Chapter 22: Rosamar

I'm not nearly ready for this, but I have to be.

The earth goblins have arrived, I was arrested this morning, rescued by King Caspian a mere hour ago. And now I have no choice but to lead the faeries into a battle that not all of us will survive, I know it.

I have no idea what to do.

"You don't have to be here, you know," I tell Caspian, more to fill the tense atmosphere than because I think he'll listen.

"I know." This is his only reply before urging Destrier onward toward the dull clamor of marching earth goblin feet.

I suppose that is his way of reminding me that he doesn't intend to go anywhere. Before this, it frustrated me, that determination to help us in spite of the danger to himself because I knew what the consequences would be should something truly drastic happen to him. It would be much worse than the events of this morning, I know. And yet now, I find that I'm only astoundingly grateful for the help of one so much more skilled than myself or the faeries in warfare.

"Thank you," I whisper, fully expecting the wind formed by our frantic ride to whip my words away before he hears them.

But one of his hands leaves the reins and clasps mine for the briefest moment, and I know then that yes, he heard me.

And then the roar of the approaching army reaches its crescendo as we burst into the clearing. There are the faeries, formed up into ranks with weapons gleaming from the light they naturally cast off. Were the situation less dire, I could admire the striking figure they cut a little better.

As soon as we're beside them, I jump from the still-moving horse and draw my dagger, the one Caspian remembered to take back for me. The faeries all send a ribbon my way, so many at once that I can't make out individual strands; I only see the mass of colorful lights flowing towards me. They join together and wrap around my dagger, transforming it into a beam that almost sheds as much light as a sun on the creatures behind me.

"After this, I hope we never have to fight again," I say firmly, ensuring that I let them feel the resolve building in my chest. They meet the swell of adrenaline more than I ever could have asked for. But before I can try to communicate just how proud I am of what we have become together, the earth army bursts from the trees ahead, waving all manner of roughly hewn weapons that have no other purpose than inflicting the most painful of injuries.

Darin appears at my right side, and Caspian at my left. These are the two friends I had to entrust this task to when it became too big for me to handle all on my own, and now that it's come to this I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have standing beside me.

I take a deep breath, raise my still-shining dagger – well, sword now, and lead us forward with a yell that is so unlike me, but somehow very fitting right in this moment. We sprint through the grass, weaving when we have to in order to avoid the sharp tips, with our weapons raised to meet the army's. They run, and we run. For breathless moments, all is still as we race at each other headfirst; I get the strange thought that here is the heartbeat before the storm.

Then all at once, the heartbeat ends and the storm breaks with a fury that almost sends me reeling. The first earth goblin to swing its spiked club at me meets a bloody but brief end on my blade, and that one is quickly followed by a second, and a third, on and on until I lose track of how many I've killed and how many cuts and bruises each of them inflict on me in turn.

I quickly lose sight of both Caspian and Darin, but I don't have the time to worry with their fates just now. In the heat of my first battle, my world has shrunk to the half dozen or so enemies who are the closest to me. I'm only yanked from my battle stupor by cries of a faerie as it's wounded, and then I fight and hack my way through as many evil things as I have to. Sometimes I'm too late, and those are the times that it's so tempting to just lay down and cry, battle be damned. But whenever giving up even enters my mind, I just look around me, inevitably see another faerie fighting, and I leap back into the fray if only to protect that one faerie that I can see.

Every time I reach one who's struggling before the death blow is dealt, the whole thing is worth any tax on me.

But this is far worse than I was prepared for, and I have to work to shut out the ugly sounds of battle and blood and war cries far too savage to be uttered here. I'd never heard a blade actually tearing through flesh before, and I find that it sounds the same whether it's an enemy's flesh or a faerie's. I never wanted to know that.

If this is hard for me, how much harder is it for the faerie's, who are, in many ways, far more innocent than I? How are they managing this, something so far outside anything they have experienced? Yet when I reach out to see what they're feeling, I don't encounter nearly the fear and sickness that I was expecting. They are made of strength, these creatures I protect.

In a way, I wish they didn't have to be, but more than anything else I'm just glad that this doesn't seem to be completely destroying them inside, at least not yet.

I don't have time for thoughts like this; a flash of pain in my shoulder reminds me of the sobering fact. Cringing and gritting my teeth as I do, I swing wildly at the snarling earth goblin. By some miracle, my aim is true and another splatter of enemy blood paints my clothes and face as the enemy falls with a hole in its neck.

