38

The cave entrance was probably forty feet up the side of the mountain, but it was not a straight drop down. It was a steep incline, and I only fell about ten feet before I struck the rock and my body began to slide down to the ground. I let go of the sword and tried to balance myself, but I tripped on a jutting crack and tumbled head over heels before landing in a drift of snow at the bottom of the rock face. I held my breath, so as not to get the wind knocked out of me, and immediately began to scramble away.

Everything was white, my entire vision filled with a blinding wall of blowing snow. Above the howl of wind, I could hear shouting high above me.

"Go after her! Jump down there and kill her!"

I saw blurry shapes descending down the incline and braced myself as two of Falx's men came down after me. One of the men lost his footing and toppled down as I had done, and landed in the snow, flat on his back. Before he could get up, I jumped down on him and jammed a knife into his throat. Blood gushed up over my hands as I held him down, his arms thrashing.

In his death throes, I snatched his sword away and turned to face the other one, who was slowly getting to his feet. He lunged at me and I bashed his sword away, slashing back across his chest, and he flopped into the snow, quickly staining it red.

I didn't wait for more men to show up. Most of them ran down the path from the cave, not willing to risk a tumble down the mountainside. I ran off into the wall of snow, blindly running away as fast as I could. I knew what direction I was facing, and wanted to run south, but I also knew that would lead me right into the path of Falx's men as they came down from the cave. So instead, I had to run east, away from them, and hope that I could maybe loop around them without getting lost.

"Find her! That way! She ran that way!"

I blundered into one of the camp's unused fire pits, and tripped over a wooden bench. Getting to my feet, I could see the blurry outlines of men coming in my direction.

"I think she's over here!" one of them yelled.

I stumbled to my feet and ran desperately, just trying to make distance between me and my pursuers. The storm would hide me, as long as I got far enough away. They were all shouting, and to my dismay they were all to my right, which cut off my retreat to the south. As the wind whipped snow around me, I continued onward, finding myself entering a line of trees that shook in the wind, knocking more snow loose.

Even though I left footprints in the snow, it would be hard for them to track me since it was snowing so hard. And there were already plenty of tracks out here from the men who had been walking around before the storm hit.

"That way!" I heard Carnius Magius shouting. "Cut her off! Don't let her head south! Keep her where we can find her!"

"Damn it," I cursed, momentarily hiding behind a tree. I could see blurry shapes in the middle of the blizzard, as Falx's men fanned out around the clearing. I couldn't stay where I was, that much was certain. But I needed to figure out a way past them, as they were now blocking my retreat. Maybe I could just wait them out?

"Keep going!" Magius ordered. "Flush her out! Go into the trees!"

I braced myself, getting ready to run, when Falx's voice suddenly boomed out from the clearing, and I could not help myself but stay to listen.

"Sasha!" Falx yelled. "I know you can hear me! You have nowhere to run! We've surrounded you!"

I saw a figure moving toward me and I knew it had to be Falx. But I held on to the tree, forcing myself to remain still. If I was quick about it, I could run and and cut his throat before his men had time to stop me, but I wouldn't be able to get away again. I considered throwing one of my knives at him, but he was a blurry target and the wind would throw my aim off. And if I missed him or just wounded him, it would give my position away.

"You can't get away, Sasha! You try to run and you'll just freeze to death! If you come out and surrender, I promise I'll let my men kill you quickly! That's the only mercy I'm going to offer you!"

"No thanks," I muttered to myself. "I don't need your mercy."

I backed away and snuck through the trees, keeping low. Behind me, Falx shouted some more threats and promises, but the wind and the rattling branches above me drowned out his voice. With the trees to block the worst of the wind and snow, my visibility improved, but my enemies' visibility improved as well, so I remained cautious.

If I could get away, I could sweep south and hopefully make my way back to Raven Rock. It would be dark by then, but I could do it. I just needed to sneak past Falx's men, and right now they had me effectively cornered in the woods. It occurred to me that I still didn't know exactly how many men there were. Falx might have two hundred men searching for me.

"Come on, this way," I heard someone say, off to my right.

I ducked down as three burly soldiers in wolf skins passed along the edge of the trees, swords in hand, looking furtively in my direction. They didn't see me, but that didn't matter. I gritted my teeth in frustration, wishing I had not stayed to listen to Falx's promise of mercy. I should have just kept going, and now I was stuck.

"Come on out, you little bitch," one of the men snarled. "You think you're gonna get away that easy?" I could hear them coming as they shuffled through the snow.

I pressed my back into the trunk of the tree, and held the hilt of my sword tightly in both hands, trying to keep my breath steady. Snow fluttered down around me, the flakes melting when they touched my face, dripping down my cheeks like tears.

Three soldiers, in close proximity, and there was no way I would going to take them by surprise. Even if I killed two of them immediately, the third one would cry for help. I wracked my brain for some kind of strategy, but there was no way I could take them all on at the same time without one of them giving away my position. I had doubts that I could even take them all on without getting myself killed. My only other option was to try to sneak by them, and I knew that was also impossible.

Their stomping footsteps halted suddenly. I heard shouts in the distance.

"What's that?" one of them grunted. "Did they find her?"

"I dunno. Renger, head that way, maybe we passed her already."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, go back the way we came. We'll stay here. Don't worry, she ain't getting by us."

I almost couldn't believe my good luck, when I heard one of them walking away. Two men, I could handle, but I had to move fast. I could get away from them silently, without them seeing me, but it would take too long and I didn't have time to spare. At any moment, more men might come this way. My only other option was to kill them, although that created its own problems. I didn't have much choice though.

I took one fast glimpse around the tree and saw them standing about twenty feet away. If they had been smart, they'd be standing back to back, so they could see all their surroundings. But they weren't very smart. One of them was facing back in the general direction of the camp, and the other was facing to the side. I crept around the tree and drew a knife. I moved silently closer and then slipped behind another tree, giving myself a moment to ready myself.

I edged out from the behind the tree and took one running step, hurling the knife as I jumped closer. It struck one of the men right in the side of the neck and he gurgled in shock as he fell away. The other one had time to turn and raise his sword before I stabbed him through the back, the sword point sticking out of his chest. A cry for help died on his lips.

These bodies would mark my passage, showing my pursuers what direction I had gone in. They could just follow my tracks in the snow from here and chase me all across the island if they wanted to, so I had to get moving and get as much of a head start as I could.

I turned and ran deeper into the forest, no longer wasting any time or trying to be careful about it. I just had to run as far away as I could, even if it meant running headlong into the center of the storm. They knew I wanted to head south, back to Raven Rock, so they blocked my retreat, and once they found those bodies they would know exactly where I was headed. My only option was to go further north and further east, in the hopes that they gave up their pursuit or gave me up for dead.

So I ran on through the blinding snow and the bitter cold, right into the middle of the the raging snowstorm, hoping I could find safety there.