Two words. Take. Her. Two simple words, strung together in a short, compact sentence. How many other two-word sentences had I heard over the course of my years? Too many to count. Too many to remember.
This one would be burned into my mind forever. Because this one changed my life. It grabbed me by throat and shoved me off course, forcing me away from the wide, brightly lit path that had been laid out in front of me and onto a narrow foot trail shrouded in an inky darkness and lined with corpses.
Des Jardins wasn’t even done speaking before the men around me exploded into action. His goons surged forward. I had a heartbeat to realize we were being attacked before Haydar shoved me backward. I stumbled, caught off guard, and crashed into Adnan. The Janissary wrapped a steadying arm around my shoulders and dragged me to the rear of our small group. Haydar, Isaac, and George formed a phalanx in front of us, and together, we began to move backward, toward the mouth of the alleyway.
I didn’t question the decision. On top of histories, I had read a number of books on military strategy, and I knew a lost cause when I saw one. This alley was narrow enough that Des Jardins and his men could hold it like a chokepoint against a force thrice their size. Four men and one helpless woman had no chance of taking it from them. We needed to go back the way we had come, because right now we had a better chance of surviving a riot than we did of facing these men unscathed. The commoners at our backs might be angry and enraged, but they were inexperienced in true warfare. The men we faced now were well-trained and coordinated.
“Move!” Adnan shouted. “Give us room to work!”
As if they’d been fighting together for years, Isaac and George stepped aside as soon as the order was issued, opening space around Haydar. Through the gaps, I saw Des Jardins’ men. They advanced steadily on us, the closest three moving together in tight formation. Each held a sword in their hands.
My guard freed their own weapons, Isaac and George pulling blades that were too long to be knives from sheaths hidden inside their Hessian boots. Haydar shrugged out of his jacket and let it fall to the alley floor. His back was wide enough to block out the sun. Strapped to it were twin scabbards, crossed over each other in an X. He raised his massive arms overhead, gripped the handles, and pulled free a pair of wicked looking short swords that were curved slightly at the tips, almost like scimitars, only narrower. Adnan released his hold on me, shouted for me to stay by his side, and ripped open the coat of his livery.
It’s strange, the way that time can sometimes move. I glanced over at him, and it seemed like the buttons that popped free from his uniform rotated slowly through the air. It felt like minutes passed as I stared at the glinting rows of steel strapped to his torso. His hand fell to the lowest one, and with a flick of his fingers, he’d freed the strap and held a knife in his hand. He drew it up and back, toward his shoulder, and with a measured, graceful movement that was almost lazy in its efficiency, he let fly the blade.
I turned my head to follow it arcing through the air. It passed between Isaac and Haydar, flipped end over end down the alley, and struck one of the advancing men in the face. It would have taken him in the eye, but he jerked aside at the last second and almost got clear of it. Too bad. If it had hit him in the eye, he might have died before he even knew what happened. Instead, the knife sheered into the side of his mouth and plunged to the hilt. I gagged as the tip of the blade burst free from his cheek in a gory burst of crimson.
The man screamed and dropped to his knees, and a third enemy troop slid forward to take his place. But Adnan had just begun. I knew from the few lessons that I’d had with him that the man was ambidextrous, but knowing that and seeing it in action were two different things. While one hand lifted to throw, the other dropped to pull the next knife. Pull, lift, throw. Pull, lift, throw. All while flowing backward through the alley. He didn’t even pause to glance down at what he was doing. His gaze stayed fixed ahead of him, moving from one target to the next. How much did a person have to practice to become this skilled? How many men did one need to injure and maim to not even blink at the devastation his blades wrought?
I kept my gaze on him as he worked, because more men were screaming now, and I knew that meant his knives were finding their marks. I should look. Force myself to be calm and logical and note how many men he had taken out so I knew how many we still had to face, but I couldn’t. My stomach roiled. Bile coated the back of my throat. The way that the tip of his blade had ripped free from that man’s cheek, while the base tore into the side of his mouth, until it gashed open like a macabre grin…
I gagged again but managed to keep my gorge down. Reading about battles had done absolutely nothing to prepare me for the reality of one. The men who wrote those books tended to wax vainglorious about honor and duty and sacrifice. They didn’t mention the hair-raising screams of injured men. The keening, animalistic moans of pain and rage. The way your guts clenched like you might soil yourself. How your heart beat so fast that it felt like you might choke on it.
I blinked and forced myself to focus, trying desperately to ignore the sounds of the dying. Adnan was running low on knives. I noted only five left on the complicated harness he wore. Likely he had more hidden about his person, but they would take him longer to pull than these open blades. He started slowing down then. Timing his tosses. His initial volley must have been meant to scatter our enemies, while now he only kept them at bay, buying us time to reach the mouth of the alley.
My God, how were we not there yet? We’d only been a few yards in. Time, that fickle bitch, was moving at a snail’s pace, just like it had when I’d fought McNaught in my bedroom.
I glanced behind us to see sunlight slanting into the road beyond at a hard angle. We were nearly there. Just a few more feet. My heart sank as I dropped my gaze to street level. It was choked with people. They were no longer trying to move toward the upended fruit seller’s stand and the restless crowd. They stood stock still, staring into the alley. At us.
This was a complication we didn’t need.
I tugged on Adnan’s sleeve.
He shot me a look in between throwing. “What? I’m a little busy here.” His voice was perfectly steady. The man didn’t sound even remotely winded. He looked calm. Fully relaxed. He might have been sitting down for tea, not dual wielding death.
“Behind us,” I said.
He glanced over his shoulder. “George, to the rear!”
George peeled away from Haydar and took up a position at my back, facing the crowd. “Move!” he yelled at them, brandishing his long blades.
Deep within the alley, Des Jardins let out a low roar like an angry lion.
I turned back around.
His beautiful face was contorted into a rictus of rage and madness. “Don’t let them escape!”
Though his men faced certain death, they surged forward. One fool ran straight at Haydar.
Haydar stood stock still while the man charged, his open blades hanging loosely at his sides. I shouted a warning at him. What was he doing? He must have seen the man. Why was he not lifting his weapons to counter the attack? The Janissary was supposed to be an army unto himself, and here he stood, about to let himself be run through.
I braced myself to watch him fall, but at the very last moment, Haydar raised one of his swords and batted aside the other man’s weapon like a cat toying with a mouse that was already dead, only too stupid to realize it yet. The man’s sword went clattering across the dirt floor of the alley, and he gripped his wrist as if it had gone numb from the blow. Before shock could fully register on his face, Haydar’s other sword was up and moving. It took the man in the gut. Haydar’s entire body seemed to bulge as he drove the sword forward to the hilt. Then he leaned back, and with laconic disregard for honor or decency, he braced his foot on the other man’s hip, and kicked him away. He wrenched his sword sideways as he pulled it free, opening a gaping wound in the man’s stomach. Intestines spilled free from his ruined torso, glistening like chewed gristle in the wan light.
I tipped sideways and vomited noisily.
The crowd that gathered to watch us had ignored George’s initial orders to move. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and turned to glance in their direction. The sight of Haydar gutting a man had done the trick, and now they tripped over each other in their haste to get away.
A hole opened up in the street. I staggered upright and lurched into motion as we slid seamlessly into it. Des Jardins had other men here. They had been the ones to instigate all this trouble. Where were they now? I cast my gaze across the crowd, and my eyes landed on a fellow in dark clothing. He was easy to spot, because instead of trying to get away, he fought against the fleeing stream of humanity to get to us.
“To your right!” I warned George.
He turned just in time. The other man broke free from the rabble and swung his sword in a vicious, overhand blow that would have cleaved George’s arm from his body had it landed. George managed to raise his long blades and cross them over each other in a block. He stepped aside as he did so, turning the man’s sword and using his momentum against him as he pulled his blades away. The man stumbled. With brutal efficiency, George stepped up behind him and slashed his blade across the man’s throat. The man’s sword fell from his hands, forgotten, as he clasped at his neck and tried to stem the flow of blood. I stood ramrod straight, eyes wide as he fell to his knees, choking on his own blood.
Someone crashed into my right side, shoving me off balance. I caught myself just before I fell and turned to see Isaac doing the same. While I’d been transfixed with horror, Adnan had run out of throwing knives and the battle had reached us. Isaac held a sword that he must have pilfered from a fallen enemy. He regained his balance and then lunged forward, hacking at a large, ugly bastard with his new weapon. The blade bit into the man’s arm, and though he howled in pain, he wrenched himself free and countered the strike with a blow of his own that Isaac barely managed to dodge.
Sounds of fighting raged all around me. Steel clanged against steel. Men and women screamed in terror as they fled. The cries of the dying echoed from deep within the alley we’d left behind. Chaos reigned supreme. Our battle had kicked over an ant’s nest, and people fled from us on all sides. So many flashes of motion in my periphery only added to my confusion and terror, because I couldn’t tell until I turned my head whether or not it was someone running away, or charging straight at me. I whipped my head from side to side, trying to keep everyone and everything in sight.
