Al Bruno III
The siege continued all through the night; Shardovan couldn't sleep, he never could at times like this. He sat in his room and listened to the Chimera fling itself again and again at the wall and thought of Ramion. The other Sentinels did not stand idly by while this happened. Shardovan's blood quickened with the familiar sounds of battle- the clang on swords, the whispering snap of bowstrings being released, the hiss and splash of boiling oil.
The Chimera was still roaring and flailing at the walls in the morning when a single Sentinel came to fetch him. It was Varsh, he was tall, vaguely cross-eyed and rarely spoke to anyone.
Shardovan was a tad more cautious on the stairs; his knee still ached from yesterday. He asked, "Where's Richard?"
Varsh shook his head glumly and then said, "Come on. I'm needed back at the battlements. The beast is as tall as it is wide."
Again he found the Duke's wife waiting for him. She stood beside the table, running her hand over the pommel of one of the wooden dueling blade. Her complexion had paled, even her lips looked bloodless. When they were alone she asked, "I know we only have four days left, but in that time could you teach me enough to defend myself?"
"I don't understand."
"I could teach you some things." Shardovan said.
"Would it be enough to protect me from Anluan?"
"I thought he was going to rescue you?"
"Last night when they brought me back to my chambers I passed Anluan. He was being led down the stairway from the audience chamber. I called his name." She crossed her arms over her chest, "The way he looked at me, so coldly... "
I never meant this. Shardovan thought, I never meant for any of this.
"He's going to kill me. He's not going to rescue me."
"I can teach you enough, enough so you could protect yourself."
"And then what? Even if I win I face exile. How can a lady survive out in the Barrens?"
"Many people survive out in the Barrens. I've been there, there are small villages hidden in with the dust and ruins."
"Heretics and anarchists."
"Some of them are good people. I can take you to them."
"Why would you do that?" she dabbed at the tears with the edge of her sleeve.
"Do I have a choice? If you die by Anluan's hand then I die too. You're not just fighting for your life, you're fighting for mine as well."
"You mean you're stuck with me."
"It would appear so." Shardovan managed a small laugh. He picked up one of the practice swords and held it with both hands. "Now the first thing we need to go over are the basic moves. Watch me first, then follow along as best you can."
The hours until their midday meal passed quickly. She was a good student, much to Shardovan's surprise and agile as well. She mirrored his lessons as well as any first year novice. The problem was she wasn't going to be facing a novice. You didn't become the Master Sentinel unless you were a clever and brutally efficient warrior.
"When do we spar?"
"What?" Shardovan looked up from his meal. It was all leftovers, stale bread and beef that was nearly all gristle and fat.
"I said when do we spar?" The Lady Dianora asked again, her hair was pinned back and her skin was sheened with sweat.
Odd isn’t it? How lovely she can be when she isn’t made up and trying to act haughty.
"Tomorrow I think. I just want to be certain you have the basic movements down first. I'm afraid I'm not a very good teacher."
"Were you listening for the Chimera?"
"Yes." Shardovan turned his attention back to his food, afraid his eyes might betray him.
"They say you killed one single-handedly."
"It was a small one and I was lucky."
"Tell me what happened."
"Not much to tell."
"It was during the siege of Minos wasn't it?"
"It wasn't really a siege, sieges are organized. What happened at Minos was just wave after wave of attackers for the better part of a month. Sometimes the attacks were just hours apart, sometimes it was almost a day between attacks but they never stopped."
"Was it all Chimera?"
"No. It was mostly Shamblers and all the howling parasites that follow along with them."
The Duchess grimaced at her own memories of the Shamblers, she set her meal aside, her appetite gone. The Shamblers were human beings long dead but consigned by the Barrens to eternal walking by the bite of the Red Monkeys. They traveled in hordes joined by a single collective purpose, a single unyielding hunger. The red monkeys, traveled with them. Blind and hairless, howling and screeching they hopped from body to body eating of the Shamblers' flesh and nesting in their hollowed out chest cavities. "We lost one of my sisters…"
"It was years ago." she said, "Please go on."
