"Well," Angus observed, staring with awe at the conflagration to the south. "I think we found Kacey."
"You think she set everything on fire?" Ardyn asked, since she couldn't really quibble with the idea herself. She flicked the reins, and her horse started forward, pacing Angus'. Behind them, their two spare mounts followed.
"I wouldn't be surprised. Who else would?" Angus shook his head. "Now, I just wonder why? What'd this place do to get in her bad graces this badly?"
"We can't make snap judgments like that," Ardyn protested. "We've got to get closer and find out the truth of what's-"
"Are you mad?" The woman materialized from the gloom ahead, running full-pelt away from the fire. "Turn around! Take me with you!"
"What're you on about?" Angus demanded. "What happened here?"
"You've got to turn around! They'll kill you!" The runner skidded to a halt, though she didn't look like she wanted to. "They're called the Guiding Light, and they're insane!"
"We're looking for a woman," Ardyn said. "Blue eyes, red hair, carrying a shield-"
"She told me to run!" She had the look of a drifter, Ardyn supposed: tattered clothes, grimy face, constant fidgeting. "She got me out and told me to leave-"
"She's in there?" Angus asked. "She's with these Guiding Light people?"
"She's fighting them!" the drifter cried. "She saved my life, took out the Owner like that-"
"Owner?" Ardyn blinked. "What kind of a name-"
"-you've got to run or they'll catch you, too!" She glanced over her shoulder nervously. "You, sir, they'll kill, but you..." She stared at Ardyn. "You'll wish they killed you. They'll give you to him."
"No one's touching her," Angus growled, and that sent a warm tingle up Ardyn's spine. "And no one's touching Kacey either. I made a promise."
"Here." Ardyn reached down, and she undid the lead to one of their spare horses. "He's got some food and water on him, but not a lot. Take care of him, you hear me?"
"You're too kind!" Her eyes burned with gratitude. "I owe you for this-"
"Go!" Ardyn waved, and the drifter needed no further urging. She scaled the horse's back quickly and smoothly, and then turned him around. Off she went into the darkness, bent almost double over his mane.
"Right," Angus said, and Ardyn inhaled as he drew the longsword from his side. "Stay here. I'm going to meet these Guiding Light people-"
"I'm coming too." She spurred her horse toward the fires. "No buts, Angus."
"I'm not sitting here and fretting and knitting," she growled. "We're going together. You can argue and lose or accept it, but it's mutiny either way, captain."
"Woman!" Angus' heart wasn't in the cry, but Ardyn rather thought she heard a hint of gratitude.
Friends stuck together.
"Hello, Jason," Kacey said. She approached the man, free fist clenched, glancing at his sword, his single-shot pistol, and the knives in his boots. "Remember me?"
Green eyes burned in the dark. "I've never regretted a turn of fate that cost me a mark more than I do right now. You should know that. I'd be a much happier man if your father had been too slow to save your life."
"Well, up yours," Kacey growled. "I have a score to settle."
"Happily." Jason's gaze flicked toward the flames as another explosion rocked the night, and a chorus of screaming and meaty thuds. "But not tonight."
"Oh, yes, tonight-" Kacey broke off as Jason stepped back. "Where are you - hey!" She shrieked as he turned his back on her and bolted for the river. "Bleeding coward!" Then her feet were moving, and she tore after him.
Snow crunched underfoot. She paused twice: once to kick a fallen spear out of her way, and again when one of Jason's minions loomed ahead. The murderer waved his underling toward Kacey with a cry of "kill her!" and she slung her shield on the fly. Of course, she missed, the tool burying itself in the dirt.
That didn't save the poor man from a push-kick that put him into a tree. Kacey reclaimed her shield with a scowl, delaying to punch the man as she went just to make sure he didn't come after her. Then it was back to running, chased by the sounds of devastation.
Kacey never quite lost sight of Jason. He vaulted the river's edge, dropping eight feet to roll on snow-coated ice that cracked dangerously under his weight. He raced for the far bank a half-mile away, without reaching for his weapons.
"Oi!" She hurled her shield on the move again, and this time she got results. The metal disc hit Jason between the shoulders, and he went down. Kacey mimicked his dive, and she too slid across the ice, teeth set as she heard the cracking. She made it to her fallen shield as Jason got to his feet, mere yards away.
Out came his pistol. Kacey's breath caught as for the second time in her life, Jason brought a gun to bear on her...but this time, she had a defense. Her foot went up and down, and her shield flew up to chest-level as Jason fired.
Clang! The bullet went somewhere, of course, but Kacey's shield scattered too, several feet behind her. She didn't bother reclaiming it, just lunging at Jason as he drew his daggers.
"All right, MacTavish," he growled. Her fists flew, and he blocked with his forearms. She overextended and he slashed like lightning, carving open the back of her hand. Kacey retreated, and he struck up a fighting stance. "Put up more of a fight than your father."
She set her teeth. The ice cracked below her as she stepped to the left, and then below Jason as he too moved. Neither blinked.
Kacey kicked. Jason whirled out of the way, flipping one knife before throwing the other. The redhead snarled as it drove into her bicep, and she ripped it out without a care. Her next kick hit air too, only for Jason to use his remaining blade to slice her foot.
"Ow!" Kacey slid backward on the ice, curling her fingers as she sewed a Thread of Health onto her arm. Green flashed from her nails. The big man chuckled deep in his throat as he tossed his knife.
"Come on, Kacey," he encouraged. "Show me how to fight like a girl."
"You!" She lunged. Her fist nearly kissed his nose as he pirouetted away, but she caught his knife wrist as he came back around, the tip of the blade an inch from her throat. "Down!" She flipped him over onto the ice, and a spider-web of cracks exploded around her feet. His blade flew as he threw the weapon rather than yield it.
She cried out as he shoved her ankle. The ice betrayed her, and she crashed on her face, swearing. Jason drew his sword, still on his back, and rolled her way without hesitation. Kacey blocked his first strike, but his second was a kick to her hip that sent her sliding.
She growled as she got her feet under her, finally. By the time she was on one knee, Jason was up, and he started for her, sword in both hands.
Kacey drew Kjetil's knife.
They met in a storm of flying sparks and ringing metal. Kacey found herself on the defensive as Jason's longer weapon let him choose where to strike, and she had to cede ground from overheads and horizontal strikes that would have laid her open. His size became a factor, and she set her teeth as she realized how heroic of a challenge pressing an offensive through his guard would be, as he spun through form and form. Her knife wasn't nearly the armor she needed.
Then he stumbled on the ice, and Kacey saw her chance. She lunged, free hand catching his upraised wrists. One of her arms versus both of his was a slightly worse than fair challenge, but she didn't have to hold him very long. Her other hand flipped the knife around, and-
The noise was...soft. It was a meaty squish, and for some reason the only thing Kacey could think of was a watermelon being carved open. She felt a sudden shake of resistance, jerking all the way from her fingertips to her shoulders and down to her toes, as two hundred pounds of weight drove her backward.
The man dropped his knife, choking as blood leaked from his mouth...and dripped from where Kacey's claymore was embedded in his chest up to the hilt.
She saw blood on her bridal gloves. Kacey's throat went dry.
Jason's free fist caught her cheek, and she tumbled. Kjetil's knife skittered across the ice, and Kacey gasped as she came to a stop by her father's shield.
It should be different, she told herself as Jason loomed before her. The redhead hissed and grabbed the shield, hurling herself to her feet. This is the man who killed your father! He deserves murder! Why hesitate? His life doesn't matter!
"You," Jason started-
Thud. That was the sound of someone else landing on the ice.