Shinvar didn’t look back. I did.
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.
She turned her horse, ready to ride on.
[To Be Continued…]