The Then | 12yrs ago
Here was not where he expected ‘where’ to be. His breath caught, and there was a rhythmic rumbling sound in his ears. That was a new sensation for him, and he pondered its source. He thought it was nerves, but it could also have been excitement. It was certainly madness.
It was a plain old street, oddly familiar, though not forged of pleasant memories. Citizens bustled past, not noticing him. Ignoring him even. Just like the old days. Nothing seemed to change, but he had. He was sure of it.
It was a warm afternoon, the late season, and there was to be one final push against the enemy. But before that push, he needed to be here. At least, that’s what the prince decreed. He wasn’t so sure.
The building looked noticeably finer than when he’d fled it three years ago. They had spent the earnings well, and a congregation of military folk evidenced the flourishing business. He spotted familiar faces amongst the punters, and a jet of cold went through him. He quite literally had no idea how this would play out.
He turned to the screech, and found his mother near-hanging from an open ground floor window. Her lined old face was edged with what looked like a combination of joy and fear. It occurred to him that he understood so little of her that he couldn’t place the basis for either emotion. He reached with his right hand and brushed her outstretched palm, his nerves tingling at the touch. She smiled. He was her little girl, and he had returned. He wanted to scowl at his mother, but he found that he couldn’t. He may have even missed her.
“Little Jossie. You’re back.”
It was his waste of a fourth brother, Brin, looking as meaningless as he ever did. Brin was still bigger than him, but he had never been stronger. Not since the days of the violation. He released his mother’s hand, and with a whinny of apparent delight she galloped through the smithy. As he walked past his bully of a brother, he didn’t even dignify the fool with a glare. Jossie had grown beyond the bullies. Even his coiled anger, which he was mastering to greater effect with each passing day, did little more than simmer. That was how irrelevant Brin was. It was not Brin that he needed to be scared of.
You couldn’t beat a mandahoi, but he was going to try.
“What clothes is them? You pretending to be a soldier now?” It appeared that Brin’s language lessons had not been high yielding.
“Joss. You really shouldn’t be here. Father’ll go mad.”
His head snapped to brother two; the rational sibling. His air of confidence suggested that he had now adopted his rightful place as the chief-deputy of the smithy, usurping the older but less useful brother. That was amusing. He offered his brother a callous smile.
But he wasn’t smiling inside. He had to ball his fists to stop them from shaking. The shadow of his father was looming.
“Father will understand.”
And there he was. The huge frame of his parent. His fear. His father stayed within the bounds of the smithy, and the shadow hid his features. But it was clear that joy was absent. His mother hung at his father’s left, pleading for mercy. That was strangely satisfying, however useless the gesture. In one corner of his mind, he had never felt so wanted. But in the other, he knew he was loathed. What was to be done with such contrasting emotions?
And standing at his father’s right-hand was brother one; the failing brother. He wore that same sultry face, but this time it was not baked with mischief. It was he who made the mischief today. He swallowed his nerves.
“What do you want, little Jossie.”
His father was being patronising. It worked. He rubbed at a rib, and a recollection slotted into place. His father had given him that injury during their mighty scrap. He remembered now, clear as the azure blue sky. Not that the ache had over-bothered him, but that was an important day because he had won. This was his chance to force the victory.
“I am in the army now, father. I am of the Royal Guard.”
A hand was waved dismissively in his direction. “The Royal Guard is full of crooks. No wonder they took you in.”
There was audible disbelief on a number of the loitering clients, and one man even huffed and strolled off. His father must have really wanted to dig if he was willing to lose business over the insult.
“And soon to be journeying to the borders. To the Mandari borders.”
His father gulped, his apple highlighted by the sinking sun. Did that suggest a touch of something softer? Perhaps.
“Then death awaits you. The deserved fate of a crook.”
His mother whimpered, and he may have actually been starting to relish her affection. How had he never seen that before? Most likely because it had never been there before. Maturity did wonderful things to a man, and he was only just maturing.
Brin shifted at his side. He would never mature.
