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Marja clutched her small jewelled dagger with white-knuckled fingers. She crouched in the corner, pressed tightly behind the door of the privy, willing herself invisible. The rough wood at her back pricked her through the light linen of her gown, and the muscles in her legs threatened to cramp from holding herself rigid. Her heart raced with terror. She knew if they found her she was dead, or even worse. She had heard what soldiers did to women, especially young, comely ones. Her beauty would not serve her now, nor would her rank as daughter of the ruling house. She gripped the dagger tighter. They will not take me. I will not suffer that. I cannot.
She suppressed the impulse to gag from the reek of burnt buildings and charred flesh. Even the usual stench of the privy was preferable to this. She tried in vain to blink away the smoke that filled every space and burned her eyes. Her nose tickled, and she fought the urge to sneeze or cough. Any noise might give her away.
Mercifully, she no longer heard the screams of the women and children. The last span or so had gone quiet except for the muffled sounds of men putting out fires. She could make out only the occasional shouted order from a soldier. She hoped to Earth that meant it was over. Perhaps she would escape after all … if she could stay hidden until dark. She knew a back way out but could not safely get to it. They might see her crossing the hall if she left her hiding place now. Too many enemy soldiers still moved about. Keep still. Do not give yourself away. Wait, she repeated to herself, over and over, like a hypnotic chant.
Marja’s body jerked in a spasmodic shudder as she recalled again the chaos that had wakened her at dawn. The Bargian army was well-trained and well-armed. They had successfully taken her father’s army by surprise, by hiding in the forest only half a day’s ride away and slipping close under cover of darkness. Had her father not scorned the advice of his advisors to guard the city more vigilantly, his people might not now be paying the price of his madness. The thought filled Marja with a moment of fury. Why had he not listened?
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