So why the sneaky elbow instead of a fist?
It just didn’t seem right, Galager thought, at the same time mystified as to why this monster had picked a fight with him on this gray, dreary morning. But that’s what bullies did. Time had somehow snapped to a crawl as he tracked that battering ram in the corner of his eye. All he could do was expect the worst as it circled closer, inch by inch, second by second. His reactions, his movements—his entire body—may have been subject to the laws of time, but his thoughts? Not so much.
The other conscripts—none of them friends—hooted and hollered as his head was nearly torn from his shoulders and blood and saliva scythed from his mouth. He flung his arms out as he fell. How many times had he been knocked down in this dungpit of an academy? A hundred? A thousand? His hands hit slick clay and slid out from underneath him. His vision darkening, he got up on a wobbly knee and rolled onto his back as the gigantic form of Knuckles hurtled toward him.
But the collision of flesh and bone never happened. Instead, a noiseless flash of bright light engulfed Knuckles and he vanished! One moment he was there, and the next he was gone—just like the day he finally got tired of his father’s thrashings and his mother’s scoldings and ran away from home. Poof! Just one of his many regrets.
A peal of thunder growled in the distance, followed by a gust of wind. Back from the brink, he got up on his elbows as the ground trembled. The gawkers were gone too, not just Knuckles.
He twisted onto a shoulder, spit blood on the dirt, and looked to see what lay behind him. No one there, only that disgraceful bell—the only early exit from this sword academy. Ring that sucker and red gold would be pulsing through his bloodstream within minutes. And what happened after that was anyone’s guess. A fast trip to the grave, most likely.
Or maybe I’m already dead!
Several more explosions befell his ears in rapid succession, getting closer by the second. The ground shook where he lay. Rivers of converging storm clouds slid in from the south and swirled on a point far overhead. Three wind funnels formed and descended halfway to the ground and a finger of pure energy spat from the black roiling clouds and tore through the portico over the bell, sending shards of wooden beams and posts flying in all directions and leaving the remnants burning and smoking. Lightning struck again—the exposed bell this time, its clear tone ringing from the blast. In quick succession, another half-dozen bolts gripped the bell in ardent embraces of fire. It glowed red because of the repeated strikes. One last thunderbolt leapt toward the ground, only this one pierced his heart and filled his sight with a red sheet of misery.
A giant fist thundered from the sky. Knuckles again! Crap!
The storm? Gone!
Galager jerked sideways. The fist impacted the ground near his left ear, sending mud and water flying in all directions. Another paw rained downward, although this time the kid didn’t miss. It caught Galager on the cheek, and another white flash swallowed him whole. Knuckles disappeared yet again.
Groaning, Galager got onto his feet. It was still raining in this—dream—but the rain didn’t seem right. He caught some of it in his palm. The drops turned to puffs of dust as they struck his skin. The downpour affected everything it touched. The nearby barracks of the Solsace Weapon Academy began to dissolve under its onslaught. With each drop of black rain a bit of stone or wood turned into a puff of dust. Roofs and walls dissolved as he watched, heavy sheets of black grit falling away in mere seconds, swirling like fog and then collecting on the ground. He spun wildly, fearfully, surveying his surroundings. The only structure left standing was the bell-dais. It rose defiantly, alone and strong in its ability to resist the black rain. It also seemed to be calling to Galager, “Ring me! Ring me! Ring me!”
And his silent reply, “No way! Screw you!”
A line of dark silhouettes advanced through the gray wisps. Viilazian soldiers! His heart hammering with fear, he blinked, and now they had become ogres. Ellbred! He turned to run, but he was surrounded. In seconds they were upon him. Hands stronger than bear paws grabbed his limbs and twisted and pulled them torturously. The monsters overwhelmed him easily although fifteen months of academy had firmed and strengthened his sinewy body. One of the ogres carried a hammer and had the face of his father. The monster swung the implement. Again and again it descended, each strike a life-splintering blow.
