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Chapter 9: XIAN

The soldier was massive, bigger than any man Xian had seen with his own eyes, or heard tell of outside the tales of the ice giants, who never traveled beyond the range of nightfrost. This must be Kyralla’s special guard, of whom he’d been told.

He wore the ornately etched burnished armor of the Elleren army, and wielded an officer’s greatsword. Ellerema shared the longest border with Vraelon and devoted most of its significant forces to the defense of the wall. In these times of unity through most of Brisira, when the only significant threat was the Dark King in Vraelon, there was no cause for an Elleren soldier—an officer, no less—to be so far south as these southern reaches of Greld.

Xian could only think that he was a defector, and thus a man with no honor. Near twice the Rider’s size, armored in iron from helm to boot while she wore only hard leather on her chest, he would crush her in his spiked gauntlet, unless she used her magic.

Magic she couldn’t reveal. Magic she was trying to conserve. Xian stood at the inside edge of the circle, holding his axe in his fist, feeling the blood of many guards congeal between his fingers, frantic for the fight and unable to help her. She had accepted single combat with an iron giant.

Together, they brought their swords down. The soldier took a step to the side, and Lea took the same step. They began to circle, keeping distance between them, studying each other.

The soldier feinted, a twitch of his shoulders and sword, and Lea flinched back. Xian saw in that false move the way the soldier would strike, and the shape of his movement when he did. Lea saw it as well, Xian could tell. She feinted, and watched the defensive reaction. The soldier grunted as he jerked back, a strange metallic edge on the sound from inside his helm.

He feinted again, and attacked immediately after, hoping to catch her back on her heels. The crowd gasped, and Xian nearly stepped forward in alarm. But she spun away, swinging her sword as she faced the soldier again, aimed at the join of his armor at the waist. He ducked, and the point of her blade screeched across his iron belly.

Neither yet drawing first blood, again they circled each other. Xian found himself moving in place, his shoulders heaving and his feet shuffling, ghosts of the movements of the Rider’s fight.

The soldier made a charge, swinging for the Rider’s head. She ducked, dropped, and went for his leg as she rolled, but he leapt out of range just in time. The one advantage leather armor had over plate was agility. Speed and flexibility. The Rider was back on her feet and making her first charge before the soldier had fully turned around, and he barely blocked a blow aimed at the elbow joint of his dominant arm.

The greatsword was a two-handed weapon, the soldier’s defense as well as his attack. The Rider fought with her plain Saapian longsword, which would also have been a two-handed weapon for most other women. But she was tall and strong and wielded it ably in one hand. She carried a shield as well, an unadorned round of Maerlish onyxwood. Until this day, Xian had not seen her carry it. It had hung on her saddle for the whole of their journey and been locked in the stable with her horse’s tack and the bulk of her gear. It had seemed almost inconsequential to her, but she carried it now as if it were part of her body, using it to block blows and to give herself momentum in her movements.

The time of feinting and dodging was over; now the soldier and the Rider traded blows and blocks freely, and the clang of steel and the thud of wood resounded on the canyon walls. They fought in torchlight—that carried by the surviving guards and by the people of Haresh, who’d so disappointed Xian by standing idly as watchers while two strangers fought for them. Now that the fight had narrowed to two combatants only while all others looked on, the folk had moved closer, until they were part of the same dense circle around the Rider and the soldier, and their torchlight served to brighten the makeshift arena.

Xian was disgusted with them all, and with himself. Folk who would not fight for their own good, even when great warriors cleared the way for them, were not folk who deserved their own good. If the Rider fell on this night, it would be his fault. He’d brought this plan to her, and it had not been a good one.

The Rider swung again, and again only just missed the vulnerable gap at the soldier’s belly. He grabbed the edge of her shield in his spiked fist and yanked her around, wielding his massive sword with one hand. It weakened his blow, which was the only thing that save her. He missed his mark, only slicing at her side when he’d aimed to cut her through.

But his sword was mighty, and he’d drawn first blood. In moments, it was clear that the wound was significant. Her armor gaped at her side and showed red meat, and blood washed over her breeches, glistening in the torchlight.

She’d made not a sound, and she kept her feet. When the soldier came in again, she turned—Xian knew how that movement in particular must have pained her—putting her back to him, and drove her blade backward and down, driving the point behind the soldier’s knee cop. He roared and went for a head strike, but again the Rider dropped beneath the blow, and she drew her blade free. His momentum forced him to twist on the damaged leg, and he faltered and almost went down. The crowd began to cheer, as if they were truly at an arena and this were all for their entertainment and not their salvation.

