He woke with a groan, lying on his back beneath a blazing sun. Putting an arm up to shade his eyes, the youth touched his other hand to his forehead and winced. The cut didn't feel too deep, but it was going to leave a nasty scar. For some reason, the young man couldn't remember anything that had happened in the last few hours, and his back was killing him. He reached under his back and felt something hard. No wonder. He pulled out a rock the size of his fist and chucked it into the woods that surrounded the glade where he lay. He sat up gingerly and quickly felt for other injuries. As he examined a bruised ankle, sandy bangs hanging in his eyes, he saw something shiny in the long grass. He looked closer, then quickly turned away, hand over his mouth. It was a bloody arm, the dismembered appendage still grasping a dagger.
Now he remembered.
The charge was magnificent; shields bright in the rising sun, swords gleaming, king's emblem upon every breast. The orders: scale the ridge, charge down the hill and drive the enemy into the cliffs. Simple and deadly. They should have been victorious with hardly a casualty. The fight was going well, at first. The barbarian troops were routed, and the survivors were driven over the hill towards the forest before the cliffs. The enemy had their backs to the wall.
Tobias ran with the other soldiers and squires, the cavalry galloping before them. As they came running over the ridge, he was aware of a presence in his mind. Then he saw them.
Black robed and hooded, they stood at the edge of the forest and silently awaited the army. Shoulder to shoulder, they blocked the path of the soldiers. The barbarians split off to either side, giving them a wide berth, and fled into the darkness of the pines.
Malice, cool distain, Tobias could feel it like ice seeping through his pores. It was like as if an aura of hatred flowed from the hooded figures. His mind screamed danger and every hair on his body stood on end. The feeling grew the closer he got to the forest. He slowed to a stop and looked around. No one else seemed disturbed, many soldiers gave him quizzical looks as they pursued the retreating barbarians.
'How can they not feel it?' he wondered.
The cavalry leader Sir Gadogar didn't seem to sense anything either. With a roar, he urged his mare even faster down the hill, outstripping the other horsemen. The hooded figures parted swiftly, leaving half dozen spaces empty in their line. Tobias wondered why they did not run; Sir Gadogar was not more than a fourth of a mile away. Suddenly, heavy carts erupted from the woods. Dozens of men pushed ballista, each one twice as high as a man and armed with huge battle-axes. One black figure near the center of the group raised his right arm and dropped it with a chopping motion.
Then it was no longer a fight, it was a slaughter.
The first axe hit Sir Gadogar directly between the helmet and breastplate. His mare, Stormherald, screamed in terror. Sir Gadogar's body slid to the ground as Stormherald reared up and slashed the air with her hooves. Tobias ducked as another blade whistled through the air. It struck the man behind him, slicing into his abdomen and pinning him to the ground. The man was dead before he even had time to take another breath. Screams rent the air as other projectiles found their marks. Every axe found blood to spill.
'It's as if the missiles are guided. Commander Ryhart must be warned,' Tobias thought, but his legs seemed to be rooted to where he stood near the top of the ridge. Arms and legs seemed to disappear from their owners before his eyes. The cavalry was obliterated, and the remaining men were frantically running. As they attempted to climb back up the hill, enemy arrows cut them down from behind. Tobias threw up his shield just in time to block an arrow himself. It stuck in the red dragon insignia of the shield, quivering between its open jaws. He risked a glance up the hill. No one had yet succeeded in gaining the other side and safety. Out of the corner of his eye, Tobias saw a dark blur race towards him. He dived to the ground just as a coal-black horse streaked past. Tobias sprang to his feet as the creature wheeled round and came at him again. Prepared to fight, suddenly Tobias saw a flash of white on the horse's flank.
"Stormherald! It's me!" Tobias cried.
'A horse might do what the men cannot,' he thought. As the mare ran past again, she slowed to allow Tobias to grab her bridle and pull himself into the saddle. Stormherald made for the summit. Tobias patted her white lightning-shaped mark gratefully. The ridge came closer with every second. Stormherald breached the top of the hill, but suddenly she ground to a halt. She looked towards the west and the commander's camp, then down at the hooded figures. She snorted and began to gallop back down the slope, directly into the tree line.
