Country of Origin: United States of America
Trigger warning: This story includes themes of violence and death.
The end feels so inevitable when it comes. At least, mine does. I am in my final moments, of that there is no doubt. I stand in the biting cold of winter, my bones aching, my wounds bleeding. I know this is where my story ends. I should feel afraid. I should feel absolute terror. I’ve seen it in the faces of those I’ve bested, in the faces of men I held in their final breaths. Men that I respected, brave men, have lost their courage in the face of it time and time again. I always expected fear in the end, but now it has not seen fit to join me. Not only am I unafraid, I’m not even surprised to be meeting my end. After all, what choice did I have?
I’ll admit, I wish it wasn’t so damn cold. My own fault for being on the road so soon after Christmas. It is January of 1404, and the first fortnight of the year will prove to be my last. The trees around me are barren of greenery, the ground covered in a thick blanket of snow. What little dirt that shows is frozen harder than the armor currently sticking to my emerald-colored robes. The clothes I wear under my armor are drenched in sweat and blood that is freezing almost as fast as it emerges.
The same wind that brought this snow has carried the clouds away, letting a glimpse of sunlight crack over the mountains to the east. The sight is beautiful, the wind chills my bones. I’m out in the open, stranded in the middle of the smooth glass surface of this frozen pond. I close my eyes for just a breath and let the sound of the wind ring through the eye slot of my helm. The sound feels more mournful that it should, a moaning in my ears that laments a sorrow I can’t identify. The dry air mixes in my nose with the smell of dirty water, making me open my eyes.
I look to my right, at the slope I fell down to find myself on the ice. At the bottom of the slope is the only hole in an otherwise unblemished surface. I trace the trails of my own blood up the hill, made not so long ago, and I am suddenly aware of how much I hurt. The fall down that slope was bad, the landing on the ice wasn’t pleasant either, but the fight that came before it was worse. If only for my pride.
I lost the fight that preceded my fall, not unprecedented for me but rare enough. Though in all my years wielding a blade, I’ve never lost in such spectacular fashion. The bastard who beat me was just too damn fast with that saber. Too deft at finding the gaps in my armor. I never even touched him. He left me bleeding from a dozen small cuts that sting like I can’t believe.
When he left me, gasping for air and kneeling in my own blood, that’s when he made his mistake. He gave me a pause, speaking in a strange tongue from the east that I couldn’t understand. I’ve heard the language of the Cumans before. I’ve fought them on occasion when they send their raiding parties west into Bohemia. I still can’t speak a word of it. All I could gather was that he sounded quite pleased with himself. That made what came next easier.
He took exactly long enough to gloat for me to gather my wits and track the over-dramatic arc of his swing. I blocked it just like countless other blows in my life, the strong lower section of my blade, just above the cross guard, halting his sword just long enough for me to slam the pommel into his gut. He howled as the air left him, but he recovered faster than I would’ve liked.
His charge towards me was his next mistake. Sure, it sent me sprawling down the slope, seeming to hit every single rock on the way down. Yes, the last six feet were a straight drop to the ice that blasted my senses away from me. But it didn’t kill me. I don’t know how long I lay there. A few seconds? Minutes? The world swam in my eyes, the noise of the battle that had consumed the preceding day and night forgotten. It was the sound of cracking ice that snapped me out of it. My body was lurching for a new patch before my mind grasped how precarious my position was.
Here’s the part I still don’t understand. I’ve seen thirty-three winters, I’m ancient by the standards of a knight who has spent his life bouncing from one war to another. I was certain I had seen everything. I have no idea why that Cuman soldier came down that hill after me. I was beaten. He knew it, I certainly knew it. All he had to do was take his time and circle around. Yet, he dove down that hill after me. He must have seen me hit the ice and figured it was thick enough to hold. It did… for about a heartbeat before he went splashing into the water below.
The Cumans are a culture of horsemen, they prefer to move quickly. They wear lighter armor than knights like myself. They do still wear it, however, and armor is usually heavier than ice. That was more than enough to doom my opponent. He tried his utmost to pull himself out of the hole he fell through, even as chunks of broken ice jabbed at him, making it almost impossible to move his arms. The best he could manage was a handhold on the lip of his tomb.
I pulled myself to my feet with caution, watching the ice to see if the cracks were spreading. I looked down at the man who had triumphed over me mere moments ago. Our eyes met, mine through the slit in my visor, his through the eye holes of the ornate face mask of the strange and exotic helmet so common to his kind. He knew he was finished. I could see the fear in those eyes, tasted it just as I taste the blood in my mouth now. I took my sword in a reverse grip, the blade pointing to the ground, as I’ve done for countless men before in this position. I made the thrust fast and true. His death was clean and quick, as it should be for a warrior.
