A horse screamed and I heard it thundering riderless down the lane. Riderless? It was then I realized I saw the animal as well as heard it. Calm poured through me steadying my nerves. Was it simply that my Da had raised me and put me on a certain path? Was it that I’d learned even more the hard way from the Lakesiders – a people very skilled at night attacks – what was smart tactics and what was not? I’m not sure but I had to ask myself what kind of fool attacks in the light of the full moon when his opponent holds the high ground?
I smelled smoke and realized they were trying to hide behind a backfire but they had reckoned without the fact that it had been so wet not a week earlier. This land was far different from the Outlands; wet took a lot longer to dry out. The dead grass had already been sheered and thinned and fields plowed in preparation of planting, and the trees were ripe with sap leaving little for the fire to even catch on. So long as we could keep them away from the buildings and the barns, fire was not the weapon they had planned on it being. There weren’t even many haystacks left for them to light, and those that had remained after their attack a month before had been moved to more secure and protected areas.
Then I saw the enemy creeping along the orchard and through the hedgerows. They moved slow and I decided to teach them even more caution.
I favor a long bow. I’ve had people laugh at me for it saying it was nearly as long as I am tall but that’s not quite the truth although the weapon is more than half my length. But the results aren’t just due to the bow but how many pounds you can pull. My Da could put a metal headed tip clean through a small tree with his pull. I’ve never been able to duplicate his strength but my accuracy is nothing to sneeze at within my range. And that range was enough given my vantage point.
Jonah’s archers could throw a mass of arrows three hundred yards from their positions but it was for volume not accuracy. They took down some men but not enough to warrant more than a volley or two of such capacity. Had they kept it up they would have wasted too many arrows. Me on the other hand, I was deadly within a hundred yards needing barely a moment to aim and I did well enough as far out as a hundred and fifty yards so long as there was no rush and I could get the wind and direction to favor me. On very rare occasions I’ve shot accurately up to two hundred yards but that was with the wind behind me and lots of luck riding on the fletching.
This night there was no wind to drive the few fires that had been set which meant there was none to spoil my aim. As soon as any raider came within my range and sight I sent an arrow their way. I didn’t even have to affect a killing shot as a nick would soon have the man down from my poisoned tips. As soon as I noted caution from one direction I would switch windows and pick off more from another … and teach them a dose of caution as I had the others. As a single shooter I drew no attention and never suffered an attack on my position. We kept them at bay for over an hour but given the number of men with the raiders it couldn’t last forever.
A volley of flaming tar-tipped arrows came in next and it took time to put them out. That time allowed the raiders to work their way closer. I did what I could. I watched for the telltale flicker of the torches being used to light the arrows and I would send my own arrow into the bodies at that spot. I didn’t always strike but it made them jumpy. That’s when they brought their makeshift catapults.
The boys of my town would play war and practice with these oversized slingshots by shooting rotten gourds at each other’s positions. The boys had stationary uprights that operated much like a bow laid on its side. Two boys would brace the uprights and a third would load, cock, aim, and then fire which would chuck the rotten fruit in the appropriate direction and much further than one could ever be thrown by hand.
These raiders were doing the same thing only the slingshots were portable and could be moved from position to position, and instead of rotten gourds they were chucking fire pots at us. The one disadvantage to the weapon is that the operators had to get into the open in order to shoot it and I wasn’t the only archer that caused a flaming mess to explode before it could be released.
By two hours it was a war of attrition. They would move forward then be forced to retreat. Come forward again under a volley of arrows that would cause casualties on our side then we would pay them back and kill them until they retreated once again. A few times they came close to damaging the house and outbuildings. I had to go out onto the roof more than once to put out lit tar splatters; and at one point was forced to rip part of my skirt off up to my thigh when it caught fire when I slipped near the edge. An outbuilding got singed deeply before it could be brought under control but eventually the enemy rain out of fire to throw at us.
Both sides of the battle lines were now well passed their first wind … and possibly their second as well. Adrenaline can only carry you so far before a body cries for rest. I have no idea how long the raiders had been on the move; they had to have run in quickly against the village because their presence hadn’t been noticed and given the number of raiders I was seeing, a force of that size would have been obvious to all but a blind and deaf post. Our men had been hard at work all day and were tired as well, but we had what my Da called home field advantage. And we used it well.
