|Pallena, the lady of a small holding, chooses to throw support behind the Old Queen in her royal war with her husband - and soon finds her castle besieged by the angered King. With only a noncommittal winterknight sent by the Old Queen to help, has Pallena really chosen the right side?|
Written for Cecily, who draws frighteningly bright-eyed Acarthians, and happens to like albinos and winterish things. The main inspiration for this story, though, actually came from a brief conversation we once had about a certain fantasy profession. You'll see which.
The pace is far too muddled as I read it through now, and there are two sentences where I tried experimenting with new sort of clause pattern things which I've now decided I don't like (challenge: find them XD) but I hope you enjoy anyway. Er, especially you, Cecily, since that was the point. *crosses fingers* ;)
Updated: You can now see Cecily's sketch of Tintauri here ... I'll make it an inline illustration next time I update ... *beams*
Tintauri was laughing. He did that a lot.
"Fog!" he exclaimed, leaning folded arms on the crenel to look out on the valley. Ha-ha-ha! went his laughter, a short staccato, a high bird-call. "Old King Bronze has actually brought an eldritch fog with him! How precious. Hoy, King Bronze! Where's the foreboding thunder and lightning?"
Pallena didn't see anything to laugh at when she stared out at the mists washing down from the broken-headed hills, pooling and lapping below the town walls. Dull, dun figures were moving like living geometry down in the haze, rigid formations of line and horse. The mists were muttering with rattling quivers and clanking metal.
She glanced sidelong at the laughing Queen's man, a little too nervous to tell him to stop. She told herself it was because he was the Queen's man, an aide sent in a time of direst need, and not because his white-flashing smile always sat crooked in one corner of his mouth.
"What now?" she asked him instead.
He cocked an eye on her, pale as the uncommitted mists, as if puzzled by her question. "They're pretty straightforward, sieges," he replied. "Especially when you're the besieged."
"No … I mean … the fog?"
"The fog? I've never fought condensation before, my lady."
"I thought you said –"
"Oh, King Bronze has called it up, surely enough." Tintauri peered down into the mists again as if hoping for a royal glimpse. "It's nothing dangerous. Just water."
"But Lodi says it's going to cause problems for our archers if it stays like this. Couldn't you …" she waved a hand vaguely – "get rid of it?"
"No, I couldn't," he replied with a shrug. "I'm not a weather-worker."
Pallena pressed her gloved hands to her moist, chilled cheeks. Spending all this time out in the fog, and with Tintauri, was making her long for the keep's hearths. "I see …"
Ha-ha-ha! went the keening bird-laugh. "Not disappointed, are you, Pallena? Hoping for one of my handier brothers or sisters?"
"No, Sir Tintauri," she politely lied.
He grinned at her and then pushed away from the crenellations altogether, moving on further down the wall. "Just wait for the blowhard king to bring on the storm!" he called gaily over his shoulder. “Always the dramatics with that one!”
Pallena stood and watched the otherworldly winterknight stride away across the battlement, his wild white hair like an ice-spray in all the wind's teasing. The ‘Queen's Wolves’ indeed, she thought, disgruntled, chewing on her thick sleeve as all her fears tried to rush back into her mouth. She did her best not to look out at the mist again. King Yuka and the Bronze Army come knocking at our door, and the Queen sends us the young runt of her litter.
There was no denying, though, that being sent a winterknight was still a good sign of the Queen's favour. Pallena nursed that thought like a child to her breast, huddling deeper in her cloak as she headed down in search of her captain of the guard.
She didn't have far to look. Her steward, Inas, joined her at the foot of the stair and gestured silently towards the courtyard, where Lodi was supervising the felling of the courtyard bower. If fire started hissing over the battlements with arrows, or being spell-thrown by King Yuka, the bower would only coax it on its way to a blaze.
Lodi was furious when she told him about the fog. "What will we shoot at?" he demanded, slinging the still-unbuckled helm off his head and onto the ground. It clattered away on the stony courtyard flags, complaining in its own harsh voice until one of the conscripts ran to fetch it. "And the oil? We'll do as much good cooking with it as we will pouring it out at random!"
"Please, Captain Lodi," Pallena replied, her heart still thumping after the helmet's unexpected, metal shout. "The men will just have to listen carefully and make do, that's all."
"Bah!" Lodi snatched his helm from the timid lad who offered it back. "What men? Boys, half of them! We lost half our real force in the Queen's last war, and this is how she repays us?"
"With one of her own winterknights," she pointed out.
"I've fought with winterknights – with and against – and what we've got here is short change! What about Sir Scadamain? I watched him pull half a hillside down on a cavalry charge! I've seen Lady Hanalia rip escalades off castle walls with her voice! What's this one do?"
"I don't know," said Inas in her deep, thoughtful voice, reminding all present of her presence. She always was the model steward – a perfect wallflower when she had nothing to say, a clear and quick speaker when she did. "He carries himself like a Queen's favourite. I'm inclined to believe that he is."
Pallena pursed her lips as the tall steward reclasped her hands at her back and stood silent again. "I suppose there's something in that, Inas. You're probably right."
"I'm also inclined to believe he's a little mad," added the steward in her level voice.
Lodi just snorted. "They all are. Trust me. Don't care so long as he does something, though, because it's going to take some serious winter-miracles to save us from the Bronzes."
"I'm going back to the keep," Pallena said distractedly. She realised her eyes had been fixed on it throughout most of the conversation. "Keep me informed, Lodi." Not that I'm good for anything in this kind of situation. Should I really have thrown my support behind the Queen, I wonder?
As she set off past the wreckage being made of her bower, the overcast sky gave a deep, throaty snarl of thunder, then another, then another. It wasn't the natural chaos-sound of a storm – it was more like a steady-beating war-drum, or some beat of a weatherbeast's heart. Bararuuum …braruuum …bararuuum …
Another bird-whoop of laughter came pealing from the battlement. When she looked back and up at the walls, she could see Tintauri gleaming white down towards the gatehouse, now swirling in a little snow-flurry dance of cynical delight.
It was always a relief to shelter in the keep. Nothing had changed there except for the presence of Pallena's daughters, far away and safe, and their absence was a relief in itself. Pallena calmed herself a little after the shocks of the day by sitting a while in her youngest's room and just breathing in the little-girl air.
Inas organised dinner for her – there was only a skeleton staff in the keep now, but somehow everything always seemed to get done – and they ate it together in silent company. The thunder-drums were still booming outside; Pallena could hear them if she put her head out into the corridor.
"I'll be glad when this is all over," she sighed, leaving half her meal on the plate.
Dark Inas nodded in composed agreement. Even her hair didn't seem to move if she didn't want it to. "In our case, though, it isn't 'the sooner, the better'."
"I suppose not. When did Sir Tintauri say the reinforcements were coming?"
"He didn't specify, my lady, but he said it would be soon."
"It had better be." She ran her hands down her face, wishing for a daughter’s hug all over again. Strange how genuinely strengthening it was to have children confidently looking to her to slay the monsters in the wardrobe.
"Shall I have a bath drawn?" asked Inas, already half-risen from her chair.
"Oh, yes, Inas. Anything for a bit of calm."
She didn't get much of that, though. Her handmaid had only just started to scrub down her sore back when the first stone crashed into the outer walls, and even at this distance it set her bathwater to sloshing.
Dreams of empty autumn fields gave way to the siege when Pallena awoke. She chose to dress herself, wrapping up in furs as proof against the weather and the company she’d keep, and was already trotting downstairs to her bower – pure habit – when she remembered it wouldn’t be there this morning.
As she descended to the first floor of the keep, she found Captain Lodi waiting for her almost at the very foot of the stairs, standing like one of her house-servants. The glaze of a sleepless night had softened the usual sharp edge to his eyes, and the stink of smoke through his jerkin was overpowering.
“Another night survived,” said Pallena.
“The last,” Lodi replied. He was always dour, so it was hard to know the difference between griping and honest danger, but then this was King Yuka at the door. Surely it was the latter. “South wall’s standing on toothpicks at the moment. The next –”
A fresh blast of the outside chill hissed through a gap in the lower doors, admitting winter and Sir Tintauri. It was snowing outside, though she couldn’t tell it to look at his stark hair or pallid kirtle – it was the tiny drift of flakes on the leather baldric over his shoulder, and the scatter-swirl over the dark stone floor.
“Ah, Lodi, here you are,” said Tintauri, shouldering the door shut behind him and approaching with his thin, broad smile. “Shouldn’t run off without telling your officers where you’re going to. Good morning, Pallena!”
Pallena watched Lodi stiffen and bristle. Telling the old warhorse how to behave in a battle was like telling King Yuka he couldn’t throw a spell to save his life. Then again, that was essentially what the Queen had told him to start this war, wasn’t it?
“I was just reporting to my lady on how the battle progressed during the night,” Lodi snapped. “I can give you a quick rundown as well, if you like, seeing as how you took so little part in what –”
“Lodi,” warned Pallena, sharply undercutting an insult to the Queen’s generous assistance. Tintauri’s teeth emerged in a delighted grin. “Just give me your report.”
“Mangonel first,” replied the Captain, curt and dour again. “South tower’s broken but standing; south wall’s ready to give. They only landed three barrages in the end, thank the divine, but the next to fly will drop the wall.”
“What’s stopping them?” Pallena glanced at Tintauri.
Lodi ground out a laugh. “Not Sir Knight. He can’t ward walls, he says.”
“That’s right, I can’t,” replied Tintauri, nodding sagely. “Had a bit of a go last night, just in case, but no luck. Ah, well.”
“We sent out sorties to harry the mangonel,” Lodi went on, a lemon twist to his lips. “They haven’t found where we dropped the teleporter yet, so we’ve been able to jump behind the enemy lines and go at it. We forced them to protect or repair the thing for most of the night.”
“Well done, Lodi.” A sad thought fluttered into Pallena’s head – boys from the castle, her orchard-pickers, rushing blind in the mist with brands in hand. “Surely we can just keep sabotaging the mangonel until they find the teleporter. Perhaps they won’t find it in all this mist and snow.”
