We dragged the cart forward into the trees as fast as we could, Aler and I at a sort of half-jog. The cart creaked worryingly as its wheels rolled up and dropped down over tree roots and fallen branches in the path, and a couple of times I heard Ceyx draw in sharp breaths through clinched teeth as the clay current cells jostled against each other, but it was only a few minutes before I could see the rest of the column through the last of the trees, assembling into battle formation around the battering ram.
The ram had been constructed during the night, out of a pair of the larger cargo wagons and a tree trunk too wide for a man to wrap his arms around. Most of the branches had been removed from the trunk, but a few had been left as handles or places to tie the ropes that secured the trunk to the carts; other than the addition of some branches and spear staves to the sides of the carts to serve as more hand holds not much else had been modified. It wouldn’t stand up to a lot of abuse, but it was heavy enough to rattle the ghosts out of the gates, and that was all we needed it to do.
And ahead, maybe eighty or ninety paces from the front of the column, lay the keep. The wall closest to us stood only a few paces tall, perhaps as high as three men standing atop each other, and it was only about three times the width of my father’s house or Vardon’s workshop; the whole keep was narrower than the gatehouse in the walls of Kintinvale. Behind the keep, though, stood the border wall, half again as tall as the closer walls, the curve of the wall’s surface and the size of the periodic buttresses betraying its thickness. Between the two, I could just see the top of the square tower inside, nearly hidden by the closer wall, and could just make out a few tiny figures moving around atop it.
The whole of the fortress was made up of a dark-colored stone, almost black against the white of the snow. Where the ruddy light of the rising sun pierced through the trees and touched the walls, they seemed almost bloody.
Sir Tolan and Sir Bliss stood between me and and the back of the ram, about ten paces behind the makeshift siege weapon. Aler and I pulled the cart up just behind them, and in Euphenti I told Ceyx to make the apparatus ready, glancing back to make sure he’d heard. As he began lifting the iron-shelled coil and its rod out of the cart, I stepped forward to address the knights. “The lodestone aura should be ready in a moment. Awaiting your command.”
Sir Tolan raised a hand toward me. “Hold, soldier,” he said, his voice steady but quieter than I expected, even through the face plate of his helm. “The situation has changed.”
“Curse your spirit, Robe,” Sir Bliss growled at the other knight, “the sun rises, and he expects us to attack! We cannot hesitate now!” I could almost feel Sir Bliss’ anger radiating off of him, could almost see the scowl on his face through his own closed helmet.
“He expected us to attack before he moved in,” Sir Tolan responded, “but that seems not to be the case now.”
I looked from one knight to the other, confused. “What’s happened?”
Bliss gestured toward the castle. “Listen.”
I lifted my head toward the fortress. Over the assorted noises of the men and the creaking of the ram, I could just make out the sound of metal on metal, an irregular clanging punctuated here and there by a cry or shout. I looked back at Sir Bliss. “They’ve begun their attack all ready?”
He nodded. “Or they were found out earlier than Sir Hagan hoped. Which is why we need to press forward now instead of delaying further,” he added, turning his head back toward Sir Tolan.
“If Henney was discovered before he could enter the tower,” Sir Tolan said, “his attack has already failed, and assaulting the gate with no subsequent attack from inside will only lose us more lives. We need to pull back and assess the situation, not commit ourselves to rash action.”
“So you would just let them die, Robe?” Sir Bliss gestured toward the keep. “You would take their deaths on your head?”
“Their deaths are on Sir Hagan’s head, Lynnot, not mine. His failure to scout throughly or plan successfully is not my failure, and I’ll not spend the blood of our men trying to prop up this disaster of a plan.”
I saw a splash of yellow light strike the barrier wall, and a wet-sounding thump echoed out across the pass. Both of the knights fell silent and turned their heads toward the keep, staring up at the dark stone, and a moment later there was another flash and another thump, followed by a cry of pain. Not a voice I recognized, but I couldn’t be sure.
“That settles it.” Sir Tolan turned his head toward me. “Create the aura, and we can use it to cover our retreat.”
“Curse your spirit,” Sir Bliss said again, but I could hear resignation in his voice. He nodded slowly. “I’ll sound the retreat.”
I stared at the two knights for a moment, while my mind spun. The Fae were attacking our commander. Attacking with magic, which meant they either had some sort of magical weapon or a spell-caster. We could be protected, but they weren’t, and so they were going to die. Sir Hagan was going to die. Oskar was going to die. I’d promised Kellan I’d look after him, but now I was supposed to let him die. Because we were protected, and they weren’t. Because he was there, and I wasn’t. Oskar was going to die.
Another scream echoed out over the walls of the keep, high-pitched and shrill like an animal’s. I grabbed the cart handle again, lifting the front of the cart by myself. “Ceyx,” I said, gritting my teeth, “incipes.” Start it.
He twisted the handle on the pole, and I felt the lodestone within my jaw begin to vibrate like a plucked string. I scowled, nodded, and then took a step forward. “Veni mei,” I said. With me.
I took another step forward toward the keep, pulling the cart behind me. It was harder to move with just one person, but I’d pulled heavier loads in Master Vardon’s barrow. Another step forward, pushing in between Sir Tolan and Sir Bliss.
Bliss looked at me. “What are you doing, Mason?” He stepped aside, out of the path of the cart, pulling Aler back with him.
I took another step. “Advancing.”
“Stop,” Sir Tolan said, staring as I brushed past him. “You were ordered to make ready to retreat, not to advance.” He stepped forward around me. “I order you to stop!”
“I take orders from Sir Hagan,” I said, “and his order was to advance with the sunrise.” I stepped forward again, right in front of the knight, my eyes staring over his head, locked on the keep. “The sun is rising, so I advance.”
I felt the handle in my hands grow lighter. Beside me, Sir Bliss had taken up the other arm of the cart. “Go where you like, Robe, and do what you like. Order the men to retreat; some might even follow.” He looked at me, and nodded.
“But,” he continued, raising his voice so the men around us could hear him clearly, “the aura is advancing to the wall, and so too should any man who wishes to remain within it. Forward!”
He took a forceful step toward the keep, pulling the cart into motion and me along with it. Sir Tolan stumbled back as I moved forward, and only narrowly stepped aside in time to avoid my advance. I glanced back as we continued past him, and while I could see none of his face, his whole body was tensed with anger.
As I turned back forward, I also caught a glimpse of Ceyx, who was doing his best to keep pace with the cart while still holding the coil rod up high. The expression on his face was one of deliberate, furious disinterest, the face of a man who didn’t quite understand what he’d just seen and then decided that maybe it was for the best if he continued not to understand.
As we marched forward, the rest of the column began to move with us. Ahead, I could hear Bat shouting curses and encouragement to the men on the battering ram. To either side, the other knights called out battle cries and drew cheers from their men. Ahead on the wall, I could see narrow faces pop up above the low parapets, their eyes wide in alarm as the archers at the back of the column began sending arrows shooting over their heads.
Sir Bliss leaned in toward me as we pulled. “That was a gutsy move you just made, Mason. Robe isn’t going to take that without feeling like he has to strike back.”
“I don’t think Sir Tolan was going to be my friend regardless.”
“Fair.” He chuckled, and then nodded toward the keep. “I think we should bring the cart right up against the gates, instead of hanging back like Sir Hagan planned. We might not be able to cover Sir Hagan’s men with the field, but we may catch the spellcaster with it, and that should do almost as much to protect them.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but another cry from within the fortress split the dawn. It was even higher pitched and more shrill than the previous cry had been, and I blinked. Whatever had made that sound couldn’t possibly have been human.
Sir Bliss looked back up at the keep. “What in the…” He stopped, the cart handle jolting in my hand as he dropped his. “That… that’s…” He pointed to the top of the wall.
I looked up. There, just at the top of the gate, a set of three massive talons had curled over the top of the wall and gripped the side of the stone. As I watched, a second set of sword-sized curving claws joined the first, and then between them, preceded by a sharp hooked beak as long as a man’s arm, rose a head covered in tawny feathers, with a pair of enormous golden eyes that shone in the dawn light.
In a book of old Euphentine stories that Vardon had had, there were tales of great heroes from ages past, fighting against impossible monsters and stealing the treasures of the old Euphentine gods. I’d found the stories exciting, but they’d never frightened me, because I’d know for certain that the monsters in the book weren’t real.
“That’s a griffon,” I said, and I nearly lost my grip on the handle of the cart as my hands began to shake.
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