Colin drew his cloak tight about his body as he stepped out of Warren’s empty tent into the cold night air, eyes wandering in search of his commander and friend. The warrior stood at the edge of the camp, facing the great walled city of Gustrone. Though his back was turned, there was no mistaking his singular poise and armored frame. Colin didn’t understand why the man wore armor now, though he almost always did. The weight of that iron plate must have been tiring, but Warren showed no sign of it.
Without turning, he acknowledged Colin’s approach. “Can’t sleep, even after battle? Is the joy of victory so invigorating?”
He shrugged. “Maybe I’ve learned not to need sleep, like you.” Colin was sure Warren slept at some point, but he had never actually seen him doing it, and nor did hunger or thirst hamper him as much as other men. “Anyway, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh? You’re not going to stay and celebrate our victory with me? Now that we’ve defeated the dukes, the people will have no choice but to accept me as king.”
“I’ll be back. I’m just going to take Rhona home. You know the battlefield’s no place for her.”
Warren exhaled, a mist dancing from his lips. “I don’t understand you, Colin. That little hellcat matches the best of us in killing every day, and now you say she can’t fight?”
“I didn’t mean that. The battle’s over anyway. It’s what’s left over that Rhona doesn’t need. Her nose has the sensitivity of a bear’s, and all this death and sickness does it no favors. As close as everything”—by which he meant morgue, infirmary, latrine trenches, and similar malefactors—”is, my own nose is screaming at me. You know Gustrone might not surrender for a while yet, and we’ll be camped out here until then.”
The suspicious look Warren gave Colin did not surprise him. Though he was not small, Warren had to look up; Colin was taller and much heavier. “And why, exactly, would she need you to escort her?”
“She is wounded. And the clean mountain air will help that shoulder of hers heal up, too.” A few months back, his sister had nearly lost her arm to a nasty sword wound, and still had not recovered completely.
“Wounded my foot. Come on, Colin—she killed at least thirty men yesterday. You just want to go back to the mountains to visit that wife and son of yours, and Rhona’s nothing but an excuse for you to leave me.”
It wasn’t surprising that Warren had seen right through him, either. Colin nodded slightly, though the commander wasn’t even looking at him. “You got me. Is it so wrong? I miss them.”
“I won’t stop you from going. You could’ve just told it to me straight, though.”
“Rhona does want to leave.”
“Damn Wild Axe. Good for a fight, not so much for the aftermath.”
Colin smiled. “Would you want my sister at parlay?”
“No. Take care.”
Colin returned to his small hide tent and lay down next to the snoring form of his half-sister. He fell asleep easily now, for his worry had been that Warren would take his decision to leave worse than he had. He felt glad Warren wasn’t mad; he was not always this understanding, unlike most of his friends.
The next morning, Colin was awakened by Rhona’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him out of his slumber. “So we’re going, right?” she asked impatiently. “Get up and get dressed.”
“What time is it?” Peeking outside, Colin saw that the sky was still gray, the sun’s rays only beginning to push away the darkness. “Do we have to go this early? I do want to say goodbye to my friends.”
“If you want to do that, just wake them up before we go. Those silly city folk hardly need to sleep so late.”
“Oh, fine,” Colin said with a sigh. He was no soft city dweller himself, having grown up in the hills herding sheep, but Rhona was something else entirely. Born to Colin’s mother by another man, she had run away from home as a child after being harshly beaten by his drunken father. No one had been able to find her, and after awhile everyone assumed her dead. But somehow she had survived alone in the wilderness, growing into the young woman people called the Wild Axe.
Some tales made her out to be less human than animal, and if Colin wasn’t her kin he might have believed it. She looked like a beast, with that tangled black mane and those thick furs she always wore, and in battle she was more dangerous than a rabid bear. She ate meat raw, and could track as well as any hound. And of course, she bore what passed for great hardship to civilized folk with contemptuous ease. Neither wretched weather nor exhausting marches fazed her in the least. Her only weakness seemed to be also one of her great strengths, that amazing nose which no smell could escape.
Rhona had turned away to retrieve her leathers, and Colin could not help glancing disdainfully at the hairy crack of her ample ass. One other thing about her, was she had no qualms about exposing her nakedness to others. In fact, it was only at Colin’s insistence that she maintained a passable level of decency around the army. If not for him, the abundant curves of her stocky body might have created great danger—not only for her, but any man tempted to try and take her by force as well.
She put on the leathers and bear pelt which served as her public garb, and the two of them walked outside. The camp was so tightly packed, Colin almost felt the need to walk sideways between the tents. Little Rhona, of course, showed no such concerns, skipping lightly through the camp.
They said goodbye to their mutual friends, then Colin quickened his pace to match Rhona while she headed towards Candace’s tent. “Now remember to be nice.”
“Pah. Candace! Wake up, Prettyhands!”
Colin got an urge to reach out and strangle his sister. Candace’s old nickname could hardly be used in anything but a mocking context now. The warrioress’ hands were rough and callused and covered with scars, including the terrible burns of a flaming arrow burying itself in her palm.
One might have expected Rhona to feel some kind of camaraderie with another female warrior, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Despite her great courage and prowess in battle, Candace still possessed a bearing appropriate to her noble heritage, and this trait seemed to irk Rhona even more than it did in other aristocracy. Colin thought his sister wanted Candace to be like her, and her hostility came of the fact that she was not. For a while, the two women had seemed to become friends. But then, Rhona’s dislike for Candace had come crawling back.
“Hi, Rhona,” Candace said as she stepped outside, polite in the face of adversity. Though scarred, she was still beautiful, her lovely round face framed by soft brown curls. Her figure was slender and lithe, yet deceptively strong. Rhona turned away, disrespectfully avoiding her gaze. “What’s happening?”
“I’m taking her home,” Colin said. Despite her attempt to keep her face neutral, he thought he saw relief flash through Candace’s eyes.
After a pause, she spoke. “What about you? Are you coming back?”
Candace held his gaze and put a still graceful hand on his shoulder. “Maybe you shouldn’t. Your family must miss you.”
“I know they do. But I promised Warren I would see this through to the end.”
“This is the end. It’s all but over. You can go home.”
Colin frowned. Though he appreciated her concern, the knowledge her advice brought to mind sent pangs of pity rushing through his heart. Of course she would encourage him to cherish any opportunity to spend time with his family; her own parents and sister had been slaughtered years ago by raiders who had destroyed her hometown. She was technically a countess, but all she ruled was a kingdom of grief.
He spread his arms and stepped forward. In the moment before he reached her, he saw her eyes glisten with tears; then he embraced her, gently patting her back. “You’re never alone, Candace. Remember that.”
After a while, she stepped back and smiled. “So are you coming back?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know anymore. Maybe I’ll take your advice.”
“I’ll come visit you someday, meet your wife and son. Until then, goodbye.”
Candace turned, her gaze lingering sadly on Rhona’s back for just a moment, and ducked into her tent. “Let’s go,” Rhona said.
Colin did not move yet. “She’s such a nice woman,” he said softly. “How can you dislike her?”
“She’s not a nice woman. She’s just a fraud, that’s all. How can she slaughter men just like we do, and then turn around and pretend to be this demure lady? It’s silly.”
“I don’t think she’s pretending. What, because she’s a warrior she can’t be gentle? What, are we all evil, then?”
“Evil? No. But we’re killers. At least you and I don’t try to hide it, and in front of other killers at that.”
Shaking his head, Colin started south and west. This conversation never went anywhere, and it would be a waste of time to continue arguing with Rhona. But inwardly, he did hope he would do a good job “pretending” with his family.
They traveled in silence for a time, passing many a farm among the sweeping plains. “Colin,” Rhona said eventually, “you really didn’t need to come with me. I can more than take care of myself.” She sounded a bit annoyed, as if she thought he doubted her abilities.
