Kathanhiel, in her shiny and pleasantly body-fitting armour, looks out of this world. Twice in the first hour Killisan stumbles because I’m too busy gazing at her to mind the reins.
Haylis is nowhere near as breathtaking in comparison, especially when she casually reaches under her cuirass to scratch her armpit, then pulls out her hand to smell it. I mean, that’s a great display of riding skills, sure.
Now, you would think setting off on a grand quest in the company of two beautiful women is a dream come true.
The torrential rain makes it a dreary slog. The beautiful grassland is greyed out into an old painting covered in three layers of dust, and the cold pommels all potential outbursts of heroic poetry into submission. Not that there is any.
If only the folks at home could see me now, riding Killisan like a cavalryman decked out in full armour. Just ignore all the bulky bags. Those are Kathanhiel’s inventory, important stuff that her esquire gladly carries in her stead.
She has her own weapons to haul: full plates, Kaishen slung across her back, a folded shield tied to her left thigh, a short-handled pick to her right – for climbing, probably. Two more swords and an obsidian bow sits on her saddle. Woe to those who would do her harm.
At noon we stop at a cattle ranch, and there Kathanhiel buys what looks like half a cow’s worth of meat; it’s on the heavy side for a travelling lunch (understatement of the day), but how much she eats isn’t surprising anymore, not after a month of watching her devour whole steaks in three minutes. Somehow she does this while looking as refined as a lady at court.
‘Should – should I bring out the wine my lady?’
‘In the middle of the day? How old do you think I am Kastor?
‘Not old enough to be your mother, who surely does not yet partake in alcohols at lunch.’
‘I wouldn’t mind some wine.’ Haylis says.
I look at Kathanhiel.
‘Wait til night,’ she says.
‘But we’ll meet up with Lyan then and he’ll have everything. It wouldn’t be as fun.’
‘Lyan? The recruiter?’ I ask.
‘Haylis had him set up camp ahead of us,’ Kathanhiel explains, ‘warm beds and such, to ease us into the long journey ahead.’
I’ve never said it before and I’ll say it again: Haylis is a genius and I’m glad she is coming with us.
‘Should we not be – uh - discreet? Aren’t there dangerous people out here?’ I ask without meaning it. Frankly, I’ve been convinced since ‘warm beds’.
Haylis laughs. ‘A day out from the winter palace, at the centre of the kingdom? Quit whining, I can see you like it.’
Kathanhiel smiles. ‘Your transparent face is rather endearing, Kastor.’
Annnd it’s time for my daily role-play as a beetroot.
The afternoon passes quickly, not just because the rain is finally easing up, but also the anticipation of whatever comfort that is waiting for us.
With the wind dying down and the clouds dissipating, the day ends perfectly: under a fiery sunset, in a sea of green, and with pleasant company, Haylis included. For a first day on a new job, it’s been one of the best.
I’m joking. It’s been the best days of my life.
For the first time ever tomorrow is worth looking forward to. That dreary why-am-I-even-alive moment won’t come just before falling asleep tonight, because there’s work to be done tomorrow, and the day after that, meaningful work that’ll change the world for good.
Kastor, esquire to Kathanhiel, on a quest to slay the Rutherford Dragon. That just rolls of the tongue. Not really.
There are a few trees scattered about the grassland now, tall ones that must have been there for hundreds of years. As the night falls they appear as huge scarecrows in the distance, watching over the fields.
We slow down; it’s gotten too dark for galloping. The wind picks up, carrying the rain clouds away along with every shred of warmth.
Haylis’s silhouette is barely visible as she points north. ‘The campfire, see it? Between those two trees.’
I see it, the orange glow – a beacon of hope. The horses eagerly pick up speed.
Getting closer reveals the silhouette of a carriage, the four-wheeled kind that features soft leather seats and sealed cabins. What thoughtfulness! Perhaps Killisan can pull it tomorrow.
Haylis is laughing. ‘You must be thinking we could take the carriage with us.’
‘No I’m not.’
‘It’s too slow and flashy. Not good if we want to be discreet.’
‘Are-are we being discreet now?’
‘Please, we can still see the palace from here. What could possibly – ’
Without warning Kathanhiel cuts in front of us. Killisan reels in surprise and slips on the grass.
‘Follow me, and don’t fall behind.’
‘But the camp –’
‘Follow. They’ve seen us.’
