Broc, Mim, Leasha, and Breanna headed south. Wind bit at their exposed skin as they walked across the open plain. They had left the Wizard’s Tor parting with Koax and Cassian who would be travelling east through Druid territory toward Meadowvale.
Miles on they walked, resting occasionally for water and the little food they could forage along the way. But Mim was constantly pacing, staring across the plains to the West and hurrying the others onward.
By the late morning of the following day, Breanna could make out the familiar outline of a forest no more than a mile ahead.
A memory washed over her.
That day, that seemed so long ago when she had stood on the edge of a different forest. The forest of her homeland and crossed into another world.
She’d felt like she would never be whole again and it seemed to her now that she was no longer the girl who had crossed that threshold.
She hurried on behind Mim as the rain started to bite down upon them. It ran down her face and the sheets of it began to sink into her clothes making it hard for her to walk.
There was a strange sound on the air. Under the bitter wind that bit at her ear, there was an ethereal cry that floated on the breeze.
Dark clouds hung heavy with harvest rain and Breanna’s stomach tightened as she caught sight of a winged silhouette. It took her a moment to realise it was not a Sycorax. Just birds. She let out a sigh of relief.
But their call was like a death cry. As a flock of nearly twenty swopped and swirled toward them from the trees, their sheer size seemed like nothing she had ever witnessed before.
“Get a move on,” Mims words were tired, and she reached out a hand to Breanna, who realised she had stopped to stare at the gathering of birds as they circled one another at the edge of the forest and then settled in the trees as if to watch the intruders from afar. “Iskia,” Mim shook her head, and looked sternly at the little group, “We give them no reason to attack,” she ordered.
Leasha and Broc glanced and one another, then both nodded.
Gradually, the four of them made their way along a track running south. Breanna glanced every now and then at the forest. She longed to enter it. To watch the dappled sunlight dance across the fallen leaves, to breathe in the scent of pinewood and oak, and for the woodland to protect her from the driving wind that stung her cheeks.
But the shadow of the Iskia warned her of the dangers of the unfamiliar wood.
A warm hand settled against her back and she looked up into the bright green eyes of Leasha. She was relieved more than she could bear to admit, that the elf maiden had decided to join them. Breanna had expected her to leave with Cassian and the depth of sadness and loss that left within her had taken her by surprise. But now that that Leasha was here with her it made the journey a little more bearable. She had already lost too much.
“Keep your eyes on the danger, Elf,” Mim called back to them suddenly.
Leasha muttered a reluctant assent and drew her bow. The place on the small of Breanna’s back where her hand had been felt cold and Breanna wished more than ever that the two of them could be alone, just for a few moments.
But it was not to be.
The sun was starting to fall, and the howling wind had picked up. The hours they had walked seemed to have brought them little further along and the landscape had little, changed all day. Breanna’s stomach pined for food and she even began to long for the salted fish strips and seaweed that the Fenner’s had supplied them with. Even though the dark would bring the cold, she longed for night to fall so they might stop to camp and Broc would relinquish the rabbit meat he’d hunted, and Leasha would share the mushrooms she had foraged. Breanna, for her contribution, had managed to hunt down some blackberries, but it had taken all the strength she possessed to hand them over to her brother for safe-keeping. Even now she wished she hidden a few, just to give her the strength to keep up with the others.
The Iskia were once again beginning to screech and caw. They were still at some considerable distance and the wind was against them, yet Breanna could hear their calls, urgent and angry.
“Oi you, what have you done?” Mim turned to her angrily. Her skin was waxy and her eyes were red with fatigue, the woman hadn’t slept in days and her temper was running even thinner than usual.
“Nothing,” Breanna replied. But even as she spoke the creatures took to the sky.
“Run!” Mim called. She took off and it took barely a second for the others to take after her, with their weapons drawn and ready for the impending attack.
The birds soared and circled overhead cawing and letting out the terrible cry.
Leasha readied an arrow, pointing skywards and waiting for the first bird to make a fatal mistake. Mim readied her staff. But it seemed the birds weren’t interested and instead continued on their northeasterly course.
Breanna stared. “Where are they going?”
“Perhaps they saw they were no match for us?” Leasha suggested hopefully, staring up as they departed.
