By the time we woke up in the morning, the sun was already inching across the sky. I wasn’t used to sleeping indoors without any windows; we hadn’t been able to see the dawn, so no one had thought it was time to wake up.
In the main hall, I was doing my morning stretches in the sun when Jack came in.
“Morning,” I called. I frowned. He looked more disheveled than usual. “Rough night?”
“Not used to sleeping on hardwood,” he muttered. “Also, I prefer fresh air.”
“I think I spotted a bath last night,” Vale noted as he walked in, munching on a hard loaf of bread. “You can wash some of the road off of you and everything. That will wake you up.”
Jack made a face. “I hate baths.”
“It’s either that or we toss you into the nearest pond.”
I chuckled and patted my friend on the shoulder. “Don’t tease.”
He grinned back. “Who’s teasing?”
I rolled my eyes in good humor and turned back to the swordsman, who seemed to be warming up for his own morning exercises. “I’m going to go out for a walk, survey the town. Vale and Roark can start cooking something worth eating soon. You and Harold stay close.”
Jack picked up his swords and belted them onto his back. “I’ll come with you.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Yes it is,” he said firmly. “You don’t know the town. You don’t know what would be out of place and what’s normal. You need a local eye to spot anything strange if we’re going to get to the bottom of this disappearance.”
“Technically, we still haven’t confirmed that the villagers are actually missing,” Vale pointed out. “We never did check anyplace other than the forge and this church. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and they were just hiding inside last night.”
Jack snorted derisively as he led me to the front door. “Lucky. Right.”
Once we were outside in the morning light, I got my first good look at the town. Even with the wall in the distance, Grandsbriar didn’t seem too different than any other small village I had visited in the past. The houses were mostly small wood and stone structures, the majority of the streets were unpaved dirt, and everyone had quite a bit of room to themselves. It felt like a homey little country village, even with the conspicuous lack of townspeople.
But there were hints that something was wrong. Just a few details, here and there. Windows on the houses were scarce, with most of them boarded up by a talented carpenter who couldn’t quite hide the holes. Every door I saw had a large and prominent lock of some kind, even if just a simple wooden latch. Many of the roofs had arrows sticking out of them, and on closer inspection I didn’t notice a single building without some scars of battle.
And there were no trees. After ten minutes of strolling through the town, I didn’t see a single tree inside the walls, and there weren’t many other plants, either.
I frowned at Jack. “Is there a reason for the lack of greenery?”
The swordsman shrugged. “Lots were cut down for the wall. When we discovered that plants could go dire—but before we realized they wouldn’t do it actually inside the town—we got rid of the rest. Just a bit of panic and paranoia.”
“Right,” I muttered. “I suppose…that makes sense.” We were nearing the wall, and I frowned again. “Wait, what’s that? On the wall?”
“Hm? What? I don’t see anything.”
We strode closer, and I was able to identify what I had failed to notice last night in the dark. While much of the solid wall was made of rough-hewn wood, in many cases obviously just tree trunks with the branches shorn off, a significant portion was comprised of logs of bleach-white material I couldn’t identify. They were smooth, and curved outward slightly.
“Oh. That.” Jack shrugged again. “They’re bones.”
I turned to him in surprise. “They’re what?”
“Bones,” he repeated. “The ribs of a giant, to be specific.” When I continued to stare, he held his hand above his head as far as it would go. “Big human-shaped monsters, a hundred feet tall or more. Solitary, thankfully, and rare, but we’ve gotten…five, maybe? Over the past year.” He shrugged again. “We found a use for their corpses.”
I took my hand off the…white building material. I had to admit, it certainly looked and felt like bone, with the smooth texture of a river-worn stone. That was probably what it was, just some…granite, or whatever, but I had no idea how one would get it into that shape. I wasn’t a mason.
Either way, it disturbed me, and I strode away from it quickly. We walked along the wall for a while, just watching the town for anything suspicious, but I kept my distance from the fortification, and kept Jack between me and it.
