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A Measure of Solace

Chapter Seven

“You won’t have him!” Zeera yelled as the bandits approached.

Emotions, hot and raw—anger, frustration, and a good deal of fear—flooded through her as she tossed her walking stick to the ground, pulled Solace from her back, and tore away his cloth with trembling fingers.

 

“Ooh, she’s got spirit for such a little thing,” the axe-wielding man ahead of her crooned. “No need to put up a fuss, girl. Just toss over your coin purse and that lovely bow of yours, and we’ll be on our way.”

 

“And you’ll walk away with your life,” the stubble-headed woman to her right added.

 

To Zeera’s left, the bearded man drew a blade, the distinctive ring of metal making her guts lurch.

 

She swallowed, her hand aching where it gripped Solace’s body at her side, her fingers shaking where the tips touched his string. What was she doing? She was no master archer! It was stupid to go up against three hardened bandits instead of trying to flee into the forest. But she had to try. She wouldn’t run, and she wouldn’t let Solace go without a fight.

“Don’t come any closer!” she shouted, panic making her voice tight.

Lifting the bow and gripping the string, Zeera felt a crackling, popping buzz at her fingertips. She started to draw back the string, all the while pushing her anger into the swirling ball of energy that grew between string and shaft. But fear was there too, enough to overwhelm the anger and make her arms quiver.

No, Solace said. Fear is no good. Push it away and focus on your anger.

She tried to do as he instructed, but the arrow was already half-formed. Shadowy crackles of energy numbed Zeera’s fingers as she finished her draw, and an ethereal red shaft formed in the space between Solace’s string and his body. At the extent of her draw, her fingers holding the string at her ear, an arrow sat nocked, translucent as red glass but for miniature bolts of black lightning crackling and zipping along its shaft, making her arms buzz.

“Would you look at that!” the lead man said, his eyes wide. He took another step.

 

Zeera let out a yell of defiance, her small body trembling with it, and released Solace’s string.

The arrow flew, an oily black substance streaming out from its shaft and leaving a trail on the ground below. When it struck the brigand in the thigh, he shouted with pain and stumbled back, hand to his wounded leg. But the red-and-black arrow had already vanished.

Zeera tried nocking another arrow, but the stubble-headed woman grabbed her arm and wrenched it painfully to one side as the man on her other side reached for Solace.

A length of wood hit the man’s arm with such force that Zeera heard a crack of bone. He screamed and fell backward, dropping his blade.

Zeera spun around, pulling her arm free of the thickset woman’s grasp as another figure stepped toward them from behind—the gray-haired woman in the green scarf!

The new arrival thrust one end of her staff into the stubble-headed woman’s stomach, sending her crumpling to the ground. The leader, injured but still moving, brandished his axe at the gray-haired woman, growling. She stepped calmly toward him, as though approaching an old acquaintance rather than a ne’er-do-well with malicious intent. With a yell, the man raised his axe, clearly intending a vicious chop to her head. The older woman ducked with a smooth motion, and his blade went swishing by her shoulder, missing by the barest margin. She spun, bringing her staff up and around, and hit him solidly in the back, sending him stumbling. He fell onto his hands and knees in the road, and his axe sprang from his grip to slide away across the hard-packed dirt.

Zeera stood staring. Her heart was pounding, and her breathing was as deep and rapid as if she’d just run up a mountain.

The woman in the green scarf watched the man calmly for a moment. When he began to rise, groaning and holding his bleeding thigh, she pointed her staff at him.

“Take your fellows and go. You will bother this girl no more.” Her voice was firm but soft, as soothing as a warm breeze.

Zeera stood back, watching as the leader helped the other man to his feet. The thickset woman rose as well and sneered at the older woman as she followed the two men back the way Zeera had come.

Once the brigands had been lost to sight around a bend in the road, the woman in the green scarf let out a long breath and sagged down to sit cross-legged in the middle of the road. She closed her eyes and let her head fall forward, her staff across her knees.

“Thank you,” Zeera said. “You probably saved my life.”

“Doubtless,” the woman replied, her eyes still closed.

“Are you all right?”

“Mm-hmm. Just regaining my strength. I can put on a good show, but I am no longer young.”

Zeera watched the woman while she rewrapped Solace and slung him over her shoulder. That this stranger had appeared at the perfect time to save Zeera and keep Solace from being stolen was beyond question. But why? Who was she, and why had she been following them all this time?

The girl was about to voice these questions when the old warrior rose and stretched with a loud, boisterous groan.

“Now,” the woman said with a soft smile, “I am Astriva. And you are …?”

“My name is Zeera,” the girl said.

“Zeera. Good. Come,” Astriva said, gesturing for Zeera to continue along the road toward Lovaga. “As thanks for saving your life, you will buy my supper this night, and we will speak.”

“I … I will?” Zeera asked, dumbfounded by such a forward pronouncement.

“Yes.” The old warrior gave a broad smile, showing several missing teeth. “For I was the master of your bow once upon a time, and it appears we have much to discuss.”

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