Chapter XI: Deadfall
The night was pierced by a vein of pulsing lightning. A roaring thunderclap followed; the endless and ancient forest trembled from the very tops of the canopies, down the time-blackened trunks of the huge oak trees, and into the thick mats of roots that choked the forest floor. Almost blindingly dense curtains of rain swept over the treetops.
Sheltered from the punishing storm, deep in the sylvan stretch of the island and nestled in a silent hollow, a little red fire blazed with bloody glee. Tall, dark figures with tattered cloaks stalked around it with an unsettling felinity. They were alone with the shadows which fluttered and flowed over the ground in response to the lightning above.
…save two, which remained fixed low among the ferns and brambles, and had a bit more substance than their brethren; two phantoms whose essence the lightning never managed to reveal; phantoms which surveyed the sirens’ camp with piercing stares.
“What are they doing?” Peridas whispered, never taking his eyes off the sirens.
“Preparing to hunt.” Livaen whispered back. “We must be clear of them before they set out, else they may find us for food.”
“Wait…” the boy said. “What about the survivors? They must be here.”
“Do you see them? No, these are not your friend’s captors. They are a mere hunting party.”
“Very well.” Peridas said as he prepared to leave.
Livaen’s eyes narrowed, then she suddenly grabbed Peridas by the wrist and hissed, “Stop! Don’t move…”
“There…” The siren gestured with her sharp chin. At the other end of the clearing, opposite the duo, they were able to make out the subtlest glint of metal.
“There is something else out there.” Livaen growled.
“What is it?”
“Do you wish to find out?” came the mocking response.
Before Peridas could reply, a horn sounded somewhere in the dark. Then a multitude of savage battle cries accompanied the heavy drumming of iron boots. The figures around the fire started and drew their twisted daggers. The weapons had barely left their sheaths when, from out of the tree line, poured a band of-
“Vikings,” Peridas cursed. “They’ve found the island!”
The wave of warriors struck the line of sirens, eliciting a chorus of otherworldly snarling and screaming. The Vikings were numerous and persistent, but the sirens’ ferocity was terrifying. The two sides battered and hacked; bashed and ripped; clawed and stabbed. Eventually, all rank and file dissolved as the skirmishers spread like a plague into the surrounding wood. The trees groaned and creaked.
Before the brawl had overtaken them, Livaen said, “We need to leave. Follow me….”
Silent as specters, the two shades seemingly dissipated into the night. And the battle continued, neither side aware of the two hunters worming their way through the roots and thick underbrush beneath them. More than once, something would slam into Peridas’ ribs or back, eliciting sharp gasps of pain. For an agonizing while, they sneaked through the fray, suffering the razor-keen edges of the low foliage before them.
The storm was directly overhead now, and lightning flashed downward. There was enough time to comprehend, but not enough to react. The Vikings’ steel armor was a perfectly deadly conductor. The bolt struck a spearman with a brilliant flash; the following thunderclap was so loud, the ground quaked, and every soul there went thoroughly deaf for a few moments. More blasts of energy rained down, and sparks sprayed like liquid from the points of contact. Ruined bodies fell steaming to the ground. Little flames jumped and danced from stem to stalk. The ferns and grass ignited, then the vines and, eventually, the trees. The far side of the clearing became a vague haze as smoke rose rapidly higher and higher. Anxiety burrowed into Peridas’ gut.
“The fools!” Livaen exclaimed.
She twisted and looked at Peridas, apprehension showing in her smoldering eyes. Above, the fight became even more desperate, and the flames grew thicker and higher. With the addition of the bloody light and ringing booms of thunder, Peridas felt as if he were in a nightmare. Livaen opened her mouth to speak, but a flame-enshrouded tree crashed through the blazing ferns between them, cutting her off. She shouted from the other side, “Run, Peridas! Get out of here!”
Knowing the night ahead would most likely hurt, he rose out of the roots and ferns, and into chaos.
He was immediately attacked. An axe was swung at him, and Peridas caught it with both hands. He jerked his knee into his attacker’s gut, then flung the axe aside, along with its owner. Before he was hindered again, he dashed through a clump of jostling bodies and into the trees beyond. An impenetrable blaze followed close behind.
With a bellow and a heave, A bleeding, panting Viking rent aside one of the black devils before him. Its ally- its shield brother, perhaps- loosed a piercing, demonic wail and flung itself at him. The warrior dodged; a misshapen blade tugged with full intention at his mail sleeve. Then the weapon sailed past, and into the spine of some unintended victim behind. The siren stumbled after its dagger, hissing with rage. As it did, the warrior caught it by the throat and squeezed until the abomination went limp.
