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Epic Fantasy Adventure: THE FLINT SAGA - Book 2 - Invasion: Young Adult Fantasy

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The Flint Saga

Book 1

Escape

BILL CAMPBELL

Copyright 2014 by KC Global Enterprises

Shakespir Edition

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 1

“We should have stayed on the road,” Monty grumbled as his tunic caught on yet another pricker branch. His mother would not thank him for the extra mending but that was the least of his worries as the daylight waned and they were still trekking through the forest. Monty adjusted the day’s yield, not so much as they’d hope for but not a bad catch – three wood hens, two pheasants, and a wild turkey.

“Stop making so much noise!” Flint hissed, “and mind your footsteps. I swear, you’d think you were half-ogre.”

“I can’t help it that I’m big,” Monty whispered, attempting to dampen his heavy steps. He’d never caught on to sneaking the way Flint had. “It’s prolly nothin’ anyway.”

Flint’s eyes narrowed, “Valkan is never wrong.”

“I didn’t say Valkan was wrong,” Monty covered quickly, he knew better than to insult his best friend’s prized falcon, “I’m just saying it may be something simple like Ole Shelly burning a batch of bread. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before.” Monty pointed out as he ducked under a low branch.

“I don’t think so.” Flint shook his head once. “Something isn’t right, Monty.”

“You’re right, I’m not going to be allowed to hunt for a month when Ma sees my shirt,” Monty pointed to the ripped fabric on his sleeve.

“Just tell her Valkan did it,” Flint dismissed his friend’s concerns and looked to the sky, barely visible through the heavy leaf cover above. He let out a series of shrill whistles that echoed through the forest disrupting the wildlife.

“I thought you said we needed to be quiet.” Monty’s eyes darkened, “and Ma’s not gonna believe you ever let Valkan land on my arm.”

“I’ll back up your story,” Flint promised, not taking his eyes from the sliver of sky. “And whistling for Valkan isn’t the same as you blundering through the brush.”

“That’s why we should have stuck with the road,” Monty reminded him. “I’m not good in small spaces, you know that.”

“If there’s trouble,” Flint was interrupted by a shriek as Valkan reappeared above them. The golden falcon shimmered in the waning sunlight then plummeted toward his master, pulling up just in time to land smoothly on Flint’s outstretched arm. Valkan bristled and pecked at Flint’s gloved hand, code for “move it.” The boys exchanged one look before bolting toward their home.

Breathless, they pulled up just along the edge of the village, smoke billowed from the huts and cottages, mostly dismantled by flames. Valkan took off, flew high overhead until he was just a dot in the darkening sky. Flint edged along the alleys, avoiding the main thoroughfare as he led Monty toward their homes. They stepped over the charred corpse of Ole Shelly. For a second, Flint wondered if the baker actually did drunkenly burn down half of the town. Then he saw the arrow protruding from the baker’s chest and knew Shelly was dead long before he burned.

Monty whimpered beside him as they tiptoed around the disfigured bodies of two children, propped against their mother in the doorway of a smoking hut. “That’s the widow Latham and her girls, they were only five or six,” Monty whispered and quickened his pace, not caring so much about stealth as he drew his club from his belt. Flint followed suit, pulled his bow from his back, and notched an arrow as they crept faster toward their homes.

“Don’t look at them, Monty,” Flint warned, as much for his friend as himself. The charred corpses of their neighbors threatened to undo them both. Flint saw it first, the massive pile of bodies and beyond it, his home still burning. Next door, the roof of Monty’s house had caved in and flames licked at the shattered windows of the first floor.

“Nooooooooo,” Monty cried out and ran toward his home.

Flint didn’t try to stop him. He knew the danger had already moved on because Valkan landed on the pile of bodies in front of Flint’s house. The falcon would not have come close if there were danger, he would not sit so still. Flint kicked the nearest body and instantly recoiled, his toe throbbed where it struck the heavy black armor. He turned the body over, felled by an arrow to the throat, one of the few exposed body parts. His assailant’s aim had been true. Flint’s stomach rolled, threatened to spew forth the modest lunch he’d consumed while hunting. He fought the taste of bile and picked his way past the fallen bodies, all armored in the same black gear. Valkan called to him, craning his head side to side as he waited. Flint didn’t want to see what Valkan saw.

Monty appeared at his side, tears streaming down his cheeks, “Ma is dead.” The large boy trembled, his meaty fists clenched at his sides as he struggled to hold it together. Flint and Monty approached the large pile of bodies where Valkan waited, watching.

“Dad!” Monty yelled and ambled over the corpses to his father’s side. He rolled his father over, eyes open and face contorted in rage, frozen in death with his sword in one hand and the other limp, rendered useless by a large gash just below his elbow. Several more cuts and tears exposed the inner workings of Monty’s father but the worst was the death blow, a gaping hole in his abdomen roughly the size of a man’s fist. The skin blackened around the wound like a spider web.

Flint stood over the horrible scene, frozen in place as he registered the body of his own father, face down in the packed dirt. Valkan shrieked and buried his head beneath his wing. Flint forced his feet to move, willed his body to respond. He knelt beside his father and moved him, rolled him to his back. Ashgrove’s eyes were closed giving the appearance of sleep except for the trail of dried blood at the corner of his mouth. Flint traced the fine lines of his father’s face, wishing him back to life but, Ashgrove’s didn’t respond, his skin already too cold for life. Like Monty’s father, Ashgrove’s body had many wounds but the most grievous was a savage hole ripped into his chest by a sword blade.

The boys cradled their father’s bodies, ignorant of the passing time and not caring about any dangers that might seek them out. What remained for them in this world if their families and friends were gone? Nothing troubled them, not even as night fell on their village and the moon took over the sky with her silvery light. The boys did not speak, did not hunger, did not thirst.

Valkan watched over them from his perch, silent and brooding until the first light of day broke across the horizon. Only then did he move. The falcon left his perch and settled beside his master to peck at his hand once more. Flint tried to wave his falcon off, but Valkan would not be deterred. Valkan fluttered over to Ashgrove’s shield, still face down in the dirt beside Flint, and pecked at it. The noise ultimately elicited a response from Flint who pulled at the shield. Valkan took to the air and circled over their heads as the first rays of sun shone over his feathers, a reminder that Flint was not alone.

“We can’t stay here,” Flint pushed off the ground and pulled his father’s shield to his chest. “And we can’t leave them like this.”

Monty lifted his head, face swollen and red from crying all night. “Okay,” he answered numbly. His eyes narrowed and his lips moved like they did whenever he practiced reading. “What’s that mean?”

“What?” Flint blinked at his friend, confused.

“On your Dad’s shield,” Monty pointed toward Flint’s chest.

Flint flipped the shield around, sure enough there were words scrawled across the front of the shield, half marred by dirt and clumps of grass. He plucked the grass off and tossed it aside then blew as much of the dirt off as possible. In shaky letters, his father had left them a message: “Weaver in Dominita help you.”

“What does it mean?” Monty asked again.

“I don’t know.” Flint said slowly. He’s never heard of Weaver or Dominita before but he couldn’t worry about that now, they’ve wasted too much time already. Flint felt shame that he’d spent the night grieving like a child instead of like a man. “We need to take care of the bodies.”

“We can’t bury everybody,” Monty pointed out, “there’s only two of us.”

“I know.” Flint contemplated their options, trying to avoid looking at their fathers. “We could burn them.”

Monty considered this, his eyes flicking toward their smoldering homes, “Okay. Let’s put them all together though, except for them,” he pointed at the black armored corpses. “They don’t deserve it.

Flint nodded, “Alright.”

The boys arranged the bodies of the villagers first, careful to keep families together as much as possible. They added their own families last, carefully. Flint kissed his parents lightly on the foreheads and closed his mother’s eyes. Monty followed suit.

“Should we say something?” Monty asked.

Flint could not find the words. He lit a torch and stepped forward and set his mother’s dress ablaze. A breeze kicked up and fed the flames as Valkan settled on Flint’s shoulder, the falcon’s talons dug into his flesh but it was nothing compared to the pain in his chest.

“Flint? Monty?” The boys spun around to find Diana emerging from behind the remains of her family’s hut. Her hair flew wild and her dress was torn and singed along the bottom but she seemed unharmed as she stepped toward them. “Is that you?”

“Diana?” Flint found his tongue, “what happened? Where were you?”

“I was hunting,” she gestured toward the bow and quiver on her back, “I heard the screams and I tried to help but…” Diana trailed off and looked away for a second, “there were too many so I hid. I know it was cowardly.”

“No, it was smart.” Monty assured her. “Or you would be like them,” he gestured toward the funeral pyre.

“Did you see anybody else get out?” Flint asked eagerly, “Anybody at all?”

Diana regarded them, her sharp features softened and she sighed, “Come out, you two.” Her eyes flicked toward the trees beyond the remnants of the hut. Two oddly clothed people stepped into the light and sauntered over to them. “Monty, Flint, meet Leo and Lasha.”

The strangers bobbed their heads in unison, “Pleased ta meet ya.” They were nearly mirror images of each other though Leo stood a little taller with broader shoulders and Lasha’s leotard swelled slightly at the breast and hip.

“I found them in the tree I climbed,” Diana explained.

“We were with the circus,” Leo began, his thin, painted lips twitched as he spoke and his almond eyes seemed to take in everything at once. He was pretty, almost feminine but for his defined, sinewy muscles.

“We were practicing our act in the forest,” Lasha continued, “they don’t, er, didn’t like us to be in the tents when we weren’t performing.” On closer look, Lasha’s features were softer than her brothers, cheekbones slightly higher and more rounded.

“Is there anybody else hiding?” Monty asked hopefully. “Did you see what happened?”

“Not that we know of.” Diana shrugged, “no, we didn’t even know about you two until we saw the fire. It was good that you did that.”

“We saw them.” Lasha answered quietly, “There were so many. They didn’t say a word, just rode through and started killing. It was terrible.”

Leo put an arm around his sister’s shoulders and added, “They didn’t have a chance.”

“What do we do now?” Diana looked to Flint, “we obviously can’t stay here, right?”

Flint frowned, “No, I don’t think we can.” He debated about telling them of his father’s message but Monty decided for him.

“Have any of you heard of Weaver or Dominita?” Monty squared his shoulders, “Flint’s father left a message on his shield but we don’t know who they are.”

“Your Dad left you a message?” Diana gaped.

“Yeah,” Flint admitted, “on his shield. It said ‘Weaver in Dominita help you’ but we don’t know what that means.”

“Hm.” Diana shook her head, “no clue.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Leo began.

“For us,” Lasha finished.

“Well, I guess we need to find somebody who can make sense of it.” Flint decided. “Let’s head west toward Iliff, it’s the next closest village.” Nobody argued, they all just fell in line with Flint as he crossed the ruined remains of the village, past his smoldering childhood home and started on the western road. Flint didn’t look back once.

Chapter 2

“Is that smoke?” Lasha pointed at the line of trees as they crested a small hill.

Flint frowned as the billowing black ribbons broke the line of trees ahead of them. “Yes, I think so.” Valkan had remained on his shoulder, willing Flint to be strong and press on. Now the falcon took to the air, circled twice, and returned to Flint’s shoulder with a short shriek but no sign of agitation or concern. “Must be clear.”

“How can you be sure?” Leo pressed as he fell into step beside Flint.

“Valkan would be different if there were danger.” Flint answered blandly. “Trust me, he knows when there’s trouble.”

Leo fell silent but kept pace with Flint. Monty flanked his other side while Lasha and Diana brought up the rear. The walk had been relatively quiet as they all contemplated their losses, their new circumstances, and whatever else might trouble a group of orphaned teenagers, Flint supposed. His mind could not escape his father’s message and the strange warriors who’d managed to cut down the strongest men Flint had ever known. What chance did he have?

“Who’s that?” Monty stopped abruptly and shielded his eyes against the sun.

Valkan shifted his weight on Flint’s shoulder but seemed unconcerned. Flint took this as a good sign and kept walking. The others followed suit and they soon encountered the stranger, a girl close to their age, crouched beside a freshly dug grave. She didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge them at all as the small group approached. Diana notched an arrow but the strange girl did not move at all.

“Hello?” Flint spoke gently, “are you injured?”

The girl did not move, not even a flinch.

“Is she deaf?” Lasha asked. The petite girl crept forward, humming softly as she advanced. Lasha tapped the girl on her shoulder but she still did not move. “I don’t know, it’s like she’s in shock or something.” Lasha took the girl by the elbow and tugged until she stood, looking over the grave. The girl’s hands were covered in dirt, a few of the nails broken and ragged, the front of her dress stained with a mixture of blood and dirt. Lasha crouched in front of her and waved a hand before the girl’s face but still she did not respond.

“Just leave her.” Diana said gruffly. “We have to keep moving.”

“We can’t just leave her,” Flint argued. “We need to stick together and she’s all alone. She’ll die if we leave her out here.”

“Flint’s right, we can’t just leave her. Look, that’s probably where she lived” Monty agreed and gestured toward the remnants of a small cottage set back in the trees a short ways. Smoke still curled from the rubble. “Come on, Diana, it would be wrong and you know it. She’s like us.”

Diana sighed, bit her lip, and nodded, “Fine. But I’m not taking care of her.”

Flint reached out and took the girl’s hand, “Come on, come with us.” The girl allowed Flint to lead her toward town but remained silent, staring at the ground without really seeing anything. She followed where Flint led, her skirts rustling and kicking up dust as they continued toward Iliff.

“Maybe we should avoid the main road into town,” Diana suggested as the road widened to indicate their proximity to the village. They’d encountered several torched homesteads since finding the girl by the grave and the stench of burnt wood hung heavy in the air.

“I’m not familiar with this area,” Flint said. He stopped and let go of the girl’s hand to wipe his palm dry. “We could get lost.”

“I think we’ll be alright if we keep the sun in front of us.” Diana said thoughtfully.

“And you have your falcon,” Leo added.

Flint conceded it would not be wise to stroll through the main gates in their current state, half of them splattered in blood and grime and soot. “Agreed, let’s head that way,” he pointed southwest, there’s less haze from the smoke there.” He started off but quickly realized that the girl did not follow. Flint walked back, took her hand again, and led her back to the group.

“Do you think she’ll snap out of it?” Monty asked, “I mean, it’s going to be tough to keep track of her and survive if you have to keep this up.”

“Maybe somebody in the village will know her and be able to help her.” Flint suggested. He hoped so, for all of their sakes.

The small group picked their way through the rough, until they came to a low, stonewall on the other side of which they could see a few buildings that had clearly seen better days. “This must be the edge of Iliff,” Flint regarded the devastation as he waded through the tall grass toward the waist-high wall. “We should look for survivors.” He squeezed the girl’s hand lightly to spur her into motion and helped her over the wall then hopped it himself. Leo and Lasha leapt gracefully over the low structure after him. Diana tossed her bow and quiver over then scaled it herself, shrugging off Monty’s effort to assist her. Monty just shrugged and followed her over.

They hadn’t gotten far into the town when Valkan clicked his beak and nudged Flint with his head. Flint pulled up and peered around the corner of the next building to find a small boy whispering to somebody. Dropping the girl’s hand, Flint motioned for his group to stay put and then crept around the corner toward the boy, “Hello.”

The boy startled, his wide, blue eyes filled with fear, “please, don’t, don’t hurt me.”

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Flint soothed. He noticed that the boy held a parcel in one arm, while his other hand lightly lay on the body beside him, a grievously injured old man. “It looks like he’s hurt badly,” Flint nodded toward the man without taking his eyes from the boy.

“You’re not in black,” the boy regarded Flint. “They were in black.”

“The men in black were here?” Flint asked carefully, “did they do this to your village?”

“Yes, they came, they killed, they burned, they moved on.” The boy said sadly, “I hid because he told me to. They did not think him a threat because he is old but they stabbed him just the same.”

“What is your name?” Flint knelt beside the boy and looked at the old man who appeared to still be breathing in spite of the gaping wound across his abdomen.

