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Talel threw another knife. It slid its way through the armor of the Draesen, the enchanted edge slicing through the steel mail like it was paper. It stopped halfway into the grey-skin’s neck. Dark blood erupted as he slid off of his horse, landing near the first scout Talel had killed, a human.
The elf looked over his shoulder and nodded. Mardrel padded up, his sword drawn. He was followed by the rest of the scouts, who bore bows and crossbows.
“So far, so good,” Talel said to the captain.
Mardrel peered around the boulder, taking in the steep slope up to the enemy palisade, tracing the wooden fortifications with his eyes until they disappeared into the night.
“Do you think we can remain hidden?”
Talel nodded. “Well enough to get close, yes. The problem will be getting away.”
“We have two horses now. Maybe that is enough.”
“I wonder if Tara ever arrived at the first meeting point,” Talel said.
“Don’t trouble yourself with that now.” Mardrel turned back. “Halda.”
“Yes sir,” said a tall and slender female, stepping past the other soldiers in a stoop.
“How close must you be to set fire to something?”
“It depends on what needs burning,” Halda said. “If the Draesenith haven’t bothered to daub their fortifications, we could stand quite a ways off. Perhaps a hundred paces.”
“Good. You’ll go with Talel on these two horses.”
“Strange horses, sir?” Talel said.
“You can handle it, I’m sure. They are simple beasts,” Mardrel said. “Get close enough to light up the gate, if you can. If it’s too dangerous, just burn what you can reach.”
“Sir,” Talel said. “I’m afraid I’m developing a bad habit of questioning orders, but was this not to be a scouting mission?”
“I see a target of opportunity, and we have precious few of those. They’ve burned every bit of wood for miles and miles, even a small chip in their defenses could prove advantageous.”
“Yes, sir,” Talel said. “I’ll keep myself and Halda as inconspicuous as possible.”
“Good,” Mardrel said, nodding. “I’ll move the rest of the hands down the slope a ways. Bring the pursuit back down through the boulders, and we’ll take them out at range. That should make for us enough time to reach the outer limits of the Fay Fog.”
Talel saluted. “Halda, with me.”
Halda followed him closely, keeping her grey cloak wrapped tight around her. The horses of the scouts had stopped their immediate circling and stood placid beside their dead riders. Talel paused beside the beasts to check that the dead were in fact dead. Satisfied with their glassy-eyed stares, he approached one of the horses. It bucked slightly as he took the reins, but calmed as Halda touched its flank.
“A bit of folk magic,” she said.
“Stay close to me. I have a bit of magic of my own.”
They mounted up and rode parallel to the high slope, staying in the shadows far away from the fires that lit the palisade.
“Do you think we can get close enough to the front to damage the gate?” Halda said, just loud enough to cover the beat of the horses’ hooves.
“I’m not going to bother,” Talel said. “That’s a fool’s errand. We’ll do the minimum the captain desires, but I’ll not risk more.”
“He is the captain.”
“And short-sighted, for all his years. The Draesenith are well fed because they have a long and robust supply chain. More lumber will be easy for them to bring in.”
“It will still take time. We could at least-”
“I proclaim it too dangerous for the chances of success,” Talel said. “Do you really wish to risk your young life?”
“For my people, I would risk it.”
Talel grumbled, then said. “Alright. We’ll take a look.”
They rode toward the east, where the hill that housed the vast Draesenith camp came down to the level of the plain. The wooden fortifications, in the form of a parapet with great wooden spikes made of tree trunks, came far forward of the gate. Several riders bearing torches ambled about, and Talel slowed to a stop.
“This is as close as we can get,” Talel said. “Do you still object?”
“Get ready to ride.”
Halda nodded and raised her hands. The staff she held in her right hand glowed with an inner light as she spoke words to herself, in a chaotic language known only to her. The meaning was clear to Talel as a great wall of fire erupted on the palisade, shooting to the sky. Two men atop the parapet dove away, flames licking their clothes.
The fire died, revealing a nearly untouched wooden wall. Flames sprang from the grass around it, but the wood was unharmed.
“They must have daubed the individual logs,” Talel said, trying to calm his restless horse.
“No,” Halda said. She spoke again, and again flames burst from the ground. Again, they died back, remaining only on the dried grass on the shallow slope below the wooden fortifications. “They are not daubed,” she said. “There is something altogether different protecting them. Something that refuses to acknowledge my magic.”
“No time to ponder that,” Talel said. “Away, now!”
Halda turned her horse and followed Talel as cries from the enemy scouts sounded above the din of the crackling grass fire. They were joined by more cavalry, and were soon gaining on the elves as they raced along the south side of the camp. Arrows flew from guards above, but fell far from the riders.
