“What do you think, goat man? We all die here today?”
“You can’t think like that. Ignore death until you see it’s shape in the corner of your eye.” Boursen Ran told Hilo when they stood on the wall of the ruined fortress with the others. Over their heads the tattered banner of the Unseen flapped in the wind sweeping up from the gorge, the shut eyes painted on the yellow silk looking like a sad send off.
Hilo Tamarand fidgeted in her golden armor, scratched under the gorget absently with the edge of her dagger. From their vantage point they all looked down into the darker rift at the bottom of the gorge as a black shape armored in steel was beginning to rise. Before it the terrible corrupt army was starting to claw upwards.
“So optimistic.” She said dryly.
Boursen Ran tossed his head, the sharpened silver tips of his antlers glinting. “Not optimism.” He said. “No time for that and no time for thought.”
On his left the Upsheer, Yamhill took to the sky with a flap and screech, summoning the rest of his bird men to the first assault. On his right he saw old Vespertine test her grip on her great sword. Ahmia raised up her fist and from the high granite outcropping he knew without looking hundreds of arrows were knocked and held. The Coustlet twins, Zouk and Veeta licked their teeth and crouched. The gibbering roar from below grew louder.
Boursen Ran glanced over at Hilo as the terrible noise crested. He took the time to give her a wide white grin before raising his heavy short sword. “Only time for a slaughter.”
He didn’t think when he charged forward. He didn’t think when he cleaved through the bodies of open mouthed slakers or when one of the towering monsters knocked away his sword. He also didn’t think when he headbutted the beast in the stomach, felt one of his antlers snap and give way or when he felt the thing claw his stomach to ribbons.
Now laying on his back in the mud, twisted and crumpled next to the huge body of a Coustlet oily slick and stinking with Boneblack corruption with his guts spilling from the hole in his middle Bousen Ran had nothing but time to think.
He thought of the Hanging City. The daughter he had fawned with a textile trader who wasn’t interested in a Setmate but had wanted a child. He thought about the way the sun looked when it slanted through the kitchen window that faced out onto the open air of Durthan Rift as he wrapped gold wire around his daughter’s budding horns.
He thought about what her mother had said.
“It’s so far away though. You don’t actually think there is anything to worry about do you?”
For his entire adult life Bousen Ran carried a sword to guard the Hanging City. He kept the Traders from Benga Loa and Sekmets Climb in line, forged outside of it when need be to protect the seat of Eidlemark culture and prosperity. When the rumors came from the west that some unheard of threat was crawling it’s way up from the buried kingdoms he listened, even when the Set Council did not.
Boursen Ran saw the shape death in the corner of his eye grow closer.
“I don’t know. I hope not.” He had told the mother of his fawn. “I just want to be sure. It’s close enough to the city to make me concerned.” He kissed his daughter between her horns and bounced her on his strong red furred knee. “I’ll be away for a while in any case.”
“Ah? So you’ll be back then?”
“The Hanging City is my home. If I don’t return…” He handed the little girl back to her mother. “If I don’t return you know something is wrong.”
It had been three years.
Boursen Ran coughed and gagged on his own blood. He hoped the mother of his child had taken him at his word.
From somewhere over his head he heard a clacking noise. The sky tongue of the Upsheer. He had never really gotten the hang of it. A long orange beak dipped into his dim field of vision, one golden eye fixed on his midsection in consternation.
“Hello, beaky.” He said weakly.
The Upsheer made a concerned noise and dipped her white wing in front to his face so he could see the red paint across the feathers. One of the healers. The Upsheer began pulling dried moss from the pouches tied around her long legs. He gurgled a wet laugh when she tucked it into the gashes in his flesh.
“Leave it, beaky. It’s done.”
The Upsheer trilled, a high distressed noise. A young noise from someone who hadn’t yet seen so much dying.
Bousen Ran thought about the arboretum’s planted into the cliffs, the swinging rope bridges, his first boyhood fight where he had broken a Set Brothers nose. The scolding he had gotten afterwards. Unflitered sunlight. The rooms he had in the center of the city. Most Eidlemark lived in the cliffside dwellings but Boursen Ran had liked the constant breeze.
He thought about his strange unwanted companions and hoped some of them had lived. Verpertine, Hilo, Yamhill, the twins. The sounds of fighting had dulled. Maybe it was just because his heart was so slow and loud though, maybe he imagined that.
He tried to tell the Upsheer still peering down at him, Stay with me for just a little while. It’s not going to be long now and I’m far from home and I’m afraid… But all that came out was another gurgle of blood.
“Pl-” Boursen Ran’s fingers twitched.
The shape of death became clearer as the Upsheer laid her warm, long neck across his throat to try to still his shuddering and Bousen Ran thought of how his daughters horns would look fully grown and wrapped with gold and gems. He thought of the swaying tenements in the Foreigners Quarter, the bouquets in the springtime market, drinking during new moon fairs and the last warning he gave the mother of his child.