We surged forward at a trot, keeping pace with the cavalry in front of us. While the previous days of marching had been filled with conversation, a hundred voices talking up and down the column, now we moved in silence, a nervous energy settling over us.
I focused my attention on my spear, trying to keep it vertical as we ran, trying to direct my mind anywhere other than the gnawing lump of anxiety that was settling into my belly. The head on the spear wasn’t one of the ones my father had made; it was similar, but the edges looked finer, the head as a whole slightly wider without making the tip any less sharp. Finer work than my father’s, even to my eye. I wondered who had made it, in what town, in what forge. Maybe, I thought, after the war was over I’d go and find out.
We reached the bridge in minutes. Men started shouting orders, the different units blossoming out of the marching column and into fighting lines. Bat held up Sir Hagan’s standard above his head, and beside him Skelley called out to us. “All right, lads, just as you’ve been trained! The field is narrow, so we’re providing depth for the defense. Four ranks, heavier armor up front, front line a spear’s length behind Sir Tolan’s men on the right flank! Don’t get too close to the cliff’s edge, but don’t let anyone come around the right without shoving them in or stabbing the spirits out of them!”
We shifted to the left and I pushed forward, taking my place in the front row of our unit. Sir Tolan’s men had lined up just twenty or thirty paces away from the foot of the bridge, which put us not more than forty away. I checked my position, looked to make sure I was lined up with Oskar on my left and Barder am Stomund on my right, and then brought my spear point down from vertical to a ready position, making sure to keep it well above the heads of Sir Tolan’s men ahead of me.
For a few more minutes there were sounds of metal and leather as the rest of the men filed into position, and then a quiet seemed to settle over us, leaving nothing but the sound of the ocean waves. The cavalry had lined up behind the center of our massed force, ready to attack any enemy that got past or around us. Across the cove I could see the smoke from the watch post fire, dark gray against the bright but overcast sky, but except for that and the thick fog shifting and curling in the bowl of the falls I could make out no movement. My heart raced as I scanned the far side and the top of the bridge, and the plain gray nothingness of the sky seemed to flicker and dance in my vision as I strained to see whoever it was we were facing.
A gust of wind stirred the fog below, making it curl upward and drift out over the bridge. For a moment, my view of anything past the front of our lines was obscured entirely, but as the fog began to descend I saw something at the peak of the bridge’s span, something that I realized were figures just as I heard someone shout, “There!”
There were no more than thirty of them, arranged in no particular formation save that the tallest two stood more or less at the center of the group. The majority of them were short, maybe only half my height, and their hunched-over stance made them seem shorter still.
They were roughly man-shaped, but only roughly; their proportions were all wrong, their arms too long, their knees too high and their ankles high and back, like the legs of a goat or a dog. Their faces, too, were wrong, with sharp features, narrow mouths and noses pushed forward almost into a muzzle, and long, pointed ears that stuck up back and outward from their bald heads. They wore what appeared to be simple clothing, ill-fitting in most cases, with no armor at all that I could see, and for weapons carried only what appeared to be copper short swords or daggers, single edged blades at most three hands long.
The two at the middle of the group were different. Both were tall and thin, standing straight upright and staring down at our force, surveying us; even from here I could have sworn that I could tell when their eyes passed over me. Like the shorter creatures, they had fine, narrow facial features, but while it made the others seem bestial and devious, on the taller pair they seemed elegant, regal. Both had long, silvery-blond hair, brushed back behind ears that were smaller than the other creatures’ but that still swept up into points.
For a few years, before Kellan’s mother had insisted it be moved into their bedchamber, Kellan’s father had hung a painting in the inn that depicted a grand party in the main hall of Cantlay Manor. The pair of tall, thin creatures were dressed more like the people in that painting than like people marching to battle. The taller of the two, whose features seemed slightly more masculine than the other’s, wore a long, sleeveless coat of some pale-colored material, with golden trim, intricate gold embroidery and a high, straight collar. The other wore a silver-accented gown, in a deep crimson that seemed to shimmer like the wings of a dragonfly.
