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Janto was invisible. Though he judged the incoming volley would miss, he ducked behind his pavise--no sense taking chances. Ahead of him on the mountain path, the arrows smacked like hailstones against the cliff face and rebounded, spinning, into the chasm below.
The volley was over. Behind him, his soldiers emerged from their own shields. Janto looked them over, ascertaining by the faint shimmer in the air that they were still hidden by his invisibility shroud. He resumed marching on the narrow ledge, and his soldiers trailed after him. He was proud of them, his motley assortment of bel-caste and ur-caste men. Normally the castes did not mix, but the war and his people's dwindling numbers had necessitated change. Progress. He grimaced at the irony.
The cannons were falling behind, so he slowed to let them catch up and glanced over the cliff edge at the beach below. The enemy encampments and fortifications were a depressing sight. The Kjallans' numbers never seemed to diminish. For all his people thinned them, more arrived by ship. He spotted the Kjallan bowmen. They were spelling fresh arrows, magically enhancing their power and speed. They couldn't see Janto and his men, nor the horses or cannons, since he'd hidden them beneath the shroud. But they knew he was up here, and what they lacked in accuracy, they made up for in volume.
Sashi, the ferret who rode upon Janto's shoulder, stared down at them. His hackles went up. Kill, he growled over the avatar-link.
Soon, replied Janto. Ahead, the ledge widened, and they would be able to turn the cannons and fire.
He did not share Sashi's love for war. A year ago--had it been only a year?--he'd been quietly studying statecraft and languages. If he were to go back in time and tell his younger self he would one day be at the head of a war band, his younger self would have scoffed. My little brother, maybe, his younger self would say. Kal is suited for war--not me. But then the Kjallans had invaded, and everything had changed. Janto's shroud-magic was rare and valuable. He could hardly squirrel himself away in the Mosari palace while his people died, just because soldiering did not come naturally to him.
"Volley!" cried one of the men.
Janto raised his head. The incoming flight was better aimed than the first. He ducked behind his pavise and pressed himself against the cliff face, curling up to expose as little of himself as possible. All around him, arrows thwacked against stone. One fell on the ledge by his foot. Its outlines crackled purple as the remnants of its spell dissipated.
A horse screamed. Janto poked his head out from behind his shield.
An arrow protruded from the horse's flank. The panicked animal plunged and kicked, slamming into its harness-mate. It ripped the lead rope out of the hands of the soldier who held it.
"Malaki, catch him!" cried Janto. The volley had ended, but the danger had not. The rear wheel of the team's caisson had backed over the edge of the cliff. If it went much further, the caisson would fall, taking limber and both horses with it.
The lead rope whipped about Malaki's head. He caught it, wrapped it around his wrist, and pulled, trying to drag the crazed animal away from the cliff. But the horse set itself back on its haunches. The wheel slipped farther, and in a terrible cacophony of screams and groaning metal, the caisson and limber disappeared over the edge, followed by the horses, and then Malaki.
Janto gaped at the empty space where they'd been. He felt for their presence with his magic. The horses and caisson had left the range of his invisibility shroud, but Malaki had not.
Janto ran to the cliff edge and peered over. Thank the gods--Malaki had caught himself on a narrow ledge a short ways down, where he clung to an outcropping of rock. Far below, the horse and cannon lay in a tangled heap, half-hidden in a rising cloud of dust.
Malaki's face was pale with terror. "Jan-Torres," he pleaded. "Your Highness. Help me!"