Somewhere, blood flows black in the land called...
by Erin Halfelven
Chapter 19 - Blood and Darkness
In the dying light of the brightstone road, they rode out of the mist and rain and darkness: four burly men on horseback with loaded crossbows. At a range of maybe thirty feet, they fired their bows. One round seemed to skip off Rotgar’s helmet and another buried itself in Valto’s little round shield. A third bolt swept Zenner right out of the saddle and the fourth went wide.
I had the Glock in my hand pointed at them already; I shot the first attacker, the noise seeming ten times as loud as it ever sounded on the range. I changed my aim to the second and fired again. I didn’t miss that time either. The light was poor and the target in motion but I had no doubt that I had hit what I aimed at because both men disappeared, knocked off their horses by the shock of the 9mm rounds.
Then we were past them before I could shoot again. The Gray did a little hop over one of the bodies, and I heard him whuff as he and I saw that the bandit footmen had reached the road, blocking his path. Some of them had bows and others had polearms, things like spears or axes on the ends of ten feet of hardwood.
Arrows flew past me; we were ahead of where they had thought we would be and the noise of gunfire may have spoiled their aim.
I shot three more times and saw my bullets hit flesh at least twice as we charged among them. The pole arms were brushed aside by our horses’ bulk though I had to duck one that that swung at me like a baseball bat. I shot the wielder in the face, making four or five men I had likely killed in less than a minute. The sickness in my stomach made me grab the silver-dark mane in front of me as The Gray gathered himself for a jump. I had lost the reins but the horse knew his own mind.
The Gray lifted me without a command and we flew over a pile of rubble and branches and hit the pavement, still running. Despite the wet stones, The Gray was as sure-footed as if it had landed on desert hardpan. I had one hand buried in horse hair while the other clutched the little pistol to my middle.
Zenner had warned that the bandits might have put roadblocks out to slow us down. Zenner. I had seen him fall. He’d been sent by Alenna’s mother to take me to her. I didn’t like him much but he was one of our company and a man I felt I could trust. I had taken his oath to serve me until we reached Lundenna and a thing like that cut both ways.
I turned a bit to look back and saw Lillakatye’s Naysayer take the jump, saddle empty.
“Fuck!” I screamed in English.
Ahead of me, Rotgar and Valto’s mounts slowed, stopped and turned, and again without a command from me, so did The Gray.
We three looked back, no one on horses followed us but a knot of men with those long weapons mobbed something in the middle of the road.
I looked at Alenna’s brother and my so-called bodyguard. I waved the little Glock in the air and pointed, yelling I-don’t-know-what. It tore at my throat so it must have been Bloddish. The three of us charged back the way we had come, Rotgar shouting, “Blut und murther! Proits! Moleena und Proits!” Valto’s cry was a wordless wail that made me think of a panther. The horses added screams to our own.
I kept shouting and later realized that I had used radio code, “Officer Down! Ten-Twenty-Four! All units respond! Ten-Double Zero! Double-Zero! Double-Zero! Double-Zero!”
The Gray took the leap across the barricade as easily going back as he had the first time and as soon as I had control of my seat, I pulled the Glock up to fire again.
But the bad guys were running and riding away into the darkness. I fired once, over their heads just for effect. I wasn’t sure if that left me any rounds in this clip, I had lost count.
Lillakatye stood over two bodies, holding her axe in both hands. Her spear stood upright in the body of another attacker at the side of the road. Cortle, one of our hired swords stood at her back facing outward.
Rotgar and Valto pursued the bandits a short way just for encouragement but quickly returned. Valto had thrown away his little target shield with the crossbow bolt through it and his arm was bleeding.
I slipped, not to say fell, off the back of The Gray and scrambled to my knees beside Lillakatye; one of the bodies lying under her protection was Kilda, my servant, Alenna’s servant. I didn’t know I was crying until Kilda reached up from where she lay and took my hand, not the one still holding the Glock.
“My pony would not take the jump. I fell off,” she said simply. I pulled her hand to my face and kissed it. “I’m all right,” she insisted. “Just got the wind knocked out of me.”
Lillakatye dropped her axe and knelt beside the other body, Zenner. “I’ve got to get the bleeding stopped or we’ll lose him,” she said. I saw a crossbow bolt standing out of his leather coat. Or rather, half a bolt, the back half. The rest of it must be inside him and blood pulsed from the wound in tired, black surges.
Rotgar rode up beside me. “Are you well?” he demanded. He leaped from the back of Froggie and landed with a tump like his boots were full of concrete.
