Beside him, Reef cursed. “I got it too. ”
They ran back to the eastern post. The rocky perch would give them the high ground. Twig reached them before they got there, his eyes frantic. “I was coming after you. Hyde’s warning the compound. ”
“Do you hear them?” Perry asked.
Twig nodded. “They’ve got horses, and they’re coming at a full gallop. Thunder’s quieter. ”
Perry pulled his bow off his shoulder. “We’ll make a stand here and slow them down. ” A swift approach in the middle of the night meant one thing: an attack. He needed to buy the tribe some time. “Take the near range,” he told Hayden and Reef. “I’ll take the long. ” He was the strongest archer among them, his eyes best suited to the dimness.
They spread out, finding cover among the trees and rocks along the overlook. His heart felt like a fist pounding inside his chest. The grassy meadow below looked as smooth and calm as a moonlit lake.
Was Wylan returning with a larger band to fight for the compound? Were the Rose and Night tribes attacking with their thousands? Suddenly he thought of Aria, lying on the bed in Vale’s room, and then Talon, snatched away into a Hovercraft. He hadn’t protected either of them from harm. He couldn’t fail the Tides.
His thoughts disappeared when the earth began to rumble beneath his feet. Perry nocked an arrow, instinct taking over as he drew his bow. Seconds later the first riders broke through the trees. He aimed for the man at the center of the charge and loosed the bowstring. The arrow struck the man in the chest. By the time he twisted sideways and fell from the horse, Perry had another arrow nocked. He aimed and fired. Another rider down.
The cries of the attackers broke the silence, raising the hair on his arms. He saw roughly thirty mounted raiders below, and now he heard the whistle of arrows flying past him. Ignoring them, he focused on finding the nearest man and firing. One after another, until he’d gone through his quiver and then Reef’s, with only one arrow that corkscrewed left and missed its mark because of damaged fletching, he was sure.
He lowered his bow and looked at Hayden, who was sighting down an arrow, scanning the field below for raiders. No one else came into view, just their horses, galloping off, riderless.
It wasn’t over, though. Seconds later a flood of people emerged from the woods, charging on foot.
“Hold them back as long as you can,” Perry ordered Hayden and Twig. Then he tore for home with Reef. They dug in, feet churning over the earth, pushing themselves to run faster. The compound appeared ahead—already crawling with the movements of people climbing to the rooftops and pulling the gates between the houses closed.
Perry sprinted into the clearing and spotted Brooke on top of the cookhouse, bow in hand.
“Archers up!” she yelled. “Archers up now!”
People pumped water from the well into buckets, preparing for fires. They’d brought the animals within the protection of the walls. Everyone moved as they should, as they’d practiced.
Perry tore up to the roof of the cookhouse. Against the pale tinge of dawn on the horizon, he saw the swarm of raiders tearing upslope. He put them at less than a half a mile away, and two hundred in number. The Tides had the fortified position, but as he saw the horde of people streaming toward the compound, he didn’t know if the tribe could hold them off.
The first arrows soared toward them, cracking roof tiles around him with sharp pops. Twig appeared at his side with a full quiver and a shield, giving him cover. Perry took his bow and set to defending his home. He’d done this plenty of times before, but never as the one in charge. The realization came on him like a quiet madness, slowing time, making his every move complete, efficient, sure.
Fire lit bright points of light against the rising dawn. A blazing arrow sliced past him, landing on the crates by the cookhouse. Perry adjusted his aim to the archers trying to set fire to the compound. His arrows—and those of Brooke and the Tides’ other archers—sheared through the charging mob. Some raiders fell into the trenches he’d had excavated and covered, but still they kept coming, too many in number. He watched as they split into smaller bands, swinging wide to circle the compound.
Men were climbing the gates, chopping at them with axes. Perry fired his last arrow, spearing one of them through. Not enough. Too late. He heard a splintering crash and saw the gates split open. They’d been breached—and they were burning. Smoke wafted from the stables, and from the crates by the cookhouse.
Perry climbed down from the roof, drawing his knife as he leaped off the ladder. He drove it into a man’s gut as he ran past. Voices he recognized screamed around him. He heard them faintly, no thought in his mind but finding the next attacker, the moment of hesitation, the false step, and seizing it.
In flashes, he saw Reef fighting nearby, his braids swinging in a blur. He saw Gren and Bear. Rowan, who’d resisted learning a weapon. Molly, whose life had been spent healing wounds.
Perry caught the glimpse of a black hat moving across the clearing. Cinder. A man with braided hair like Reef’s snagged him by the shoulder, yanking him off his feet. Perry watched him cower, powerless, though he wasn’t. Not a person there had more power, but Cinder wilted and didn’t fight back. Willow darted forward suddenly and plunged a dagger into the man’s leg. She took Cinder’s hand and pulled him away, running into the nearest house.
A raider with metal studs around his eyes spotted Perry and charged forward, ax held high. Perry had a knife—no weapon to challenge an ax. With only steps left between them, an arrow struck the raider’s head, lifting him off his feet. The impact sounded like stone roof tiles cracking. The man’s body and the ax thudded to the dirt. Looking up, Perry saw Hyde on the roof above, the string of his bow still quivering.
He spun and plunged back into battle, losing time until someone yelled, “Pull back!” Around the clearing, others picked up the call. He saw the crowd grow thinner, no longer a thrashing, clanging mass.
Stunned, he watched the raiders retreat over the field they’d crossed no more than an hour before. Some carried sacks with them—food or other provisions. From the rooftops, Hyde and Hayden fired at them, forcing them to drop their stolen goods to run.
When the last of them had gone, Perry scanned the compound. Fires needed to be put out. The crates burning beside the cookhouse worried him most. He gave that work to Reef, then sent Twig to track the raiders and make sure they weren’t doubling back. Then he looked around the clearing. Bodies lay strewn everywhere.
Perry made his way around, finding each of the wounded, calling Molly over to those hurt the worst. He counted twenty-nine dead. All raiders. None of them his. Sixteen people had been wounded, ten of them Tiders. Bear had a gash on his arm, but he would live. Rowan needed a cut on his head sewn together. There were more injuries—a broken leg, smashed fingers, welts and burns—but nothing fatal.
At that point, knowing they’d all survived, he stepped over the broken main gate and walked beyond the compound until the flood of relief forced him to his knees. Digging his hands into the dirt, he felt the pulse of the earth move through his body, steadying him.
When he rose, a knot of brightness caught his eye to the east, and then another, just north. They were the glowing slash of funnels dropping from the sky. For a moment he watched the storms in the distance, absorbing the fact that his land was burning. He’d protected the compound from human attack, but the Aether was an enemy too powerful to fight off. He wouldn’t let that weigh him down now. Today, he had won. Nothing could steal that away.