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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 65: Slade 70
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Previous chapter: Chapter 64: Hastings 114
"I'm sorry to wake you two lovebirds--"
It took Slade no time at all to pull out of the fog, grab his sword, throw his cloak over his half-naked bride, and recognize that the voice was Filp's.
"It's all right," he said. "I've seen her naked. Granted that was a long time ago, and she's grown quite a bit since then, but she is my neice."
"Cousin, actually," Shella said. "And all the same, I'd rather you didn't see me thus again."
"Sorry, can't be helped. We've got a problem, and the two of you have to get dressed and downstairs faster than possible. The barn's on fire, and there are soldiers at the front door."
Slade was on his feet immediately, getting into his leathers as quickly as possible, even as Filp was making his plodding way down the ladder. "What?!?" Shella yelled.
"Don't ask questions," Slade said. "Get dressed, and pack as quickly as possible. In fact, don't pack if you can get by without these things."
"I can't; anyway, I can be dressed and packed before you can be dressed." Almost before she had finished saying it, she had thrown on her robe and was lacing up her boots. At the same time she ran a lightning-fast line of what Slade would have called mumbo-jumbo which sounded like she had practiced it for longer than she had been alive, and her loose belongings rushed into her bag, which sealed up. She was on her way down the ladder while he was still fastening his weapon belt--and he still had to secure his pack, despite the fact that he could now smell the smoke and hear the crackle of wood burning somewhere close at hand.
As he reached the bottom of the ladder, the others were waiting, ready for something but apparently without a clear notion of what. "What's the situation," he said, "and what suggestions does anyone have?" Filp seemed to take that as directed to him.
"Apparently they figured out where we were; not sure how, exactly, as I don't see your peasant friend. But they set fire to the back of the barn and took up a solid front out front. We can brave the fire or fight the guards, as far as I can see."
"Yes, it figures they would use fire; it's on their side. We have wind, but can't rely on it much or we'll start a war much bigger than this tiny land. Shella, any ideas?"
"I can try to slow the fire," she said, "but I'm not sure how much luck I'd have on that. I'd say that rushing the fire is not an option--it is likely to be the more dangerous phalanx in this battle."
"I can afford us some little protection from their missiles, and bless our efforts in combat; but my days of wielding a sword are long past, and were never days of great glory."
"Right. It's the best we've got. I'll take point. Phasius, stay behind the rest of us--after all, you're the one we're trying to save. Shella, think of something you can do that will hurt these guys real fast. They're probably not too far back; there's a good sized clearing by the door, and the trees which would afford cover are too far for accurate fire, so they must be hoping distance will suffice. I think we may surprise them. Filp, this is going to be a fight, I hope you're ready for it."
"I knew it would come to this," Filp said.
"Yes, and as I recall you complained that it hadn't," Slade said.
"I hate to be right," Filp said.
Without waiting another moment, Slade moved to the door. He heard Phasius pronouncing something that could only be a prayer, and felt Shella shadowing him as he moved forward. With one kick, Slade burst out of the barn.
A glance showed him about thirty guards, armed with small bows, about forty feet from him. That was a good distance; at that distance, their arrows would not be so accurate as his blaster. He drew it and fired at the center of the line, hitting the man he took to be the command officer. Feeling Shella on his left, he swept to his right, firing at each man once, fifteen in all. Four of them went down and did not get up; the others looked quite frightened. The number of arrows that actually flew in the same minute was far less than thirty. One nicked his leggings; whether it was Phasius' prayer or the general panic that had taken the archers Slade didn't care, as long as they weren't hitting.
He glanced to the left flank. The soldiers there were falling over backward; it seemed the ground behind them was dropping in response to Shella's hands. He had five shots left in the blaster, and would then either have to reload or switch weapons. He charged forward, firing at five of those he had already hit. He missed twice, but of the three he hit, two went down and one fled. He holstered the gun on the run, and drew the sword in time to catch one man still trying to drop his bow, and a second with sword partly in the scabbard. Others started to converge on his position, and the fight was now where he liked it, close and comfortable. He pulled his dagger into his left hand, and as he parried three opponents with the sword he pressed the dagger solidly into the gut of the middle one. As that one fell, Slade's sword went right as the dagger went left, and two more fell. He stepped over two bodies, one of which had its neck broken in the characteristic way that indicated Filp's handiwork. There were two here, and Filp already had caught one in his lethal cord.
But the other man blanched so white as he stared past Slade, the warrior had to look to see what he saw. One of the dozen or so fighters who had lost their footing when the earth collapsed behind them was now buried, but for an arm and a leg, as the ground rose around him; and the earth was already claiming another, as Shella shouted charms of earth and stone. The remaining men to that side were scrambling for their lives, trying to get out of the dirt.
Slade was not comfortable with them getting away. He hurled his dagger into the chest of the man near him with the force of his anger, and rushed toward the fallen men on the other side. "If these live," he yelled, "they will come for us again," and he slashed one twice with his sword and rushed on. One he stabbed, another he beheaded, yet another he gutted in his fury. Despite his speed and skill, several managed to reach the trees. He started after them.
"Slade, wait!" Shella called, and he turned to see what she wanted.
Filp was down. One of the fleeing soldiers had veered his direction, and left a sword in him. With only a moment's hesitation, Slade ran to the side of his friend, laying his own bloody sword on the grass beside him.
"I just wanted to say thanks before I left," Filp said.
"Thanks?" Slade asked.
"For including me. You were right. It was the best way for it to end."
"I can help him," Phasius said. "Let me help."
"No, no," Filp insisted, "it's all right. Slade's right. Wen is waiting for me, and there's no reason for me to stay behind. If I die, I'll probably find her back in Majdi's castle--and the food there is out of this world."
"Literally," Slade offered.
"Yeah." Filp laughed, and then coughed, trying to get control of himself. "Hey," he said. "I wanted you to have this." He handed Slade the oversized crossbow with which he fired grapples up castle walls. "I won't be needing it where I'm going."
Slade wanted to say that Filp wouldn't die, or didn't have to die, or shouldn't die; but none of it seemed true. Filp was right; this was the best end. Filp got to do what he loved most, and do it for a truly good cause, and to give his life in battle fighting the good fight. Perhaps they would stand together at Ragnorak; but Filp got to go to his rest first.
"I will take care of it, and always remember you."
"And take anything else you can use. Don't leave it here--that's just wasteful. Hey," he called, "Shella. I'm sorry I can't tell your brother where you went, or about the wedding. You'll have to find someone else to tell him."
"It's all right, Filp," she said. "I told him before I left."
Filp gave a puzzled look at her. Then he smiled, and started to laugh. Then he stopped laughing, stopped breathing, stopped living; but he didn't stop smiling.
Slade held him yet another moment. Phasius spoke to him.
"The barn behind us is burning. Unless our sorceress wishes to bury her cousin as she has buried her enemies, I suggest we not take time to do so, and rather consecrate this fire as a bier and a pyre for our comrade."
Slade bit his lip and held back the tear. He could use a beer about now, he thought; but it was time to say goodbye. "Yeah," he said. "Yes, that's a good idea. Do whatever you must; let me know when to bring his body to it."
"Take it now," Phasius said. "I will pray."
Removing a few of Filp's things, so much as he could carry in his own pack, he then bore the thief to the barn and laid him just inside the now blazing doorway. Stepping back far enough that the collapsing structure would not catch him, he got down on one knee and bowed his head. He felt Shella's hands on his shoulders, and he wept.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with ten other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #183: Verser Transitions. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: