I. Martis Westbrook, Knight Captain of the Southern Marche
I wasn’t sure what happened. No–I knew–I *saw*–but even as the Beinison army thundered into our ranks and the troops of Houses Bivar and Redcrosse and Othuldane and Equiville fell like heavy hail, I could not believe.
I gave the order to retreat. I gave the order to *retreat*!
“Fall back!” Caedmon, beside me, shouted. I heard him–he stood not yard from me, defending me as I stood stock still in shock. No one else heard. “Fall back!”
“Sound retreat again!” I screamed at the bugler and the drummer. “Retreat!” I moved my sword arm and prepared to defend myself again as I watched–I stared–as the Fist of the Emperor and with its incredible Cavalry demolished the House troops.
The idiots *charged*. They actually charged! I gave the order to retreat. What did they hope to gain by sailing headlong into the Emperor’s strongest troops? They knew we were outnumbered and that the best we had to gain today was a stalemate and escape. Why did they charge?
Next to me, the bugler played the notes of retreat once more; I heard other buglers throughout the army picking up the music and repeating the call. But retreating was no longer enough; I had to stop the Beinson charge. “Order the Assault Brigade and the Archers forward,” I shouted. What I was doing was horrible; the Archers could hardly last ten minutes against the Fist of the Emperor.
Beside me, Caedmon’s sword flashed and rang.
I should have married him this morning.
“One of us may die today,” Caedmon had said softly, touching my mouse- brown hair.
Looking at the Beinison Knight coming towards me, I thought Caedmon had been right.
He was a big man, six feet, broad, and his armor heavy. I lunged forward without waiting.
Unexpectedly, my sword sliced through a weak spot in his armor and he fell.
“So much for Beinison armor!” Caedmon called gleefully as he dispatched his opponent. Blood spattered his Knight’s chain as he removed his sword from the corpse. “Let’s get out of her, Martis.”
But I couldn’t move. I saw the men of House Othuldane, House Redcrosse, and House Bivar being slaughtered like pigs in their stupid charge, and the Fist of the Emperor pounded the Archers like wheat in a hurricane. The Assault Brigade fought, bleeding and dying. In a moment, Beinison would overrun us all.
“Martis!” Caedmon screamed, and the retreat sounded again on drum and horn. The ranks behind me were in chaos; men and women ran screaming into the hills behind Oron’s Crossroads or the woods beside us. I could see part of the Fist chasing them into the woods and hear the screams of the Rangers as they fell. The only piece of sanity on the field was the incoherent voice of Lord Kinseley–praise Stevene there were *some* loyal commanders left to me– rallying the House Troops.
“Dear God,” I whispered. “Cephas Stevene, save us.”
The Fist kept coming and coming. The troops were done for. Good God. I had lost–lost!
Those damn fools! Their charge was killing them–killing us! The Fist poured over them like heavy rain, and I watched as blood splattered on the new grass and brains spilled out of heads. The shouts deafened me; I knew that the drums and horns were sounding retreat, but I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t move, I almost couldn’t see.
“Martis!” Caedmon screamed. Oh, God, I loved him, and I knew I would never see him tomorrow. One of us was going to die.
“Martis, let’s go!”
A fine Knight would I be, a fine Knight Captain, to be running from the field while the Fist of the Emperor pounded my troops and slaughtered them like pigs. But Caedmon was right; we had to leave. It would be enough for the King to lose these troops today; he didn’t need to lose the Knight Captain, too.
So I moved, finally. I took my sword and turned with Caedmon toward the woods. We would have to go through them, back to Westbrook. Perhaps we could regroup and stop this madness…
Perhaps we could, with more troops–troops who followed orders!
Two of the soldiers of the Fist stepped between Caedmon and me and the woods. My sword flashed; Caedmon raised his blade. I struck, and the blow rang like thunder. But he was quick, both hands holding weapons, and it was all I could do to keep his blows from raining on me. I twisted and threw a blow from my waist and hip and arm, as Sir Edward had taught me. It contacted, shocking my arm, but the blow glanced off his armor.
“Damn!” I muttered. I heard Caedmon exchanging blows with the other one, and I could hear him grunting.
Caedmon, forgive me. I should have married you this morning.
The man before me raised his arms to strike again. I could hear the chaos behind me, and I cried internally for those dying, but I could not turn and watch the horror. I stepped forward instead and jammed my shield against Fist-soldier’s right arm. I pushed my armored knee against his groin. He stumbled; I lunged; he died.
“Caedmon!” I cried. He was still fighting, and I regretted my weakness. Good God, don’t let me distract him. God, save him. Save me. Save us all.
The man was bigger than Caedmon; he was huge. *All* the soldiers in the Fist of the Emperor seemed huge. Beinison was huge. God, how could we keep them out of Baranur? No one has ever defeated the Beinison Empire.
I stepped forward to help Caedmon. We had to defeat this man; we had to leave, flee to the woods and then to Pyridain. Somehow–how? I didn’t know; I only knew I had to leave. Oh, Caedmon!
There was suddenly a Knight of the Star ahead of me–a giant, hulking man, left handed. Caedmon cried out as a blow rang on his helm. I couldn’t look to see if he was hurt; the Knight of the Star charged me.
I raised my shield.
His first blow nearly felled me by its sheer force. I staggered and shook my head to clear it. Oh, God, I was a dead woman. Yes, the dead woman who led the troops to slaughter (I could hear them now: If only we had a *man* to lead them!), who ruined Baranur. The bards would destroy me nightly.
But the Knight waited patiently for me to recover. When I rose, I saluted him for his courtesy and his honor. Not every Knight practices his chivalry on the battlefield.
He raised his sword, his strong left hand against my strong right.
Our shields collided like two strong ships; I shuddered from the impact. My sword sailed high over his, aimed at his head–
I screamed as his steel sword tore through my upper arm. Something made a horrible, ugly, grating noise. My shoulder wrenched; the pain convinced me that my arm had left its place in my shoulder.
I stumbled, slipped on the bloody grass, and fell, the Knight’s sword still gone through my arm beside the bone. I couldn’t move my arm.
I couldn’t move my arm! Oh, God, I’ll never fight again!
Then I realized that death–at best–was staring me straight in the eyes and I was foolish enough to be mourning a wounded arm.
“Forgive me, lady,” the giant rumbled, stepping closer. He pulled the sword from me smoothly, but the pain increased, and my blood gushed from my arm and reddened the scarlet ground. “We have been ordered to take no prisoners.”
The Knight of the Star raised his sword. “Caedmon!” I cried.
I should have married him this morning.
The Knight of the Star fell.
Caedmon grabbed me with his right arm, and with his left, he retrieved his sword from the neck of the giant Knight. “And don’t you dare lecture me,” Caedmon snapped, pulling me roughly toward the woods. “I know it was unchivalrous.”
I shivered within my armor; my sweat was cold. Lecture him? I was so relieved I couldn’t speak.
“Caedmon,” I whispered weakly. I was still bleeding. My God, I’ll never make it out of these woods alive. “Go. Run.” I tripped on a protruding root. “I’ll never make it. Save yourself.”
I could see his blue eyes beneath his helm, and they were angry. “I didn’t betray my Knightly code to leave you to die,” he retorted. “I won’t leave you to die, love.”
I loved him too, with all my heart. “I can’t hold you back.”
“Stop talking nonsense and run!”
I stumbled along, Caedmon half pulling me. My blood pounded in my ears; the trees flew by in a blur. I staggered over the bodies of dead rangers; the Fist was in the woods, slaying archers like helpless birds. I heard other people running, crashing into the woods, hurricane winds driven by the Fist of the Emperor.
My foot was yanked, and my face suddenly hit the ground. My arm throbbed protest at the abrupt jolt, and I bled. Caedmon was pulling me upright. Dazed, I sat.
“Your foot’s caught,” Caedmon informed me. I looked dully; I felt exhausted. But he was right; my steel boot was pinned beneath a root.
Weakly, I tried to remove it; then, using my one good arm hindered by my shield, I pulled. My foot would not budge.
How marvelous. First, a paralyzed sword arm to keep me from fighting, and now a paralyzed foot to keep me from fleeing. I was dead. The Fist was coming.
Caedmon raised his sword. He was going to kill me.
“Stop!” a voice behind him cried. Caedmon whirled; I looked past him at another Knight of the Star. He wore a blue tunic over his plate armor, and at his belt hung a silver horn. He advanced.
