War and Victory

Sparks spiraled around her like stinging flies. The man trying to kill her stumbled over the body of another soldier, she didn’t know whose, and limped forward hefting his sword. He was wounded, but she was down on her knees trying to breathe.

The flames above them rolled over the ceiling beams eating the wood and twisting iron. She was dead, by fire or sword or smoke, this was her end. He raised the blade, its point aimed towards her heart beneath her silver mail. There was no anger, no righteous might in his grimace. Only pain and fear set his jaw and blurred his eyes, a mirror to her own expression.

The roof shrieked and the oak beams wrenched loose amidst the fire, trailing flames like banners as they fell. The first took his leg with a scream that might have been his; the second ended it as the heavy wood crushed his shoulder and skull.

She shoved herself backwards from the burning pile of limbs and ceiling. Any attempt to breath had her mind dizzy and her throat burning. She stumbled to her feet, thick wound across her calf sending clenching pain up her body, she couldn’t see through the bright haze and black smoke.

Metal fingers wrapped around her shoulder and yanked her backwards.

Her fingers went to her empty scabbard and the sword no longer there. It was lost, as were the knives from her belt and boot. With no weapons left she struck out with her gloved hands, fingers scrabbling over the gauntlet as her captor dragged her over the blood soaked debris and burning floorboards.

In response he shook her. “Calm yourself girl. You’re half dead already.”

The night air was icy against her skin and the cold hurt her lungs almost as much as the smoke had, raw and burnt as they were. Her captor dropped her unceremoniously to the ground, her head hitting the dirt.

Around her not a single building remained untouched in the small village. Worse piteous human shaped lumps lay about the wide street. The closest wore a blacksmiths apron its chest dark and wet. There were more, and she avoided looking towards them, especially the smaller ones. Somewhere in the distance a horse screamed in pain as she looked upwards, trying to breath. Even the sky was red, reflections of flame in the billowing smoke.

“Little young for a soldier.” The man who’d dragged her from the burning hall commented looking down at her silver mail and the gilded empty sheath at her hip. His armor was black with soot and dented past use, but the green of her family fluttered in rags across his shoulders. “Some richling squire then. Where’s your knight?”

She eyed the herald and then the dark eyes he leveled at her. “Dead.” She rasped and the words set her coughing and curling to the side.

He just nodded and watched her hack her way to wheezing breathes. When the fit subsided she attempted to push herself up and was promptly flat on her back again, his boot hard on her chest. “That leg wound might still make a cripple out of you. Don’t antagonize it.” He commanded gruffly. Her instinctual struggle ended when her exhausted limbs refusing to fight against his weight. “Your knight?” He asked.

“Sir Iroyer.” She only coughed a little through the words. Now that ugly death no longer loomed the weight of her failure set in. Sir Iroyer was dead, crushed beneath a horse and then finished by some nameless soldier. It had been noise and fear for so long, but she could remember the red of throat now. “I couldn’t—he.”

“— was a careless man.” The gruff soldier finished. He raised his boot, allowing her to breathe and shift a little.  “He’s buried two squires girl. Glad one finally outlived him.” There was an unkind smile somewhere in the creases near his eyes.

“But I—“

“Survived.” He cut her off again and looked down, his firm gaze reproachful. “That’s how wars are won. We lived and they didn’t.” He looked up, catching some sign in the distance. She could hear the faint sounds of horns. Reinforcements, the General’s forces if she remembered the signal right.  “Victory means you breathing at the end of it, even stuck to the dirt and looking like death. Enjoy it.”

Surprisingly, looking up at the red haze of the sky, the ruins of the village in piles around her, she did. Being alive felt good.

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