“Too right,” Mim added with a grunt before turning back to her path.
“It might be because of them.” Broc pointed his axe back along the path they had been travelling. In the distance, barely visible in the dying light was a score of silhouetted figures riding steeds as large as stags with armour that glinted in the last of the sun.
Breanna swallowed. There was little place for them to hide.
They had to run.
Breanna could hear the heavy pounding of hooves in the distance and the cawing of the birds high above.
Leasha had hold of her hand and Mim blasted at the riders. One rider fell but the others did not stop.
They would be on them within moments.
Up ahead, Broc stumbled as he came to the crest of a gorge. Dirt and pebbles clattered over stones as he skidded to a halt then turned, catching Breanna as she careened into him.
For one brief moment, she saw over the edge and down the steep rocky gorge where her body had almost plummeted before her brother pulled her back.
The first rider was upon them but their speed was too great, and their reaction too slow. They turned their mount but all too late and the pair of them slid over their edge.
The other soldiers drew to a halt but it gave the group only a moment to react.
“Go, GO!” Broc brother shouted, and Breanna scrambled to her feet and they took off at a run along the cliff.
At a crack of thunder, Breanna glanced back.
Mim and Leasha were surrounded, taking on the riders without them. She hesitated. But as two soldiers peeled off the group and headed in their direction, Broc grabbed her arm and pulled her after him.
“The others!” she cried.
But it was too late the first rider was upon them.
As the mounted rider hurtled toward them, swinging a glinting sword, Broc rolled, swinging his axe and catching the leg of the beast. Breanna had to dive out of the way as the creature, the soldier still attached to its back, hurtled over the edge of the cliff and plummeted into the gorge below.
She was frozen, breathing hard as she thought of the fate of the poor innocent beast. But there was no time to mourn.
A second soldier had dismounted.
Tall, and wearing gleaming bronze armour, their face concealed by the mask of their helmet. Their sword was drawn and they rushed at Broc.
He fought valiantly, striking the sword away and landing such a fierce blow to his assailants head that it dented the plates.
Hurriedly, the soldier tore the helmet from their head but the face of the woman beneath was almost as fierce. Coiled golden hair, dark slate eyes, and a red welting scar that ran down the side of her cheek. She looked as though she were forged from the same metal as her sword.
Breanna drew her blade.
Her stomach churned and she watched not knowing how to help but knowing she needed to do something.
As the woman clashed weapons with her brother, Breanna ran blindly into the fray, striking the armoured warrior hard against her flank.
The surprise blow unsteadied the soldier and gave Broc the chance to land a hit so hard the soldier stumbled backwards and fell to the ground.
He tried to make the most of the advantage and went to strike a final heavy blow, but the soldier was too fast. She rolled out of the way and was suddenly on her feet. The three opponents faced one another, breathing heavily, all waiting for another to make a move.
A sudden cry distracted them.
Mim had gone over the edge and Leasha was scrabbling to hold on as they fought off the last few attackers.
Without thinking, Breanna darted toward her but stopped as she heard the clang of metal behind her.
Sword against axe, Broc fought the woman, she was as tall and strong as he, but armoured to the hilt, while Leasha tried to scramble back up the edge of the gorge.
Suddenly the remaining soldiers took off downhill toward the entrance to the valley below and Breanna darted forward.
“I’ve got you!” she cried as she fell onto her belly, reaching over the edge.
Leasha reached up to grab her hand, but the loose sandstone gave away under her feet. She slid further down. Beyond her, sprawled on the valley floor, was Mim. She had fallen on her back, her staff a few feet away from her hand. She wasn’t moving.
Breanna leaned further down, one hand grasping the edge and the other reaching down to Leasha. But with each attempt Leasha made to scramble upward, the cliff face crumbled beneath her and she slid further and further out of reach toward the base of the gorge.
A yell from her brother drew her attention back to the second fight.
It took her a moment to realise what she was seeing.
The soldier’s sword and Broc’s axe had struck one another. The opponents’ strength equally matched, the pair pushed against one another, each trying to gain the advantage.
But Broc’s knees were giving way. As he stared into the face of the warrior, his face contorted with pain and shock, he suddenly fell away, hitting the ground in a heap.
But the knife that had plunged deep into his gut remained in the woman’s hand.