"Storm, you're going the wrong way!" shouted Tobias, tugging sharply on the reins.
But the mare would not be turned. She raced towards black robed figures, eyes blazing and foam flying from her mouth.
"Girl, this is suicide!" growled Tobias. "This is no time for heroics!"
Tobias tugged on the reins with all his might. He succeeded in turning Stormherald's head slightly left. She crashed through the pines, not slowing at all. Branches snapped and whipped at her, leaving red gashes on her neck and flanks. A patch of sunlight flashed up ahead. Tobias turned to catch a fleeting glimpse of the green hill, stained crimson with the blood of man and beast. He quickly turned back around to check Stormherald's progress. A large branch came hurtling at his face. Stars exploded before his eyes and all went dark.
Tobias's injury inspection was interrupted by a nudge at his shoulder. A large muzzle snorted in his ear.
"Easy, gal," he said as he stroked the mare's nose. Using her bridle as a support, Tobias pulled himself to his feet, testing his ankle. He would be able to walk, but not for any length of time.
The mare's ears pricked and she nickered softly, turning her head around to stare across the small glade where Tobias had fallen. She slowly backed into the trees. Tobias, his hand still twisted in her bridle, was dragged into the bushes.
"Storm, where are you going—"
Stormherald nudged him hard with her nose, forcing him to kneel in the brush. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out at the pain in his ankle.
"All right, girl, I'll keep it down." He peered out through the foliage.
Tobias froze as two of the strange black-hooded beings strode into the glade. Their movements were oddly devoid of noise. The foremost figure noticed the bloody arm in the grass and nudged it with his foot. He laughed quietly, a smooth, confident sound.
"Looks like the wolves have been busy, my friend," he said to his companion. The other figure was busy looking around the glade.
Tobias tensed and he sucked a breath through his teeth. He'd heard that voice before. Velvet, sly, like a snake's pointed tongue. But where...he couldn't remember…
"Yes, but look, Draken; something scared it off." The man seemed to have noticed something in the grass. "Come over here. What do you make of this?" A large branch blocked Tobias' view of the crouching man.
"We saw dozens of tracks on our way in here. They could have been made by our own men. We have more important things to discuss."
"It doesn't hurt to be cautious."
"Skarl, we don't have time for this. I brought you out here for a reason. I just received this message from one the runners. Read it, then destroy it."
Skarl moved back into Luc's sight and took a piece of parchment from the taller man, hands hidden by their long cloaks. He quickly scanned it.
"What does the council mean, the heir's been found? I thought we took care of that problem years ago."
Draken cleared his throat.
"Oh, right." Skarl extended a black-gloved hand from the folds of his cloak. He snapped his fingers and the parchment burst into flame. The message was ash before it hit the ground.
Tobias breathed in sharply. 'Magic users,' he thought. Skarl's hand flashed in his mind. 'But at least I know they're human. Wish they'd show their faces.'
"We seem to have been lax in our, ah, exterimination," Draken continued.
He brought forth a rolled hide from within his cloak. He tapped a spot with his own garbed hand.
"Here, in that monk-infested temple of Driaden. Right under our nose."
"Wait. How do you know he's there? We left nothing, nothing in that valley."
Draken sniffed. "This message carries the seal the Superior, isn't that enough?"
"Come come, Draken," Skarl wheedled. "You must know something, or we wouldn't be here."
"Ah, I suppose there's no reason to hide anymore," Draken sighed, obviously flattered. "You remember I was in charge of the mission; it was your first assignment. By the way, I was very glad to have you along, your specialization was quite, ah, useful. You should know that not everything went as planned. I was under considerable pressure from the Superior. The punishment for failure, I knew, would be," his voice dropped to a whisper "severe." His voice rose back to normal. "I was determined to redeem myself. After the ambush, I chose a man to remain behind in the neighboring village and act as my eyes and ears. Ten years is a long time to play watchdog, but his information has been invaluable to me. Usually I receive his letters directly, but he knew when he contacted me with a positive identification of the heir, the message had to be sent to the Superior."
