The shouts of pursuit spilled into the passage behind them. A thud by his head and a skipping off a stone at his feet told The Unknown Warrior that the bowmen had almost got their range. He pushed Diera in front of him, still trying to support her terrified stumbling run, Jonas whimpering again under her cloak.
“Keep running if I fall.”
Another shaft whistled past his head, burying itself in the wall just beyond. Diera yelped. “Ten yards ahead, a turning.”
He saw her nod. Arrows clattered into the walls behind, another flew overhead. He ducked reflexively, arms coming up to protect Diera. They swung left. The Unknown sensed fighting very close. Ahead, a shorter passageway ended at a blank wall and was split by an intersection.
“Right, go right,” he said, pushing Diera ever faster. She half stumbled.
“Please,” she said. “Jonas.”
“Move!” he snapped. “Don’t stop.”
She started and ran on, taking the right turn.
Twenty yards and it opened out on to war. The street beyond was ablaze. Men ran everywhere, orders were barked over the deafening roar of battle. Spells fell at random, fire and lightning gouging rents in the ground and destroying unshielded soldiers, corpses and screaming wounded littered the ground.
“Ten yards and stop!” shouted The Unknown. “Take the doorway. Crouch small.”
Not waiting to see her make it, he swung to face the opening, dragging out his sword, its point tapping rhythmically in the mud. They were only moments away, their breath and words betraying them. First was a bowman, tearing blindly round the corner, and arrow nocked in his bow. The Unknown shifted his weight forwards and drove his sword up between the archer’s legs and out through his ribcage, the power of the blow not just stopping him but launching him backwards, dead before he hit the ground.
A couple of paces behind came a pair of swordsmen, one slightly in advance, both more wary than their erstwhile companion. The Unknown batted aside the first blade and straight punched the soldier in the face, feeling his nose break and sending him tumbling back. The second, quick and accurate, whipped a deep cut into The Unknown’s left arm.
He swore at the sudden pain and brought his sword back one-handed across his body low, biting into his attacker’s thigh. The man cried out and half fell forwards. The Unknown took his chance, lashing out with a foot and catching the soldier on the point of his jaw. His head snapped back with a wet crack. He crumpled.
The Unknown advanced on the other swordsman who looked at him through bloodied hands, turned and ran away, shouting for help. It would have to be enough. The Raven warrior hurried to Diera.
“Your arm.” She reached out.
“It’s fine,” he said, glancing at the blood slicking over his hand.
“No time for bandages. We’ve got to go. Now.” He leaned in and kissed her. “Stay close to me and you’ll live.”
“We’re going out there.”
“It’s the only way.”
The Unknown knew what he had to do. Sword in right hand, Diera’s trembling hand in his left, he moved quickly to the opening onto the main street, keeping as far into the shadows as he could.
Out on the street it was mayhem. To the left, Xetesk was defending the entrance to a small square but the line was fragmented. Dordovan forces were pouring down the street from the north, their mages bombarding the rear of the line with FlameOrbs and HotRain, filling the sky with orange radiance. Soldiers threw themselves on the wavering Xeteskian soldiers, pounding them, threatening to drive them back and open their flanks. It had to be one of half a dozen key conflicts in the town but the defence he wanted wasn’t there.
“Where are they?”
“You know,” said The Unknown. A ForceCone tore out from the Xeteskian line, scattering unshielded Dordovans from in front. There was an opening. “Let’s go.”
Diera’s scream was lost in the storm of noise that assaulted them out in the street. The Unknown lashed to his right, a soldier fell clutching at his entrails. The big warrior hauled his wife and child behind him, running full tilt at the back of the Dordovan assault.
He ignored the voices raised against him as he passed, praying for the confusion of the fight to hide him for just long enough. He glanced down at Diera, so small and fragile and a fear grabbed his heart. That he might not get her through. That she and Jonas might fall under the swords of men who attacked them because of him and him alone. At the same moment, she glanced up and through her terror, he saw determination. She clutched Jonas tighter under her cloak. The Unknown nodded.
Never letting her go but keeping her just behind him as he dodged through the chaos of activity he hoped would shield them, he pushed men aside, sword hilt connecting roughly with shoulder face and back.
And they reacted like all conscripts to a voice of authority. For a few priceless heartbeats, a path opened to the fighting line but he knew it couldn’t last. One of them turned and recognised him.
“What – ?”
The Unknown’s sword took out his throat. He tightened his grip on Diera’s hand and surged on, soldiers on all sides alerted to the enemy in their midst. He drove his blade through the back of a man too slow to react and kicked him aside, swayed left to dodge a blow from his flank and clashed swords with a third who turned from the fight.
“Open the line!” He roared at the Xeteskians who should have been prepared for him. “Open the line!”
But the Dordovans were holding too comfortably. Just yards from relative safety and he was going to be trapped. He swung Diera round and backed towards the side of the street.
