Trissiny led Arjen in a wide loop, charging directly at two mounted Riders who were approaching her column from the left flank. Two wand shots sparked off the shield of light surrounding her; when she didn’t so much as slow, both Riders peeled off and bolted for a nearby farmstead, just visible in the distance. Under the moonlight, flashes of lightning flickered among the buildings, and she spared a prayer for the residents and whatever elves were helping them. This was war, though, and strategy was strategy. She couldn’t afford to be diverted.
“I was afraid they were gonna go for the troops once they realized they weren’t making an impression on you,” Gabriel said as she trotted back to them.
“Better-trained soldiers might have,” she said, pushing down the urge to object to this disorganized chain of stragglers being called troops. “All right, men, form a line! Wands up at all times. Whatever happens, you will stay in step with the men to your left and right. You do not charge forward under any circumstances, and don’t retreat unless I call for it. Keep an ear out for orders to fire, but for the most part, I want you to fire at will! Don’t wait till you can see their eyes; we aim to herd them inward, not to cut them down here. I’ll be ranging ahead to scout and deal with problematic individuals. I am protected by Avei, but I would appreciate it if you’d try not to shoot me.”
She galloped Arjen up and down the line as she called orders, almost despairing at their slow, disorderly progress toward getting lined up, some of them chuckling nervously at her last comment. They got there, though, not as quickly as she’d hoped but faster than she’d feared, and their final line was suitably straight.
“Uh, ma’am?” called a man toward the right flank as she came abreast of him. “Does that mean you don’t want us to shoot to kill?”
“This is war,” she said grimly. “People die. The men who started the war have no right to complain. Don’t hesitate if you have a good shot, but no one is to break ranks and pursue. Is that clear?”
An uneven chorus of “Yes, ma’am!” sounded from up and down the line. Trissiny gritted her teeth, keeping her expression under control. They were not ready. This was war; people would die, and her soldiers—to use the word as loosely as possible—were terrifyingly vulnerable. No matter the situation was by no means her fault, their deaths would weigh on her.
“Goddess, grant us your favor,” she whispered, and not as a formality; if the goddess of war didn’t lend her support to this enterprise, it was not going to end well. Bringing Arjen around, she came to a stop in front of them, at the center of the line; directly ahead was the central street of Sarasio.
“The company will advance at a walk!”
Gripping weapons, they did so.
“All right, lads,” Ruda called out, stalking back and forth behind the line of men with her rapier in hand. She had declined the offer of a wand. “I could make a speech, but fuck it, we’ve got shit to do. You know what’s going on, and you know what’s at stake. We’re gonna stick to Trissiny’s plan, and that means you stay. In. Line. We move forward or not at all; we move together or not at all. You keep your wands up and if you get a bead on any asshole in a white cloak, you burn ’em down! This is the line of death for them; we want them to know that getting too close is a non-starter, because let’s be honest, this group is not gonna stand up to a cavalry charge. So we make sure no such charge happens! Nothing on horseback gets close enough to run us over without being a burned-out husk, is that clear?”
She exchanged a grim look with Toby while the men called out their agreement, then shouldered through the line, placing herself in front of them and looking into the town. Sounds of battle and flickers of lightning sparked at the edges of the outskirts, but at their approach, the two small groups of Riders harassing the nearest farmsteads had turned tail and run. They had a clear path into Sarasio.
Ruda looked over her shoulder at her troops, and grinned. They were staring forward, hard-faced, gripping weapons. Now this was a fine sight. These prairie folk were no Punaji, but once properly motivated, they weren’t going to take the Riders’ abuse lying down. She was born to lead men like this into battle.
“All right!” she called, brandishing her sword overhead and bringing it down in a flashing arc to point at the street. “Gentlemen: let’s fuck ’em up!”
The farmer averted his eyes from the discharge of lightning, grimacing, but when he raised the smoking tip of his staff, the horse was dead. It had been the only kindness they could offer the beast, which had broken two legs in the fall. Turning, he picked his way back toward the others, carefully avoiding the streaks of ice that marred the grass, one of which had brought the Rider to grief. It was plenty warm even at this late hour; the ice was steaming in the prairie air, already melting away. Good; the ground could use the water, and he limped hard enough without slipping on fairy magic in his own front yard.
