The Heartless Dead: Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-two
Letting Go

Bree scanned the battlefield. Though there were still a good deal of gnolls both on the field and in Thrice Hills, they were starting to flee. Most of their number who raced across the fields ran right around the hills that led to the village, and some of those within were making their way over the defenses on the far side of the hills. Bree’s lips formed into a cruel mockery of a smile. They must have noticed Ahrikvask’s death. The cowards.

Bree felt a sudden apprehension. Her palms went clammy and sweat formed on her brow. She shrugged the feeling off, and forced her fear down. She looked around and caught sight of a figure in the skies. It was a large, black, winged beast.

The peryton. The weapon.

Bree squinted, in an effort to make out more details on the beast, but couldn’t. It was too far away. Still, the aura of fear it leaked must be incredibly strong to affect her from so far away. No wonder that poor man from Thrice Hills went mad.

The perytons arrival didn’t bode well for them. Its presence would work the gnolls into a frenzy! Their retreat would turn into a fresh assault. Bree frowned and turned back to the battle field.

The gnolls had noticed the peryton, but weren’t regrouping as Bree had assumed. They weren’t even holding their ground. Almost all of them were fleeing without any regard to their surroundings or safety. They ran in a straight line either through, or around Thrice Hills, away from the fight. They didn’t even slow to defend themselves! Many were cut down by the people of Thrice Hills. A terrified yipping filled the air.

Bree gaped in confusion.

Why would the Al’Chorhaiv run? Their war-beast had finally arrived. Why weren’t they encouraged? Did it only answer to Ahrikvask?

Bree heard Kelestair’s voice rise over the chaos. “Leave the gnolls! Regroup!”

She turned to find him commanding Kallien and the people of Thrice Hills. They seemed to be listening to him, for they let the gnolls around them slip away without fighting.

“Froth and foam!” Bree cursed. What was Kelestair thinking? They were down to the last barrel! This was their chance to end the Al’Chorhaiv! To end the predations on Thrice Hills for good! To avenge Tiller and the Claisants!

Bree drew Tempest and stalked across the field killing every gnoll she came across with a quick flick of her blade. None of them fought back.

She caught up with Kelestair at the top of al’Harad hill.

“What the hell are you doing?!” she yelled.

“The beast is not a weapon, Bree. The gnolls are fleeing from it.”

“That doesn’t explain why you’re letting them.”

“I do not condone the murder of those who have quit the field.”

“They’ve been killing the people of Thrice Hills for generations! This is our chance for revenge!”

Kelestair’s eyebrow rose. “Our chance?”

“They killed the Claisants!” Bree spat. “And… Tiller.”

“That was Ahrikvask, not the entirety of the gnoll race. She is dead. Your revenge has been achieved.”

“The gnolls must pay!”

Kelestair’s eyes hardened. “No, Bree! They are running away and you will let them.”

Bree’s eyes widened. Kelestair never raised his voice to her. He was always in control of his emotions. It was Bree who was always yelling. “You’re just going to let them get away with everything they’ve done?”

“No. Those who run will be caught. They can be redeemed.”

“And if they don’t want to be?”

“They will spend a good deal of time behind bars.”

Bree shook her head. “This doesn’t feel right, Kelestair.”

Kelestair’s eyes softened. “I know. But you must trust me when I tell you that the gnolls are no longer the threat. They were fleeing from the peryton, not training it.”

Bree sighed. Behind Kelestair she caught sight of Husk, Zym and a flind with bright red eyes and white fur. He was on his knees behind Kelestair and had placed his weapons on the ground before him.

“Not a threat?” Bree laughed without mirth. “Did your prisoner tell you that?”

“He has surrendered,” Kelestair stated.

“Gnolls don’t surrender, they just delay their dinner for a few hours.”

“He will prove useful.”

Bree scoffed.

Kelestair pursed his lips into a solid line. “He is not your concern.”

Bree scowled. “You’re new dog has been lying to you. If the gnolls have been fleeing from the peryton then why would they attack Thrice Hills?”

“Perhaps it was not an attack. Perhaps they simply hoped to distract the creature with easier prey.”

“By throwing Thrice Hills to the wolves?”

“You could call it that.”

Bree paused. As much as she hated to admit it, what Kelestair said made some sense. Most of the gnolls were fleeing to the sides of Thrice Hills or leaving it behind entirely. It also explained the mottled attack formations, poor battle strategy and the lack of focus.

