* * * * *
Richard and Nick had taught Talty to roll to her feet prepared to defend herself the instant she crossed through the portal. Instead, she lay helpless and retching in ferns flattened by her undignified arrival. The slicing pain in her head not only blinded her, it rendered her indifferent to her fate. Somewhere between salvos of vomiting and desperate gasps for breath, a man’s voice—Richard’s—called her name. He knelt beside her and gripped her shoulders.
“Go away!” she sputtered, adding a few choice expletives she’d learned in the navy.
“Let’s get out of the open, darling. If you can’t get up, I’ll carry you.”
Mortified, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and staggered to her feet. The pounding in her head eased. “I can get up myself, and I’m not your goddamn darling! Where’s Nick?”
“I don’t know. I hear water running nearby. Come on, we’ll get you cleaned up.” He sounded calm, yet he pivoted as he spoke, scanning nonstop and poised to spring into action.
“I hear it too. I’ll get myself cleaned up, thank you.”
Nevertheless, he slipped an arm around her waist and tugged her along. At the edge of a bubbling stream, she knelt and splashed cold water over her face, hating him for not suffering as she did. He’d told her that he recovered more quickly with each trip. This was only her first. Still, she hadn’t expected to be so pathetically sick.
Feeling better, she leaned back on her heels and surveyed her surroundings. The stream rushed down to a large, winding river. The land on either side of it was green and rolling. Mist diffused the sunlight trickling through the surrounding treetops. Hazy mountains nowhere near as high as those in California or Japan loomed in the distance. Still, their tops pierced the cottony clouds.
“Where are we?” she asked. “Will we go back soon? And where’s Nick?”
Richard’s pinched expression worried her. “I don’t know where the bloody hell he is. Either he didn’t make it through, or he’s somewhere nearby and we’ll meet up with him later. But we should already be back. Test runs never take more than a minute. Let’s find cover and sit tight.”
He pulled his commando knife from his toolkit and slid it into his boot sheath. Following his example, Talty slipped her tanto knife into her own boot. They rested in a copse of oak trees, sipping water from their canteens.
Richard soon grew restless. “It won’t matter where we are when Creek calls us back. I don’t like sitting in one place too long. Let’s see if we can make friends with the natives before dark.”
They found a deer track and set out through the woodlands, hearing only bird calls and rustling leaves until crashing branches and stumbling footsteps announced a desperate flight through the woods. Talty dashed behind a tree, as did Richard, just as a boy of no more than fourteen emerged from the undergrowth. Richard signaled Talty. Together they stepped from behind the trees.
The boy froze. Curly black hair framed his pallid face. The torn crimson cloak covering his shoulders tumbled to leather-clad feet. Beneath the cloak, he wore a belted blue tunic that reached his knees. Yellow leggings completed the colorful outfit.
Richard held his hands palms out. “Can we help you, lad?”
Frightened blue eyes flashed over Richard’s fatigues. The boy didn’t seem to notice Talty. His response sounded like gibberish to her, though an instant later the words made sense.
“Please, can you? The Danmarkers have my mother. Brother Marcan and the others will be too late!”
“Which way?” Richard asked.
The distraught boy ran off.
“You go first, darling. I’ll take the rear.”
Talty set her hands on her hips. “Don’t you think you should’ve asked how many attackers there are before you agreed to help?”
Before he could answer, she grinned and jogged after the boy.
“Bloody hell,” Richard muttered behind her.
A distant babble of voices quickly grew to angry shouts. The woods thinned. The boy stopped, and then he crept to a line of shrubs at the edge of a glade. Talty squeezed beside him, Richard at her sleeve. She peeked through the greenery to see a round thatched cottage, the main building of a small homestead. Four brawny men stood before it. Armed with swords, clad in wool and leather, they’d tucked their long hair into their weapon-laden belts…
They weren’t the only ones shouting. From inside the cottage, a woman barraged them with piercing insults.
“Curse all of ye! I’d send ye to the devil, but ye’d be in too good company! Death and smotherin’ on ye, and may ye die roarin’!”
