Book in a Blog: Mandestroy 6

Where are we?

Well we’re one week behind schedule – that’s where we are.  I blame it on a web-based technical fault, but actually it was a bit of a blessing.  I was a bit behind on my final edit anyway!

Now in the novella, Kantal has found himself joining the army, which really makes absolute sense for someone with his aggressive abilities.  In fact, why didn’t he follow that path earlier?  But the problem with the army is that he is bottom of the pile and expected to obey orders, where he’s come from a world where he’s bottom of the pile and ignored.  This could be a challenge for our hard-headed hero.

But he also has an objective and a purpose – to defeat the Mandahoi.  It has always been his purpose if truth be told, but only now is he committed to that path.  And the Prince is pushing him along too!  Where will this get him?  Well, we saw a glimpse of the moment in the prologue.  It’s time to get the whole story.


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Kantal_Interview

5. The Then | 12yrs ago

Here was not where he expected ‘where’ to be.  The breath caught in his throat, and he didn’t think he’d ever been so nervous.  Or was it excitement?

It was certainly madness.

A plain old street, oddly familiar, though not forged of pleasant memories.  Citizens bustled past him, not noticing him; ignoring him.  Nothing seemed to change, but he had – he was sure of it.  It was a warm afternoon, the late season, and there was to be one final push.  But before that push, he needed to be here.  At least, that’s what the Prince decreed.  Kantal wasn’t so sure.

The building looked noticeably finer than the last time he was here, three years prior.  They had spent the earnings well, and a congregation of military folk evidenced the flourishing business.  He spotted familiar faces in amongst the punters, and a jet of cold went through him.  He quite literally had no idea how this would pan out.

“Joss!”

He turned to the screech, and found his mother near-hanging from an open ground floor window.  Her lined old face was edged with a combination of joy and fear, and it occurred to Kantal that he knew so little of her that he couldn’t place the basis for either emotion.  He reached out his right hand and brushed her outstretched palm, his nerves tingling to the touch.  She smiled.  He was her little girl, and he was back.  He wanted to be angry, but he couldn’t.  He may have even missed her.

“Little Jossie.  You’re back.”

“Brother?”

It was his waste of a fourth brother, Brin, looking as meaningless as he ever did.  He was still bigger than Kantal, but he had never been stronger.  Not since the days of the violation.  Kantal released his mother’s hand, and with a whinny of apparent delight she proceeded to gallop through the smithy.  As Kantal walked past his bully of a brother, he realised he could not even dignify the wastage with a glare; Kantal had grown beyond the bully.  Even his coiled anger, which he was mastering to greater effect with each passing day, did little more than simmer.  That was how irrelevant Brin was; because it was not Brin that he needed to be scared of.

You couldn’t beat a Mandahoi, but Kantal was going to try.

“What clothes is them?  You pretending to be a soldier now?”  It appeared that Brin’s language lessons had not been high yielding.

“Joss – you really shouldn’t be here.  Father’ll go mad.”

Kantal’s head snapped to brother two: the rational column.  His air of confidence suggested that he had now adopted his rightful place as the head of the smithy, usurping the older but less useful brother.  That brought a smile to Kantal’s – to little Jossie’s – face.  He turned to his brother and smiled.

But he wasn’t smiling inside.  He had to ball his fists to stop them from shaking.  The shadow of his father was looming.

“Father will understand.”

“UNDERSTAND WHAT?”

And there he was; the huge frame of his parent.  His fear.  His father stayed within the bounds of the smithy, and the shadow hid his features, but it was clear that joy was absent.  Kantal’s mother hung at his left, pleading for mercy – which was strangely satisfying.  In one corner of his mind, he had never felt so wanted, and in the other, he knew he was loathed.  He gulped.

And standing at the father’s right-hand was brother one; the failing brother.  He wore that same sultry face, but this time it was not baked with mischief.  No; Kantal was the mischief maker this day.

“What do you want, little Jossie.”

His father was trying to sound patronising, and it worked.  Kantal rubbed at a rib, and suddenly he recalled where that ache had come from – his father had given it to him during their mighty scrap.  Not that the ache had over-bothered him, but that was an important day because Kantal had won.  Here was his chance to force the victory.