“Just call me Bookworm,” the boy said, “I am, I mean, I was his apprentice. I was supposed to learn what he knew, but….” He trailed off as Flint’s friends emerged from behind the building.

“I’m Flint and these are my friends, Monty, Diana, Lasha, and Leo,” Flint pointed to each in turn. “Our village was destroyed too. We are trying to find somebody who can decipher a message my father left me. He wrote the names Weaver and Dominita on his shield.”

The old man coughed and sputtered beside the boy. “You are Ashgrove’s boy.” The man rasped, clutched his stomach and struggled to sit up. Flint and Bookworm helped the man move, propped him against the wall of the house and tore scraps from his pants to compress his wounds.

“You knew my father?” Flint asked as he treated the man as best he could.

“Knew of him.” The man gasped. “You seek Duke Weaver.”

Flint fell back on his heels. His father knew a Duke? “Where would I find him?”

The old man wheezed, his eyes turned dull as he struggled to hold on, “Dartmour Castle,” he struggled for breath, lips cracked and lined face drawn tight with age and death, “Dominita is south, far south.”

“Then we’ll head south,” Monty said firmly.

The old man cackled, his body quaked with the harsh sounds, “Just kids, you don’t stand a chance.” He coughed, blood bubbled at the corners of his mouth, “too many dangers for kids like you.”

“We have nowhere else to go.” Flint replied bitterly, “my father left the message for a reason.”

“Thirty days it will take you, boy.” The old man’s eyes focused on Flint, “you will fail.”

“RUN!” The girl screamed, tugging at her golden locks with both hands as she leapt into view, “they’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming!” She repeated, waving her hands and gesturing wildly toward the end of the long, narrow street.

“She’s mad,” Diana whispered, watching the girl with a mixture of horror and fascination.

“No, she’s not,” Bookworm pointed toward the end of the street where four black armored men turned the corner toward them.

“Bring him with us,” Flint ordered Lasha and Leo who struggled to pull the old man away from the building while Diana let loose an arrow that glanced off the shoulder of one man’s armor like a gnat. Valkan shrieked in Flint’s ear, a deafening wail that spurred him to motion. Monty and Flint drew their swords as the armored men closed the distance at a frightening pace. Diana notched another arrow as the twins and Bookworm worked to move the old man out of harm’s way.

“He’s too heavy!” Lasha cried.

“We have to leave him and run!” Leo shouted at Flint.

“No! We need more information,” Flint yelled, “get him and Bookworm to safety, we’ll catch up!”

As the men closed in, Flint, Diana and Monty backed together. Flint felt the girl at his back, her small hands trembling as they held the back of his tunic. She mimed his steps as they backed away from the armored men. Flint prepared to engage when a door exploded outward in a shower of wood splinters in front of them. A warrior sprang from the house and fell on the four men in black. The warrior slid into the first man, blade slicing through his throat with a hiss. He used the body as a shield as the others attacked him. Flint watched in awe as the man dislodged his blade and threw the body into the three attackers to distract them long enough to launch another offensive that left one of the armored men headless. The dismembered head rolled down the alley, face frozen in shock. The remaining two attackers attempted to run but the warrior sprinted after them and drove blades through the backs of their necks in two smooth motions. He withdrew the blades, shook the blood off and stalked back toward Flint.

“What were you thinking?” The warrior demanded. On closer look, he appeared only a few years older than Flint though he was larger than Monty and clearly very well trained.

“We were trying to get information and help a dying man.” Flint replied indignantly.

“You should have left him. He’s dead already.” The warrior nodded past Flint where Leo, Lasha, and Bookworm stood over the old man, not thirty feet away. “You should have run. What hope did a bunch of kids have against them? If I hadn’t been here, you’d be lying in the street beside him, is that what you want?”

“No,” Flint answered stubbornly, “he had information we needed, that’s all.”

“What information could possibly be worth your lives?” The warrior inclined his head, suddenly curious.

“My name is Flint, son of Ashgrove, and before he died, my father left me a message on his shield to seek out Weaver in Dominita. The old man knew my father and Weaver.” Flint explained calmly, “We mean to seek out Duke Weaver at Dartmour Castle in Dominita. Would you lead us?”

The warrior regarded him, his eyes taking the sword, the shield, and lastly, the falcon, “No, I am no leader.” He paused to consider the rest of their party, eyes resting briefly on each one, “but I will travel with you. Perhaps I can keep at least some of you alive.” He extended a hand toward Flint, “my name is Duncan.”

“This is Monty,” Flint gestured toward his friend, “and Diana is the one with the bow. Those two,” he gestured toward the twins, “are Leo and Lasha. We just met the kid. He goes by the name Bookworm.”

“And that one?” Duncan asked of the girl.

“We don’t really know,” Flint started to explain but Valkan shrieked and shifted on his shoulder, clearly agitated by something. Flint regarded his group, “We should go. There must be more nearby.”

“Don’t go back that way,” Duncan shook his head toward the twins and Bookworm. “If you want to go south then you need to cross the bridge on the west end of town.”

Flint looked to Bookworm who nodded, “He’s right, the river is high this time of year and the next safe crossing is miles out of the way.”

“Alright then, west it is.” Flint agreed.

“Keep behind me, stay quiet,” Duncan advised.

They fell into line, single file behind Duncan, and crept through the streets. The girl clung to Flint’s hand but he didn’t complain, he still felt responsible for her. Perhaps they would get her to talk again once they were safely outside the city. It struck him as strange that their little party had grown so quickly in so short a time, just collecting strays as they went. Duncan stopped in front of him and glanced back, putting a finger to his lips.

“One, two, three, lift” a voice carried out from around the corner of the building ahead of them.

Duncan stepped forward and peered around the corner. He stepped back, shook his head as he returned to the group, “What is it with you kids and lost causes? Come on, let’s go save some more lives.” They rounded the corner behind Duncan to find two people struggling with a partially collapsed building.

“Can we help you with that?” Flint asked politely.

The pair whirled simultaneously. Their eyes flared and the boy grabbed a nearby board extending it in front of him defensively. “Don’t come any closer.”

“Or you’ll what? Swat at me with that board?” Duncan chastised the boy.

“I won’t let you hurt her.” The boy sputtered.

“We’re not gonna hurt her,” Duncan inched closer, hands held out, palms up, until he sprang forward and wrenched the board away from the boy. “But you’re likely to get hurt if you threaten people you can’t hope to best. Didn’t anybody teach you manners? When somebody offers help, you say thank you and accept it.”

The boy regarded the group before him but stayed in front of the girl, “somebody is stuck and we’re trying to get him out.”

“We can help,” Flint stepped in to ease the tension hanging in the air between Duncan and the young pair. “I’m Flint, this is Duncan.”

“Miller,” The boy said, not taking his eyes off Duncan, “this is my betrothed, Aude.”

“Nice to meet you both, now how’s about we get your friend out?” Flint soothed, “then we can get out of here? Monty, can you help?”

Monty, Flint, Miller, and Duncan worked at the rubble for several minutes, eventually able to create a hole in the structure. A spritely man sprang out into the street and began babbling his gratitude. “You have no idea, I thought I was dead, thank you so much.”

“Alright, calm down, friend,” Flint stepped between Duncan and the rescued man before the warrior could offend somebody else, “we need to get out of here. You are welcome to join us, or if you prefer, go your own way.”

The man surveyed the crumbling village and shook his head, “there’s nothing for me now, this was my post and there doesn’t seem much left to guard, does there?”

“I suppose not,” Flint admitted, “my name is Flint, son of Ashgrove.”

“People just call me Starling,” the man said with a wry smile. Flint could see why, his pointed features and slight figure reminded him of the bird and the more he watched the man flutter around, the more the name seemed to fit. Valkan shrieked and batted at his shoulder, code for ‘quit stalling.’ Flint gave hasty introductions and urged the party out of town, keeping himself and the nameless girl between Duncan and everybody else.

Surprisingly, the group managed to escape the village without being spotted. Unsurprisingly, there were few supplies left in the wreckage of Iliff. Miller managed to scavenge a few daggers and two quivers of arrows from the guard station near the southern entrance, but most everything had been burned or stolen before they’d arrived.

“We need to find shelter before nightfall,” Flint suggested as the ruined village of Iliff disappeared behind them, “we don’t know how many of those warriors are left or if they are hunting down survivors.”

“There are mines about two miles ahead,” Miller said, “they haven’t been used in years and they are hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

“And do you know what you’re looking for?” Duncan shot back

Miller’s face-hardened, “Yes. My father worked the mines until they closed. I know them well. We may even find some supplies there.”

“Then by all means, lead the way, boy.” Duncan stepped aside and gestured for Miller to take the lead.

With Aude’s encouragement, Miller led the way. As the last light of day gave way to nightfall, the peculiar group broke into the locked doors of a derelict silver mine. Once inside, they barred the doors and followed Miller, hand in hand and single file, through a series of winding corridors, “This passage will lead us through the mountain to the other side. I don’t know what’s left now, but there used to be a lookout and trading post. We should be able to make a fire and some food at the very least.”

“Food would be good,” Monty’s voice carried through the darkness to Flint and sparked a smile.

“Aye, I’d eat vegetables at this point, even yams.” Diana called out, her voice echoed through the cavern.

“Almost there,” Miller said, “see how it’s lighter up ahead?”

Flint thought he could make out the faint outline of a door but he couldn’t gauge the distance in the darkness. They came to a sudden stop, the nameless girl stumbled into Flint as he fell against Aude.

“Sorry about that,” Miller apologized to the group, “there’s a gate here.”

Flint heard the boy fumbling around, metal grated on metal and then they were moving again. The outline of the door became clearer and Flint realized it must be fully exposed to the moon. A sickening thought hit him, “should we just have one person slip out and make sure there’s no danger?”

“I will go,” Duncan’s voice carried out from behind him.

“I’ll look out,” Miller said simply, “just stay here.” He pushed the door open, moonlight flooded the cavern exposing a polished surface and a pickaxe propped against the wall. Flint reached out and grabbed it. Aude gave him a strange look as if to protest but then thought better of it and watched the open door for Miller’s return. The boy appeared in the door moments later, “Come on, it’s empty.”

They filed out and followed Miller up to a sturdy building that clearly had not been maintained for some time. Miller had already wrenched open the heavy oak door, just enough that they could each squeeze through. Monty shut it firmly behind them and barricaded the door as Miller and Aude started a fire in the hulking brick hearth.

“Are you sure we should do that?” Diana hissed. “What if they see the smoke?”

“We are too high, they won’t see it on a night like this,” Miller explained. “Anyway, this building served as a look-out. We would see them before anybody would see us.”

As the fire caught, the orange glow cast long shadows across the room so that they could make out tables, chairs, and even a few cots in the far corner. Aude lit a torch in the hearth and moved purposefully around the room to light the braziers that remained upright on their posts.

“Spread out and look for anything that we can use,” Flint ordered, perhaps a little more harshly than he intended. Nevertheless, it had the desired effect. He led the nameless girl to a chair near the hearth. She stood there, watching the fire, still in whatever daze or trance they’d found her in. Flint wondered if Aude or Miller or Bookworm knew who she was.

Chapter 3

“So, I woke up to the building falling on me and narrowly escaped being crushed,” Starling delivered and animated reenactment of his take on the black armored warrior’s invasion of Iliff. “If I hadn’t been drinking ale in the pub until the wee hours of morning, I may not be here today.” He bounced around the group as they took turns recounting their tales.

“Do you ever sit still?” Duncan asked irritably, “It is disconcerting.”

“How can I hope to sit still?” Starling flipped over the back of a chair, “so much has happened and I am still alive!”

“You won’t be for long if you don’t stop flitting around.” Duncan growled.

Starling sighed, “fine. Have it your way.” He slipped onto the floor beside Miller who was absently stroking Aude’s hair while she slept.

“Do any of you know who she is?” Flint asked their new additions about the nameless girl who still sat staring at the fire. She hadn’t moved at all, not even when offered one of the blankets they’d dug up in their search of the lodge. Everybody else had told their stories and names to the group so that they were all acquainted except for the nameless girl.

“I’ve seen her around,” Bookworm spoke for the first time since telling his tale. He’d pulled his bony knees up under his chin and kept close tabs on the books he’d saved from Iliff. “I’m trying to remember her name, though.”

“Renata.” The girl turned her head toward them, straight to Flint, “My name is Renata.”

For the first time since they’d found her, the girl seemed coherent, surprisingly so, and Flint felt heat in his cheeks and ears as she studied him. Monty arched an eyebrow at him and nudged him with his toe.

“That’s right,” Bookworm exclaimed, “I’m so sorry, I should have known that, Renata.”

“It’s okay,” she said, not taking her eyes off of Flint, “thank you for bringing me with you when I was,” Renata paused as if searching for the right words, “not myself.”

“S-s-sure,” Flint muttered, his cheeks burning.

“We should go now,” Diana flew down the steps from the lookout. She’d opted to take first watch and nobody had argued. Now, the room stilled, all eyes shifted toward Diana, freshly clothed in hunter’s skins that she’d scavenged, “I’ve been watching the skies and there are messenger birds circling just down the hill from here, north of the fork. Somebody knows we are here and if we hope to make it back to the southern road then we need to go, now.”

“That’s not possible,” Miller protested.

“Then you can stay and die proving me wrong,” Diana snapped, “but I’m out of here and I suggest you all go with me if you want to survive.”

“Show me,” Duncan ordered. Diana wanted to challenge him, Flint could see it in her eyes, but ultimately she dipped her head and scrambled back up to the lookout just ahead of Duncan. They returned several moments later, “The girl is correct, we should go.”

“I just don’t see how anybody could know,” Miller protested again.

“Somebody does,” Duncan growled, “so stay if you like but I would rather not fight if I don’t have to.”

“I’m with the brute,” Starling laughed and popped up from the floor, “I mean, warrior, of course.”

“Leave everything burning,” Renata instructed to everyone’s surprise, “it will give us a head start if they think we are all still here.”

“Good idea.” Bookworm bobbed his head up and down, already poised to run with his books in tow. He’d managed to commandeer a satchel that accommodated all of the volumes but one that he hugged against his chest.

“Let’s get moving then, stay single file,” Flint ordered as he helped Monty lift the barricade on the door.

“Wait,” Miller sighed, “there’s a better way out. Leave that door barricaded to buy us more time. We can slip out the servant’s passage.”

“When were you going to tell us there’s another entrance?” Duncan accused.

“Nobody knows about it,” Miller argued.

“Just like nobody knows about this place, right?” Duncan berated the boy then reeled in his frustration and added, “Forget it now, just get us out of here.”

Monty and Flint secured the barricade and quietly moved a few pieces of furniture in front of the door for good measure. “Think it’ll hold?” Monty asked Flint.

“Long enough, I suspect,” Flint answered approvingly. “Let’s catch up to everybody else and get out of here.” He clapped his best friend on the arm encouragingly, “we’ll find this Duke Weaver and get justice for our families, Monty. We have to.”

Monty nodded silently and scooped his makeshift bag from the ground. The pickaxe peeked out of the top, nestled beside Monty’s club. Flint flinched as Valkan settled on his shoulder, talons digging into his tender flesh, he wish he’d been able to find a shoulder guard.

“Here,” Renata handed him something, “this might help until we can get you a proper shoulder guard for your falcon.”

“Thanks,” Flint answered shyly, “how did you know?”

“I saw you flinch. Everything you’ve seen and done today and you never blinked but your falcon landed on your shoulder and I saw pain.” Renata explained, “I can make a salve to treat it when we get back into the forest if you like.”

“Sure, thanks.” Flint mumbled, his cheeks burned again.

“Come on,” Diana called from the back of the building, “we need to move.”

They followed the sound of Diana’s voice to a rickety staircase descending beneath the main floor. Leo awaited them at the bottom of the steps with a lantern, “we should pull the stairs down and replace the panel.”

“I think they’re going to have a hard enough time getting in the front door. Let’s just get moving,” Flint said.

