Authors: Clayton Emery
Something hissed by his face like a long black hornet. His bowstring snapped, and the longbow flicked open like a flapping fish. Dropping the useless weapon, the warrior grabbed his sword in two hands and charged down the slight slope. “Attack! Battle-leaf, Sealkiller, Manslayer!”
Bandits started at the running fiend, scanned for more of the madmen. Many of them scattered for the willows on the other side of the road. Two robbers pushed their hostages away for running room; two strangled theirs by dragging them backward by their collars. Dorlas hollered, and Greenwillow shrilled and flashed into action. Fleet as a deer, she chased down a bandit and thrust a sword through her back. The woman fell screaming. Dorlas jumped to a halt and hurled his warhammer by the leather strap. It bowled a running man over, and the dwarf charged, caught up the weapon, and crushed the man’s skull.
Sunbright rushed, screaming and slashing the air, but there were no bandits left by the time he arrived. Greenwillow, he saw, had run into trouble unknowingly, for she’d actually outrun some of the fleeing felons. Hunting a pair amidst the willows, she was unaware of two more coming up behind her. Sunbright’s shouts went unheard in the uproar, so he put on a burst of speed and pelted after her.
Driving through willows that snagged on his face and arms and topknot, he bellowed just as a running bandit aimed a sword point at the half-elf’s green lizard armor. Startled, the bandit half turned. The barbarian’s sword chopped through his cheek, sheared off his jaw, and knocked him sprawling. Before he hit the ground, his face pouring red, a backswing punched the sword’s hook through his throat.
Sunbright craned around, but saw no more enemies, only Greenwillow staring at her dead assailant. The barbarian wiped leaf flecks off his sweaty face and panted, “Well?”
Cool gray-green eyes rose to his. “Thank you.”
“Doesn’t hurt, does it?” He grinned and shouldered his sword. “You’re welcome.”
The traders, of course, were not properly grateful for their rescue. Of the four hostages who’d had knives at their throats, two were unharmed and one had been sliced across the cheek. The fourth had had his throat cut as the bandit shoved him away.
“I’m sorry,” Dorlas told them, “but the boy did well.” Sunbright had no idea how old the dwarf was, but Dorlas always referred to him as “the boy.” “Bartering their lives would have yielded naught. They stalled only to make us lay down arms. More would have died in time, probably all of us, for these bandits would not let us go to warn others. It was the only way. You should reward the boy for his quick wits, good eye, and fast arm.”
But the merchants groused among themselves, threatening to extract blood money from the bodyguards’ eventual pay.
Sunbright basked in the fighters’ compliments, until he went to pick up his fallen longbow from the ravine slope. He knew he’d kissed Death, for as he’d drawn the arrow to his cheek, a black crossbow bolt had severed the bowstring and almost split his face.
“I’ll need my hair cut to braid a new string,” he laughed in relief
Then he stopped, recalling the raven’s dark prophecy: that he’d “lose hair.” And more. For the damned bird had flown right over the bandits’ attack, but kept going. With no effort, it could have circled back to warn Sunbright, but hadn’t.
The barbarian struck an imaginary chalk mark on the raven’s slate: not to be trusted.
It was coming on autumn, almost a year since Sunbright had been banished and begun his adventures, when they came to the head of a vast valley. Far down, through miles of trees like giant steps, they saw open farmland, and in the distance along a broad river was their destination, the city of Dalekeva. Even the gloomy traders, the ones who’d survived, cheered when they saw the high walls of yellow stone, the onion-topped towers, and the colorful town that sprawled around the city and meandered along the many roads into yellow-grained farmland and beyond. Even the horses picked up their feet and plodded faster toward the last stretch of forest road, now that their destination was in sight.
But scouting ahead with Sunbright, Greenwillow lifted her nose, swiveling her head like a stork. Pointed black brows knit as she asked Sunbright, “Where is everyone?”
“Eh?” The warrior shifted his quiver and longbow at her tone. “Where should they be?”
“Look!” With her arm she swept the whole valley, the sky. “It’s the harvest season, half the fields sport grain, the sun is high, there’s no threat of rain, yet there’s not a soul out working. No peasant would pass up this kind of day to get his crops in, not with the weather so changeable.”
Stringing his bow, Sunbright squinted. He’d been staring at a long set of old gashes marring a red oak, gray-white gouges in red-gray bark. The gashes were as wide as his finger and as long as his bow, and occurred a dozen feet high on the tree. He tried to remember where he’d seen them before. Distracted, he mused, “Perhaps they’re all inside those walls. A festival, perhaps, or”
Greenwillow’s answer was a shrill in the elven tongue. She, too, grabbed her bow while nodding back toward the woods behind them. “The Hunt! They come! The Hunt!”
Sunbright whirled around to see. From over the treetops, like dragons of silver and gold, soared a party of flying folk. Some skimmed on huge disks of metal; others rode clockwork wyverns. All were armored and armed and masked, with long lances whose points glinted in the afternoon sun.
With the shrill “halloo” of foxhunters, the flying folk swooped toward Sunbright’s party.
“Traders to the city!” roared Dorlas like a lion. “Guards to me!”
“What are they?” yelled Sunbright. He and Greenwillow drew long arrows to their cheeks. Hers were slender, black, polished, fletched with exotic red and yellow feathers, while his were of plain ash and fletched with dark turkey.
“A Neth hunt!” she cried. “They hunt humans! Loose!”
Their arrows flashed from bowstrings. They’d automatically chosen foes at opposite sides of the attackers, squat men on flying disks, but the arrows spanked off armor or shattered. Sunbright was not surprised, but he cursed nonetheless.
Dorlas and the other bodyguards had cut some loads, grabbed whichever traders came to hand and plunked them on horses, then whacked the beasts, urging them toward the distant city. The traders left afoot were similarly whacked and sent scampering down the dipping forest road. Sunbright and Greenwillow passed them, running the other way. The barbarian yelped, “Wait! They’re defenseless! This makes no sense!”
“No, it’s the way! The city is sanctuary! Once inside the walls, the prey is safe, and the hunters won’t bother with helpless prey. They’ll attack us fighters! That’s a challenge; that’s their game.”
Nocking on the run, they now formed a rear guard as Dorlas and the other bodyguards got off the road and under cover. Even panicked, Sunbright counted his foes, studied their tactics. There were seven, four on flying disks and three on mechanical animals. The disks were golden, an armspan wide, and those riding them seemed to have nothing to cling to, neither stirrups nor reins, though the hunters stood as easily as if on a flat rock. The barbarian’s analytical mind even assessed the flying beasts. They, too, were golden, set with jewels for eyes and decoration, the size of horses with wings as wide as a condor’s, two like dragons and one like a splay-tailed bird.
Yet unlike birds or dragons, the clockwork animals didn’t flap their wings. So the “dragons” were probably of the same material as the disks, and enchanted by the same means. And no doubt the leaders of the Hunt got the more gorgeous mounts and long lances, while the disk-foes were hired huntsmen or bodyguards with long cavalry flails and spears. That knowledge might come in handy, if he survived long enough to exploit it.
The four disk riders had split into pairs to flank the fleeing partyand so were already ahead and behind the barbarian and half-elf, for they moved like the wind. Oncoming were the three dragon riders. That suited Sunbright. He drew to his cheek, tracked the middle rider, and loosed. The speeding arrow missed as the Neth banked. He’d held his nock too long, signaled his target. Greenwillow, too, had shot, but Sunbright didn’t see the strike.
He reached for his last arrow, but was suddenly shoved aside hard enough to bank off a tree.
A crackle and a sizzle of lightning struck the branch just above his head. The wood split with a steamy explosion. Leaves were blasted to flinders. A dark streak marked the bark as the lightning sought ground. Sunbright blinked at the thought of that charge hitting his head, coursing down his body….
“Come!” shouted Greenwillow, who’d shoved him to safety.
The three dragons had flitted overhead. Sunbright saw their tails pointed at him, as stiff and straight as golden arrowheads. Far ahead, the hunters pursued Dorlas and the rest. “What was that?”
“Their rules allow only hand weapons and bows! And lances with minor magics: lightning and cold blast or fire. Anything else is unsporting, not the game.”
“Game? Killing the humans that support them? That makes no sense! It’s madness!”
“Aye, madness is a way of life for the Neth! They saw off the limbs that support them. Tell me how long their cruel culture will survive their cannibalizing themselves.”
