The black horses surged through the Galletian cavalry. Claudia clutched the reins of her steed tightly. She knew all too well the chaos of battle. Ever since the climax of the Great War, the memory brutality she had witnessed on the blood-soaked fields had lurked at the back of her mind. Claudia knew that she would have to someday go into battle again, for the sake of the Balance if nothing else. But it had always seemed a hazy possibility, something that dwelled in the far distant future.
She had never thought that the wars would start again so soon.
Ever since she had been exiled from Sybalia, there had been conflicts. Those had been largely one sided, whether in her favor or not. They were more raids than anything else, brief sorties with a decisive end, with one side clearly having the upper hand at all times. This was distinctly different.
Unlike their previous brush with the Galletian army at the river ford, the sides were far better matched now. Desertion had thinned the Galletian ranks, as had cold and hunger. With Claudia's small group augmented by the warriors of Andothasariel, victory could go to either side.
Half of Mastravyan's scouts fired arrows into the back ranks of the Galletian lines, making many warriors drop off their horses as they were lamed by the unerring shafts. Claudia noted that the elves were careful not to strike down the horses, attacking only the men. Jason and Cyranio drew their swords, flanking the Galletian force. Famratyr, still adjusting to the gallop of his horse, swung out wildly with his broadsword. Claudia's hand had wrapped around the pommel of the Warrior's Sword when Mastravyan's voice cut through the clamor.
"No, you fools! You do not have to fight them!"
Azfelyndoran grunted as he loosed an arrow of his own. He smiled with grim satisfaction as a horse screamed, red blood pumping from the wound he had delivered. Evidently, he did not share his brethren's philosophy of sparing animals. "Mastravyan is right! The elves will buy us the time we need!"
Jason nodded and whistled to the trolls. "Right! Left! Follow me!" He jerked his horse's reins and dug his heels into the animal's side,
The two gargantuan creatures bellowed and charged after the young swordsman, trampling all in their path that could not get out of the way in time. Azfelyndoran and the goblins followed quickly in their wake as Famratyr and Cyranio took up position on Claudia's left and right sides, protecting her from the worst of the Galletian press.
Prince Julian gave the reins of his warhorse a sharp tug, making the animal rear up. "The Dark Lady is escaping! Don't let her get away!"
Mastravyan appeared behind him and with a quick stroke of his blade cut the rear hamstrings of the horse. It tumbled to the ground with a pained scream, taking Julian with it. The prince rolled from the saddle and managed to block Mastravyan's descending blade. The dark leaned down, baring his teeth. "You have far more pressing concerns than the Dark Lady at the moment."
Julian pushed back against the dark elf and jumped to his feet. The elf captain danced around the Galletian, keeping him from pursuing Claudia. Julian gestured at one of his captains with his left hand. "Forget the elves! Go after the Dark Lady!"
The captain nodded and blew three sharp blasts on his hunting horn. His company rallied around him and took off after the Dark Lady and her vassals. "Do not let them get through!" Mastravyan roared.
The captain fell from his steed as an arrow buried itself in his neck, but the order had already been given. The Galletian cavalry thundered through the forest as the infantry held the dark elves at Andothasariel's gate. A small force of elf scouts broke through the press and took off at a dead sprint, whooping and whistling in their own tongue. Both sides were suffering heavy losses. Mastravyan grimaced as he and Julian exchanged blows. The captain grudgingly admitted that the Galletian prince was terribly skilled, no doubt having the best tutors in the land.
But Mastravyan had nearly three and a half centuries of experience. He had been the greatest elven warrior in Kalaryndor's army, perhaps the greatest of any race not aided by a magic weapon. Julian the Bold would not carry this day.
He feinted to the left, making Julian stumble. The prince circled around Mastravyan and signaled his troops to regroup, preparing for another attack. He claimed a horse whose rider had been slain and galloped back to the line. Mastravyan whirled on his comrades. "Lady Claudia is clear! Take the wounded, pull back to Andothasariel! We shall hold them there!"
The elves retreated back into the giant hedge, still launching arrow after arrow. One of Mastravyan's lieutenants noted that the captain was not making any move to follow his own orders. "Are you not coming?" he cried.
"Someone must hold the Galletians here!" Mastravyan snapped back. "I shall thin their ranks as much as I am able! The archers must take it from there!"
"They will kill you!"
