Shinvar grabbed the Knight-Captain’s horse from its custodians. She mounted and raced for the narrow pass out of the Elves’ mountain city. Gone. Just like that.
So fast, I had not realised Knight-Captain Meister was dead. I glanced at his still form and wondered when his last breath had escaped him. The Elven guards all looked to me. Every shining eye envenomed with accusation.
One beautiful fellow grasped me by the arm. His lip curled in an expression of such disgust and anger he almost ceased being handsome. The stream of words he spat in my face were in his own language. But I needed no translator. The bolt in the Knight-Captain’s side told most of the story and the reason for the Mountain Elves’ ire was painfully clear. They were furious that the Knight-Captain had not died sooner. Much sooner.
It was an ugly message to read in so many beautiful faces. And more were gathering. Summoned by the yell of alarm or a mood that blew through their community like an ill wind, Mountain Elves emerged from their homes and gardens to congregate on the paths and terraces. To watch and question and murmur in fear.
My accoster shook me, urging some response. But what could I offer?
Hoofbeats sounded in the pass, like the drums of war being struck. Shinvar pulled her borrowed steed to a halt.
“Leave him go!” she commanded. “Save the blame for later. What’s done is done and they’re here now.”
My guard unhanded me. All the guards around me drew their blades or unslung their bows, but stopped there. As though they had worn weapons their whole lives but had no clue what to do with them.
“I count over a thousand infantry. Twelve hundred, perhaps.” Shinvar drew her own blade and pointed its tip behind her, towards the pass. “Some forty riders on Snarltails. And siege engines amassed behind the tree line. May the Huntress help us all. But for the time being we need to save ourselves. Every warrior needs to hold this pass. At all cost. All cost. But you – ” she pointed her blade at the fellow who’d grabbed me “ – you need to pick ten of your best scouts and show me and my friend the other way out of here. NOW!”
The Elf, thus addressed, wasted only half a second being startled, then threw orders in every direction. The entire crowd leaped to action, swelled by greater numbers springing from every cavern and building.
While most rushed to the pass, as ordered, others burst forth bearing more swords and bows – weapons by the armful – and tossed them to every unarmed man and woman. From somewhere, our horses were fetched out. I was handed reins and helped into the saddle. Shinvar hopped from her borrowed mount onto Surefire’s back. And my Elven accoster helped himself onto the Knight-Captain’s steed. He steered us swiftly through the tide of Elves surging the other way. Ten fighters flocked after us.
Somewhere under that stampede, I remembered, lay Knight-Captain Meister. Deceased. By accident or design, he had brought this chaos here. Now he was first to be lost in its midst.
We rode through a sea of anxious, frightened, determined and beautiful faces. The peace of the place was as forgotten as the Knight-Captain.
Then the stones and fireballs rained down.
Arcing in over the town’s natural battlements, the ammunition sang – in shrill whistles and black smoke. They slammed into the mountain walls, crashed onto bridges and terraces and cracked the stems of mushroom buildings. Houses and palaces toppled and burned. Some were smashed into shingle under direct hits from boulders. Missiles splashed into the river, hissing fountains of spray and steam. People ran and screamed and dived for cover and dived to cover one another. Paradise shook to its core as we rode on through.
“Exactly what I was afraid of!” yelled Shinvar. “Come on!”
We spurred our horses on and our Elven company sprinted beside us.
We struck a path that climbed into a cleft in the mountain wall. Behind us, the Elven city shattered under the punishing bombardment. Flames leaped high where greenery had flourished. Warriors, men and women, crammed into the narrow pass where an Orkan vanguard now pushed through. Above the ugly heads of the infantry a vicious Snarltail wedged its way in, threatening to crush its allies in its hunger to get at the Elven defenders. Its rider bowed low in the saddle to allow the wolf-head tail to curl in overhead and snap its fangs at the sword-blades that waited for it.
Déjà vu, I thought. As we rode into the cleft and the scene of hard-pressed defenders and ruin disappeared from view. Leaving another town behind us, on a mission to save it.
Did the urgency hurt more because this was the second time? Or because this place had been so beautiful?
[To Be Continued…]