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Excerpt

Intimate Enemies
Bantam
ISBN-10: 0553581996 ISBN-13: 978-0553581997

Isle of Shot
1177

            The fall of the axe just missed him, grazing off the battered links of his chain mail with enough force to push him backward, staggering against the heather and the sand.

            Arion raised his own sword in defense and managed to deflect the next blow, then found his balance again and turned, ducking the third swing, the one that would have surely cut off his arm if he had not moved in time.

            The Norseman had dirty yellow hair and a bloodied smile. His eyes, Arion noticed, were a pale, flat gray, the color of dead waters. The invader lifted the tremendous axe again with both hands, leaving his heart open for the taking.

            So Arion took it. The Norseman deserved to die, after all, and he certainly was doing his best to kill Arion first. But as Ari lunged for the heart, something new came at him from the other side, knocking him sideways into the sand, bringing grit into his eyes and mouth and a stinging hotness to his shoulder.

            The Norseman laughed out loud and shouted something in his own tongue, but Ari was shaking his head and trying to sit up, so he could stand up, so he could keep fighting. So he would not die. Not today.

            The ocean behind the Norseman rolled up the beach with a steady roar, clean white foam and steel blue waves. The loudness of it rang in his ears, distracting him, and Ari had to blink and shake his head again, trying to make the world stay steady.

            Where were his men? Where were Hammond and Trevin, at least? Were they wounded? Were they dead?

            He turned his head and saw the honed tip of an arrow pointing through the flesh of his shoulder, obviously where it shouldn’t be. It perplexed him, this arrow. It dripped with blood and moved as he did, still trying to stumble to his feet. For some reason, Ari could not manage it—the sand was too loose beneath him, the world too uneasy to support his legs. The pounding of the ocean grew louder, louder, mingling with the shouts of the battle all around him, all the men screaming, each voice calling for victory....

            He fell to his side in the sand, landing on the shoulder with the arrow in it, and the pain seemed distant, almost sweet.

            Great, booted feet were in front of him. Filthy tunic. Reeking stench of sweat and blood and fish. A long, dark shade lapping over him: the shadow of a giant.

            The Norseman was still laughing. The sand all around them was dotted with scarlet blood, soaking away into the gold, and Arion wondered why this was going to be the last sight of his life, the shadow of his enemy and the gold and the scarlet and the cold blue water beyond. It had to be fitting. There must be some deep, great meaning to it, but right now he didn’t know what. He didn’t even recall what he was doing here on this bloodied beach, this cold day....

            The shadow of the giant shifted, and like a dream Ari watched the dark arms lift high again—exposing the heart, stupid move, he thought groggily—and the wicked length of the axe was like a rushing bird across the gold, swift and silent and—unbelievably—the end.

            “MacRae!” came a shout, so close and loud that even the Norseman hesitated, and the axe bird hovered over Arion, not falling just yet.

            “MacRae!”

            Sand exploded around him, forcing Arion to close his eyes and turn his head away, gasping, and suddenly the new call was everywhere, everything, drowning out even the death knell of the ocean. When he opened his eyes again he saw more than just the ragged boots of the Norseman—many new legs, new people. New men, fighting off the invaders. Now there were shadows all over the golden beach, sand flying, battle cries and screams echoing off the rocky dunes behind him. There were tartans and swords and the sparking clamor of metal hitting metal. The battle continued at a feverish new pitch.

            And Arion, still pitched sideways in the sand, managed to roll over and push himself up to his elbow, trying to see who else was falling around him.

            The Norseman with the dead water eyes had moved slightly away from him, lumbering after a much smaller figure, a tartan-clad creature that darted and moved like the wind, raising a broadsword that looked too heavy for him. Yet for all his speed it seemed the tartaned man was going to die today too, because despite his stupidity the giant had the thick brawn of a bull, Arion knew that. The smaller man would tire out before the Norseman would.

            There were bodies everywhere. He could see it now, how Tartan had to jump over them sideways and backward, and the Norseman just stepped around them easily. Most of the fallen were cloaked in the skins and bright silver metal of the invaders, but there were also ones in chain mail, like himself. And a few with the tartan of the newcomer, as well.

            Tartan was tiring, just as Ari had feared. A misstep on something caused him to swing awkwardly to one side, and the giant gave the same laugh that he had when he had been about to kill Ari.

            Ah, well, Arion thought, remote. His arms gave up the last of their strength, and he collapsed back onto the sand. What a cold day to die.

            The Norseman shouted something incomprehensible to Tartan. Arion managed to turn his head and squinted against the blood and sweat and sand, watching the finish of this unlikely battle.

            The giant lifted his arms and wielded that deadly axe above him.

            The heart! Ari thought, and tried to shout it, but all that came out was a rough cough.

            And Tartan whirled and moved and did the thing that Ari had thought would be impossible—he ducked the blow and brought his own blade up to the exposed torso of the giant, and pushed it in. Then he let go, backing away.

            The Norseman seemed frozen, no longer laughing, by God. He took a few clumsy steps backward, then fell to his knees, and then onto his back.

            It was one of the last things Arion saw before the darkness came and ate him up: the fallen figure of his enemy, the straight and true edge of the sword that had killed him tilting against the sky and the white waves.

            Tartan was coming back toward him, long strides across the sand, sunlight behind him. But Arion du Morgan had to give in to the blackness before he could make it there.

            Bliss. The finest sense of nothing; no pain, no sand, no smell of blood mingled with the sea.

            Something struck him flat across the jaw. Ari scowled, opening his eyes.

            Tartan was leaning over him, the sun behind him. Long hair the color of polished copper was coming loose from a queue, falling down in strands around him. Tartan’s hands cupped Ari’s head, supporting him.

            Arion blinked, staring up at the vision. Could it be? Not a man, no...an angel, a woman with hair like copper and eyes like—

            Angel leaned back, then spat in his face.

            “That’s for making me save your worthless life,” she said, and dropped his head in the sand and walked away from him.

           

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