With a crack of the whip Bobby breaks into a full gallop away from the campfire. I exchange a confused look with Haylis – or would have, if the night hasn’t gotten so dark.
Killisan takes charge as one hesitant shake of the reins drives him into a run.
I look back and see absolutely no sign of anything. The campfire is still only a distant dot, and through the dark and the howling wind it’s impossible to see or hear whatever threat that Kathanhiel had sensed.
Killisan stumbles over a hidden ditch, almost falls, then pulls himself back with the forward momentum at the last possible moment. Even in the grasslands galloping in the dark is dangerous.
I look back again and see the campfire suddenly snuffed out.
There’s movement in the grass.
Under the waning moon, shadows are rising all over the ground.
A yell. I turn around just in time to catch Kaishen being sheathed. Two silhouettes had appeared up in front of us and were instantly cut down. Two shiny strips of metal zoom by somewhere below along with the gurgling of slit throats. Dead, whoever they are.
More shapes rise. They close in a second too late to intercept the horses, and the pair that had the ill luck of being in Kathanhiel’s way are struck down before they could raise their weapons.
Then the inevitable happens.
About time too; been too lucky lately, getting to be an esquire and all that.
A shallow pit catches Killisan’s leg and throws him off-balance. For one brave moment the animal struggles, lunging forward with the intensity of a fencer, neighing and straining his neck, but it is in vain, because his rider is an idiot who pulls in the reins just as he with all his might is trying to lean forward.
The world flips over. Two square boxes fall out of the saddlebag and scatter tea leaves from the Islands into the grass like dull firework. Poof.
Oh no. Those are expensive. Do you know how many requisitions it took to –
The ground hits, square in the back. Pain blocks out everything except the looming silhouette of a man under a hooded cloak. The way he moves, the speed, it makes the Lions of the Marches seem a pair of crippled children. One blink and the line of silver is already at my throat.
How am I supposed to pick out the tea from the grass?
A clang. Flashing red light. A snake…made of fire? Where does it come from?
Oh it’s raining again. Wait, no, rain can’t be hot and sticky.
It’s blood. That fire snake, it ran through the cloaked man from gut to shoulder. He was so fast though, why didn’t he see it coming?
A hand grabs mine, a supple yet incredible powerful hand that had been carefully moisturised. Such a hand, with its perfect combination of strength and texture, could only belong to one person.
‘Quickly,’ Kathanhiel says as she effortlessly pulls me up, ‘go to Haylis.’
Everything feels like a dream. Must have taken a hard knock to the head. Where’s Haylis? Oh, by that tree, just over there. Wait, when did that tree get there? Has it always been there? Oh look, she’s waving at me – got to run.
Wait, where’s Killisan? Is he alright? Sorry my friend, I’m such a useless –
Kathanhiel shoves me in the back. ‘Hurry!’
Stumbling, stumbling in the dark, towards that thicker shade of dark over there. A blade swings in from the right, but before it could land the hand that held it falls to the ground. Screams, horrible screams. Rain – no, blood – splashes up, hot, dripping.
Someone grabs me by the shoulder. Oh no. Should I struggle? No wait – that scent, those soft round things pressing into my back. Haylis?
‘Yeah it’s me. Snap out of it!’ She slaps me hard. That one’s been a long time coming. ‘Put your back against the tree!’
Burning cheeks clear the mind like nothing else. I look around…
…and see a small army of cloaked assassins all around us. They’ve brought out torches, no longer hiding. Ten steps in front of us stands Kathanhiel, Kaishen in her right hand and the pick in her left. Red streaks are painted upon her armour, the first of many.
‘W-what do we do?’
‘Draw your sword idiot!’
I obediently do so. This was supposed to be the best day of my life. How did it end up like this?
The assassins surround the lone tree from all sides, all of them with identical hooded cloaks and hook-swords. No, scimitars, those are called scimitars, and their blades all have a weird blue sheen – some sort of poison, must be.
There’s at least fifty of them.
One speaks, her tone comically sinister as if she’s listened to one bard too many. ‘Drop your weapons, Kathanhiel, and your esquires will live.’
Kathanhiel says nothing. She stands statue-still with Kaishen on low guard and the pick pointing at the ground.
‘Do not be foolish. The odds are against you,’ says another.
