Death would come in the form of a thousand screaming Kalsaari slave-soldiers. They were close enough now that Ortega could see them through the clouds of dust kicked up by their march–short men, wiry like cats, their brass helmets and brass shields made dull and orange by the dirt and grime of a hundred league march.
They charged at the open gate with a kind of breathless urgency that meant they expected archers to be manning the walls. There had been, but they had all fled that night when they saw the cookfires of the enemy, counted the columns on their fingers and toes, and then eyed the flimsy arrows in their quivers. Ortega had not been surprised to find them gone. Levies were seldom reliable. Had Ortega a mind for irony or politics, he might have snorted at the idea that men would fight less fiercely to keep their freedom than those who had never tasted it.
Ortega, though, was born for war. It was all that occupied his thoughts as he waited for his killers, standing calmly in the open gate of Porto Nessum, his mageglass longsword point down, his gauntleted hands resting on the pommel. Feather light and sharp as broken glass, he knew the sword would serve him well today. He would not die alone.
The shields were what would do it, eventually. The leather jerkins they wore would barely slow down Ortega’s sword; their sabers were not equal to the plate-and-mail he wore as easily as a tunic and hose. The shields, though–it only took for his blade to get stuck once, and it would be over. Then he would be knocked off his feet, tackled to the earth, and their blades would find the places where he could be cut–his groin, his armpits, his face, his elbows, his knees. It would be a grisly death, slow and bloody. Part of Ortega relished it, wanted it to come. He knew suddenly that he had been waiting for this day for a long time, though it was seldom spoken of among the paladins of Rhond. He thanked the Great Shepherd, Hann, for bringing him to this place, this time. For bringing him this death.
Ortega did not know how many remained in the little town behind him. Many or most had fled with the levies the night before, despite his warnings. They would soon be run down by Kalsaari outriders, trussed up like cattle, and dragged back as slaves for market. None of them would get more than five leagues and the nearest fort was twenty distant. The Kalsaaris would not want word to spread of their attack, and they would see to it that it would not.
Not long now–perhaps two hundred yards. Ortega could hear them, shrieking in their foreign tongue. They could see him now for certain, and no arrows were falling from the wall. Some of the slave-soldiers slowed their pace, perhaps expecting a trap, perhaps willing to let their fellows get the first crack at the knight in the gleaming mail that stood blocking their way. The gate, barely wide enough to admit two carts side-by-side, would mean Ortega would face them no more than four or five at a time, anyway. There was no rush; they had all day to wear him down.
One hundred yards. Ortega took several long, deep breaths. The world narrowed into a sliver–himself, the gate, his sword, his enemies. The hot, dry air and the slow, idling breeze was like a balm to his racing heart. Was this fear? He had expected to be afriad at this moment. Most men would be afraid.
Fifty yards. It was not fear, it was excitement. Ortega assumed a ready position, his legs spread just beyond shoulder width, sinking into a half-couch. The sharply-tapered blade of his sword snapped up, pointing towards the first of the slave-soldiers. His hands wrapped around the hilt, holding it loosely enough to give him flexibility, but tightly enough that it could not be slapped from his hand. He took another breath.
Ten yards. The first man he would kill was no more than seventeen, a whispy beard clinging to his cheeks like moss. His dark eyes were wide; he saw his freedom in Ortega’s death. Such was the reward for good soldiers in the Kalsaari army. Ortega let the thought of it fill him with hate. A cold, dark feeling sank to the bottom of his stomach. He was ready.
A cut in fourth position, the boy’s saber held out too far, his shield away from his body–sloppy. Step left a half pace, beat the blade away, return stroke up along the same line as the boy’s arm to his neck. Ortega barely felt his sword pass through the boy’s neck. He heard the head hit the flagstones beneath his feet with a ‘clop’.
There are two of them now. Efficiency of movement–this is not a sprint. Ortega lets the one on the left strike down at his sword arm and merely pivots to let the blade glance off his shoulder pauldron. The second strikes low, a cut in eighth position, aimed at the shin. Ortega pulls his leg back, retreating a half pace. The second man is over-extended, but the first is ready to take another strike. A half-lunge and a short kick to man number two, right in the knee; he stumbles back. Hard cut at number one in sixth position. The shield comes up to block–the mageglass cuts through it like a down pillow. Severs the man’s arm–more blood. Ortega doesn’t hear the scream. Man number two holds his shield up as Ortega feints a high cut, but then swings low. His stomach is cut open, practically to the spine. His innards spill out.
