The Tiger, Part III

You can read Part I here. and Part II here.

Below
him, heading up towards the pass was a great company of men on horses. They
wore their beards and moustaches long, and their swords and bows were short and
curved. Some wore iron mail visibly, some carried lances, some torches. The
leader rode at their head with a lance in his hand, and streaming from the
lance were locks of long black hair. Three human heads were impaled on his
lance as a standard.

Edward
stood watching them with hot tears stinging his eyes, feeling rage rolling
through him, deep, red, hot and powerful. He looked around him. The terrain was
favorable. They could not get around him to the right or the left. They had
bows, but the ravine became so narrow in one spot that they would have to come
up one at a time. That would negate their numbers and limit the effectiveness
of their archers. If they cared to try him bow for bow, well, he had a full
quiver of well fletched shafts and he would wager himself against any of them.
There was no fear or hesitation in his heart, and no hope that he would
ultimately be successful. There were more than five hundred horsemen that he
could see, and he would not be able to kill all of them before he fell of
fatigue. “Let my hand grow tired and freeze to my sword,” he swore.
“I will lessen them somewhat, God willing.”

As the
horde drew closer at a light canter he selected a shaft from his quiver and
took aim at the leader. They had not sighted him yet. He knew he was going to
die that day, but there was no sense in wasting it. If he was smart about this
he would be able to prolong it for quite some time. Every moment he lived,
every moment they died a little more, was one more moment for his little
village to live in peace. He wished he had someone he could send as a messenger
to warn them of the coming danger, but there was no time for that. They had to
be held there or nowhere, and on the whole, maybe it was better that the people
live in ignorance, rather than fear. As soon as he was dead, they would have
enough of fear before they died.

They
were in range, but he waited. It was only a light hunting bow, not a heavy war
bow. It would not punch through decent armor. Better to wait until he was
certain to hit the bastard in the face. Thirty more paces, twenty more, ten
more, now. A deep breath, hold it, and release. The arrow sped straight to its
mark, and Edward’s practiced eye knew that it would hit before it reached the
target. He backed further into the ravine watching carefully. The arrow hit the
leader just below the right eye causing the man’s head to snap back violently.
He swayed in his seat, and then fell with a clatter of arms and armor.

The
rest of the throng gathered around him, shouting and looking around to see
where the shaft had come from. A few guessed it had come from the pass which
they could see only as a narrow, dark passage in front of them. Four riders
were sent up the hill at a gallop. Twang, zippp! The first one fell. The other
three threw their shields up before their faces and kept galloping. The rest of
the horde let out a yell and charged after them. Edward backed further into the
alley. The first rider came through alone, moving fast, no doubt trying to ride
down whatever farmer or herdsman he thought was hiding in there. Edward saw the
surprise in his eyes at seeing a warrior in armor waiting, but it was too late
by then. The Tiger crouched, parried the lance and lunged, slaying the horse in
one lunge. Before the horseman could reach his sword, he too fell dead.

“Sorry
cousin,” Edward muttered to the dead horse. “I have no quarrel with
you, but I needed the road held, and horseflesh holds better than human.”

Two
more dismounted soldiers climbed over the carcasses, and died there. The Tiger
piled five more corpses in the alley before the enemy stopped coming.

All
that afternoon the battle continued off and on. A few times they would rush in,
tie ropes to the corpses and drag them out with horses, and then try to send as
many horsemen as they could galloping through, no doubt trying to force him
back into the open where they could deal with him on their own terms. Every
time he would simply do the same thing again. Their weapons, and more
importantly their shields, were too light to be effective against his heavier
European arms and armor in tight quarters. The first horse that came through
always died and blocked off the rest. On foot he was a match for any of them.
Each time he fought a handful of them died and the rest retreated, giving him a
minute or two to catch his breath. Then they would come again and it would
start again. For hours this went on, again and again and again, until Edward
thought to himself, “If I keep this up just a little more, I will buy them
enough time to go to bed. Better they die in their sleep, never knowing what
hit them. I pray these animals are that merciful, Lord.”

Nightfall
came, and the attacks slackened. He cut strings from the clothes of the fallen
and made tripwires across the path so that he could not be surprised. Anyone
who caught one of them would knock over a stack of abandoned arms and the
clatter would alert him. His position was probed three times during the night
but he held.