A motion close by caught my eye, and I spun to see Adnan. He’d pulled out two more knives, these ones as long as my forearm. He held them in a way I hadn’t seen before, gripping the handles in his fists, blades pointed down instead of up. A man came at him, sword aimed straight at his head. Adnan pivoted on his toe, ducked beneath the sword, and cut the man to ribbons as they passed each other. He was so fast it was hard to track his movements. I saw him land a blow to the man’s thigh, maybe two to his side, another up the length of his back, and then Adnan dropped to one knee behind him and severed the man’s Achilles tendons with two devastating slices. The man fell forward, thrashing. I had to leap away to avoid having my shins hacked into by his flailing sword.
Haydar strode into my line of sight, covered in blood and gore. A terrifying grin split his face. My heart was about to give out from fear, and here the Janissary was, looking like this was the most fun he’d had in ages. Two men stepped forward to meet him, working in tandem like a pair of wolves trying to take down a bison. One lunged forward in a feint, while the other charged in from the side. Haydar turned the man’s sword and stepped into the assault, ramming his shoulder into the man’s face. I heard a sickening crunch when they collided, and when the man tottered backward, dazed, blood streamed from his ruined nose.
His comrade spared him no mind. Instead of helping him, he tried to dart in while Haydar was distracted. He almost succeeded in landing a blow, but Haydar dropped his swords to the ground, slapped the man’s weapon out of the air with his hand, grabbed his wrist, hauled him forward, planted his other hand into the man’s chest, and then threw him at the rest of Des Jardins’ force. He spun sideways into the air and took out three men when he hit.
Haydar let out a roar of laughter, leaned down, scooped up his swords, and bellowed, “Who’s next?”
“Back!” Adnan yelled. “Keep moving back!”
I staggered into motion, following him further down the street. George and Isaac kept pace with us on either side, fighting off the men trying to reach me. Haydar held the front line alone, ruining lives with every swing of his swords. I looked past the carnage spread out at his feet, past the enemy troops, searching for the man with the golden hair.
Where had Des Jardins gone? I’d lost track of him after we’d escaped the alley. Had he retreated? Seen the brutal efficiency of my guard and given up the battle as lost? Any sane man might have done so, but there had been something in his expression as he’d shouted his orders that made me feel like he might be mad enough to ignore logic and reason. Madmen were unpredictable and therefore much more dangerous than those still in their right minds.
“Where’s Des Jardins?” I yelled.
No one heard me. My voice was drowned beneath the waves of noise that crashed over us. Further down the road, it sounded like the riot had broken out in full. Shouts and bangs echoed from that direction. I heard glass shatter. Wood splinter. The acrid bite of smoke hit my nose.
Had they set the street on fire?
Nearby, the shouting gained a frantic edge, and I glanced toward the mob to see Des Jardins, towering over it on horseback. He drove his mount to and fro, threatening to trample the people nearest him. In his hand, he held a horsewhip, and he cracked it down onto the heads and shoulders of those too slow to escape. The crowd fled from him.
My God, he was going to drive them like a herd of stampeding beasts straight into us.
“Faster!” George cried, seeing the same thing I did.
Two men sprang forward from the other side of us, barreling toward Adnan. He turned to engage them, and a third slipped past him, aiming for me.
I looked around for help. Isaac was still busy fending off that ugly bastard, and though the man bled from a dozen wounds, he didn’t seem to be slowing down. George was crossing swords with a man much smaller than him, but who moved with the dangerous grace of a swordmaster. Haydar, who fought three men, was too far to reach me.
I shoved my hand into my pocket, cursing myself for not pulling my knife earlier. It took me two fumbling attempts to free it, and my hand shook so badly that I cut myself as I yanked it out.
Aim for the gut, or the sides of the back, just here, where the kidneys are. Or better yet, point the blade up and drive it under the ribcage, straight for the heart. Adnan’s lessons filled my mind, and though Harriet and I had practiced the movements he’d taught us, I was as ill-prepared for the reality of defending myself as I was for the reality of battle.
The man who’d slipped past Adnan saw his chance to grab me and started sprinting forward. I tried to jump away from him and stab him at the same time, and was unsuccessful in both. He hit my wrist with his palm so hard that my hand flew open. The knife fell from my deadened fingers and was lost in muck beneath my feet.
Fine then. I would use my hands. As I had on McNaught.
The man moved to grab me, and instead of trying to run away again, I surged forward and punched him, throwing the full weight of my body into the blow. I caught him on the cheek hard enough to snap his head to the side. Pain flared across my knuckles, which still hadn’t recovered from my last fight, but I ignored it and pulled back my arm to strike him again.
The trouble was, this man wasn’t McNaught. He didn’t give a fig for my welfare. His order was to take me. There was no quantifier as to what state I was to be delivered in. As he turned back toward me, I realized with sickening dread that he hadn’t been stunned by pain, only caught off guard at being punched by a duchess. And from the angry look he now wore, he certainly wasn’t going to hold back like McNaught had.