We didn’t see anything worth noting, however, until we reached the pond. It was a decent-sized oblong body of water, perhaps ten yards wide on the long side, corralled by a short wooden fence, presumably so children didn’t fall in. There was a large stone building right next to it, almost set up against the wall, which seemed to have a rope and pulley system for drawing up water.
“Is that your water source?” I asked. “I wouldn’t think it would last long.”
“It’s pretty deep, actually, and fed by an underground river. It runs under the whole area.”
We walked around it. “Well, that’s convenient. I imagine that’s why the town was built in the first place? To act as a central watering hole for the nearby farms?”
Jack shook his head. “Maybe it’s why it was built here, but the reason Grandsbriar was built in the first place was because of the Briarwood. There are some medicinal herbs and stuff in there that are hard to come by. Plus, the local priest was interested in studying the bloodvines.”
I did a double-take. “Wait, Harold said the bloodvines only showed up a few years before he was born.”
The swordsman nodded. “That’s right. The mayor’s father was a hunter who came through here every once in a while. One day, those thorns showed up, apparently out of nowhere. He mentioned it back at town, Father Mallern’s predecessor heard about it, and decided to move down here to study them. It wouldn’t have worked if they hadn’t brought a couple of farming families with them, though.”
“Huh. I wouldn’t have assumed this town was only a couple decades—” We rounded the pond, where the water house was no longer obstructing our view, and stopped dead in shock.
There was a hole in the wall.
A massive wound in the town’s fortification, maybe ten or twenty feet wide. Splinters of wood and massive broken planks were scattered around up to fifty feet or more away from the wall like so many matchsticks, making it abundantly clear that whatever had done this had bashed through with sheer animal strength.
I had never seen this kind of damage. The wall was a bit primitive, true, but it was solidly built. Even siege weapons couldn’t rip through wood like this, like…like it was just made of paper. And even if they could, I didn’t see any boulders or ballistae bolts or any other discarded siege ammo.
“Well,” I managed with a dry throat. “I suppose we found out why the village is empty.”
Next to me, Jack swallowed. “This…I have no idea what could do this. A giant, maybe, but they’re easy to drive off, they would never have gotten close enough.” He shook his head. “Besides, they try and avoid humans.”
“Jack, listen to me,” I said as I grabbed his shoulders, forcing him to look away from the devastation and meet my eyes. He had very pretty eyes, I was surprised to see. Bright green. Perhaps an Irish ancestor? Not the problem right now. “The bandits—the things attacking you. Have they ever used any sort of black powder weapons before?”
He shook his head dumbly. “No…I mean, dire pines have their pine cones, which ignite when they hit something. And a masherburn makes little bombs out of the slag from smithing, but nothing this big.” He rubbed his forehead. “A burnbag, maybe? But no, I’ve never seen one this big…” He shook his head again. “We need to get closer. Investigate the scene.”
“I agree completely,” I assured him. “But are you sure you’re going to be all right? You can stay here, if you want.” He was clearly more shocked than when we had found Father Mallern’s corpse. Seeing a hole in what he had always assumed to be an impenetrable defense had hurt him in ways he wasn’t fully aware of.
But the young swordsman shook his head once more, refusing my coddling. “You don’t know what to look for. You need me.”
Reluctantly, I nodded. I grabbed the boy by his armored hand and pulled him gently behind me, to the wall itself.
The hole was near the livestock barns, which appeared to be empty. Remembering what I had read in Mallern’s journal about the villagers keeping some of these ‘dire’ animals, I was a bit disappointed, but I supposed it was only to be expected. Whatever had destroyed the wall had clipped the barn, providing a large hole for anything inside to escape.
“There’s no crater,” Jack muttered from behind me, near the center of the wall. His tone was concerned; I turned to see him kneeling over the few broken posts still stuck in the ground. “No blast marks or burns that I can see. This wasn’t anything explosive. This was pure brute strength.”
“What could have done this?” I murmured, mostly to myself.
“A giant,” Jack repeated. “Full-grown, I would suspect. A younger one might be able to do the same thing by throwing rocks or whatever, but I’m not seeing any signs of that anywhere. The question is how and why giant would get close enough.”
