Come the morning, the Amzons helped with the horses as much as they could. It still took a good hour after breakfast before they were ready. Then Riverbend felt it was important to say something.
“I know you may be feeling rather stiff,” she spoke to the humans. “But the cure is to ride some more, to loosen up the muscles. We will be moving fast. Please try hard to keep up. We won’t leave anyone behind, but the faster we get in, the faster we get out to safety.”
Emily looked at her crew. The head nods suggested they were as ready as they would ever be. They started out at a walk, but soon were trotting and preparing to gallop. Half of the human women were already bouncing like bobble-heads in the back window of a pick-up. Emily would have been bouncing too if she did not have the strength in her legs to grip hard. She doubted they would get far without someone falling off, but Riverbend leaned over and whispered.
Emily kept her mouth closed when they slowed down for the next little set of woods. She had bit her tongue, so contented herself with a look around. These woods were more open to the sky than the ones they wound through at the beginning. There was more room between trees, yet somehow these woods were darker. Emily’s eyes went several times to the sky, but she saw no smoke to block the sun, much less rain clouds, yet there was an eerie darkness that surrounded them all.
They rode all out again before they began to climb up into some hills. On the way, both elf and human alike turned up their noses at the sewer smell that came from a small stream.
“The land is changing,” Riverbend admitted. “To suit the orcs that live here.”
“Alice?” Emily asked. She could say that much.
Riverbend nodded. “Our Lady is good. She bears no ill will. She will let the orcs have it their way.”
Emily returned the nod as she began to see trees that were twisted and distorted like the orcs themselves. “I might not be so gracious,” Emily said.
“Ride!” Emily reacted, and everyone kicked their horses to get up the hill as fast as they could while the two elves who served as rear guard turned in their saddles and fired several arrows in the general direction of the enemy. Those who understood such things prayed it was only a hunting party, but when they topped the hill they saw they were surrounded by a hundred orcs. The leader of the orcs had Jessica and Fiona trapped and held by the arms. They were not going anywhere. Emily turned in the saddle, saw the determination in the faces of her Amazons, and was proud of them, but she dismounted, and Captain Riverbend dismounted to walk with her.
Emily and Riverbend stopped some ten yards from the orc line, and Emily spoke.
“We are only here to retrieve the men.”
“And deprive me of my supper?” The orc commander laughed and several orcs laughed with him.
“We might not kill you all, but we can certainly kill most of you,” Emily shouted. She was banking on the orcs having some sense of self-preservation which might at least cause them to hesitate if it came to a fight. But the orc leader just laughed louder, until an arrow appeared in his chest. At the same time, arrows took out two of the orcs holding Fiona and Jessica.
Jessica did not hesitate to kick her other captor where he would feel it most. As the orc went to his knees, she retrieved her WAK.
Fiona was more deadly. While her orc stared at his dead buddy, she whipped his own sword from its holder and raked it across the orc face. Then she tapped Jessica and they ran for their horses that were nearby. The orcs guarding the horses actually moved out of the way as they got busy. Fifty fairies flew up and transformed into full sized warriors.
Emily stood transfixed, both fascinated and repulsed by the sudden barbaric gore that spilled out all around her. Commander Falcon ran up and yelled for her attention. “They did not buy our ruse.” He fought off a brute and yelled again. “Ride!”
Emily and Riverbend broke for their horses and both yelled the same word. “Ride.” The women grabbed their spears and held them like lances. To be honest, it was mostly the elves who cut a clear path through the orc line. Emily and Riverbend ended up in the rear, but they both pulled their swords and each took out one before they broke free. Emily breathed. She had been so scared and swung as she imagined so wildly, it was a wonder to her that she did not cut off her own horse’s head. Riverbend breathed as well, but said nothing until they were all well clear of the battle. Then she slid off her horse. Her leg was badly cut and she was bleeding profusely.
Everyone dismounted for a rest. “Only a moment,” Riverbend said through teeth closed tight against the pain. Maria and Linnea were right there to lay on hands. They stopped the bleeding, closed up the wound and relieved the pain, but neither could heal Riverbend completely, and she had lost a good bit of blood.
“Can you ride?” Emily asked. Riverbend looked uncertain. “For David?” Riverbend smiled and nodded. She could do it for David. “Good,” Emily said as she helped the elf to her feet and set her on her horse. “I don’t want to lose you. David would never forgive me.” Riverbend smiled a bit more and they rode, slowly. They were near their destination.
