The slingers began lobbing snowballs from so far away I was amazed. Put a stone in that and they’d be deadly. The pine boughs that Gannara had gotten us, as shields, gave us a fair amount of cover but we couldn’t touch those slingers, no one had an arm strong enough and no one on our side had slings. They were using smaller pieces of bark as bucklers.
Two snowballs got through our side and true to the spirit of the game, the Mahid hit went down. They were ‘helped’ back from the line by their women, brushed the snow off themselves. I was vaguely aware that one judged the hit an injury not a kill came back, though not using that arm.
The charge under the cover of the slingers was straightforward. As straightforward as Mahid. “Hold your ammo!” I yelled. “Hold until my mark!”
I had an idea how far my troops could throw from the last skirmishes. “Pick your targets! Hold!”
I popped up onto my feet and yelled “FIRE!” Half my troops threw with their off hands, half with their good ones, just to have maximum number of missiles in the air at once, if only half were accurate... who was to know? Because we didn’t use shields for our barrage two more Mahid went down and four snowballs burst into spray through the pine branch that Gannara shoved in front of me. They were looking for me in my dark mantle, Binshala’s ruse had startled them. I ducked down again panting hard already.
I gave Gannara a quick grin and grabbed for shield and a snowball and lunged up just in time to block a shot that burst right through my shield intact and skimmed my head. I hurled back. Things slowed down beautifully and I watched with wonderful satisfaction as my snowball hurtled into and burst with a lovely ‘pumpf’ noise in the middle of Amitzas’s face.
As he came on blind, one more step, another snow splotch hit him in the centre of the chest and a third. He finally stopped and clawed snow out of his face and for a moment my heart quailed at the murder I saw there. He froze up again, sat down in the snow where he was ‘killed’. Nothing showed in his face at all but I knew I had embarrassed him. I’ve made a mistake. He might have disliked me before. Now he hates me. I turned to thank the person supporting me and my tongue froze. It was Inensa who had hit her husband with the other two snowballs, all without a single change in her face.
She bent, picked up her empty carrying shawl and retreated to get more snowballs. “Spark! Look out!” I turned just in time to see 9th Boras lunge in front of me and take both hits that would have taken me out of the game. He collapsed in front of me as I ducked down behind my shield. He gave me a quick nod as if to acknowledge he was uninjured and lay where he’d fallen, perfectly in my way. I nodded back and crabbed over to just past his feet, popped up again, this time with my shield held high, threw three more unaimed snowballs.
The nicely organized assault had dissolved into a wild melee with white missiles flying everywhere, people shouting, laughing, hurling snow, even Mahid unbent enough to make noise. Ilesias sat in the middle of the wall randomly throwing snow and snowballs, shrieking with laughter until one hit him in the middle, knocking him over onto the pile of ammunition behind him. He rolled over, considered crying, picked up more snowballs instead.
Was that... some of the women throwing snow as well? I saw a gap where my forces had been felled and the women carrying the snow had dropped their loads and started hurling snowballs in the faces of the attackers who – surprised – fell back. I heard a high voice or two in the surprising amount of noise. Are you surprised Minis? In the back of my mind I could hear Chevenga’s voice. In Yeola-e, the women can fight too. Are Arkan women that different?
Two of the women sat down decorously, their chests marked with white splotches. Killed out. Why did I feel so sick to see that? They shouldn’t have fought. They were women.
I moved again and the attackers were hunting for me as the supposed general. Since I and Inensa had taken out their general they were much more disorganized. I half ran, half crawled over to where the women were holding the wall. There were five Mahid standing, dodging the weak throws from the women but not advancing, four more coming up to support them, in a moment they’d sacrifice a man or even two and use them to spearhead an assault right over the wall.
Two of the women... I didn’t have time to discerne which ones, took up station beside me and they held shields while I threw snowballs as fast as I could. The woman on my left said ‘oh!’ in a startled voice as she was hit and had to sit down, a snowball took me in the shoulder hard enough to sting. I tucked that ‘injured’ hand in the back of my belt. I couldn’t use that arm any longer and I was stunned to see the woman pick up a snowball as well as shielding the two of us.
Two more of the attacking Mahid sat down, hit. A third held up a foot, obviously unable to walk further but still throwing. And there were still four more hale ones. We were going to be overrun in a moment.
7th Ilesias... stepped up to take the shield from the woman and cover us. “I am too ‘injured’ to throw but I am capable of holding this.” It was a gabble but I understood it, the woman and I prepared to fling what we had left at the oncoming foe. Both her hands capable, and one of mine.
