by Den Valdron
THE BIG SPLIT
Two things happened, all but simultaneously. The first was that I swung wildly and desperately, catching the man by surprise. His blade was not ready, and my sword slashed across his face, leaving him roaring and reeling back with shock and pain.
The other thing was that I shit myself.
Literally. My guts all seemed to clench at once, and my bowels loosened simultaneously, my body felt all watery and week and I felt something leave me between my cheeks as if expelled with remarkable force. It was lucky I was wearing a skirt and not a loincloth. It all happened even as I swung my blade with hysterical might, and screamed with mindless terror.
I swung again, the man howling with pain. This time, he had his guard up, and my sword clattered against his. But he had his hand up, blood streaming down his split face, fingers pressing against the edges. He didn't follow up with a riposte to spit me.
But there were two men attacking me. All I could think was to get away. I screamed and blubbered, bawling for rescue. I swung around. The first attacker was almost upon me. But his foot slipped. For a second, he had an expression both surprised and appalled. I slashed wildly at him, forcing him to defend himself.
The other man approached, lumbering forward, made clumsy by the blood running down his face, his sword high. He thrust. I screeched and parried. Tried to answer with a cut. Looking around wildly, seeking escape at any cost.
“Demon bitch,” the first attacker snarled. He pressed an attack. Part of me seemed to scream and curl helplessly waiting to be murdered. But somehow, despite my paralyzing terror, my blade seemed to meet theirs again and again. But it was hopeless, these were murderers, trained soldiers, and I was nothing but a terrified fraud. I'd seen the looks of horror on dead men's faces, the appalled surprise of their own mortality, and I knew that look was on mine.
Suddenly, my first attacker halted. He made a sour face, and then looked down.
A crimson blade was protruding from his chest, dripping gore.
He blinked, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have a blade emerging from his chest, but that there was some detail of this that he'd overlooked. Something on the tip of his tongue.
Then he fell dead.
Japh Leah stood behind him.
I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. My whole body seemed to turn to water. I was going to live. I loved Japh Leah passionately in that moment, with the utter devotion that comes from having been rescued from oblivion. I stood trembling as he turned to deal with my other assailant and dispatched him with clean ruthless strokes.
I was covered in blood, I realized. Me? There was blood all over, but I seemed to have no wounds. Someone else's, I thought suddenly. Someone had shed a lot of blood. Surely they could not survive losing so much blood. They needed help or they would die.
Then I snapped back, realized that they had died. The blood was from dead men, dead men who had tried to murder me.
Japh Leah was speaking to me. His mouth moved, sounds came out, but for a second, meaning evaded me, it was gibberish. I stared at him.
I'd watched him murder a man, I realized. The knowledge lanced through the moment of unconditional love. He’d stepped up behind a man, run him through from behind, a true murder, without honour. But then, that was a man intent on killing me. He and his companion had not cared about honour either.
“....much time,” Japh Leah said, meaning suddenly snapping into his place. “We must go soon, or make our stand here. But come quickly, we have a remarkable find.”
His hand reached for my wrist, tugging it. Around us, the remaining forces of Diome were being cut down by our reinforcements. We had won this field, at least for now. Dead and dying were everywhere.
I was starting to shake hard. I had almost died. I remembered the appalling soul staining terror, swinging wildly and reflexively out of sheer terror, the clang of steel. I wanted to vomit, but nothing came up.
Japh Leah lead me through the confusion, half way across the yards. I could see now that our forces were retreating, gathering, Half the shipyard was on fire.
“Here,” he said, his voice full of elation.
I looked around, not comprehending the scene, resenting his apparent cheer.
“Ships,” he said, “airships.”
“What?” I asked again, but more to gain time to think. Yes, there were airships in docking cradles. Several of them. Smaller than the one I had blessed, much smaller.
“Are these capital ships?” I asked. “They seem too small.”
“Scouts,” he explained. “The fastest ships in Markath Khan's fleet.”
“What are they doing here?”
“Refits, they're being fitted with ground guns to assault the slave revolt. Do you know what this means?”
I absorbed that.
“We must destroy them.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but it means that Markath Khan hasn't recalled his foreign fleets.”
I nodded slowly, trying to digest this. Fixing up the scout ships with guns to fire into the city, that would take time. How long? He'd chosen to do this rather than pull back ships from elsewhere. Were they committed so direly? What did that mean? That his armies were stretched too thin? How long would it take to fix them up? How long would it take for ships to be recalled? My head hurt, estimates and days hovered outside my mind, maddeningly out of reach. This was so important, but I couldn't make it work.