“Thank the dreamer for the dark!” Talel said, urging his horse forward. They headed up a slope and down another, slowing to work their way among the treacherous rocks and boulders, which were difficult to see in the dusty moonlight. The sound of pursuit was growing louder.
Talel and Halda paused and turned back to see some twenty riders nearly set upon them. Where they had all gathered from, Talel could not guess, but as they approached the first ten were all hit with arrows.
“Fire at will!” came the shout of Mardrel.
Talel waved to Halda and she followed him up a narrow track, passing the other soldiers as they went.
“Here,” Halda said, turning her horse about. Her voice rang out clearly in the night, and a wave of primordial magic flowed out from her, crashing upon the enemy cavalry like sea foam. Two of the riders fell, smoke streaming from their armor. Another fell moments later, his mount in a death throw. For the rest, the magic seemed to have little lasting effect, though the beasts all seemed disturbed by it. They turned against their masters’ commands, giving the archers enough time to fire several more shots each.
A small cadre of riders quickly withdrew, a lone torch remaining burning among them.
“Quickly now,” Mardrel said, and dashed up the western slope. The rest of the scouts followed. Halda and Talel quickly pulled their horses into line.
“My magic is failing,” Halda said to Mardrel. “I am not sure if it is me, or something else, but I am of no more use here.”
“Ride ahead to the Fay Fog,” Mardrel said. “See if Tara’s squad ever arrived. If they did, tell them to head back to the city immediately.”
“Yes, sir,” Halda said.
Talel let his horse slow to a trot as the rest of the scouts ran southwest, making as direct a line as possible for the safety of the border between the mundane world and the shifting dream of the Fay Lands. Behind them, they could hear the unmistakable sounds of cavalry assembling.
“They will overtake us,” Mardrel said between labored breaths.
“I can break off and lead them away,” Talel said.
“That won’t work. We’re just in for a hairy time. I didn’t expect so many cavalrymen to be out and about.”
“And I expected Halda to not be tapped, but here we are. At least our maps will show true for a while.”
“More than that, if we can make it back,” Mardrel said. He looked back and spied over a ridge a growing light. “Here!” he shouted, and directed the squad to an ashy and tumbled heap of stone. They followed him into cover and nocked arrows. Talel dismounted and loaded his crossbow. They waited for a long series of moments, but the enemy never appeared.
“What are they waiting for?” Talel whispered.
Mardrel stared at the glow over the hill for a few seconds. “They’re waiting for their second squad to flank us.” He turned to the side and fired his bow into the darkness. He heard a few muffled voices react.
“Turn!” He said, half-whispered and voiced harshly. Before the others could respond, dismounted enemy dragoons appeared around the stones and charred logs, firing crossbows and charging with spears high. Talel choked as two elves next to him fell, one with a quarrel in his eye, the other with a pilum broken in his collarbone.
The elves fired wildly, but a melee quickly erupted as the dragoons closed the distance. Swords were drawn. Being a scouting party and only lightly armed and armored, as well as out-numbered by the dragoons, the elves were quickly put to the rout and fell back into a haphazard semi-circle around Mardrel. The scouts, despite this, were well-experienced, and their curved longswords proved efficacious once they were in a sort of formation. Most of the dragoons lacked shields and were forced to fight man to man, much to the advantage of the elves.
It was almost enough to hold the Draesen and human attackers, though to what end Talel could not guess. Mardrel pushed himself forward through the melee, swinging his sword in long, chaotic arcs that were nonetheless effective in pushing back the enemy. More dragoons appeared, these mounted, then the Draesenith cavalry finally appeared on the ridge, bearing torches and firing crossbows. Talel caught a bolt in his hip, not deep enough to pain him much, but two more of the elves fell.
“Run for it!” Mardrel said; there was no real escape from the cavalry, and Talel guessed his commander knew as much.
Talel turned from his opponent to obey, but found the way west blocked, not by the enemy, but by a small contingent of light cavalry cloaked in long coats and draping grey cloaks. He recognized his twin sister Tara at the head and understood why nobody had noticed their approach
“Onto the horses now!” Tara called.
Mardrel did not bother repeating the order. The scouts jumped and scrambled onto the horses, or just clung to the tack and saddles, letting their feet drag as the elvish riders turned to flee.
“Did Halda find you?” Talel said, forgetting his stolen horse and climbing up behind his sister.
“We found her,” Tara said. “Sorry for the delay. The Fay shifted under our feet, and it took days to find our way out.”
“It felt like it. At least the enemy will have a hard time following us back in.”
“He won’t dare. We learned some things tonight, though it cost us dearly. I must speak to Ared immediately.”
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