Chapter 4 - Enemy At the Gates
The moment they came up to a line of hedges he pulled her aside, clamping a hand over her mouth, and crouched. She became quiet instantly. In the darkness he could barely see her, couldn't tell if she was trying to make out his figure in the night as well.
Keeping his hand firmly clamped over her mouth, he poked his head over the hedges, just enough to be able to see the heavy, towering front gates in the monastery walls, some fifty yards in the distance. He took a look at the walls themselves, judging their height relative to the heights of the shamans and the midgets. Two stories tall, by the look of it. With the way of the albatross he could easily leap right out upon the parapets even if they were a story higher still, and with another leap he'd be over the wall. But that was if he leapt unencumbered. With Selena in tow… Well, back in the spiral stairwell he'd managed fewer than half as many steps of the stairs with a single bound, when he bore Selena as when he did not. If that was anything to go by, if he held Selena and leapt, Selena's back would fly smack into the second story level of the wall. He'd have to go through the gates.
He could practically feel the call of the way of the albatross, the beckoning of the walls. They seemed to say: Forget the girl, save yourself. He pushed these thoughts out of his mind. He'd set his mind on saving her, after all. He'd already failed too many times. Failed the caravaners, failed the archers, failed those who had been trapped within the depths of the monastery. If he failed Selena too, if he abandoned such a helpless little girl in a place just crawling with abominations, why, he'd never forgive himself. No, he was not about to abandon her too, no matter what dangers that meant he'd have to brave.
Raising his head a bit higher over the hedgerow, he saw that the gates were closed. Twin braziers stood on either side of the gate doors, their bronze light illuminating a shaman standing before each. Beside each shaman stood a group of midgets, their scimitars and bucklers in hand and nothing but loincloth about them, wandering around seemingly aimlessly.
"Shit", muttered Art. He'd expected there'd be some guards posted at the gates, but that was a substantial contingent right there, more than he'd be able to defeat in the space of two or three seconds. They'd be sure to raise hue and cry the moment he struck out at them. Having fought past a group of these creatures already, killed their shaman and watching the rest of them flee, he could say with a fair degree of confidence that he could scatter them, if he used the way of the way of the spinning leaf, but not immediately, not without getting past them and killing the shamans, and not while protecting Selena at the same time.
Not for the first time he wondered just why he'd agreed to take Selena with him. At this rate she was going to be the death of him.
With the way of the whirlwind, he'd barrel right past any number of these minions and scatter them, but they were right up by the gates. A lunge that would take him safely past all of them would barrel his head right into the gates and scatter his brains out upon them.
Damn it, he thought. This was going to be a bit tricky. A plan formed in his mind. He would have to lure them away from the gates, making them chase him far enough so as to give Selena time to make for the gates down the gravel path on the other side. Shouldn't be too hard, he surmised. He'd seen them rout when he'd killed a single shaman; they wouldn't have the discipline to stay at their posts. He'd then have to get past the midgets and get to the gates fast enough to open them before they caught up. He'd have to give himself some extra space to work with. These were the front gates of an impressive institution of martial arts, and he remembered the gates to be the heavy kind.
He crouched down again and turned to the girl. "Now, Selena, I need you to listen carefully. Okay?" She nodded, so he continued. "There are monsters out there, that I need to lure away. I need you to stay here and then, when I shout, 'run', the moment I shout it, you run. Got it? Run straight for the gates, as fast as you can, do not stop to stare at the monsters, do not look for them, just keep running, run past the gates and then keep on running. Even if you can't run any more, keep going. Even if you fall, pick yourself up and keep going. Understand?" -- She nodded. -- "When I say 'run', what are you going to do?"
"Run." -- "Run where?" -- "The gates," she said, choking, as if a sob were about to burst forth.
