From across the meadow, a column of horsemen approached in two neat lines. At least fifteen in all, they were armored neck to boot-cuff in glittering chainmail. The tabards draped over their armor bore a black and yellow striped pattern that reminded Cole of a swarm of hornets. He knew vaguely that the heraldry belonged to some Slateland duke or earl, but couldn’t say more than that.
Ula’s mercenaries rushed past Cole and the Pact Keeper, clustering at the edge of the woods. Aiden, the cook, set aside the spitted ducks that he’d been turning over the campfire and wrenched loose a wickedly curved hatchet he’d left driven into a stump nearby. Joining the others, he hitched his thumbs into his belt and watched the rider’s approach. Flushed from either Captain Ula’s earlier outburst or the heat of her padded surcoat under the midday sun, Dana tried in vain to gather a few of the fighting company into a semblance of a formation as the visitors drew near.
Ula went to join his sellswords. Eleanor was about to follow him when Cole caught the Pact Keeper by the arm. “Lady Eleanor, have the tablet. We can go while they’re distracted.”
“No.” Eleanor shook her head. “That tablet has text from the Frist Language that even I don’t recognize inscribed on it. It could be a previously unknown lexicon. I want to know what’s going on here.” She pulled her sleeve free, and strode after the departing mercenary captain.
Cole unslung his bow and hurried behind the Pact Keeper. He caught up to her just at the edge of the trees, and watched as the horsemen reined in their mounts a few yards from the mercenaries. As their columns split to either side, Cole saw what he had not before.
Appearing from between the rows of wasp-colored riders was a hunched form that loped on all fours like a bear, though its long limbs were more man-like. Its body appeared to be made of smooth stone ribbed with jagged dykes of quartz, but the creature moved with a fluidity that belied its construction. For a face, it had only a steel mask, featureless except for a series of holes that ran from top to bottom.
The thing scrabbled to a stop in front of the gawking mercenaries and a yellow-clad rider whose helmet had more plumage than the rest swung down from his horse next to it. “Ula?” the officer demanded. “Which of you sorry cutthroats is Ula?”
“I’m the man you want.” The mercenary captain sauntered forward. He swung his mace idly from a leather strap around his wrist. “I thought I’d be dealing with my lad Thrace. Instead I get you steel-bonneted toy soldiers. I see that you’ve at least brought my payment.” He waved towards the Stoney bulk of the curse-wrought beast that had come to a stop just a few yards from his men.
“Thrace couldn’t be bothered to come all the way out here. He’s a busy man. Anyway, the beast’s not yours yet. Where’s the artifact?”
To Coles alarm, the Pact Keeper stepped forward from the dappled shade of the trees. “Lady Eleanor, what are you doing?”
“If you’re talking about the tablet, I have it.” She held the clay tablet in the crook of her arm as she planted her staff in the ground between herself and soldiers in their wasp-colored coats.
A broad grin split Ula’s scruffy face. “I wouldn’t haggle with Thrace,” he told the officer with the plumed helmet. “But you’re no friend of mine. This Pact Keeper seems to fancy the artifact. It makes me wonder how much the King would pay for it. Maybe it’s worth more than this lame excuse for a war-beast that you’ve brought me.”
“Is he really trying to start a bidding war,” Eleanor wondered aloud.
“He’s going to end up starting more than that,” Cole replied. He could see the yellow-clad officer unfastening the buckle on his scabbard. This was about to get bloody.
A sneer marred the officer’s otherwise handsome face. “I think you’re confused, sellsword. The beast isn’t here as your payment. It’s here to ensure we return with our prize.” He raised his fist. In it was a rod made from the same quartz-ribbed stone as the curse -wrought beast. With that, he began to speak in the First language.
Ula gaped at him in confusion. Cole understood the simple phrase, though:
Curse-wrought beast – Attack
He rummaged through his through his pouch for a pair of spell ribbons as the creature’s long arm snaked out and its grasping hand seized hold of Aiden. Hoisted high into the air, the mercenary’s cook strained against the creature’s grip. In his shock, the man had let go of his hatchet, and the axe lay useless in the meadow below.
Cole knocked an arrow to his bow. Pinned between his knuckles, the spell ribbon’s fluttered in the breeze. He trained his bow on the beat’s upraised arm and loosed the shot while intoning the words inscribed on the strips of linen:
Destroy – Curse-wrought beast
As the arrow sped towards its mark, mystic energies twined around it. It was no longer a simple shaft, but an instrument through which reality was being challenged. Plunging into the curse-wrought beast’s Stoney arm as if it were simple flesh, the arrow burst into a whirlwind of glimmering color, sundering the limb below the massive shoulder.
Still gripped by the creature’s hand, Aiden fell to the ground, where the tall meadow grass hid him from view. A collective shout of rage went up from the mercenaries as they brandished weapons and rushed forward. The soldier’s in their wasp-colored livery went for their swords, some swinging down from the saddle to meet the sellsword’s charge while others wheeled their horses around to put some distance between themselves and the enemy. The curse-wrought beast laid about indiscreetly crushing mercenaries and soldiers alike with the swinging blows of its remaining arm.
Goaded into a reckless charge by Dana, the curse-wrought beast rushed her, but the point of on her boar-spear pierced it squarely in the chest. It thrashed violently, ripping the polearm away from the female sellsword. However, before the thing could regain its footing, Ula rushed it and stove its metal face-plate in with the head of his mace. The beast flailed in silent agony before sprawling lifeless in the tall grass.
Rallying several of his men to follow him, the officer mounted up. Urging their horses away from the clash with the mercenaries and toward the Pact Keeper, the trio of riders launched into a galloping charge.
As three of the soldiers bore down on Cole and Eleanor, the Pact Keeper seemed unshakably calm. She leafed through the pages of her folio until she had found what she wanted.
In front of the rider’s the grass took on the spines and impenetrable mass of a tangled briar thicket, forming a barrier between the Pact Keeper and her assailants. The leading soldier’s horse whinnied in fright and reared up on its hind legs. The rider struggled to keep his hold on the reins but flew free of the saddle and crashed to the ground. The remaining two peeled away, galloping out and around.
Cole tracked the yellow-clad officer with his bow and fired another shot, but the shaft flitted over the man’s shoulder and into the woods. He reached for another arrow.
The riders whirled in towards Cole and Eleanor. The Pact Keeper went for another set of spell ribbons, but the horsemen where coming in fast. She threw herself to the side as the officer charged past. The other horsemen leaped from the saddle, fought to tear the tablet from Eleanor’s grasp, and thrust it into the officer’s hands. The soldier chased after his own horse, and hauled himself back into the saddle before riding after his commander towards the forest.
Cole fired after them, but his arrow skipped off the tightly woven links of the commander’s mail. He let Eleanor lean on his shoulder as she struggled back to her feet, and they watched as the remaining soldiers fell to the mercenaries.