Spring came sooner than expected. The warming of the temperatures was dampened by the driving rain and clawing wind that pushed against them the whole way.
Killeen and his friends rode behind the caravan, despite Maolan’s protests. Killeen worried when Conlan defied the king’s general openly, even if it was in Conlan’s ever-respectful and subtle manner. Conlan seemed impervious to Maolan’s hard, challenging glares, leaving Killeen to worry over the matter on Conlan’s behalf.
The terrain of Gaidtach Tuath varied greatly from one edge to the next. The southern end encompassed by mountains, and the land between ranged from bog to tillable field. To the north, stone once more bullied up through the ground beneath them. The landscape was like the hinterlands, bleak and sparse, but scarred by deep ravines and fissures that allowed the ocean to push far inland.
The channel outpost sat at the tip of a narrow, cliff-edged peninsula that hemmed in the western edge of Buel Bay. From Teamair, they followed the bay south, veered west, and then began the steady climb north, the ground growing evermore steep and foreboding. All told, the journey took near a month.
Worse, the briny odor of the sea haunted their every step, setting everyone on edge. The scent of the ocean meant only one thing to the bleary-eyed and disgruntled soldiers—Ulic.
By the last day of the journey even the horses hung their heads.
All except Flegel, of course, who pranced as though on parade.
“Can’t you do something about that beast?” Lasair rode up beside Conlan.
Lasair’s horse, a proper stallion destrier, Falk, eyed Flegel disparagingly. Killeen rode abreast Conlan, on his own mottled war-horse, Lump. Both Falk and Lump stood a hand higher than Flegel, not that the palfrey seemed to know that he was not meant to be a war-horse.
“It’s no use,” Cuana remarked, joining them. “Nevan tries to convince our wolf to take Brummer every day. If the old man can’t get Conlan to give up that ridiculous dancing animal, then no one can.”
“Can you at least break him of his swagger?” Lasair turned his thickly muscled body toward Conlan and held out one gloved hand beseechingly. “We’re not in some outlandish ribbon-strewn tournament here.”
Conlan, who’d been staring straight ahead, barely moved his head. “It’s wisest to let a creature move however it best suits him,” Conlan replied. “After all, Lasair, none of us have to tried to break you of your swagger, have we? And look how well you’ve done.”
Cuana snickered. Killeen grinned.
“Well, I’ll be, the wolf has a sense of humor,” Lasair quipped, smiling broadly. “Could it be we’ve managed some affect upon our canine captain?”
Conlan spared Lasair a withering look and then turned his sharp eyes ahead once more. The wind had let up, but the rain persisted in a frigid drizzle, too warm too freeze but cold enough to keep Killeen shivering.
“Alas, it would not seem much of an affect,” Cuana remarked.
“No matter,” Lasair said. “By the end of this war, we’ll have Conlan ready to perform as Tireachan’s court jester.”
Cuana’s wide, red mouth spread over his golden-pale face. He was the son of a Lord from the former Kingdom of Violetstorm, and like many of the blond-haired, blue-eyed men there, he’d never been able to grow a full beard. Unlike Lasair, whose square jaw bore well-groomed coppery beard. In the summer, he would shave it clean in the morning and by twilight, he’d be bearded again. Killeen’s round face never seemed well-suited for the dusty-colored beard that grew during the winter, which was why he usually shaved it off as soon as the first warm day came. But as the northern ocean’s breeze kicked up over the cliffs and his face numbed, he wished he had kept it a few weeks longer.
“Ah yes, I see it now.” Cuana put his forefinger to his head and his thumb to his temple as he did whenever he was pretending to prognosticate. “The once mighty warrior knight, with no more enemies to fight finds a new means to serve his king . . . by delivering, before the court, the bawdiest jokes ever heard. Such that all the ladies turn the most alluring color of beet red before they feign fainting and all the lords must take early leave lest their hearts burst from the laughter, but mostly because they’ve wet themselves.”