“I am in the army now, father.  I am of the Royal Guard.”

A hand was waved dismissively in Kantal’s direction.  “The Royal Guard is full of crooks.  No wonder they took you in.”

There was audible disbelief on a number of the loitering clients, and one man even huffed and strolled off.  His father must have really wanted to dig if he was willing to lose business over the insult.

“And soon to be journeying to the borders.  To the Mandari borders.”

His father gulped, his apple highlighted by the sinking sun.  Did that suggest a touch of something softer perhaps?

“Then death awaits you.  The deserved fate of a crook.”

His mother whimpered and he may have actually been starting to relish her affection.  How had he never seen this before?  Most likely because it had never been there before.  Maturity did wonderful things to a man, and he was only just maturing.  Brin shifted at his side – he would never mature.

“I am no crook.”  Of course, that wasn’t entirely true.  He was absolutely a crook – just ask the baker.  But he hadn’t been a crook until his brothers had set him up and chased him from the smithy.  His father’s eyes shifted in the shadows.

“You were going to leave with my property.  That is theft.”

He didn’t really want to argue about this – that wasn’t why he was here – but he felt that one effort to pave the truth was worthwhile.

“If I had been looking to steal your property, I would have been gone before the sun was up.  I would have succeeded, father.”

His right fist clenched and Kantal could feel the perspiration on his forehead coalesce.  Rarely did he get so tense these days.

“Are you trying to blame―”

“I am not trying to blame anyone.  I was merely attempting to offer the truth.  But if the only way down that path is via the hater’s embrace, then I will forego the pleasantries.  Let’s get down to business.”

Confusion reigned, which was a much more comfortable condition than the threatening air.

“What business?”

And this was why he needed his father; because he was a fabulous blacksmith.

“I need you to make me a sword.  I need you to make me a Mandari forged blade.”

Silence prevailed; the hushed chatter of the punters and general din of the city being overwhelmed by disbelief.  But between Kantal and his father there was only acute tension.  It lasted, elongating with each heartbeat; every moment heavier than the last.  Kantal raised his left hand, a heavy velvet purse gripped within it.  The Prince’s money, all the Prince’s money, and Kantal could see his father’s eyes switch.  The pressure went up a notch, before it broke.  And oh how it broke.

He had never heard his father like that before.  Laughter had not been a big part of his life.

“You want me to make you a sword?  After what you did to me?  You are mad, son.”

Had he ever been called son before?  Yes, in those days of perfection, but it had never burrowed like it did in that moment.  It was sour.

“I have coin.”  He shook the purse, and the gold inside clinked.  But his father was immovable.

“Coin is of no use if you don’t have my respect.  I will not help you.”

Kantal’s shadow shifted as he rocked from side to side, and his eyes dropped.  How could he have been so stupid?  Some grudges ran too deep, and an arrowed peek to brother one earned that same self-satisfied smile – he had been beaten three years ago, and he could not turn the tide today.

But then the smile went, and Kantal’s shadow did something else.  It morphed and warped, and stretched to the side; breaking.  And then there were two, and Kantal’s shadow spoke.

And he knew he had won.

“Master Kantal senior, how pleasant to see you again.  After your previous fine work, I would dearly like to commission you for a piece of similar quality for my squire here.”  The Prince edged the sabre from its house, and Kantal recognised a bright flash of a smile.  “You would not deny a Prince, would you?”

His mother curtsied and ejected a little yelp of joy.

Brin’s jaw dropped, and he melted into kneeling submission.

Brother one ducked back into the darkness, and hid himself as he knelt.

The entire population of the street stood dumbstruck.

And his father softened.  Oh how he softened.

“Of course, Prince.  I would be delighted to accept your commission.”

The Prince took the coin from Kantal’s hand and threw it over.  “This needs to be extra special.  I want a double edged straight blade; an infantry blade.  But it needs to be light as the wind, and strong as the Mandari resistance.  And I need it forged in five days.”

His father looked flustered.

“My Prince, where in l’Unna would I get that much Mandari steel?”

“Already sorted,” and with an extension of his hand, a cart trundled into view.  Only then did Kantal allow himself a smile.

“Come.  We have preparations to make.  We are going to war.”