I was getting a pretty severe headache. “Jack. Let’s just…what else could have done this? Do they’ve a mechanized battering ram of some sort?”
The swordsman stood, fixing me with a steely glare. “No. They don’t have a battering ram. They’ve swords, and axes, and bows, and apparently shields. That’s it. They’re not smart enough to use something like a swinging ram or whatever.”
“Bandits can be clever when—”
“They’re NOT BANDITS!” he cried, his face suddenly inches from mine. “They’re not thieves or cutthroats, looking for coin to extort from a defenseless village! They’re monsters, beyond the ken of mortal men, with no thoughts in their vile minds other than murder!”
I tried to find words that didn’t sound condescending. “I’m not…I didn’t…whatever you believe—”
The villager scowled and stalked off.
“Screw you, Sir Wreth!” he called over his shoulder. “I’m going to talk to Harold about defending what’s left of our town!”
Knowing that chasing after an angry teenager never solved anything, I sighed and sat down, putting my back to a portion of the wall that was still standing.
I had known this job was going to end poorly from the start. Chasing monsters. If my king had believed the claims had any merit, he should have sent a small army. And if not, then he should have let the town rot.
Of course, the claims did have merit. Grandsbriar was in very serious danger, enough danger that the entire village had decided to abandon their homes rather than attempt to fix their broken wall. And of course, an army would have been useless in the situations we had encountered so far. They would have done nothing but foul up the evidence.
I closed my eyes. Once again, my king’s wisdom was evident once I thought on it for a moment. I didn’t know why I insisted on doubting him constantly. Maybe it was his infuriating habit of not explaining his wisdom.
Lulled by that somewhat cheery thought, I drifted off into a light sleep. Just a small catnap, to make up for the hard travel of the past week.
Thanks to my soldier’s instincts, I was woken almost immediately when I heard someone walking around near me, feet crunching on splinters. I cracked open one eye and saw a large man searching along the ground.
“Norn?” I called, still half-asleep. “Is that you?”
The man’s head snapped up towards my voice, he pulled a sword off his back, and he roared at me, the sound as loud as any war horn I had ever heard.
Suddenly, both my eyes were open, and I rolled to the side just in time to dodge a large overhand swing of the sword, which slammed into the spot I had occupied just a moment ago. I had enough time to note that the sword was the same crude style as Jack’s pair, and that my attacker was wielding it with one hand, before he pulled it free and swung at me again.
This time, I dove forward, towards his legs and inside his guard. His horizontal swing whistled over my head, and he bellowed again when I tackled his lower body. It felt like trying to move a tree trunk, but somehow I managed to topple him. I took the the momentary reprieve to stumble back and draw my sword. My opponent quickly regained his feet and eyed me warily.
My initial impression had been correct. It was a large, broad-shouldered man, about the same size as Norn. Bigger, actually, since this one was shirtless, wearing nothing but ragged pants and a leather sheath strapped across his back. None of his bulk came from armor.
But there was something wrong with this man.
No, more than just something. It took me a moment to take it all in, then it all came pouring down too fast like an avalanche.
His skin was black. Not dark brown like the desert-men who occasionally found their way to London, but black as night. There were dark green splotches scattered here and there across his skin in no pattern I could identify, making him look diseased, and the dozens of deep and poorly-healed battle scars didn’t help that image.
His ears were large and pointed, like a bat, but ripped and torn from old battles. His face was…squashed, for lack of a better word, his nose flat and his chin nearly nonexistent. His eyes were small, beady, and a brilliant, beautiful green. It was shocking to see such beautiful eyes on such an ugly face, and I just stopped and started for a moment.
My opponent had no such hesitation. He opened his mouth—revealing rows and rows of shark-like teeth—and bellowed again, making me flinch back from the sheer volume of his voice. Then he charged forward like a madman, once again holding his strange sword with one hand.
Whether this creature was a monster or just a bandit in extremely convincing make-up, he was a swordsman, charging at me with all the skill of a Saxon berserker. I was Sir Nicholas Wreth, knight of the realm. I could fight one swordsman.