Leo shrugged, “Okay, it was Duncan’s idea. You can tell him why we didn’t listen.”

“We don’t have to tell him anything,” Monty pointed out. “Let’s just get out of here and he’ll be none the wiser.”

Leo led the way along a stone corridor. Their feet made no sound in the packed dirt but Flint could hear their friends’ voices echoing from somewhere in the distance. The corridor ended abruptly in a cramped room where Duncan appeared to be working at the lock on the door.

“It’s rusted,” Duncan grunted.

“Can’t you just break it down?” Starling suggested.

“I could, but it won’t be quiet.” Duncan admitted.

“If you apply enough pressure to the hinges,” Bookworm chimed in, “I think you could lift it from the frame rather noiselessly.” The whole room turned to look at Bookworm. The boy squirmed a little under their scrutiny but didn’t back down, “try it if you don’t believe me, your blades should work.”

“Okay kid,” Duncan unsheathed his blades and handed one to Flint, “you get the bottom one and I’ll get the top.”

They positioned the tips of the blades as Bookworm instructed and applied pressure until the bolts popped free. Duncan pushed on the door and it gave enough that they could slip out. Once everyone was free, Duncan pressed the door back in place and fell into the back of the line. The group snuck along the edges of the mountain path until they came to the junction at the mouth of the forest. Travel north and you’d weave through the mountains back to Iliff. Flint noted the mournful looks Miller and Aude gave toward the northern pass but they all turned south. A few birds flew overhead, not all of them messengers but Diana had not been wrong. The northern mountain pass was definitely compromised.

“This journey will not be easy,” Duncan fell in step beside Flint when Renata disappeared with Lasha and Diana to search for berries and herbs.

“I didn’t expect it to be easy.” Flint said stonily, “but it’s not like we have a choice. Well-armored, trained men are burning villages and killing everybody in their path, we’re lucky to be alive and it’s going to take a lot more of that luck to stay that way.”

Duncan nodded approvingly. “Can your falcon find water?”

Offended, Valkan chirped at the warrior. “Yes, I’ll send Valkan to find water once we’ve put some distance between us and that mountain pass.”

“There will not be a safe time to seek water,” Duncan insisted, “we are being watched even now.”

Shrieks echoed in the distance. Valkan flew from Flint’s shoulder. Duncan drew his blades and sprinted in the direction the girls had gone. Flint bolted after him, noticed Monty’s heavy steps on his tail, and blinked in disbelief as Starling blazed past him. They caught Duncan at the edge of a field in time to see Diana tossed unceremoniously into the back of a wagon.

“Bandits,” Duncan spat. He sized up his help and nodded his head toward the wagon, “you take care of the two up front and I’ll get the other two.

“What if there are more?” Monty asked.

“There will be,” Duncan said grimly, “but if we wait, they’ll take off in the wagon and we won’t catch them.” He didn’t wait for further argument, simply sprang into action. Flint suspected Duncan could have dispatched all four bandits on his own after watching him in action back in Iliff, but he didn’t argue. Starling leapt from their hiding place, scrambled up the wagon, careful to avoid Diana, and drove a dagger into the driver’s back before Monty and Flint even reached the wagon.

“Check on Diana,” Flint gestured toward the back, “see if Renata and Lasha are in there too.” Monty nodded and climbed in the back. Starling had already engaged the other bandit, the driver’s body crumpled on the ground. Flint rounded the front of the wagon and came face to face with the ugliest man he’d ever seen.

“Whatchoo lookin’ at, boy?” Spittle flew through the air as the brute clicked the remnants of rotting teeth at Flint, his hard eyes narrowed to slits that disappeared behind heavy brows and a bulbous, pockmarked nose that seemed to be missing the tip. “I keel ya myself fer takin’ what’s ours.” The man’s mismatched, heavily patched clothes hung on his too-thin body but the rusted, stained sabre in his gnarled hand drew Flint’s attention.

“Those girls are with us.” Flint answered smoothly, eyes on the man’s torso like his father taught him.

The man sprang, but Flint was faster. As the bandit came in high, Flint slid beneath the blow, and jammed his blade through his attacker’s gut. Flint through the man away from him, dislodged his blade and crouched for more but it did not come. Blood and spittle gurgled between the rotted teeth as the man’s head hit the ground. Flint stared at him, half in wonder, half in regret. He’d never killed a man before. It was much different from hunting animals, much colder somehow.

“No, please, don’t!” Desperate screams jarred Flint into action. He bolted around the other side of the wagon where Duncan and Starling hovered over a smaller bandit. “Please, don’t hurt me!”

“Would you have spared the ladies if they begged the same of you?” Duncan looked fierce, his fists clenched at his sides, muscles pulsing from the action.

“I didn’t want to, please, they made me!” The bandit’s hood fell back. He didn’t appear to be much older than Bookworm.

“He’s just a boy!” Starling flitted between the young bandit and Duncan’s fury. “Perhaps we let him live, big guy?”

“Yes!” The boy agreed eagerly, “I have information you can use.”

Valkan reappeared and landed on Flint’s shoulder as he stepped up beside Starling. Flint wondered where the falcon had been, if he’d seen what happened with the old bandit. He shook the idea off and addressed Duncan, “we don’t have to kill the kid.”

Duncan’s eyes flickered from Starling to Flint and down to the boy. “Fair enough.” The larger man stalked off, muttering to himself.

Flint offered a hand to the boy who hesitated but ultimately accepted the help. “What is this information you have?”

“You’re traveling south, yeah?” The boy bobbed his head.

“Yes,” Flint confirmed, “so?”

“It’s not safe. The road through the canyon is guarded by magicians who’ll make ya pay ‘em to pass. They’re evil, them is.” The boy shook his head, “not sure you got what they want for payment.”

“What do they want?” Starling’s eyes flickered, his hand twitched at the dagger as a warning.

The boy shrugged, “Depends…usually what you don’t got. That’s the point, ain’t it?”

“Thank you for the information.” Flint extended his hand again, “be on your way and we will be on ours.”

The boy shook his hand, “Good luck,” and bolted in the opposite direction, disappearing into the forest.

Flint and Starling rejoined their small group at the back of the wagon. Monty held Renata in his arms and Duncan had Lasha over his shoulder, both girls were unconscious. Diana, woozy but awake, leaned against the back of the wagon nursing a bump on her head.

“We should get back to the others,” Flint suggested. “Can you walk, Diana?”

She eyed him warily, “Yeah, I think so.”

“Should we take the wagon?” Monty asked and shifted Renata’s limp form.

“It’s not worth it, those horses are half dead,” Starling advised, “and the front wheel is cracked. We wouldn’t get far.”

“Is there food or water or anything of use?” Flint regarded the worn wagon, chipped and half rotting in some places.

“Not really.” Diana mumbled, “maybe some extra weapons but I don’t know what shape they are in.”

Starling frowned, “They don’t seem well armed or well fed. What happened?”

“They surprised us.” Diana explained, “Knocked those two out with a slingshot, I think. Then, one popped up behind me. I tried to duck but he grazed my head enough to stun me, I guess.”

“We should go, there may be more.” Duncan said sharply, eyeing the area of the forest that the boy had disappeared into. “That boy may have gone to alert the rest of his group and bring them back here.”

Flint didn’t think it likely but nodded and led the way back to the others. Diana fell in step beside him, still nursing her head. “I wish I’d had my bow. I might have done something.”

“Won’t leave camp without it anymore, will you?” Flint studied the forest around them. Valkan shifted on his shoulder, watching something in the distance.

“I think your falcon wants to hunt.” Diana avoided his question, “you should let him. We could use some food.”

“Aye.” Flint agreed, “Valkan, kill.” The falcon chirped in his ear and pushed off his shoulder, propelled forward, a blur of golden plumage.

“Why aren’t you using the bracer on your arm for Valkan?” Diana pointed to his shoulder, blood colored his tunic where Valkan’s talons had cut him.

“I can’t fight with him on my wrist.” Flint said simply. “Renata gave me some leather to protect my shoulder but I haven’t had time to do anything with it.”

“I see.” Diana frowned, “I think we should do something about it soon before he tears your shoulder apart or it gets infected.”

Flint noticed that she said ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ and flushed red. “Yeah, alright.”

Chapter 4

“Any ideas on how to bypass the magicians without avoiding the canyon?” Flint asked the group as they huddled around the modest fire, munching on bits of rabbit, the meager yield of his hunting trip with Diana and Valkan. It wasn’t nearly enough but they’d encountered surprisingly few animals in this part of the forest. They’d been arguing about alternative routes for more than a week with no viable options. With the magician’s canyon just less than a day away, it was time for a more direct route.

“We can be sneaky when we want,” Starling suggested.

“There is no way we can all sneak past them, magic, remember, bird man?” Duncan lounged against a bolder, picking at his teeth with a rabbit bone.

“We can go another way,” Miller interjected yet again.

“No, we won’t have enough water or food if we try to go any other way.” Diana argued, taking Flint’s side yet again.

“We don’t have enough food or water now,” Leo added bitterly.

“This isn’t easy, but we knew it wouldn’t be. What options do we have? Go back, sit in our burned villages and wait for death?” Flint’s voice rose in his frustration, “what would you do different? Please, by all means, offer up suggestions because I would love to hear them.” He clenched his fists, challenging any of them and all of them to tell him he was wrong. Leo hung his head, even Duncan clamped his mouth shut. Diana studied him thoughtfully, her expression full of approval. She’d been telling him to speak up and take control for days. They’d spent a lot of time hunting together and Flint learned they had a good deal in common. He was just becoming comfortable with Diana to the point he could talk to her without stumbling over his words.

“I can get us past the magicians,” Renata said quietly, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“What?” Flint blinked at her. Renata had been almost silent since she regained consciousness and learned what the boy had told them.

Renata exhaled loudly and tucked her knees up under her chin, refusing to make eye contact with anybody, “I can get us safely past the magicians.”

“How?” Starling eyed the young woman suspiciously.

“Just, don’t worry about it.” Renata said calmly. “We will walk right past them without any problems, I promise.”

“Sorry if I’m a wee bit skeptical,” Starling leaned forward, his pointed nose casting a long shadow in front of him, “especially since you were captured by vagabonds and haven’t said more than a few words since. I’m not eager to end up hexed or imprisoned because you think you’re capable of something you’re really not.”

“I’m more than capable,” Renata murmured, “those thugs just took me off guard. It won’t happen again.”

“We could always overpower them if things get dicey,” Flint interjected, slicing through the tension. “It is clear we cannot go around so we have to go through. Let’s give Renata a chance and if whatever she has planned doesn’t pan out, well, we’ll fight our way out.”

Starling snorted but didn’t argue. He simply fell back on the ground and curled into a ball. The group fell into a restless silence, some dozing off while others stared into the flames. Flint studied Renata, considered asking her plan but thought wiser of it when she turned toward him. Their eyes met and she smiled at him. Flint flushed and gave a slight nod before leaving the circle to take over the watch from Monty.

“Go get some sleep,” Flint tapped Monty lightly on the shoulder. “We have a big day tomorrow.”

“What was decided?” Monty pushed off the ground with a grunt.

“We are going to head straight for them,” Flint began, “and Renata says she can guarantee we pass the magician’s safely.”

Monty’s eyes widened, “what is she gonna do?”

Flint shrugged, “I don’t know, but if it doesn’t work then we’ll fight, so be ready.”

“How did that go over?” Monty asked.

“Does it matter? We don’t have another plan. If somebody doesn’t agree with it or want to participate then they can go their own way,” Flint said half-heartedly, it’d become the regular threat whenever somebody disagreed with the group decision. Nobody had left yet, but Flint grew tired of suggesting it as the only alternative. He wondered if they would ever all be on the same page.

Monty frowned, “I hope nobody leaves. I’m just getting used to all of them.”

“Me too.” Flint said as his best friend walked away. He perched on a boulder and surveyed the forest. It remained unusually quiet, not even the usual chatter one would expect to hear in the wild. Valkan landed on Flint’s makeshift shoulder guard, nudged him lightly and chirped. Flint regarded his falcon and whispered, “I know, fella, I know. It’s not right out here, is it?”

They sat there, silent guardians, until the first rays of morning peeked through the dense copse of trees to the east. Valkan took to flight as Flint popped off the boulder. Their companions were already up and moving. Flint wondered if any of them really had slept. Leo and Lasha looked drawn but poor Bookworm was not born to this life. Flint worried about the boy more than any of the others and tried to stay close to him as they traveled. Duncan had offered to carry the boy once but Bookworm staunchly refused.

“Let’s move out,” Flint didn’t wait for a response, simply grabbed his meager belongings and led the way back to the southern road. Valkan flew overhead as lookout and Flint heard his companions fall into line behind him. They walked until the sun rose high in the sky and the trees became less dense.

Flint could just make out the looming walls of the canyon when Renata caught up to him, slightly winded, “You walk really fast.” She touched his arm lightly, “we need to stay closer together for this to work.”

“What exactly?” Flint pulled up but didn’t look at Renata.

Renata sighed and blurted quickly, “I can shield us from the magicians, but only if we are close enough together.”

“Are you saying you know magic?” Monty interjected from behind them. Flint knew his friend had been walking close for some time and appreciated that he had kept some distance instead of trying to talk.

Renata nodded, “I can do some. I need to focus though and it will drain me to do this.”

“So what works best? Do we all hold hands or walk in a group around you? What can we do to help?” Monty sounded excited. Flint knew his friend had always been more than a little fascinated with magic. When they were boys, about Bookworm’s age, they had played Swords and Sorcerer’s on many an occasion.

Renata smiled, clearly encouraged by Monty’s enthusiasm, “We just need to stay close together, think of it like a tent and we all need to stay in the tent.”

“Okay. We can do that.” Flint agreed. He pulled the group in and explained that they needed to tighten their ranks for Renata to do her thing. Surprisingly, nobody argued. To be safe, Flint called Valkan back and instructed his falcon to stay on his shoulder for the time being. The group formed a tight circle around Renata and moved forward. She mumbled some words and extended her hands above her head then shook them down. A thin, almost transparent veil of energy fell over them like a blanket. Flint could feel the spell moving with them, floating just out of reach. The group travelled slowly, silently through the mouth of the canyon. Monty tapped Flint’s shoulder at one point and gestured toward a small enclave where two men were drinking and playing cards. They were almost excessively non-descript until they looked up. Monty gasped and quickly clapped a hand over his mouth. The skin on their faces looked thin, as if drawn too tight over their bodies, but worst of all, their eye sockets were empty holes into their skulls. They were dark magicians.

“Did you hear that?” One of the men perked up, his pointed ears twitched.

“It’s just another wizard floating through,” the other dismissed him, “stop stalling.”

“I still think we should tax anyone who isn’t us,” the first magician scowled and turned back to his cards.

“Nah, that’s not the way we do things,” the second said dismissively and slammed his cards on the table, “Ha! Got you again!”

One of their companions exhaled and the group bunched a little closer together. They turned one corner and then another, snaking methodically along the canyon in silence until the shield began to flicker around them. Flint looked at Renata and noticed sweat beading along her brow, her face clenched in concentration as she trembled, struggling to hold the magic. “Monty, can you carry Renata?” He whispered to his friend.

“Uh, yeah, why?” Monty looked down at the girl and he instantly understood.

“Renata,” Flint said softly, not wanting to startle her from the spell. “Renata, you can let it down now.”

She dropped her arms, face softened and she fell. Starling, caught her from behind and deftly swept her into his arms like a child, “I’ve got her. We should move faster now, just in case.” He nodded toward the mouth of the canyon, they were nearly to the other end. “Let’s clear the canyon and find a place to make camp so our little witchling can recover.” Starling, and the rest of the group for that matter, looked reverently at Renata. Flint suspected they would all have a healthy new respect for the girl.

“It’s better to take turns carrying her and cover as much distance as possible,” Duncan suggested, “from what Bookworm said, the lands beyond this canyon are not pleasant. I suspect we will have few opportunities for food and water.”

