Casus Bella – Part Eleven

casusbella

The Elves came upon us in the night.

Rashly, I reached for my sword, foolish and far too late. In my defence, I was but half awake.

We were perhaps a shade over halfway through our journey, the sun had long since slipped below the craggy western ridges behind us. Shinvar pushed us onward as long as she dared. Footing was relatively safe and the going easy enough through brush and bush, although my face weathered many a raking branch and the occasional scratching thorn. I trusted such assailants to allow Shinvar to pass unmolested, leave her beauty unmarred.

It must have been past midnight, with a feeble moon peering down through the forest canopy, when Shinvar signalled a stop. “We’ll camp here,” she said. And slid from her saddle in a cosy clearing where mounds of soft moss had clustered around the base of a gnarled oak like cushions strewn at its feet. Perhaps the forest floor sought to comfort this lonely veteran. Its kind were few and far between amongst the cedars and maples and birches. This one’s age suggested it had been here first, but really it was impossible to tell which species were the invaders – the noble minorities or the common masses. In any case, it seemed they shared the high mountain valleys in relative peace. We were the intruders.

A little unease stirred in my stomach even as I descended from my saddle, over-ready for a rest. “Can we afford the time?”

“We must make the time.” Shinvar looped Surefire’s reins over a low-hanging branch. And I similarly tethered my steed. “It’s okay. I factored in a short rest break as a matter of necessity. We’ll keep it really short, don’t worry on that score. And when I say camp here, it won’t be much of a camp. No fire. Just us stretched out on a bed of moss.”

I confess my heart spread wings at the prospect and took romantic flight. I reined it in, in case there was sufficient moonlight to illuminate my blushes. “Should we not take shifts? One of us to keep watch?”

Shinvar nodded. She sat with her back to the wrinkled trunk of the oak. “I’ll take first watch. You sleep. Two hours. Make the most of it.”

She tilted her head back, her posture entirely relaxed. And yet I didn’t doubt her senses were fully alert as ever. Any other sentry in such a pose, you would expect to doze off. As I settled down beside her – but not too close beside her – I knew I would wake to find her in exactly the same position. Resting but wide awake. Nothing, not even a squirrel or mountain fox, might steal up on us while she sat guard.

I turned onto my side and wrestled with the impossible task of getting comfortable in my armour. I wished I had remained on my back a while longer. Or turned onto my other side. To face her.

We had no campfire, but there was warmth in the knowledge of her presence. A portrait of her, bathed in the light of a campfire or of the tree-filtered moon, drifted in and out of my mind’s eye. There on the border of dreams I heard her shift behind me and clear her throat. She was real and it did not matter what light illuminated her. I longed to know more of her. I longed to lie awake and talk with her for my full share of two hours. And I knew why I had hesitated back there in the mine’s tunnels, at the rail track.

I did not know when I crossed into the realm of sleep. But Shinvar roused me with a shake and encouraged me to my feet. I rose slowly, blinking what felt like all of ten minutes of slumber from my eyes. And my hand shot to my sword hilt even before I had properly caught on that we had attracted an audience. A small semi-circle of hooded figures.

They walled off one edge of the clearing, but made no threatening moves. Their bows were worn over the shoulder, their blades sheathed in ornamented scabbards. I left my own blade stay put.

Our visitors’ cowls hung low, concealing all but a glimpse of elegant chins. Strange, I had heard Elves were vain creatures, but not these eight, to hide their faces so.

There was a rapid trade in Elvish and I was surprised – and yet not – to hear the foreign words spill forth so fluidly in Shinvar’s voice. She was fluent indeed, shaping the tongue well. And the language, in return, shaped her voice in intriguing ways. It was akin to hearing a bard known for enchanting ballads strike into a jaunty ditty for the first time.

She nodded, in conclusion, and turned to me. “Sorry,” she said. “They’re insistent.”

“Hmm?” I managed.

Before someone stepped up to my left and looped a blindfold around my head. The fabric fastened firmly in place. My vision thus obscured, I was guided to my horse and assisted into the saddle by gentle hands.

And blind is how I rode out the remainder of our journey. But for the air on my cheeks and the absence of echoes, I might have been back in those mines.

