THE LAND held its breath, waiting. Bitter blackness, deeper than the night, crept in from the fields beyond the high gates of Riverend. It drowned the light from the stars and the full moon.
Soldiers on the western wall shuddered with the sudden drop
in temperature, uncharacteristic even for the late summer. Then the torches
around them began to die, one by one.
SHAUN resisted the urge to pace. Too many eyes watched her, all of them searching for signs of her guilt. Even the vaulted ceilings above seemed to press down on her in silent judgment.
She refused to give them what they wanted. She stood straight, her back pressed against the cool stone wall. Her hands rested lightly on the clasp of the sword belt at her waist.
Her dark eyes stared down the lantern-lit academy corridor, past those watching her—most of them students, a few of them court goers. She tried to focus her mind on looking for Sara. But though she could ignore their stares, she could not block out their whispering.
Betrayal. Shaun’s insides twisted tighter each time it was repeated.
What happened was not her fault. She went where her training officer told her to go. It was Sara who asked that Shaun be removed as her Watcher—all over a stupid fight. Such was Sara’s right as the king’s youngest daughter. But she could not then be angry at Shaun for who she was reassigned to. Not even when it was Darcy Krieger, Sara’s greatest rival.
The gods must have had a good laugh over that. Being tossed aside by her best friend must not have been humiliation enough.
Anger mixed with the sickness inside. Shaun let her head hang, trying to silence the sound of Darcy’s laughter in her head.
Given the heated—and rather public—argument she had with Sara, followed by Darcy’s display just a day later, Shaun could not really blame anyone for thinking she had switched her loyalties out of anger. Now thanks to Darcy’s little prank, her position as a Watcher was in as much danger as her friendship with Sara. It did not matter that Shaun was at the top of her class of apprentice knights. Darcy had made the politics of the situation too toxic for anyone to leave it alone.
Shaun combed her calloused fingertips through the light brown hair that fell to the top of the collar of her pale tunic. Riverend’s green and gray standard stood on one side of the low collar and the crest of the Knights Service on the other. Unconsciously, she tugged the collar straight and took in a steadying breath, drawing in the musty smell of the academy.
Sara could help her. She just needed to assure Sara that none of the rumors were true. If Sara showed up . . .
The evening’s reading by some traveling poet was the kind of thing Shaun hated, but Sara loved. And yet, Sara was nowhere to be found, inside or outside the lecture hall. Shaun wondered if Sara had decided to skip the reading to avoid her. Sara had been acting so strange toward her of late.
Then Shaun spotted Sara turning the corner into the main corridor. She walked ahead of a group of friends, head down. The lantern light danced off the bejeweled clips in her blond hair. She walked with one of her favorite journals pressed to the front of her green silk dress like a shield.
Guilt suddenly overwhelmed Shaun. Perhaps what happened with Darcy was not her fault, but she should have anticipated a trick from the outset. She had been so blinded by her own hurt and humiliation, she never saw it coming.
For an instant, she considered turning the other way and leaving the academy before Sara saw her. Then her eyes lighted on the person walking next to Sara.
His nose still hooked to the right where she broke it during the Trials. Above his trim ginger moustache and beard, it made his face look vaguely misaligned. Their rivalry was as well known as Darcy’s with Sara.
Why was he with her? The answer came to her as soon as she asked herself the question: he was Shaun’s replacement. The realization stung as sharply as if she had been slapped.
Before Shaun could stop herself, she moved to intercept them, speaking quickly. “Sara, I need to—”
Sara stopped. “No. Not a word, Shaun.”
They were only a few months apart in age, but Shaun stood half a head taller. The anger and hurt in Sara’s eyes, however, stopped her dead. Shaun forgot everything she wanted to say. Everything she had rehearsed over and over in her head just disappeared.
Silence hung heavy in the air between them.
Jak spoke first. “Princess, you do not want to miss the start of the reading.” A smug smile stretched across his face. His eyes locked with Shaun’s. One hand rested on the pommel of his sword, as if he expected her to challenge him in the middle of the corridor.
Before Shaun could respond, Sara nodded and stepped around her, heading into the lecture hall with Jak. A hand touched Shaun’s shoulder. She spun around to see another of Sara’s friends, Myra, standing behind her.
She smiled at Shaun. “Just give her some time.”
Shaun sighed. “It didn’t happen the way everyone—the way Darcy—is saying it did. I need her to know that.”
The rest of Sara’s friends exchanged skeptical looks.
Backbiting gossips. At nineteen summers now, about to enter her fifth year as an apprentice knight, their incessant desire for court gossip and rumors felt childish.
Myra nodded in sympathy, but said, “Just give her a day or two. She’ll come around, and you can explain then.”
“That is too long. Perhaps you could—”
Myra started shaking her head. “I don’t think that is wise.”
As usual, Myra would not take sides. She took her cues on how to navigate Sara and Shaun’s arguments from her father, Riverend’s highest diplomat. Though the arguments between Shaun and Sara had grown more frequent of late, Myra never gave up her neutral ground.
Another young woman leaned toward Myra and said quietly, “We should go inside and find seats.”
Myra nodded. She told Shaun, “It will all work out. As it always does.” She gave Shaun’s arm a gentle squeeze, then turned away to enter the lecture hall.
All but Myra’s Watcher, Thomas, went in with her. He turned an inquisitive look on Shaun. Thomas was her closest friend in the Knights Service.
She bit her lip. “What do I do?”
“Your choices are pretty clear: let it go or try to fix it now.” He passed a hand over his close-cropped dark hair, then shrugged his broad shoulders. “Either carries risk. I cannot decide for you. You must do that.”
He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “So decide which is more important. Outside or in?” Before she could answer, Thomas left her, too, going into the lecture hall after Myra.
Shaun stared at the open doorway. Myra was probably right, but giving Sara a few days to calm down required a kind of patience Shaun did not possess.
A rumble of thunder reached her from outside the academy
hall, and suddenly, a sharp sense of foreboding passed over her. She ignored
it, however, and walked toward the lecture hall doors.
SOLDIERS huddled in tight groups on the western wall, staring out into the still darkness around them. Their grips tightened on their swords and pole arms. None dared speak higher than a whisper.
A deep rumble of thunder caused a lamb somewhere in the pasture beyond the capital’s gates to let out a fearful bleat. A few soldiers jumped at the sound. The others let out nervous chuckles at their jumpiness.
Then a deafening buzz, like the approach of a thousand locusts, filled the air. The men and women on the wall cried out and clapped hands over their ears.
Angry forks of red lightning cut across the sky over the main road that wove through the pastureland beyond the western gate. A sharp thunderclap followed, melding with the buzzing sound for a moment. The wall shuddered under the soldiers’ feet with the force of the boom. Soldiers shouted and grabbed hold of the battlements to keep from pitching over.
A second blast of lightning shot from the sky, arcing down toward the road. Its brightness momentarily blinded the onlookers. Just as the afterimage faded, an army of no less than five hundred men materialized on the road where the lighting had struck, only a hundred paces from the city gates.
The wall guard stared down at the army, wondering if they were nothing more than an illusion. Then archers stepped to the front of the army’s ranks and launched a swift volley of arrows up at those staring dumbly atop the wall.
Riverend soldiers scattered as the arrows flew. Those not
fast enough to take cover behind the battlements’ merlons fell as the arrows
hit their marks. The rest of the ranks below let loose a bloodthirsty howl and
charged the gates.
