We assembled before the dawn was more than a suggestion, and ate our cold breakfast with slow care. As color entered the world, sunlight touching the golden leaves of the woodland, we checked our swords and other weapons, pulled on our chill helmets and settled the straps snugly. Berann muttered to herself her regret that she had not brought an extra quiver of arrows, and though I wondered how she hoped to buy time enough to use them all at such close proximity, I decided to say nothing.
I could see the enemy camp astir, and slowly but in orderly fashion, they came out. Orders passed and so did they, into the Arena, lining rank on rank as formally as if they came to perform an execution, not engage in battle. Close enough to truth, their hundreds in blue and silver, brightening with the sunlight of the growing day, against our hundred odd. We looked so motley, mostly in black and brown but with the few brighter clad of the citizens mixed in. As if by prior arrangement, we stood and looked at each other for a little, enemy to enemy before Evandir stepped forward from his place at my left, two strides into the Arena. He set the point of his sword in the dust and leaned his hands across his hilts, looking over that space at his men, and then I saw a strange thing.
Our enemies laid down swords and spears. Like a wave of motion, contagious, compelling, weapons went down into the dust, and even before the first rank had completed the gesture, there erupted a sound like a bellow and the Knight Rebmun charged to the fore, straight at Prince Evandir.
But I was before him; I leapt out screaming.
Mell says I howled something foolish on the order of ‘He’s mine!’ But I think I shouted more properly, “I challenge!” so that he had no choice but to swivel from the Prince and square himself to me.
I remembered what Thane Gehir had said, and how he had shown me the spot to strike. I hoped then, as Knight Rebmun loomed before me, that he was not too perfect, that in his complexities there could occur an error of vanity, or confidence, and I came out to meet him, catlike. He might be faster and better, he might be unbeatable, but right now to believe in any of those things would destroy my hope. This time, I had knowledge, and that had to do.
A baby was crying somewhere among the camp followers within the woodland. I let my eyes flick to one side and in that second of my apparent distraction Knight Rebmun struck. But I skipped, swung, missed, and stood beyond his reach for a breath. I must not let him guess my purpose, so now I set to making a good fight, my best fight.
I kept away from him as if afraid, trying him out, estimating what his speed could do. He had inhibitions against displaying his best, of course, so I delayed and danced, and did him no harm. He nearly caught me when he used that wrist trick of his double-joint and I darted in to feint a cut across his neck.
“Gren Del: Number 7091339. Dis en gage. stop. Implement auto shut down, Code 101 N,” I shouted, and I drove the point of my blade with every ounce of force I had right into the crevice of his armor at the inner part of his elbow. My whole arm jerked and buzzed as it had with the little black box in the hidden room, and I fell on my knees. But I had done it. Knight Rebmun stopped in mid gesture at my magic words. His left arm hung half-severed at the joint. Smoke poured from the wound, bright flashes as if I’d released hidden fire, and I smelled a dreadful scorching medicine. I yanked my buzzing sword free, and the disjoined limb fell onto the dirt.
The Thane had known not only the identity of this machine, but an incantation to cut its sinews. How I blessed his name in that moment. I saw the faces of Evandir’s troops as they backed away, a huge terror blossoming in their eyes. They had not known the nature of the leader they obeyed, and then at the last, disobeyed.
The rest of King Saahr’s army flung down weapons, knelt in the dirt, raised their hands in ancient gestures of forfeiture, supplication, renunciation. Many caught dust in their fists and threw it over their heads in rituals of cleansing, and I heard the moan of their voices rising to the Gods. They begged pardon in the many languages of their lands.
I turned to the golden Wall all awash with the sunlight, and the stilled soldiers on the top stood up like little black spikes above the sandstone height. Riveted, like spikes indeed. Then the Gates creaked open wide, and a discordant sound, of voices and cries contending swelled distantly in the City. Nothing erupted from those open gates. I began to walk to them, like a puppet whose strings are pulled by an unseen master. Feet thudded. I sensed Evandir just behind me, with Mell and Cascada and all my people after. Still, it sounded like more than that, and when I glanced back I saw with a shock of alarm that all the armies, it seemed, came at my back. They had left all weapons except their swords in the dust of the Arena, and I saw that Evandir carried with an effort, the heavy, severed arm of our enemy, and it dripped blue blood. It took both his hands to bear it.
We walked into the City, over the cobbles. The people met then parted for us, seething around the margins of the armies in strained silence save for the sounds of our feet and armor.
