The Redemption of Erâth: Book 2, Chapter 20

And so chapter 20 is complete, finishing the fourth part of five for The Redemption of Erâth: Exile. I’m so excited – this was an exciting chapter to write!

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Chapter 20: The Grim Watch

By that evening they had a count of their losses, and in a stroke of luck only two of their number lay dead, including the man who had first fallen. However, three more were wounded beyond Elven’s ability to heal in the field, and were to be returned to Farthing’s Bar for treatment. A great number more had cuts and bruises and sprains, however, and Elven’s work was busy that night.

By some provenance, Kayla had not died from her wound, and Brandyé could see the agony in his friend as he wrestled his desire to be with her against his sworn duty as a healer to tend to the wounded men. Brandyé stayed by her side instead, holding her hand as she remained weak and faint, sweating and cold. The arrow had pierced her leather and her flesh, but had lodged between her ribs and so had not punctured her lung, or her heart. She had lost a significant amount of blood, however, due in part to Brandyé’s own rash actions when he found her. While Elven himself had mistaken her for dead (a thing he could not forgive himself), he had nonetheless nearly strangled Brandyé when he found he had removed the arrow and was suddenly and desperately trying to stem a great flow of blood.

“Never, ever remove the arrow!” he had cried as he leapt forward, kissing Talya’s forehead even as he knocked Brandyé out of the way to put pressure on the wound. In the end her bleeding had stopped, and after some time Elven was reluctantly forced to admit that she would live, and left her to tend to the others.

There was no mirth or laughter in the camp that night; rather, the men were somber and subdued, some weeping outright for the death of their companions. There was no stream nearby and they had precious little water with them, so Brandyé was forced to allow the blood to dry on his hands, staining them dark for the next few days until they arrived in the tiny village of Rythe’s Helm, which fortunately they did without further incident.

They had lost more horses than men, however – both through the actions of their enemy and those that had to be put down due to their wounds, much to Brandyé’s dismay – and so they made their way slowly, those with the worst injuries riding and those whose health remained with them walking. They would not have been caught off-guard again, though – to a one, every person in the company was ever vigilant of their surroundings, at times even calling out dangers that were not in fact there.

When the first homes of Rythe’s Helm appeared there was a general cry of relief, and soon they had the wounded in beds in the village’s only inn, the others crowding the downstairs. It seemed the village people were used to a somewhat rowdier crowd, for as the barman brought to Brandyé and Elven he said to him, “Ye’re a quiet lot, ye are.”

“What do you expect, after such an attack?” Elven protested.

But the barman was unimpressed. “Ye call that an attack? Most of ye’re still walking! Oh, lad – ye’re in for a treat up here.” And he grunted, and moved on.

“Old bastard,” Elven muttered after him, but Brandyé was all the more worried, if even the village folk perceived their skirmish as a minor incident.

Talya was sitting with them, though she was drinking nothing but water for her injury. Elven had wrapped tight a great bandage around her body so that she had a stripe of white above her dark clothing. It had seeped slightly, but Elven was less concerned now that she was starting to regain the color in her cheeks again. “This is somewhat more than I bargained for,” she said, and laughed a small laugh.

But Elven did not share her mirth. “I am sorry, Talya, I am – I shouldn’t have left you. I shouldn’t have let you come at all, in fact.”

She raised a hand to touch his cheek. “That wasn’t your choice to make.”

Brandyé watched the two for a moment, and curiously his thoughts turned to Elỳn. He wondered where she was at that moment, and what she was doing. His own mortality was weighing on his mind since the battle – when he had removed his armor he saw the great dent his opponent’s mace had left in it, and imagined if it had been his head instead. It was beginning to dawn on him that he might very well die here in the north of Erârün, though Schaera’s words still lingered in his ears. He did not want to die without seeing Elỳn again.

Over the following days Brandyé learned from the village folk that Rythe’s Helm was the southernmost village in the Rein, part of an area known as the Helmsfeld. Two other villages were in this area, before a great expanse of wild land and plain led to the foot of the Reinkrag Mountains’ western protrusion, where the villages of Farthen and Deepend lay. The area was vast, and he guessed from their descriptions that the Rein was at least as large as Consolation had been, if not larger.