"That's right, run for the gates. Run for it the second I tell you to, because if you don't, I'll put you on my lap and beat you harder than you've ever been beat in your life. Understand?" Some harsh threats were necessary at this point, he figured. If he didn't put the fear in her, the fear of something she could relate to, and as a result she didn't move fast enough, well, she wouldn't survive long enough for him to make good on his threat.
He pulled her into a snug embrace with his left hand, which she reciprocated, and then he was off, running down the central gravel path straight for the gathered enemy with his sword and shield in hand.
He hadn't been trying to conceal his presence, choosing instead to rush right at the band of midgets. Within seconds they'd turned around to face him, their weapons at the ready, some announcing his presence to the others with shouts of surprise.
"You guys tired of standing watch over the gates yet?" he shouted at them as he closed in. "Well why don't we have a little dance to pass the time, hmm?"
"Rakanishu!" the closest midget shouted, bashing its blade against its shield before thumping its scimitar into the air, the gesture replicated by all behind him but a second later. Then it charged right at Art, swinging its blade wildly.
Art blocked it with his shield and with his contempt, and made his own wide swing at the creature, glancing off its buckler with a clang. Battle was joined. He stepped to his right and made a stab at the midget who had come up to stand at the first one's side, and his sword rebounded off that one's shield too. He looked into their eyes and saw their eagerness for battle, the glint in their eyes that shone of what he could only take to be their hopes for glory.
He kept moving, making another glancing blow against buckler, and another missing wildly. The midgets for their part kept swinging their swords at him, none of them getting past his shield. As he watched he saw that his presence and ineffective attacks had started to whip them up into a frenzy. More and more of them stepped toward him and away from the gates they were ostensibly guarding, their eyes all on him and their blades pointed his way.
The one now nearest to him lunged at him with a wild strike that practically telegraphed 'strike me here! strike me here and you'll kill me cleanly and easily!'. Art parried the blow with his sword instead of taking the opportunity. He hadn't been intending to kill any of them just yet. He wanted them to be preoccupied with fighting him, and for them to be willing to do that they had to be confident that they could take him down. Him killing them would not play into his plans, so he stayed his hand.
The next one came at him from his left, right against his shield, but instead of simply blocking, he sidestepped further to his right, taking him a step away from the fallen who had now half surrounded him, many of them a mere five feet away. He took more steps to his right, and the midgets that had started to come upon him mirrored those steps, keeping close to him as they continued to try to poke past his defenses, three, four at a time.
Art wasn't worried. about this rabble, the ones who had been drawn to him. In the reflected brazier light he could see they had no paint marks. Another dozen of these creatures remained standing by their shamans and by the braziers; those did have their woad paints all over their faces and shoulders. Designated guards? Or more disciplined? Wondered Art. He had to get them to come after him as well, and the latter possibility made that less likely.
As he continued to parry aside blow after blow, taking measured steps away from the mob, he racked his brains for a way to get the rest of them to come after him as well. He took an extra step back, then pounded the flat of his sword against his shield and then thrusting his sword in to the air. Then he shouted: "Rakanishu!"
The shaman nearest him thumped its torch-staff against the ground and flailed its other hand. "Raka-- Rakanishu, zehe?" It spat some spittle on the ground, then continued, "Daka, daka! Rakanize kureku da!" It then continued to spurt a string of what seemed to be expletives at Art before shouting even louder than before, a true war cry from what he could tell: "Rakanishu! Rakanishu! Daka daka rakanishu da! RAH!" and finished with a pointing of its right index finger, causing the glowing ball of fire atop its staff to streak out at Art.
Art knocked it aside with his shield, feeling only an ephemeral wave of heat pass him by. "Wow. You sure you're not overreacting there? Just a teensy, tiny bit?"
Then as a wave they shouted "Rakanishu!" and then every single one of the midgets -- and Art made sure to confirm that it was every last one -- charged straight at him.
"Oh. Oh shit. I think I bit off a bit more than I can chew," he said and turned around and ran down the gravel path toward the side of the quadrangle, every single one of the shamans and midget warriors hot in pursuit. He had to keep from running too quickly - the little ones couldn't quite keep up with his gait if he really started running, and he didn't want them to become discouraged from realizing that he could outrun them with ease.
