Chapter Forty-Two

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Aidan withdrew their blade from the gut of a Saxon and let the body tip backward over the edge of the ramparts. The cacophony of battle around them had dimmed to a dull roar in the back of their mind. An arrow flew by, dangerously close to their ear. Aidan wriggled a dagger from the back of a fallen archer. With a snap of their wrist, it pierced the eye socket of a man who had just slithered over the wall. Aidan spun on their toes, wielding their staff in their free hand. With a sickening sound, it connected with an enemy skull.

"Aidan!"

Lamorak was charging toward them from the western edge of the ramparts. Aidan watched as the spry young knight picked off three enemies along the way with a rapid succession of arrows. A ladder sprang up beside him, and Lamorak avoided an enemy arrow just in time to tumble into the first man off the ladder. Aidan was about to rush to his aid when Lamorak slipped from the Saxon's grip and used his bow to strangle him. When he was finished, he kicked the ladder and sent it back into the horde below.

"We will be overwhelmed soon." Lamorak finally reached them. "We must retreat."

"Tell the men to fall back. Find Gawain."

Lamorak nodded and then ran off to do as he was told.

"Fall back!" Aidan yelled, dragging one of the injured men to his feet and helping him limp toward the stairs. "Fall back!"

Aidan heard the command ripple down the line of archers. Soon, they were swarming toward the inner courtyard. When they reached the bottom of the stairwell, Aidan passed off the injured man to another soldier.

"Archers! To the top of the second wall, quickly, cover the retreat!"

Gawain jogged up just as the main gate began to groan and shake. The soldiers holding it cried out in surprise and fear.

"Battering rams," said Gawain, "without the archers picking them off, there's no way that gate is going to last."

"Hold it just a while longer."

Gawain nodded, face pale but expression firm. "And then?"

Aidan bit their lower lip and breathed quickly through their teeth. "Tristan!" they shouted, and the knight turned. "When the last man is through, lower the outer portcullis.

Tristan saluted his understanding.

"Gawain." Aidan gripped the man's shoulder tightly. "We must force them to take this gate." Aidan gestured with their staff toward the main arch.

"How?"

"Lead some of these men and set fire to the barracks. I will do the same to the stables. The east and west walls will be cut off, and the Saxons will have no other choice but to go over the inner wall or break through the gate. Draw your men through the north entrance, and we will flank them if they make it through Tristan's forces, understand?"

Gawain's eyes glowed with a strange energy. "Yes."

The man turned and rallied a few of the soldiers at the gate; they followed him without question toward the stables. Before disappearing from view, Gawain looked back at Aidan and nodded. An unfamiliar pride bloomed in their chest.

***

Riona watched in horror as what remained of their forces retreated into the inner courtyard. She heard the sound of the main gate splintering under the weight of a battering ram. Even from this distance, the wild throaty war cry of the Saxons chilled her blood. Her eyes searched for Aidan and Gawain, but she could find neither. She pressed one hand to her lips as her heart rose in her throat.

Tristan was leading the group of men that held the gate. The archers had positioned themselves at the center of the inner wall. Myrddin was with them, surrounded by a group of pageboys. Riona gripped the rail of the balcony so tightly she could no longer feel her fingertips. The outer portcullis slammed downward with a sound that echoed over the din. Riona watched as the enemy swarmed toward it like a wave of human flesh and armor. A cry went up from Artorious' men as smoke began to rise from the east and west sides of the fort.

Riona turned. A thick black cloud rose from where the barracks sat in the outer courtyard. Her eyes grew wide with fear. She turned back to the battle. Tristan's soldiers were stabbing wildly into the oncoming horde with spears and swords, but where one enemy fell, another rose to take their place. She wondered how long the portcullis could withstand the strain.

Not long. The battering ram made quick work of it, and soon, men began to pour through the shattered oaken beams. Fear quickened Riona's blood. Tristan rallied his men and tried to stave off the flow, but it was plain he would be quickly overwhelmed. Myrddin and the archers turned their focus toward the inner courtyard, but in the mess of fighting, it was hard to tell friend from foe. The battle was moving ever closer to the main hall.

Then with a loud yell, a new group of troops appeared from the western side of the fort led by a knight with shining copper hair. Riona's heart beat faster. Another force arrived from the area of the fire near the stables, led on horseback by Aidan, wildly wielding their quarterstaff and riding Gringolet. With the arrival of these new forces, Tristan's men had reformed the line and were fighting with renewed vigor. The enemy were now the ones being pushed back. There was a shattering crash as the inner portcullis slammed down, trapping the Saxons from behind.

Lamorak reappeared from below and rejoined the archers wearing a triumphant grin. The Saxons were flanked from all sides, and the whinny of the horses joined the strange music of battle.

Riona watched as a small group of enemies broke through Tristan's line and kicked down the door to Myrddin's tower. Riona paled and rushed back into the room. Luc and the queen looked up at her in surprise.

"They're coming!"

Luc immediately tried to stand but cried out and fell backward on to the bed.

"I love you," said Gwenivar, one hand firmly pressed to Luc's chest.

She stood and picked up the bow. With a practiced motion, she notched an arrow, keeping two more in her hand and the rest in the quiver at her waist. Riona's mouth parted in surprise as Gwenivar drew back the bowstring with ease, her eyes locked on the door. With her wild dark hair and wiry frame, she looked like an ancient goddess of the hunt.

Riona felt suddenly useless. She picked up Luc's sword, where it had been waiting for him at his bedside. She was surprised by its weight and felt silly for having thought she would be of any use with it. Luc watched in concern, but before he could say anything, the pounding of feet on the stairway drew all their attention to the door.

It flew open, and Gwenivar released an arrow. It found its mark, and the first enemy tipped into the room dead. Then another, and another. There were too many, even for the queen's accuracy. She reached for another arrow, but her quiver was empty.

At that moment, a Saxon managed to slip by his dead brethren, and in only a few short steps, had Gwenivar by the throat. Riona cried out, and Luc rose to defend his love. Before either of them could react, however, a dagger was protruding from the man's back. Slowly, his grip on the queen relaxed, and he slumped to the side. As Gwenivar fell to her knees, Riona turned to identify their savior.

Aidan rushed toward her, their staff clattering to the floor as they scooped Riona into a tight embrace.

"What are you doing here?" they murmured into her hair. When they seemed dissatisfied with her stunned silence, they pulled back and looked into her face. "You could have been killed. What if I had not followed them?"

Riona had no response; she was limp in their familiar hands, staring up at them with a mixture of joy and surprise. Aidan drew her back into their chest, and Riona tangled her hands in the cloak on their back, holding on tightly.

"I almost lost you," Aidan whispered.

"You couldn't, even if you tried," Riona responded.

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