He also learned disturbing tales of attacks by fierundé, men, and other creatures. Rythe’s Helm was too far south to suffer the brunt of these, and it was surprising even to the local folk that their company had suffered an attack in the lands south of them. This news was disturbing, for it meant that the enemy was sneaking past their guard, and while there were yet no villages for a hundred miles south of them it marked a failing in the defense of the Grim Watch.

The Grim Watch were another thing Brandyé learned more of as they rested and recuperated in Rythe’s Helm. On the second day of their stay a caravan of wounded men came into town, and as Elven set out to help the village healers treat their injuries, Brandyé watched the grim face of the caravan’s driver, and knew that some were not to live.

These wounded men were just a few of some two hundred that patrolled the borders of the northernmost villages and beyond, traveling here and there by foot and by horse, rotating so that at least half that number were in the fields at any given moment. Their orders were simple: kill any man or beast that attempted to pass them by. They did not advance on the enemy, but rather held their ground, and for the most part little happened, though tensions were always high: one never knew when an organized attack was to occur.

Once enough of their company were healed (nineteen of the twenty-four that had set out there were in the end), they were to set out for the northern villages, and there they would join the patrolling of Erârün’s borders. Brandyé was not looking forward to that day, which Tharom thought would be the following week, and spent his time brooding alone, or with Elven.

“I vowed that I would not take the life of another person,” he said to Elven one night, wary of broaching the subject of his sister’s death, “even these dark men that would take my own. But I can’t see how I can stay true to myself and still carry out my duty.”

“Perhaps nothing will happen,” Elven replied. “I’ve heard tell that some men spend all their while here and never see a single soul.”

“It’s too late for that, though, isn’t it?” Brandyé muttered. “Two of my fellows died back there, Elven – two men who had families and people who cared for them.”

“The people we care for sometimes die,” Elven said softly, and it was the first time he had heard his friend refer to Sonora’s death without resentment in his voice. “The forces that say when and where are beyond any of us.”

But Brandyé knew this was not true. He knew that Schaera and her kind would not have let those two soldiers die, that it was not Death’s doing – but Darkness.

“I must find a way to stop this enemy,” Brandyé said, “but I must do it without slaughter.”

These thoughts consumed him until the day of their departure, when another thing arose to trouble him: Elven would not be traveling with him. He protested to Tharom, but the knight insisted that a healer’s place was in a village removed from the fighting, where the wounded could be tended to in peace. “They will be well enough to ride back, or they will not be well enough to live,” he said.

Elven protested as well, though somewhat half-heartedly, Brandyé thought: Talya was still not well enough to ride, and Elven seemed relieved to be away from yet further death. “Ride well, and stay alive,” he said to Brandyé. “I will be here when you return.” His friend’s words did not stop the tears that came unbidden as they began the long ride north, and haunted him for days after.

For some weeks thereafter, into the turning of the season and the drawing shorter of days, Brandyé fell into a routine with his fellow soldiers that provided a dull, uneasy and strenuous existence. For stretches of three to four days they would ride through the mists and moorlands, five to a party. They knew well that there were other things among the heather and the trees, but seldom was anything visible; at most, a fleeting shadow in the distance, gone in the blink of an eye.

After their patrol, each party would return to either Farthen or Deepend for a rest of two days, before returning to the fields once more. These villages were small, rank and poor, and there was little comfort to be had in the hard beds and weak ale of their inns. They were crowded, also, for there had been two other villages there in the north before the forces of Darkness had taken them, and the surviving folk had had little choice but to find lodging and work – what little work there was – with those whose towns were yet unassailed.

Fear was predominant in these villages, and Brandyé found that he and his soldier kin provided little comfort to the townsfolk. In fact, the unruly conduct of some of his ilk left such a poor taste in his mouth that he could not help but sympathize with the villagers, and wonder what help they were providing at all. The general view held by most was that the soldiers were there to eat their food and drink their ale, and do little else – after all, they had allowed two other villages to fall, and it would only be a matter of time before their own fell also.

