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Chapter 17 - Brawling Down Market Street

"They say you can meet the strangest people at the market," Art mused out loud. "Though I have to say, this wasn't what I had in mind."

The two sisters seemed to have shaken themselves out of their surprise because the next moment they had charged around the corner into Grains Street, Blaise pointing a finger at the nearest shaman, screaming, "You bastards! How dare you show yourself in human territory, after all the people you've killed?"

"Oh crap," muttered Art, looking around and noticing the milling passersby had turned their attention toward the spectacle. He noted that while the shamans held their skull-and-torch staves in hand, the town guard had at least seen fit to confiscate the scimitars from a majority of the midget warriors; he saw only two, maybe four, of them still carried scimitars by their sides. The lot of them all seemed to wear gambeson, most of them white and brown, but only two or three carried round shields and the rest didn't have their bucklers. Most importantly, while all of them stood covered in woad paint, none had the pitch. If Blaise's heedlessness brought them into a confrontation with the red skins, then the two archers, combined with the guards, could handle them… However when he set his eyes on the four guards that had been chaperoning the redskins, he saw they now had their hands on the hilts of their swords, staring at Blaise. There would be no guarantee they wouldn't turn against the sisters instead.

Ryann had grasped hold of Blaise's arm, and was now trying to pull her back to Art's position, but Blaise struggled against her pull and kept on shouting. "Where do you get off on this? Is taking our monastery not good enough for you, now you need to stick it to us here as well?" She freed herself from Ryann's grasp and with a few steps arrived mere feet away from the redskins, all of whom had turned to face her way. "These grains," she said, kicking the side of a wheelbarrow filled to the brim with sacks of supplies. "Where did you get the silver to pay for this?" She laughed, almost hysterical. "Since when did barbarians the likes of you even start to use the penny? Do you mint them? No. And I'm sure no merchant would interact with brutes like you. So why don't you just admit it?" She sweeped her arms over all the covered wagons they had behind them. "You're paying for all this with the loot you've taken from my fellow sisters, aren't you? Aren't you?" She pointed an accusatory finger at each of the nearby merchants. "And you, you, and you. You know these mongrels can't be up to anything good coming here, yet you still oblige them like any other customer! Is the silver that good to you, that you'd bare your necks out to their blades? Do you really think you have a spare life to throw away?"

"Sister Blaise!" shouted Ryann as she caught up to her and, grabbing her by the arm, attempted to pull her away. "Don't do anything rash!"

"Rash? " Blaise turned on her sister, snarling. "You, calling me rash? Was it rash when the redskins burst into our monastery and slaughtered sister and caravaner alike, forcing us out of our homes? Was it rash when they then burned the outlying hamlets to the ground, slaughtering men and women and children? Because I didn't do any of those things, they did," she finished, screaming. She then turned back to the stunned redskins. "And don't you dare deny it! You may have these idiot Tristramers fooled, but I, and my fellow sisters, know your true colors. You won't get away this this!"

"Ma'am," said the nearest guard, standing forward and striking an imposing pose in his full suit of mail. "I'll need you to leave now, or else I'll have you tossed in the dungeon." The other guards joined by his side.

"Don't get in our way, guards. This is a matter between the redskins and the sisterhood. We demand vengeance."

"And you will not have it here."

Blaised chuckled at the guard. "As if it were up to you to decide. If that were the case none of us would have any problems right now, now would we? A fight's what you should expect from them, because that's what you'll get." Blaise looked past the guards to the redskins. "Really, now you learn the usefulness of peace, standing put there and letting these sorry excuses for guards cover for you? Why hadn't you shown that same restraint to our sisterhood? Or are you lot just a sorry bunch of cravens who wouldn't dare fight us out in the open? Well? You have us outnumbered a dozen to one right now, so what's keeping you?"

"Sister Blaise, are you seriously trying to stir up a fight now?" Ryann shouted at her in alarm.

"This is your final warning," said a guard, bringing his sword half out of its scabbard.

"Don't think for a moment that you'll make it out of Tristram alive, you bastards!"

"Let's go, now," a desperate Ryann practically begged her sister. "Don't you see, if you keep trying to antagonize them they'll attack us! Right in the middle of the town. There are innocents all around us, you'll get them killed!"

"So what, these redskins would flay their skins either way. It's not like they haven't done it before." Tears fell from her cheeks. "Marta, and Janice, and Lisa… They're all dead, by your hands," she said to the fallen, her voice shaking into sobs as she crumbled into tears, even as she let Ryann pull her away. "It's all your fault… All your fault!"

Some of the scimitar-wielding midgets had their blades half out of their scabbards as well, had taken a step forward as if about to attack, before the shaman closest to the sisters had put out a hand and muttered something that made them stop in their tracks. As Blaise let herself be dragged away, still glaring at and pointing accusingly at the redskins, the shaman stood unmoving, and looked at her with a teethy grin.

Ryann dragged her around the corner to Art's location, out of sight of the shamans. "Sister, get a grip over yourself," she pleaded, shaking Blaise by the shoulder and staring right at her. "Have you even thought what would have happened if you'd actually succeeded in getting them to attack?"

