Jadde ndash; the fragile.., p.29
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       Jadde – The Fragile Sanctuary, p.29

           Clive Ousley

  The sounds of fighting faded into the distance as Brenna horsemen drove the quarter-men from the bridge area. Malkrin carefully laid out his friend with the other fallen tribesmen and left Seara sitting and holding her father’s hand.

  He ordered Palreth to protect Seara then climbed to the Lighthouse Bridge where people were dowsing the fires. The nearside wood abutment that contained the library was scorched charcoal black but appeared solid. The further side had fared worse with substantial burning, but the blackened structure still held. He climbed the internal staircase to the library and viewed the surroundings illuminated by the yellow light of the bridges domes.

  The demons had been cleared from the immediate area, but in the distance toward the Pit of Vorbe he could see the arc of fire-arrows merging into a large black shadow. Slightly nearer he could see groups of black manoeuvring around horsemen. Gradually these Brenna riders retreated through lines of Seconchane archers. Other bands of exhausted men staggered back and formed into two defensive lines to the east of the villages. He had to ensure the bridge was held or all the tribes would be trapped. But the Seconchane men were slowly losing ground, they had bought time for the allied tribes to regroup – but time was not enough.

  He returned to Seara and Palreth, ‘I leave to lead my men. If you see a collapse in our defence get over the bridge and follow the track back to Cyprusnia, I will follow with as many people I can save.’

  ‘I must bury my father then gather the women and children from the Senate building first,’ Seara stated.

  ‘Very well. But be quick Seara. I don’t think we will hold for much longer.’

  With that he left them and ran to a loose horse, and rode to organise the defence.

  That night he fought a huge defensive battle. The allied tribesmen were exhausted, so he withdrew them in groups through the Seconchane men to give them two hours respite. Childless women brought up supplies of arrows and spears and tended to the men’s injuries. Others gave them food and water, most then returned to the fight. But even so, the allied tribes were gradually pressed back. He concentrated on keeping the ground clear to and from the bridge, and kept a thin line of men commanded by Talgour along the route to the town.

  The first buildings started burning and quarter-men began to filter through the streets in ones and twos, then small groups. TrathWolf appeared with nine warriors and Malkrin requested he sweep the demons from the nearby streets.

  ‘I was about to suggest the same thing Outcast,’ he sneered and disappeared into a smoke filled alleyway.

  Malkrin sent a runner to gather the Senate; an hour later he returned with the two eldest members, the other Senate men and women were fighting with companies of Brightwater men.

  ‘Fifth and Ninth of Senate, will you gather what elderly citizens, women and children who have refused to evacuate, and leave over the bridge now. I have ordered the Wolf carts to be harnessed to horses. The elderly are loading them with the wounded and vital supplies now. My men can hold off the demons for another hour, but dawn will show how thinly we are spread. It will give the demons confidence to renew their assault.’

  The burning house next to them started to disintegrate; he pulled the two Senate members away into the alley. The men staggered off coughing and wheezing, to their allotted tasks.

  Malkrin fought at the head of his men leading charge after charge to disrupt the quarter-men. The creatures ran in all directions to get out of the way of the galloping horses.

  A pale dawn rose and in the smoke and early mist a terrible sight met Malkrin’s eyes. All around were corpses of people, horses and demons. Some women still remained and they pulled the wounded into carts, then added to the procession fleeing over the damaged bridge. Malkrin gritted his teeth as a section of charred wood broke away from a beam and disappeared into the gorge. The furthest abutment looked even worse in daylight and great splits had appeared in the vertical trunk. The great yellow dome was cracked and the yellow light it emitted was pale and sickly.

  ‘Malkrin, look out,’ He spun round and swept Palerin instinctively. Finger-knives swished past his nose and he jumped over thrusting feet-knives as a demon pressed home its attack. Malkrin twisted away from the hissing blades and thrust Palerin up through the demons mouth and into its brain. As it fell he neatly extracted his sword and stood at the ready.

  As he feared, the creatures had renewed the assault and his men were withdrawing steadily through the streets. The great Senate building was burning. He saw demons running from house to house with flaming torches. A section of exhausted Celembrie warriors were in danger of being surrounded so Malkrin led a collection of Seconchane townsmen to relieve them.

  Thicheal clapped a bloody hand on his shoulder. ‘Thanks Brother,’ he panted and turned to rush toward three of his men engaging a large demon.

  ‘Start getting the men over the bridge,’ Malkrin shouted to him, ‘before it collapses. Form a line of defence on the other side lest the demons renew their assault from that direction.’

  He waded into another desperate fight and forged a gap for more warriors to run through the smoke and confusion.

  ‘Back to the bridge,’ Malkrin shouted again, and rushed to help defend a cart full of wounded being attacked by three demons.

  An hour later all was lost. Everywhere buildings burnt and men fought their way to the bridged gorge. A continuous stream filed over, Talgour and a couple of Brightwater officials encouraged them on. Women on the other side held out flagons of drink and some men formed a defensive line on the far side of the gorge.

  Malkrin fought to extricate as many warriors as he could; it didn’t matter to him whether they were Celembrie, Brightwater, Wolf or Seconchane.

  Then he noticed a sudden distraction in the demon ranks, some turned and fought hulking shapes in the smoky gloom. Malkrin’s tired eyes hallucinated club wielding giants. They were emerging from the smoke and batting demons with clubs whilst howling wildly.

  Talgour rushed over, a look of relief in his soot darkened face, ‘the Wild-men of Trothwell,’ he stated simply.

  In the sudden turnaround of battle, Malkrin saw the shapes form into fur clad behemoths with unruly hair and beards. Spiral tattoos covered their exposed features, and they snarled like animals as they wielded huge spiked clubs. There had to be a couple of hundred of the fearsome men. One paused to hold up his club triumphantly toward Malkrin as a gesture of unity from one chief to another.

  Malkrin raised Palerin in salute and the wild-man carried on smashing demons.

  Another charred bridge support splintered away into the gorge depths – and worse the further span was afire again.

  ‘They’ve bought us time to get over the gorge,’ Malkrin shouted and Talgour nodded. Malkrin hurried the final carts over the failing bridge.

  Then a surge of demons leapt from the woods on the far side and drove into the far defensive line. As warriors tottered exhausted across the span, Malkrin implored them to aid the far side defence. He had to issue this one last order to stop warriors being cut off on the Brightwater side.

  An enterprising demon thrust a flaming torch through the far abutment’s largest split, and within seconds the wood was burning fiercely. An arrow sent the creature plunging into the gorge.

  ‘Get over quickly,’ Malkrin shouted at the last cart.

  A troop of mounted Brenna thundered past the cart and over the bridge. The span shook with the vibration, and more wood splintered off and fell away.

  Then through the trees on the other side he saw fiery balls of blue flame bursting against unseen opposition and realised Palreth was defending Seara somewhere in the trees. He could not leave his men, but he had seen how Seara had shot demons last night. Providing they were not overwhelmed she and Palreth were more than capable of defending each other.

  The town-side demons were fully occupied with dealing with the wild-men, so through the smoke, bands of allied warriors took advantage of the lull and streamed across the br
idge. A crack sounded above the chaos and another split appeared in the abutment. Fire was spreading from the great wooden support to the horizontal span. Yellow glass tinkled from the library lighthouse and the welcoming yellow light extinguished.

  Malkrin and Talgour stood side by side as more Brenna horsemen galloped over the failing bridge. Talgour had found a wood axe from somewhere and with a deft heave lopped of a demons arm sending the creature bowling from the causeway. Malkrin drove Palerin into the carapace joins of another demon and they backed onto the wood of the bridge span. A rending crack came from beneath them and a strip of the causeway crumpled away. Now there was room for single file only, far beneath their feet the torrent of water poured past in a never ending roar. A last warrior passed them and Malkrin could see no more leaving the burning town.

  ‘Time to go,’ he shouted, and they ran along the remaining wooden spar. Behind them a demon followed and four arrows from the other side caught it and sent it spinning away. Talgour turned and hurled the axe at another demon as they ran balancing on the smoking spar. They leapt through the fire framed tunnel in the massive tree abutment. Behind them came a resounding crunch and the burning span collapsed into the gorge taking a couple of demons with it. Choking and retching they fought their way through thick smoke filling the hollowed tree until daylight appeared ahead. Arms grabbed them and they re-entered a chaotic day.

  Talgour slumped beside Malkrin as they heaved great bouts of air into tortured lungs. Behind them the abutment collapsed into a funeral pyre of broken tree and glass dome. The wreckage followed the rest of the bridge into the gorge with a deep crunch. Sparks accompanied billowing smoke then steam, as the water below extinguished the conflagration.

  Malkrin recovered sufficiently to rise on unsteady feet. His eyes still stung and his feet within his blackened footwear felt sore from treading smouldering wood. All was now silent on this side of the gorge; the demons had been wiped out or had retreated. Around him a ring of warriors stood ready to repel any quarter-men that attacked. On the far side he could see the wild-men running from the demons. He was surprised at the speed at which they outdistanced quarter-men – back the way they had arrived so opportunely earlier.