Suddenly those sunny days with his father melted into the meaningless.  This was what it was to be happy.  Of course, he was still not entirely sure why the Prince was supporting him, but he would not dwell on that now.

As they walked from the smithy, the Prince enquired.

“Why were they calling you Jossie?”

Bugger.  “Because that is my name.  My mother wanted a daughter.”

He didn’t know what to expect; mocking laughter perhaps?

“Well it isn’t any more.  I think our fates are entwined, young Kantal, and I think that we should recognise that shared direction.  From now on you shall be Adnan ap Kantal.  We are brothers in arms, and brothers in name.”

Kantal’s breath caught.  If he had wondered before, then now he was certain.  Their fates were entwined, and it was all because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.  But Kantal was willing to try.

He gulped.  What had he done?


So; this was war.  What an absolute bastard.  As Kantal stared at the mess before him, he enjoyed a moment of reflection.  Ahan really was a fortress.

Before him was the ‘Main Gate’ – the ever violent Valley of Aperta.  It was a natural gash forged through the encircling mountain ranges of the Encolae and the Beha Lomal, and despite the rapidly flowing Maremante which called the valley home, this was the only open gate; it was the easy option.

The scene before him contradicted this idea; it was still hell on l’Unna.

The king had invested in a group of Southern entrepreneurs who’d appeared in Triosec with the most fabulous contraption ever seen.  It was fuelled by black magic, and the great metal throat would spew cast iron at a terrible velocity.  The thing coughed almighty plumes of sulphured smoke, a grey mist which hung about after the immediate event, and when the weapons had left a modest wall severely damaged, the king was quick to buy-in.  He pledged a hefty reward for the effective neutralisation of the Mandari resistance.  The Southerners – with their rich golden skin, piercings, and strange blue markings over their near naked bodies – hungrily accepted the generous offer, and so war was planned.

And the king, with a clear sub-text of retreat in mind, had invited his son along.  His blessed son who would reign one day; what a fabulous day to offer him first combat.  And because the Prince was here, so was Kantal.

And so was his Mandari forged broadsword.  He eyed it hungrily.

“What do you see, Kantal?”

Not a bloody lot was the answer.  The small pack of cannon had been hauled into place, and the king’s ‘light’ force – although Kantal baulked at the numbers – pulled up behind.  The cannon were allowed to spew hell once, twice, three times, and only after this third barrage did the king begin to believe.  He ordered a squadron of cavalry to advance into the mist; it was all Kantal could see.

“A grey canvas.”

“What are you?  An artist?”

Does an artist carry a weapon like this?  Yes.

He turned the blade over, marvelling at the incredible patterns along its length.  The sabre he had helped forge was a narrow weapon, single-edged, and as such, the heavenly patterns from the Mandari techniques were only visible on close inspection.  With this beautiful weapon, the artistry was not so subtle.  It burned with the reflection of the light – any light – enriching the flat of the blade with the delicate weave of her forging.  He watched the patterns swirl once more as he rotated the weapon onto its vertex.  And he smiled.

“Kantal – I fear you may have fallen in love.”

The Prince’s amusement was plain, and Kantal was suddenly defensive.  “I have never loved.”  Sadly, that was true.

“Well, it appears that you have now.”  Kantal ignored the taunts of his superior and continued to rotate the weapon.  His Prince continued, “she is a really fine blade.  Your father is an excellent blacksmith.”

“And I will do the piece justice.”

The Prince’s easy look hardened instantly.  “That is unlikely, I fear.  I’m afraid retreat is the clear order of the day.”

Kantal nodded reluctantly, but added his own perspective.  “Of course, retreat is not a straight-forward affair.”

“You will not be rash with your life, Kantal.  I rather like to think that you are quite useful, and it would be a shame to lose you to arrogance.  You do understand me, don’t you?”  His face was serious, but there was also the subtlest shade of suggestion – an unspoken understanding between the two men.  At least, that’s what Kantal saw.

“Of course, my Prince.  I will not take undue risk.”  Kantal may have smiled then, but he quickly smothered that smirk.  But the Prince saw it, shrewd as he was.

“And that sword is not insurance.”

