Tuesday, October 1, 2013

For The Greatest Good -- Part XXII (Dana)

Part XXII – Account by Dana MacDonald
  The few hours that remained of night passed without disturbance. Kearney was asleep by the time I returned. I made no move to wake her; I did not feel she would take my premonitions well. So strong were they that Set’s interference was doubtful.
Finding still no desire to rest, I stood several paces away from where she slept. I leaned on the blunt end of my lance, staring out into the dim light of early morning. Dawn’s light had yet to fully break, leaves whispered by on a faint wind. A feeling of disquiet settled on me, small at first. Yet it grew, gradually.
Something’s not right. Perhaps we’ve stayed too long… but that would be ludicrous. We had ample time ahead of Ross, and horses would be of little advantage in this foliage.
The call of a horn broke the uneasy silence. The note shifted to a higher pitch, and then cut off.
The sentry’s warning call!
Before I had time to call out in answer, men’s cries and shouts of alarm echoed throughout the forest, followed by a sudden clash of arms. I leapt forward onto a small rise on the hillside and hefted my lance.
   “Northerners! To arms, they’ve found us!” I shouted. Penny leapt up, standing and drawing her sword in nearly the same instance. The shrubbery around us came alive with frenzied activity as men awoke, swords were drawn and arrows strung.
   “A shield wall, hurry! John, where are you?” I called out, searching the faces of the warriors around us. No reply reached where I stood; from the crest of the hill to my right, a group of swordsmen crashed through the enshrouding foliage. Sounds of thick fighting rang out behind them, and Ross’s livery was clearly displayed on their garments. I stepped back from the rise to stand beside Kearney. Several dozen of my fighters gathered around us, forming a defensive line on the uneven terrain.
   “Sorry for the rude awakening, Kearney,” I said above the sounds of clashing steel and battle cries. “Someone’s trying to capture us again.”
Kearney took a step back and gripped her sword in a readied stance. “I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve seen enough of Ross’s prison to last me a lifetime. How far are my brothers from here?”
A multitude of potential replies came to my mind, but the approaching soldiers arrested my attention and I answered hastily.
   “They’re not there, Kearney.”
   “Watch yourself!” I shouted in warning. The approaching fighters reached our line, and I leapt forward to catch one of their front-runners off guard. My engagement came a mere moment before Ross’s soldiers met the line of northern fighters. The hillside erupted into a chaotic struggle for survival, sword against lance and arrow upon shield. I exchanged blows with the fighter I’d engaged for several moments before a strike to his unguarded side brought him down. I took a brief moment to find Kearney amidst the struggle. She was at the fringe of the fight, rallying the outliers to solidify our position. A slash to my right caught my immediate attention, and I jumped backwards to avoid losing my head. Another slash; I deflected it with my lance and thrust, forcing my attacker to jump backwards.
We need to leave. They won’t let anyone here save Kearney and I live.
Another group of warriors came over the crest of the hill, and I chanced a glance. John charged down towards our struggle, over a score of our fighters behind him. Their advance caused a momentary pause in our conflict. I seized the chance and struck a blow to my opponent with the blunt end of my lance, crumpling him.
   “John!” I shouted. “Get out of here! Take any you find remaining, flee!”
The stalwart captain fixed me with a pointed stare, even with the chaotic conflict broiling around us. I stared back, willing him to understand, to comply. He gave short nod, and then pushed into the scene of conflict. That done, I moved back to join the net of defenders Kearney had gathered. The skirmish nearest to us was nearly done with; sounds of the main conflict raged still beyond the hill’s crest. A gap showed in the diminishing group of opponents before us. Kearney seized the chance and darted forward, ducking between small pockets of combat
“Kearney! Don’t, get back here!”
I sprinted after her, scanning the forest around for any signs of ambush. Kearney halted a short distance ahead beside a tree and looked out into the greenery. A momentary jolt of warning slowed my pace, just as an arrow struck the tree Kearney crouched next to. She ducked behind the trunk and glanced up at my approach.
   “Dana, what is going on!”
I halted beside her and looked for a clue to the arrow’s source.
