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.
[To Be Continued…]