“But even more, it means we can escape.”
“Escape?” I asked.
“I can fly a ship like this. We have other men, red men, former slaves, who can fly. We can flee this city.”
My heart began to pound suddenly, the thought of escape, of freedom blooming in my mind like an explosion. Elation surged wildly through my limbs. I had come too close to death, too close to joining those horrified piles of flesh and bone and leaking blood.
I could live.
I could live! I felt like floating.
But at what cost?
“I can't,” I said, “my people need me.”
What the hell was I saying? What was I doing? I wasn't a Princess. They weren't my people. I was a fraud! I was a fraud out of my depth. The best thing I could do for anyone was to flee.
But they were my people, they were orovars like me, frightened like me, people enslaved and terrified, struggling to live, faced by a host of nightmares. Right or wrong, somehow, they had come to defend on me. And worse, I'd taken up that mantle. Pretense or not, they had looked to me, and I had said yes. Even if that lead to a bloody last stand in a ditch, and my life bleeding out, I could not leave.
“Listen,” Japh Leah said, “if we stay, we're doomed. This rebellion cannot succeed without help.”
“I can't leave,” I said again, “they need me. Even if we can't beat him, he can't beat us. We'll stand him off, until something happens. If we can't win, we'll escape.”
But it was hopeless, and we both knew it. This raid had taught me a visceral lesson about the futility of our plans. I'd lost Vadak Eth, and I had probably lost Aspar Aguus as well. How many men would come back from this raid? Half? No matter how fierce the struggle, there would only be one outcome.
I so desperately wanted to flee with every fiber of my being. My soul screamed with the need to run, to find safe refuge, to leave this doomed nation behind.
But I couldn't.
“No,” he said again, “listen. Markath Khan is weak. If he hasn't recalled his ships, it means that he can't afford to. Shiaze is fighting him. We need to reach Shiaze, tell them of the rebellion, get them to send an army. We can get help. We can break him.”
And suddenly, it all fell into place. My divided soul slapped back together. Of course. Go to Shiaze, and have them rescue us.
Wasn't that the way it always was in the stories, the plays. The valiant mission to the far off ally. The rescue at the final minute.
“Yes,” I said. “You're right, we've got to go. But we must destroy every ship that we do not take. And we must make sure our raiders make it back safely. And we must tell people what we're doing, so they do not lose hope.”
“There's no time,” Japh Leah said.
“There has to be time,” I told him.
The next hours were a blur of bitter argument and contest. Somehow we found enough crew to mount almost a dozen of the ships. I remember blurs of activity, explosions as we fired the remaining ships. The awful lurch in my stomach as our airship took off.
The raiding party, much diminished, broke out of the naval yard as Diome's forces mounted. Surprise gave us an advantage. The firepower of our captured ships more advantage. But it was a near thing. Half trained men mounted ship guns as I watched bloody melee beneath me. One of our captured ships, inexpertly piloted, wobbled in the air, scraped off a building and crashed, its engines driving the wreckage down a boulevard.
We made it back to the slave quarters. Aspar Aguus had not yet returned. I sent two ships out to look for him as Japh Leah fretted. The advantage the airships had brought us was tiny and would not last. This fledgling navy was no match for even a single battle cruiser. Luckily, Aguus was already retreating, and in apparently good order. From messengers, I learned that his diversionary attack had been far more successful than we had expected. Markath Khan's forces had been poorly prepared and slow to organise. I wished that our own mission had been easy.
Frantically, I met with my hastily appointed command, issuing unnecessary orders and directions.
“I have to address my people,” I told them, “they must know I will return.”
“Princess,” Japh Leah said, “I forbid this. Escape will be hard enough. There are spies everywhere. We cannot risk Markath Khan learning our plans.”
“Unless he's a fool, he'll have figured it out anyway,” I snapped. “And if there's any chance of this to work, I will not return to find these people overrun and murdered.”
“Markath Khan's capital ships are already approaching,” he whispered.
My speech to a hastily assembled throng was short and incoherent. I started out with Revenge of the Fallen Prince, threw in a handful of lines from Siege of the Rhiannon Isles, and then finally stole the chorus lines from Wild At Sunset, a properly obscure avant garde production.
“Who dares wins,” I yelled, “we must stand and hold. Rescue is at hand.”
And then Japh Leah was dragging me on board the small ship, with two or three others.
“Rest Princess,” Japh Leah said, as our scout skimmed the top of buildings amid bursting shells.
How could I rest, I thought, in the midst of all this madness.
I closed my eyes.
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