I don’t normally post material here that’s still available elsewhere, but I felt this was a special case. It can be found in the anthology The Tale Trove, but I’m posting it today for Ukraine.
The city of Naamid burnt around Hanuut as he stormed the guard-post with his fellow-rebels. Soldiers of the Demon Queen held the broken gateway, ferocious at bay.
Hanuut didn’t underestimate them. He’d served unwillingly in their ranks, hating the tyranny but seeing no way out. Like so many others, he’d taken his chance at last to join the rising as the liberating army of the Free Alliance approached the city’s gate. He knew from his own training that these were formidable fighters.
His comrades were falling before the swords that defended the gate, but there was another way in. Sheathing the old, notched sword he’d grabbed before deserting, Hanuut reached up for a handhold on the rough stone wall and began to climb.
He was two storeys up when a warning shout from below cut through the din. He just had time to look up before a lump of masonry half his size came tumbling down on him, sweeping him off the wall. The impact on the ground knocked all the breath from him; but it seemed an infinitely long time before the stone crashed onto his leg. Searing pain filled him, and…
The shout jerked Hanuut from the nightmare of that terrible night — was it really only two nights ago? He hauled himself into a sitting position, cursing the pain the movement sent through his half-healed stump, all they’d saved of his shattered leg. The makeshift hospital where they’d brought him — a half-burnt inn, from the look of it — was crowded with the injured and dying on pallets and heavy with the stench of death.
He’d no doubt who they were, and he saw at a glance that no-one here was capable of resisting them. Of the fighting-men, few were even conscious, let alone able to lift a weapon.
The wise-women who tended the sick, along with their younger apprentices, cowered in terror at what was coming. Hanuut found himself wishing, despite everything he’d never questioned, that the women here in Naamid were like those in Ario-ne to the north, who fought alongside the men. These untrained women might have the courage to die shielding the sick and the children with their bodies, but that was all they could do. They’d die and achieve nothing.
“How close are they?” Hanuut demanded. Until today, the roar of his voice would have filled the room, but now his hoarse wheeze made him wince in pain at the effort.
A child stared at him with huge dark eyes. “They’re coming up the street, sir.” Her voice was soft with terror. “Are we going to be sacrificed to the Queen?”
“Not if I can help it,” snapped Hanuut, though it was unlikely the remnants of the Imperial forces had anything that formal in mind. Looking at the little girl, he shuddered at visions of her fate.
He hesitated an instant, protesting silently that a man with one leg couldn’t be expected to fight. That wasn’t the point, though. Even if he tried to hide, it would do no good. He’d be cut down, in his bed or out of it. That was really the only choice to make.
“Find my sword,” he told the child. “It’s probably somewhere near the bed.” She goggled at him. “Now would be a good time,” he added, making an effort to be gentle with her.
As the girl scurried to search, Hanuut summoned the effort to raise his voice. “Someone get me up and strap me to the doorpost.” Met by uncomprehending stares, he launched into a string of curses that brought shocked looks to the healers’ faces, though one or two of the wide-eyed children seemed to be memorising the phrases he used.
“You can’t,” protested one of the healers, an old woman with a crumpled face. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, and the wound hasn’t healed. You’ll…”
“I’ll die standing instead of lying down,” he snapped. “Want to argue till they come. Now, get me up, or so help me, I’ll take a sword to you myself.”
There was a shocked exchange of glances, then two of the younger women came and hauled him up on either side, half helping and half carrying him to the door, where others waited with bandages. They wound the strips round the shattered doorframe — the door itself had clearly been splintered down in the fighting — and about his chest and waist, securing him in place, before retreating into the room. The child handed him the battered, notched sword, her face grave and scared.
Hanuut peered around the doorframe into what was left of the street. The building opposite — a petty merchant’s establishment, by the look of it — was on fire, and several neighbouring structures were charred remains. The smoke-heavy air fixed islands of screams and yells amid an ocean of eerie silence. Two dozen paces away, a group lurched towards him, the rabble into which the proudest army might descend. Hanuut’s last hope — that these were rebels, or the liberating forces — vanished at the sight of the Demon Queen’s red flower emblazoning their torn surcoats.
The leader stopped two sword-lengths away, and the surprise on his brutish, scarred face — a mahogany face, lighter than the people of Naamid — gave way quickly to mockery. “What do we have here?” he demanded. “They’re giving us target practice now?”
An ugly laugh spread through the group. They knew — it must be true, Hanuut thought — that they’d be dead by sunset. The imperial garrison’s last footholds were being overwhelmed, and there was no escaping the vengeance of the people they’d oppressed. They were as good as dead, but they were going out on a tide of blood and rape. They had nothing to lose — but nor did he, really, Hanuut reflected, as he felt the aching emptiness where his right leg used to be.
“You’re not getting past me,” he snarled, hoping his certainty could make it so.
“Oh no?” The man lunged at Hanuut, bloodshot eyes glaring with the lust to kill. In the heartbeat he had, Hanuut smelt the stench of drink on his breath and knew it gave him the advantage. Flicking the blade aside, he plunged his sword-point into the enemy’s exposed breast, pushing it deep and then yanking it out with the suck of blood.
Another, the drunkest of the group, rushed at Hanuut yelling furiously, sword raised high. An easy target as it was, paying no attention to defence, the man stumbled onto the blood-soaked blade of his own accord.
After that, the survivors took more care. Doomed they might be, but they wanted to enjoy their orgy of slaughter for as long as possible, and they approached Hanuut with caution. Like most soldiers, they had little skill with the sword — in battle, a clumsy blow could kill you just as surely as a subtle thrust — but they didn’t need it.
They tried to surround him, but the doorway prevented it. Hanuut, his head swimming with pain from his stump, tried to concentrate on countering each swipe or thrust and managed to get in a couple of wounding ripostes, but he was slowing down.
A searing agony cut through his guts, and he looked down stupidly at the blade he’d missed sticking out of his belly. As a mist rose in his eyes, another sword sliced deep into his shoulder. Hanuut sagged against the bindings. This was the end.
The yells of triumph turned to screams. His eyes cleared enough to see men striking at his attackers, and Hanuut recognised, with a lurch of relief, the insignia of the Alliance.
Then everything dissolved around him, and there was only a tunnel of light ahead of Hanuut.