“I agree,” Flint nodded, “we need to reach Dominita as soon as possible. Who knows how many more bandits and magicians and other threats stand between us and safety.”

Chapter 5

“I’m thirsty,” Bookworm tugged at Flint’s arm. The kid never complained but the trip seemed to be wearing on him. Flint looked into the kid’s face, eyes sunken, lips cracked and chapped from dehydration and malnutrition.

“I know, Bookworm,” Flint rasped, “I know.” They had to be close to Dominita by now. By Flint’s count, they’d left Iliff some twenty-nine days ago and that meant they should reach their destination within the next day or so if the old man had been truthful. Food had been scarce for the past week, not even trees to tap for sap in the wasteland they’d entered. There’d been no food at all since Valkan had to stop flying off after he was attacked the second day in the wasteland. Fortunately, Diana had felled the mutated vulture that tried to take down Valkan and the falcon suffered no real injury but they’d kept him close just the same.

Covered by makeshift hoods and veils to protect against the sun, Flint thought they resembled a pack of beggars more than anything. Even Starling had lost a lot his spirit as they struggled to stay alive in the sea of dead tree trunks and rotting foliage. They tried to crack open some of the pricker bushes that generally held water only to find a bizarre gel-like substance that only succeeded in giving Starling hallucinations for a full day.

“Is that grass up ahead?” Monty asked and pointed straight ahead, “like real grass, the green kind.”

“Yes!” Starling exclaimed from the front of the pack.

They stumbled forward, bolstered by the promise of water and, perhaps food. Starling reached the green first and fell forward into the smattering of green mounds. A few saplings edged the road just past Starling, not likely to yield enough sap to warrant the work it would take to tap it. But, further up the road, the grass appeared less patchy and Flint heard the sounds of running water. He looked at Diana and realized she registered the same thing, “Water!”

Monty and Duncan scooped Starling from the ground and Flint tugged Bookworm off his feet as they pushed forward toward the sound. A small stream passed under a bridge and then appeared to follow the road into another forest, plush and green. Sounds of wildlife echoed from the depths of the trees. Flint’s stomach rolled with hunger at the idea of rabbit or fox cooking over a fire. He pushed Bookworm toward the stream, kneeled on the bank himself and splashed water over his face, suckling at the droplets as they wet his dry, taut skin and gave him life. They drank and washed in the clear, cool waters until they once again resembled the group that fled Iliff nearly a month ago.

“We need to find shelter,” Lasha pointed toward the sky behind them, “it’s going to storm tonight.”

“We’ll have a better chance in the forest, at least be able to put some type of shelter together.” Bookworm chimed in.

“Let’s see how far we can get, maybe we’ll find a house or barn further down the road.” Flint suggested, “We have to be getting close to Dominita which means there should be smaller towns or villages.”

Rejuvenated by the stream, the group filed back onto the road and followed it into the cover of the forest. Flint let Valkan loose to kill and the falcon promptly delivered his prey to the group. They reached the edge of the forest as the sun set and the first bolts of lightning lit up the sky. Much to their dismay, they came upon no villages or houses of any kind and now looked over a ravine that would offer little shelter from the storm.

“Let’s just make camp here,” Flint suggested, “we can pull down some of the branches for cover and head into the ravine tomorrow.”

“Wait!” Diana flew into the center of the group, bow in hand, frantic and breathless, “we have to keep moving. Something’s after us, it’s tracking us. I shot at it but it’s fast, really fast. We have to go.”

As if to prove her point, a feral growl echoed through the brush followed by a series of roars and the sound of feet thudding on the ground. Knowing they could never hope to defend themselves in such an open space, Flint screamed at his companions, “Run! Into the ravine!”

They flew into the ravine, stumbled over jagged rocks and clumps of grass in the middle of the road. Flint gauged the height of the walls around them and quickly discounted them as escape options, just a bit too tall to be scaled quickly. Rain splattered around them, stung their faces as they ran. Bookworm lurched forward and nearly fell but Duncan was there to scoop him up. The boy didn’t complain, just clung to the warrior and tucked his face into the large man’s shoulder.

“Renata! Can you do anything?” Starling yelled as another roar ripped through the ravine, “now would be a great time to try!”

“Like what?” Renata snapped back, “I don’t even know what it is!” She put her head down and pumped her arms faster as if willing her body to move.

“It’s closing in; we have to find a place to fight!” Flint yelled, his chest burned. Diana’s eyes bulged beside him as she struggled to keep up. They wouldn’t make it much further and the thing was closing in too fast. He studied their surroundings, fought against the pouring rain and in the next bolt of lightning found what he sought. “There!” Flint pointed to a small overhang where the ravine took a turn and the river widened. “Back up to the wall there and we’ll fight!”

Duncan nodded and pushed himself harder. He set Bookworm against the ravine wall and spun to face the enemy. Starling skidded to a halt beside him and helped usher the others behind them. Monty, Diana, and Flint pulled up and formed a protective barrier in front of the others. The creature bellowed, its roar echoed off the ravine walls. It was close.

“Psst! This way!” A voice called from around the corner, “hurry, you fools!”

Flint looked for the owner of the voice, his eyes landed on a small, strange looking man gesturing wildly from the other side of the stream, just before it widened, “Come on, it’s driving you to their lair, come with me if you want to survive!” Flint caught Duncan’s eye, the warrior nodded and reached for Bookworm.

“Come on, let’s go.” Flint commanded. They bolted for the narrow part of the river and leapt across. Renata almost fell in but Monty and Flint caught her by the elbows and pulled her to safety. They followed the man to an overhang, hidden by a waterfall made wider by the storm. The man gestured to Flint and Duncan who followed him to the edge of the waterfall.

“Watch,” he whispered. “It will be angry to have lost its prey.”

Flint’s eyes widened as he saw the beast. It reminded him of the lions in the circus but so much larger and scarier. Duncan turned away and rejoined the others but Flint watched, studied the creature that easily would have made a meal of their whole group. Its red eyes flicked from side to side and it stabbed at the ground with claws the size of Duncan’s arms. It let loose an angry roar that shook the earth around them and drew a whimper from one of Flint’s companions. As it stalked past their hiding spot, Flint noticed that a strange armor-like shell covered the creature’s entire body.

“Name’s Songar,” the small man said, coal black eyes deep set in his shriveled face. He peered up at Flint expectantly, “and you’re welcome.”

“I’m Flint,” he said as he hurried after their savior and remembered his manners. “Thank you. We are most grateful.”

“I’ve been tracking those things for two weeks now.” Songar explained as he settled on the ground and regarded the group, “they wiped out my entire village, I barely escaped. Never seen anything like them. It’s like they’re from a different world.”

“How?” Monty asked, “How did you escape?”

Songar stood and lifted his ill-fitting shirt to expose his back where a set of claw marks had just begun to heal, “I was attacked by a young one and fell in the river. One of them big ones would have shredded me but this one didn’t have big enough claws yet.” Songar lowered his shirt and added bitterly, “I’ve been trying to sort out their weaknesses so I could avenge my family, my people. So far, I know they aren’t fond of fire, but that’s not going to do us much good in this weather.”

“Obviously we aren’t going to get far with those creatures on the loose.” Starling pointed out, “So what if we work together. You can avenge your people and we can travel on without looking over our shoulders?”

Songar considered this for a moment before agreeing, “I would welcome your aid.”

“So, fire is their only weakness,” Duncan folded his broad arms across his chest, “how do we make fire in the middle of a storm?”

A bolt of flames shot across the small cavern and lit the bottom of Duncan’s pants on fire. “What the hell?” He swatted at the flames to extinguish them. Everybody turned toward the source – Renata.

“Now that I can work with,” Renata grinned, pleased with herself.

“One little flame is not going to do much,” Duncan snapped.

“That was just for show,” Renata answered smugly.

“Alright, can you trap them in their cave with the fire?” Songar asked. “It’s about twenty feet across. Then it’s just like shooting sparrows off a bush.”

They all looked at Songar curiously.

“What, you’ve never seen a bush of sparrows?” Songar shook his head, “guess that one’s lost on you lot. No matter, we’ll have to work fast.”

It took little time to hatch their plan. Armed with bows and spears that Songar had been hoarding, the companions crept toward the lair, careful to stay close to the shadows as the rain slowed around them and the clouds parted to reveal the night sky beyond. Songar signaled Renata to set the fire. Within moments, a wall of flame blazed bright between them and the lair. The crew launched a noiseless assault and were rewarded by a thunder of growls and shrieks as their weapons found some marks. They launched, again and again, aiming for the shadows beyond the flames. A few of the braver beasts dared to breach the wall of fire only to be cut down by the swords of Flint and Duncan.

Flint could not guess how long they fought but they did not halt their assault until the whimpers and roars of the beasts faded into silence. His arms and shoulders ached from driving his sword through the thick hides. Flint and Duncan fell back to the group as Renata extinguished her flames. They congratulated each other on a job well done, a victory after so much struggle.

“My family is truly avenged,” Songar noted solemnly, “you have my gratitude and my loyalty.” He bowed low to the group, “I would go with you wherever your path may lead.”

Starling slapped Songar on the back and crowed, “No need for formality, friend, just follow along with us and you are more than welcome to join our little caravan.”

Flint opened his mouth to agree when an ear-splitting roar silenced him. A giant beast pounced from the depths of the cavern, straight toward Aude who stood closest to the lair. Miller leapt in front of her, an attempt to shield her from the beast but it mattered not. The enormous claws shredded the couple with one swat. They flew through the air like raggedy dolls and landed in a heap. The beast prepared to pounce but Songar drove a spear through a rear paw, effectively pinning him to the ground. Duncan leapt upon the beast’s shoulders and drove his sword into the center of his skull. The beast collapsed, expelled one pathetic, wheeze, and fell still.

Diana reached Miller and Aude first, rolled them apart and shook her head. Their bodies were ravaged by the beast’s claws, nothing could have saved them. Flint stared into their open eyes, Aude’s bore a shocked expression while Miller wore a mask of fury. Diana closed their eyes and turned away.

“We should bury them,” Songar said quietly.

“Aye,” Duncan agreed, “over there, away from that foul lair.”

Using whatever they could to shift the wet dirt and mud, the group managed to bury Miller and Aude together in a modest grave. It was Duncan who volunteered to speak on behalf of the young couple, much to everyone’s surprise. He spoke solemnly and told of his first encounter with Miller and Aude, how Miller defended his love even though they’d meant Aude no harm. Duncan referred to them as quiet but helpful, never complaining or burdening the collective. “In the end,” he concluded, “Miller died a hero, defending his lady against a great foe. May they rest in peace.”

Renata, who had been sniffing softly beside Flint, broke down and threw herself in his arms. She sobbed into his tunic, her body trembling as he wrapped his arms about her shoulders and whispered soothingly into the crown of her head.

Across the circle, Diana wiped the tears from her eyes and frowned, her expression somewhere between anger and disapproval. She tore her eyes from Flint and Renata, put an arm around Bookworm who still clutched his book at his chest after all they’d been through, and gave him a squeeze. Diana wondered how the boy was really handling all of this, it couldn’t be easy no matter how bright the kid seemed. She contemplated her own feelings about the loss of Miller and Aude, about her family and the strange quest she somehow fell into, but in the end, her eyes drifted back to Flint and Renata which made her feel something else altogether.

Chapter 6

“I look like a hog in heat after a roll in the muck.” Songar grumbled from the middle of the pack, more than loud enough for everyone to hear.

“We’ve got to be close,” Flint said to nobody in particular. He didn’t know exactly what Songar meant, but he did know that he could go for a bath and clean clothes. Their crew had taken to walking a few feet apart and Flint suspected it had more than a little to do with how they smelled.

“You’ve been saying that for a few hours,” Leo pointed out. “And we are still walking. Are you sure we are going in the right direction? Does this place even exist?”

Bookworm, who’d been silent since Miller and Aude’s burial, finally spoke up, “it is real. I found Dominita in a map in the book but it’s old and very basic so I can’t tell exactly how far it is.”

“Or if it even still exists,” Leo muttered.

“It exists,” Diana skidded to a halt in front of them, barely winded from scouting. “The entrance is just over the crest. I spoke with two of the guards and they gave me directions to the Castle. Not that you could miss it, I saw the turrets before I even reached the gates.”

“It’s that big?” Lasha gasped, her hope rekindled.

“Yes,” Diana confirmed. “The village is at least three times the size of Iliff.”

“What are we waiting for?” Renata asked. She stepped up and wrapped her small hand around Flint’s elbow, “You did a wonderful job leading us all this way.”

Flint flushed, his ears burning at the tips, “th-thanks, Renata.”

Diana rolled her eyes, “Yeah, great job, Flint. Let’s get moving instead of standing around looking like we are plotting something. We don’t exactly resemble upstanding citizens right now.”

“The girl is right, we need to find this Duke and warn him about the strange soldiers. It seems we may have beat them here but who knows how much time we have.” Duncan pointed out.

They closed ranks and traveled forward with a renewed energy. Renata clung to Flint’s arm, her skirts licked at his ankles. He felt her eyes on him frequently but did not dare look down at her. Instead, Flint watched Diana, walking just ahead of him with Lasha. He contemplated how different Diana and Renata were though they both made his stomach flutter and flop around. Monty clomped along beside him, silent and reassuring as they headed toward an entirely new fate. Flint wondered what this Duke Weaver would be like and more importantly, how his father knew him.

The gates of Dominita grew from specks in the distance to hulking stone pillars twice as tall as Duncan that encased massive doors that could clearly accommodate even the largest carriages two at a time. Flint gaped at the grandly dressed guards flanking the open passage, their elaborate, polished helmets glinted in the sun as they stood motionless with pikes and shields. Just beyond them, two more guards sat at a small desk.

“Those are the two I spoke with,” Diana pointed out, “they interview anybody wishing to enter the city. I did not tell them anything yet, just asked about the Castle.”

“I’ll talk to them,” Flint moved toward the front of the pack but Duncan tugged at his elbow.

“Let me and Starling do this,” Duncan volunteered.

Starling popped into the space beside Duncan, his mouth curved into an encouraging smile, “We speak soldier, my young friend. It is best.”

“You may want to send your falcon away for a while,” Duncan’s eyes flicked toward Valkan, “not many people have trained falcons and we don’t want to draw any undue attention until we know where we stand.”

Flint nodded and ordered Valkan into the trees. “I’ll call for you, I promise.”

Duncan and Starling took the lead. Renata and Diana fell into step on either side of him, pushing Monty to the side but his friend didn’t say a word about it. Bookworm and Songar walked just ahead of Flint, the boy still protecting his precious books. Songar had taken a shine to the kid almost instantly, they seemed to be bonding in an unusual way but Flint thought Bookworm appreciated the attention from somebody other than Flint and Diana. Leo and Lasha pulled up the rear, still muttering to each other on occasion, generally the sister trying to convince her brother to be less quarrelsome.

“Greetings, Friend.” Starling addressed the seated guards in his usual jovial manner, “lovely day is it not?”

“State your business.” Neither of the guards looked up so Flint couldn’t tell which spoke.

“We are here to meet with Duke Weaver.” Duncan said firmly, almost harshly as he folded his arms over his bare chest. Flint had to admit, Duncan could be quite imposing when he wanted to.

“Duke Weaver, eh?” The slightly shorter guard tipped his head just a bit to regard their group. “What’s your business with him?”

“The boy’s father left a message for him to seek out the Duke.” Duncan gestured toward Flint without taking his eyes from the guard. “The rest is between him and the Duke.”

“I see.” The soldier said. He glanced at his companion who gave the barest of nods. The shorter guard stood. “Follow me.”

The ragtag group filed after the soldier, wound through alleys and narrow passageways until they came to another outpost at the foot of the Castle. Flint tried to count how many turns they took and noted Monty’s lips moving as well. They mostly saw stone buildings and passages lined with low walls that separated the paths from green spaces in the village, none of it terribly impressive. The outpost held several more guards, identically dressed in red and black with shimmering silver helmets. Flint admired their uniformity and formality, even as they surrounded their small group to lead them into the guard post. Though it was clearly a small part of Dartmour Castle, the guard post could house at least fifty men with ease. It opened into a large courtyard stocked with training gear and targets. Several dozen men and women worked at various stations, so focused on their training that they did not pay Flint or his friends a glance. Diana nudged him as they passed the archers with their grand bows and decorative quivers.

“Through here,” the guard who’d led them this far held a door open and gestured for them to file in. His mouth twitched slightly giving Flint a strange idea that something could be wrong with this whole situation. In fact, Flint couldn’t shake the feeling as they filed into another room, dank and practically bare but for a worn table in the corner.

A grizzly-bearded man sat at the table, his eyes dark like coal behind heavy brows. “What business have you here?” He leaned forward, sniffed at them once and recoiled.

“We’ve come to see Duke Weaver,” Starling began, his most courteous smile plastered on his birdlike face, “we’ve been sent to seek him out.”

“You have, have you?” The bearded soldier conferred with their guide for several minutes while the group shifted uncomfortably and Flint’s feeling of wrongness grew into something more.

“Leave your weapons here.” The short solider ordered, directing them toward the table, “we will keep them safe for you.”

Reluctantly, the small group parted company with their meager weapons. There was a bit of a struggle for Bookworm’s books but given his age and a few well-timed tears, the soldiers relented.

“Right this way,” the bearded guard led them down a cramped stone corridor that dumped into a round room with several heavy, metal doors. The crew filed in followed by half a dozen guards who surrounded them and pointed sharp pikes in their faces. “You are all under arrest and will be detained until further notice. Do not fight and you may be allowed to live. Attempt to escape or defy this order and you will be executed without trial.”

Before he could argue, Flint was roughly shoved through one of the doorways. He stumbled and fell forward. Monty tumbled in after him and they fell to a heap on the damp floor.

Chapter 7

“That’s right, lift it just a little and release.” Ashgrove whispered in his son’s ear as he guided his hands toward the correct position. The bow felt good in his hands as he pulled the string taut.

Flint exhaled and let the arrow fly. It landed just above the bright red target set at the other end of the clearing. He frowned, “what did I do wrong, Papa.”

“Nothing, son.” Ashgrove regarded his son, “you will grow stronger and it will be easy to hit your mark. In the meantime, you must practice your skills. I will not always be around to protect you, Flint.”

“What do you mean, Papa?” Flint looked up to his father, “where would you go?”

Ashgrove looked into the trees, his eyes narrowed and then widened. A light breeze rose up in the east and shifted stray leaves and blossoms across the field. The sun and moon were both visible, Flint thought that odd but dismissed it. He focused instead on his father. Ashgrove bent slightly so that he could look Flint in the eye. He put two strong hands on Flint’s shoulders and shook him, “Wake up, Flint, you must wake up and see what is happening.”

Confused and alarmed, Flint tried to pull away from his father as Ashgrove’s face began to melt, his body suddenly engulfed in flames. Flint tried to pull away to avoid the flames that raged over his father’s body. He screamed and closed his eyes, willing the horrible sight away.

“Flint! Wake up!”

Flint’s eyes snapped open to focus on Monty’s face. His friend’s eyebrows knitted together in concern, “Are you alright?”

“What?” Flint struggled to remember what happened, to make sense of his surroundings and hold onto his dream, “what happened?”

“You were screaming.” Monty explained.

“What?” Flint gasped. He tried to recall the dream but it slipped away from him again. A week in Dominita’s dungeon had done little for his company’s morale and his nightmares were not helping. Especially when he couldn’t tell anybody what made him cry out as he did.

“Take it easy,” Monty said, “just wanted you to know that somebody is coming to see us.”

“Huh?” Flint rubbed at his eyes.

Monty glanced toward the door, “I heard the guards discussing it when they changed shifts. We won’t be here much longer because somebody’s coming for us.”

“I see.” Flint scrambled to his feet and tried to run his fingers through the mess of hair on his head. He’d never gone so long without washing it and the damp filth of the dungeon wasn’t doing him any favors either.

“I don’t think this is what your father had in mind for us.” Monty said, “but whatever they want from us, I think we do it, Flint.”

“I agree.” Flint blinked at his friend. He looked thinner and older, his eyes harder than they’d been before leaving home. “How are the others?”

“I heard Renata and Diana arguing earlier. Duncan shushed them before the guards did.” Monty smirked, “I don’t think they like each other much.”

“No, I got that idea too.” Flint nodded, “Poor Lasha’s stuck in the middle but at least the girls are all together.” The crew had pieced together that they were all accounted for, Duncan and Bookworm in one cell, the girls crammed together in another, finally Leo, Songar, and Starling. They hadn’t been able to talk much through the small windows in the doors of their dank cells but it had been enough to know they were still alive.

“Do you think they mean to kill us?” Monty asked quietly.

Flint considered the idea, he’d thought about it a lot over the course of their week in the dungeons, but ultimately decided that these people did not intend to kill them. “I think if they were going to, it would have happened by now. Why waste time feeding us if they intend to kill us?”

“That slop is better suited for pigs than humans,” Monty grumbled.

“But it is food, Monty.” Flint reminded him. “They wouldn’t feed us or keep us locked up if they wanted us dead. It makes no sense.”

The door to their cell creaked open. “Of course we don’t want you dead.” A massive, unkempt man with long hair and a scraggly beard ducked into their cell, his bright green eyes dancing with curiosity. “But we do want to know who you are and why you’ve come to seek Duke Weaver.”

“I am Flint, son of Ashgrove, and he sent me to find Duke Weaver for aid.” Flint spoke in his most solemn, respectful tone and bowed low to the man. He hoped good manners would count for something.

“Ashgrove?” The man blinked at them, “you are Ashgrove’s boy?”

Flint drew himself up to full height, “Yes, I am.”

The man slapped his knee and laughed so loud that it echoed through the small room. “Why didn’t he come himself? What kind of trouble has he gotten himself into?”

Flint lowered his head and Monty stepped forward to answer, “Sir, he’s dead. He sent us here to find the Duke and ask for help.”

The man’s laughter died. He straightened and stepped closer to the two young men. “Ashgrove is dead? How?”

“He fought bravely,” Flint managed. Emotion caught in his throat but he continued, “Our village was attacked by heavily armored, trained soldiers. Though he felled many of them, there were just too many. He left a message on his shield for me to seek Duke Weaver for help.”

“I am truly sorry for your loss.” The man stroked his beard thoughtfully. “It must have been a great host to overtake Ashgrove. These are dark tidings indeed. Well, there is only one thing I know to do now. Come with me, Flint, son of Ashgrove.”

Flint hesitated, they’d been tricked once already, “Sir? I’m sorry, but who are you and what do you intend to do with us?”

The man turned back to him, a half-smile on his face and eyes brimmed with tears, “Ashgrove was the greatest warrior in the land for many years and I had the honor of being his squire. I learned everything I know from him and for that I owe him everything. I am Duke Weaver.”

Flint stared at the man, not what he would have pictured at all. “You’re Duke Weaver?”

“Yes,” he ducked out of the cell, “and I’ll explain everything while we release your friends. Then we can get you all washed up and properly fed, unless you object to that?”

“No, no, of course not. Thank you.” Flint hurried after Duke Weaver with Monty on his heels.

“I truly apologize for these circumstances.” Duke Weaver gestured for the guards to unlock the other cells, “my father is not terribly proud of me or fond of many of my friends. He learned of your arrival and assumed you were some more unsavory folks who would only encourage me to further besmirch his good name.”

“But why would he think that?” Flint asked.

“Since your father’s retirement,” Duke Weaver frowned, “well, I am ashamed to say that I have done little with my life and my father did not take kindly to that. I am on the verge of losing my place in the line of succession so I am certain that my father saw you and your companions as the final step in my undoing. He does love me, you see, so he would naturally do anything in his power to save me from myself.”

“Certainly our appearance did help much,” Monty regarded their friends as they poured out of the cells, “it was not an easy journey.”

“It does not seem that it was,” Duke Weaver conceded, “and I would very much love to hear all about your adventure but I suggest we collect your belongings and leave before my father hears of this. It is best that we maintain a very low profile while we figure out what to do next.” The Duke led them out of the dungeon to the guard room where they’d been relieved of their weapons just a week before. A few sheepish guards stood around the pile of weapons, clearly recently reclaimed from another location. The companions grabbed for the weapons like a pack of hungry wolves. Duke Weaver nodded approvingly and addressed the group as a whole for the first time since freeing them, “Flint has told me some of your troubles and I wish to apologize for your treatment at my father’s hand. Please join me in my home. We will see you bathed,” his eyes traveled over the ragtag group, “properly dressed and fed. Then we can discuss how I might help you further.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Flint’s eyes went to the sky, searching for Valkan. The Duke did not miss it.

“Are you looking for something? The sky to fall, perhaps?” Duke Weaver asked.

“No, Sir.” Flint whistled, “I have a trained falcon, simply letting him know I’m free.”

“A trained falcon?” Duke Weaver nodded appreciatively, “I hope he finds his way back to you.”

None of Flint’s companions argued or even said a word on their short walk to Duke Weaver’s home, not even when Valkan returned to their midst and landed silently on his shoulder. Though still on the grounds of his father’s castle, Duke Weaver’s house was more of an estate than a home. Flowering shrubs lined the pebbled path to a two-story structure more than twice the size of Flint’s and Monty’s homes put together. A small stable sat to the left and Flint could see several horses poke their heads out of the stalls as the party approached the house. The door swung inward before Duke Weaver’s feet touched the stoop.

“Good afternoon, m’lord.” A woman, a little chubby and plain with gray hair , greeted Duke Weaver. Her pale eyes flared as she took in Flint and his companions.

“Gloria,” Duke Weaver addressed the matron of the house, “these are my friends. Please see to it that they are properly bathed and clothed. They will be joining me for supper. Oh, and the falcon stays with the boy, no arguments.” He kicked off his boots and strolled off down the hall leaving Flint and his friends to Gloria.

Gloria made a few clucking sounds and regarded each in turn. Within minutes, a handful of other servants joined them in the hall. Gloria whispered with her new recruits for a few moments then pointed to Bookworm, Flint, and Monty, “You, you, and you go with Gabriel.” She gestured toward a boy, somewhat older than Bookworm but younger than Flint and Monty, clearly her son or grandson judging by the looks.

The boy bobbed his head at them and started off down a long hall. Gabriel led them into another room just a few doors down from the foyer. “I’m Gabriel. You can leave your things on the tables and strip off those clothes. We’ll clean what we can but the rest we’ll burn. There are bathing garments in the wardrobe. I’ll give you a few moments while I prepare the baths.” Gabriel turned on his heel and left, shutting the door behind him.

“They’re gonna burn our clothes?” Bookworm asked.

“Only the ones they can’t salvage, Bookworm.” Flint looked at the boy for the first time since they’d been freed. The week in the dungeon had not been kind to him. Bookworm’s face was drawn and his eyes were dull and slightly sunken in their sockets. Flint could not understand how the guards could have mistaken the small boy for a mischievous fiend hell bent on corrupting Duke Weaver.

“Yours should be alright, Bookworm,” Monty assured him, “mine on the other hand, I don’t know.” Monty made a show of poking three fingers through a hole in one sleeve of his tunic, the one he’d left home with. Flint noticed that his friend had also paled and thinned slightly over the course of their journey and imprisonment. Still a towering, hulking man, Monty had lost the layer of fat that had often left him the butt of jokes. He now appeared older, a grown man if Flint hadn’t known better.

“Mine are likely to hit the burn pile as well,” Flint concurred. He didn’t really care; they were just clothes.

“Do you trust this guy?” Bookworm asked cautiously.

Flint considered this. Did he trust the man? His father had. If what he said was true, Duke Weaver had been his father’s squire for many years and Ashgrove had been an even greater warrior than Flint had thought. “Yes, Bookworm. I trust Duke Weaver.”

“Very well.” The boy shrugged, “I will too.” He set his book and the pack full of books on the table and shimmied out of his clothes. Bookworm didn’t spare them another glance as he pulled on the smallest bathing robes he could find, only to drown in them.

Monty burst out laughing when he saw Bookworm in the too-large robes. “I hope they have clothes in your size, Bookworm, or you might end up in a dress.”

Bookworm looked horrified, “They wouldn’t do that, would they?”

“Stop teasing him, Monty.” Flint intervened, hiding his own amusement. “They won’t put you in a dress, Bookworm. We’d never let them.”

Relieved, Bookworm beamed at Flint, “Thanks, Flint.”

A knock at the door distracted them all, “are you decent?”

“Come in, Gabriel.” Flint called as he pulled his own bathing robe into place.

“You will bathe and change into the clothes that have been set out for you. Supper will be served in the grand dining room once you are all presentable.” Gabriel rattled off his instructions as he led them to the end of the hall and into a large bathhouse. Flint had only heard of such places where men and women bathed in large pools of warm water. Duncan, Songar, Leo, and Starling were already easing into one pool. Starling waved to them before dipping his head under the water and emerging to spray water in their direction.

“Come on in, boys, the water’s great.” Starling quipped.

Gabriel frowned, “I suggest you bathe quickly but thoroughly.” He turned on his heel and sped off, away from the baths leaving Flint to discuss their circumstances with his friends.

“Ah, my young friends!” Duke Weaver greeted them jovially, “would you have arrived in this condition to our fine village. My father’s guards would certainly have looked more kindly on you all.”

Flint led his companions into Duke Weaver’s great hall. A massive dining table dominated the center of the room, Duke Weaver stood at the head just in front of the largest hearth Flint had ever seen in a home. The cobblestone façade covered the majority of the far wall, much of it adorned with stuffed animal heads looking down on them with dull eyes. The spread on the table was simple but more than they’d seen in weeks. They filed into the room and slipped into the high-backed seats, Flint and Duncan filling those closest to Duke Weaver.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Duke,” Flint bowed his head respectfully. “We are most grateful.”

“Why so formal?” Duke Weaver’s eyes surveyed the group, landing on each in turn, before settling on Flint. “There is no need for such formality between us. I owe your father more than you could ever know and if I am able to help his son then I will do so happily.” Duke Weaver’s mood turned serious, “What can you tell me of the strange army and your journey to Dominita?”

Flint launched into his story, the others adding bits and pieces when more explanation felt necessary, until Duke Weaver had been brought up to speed. Once Flint concluded their tale, the Duke sat back and stroked his beard for some time. When he finally spoke, it was not what Flint expected.

“I only have eight warriors left in my service but we will train each of you in your chosen craft. The young magician,” the Duke’s eyes flicked toward Renata, “will need to work with the Castle magician but the rest of you may train here with myself and my men. When you are ready, I will help you to avenge those we have lost and reclaim your homes if that is what you choose.” Duke Weaver lifted his goblet and took a long drag before continuing, “It will not be easy, but my men and I will do all that we can to prepare you.”

“That is most generous, Duke Weaver,” Starling dipped his head, his cheeks flushed from the wine.

“It is the least I can do for the son of Ashgrove.” Duke Weaver replied respectfully. “Rest tonight, enjoy the food and drink, sleep in soft beds and wake tomorrow ready to train.”

The mood turned lighter after that as the Duke entertained his guests with tales of his earlier days and some of his more colorful encounters. They laughed and ate until Renata noticed Bookworm snoring softly, his head propped on the table. Monty excused himself, lifted the boy from his chair and carried him back to the room. The rest of the party followed shortly thereafter until only Flint remained with the Duke.

“Perhaps we should call it a night as well?” Duke Weaver set his goblet lightly on the table and studied Flint. “You have your father’s looks. Now that I see you more closely, I can see so much of him in you.

“Thank you, sir.” Flint replied respectfully.

“Just call me Weaver,” the Duke said flatly, “I have never been fond of formality and I owe your father everything. I wish to avenge his death as much as you. Rest tonight, you will start to train with me tomorrow. I will teach you all that your father once taught me.”

Flint opened his mouth to speak but Weaver held up a hand to silence him, “no more for tonight. You are dead on your feet and I will not go easy on you tomorrow. We will have plenty of time to talk further.”

“Good evening, then.” Flint bowed his head and left Duke Weaver to his thoughts and his ale.

Chapter 8

“I can hardly lift my arms,” Bookworm moaned from the bed beside Flint. “Why can’t I take a day off to study in the library? Surely I would be of more use as a scholar.”

“You need to be able to defend yourself,” Flint reminded him. Already half dressed, Flint remembered what it felt like to train at that age and he enjoyed it far more than Bookworm did. “At least they’ve settled on a sling rather than a sword or pike.” Flint gestured for Valkan to leave his perch and settle on his shoulder instead. Duke Weaver had presented Flint with a new shoulder brace for Valkan, one with Ashgrove’s emblem on it. Flint didn’t know how much the brace had cost but he and Valkan both appreciated the gesture more than words could express.

“Or you could be learning to wield two swords at once like Starling,” Monty added as he tugged a fresh tunic over his head. “Imagine how his arms and shoulders must ache.”

Bookworm sighed and pushed off the bed grumbling to himself. He dressed quickly in a simple tunic and trousers to follow Monty and Flint down for breakfast. They’d fallen into a comfortable routine in the two weeks since arriving at Duke Weaver’s home. True to his word, the Duke cared for them and trained them. He’d worked directly with Flint and, as promised, not only instructed him but also told stories about his father and the time Weaver spent as his squire. Flint ignored the aches, pains, bruises and scrapes because listening to Weaver talk of his father helped him mourn. It was not unusual for one of their companions to arrive at breakfast looking a little worse for the wear, but they all were making great strides according to the Duke and his men.

“I fired five arrows in ten seconds yesterday and each one hit the center of the target,” Diana said proudly to Duncan as Flint entered the room. She’d been working with the Duke’s best bowman since they discovered her affinity for archery. Equipped with a true bow, Diana had quickly developed her hobby into a true skill.

“Well done, Diana,” Duncan approved.

“That’s nothing, I shape shifted into a dog yesterday,” Renata said over her mug of tea, eyes trained on Diana as if looking for a reaction.

“You must have forgotten to shift back,” Diana shot back across the table.

Renata glared at Diana, opened her mouth to speak and then shut it again when she saw Flint enter the room. She smiled at Flint and gestured for him to sit beside her but Bookworm ran around the table, slid into the seat, and began grilling Renata about her experience “Did you really shapeshift yesterday? What did it feel like? Did it hurt at all? How did you change back? Was it hard?”

Flint followed Monty to Diana’s side of the table and they dropped into the two empty seats. Monty leaned across his friend for the eggs and asked, “Did I hear you say you shot five arrows in ten seconds yesterday?”

Diana flushed, “yeah, I did. We are going to work on it some more today.”

“That’s impressive.” Monty said. “I’m working on the spear today. Crenshaw says I’ve mastered the staff and he wants me to have more options depending on which weapons are readily available.”

“I always thought you did well enough with your club,” Diana commented and took a bite of toasted bread.

“Me too,” Flint agreed.

“The club is only any good in close quarters. Same with the staff. That’s why I’m working with the spear.” Monty explained through a mouthful of eggs and toasted bread.

“Good morning!” Weaver’s voice boomed through the dining hall. “How’s everybody feeling today?”

The Duke’s jovial entrance was met with a chorus of affirmations. Their host settled at his usual place at the head of the table and leaned forward. He cleared his throat once to silence the chatter at the table. “Today we will not be training. We are going to meet the King.”

“All of us?” Songar asked from the far end of the table. He’d been like a ghost lately, floating around their training sessions and disappearing into the streets of Dominita for long periods of time.

“Yes.” Weaver said firmly. “My father has asked to meet you. I can only assume he means to assess you and your skills.”

“Why?” Diana blurted the question on Flint’s mind.

“Because he is the King.” Weaver explained, “and I am his son. I’ve told him that I intend to leave with you.”

“He’s not going to imprison us again, is he?” Starling piped in, “I mean, he’s done it once and I am ever so attached to my new clothes and being clean.”

Weaver smirked, “no, Starling, he’s not going to imprison you again.”

“Then when do we meet him?” Starling clasped his hands together.

“We are to meet him in the training yard at midday.” Weaver replied. “Definitely bring your weapons, whatever you are most comfortable with.”

“Does he expect us to fight?” Renata asked quietly.

“I do not know for sure but I would not put it past him.” Weaver shook his head solemnly, “when it comes to my father it is best to be prepared for anything.”

“Great.” Monty mumbled into his plate. Flint elbowed him and gave his friend a warning look.

“You will do fine, no matter what my father throws at you.” Duke Weaver assured them.

Renata pushed away from the table and stood, “Excuse me, I think I’d like to prepare a little before we leave.”

Duke Weaver gestured for her to leave and returned to his breakfast. Flint watched Renata leave, he preferred her hair loose but she’d taken to wearing it in elaborate braids like the ladies in the Castle. She walked differently too, with an air of authority or confidence, he couldn’t decide which.

“Excuse me, I’d like to prepare,” Diana mocked quietly beside him, “what’s gotten in to her to make her so uppity? She acts as though she’s high class and not peasant born.”

“Why are you so harsh with Renata these days?” Flint whispered to his friend.

“I’m not,” Diana replied defensively, “she’s really become a snot.”

Flint fell quiet, not wishing to anger his friend but not understanding the waves of fury rolling off of her. Diana declined the gowns offered to her and opted for tunics and trousers claiming the gowns interfered with her fighting skills. Flint respected Diana’s commitment to her training and though she dressed more like a man, there was nothing masculine about her.

“Flint?” Monty elbowed him and jarred Flint from his reverie. “Are you done?”

“Oh, y-yeah. I’m good.” Flint pushed his plate toward his friend. “You can have the rest.”

***

“What do you think he’ll make us do?” Bookworm asked Flint nervously. Though his color had generally returned and he’d gained back some of the weight lost on their journey, Bookworm paled at the thought of fighting.

“Whatever it is, stay by me.” Flint slowed his pace to walk beside the younger boy. Valkan fluttered excitedly on his shoulder. “It will be alright, Bookworm, it will.”

“We’ll look out for you,” Monty assured the kid as he fell into line beside them.

“Nothing is going to happen to any of us,” Diana chimed in, “we can best any test the King gives us because it could not be worse than fighting those wretched beasts in the ravine.”

“Or the bandits,” Lasha added as she jogged up to join them.

“Or the near starvation,” Leo popped up behind his twin, “or dehydration, or the black armored warriors. But who’s counting.”

Flint tried to forget the difficult times they’d had but nightmares still plagued him. Dreams of his father, his burning home, even the bandit he killed to save the girls. Flint wondered how warriors learned to accept such tragedies. He asked Weaver once but the man did not answer, he just shook his head and pushed Flint to train that much harder.

The peculiar company filed into the training yard, Duke Weaver in the lead with two of his men followed closely by Duncan and Starling, then Renata in her strange, silvery cloak. Flint, gestured for Monty and Diana to go next, then Lasha and Leo, their matching maces rested on opposite shoulders. Flint and Bookworm walked in next with Songar on their heels.

“Stay near me, boy.” Songar whispered quietly in Bookworm’s ear, “leave Flint and Monty to do their jobs and I will protect you if need be.”

Bookworm nodded and fell back to walk with Songar leaving Flint to cross into the training yard on his own. At the far end of the yard sat a platform covered by a brilliant red canopy and surrounded by guards. Standing in the middle of the platform, Flint knew the man to be the King and Duke Weaver’s father on first sight. Though not so tall as Weaver, the King bore a similar frame and countenance.

The company fell in behind Weaver and followed his lead as he knelt before the King.

“Rise, son.” The King called from his platform.

“Greetings, my King.” Weaver announced loudly, “May I present my new friends as requested.” He proceeded to formally introduce each member of their company until only Flint remained, “and lastly, this is Flint, son of Ashgrove whom you knew well.”

The king’s eyes flared slightly and he inclined his head just a touch. “Am I to understand that you wish to follow these people,” the King spat the last word at his on, “on a quest for vengeance? What hope can such a group have against an army that could tear down a warrior such as Ashgrove?”

“I assure you, father, this company is quite skilled.” Duke Weaver put a fist to his chest and bowed, “something must be done to not only avenge Ashgrove but to protect our lands from this threat.”

The King pretended to contemplate his son’s plea, “Very well, you may have my blessing,” he paused to draw out the tension, “if your would-be companions can pass a small test.”

“What would you have them do?” Weaver cast a knowing smile at Flint.

“They must best ten of my guards without your aid.” The King said smugly.

“And if they do?” Duke Weaver asked.

“If they do, then I will give my blessing gladly.” The King promised.

“We will do it.” Flint spoke clearly. “We will do whatever we must to prove our worth.”

The King cocked his head to the side. Flint thought he caught a flicker of respect but then it was gone. Duke Weaver stepped in front of them, gave last minute instructions that Flint barely heard, and disappeared to stand by his father as the soldiers advanced on them. Surrounded, the group encircled their more vulnerable members – Bookworm and Renata. Duncan lashed out first, quick and skilled, to deliver a blow to the closest guard’s head causing him to crumple to the ground. This only enraged the guards to either side of their fallen comrade so both engaged Duncan with a fury.

“Flint, to your right!” Diana called from behind him, giving enough notice for Flint to parry an offensive from yet another of the guards. A small stone, courtesy of Bookworm, hit the guard in the face, enough of a distraction for Flint to drive the pommel of his sword into the man’s helmet. Flint finished the man off with a swift kick to the gut.

Another man advanced, trying to draw Flint away from his protective circle. Flint whistled, one short, sharp sound, and Valkan dove at the man, feathers and talons striking at his face to distract him. Taking advantage, Flint knocked the man to his knees with his shield.

“Is that all you’ve got?” Starling’s taunts echoed through the training yard as he spun and laughed at the remaining guards. Flint watched his friend move so quickly to strike at the guard’s legs that they couldn’t hope to catch him. But something more was happening, the guards seemed confused as if they couldn’t focus on any of Flint’s companions. His eyes flicked back to Renata, flanked by Songar and Leo, the girl’s eyes were a milky white with no pupils showing and her lips moved to form words Flint could not decipher.

The battle ended in minutes. Duncan stood, breathing heavily, over five unconscious guards, Starling defeated the two who attacked him, and Monty had incapacitated one with his staff. Flint looked down to the two guards at his own feet. They’d done it.

“Well done!” The King’s loud applause carried through the courtyard. “Well done, indeed.”

“Then you will keep your word, Father?” Duke Weaver asked expectantly.

The King pulled his son into a tight embrace. Flint looked away when he noticed the embarrassment on Weaver’s face. “Not only do I give my blessing, I will provide you with horses and supplies for your journey.”

“Thank you, Father.” Weaver pulled away, his face still flushed.

“Be safe, my son.” The King inclined his head respectfully. “And put an end to this threat.”

“I will, Father.” Weaver promised and bowed low.

Chapter 9

“The journey home has been easier than the journey to Dominita.” Monty observed as they entered the outskirts of their Provence. “I thought for sure we would run into some sort of trouble.”

“We look more imposing than we did on the first journey,” Flint pointed out. Though he also found it odd that they’d encountered no enemies on the long road back from Dominita. In fact, they’d not seen any people and few beasts once they crossed out of Dominita’s borders. With more than a dozen horses and a large wagon, Flint’s company now resembled a small army unit. He and Monty rode large horses with packs and Valkan flew overhead, shimmering in the sun.

“No, Monty is right.” Diana pulled up beside Flint, her stallion just a bit smaller than his. “Something is wrong, Flint. There should have been people, at least traders.”

Flint had already considered this. He’d discussed it with Duncan and Weaver less than a week ago. The road they traveled after leaving Dominita had long been a major trade route for the Provence of Camden. He’d seen it on maps that the Duke had shown him prior to leaving. Bookworm confirmed that these maps were far more accurate than the books he’d used to help navigate their journey to Dominita. The boy still clung to those books, safely stowed in a chest in the back of the wagon along with several more volumes, all gifts from the Duke who’d taken a shine to Bookworm. Did he dare share his true suspicions with Monty and Diana? It felt strange to have secrets from his best friend but Duncan and Weaver had sworn him to secrecy, had told him that the fewer who knew of their fears the better. Still, it did not sit well with Flint.

“We are close to home.” Flint changed the subject.

“I wonder what it’s like now?” Diana asked the question all three had clearly been contemplating.

“We’ll find out soon enough, I guess.” Monty said. “I don’t suppose we’ll make it tonight though.”

“Not likely,” Flint agreed. Valkan swooped in and landed on his shoulder with an irritated shriek. He nudged at Flint’s head with his beak and chirped several more times. “Something is wrong.”

No sooner than Flint said the words, a figure dashed across the road ahead of them. “Kill him!” Flint shouted at Diana who already had an arrow notched in her bow. Time froze, she exhaled and released the arrow. Flint held his breath until it found its mark in the middle of the scout’s back. Duncan reached the man first, dismounted in one smooth motion and flipped the figure over. “He’s one of them.” Duncan declared, pointing at the black garb, “though not armored as heavily as the rest.”

“A scout wouldn’t be heavily armored.” Weaver pointed out. “We must be close to their camp. Perhaps it is best we leave the main road, find a place to make camp, and then do some scouting of our own.” Weaver looked to Flint, Diana, and Monty. “Does any of this look familiar? Any idea where we could make camp safely?”

“There are caverns to the east of our village, far enough out of town to avoid being spotted but close enough that we could arrange a quick attack if necessary.” Flint knew of no other options but looked to Diana and Monty for ideas.

“I know the caverns,” Diana agreed. “They would be perfect and even allow us to build a fire without detection.”

“Then that’s where we go.” Weaver confirmed.

“I don’t think we will be able to take the wagon with us.” Diana added softly.

“Hide it well. Pack what we can on horseback and we’ll come back for it when we know better what we are dealing with.” Weaver ordered. Nobody argued. They quickly rearranged, repacked, and redistributed as much as possible without over-burdening their horses. Flint and Diana were tasked with leading the way toward the caverns and their crew fell silent, watchful as they maneuvered through the forest until they reached the maze of caverns.

“This is it.” Flint dropped off his horse and whistled for Valkan. “Our village can be seen from a crest on the other side but it’s only safe for two or three of us to go without being seen.”

“Very well. Flint and Duncan, come with me.” Weaver ordered, “The rest of you make camp deep in the caverns. Diana can you take Starling to fortify any other entrances to the caverns, we don’t want our friends in black to catch us unawares.” Diana nodded and crept off with Starling on her heels. Weaver nodded to Flint to lead them toward the crest.

Flint fell sick in the stomach as they crept carefully towards the hill. Painful flashbacks of the horrible memories of the massacre and destruction of his village and family tormented his mind and kept him silent. Weaver and Duncan respected his silence until they scrambled up the small hill that narrowed into a ledge over Flint’s home.

“I thought you burned it?” Weaver asked. “We did.” Flint insisted. Looking over his village, it did not seem possible that it was the same place he’d left not three months before. Farmers worked the land and buildings dotted the village with ribbons of smoke marking the fireplaces within. Flint blinked. How had this happened? Had they dreamed it all? Valkan pecked at his head lightly, as if annoyed at what Flint wasn’t seeing. Then he caught it. Flint’s eyes narrowed, focused on the workers in the field and soldiers in small towers watching them. His eyes flicked toward the black armored men milling around the edges of the great field and realized the truth.

“They’re slaves.” Duncan took the words from Flint’s lips, a rough hiss of fury. The warrior clenched his fists and pounded on the ground.

“Calm down, Duncan.” Weaver put a hand on Duncan’s shoulder, “we cannot help them if we are not free ourselves.”

