No time to think. No time to falter.
Three men by the door. Put the first on the floor with a sword in his heart. Killed the second with the first stroke. Third was well-trained. Well-equipped. But just a wee bit off-guard, still.
I locked his sword with mine, crushed into him full force. We sprawled together over crates and barrels. My knee hit the stone floor, and my hip clipped the side of a crate and hurt like fuck, but his head hit the floor a sight harder than I did. I landed on top, took the weight on my arms. Old habits.
Killed him. Or I broke his jaw, or his neck; it didn’t matter, not really. He went quiet after I hit him a second time. I scrambled for my feet, came around with the sword in guard—not a second too soon.
Four men in the scarlet had stood around by the forge, talking something or another. They were off duty, I guessed, no gauntlets, no helmets, not dreaming they’d be attacked here in the heart of the fortress, so far from the outside. I’d earned a moment of grace with the shock and surprise as they’d realized there was some great summer-tanned bastard cutting through their ranks.
They had their swords out now, taken bucklers from by the forge, and were advancing. The same moment of grace I’d used to kill three of their boys, they’d taken to arm themselves.
I cocked the sword back to my hip, ready to flash for their faces. Offered a smile.
“All right, lads?”
There’s no version of this story where I don’t take a wound. Four men against one. Sorry lass. Maybe we’ll make it out of this, but it’s going to hurt…
My eyes drifted, were drawn past them like a needle to north. The forge sprouted from stone in the center of the armory, a square-sided monster of rock that funneled up into the ceiling. I looked through its half-open maw into the heart of it, a sunny, inviting shade of gold so hot it was almost white.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered, at the same time as the lass. Her cadence so matched mine that I couldn’t entirely be sure which of us meant to speak first.
“Milo! Get the bitch.” The rearmost of the four, a man in a sergeant’s uniform, snapped out an order that shook me, prompted me to glance over my shoulder at Mariead—she’d shaken off her hood, held the cudgel in one hand, bodkin at her side. Her eyes were darting around the room, kept cutting back to something among the supplies.
“Why do you know that name?”
One of the saints. Milo the Hammer. Not a nice man. The soldier named after the saint had a battered, unfriendly face, and he was still wearing his too-long chainmail, draping down almost to the knuckles. I could see why his sergeant had picked him to subdue the wee nun: he didn’t look like he’d flinch from the task. He advanced on Mariead, sword out, grinning.
At least that’s one man less for me. If I can only finish them before he puts an end to her…
I looked back at the three. Behind them, the blacksmith was watching. A great beast of a man, bearded and bald, he’d picked up a blunted sword in one fist. He looked at me like I was a caged animal, something for his entertainment.
The forge invited my attention.
“Dermot, the fire. It’s so beautiful.” Her voice was intent, low at the back of my neck. “Go to it. Plunge your hands in. Warm yourself. I want it.”
Lass, I can’t–I have to…
“I want.” Her voice stole through my veins like arsenic, chilling in its simplicity, in its urgency.
Two men advanced on me, each with sword and buckler. Sergeant at the rear. The one on my left was green, untrained; I saw it in his eyes, in his footwork, in the left hand too close to his chest. First time using the buckler, maybe more used to a foot soldier’s shield. I stood among a dozen crates and barrels, full of tools, housewares, arrows needing points and armor wanting rivets. The blacksmith’s backlog, none of it of any use to me now. I’d have given my left hand to be standing where that smith was standing, next to all his lovely hammers and tongs. I hadn’t even the time to kneel down and take up a shield. One opening, and they’d be on me like wolves.
I let out a breath, watching the three. They advanced on me a step, all together, closing the distance. I watched the sergeant.
He opened his mouth to shout an order. The air came out of him, the beginning of a word.
I bulled forward, slashing up, lunging at the more experienced fighter.
They train Church soldiers to fight druids, heretics, and witches. None of that training involves learning how to fight a man in armor: you have to pick that up on your own. Not everyone has the chance to.
The novice cut at me.
His hit was weak, badly struck; he left himself wide open, and his wrist faltered at the moment of contact. No follow-through. His sword struck my back like a governess’ cane, drew a line of white fire up my back. Hurt like fuck, but that was all it did. My armor held, and the sting faded.
The man on my left was good. He gave ground at once, took the cut on his buckler, and forced me back. I managed to trade right hand for left, praying I might have a moment to grab something of use.
The novice went at me again. He’d realized he couldn’t cut through the mail, tried to stab me in the throat. The buckler confused him—instead of taking his sword in both hands, he went too far, overextended, didn’t mind his surroundings—and he stepped in front of his partner.
Sorry lad, you’re too far to the right.
Not much time to dodge. I ducked to one side, flinched away as the tip of his weapon bored into my face. A flash of pain, and the uncanny scrape as his blade glanced off my fucking skull.
I’d given up the chance to parry.