The moment he reached the far side of the quadrangle where the walls of the front gates merged into a wing of the monastery, he turned and raced down the side of the quadrangle, back toward the monastery's atrium, the whole lot of them making the turn right after. Within moments he was halfway up the quadrangle, halfway between the cathedral and the outer gates. "Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go go go run run RUN!" As he kept racing down the path he turned to look toward the center of the quadrangle, hoping to make out Selena's silhouette -- which he couldn't see in the darkness this far away from the braziers -- and hoping that Selena would take his cue for what it was and make a run for the gates.
After making it to the gates to the atrium, Art said, "Alright, loved racing with ya, but I can't play with you all day," back flipped and, with a thought of With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly, he was soaring over the whole pack of midgets, floating over them as if standing on an invisible platform, with his arms outstretched to either side. As he sailed through the sky amidst bursts of outrage from the midgets that had been tailing him, he continued to hold the feeling of the way of the albatross in mind, the feeling of weightlessness and of gliding through the wind with the ease of the albatross.
The bound took him thirty feet toward the outer gates. His feet had barely landed upon one of the benches arranged in a square in the middle of the quadrangle before he kicked off from the bench to soar the remaining distance to the gates, where he could make out Selena running for the gates, arms flailing wide about her as she ran. Within seconds he caught up to her, then ahead of her, and then he was at the gates and raising the massive, heavy wooden bar holding the gates shut, out of its iron setting.
From a glance over his back, he could tell the midgets were gaining on him. It had taken him quite a few precious seconds to leap his way back from the far side of the cloister, seconds he barely had to spare. Within twenty seconds, nineteen, eighteen, they'd be upon him. If he hadn't gotten Selena out by then, he'd be trapped in an awkward position of not being able to defend Selena from all directions, or leaping over the wall himself and sacrificing her.
Rushing, he tossed the bar aside and pushed against one of the twin doors that comprised the gate -- the one on his right. It creaked open ponderously, inch by agonizing inch, until the opening was barely over a foot wide. Turning to Selena, who was looking up at him with wide, tear-stained eyes, he used his left arm to propel her through the gates, shouting after her, "Keep running and don't stop till I catch up with you!"
Relief fell over him. He'd done it. He'd finally saved someone who had been consigned to the darkness. He'd helped Selena escape, fulfilled the promise he'd made to Cassia. At a thought he could see her teary, forlorn smile, as if she were watching down from her place in the heavens and gracing him with her thanks.
Watching her receding back, rapidly dimming into the darkness outside the monastery gates, he felt the urge to follow her, to flee to safety away from this accursed place, and to stay by her side and protect her. But his rational mind knew better. She'd stand a better chance the further away from the monastery she got before the pursuing midgets could follow her, since in the dark of night she'd soon be impossible to find, and following her tracks in the darkness a fool's errand.
And he was now positioned at the gate, the only gate in and out of the monastery on this side of the mountain pass. If he stood his ground, they'd have to get through him to get to her. These little midgets? So long as he held his position, they'd have no chance of getting past him. Every second he delayed them was several more seconds they'd have to run to catch up to Selena, that bit more of a chance for her to get away. He could catch up to her later, seeing as he could outrun both Selena and the midgets.
They were coming right for him, bearing down on him fast. He had seen them, butchering the nameless man he'd happened upon, the shaman among them roasting him as if he were some livestock ready for the spit. Witnessed the horrible mess they left in the aftermath of their feast. Blood, gore, and entrails had been all that was left, nothing at all recognizable of the helpless man he'd so readily slain.
To imagine them doing the same to Selena, tearing her limb from tiny limb as she screamed… No, he wouldn't imagine it, much less allow these creatures to do it.