“That’s our King Bronze,” laughed Tintauri, flashing more teeth. “Always first to poke himself in the eye with a shiny parade-spear. He’ll find the teleporter eventually, though, mist or no.”
“We need to destroy the mangonel outright, not just worry at it,” Lodi confirmed. “If we can do that, we’ll last another day or two, which may be all we need if these reinforcements really are coming.”
Tintauri grinned. “Of that, at least, I’m absolutely positive. Don’t be so pessimistic, captain.”
“Is there anything you can do to help destroy the mangonel?” Pallena asked the tall winterknight, chewing restlessly on one of her sleeves again. Once upon a time, her husband had called her Lady Silverfish. “Ice-fire, perhaps? Perhaps King Yuka wouldn’t extinguish it in time …”
“He probably wouldn’t, you know,” agreed Tintauri. “Not if it caught fast. You’ve got a halfway tactical mind there, my lady. –But no, I can’t call ice-fire either.”
Lodi gave a cynical half-bark of a laugh. Pallena shot him another cutting stare.
“We’d better get back to the walls, captain,” the winterknight said cheerfully then, and although nothing about this pale-eyed, pale-haired snow-shadow ever felt comforting, his confidence was too careless to be false. Inas must be right about this one. She must. “Escalades and all that. And Old King Bronze’ll start spellthrowing today, I think.”
“Would you like a higher vantage, Sir Tintauri?” Pallena asked. “The roof of the keep might be a better place to spot and counter the –”
“Counter King Bronze’s spells?” Tintauri gave one of his swooping laughs. “Me? No, I’m not really that subtle, I’m afraid. Sounds like something Hanalia would do.”
“Then if you don’t mind my asking –”
Tintauri turned coquettishly side-on, presenting his hip and the long, leather-wrapped hilt of the sword slung just above. “I’m going to carve your enemies into smaller pieces of enemies, Lady Pallena,” he replied with a crooked smile. “That’s what I’m going to do. All we Wolves are rather good at that, even if I do say so myself.”
“Yeah, well, if you kill six cohorts today, we’ll be nicely on schedule to eliminate the lot by tomorrow,” said Lodi.
“Lodi, Lodi, Lodi,” sighed Tintauri. “My own private ray of sunshine. Let’s just go, shall we?”
The winterknight strode back to the door, shoving it open and flourishing a hand at the gap. Lodi shot Pallena a parting glance – a warning, a reproach, she didn’t know – and strode out with a muttered “By your leave,” disappearing back into the snows with Tintauri.
Inas cleared her throat behind Pallena, making her wonder how long the steward had been watching and waiting. “Breakfast, my lady.”
It wasn’t a hot breakfast.
Some said that battle was hardest for those who had to sit and simply wait. Pallena didn’t believe it for even a moment.
She was glad to be in the keep at present, stitching to calm her nerves as she waited for each breathless runner-boy, because the noises stabbing in from the outside were all the proof she needed to wreck that old cliché. She thought about how it would all have terrified her girls – made them clutch around her knees and bury faces in her skirts – and for a few selfish moments, she wished they were here to do even that.
Periwinkles were appearing on her embroidery now. Calm, blue lies. She glanced over at silent Inas’s sampler, wondering if she were being any more honest, but saw only roses.
Towards midday a roar of voices beat in through the windows, and Pallena realised that either the mangonel was destroyed or the south wall had fallen. Her periwinkles strung themselves taut across the cloth.
But the boy who eventually sprinted into the room, heaving air and steam out of his lungs as he chased his voice, declared it was the mangonel.
Some time before the light left the sky again, Pallena climbed the long stair to her quarters and went to look out of her narrow window. The keep and walls floated in an island of mist, surrounded by a soft-moving, ghost-gentle sea. The keep’s defenders ran back and forth on the wall above the mist-sea like shipwrecked men, hacking ropes and shoving lashed ladders from the walls, falling amongst all the impersonal clamour, dying in blazes of green-yellow fire which lit the mist in brief, sizzling clouds.
King Yuka was not a silent presence amongst his men. But then King Yuka was not a man at all – no more than the Queen was a woman, or her winterknight servants truly human.
Tintauri was down there too. She could see his wild snow-flurry dance down on the eastern battlement, streaking through the ant-masses of Bronzemen who’d just tried to pour off the last remaining siege turret, hacking and swirling and – she knew – laughing, laughing, laughing.
Pallena wondered if there was any place for real humans in this war, except the dirt. It was a thought worthy of Lodi. She decided to go back downstairs.
That night was another wild storm of sound and voices. King Yuka’s dramatic thunder boomed over it all, though he let no rain fall to scatter his mist, and it made the pitcher on Pallena’s side-table clatter away to itself in the dark. She slept, though. In fits and starts she had her peace, though whatever her last dream was, it made her hand fly out and strike the bedpost, waking her in a snap of pain.
Captain Lodi was not waiting with another report when she descended. She spent half the morning stitching and half the morning trying to learn war from the window before a runner-boy finally came.
The south wall still stood – she had seen that. The men had turned the ground beneath to a scorched and oily waste, the boy reported, and the enemy had not been able to draw near enough to drive at the damaged stoneworks. Now, though, the last of the oil was gone, and archers were struggling to take its place as effectively.
