a short story
Ahlan stood frozen. For the breadth of this eternal moment she would allow her pallid eyes to be made captive to the few scarce streaks of light with puissance enough to make way to her through the dense air of dust and metal that pervaded space and skin.
The metal, laid upon her from her head to the palms her feet, seemed as much a prison as it had protection. The visor of her helmet closed a thin, wide aperture that extended across her face from cheek to cheek, with hardy enough length to reach one eyelid from the other.
A countable detail of inches below this lied a reasonably less countable series of perforations, pierced into the metal with the hapless precision of a broken machine. They laid themselves among the hardened steel in pseudo-elaborate patterns, finding their way from the tips of her nose, to her mouth, and some even down to the precipice of her chin.
To Ahlan, these were constellations in the night sky, imbuing her with the strength of the stars and sun. To others, they were the eyes of a scorpion, or a spider, something harkening the horror of some unnatural and inhuman killer. But in this moment of sweat and steel, they were nothing more than holes, to her, or to anyone else.
Ahlan took a breath, one notably more difficult than the last. Contrary to popular belief, these perforations were not engineered to assist breathing; to allow it, yes, but an easy breath was a luxury ill-afforded in the profession of graceful death—and that was true regardless of whether or not a helmet was worn. Rather, these holes were to assist with sight, allowing the wearer a somewhat bare perception of the world beneath their feet.
Altogether, the arrangement of these crevices and openings allowed Ahlan to view life as a perpetual sunset, her opponent the setting sun upon her glimmering horizon, reflecting a path of light amongst a sea of fear, passion, and contemptuous, tameless rage.
This particular piece was designed for mounted troops, for knights on steeds to see with some degree of clarity what it was they were being paid to kill. Ahlan was not a knight, nor had she ever ridden a horse. Unsightly beasts they were to her, dangerous and deadly to anyone foolish enough to act against their interests. And nothing anyone wanted to do with them aligned with their interests. They were not made for the meddling of humans, surely, let alone for combat.
Yet despite this, her apparel was deliberate. When one has as many reasons and means to as stand tall as she did, the ability to look down was necessary, even if it was only to occasionally ensure one still had feet to stand upon. Ahlan was not a killer, either. She never once truly considered what she did as killing. She was a fighter, an entertainer. She saw plentiful death, but never as anything more than a professional courtesy. And she was very good at what she did. She had killed so many, she had grown herself a reputation that would always precede her. As far as herself or anyone else was concerned, the men who challenged her had none to blame for their deaths but themselves.
And so, Ahlan stood frozen. She stood in the darkness, armed and armoured to the few good teeth she had left. The wooden shack to which she’d been situated creaked with every micro movement, every shift of weight, and every strained breath. It’s meagre architecture laying cradle to nothing at all but a horizon and a setting sun, it’s walls making a provisional prisoner of all her strengths and abilities, all that made her capable. This was her arena.
Her skin beneath the armour was pale, the sweat running down her brow the only liquid she had come in contact with since she had awoken—save of course for the dried blood streaking down the fuller of her unkempt blade. How long had she been there? Minutes? Hours? Seconds?
Seconds. She had only been there seconds, broadsword in both hands, standing ready for the sun to set, to fall quietly and leave her to the arid darkness of victory to which she seemed infinitely familiar. But this sun seemed not the kind to shine. It rarely was, but in this instance, it was as if the light was being siphoned from its source, and exterminated at the core of this being that stood before her.
This one was particularly unlike any of the men she had faced before. This man was tall, granted not much taller than herself, but the fact that he was happened to be a statement in itself. His armour was as gray as death, with seemingly little wear, a juxtaposition to the tarnished chrome silver of Ahlan’s. The design was also unlike anything she had seen. Not Gothic or Italian, and certainly not Milanese, like hers.
This armour seemed much less a series of interconnecting plates than it did a map of points and edges, converging from the wearers centre of mass to the helmet, and diverging outwards from the arms and shoulders, inciting the tip of an arrow. The breastplate was a point facing upwards and out, beginning wide and ending sharp with the dividing centreline having formed at the top of the placard. The faulds were similarly acute, comprising a terrace of spike-cut plates, all evidently and meticulously designed to draw attention upwards to the face of the wearer. At the bottom of the torso was adorned a thick, gray, triple split robe that covered the rear and sides of the legs, extended long to only inches above the ground.