Until – hours later – we halted. And I was unmasked, to be confronted by sights and faces more beautiful even than Shinvar.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

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Casus Bella – Part Ten

casusbella

The mountain roared. And blew dust and rubble at our backs like a stone-breathing dragon.

We were still in its throat and riding fast. The tunnel had not collapsed immediately in our wake, but when it had it crashed with a vengeance.

In the dark, the dust was no extra impediment to vision. We rode blind anyway, trusting to our horses’ instincts and their animal fear. They barely had breath to spare to whinny their protests. I shut my eyes many a time and coughed as the gritty cloud blasted past me.

We galloped on until the mountain’s rage subsided. The breath of that stone dragon breaking eventually into a few dying rumbles. Rock and earth and dust all settled. As did our pace. Shinvar slowed her steed first and I took my cue from her.

Tremors continued in my ears for a short time as our journey carried us up a steadily shallowing gradient.

Once my ears had cleared of residual sound, I listened, past the clip-clop of hooves and the creaking of saddle leather. But there was nothing behind us.

Perhaps our Orkan pursuers had yet to meet the rockfall. Perhaps they had already run into it and backtracked into the mines. Perhaps we had ridden on far enough by now that we could not hear their digging efforts. It mattered not – and I nodded, satisfied at the thought. They would be a good half-day clearing the route, assuming they went to the trouble and labour.

By which time – well, I had no idea where we might be, but surely beyond these passages and further enough across the mountains, out in the open, that such sluggish-brained creatures would not pick up our trail.

“What will they do now, do you suppose?” I asked, my voice bold in the wake of the cave-in we had provoked.

“Depends on their mission. Most likely, they were in place to guard against exactly what we’re doing. To stop anyone reaching the Elves. In which case, they’ve failed. They won’t want to report that to their chieftain. They might,” added Shinvar, thinking aloud, “return to their hole, lie in wait for anyone else, pretend nobody got through. Whatever they do, they needn’t concern us any more.”

“Somehow, I do not take that to mean we are free to relax.”

Once again, I heard Shinvar’s smile in her words. “No, indeed.” It was warmly wry this time. “We’ll have to pick up our pace and then some when we’re outside. Moreover, if we secure help, if we manage to recruit allies, we’ll have to return the long way round.”

I glanced aft, as though I had any chance to discern the blockage in the tunnel. “I had not thought of that,” I said. And immediately regretted my honesty. Once again, I managed to appear the slow-witted fool.

Whether that or the sobering prospect of a longer journey to rescue the town silenced me, I do not know. Either way, I went back to following Shinvar in quiet, emptied of conversation for the time being.

Our horses counted time and distance with the crude tick and tock of their hooves. Dark after dark dragged by. Until, just as the gloom seemed carved of solid rock, a sleepy kind of light peered in from ahead. Shinvar kicked for a little acceleration and we trotted towards the tunnel mouth.

We burst forth into clean mountain air. A cool, windless blast in the face, I drank it in, down to my lungs. Filling up on it like some camel finally free to water at an oasis after a long desert trek.

We had emerged into a bowl, walled in by escarpments, but with wheeling blue above and patches of green under hoof it felt in that moment like open plain. We did not pause to enjoy our freedom, but rather rode into it. The horses welcomed the chance to run. We covered the ground swiftly, making directly across the bowl to a narrow cleft which threaded through into a long and broadening valley. At a gallop we drew a protracted curve, veering left and riding up the valley wall. Where the soaring ridges had drawn a cape of green about their shoulders to guard against the cold.

The Mantle Forests awaited, as Shinvar had predicted.

As with the Elves, I had heard talk of these forests and known of their presence here. On clearer, brighter days their verdure was visible as a hazy, pale green, collaring much of the Ursine range. This close, their greens were richer, of course, although many of the trees higher up-slope were dusted with frost.

We dived headlong into their midst, necessarily slowed by the press of trunks and undergrowth. Shinvar forged fearlessly ahead, cutting a path where there was none.

While I had traded my mild claustrophobia and fears of the dark for suspicions of whatever might hide among the trees.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Nine

casusbella

Why?

Shinvar asked it too: “Out of curiosity, why did you hesitate? Back there?”