“I am no crook.” Of course, that wasn’t entirely true. He was absolutely a crook – just ask the baker. But he hadn’t been a crook until his brothers had set him up and chased him from the smithy. His father’s eyes shifted in the shadows.
“You were going to leave with my property. That is theft.”
He didn’t really want to argue about this – that wasn’t why he was here – but one effort to pave the truth must surely be worthwhile.
“If I had been looking to steal your property, I would have been gone before the sun was up. I would have succeeded, father.”
His right fist clenched and the perspiration on his forehead grated. Rarely did he get so tense these days.
“Are you trying to blame―”
“I am not trying to blame anyone. I was merely attempting to offer the truth. But if the only way down that path is via the hater’s embrace, then I will forego the pleasantries. Let’s get down to business.”
Confusion reigned, which was certainly more pleasant than the threatening atmosphere that had just burst.
This was why he needed his father; because he was a fabulous blacksmith.
“I need you to make me a sword. I need you to make me a Mandari forged blade.”
Silence settled. The hushed chatter of the punters and general din of the city faded with the passing heartbeats. Only silence. And between him and his father there was something darker too. It stretched, expanding, every moment heavier than the last. He raised his left hand, a heavy velvet purse gripped within it. It was the prince’s money, all the prince’s money, and he could see his father’s eyes switch. The pressure went up a notch, but ultimately it broke. And oh how it broke.
He had never heard his father like that before. Laughter had not been a big part of his life.
“You want me to make you a sword after what you did to me? You are mad, son.”
Had he ever been called son before? Yes he had. In those days of perfection. But it had never burrowed like it did in that moment. It was sour.
“I have coin.” He shook the purse, and the gold inside clinked. But his father was immovable.
“Coin is of no use if you don’t have my respect. I will not help you.”
He rocked from side to side and his shadow shifted. His head dropped. How could he have been so stupid? Some grudges ran too deep, and a look to brother one returned that same infuriating smile. He had been beaten three years ago, and he could not turn the tide today. Here, he was always the bullied.
But then the smile melted on brother one, and his shadow did something else. It morphed and warped, and stretched to the side, breaking. And then there were two shadows, and someone else spoke. He smirked.
“Master Kantal senior, how pleasant to see you again. After your previous fine work, I would dearly like to commission you for a piece of similar quality for my squire here.” The prince eased the sabre from its housing and offered a bright flash of a smile. “You would not deny a prince, would you?”
His mother curtsied and ejected a little yelp of joy.
Brin’s jaw dropped, and he sunk into kneeling submission.
Brother one ducked back into the darkness and hid himself.
The entire population of the street stood dumbstruck.
And his father softened. Oh how he softened.
“Of course, your highness. I would be delighted to accept your commission.”
The prince took the velvet purse and threw it over. “This needs to be extra special. I want a double edged straight blade. A warrior’s blade. But it needs to be light as the wind, and strong as the Mandari resistance. And I need it forged in five days.”
His father looked flustered.
“Your highness, where in l’Unna would I get that much Mandari steel?”
“Already sorted,” and with an extension of the prince’s arm, a cart trundled into view. Only then did he begin to enjoy the moment.
“Come. We have preparations to make. We are going to war.”
All of a sudden, those sunny days with his father melted into the meaningless. This was what it was to be happy. Of course, he was still not entirely sure why the prince was supporting him, but he would not dwell on that now. It gave him his purpose.
“Jossie!” He turned to see his mother galloping towards him, her eyes averted from the prince. She held a cloth parcel before her, and she held it out to him. As she offered the gift, she bowed her head, and he acknowledged it with a gentle touch of her outstretched palms. This was most unexpected. What gift would his mother have for him? She didn’t even know he was coming.
But when he unwrapped the cloth, he almost leaned down to kiss her. “Thank you mother. This is a gift of great value.”
She didn’t lift her eyes, but her lips curled and her cheeks went rosy. He looked down at Delfin’s journal, and placed a gentle hand on his mother’s cheek. What an unexpected gesture. He opened the first page and the leaded scrawl was still there: ‘Even you couldn’t beat a mandahoi’. It had always been his destiny after all.
As they walked from the smithy, the prince enquired.
