With strangers at either side, I broke into a sprint, tightening my grip on my spear as we closed with the enemy. Straight ahead of me in the middle of the enemy line I locked eyes with one of the shorter creatures, and it brandished a pair of bronze daggers at me and opened its mouth in what might have been a snarl or cry. I couldn’t hear it over the sound of blood rushing in my ears.
One, two more running steps, and then I lunged forward, putting my weight behind the thrust of the spear. The creature tried to jump to one side to avoid the point aimed at its belly, raised an arm to try to push the tip aside. Instead, my spear pushed the creature’s thin, bony forearm back against the side of its chest, and then punched through the arm and into the body as though they weren’t even there, as if they were made of too-thin parchment stuffed with straw. I stumbled forward at the unexpected lack of resistance, and the pike tore itself out of the creature’s back and side, leaving the whole of the thing’s gut a tatters. It barely had time to gasp, and then dropped to the ground like a sack of overripe fruit.
I kept running forward, trying not to fall on my face on top of the creature I’d just killed. The tip of my pike grazed the thing behind it, sliding along the side of its thigh. The thing let out a cry of agony, dropping the short sword it held to grip its leg with both hands. The end of the spear jammed into the grassy loam behind the creature, the shock of the impact knocking the weapon from my hands, and then my foot landed on the first creature’s body and slipped backward. I fell forward onto the still-standing wounded creature, grabbing the thing’s soiled tunic as we both rolled to the ground.
We spun as we fell, so that the creature landed on top of me in the mud. I clapped one hand instinctively over the top of my helmet, holding it on my head. The creature’s hands scraped over the front of the helm, not finding purchase, and I heard the thing hiss as if it was in pain. It struck at my chest once, twice, weakly, and then I swung my free arm outward, striking it on the ribs with my closed fist. The impact of the blow stung my hand through the leather of my glove; it was like punching a small tree.
The creature grabbed my arm in one of its hands, shoving it to the ground under its thin, knobbly fingers. I felt the thing’s other hand scrabbling at my side, and realized it was going for one of the blades at my hips, the weapons I’d nearly forgotten about until now. I felt the tug at my belt as it pulled the short sword from my scabbard, but then the creature hissed again, releasing my hand and pulling back, and I heard the sword drop onto the ground beside me.
I let go of my helmet, reaching down to grab the sword and then sweeping it up toward the creature. The flat of the blade struck the creature’s arm at the elbow, and the arm folded around the blade as though it’d been struck with a rock hammer. The creature’s forearm came away from the rest of the arm with the sword, not cut off so much as mashed, and the thing howled again in agony as it fell forward, painting the front of my tabard orange-red with the blood flowing from the tattered remains of its arm.
I reached down with my other hand and pulled my dagger from the other sheath, then plunged the blade into the side of the creature’s chest. The flesh that had seemed so solid under my fist parted before the blade as though it were water, and I stabbed again and again, three, four, five times, until the creature’s screaming stopped and it fell the rest of the way forward onto my chest.
I took a couple of deep, heaving breaths, and then pushed the creature’s body off to one side and rolled over in the opposite direction. As I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, I felt a hand touch my shoulder. For a moment I thought it might be another of our soldiers, helping me up again, and dropped the dagger to grab their hand with my own, but then I heard a soft voice saying a string of words that meant nothing to me, and felt another hand reach down to grip the back of my helmet. Without looking up, I thrust up and forward with my shortsword, and the words were cut off by a sharp cry as I felt my blade press into solid flesh. But, even as I felt the hand slide away from my shoulder, the other pulled my helmet up and off of my head.
I let the handle of the sword pull free from my hand as my attacker stumbled back away from me. I looked up, into the face of a stunningly beautiful woman with piercing green eyes, eyes that stared back into mine with an expression of confusion and pain. Her gown matched the golden color of her hair, but where the handle of my sword stuck out of her gut, her blood made the color of the silk dark. The wound sputtered and hissed as though the sword blade were red hot, and she held her hands near the handle but not on it, as though trying to will herself to touch something she knew would burn her.
I jumped to my feet, moving forward to remove the blade, to try to help her, but as she stumbled I saw her eyes roll back, and then she… changed.
In the workshop back home, there was an illustration pinned to one of the working boards where Master Vardon hung the plans he’d drawn for jobs he was working on. Vardon said he’d brought the drawing with him from Euphentis, that it was an illustration of one of the Fates, the spirits that the Euphentine worshiped. At first glance, it appeared to be the face of an old man with long, shaggy hair, but if you looked at it long enough you could see that it was actually a picture of a young man and woman, their arms on each others’ shoulders as though about to embrace. The image would seem to switch back and forth between the two, old man to young couple to old man again, every time you looked at it, even though the marks on the sheet never changed.
The way the woman seemed to change as she died reminded me of that picture in some sense. The features of her face never shifted or altered; she still had the same high, sharp cheekbones, the same slim nose and narrow eyes, the same milk-pale complexion. Suddenly, though, the same features that had seemed beautiful to me seemed alien and strange, more vulpine than human. She fell backward, over the body of one of the smaller creatures, and lay still, the handle of my sword pointing up toward the lightening sky.
I realized that the rain had stopped, that dawn was breaking, and that I could hear men cheering. I looked around, surveying the battlefield around me. Men in uniforms like mine were standing in twos and threes, stabbing their weapons upward in victory or down into bodies lying on the battlefield.
One man looked over at me; it was Aler ev Cantlay, though I could hardly tell through the mud smeared on his face. “Mason?” he asked, tapping his head with a single finger. “You all right? You with us?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m here.” I gestured vaguely in the direction of the body in the yellow dress. “Got it before it could do anything to me.”