Neither man dead, but neither left fighting. They fall back, dying in the dirt just before the gate. Three more replace them. How many seconds has it been? Five? Eight? Two? The three men advance as one, shields out (the damned shields!), sabers held at the ready. Ortega’s move, or he is boxed in. He advances, throws his shoulder into one shield–the man tries to meet him, but falls back. The other two strike at him–one, two, three blows. All hit his pauldron or breastplate. Their flurry of blows makes them sloppy with the shield again–it’s held out too low or too high. Step within the first man’s reach, bring the hilt into his face. The quillion takes him in the cheek, breaking bone and shattering teeth. Bring the sword down through the shield arm, backswing towards the second man–he retreats, but collides with his fellows. Men fall, swear, curse.
Ortega whirls, slashing out at another man, cutting his throat through, but not taking his whole head. Blood in his eyes. The world smells like blood.
They are on him now, too many to count. Ortega is a machine, every step and every cut an extension of his years of training. He hears his old master, Bolto, known as ‘Molto Bolto’, barking in his ear. Advance, cut, retreat, pivot, guard, again! Blade up! Watch the shields! Watch the damned shields, boy!
It is difficult work, slaughtering men. Ortega is sweating beneath his armor, his heart pounds like a marching drum. He hears the horns of the troopmasters now. The whip is cracking at his enemy’s rear. Step within guard, strike to instep with forward foot, cut in four, guard in six, pivot, retreat, beat in eight, return in five. The shields, boy!
Molto Bolto had one eye, lost in a crusade in some war Ortega could not now remember. It did not seem to have dulled his senses, though–he sparred without reserve or remose. The heavy wooden practice blades rained on Ortega’s hands and head and body for hours on end. Pain is the path to greatness, boy. No one ever became great in comfort.
Another head cut free from its moorings. The bodies have become and obstacle to his foes. They trip over the dead, they are clutched at by the wounded and dying. Some try to flee from him, and Ortega lets them. It is chaos at the gate. He keeps them to his front and flanks as much as possible, but still men get behind him. He whirls and cuts, keeping himself in control, but he is frantic. The bloody shields! His grip in the hilt is sticky with blood and sweat. His armor is dented, spattered crimson. Not long now. Guard in four, short kick, pommel to brow, pivot, advance, cut to three, watch behind you!
Would they build a statue to him? Ortega didn’t know. These things were decided by priests and merchants, not paladins. Anyway, he wouldn’t be there to see it. Watch behind! Your cape, boy! Keep it on! It guards your back, makes the enemy uncertain where to strike. Drop it now and it will tangle your legs. Guard in six, riposte to four, pivot, pommel to brow, repeat! Again!
The first wound is to his calf–a weak cut, not deep enough to sever tendons, but painful. The hot blood runs down into his boot. Footing is already slick. The man who struck it dies with Ortega’s sword thrust through his spine. A man from behind siezes his cape–Ortega slips the clasp and lets it go. The man who took it lost his shield–he dies easily. More blows rain on him; they are pressed in close now, corps-a-corps. Not long now.
The slave who tackles him is a giant of a man, a full foot and at least sixty pounds heavier than Ortega. The paladin’s helmet strikes the flagstones hard enough to make his teeth sing. The big slave, though, is already dead–Ortega’s sword thrust through him to the hilt. Stuck. Gone. It was almost over.
Ortega rolled, remembering the wrestling lessons Molto Bolto had given him. He had hated wrestling. Bite, gouge, spit, pinch, twist–there is no honor in wrestling, so have none. No, boy! Make it hurt! THIS is how you bite! THIS is how you gouge!
The helmet spared the slaves his bites, but his gauntleted thumbs gouged the eyes out of some as he rolled and kicked. He did not scream or swear–he hadn’t the breath. He needed to fight, to keep fighting. He reached for his dagger–his arm was pinned. A blade cut into his elbow, slipped beneath his ribs. The pain was weirdly dull beneath the pounding of blood in his head and the stampede of his heart.
He thought of his sister. He hadn’t expected to, and it stunned him. Would she be married to a good man? Who would pay her dowry now? Would his death ruin her? He had never thought of that. The last moments of his life, and these were his thoughts? He tried to think of Hann as a snarling Kalsaari slave shoved a dagger through his helmet, cutting his cheek open. Blood filled his mouth–he put his fingers in the slave’s eyes and squeezed. They screamed together.
Hann’s face did not appear. There was only his sister, sitting beneath the olive tree in the garden, smiling at him beneath a wide, white hat. He could hear her laughing, see her opening her arms to embrace him, but there was Molto Bolto, hissing in his ear. Bite, gouge, roll, kick, spit, use the blood in your mouth to blind them boy! Make a name for yourself! Growl your last breath!
Ortega pushed him away. He instead spread his arms for his sister’s embrace. “I’m sorry.” he said through bloodstained teeth. “This was selfish of me.”
The Death came, in the form of a dagger through the eye.