SHAUN stopped short of the lecture hall entrance. Two of the king’s guard just stood inside, to the left and right of the doors, reminding her that King Jaris himself was inside. She could not just charge in without drawing his attention, the last thing she wanted. The foreboding inside her doubled.
As the only child of Jaris’s guard master, he had treated Shaun like a member of his own family from the time she was born. But Jaris Hahlerand had no patience for being pulled into arguments between her and Sara. She would need to keep from drawing his attention. She could not give anyone yet another reason to cut her from the Knights Service.
The king stood at the front of the hall, near the lectern at its center. His tall, broad frame and thick beard had always made him seem to her like he was kith and kin to a great bear. The gray that had overtaken his hair in recent years had not lessened this image for her.
An elderly man—the poet, Shaun assumed—stood with the king, conversing quietly. The older man appeared hunchbacked, bent forward at a severe angle. Even if he was to stand straight, she doubted he would stand any taller than the king’s shoulder and yet his dark robes pooled around his feet.
Shaun shifted to look up the rows of carved wooden benches rising up to the back of the lecture hall. People passing through the entrance ahead of her kept blocking her view, making it impossible for her to find Sara from where she stood. She ducked inside and headed for the steps on the outside of the rows.
King Jaris suddenly barked out a deep laugh. Shaun jumped and looked over her shoulder, then breathed a sigh of relief. The king’s attention remained focused on the old man.
She continued up to the topmost row. Sara was easier for her to pick out from there. She sat just a few rows up from the front of the hall, too close to the king for Shaun’s comfort.
Jak crouched next to Sara. He said something to her and twisted his face into a goofy grin. To Shaun’s horror, Sara smiled back. Worse, she looked interested in what he was saying.
Shaun resisted the urge to charge down the rows and shove him down the steps. Instead she crouched behind the row of people in front of her. She chewed at her thumbnail and considered her next move.
Her mother’s voice in her head needled at her. It told her that if she kept chewing on her nails, she was apt to get an ingrown nail. Then how would she hold her sword?
Shaun sighed and let her hand drop. But she was no archer like her mother, who kept her nails neat and trim. The wall was not where she belonged, like it was for her mother and father. Her place was at Sara’s side.
The place Jak occupied now.
She straightened the collar on her cream-colored tunic. The difference in color from the dark gray worn by other apprentice knights marked her as a Watcher. Sara’s Watcher. That was who she was.
Standing again, Shaun readjusted her sword belt. She took the stairs two at a time until she stood behind Jak. She glanced at Sara, but when Sara looked up at her, her smile faded into a frown.
Jak turned to look at Shaun as well. “Do you need something?”
“I need you to find somewhere else to be.”
“I am assigned to Sara today. I’m not going anywhere.”
Shaun’s jaw tightened. She crouched down to his level and kept her voice low. “And what a fantastic job you’re doing, too, sitting here cracking jokes with her.” His mouth fell open to protest, but she cut him off. “Be on your way, before I call the king over and tell him what a great job you’re doing flirting with his daughter.”
Jak’s jaw snapped shut. He scowled at her, nostrils flaring. “I will go, but my training officer will hear about this.” He got up and stalked off.
Shaun watched him leave. She did not doubt his conviction but decided she would worry about him later. She sat in the empty space next to Sara on the carved wooden bench.
Sara avoided her eye, instead staring down at the journal in her lap. Her dark blond hair cascaded in gentle waves over the shoulders of her dress, the locks tamed only by matching green ribbons and hair clips shaped like butterflies.
The angry furrow in Sara’s brow stood in direct conflict to the butterflies’ cheerfulness. “That was rude, Shaun.” Her fingers crimped the journal’s corners. “You should not have come tonight.”
“I needed to talk to you.” Shaun quickly smoothed back the strands of hair trying to fall in her eyes.
“I thought—” Sara paused, but then she seemed to think better of what she was about to say.
Had Sara been about to say she expected Shaun to be at Darcy’s side instead? Could Sara believe that of her, after all their years of friendship?
Sara crossed her arms. “I made it plain last night that I did not want to see you today. I had hoped you would respect that request. Nothing has changed. If anything, I want to see you even less now.”
“Whatever they’re saying about what happened this afternoon is not true. It’s just gossip. Lies.”
Sara flicked her eyes in Shaun’s direction. She could not read what was in them. “Are you denying that Darcy had her arm in yours? And that you were laughing with her as though you’ve been friends forever. Those things are not true?”
A frown crept on to Shaun’s face. She spoke carefully. “Yes, Darcy insisted on putting her arm in mine while we walked in the park—”
“Our favorite part of that park.”
“—and she tripped in the grass. I may have laughed when I caught her.” Shaun paused. “I don’t remember now.” The little white lie slipped out before she could stop it.
Darcy had “tripped” right when they were passing a group of Sara’s cousins and their friends. Shaun laughed out of surprise when Darcy collided with her. She could not be sure the collision was purposeful, but she almost ended up in the grass with Darcy.
She just barely kept her feet and then Darcy started laughing, too. Much louder than the situation warranted. She saw Darcy glance at Sara’s cousins to make sure they were watching, then put her hand on Shaun’s shoulder. Just that small gesture of familiarity had no doubt sealed Shaun’s guilt in the minds of those watching.
“It was all a farce made up by Darcy to drive a wedge between you and me,” Shaun insisted. “We weren’t telling each other jokes as we walked, no matter what Darcy or your cousins may say.”
But the angry furrow in Sara’s brow persisted. “Why were you walking in that part of the park?”
A lesser minister’s son sitting in front of them turned to Shaun and interrupted before she could answer. “Excuse me. Might I ask you to kindly hold this argument until after the reading is over? When you’re somewhere the rest of us cannot hear you?”
Shaun felt a snide comment trying to fight its way out but contained it. She nodded at the young man. He was probably right. She could feel herself headed down the same path with Sara as the night before. Better to stop now before she got herself in more trouble. Maybe Sara would listen to reason later.
The young man gave her a tight smile and faced forward again. When Shaun turned to look at Sara, however, Sara turned her face away, ignoring her. Myra’s voice echoed through Shaun’s head, telling her again to just let Sara have time.
Shaun sighed and looked down toward the lectern. The poet was shuffling some scrolls. The king gestured for the guards by the doors to shut them and made his way toward an empty place in the second row.
She glanced at Sara again, who was still ignoring her. Perhaps Sara wished Jak was next to her instead, making his stupid little jokes. Indignation burned its way back to the surface. She pressed her lips into a thin line and leaned toward Sara.
“I go where I am ordered to go. Darcy chose the spot for us to walk, not I. You and she can order your Watchers to go where you like, and we must comply. And you and she can request whoever you want as your Watchers. So I’ll ask, did you purposely request Jak as Darcy requested me?”
Sara said nothing, but Shaun caught Sara’s subtle flinch when she asked the question. Even though she knew the answer before she asked, all the air rushed out of her at once. A sharp pain stabbed her in the gut as though she had been punched.
Her mouth felt numb as she said, “I cannot believe you would do that. Knowing how I feel about him.”
The young man in front of Shaun coughed lightly and glanced back again.
Sara leaned forward and gave him the same tight-lipped smile he had given Shaun. “My apologies, Joffrey, but perhaps you could keep your eyes pointed ahead and mind your own affairs.”
Joffrey frowned but turned to face forward again.
Sara glared at Shaun. “Do not try to make this about what I did. You do not see me, Shaun. But Jak does. He does not tell me I am foolish for worrying about my studies or tell me I spend too much time fussing with my hair, like you do. And he does not act friendly towards someone who has always hated me—for gods-only-know-what reason.”
