Casus Bella – Part Five

casusbella

Shinvar didn’t look back. I did.

Repeatedly.

Knight-Captain Meister and his band of defenders receded. They rushed to positions, braced with shields, swords and spears. Rooftop archers either side of the street loosed arrows into whatever force massed beyond the barricade.

They were quick with their fire, but by no means as swift as Shinvar. And there were but half a dozen bowmen perched on each roof.

We rode on.

Then came a crash. Its fallout rumbled down the street after us.

Beasts had rammed the barricade. Monstrous horse-heads slammed through the piled furniture, butting junk aside with great plates of bone they wore in place of manes. Snarltails. The size of Shirehorses, the features for which they were named whipped about above the busted barricade. To snap at the defending knights with the wolf-heads that tipped each lashing tail. The horse-heads butted wider gaps in the barrier while the wolf-jaws bit at spear-points or raked fangs on shields.

We hit the end of our street and galloped around the corner. Where a small detail of men were scraping together more materials for a third barricade.

Sight of the battle was stolen from us. We were left with only the raging clamour.

Distance meant little. The clatter of hooves on cobbles beneath us could not compete with the din. The cries and roars especially. The hellish rattle of metal and the yells of men and beasts reverberated through empty streets, in and out of hollow factories of brick and grime.

We rode on and up. Hoofbeats clacking louder on stone as we climbed the serpent road up the Royal Hill.

So-dubbed for the mansions and manors that colonised its slopes. Their façades were more decorative, but the masonry had inhaled so much of the chimney smoke over the decades. They stood like kings among coal-miners, as sooted as their lowly subjects.

At the second snake-bend in the hill, Shinvar reined in her mount. Here, space between two mansion roofs afforded a window down to the battle.

It was some small consolation to see it was still ongoing. As I reined in my horse to an uneasy standstill, I had feared it might be all over, with the defences demolished and overrun and the Orkan mob spilling in over fallen knights.

But no. They held. So far.

One Snarltail sprawled, heavy and unmoving, heaped over the barricade. Its corpse spiny like a porcupine with arrows. The other beast thrashed fitfully, weakening with each fresh arrow shot into its back. While knights slashed at its wolfish tail with blades or jabbed at its equine neck with spears.

Past the barricade, the Orkans compressed into a thickening mass. This seething sea surged and shoved against the barrier. The pile shifted, beds and tables and chairs and clutter and Snarltail corpses and all.

Here and there, Orkans fell under the crush. Their unruly, uncaring comrades used them as fat footstools and they clambered up onto the barricade.

The battle was on its way to being lost.

“They should’ve had more archers on those rooftops,” said Shinvar. “Plus flanking troops to strike out from the buildings.”

“You’ll have no argument from me.”

She could have cut down thousands. Shooting from the rooftops or leading a mounted charge out from the factories. This I knew for a certainty, as I watched the struggle and carnage far below. And imagined how it might play out with other pieces on the board. A single piece that could move like no other.

Shinvar eyed me sideways. “What thoughts are cooking in that helmet of yours?”

“Why – only that – I agree. You – you could have made a difference. All the difference.”

I’d no ideas why my words faltered so. Like my restless horse, clomping about all over the place.

“Whoa there,” said Shinvar. And I thought for one moment she addressed my steed. “You’re looking at me through a rose-tinted visor there.”

“No. Nothing of the sort. I – ”

“You’re right. I’m being unfair. That would imply it was only with your helmet on. Lose it,” she said. “Let a little more daylight in. And I like to see a man’s face.”

“What? I – ” Why did I stall so on the word ‘I’? Such a small fence for my speech to refuse.

“Lose it. The helmet.”

Orders were orders, I supposed. And she had made it a command.

I pulled off the helm and threw it to the ground. Shinvar nodded and smiled and I knew nowhere to hide.

Below, a ripple of motion coursed through the knight defenders. The second Snarltail breathed its last and sagged next to its team-mate. Orkan soldiers crested the barricade, scrambling atop the fallen beasts.

Flames sailed down onto the barrier. Torches tossed in high-reaching arcs. Ignited arrows from the rooftop archers.

A curtain of fire erupted, drawn across the jumble-sale wall. Orkans staggered and crashed in the bonfire.

“That’s bought some time,” Shinvar observed.

“Enough?”

“Let’s see.”

She turned her horse, ready to ride on.

 

[To Be Continued…]

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Casus Bella – Part Four

casusbella

Someone threw me a sword. I caught it, to my own surprise, and tested its balance with a few swift practice swings. Satisfied, I stowed it in my scabbard.

“Slim chance,” Knight-Captain Meister countered Shinvar’s prediction. He did so with a dry sort of smile, like a crack in a drought-parched cliff.  “I would give us a slim chance. Not that I doubt your assessment, but allow me to err on the side of optimism.”

“There’s not much room to err here, Captain. And precious little for optimism.” Shinvar bit a small portion of her upper lip. She shifted aside for a group of knights carrying pails of pitch to the barricade. Watched them splash the black soup over the jumbled pile. The miscellaneous debris of a once-busy town had only one purpose now. The purchase of time. “We should withdraw to the hills. The Mountain Hamlets and the mines where Orin hails from.” My name became a pearl, spoken by her. Gone too soon in the current of words, I had no idea what spell her voice had worked on the two ordinary syllables. “We’ll last a lot longer defending those tunnels and I know the paths and trails. There’s every opportunity for flanking. Small raiding parties could inflict – ”

“Shinvar, what do you suppose I have planned? Exactly that.” More men brought buckets to the barrier, adding to its viscous black coat. “But we will first make our enemy pay dear for every yard of street they take.”

“Fair enough, but what are we going to buy with the delay? With those lives?”

“Friends, Shinvar.” Meister’s clenched teeth lent the word unusual grimness. “Allies. Reinforcements and, ultimately, victory. I’ll pay not one life for anything less.”

“Where is that help coming from?”

Where indeed? The Orkans held or collapsed the bridges to the North and East. Behind the town all other points of the compass met the Ursine Massif, the rugged and inflexible spine of this continent.

“The Elves,” said Meister.

Shinvar tilted her head and arched an eyebrow. Even some of the bustling work parties pricked their ears as they continued to attend the barricade. And I all but blurted my disbelief. Though I reined it in, a small measure escaped in a cough.

Meister speared me with a glance.

“Beg your pardon, Captain, sir.” I cleared my throat, in hopes of dredging up more of my voice from where it had retreated. “But I have been garrisoned here some while. The locals speak volumes of the scorn the Elves have for this town. They wish nothing to do with this sore on the toe of their mountains.”

The peaks and high caverns belonged to them and they saw the mines as an invasion and this town as an unsightly scar on their commanding view of the world. So it was said. Over and over, with much contempt, in the taverns and in the barracks.

“Nevertheless, they will change their tune when they see an Orkan horde on their doorstep.”

“We can’t know that.” Shinvar bit more of her lip. She shook her head. “There’s a reason the rest of the Elves left us to our own devices. Mountain Elves are even keener on keeping themselves to themselves.”

Knight-Captain Meister nodded. “Which is why I’m sending you to persuade them.”

“What? No. I’m needed here!”

“I’ll not deny you would make a difference here. But you will make a greater difference up there.” Meister thrust out an arm, pointing to the peaks looking down upon our rooftops. “Down here is battle after battle. Up there is the key to the war.”

In my opinion, this woman could make all the difference, wherever she was deployed. She could win battles or wars singlehanded, I had no doubt. It was strange to see doubt and consternation furrowing a brow such as hers.

“Sir, I do not – ”

“It does not matter what you do or do not believe. But you go. You ride now. Take the lad with you. And you ride up that mountain trail and you make them believe. Thank you. That will be all, Shinvar. Good luck and may your Huntress guide you!”

Meister spun away, launched into a tirade of orders for the knights and work crews. Shinvar stood with her mouth open and was a short while closing it. She turned and swept up into her saddle. From on high on horseback, she nodded to me.

I returned the nod. Then donned my helm and mounted my steed.

A shout turned our heads to the factory roof. Where a half-dozen archers edged forward like a group of perched starlings. Their leader signalled, making a cutting gesture down towards the street. We saw nothing, of course, past the barricade. But we heard.

Boots drummed the cobbles. Boots and hooves, the beat of leather and metal on stone. The percussion section of an angry orchestra. Building to an ominous symphony.

Then in came the choral.

Growl and grumble, gnash and snort. Wild, hungry noises with an appetite for blood.

Shinvar looked to the rooftops. She looked through the barricade. Looked to all the places she would rather be.