"I don't believe it," said Blaise as she sat propped with her back against the wall, fists clenched, even as the three huddled by the street corner. "After all they've done to destroy our sisterhood, killing innocent civilians in the nearest hamlets… And they can just walk about free? Did you see how that elder was grinning at me the whole time? It was mocking us, daring us to attack them so the guards could finish us off! And the guards, siding with them…. How could they…"

"Well they probably don't know what happened yet," Art tried to console her. "Remember, news of the attack probably hasn't reached these parts yet. We're one of the earliest to arrive in town."

"It's not like we haven't fought them before! They've attacked other villages in the area, even if rarely as much as they have now. There's no way the town guardsmen could possibly think them innocent. They ought to know better!"

"Wait a minute, you said you've fought them before, and the redskins are from the local area? I had thought they were invaders from afar, is that not the case?" asked Art.

"Oh dear," said Ryann. "I keep forgetting that you are a caravaner and new here. Have you gone all this time without knowing about the redskins? Their tribal lands are in the high up in the wilderness of the forested mountain ranges northeast of here, their closest villages just a few days' walk away. Very close to the monastery. They've been there for a long time and I can't ever recall them doing anything like trading with humans, it's just not a thing they do. They don't know our language, our customs. This… shouldn't be possible."

"Well why not? Surely anyone could see benefits to trade. Their being rather close to human civilization practically guaranteed that they'd get involved in the economy sooner or later."

A thought worried him. Ryann had said multiple villages, a tribal homeland; how large of a redskin civilization were they talking about, to field the kind of numbers that could take on the sisterhood and win? What assets might they have at their disposal? If they'd managed to strike so hard against the sisterhood even without trading for more suitable weapons and better armor, then what could they do once they had started engaging in trade for real?

He peered around the wall, to see the shamans had returned to what looked like barter with the merchants in the area as if nothing had happened. The guards looked content as well, and the rest of the civilians had returned to their tasks, now that Blaise had left the scene. They'd managed to already fill up one wagonload of goods and he doubted they'd have trouble with the rest. Even without language, well, there was a certain kind of language to setting down a stack of coin in front of somebody, pointing at goods, turning away with looks of disapproval until a proper balance of trade had been agreed upon.

And if this group managed to conclude its trade successfully, well the merchants would be happy about it, and if that happened they would clamor to accept more such visits by redskins, engaging in more trade, and a trend of fair trade had a tendency to turn into cordial political relations. The town could very well find itself being goaded by a coalition of the local merchant guilds into forming trade pacts with the redskins, and should the sisterhood attack the redskins' traders in a continuation of their war, that could be seen as an affront to the town. A series of such incidents could very well lead to an alliance between Tristram and the redskins, and if that happened, the sisterhood would find itself fighting a two front war, Tristram on the west and the redskins to the east. The sisterhood would lose the war, and Thistledown… What would happen to Thistledown in that case? Would Tristram even bat an eye if the village were razed to the ground and all of its inhabitants killed?

No, he couldn't just walk away from this, not if that could happen. He had to break this chain of causality while the truce between the Tristramers and the redskins was tentative and easily disrupted, before they'd had a chance to establish a positive trade history. Damn it, he thought; he'd left his aventail and mail gloves back in his room. He'd not expected a run-in in the middle of town, after all.

Art turned away from his musings to see that Blaise had buried her head between her knees, her hands pulling at her hair. Ryann was chiding Blaise: "…And people call me outspoken. What if they heard of how you went all hysterical just now?"

"Actually, Blaise has a point." -- Ryann turned to him in confusion. -- "You were right, Blaise. We can't let that lot waltz out of here with their goods. We can't let them convince the Tristramer merchants that they're safe to trade with, else things are going to look even worse for the sisterhood."

"What do you mean? Oh, Art, did you really think we would let them bring their supplies back to their villages? We'll intercept them of course. We'll go tell Liene and Amplisa. Then with our other sisters we can set up an ambush right outside the walls. Kill these creatures, take their loot for ourselves. We really need the money as it is, and this'll serve to take down three birds with one stone."

"What, and piss off the Tristramers and make them look like they can't guarantee the safety of merchants trading with them, so that others would be less likely to deliver their wares through here? Don't be so quick to forget that Tristram lies on the silk road to Aranoch, and they make a killing off caravaners passing through. Caravaners who wouldn't be passing through if the town's reputation for ensuring safety of passersby were to be shaken. Or would you think the merchant guilds would be pleased with our intervention?"

She frowned. "I can see why that would bring the wrath of the townsfolk on our sisterhood. But we really need the loot. We don't have that much silver as it is."

"Trust me, the silver isn't worth it. Besides, if we did it your way then the merchants would still have had a positive experience dealing with the redskins. They'd be more positively receive the redskins going forward. Only the sisterhood would appear wrong in their eyes, and after being called rogue by the king, I don't think that's something the sisterhood wants to suffer. If we hope to discourage the merchants from trading with them going forward, we have to intervene now, while they're still on Grains Street."