I flashed back to my delay, stuck in the saddle while Shinvar applied her strength and shoulder to the mine cart. Her question was softly put, ointment for the wound of her rebuke. My own interrogations were sharper. Why?

“I don’t know,” I said. There was no need to lower our voices for the sake of enemy ears. They were behind us by some distance; I could hear their grunts and shambles. They knew which way we fled. And they were most definitely following. But my own admission troubled me more.

Had I been so lost in thought, merely slow to react? Reverie in a perilous situation would likely be your last. Or perhaps doom you to a permanent reverie, all your life’s errors flashing before you, multiple lightning contemplations stretched over a single suspended eternity.

“Well, don’t worry about it now. What’s done is done – and we did it.” Impossible to see, hers was an audible smile. “Only, there’ll be more to do. Before very long. Just keep that in mind and keep your wits about you.”

“I will,” I assured her. Solemnly, like taking my knight’s vows all over again. “Thank you,” I added, from a different corner of my heart.

Warmth returned. Shame burned my cheeks a little while longer as we rode on in quiet.

Tramping boots and sporadic snorts and growls stalked us in the faraway dark. They sounded no louder. This was no chase, no pursuit. But a patient hunt.

“They will be with us all the way through to the outside,” I predicted.

“Exactly. And I won’t lead them to the Elves. We won’t win allies by bringing enemies to their door. Hence, we’ll have to act beforehand.”

My eyes probed the confines of the passage, discerning shadows from walls. “Two could make a stand in this tunnel.” My keenness to make amends declared itself a shade too obviously. “How many do you suppose there are?”

Echoes played their tricks, multiplying the enemy. Distant as they may be, there might have been a hundred, with half as many again of their grotesque cavalry.

“A dozen on foot. Three mounted on Snarltails,” said Shinvar.

Well, Snarltails were big and broad and I had never yet seen a thin Orkan. “At most they might come at us two or three abreast. One at a time on horseback. Or – Snarltailback.”

“True. But a rider on a Snarltail is three enemies.”

Horse. Rider. Wolftail. Shinvar was right.

“Our train thinned them out some,” she said. “But make no mistake. They’re still a serious opposition. And these narrow passages will limit our ability to move. And I don’t know about you, but if I have to fight I like to move.”

I had seen her move. Free. Fighting from horseback. You wouldn’t ask such a dancer to perform in a cave.

“Agreed,” I said.

“We’ve encouraged them to be wary, but they’re gaining on us. Steadily. They’re driven. Because the other thing we managed was to anger them. Orkans know how to carry a grudge. Like a mother carries a child.”

“Once out in the open,” I suggested, “we might fight them then. Pick our ground. Or, if not fight, then outrun them. Leave the infantry behind at least.”

“It’s true, we’d stand a better chance among the trees. The Mantle Forests lie a short way from where we emerge.” Trees would afford concealment. A chance for Shinvar to bow many of our hunters from high branches. It was easy to picture victory under those circumstances. Or maybe my imagination only delighted in lingering in that scene a while, bathed in sunlight filtered through a leafy canopy. Respite from our dark ride.

“As for outrunning – well, no disrespect to Surefire here – ” Shinvar patted the neck of her mount “ – but I’d advise all gambling men to put money on a Snarltail over the fastest horse. So, yes, we’d leave the infantry well behind. But assuming we could deal with the beasts and riders, that would still leave a party tracking us. And concealing our tracks would slow us up.”

For all that the narrow passage would restrict our fighting actions, it seemed to me Shinvar had limited our options with the power of reason and argument. “What, then?” I asked.

My ears listened for the noise of the small rabble following us. Were they gaining? I could not tell. But I trusted Shinvar’s instincts on the matter.

She drew her sword. “Let’s not wait for the trees with life left in them. Let’s fell a few dead ones.” Again, her smile was audible – colour to her tone. “You take the right. I’ll take the left.”

She spurred Surefire into a trot and chopped at the first support beam she passed. A loud crack shattered the shadows. Like splinters of enemy bone. It spurred me to action. Surefire’s hooves clattered ahead and I followed, sword out and hacking at every beam on my right.