He looked at her and couldn’t help smiling. There was a certain innocence in her failure to deduce the real reason for his departure. “Of course you can, Rhona. But I miss Phyllis and Jesse.”
“What did you ever see in that city girl? She doesn’t even like your herder’s life.”
Colin laughed. “Don’t you get it, Rhona? Why do you think she came to live with me, even though she doesn’t like it in the hills? She loves me. That’s what love is. It doesn’t matter if you have to suffer a bit, because there’s nothing more important than your love. Don’t you know anything?”
Rhona was not silenced for nearly as long as Colin imagined she might be. “You find someone you like, you rut with ’em. If things work out, they stay with you. That’s what love means to me.”
For all her deviance, Rhona was not a totally antisocial being. Since reemerging from the wilds, she had shown up regularly at local festivals, and even made a few friends who she visited on occasion. But she had found no man—or woman—who wanted her for more than a short fling. Colin doubted if she would ever find love, and pitied her for it.
But mulling over his own words, Colin felt happily confident that Rhona did at least love him. Warren’s war had nothing to do with her, and for all her viciousness in combat she did not particularly relish bloodshed; her only reason to endure the battles—and prolonged contact with civilization in the form of the army—was her care for him. Like his wife, she had chosen to sacrifice some of herself for him.
The days passed slowly, as Colin could hardly wait to return to his family. His nights were full of happy dreams, which made him reluctant to wake. But he forced himself to rise each morning as early as Rhona did, knowing the real thing would be better than any dream.
The plains gave way to familiar wooded hills, and Colin’s spirits grew light with joyful anticipation. “I smell mutton,” said Rhona a short way from home.
“Are you sure?” Colin didn’t smell anything, but very rarely did he or Phyllis slaughter one of their sheep for food. Maybe one had broken a leg, and needed to be put out of its misery.
“Yeah, I’m sure. My nose doesn’t lie.”
When the house came into sight, Colin realized that he did indeed smell cooking sheep. He looked towards the sheep pen, and to his alarm saw at least five animals had gone missing. What was going on? Then he saw the blood on the grass, and fear quickened his pulse.
Colin hurried to the door and knocked. His eyes widened when not his wife, but his neighbor Bran opened the door. More blood stained the floor, and a leg of mutton roasted slowly in the stone oven.
“Where’s Phyllis?” Colin demanded. His heart tightened at the grim look on Bran’s rugged face.
“She’s dead,” the lanky farmer breathed. “I was waiting here to tell you—sorry.”
All the water seemed to evaporate from Colin’s throat, and the strength fled from his knees. “H-how?” he asked numbly.
“Brigands, it seems.”
“What about Jesse?!” Colin asked in terror.
“I don’t know. He wasn’t here when I arrived. They might have taken him.”
Colin tried to get his breathing under control, but it was no use. Soon he fell to his knees, shaking and sobbing softly. “How… how could they do this? How could they do it to me?”
“I doubt those bastards took the time to figure out whose home it was before they attacked. Then again, maybe they knew, and that was exactly why they came.”
Colin barely heard, distraught as he was over Phyllis’s death. He wept and wept, his huge shoulders shuddering uncontrollably. No longer could they grow old together, watch their children grow up together. She was dead, and with her all his humble dreams. He could not imagine his future without her, nor did he want to.
Rhona knelt beside him, and he felt her arms wrap comfortingly about his shoulders. “Colin. Colin, listen to me. Your son could still be alive. Steady yourself, we have to go find him.”
He looked at her and sniffed loudly. “How? They could have gone anywhere.”
“When did they attack?” she asked Bran.
“No more than two days ago. If only you had arrived a little earlier…”
Damn it! Now Colin knew he would hate himself forever for not taking a horse. Still, he had to save his son. Mastering his grief for now, he wiped his eyes and stood. “Rhona?”
“I know Jesse’s smell. Let’s armor up and go bandit hunting.”
