8-9

“Our objective is to survive to the edge of the maze,” Raulin said, mimicking how the trivren instructors laid out trainings back in Arvarikor.  “We must move swiftly and as a unit in order to fool the miartha up on the roof.  If we are moving down corridors that run west to east, we will belly crawl and keep close to the hedges, going underneath them if we can without delaying the group.  For walls that run south to north we will crouch over and run quietly and fast.  Always stay low.  We will cross this opening at the same time.”

Both Kobet and Jakith had watched him.  Neither challenged him.  Instead, they snapped their arms to their sides and stood to crouching.  Good, Raulin thought.  That was the hardest part.  The rest is easy.

He counted down and the three sprinted across the five foot opening at the same time. They caught there breaths on the other side and were relieved there were no arrows. “Step two done. Step three: make it to the southern entrance and into the corridor. We have a bit of a shadow that might help. Again, stay low and close to the shadows.”

Arvarikor had drilled dozens of ways of creeping and crawling into every trirec well before they began their noviceship. On his first day at the compound, Raulin had seen four-year-old children racing across a field and up a hill, waddling on their bellies as they crawled through the mud. The last child to touch the pole at the top had been forced to do it three more times, his forearms and thighs bloodied while his classmates rested. The instructor had yelled, over and over again, about how proper technique would, not could, one day be the difference between life and death.

He was right. It didn’t matter how undignified belly crawling looked or how dirty it got your clothes, it was the best way to stay low and still move. And the longer they kept out of sight, the better their chances. Raulin crouched down. “Modified belly,” he said, and dove down.

The bushes scratched along his head and back as he raced to the corner. He wished he knew where the precise point of where the tops of the hedges exposed the line, so he didn’t have to kill himself with a full powered sprint, but as is he was alive and mostly well.

He, si, kron, good,” he said once Kobet made it safely around the corner. They dusted themselves off as they walked along the wall. He paused when they reached the first turn and passed it.

“What about that way?” Jakith asked.

“No. We take the next right.”

“How do you know it’s the next one?” Kobit asked, curious instead of combative.

“I memorized my way in. And marked it, just in case I forgot. See?” Raulin said, pointing to a copper he picked up from underneath the corner of the hedge.

“They didn’t teach us that,” Jakith said, indignantly.

“Why would they? You have to learn better ways on your own.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“I’ve had to walk through plenty of complicated houses. I usually use chalk, since it’s cheaper, but I didn’t have any on me today.” The wizard had demanded his piece back days ago. “Okay, this is a switchback, so duck way down and get out of the corner.”

They went through five sets of those before arriving at the first node. As he had remembered, there was a spear, a helmet, and a shield the statue wore. The spear was propped awkwardly in the crook of the ap’s arm and the shield hung from its strap over the statue’s shoulder.

“This is going to be tricky. We need to…siyekla!” he shouted, wincing that he had given away their position.

Another trirec appeared from the southern entrance to the node and froze. “Who are you?’ he asked.

“Three other trirecs contracted to do the same as you. It’s a trap; we are all being hunted for sport. Take off your mask, stay low, and stay put until we can get to you.”

“I’m coming to you,” he said, after taking off his mask.

“You might get shot!” Raulin hissed.

The trirec didn’t listen and began running to the group.

“Get the shield!” Raulin said. Confused, the trirec looked to where Raulin was pointing, yanked the shield down, and brought it to the group.

“You’re lucky,” he said as the new trirec joined them. “Look up there.  Men are hunting us for sport.  We don’t know what puts someone in play and if we’re in already. We’re not taking any chances.”

The trirec stared at Raulin. “You’re Raulin Kemor!”

“I know.”

“You’re one of the top trirecs in the world! You still hold the record for the most consecutive lassos on a point at ten, thirty, forty, and sixty feet. You broke into Dachrin Castle and stole the tiara of the queen of Okil.”

“And here I thought Arvarikor didn’t like me.”

