Authors: Clayton Emery
“Split!” Dorlas refused to play their way. Clambering one-handed, he scrambled like a brown spider to the left. Sunbright propped his bowhe was out of arrowsdrew Harvester, and swung right.
The Neth paused at such canny prey. In that second, Dorlas leveled his crossbow from six feet away and pulled the trigger. His eye was good. The bolt slammed the spear wielder just below the hip at a juncture of the armor plates. A squeak rewarded him; he’d hit flesh.
At the same time, Sunbright flummoxed the whirling flail by simply thrusting Harvester straight out. Steel screaked a protest as the flail’s chain wrapped around and around the harder sword blade. Then came a grim tug-of-war, as the huntsman leaned to yank back on the long flail handle. Sunbright let him haul, then helped him out by stepping sideways and lashing out with an iron-reinforced boot. The armored man, already unsteady on hidden rocks and crushed leaves, let go of the flail to grab for balance. He caught only the tip of a cedar, which bent like a lily, and he pitched to crash on his side. Sunbright jumped after him, took careful aim for another armor chink, and stabbed down with Harvester …
… but leaped backward as a golden flash blotted the sunlight.
A hiss like an iceberg dropping into the sea roared by his hand. As the barbarian crunched amidst fragrant leaves and lumpy rocks, a searing blast of cold scorched the ground. Vines, a tree, the legs of the fallen huntsman, all were blasted a harsh, glistening white. Then the dragon rider with his deadly lance had swept on. Sunbright clambered up to strike at the Neth, but he levered himself off the rocks with his handshis legs couldn’t moveand tumbled headlong down a rock face to crash like a crate of dishes ten feet below.
Dorlas grappled with the spear wielder. He’d dropped his crossbow, crowded inside, locked the spear in his armpit, and now hammered with a stony hand on the end of the bolt to drive it deeper. The plagued huntsman strove to push the dwarf aside and dodge his punishing hand and was still backing off when Sunbright tripped close, took a short chop, and slammed Harvester’s blade at the base of the Neth’s helmet. The sword came away bloody, and the huntsman dropped.
But there was no time for congratulations. “Jump, boy!”
Without looking, Sunbright jumped as a fire flashed in the spot where they’d stood. The flying bird hovered not seven feet high, its rider’s lance lipping flames like a water pipe. The barbarian landed, sprawling against the same rock face where the half-frozen huntsman lay. The Neth raised a hand, either for succor or attack, Sunbright didn’t try to divine which. Slinging Harvester, he stabbed the man’s armpit, shearing chain mail and knocking him flat. There was no time for a second blow, for a dragon rider swept at him. The rabbits had indeed been flushed, at the cost of two huntsmen.
Pelting over slippery rocks and ducking cedars, arms pumping, Sunbright raced around the ledge, flames kissing vegetation just behind him. Ahead he saw a long-limbed oak that leaned far enough to almost touch the rocks, and he dove headlong for the space underneath it. Flames licked his legs as he bounced into the tree’s shadow, but he knew he was safe: the dragon rider couldn’t follow here.
Spinning, he looked and listened for his companions, wondered how short-legged Dorlas fared. He hoped the dwarf had fled to the left.
Continuing right, under the brief shelter of the trees, Sunbright mounted the rocks, then paused, sniffing. The fuggy, wet-dog stink of a bear came to him. Above a narrow shelf, he saw the cave. It was not too high, though he’d have to duck double to enter, so perhaps the bear wasn’t that big. He debated gathering the others and sheltering inside, then dismissed the idea. With those lances, the dragon riders could squirt fire and lightning and cold inside and roast, crisp, and freeze them all at the same time. And the humid odor of bear was strong; the animal might still be inside, despite a fine day for hunting.
And from above came the clash of steel. He bypassed the cave, grabbed vines, and climbed.
It looked bad.
Near the top of the outcrop was an abrupt shelf a dozen feet square. Somehow Greenwillow and two other bodyguards had been herded onto it by the paired huntsmen. Probably the elf had risen naturally, since high ground was always valuable, making it hard for the enemy to strike you, easier for you to cut down on them. But with enemies that swooped from the sky, it was a disastrous choice. Even as Sunbright climbed, he saw a bird-mount drop like a stone, halt nine feet up, and then its rider stabbed with a lance. One of the bodyguards was shocked with lightning and dropped her sword. The cracking lance pinned her through the gut like a butterfly, hoisted her a dozen feet, and dropped her down with a force sufficient to break her legs.
