The next day found them pushing even further into the mountains. They were definitely in Manticore country now. Anything in the air had to be watched closely until they were sure it wasn’t one of the ugly monsters.
In the end, the attack came when it came.
The road, partially washed away, was switch-backing up a steep grade on a southern face devoid of trees that could be used for cover. Heat and trail dust had taken a toll on everyone. They were hot and tired, slumped in their saddles, barely aware of their surroundings. The first anyone knew was when Ogden’s horse suddenly screamed in pain. It collapsed on the road, throwing the guardsman heavily to the ground where he lay stunned.
The Manticore, looking like a winged lion with a fanged, human head, swooped away. Storm cursed their exposed position as he saw a second Manticore coming in for a strafing run. “Off your horses on the uphill side,” he bellowed, flinging himself out of the saddle. Whirling, he hurled a spear savagely at the diving beast. The creature banked away from him with a cry of pain but he knew the wound wasn’t mortal. It gave his men time to dismount though and prepare for the next attack.
A grating scream from above whipped his head around and he saw a third Manticore diving out of the sun. No! How many were there?
A hail of arrows and quarrels rose to meet the monster, accurately to judge by the scream it let out, but Storm shouted to stop the men. “No! Don’t fire all at once! You won’t have time to reload before the next –” A hurtling shadow cut him short as the other two Manticores dove past, firing their tail spikes in a vicious rain. More horses screamed and fell. A hoarse shout, suddenly choked off, told him one of his men had been hit as well. In baffled fury, he flung a spear after one of the swooping monsters. He exulted to see it hit one of them squarely. It stumbled in mid-air but managed to recover.
The third Manticore, maddened by multiple wounds bellowed its rage at them and began another dive. Suddenly it was hit by a bolt of lightning coming up from the ground. In wild surmise, Storm activated his newly acquired vision and traced a lingering trail of power back to Ralt. The wizard was standing fearlessly on the wagon seat, gesturing and chanting. The men raised a ragged cheer as the Manticore, now mortally wounded, plummeted into the gorge below.
The other two monsters screeched as they hastily pulled up out of their dives. Flapping hard they rose up out of range of the bows to circle high above. Thankful for the respite, Storm quickly demanded to know who’d been hit.
After a moment Thomas’ voice floated back to him. “It’s Boldric, Cap’em. He’s in pretty bad shape.”
Storm cursed as he flung sweat out of his eyes. Dust from the sudden encounter swirled around them, gritting in the joints of his armor as he shifted position in the hot sun. They couldn’t stay here for long; they’d bake in their heavy armor. The granite rocks around them threw back blinding shafts of light, making vision difficult. They had to move. “Get those horses out of the way up there,” he called. “If they’re alive get them up and moving. If they’re dead, push them over the side.” Turning his head to Ralt, he asked quickly, “Have you got anything that can reach them that far up?”
Ralt shook his head without taking his eyes off the circling monsters. “Not a chance. If they get closer I can hurt them though.”
Storm nodded. Better than nothing, he thought. There was a sudden shower of rocks up ahead and a horse’s body tumbled off the road, crashing head over heels down the rocky slope. Another one followed it a moment later. He waited for a third but it didn’t come.
“How’s it going up there?” he called.
“Just about done, Captain,” Dolgun, one of the guards replied. “Ogden busted a leg but other than that he’s OK.”
“Fine. Alright, listen everyone. Head out at a slow pace. Keep your horses between you and the Manticores. Thomas, divide them into two groups. Only one group is to fire at a time when they attack. Keep something in reserve for the second one. You saw how they like to draw your fire to set you up for the main attack. Don’t let them get away with it.” He grabbed Specter’s reins and started up the road, keeping one eye on the Manticores. “Ralt. Cover us. You’ve got the first shot when they attack.”
“Right,” came the terse reply.
The rough road, already hot and dusty, had been bad enough before the attack when they were riding, but now it was hellish. Walking uphill in plate armor, waiting for an attack that could come at any instant sapped their strength and patience moment by moment. The inviting shade of the trees far ahead tantalized them like a mirage, never seeming to get closer.
The minutes dragged slowly past, each one an eternity. Storm, toughened by his barbarian background and long years of harsh living, took it in stride, but his men weren’t used to this sort of thing. Fatigue was visibly setting in. He began to worry. If they didn’t get to those trees soon, the Manticores were going to pick them off like flies.
A sudden shout from Ralt jerked his head around. “They’ve gone into the sun! I can’t see them!”
Blast it! Storm crouched low behind Specter. “Behind your horses!” he shouted. “Be ready for them!”
A fierce blow on his chest plate staggered him as a tail spike bounced away with a clang. Similar clanging from ahead told him the armor had just saved a lot of lives. A raucous screech sounded just above him. Blinded by the sun he flung a spear upwards, guided only by the screeching. Twanging bowstrings from further up the road sang their own song of death. Over it he heard the deeper thrumming of a powerful bow he didn’t recognize; it must be Thomas’, but he’d never seen him use it before or heard it’s sound. Storm cursed again, trying to shield his eyes so he could get off another throw.
Just then a tremendous clap of thunder rocked him back on his heels. A brilliant bolt of lightning flared, searing his visions. Storm, who still usually thought in terms of feet and inches rather than cubits and spans, thought it was less than twenty feet away. Violet after-images floated painfully before him. He could barely see. A triumphant roar from Durin told him the bolt must have done its work though.
He shook it off in time to see the last Manticore come swooping around for another run, but this time it was no longer hidden by the sun. A hail of arrows along with his last spear buried themselves in its chest and head. One arrow buried itself all the way to the fletching. The Manticore coughed once then simply dropped like a rock. A crashing sound from far below signaled its final demise.
There was a moment of stunned silence then they all burst out talking at once.
“Holy smokes! Did you see that?”
“Nailed that sucker!”
“I got him right between the eyes!”
“Eat that you . . .”
“Alright! Alright! Settle down,” Storm roared. “Anyone get hurt? Call off.” He unhooked his visor, raised it, then took off his helmet altogether. He shook his head, flinging sweat in a spray all around him.
The call-off finished and Thomas yelled back at him, “Everyone’s here Cap’em. Not a scratch on ’em!”
He waved back in relief. “How far to the trees?”
“A couple hundred cubits or so.”
About the length of a football field, Storm thought. It looked even further. “Get the men up there into the shade and take a break.” He turned to the wagon. “How’s everyone here?”
Sodan stuck his head out of the wagon to glare at Ralt. “Miserable. That last bolt of yours came near to deafening me!”
The wizard shrugged, unconcerned by his uncle’s attitude. “Be glad you’re alive to be deafened. They almost had us there for a minute.”
Durin nodded agreement sagely. “The young wizard has the right of it I’ll warrant. The men were dying on their feet. If not for his magic things would have gone much differently.”
“I agree,” Storm nodded. “I’ve never seen three Manticores routed so quickly and easily by a group this small. Usually, it’s a running battle that lasts for hours. Thanks, Ralt.”
Sodan’s illness had prevented him from noticing the growing friendship between his nephew and the tall swordsman. He could only stare in shock as if day had suddenly turned to night. He shook his head in disbelief then pulled back into the wagon, closing the curtain behind him.
Storm and Ralt shared a small shrug. From his earliest days in the Marines, Storm had always thought of it as combat camaraderie. People who were worlds apart suddenly became friends for life after fighting side-by-side.
“Come on, let’s get out of this heat,” Storm muttered. Mounting Specter, he spurred him up the road, leaving the wagon to follow behind.