Count Ephren slid off his colg without a word, instantly dead.
“Ambush!” I heard someone call.
I slammed my mask over my eyes as a wave of fiery spells exploded around me, some emanating from the fired arrows and others freely casted from thaumaturges in the trees. My vision clouded with smoke, and I couldn’t stop my colg from rising onto its back legs with a terrified chirp. I felt a wave of heat lightly wash over me as a spell blasted into my shield.
An ambush, here? Were we tricked?
There was a blast of wind as our side fired randomly into the smoke, trying to hit anything out there in the forest. The only answer was yet more arrows and spells, and I heard a few more of our soldiers cry out in pain.
I spun my colg around in a panic, trying to think of what to do. Would it be suicide to charge them? Wait, Breale!
I spun back towards the road, but I couldn’t make out anything more than a few metres. Then, a horrific cry went up all around the road, and I saw soldiers on colgback rushing down from the treeline. I unslung my spear and pointed it at the closest of them.
A crystalline spear of ice erupted from my speartip and slammed into the man’s chest shield. Unexpectedly, it went through his shield and flew into his chest, knocking him off his colg and to the forest floor.
A single? How…?
I started as someone else jumped onto the back of my colg and wrapped their arms around me.
“After Sister, hurry!” Fredrick cried in my ears.
I shot another look towards the road, finding that it was now clogged with colgs and thaumaturges. Auro came up in my mind, and I shook my head as I turned my colg back towards the others.
“What are you doing! She left her sword!” He tried to tear the reins from me in a panic, but I kept them away.
“She’s behind their line already! Auro’s not!”
“She has no weapon!” Fredrick cried.
“She’ll be fi…” I hesitated before turning to Silst. “Can you follow her? Make sure she’s alright!”
He seemed reluctant, but he rose up and flew down the road after Breale anyway.
Fredrick watched the dragon go, but thankfully he let me spur the colg back.
The screaming of colgs met us as another wave of spells and arrows slammed into our caravan. Those behind covered most of the distance in a frightening amount of time, and I knew it was only a few more seconds before they arrived and clove us to bits.
As we got close, I sensed a huge mass rushing towards us, and I kicked the colg off to the side. Just in time, as it happened, as immediately after one of our carts exploded out of the smoke down the road. I saw Luis at the helm with Heril shouting from the door, but Luis didn’t seem to hear him. Soldiers in the back shot off spells as they tore down the road, taking a good chunk of our pursuers with them and causing the others to pause.
“Ignore them!” Fredrick cried.
Nodding, I spurred the colg forward, only to find a small group of our soldiers huddled around a burning wagon. Yet more laid dead on the ground with horrifying burns or multiple arrows. Given that the ambushers were behind as well as ahead of the wagon, that didn’t surprise me too much.
“Auro!” I cried.
Auro still sat on a nervous colg, hugging her mounts neck and clutching her pierced right shoulder. Her coat was stained with crimson, and she wore agony upon her face. I slid off the colg before we’d stopped and ran the rest of the way to stop by her side.
“Sap…” She managed.
I ignored her as I inspected the wound, grimacing at the blood. The shoulder was a horrible place to get shot, especially by an arrow, and it was well beyond my skill to heal physically. She’d need an actual doctor, or even better: a magical healer.
She groaned with pain as I probed the wound,
“Pitch it.” Fredrick cursed from behind me. “How the hell did they know we’d be here?”
“We were betrayed!” A soldier said. “You saw how Sir Luis ran, right? He went right past them! He abandoned us and they let him go!”
“Luis…” I muttered.
Could it have been Luis? Were we actually betrayed? Or was it a coincidence that they found us here? It certainly hadn’t looked like they’d just let Luis go.
“Never mind that, get everyone armed!” Fredrick cried.
I briefly debated whether to take the arrow out and start first aid or not, only for the choice to be made for me when another round of cries rose up behind us. Out of the smoky trees, two dozen riders dashed down the hill.
“Behind us!” I heard a soldier shout.
“We’re done for!” Another cried. “Everstar preserve us!”
I dove to the ground as the line of ambushers raised bows and spear-staves and released a barrage of projectiles. Most of the spells were absorbed by shields, but at this close range the arrows went straight through anything but the most well-enchanted chainmail. And given how many soldiers had been roused straight from sleep, many were not wearing armour at all.
A dozen cries of pain rose up from around me, matched only by the whistling cries of specialised spells exploding around us. All the colgs panicked at the noise, but Auro’s bolted, carrying her back down the road where the caravan had come from. Some of the ambushers broke off to follow her.
“Auro!” I cried.
Without thinking I leapt onto my colg and ordered it forward. I heard Fredrick cry after me, but I didn’t stop.
Ahead of me, three of the ambushers galloped to cut me off. I raised my spear towards them like a jousting lance, but internally I panicked.
