A/N: I'm not returning to writing fanfiction, I just found this last chapter and decided to finish it and post it. I know most of you probably won't like it, but this was always how I knew the story would end. I'll be honest: I'm posting this more for my own satisfaction at being able to say "I officially finished that story" than anything else. But please, feel free to review or even to email me. If I ever have the chance or the inclination to write them, I also found detailed notes on two possible one-shot sequels or 'epilogues' to this story (i.e. as alternative endings). Maybe one day in the summer when my exams are finished, I will write them and give you two possible outcomes of the final events of this story. Offer me constructive criticism etc, but please don't flame me about how this story ended.
P.S. Just a little note that will come in handy when reading this chapter: remember last chapter, they sent two men back to Corus ahead of them to tell Lord Sir Raoul of what had happened.
Chapter 20- The End?
They rode over the crown of a hill, then followed the meandering path down. The path was narrow, and they were forced to ride in single file. On their left was a steep, rocky cliff drop; on their right was a thick forest covering the hill.
Kel shifted uncomfortably atop her horse. Her eyes darted from side to side, and her hand tightened around the hilt of Griffin. She didn't like this... It was too quiet. Something was not right. She would be happier once they got past this stretch and rounded the bend so not far ahead.
She looked for Dom. He was in the middle of the line, his men before and behind him. Kel rode at the back of the line; Neal was at the front, leading everyone. Kel took another look round, and adjusted her grip on the reins. Where were the bird songs? They would not stop for just a bunch of nearby riders.
Kel opened her mouth to call out to Neal, so far ahead of her.
Her call was cut off mid-shout by the whip of a released bowstring; the sudden, fast whoosh of the flying arrow; the surprised, pain-filled cry as the bolt hit the mark.
Even in these trained warriors, panic erupted. The man, someone relatively near to Dom, reeled on his horse, nearly falling. The arrow stood proud of his back. The man behind him could not get close enough to help him.
Kel drew Griffon. She could feel her heart beating fast. They were trapped between thick forest and steep cliff. A tumble down the cliff would mean certain death, but if they entered the forest they would be separated and picked off one by one. She did not know if the path widened past the bend, but it would be a chance they would have to take. If their attacker was waiting for them there, they may have a better chance at grouping together. Retreating would be hard on this path.
'Neal!' she yelled, straining to be heard over the sudden clamour of the men. 'Neal!'
Dom heard her cry, and tried to calm the men around him. Kel shouted again and Neal turned in the saddle.
'Ride on, Neal! Ride on!' She held Griffon high above her head as she called, pointing with the blade towards the bend in the path. The men heard her cry and looked at her. Even now, especially after all she had been through, she was still an inspiration to them, her sword held high above her head, the sun glinting fiercely off the metal, as she so easily took control.
They followed her example and those that hadn't already done so now drew their swords. They set their horses straight on the path again. The wounded man lay across the neck of his horse, holding on tightly. There was not much else he could do. Shields were drawn. Neal rode on, now almost at a gallop, a risky pace for such a narrow, uneven pathway. But these men were trained to use their horses to their best in all situations, and they followed Neal without hesitation.
Kel let her horse work the path and kept her eyes on the forest. That was where the arrow had come from. She was worried. She cursed the Gods that they should be hit now, when they were so nearly home. Now, when Dom was still weak. Neal was weak too from his healing. Kel was tired and emotionally weary.
Another arrow flew from the trees. Kel cried out, but to no avail. A man a few horses in front of her was hit in the thigh. He cried out in pain, but kept riding. Kel began to smell his blood as it soaked the horse's side. The bolt must have hit an artery. There may be little hope for his survival now.
Kel ground her teeth together, silently urging the men on faster. Was this it? Were they to be picked off one by one? She shifted in her seat.
'Faster!' she yelled, almost standing in her stirrups. Neal disappeared around the bend. The men followed him. Kel cast a glance to the thick, opaque trees.
There was a cry, a thud, the whinny of a horse. Kel snapped her attention back to the line. The man with the arrow in his thigh had fallen unconscious from his horse. He tumbled down the cliff face. His friends and comrades had been unable to help him. Kel grimaced at the sound of his body breaking on the rocks. His horse continued to charge along the path; there was nowhere else for it to run.