“Good.” He nodded back to me, and then turned back toward the others he was standing with. I resumed my scan of the battlefield.
None of them had tried to run. There had been no surrender, no calling of truce, no escaping enemy units to chase down or let run; there were just no more of them standing, while most of our men were unharmed.
Most. I still didn’t see Kellan anywhere. I began working my way back toward the walls of Kintinvale, picking my way between twisted, leathery corpses, my boots squelching in the blood and mud. My stomach roiled, but I fought down the urge to vomit. Not now.
I called out Kellan’s name, and heard a voice call back. “Over here!” Oskar’s voice. I turned, and saw him kneeling down beside a prone form, helm still on his head, waving to me. I ran over as quickly as I could, dropping to my knees across from Oskar.
“He’s alive,” Oskar said, “or, he’s breathing, at least.”
I looked down at Kellan. His helmet had a hand-sized scorch mark on one side, and the entire left side of his face was burned and brusied, a web of thin red lines spreading down his cheek and across his jaw like the branching of a tree’s limbs. His tabard was half-burned, scorched black through. I gingerly removed the helmet from his head; underneath, a patch of hair the size of a silver piece just behind his left temple had been charred to ash.
“Here! Wounded!” Oskar shouted in my ear. I winced, and looked up. People were streaming out of the city’s gates, some of them carrying stretchers and bandages. Oskar and I helped load Kellan onto one of the wood and canvas stretchers, but as I made to lift one of the corners to help carry Kellan into the city, I heard Bat call out my name behind us, back in the direction of the battlefield.
I looked back toward Bat, then at Oskar. He grabbed both handles at the rear of the stretcher, and gestured back toward Bat with his head. “Go, I’ll keep an eye on him.”
I frowned. I felt like arguing, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. “Spirits curse me,” I muttered, “just make sure they’re careful with him.”
Oskar nodded at me. “I’ve got it. Go.” He and the two from the city who’d brought the stretcher started marching toward the city.
I made my way back to Bat. Behind him, soldiers and people from the town both were picking over the bodies, separating the small number of human casualties out from the mass and stacking rest of the bodies in a pile. He stepped toward me as I approached. “Was that Kellan? He all right?”
I shook my head. “Alive, but not awake. He got hit by something, lightning I think. I was close when it hit, but it just knocked me down.” Though now that things were starting to quiet down, I could tell my ears were still ringing from the thunderclap.
Bat frowned. “Not great, but if he’s still alive I think that’s a good sign. Lightning typically kills you right away, I think.” He clapped a hand on one of my shoulders. “Try not to worry too much, lad. There are five or six good physicians in Kintinvale, and I’m certain the King will press-gang them all into helping. He’ll be in good hands.”
I shrugged noncommittally. “Did you need anything else from me, Bat?”
“Aye, needed to ask you something.” Bat leaned in a little closer. “Aler said one of the tall ones got your helmet off during the fighting. Did it…” Bat looked over one shoulder, then back at me. “Did it effect you? Were we right about the iron?”
I hesitated for a moment, then nodded, slowly. “I had just…” I stopped, and lowered my voice. “It was dying when it got the helm off my head, and it was just at the end of the fighting so I think the rest might have been dead already, but just before it died I think I felt it. Whatever it is that they do.”
“Good to know it goes away when you kill them.” Bat raised an eyebrow at me. “It did go away when the fox-face died, yeah?”
“Yeah. I’m myself.” I swallowed. “Feeling a little sick, and worried about Kellan, but I’m here.”
Bat smiled grimly at me. “All to be expected, even if we weren’t fighting monsters.” He pulled something out of the back of his belt, what looked like a knife in a sheath, and tossed it to me. “Here. Got this off the tall one in gold, the one Aler said you killed. Your kill, your trophy.”
I caught the blade in both hands. It appeared to be a dagger, in a wide intricately-carved wooden sheath. The handle was straight and solidly thick, made of bronze that was blue-green with age and inset with finger-width strands of dark wood in a swirling, weaving, organic pattern. There was no pommel to speak of, except for a slight widening of the handle where the wood ended in an inch of solid bronze, and no hilt except for a bronze band of equal width where the handle butted up against the sheath. I ran my hand along the smooth handle, and pulled the dagger from the wooden scabbard. The blade was nearly as broad as the sheath itself, nearly four fingers wide and almost as thick as the handle at the base, double-edged and leaf-shaped. It, too, was bronze, the whole dagger apparently forged as a single piece of metal, and while the flat of the blade was the same blue-green as the handle and marked by a number of dull scratches, the very edges of the blade were mirror-smooth, shiny and coppery in color. I thumbed the edge of the blade, and found it tolerable; it could cut meat or make wood shavings, I judged, but without great force I doubted it would pierce ox-hide leather.
I looked up at Bat again, and he nodded to me. “Wouldn’t do not to have a trophy of your first victory,” he said, “especially when you were in the thick of it.”
I tried to push the worry down, and forced a little smile onto my face. “Thank you, Bat.” I held out my hand to him, and he returned the gesture, clasping my forearm in his hand and pulling me close.
At the end of the hug, Bat held my arm for a moment longer, looking me in the eye. “The truth is, Kellan may be all right and he may not be. That’s not in your hands, though.” He released my arm. “The best thing you can do for him now is to make sure his name gets as many toasts and cheers as yours does. Make sure his ancestors know he’s ours for a while longer yet, yeah?”
This time, my smile was genuine. “Yeah, Bat. We’ll make sure they hear us good and loud.”