Wasn’t that the truth – there was no insurance against a Mandahoi.  But Kantal suspected that although this truth was the commonly occurring reality, there must always be anomalies.  And for whatever reason, he knew that he was an anomaly.  As he thumbed the pommel of his great-sword, that sense flourished inside him.  His Prince moved the conversation.

“The cavalry have made good progress.  Perhaps these cannons really are the answer.”

Perhaps – though it seemed unlikely.  The scene before them was matt grey, a deep fog of deception made by the Southerners’ magic.  Two hundred mounted horse were making their way gingerly into that oblivion, and the King’s spirits were so buoyed that he even ordered a thousand infantry to advance.  Kantal and the Prince watched as the mass of men swarmed around them and into the fog, and when the rearmost infantry were barely visible, Kantal may have also been about to believe.  His breath caught.

The Mandari were battered; the gate was open; and the Mandahoi were toothless.  Victory was possible and victory was near, but something subtle caught in the back of Kantal’s throat – something almost disappointing.  He thumbed his sword.  Oh how he longed to use her.

But you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.

The whistling caught the very edge of his hearing, and for the briefest moment he ignored it.  But then it triggered as unnatural, and his naturally inquisitive mind set to working it out.  Perhaps it was some sort of military instrument; a reed flute to direct the Mandari.  But he would have heard of such a piece.  It was only when the steel started to burst from the lingering cloak that he married his understanding with what he was seeing.  This was the bite of the enemy; archery on a scale unprecedented.  If hell hath a fury, then this was it.

The first arrow hit the ground with a brutal thwack, and it blew away all of Kantal’s prior misconceptions.  His only experience of the drawn projectile had been in the Fields.  The act looked impressive – the quivering tail of the stubby arrow protruding from the heart of the target – but he now saw that village trick for what it was; novelty.  This was projectile death, a masterful demonstration of archer authority, and it was so overwhelming that Kantal almost forgot about his sword.

Almost.

The missile that struck just paces ahead of him was almost three quarters the length of a man, and its shaft was as thick as Kantal’s wrists.  It didn’t quiver spectacularly like the pathetic arrows in the Fields; instead it burrowed into the ground with a mole-like hunger.  The ground rebelled at the intrusion, objecting at the penetrating action, and Kantal dropped instinctively into a squat.  His breath caught.

He asked the obvious question.  “The cannons are not the answer, are they?”

The Prince looked down at him from his confident place on his horse, but no answer was forthcoming.  At least no answer came before the screams went up.

“No, they are not.”

The Delfinian force had been consumed by the cannon fog, and the bite of the Mandari was upon them.

And Kantal felt cheated.

‘You couldn’t beat a Mandahoi’ – that is what they said.  But on the evidence of this, you didn’t need to.  The archers would do the Mandari’s work for them.

In mere heartbeats the crazed remnants of a cavalry advance burst through the fog, most beasts lacking their rider.  But the beasts were few in number, if truth be told, because the flank of a horse was a comically easy target for an archer.  And what made the Mandari archers unique was their ability to fire long, fire hard, and fire frequently.  The field-archers were freaks: unnaturally strong; unwaveringly persistent; and where a swarm of crossbows could offer up a drizzle of death, the relentless work of the archers brought a storm.  The cavalry never stood a chance.

And even tightly packed infantry was next to useless against this barrage.  The Delfinian advance was quickly turned to a reverse, and hundreds of veteran soldiers fled with blind terror on their faces.  And frustration too; many of them had been here before.

And all the while, the rhythmic thud of the arrows struck home with devastating regularity.

“We should leave.  This is no place for us.”

Kantal rose, tightening and loosing his grip on the great-sword.  As he stared into the mist, he knew that his future was coming; yet it wasn’t coming fast enough.  But he couldn’t refuse the word of his master, and there would be a next time.  There would have to be.

And there would be.  You couldn’t beat a Mandahoi, but you could keep on trying.

He turned to face the Prince as infantry swarmed past, offering a collective squeal of warning.  His master offered an almost apologetic smile, but it was still a smile.  This man seemed to know Kantal better than anyone.  That probably made him lucky.