Brandyé knew enough, however, to know that their numbers were simply too few to stand against a sustained assault, and he wondered greatly at the king and his councilors’ decisions to send such a paltry force here. In the atmosphere, the gloom of the villagers and the black of the clouds he could sense Darkness here, as strong as anywhere he had ever sensed it; surely it would behoove them to send as many of their soldiers as possible here to defend their kingdom at its borders, and not waste efforts and resources sending good captains such as Tharom Hulòn to the south where there was little to do or see.

As far as that matter, Tharom would answer few of Brandyé’s questions. He was open to discussion on other matters, however, and Brandyé found that Tharom had much insight into the patterns and workings of the creatures of Darkness.

“Ye know much of the fierundé,” he said to Brandyé one day.

It was the second of Brandyé’s rest days, and he and Tharom were sitting on a bench outside the inn. It was yet early, and mists rolled tranquilly across the road before them, obscuring the buildings opposite.

“I’ve encountered them more often than I’d like,” he replied.

“Ye know they weren’t always in the south,” Tharom said.

“My grandfather spoke of how they were moving, becoming bolder. My home land, Consolation, has never known such creatures in all its history.”

“Yet ye saw them there, did ye not?”

Memory flooded Brandyé’s thoughts for a moment. “Several times. My land is no longer safe.”

Tharom looked at him long. “Ye know the fierundé won’t approach a place of light unless driven there by some mad force. What drove them to your land, d’ye think?”

Brandyé thought of how the fierundé had appeared outside of Daevàr’s Hut in the wake of Sonora’s death, and given chase to him. He thought of how entire ranks of the beasts had appeared as he had left Consolation forever, borne on the waters of the Tuiraeth. And more than anything, he recalled the first time he had ever set eyes on one of the beasts, in the snows of the moors behind his home, and how the beast had seemed to recognize him, had seemed to know him.

And all of a sudden, it dawned on him that his very presence could be putting every single one of them in danger. A thrill went through his stomach, for a moment he thought he felt his scar burn. “It was no accident I was banished from Consolation,” he said, and found he could not meet Tharom’s eyes.

Tharom looked at him curiously. “There are no accidents in life, son. All things serve a purpose.”

And at this, Brandyé could not help smiling. “You’re the second person to have told me that.”

Tharom shrugged. “Had you not been banished, I’d not have met you, and I’d not be commanding a company of soldiers again.”

Brandyé frowned. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned such a thing. What has my coming to do with your fortune?”

For a moment, Tharom looked about him, as though ensuring no one else was near. “What I say to ye now, breathe not a word. Swear to me.”

“I swear,” said Brandyé.

“Ye’re not the only one to be exiled from your home. A long time ago, the council that governs the armies of Erârün found me unfit to lead soldiers. They sent me as far from their presence as they could, never to return.”

“Why?”

But Tharom shook his head. “I don’t know ye well enough for that tale, son. But when you appeared with your Illuèn friend, I knew I had a chance to be redeemed.”

“And have you?”

Tharom looked around again, this time as though to indicate the futility of their surroundings. “For what it’s worth; I’m still about as far from Lord Dukhat and his aides as can be, but at least I have men under my command again.”

“Is that so important to you?”

“Have ye ever felt ye’d a calling, son? A thing, that ye had to do above all others?”

And Brandyé knew what he meant. “Elỳn said you had an awareness above that of most men, that you knew of Darkness. Have you ever thought your calling might be something more?”

Tharom gazed upon Brandyé for a long time before saying, “Aye – but if so, it’s a path that’s hidden from me.”

“If all things do indeed have a purpose, then it’s no accident that you and I should have met. One of us is meant to do something for the other that they could not achieve on their own.”

At this, Tharom smiled. “And ye think ye’re the one?”

Brandyé raised his eyebrows. “You said it – you regained your command.”