Now, in addition to the talkative ball of light zipping around, there was an elf standing next to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say the situation is under control,” the elf was saying as he rejoined them, leaning on the staff. “However, the prospects are optimistic. The Hand of Avei is executing a workable strategy which, if successful, will bring an end to the Riders in Sarasio.”
“What strategy?” the old man demanded, keeping his weight on the staff and off his aching hip as much as possible.
She turned and bowed to him. “The men who attended the meeting in town are dispersed at the northern and southern edges, sweeping inward and pushing the Riders before them. My people have fanned out along the flanks to prevent them escaping that way. We will surround them in the center of Sarasio and finish them here.”
“Hnh,” he grunted, rubbing his chin. “Sounds pretty solid.”
“It is!” chimed the pixie, bobbing up and down. “Trissiny is great with plans, she knows all about war!”
“Agreed,” said the elf solemnly.
“Welp, seems to be all settled here,” the old farmer said, straightening up. “You’ll need every warm body you can get to herd ’em up proper. Which way next?”
“Oh no you don’t, Gramps,” Lucy said firmly, keeping a grip on the toddler, who was gazing raptly at Fross and trying to grab the pixie. “There’s no way you’re goin’ out there on that bum leg.”
“Girl, I been protectin’ this land since before you was a gleam in your daddy’s eye! If the men are finishing off the Riders, I ain’t about to sit this out.”
“I fear it will not be possible for anyone to sit it out,” the elvish woman said, turning her big, serious eyes on him. “The operation is aimed at controlling chaos, but chaos has a way of escaping. For exactly that reason, it makes more tactical sense for you to remain with your farm, elder. You have demonstrated your prowess with that weapon; lacking mobility, you better serve the effort holding this ground.”
He growled, searching for a flaw in her argument, but Fross chimed in before he could speak.
“All right, well, I’m still pretty mobile! I’m gonna head upward and see where they need the most help. Be careful, everybody! I’ll try to come back if you run into trouble!”
She shot skyward with a soft chime, leaving the humans and lone elf staring after her.
“Friendly little glowbug,” the old man said, then looked over at the dissolving patches of ice. “Scary, though.”
“Here they come,” Gabriel noted unnecessarily, raising his wand alongside the rest of the men in line. Trissiny nodded, her eyes fixed on the five mounted figures which had burst out of a gap between buildings. The townsfolk had reached the outer edge of the city, almost coming to the point where she would have to rearrange their formation to get them through the streets—a logistical mess to which she was not looking forward. Now, the Riders wheeled down the central street straight at the line.
Several of the men in their path shied backward, but at Trissiny’s roar of “FIRE!” lightning flashed forward from a dozen wands and staves, striking one down, glancing off the flank of another’s horse and causing the panicked animal to bear him to the ground, and making a third wheel and bolt back into the town.
She mentally added “poor shots” to her list of reservations about the men she was leading.
Two still came, though. Identical as they looked in their hoods and cloaks, Trissiny knew the one in the lead was one she’d met before.
“HOLD FIRE!” she shouted, and urged Arjen forward.
At her approach, glowing like the sun, the fourth Rider wheeled around and galloped back into the town. The leader, though, kept coming right at her, controlling his mount with his knees and taking aim with both wands.
The light he shot at her was more intense and more direct than most of the lightning bolts she’d seen hurled about this night. Also, he used it with a lot more technique. One wand kept up a veritable spray, hitting her shield hard in a roughly circular area around her face, nearly blinding her; Trissiny felt the impacts as if in her own limbs, that region of the glowing shield weakening and drawing more power to compensate. Then it got worse: a much more powerful single bolt smashed right into the center of the targeted region. Then another.
He had fought light-wielders before, clearly. Over time, assuming she did nothing, the technique would wear through the shield until she took one of those hits directly. Matters were different, though, with the two of them barreling at each other at top speed. Arjen whinnied and tossed his head, clearly understanding the danger; Trissiny did a quick calculation in her mind. Her shield was failing. She was seconds from getting within sword range. Was it enough time?
Arjen lowered his head, and Trissiny raised her metal shield as her divine one shattered under a last bruising wandshot. Raw energy struck; the impact physically rocked her, and she felt the shield grow warm, felt a moment of real fear. That shield was ancient, not made to stand up to modern energy weapons.
Then the shield itself glowed gold. It had been forged before mass-produced wands were even dreamed of, but a shield given to the Hands of Avei had been meant to withstand curses, dragonfire and all the perils of the Age of Adventures.