Still roaring, he swiped down at me one-handed. I stepped to the side and dodged the clumsy blow, before jabbing him quickly in his unprotected side. Even though there wasn’t much strength in the strike, I expected to create a decent puncture wound. But it felt like stabbing cured leather, hard and tough, and I only managed a minor scratch that didn’t even appear to be bleeding.
The minor wound made him mad though, and he stepped forward and backhanded me in the face with his free hand. It immediately sent me sprawling to the ground—it felt like getting hit with a log.
I shook my head from my spot on all fours, trying to power through the dizziness through sheer strength of will. My enemy, sensing his advantage, stepped up to me and took a massive two-handed swing at my neck.
Once again, I managed to roll to the side, but it was closer than last time, and my instincts told me tackling his legs again wouldn’t work. He might charge and howl like berserker, but his eyes were sharp and cunning. He was tough enough to take a few of my attacks while he assessed my weaknesses.
I backed away from him, skittering along the grass on my hands and butt, trying to keep my sword in my hand and my eyes on my opponent. He just grinned, stalking forward slowly, that big blade held easily in one hand, enjoying the last few moments of my life.
Then my free hand hit something. Something sharp and wooden—a splinter from the wall.
I didn’t hesitate. I threw the foot-long chunk at his face, and immediately got up and ran past him, towards the pond. I heard him bellow in rage, but didn’t see exactly what effect my distraction had produced. It was just that, a distraction. I would be surprised if it even managed to actually hit him.
Once I was on the far side of the pond, I turned and switched to a ready position, preparing to deflect his next attack.
But he hadn’t followed. Well, he was following, but it was a slow, cautious walk, not a manic chase. He was confused. He didn’t know why I had chosen to retreat to the pond, and was being careful before committing himself further.
I didn’t really have an actual plan. But I wasn’t beating him on open ground, so I changed the arena. I honestly wasn’t sure what advantages a pond and a water house would give me, but it was better than scrambling around on the ground waiting for my head to get lopped off.
The…man, or bandit, or whatever he was, walked slowly around the pond, keeping a good couple feet away from the waters. Clever. He thought I might have some sort of trap or ally under the water. I wish I had.
Those clever green eyes watched me closely, and those bat-like ears twitched and turned, trying to detect every ambient sound.
In a way, all this caution was making me feel better. I didn’t know if I could fight some strange, inhuman monster with skin strong enough to turn aside steel. But a swordsman intelligent enough to be confused was a swordsman intelligent enough to be tricked.
Now I only needed to come up with a trick.
Drawing out the fight might work, but I was getting a sinking feeling that it was actually a bad idea. He had to at least suspect that I had allies nearby. The only reason he would be so unconcerned about time would be if he also had allies nearby. And considering the bellowing war-cry he had used to start the fight, his might be on their way.
I needed to finish this quickly.
The second he got within ten feet, I reached down, dipped my sword into the pond, and flicked a sharp stream of water at his face. He didn’t even break stride, just casually batted it away with his own sword.
That was fine. That probably wouldn’t have worked normally; after the trick with the wood, only a complete idiot would fall for it a second time. But that wasn’t the point. It made him think I was desperate, which gave him confidence.
I was desperate, of course. But he had nearly every advantage here. He was stronger, faster, tougher, and had a better idea of who he was fighting, while I still didn’t even know what he was. I doubted I could make him overconfident. But confident people still made more mistakes than cautious people, even if only a little.
Then my opponent had closed the distance, and was swinging his sword at my face faster than lightning.
I crouched down low, my heart skipping a beat as I felt the breeze from the strike ruffle my hair, and I jabbed at his unprotected chest again. This time, he just batted aside the blade with his free hand, razor-sharp steel meeting blotchy black flesh to no apparent effect.
With a feint to one side, I dodged around his body, hoping his bulk would keep him from turning long enough to strike him in his vulnerable spine. No such luck; he just batted the blade away again with his hand, and stabbed at me with his own sword.