“Wait! Look!” Flint whispered as two of the gaunt, filthy slaves took off running away from the black armored men. They ran in coordinated tandem, moving like kids in a three-legged race. The two men were nearly to the edge of the woods when the arrows struck them, black fletching protruded from between their shoulder blades as they fell forward, heads in the brush and feet, chained together at the edge of the field. Flint leapt to his feet and began to draw his sword but Weaver pulled him back to the ground. He held a finger to his lips and gave Flint a warning look.

“We have to know what we are dealing with first. Let’s watch.” Weaver urged, “It is too late for those two anyway, let us try to save the others.”

“What are you doing?” A voice bellowed from the edge of the field below them where a tall man in a bizarre silver mask strode toward the archers who still held their bows. “Fools! Your recklessness has cost us enough slaves already. Our slaves are not sport, they are here to work for us and you foolishly waste them. Your stupidity brings shame on your unit and your families. What say you?”

Silently, the two archers dropped their bows, drew their swords and wedged them in the ground, blades to the sky. With no more than a grunt, both men fell on their swords, the tips exited their backs covered in dark blood. Flint gasped and back-pedaled from the edge of the crest. Weaver and Duncan exchanged a meaningful look and scrambled back down the hill toward Flint.

“Let’s go back to the others.” Duncan said grimly. “We have much to discuss.”

“Aye.” Weaver nodded and gently took Flint by the elbow. “Come along, Flint. We have a lot to do.”

Flint struggled with what he’d seen, replaying the horrific scene in his head. Why would those men throw themselves on their swords? Who was behind the silver mask and how could he incite such reaction in his followers? Flint wondered what the mask hid and why he valued slaves yet treated them so poorly. An idea formed in his head, he knew the village and the surrounding area better than almost anybody. He could sneak in, gather more information, and make it back to the caverns before anybody knew he was gone. All Flint had to do was shake Duncan and Weaver. That would not be so easy.

The trio rejoined the others in the depths of the caverns where a pot already bubbled over a modest fire. Weaver relayed that the village had been rebuilt and then described what they’d witnessed in the fields. Their companions listened intently, properly horrified as Weaver’s story came to a close.

“They just killed themselves?” Bookworm asked, his eyes wide as saucers as he struggled to accept that somebody would do such a thing.

“I’ve heard of such rituals,” Songar looked grim. “Warriors who fail their leader claim their own lives willingly. This will not be an easy fight if we wish to defeat warriors who have no fear of death.”

“Why would they do this?” Diana’s fists clenched at her sides, eyes blazed, “why would they destroy our village just to rebuild it?”

“I know not.” Weaver admitted sadly, “it does seem an utter waste, especially since the man in the silver mask valued the slaves.”

“The buildings look different,” Duncan finally spoke up. “I would have to get a closer look but they do not resemble our structures in size, shape, or coloring. I do not know if that is important or not, but I have never seen buildings such as those.”

“Indeed, we do not know where these people hail from, what their purpose is, or why they are doing any of this.” Weaver pointed out what they’d all been thinking.

Flint didn’t wait around to hear anymore, he took advantage of the distractions and snuck out of the cavern and crept back to the village. Valkan flew overhead but kept a fair distance. Flint vowed to collect more information on the silver masked man and his warriors. He quickly moved through the forest, silently slipped into the village and past the new buildings that had been erected on top of the former village. Duncan’s assessment was confirmed; the buildings were far different. They were rough on the outside, like an unfinished shell and the corners were rounded rather than proper angles. Flint peered around the corner of the strange building. He could see a pair of black armored soldiers leading a group of a dozen slaves. One raised a whip and delivered a blow to a frail woman who’d slowed her pace. She fell to the ground with a whimper. When those around her tried to help the woman to her feet, the warrior struck them as well.

“Get up!” He growled at the woman. “Nobody helps, nobody falls behind. Those are the rules.”

Blood colored the back of the woman’s simple, ill-fitting gown, more of a long tunic than a dress. She struggled to her feet and fell back in line. Fury flared in Flint’s chest as the warrior raised his hand to whip her again. He slipped around the side of the building and surprised the second guard who watched the abuse hungrily. The gawker had no chance against Flint who stepped up and ran him through with his sword. Flint pulled his weapon clean and made it halfway to the whipping man before anybody knew what was happening. The fight ended before it started as Flint ducked the man’s attempt to thrash him with the whip. He whistled once and pointed at the man in black. Valkan rocketed through the air and straight at the man’s eyes. Distracted by the falcon, Flint had time to attack and spilled the man’s insides on the dirt path. He grappled with the man’s body, found a set of keys, hoped they would unlock the chains, and threw them at the nearest slave. “Run, as far as you can and then unlock yourselves and flee.” They looked at him dumbly for a moment so he screamed, “run!” That spurred them to movement and they took off, awkwardly running in the direction they’d just come from.

Flint’s scream drew other warriors from a nearby structure. Again, he sent Valkan to attack one while he deftly dispatched the other. The thud of more footsteps hastened toward them but Flint kept fighting, took down the second man and whirled to face the next onslaught as an arrow passed dangerously close to Valkan. Flint sought the archer and realized they’d target his falcon if given the chance. “Valkan, get out of here!” Flint shouted and his falcon disappeared in a blur of gold. Flint took off after the slaves, sprinted away from the four fallen bodies and ducked out of the archer’s way. He rounded the corner of another building and skidded to a halt as his brain registered a ring of archers, arrows notched and ready to fire at him. Flint’s eyes flicked side to side in search of a way out but there was none.

Rough hands grabbed Flint from behind and forced a cloth over his head. They relieved him of his weapons and gear, all but his trousers and tunic. He tried to count the steps and turns as they dragged him but lost track as he stumbled along. Flint’s captors shoved him to the ground and yanked the cover from his head.

“What have we here?” The man in the silver mask towered over him. The mask seemed to glower at Flint, fierce and horrifying as it regarded him. Flint did not answer, the man’s gloved hand snaked out to grab his chin but still he did not answer. The man shook his head, “nothing to say? Very well, make our guest at home and I will be along shortly.”

The black armored warriors pushed Flint into a massive building. Inside there were cells, at least a dozen of them surrounding a series of contraptions that could only be meant for torture? Flint sized up his opportunities for escape but found none, nothing he could be certain of at least. The warriors did not give him an opportunity anyway. In a few quick movements, Flint found himself hanging in the middle of the room, feet and hands shackled. Beside him, hunched over a small fire, a giant played with iron bars. He looked over to Flint, a wry smile on his grotesque, wrinkled face. The giant drew himself to full height so that Flint had to look up to him, his bulbous nose marred with a thick scar that led to an empty, drooping eye socket.

“I’m pretty, ain’t I,” the giant rasped at Flint’s obvious disgust. “Don’t worry, I can make ya jus’ as pretty.”

“Now, now, Grond,” the man in the silver mask strode into the room. “We need some information from our new friend before you have too much fun.”

“I know, Lord Ardus.” The giant grumbled and knelt back beside the fire, “was jus’ havin’ a bit of fun with it.”

“Where do you come from, boy?” Asked the man in the silver mask, apparently Lord Ardus, his real face completely covered by the shining metallic version of a face. The mask gave no expression, its eye sockets so deep that you could not see humanity beneath matching the voice that was both cold and powerful.

Flint did not respond.

“Do you have friends? Perhaps some who wish to play hero like you?” The man’s voice sent chills down Flint’s spine, like pouring icy water over his head. “You are not a hero, you know. We’ve recovered the slaves you attempted to release and they will be punished severely for attempting to escape. A true hero would never be captured by their enemy alive they would die fighting, wouldn’t they, boy?”

Flint simply glared at Lord Ardus, his eyes narrowed to slits and lips tightly pressed together.

“Go ahead, Grond. Have a little fun, but just on the chest for now, where the skin is tender.” Lord Ardus gestured toward the giant.

Grond licked his lips and with one hand, ripped Flint’s tunic from his body. He pressed a hot iron bar, just the tip, onto Flint’s bare chest. A hiss preceded the smell of burning flesh as Flint writhed in pain but did not speak or cry out. Grond grinned, his hideous face contorted into a grotesque expression of pleasure and excitement.

“Come boy, you don’t want this, do you?” Lord Ardus adopted a tender tone though Flint heard the cold edge of steel beneath his words.

When Flint did not respond, Lord Ardus gestured toward Grond who applied the iron bar again, just inches away from the first burn. Flint did not even whimper, just ground his teeth together defiantly as Grond burned him again and again. He was close to losing consciousness before the Giant spoke to his master, “the smell of sizzlin’ meat is makin’ me hungry, m’lord.”

“Very well, Grond. I think we will allow the boy to stew over his situation.” Lord Ardus nodded, “yes, boy, consider the pain you feel now and imagine how many ways we have to hurt you. Perhaps it will take losing an eye or a hand, but you will talk. They all talk eventually.” He spun on his heel and stalked purposefully out of the building.

“Please don’ talk too soon, boy.” Grond rubbed his hands together, “I like these games.” The giant ambled off after his master and ducked out of the room.

Alone in the cell, Flint passed out from the pain. When he came to, the fire had nearly burned out and everything around him was still. Then, something moved in the shadows, a large figure that could only be the giant. Flint wondered what new horrors Grond would inflict on him. He watched the shape of the giant approach a rack of weapons, withdraw a broadsword, and amble over to Flint. Grond swung the sword high. Flint steeled himself for what would surely be the killing blow but it never came. Instead, metal struck metal and Flint fell to the ground. The giant freed his legs and grumbled “follow me.”

Flint didn’t have to be told twice, he grabbed a sword from the rack and followed his savior from the room into a passage filled with more cells, most of them full with whimpering prisoners. The giant stopped before a door at the far end of the passage and pushed it open. He stepped through, Flint on his heels, and they came face to face with an identical giant. Flint blinked at the twin versions of Grond, his torturer and realized that the one who saved him must be Renata! The two Gronds attacked each other and fell to the ground in a heap of limbs rolling around until one rolled atop the other. The Grond with the upperhand wrapped its meaty hands about the other’s throat, eyes gleaming in the moonlight. Flint took a chance and struck the top Grond with the flat of his sword until he fell aside, unconscious.

“How did you know?” The other giant melted into Renata, rubbing at her throat.

“That it was you?” Flint shrugged, “I realized you must have shape-shifted to save me.”

“But how did you know which one was me?” She asked.

“I didn’t. That’s why I didn’t go for the kill.” Flint explained. “Can we talk about this later and just get out of here?”

“Of course!” Renata led Flint away from the camp, a different way than he would have taken but given that she made it safely into camp on her own and saved him, he decided not to argue.

They ran, quickly and silently through the woods until they reached the caverns where their friends were waiting anxiously. Flint expected them to yell, to chastise him for being foolhardy but they did not. Diana flung herself into his arms, threw her hands around his neck and they all piled in around him. Flint flinched as they hit the fresh burns on his chest but did not complain. They led him into the depths of the caverns where Songar inspected his wounds and applied a salve to lessen the pain while they healed. Flint told his friends of what he learned, about Lord Ardus and the cells full of prisoners being tortured by the giant, Grond.

“We need to watch these people and learn as much as we can about them until we find their weakness.” Weaver stroked his beard.

“I agree.” Duncan concurred from his post against the cavern wall, arms folded over his broad chest. “We should take shifts, two at a time, and watch from a distance.” His eyes landed on Flint, “no more running off on your own.”

Flint nodded, accepting the plan this time around. His burns began to itch beneath the salve, a fortunate gift from Weaver’s father before they’d left. It was meant for sunburns and lighter injuries but it seemed to help his brands. He leaned against a boulder and stared at the fire, remembering the smell of his own flesh beneath the iron bar. Flint did not think he would ever forget or forgive that lesson.

Chapter 10

“So every third day a new wagon leaves the village but we do not know where,” Weaver reviewed the notes the small group had taken over the weeks of observing their foes as they feasted on a large doe that Diana had brought down. “And, every five days a new group of ten black armored warriors arrives in the village.”

“We need to figure out where the supplies go.” Starling pointed out. “That means we will have to risk a closer look.”

“Aye,” Duncan agreed, “it is time to follow them to their source.”

“Diana, Flint, and Starling have the lightest feet,” Weaver added. “They should follow the wagons.”

“Leo and Lasha could travel through the trees overhead.” Songar suggested, “They are quite skilled at traveling silently through the air and it may help to have eyes from different angles.”

The twin acrobats exchanged a look and shrugged, “we can do that.”

Weaver nodded, “it is a good plan. You will have to move quickly and quietly to avoid detection. Valkan should stay here, Flint.” The falcon chirped at Weaver but remained on Flint’s shoulder.

“He’s right, Valkan,” Flint hated to leave his best friends behind, “you should stay with Monty and keep a look out, just in case.”

“The wagon should leave tomorrow if we have calculated correctly.” Duncan pointed out. “The rest of us will hunt and gather and stock up on provisions while you five watch over the warriors.” He looked to Flint, “remember, watch and gather information but do not engage them.”

“I understand,” Flint itched at his healing burns, “believe me, I understand.”

“Then rest up tonight and leave before first light. Follow the wagons, watch, and report back. We will determine what to do next as a group.” Weaver ordered.

Flint did not sleep well at all that night, excitement and anticipation bubbling just beneath the surface. He sat up and stoked the embers of the fire, tossed another log on and blew lightly until it caught fire.

“Can’t sleep?” Renata asked, her eyes reflected the flames.

Flint shook his head but remained silent as he studied the fire licking around the grooves in the wood.

“It will be alright.” Renata assured him. “We will sort this out. I believe in you.”

Flint looked away, grateful that she could not see his cheeks burning. “I know. It is just hard to wait. I want to free those people.”

“And you will.” Renata replied firmly. She oozed confidence, a new development since saving Flint in the village.

“We should get a head start.” Diana popped up from the shadows with her bow slung over her shoulder, “it’s early but we really need to be in position before the wagons are loaded.”

Renata glared at Diana, “you really don’t have to leave this early, do you?” Beneath the sweetness, Flint could sense an edge that seemed present whenever Diana happened to be around.

“Starling is ready. He sent me to get Flint. Leo and Lasha already left,” Diana explained evenly, “so, yes, we really need to leave.”

Flint stood and collected his things, “Alright, I’m ready.”

Renata looked up to him, “Be safe, Flint. Come back to me, I mean, us.” She grinned at him, her eyes filled with an emotion Flint didn’t quite understand but he nodded before following Diana off toward the mouth of the cavern.

“Do you have everything you need?” Diana didn’t look at Flint, she seemed angry with him for some reason.

“Yeah,” Flint nodded.

“Good, because we aren’t coming back here until we have all of the information we need, not even so you can see your girlfriend.” Diana spat the last word like it was dirty somehow. She took off for the forest leaving Flint gaping after her.

“I do not envy you, my friend.” Starling’s eyes danced with mirth.

“I don’t understand, Starling, not one bit.” Flint shook his head in amazement.

“When you are old enough to understand the game you will no longer care to play it.” Starling replied cryptically and gestured floridly toward the woods, “after you, my dear boy.”

Flint shrugged and hastened after Diana. He and Starling caught up to Diana just before the village. Flint eyed the trees for the twins and caught the barest hint of them high in the branches only because he knew their rendezvous point. They were well hidden in the dense foliage and he guessed they had a much better view of the village. Flint caught bits and pieces of the activity through breaks in the underbrush but mostly relied on the barking commands of the black armored warriors to indicate when the wagon was set to move out. They waited patiently until the horses spurred to life under the whip of a soldier. Flint clenched his fist, he’d like to whip those men in the same fashion and see how they liked it.