Tharom laughed. “I knew I shouldn’t’ve told ye that! Your head’ll get so big it’ll drop clean off your shoulders!”

But Brandyé’s mind was whirling with thoughts; Schaera’s prophecy of survival, Elỳn’s words about Tharom, and Ermèn’s thoughts on his purpose – to defeat Darkness. A dreadful feeling was building in his chest, a thought that he needed to leave this place, that he needed to draw Darkness away from these people who did not deserve to suffer under them. Yet at the same time, this was the true front, he knew – this was the one place where the forces of Darkness were to clash with the forces of the men of Erârün, and a man was needed to lead men into such a battle. And he knew it was not himself.

Tharom, on the other hand…

Even as these thoughts were circling in his mind, he heard Tharom’s laughter trail off, and he looked up. Tharom was looking into the distance down the road, where a dim shape could suddenly be seen approaching them, slowly. It was too large to be a man on foot, yet Brandyé did not see the glowing red eyes or the impending Darkness that would indicate the coming of a fierund.

“There are no patrols due back until the morrow,” Tharom said slowly.

“It isn’t a creature of Darkness, I’m certain,” Brandyé said.

“Then let’s wait and see,” said Tharom, and he stood, drawing his sword as he did. Brandyé followed, though he did not draw Fahnat-om but rather kept his hand on the hilt.

The shadowed shape moved slowly, with an odd, lurching movement that Brandyé found difficult to follow. Mist swirled around his feet, and he found he could hear nothing outside of his own breath, and that of Tharom’s. For an age it seemed they waited, until finally, cloaked by the fog, the sound of uneven steps reached his ears. It sounded like a horse, but something was wrong.

As the horse finally became defined, Brandyé saw a large lump on its back that he did not immediately recognize as its rider. What he did recognize was the large arrow protruding from the beast’s hind leg, and in an instant he was rushing forward, forgetting all danger in thoughts of soothing the animal’s obvious suffering. He grasped the horse by the muzzle, and felt it shivering. “Shh,” he whispered. “You’re safe now.”

Tharom had reached his side, and turned his attention to the man who was lying prostrate across the horse’s back. With a great heave he pulled the prone form off the horse, and when the body fell to the earth with a heavy thud, Brandyé felt sick. A second arrow was buried deep in the man’s chest, and Brandyé was certain he was dead – the arrow had pierced clear through his breastplate.

But Tharom knelt beside the soldier and touched a hand to his neck. After a moment he stood swiftly and said to Brandyé, “He still has breath, but not for long. Quickly, fetch salts from the inn – if we can rouse him, he may speak before he dies.”

Brandyé gave the horse one final reassuring pat – the horse had stopped shivering in the few moments Brandyé had been with him – and ran into the inn to find the innkeeper. He was disturbed by Tharom’s language, and thought that Elven would not be quite so fatalistic. Yes, the soldier was wounded, but how could Tharom know he was destined to die?

It was still early and most of the soldiers were still in bed, but the innkeeper was scrubbing pots in the kitchen when Brandyé found him and told him what they needed. Swiftly, he retrieved smelling salts from a cabinet, and filled a bucket with cold water. “Come – show me,” he commanded, and Brandyé led him back out into the road.

Tharom had removed the man’s helmet, and Brandyé saw it was one of the men with whom he had trained, though his name escaped him. Blood had dried on his lips, and his skin was dreadfully white. Brandyé knelt beside him with Tharom, and passed to him the salts. Tharom uncorked the bottle and held it under the soldier’s face, occasionally waving a hand to help the scent penetrate the unconscious man’s senses.

“Hand me a wet cloth,” he instructed after a moment, and the innkeeper passed to him a rag soaked in the bucket of water he had brought with him. Tharom wiped the man’s cheeks and forehead, and Brandyé was struck by the tenderness he seemed to show. Then, as if to directly contradict this thought, Tharom drew back and slapped the man hard across the face so that his head rocked from side to side.

