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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.

Steel hissed beside her as the other swung with a scimitar. The hengist screamed as the blade cut its sleek gray hide. The forehoofs lashed out, the great hooked beak snapped, and the slave lay a bloody ruin on the Imperial Way.

Alfrid reined in her prancing mount and looked around, breathing hard. An ambush —by the bear of Ruho, they'd meant to kill her!

But—why?

A poor solitary wanderer was no worthwhile quarry for footpads—anyway, these weren't outlaws but slaves; they must have been set here with orders to destroy some specific person. But no one in Valkarion knew Alfrid—he was a stranger without friend or enemy.

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