There was no time to dodge, so I brought my blade around the parry. It was a clumsy maneuver, though, and the man was able to simply grab my sword by the blade, wrench it out of my hand, and toss it in the pond.
I jumped after it without hesitation.
My chances of survival were low if he could swim. They were zero if I faced him unarmed.
Luckily, he had thrown it a little too hard, and the blade landed in the mud of the opposite bank, fifteen feet away. I was hardly a great swimmer, especially in my mail hauberk, but even I could swim fifteen feet.
Wet and cold, I jumped out of the water, grabbed my sword, and twisted around to face my opponent once more, ready to fight.
He was just staring at me from the opposite bank. He wasn’t mad or in the roaring rage of a battle fury, he was…calm. And annoyed. Annoyed like when a child refuses to finish their dinner, not as though I was any serious threat.
I took a few steps back from the bank, staying in my ready stance, blade held forward with both hands, in order to get on firmer ground. I twitched my blade towards me a few times, as if beckoning the strange foe to attack.
He rolled his eyes.
And then he jumped.
From a standing start, he just coiled his legs and leaped across the pond, crossing a fifteen-foot distance like it was nothing, and landing in front of me with a wet splash of mud. I got some on my face. I was too shocked to wipe it away.
He grinned with those too-sharp teeth, clearly enjoying himself again, and stepped forward with another of those lightning-fast overhand swings. If his arms were even a tenth as strong as his legs, I had no doubt this blow could chop me in half, mail or no.
But he had been expecting that.
He knew my tricks now, and the second I started moving, he lowered his shoulder and tackled me full-on, knocking me down to the ground as easily as a bully fighting a child. I was simply completely unmatched against that sort of strength. It was like I was nine years old again, trying to fight my sixteen year-old brother.
But there was one bright spot, such as it was. This enemy knew he was stronger than me, but he also knew I was strong enough to be a real threat if left unattended, even on my back in the dirt.
Unfortunately, that meant he knew he couldn’t leave me alive.
He placed his heavy foot—which I belatedly noticed was bare of any shoe, and appeared to have six toes—on my belly to keep me from moving, and slashed at my neck with his blade, a blow without as much power behind it as the feint I had dodged moments earlier, but still more than enough to slice my neck open like a ripe tomato.
There was no dodging.
I brought up my sword to parry, the only thing I could do at this angle.
His blade cut through it like cheese.
I just stared dumbly at the ruined chunk of metal I now in my hand. He had cut it off diagonally about six inches above the pommel. Just sheared through it so easily I had barely even felt any resistance.
One of the best swords in the kingdom, and the best it could do against a blade forged by a savage and wielded by a barbarian was throw off his aim by an inch, saving my neck for another five seconds.
Well, that wasn’t quite all it did. As he growled in anger above me, I noticed a new cut on his cheek, deeper than the one I had given him on his side. Apparently, in its death throes, my blade had managed to fly off at an oblique angle and wound him. This one was actually bleeding, if only a little, and—
Was that…black blood?
The barbarian ripped my ruined sword out of my hand and tossed it away again, but this time he had me pinned, so there was no chance of me running after it. He held the strange sword in a two-handed grip, ready to stab it down into my chest…
And then there was a whistle.
A high-pitched, shrill whistle, that almost sounded like it couldn’t have come from a human throat.
And I had heard it before.
Evidently, so had my opponent, because his head immediately swiveled in the direction of the sound. He abandoned me, stepping off me and bringing his sword around to face what he clearly believed to be the greater threat.
Breathing through a chest that felt crushed, I struggled up onto my elbows, trying to see if it was what I thought.
And saw Jack, charging at the man like a dervish.
Both his swords, near matches for the barbarian’s own, were already out, whipping through the air in a complicated pattern in front of him. I had tried using two swords at once a long time ago, when I first joined His Majesty’s forces. I had quickly learned why sane swordsmen only used one blade: It was a stupid, difficult, and dangerous trick more liable to hurt the user than any enemy.
But Jack moved like a dancer. Blades and body moved as one, singing through the air as easily as if they were merely extensions of his arms.
