4. Lera


Lera quailed.

She was new to all this. Heric, Ifonsa, and even Ganthe had witnessed battle countless times, and they all reacted accordingly.

Ifonsa immediately uncovered and strung her bow, before leaping onto the shore. Lera didn’t even know someone could leap that far, but Ifonsa had done it with only the barest of starts, just a couple of steps. A moment later she was gone, disappearing into the woodland.

Heric was shouting at the Barge Captain, “Bandits ahead. Pull in.”

Lera saw a query cross the Captain’s face, but Heric was already on top of that too. He pointed at Falduin and Lera in turn, “Wizard. Priestess. Work it out.”

The Barge Captain nodded and began barking orders at his crew, as he drew the Oxen to a halt. The bargemen worked feverishly, straining to stop the barge’s momentum. Ganthe grabbed a pole and joined in to help them.

She felt a touch on her shoulder: Falduin.

“Warding,” he said before she could ask. Then he stepped forward, and touched both Ganthe and Heric in turn. The latter proved more difficult than it should have been, as Heric stalked about the middle of the barge peering around for any signs of the enemy.

“Brace!” The Captain cried.

Lera barely had enough wits to bend her knees and set her spear.

They hit hard. Lera only just managed to stay on her feet. The weight of her shield almost tipping her off-balance. Much of the gear went flying across the deck. Some of it plunging into the water.

By the time Lera had steadied herself, Ganthe had already dropped his pole and leapt onto the shore. Falduin was close on his heels.

“Stay here!” Heric cried at the bargemen. “We’ll take care of this. Lera, on me.” And then he leapt onto the bank and raced after the other two.

Lera’s mind whirled, her gut churned, her feet remained rooted to the deck. She hadn’t moved since the barge struck. Her knees were bent, white knuckled hands firmly grasping the haft of her spear, still braced against the deck.

“Lera!” Heric barked. “Move!”

The next thing Lera remembered was racing through the trees, trailing behind Heric in a made dash. She could smell smoke.

A cry pierced the silence, echoing about her. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It ended suddenly, cut short. Shouts of many men erupted from the trees. Heric swore, and he charged ahead.

Lera couldn’t keep up. The shield and armour weighed her down. She had practised relentlessly, but still wasn’t used to the burdens.

The ring of steel upon steel rang out, and a scream of pain. There were more cries, coming from all around her.

Flies buzzed everywhere, trying to crawl into her eyes, ears, nose and mouth . Sweat ran down her arms and onto her hands, making it difficult to grasp the spear. The sun streamed down through the leaves, blinding her with its radiance.

She stopped. She had no idea where she was, where she should go, or what she should do. Sounds of fighting resounded all around her. A mad cacophony of screams of rage and the cries of the dying.

Lera had never experienced it first hand before. She had heard the sounds of battle from afar, but it was nothing like this. This was so utterly confusing and terrifying. She glanced about fearfully. At any moment she felt that someone would emerge and slice open her back.

She heard a noise, something crashing toward her through the undergrowth. There was a flash of reddish-brown and white, and then it was gone. It took Lera several moments to realise it was a hind seeking to escape the chaos.

She regretted taking up arms. She was no use, no help to her companions. As a Sister of Axiom she had sworn an oath of non-violence. What was she doing here pretending to be a soldier? She had been wrong. She had been arrogant. She had let fear corrupt her heart.

Lera knelt on one knee. She placed the haft of her spear into the dirt, the point straight up, then bowed her head, and closed her eyes.

“Oh mighty Úlæ, please forgive this poor vessel,” she prayed, “It is weak and foolish and-.“

That’s as far as she got. There was a scream of rage, and a man – at least three paces high – a giant, charged out from the trees towards her his battle axe poised over his head.

Lera reacted without thought. The shield raised of its own accord. It caught the axe blade and guided it away. Meanwhile Lera’s spear had somehow twirled around. Lera stepped forward – she didn’t remember standing – and plunged the tip of the spear into the man. It pierced the leather brigandine the man was wearing and plunged between his ribs and into his heart.

Lera twisted the haft, as she had been taught, then pulled, and almost toppled backward. She had expected more resistance.. Instead she was sprayed with the boiling blood gushing from the wound in pulses.

All she could do was look at the man, as he shivered, his eyes flicking, mouth gaping seeking for air. Her mind screamed at her. She should be saving him, but all she could do was watch him slowly die. He didn’t even utter a sound, not a cry, nor a gasp. There was just silence, as he slowly weakened and then just… stopped.