"We were starving on our feet, the water was running low. It was decided that we would send riders to the nearest Outpost and plead for help. Since Minos was an independent city, the Sentinels weren't obligated to do anything at all."
"It is madness to exist outside the Protectorate."
"They made their own way well enough until then." Shardovan said with a shrug. "All the able bodied men were needed to defend the city so they sent out three boys on horseback, Ramion, Nason and myself. I had only known Ramion a few weeks but we were already close. I barely knew Nason, he was a cobbler's apprentice and always busy. The plan was for us to ride together for as long as we could and then when the time came we would each separate and strike out in the direction of a known Outpost."
The Lady Dianora asked "How old were you then?"
"Sixteen. We were dressed in the leathers of soldiers that had already fallen, we were carrying hand me down weapons. We felt like boys playing at war."
"How far did you get?"
Shardovan smiled a little, "How much of this have you heard already?"
"Most of what I heard was either cruel or exaggerated."
"Perhaps not. We were less than five hours riding out of Minos when we came upon a merchant caravan. The wagons had been torn apart, but there were no bodies. There wasn't even a horse left. We knew what this meant but it was too late, we'd gotten too close."
"Did you try to run?"
"There was no time. It reared up from behind one of the toppled wagons. The Chimera was made up of all the people and livestock on the caravan, it had taken all of their flesh into itself and it boiled. That's the only way I can describe it Duchess. It boiled."
"Call me Dianora."
"We just stared at it. None of us could move for fear. Then our horses hadn't reared up in panic. That woke us up, for all the good it did. Ramion drew his sword. Nason tried to run. All I managed to do was fall right off the back of my horse."
"The Chimera had at least a dozen arms. They were all twisting and squirming like snakes. When they lashed out they moved like arrows burrowing into the flesh of our mounts. Somehow I managed to roll away, Ramion wasn't so lucky. One of the ropy arms caught him in the throat. Just like that their flesh began to flow from their bones, it ran up the length of the Chimera's arm like blood through an artery."
"What about the other boy? Nason?"
"He ran and hid. He didn't know what else to do. It started dragging Ramion and the horses closer, drawing them in as it ate them. My weapons were on my pack, which was on my horse. All I had was a dagger. I knew better but I still tried to save Ramion. I ran at it howling like a madman. When the Chimera take someone all that's left is a puddle of marrow. Did you know that?"
"That was all that was left of Ramion and his steed by the time. I knew that the mind of the Chimera is at the center of it's mass. It's like a snail that makes a shell from living breathing flesh. When it… when it boils you can sometimes see that part of it. The vulnerable part. Especially if the creature is still small."
"It doesn't sound small."
"It was small enough. I could see where I had to strike. When it grabbed for me I let it catch me around the waist. The armor protected me. I was lucky, maybe it was sated, maybe it was lazy but I was very lucky. I stabbed. The Chimera's true body was like the skin on a pudding, it broke easily. It squirmed and lashed at me. I could feel its ropy arms sinking into my flesh. I still have the scars."
"Maybe they didn't exaggerate about you after all."
"I did enough damage to it. The Chimera split apart like a rotten fruit and I ran as far as I could from there. I didn't stop running until I was back at Minos." Shardovan stood up, "Ready to start practicing again? She nodded "But what happened then?"
"I told them that we had been attacked. I kept the details spare, I didn't want to think about what had happened to Ramion much less talk about it. Everyone, except Brother Thaddeus, suspected me of treachery and cowardice. I might have gotten in serious trouble if there hadn't been another wave of Shamblers coming."
"If that's what happened then how did you get your reputation?"
"Nason." he explained, "Nason made it to one of the Outposts after all. When he led the army of Sentinels back they found the body of the Chimera, and my dagger. Needless to say they were impressed."
The Duchess hefted the wooden blade, conscious of her every movement "Everyone was impressed."
"And that's how legends get started." Shardovan said. He leaned on his blade, "Now lets see if you've been paying attention. Show me the katas as I taught them to you, but in reverse order."