She took advantage of his stumble to attack again, striking again at his weakened knee as he tried to steady it. She drew her blade across the unprotected crease behind the joint. His roar of pain drowned in the shouts of the crowd as her blade returned to her with fresh blood.

The tales of the Rider Xian had heard for so many turnings had not done her justice. She was more than powerful, more than righteous. She was cunning as well. Even if she’d done as she’d told him she had in the past, and used magic on herself to swell her strength, she remained dramatically smaller than this soldier, and her blade was half the length and heft of his. A foe so large and powerful could not be defeated by a mere exchange of blows. First he had to be brought down. She had to work against his strengths.

The crowd groaned when the soldier blocked the Rider’s next blow and came to his feet. He attacked at once, and she blocked it at her head. Xian seemed to feel the great blow against her shield in his own hands and arms. When the soldier stepped back for another huge swing—Xian saw his knee buckling and his fight to steady it—the Rider ran backward. Xian groaned aloud, thinking she’d made a devastating error and had given him enough room to power a killing blow. But when the solider swung his sword to make that blow, at precisely the point at which he could no longer check the swing, the Rider dropped her shield, dived toward him, to her knees, bowed her head, and shoved her sword straight up with both hands.

Xian had never seen a move quite like it. Her blade went through the soldier’s armor at the elbow joint; to achieve that hit, her timing could not have been anything short of perfect. When she pulled her blade out, she gave it a turn and a twist, and the soldier’s forearm dropped from his body. It didn’t know yet that its work was done, and the hand clung to the blade, dragging it from the soldier’s remaining intact hand.

Blood sprayed like a font, washing over the nearest witnesses as the soldier spun in roaring shock and pain. The Rider grabbed up his sword, tossing the arm away. She found Xian in the circle and heaved the greatsword at him. He caught it in his free hand, and marveled at the weight of the thing.

Not yet ready to concede the fight, the soldier charged at her, turning his blood-spewing arm so that it sprayed her in the face, and leapt at her with a bestial shout. They both slammed to the hard ground, and the soldier bashed his gauntlet into her face. Xian saw a flicker in the Rider’s eyes—she’d been stunned enough to lose control of her glamour. Just as he prepared to defend her from a mob, the spell steadied. She let go of her sword and grabbed the gauntlet in both hands before the soldier could strike her again.

The soldier was so much bigger, so much heavier, in his full suit of iron plate, that the Rider could not dislodge him. All she could do was hold onto that gauntlet until blood loss weakened him enough that he could no longer fight, and she could rid herself of his weight. With his last gasp of powerful will, he dropped his head and crashed his helm into her face, but she held on, to his fist and to the spell that concealed her truth.

Finally, she was able to flip him. She stood, bleeding heavily from her side and her face, her eyes swelling, and picked up her sword.

The soldier yet attempted to rise, but each try was weaker than the one before. The blood no longer sprayed from his arm; now it pulsed in a steady but slowing rush. The Rider took his helm in her free hand and yanked it off, exposing the sweat-soaked, tattooed head of an Elleren captain.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I am Dremir,” he gasped. “Once of Ellerema.”

“Do you have people who would welcome word of you, Dremir?”

He stopped struggling to gain his feet and went slack on the ground. “I have no one.”

“If you would take my aid, I will give you the honor of the Elleren end.”

The last dregs of his fight died slowly, but when it did, he nodded. The Rider held out her hand. He took it, and she helped him to his knees. The weight on the one she’d ruined made him groan, but he remained steady.

Turning his head, he scanned the circle of onlookers. “You!” he growled in a voice like a shadow of a battle cry. A rail-thin boy near Mya’s age had pushed in among the guards. With a start, he realized he’d been hailed, and stepped shakily forward.

“Help me get this blasted thing off, ”Dremir grumbled, yanking at his armor with rapidly diminishing strength. Blood pumped from his arm, spilling his life in the dirt.

His fingers trembling, the boy unfastened his breastplate and exposed the soldier’s chest, then scurried back into the throng.

The Rider stood before Dremir, with her sword in both hands.

“May your journey with Ruara be easy, and may the True Gods measure the full weight of your good.” Her eyes locked with the soldier’s, she pressed the point of her sword to his chest, at his heart, and pierced him through. Her eyes did not leave his until his closed, and he sagged forward on her blade.

According to the rules of single combat, the Rider’s defeat of Dremir should have ended the fighting entirely, but the common folk were ignorant of battle and its rules. Seeing Dremir fall, the people of Haresh found their will to fight. The canyon filled with the echoing clamor of shouts, and the people rushed forward. The guards around Xian raised up their polearms, and he was surrounded again by battle. He lost sight of the Rider as he hefted his axe and returned to the sudden fray.

