Daughter of the Windswept Hills
Part Ten – We All Of Us Die
Night blanketed the lands, with a few stars shimmering through patches of clear sky in the clouds. The moon had not risen, and so all remained in a deep gloom. The lingering scent of smoke and ash hung in a still air. From the walls of the city, the defenders of Abas Sul dropped burning bundles of wood and rags and pitch, illuminating the area around the walls so that the Aedring could not approach during the night. Not all of the walls were covered, for the land dipped and rose in parts that proved difficult for the light of the flames to reach. Through these areas the Aedring were moving up, with all the stealth of wild animals, silent and unseen. Some had made their way down to the river, slipping into the water and wading along the banks with nary a sound or ripple to betray them. They carried with them ropes and muffled grapples with which to climb the walls. Out in the dark beyond the city, most of the Aedring waited until the small teams had scaled the walls and readied the way for them.
Fianna led the team at the river, pushing her way through the cold waters from the north, headed towards the walls which showed dark against the night’s sky. The river approach had been badly illuminated by the fiery bundles, giving them a way to the walls through the river that would minimise any chances of being spotted. A small band of around a dozen, they moved slowly, with a great deal of care, yet they made the walls with nary a sound, or a shout of warning.
The river gates had been dropped, barring entry through the river into the city, much as had been expected. Fianna led her band up out of the water, right up to the base of the wall. Ropes were unwound and made ready. Strong arms twirled them about and then cast them aloft. They sailed up through the air and fell over the parapets. The muffled grapples landed without giving away the presence of those below. Hauling back on the ropes, the hooks caught. Fianna swarmed up the first rope with the grace of one who had learnt to climb in rugged hill country, her sword across her back. Around or behind her, the rest of the Aedring started to climb as well.
A shout came just as she vaulted the parapets of the wall onto the battlements and her sword flashed into her hand. A guard, finally alerted to the attack, rushed to intercept her, lunging with his spear as he neared. She brushed it aside and cleaved at him with her sword. It bit through his leather armour and he fell backwards, blood pouring from his wound. His scream split the night and somewhere in the city a dog started barking. Others of the Aedring made the top of the wall, and rushed into the gatehouse over the river which housed the mechanisms to raise the river gates. Fianna stood her ground as more guards came at her, trying to prevent a catastrophe from occurring. Shouts and the clash of weapons came from within the gatehouse, only for a brief while, and then the gates began to slowly grind up.
Weapons thrust and swung as Fianna engaged the guards, a wild mood upon her. In the dull of night, she had the advantage, for she was much more accustomed to it than the men of the city who lived in the light even during the evening hours. One man she neatly ran through, before ramming her forehead into the face of a second as she sought to free her blade from the first. She kicked his body clear of the blade, sending him crashing back into another, knocking him to the ground. Her sword flashed again and the man dazed from the blow to his face fell, his head half severed from his neck.
One of the Aedring lifted a horn to his lips and blasted out a long signal into the night, while elsewhere warning horns sounded from the defenders, calling out to the defenders of the city.
“Hold the gate!” Fianna yelled as an arrow flickered from out of the night to punch into the shoulder of a hillsmen near by to her. The man grunted, took a hold of the shaft and snapped it off. The small band of Aedring took up position before the gatehouse, defending the opening they had made as out beyond the city came wild shouts as the gathered hosts of hillsmen surged forwards.
A clatter of horse hooves marked the arrival of more men. Below, Fianna could see a band of Hashalite mercenaries and her heart leapt at their arrival, for here was a foe worthy of battle. The Hashalites dismounted, strapping small shields to their arms and drawing their curved swords. Each group knew that this was the crucial fight for the fate of the city, for if the Hashalites emerged victorious, then they could close the gates, barring the way to the Aedring assault, but if they lost then the city was lost with it.
Men screamed as they charged up the stairs to the top of the wall, led by a tall Hashalite with a forked blue-black beard and a face like a hawk, wielding a two-handed tulwar. One of the Aedring leapt to engage him. Blades clashed and sparks flew and then the hillsman fell back, his guard breached. The Hashalite stepped over the body and threw himself at the rest of the Aedring, while behind him the rest of his men crested the steps onto the wall, and there, beneath the night’s sky, two races of men derided as barbarians by the civilised of the cities fought for the outcome of one of those cities.
