There was screaming, the screaming of someone who was nearly cut in half and still had his lungs. Someone smashed his throat or Cimu claimed him, an abrupt absence in the wake of his mortal agony as Asleda flowed into the next swing. The sheer weight of the drefanna hyperextended his elbow and shoulder as he let its momentum carry him forward. His opponent’s long blade shattered, then there was the body-jarring crunch as the blunt tang of the drefanna smashed through his arm, breaking the bone clean through. The fish-like suppleness of his ringed armor protected him from the cut, but not blunt force. As the barbarian landed hard on his side, scrabbling for the jagged stump of his weapon, Alseda chopped his leg off at the thigh, leaving him to bleed out in the grass, lit with morning.
He saw Jaoy cut down in the still space between deaths, saw the barbarian who had ended his young life turn to Giimas with his vicious, weaving blade.
Asleda started to run across the blood-matted field when a rider leapt in his path, a swinging arc of metal aimed for his neck. Dropping, Asleda rolled beneath the horny-toed paws of the beast, using both hands to thrust the weight of his drefanna into its long-haired belly. Blood gushed down around him, the beast screaming aiyaiyai, forelimbs buckling.
The rider scrambled to free himself from the saddle as his beast lurched onto its side, encumbered by the weight of his armor. Jumping free he spun to face Asleda, putting the body of his dying beast between them. Asleda pivoted away from him and ran for the barbarian fighter who had Giimas on the ground, crawling backwards, barely able to ward off the blows. He could feel the fighter behind him, glanced over his shoulder and dropped to his knees, sticking out a leg to trip him, shoved himself to his feet and rammed the point of the drefanna through the barbarian’s armor, his spine, his ribs, limbs convulsing.
Across the field Ruimafe hewed down another beast, its rider caught in the stirrup, and cut his head off. He heard Blace’s shrill arrival call, his toinn of riders charging in, broken free of the blockade at last. A rider and beast leapt over a barbarian fighter, cutting him down with a spear. Giimas’ guts were spilling out of his belly, his killer whirling around to face his next opponent, taking down one of Blace’s riders with nothing but his slender blade. One of Dechon’s fighters was down, slashing at the the face of a beast with its jagged teeth clamped around his leg.
Overwhelmed by the new charge of fighters, the barbarians were breaking, shouting in their ugly tongue, only a few left standing, surrounded. A barbarian rider charged in, slamming his rusty-haired beast into one of Blace’s, grabbing his weaponless brother by the arm and hauling him up in the saddle and spurring the beast into a sprint across the shredded vale.
No enemy left to hinder him, Asleda signalled one of Dechon’s young fighters back, stepping carefully over Giimas’ body and darting into the barbarian’s range while he was still distracted. At the last possible instant the fighter sensed him and he threw himself out of the drefanna’s path, not even trying to block. He scrambled over Jaoy’s body, raising his weapon to guard across his body.
His surcoat was slashed over his ringed armor, long hair half torn loose, squared features blank and watchful. His eyes flickered to Dechon’s fighter, who made no move to join the fight, to the fighters scouting the field and killing the struggling wounded, the battle all but finished. His eyes returned to Asleda, hardening, moved from detail to detail, from his five piercings to unwounded body, assessing.
Asleda let the fury take him, not wild, not careless, channeled it into his aching arms. Within sight alone three of his fighters, two of Dechon’s, one of Blace’s, cut down. The anger coiled around his heart, tempered him, turned his fighter’s-blood cold and menacing. As they danced closer the barbarian scored Asleda’s leather breast plate, managed to nick him on one arm, blood flowing freely.
Ducking under the next blow, Asleda turned his drefanna to bring the full force of the wide flat of the blade against the barbarian’s side. He felt the floating ribs give, and the fighter staggered, suddenly breathless. Using his drefanna as a prop, Asleda spun a kick to his face that sent him to the ground. The barbarian heaved for breath, convulsing hand reaching for his weapon. Asleda kicked it away, fingers flexing in the fingerloops on the hilt of the ancient forced metal, pressing the point of his drefanna against the back of the barbarian’s neck. The weight of it alone was enough to draw blood, grating against bone.
Leaning over, he pulled a long metal knife from the sheath at the barbarian’s belt, tossed it away. He jerked at the ties his armor, knowing them all by now, felt the barbarian’s back spasm under his fingers as he was bared to leather and cloth, nothing but flesh and bone underneath. “Take it off,” he said, standing, jerking the edge of the tunic of rings over his shoulder. The barbarian dragged himself up on all fours, watching him warily. “Take it. Off.” Cowards, who compensated for their own lack of agility with metal skin. And it only made them heavier, less agile. The barbarian stared at him with muddy eyes, streaks of muddy hair across his face, breathing hard.