“Oh, they don’t. They do respect you, though.”

“Hmm. Well, at least my reputation is getting better with each new person I meet. Your name?”

“Thenik Mikelt,” he said. He would be eager to please. A donkey, a scaredy cat, and a puppy, Raulin thought. Quite the menagerie.

View holloa!” they heard moments before a scream came from the center of the maze.

Raulin hung his head for a moment. “We need to get out of here. I’m going to walk with you three to the south exit of this junction. Stay there and out of the way.”

He brought Thenik back first, using the shield to protect the two of them from the oncoming arrows. The marksmen cried out and shot twice, hitting both arrows off the side of the shield. His heart was pounding in his throat as he went back for Jakith, then Kobit. A dozen arrows littered the ground by the time he rounded the corner and put the hedges between him and them.

It was achingly slow. Raulin held the shield up to protect the other trirecs at each clearing, ferrying the men across nodes and corridors. His arm began to shake from the strain, but he kept going on, eager to leave the maze.

“This is the last node,” Raulin said, snatching up his copper from the ground. “After that, we only have a few more lines and we’re free.”

The arrows continued to ping off the shield as Raulin brought Kobit across. Had he not been walking backwards, he wouldn’t have slipped on a rut in the ground. It was all it took for an opening to present itself. Raulin snapped the shield back up as he heard his brother take in a gurgled breath.

“Kobit, no,” he said. He wrapped his free arm around him and helped drag him backwards to the safe point, oblivious to the arrows hitting the ground. Kobit gasped for air, blood running down the sides of his mouth onto his shirt. Raulin sat him against the hedge and panicked for a moment, figuring out if there was any hope for the man. Kobit continued to cough clots of blood and reached to pull the arrow out.

“Don’t!” he said, and the wide-eyed trirec let his hand drop.

Raulin ran across to the other two. “Kobit was hit, in the lungs, I think. What do I do?”

“Let me look,” Jakith said and walked with him. By the time they reach the safe point, Kobit was dead.

“Damn it,” Raulin said, letting out a pained breath. “He shouldn’t have died like that.”  He pushed Kobit’s eyelids down and found he needed to sit.

“What does it matter to you?” Jakith asked. “He’s just another competitor.”

Despite his grief, Raulin was careful. It wouldn’t be wise to let someone know he actually had a heart. “It’s just us versus them right now. Every man who makes it out of the maze is one man they didn’t get to kill.”

“I take his beads, mask, and bag, then,” Jakith said, pulling out his knife to snap the cords on the back of Kobit’s head.

If it wasn’t for Afren, Raulin would think Merakians were incapable of empathy.

While Jakith took his spoils, Raulin went back for Thenik and brought him over.  Jakith had already removed everything from Kobit’s pack.  “He has good rations.  Would you like some?”

Thenik stared wide-eyed at the corpse and said nothing.  “I’ve lost my appetite,” Raulin said.  “We need to move on.”

They crouched, but Raulin noticed their line was short.  He went back and snapped his fingers in Thenik’s face.  “Hey.  You’ve killed before, yes?”

He blinked a few times and turned to face Raulin.  “It’s different.  Why?”

“Because the tables are turned.  Because we’ve lost the power in this situation.  We’re going to get it back, Thenik, but we need to move.  Come.”

They traveled on and finally turned the last corridor, a perfectly free escape. Raulin could see the road as they ran down the lane, still hunched and still skirting the hedges. The three congregated into the corner, catching their breaths, Thenik resting his hands on his knees.

“This is it. We fan and make it for the tree line, then regroup. Remember to run smart; don’t give any indications. Masks on. Ready?”

“Ready,” they responded, snapping their arms to their sides.

On three they burst across the line. Raulin felt a weight lift off his shoulders, a challenge answered and won. He even grinned despite the previous hours of hardship.

Then, from the chateau he heard, “View holloa! Leash!

The dread in his stomach and the thumping of his pulse in his neck returned. He ran for his life.

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