Amara looked out at the sunset. The deep warm red light of the dying sun stretched across the horizon, filling the sky with a myriad of colours. Every shade of orange and red could be seen, as well as some purple. It was more beautiful than any artist's work that Amara had ever seen, and filled her soul with awe and humility. The power of nature was undeniable when faced with such majesty.
Below the brilliant sky, the city looked small and meaningless. The grand walls and buildings were nothing but shadows against the glow of the sky. The human blot on the purity of the earth. The greatest city in the world, seat of the Emperor, centre of all trade and home to people from all walks of life, and it was nothing more than an eyesore.
Amara shook her head. These weren’t the sort of thoughts that would help tonight. This wasn’t the time to get philosophical, or start having doubts. Being lost in such fancies would get her killed.
She pulled the scarf up across her mouth, leaving nothing but her eyes showing.
“Are you ready?” Laila asked as she came up beside Amara.
“Ready as I can be. Are you sure you want to come with me?”
“You’ll need someone to watch your back while you open the gates.”
Amara nodded, but still felt compelled to repeat the earlier warnings. “It will be dangerous. The guards won’t suspect us so readily because we’re women, but it won’t stop them punishing us just as badly.”
“Then you’d better make sure we don’t get caught, hadn’t you?”
Amara could only see Laila’s smile in her eyes, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. Not only is Laila another of the best warriors in the woman’s guard, she was also one of Amara’s oldest friends. Of course Amara would never have risked her friend’s life by assigning her this mission, but her heart still leapt when Laila insisted she be allowed to come along.
“We’ve got until dawn,” Amara said. “That’s when my brother and his unit will be outside. We have to open the gates before it gets light enough for the guards on the walls to see them.”
“All right. Come on then. Let’s go.”
Wrapped up tight in dark clothing, knives tucked out of sight and with padded boots, Amara and Laila headed down off the cliff, leaving their own campfires behind them. They jogged along the dusty ground in silence for a time, each of them busy with their own thoughts.
Half-way across no man’s land they took a break and ate the food they’d brought with them. Neither of them were hungry, but they knew there wouldn’t be time later, and it gave them a chance to catch their breath.
As she ate Amara tried to study her friend. In the dark she couldn’t see much, other than the tension in Laila’s shoulders. “Are you all right?” she asked softly.
“Fine. Just nervous.”
“Of course. If… if there’s time, we’ll find your family.”
Laila looked up, her eyes glinting in the sparse starlight. “Yeah. If there’s time.”
“I’m sure they’re fine though. You’re father’s got the sense to keep his head down. If they haven’t caused trouble, they won’t have been noticed.”
“I know. And I know there’s nothing I could’ve done for them even if I was there. I just feel guilty, being away with you and the army when the invasion came.”
“We didn’t know they were that close. Trust me, Laila, all of us feel guilty for being away. We never should’ve let the city get taken. That’s why we have to take it back.”
“Are…” Laila stopped talking and ate a few more morsels of food before trying again. “Are you sure we can? They have so many troops, and with the walls and defences…”
“Of course we can. All we need to do is sneak over the outer wall and open the gate. From there my brother can get the strike force through to the drainage grate in the inner wall. Once he’s taken out the generals holding the Emperor hostage we’ll have control of the city again. And then we can go and free your family.”
“Thank you, Amara.”
They finished off the last of their food and stood up to keep going. Before they headed off again, Amara pulled her friend in for a quick hug. Laila was still tense, her solid muscles locked more than normal before a mission. Amara didn’t know what else to say though. She knew that if it had been her family trapped in the captured city, she wouldn’t be half as calm as Laila was being. But then, Laila had always been the sensible one. How many times had it been Laila that had pulled Amara out of trouble? If Amara had kept count, perhaps she wouldn’t keep being so reckless.
As they covered the remaining distance to the outer walls they spoke a little, making observations about changes in the landscape and comments on problems they spotted. The walls had been battered by the canon barrages, and Amara hissed at the sight.
“An outrage,” she said. “And it’s going to make us more vulnerable. We’re the ones who are going to have to fix it.”
“If we didn’t attack they would have known something was up,” Laila said. “We had to pretend we were going to break through.”
“I guess so.” Amara was still insulted that anyone dared to attack the city, and embarrassed that they succeeded. But Laila had heard that rant enough if the first days of the siege, before they realised that her family hadn’t made it out.
At last they reached the trenches dug around the outer walls. Here they had to slow down, lest the watchers on the walls spotted them. But on the vast, dark plain, under the moonless sky, they were nothing more than a pair of insects, hidden to the eyes of higher beings. This wasn’t all that different from everyday life in truth. Amara gritted her teeth at the thought. She was done with being underestimated.
Laila held her hand up when they reached the bottom of the trench and pointed to the wall ahead. Right above them a spot of light was bobbing along. Someone with a torch was patrolling. The women waited, hidden in the shadows of the trench, until the guard had moved on, taking the risk of discovery with them.
When it was clear again Amara tapped Laila on the shoulder and started scurrying up the slope. From there it was a short dash across to the wall.
Then all they needed to do was climb it.
Digging the pitons out from their belts, the two women started eyeing up the wall. Without talking they pointed out gaps large enough for the climbing spikes to be dug into, and when the first three pairs were in Amara started climbing. It was slow going. Each spike had to be dug into the wall as quietly as possible, then tested before she could use it. Below her Laila followed, handing up more pitons as Amara ran out.
