She looked ahead, down the great road. It twisted and swooped between the fantasticajly wind-carven crags, a dim white ribbon in the deepening twilight. The smooth stone blocks were cracked apart by ages so long that the thought made her head reel, and in places the harsh wiry vegetation had grown through and over it, but still the old Imperial Way was there. The ancients had built mightily.
Halfway down the huge slope of hillside, the road ran into Valkarion city. Below that level, the cliffs dropped sharply, white with old salt-streaks, to the dead sea-bottoms—a vast depression, sand and salt and thin bitter plant-growth, reaching out to the sunset horizon.
Lights were winking on in the city. It was not far, and Alfrid had no wish to sleep in the open or under some peasant's stinking roof. So—why not go ahead? The city, her goal, was there, and naught to hold her from it save
The hengist whickered and stamped its broad cloven hoofs. Its eyes rolled uneasily, and Alfrid's hand slid to her sword hilt. If the beast also sensed a watchfulness
She caught the stir in the thick brush-clump out of the corner of one eye. Only a hunter would have noticed it; only a rover at once, without stopping to think, would have struck spurs into her mount. The hengist leaped, and the dart whispered past Alfrid's face.
One scratch from the poisoned missile of the southern blowguns was enough to kill a woman. Alfrid yelled, and flung her hengist at the brush. The sword whined from its scabbard, flamed in her hand.
Two women slipped from the thicket as she crashed into it. They were of a race foreign even to these southlands, small and lithe and amber-skinned. They wore only loincloths; all hair had been shaved from their heads and bodies, and the iron slave-collars were about their necks. Vaguely, Alfrid was aware of the brands on their foreheads, but at the moment she was only concerned with their weapons.
One skipped aside, raising the blowgun to her lips. Alfrid yanked the javelin from its holster by her saddle and launched it left-handed—through the slave's belly and out her back.