A third arrow zipped through the air. Kel held her breath as it flew towards Dom. It missed. Kel breathed out and shifted her grip on her sword. More of the men rounded the corner. Kel assumed they were not being slaughtered as they went: there were no death cries to be heard, only the continuous thundering of the hooves. They seemed to be getting away.
Kel pushed her horse on. Foam flew from its mouth. She watched Dom ride out of sight. Half the men were now off the trapped path.
There was a thunderous, inhuman war cry. Kel turned in the saddle. On the path behind her, men had erupted from the forest. Bandits, wearing green and brown clothes to camouflage with the forest, their faces painted. They carried weapons and ran after the line of disappearing warriors. Two men had crude longbows and began again to shoot at them.
Kel raised her shield above her head and caught the arrow meant for her skull. She didn't want to discard her shield yet, so she quickly sliced the arrow shaft close to the shield. She glanced back to her front; the men were racing hard. She wondered about turning her horse and facing the bandits: there were only a few of them. So long as she could guard herself against the pair of archers, she could easily dispatch of the group. But the path was so narrow she was unsure if the horse would manage to turn, and in doing so it may leave her open and unable to protect herself. It would be better to wait until she reached wider ground.
She raced on, turning back to her men, keeping her shield ready, listening for arrows.
Then there was a new sound: the unmistakeable echo of hooves.
Kel turned once more in the saddle. Two mounted bandits had crashed out of the forest and were now racing towards her. They overtook the running bandits, one of which went crashing down the cliff. Well, one less for us to deal with, Kel thought. She was nearly at the bend now. She rode on. An arrow scarcely missed her.
She rode around the bend in the path. On the left, the land still dropped away steeply, but the forest was hidden now. Only disjoined clumps of trees grew on this part of the hill. Before her, the land widened out into an ideal flat expanse. Finally, Kel thought, something going our way! The men had gathered further along the flat bowl of land, awaiting her orders, Neal and Dom among them. The last few men in front of Kel rode on and joined the group.
Suddenly one of the mounted bandits came up alongside Kel. He was on her right side; she swung her sword in an arc towards him. He caught the blade on his crudely made double-headed axe. Kel pushed down, he pushed up. They reeled away from each other. Kel turned her horse to face him again. She began to ride towards him, her shield high. Suddenly, an arrow thudded into his forehead. He screamed and plunged to the ground, falling beneath his own horse's hooves. Kel looked back. The group of the King's Own had organised themselves into a steady formation. Two men had drawn their well-crafted longbows. Dom, his sword pointing towards Kel, was at their head. He had taken his arm out of its sling, the material hung limply around his neck. Neal, looking pale and drawn, was by his side.
Kel turned her horse to face the path they had just rode so hard from. Bandits were charging from it, led by the other mounted one. Kel could hear more hooves around the bend.
Alone, at a distance from her men, she stood her ground and waited. She shifted her grip on the reins. Her horse shifted his feet uncomfortably. The bandits were coming closer. Luckily, she couldn't see any archers within them.
Swinging low in the saddle, Kel used a downward chop on her first attacker. Her blade hit his skull and he went crashing to the ground. The uncivilised warriors sped past her, rushing towards the King's Own waiting for them. Kel righted herself in the saddle and turned to the next man. She caught his arm with her sword and he reeled away from her.
The second mounted bandit, having led his men this far, turned and spurned his dirty horse towards Kel. She braced herself for his attack. He was a big, burly man. But as it turned out, he had only a short sword that shattered on impact with Kel's Griffon. She thrust her blade into his unprotected chest.
Immediately his body was pulled from his horse and two more bandits clambered onto the saddle. But they could not work together and Kel easily dispatched of them.
Sweat was running into her eyes; she blinked it away. She could clearly smell blood now. The cries of the wounded dying on the ground, the screams as fatal blows hit home, rung in her ears. She adjusted her hold on her sword, and turned her horse. Still more bandits came from the path.
Kel's chest tightened. After all they had been through, after everything, this had to happen. She cursed the Gods again. She had not fought for so long to lose now. She would not lose Dom, even if she had to fight the Gods themselves. How dare they even try to test her in such a way! Now, after all their tests!
