“Vintir!” Hali shouted like a fool as she ran back to the camp. Vintir was still kneeling by Sir Sanin, who cried like a babe under the horse that shattered his leg. He paid her no heed as she rushed west and south, toward the sounds of war.
The Commandrix and her company had already ridden back to the main encampment, which was no doubt falling apart under the sudden attack. The Monosi army was supposed to be over a day away, still, yet somehow they had snuck around south of them. After the disorganized nonsense of their first battle, it was embarrassing to think the barbarians had outsmarted them.
The Monosi lord in her grasp was proving more tractable. His hands were manacled together, but Lord Eugeno Faberion was a stoutly muscled man, and could certainly have made this more difficult for Hali if he chose. Instead he shouted, “Easy, girl, easy! I am a lord, and unaccustomed to sprinting.”
“I am a paladin,” she shouted back, “and unaccustomed to being called a girl.”
Nevertheless, she slowed and stopped a moment to gather her bearings. She was running toward the battle, but there was nowhere else to take the Monosi lord. She had to find a guard or two to watch over him, find her horse, and engage the enemy. Tiir was gone, begging the Khan for reinforcements that would arrive far too late. Kenahl was north, his scouts proving equally useless. Sir Waldun was gone, Sir Sanin was good as gone. The horse king was gone. Sir Rehfan had proven his worth. There was no one left but Vintir and her.
There were soldiers everywhere, but all too far away, and all rushing south in a formless mob. Archers ran daintily, keeping themselves behind the pikes and the occasional rider still in their ranks. It would be ages before an organized volley could be fired upon the enemy, and even then they would hit as many friends as foes.
“Send me where you will, my Lady,” the Monosi lord said. “I will not attempt escape. I give you my word as a Faberion.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she grimaced.
“It’s my family name,” the man insisted, mildly outraged.
“I know that,” she said, “but why should that mean anything to me?” She ignored his sputtering as she looked about.
She turned back at the sound of hooves, her sword flashing. Sir Vintir was riding up on a black courser, Sir Sanin thrown over the beast’s back like a sack of flour. “Hali!” he cried, uselessly.
“How did you lift that great lummox up onto his horse?” she wondered aloud.
“With great difficulty,” he almost smiled. “The Commandrix is alone but for us, Hali.”
“I know.” She gave Sanin’s limp body a sneer. “Take the Lord Faberion back to the camp and set a guard on him, and bring me a horse.”
He looked a second away from charmingly defying her, but let it pass. “What about Sanin?”
“What about him? He’s useless, and a traitor besides. Leave him.”
Vintir shook his head. “We can’t leave one of our own on the field.”
“We’re leaving thousands on the field, Vintir, right now.”
“Not them…” He could not give his thoughts voice.
Hali drew herself up. “You told me you came from humble stock, Vintir. You told me you weren’t blessed with family wealth like most paladins are.” She pointed south. “Those are your people, Vintir, not that treacherous barbarian dying behind you. Kick him off your horse, take the Monosi back to camp, and bring me a damn horse. The Commandrix needs us.”
Sir Sanin wheezed something. It was unintelligible, but Hali thought she heard the word “drop.”
A moment later, Hali was left with a Khabarese sack of flour as Sir Vintir took the Monosi lord to the camp. Sir Sanin wheezed and moaned some more, and as she looked down on him, he drew his finger across his own neck, moaning something that sounded like “please.”
“It’s a broken leg, Sanin,” she spat, “don’t be such a baby.”
He laughed at that. He had lost a tooth at some point, and his lips and some of his beard were painted red.
They sat there a moment, battle roiling to the south like an ominous thunderstorm that refused to break over them. Sanin continued to shake and mutter under his breath. She looked down at him, uncomfortable.
“I liked Sir Waldun,” she said. “His voice was… comforting.”
Sanin grew stiller at that. He muttered something that sounded like “comforting.”
“This world is uncertain,” she said, not entirely sure why, “and it can be harsh and cruel. We should take our comfort where we can.”
Sanin head and neck grew stiff, and his moved his shaky hand to his empty scabbard.
Hali shook her head. “I came from a great family,” she said, “but my father ruined us. I could have been a dainty, empty-headed courtier, but even if my father hadn’t despoiled our fortune when I was a child, he might have the next day. Or the next. Or I might have been married off to a cruel beast with more influence than myself.” Or I might have married myself off to a vacant, simpering fool, she thought to herself. She sometimes thought that being boring was a greater crime than being cruel. “Or I might find my home suddenly besieged by foreign barbarians. No offense, Sir Sanin.”
He choked and chortled at that, seizing in pain even as he grinned.
She took a great breath, but chose not to sigh. “I could have been born in Monos, where they treat women like cows. I could have been born a chandler’s daughter, and broken my back for years to scrape the money for a sword and horse, just to wind up a poor paladin with all my siblings-in-arms sneering down their noses at me.” She looked for Vintir to the west, but yet saw nothing. “Without even the illusion of wealth to protect me from their scorn.