"I willingly accept that risk." Mastravyan drove his sword into the ground and drew his bow, taking aim at what remained of the Galletian force.
Five elves took up position around him. The lieutenant grinned. "Then you shall not fall alone, captain."
Mastravyan nodded, and they met the charge. Two of Mastravyan's allies were quickly cut down, though the riders responsible were soon felled by arrows from within the city. Several of the horsemen bore torches, no doubt seeking to burn the great hedge. Mastravyan took especial care to fell them as quickly as possible.
The valor of the five elves that remained behind would never be questioned, and they would be honored in songs so long as the dark elves had voices to praise them. But they were too few to stop the Galletians, and soon Mastravyan was the only defender still outside Andothasariel's walls. A panicked horse barreled past him, lashing out with its hooves. Mastravyan tried to dodge, but one of the flailing kicks connected with his kneecap. With gasp of pain, he fell and struggled to rise. The captain managed to fire off three more arrows before he saw Prince Julian bearing down on him. Mastravyan reached for another arrow, but found his quiver empty.
The prince's horse never slowed. For one brief instant, there was a sharp pain as one of its hooves fractured Mastravyan's skull and then a crack as it trampled over his spine. And then there was nothing but an infinite, blissfully painless darkness.
The horses labored for breath, their sides heaving. The trolls were losing speed as they made their way through the dense forest. Azfelyndoran turned in his saddle, his head cocked slightly to the left. "There are hoofbeats in the distance, Lady Claudia. Night will soon set in. If we keep riding, we can lose them in the darkness. They do not have goblin eyes to guide them, and the moon will offer little light tonight."
"But if we don't slow down," Jason protested, "we'll founder the horses."
"We have no other choice," Cyranio said. "I agree with Azfelyndoran, we must keep going. If we press onwards, we should reach the mountain pass by tomorrow evening."
Claudia grimaced and kicked her heels into the horse's side. The stately black creature was as nimble as it was strong, expertly weaving through the trees. It did not once stumble over a protruding root, and it was careful to bear Claudia away from any low-hanging branches. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the animal made a piteous noise and rolled its eye back, looking entreatingly at Claudia. The Dark Lady's face was ashen, and she was sure not to meet the horse's gaze. The horse seemed smarter than other members of its species, no doubt a product of elvish breeding. It made another mournful noise but did not slow down.
So faithful was the horse to its duty that even though it knew it was going to die, it continued to gallop onwards.
The first horse fell shortly after full night set in. It screamed only once before collapsing to the ground, its sides heaving. The goblins it bore leapt clear, swinging up onto Azfelyndoran and Cyranio's horses, respectively. One of the goblins drew a line across the poor animal's throat with one claw, granting it a quick death.
The rest of the horses fell soon after, one by one. When Claudia's own steed fell, it was with a heavy heart that she drove the Sword through its breast. "They deserved better than this," she murmured as the horse convulsed and then lay still.
"They're just animals," Famratyr grunted. "Animals who don't know any better." Claudia did not rebuke him. She knew that Famratyr was only trying to justify the death of his own mount. She had seen him draw a crescent moon on its forehead as the creature bled out.
"They bought us time," Cyranio said brusquely. "And now that we have a lead, the army will have a hard time reaching us before the pass."
"We'll walk through the night," Zhaggo added. "And lose ourselves in the mountains. Easier to fight them off on a narrow trail than in the forest. With any luck, they may have to abandon their horses to follow us." His large green eyes glinted like a cat's. "Come, follow us." He and the goblins slunk through the trees, their pale bodies visible against the shadows.
Right and Left staggered along at the rear of the company, wheezing. Jason talked to them in a hushed voice, keeping them docile and preventing them from wantonly knocking over trees as they trudged after the ragged procession. It was nearly impossible to cover a troll's trail over any terrain, a forest most especially. When morning came, the Galletians would have no trouble finding where Claudia had gone. Hopefully, they would have enough of a lead so as to make no difference.
The long walk through the night was hard on everyone. The goblins' lead began to decrease as the march wore on. Cyranio had his hand clenched around the hilt of Blüdwaften, drawing strength from the enchanted blade. Jason appeared at Claudia's side, startling her. "The ground is wet from a recent rainfall," he reported. "There is no way to cover our tracks."