A little after midday, there was a lull in the fighting. Pallena stepped briefly out of the keep with Inas for some air, staring around at the indistinct, grey ghost-shapes of men, but her courage failed her in the mist and she soon retreated.
Lodi came to talk to her not long afterwards, bringing the triple stench of smoke, sweat and blood into her keep. She hoped it wasn’t an omen. Today the captain looked even more dreadful than he had yesterday, gaunt and gore-spattered and exhausted, a slumping marionette jittering to a dance it didn’t like.
“How are the men?” she asked him.
“One-third dead,” he replied, “and two-thirds waiting for it. They fought hard in the night, but I don’t see them lasting another as they are.”
“You say that every time, Lodi.” She tried to smile, but the stink of the smoke on him made it more of a grimace.
“They’re too tired and too frightened for much more of this, my lady. Morale is low. Dead low. Hurts your spirits when you see your own being tipped over the wall.”
“Tipped over the wall? What do you mean?”
“Siege tactic,” replied Lodi, now sounding restless. Even this brief break from the wall was clearly making him worry. “You drop the bodies of the dead down over the wall where the enemy’s trying to climb. Gets in his way and brings on a bit of disease if they’re down there long enough.”
‘Is that really necessary?” Pallena exclaimed. “I doubt King Yuka will be down there long enough for bodies to rot!”
“We don’t have the fuel or the men to spare to burn them all,” he answered. “So they may as well be down there with the enemy as in here with us. I don’t like it either, my lady – like I said, no-one does – but in this at least, the winterknight’s right.”
Tintauri. Of course it would be Tintauri. Pallena rubbed at her arms. “Fine. Do whatever you have to do. Has there been any sign of reinforcements? Didn’t the scouts use the teleporter?”
“We’ve got men in the hills waiting to signal when they see something. So far, nothing.”
She shook her head, savagely snapping a thread from her sleeve. “Perhaps the Queen isn’t sending help at all. Perhaps she’s changed her mind.”
“She wouldn’t leave one of her own winterknights here to die,” said Inas calmly on the sidelines. “And King Yuka would kill any winterknight he found.”
“Then Tintauri had better start doing whatever it is he can to help us! Where is he?”
“Battlements,” replied Lodi. “Where I should be getting back before the next wave hits. I’ll say this much, my lady – if not for his sword on the walls, we might well have some of the enemy inside by now.”
“We need more than just his sword. Much more. Tell him to come and see me next time there’s a break in the fighting. I want to talk to him.”
She and Inas sat down to a dry dinner that evening – yesterday’s food, slightly spoiled by the ants and the sound of the next wave driving at the walls. As she chewed without tasting the meal, staring into the guttering candle-flame by her glass, her handmaid came in and quietly announced the arrival of Sir Tintauri.
“What?” Pallena exclaimed, dashing her knife down on her plate as the winterknight strode in. “The enemy’s at the walls again! Why are you here?”
“Didn’t you ask to see me?” asked Tintauri mildly, scuffing one boot on the floor to get something off it. He was a dreadful sight at the moment – his kirtle splattered with mad painter-strokes of blood dry and drying, his mail crusted with it, his skin, his hair.
“Not while the enemy is attacking! Go back to Lodi!”
“You worry too much.” Tintauri folded his arms, giving her a discouraging little smile. “I’m here now. Say your piece and I’ll get back.”
Pallena seethed, thinking of all the keep-dwellers – the orchard-boys – who might take his place tonight. “It seems ironic now, Sir Tintauri, but I was going to ask you what assistance you plan to give us!”
Tintauri arched his brows. Only one was still white. “Haven’t I been giving it?”
“We need this siege broken! We need defences! We need strength or healing! We need some kind of wintermagic, Sir Tintauri, and so far you have provided us with nothing!”
“Now you’re starting to sound like Lodi,” he complained.
“Sir Tintauri, please!” She spread her hands, searching those pale, pale eyes for some hint of emotion. “Please! We were among the first to lend support to your Queen. We stayed loyal through the first war. Whatever the Queen has sent you to do, please do it!”
“I will, Lady Pallena. I will.” To her surprise, he moved forward and gave her arm a bit of a cursory pat, though nothing really much like sympathy surfaced in the bright eyes. “You’ve heard of my brother-knight Sir Scadamain, haven’t you?”
Pallena looked down at the stain his hand had left on her sleeve. “Of course.”
“Then you know that he needs a good, clear midwinter night to really do his stuff properly. My sister-knight Hanalia – she needs hours of uninterrupted meditation before she can move as much as a cup with her voice. There are other examples. I’m sort of like that, you see? I have prerequisites.”
“Then what do you need?” she asked – pleaded, rather. “We don’t have much time! Tomorrow we –”
Tintauri’s grin twitched in a familiar way, though she didn’t need the warning to predict his high-keening laugh. “You really are a worrier, my lady! Almost as bad as Captain Lodi! There’s still time enough. Reinforcements will arrive very soon.”
“That’s not what the scouts say!”
“Don’t trust the scouts. Trust me. I’m a sure bet, my lady, and that’s exactly why the Queen sent me to help you.”