She closed with the Rider, and bashed him with the shield in passing. He tried to wheel his horse around; Arjen followed with astounding agility, but he was a huge creature built for power and the Rider’s leaner mount proved more agile. Trissiny managed to bring her sword into play, but only felt the slightest snag as its tip nicked the Rider’s shoulder in passing.
Then he was vanishing back into the warren of dirt streets. She watched after him for a moment before turning Arjen back to rejoin her troops, who greeted her with cheers and brandished weapons. A few wands were even fired skyward in celebration.
“If they’re spread as thinly as the elves have suggested,” she said, “they can’t have enough manpower concentrated in one place to do that too many times. Luckily they tried it here instead of against Ruda’s line.”
Gabriel grinned up at her. “I’ll refrain from telling her you said that.”
Teal panted slightly as she came padding up out of the darkness on bare feet. “How’re we doing?”
“Apparently we are meeting with some success,” Shaeine replied, nodding to the elf who had arrived moments before to deliver a terse report. “Both lines have entered the city proper, and been slowed considerably by the need to navigate the streets, which presents obvious challenges. Only two Riders have slipped through the blockade; one was brought down by elven warriors, and Fross is pursuing the other as we speak.”
“The Hand of Avei just broke a Rider charge aimed at her lines,” said another elf, arriving out of the darkness. “One Rider slain, another dismounted and apprehended by our scouts. We don’t find a similar concentration of them anywhere else in the town. They have evinced no signs that they are in communication; it’s not clear yet whether the entire group realizes what is happening.”
“Good,” growled one of the humans nearby. They were a mixed group, standing at the western edge of Sarasio: a small, constantly rotating roster of about half a dozen elves kept coming and going, relaying information before darting back out to gather more. About twice their number of townsfolk had been gathered, all armed; most of Sarasio’s men having gone to the meeting and now forming the main battle lines, these were the leftovers, those rescued from beleaguered outer farms. More than half were women, the rest a mix of elderly and adolescents of both sexes, all armed.
“I suggest we press forward,” said the elven warrior who had remained alongside Shaeine throughout the night. “The battle enters a new phase as it enters the town, and it will not do to be left behind.”
“Sounds good,” a middle-aged woman with a staff slung over her shoulder said, nodding. “C’mon, everybody. You see anything in a white cloak, blast it.”
The group moved forward in a loose formation, elves fanning out to scout ahead and cover the flanks, townsfolk forming a rough line behind them. Shaeine walked in the rear, Teal falling into step behind her.
“Have you seen Juniper?” Teal asked.
The drow shook her head. “Not since we parted ways at the edge of the forest. I confess I worry more for her than any of our other compatriots; she is resilient, but we have seen her vulnerability to lightning. I can only trust that she knows how to take care of herself.”
“I guess we’d hear about it if anything happened to her,” Teal agreed, nodding. “Naiya apparently isn’t the subtle type.”
They slowed slightly, the outer buildings of the town looming ahead.
“You approached on foot,” Shaeine noted.
“Ah…yeah, I figured it’d be best not to startle the locals any more than we can help. On that note, I see you’ve been sticking by the other elves.”
“It seemed wisest,” Shaeine agreed with a faint smile. “Though after the initial shock wears off, I have been offered no hostility as yet, once I show myself to be allied with them. These people are admirably pragmatic.”
“Yeah…” Teal swallowed. “I hate that it had to come to this.”
“As do I,” Shaeine said quietly.
“I just… I know sometimes you can’t talk things out. It just seems like fighting in the streets is a failure.”
“I think you’re right on both points. Many failures have led to this disaster… But the situation is what it is. It can no longer be solved with words. Our best hope is decisive action, to prevent the crisis from dragging itself out further.”
Teal nodded. “I guess I’m fairly well invincible, but… Still. I’ve never been in a… I mean, it’s still terrifying. The though of losing… Someone I’ve come to care about.”
Shaeine looked at her and smiled gently. “I know.”
They had come to a stop, the others moving ahead at a very careful pace now. Teal swallowed, and took one of Shaeine’s hands in her own. The drow glanced down in apparent surprise, then lifted her gaze with an inquisitive look. Teal took a short but deep breath and leaned in closer.
The first naked emotion she had ever seen on Shaeine’s face descended: shock. The drow jerked backward, pulling her hand away. “I think there has been a miscommunication.”