“Shout if anyone comes behind,” he said.
FlameOrbs dropped into the centre of the street, flaring off spell shields, the fire routed harmlessly into the ground. In the flash of light, The Unknown saw eight or ten moving towards him, all wary of his reputation unlike the others that came before them, but all confident in their advance.
“It’ll be all right,” said The Unknown.
But it wouldn’t. He looked frantically at the line of Xeteskian warriors backed by archers and mages and kept at bay by their Dordovan aggressors.
“Push your right, damn you!” he shouted, not even sure now if they’d seen him at all.
A sword thrust came in. He blocked it easily. He squared up to the overwhelming numbers, letting go of Diera at last and gripping his sword two-handed. He weaved it slowly in front of him, fencing away the first feints. He identified first and second targets and wondered how many he could take with him.
“Take a dagger from my belt. When I fall, run. Hug the wall and try and get through. Find a Protector.”
“I won’t leave you.”
“You’ll do as I say. I got you into this and I’m getting you out.”
He lunged forwards, striking left to right, blade weight beating aside a weak defence and nicking through leather. The target fell back, The Unknown did likewise. The rest closed, scant feet from him now but unwilling to attack. They were a disparate group, not under command. Maybe. Just maybe.
Consternation rippled through the Dordovan line to his left. ForceCones flew out from the Xeteskian mages, scattering Dordovans behind the front. Two of his attackers fell. A heavy detonation sounded. The building next to him shook and tottered under an EarthHammer. More ForceCones. Very close. The edge of one caught him a glancing blow and he sprawled. Diera screamed.
The Unknown rolled onto his back. Dordovans flew at him, three at least fast to their feet.
We are come.
Panic spread into the Dordovan line. The trio running at The Unknown faltered then came on again. Halfway to his feet, The Unknown sheared aside a thrust to his chest and jumped back. A second came in but it didn’t get close to its target, stopped by the flat blade of a massive axe.
Protectors sprinted in front of him. He drove to his feet as Diera yelped in surprise. He turned to see her lifted from the ground by one of the Xeteskian elite who took her to safety. He heard a voice by his ear.
“You go too.”
He looked round into the blank mask of a Protector and nodded.
A backward glance told him the Protectors were holding the gap. The Unknown nodded again and ran away after his wife and down on to the dockside where the Calaian Sun bobbed against the dock.
With his wife and son safely below decks in their cabin, he came back to the wheel deck to shake hands with Jevin, the ship’s captain but could see instantly that all was not right. There were Protectors and Xeteskian mages everywhere on board and the ship was already underway.
“Thank you for waiting.”
“It’s what you pay me for,” said Jevin curtly.
“What’s all this about?” asked The Unknown. “I agreed half a dozen research mages. There must be twenty here.”
“Thirty,” corrected Jevin. “And a hundred Protectors.”
“Ask him,” Jevin gestured at a tall young mage striding towards the wheel deck ladder. “I’ve got a ship to sail.”
The Unknown watched the mage scale quickly up the ladder. He smiled as he approached.
“The Unknown Warrior,” he said, extending a hand. “I’m glad you got through.”
“Sytkan,” said The Unknown, ignoring his hand. “Are you going to tell me what this small army is doing onboard Jevin’s ship?”
Sytkan at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. “It was felt at the highest level that Herendeneth should be secured from Dordovan invasion.”
The Unknown cleared his throat and looked back to the dockside. It was ringed with fire but secured from advance. Spell after spell crashed into the shields all around it and, high in the sky, he could just pick out the silhouettes of Xeteskian demon Familiars, watching the perimeter. He shuddered, imagining their maniacal laughs all too easily.
“This was to be a peaceful mission,” he said. “You’re sharing your findings with the other colleges. Or supposed to be.”
Sytkan waved a hand at the ruins of Arlen. “Things change,” he said. “The Dordovans wanted something we were not prepared to give.”
“Their mages in the research party.”
“And this is the result?” The Unknown shook his head. “Gods burning, was it really worth going to war over?”
“If not this then something else.” Sytkan shrugged.
The Unknown slapped the railing. “But this was supposed to help broker peace! What the hell went wrong?”
Sytkan didn’t answer.
“Dystran and Vuldaroq,” said The Unknown, answering for him. “You don’t need this, you know, the colleges, that is. There’s already unrest in the populace.” He gestured back at Arlen. “This sort of thing will be the death of magic ultimately.”
Sytkan snorted. “I hardly think so.”
The Unknown rounded on him and pushed his face in very close. “Don’t underestimate Selik. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a family and a wound to attend to.”
He nodded at Jevin as he descended the ladder, pain shooting through his left hip and lower back. Now the adrenaline was gone, the liberties he’d taken with his old wound were taking their toll. Before going below, he scanned the deck once more, seeing too many Xeteskians on it.
Ilkar wasn’t going to like this. He wasn’t going to like this at all.