The chief herdsman was in a whispered argument with the son who had accompanied him. Finally he sighed and looked at Flyn. ‘My son Bernin reminds me of the old game track, b’tween the bluffs an’ the marsh. It’s overgrown – I don’t know how bandits from outside would know of’t, or see’t to escape.’
‘If I’ve learned nothing else in my years of service, master herdsman, it’s that the unexpected always happens,’ replied Flyn. ‘I would hate for even a single louse to escape.’ He looked around until his eyes found Kel. ‘Have your son show this track to Squire Keladry. That will be her post when things warm up.’
Kel left with the shepherd lad Bernin, swallowing disappointment again. She’d hoped that Flyndan would relent and let her take part in the main fight. There’s a waste of hope, she thought bitterly.
As Bernin led her through the gates, he kept peering at her. Finally, as they trudged around the outermost wall, he asked, ‘I’n’t Keladry a girl’s name?’
Bernin was right. The trail was clearly still used, by animals if not people. Someone desperate could take it to reach the river. A bridge two hundred yards downstream would provide a clean getaway if a fugitive got that far.
She wasn’t sure she could hold it alone, so she asked Captain Flyndan to look. He had done so, then told Kel, ‘Just be ready to take anyone who actually makes it here. I doubt they will.’
They waited for the rest of that day and through the next. Word finally came that Maresgift’s band had camped just a few hours’ ride from Owlshollow. Raoul’s hound forces in the forest would start their push at dawn. Maresgift would have two choices: to stand and fight, or to run for Owlshollow – and Flyndan.
The next morning the raiders came. Lonely at her post on the bluff, Kel heard the battle chorus: horn calls, yells, the clang of metal, the scream of horses. It would be a desperate fight in the fields. The bandits knew that capture meant hanging.
It was maddening to guess how it was going from sounds blown to her through the tangled briars that hid the trailhead above. She stood on a broad ledge halfway between the town and the River Bonnett. It was reachable only by the track down from the heights or up from the river. Here she had flat dirt and room to fight. The river’s edge was all tumbled stones, where it would be too easy to break an ankle.
Kel got a coil of thin, strong rope and took it down the trail from the top of the bluff. Using spikes to anchor it, she stretched the rope at knee height across the trail, six feet above her guard post. It would bring any fugitives tumbling onto the ledge, where she would be ready for them.
She kept her fidgets to the occasional walk to the edge of her post, where she could look at the swift, cold Bonnett thirty feet below. When she caught herself at it, she felt sheepish. You act like the edge is going to creep up on you till you fall, she told herself sternly. Now stop it!
The morning she had climbed down the frail, rusted outer stair on Balor’s Needle had marked the end of her fear of heights, though she still disliked them. Looking at the Bonnett from her ledge was like wiggling a loose tooth with her tongue – it was silly, but she had to remind herself that she would no longer freeze in panic at the sight of a drop. She also wanted to be sure her body would remember that a cliff lay only ten feet behind her.
The battle sounds grew louder. She smelled smoke: had the bandits set the fields on fire? If she climbed to the top, she might see. Her orders were to keep quiet and mind her post. She ought to be like Jump. He crouched at her feet with the patience of the born hunter, ready for game to be flushed. The sparrows were among the briars above, preening, sunning, and doing whatever birds did when bored.
Suddenly they zipped down the bluffs past Kel, screeching the alarm. Gravel rattled down ahead of whoever was on the trail. Kel settled her hold on her glaive and checked her stance. She heard scrambling feet …
Was that a child crying?
Someone shrieked. Stones flew as the fugitive hit Kel’s rope hard enough to rip it from its anchors. A centaur skidded onto the ledge half on his side, tangled in her rope, brandishing a short, heavy cutlass.
Kel, hidden by a large boulder where the trail met her ledge, lunged into the open, driving her glaive down. She halted her thrust a bare inch from a squalling girl tied to the centaur’s back by crossed lengths of rope. A cool part of her mind noted that this was why no one had shot the centaur: they had feared to kill the child.