The pauldrons were great, multilayered, depressive pieces of metal, rising at least a few inches above shoulder level, and extending the width of the wearer’s shoulder length by at least as much. They became pointed towards the end, facing down, and remained thick at the top, drawing a diagonal line down the shoulder from the parallel of the gorget to the outside of the rerebrace.
All this pointed down towards the gauntlets, which made talons of the wearers hands, and daggers of the wearers elbows. Similarly, the set seemed to lack poleyn plates, the plates covering the knees—a detail duly noted—but instead extended a sharp edge at the top of the grieves that lay parallel at the tip to the wearers thighs, protecting their knees.
The helmet was the oddest detail by far. Menacing, but only to the untrained eye. Whoever had smithed this piece had in mind form far over function. It seemed to have been molded loosely after the skull of a bull, with a pair of eyes ensconced within deep wells, with only slits cut out for visibility, making them appear as if they were closed at all times. The nose was a pair of triangular chasms at the centre of the face, adorned with ridges and angles and lines jutting up and out of the cheeks and jaw from almost every direction. The mask was complimented by a large pair of metal horns, that faced downwards, and drew outward from the high top of the helmet, and curled back towards the face, concluding below the mask, several inches from each side of the gorget.
The man wielded a zweihander, which he carried draped over his left shoulder. This was a weapon almost as tall as the both of them, and at least a third as heavy. It’s presentation was unlike that of the armour, polished and reflective all the way up its meter and a half long blade. It struck an odd contrast, one that made the man seem both more and less intimidating.
This was the sun on her horizon. It was as black as the void, nay ready to rise, let alone set.
But soon, it would set, with or without her. Soon, the distance between her and this Goliath would close, like the eyes of God upon such acts. Soon, metal would meet metal in a flurry of violence and malevolence. Soon, their fight would begin, and soon, their fight would end.
Ahlan had no intentions aside from victory, and in a blur, she found her horizon rapidly shrinking, and her sun rapidly approaching. The horizon was all she could see. And death was on the horizon.
She saw the first strike hit before it had been swung. She raised her blade superjacent above her head in guard, whole moments before it made its first acquaintance with the zweihander. The blades met, introducing one another in a flurry of sparks and thunder. It felt like she had been struck by lightning. The blades reverberated on contact, violently screeching at one another; only one was screeching in pain. The impact sent a shockwave so guttural through her hands and wrists, down both her arms—it seemed in any other circumstances, this attack would have broken her wrists.
As they both made retreat, Ahlan had no time to wonder how she had even managed to keep hold of her weapon, as the zweihander was lifted again, this time poised for a strike to her left flank. Alhan again raised her blade in parry, this time striking the swing before it had a chance to begin its descent. Again the blades sang. Again, pain shot up through her arms and down her shoulder. Again, the zweihander was raised for a rejoinder, no sooner than Ahlan had struck away the last, this time aimed to the opposite flank. She needed to think. Blocking blade-to-blade would be a costly option of stamina and strength, of both she was already at a deficit. A split second gave her few options.
The man was strong, stronger than he looked—and he looked like he could lift the stones of the ancient pyramids—but even he could not tame the zweihander without flaw. The weapon was simply too unwieldy, built and balanced for a man whom Ahlan was sure had not yet lived.
The next swing came slow, slow enough for Ahlan to position a thrust with the point of her blade at the exposed divots of his knees. Her opponent aptly perceived her maneuver, and caught his blade mid-swing to reposition a counter, disallowing a strike to his exposed joint, but leaving enough time for Ahlan to strike upwards with the hilt of her blade to the gap at his throat, between his gorget and helmet. She delivered, and the man choked and recoiled in pain, stumbling, one hand to his throat while the other maintained his weapon, regaining some distance between himself and her.
Being the opportunist she was, Alhan followed up immediately with a cross strike upwards with her armless hand, managing only to graze his left pauldron. Utilizing the natural rotation in her hips given from the strike, she turned herself right into a spinning back kick, striking with all the vigour and speed of a startled horse. Ahlan made contact with the man’s plackart, hitting with all her strength before being spun dizzyingly back into her stance.
The kick seemed to have proved more of a gesture of aggression than an intentful attack. The man had been apparently unmoved by her advance, and moreover, unscathed from her previous riposte. Enraged, he lifted the greatsword above his head and swung it down with such speed and virility it nearly brought him to the ground with it.