“Yes, let’s―”

It was just a spearing blur, but then it was chaos.  All-consuming chaos.  Men were dying around him, their screams blending with the horrifying patter of the onslaught.  But it was the scream of the mare that was most startling, and as the Prince’s horse reared up, Kantal knew that his master was in trouble.  A black stab was burrowing its way into the flank of the white mount, and the poor beast shrieked in agony as it slumped to the ground; defeated.

The Prince was shocked by the turn of events; but only for a moment.  He cried in his own pain, scorched as he was by the trapped limb beneath the horse’s bulk.  Kantal rushed forward, and he gripped his sword tighter.  He might be needing it after all.

He smiled, but only for a mad heartbeat.

“My Prince.”  A quick test told him that there was no dragging the man free; at least not quickly.  Pockets of fleeing infantry streaked past, and part of Kantal wanted to cry out; but another part overruled.  The Prince was wide-eyed, but there was something else there too.  When the heir of Delfinia spoke, Kantal knew he meant otherwise – or perhaps he was warping the words to his own intentions?

“Flee Kantal, flee.  They are coming.”

Yes, indeed they were.  He grinned, and then he turned to face his destiny.  The anger inside him swelled, and he allowed it to flourish.  He would be needing that.


This was what he’d always been meant for; but he’d only known that for certain recently.  He was an anomaly, and he was here to fight the odds.  Death was a certainty, but the timing of death wasn’t.  That was what he could change.  He would control the date of his death; or at the very least, bring forward that of another’s.  He faced the Grey and he thought of victory.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi, until you believed.  And Kantal now believed.  His moment was here.

Arrows still punctured the fog, but Kantal ignored the interruption.  This was between him and the Grey; nothing else would get in the way.  The battle was lost – it always was against the Mandari – but Kantal would have his victory.  His moment of notoriety.  He looked on with manic intent edging his gaze, and he snarled.  The anger of a life long suffered balled in his stomach, and he soothed it there.  He would be needing that.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi, unless you had the will.  And Kantal’s will was more than that; it was obsession.

Flight was the other option of course, but what option was that?  Flight only brought more of the same – an existence of scrabbling indifference; a life of squalid nothingness.  And he was here to protect the Prince, so what sort of fulfilment would flight represent.  No, to run was to embrace his past, and he was not prepared to do that.  He had always eyed the future because of what it offered.  It offered hope, and that could drive a man to greatness.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without it.

He was calm on the outside – what good has ever come from flustering hands?  But within the pit of his stomach, his anger coursed.  It was controlled – pliant and extractable – but it was definitely there, fuelling the determination that drove Kantal on.  It was the engine behind his abilities, and it was well oiled today.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi unless you had the tools.  And Kantal now had the tools.  They were intended for nothing else.

He gazed upon his great-sword, knuckles white with his affection for her.  And damn she was a great sword.  He gazed upon her, marvelling at the glorious multi-coloured smirk of the weapon; marvelling at the waves of her construction.  She was a beautiful thing, made by the hands of his hateful father, and she was a clone of her enemy’s weaponry; maybe even better.  Born of Mandari steel to best the Mandari – a true cannibal in the making.

After all, you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without harnessing their world.  And Kantal had immersed himself in it.

Time ticked abrasively on, and as he lusted after the moment of his becoming, he grew agitated with the wait.  What had brought him here?  What had led him to the brink of madness?  A great woman had once said that ‘anything could be solved by curiosity’, and this is the culmination of that philosophy.  Here; on this field; facing death.  It didn’t bear thinking about, but then the best things in life were rarely understood.  Instinct was the only true guide.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without curiosity, and Kantal had questioned all his life.

But his Prince had brought him here too, and for that he had to be grateful.  He looked to his superior and tried to break down the mixed image of his emotions.  “Get out of here you fool!”  The mouth may speak those words, but as Kantal cocked his head, he saw through that external barrier of concern.  The Prince knew exactly why he’d come here, and at the core of the gaze there was only encouragement.  Without Kantal’s intervention the Prince was doomed, and that was really all that mattered.  Kantal smiled sickeningly.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without a purpose, and Kantal now had that purpose in abundance.  His master had given it to him.

