A horn’s call, brilliant and clear as a falcon’s cry, split the air, rising for a moment over the thunderous staccato of horses’ hooves. Knights in gleaming plate charged across the alpine meadow, crushing wild flowers under steel-shod hooves. The rout had already begun among the bestial raiders. Pockets of the larger gors still stood to fight, their crude shields held in a patchwork line, but around them their smaller kin were breaking for the trees. The baroque horned plate, skull helms and heavy mounts of the riders struck terror in the beast folk. Most would be run down before they could make it to the trees. Up and down the faltering line, swift charges breached through weak points, carving the beastmen into scattered pairs or trios, then trampling them with ease. One last group of gors remained, anchored by the largest of their kin. It had already killed one horse, leaving the rider pinned beneath its weight, their leg likely shattered. Braying out a challenge, it pointed its brutal axes at the knight leading the latest charge. The guttural roar was cut short as the tip of the lance exploded through its chest, the impact shattered wood and bone alike. That was enough for the few remaining raiders, who broke and fled for the hills.
The knight reined in her fiery white mount, dropping the shattered lance. Across the field the rest of her patrol was riding down the fleeing beastmen. It would be short and bloody work, but they would make sure a few were able to escape. It was better that way, according to the old wisdom. Let them spread word of the slaughter to their foul kindred and, for a few years at least, they would not raid along the kingdom’s borders. She pulled the heavy helm from her head, its daemonic visage and curving horns leering upwards. Another learning of the old wisdom. To survive the dark times, they had had to become as fearsome as the daemon hosts that had assailed them. Tìr An’avon had become strong and feared, and now it was her duty to ensure they remained so.
“Lady Gwenefyre!” The call brought her back to the moment, and she smiled at the two knights riding leisurely towards her. Lucan had his helm off already, sweat-soaked red hair plastered across his face. Isoult was carrying a crudely carved charm taken from one of the beastmen, her hands bloody to the elbows. The three of them had been friends since childhood, knighted together and oath-bound.
“The gobhar-sìth are bold this year!”
“Aye Lucan, perhaps they’d heard of the trouble on the eastern borders and sought to test us. What’s that you’ve got there?”
Isoult turned the talisman in her hands, then tossed it to Gwenefyre. She didn’t recognize the symbol, and raised an eye. “Gore-horn tribe. They come from the east. They might be fleeing the same invaders we now face.” Gwenefyre had long learned to trust Isoult’s sagecraft on such things.
“All the more reason to hurry then. Gather up the knights. Let’s get them and the horses out of the heavy armour and rested much as we can while the train catches up. It’ll be a long march still before the day’s end. We’ll send the wounded back with five knights and the Old Man”
“Whatever you say, Princess,” said Isoult, ducking with a laugh as the talisman was thrown back at her head. They both knew how much Gwenefyre hated being called that, and teased her with it whenever they could.
As they rode off, another rider approached. He rode tall and strong in the saddle, but the crown of hair atop his head had been frost-white for half a dozen winters already. “My lady,” he said with a stiff but warm bow of his head.
“Castellan Bracca.” She matched her tone to his stiff formality, but could not keep a smile from the corner of her mouth. The old knight had practically raised her, trained her to fight and to lead. However much he insisted on formalities on the battlefield and in court, she could not help but picture his exasperated laughter when he had caught her stealing plums as a child, or his joyous tears when she won her first joust.
“The rout is complete, my lady. They won’t trouble this border for years. I supposed we return to Caer Cadrwynn then?”
“You are not returning, are you.”
“How did you know?”
“You brought 3 months of provisions, spare horses and lances and an armourer for a routine patrol of the borderlands. I am old, not blind.”
“Aye, that’s the truth, Castellan. These invaders, these ‘Dawnbringers’, they are not like the beastmen. They won’t be dissuaded by a show of force, or seek easier prey elsewhere. The Queen is wrong. They’re fanatics, backed by immortal revenants, and if they’ve decided their mission leads them through our lands they won’t stop ’til us or them are dead. How many other kingdoms have they already smashed through? I know what we must do to stop them, though. I have seen it, each night in my dreams. A sword trapped in ice. It will deliver us.”
The old knight studied her a moment. “You truly believe it then, that these dreams of yours are a quest sent by the Goddesses?”
“Yes, I do. It is their promise, to save our kingdom.”
“Then you’ve no need to convince me of anything else, Gwenefyre. If you believe it, I do as well. How can I help.” Her shoulders eased with relief, and only then did she realize how anxious she had been to share her plan.
“Take the wounded back. I’ll leave five of the remaining knights with you, and take twenty plus myself, Lucan and Isoult.”
“Of course,” the old man chuckled, “we could never split the three of you up anyways. You and your knights will be missed on the field if the Dawnbringers press the invasion.”
“Then we’ll have to find this blade and return just as swiftly. Fortunately, whoever taught me to ride did a fine job.”
“For the Queen and An’avon, Lady Gwenefyre. Duty and Steel.”
“Duty and Steel, for all of Tìr An’avon.”