Greenwillow cut and thrust at a huntsman, trying to get past, to descend and escape, but the lackey simply flickered his flail in and out like a lizard’s tongue to keep the elf back: the master would make the kill. Cut off, the other bodyguard was wounded by a spear wielder and dropped to his knees. The other two dragon riders hovered nearby to get in their shots.
Briefly, Sunbright wondered where the other bodyguards had gone, but decided they’d either hidden or hightailed it through the woods. He couldn’t blame them: to stay was to die. Still, he hoisted Harvester, topped the rise on slipping boots, and charged with a barbarian war cry.
He didn’t bother to slash at the armored flailer besieging Greenwillow. He hit the Neth with something bigger and heavier: himself. Shoulder first, he cannoned into the huntsman, who hadn’t been expecting a rear attack. The flail flipped and rattled as the huntsman grabbed air. Greenwillow drove her cattail-slender sword into the eyehole of the man’s wolfish visor. Blood spurted as a screama woman’srang inside the mask. She toppled backward and slammed hard, skidding in the vines.
Sunbright watched the dragon riders, who crowded one another to fly at him on the shelf. The last bodyguard had been frost-blasted and lay huddled and still. He had no idea where Dorlas was. “Come on! Get down and under the trees!” But it was too late.
The sole huntsman braced his spear sideways to cut them off on the left, and a dragon rider hovered to the right like a giant bumblebee. The dragon and bird mounts flashed in the sunlight centermost, hovering slowly backward. Sunbright saw their plan: taking turns, they were backing for a slicing run.
“Take the bird; I’ll take the dragon!” he shouted.
A shocking laugh sounded. Greenwillow’s nose dripped blood that she spit off her lips. “You must be human to be that dumb! Might as well throw rocks! But let’s make a good account!”
Yet the aspiring shaman never heard the last, for something was rumbling under his feetor in his mind. A wave of fur-fug filled his nostrils, a brown hulk his vision. He blinked, trying to shake his eyes clear, but it persisted. What… ?
Here came the first dragon rider, zooming in like a golden dart. But she never arrived.
With a growl like thunder, a bear as big as a cloud reared up past the lip of the shelf. The swooping Neth barely veered aside in time. As it was, the mechanical dragon’s wing bounced off the bear’s shaggy hump. The other dragon rider blocking their right never had a chance.
The bear was even grander than Sunbright had imagined. It must have been lazy, or crippled, to only scratch so high on the neighboring trees. It was almost twenty feet long, easily dwarfing a horse, and the barbarian could have walked under its belly while crouching. A relic of earlier times, it looked old, with gray shot through its thick red-brown fur and around its muzzle. But it had the power of a fourspan of oxen, and was angry at being disturbed. It lashed out at every moving target to crush it flat and eat at leisure.
The dragon rider whipped her lance sideways, but the bear was already too close. She hauled on the reins to gain altitude, but a paw as big as a bushel basket studded with knives slashed the air. The paw crumpled a dragon wing and capsized the mount. With a squawk, the rider was dumped to crash on her neck and shoulder. The bear threw its weight into its front paws and thumped down on her like a dog on a squirrel. A fearful crunching of bones sounded, and a screechy raking of claws through metal. The flier flipped upside down and crunched on rock.
The rearmost flier, the bird man, had dodged past the dragon rider to blast the bear with hoarfrost. But the creature’s thick coat merely turned white. The bear never slowed, and the fliers had to spin away or be batted flat.
That left Sunbright and Greenwillow, cowering against the rock wall.
Blood on its claws, the great cave bear wheeled from its first victim seeking a next. The huge paws gripped the shelf preparatory to sweeping it clean. Greenwillow spread her feet, pointed her sword, and braced one hand on the wall behind her to thrust forward into the bear’s face. But Sunbright slapped hard and knocked her sword point down. Harvester hung slack in his own left hand. The elf shot him a quizzical demand, but the shaman-to-be ignored her.
Friend! he thought at the rearing beast, whose head was as big as his torso. Friend! Do not kill!
There was no reaction, it seemed. The bear opened its great mouth to latch on to their arms or legs, or to crush their ribs. Sunbright saw long strings of saliva connect teeth like knives of white flint. Beside him, Greenwillow struggled to free the wrist of her sword arm from his grip.