He turned around right before the half opened monastery gate, positioning himself where he could intercept the midgets regardless of which of the two doors they wanted to pass through, he set down his shield and focusing his mind as the horde of midgets closed in on him, twelve, ten seconds away.
For a hundred years here I have stood. The winds blow past, the rains pound down, yet day after day I hold fast, implacable, unmoving, unbreaking.
He positioned himself firmly behind his shield and watched their approach, eight, seven seconds away.
For a thousand years we stand. Moons wax and wane, seasons change and cycle, yet month after month do we still stand, never changing, never budging, never yielding.
He set his left foot ahead and right foot behind, leaned forward, bracing for impact, steeling his resolve as they converged upon him, five, four…
For ten thousand years yet shall we all stand. Saplings grow and trees fall, towns rise and their ruins decay, yet year after year will we all remain, indestructible, immortal, invincible.
The beast had broken his will, once. And this time, there stood none else between the mob and Selena, none whom he could charge with her safety. But this time, he was ready. This time, he knew who he was facing. This time, he knew the measure of the enemy, knew their weaknesses. This time, he faced no beast.
And now, with the path of retreat wide open behind him, a single backward step away, so that he had no need to fear bringing the wrath of the beast down upon him, with no more reason to shy away from fighting his foe, now he could finally fight.
Besides, the midgets weren't wearing armor.
And then the midget wave was upon him, shouting their war cries in utter discord, their weapons smashing against his shield and glancing off, failing to even budge him, and falling into the reach of his blade. Moving to the actions instilled in him from his years of training, Art slashed with his arming-sword with a swing from his right, slicing a midget warrior's unarmored belly open. Blood and entrails spilled forth and the creature's maimed body crumpled before him, impotent and dying, staining the gravel beneath his feet.
Then, without ever consciously telling his muscles to do so, his sword was sweeping back up and rightward, slicing the throat of another midget and silencing it mid-warcry. Arterial blood spurted and it dropped its weapon and buckler to clutch at its throat in silence, but already unconscious and collapsing but a second later.
Here I have stood…
The oncoming throng kept coming at him again, and scimitars hacked out wildly at him, glancing off his shield, failing to cut through more than the first few layers of his gambeson, rebounding off his helm, bouncing off the mail covering his neck. In return he lashed out with his blade, cutting through one midget's thigh, then left across another's chest, then down through yet another's skull. Screaming started in the wake of his strikes. The dancing of the blade sent streaks of red blood splattering into the eyes of other midgets as the dead bodies stained the ground crimson.
Yet day after day I hold fast…
One of the midget warriors held in a hand a scimitar that, with a swing, burst with fire running down the entire length of its blade. Art nudged his shield just enough to block the stroke, and fend off the flames wrapped about it, and it passed on by, the warrior holding it overextending as a result of Art's block. With a slash of Art's sword he severed the creature's hand. As it fell away the flames shrouding the scimitar vanished and it landed stabbed into the side of the last midget Art had slain. Both the newly hewn warrior and the one who'd been stabbed twice joined the growing chorus of the dying.
The winds blow past, the rains pound down…
The warriors at the front who had seen the fates befalling their comrades froze up, tried to backpedal, yet were pushed forward by the press of the oblivious ones behind them. They raised their scimitars in an attempt to block, but pressed up close as they found themselves, they had no room to parry. They tried to block with their bucklers, but in the press of bodies could not see the movements of Art's blade and blocked blindly.
Month after month do we still stand…
And Art's sword found openings aplenty in between those tiny little shields, interdicting those attempting to open the other door of the gate and hacking their limbs right off. A slice of an arm, and a warrior cried out in pain, clutching its hand and trying to back way, getting in the way of others making for the door. A slice through a leg, and a warrior crumpled into the ground, clutching its bleeding stump before a downward slash of the sword severed its head. And then his sword was back in the front, stabbing into the heart of one warrior pressed up against his shield, then another, then another. In the press of the mob, they were held in place, forming a buffer of bodies that hampered their advance and hindered the swing of Art's blade.