Fianna pushed herself towards the tall Hashalite warrior, her sword parrying aside a strike from another man. She shoved him aside as she barged through, and he fell prey to a thrusting spear as he lost his footing. The Hashalite flashed a toothy smile as he saw her approach and raised his blade towards her.
“Come swordmaiden,” said he in an accent so thick that she could barely make the words out, “Let us dance this night.”
Fianna leapt full into the fray, unafeared, and their sword clashed together. The Hashalite had both the reach and strength over her, but she had the wild blood of the Aedring roaring through her heart, and the speed and cunning of a hunting cat. Time and again their blades met and rang, neither able to breach the defences of the other. All around them Hashalites and Aedring fought and died in bloody contest for control of the river gates.
Fianna hammered a strike in low, one driven by iron resolve and muscle, a blow which the Hashalite turned aside with his tulwar, sweeping it into a reverse aimed for her head. Narrowly did Fianna duck under it, hearing the scream of the blade as it whispered above her.
The sounds of the shouting rush of Aedring grew closer yet, and the blare of horns more strident. The fighting became more desperate as the Hashalites threw themselves upon the remaining Aedring upon the wall with desperate fervour. The tall Hashalite forced Fianna slowly backwards with a series of ripping blows, utilising his extra reach. All Fianna could do was block and parry, keeping the tulwar from her flesh. Her steady retreat led her up against the battlements of the wall, her back forced against it and there she stopped. No further options of retreat were available to her. The beast stirred within her, that part of her Aedring heritage that stared death defiantly in the face and spat in its eye. Like a wild, cornered animal she snarled and launched herself at the Hashalite in an unexpected move, hoping to get inside his reach, to take the fight to him and not give into despair, or surrender to it like many civilised men would do when faced with such odds. When at last she reached her end, it would be with sword in hand and defiance on her lips, as a true Aedring.
The Hashalite stood his ground and their two blades met and locked together. Both strained to push the other back, their muscles cording and veins straining. Over the locked blades they stared at the other, hard faced and steely eyes, neither budging an inch.
Between tight clenched teeth, Fianna hissed, “The way is barred. The gates will remain open. The city will fall.”
A sardonic grin flittered across the strained faced of the Hashalite warrior. “I told them that it was folly to raid the hills. I warned them of what they would unleash and they would not listen.”
“Then why do you stay here and defend this place?” Fianna asked, a moment of confusion showing in her eyes.
“Madness, honour. Who knows? Here I am, and here I stay.”
“Then here you shall die.”
“We all of us die,” he responded with the fatalism bred into the desertmen of Hashala, a fatalism not unlike that of the Aedring, “But if it is to be so, then I shall die here of my own choosing. How can man die better? But that fate has not yet been decided.”
With a great effort, he heaved against Fianna, forcing her back a step. As she went, her defences slipped, leaving her open and vulnerable. As the tulwar flashed down, she desperately tried to get her sword into position, yet she could see that it would not happen in time.
Yet before the tulwar could bury itself in her flesh, a blur darted before her and an Aedring took her place. He swung a hand axe, slamming it into the side of the Hashalite, though in return the tulwar clove into him, tearing through his collarbone deep into his chest. The Hashalite said not a word as he staggered away a few steps, a calm acceptance on his face before he fell over. His blood seeped from his beneath his body, to drip from the top of the wall. The Aedring warrior crashed down at Fianna’s feet, the tulwar lodged deep into his body.
The cry was torn from Fianna’s throat as she looked upon the pale face of her betrothed, one wrought with pain as a deep pool of dark blood spread out around him.
As she knelt down at his side, mindless of the blood, the Aedring crashed into the city, flowing through the open river gate or scaling the ropes left behind from the initial assault, spilling over the walls. She was still there when Hraega found her and the fallen Aifgar.
“We need to do something for him,” Fianna pleaded.
“There is nothing we can do,” Hraega told her gravely, resting a hand on her shoulder. “You know that.”
Aifgar’s mouth moved as he strained to talk, pain etched on his face. “I go now, my Peregrine, content. I die as an Aedring should. I will await your coming, but not any time soon. Fly free, my Peregrine, and live long.” Then his eyes fell closed and he was gone.
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