The tall pair came to a stop, and the shorter beings shuffled to reorganize themselves around the two of them. Clearly, I thought, that pair were in command of the others. I felt a shiver of anticipation run through me, and could sense the same anticipation in the movements of the boys beside and behind me. I tightened my grip on the spear.
Neither we nor the creatures moved for a long moment, as they stared us down across the long expanse of the bridge. Behind me, I heard one of the knights speak, muffled by his helmet, and then I heard Lord Carson speak, in a quiet voice. “Hold.”
The knight spoke again, loud enough for me to make out this time. Sir Glen’s voice, I thought. “My lord, are you certain? We have the advantage of numbers, they can stand no chance against us.”
Lord Carson did not raise his voice in response, only repeated himself in the same soft tone. “Hold.” He sounded distant, as though his thoughts were elsewhere. I felt Kellan’s spear tap me on the shoulder, and I glanced back at him. He was staring ahead at the enemy, staring intensely at them, but he seemed odd, in a way I couldn’t identify.
The taller of the two enemy commanders turned to his companion, and though they were perhaps a hundred paces away away from us I could hear his voice as clearly as if he stood next to me. He spoke in a tongue I had never heard before, a lilting language that seemed to be almost sung rather than spoken.
The other one, though, answered him in Tillish, her voice high and lilting. “Mmm. A pleasant thought, my dear friend, but there is far too little time to enjoy ourselves. We are set to meet the others in only days, and we would need at least a week with this many to deal with.”
The male commander turned back toward us. “A pity,” he murmured, also in Tillish, shaking his head, “such a pity.” He straightened his back, took a deep breath, and called out a command.
“Walk into the sea.”
I stared at them, confused. Was he ordering the shorter creatures to retreat into the ocean? But they weren’t moving, they all held their positions. Was he ordering us to drown ourselves? Did he expect us to listen? I shook my head and readied my stance again, but then Kellan’s spear landed on my shoulder and rocked forward, the point falling into the grass.
I glanced back over my shoulder. “Kell? You-” I stopped. All down the line, in our unit and Sir Tolan’s and every other group, spears were dropping, men leaving their places, turning away from the enemy and moving toward the cliffs on either side of the bridge, unhurriedly but with definite purpose. Not every soldier seemed to be effected by whatever was happening, whatever madness the creature’s words apparently contained, but the mad outnumbered the sane, and those who had kept their heads and who had realized what was happening were turning from the enemy as well, trying to restrain their fellow soldiers.
Kellan tried to push past my right arm, mumbling an apology to me, and I grabbed him by the tunic with both hands, dropping my spear. “Kellan?” I shouted at him, reaching one hand up to his chin, pulling his face around to face me. “Kellan! Can you hear me? What are you doing?”
He narrowed his eyes at me. When he spoke, his voice was eerily calm. “No, Col, it’s fine, I just…” He turned his head away from me, toward the cliff. “…I just have to go. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine, Kell. Think about what you’re doing. If you fall, you’ll die!”
He jerked his shoulders around, his movements growing violent even as his voice stayed placid. “No, it’s fine. It’s fine, Col. Just have to. It’s fine.” He started shoving at me, trying to push me away. One hand landed on the front of my helm, and his shove forced my head back, pushing the iron helmet up and off of my head.
I stopped, blinking in the open air, dazed as realization rushed over me like an ocean wave. I’d been a fool; it was so obvious, so simple, how had I not figured it out sooner? How could I have been so afraid, so distrustful of these beings, when it was so clear that they were our friends!
I let go of Kellan’s shirt and looked up at them, amazed at the change in my perspective. They didn’t actually appear any different, not really, but somehow now I could see that the two at the center were beautiful, almost radiant, just the sight of them filling me with pleasant warmth. Even the others, inhuman as they were, were still handsome in an animal sort of way, like a trusted hound was handsome.
I smiled, and shook my head at how stupid I’d been. Well, now I knew better. These beings, these people were our friends, our dearest friends. They’d never have asked us to do anything that would harm us, of course not, and when they’d asked such a simple favor, such an easy thing to do, it would have been rude to refuse.
I turned to my right and began walking forward, falling in beside Kellan as we made our way toward the edge of the cliff.