Killeen’s distraction was to his attacker’s benefit. The one he’d shoved back a moment before seized the opportunity and pounced.
Throwing his sword up Killeen blocked, but he was late. The sword sliced his shoulder. Killeen roared in shock and pain. Kicking out, he knocked the Ulic back again, tripping a second attacker in the process.
For the briefest of moments, they were both on the ground.
Ears ringing, head swirling, Killeen panted. The air punched into his lungs in fits and gasps. Blood was burning his skin, soaking through into his shirt.
Nearby, Lasair and Cuana were fighting still. But Lasair was injured too, forced to wield left-handed.
Then the Ulic were on their feet again.
Surging to meet them, Killeen crowded one to keep the other at bay. He engaged as tightly as he could and at last flipped one Ulic onto his back. Then he was open to the second, a man with a large nose and big ears, whose blade slashed and bit into Killeen’s thigh.
Killeen fell to one knee, never letting his sword stop though his leg had given out. Parrying one crushing blow after another, his bones clanged each time their swords met.
The one he’d flipped, a shorter, darker one, was shaken but stumbled to his feet once more. Killeen deflected another strike, causing Big Nose to swing his sword wide.
Snarling through the pain, Killeen drove his head into Big Nose’s stomach and landed on top of him.
He grabbed Big Nose’s arms and rolled them both. The shorter one’s sword drove into the ground beside them, having been aimed at Killeen’s back. But now Big Nose was on top of Killeen.
And then his hand clamped around Killeen’s throat.
Resisting the reflexive urge to tear uselessly at the hand throttling him, Killen flattened his own hand. Consciousness swiftly unraveling at the edges, Killeen focused every last ounce into his arm and drove his hand up into Big Nose’s big nose.
Blood sprayed Killeen’s face. The Ulic’s hand tightened and then went slack. His eyes bulged and then the life simply left him. He slumped and then dropped heavily onto Killen’s chest.
Killeen had barely drawn an unhindered breath when the short one used his foot to push Big Nose off Killeen.
In a flash of blue-silver, he plunged his sword down at Killeen’s chest.
Killeen rolled, but the sword caught the back of his upper right arm.
Kicking out, he tried to take the short one’s feet out. But the Ulic anticipated this and leaped ably to one side, landing in a nimble crouch.
Out from behind him, two more Ulic emerged from the trailhead. They raced past Arthor and his companions, the skirmish that was steadily sapping away all that Killeen had in him.
Faintly he heard Falk and Orkan protesting neighs, and then the sound of hooves drumming the earth.
A few seconds passed, less perhaps. Killeen could not say because he could feel himself, unspooling.
Beneath his ear, he could hear the heavy pulse of the earth. Or maybe that was his heart, throbbing in its anguished—and futile—attempts to persist.
The world tilted, first one way and then another.
But all he could see was blood and smoke and flashes of black.
And then, focus returned to him in an agonizing snap.
With grainy clarity, he saw the shorter Ulic rising from his crouch, a tense curl on his mouth.
Of their own accord, Killeen’s fingers clawed at the ground, searching for his sword. He wondered at his own body’s refusal to submit. For his mind had retreated to a place of silent resignation. He was going to die.
When the Ulic lifted his sword over Killeen’s throat, his heart, his fingers seized.
Suddenly, his thoughts shouted out, “no!”
In that same moment, inexplicably, the Ulic froze. He glanced up, away from Killen, beyond. Then he darted away, leaving Killeen to roll onto his back, stunned.
When he did, he saw it. His sword.
His uninjured arm shot out and snagged the hilt, dragging it toward him.
The shorter Ulic was calling out, alarm in his voice.
Sword in hand, Killeen somehow forced his knees under him, and then, teeth gnashing, he rose to his feet again.
One of the Ulic riders was returning, at full gallop, on Falk.
Killeen’s attacker had gone to meet him. But he barreled right past the Ulic, wild and heedless.
There was something strange about the lazy tilt of the rider’s head, the limp bounce in his limbs.
Killeen, leg hobbled and weak from injury, could only throw up his hands when Falk barrelled straight at him.
All this, just to be trampled by his friend’s damned horse?
Miraculously, Falk managed to stop short of Killeen.
Killeen lowered his arms, hot horse breath blasting over his face.
The fear shining in Falk’s eye brought Killeen back to himself fully.
“All right there,” he huffed out. “You’re all right, friend.”
He sucked a sharp breath when he tried to lift his arm to soothe the horse. His shoulder and arm struck out with venomous wrath.
Falk tossed his head in discontent, pawing and stamping.