“Act friendly—with Darcy? Are you serious?” Shaun glared back. Angry words came pouring out. “You think that Jak is your friend? He’s nice to you because you are the king’s daughter. It is his job to be kind to you and take care of you.”
Sara’s lips parted in shock.
“And the fact that you are a beautiful young woman only gives him another reason to seek your favor.”
The moment the words left her mouth, Shaun regretted them. Tears stood out in Sara’s eyes and her lip quivered for just a moment. In that moment, Shaun’s anger dissipated, and she felt shame.
Why did this keep happening between them? When had they become so antagonistic to each other?
Sara whispered, “How dare you.” She wiped away her tears and stood up. She repeated the words, more loudly. “How dare you, Shaun. Stay here if you like. I will leave instead.” She turned away.
Without thinking, Shaun grabbed Sara’s wrist. “Wait—”
Sara spun back and yanked free of Shaun’s grip, nearly shouting, “You are out of bounds, knight.”
The look on Sara’s face bordered on hatred. Startled, Shaun
pulled her hand back. Then she noticed that the entire hall had fallen silent.
From the front of the room, the king cleared his throat.
THE HOWLING outside the wall and the boom of the portcullis falling over the heavy inner gates shook Tor Greyson awake from where he had dozed off at his desk in the western guard tower. The guards master snapped up his sword belt and sprinted down the steps, holding to the rough stone walls as he descended. Just as he ran out of the tower, arrows streaked through the air, raining down around him. He dove behind a high merlon for cover.
Others around him were not so lucky. The arrows struck their marks with impossible accuracy. The wounded and dying toppled around him. Some called his name, but he dared not move, even to pull whomever he could to safety.
He could smell the stink of dark magiks in the air. Mordwell.
A green flash appeared from below, where the wood and iron portcullis stood. Something crashed into it. Smoke billowed up and over the sides of the battlements. Panic rose in him. They were going to get through.
Tor shouted over the cries around him. “Get to the holes!”
Archers scrambled for the murder holes in the parapet and the walkway, firing down at the invaders. He did not know how many Mordwellians were out there, but they were not going to get to the inner gate without challenge.
As soon as the Mordwellian arrows stopped flying, Tor shot forward and pulled a wounded man back toward the cover of the parapet. “What happened?”
The man coughed up blood and shook his head. “I don’t know, sir. There was this flash of lightning and then scores of soldiers in black armor appeared outside the gates.”
A series of pops and shrieks from the direction of the holes cut him off. Archers fell to the stone walkway, clawing at their burned faces. The rest fell back in horror.
Tor stared at them, his mind going back to a time when he saw the very same thing, when his father was Guards Master as he was now. It was happening again.
Something heavier than the magik blast slammed into the iron-banded inner doors, shaking the wall again. Battering ram.
He pulled himself from his memories. “Sound the—”
A second collision drowned out his orders. Crackling wood accompanied the second boom, but the doors held. It would not be long before they gave way. The Mordwellians could not burn through the inner door, so they would batter their way through instead.
“Blast them all.” He shouted again, “Sound the alarms! Turn out everyone we have! Archers to the inner parapet. They’re comin’ through.”
Soldiers at arms scrambled to pull the wounded men and women out of the way of the archers taking position along the inside edge of the wall. Others descended to the ground level to turn out the rest of the guard. He grabbed one of the soldiers running past.
“Find my wife on the north wall. Tell her ‘The Burning is happening again.’”
She looked confused. “The what, sir?”
He shook his head. “Just tell her what I said. And make sure someone finds the king. We’re under siege by Mordwell.”
Her mouth fell open, but she asked him no more questions before she ran for the ladders. The great bells atop the guard towers started clanging to alert the city and the villages beyond the wall. The warning was too late though.
Tor pressed his fingers to his ears to block out the deafening peal of the bells and thought of his daughter. He was old enough to remember the Nine Years War. He knew what was to come.
He regretted that he and his wife had kept the stories about the war from Shaun, the ones the academy did not tell the students. They always thought there was time for that later, if even it was to come again. Without any idea of where in the city Shaun might be, he had no way to warn her.
Another boom sounded from below, followed by cracking wood and squealing metal as the doors gave up against the battering ram. Tor drew in a steadying breath and unsheathed his sword.
Shaun was not ready for what was about to happen. He prayed
the gods would have mercy on her.
SARA’S face paled at the same time as fear tightened in Shaun’s chest. The king stared up at them from where he stood, just two rows down, his arms crossed over his broad chest. Shaun suddenly wished the floor would open up and swallow her, or that the gods would finally take pity and smite her where she sat.
Jaris’s voice boomed across the silent hall. “Sara Hahlerand and Shaundra Greyson! Are we intruding on your argument?”
Sara dropped her gaze. Shaun bowed her head in deference and to hide her burning cheeks before she fell awkwardly to one knee on the steps.
“Your Majesty, my sincerest apologies for the disruption. I take full responsibility.”
The king said nothing at first, and his disapproval hung heavy in the air. Pinpricks of sweat stood out on her forehead as she waited for him to order her out of the lecture hall.
The king finally commanded her, “Stand up, Shaun.”
She got to her feet and stood at attention.
“Our honored guest has traveled to our fair capital from well afar. I think we owe him the courtesy of quiet while he reads for us. Agreed?”
The king arched an eyebrow at her, but she caught the hint of a smile curling a corner of his lips. Was it her nervousness that amused him or something else?
“Good. Then let us take our seats, so we may stop wasting the good man’s time.” His eyes went to his daughter. “All of us.”
Sara must have given him an earful regarding the rumors about her and Darcy, and he was done with it. He turned his back on them and sat down. Sara and Shaun did the same.
The poet, however, never got the chance to read after all.
An immense boom shook the academy building. Several people cried out in surprise. Pealing bells suddenly filled the air as a dozen alarms around the city all began ringing at once. Shaun froze. This was no drill. Something terrible had happened.
The doors to the lecture hall banged open and a blood-covered knight spilled through them. “Your Majesty! The gates have been breached. We are under siege by Mordwell!” She fell forward into the arms of the nearest of the king’s guard.
The room erupted with many voices speaking all at once. Shaun, other apprentice knights, and the full knights in attendance jumped to their feet.
The king shouted, “Silence. Remain calm!”
The poet started giggling. “More than just the walls have been breached, King Jaris. How fortuitous that you could join us this evening.”
All eyes turned to him. He suddenly shifted from an old man into a much taller, younger man. Wild zeal filled his eyes. He lifted his hands. Shaun’s hand fell to her sword’s hilt.
Before anyone could move to stop him, the man shouted a word Shaun did not understand. A white-hot fireball formed in his open hand. He hurled it in the king’s direction. One of the knights nearest the king knocked him out of its path, sacrificing himself to the assassin’s spell.
People in the rows in front of her screamed as the fireball’s energies exploded outward on impact. Shaun dove at Sara, knocking her to the floor and covering her, just before the wave of heat and flames washed up the rows. She clenched her teeth as the heat singed her bare forearms and the back of her neck.
When the heat had dissipated, Shaun sat up to make sure Sara was alright and immediately gagged on the smells of burning wood and burnt flesh. Thick black smoke rose from where the fireball had landed. People screamed in pain. Knights and guardsmen shouted for the king.
From somewhere in the thick smoke, he answered, “I’m fine! Get that bastard before he does any more damage.”
