Sedwin cries out. His horse rears and he tumbles to the ground.
Garroth jumps out of the saddle. He races to Sedwin and shields his fallen companion with his own body. “Down!”
Nevynne and Stellia drop from their horses to the ground.
What next? Should she draw her dagger?
She sees two men moving under the trees, some hundred yards away, up the forested slope. They are clad in black leather armor, and wielding crossbows.
Stellia glances at Sedwin. He is alive, but his face is a knot of pain. A sturdy bolt sticks out of his left thigh. Even in falling, he has drawn his sword. But what use it will be, against an ambush from afar?
A third man stands behind the two attackers, clothed in a black cloak, his face hidden in the shadow of an enormous cowl. He wields no weapon that Stellia can see. The commander, perhaps.
Another bolt whistles through the air. It strikes the ground next to Sedwin. The shooter lowers his crossbow and slips a fresh bolt into the weapon. The other is taking aim anew.
Garroth draws his blade. “Stellia! Get Sedwin to cover! Nevynne! Can you handle a bow?”
She nods; he throws her a bow and quiver, and at once charges up the slope toward the attackers. Nevynne deftly catches the bundle. Within an instant, she is kneeling behind a shrub, and nocking an arrow.
Sedwin leans on Stellia as they try to gain the trees on the far side of the road. Slender and lean as he looks, he is heavier than she thought. They move slowly, so terribly slowly! And the trees, no more than a few feet away from the road, seem miles away as they stumble toward them.
Something hits Stellia’s right ear with a deafening pop.
At first she feels nothing, just a dull sense of having been struck. Then the pain comes, searing and sharp. She cries out. Hot blood runs down her neck. It hurts as if the bolt ripped half her face off. Maybe it did.
Sedwin’s weight grows too much to support. They fall to the ground together amidst the roots of a towering fir.
A stream of unintelligible words issues from between Sedwin’s clenched teeth. His left trouser leg is soaked with blood.
“What can I do?” she mutters.
“Nothing,” he groans. “Stay where they can’t see you.”
Garroth runs up the snowy slope toward the attackers, sword raised. Trudges, more like.
One of the marksmen takes aim at Garroth. Stellia wants to cry out to warn him, but before she can do so, the man give a stifled scream and drops his crossbow, clutching at his neck. An arrow has pierced his throat. He falls forward, vanishing in the underbrush as though a hole had opened in the forest floor to swallow him up.
Behind the small shrub, Nevynne nocks another arrow. Garroth continues to struggle up the hill.
“We should move further into the trees,” Stellia says.
Grimacing with pain, Sedwin half crawls, half pushes himself with his uninjured leg over the forest floor.
Another cry rings out.
She falls backwards, clutching at her left arm. The bow goes flying.
Without a second thought, Stellia jumps to her feet and bursts onto the road.
Nevynne struggles to regain the cover of the shrub, scant as it will be. But the impact and the pain have stunned her. Her movements are sluggish.
The shooter places another bolt into his crossbow.
“Stay back!” Nevynne cries. “They’ll kill us both!”
Stellia pulls her to her feet. “Save your breath!”
Together, they stumble toward the trees. They spill onto the ground and scramble for cover.
Garroth is moving through the snow as fast as he can. But it’s not fast enough.
He won’t reach his enemy. Not in time.
“Should’ve let me grab the bow,” Nevynne says.
The crossbowman lifts his weapon, takes aim. He moves with slow deliberation, sure of his advantage, of the kill he is about to make.
“No,” Stellia mutters to herself. “No!”
Then a strange thing happens.
The cowled man who seemed to be directing the assault springs forward. With a swift motion, he pulls a sword from its scabbard at the crossbowman’s belt. The blade rises and falls, too fast for the eye to follow. A horrible scream rings through the forest.
The crossbow falls, along with the hands that still hold it. Blood spurts in a dreadful stream into the snow. Once more the sword flashes. The crossbowman’s head tumbles into the underbrush. For an instant, the world is frozen in place.
Garroth has halted in his charge, his breath an unmoving cloud before his face; the cowled man’s blade lingers, suspended, at the end of its deadly arc. So still is the air that Stellia can hear the crunch as the sword’s ghastly harvest hits the snow-covered ground. Even the ravens have ceased their croaking.
The spell breaks. Garroth again stumbles forward, shouting something at the hooded man. The black figure turns and disappears into the forest.
Stellia’s attention snaps back with dizzying suddenness to her immediate surroundings. Everything seems somehow real and yet unreal, like a nightmare.
Nevynne kneels behind a tree, her arm pierced by a crossbow bolt. She touches the shaft and tugs at it slightly, as though to pull it out. She lets go at once, hissing something in Baramondine that can only be a curse. Then she doubles over and vomits onto the carpet of frozen fir needles. Sedwin is on his back on the icy ground, eyes pinched shut, breathing rapidly. Stellia summons what is left of her strength, and shouts Garroth’s name as loudly as she can.
“Help!” she cries.
Only then does she remember her own injury. She feels for the side of her head, gingerly, with trembling fingers. Her stomach lurches at the pain. Tears shoot into her eyes. She can’t tell what exactly it is that makes her cry—the mixture of shock and relief that a crossbow bolt barely missed her skull, or the realization that it split her ear in half.
NEXT: Ordeals and Mysteries