The winterknight tapped the side of his nose, leaving a dark print there, and then gave her a wave as he headed back for the door – slow, unhurried, casual.
Pallena looked back at Inas, frustrated, but Inas simply shook her head.
“There’s nothing to be done,” the steward said. “Not by us.”
They lasted another night. Pallena didn’t know how. As she lay in her bed, her room was lit by fleeting lightning-flares of yellow-green somewhere below; King Yuka had not tired of his fires yet.
Well before dawn she rose and went to her window, watching the dogged, dying efforts of her men to keep the enemy off the walls. She could see them only as shadows by the few remaining torches, or by the streaking flashes of witchfire in the dark.
Around sunrise, one of the bodies they rolled out onto the enemy and down into the mists was Captain Lodi’s. That was what the runner-boy said, at least. Pallena didn’t send him back out to confirm; she kept him in the keep, muffling his tears with her sleeves and pretending he was one of her daughters.
Mid-morning brought a sound of thunder – crashing, groaning stone dealt a mortal wound – and for a while it drowned out the shrieks and roars of men. There was no runner boy to tell her that sappers had finally got at the buckling south wall, but a report was hardly necessary.
“They’re coming in,” said Pallena, frightened by the distance of her own voice. “It’s over.”
The shoulders of the boy in her arms shivered. Inas said nothing, her hands resting quietly in her lap and her eyes on the floor.
Pallena sat and listened for a while – all a distant chaos for now, but not long to stay that way – and finally spoke again. “Let’s not stay here.”
Inas now seemed to be paralysed, not just customarily impassive. Pallena reached out to take her hand and the runner boy’s hand and walked quickly with them up the cramped keep steps, already knowing where she wanted to die, and suspecting it made no difference to either of them.
The view from her youngest daughter’s room was not as good. She had to lean out of the window to see the collapsed half of the south wall, though there was probably little point, since the mists hid the men who must be charging through. She could still hear the sounds of ongoing battle, at least. For now.
She went back and sat on her younger daughter’s bed, breathing in the smell and listening to the sounds of her castle falling, waiting for footsteps on the stairs.
It was not a long wait.
The runner-boy began to sob again as chairs began to overturn down on the lowest floor, but Pallena silenced him with a stern look and a finger on his lips, pointing towards her daughter’s wardrobe. There was barely time for him to hide; boots were already clattering in the stairwell. Some of King Yuka’s men must have been given a very specific objective for when the wall fell – the lady of the castle.
Doors further along the hall began to bang open, including the door to her own bedroom, and demanding feet stamped ownership with every tread.
Then the door to her daughter’s room was slammed open.
To Pallena’s lasting shock, Inas lurched out of her catatonia with as shrill and loud a cry as the steward had ever made, wrenching down the curtain-rod from over the window and swiping at the first soldier to rush in. She hit him in the face. He fell over. Then the next man to step over the swearing first stabbed Inas with a knife.
Pallena held up her empty hands with tears starting to pour down her face, like all that blood. She hoped the boy in the wardrobe would stay quiet.
“You are Pallena of Nascaridge,” said the soldier with the knife, now motionless in his gleaming armour of bronze, ignoring the moaning steward crumpled at his feet. “Your King demands an audience.”
“He will have it,” Pallena whispered.
“That’s what ‘demand’ means,” came the curt reply, narrow-eyed for a traitor. “Of course he will have it – an audience, and then your head.”
She licked brittle-dry lips, unsurprised but still unprepared, and then heard them: more footsteps, light-tapping on the stairs, taking them in bounds and almost skips. Tap-tap, tap-tap … tap … tap-tap-tap …
“Winterknight,” someone snarled from outside the door, and three jumbled sets of other boots scattered down to the attack; the other three soldiers moved fully into the bedroom and shut the door, barring it with Inas’s curtain-rod. Pallena licked her lips over and over again as the knife-holder put his bloody weapon at her throat and drew her behind the barrier of her daughter’s bed, leaving his two comrades room to draw swords.
Don’t trample on Inas, she thought, watching her steward crawling slowly for the sidelines. Inas, hurry, hurry.
There were no screams or shouts outside; Pallena could hear nothing but grunts and bitten-off oaths, and those only barely. After a moment, though, there came a furious clatter as someone in armour began to jounce and roll down the stairwell – dead, surely, or there’d have been some kind of cry – and then a second clash as someone slammed against the stone wall and did not move again.
She did not hear how the third man died, but she knew he was dead when the door suddenly gave an experimental rattle. The soldiers in the room tensed.
“Scadamain!” the soldier with the knife shouted. “You’re moments away from being the death of the keep’s mistress!”
“Scadamain?” Tintauri’s voice called lazily through the door. “Guess again.”
“Bah, we don’t care which of the Queen’s mangy Wolves you are! Go yelp back to her and tell her how you failed to protect this one – if you can escape the Bronze ranks alive! See how many more join the ice-bitch’s cause then!”
“That’s dreadful language to use against your liege lady,” came the reproach. “I’m very upset with you now. In fact I’m going to kill you.”
