Snow had begun to fall and the world Cab woke up to was dusted with white. Fat heavy snowflakes fell from the still dark sky, though the clouds were now white instead of the dark blue grey of rain and thunder. The air was chill, his breath billowed out in front of him.
“We’ll have to keep going,” Cab suggested as he struggled to his feet. He felt like the fever had passed, though he was still sore and shaky, and the pain was still strong in his leg. However, some energy had returned and he felt capable of carrying on.
“What are we going to do when you die?” Ethamyn asked, anger in his voice. “We can’t even start a fire.” Cab’s eyes fell upon the small pile of sticks and broken branches they had gathered.
“Good question,” Cab said, leaning on his stick. “Do you know what flint is?”
They shook their heads, but followed him as he began to walk. He told them about the rock, what it looked like, where to find it, how to use it to create sparks. And they listened well, for they knew now that their lives were in their own hands as much as they were in this man’s. He told them how to find their way when the sky was clouded over and the sun was not visible. He gave a rough estimate as to their current location, in regards to borders and villages and warned them that though many would not know their faces still it was dangerous for them to be among people. For sooner or later someone was bound to recognize them, and that whomever now occupied the throne would lock them away in a tower for the rest of their lives if they were not simply murdered.
“Why not go to Yasuda?” Cairbre asked. “The Lady Polozellus is our cousin, surely she would help us?”
“Your cousin is your enemy now,” Cab said. “You cannot know who instigated the attack on Andrese but you can see who would benefit most from it, can you not?”
“I don’t understand,” Cairbre said.
“I do,” Ethamyn said. “The Lady Polozellus is closest in line to the throne. If we were dead then the crown would go to her.”
“She couldn’t have done it though!” Cairbre cried in outrage.
Cabriabanus hushed him. “We are not safe even here. I am afraid you will not be safe anywhere.”
“Ever?” Cairbre asked. Cab only nodded. The children had nothing more to say so Cab focused on their course and did not see the tears waiting in Cairbre’s eyes. The farther into the mountains they travelled the colder it became, the heavier the snowfall until it was difficult to see anything but white. A strong wind tugged at their cloaks and swept up their sleeves. It whipped at the tops of the trees and the snow was not satisfied to fall to the ground and stay, but it leaped up into the air and flew into their faces and at the chinks in their garments. Cabriabanus pulled his cloak tighter around him, his teeth chattering and eyes wide in search of some place they could stop and keep out of the wind and the cold. The princes hoods were crusted with icy snow and their breath billowed out from their shivering lips. Night was falling with a quickness and soon they would have little choice as to where they would stop, for the snow continued its heavy fall and with darkness came near total blindness.
He found shelter at the base of a stony embankment, a mere depression in the rock face that cut the wind and snow down but a little. They gathered wood and the children watched carefully as their warden used flint and the blade of his dagger to start a fire. It was weak and smokey, as most of the wood was crusted with snow, more a signal of their location, if the snow hadn’t been falling as thick and fast as it was. He never thought he would be thankful for snow falling as it did now. They huddled close together and ate the rest of the berries they had gathered for a poor meal.
“If this is how commoners live I don’t like it,” Cairbre said. Cab laughed.
“Commoners have no choice, boy. And nor do you. Try to rest.”
Cairbre dreamt of stars walking on the earth. They came closer and closer, hundreds of them, an army, all the stars in the night sky. With them came the sound of wolves feet crunching in the snow, the panting and growling and sometimes a snarl. There came a long howl in the distance. Then the lights were upon them and it was far worse than wolves. Kobalos, with their putrid green skin, their sharp, thin bodies, ragged claws and faces full of teeth and glinting eyes. They laughed, a cruel sound that struck a chord of fear within the boy despite his attempt to be brave. Suddenly he was cowering, he was crying, trying to dig a hole in the ground to hide in. Then the wave of stench, the putrid scent of death and decay, of rotting flesh, foul enough to make him want to vomit. The creatures were getting closer, marching, coming for him, reaching out their yellow claws, staring at him with their yellow eyes.
He woke, staring into his brothers face, the black eyes staring back and they knew that they had shared the nightmare. Cairbre’s lips shook. Ethamyn took a ragged breath. Together they turned to their warden, the man with the sword strapped to his back and the wound in his leg and his eyes were dark as their own. The fire was out, covered over with snow.
“You see them?” the man asked, his voice quiet and low. Caibre wiped the tears that were starting to form from his eyes and looked out into the darkness. Yes, he could see, just like in the dream, flickering lights in the distance, getting larger as they came closer. He wished that they were the stars fallen from the sky to land on their heads but he knew they were not.
“Torches,” Ethamyn whispered, his voice shook only a little. “Is it men from the castle?”
