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Screened by the undergrowth, he knelt by the trail, dark eyes scanning the boulders ahead of him and the trees beyond. Dressed as he was in a shirt of fringed buckskin, and brown leather leggings and boots, the tall man was virtually invisible, kneeling in the shadows of the trees.
The sun was high in a cloudless summer sky, and the spoor was more than three hours old. Insects had crisscrossed the hoofmarks, but the edges of the prints were still firm.
Forty horsemen, laden with plunder ...
Shadak faded back through the undergrowth to where his horse was tethered. He stroked the beast's long neck and lifted his swordbelt from the back of the saddle. Strapping it to his waist, he drew the two short swords; they were of the finest Vagrian steel and double edged. He thought for a moment, then sheathed the blades and reached for the bow and quiver strapped to the saddle pommel. The bow was of Vagrian horn, a hunting weapon capable of launching a two-foot-long arrow across a killing space of sixty paces. The doeskin quiver held twenty shafts that Shadak had crafted himself: the flights of goose feather, stained red and yellow, the heads of pointed iron, not barbed, and easily withdrawn from the bodies of the slain. Swiftly he strung the bow and notched an arrow to the string. Then looping the quiver over his shoulder, he made his way carefully back to the trail.
Would they have left a rearguard? It was unlikely, for there were no Drenai soldiers within fifty miles.
But Shadak was a cautious man. And he knew Collan. Tension rose in him as he pictured the smiling face and the cruel, mocking eyes. "No anger," he told himself. But it was hard, bitterly hard. Angry men make mistakes, he reminded himself. The hunter must be cold as iron.
Silently he edged his way forward. A towering boulder jutted from the earth some twenty paces ahead and to his left; to the right was a cluster of smaller rocks, no more than four feet high. Shadak took a deep breath and rose from his hiding place.
From behind the large boulder a man stepped into sight, bowstring bent. Shadak dropped to his knee, the attacker's arrow slashing through the air above his head. The bowman tried to leap back behind the shelter of the boulder, but even as he was dropping, Shadak loosed a shaft which plunged into the bowman's throat, punching through the skin at the back of his neck.
Another attacker ran forward, this time from Shadak's right. With no time to notch a second arrow, Shadak swung the bow, lashing it across the man's face. As the attacker stumbled, Shadak dropped the bow and drew his two short swords; with one sweeping blow he cut through the neck of the fallen man. Two more attackers ran into view and he leapt to meet them. Both men wore iron breastplates, their necks and heads protected by chain mail, and they carried sabers.
"You'll not die easily, you bastard!" shouted the first, a tall, wide-shouldered warrior. Then his eyes narrowed as he recognized the swordsman facing him. Fear replaced battle lustbut he was too close to Shadak to withdraw and made a clumsy lunge with his saber. Shadak parried the blade with ease, his second sword lancing forward into the man's mouth and through the bones of his neck. As the swordsman died, the second warrior backed away.
"We didn't know it was you, I swear!" he said, hands trembling.
"Now you do," said Shadak softly.
Without a word the man turned and ran back toward the trees as Shadak sheathed his swords and moved to his bow. Notching an arrow, he drew back on the string. The shaft flashed through the air to punch home into the running man's thigh. He screamed and fell. As Shadak loped to where he lay, the man rolled to his back, dropping his sword.
"For pity's sake don't kill me!" he pleaded.
"You had no pity back in Corialis," said Shadak. "But tell me where Collan is heading and I'll let you live." A wolf howled in the distance, a lonely sound. It was answered by another, then another.
"There's a village ... twenty miles southeast," said the man, his eyes fixed on the short sword in Shadak's hand. "We scouted it. Plenty of young women. Collan and Harib Ka plan to raid it for slaves, then take them to Mashrapur."
Shadak nodded. "I believe you," he said at last.
"You're going to let me live, yes? You promised," the wounded man whimpered.
"I always keep my promises," said Shadak, disgusted at the man's weakness. Reaching down, he wrenched his shaft clear of the man's leg. Blood gushed from the wound, and the injured warrior groaned. Shadak wiped the arrow clean on the man's cloak, then stood and walked to the body of the first man he had killed. Kneeling beside the corpse, he recovered his arrow and then strode to where the raiders had tethered their horses. Mounting the first, he led the others back down the trail to where his gelding waited. Gathering the reins, he led the four mounts back out onto the trail.
"What about me?" shouted the wounded man.
Shadak turned in the saddle. "Do your best to keep the wolves away," he advised. "By dark they will have picked up the scent of blood."
"Leave me a horse! In the name of Mercy!"
"I am not a merciful man," said Shadak.
And he rode on toward the southeast, and the distant mountains.