She had been through drills, had practiced in groups, had been told many times (her mother never said anything just once) what to expect, but an actual to-the-death multi-unit engagement was something that had to be experienced in order to truly understand. That understanding brought with it an unexpected rhythm, one so strong that Dragonbait could practically feel it thrum up her legs. As her understanding deepened, so did the rhythm, until it was no longer just a beat but a song, then a chorus that kept growing until it flourished into a visceral symphony of death.
The clashing of steel along with shouts and cries cast a high-pitched tone over the lower bassline of grunts and feet shifting on the packed dirt. A tactile layer provided a counterpoint - the smell and taste of dirt and blood and sweat; the feel of the impact as her swords met metal, wood, and leather, then pierced muscle and sinew. Over top of this composition, she, herself, provided the melody.
She had expected to use yivwash, a balanced stance specifically designed for multi-unit field engagements, but as they met the Imperial line and her squadmates were beset by multiple opponents at once, she realized that wouldn’t do. Yivwash was made for balanced encounters, when the sides were more or less equal in number and one could reasonably expect everyone else in the group to be able to hold their own. But her squad was outnumbered – moreso because Tarry had already been removed via an arrow to the gut during the initial charge – and she was determined to make certain they all survived, so she switched to up ebâ.
It was a risk, though she judged it to be small. Up ebâ, like all the stances in the up tree, was all about speed. Quick movements, quick slashes and thrusts, weaving footwork that never stopped. It did not lend itself well to finishing blows, which generally required deeper penetration than up ebâ allowed, so she aimed for disarming first via slashes to exposed wrists and arms, then to disabling via stabs to joints, especially knees. Up ebâ also did not lend itself well to defense, except inasmuch as never being in the same spot for more than a heartbeat counted as defense. Used for an extended amount of time, up ebâ amounted to suicide, but she only needed to last until the main portion of the company showed up. Which couldn’t be too long. She hoped.
In a way, being outnumbered actually helped up ebâ - she had room to maneuver and wasn’t hampered by the need to make certain she remained disciplined about maintaining a space in a line. Of course, had that been the case, she would be using yiv…
Dragonbait shook her head. No time to get caught up in second guessing – it was far too late to choose a different course. She ducked under a horizontal swing, already pirouetting to her left and away. He left-hand sword carved a nick in the wrist of a woman who had flanked Poke, and the Imperial cried out as her sword dropped from her hand as if it had become red hot. No time to follow up and finish her, though – Dragonbait was already three steps away, knocking a blow aimed at Wooly’s head off line just enough to cause it to graze her squadmate’s thick shoulder pad instead, while simultaneously stabbing another Imperial’s foot before sidestepping and then jumping to her right.
Her pattern led her in a rough circle around her comrades, her intent to disrupt their opponents’ attacks while Poke and Wooly did the actual killing. At this, they were effective – Poke’s spear (the basis of his Stormcloak name) shot through gaps that a sword would not have been able to fit through, puncturing ribs and guts and necks. And while Wooly lacked Bent’s speed and size, he wielded his hammer competently enough, choosing his moments to strike with care. Between the three of them, half of the Imperials were down or scrambling away by the time Whip and the rest of the company arrived.
In a heartbeat, the battle turned from a skirmish into a route – the main company swept over and around them, mowing the remaining Imperials over like a scythe through grass.
Once the burden of the battle had swept past her, Dragonbait turned her attention to her injured squad member. Tarry was slumped against a rock halfway up the incline to the ambush staging area. He had yanked the arrow out of himself and had a wad of blood-soaked cloth pressed over the wound. He looked up with anguished eyes as she approached, but his voice was firm.
“Aye, Dragonbait. That was some impressive footwork. Your course was probably wiser, but…”
Dragonbait shook her head. “No, you were right. I was trying to be tactical but that wasn’t the right place for it – those we saved would likely be dead if you hadn’t attacked.”
“Aye, well, now I’m dead. Not sure I care much for the trade.”
“You’re not dead. We can…”
“Ach.” Tarry spit a wad of blood. “Don’t go patronizin’ me, Dragonbait. I’ve seen what happens with gut wounds. They fester and rot and you die in slow agony. If you’ve an ounce of mercy, you’ll just kill me now.”