Cabriabanus did not answer, he could not see them clearly.
“Kobalos,” Cairbre breathed.
“Don’t be silly,” Ethamyn hissed. “They don’t exist, right?” Again, their warden did not answer.
It was certainly torches in the distance, an army of torches, marching out of the darkness like waves toward the shore. He kept hoping they were not real, but as they grew in brightness it became something he could not deny any longer. They were coming right toward them.
“Come,” he said at last, when the lights were still too distant to see the bearers. He took off, limping as quickly and quietly as he could with the children behind him. Through the snow and the dark, with no time to cover their footprints. They needed a hiding place, they needed to get out of the snow. As the thought came to his head more lights appeared ahead of them. He stopped, crouching down low, as these lights were brighter, closer and now it was possible to tell who the bearers were and his heart sank in his chest even as his mind told him it could not be possible.
“For the love of the gods, it cannot be,” he breathed. As they came closer, their scent came clearer and he recognized it now, as something all too familiar. It was the scent of them that made his heart pound and the blood rise within him.
Kobalos were behind them now and before them. To their left a sheer rock face, to their right forest, darkness, snow...were those lights in the distance? Yes, they were surrounded. He let out a string of words most foul, gritted his teeth and turned to the princes.
“Up this tree,” he said. “Quicklike. You can hide among the branches. Don’t make a noise.”
He pushed the pain in his leg out of his mind as he pulled the sword from her place on his back. Odras was sharp as ever he remembered. If he died here, and the princes lived at least he would not have broken his vow to them. He rolled his shoulders, hefted the sword and turned to those before him, for these seemed fewer, and if he could break them here then there might be time enough to get away from the others. To find some place secure and hide out the night.
He tried to stride rather than hobble toward them, and the lights of their torches lit up their ugly faces and emaciated bodies. Their skin a gruesome mix of bile green and pus white. The tallest among them stood only to chest height and they wore little armour. Few had rusted helms or ancient chain shirts, stolen from the dead. Their mouths took up the greater part of their faces and opened wide, revealing row upon row of shining, crystalline teeth, sharp enough to shear through flesh and bone. Their wide yellow eyes glinted in the torchlight, hinting at their cunning.
Odras flashed in Cab’s hands. The nearest three were sliced through with one hearty swipe. The others started yipping and yelping like dogs as the brackish blood of their brethren painted the snow.
At once there was fire, they were tossing their torches at him. He ducked and dodged and the bright lights landed in the snow, extinguished. And then darkness so complete he could barely make out the distant torches. The creatures fell upon him like a pack of animals and he fought with a whirling grace he had thought was lost to him. Their blood stank like the foulest midden and his stomach churned, but he hardly had time to notice.
The last of the creatures fell to a quick slash and then there was silence but for the distant crackling of marching feet on snow. Cab leaned upon his sword, breathing deep of the icy air and trying to keep the pain in his leg at bay. He was shaking. The stink was near to unbearable and he stumbled back toward the tree where he had left the children.
He fell against the tree, vomiting into the snow at its base. The stench of the creatures seemed to stick to his body like a skunks spray. It was everything foul and dead and decayed and he could hardly settle his stomach enough to call for the princes to come down.
“Quick,” he said. The branches creaked and rustled as they climbed and slid down the tree, landing softly in the snow beside him. He wiped Odras clean and sheathed her once more.
Together they ran through that patch of dead bodies that smelled so much worse than they should have, through the dark woods, stumbling over undergrowth hidden beneath the snow. Cab’s chest heaved, his head swam and his leg cried out for mercy, but they could not stop.
No, Cab thought as his foot caught a root and he pitched forward, his leg no longer able to hold his weight. He fell face first into the snow, and pulled himself up, growling.
“There’s more!” Ethamyn cried out as he gulped air. Before them lay a small clearing with a rise and on that rise an army of kobalos. Hundreds. More. And they came from one side and then another, a slow, eager marching of torches, their cruel laughter all around. Cab managed to get to his feet, though he had to hold all his weight on his right leg. He pulled Odras from her sheath with shaking hands.
“Stay behind me,” he said and thought: This is the end.
“Shoktri,” came a hissing, rasping voice; deep and commanding. A kobal, larger and darker than the others stepped forward. He was nearly as large as Cabriabanus, but a good deal heavier. His thick skin was a fiery red and he wore strange armour: spiked wrist guards, a fat belt and studded leather skirt, gilded skulls gleamed on his pauldrons and a necklace of bones hung from his neck covering his breast and belly. Two sets of goat-like horns protruded from his forehead and he carried a long, cleaver-like sword, serrated on one side and smooth on the other. He was like nothing any man had seen or even heard rumour of, and evidently he was in charge.
