“They’re not baying.” Vallyn stepped out from behind the boulder and peered out at the grassland. “Does that bother anyone else? Shouldn’t they be howling at us?”
Elyana had no time to waste educating the young bard. There were but a few minutes left before the hounds would reach them.
She’d caught sight of the animals almost a half hour ago as she and her four companions fled across the grasslands of southern Galt. The seemingly inexhaustible hounds had slowly gained on their horses, and the party had finally picked out a rise from which to make a stand. It would be a near thing, as the bard was little use at range and Mirelle no use at all. Edak was an accomplished bowman and would have been a great asset, but he was still at home recovering from their last foray into Galt.
Stelan stepped up beside the bard and raised a hand to visor his face against the sinking sun. Tall and sturdy, he wore banded chain mail that hung below his waist. Normally the knight kept it immaculate, but after the tumultuous events of the last few days, it was rent in numerous places, and stained with coppery red splashes that resembled rust. “Elyana will take out as many as she can at long range,” he told the group. “Then she and I will try to get them to cluster for Arcil.”
Elyana looked up from the arrows she was planting in a row before her. “I’ll take the left flank.”
“Good.” Stelan smiled grimly. “I’ll take the right.”
Elyana rose in time to see Arcil acknowledge Stelan’s plan with a regal nod. The wizard’s traveling clothes were as rumpled and stained as the rest of theirs, but they had begun life as expensive garments tailored for his frame, and they still suited him. With his gray-flecked hair and proud nose he looked more like a wandering aristocrat than an accomplished mage.
“But then what?” Vallyn asked. He gazed apprehensively out at the wedge-shaped formation of hounds sprinting forward through the high grass. “How can they keep running like that?” He was young and wide-eyed, and though he was shorter than the rest of them Elyana thought he still looked gangly. Everything he carried seemed a little too large for him, from clothes to sword, and only the lute slung over his back looked as if it belonged on his person.
“They’re dead,” Arcil said in his low, smooth voice. “They need neither breath nor rest.”
“Dead?” Vallyn repeated.
Elyana saw that the youth’s eyes had widened even further, and she shot Arcil a warning look. She could see the hint of a sly smile playing at the corner of the wizard’s mouth.
“Galt is a land brimming with the dead,” Arcil continued, unfazed.
“Thanks to the Galtan justice,” Mirelle said bitterly.
“Yes,” Arcil agreed. The wizard was frequently cold to those he felt beneath him—which was nearly everyone—but with Mirelle he was somewhat solicitous, as if he worked to foster good feelings. Elyana supposed the extra effort stemmed from the blonde’s pretty features. When they had released her from the Galtan cell, Mirelle shyly confided that she’d had to scrounge amongst cast-off garments thrown into her cell after her own had been torn and soiled during her capture. Probably she had noticed Arcil staring at her tight bodice.
“Galtans hate wasting resources,” Arcil said. “Their Gray Gardeners have grown quite practiced at necromancy.”
“So how do we fight them?” Vallyn asked nervously.
“We do as I say,” Stelan said patiently. “We’ll funnel them so that they charge the easiest part of the slope, in a mass.” Stelan pointed Vallyn to the gap between a large boulder and a sprawling thicket they themselves had passed through to reach to the summit. “Arcil can then work his magics, and you can work yours. If there are any left, you let me stand the front as they charge. If I can’t hold the line alone, move up beside me. If they flank us, we form a circle. Clear enough?”
Vallyn nodded hurriedly.
“Mirelle, you stay clear, with the horses.”
The girl’s bright eyes fastened upon the knight. But then, she had been watching the knight since her rescue the night before. He was not an especially good-looking man, owing in part to his broken nose, but his ease at command had exerted a powerful effect on the pretty teenager. Elyana was not sure why this bothered her, as Stelan had shown Mirelle nothing but appropriate kindness, and she supposed that it tied directly into her certainty that she, as an elf, would eventually lose her human lover one way or another.
“I hesitate to advise another spellcaster,” Arcil was saying to Vallyn, “but remember that charm spells will not work upon the dead.”
“They don’t?” Vallyn sounded almost as if he wished to complain about the fairness of the issue.
“They don’t,” Elyana confirmed. “Stelan, it’s nearly time.”
“Stand ready, everyone. Mirelle, it’s time to move. Back near the picket lines, please.”
The girl obligingly obeyed.
“Elyana,” Vallyn asked quietly, “how far away do you think the rest of the Galtans are?”
He had asked her that several times since they had stopped. Only Elyana’s eyesight was keen enough to occasionally detect the distant pursuers, though all of them had known they would be followed. The bard had been all for pushing on for the border, no matter that the others told him the Galtans could hardly be expected to stop pursuit there. Even if they reached a Taldan fortress, it would most likely be abandoned, and border patrols in the northeast were a rarity. So there would be no outside aid short of a miracle. They’d have to deal with the Galtan posse themselves. Somehow.
Elyana lifted her bow and arrow and studied the onrushing hounds. Their hides were a uniform dark brown, flecked with white and crimson. They did not vie for first position or race with one another; they maintained precise order and formation. “Three dozen,” she said. And then, scanning the dry, rolling plain for a cloud raised by horsemen, she answered Vallyn. “We have at most three-quarters of an hour.”
“At the least?”
“Just over a quarter-hour.”
She heard the dry grass rustle as the bard stepped away, and then she centered the whole of her attention upon the targets. She’d elected to use the diminished stock of her own arrows first, for the greater distance shots, as she had crafted them herself and knew their capabilities. Those they’d lifted from the bodies of the Galtan guards were a little longer than she used with her own pull, and were hastily, if efficiently, made.
