“Harpies at three o’clock!”
Gondar groaned. He’d already lost three of his squad to enemy scouts, including their only archer. Evasion was their best chance at survival. “Tree cover is better to the right,” he yelled.
The five fae sprinted for a thick grove of poplar and willows by the river. A raucous scream from above chased them under the branches of the first tree.
“We’ve been spotted,” yelled Tam, still young enough to get carried away by the importance of their mission, even to the point of volunteering.
“Where is a hob when you need one?” said Tyrus.
Gondar shot him a dark look for his grousing, even though he privately agreed. A hob could cloak them in glamour as easily as an arrow could pierce one of their foul pursuers. But most hobs lived up to their trickster reputation. They were a chancy ally at best—not that he’d complain if one showed and offered his services.
“Or even a human,” said Tam.
“That’s enough,” snapped Gondar. “The last thing we need is one of them.” If he never laid eyes on another mortal, he could possibly die happy.
The dying part was likely enough. The harpies had caught up with them.
Swords scraped against scabbards as the fae readied themselves to meet the first harpy. She screamed as she dived, venomous claws out to disembowel them before her poison could even take effect.
Gondar took a step forward, playing decoy so one of his men could get in a killing blow. The lead harpy ducked under the low branch and hovered, slashing at his face.
He stabbed, scoring a glancing blow to the wing. Dirty flight feathers drifted to the ground.
The next abomination was already upon them. This one sliced his leather sleeve, and Gondar parried with the strength of desperation. The harpy screeched insults but flapped away for another pass.
The next thing he knew, he was spitting out leaf mould, reeling from the blow that had knocked him to the ground. He rolled, just in time to deflect the claws reaching for his face.
The harpy’s stench of rotting meat made him gag. He reached to the side, searching frantically, and his fingers closed on his sword hilt. There was no time even to stand. He could only get to one knee before he thrust upward. The blow lacked power, but it spitted the harpy, although she nearly wrenched the sword from his grasp as she fell.
Tyrus was on his knees, too, and Gondar gasped as a harpy ripped through his friend’s leather jerkin. Blood gushed and Tyrus screamed.
Gondar jerked to his feet and stumbled to Tyrus’s side. One swipe and the harpy’s head rolled onto the leaf-covered ground. Too late. Death throes already had Tyrus in their grip, and he shook as he met Gondar’s eyes.
A screech warned Gondar there was no time to mourn. He whirled around, but he could only bat the harpy from his face as she darted past. The ground bore a bitter harvest of the foul creatures, but only two of his squad were still standing.
He shifted his message, so carefully entrusted to him by Lady Nerina, and tucked it under his shirt. If he was slain, surely the blood would eradicate it.
He took a step toward Tam’s side, and two harpies circled around from opposite sides, claws out. So this is how it would end.
Then a girl barely grown to womanhood stepped from the bushes, swinging a metal club. One blow and a harpy’s face crumpled. Their unlikely ally yelled, “I hate those things!”
Gondar was almost too shocked to lift his sword to ward off the other harpy. He managed only a slice at her wing, but the newcomer raised her club and yelled, “Die!” The harpy’s head caved in with a sharp crunch of breaking bone.
“Enough!” squawked one of the remaining harpies, still on the wing. “Find the egg!”
“What egg?” the newcomer demanded. “What are they talking about?”
Gondar sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t know.”
“Well, they can’t have it,” the girl said, pushing brown hair back out of her face. “They aren’t taking anyone else!” Her voice was filled with the ache of loss, and Gondar blinked as he recognized the cadences of mortal speech.
His eyes slid to Tyrus, now still on the ground. “I never thought I’d agree with a mortal. Follow, those who can,” Gondar called to what remained of his squad.
Only Tam joined them as they ran after their fleeing foe. The trail was easy enough to follow—harpies seemed to delight in filling the air with their raucous cries.
A short brown figure emerged from the trees. A hob, who could have saved them all if he’d shown but a few minutes ago, emerged from the trees.
“Even with my aid, you may not be able to drive them all off and yet live, Amy,” he warned, running along easily at their side. Even though he needed two strides to their one, he wasn’t even out of breath.
But the girl—Amy—was. She clutched her side and gasped, “Well, me and my baseball bat will make a few of them regret messing with anyone.”
“Then I will cloak us in glamour,” the hob said as the trees opened up. One harpy was already on the ground in the center of the glade, scratching at something.
Sheer rage propelled Gondar forward, and he swung his sword at the figure scrabbling at the twigs and leaves. Its head rolled just as another sickening crunch came from behind. A quick glance behind confirmed that Amy had slain a harpy behind him.
The girl darted forward and scooped up something on the ground, and they retreated back into the trees.
“Where are they?” one of the harpies yelled, and Gondar’s lips tugged into a fierce grin.
They returned to the river, and another of his men struggled to his feet. At least the monsters hadn’t gotten all of them.
“May I see?” Gondar asked their new companion, and Amy held out the object she’d retrieved.
A griffin egg lay in her cupped palms.