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When it happened, Sinja thought it was a trick. The snow was fresh enough to hold a boot if it hadn't been packed down, but they had ranged over the same terrain. Some places would be slick by now; it was plausible that Eustin might lose his footing, but the off-kilter lurch that Eustin made didn't look right. Sinja held his guard, expecting a furious attack that didn't come. Eustin's face was a grimace of pain, his eyes still fixed on Sinja. Eustin didn't raise his guard again, his blade still held, but its point wavering and uncertain. Sinja made a desperate thrust, and Eustin did try to block it, but his arm had gone weak. Sinja stepped back, gathered himself, and lunged.

His sword's tip was sharp, but broad. It had been made for swinging from horseback, and so it didn't pierce Eustin's neck quite through. When Sinja drew back, a fountain of red poured from the man's flesh, soaking his tunic. The steam from it rose amid falling snowflakes. Sinja didn't feel a sense of victory so much as surprise. He hadn't expected to win. And now he had, the arrows he'd a.s.sumed would be feathering him were also strangely absent. He stood up, his breathing heavy. He noticed that his chest hurt badly, and that there was blood on his robes. Eustin's last cut had gone deeper than he'd thought. But he forgot it again when he saw the soldiers.

Eight men were kneeling or fallen in the snow, alive but moaning in what seemed to be agony. Two were still in their saddles, but the bows and quivers lay abandoned. It was a moment from a dream - strange and unsettling and oddly beautiful. Sinja took a better grip on his blade and started killing them before they could recover from whatever had afflicted them. By the time he reached the fifth of the fallen men - the first four already sent to confer with their G.o.d as to the indignity of dying curled up like a weeping babe on the stone and snow of a foreign land - the Galts had started to regain themselves. The fifth one took a moment's work to kill. The sixth and seventh actually stood together, hoping to hold Sinja at bay with the threat of the doubled swords despite the difficulty they had in standing. Sinja danced back, plucked a throwing knife from the body of their fallen comrades, and demonstrated the flaw in their theory.

The horse archers fled as Sinja finished the two remaining men. He brushed the snow from a stone and sat, his breath ragged and hard, pluming white. When he had his wind back, he laughed until he wept.

Nayiit, still lying by his cart, called out weakly. He wasn't dead. Sinja limped over quickly. The man's face was white and waxy. His lips pale.

'What happened?'

'I'm not sure yet. Something. We're safe for the moment.'

'Danat . . .'

'Don't worry about him. I'll find the boy.'

'I promised. Keep safe.'

'And you've done it,' Sinja said. 'You did a fine job. Now let's see how much it's cost you, shall we? I've seen a lot of belly wounds. Some are worse than ot

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