‘Too late… Too late…’ Bragsworn’s words were ringing inside my head.
Certainly it wasn’t looking good. There were two of us and twenty of them. At least. All I had to defend myself was my knife, and although Bragsworn had a phraxpistol, we were so outnumbered it wasn’t even worth him pulling it from his belt.
The rowdy mob came barrelling towards us, clubs and swords brandished in their hands, and roaring drunken promises of what they would do to us with them when they caught us. I turned to Bragsworn. He was staring back at the advancing rabble – members of the so-called Defenders of the First Age – frozen with fear.
‘Too late, Bragsworn?’ I said. ‘If there’s one thing this life has taught me, it is that it is never too late. RUN!‘
I grabbed his arm and tugged him after me, and the pair of us dashed off into the darkness of the trees. Behind us, our would-be attackers roared with frustration and rage.
‘Stop ‘em!’ I heard them bellow. ‘Cut ‘em off!’ ‘Kill ‘em!‘
We crashed through the low branches and dense undergrowth, the bloodcurdling cries of our attackers ringing in our ears behind us. I glanced round once, then again a while later, then a third time – and was relieved to see that we seemed to be leaving them behind. But then I heard something. Something that dashed that relief in an instant and chilled me to the marrow; a voice – their leader – plotting their next move.
‘Head for the hive-house!’ he roared. ‘Smash the phraxloom! Victory to the Defenders of the First Age!‘
The hive-house! Where Laria and Vitus were sleeping…
‘This way,’ I hissed to Bragsworn, cutting up to the left and onto a short-cut track I hoped our pursuers did not know.
Bragsworn followed, but from his laboured breathing I could tell he was beginning to flag. I wasn’t about to leave him behind. Not only because that would mean abandoning him to certain death, but because I would need him with me more than ever when we arrived back at the hive-house – if we arrived there.
‘Not far now,’ I encouraged him. ‘Just a little bit further, Bragsworn. You can do it, my friend.’
With the moonlit Farrow Lake flashing between the trees to our right as we continued along the high track, we kept on. I glanced round again. The Defenders were further behind us, but I could still see the flickering of their flaming torches. They hadn’t given up the chase.
‘There it is,’ I said as we emerged from the treeline and my lakeside hive-house came into view, its curved roof and the adjacent shingle-topped loom shack silhouetted against the moon. I pointed to the lopsided shack. ‘Wait for me in there!’ I told Bragsworn and, before he could argue, dashed inside the hive-house.
‘Laria! Laria!’ I bellowed.
‘Hedgethorn?’ came a drowsy voice from the sleep-loft. ‘Is that you?’
‘Get up, Laria! Get Vitus!’ I commanded as I took the stairs two at a time, knelt down at my wooden chest and began rummaging through its contents. ‘Go to the loom shack. We can defend it better than the hive-house… NOW!‘
Maybe, as the former wife of a Freeglade Lancer, Laria was used to such emergencies. I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, moments later, without me having to explain what was going on, she was out of her hammock and hurrying down the stairs, with Vitus, still swaddled and sleeping, clamped to her chest. I followed her moments later, my phraxpistol in one hand and the old rusty phraxmusket in the others.
By the time I reached the loom shack, Laria and Bragsworn had introduced themselves to each other and from the reproachful look on Laria’s face, I knew Bragsworn must have told her what had happened at the Split Willow. I glanced out of the window. The Defenders were nowhere to be seen – but I could hear them, their drunken howls cutting through the cold night air.
‘Where’s Vitus?’ I said.
Laria nodded to an alcove at the back of the shack, behind the loom. I nodded back.
‘Right, Bragsworn,’ I said. ‘Defend the doorway.’ Bragsworn pulled his phraxpistol from his belt and knelt down, the barrel pointing out at the trees. I turned to Laria and thrust my own phraxpistol into her hands. ‘You ever used one of these before?’
‘Yes, I… But what about you?’ she said.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I said as she took the phraxpistol and crouched down at the window, the heavy barrel resting on the ledge.
Outside, the bloodthirsty roar grew louder as the Defenders got nearer. I hurried across to the phraxloom and, though my fingers were badly shaking, managed to transfer the crystal of phrax from Laria’s loom back into the old phraxmusket I had taken it from. I could only hope that my trusty weapon would still work.
Back at the window, I crouched down next to Laria. She turned and gave me a brave smile. I smiled back – then tore my gaze away as the first of the Defenders of the First Age suddenly burst from the trees. I turned and raised a hand to still the others. More tumbled out of the forest, bellowing, roaring, eyes full of hate. The fettleleggers and webfoots I’d seen; the two battle-scarred flatheads. And the hulking cloddertrog, Hench…
‘Earth and Sky protect us all,’ I whispered as my finger pressed against the trigger. ‘FIRE!!!‘