Then spurred her horse away from them all.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Three

casusbella

We ducked, she and I, one after the other as we rode through the doorway into the adjoining section of the factory.

Fewer personnel filled out this stretch of the building. I glanced a touch nervously at the high girdered ceiling, which rattled at the sound of another crashing fireball outside. But the missile had punished another roof other than the one above our heads. A good job, as Shinvar eschewed a helmet altogether and mine had already taken enough of a battering in my inglorious fall.

While the large space where we had entered had the general disposition of a warehouse, this section housed an idle assembly line, where the remains of steam tractors were abandoned in various stages of incompletion. Machines intended for the mines and quarries which fed this town’s voracious appetite for minerals in its normal course of daily operations. Before the enemy had marched upon its unwalled outskirts in their rabblesome hordes. In what other cities would call peacetime. While this town could never claim such a state, its streets and buildings ever-grinding with the noise of industry.

Strange, in some respects, to be fighting off the brutal, bestial chaos outside in hopes of restoring the town to its customary mechanical din.

We steered our horses left, halfway along the assembly line and through another double gate. Back out into the street. A cobbled courtyard inside the barricade.

Knights and militiamen hauled more crates, shelving and assorted large bric-a-brac from the neighbouring factories and piled them onto the barrier or stacked them to further shore up the base of the wall.

Knight-Captain Meister directed teams hither and thither to wherever more materials looked most-needed. I only identified him by the fountainous plume sprouting from the helmet he carried under his arm.

He was a man with cheekbones and jaw of steel, as though he wore a second helm under his skin. The metal of which grew through pores and lines, emerging as a beard of silver-and-white wire wool. His eyes were coal-hearted furnaces in which fresh swords could be forged.

Shinvar dismounted, landing in front of him as though she had floated down from the clouds rather than the saddle of her golden steed. I slid less gracefully from my own horse and positioned myself as her humble shadow.

“Their first wave broke apart, but they’re already regrouping,” she reported. We could all hear them out there, the grumbling flood surging over the first barricade and amassing far down the street. “And the next wave is moving up on the outer defences.”

“And who’s this you’ve brought us?” Captain Meister nodded in my direction, with gritted teeth and clenched eyes.

Shinvar turned her head to look at me.

Amber. Her eyes were amber. Like honey. Memory had cheated me. There was no blue. They must have captured the light of the sky. That, or the blow of the road against my back had dazed me more than I had thought.

“I’ve no idea,” she said – and smiled. “He was out there in the thick of it though. Thought we could find a use for him.”

Meister laughed like he was coughing up stones. “That we can. What’s your name, man? Let’s have that can off your head so we can look at you.”

Shinvar.

My senses stalled, just as they had done in battle, with the wind knocked out of me. Willing time to slow, my gaze drank in every detail. As though affronted – ashamed – at their error over eye colour, they wanted to pause the world and carefully note every facet of this woman.

Hair of autumns and summers mingled, complexion a blend of coffee and brown sugar, soft features underlined by a firm jaw, the strongest support for her broad and subtly whimsical smiles. Her armour bore the cameo emblem of the Huntress, ivory-skinned silhouette of a female archer. The Order was one I had heard of in bold tales – but such fictions did an injustice if all the Order’s knights were of this woman’s calibre.

She was young too. Too young for war. Then again, were not we all.

“Come on. We’ve not got all day, man. At least show us you’re no Orkan spy under there.”

I blinked. Spell broken, I raised my helmet and then tucked it under my arm, after the Knight-Captain’s fashion.

“Man?” Meister snorted. “Boy, more like. What’s your name, soldier?”

“Freigard, sir. Orin Friegard. I’m with the Mountain Hamlets garrison. They transferred us all down to bolster the forces here.”

“Aye, I’m aware of the strategic deployments, lad. Since I ordered most of them. Any that I didn’t are why everything’s going to hell.” He laughed again but if there was humour in the sound it was arid. “Never mind. Where’s your weapon?”

My hand flicked to the empty scabbard. “Lost, sir.”

Meister shouted to the general company. “Get this soldier a sword! I’ll not have anybody dying unarmed. Not on my watch. Now,” he added, easing down into quieter tones, “you’ve seen enough, Shinvar, to paint me a picture. Can we hold here?”

“Not a chance.”

Such warmth in her beauty. But her honesty turned me cold.

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Two

casusbella

At some point I must have stood. Because her hand grasped mine and she hauled me up into the saddle behind her.

This warrioress steered her steed into another dancing circle, while I held onto her armoured waist and while she sliced at milling enemies with her sword. She cut a path for us through the mêlée, then spurred her horse through, driving the press of fighters apart with kicks and sweeping arcs of her graceful blade.

Answering weapons slashed at us, but she was quick to fend them off. Parries met every one, fleeting kisses of blade on blade on the move. And if any attacks stalled us at all, then they only purchased themselves a riposte for their pains. Every flash of sunlight on her sword heralded another fallen foe. Orkans crashed to the cobblestones, carpeting the avenue with their blood and bulk.

She spurred her mount over them, clear of the battle-crush, but she was not done. She spun the horse about, slid her blade home in its scabbard. Then her bow slipped from shoulder to hands and she plucked arrow after arrow from her quiver. Sent them – swoosh, swoosh, swoosh! – like solid gusts of wind – there, there, there! – biting into the thrashing clashing throng.

Feather-tailed branches sprouted in Orkan necks and eyes and treasonous gaps in their armour. They dropped and piled atop their already-dead comrades.

Knights fought in a thinning maelstrom of bodies. They staggered and battled over a building mound of studded-and-spiked-leather-clad corpses. And she – my rescuer – called to them.

“Fall back! To the second barricade!”

A sound of music and power, her shout was fearsome and glorious. The blare of heaven’s bugle.

And she shot two, three, four, six more down. Freed more knights from the fight. Dazed, exhausted, grim-set faces and battered helmet visors turned this way and that as the warriors withdrew, beating back a sparser rabble of enemies.

Two Orkans converged on a lone straggler, axes hungry. Two arrows flew and found their marks. The straggler-knight straggled no more. He hurdled the fallen and raced to catch up with his retreating friends. Those on horse scooped up a passenger.

Then we turned again. To gallop down the road.

Hooves thundered on cobbles beneath us. Rattled my teeth. And I held tighter to her waist. Steel plate and chain denied my arms any sense of the muscle and strength and warmth to which I clung. I might have been some seashell clinging to a cold rock against a crashing tide. In any case, this woman’s strength lay deeper than muscle. I had seen a measure of it, a dram, in her eyes. A shard of heart that had worked its way to the surface in her gaze.

And here, anchored to her, braced in a saddle with only her back before me and her hair flying in my face, I could not recall the exact colour of her eyes. There had been some blue. But had there not been some emerald too?

Memory teased. I closed my eyes, squinted to trap her portrait. But my senses had been hazed and the picture was a blur. Whoever the artist, he or she had used soft brushstrokes.

I opened my eyes to the rush of buildings on either side.

Steel mills and smelting works and manufactories. Drab and soulless brick, structures given to industry. Edifices with the downcast facades of slaves, the grime of their labours smoked into their hides. And now many burned and smoked and broke under the onslaught of other engines. The siege machines of the Orkans had grown more sporadic, slinging only the occasional missile now that their armies had advanced into the town. A fireball caved in another factory roof and ploughed in through the tiles to gut the production line with flame. Unsightly chimneys trembled in fear of something uglier.

And we raced on past.

And I looked ahead to the second barricade. Another wall of furnishings and toppled coaches and wagons. And there – waiting for me, it seemed – was my steed.

The animal stamped about in confusion and frustration, its flight barred by this junk-pile wall.

And my rescuer, my warrioress, she pulled her mount in beside mine and handed me over. I transferred easily enough into the vacant saddle and grabbed the reins. All the while glancing around for a proper view – a reminder – of the woman who had saved me.

But she rode by. Trotted to the gates of a factory abutting this side of the barrier.

“Let us through!” she called. “We’re short on time!”

The gates parted and we rode on into the factory. A scattered flood of more cavalry and retreating infantry followed us. As they all pressed in, more men and women began dragging crates and shelves and anything they could move to shore up the gates. As the last few swept in, so the gates were slammed and barred and the boxes and barrels and fixtures were pushed into place.

“Shinvar!” some sour-stoned voice grated. “Captain Meister needs to see you!”

And my warrioress guided her steed left, riding for the door at the end of the factory floor. And I spurred my horse to catch up with her. And I was myself spurred too. Because now I knew her name.

Shinvar.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part One

casusbella

My steed reared and I crashed from the saddle. Slammed into the ground.

Sky reeled. Stars danced in the daylight. I dry-heaved air from my lungs and gut. Empty and dazed, I lay broken on the lip of the crater left by the fireball. While my horse galloped, screaming, away along the cobbled avenue.

My skull turned to wool, muffling the din of battle. The roar in my ears was all blood. A clamour that drowned out everything. Everything but fear.

Adrenalin or dread or something coursed through my veins. The world breathed in time with me and I had no breath. Time slowed. And I watched from a mile away, but deep in the heart of the day’s chaos.

Orkans poured over the barricade. An armoured flood of seething, spitting ugly surged over the wall of toppled wagons, iron bedframes, wardrobes, tables and every other scrap of furniture we’d managed to cram across the street. Swinging battle-axes and gnashing tusks, they fell upon the crush of knights and horses and infantry awaiting them this side of the jumble-sale wall.

Spears jabbed. Swords slashed. Axes hacked. A forest of steel thrashed in a murderous gale-force wind. A storm of weapons and armour, scarred polish and grim faces among the men, filth and rust and animal fangs on the side of the attacking army.

My right hand slapped the ground, flailing, groping for the hilt that had been wrapped in my gauntlet only three heartbeats before. Maybe more. My heart should have galloped as fast as my fleeing horse but its sound was lost like all others.

Boots and greaves trampled the ground all around me, kicking other fallen bodies. Stamping over them.

My hand closed around something that might have been a sword-hilt. The heaving sea of armour swept over and around me in strangely distant silence.

I yelled, deaf to my own voice. I pulled the sword toward me, relieved to find a blade attached to the hilt and pommel. And I swung the weapon, chopping at fat and grimy Orkan calves. Felled one foe, who stumbled a pace or two on bleeding legs. Then crashed forward on his rust-plated belly perhaps three yards from me. Another obstacle thrown under the feet of the battling horde.

A brutal leather boot, adorned with spikes, stamped down hard on my arm. Pinned at the elbow, I could feel the blood stopped up in my veins.

I held my grip on my sword, uselessly stranded though it was on the far side of the blockage. And I looked up at my oppressor.

A vicious, blubber-jowled Orkan, with a taste for spikes all over his armour and a face as leathery as his cladding, that looked to have been kicked about a field as a football in some off-duty sport between his comrades.

Behind him and above, a fireball ploughed like a comet into one of the tall factory chimneys that flanked this street. Cast from an enemy catapult, it may as well have rained down from whatever passed for Orkan heaven, as it graced this warrior with a brief halo of flame. Before the pulverised chimney pelted the factory roof with crumbled bricks.

The Orkan shifted his stance. Planted his boot on my sword-hand. Until my fingers had no choice but to relinquish the weapon.

He grunted. A laugh like gargled brimstone.

And I realised my hearing had returned. First this hellish, guttural sound from this bestial throat. Then the rest: the clash and clang and all the shouts so raw they must have raked men’s throats. And I wished for the deafness and stillness again. Breath was back in my lungs just when I had no further use for it.

The Orkan hefted his axe, raised the pitted and pocked blade high. Where its rust drank up the daylight like blood soaks up courage. And he swung it down, two-handed.

It bit at my heart.

Snagged in the plate.

The Orkan growled and wrested it free, snatched it from the crevasse he’d dug in the metal. No blood oozed from the crack. Though the bruise of the blow throbbed inside my armour.

I struggled, tugged at my arm. The axe-blade sailed high again. Swung down. Bashed a dent in another patch of chest-plate. Hammered my ribs. The Orkan raised the axe, hissing drool between his tusks. Pig-eyes fit to pop. Mad.

Then there she appeared.

Behind and above him, like the flaming halo he’d worn so fleetingly before. Only closer.

High on a glorious golden horse, she shone. There was the gleam of her chain and plate where it wasn’t spattered with blood. The radiance in her complexion, sun-browned skin sheening with perspiration. Most of all in her eyes. It was a cold light just then, but it was all I could see.

The flash of her sword, scything with ease, was a passing distraction. Until a shower of Orkan blood, like red tar, sprayed across my vision and the spike-armoured body keeled over. And she may have delivered it a kick to make sure it fell clear of me, but I was only vaguely aware. Of anything.

Except her guiding her horse in an expert dance. And her leaning in her saddle and a strong arm reaching down to me.

Saved by the belle.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

 

 

THE END