This was no natural bore hole. This was a man-made tunnel drilled through the mountain. And if the Orkans had taught me one thing, it was that the things man built were easily brought down.

We rode faster. Faster. Racing the impending collapse.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Eight

casusbella

I tugged the reins, steering my horse for the side passage, ready to spur us into an escape.

Shinvar jumped down from her mount and sprang for the train. Down in the gullet of the earth the battle-thirsty roars of Orkans were joined by a ragged chorus of snarls. Wild and bestial, they chewed the dark to shreds like dogs fighting over an old slipper.

“We should go!” I warned.

“We will!” Shinvar ran the line of carts, wrenching handbrakes. She was a blur of motion in shadow, but I heard the clank of levers, one after another. “Just as soon!” she called out. The lead – or end – cart squeaked into rusty life, drawn towards the depths. “As we’ve sent them a parting gift!” Shinvar unlocked a sixth lever, then disappeared between carts. Quieter clinks and clanks played percussion while the snarls and roars built from below.

They were coming.

Untended, Shinvar’s steed stamped and snorted. My own horse stirred, growing twitchy beneath me. I muttered calming syllables to the animal, but it was like singing a soft lullaby in a thunderstorm.

Shinvar sprinted back out of the dark. She pushed her shoulder to the lead cart, which inched along the track, tugging at the rest of the train like a leaden snake pulling at its lethargic body.

“What’re you waiting for? Come give me a hand!”

Under the snarls and roars, the beat of hooves and the drum of steel and leather boots heralded the approach of a small army. No doubt the numbers were multiplied by the dark echoes. But there were more than I cared to face.

“Of course!” I leaped from my saddle as though jolted from a bad dream. Darting around the cart, I pressed my shoulder to its bulk and leaned in from the other side. Its stubborn wheels groaned, but the gravity and darkness coaxed and pulled.

Somewhere amid the mechanical creaks and clanks and my own straining groans, the slope took over. The cart trundled on and our pushes were redundant.

I dodged clear, stumbled back against the tunnel wall. I rested there, regaining my breath, watched the unfettered carts gather pace for the long dive into the hollow gloom. The last of six carts passed me by and I stood, hopped across the tracks to rejoin Shinvar. Who was already mounting her horse. I climbed into my saddle and in the next second we rode. Away and up the escape tunnel.

Behind us, the rising rumble and clatter of our loosed mining train filled the mountain. Returning the cargo of stolen riches to the deepest vaults of the earth. And, I hoped, to those who had chosen to lurk there in hiding.

We dared not gallop in the dark. One misplaced hoof-fall and we would be the ones to crash. But we tested our nerve with a dangerous pace. Our world became a rushing funnel of shadow and noise.

The staccato-clack of hooves pummelling the stone ground. The frenetic rattle and thunder of the train like a steel drum rolling downhill into the Netherplanes. The riotous roars and shouts of beasts and Orkans surging forth to meet the train.

This mangled symphony ballooned in volume, too big for the venue. Din filled the caverns then hammered its way into my skull. Until all I heard were the warring breaths of my mount and myself. And even those merged and rushed in my ears like a single crashing waterfall. And my thoughts plunged with the sound, seized by a strange vertigo. But my heart did not clench in fear, but swelled with exhilaration.

And then there was silence. Not silence as such, for it was punctuated with more patient hoofbeats. A relative stillness, as Shinvar slowed us to a steadier rhythm.

Between the clips and clops, she listened. Despite the gloom, I could see her do so. From the keen tilt of her head and her own stillness in the saddle. And I did the same.

Odd sounds reached me: distant mumbles, sour murmurs and perhaps a disgruntled animal growl or several. But they could easily have been remnant echoes trapped in my ears. Or imagined whispers from these old shafts, the sort of random musics conjured by darkness and a mind alert for trouble.

“They’re following,” Shinvar assured me, her tone firm but hushed like cushioned iron. “We’ve delayed them. Encouraged them to be cautious. That’s something. But we’ll have to shake them off or deal with them altogether before we reach the Elves.”

I nodded. Then realised my gestures might not be so emphatic in the dark. “Absolutely. Set our tactics and I will follow your command.”