“What? No, we can…”
“He’s right, Dragonbait.”
She tensed. She knew that voice all too well. She glanced up despite herself as
Bent stepped beside her. He stared down at Tarry with dispassion, a cold bleakness in his eyes.
“There is not cure for that, not without a potion. You have one of those on you? Neither do I. They’re saved for the officers and other important folk. Are you ready?”
Dragonbait frowned and began to ask, “Ready for what?” but Bent’s question was apparently meant for a different audience – Tarry nodded, took a deep breath, grasped his sword, and heaved himself to his feet. Blood gushed from his wound but he no longer seemed to be concerned with it. He faced Bent and lifted this sword.
“On this day, I go to Sovenguard.”
Bent nodded as he hefted his hammer. “Aye, and there we’ll meet again, soon enough.”
Alarm bells rang in Dragonbait’s head but she only managed to squeak, “Wait!” before the two leapt at each other.
The fight was over almost as quickly as it started. Tarry stabbed forward with an alacrity that belied his wound. It was as sudden as a snake strike and would have killed almost any opponent. Not Bent, though.
Bent’s hammer was already halfway to Tarry’s head as he sidestepped, and he once again displayed a master’s touch – even though he moved his body, the hammer’s arc never deviated from its course. Most men would have had to adjust the pitch to account for the different angle of attack, and that difference would have likely meant a miss or, at best, a glancing blow. But Bent merely shifted his grasp from both hands to only his left, granting him back the lost reach, and his weapon stayed true. A heartbeat later, it impacted against Tarry’s head with a resounding crack. Blood and bone and grey brain matter splashed and Tarry’s body collapsed to the ground in a quivering heap, a grotesque smile still plastered on his face.
A long silence followed as Dragonbait tried to come to terms with what she had just witnessed. Which was murder. Right? It felt like murder. Although Tarry had been armed, but he had also been critically ill. She turned toward Bent with a diatribe on her lips but was interrupted by Whip’s voice.
'"Don't fret, Dragonbait. It's the way of the Nords. You'll get used to it. Well done, Bent. A clean death.” The company leader set a hand on Bent’s shoulder, then crouched next to Tarry’s body. “He is in Sovenguard now. Rest well, Gutpunch. You were a good soldier and a true Nord.” He closed the man’s eyes with one hand, rested them there for a moment, then stood and faced Dragonbait. “Well done to you as well, Dragonbait. Poke and Wooly told me about the battle. They both said they would have probably died had you not been there. I’m not able to promote you a second time in as many days, but saving a man’s life is the fastest way to breed loyalty, a prize far greater than any military honor. Keep it up and you’ll find yourself in charge of your own company in no time. But, for now…well, back to work. Get a cleanup and burial contingent going. We’ll set up camp right here.”
Dragonbait nodded, though her mind felt off-kilter. She hadn’t expected…well, anything that had happened since the end of the battle. Not Tarry’s plea, not Bent’s response, not Whip’s response to Bent’s response, and certainly not anything Whip had said after. It was like a snowball rolling down a hill, one unexpected moment growing into the next. She sighed and tried to shove it all aside as she headed back down the hill. There would be time to process everything later – for now, she felt the burden of it pass as she began to think about the mundane things that needed done in the moment.
They killed most of the surviving Imperials, stripped the bodies, and dumped them off the side of the cliff – it wouldn’t do to leave them on the road to impede travelers – then buried their own, marking each grave with the soldiers’ weapon and helmet. The only Imperial left alive was the woman whose wrist Dragonbait had nicked, and who Poke found unconscious but alive. He and one of the other men stripped her and dragged her back to the camp, where she became the night’s entertainment for most of the squad.
It was a night of celebration - between her company's first victory and the timely rescue of the surviving members of the doomed company, the air held an energy more akin to a party than a camp. They drank and sang and made up grandiose stories of the comrades who had fallen. Dragonbait, Poke, and Wooly added more with each retelling of their attack, and by the time the night was over, Gutpuch née Tarry had grown into a legend of mythical proportion. A fitting end to the first step in her long path to revenge.
Edited by jfraser