“Oh,” Teal said weakly, going deathly pale. “Oh, I… Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t… I don’t…”
“It’s all right,” Shaeine said evenly, turning and gliding forward with her normal serenity firmly in place. Behind her, Teal gulped, allowing her own misery to show on her features for a moment before getting it back under control.
“I… Sorry, Shaeine, I don’t want—”
“It’s past,” she replied, her tone even and very nearly curt. “We needn’t discuss it.”
They reached the streets in silence.
At the rear of the group, Teal cleared her throat. “Seems quiet here. I’m gonna find where the trouble is and help.” There was a rush of flames the sound of beating wings, and then a fiery figure soared over them, vanishing beyond the rooftops.
One of the elves glanced over at Shaeine with a wry half-grin. “Smooth.”
She glided past him without response.
Toby straightened, helping a young man to his feet, the glow of healing around him subsiding.
“My thanks, friend,” the lad said with a smile. “Ah… I mean, sir. Mister. Your, uh, paladin-ness.”
“Toby’s fine,” he replied, grinning.
“Nice horse!” Ruda said cheerfully as two men calmed the rearing animal. Two others were roughly hog-tying the Rider who had been knocked from the saddle by a low-hanging sign he had tried to ride under to avoid their group after seeing all the wands pointing his way. “Maybe I should keep one a’ these. Course, I’d have to learn how to ride it…”
“We’re doing well,” said a voice from above. No matter how many times it happened, the soundless appearance of an elf made most of those present jump and aim their weapons. The slim woman now perched atop the general store sign continued, ignoring this. “Your pixie friend has brought down the last Rider to evade the blockade; all those still in action are within the town, being herded toward the center. Most are now dismounted; that flying demon has been chasing them down and scaring the horses into bucking them for the last fifteen minutes. She seems oddly reluctant to fight.”
“Yeah, that’s no surprise,” Ruda said, nodding. “Teal’d never forgive her for getting blood on her claws. How’s the formation overall?”
“Uneven and prone to buckling,” the elf said with a smile, “but impressively effective. Your friend Trissiny makes good plans.”
“I was afraid of that,” Ruda said sourly. “There’ll be no living with her now.”
Another form dropped from above, earning another round of curses, jumps and pointed weapons, but she similarly ignored this, making a beeline for the young man who had recently been injured.
He saw her at the same time. “Thassli!”
The two met in the middle of the alley and embraced, while the nearby men and elves averted their eyes, embarrassed, and Ruda grinned unabashedly.
“Hi, Jason,” Thassli said finally, pulling back enough to cup his face in both hands.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” he said.
“I told you, love, you just have to be patient.” Someone coughed.
“I can’t be patient anymore.” Taking both her hands in his own, he knelt before her in the dust. Behind him, Lucas Wilcox clenched his jaw, glaring. “Thassli, will you marry me?”
“What?” She laughed lightly. “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous.”
The silence that fell was awkward to the point of being physically painful. Ruda let out a low whistle.
“I,” he choked. “But…”
“Jason,” Thassli said with gentle reproof, ruffling his hair, “we’ve had fun. You’re a sweet boy, really. But, honestly, if I wanted to tie my heart to a hairy, overly exuberant creature who’ll die just when I’ve had time to get properly attached to him… Well, I could just get a dog, couldn’t I? Now c’mon.” She tugged the unresisting lad to his feet. “The night’s not over. I’ll come find you when we win this. Try not to get killed, eh?”
She blew him a kiss, then kicked off a nearby wall, grasped the overhanging roof opposite, heaved herself lightly up and vanished.
Ruda cleared her throat. “Yeah, well, anyway. On we go, stuff to do, assholes to shoot…”
“I did tell you, boy,” Wilcox said wearily, coming up to stand next to Jason.
“Yeah.” The boy sounded numb. “I heard you, pa. Always said that elf was trouble. I just figured…”
“You figured I had a problem with you carryin’ on with an elf,” Wilcox said, draping an arm around his son’s shoulders. “You don’t listen, boy. I said that elf was trouble.”
“Hell, I told you that,” Robin added from the roof above, causing another ripple of startlement among the men.
“Dammit, will y’all stop doin’ that!” somebody shouted.
“Here.” Grinning ruefully, Ruda handed Jason a bottle of whiskey. He took it in silence, pulled out the stopper with his teeth and took a long pull. “Now c’mon, boys. We’ve still got work to do.”
“Wait,” said Robin, her expression grim. “We’ve got a problem.”