“Mm hmm.” A pause stretched with the tunnel. “Only, next time, don’t hesitate.”

Her words were edged with unexpected rebuke. They cut deep.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Seven

casusbella

The mouth of the mine swallowed us.

Our horses clip-clopped on through darkness. Every step echoed like the tick and tock of some ancient stone clock marking time deep under the mountains. The slowness of our passage was as suffocating as the surrounding gloom. Only the dim glimmer of Shinvar’s armour and the second beat of hooves reminded me I had company. The best of company. In this lonely tunnel her silent presence was possessed of substance and comfort.

“Will we not lose valuable time by taking this route?”

To be sure, I did not know the way. Few did. And the Elves preferred to keep it that way. All knew they lived in these mountains. That was as simple as knowing them to be named Mountain Elves. But as to where within the sprawling Ursine range, that was a well-guarded secret. Guarded by geography and, I had heard tell, guarded by more than a few blades in the past. Even whispered rumours and guesses had been silenced, so it was said. The readiness with which Shinvar had led us on our mission, the surety of her direction, hinted of yet another facet to her special qualities. Another string to her bow.

There were so many mysteries to this young woman riding, invisible, beside me.

“Fearless, I can do when the need arises,” she said. “Or at least I can make a good show of it.” Her voice sang out, bold and good-humoured, not allowing the mine to set the mood. “Reckless, no. Our pace is the price of passage here. We go galloping through these tunnels and we’ll have lame horses and a long walk ahead of us. But we’ll save many miles on distance at this speed. It’ll pay in the long run.”

“Saved distance is saved time. Saved time will be saved lives,” I said.

“This should cut our journey by a third of a day. Maybe half if we can make up a lot of ground on the other side. As to lives saved, yes. But maybe not the ones you have in mind.”

A bulky shadow loomed to our right. A dark steel monster straddling the tracks. My eyes strained a while, striving to describe its outline. We closed on a machine of pistons and wheels, a fat cylinder of a belly and a funnel like a tree-stump. One of the ugly engines, a product of the factories we had left behind. Attached to its tail was a chain of carts, iron buckets on wheels, trailing away into darker darkness. Most were lumpy on top, piled full with ore. The raw riches of the mountain, now left abandoned by miners and workers evacuated from town and surrounds fated to become a battlefield.

Would this region ever be restored to something more? I wondered. Would the miners return to their hard-won rocks?

The things for which men and women slaved, the prizes over which they fought, were often crude, were they not? Sometimes not even as substantial as unprocessed rock, sometimes empty of riches altogether.

Shinvar’s words floated back to haunt the tunnel, preying on my thoughts in the shadows. “You do not believe we will return in time to win the battle?” I asked. “But – if we cannot save those lives, for what do we ride?”

“War,” she declared. “We ride for the war. To win peace. Three days’ ride, a little more. Think on it. Do you see those brave defenders holding out for so long?”

“I – hoped. As I believed you did.”

“We all hope. Hope helps us see farther, even in darkest times. But we cannot ignore what’s in front of us. Knight-Captain Meister must have seen that. He will hold out as long as he can and we will hold to our hope. But if we return with Elven aid to find the town lost, then we must understand there will be more to be won. The country. The lands beyond. The enemy will need to be overcome and driven back. For that, we will need allies. We will need the Elves. That is what we ride for.”

What philosophers and wiser men than I referred to as the bigger picture. There was more at stake than I had believed. Much more. Would the greater scale, the heavier weight, daunt me or would it act as a sharper spur?

Time and my courage would tell, I supposed. The tunnel’s gloom could feed off my doubts, but I could draw strength from Shinvar. Her company, her resolve. She did not, could not, falter.

We passed the tail end of the train of carts and the tunnel branched. The main passage carried on downward, the track sloping into ever-dimmer depths. The branch appeared to climb at a patient gradient.

Shinvar steered her mount towards this side passage. She halted at the junction. Her shadowy figure raised an arm, calling me to a stop.

The main passage spoke. The depths mumbled. Brutish, hacking words, as though the speakers worked their tongues like picks, striking at the coal-face of their dark language.

Orkans.

“The enemy,” I gasped. “What are they doing here?”