Despite his misgivings, however, Brandyé could not deny Tharom’s effectiveness; within a few moments, the man’s eyes began to move behind his closed lids, and a moan escaped his lips. “Come, soldier,” whispered Tharom. “Wake for me, one last time!”

Brandyé thought Tharom would slap the man again, but a moment later his eyes fluttered open, though his gaze seemed lost and unfocused. Brandyé once more looked upon the arrow that protruded from the man’s breast, and saw that it was at least twice the size of the one that had struck Talya. He recalled the giant crossbows he had helped the Cosari build, and shuddered, and felt sick.

“Can ye hear me?” Tharom asked.

For a moment Brandyé was certain the soldier would be unable to answer, but he coughed, spluttered, and said, “Yes – who are ye?”

Tharom cupped the man’s face in his hand and leaned in close. “It is I – Tharom, your captain.”

The man let out a great moan, and said, “Sir…it hurts.”

Tharom nodded. “I know, son. Can ye tell me what happened?”

“An…an army, sir – they’ve an army.”

Tharom’s jaw stiffened. “How many, soldier? A raid?”

Ever so weakly, the soldier shook his head. “Hundreds, sir…hundreds.”

“How far?”

Brandyé looked in horror as the man coughed again, fresh blood flecking his lips.

“How far?” repeated Tharom, more intense this time.

“A…a day.”

“Are there skøltär with them?”

“I don’t know, sir. They were man and beast, together.”

Tharom cursed, then, and looked to Brandyé. “Rouse the men,” he commanded him, “and send a rider south. We need ever able soldier, and we need them now!”

Brandyé heard him, but was frozen, still staring at this wrecked and wounded man.

“Sir…” the soldier whispered.

As Brandyé watched, Tharom turned back to him.

“Am I dying, sir?”

And Brandyé squeezed his eyes shut at Tharom’s answer: “Yes.”

“Please, help me…”

“I will, soldier. You will not suffer.”

“Sir?” Brandyé asked, incredulous.

“Rouse the men!” Tharom shouted at him. “Go, now – this doesn’t concern ye!”

And so Brandyé turned and walked away, followed by the innkeeper, and by the time the soldiers in the inn had donned their armor and descended to the dirt road outside, the soldier had passed away, and Tharom had already wiped clean his blade.

Tharom surveyed the men that now stood before him. Fourteen they were, including Brandyé, and Brandyé heard the dead soldier’s words echo in his mind: Hundreds, sir…hundreds. “I thank ye for your swiftness,” Tharom began. “Ye may’ve heard, or maybe not – there’s a battle ahead of us. One of our patrols was attacked yesterday, by what I understand to be a true army: perhaps more than a hundred of the enemy together as one.

“Here is what ye’re to do, immediately: rouse the village, and prepare them to leave. We’ve no way of contacting the patrols that’re still out there, and we’re supposing them lost already. Ye’re brave men, every one of ye, but ye’ll not hold down the village alone. We’re to escort the villagers down the south road as fast as possible, except one of ye who’ll ride ahead to muster what troops we’ve got in Rythe’s Helm. We’ve got a day’s start, at best – so move!”

And so the soldiers dispersed, and Brandyé aided in going from door to door, hammering and calling and turning out every last man, woman and child in the village. As he saw them all emerge onto the road and paths, a great fear grew in his chest; some hundred there were, many too old or too young to wield a blade, and he knew that were the army of the enemy to fall upon them, they would die to a one. Even a day’s start might prove too little, if fierundé were prowling among the forces of Darkness.

But there was nothing for it but to try, and within hours – Brandyé was impressed by the villagers’ resilience – a line of folk was already making its way out of the village and down the long road south. Some had horses to ride, but most were on foot, carrying with them what little Brandyé and the soldiers would allow them: food, mainly, and scare amounts at that.

And then, as the last of the village folk were following in the wake of the soldiers who led them, Brandyé’s thoughts turned to Elven, and to Talya. He hoped that Talya was well on her way to being mended, and he was certain Elven had found occupation, but neither of them were true fighters. This thought unsettled him – odd, that he should consider himself a fighter.