Claudia glanced over her shoulder at Right and Left and raised an eyebrow. Jason probably could not see the gesture, but understood her meaning. "Right, of course. Because they're trolls. I've been making sure they're careful. They're just tired."
"Jason, you don't have to defend yourself. I understand."
"I'm sure you do."
Claudia gritted her teeth in a most unladylike manner. "Jason, if this is about the other night, I'm sorry. It's for our own good. And now is hardly the time to be discussing it."
"I understand that completely, my lady." He turned away and strode to Zhaggo's side, conferring with the goblin in hushed tones. Claudia realized with a pang that Jason had always referred to her by name, and how much she missed that small contact none of her other vassals dared try.
"I warned you about this, did I not?" Azfelyndoran murmured in her ear.
"Do not sneak up on me," Claudia hissed.
"As my lady wishes." The dark elf shrugged. "But I did warn you."
"There was no other way."
Azfelyndoran put his hand on her shoulder. "We all must make sacrifices, my lady. We do not like the choices we have to make, but if we wish to make the world a better place, we will have to hurt those we love." He forced a smile, and Claudia knew that he was speaking from painful experience. "I know that you care deeply for the Young Valentine, and I know that it may hurt now, but you are both young. There is much time for you to move past this."
"Azfelyndoran, I know. You don't have to tell me."
"I do not? My la… Claudia. Sometimes all we need is to know that someone understands." He bowed and took his leave, walking some distance away from the Dark Lady. His pointed ears picked up the sound of someone walking softly behind them. Azfelyndoran turned his head just slightly, acknowledging Cyranio with a slight nod.
"I can tell you do not trust easily, Master Elf," the swordsman said softly. "And yet you place much faith in that girl."
"I am no master, Cyranio. Azfelyndoran shall suffice. But to the matter at hand, yes, I do. Lady Claudia is my route to atonement. I have done awful things in my life, the stains of my past misdeeds paint my soul as black as the night sky. Lady Claudia is young and innocent, and I know in my heart more than my mind that her reign will be different than Kalaryndor's. She will need someone to guide her, and to accomplish tasks she should not have to do herself. The nature of Darkness is hatred, chaos and destruction, as I am sure you know, swordsman."
At Cyranio's nod, Azfelyndoran sighed. "My lady does not hate as she should, she does not wish to kill, and chaos seems to go against her very nature. I admit, I am puzzled as to why the Darkness chose her. Surely, it must have been more than her proximity to Kalaryndor at his death. But the matter remains, someone close to Lady Claudia will have to take measures to bring Darkness's power back into the world. I do not wish for her to carry that burden alone. I shall be Lady Claudia's right hand. When there is a foul deed to be done, I shall take it upon myself. I must spare her the guilt of these misdeeds. Do not call it a sacrifice, it cannot possibly stain my conscience any further. For what can possibly be darker than black?"
Cyranio raised an eyebrow, barely perceptible in the darkness. "You have risen out of a great sea of hatred, Azfelyndoran. And yet I do think that your hatred once gave you strength, strength that was no doubt greater than mine. You would abandon it?"
"I would never abandon my hatred," Azfelyndoran murmured. "I just found better things to hate."
The Abattoirian smiled. "Always pleasant to find a kindred spirit."
They continued on through the night, and did not stop when the gray light of dawn began to filter through the leafy boughs of the trees. The goblins kept to the patches of shade, not willing to risk irritating their sensitive skin. Famratyr gave a wide yawn, rubbing at his eyes. Azfelyndoran moved to the lead of the sorry procession.
"We ought to be nearing the pass by evening. It will be difficult, but we must keep moving."
Claudia nodded and patted Left's thigh. "We can do it. We have to. Once we get to the mountains, we can lose ourselves there. The faster we travel, the faster we can vanish."
"Well spoken, Lady Claudia."
When the proud ancient trees gave way to hardier, smaller trunks, the goblins let out a ragged cheer. The ground underfoot was no longer carpeted with decaying leaves that hid rich fertile soil. It was rockier now, with rolling slopes. A large open plain stretched before them, the mountains rising in the distance. Famratyr raised his fist in the air. "We did it! Take that, you thrice-damned Galletian bastards!"
"Not so fast," Azfelyndoran said. "We are not quite out of the woods yet, figuratively speaking. The pass is ahead. Come now, quickly."