"You sound like you have a better idea, Art, but you saw what happened earlier when Blaise tried to rouse the redskins into attacking. They didn't bite. And if we had stayed there for a minute more, or tried anything, the guardsmen would have locked us up in a cell somewhere. And if either of us went out there again, the guards would recognize us and they wouldn't wait so long to shoo us out of there."

"Which is why I'll go. And you're right, we can't simply hurl expletives at them and hope some will stick. They don't know our language, after all, probably why that shaman wasn't doing anything more than grin. Far as I know, he probably thinks grinning is a way to show peaceful intentions. And we can't do anything that would appear remotely threatening, since then the guards would be on us in an instant."

"What about the civilians? If you get them riled into attacking us, they'd probably lash out at them too."

"Well, I'm hoping that with my plan, they 'll focus on me. You'll be there to help. I've seen at least a bit of what you and your sisters can do with your bows; some of those would prove very helpful. And don't forget the four guards there; they'll act to protect the civilians. And only the tall ones and a handful of the little ones have weapons." At that Ryann looked at a loss for other excuses.

That of course had been no more than an excuse, so they'd go along with his plan. Against almost two dozen redskins, just the seven of them would be fighting for their very lives, much less keeping the civilians safe, and there were so many of them milling about. Even with other town guardsmen about the town who would assuredly rush to the site of the commotion within minutes, that still gave the redskins whole minutes where they'd have near absolute freedom to act. Innocent people would die as a result of his call. But if he let these redskins walk away, so that they gained the food they need to keep fighting the sisterhood, if they defeated the sisterhood, the only power between the monastery and Tristram, then a few lives would be but a drop in the bucket.

"You're going to get them riled up into attacking, right?" asked Blaise. "Good," she said with a smile, standing up. "Go out there and teach them what it means to mess with the sightless eye. You can count on my bow. Can he count on yours?" she said, unslinging her bow and turning to Ryann. -- Ryann nodded and unslung her bow as well. Art smiled and stepped away from them, into the intersection where he beheld the redskins.

They'd taken much from him, costing him his right hand and the ability to fight properly, keeping his caravan from continuing on east. They'd taken even more from those unfortunate sisters who had fallen into their hands that fateful night. But he'd gained something from them as well.

He walked up to the redskins and shouted, "Rakanishu!"

"Raka--" repeated one of the shamans, looking utterly surprised. -- "Rakanishu, zehe?" shouted one of the midgets in outrage. --"Daka, daka!" shouted another midget, who brought its scimitar out of its sheath with a singing of metal. -- "Kura, rakanai," said another shaman, putting a hand on the midget so that the midget put its scimitar back in its sheath.

Huh, they had more control than he suspected, thought Art; they didn't bite. Well, how about this one then? "Daka, daka! Rakanishu!" He said, slamming a fist on the wooden countertop of a nearby stall. It didn't have quite the impact he hoped for. Not having a sword and shield to slam together certainly had its drawbacks.

He saw that look of unrestrained fury on all the midgets as one of them shouted "Rakanishu, na taka ta Kureha!? Daka! Rakanize kureku da!", and before the shamans could order them to stay their hands, one of the redskins had pulled out its scimitar and had charged at him. The guards, seeing this one with its scimitar out, pulled out their swords, metal ringing on metal.

"Daka, rakanai!" shouted the lead shaman, but as it whirled around to confront the guardsmen facing them from all sides, its grin faltered into a look of utter dismay. Art smiled at that, knowing that the shaman knew that it had been outplayed. It then shouted, pointing a finger at the guards, "Rakabosh!"

Art knew what that meant. He shouted to the guards, "Step back!" They'll--" but it was too late; the midgets had, as one, surrounded all four of them, as they stood so close, and lunged at them as a group. The guards' blades slashed out at their attackers, but with each of them separated from the others, and beleaguered by so many opponents at once, were quickly pinned down. Art didn't have to look to know that within seconds their swords would be forced out of their grasp, and then four more midget warriors would be armed.

The midget warriors shouted "Rakanishu!", the guards shouted and grunted before becoming overwhelmed, and the passersby screamed in terror and panicking, made down the two sides of the street. Art shouted "Ah, watch it!" as he backpedaled away from the nearest midget warrior with its scimitar thrusted at him as it leapt after him. He took another step back and collided into the back of a startled civilian who, it seemed, had only just realized the situation he was in; and Art found himself momentarily face to face with the creature bearing down on it. He cursed that he hadn't a sword or even a shield with him.

Out the side of his vision he spotted one of those sacks of flour lying on the countertop of a stall. He took hold of the weighty sack with his left hand, brought it out before his chest just as the scimitar slashed into it, cutting right down its seam and slicing it wide open, most of the flour spilling out onto the ground and lightening the load. Hardly any of it remained in the sack in his hand, certainly not enough to obstruct the next slash. But now it had become much lighter. He thrust it out at the midget warrior before him, sending up a cloud of flour, blinding his opponent. But as it had already had its blade swinging out at him again, Art had to step back at the same time to avoid its blow. The scimitar would have slashed through thin air, except it slashed into the cloud of flour instead, sending a burst of it right into Art's eyes and mouth.

