Katarin stumbled into Brynne’s back as the girl stopped short, causing both of them to fall.
“Careful, there, whelps,” one of the dwarves jeered.
“She wouldn’t be so clumsy if you’d take that sack off her head! Or unbind her fingers, so she can at least catch herself.”
“And have her roast us where we stand? Not bloody likely.”
“Be glad we didn’t just give her a few good whacks with this hammer,” another dwarf said, hefting the great stone-headed weapon from its loop at his belt.
“Why are you--”
“Not a word, witch!” The dwarf kicked Katarin in the side, and her words ended in a muffled yelp.
Brynne gathered herself to leap at the dwarf, but the weaver leaned hard against her friend. The sack wagged back and forth. The bigger girl gritted her teeth, not looking away from the dwarf with the maul.
“That’s three,” she said.
“Keeping score, are ya? Here’s four.” The dwarf kicked at Katarin again, but Brynne lunged in front of the boot, biting down on her own yelp as the heavy boot connected.
“Oi! Shorty, we know the difference between Beast Man wounds and dwarf boots.” The voice was human. And speaking Old Traladaran.
Brynne coughed, looking up. Two men in furs and leather caps leaned lazily against stone-tipped spears.
He reached down and hauled the two girls to their feet, setting them in motion with a hard shove.
Brynne walked slowly despite the dwarves’ prodding, guiding the other girl through the ramshackle buildings. It was smaller than she remembered it that morning. The bustle was different. Men worked by the river, at a mass of logs, but they did not haul them ashore for further cutting.
“They’re making rafts,” Brynne whispered. A squeeze at her shoulder indicated that Katarin had heard her.
One of the dwarves proked Brynne, right where the leader had kicked her. “Quiet, you.”
She kept wide of the crowds around the camp fires, even though she wanted to go nearer the fires with pots boiling over them. She steered Katarin well clear of the loud circle of men watching something or other in the makeshift ring.
The dwarf brought them up short again, kicking the back of Katarin’s leg, and did the same with Brynne, sending the girls backwards into the mud.
“You two stay right there. Keep them quiet, and don’t let nobody touch ‘em. We’re getting the reward, not nobody else.” He tromped off, purposefully splashing mud over the girls as he went by, before shouting a greeting as he ducked into a large tent.
Brynne and Katarin wiggled to a sitting position, backs together. The brewer’s daughter clutched at Katarin’s leather-wrapped fingers.
“They’re so cold!” She tightened her grip, rubbing the girl’s hands as best she could with the little play the leather cords around her own wrists granted. She looked up, sure one or another of the dwarves would separate them, or punish them some other way.
But their attention was fixed on a commotion going on at the edge of the camp, from the direction they’d come. There was lots of shouting. and people were scrambling this way and that to get out of the way.
Brynne’s eyes widened. A leather and fur-clad man ran with a long-legged gait through the camps.
“Aside! Move aside!” he roared. His dark hair streamed behind him, and he clutched a large bundle of furs against his chest as he ran. Golden hair fluttered from within the folds as he ran past the girls, and he was brought up short by two of the dwarves stepping in front of the tent.
“Kurtar is negotiating,” one of the dwarves said, holding up a hand. “Nobody disturbs him until he gets his price.”
“I need the Queen’s aid,” the tall man snarled. “Now stand aside.”
The two dwarves clutched at the clubs at their belts. The other dwarves by Brynne and Katarin did the same, teeth shining through their beards.
“You heard Far. No interruptions.”
The tall man made to push through the two dwarves, but they moved shoulder to shoulder, the broader of the two slipping his club free from his belt.
“We’ve been nice, observing your little truce,” the dwarf said. “Try that again, and we’ll break it. Along with you.”
“Dwarf, if you do not make way, this girl will die.”
“Such a pity,” the other dwarf said, his voice pitched in a mournful tone. “You humans breed faster than rabbits. No doubt there’s a few of your kind working to replace that one as we speak.”
The man took another step.
The dwarf raised his club, as did two of them by the girls.
“Oh no you don’t!” Brynne hissed, and she lashed out, kicking the nearest dwarf in the side of his knee, rather than the back. It gave a hard pop as he toppled over with a scream.
Brynne had already used the momentum to gain her feet, and she bowled into the other dwarf, slamming her shoulder into his side.
It was like running into the side of the town hall. She fell away, dizzy and gasping for breath, but it was enough to distract the dwarf from striking the man from behind.
The dwarf turned to cuff Brynne, but Katarin had snatched the sack from her face, and used it to scoop up a helping of mud, which she threw to the dwarf’s face.
Choking and wiping at his eyes, gave Brynne a chance to place a kick, buckling the dwarf’s knee, sending him sprawling face-down into the muck. She dropped, an elbow cocked, bringing it down hard on the side of the dwarf’s head. Whether or not it harmed him, she pressed with all her strength against his neck, keeping his face buried in the mud.
The tall man danced backwards, away from the two dwarfs guarding the tent entrance.
A woman -- just as tall as the dark-haired man -- stepped from the tent, her expression dark as a stormcloud.
She flung an arm out at the two dwarves, fingers spread.
“You will hold!” she shouted, in a voice like thunder, and the dwarves rocked in their boots, eyes bulging as they strained against some unseen hand keeping them in place. It did not clear the snarls from their lips.
“Untie me!” Katarin shouted, holding out her hands.
Brynne made to move to help her, but had to refocus her efforts on keeping the dwarf prone.
“No, don’t!” groaned another dwarf, cradling his knee. “She’s a witch, a fire caster. She’ll burn the lot of you to the ground!”
“Petra, I need your magic to heal this girl,” the tall man said.
“And release these two?” the woman asked.
Katarin slipped through the mud, landing on her knees beside the tall man. She held her hands out. “Cut my fingers free. I can help her!”
“Don’t listen to her!” the dwarf croaked. Brynne glanced a kick off his leather helm.
“She’s a healer, not a…. a fire caster!”
“In Petra’s name,” Katarin said. “Let me help her!”
“That’ll have to do,” said the tall man, glancing over at the woman, who nodded. He hefted the bundle in his arms, which gave a sharp cry, and drew a slender bronze-bladed knife. He held it out to the weaver, who worked the leather cords about her fingers over the blade. One, and another came free, and she ignored the slashes the blade left along her knuckles. She shook out her hands, sending the last of the bindings falling away.
“Set her down. I must see how bad it is.” She looked up at onlookers in the crowd. “Don’t just stand there! You! Water, hot as you can get it. Bring it here. Go! Run!”
A balding man scurried away.
“You two. Start tearing that blanket into strips. Use his knife.” She pointed at the tall man, who dazedly handed the knife over to the two wide-eyed girls who’d been cowering nearby.
Katarin peeled the furs away from the pale blonde girl the tall man had been carrying. She sucked in a breath, biting back tears.
“Oh, Petra, we have to stop meeting like this,” she whispered, smoothing the curls away from the girl’s face. She peeled one eye open, stared into the blue-gray depths, and gave herself up to the flow of the threads of the Spheres.