I kept my sword low, angled it up, and let the green soldier run his neck right onto it. His buckler was too close to his chest and too far to the left to make any difference, and he hadn’t known how to hold it to guard himself. He let out a strangled sound. His eyes were wide. Startled. His sword hit the floor.
“Damn it,” the veteran behind him said. More annoyed than anything else. Didn’t speak highly to camaraderie among men in the scarlet.
I didn’t stop. Kept circling into the direction I’d been flinching, pulled my sword from his throat and kept his flailing body between me and the other two, right hand on his shoulder, wheeling him around.
“Dermot.” Grannine’s whisper was urgent, tugging at my attention. Steel clashed across the room. I turned, turned my sword up into guard, sparing the time to look over at her.
Milo was advancing, the ugly fuck. Mariead stood at bay, retreating to the wall with her cudgel in one hand. She looked in my direction only for a moment, left hand behind her back. From here, I could just see the edge as the bodkin twinkled.
“Drop the knife, hen,” he said, with his nasty pinched mouth.
For a moment, I was tempted to intervene, to break away and rush him. I held in place by habit, giving ground to the veteran and the sergeant. They’ll stick you before you take half a step.
She threw the knife at him. He tried to duck aside, swatted at it with his buckler and sword, and it stuck into his shoulder, into the chainmail. It hardly bit further than the tip, but that hadn’t been the point.
Mariead came in close, cudgel held in both hands, and cracked it up into Milo’s jaw. A fine hit, all things considered—she’d measured the distance, controlled the swing, all without leaving him an opening.
All the menace went out of his limbs. His buckler rattled away and ricocheted among the smith’s tools. She hit him again, as he fell to the ground like a discarded side of beef.
She’ll be all right, then. I tilted my head to one side in acknowledgement, and blood hit my right eye. It stung like hell. I shut the eye, sword in my left hand, point out to the veteran and his sergeant, and traded sides fully, left eye and left hand leading. Shoved the green corpse into them, gave some ground back, as much as I could without getting forced into a barrel. That’s it. No further to run.
The blood was singing in my veins like it was racing to get out of the hole in my head. I was bruised, battered, stabbed, half-blind. Breath came in and out of my nose like fire, the wolf smile permanently stamped across my face.
Nothing had changed. In actual fact, things had gotten worse—no new recruit to hide behind, and not even a spare weapon to hand. I’d lost breath, blood, time, and an eye, in exchange for exactly fucking n–
A vicious sound buzzed past from my right, and for a moment I thought I was dead.
How the fuck did I miss a man with a bow and arrow? How did Mariead–
I didn’t even see the arrow, though I heard it skip off the far side of the room. Whoever it was, they’d missed wildly. The three living men in the forge reacted, looking to the sound, and I charged the veteran, gaining ground, not giving him an instant.
His defense was fucking impeccable. Embroidery on his sleeves—black links of a chain stitched into his scarlets, visible when he rejected my stroke.
A four-year Penitent. Fuck me.
The sergeant finally felt compelled to join us on the front lines, ducking low, buckler held high like he was the one who had to worry about arrows. Likely saw an easy target while his up-jumped convict and I were crossing swords. I jumped back a bit farther than I would have liked, had to scramble to keep my footing on the green soldier’s blood, bumped back into a barrel to steady myself. Crouched back a bit for more cover from whatever lunatic was firing arrows.
The veteran put his sword and buckler together, shield on top, sword on the bottom, and flashed me a grin as he saw me hiding. I grinned back at him.
This time I heard the snap of the bowstring, and I saw the arrow.
It drove into the veteran’s left side, right between arm and body, hard enough to send rivets scattering through the air.
Didn’t have a lot of thoughts at the moment, but I did have a very clear, crystal moment where all I could think was, what?
He grunted, and his perfect defense faltered. He scrambled to one side, trying to put me between him and the doorway. I rushed the sergeant—a feint, but he didn’t know it. His defense was reflexive, quick, well-trained. My arm was longer. I cut him. Tip of the sword shivered over his hauberk, tugged against his left arm, pulled free as he ducked away, and we circled one another.
“Oh, fuck this,” the blacksmith said, and I saw him break into a run. An arrow skipped off the forge behind him, and I heard a scuffle from the door. Didn’t take my eyes off the two men circling me.
Lass, is he going for Mariead?
“He’s afraid,” Grannine’s voice was certain. “He’s running.”
I let him run. I can’t believe I’m still standing.
“I would not let you fall, my Dermot.”
A second arrow hit the veteran mid-chest as he was moving his buckler to defend, knocking the air out of his lungs. Would have been a nicely fucking placed shot if it was deliberate, right between me and the sergeant, who was retreating, glancing at his arm to check for blood. The veteran’s face was going pale. I chanced a look at the door.
Mariead held the bow. A fresh arrow gleamed on the string.