“I’ll come too,” Bran said. “Phyllis was a good woman, and it hurts to see her murdered by such wicked men. Besides, my family could be next.” Colin knew he was no stranger to fighting to preserve his life, having been a career soldier before the plague took his wife and forced him to return home to raise his children, and more than welcomed his aid.
Colin put his chainmail hauberk on over his tunic, and Bran donned his cured leather jerkin. Rhona took the longest to prepare, strapping on mismatched pieces of dull black-enameled plate over her leathers. Then they were off, the wild girl’s nose leading them to the bandits’ lair. Colin’s heart pounded like a drum in his chest. What had they done to his son? He feared to find out. But he knew what he was going to do to them, images of their dismembered corpses vivid in his turbulent mind.
Sometime during the trip, Colin heard himself asking in a choked voice, “What do I do if he’s gone? What will I live for, if my son is dead?”
“Don’t think about that,” Bran said. “We’ll get him back. They wouldn’t have taken him just to kill him.”
The trio eventually found themselves at the mouth of a hillside cave from which firelight glowed. At first they thought to attack with caution, but Colin heard high-pitched cries coming from inside and lost all restraint. A woman! The image of his wife being raped filled his mind, driving him into an irrational rage. With a scream, he charged into the cave.
“Colin, you idiot!” he heard Bran cry.
“Get off her!” Colin bellowed as he rushed, his eyes fixed on the man thrusting his pelvis up and down over the woman prone beneath him. The bastard! Now he was going to find out that there was still such a thing as justice in the world…
The woman saw him first, and with a shout pushed her lover off herself. Colin grew confused when he realized the woman wore a sword and several daggers. Why would the bandits allow a victim to remain armed? The woman drew her sword and scrambled up to strike at Colin. Damn, he’d been wrong. She was one of the bandits!
With a great roar, Colin blocked her slash and retaliated, cleaving through her shoulder and chest.
Rhona and Bran were at his side then, and he looked around to see about twenty crudely dressed, hard-faced men in a ring around them, weapons in hand. Behind them, packs and bedrolls lay on the stony ground. Colin had charged right into the midst of the bandits’ camp.
“Joshua,” the dead woman’s lover whined, “they killed my honey girl! Who do they think they are to be so stupid brave?”
A tall, broad-shouldered man with long braids smiled as he replied, raising a heavy two-handed sword. “Colin and Rhona, that’s who. Just as crazy off the battlefield as on it, apparently. So that was your wife?”
Recognition hit Colin like a hammer. “Joshua? So this is what you’ve been doing, you shit-faced deserter!” But in spite of his anger, a sliver of doubt pricked his heart. Joshua, arrogant rogue he was, had been a remarkable swordsman. Colin remembered losing to him in more than one exhibition match.
The bandits closed in, a few especially aggressive men rushing ahead of their fellows. Colin’s great axe clove the air in a wide arc, two brigands jumping back to avoid the whooshing head. Another man ducked beneath the blow, his dagger glinting in the firelight, but Colin’s fist smashed against his head with such force that his neck snapped. Bran blocked a sword cut with the shaft of his spear, slammed the butt into the man’s head. Spinning the spear around, he stabbed it into the knee of another warrior, who fell howling in pain.
Rhona blocked a sword blow with her shield, ducked another, and splintered a hip with her axe. Smaller than Colin’s weapon, her short battleaxe was designed for use in one hand. Before she could free the blade, a bandit lunged and plunged his spear into her upper chest. With a shriek of rage, she hewed through the wooden shaft and opened its wielder’s throat on the backswing.
Hearing her cry out, Colin turned and saw the broken spear jutting from her chest. “Rhona!”
“I’m fine,” she gasped. “It didn’t hit anything important.”
Angered nonetheless by his sister’s wounding, Colin lashed out fiercely with his axe, severing a man’s arm near the shoulder. A sword jabbed at his belly, but he leaned aside and it only grazed his side. His axe drank the warrior’s brains in reply. He felt a sudden weakness in his right leg, and looked to see the hilt of a small knife protruding from his thigh. Angrily, he plucked it out and looked around. A lean bandit smiled at him, reaching for a second dagger. Before he could draw it, Colin returned his first knife, and he caught it with his eye.