Here, at this very juncture, a stupid impulse takes over. Nothing and no one, not even I, can explain why I’m taking a step forward, or why I’m puffing out my chest as if full of hot air. What am I doing? What am I doing?
‘You stand against Kathanhiel, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon! Odds won’t save you!’
There, I said it.
By the Maker, what did I just say?
Hooded faces turn in my direction. They start laughing. They’re all laughing. Their voices reverberate like clamouring bells: loud, humourless, and inhuman.
Then Kathanhiel speaks, deadly calm.
‘That is Kastor, my esquire. You will not insult him.’
A flash of crimson lightning.
Do you know the way a cat would sit still, so still that its whiskers tremble not at all, as it looks at a bird chittering away on a low-hanging branch? It would pounce without warning, with speed unimaginable, and snatch the bird out of the air just as it takes off a split second too late.
That’s exactly what happens, and the little bird that chitters and chitters away is the hooded head rolling free of its shoulders.
And the cat? She is a lion.
‘Come. Let us not waste time.’ Kathanhiel declares with a fresh splatter upon her cuirass.
They move on her, a wave of human-shaped wraiths so fast they must be gliding on the grass. The first one to reach Kathanhiel falls to the ground in two pieces with a crunch of flesh and bone, but no clashing of steel. The second finds the sharp end of the pick underneath his chin right as he comes forward, as if the two of them were destined to meet; a squishy thud, and he crumples.
No one survives the first hit.
Six bodies pile up in five seconds, but still they come. One blue-tinged scimitar flies by Kathanhiel’s left ear, cutting loose three strands of hair. Then comes a brief squeal, like the quack of a duck, as its wielder splits from left waist to right shoulder. Two cloaks fly at her face in an attempt to blind. A flash of red, and they burst into flames in mid-air and turn to ash.
The sword. It’s on fire.
Kaishen is glowing red hot like it just came out of the forge. A snake of fire, it runs through two more bodies as if their bones were butter.
At a signal the assailants extinguish their torches, and the sudden darkness blinds the eye. Kaishen dims immediately, but a moment too late, the target bright and clear. Grunts and shouts come out of the darkness, steel flashing as weapons cross fast enough to resemble a rain of glass. More shadows fall, but the clanging intensifies.
They’re piling in, intending to crush her with sheer numbers.
Haylis slams an arm across my chest. ‘Don’t even think about it.’
Apparently I was walking forward like a headless chicken, as if trying to join the fight.
‘I wasn’t going to –’
A massive wave of heat explodes from the melee and the world turns red. The tree creaks dangerously as the blast rips from it all but the thickest branches. Objects sail through the air: bits of metal, cloth, limbs, all in pieces and all burning.
In the chaos a ring of fire rises from the grass. As the assassins fall away, half of them human torches, Kathanhiel lunges from its centre with Kaishen twice its original length and burning the crimson of sunset. It cuts through three at once; they part bloodlessly, their body-length wounds cauterised in an instant.
Still they fight, rising from the fire and yelling each other on despite their decimated ranks. These assassins are no cowards.
Thing is, cowards live.
They’re not going to.
Kathanhiel is on the offensive now, dancing in and out of the flames and mowing down everything in her path. Those scimitars, they break into two curled-up scraps the moment Kaishen touches them, and offer as much protection as bare arms. Two, four, eight, sixteen – they fall in droves and in pieces.
Not a single sound comes out of her lips throughout; no panting for air, no cry of bloodlust or jeering taunt. Meanwhile, Kaishen paints the canvas of night with red ribbons, so blindingly fast the eye mistakes it for one continuous stroke of a luminous brush.
The assassins suddenly find themselves a third of their original number. There’s no more hiding, not before the fire now sweeping across the grass under the whip of the wind. Instead of scattering and saying ‘til we meet again!’ as befit petty villains, they group up…and turn to me.
In my hand, the little stinger of a sword suddenly turns slippery.
Oh, hi there.
They come, a dozen of them, their cloaks singed and hoods long discarded. Ordinary faces, pleasant, even handsome faces, belonging to men and women that could’ve been farmers or merchants in another life, stare at me with bloodlust.
Hi, how are you?
Haylis is overpowered off-handedly, the sword falling from her hand and kicked aside by a stray foot. The person in front, a middle-aged man with a neat goatee and trimmed sideburns, deflects my lunge with a casual wave and grabs my neck like a butcher would a fat chicken.
