Dess (hates when you call her that) was inspired by the strong and fierce and badass women who've crossed my path and taught me life and put me in my place!
I know hopping into the midst of a story leaves questions unanswered so here's a quick cheat sheet for the sake of this scene:
"Good guys"- Irdessa the Undying, Torvald the Tactician, Bravensi the Batshit, Old Fent, Treyu, Kraus the Thirsty Bandit, Vim's Vanguard!
"Bad guys" - Captain's Second Mourt, an entire battalion of Promontory soldiers!
Fohrvylda - the country
Promontory - the capital
Vim - the city under attack
Keswal - the arena
Orcanes - swimmy, bloodthirsty dogs that Promontory uses as mounts
Sprakes - large, intelligent, blue seabirds
“What do you mean, they’ve come for the Vanguard?” Old Fent sounds even older, more tired.
“Look!” someone cries.
An orcane rider has breached the town square and lurks in his saddle, watching them silently. Captain’s Second Mourt. Just seeing his sunken eyes chills Irdessa’s blood. Rumors of his depravity, even if only partly true, paint a picture of a human she’d rather not know. The thunder of marching boots follows him, filling the square.
“Wha’s his name?” Kraus’ words are barely intelligible. “Prancer? Whatever happened…” He wobbles and pitches forward. Irdessa grasps at him. She manages to slow his descent enough to keep his face from slamming into the cobbles but can't prevent him from spilling into a sodden heap. Her hands come back slick and red.
“He’s going to bleed out,” Bravensi reports without a hint of concern. “As are all of us.”
“Get him inside!” Irdessa shouts at a couple of mercenaries gawping toward the black-clad Second Mourt. “He needs to be stitched up. Bravensi…”
The warrior is shaking her head gravely. “You have got to be kidding.”
“I need him. Please.”
“Not sure what good it’ll do if Promontory’s going to kill us all.” She scowls but follows the boys hauling Kraus into Cornerstone.
“Fent,” Irdessa says. “The armory seems to have been gutted to make room for whore dress-up parties. Please tell me there are weapons inside.”
Fent pulls his one-eyed gaze from the south and fixes Irdessa with it. “Enough to turn them back?” He shakes his head. “Not enough able bodies even if we had ‘em. That’s a battalion, girl. They outnumber us tenfold.”
“Just show me where the weapons are!” she says. “And I need all of you inside, now!”
Those of the surrounding mercenaries who don’t give her a confused look ignore her outright.
Fent sputters a laugh. “Irdessa, this town’s been damned since Andelsior was taken. Seems the piper’s arrived at last.”
The streets are emptying of stragglers, leaving only the sounds of marching boots and squealing orcanes. Mourt is hunched in his saddle, leaning to one side, peering out from under his hanging brow at Irdessa with dark amusement.
“Why?” Treyu asks, his stare on Mourt. “Why are they doing this?”
Old Fent tsks, shaking his head. “Was only a matter of time.”
“Who’s in command here?” Irdessa blurts.
“That’ll be me, I imagine,” Fent says, shifting his weight from one hip to the other.
It only makes sense. Fent worked alongside Dhovoi in the old days. He probably should have been calling the shots already. Then again, despite all his pragmatism, he’s bent with age, one-eyed, and nearly toothless.
“What will you do?” Irdessa demands.
Fent turns to her with all the urgency of a mortician. “Was strongly considering tucking my head between my knees and kissing my ass goodbye.”
Treyu’s chest is heaving. “Dammit, Dhovoi,” he mutters to no one. Irdessa knows his tone all too well. Grief. And once you open your door to it…
“We can’t just give up!” Irdessa shouts at them both.
“Then what?” Fent spits. “If what you say is true, if they’re here to crush the Vanguard, then they won’t stop til it’s done. Especially not with that evil bastard Mourt at the lead.” Fent pauses long enough to spit noisily in the man’s direction. “And even if we can hold them off from within Cornerstone, who’s to say more aren’t coming? Who’s to say they’re not already on the way?” He rasps out a cruel laugh. “I knew this day would come. Best we can do is try and tear the wolf’s throat while it swallows us.”
Irdessa is speechless. She can’t believe what she’s hearing. But even more than that, she can’t believe none of the Vanguard is contesting Old Fent’s words. Were they always this flaccid?
Fear will kill you surely as a knife, Torvald whispers to Irdessa. Except once inside your skin, it won’t stop at just you.
Fent is right. That force will run through the Vanguard. And in the event of a standoff, here in the heart of Vim, the soldiers need only set a spark to the Vanguard’s tinderbox of a stronghold.
What would Torvald do? is what her mind asks her. He’d let everyone die, to save one.
For some reason, the little girl who approached Irdessa at the pit comes to her mind. She’d recognized Irdessa, even if Irdessa did not recognize her, and said, “I knew you’d come back.” That girl… she may be dead now, for all Irdessa knows.
“No!” Irdessa doesn’t realize she’s yelled it until she finds herself under the stare of all the mercenaries. “I did not fall from Keswal and slog clear across Fohrvylda to watch my people die by the same hands that imprisoned me!” She points at Mourt. “The same ones that killed my father!”
Her words tear across the square like loose sprakes, snuffing out the Vanguard’s mutterings the way a heavy door silences a storm.
“I am Irdessa! Born into the raids of the Vanguard, bathed in the blood of Keswal. Sharpened in the school of the Tactician himself! And I did not come back here to die!”
By the gods, she’s ignited a glimmer of optimism in some of their faces.
“But we’re outnumbered!” comes a protest.
“We are outnumbered!” she responds. “And I’ve watched less men than you hold off greater forces, in raw daylight, without the shelter of the Cornerstone, our home!” Not entirely true but they don't know that.
“They have orcanes,” someone yells.
“But do they have termites?” she yells back. “Orcanes can’t get at us once we bar the doors! We’ll fill their slippery backs with arrows until they turn savage against their riders!”
Since spouting off disadvantages is so godsdamned popular, Irdessa decides to join in. “They’re also trained and equipped for war! Aren’t they?”
Those who watch her have the sense not to answer.
“I know all their tactics," she says. "All their secrets, all their weaknesses. We aren’t bound by rigid protocol. They are driven by fear of punishment. Fear of an undead, unloving, slavering barbarian on the far side of Fohrvylda. You are fighting for your fathers, your sisters, your children, your own asses!” She draws a breath as a couple of nervous titters ripple through the mercenaries. “And as long as even one of us breathes, Vim’s Vanguard still stands!”
Irdessa’s last words shake her chest and tear her throat upon their exit. Hope, that elusive devil, has infected all the eyes upon her. There’s even fire to be seen in some. Old Fent himself has straightened his back and set his jaw.
“Get your asses into Cornerstone!” Fent barks. “Bar the windows! Fill buckets with water! And round up every weapon in the place!” The mercenaries comply and Fent turns a grisled smile to Irdessa. “That was heartfelt, girl. You’ve got a bit of Torvald in you. Maybe more than a little bit.”
If that was an innuendo, Irdessa wants no part it. The speech left her drained and trembling. Her heart hammers her ribs. Torvald never looked this winded after delivering hard news to hard scowls.
Promontory soldiers have reached the square at last. There are hundreds. The frontmost begin fanning out and readying the perimeter with bows, torches, and swords, all casting wary glances in her direction. Did they hear her words?
“What now?” Fent says.
Irdessa takes Fent by his elbow and helps him up the stairs into the stronghold. She reluctantly answers his question, in a voice so small only he can hear it. “I have no idea.”