Return
The good thing—almost comforting, in a singular way—about not ever being able to shake the Hunters for very long is that you needn’t bother trying to outthink them; you can concentrate instead on pure survival. Reaching a sizable clearing, with good sight-lines on all sides, I tethered my mare and sat down on a stump with one leg tucked under me, then unslung the big old bow I really ought to replace and began making a public production of changing the string and studying the exact fletching of my arrows. I hummed as I worked—I think it was Sirit Byar’s ballad, “The Juggler,” because I always liked that song, but perhaps not. Hard to remember now.
    I was deliberately exposing myself, gambling that the Hunters would thereupon credit me with some demonically complex ambush scheme of my own. Any other class of assassin would have responded to this gambit with an arrow—most probably poisoned—slicing out of a thicket to make an end of all my plans and memories together. But I knew the Hunters. They would not attack from hiding: it was not ever in them to have their skills go unrecognized or unacknowledged by their quarry. The only real question, then, was how many seconds I might have in which to react to their reactions. Not for the first time I regretted my inability to learn to throw a tiny dagger like the one my friend Lal always carries in her left boot. I practice, but it doesn’t help at all.
    The first Hunter simply came stalking across the clearing, hands empty and open, as they most often approach. This was not as I would have had it. I prefer them armed, since anything that clutters and slows those hands in the slightest is my friend.
    He smiled warmly at me and purred with what I am sure was genuine affection. “Soukyan, all alone, all unarmed. I can help?” His hands continued to hang at his sides, to all appearances limp, but in fact lethal and pitiless. I paid them no attention, nor did I ever look quite directly into his stone-colored eyes. I was watching his feet.
    “I am tired,” I said, as simply and flatly as I could make it come out. “There’s no beast will not turn at bay at the last, as well you know. Consider me bayed, then.”
    He laughed outright, a charmingly light and boyish sound. “While you live, danger, danger. Soukyan the betrayer—I know you of old and old.” Yet for all his confident air, he was puzzled by my behavior; I could see it in the way his feet kept shifting in small movements that kept them from a firm, constant stance. He asked again, plainly expecting no response, “Cunning Soukyan, what has he in mind?”
    I spoke slowly, almost hesitantly, as though the thought were just now forming with the words. “I was just thinking, sitting here—why should the lamb always wait on the wolf’s decision? Where have the gods decreed that the hunted may never strike first?”
    And with that last word I was up , pushing off the leg apparently immobilized by my body’s weight, then snapping my half-unstrung bow like a whip. The bit of palmed lead I had squeezed around the endknot worked perfectly, causing the waxed string to curl tightly around the Hunter’s neck and catch. I pulled and set him stumbling toward me, desperately off-balance, clawing at his throat, with no hand free to strike out at me. To do him all justice, he almost had the bowstring loose before I broke his neck. I was lowering him gently to the ground when my mare’s frightened whinny set me spinning to face the charge of the other one.
    And here…here was an unusual thing. The second Hunter was not upon me: he was forty feet away, at the clearing’s edge, struggling with the third.
    Ah. You do not comprehend. In that moment, no more did I. In truth I would have been less startled by a black sunrise.
    I was very young the first time that I faced a pair of Hunters, so soon after taking my leave of that place . They were rumors made all too dangerous flesh, and as soon as they were both dead—a

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