His hand is shaking badly, worse than anything I’ve ever experienced. Perhaps he should consider seeing a physician.
‘Pull them up!’ the man yells before realising that most of his remaining crew had been cut down in the few seconds it took to reach the tree. There’s only six of them now, huddling behind Haylis and I.
Kathanhiel is right there, not three steps away.
‘You move, they die!’ the man yells, the voice of utter panic.
Her face…in the paintings, the hero is always supremely calm and rather bored-looking in crucial moments. That’s almost what Kathanhiel looks like; I say almost because instead of boredom there’s absolutely no expression on her face.
It’s as if she didn’t just cut down fifty people.
‘Will you not fight?’
Her voice is strange, like she’s…disappointed?
That bluish scimitar is shaking dangerously, and dangerously close to my skin. ‘One prick and he dies! Stay back!’
A lot of extraordinary things have transpired – the glowing sword, the emotionless slaughter, that explosion – but what happens next trumps them all.
Kathanhiel moves her sword to honour guard position: chest level, vertically up. The glowing edge divides her face into two solemn halves. She starts speaking to it – no, whispering, pleading, as if to a lover.
‘Help me. Your Kathanhiel needs you. Though I deserve not your strength, there are those who need me to protect them as you protected me. Please, one more time.’
The man laughs in an exemplary show of stupidity. ‘It’s just a sword! Can’t do you any favours!’
She glares at him.
Kaishen splits. The blade breaks into six strands along its length, each thin as a needle. Sparks fall as their tips branch out into hair-thin threads and entwine into triangle-shaped heads: dragon heads, complete with brilliant white eyes and slithering tongues. They begin swaying side to side in hypnotizing motion. Ever seen a snake enchanter play a flute to make the snake go up and up? It’s just like that except...except....can’t look away. Impossible to look away.
Don’t want to blink. My eyes are drying out from the heat and it’s painful but if I blink the little dragons might disappear. Can’t turn away either. I don’t want to. You can kill me but you can’t make me look away. Just look at those things, look at them! The way they dance – the way they snarl! So…so pretty…
The scimitar falls away from my neck but that’s not important. The assassins are whispering soft ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s but I couldn’t care less. Those little dragons though…
Why’re they all walking forward and leaving me behind? That man with the goatee doesn’t deserve to get close – his dirty eyes will ruin their beautiful necks! Just…just look at that swaying, left and right, side by side, up and down like riding a wave. Those little mouths open, close, open and close. So wonderful…I should be going to them. Why aren’t I?
Then a cloaked back blocks my view and it’s like getting doused with a bucket of ice during the most wonderful dream of my life. I look over at Haylis and see the same dazed look.
The six remaining assassins are gathered around Kathanhiel now, each staring at a little dragon, mouths hanging open and drooling, their necks straining up and down, left and right. One by one they fall to the ground, smoking issuing from their ears and noses as if a fire had cooked their brains from the inside.
I blink, and the six little dragons are not really there at all. It’s just Kaishen, dimming to a dull red in Kathanhiel’s hand, a singular piece of metal.
Her enemies lay dead.
Thunder roils overhead just as the fire now ravaging the grassland threatens to consume the bits of human limbs littered all about. Soon the rain would come to put it out…but not yet.
‘Stay where you are,’ Kathanhiel says as she hooks the pick onto the Kaishen’s crossguard. Only then do I realise that the sword’s glow doesn’t stop at the grip but halfway up her arm. Somehow it has fused into her hand.
She pulls, gingerly at first, then with enough strength to tear a leg off a horse. The pick, made out of a dull black metal, doesn’t glow at all despite the heat.
The ensuing noise sounds like strips of steel being violently twisted in a vise. The crossguard inches away from her grip with extraordinary slowness as sparks shower from her fingertips and bounce into the dark. Not a single sound had come out of her mouth during the fight, but she's groaning now, with obvious effort and even more obvious pain.
Then it’s pried free. The moment her hand leaves Kaishen’s grip it plops onto the ground as a regular piece of steel, its glow fading. Kathanhiel screams, falling to her knees as if it was her heart that just got pulled out.
Steam is bellowing from her body.
I go to her, my head filled with nonsensical buzzing and my hands shaking all over the place, but I go to her anyway, because I’m her esquire.