They saved their breath for running, though they ran toward a trap. Ahead, amidst the trees where the land folded, jutted an outcrop of granite like a big house studded with scraggly cedar trees and some thick green vines. Hunted, the dwarf had steered instinctively for stone. Sunbright could just see the bodyguards’ heads amidst the jumble of rocks and leaves. Above, he saw the four huntsmen on disks whizzing around the outcrop like bees around a hive. Higher above, hovering, the three dragon riders had tilted up their masks to converse, no doubt planning a strategy.
If they’re that high, they can take damage from arrows, noted the warrior. And the faces behind the masks were human enough, even if Neth. Their armor was fantastically fluted and gilt, and painted in every color of the rainbow, so they looked like monstrous hummingbirds. The masks were horrific, wolves or lions or such, but no more frightening than the masks shamans wore in Sunbright’s tribe, and ones he himself might wear, if he lived so long.
He and Greenwillow paused for breath under the wide arms of an oak. Various plans rippled through their minds, and they both talked at once.
“Better to stay out here, strike from two sides. … No, they’ll close and we’ll need strength in numbers. … Hide until dark…. The dragons have some magic, can sniff us out… . Can’t fire the forest to keep them high, it’s too dry… . Only three arrows between us….”
But something else was bothering Sunbright, and now he discovered what. His hand against the tree touched fresh gashes such as he’d seen back beside the road. The lower end of gashes, actually, for they extended above his head higher than he could reach with his bow. “Look! We’ve got”
“Dorlas signals! Let’s go!”
Like a deer breaking cover, the elf maid charged into the open, loosed an arrow at the back of a circling huntsman, then sped on toward the frantically waving dwarf. Sunbright ran after her, pausing to shoot side-on at a disk rider. He didn’t wait for the hit but kept going. Evidently he missed, for as he reached the first vine-covered rocks, an ebony flail hissed by his head, ticking the pommel of Harvester slung at his back. At the same time, Dorlas reared just in front of him, leveled a crossbow, and shot. An encouraging grunt revealed a hit. Then Sunbright was climbing, grabbing vines and thorns and tumbling into the semi-trough of a rock split by water and ice action.
“They’ll die as good as us!” pronounced the dwarf in satisfaction. “By the Rocks of the Reaver, I knew I should have demanded more pay up front!”
“You may get paid in full,” gasped Sunbright. He glanced around to note their surroundings. This side of the three-quarters round outcrop didn’t have any proper caves or even crevices. What they hunkered in was a simple gap shielded by a split boulder, though it was hard to tell under the dense, interlaced trees and creepers. Oddly, the sun-warmed cedars sent a thrill of nostalgia through Sunbright. It was amidst such trees that he and other children had played hide-and-seek on one of the tribe’s yearly rounds though a cedar forest to hunt pheasant. He shook that happy memory away, for today’s game was a deadlier one. The two were alone, Greenwillow having pressed on to beef up defenses elsewhere. “We might have an ally here somewhere, for there’s a cave”
“I knew that from the lay of the land!” The dwarf fussed with his crossbow, lining a bolt as straight as possible in its groove. “Don’t tell a rock-eater how to read rocks!”
“I mean there’s a bear’s den somewhere nearby. Smell it? Bear shit stinks as bad as a human’s!” Sunbright tracked the hunters, who circled and circled but didn’t press. One worked to wrench Greenwillow’s arrow from his thigh armor, though whether the barb had bitten flesh or only padding wasn’t clear. Under the heavy armor, even their sex was unclear, though it appeared two of the dragon riders were women. Evidently the huntsmen awaited orders from those above. Sunbright saw one of the dragon riders tilt a wineskin and drink, and a pang of thirst stabbed him. He’d enjoy killing those bloodthirsty bastards when the time came; this was just a jaunt in the park for them.
“I don’t smell nothing but cedar resin. And a bear can’t hurt us,” the dwarf growled, looking to his right.
“This one might. It’s big. Gashes on the tree where it sharpened its claws stand higher than a rearing horse.”
“Wonderful,” groused Dorlas. “Just what we need. But maybe it’s out huntingHere they come!”
Clapping down their visors, the dragon riders banked their metal mounts and swept in to the attack. At the same time, two of the huntsmen skittered their disks close, then abandoned them. Hopping to the rocks, the two armored men descended on Dorlas and Sunbright. As if we were rabbits, thought the barbarian, to be flushed into the open and killed by the masters.
One hunter had a spear with a long barbed head, the other a flail, and they worked as a team. Whirling a whizzing wall of wood, one picked down the rocks and vines while the other poised, the spear ready.