“What’s wrong?” James asks as he draws near.

“It’s quiet,” Qyrll replies.

James listens for a moment and then says, “It’s not completely quiet.” Birds can be heard in the trees as well as the far off cry of a predator.

Qyrll turns in the saddle and says quietly, “They’re waiting for us.”

Scanning ahead, James tries to see anyone in the area before him but there’s nobody. “I don’t see anything.”

“Nevertheless, they’re there,” Qyrll assures him. He turns back to look at the bottleneck the trail winds through. “It’s the perfect place to lay an ambush.”

“Do they know we’re here?” asks Fifer.

“I would think so,” replies Qyrll.

“Then they know we know they’re there,” states James.

Shrugging, he says, “Maybe. I’m sure by stopping here and discussing this, we’ve put them on guard.”

“What should we do?” Uther asks. “If we go forward their crossbowmen will cut us down before we get very far.”

“And the longer we wait,” adds Jorry, “the further the one with the Star will pull ahead of us.”

James looks at Qyrll for a moment and then asks, “You’re sure beyond a shadow of a doubt? Because if you’re wrong, I’m going to alert them that we’re following.”

“They’re there,” he says. “I stake my honor on it.” For a Parvati to say that there can be no argument. Their honor is the single most important thing they hold dear, especially Qyrll whose honor has so recently been restored to him.

“Very well,” says James. “Let’s move back a ways first and then we’ll see what we can do.”

They turn around and head back down the trail until the bottleneck is no longer visible. Miko is left to keep an eye out in case the soldiers hidden there make a move toward them.

“Find a pool of water,” James says as they all dismount, except for Jiron who’s still tied to his saddle.

After a short hunt, a pool is located and James comes over to kneel beside it. Letting the magic flow, he concentrates on the bottleneck ahead of them and an image begins to form.

They see the trees and boulders which form the bottleneck and sure enough, spaced in and behind the trees are soldiers of the Empire. A dozen crossbowmen and another two dozen men at arms, as well as one civilian are lying in wait. Further behind them they find the soldier’s horses tied in a group.

“That group the Shynti and I saw had fourteen soldiers and two civilians,” Qyrll says. “This could be half the force which was sent here.”

“And the other half is with whoever has the Star,” finishes James. Whoever has it will need to get through Madoc’s lines to reach the Empire so would definitely need the others.

“Nice of them to split their forces for us,” Uther says in satisfaction. “Will make this all the easier.”

Canceling the spell, James gets to his feet. From atop his horse, Jiron asks, “What’s the plan?” He thinks for a moment before turning to the others and says, “Okay, here’s what we do…”

James steps out on foot by himself and approaches the bottleneck. The shimmer of his shield is barely discernable in the light of day. Once he’s covered a hundred feet, the others begin to follow on horseback. Jiron is in the rear leading James’ horse.

Maintaining a quick, steady pace James closes the distance to where the trail narrows. As he gets closer, he detects movement among the trees and boulders where the soldiers lay in wait.

Suddenly, a command is given and a dozen bolts fly toward him. Steeling his nerves, he watches as the bolts come straight for him and continues his advance. One by one the bolts strike the shield and are deflected to the side.

Crumph! Crumph! Crumph!

Three massive explosions erupt amidst the soldiers lying in wait, screams of men are heard as they’re tossed into the air. Behind him, James hears the others give out with a yell and charge forward.

Jiron comes forward as well and stops when he draws close to James, staying near in case a soldier gets through.

Qyrll is the first to enter the area of destruction and is peppered by falling debris, fortunately none of any size. Both swords out, he vaults from the back of his horse and engages the enemy. Slightly dazed from the concussions of the three explosions, the soldiers put up little resistance at first. But then others from the rear come forward and the battle is joined. Miko and Fifer are the next to arrive with Jorry and Uther right behind.

Facing off against a soldier in a dark uniform, Miko parries a thrust then returns with a slice. The soldier’s movements are quick but Miko is able to deflect the attack. Battle rages all around as each faces off with one or more opponents.

Fifer faces two and is having a hard time in breaching their defenses. Both are master swordsmen and just when he thinks he’s over matched, a stone flies from behind and takes one through the chest. Hole opening up in his armor from where James’ stone hit, the soldier stumbles backward and falls to the ground. Now having just the one, Fifer is able to hold his own.

Jorry and Uther are back to back holding off two each. One of Uther’s suffers from a leg injury sustained during the explosions which makes his attacks less precise. “Need any help?” Jorry asks from behind.

“You worry about yourself,” Uther says as he feints to the one without injuries and then strikes out toward the other. Striking him across the throat, the man stumbles backward, holding the wound in a vain attempt to prevent his blood from escaping. Finally overcome with loss of blood, he collapses to the ground.

“Ha-ha!” Uther boasts. “One down.” Behind the man he’s battling, he sees a crossbowman emerge from around one of the trees and begins cocking back his crossbow. Once it’s locked into place he turns toward Uther and brings the crossbow to bear.

Uther is distracted by what he’s seeing developing behind his opponent and allows his opponent to maneuver through his defenses, sinking his sword into his side. Crying out and abruptly twisting to the side he moves out of the crossbowman’s line of fire just as the bolt is released. The bolt flies and barely misses him as he twists. Going over Jorry’s shoulder, the bolt strikes one of his opponents right between the eyes and sinks three inches into his skull.

Uther’s injury is bad and he’s unable to adequately defend himself from the soldier’s attacks.

Hack! Hack! Slash!

The soldier beats against his defenses, each time Uther is afraid that he won’t be fast enough to bring his sword back for the next attack. The pain in his side flares as he moves first one way and then the other to counter what his opponent is doing. Finally, he brings his sword up to ward off a severe blow and it’s knocked out of his hand. Seeing his death coming, he braces himself for the impact.

A shadow suddenly appears and the soldier is bowled over as Miko tackles him to the ground. “Get back to James!” he cries to Uther as he rolls to his feet. Sword at the ready, he prepares for the assault.

The soldier faces Miko and then launches into a series of blinding attacks which he meets and counters. His skill, having been augmented by his time with the Fire, is superior to that of most and this opponent is no exception. He takes the man’s measure and after a few passes begins working to bring his sword into just the right angle. When at last the moment is at hand, he feints an attack to his head which causes the soldier to bring his sword up to just the right place, creating a hole. With speed the eye can barely see, Miko brings his sword around and thrusts through the hole, taking the man just to the left of the breastbone and puncturing his heart.

As the man sags to the ground, Miko pulls his sword free and looks around. The crossbowman which had almost killed Uther with his bolt lies dead on the ground, head blown apart by one of James’ stones. Glancing around, he sees the battle is over.

Jorry is tending Uther, the wound is serious but not life threatening. Packing the wound with a spare shirt, he rips cloth from another and ties it tight much to the chagrin of his patient.

“Would you be careful!” admonishes Uther.

“Shut up you old woman,” Jorry replies back as he ties the last knot.

“Is there anyone alive?” James asks as he and Jiron come forward.

“Over here!” Fifer yells. One soldier who sustained a cut to his sword arm lies on the ground at his feet, Fifer holds his sword threateningly to keep him quiet.

James rushes over and asks, “Do you understand me?”

Вы читаете The star of Morcyth
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