The centaur hacked at Kel with his cutlass as he wallowed, fighting to get to his feet. Kel’s moment of panic – had she cut the girl? – ended. She jerked away from the sweep of the enemy’s blade and cut the rope that held the child. ‘Jump!’ she yelled. The dog leaped over the fallen immortal, seized the child’s gown in his powerful jaws, and dragged her free.
‘Get her out of here!’ Kel ordered him. The centaur heaved himself to his feet and backed against the stone, cursing breathlessly. She ignored what he said: she had one eye on Jump, who towed the shrieking child back up the path, and one eye on the centaur’s blade.
The immortal sidled, trying to find room for his hindquarters as he fumbled to yank a saddlebag over his head. He tossed it to one side, out of the way. Its contents thrashed and squealed like a large, frightened animal.
The centaur chopped at Kel, trying to draw her away from the opening where the trail continued down to the river. Kel blocked his cutlass, keeping herself between him and escape. There was nowhere for him to go on her right, unless he were mad enough to try that thirty-foot leap to the foaming, rock-studded river. If he ran that way, she half-thought she’d let him go. It would be a quicker end than hanging.
The centaur groped at a heavy leather belt around his waist with his free hand. He yanked out a throwing-axe.
My luck, thought Kel. He comes the way no one’s supposed to come, and he can use weapons in both hands.
He hurled the axe. Kel dodged left, still between him and escape, and stepped in with a long slash across his middle. He blocked it with his cutlass and hacked down at Kel’s head. She caught the blade on her weapon’s hard teak staff, angled the glaive, and rammed the iron-shod butt straight into the spot where the creature’s human and horse parts joined.
The centaur went dead white, uttering a gasping whine. His eyes rolled back in his head. Kel swung the glaive’s blade around, placing it where the centaur’s jaw met his neck. She pressed until a drop of blood ran down the razor edge.
‘Yield for the Crown’s mercy,’ she ordered.
Even as he snarled a reply the centaur kicked out with his forelegs, ramming Kel back. Her right side was on fire; her left thigh hurt so fiercely she thought she might faint. Instead she clung to her glaive and staggered to her feet.
The immortal charged, cutlass raised, and nearly speared himself on Kel’s blade. Kel silently thanked the Yamani armsmistress who had bruised her all over to teach her one simple rule: never drop the weapon.
Pain made her weak – she tried to ignore it. Her main attention, her serious attention, was on the foe.
He spun and kicked, his back hooves showering her with rock and dust. Kel shut her eyes just in time. She whipped her glaive in a sideways figure-eight cut to keep him back until she could see. Warm blood trickled down her cheek where a stone had cut her. The sparrows shrieked. Kel knew they were at the centaur’s face. Terrified he might kill them, she opened her eyes. The creature roared his fury, shielding his face against the birds, forgetting his cutlass as he spun, wildly hunting for an escape route.
Kel lunged, sinking the eighteen-inch blade deep below the centaur’s waist and yanking up. His belt dropped, cut in two; his forelegs buckled. Kel pulled her glaive free as her foe went down, clutching his belly. Blood spilled around his hands. From the stink, she knew she’d hit his human intestines.
He would die even if a healer could be found. No healer could save anyone from a belly cut. The foulness in the intestines spread, infecting all it touched. Kel gulped hard and cut the centaur’s throat, a mercy stroke. Blood sprayed, spattering her with drops that burned. He was dead when she lowered her glaive. His eyes never left hers. Even after he died, they were still wide, still fixed on this human who had brought him down.
Kel braced her glaive on the ground and hung onto it, swaying, her ribs and leg on fire. Her stomach was in full revolt over the mess she had made of the centaur – Kel swallowed rapidly until she defeated the urge to vomit. She prayed that no more fugitives came her way. She wouldn’t be able to stop them.
‘Jump?’ she called softly, not wanting to attract attention from the battlefield above. ‘Jump, where are you?’
She heard a scrambling noise on the trail, and a human whimper. The dog walked onto Kel’s ledge with the rescued toddler’s wrist held gently in his teeth.
‘Guard the path,’ Kel ordered. ‘Don’t let anyone take us by surprise.’ Jump wagged his tail, freed his charge, and trotted back the way he had come. The little girl ran over and clutched Kel’s injured leg. Pressing her face into Kel’s leather breeches, she began to cry.
