When Cole opened his eyes, he was alone in the gorge. Getting to his feet, he steadied himself against the granite wall, then gasped.
Thrace was missing from the spot where he had been pinned.
It seemed like it had been only moments, but the rock and gravel that had spilled over the renegade was gone, and the man was nowhere to be seen.
Cole cast about, then noticed that the crumpled mass of the curse wrought beast was also gone, with no sign of its ruinous fall from the ledge above. Eleanor too was nowhere to be seen. As he scanned the streambank for any sign of the Pact Keeper something else caught his eye. He furrowed his brow.
There had not been a staircase there before, only rotted beams jutting from the rockface. Now, a scaffold of rough-hewn timber scaled the cliffside.
Thrace had used the Lexicon of Ages; that was clear enough. “Could the he have re-made the stairway? Why go back into the fortress? The duke already turned on him.” Cole shook his head in frustration. Whatever had happened, it was worthless to just wait here on the mountainside.
He splashed through the stream with sodden boots and climbed towards the brooding darkness of the Splinter Rock’s spillway. Passing back the way he’d come, he paused.
The broken iron sconces that had littered the hall were restored, reforged and mounted along the corridor. He expected to pass the collapsed wall where the curse wrought beast had caught Ula in its jaws, but he reached the tunnel junction without seeing either the sellsword or the ruined masonry. “Am I going the wrong way? No, there is only one route back to the fortress.” The youth had seen a lot of magic in the past few weeks, more than he had in all his life, but now he felt as though he were lost in the wilds. He rested a hand on the antler grip of his hunting knife, not sure what he hoped to guard against.
As he neared the surface, a violent medley filtered down into the tunnels: the too-fast pounding of boots, distant cries, the clatter of arms and armor. He quickened his pace, nearly reaching the place where an outlet of the drainage tunnels accessed the castle grounds. As he reached the entrance, he stiffened at the sound of a thunderous crash which set the walls quaking. Bracing himself, he managed to keep his footing and watched as the top of one of the Splinter Rock’s forbidding spires collapsed in on itself and slid into the courtyard below in a cascade of rubble.
No sooner had he stepped out into the daylight, then a cohort of mail-clad soldiers shouldered their way past. But here again, things were not as they should be. They were not dressed in the black and gold of Duke Henry’s Yellow Jackets. Instead, their tunics bore a pattern of red and white chevrons. One of them, a soldier sporting an unshaven thicket of stubble and smelling of malt beer, seized him by the shirt collar.
“What are you doing down here?” The stench on the man’s breath made Cole recoil. “Get yourself to the wall, sod farmer!” He shoved Cole towards the battlements and hurried on with his companions without sparing the tracker another glance.
Cole staggered but caught himself before he fell, and turned his attention to the wall-top. Sure enough, soldiers and common folk labored behind the battlements, dumping rocks and bails of smoldering brush onto an unseen enemy far below.
He took the stairs cautiously, pressing himself against the wall as a volley of arrows passed overhead and fell to litter the courtyard. Gaining the wall-top, he passed behind a cadre of soldiers in their red chevron livery crouched low behind the battlements. The Sergeant, marked by a striped hawk feather in his cloak-pin, noticed him. He pointed a gnarled finger at a group of peasants farther down the wall, but didn’t pay the youth any more mind.
Cole hustled along the battlements, risking quick glances between the crenelated defenses. The alpine valley was choked with tents, baggage carts, and an army gathered behind the cover of packed-dirt siege works. Far out of arrow range, small dots toiled around the base of a long-armed timber construction. It’s pine-wood spar rocked back and forth at an angle to the ground. Among it all, he thought he spied a royal pennant flapping in the stiff mountain breeze, and his breath caught in his throat. That was impossible. The King’s army was leagues from the mountain passes.
Reaching the gathered peasants, he hunkered against the battlements as another flight of arrows sailed in from behind the attackers’ siegeworks. A skinny young man clutching a mattock handle to his chest crouched next to him and met Cole’s stare with eyes that betrayed a deep exhaustion.
Cole grasped the Slatelander by the shoulder. “What’s going on here? Who are the soldiers in red and white? When did the Royal Army get here?”
The gaunt Slatelander, his austere features hardly shifting, gauged Cole with keen but sunken eyes before answering. “What do you mean? The Crown’s dogs have been here for a week, and those are Duke Teagan’s men.” He glowered at Cole, distrust showing though beneath his tiredness. “He called on us to rise up not two months ago.”
The tracker shook his head, uncomprehending.
There was a great crash and the whole wall shuddered under a terrible impact. A section closer to the gatehouse gave way, buckling and collapsing outward. Its defenders toppled with it. Their high, pitiful cries vanished with them.
Perring over the battlements, Cole could just make out the wooden construct’s arm being ratcheted back down and loaded with a boulder.
The Sergeant with the hawk-feather in his broach dashed past, his scabbard clanking against this thigh. “We’ll be back with more men. Remain at your posts,” he shouted. His soldiers had quit the battlements and were making for the thick-walled redoubt that was both the Splinter Rock’s gatehouse and inner keep.
At the far end of the valley the catapult’s arm whipped into the air.
Cole traced the boulder’s arc as it plummeted into the ruined section of wall, shielding his face against the shower of debris. When he lowered his arm, there was only a cloud of dust settling where the remnants of the wall had stood.
While the sound still echoed in his ears, a tide of royal soldiers boiled out of the siege works, clambering through the rubble, and rushing in like water set loose from a dam. Duke Teagan’s men, fleeing to the gatehouse, were caught in the wave. Swords rose, glinted in the sun, and fell. Steel met steel, grating and sparking. With his path to the gatehouse cut off, the Sergeant backed away from the melee.
A desperate cry rose from the Slateland folk around Cole and they surged past him to meet the royal troops in the courtyard below. Farming tools battered against upraised shields, but the defenders’ line buckled under the assault.
Cole tried to pick out a path back to the drainage tunnels, but the battle had spilled across the courtyard. He was barred from escape as surely as the Sergeant was. His gaze lighted on the gaunt Slatelander he’d questioned before. The man had fallen onto the cobblestones, a royal soldier standing over him, his blade raised in a reverse grip and ready to plunge down.
Acting on instinct, Cole drew an arrow, knocked it, and let it go.
The shaft caught the man-at-arms squarely in the chest, piercing through the links of his chainmail. He staggered back and fell among the rubble of the breach. The Slateland youth scrambled to his feet, swinging his mattock in a wild arc to ward off an attacker already slain.
“Gods’ spit, what did I just do?” He couldn’t let this happen, even if these were the King’s men. Cole dug a strip of linen from the satchel on his belt. A stick of charcoal smudging against his fingers, he marked it with the glyphs of the First Language as cries of the dead and dying echoed from the courtyard below, prodding him to hurry. He clenched his teeth and forced himself to ignore them. The scribing of the runes could not be rushed, not without hazard.
He clenched the linen taper in an outstretched fist, holding it toward the breach in the wall:
Soil – Rise
The rubble seethed like water bubbling over in a kettle. A crude berm formed where the wall had been. Clashing weapons fell silent as Slateland peasants and trained soldiers gaped at the barrier. Grasping all at once their new purchase on life, the Slatelanders drove the attackers back against the freshly-formed wall. Trapped, the blue and silver liveried soldiers disappeared beneath the human wave like felled stags under the press of hunting hounds.
The gaunt young man with the mattock was beside Cole, grasping his hands. “You’re a Pact Keeper,” he nearly wept. He raised a fist to the Slatelanders below. “We have a Pact Keeper!”