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.”
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…]