In the center of the first large intersection lay the body of an old man clad in maroon robes, unmarked save by the force of his fall, his gold crown a little dented, his far-sight fallen from his empty hand. No scavenger had approached the body, as though it must be unclean beyond the claims of greed. Had he leapt from the high room he had chosen to observe the ‘entertainment’ from, or had he been pushed? My own guess would be that he fell by his own choice, and no one has ever told me otherwise. After we passed him we began to make noise, people talking, louder and louder so they could hear themselves. I heard some horses behind me. The cold morning air tasted good and I felt a huge hunger wake in my stomach. I heard myself laugh at nothing, and looked back to meet Evandir’s glance.
We rode and stomped shouting through the streets, some of my people on commandeered carthorses and ponies, and Evandir’s troops mingling with mine. Up the steps of the Fortress we surged, a wave of delirious humanity, in through the doors flung open to welcome us, for news has a swiftness nothing but rumor can beat.
Through the halls of the Fortress we marched, and the sound of feet came like thunder. So strange to me, whose people had always walked with all the silence we could command, like the cats to which Prince Evandir had compared us, that seemed so long ago. But civilians and boots make noise, and within these holy walls the rumble rose. We stopped in the wide double doorway of the Assembly Room, and I saw our new King, King Daniel sitting quietly upon the throne. Behind him, his lady mother, Queen Heme in the garb of a soldier of the Wall, her bare sword in her right hand held in salute as she awaited us. I saw Kinspater, his hand raised in formal blessing and warning, his bearded face in holy ecstasy. He could not have been so happy, but he played happy very well. The ministers of the court and crowding Burgmasters stood behind and about the open walls, cringing a little, as if they could not feel confident of what we came to do.
Prince Evandir stepped past me.
He threw the arm down upon the floor where it leaked a smoking fluid that corroded the limestone as we stared. The fingers twitched a few times and a little sparking sound came from the limb.
Prince Evandir turned to the crowd that surged in behind us, the muscles in his jaw working as if he fought for words. He swallowed hard.
“People,” he shouted. “People look upon Abomination. This is what lies behind the friendship offered to you. This is the true hand of Saahr. The arm of Grendel.”
He strode to the massive fireplace in the abrupt silence, lifting his sword, and plunged it into the heart of the fire. Then he spun about and I saw the raw tears on his grimy face, running down into his beard and across his dirty cheeks. Ten long strides and he knelt before the throne, drawing his personal blade from the sheath on his breast. He lifted his big hand to King Daniel and slowly drew the gleaming sharpness over his own palm. As the generous drops fell, he waited, head raised, looking into King Daniel’s face.
King Daniel took the knife from his hand and as deliberately as Evandir, as unflinching, he drew it across his palm, and set wound to wound to claim his warrior.
The silence shattered around us.
“The time has come,” the voice of Thane Gehir spoke into my ear. “You are released from your oath. Burn your sword with my blessing, for your King Daniel awaits you upon his throne.”
“Will you come again?”
“Do you think I would miss seeing your daughter when she is born? Or the son who will look so much like his father that people will tease you about the resemblance and ask why his nose isn’t quite as crooked as his father’s? You will always be my own. Not because of any oath, but because of what and who we are.”
I turned my head but he was gone, not even the sight of his departing form visible in the seething crowd.
I went up to the fire by myself. I looked upon my sword, and raised it high, saluting its service in my heart before I plunged it to its ruin. Beautiful and shining, the steel permitting a line of orange to run brilliant along the sharpened edge. In my eyes also rose the tears of loss and of renewal. It hurt my heart to turn and thrust it into the hottest part of the flames, but it had good company.The two swords wavered blackly in the yellow heat. There they would rest. Only we two would burn our swords, for Evandir’s men were sworn to him and never turned from that loyalty. My people too, had been true to the Wall of their oaths.
Evandir’s officers and men gave way as I walked to the King’s throne and knelt. King Daniel had a certainty too grave for smiling upon his thin face but our eyes met and his held welcome. As I took out my personal blade and cut across my old scar, he extended his bleeding hand to mine, and so I made my second Oath, then I stepped to the side, taking my place with Evandir. My old enemy with the broken nose looked down at me, his smile like a promise full of warmth and pride. The other soldiers formed up, each in turn reforging the oath, my people and Evandir’s renewing ritual, erasing all old betrayals in their own and their young King’s blood.
The justice denied one people turns to working in another, the wound dealt
becomes wound taken.