Most townfolk had not brought weapons, or any tools that might be weapons but the torches that lit the night, but they charged in anyway, wielding their torches like bludgeons, setting fire to the guards’ linens as they beat them down. The guards had discovered that broken polearms made better melee weapons, and fought back fiercely and more effectively, using the fangs on their blades to open throats and gouge eyes.

Xian fought forward through the tumult, swinging his axe through body after body, not stopping to be sure of his kills, ducking the rising flames that would soon devastate this water-thirsted place, pushing unarmed townfolk away to take on their opponents himself. Blood washed over his face and filled his mouth as he roared.

A wash of blood normally fed his hunger for battle, but in this moment, divided from the Rider and from his faith in the strength of these folk, he had lost the side of the right. The blood thickened on his face and neck, his hands. It sat on his tongue with weight. Now, he fought only for the Rider, and for Mya. For his own party. His own bond.

He heard the scream of his stag and turned to see the beast fighting off multiple attackers, guard and folk alike. The battle was losing its purpose entirely, becoming a riot instead. He whistled the call to retreat, pushing enough air into the sound so that it would carry to the beast, who heeded him at once. He rose up on his hindquarters with a wild, kicking flourish, charged and tossed his attackers away, and then fled toward the city gates. Xian sent out a good wish that he would find his mount safe and well at the stables.

The Rider’s horse—Aradros, she’d honored Xian with the steed’s name—fought in the fray across the canyon, wounded but not mortally, because she’d shielded him with her magic. He stormed in the midst of the crowd, trampling guards. So many more guards than the two score they’d expected. The whole force had come out.

Where was the Rider? She had fought hard already and was badly injured. In her black armor, with her tall stature, Xian should have been able to see her, even in this melee, but he could not. No—there she was. Aradros had blocked her from his view—her horse fought at her side. Protecting her.

Even from this distance in the fiery night, with fighting thick between him, Xian could see how badly she was hurt. But she fought on.

Too far to offer her his aid, Xian returned his attention to the fight before him. This must end soon, and decisively, or Haresh would eat itself alive and burn itself to the ground on this night.

A piercing shriek cut the battle thunder, and he looked up just in time to block a polearm from his head, borne by a woman who’d used a pile of bodies to leap above him. Her polearm was long, and he didn’t try to break it and give her a better melee weapon. Instead, with the handle of his axe crossed with the polearm, he shifted position, slid the handle of his axe up to the blade of her weapon, so his axe head’s great blade hooked with the fang of the polearm. Then, yanking his arms back, close to his body, he spun.

The move snatched the polearm from the guard’s hands, and the force of his spin cast it away and carried him and his axe around so that he could swing his blade through her middle. He felt the impact of her spine against the iron, but it hardly slowed his arc.

The blow was so clean that at first she simply went still, blinking, and he had a moment to wonder if he’d somehow missed. Then she reached for her weapon, and her top half slid sideways. She fell, her two halves twisting in opposite directions, almost wholly cleaved. Both halves pulsed blood and viscera onto the ground at his feet.

He stepped over her parts and moved on.

The fight was waning at last; only a few guards fought on, outnumbered now by townfolk who’d found their steel. The combatants had become so few that others had taken up the cause of the burning fires, pushing through the broken doors of the water center and bringing buckets out to douse the flames.

His axe no longer needed, Xian took up the next part of their plan and ran to the end of the city. He stood before the temple, nearly alone, dripping blood and breathing smoke, and scanned the sights before him. It was darkest back here, with only a few lights in windows to augment the waning glow of the sister moons.

The Rider was supposed to meet him here, but she didn’t come. Though he was worried for her, he didn’t seek her, not yet. They had to strike now and finish this, or it would all be for naught.

The temple, against the back wall of the canyon, the limit of the city, was dark. To one side was the city building, where the business of governing supposedly took place, also dark. To the other side was the Advisor’s home, built into the earthen wall like almost every other building, and taking up three levels, nearly as much as the inn. The window glow came from those windows.

At either side of the Advisor’s door stood two guards, both male, and both in crusted iron chestplates and pauldrons. They bore swords rather than polearms, and they came away from the door, toward Xian, in tandem.

He grinned. Despite the rush and crush of guards in the center of the city, he’d had no chance for a good fight on this night. Water guards wore no armor and were ill-armed for the fight they’d faced, and he’d gone through them like a hot blade through soft cheese. The Rider had faced the only true challenge, and to that, Xian had been merely a witness.