The Mahid busted out of the fight sat or lay where they were, watching, and a moment later half my defenders along the wall were down. I managed to hit one more of the attackers, his flankers loomed up like walking trees coming over the wall. I fell back, hit one more in the chest. We couldn’t hold.
But a shout from the field checked them, called our attackers into retreat, leaving us in control of the fortress. The field before the wall was scattered with dark figures, lying sprawled. I half hung on the wall, clinging to the disintegrating structure, panting hard. When did I get so tired?
The bastion’s defenders straightened up behind the wall and I blocked one final snowball from a slinger, a parting shot. We were wet through, panting, exhausted – at least I was – and there was a fire in me I wasn’t used to. I was ready to fight them all, come on you sons of dogs. Then I shook myself, mentally. That was stupid, we’d held them, but so barely it wasn’t funny.
I had a sudden ugly thought that Amitzas might decide to punish me if we did not succeed. But he hadn’t said anything.
It was Ailadas who surprised me most. The staid, arthritic old man, who'd had an amazing arm in the battle and was still on the wall, unhit, raised his arm in the air and gave the faibalitz victory chant when a goal is scored. He was alone only for a second. The women who normally, decorously chanted the descant in the hall, took it up and in the wild woods, in the snow and cold and the early falling darkness it raised the hair on the back of my neck. It echoed eerily under the heavily laden pines before fading to silence.
“Interesting defense, Spark.” 2nd Amitzas was up and had all signs of snow vanished off his face and from his collar and chest. “Once you are clean and dry, I will speak to you about tactics.” As if you were a general like Dafidas. “Coronet. Felicitations on your natal day. Dismiss!” The last word was to everyone else. He turned away as everyone began to move. Ailadas, at my elbow, whispered, "Idylls to my Son," in my ear and I realized he meant to remind me of Ilesias's advice to his generals. Praise your troops. Always, always praise. I waited a moment before I slid over in the slushy, trodden down snow to my earstwhile forces.
“Thank you. You were all wonderful. It was fun, wasn’t it?” I even saw a furtive nod from a young Mahid head or two. “You all fought wonderfully! Thank you. I caught 9th Boras’s eye. He was perhaps 16 and had taken a ‘kill’ hit for me. “Thank you, Boras. You were exactly where you needed to be.” He nodded at me. He was one of the heavier, beefier Mahid, a trifle shorter than most. “7th Ilesias, you did extremely well.” He was a gracile Mahid, more like me. Very tall. Wonder of wonders he almost smiled.
“I thank the Spark,” he said quietly.
Ailadas had been helped to sit down by Gannara, next to Binshala who sat to one side, unmarked but she looked ill. Her lips were bluish. “Nurse, are you all right?”
Her breath was gasping but her words perfect. “Yes, Spark. I need but a moment.” I would have believed her if Ailadas, stiffening up as he was, hadn’t offered her his arm to rise. He’d been moving all right and now, he too was starting to hobble.
“Slave, help her, and assist my tutor with what he needs.”
I had more to do before I could find out what was going on with her. “Mirror,” I said, trying to find her in the sea of eyes in knitted hoods. There. I think. Then she actually stepped forward.
I managed to catch her before she was scurried away with all of the other women around her in a block, as if to protect her from me. She dipped a knee and I saw her gloves and sleeves were wet through. “Those were grand ideas. And you defended our wall?”
I think she blushed behind the knitted hood. “Yes, Spark.”
“Very quick thinking. We would have lost had you been too delicate to hurl snow.” I found myself grinning at her like a fool and tried to pull my face into a more pleasing neutral.
“The Spark is most gracious.” And the Mahid woman -- not Inensa, who had gone to tend to her husband’s needs the moment the exercise was over – gripped her elbow and hustled her away from me as though I were infected with spot pox and crotch rot and might infect her by breathing on her.
“Hey! Minissss!” Ilesias yelled over the shoulder of the Mahid man carrying him away from the snow fort. “Hey! NO! Want MIIIIIIINNNNIIIISSSSSS!”
“Ilesias! I’ll see you at dinner!” I turned my gaze onto the most senior of the Mahid standing around, waiting to escort me back to my nice warm dry cabin. “He WILL eat with the Mirror and I. Pass this onto the First Second.”
“This one hears.”
Thankfully when I got back to the cabin, Gannara was able to whisper to me that Binshala was all right. “Ailadas says she’s –ahem- just overwrought.” I had to giggle at his impression.