Art dropped the sack and stepped back, coughing, as he tried to clear out his eyes. He couldn't see, but he knew where the midget warrior stood, hacking as well from all the flour it had accidentally inhaled; knew it to be but two yards away. Where were Ryann and Blaise, where they intervening? He wanted to call out to them, but managed only another cough. The midget warrior approached once again, it would soon make another swing…

Amongst the cries and the pattering of feet as the rest of the redskins began to move and the civilians began their scramble to safety, Art felt out with his hand along the countertop he passed by as he retreated. His hand knocked over a weighing scale. He picked it up, then used it to block the next slash from the scimitar, the vibration ringing down the scale into this hand and almost causing him to drop it. He was dangerously exposing his arm, he knew, but his opponent, being blinded as he was, couldn't capitalize on his momentary weakness.

The impact had come from Art's right, the foe's left; he had felt the impact against the scales he held as the colliding scimitar had passed on by, and thus knew the next swipe would come in from his left, so he parried accordingly, and with a clang the scimitar knocked his scales to his right.

He continued to backpedal while wiping the flour out of his eyes with the back of his right arm. He didn't have much of a choice; the scales he held couldn't safely block the slashes from the much longer reaching blade his enemy held. He just had to hold his ground, draw his attacker's attention long enough for the civilians behind him to get some distance from the redskins. He could hear from the screaming and the shouting behind him, which hadn't receded as quickly as he'd hoped, that the sudden rush of passersby had crowded the street behind him, causing a bottleneck where they couldn't get away as quickly as the advancing redskins… And then he realized with a start, as he finally managed to half open his eyes to catch a glimpse of what stood before him, multiple midget warriors advancing on his position, the two new joiners holding the fallen town guards' swords as well as their kite shields.

They raised them just in time to block a pair of oncoming arrows -- the sisters had loosed them from right behind him. They deflected right off the shields without making a dent and the trio of redskins kept their advance; they were almost on top of him. "Run!" shouted Art as he threw the scale at the lead one, hoping to knock it off balance and slow the two flanking it, and as he turned to run, he looked over the nearby stall to see what else he could use. Bags, more bags, a pile of barley spilled over a flat pewter tray. He seized the tray and with a swipe sent the grains flying at the midgets, forcing the lead one to stop and look away with eyes closed while the two flanking it raised their shields to block the splattering.

Then they were on him. Holding on to the tray at the edge, Art parried first one blade and then another, even as the metal screeched as the blade slashed across the tray. No proper shield, this, without a handle behind the tray, leaving his fingers vulnerable. He pulled back yet again. He could see that behind these three redskins, some of the other ones advancing down the other side of the street, civilians screaming and looking behind their backs in terror as their fled, blood spurting as some had been cut down. He couldn't keep falling back, or the midget warriors would fall upon the civilians on his side as well.

Then he was out in the intersection, and the front ranks of the enemy too close for the rogues to loose any more arrows. To his sides, Ryann and Blaise had tossed their bows aside and now held shield and spear in hand. They stepped forward, side by side, and thrust their weapons ineffectually against the kite shields on the other side. The pair formed a crude shield wall, but with only the two of them, they instantly became outflanked by their three opponents, and without a proper shield Art couldn't step up to them. "Fall back," he called out, but the sisters were already stepping back, giving ground each time the midget warriors slashed with their scimitar or swords.

Art could see, standing behind the enemy midget warriors, one of the shamans with crescent upraised, flanked by two more of the woad-smeared midgets. It pointed its gnarled finger and a bolt of flame shot forward, to blast against Ryann's boots, causing her to shout in panic and fall back further. Then another fire bolt, and another step back. Art turned back to look upon the intersection; he had to find something to continue the fight with. Instead, he saw only the backs of the mass of fleeing civilians right behind him. He turned back toward the midgets to see a sword slashing right out at him, which he parried with the tray, but the tip of the sword slid screeching across the pewter to slice at his fingers, drawing blood. Involuntarily he let go of his tray, leaving himself exposed. He dodged to the left to avoid the next strike, and then retreated, and found himself in Greens Street.

Where were the sisters? Looking over the heads of these three midgets, he saw they'd gotten separated from him and were backing down the street, opposite the intersection from his, and they were still being forced back, further away from him, by a shaman and two midget warriors. That left the other side of the intersection unguarded for the moment. His heart fell in dismay as he saw a midget warrior hewing down civilian after panicking civilian down that path as the rear of the fleeing crowd couldn't keep their distance from their attacker.

Art backed further down Greens Street, his opponents bearing down on him. He wanted to get out off harm's way; with the way of the albatross he could easily leap atop the three-story building on either side of the street. But the fleeing crowd behind him could not, and his fleeing would leave them exposed. As he watched, a fleeing old man hobbling along on a walking cane couldn't make it away from the midgets in time. They hacked him down, their blades gleaming red in an instant as the man toppled over, dead. Things had already gone more haywire than he'd expected, with him and the sisters being forced out past the intersection and giving the redskins more avenues of attack. He couldn't allow any more innocent blood to be shed if he could avoid it.