I tried to land a second blow, but he recovered with surprising speed. He dropped his shoulder, ducked my punch, and then lashed out at me. His fist took me in the gut and landed so hard that it drove the air from my lungs. I doubled over, wheezing. The street, which had been growing ever darker with the threat of sunset, suddenly exploded with light as stars danced across my vision. Try as I might, I couldn’t force my lungs to pull in a breath. Panic began to set in.
To add insult to injury, the man backhanded me in a blow that took me clean off my feet. I spun as I fell to the ground, landing on my stomach. The mud of the street had been churned into a quagmire by the crowd. It sucked me in and held me fast, so that I floundered like a fish to break free of it as I tried to rise. No doubt the man had meant to subdue me, but I’d been hit this hard before, by my father, and instead of being stunned, I was able to think through the near-blinding pain in my cheek.
I kicked out at him as he leaned down to haul me up. My heel caught him in the crotch, and now it was his turn to double over wheezing. Seeing my chance, I turned and scrabbled away, crawling on all fours as I tried to get my feet under me. My lungs finally quit their seizing, and I was able to suck in a few glorious breaths. I was just struggling upright when fire erupted over my scalp and I was yanked backward.
“You vicious little bitch,” the man snarled, hauling me back by my hair. Like Des Jardins, he spoke with a French accent.
I clawed at the ground and tried to kick out at him, but he sidestepped me.
“Help!” I cried, but again my voice was suffocated by the noise in the street.
A flash of metal came from beside me in the muck. I couldn’t turn my head to look at it, not while he tried to jerk me back by my hair, and so I reached blindly toward the glinting steel, praying it was my discarded knife.
Pain, sharp and hot, burned through my fingers as I closed my fist. It was the blade. I’d cut myself again, but I would cut myself a million times more if it meant holding a weapon in my hand.
Until now, I’d been putting up a fight to get away. I stopped suddenly, and the man was caught off guard by it. He stumbled off balance at first, but the bastard recovered quicker than I’d hoped, grabbing the back of my bodice and hauling me upward by it. I spun as I went, locking my knees and planting my heels so that I shot toward him like a fulcrum. I kept the blade hidden until the last moment. Only when I collided with him and he wrapped an arm around my waist did I raise it. Our proximity left me few options. This close, the angle was wrong for a blow to the heart or the kidneys. But there was his neck, exposed above the collar of his shirt, and so his neck was where I drove my blade.
Hitting someone with your fist and stabbing someone with a knife are two very different things. Though I was becoming proficient with my fists, I was inexperienced with a blade, and my aim was off. Instead of stabbing him through the center of the neck, like I’d intended, my knife plunged in closer toward the back.
At first it slid in with sickening ease, like I was cutting through softened butter instead of human flesh, but then it stopped short with sudden, jarring force, and I realized that I had hit the man’s spine. I tried to pull it out and stab him again, but the blade had caught in bone and I only managed to wrench it forward, widening the wound. Blood poured out from his neck, coating my hand in viscous warmth. Stronger spurts of deep crimson splattered over my face, neck, and chest.
Horrified, I released my hold on the knife and stumbled away. He let me go. His arms fell to his sides, and though it looked as though he was struggling to raise them, he couldn’t. A flash of movement came from my right. Haydar was there, one sword raised high. As the man fell to his knees, Haydar put his full weight into the downstroke and severed the man’s head from his shoulders in a single, malicious blow. The body toppled forward into the muck.
I swayed where I stood.
Adnan appeared in front of me. He was shouting, but I couldn’t hear the words. Ringing filled my ears, so loud that it sounded like I’d been standing inside the belfry of a church as the gong bellowed out the noon hour. I tried to turn away from him, back toward the man I had helped murder, but then I was lifted from my feet and the sky filled my sight.
Darkness threatened. I offered up my consciousness, praying it would take me away, but I remained frustratingly awake.
“Put me down,” I managed.
“No,” Haydar said.
His body swayed back and forth, and the alley rushed past me. He must have been running.
“Sick,” I croaked.
He shifted me within his grip and slowed just long enough to let me wretch without hitting him. As soon as the last heaves abated, he bundled me to his chest and started running again.
I used what little strength was left in my body to contort backward and glance behind us. Des Jardins, still on horseback, had abandoned trying to incite a stampede and was attempting to break free from the crowd. Beyond him, smoke billowed, black and ugly, up into the sky.
Adnan and George were right on Haydar’s heels, but I saw no sign of Isaac.
“Isaac?” I yelled.
“Dead!” Adnan called back. “Like we will be if we stay here!”
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.