Then he closed with the barbarian.
The savage howled, louder than I had ever heard before, but Jack faced that maw filled with too many teeth without so much as blinking. He knocked aside the overhand strike with one sword, and struck with the other as easily as a one-two punch. The savage tried to block it with his free hand, like he had done to me, but Jack’s blades were sharper than mine. The barbarian howled again, this time in pain, and I saw severed fingers fly through the air.
The beast growled and stepped back, gripping his sword with two hands despite his missing fingers. With a blink, I noticed that he had six fingers on each hand—well, four on the one, now—and he was indeed bleeding black blood. Before I could think too hard on that, he bellowed another war-cry and stepped forward with a massive horizontal slash that would have cut a tree in half.
Jack brought both his savage swords in front of him in an x-shape, blocking the blow with a stoic expression on his face. He was knocked back a pace on the grass, but he kept his stance and his footing. Before his opponent could recover from overextending himself, he was moving forward again, thrusting with one sword while the other stayed ready.
As a veteran duelist, I made a mental to offer a commendation to whoever had trained him. Dual-wielding swords might be strange and unfamiliar to me, but his footwork was impressive, and his blade work was certainly effective.
The splotchy-skinned savage clearly knew it as well. He wasn’t fighting like when he fought me; cautious, but strong. No, here he was constantly on the defensive, wielding his blade two-handed, moving desperately to block every blow, and constantly stepped backwards, giving up ground in order to avoid being cut to ribbons.
His tactics weren’t working. Oh, they were working in that he wasn’t dead yet, but for every blow the savage blocked, Jack got in another light strike with the other sword. Just a gash along the arm here, a shallow puncture there. Not enough to kill, not alone, but the beast was losing blood, and he was slowing.
And he wasn’t paying enough attention to where he was going.
His back hit the wall of the water house.
He glanced but to see what he had hit—then snapped his attention forward again.
It was already too late.
The second the savage took his eyes off his opponent, Jack stepped forward, brought both blades to his neck, and sliced his head off.
The corpse stumbled for a moment, as if still trying to fight.
Then black blood began to fountain from the severed neck, and the beast finally toppled forward, dead.
Jack stepped back, breathing deeply, but definitely calm, and not in shock.
For me, it took a moment to confirm that my heart hadn’t exploded out of my chest.
“What in the holy name of God was that?” I whispered.
“Dire man,” Jack said, spitting on the ground. His spittle was black; apparently he had gotten some blood in his mouth. “A sinheart. Get ready. More will be coming. Sinhearts always hunt in packs of at least three. We’ll probably be facing more like ten. Careful; they’re more aggressive in groups”
I nodded, picking up the barbarian’s fallen sword—
And immediately dropped it. The blade missed my toe by an inch.
“This must weigh thirty pounds!” I cried. I stared at my companion, who was still holding one in each hand as if they weighed no more than a feather. “How the Hell can you use them like that?”
“I’ll explain later,” he hissed, swinging his swords around quickly to limber up. “They’re coming.”
I turned in the direction he was looking. He was right; they were still thirty or so yards off, but I could see five more of the strange splotchy-skinned men loping forward on all fours for extra speed.
I swallowed. I hadn’t felt this anxious since my first battle. Even my wedding night wasn’t as bad as this. “Tell me what I can do to help.”
“Just stay out of my way for now,” the young villager insisted. “It would take too long to teach you how to use a dire sword, and I don’t have any extra bracers. They like a good fight and they like a good hunt, so as long as you just stay put and don’t run, they will fight me first.”
“I’m not going to let you fight a bunch of…I’m not going to let you fight alone!”
“Yes,” he said calmly, as he stepped forward to meet the enemy. “You’re.”
The savages stood up and roared as the swordsman closed the distance, but he was too fast for the first one. Before the barbarian could even draw his sword, Jack sliced his hand off with a flick of his own blade, than stabbed him in the heart with the other.