Lasair and Killeen laughed. Conlan’s eyes narrowed, gaze affixed upon the distant horizon
Conlan halted Flegel abruptly. Head tossing, the flaxen mane of the palfrey whipped.
“Come now, Conlan,” Cuana said, chuckling.
“Yes, be of good cheer wolf,” Lasair said.
The others stopped their horses a few paces ahead of Conlan and twisted around to look at him.
“I meant no offense, Conlan,” Cuana said.
“Certainly you know us well-enough—” Lasair started.
Conlan rose in his saddle. “Do you smell it?” he groweled between clenched teeth.
A anxious prickle washed down Killen’s spine, his pulse jumping into gallop before Conlan finished speaking. The humor on Lasair’s and Cuana’s faces vanished.
Conlan turned his nose up into the drizzle. “Smoke.”
The three knights exchanged a look. Killeen took a deep breath. Nothing but the warm musk of Lump and the dull brine of the sea . . .
But then Lasair’s dark blue eyes widened and his massive hands tightened around Falk’s reigns. Then it came to Killeen, too. A faint acrid tinge.
Cuana brought his yellow palomino, Orkan, about to face Conlan. “It may not be what you think.”
Conlan met Cuana’s gaze. Killeen held his breath. He knew this look in Conlan’s eyes.
The wolf was here.
None of them questioned the order.
Killeen brought Lump to the left of the caravan and Lasair and Cuana pulled to the right.
Spurring Lump to a gallop, he spied Lasair and Cuana in snatches from the corner of his eye, through the clusters of baffled and scowling soldiers they passed. The drizzle grew piercing as he rode faster, stinging his face like needles.
Flegel may have been smaller, but he was lighter and faster than a war-horse. Killeen edged Lump to the outside, so that Conlan could pull up alongside him.
“What should we do?” Killeen called.
“Wait for me! If you can!”
Their eyes locked for a moment and then Conlan surged ahead.
Behind them, shouts of confusion and irritation. Soldiers flinched away as the horse hooves kicked up mud and rocks into their faces.
The commanding unit, riding at the front, stalled the whole company due to the commotion.
Conlan slowed Flegel, brought him around and faced Maolan and his commanders.
The three knights broke from the caravan and converged back on the road ahead.
As the land rose, they slow their horses to a canter. Smoke too thick to be denied coiled out to greet them.
At the high point of the peninsula, they halted, just before the land dipped steeply, flowing down in a rocky crescent, it’s two points piercing the channel, the natural harbor cupped between.
The main outpost was built on the higher western curve of the peninsula, but there was a smaller contingent stationed at the lower end, closer to the shore, and any potential threats. They would be the first line of defense, giving the main outpost opportunity to prepare in case of a surprise attack.
The stone walls of the lower outpost were alive with flame.
The knights panted, immobilized at the sight of the vicious orange flames cutting through the mist. Noxious black smoke inhibited visibility.
But they did not need to see to know. They could hear. The roar of the fire. The crack and crumble of stone. The clang of metal crashing against metal. The muffled shouts and a single, piercing scream.
“Do you see anything?” Killeen asked Cuana, who had the sharpest eyes of the three.
Cuana wiped his eyes that watered from the ride and glittered like the palest topaz as they searched for a break in the smoke and fog.
“What does it matter?” Lasair barked. “We have no armor, even if we could see—”
“My god,” Cuana breathed.
The smoke and fog thinned, revealing what should’ve been water in the harbor.
But there was no water to be seen, only boats. Dozens.
They emerged from the mist, their many carved prows, scaled birds and feathered lions, assembled like an army of impossible beasts.
“We have to go back.” Lasair tugged on his reigns.
“There!” Cuana pointed toward the main outpost. “Do you see them?”
Lasair squinted. “Are they trying to climb the walls?”
Killeen peered at the distant outpost.
