The Woman Who Rides Like a Man

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The Woman Who Rides Like a Man

Alanna of Trebond, the sole woman knight in the realm of Tortall, splashed happily in the waters of an oasis, enjoying her first bath in three days. Hard to believe that it’s winter in the North, she reflected. In the Southern Desert the temperatures were just right, although she objected to so much sand.

“Best hurry up,” Coram told her. Her burly man-at-arms stood guard on the other side of the bushes that concealed the pool. “If this is a Bazhir waterin’ place, we don’t want to wait and find out if they swear for the King or against him.”

Alanna stepped out of the water, grabbing her clothes. She had no urge to meet any Bazhir tribesmen, particularly not renegades. She and Coram were bound for Tyra in the south, and coming to battle with the warlike desert men would cut their journey very short.

Drying off, the young knight pulled on a boy’s blue shirt and breeches. Although her femininity was not the secret it had been when she trained in the royal palace, Alanna still preferred the freedom of men’s clothing. It was odd to remember that the last time she bathed in an oasis, she had been a page and Prince Jonathan had just found out she was girl. Those days—the days in which she bound her chest flat and never went swimming—were gone. She didn’t miss them.

Faithful, her pet cat, was yowling a warning. “Alanna!” Coram yelled, seconding the cat. “We’ve got trouble!”

Grabbing her sword, Alanna raced for Coram and the horses. An approaching cloud of dust indicated tribesmen or robbers, and she grimaced as she threw herself into Moonlight’s saddle. She trotted forward to meet Faithful, a small black streak racing toward her across the sand. The cat leaped, landing squarely in front of his mistress before climbing into the leather cup that was his position on her saddle. Alanna’s gentle mare held steady, used to the cat’s abrupt comings and goings.

“Let’s try to reach the road!” Alanna told Coram.

They rode hard, Alanna crouched low over Moonlight’s pale mane. She looked back to see Coram shaking his head. “It’s no good,” he was bellowing. “They’ve spotted us! Ride on—I’ll hold em!”

Alanna wheeled and stopped, Lightning glittering in her hand. “What sort of friend d’you think I am? We’ll wait for them here.”

Coram swore. “If ye were my daughter, I’d tan yer hide! Go!”

Alanna shook her head stubbornly. She could see their pursuers now: they were hillmen, the worst of the desert raiders. Reaching behind her, she unbuckled her shield from its straps, slipping it over her left arm. Coram was following suit.

“Stubborn lass,” he grumbled. “I’d druther tangle with ten Bazhir tribes than any hillmen.”

Alanna nodded. The Bazhir were deadly fighters, but they had a strict code of honor. Hillmen lived for killing and loot.

Renewing her grip on Lightning’s hilt, she settled her shield more firmly on her arm. The hillmen closed rapidly, fanning out in a half circle that would close around Alanna and her companion. Grimly the knight clenched her jaw and ordered, “Take them in a charge.”

“What?” yelped Coram.

Alanna charged directly at the hillmen. Coram gulped and followed her, letting out a war cry.

Moonlight reared as they reached the first raiders, striking out with hooves: she had been trained for battle years ago. Alanna slashed about her with Lightning, ignoring her enemies’ yells of fury.

A one-eyed villain closed in, grabbing her sword arm. With an angry yowl Faithful leaped from his cup with his claws unsheathed. The one-eyed hillman screamed and released Alanna, trying to pull the hissing cat