Killian awoke with the dawn. He jumped from bed and pulled on his hunting clothes. He grabbed his bow and quiver and belted his sword about his waist. Even in close proximity to the castle it was never a good idea to ride unarmed. He paused outside Lars’ door and heard his brother still snoring. He pounded a fist on the door and heard Lars mumble something so he continued down the stairs.
Leifr was saddled and waiting for him in the stables. The warhorse shifted from one hind foot to the other, guessing what his new master had planned. Killian waited for a few minutes but when Lars made no appearance he shrugged and mounted. Leifr was already pulling at the bit by the time they made it to the gate. The guards saluted and let him through, openly admiring the stallion as he passed.
The road wound down from the hill in a gentle curve to the lake and once they reached the shoreline, Killian kicked Leifr up to a trot. They held it along the lake for a few minutes before breaking into a canter and then a gallop. The sound of hooves in the sand was thunderous. The wind swirled around them tugging almost joyfully at them in their speed. Killian chanced a glance behind him and saw puffs of sand settling over giant strides. He laughed for the sheer joy of being alive. He checked the reins. Leifr pivoted effortlessly on his hind limbs and they turned into the forest. They kept a quick canter along a wide path and Killian saw a doe and her fawn dart across in front of them. Leifr tugged once as if asking if Killian wanted to give chase, but a simple tap kept them on the path that would take them in a wide loop through the forest.
They would have kept the same pace back to the castle but a figure stood to block their path. Leifr slid to a stop and Killian recognized the blue robes of the entertainer. But out here, Noak seemed different. The hair on the back of Killian’s neck stood up in warning. The man looked almost hungry as he stared at Killian, and he had the uneasy feeling that he was more than an entertainer. Killian’s sword was drawn before thinking and he waited for the challenge. Three more figures stepped out of the woods to begin to surround Killian.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“You,” Noak replied. “Or, more specifically, your blood.”
Killian tightened his grip on his sword. He saw one of the men raise a crossbow and wished that his hunting bow was in his own hand. Leifr’s ears were flat as he recognized the threat in front of him.
One of the men began to edge forward but was warned away by a flick from the sword. Killian tugged Leifr back a few paces preparing to run anywhere else. The archer raised his bow and loosed a bolt. Killian couldn’t move out of the way fast enough and the arrow cut a deep groove across his shoulder. Leifr reared and struck out with his hooves against another advance. Noak released a column of smoke under Leifr’s hooves causing him to rear again. The sudden motion combined with the throbbing pain from the cut on his arm caused Killian to lose his seat. By bad luck he landed on the injured shoulder, breaking it open further. He lay dazed for a moment and was defenseless as Noak approached, chanting something that made Killian’s blood churn. Noak thrust his hands towards him with a final shout.
Killian tried to shield his eyes from the brightness that enveloped him. Burning pain ran from his scalp to his toes and he twisted in agony. Noak looked down at him in triumph that was short lived as Leifr lurched forward, driving Noak back and blocking Killian from the rest of the men. Killian seized his chance and, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, scrambled to his feet, and ran into the forest hearing Noak send his men after him with a shout.