That turned out to be a mistake. While the first foe was spasming to death on the strange sword, Jack couldn’t use the weapon to fight off the other four. He made a good show of it, though, parrying strikes from two of them at once with a single wide swipe, and he managed to extract his blade with a wet squelch in time for the next attack.
But even though the young villager was one of the best swordsmen I had ever seen, he still couldn’t fight off four enemies at once. As he had promised, they were being more aggressive and stupid, making stupid mistakes and giving him plenty of opportunities to get in strikes of his own, but it wasn’t enough. Their blood was up, even I could tell that now, and it wouldn’t be long until they cut him down.
I had to do something. I picked up the sword my own opponent had dropped. If I just—
Jack glanced back, and cursed. “I told you not to!”
The savages roared again, but not at Jack. Two of them charged at me, beautifully human eyes wide with rage and bloodlust, having apparently decided that I would be a fun fight after all. I raised my sword in a ready position, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. The blade simply weighed too much.
Jack cursed, dodged past his own opponents—while giving one of them a large slash across the chest in the process—and tackled me bodily with all his strength. I only had a brief moment to realize that he seemed frailer under the leather than I had expected, when we both landed in the bracingly cold water.
For a moment, I was underwater, feet touching nothing solid, and trying desperately to swim back up to the surface. Jack was holding my arms in place, keeping me from using them to swim, and I was forced to try and keep my armored body afloat with nothing but my legs.
It wasn’t working. Why was Jack holding my arms still? If I could just use them to paddle, I could—
Oh, right. I was still holding the sword.
I released it, letting it sink like a stone to the bottom of the pond, and the villager immediately released me. From there, it was easy enough to swim to the surface and take in great gasping breaths of air.
“What did you do that for?” I hissed once I had spit some water out of my lungs.
“They were going to kill you,” he insisted. I noticed that the water had washed some of the dirt out of his hair; it was a very bright, very pretty blond color. “Dire men can’t swim,” he added, nodding to the four surviving barbarians growling at us from the water’s edge. “But they will find a way soon.”
I finally noticed that the sheathes on his back were still empty. “Wait, where are your swords?”
“Bottom of the pond,” he muttered. “I’ll get them later.”
“There might not be a later without his sword. This wasn’t you best plan.”
He snapped his head in my direction and fixed me with a steely gaze. “My plan? My plan was to fight them off by myself! You’re the one who made yourself a target, and I had to improvise to rescue you!”
I ground my teeth. I didn’t want to argue about this. “…fine. Whatever. But we’re safe as long as we stay in the water, right? Or maybe we could even dive down, found that underground river you mentioned.”
He eyed the beasts pacing the short shoreline less than ten feet away. “I doubt it—on both. The river is completely underwater, as far as we know. There is no air. And as for staying safe…I have a feeling they’re going to get us sooner rather than later.”
“But you said they couldn’t swim.”
“They can’t,” he agreed, but the grim way he said it didn’t fill me with confidence. “But they’re hardly mindless beasts, either, and this pond is not exactly big. They’re—ah.” He sighed, his tone one of wearied resignation. “Yes, that will do the trick.”
Two of the barbarians had jogged off to collect thick and heavy splinters of wood from the ruins of the wall, while the other two stayed behind to guard us. When the first two returned, they passed out the makeshift weapons, and they all started throwing them at them.
The first projectile missed my head by an inch, throwing up a splash of water. At least it was clean water, but that was hardly my highest priority right now.
“Duck underwater,” Jack suggested.
I stared at him. “That’s barely going to work! We’ve to come up for air—ow—” Another lobbed missile splashed down near me. “—up for air soon, and they will just hit us then! How will a few extra seconds help us?”
“A few extra seconds alive,” he said simply, as if that was an argument in and of itself. He took a deep breath and dove down with all the skill of a fish.
I cursed under my breath, wondering if I should follow…and got beaned in the head by chunk of wood for my hesitation.
It felt like when I was a kid, and got kicked by my father’s horse. Whatever these things were, they were strong, and Jack was right, we needed every advantage we could get.
Fighting through the daze of pain and blood, I managed to get a deep breath and dive down to meet the swordsman.