He turned back to his destiny, and sought the comfort that he would take into battle.  Every second spent training and practising span through his mind, and he could feel his muscles twitching instinctively.  He could feel the flow of the fight already, and though knew it would be tough, he thought that he could feel the way.  There had to be a way – had to be – and if it was there he would find it.  The battle was lost and the Grey would be scouring the field of the detritus.  And here was Kantal, waiting to shred the cloth.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without the element of surprise, and standing firm was the best surprise one could summon.

Two desperate allies burst from the vapid blanket – pursuing the logical course.  Kantal ignored them even despite their desperate warnings, and he only vaguely recognised one of the two being dropped by a burrowing arrow.  There was nothing he could do for them – they would distract his focus.  He was here for a greater purpose, and he had to stay on course.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without a singular determination; and Kantal had only one purpose.

And they were coming.  The shadow in the fog was deepening; the form of the Grey Plague approaching fullness.  The last fleeing ally screamed past, but nothing would detract Kantal now; he was approaching the moment.  His moment.  He ground his shoulders as he rotated them, loosening himself to the flow of his anger.  Death was here; the stuff of nightmares; the eternal rot; only this time the timing of death was not certain.

The Mandahoi were upon him, but he was the anomaly.  The world changed here.

It burst from the eddies of fog, and for just the briefest moment, the Plague seemed mortal.  Grey clothed; bare arms; a hood.  You could not trust a man in a hood, and Kantal gritted his teeth in response.  Confidence oozed from the approaching man, but he was a man nonetheless; a man with a mastery in killing.  But Kantal too was a master, and he saluted his enemy with a dip of his great-sword.  It was almost time.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi without the Father on your side.  And despite the animosity, Kantal’s father had made his blade.

But then the odds grew longer.  Two further Mandahoi melted into existence and stalked forward; equal purpose in their form.  The first was almost upon him, eager to be acquainted with Kantal, and the first tremor of nerves fluttered in his gut.  But Kantal did not falter.  The infusion of his body was complete; the chaos was consumed; and his purpose was set.  All his life had been moving to this moment, and now it was here.  Now it was here.  He smiled at death herself.

And then he recalled the words: even you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.  Here, now, he was chasing the impossible goal.  But what if it was just that; impossible.  He had never considered failure before, but here, as the steel dance started, it burst into his head.  That was the problem with uncertainty – only the Father had the answers.  Kantal looked to the sky, desperate to see the god in attendance, but there was nothing to the sky but the bank of fog.  If he was going to do this, then he was going to do this alone.

After all, it had always been his way.


His hand clawed at the dry earth, the tips of his fingers stinging where he’d scraped them raw.  That was the least of his problems.  The spearing sensation would just not abate.  It turned out that steel in the gut was just as painful as it looked.

“Arrgh!”  His back arced as the punishment flooded his senses.  Punishment because he’d faced the ridiculous, and this was the price.  A part of him thought he was foolish, but another part soothed that concern away.  It had been the only thing to do.

The shooting agony eased, and his body flopped gratefully in response.  He opened his barely functioning eyes, noting the sight before him – his goal.  Salvation perhaps.  His Prince was still alive, still trapped beneath his dying mare, but the tide had now turned.  His master was the strength, and he was the weakness.  He was dragging himself towards a meagre sanctuary; he was dragging himself to his…

Could he call him a friend?  Certainly not – that was too far – but he was dragging himself to the only place he now knew.  He needed help, desperate help, and the Prince seemed to have been there recently.  Only here and now, they were alone.  So utterly alone.  What could the Prince realistically do?

The taste like rust in his mouth made him retch, and as his wounded stomach scraped across the parched earth, he all but vomited.  It took an almighty effort to stop himself – a strength of will that he barely had left in him.  His jerking motion dislodged something from the crease about his tongue, and as he shifted it around his stained mouth, he thought it could be only one thing; flesh.  They didn’t tell you about that in the books.

The Prince looked sadly at him, sorrow in those eyes even despite the Prince’s own predicament  But Kantal was now the weakness, and the Prince was his hope.  The flesh in his mouth forced a heave once more, and he ejected the offending item involuntarily: and a tooth went with it.  He checked with his tongue and confirmed.  The second upper right incisor was gone.

And he’d always been so proud of his fine teeth.

