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“What a waste of time this was. You should know by now that you need your best and your brightest when you challenge Rowansmark, but what did you bring to the fight? An old man and some poorly trained soldiers. Pathetic.” He leans closer, his hand still crushing mine.
Sweat beads along my forehead, and my breath comes in harsh bursts as I say, “That’s not all I brought.”
“That’s right.” Willow rises up behind him. “He brought me.”
The tracker releases my injured hand and half turns as if to block her. She leaps onto his back, wraps her legs around his waist, and reaches her right arm across his throat to grab the spool of wire circling her other wrist.
He whirls around and slams her against the wall, but she doesn’t let go. I lunge forward, my dagger flashing, before he can flip his short blade around and plunge it into her. He parries my blow, leans forward, and throws himself against the wall again.
Willow grunts, but doesn’t lose her grip. Digging her left hand into his shoulder, she wraps the loose end of the wire twice around her right wrist.
Whipping her right arm across his throat, she lays the thin silver wire against his skin. He stiffens and swings his fist toward her head, but she’s already in motion. Pulling the wire taut, she uses it to balance herself as she lets go of his waist and moves her feet to the small of his back so that she’s crouched against him with nothing but the pressure of the wire keeping her from falling. A line of blood wells up as the wire bites through his flesh.
He grabs the wire with both hands, but it’s too late. I can see the desperate fear in his eyes as she twists them both away from the wall and pushes off from his back to launch herself toward the floor, the wire firmly wrapped around his neck.
He’s dead by the time they hit the ground.
“Willow, move!” I shove the tracker off her as the anatomical trigger inside of him begins ticking down. She grabs my arms, and we roll behind the man with the wounded leg seconds before the head tracker’s body bursts apart. A shard of bone embeds itself in the stomach of the man we’re using as a shield. I stare at it as I get to my feet.
“So much for saying no one could get hurt with the scraps of a tracker,” I say.
“I stand corrected.”
Behind us, the dungeon is quiet. I glance at the doorway and find the Commander with three surviving Brute Squad guards watching us. Every tracker still alive lies on the floor unconscious or badly wounded. The Commander’s eyes flicker between Willow and me as if trying to understand how a girl could beat one of Rowansmark’s best. I turn my back on him and lean down to help Willow to her feet.
One of the trackers she knocked unconscious is starting to stir. She moves toward him, and I put my good hand on her arm.
“Leave him. Someone has to absolve Lankenshire of responsibility here.”
“Fine. But I get his weapons.” She wrestles a quiver of arrows off his back and picks up the bow she discarded earlier. I take a sword, a scabbard, and the dagger I used against the tracker. We turn toward the door and find the Commander, flanked by his three Brute Squad guards, standing a few yards behind us with their weapons pointed at our hearts.
“Kill the girl,” he snaps.
“No!” I jump in front of Willow before she can finish whipping an arrow into her bow. A tall guard with squinty eyes stops just short of driving his sword through my stomach on his way to Willow.
“Get out of his way, or you die too.” The Commander’s voice is ruthless.
Willow tries to sidestep me, but I mirror her movements. I’m not worried that she can’t defend herself. I’m trying to keep the Commander alive.
The irony is nearly unbearable.
Willow peeks around me and glares at the Commander. “You stupid fool. I’m the only one who knows where the device is hidden. If you kill the girl”—she mocks the Commander’s choppy cadence—“you ruin everything you’ve worked for.”
A muscle in the Commander’s jaw jumps, and he levels his fierce glare on Willow. “You have a big mouth.”
“I need a big mouth to keep up with my big brain.”
The scar that bisects the Commander’s face knots and prickles. His voice is soft as he says, “Watch yourself, girl. The very second you fail to be useful to me, you will die. Slowly.”
Willow laughs, a dark sound that has the guard in front of me tightening his grip on his sword.
“We need to hurry before the trackers wake up or Lankenshire soldiers arrive,” I say, trying hard to sound calm, though the pain in my hand and the stress of trying to keep Willow and the Commander from killing each other on the spot is making me wish for a dark corner to crawl into for the next twelve hours.
The Commander glances at me briefly, and then waves a hand at the skinny guard who still has his sword aimed at me. “Fine. If the girl is the one who knows where the device is, we’ll take her with us. Kill Logan. Leave his body as a lesson about what happens to those who turn against me.”
The guard lunges toward me, his sword flashing dully in the torchlight. I grab for the sword in my scabbard, already knowing that I can’t get my weapon free in time. Something brushes past my hair, and an arrow slams into the guard’s throat. He chokes, frothy blood bubbling from his lips, and drops his sword to wrap both hands around the arrow.
Willow notches another arrow before the guard’s knees hit the dungeon floor.