Bol seethed with the desire to murder the inhabitants of the tidy brick manor. A pebble from his sling could drop one before he even knew the danger and a knife in the back would finish the other as he tried to run. There would be more inside. Outsiders with their dark faces and pale eyes. Enemies. How sweet it would be to watch the red blood flow.
Snake-Eyes tapped Bol’s wrist and nodded towards the way they had come. As quietly as they could, they withdrew through the acacias. There was no word of soldiers in the forest but even a few scouts could cause trouble. The manor had been built in the foreign style, precisely rectangular with a sloping tile roof. Considering the servants’ cottages all around, it was inhabited by a retired officer or his son. The master of the manor did not appear to have fled. Perhaps he had not heard of Shōr’s host on the march. Perhaps he thought he would be left alone.
Bol and Snake-Eyes rejoined the other men a little ways back, about three dozen altogether. They sought out their chief and told what they had seen. He motioned for everyone to huddle together.
“There’s a manor ahead. You ten circle around. You five on the left. You five on the right. No one escapes. Stay out of sight until I charge and kill only those who fight. I want captives.”
They waited for the others to creep around. Bol’s eyes strayed to the chief’s sword. Even in its gilt scabbard, it was marvelous. He wished he had a sword. He would be content with an ordinary blade of bronze. A man didn’t need dwarf-craft to be happy. He had never learned how to wield a sword, though he had played with sticks as a boy, but a man could learn. He hoped the outsiders would fight.
The chief charged with a screeching yell. The others took up the cry as they ran after him. It sounded a little like coyotes. They rushed through the garden patches and the beehives, past the startled servants. The outsiders did not even have time to bar the door and were quickly snared. The chief posted a few sentries and gathered all the prisoners outside the main door. The sun’s path curved down but it was yet high above the horizon.
“She’s mine.” Kimil shouted as he interposed himself between the others and a foreign woman. “I captured her. Find your own loot, you’re thieves.”
The maid in question was the officer’s daughter or perhaps his wife. Sometimes the outsiders married substantially younger women. The retired officer was unmistakable with his distinguished gray beard and a snug coat that was both modest and rich. The outsiders loved modesty and subdued dark colors. Everything they wore looked the same, until one developed an eye for it, which Bol had not. The men clothed themselves in simple trousers and buttoned tunics. The maids wore plain corseted dresses that covered even the neck and were stitched with subdued patterns. The men and the women alike wore hats and shoes. Even in the towns, they would not put on sandals.
There were five outsider women, two of whom were only girls, and six men, one of whom was a boy. There were a handful of half-breeds and a number of Nulinarchē slaves, who looked apprehensive as to the rescue by their countrymen. The captive maids cried quietly but the men only stared with sorrowful gray eyes and fathomless eyes of blue. Outsiders did not like showing their feelings but Bol could guess well enough what they were thinking.
He drew his knife and slashed the closest man’s shoulder. The fellow tried to duck back but the blade sliced his tunic all the same. All the warriors cried out but the chief was louder. He pummeled Bol with heavy fists.
“I said not to kill them, churl.”
“Yes, yes.” Bol licked the blood from his lip. “I was only showing we’re serious.”
“Go inside and loot something, you bloody handed pest.” The chief cracked his fingers. “Now that he’s out of the way, can any of you knaves speak the outlander tongue?”
In the manor, the afternoon glow seeped through white-glass windows. They had been imported at substantial cost. There was no glass making in Nulinar. The foreigners favored narrow high backed chairs skillfully cut and stained but otherwise undecorated. These made bad plunder for anyone who did not live within a few miles.
Kimil dragged his captive inside. She struggled feebly but outsider women had no muscle at all. Her cotton eyes flickered every way and she kept mumbling in the slurred outlander speech. Her straight black hair was cut at her shoulders. Outlander women never uncovered their heads but she had lost her hat. To the Nulinarchē, publicly touching a woman was appallingly lewd but the custom was to overlook such things in war. Triumphantly carrying off a maid was a fitting reward for victory.