The door burst open, sending the curtain-rod clattering across the floor, and Tintauri leaped like a snow-leopard across the threshold, throwing a bronze helmet in the face of one soldier as he rushed the other. Pallena didn’t quite see how it happened – there was no sword-swinging room by the door, but the winterknight left the second man dead with a knife in the throat, and the first wiped blood from his face only moments before losing face and head altogether.
The last soldier gripped Pallena tighter as the two bodies fell, still standing behind the bed and its lacy bedclothes, knife poised but unmoving. Pallena listened to his breathing, still slow and deep against the sharp, harsh gasps Inas still made in the background. He was ready, but scared.
Tintauri bent over one Bronze’s bleeding body to wriggle his knife free. “Clavicle,” he complained. “Watch out for it when you make your cut.”
The soldier said nothing, one hand squeezing Pallena’s shoulder rhythmically, kneading it like dough. Tintauri straightened with his own bloody knife in hand, but if any fresh blood had sprayed on him, it was invisible against the older stains of gore; there was almost nothing pale about him now except his mist-pale eyes.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” he asked the soldier conversationally. “Because you know that when she dies, you die. These are the last flying moments of your life. Still beautiful, even like this.”
He showed his teeth, no smile this time, and softly added: “Especially when you know what comes after …”
“Which one are you?” King Yuka’s man asked, his deep voice reverberating at Pallena’s back. “Which Wolf?”
“I think you’ve guessed,” said Tintauri.
Suddenly the tangle-haired winterknight threw his head back and shrieked – crow-sharp, carrion-hungry – and the soldier recoiled with a cry that finally betrayed his fear, the knife slipping from his shaking fingers and falling on the bed. Already the stained menace by the door was moving, swooping, and though the soldier swept up his weapon again in a crisp snap of desperation, he did it only in time to catch Tintauri’s knife in his gullet.
Pallena stared fixedly into the roaring glare of crimson at eye-level, feeling the soldier’s last grasp tighten and then fall away. But the soldier wasn’t falling yet, purely because Tintauri was still holding the knife.
Tintauri let it go.
The man fell.
Her face was wet.
“Hmm,” said Tintauri, glancing at the lacy bed. Blood was leaking towards the indent her daughter’s little body had worn into the mattress. “That was probably cutting it a bit fine, in retrospect. Sorry.”
She tried to answer, but could finally only point towards Inas. The winterknight swung around, following the gesture, and clicked his tongue. “Ah. Doesn’t look good.”
Pallena pointed again.
“Bring her?” Tintauri asked, then shrugged. “All right. Watch your step in all the mess.”
The boy would not move from the cupboard. It was safer there, perhaps. They left him.
They were on the stairwell – the winterknight had just rolled aside one of the bodies by the door with his boot – when Pallena finally found her voice.
“Why didn’t you help us?” she asked, low and lost. “Why didn’t the Queen help us?”
Tintauri clicked his tongue again, not pausing on the next step as she thought he might, leaving her to chase his back. Inas lolled like a doll in his arms, making small, sharp noises deep in her throat. “Don’t worry, Pallena. I was actually just about to do my stuff, but I thought I might just make sure you were all right first. Lucky I did, wasn’t it?”
“Lucky?” she cried. Lucky, lucky, lucky! clamoured the echoes against the stone. “It’s too late! You should have acted before!”
“But I couldn’t! And it’s not too late.”
“Oh? ’Where there’s life, there’s hope?’” she snarled.
This time he did pause, but only to let that laughter peal out – thin and clamorous here in the confines of the stairwell, like a flock of crows startled away from a meal.
Then he simply moved on again.
Pallena followed him, hands clenching and unclenching in her skirts, because what else could she do?
After a long, hollow walk they reached the lower floor of the keep again, not yet in total disarray, but disturbed by the rough entry of the soldiers before. Most of the servants had already fled – to what end in the mists, she didn’t know – but a few hid here and there, gripping candlesticks and knives, too scared or too stubborn to brave the outside.
Tintauri headed straight across the snow- and mud-slick floor for the door, but paused before he reached it. For a moment he stood still; then he knelt, smooth and careful, to lay Inas down. Pallena watched the tight, disciplined coil of her steward’s dark hair start to uncurl on the stone, wishing the divines weren’t always so obvious in their omens.
“Don’t cry, now, lady,” said the winterknight, rising.
It was an absurd, useless thing to say, and any answer she might have given could only have been absurd and useless, too. So instead she followed him in silence again, waiting for him to pull the door open wide so they could both step out into mist and snow.
The sound of battle was loud and hard as ever, and eerie-bobbing witchlights guided the paths of King Yuka’s men, filling the mists with shadows and hints of enemies. Pallena stayed close to Tintauri, feeling the snow only as cold little bites on her head and face.
There were shadows and hints on the ground around the keep, too. Many were covered in ice and mist now. Some of her soldiers – the ones who had noticed the Bronzes headed for the keep – had tried to stop them, perhaps. Or perhaps they had simply been here already and had died all the same.
She felt another touch, light on her forearm, and saw Tintauri turn back to her with a fierce grin on his angular face.