  Thicheal approached, blood smeared but still with his irrepressible energy. ‘We’ve cleared the creatures on this side. The demon army split and most reached Brightwater from the Pit of Vorbe. The demons this side of the Walthwen River were wiped out with your timely arrival. We must make haste though, before they regroup and realise we are escaping.’

  ‘They now have a very long detour to get to this side of the gorge,’ Malkrin croaked.

  Talgour interrupted, ‘not that long I fear, I forget only the Seconchane have no knowledge of tracks and fords here.’

  ‘Hopefully we have a respite – for now. But it does not sit well for my people to retire even further from our lands.’ Thicheal sighed, ‘but we now have no alternative. It is necessary for us to give the wounded time to mend and find somewhere more defensible.’

  ‘We must head back directly to Cyprusnia and mount a concerted defence within the Derant Pass.’ Malkrin persuaded, ‘it is the only populated and defensible place left.’

  ‘There is Olephate of course but that is even further away.’ Thicheal came to a decision. ‘Very well – I can think of no better plan.’

  Eighth-of-Senate joined them with a status report, ‘Mondroth is slain but BalthWolf Bone-thrower leads the Wolf Clan and other survivors away. TrathWolf is scouting ahead with Brenna horsemen in the direction of Cyprusnia.’

  Malkrin nodded, it appeared their retreat was under organised control. He cheered a little; they were even following the sacred route.

  ‘We must form an effective rear guard, and at the same time keep the carts close to the tribes-peoples.’

  Then out of the smoke appeared twenty Brenna on horses led by the Bear’s second-in-command, Deerhoove.

  ‘Greetings Malkrin, no demons in easy riding distance,’ he clapped Malkrin’s shoulder, who winced from bruises gained in the battle. Deerhoove informed them of Boele the Bear’s death. Malkrin felt his shoulders hang heavy; he had been a good man.

  ‘You and your men must be our rearguard.’

  ‘Of course, we’ll deal with any demons that dare follow.’

  ‘Should larger groups of quarter-men appear; ride to us and we can prepare to trap them.’

  ‘Ambush the ambushers, good,’ Deerhoove laughed and clapped Malkrin on the back again. Malkrin raised a tired arm in salute.

  The winding column began the trek along the gorge bank and back along the sacred track. They picked up Seara and Palreth the next day. The two had a group of women and children with them amongst the tall walls of a roofless ruin. All around were scorched demon corpses some showing fletched stubs of killing arrows.

  Malkrin looked on in admiration, ‘A good fight you two.’

  ‘Nothing for a couple of hardened warriors,’ Palreth jested.

  Malkrin noted the absorbed glances the two gave each other. Seara had come through the ordeal with courage and strength and had found someone new to trust. She had become invaluable to all the tribes. Her new name according to many snatches of conversation was Jadde’s Angel, in honour of her encouragement and healing in the Brightwater battle. It was even more appropriate now with her protection of the women and children. She was transformed into a talented healer and warrior, he was proud of her. Then he thought of Nardin and his failing sight and how vital it was to get Seara back quickly to heal him.

  ‘Seara, your work has barely started. We all have great employment back in Cyprusnia.’

  Two days later they were being trailed by quarter-men.

  They destroyed two bands of roaming demons that day and Deerhoove’s horsemen accounted for another group. Malkrin wondered if the demons were reporting back to some leader or coordinator of their own. There had to be some guiding mind behind the skirmishes.

  The next day his assumption appeared confirmed as he was summoned to the Magician’s Pivot where he found a logjam of people waiting to file through the restrictive gully.

  ‘The slow progress is not what I would draw your attention to,’ announced TrathWolf. He pointed to some heads impaled on sharpened sticks.

  ‘A crude attempt to frighten us.’ Malkrin strode to the vile sight and recognized the head of one of the brave Wolf warriors who had helped haul the demon cart to Cyprusnia. The other two were a Brightwater woman that Talgour knew and a Celembrie servant girl. Beneath the heads was a message scrawled in their blood on the rock behind the stakes.

  Malkrin stared hard. Prepare for death humen cattle. The Harvester of humen souls prepares to devour yew ALL, it said in badly spelt and crafted letters but recognizable all the same.

  ‘Demon fingers have other uses,’ he muttered aghast. He had been correct, the quarter-men had organised leadership – capable of any atrocity.

  And during the first week of travel back to Cyprusnia the staked heads were found at the dawn of each day and then each night took its toll on lives and the morale of the tribes.

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