Snake-Eyes walked down the hall with a sack over his shoulder. He had not assembled with the others outside. Snake-Eyes disliked crowds. The others had named him for his venomously red pupils. They said he could poison a man with a glance. Bol could almost believe that. None of them had ever seen a man with such eyes. The color was rare even among women but Snake-Eyes hailed from the Barren Mountains where the sky was strange. The men of those mountains were unlike ordinary folk in many ways. Everyone thought the foreigners had wiped them out a generation ago but it seemed they persisted. Snake-Eyes spoke with a clumsy accent and sometimes lapsed into his own queer dialect. He wore moccasins, a necklace of knotted cords around chunks of amber and a kilt with his house sign. Bol looked much the same but he wore no house sign.
“Not for you, mountain man.” Kimil shoved the girl. “She’s mine and I mean to have her.”
“She’s pretty enough.” Snake-Eyes gave a wan hungry smile. “Maybe I’ll buy her.”
Kimil laughed and pushed his captive into another room. Bol was not sure how pretty he judged her. She had fine features—such a tiny nose—but the coffee coloring displeased him. A maid ought to be pale. Any lady with the means did her best to stay out of the sun but that would make no difference for a dark skinned outsider. The thought of coffee set him searching for the kitchen.
By the time he had warmed his coffee, Snake-Eyes dug up a spot of cornbread and turkey. Both were men out of place. The red eyed stranger came from the mountains. Bol was rabble. The other three dozen hailed mostly from the House of the Golden Dawn. They were proper men—ridmōrī trained for war—with wives from the old blood. Bol wondered how ready they would prove in battle. The soldiers had put a stop to the timeless warfare simmering between the houses. The ridmōrī still practiced with bow and sword but their skill was no longer proven with blood. A rabble-man like Bol, who had not trained from boyhood, had even less skill so he would not question them openly.
A woman’s scream rang down the hall. Kimil’s captive ran into the kitchen clad only in high black stockings. Bol had lain with a woman once and seen slaves for sale but the nakedness startled him anyway. It had never occurred to him that the outlanders were ignorant of the ancient laws of cleanliness. Even the rabble knew those laws. The woman was unshaved. Even her legs were hairy, not thickly like a beast, but enough. Her breasts looked as though they had barely budded though her face showed her full grown. Kimil caught up, seized her waist and pulled her back down the hall. He had not even had time to take off his kilt.
“Fie!” Bol burst into laughter. “I wonder whether foreigners even wash with soap. It’ll be a hassle but any maid I capture gets a bath and a shave before I take her to bed.”
Snake-Eyes chuckled and shook his head. The other men joined them with the news they would stay the night, though that meant setting out before dawn to regain the lost time. The chief had hoped to make a longer day. The manor slaves, who were fellow countrymen, returned to the kitchen and began supper. The warriors went outside to smoke. One of them tossed a pipe to Bol. He had never been able to afford tobacco but now he drew from the officer’s stash.
After the meal, the men helped themselves to the maids. There were not enough for everyone, so most of the men helped themselves to the mead instead. A few sparred with staffs. Towards sundown, a pair of Nulinarchē maids sauntered out of the trees. They were proper ladies with house signs upon their skirts, long hair in shimmering waves and boldly bared breasts. They lived only a mile from the manor. One of their household had stumbled upon a sentry.
“We came to see the warriors.” Said the older of the pair. Her dialect was unfamiliar but the others still understood. “You have conquered the outlanders.”
All the men laughed.
“We took an old man prisoner.” Said Teramē, a grizzled fellow.
“Oh?” Said the younger woman. By the length of her hair, she was yet a maiden or at least unwed. “Was there much bloodshed? I had hoped to see a head on a spike.”
There was laughter for that too not because it was funny but because it was fetching and innocent. All the men looked to Teramē as he had the highest standing. He stood up, tapping his pipe.
“Think I’ll sleep. Early morning for us, men.”
“You should stay and tell me about the war.” Said the maid.
“I would if only you were pretty as my wife.” Said the grizzled man.
Uproarious laughter followed Teramē inside. That was the way to turn down a woman. She flushed burning crimson. When the mirth died down, one of the younger men hiccuped through his mead.
“My wife had me swear not to touch another maid.”
Everyone laughed again and the fellow brayed with them, too drunk for embarrassment. The maiden spoke before the laughter was done, girlishly drawing out her words and tilting her neck.
“But you have fought battles, yes? We heard of slaughter in the north and the great host of the enemy scattered every way. You painted the field red with ruin, yes?”