Never changing, never budging, never yielding…
Gasps of pain from the fallen rose from all about him. Cries of terror from those in front overwhelmed the war cries of those in the back as more bodies fell, some falling injured to be swiftly trampled under by those who followed, others dead before hitting the gravel, yet others never hitting the gravel at all as the bodies around the gate started to pile up. Art almost lost his footing as he found himself standing atop red-skinned corpses.
Saplings grow and trees fall…
Over a dozen had died to his blade. It brought to mind several harrowing visions, one after another, of the fallen archers crumpled against walls, bodies broken, lying in heaps throughout those dark corridors. Slaughtered with such ease, as if their sacrifice meant nothing.
As Art surveyed the massacre, he thought of how this would afford at least a paltry shadow of vengeance for the devastation they'd visited upon the sisters of the Sightless Eye, and those unlucky caravaners -- the nameless one who'd been so utterly butchered came to mind -- how had failed to flee in time. These midgets had started to see the suffering they'd caused reflected back upon them. Just started, for Art was not yet finished with them. When he was done, they'd rue the night they'd set foot upon this cloister.
The press let up as the handful of midgets who remained standing, those at the back and had the freedom to back up, saw what had befallen their comrades. Art saw the uncertainty in their eyes as they stopped their advance and backed to six feet away from Art, not daring to venture a step closer. He saw them glancing at each other, waiting for another to charge at him first, pausing and realizing that none of the others wanted to be the first to close in on their foe.
The fallen midget warriors before his feet were clutching their wounds or reaching out their short little hands, making to grasp at Art's boots with their empty hands. With utter futility they flailed. He kicked one aside, not needing to prove the point.
That's right, he thought, time for these little creatures to feel the fear they'd inflicted upon their victims. No mercy for them, no, may the heavens damn them. They'd hacked and slashed until they'd fallen, and now Art held his blade above the fallen.
Art hacked his blade into the corpse of a midget by his feet, blood spurting up as the blade impaled the creature. It screamed in pain, the ring of it crystal clear for all the others to hear. It was not dead yet, then, the unlucky bastard. Then he pulled his sword out, and the screaming redoubled in volume. Then he stabbed again, and this time the creature's choking cry sounded weaker, gurgling as if its chest were filling with blood from its gaping wounds. I am merely repaying your deeds, you bastards, he thought. He stabbed, again and again, and again, making a mess of its entrails, each time eliciting another cry more feeble than the one before. Blood stains draped the wooden gates behind him, streaks going every which way. He did this while staring at the remaining midget warriors, as if to say, come here, let me make mince meat out of your flesh.
Some of the fallen creature's blood had splayed across his face, stained his lips. He flicked out his tongue, sensed the tangy taste of iron as he rolled it about his mouth, and grinned at them with what he knew to be a bloodstained rictus of a grin.
The midget warriors, grimacing from the sight of their former ally being so mutilated with such apparent diffidence by their killer, backed away, first one step, then another, looking at each other with uncertainty written on their faces as if none wanted to be the closest to Art should he decide to suddenly switch out of his defensive posture and lunge at them.
The one among their number that had woad paint over his face and chest shouted "Rar!" and charged at him. Art speared it through with his sword even as its scimitar glanced upon his round shield. Its screamed loudly and for a moment it flailed. Still staring at the rest of the midgets, as if daring them to follow this one to their deaths, he twisted his blade, causing blood to pour forth from its chest in a massive spray. He felt the creature go limp and sag, making only a soft guttural noise as blood streamed down to soil its loincloth and then drench its legs.
Art then picked it up by the scruff of its neck and threw it at the brazier to his left, a mere two meters away. The creature landed in with its neck on the brazier rim and its face in the fire. It wailed a piteous wail and shook its head in agony, trying to shake free. Too weak to stand, with its upper body essentially hooked on the edge of the brazier, it could do nought but flail and wail as it was cooked to death, the flames brightening, catching and spreading up its scalp and scarring its skin black. Within seconds it had fallen silent, its arms and legs twitching. It had screamed less than the man Art had seen burned to death by the shaman, but it had screamed no less desperately.