Only then did he feel the intense heat biting at his neck and back. He looked around, and saw that what was left of the skirmishers were now disappearing into the forest. Covering his face with a knotted forearm, he turned. A wall of fire confronted him, advancing like a wave. Then he turned and joined his comrades as they fled; the sirens were already gone.
It was a sudden and confusing flight. Roots projected from the soil and hindered them in the darkness. Low branches and high briers sliced their heads and necks; in fact, everything their armor didn’t protect was ravished by the sickle-like thorns. They ran as fast as their constricting armor would allow, but try though they might, they were never able to outdistance themselves from the fire. In fact, little by little, minute by minute, they flames ever so slowly advanced on them. The warrior gave his utmost, and he roared with the pain from his effort.
Amid the panting and crashing branches, the warriors could hear grunts and howls in the nearby darkness. The ordinary food chain was ignored as every animal for miles around stampeded away from the unsullied smell of burnt death. Behind, any who tripped or stumbled were trampled out of recognition; not only by men, but also by the droves of sweating, steaming beasts. The fear was very real now.
With a cry, Livaen leapt and grabbed hold of an oak bough, swinging herself into another tree. Behind her, the one she was just in crashed to the ground. She turned to look, and saw several shapes barreling toward her. Without hesitation, she dove back to the floor, rolling in a tight ball as she landed. Again there was the scream of tearing wood, and splinters flew everywhere as the oak fell. Livaen sprinted ahead, but was stymied by a dense thicket, broken only by a tiny creek that ran under it, carving a little tunnel through the brambles.
Without hesitation, she slid under the culvert, and the world folded in around her and plunged her into darkness. Her back grated over the slick pebbles below, and her face brushed against something sharp. But then she was out of the bramble. At once, the rumbling grew muted behind her. Livaen didn’t stop.
Behind her, the band of stray Vikings that pursued her cursed loudly as they hacked their way through the thicket. But the siren was long gone, darting through the trees ahead, her mouth twisted with grim satisfaction. Her pleasure vanished, however, as she stumbled from the maze of trees and into a skirmish of Vikings and sirens. Dodging a stray javelin, she ran up a lichen-encrusted tree trunk that drooped over the battle. Without slowing, she tore her blade from its sheath and leaped off the end of the trunk, falling swiftly and silently.
Livaen struck a siren with force of a diving raptor; the blade slid behind the siren’s collarbone, and in his last instant, he choked and wheezed as a wet crunch sounded within his chest. Then Livaen’s weight violently bore them both to the ground. Livaen pressed on, fighting her way through the press of bodies as the tide of fire rose behind her.
The rumbling grew stronger, and a shower of flaming leaves rained down to the floor. Compromised trunks split and fell, crumbling. Peridas’ fingers scrabbled at his boots as he relaced them. Through the soil, he felt the drumming of a stampede. They are nearly here, he thought. Screams and howls were carried to him on the wind, so he rose and fled before he was trampled.
Despite the hellish cacophony just behind him, he forced himself to stay calm. He pretended he was chasing Lenise through the granite streets of Athens. It didn’t work well, but it was enough to clear his mind of some anxiety. He sprinted through the burning forest as the inferno devoured everything behind him. In his haste, he failed to notice the thin slash of true dawn that appeared for moment between the trees ahead of him.
Without slowing his mad flight, the Viking warrior tore off his smoking cowl; the skin on the back of his neck was blistered and bubbled from the heat. Someone next to him attempted to do the same, but the collar caught on his jerkin’s clasp, and he lost his footing and stumbled to the ground. He was dead almost immediately, crushed by his own comrades. A moment later, the fire had swallowed up the body.
Animals barreled out of the flames’ borders, their coats ablaze. They charged into the line of men, further spreading the confusion. A lightning bolt flashed into the Vikings’ midst and consumed another. Thin coils of steam swirled around the warrior’s mail as his sweat evaporated. His legs tingled like they were stuck full of pins, and every beat of his weakening pulse racked his abdomen with pain. But the warrior noticed something different about the light ahead. It wasn’t the burning red of the fire, it was green and pale; it was daylight. Dawn had arrived, and they were nearly out of the forest.
Weeping as uncontrollable spasms ravaged his limbs, the Viking dashed for the tree line. Twenty steps… ten steps….