The pond was so clean and clear that I could actually see underwater. It was blurry, of course, but with the sunlight dappling down from above, I could identify Jack, powering down to the bottom of the pond, presumably looking for his swords.
It wasn’t that deep, maybe twenty feet at most, but it was certainly more than I would have felt comfortable swimming in. Then again, I hadn’t had a pond in my home town to practice in while I was growing up.
After a few moments, just as my lungs started to burn, the swordsman started swimming up again, holding two long objects which could only be his swords. He wasn’t swimming straight up, though—he was swimming towards the water house, which buttressed the pond. What was he thinking?
I didn’t have any idea, but he certainly had a better plan than me, so I followed him, careful to stay a few feet under the surface of the water to keep from becoming a target for the enemy. By the time I needed air, we had reached the water house.
…which provided precisely zero cover from enemy fire.
But Jack did have a plan after all. He signaled for me to go in one direction, while I went in the other. While I didn’t think it was a good idea, my burning lungs meant I didn’t have much choice, so I followed his directions, jumping out of the water onto the muddy bank, and running away from the barbarians I knew would be right behind me.
I turned to see that our four sword-wielding opponents were rounding the pond to fight Jack, who hadn’t run like I had. He was dripping wet and looked half-drowned, but he had both swords out and his back to the stone wall of the water house. They couldn’t surround him like they had before.
Apparently, they didn’t realize that, and howled in angry joy as they charged. Or maybe they did realize he was in a more tactically favorable position, and thought it would make a better fight. I still had no idea what these things even were, so I couldn’t really guess at their thought processes.
I knew better than to try and interfere this time. All I could do was watch, helpless, as the four inhumanly strong men charged within melee range of the lone swordsman—
And then one of them got hit in the back of the head with an arrow.
The savage stumbled, his roar cut off by surprise and pain, but he wasn’t down yet. He tried to stand—
And then his head immolated.
The barbarian’s screams, in contrast to his war-cry, were sharp and piercing like a knife. Even twenty feet away, I had to clap my hands over my ears, not that it did much good. Jack had a more direct way of solving the problem; he simply stepped forward and beheaded the poor creature.
The surviving three savages, now stuck on open ground with an archer sniping at them, didn’t know where to turn. One of them faced the direction the shot had come from, waited a moment, and then swung his sword. I heard the clung of metal on metal, and something small plopped into the pond. Had he…had he deflected an arrow?
Jack cut off his head from behind.
The last two were more cautious now. They put their backs together, one keeping an eye on the distant archer—who I couldn’t even see, but the shots were coming from deeper in the village—and the other facing Jack, savage blade held before him in both hands.
The village swordsman used the same tactic on him as he had on my original opponent. A few quick jabs and stabs, interspersed with using the free blade to parry his increasingly panicked strikes.
The one facing the archer was actually doing better, to my surprise, and appeared to be successfully parrying every single arrow shot at him. Even with a single sniper, I would have said it was impossible if I wasn’t witnessing it with my own eyes.
But the savage fighting Jack made it perfectly clear that these men were simply not trained to fight one-on-one. They were trained in group tactics, in outnumbering the enemy and swarming over them before they could react. In a fair fight, such as against me, they still had more than enough advantages to make up the difference.
This wasn’t a fair fight. This was Jack playing with his food.
Well, to be fair, I could see the cold concentration in Jack’s eyes. This might look like cruelty, but he was fighting in a way that he knew worked, which played to his strengths and minimized the risks. It might be a little boring to just watch him stabbing the splotchy-skinned beast over and over again, but it was better than watching him get beheaded.
Then, unexpectedly, the barbarian facing the archer took a wrong stepped, his ankle twisting out from under him as his foot slipped in the mud. This knocked the other savage off balance as well, and Jack instantly took advantage, stepping inside his guard and thrusting both swords deep into his chest as a finishing blow. The other one died at nearly the same moment, as an arrow impacted right in his eye socket, embedding deep in his brain and quickly bursting into flames.
This savage didn’t scream as his head burned. He was already dead.