The rest of the midget warriors had backed up a few more steps, their bucklers out in front of them as if that could block Art's advance on them. Before Art's stare, they appeared frozen in place.
Art sighed. He'd succeeded in keeping them from getting past him. With each second he stood here, Selena would be getting further away…
Then he saw small figures approaching from the distance, only now coming into view as their red skinned bodies reflected the braziers by Art's side. With a sinking feeling Art realized that he'd underestimated the size of the invading force. That thunderous cry of "Rakanishu" sent up by the horde earlier had drawn the attention of those fallen who had been residing within the monastery.
Art adjusted his grip, raised his sword again before him. The whole of it, from point to pommel, glinted red with blood in the flickering orange light. Taking in a deep breath, he kept up the way of the monolith.
Indestructible, immortal, invincible…
He wasn't going anywhere yet.
The closest midget warriors had now backed away to ten, twelve feet away from him, with the mass of them further behind. Among them stood shamans, five, now six of them, towering like giants over the little ones. They seemed confused for a moment, as if not sure whether what they were seeing before them was real, a single human standing over a dozen and a half dispatched bodies, in his black gambeson, his round shield and helm bright red all over with blood.
Then two of them thumped the butts of their staves against the grass, orbs of fire ballooning above their crescent headpieces, before they pointed their fingers and the orbs of fire that they had conjured practically leapt at him. As the missile flew at him, its hurtling firelight added to the glow cast by the braziers.
For a hundred years here I have stood…
He blocked them with his shield, the flames dissipating upon impact and doing little more than to heat the air about him.
He stood his ground and stared at them from behind his shield. If that was all they had in them, they were never going to break through. Every second they dallied here, every second he kept them from passing through the gates, was a second more for Selena to get away.
The shamans continued to charge up their staves, continued to toss the balls of fire at him, striking from all angles. A third shaman, and then all the rest of them, joined in lobbing the spheres toward him. They threw them with great rapidity, several blasting into his shield each second, each one throwing waves of heat past him. He began to sweat beneath all the insulative layers of his gambeson -- the heat was starting to soak through.
For a thousand years we stand…
Within a few seconds the shamans had entered a unison, firing volleys at a time so that no matter how he shifted his shield before him, he could not block them all. Bolts of fire struck against his gambeson, forcing him to hold both the handle of his shield and the hilt of his sword in his left hand as he moved his right to pat out the flames before they could properly catch. Art squinted his eyes and almost fumbled, the pulsing light of flames slamming into him, blinding in all their coppery light.
For ten thousand years yet shall we all stand…
Fire wreathed his boots, forcing him to shake his legs to beat the fires out. A direct impact of fire against his helm scalded his forehead; he could feel a burn there. He realized, with a sinking heart, that he could not hold his ground for more than a few seconds longer.
Fire started to catch on his gambeson with more rapidity. It had heated too much, become too combustible for him to put it out with ease. Any more and he'd start to cook in his armor. He had to go, now.
He darted behind the opened door of the monastery gates and started to swing it shut. If he could get it fully closed, the midgets wouldn't be able to readily blast their way out. Well, not until they burned the doors down, since they were made of wood, and that would take a while. Here also he had the doors to block any incoming fire bolts. He strained with all his might to try to shut the door, leaning his back into it. But a second later the midgets were upon the gates, pushing them open and stabbing their scimitars through the gap -- he hadn't managed to shut them closed in time. With the pressure from the other side, he couldn't push the door closed any more, and with the weapons poking at him, he had to duck behind the open door. Meanwhile the other door was swinging open faster and faster…
Within seconds the midget warriors had flooded out past the open gate. As he saw them break through, he realized he had failed.