Shaun yanked her dagger free from where it was strapped to her boot and searched for the sorcerer’s position through the smoke and debris floating in the air. She caught sight of him just as he raised his arm to throw another fireball.
She hurled her dagger at the sorcerer’s throat. It lodged in his chest instead, landing with a dull thud and choking off his spell before he could finish. The nascent fireball exploded in his hand, sending out another wave of heat and light. Shaun shielded her eyes.
When she looked again, the sorcerer had fallen back against the wall. Much of his arm and the sleeves and chest of his robes were gone. Only charred flesh remained. Surprisingly, the sorcerer still moved, seemingly unaware of the extent of his injuries.
“Grab him,” the king ordered.
The king’s guard surrounded the dying sorcerer. Shaun followed behind the king.
The sorcerer’s breath wheezed in and out through scarred lips wet with blood. He did not struggle against the guards who pulled him to his feet, but he forced a grin onto his burned face when the king came to stand in front of him.
“Did you like Mordwell’s surprise?” He coughed and more blood bubbled out of his mouth.
The king growled, “Treacherous bastards. My father should have wiped the House of Mackritae off the face of Decathea twenty years ago when he had the chance.”
The sorcerer laughed. “So like the House of Hahlerand to revise history in its favor. Your father was a fool. He could not best us. We have the upper hand now.”
“After so long since signing the accord, why would the Mackritae launch another war now?”
“Because the Mackritae are gone,” the sorcerer hissed. “They no longer hold us back.”
Jaris bent closer to the sorcerer. “Whomever your masters are now, I will snuff them out.”
He grabbed hold of Shaun’s dagger and yanked it from the sorcerer’s burned chest. Blood ran from the hole the dagger left behind. The sorcerer’s eyes and mouth widened and then his eyes rolled back in his head.
Jaris handed the dagger back to Shaun. The hilt was still warm. She almost dropped it in surprise.
The king’s guard let the sorcerer’s body slump to the floor. She stared at him a moment. She had never watched someone die. It was nothing so simple as what she had imagined.
Riverend foot soldiers and more knights poured into the lecture hall. Knights Master Farrash came in with them. One of the knights already in the lecture hall shouted for everyone to come to attention. Shaun forced herself to turn away from the dead man and snapped to attention with the other apprentice knights, hands at her sides. She tried to ignore the blood growing sticky on the dagger’s hilt.
“At ease,” Farrash ordered them.
She relaxed and wiped what blood she could get off her dagger blade against the shin of her leather leggings. Then she slipped it back into its scabbard.
Farrash addressed the king, “Your Majesty, we have reports that five hundred Mordwellians appeared from nowhere outside the western gate. They broke through with their dark magiks.”
Father. Shaun prayed he was alright.
“They obliterated many of our defenses before we knew what was happening. The city may fall despite our best efforts. We must get you to safety.”
King Jaris shook his head. “I will not let these villains chase me from my city just yet. The rest, though, must flee now.”
The king pulled himself up to his full height and a calm settled over him that Shaun envied. Her thoughts raced as she tried to make sense of what was happening. How could they be at war with Mordwell after so long? What had the sorcerer meant about the Mackritaes being gone?
Jaris faced the room. “Everyone, gather around.”
Thomas and Myra came to stand near her. Sara stood next to her father.
“You must flee for now, but know that we will never fully abandon our kingdom to these blackguards. Apprentice knights, get your Wards and as many of our people as you can out of the city. That is your duty, and I expect you to carry it out to the very best of your abilities.
“I know few of you possess battle experience. You may think what I’m asking of you is beyond your reach, but I am confident it is not. I have faith in your strength.
“My knights, guardsmen, and I will battle the enemy as long as we can to help you get free. Split up into small groups for stealth and retreat in the direction of Parna to the east. I shall gather our reserve forces from the surrounding towns and we can regroup in Parna in two days’ time. When we are at our strongest again, we will return to our capital city to give the Mordwellians a thrashing worthy of any bard’s song.”
The king turned to Shaun and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Shaun, you must take Sara from here and keep her safe.”
Sara cried out, “No, Father! Please don’t send me away.” Tears fell down her cheeks. He cut off her protests with a shake of his head.
“Shaun, my daughter is your lone responsibility now. Do you understand? I expect you to give your life for hers, if you must.”
Everything felt like it was moving too quickly for her to keep up, but Shaun nodded. “Yes, Sire. I pledge to give my life for hers.”
The king embraced Sara. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed softly against her father’s chest. He did not hold her for long, however.
When he gently pushed her away again, he told her, “Go with Shaun and the others now. I will see you in Parna.”
Sara begged him again, “Please do not send me away. I can be of use to you.”
The king smiled at his favorite daughter, but there was worry in his eyes. “Nay. You are no fighter, and I must be strong for my people now. Shaun will keep you safe until we meet again. I’m ordering you to go with her.”
“What about Mother?”
The king looked to Farrash. “My wife?”
“I’ve been told her guards escorted her to the tunnels as soon as the alarm sounded. I have no doubt she got safely away.”
King Jaris nodded. “Very good. Someone bring me a sword.”
A guardsman handed him the sword from his own sheath. Jaris looked at the apprentice knights. “I expect to see you all in Parna. Go now. Shaun, take the lead.”
Shaun took a steadying breath and nodded. “Yes, Sire.”
She motioned to Thomas and jogged to the lecture hall’s entrance with him. They took up opposite points on either side of the doorway. She drew her sword, as did Thomas.
He poked his head out and looked down one end of the
corridor and then the other. He nodded. The corridor was clear. Shaun gripped
her sword tightly and stepped out.
SHAUN relaxed her grip on her sword’s hilt once she stood in the still, empty corridor. She motioned to Thomas to send people out. With everyone gathered in the corridor, Shaun divided them into four groups, appointing Jak and two other Watchers as leaders.
“Take separate ways out of the academy. Once you’re out, split again into groups of no more than four each for mobility and stealth.”
The other Watchers murmured their agreement and led their groups away. Jak started past her, but she caught his arm.
He shot her an angry look. “Unhand me.”
She let go but told him, “Don’t die.” She would not give Sara yet another reason to hate her.
Jak jabbed a finger into his chest. “I should be going with Sara, too. I was assigned as her Watcher.”
She sniped back, “Only for a day.” Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Look, the king ordered me to watch over Sara. You are a capable fighter and the others need you to lead them now. I expect you keep yourself alive while you’re at it.”
He sighed but gave her a curt nod.
Shaun nodded back and turned to her own group.
Thomas asked, “Which route shall we take?”
“Past the library. There is a hidden storeroom there that my father told me of once. We can get armor and more weapons inside. You take the rear guard.”
She walked to where Sara stood with Myra. “I want you with me at the front of the group, in case we encounter resistance.”
Sara met her eyes. Anger still hardened them. “I will stay with Myra.”
Shaun’s jaw tightened. They had no time to argue. “Myra can come with you to the front of the group, but you will stay near me so that I can do my job as your Watcher.”
She spun on her heel without waiting for a response, gesturing for the rest to follow her. Once Sara and Myra reached the front of the group, she headed off in the direction of the academy library, moving as quickly as she dared through the corridors, knowing they would not stay empty for long.
Angry shouts and breaking glass from outside grew louder as they got closer to the library at the front of the academy hall. The Mordwellians would no doubt look inside the buildings for people to capture or kill. They needed to get to the storeroom before enemy soldiers found them.
Shaun stopped outside the heavy wooden doors of the library. She cracked one open and peered inside the dimly lit room. The smell of must and aging parchment that permeated much of the academy was strongest there.