The battle grew louder, but no closer. She looked north to the grey, dead trees. “I could have been burned alive. Hm. There’s a thought.”
Sir Sanin grunted at that.
“I could have been born to a great name, a loving family, and still feel like it was not enough.” She finally let the sigh out, and looked down at Sanin again. “Though all things considered, I think I’d take the great name.”
Sanin chuckled painfully and moaned something that sounded like “Me too.”
A few minutes later, Sir Vintir returned, pulling two coursers behind him, red and grey. Hali rolled her eyes. He dismounted, and they both helped Sir Sanin up onto his black horse. “Ride where you will,” Vintir said, and the mount began to canter northwest, seemingly without direction.
“We could go, you know,” Hali said as she mounted the red courser. “Go west into the Euskati Plains, turn south, ride down into Khabar, and never see our troubles or wars or our spouses again.”
Vintir’s eyes sparkled as he smiled. “We’d find new troubles. New wars.”
“And Mother forbid, new spouses.”
It was a clumsy joke, but he laughed loud and merrily all the same. He mounted the grey courser, and they reached out and held each other’s hand briefly. “Satar watch over you,” he said.
They turned and spurred their mounts, and rode into the battle.
In their previous battle they had been outnumbered, but had routed the foe easily with the Commandrix’ strategy. If only Hali had seen the north gate closed, they might have captured the king and ended all this. Now, they were the outmaneuvered ones, and as she rode around the bend of the wall, she saw at once that they were outnumbered again.
The foe had more horse than they. Their archers had been well positioned to the southwest, though now a handful of riders had managed to break them up. Either King Cenedras had learned his lesson, or another Monosi warlord had surprised them. Indeed, as she approached, she thought she heard some of the barbarians shouting for Arramorr, or something similar. The king and his gilt armor were not in evidence, but she saw the Commandrix deep in the thick of the battle, towering over all others. She had found a destrier in the battle, piebald but mighty, and stood in the stirrups as her blade fell left and right on rider and footman alike. There were no other destriers about, and Ividar looked like a giant amongst her enemies.
Hali heeled her red courser and drove into battle.
She managed to bull into a mounted pikeman on a palfrey, knocking him over just as the Commandrix had done, and even managed to disarm and slay two more riders before they saw her. After that, things became more complicated. Three mounted knights were approaching her from the south, so she retreated and looped around them, charging into a knot of footmen. She scattered them, slaying two more, before one of the pursuing riders caught up to her.
“Ardromor!” he shouted like an idiot. He wore plate and mail, and his great helm had bat wings fashioned on its sides. His shield was painted a dark violet with three black bats upon it. He whirled his sword about and shouted “Ardromor!” again as he finally brought his blade down.
Hali blocked it easily. Her shield was peached, featuring no sigil, but it worked just as well. She used it to knock his sword aside, then reared back and struck one of the batwings on his helm. Sure enough, the helmet twisted easily, blinding her opponent. He cried out and tried to pull his horse back, but instead the beast reared up and bucked, dropping him to the ground. His sword scattered away, but the bat shield was bound securely to his arm.
She dismounted and approached. The man had slipped off one of his gauntlets and was holding it out as he cried, “Mercy! Mercy!”
“What is Ardromor?” she shouted. “Are you just bellowing your own name?”
“Mercy!” he cried again.
She rolled her eyes, but then caught sight of the other two knights riding toward her. She reared back and thrust her blade into the bat-knight’s neck, where his helm had come dislodged from his gorget. He was still trying to cray ‘mercy’ again as he fell. Hali leapt back into her saddle to meet the approachers.
These two had painted shields as well, though their great helms were less stupid. One had a green shield with a white monkey painted on it, the other a blue shield featuring a yellow bird with an enormous beak. They shouted more names she did not know, though “Ardromor” was again among them.
“Don’t worry!” she cried back, “I can see you!”
She circled around them as they reared to strike. Her conical helm was much more exposed than their great helms, but her field of vision was vastly superior. The sword of the watch bit into the bird-knight’s elbow as she passed, drawing a harsh scream as she circled behind them. She stabbed the monkey-knight’s horse in the rump, and it screamed and charged off.
“Treacherous harlot!” the bird-knight cried. He thrust toward her, but his arm was already sluggish from its injury. She did not even bother to bring her shield up, but knocked the sword aside with her own.
“Vin Vaddos!” she cried, “and the watch!” Already drunk on the battle, she grinned madly to see the bird-knight’s eyes grow white with terror as she chambered back and thrust her sword right into them. His horse bucked and screamed at that, trying to wrench the blade from her grip, but she held firm until she managed to pull it from the stranger’s face. He fell from his horse with a loud clamor, but Hali was already looking elsewhere.
The Commandrix was beset by four knights, with a fifth riding down on her. Two more bat-knights, the monkey-knight with the injured horse, and a fourth whose black shield bore a skull upon it; one of Lord Borromeo’s, to be sure. The fifth knight had dark blue armor, and on his shield was a white wagon wheel. He rode on an enormous white destrier, and a great red plume slew out from his great helm like an evil flame. This was someone important.
