The water of the loch is unseasonably warm but even so it adds to her shivering. It laps at her bare ankles and seeps into her white gown. Her left arm hangs heavily at her side, weighed down by a shield. In her right hand hangs a sword. It is so heavy that the tip dangles in the water. She's never really thought about these things. How do soldiers see with such helms tightly strapped upon their heads? She shivers and looks back over her shoulder. Her mother and father are hugging each other, weeping. She wants to hold up her hand. She's terrified. The others are weeping and shouting in turns. Some are cursing her. She bites her lip until she tastes blood. Then she bites harder.
"Father of All, Father of Life and Light..." She whispers through sobs. The water is moving unnaturally, rippling away from a single spot about twenty paces out from her. She takes a step closer. The cold wet creeps up to her knees. "Smile down on this daughter of yours." Her breath catches. The crowd on the shore moans. The dreuth has come to claim his reward.
An army has gathered. Several armies. They have arrayed themselves in the ruins of a burned out city. They eye each other warily. But mostly they gaze through the rainy air towards a battered but stoic stone keep built upon a rocky point jutting out into a lake. There are men atop the walls of the keep. They move furtively on their rounds, keeping low and quick so as not to offer themselves up to an ambitious archer.
The armies wait. Their leaders stand in their midst, eyeing all the enemies they can identify both in the keep and out. They curse the rain, and spit towards the stone walls. Their defiance is afforded an answer. A man-sized door within the great oaken gates of the keep is opened from within. A man steps out. He is dressed in a simple hooded robe of dark blue. Another, dressed exactly as he, steps out behind him and then another and another and another. Twenty and five figures present themselves upon the field before the keep. They stand in a perfect line, facing all the armies. Their hoods remain drawn.
The soldiers all around start as the mysterious, robed men suddenly drop to their left knees whilst drawing mismatched swords and touching the tips to the ground in perfect unison. The rain pours down, and they lower their heads, in respect it would seem. They are not even armored, nor bearing shields.
Some of the warlords nerve themselves up and approach. They demand the surrender of the keep, of the food stores within. The traitorous forces of the west must be hunted, after all. And those that hunt must be supported.
Rain fills the silence afterwards.
The twenty-five raise their heads and let their hoods fall back. They are different faces, but all with eyes closed, all solemn as sleepers. Twenty-five voices speak the same words for answer to the warlords.
"We make way for no false kings. Her sacrifice is remembered. Her forfeit is our gift. Her deed is our creed. You come for war. But you should leave now in peace."
The warlords are stricken with anger and injured pride. They ride back to their lines, their enemies amongst the other armies forgotten. The impudence of these fools would be the doom of the Sword Maiden's holdfast.
Nearly two thousand men charge inward and fifty eyes open, staring blankly back at a torrent of death.
She shivers and swallows the coppery tasting blood as the dreuth rises, a twisting, hateful column of murky water, with black holes for eyes lit by a phantom candlelight.
With an effort she raises the shield. It laughs. It sounds just like a brook. It speaks some fell language and laughs again to itself.
She swallows her fear, refusing to look back at her parents. With shaky voice: "I do this for the children you took. I stand between you and all the rest." The words are hers. The voice is hers. They are only half formed ideas. Hers. She's frightened by how right they feel in her.
“The children you gave,” it corrects.
“I am your due, vile thing!”
It tittered, swaying like an asp ready to strike. "Take off the ugly helm, it does not become such heroism." The voice is like oil and a petulant child's whine. She almost obliges it. Then she thinks of that tiny child, Audra, with a wisp of gauze tied over her face before she was tossed into the lake for this thing to savage. Perhaps because she does not have to master her the terror and loathing on her face she sees through the posturing dreuth to the irritation beneath.
"I have come at your demand, monster!" she cries. There is only fear and anger in her now. "I am here by my own will. Between you and good people."
It chuckles, and leans forward over her. It is enormous; tall as a tower; thick as a three hundred year old oak. "Quaint is the babe clad in a warrior's trappings. Good people do not bargain with the lives of their young."
She struck the pommel of the sword against the face of the shield. It echoed across the loch and the dreuth flinched. "For Nathaniel, whom you killed yesterday!” Boldly she wrapped the corner of the heater against the cheek of the old barbute covering her face, “For Audra, whom you killed two days past!” Then she lifted the blade and for a wonder her hand was steady as stone. She did not bellow this time but rather whispered: “For Tomas, whom you killed three days ago." Her arm did not weary of holding the heavy old sword out towards the dreuth. “I am your due.”
"You come to battle me?" It grew larger; looming and ready to strike at any moment.
"I defy your price, your threats and you, dreuth!"
It laughed. "Then to battle."
The Paladins rose and took three steps forward. They raised their swords and met the charging armies. And then they broke them. No man that saw that moment and lived ever forgot what he saw. Without armor, without archers or shields or even tactics, the twenty-five Paladins of the Sword Maiden raised their unremarkable blades and, shrugging off death blow after death blow, began to hack their way into these armies of cutthroats, savages, thieves and worse. Hack, smash, pound, bash, kick and slash. Men died. The Paladins did not. Swords and maces, axes and pikes all cut deep and shattered bone. But nothing seemed to work on those men of the faith. Unlike their speech, they fought without harmony. They simply killed anything that came into range. They took no ground. They yielded less.
Some few lieutenants and leaders saw the divine hand in this matter and called their men to retreat, though it was late as witnesses fled. When no enemies presented themselves for battle the Paladins lowered their swords and touched the tips to the ground. They waited there amidst bodies and weeping, injured men. No one dared come close. The paladins bled while their foes bled out.
