(Continued from Part V)

The siege was delayed as the newcomers, slightly more numerous than the warlock’s force, approached the hillock. Twenty horsemen, dressed in royal colors and led by the crown prince, formed  large circle around Delanor’s smaller one.  Accompanied by two sergeants, the prince approached Delanor cautiously. A pair of archers retreated to stand by their master’s side, while Grumadir yelled from the hillock for a parley with the prince. Several bolts skittered off the rocks above him, forcing his head down. A quick conference ensued below, commands were passed, fingers were pointed, and the royal cavalry fell in line with the besiegers, taking up positions among the rocks. Fossick glared at Grumadir briefly, then shrugged his shoulders.

The battle began with a shout from the warlock and a rush of arms. The attackers came openly and paid for the mistake. Taker hurled rocks with deadly accuracy until the archers beneath the cliff remembered the range advantage their crossbows afforded them. Following their aborted charge they retreated back to cover, content to lay siege to the back side of the hill but sending a volley Taker’s way any time he poked his head up. Taker was helpless to damage any more than the three he had skulled during their ill-advised first rush.

Fossick was more disciplined and more dangerous, moving from cover to cover and cascading the front of the hillside with bolts, though most of them served no purpose other than to stop the advance. A dozen archers were down, transfixed through necks or eyes. But Fossick was running low on ammunition and was soon reduced to picking up bolts that had originally been shot at him or at Taker, who occasionally snuck over to him with a handful. Fossick pulled one from his calf and sent it back to his adversaries, hitting an exposed arm. He poured some wine on his wound, then some into his parched throat. Peering between boulders, he waited silently for more heads to appear.

The warlock’s voice, screaming curses, orders, and spells, became the only sound of battle other than the occasional whizzing of a bolt or a tersely shouted command. He sent lightning flashing continuously about the hilltop. Bits of sharp rock and clods of uprooted dirt fell among the well-hidden defenders, who were disconcerted but unhurt by them. The archers on the cliff side began a second advance, half of them launching bolts while the others scurried to closer cover. Taker rose to throw a stone at the closest one, but was shot through the eye. He crumpled behind a boulder. With a triumphant yell from below, the advance became a sprint growing into a rout.

Fossick was now bleeding heavily, shot through the shoulder. The wound made it nearly impossible for him to load his crossbow. With the defense neutralized, the archers began their final, fatal assault up the front of the hill, many drawing swords as they did so.

“Can you scoop the warlock?” Fossick asked, biting back his pain. His eyes burned with frustration. “If you’re going to do something today, now might be a good time.”

Grumadir’s fingers traced the strange writing of the stone, his lips moving silently, his mind replaying the warlock’s gestures from the night before. They weren’t necessary, he knew. All one needed to do was read the words correctly, and though he had never practiced, Grumadir knew such a reading was within his power. He should have cast the spell when the warlock was miles away, Grumadir told himself, crimson face or not. Now the warlock was a mere hundred paces down, and maybe another hundred away.

Grumadir couldn’t cast it that close without killing them all. Perhaps he could pick a spot that would only kill the warlock and cause the archers to flee. He looked hopefully beyond the red robes for a likely place, but could not judge the distance accurately. Not with such a small margin of error, anyway. He turned once again to concentrate on the words before him.

He began to chant, carefully enunciating the stone’s encrypted words. Dust caked the sweat on his forehead. It was in turn washed away by more sweat. Loud crashes raged overhead, nearly causing him to stutter, but he concentrated on the words, the pronunciations, the umlauts. A vision of Bramlet rose in his mind. He could feel its heat and smell its smoke. The electricity of the spell’s magic saturated an atmosphere already pregnant with lightning. He felt empty, drained, but power and forbidden strength re-filled him, starting at his toes and rising inexorably. Fire coursed through his veins as he finished the spell, his eyes bulging and burning. Now he only needed to name a place.

His burning eyes turned toward the warlock. He saw Taker’s unmoving feet, heard Fossick’s curses, and tasted the blood and bile in his own mouth. He saw three swordsmen reach the top of the cliff, crossbows cast away in their haste. Bolts clattered off the rocks above him as the shouts and commands of the attackers became more urgent…louder…closer.  Name a place.

Fossick rose up for a shot and received two into his chest in return. He slumped back, eyes open, suddenly startled by a face Grumadir knew had burned crimson. “Warlock…” he began.  Then he closed his eyes and his wounds stopped bleeding.  Name a place.

“Right here.”

And stamping his foot, he buried the runestone beneath half a mile of ash and broken rock.