Branston sees a glimpse of the enemy's power.
Chapter Twenty Five:
At the snap of the loosed bow string, Branston flinched. An arrow flew past, the whoosh sounding in his ear.
Branston cried out and hit the ground. He crashed into the mud, his dead horse lying with an arrow in its eye. He released the reins and scrambled away as soldiers threw down their lances and strung bows.
“Dragon Guards,” said Captain Chygoll. “Retreat, we’ll handle this.” He dropped to a knee and fitted an arrow.
Branston stared out at the dark shapes, pain gripping the side of his head. The shapes grew closer, the guttural snarls louder and fervent.
The sick scent of blood burned at Branston’s nose, and his own blood trailed down his neck.
The soldiers loosed arrows toward the shapes. Some missiles found their mark, and the shapes crashed into the water. The creatures roared, and the horses screeched and bolted.
The dozen soldiers’ horses came for Branston in a thick mass. Their legs stamped the mud, crossing distance swiftly.
Branston shouted and fled their path, tumbling over the body of his horse and scrambling to his feet.
The beasts across the water loosed more arrows, and Branston threw himself to the ground with arms around his head. The horses passed him by. Mud flew in speckles across Branston while arrows zipped overhead.
Aclaides lay on his stomach a couple yards away, his horse gone and his teeth bared, eyes toward the river. The beasts drew closer, boats pushing larger ripples against the shore. Somewhere beyond the reeds lay Thanorg, out of sight.
Aclaides met Branston’s eyes and said, “Are you all right?”
Branston nodded, though he shuddered.
“I’m calling my dragon,” Aclaides said.
Branston looked to the bank as the three boats landed. Creatures head and shoulders taller than a man leaped from the boat and landed on thick legs. Their skin was like tree bark, and yellow eyes burned with violence as they bared their fangs. They threw down large bows and pulled out crude swords with jagged edges.
Four beasts emerged from each large canoe, charging the soldiers.
“Where’s your dragon?” Branston hissed, rising to a knee and pulling out his sword. Soldiers tossed aside their bows and drew blades. Those blades looked puny before the weapons of the beasts who bore down on them.
“Close,” Aclaides said, mimicking Branston’s stance.
As the soldiers and beasts clashed, the beat of wings sounded over the violence.
The mist shook, swirling towards the ground. The dragon flew overhead, releasing a stream of flame to the river. Monsters screamed as they burned in their boats. The dragon hovered, wings beating, torching along the river. As the mist scattered before the flame and wind, the river became clear.
Dozens of boats filled with monsters scorched beneath the deadly stream, but something lay on the other side of the river. A creature on four sinuous legs thrice the height of a man and twice as wide, a body ten yards long propped up, beady eyes on a pointed face looking toward the dragon. Transparent wings drew back over it’s body, and claws on massive paws dug into the ground.
“Aclaides.” Branston pointed.
Aclaides spotted the creature, his mouth agape. The red dragon ceased its assault on the river, ignoring the scorched boats and burning monsters that dove into the water, and turned its attention to the creature on the far bank.
The creature lunged, wings spreading and flapping. The wings alone matched the dragon’s body in length. It darted toward the dragon with speed greater then its body should allow.
A jet of flame flew from the dragon’s maw and rolled ineffectively off the creature.
Branston gaped as the beasts collided and spiraled through the air. Wings and limbs thrashed about like a cat fight. Bodies rolled and jaws snapped, seeking a hold.
Aclaides cursed as the momentum of the collision carried the animals over their heads. Branston and Aclaides spun to watch the beasts separate and hold themselves aloft in the air.
“Branston,” Aclaides growled. “Find Thanorg please; the soldiers need help.”
Branston nodded, springing to his feet, glancing toward the skirmish on the bank. Three men lay dead, and four beasts.
He sprinted for the reeds, boats blazed and fell apart in the corner of his eye. Springing over the thicket, Branston landed unsteadily in the mud and found Thanorg leaning against the tree with an arrow in his shoulder. His pale face was slack, though life lit his eyes. He looked to Branston, gripping his sword.
“It’s all right.” Branston dropped to a knee at Thanorg’s side. Sweat drenched the older man’s face, and though his eyes were lit, they were distant. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Thanorg said. “No, don’t pull the arrow!”
Branston lowed his hand, glancing back for foes. The flying creatures grappled in the sky, jets of flame scorching the air in bursts.
“I don’t think I’ll make it,” Thanorg groaned. Arrows stuck in the leaning tree. “You have to get out of here.” He lifted a hand, pointing toward the river.
Branston twisted on his knee, looking. Dozens of boats sailed along the current, moving through the flaming skeletons of other vessels. Burned monsters dragged themselves onto the shore, scrambling to their feet and pulling swords free, roaring at the sky.
The reeds hid Branston and Thanorg, but they would soon be found. Behind, the dragon screeched in pain, and Aclaides roared a curse, his voice cracking with grief.
Branston looked to the aerial creatures. The dragon fell slack, crashing to the ground below. The other beast hovered, wings beating. A screech rang from its pointed jaws, and it soared towards the river. Branston crouched as low as he could on one knee as the beast drew nearer, a rumbling sound came from the monster, and it drew back its head and spat at the soldiers fighting.
The liquid crashed into the group of men, and they fell screaming. Their skin sizzled and their armor and weapons melted. They clawed at their skin as it melted away.
Thanorg gripped Branston’s arm. “Get Aclaides and go. Escape into the river and get to the far side.”
Branston looked to the far bank, only twenty yards away.
“Go,” Thanorg spat.
Branston blinked frightened tears from his eye. “I’m sorry, Thanorg.”
Branston shot to his feet and ran toward Aclaides, who strode his way, hate in his eyes.
“Aclaides, we have to go,” Branston said, stopping before the man. “Your brother is injured, he won’t make it.”
Aclaides yanked Branston close by the collar. “We’re not leaving him.” Then Aclaides looked past Branston, and his eyes welled up.
Branston pulled from his grip and looked to Thanorg. The man sat leaned back against the tree, a knife in his heart. His hand rest limp upon the handle.
“No,” Aclaides muttered.
Branston looked to the man. “More boats are coming, we need to get out of here. A forest is across the river, we can swim and escape.”
Aclaides nodded, wet eyes still on Thanorg, and yanked the brooch from his cape, sheathing his sword. “Let’s go.”
Branston cut his cape free and sheathed his sword, running low with Aclaides close behind. They headed for the water, passing Thanorg’s body.
Branston eased into the water, careful not to splash, then swam underneath the surface.
Soot darkened the water, and burned at Branston’s eyes, but he kept swimming to the other end, which was within sight. Heart beating as hard as his arms, he passed under the floating bodies of charred creatures.
As his lungs screamed for air, Branston pulled himself onto the far shore, gasping. He dashed forward and hid behind a tree, watching Aclaides pull himself from the water. On the opposite end of the river, the strange winged beast hovered, wings beating rhythmically and head swiveling, searching. The boats glided with the current, beasts looking to the flaming wreckage. Their snarls and shouts rang from the water, and they paddled harder. The winged beast landed and walked along the bank, calmly.
“We can’t stop,” Aclaides said between coughs. His eyes were dull and red, and he walked wearily, slogging through the grass.
Branston nodded, turning away and heading deeper into the forest.
END OF CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE