Fool's Assassin / Page 268

Page 268



I was finding my nerve to step past the body when I heard a sound and looked up to see Perseverance coming my way. He was mounted bareback on a sturdy bay but had taken the time to saddle and bridle Priss for me. Tears were streaming down his cheeks but his jaw was a hard mannish jut from his boy’s face. He gasped when he saw me, and I quickly let the big hood of the cloak fall back from my face. “It’s me!” I whispered.

Anger flashed in his eyes. “I told you to stay where you were!”

He slid down from his horse, muffled his nostrils, and led him past the body. He gave me the reins to hold and when back for Priss, doing the same to get her past. When he stood beside me, he seized me around the waist and without ceremony flung me up on my horse. I scrabbled into place, gathering my cloak in handfuls and stuffing it once more down the front of my jerkin. I didn’t want it flapping and spooking Priss. I was already dreading a hard ride.

He did not trust me with Priss’s reins but kept them as he mounted his own horse. He looked at me over his shoulder and spoke quietly. “We’re leaving at a gallop,” he warned me. “It’s our only chance. We ride at full speed and we do not stop. Not for anything. Do you understand me?”

“Yes.”

“If someone stands before us, I will ride him down. And you will stay on Priss and follow. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“And this time, you obey me!” he added fiercely.

I had no time to respond to that for, with a sudden lurch, we were in motion. We went out the back doors of the stable and across the open sward, keeping the stable between us and the house, heading at a gallop toward the long winding carriageway. The unbroken and drifted snow beneath the leafless trees slowed us but perhaps muffled somewhat the sound of our passage. It was not enough. As we moved from the cover of the stable and into the open, I heard a startled shout. Strange, how a wordless shout can still be in a foreign tongue. Perseverance did something, and our horses suddenly increased their pace, stretching their legs out and running as I’d never ridden before.

I hung on tight with everything I had, ankles, knees, and thighs, my hands gripping the front of my saddle as if I’d never before sat a horse. I heard myself keening and could not stop. There were shouts from behind us, and I heard something, as if a summer bee had suddenly buzzed past me. Then there were two more, and I knew that an archer was shooting at us. I shrank to a burr on my horse’s back and we rode on. The carriageway curved and I felt a moment of relief that the invaders at the manor house could no longer see us. We galloped on.

Then Perseverance fell. He went down from his horse, hitting the road and then rolling into the deep snow, and the beast galloped on. He still gripped Priss’s lead and she turned hard and nearly trampled him before she sidled to a sudden halt that flung me far to one side. One of my feet lost its stirrup and I hung there, half-off, before I freed my other foot and leapt clear of her to run to Perseverance. There was no arrow sticking out of him, and I thought for a moment that he had merely fallen and we could both be up and away on Priss. Then I saw the blood. The shaft had passed right through him, tearing through his right shoulder. Blood was drenching him and his face was white. He rolled onto his back as I reached him and thrust Priss’s lead rope at me. “Get up and ride!” he commanded me. “Run away! Get help!” Then he shuddered all over, and closed his eyes.

I stood still. I heard the hoofbeats of his fleeing horse, and other hoofbeats. They were coming. The invaders were coming. They would catch us. I knew I could not lift him, let alone get him up on Priss. Hide him. He was still breathing. Hide him and come back for him. It was the best I could do.

I tore the butterfly cloak free and spread it over him, tucking it round him. Its colors were adapting, but not fast enough. I kicked snow over him and then, as the pursuer’s hoofbeats grew louder, I led Priss to the other side of the carriageway. I leapt at her, clawing my way up to the saddle as she jigged and danced in alarm. I got on her back, found the stirrups, and kicked her hard. “Go, go, go!” I shrieked at her.

And she went, lurching into a terrified lope. I leaned down, holding tight, not using my reins at all but only hoping she’d follow the road. “Please, please, please,” I begged of the horse, of the world, of everything that possibly existed. And then we were galloping, galloping so fast that I was certain they could not possibly catch us.

The cold wind bit me and tears streamed from the corners of my eyes. Her mane whipped my face. I saw only the open road before me. I would get away, I would bring help, somehow it would all turn out all right …


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