Caedmon looked back at me, then again at the Knight of the Star. “Sir,” Caedmon said, “will you give me single combat?”
“I will,” the man answered, his voice strong.
Caedmon went forward, his sword drawn. He struck the first blow. I should have married him this morning.
II. Lawrence Fanez of the Silver Horn, Knight of the Star
I was, I confess, a little sorry when the Baranurian line broke. I am a loyal man; I have given my vow to the Emperor, and I fight here for his victory. Still, I hate to see another Knight so defeated, for the Knight Captain of Baranur had commanded wisely and had only lost by the treason of her own troops.
“Charge!” Untar bellowed at the Fist of the Emperor. He has a loud voice for one so young. Beside him, the Fist screamed their victory call, and Mon-Taerleor began chanting.
I seethed. “Your majesty,” I begged, cutting my way forward, “let the High Mage stop his spells. We are winning; we do not need them.”
For once, the young Emperor saw my reason. “Yes, stop,” he commanded Mon-Taerleor, and the chanting ceased. Although he stood behind me, I could feel the wizard’s gaze burning into me.
Let him gaze. Let him be angered and chagrined. It is little enough after what he has done.
“They’re going into the woods!” the Knight Commander called. “Your majesty, shall we follow?”
I stopped my butchering. Yes, butchering, for the Baranurian troops were helpless. I looked; my uncle, the Knight Commander, nodded at me in approval as I waited for the Emperor’s order.
Gow, let us give chase, I prayed. This slaughter is not honorable. My Lord, let me have a Knight’s combat this day.
“Yes, Sir Horace, follow,” the Emperor decided. I saluted him gratefully; I was ill with fighting a war on Amante’s terms, and gladly I ran to the woods.
“Sir Lawrence!” the Emperor stopped me. I slid on the blood, but paused. When I looked at him, he ordered, “Take no prisoners!” He looked at mine uncle. “No prisoners! Sir Horace, no prisoners!”
The buglers picked up the call: give chase, and take no prisoners. I sprinted into the woods.
Archers littered the ground like storm-torn leaves. I stepped around them, leapt over them, looking for my battle. May Gow grant me battle, a Knight’s battle. I am weary of the Masked God’s slaughter.
The noise in the woods was deafening, like the cries of my own brain. I ran, not knowing whom I sought, trusting Gow to lead me to honorable victory.
The moon was rising over the trees. The moon, My Lady Alanna’s jewel, given her by Gow: I will let My Lady lead me. I fight for her now, now that Liadan is dead. Yes, Alanna is My Lady; her I will follow.
So I ran eastward, listening. A branch crashed in front of me; I sprinted. I heard a man speaking in Baranurian, but the words were muffled. I entered a clearing.
His sword was above his head, ready to slay a helpless Knight whose foot was trapped. That I would not allow, be he Baranurian or Beinisonian. “Stop!” I cried in Beinison, and then in Baranurian.
The man turned. He was a Baranurian; he wore no Star on his chain. The helpless one twisted to see me too, but could not move much because of the trapped foot and the horrible wound in the right arm.
The mobile Knight looked at the caught one, then at me. “Sir,” he asked politely, and I admired his courage and courtesy in speaking to me at all, “will you give me single combat?”
A Knight’s battle! Gow guide my arm. “I will,” I answered gladly, and I stepped forward to meet him.
I allowed him, out of courtesy, to strike the first blow; I knew that he would be tired. The blow hit my shield, rattling me without pain. I struck back, but he deflected my blow with blade and shield.
I struck again, but missed when the other Knight moved. He stumbled on a dead archer and fell. I paused for him to rise; I will not strike a fallen man. The Baranurian looked up at me with eyes as blue as mine own and nodded his thanks for my gesture. I switched my father’s blade to my left hand and offered the Knight assistance. He took the hand and rose.
“I ask a boon,” the Knight said softly.
“What do you wish?” I wondered. What boon could I grant an enemy? How, will all loyalty to the Emperor and all honor to my country, could I grant this man a boon?
“I ask that if I am defeated that you kill me, and quickly,” the Knight asked softly. He looked back at the wounded one. “I have heard what the Beinisonians do to prisoners.”