“What have you done?” came the ethereal voice of a woman. The ellbred were gone now, just his enraged father and the vague shape of a woman standing behind him. “This is all your fault!” Again, that familiar voice.
“Mother?” Galager wailed, just as the hammer struck one last time, sending him back to—Knuckles. No!
But Knuckles had stopped fighting. He was just sitting there on Galager’s stomach, knees on both sides of his body with his arms hanging limply at his sides. He had a confused expression on his face. Knuckles apparently didn’t like the idea of pummeling someone who refused to fight back.
“Hit me!” screamed Galager. “I gotta go back! There’s more I gotta see!”
Knuckles stared down at him, dumbfounded.
“Hit him!” arose a voice from the throng.
But Knuckles had had enough. Galager could see that, so he reached up with both hands and grabbed Knuckles’ right wrist and tried to pull it down. “Hit me!”
“You’re crazy!” shouted Knuckles as he tore himself away from Galager, stumbled into the surrounding crowd, and truly disappeared this time.
With Knuckles out of the picture, Galager let his body collapse into the mud. His head pulsing with pain, he inhaled the scents of moist evergreen and wet, earthy clay. A drop or two of rain struck his forehead. But his thoughts were on the vision.
Concentrate, you idiot, concentrate!
Some of the images were still there, bouncing around in his head, although he couldn’t quite make sense of them. If he could somehow piece them together something important about his parents might be revealed. He was sure of it. He needed that vision to regurgitate more memories. Maybe he could knock himself back into it? So he pounded both sides of his head with his own fists. But hitting himself seemed a waste of time, and it hurt, so he dropped his fists into the mud. Between the shifting forms of the gawkers he caught a glimpse of the bell-dais, no worse for wear than before the vision. Again, the bell called to him, pulled at him, summoned him.
But to ring that bell meant certain death. Well, maybe not certain death. There was always a chance—the tiniest sliver of a chance—the red gold he’d be forced to assimilate would turn him into a wizard. Not that he ever wanted to be one. More than likely, though, that magickal glitter would turn his desperate ass into a knuckle-dragging ogre, one they’d stick with a sword and haul to the burn pit. And then how’d he escape this aggrieved land, this war—his past—if he was dead?
A boy named Kenyon nudged him with a boot. “Freckles, you okay?”
Galager pointed a furious eye at his fellow conscript—one more face among hundreds here who never became a friend. Not a single one! “Don’t call me that!”
He rose to his feet and slung mud off his clothing as he made his mind up about the bell and relented to its call. There really wasn’t any other choice, although it would probably kill him. Come to think of it, he had lots of reasons to ring that cursed thing; and one good one, to rid himself of this miserable world. He turned toward the central plaza, squared his shoulders, and took heavy, final steps. He had to squeeze in between several of the gawkers who at first didn’t give way to him, but he pushed thru the tight crowd and finally popped free of it. He picked up his pace and strode defiantly to confront his destiny.
Someone behind him realized what he was up to. “Freckles' gonna ring the bell!”
A murmur of disbelief erupted behind him. Galager didn’t care. He walked briskly across the pitch, straight through any puddles in his way. The throng sloshed along with him, following not too far behind. “Good riddance!” shouted one of the pitiless conscripts closest to him.
Forty more paces and he arrived under the ivy-covered portico. In front of him rose the bell-dais, fully intact. It was a simple structure. A circular stone platform, about a foot high and ten feet in diameter, formed the base. A stone crossbar capped two non-descript stone posts at the center of the platform, and a bronze bell hung from the crossbar. The bell itself was as plain as everything else here at this wretched place.
Now or never!
Galager leapt onto the platform, surged toward the bell, and rang it.
In the first instant a tremendous weight lifted off his shoulders as if he had fulfilled a destiny or accomplished an impossible task. A wave of relief pushed aside his troubles and passed through his body as his defiance rang throughout the academy. He wondered why he hadn’t done this sooner. From this central location he had a clear line of sight into the adjoining four company wards radiating out like spokes in a wheel. The surrounding activity had abruptly ceased at the peal of the bell. Every single, sorry, sweaty, panting, pitiless face in each of the four companies stared at him. A half minute later a door banged open from the headmaster’s building at the far end of 1st Company, and an old man in a brown robe emerged from the open portal. He was the headmaster of this academy, as ancient as these buildings themselves. His name, Baryon Dirac, an eludrian—a wizard. And he had a grim expression underneath his beard.
The old man’s first step toward the plaza shattered the state of paralysis that had overcome everyone the moment the bell had sounded. Students wrestling on the ground or those knocked down during combat picked themselves off the pitch. Those already standing, including the instructors, began their way toward Galager.
Dirac limped forward as a crowd formed around the dais. The instructors, meanwhile, bruised their way through the tightening group to the edge of the short platform. These veterans formed a wall of muscle and leather between the dais and the conscripts behind them, forcing the students to peer over or between their shoulders toward Galager. The crowd parted respectfully for Dirac and he arrived at the edge of the dais. He considered Galager before placing a sandaled foot on the platform, grunted, and lifted himself onto it. The old wizard stopped a few feet from Galager. He started to say something, changed his mind, and looked down at his feet and shook his head once in apparent dismay.
“Sword!” Dirac stated loudly.
Someone slogged through the mud behind Galager. Another door banged open, then the returning footfalls. Galager twisted around, saw a sword being passed forward through the crowd—a real, razor-sharp falchion, not a wooden training sword. The weapon arrived at the edge of the dais. An instructor with gnarly hands grabbed it, walked behind Dirac, and positioned himself next to the lead instructor here at the academy, a veteran named Dressil, a real hard heart who liked to kick people.
The headmaster cleared his throat, drawing Galager’s attention back toward him. Lines of concern furrowed the old man’s face. He squinted despite being in shadows, and his contorted mouth, barely visible through the tangled nest of gray beard, made it seem he was in pain.
“Do you understand the need for the sword?”
“The red gold—it’ll probably turn me into an ogre.”
“Why are you doing this?” A desolate whisper. “It’s been years since anyone successfully transcended. Weren’t you aware?”
Galager wanted to spill his guts. Wanted to tell him how much he hated his life and how he hated being at this dungpit with all these cruel boys and instructors who did nothing but make his pitiful existence even more miserable than it was. He had nothing to live for, no one to love, and his dreams of escaping this war were fantasies. He wanted to tell him about the vision, how it had teased him about memories of his parents, and how it had compelled him to ring this stupid bell. And now that he had, never again would he suffer a beating, or clean the accumulated excrement from the gong pits, or waste countless days learning to be a soldier, or eat that tasteless gruel served to them each day, or spend his time alone although he lived with hundreds of other conscripts. With this simple gesture, the ringing of a not-so-remarkable bell, all his problems would go away. As usual, though, he kept it all inside. Hide the truth!
“Don’t worry. I got this.”
The old man sighed. An expression of sympathy appeared on his face. “I must honor the bell. Your life no longer belongs to you.”
“I’ve seen this before,” said Galager, wondering whether his life had ever truly belonged to him. Eighteen years, and now it was over before it began. He suddenly had to fight to hold back tears. My God, I’ve killed myself!
Despite his vision-induced determination, he suddenly realized he had made a mistake. He remembered that boy who had undergone this same ritual the year before, and his excruciating death. He couldn’t remember his name. It seemed so long ago. The boy had started convulsing within minutes after assimilating the red gold. And not very long afterward a sword had finished his worldly sufferings and his body dragged off to the burn pit, where they then harvested the priceless red gold from his worthless body.
“Um, maybe I made a mis—"
“Silence!” ordered the wizard! “Too late.”
Dirac blinked dolefully. He lifted his wrinkled hands, unfolded a bit of red cloth he had held concealed, took out two objects and held them up for all to see. Resting in an upturned palm were two metallic round balls, pearls as they were called, the color of blood, each about the size of a walnut. A faint, scarlet aura surrounded each of the talismans.
