist slammed into his groin and he doubled up with a squeal- the Order taught its monks to punch through oaken planks, leather padding was nothing- the second struck the heart, and the squeal turned high-pitched as the air left his lungs. The first fist arced back again, upwards, and the throat was crushed. The noise stopped and the warrior toppled over. His lips moved as he tried sucking in air, his eyes rolled wildly about as he tried to follow the movement of her feet. She'd seen it before. She didn't wait, but stamped down hard, breaking his neck so she wouldn't have to look as he suffocated in the fresh air. Quickest was kindest in these things she remembered her instructor saying. You did what you had to do to win the fight, and then you finished it.
Something bounced down the road behind her. She turned and saw the upturned head of the clansman who'd called out to kill her; his beard braids trailing behind his head. The face looked almost astonished, as though it couldn't quite work out how it came to be there. Behind it, the man's body toppled to the ground with majestic slowness. The crash of the metal target on the paved road jarred Hunnah's ears. It's clattering was suddenly the only sound on the Road.
The stranger who had cut off the clansman's head knelt down, and unconcernedly cleaned his sword on the dead man's tunic. His hands were steady, his face peculiarly expressionless. Hunnah expected to see a veteran's detachment or gloating satisfaction at a kill, or even just plain relief at coming through alive and unhurt. Instead there was just an absence of feeling, almost as though the man's mind had separated from the body, like a brain-fever patient she'd seen once.
No. Not man, but boy, she realised with a start.
Hunnah knew humans well enough to judge their ages. They aged faster then halflings, that was all. There were no lines tightening the skin of the face, and a kind of clumsiness in the lanky body that told of someone whose height and reach were still stretching out. He was medium height, and slim, for a human. A downy caterpillar moustache crawled across his upper lip, dark blond like his hair. To a human he would have looked very young. With it, his casual air was intolerably.
"Put that thing away. Its as clean as it'll get." she barked. More roughly then she'd intended, but her nerves where still stretched from the skirmish.
His eyes flashed upwards, startled and angry, and caught her own as she stood over him. A menacing moment came where both trembled on the edge… and then it passed, as the boy looked away, sliding his sword back into its scabbard. But Hunnah watched him far more closely for it.
"Who are you?" he asked warily "You're not the tinker you dress as, that's for sure. I suppose I should be thankful for that."
"Yes," she said shortly "You should be."