Pain made Kel turn grey; sweat rolled down her cheeks. The girl clung to Kel’s bad leg with all of her strength, sending white-hot bolts of agony shooting up Kel’s thigh. Using the glaive for support, she gently prised the toddler’s arms open and lowered herself onto a stone. Once down, she pulled off her tunic and wrapped it around the girl, listening to the sounds from above. Either the battle was moving away or it had ended: she heard a handful of horn calls, and no clanging metal at all.
‘We’ll be fine,’ Kel told her companion. The girl curled up on the ground, sucking her thumb, with Kel’s tunic for a blanket. She was asleep almost instantly. For a moment Kel looked at her own thumbs, thinking it might be reassuring to do the same. But centaur blood was on her hands. Also, the thought of the teasing she would get if anyone found her doing it kept her from tucking her thumb into her mouth.
A shrill, quavering shriek reminded her of the centaur’s leather pack. Looking at it, she saw the pack thrash. Something was alive in there. Kel carefully got to her feet, moving like an old lady. Using her glaive for a crutch, she hobbled over until she could grab the pack.
‘Calm down,’ she told the occupant, lurching back to her seat. ‘It’s all over.’ Settling the pack on her lap, she opened the buckles that held it shut and thrust a hand inside. Later she would wonder where she had misplaced her common sense. She had known too many animals in her life to grope blindly for one. All she could think was that pain and exhaustion had betrayed her this once.
The creature in the pack took exception to her hand. It clamped a hard, sharp beak on the tender web between Kel’s thumb and index finger. Kel yanked her arm free. The creature hung on, emerging with Kel’s hand. It was an orangey-brown bird, its feathers caked with dirt and grease. Blood welled around its beak as it held onto Kel. She didn’t want to hurt the thing, but she did want it to let her go!
Kel shook her hand, to no effect. She tried to press the hinges of its beak to open it. Catlike paws armed with sharp talons wrapped around her captive wrist, gouging deep scratches where they found flesh. She pressed harder on the hinges of that murderous beak until it popped open. Kel yanked her hand free.
The creature leaped free of the pack to wrap fore-and hind paws around Kel’s mail-covered arm. Kel grabbed its curved, yellow beak with one hand to keep it shut. She yanked her captive arm free of the creature, pressed it onto her lap, and wrapped the leather pack around it to neutralize the thing. Only when she was certain it couldn’t free itself did she pick it up to look it in the eyes. They were the hot orange of molten copper. She’d never heard of an animal with copper eyes.
The creature hissed. Its body, paws, and tail were all rather feline, except for the feather covering. The head, beak, and wings looked eagle-like, though she wasn’t sure. Unlike most nobles, Kel didn’t like falconry and had never tried to learn it.
‘Cat paws, cat tail, eagle …’ she murmured, then stopped as the hair stood up on the back of her neck. ‘Oh, no,’ she whispered. ‘Oh, no, no, no.’
The baby griffin stretched out its head and grabbed a lock of her hair. She yelped as it yanked, and dragged her hair free before stuffing the griffin into its pack. The small immortal protested its renewed captivity at the top of its lungs. Somehow the little girl at Kel’s feet slept on.
Kel tried to think as she wound a handkerchief around the still-bleeding wound between her thumb and forefinger. Griffins were protected by law, but that didn’t stop poachers. The traffic in both griffin parts and live griffins was deadly, but not because of the law. If a griffin’s parents smelled their offspring on a stranger, even years afterwards, they would kill the person. Whatever made up the scent, it could not be washed off. Mages weren’t even sure the parents detected an actual smell. The fact that it stayed for years seemed to indicate the scent was magical rather than actual. It didn’t apply to those who handled claws or feathers, only to those who had held an infant griffin. This one’s parents would have to be found, and someone would have to explain to them what happened before they ripped her to pieces.
Kel put her head in her hands. She straightened instantly as pain stabbed her ribs. Not now, she thought, despairing. I don’t need this now.
CHAPTER 5 (#ulink_67e20e3e-12ac-5d48-a4f5-0f95469d8dff)
THE GRIFFIN (#ulink_67e20e3e-12ac-5d48-a4f5-0f95469d8dff)