Daughter of the Wolf-head
An uplifted voice echoed in the distance.
"What was that?" Pilar said.
More shouting followed. Agata and her women stopped as did Prince Ren's warriors. They stood listening until one word sounded clear.
The dreaded word was carried on the voices of many.
All thoughts of Prince Gurgen vanished. Fire was the single most dreaded calamity for those that dwelt behind stone walls. Many hands would be needed to quench it before it took hold and the entire fortress burned down.
"Come, let us discover what has happened and help," Agata declared.
"No, my lady. You must continue to your chambers. A handful of my men will accompany you. I and the rest will go and find out how bad it is and return."
Agata's lips tightened. It was a reminder that hers was no longer an active life of leadership but a passive one. She struggled internally for a moment.
"Very well," she said at last, "but hurry back."
The captain was young but had an air of confident experience. He stood squarely in front of Agata.
"You must go to your chambers and stay there, Princess Agata," he said in utter earnestness, "if the fire takes hold it will tear through here quickly. I must be able to find you."
She nodded and he and most of the men clattered away. Only Pilar, Kait and five men remained.
"Run ahead, Pilar, and check if the way is clear to my apartments," Agata ordered.
Pilar skipped off.
"Kait, follow the captain and return to me as fast as you can."
Kait looked at the captain's men and what she found there must have satisfied her because she said no more but took off at a dead run in the direction of the clamour. Agata sighed and resumed a measured pace back toward her chambers. The men followed behind, talking quietly among themselves.
Running feet sounded ahead and Agata looked up expecting to see Pilar.
Prince Gurgen, his face pulled into a hideous snarl, rushed toward her with ten men surging at his heels. Agata shrank back, stifling a shriek.
"Get back, my lady," the young captain pushed her back.
The rest of her uncle's men rushed past and ranged themselves in front of her.
"What do you want here, Prince Gurgen?" The challenge rang out.
"Stand back, men," Prince Gurgen boomed, "a fire has broken out and I am come to ensure the Princess's safety."
He stepped closer only to be met with five drawn swords pointed at his throat.
"We are to protect the Princess. Go back, Prince."
A sardonic twist lifted one side of Prince Gurgen's lips and his gaze became mocking. He shrugged and stepped back, motioning his men forward.
They came with a rush and fell on Agata's guards. Prince Gurgen stood at the back of the melee and sought Agata's eyes through the heaving tangle of men. It was the delighted, satisfied look of the hunter whose prey is cornered. It was also a look that promised retribution.
Fear clawed at Agata's throat. She shot a glance over her shoulder. She would run to the safety of others. The unmistakeable glow of fire lit the corridor behind her. Voices shouted in pure panic. The unmistakeable crackle and roar of flames carried clearly.
She turned back to the fight taking place in front of her. Her uncle's men stood valiantly and fought to the last breath. The confines of the corridor worked to their advantage, stopping the greater numbers of their foe from overwhelming them at once.
Still standing behind them, Prince Gurgen watched with his arms folded.
Agata swayed from side to side, the urge to run and to fight shot through her veins and quickened her breathing until she panted. How she wished for her sword. It was preferable to strike a blow at that despicable Prince Gurgen than to be dragged helplessly away.
She lowered her head and prepared to struggle for her freedom.
Prince Ren's men were down to the last two. Still they battled on. Now Prince Gurgen unfolded his long arms and drew his own sword. Agata heard the ringing sound as it passed from its scabbard into the air. As he passed two men battering away at each other, he struck and in that moment the last two were vanquished.
Herself against five men? Agata swallowed and lowered into a defensive stance. She could still run the other way but now she could feel the heat from the flames creeping up the corridor toward her.
Prince Gurgen strode forward, hard and determined, "You will come with me."
A cry sounded behind her. Kait's voice. Prince Gurgen's head lifted but he maintained his steady pace toward her. Kait must be alone.
Running footsteps and the click of claws on stone came from the other direction. Pilar was coming, her hand hooked through Q'ursha's collar.
Agata breathed in deep and deeper. Herself, Kait and Pilar made three and Q'ursha, well he was worth more than two men. She had a chance.
Agata sidled backward until Kait came panting up beside her.
"Here," she thrust a sword into Agata's hand, drawing her knife in the same instant.
Ahead of them Pilar slowed. The four remaining men of Prince Gurgen turned to face her while the Prince came barrelling toward Agata.
