I scrambled backward, trying to get away from the creature, silently begging the spirits and the Fates and anyone who would listen not to let the griffon or its rider see me as I pulled myself around the side of the broken battering ram. I wedged myself in next to the fallen log, getting as close to it as I could, and then for a long, long moment, I lay still, shutting my eyes and gritting my teeth as I heard the sidhe call out another command to his mount.
I heard the beast shift, heard the squelching of its feet in the muddy slush, and then I felt another gust of wind as it leapt into the air again, bounding away from the battering ram and away from me. Another cry accompanied the sound of the creature’s landing a few heartbeats later.
I rolled over and climbed onto my knees, risking a glance up and over the edge of the log. The formation had entirely broken at this point; no more than two dozen men still stood the field at all, gathered together into a circular formation that was currently retreating slowly around the near corner of the keep, spears pointing out in all directions. The rest were either down or making for the tree line, and the sidhe and his monstrous companion were savaging the stragglers as they ran. The creature leapt from one man to the next, toying with them like a cat with a mouse, knocking them to the ground or raking them with its sharp talons and then pausing to see what they’d do before attacking them again. The sidhe fired off volley after volley of missiles from the rod into the other retreating soldiers, the bursts coming one after another after another as rhythmically and regularly as a man’s footsteps.
I dropped back down, pressing my back the ram. The world around me felt like it was slowly spinning, threatening to dump me back in the mud, and the spot on my side where I’d landed throbbed with my heartbeat. I looked down, trying to see where I’d been hurt, but the moment I moved my head the spinning feeling intensified and I was hit with a wave of nausea.
I swallowed hard and brought my head back up, locking my gaze on the wall at the edge of the keep until my stomach settled. OK, not doing that again. I pulled the glove from my right hand and tentatively felt my way down the side of my belly, searching for a wound. At the back edge of one of the plates, I could feel a ragged tear in the cloth of the coat, a rip along the seam, and then I paused as my fingers touched something unexpected and unfamiliar: a ridged shaft, wide as a spear stave, was wedged in between the armor plates, pushing inside my armor through the tear.
Confused, I felt my way down the shaft. Only a hand-span from the tear, the shaft connected to a much wider, rounded object, and from that rounded shape something long and flat extended out opposite the shaft, running down… within my belt?
I grimaced, finally understanding what I was feeling: a sword, one of the short Euphentine swords the Concord armorer had given us. It was, in fact, my own sword, still in its sheath, the pommel forced through the side of my coat when I’d landed on it.
“Idiot,” I muttered, and shook my head, though I regretted the motion almost immediately as the world dipped and swayed with the movement. Slowly, I reached across my body with the other hand to grip the torn edge, and then with my right hand I reached into the opening, wrapping my fingers around the sword’s ball-shaped pommel and pulling it free. There was a brief flash of pain as my fingers scraped along the side of my gut, but the moment the pommel pulled free from the tear the throbbing in my side dropped away almost entirely, and I gasped in relief.
After a few long breaths, I brought my hand up in front of me and examined it. No blood, which was a good sign; I wasn’t going to die just yet, though I’d have an extraordinarily ugly bruise to nurse. Or I would if I somehow managed to survive the day, anyway.
I grimaced again. I was alive for the moment, but what should I do? What could I do? A quick glance over my shoulder told me that the griffon was still picking off fleeing soldiers; even if I wanted to run, there was no way to be sure I wouldn’t draw the attention of the beast or its rider. If Sir Bliss was dead then the responsibility for our command fell to Sir Tolan alone, but I saw no sign of the knight anywhere, unless he’d been in the formation that had retreated behind the keep.
If Sir Bliss was dead. I’d seen him fall, but I had no idea what the spell the sidhe had cast at him actually did. He might still be alive, I thought, and if he was, I could help him, and then he could decide what we needed to do.
I peeked over the ram one more time, making sure the griffon was still occupied, and then pushed myself up into a crouch and made my way back around the back of the ram, heading toward Bliss as fast as my spinning head would allow. The muddy snow seemed to tug at my boots at every step, threatening to throw me off balance, and it took what felt like an hour to cross the short distance with my eyes locked on the movements of the monster that was now poking its head in amongst the trees. But, finally, I lowered myself to my knees, and with both hands I lifted Sir Bliss enough to roll him from his stomach onto his back.
The smell of blood and excrement hit me like a wall. The front of Bliss’ tabard was a solid mess of mud and bloodstains, made just wet enough by the melting snow to allow the blood to wick and spread. I knew then that he was dead, but I unbelted his sword belt to lift his tabard anyway, hoping to discover I was mistaken, hoping this was somehow someone else’s blood. The tabard didn’t so much lift off of the chain mail underneath as peel away from it, and the smell redoubled again; there were no breaks in the mail, no damage to it, but a mixture of blood and bile and the contents of the knights bowels oozed through the armor in what seemed like half a hundred places.
I whipped my head away at the smell and sight of it, stumbling back and falling to my hands and knees as the battlefield spun around me. The nausea finally overcame me, and I emptied what little there was in my stomach onto the ground below me.