Peridas emerged onto a rocky outcrop that projected from the roots of the forest and into the air before dropping hundreds of feet down into the woods below. At the same time, Livaen burst out of the forest a stone’s throw away, and a haggard Viking slipped out of the trees between them. They were followed close behind by dozens of Vikings and sirens. Peridas’ stomach lurched as his eyes locked with Livaen’s. There was no time to stop or slow; their momentum would rush them off the edge of the cliff. Peridas thought of Lenise, and his last feeling was of regret.
And the world fell away.
Peridas’ senses rushed back into his mind in an unwelcome din. He groaned and tried to move, and his body screamed in protest. With a sharp gasp, he fell back and looked down at himself. A broken tree branch was sticking through his right side. “Oh….” The boy said stupidly.
Steeling himself, he plucked the stick out, which felt like dragging a clump of cockleburs from one side of his body to the other. He grimaced and stared through a veil of tears at the glowing cliff top so far above as he waited for the pain to recede. Only then did he notice that he was high in the canopy of a tree. Cursing, he slipped off the branch and rolled as he struck the ground with a hard clack.
He lay there, stunned a moment, then stood slowly and surveyed the heaps of lifeless bodies strewn across the floor and in the trees. Some, like him, where inexplicably alive, and struggling to find their feet. Behind him, something scuffed against something else, and he instinctively turned. A fist materialized out of the grey shadows and struck Peridas in the cheek. The boy reeled as the ground and sky spun around him, and he toppled over. When his surroundings stopped spinning, Peridas saw a battered warrior towering over him. I’m having a bad day, the boy complained.
A flicker of motion caught his eye. He looked past the Viking and saw Livaen dart out from behind a tree. A glint of fire sparked in Peridas’ eyes, and he got to his feet as the Viking strode toward him. “You really shouldn’t be concerned with me, right now.” the boy coughed. The Viking hesitated and cocked his head, and as he did, Livaen snapped his neck. Peridas nodded appreciatively to her, and she inclined her head in return. Their reunion was short-lived, however, as more warriors regained their wits and noticed the duo.
Someone shouted something in Old Norse, and they charged at Peridas and Livaen. Livaen started towards the men, and Peridas reached into his cloak and hurled a swarm of small knives at the Vikings. They stumbled and covered their faces, and Livaen dispatched them with deceptive ease. Peridas drew his bow and downed several more, then rolled under a sword thrust and buried a dagger in its wielder’s back. Livaen hurled a corpse at two other attackers, tangling their legs; then she twisted through the air like a sea lion through water, her blade outstretched, and scythed down the warriors. Peridas bashed a Viking in the chest, staving in his sternum, then dodged an axe and loosed an arrow at a stray Viking. Livaen shoved her dagger into one man’s gut, and he doubled over. She rolled over his back and kicked a second attacker away, then retrieved her blade from the first man’s viscera and flung it into the forehead of the second warrior.
A terrible smile disfigured Peridas’ face; he would never admit it, but he loved fighting. The adrenaline, the sport, the thrill of victory. It was a part of him he hated to address, to admit that he could ever enjoy killing. It was magnified by Livaen’s slightly sociopathic tendencies. She was his mentor, after all. But… no. He didn’t enjoy killing, just winning. The swordplay, the challenge- that was all he cared about. Not the death. And perhaps he would have cared more, had he not been fighting savages and monsters. In any case sympathy was beyond him now.
The surviving warriors were weakening, and victory was at hand….
A cleaver smashed into Peridas’ belly, flipping him and dashing open his stomach muscles. He gaped as searing pain lacerated his gut, like white-hot sand sifting through his insides. “Peridas!” Livaen exclaimed. She rushed for the boy, but the warrior that struck him- the same warrior they had seen atop the cliff- grabbed Livaen by her hair with one hand, and held his knife to her throat with the other.
In that instant, Peridas felt a deepest sense of protectiveness for Livaen, as he did whenever in battle with Ionus. As he did when he thought of the war tormenting Lenise. He rose to an agonized crouch; his raging pulse doubled, then subsided to a sporadic flutter. The pain was so intense that it passed from recognition as pain. For a moment, it stole his senses. His vision browned and dampened, and stars swam around the periphery. A shriek more intense than steel on stone tore through his skull. He mentally suppressed the creeping throes of unconsciousness, though his body punished him for it. Nearly obliterated, he notched an arrow. The Viking blanched, and Livaen gasped as his blade pressed against her neck.
The boy drew the bow, and in response, fire coursed through his veins. He could no longer hear or feel his heart beating. A lump formed in the boy’s throat as he recognized how frightened not only Livaen, but also the Viking appeared. The knife was a wire’s breadth from Livaen’s artery. Peridas let the arrow fly.