EVEN AS SHE raised her weapon to fire, Angelica saw one of Catrin’s bolts strike a Cityman from his saddle. Bringing the crossbow to her shoulder, she drew down on another of the riders and quickly fired. Not waiting to watch the bolt strike its target, she pumped the crossbow’s forward slide, chambering a new bolt, then drew down on the next rider.
However, just as she fired, something struck her hard in the back, causing her bolt to fly wide of its intended target. Cursing, Angelica rolled to her left as the force of the blow shoved her from where she knelt behind the boulder’s protection.
Rising up on one knee, the centurien judged the situation in a glance. Some Citymen had dismounted and moved up into the rocks behind her. Through a rapidly rising cloud of dust, she could make out several. One had already broken through to the midst of the centurie’s defensive position and was grappling with one of the Huntresses. So close was the fight to Angelica that both had dropped their crossbows and had not had time to draw swords or daggers. Their struggle had knocked them into the centurien.
Looking for Catrin, Angelica saw only a slain Cityman lying on his back close to where the Senior Protectress had been. Praying to all the goddesses she knew, she started to rise when another Cityman, sword drawn, charged through the dust and was upon her. Not having time to chamber another bolt, Angelica barely avoided instantaneous death by jerking her crossbow up to block the enemy’s attack.
The man’s blade whistled as it sliced the air in a murderous overhead strike. With a resounding clang, the sword deflected off the crossbow’s metal stock. The shock of the impact on Angelica’s upraised arms almost made her drop the bow and forced her down to one knee.
Screaming curses, the man shifted back, then rapidly struck again. Once again the blade cut a deadly swath through the air and, once more, Angelica brought the crossbow up to parry the attack. This time, however, the man was ready and recovered even quicker than before. The third blow came over his shoulder in a sweeping strike that forced Angelica to shift her crossbow frantically to meet his new attack.
The strike’s changed angle and the force of the blow itself drove Angelica off balance. The crossbow flew from her hands and she fell over heavily onto her back, directly at the swords-man’s feet. Laughing loudly, the man spun his sword and, grabbing the hilt in both hands, lunged to drive its point down-ward into Angelica’s midsection.
But even as she struck the ground, Angelica was reacting. Despite her restraining overskirt, she snapped both knees up to her chest. As the Cityman loomed over her, sword hilt raised above his head for the killing blow, she pushed back onto her shoulders, kicked upward, and drove the heels of both her heavy riding boots into the man’s unprotected face.
Over the noise of battle raging about her, she was pleased to hear the crunch of bone and cartilage as her boot heels struck. The man’s head snapped back, blood and teeth spraying in a wide arch. A scream escaped from his bloody mouth as he pitched backward, sword still in hand.
Even as the man fell, Angelica brought both legs down, driving her feet at opposing angles to her body. Then, despite the weight of her armor and helm, she arched her back and, in one fluid motion, jumped to her feet. The man was holding one hand to his face and struggling to stand, waving his sword blindly before him. Quickly shifting into a fighting stance, smoothly drawing her longsword and swiftly following with a continuous backhand cut, Angelica dispatched her enemy with one strike to his throat.
Turning from the dying man, she heard the sound of fighting coming from all directions through a pall of dust. Moving in the direction she had last seen the Huntress and her opponent grappling only seconds earlier, she soon found them. The Cityman’s back was to her and, to Angelica’s horror, she saw he had won the struggle. Grasping the younger Valkyrie by the throat with both hands, he had lifted her off the ground, pinned her against a rock, and was choking the life from her.
Closing the distance between them, Angelica struck the back of the man’s unarmored knees with her sword, slicing his tendons in both legs. Screaming, he released his grip on the Huntress, and both of them collapsed to the ground. Angelica drew back her longsword and delivered a powerful cut to the man’s neck, sending his head flying.
Paying the twitching corpse no heed, Angelica swiftly knelt beside the coughing and gasping Huntress. Helping the Valkyrie to her feet and holding her with one hand, Angelica quickly looked about them, but saw no enemy nearby. Turning back to the Huntress, the centurien glanced to the Valkyrie’s throat and, after determining as best she could that nothing had been crushed, shook her sharply.
“Little Sister!” she shouted, glancing at the other’s arban seal and calling her by name. “Nikki, ye must be ready to draw weapons and fight with me as arban.”