Winged creatures, silhouettes against the sun that dived and swooped with talon and claw.
Breanna stood for a second watching in horror as her friends tried desperately to defend themselves, with the boat rocking furiously as they fought. Then, as one, Cassian and Breanna darted off towards the fray.
Barked orders, shouts, screeches, and blasts from Mim’s staff filled their air with chaos and noise. Cassian had already drawn his bow and even as they ran two of the creatures fell from the air, an arrow to each of their throats.
They reached the shore just as the boat finally tipped and her companions plunged into the ice-cold river. A great shriek like uncanny laughter arose from the attacking creatures. Even as Cassian stood on the bank, firing arrow after arrow, the winged beasts tore apart the reed bindings on their precious craft.
Breanna scanned the bank and ran to aid Leasha as she scrambled out of the water. She still had her bow and nodded thanks before turning to reel off an arrow.
As Broc’s dark mass of wet hair appeared at the river’s edge she rushed to him. “What happened?” she demanded.
He shook his head. “They came out of nowhere.”
As soon as he was upon his feet, his axe readied, Breanna searched around for Mim. Koax could live underwater, but she wasn’t certain the Dwarf Wizard could swim.
A blast of thunder sounded from behind her. Downriver Koax and Mim had emerged and already she was firing lightning bolts. Winged corpses and scattered reeds lay strewn in the water.
But now the beasts had finished with the boat, they turned their attention back to the group. Swooping, and diving, claws first. Broc and Koax stood firm, lashing out with their weapons at the last moment, while Mim and the Elves plucked the creatures out of the air with magic and arrows.
With a great shriek, like the soul being ripped from a banshee and scratched across the sky, a creature twisted and dove towards Breanna, talons first.
A great bolt of lightning struck the beast, and it fell, landing on the ground at Breanna’s feet with a sickening crack. It did not move again.
Mim hurried towards her, a face like thunder, the staff still thrumming with magic. “Summon a dragon,” she shouted.
Mim pulled hard at her arm but Breanna stared at the wide-open orange eyes of the soft golden-furred creature, its hog-like nose, sharp ears, and little fangs reminded her of a bat. She hesitated as the remaining creatures swooped around their heads. Who were these beasts? Why did they attack?
Mim tugged her with another great yank of the arm. “Quickly!”
There was little time, but she had to try. She stood in the centre of the melee, closed her eyes, and reached out in her mind for a Dragon. If she could call it. Summon it to them. Then it would fight on her behalf. It would defeat these winged beasts in a second.
But there was no Dragon Whisper.
She opened her eyes, hoping a Dragon would appear in the sky but she saw a creature, with blazing white fur, swooping at Cassian’s back.
Her mind blank of all thoughts but saving her friends, Breanna lunged forward and pushed Cassian aside.
She cried out as the creature struck. It landed a punch to her gut as it tackled her to the ground. In a whirlwind of fists and claws, the flying beast fought to get back into the air and Breanna waved her knife this way and that blindly.
She called for a Dragon. Her mind reaching out as she fought desperately with the beast. Suddenly the creature halted mid-screech and Breanna flinched. The beast had reared a broken talon to strike, but it fell to the side, an arrow to the neck.
“Bree?” Leasha soaking wet from the river called to her, lowering her bow.
Breanna nodded. She was all right. She searched the skies still expecting her Dragon, but there was nothing. Why hadn’t it worked? She tried to haul herself from the ground and prepare for another bout but her body felt too heavy.
There were just three of beasts left. They swooped in the air above but didn’t dive. Instead, in a flurry of wings like a waterfall, they turned back to the North… leaving their comrades where they fell.
“We won,” Leasha said with a sigh of relief.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Mim replied and Breanna felt her stomach churn. “They’ll be back soon enough.”
“What were those… people?” Breanna asked, feeling light-headed and weak, still unable to pull herself from the grass where she had fallen.
“Nasty creatures,” Mim muttered, and for once she felt as though Mim was telling her something she already knew.
“But are they the Druids? Are they the people of Dragon March?” Her head was swimming.
“They are the Sycorax,” Mim replied firmly.
“The Sycorax?” Cassian gasped, Breanna was caught off guard by the Elf Ranger’s shock and the note of fear traced with bewilderment on his voice. “But… surely… are they not a myth?”
“Did that lot seem like a myth to you, boy?”
“Nay.” Cassian sighed.
“But it cannot be the Sycorax,” Leasha added. “What would they be doing in Dragon March?”
“Well,” Mim paused and leaned on her staff, gathering her breath and somehow looking down at the Elf Maiden who was at least a clear two feet taller than she. “P’raps the Sycorax have made enemies of the Druids and invaded their lands.”
“So quickly?” Cassian shook his head, “That could not be possible.”
“Then, my boy, it can only be worse,” she explained, “they must be allies.” Mim turned to at Breanna with a wide-eyed sigh. “Come on, you. I hope you’re ready for a bloody long trek.”
Broc helped Breanna up from the ground and she winced as she looked around at the mess; dozens of dead creatures, scattered reeds from the destroyed Fenner boat that had been so easily ripped to pieces, and their supplies strewn along the bank; bags torn open, food tossed into the river, bottles smashed or drained of their contents.
They now had to walk the countless long miles to the Wizard’s Tor. They were being searched for, their journey could take them weeks, they had no supplies between them, and their enemies all seemed to have wings. She doubted it could get any worse.
She took a few steps forward but struggled to move her body. “Does anyone else feel…?” she asked breathlessly. The world was spinning.
“Breanna, by fire!” Broc was pale.
“What?” she demanded, “What is it?”
But it was Leasha who raised her hand to point to Breanna’s stomach. Confused, she looked down.
Jutting out of her body, bloodless, crooked, white as bone, and as though it had every right to be there, was a broken talon.
“Oh…” Breanna whispered not daring to lay her fingers upon it. Suddenly she was on her knees, Leasha was with her holding her up.
“I’ve got you, Bree. Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Leasha touched the jagged broken end of the claw and the pain shot through her body forcing a scream from her throat.
“Don’t touch her!” Broc shouted his voice higher pitched full of panic.
“I’ve got to it’s…” but her voice broke and she looked away.
“It’s poisoned,” Cassian finished.
“You bloody, half-crazed, self-centred Elves! Look at what you’ve done!” Mim cried.
The arguing around her felt as though it was drifting further and further away as if she was falling through water.
Breanna could hear her father.
He was singing to her.
His voice was far off into the distance. As the arguing around her grew weaker, Coinin’s soft singing grew louder.
He was calling to her.
And she wanted nothing more than to go to him.