They arrived on the ledge of a tall hill where they could overlook the distant valley. At the back of the ledge there was a cave. Mindy suggested that it was likely the cave that lead to the door to the archives. Jessica found Sergeant Valenko and two other men hanging upside down from the ceiling of the cave. They were dead, their blood drained and hanging, no doubt, to tenderize the meat.
“No guards,” Riverbend noted as she slipped off her horse to sit for a minute in the cave entrance.
“Not true,” Mindy shouted as two dozen orcs came up the rise. The women were cut off from escape and only had a short cliff with a cave at their backs.
“Form ranks!” Emily commanded, and the Amazons grabbed their spears and began to form a line. The Women of the Watch caught on quickly and added their spears to the line. “Forward march!” Emily shouted, and as the wall of spears began to move forward in unison, Sara raised her shepherds crook and yelled. A blinding white light emanated from her being and caused the orcs to blink and back away. Most of the orcs changed their minds about the fight. They turned to rush back down the hill, but one big ogre, likely the one Emily kicked in the Archive room burst through the line. It was badly cut and had two broken spears in its middle which it tore out. It was far from dead, and several orcs followed it through the hole in the line before the women could close up ranks.
Jessica and Fiona had their bows and took out two of the orcs. Riverbend pulled her sword again, but she could hardly lift it. Emily faced the ogre and made her sword move left and right to distract and confuse the beast before she shoved the sword deep into the ogre’s chest. It howled, but sheer anger and hatred kept it standing. It looked paralyzed in its right arm, but it could still roar and reach for Riverbend.
Emily slapped the ogre’s hand away from the elf and the ogre looked surprised that he felt the slap. Then Emily punched the ogre in the eye while he was bending down toward the elf. She knocked the ogre to the ground, but immediately regretted the decision. It felt like her hand was broken. “Damn!” She got angry and jumped over the flailing beast. Her knife finished the ogre, but when she stood she said again, “Damn!”
Maria came after a moment, and Linnea joined her after the two finished treating the others. One elf had a broken arm. Arwen and Mindy would have bruised faces for some time, and Mindy would have a bad black eye. Amina might have a concussion and her elf had a deep cut on her arm from defending Amina.
It turned out Emily’s hand was not broken, but Maria said there were probably several cracks in the bones. It took some effort to heal the hand, and then Maria was spent. Linnea did not look too steady either. “I hope we don’t run into any more,” Maria said as she put her hand to her forehead to wipe away the sweat.
“Hey, Emily,” Jessica called from the cave.
“Go ahead, elf. Touch the apples. Don’t you want to? Human, try one. They are delicious.” Riverbend, Arwen, Mindy, Sara and Emily all shouted, “No!” at the same time.
“To so much as touch the apple, for a little one is death,” Linnea said.
“It is the apple of youth. Jessica, it will make you young,” Mindy spoke at about the same time.
“But I am young,” Jessica said before she said, “oh.” She remembered the apples might make her young enough to where she ceased to exist altogether.
The orc laughed like it was his last breath. “We want no god over us, but we remember the rules,” it said and closed its eyes.
“How did you come to get these apples,” Fiona shouted at the orc.
The orc just laughed again and stopped moving.
“The goddess who will not show herself,” Amina said. She threw her hands over her eyes as if she saw something she did not want to see.
Riverbend took a piece of fairy weave from her own clothes and laid it over top of the apples. She attached it to the bucket and made it as thick as possible as a guard against temptation. “But who can take this?” Riverbend asked. “For elves it is impossible, and for humans it is irresistible.
“Let me see,” Melissa stepped up. She pulled her wand and focused on the bucket with the fairy weave cover, waved her wand over top, and shortly the whole thing smelled like the sewer stream they passed earlier.
Sara stepped up and held her nose as she picked up the bucket. “I will take the bucket. I am least likely to be tempted. The last thing I want is to risk being a teenager again.”
No one argued as the priestess strapped the bucket to the back of her horse’s saddle. Her elf helped and had one thing to say. “My lady is very brave.”
“One more thing,” Melissa said, and she let her magic surround the group and float in and out between them. “There.” She took a deep breath. “Now if there are orcs within bowshot, an alarm should sound.” But then she was as worn out as Maria and feared she would be no help if the alarm went off.
“The valley below looks clear,” Riverbend spoke to Emily who came back out from the cave, still nursing her hand. “We did not come that way for fear they would see us coming.”
Emily also tied a small satchel to the back of her horse’s saddle and nodded. “But we skirt the edge and ride hard.”
“Second tree to the right and straight on until evening,” Riverbend nodded.