War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 31
< Brother — ! > he heard Walsharno begin in the depths of his brain, and the courser’s head was swinging to the right, as well.
“Ware right!” he shouted, and Walsharno was surging forward, swinging to face that silent sweep of trees, moving between them and Tellian as the first venomous arrow shafts came sizzling out from under them.
Something buzzed viciously past Bahzell’s ear. Something else struck his breastplate like a mallet and bounced away, ripping the green surcoat of the Order of Tomanāk and scoring a bright line across the polished steel. He heard shouts of alarm, screams, the bark of almost — almost — instant commands from Tarith, and he flung himself from the saddle. He hit the ground already running, followed by Walsharno’s bitter, wordless protest, but the courser knew better than to voice his complaint, for whoever had chosen the ambush site had chosen well. Those trees were simply too dense for something Walsharno’s size, even with a courser’s impossible agility. There were too many places under their branches where a man with a blade could get close enough to use it, and there was no place at all where Walsharno could have made use of his speed and size.
“Come!” Bahzell cried, and a five-foot blade answered his summons, materializing in his right hand even as he charged towards that impenetrable wall of trees. His fingers closed on the familiar, wire-wound hilt, and his left hand found the basket-hilted dagger at his belt.
“Tomanāk!” he heard Vaijon’s shout and knew the other champion was no more than a stride or two behind him. More arrows whizzed past him and a human voice cried out — in agonized denial, not pain, this time — but he had no time for that. The shade of the trees reached out to him, and he saw the muted gleam of steel as someone rose out of the shadows before him.
The warcry bellowed out of his own thick throat, and the sword in his hand — a massive, two-handed weapon for any merely human arm — lashed out in a lightning thrust that ended in a gurgling shriek as a foot and more of glory blade drove clean through his victim’s chest.
The spasming weight slid off his sword, but another assailant came at him from the left. He engaged the newcomer’s saber with his dagger, twisting his wrist, locking the blades together. He drove the human’s sword out and to the side as he recovered his main weapon, and more steel rang and clashed beside him as another unfortunate assassin found himself face-to-face with Vaijon of Almerhas.
There were more of them than he’d thought, Bahzell realized, and slammed a knee into his opponent’s crotch. The other man saw it coming and twisted, managing to block with his thigh, but he was a foot and a half shorter than Bahzell. The brutal force of the blow lifted him off the ground and knocked him back several feet, and Bahzell saw his face twist in horror as he realized the hradani had gained enough space for his swordarm. He threw his own left arm up in a futile blocking gesture…just in time for that enormous blade to come down, sheer through his forearm, and half sever his head in a fountain of blood.
Bow strings were still twanging, but not as many of them, and at least a half dozen more men were coming at Bahzell and Vaijon. Most of them seemed to be armed with the normal Sothōii saber, but others carried shorter, heavier blades, and he saw at least one battleaxe among them. He gave back a step, falling into place with Vaijon on his left, and his own sword came thundering down in a brutal, overhead stroke that split a man’s head from crown to chin. He kicked the body aside as two more attackers split up, trying to come at him from both flanks at once, but then the one on his right turned with a panicky expression as Brandark came hurtling into the fight. Unlike Vaijon and Bahzell, the Bloody Sword was unarmored, yet that made him no less deadly, and the man who’d turned to face him went down with a high, wailing scream as Brandark opened his belly.
Steel clanged and belled, grunts of effort turned into screams of anguish, and a dozen of Tellian’s armsmen surged into the woods on Brandark’s heels. No Sothōii would fight on foot if he had any choice at all, and no one would ever confuse them with properly trained infantry when they did. For all their mounted discipline, individualism was the order of the day when they simply had to fight on foot. But these Sothōii had profited from exposure to Bahnak of Hurgrum’s infantry, and they’d taken the lesson to heart. They hit the woods as an organized unit, driving in under the branches, and they’d brought their light shields with them.
There was something hard and dangerous about the way they shouted their warcries, something with more than the usual Sothōii ferocity behind it, and the sounds of combat were ugly as they slammed into the ambushers. There were no more bows firing now; there was only the desperate clash of steel, screams, and somewhere on the other side of the trees the thunder of hooves as at least some of the attackers got to their horses.
He cut down another opponent. Then another, and they were no longer coming at him. Instead, they were trying desperately to get away, and he felt the Rage, the bloodlust of his people, rising within him. But the Rage had become his servant, not his master, over the years, and he controlled it with the ease of long practice as he, Vaijon, and Brandark hammered forward on their enemies’ heels.
Someone on the other side was shouting orders. Bahzell took down yet another of the attackers and chanced a look in the direction of all the noise, and his eyes narrowed as he saw a small knot of archers who still retained their bows. They were clustered around the one doing all the shouting, and the loud fellow was pointing urgently in the direction of the road. The archers raised their bows, taking careful aim at whoever he was pointing out, and Bahzell threw his dagger in a flat, vicious arc.
It was a long throw, especially left handed, even for Bahzell Bahnakson, but the blade flickered in sunlight and shadow as it flashed straight to its mark. It went home with a grisly, meaty thud, driving quillon-deep in his target’s collarbone. Over two inches of bloody steel projected from the man’s back, his commands died in a gurgling crimson spray, and the sheer force of the dagger’s impact lifted him from his feet and hurled him into two of the archers who’d been listening to him.
That was enough for all those archers. Whatever force of will their leader had used to hold them together vanished with his death. They scattered, most of them discarding their bows so they could run faster, and Bahzell smiled in satisfaction through the cold, icy focus of the Rage. An assassin who’d been coming at him saw that smile and tried frantically to brake, but he was too late. Before he could stop, he ran into a steel whirlwind that crashed through his feeble attempt to parry and split his skull.
“Oath to Tomanāk!” someone shouted. “Oath to Tomanāk!”
“Damn it!” Brandark grated. “I hate it when they do that!”
Bahzell grunted a harsh, unamused laugh, but the Bloody Sword only snarled.
“You think they’d show the least damned bit of interest in letting us surrender if we were the ones shouting it?” he demanded as the man he’d been about to skewer threw away his sword and raised his hands.
“Likely not,” Bahzell conceded. Another of the ambushers went to his knees, and the Horse Stealer grunted again — this time in disgust — as the gripped the man by the nape of the neck and lifted him back to his feet. His unfortunate captive squealed in pain as he was hauled onto his toes and Bahzell half-threw and half-shoved him back towards the high road.
“I’m thinking you’d best not do one damned thing I could be taking as breaking your oath,” he told the would-be assassin, and the man nodded desperately. Another one of the attackers tried to fade into the shadows, only to freeze as Bahzell cocked his head at him.
“You just go on running,” the hradani encouraged coldly. “Those as don’t come quiet when they’ve given oath to Tomanāk, why, they’re not protected by it, now are they?”
The human stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, then nodded even more violently than Bahzell’s first prisoner and started stumbling back towards the high road himself. Vaijon had rounded up a prisoner of his own, and Brandark sent the man who’d surrendered to him hurrying after the others with the Bloody Sword’s sword tip prodding him to encourage more speed.