“Hostages?” Trissiny said sharply.
The elven scout nodded, his eyes serious. “Four groups have managed to take them. They appear to have arrived at this plan independently, but as we’ve forced them into the middle of the town, more have met up and consolidated both their forces and their strategies.”
She drew in a long breath and let it out through her teeth. “You have archers?”
“Moving into position now,” he said. “But coordination is a problem. Our strikes would need to be simultaneous, and the Riders are adeptly making use of urban cover to prevent us from getting a clear shot.”
“All right,” she said, then raised her voice, turning to look back at the men following her. They had broken into multiple groups to push forward through the streets, and not all of those she’d set out with were present; those remaining were in a cluster rather than a line now. “Everyone, continue moving forward, but slowly, and do not fire on enemy targets until you are certain they have no hostages.”
“Ma’am?” one said, worry etched on his features. “What if they do? I mean… How’ll we get our people back?”
“If all else fails, we’ll negotiate,” she said flatly. “But before it comes to that, I’ll trust in the elves to pick them off. Now, move ahead.”
They didn’t have much farther to move before joining another group of townsfolk, followed by a third emerging from another alley. The noose had tightened significantly; they were not exactly in the center of the town, more like several streets to the east, but Trissiny sensed at once that they had reached the place where the endgame would play out.
Mostly because of the Riders who were there ahead of them.
She counted eight with a quick scan. Half their number were occupied with holding two young women by the arms, including one Trissiny recognized.
“Really?” Jenny was saying aloud as they approached. “Really? The damsel in distress? Oh, if you only knew how insulting this is.”
“Quiet,” growled one of the Riders, aiming a wand at her face. Jenny shut her mouth, glaring at him. To her credit, she didn’t seem much perturbed by her predicament, unlike the other hostage, who appeared to be on the verge of fainting.
“Not another step,” said the leader of the Riders, his distinctively eerie voice echoing through the street. He pointed one wand at Trissiny, and the other in the opposite direction down the street—where, she could see from her vantage atop Arjen, a large group of townsfolk with Ruda and Toby at their head had just rounded a corner into view. They were proceeding slowly and carefully, clearly having been warned of the situation just as she was, and came to a stop at the Rider’s warning.
More Riders arrived, drifting in from all directions, but now they pressed themselves against walls, under eaves; some kept their wands on hostages, of which there were now four, two more groups having arrived with victims in tow. The rest divided their focus between the two large groups of townspeople and students and keeping weapons trained on the rooftops. Obviously, they had managed to meet and compare notes, and were aware of the intervention of the elves.
Another Rider backed into view, keeping his wand aimed into the alley from which he’d come. A moment later, Juniper emerged, glaring at him. Trissiny’s momentary surge of hope died when two more Riders came right after her, also holding wands on her.
“I really don’t think you want to do that,” the dryad warned.
“Shut it, bitch!”
Trissiny unconsciously raised her sword.
“Enough,” said the leader. Just hearing his voice was like having wet burlap dragged over her ears. “Everyone stand down. Everyone. I want all weapons dropped.”
“And if we don’t?” Ruda called from the other end of the street.
“Don’t be disingenuous,” he replied, shifting his wand to aim at Juniper’s head.
“And then what?” Trissiny called. “Right now, you have a chance of being taken properly into custody and serving jail time. Play that card, and nothing I say or do will stop these men from tearing you to shreds. I may not be inclined to try.”
“I’m sure that will make you feel much better,” he replied mockingly. “Will it bring back the dead?”
Vadrienly landed on a nearby roof with a force that shook the building, slate tiles crunching under her talons.
“There are so many things,” she said, baring fangs down at the group, “that are so much worse than death.”
“I will not warn you again!” The leader raised his voice. “Drop your weapons! NOW!”
Occupied with the tense drama unfolding, Trissiny hadn’t realized what street they were on until the door of the Shady Lady opened and Joe Jenkins stepped out. Riders swiveled to aim wands at him; ignoring this, he calmly strolled across the sidewalk, stepped down into the street and paced forward till he stood at its center.
To his sharply-tailored suit he had added a knee-length leather duster with a matching black hat; he kept his head tilted forward at an angle that hid his eyes under its brim. The duster was belted at the waist, his holstered wands hanging at his sides. His hands hovered just above them.
He finally raised his head, staring directly at the leader of the White Riders.
“Gentlemen,” said the Kid. “Draw.”