Another attack comes before I can wipe the grime from my eye, and so I block and duck and swing with one eye closed. I know the blood will burn if it gets in my eye, and something about having any bit of these earth goblins in my body is unacceptable. That costs me in the form of another rip in my skin, this time in my side.

As before, I have to ignore the blood dripping from the fresh wound in favor of hacking down another grotesque creature. Already, exhaustion is turning my movements slower and clumsier than when I started, and it's starting to feel very much like trying to move through molasses.

Things start to settle into a hazy sort of perspective, one where I'm not so sure if this is truly happening or if I've actually lost consciousness and the rest of this is just a bloody dream. But no, the pain in my shoulder and side are sharp enough to keep my focus from crashing completely.

I hate that this is real.

The battle rages on in a blur, until I'm not even sure where anyone else is; I can only see the enemy, either as they come racing toward me or as they turn to make a swing at my head or nearest limb. My world shrinks even more, until it only consists of one enemy at a time. The narrower focus means more cuts and scratches bloom any time I so much as blink.

My training can only help so much, and now, with blood getting in my eye in spite of my repeated attempts to wipe it away and my wounds stinging as the air hits them and the constant need to fight for my survival, the lessons are practically meaningless. I don't remember to block when I should, nor do I keep the stance I practiced for days, hours, weeks. I can only lunge and throw my blade in front of another and hope that it somehow works in my favor. As my strength continues to wane, it works less and less.

A sound I've heard only once before cuts through my stupor and unbalances me with its nearness. I stumble sideways, almost trip on a scaly lump, and promptly scream. My terror is punctuated by a hiss that freezes me in my spot and makes the scream die on my lips.

There is indeed a snake, it's here, and I just tripped over its very alive body.

I almost scream again, but I forget how when the scaly green head rears up inches from my face and the forked tongue darts out and burns my cheek where it touches. This snake must be leading the whole thing; as soon as it's appeared in front of me, no other earth goblin attacks me. So I'm to be the snake's meal then?

"So this is all you," I whisper, stumbling backward and lifting my blade that still flickers dimly at the beady little eyes that practically glitter with glee.

"Verrrry good, little one," it answers with a voice as dry as sand that spends extra time on consonants.

"Why?" This one question lingers in the air, but the snake only hisses out a laugh in response.

"All lands must have a queen," it says, slithering its way toward me even as I continue to scrabble away.

"A snake is no queen." My voice trembles, but I spit out my reply as venomously as I can. The snake just laughs again.

I notice my blade trembling in my hand, but I can't afford to give in to my horror now, not when my failure means the destruction of this entire world. If I can defeat this thing somehow, some way, I can make this place safe again. This is what Aunt asked me to do.

With Aunt's face when she first gave me the pendant searing in my mind, I take my first lunge at the snake, the source of all of Tanssi Kuun's troubles. It dances away, swaying from side to side as if to taunt me, so I swing and swing and swing again.

It alternates between hissing at me and weaving around my attacks, but I quickly learn that I need to wait for it to attack me; the offensive is doing nothing for me other than tiring me out. Perhaps that is precisely what the snake's intention was. So I settle back into my heels, raise my blade again, and wait for its next move.

I wait for much longer than I'd expected. The vibrant green serpent just sways back and forth, either sizing me up or deliberately taunting me. Didn't anyone tell this thing not to play with its food? My own mother made sure I knew not to play with mine.

"Snakes have no manners then," I say aloud, hoping to bait it into making a move. This strategy doesn't work, and I'm left with more waiting. Holding up my blade proves taxing; it shakes in my grip sooner than I'd have liked.

It's at that moment that the snake finally makes its move.

Before I even know what on earth has happened, it flashes toward me, I throw myself away, and a burning gash opens in my leg. As I fall toward the ground, I can't help my squeaks of pain, though I do my best to keep it quiet. I don't want someone rushing to my aid and then paying the price in blood.

The snake darts for me again, and it's all I can do to roll out of the way. The fangs sink into the ground barely a breath from my head, and I have to roll again as it rears up for another strike.

Another burst of blinding pain explodes across my body, this time in my injured shoulder. I scream then, but even as I do I make a half hopeless swing at the thing with my blade.

