This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and events are totally products of the author’s imagination (as should be obvious).
Copyright © 2017,
Henry E. Neufeld
Tlisli was still scanning the area when one of the men still standing stepped forward. Tlisli thought this was either very brave or very stupid, considering he was unarmed. He started to open his mouth, apparently to speak.
Tlisli ignored him, turning toward the boat. The two oarsmen were just beginning to react to the situation, and their reaction was clearly confusion. The current this close to shore was just beginning to catch and move Tlorin’s body. She didn’t want it to get too far away.
“Get Tlorin’s body into the boat,” she said, not loudly, but quite firmly. Her voice was quiet enough that the sputtering of the man who had stepped forward, only to be ignored, partially drowned it out. The oarsmen were willing, but the shock of the situation still had them frozen. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable enough in their own way, and they had spears, but this sort of expedition was routine and safe. That’s why there was only one real guard. So they didn’t seem to have considered using their spears for anything.
“Now!” shouted Tlisli. That finally got the men moving. Tlisli couldn’t recall ever having shouted in that tone before. She had copied it from her father, who frequently used it with employees and with slaves.
The exchange had given the headman time to feel slighted. He was not used to being ignored. “Girl,” he said. “When a man of rank speaks, you listen!”
Tlisli looked back at him. A lifetime of obedience urged her to treat the man with respect, yet fear, anger, and the knowledge, practically bred into her, that letting anything slip in such a situation could mean death, took over.
“When the person with the sword says ‘shut up,'” she replied, “you shut up.” She didn’t even turn totally toward him. Working with her brothers back in Ixtlen and later with Azzesh, she had learned the importance of being able to keep track of a wide arc of activity around her.
She watched as one of the oarsmen drew Tlorin’s body to the side of the boat, using one of the neglected spears, and then brought the body on board. She pointed at one and said, “Guard the boat.” To the other she said, “Grab your spear and come with me.” He didn’t seem to have any problem with that.
The headman, on the other hand, was still livid. He was keeping his mouth shut, yet he managed to look as though he wanted to kill.
“Why have you attacked Aterin’s boat and killed his agent?” she asked, holding her sword loosely in front of her. To someone unacquainted with her, it might appear that she was unready, but with Azzesh she had practiced moving from this lazy looking stance to an attack quickly.
“Are you not the agent of the great merchant prince Aterin?” asked the headman with some surprise.
“No,” said Tlisli. “I’m the guard. Your men killed the agent.”
“Not my men,” said the headman. “Those were bandits who were holding us hostage.” As he spoke even more people were gathering around. None of them were carrying obvious weapons. The headman had a knife in a scabbard at his waist, but other than that, Tlisli couldn’t see anything threatening.
The problem was that she had talked to Tlorin about this village, and he had told her that the headman was elderly, and that he and Tlorin had been acquainted for years.
“What happened to Isteriss?” she asked, naming the old headman.
“He died. I am the new headman.” His hand was moving slowly and skillfully toward the knife. The move was skillful in that it was concealed as he gesticulated with his hands while talking. With each move, however, his right hand came closer to the knife.
If he’s that good with concealed movement, thought Tlisli, I don’t want to give him time to get the knife!
“Keep your hand away from the knife,” she said conversationally.
It seemed that was the moment when the headman, if such he was, knew that the game was up. He grabbed for the knife. Tlisli moved in with her sword again, trying again to stab the man in the chest. This time she was not so lucky as in her previous two stabbing attacks. The headman dodged to her right, and she just managed to nick him in the side. Meanwhile he brought the knife up and in, intending to stab her in the abdomen.
It would have worked, too, except that Tlisli had learned something else from Azzesh: If your natural momentum will take you out of the way, even if you got that momentum by tripping, go with it. Because Tlisli had learned that she really didn’t have the strength for mighty blows with her sword (or anything else), she had thrown her weight into it. When the man moved, she was quite agile enough to have kept her feet, but instead she let herself fall forward and rolled further away from the man. His knife still caught the edge of her tunic, and in fact nicked her in turn, but not enough to even distract her. Azzesh had caused much more damage than that in training!
The man then made a critical mistake. In one way it was hard to blame him. Where he came from girls weren’t warriors. Because she was small, Tlisli looked like a child to him. He knew about women as warriors because he lived near enough to Tevelin, but deep down he just didn’t believe it possible. That’s why he had assumed she would be the agent and the man would be the guard in the boat. Now, despite what he’d seen of her capability with her sword, he still assumed it had to be luck. In his mind, he was cursing his guards for their failure to kill a mere girl. To him, her fall could be nothing less that the inevitable failure of her uncanny luck.
He threw himself on her, intentionally dropping his knife. His whole purpose had been to capture the agent, and now he had his chance. Tlisli just pointed her sword upward and braced it, allowing the man to impale himself on it. Her move was to late to give him time to change his move. Tlisli pushed at the man and managed to move out from under his body, pulling her sword with her. He was still alive, but he wouldn’t be for long.
“Bandage him,” Tlisli ordered nobody in particular.
Three villagers, including one who appeared to be the village shaman, moved to obey. It appeared that everyone was willing to accept that Tlisli was in charge. Finally!
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