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Warrior of the Realm

Written by Shannon Curtis

Chapter Eight

Nieve stood back as Lugh disposed of the guard at the mouth of the tunnel. He’d made getting out of the cave seem like child’s play, kicking at the wood until enough of it gave way they could squeeze through. Now, though, up on the surface, with the tents and bonfires of the Fomorian army stretching far into the distance, she wondered if they would succeed in their escape—or die trying.

Lugh propped the guard up against the wall and dragged the hood of his pelt over his face. From a distance, it would look like the guard was sleeping. She didn’t know how he’d done it, but he’d pressed his hand to the guard’s neck, and he’d crumpled.

A form of magic, she suspected. A magic that only one from beyond the veil could wield. Lugh turned to face her, and his eyes widened as he took in the sea of gray tents and the twinkle of fires. He swore softly and dragged his hand over his face.

“No, no, no,” he whispered, shaking his head in denial.

“What is it?” She crossed to him, concerned. His face was…shocked.

“Please tell me this is a movie set,” he whispered, dropping his gaze to hers briefly before gazing back at the encampment.

She had no idea what he was talking about, but it was clear he hadn’t expected to find himself surrounded by the Fomorian army. He squeezed his eyes shut, then popped them open again.

“And I thought you were the crazy one,” he muttered before pinching his arm.

She frowned as she stopped him from pinching himself again. “Are you addled? Come, we must make our way to the horses before anyone sees us.”

She turned to drag him along, but he pulled her back.

“Did you say horses?” His voice was low and hoarse.

She frowned. “Well, I do not intend to walk home.” She started to walk off toward the penned enclosure for the horses, but he dragged her back again. She shot him an exasperated look, but he held up a hand.

“Why don’t you stay behind me, Nieve?”

She eyed the unconscious guard. Mayhap he had a point.

They darted between the shadows, skirting around the tents and the snoring men. It didn’t take them long to get to the penned enclosure where the horses were kept. Nieve hunkered behind a cart, conscious of the man who crouched next to her. He was big. Bigger than her father’s brother, Ogma, who was renowned for being the most fearsome warrior of Erin. No, this man made her feel…womanly. She was aware of him on a level that went far beyond anything she’d felt for her father’s men. He was handsome, and in fine form. Very fine form.

And now was not the time to be thinking on fine forms.

She pointed to the guards on the other side of the pen, and he nodded. She didn’t know how they were going to steal horses from under their noses, and it was vital they escape without an alarm being raised. She didn’t think Lugh would be able to subdue both guards before one could raise an alarm. He shifted beside her, and she glanced at him, surprised when he brought a contraption from out of the back of his strange leggings. He leaned down and picked up some hand-sized rocks and hefted them, assessing them for weight. He slid the contraption onto his arm, placed the rock in the little saddle, stretched out the cord and took aim. He watched as the guards spoke briefly, then turned to walk the perimeter of the pen in opposite directions.

He let the rock fly, quickly loading his little weapon with a second rock before the first one had hit its target, and swung around, aimed and let fly. Within seconds, both guards crumpled to the ground, and Nieve smiled. Danu had sent her a fitting protector, and she offered up a quick prayer of thanks.

“I prefer the bow and arrow, myself, but that was good,” she whispered to him in approval, and he flashed a grin at her. The smile lightened his features in a way that gave him a cheeky air, full of manly mischief. They moved quietly along the side of the pen.

Some of the horses moved away, but none of them were startled. Nieve led him to the fence, and she watched as he lifted the horizontal poles of the props of one section. She would have struggled—and failed—but he made it look effortless. Nieve grabbed two lengths of ropes from the fence line and slung them gently over the necks of two horses, murmuring softly to them as she drew them out of the pen. Lugh quickly put the poles back in place, preventing the others from following, and then trotted over to her.

She gave him one of the horses to lead, and he hesitantly patted the horse. She led the way, slowly drawing the horses past the last row of tents. It was Samhain eve, and Nieve thought the horses could probably stampede and still not waken the men from their drunken slumber—but she did not want to test the idea.

When they’d gotten clear of the camp, she grabbed a handful of her horse’s mane, turned to the side and did a little kick up, hiking her leg over and hauling herself up to sit on its back. “Come, let us ride. I am eager to meet with my father.” She grinned down at the tall man. Even though she sat on a horse, his head nearly met her midchest. “They will sing songs about us, Lugh.”

Lugh eyed her dubiously, then tried to mount his horse. The first time, he fell heavily on his back. The second time, he fell heavily on the other side of the horse. She frowned.

“Can you not mount a horse?”

He halted and looked around. “I might just walk.”

She laughed breathlessly, then stopped when she realized he was not jesting. “As soon as Balor sees that I have escaped, he will send his men after us. What think you they will do when they find us?”

Lugh sighed, then patted his horse’s neck. He whispered softly in its ear, then tried to mount it again. For a moment, it looked like he would again slide off the other side, but he managed to catch himself in time. He sat up cautiously, then nodded. “Okay. I think I’m good.”

Nieve nodded. She wanted to race away into the night, to put as much distance between herself and Balor, but she couldn’t leave her new friend to fend for himself. She spent the next hour showing Lugh how to sit properly, trying not to laugh as he tried to find a comfortable position.

The sky was beginning to lighten, though, and they were still too close to Balor’s camp for comfort.

“Come, we have to ride faster,” Nieve instructed and showed him how to urge the horse to a trot and then a canter. She nodded proudly after his fourth fall. He might not ride like a warrior, but the grim set of his lips showed he had the determination of one. She looked to the horizon and spurred her horse faster.

She was on her way home.

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