I heard Bat’s voice, back in the direction of the ram. “Mason!”
I looked up. The small unit of men that had stayed together had re-formed a fighting line, close at the corner of the keep. Bat stood at the wall, spear in hand.
He gestured wildly at me. “Run, Mason! It’s-”
Icy, searing pain blossomed in my right leg, and then the ground seemed to rip itself away beneath me. I rose bodily away from the earth, hanging head down with my arms dangling below me, too dazed by the pain to react. My head sagged back, and I could see the sword-length talons at the end of the griffon’s toes sinking into the earth below me. Grunting, I pulled my head in toward my chest, straining to see what was happening. The griffon held my right calf in its beak, and stared down at me with one of its massive golden eyes.
It held me there for a moment, twitching its head once or twice in a movement that sent pain shooting through my leg, and then I felt a jerk as the monster wrenched its head to one side and I was launched sideways through the air. I was still moving as I hit the ground, sliding and rolling in the mud, and then I hit something solid with my back, something that shattered as I struck it.
I could feel warmth across my back, and heard a hissing, sizzling sound from behind me as a cloud of steam boiled out from the shattered current cell, the thing I’d hit. I tried to get up, tried to find my footing in the wreckage of the aura cart, but before I could even roll over the griffon was upon me again, nipping the heels of my boots with the tip of its beak as I tried to push myself desperately back away from it.
I flailed in the mud, panicking, doing anything I could think of to get the beast away from me. Anything my hands touched, I threw at the monster’s face; shards of pottery, bits of wood, the rolled-up sheets of lead from inside the broken cells, the sword at my belt. Almost all of them flew wide, and those few things that did strike the beast seemed to barely bother it as it overtook me, inch by desperate inch.
My bare fingers found the terminal end of a cell, somehow miraculously unbroken, and I dragged it in and lifted it over my head in both hands. When the griffon’s head darted forward again, I threw the cell at it, shattering the clay over its beak and spraying its face with the liquid contents of the jar.
The monster shrieked in pain as steam boiled off of its beak and the feathers on its face curled in and blackened. For a moment, the thing pulled back, shaking its head to rid itself of the corrosive oil, but then it stepped forward again, snapping its beak shut around my leg once more, and I realized that all my attack had done to the creature was convince it that, instead of a toy to be played with, I was a threat to be killed.
The beast began dragging me back toward it, away from the wreckage of the cart. With each step, each painful tug on the leg, each body-length slide through the mud, I searched the ground around me, trying to find something, anything that might save me.
My fingers brushed past what felt like the haft of a weapon, and I closed my hand around it instinctively. The next tug from the griffon almost made me lose my grip again, but I held on, dragging it with me through the mud. I couldn’t see what it was, had no idea if it was a sword or a length of broken spear or even just one of the cart handles; I only knew it might be the last weapon I’d ever wield. Summoning what little strength I had left, I yanked the haft forward, swinging the weapon at the griffon’s face.
The swing was strong enough, and my weapon heavy enough, that I was pulled up and forward by the force of it, and so the aura coil on the end of the broken rod in my hand struck the creature’s head just behind its left eye. I saw the beast react to the blow, saw the pain in its eyes as the heavy iron orb struck its skull, so I pulled back and hit it again.
There was too little handle to swing the coil like a mace and too much weight to slash with it like a knife, but I pulled it backward and shoved it forward in a jabbing, punching motion, striking the beast’s face again, and again, and again. It tried to pull back, tried to release me, but suddenly the creature seemed strangely weak, and its grip on my leg now pinned the lower half of its beak to the ground. Fueled by pain, and filled with a fury unlike anything I’d ever felt before, I hit the creature over and over and over again.
And then, after a dozen or a hundred or a thousand strikes, I felt the creature’s skull cave in under my weapon, and the griffon… dissolved. Starting at the blood-soaked iron sphere and spreading out and backward in a wave, flesh and feather and bone all began to fade, losing all color and detail, and then blowing up and away like ashes in a windstorm.
The sidhe rider cried out, trying to put a hand forward on the griffon’s neck to steady himself and falling forward through the neck instead. He landed only a foot away from me, striking the ground head first and lying limp in the mud. Behind him, the last bits of the griffon evaporated into the morning sky.
I pulled myself forward into a crawl, now inured to the pain, reaching the sidhe just as he began to stir. I took the rod he held and tossed it away before he could renew his grip, and then pushed myself up onto my knees.
The sidhe weakly tried to push me away, but I batted his arms aside and planted one knee firmly in the middle of his chest. I could hear him trying to plead with me, but even if I had understood his language it would not have helped him; the only thing driving me now was the cold, unthinking fury, and it would not have let me stop to listen.
I clamped one hand around the Fae’s narrow, pointed chin, and with my other hand I drew the bronze dagger from the back of my belt and dragged it across the sidhe’s throat. Beneath me, I felt his body shudder and shake for a few moments, and then finally lie still.
I let go of the sidhe’s head, and then let myself fall to the side, let everything around me fade away as the fury faded and pain and exhaustion dragged me down into unconsciousness.
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