Looking to his sides, he saw fruits and vegetables in wooden boxes atop the stalls along this street. He grabbed an apple, then another, and lobbed them at each of the midget warriors in turn; he'd wanted to do it with both hands, but without his other hand he couldn't throw them fast enough. His foes simply blocked them with their kite shields and kept on advancing. Realizing that tactic wouldn't work any more, he lifted up an entire tray of pears and threw the tray spinning at the lead midget, whereupon the pears spilled out to settle at their feet. One of their number stumbled, its sword striking down and skewering an apple as it attempted to keep from falling over. He picked up a tray of brussels sprouts and flung that over as well, but these they just batted aside and marched over without tripping. He passed a box of watermelons and was about to reach for one of them before deciding against it -- those were too heavy to lob.

He lost a few precious seconds and the midget warriors were almost on top of him. With a heavy pull he brought down the wooden market stall beside him crashing down into the middle of the street. Cauliflowers and cabbages spilled out, slowing the midget warriors down as they had to step over the fallen wooden frame as well as all the round objects now littering the street. As they tried to step over it, he knocked down a second stand, bringing all manner of dates and grapes spilling into the street on top of everything else. With the remaining upright stalls on both sides of the street, the midget warriors advanced over the fallen wooden stall.

Art watched them approach, them walking tentatively and in single file over the obstacle course, then when the lead midget stepped out from the first downed stall over the second one, he hooked a foot around his end of the fallen stall's wooden legs and pulled back on it. The lead midget warrior seemed caught by surprise as it flailed from the wood of the stall under its feet suddenly got pulled out from beneath it, and barely managed to find its balance before Art kicked that same stall away, back towards the midgets. The midget warrior, recovering from the stall beneath it going one way, had shifted its weight accordingly; this second thrust in the opposite direction took it completely off balance. It instinctively tried to step forward to reaffirm its footing -- and its foot caught against one of the middle legs of the stall frame. It collapsed forward, right on top of the rest of the wooden frame, its neck lying on top of the edge of the frame and its head leaning over it. Its sword fell out of its hand and clattered to the ground by Art's feet.

Art stomped down on the back of its head, crushing the fallen midget warrior's windpipe against the edge of the fallen frame. As it grasped for its throat and struggled to breathe, Art snatched the sword up from the ground. The second midget warrior, stepping over the frame right behind it, screamed in fury and leapt at Art, its scimitar upraised, and Art parried it aside with his sword, then stepped back to avoid another swipe from its blade, since without a shield he dared not engage the two midgets simultaneously. He'd knew, from the fight at the hamlet, that he could barely even take one of them on at a time. Two would be suicide. Again and again he retreated, wondering how many more seconds now until the reinforcements would arrive.

Behind these two midget warriors arrived a shaman, flanked by two more midgets, who had apparently found some pewter trays of their own. One of them picked up the wooden walking stick of the slain old man, and the other had apparently pilfered a dagger off one of the fallen town guards. Behind those, the more than half of Greens Street that he'd been forced to retreat past now lay abandoned, looking like a complete disaster zone. He dodged as a fire bolt struck past where he stood a moment ago; he hadn't a shield, and letting his gambeson catch on fire now when melee enemies bore down on him would be deadly. He dodged again as another fire bolt passed him by, to immolate one of the fleeing civilians. The woman panicked, screaming and floundering and driving the rest of the hysterical, fleeing civilians into even more of a panic as they now had to avoid the her flames as well.

He couldn't keep this up or more lives would be lost. He couldn't fight in melee; the last time he'd been in this situation he'd gotten the shaman's staff so he could trade ranged attacks with it. He noted the two midgets at the rear. They seemed the greatest weakness at the moment, what with their impromptu weapons, and the shaman with its staff could hardly engage in melee.

Horizon to horizon might I fly.

And then he had leapt over them, ending the evocation prematurely to drop out of the sky and land but two steps away from the shaman. He tried to close in on that distance right away, but in a split second the two midgets bringing up the rear and stepped up to block his path to the shaman. The two better equipped midgets he'd left turned to look his way; one of them rushed at him and the other at the fleeing crowd, which Art now left unprotected. He'd have to finish this quickly.

He stepped up close to the rear guard midgets, secure in the knowledge that the dagger wielder couldn't get close to him with only a dagger, and the cane wielder could hardly expect much results against his gambeson. He saw that both of these two wore gambeson and helmet, but no protection for the hands or the neck. He struck out with his sword; the latter parried with the cane, and Art turned it into a swipe at the former. The dagger wielder couldn't well block with the dagger without risking getting its arm hacked off, so parried with the tray, which was what Art had counted on; he pressed his sword against the side of the tray once it made contact, rather than letting it bounce off, then swiped, pressing down hard. The sword took the fingers off the hand holding the tray and the midget retracted its hand screaming in pain. The other midget tried to intervene, but Art blocked with his right arm; the cane rebounded off the gambeson's arm to little effect. Meanwhile Art struck with his sword again; the midget, now without a tray to defend itself, attempted to block with the dagger, and Art's sword wound up slashing against its dagger arm. Because the creature wore gambeson, it bit only a layer deep into the padding before rebounding off.