Desperately, he found himself wishing for a way to warn them of what was to come, to urge them to flee even the town of Rythe’s Helm, for he was certain that this time, the forces of Darkness would not stop at a single village; not if they were so mustered that they numbered in the hundreds.

And then, just as he was passing the inn with such thoughts on his mind, a cry came from high above him, one so familiar that his heart nearly skipped a beat. Looking up and searching the skies, he muttered, “Sonora?”

It was impossible that it could be her, that Elven’s bird would appear just as he was thinking of his friend, but that cry was unmistakable, and sure enough, there high above him and circling was a falcon, and it was coming lower and lower. Within moments it had settled on the earth before him as he stood by his horse, her green eyes peering at him with startling intelligence. How could she have known?

He looked close at her leg to see if there was perhaps some note from Elven, but she bore nothing. No matter, he thought – she would bear one back. “Wait here!” he called to her, and momentarily dashed into the inn.

For a moment he could not find what he was looking for – parchment and ink. In the end he found a scrap of paper crumpled in a corner of the bar, and when he had smoothed it out it lay bare enough to write on. Yet he had no ink, no quill – not even charcoal with which to write.

Thinking desperately, he came to the realization that there was one place he had a plentiful source of ink, if only he could get at it – himself. Shaking, he withdrew Fahnat-om from its scabbard, and gently drew the tip across his finger. He winced, but a drop of blood formed, and he pressed his finger to the paper. He could not write much in this way, he knew, but he could at least give them some warning:

 

Darkness coming – flee!

 

When he was done, he waved the paper to dry for a moment, then carefully folded it so that the blood did not smear. Then he went back outside, to where Sonora was still waiting for him. He knelt beside her and proffered the folded paper. “I have no string to tie this to your leg,” he said, “so you will have to carry it in your beak. Can you do this for me?”

The bird tilted her head at him and let out a soft squawk, and then leapt forward and nipped the paper from him. Brandyé bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said. “Fly now, swiftly!”

And so Sonora flapped her wings and took to the air, and within moments was gone from sight. Brandyé sighed a deep sigh, and then mounted his horse. The last of the villagers had already passed from the town, and he was late.

It was at best a five-day ride to Rythe’s Helm, and with so many on foot it would at least double that. They best hope was that over the following two weeks that managed to at least maintain their one-day lead over the advancing armies behind them, and so arrive with some degree of safety at the larger town of Rythe’s Helm. Tharom’s advance riders would have arrived long before, and it was their hope that the remaining soldiers there would come out to meet them, and so the villagers could carry on while they provided a rear defense.

Equally, riders were to leave from Rythe’s Helm south for Vira Weitor, and send the warning there that a great force was being marshaled. If they fell defending Rythe’s Helm, at the very least another, greater force could arrive within a week to repel the attackers.

These were dim and gloomy thoughts that occupied Brandyé’s mind over the following two days, during which time they saw no sign of their enemy. He felt a great sympathy for these folk who were being driven from their home, and in his heart knew that they deserved a great defense; yet at the same time, he had no desire to die defending a town so far from his own home, in a place he had not wanted to be to begin with. So this conflict grew inside him, until he was at great odds to stay and defend the folk of the Rein, or to find Elven and flee for their lives, leaving such terrible death and destruction behind them. He found himself unable to tell which path was the right one, though a small voice continued to tell him that his place was more than that of a simple soldier.

His indecision remained with him through the second day of their march south, but on the third, he could no longer afford to wait. Only shortly before noon, as he was riding near the head of the procession, he heard great screams and shouts begin to rise from behind him. His pulse suddenly pounding, he brought his horse about to see the cause of the commotion, and to his horror saw, approaching over a distant hill, a party of no less than five fierundé, galloping toward them at great speed.

“Tharom!” he cried. “Sir – to the rear!” But Tharom was far ahead of him and did not hear – in fact, seemed not to have heard the screams of the villagers themselves. His instinct and his training told him to ride forward, to tell his commander the news, but he knew that in the few moments it would take to do so, people would start to die.