“Take him alive,” he called, backing away as two of his fighters and one of Dechon’s rushed in to subdue him. The barbarian tried to roll away, lashing out with his feet, but they were on him, kicking him in the face to stun him, wrestling him out of his armor, binding his arms painfully behind his back.
Two of Blace’s fighters had ridden down the fleeing barbarian beast, spearing down the riders. The beast was muzzled, hobbled on its side, struggling against the ground, being soothed by hands and voice. They built a shrine to Geromal with the barbarian corpses, stripping them of what metal they could use, leather jerkins, boots, snapping their fragile weapons.
The beasts carried those too wounded to walk back to the caravan, their sole prisoner jerked along behind by a rope around his neck. The healers were already waiting at the edge of the camps, ready with their knives and splints and medicines. Ruimafe cradled an arm across his chest; Teviise burbled when he breathed. Minue, Jaoy, and Giimas dead. Asleda went through the routines of passing off his fighters who needed the attention of the healers, made sure the rest of his toinn drank from the broad, sparkling ford. As he left them, he saw one of Dechon’s older fighters was taking the end of the barbarian’s leash, and Asleda told him, “Give him to Faravi’s to have fun with,” he said. “I want him able to stand and hold a blade by midday. I’m going to get some sleep.”
His camp’s fire was cold, empty when he reached it, and he threw himself down on his sleeping furs. Hands tucked into his armpits for warmth, he heard the barbarian’s first jagged screams across the camp, and felt satisfied as he drifted into the embrace of sleep.
The heat pulled him awake. Shading his eyes from the glare of the sun riding high in the sky. Hannic was waiting for him, young thin body whole and unmarked. He shifted, looking to him for orders.
“Tell Faravi’s that I’m ready for the prisoner. Get your brothers.”
They gathered outside the camps, not just his fighters but a few of Dechon’s. Asleda stood apart from the others, two barbarian blades dangling from one hand. Two fighters with the sharp crescent that marked them as Faravi’s dragged in the barbarian. They jerked free the leather cord biting into his wrists, his broad hands swollen purple, shoved him forward.
He still had all his fingers, but not his fingernails. His back was a raw, bloody mess, and his pressed his elbows to his body like he was trying to brace his ribs. His mothermark had been burned out, a red, weeping hole where his navel had been. Faravi’s had only had him for half the morning and he was already marked black and blue.
Asleda tossed one of the blades at his feet. His muddy eyes didn’t follow it, stayed fixed on Asleda’s face as he drew the second blade, hefting the sheath in his other hand. As he lunged, the barbarian scrabbled for the blade at his feet, rolling onto his ruined back to knock Asleda’s blow wide, scrambling to his feet. Spinning, the blade so light, so fast, Asleda knocked the barbarian’s blade aside and struck the back of his thigh with the sheath. He danced back as the barbarian’s leg buckled, and Asleda waited for him to pick himself back up.
The barbarian didn’t even try to parry his next blow, but Asleda wasn’t aiming for anything vital. He shoved the point of the blade into his shoulder, watching pain convulse the barbarian’s face, watched the belated, instinctive urge to preserve his body make him lurch back, exhaustedly raising his weapon.
The next blow of the sheath on his back dropped him.
“Get up!” Asleda screamed, circling him, pricking him until he pushed himself up, dust caking his raw, bleeding flesh.
A kick landed squarely on his hip sent him staggering, crying out through closed lips, hunched and clutching his side. He could barely keep his weapon up. He blocked Asleda’s next blow, too slow to avoid the slice to the inside of his elbow, opening muscle and tendon deep. The arm hung useless by his side, his blade wavering.
Asleda ran him through, yanked the blade out, let him fall. Staring down at the fighter’s twitching body, he felt high, light. He wondered if this was what it felt like to be possessed by the gods. He pierced the barbarian’s side maybe half the span of his hand, twisted the blade, listened to his breathless mewling.
A familiar figure stepped into his peripheral vision, broad shoulders, thick muscles. The fighter stepped up, rested one foot on the side of the barbarian’s head, pressing his face into the dust as he wheezed for breath. Asleda looked up at Blace.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asked, sky eyes calm, steady.
He was Ambion’s. It was right that he was here.
“I will be.” Asleda’s fingers flexed around the leather-wrapped hilt of the barbarian blade. “How is that they execute their prisoners again?” He didn’t ask because he didn’t know. He asked to give it the power of ritual, to welcome the gods onto the field.
“They behead them,” Blace said.
Blace stepped back. The barbarian’s eyes didn’t move, breath short, and Asleda grabbed his long hair and hauled him to his knees. He could barely keep himself upright, one arm clutched to his side, eyes shut, his mouth slack as he panted. Pivoting, Asleda spun and cleaved through his neck in a spray of blood and shattered bone.