Finally, they marched inside, leaving their own blood to mix with that of their enemies. The gates were secured behind them. They trudged through the muddy yard, past dozens of women, children and aged men, past stores of half rotten food and an overflowing burial mound. At last they stopped, all in a line, within a stone hall. Their blood puddling at their feet. They knelt, eyes closed, swords sheathed and the healers came from the shadows to work.
No one ever challenged the keep again.
She braced, knowing nothing of fighting. The dreuth lunged at her, frightfully inhuman arms of water reaching for her throat. She slashed with the Tomas and then raised Nathaniel. The dreuth’s face smashed into it, water cascading over and splashing across Audra. She lifted Tomas onto her shoulder, feeling such a fierce burn where weak frame was ill-made for such a chore. Sharp claws dug into her sides and a foul smell surround them. Her feet left the ground.
"You foolish little meat.” It shook her in its grip. “You think steel and resolve will stop us?"
She screamed. The talons wriggled into her like worms in mud, sinking between ribs. Her body convulsed, she kicked. It dropped her, laughing and she landed hard, on her side, mostly underwater. Nathaniel was wedged into the bottom of the loch. Audra was crooked, blinding her. Tomas...
Her right hand was empty.
She writhed as a great weight was pressed down on her, keeping her from coming up for air.
"No air!" she heard it clearly through the water. "No air. Drown in pain, terror and failure!”
She struggled, her free right hand groping for Tomas.
Please... Please be there for me. For them all.
"Eshar'Ektote." It spoke nonsense and laughed again. The water filling her mouth, nostrils and throat grew thick with silt or something like it. She gagged and fought the blackness creeping in from the edges of her obscured vision.
With a horrible, muted shriek she yanked him free of the mud and the grip. Something slipped. Her shoulder was an agony fit to teach her sides a lesson. The dreuth made a sound like a curse. It tried to wrench the shield off her arm, but only succeeded in pulling her up to the surface. She gasped and caught Audra in her free hand. Straightening the helm, she climbed to her feet and gazed back at her enemy. The dreuth was circling her, a pillar of water winding around her like a maelstrom gone up.
"Let me see your eyes, child."
She touched Audra. "I do not fear you." She could smell her blood intermingling with the filthy water.
She recoiled, throwing Nathaniel up just in time to catch the terrible claws from raking down her chest.
A glint of metal in the dreuth; Tomas spun like a dancer in a waterfall.
"I do not fear you!" she repeated. "For so long as there are those like me you cannot win."
"Another drubbing, perhaps." It lunged at her again, and she jumped forward instead of away, thrusting her hand into the dreuth even as poisonous claws tore her back open. She grasped the blade by the hilt and turned it upwards, slicing through its watery form.
It contorted, shrieking in anger or pain.
"My sacrifice is your weakness," she cried. She tore Tomas free of the dreuth’s body, and swung it in a wide arc that severed one of its arms. It leapt back from her, diminishing to barely more than a man-sized thing of water, missing a limb which bled both steam and muddied water..
She stabbed Tomas through its warding arm but the stroke stopped with the blade point just above the inhuman caricature of a face.
It smiled at her.
"You can't win. You know that, don't you?"
She knew she was dying, her life's blood pouring out of her even as poison made its way into her. "I know you won't live to see my failure."
"Ahh, that's what we like to see. Ignorant defiance."
She blinked at it from the safety of Audra while they each plied their strength at the other.
It’s attention flicked to the terrified onlookers on the shore of the loch and then back at her. "I am but the first," it cried out loud. "We are your caretakers now."
"I will slay your kind to the last drop of your filthy hide and my blood," she promised.
It leered at her, shaking its head in mock sadness. "Your kind kill their own for a chance to live but a day. You know this. You have not won. You cannot win the war that is already over."
"Liar!" she spat. "Deceiver and defiler."
It’s smile widened, impossibly and it nodded. "We are these things.” It tittered at her so she threw her weight onto the sword, driving it toward the dreuth’s face until it strained to keep her at bay. “We are these things because you are these things!"
"Silence!" She pressed Tomas closer. It twisted its face away.
"We have already won."
"No." She felt her knees shaking. Soon she would not be able to hold Tomas and Nathaniel up.
"Yesssss," it whispered.
"You and your kind will never harm any of my people again, is that understood?"
It laughed. "Kill me. Or don't. We'll never make such a promise."
She spat through the narrow vertical opening in the barbute. For a moment, the spittle hung clear in the daylight; crimson with her blood. Then it impacted on the dreuth’s chest and it was made to writhe in pain, nearly yanking Tomas from her hand. Some terrible change had occurred within her foe. Where everything heretofore had been a mockery of humanity now she sensed something like real terror in it. And in that moment she knew it was nothing. Not even a creature. Merely an implement of another’s whims. She pitied the thing as a child might pity the log with the shape of a face in the cookfire and instantly sensed the folly but could not do otherwise.
It took most of her will and all of her strength to speak then and speak calmly. "And if I yield to you this day, will you go and never return nor any of your kind come here to harm them ever?"
It looked from where she spat upon it to her. Something unreadable in its eyes. It nodded.
"We will never come to this holy ground again. We will never harm your people here. For that, you must yield to me."
She planted a foot upon its body and yanked free the sword from its arm. Stepping back they they stared at each other for a just a heartbeat and then she sank to her knees, as much because she could no longer stand as because she accepted her choice.
"I yield." She lowered and hugged Nathaniel to her chest with Tomas against the outside of the shield. Her head drooped, the bottom of Audra resting on Nathaniel’s edge and sword’s pommel.
"We will honor this pact," the dreuth said from above her. "But before your end you should know: There are many other kinds than mine." It laughed but it was thick with the effort of hiding shame and defeat.
“For the children,” she wheezed.