Mary Herbert. Flight of the Fallen

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1. . The Cliffs. . Linsha stiffened her legs in the stirrups and lifted herself upright in the saddle. Over her horse’s ears she looked straight across and down into the deep, rolling waters of the southern Courrain Ocean. Gilded with the light of the sun setting behind her, the sea lay spread out before her in a vast expanse of water and sky. Out of habit she scanned the land to her left and right. To her left far in the distance she could just make out the smudge of smoke rising from the cooking fires in the port city of Mirage, the Missing City. She spared only a glance for that troubled city, for she did not want to dwell now on failure and disaster. To her right were only the cliffs that rose sharp and sheer from the water to the reddish-tan lands of the Plains of Dust. There was nothing that way that held her attention either. There was only the sea and the friend she sought. She stood as tall as she dared on the fractious buckskin horse and studied the water carefully. Ah, there! She saw it. A brilliant metallic flash of dark gold beneath the surface just beyond the breakers. Close behind it, she could just make out a pod of dolphins frolicking in the waves. Linsha slid from her saddle. With practiced skill she slipped the bridle from the horse’s mouth, hung it from the saddle horn, and gave him an affectionate slap on the rump. Tossing his head, the horse wheeled and cantered away. He would be back in his pen by nightfall, Linsha knew. Contented, she pushed her sword out of her way and sat cross-legged on the gravely earth to wait. Her friend would be along soon and could give her a ride back. Meanwhile she could enjoy a few minutes alone, away from the crowded caves, the grim faces, the constant noise, the endless planning, the ever-present danger. She pulled in a deep lung-full of cool, salty air, closed her eyes, and leaned back on the palms of her hands. A brisk wind pulled at her auburn hair. She drew in a second, longer breath and let it out in a slow sigh. She felt a few ants investigate her fingers, but they weren’t the vicious, red, biting variety, so she let them alone. A small bee buzzed by her ear as if investigating a flower, then it drifted away on the currents of the wind. The sound of the surf at the foot of the cliffs filled the quiet with a rhythmic wash of sound. For a while, Linsha simply sat and let the tranquility sink in. She was so tired, so worn from weeks of battle and fear, that she made no effort to maintain her usual heightened awareness. She just let herself drift on a slow tide of drowsiness. Something brittle crackled behind her. Linsha snapped alert. Apprehension and surprise splashed over her like ice water, swiftly followed by anger. Couldn’t she be left alone for even a minute?. She straightened and was starting to turn her head when she heard-. “Well, well. Look what we have here. Move a muscle, and a dozen spears will find your body.”. Linsha’s surprise and indignation chilled to fear and cold fury. In both edges of her vision she could make out several heavy, male-looking forms positioning themselves behind her. She had little doubt the speaker was not exaggerating about the number of weapons at her back. “Stand up, you Solamnic whore,” demanded a different, coarser voice. “But Gortham just told her not to move,” piped up a younger, definitely dimmer individual. Linsha heard a collection of sighs, curses, and grumbling behind her and felt her fear lessen just a little. These were not the brutally efficient Tarmaks but mercenaries-mercenaries without effective leadership it seemed. Without waiting for another contradictory command, Linsha held her empty hands out in plain view and pushed herself to her feet. She turned and faced her captors. Twelve heavily-armed men of questionable parentage glowered at her from about twenty feet away, their spears lowered toward her. How had she let them get so close?. One man with a heavy leather jerkin and a bearded face leered at her. “See? I was right. It’s that Rose Knight with the ruddy hair. We could have a little fun with this one.”. “No,” growled a taller man, the voice of the first speaker, Gortham. “There’s a bounty for this one. We turn her over to the Tarmaks. They’ll pay.”. “And by the time we divide it twelve ways there won’t be enough to buy a decent ale,” the bearded man said. A third man joined in. “There’s no decent ale left anyway. The brutes took it all.”. “Let’s get our fun out of her now,” the bearded man insisted. His thick hands tightened around his spear, and he took a step closer. “The cap’n said to bring prisoners,” Gortham said. “Especially Solamnic Knights.”. Linsha studied the soldiers while they argued. Although the Tarmaks controlled most of the Missing City and its close environs, the mercenaries, who had been hired by the dragon Thunder, participated in the invasion shortly after midsummer of that year and still held the palace and grounds of the dragonlord Iyesta’s lair. They rarely bothered to patrol or involve themselves in the subjugation of the city, and Linsha had the impression the Tarmaks merely tolerated the unruly mercenaries until they saw fit to rid the city of their presence. Still, that didn’t make the hired soldiers any less dangerous. She took a calculated step back. Behind her the rocky ground sheered off in a cliff edge that plunged down into the roiling water of the sea. She guessed at this point along the coast she had about ten running steps to the edge before the cliff dropped thirty-five to forty feet to the water-water that she knew was very cold. She slid another step back. “Stand still, woman!” bellowed Gortham. “Drop your weapons!” shouted the bearded man. “How can she do both?” the literal-minded youngster asked. Several voices chorused, “Shut up!”. The mercenaries tightened their half circle and moved closer to trap her against the cliff edge. Several drew their swords, others their knives. Linsha’s hands turned damp and cold. Her stomach twisted into a knot. Slowly, she unbuckled her belt and let her sword and dagger fall to the ground. Her feet eased backward another step. At least these men were not carrying bows, she noted. One had a crossbow slung across his back, but he hadn’t made a move to remove it. The mercenaries, seeing Linsha unarmed, advanced. “Watch her hands, buckos,” Gortham said. “She may have blades in her boots.”. Or up her sleeves, Linsha silently added. But she didn’t show her enemy anything but her heels. Quick as a pickpocket, she spun and sprinted forward. She took the seventh step over the edge of the cliff. . 22