"It's the setup to some kind of terrible joke, I just know it," Kate said as fifty pairs of disbelieving eyes followed Jem, Griever, and Kiara through the sky.
"More like some kind of bizarre curse," I said. Kate tore her eyes away just long enough to give me a look that said, 'what in god's name are you talking about?' I shrugged, then feigned mock surprise.
"What in the flying fae is that?!" I shouted.
Not even bothering to dignify my question with a response, she turned back to look at her second. "How are they going to get down?"
"How the flying fae should I know?"
"It's not stopping," Kate said. I didn't need to have an around her to feel how tense she was, and yet...
"Why should I give a flying fa-"
"Corin!" She turned on me, and I was no longer Corin, but simply a piece of prey. Her eyes were dangerous. She was ready to kill something, anything, if it meant getting Jem back.
Since starting lessons with Kate, I had begun to wear a bow like the rest of the hawks; now I took it off, reaching for back for an arrow-
"No," she eased my hand away, "Let me do it."
Before I could blink, Kate had nocked an arrow, stopping just long enough to make sure her aim was perfect. A mistake would be costly.
In another moment she fired, and I watched as her arrow flew to intercept the giant beast. Only once it had struck, with Kate's typical deadly accuracy, did the two of us realize what we had just done.
Did I say we? I mean Kate. Yeah, Kate.
The fae's flapping grew labored, and it began to sag in the sky. As the descent grew sharper, I could make out Jem and Kiara, who was now also on top, frantically trying to pull Griever up alongside them. Seconds later, whether by design or death, the fae gave up, and the fall became a dive.
I couldn't see them touch down, but by god I could hear it. And feel it. I worried for the people that I had come to call family in the last several months, but more than that I worried that we had just blown our element of surprise.
Maybe even the whole operation.
I followed Kate through woods, catching all the backlash from the branches she pushed aside. It was only a minute before we found ourselves in the open, having arrived in a clearing that, to my knowledge, hadn't been there before today.
Kiara and Jem were just coming to their feet when we arrived. They looked at each other, shared a smile, saw us, shared a bigger smile, then looked around and realized someone was missing. The smiles were gone.
But only for a moment.
"I don't suppose you could have that through a little better eh Corin?"
Griever's head popped up from behind the fae, the same mad look in his eyes that I had glimpsed when he ran off to find Jem, only this time with a grin.
"I don't know what the flying fae you're tal- Kate!"
Kate pushed past me while I tried to rub some feeling back into my arm. She caught Jem and Kiara in a wobbly hug, burying her face in Jem's shoulder. We all pretended not to notice the tears.
I walked over to stand by Griever. "I'm not hugging you," he growled.
"You'd have to smell better than that fae, for me to even consider it."
We had delayed just long enough to see if anyone of the castle guards noticed the commotion caused by the flying monstrosity. They had. Having trained many of them, I would have been insulted if they hadn't. Kate pulled everybody back into the cover of the trees, and from the canopy we watched a small patrol exit the castle and head for the crash site.
"Fortune may have smiled on us," I breathed, and from Kate's nod of approval, I could she was thinking along the same lines. Nodding again, she turned and motioned to Jem. Griever made to follow, but she held up a hand.
"Too big," she mouthed, shifting a branch to prove her point. "You too," she whispered while I made to adjust my sword. "Jem and I can handle this."
"Corin, there's only three of them, give us some credit."
I looked to Griever for backup, but when I turned back, the two had vanished. A minute passed. Then two. Three.
I was starting to get anxious when Kate's voice sounded behind me, very nearly causing me to fall from my perch.
"It's done. Here," and she pushed a bundle of clothes into my chest. Nearby I could see Jem handing a similar bundle to Kiara, and as I watched, Kate moved a little ways off and began to unfasten her cloak. I turned away quickly, almost losing my footing once again, and hoped no one was watching. I had changed clothes among my soldiers plenty of times, but among men, it was entirely different. At least night was finally beginning to fall.
"It is time."
The whisper carried through the cold night air until it touched upon my ear. I looked to the sky and found the moon was slipping behind darkening clouds; we would have the cover of night to protect us. A quick flick of Kate's finger and I felt, rather than heard, the rest of the group begin to move forward. Across the forest floor we crept - to the edge of the trees that bordered the village of Hamish - where the Sheriff's castle loomed in the dark. I saw Jem take a group to the right while we headed through the buildings as stealthy as cats.
Kate, Kiara, and I were to wait for Jem and Griever to start causing as much chaos as possible. The sheriff's men were less likely to recognize us in the commotion. The soft twang of a bow, amplified by the sheer number of bows being fired, sounded the beginning of what we hoped would be the last battle we'd have to fight for some time.
Arrows found their marks, bodies began to fall, and shouts of fear, warning, and outrage echoed through the night. Bells began to ring, and the Night Hawks charged. They weren't alone, however. Nearly every able-bodied man we found in our comb through the village was willing to fight beside the Night Hawks, heedless of the consequences. It was the least they could do, one said, standing behind those who had stood before them for so long.
I found Kate's hand and gave it a squeeze, then I stood.
We skirted the edge of the fighting, not wanting to take the chance that, in the dark, a Hawk might mistake us for the enemy. They had the edge, and had pushed the initial group of soldiers all the way back to the door.
"RETREAT!" someone shouted, "GET BEHIND THE DOOR!"
The soldiers turned, scrabbling to get ahead of one another, doing everything in their power to make sure theirs was not the back that was closest to the storm of arrows behind them.
As the three of us shoved our way through the door, an unearthly screech rose above the din of combat. I looked back just in time to see something out my nightmares looming behind the Hawks.
"You didn't tell me you were bringing the costume" I muttered to Kate.
"It was a surprise."
The doors slammed shut and the men around us began throwing their bodies against it, hoping it would do something to break the wave of death that approached. I motioned to the stairs, and together, Kate, Kiara, and I descended flight after flight, each step bringing us closer to the dungeon.
After an eternity we reached the lowest floor of the castle. The landing was large, designed to prevent one or two from holding the entire prison, while at the same time discouraging a mob with its uneven ground. Four men guarded the sole entrance into, and out of, the prison. Only four.
The sheriff had grown lax.
"Halt!" one of them called out, "State your purpose!"
And I did. By plunging my sword into his chest. Kiara was on another man in an instant, and Kate had dropped the other two with her bow before I could pull my sword free.
I found the key, ripping it from it's keeper's belt. With shaking hands, I slid it into the lock, and twisted. The heavy thud of the tumblers resonated inside of me. Pushing the door open, I stepped inside, and found myself confronted by several hundred pairs of eyes. Eyes that, despite the gaunt appearances of the bodies they belonged to, still shone with the same fire that had burning in my chest since the sheriff had made the mistake of crossing me. I pulled the helmet from my face and let it drop to the floor with crash. Kate and Kiara stepped in behind me, their faces uncovered as well.
I grabbed the man nearest to me and pulled into a hug that would have made Griever proud.
A cheer went up then. One that shook the stones. One that, wherever he was hiding, the Sheriff heard it. He heard it, and he knew what it meant.
He was a dead man.