Bran felled another man, gutting him with a spearthrust below the navel. Freshly dying, his screams rose above those of the other injured bandits. Half the enemy were down, and with a yell of triumph Rhona rushed their now hesitant comrades. “No!” Colin cried.
The Wild Axe’s first blow ripped away a man’s sword, and her second split his breastbone. But Joshua stepped in, stabbing two-handed with his sword to drive it through Rhona’s belly. A foot and a half of sharp steel emerged from the girl’s back, and she doubled over coughing red droplets. With a merciless sneer, Joshua kicked her off the blade.
On her back and choking on her own blood, Rhona braced herself with a hand and tried to rise. Joshua’s sword hammered down hard, her shield arm barely mustering the strength to ward off the blow. She moaned, blood pouring from her gut and back. Grabbing his closest foe by the neck, Colin threw him at his allies and started towards his struggling sister.
Bran grasped his shoulder, holding him back. “Forget her! She’s already dead.”
Colin shrugged him off, scowling through a mask of tears. “I’ll fight for my sis as long as she draws breath.”
An opportunistic bandit joined Joshua in his attack, and Rhona groaned while an axe dented the armor over her side. Yet she managed to raise herself halfway up and fall towards her new opponent, her own axe coming up and smashing into his thigh. Joshua stepped towards her even as the other bandit fell back, his sword chopping down at her head. She rolled to her knees, bringing her axe up just in time to intercept the blow. But Joshua pressed down, slowly bringing the edge of his blade closer and closer to the wounded girl.
Without warning, Rhona shifted her shield higher on her arm and reached forward and up, her hand snaking underneath Joshua’s kilt. The swordsman’s eyes bulged, and a deafening scream of utter anguish tore from his throat. He fell away, blood gushing between his legs. Her face scrunching up in disgust, Rhona tossed aside the red, fleshy mass in her hand.
Then Colin was there, slashing over his sister at the next man who would have attacked her. A headless corpse toppled at his feet as he said breathlessly, “You tore off his balls!”
Rhona’s response carried none of her usual spirit. “Colin, I’m hurt.”
He swallowed hard even as his axe came down on the back of a man who rushed in low, sundering the spine. “I know, sis. Hang on!”
A broken spearshaft flew through the air, transfixing a bandit’s face. Bran appeared at Colin’s side, a procured sword in hand and a flap of flesh hanging loose from a ghastly wound in his upper arm. “Damn you, abandoning me for your dying sister! Look at what you did to my spear!”
“I knew you could take care of yourself. But Rhona…” Colin could say no more. Guilt stabbed his heart. It was his recklessness in launching a direct attack which had brought them into such an uneven battle. Now, his sister might die for it.
Only three bandits remained standing, and Bran and Colin advanced grimly upon them. One man charged, shouting defiance. Bran parried his overhand slash, and Colin hewed him nearly in two. Another man tried to dive past the warriors, seeking escape. Somehow, he managed to get by the men with only a shallow cut on the arm, but brave Rhonda gutted him from the ground. The last bandit backed up against the wall of the cavern and raised his hands. Slim and beardless, he looked little older than a boy.
“I surrender! Please spare me, I didn’t kill her!”
“Where’s my son?” Colin growled.
“Aidan took him to sell, I don’t know where! We didn’t need to know… please, don’t kill me! I didn’t kill your wife.”
“Did you rape her?”
The youth exhaled. “No,” he said, looking away.
Tears rushed from his eyes. “Yes, I raped her! But they made me do it! What does it matter? She was dead anyway!”
“Don’t be a wimp,” Rhona said. “You came this far, now finish it.”
