A Torch Against the Night

Page 72


Miladh shoves Ayan at one of his sisters and takes up a burning piece of wood that has popped off one of the wagons. He waves it at an approaching aux, who jumps back warily. On his other side, an aux soldier moves for the Scholars, scim out, but I leap forward. I bring my dagger into the small of the soldier’s back and yank it upward, the way Keenan taught me. The man drops, twitching, to the dirt.
One of Miladh’s sisters engages the other aux, and when the soldier is distracted, Miladh stabs at him with the firebrand, setting his clothes alight. The soldier screams and rolls wildly on the ground, trying to get the fire out.
“You—you were gone.” Miladh stutters, staring at me, but there’s no time to explain. I kneel down, tearing the aux’s daggers from his body. I toss one to Miladh and another to his sister. “Hide,” I scream at them. “In the woods! Take the children!”
One of the sisters goes, but the other remains beside Miladh, and together they attack a legionnaire bearing down on them.
Across the camp, Keenan holds his own against the Mask, helped, no doubt, by the blood pouring down the bigger man’s neck. Afya’s short scim flashes wickedly in the firelight as she takes down an aux and turns immediately to do battle with a legionnaire. Zehr has taken out two of his attackers and battles the last ferociously. The last legionnaire circles Izzi and Gibran.
My friend has a bow in her hand, and she notches it, aims at the legionnaire fighting Zehr, and puts an arrow straight into the Martial’s throat.
A few yards away from her, Riz and Vana still battle the auxes. Riz’s brow is furrowed as he tries to fend off one of the soldiers. The man punches Riz in the belly. The silver-haired Tribesman doubles over, and to my horror, a blade is sticking out of his back a moment later.
“Father!” Vana screams. “Skies, Father!”
“Riz?” Gibran throws off one of the legionnaires with a blow and lurches toward his cousin.
“Gibran!” I shriek. The legionnaire who’s been circling him leaps forward. Gibran lifts his blade, but it shatters.
Then a flash of steel—a sickening crunch.
The color drains from Gibran’s face as Izzi staggers back, an impossible amount of blood geysering from her chest. She’s not dead. She can survive that. She’s strong. I run for them, my mouth open in a rabid scream as the legionnaire who stabbed Izzi now lunges for Gibran.
The Tribal boy’s neck is open for the kill, and all I can think as I fly forward is that if he dies, Izzi will be heartbroken, yet again. She deserves more than that.
“Gib!” Afya’s scream of terror is hair-raising, echoing in my ears as my dagger clangs against the legionnaire’s scim inches from Gibran’s neck. I use a sudden, adrenaline-fueled burst of strength to throw the soldier back. He is off balance for a moment before he grabs me by the throat and disarms me with a twist of his hand. I kick at him, trying to knee him in the groin, but he slams me to the ground. I see stars, then a flash of red. Suddenly, a spray of hot blood hits my face, and the legionnaire collapses atop me, dead.
“Laia!” Keenan shoves the man off me and pulls me to my feet. Behind him, the Mask lies dead—as do the other Martials.
Vana sobs beside her fallen father, Afya at her side. Ayan clings to Miladh, while Sena tries to shake her dead mother awake. Zehr limps to the Scholars, blood leaking from a dozen slashes.
“Laia.” Keenan’s voice is choked, and I turn. No. No, Izzi. I want to close my eyes, to run from what I see. But my feet take me forward, and I drop beside Izzi, cradled in Gibran’s arms.
My friend’s eye is open, and she seeks out mine. I force myself to pull my gaze from the gaping wound in her chest. Damn the Empire. I will burn it down for this. I will destroy it.
I scrabble at my pack. She’ll need stitches is all—a witch hazel poultice—tea, some sort of tea. But even as I rifle through the bottles I know that there is no vial, no extract strong enough to counter this. She has moments—if that.
I take my friend’s hand, small and cold. I try to say her name, but my voice is gone. Gibran sobs, begs her to stay.
Keenan stands behind me, and I feel his hands drop to my shoulders and squeeze.
“L-Laia—” A bubble of blood forms at the corner of Izzi’s mouth and bursts.
“Iz.” I find my voice. “Stay with me. Don’t leave me. Don’t you dare. Think of all the things you have to tell Cook.”
“Laia,” she whispers. “I’m afraid—”
“Izzi.” I shake her gently, not wanting to hurt her. “Izzi!”
Her warm brown eye meets mine, and for a moment, I think she’s going to be fine. There is so much life there—so much Izzi. For a single heartbeat, she looks at me—into me, like she can see down into my soul.
And then she’s gone.
The kennels outside Kauf reek of dog droppings and rancid fur. Even the scarf pulled across my face can’t mask it. I gag at the stench.
From where I sidle in the snow along the building’s southern wall, the cacophony of the dogs is deafening. But when I peer into the entrance, the Fiver on guard duty is fast asleep beside the kennel fire—as he has been the past three mornings.
I inch the kennel door open and stick to the walls, still swathed in predawn shadows. Three days of planning—of waiting and watching—have led to this. If all goes well, I’ll have broken Darin out of Kauf by this time tomorrow.