The sound of steps in the snow snaps my attention back to the present. I can see movement in the trees, shadows shifting against a white canvas. Before long I can make them out. There are maybe a dozen men, all of them in the odd, pointed helms of the Cumans. They move slowly, I’ve made them cautious. Good.
I can see some of them moving off to either side. They’re spreading out, though I don’t know why. They must know I’m the last of my men. Then I see why, and it’s a sight that clenches my gut and makes my heart stand still. A single man steps from the trees, taking easy, casual steps onto the ice in thick chainmail and segmented armor plates that only the highest-ranking Cumans display. This is their warlord. This is the man who slew my master.
The man who started all this has come. The bastard walks straight towards me, without a care. I’d hurl curses at him if I had breath left in me. As it stands, I barely have it in me to rise to my feet, to grasp my blade in my hands and hold it out in challenge. I will die, but not without making them work for it. I try to keep my focus, but it’s hard not to think of when I first saw this man. He started this slaughter just one day ago, and already I hate him more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life. I hate that this bastard killed my liege lord. I hate that his ragged band of raiders slaughtered my brothers in arms. Mostly, I hate that I didn’t see them for the threat they were when I had the chance.
There were thirteen of us when this started. My lord, Baron Dychtwald, known to many as the bloody bastard of Bohemia, led us. He had ridden out of his home a fortnight past with two sword lines of his soldiers, my own and Sir Kuno’s. I had five warriors under my command, Peter, Frederick, Damian, Jaric, and young Stepan. Stepan had been more of a mascot until this year. I trained him myself. I suppose none of that matters now. There won’t be anyone to remember us. But they were my men, and I was very proud of them. I, Sir Tancred of Moravia, led them for seven years, and they never failed me. A pity the reverse cannot be said.
I didn’t know Kuno or his troops well. He was…rough around the edges. His men were the same. Most had been in the stockade. Some had bounties out on them. Not the sort that you’d take to high tea, but they fought like devils. They died with courage. Damn that swaggering Cuman bastard!
Calm. I need to stay calm. I can’t let him see me falter.
This started at a crossroads. That’s not a metaphor, it happened at a literal crossroads. We’d just left a village. There was nothing special about the place. Just an ordinary village where we had an ordinary lunch while the younger lads stared at some ordinary country girls. We were maybe three miles outside of town when we found ourselves staring at that smirking Cuman prick.
He began by speaking in the worst, most faltering Czech I had ever heard. He was not nearly as clever as he thought. I managed to make out that he expected us to dismount and lay our weapons at his feet. We reacted as you’d expect: laughter from my men, insults and rude gestures from Kuno’s. He didn’t like that. The arrows came next, whistling between branches as I shouted a warning to the others. We should have seen this attack coming. The Cumans are men much different from us, but they’re not fools. I should have seen it.
The horses died first. Their screeches still ring in my head and the weight of their crash may have broken a rib or two. We were still climbing out from under them when the first bunch hit us. That’s how the Baron died, crawling out from under his stallion when that insolent dog, the one now sauntering up to me, ran him through. I tried to get to him, clawing at my leg and the dirt beneath until I was free. I wasn’t fast enough. The baron was a peerless warrior in his day, but that day was long ago. He had spent the last decade at court, his campaigns long behind him. When his death came, he couldn’t even get his sword up to defend himself.
I didn’t have long to linger on the sight, the chattering howls of the enemy echoed through the woods as they descended on us. I’ll say this for Kuno, he got the men up faster than I would’ve thought possible. His and mine, they had lines formed to either side with time to spare before the enemy hit. We stood shoulder to shoulder, just like I taught them. Nobody breaks the line, nobody tries to be a hero. We stand together. Our discipline broke the first wave in moments. I don’t think they expected any resistance. But there was a second wave, then a third. We tried pressing into the trees, which helped funnel them to our stronger warriors. Still, we fell. First Jaric, then Stepan, Peter I held while he bled out between the fifth and sixth waves. Damian they dragged away screaming. I tried to reach him, I really did… bastards.
The irony of it all is that I know for a fact I could have escaped. There was a moment, after Kuno dragged me back from howling after Damian. We were isolated, a hundred yards from what remained of our men. They yelled for us to make it back as Kuno’s eyes locked with mine. I knew what he was thinking before he did. He made his break for it. I didn’t. I can’t say I blame him, but I just couldn’t leave my boys. I have chosen death. I could have run like Kuno did, could have forsaken the oaths I took. No. I could never. What am I without honor? What was all of this for without it? Even now, I know that in choosing between my life and my honor, the trust my men placed in me, there was never any choice at all. I look again at the Cuman warlord walking straight toward me.
Let them come.
Thank you to Kacper Janusz for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Fiction team.
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