The anger was strong in her blood, and it was good after so much pain, so much silent suffering all her years of training. She let it wash over her, let it feed her.
She charged for the path the bandits were flowing from, hacking at the attackers as she went.
Dom saw her charge. Already she had been too far from the Own for comfort, now she was going even further away. He cried out to Neal and indicated Kel's actions. The two men began to head towards her.
Kel had not seen in her anger that two bandits had appeared over the top of the hill and were now standing above everyone else, looking down on the fight. They carried bows.
Kel continued to fight strongly. She was beginning to tire. She wished she had been fresher when she went into this fight. Vaguely, beyond her anger, she was surprised at the number of bandits. She wondered if her men would be overpowered. She did a quick calculation. Including the man that had earlier been shot in the back, they were twenty-strong, including her, Dom, and Neal. But they were all more experienced, more skilled fighters. She was sure they would easily deal with these rogue bandits.
Dom and Neal were gaining on Kel when they heard the hiss of an arrow cutting the air. They held their breath. There was no cry of pain from Kel.
Initially, Kel didn't notice the arrow as it struck her leg. She was too distracted, and there was too much adrenaline and anger pumping through her now. Then, slowly, the pain registered itself. It was a hot whiteness that started as a pinprick, and grew, and spread so that it encompassed all of her thigh. A low, guttural groan escaped her. Her vision swam. Her leg throbbed. She brought her sword down on another bandit. He met the blade with his own. At the impact, Kel dropped Griffon. As if in slow motion, Kel watched her beloved sword fall to the dusty ground. She fumbled for another blade. Vaguely, she wondered why, beyond the white pain and deep-set throbbing, her leg felt wet and sticky against the side of the horse.
Her fingers tightened around another hilt. She pulled out her long knife, unaware she was swaying in the saddle. She was finding it hard to concentrate. Vaguely, she heard the sound of a drum and the thundering of hooves seemed to her to suddenly double in intensity. She hit out at another man.
Dom and Neal were racing towards Kel as fast as they could when they heard the drum. They pulled up and turned around. Behind them, behind the Own, crashing down towards the fight, rode more of the Own, Sir Raoul at their head. Without exchanging a word, Dom and Neal turned back towards Kel, just in time to see her pulled off her horse by the bandits.
'No!' yelled Dom, spurring his horse even more. Neal raced after him. Around them, the bandits were fleeing at the new reinforcements.
Kel struggled at the hands but they were too many and too strong and she couldn't think properly. They pulled her down. Blink as she might, her vision remained hazy and spinning. She was dimly aware she was on the floor without a weapon. She managed to get onto her knees, ignoring the screaming pain in her left thigh. She put her hand to it and her glove came away red.
She stood on her right leg, holding onto her horse for support, dragging her left leg up. She scrabbled for another weapon. A bandit appeared and her defence was too late. He hit her head and she went sprawling back onto the floor again.
She struggled to one knee. Now she was just aware of an intense, burning need to keep going. The bandit was there; she could hear him laughing. He hit her again. She fell onto her back. She knew she must move, but she could not find the energy or the will power to do so. She lay there, moving slightly, her chest clearly rising and falling with her laboured breathing. Through her hazy sight and the approaching blackness, she just made out the bandit fall across her, a throwing knife embedded in his eye. Energy suddenly found at the impact across her stomach, she struggled. But her strength was flowing out of her body with her blood, and she could not shift his weight. She stopped trying.
Her mind was slowly becoming dysfunctional, gradually letting her be swallowed by the darkness, but she realised in the dimness that the call came simultaneously from two different men. And she recognised the two voices as those that belonged to the two most important people in her life: her best friend, and her lover. Her lover: the man she loved above all others; the man that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with; the man that always made her feel happy, special, complete; the man she wanted to give herself to- her love, her heart, her body, her soul.
The blackness was pressing further, tighter around her.
She opened her eyes, struggled once more against the body on her, and looked up. A mounted bandit was fleeing back towards the forest.
A large, heavy, iron-clod hoof of his horse was coming straight for her face. Through it all, she was aware that if she didn't move, that hoof might hit her square in the head. If it did that, she would die. Then, after everything, she would have lost. She screamed, and struggled under the dead man.