The sound of heavy hooves, swords on steel, and arrows intensified on the other side of the gate, building to a cacophony of battle as Kohb counted to ten. As soon as he reached the end of his count, he raised a hunting cry to the gate guards, who took it up and cried over the wooden battlements. It was repeated on the other side, so Kohb pounded on the gate as a signal to open it.

As the Ochre Gate had sprung open on a counterweight, so too did the Azure Gate before Eyon and his friends. Sir Kohb spurred his horse onward, followed by Gullywick and Myn. A handful of Gattne riders sallied forth with them, a dozen riders all told, and they burst out of the gate into the blinding sunshine to find chaos outside.

A swarm of riders coalesced around them; it was difficult for Eyon to see with the jarring up-and-down of hard riding, but the men were definitely wearing the bright crimson of Varrett and bearing its sigil, the Leaf-on-Shield. Through gaps in the mass of men and horses, though, he could see the Ioxans’ hammer banners approaching at a rapid clip. Arrows flew between the two groups as the few mounted archers on either side let fly, and after hearing a war cry sounding on his left and being answered on his right, Eyon realized that the pursuers were trying to surround him.

Above the din, he could hear Delra of Ioxus shouting at her troops, exhorting them to tear the Varrettans apart to avenge her twin humiliations. “A gold sovereign to any of you who brings me so much as a scrap of that boy’s flesh!”

“Keep up the pace, you louts! We’re lighter than they, but they’ll rip us to shreds if we let them engage!” shoutedd Sir Kohb. Then, softer: “Still so eager to be king now, hearing that woman telling them to tear you limb from limb for gold?”

“No one would be shouting something like that in my kingdom,” Eyon replied.

“Hmph. Every king, every kingdom, needs someone shouting that,” the knight said breathlessly. “You’d be no different.”

“When my kingdom becomes the first, I’ll make sure you have a better position.”

Sir Kohb rolled his eyes. “Ho there! Keep those Ioxans at a distance!” he cried.

His men, armed with short lances, jabbed them at the baroness’s horsemen. The Ioxans responded in kind, and Eyon cringed as he saw one of the Varrettans hooked off of his saddle and flung beneath the hooves of his fellows with a terrible cry. A mounted archer galloped next to Kohb’s horse, taking careful aim with a short bow before losing an arrow up and over both of them and another Varrettan besides, landing firmly in the flank of an Ioxan horse and tumbling both it and its rider to the dry Gattnean plain.

“How much longer?” Eyon said, looking away from the sight. “Until we’re safe in Greywacke Wood?”

“Only about an hour,” Sir Kohb said. “Assuming we can keep this pace. If we can’t, it will all be over much, much sooner.”

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