The scout kicked the sides of his horse unmercifully, whipping its rump with the ends of the reins. Desperation hammered his heart. He was the only one left of the squad of scouts sent by the younger Lord Thomas Arach to warn the WindWard Range - and the Lord’s aunt and uncle - of the battle for Red Dragon’s Keep. The others had fallen away one by one as men, gear, and horses failed. The horse under him faltered, stumbling badly.
“Easy, easy, Slash. You can do this. It’s only another mile.” He slowed the horse to give him a breather.
I am so going to be dead when they see the condition of poor Slash. I had to get here as quick as I could.
The horse stumbled again. The scout reached forward and ran a hand down the sweating animal’s neck. “Just a little farther, son. Just a little more.”
The horse broke back into a run from his faltering as he neared the home he had left four years before. Slash had been sent to Red Dragon’s Keep as a rising two-year-old and had been there ever since. They could see the gates of Aos Si that lay at the end of the road crossing mile after mile of WindWalker holdings. The sun beat down on horse and rider as well as the fields of alfalfa and timothy stubble that stretched on either side of the road.
The scout slowed the running horse to a canter and then a trot as he passed through the open gates that normally barred the compound. Guards posted at the gates recognized his scout’s tunic and badge and watched as he approached, letting him pass unchallenged.
Outraged shouts followed as he pulled the foundering beast to a halt. Stablemen and women, servants and freeholders ran up to the horse. The scout vaulted from the saddle and took the stairs two at a time to hammer on the carved dragonwood doors.
“Lady Debra! Lord Scott! Red Dragon’s Keep has been attacked by Demons!” He dropped his hands to his knees and crouched, panting as he waited.
Shouts erupted in reaction from those assembled. The door was wrenched open, revealing Lady Debra holding a napkin. She and her husband had been eating mid-meal. Her blond hair was pulled into a tail that fell to the middle of her back. It was bound with a long piece of rawhide.
“What?!” she barked. She glared with piercing blue eyes at the crowd surrounding the sweat-covered mount that stood blowing like a bellows. She narrowed her eyes as she focused on the scout. “What have you done to that poor horse?” she snarled as she wiped her mouth, stepping out of the door and onto the porch. The scout took two steps back. The lady barely came to his shoulder.
Lord Scott strode up behind her. He wore rough twill trousers whose ends were stuffed into scuffed boots and a linen shirt covered by an old brown tunic. Well-worn gloves drooped from the left side of his belt where he’d stuffed them. The top of Debra’s head came to just under his chin.
“Wait,” he said. “Come in. Let’s hear this after you’ve had some water.” Debra stepped back as the scout moved through the door. Lord Scott took the filthy cloak that covered the exhausted man and dropped it on the floor. Debra looked back at the crowd and gestured at Slash. “Walk him. Small sips of water, no more. Get that gear off of him.” Stablemen hurried to help the exhausted horse.
Debra turned and followed Scott and the scout to the greeting room, down the hall and to the left across from the dining room.
“Get some water and something with sweetening!” Scott shouted towards the kitchen. “Deb, sit him down quick. He’s going to fall.”
Lady Debra grabbed the scout’s arms as he swayed. He stumbled across the carpet, reeling and almost falling as she guided him to a wingback chair in front of the fieldstone fireplace. Covered with mud, dust, and blood, he was close to collapse as the urgency of his mission left his system. She knelt next to him at the side of the chair. Her skirt, divided so that she could ride astride, was embroidered with grasses, vines, and flowers found on the Windward Range. She had not removed the short black jacket she wore over her linen shirt, expecting to be called to the stables for a foaling at any moment.
Quinn, the Range foreman, strode into the room from the back of the stronghold, swearing loudly.
“Who just rode in? Whoever it was, he almost killed that horse!”
Lord Scott held up his hand. “We’re just going to find out.” He turned to the scout.
“What’s your name?”
“Idris, my Lord. I’m sorry about Slash. He carried me from Red Dragon’s Keep in two days instead of four. I had to reach you as quick as possible.”
A maid scurried into the room carrying two tankards and thumped them onto the table next to Lady Debra. She turned and scuttled back to the kitchen.
“Here, drink this.” Debra turned to the table and handed him the tankard filled with water. He took it gratefully in shaking hands and gulped down two huge swallows. She put her hand on the tankard to keep him from gulping more. “Small sips, just like Slash. We don’t want you to founder too.” A small smile that didn’t reach her eyes twitched at the corners of her mouth.
Idris lowered the tankard. “My Lord and Lady, I’ve terrible news. Red Dragon’s Keep has been attacked by Demons. I was ordered to ride to you as they started the attack. I don’t know what has happened since.” His voice cracked with shock and anxiety, his eyes huge. He began to shake.
Scott reached out and took the tankard from Idris’ hands.
“Drink this. You need the sweet.” He handed Idris the other tankard. The scent of mead wafted through the air as Idris gratefully sipped the fermented honey and water. He stopped shaking almost immediately. He sipped some more.
Deb and Scott glanced at each other. They’d heard vague rumors of trouble from the oirfideach fáin, the traveling bards, who stopped at Aos Si, WindWard Stronghold. The WindWalker’s fortified limestone manor was the last stop on the bard’s way to Talamh or Cathair Ri. The oirfideach sang songs and told tales of Demon hordes attacking outlying holds and Steadings, massacring everyone within. Here was confirmation.
A cool gust of wind stirred the window coverings. Though it was late fall, a rare warmer day had prompted the housekeeper to throw open all of the windows to freshen the air in the manor. Lady Debra shook her head and turned to look out the window at the dried grass in the grazing fields ruffled by the breeze. Her lips pressed together grimly she turned back to the scout. Her piercing blue eyes took note of the mud splattering his boots, trousers and tunic.
Deb walked to the chair across from the scout. She gestured for him to continue as she sat.
Taking a deep breath, Idris collected his thoughts.
“The Demons have been raiding closer and closer to Dragon’s Keep,” Idris continued. “Lord Thomas led a sortie to test the Demons a fortnight ago. He learned a lot about killing them.”
He fell silent as the enormity of his report settled into the room and about the listeners. Scott leaned heavily on the back of Debra’s chair. Quinn stood rooted in shock.
“He brought back bodies of creatures that no one has ever seen before. There is even one that has wings!” He shook his head, his face grim. “We lost twenty-two men and the captain of the castle defense. It was only through Lady Aeden’s magic that they prevailed. Oh, I forgot: and Lord Thomas’s Sword of Light.”
He looked up from his concentration on the tankard in his hand to wide eyes and mouths open in wonder. He smiled crookedly.
“I can hardly believe what I’m telling you myself.”
“What do you mean ‘Lady Aeden’s magic’? And what is a Sword of Light?” Debra demanded incredulously. “Who is Lady Aeden?”
Idris shook his head. “Lady Aeden has been at Dragon’s Keep for as long as I can remember. She’s helped Lord Tom with defenses for the Keep and scouting out problems in the duchy. She set magical traps for the ambush against the Demons using magelight. When the traps were triggered, magelight was released and it actually killed some of the Demons outright and blinded many more so we were able to kill them more easily. I’ve heard that she can read minds and can see things that we can’t. Not sure about that last.”
“What about this ‘Sword of Light’?” questioned Lord Scott. “I remember stories about Swords of Light from the ancient Demon Wars.”
“There was a ‘Soleigh Soren’, a kind of Demon, imprisoned in the Tower well room. Lord Thomas and Lady Aeden carried Swords of Light that came alive when they went to kill the Demon. I heard tell that the swords can talk to people! Lords Owen, Cameron, and Evan and Lady Breanna chose their own Swords of Light that were in the armory and so did the daughter of Faolin Haloran, the Master Sergeant who served with Lord Tom in the last Demon incursion.”
“Where is Sir Mathin? Wasn’t he in charge of Keep defenses?” Scott asked quietly.
Idris dropped his eyes and sat mute, his empty tankard dangling from his fingers. Debra reached out and grasped his upper arm tightly. “Tell me,” she ordered with a shake to his arm.
“Lady, your sister and Lord Tom were ambushed and kidnapped somewhere between the convergence of the Caladen and Banuisk. Lord and Lady Gobhlan were taken at the same time. Sir Mathin took half the castle guard and rode out to search for them. We’d heard nothing from anyone before we left.” Idris spoke in a low strained voice.
Lady Debra gasped in shock and almost leaped from her chair. Scott put a hand on her shoulder, pressing her firmly back into her seat. She looked up at him with resentment. She pulled her attention back to Idris.
“Steadings and holders are fleeing to the Keep for protection. Magic portals that open a path for Demons were found everywhere in the Keep. Lady Aeden helped find the portals. The head cook tried to kill all of the Arachs and was in league with The High Draiolc. Lord Thomas held a trial and had her hung.”
Lady Debra’s fingers pressed against her lips, trying to keep her pain from escaping. Tears began to leak from her eyes. She closed them and sat frozen. Scott knelt at the side of her chair and rested his hand on her arm.
“Six of us were sent to you. I’m the only one left. Three of the horses collapsed and two of the scouts were shot down as we rode through the Darkened Forest. I don’t know who shot at us.”
A maid entered the room quietly. “My lady, Jemis says it’s time. The foal is on its way.”
Rising slowly from her chair, Lady Debra took several slow, deep breaths, willing herself to calm down. Panic and pain would create havoc within the foal and its mother. Scott rose with her.
“Scott, could you please settle Idris in the Scouts hall? We’ll talk more after the foa ling.” Scott nodded in agreement. “Send for me when you’re done,” he said softly. He reached out and pulled her to him, kissing her on her forehead.
She smiled and raised a hand to his cheek. “I will,” she said and turned towards Quinn. “Walk with me,” she requested as she took him by the arm. They walked down the hallway and out the back door, hurrying quickly down the path to the foaling barn
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish