The street we were jogging down widened out suddenly, and I realized we were in the main courtyard, the one we’d passed through when we entered the city. Ahead, Sir Hagan raised a fist, and the marching column came to a stop. I looked around at the assembled troops. We seemed to have picked up a few on the way, perhaps thirty or so, though in the half-twilight and the pouring rain and the identical armor and tabards it was difficult to tell which were the new men and which were just ones I didn’t recognize.
Sir Hagan shouted out over the assembled mass of soldiers. “I have no great speech for you, no stirring fanfare, no talk of honor or glory.” He gestured behind him, at the gate out of the city. “The enemy is coming. They have beaten us before, turned us aside or against one another with strange power and broken our resolve. They were not stopped by our forces then, and it seems unlikely that they will be stopped by the gates here.”
He unsheathed his sword, holding it up in the air. “But we have lived! We have lived, and we have learned from what we have seen! We have learned the weakness of their power, and we have made sure you all have the means to negate it!” He rapped the side of his helmet with the pommel of his blade. “Trust in your helm, for it will protect you!” He thrust the sword skyward again. “Trust in your steel, for it will drive the enemy back!” He brought the blade down, bringing his hand up to his chest. “Trust in your resolve, for it will keep the people of Kintinvale safe!”
There were a few ragged cheers, but most of the assembled men wore masks of worry and fear. Sir Henney turned to the guards manning the gates. “Let us pass, and seal the gates behind us.” He turned his head back over his shoulder. “Helmets on, and forward!”
As I made my way under the stone arch of the wall for the second time in less than a day, my heart began to pound, Bat’s last question playing itself over and over in my mind. True, I’d experienced first-hand that the effect of the enemy’s presence was blocked by iron, but what if we were wrong? What if that wasn’t really enough, or they could make it stronger somehow? I tried to take deep breaths, tried to slow my breathing.
Sir Hagan ordered us to spread out into battle formation as soon as we cleared the gate. Through slit of my crude helm I could see that Kellan was still just ahead of me, and as I lowered my pike over his right shoulder I clapped my gloved hand on his other arm, letting him know I was there. “You good? Ready?”
He reached up and slapped my hand with his own, but didn’t turn his head back toward me. “Ready,” he said, and then lowered his own pike ahead of him.
I barely heard the order from Sir Henney to advance over the drumming of the rain on the top plate of my helmet, but my legs seemed to react by reflex, stepping forward in time with the rest of the unit, rolling into a slow forward pace toward the tree line.
My eyes whipped back and forth across the width of the helmet slit, scanning the trees for any sign of the enemy, and it wasn’t long before I spotted them. When we were sixty or seventy paces from the trees they appeared, flowing forward out of the forest, seeming almost to appear from nowhere or to coalesce from the rain itself.
There were almost as many of the smaller creatures as there were of us, maybe seventy or eighty, and nine of the taller beings stood at the center of the disorganized group, just as they’d done at Shalecliff Bridge. Two of the nine were the two we’d seen at the bridge. They appeared now exactly as they had then, complete with their brightly-colored clothing. The others were similarly dressed, in brightly colored coats and dresses that shimmered like silk even in the rain and the predawn light. They stood out among their soldiers like flags.
A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, and a peal of thunder crashed down on top of us.
Sir Hagan, on foot, at the front and center of the column, raised his sword skyward. “First and second rank, ready spears!”
I tightened my grip on my pike, lifting up the butt end to bring the point downward in line with the enemy.
“Fast advance!” Sir Hagan dropped his sword down and pointed it forward.
We quickened our pace, starting to close the distance to the enemy. My heart beat even faster, pounding inside my coat and chainmail.
One of the taller beings took a step toward us. He had sunken cheeks and his narrow pointed ears stuck out wide from his head, and he wore a deep indigo coat with wide sleeves that hung to below his knees. He smiled, smug and dismissive, and raised a hand toward us.
Just as at Shalecliff, when the being spoke I could hear his words as clearly as if he’d said them directly into my ear: “Fall upon your blades,” the creature said.
I felt a shudder move through me, and I saw Kellan and a few of the other men around us hesitate for a brief moment, but it wasn’t enough to stop our advance. Not a single man turned away, and as a unit we closed to within fifty paces of the enemy.
The expression on the face of the creature with the indigo coat changed as it continued to speak, first to confusion and then to alarm. “Fall upon your swords! Kill yourselves! Die! I command it!”
No one even flinched as he kept talking, and we continued to advance, our steps quickening further even though there’d been no order to do so. Forty paces. I could feel my lips pulling back, forming a cruel smile almost involuntarily at the fear I heard in the enemy’s voice, at the panic I saw creeping onto his face. Not this time, you fox-faced bastards.
Another of the tall beings, a woman in a silvery gown, grabbed the indigo coated one’s arm, and pulled him back. She held up a hand with the palm facing us, and uttered a series of unintelligible syllables.
All at once, the air around me turned frigid. My next breath came out as a puff of white, and I could see frost spreading across the wooden haft of my spear and the back of Kellan’s helmet. Even the rain began to freeze, into pea-sized hailstones that spanged off of my helm. It was unnerving, incomprehensible, but my blood was pumping hot and fast and I barely felt the cold. Thirty paces.
Yet another stepped forward, the male of the pair who’d driven us off of Shalecliff Bridge, pushing aside one of the shorter creatures as he stepped toward us. He, too, raised a hand, this time toward the stormclouds rumbling overhead. There was a flash and a deafening boom, as a bolt of lightning struck the ground between us, and then two more bolts crashed down into our formation.
My world went white and silent for a moment. When my vision and some of my hearing began to return, fading in slowly, I was on my back in the mud. I shook my head and reached a hand up, groping to figure out exactly where I was. Instantly I felt someone grasp my arm, and then more gripped me about the arms and shoulders and pulled me to my feet. A hand grabbed my helmet, and a soldier I didn’t recognize stared in through the slit at me, asking “You all right?”
I nodded, and he pulled me around by the shoulder until I was facing the enemy again. Someone else pressed a pike back into my hands, and then we were moving forward again, now at a run, jumping over the prone bodies of other soldiers.
I couldn’t see Kellan any more, didn’t know if he’d been struck, if he was one of the men I’d just leapt over, but there was no time to go back and look; there was now no one between me and the enemy, and I could faintly hear Sir Hagan shouting, as though from a great distance. “Break formation! Charge!”