"So who is the heir?"
"That's the strange part, it's not the one foretold."
"You would dare to doubt the words of the Superior?"
"Perhaps, though it's more likely he misinterpreted the prophesy."
"Be careful, Draken, when speaking of the Superior." Skarl looked around nervously.
Draken laughed. "I don't fear him."
"No, I don't think you do" said Skarl flatly. He sighed. "So, what part of the prophesy doesn't add up?"
"It's not an heir, it's an heiress."
"You're kidding. This is better than we could have ever hoped for! Its been a while since I killed a woman." Tobias caught a gleam of white teeth from beneath Skarl's hood.
"Not so cocky, Skarl. The girl is intelligent, that much is certain. That she escaped us ten years ago is a remarkable feat in itself."
"Ha. I say we've finally had our lucky break."
"We shall see."
Another man walked into the glen. This one was not hooded, and he carried a sword.
'A barbarian soldier;' thought Luc.
The man was shaking uncontrollably. He bowed low before Skarl and Draken. He seemed to be muttering something, but Luc couldn't quite make it out.
"Speak up, you fool!" said Skarl angrily. Draken said nothing.
"My-my masters, sirs, the Scouts said that they-they are- they are waiting for you. They are restless, sirs."
"We'll be along," Draken nodded dismissively.
The soldier bowed again and fled into the brush.
"Skarl, these Scouts are starting to become too cocky. When this mission is over, we need to teach them respect. Some pain might help them remember who is master."
"I agree," Skarl nodded, "but those tracker-things give me the creeps." He shivered.
Draken tilted his head back to gaze at the sky. The hood fell to his shoulders with a soft whoosh, but Tobias' view was obscured by the brush.
"Night approaches. Let us go. Tomorrow, the gods willing, the last Wyndrider will be in our possession."
"And once we have the final pieces, everything will fall into place."
"Yes, and when that day comes, her death will be slow. Much of the Order's blood was spilled by the blade of the Wyndriders. They are more deadly than dragons."
Skarl laughed maliciously. Draken pulled up his hood, and strode quickly into the woods.
Skarl followed, grinning as he muttered to himself, "Dragons. Superstition and nonsense." His voice faded into the gloom.
Tobias rolled to a sitting position, stunned. She was alive? No, that wasn't possible...
He'd searched all night, gazing into the empty eyes of every corpse… the last thing he remembered was…was…running his fingers through a raven wave of hair that splashed across the cold flagstone floor. He could see his reflection in the dark red pool that spread across the hall. The lines of his tears glowed white against his blackened cheeks. No, it had to be true, Driaden was the closest town, and Brother Hubert was there as well. Tobias slammed his fist into his palm. Hubert, the temple, of course! Like a frightened boy he had fled, thinking himself the only survivor…10 years, Draken had said, had it truly been that long?
A new thought smacked him in the face. If she was alive, what was he doing here?
Grasping Stormherald's bridle, Tobias hauled himself to his feet. He gasped with pain and slumped into the horse's shoulder. His ankle had stiffened from squatting in the brush and he could barely stand on it. It's probably sprained, he thought. Just one more thing to slow him down. With his good leg Tobias managed to scramble into the saddle. He turned the mare in the direction he thought led back to the battlefield, but Stormherald tossed her head and snorted.
"All right, girl, you lead us out of here."
Without warning, the horse plunged into the forest, veering left. Tobias bit back a yelp of surprise. No telling how many more of those black robed guys were out there. This time, though, he remembered to look straight ahead. He kept his head low, too.
The mare burst into the sunset. The fiery orb had just settled onto the ridge. Tobias and Stormherald's joint shadow stretched black behind them. Storm snorted, then picked her way through the carnage to the body that lay furthest down the field. Tobias flung himself out of the saddle and almost collapsed under his ankle. He limped over to the armored body that Stormherald was nudging. He knew who it was immediately. The body had no head.
"He's not going to wake, girl."
Stormherald's head drooped. She nuzzled Tobias's shoulder, almost knocking him over. Tobias rubbed her nose as he made the sign of the star with his hand: forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder.