The shaman pelted him with another fire bolt, which he ducked; the other midget attempted to intercept him with its cane, which he knocked aside; and the now twice wounded midget turned to flee. Art's sword sliced right through the midget's unguarded nape, decapitating it and sending a splatter of its red blood over the other midget's face.

In the place of the downed midget warrior he found himself face to face with the sword-equipped one who had come to protect its shaman. It lashed out with a top down strike, which Art parried with ease, even as he had to dodge to another bolt of flame from the shaman. He attempted to hack down the other rear-guard midget, but the sword intercepted and forced him back. Behind the trio of redskins before him, he saw the other redskin had caught up to the fleeing crowd at the intersection and was lashing out with its scimitar, each swipe bringing down another civilian, and the shouts of the living and screams of the dying had reached a fever pitch. He couldn't stay here any longer, not while the sword wielding one protected its shaman.

With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly.

And then he was over this group and landed right behind the scimitar-wielding midget, standing in the midst of a pile of corpses red with freshly spilled blood, screaming all around, the murdering midget warrior before him oblivious to his presence. It, like the last one he'd slain, wore gambeson and helmet, but it also had its aventail so he couldn't stab it through the neck. He kicked the creature in its back, knocking it forward and causing it to collapse into a screaming young woman who had turned at her intended killer in fear. The two fell into a heap on the ground, with the woman supine and the midget prone with face crashed into hers and its legs stradding her waist, and it pushed against her bosum with its kite shield in an attempt to right itself, and the woman screaming with eyes shut closed in abject terror.

Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, I crush all beneath me. Art had swapped his hold on the sword to clutch it by the blade, and slammed the crossguard into the creature's nape. With the sound of snapping spine, it collapsed lifeless into the young woman, face planted into hers for a moment before she slapped its head aside and wiped at her lips with her arm with a look of disgust.

Art whirled around and barely dodged another fire bolt before backpedaling again as the one with the sword bore down on him. He parried left, then parried right and down, the blades singing, and then he stepped further back, out of the now abandoned intersection and into Fishmonger's Street, with the trio of redskins in pursuit.

He took one look at the stalls about him now, upon which stood tray after wooden tray of fish and seafood of all varieties. He held his sword clutched against his right arm, freeing up his left to toss the contents of each tray into the street, carpeting the path in masses of fish, then clams as he passed an abandoned stall selling those in turn. His pursuers followed, though stepping carefully over the fish-littered street, almost slipping at several points and buying him several precious seconds. The shaman continued to launch its fire bolts, sending stall after stall up in flames as they went.

Within moments Art had fallen back most of the length of Fishmonger's Street, with the midget warriors surrounded by the fish all over the ground and kicking aside the mollusks shell by shell. Art took his sword in hand again, and speared a salmon on the tip of his sword. He then gave a quick sweep with the sword that sent the skewered salmon flying at the nearest midget warrior, the one with the sword, following up with a lunge at the less well defended one. A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky. His feet could feel the wind, sense how it ebbed and flowed over the fish lying scattered on the ground with his movement, allowing him to step on solid ground with each step, even as the redskins, caught in a sea of slippery fish, could not move without looking where they stepped lest they slipped. The midget he attacked parried just in time, knocking Art's blade aside by bringing its cane up, but that had only been Art's feint. Carried by the wind, I spin, going where it takes me.

And then Art had whirled around the midget warrior to impale the surprised shaman in the chest. It it too wore gambeson, as well as aventail and mail gloves, so his thrust only sent it sprawling back -- right into the other midget warriors, who, being in a street littered with slippery fish, refused to shift their feet until it was too late and all three of them fell sprawling into the fishy mess. With the midget warriors in no position to parry, Art made to stab down with his sword at the shaman, which now that the shaman lay flat against the ground, could cause severe injury even through gambeson. It brought up its staff to parry, from its right to its left; Art brought his sword into a sweep in the same direction, Art's left to his right, knocking the staff out of the shaman's hand and flying out to the right, to roll down the street.

Art went right after it. Even as the trio of redskins stood up from where they stood, he discarded his sword and took the staff in hand, crescent side up. He pointed, and bolt after bolt of fire shot at them, but the two remaining midget warriors blocked. Both had kite shields now; they must have looted the other one from the one Art had felled earlier. Putting the two side to side, they covered for both themselves and the shaman, who now crouched down to keep a shorter profile. The trio of them kept proceeding down the street, kicking aside fish and clams as they went. Within a moment they had gotten past the rest of the littered fish. The shaman called out some orders, and then the midget with the sword was racing down the street toward the fleeing civilians, shield facing Art to block any fire bolts, and the other one picked up the sword Art had dropped and then lunged at him.

