The dregs of light and color drain from the clouds; the sky goes black. It’s a cloudy night, the dark of the moon. Just as Tereus is thinking of lighting a candle, he hears a whinny of terror from the stables. There’s a frantic equine scream, and then a chaos of sound: Paris smashing his hooves against the walls and door of his stall, the draft horses rearing and plunging in terror.
Tereus starts up, slips over to the opening at the front of the hayloft. The stable door is open and he can hear the horses panicking. Two more shocking screams, a series of thuds, and then silence.
They must be dead. It’s the only way to quiet them immediately.
The nearest settlement is a tiny village built around an inn and posting house. The farms in the region are abandoned. They have no neighbors, and certainly no enemies.
He watches and waits, then hears a series of rapid clicks, almost like an insect’s call. It’s Drow operational language: An advance party signaling other troops to move forward. A moment later, he sees a series of tiny, slim figures slipping along the lane and into the stables. He counts 30 troops — the stables and tack room will be standing room only. Once they’re all in place, he steals across the floor, down the ladder, and out the man door that faces the farmyard, minding his steps carefully. Despite the adrenaline rush, he’s impaired. It’s 50 yards across open pasture to the parlor door. He walks quietly and rapidly, and though he knows they can’t have line of sight without leaving the stables — it’s windowless, and the doors face the barn in front and open pasture in the back — he still has the itching sensation that he could get a crossbow bolt between the shoulders at any time.
As he approaches the parlor door, he sees that the windows are half-shuttered. He can hear Valeria’s voice clearly, but can’t make out her words. They’re startled when he walks in and locks and bars the door behind him. Lucius, Valeria and Lavinia are gathered by the hearth, debating.
Valeria asks, “What’s going on out there?”
“There are more than 30 Drow troops in the stables. They’ve slaughtered the horses. Bar the kitchen door, shutter the downstairs windows, and kindle fires in the library and kitchen if they’ve gone out.”
There’s a brief moment of stunned silence, then Lucius and Valeria scramble to follow his orders. Lavinia’s still standing by the hearth. Tereus walks up to her and says, “Lavinia, where are the others? Valerius, the children?”
She looks at him blankly.
He softens his voice, repeats the question. Finally she says haltingly, “Valerius went out to shoot rabbits and hasn’t returned. The children are in the nursery.”
He nods, and maintaining the same low, calm tone, he says, “My dear, you will oblige me by taking the children down to the basement. Bring candles, a tinderbox, and torches if you can find them quickly. Bar the door, and open it only for one of us.”
She nods, wanders off towards the stairs. He’s tempted to bark at her, but restrains himself. They have a few moments.
Lucius and Valeria return to the parlor, ready for further orders. “Valeria, please see that Lavinia and the children are settled in the cellar with the door barred, then return to us.” He turns to Lucius. “Fetch the crossbows and ammunition, and your personal weapons.”
Within moments, Tereus has buckled his sword belt on, and shuttered all but two of the upstairs windows. He sets up in the bedroom he shares with Lavinia. The single window overlooks the strawberry and raspberry patches, and the stables 50 yards behind them. Lucius takes Valerius’s small bedroom, which looks out over the kitchen gardens, chicken coop, privy and woodpile, and, roughly 30 yards away, a stand of willows that lines the river.
Tereus hears Valeria on the stairs and calls her over when she reaches the landing. She stands in the door, outwardly calm, but wearing the numb expression of someone in an entirely unfamiliar and threatening situation. He asks, “Lavinia and the children are in the cellar?”
“Yes. They’ve barred the door. We brought down two extra candles and three torches.”
“Good. I’ll need your assistance. Do you know how to load a crossbow?”
She shakes her head.
“It’s easy enough.” He demonstrates how to handle it, and how to load and unload, watches her do both three times. “Very good. We’ll have some time — several minutes, perhaps even hours. Practice until you can do it smoothly, ideally without looking. Don’t worry about anything else. When the time comes, I’ll need you to load for me.”