Dirac cleared his throat and spoke in a formal voice. “It’s not without great courage and sacrifice this young man—" He scrunched his face in puzzlement, peered at Galager and asked in another whisper, “Your name?”
“Galager Ghan—" Whoa! Hide the truth!
“Hey, Red, forget your name?” burst a nearby taunt followed by scattered laughter.
Dirac silenced the distractions with a sweep of his scorching gaze. The crowd quiet again, Galager whispered his answer to the old man. His mother’s maiden name, Swift, may have been the one he used since running away, but sometimes his tongue would slip, as it just had.
“Where was I?” resumed Dirac. “Oh yes, it’s not without great courage this young hero, Galager Swift, has offered his unending service to the Commonland. Few are those chosen to be empowered by Jhalaveral to defend our sovereigns, our land, our people, our way of life.
“Transcend or transfigure!” continued the eludrian as if giving a speech. “Only God can choose. I’ll administer Jhalaveral’s blood to this young hero now.” His aging voice and eyes revealed sorrow and resignation. This ritual was clearly a burden to this man, a painful duty made necessary because of the constant need to find more eludrians to fight this never-ending Viilazian War. How many times had he participated in an innocent’s transfiguration?
Dirac once again presented the two balls of red gold. “Open your garment.”
Galager complied, clumsily unbuttoning his tunic as Dressil joined the eludrian at the center of the dais. A dagger flashed. Dressil delivered a short but deft slice a few inches above Galager’s exposed sternum, a cut surprisingly lacking any sting. After ensuring blood flow, Dressil stepped away and took a position slightly behind Dirac.
Dirac stared intently at the cut, then pressed one of the eludria pearls onto Galager’s wound. A sizzle rose up from his chest along with a wisp of smoke. Galager tried to get a look, but the red gold had already disappeared into his bloodstream.
Dirac withdrew his hand and had Galager close his tunic. “It’s done!” declared the wizard. “Jhalaveral’s blood flows within you. Now we wait. Not long.”
Galager lifted a hand halfway to his chest before dropping it so no one could guess his growing discomfort. Hide the truth. Would the pain become worse now, because of the red gold and its horrifying effects?
A warm sensation blossomed deep in his chest. It radiated outward to his extremities, and then another white flash filled the plaza. At the same time, a wave of guilt and shame replaced his fear. The vision had returned in full force, and for the first time in years Galager remembered certain details from the day his parents began to yell at one other. It wasn’t the first time they had fought, just their last.
“Don’t hit her!” he remembered himself screaming.
He remembered the balled fist. She went down hard, blood everywhere. This wasn’t normal, even for them. He ran to her, but his father—the gallant soldier everyone so admired—turned and hit him too, knocking him across the wooden floor of the ramshackle hovel.
“Stay back, ya whelp, or I’ll do both of ya. You don’t even look like me with all that red hair and freckles. She betrayed me! Jimy Slage, no less. I’ll kill him, too, when I’m done here!” Afterward, the monster glared down at his mother, readying another blow.
How could I have forgotten all this?
Galager remembered jumping to his feet. He saw the hammer they had used earlier to fix some boards, and ran for it. But the disturbing images suddenly became jumbled and confused. He had to struggle to piece them together. First, the brute, hitting his mother again, and then coming at him, stomping the floor like a roaring ogre and causing the boards to bounce. He took the hammer from Galager’s petrified hand and slammed him to the floor. Next thing he knew the hammer was speeding toward his own face. He recalled a white flash. Just like the ones he was experiencing today. His stepfather—dead? A twisted heap on the floor. But how? And his mother again, crumpled behind her husband on the boards, scowling at her son with a jaw covered in blood. Hatred radiated from her face like puss from a wound. It was his mother, her of all people, who had afterward rebuked him for stopping the attack.
What have you done? This is all your fault!
And then she dropped her head and she, too, was dead.
These resurgent memories were not as he had remembered. All this time he thought he had run away from abusive parents and adopted his mother’s name to help ensure he wouldn’t be returned to them. But the fact of the matter was he had killed them!
The fabric of existence ripped violently in half as Master Dirac’s excited voice sucked Galager through a dark crack and set him back down into present reality.
“Time!” declared the eludrian loudly. “That’s enough time!”
Galager strained to recall more details of those repressed memories, but now all he could see was his mother’s eyes permanently closing after blaming him for everything.
A quick glance toward Dirac revealed he had a smile on his face. He looked . . . hopeful?
How could I have forgotten all this?
Dirac held up the second pearl. “Your hand,” he ordered, “give it to me.”
I killed them both!
Galager shook his head clear and raised a fist. Dirac reached out and pried nervous fingers apart and placed the remaining pearl onto a quivering palm.
“Jehlude Jhalaveral! Blood of God!” exclaimed the old man, his arms suddenly flailing. The pearl had a scarlet glow around it. Galager could only gape at the spectacle. “My dear boy, this is good news. Yes, very good news. It’s been a long spell, but Jhalaveral has done magnificent work this day.” The eludrian gripped Galager’s shoulders with frail hands and revealed his toothless grin. “My boy, Jhalaveral has given you a gift, given us all a gift. By his own blood he has empowered you with his preternatural might. The drought is over!”
The old man released him, took a step backward and coughed a few times before continuing in a more formal manner. “Galager Swift, chosen one, the eludria has accepted you, and it works within you, as evidenced by your still beating heart and the aura in your palm, to burn away your transgressions and to cleanse and purify your heart and body, as well as to instill within you the capacity to defeat our vile enemies. You’ve successfully transcended, young one.”
Galager stared in disbelief at the old man.
“You, my boy, are now an eludrian! Welcome to the Covern!”
No, I’m a murderer! And my name? Slage?
Ada Halentine watched a shooting star rip across the black sky. It perfectly reflected the way she and her companions had ridden across the vast expanse of the Commonland these past eight days.
“A gorgeous night,” she proclaimed to the three men sharing her campfire. Two others were out walking the perimeter somewhere, as per the orders of the man tending the fire.
Kivich’s eyes glinted as he jammed another piece of wood into the sputtering flames. “It is indeed,” the falchioneer confirmed. “A gift.”
She casually gnawed on a bit of hard bread and a yellow apple, and considered what her own greatest gift might be. Life itself, came an answer from somewhere within. By any account she should be dead. She had survived her recent transcendence ritual. As I knew I would. Her only lasting regret about the whole affair was that her impulses had caused her parents so much distress.
“I hope they’re okay,” she remarked, hearing a twig snap over by the line of horses as they shuffled and nickered.
“Who?” asked Kivich. A burst of embers flew high as he deftly reached into the flames with his falchion to adjust the log he had just added. The other falchioneers, Coop and Black, listened contentedly as they chomped strips of dried lamb and swigged water from their canteens.
“My parents. Do you think I was unfair to them? Am I a bad daughter for forcing my father’s hand?”
Kivich sat back on his blanket and pointed his face toward her. She had watched him many times in the wings of her palatial home. Always ready to do her father’s bidding, this man was one of his most trusted aides. Normally a clean-shaven, serious man—a stranger to a smile—his honey hair was parted in the middle and fell to both sides of his neck, and his facial hair was more a burnt honey during these rare moments he allowed it to be seen. He was known as a skilled swordsman and underwent daily training sessions, and as such was not the normal variety of diplomatic officer with a bulging gut. Instead, he was tight and lean, and young enough to keep a woman’s eyes from wandering. When she learned Kivich had been chosen to escort her to Lavalor she became ecstatic. His reputation as being harsh and uncompromising didn’t bother her too much either. Rather, she knew she’d be safer out here because of it.
“Bad daughter?” Kivich echoed. “Not likely. I imagine raising children to respect you is perhaps the most challenging thing one can attempt. There’s no question your father knows you deeply respect him. Besides, I think it’s Lord Sawdar who might be feeling the most disappointed.”