Only one lantern remained alight, left behind on one of the wide tables standing at the center of the cavernous room. Likely, whomever had been studying the books still scattered across the table had fled when the alarms bells rang out.
The group filed in, their footsteps made silent by thick rugs piled on top of each other over the stone floors. They passed enormous rows of bookshelves crammed from top to bottom with tomes and scrolls. Shaun avoided looking at them as she headed to the back of the library.
She tried not to think of all the times she walked between the rows, letting her fingers trail along the smooth, wooden shelves and cracked leather spines. Many times had she paused to thumb through histories of famous knights while Sara sat at one of the broad library tables, concentrating on the studies that Shaun too often ignored. But such thoughts now only reminded her that she may never get the chance to do such a thing again if the Mordwellians had their way.
She counted the bookcases against the back wall until she came to the seventh one from the center. There was a gap on either side of it. She felt along both sides and found a groove where she could grip the shelf’s edge and pull it forward. When she tried, however, it barely moved, the hidden door stiff from disuse. She tightened her grip and pulled harder. The bookcase moved outward only a little before it squealed to a stop. Cursing, she tugged at the bookcase with both hands. The door still refused to open more.
A fellow Watcher, Brekt, hissed at her from the direction of the library doors, “I can hear boots down the corridor.”
Shaun called to Thomas, “Help me.”
Both of them grabbed the edge of the bookcase. On the count of three, they pulled as one. Whatever held the door back finally let go and allowed them to swing it open.
The room beyond was pitch black, but Shaun ushered everyone in. She grabbed the handle on the back side of the bookcase and tugged it back into place behind her, cringing at the noise the bookcase made.
Thomas lit the lightstone he always carried in the pouch on his belt. It illuminated the small room from end to end. The room barely fit all of them, and the temperature started to rise within moments. Shaun brushed away the sweat beading on her forehead.
She crossed to Thomas’s side, where he stood in front of racks that lined one side of the room, heavy with armor and weapons. Everything bore a thin layer of dust and most of the bladed weapons did not look sharp enough to be useful. The armor, however, looked to still be in decent condition. Very little rust dotted the metal surfaces.
Thomas passed pieces of armor to the other apprentice knights. Shaun took the mail shirt handed to her, but waved off a shield, instead taking a pair of scuffed bracers. Even with the leather straps pulled tight, they did not quite fit her wiry forearms, but they would have to do. She searched for Sara in the group.
She was huddled with Myra. She did not meet Shaun’s eyes, but Shaun could see the worry etched on her face. No doubt she wondered about her father and whether he would make it to safety.
Shaun turned away. The king was someone else’s responsibility. Sara was hers. The best she could was what she had been told: get Sara safely out of the city.
A lump rose in her throat as she thought of having to leave the capital, the only home she had ever known. Shaun swallowed hard around it and cleared her throat.
She whispered to Thomas, “There should be a way out on the other side.” She went to the opposite end of the room and ran her hands down the wall.
Her fingers found a panel cut in the false wall, close to the floor and just wide enough for one person to crawl through once it was opened. Its size would make checking for enemy soldiers harder than she would have liked, but they could not go back the way they came. Not with Mordwellians closing in on the library.
She crouched by the panel to press her ear to it. No sounds came through. She prayed that meant the corridor beyond was empty.
She turned back to the others and whispered to the apprentice knights, “Once we leave here, we split into smaller groups. Thomas, I want you and Myra to come with Sara and me. Kera and Andrin, divide up the rest of the group between yourselves.”
Kera and Andrin agreed.
“Shaun.” Myra came to stand near her. “I am worried about my parents and my little brother. Can we look for them before we leave Riverend?”
She did not look well, her pallor and shaking hands visible to Shaun even in the dim light. Worried was an understatement. She was terrified.
Shaun looked at Thomas, but he only met her eyes and said nothing. She looked at Sara behind Myra. But Sara said nothing either. Shaun sighed and pressed her lips into a thin line.
She shook her head. “We can’t. We must find a way out of the city as soon as possible, or we may find all escape routes cut off to us. I know not where we might search for them. If they are not out of the city already, I’m afraid that they may be dead or prisoners of the Mordwellians.”
Sara hissed, “Shaun.”
Myra squeezed Sara’s hand. “No, I understand.” A quavering tone of desperation filled her voice. “But they would have been in the southern tower of the castle, where my family’s quarters are. Please. Can we not at least search there? I cannot just abandon them.”
“Yes, we can look for them,” Sara said. The look she gave Shaun made it clear she would not hear any argument.
Shaun looked again at Thomas. He gave her a small shrug, saying, “The castle is on the way.”
“Fine.There’s an escape tunnel entrance near there. We can try to get out of the city through the tunnel after we look for Myra’s family.” She looked at Myra. “But if we encounter too much resistance before we reach the castle, I cannot risk Sara’s life to reach your family.”
Shaun turned back to the panel. She slid it open only a few fingers wide. Seeing no one immediately in front of it, she slid it open the rest of the way.
Still nothing. She stuck her head and shoulders out.
suddenly grabbed her. Shaun yelped and Sara shrieked her name behind her. Shaun
tried to twist free, but her assailant yanked her through the opening, into the
SHAUN’s body collided with the opposite wall. She fell to the floor, stunned. Through a haze of sparkling lights, she registered her attacker hauling her up again. She came face-to-face with a soldier in black leather armor.
His skin was dead pale, and his eyes possessed a vacant quality and a vague milky hue that made Shaun think of something dead. His breathing wheezed strangely in his throat. Then the Mordwellian’s face broke into a sinister grin. He slammed his forehead into hers.
The impact sent pain all the way down to her teeth, and stars exploded in her vision again. The Mordwellian made a rasping, laughing sound and kept her from sliding to the floor. Something wet—his tongue—slid up the side of her face. She cried out in disgust and tried to squirm away, but he held her fast. He licked the blood pouring down her face from where he struck her.
A loud cracking suddenly filled the corridor. The wall separating the hidden room and the corridor exploded outward. Thomas and two other apprentice knights fell out in a spray of broken wood and plaster. The rest of the apprentice knights ran out through the new opening, weapons at the ready. The Mordwellian dropped her.
Thomas ran to her side. “Are you alright?”
Her head throbbed as she sat up, but she nodded. He helped her to feet while the others slew the Mordwellian.
Pounding boots echoed down the corridor as additional Mordwellians arrived. Thomas drew his sword. He told her, “Just collect yourself a moment.”
Thomas and the other apprentice knights formed a protective circle around her and the others. Shaun gripped the wall, leaning against it as she tried to shake the rhythmic throbbing in her head.
Sara touched her arm. “Hold still. You’re hurt.” Concern crept into her tone.
Shaun slowly shook her head, but it only made the throbbing worse. She muttered, “I’m fine.”
“You are not. You’re bleeding.”
Metal sang and clashed as the Mordwellians met swords with Thomas and the other apprentice knights. The sound nearly drowned Sara out.
Shaun tried to push past her. “I need to join the others.”
Myra stopped her. She produced a handkerchief and ordered her, “Hold still.” She pressed it to the blood that still ran down Shaun’s face and dabbed it away from her eyes. Then she nodded. “Alright. Go now.”
Shaun drew her sword and joined the fight at Thomas’s side. Although the enemy soldiers were outnumbered, they fought with an uncanny strength and speed. All displayed the same pallor as the one who attacked her. None of them spoke or made any sound other than the quiet wheezing.