Colin raised his axe and hesitated. He was still angry, but he had already killed so many and the bandit seemed just a scared child. Maybe he could let him go. Maybe he could live to spread the word of what happened to those who wronged Colin. Maybe…
Rhona stepped past him and swung her axe low, driving the spike on the back of its head into the bandit’s lower belly. The youth fell to his knees screaming, blood gushing between his fingers. Rhona looked meaningfully at Colin. Helplessly, he raised his axe and lopped off the dying boy’s head. She had purposefully inflicted a wound which would kill slowly and terribly, in order to force his hand.
At the thought of the bandit’s gut wound, Colin remembered Rhona’s injury. If anything, hers seemed worse. He turned to see her fall to her knees, drooling blood. “I-it hurts.”
He knelt at her side, cradling her in his arms. “No, Rhona, don’t! Please don’t die. You can’t die!”
She regarded him with an exasperated scowl, though he was not sure why. “Don’t you… panic. I-I’ll be fine.”
As much as Colin wanted to believe her, he could not push the certainty of her death from his mind. The huge sword that had ripped through her belly must have torn her innards to shreds. He held her hand and stared weeping at her face, wondering how much time together they had left. Maybe it would have been better for him to grant her the mercy of a swift death, like he had the bandit. But Rhona was his sister, and he could not imagine raising his axe against her.
Bran knelt beside him and touched his shoulder. “Relax, Colin. Put her down, and I’ll patch her up.”
“You can save her?” he asked, desperate for any sort of hope.
“Weren’t you there when I stitched up your uncle’s dog?”
Colin’s heart sank. “But that dog died…”
Rhona squeezed his hand. “Just… do it,” she whispered. “I’m tougher… than a dog.”
Colin set her carefully on the ground, pulled his wineskin from his belt and put it to her lips. She took a few swallows, then nodded, and he finished what was left. Bran undressed her and stitched the back side of her wound, so as to save her some blood. He turned her to her back and drew his dagger. Bare, her wounds were hideous to see. Colin watched in horror while he sliced her open. He had little confidence in Bran’s abilities as a surgeon, and knew such an operation had little chance of success no matter who did it. Rhona would undoubtedly lose a great deal of blood, and if she survived that, infection was still all but guaranteed.
For a few seconds, the girl managed to stay quiet. Then she began to scream, and Colin cringed with each heartrending cry. He refused at first to look at her face, not wanting to see the unbearable pain reflected there. Instead, he watched Bran mend her tattered innards, holding back the vomit burning in the depths of his throat. Sometime during the surgery, Rhona stopped screaming. Finally unable to bear the sight of her opened abdomen, Colin looked at her face. Her eyes were closed, and he could not tell if she was breathing. Bran did not check if she had died, but just kept working.
Eventually, he finished putting Rhona’s guts back together and closed up her wound. Colin simply continued to stare at her still face. She looked gray as death; he did not know if she lived, nor could he find the will to check. There was so much blood everywhere—how could anyone survive this?
Eventually, Bran put his fingers to the side of Rhona’s neck and nodded. “She’s alive.”
Colin exhaled, but his heart was still racing. “Will she be alright?”
“Your sister’s very strong. She has a chance.”
Gingerly, Colin scooped Rhona up into his arms and started to stand. A feminine moan of pain startled him, and he looked down at her face. Slowly, her eyelids fluttered open and she met his gaze.
“C-Colin?” she croaked. “See, I told you I’d be okay… I am going to make it, right?”
He swallowed hard. “Of course you are. Just rest.”
“I’ll do that. What about you, now?”
Still shaken and scared for Rhona’s life, Colin gave the only answer he could. “What else? I’m going after my son.” He looked up. “Will you come with me, Bran?”
Bran shook his head. “I can’t—I’ve got my own daughters to feed. But I’ll take care of your sister.” If she lives,his eyes seemed to say.
“Thank you. You make sure you don’t lead his girls astray, eh sis?”
She smiled weakly. “Yeah, sure.”
Colin carried Rhona from the cave, Bran following behind. Dreams die, he thought wearily. But hope remains.