The shutters are half-closed, leaving just enough space for him to sit or stand comfortably, watch, and eventually shoot. It’s still and dark outside. There’s a vague glow from the banked fire on the hearth, but no other light in the room. He can hear her fumbling away dutifully. After a time she stops, and he glances back. “Keep going,” he says. “We’ve got time.”
“No, I just —” she’s looking up at him anxiously. “What will we do about Valerius?”
Of course. She’s anxious about her son. Tereus had already dismissed Valerius from his mind. He turns back to the window. “He left after dinner, just before sunset?”
“Yes. And he hasn’t come back.”
“He took the short bow and quiver?”
Tereus isn’t accustomed to explaining his decisions, and finds it hard to do so now. “My dear, there’s nothing to be done. I can’t send anyone after him.”
“But he’s out there with them, in the dark.” She says it as if he’s misunderstood.
Still gazing out towards the stables, he says, “His situation may be better than ours. The Drow have superior dark vision, but they’re poor woodsmen. He’s a handy shot, and knows the area.”
She seems unpersuaded.
“Please continue to practice with the crossbow. I need you to be quick with it, and the task will focus your mind.”
And so she does. She finally stops after a quarter of an hour, saying quietly, “I don’t want to tire my hands.”
They sit in silence.
Tereus used to hate these stretches in battle. The adrenaline of the initial attack has worn off. They’ve prepared their defenses, and their only job is to stay calm and alert. He comforts himself with the thought that the attacking troops aren’t having any fun, either. They’re packed into the barn or lingering behind the tree line, killing time, mentally rehearsing their orders, feeling the same unpleasant mix of tension dwindling into exhaustion. It’s damp and cold, which the Drow dislike. Few or none of their troops will have been aboveground, so most of them will suffer a kind of agoraphobia from the open sky and fields.
Cigarettes were made for this moment, so he steps back and lights one. As he smokes, he’s careful to keep it out of the window frame. Drow archers will have a tough time targeting his heat signature at that angle, but crack shot might be able to hit a nice hot spot.
He asks Valeria, “How are you holding up?”
“I’m OK.” She sounds tired but calm.
“Good girl. This might take awhile.” After a moment he says, “I’ll tell you now what to do when the action starts.”
“It’s pretty simple. Always hand me the crossbow just as I showed you, keeping the bolt pointed down and to the right, clear of me and yourself. After each shot, I’ll discard to my left, then take a loaded bow from you on the right. I’ll aim, fire, then discard to the left again. The most important thing is to hand off properly. Load as quickly as you can, but remember that slow is fast.” He pauses, glances back. “Repeat that back to me.”
“Exactly. You’ll be fine once we get a rhythm going. Call out when we’re down to ten bolts. For the last five, call out the number as you hand me the bow. When we’re out of ammunition, join Lavinia in the cellar. That’s it.”
“What will you and Lucius do then?”
“We’ll wait for them downstairs.”
They hear a shout from Lucius, sudden, frantic, “Tereus, come here!”
Tereus frowns, sits back. “Take watch. Call me if you see or hear anything.”
Valeria is trembling, and can’t force herself to approach the window.
He takes her shoulders, pushes her firmly into place. “You’re fine right here. No closer. It’s dim, but you’ll see them before they can take a shot. They target off heat, and this is a bad angle for a hand crossbow.”
He joins Lucius at the window in Valerius’s small bedroom. Lucius points mutely, and Tereus sees Valerius staggering up from the tree line, making his way to the kitchen door. His steps are rapid but unsteady — he’s reeling back and forth, groping along the lane as if blinded. He’s not visibly injured, his clothes are intact, and he’s unarmed and alone. Tereus can feel Lucius vibrating like a pointer.
“Listen to me carefully, brother,” Tereus says softly. “I’ll go down and bring him in. Watch the tree line, and give us coving fire. Once we’re in, send Valeria to me, and rotate your watch between the two windows. Do you hear me?”
“Stay cool, JP. I’ll bring him in.”
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.