Amber woke with a start to a sound that was at once familiar and unsettling. The trill warbling of the willow thrush was a common sound during summer in the Silverwood; a bird that all young elven children knew well, and whose warbling call they often mimicked. It wasn’t a sound she expected to hear on a winter’s night in the middle of Bantara.
On her feet quickly she woke Ryan and, holding a finger to her lips to indicate silence, made her way out of their cramped cabin towards the hatch that led up onto the deck. Ryan behind her, she climbed the ladder set into the wall and, careful to stay in the shadows, peered out of the opening into the gloom.
The first thing she noticed was there was no sign of the aft sentry. Then she saw dark shapes moving as several figures clambered soundlessly over the vessel’s rail. Elves! It was amazing that they had followed her so far into Bantara. She counted six of them, and signalled to Ryan. She had no way of telling him that they faced elves, and hoped that he was as good as she thought he was. This would be no ordinary test of his ability — going up against an elf one-on-one, particularly at night, would be close to suicide for a human. The elves would be faster, stronger and have better senses in the dark. Ryan would need all of his skill to survive a three to one encounter. Hopefully it wouldn’t stay so one-sided for long, and the guards would wake from below. Amber couldn’t risk taking the time to wake any of them — their biggest advantage now was surprise. The elves weren’t expecting a welcoming committee.
Out in the open they would be overcome, there was no doubt about that. The narrow openings that led down to their cabins, however, were small enough that only one person at a time could enter. She gestured to Ryan and he moved to cover the entrance at the far side of the corridor. The cabins were roughly arranged around a set of H-shaped corridors with an entrance at each corner. Between them they now covered the left arm of the H. They would be able to hold it until reinforcements awoke, or until their adversaries used the other entrances and moved through the right arm of the H, through the connecting corridor, and attacked them from the rear.
As luck would have it, the first of the elves approached the opening where Amber lay waiting. The flash of Amber’s blade caught the weak light from the lamp at the bow, and the elf twisted away taking a wound in the side. He cried out in pain and the battle was joined. Two other elves dragged their wounded comrade away and another engaged Amber at the opening.
At the other end of the corridor, Ryan was fully occupied with Talar, neither could gain any advantage through the narrow opening, the elf unable to bring his superior strength to bear in the confined space, and so far Ryan’s reflexes were matching the elf’s speed. Amber lashed out and another elf went down with a cry. She couldn’t be sure how much damage she had done. The fighting at the openings was intense, but her training in Oraciel had involved a lot of fighting in confined spaces, so she was better prepared than the trackers who came against them.
The commotion was starting to rouse others on the barge. One of the first to appear was Drew. Bare-chested, rapier in one hand and lantern in the other, the young noble glanced at the fierce fighting going on at the two hatches, and a moment later raced down the middle tunnel. He hung the lantern on a hook near the junction where the corridor met the other arm of the H and turned back just in time to parry a blow from an elf that would have left him dead. There were two of them, but only one could engage in the narrow corridor, and the combatants effectively blocked the route through to the others.
As more people on the barge awoke Darnill began to realise that it was a futile exercise. He called to Eldin in the elven tongue, instructing him to disengage and work his way back onto deck. Drew pressed them all the way, pushing them backwards while never overextending himself.
Once back on deck Darnill gave the signal to retreat, and the other elves tried to disengage. Ryan and Amber pressed them, pushing out of the openings and up onto the deck, guards waiting in the confined space behind them swarmed out once the way was clear, trying to circle the intruders.
This was getting worse, Darnill thought. They moved back towards the railing, where the canoes waited below. One of the elves could hardly stand from his injuries, another lay unconscious near the opening, blood staining the deck from a sword-wound inflicted by Amber’s blade. They would be lucky to get out of this alive.
Ryan and Talar still fought fiercely. The elf’s speed was starting to tell now that they were out on deck, but the human was holding his own with surprising skill and dexterity. Talar lunged, expecting Ryan to parry as he had been throughout their exchange. He was taken by surprise as the human stepped around his thrust and inside his guard. Ryan struck the elf in the temple with the pommel of his sword, and he crumpled to the deck. Quickly Ryan disarmed his felled adversary and tied him to a nearby railing, then turned his attention to the others.
There were four of them, one clutching his wounded belly, the other three facing the growing number of guards appearing on deck with weapons drawn.
‘Give it up, Darnill,’ Amber addressed the leader, ‘you’ll never make it.’
It was true; they were doomed, thought Darnill. Even if they made it to the dugouts, archers from the barge, Amber in particular, could take them out before the darkness swallowed them. ‘We’re here to take you back to Oraciel Amber. I implore you, come back with us, let us all go home.’
‘I can’t do that, Darnill, not yet. I have unfinished business here in Bantara. You can tell Arhediel that I will return once I have discovered the truth that I seek, and not before.’
‘Then we have a problem. We have been charged by our King to take you back. The fact that we are this far inside Bantara should be evidence enough of how serious he is. We cannot stop and return to Oraciel without his leave — you know that. We must take you back or die trying.’
‘It seems to me, friend, that you’re perilously close to achieving the second of those options here tonight,’ Drew spoke confidently, the air of command in his voice unmistakable. ‘I know nothing of your quarrel with this woman, but you have been caught raiding this vessel, and under Bantaran Law I am entitled to exact retribution as I see fit. Throw down your weapons or die where you stand. The choice is yours; your King is a long way away.’