“I know!” she shouted back. From her perch in one of the sentry towers, Cole Mastin knew the battle lady had the perfect vantage point.
Peering over the thirty-foot barricade, the second gripped his sword in anticipation. A few meters away, Yulen D’Jacques, the Battle Lord of Alta Novis, also took a stance as the wave of rats emerged from the tree line and headed straight for the compound. From this distance they looked like an undulating blanket of dark fur. A silent and deadly menace that appeared ready to swarm the walls once they reached the wood structure.
“Fire the torches!” Yulen called out. Down the line, the order was repeated. Soldiers hurried out to where the torches were lined up, ready and waiting.
A shiver went through him. His body was cooling down in the aftermath of the sweaty work he’d put in that afternoon. He and nearly forty other men had spent the few hours shoveling the snow away from the compound walls to create a huge trench between the banked snow and the fortification. It was becoming a daily occurrence, as the skies continued to drop three to six inches of accumulating powder every day.
As the torches were lit, the soldiers retreated back into the compound. Now it was a waiting game. Waiting to see what the enormous rodents would do.
“What do you think drove them this way?” a voice behind him whispered.
Mastin glanced over at his very pregnant wife. He didn’t disguise the irritation he felt at her being up on the parapet with him. He knew why she was there. He simply didn’t approve of it, with her already past her delivery date.
“We don’t know. It could be anything. It could be nothing.” He eyed her round abdomen, noticeable even under the furs she wore to protect herself from the cold. He also noticed she carried her lance.
Paas met his judgmental gaze with one of her own. “My people swear by the saying, ‘Never turn away friend’s sword.’”
“Well, my people say a woman with child must first protect the babe in her womb,” he snapped back. “Remember that time in Wallis when Yulen and I had to leave you and Atty behind? But you argued to go with us? I told you then that you had to stay to help protect Atty and the baby. But my main reason was because I needed the peace of mind to face our enemy. I needed to be able to concentrate on our mission, and not be distracted with worry about you. Well, I’m saying the same thing now. If you were not pregnant, I would welcome you up here with me. I would look forward to fighting alongside you.” He shook his head. “But not this time. I won’t allow you to risk our unborn child. Get off this stockade. If you have to wield your weapon, go to where Keelor is with the children, and give them your protection.”
He steeled himself for her reaction. Prepared for the argument that would ensue. To his surprise, she grabbed him by the back of the neck, drawing his face toward her, and planted a hard, moist kiss on his mouth. Without saying a word, she descended the ladder. Mastin watched as she headed toward the center of the compound to where the battle lord and lady’s home stood, when a shout caught his attention.
“Lances! At ready!” Yulen leaned over the top of the wall to make certain all the torches were lit.
“Archers! At ready!” Atty yelled from her tower.
The guards filled the catwalks, pikes, bows, and spears at-hand. Those with the long poles readied themselves to sweep the rodents off the sides of the walls should the creatures make it across the trench. Hopefully, the torches would be enough of a deterrent to keep the rats at bay.
Gripping his sword, Mastin watched as the blanket of darkness advanced toward them. Here and there, he spotted the odd white coat amid the dark brown and black pelts. The mass was noticeably moving slower. There had to be hundreds—no, thousands of them. He frowned. The rats were the one creature they couldn’t kill to eat. Something in their bodies was too toxic, making their meat and organs inedible. People who tried got violently ill. Some died. Even the carrion creatures gave rat carcasses a wide berth and refused to gorge on them.
As such, the rats had no natural enemy…except man.
The swath of creatures eventually paused at the edge of the snowbank. Several of them rose up on their hind legs to sniff the air. A few tested the packed ice crystals, as if to test the ground and see if it was strong enough to hold them.
“I think the torches are working,” Yulen remarked.
Eubanks ran up to the battle lord. “No sign of them on the west end, sir.”
“Any word from the south or north?”
“Covern and Wyatt also report no sighting.”
“Good. Tell them to stay put until I say otherwise.”
“Staying put,” the soldier repeated, and hurried away.
“Are you thinking the rats might divide their forces and try to attack us from all sides?” Mastin inquired.
“Never underestimate an opponent, Cole. No matter if it’s human or not.”
Mastin understood. Some of these creatures had developed an intelligence far beyond what they had originally been known to have, millennia ago, before The Great Concussion. Automatically, he glanced up at the fading sky. Bits and pieces of the broken moon were visible between the gathering clouds as it ascended just above the trees. Seeing it, another thought came to him.
“They’re not moving,” a nearby guard whispered. “It’s like they’re sitting there, waiting.”
Mastin glanced again at the moon, then commented to the battle lord, “Night’s falling fast. What if they’re waiting for it to get dark before they make their move?”
D’Jacques tossed him a raised eyebrow. By the man’s expression, Mastin knew he’d made a valid point. Past skirmishes already confirmed how smart these animals were. In as much, they couldn’t put anything past the rats’ capabilities.
Yulen called up to his wife. “Atty, have you ever known these things to attack in broad daylight?”
“No. It’s always been…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened slightly, almost confirming Mastin’s supposition.
They continued their watch. Across the wide trench, except for the occasional creature rearing up to check the air, the rats didn’t move. Mastin got the eerie feeling something was about to happen. Or was happening. They just couldn’t see it. Or, even if it was taking place right in front of their eyes, they weren’t picking up on it.
“What are you thinking, Cole?”
He looked over at where Yulen was quietly studying him. “I’m thinking it’s much too…”
“Peaceful?” the battle lord suggested.
“Yeah. They’re up to something. I can’t figure out what.”
“I agree. Atty?”
The battle lady nodded. “My senses are prickling. I’m picking up something. I don’t what it is, but I don’t like it.” She turned and came down the tower ladder to join her husband. “There’s no sense in me staying up there. There are too many of them for my arrows to be effective. I’d be able to cut down a dozen or so, but this horde is too big to try and take down one at a time.”
Leaning over the side, she examined the trench and the line of lit torches jammed into the nearly eight-foot-high snowbank on the opposite side of the barricade. With the sun below the tree line, the small flames made dancing shadows on the wall.
Snowflakes began drifting down. Mastin gave a snort of disgust. “I was hoping this would hold off until morning.”
“At least the cloud cover will help keep the temperature from dropping too low,” Yulen murmured.
Peering over the bulwark again, Mastin watched as the snow laid a thin layer at the bottom of the trench. He started to remark about the rats leaving paw prints, when there was the tiniest movement in the dusting. He continued to stare at it, when there was a second, almost imperceptible tremor coming from underneath.
“Atty!” He pointed below. “Do you see it?”
She squinted downward, as did D’Jacques. Several seconds passed, when there seemed to be another barely discernable upheaval. Immediately, she whirled around.
“Everyone get down to ground level! They’re burrowing underneath the barricade!”