The eerie sound and their pale skin reminded Shaun of the stories Riverend children told each other about Mordwell’s walking dead. Her mother claimed it was nothing more than childish nonsense when she had asked. But Shaun began to wonder if the stories were true after all. The Mordwellians did not succumb to blows that would incapacitate a human. Only running them through the chest or throat seemed to stop them.
When all five Mordwellians were finally dead, the apprentice knights regrouped and treated the injuries they had all sustained. Kera had received the worst of them, a deep gash across one of her thighs. Thomas and Shaun helped bind it for her, but she needed to lean on the others to walk.
Shaun frowned. Kera’s injuries would slow her group down and make it easier for them to be captured. But they would have to make do. The group had to split up again.
As soon as everyone was bandaged and able to move on, the groups split off and went their separate ways. She led Thomas, Sara, and Myra in the direction of the main entrance. They met two more enemy soldiers along the way, but knowing how to kill them now, Shaun and Thomas dispatched them more quickly than the others. But any relief she felt ended when they exited the academy building.
The lampposts and torches that normally lit the city streets were all dark, but fires bathed the city in orange light. Everywhere she looked, she saw fighting. Even groups of civilians battled Mordwellians in the streets. Those not able to fight were dragged away screaming by enemy soldiers.
Shaun stared open-mouthed at the scene. Sara or Myra gasped behind her. She shook herself and murmured numbly that they had to keep moving.
Thomas suggested they take the alleys to reach the castle rather than the streets. He took the lead and guided them down a series of dark passages. They managed to skirt around much of the fighting. When they got within sight of the castle, however, it became obvious their detour had been as useless as Shaun had feared.
Flames licked out from multiple breaches in the western and southern walls of the castle. The top half of the western tower was gone, obliterated by some force. If Myra’s family was inside when the tower was struck, they would have died in the blast.
“No!” Myra rushed past her, out of the alley.
Shaun and Thomas cursed in unison.
Myra ran toward the castle’s curtain wall, shouting, “Mother. Father. Jenik!”
Sara started forward, but Shaun caught her arm. “No. Stay back here.”
Thomas ran after Myra and grabbed her before she attracted the attention of any Mordwellian soldiers. She struggled against him, still screaming her brother’s name. He shushed her and lifted her up in his strong arms.
When they reached the alley again, Myra had stopped screaming. She wept against Thomas’s chest.
Sara stroked Myra’s hair, trying to soothe her. “They may have gotten out. They may have.”
Myra nodded, but said nothing.
Thick smoke swirled around the castle and blew back toward the alley, stinging Shaun’s eyes. She coughed and said, “We have to find another way out. With the fires, we cannot safely reach the tunnels under the castle.”
Thomas nodded. “Maybe there is a breach somewhere in the city wall.”
She asked him quietly, “Can she walk?”
Myra murmured, “I’ll be fine.” She wiped her eyes, now red with grief, and eased away from Thomas.
Shaun nodded and turned back the way they had come. At the nearest junction in the alleyway, she turned toward the eastern city wall. When they reached it, Shaun looked up, hoping to see her mother or father, but smoke from the fires obscured her view. She and the others followed the thick city wall, looking for a break. Wide cracks and burns marred areas of the wall, high and low. Whatever had destroyed part of the castle appeared to have struck the wall, too.
Several paces down, they found a long fissure and a gap where the stone blocks had cracked and crumbled away at the bottom. It was just wide enough for them to crawl through one at a time.
She frowned at the breach. The last time she squeezed through a hole in a wall had not gone so well. Her head still ached from the encounter.
Thomas looked at her, hands on his hips. His frown echoed hers. “I don’t like tight spaces . . . But I’ll go through first this time.”
He handed his sword belt to her, muttering, “I don’t want to get stuck.”
“Be careful,” Sara said, her arms wrapped around Myra. She shivered as a chill wind blew past the wall.
Thomas wormed his way into the long hole until his boots disappeared. Shaun looked around, making sure no one was watching. Thomas called out to her. She crouched down to look through.
She passed his sword to him and then helped Myra and Sara through the breach in the wall. Once they were safely through, Shaun tossed her sword to Thomas on the other side.
A voice boomed at her from behind, making her stop and turn. Her mouth fell open when she saw what first appeared to be a hairy mountain running in her direction.
The giant closed the distance faster than she thought possible, given his bulk. His woolly beard flapped around his thick neck. Unlike the Mordwellians she fought in the academy corridors, he did not look half-dead. Wild zeal filled his eyes, just like the assassin in the lecture hall. He raised a massive double-bladed ax over his head as he ran.
If she tried to get into the hole now, she would lose both legs for sure. She waited until he got within striking range and dove to the side as the ax dropped. It whistled through empty air.
The Mordwellian growled and spun with the ax’s momentum, trying to catch her as she got up. She cursed and pitched herself into a roll, just out of the ax’s path.
Movement by the
hole caught her attention. Thomas poked his head through and looked around for
her. The giant saw him at the same time as she did. He laughed and turned the
ax on Thomas, aiming the massive blade for Thomas’s neck.
CURSING, Shaun ran toward the giant. The hole was too tight for Thomas to duck back in before the ax fell. She pitched herself into the mountainous man. Her sudden movement threw off his aim. The heavy blade hit the wall, sending up sparks and chips of stone. Thomas squirmed back into the hole to safety.
The giant roared at her. He spun and elbowed her hard in the gut. The blow knocked her against the wall and forced the wind out of her in sharp rush. Gasping, she fell to the ground again. The hairy giant’s belly shook with his laughter. He brought his ax up again. Shaun struggled to get her feet under her.
Her sword suddenly shot out of the hole. She dove for it, grabbing hold and bringing it up to block the giant’s strike. The weapons collided with deafening clang. The impact nearly snapped her wrists.
She cried out as her hands went numb from the force and vibration. The ax skidded off her blade into her left bracer. It cleaved a ragged gash in the metal. The ruined bracer and ax dug into her flesh. Her sword fell from her numb grip when the giant yanked his ax back. Shaun sobbed through gritted teeth and cradled her bleeding arm with her other.
The numbness in her right arm faded into throbbing. She looked up at the Mordwellian. He laughed again, knowing he had her now. Even if she could get up fast enough, she could not pick up her sword, and he was blocking her path to the breach in the wall.
The giant raised his ax high above his head. Her pulse thundered in her ears, but she refused to close her eyes. She whispered a prayer to whatever god was listening that Sara and the others would make it to safety without her. The ax descended.
An arrow suddenly buried itself deep in the giant’s throat. He dropped his heavy ax, narrowly missing his own foot when the blade slammed into the ground. He stumbled forward, gurgling and clawing at the feathered shaft as blood poured from the wound. He tripped over his ax’s haft, pitching forward. Shaun managed to roll clear before he landed.
Her mouth agape, she nudged the fallen giant, but he did not move again. She looked up toward the wall to where she thought the arrow had come from, wondering if it was her mother who saved her. But whoever it had been was now gone.
She took several deep breaths to calm herself before she rose to her knees. Slowly she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her sword. She crawled with it to the gap in the wall.
Thomas was gone and she could see neither Sara nor Myra. She pitched her sword through the breach and then slid into the hole, worming her way through with one arm. When she reached the other side, Sara and Myra came running to her.
“You need to help Thomas,” Myra told her.
She pointed at Thomas several paces away, battling another Mordwellian soldier. Though the soldier was not as large as the giant, Thomas’s movements were sluggish with exhaustion. The body of another Mordwellian lay nearby. Thomas had been busy.