They hurried across the plain as quickly as their tired legs would carry them. When they neared the mountains, the thunder of hoofbeats and the baying of hounds reached them. A hunting horn trumpeted from just inside the cover of the trees. Jason spat out a foul curse and went to draw his blade. Cyranio stayed his hand. "No, we must keep going. There is hope yet."
Famratyr whistled to the trolls and put on a burst of speed. Azfelyndoran and Claudia sprinted alongside him. Every breath Claudia took pained her, and her legs screamed in agony. The goblins scrambled by on all fours, their sharp claws ravaging the unscarred landscape. The Galletian force, much diminished from their raid on Andothasariel, surged from the forest and was soon gaining on Claudia's companions.
The Dark Lady and her entourage reached the mountain pass just ahead of the cavalry. The cliffs made the going narrow, so that no more than three riders could enter at a time, and even that would have been dangerously tight. "We can hold them here!" Famratyr shouted. "Right, Left, with me! Jason, Azfel, you get Lady Claudia clear!"
"No!" Cyranio said, his hand on Blüdwaften. "I shall buy you the time you need. It is time for these wretches to feel the true power of Darkness."
"Don't be mad!" Jason roared. "They'll kill you!"
"Aye, and if they do, what does it matter? I have nothing to live for anymore, Valentine. To die in the service of my lady is all I could ever need." He shared a glance at Azfelyndoran. "You know what must be done."
The dark elf nodded and dragged Claudia and Jason away. He motioned at Famratyr and the goblins. "Get clear of here. The trolls and I will be right behind you, we just need to cover our retreat."
Almost as soon as the first group had passed beyond a bend in the high rocky walls, the riders were upon them. Cyranio drew Blüdwaften with a savage cry, the black marks all over his body beginning to writhe and spread. The first horse was cut nearly in two by the sheer power behind the blade. The Abattoirian held for a few minutes until the archers began to fire. He used the enchanted sword to cleave through them, but left himself vulnerable to the riders.
The dark elf barked a command to the two trolls and pointed at the cliff walls. Right and Left slammed their heavy fists into the rock, making the walls shudder and loose boulders at the top shake loose. "Again!" Azfelyndoran roared. The trolls bellowed and obeyed. The rocks tumbled down, making an unearthly clattering as they cascaded into the gap. Cyranio pressed the Galletians back with Blüdwaften. A moment before the rocks cut the swordsman and the elf off completely, he turned to face Azfelyndoran.
"Take care of the girl."
"I will. I promise."
Cyranio screamed an Abattoirian battle cry, making one last suicide charge at the Galletian cavalry. The rocks fell with a definitive thud, cutting off Azfelyndoran's view and strangely muting the sounds of battle. He turned to the trolls. "Come. We have a long road ahead of us, but for now, we rest."
Right and Left did not understand his words per say, but the intention behind him. They obediently followed behind the elf as he led them back to the rest of their company. At Famratyr's glance, Azfelyndoran nodded. "We are safe now. The Galletians can no longer follow us. We would do well to rest." He took off his pack and sat down, busying himself with making a fire with the scrub grass from alongside the trail.
"What about Cyranio?" Jason asked. Then, more insistently, "Where is he?"
Azfelyndoran did not look up. "Cyranio of Abattoir is dead," he said in a completely neutral tone. "He gave his life to cover our retreat."
"You let him die?" Jason cried. "You were right there, you could have done something! Do you even care?" His hand was on his sword. Famratyr put a hand on his shoulder, but Jason shook it off. "Leave me be. I'm going to make him a cairn. Someone ought to remember him."
Claudia sat down next to the dark elf. "Is he really gone?"
"We all must make sacrifices, my lady."
Claudia took some bread from her pack and chewed thoughtfully. "His death affected you more than you're letting on, didn't it?"
"Don't be preposterous. I hardly knew the man." His jaw clenched and he ignored any further attempts at conversation.
Famratyr sat down opposite the fire, watching Jason pile stones out of the corner of his eye. "Patron preserve us, Cyranio. I always figured he would be last one to fall."
"It was not a lack of skill that killed him, but superior numbers."
The werewolf sighed. "We'll have to make for this island you told us about as fast as we can. We owe it to Cyranio to do that much at least."
Cyranio's sacrifice weighed heavily on them all, and when the time came to break camp in the morning, each traveler left a piece of their scant rations atop the cairn Jason had erected.