“Ardromor!” the men cried as they tried to surround her. Ividar broke out from them over and over, but she was sore beset to block their attacks, and was only managing to strike their plate armor. Hali was a second away from spurring her horse forth like a fool, with a sharp pain struck her in her left shoulder and she nearly lost her seat.
“Mother below!” she cursed, wheeling her horse around. Not fifty yards away, a half-dozen bowmen in blue and red were kneeling and nocking their arrows. Hali looked about, but other than a smattering of pikes desperately standing against three more riders, her side was unsupported nearby. Her shoulder burned, but she still managed to turn her grimace to a smile as she heeled her red courser and rode toward the archers. The horse obeyed her as brilliantly as any ever had, swerving at the lightest tug on his reins. Four of the archers broke and ran before she could even see the whites of their eyes. Another let off one last arrow, flying wide, before he fled. The last one was standing and stumbling back as he let his shot fly.
The arrow buried itself into the side of the courser’s neck, sticking all the way through and nearly piercing Hali’s mail. The red mount screamed, but kept charging. They rode the archer over and trampled him before the red courser wheezed and collapsed. Hali had ample time to free her feet from the stirrups and leap free. She looked about, but the other five archers were all running north, into the dead forest. The sixth, that had killed her horse, was groaning as he tried to move his sluggish arms. She limped over and stabbed him in the side of his neck. She wanted to watch him bleed out, but she would not let her guard down again.
More Monosi were washing up from the south, but they were still far away. She looked back to see the Commandrix had felled the monkey-knight. The wheel-knight on his great white destrier was hanging back, watching the three other knights trying and failing to contain her. One of them managed to land a sturdy blow on her sword-arm, but she twisted and turned it into a glancing strike.
“Take her alive!” the blue knight shouted. “Alive!”
“Death first!” Ividar bellowed. Her shield was hanging low, the black lion dipping toward the ground. Her left shoulder was still recovering, weak from the previous battle. From Hali’s foolish mistake.
She looked about again. A pair of riderless horses were galloping across the field, but they were too far to chase down. She was afoot, injured, and before her were four mounted knights, with only a dying old woman on her side. But she had no choice. She had to move.
She had to step forward, into this certain death. Her vows, her vocation, her honor demanded.
An arrow flew in front of her. The archers, having fled to the shadow of the dead Gazwood, were firing again into the dying fray. Ividar was surrounded by Monosi, while Hali was making an excellent target of herself. She would be safer in the fray. It was time to charge into battle.
A horse rode by, so close she could not believe she had not heard it. It was already too far to catch. On its back, a Zaljan soldier was slumped in his seat, two arrows sticking out of his back. It was not Vintir, though it looked about his size. It was a grey courser, just as Vintir rode, but it was not Vintir. Some other luckless rider, Rehfan perhaps. She could not see the face from here, slumped on the grey courser as it was.
Dame Hali hoisted up her shield. The instant she did so, an arrow struck into it, burrowing throw and nearly hitting her face. She lifted her sword and took a step forward.
One of the bat-knights struck the Commandrix’ left shoulder. Ividar dropped her shield and cried out as Hali had never heard her before. “Yield!” the blue knight commanded, sitting comfortably on his white destrier. “Yield or die!”
“I choose death!” Ividar wailed. Her voice had always been so even, so firm. To hear her now, she was almost a child again. Hali winced, embarrassed at the sight. Another arrow flew in front of her, planting near her feet.
A strike from the skull-knight landed awkwardly against her head, yet that was all it took. She slumped sideways, kicking against her will, falling from her piebald destrier. She landed on her left shoulder, and another childish scream burst from her as she landed. Hali wanted to look away.
The skull-knight dismounted and stood over her.
“Yield!” the blue knight commanded.
Her sword was still in her hand, and she waved it about drunkenly at no one. One of the bat-knights laughed at that. That almost made Hali take another step.
“Yield, you stubborn old woman!” he bellowed again.
The Commandrix was growing too weak even to lift her sword. The bat-knight chortled again as her blade flipped and flopped like a dying fish in her hand. The second bat-knight started to laugh as well.
“Enough,” the blue knight spat, disgusted. “tie her up.”
“No!” she wailed, drawn out and anguished and humiliating. The skull-knight sheathed his sword and kicked her over onto her stomach. She rolled over easily, as though she weighed no more than a rotten log. The skull-knight pulled a length of rope from under his cloak and bound her hands.
It was only then that one of the bat-knights saw her and pointed with his sword. “One last cleanup.”
“That’s a knight,” the blue knight said. “Take her alive, if you can.”
They rode toward her, two bats pretending to be paladins, their swords out and their shields up, on coursers of red and black. Another arrow whizzed past her, fired by some common foot who had hoped to steal the knights’ glory.
Hali knew something of that.
She got down on her knees, laid down her sword, dropped her shield, and lifted a gauntlet toward them.
She could not say Mercy, it stuck in her throat, but they knew the gesture well enough.