“Why were they calling you Jossie?”
Bugger. “Because that is my name. My mother wanted a daughter.”
He didn’t know what to expect. Mocking laughter most likely.
“Well it isn’t any more. I think our fates are entwined, and I think that we should recognise that shared direction. From now on you shall be Adnan ap Kantal. We are brothers in arms, and brothers in name.”
His breath caught. If it had been a theory before, then now he was certain. Their fates were shared, and it was all because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi. But he was willing to try.
He gulped. What had he done?
So this was war. What an absolute bastard. As he stared at the mess before him, he took a moment of reflection. Ahan really was a fortress.
Before him was the ‘Main Gate’: the Bloody Gash. It was a natural valley forged through the encircling mountain ranges, and despite the swiftly flowing river called the Queen’s Tears which called the place home, this was the only open gate. It was the easy option. But the scene before him was contrary to this. It was still hell on l’Unna.
The King had invested in a group of entrepreneurs from the Reach who’d appeared in Triosec with the most fabulous contraption. It was fuelled by black magic, and the great metal throat would spew cast iron at a terrible velocity. The thing coughed almighty plumes of sulphured smoke, a grey-yellow mist which hung about suffocating the onlookers, but it was worth it. When the demonstration had left a modest wall severely damaged, the King was quick with his money. He pledged a hefty reward for the effective neutralisation of the Mandari resistance. The Freemen – with their rich golden skin, piercings, and strange blue markings over their near naked bodies – hungrily accepted the offer, and war was planned.
And the King, with a clear sub-text of retreat in mind, had invited his son along. This was evidently a fabulous day to offer his heir first combat, even if it was at a distance. And because the prince was here, so was he.
As was his Mandari-forged broadsword. He eyed it hungrily.
“What do you see, Kantal?”
Not a bloody lot was the answer. The small pack of cannon had been hauled into place, and the King’s light force – although he still baulked at the numbers – was pulled up behind. The cannons were allowed to spew hell once, twice, three times, and only then did the King begin to believe. He ordered a squadron of cavalry to advance into the cannon-mist, but the fog was all that could be seen. There was only one answer to the prince’s question.
“A grey canvas.”
“What are you? An artist.”
Does an artist carry a weapon like this? Yes.
He turned the blade over, marvelling at the incredible patterns along its length. The sabre he had helped forge was a narrow weapon, single-edged. As such, the heavenly patterns from the Mandari techniques were only discernible on closer inspection. With this beautiful weapon, the artistry was not so subtle. It seemed to burn as the reflection of the light was enriched by the delicate weave of her forging. He rotated the weapon onto its vertex, and watched the patterns swirl once more. It was beautiful.
“Kantal. I fear you may have fallen in love.”
The prince’s amusement was plain, and he stumbled to defend himself. “I have never loved.” Sadly, that was true.
“Well, it appears that you have now.” He ignored the taunts of his superior, and continued to rotate the weapon. His prince continued regardless. “She is a really fine blade. Your father is an excellent blacksmith.”
“And I will do the piece justice.”
The prince’s easy look hardened instantly. “That is unlikely, I fear. I’m afraid retreat is the clear order of the day.”
He nodded, but made sure to add his own perspective. “Of course, retreat is not always a straightforward affair.”
“You will not be rash with your life, Kantal. I rather like to think that you are quite useful, and it would be a shame to lose you to arrogance. You do understand me, don’t you?” His face was serious, but there was also the subtlest shade of suggestion. There was an unspoken understanding between the two men. At least, that’s how he interpreted it.
“Of course, colonel. I will not take undue risk.” He nearly smiled, but he quickly smothered any evidence. The prince saw through it, shrewd as he was.
“And that sword is not insurance.”
Wasn’t that the truth? There was no insurance against a mandahoi. But he suspected that although this was the commonly held truth, there must always be anomalies. And for whatever reason, he was an anomaly. As he thumbed the pommel of his great-sword, that sense flourished in him. His prince looked back to the scene before them.
“The cavalry have made good progress. Perhaps these cannons really are the answer.”