He spoke again, in a harsh language of hisses and hard coughs and then stopped.
“Shoktri,” he rumbled. “Give us hokfer...children, and you will live.”
Cab peeled his eyes away from the creature for a moment to glance down at the children. Their faces were drained of colour and they clutched each others hands with fingers white-knuckled.
“No, please,” Cairbre whined. “Please, please, please.”
He put a hand gently upon the boy’s head before turning back to the creature.
“Never,” he said. The crimson kobal growled and grumbled in a very commanding tone, in that strange language that was not a language and the humans understood nothing. Cab tensed, brought both hands to the hilt of his sword, waiting for the moment to strike.
The front line of kobalos stepped forward, surging past their leader, torches in hand and wicked grins upon their faces. Cabriabanus gripped his sword, easing some of his weight onto his injured leg, testing it. One of the creatures stepped forward alone and put the fire end of the torch into his mouth. He pulled the torch out, fire-less, and with a bright look in his eyes coughed out a fireball the size of Cab’s head which sped toward them so quick they could hardly move. Cab panicked, tried to slice at it with his sword but it only split and came crashing into his chest. It hit with the force of a war hammer and he fell backward, over the children into the snow, momentarily blinded, ears ringing. The brigandine was singed, a great ring of blackened fabric adorned the middle of it, but the fireball had dissipated, leaving only a wisp of smoke.
They fell upon the humans then and Cabriabanus could not get to his feet fast enough. Chaos everywhere. The children were screaming, the crimson kobal was bellowing and the rest of the pack of kobalos frothed and bubbled with fierce laughter and screeching war cries. Odras silenced some of that laughter and parted many a kobal head from its body but there were too many and they were too fast. Already, Cabriabanus had lost sight of the prince’s. Everywhere he looked was a sea of little green and white pustules with sharp teeth and rusted daggers. Then came a cry that is the same in any language.
Too many kobalos were devouring their torch flames, leaving the total darkness of despair, and the thunder in Cab’s chest, only to be replaced by the thunder of fireballs flying at him from every direction, blinding him. He threw himself to the ground and the fireballs collided over his head with a deafening roar that shook the very earth. Shaken, dazed, wanting nothing more than to wake from this nightmare, but feeling closer to vomiting, he lay there trying to get his body to cooperate. It would not and he lay wondering why the sun was hovering over his head.
It took too long for him to comprehend the situation. The kobalos were gone, the living at any rate. Their many tiny fireballs had amassed into one the size of a horse, which sat over his head, burning bright and spinning slowly. He rolled out from under it and struggled to his feet, once again with his weight on his right leg.
No, the kobalos were not all gone, they stood motionless in a wide perimeter, staring at the ball of fire with arms up to cover their eyes. Cab’s eyes scanned the area, trying to find the children, but they were no where to be seen.
“Cairbre!” he called. “Ethamyn!” He spotted the large kobal, standing stock still and staring out into the darkness around them.
“What have you done with them!” Cabriabanus snarled, limping forward though his head throbbed with the messages of defeat his body sent it. He had to find them, he’d swore to protect them with his life.
“Luukt,” the creature spat and smiled as he saw Cabriabanus limping angrily forward.
“You think your pitiful magic can frighten us?” he asked, stepping forward.
My magic? Cabriabanus wondered and turned to glance back at the ball of fire.
“You are one Shoktri against all of us,” he mused, hefting the cleaver-like sword in his hand. “I could defeat you alone.”
He charged, weapon raised and all Cabriabanus could do was attempted to get out of the way. The creature stopped mid-stride and swiped with the force of a thunderhead. Odras leaped up to stop the blow but nearly flew from his hand. Cabriabanus leapt back as the creature lunged again. Round and round the floating fireball he was chased, barely escaping the path of the sword each strike. The creature struck out toward Cab’s head, but he stopped it with all the strength left within him, holding the creature’s sword back as he pressed forward with his all his weight. Hands shaking, so concerned about the sword was Cabriabanus that he did not see the fist coming. Connecting with the side of his head, the blow should have shoved him directly into the fireball, but the fireball moved up. He landed in the snow once again, dizzy and nauseated, unable to move, waiting for the blow to come that would end him.
Instead the fireball burst, sending a wave of fire outward in all directions. He gasped and inhaled air so hot it seemed to sear his lungs and set him to choking. But the kobalos got the worst of it, shrieking and scurrying off into the night, aflame. Even the leader bellowed and ran, his flesh singed and melting like the snow upon the ground.
Cabriabanus lay choking and gasping, singed, beaten, sliced. And the kobalos disappeared into the darkness around him, with his wards.