“Come on,” Ahad hissed. “Hurry, hurry.”
The clamour of the men was growing louder, and with it, his panic. He beckoned to the Princesses and they ran past him—
“Over there!” a man yelled, and the footsteps swelled.
Ahad swore, hesitating for a split second: should he try to fight them off, or run with the Princesses? But Aryan had always said he had been stubborn enough to stay in a losing fight, and Ahad had to admit it was an accurate observation. He braced himself, adjusting his grip on the knife.
“Run,” he said to the Princesses. “I’ll fight them off!”
They only looked undecided for a moment, before they ran off, into the trees. Ahad turned his attention back to the men, trusting the girls to find their own way.
They had fled just in time because then the men appeared all around Ahad and rushed at him without preamble. Ahad engaged—and as always in a fight, the world fell away, his attention only on what mattered. Every breath, every movement of his opponent was clear and hyper-focused, and Ahad found himself revelling in the feeling.
Maybe he was a little bit addicted.
But then one of them got a hit right at his leg; Ahad hissed in a breath, faltering only for a moment. It was one second too long, because his opponents had noticed, and they jammed a hilt right into the wound—Ahad’s knees buckled, his vision going grey.
Up, Ahad. Get up.
Ahad struggled to his feet, only to get kicked down again. He yelled, swearing and cursing, trying to fight off both the physical hands and the phantom ones.
This is not the time, Ahad shouted at himself, though it seldom helped. This is not the time to be afraid.
He groped for his knife, but it had fallen from his hand, and now all he found was mud and leaves. Not even a stick with which he could defend himself.
Then pain was exploding in his leg and his muscles turned to jelly; he collapsed back to the ground, biting his lip to keep himself from screaming.
“Move, and I’ll stab you all over again.”
Ahad growled, in pain and trying to hide it. “You bastard,” he panted, “you—”
“Spare me your threats,” the man said smoothly. The pressure on his wound let up, but the pain remained. “Take him back, and this time, lock him up good.”
Hands manhandled him into a standing position, the press of skin against his a sickly, nauseating feeling. Ahad tried to breathe through it, but there was no Aryan to keep him anchored to reality, no smell of home or the touch of his familiar sword.
Don’t lose yourself. Fight this stupid sickness!
Ahad struggled and managed to break free—the few second of blessed relief were the best moments of his life. But then they had got him again, and Ahad’s vision blurred with revulsion and terror: for a moment, he could not tell whether he was with his captors or his dead family.
Don’t lose yourself, Ahad chanted.
“Knock him out,” a gruff voice said, and the hands shifted to obey—but there was no need.
Ahad had already fainted.