For the first time since it appeared, my dagger meets scaly flesh and an ear-crushing shriek rises from the evil in front of me. I allow myself a small smile of relief before pushing myself to my feet and lunging again. Once more, my aim finds its target, and another shriek sounds. I want to hold my hands over my ears against the chilling sound, but every time I hear it, that means Tanssi Kuun is that much safer.

I attack again and again, until I lose all sense of it. If I see green, I dive with my blade in hand, and if it gets too close I hurdle myself out of its path the best I can. Sometimes, this means I escape the pointed scales, and other times they sing across my skin and tear it away.

For a while, I can almost forget how exhausted I am. But the time comes, far too soon, when I can't ignore it anymore and my swings again deteriorate in speed and accuracy. Now, when the snake injures me, I don't even have the energy to cry out; instead, my eyes water and my blood rushes through my veins a little faster.

This is, perhaps, how I end up on my back with the snake coiled around my torso, holding my arms to my body, and its face dangerously close to mine. This is how it ends, then. I'm only sorry I couldn't save the faeries, and that thought makes tears roll down my cheeks endlessly. Perhaps that's best; I won't see the snake in my last moment.

I close my eyes and steel myself; I feel the snake's coil tighten and the rush of air as it dives forward. I wait for the inevitable.

It doesn't come.

Another of the snake's hissing, screeching howls rattles my very bones, and a drop of venom lands on my cheek. Somehow, its body loosens around mine, and I wiggle an arm free. The first thing I do is open my eyes; the second thing I do is wipe the scorching venom from my face; the third, well, I stare in shock.

King Caspian has just reappeared from the midst of battle and saved my life. He must have known where I was from my cries, or perhaps he saw the snake and saw that I was doomed. Either way, the relief cripples me for precious moments. And then my sense returns and I see the snake lunging for Caspian next.

I scramble to my feet on legs that shake and barely hold me up, but I can't leave Caspian to fight that thing on his own. I have to help him. My blade, I find, is already lifted, even though my arm practically screams with the effort of simply holding it up. I have to do this. I want to do this.

Without another thought, I jump between the snake as it makes another lunge for a now off-balance Caspian. Green scales fill my vision, but I hold my blade steady and smile a grim sort of smile when another screech pierces the air and tells me of my success.

My maneuver ends with me on the ground once again, facedown and half mad with desperation. I manage to roll over, and this shows me Caspian, somehow, is holding his own against the gruesome serpent. It dances around him and hisses and strikes, but he blocks better than I ever could; I only see the snake get in a swipe once, but I still cringe at the pained cry that falls from Caspian's lips. At that, I find another small burst of energy to pull myself up and distract the snake again. It works, but it costs me another stinging cut. Now my face is marred with battle as much as the rest of me.

Caspian's war cry jolts me from my hazy pain, and he now bats the serpent away from me. This time I don't quite fall to the ground, but I come down hard on one knee and have to grind my teeth against another yelp. I don't want to distract Caspian; he's already proven he will leap to protect me if he deems it necessary.

The dance between the three of us continues, for that is what this is, what this whole battle really is – it's a deadly, costly, terrifying dance that makes me want to succumb to an enemy's blade and to fight them away until my very last breath.

"Move!" Caspian's shout jolts my focus back into sharp reality, and I spin away from the snake again.

I hear Caspian's blade crunch past the scales once more, and this time the scream is louder than any of the others. I'm waiting with bated breath for the serpent to lunge at one of us again, but it surprises me – still wailing and hissing, it slithers off, faster than I could ever hope to run. Caspian tries to chase it down, but quickly runs into an earth goblin that he has to fight, and by the time the way is clear again there's no sign of the snake. If not for the searing reminders of its ferocity on my body, I could almost think it was never here at all.

The battle continues at first, with the earth goblins attacking and me blocking, but now Caspian is at my back and I don't sustain quite as many wounds as before. I'll have to remember to thank him, when this is over.

It almost seems, that, perhaps, it will be over, and soon. The earth goblins slowly decrease in number around me, until I only have to fight two of them at once, perhaps, and then one at a time. As the battle slowly winds down, Caspian never leaves my side, and he saves my head more than once. How is he not falling over? I know there are countless times when I think I'm moments away from that myself.

The tide changes; I know this when one of the earth goblins runs from my blade. A second runs away from Caspian, and more follow. The whole lot of them seem to melt away in seconds, though I know it must be closer to minutes at least.

Unbelievably, we seem to have won.

Tanssi Kuun is safe.

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