Indeed, there had been great slaughter. When Shōr rode into Nulinar, the soldiers banded together and offered battle but their horses panicked at the scent of the outlaw-lord’s behemoth—an immense, muscled nightmare hatched from dark legend to stalk the waking world. The enemy host stirred like a kicked anthill when Shōr’s warriors fell upon them. Many of their riders escaped but the foot were massacred. That victory convinced the House of the Golden Dawn to join the outlaw-lord’s banner.
“I was there at the greasy grass.” Said the Liar.
Any man might have boasted to impress a maid but the Liar was always spinning tales from nothing, thus earning the title by which the others openly referred to him. The Nulinarchē were not a subtle people. They still addressed him by his name because he was a decent fellow, other than his needy swagger, and that merited some respect. He said he had climbed down the chasm and up the other side. He bragged of cutting down three robbers in a single brawl. He said he had been caught abed with another man’s wife but had persuaded the fellow it was an honest mistake and he made many other outrageous claims. Even though it had been many seasons since anyone believed a word from his mouth—and he knew it—he persisted in his tales.
“One of the soldiers tried to cut his way free—a giant of a man all in iron, half again as tall as I am.” The Liar continued his fabrication. “I don’t mind saying a man like that frightened me, though the other soldiers were nothing. Still, I couldn’t let him get away, so I thrust with a long spear—the only way to make up for his reach. Pricked him under the knee. Easy kill after that but, if I hadn’t screwed up my courage and gone straight for him, he’d have hewn me for sure.”
The others rolled their eyes but the stars were beginning to bleed through the sky and the moon was not yet up so perhaps the maids did not see. The growing darkness swathed their dresses and drowned their umber hair but their dainty hands, their soft, jeweled throats, their round faces and pale bosoms still shone in the gloom. The warriors felt themselves drawn by the ancient impulse that bends men towards maids like sunflowers toward the sun.
“You’d better run home.” Said Snake-Eyes to the older woman. “Your husband must be fretting.”
“Oh.” She glanced at her bridal ring. “I’ve been widowed two seasons. Father’s looking to get me another husband but you know how hard it is to wait.”
“I’d ravish you right here,” the mountain man grinned, “but we’ve a full moon tonight.”
“What?” A wailing-look spasmed over the faces of both women.
The widow recovered first. “It is not! You wicked creature, mocking me like that! Not that I care about the moon. We didn’t come here to open our legs and I wouldn’t share a bed with a man with eyes unlucky as yours anyway. And you’re too short.”
“You’re not wrong to fear me.” He stared at her like a serpent at a mouse, if a serpent smiled. “I’ve the old power. I can do things. Maybe I’ll make you groan and then steal the memory so you never know it happened. Maybe I already have.”
“Can you do that?” She hesitated. “Show me some magic right now.”
“Certainly. Come along. It’s not for the others to see.” He led her into the manor.
“Can he really do magic?” The maiden spoke up as soon as the door shut. “I can but I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
Before long, one of the men led her away and the others turned in to sleep. The next day, he claimed she came to him a maiden. By then, they were well on their way. Two of them had turned back to march the captives with as much plunder as they could carry back to the House of the Golden Dawn. They sold everything else in the manor to the household of the two maids for a promise. The younger one cried when they left. Youthful love took root quickly.
By dusk, the warriors reached the end of the wood. They waited a day for the rest of Shōr’s army. Five thousand fighting men followed him out of the trees. The outlaw-lord was not young but he was not so old as to have lost his strength. He wore a breastplate of burnished gold and a helmet plumed with purple. His greaves and bracers gleamed with strange sigils. He rode a loping, ebon monster bigger than a bison, with a wrinkled, hairless hide and a fiery mane that streamed around its wedged head like a comet. Its fangs glistened with saliva. Shōr’s men chained the beast to the earth with two hammered pegs. It panted and glowered with an uncanny malevolence, always fixing its slavering gaze on someone or another.
“Where did he get that?” Bol asked the handlers.
“In the Ūmbaash, far from Nulinar.” They replied. “Our lord returns to win back this land with fury. Watch us feed the behemoth, rabble-man.”
A string of foreign captives trailed along with the army—taken at the greasy grass. These were soldiers, not farmers caught unaware at their manor, but their uniforms were dirty and their bearded faces weary. Some of the Nulinarchē seized one, stripped him naked and beat him bloody. They carried his limp form near to the monster but they did not care to get too close. They swung the soldier by his arms and legs and heaved him to the dirt. The beast’s heavy jaws crunched through the man’s skull. Bol heard the bone shatter. Bite by bite, it ate him up entirely. The handlers stripped and beat another captive.