Slender, soft, small, I float on through the sky. Art danced around the one coming at him, to find himself between the midget warrior and the now unarmed shaman. He charged at the shaman, before realizing he no longer had his sword and couldn't decapitate the shaman. Instead he fired a bolt of flame at it, which against its gambeson did very little. So that wouldn't work either. He twirled the staff in his hand, and entered the way of the puppeteer. So, it's come to this after all, he thought, amused. He brought the skull of the staff down low and tapped it across the fish littering the street as he went, with the midget sword-wielder in pursuit. He could feel the bones of each of the fish touched by his staff, in his mind, as if they'd linked up to him like a marionette would by strings to its puppeteer.

He tried launching the fish at his pursuer. Instead the fish flopped along on their bellies, moving pathetically weakly. Not enough bone in them compared to their weight, he realized, and fish didn't have the skeleton for moving on land. Flipping and flopping was the best they could do. As the midget warrior pursued him, he turned and went back up the street. The midget warrior chose its steps where they'd already knocked the fish aside, so that each step it took landed on solid ground, without slipping. Then with a single thought, Art commanded the bones of fish he'd tapped, and they flipped and he flopped themselves to cover the spot where the midget warrior would stand next. Its boots skidded off the smooth scales of the fish and it fell head over heels to lie prone before Art, who stepped on the sword it still held, then stabbed down with the crescent side of his staff with More mighty than any giant, all shall break beneath my strike, sending one sharp tip of the crescent at its nape. With the force of the thrust, it impaled through the riveted mail, and with a final twitch it stopped moving.

Behind him Art could heart more screams of the fleeing innocents. The midget warrior had caught up to the rearmost among them, now that Art was no longer blocking its way, and slaughtering them. Art was too far away to kill it right away. Instead, he stalked toward the unarmed shaman, who stepped back, eyes wide with fear and shouted, "Bishibosh!" Art knew what that meant, of course, and expected the midget warrior it had dispatched earlier to return and attack Art from behind. It hadn't gotten more than a few dozen steps away and he could hear the pitter patter of its return already.

Art swiped another tray off a stall counter, this one containing several crabs. He then tapped the bone headpiece against the crabs on the ground before him, and the feeling of control over their carapaces came over him. The crabs, at least, could scuttle about on their feet on dry land. He scuttled them over to the sword lying by his side, and had them grasp it by the hilt with their pincers. Within moments they had the sword firmly in their grasp, though only from where they stood: near the ground.

Could he even do anything with that? he wondered. He'd much rather reanimate the fallen warrior he'd just killed, which at least stood at a decent height, but he'd tried that already and he hadn't practiced enough to gain any decent control of such a complex skeleton yet. He'd have to go with simpler creatures for now.

No; he experimented with them, and with a thought raised them into the air. The crabs, their bodies mostly carapace, levitated into the air, the sword in their grip along with it.

The midget warrior had almost caught up to him, and though it faltered a step upon seeing the floating crabs wielding the sword by the grip, charged right at him. As the warrior came into range, he had the crabs swing the sword they held right at the midget warrior. But his control over the crabs hadn't been fine, and the sword spun about the wrong way, and just too slowly and weakly. The sword slashed against its gambeson, failing to penetrate, before it and the two levitated crabs were slammed aside from the impact against the midget warrior and sent spinning away and out of the crabs' grasp.

It kept coming right at Art, hardly even distracted. Art leapt atop one of the stalls with the way of the albatross, kicked off to another when the midget warrior attempted to hack at his feet. Why hadn't that worked? he asked himself. It hadn't even tripped the creature. Did he fail to get the crabs to hold on to the hilt tightly enough? Had the crabs been too lightweight, too small to leverage the force of the way of the puppeteer properly?

"There it is! Attack!" shouted one of several town guardsmen as they rounded the corner into Fishmonger Street. Finally, thought Art. The fight had felt so long, even though probably not even five minutes had elapsed. The midget warrior noticed their shout and turned to face him, banging its sword and kite shield and shouting "Rakanishu!" It then made to charge at them, but immediately tripped and fell sprawling. Art had maneuvered a crab between its feet and had it pinch a boot with each of the crab's pincers, effectively chaining the creature's feet together. The next moment, the guardsman crashed a mace into its head with a crunch.

Art whirled around to face the shaman. It backed away, then with a scream of "Bawk off!" it took off the way it had come. Art chased after it with his staff held crescent side up, drawing upon the way of the hearth as he launched fire bolt after fire bolt after the racing figure as he followed in pursuit. It managed to dodge his first few hits as it fled through Fishmonger's Street and into Greens Street, where it slowed down in an attempt to find its footing over the pair of downed stalls. Art fired another bolt of flame after it, and it dodged out of the way, but lost its footing and tripped into the wooden frame.

It turned back to look up, mouth agape as Art approached and stood before it, ready to point his index finger at it. It gesticulated wildly with its arms, and screamed, "Have mercy! Please don't kill me!"

Art was taken aback. Since when did the redskins know human language? The shamans hadn't been speaking when he and the two sisters had come across them at Grains Street; they'd been gesturing. How then did it know these words? And these weren't words used for everyday business. Then he realized just where it had picked up those phrases. He snarled in fury, and launched fire bolt after fire bolt into the hapless creature as he shouted at it, "You bastard! How dare you take the desperate pleas of the innocents your kind had tortured and killed, and throw them back at me! How dare you! You hadn't spared them any mercy, now you want it from me?" Fire bolt after fire bolt, until the shaman, screaming, smoking, and immolated in flame as it flailed, died, a charred mess upon the burning wooden stall frame.