Its walls stood at the very edge of the land, the slimmest ledge around the perimeter. Too slim for a man to walk on. But the Ulic seemed to be crawling up the walls just the same. From the distance, they looked like roaches scuttling over the sheer rock face. Archers stood on the parapet, aiming down at them. One would fall, only to be replaced by another, and then a thick billow of smoke shrouded the scene.
“They weren’t climbing,” Cuana murmured in apparent confusion. “They weren’t trying to reach the top.”
Lasair cursed. “What does it matter? We need—”
All of a sudden, a chorus of voices went up at once. Water churned, as though many boats were rocked.
“What’s happening?” Killeen said.
Smoke coated the back of his throat, making it ache. His right hand clenched and unclenched. Lump snorted and stamped his front hooves. Where was Conlan? Where was the rest of their soldiers?
“I can’t see.” Cuana raked his dripping hair back from his face. “I don’t—”
And then, a glimmer of fire appeared in the midst of the gray smoke settled over the harbor. At first, just one and then two more and then, four, ten, twenty . . . until the entire harbor was filled with bobbing flames.
“What are they doing?” Lasair asked.
As if to answer him, the tiny balls of light rose in unison.
“No—” The word left Killen though he knew that protests were futile.
A barrage of flaming arrows rose like a flock of firebirds. They struck the walls of the outpost.
The thunder of was like no sound Killeen had ever heard. It pounded through his eardrums like a battalion of galloping horses. He was blinded by the eruption.
The ground shook. The horses reared. Gritting his teeth, Killeen clung to his reigns, every muscle straining to stop Lump from bolting. The horse rounded and started inland, but Killeen yanked him back around and was nearly hit by Falk, who had dumped Lasair and was racing away. When Falk had to swerve around Lump, he hesitated and slowed a few feet away. He looked back, blustering and tossing his head. Cuana dismounted a nervous, but obedient Orkan, to check on Lasair.
Cuana helped Lasair to his feet. “Are you—”
“Fine!” Lasair bellowed, rubbing the back of his head and casting a murderous glare back at the ruined outpost. He swore. “I’m fine.”
Killeen blinked the afterimage of the explosion from his vision.
Cuana and Lasair stood near the drop, where the narrow road swept down, zig-zagging to the harbor, looking up at him, as if he knew what it was they should do. He was about to tell them they should wait for reinforcements as Conlan had instructed. But then, Orkan whinnied in fear.
Cuana and Lasair barely had the chance to pull their swords before they were set upon.
Four Ulic leaped at them in dark blurs, like creatures of the fire smoke, armed with faintly glowing bluish swords.
Lasair was knocked to his back almost immediately.
Cuana twisted away in time to keep from losing his head.
Killeen blocked the strike intended for Lump and kicked the Ulic in the face, dropping him to the ground.
Lump reared and trampled the fallen Ulic. His skull cracked.
Four more appeared.
Cuana dispatched his first opponent, only to be met by two more.
Killeen slashed down at one, who stumbled. When Lump’s shoulder was grazed by the second, Killeen dismounted and forced the two Ulic back. Without shield, without armor.
He ran one through and shoved the other away.
As he did, three more climbed to rise from the road, but these moved without haste.
Their fluid ease dizzied Killeen, who’s mind was buzzing from the flurry of the fight, the smoke, the blood burning against his numb cheeks.
The newcomers were older than the first assailants.
One among the three prowled onto the rise in a billow of purple-lined black silk. The man’s head was shaved, his dark bronze scalp shining. His beard was black but for two white stripes either side of his mouth. His clothes were not embellished, as the others were, and he wore no jewelry, except for on his left ear, where along the curve of his lobe, sat a gold crescent.
The sight of him caused Killeen to freeze, his breath to seize, his grip on his sword to slacken.
The inkwells of his eyes settled on Killeen and then seemed to move through him, as though Killeen wasn’t there, as though he was no threat, as though he were already dead.
To show his utter disdain, the man mumbled to his two companions, and then turned his back to the knights, to look out over the harbor.
Killeen knew, with dread certainty, it was Arthor.