Until now. These guards, armored and strong, and bearing worthy weapons, would give him the fight for which he hungered. He raised his axe and howled.

They came at him both at once, swinging their blades in opposite arcs—a devastating attack if they’d struck true. But Xian dropped low and lay back, and the swords passed over him. He vaulted to standing, and on a spin, dodged out, putting one of the guards between him and the other. In the breath of a moment while they adjusted their attack, he swung his axe and sank it into the neck of the nearest guard. Heartblood sprayed into the air. The guard’s eyes went wide, and he dropped his sword.

“NO!” shouted the other guard.

The blade of Xian’s axe had wedged into the neck of the chestplate, and while he fought to free it, the other guard took the chance to attack. Xian yanked the axe, dragging the dying guard’s body forward, and his fellow’s sword glanced off the chestplate and skidded downward, spraying sparks between them. The thwarted strike caused him to stumble, and Xian freed his axe and shoved the dying guard away.

Now it was one on one. Xian shook the blood from his eyes, and the teeth rattled in his hair. He spun his axe in his hands, taunting the man before him. The guard sidestepped, and Xian matched him, allowing him this moment to circle and regroup. When he seemed reluctant to make another attack, Xian stepped briskly in, feinting, and the guard took a stumbling step back. He was afraid. He knew he died this night.

“Yield, and live,” Xian said in Greldish. “Haresh changes tonight. The hand is already dealt. Drop your sword and live to change with it.”

“My brother lies at your feet. While you live, or I, I won’t drop my sword.”

A battle to avenge a brother was a worthy cause indeed. “Then come,” Xian said, and the guard surmounted his trepidation and came.

He was no Elleren captain, but he fought with the fire of grief and brotherhood, and he gave Xian the challenge he craved. For a brief time, they were like dancers before the Advisor’s door, striking and blocking, but neither yet drawing blood.

The guard, in his heavy plate, began to weary. And each time their dance brought them near his brother’s body, Xian saw grief take another tax.

But the guard sought vengeance, and he fought hard, even as he tired. With a great grunt of effort, he swung his sword strong and true, and Xian threw up his axe with both hands to block it. The clanging impact shook all the way to his shoulders. He heaved with all his might, sending the guard backward, and hefted his axe in attack position again.

In the tradition of Boreld, Xian wore only boiled leather armor, chest and legs; seeing this as his own advantage, the guard came in again, again striking for Xian’s chest, and again, Xian blocked the blow and shoved him away.

This time, though, Xian didn’t let him get distance to make another charging attack. Instead, he spun his axe and swung it low, before the guard could shift his position for a block. The blade of his axe went into the guard’s thigh, and Xian felt it cut into the bone. Greldish guards wore simple linen breeches, and this guard’s leg soaked red at once.

The guard groaned harshly but didn’t lose his feet. He came in again, off-center this time, and Xian easily blocked the blow. He spun and kicked the guard’s wounded leg, driving him to that knee. Xian put his blade to the man’s throat, at the tender meat under his chin and paused there. The guard went still.

“On another night,” Xian said, “I would enjoy a longer fight with you. But there is work yet to be done. So I thank you for the challenge. May you meet your brother on your way to Ruara.” He opened the guard’s throat and stood with him until he fell.

From the mouth of this guard, he pulled a thick tooth. The first he’d felled was dead, and his spirit was already on its way. The second still blinked, slowly, when Xian put his fingers into his mouth and wrenched a tooth free, and was yet vigorous enough to feel the pain and to gurgle a moan.

This was the way of his people and no disrespect to the guard who had given him a good fight. He disrespected the guards he’d felled and walked away from. In the Boreldan way, to claim a part of a body one had defeated in battle was to claim a part of that body’s spirit. To walk away from a body without claiming its spirit was to mark that spirit as unworthy. He paid homage to this one to take, and to wear, his tooth.

Xian stalked forward and kicked in the door to the Advisor’s dwelling, and found her alone. She had sent her personal guard, the one called Dremir, to the fore, thinking, no doubt, that he—and thus she—couldn’t possibly lose.

Now, the woman—round and squat, white-haired and dressed in clothes more fit for the finery of an Elleren ballroom than the daily struggle of Haresh, cowered behind a carved table.

“I am Xian, clanson of Qal. You are Kyralla, are you not?” He knew the answer but gave her the respect of the question. She was still the Advisor of Haresh, and he was a man of honor.

“Get out!” she screeched.

“I mean to, Kyralla. With you. Tonight is your reckoning.” He leapt over the table and landed at her side. She stumbled back, squealing, but he caught her and held his bloody axe at her chest. “I kill you now, or I take you to your people. Mayhap they will let you have your say. Mayhap they will be swayed again to your way.”