Friend! He hammered the thought at the bear. What could make it understand? We mean you no harm!
A gurgle sounded deep inside the beast, and it seemed as if they could see all the way to its stomach. Greenwillow gasped, but the gaping maw snapped shut. The bear cocked one eye at Sunbright, puzzled. Something tickled in the barbarian’s mind, a buzz like a bee’s trapped in his head. Was it the bear’s thought? Had he, in a blind panic, managed to somehow communicate with an animal? He tried to snatch the buzzing and pin it down. We are friends. We will go now. You go, too.
More puzzled looks came from the round black eyes under the coarse fur. The huge black nose snuffled, seemingly tasting their scent. The barbarian and elf held their breath. Would they be considered game, or … ? Abruptly, the bear wheeled, saw the dead, punctured, and frost-blasted bodyguards, and with awesome paws swept the bodies from the ledge to drag to its cave below.
By then the barbarian and elf were gone.
“What was that?” Greenwillow skipped as nimbly as a goat down the slope, in bounds longer than Sunbright could make.
Headlong, the barbarian jumped from rock to rock, any second expecting a magic blast, an icy lance through his spine, or a broken ankle from slipping on the loose scree. “Just… lucky! The gods favor… humans today, and not… the Neth!” No need to tell his secret, animal-speaking, if that’s what he’d done. Someday he might be a shaman after all, and the thought made his spirit and feet fly. “Huh!”
He yelped as Dorlas popped up like a fat rabbit. The dwarf aimed his crossbow and fired an inch over the barbarian’s shoulder. A clank answered; then all three were sheltered in the coolness of an oak forest.
Hands shaking, Sunbright wiped his brow. That was his first close-hand bout of animal-speaking, and it had rattled him worse than the buzzing dragon riders. Too much too soon, he reflected, and he’d be thinking like a bear and find himself naked in the woods, on his knees rolling rotted logs for grubs.
He tried to croak to his companions, but was too dry. His waterskin hung on a horse. Briefly he wondered if the merchants had gained the castle yet. Hawking phlegm, he yelled, “Which way?”
Dorlas clawed sweat out of his eyes. He’d lost his round helmet, and his short red braids flopped around his head, adorned with bright scarlet from a scalp wound. He grabbed wildly at his back quiver, found no more quarrels, and slung his crossbow back there. Straightening his pack, he rasped low, “To the city. To Dalekeva. It’s the only safety. The Neth must abide by their own rules, even if we’ve killed members of their party.”
“Why not hide in the woods until dark?”
“Because,” hissed Greenwillow, “the mounts have magic to sniff”
A sizzle erased her words. Lightning charred leaves over their head, leaving a hole through which flashed gold and gems. At another pass, fire outlined the hole, set fire to dead leaves and branches underfoot.
The three were far off by then, running flat out.
The deadly game of hide-and-seek lasted the afternoon, and threatened to haunt Sunbright’s dreams for life. It was one thing to attack an enemy in the field, to clash and crash and live or die. It took another kind of courage to keep a cool head and calm stomach while hunted from tree to tree like a rabbit dodging a wolf. One of the three remaining defenders would circle a tree, glance, dive, see fire or frost or lightning strike. Then another would pop up, distract the fliers, and the first could hop up or crawl headlong.
There was at least no trouble with direction, for they descended into the valley, bounding in great leaps down shallow and steep slopes. Then the forest ended, and they lurked under the trees, soaked with sweat, gasping and rasping too badly even to curse.
Ahead lay the city, and sanctuary. But it was a mile across open country: orchards, plowed fields, and a rutting, curving road lined with stone walls. A mile to the gates.
“I don’t see much for it,” croaked the dwarf. “We run, is all.”
Neither Greenwillow nor Sunbright commented on the dwarf’s stumpy legs. The elf asked the barbarian, “Can you run?”
“My other name is Steelshanks. Fastest runner in my tribe. You?”
A snot-and blood-bubbly sniff answered. “Together, or spread out?”
“Together,” replied the males.
“Singly, we’ll be picked off. Together, we can at least slash back,” added Dorlas.
“Waitor go now?”
The tree they stood under exploded into flame. All three ran, catty-corner across a field for the road. The fields were thigh-deep in crops or else fresh-plowed for winter, too difficult to run through. The orchards offered scant cover, for the branches were thin and wiry, and too low to scoot under. So it was the hardpacked road, stone walls and ruts and all.