He almost wrenched the door from its frame in his haste. The tower was narrow, the whitewashed walls rising high above the surrounding single-storey buildings. Aside from a few coils of aged rope the dirt floor was bare. A sturdy wooden ladder was bolted to the far wall, leading up to a timber trap door set in the ceiling above. Courtney made directly for it and hauled himself up the rungs as quickly as his bulk would allow. He threw the trap door open with a crash and levered himself on to the floor above. In the centre stood something that seemed part brazier, part stove; its iron belly held dry kindling, and a sheltered chimney served the dual purpose of guarding it from rainfall while funnelling plumes of smoke into the sky. He opened a hatch set into the side and, with trembling fingers, retrieved his flint and steel from a pouch on his belt. After a few attempts the spark took and he blew on the new embers gently to coax the flames to life. The smoke was a thin tendril, at first, but it quickly grew into a dark plume that bellowed forth from the chimney. Satisfied that the fire would hold, he slammed the hatch shut and wheeled around to face towards the sea. His hands gripped the waist-high wall that surrounded the platform tightly as his eyes scanned the scene from this high vantage point.
Smoke also rose from the homesteads below. He could see the warships from the tower, their blunt steel faces an omen of death. His fingers gripped the wall harder. The sands were stained red – that was not something he had expected to see from such a distance. Screams came louder now, the sounds of destruction ever closer.
Marion. The children.
Courtney wrenched himself away from the view and descended from the tower as quickly as he had climbed it. The smoke signals would alert settlements across the island, if they had not already succumbed to similar attacks. He sprinted now, towards Marion’s homestead, into the heart of the battle. Around him, others scattered in both directions. Some determined faces headed grimly into the fray alongside him while others, many weeping and already wounded, fled to the hills. He passed old one-legged Neilund with a swollen waterskin slung across his chest, grimly waiting for the enemy to reach him. His fifteen-year-old granddaughter was in heated argument with him as she begged him to flee – but he would not. Gladys the seamstress barked orders at her brood of children as she left them, hitching up her skirts with a wood axe in hand as she too made to join the line of defence. And then there was young Andrew in a daze, carrying the limp form of his first-born child as he stumbled back uphill. His shirt was soaked with blood. Courtney could not tell how much of it was his, and how much the child’s. He gritted his teeth in stern resolve and pushed his legs to move faster.
Ahead, still out of sight, Marion stood her ground. There was a well on the edge of her land. Four other women, all mothers and of varying ages, stood around it with her. Her youngest child had been entrusted to her eldest remaining son – a boy of fourteen – while his twin sister stood alongside their mother. Communion with Vahn, access to the Vanut magic, ran more strongly in this girl than it did her siblings; and for that reason alone, she had been allowed to remain.
“This is our home,” Marion said softly, but loud enough for the other women to hear. Her brow was set low over grey eyes that keenly scanned the land leading up from the coast. “As the Mother has stood guard over the land, so shall we stand guard here. For our children. For our elders.”
The fading light tinged the sky with an orange glow. It glinted off steel armour as the troops came into view. The soldiers spread across the fields like a net drifting in around its prey, their purple tabards trimmed with gold and their weapons darkened by blood. Marion squared her stance and took a purposeful step forward with her left foot. Her companions followed suit, each carrying the movement through with a sweeping of the hands and a deep inhalation. One of the nearest soldiers pointed his sword at them – a great curved thing. He was not yet close enough for Marion to see his face, but she was certain that he had grinned.
But moments away now, the rest of the swarm was also taking notice of the six females grouped around the well. Up to this point the element of surprise had been theirs; they had moved through the coastal settlements and dispatched of the unprepared civilians with little trouble. They knew, now, that any real challenge was unlikely.
“As the Mother moves the tides,” Marion murmured, stepping her other foot out to the side and lowering her weight into it, “So the tides shall move through us.”
As one, the women exhaled. With their breath came an explosion of water from the well behind. The foremost soldiers faltered slightly, uncertain, but pressed on all the same. The water showered down around them – and as the Vanut women continued to move, the droplets followed their direction. A sweeping wave formed as a barrier between them, perfectly balanced momentum drawing the peak back in upon itself to remain in place as their shield. The first soldier to approach prodded tentatively at the wave with the point of his spear. Marion’s daughter’s hand flashed out before her, and a thin, concentrated jet shot out from the body of water. The soldier could not move aside quickly enough. It lanced his shoulder and he dropped the weapon with a cry. The girl withdrew her hand once more, drawing the drops back just as swiftly, tainting the wave with quickly fading tendrils of red. There was another moment of pause as the troops briefly evaluated their opponents, but they were urged on by those behind and soon pressed in.
Courtney saw the formidable figure approaching before he did the women. His gleaming steel helmet covered his head entirely, and was adorned with the twisted, grotesque depiction of a grinning face. Threcian men were not generally tall, yet this one stood above his peers imposingly. The soldiers parted before him as he strode forward. Courtney was still a fair distance from the well. He could not reach the women before the helmed man would. His niece was trembling, her mother and the other women drenched in sweat from the effort of holding the wall. The soldiers were trying to rush them in groups now, with a few attempting to circle around behind them as well, but they were still held back – if just barely. Courtney urged his legs to cover the distance more quickly.