“You have to clobber them senseless.” One explained. “If you don’t, they’ll run and then that thing will break loose to give chase and everyone will scatter and it’s a cat’s tangle who the monster will catch. Happened the first time we tried to feed it a captive.”
Fires blossomed all across the camp. Many of the men found brothers from their boyhood before they wed into their wives’ houses. There were glad reunions with shouts and kisses. Others sharpened their swords or feasted. Songs of war and slaughter resounded across the field. The warriors were mostly ridmōrī of the household brotherhoods, but there were also rabble-men like Bol and even armed slaves—squires and shield-bearers. A throng of camp-followers sold supplies, tended laundry and otherwise helped with the menial tasks.
Kimil discovered his near-brother who dwelt in the House of Lamentations. Their loud exclamations drew Bol, Snake-Eyes and a fellow from the House of the Golden Dawn whom the others called the Mistake. Bol was only a hired hand, so he would not have presumed to call a proper ridmōr by such an insulting title but he knew how the fellow had earned it. The Mistake was a coward. He hid in the shadow of braver men. If he thought a maid pretty, he would not say so openly. Instead he would say “Kimil thinks she’s pretty.” At feasts, he looked to see what others took before filling his trencher. When he bullied the slaves, even that was somehow fawning. Therefore, the other ridmōrī regretted allowing him to marry into their fellowship.
Kimil and his near-brother boomed with merriment, kissing and hitting each other. Their faces danced with glee. They swapped stories of the war, where Kimil told the merry tale of despoiling a foreign woman. He was quite pleased the captive had been sent back to his house. His wife had been rather catty and a bit of jealousy would be good for her. Bol and Snake-Eyes ribbed him with comments about the outsider woman’s hairiness and tiny tits. Kimil only laughed. Naturally his wife would take out her ire on the new slave but what was that to him?
Kimil’s near-brother had fought at the greasy grass. He had a soldier’s iron sword to prove it—simple, straight and sharp. He let the Mistake give it a few swings but Snake-Eyes flinched away from it.
“After I rolled the widow,” he said, “we found an iron bound chest under the bed. I had thought there was something wrong with the girl but when we threw the chest into the hall, I enjoyed her much better. Don’t know how you can stand that.”
“It’s different for maids but I’ve never heard of a man who can’t abide iron.” Bol was puzzled but the Mistake took the admission for weakness.
“You sure you got something between your legs, friend?”
“Ask the widow.” Snake-Eye’s contempt stood out plainly on his face. He had the measure of the Mistake. “I can still hear her begging for more but I recall you spent the other night alone. I might marry her when this is over. More than a few mice been down that hole but there won’t be any more when the serpent moves in.”
“By the island!” Bol exclaimed. “I don’t doubt you can tame her but where does a maid find enough men to make a slut of herself in this wilderness?”
Someone brought out a wineskin and they all sipped. Then they slapped their thighs and sang a hymn rich with the glory of violence. One man from the House of Lamentations was served by a foreign boy of ten summers. Kimil put his arm around Bol’s shoulder. His breath reeked of wine.
“Ho!” He called out. “What’s with the outlander lad?”
A shadow settled on the men from the House of Lamentations and their countenance fell. The man with the boy glared and both withdrew to a tent. The newcomers were baffled. Kimil’s near-brother stirred the fire with a long stick. He spoke without looking up.
“We’re not sure. That’s Skūl. He… How can I say it? He makes a woman of the boy.” He saw their bewilderment. “Ai! He pretends the boy is a maid. Skūl was a servant of the soldiers when he was himself a child. He says he learned this thing from them.”
The others glanced at each other. None wanted to risk ridicule by admitting he did not understand but the explanation meant nothing. A boy was not a girl. A fellow abed with an ugly girl could pretend she was pretty but no amount of make-believe could give a boy tits or a slit. Moreover, even if he were a girl, which he plainly was not, the outsider child would have been much too young for anyone to think of that way. In the baking summers of Nulinar, young children, girls included, sometimes ran around naked and no one thought anything of it. There was nothing carnal about childhood. Everyone expected rabble to be a little dull, so Bol dared ask for clearer explanation.