By the time they got to within reaching distance of the crenellations Amara’s arms were shaking from the strain. She paused, in part to recover but also to listen. There were no sounds from the top of the wall, and though she wanted to wait longer she knew she couldn’t take the risk. Pushing up from the highest piton she reached up to the edge of the stonework. It took a second attempt for her to get a strong enough grip, but as soon as it was solid she pulled herself up and over.
The top of the wall was empty in the section they’d landed in. The reconnaissance had been good at least. A patrol was heading away in one direction, and in the other there were a group of soldiers standing around a firepit. All of them were warming themselves against the sharp wind that blew this high up, and none of them were looking for people climbing over.
Amara reached down and grabbed Laila’s hand, then hauled her up despite her own fatigue. The pair of them ducked down behind a barrel of arrows, resting as long as they dared.
It was Amara who moved first, nudging Laila as she hunted out the grappling hook and rope. Laila jumped, knife in hand, and Amara put a hand out to calm her.
Amara pulled her mask down for a second. “You okay?” she mouthed.
Laila nodded, but her eyes darted from side to side. Amara frowned; this was out of character for her stoic friend. This wasn’t the time to talk about it though, although Amara felt bad that she hadn’t realised how badly the capture of her family had affected Laila.
With the grappling hook wedged behind the arrow barrel, Amara gestured for Laila to go first, cutting her off with a glare when the other woman tried to argue. Laila nodded at last, then slipped over the wall like mist. The rope went taut and the hook made a noise as it dug into place, then Laila was away down the rope with no more than the rustle of cloth to warn the defenders of their impending doom.
As Amara waited for Laila to get some distance she rolled her shoulders and focused on her breathing. That was the hard bit done. There would be minimal guards between the walls, if any. From here on it was a straight trip to the gate. Opening the wicket gate could pose a problem, if the intruders had trapped it to be noisy or barricaded it. The scouts had said that they’d seen the smaller gate in use however, so anything blocking it had to be moveable. And as soon as the wicket gate was open, the rest of the night’s work was her brother’s problem.
Then, perhaps, she could get Laila back to normal. It was hard to know how much she could rely on her old friend, and Amara had started to wonder if she shouldn’t have left Laila behind after all. Distracted was dangerous, after all.
It had been long enough since Laila had gone over the edge, so Amara checked the way was clear and followed. Climbing the rope down was much easier and her gloves prevented her from getting rope-burns. She went as fast as she could while being quiet.
When it felt like she was nearly at the bottom, Amara looked over her shoulder to check the ground below. Here the moonless night worked against them, but Amara was sure she could see two figures in the darkness. One of them was Laila, that was clear to see. The other was taller and broader. A man. A guard. A threat.
Biting back a curse Amara untangled her legs from the rope and lowered herself hand over hand down, moving as fast as she could even as her muscles screamed at her. Laila was walking towards the gate, her back to the man. She was defenceless, and too distracted to notice. After years of being saved by Laila, Amara had to return the favour.
Dropping down behind the pair of them, Amara unsheathed a dagger and crept forward. The man walked up behind Laila, put his arm out and grabbed her shoulder–
Amara stabbed the man under the ribs, reaching round to cover his mouth with her other hand. He gave a grunt and struggled, then fell limp. She let him slide to the ground, before drawing her blade out and checking on Laila.
“Are you all right?” Amara whispered.
“Yes. Thanks.” It was still hard to see her friend’s face, but Laila patted her arm. “Thanks for everything.”
Amara had to stifle a laugh. “I should be the one saying that. Come on, let’s get the door.”
“No, Amara.” Laila grabbed Amara’s shoulder and kept her in place. Her voice wobbled as she carried on speaking. “I mean it. Thank you.”
The sudden outburst of emotion unsettled Amara. Why, of all the times, had Laila finally reached out now? As soon as this was over, Amara made a promise to herself to talk to Laila.
For now though, a unit of elite shock troops where stood outside the city, waiting for them.
“And you,” Amara said. “Thank you, for everything you’ve done. Now come on, let’s go save the city.”
Amara got herself free and slipped into the shadows of the wall. Darting along to the gates, her heart started pounding louder and louder. The buzz of a job well done filled her veins, soothing her frayed nerves from Laila’s weird behaviour.
The gate was unguarded. Under her scarf Amara grinned and ran her hand over the locks. Nothing but bolts? This was too easy. She started sliding them across when–
A sharp pain hit the small of her back before her body went numb. Stunned, Amara reached for her stomach. She wanted to scratch the itch there, even though she knew the pain in her back was the problem. But that pain was too much. She could sort her stomach out.
The front of her clothes was wet, though she couldn’t see anything against the dark fabric. Trying to find the itch, Amara’s fingers found a sharp point instead, sticking out from her stomach.
The point of a dagger.
“I’m sorry,” Laila whispered in her ear. “They found my family. They said they’d kill them, and worse, if I didn’t help. I’m sorry, Amara, I’m so sorry.”
Amara opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out were bubbles of blood. As her strength faded, Amara counted the locks on the wicket gate. Five bolts. That was all that stood between her and help. Her and success. Her and life.
Her last thoughts were of the sunset that had been the colour of blood. That should’ve been a warning, she thought. In slow motion she fell backwards, into the arms of her oldest friend and newest betrayer.