Shaun kept her injured arm pressed to her as she sprinted toward Thomas. She tightened her grip on her sword and raised it high. She reached him just as his opponent smacked Thomas’s sword away with the edge of his shield.
Thomas cried out and fell back as the soldier struck out at him again. Shaun blocked the Mordwellians’s next strike and parried, knocking him back a step. Before the soldier could recover, Thomas rushed him, slamming into him with his shoulder.
The Mordwellian tripped and fell onto his back. Thomas reversed his blade and thrust it down into the Mordwellian’s throat, the only part not covered in black mail. When the soldier ceased breathing and Thomas pulled his sword out, his face was tight with pain. His chest heaved as he tried to catch his breath.
Shaun let Thomas clean and resheathe his sword, then asked, “Is your hand broken?”
“I don’t believe so. What about you?” He nodded at her arm and the bracer now covered in her blood.
“I will live.”
Shaun took her sword belt from Sara when she and Myra rejoined them.
Sara gasped, “Shaun, your arm!”
She shook her head. “No time to worry about it now.” She buckled her sword and belt around her hips again. “We need to keep moving. We should head for the river.”
Thomas shook his head. “That takes us too far from the main road to Parna.”
“We cannot take the main road. They’ll be looking for us there. And all other routes pass over open ground. Our chances of reaching Parna across open fields are narrow at best. The Kerning River is surrounded by woods. That’s our best option.”
No matter which way they went, the Mordwellians would be looking for them. The woods at least afforded them with cover. Thomas finally nodded in agreement.
The four of them jogged down the slope on the eastern side of the city. Cottages and outbuildings in the pastures burned and smoldered. The firelight was all that lit their way. A preternatural darkness hid the stars and moon above.
They went from one burned-out structure to another as they ran toward the river. The Mordwellians had even burnt the trees and bushes to eliminate as much cover as they could. Shaun thanked the gods that they had not set the woods aflame as well.
Halfway down the hill, Shaun heard someone shout.
The four of them stopped and turned back. Shaun and Thomas laid their hands on their swords. But she saw no one. Whether it had been a cry for help or an order to halt, she could not tell, but apprehension surged through her.
She told the others, “Keep going.”
They continued down the slope. The shout came again.
Shaun pointed to the smoldering remains of an outbuilding. “We’ll take cover there until they are gone.”
Sara touched her hand as they crouched behind the low remains of a wall. “What if they need help?”
Shaun said nothing.
The shout came a third time, much closer. Shaun’s pulse surged. She slid her sword from its sheath and laid it across her lap.
Thomas tapped her shoulder. He was peering over the top of the wall and gestured for her to do the same. He pointed out a figure running down the hillside—a man in billowing robes. It was too dark for her to tell if she knew him. Five individuals pursued him down the hill. He looked back and screamed again, a clear plea this time.
Myra said, “We should help him.” She and Sara were now looking over the wall as well.
Shaun weighed their options. She whispered to Thomas, “They outnumber us almost three to one.” Strangely though, none of his pursuers had swords drawn or appeared to be carrying a weapon of any kind.
One of the pursuers suddenly sped forward and shoved the man in the back. He tripped and cried out as he tumbled partway down the hill. The men behind him slowed to a walk. They let him try to crawl away.
When he scrambled to his feet again, another ran forward and struck him in the stomach. The man fell once more, coughing violently. The others watched. They were playing with him.
Shaun could not stand by and watch him be killed. She gripped her sword and started to rise.
Thomas grabbed her arm. “Wait.”
The man tried to squirm away again. His attackers formed a circle around him as she had seen wolves do once, during a hunting excursion with her parents.
A sudden burst of red lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the man and his attackers. Shaun’s breath caught in her throat. His attackers’ skin was dead white and so were their eyes. One of them grinned at the man, displaying a mouth full of pointed teeth, stained red. Sara clapped her hands over her own mouth to stifle a scream.
Myra whispered, “What are they?”
Shaun opened her mouth to say she did not know, but nothing came out. The circle of creatures suddenly converged and fell on the man. His terrified screams echoed down the hillside.
Sara buried her face in Shaun’s shoulder and covered her ears. Shaun’s blood ran cold as his screams became more urgent, changing from screams of terror to agony. The creatures tore at him with their bare hands and teeth. Within moments his cries and struggles began to weaken.
Thomas grabbed her arm again. She jumped.
“We need to leave. Now.”
He grabbed Myra, cowering next to him, and pulled her away from the wall. Shaun did the same with Sara. The four of them crept away from the cover of the burned building, heading toward the woods as swiftly as they dared. They kept low to avoid drawing the creatures’ attention.
The man’s screams suddenly ceased altogether.
A short, high-pitched sound, almost like a whistle, cut the silence. The sound raised the hair on the back of Shaun’s neck. She paused and turned to look back up the hill.
One of the creatures stood apart from the rest. It tilted its head skyward as if to sniff at the air. The image of a hunting wolf came to her mind again. Then it looked down the hill. Directly at her.
A bolt of primal fear shot through her. “No, no, no.”
The others stopped and turned to look up the hill with her. The pack broke into a run down the hillside.
Shaun spun back. “Godsdammit all, run! Don’t stop!”
She grabbed Sara’s hand and sprinted for the treeline. They crashed through the brush into the thick of the woods. The strange darkness thankfully did not reach there. Pale moonlight filtered down through shifting clouds and branches above as they ran. Shaun heard the creatures crash through the brush behind them, coming at a dead sprint.
She led Sara and the others deeper into the woods, hoping the creatures would give up. But the farther they went, the more treacherous the terrain was.
Branches snagged at their clothes and tree roots grabbed at their feet. Then the moonlight faded to nothing more than a dim light, the branches above too close together for the light to break through. If she did not know better, she might have thought the forest was on the side of the creatures chasing them.
She pressed ahead, blindly at times. A voice inside told her they had to slow down, but she ignored it as her breathing and the others’ became ragged with fatigue. The creatures behind them showed no signs of tiring from their pursuit.
Then Myra tripped and fell. She barely managed to muffle her cry. Thomas and Shaun helped her up, but when Myra put her weight on her right leg, she bit her lip and shook her head.
“I cannot walk.” Her eyes were wide with fear. She kept looking at the woods behind them.
Shaun cursed under her breath, also looking over her shoulder. The creatures were close. “Thomas, you must carry her.”
Thomas knelt down, so Myra could climb onto his back.
Shaun told him, “You go on. All three of you. I’ll stay behind to slow the creatures down and give you more time.”
“No,” Sara said. “You made a promise to protect me.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
Sara took her hand and pleaded, “No. Not like this.” Her eyes were as wide as Myra’s now.
Shaun set her jaw, unwilling to let Sara see the fear she also felt. “I promised your father I would give my life to get you safely away. I have no intention of dying in these woods, but if I must give my life in order for you to escape these things, I will.”
“No. Go now. Please. While you can.”
Thomas pulled Sara away. “We have to go, princess.”
Shaun turned away, unable to meet Sara’s eyes again. She expected Shaun to die. Shaun could not say she was wrong.
With only one good arm now, her chances of survival were slim. She pushed that thought aside. Swallowing hard, she wrapped both hands around the hilt of her sword as tight as she could to stop their shaking and pressed her back against a tree.
She took a deep
breath and waited.
SHAUN heard the creatures crashing through the woods. Her eyes darted back and forth, searching for them in the dark. She wondered if they would rush her all at once or come one at a time, battering at her until she was too tired to fight them while they tore her to shreds. Neither prospect comforted her.
