The Taurin Chronicles: Book III
The creatures were upon them—massive dark beasts that brought the low hum with them as they descended on the town. Townspeople ran for cover in shops, homes, barns—whatever was closest—but not before the beasts found several easy targets in the streets. They dove, talons sinking deep into the flesh of innocent people. Screams rose up to replace the hum of wings in Braedan’s ears, and he roared his anger in response.
“Sire, no!” Malcolm called, but Braedan was already running toward the guard quarters with the rest of Dylan’s men, all of them donning helmets and drawing swords as they went. On the wall, archers aimed and fired repeatedly, but few arrows hit the mark as the winds blew them off course.
The beasts rose and circled again as Braedan emerged on the street. He stopped at the first body he came to—a man, the flesh of his back exposed to reveal black rot around the wound. “What are they?” he shouted to Malcolm.
“Don’t know—Ferimin? I thought they were a myth!”
“Nothing is a myth anymore!” Braedan swore and ran to the middle of the street. “Your fight is with me!” he shouted, raising his sword over his head and waving his arms. “Leave these people alone—fight me, you bastards!”
And then, to his surprise, one of them landed and shimmered. The big blond warrior gave him a twisted, foul grin, and Braedan swallowed hard. “Gods,” he whispered. “Matthias.”
The former guard gave him a mocking bow. “How long has it been? I trust you’ve treated my intended well.”
Anger swelled in Braedan’s throat. “Igraine is not your intended. You tried to rape her. She didn’t even know your name.”
“She will. Eventually.” He lifted his face and whistled, and the black birds rose above the town to hover. “You are right, of course. The fight is with you, not with these people. But are you willing? Would you let me strike you down now if I swore to spare the town?”
Gods—Alshada—deliver us from evil. Braedan’s mind grasped, reached, clawed for some prayer, some remembered words that might reach the heavens and bring aid. Alshada, save us. “How would I know you were telling the truth? How could I be certain you wouldn’t destroy this town anyway—or destroy all of Taura—once I was gone?”
Matthias laughed. There was a mania about it that chilled Braedan’s core. “Of course you don’t. That’s the risk.” He whistled again, and one of the creatures dove and snatched up an archer from the wall. The man’s screams faded as the creature rose higher and higher, carrying him in his talons the entire time. “Say the word, and I will bring him back down,” Matthias said. “Sacrifice yourself, and he comes back to earth in one piece.”
Behind Matthias, Malcolm crept through shadows, inching closer to the creature while attempting to remain undetected. Braedan forced himself to focus on Matthias’ face. “Bring him down first, and then we can talk,” Braedan said.
“You would not lay down your life for these people who have sheltered you, given you sanctuary for these many weeks, even when their very lives were threatened by the woman you brought with you?”
“I would lay down my life for any of them, for all of them,” Braedan shouted. “I would sacrifice myself for this country or her people. But I won’t do it without assurances.”
Matthias laughed again. “Very well.” He whistled.
The screaming grew louder and louder once again, and then Braedan realized what was happening. “No!” he screamed, but it was too late.
The archer’s body hit the ground next to Braedan with a noise that threatened to turn Braedan’s stomach inside out.
Braedan’s voice rose above the din of screams, shouts, horror at the deaths in the town. He swung his blade up over his head. “Fight me, you son of a bitch,” he shouted. “Now—fight me and leave these people alone!”
Matthias drew a sword and crouched, ready for the fight. He whistled again, and Braedan felt the birds gather around. “Kill the guard,” Matthias said. “This pretender is mine.”
Too late, Braedan saw one of the birds fall hard on Malcolm. His guard screamed once in agony and then fell silent.
Alshada, no—NO! Braedan swung and met Matthias’ swing with a clang. All around, the birds dove and attacked and flew back into the sky with fresh prey—women, children, men, no one was too big or too small. Braedan had to force back the terror of the sight to fight Matthias. “Leave them, you bastard!”
The creature in front of him only laughed and struck again.
Braedan focused on the beast, sensing the help that came from the estate house in the form of guards, archers, and even Haldor Dylan himself. The duke ran toward the melee with sword drawn, roaring his defiance. One of the creatures dove toward him, and he swung at the beast’s leg, cutting through feather, skin, bone. The Ferimin screeched and fell, and Dylan cut its head off before turning to face another one.
Matthias swung again, and Braedan turned his attention back to the big blond warrior. He blocked the sword. “Why here? Why this town?”
Matthias sneered. “Do you think disposing of one of Nahma’s favorites would be taken lightly?”
Revenge for Aldora’s death. Alshada deliver us… Braedan’s blood ran cold. He fought, parried, swung, pushed back against the creature before him. “I thought there were wards—”
“The wards are gone. You killed them. And now Taura is vulnerable, and those who deserve to take her will rule her in your stead.”
White hot anger burned in Braedan’s belly at that. “You will not!” he shouted. He redoubled his efforts, swinging again and again as he drove Matthias back, back toward a wall.
But the mad guard only laughed harder. He’s letting me win, Braedan thought, but he couldn’t force himself to work out why Matthias would let him win, nor could he stop. He drove back harder, swinging, the clang and clamor of swords and blades all around him drowning out anything else.
Matthias parried a blow, knocking Braedan’s sword from his hand, and used the momentum of turning back toward Braedan to catch the king in the chest with his broad shoulder. Braedan’s head reeled and buzzed as the blow forced air out of his lungs. He struggled for breath as Matthias pinned him against a wall. He let go long enough to turn, grab Braedan’s tunic, and push Braedan back against the wall, his face only inches from Braedan’s. “You thought you could defy history, magic, the gods, the world you can’t see,” he whispered. “You thought you were smarter, stronger, than the forces you defy.” He drew a long blade and held it up in front of Braedan’s face. “You were wrong.”
A flash of light, and a man with a burn-ravaged face appeared next to Matthias. “No—don’t kill him—you’ll—”
It took a moment for Braedan to even realize what had happened. Then his tunic turned warm, wet, and his body went limp, and Matthias stepped back. Braedan tried to move, tried to control his arms, hands, legs, but he couldn’t gain purchase. He fell on the cobblestones, unable to speak, unable to hold any thought but that he could not save Igraine, could not save the town, could not save Taura… Igraine, my love…
The burned man screamed. “You fool! The wards—”
“I don’t care about wards,” Matthias said. Pain twisted his face, but he crouched next to Braedan and hissed through gritted teeth. “Don’t worry about your princess. I’ll be sure she is well cared for.” He shimmered into the form of the black beast and flew away.
And then Haldor Dylan was there at his side. “Oh, lad,” he whispered. “Oh laddie, hold on, nae.
But Braedan couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t speak. He tried to blink away the encroaching darkness. “Town…” he managed to croak. He coughed, tried to draw breath, couldn’t… He tasted the blood, felt the foam in his mouth….
“’Tis well, lad. We killed some of them. The rest flew away. I canna say why.”
Braedan tried to nod, but couldn’t. “C-cold…”
“Hang on, lad. Hang on. The boys are coming.”
But Dylan’s voice faded, and the town faded…