The trio on the ground communicated with a series of gestures, silent as they crept along after the wagon. Starling stayed close to Flint as if tasked to keep him in line. They snuck along, quietly picking their paths through the overgrown parts of the forest. The wagon rambled along for some time before it veered off the main road to a narrow dirt path that barely accommodated it. Diana and Flint exchanged a glance, both familiar with the side road that led to Tor Hill. Villagers had long told of strange occurrences on the hill, some of the older folks said there had been a terrible battle there once between the ancient ones and ghosts still roamed there and ever since people avoided it like the plague. There was no time to fill Starling in so they crept further, weaving through the wild as quietly as they could. The brush became dense in the space around the hill but it came to an abrupt stop at the foot of the hill.

“What is that?” Diana mouthed to Flint and gestured toward the wagon’s destination.

Flint shrugged and settled in to watch as the wagon rambled up a rather new dirt path to a brand new structure, simpler than what they’d seen in the village but just as unusual. The driver pulled up shy of the gate and waited for two of the similarly clad warriors to lift the bar and allow the wagon entry. The trio caught a glimpse of a building inside and hoped that Leo and Lasha were able to see more of the structure beyond the gate. It seemed so simple compared to the buildings in the village, almost unfinished.

Starling tapped Flint on the shoulder and gestured up. Leo and Lasha were lounging in the tree above him, watching the happenings on the hill. Lasha reached into her satchel, withdrew a scrap of parchment and a stick of graphite, and wrote a quick note that she crumbled and dropped down to Flint. She offered a half-smile and returned to watching their targets.

Flint opened the crumpled parchment, read it, and handed it to Starling. He tapped Diana on the shoulder and gestured for her to follow. The trio backtracked through the woods until they made it back to the safety of the caverns. Duncan and Monty were practicing fighting with staffs under the watchful eye of Valkan.

“We need to pack up and move,” Flint marched past his friends into the cavern in search of Weaver. The Duke and Bookworm were hunched over a makeshift checkerboard that they’d fashioned to pass the time. Bookworm learned quickly and seemed to be giving Weaver a run for his money.

“Nice move.” Weaver nodded approvingly then saw Flint and pushed off the ground, “I concede this game.”

“Thank you.” Bookworm flushed.

“What did you find?” Weaver ruffled Bookworm’s hair as he addressed Flint, Diana, and Starling.

“There is a small stockade not far from the village,” Flint explained, “Leo and Lasha stayed behind to watch but Lasha suggested we move closer. She drew a rough map to a nearby ridge where we can observe them not far from the stockade.”

Starling withdrew the parchment from his belt and handed it to Weaver. “The acrobats proved quite useful, the woman more so than her brother but,” Starling flexed his long fingers into a tent, “it seems they are a package deal.”

“Can we reach the space by dark?” Weaver asked after regarding the parchment, “or should we wait for morning?”

“We should be able to make it before nightfall if we leave now and move quickly,” Flint confirmed.

“Then let’s move out.” Weaver ordered.

[]Chapter 11

“These people are most peculiar.” Starling noted from his perch in the makeshift hammock, strung between two trees at the edge of their small camp.

“Aye, this is so.” Songar agreed, “Why build anything that has no apparent use?”

Four days of watching and waiting had done little for their morale. Frustration rippled through the companions as they struggled for some understanding of their foe. All they’d discovered since finding the stockade was that nobody entered the hut in the middle. Black armored troops inhabited simple, animal-skin tents surrounding the hut but never entered it. They didn’t even seem concerned with it at all.

“There must be something inside of it.” Weaver insisted again. “They would not set fifteen soldiers around nothing.”

“No, indeed they would not, but we’ve got nothing to go on.” Duncan concurred.

Lasha dropped into the center of camp. “It’s definitely something.”

“Stop doing that.” Songar snapped at the girl, “you give my heart a fright every time.”

“Sorry.” Lasha said lightly, not really sorry at all. “Somebody important walked out of the hut today.”

“Somebody?” Flint asked expectantly. He hated having to question Lasha to get the information they needed. Why couldn’t she just spill it all at once?

“Yes, we could not tell much beneath the heavy, hooded cloak but the soldiers seemed to think highly of the person.” Lasha snatched a piece of meat from Renata’s plate, ignoring the other girl’s glare.

“What do you mean?” Flint pressed.

“Everybody bowed to the hood.” Lasha replied, “He walked out, got some food, and walked back in but everybody sort of stopped what they were doing and bowed to the hood.”

“Interesting.” Duke Weaver leaned back against a tree trunk. “A magician perhaps? Maybe we should send Renata?”

“I do not think that wise.” Renata chimed in, “if the hooded person is magical he, or she, will feel me nearby and give us away.”

“Fair point.” Weaver admitted. “Lasha, just watch. Take some food for you and your brother and report back.”

“I think Flint and I should go too.” Diana said quickly. “I can climb trees and so can he. We can pick different angles.”

“Of course you can climb trees, you’re more ape than girl.” Renata muttered just loud enough that they could hear but they ignored her.

“It may not be a bad idea,” Flint admitted.

“Fine, then go.” Weaver gestured and returned to his thoughts.

Flint ordered Valkan to stay with Monty again. He followed Diana into the forest as Lasha took to the trees once more. Diana and Flint picked their way through the trees to the edge near the stockade and scrambled up a tree not far from Lasha and Leo. They could see the enemy camp quite clearly from their perch and Flint marveled at how simple it really looked. His thoughts drifted as boredom set in. He recalled his father, his family, his home, and all of the events that led him to this very spot. As the first light of day peeked at the horizon, Flint marveled at the color it reflected across the land.

“Flint!” Diana hissed and brought him back to his mission, “what is happening?” She pointed toward the hut in the middle of the tents. It seemed to be glowing. At first, Flint thought it was just an illusion from the rays of the rising sun but when the light in the hut turned a bluish-purple he knew better. They watched in awe as the glow mutated into a fierce red light that practically burned their eyes. Flint could not look away, neither could the warriors who emerged from their tents to encircle the hut.

A hooded figure, the one Lasha told them of, emerged from the hut and slammed the doors shut behind him, as if trapping the red glow inside. Flint’s eyes flared as the hooded form began dancing around the simple structure. The chanting began moments later, a guttural sound that emanated from the hooded figure and projected much louder than Flint would have thought possible. Diana scooted closer to him in the tree and took his hand in hers, unable to look away from the scene before them.

The doors of the hut burst open, light poured onto the grass in front of it. Figures rushed forth from the red light and spilled onto the ground. Flint counted ten in all, men only, gasping for breath and clawing at the ground. He realized that the other soldiers were not just watching, they were waiting and now rushed forth to aid the new arrivals. Each new soldier quickly received a black mask and matching armor. Once dressed in the black gear, the warriors seemed fully recovered and adapted to their new surroundings. The hooded figure retreated to the hut and shut the doors behind him, the red glow gone. A few orders were barked and the gate opened to release the ten black warriors toward Flint’s former village.

Flint and Diana looked at each other, shocked and confused by what they’d just witnessed. Neither spoke as they slid down the tree trunk and dropped noiselessly to the ground. Leo and Lasha followed suit and the group picked their way silently back toward camp.

“What was that?” Leo asked when they were a safe distance away.

“Magic?” Lasha suggested.

“Yes, of some sort.” Diana agreed, “but it was more than that.

“Those men came out of that hut and they couldn’t breathe right.” Flint added. “Maybe Renata or Bookworm will have some ideas.”

“I’d rather ask Bookworm, surely his books have something about this.” Diana suggested hopefully.

“But Renata knows magic, maybe the Castle Magician gave her some ideas.” Lasha argued, “We need to talk to the whole group. Songar knows things too.”

“I agree. This is turning into something much larger than we thought.” Flint concluded. “The only thing that’s clear is that Lord Ardus is building an army.”

They walked silently back to camp and relayed their tale to the group, not sparing any details that might shed light on their foes. The group fell silent for some time, contemplating the developments, before Renata spoke up. “It must be magic, some sort of portal from another time or place. I would need to get closer to get a better idea and even then, it may be beyond me.”

“You think?” Diana quipped, “This is beyond all of us individually. These are well-trained warriors and magicians. Don’t be foolish enough to think you are on their level.”

“I saved Flint, didn’t I? And where were you with your silly wood sticks?” Renata bit back.

“Enough!” Weaver bellowed, “We don’t have time to fight amongst ourselves. We must destroy that stockade and everything in it which means we all need to work together.”

Diana and Renata looked sheepishly at Duke Weaver. They avoided looking at each other as the group plotted their attack. It was daring, to be sure, but should work. They agreed to attack after the wagon of provisions reached the stockade but before the next set of soldiers were scheduled to arrive. That gave them time to prepare as well as access to more supplies.

Chapter 12

“Everybody knows what they are doing, right?” Weaver asked again before they set out toward the stockade. “It is crucial that we wait until nightfall to attack. Do not make your move a moment before, Renata.” The girl nodded and crept into the trees toward the front gate. The rest of the group moved along the brush toward the rear of the stockade, poised for attack on Renata’s signal.

The stars above blinked on, one after the other until they filled the night sky. Flint shifted in his hiding place, adrenalin thrummed through his body as he prepared to fight. A ferocious roar broke the stillness of the night, echoing around them as a spray of fire burst into the sky above the stockade’s entrance. In the starlight, Flint could make out the shape of a dark-scaled dragon whipping a forked tail around in front of the stockade.

Black armored warriors sprang to life, shouts of shock and awe rippled through the camp as they bolted out of their shelters to take on the dragon. Flint and his friends reacted quickly. They scrambled toward the back wall of the stockade. Leo and Lasha scaled the wall first to help the others over. The small ledge along the top of the stockade’s wall was just wide enough for them to gain footing and plop down on the other side.

Duncan and Starling landed first to deftly dispatch two half-asleep warriors before they knew what was happening. The others fanned out, quickly tearing down any black armored soldiers left within the walls. The troupe slipped between tents to ensure no soldiers remained to surprise them.

Flint drove his sword through the exposed neck of a black-armored soldier stalking after Diana. The man never saw it coming but Flint had caught sight of the dagger in his hand as he approached Diana from behind. She glanced back when the body thudded to the ground behind her. Diana offered a soft smile of gratitude and returned the favor by putting an arrow through another warrior just behind Flint. He’d felt the fletching buzz past his cheek before it impaled the warrior through the throat. Flint watched the man grasp at his throat, blood bubbled between his lips as he fell to his knees. Diana pushed past Flint, yanked her arrow from the man’s throat and kicked him aside. “Keep moving,” she whispered urgently.

They moved effectively through the camp, dispatching the black-armored warriors with little noise until Starling engaged two in a sword fight. Their metal swords pinged against each other as Starling danced around parrying their attacks. Duncan sprang on one and snapped his neck, while Starling dazzled his opponent with his remarkable speed. With what looked like a simple flick of his wrist, Starling cut his opponent’s throat. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Songar actually tried to capture one for information but the black clad warrior slit his own throat before they could even ask him a question. Nobody seemed surprised.

The companions regrouped at the hut in the center of the camp, prepared to take the magician hostage. They crept up and surrounded it just like they planned but when Weaver flung the door open nobody awaited them on the other side. The group filed in to find an empty room built around a glowing archway.

“Now we know where the light came from.” Starling whistled as he circled around the structure, “you can’t see through it but you can walk around it, how does that work, I wonder?”

Weaver reached out to touch it and quickly recoiled. “Don’t touch it! It gives off some sort of energy.”

“We should destroy it.” Songar said firmly, “it is clearly a portal for the wretched soldiers.”

“Agreed,” Duncan approved, “we don’t want any more coming through.”

“Burn it?” Flint suggested.

“Absolutely,” Weaver agreed, “burn it to the ground.”

They retreated out of the hut. Songar cast a log from the fire into the middle of the hut, then another and another until it caught and grew into a bonfire of sorts. Flint watched the flames eat away the hut until it imploded and the portal along with it. He breathed slowly, relieved that this part was over.

“We’ve got to go!” Renata hollered from the front gate as she dropped over the top to the inside. “Now, right now, go, run!” She yelled, eyes wide with fear as her arms and legs propelled her recovering body toward their group. Renata collapsed into Flint’s arms, “many soldiers coming.” She gasped, before passing out cold, a fevered sweat along her brow.

“She overdid it on magic,” Duncan looked her over. “She needs rest.”

“Um, not now,” Monty pointed in the direction Renata had come from. Just beyond the wall, a massive army of black armored warriors advanced up the road toward them – led by another magician in a long black cloak. “We should go. Now.”

They turned and ran the other way. Leo and Lasha scaled the wall they’d used to enter the stockade earlier. The twins quickly scrambled back down. Leo warned, “We can’t go that way.”

“More men have surrounded the back side,” Lasha finished for her brother. “We’re surrounded.”

“Why don’t they attack then?” Flint asked.

Weaver stroked his beard and regarded Flint, “They are waiting for daylight to make sure none of us escape.”

“What do we do? There has to be something!” Diana frowned and paced back and forth.

“We should have left the portal alone.” Starling pointed out, “could have popped through that and seen where it let us out.”

“I have an idea.” Bookworm spoke up, “I mean, it’s sort of an idea.” All eyes on him, the young boy elaborated on a story about a group of ancient warriors who had been in a similar situation and hid themselves in plain sight so that their enemies walked right over them.

Songar’s eyes lit up, “He’s right! There’s an old hunting trick that uses a similar premise. I think I even have enough reeds in my bag, it just, well, it might work.” He rustled through his satchel and produced a handful of reeds then addressed the group to explain the whole story, “Hunters used to hide under the water and breath through small reeds while they waited to surprise animals arriving at the waterhole to drink. It could work if we just bury ourselves under dirt and animal hides. You can breathe out of this and nobody would know you were there.”

“How is that going to work?” Leo reflected the collective skepticism.

“It’s worth a try, we’re dead if we don’t try it, aren’t we?” Bookworm pointed out. “At least we have a chance this way. We can dig little trenches around the remnants of the hut and pile the animal pelts up. It will work as long as we breathe slowly and evenly through the reeds.”

“Then let’s move it,” Weaver encouraged the group, “dig with whatever you can and pair up, Bookworm, crawl in with Flint last and make sure we’re all covered.”

They moved fast, huddled over the holes as they buried their friends, two at a time, in shallow graves with just the reeds for air. Bookworm ensured everybody was covered and slipped in beside Flint just before the sun hit the top of their hill.

Warriors broke into the stockade and flooded around them but the group remained still in their holes. Flint’s chest burned from the limited air but he focused on other things, the footsteps around him, over him and all of the shouts of frustration that meant they were unseen.

“They must have gone through the portal,” a gravelly voice spoke very near to where the companions hid. “No matter, they will die on the other side. We must not concern ourselves with such trivial things, not now. Move out, men!”

Flint could feel the weight of a man on his legs but dared not move. He waited, Bookworm beside him, for the last of the footsteps to recede. A hand thrust through the dirt over him and yanked Flint from the ground. He saw Weaver’s filthy face first. Flint gulped at the air, allowed it to flood his lungs. He tried to whistle for Valkan but could not find enough air. It mattered not, the falcon found him and landed softly on his shoulder.

“We need to find out what Lord Ardus is planning and if there are any more of those blasted portals.” Duke Weaver declared, “But first, we are going to need more men if we are going to stop them.”

Thank you for reading Book 1 of The Flint Saga.

I hope you enjoyed it!

If you did, could you please help me out by leaving a review?

My sincere thanks

Bill Campbell

 

The Flint Saga

Book 2 – Invasion

Out Now!

Some other FREE ebooks that you may enjoy include:

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Angel – Book 1

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Epic Fantasy Adventure: THE FLINT SAGA - Book 2 - Invasion: Young Adult Fantasy

Young Adult Fantasy: Flint and Duke Weaver find new allies in their battle against the invaders. Their small group of followers have grown into an army and victory is within their grasp. Until a horrifying new enemy emerges which threatens to end their world forever.

  • Author: Katrina Kahler
  • Published: 2017-07-10 13:35:21
  • Words: 26588
Epic Fantasy Adventure: THE FLINT SAGA - Book 2 - Invasion: Young Adult Fantasy Epic Fantasy Adventure: THE FLINT SAGA - Book 2 - Invasion: Young Adult Fantasy