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Lady Ashley Davies thundered across a white field under the twilight of a pretender star. She groped for the bouncing satchel corded around her shoulders, clutching the scroll hidden beneath the cracked leather.
Ashley did not know how far they were from the Ruby Tower. The shifting geography of the Hedgerow would never allow that. She felt the tower though. Saw it in her minds-eye. That feeling was the only compass she could trust here. She trusted her feelings, her horse, and the company riding with her. She trusted herself, trusted that she would deliver the scroll to the tower.
The Blue Company knew the danger from the outset. Still they accepted the mission. They’d found and stolen the scroll from the Rectory of Names hidden deep within the Hedgerow. And so, the High Harvester, the immortal monarch of the Autumn lands sent his killing force on an unnatural wind with commands of his own. Catch the Blue Company and tear them apart.
Demetri Volkov, Ashley’s bannerman, a great red bear of a man cried out. “We cannot outrun them!”
Lady Ashley did not look back at their pursuers. There was no need. She heard the tornado roar of a thousand flying terrors growing louder and louder. Closer and closer.
An unkindness of man-sized ravens with bronzed beaks and crimson talons pierced the wind in pursuit. An inexhaustible army bent upon one purpose: reclaim the scroll.
Cresting a hill, Ashley saw the emerald tree line. The forest would provide a canopy of cover.
There was no need to shout over the tumult. Ashley, in the point position of their charging ‘V’, spurred her horse hard for the forest. Her knights, the brave members of the Blue Company, followed.
Twilight glinting off their armor, the knights of the Blue Company rushed into a forest so old it no longer bore a name.
The white field of flowers gave way to tangled roots snaking out of rocky soil and a carpet of pine needles littered with fallen conifers. Ashley’s company was comprised of seasoned riders on the backs of well-trained mounts. Each of them barreled through the sentinel pines, slowed only when the terrain proved impassable. The cloud of ravens would be forced skyward, unable to traverse the dense foliage. Or so she hoped, despite one immutable truth.
The Hedgerow was no place for hope.
“Ride,” Ashley bellowed. “Ride for the tower!”
The terrible beating of the ravens’ wings did not cease. It grew closer, accompanied now by the whip-crack of breaking tree limbs. The ravens plunged into the forest behind them, their caws like the sound maniac laughter.
“Vanguard,” Ashley commanded. No other words were needed. They knew their oaths. Sacred oaths demanding sacrifice.
Three members of the company, without questioning their captain’s command, halted. Their mounts came together, creating a barrier between pursuer and pursued. Revolvers were drawn from slick, leather holsters.
Each of them ready to thunder.
The rearguard was comprised of venerable Sir Harry, who came out of retirement too soon after becoming a widower. Tall Sir Maurice, a proud son of a fierce African bloodline. And Lady Gloria, the third knight, a remarkable woman of unremarkable feature.
Ashley drew upon her fable-blooded magic, concentrating. She closed her left eye. With a heart-quickening rush Ashley watched through Gloria’s eyes.
What she saw shriveled her heart. A cloud of talons and wings and of ravens wholly bent on destruction.
A battery of gunfire ripped through the air. John, Harry, and Gloria stood together amid the choking, gun smoke. Three pillars of light facing the thrashing darkness. Brave Cylinder knights of the Blue Company pounded the twisting, black cloud.
For a moment, there was the lilt of what might be victory as the stuttering volley of pistol shots beat back the billowing wings and flashing talons. Lady Ashley allowed her hope to swell, letting it grow into belief. Then, the unkindness of ravens swirled together, concentrating into one, irrepressible force. Cawing in raucous laughter, they rained down upon the three knights in bloody slaughter.
The last thing Gloria saw, what Ashley witnessed through her farsight, was a bronze beak punching through Gloria’s skull. The knight’s light darkened forever.
Then came the screams—the final sounds of annihilated people.
Lady Ashley commanded again.
The remaining members of the Blue Company scattered among the trees.
Ashley’s horse whinnied, begging for slack. She gave it none.
The raven army slashed through brambles and thick, sagging limbs alike.
Ashley, the greatest horse master among the company, rode fast. As deftly as a leaf on the wind.
Gunfire from the east. Five shots fired in rapid succession, but not a sixth.
Ashley reached out again with her farsight. In a flash, she saw a gnarled claw slash across her vision.
Lady Clarissa Delavina, gone.
Ashley pulled on a string inside her mind, shifting her farsight to her bannerman Sir Demetri Volkov. He was scrambling away from his fallen mount, gun in hand. His Schofield blistered the air with veins of lightning. The light streaked and snapped, lashing out in a chain of power whipping the cloud of ravens into panic. Demetri fired again and again, and again. The pillars of shadows between the trees flashed like a thundercloud.
Sir Demetri labored, sweat stinging his brow. The magic wellspring inside him strained to meet the demands of his whirling hands.
The flurry of cawing ravens swirled, swelling into a sphere.
Sir Demetri fired.
The sphere burst like a dandelion blown apart in the wind. The raven army came at him from all sides. Without mortal pity, they covered his flesh in scarlet ribbons.Ashley snapped off her farsight, refusing to watch the gruesome end of such a magnificent life.
“Come on, girl,” she cried, spurring the horse..
“Run, girl. Sprint for the daylight!”
The horse and rider punched through the tree line. The jewellight, bright and blue, revealed the great walls and crenelated battlements of the Ruby Tower. A dozen knights stood watch among the lookouts. They would be able to provide cover fire to see Ashley through the western gate. Salvation was less than a league away, protection even closer than that.
Lady Ashley spurred faster, leaning forward as far as possible to allow her horse its full gait.
Suddenly, Ashley’s horse screamed, then bucked. She flew out of the saddle.
Flipping head over heels, Ashley hit the ground hard. She rolled to her feet, leaving her fallen mount behind.
The wind of a hundred wings at her back tousled her hair into her eyes. She shook it away and took up her revolver, sliding it from the holster. A legendary holster her great grandfather tooled from the skin of the hedgerow-born bear Briarmouth. The revolver, with its smooth, polished grip carried in its cylinders the war song of every man and woman of her bloodline who had come before.
Ashley, sprinting across the sapphire grass, fired a signal round into the air.
“Here, damn it!” She roared, firing again. “I’m here!”
The signal flare arced high into the air, bursting phosphorus white.