Perhaps. Though it seemed unlikely. The scene before them was matt grey, a deep fog made by the Freemen’s magic. Two hundred cavalry had made their way gingerly into that oblivion, and the King’s spirits were so buoyed that he even ordered a thousand infantry to advance. The mass of men swarmed either side of them and into the fog, and when the rearmost infantry was barely visible, he may have been about to believe. His breath caught.
The Mandari were battered; the gate was open; and the Mandahoi were toothless. Victory was possible and victory was near. Finally. And yet something subtle caught in the back of his throat. It was disappointment. He thumbed his sword. Oh how he longed to use her.
But you couldn’t beat a mandahoi.
The whistling caught the very edge of his hearing, and for the briefest moment he ignored it. But then it triggered as unnatural, and his naturally inquisitive mind set to working it out. Perhaps it was some sort of military instrument? Some form of battlefield communication. But he would know of such a piece. It made no sense, but the falling pitch was strangely foreboding. What was that? It was only when the steel heads started to burst from the lingering cloak that it made sense. It was obvious really. This was the bite of the enemy, archery on a scale unprecedented, and it was remarkable to look upon. If hell hath a fury, then this was it.
The first arrow hit the ground with a brutal thwack, and it blew away all prior misconceptions. His only experience of the drawn projectile had been in the Fields. The act looked impressive – the quivering tail of the stubby arrow protruding from the heart of the target – but in reality, it was nothing more than a village trick. Novelty. This was projectile death, a masterful demonstration of archer authority, and it was so overwhelming that he almost forgot about his sword.
The missile that struck just paces ahead of him was nearly three quarters the length of a man, and its shaft was as thick as his wrist. It didn’t quiver spectacularly like the pathetic arrows in the Fields. Instead it burrowed into the ground with a mole-like hunger. The dry earth rebelled, objecting at the penetrating action of the missile, but the arrow did not relent. It dug deeper and deeper. That was fear right there, and he dropped instinctively into a squat. It was the only thing to be done.
Of course, the Mandari resistance was never going to crack that easily. But he had dared to hope, hadn’t he? That hope had been shattered for sure. “The cannons are not the answer, are they?”
The prince looked down at him from his authoritative place on his horse, but he wasn’t expecting a response. It was a rhetorical question. The screams went up, and only then did his prince bother to respond.
“No, they are not. It seems my father was right to be cautious.”
And there it was. Failure. The Delfinian force had been consumed by the fog, and he doubted they would emerge.
But worse than all that, he had been cheated. You couldn’t beat a mandahoi – that is what they said. But on the evidence of this, you didn’t need to. The archers would do the Mandari’s work for them. The Mandahoi could stay at home for all that mattered.
In mere heartbeats, the crazed remnants of a cavalry advance burst through the fog. But the beasts were few in number, and that was numbing. What made the Mandari archers unique was their ability to fire long, fire hard, and fire frequently. The field-archers were freaks: unnaturally strong; unwaveringly persistent; and where a swarm of crossbows could offer up a drizzle of death, the relentless work of the archers brought a storm. The flank of a horse was a comically easy target for an archer, and so the cavalry never stood a chance.
Even tightly packed infantry was next to useless against this barrage. The Delfinian advance was quickly turned to a reverse, and hundreds of veteran soldiers fled back through the fog. There was terror on their faces, but frustration too. Many of them had been here before.
And all the while the rhythmic thud of the arrows struck home with devastating regularity.
“We should leave.”
He stood, tightening and loosening his grip on the great-sword. As he stared into the mist, he saw his future coming. Yet it wasn’t coming fast enough. But he couldn’t refuse the word of his master, and there would be a next time, wouldn’t there? There would have to be.
And there would be. You couldn’t beat a mandahoi, but you could keep on trying.
The retreating infantry swarmed past, offering a collective cry of warning – a call to flight – and Kantal turned to his prince. His master offered an almost apologetic smile, but it was still a smile. This man seemed to know him better than anyone. That probably made him lucky.
