Rose for a Thorn, Part 3

The trolls attacked them just before dawn. The sergeant ordered them into a ring formation, but it seemed the trolls had crept up the slopes during the night, and they now sent mini-avalanches of boulders and smaller rocks to crash into them from above. Their armor’s wards were meant for arrows and blades, not heavy stones, and their line broke under the assault.

Keelath leapt on one troll from above, his weight and momentum sending them skidding down into a thicket of trees at the base of the mountain. Even using his off hand, the unarmored troll was no match for his sword, and Keelath hewed the creature into pieces and scattered them to keep the troll’s natural regeneration from reviving it. The slide had alsosaved him, as the main force of the trolls battered their way into the army above him, overlooking the single quel’dorei lost in the trees.

Keelath hesitated, not wanting to abandon his companions, but the screams up the slope told him his help would be worse than useless. Instead, sheathing his sword, he crept through the brush, cursing the shine off his armor that likely gave his position away even among the tight branches. He reached a gap in the thicket and hesitated, warring with the fear he’d be seen and the dread he had miles to march home if he did manage to get away.

The screams up above suddenly changed their timbre. They grew shriller but also more horsey, and suddenly the fearful voices of the trolls joined them. More stones and gravel trickled down the slope and around him, but it was not the work of trolls, but instead increased activity up above.

Keelath looked up, and his heart leapt high even as an elven horn sounded, and seven horsemen burst out of the brush around and above him. The coursers they rode were as sure-footed as deer, leaping across the rocks without fear, wheeling on a given inch to surround the forest trolls and ride them down.

Another horn blast came and went, and a great black courser, bigger than the others, crashed through the trees just behind him. Its flared nostrils were red, and its wickedly sharp horn glinted in the light of the approaching sun. It glanced at Keelath from the corner of its eye as it ran past, and heartened, Keelath drew his sword and ran after it.

Its rider checked it before it could trample the rear flank of the trolls, but that didn’t dissuade the courser from rearing, tearing at the combatants with sharp cloven hooves and horn. Keelath had heard stories of some of the great coursers, bearing horns so long they fenced with them in battle, but he had never seen one until now. There was an intelligence in the beast’s eyes as it weaved and parried as cannily as an old squire, and the knight on its back seemed more like a passenger in comparison.

Keelath threw himself into the fray behind it. He was wary of coming behind the courser’s rear, for its lesser equine cousins would have reflexively kicked out at him, but in the press he had little choice. He stayed on the courser’s flank, using his sword to parry more than thrust, as the enraged trolls circled around them both.

The courser shrilled a challenge and reared. Keelath wasn’t sure if its rider fell or was shot off first, but the plated figure dropped to the ground with a jarring crash that Keelath could almost feel. The courser snorted and bobbed its head in frustration, and Keelath found himself pressed against its sweaty hide as the trolls around them grinned and jabbed their spears at him.

The courser looked at him again sidelong, and Keelath saw that its reins had caught and tightened around its saddle’s cantle. The tension on its noseband prevented it from fencing as it had before. Keelath hesitated — he would have to drop his sword to correct the foul-up, but it was better than waiting to die without the courser’s aid.

The trolls stabbed out at his legs as he pulled himself into the saddle. He was just barely atop the courser, reins now safely in hand, when the black unicorn wheeled under him, nearly flinging him off. He dropped the reins and grabbed for its mane, and the courser stilled for just an instant as if it recognized his plight, before plunging on again as soon as it felt Keelath’s hands on its neck.

The courser’s charge burst through the trolls’ circle. It impaled at least one on its horn, thick neck muscles rippling as it turned its head aside to let the body slip from the tip. Keelath clung on for life as it rejoined its fellows on the hill, bellowing challenges to any troll that dared get in its way.

Although the arrival of the courser cavalry had put a dent into the Shadowpine’s numbers, it was not enough to win the battle. The elvish horn rang out again, and Keelath could swear he saw the courser’s ears prick before it joined the others in a swift but well-ordered retreat. Keelath felt secure enough to sit up again, but without his sword, he could only sit and watch, as the trolls and the last men standing among the infantry disappeared behind the rise of the mountainside.

Grief choked him, and the courser seemed to react in kind, pausing at the crest of the hill and whinnying out a query that went unanswered. With a blowing sigh, it turned without Keelath’s bidding and picked its way down into the next valley and to safety.

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