Their last assault almost broke us. They came at us in the shape of a wedge with the thick point facing our front line. When the point reached and engaged us, still unable to break our line, the outer wings of their assault swept out and tried to flank us. We had marshaled many men to meet the point and as a result our sides had thinned. Their strategy almost succeeded. But as my Da always said, almost only counts in horseshoes and fire pots. A few men made it onto the porch of the house, I heard splintering wood and breaking glass, but they were quickly cut down by our own injured who had refused to do any more than pull back for a bandage to stop the flow of blood and return to provide rear guard support for those that remained on the line.
Then the tide turned. We had them on the run and everyone knew it was demolish them here and now or have them come back another day to try again. Our men assembled and took off after the enemy.
Soon the bulk if the enemy was in full retreat but that did not mean they were not still dangerous. I watched Cor and the Captain leading a contingent … and then I sensed it. A feint much like they had pulled before.
I wanted to scream a warning but it was too late and they wouldn’t have heard me anyway. From the sides came a band of a dozen men, and then more men jumped up where they had been camouflaged to engage us to allow their brethren to escape. The Captain and Cor were pulled from their horses. I saw the Captain gain his feet, saw his sword flash, saw men running to their aid … then … then I saw Cor being dragged back to the house. He didn’t move on his own. And even from the distance I was I knew the wound was bad, perhaps fatal.
In the moonlight the blood that covered him looked black and silver and something in me snapped. The shutter was nothing; it burst away from me like it was rice paper. I slid down the wall, across the porch’s roof, and then down the columns of the veranda. I shot arrows until my quiver was empty … as empty as my mind and heart had gone of all that was good. Then I grabbed the nearest weapon, a war hammer that rose from the skull of an enemy raider who wore the cotton clothes of a neighboring territory. It was like a pick axe that had one side forged into an axe blade.
The weight of it in my hand felt good. The battle scream that exited my throat felt even better. Right in a way nothing had felt right in a long time. It was at that point that all the civilizing that my Da had pounded into me from birth left and I was fully Outlander for only the second time in my life.
War hammer in my right hand and green river blade in my left I attacked viciously anything and anyone that got in my way. Death had nothing to do with it; neither did leather or cotton or color or age or affiliation. My only purpose and satisfaction was to rend and maim, to cause what pain I could until they fell away and then went on to the next body that presented itself to me. It had nothing to do with fairness or justice or even emotion. All I cared about was being the instrument of vengeance against the monsters that had dared to touch those under my care. I was the black ghost, the poison spirit, and the deadly stonecoat all combined into one. No one could touch me, I was smoke; but every time I touched them they fell … many began to run but I was not going to let them go without paying a price for the pain that surrounded me on all sides.
Then a monster equal to the one I was becoming attacked me from behind. I rolled and came up swinging. He hadn’t expected that and I sliced across his exposed chest drawing a hiss of pain from his misshapen mouth.
My monster was on the inside screaming to crawl onto my skin and take up residence there for eternity. His already lay across him like a well-worn cape. I recognized him for what he was … people eater, soul eater, trickster that led the men who followed him to their death.
We traded blows. He was large and powerful but I was small and fast. He saw nothing but a puny woman. My puniness hid a lifetime are hard won experience in the art of pain … both the giving of it and the surviving it.
His wide, swinging blows caused me no fear and only gave me time to run underneath his arms and prick him like an ever annoying mosquito. Where I suffered a few cuts, his body was became covered with many and they all streamed his life essence.
“What are you?!” he hissed spraying rabid spittle.
In a voice tinged with madness I told him, “I go by many names. Jokao, Asin, Binaye Ahani, Nunyenunc, Witico, Tzeltal … more names than you can ever know from the deepest waters to the tallest mountains to the darkest forests. Not even the strongest warrior can stand before me. And this is MY land and these are MY people you worthless worm. You came where you were not welcome and you … will … pay … the … PRICE!!”
I launched myself at him. I no longer cared whether I lived or died, but the one standing before me would cease drawing breath if it was the last thing I did on this plain of existence. My hammer was blocked by his axe … but my blade slipped passed his defenses and cut a deep sliced across his throat. Sensing the approach of his Maker fear replaced fire as his eyes began to cloud with death. With one last heave he threw me from him, catching me a painful blow on my head.
The last thing I remember before the darkness claimed me was stumbling and grinning as the monster toppled. I screamed in triumph and men ran from me in all directions, running from the woman who just barely remembered once being Fel McConnell.