It was just a spearing blur, but then it was chaos. All-consuming chaos. Men were dying around him, their screams blending with the horrifying patter of the onslaught. But it was the scream of the beast that was most startling. The prince’s horse reared up, and his master was in trouble. A black stab was burrowing its way into the flank of the white mount, and it slumped to the ground. As it failed, the poor beast shrieked in agony.
The prince was silenced by the turn of events, but it was only for a moment. He cried in his own pain, scorched as he was by the trapped limb beneath the horse’s bulk. His master needed help. He rushed forward to intervene, and he gripped his sword tighter. He might be needing that.
His moment was coming after all.
“Your highness.” A quick test told him that there was no dragging the man free; at least not quickly. Pockets of fleeing infantry streaked past, and part of him wanted to cry out for assistance. But another part overruled. The prince was wide-eyed, but there was something else there too. When the heir of Delfinia spoke, he recognised the sub-text. Was it really sub-text? It didn’t matter. Not really.
“Flee Kantal. Flee. They are coming.”
Yes, indeed they were. He grinned, and then he turned to face his destiny. The anger inside him swelled, and then it flourished. He would be needing that.
This was what he’d always been meant for. But he’d only known that recently. He was an anomaly, and he was here to fight the odds. Death was a certainty, but the timing of death wasn’t. That was what he could change. He would control the date of his death, or at the very least, he would bring forward that of another’s. He faced the Grey and he dreamed of victory.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi, until you believed. And he now believed. His moment was here.
Arrows still punctured the fog, but he ignored the interruption. This was between him and the Grey; nothing else would get in the way. The battle was lost – it always was against the Mandari – but he would have his victory. His moment of notoriety. He looked on with manic intent edging his gaze, and he snarled. The anger of a life long-suffered balled in his stomach, and he fed on that emotion. He would be needing that.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi, unless you had the will. And his will was more than that. It was obsession.
Flight was the other option of course, but what option was that? Flight only brought more of the same: an existence of scrabbling indifference; a life of squalid nothingness. And he was here to protect the prince, so what sort of fulfilment would flight be? No. To run was to embrace his past, and he was not prepared to do that. He had always eyed the future because of what it offered. It offered hope, and that could drive a man to greatness.
And you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without it.
He stood firm despite the chaos. What good has ever come from flustering hands? But within the pit of his stomach, his anger boiled. It was controlled, pliant and extractable, but it was definitely there. It was fuelling the determination that drove him on. It was the engine behind his abilities, and it was well oiled today.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi unless you had the tools. And he now had the tools. They were intended for nothing else.
He gazed upon his great-sword, knuckles white with his affection for her. And damn she was a great sword. He marvelled at the glorious multi-coloured smirk of the weapon, smiling at the waves of her construction. She was a beautiful thing, made by the hands of his hateful father, and she was a clone of her enemy’s weaponry. Maybe even better. Born of Mandari steel to defeat the Mandari scourge. His weapon was a true cannibal in the making. But that was required. No, more than that. It was a minimum.
After all, you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without harnessing their world. And he had immersed himself in it.
Time ticked abrasively by. He lusted after the moment of his becoming, and his foot tapped to the beat of his heart. What had brought him here? What had led him to the brink of madness? A great woman once said that: ‘Anything could be solved by curiosity’. Well, this was the culmination of endorsing that philosophy. On this field, facing death. It didn’t bear thinking about, but then the best things in life were rarely understood. Instinct was the only true guide.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without curiosity, and he had questioned all his life.
But his prince had brought him here too, and he had to smile at the fortune of that. He looked to his superior and tried to break down the mixed emotions that the prince betrayed.
“Get out of here you fool!” He dismissed the prince’s words with a tilting of his head. He didn’t truly mean that. Surely the prince knew exactly why he’d come here? And wasn’t that encouragement in the man’s eyes? Without his intervention the prince was doomed, and that was really all that mattered. It was as simple as that.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without a purpose, and now he had that purpose. His prince had given it to him.
He turned back to his destiny, and sought the comfort that he would take into battle. Every moment that he’d spent training swam through his mind, and his muscles twitched expectantly. He could feel the flow of the fight already. It would be tough. But there was always a way. There had to be a way – had to be – and if it was there, he would find it. The battle was lost and the Grey would be scouring the field of detritus. And here he was, waiting to shred the cloth.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without the element of surprise, and standing firm was greatest surprise of all.
