THE BLACKSMITH QUEEN EXCERPT
The massive head of the hammer landed hard on the ground, startling the men who had strung him up.
He could see her—barely—as he hung there. He tried to warn her. To tell her to get away. These were soldiers for hire. They had no loyalty to anyone but themselves and the one paying them.
They had stumbled upon him sleeping by this same tree and before he knew it, they’d decided they wanted his meager things and the three horses he’d been traveling with and, Oh! Wouldn’t it be fun to see him swing?
Well . . . no. No, it was not fun to swing.
Still. He didn’t want this very large woman to risk her own life to save his. Men like this were even more cruel to women than they were to lone men sleeping under trees.
She’d swung her big hammer up and over her head and, when the massive head had hit the ground, she’d stood there a moment. Chin down. Her muscles tense under her sleeveless, black leather tunic.
After that brief moment, she lifted just her gaze and growled, “Cut him loose.”
One of the soldiers laughed. “Look what we have here, lads! A big-armed slut looking for—”
That hammer was up and swinging before the soldier could finish his statement, sending him flying into another nearby tree. Bones cracked and blood shot out of the soldier’s mouth.
Swords were drawn and they surrounded her.
“Bad decision, woman,” another soldier said.
“No,” she replied. “Bad decision coming to my town and killing a boy.”
Wait one moment. He wasn’t dead yet! Of course, that was mostly because the soldiers had taken their time dragging him off the ground so that he’d die slow. They’d literally said, “Let’s watch him die slow, lads!”
One soldier swung his blade at the woman and she easily parried the move with that astoundingly large hammer before ramming the head into the man’s chest. He fell back, his chest caved in, his gasps for breath painful to hear.
He wanted to watch more, begging the gods to protect this brave but foolish woman, but his gaze began to dim. He was choking to death.
No! He wasn’t going to die. He was going to fight!
Making the decision, he worked harder to get fingers between the rope and his throat in the hope of loosening it. As he struggled, he looked out toward a nearby hill, and saw the herd of wild horses he’d spotted the night before. At the time, he’d thought the three horses he’d been tending would blend in with the herd. He’d even stripped them of their saddles and bridles and hidden them right outside the forest. But that hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped.
Now, those wild horses were charging over the hill in what seemed to be a panicked run, barreling down toward them. But as they moved over that hill, for a split second, Samuel thought he saw . . . people? Running amongst the horses? Over the horses?
Or he was becoming delusional. That was possible too.
Because he was dying. And he would die if he didn’t get the noose off.
Knowing he was running out of time, Samuel fought harder. Struggled to get the rope from around his neck.
Most of the men moved away to avoid the oncoming herd. But one attacked the woman. That’s when a gray stallion charged between them. When the stallion passed the pair, its back hooves kicked out, catching the man in the head and caving in his skull.
The woman took her chance. She pulled a blade from her belt and hit where the rope had been tied off.
Samuel slammed to the ground, choking and gasping, his fingers now able to dig under the rope; to pull it up and over his head.
A leather-gloved hand appeared in front of his watery gaze.
“Get up, lad!” the woman ordered. “Get up, get up, get up!”
Grasping her hand, Samuel let her pull him to his feet. That was when he realized the horses were running past them. But none had crashed into them. It seemed they were purposely avoiding Samuel and the woman while they trampled the other men.
The woman was looking at Samuel, her gaze on his throat, when suddenly her entire expression changed and she lifted that hammer with the head bigger than Samuel’s skull. He took a quick step back just as she turned, swinging her weapon up at the same time.
The metal head slammed into a sword, and the tall, massively built man holding the weapon stared down at her through a mass of thick dark hair.
“That hammer is ridiculous,” the man said.
“I love my hammer,” the woman replied. “I made it myself.” She pulled her weapon away from his sword. “You’re Amichai. Aren’t you?”
Which explained to Samuel the mighty mane of hair and the leather kilt.
“Perhaps introductions later,” the Amichai replied. “You should be more worried about what’s behind you.” He moved his gaze to Samuel. “Down, boy.”
It was barely an order, muttered low, but Samuel immediately followed, dropping to his knees. Just as he did, something whipped past his head. He heard a grunt and a snapping sound. A body fell down beside him and Samuel cringed. He couldn’t help it because the woman’s hammer slammed on a soldier’s face, crashing into it. Blood, skin, bone, and brain exploded out, briefly blinding Samuel.
A hand gripped his upper arm and hauled him to his feet again.
“Behind me, boy,” his female rescuer said, pushing him back until he hit a tree trunk.
Samuel wiped the gore from his eyes in time to witness one of the soldiers swing his sword at the woman’s head. She jerked to the side and used her hammer to parry the blow, then followed up with a punch to the head that sent the man stumbling to his knees. Not that Samuel was surprised. The shoulders on that woman. By the gods!
The Amichai who had stepped in to help now fought other soldiers. But he was not alone. Like most people from his part of the world, he traveled with others. Two men and a woman. Also tall, also powerfully built, and all of them heavily armed. Based on that description alone, they could have been from anywhere, but the leather kilts, tattoos of their tribes, and what his father always called “their mighty manes of hair” made it clear they were from the Amichai Mountains. The expanse of mountainous territories ruled over by powerful, unfriendly tribes. The Old King’s territory butted right up against the base of the Amichai range but he’d never dared challenge the tribes head-on. No one had. They were considered brutal barbarians. Mad killers who ate their own and sacrificed babies to their dead and their demon gods.
Samuel didn’t know if all that was true, but at the moment he dearly hoped not. Because they and the big-shouldered woman were the only things keeping him alive.
Reaching for his own sword, Samuel abruptly remembered that it had been snatched from him before the soldiers had strung him up.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked, battering the soldier on the ground with her hammer. His face caved in; his chest cracked open.
“Ssss . . . Sssss . . .” He shook his head; tried again. “Samuel.”
“I’m Keeley,” she replied, stopping to give him a little smile before another soldier came running at her. She spun the hammer around and rammed it forward, the head battering the soldier in the gut. She quickly raised the weapon, bringing the soldier with it.
Samuel watched her lift the man up and over her head. The muscles in her arms and shoulders rippled with the effort before smashing him back to the ground, the head of her hammer now buried inside the soldier’s body.
When she yanked the hammer out, blood and gore spattered Samuel again, but he raised his arm to block his eyes this time.
Samuel had to admit . . . he was tired of getting hit with men’s insides.