“Have no fear, sir,” I answered him in his own language. “I have been ordered not to take anyone prisoner.”
“Then have at you!” he cried, attacking.
I sidestepped, and the blow rang on my arm, stinging me below my armor. I felt the dent press into my muscle; I would have a bruise there tomorrow if I lived so long. I readjusted my shield with a shake of my elbow and whirled my sword above my head. The other Knight caught it and pushed it away.
I smiled. An honorable, skillful enemy whom I could fight like a man and not slaughter like a beast. Gow be praised and thanked that if I were to kill or to die, I should do so as a Knight and not a butcher.
I struck my blow still smiling. His armor sang with my soul in the joy of the fight. His blade danced forward at mine helm, and I ducked and hit his leg in recompense. He withdrew his hand to ready it; I lunged forward but pierced only his quick shield.
“I hold,” the Knight said. He held his shield toward me, and I reached for the blade and withdrew it.
“I thank you.” Then I struck.
The blow thundered in the suddenly quiet forest. His blade on my shield sounded like drums. We were dancing again, and the battle sang in our blood. His blows fell like hard hail; I fought without thinking. My sword struck his arm, his helm, his chest, his leg. He battled me valiantly and struck me back. He raised his blow to counter my high-flying sword; I flicked my wrist, and the blade hit the back of his helm. The Knight tried to hit me, but his sword slid down my shield like melting snow. I pushed it away and thrusted.
A woman suddenly screamed–the other Knight was a woman!–and I knew the sound–the cry my heart had made when Liadan lay dying in mine arms–and I suddenly knew what I had done. My blood ran cold.
I killed her beloved before her. I had committed the crime of the man I most hated, the one who plunged a dagger into Liadan’s back, who murdered her in her wedding gown, who served the Emperor as High Mage and was immune to all justice–
I was hateful in mine own eyes.
Slowly, I turned, and I was shaking in mine armor at the horror of it all. She–the other Knight–good Gow, the Knight Captain!–spat curses at me as I approached.
I did not blame her, nor do I now. Have I not cursed Mon-Taerleor in such a way?
Her foot was caught beneath a root, and now I understood why the man had raised his sword: to cut the wood and free the foot. The Knight Captain stared defiantly at me as I lifted my sword and let it fall.
She scrambled to her feet and faced me belligerently. Her arm bled like a flood. I knew she could not fight me. “Go,” I said.
Hazel-green eyes stared out at me angrily. “Do you know who I am?”
“I know, Dame Captain.” I took the horn off my belt and thought of healing potions. The silver horn immediately filled with one. I handed it to her. “Drink; it will help you.”
The Knight Captain fearlessly downed the potion and flung the horn back toward me. It bounced on the gory moss, and as much as my heart tore to see Liadan’s gift so carelessly handled, I did not move, but stared only at the Knight Captain steadily.
Her hazel eyes glared like enraged fire. “Why didn’t you kill me?” she demanded.
I blinked, shocked. “I will not slay a wounded enemy.” I looked at her arm; the potion was already helping to heal it, and it had ceased bleeding. “You are too hurt to fight adequately; I cannot, in all honor, combat you.”
“And yet you tell me to go,” she seethed furiously, her words dripping like poison from a wounded adder’s tooth. “You will not even capture me?”
Suddenly, I smiled, vindicated. “Yea, Dame Captain, go,” I invited, almost ready to laugh. “I have been ordered to take no prisoners.”
Something in her broke; her eyes were no longer jewel-hard. I heard a sob catch in her throat, and she turned suddenly and ran.
“Gow guide your arm next time,” I wished softly, “and Sanar walk with you.”
I turned to go. I looked toward the dead Knight whom I had killed; I had no more wish to fight today.
He had died quickly, as he had wished. I stooped to close his eyes, then pulled back as I saw the moon glow in them.
I knelt, put my blade before me, and rested my helm on its hilt. “To you, My Lady of the Night, I dedicate my deeds of arms and honor. Grant me your blessing to act, with My Lord your husband, as your Knight.”
I fell silent after the ritual prayer, and said one from mine heart. “I give you also, My Lady, my deed of mercy, and beseech mercy of My Lord Gow that her vengeance fall not hard upon me, for I knew not he was her lover.”
But let my hand fall hard on Mon-Taerleor for murdering mine!