“If
I can but hold out until dawn, they will have one more peaceful night. Isn’t
that worth a night of vigilance, Lord?”

At
dawn the attack renewed in earnest, and for three hours he had no rest. He had
not been wounded, yet, but he now knew what was meant by a hand freezing to the
sword. His forearm and right hand had cramped until he could not release his
grip on the hilt of his sword. “Thank-you for that, Lord.” He laughed
grimly. “Else, I think I would have dropped it from exhaustion.”

They
left him alone for about an hour, and it was all he could do to stay awake
through that hour. His blood quieted and cooled, and the wind came whipping
through the pass and chilled him even more, and his head nodded and his eyelids
drooped, but still he stood his ground. There wasn’t much else to do.

At
about noon he heard something above his head, just a little scrape of something
over the rocks. Glancing up he saw the toe of a boot sticking over the edge of
the ravine and knew that he had been flanked. Someone yelled in front of him,
and he looked to see a warrior with a beard down to his waist charging with
upraised sword. He took the blow on his shield, and ducked low, lunging upwards
under the ridiculously small round shields these heathen used. His blade went
through his enemy’s body and he lifted him up bodily over his head and tossed
him behind him. He could feel the two arrows from the two archers above him
stick in the lifeless carcass before he dropped it. He snatched up a fallen
lance and threw it, killing one of the archers. The only other weapon at hand
was a rock so he threw that at the other one, before he had to defend himself
against opponents behind and in front. Before he had tried to select the
narrowest parts of the ravine to fight in, but now he had to find the widest
parts, places where he would have room to turn and maneuver. It was death to
face enemies directly in front and behind. He set his back to a wall under a
slight overhang and fought it out, attacking very little to the left, mostly
covering himself with his shield. It looked like only five of the enemy had
been nimble enough to scale the cliffs and come at him from behind, so he
concentrated on killing those first. He got three before the enemies on the
other side, discovering that they could not get him past his large,
three-cornered shield, decided to push him. So they hit his shield in a rush,
knocking him off his balance so he ran into the other warrior’s swords. They
cut him, and cut him deep before he despatched them. One had stabbed through
his chain mail leggings, cutting a deep gash across the front of his leg. The
other had knocked his helmet askew, rattled his head, and cut his nose so all
he could taste was blood, streaming down through his moustache. There was no time
to think about that. Before those two fell he was already turning and leaping
back to avoid a second rush like the first one.

“This
is it, Lord,” he whispered. “I can’t guard two sides to save my life,
so I’ll keep my face to the front until I feel cold steel between my shoulder
blades. Then I’ll probably have my face to the mud and won’t care
anymore.”

The
rush came at him as he said this and he leapt nimbly back to avoid it. The
front runners in the wall of human flesh coming at him were not so nimble and
they tripped over their fallen friends. Edward was on them in a second, killing
the ones who were trampling on their struggling comrades, and making sure to
despatch the ones on the ground before they could get up. He cried out and
split a helmet with a single stroke, from crown to chin. Rage filled him again,
battle lust erased all his pains and fatigue and he attacked like his namesake,
bulling into the first two men, and driving them back on the ones behind them,
hacking lustily, singing lustily, smiting and striving and hewing like a man
possessed. He drove them back, killing any who couldn’t flee, until he chased
them out into the clear light of the sun. They fell back shouting in dismay and
he stood out in the open, blinking at the brightness. Something was knocking at
the door of his mind, very urgently, but he could not attend to it. All he knew
was that it didn’t stink so badly of mud and dead men out here. Then he
remembered that he was in the open. He heard the swish of arrows, rather than
saw them as he turned and ran back into his lair.

“The
Tiger waits in his lair. Come and get him, if you dare.” He chuckled like
a boy. One of the dead had a wineskin on him, and he poured it on the wound in
his leg, relishing the sting of it, and how it made his heart pound and his
head light. He had a terrible thirst, which he quenched with the snow that lay
untouched outside his narrow battleground, until he heard the steps of men
advancing cautiously into the ravine and he laughed with joy. “Come, friends.
Let us dance.” He realized that he had not been stabbed in the back. There
was no one behind him. He never found out what had happened to that second
archer.