What was I doing? This was suicide! They’d just kill my colg! Or spike my shields! Or stab me! No, they’d definitely stab me! I’d need something else.
The three in front lowered their spears as well, each one aiming right for my chest. Their tips glowed orange and became wreathed with flames, and I felt a phantom heat in my chest in anticipation.
I slid my wand out into my left hand and began to think of a spell, only to be interrupted by a shout from behind.
I ducked as a barrage of spells hurtled over my shoulder and into the three riders, quickly overwhelming their shields and slaying them instantly. As I rode through their still galloping colgs, I looked behind to see that there was no time to thank the soldiers for their help, for immediately after the rest of the ambushers ploughed into melee with our surviving soldiers. As I watched, Fredrick, who had a sword in sheath and one in hand, rose up and stabbed one rider through the chest and off of his colg. The other soldiers fought valiantly as well, but I could see it was going against them.
Ah… they aren’t going to live, are they? And Fredrick! What was I doing, running away, and right after they saved me?
I slowed for a moment before a few more flashes drew my attention back to the forest where Auro had disappeared. The sounds of explosive magic came like dreadful scythes back towards me.
That wasn’t magic meant to subdue, unless you counted ‘dead’ as subdued. And Auro couldn’t defend herself, especially not with that injury.
I flicked my head from Fredrick to Auro for just one more moment before spurring the colg after Auro.
I’d brought both of them into this, but Fredrick had a higher chance of making it out alive by himself. Nor should I squander the chance those soldiers had given me by wasting their last barrage.
If only I could convince myself that no part of the decision came from the higher chance of me making it out alive if I followed after Auro.
I tried to drown out the screams of the dying behind me as I raced after the Belvan.
As Breale rode through the forest hours after she left, she couldn’t help but feel terribly embarrassed.
She knew what she had done was stupid and childish. How else could you describe challenging her brother to a duel and throwing a tantrum in the middle of the caravan? She’d even run off crying, oblivious to the world like some kind of toddler…
Breale buried her head in the colg’s feathers in embarrassment.
It was all Brother’s fault, really. She thought bitterly. What gives him the right to be so perfect?
Ever since she could remember, Fredrick had always been the golden child of the Mavericks. Her father had groomed him as the perfect noble since birth, training him in every subject known to Summark, and their mother had laid expectations higher than the stars upon his brow. But despite that, he had thrived. And he had never stopped thriving.
Breale, though? Breale was just a daughter. A useless waif meant to be leveraged for political gains when she got old enough. Her father had never expected anything of her, and her mother had only obsessed with her manners and getting her ready for marriage. The expectations for her future were so low as to be nonexistent.
And still, she somehow failed to meet them.
“I’m kind of a worthless daughter, aren’t I?” Breale muttered. “I beg to follow Brother, sneak out even, and then I just act like this! Ha! Can’t do anything right.”
She hugged the colg’s neck tighter. She knew she’d have to go and apologise to Count Ephren and Fredrick eventually, but she wanted more than anything to just continue on and meet them in Ithin Sele. She might even have the rations in the saddlebag to make such a trip.
Breale sighed and turned the colg around.
That wasn’t the right thing to do. It was bad enough she’d fled so mindlessly like she had, they might even waste time looking for her if she didn’t meet up soon, and they didn’t have time for such foolishness.
No, it wasn’t Fredrick’s fault he was perfect, Breale knew. It was on her for being useless.
“Still, I wish Red would show some foolishness sometimes.” She said to herself. “It’s not fair that I have to have all of it! It really isn’t.”
Not to mention she’d dropped her sword.
Her sword! One of the central tenants of being a Maverick! Certainly that was the stupidest thing she’d done there. She could already hear Fredrick’s lecture about how important it is to keep it on her, and she really couldn’t blame him.
Though, technically, girls were given a lot more leeway in that particular tradition. And she still had a small enchanted side sword on her, so it wasn’t like she was completely defenceless either.
She continued along the road for a few minutes wondering how she’d word the apology and how Saphry and Auro would react.
As she walked, the forest seemed to grow quieter around her. The birdsong from earlier in the night had died away, as well as the strange sound of wind that had blown up the road after her. It wasn’t quite dawn yet, but it still seemed unnatural and ominous to her.
“You can outrun an orthung, right?” Breale asked her colg. “I’m not really a fan of the idea of dying to a bunch of fish with legs.”
Gradually, a sound not unlike wagon wheels rose up ahead, and Breale slowed. It sounded to her like they were in a hurry, and she felt another pang of embarrassment.
“They didn’t have to rush…” She muttered to herself.
Curiously, the sound of rushing winds and shouting accompanied it, and…
Breale’s eyes went wide.
Fighting? It wasn’t possible that…
Anger at herself flashed through her.
They were attacked and I wasn’t there to help! How useless can I be! And… Brother! Saphry! Auro!
She drew her knife and spurred the colg forward as fast as she could, dread running through her limbs.
And hoping that nobody had died.