“Now,” he explained, as if he thought it would cheer her, and drew his sword. She stepped back in silence, but he didn’t dash away or swing at any mist-shadow; he drove the point hard into the ground, and knelt before it with both hands locked around the hilt.
For a long time, nothing else happened. He remained kneeling and silent, his deep, heavy breaths steaming visibly even against the backdrop of the mists.
How strange. She had never really imagined the winterknight’s breath to be warm.
“They’re everywhere,” whispered Tintauri suddenly, pale eyes now wide-fixed and staring. “The mist’s full of them, Gata. Can you see the–?”
A gasp choked off the words. Pallena curled her arms around her shoulders.
“Sir! Sir! More escalades! Too many! Sir, help me!”
“Come on, then, you Bronze bastard! Come on! Bring all your friends!”
“I saw him over – augh!”
The winterknight’s voice began to leap and fall wildly, sometimes shouting, sometimes groaning. Not all the sounds pouring from his thin lips were words; some were just noises, short, animal grunts of pain and shrill cries of agony.
“Wait! I surrender!”
“Do your worst!”
The words and sounds came faster. And faster. Soon each blended into the next, almost senseless, a torrent of noise gushing from the winterknight’s contorting mouth. Pallena stood transfixed, unable to tell anything of time besides the thought of too long.
“- south wall get back here you help me not like this I’ll take you with me sweet divines spare me where’s the captain it hurts for our lady bring more oil my leg my leg my leg kill him quick no no no nononononono-”
Tintauri started to shriek and yell and scream in earnest, an incoherent mess, sagging forward and swaying with only his grip on his sword to keep him upright. The blade should have moved, or shifted in the snow, but it didn’t.
She covered her ears with hands and heavy sleeves, not even halving the dreadful noise, and watched him slump and writhe before the sword, hair falling wild around his face. The unstained white roots of his hair were so stark they seemed to glow against the grime of the rest.
The final sound he made was a moan, low and long with the last tatters of his voice. For some moments after that he was still, head down and shoulders heaving.
At last he raised his head again. Blood was dribbling from his lips, thin and dark. He uncurled one hand from his sword, fingers moving with arthritic strain, and held it out to Pallena in a silent appeal, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch it.
The winterknight finally stood alone instead, planting both hands first on the icy ground, then levering himself off his knees, jerky and unsure. As he straightened, stumbling one short step for his balance, Pallena heard someone else stand up behind her in a rasp of ice.
She spun, hands half-raised, and saw the snow showering off the new-risen shoulders of one of the fallen soldiers. The man smiled as she looked at him and tried to salute her, but his right arm was gone.
Apologetically, he saluted with the left instead. His two comrades behind him were trying a little more awkwardly to rise, pinned together as they were by the same spear.
Tintauri spat blood in the snow behind her, his breath still rasping like a file. Pallena stood perfectly still where she was, barely breathing herself. She didn’t want to move in either direction.
The saluting soldier waited for a while, but receiving no acknowledgement, he eventually lowered his hand and turned back to his struggling fellows. Even with just the one arm left, he yanked the spear out of both bodies with ease. They rose, too.
For a moment more they looked to Pallena. Then they began to turn their heads towards the clamour coming from the deeper mists, and on some silent, shared signal the three moved off, striding slowly but smoothly into the gloom. Other shapes were already joining them.
“Shameful,” Tintauri croaked behind her.
She turned, inch by inch, to look at him again. He was wiping the last of the blood from his mouth now, and spitting out whatever tried to follow it.
“Died … for you,” he rasped, shaking his head. “Owe them … more … than that.”
Them. All of them. Many of them. There was screaming out in the mists, shrill panic, but then there had been from the start. It was hard to tell how different the sound was now.
More footsteps whispered in the snow behind Pallena, soft and measured and familiar. She didn’t have to look over her shoulder, but she did anyway; white-faced Inas simply gave her a solemn nod from her customary place at her back.
“Don’t stand there,” Pallena forced out. The steward’s torso was still scarlet. “Go back. Go away.”
Inas looked grave.
“Away. Away. Inas, if you can understand me at all, please –”
“Of course she can,” Tintauri said hoarsely. “But she won’t talk. None do.”
The winterknight massaged his own throat as he fell silent, then pressed fingers to his temples, grimacing. Pallena finally drew back in a mixture of fear, outrage and awe, hearing Inas take that familiar half-step behind her to give her room.
Voices continued to leap out of the grey-white haze: war-cries and death-cries, and very little in between. It went on for an hour or more – she could not judge exactly, no more than she could move – before the eerie-floating world of suspended chill and voices was abruptly disturbed by a barrage of winds.
King Yuka was dispersing his mists. The sudden gusts stirred up the gloom like broth, agitating it in rough, swirling eddies as it steadily stripped away. The thin-falling snow swirled with it as well, spiralling in little whirlwind curtains.
Eventually hints of the battle began to appear behind the lifting veil – silhouettes replaced mere shadows – and then colours, too, leaked back into her courtyard. Much of it was red or black, but she could see the green of her banners here and there, and the brighter gleaming of steel or bronze.
Now she had sights to match to sounds. Barely ten yards away, around the charcoal scar where her bower-trees had been piled and burned, she could see a large knot of her men fighting, back to back. It seemed they had been harder-pressed before – why else make a stand in such an open place? – but now they simply held ranks and watched the looser, more scattered fights taking place around them. Armoured Bronzes battled in twos and threes against knots of five or six defenders.
Sometimes those defenders were Bronzes themselves. Or had been. Their corpses knew no loyalty.
There was something else strange about the battlefield, too, though it took somewhat longer to place. There were almost no corpses lying on the ground. There was blood, yes – bloody slush traced long tracks towards the gates – but there were few bodies. Few indolent bodies, in any case.
Pallena looked around, turning slowly in place from the courtyard towards the ruined vista of the fallen south wall, and to the furious battles down there by the broken pilings of stone. Some of her men must be alive; most were not. She could not tell the difference. Perhaps they were even fighting together by now, taking on the ‘reinforcements’ with the desperate pragmatism of war – so long as I keep breathing, I don’t care.
By now the mists were altogether gone. A few gouts of attacking witchfire flew somewhere down by the wall for a while; then a horn began to bellow in the distance, calling the retreat that most Bronzes were already trying to make – knotting together in bands against the onrushing dead, backing towards the breach, or dying in the lonely terror of a solitary flight.
“Too late,” chuckled Tintauri as the distant horn blared on. His voice was still strained, but unbroken this time, and a little of the sweeping rise-and-fall had returned. “Far too late now, Old Bronze.”
“Too late,” Pallena said, though barely. He took it as a question.
“Oh, definitely. Nothing he can do for his troops now. They’re just about to run into a lot more trouble. Remember all the bodies we put over the walls?”
“Yes,” she grated. “More than a third of my men, and a third more inside the walls as well, no doubt. I remember. I’ll always remember.”
The winterknight cocked a pale, pale eye on her.
“I sense a certain dissatisfaction,” he said. “If I’d called the dead any earlier, my lady, they’d still not have been enough to overwhelm Old Bronze’s army. It used to be quite large, as you’ll recall.”
“This is not what I or anyone sane would call help,” she hissed. “And you know it, or you’d have told me plainly from the start what you meant to do!”
“And what would you all have done?” Tintauri only glanced at the finger she’d lifted to point at him, but she dropped it with the sudden, bizarre fear that he might bite at it. “Panicked. Died. Nothing. Considering my Queen could easily have left such an insignificant outpost to fend for itself – as I recommended to her – you’ve really come out of this rather well, in the end. With a much bigger army, for a start.”
Pallena blanched. “These …”
He gave a half-playful tip of his head. The horn was still furiously sounding the retreat in the background, and men outside the walls were yelling and screaming in all their efforts to follow it. Soldiers of a different kind mobbed silently in the breach behind them. “I hardly need a retinue of revenants, do I? They’re good workers, too, you know. They’ll have your walls rebuilt in no time. Call it a gift from the Queen.”
“I don’t want this – them! Send them away! Send them away!”
He stared at her for a moment. She stared back, quivering.
“Well,” he remarked at last. “That’s gratitude for you.”
Then he finally loosed another of those carrion-bird laughs, baring his teeth at her – ha-ha-ha! – and slipped away towards the gatehouse into a renewed flurry of snow.
Pallena stood rooted where he’d left her, cold, wet and motionless in the mounting ice-spray, but stirred at an eventual touch of her elbow.
Inas had brought her a cloak.
|1 Jun 2009|| Ree Lyra Span|
Great story! I couldn’t get enough of Tintauri.
|27 Aug 2009|| Sarah Clawson|
Wow loved it. You are very talented. Loved it when Tintauri called Lodi "My own personal ray of sunshine." Brilliant. Great characters. Pallena seems very real and the detail is just so right with the wanting of her children even though it would be selfish. Loved the way Tintauri made a comment on the clavical. I didn’t see the end coming, which made it even better. I liked how you gave descriptions that were needed without making it boring. Most of the time you can skip a few paragraphs here and there and still know what’s going on but with your fluid writing you want to read every word. The reader can picture everything you are trying to portray with utter certainity and clarity. Are you going to send this to a publisher? to be put in book form? Assuming you are going to finish it of course.Missing:[/i]
|29 May 2010|| ShadowStalker|
Absolutely amazing. You have an excellent writing style--very refreshing.
|15 Jul 2010|| Iohannes|
Now THAT’s a proper story, A. R. Grade A. Savory at a couple of levels. Thanks.
|20 Mar 2011|| Allan Mia Wanson|
This is wonderful !
|3 May 2011|| Ray Valen|
That was quite freaky, although I suspected the dead would come back to life the moment Tintauri started talking about "pre-requisites".
Although, I suspected it would be good and happy; not necromancy.
Overall, a well written and original story.
|23 May 2011|| Jaime M Garbutt|
This roped me in a kept me absorbed until the very end. Amazing concept well executed
|29 May 2011|| Pauli Mika Kaun|
I like it!
|29 Jun 2011|| Nicole Sitts|
Nice! You have a knack with imagery.
|12 Mar 2012|| Julia Disney|
Interessting read, thanks
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