Two allies burst from the vapid blanket, pursuing the logical course of flight. He ignored their warning cries, and he only vaguely recognised one of the two being dropped by a burrowing arrow. But there was nothing he could do for them. They would only distract his focus. He was here for a greater purpose, and he had to stay on course.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without a singular determination; and he had only one purpose.
And they were coming. The shadow in the fog was deepening, and the form of the Grey was approaching fullness. The last fleeing ally grunted past, but nothing would detract him now. He was approaching the moment. His moment. He ground his shoulders by rotating them, loosening himself to the flow of his anger. Death was here, the stuff of nightmares and the eternal rot. But he was wise to the challenge.
The Mandahoi were upon him, but he was an anomaly. The world changed here.
It burst from the eddies of fog, and for just the briefest moment, the Plague seemed mortal. Grey clothed; bare arms; a hood. You could not trust a man in a hood, and he gritted his teeth. Confidence oozed from the approaching mandahoi, but he was a man nonetheless; a man with a mastery in killing. But he too was a master, and he saluted his enemy with a dip of his great-sword. It was almost time.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi without the Father on your side. And despite the animosity, his father had made his blade.
But then the odds grew longer. Two further mandahoi melted into existence and stalked forward. They had equal purpose in their form. The first was almost upon him, coming to make his acquaintance, coming to ply his trade. A tremor of nerves fluttered, but he did not falter. The infusion of his body was complete, the chaos was consumed, and his purpose was set. All his life had been moving towards this moment, and now it was here. Now it was here. He smiled at death itself.
And then he recalled the words: even you couldn’t beat a mandahoi. Here, now, he was chasing the impossible goal. But what if it was just that; impossible? He had never considered failure before, but the steel dance was about to start, and it burst into his head. That was the problem with uncertainty – only the Father had the answers. He looked to the sky, searching for the approval of the gods, but there was nothing to be seen but the bank of fog. If he was going to do this, then he was going to do this alone.
After all, that had always been his way.
His hand clawed at the dry earth, the tips of his fingers stinging where he’d scraped them raw. But that was the least of his problems. The spearing sensation would just not abate. It turned out that steel in the gut was just as painful as it looked.
“Arrgh!” The punishment flooded his body and his back arced. It was punishment because he’d faced the ridiculous, and this was the price. A part of him thought he was foolish, but another part soothed that concern away. It had been the only thing to do.
The shooting agony eased, and his body flopped in response. He opened his barely functioning eyes, noting the sight before him. There was assistance there. Salvation perhaps. His prince was still alive, still trapped beneath his dying mare, but the tide had now turned. His master was the strength, and he was the weakness. He was dragging himself towards a meagre sanctuary, and he was dragging himself to his…
Could he call the prince a friend? Certainly not, that was too strong, but he was dragging himself to the only place he now had. He needed help, and the prince seemed to have been there recently. Only here and now, they were alone. So utterly alone. What could the prince realistically do?
The taste like rust in his mouth made him retch, but he resisted, tonguing the acid to the back of his mouth. His wounded stomach scraped across the parched earth, and again, he all but vomited. It took an almighty effort to stop himself – a strength of will that he barely had left in him. His jerking motion dislodged something from the crease about his tongue, and he shifted it around his stained mouth. And given the taste, it could be only one thing; flesh. They didn’t tell you about that in the books.
The prince looked at him, sorrow in those eyes even despite the heir’s own predicament. But he was now the weakness, and the prince was his hope. The flesh in his mouth forced another heave, and he ejected the offending item involuntarily. A tooth went with it. He checked with his tongue and confirmed. The second upper right incisor was gone. And he’d always been so proud of his fine teeth.
His head left him, a symbolic grey haze shrouding his senses. When it cleared, he was face first in the dirt. His tongue was in contact with the ground, and the grainy taste of the world was upon him. It mingled with the residual flesh and blood to leave a horrifying taste, but there was precious little he could do about that. He clawed with his right hand and a nail bent back on itself. That pain barely registered.