“Genow!” I said. Well enough. I felt breath at my neck and looked around to see Honey, my own pony, come to see if I were all right, too. The Gray stood behind her, facing out, teeth bared, acting like a big guard dog. Behind Lillakatye, her Naysayer did the same, guarding our other flank.
Lang, the missing hiresword, limped up about then. “That scorpion bolt killed my horse,” he said. “And the pack animals have scattered.”
“I…” I began but the world turned dim around the edges and I sat back on my heels in the road to keep from falling. If Honey had not nosed me in the back, I might have fallen over.
Tiny blue lights as bright as LEDs sparked around Lillakatye’s hands as she pulled the quarrel from Zenner’s side. “Freyja den Vana!” she cried. “Tiw-Waz guard him! Baldur shine on him!”
I still had my hand in Kilda’s and felt her flinch to hear Tiw-Waz and Baldur in the same prayer. But I noticed that the warwife had mentioned Freyja the Just first.
Zenner coughed and complained. “Ay! Mierda!” Sometimes I heard his Remish as Spanish; I supposed that they might be more similar than English and Bloddish were.
Lillakatye chuckled. “You’ll live to pray to your own gods.” She helped him sit up. He lifted his coat and tunic to look at where he had been shot but the dim light from below didn’t show much. Lillakatye traced an outline with a finger, then poked him to see if he flinched.
“That almost tickled,” he said with a bit of wonder. “I saw you leave your horse, even before I hit the ground. I thought you had been shot, too.”
I tried not to think about what I had seen, blue sparks leaping from Lillakatye’s fingers to the wound and blood no longer flowing. I had felt something when she did that, like a current moving around you when you stand in a stream. Lillakatye had magic, too. Was that more evidence that she was a world-jumper like me? Even more, I suspected the tall warwife of not being of this world, anymore than I was.
Rotgar, Lang and Cortle gathered horses and checked bodies to make sure no one was shamming death. The bandits must have carried away their wounded if there had been any. Despite Lang’s mount being killed, we ended up with a horse for him, one that had belonged to the bandits. The packhorses and Zenner’s mount returned on their own, and Kilda’s Little Stick who had balked at making a jump in the darkness showed up, too.
I wanted to cry that we were all together and all safe. The guys were laughing and shouting and pounding each other on the back, even Zenner got up from the ground and joined in. I knelt between Kilda and Lillakatye and we grinned at each other. “Nobbenir,” said Lilla as she had done before. “Boys,” it meant, implying all boys are alike.
We counted dead bodies. Lillakatye had killed one each with her spear and her axe. Rotgar had killed two more and Valto, one. Lang and Cortle had taken down another, together.
And there were five bodies with holes burned and blasted into chests and heads and faces. Dunnar’s lightning added to rounds from my Glock.
“The women have outdone us,” said Rotgar, smiling. “Seven to four.”
“Deadlier of the kind,” said Lilla.
Valto clambered over the low wall of the road and brought back a twig of some kind. “Laurel,” he said, putting it into my hair. “Laurel for the one who wins in blood.”
“Ave, Victoria,” said Zenner nodding. “You truly do throw thunderbolts from your bell.”
Rotgar grinned wide and saluted me, his arm shooting forward, palm out; like a high-five to no one.
I waved back at him but did not feel at all cheerful or victorious. These people could celebrate killing someone who would have killed them, but I couldn’t do that. Not yet, anyway. I really wanted to go home, back to where I carried a gun but did not use it.
* * *
It rained on us as we mounted up and got moving. Ever gloomy, the weather did its best to dampen our spirits. By the time we reached the next weghus, the last before the city, the light from the magic road had faded completely and we rode up to the gate in complete darkness guided only by the preternatural eyesight of the The Black and The Gray and a dim glow near the wall. Even my moonsight failed us for I could not summon it at will, apparently. Fortunately, the gate itself had one of those rain-proof firebowls beside it, and that lit the area up sufficiently for most purposes.
The guards wanted us to spend the night outside the gate, but an extra groat or two got us inside after a brief inspection. The guard who got near me dodged back when The Gray snapped at him. “He’s a little ballsy because we got attacked by thieves on the road,” I said. Ballsy? I meant “testy” but the translation into Bloddish made it sound ironic when talking about a gelding.
Lilla beside me laughed and the men all chuckled.
“What’s that smell?” the guard asked. “Like storm-air?”
“Never mind being afraid of the horse,” said Rotgar. “The little lady there throws lightning when she’s irked at someone.”
I rolled my eyes, and everyone laughed again but the guards let us inside and I really don’t remember much more of the evening before Kilda slipped into bed beside me under nice warm covers.
Had it only been a day? Yes, my first day as Alenna…. I went to sleep before I could make anything more of that thought.
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