The man they called Bearkiller said something in a deep, gutteral voice that made it hard to understand. He had a beard of course black hair so thick his mouth was nearly hidden. All Paul glimpsed was a flash of bright, white teeth.
“My Knight,” Lord Mossfield said in his high, nasal voice, “Keeps fairer law here than Lord Halloway. By right of force, I say begone, boy.” He giggled then and coughed so hideously that brown flecked snot and drool flung from the frog lord and Paul had to turn away to avoid being struck by it. Anger began to override his fear, yet the sight of Bearkiller stayed his sword hand. He swallowed and glanced to his uncle, but the older man simply stared at the fat lord with disdain. If I back down now I am a coward and father will disown me. The Nobility has no need of cowards.
He shifted his gaze away from Bearkiller to Lord Mossfield and back again. The Bearkiller was smiling at him, white teeth showing in that dark beard. The hammer he was holding tapped deftly against his chest. Then Bearkiller spoke. “I grab you and break you like worm boy.”
“Joss,” Lord Mossfield said, raising his hand again and a man in green enameled armor rode to him, sword unsheathed and laid across his pommel. “You and Bearkiller push these trespassers off our land.”
Paul hesitated, watching the green armored man move forward and pull his sword off his saddle. Others moved then too, first the Mossfields and then his own men.Lances dipped, swords drew and challenges were yelled. He found his own sword in his hand, his shield hefted to guard his right side. Rock pranced, shaking his head, ready to fight.
Bearkiller was yelling something but a buzz of noise erupted all around him. Men were calling to him. Lord Mossfield was laughing. Be brave, be your father’s son! His uncle Loukas grabbed for his arm but it was too late.
His sword took the fat lord in the face, slicing clean through the bridge of his nose. A great gash appeared where the sword bit, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood shooting into the air. Mossfield screamed, a high pitched wail that was almost a sob. Bearkiller roared and reached for him but Rock reared, causing the Bearkiller to stumble and sprawl in the dirt. In that same instant, Paul lost his seat and tumbled off Rock’s back.
“Paulin!” his uncle’s voice called out and Paul saw his hand reach down for him. An arrow took his uncle in the throat and when Loukas opened his mouth to speak, blood poured out like a red river. Paul scrambled away as his uncle’s body toppled to the ground with a crash of metal armor and blood. For a moment, Paul was frozen with disbelief. Over him, Rock reared and kicked, sending Mossfield men sprawling, chests and faces caved in. Paul felt his fingers brush something hard and cold—his sword he realized—and he picked it up. Standing, Paul tried to climb back onto Rock but the battle forced him away and he fell back into the dirt.
All around him chaos was erupting. Mossfield and Halloway men clashed and the Thunder Company charged in, their horses’ hooves shaking the ground. Paul found his knees and nearly had his head taken off by a flashing sword. His opponent, a man in boiled leather and a simple mail coif, swung at him again. This time, Paul managed to bring his shield up. As the blade rang off the wood, he felt a warmth spread down his leg. Fear gripped him so tightly that he couldn’t move, only stare down at his bloodless legs.
His heart had emptied and so had his bladder.
The man came at him again but a horse came between them. Atop his brown charger, Jack hacked at the man with his own sword. A moment later and his squire disappeared from view as the battle swirled around him. Shivering, Paul covered his head with shield and sword and cowered there in the road as horses and men fought around him.
Something grabbed his shield and yanked him roughly to his feet. When he looked up, Bearkiller stood there with hammer in hand, grinning through that impossibly thick beard. “I crush you raven,” the giant of a man said. “Make your death and drink your blood, like the Witch Queen.” Then he dipped back his head and roared with laughter.
Paul stepped back, his sword shaking in his hand. His shield felt like it was made of iron and too heavy to lift. The armor on his shoulders was pushing him to his knees and his bladder felt ready to burst again. “Raise sword!” the giant commanded and raised his big hammer. “Raise it like man!” Paul raised his sword and tried to bring his shield up but they both felt chained to the ground by invisible restraints. The Bearkiller’s blow came down on him slowly. It seemed almost like a turning of the seasons to Paul, each moment of the arc that would end his life coming so impossibly slow. Somehow he found the strength to raise his shield an instant before the hammer smashed into his head.
The shield exploded from the impact, sending shards of wood everywhere. Paul screamed as the hammer’s blow cracked something in his arm and splinters peppered his forearm and bicep. The pain was impossible to bear. He dropped his sword and held his wounded arm against his chest, tears streaking down his face as much from fear as the pain. “Pick up sword, weak boy!” the Bearkiller shouted.
Instead, Paul ran.
He heard the Bearkiller calling his name but he didn’t look back. He ran between horses rearing, men battling and pushing and dying. His feet carried him to the end of the Halloway line and broke into the short open field before the forest. Arrows whizzed past him and it only urged him on faster, into the woodlands.
After, Paul wasn’t sure how long he ran or how far but by the time the pain in his arm caused him to slow, his legs had all but given out. He fell into a hedge where the trees were thick and bushes thicker. There were no sounds of metal on metal or the buzz of arrows. The fight was far behind him.
He crawled beneath the thickest bush he could find. He was so tired that it took all that was left of his energy to curl up beneath it. The sun was shining through the canopy above. He heard birds chirping. A bloody spring, he thought just before he fell asleep.