Ramon booted his horse forward as the soldiers looked back in shock. His borrowed sword hit the nearest soldier's helmet and knocked him off his horse.
Jason charged in to slash the arm of another soldier, he ducked a swing from another man and saw Gerald take him on.
The giant horse crashed through the throng, maddened eyes rolling, bloody foam dripping from his bit. Jason wheeled Royal out of his path . . . And the fight was over, the last three soldier dropping their swords.
Ecksey was standing, staring at the fallen monster. “I . . . I never actually killed anyone.”
Jason clouted him on the shoulder. “Go catch horses. We need to keep going.”
The boy gave a jerky nod and turned to trot away. Jason edged up to the fallen giant.
Ramon joined him. “Damme, one bolt right through the mouth.” He stooped and picked up Blange’s fallen sword. “Here you go, your majesty.”
Jason snorted. “Too long and too heavy. Anyway, the kid killed him.”
He jerked around at movement high to his left . . . then relaxed. The maids, the servants, the other groom had caught up to them. They found a way down from the rock, and the men started boosting them aboard horses.
And Ecksey had caught the monster’s horse.
“Ecksey, maybe we should let that one go?”
“No. That man hurt him.” The horse’s ears were still back, but not pinned. “Good Boy! I’ll take you away from that Bad Monster.” The boy had found a rope, and he tied it around the horse’s neck then the horse lowered his head so the boy could strip the bridle off. “There. That’s much better. And no spurs, either.”
The horse’s muscles relaxed and his ears swiveled forward.
Ecksey looped the rope around the horse’s muzzle and tied it for a crude halter. Then he mounted another captured horse and headed down the road.
Jason eyed the maids and servants . . . two of the women looking pretty shaky, clutching the saddles in front of them. He pointed at the two grooms. “Lead them. Everyone else, lead an extra horse. We need to get moving.”
At his nod, the Count followed the boy, and the women trailed after him. “Franz, Ramon, get up to the front. Gerald, we’ll bring up the rear.” He mounted Royal, and took the reins of a captured horse. “Three extra remounts. Four if we count the Monster’s horse. With luck, we won’t need them.”
“Especially that black creature.” Gerald took the reins of the last horse and they headed downhill.
Slowly. Three maids and a manservant fell off the first time they tried to trot.
There was much noise from above, and as they took another swing back to the north and climbed a ridge, they could look across and see the troops milling about where they’d fought. A fancy gleaming carriage disgorged a thin old man . . .
Countess Iris made the sign of the White God. “It’s Vurnom Bramble, King Reynold’s wizard. What is he doing?”
The other ladies made warding signs.
Jason was more interested in the troops . . . “They aren’t coming after us. Yet.” His gaze shifted back to the wizard . . . Arms waving, a jeweled staff in one hand, a bottle in the other, that he turned up and poured out onto the ground . . . or perhaps on the monster’s body? Something moved on the ground . . .
“Oh, no that isn’t possible! He’s alive?”
But possible or not, Reynold’s monster was climbing to his feet, wobbling, but undeniably alive.
“No.” Ecksey’s high boy’s tones. “He not alive. That’s why he felt so odd. He wasn’t alive before, either. We need to go. Now.” He turned his mount and pulled the big horse along behind him.
Everyone hustled to follow.
Not alive? Jason looked back, to where the carriage was turning back, but the troops that were forming up were turning to continue the pursuit.
“At least the Monster isn’t with them.” He kept his voice down. There’d been at least two score troopers, and that was going to mean trouble if they couldn’t keep ahead of them.
Around the nose of the ridge, and down again. Ecksey dropped back to talk to Jason. “The road splits ahead.”
Jason nodded. “To the village downstream. Or left, upstream, to the ford.”
The boy nodded. “If you could lay a false trail toward the village, maybe we could get the ladies across the ford before dark? And then get into the forest and camp for the night.”
Jason bit his lip, then nodded. “The river is the major barrior to our trip home. Once we’re across, there are a thousands of small tracks and trails north into the mountains and across the border.”
Ecksey nodded. “I’ll help with the false trail, but head back early in case there’s trouble at the ford.”
Ecksey followed them up the Village road for a quarter mile, then turned off onto a stretch of hard rock that would show no hoof prints. Jason and Gerald rode on, over a slight rise. At the crest, Jason looked back. He could see the road to the ford, and Ecksey with the black charger looming over his purloined riding horse.
Gerald leaned and peered. “Is that a dust devil following him down the road?”
Jason swallowed. “How lucky. That will cover most of the tracks on the road.” He reined Royal back and headed down toward the village.
“Jas . . . Your Majesty . . . Who is in charge of this escape? You or the little Demon?”
Jason grinned. “At this point? Ecksey is in charge. Whether he’s a demon, a wizard, or a miracle is rather uncertain.”
“Right. I was just wondering.”