I had thought, at first glance, that Gendarran Fields seemed like a fairly safe and civilised corner of Kryta. Given our situation, I was rapidly having to reassess that conclusion.
My breath was loud in my ears, the wheezing rasp coming from Blaise even louder as he stumbled along at my side. Caolinn, on his other side, kept grabbing him by the elbow, a steadying hand every time his foot caught a rabbit hole or a tree root hidden by the long grass. Only a few paces ahead, Spark and Weir had dropped into a four-legged lope, their stride eating up the distance between us and the security of Ascalon Settlement.
A security I was becoming increasingly sure we wouldn’t reach. The pounding hooves of the centaurs were all around, thundering closer from every direction; I couldn’t tell if we were being pursed by half a dozen or half a hundred. By Blaise’s fixed, slightly manic expression, I suspected it might be the latter.
As we approached the top of a small hillock, I decided it was time to find out. I shadowstepped ahead, twice, then turned to look back. A rusty smoke wreathed the landscape in every direction, hovering over the grassland in billowing clouds. No, not smoke: dust, thrown up by more centaur hooves than I cared to count.
“They’re gaining on us!” Blaise panted, when he drew near. “They’ll skewer us long before we reach the walls.”
“No, they won’t.” A grim-faced Spark grabbed me by the arm as she passed, hauling me into a run again – not that I really needed the extra incentive.
We were almost under the shadow of the massive walls surrounding the settlement when I heard bells begin to toll. We weren’t the only ones making a break for safety, I realised: a dozen other figures, all human, were running towards the open gates. There was a scuffle as we reached them, everyone piling inside at once, and then with a lot of frantic shouting the gates banged shut.
As Seraph troops rallied to the defences, our little party huddled together, watching and waiting. As Spark had pointed out, this wasn’t our fight; I had to agree with her when it came to not getting involved.
Except I quickly realised we weren’t going to have a choice – there were simply too few people inside the town for us to simply stay out of the way.
So few, in fact, that most of the inhabitants were too busy to even notice we were there. With the soldiers manning the gates and walls, and with the pounding centaur hooves now right outside, everyone was engaged in scraping together defences or weaponry. Everyone, that is, save a handful of older men and women, who were shooting venomous glances in our direction even through the tumult.
“Someone doesn’t look overly pleased to see us,” Caolinn observed. Even as she spoke, she was loosening the sheathes on her daggers, readying herself for a fight; though given the situation outside, I didn’t much want to see trouble with a handful of ancient humans.
“Not us,” Blaise said, sounding almost guilty. “Them.”
By which he meant the charr. Spark and Weir were trying to look unconcerned, but I could see both were tense. Putting humans and charrs together can be a volatile business – I only had to remember our first meeting with Blaise to know that. Still, my companions had always shown themselves to be singularly uninterested in picking fights over old grudges. Except when it came to the Branded, of course, but I didn’t think that was quite the same.
“Did you know this was going to happen?” I asked Blaise, unable to keep an accusatory note from my voice.
He actually blushed. “I… suspected. There are a lot of old timers here, refugees from the old cities of Ascalon. They still blame the charr for taking their land.”
“Their land?” Spark growled.
Blaise flinched away. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just… Well, you know what I mean.”
“But you brought us here anyway,” Caolinn said, her voice flat.
I could see the ranger was about to retort, but he didn’t have chance. A hunting horn brayed outside the gates, accompanied by a chorus of raised voices; on the walls, bows thrummed and rifles chattered into life. Suddenly, I agreed with Blaise: a little inter-racial strife seemed a small price to pay to avoid a stampede of centaurs.
Weir sauntered out in front of our party, putting himself directly in view of the muttering oldsters. With one hand on his mace, at first I thought he was being deliberately provocative, but when he spoke, I realised he was trying to make a point. “Know anywhere in the defences that might need a few extra hands?” he asked, with a toothy grin.
Most of the elderly watchers turned away, but one man stood up, facing Weir with a belligerent expression. “We don’t want help from your kind.”
Weir didn’t seem concerned by the man’s aggression. I suppose it was mild by most charr standards. “Even when your home is under threat? We’re offering to risk our own skins to protect your walls.”
“This isn’t our home,” the man spat. “You beasts took that from us and drove us here, but one day… One day, we’ll return with fire and steel, and the land will be awash in blood-”
Weir drew himself up to his full height, nearly twice that of the withered old man. “If Ascalon was really your home, you wouldn’t want to see it like that. Home is somewhere you protect, and that nurtures you in return. Burning and ravaging doesn’t keep anyone safe in their beds, attackers or their victims.”
I almost laughed at the old man’s stunned expression. Though he usually wore a bland, almost vacant smile, Weir could be quite the philosopher when he wanted to be. For a charr, anyway.
Deciding to pick on an easier target, the old man turned on Blaise. “You, boy: what are you doing with these animals?”
“I… They’re my friends…”
The man pointed a wobbly finger at Blaise. “You’re a traitor, that’s what you are. Get out of my sight.”
At the word ‘traitor’, Blaise went even paler, and for a moment I thought he was about to faint. Instead, he shook his head weakly and took a few steps away, refusing to look at anyone in the vicinity. Caolinn watched him go as intently as I did, but now wasn’t the time to get to the bottom of whatever troubled him.
Spark knew that too, of course. “Form up, troops,” she ordered. “I don’t care what these grumpy old farts say – if there’s fighting to be done, we’re there.”
She led the way up onto the settlement’s walls, where we found enough space at the battlements to peer over. The few Seraph made no comment; either they were used to the occasional adventurer fighting alongside them, or they deemed themselves too few in number to complain either way.
And they were few, compared to the centaurs. A vast cloud of dust had risen across the plain and the drumming of their hooves was loud enough to shake the walls we stood on. They appeared to have nearly encircled the settlement, though their numbers were concentrated at the gates. Almost below my feet, the centaurs were forming a bristling wedge, armed with spears longer than they were.
“They’ll throw themselves against the gate until it gives way.” It was Blaise who spoke, in a low murmur that I only caught because he crouched mere inches from me. “They don’t seem to care how many die – once they’ve started an attack, taking the town is all that matters.”
I looked the ranger over with a critical eye, wondering how he knew so much. This wasn’t just the general human knowledge of centaurs he was spouting, I felt certain: Blaise had to have a more specific history with them. Perhaps that was why-
A horrible, sickening sensation took hold in my gut. The Inquest might be out in Kryta, or they might not, but that had nothing to do with why Blaise had led us here. Watching his pale, almost traumatised face, I knew his reasons went far beyond tracking Zurra, no matter what he’d told us.
A thud brought me back to the present, as – just as Blaise had predicted – the centaurs began to throw themselves at the town’s gate. “We have to stop them getting in,” I called to Spark, hoping she had a better grasp of the situation. Not having been distracted by Blaise, it appeared she did.
“Hold the walls,” she ordered Weir, Caolinn and – if he was listening – Blaise. “Amber, come with me.”
We hurried back down the steps to the settlement’s central plaza. The place was deserted now, save for a handful of Seraph clustered around the vibrating gates. Many of them flinched at each new assault, for which I could hardly blame them – the pounding of the centaurs had almost the force of a battering ram.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked Spark, praying to the Eternal Alchemy for an affirmative answer.
As I’d hoped, Spark bared her teeth. “Stick with me, cub. I always have a plan.”
Edited by Jalinar