His prince! Of course. Yes of course. He was returning to his senior officer. As he lifted his head, it was like lifting the world itself. When he finally managed to get the trapped man in his sights, the image swayed from side to side. He couldn’t keep his damned head still. The man was so close now, but the voice still seemed distant. It was like the prince cried out from another time and place. He shook his head, but that was not a good idea. The dizziness was overwhelming, and he conceded. When he next opened his eyes, he could taste the stomach acids mingling with the other horrors in his mouth. Would that ever wash out?
But no! He had come this far. He was still alive, and that was something. A lot really. Legs! He still had lower limbs. How had he forgotten that? With every effort still left to him, he forced himself onto all fours, struggling with his balance. Air breathed over the deep slash to his stomach, and it was like molten steel had been poured over him. Strangely euphoric too. His head left him again, but he retained his knees, and was soon capable of forward movement. It was slow progress.
By the time he reached his prince, it was almost as if the sun had departed. But that was clearly an illusion – a consequence of the cannon wastage. In this veil, the sun may as well never have come up. Time had no meaning in this nightmare. And it was a nightmare.
“Kantal.” The prince broke into a deep cough – one of those that sound like the lung will pop out. Too much smoke perhaps. Then why was he not coughing? Too soon, and when it did come, it was like someone had reached down his throat and was throttling his guts. The back of his acid stained throat tickled, and the vomit threatened again. That was not going to get any nicer any time soon. Best to sleep perhaps? He closed his eyes.
“No, you must not! We must get help.”
What help? He obeyed – of course he did – and managed a laugh. He actually managed a chuckle. It was perverse. The battlefield was empty but for their near corpses. Delfinia must surely have departed, and they would be left to rot in the eternal graveyard that was the Bloody Gash. They were doomed, and no amount of royal optimism would change that.
But this was no bad thing. He would die trying; a purpose to his act. That was more than he could ever have asked for. But he feared that his prince would not share his sense of satisfaction. It would be nice if the prince could escape, but that seemed remote. Perhaps he could give the prince some peace.
“Thank you, sir.” To speak was to drain what little reserves he had. His head crashed back to the dry ground, consciousness fading. His eyelids were heavy. So heavy. It was time to sleep.
“No Kantal. Open your eyes! That is an order.”
It was futile, but he obeyed. He was conditioned. The prince’s face was vibrating, juddering from side to side – it made him feel sick to be honest. And yet he didn’t think he had any sick left in him.
The juddering turned gradually into a shudder.
And the shudder turned into a tremor.
And then it was impossible to ignore. He focussed his eyes to investigate. The prince smiled knowingly, and the reality sank in. He was a fool. Of course they wouldn’t leave the prince. They were being rescued.
The heir actually managed a grunt of a laugh, though it was heavily filtered. This was no place for joy. As the rescuing officers came into view, the prince looked at him with sorrow in his eyes. Sorrow and something else.
“I have never seen you like that before.”
Wasn’t that the truth? It was not a sustainable state. He managed to forge words through his swollen lips.
“I was saving it.” The ‘s’ came out as a whistle where his tooth was missing, and he scowled at himself. How would he afford to get that replaced? Perhaps he wouldn’t need to. He may well still die.
Because you couldn’t beat a mandahoi. There was always a price.
The prince locked him with a gaze. “You can’t beat a mandahoi, Kantal.”
A shot of energy raced through him, shocking him. Was that pride? How would he know? He had forgotten its taste.
“But you, sir, can beat three.”
He managed to turn his head to the haze, to the battlefield behind. There, from where he had hauled his devastated body, lay a pile of Grey. And spearing the tower of corpses was one hell of a blade. His blade. The bastards had near killed him, but he had had the last. He had proven his point, and he had saved his prince.
The sight of the blade caught him, and he smiled. She looked good there, speared through the bodies of her victims. But she would be better by his side.
“You won’t let them leave...”
His voice trailed off and a screaming darkness consumed him. As he slipped into the protective ignorance, the prince nodded through his fading vision. Blessed Mother, he hoped he did.