Shinvar shushed me. I winced, knowing it was too late. My words had been whispers, but they flew to those unfriendly ears.

The Orkan mumbles erupted into roars.

We were found.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Six

casusbella

“It’s a two-day ride!” Shinvar called back from her saddle.

“Two days?”

We flew up the hill. Bent low in my saddle, I was treated to a lashing by my horse’s mane. Not something I’d had to experience when helmeted. Now with head bare I had to squint against that and the rush of wind in my face.

“Two days!” Shinvar repeated.

She rode like a demoness. I would always trail second in this race. Full gallop, pummelling cobbles, as we ate up the winding road climbing Royal Hill all the way to the town’s back yard. Where the mansions ended, the foothills of the Ursine Massif began.

We would not be able to maintain the hard pace on those mountain trails, but Shinvar meant to cover this early stretch in close to no time at all. She would allow our steeds to breathe, I was sure, where the air began to thin.

I lost all sight of the battle down in the town. Save for jostled glimpses between buildings and then it was only of figures milling in the light of the burning barricade. Flames and fury. So far and fleeting that it was easy to forget there were men and women down there.

All I could see for certain was that the fires reached higher, a fluttering orange curtain. And beyond it, perhaps half-fashioned by hope as well as imagination, the dark and seething mass of the enemy slowly turning to retreat from the heat.

Temporary respite for our knights and other defenders. But any respite was a chance to exhale. I joined them in that small celebration, sending my sigh back down the hill, over the rooftops to my brave comrades in arms.

All the while riding on and up, chasing as close as I could behind Shinvar. My own mount almost nose to tail with her horse, but my muscles told of how hard I had worked to gain that little ground. There was no actual race. No need to draw level. And I was content to ride in Shinvar’s shadow.

Ahead the road met the unguarded gate. More of a marker really, paired columns of stone to signify where the town ended and the wilds began.

Our horses broke out onto the rough-beaten path. To our left, a railway line climbed towards the nearest of the mines. To our right, the hill rolled away in a rugged cascade, tumbling into a deep valley. A turbulent river carved its way through a zigzagging canyon, taking out its torment on the rocks that tried to fence it in and guide its course towards the town. From this distance above it was a silent, troubled thing beating against the path laid out for it by destiny. Raging against fate which, it occurred to me, was perhaps all we were doing.

Back there in the streets, it had seemed so.

The Orkans, the enemy, perhaps they were the inexorable march of history. Perhaps it was their turn. Their turn to scar the earth, to build their ugly structures atop the rubble of ours. To bury our lives and our achievements under whatever passed for civilisation in their brutish, beastly eyes. Conquest and conflict was all I knew the Orkan race for. But I had – thankfully – never seen them win. Who could say what they might build with their victory? Who could tell what Orkans might aspire to with no humans or other races to spurn and oppose them?

Whatever architecture or art they might work on the world, it was not in their nature to brook any sharing. If they won, none of us would live to witness their brand of wonders. Their world, the one they marched and battled to forge, was a realm devoid of humanity. A realm devoid of all others, in fact. As unknowable as all the heavens and hells conceived by the living. To explore it, one must die. Like seeking an answer to that age-old question: if we fall in a dream, do we die if we strike the bottom?

It was a question that blew readily into my mind, like the whiplash breezes pestering my face, gusting up from the river valley. So very far below.

Shinvar eased up on the pace and I slowed my horse to move in step with hers.

She glanced aft along the trail, where our mounts’ hooves had scuffed the ashen dirt and kicked up loose stones. But otherwise there was nothing in our wake. Not even much sight of the town past the rocks and desolate shoulders of hill.

Shinvar nudged her horse into a left turn. The animal obediently picked its way up the slope. I reined mine to follow. They danced carefully up the incline, shale sliding under hoof.

We reached the rails and began to ride the track leading to one of the mines that riddled these mountains. I wondered if Shinvar meant for us to journey through the tunnels.

But I kept my wonderings to myself.

Shinvar set the course. And unlike the river, I made no motion to fight it.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Five

casusbella

Shinvar didn’t look back. I did.

Repeatedly.

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.

“Enough?”

“Let’s see.”

She turned her horse, ready to ride on.

 

[To Be Continued…]