She hadn’t expected Kivich to mention that slimy lowlife. It almost made her jaw drop open. “Lord Sawdar’s a fool if he thinks I’d ever let a shriveled old ass like him touch me. If I do marry, it’ll be to a man of my own choosing, not one of my father’s.”
Kivich ignited a smile from across the fire. “Lady Hal’sawdar does have a certain ring to it though.”
Ada picked up a twig and threw it toward him. “It most certainly does not!” she said. She returned his smile after he ducked from the projectile.
She caressed the ring on her right middle finger with the tip of its sibling thumb. A recent gift from her father, it was a simple gold band inset with a tiny, black opal. It had once belonged to Constance Fane, the only other female eludrian in the entire history of the Commonland. After Ada transcended, her father spared no expense in its hasty procurement. Did Constance, too, suffer the curses of arranged marriages and vulgar men?
“Do you have children?” she asked. “I have to admit it’s bothered me I never will.” It was the first time she had revealed that dull ache to anyone.
The journey had given her time to reflect on her chosen path; namely, her decision to risk death and undergo the transcendence ritual. And although infertility was the one permanent consequence of infusing oneself with red gold, eight days of riding in a saddle had allowed her time to make peace with her choices. She left Vivona believing she was damaged goods, unworthy of love, because of the eludria pulsing in her veins. She felt that in every fiber of her body. But out here in the endless wilderness she had come to a startling epiphany. If her sacrifice meant a lifetime without children, at least now she had the wondrous capacity to bring the fight to the enemy. It comforted and even excited her that she could now oppose those who had long ago invaded the homeland, killing her people, and raping the Commonland of its eludria. Our eludria! She’d just have to make sure the Viilazians paid dearly for her sacrifice.
Another man came to mind: Valter Vreman. In recent months, Vreman, a powerful eludrian about the same age as Kivich, had been making unwanted advances. It all began harmlessly, a few cryptic words here and there, lurid stares from across a room. Things that didn’t bother her much. But once she transcended, and once he became her temporary teacher in the ways of magick, the red gold she had infused had somehow changed him too. Knowing she’d depart in the near future, and his chance gone forever, Vreman’s behavior became aggressive and downright creepy. At one point she walked into one of their sessions and he was waiting for her without any clothes on! A firm kick to his bollocks was the only thing that had kept him off her that day. Glad to be done with him, her spine shivered just thinking about him, and she hoped she’d never see him again. It occurred to her that escaping lascivious men, and her parent’s designs, were factors that drove her to transcend.
Two birds, one stone!
Everyone tried to change her mind, of course, not just her father. “Too dangerous,” they all said. “No one’s transcended in over a dozen years. This is pure folly, you’re going to end up dead after that red gold transforms you into a monster.”
But she was a survivor. And there was never a doubt in her mind she’d transcend and become an eludrian. She was as certain of that outcome as the day she knew—before her mother—she would soon have a sister.
Kivich peered at her through the thin veil of smoke. “Some soldiers, like your father,” he answered, “have balanced a family in one hand and a sword in the other. But it’s not a talent I share.” He stretched his lithe frame forward and adjusted the sputtering chunk of oak with his falchion, the same type of weapon issued to almost every Commonland soldier. It was also the namesake of the falchioneers, six distinct bodies of professional soldiers whose disparate loyalties lay with the leaders of the Commonland.
“Is it a talent, or a choice?” asked Ada.
“A difficult question to answer.”
“Hmm, well then, why are you a falchioneer? You’re handsome, smart, charming, and resourceful. You could be something . . . more.”
“Serving is sufficient,” he answered. “The Commonland needs me, and I need her. You of all people should understand that. You’re as loyal to Severcal as anyone I know.”
Ada gestured for the nearest soldier to pass his canteen over to her. She took a deep swallow of water and handed it back to the speechless man.
Kivich laughed. “Ada, you should have been born a man.”