“Come out, Leesha!” called one of the men. He lifted a flaming torch from a fence post and stood grinning with his flaming prize. “If you don’t, we will burn you out!”
“Come out, Leesha!” called another. “I will keep Leg-Biter in his scabbard.” His companions made lewd jokes about the swords that would make a scabbard of Leesha.
“Don’t listen to them,” called the apparent leader. “We only want to talk. Come out now, or we will set the place afire!”
“Pig snouts on your children, ye miserable dogs!”
At the leader’s nod, the torch man swung his arm in ever-widening arcs.
“No, ye filthy pagans!” Before Richard and Talty could stop him, the boy charged into the clearing. He slammed into the torch wielder, who fell backward and raised his hands against the boy’s pummeling fists. The burning torch rolled harmlessly to the ground.
“The bitch will come out if we kill her pup!” shouted one of the other Vikings. They drew their swords and closed on the boy.
Richard slid his knife from his boot. He nodded toward the standing Vikings. “The one on the right is yours. I’ll take the two on the left.”
Tanto in hand, Talty shrieked to divert her target’s attention away from the boy. The Viking swept his sword at her. She ducked beneath his arm and drove her knife through his leather jerkin, up and under his breastbone. The shock on his face stirred no sympathy in her. Taking care to avoid his falling sword, she set her foot on his corpse, yanked back her knife, and coolly wiped the blade on his shirt.
The cottage door burst open. A sword-swinging blaze of red hair exploded into the clearing and screamed at the boy. “Get out of it, Carney!”
Carney scrambled away. The Viking he’d been bashing sprang to his feet. The woman screeched and beheaded him.
Talty checked on Richard. He’d lost his knife, but he’d whacked the sword from his adversary’s hands and begun a nonstop assault of rapid-fire punches. The Viking, used to hacking with weapons, couldn’t counter the skillful clobbering.
The fourth Viking spun and thrust his sword at Richard’s back, but the red-haired woman’s blade smashed the sword to the ground. Her repeated jabs forced the man back. He seemed to trip, but then he lunged and tackled the woman down. As he rolled away, he pulled a dagger from his belt and twisted toward Richard.
Talty’s warning shout saved him from catching the dagger in his back. The weapon nicked his arm however, distracting him long enough to allow his opponent to retrieve a fallen sword.
The Viking swung the sword at Richard’s head, though he suddenly dropped the weapon to clutch at the tanto knife lodged in his throat. He fell choking to the ground.
The surviving attacker bellowed his rage. The boy snatched up a sword and flew at him, the force of his young body an unstoppable missile. The Viking had no chance. Impaled on the sword, he smashed into the wattle fence, the boy atop him.
Richard lay unmoving on the ground. Talty ran and knelt beside him, worried that he’d received more than a nick to his arm. His erratic breathing unnerved her.
Furious shouts boomed from the woods. Grabbing the nearest sword, she dragged it beside her, ready to rush the sturdy man who broke through the brush with a sword in his hand.
As he stared at the Viking corpses, he slid his sword into the scabbard on his belt. “By God, Leesha. Young Carney said you needed help. I’d say you’ve got things well in hand here, woman.”
“What would you expect, and you taking your sweet time, Marcan?” Despite her harsh tone, Leesha smiled at the brown-robed friar and the six armed monks behind him. “Please see what’s wrong with this man.”
Brother Marcan knelt beside Richard and cursed. He tore off Richard’s sleeve and tied it tightly above the gash on his arm. “Vile cowards and their poison! We must drain as much as we can.” Wasting no time, he snatched a dagger from his belt and sliced the wound twice.
“Poison?” Talty’s heart beat in her throat.
“What do ye need, Marcan?” asked Leesha.
“A warm fire and God’s help, sister. Have you any all-heal?”
She asked Carney to go to the shed and fetch the all-heal. The boy ran, leaping over a corpse on his way. Leesha charged into the cottage.
Talty touched Richard’s wrist. His pulse was rapid and weak, his skin cold and moist.
“Don’t you dare die on me,” she whispered.
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