Red Ryder - Chapter 12 by Rtesian ()
Two by two, the riders passed beneath the fortress' iron gate. In the fourth row, Red flanked Marlen's right as they emerged to the sight of workers tilling the fields. Beyond, the Forest of Myth loomed, brightened by the waning afternoon sun.
Lost in thought, heightened tension and nervousness caused Red to miss Marlen's question directed at her alter ego. "I'm sorry."
"I asked, Ann of Gaitlin, if you were confident of finding your way back to Maila Dragonrider's location?" Red smiled and nodded, pointing to a few trees.
"I marked them on the way in. I already told the lead guards to watch for the crossed notches." They rode on a bit, the horse hooves muffled by the mossy ground and vegetation though saddle groans and clinking armor added to the squabble of bickering birds and chittering insects.
Marlen betrayed her confidence and lack of suspicion. "Once my meeting with Maila Dragonrider is concluded, I would very much like you to proceed on to introduce yourself to the Countess and complete my business with her." An expressionless Red kept her voice flat.
"I am looking forward to meeting her."
Ahead the trees parted for a broad meadow. Across the way just past the treeline, Maila waited. She acknowledged Red with a glance, then fixed her focus on Marlen. The twelve guards arranged themselves in a semi-circle. Red and Marlen dismounted, approaching on foot. The Stone Queen sprouted a cold, wicked grin. "Well, sister. I see your obstinance remains undiminished. Your presence here in defiance of my banishment is an affront. What is your business with Ann of Gaitlin?" Maila returned the grin.
"She is Red Ryder not Ann of Gaitlin." Marlen's eyes widened. She turned toward Red, realization shining through them. Maila continued. "She came from the east. In the company of an orphaned Xiloi." Marlen's expression became one of shock. Behind Maila, Lukas emerged from the woods. With each stride, powerful muscles rippled across his massive frame. Maila pressed on. "Your reign is over, sister. Your continued abuse and exploitation of the Xiloi is at an end."
Exploding anger darkened Marlen's face. Before anyone could react, a dagger appeared in her hand. She plunged it into Maila's chest right up to the hilt before pulling it out with a sucking sound. Maila staggered, eyes blinking, mouth gasping. She collapsed onto her back. Red rushed over, holding her head up, calling her name. Lukas growled then let loose a howl that trumpeted across the forest. The woods came alive as snarling, barking Xiloi burst from between the trees.
Guards reaching for weapons had their arms ripped off by razor-like claws. Fresh stumps spewed blood everywhere. Others found themselves with 4-inch fangs sunk into their necks, vise-like jaws cutting off breath and sound. Some ran, some begged, some prayed. All died with swords half-unsheathed, eyes reflecting the horror that had befallen them.
Maila looked up at Red. "It is finished. I am done." Eyes brimming, Red wordlessly shook her head. Her strength fast draining, Maila gripped Red's arm. "You must take my power. You must take my gift. The Xiloi will stand no chance without someone to aid them." Red's tears flowed.
"How can I? How can I?"
"Just say you will. Say it. Do not let me die having abandoned my people." Maila spit up blood. "Say it."
"I will. I will." Maila smiled through her pain.
"It is finished. I am done." Her face froze. Light fled her eyes.
She wiped her eyes. Maila remained lifeless. Once more fate had taken someone close from her. Red lifted her head to scream the rage engulfing her. Eyes ablaze, she looked for the only thing that would sate the vengeance fueling every cell. Halfway across the field, Marlen and horse galloped away with Lukas hot on her trail. She leaped atop Bayard, spurring him forward, lashing his reins. "Ride, Bayard. Ride like you never have before. Bring me to her."
Red needn't have worried. From the trees ahead of Marlen, two huge Xiloi emerged on a collision course with the onrushing Marlen. The impact exploded across the meadow. With one Lycan's jaws clamped to its neck and the other twisting it's head around, the horse went down leaving Marlen to continue sailing through the air, landing hard twenty feet away. Lukas fell upon her.
"No, Lukas, no!" Red leaped from the saddle before Bayard stopped. Sword unsheathed, she gripped the front of Marlen's tunic, lifting the woman to her feet. As daze and confusion cleared away, Marlen looked up to see fury and hate blazing at her. Held fast with one hand, Red pressed the sword point against her gut. "I want my face to be the last thing you see on this Earth."
Marlen raised her arms outward. Malevolence and spite oozed from her. "I am unarmed." Red pulled her face-to-face. Rage cooled her words to a slow hiss.
"So was Maila." Red ran her through. Watched her mouth open and close, open and close. "It will not be quick." She gave the blade a sharp twist then let her fall to the ground. Red turned and walked away, the sound of agonized screams ringing in her ears, weakening with each passing step.
She continued to walk, her mind numbed by the violence, and horror, and loss that had needed only minutes to unfold. She lost track of place and time. Even of Bayard following quietly behind. Maila's face would not leave her.
It vanished. Something touched her. No, not her body, her head. No, something inside it. She stopped, her hands reached up to press both sides of her head. Calm, peace, suffused her. She spun around. The Xiloi filled the field, each one gazing at her. Lukas stood before them.
"I knew you once as 'scent-white-hair'. You are Red Ryder." Red stared in astonishment. No sound or voice had pierced the quiet. Habit caused her to speak.
"Is that you, Lukas? Can I hear you in my head?"
Lukas walked up to her then raised his arm, finger outstretched. "We can hear you and you can hear us." Red raised her arm, finger extended. They touched.
to be continued...