A moment later the four recently arrived guards caught up to him, all of their faces concealed from him behind helmets. One of them asked him in a loud voice, "You there -- identify yourself." -- Art turned to face him. "Art Taverley, caravaner staying here for the night." -- "Why is it you wield a weapon of these redskins?" -- "Ah, good sirs, you misunderstand. I had nothing to defend myself when these creatures charged at me. It was only by chance that I found myself with this weapon, and of course I used it to defend myself, nothing more." -- "Really now?" -- "Come on Ilend, give the man a break," said one of the other guards. "He had to make the best out of a bad situation." -- "And yet you were able to use it to spit balls of fire?" the first one continued. "Care to explain your skill with the staff?" -- "You don't really think he's in cahoots with the redskins, do you?" -- "Your friend raises a good point there, do I look like I have red skin to you?"

Then he realized, he was still holding on to the staff, with one half bone. Maybe they hadn't seen him using necroturgy or maybe they assumed the shaman he'd been fighting had done it, and only seen him use the fire half, but him walking around with it would draw attention. Here in Tristram, one of the bastion towns of the Order of the Light which detested necroturgy, carrying that around was akin to painting a target on his back. He tossed the staff onto the floor with feigned look of nonchalance. "Now that they're all dead and you guys are here to guard my back, I can finally be rid of this abhorrent thing." Inwardly he groaned; it had taken him quite some time to get a hold of one of those and he was giving it up voluntarily now. Who knew when he'd get it again? And it had proven quite useful thus far. He hated going about without carrying something for protection.

"I'll be watching you," the first guard said to Art, even as he sheathed his sword.

"Well you shouldn't," replied Art, gesturing at the commoners lying about all along the street, some already become corpses but others clutching their wounds and screaming for help. "I think you'd better tend to these people. Now that the fighting's over, they should be your highest priority."

As the first guard barked out orders to his comrades to secure the area and tend to the wounded, Art raced down the rest of Greens Street to the intersection with Grains Street. All about him he saw slaughter. Dozens of corpses lined the path, most of them slashed through in the back. Blood, bright red, flowing freely, mixing with dirt and trash. Screams, incessant, drowning, haunting. He saw only about a dozen guards stepping gingerly over the devastation. It looked like they'd dispatched the rest of the rampaging redskins, as the only redskins he saw lay unmoving on the ground alongside the slain civilians and the occasional fallen guardsman. Questions came from those holed up in the nearby buildings, asking if it was safe to come out.

He surveyed the three adjoining streets, but could catch no sight of Ryann and Blaise. Maybe they had survived? Or had they been hunted down a few steps around the next corner? He passed through the intersection, along a street past ruined stalls full of confectioneries and pastries, the street he'd last seen the two archers fleeing down.

As he went, several wounded men and women raised out arms toward him, begging for help. He'd caused all this, he thought; he'd brought about so much disaster and suffering to an unsuspecting crowd whose only crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It could easily have been avoided, he told himself. If he'd not taunted the redskins, the sisters could easily have tracked them down once they left the town, like Ryann had suggested, and ambushed them with their arrow-based ways, with the combined power of the two dozen or so sisters who Liene and Amplisa led. This lot wouldn't have stood a chance, and none of these passersby would have been hurt. So much death could have been avoided… And yet, he reminded himself: if he hadn't done this, and made the redskins cause so much grief to the people of the town, Tristram could very well have found itself allied with the redskins, and then many more people, perhaps all the people liviing east of the town, might've eventually died. A necessary evil, he thought.

Why couldn't he have saved more of them? If he had come better equipped… but he had no sword then, and he couldn't very well have asked for one from the guards. If they had instead gone to get more of the sisters… That would have taken too long; the redskins could have finished making their transactions and left the markets by the time Ryann managed to locate all the other sisters, and they couldn't have risked that happening. If he had fought better… He thought back to how he'd fought this time, and couldn't pinpoint any particular mistakes that he'd made. He was only one person, standing against the onslaught of many; he could only slow their progress along one street, could only fight one enemy at a time, leaving all the other civilians exposed. He'd done what he could to protect them. Heck, if he hadn't been there, perhaps dozens more might have died. And without his other hand, he couldn't have used the way of the monolith to hold his ground or the way of the cyclone to cut right through his enemies. He could hardly have performed any better. The fact of the matter was that he could no longer fight.

Wait, that's not true, he corrected himself. He'd just taken down a shaman and several attendant midget warriors, while starting the fight completely unarmed, and he'd emerged without suffering any major wounds. The last fight at the hamlet might have been a pure fluke, but if it had been a miracle, well, he'd now repeated it, and that meant he could likely do it again.

And if he could fight the redskins despite his handicap, well then, he could hardly walk away and let the sisterhood fight this war without him. He smiled at the thought of what Warriv and Taril would say when he told them he'd be returning to Thistledown with the sisters.

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