“My father would’ve liked that,” she said, laughing with him. “He’d never admit it, but I can tell he wishes I was another of his sons. In this endless war, the kingdom values men more than women. I guess that’s why I’m always trying to prove myself to him. I think growing up with two older brothers probably has something to do with me being a tomboy, too. And why Jana never became one herself, I’ll never understand.”
“Your sister seems closer to your mother.”
“I guess. But I’m sure my father preferred we both were boys.”
“Not at all. Your time working at the Megador Academy hasn’t been wholly wasted on simple administrative tasks. Few women have endeavored to learn to swing a sword the way you have. And more importantly, any child of Oather Halentine is not to be underestimated—even if that child is a woman. But he is worried about you.”
Kivich possessed a true reverence for her father, Mayor of Vivona, sole survivor of the Red River Blight Hunt, the hero who returned home and leveraged his legendary deeds into the mayorship of one of Megador’s most affluent villages. That reverence was probably the biggest reason her father favored him so much.
Ada ripped another chunk from her apple, talking while she chewed. “He shouldn’t be worried about me. I can take care of myself.”
“That may be true to an extent,” Kivich said, humoring her. “But you are young. You’re not as invincible as you deem yourself to be. None of us are.” He remembered something. “Did you know I made an oath to your father?”
She cocked her head. “What oath?”
“Not to let anyone, or anything, hurt you.”
Of all the men she had seen serve under her father, Kivich had few peers when it came to ruthless competency. Men like him had one thing on their mind: to serve with honor and distinction under the great Oather Halentine in the hope the flags in Megador would later notice them. Lofty assignments followed such recognition. Significant rewards too, such as land grants. Failure wasn’t an option to these soldiers. Mistakes often meant an abrupt end to their aspirations and a quick assignment to a remote watchtower. Kivich would never let anything happen to her. Not in a million years. Oath, or no oath.
They sat in silence for some time, consuming the last of their modest meal as Ada admired the stars. The man, Coop, belched as he lay back on the ground, putting his hands under his head. His warmate eventually followed his example.
“Rest while you can,” ordered Kivich to his men. “I’ll wake you both in a few hours for your turn at watch.”
But just a breath later he sat up erect then jumped to his feet with his falchion in hand. Ada flinched because of the sudden movement and felt a rush of excitement, or maybe fear, run through her system. She rose from the ground as Coop and Black got up.
Sounds filtered out of the darkness—someone running through the brush. A man broke into the firelight and Kivich barely stopped himself from striking him. Thankfully, it was Hoggs, one of the two falchioneers on guard duty.
“What’s happening?” demanded Kivich.
They heard someone else approaching. A worried face entered the circle of firelight as a second soldier stumbled into the clearing. “Something’s coming our way,” the man, Dylin, reported. “Ellbred, I’m sure. Five to ten of them, judging by all the grunting.”
One or two skulks, Ada calculated as she buckled on her own weapon.
“How far?” demanded Kivich.
“Two or three minutes.”
“Are they carrying torches?”
“No, Banner,” he said, addressing Kivich by his rank.
Kivich spun toward Ada. “Put the fire out!” he ordered. “The rest of you—to the horses. We have to get out of here. Now!”
Ada kicked dirt onto the campfire. In the meantime, all five falchioneers ran toward the horses, untied them, and led them through the encampment past her.
“Forget our saddles and blankets,” Kivich instructed in a low voice. “Forget everything except your weapons. No time. If we’re lucky, they won’t detect our camp.” He then joined Ada and together they stomped out the remaining embers. Afterward, two of the falchioneers pushed her up onto her horse.
“This way,” said Coop, jerking his horse in the desired direction, away from the advancing creatures. “Follow me.”
With everyone mounted, they moved out in a brisk gait in single file with Ada’s palfrey third in line behind Coop and Black’s animals. Kivich rode directly behind her and Hoggs and Dylin were at the rear of the line. “Ready your falchions,” Kivich whispered just loud enough for all to hear. “Remain quiet.”