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…]