He though of how Sir Gadogar had found him wandering the wild. He had cared for Tobias' burns with his own hands. Tobias remembered the first words the knight had said to him.
"You have that same look in your eyes as my son did…"
Sir Gadogar had only spoken of his son one other time, just before this battle. Tobias was assisting the knight with his armor.
"This will be yours one day, my boy," Gadogar had said in his gruff voice. "This armor has saved my life more times than I can count…" His voice trailed off and Tobias knew he was thinking about the son he had only spoken of once.
"I was always telling him to be more cautious on the battlefield." Gadogar said softly. "He'd grin and tell me to save my own neck."
Tobias had handed him his helmet and said, "If he was any more reckless than you, he must have been a devil in a fight. Just keep your own hide intact out there."
Keep your own hide intact…Tobias knelt down beside the body and wiped his hand across his eyes. Gadogar had died on the battlefield with his men. It was his one wish in life. At least he had gotten that much.
Tobias began the grisly task of removing the knight's armor. It could be very dangerous if it found its way into the wrong hands. Tobias used his sleeve to wipe off a smear of blood on one of the gauntlets. Engraved in red upon the back of the plated glove was a phoenix, wings spread wide in the sign of the star. He had the feeling he would need people he could trust now. Plans were being set in motion, that much was sure. Men shrouded in black, things called Scouts, strange weaponry...and she was alive. It didn't make sense. Tobias knew he had one chance to get to the bottom of this. He had to find her before that man, Draken, did. Tobias shivered as he thought about Draken. His voice had awakened an unfounded fear within him.
At last Tobias laid the armor out upon the grass. It was light armor for cavalry and foot fighting. Gauntlets, breastplate, thigh, and shin plates were the complete set of steel. The knight's sword lay snapped in two beneath his body. The helmet and the head of Sir Gadogar lay somewhere upon the open field, but Tobias had no time to search for them. He knew he looked a little young to be a regimental knight, but he hoped the armor would be disguise enough to get him to Driaden. One never knew what the King's Road held in store for the unwary traveler.
Tobias heard a low growl.
He executed a quick roll to his side as a large hound launched itself through the space he had just occupied. As he lay on his back, Tobias' hand flew to his hip and pulled forth a short dagger from his belt. It was the only weapon he had against the advancing hound. The beast spun round, dust flying in its wake. It crouched and bared its teeth at the sight of the blade, the fur on its back raised like sharp needles of gray. The hound's red eyes snapped as foam frothed in its jaws. Without warning it snarled and sprang at Tobias.
Tobias was ready. As the hound flew towards him he kicked his feet up and back, flipping the beast over his body. The dog landed heavily on its head and lay half-stunned on the ground.
Suddenly Stormherald's hooves flashed over Tobias' head. Again and again she pounded the body of the hound with her sharp feet. Tobias rolled out from under her and watched in amazement. When Stormherald was satisfied that the dog was dead, she trotted over to Tobias and began to chew on his cloak carelessly. Tobias could only stare at the blood splattered like fire against her jet-black hooves.
Tobias whistled softly wide-eyed. "Man, oh man, Storm, I'm glad I'm on your side!" he said somberly.
Storm simply tugged on his cloak harder, urging him up the hill.
"Whoa, Storm, let me put on this armor," Tobias chided.
He quickly slipped on the breastplate and the right-hand gauntlet. He stored the remainder of the armor in the saddlebags. Before mounting, he checked the bags for weapons. He found two long hunting knives that could serve him very well in a tight squeeze.
Thrusting them into his belt, he swung into the saddle on his good ankle. He turned Stormherald's head around and whispered a command in her ear. The mare broke into a gallop, flying over the ridge to the road winding across the plain on the other side. Storm turned into the path and ran even faster. The sun sank below the horizon on his left. The wind whistled in Tobias' ears and he leaned into Storm's neck as the King's road flew beneath her hooves. His strong gray eyes reflected the stars that flickered into view.
"Hold on, I'm coming for you!" he murmured to the night.