It was the most dreadful thing Lera had ever witnessed. She had seen men die before. She had been at the forefront during the wars, bringing healing and relief as best she could. She had seen women, and even children die too. Some from burns so horrific that all they were was a blackened shell with wet eyes and a pink slit for a mouth. Yet nothing compared to this.

It was bad enough that it had been her hand that had killed him. No her true sin (as she came to call it) was watching him die, alone and in great pain. She could have at least eased his suffering as his soul plummeted down into the Underworld. But she had done nothing.

The shame of her inaction boiled inside her belly, until she could contain it no longer. She vomited a brown sticky mess onto the leaf-strewn undergrowth. It kept coming, pulsing like the blood from the man’s wound, over-and-over again.

When she was finally finished, she wiped her mouth, then knelt beside the man. She prayed over his corpse, offering him absolution for the sins he had committed. That was the least she could do.

The songs of birds and the woodland had replaced the shouts and screams when Lera had finished her prayer. She closed the man’s eyes, and stood. He really wasn’t three paces tall, like she had first thought. He was barely more than one pace, perhaps only slightly taller than herself.

She heard a step in the undergrowth. Snapping around, she prepared her spear.

It was Heric. She stared at him, unable to speak, her mind filled with nothing. The maelstrom of emotions welled up inside of her: fear, rage, relief. She felt tears running down her cheeks, but she refused to allow herself to cry, to give into the extreme sadness she felt.

Heric just nodded, his eyes filled with understanding. He had been in her place once, she knew. He knew what she was going through. She desperately wanted him to hold her and tell her everything was alright.

“Come,” he said instead. “There are others that need your prayers.”

A coil in the shape of a nine

They were waiting at the bandit’s camp.

Falduin paced beside the rocky fire. He mumbled to himself, agitated.

Ganthe gorged himself on the bandit’s food. He barely swallowed half a mouthful before he took another.

Ifonsa sat examining the arrows laid across her knees. Whether they were hers, that she had retrieved, or taken from the bandits Lera couldn’t tell.

“Is anyone hurt,” Lera asked, the words finally coming.

“Just them,” Ganthe said with a mouthful of food. He pointed at the bodies strewn around the camp.

There were twelve of them. The pain of their passing marked clearly on their faces. Lera did what she could for them, uttering her prayers.

She found herself wondering, as she often did when confronted by the dead, what had led them down this path. Why had they turned to banditry? What were their hopes and dreams? Was someone waiting for them at home? Did they even have a home?

One of the dead was only a boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen years of age. Yet even now, a vicious-looking knife was clutched in his dead hand. Lera pondered about his mother, and how the boy had come to find himself amongst such rough men facing a hard life.

“Grab what you’re taking,” Heric said. “Back to the barge.”

“What about the others?” Lera asked as she stood.

“What others,” Heric asked.

“There’s always others.”

“You’ll have a hard time tending them,“ Ifonsa said, “Unless you want to swim.”

“They’ll need to do without your tender ministrations, Sister.” Heric added.

She nodded, and allowed herself to be led away.

They made their way back towards the barge, following the same route Heric had led Lera along. As they wandered back, they each seem to be laden with new booty.

Ganthe carried sacks containing food, Ifonsa had acquired a few arrows, the fletching differing from her own. Falduin now wore a sword, tied at his waist. Even Heric carried a piece of parchment, that he was reading. Lera wondered if this was some sort of ritual. A tradition of taking a token from each battlefield to remember it. As they passed his body Lera retrieved the battleaxe from where it had fallen from the man’s hand.

“We might have more trouble ahead,” Heric told Ifonsa. He showed her the parchment.

Ifonsa read it before saying, “The descriptions are fairly accurate. Even the apprentice.”

“But not Ganthe.”

“What?” Ganthe asked.

“Whoever sent the bandits doesn’t know you’re with us.”

“Good. Right?”

“Do you still want to stay?”

Ganthe grinned, “Of course. Food.” He held up a stale loaf of bread. Lera was certain one corner was mouldy. Ganthe bit into the loaf enthusiastically.

“We might need to leave the barge earlier than I hoped,” Heric said. “Let’s hope that we can at least reach Cabridge.”

However, that hope was quickly dashed. Upon reaching the barge they found all the bargemen strewn upon the deck, and the bank.

They had all been murdered.

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