And so he did the only thing he could think of: crying for folk to move out of his way, he set his horse to a gallop in the direction of the fierundé, calling out to every soldier he passed to turn and follow him. As the horse ran he withdrew his crossbow from his belt and loaded it, careful not to drop the quarrel with the motion of the steed. Soon he was well to the rear with only a few straggling villagers desperately running to escape the coming doom, and brought his horse up short. Around him were now several other soldiers who had heeded him, and he called to them: “Arrows, now! Aim for the throat, and you might yet bring them down!”

About him bows were drawn, and taking the lead Brandyé sighted the foremost fierund and loosed his quarrel. A moment later a veritable rain of arrows followed, and in the shower many found their mark. Yet even Brandyé’s mark, which had clearly been struck below the jaw, did not fall, and the howl of fury that rose from the wolves’ throats was terrifying.

“Again!” Brandyé cried, and again arrows were flung, and then the beasts were upon them and there was no further time to rearm a bow. Nearly as one the beasts leapt, and two of the soldiers nearest Brandyé were swept from the horses, tumbling to the ground with a mass of black bristling fur and fangs atop them.

Without pause, without thinking even for his own safety, Brandyé drew Fahnat-om and bore down upon the fierundé and his fallen companions. Sighting the nearest one he brought his blade up high and drove it deep into the beast’s neck. A startled and furious shriek came from the beast’s mouth, but it forgot the soldier beneath it, who at a glance Brandyé saw was wounded but still alive.

The fierund turned, clearly shaking from its wound, and with a sudden great swipe of its paw sent Brandyé and his horse tumbling. Brandyé could hear the crack of the horse’s neck breaking, and before he could throw himself free he found himself suddenly pinned beneath its bulk, unable to move. Around the horse’s body came the fierund, and in a panic Brandyé wildly swung Fahnat-om again, this time catching the beast clear across the face. It howled again and pawed at its own wound, before opening wide its jaws and snarling terribly. It approached once more, and in a final move of desperation Brandyé thrust his sword forward, deep into the beast’s maw, and clear through its head.

Almost without a further sound, the fierund dropped heavily to the ground, wrenching Brandyé’s arm with its force. Brandyé cried out in pain, and pulled hard at Fahnat-om to free it from the fierund’s corpse.

Around him and in the distance he could hear further cries and screams, but could see little but for the body of his horse as it held him fast to the ground. Struggling madly, he managed to free one of his legs, and with a great heave against the fallen saddle he was finally free to stand.

Beside him lay the soldier who he had rescued, still alive but clutching at a shoulder wound that was bleeding profusely. A few yards further away lay the second fallen soldier, clearly and awfully dead. Brandyé knelt beside the soldier for a moment, for the fierundé had passed them by and they two were alone. By force he removed the man’s hands from his wound, only to see a dreadfully deep claw mark that had pierced to the bone. Swiftly he replaced the man’s hands, pressing as hard as he could with his own, but the blood continued to seep through his fingers, and as Brandyé began to weep, he saw the light and the life begin to fade from the man’s eyes.

Desperately wishing for Elven, for help of any kind, Brandyé looked around him, and saw only the tails of four further fierundé as they hunted down the remaining soldiers that he had mustered, though at least one of them, he saw, was limping.

“Help!” he cried futility, not even knowing why he uttered the word – there was no help to be had. “Help!”

He looked down again at the man, and terribly, felt his hands go limp beneath his own. “Please,” Brandyé begged through tears, but it was too late, and the man died quietly even as he tried to save his life.

Blood and tears staining his face, Brandyé finally stood, his arm aching and his legs sore. He had no horse, and his fellow soldiers had fled; he could not join them, and in terror he watched as the fierundé drew ever further away from him, and ever closer to the undefended villagers.

And then, in the distance from behind him, he heard raised voices – shouts, calls, cries and jeers – and swinging around he terror multiplied tenfold as he saw, rising over the hills in the distance, a great line of men and beasts, seemingly endless in length: the army of Darkness had come.

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