"Let Q'ursha loose," Agata cried.
Pilar obeyed and drew out her sword with hand and her knife with the other. Q'ursha, experienced in warfare, ranged carefully at her side. There would be no blind rush from him, to die uselessly on an enemy blade. Agata had trained him to leap and dodge, to clamp down on a forearm and crush it until it broke.
Kait and Agata stood ready. At last Prince Gurgen slowed his relentless press forward and surveyed the woman and hound behind and the two determined ones before him.
"What shall we do, Prince?" one of his men called.
Prince Gurgen made a decision.
"Take her and the hound," he barked and stalked toward Agata and Kait.
No one saw Lord Izak standing in the shadows, tucked into the round curve of a pillar.
Agata glanced at Kait who gave a small nod. Without another word the two women parted around Prince Gurgen with Kait ducking under a mighty swipe from his sword.
Agata pushed down his clutching left hand and spun away, striking out with her own sword. Her blade sliced through air as Prince Gurgen slipped sideways and came up behind them in a perfectly balanced stance. His eyes narrowed.
"So it is true," he sneered, "you do fight like a man."
She took a deep breath, willing the thunder of her heart to calm down. She could not let a man such as this rule Iberia.
"I fight like a queen," she retorted, "my arm will serve my country with sceptre or sword."
"What lies under your skirts will serve your country, and your future husband," his eyes were black with no light in them, "and I intend that man to be me. I will rule you and Iberia."
Agata gasped in outrage.
"He seeks to distract you, Princess," Kait whispered.
The clash of blade upon blade crashed behind them along with the savage sound of bloodcurdling growls. More than one man cried out in pain.
"Careful, Prince," Agata mocked, her courage returning with her anger, "your ambitions might outrun your abilities."
He stalked forward with all the lithe power and whip like grace of a panther.
Kait paced two steps forward and Agata, ranging widely, mirrored her steps keeping a pace behind. It forced Prince Gurgen to try and keep both Kait and herself in view.
In a flurry of strikes and slashes, the two women forced the prince back. Seeing himself getting cornered he made a desperate move. He batted Kait's knife aside, throwing her back a step and lost his sword in the process. Agata lunged forward, her sword raised to strike. Gurgen leapt forward also, pulling her up sharp. He held her shoulder with one hand and the long, sharp edge of the knife at her neck.
Her arm was raised. She could bring it down and strike him but he would slash her throat at the same time. Kait's knife point appeared, quivering at the prince's throat.
They were locked in a triangle of death.
"Back down or the princess dies," Prince Gurgen growled.
"Don't Kait, " Agata responded quickly.
Many men clattered around the corner. Their captain called out a halt.
"My lord prince?" his voice was unbelieving, "what is happening here?"
He stared around at the bodies, at Pilar and her opponent still slugging it out and at Q'ursha standing on a man's chest, growling in his face.
"Merely a misunderstanding by the Princess. It seems she can't forget her warlike ways." Gurgen called back.
Agata glared fiercely in his face. What would he do now? Was he madman enough to kill her in front of all these people?
"I won't be harming a hair of your precious head, my future bride," he whispered mockingly.
He eased the knife and thrust her back in the process, leaving Kait holding her position.
"Let him go, Kait."
Kait glanced over at Agata and grimaced.
"Mongrel!" she stared deep into Gurgen's face before backing away to Agata's side.
"You can't let him get away with this," she hissed.
"The fire is under control," the captain said, approaching Agata cautiously. When he reached her side he spoke softly.
"What was the situation, my princess?"
"Prince Gurgen tried to abduct me, captain. You must convey this to my uncle immediately."
He nodded sharply and gazed with anger at the disappearing form of the prince.
"We shall see you safely to your rooms first."
He kept his word and Agata reached her chambers with no further occurrences.
Kait shut the door and leant against it. Agata stumbled to her. She, Pilar and Kait clutched each other numbly, leaning their foreheads together.
"What was that all about?" Pilar whispered.
"I cannot stay here. I can't," Agata's voice was a low cry, "That man is even worse than my father."
"The fire was deliberately lit." Kait offered.
The three women drew back and gazed at one another.
"Prince Gurgen," they chorused.
Agata moved away from the door and beckoned the others.
"I shall wait and see what my uncle does about this! He must do something about Prince Gurgen."
"I don't think he will," Kait replied soberly. When she looked at Agata, and her eyes were full of doom, "Prince Ren can't do anything to him."