“Easy now.” The wind buffeted Kai’s face as he leaned forward to put a hand on his winged horse’s shoulder. Battle cries, explosions, and screams littered the air. Repressing his own urge to bolt, he turned Flecht to meet the welke riders approaching from Torindan. Regret flooded him. Both he and his wingabeast would die. Torindan would fall this day, thrusting the once-united Kindren kingdoms into confusion.
Conquering the high hold of Faeraven would not appease Freaer’s blood lust. A stronghold could fall and be rebuilt, as Freaer himself had proven at Pilaer. Ah, but a heart, once silenced, would never beat again. While the Lof Shraen of Faeraven and the daughter he’d named his heir remained alive, Freaer would not rest.
Elcon and Mara had been among those who’d escaped with him from Torindan. If he had anything to say in the matter, they would yet avoid capture. Surviving a clash with two of Freaer’s finest seemed unlikely, but Kai could delay the assassins.
The giant raptor birds flapped their ragged wings and snapped the air with pointed beaks in a display of ferocity. Sunlight gleamed along their rider’s swords, no doubt honed to wicked sharpness.
Kai’s skin crawled. Garbed in the red of Freaer’s elite assassins, the welke riders glared at him across the intervening distance, a space closing with alarming speed.
Kai touched the reins against his wingabeast’s neck, all it took to tilt Flecht sideways and away. The wind snatched at Kai’s breath, and he turned his face to breathe. Silver wings fanned around him and stroked downward. The wingabeast leveled in flight.
Bloodcurdling shrieks rent the air, the welkes’ hunting cry.
Kai’s heart raced, and he looked back. Both riders were following, one pulling ahead of the other. Flecht’s course carried them above the forest that stretched across Elder lands to the sea. He guided Flecht lower, ready to duck beneath the tree canopy. Tiny, flitling birds darted through kaba leaves so thick they left no gap. If he tried to break through the screen of leaves and branches here, Flecht’s feathers would shred. Only one choice remained.
He drew his sword and turned to meet the attack. The hiss of flight feathers reached him along with the stench of the assassin’s sweat. Flecht shuddered but held. Metal grated against metal with jarring force. The assassin grunted and fell back.
His arm numbed by the blow, Kai retreated.
The second welke rider bore down on Kai.
With his good arm, Kai deflected the assassin’s blows.
The welkes hovered abreast. The first assassin showed gapped teeth in a malevolent grin. "Want to fight, do you? Well then, Kindren, let’s see what you’re made of." The two circled him.
"What’s that smell?" The first asked.
The second, smaller in stature, made an exaggerated sniffing sound. "Stinks like fear to me."
“You’re not so brave.” The gap-toothed smile mocked him again.
Ignoring the obvious ploy to break his concentration, Kai gritted his teeth and ran at the smaller of the two. The rider met his blow with stunning force. Kai fell back. The first rider set upon him at once. Kai shifted, but the blow caught his chest, the sword tip penetrating his surcoat and chain mail. Warmth ran down his side.
Shrilling, Flecht carried him backward.
The assassins took turns punishing Kai, allowing him no rest.
Flecht’s sides heaved but bore Kai without balking. Kai faced his tormentors, panting like an old man. Neither he nor his wingabeast could go on like this. If the assassins took his life they might spare Flecht.
Kai bowed his head and waited for the end to come.
Riffling followed by a thump brought his head up. An arrow protruded from one of the welke’s chests. Its gap-toothed rider widened his eyes. Shrieking, the raptor bird slipped from the sky.
An expression of terror spread across the smaller rider’s face. A bowstring sang somewhere below, and a second arrow planted itself in the remaining welke’s chest. The raptor bird must have died on the instant, for it made no sound as it hurtled downward, carrying its screaming rider to his doom.
A wingabeast erupted into the air beside Kai.
Flecht shrilled and backed.
“Steady!” Kai called.
Aerlic, his bow slung behind him, perched on his silver wingabeast.
Kai gave him a nod. “I’m glad to see you.”
“I can well imagine.”
“Thank you for saving my life.”
Aerlic nodded. “You shouldn’t have tried to fight alone. Next time take me along.”
Kai smiled at the flame-haired archer, the best shot among the guardians of Rivenn. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
“We should go.” Aerlic gestured with his head. “Unless you want to take on more welke riders.”
Kai followed the archer’s gaze.
Above the pyres of smoke spiraling into the air behind Torindan’s curtain wall rose a flock of welke riders.
Remembering the prick of pain from the assassin’s sword tip, Kai looked down to the blood oozing through his surcoat. “I don’t think it’s much.”
“We need to tend your wound.”
“That’s not exactly convenient right now.”
“Your dying from blood loss would be less so.”
Kai’s lips twisted in a smile. “You have a point.”
“There’s a cave I know nearby where we can hide. Can you make it there?”
Weakness assailed Kai, but he had to continue. “Lead on.”
The archer sent his wingabeast south and west, traveling low. Kai kept pace, forcing himself to remain upright in the saddle. They scaled the west side of a peak and slipped around to a ledge facing east. The wingabeasts touched down behind a screen of plume trees.
Kai held back a gasp while Aerlic helped him out of his surcoat and chain mail.
Examining the gash in Kai’s side, Aerlic hissed in air. “That must be painful.”Aerlic cleansed the wound with water from his drinking supply and rubbed ointment at its edges before binding it with bandages.
Kai pulled on his surcoat. “We should leave.” He crept outside to look through the plume trees’ white foliage.