She wished her father was there now. He lived through the Nine Years’ War, yet he never told her of any such fiends being in the Mordwellians’ arsenal. What in the nine hells were they?
One of the creatures broke through the trees ahead of her. Shaun screamed as it charged her, its hands curled like claws, mouth open in a hungry grin. She lashed out with her sword but stumbled back when she got a closer look at the creature and its white eyes. They seemed to glow even in the dim moonlight.
Her hesitation cost her. The creature knocked her sword blade aside and tried to wrap her in a bear hug, its teeth going for her throat. Shaun let herself drop as a dead weight before it could get a tight grip on her. It lost its hold on her, and she landed on her knees. She dove and rolled, twisting back in the creature’s direction when she came to her feet again.
It lunged at her once more, but she skipped backward, swinging for its throat. Her sword’s tip cut deep into the fiend’s pale flesh. Blood spurted from its neck, but the wound did not slow it down.
Shaun sidestepped its lunge, spinning as it passed her, and delivered a sweeping blow to the back of the creature’s legs. The blade buried itself in the back of one. The injured leg crumpled. Still, the devil scuttled forward on its arms, trying to get to Shaun. She jumped onto its back and plunged her sword down through the back of its head with all her might. Blood sprayed her arms. The creature spasmed and went limp.
She rose to her feet again, sword at the ready. She searched the woods around her for the other creatures. There had been five. Where were the others?
No movement caught her eye, but neither could she see far into the woods, even with the dim moonlight above. Everything had gone strangely quiet. The whisper of the nearby river was the only sound that reached her. The hairs on the back of her neck, however, told her that she was still not alone.
The pale devils were watching her. The first one had been just a test.
Shaun swallowed back a tremor of fear. Better not to wait. She ran off in the direction she thought the others had gone. The fight with the creature turned her around and confused her sense of direction. She let the sounds of the river guide her forward.
The woods abruptly broke off at a rocky incline. The Kerning River rushed along below the steep edge several paces in front of her. She slowed to a walk. The moonlight was brighter here, and she could look for signs of the others. But she saw no tracks on the rocky ground.
She rubbed her forehead, considering her options. She finally turned downriver, east in the direction of Parna, and jogged farther up the incline.
Another creature exploded out of the tree line and then another. Shaun spun toward the first and beheaded it. The second creature rushed her head-on. She thrust her blade through its middle, but that did not stop it.
The creature tackled her. She fell on her back with the snarling creature on top of her. Her sword arm and the hilt of her sword were wedged between her and the creature, jabbing into her chainmail-covered chest. The fiend’s white eyes stared into Shaun’s as it struggled against her sword, showing no emotion, just hunger.
It gnashed its teeth and wheezed out a cold, fetid breath in her face. The creature stank of blood, the blood of the man it killed on the hillside.
She gritted her teeth as she forced her injured left arm under the creature’s chin to keep it from biting her face. It dug its fingers into her ribs as if to try to pull them out with its bare hands. Her mail shirt stopped it, but a strange cold seeped through the mesh from the devil’s fingers. She cried out from the cold and the painful pressure in her sides, on top of her chest, and her arms.
This only seemed to delight the creature more. It pressed down on her harder. Getting air became a struggle. The weight of the creature against her own sword crushed down on her chest. Her injured arm under the creature’s chin shook with fatigue and then gave out.
The creature bit her ruined bracer as her arm fell across her face, shielding her. Foiled, it let go of her sides and grabbed her arm to pull it away from her face. Her desperate cry as she still tried to fight it was suddenly drowned out by the shriek of another of the pale fiends. It scrabbled up the rocky incline toward them.
This is how I will die—devoured by the demons of Mordwell.
The second creature pounced on her and the one on top of her. It knocked the impaled creature to the side, partially freeing her. She gasped air back into her chest. The two creatures tore at her, scratching her neck and arms.
She twisted between them with renewed strength and managed to get her sword arm free. Screaming, she battered at the creatures. She broke the impaled creature’s grip and smashed her fist into the face of the other, stunning it just long enough for her to squirm free of the tangle.
Half-scrambling, half-crawling, Shaun struggled to put distance between her and the creatures. But a hand shot out and grabbed her ankle, pulling her to the ground again. She flipped onto her back. The creature gripped her leg, wrapping its cold fingers around it, and bit her. Its teeth broke through her leggings, just above her boot top, and dug into her calf.
She screamed and kicked it in the head with her free leg. The devil squealed angrily and grabbed her other leg, pulling her back toward it and the other creature again. The other was struggling to get up, but her sword through its middle hampered its efforts.
Shaun fought against the creature holding her legs. Twisting, she freed the dagger strapped to her boot and slammed it into the side of the creature’s head, impaling it through the ear. The creature went limp and fell forward on her legs.
The other fiend howled as it got to its feet again. It had not bothered to pull her sword out.
Shaun kicked herself free of the dead creature. She dove forward to meet the impaled one rushing at her. Her fingers wrapped her around her sword’s hilt and she rolled backwards. As she rolled, she put both boots into the creature’s stomach, throwing it over her and freeing her sword.
The creature slammed to the ground. She spun to face it, letting out a howl of her own, and raised her sword high above her head. The blade came down on the creature’s pale face, cleaving it in two. The dying fiend spasmed, then went still.
The sudden silence felt deafening.
Shaun staggered back, coughing. She only made it two paces before she collapsed to her hands and knees. Her chest hitched as she coughed and choked back her sobs. Her whole body shook as she fought for control.
A hand grabbed her shoulder from behind.
Shaun spun around, swinging blindly.
Thomas shouted her name as he jumped backward out of her path. “Stop!”
She stared at him. “Thomas?”
He stepped toward her. “Are you—”
She backed away from him. “Don’t. Don’t sneak up on me! Not here. Not now.” She sat on the rocky ground.
“I’m sorry.” He looked around at the dead creatures. “We need to go before the others find us.”
Her hands still shook as she wiped her face. “There were only five. I killed four.”
“And I don’t want to wait to see if more of them come looking for us. Come on. We need to go.”
Shaun shouted, “Gods above, I need a moment!”
He frowned but said nothing else.
She closed her eyes and listened to the river. Calmer, she whispered, “I killed a man. Soldiers. Devils from some Mordwellian nightmare.” She paused. “I almost died. Twice.”
“I need a moment.”
Thomas crouched in front of her, putting his hands on her knees. This time she did not back away. She appreciated his human warmth after the unreal cold of the creatures.
He said quietly, “I know. But we don’t have it.”
She met his eyes. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Neither do I.” He sighed. “We weren’t prepped for this, but we have a job to do. You are the best fighter I know. We need you. None of us will make it if you give up now.”
She said nothing. He was right. She could not give up. Sara’s survival depended on her.
“You are injured and tired. Come with me. I found shelter, where we can rest for the night without fear. Sara and Myra are waiting for us.”
Shaun took a deep breath and allowed him to give her a hand up. She picked up her sword again and limped over to retrieve her dagger. The place where the creature bit her suddenly burned and ached at the same time.
She examined her sword and dagger in the moonlight. Both blades were a mess of dried blood and her sword blade was lined with scratches from the giant’s ax blade. It would need sharpened and cleaned. She slid it back into its sheath for now.
Thomas led her up the incline to a narrow gap in the top of the rocky cliff. “There’s a cave below the surface of the cliff.”
“I thought you didn’t like small spaces.”
He nodded at the woods. “I like being hunted by those things even less.”
She could not argue with that.
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