Bree had seen Ahrikvask in action. She was a powerful bitch, and rumoured to be cunning. The gnolls could have easily overrun the town if they had been commanded by her, but they hadn’t. Bree sighed. Their reasoning didn’t matter. The gnolls attacked Thrice Hills and led a powerful beast to their door. They deserved to die.

“Please, Bree,” Kelestair pleaded. “Trust me. The peryton is the enemy. This… heartless killer. We need to adjust our tactics.”

Bree scowled. After a moment she nodded. “Signal Undrella.”

Kelestair beckoned for Husk. The cantankerous vulture loped away with him. Kelestair spoke to a bird in a language Bree didn’t recognize. His voice was husky and deep. Calming.

Bree took a deep breath. Kelestair was right. They could deal with the Al’Chorhaiv later. Right now they needed to kill the peryton.

“Kallien!” Bree called. “Retreat to the hill, but be ready. We’ll need your arrows when the peryton takes to the skies. You and Brotis can command the town’s archers from there.”

Kallien nodded and headed off up the hill.

“Zym,” Bree continued. “Get back to town.”

“I can assist you,” Zym replied through tightly pursed lips. She was obviously trying very hard to be civil.

“Get back to town,” Bree repeated. She glanced to Santon’s half of the river. Utarchus and Zastoran were making a cautious trek up Nehaya Hill and into Thrice Hills. Jamus stood at the base of the hill, by where the river connected to the canals. He had his bow in hand and was collecting extra arrows from the dead. Dashki was hunkered down behind a large boulder and had his own bow drawn and ready. Undrella circled lazily overhead. Santon was following Husk across the field. It looked like he was coming to join her and Kelestair. She didn’t see Alkar, Oxvard, or any of the soldiers and mercenaries. Had they all died?

“I am not yours to command,” Zym argued. “I am Kelestair’s ward and I will stay by his side.”

Bree frowned. She didn’t have time to spare the kids feelings. “Get back to Thrice Hills, now.”

Zym’s tight voice came out a shrill cry. “You will not order me from my Father’s side! I will stay with him until he commands me otherwise!”

“Your father is in Kelmarane. Where you should be.”

Zym’s eyes narrowed in hatred. “That man is not my father.”

Bree’s resolve wavered for a moment. She knew enough about poor father figures to last a lifetime. No wonder Zym was so protective of Kelestair. But, father issues or not, Zym wasn’t safe outside town. “Look, kid. I don’t have time to argue with you. Get back to Thrice Hills.”

You will not take him from me!” Zym spat. “I will not leave his – “

“Manners, Zym,” Kelestair cut in. “And what have I said about restraint?”

Zym clamped her mouth shut, biting off her own words. “But, she just – “

“She will not be the last to test you, Zym. That is why you must learn restraint. And mind your manners.”

“But – “

“At all times.”

Zym nodded stiffly.

“Return to Thrice Hills,” Kelestair said.

“But – “

Kelestair’s eyes narrowed. Zym nodded and turned to leave. Kelestair barked something to the flind, who rose to follow her. Finally, Kelestair turned and locked eyes with Bree. He looked almost… mad. No. He was disappointed in her.

“What?” She asked. “It was her fault for – “

Kelestair’s eyes narrowed.

Bree sighed. “You should really keep your pet away from – “

His eyes turned sad.

Bree growled. Why did he have to make her feel so guilty? It was his fault! If he didn’t drag that creepy, maddening kid everywhere he went this wouldn’t have had to happen.

“I wish you would learn to get along,” Kelestair said softly. “It would mean… ” He paused, seeming to search for the right words. “I would…” He paused again.

“Don’t you two have more important things to worry about?” Santon cut in. “Like the giant bird of death hoping to devour our hearts? Or where we’re going to mount its head?”

Bree smiled. “I’ve always got room on the Dawn of Freedom for more teeth.”

“Birds don’t have teeth,” Santon pointed out.

“It’s not a bird, it’s a peryton,” Bree retorted. She paused a moment, then leaned over to Kelestair and whispered into his ear. “Do peryton’s have teeth?”

Kelestair nodded.

“Well, that’s a relief. I don’t have room for a beak on my shield.”

Santon burst out laughing.

“Quiet,” Kelestair hissed. “It comes.”

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