“Nobody can mistake this boy for a maid. Why does Skūl pretend?”
Kimil’s near-brother winced. “Not like that. You know how a lecherous fellow with no woman might defile himself? Skūl defiles himself like that but on the boy. We don’t understand it. He has a wife and he does his duty to her.”
The campfire hissed in the silence. From the other fires drifted the tumult of the multitude feasting. The Mistake scuttled away. For a people as garrulous as the Nulinarchē, the long lull in the conversation grated on their senses. An almost physical itch ran over their spines but no one knew what to say. Suddenly, Snake-Eyes stood, hefted a broad-bladed spear, strode to the tent, pulled the flap aside and slammed the spear down through Skūl’s back, pinning both him and the outsider boy to the earth. Skūl twitched and his mouth foamed. Snake-Eyes pulled the spear out, kicked his victim face up and rammed the spear through his neck. He turned back with defiant savagery written plain upon his features and his eyes aflame. Then he stalked away.
“We should have done that ourselves.” Said Kimil’s near-brother. “Now we must avenge his blood on the men of the mountain.”
No house would respect them if they left such an attack unavenged. Weakness invited destruction. There was no question of keeping the matter private. The Nulinarchē loved gossip too much to keep secrets. If they swore those present to silence, there would still be all kinds of tales concerning Skūl’s murder which the House of Lamentations must answer.
Bol sought out the murderer. None of the men from the House of the Golden Dawn had seen him, so he inquired of strangers. He went from fire to fire, asking if anyone had seen a fellow with red eyes. Most said they had never heard of a man with such a visage but after a while someone pointed the way. Snake-Eyes sat alone under a green-bark tree. He faced the other way but he spoke up nonetheless at Bol’s approach.
“Tell me, rabble-man, do you hate the outsiders?”
Bol sat beside the mountain man and squeezed his hand.
“I want to feel the life of my fallen foe oozing out with the sticky blood. I want to heap their skulls. I want to dash their sons against the rock and gives their manors to the fire. I’m a shepherd and a servant, mountain man, and it would mean a lot to be a warrior and a free man. Nothing to do with hate. Now you tell me. Does it feel good to kill?”
“Yes.” He wrenched his hand free. “Yes it does. Sweeter than rolling a maid but bitter all the same. That fool wasn’t the first to die by my hand and he won’t be the last. I’m the last!” He cried out. “I’m the last man of Nulinar.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. “You lot and your babbling talk of outsiders. None of you know! You don’t remember who you are and where you came from. We remembered on the mountain. We were not your brothers.”
“I’m sorry.” Said Bol. The other man’s ferocity surprised him. “I’ve not much wisdom.”
The ridmōrī—the warrior-brotherhoods—memorized the old tales. They gained honor by reciting them in their hall of stories. Bol had listened to some there and heard others from his mother and father but he had learned from curiosity instead of obligation and he was none too curious.
“You are not my brother.” Snake-Eyes’ face contorted. “Your forefathers brought the sharp bronze to this land and slew my forefathers. They took my weeping foremothers to wife and then, as if conquering us out were not enough, you forgot us! Dust on the wind. We on the mountain were the last of the pure blood. Do you wonder that I so brashly thrust a spear through that vile man in the tent? Now my house must feud with the House of Lamentations, mustn’t it?” He spread his hands wide. “My house is extinct. We waged war and we lost. They rooted us out utterly.”
“The outsiders?” Bol asked.
“Yes but not only them. They had allies among your race. Shōr’s father. The lord of this host. Your shining hero who drives the hateful outlanders before him. So brave. So proud. His house crushed mine and now that we are no more he makes beautiful speeches about driving out those who do not belong in this land. May the island take him!”
Bol knew it would not. The outsiders had defeated even the island, whose shadow had lain heavy upon Nulinar for uncounted generations. He pitied Snake-Eyes—this man shaking and swathed in tears. Even his curses were empty. Bol found himself weeping with the other man—light tears of condolence, not the heavy drops of woe, but they flowed from the heart all the same.
“If we share the same foremothers, then we are half brothers and that is something.” He said at last. “Do you mean to murder Shōr?” The mountaineer nodded. “The House of the Golden Dawn has been kind to you, Snake-Eyes. Don’t repay them this way. Shōr is the heart of this army. He is the heart of the war. Don’t get us all killed, friend.”