His head left him for a moment, a symbolic grey haze shrouding his senses, and when it cleared, he was face first in the dirt.  His tongue was in contact with the ground, and the grainy taste of the world was upon him.  It mingled with the residual flesh and blood to leave a horrifying taste – but there was precious little he could do about that.  He clawed with his right hand and felt a nail bend back on itself.  That pain barely registered.

“Kantal!”

His Prince!  Of course, yes of course.  He was returning to his senior.  As he lifted his head, it was like leveraging the world itself.  When he finally managed to centre the trapped man in his sights, the vision swayed from side to side.  He couldn’t keep his damned head still.  The man was so close now, but the voice still seemed distant; like the cry was from another time and place.  Kantal shook his head, but that was not a good idea.  The dizziness was overwhelming, and he conceded once more.  When he next opened his eyes, he could taste the stomach acids mingling with the other horrors in his mouth.  Would that ever wash out?

But no!  He had come this far.  He was still alive, and that was something.  A lot really.  He remembered that he had legs, and with every effort, he forced himself onto all fours.  The feeling of air on the deep slash to his stomach was like molten steel – but euphoric at the same time.  His head left him again, but he retained his knees, and was soon able to force forward movement.  It was slow progress.

By the time he reached his Prince, it was almost as if the sun had departed.  But that was clearly an illusion – a consequence of the cannon wastage.  In this veil, the sun may as well never have come up.  Time had no meaning in this nightmare.  And it was a nightmare.

“Kantal.”  The Prince broke into a deep cough – one of those that sounds like the very lung will pop out.  Too much smoke perhaps?  Then why was Kantal not coughing?  He thought too soon, and when it did come, it was like he’d reached down his throat and was throttling his guts.  The back of his acid stained throat tickled, and he dreaded the next incidence.  Best to sleep perhaps?  He closed his eyes.

“No, you must not!  We must get help.”

What help?  He obeyed – of course he did – and managed a laugh; an actual chuckle.  The battlefield was empty but for their near corpses.  Delfinia must surely have departed, and they would be left to rot in the eternal graveyard that was the Central Gate.  They were doomed, and no amount of royal optimism would change that.

But this was no bad thing.  He would die trying; a purpose to his act.  That was more than he could have ever asked.  He feared that his Prince would not share his sense of satisfaction.

“Thank you, sir.”  To speak was to drain what little reserves he had.  His head crashed back to the dry ground, and he could feel himself slipping.  His eyes were heavy.  So heavy.

“No Kantal; open your eyes!  That is an order.”

It was futile, but he obeyed.  He was conditioned.  The Prince’s face was vibrating, juddering from side to side – it made him feel sick to be honest.  And yet he didn’t think he had any sick left in him.

The juddering turned gradually into a shudder.

And the shudder turned into a tremor.

And then the tremor consumed his tired thoughts, and his eyes opened to investigate.  The Prince smiled knowingly, and he knew he was a fool.

They were being rescued.

The heir actually managed a smile, though it was heavily filtered.  He looked at Kantal with sadness in his features.

“I have never seen you like that before.”

Wasn’t that the truth?  It was not a sustainable state.  He managed to forge words through his swollen lips.

“I was saving it.”  The ‘s’ came out as a whistle where his tooth was missing, and he scowled at himself.  How would he afford to get that replaced?  Perhaps he wouldn’t need to.  He may well still die.

Because you couldn’t beat a Mandahoi.  There was always a price.

The Prince locked him with a gaze and echoed his thoughts.  “You can’t beat a Mandahoi, Kantal.”

A pulse of energy raced through him, and he may have actually curled his lips into a smile.  Was that pride?  How would he know?  His Prince continued.

“But you, sir, can beat three.”

He managed to turn his head to the haze, to the battlefield behind him.  There, from where he had hauled his devastated body, lay a pile of grey.  And spearing the tower of corpses was one hell of a blade.  His blade.  The bastards had near killed him, but he had had the last.  He had proven his point, and he had saved his Prince.

The sight of the blade caught him, and he knew then that it was pride.  She looked good there, speared through the bodies of her victims, but she would be better by his side.

“You won’t let them leave…”

His voice trailed off as a screaming darkness consumed.  As he slipped into the protective ignorance, he thought he saw the prince nod in understanding.  By Ero, he hoped he did.

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