Peering up at the saddle, Killeen scowled.
The rider was gone.
He ducked Falk’s muzzle, as the horse nudged his nose into Killeen’s face for comfort.
Farther back, the Ulic rider appeared to have toppled lifeless, onto the short Ulic, who struggled, momentarily, trapped by the dead body.
To his left, Lasair was wrestling with his opponent. Cuana, pale as his hair, was holding his own, having killed one already, though he there seemed an improbable amount of blood soaking through the front of his jerkin.
Voices behind him. Killeen jerked around, almost falling for his hobbled thigh.
Arthor, the one Killeen was sure was Arthor, said something to one of his companions. They simply stood there, frowning vaguely at the horse and its fallen rider. They seemed to take no notice of Killeen at all.
Just then, a flash of metal flew through the air to his left.
Cuana, on his hands and knees, looked up.
A dagger had inexplicably appeared in his opponent’s throat.
He and Cuana both collapsed.
Lasair roared and threw off his assailant.
Another glint and swish.
One of Arthor’s companions lurched, hands hovering at a knife lodged into his chest. A red tickle escaped his mouth and then he fell to his knees before collapsing facedown on the ground.
Arthor and his remaining companion stepped back from their fallen friend, both drawing their swords.
Falk snorted and turned . . .
To reveal, Conlan, curled against Falk’s bulky body, with one foot in a stirrup, hanging by the saddle in a manner that was surely impossible and causing the horse incredible strain. Killeen’s legs gave out. He dropped to his knees. He pressed his hand to his arm, trying to quell a fresh spate of heat pouring from him. Twenty feet away, Lasair took a few beleaguered steps toward him and Falk and Conlan, but his eyes rolled back and he, too, dropped.
Conlan’s boots hit the ground.
More than anything, Killeen wanted to regain his feet and come to Conlan’s aid. But all he could do was watch.
Conlan’s sword met that of the short one, who had finally pried himself free from the dead body.
Arthor’s other companion was stabbing his finger in the air toward Conlan, speaking quickly, his face animated.
Arthor’s expression remained impassive, but his eyes followed Conlan, never blinking.
He murmured something and his companion turned and bellowed down the slope, waving his arms in a summoning gesture.
The remaining Ulic soldier left the fallen Lasair and came at Conlan’s back.
Killeen struggled to stay conscious.
Conlan was heavily engaged with the two Ulic soldiers. Only then did it occur to Killeen that these were no simple raiders the ones they had fought in the past. To press upon Conlan as they did. No, they were better than most. Perhaps the best. But of course, who else would accompany Arthor but the greatest of his warriors? As another wave of dizziness washed over Killeen, he felt some small measure of pride. They had not be defeated by any normal Ulic, but by Arthor’s own guard.
Arthor had turned away from Conlan. He put a hand on his companion’s soldier and said something. Killeen never heard the Ulic King’s voice, only spied the scant movement of his lips.
The companion glanced at Conlan, fearfully it seemed to Killeen, and then his shoulders dropped. He nodded to Arthor and shouted again down the road. Killeen wondered how many men were dead at the outpost, and what would happen when the Ulic captured the channel.
Not that it mattered anymore. Killeen closed his eyes. He was still sitting upright. It seemed strange since he was certain he was about to die. He thought his body would topple. It wasn’t though. His eyes cracked open again.
Arthor’s companion stood at the king’s back, watching Conlan, as the king peered down at the outpost through a long brass spyglass. Killeen couldn’t think what he could see through all the smoke. Then the king collapsed the instrument and gestured to his companion, who nodded.
Sweeping aside his cloak, Arthor threw one last inscrutable look at Conlan, engaged like never before by the remaining two guards. And then he started back down the road.
“Arthor,” Killeen said but didn’t any breath behind the words.
Killeen squeezed his eyes shut and focused all his energy to his voice, to his lungs. But then, there was a thump and another and then, a gasp.
At last, Killeen’s body could take no more. He swayed and fell to this left side. A rattle filled his chest, the cold cloak of death fell over him, and yet his eyes did not close.
At that is how, through the haze of smoke and drizzle and death, Killeen witnessed Conlan, the Mhasc Caion, plunging his sword through Arthor’s back. And then out again, blood upon the wolf’s sword, so red it blazed like fire against the fading world.
A wail sounded from somewhere. A grief-sound. It seemed to go on and on.
Killeen saw the mighty Ulic king’s body pitch back, as though his heart had been ripped out from behind, and then he dropped away, out of sight. Gone.
And then everything fell dark and quiet.