Vallyn had recently described an attack by her as a storm of arrows. This time, though, she took careful aim before launching. The opening arrow arced up and out, then slammed straight through the shoulder blade of the leading hound. The impact spun it into the one on its right, breaking the formation. In the brief moment when she paused to set her next arrow, order was restored, and the struck hound ran on, the arrow sticking up like a decorative flag. She was glad Vallyn couldn’t see that. The young man was still quite green, and prone to panic. Her second shot caught the creature near the same place, and this time it stumbled and rolled. It struggled to rise for a time as its companions ran straight over it, then lay motionless as their repeated footfalls flattened its chest cavity.
She accounted for seven more before the things closed to medium range. She left three of her own arrows in reserve and shifted over to the Galtan supply as her love lifted his own bow. She and Stelan kept up a steady barrage, whittling down the numbers.
“They’re hideous,” Vallyn said. He had climbed to the top of the rounded boulder.
He was right; from closer on she could see the gaps in their flesh where ribs showed through, and the missing ears and rotted noses. Elyana saw now that their uniform appearance was deceptive. They might once have had different color fur, but their coats had rotted away to reveal stringy muscles to which occasional patches of blackened skin still hung.
“Oh, nicely done,” Arcil said, stepping forward. He advanced on Stelan’s left to gain a clear view, whispering into the air and twisting his hand. Something resembling a red bead surrounded by a scarlet nimbus of energy floated up from the tips of his extended digits, hung glowing for a moment, then soared out toward the oncoming abominations.
He had timed his attack with precision. Just as the front animals came within fifty feet of the hill, the bead reached them, flaring into a massive ball of flame.
Those in the front rank were instantly reduced to charred black powder and bone fragments. Others ran on, burning like candles until they collapsed under the consuming red tongues of fire. Many fell, though their limbs thrashed long after a living creature would have perished, powered as they were by arcane energies.
A handful of the creatures escaped the damage, fanning out into a line but maintaining a regular distance from one another. Blazes sputtered in the grasses around a blasted center, though the wind was not high enough for it to spread swiftly.
Elyana sighted along her bow as a hound darted toward her side of the hill. Smoke was already curling skyward, marking their positions for the Galtan troop. She heard Stelan calling out to the god Abadar to give him strength.
Her arrow took the thing low in the haunches, for it had sprung unexpectedly far after it clawed for purchase up the first third of the steep slope. Her second arrow drilled down through one blank eye socket, and the creature rolled lifeless all the way to the bottom.
She spun at a warning cry from Mirelle. One of the hounds had bounded up the trail only to be blasted by forked lightning cast from Arcil’s outstretched hand. It lay smoking just a couple swordspans before the wizard. Three others had come up along the less vertiginous right side; Stelan dropped his bow and advanced to meet them.
Elyana nocked an arrow and followed him with her aim. Stelan swung against one from which two arrows already stood out, slicing it neatly in half. She was just about to let fly against another when the bard dropped into the fray, teeth gritted, and swung his own blade. It was a decent slash and might have sent a living beast cowering, but the unclean thing simply sprang for his sword arm and clamped down.
To Vallyn’s credit, he didn’t scream, but the arch of his back spoke volumes. Elyana skewered the third hound with two swift shots before it too could leap on the bard, and Stelan stepped in to slice the head off Vallyn’s attacker.
Stelan took a guarded step back and looked over the battle scene. Fire was spreading slowly through the high grass, and the horses picketed at the rear of the hill whinnied nervously.
“That’s all of them,” Stelan said after a brief inspection. He then turned to Vallyn.
Elyana had already set down her bow to attend the bard. Now the young man dropped his sword. Jaw clenched, he stared almost dully at his right arm. The sleeve of his tunic was wet with blood, which streamed down toward his fingers. She didn’t remind Vallyn that he probably should have stayed back, as commanded, because he surely realized it now. It had been clear that Stelan was not going to be overrun.
“Is he alright?” Mirelle asked.
Arcil’s answer was immediate. “He should be fine.”
“Here,” Elyana said, and she gently took the bloodstained hand with her left and gripped Vallyn’s bicep with her right. She pushed all else from her mind—the snorting of the frightened horses, the crackle of the devouring fire, the rapid breathing of the frightened youth. The wound was deeper than she had thought, but with concentrated effort she was able to extend her energies first to knit the surface flesh, then to join the muscles beneath. It was still not quite enough, so she took a deep breath and extended her powers a second time.
“Elyana is better in the woods than any cityborn Galtan. But is it enough?”
The bard laughed then, and his face lit in a winning grin. “Thanks, Elyana.” He flexed his fingers. “I can’t play without my right arm…” He trailed off, and his face fell. “Is something wrong?”
She had been staring, for the boy’s face was beaded in sweat. He did not look like someone recovering from exertion, but someone who was still undergoing it. Wordless, she stepped up to him and set her hand against his neck.
“What is it?” Stelan asked.
“Rapid heartbeat,” she reported. “Rapid breathing.”
“We just finished a battle,” Stelan countered reasonably.
“Sweat’s pouring off of him.”
Arcil cursed under his breath. “He’s been infected. You should have stayed back, boy.”
“Infected?” Vallyn said queasily.
“How do you feel?” Elyana stepped back to look at his eyes. The black centers had near swallowed the brown.
“A little dizzy,” Vallyn answered. “And a little tired. I’m going to be okay, though, right?”
That sort of magic was beyond her; she said nothing .
He licked his lips, then brushed them with trembling hands.
“Sit down against the boulder for a minute,” Stelan said. “Mirelle, help him drink this.” He handed his winesac off to the girl and motioned the others over to him.
Stelan wasted no time. They had planned on finishing the hounds and climbing immediately back into the saddle to keep ahead of the beasts’ deadlier masters. “How bad is he?” he asked.
“Not good. The poison works quickly. He needs a real healer.”