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…]