The
battle continued again until nightfall, sometimes with a break of an hour or
so. Maybe the enemy was deliberately trying to make him let his guard down.
Perhaps they were just arguing about what they should do next. Each time the
fighting lulled, the urge to sleep was even fiercer. By now they had to have
realized they were fighting only one man. He couldn’t understand why they
didn’t just rush him and finish him off. Surely they had to have at least a few
men who knew how to fight.

“Lord,
I don’t know how much longer I can continue this. Soon, I am going to fall
asleep, and then they will kill me anyway. At least I won’t have to stand on my
feet anymore.”

Nightfall
came and something crashed in front of him. Someone had thrown an earthenware
jar into the ravine. He must have been asleep. The next instant he heard
voices, and more jars crashing, and then everything became bright. He realized
what was going on only very slowly as his exhausted mind came into full
wakefulness. Of course, they had thrown wine or oil jars into the ravine and
lit them on fire hoping to smoke him out. The wind was tearing through the
ravine, sending foul smelling smoke into his eyes and mouth. He crouched as low
as he could to get somewhat under it, and wrapped a rag over his eyes, and held
his ground.

“At
least now I can’t go to sleep,” he coughed. “Should I thank you for that,
Lord?”

The
fire was uncomfortable, but it burned for only about twenty minutes. Even
before it was completely out, he heard the footsteps of the enemy and roused
himself for one last battle.

“Whatever
happens here, Lord, this is the end. You cannot ask me to keep going on like
this. I can barely see, I can barely stand, I can barely lift this sword. If
you could see your way to let one of them get lucky with a lance or a sword, I
would be eternally grateful.” For some reason this struck him as hilarious.
“Eternally grateful! Of course, eternally.” When the enemies reached
him he was laughing uproariously and running at them like a bull.

Many
times that last night, he felt like he could not go on. Every time they would
draw back to collect their dead to make room for another attack, he would
listen to them shouting angrily at each other outside his tunnel and he would
sway with weariness, knowing, not thinking but knowing, that the next assault
would be the last one. He knew he could not lift his sword for another stroke.
He knew the next time a shoulder hit his shield he would fall on his back and
be stomped mercilessly into the mud. And he would probably be so grateful to be
able to lie down at last that he wouldn’t even mind.

Then
they would attack and he would lift his sword and lunge for their faces. They
would hit his shield and he would fall back, and then thrust forward as he had
been trained, his heavier, more solid shield knocking their shields and weapons
aside, making room for his thrusts. The way would get bogged down with the
dead, and they would pause and drag the corpses back out while he would recover
and have time for more despairing before the next attack. How long this went
on, he never knew.

Then
he woke up. He was sitting against the wall with his sword still cramped in his
nearly useless hand. The daylight was bright, the dead were stacked around him.
He leapt to his feet in a panic and rushed through the ravine, thinking to find
his enemies bearing down on him. But he was alone. He could see their trail as
they headed back the way they came, a much diminished band. Far off, miles in
the distance, he saw them riding away, and he could not tell how many of the
horses had riders, and how many did not.

“I
suppose they must have given up and decided to go by a different route. And I
must have fallen asleep waiting for them. Well, that’s good, Lord, because it
means now I can sleep.” With a sigh, he laid back down, and was oblivious
in a second.

 

 

Four
months later, Lady Celia received a messenger at her husband’s castle who told
her that her brother had returned to the family’s home, and that he would be
making a trip to see her very soon.

“How
did he seem to you?” she questioned the old family servant who had brought
the news.

“Very
well, Lady. He was sorely wounded during his travels, but he will not say
how.”

“Thank
you Peter. He will tell me, though.”

However,
to her surprise he never did tell her. He never told a living soul, except his
wife when in God’s good time he married. He refused a position as the King’s
advisor, and instead retired and spent his time training the young squires who
came from all over Christendom to learn skill-at-arms from his hand. He never
again fought in any war, but lived out all the rest of his days in perfect
peace.

2 Comments

  1. Lovely! Thanks for the story Ryan, it was just what I needed today. Now you really must create a long version of the story filling in all the character development bringing it the awesome conclusion. It would be epic.
    God Bless!

    Like

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