“He destroyed my family. He ruined my house. He swept my race away as if we were no more than insects under his feet!” The mountain man’s shouts echoed across the camp but no one paid any heed amidst the general uproar.
“A man is not his father. Besides, your line is not extinct. You remain. Go back to the wood. Not at the end of the war. Go now. Take that willing widow to wife and get her great with child. Or take another maid, if you prefer. Sire sons and tell them the things we others have forgotten. Go with the dawn and I’ll spread a rumor of your going some other way. Go, last son of a fallen race, and honor your forefathers.”
Snake-Eyes dried his face. He laughed and his countenance shone in the starlight.
“The others favor you, rabble-man. If some of them perish in the war, ask to marry one of the widows. I wager they’ll admit you to their company. Rabble no more, eh?” He took a step and turned back. “Remember me by this.” He removed his necklace.
“I will remember.” The rabble-man fastened the corded amber around his neck and they parted ways with a kiss.
It was a good thought. To belong to a house—to have a proper wife of the blood and spear-brothers to guard his back—that was far more honorable than his present life. He would eat better and dress more richly. He would walk with his head high. Why not? A man could show his worth in war.
The Nulinarchē marched all through the next day. Hundreds more from farms and holdfasts joined the host. These were men of the east from the plains about Naralkū and the sheer slopes of the Met Tasis. There was more metal worked within the walls of Naralkū than all the rest of Nulinar together. Its warriors wore long kilts, gilded armbands, anklets, rings of copper and rings of bronze, torcs and ornaments strung from their wide belts. They wore earrings, not the wide hoops of women but simple studs. Their noses and their nipples were likewise pierced. They grew their hair long and bound it into tails. Unless they spoke very slowly, no one could make any sense of their speech. Shōr praised them, for they brought many bright blades and sharp axes.
Halfway through the following afternoon, the road ran through a narrow cleft between two steep hills. There the Iron Army stood waiting in close ranks. Their uniforms were black, their armor dull, their bearded faces somber and still. Only their pale eyes gleamed. They brought no cavalry to the field. Their flags hung limp under a cloudless sky. They uttered no words.
Shōr blew four blasts on his bison horn. Other horns sounded the response. The clamor echoed across the field and up the hill where the outlanders waited with cold stares. Shōr’s heralds rode their chariots down the column, bellowing out commands. The lords and chieftains repeated these commands to their men and the household bands moved to take their positions. All the host chanted Shōr’s name—six thousand tongues with one voice. The heralds had to shout into the faces of the lords to make themselves heard and the lords could only beckon to their followers. Some advanced into the wrong position but, gradually, a battle line sprung up, wide and deep.
Shōr again sounded his horn and the chanting tapered off. On the left flank, Bol strained to hear his words but could catch nothing over half the warriors murmuring. He was not even sure whether the great lord addressed the men or whether he spoke to his heralds. The outlaw-lord was plainly visible astride the behemoth in the center of the line.
The House of the Golden Dawn readied itself for battle. The Mistake was pale. His white knuckles clung to his spear shaft. He hefted a heavy ox-hide shield. He wore a helmet and a cuirass of bronze. Kimil grinned and darted looks at everyone else. The Liar bragged about various foes he had supposedly slain in the past. Teramē reminded the men to stab around the enemy armor at the weak spots of the neck and under the arm.
“Here’s not your place, boy.” He cuffed Bol. “Move up through those boulders on the slope and start pelting those uncircumcised dogs. Lucky day for slingers. They won’t be loosing arrows on you with us moving up on them six to one.”
“Save a little loot for me.” Bol bowed and hurried away.
He advanced with the other skirmishers. The army began to sing in parts, with the chiefs calling for glory and the warriors thundering the response. Bol had never heard such a roar, save in a storm when the lightning smote nearby. His skin tingled. This was the proving ground. Even a rabble-man could be a warrior, if he had heart. Here he could spill the blood of the foe. Here he could kill. Here he could prove his worth. He itched for another massacre.
Shōr’s host advanced at a walk but Bol was well ahead of them. The foreigners raised their diamond shaped shields all at once. Their front rank kneeled and lowered their crossbows, loosing a shower of bolts. Like a dark hail, these rained down upon Shōr and his behemoth. The soldiers passed their crossbows back and those in the farther ranks passed up their own cranked weapons. Every soldier loosed against Shōr, ignoring the host at his side. Hundreds of bolts followed hundreds more. The lord of the Nulinarchē wore the finest armor but Bol did not pause to see how he weathered the onslaught.
The skirmishers who carried flintlocks opened fire. The rest had never heard gunfire. The weapons were heirloom pieces of lovely polished wood and gleaming bronze banded by copper. Even in the time of their grandfathers, there had been no blackpowder in Nulinar. The dwarves had stopped selling it when men turned the weapons against them. No one else had ever mined deep enough to find the powder. There had been talk around camp of Shōr persuading the dwarves to sell again. Bol wondered how the conqueror had found dwarves. If there were any left in the land, he did not know where, but Shōr had wandered far from Nulinar.
The archers loosed their arrows but few pierced the soldiers’ heavy armor. Bol clambered atop a boulder taller than his head and produced a smooth pebble from his pouch. His sling whirled over his head and the stone arced through the air. He did not look to see whether it hit. That would be hard to tell with the tight enemy formation. Besides, he had to keep slinging. Fighters flinching away from darts could be easily swept aside before a charging foe.
With an unearthly croak, Shōr’s behemoth loped in a half circle and plunged through the host of the Nulinarchē. Dozens of black bolts feathered its hide. Even from afar, Shōr barely seemed to cling to the beast. It smashed aside warriors with its fierce bulk and trod them under its paws. It burst through the mass of men and lumbered away. Without faltering, Teramē sounded his horn and charged up the hill. The host of the Nulinarchē followed. They were very close.
The enemy formed into a series of wedges. They were packed shoulder to shoulder. In unison, they drew their short straight swords. Mere yards from the Nulinarchē, the soldiers charged.
Bol could not risk slinging into his friends and so he saw everything. The enemy whittled through the rebellious host like a saw through a rotted log. The wedges of armed men crushed deep into the press. The warriors of Nulinar could not fall back because of the men behind them and they could not properly wield their spears—unable to swing swords and axes in such close confines. Many were simply trampled under the enemy’s mass. Hundreds fell. Thousands fell. The host reeled and shattered and quaking men fled before the cold might of the Iron Army.
The soldiers broke their formation to pursue. The Nulinarchē threw down their shields and arms. There was no time to tear off weighty cuirasses and greaves but many were not thus encumbered and they easily fled the vengeful conquerers. The slow were cut down from behind. The soldiers untied their horses, which had been picketed behind the crest of the hill lest they scatter before the behemoth. Thus mounted, they began to run down those who scattered before them.
Atop the boulder, Bol snarled. The other skirmishers had fled. He screamed at them for cowards. If the men rallied, they would still outnumber the soldiers two or three to one. The enemy was stronger in formation but he had dispersed to pursue. He would be easy prey if only the warriors would rally. It was all clear from the boulder.
Bol leapt and charged the dead, rushing past the soldiers. His sling cracked and a dark faced foe toppled. Even through the narrow gap of his angular face plates, the man’s grim visage frowned. The Nulinarchē dead lay strewn across the hill side. There were strangers and men he knew. There lay Kimil. There lay the Liar. Four gory wounds marred the Mistake. Blood caked Teramē’s brow. Bol grabbed the chief’s horn and put it to his lips.
A bolt punched into his bare chest. The horn slipped from his fingers. He stumbled to his knees. There was no breath in his lungs. He could not utter a single word. The world spun with a merry drunkenness. Down the hill, across the plain, his warriors, his brothers, fled and died. He smiled and blood dribbled from his mouth.
A soldier stood before him. The outlander removed his helmet. Another darkly bearded face with eyes like ice. The soldier blinked and said something in his slurred foreign tongue. Bol stared. The other man sighed. He put his sword tip to Bol’s neck and tapped his chin with the naked blade. The rabble-man understood the question. He shook his head. A biting pain seared his chest but he wanted to savor his bravery. The others had run but he had stood. Even as life slipped away, that filled him with a savage happiness.
The soldier sheathed his sword. With spasming fingers, Bol untied his necklace. The amber fragments shimmered. He presented it to the other man who took it with a look of puzzlement. He was an outsider but he too was a warrior and he would remember Bol’s courage this day. The blood oozed down his chin and he smiled in death.