Leifr stood saddled and waiting for him in the stables. The warhorse shifted from one hind foot to the other, snorting and tossing his head.
“Easy, boy.” He rubbed the stallion’s broad forehead.
Leifr butted his shoulder, nearly knocking him back a step, but calmed.
“Are you sure you can’t understand animals?” The head groom paused by the stall. “He hasn’t stood still since we fed him this morning.”
Killian flashed a quick smile, not about to tell the groom that he sometimes thought he could understand more than the wolves. The man was one of the few who didn’t seem intent on whispering behind his back, and he’d hate to change that.
“Thank you for having him ready this early,” he said.
The groom nodded. “Waiting on Prince Lars, sir?”
“Not for much longer.” Killian shook his head and the groom chuckled.
“I’ll send him after you when he comes down.”
“Thank you, Mikk.” Killian swung into the saddle.
The groom stood aside with a respectful nod. “Enjoy yourself, sir.”
Leifr tugged at the bit as they neared the gate, straining forward against Killian’s firm grip on the reins. The guards saluted and let him through, murmuring admiration of the stallion as he passed.
The road wound down from the hill in a gentle curve to the lake, and once they reached the shoreline, Killian kicked Leifr up to a trot. They held it along the waterline for a few minutes before breaking into a canter and then a gallop. The wind swirled and tugged joyfully at them, amplifying the thunderous pounding of Leifr’s broad hooves.
Killian chanced a glance behind him, where puffs of sand settled over giant strides. He laughed at the rush of freedom. No whispers, stares, or curses could touch him. It was just him, Leifr, and the wind. He checked the reins. Leifr pivoted effortlessly on his hind limbs and they turned into the forest. They kept a quick canter along a wide path.
A doe and her fawn darted across in front of them. Leifr tugged once, as if asking if Killian wanted to give chase, but a simple tap kept them on the path that would take them in a wide loop through the forest.
A figure stood to block their path. Leifr slid to a stop and Killian recognized the blue robes of the entertainer. The flourishing smile had vanished from Noak’s face, but the strange eagerness remained. The hair on the back of Killian’s neck stood up in warning.
Noak stared at Killian with an almost hungry expression. Unease tightened his stomach and Leifr shifted beneath him with a rumbling nicker. The man seemed more than an entertainer. Three more figures stepped out of the woods and surrounded Killian. He drew his sword, and waited for the challenge.
“What do you want?” Killian managed to force some authority into the words.
“You.” Noak swept him with an appraising look. “Or, more specifically, your blood.”
Killian tightened his grip on his sword. The man in the yellow jerkin raised a crossbow and Killian resisted the urge to look for his own crossbow hanging from the saddle. Leifr’s ears flattened.
One of the men began to edge forward, but a flick from the sword warned him away. Killian tugged Leifr back a few paces, preparing to run. The archer raised his bow and loosed a bolt.
Killian ducked to the side, but the arrow cut a deep groove across his shoulder. Leifr reared and struck out with his hooves against another advance.
Noak released a column of smoke under Leifr’s hooves, sending him into a panicked rear. The sudden motion, combined with the throbbing pain from the cut on his arm, sent him tumbling from the saddle. A surprised cry of pain ripped from him as he landed on his injured shoulder, breaking it open further.
He lay, dazed, as Noak approached, chanting in a low voice that made Killian’s blood churn. Noak thrust his hands out with a final shout.
Killian tried to shield his eyes from the brightness that enveloped him. Burning pain ran from his scalp to his toes and he twisted with a howl of agony. Noak looked down at him in short-lived triumph as Leifr lunged forward, driving Noak back and blocking Killian from the rest of the men. Killian seized his chance and, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, scrambled to his feet and ran into the forest.