“I … I’ll speak.”

“I had no doubt.” He dragged her to the door.

As he brought her forward through the city, to the fight that had all but ended, over and around the broken bodies of fallen guards and townfolk, through the ash and scrap of new ruin, Xian searched for the Rider but didn’t see her. Aradros now stood, panting and bleeding, against the canyon wall, and Xian honed his seeking eyes near him, even on the ground, but didn’t find her. His worry grew. But they had to finish this. Without her, he had to finish this. And collect Mya, make sure she’d stayed safe.

Most of the fires had been doused. Bodies had died in flame, several tents had been destroyed, and the acrid bite of smoke filled the air, but the tide of the fight had turned before the city had been wholly captured by fire.

Xian led Kyralla to the front of the water center. He forced her to her knees before the people she’d so harshly abused, and called out in his strongest voice, “People of Haresh! Tonight the water is yours! Tonight the city is yours! Kyralla kneels now before you, prepared to make herself subject to your will! Will you hear her?”

“No!” said a heavy male voice. It was close, and Xian turned toward it. The baker, who’d first explained the ways of Kyralla to him. “She deserves no voice! She deserves the fate she’s dealt to so many to make us fear our own home!”

“I agree!” a reedy female voice rang out, and the slender woman who’d given him the scraps for Mya’s throat piece—he’d meant it to be a bracelet but he’d made it too long—stepped forward. She was coated in blood from her hair to her knees. “She should have the fate she deserves, but not by a mob. She should be tried and sentenced, and we should rebuild Haresh into a city that holds its folk in gentle hands.”

A rumble of crossing voices erupted. Finally one—a woman’s—called over the din, “Where is the Rider? She bested Dremir and saved us! She should decide!”

A question Xian very much wanted to answer. His chest throbbed with worry.

“She wants no acclaim!” another female voice answered. “She rides into the night when the work is done.”

“But her warrior stands here!” a man pointed out. “And her great horse!”

Xian bristled at being named her warrior, but held his tongue. She was the one of legend, not he.

“May I speak?” Kyralla tried to shout.

The baker stepped forward and came all the way to Xian and Kyralla. “No, you may not.” He punched the Advisor in the face. Xian heard the bones crunch and lifted his axe in self-defense when Kyralla slumped to the ground.

The baker put up his hands. “I have no fight with you, good friend. You are a hero on this night as well. The Rider was bled hard. Go find her. Now Haresh will make of itself what it will. Your work is done, and we thank you for it.”

Xian nodded and hurried toward the head of the city. The people made way for him, bowing their heads as he ran past. He had to collect Mya. Whatever he faced to find the Rider, he couldn’t leave the girl on her own any longer.

A hand grabbed his arm, and he spun to it, ready to strike. It was the innkeep, Calmarra. She reeled back. “Warrior, please!”

He lowered his axe. “What is it?”

“You have the room tonight. The Rider is hurt, we all saw it, and she’ll need care. I’ll bring the healer, and have good food and drink brought to you all.” She looked around and dropped her voice, though the clamor of the crowd in this walled gash of a city made the act unnecessary. “Dolcella has the girl.”

What?” His axe came up again, and she flinched.

“Dolcella—the one who plays Mercenarium every day. I saw you speak with her. She has your girl, safe in your room. She was running toward the fight, and we stopped her from the peril.”

He didn’t thank the innkeep; first, he would see that she was true. So he changed course, ran instead up the stairs in the wall, to their room, and burst in.

The pretty woman he’d bantered with a few times sat on the bed. Mya sat with her, curled under her arm. When she saw Xian, she scrambled from the bed and leapt into his arms. “You’re here!”

He held her close. “And so are you. I told you to stay hidden.”

“The tents burned. I had to run.”

They’d meant to keep her from the fray, but the fray had run far from their control. “I’m sorry, sweetling.” She was too innocent to travel long with two warriors.

She put her hand on his face and pulled it back bloody. “Are you hurt?”

“No. The blood is not mine.” He’d received hardly more than a scratch all through the night.

“Where is the Rider?”

“I’m going to look for her. First, I wanted to be sure you were safe.”

“I am. Dolcella is keeping me safe.”

He looked at the woman. “My thanks to you. Will you do so for a bit longer?”

“Aya. It is my honor.” She tipped her head.

Xian pushed Mya back. “I have to go. I’ll be back with the Rider soon, and all will be well. No more excitement for you tonight. Get some rest.”

She hugged him again before she let him go.

to be continued …

©2018 Susan Fanetti

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