The tall soldier paused a few metres from the wall. Time seemed to slow as Courtney watched in horror. An armoured arm hefted a heavy iron-tipped lance, drew it back, and launched it. The weapon penetrated the wall of water as if it were butter. Barely slowing, it pierced Marion’s thigh as she stepped protectively in front of her daughter. The wall wavered dangerously as she gasped in pain; their assailants, however, stepped back rather than pressing at the opportunity. Momentarily, Courtney saw why. The armoured lancer who had thrown the weapon remained with a hand outstretched before him. He snapped his fingers.
“No!” Courtney bellowed, but his voice was lost in the sudden clap of thunder that erupted. Lightning sprang through the sky, racing earthwards to kiss the shaft of the lance, coursing through the water, the women, his sister, his niece. The wall of water collapsed around them. Their bodies jerked erratically before keeling over, smoking slightly. Courtney did not stop running. There was a sudden fury born of an anguish deep in his belly, coursing through his veins as if there were fire in his blood, and his eyes fixated on a singular objective. The helmet’s depraved steel grin leered back at him. As he charged into the ranks of the enemy, he lowered his broad shoulders and bore his weight forward. Catching them by surprise the effect was devastating. Like a bowling ball he knocked them aside, throwing them over his back. His hammer lashed out unapologetically, crushing whatever dared come too close. Knees, hands, wrists and jaws shattered beneath his onslaught. There was a numb satisfaction at the effectiveness of his hastily chosen weapon. Confusion spread from the path that he carved through the soldiers.
Suddenly, he broke free of the body of men, and his quarry stood before him. The man was half-turned to face him. A low, guttural growl escaped Courtney’s throat as he leapt without thought. In a crash of armour his bulk bore the soldier down beneath him. He straddled the armoured chest, raising his arm. Courtney struck the side of the grinning helmet. For Marion. Again, he swung – and continued to hammer heavy blows upon his opponent’s head. For his niece. For Galdr, Nessa, Stephanie and Mal who stood with her. His arms bore gashes where the soldiers had cut him during his charge, but he did not notice them as he pounded his victim’s head to the rhythm of his fury.
For the children. For the pigs. For his home.
Arms encircled his neck, his shoulders, immobilising him. He wrenched free in order to swing again, but they clutched fiercely at him. It was by sheer numbers that the Threcian troops tore him from his prey. Even then, it was with great effort. Any unfortunate enough to meet with his flailing hammer or furiously kicking legs dropped like felled logs. It took a cruel spear impaling his leg, just above the ankle, to bring him fully to the ground. Still, he struggled. His chest heaved. Beyond the tangle of men that weighed him down, another helped the helmed soldier to his feet. The man swayed. His legs seemed unsteady and blood flowed freely from beneath his mangled helmet, staining his purple silk and tarnishing the steel armour. He staggered but refused the arms offered in help. A gauntleted hand drew a dagger from his waist.
“Filthy beast,” the soldier slurred as he approached, the heavy Threcian accent thick on his voice. The men that could do so without risking freeing Courtney’s limbs made way for him.
“You dare lay hands upon a Fallerström, a Stormcaller?”
The self-named Stormcaller rounded behind him, out of sight, but he could follow the sound of his voice. Even through the adrenaline and the grief he could feel the exhaustion creeping up from his legs. He was at his limit, and new it. The cold edge of a blade was suddenly resting on the left side of his face. It cut slowly, cruelly, purposefully, splitting the skin that bore the tattoos marking his marriage to June. He howled.
“Filth like you are not deserving of a quick death, like I gave your kin!”
Courtney managed to kick a leg free. Planting it on the ground, he pushed off as he jerked his head backwards, hoping to land a headbutt on the Stormcaller. Within seconds another three soldiers were upon him, holding him. His adversary moved around to his right. The helmet still leered, crushed as it was, as its wearer leaned his head in. Courtney spat a gob of blood at him. The soldier straightened slowly, and then slashed vehemently at his victim’s throat.
“Leave him to bleed,” he ordered the surrounding soldiers as he turned and limped unsteadily away. Hot, dark blood ran down over Courtney’s broad chest. An involuntary gurgle came from his throat. As he was dropped, suddenly feeble hands scrambled up and clamped desperately around his own neck. The world was sideways. He watched the receding steel-clad soldiers through the tears that welled in his eyes, choking on his own blood.
Worse, though, was the knowledge that he had failed to protect his family. Marion was dead. Most of her children would be, too. Everyone that he knew, everyone who’s pigs he tended, would follow them soon if they had not already. With everything that he had left he silently begged the spirits to watch over Martin and his remaining siblings. He hoped against hope that the soldiers would not find them in the cave beyond the fishing pool.
As the last breath of day faded, so too did Courtney Shillings.