   “We’re under attack, looks to be a force about three times the size of my cohort. What’s left of it, rather; come on, we need to go while we still can.”
She nodded and jumped up to retrace our steps. I followed beside her as she asked,
   “Where can we go?”
   “Away from here,” I replied. “This attack is meant for us, I’m certain. So long as we escape, they’ll leave the others alone and chase us. Good plan, aye?”
   “You had me at the word ‘escape’,” Kearney replied as she sheathed her sword. “You’d better lead; make sure we get out of here.”
I slung my lance over my shoulder and took the head. My clan warriors streamed by on either side, heading towards the main sounds of battle. They ignored our passage, tribute to their experience. I glanced back over my shoulder and chuckled.
   “Bad choice, attacking my folk in a forest. They’ll have them running rings trying to contain them all.”
Semi-aware of it as I was, the guiding nudge of my gift veered sharply, and without warning. I skidded to a halt, stumbling to keep my balance. I stared in the implied direction, directly off our previous course to the right.
   “That’s odd. I thought…”
I stepped forward, slowly, without finishing either the thought or sentence.
I stopped. Her suspicion was well grounded. But there was little I could but go forward; Set’s touch on my sense of direction had grown subtle in recent times, and I had not the skill to detect it half the time.
I turned to face Penny.
   “Kearney, this is going to sound odd, but I need you to search my mind.”
She blinked, and replied,
   “It’s… complicated. I’ll explain later. Long story short, guardian knights can affect each other’s abilities. I need you to tell me if Set’s influencing me at all.”
She nodded, confusion replaced by a sense of focus.
   “Alright. Look at me.”
I met her eyes. Her gaze shifted to an almost distant look, yet at the same time piercing. An unfamiliar wind of whispered thoughts flowed within my mind, like the voices of a multitude given by one speaker. It was light, a gentle touch, no more. Yet it brought back unbidden memory of times only a few years recent: the lance of Set’s mind, burning, piercing, agonizing beyond expression of pain…
I willed the thought away, even as the whisper of Kearney’s probe receded.
   “If he was there, he wasn’t strong. Whatever influence he had has either faded or gone.”
I nodded and turned back to the foliage, feeling somewhat unsettled.
   “Right. Thank you. Our way should be about here somewhere…”
A pained groan drifted out on the air, very close. Kearney glanced at me and then moved towards the sound, hand on her sword. I followed close behind, both of us stepping around a thick tree trunk. There, propped against the trunk, was a wounded northerner; one I knew well.
I leapt past Kearney and crouched beside the young fighter. His chest heaved with labored breaths. The broken shafts of two arrows were embedded in his chest.
   “Oh, Thomas…” I managed. “I should have left you home, you were nearly too young to come with us…”
The fiery-haired youth managed a pained smile.
   “Nothin’... For it, sir.”
Kearney stood beside me, silent. This lad was no older than eighteen years; death in battle was tragic, but for one just at life’s beginning…
Thomas coughed and grimaced.
   “Coward… shot me from behind a tree. I didn’t even notch my blade.”
I swallowed hard, managing to keep my expression contained.
   “Thomas, I’ll get you somewhere safe, just wait.”
   “Don’t start with all that, sir, I know I’m done in…”
The young northerner took a rasping breath, and then reached towards Kearney with a clenched fist. I watched, somewhat confused.
   “M’lady… if you would… I think you were meant to have it.”
Penny knelt, took his wrist and accepted whatever object Thomas offered, and then took his hand with her own.
   “Thank you…”
Thomas smiled with drooping eyelids.
   “Won’t the cap’n jump when he finds out I was right…”
   “He will,” Kearney replied. “You did well being so stubborn about it.”
He offered no other words. Several moments passed in silence, before Kearney laid his limp hand on his chest. Then she stood, shoving the object into her belt pouch.
   “Which way?”
I stood as well, taking several moments to focus even for that.
   “Right. Um… that way.” I gestured off into the woods. “That’s… that’s where we’re supposed to go.”
   “What?” I replied, glancing at her. Her answer was quiet, but resolved.
   “We have to go. He didn’t die so we could end up the same way.”
She stepped past Thomas and nudged my arm in the direction I’d indicated. I nodded and stepped forward. I could not bear to look back.

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