Ahlan stepped away, leading with her rear leg in a shuffle to an angle adjacent of her attacker. She moved, not bothering to scan the trajectory of the strike. She was a split second slow.
The blade delivered to her right shoulder an apt message: there would be no trading blows with this opponent. The strike had made a late landing, catching her just at the end of her maneuver. The heavy impact felt itself through every part of Ahlan, tormenting and malforming the metal of her pauldron, shattering shambolically the chainmail underneath the plates, and lodging the torn fragments of sharp casting quite deeply into her flesh. She dropped her sword, amazed her arm did not fall to the ground with it. She felt the blood soaking through her chausses far before she felt the pain.
She didn’t feel the pain. Rather, she diverted all her strength into keeping on her feet, and took to delivering hooks with her gauntlets at the flanks of the man, and keeping the distance close as to not afford him the space to swing at her again. She struck blindly upwards, hoping to find something to weaken this Goliath’s resolve.
Disoriented and fatigued, her opponent had not gone without consequence. Unable to use his weapon, he kept to maintaining his stance using his own knees and elbows to meet her own, as their metal clashed once more. Ahlan recognized this briefest moment of weakness, and intensified her advance.
A flurry of passion and punches released the zweihander from the man’s grip, dropping it to the floor with an onomatopoeic oddity. The newly realized opportunity did not go unseized, and the man felt two jabs land to the hardened steel pretense of his solar-plexus. Though just as Ahlan seemed to gain ground, she lost it; the man answered her flurry with one of his own, a potent strike landing at her breast reverberated down her body, and across her left arm, lighting her nerves in a trail of fire.
Ahlan, allowing little time for her reorientation, struck wildly with a straight punch, her fist landing squarely into the open palm of her adversary. Rookie mistake. Look before you strike.
Her inattention was not unpunished. Within a moment his hand was a vice, clenching her painfully around the violent dispositions that concluded her frontal appendages. Resolute to make all of this most welcome lapse of judgement, the man lifted her up by the neck with his unoccupied hand, the other joining shortly thereafter.
Ahlan could not think. She flailed her arms violently against her suspension, grabbing and pushing at the terrible face of her unorthodox elevator. She at last found give at the gaudy solid protrusions commencing from the temples of the helmet, only before being thrown discourteously across the expansive shanty. In these split seconds before she was thrown, she twisted against the metal disposition, tearing it with her as she was displaced. This violation visibly perturbed the man, and he clenched the side of his head as if it was his own horn that had been torn out. Ahlan landed on her stomach, attempting with all the might she had to regain her footing, never lessening her grip on the newly severed horn.
In this moment, her vision was black, a darkness without victory. With little prospect of it either. Propping herself onto her arms and knees, Ahlan could only muster a semblance of breath before she was met unceremoniously with a kick to her right flank that delivered her promptly through the shanty wall, which observably ceased to be a shanty wall by the time Ahlan reached the other side. Her plated elbows made first contact with the ground—hard enough for the metal to obtain a deep impression of the unassuming surface—before being bound and hurled violently to her sides, like the trunk of a newly mutilated tree down an incline. She left a trail of blood as she went.
At last, she ceased, planted on her back, the texture of the ground apparent even her through her cuirass of mail and plate. Had the impact broken her ribs?
All her senses were assaulted. The blinding light of the sun outside the wooden structure broke through her limited visor, and the delirium of blood loss was beginning to take its hold on her. The clashing steel still pervaded in her ear by means of a persistent ring. She coughed blood into her helmet, as the pain from the shards of mail in her shoulder and the fires raging all over her body began to pierce through her wall of adrenaline.
In the face of death she could only wonder one thing; why was she still alive? This Goliath of a man had thus far outclassed her in both form and strength. She would’ve been dead minutes ago had he truly wanted her so. She held but a solitary certainty: if he did not kill her, the blood loss would. The dank musk of the shanty had gave way to an overwhelming freshness in the air, as if a window that had never been present was opened to its fullest. She smelt of death. Ahlan briefly allowed the blood caged within her helmet to reach her tongue. It tasted of hesitation.
For a moment, light flooded her vision, and Ahlan saw herself as the sun, leaving behind the horizon, surrendering it to the darkness and cold of a victory not her own. Of defeat. And she very nearly did. For this same moment, the bright glow of the newly discovered daylight shone guilelessly into her visor, before becoming eclipsed by the silhouette of her own black sun on the horizon. Goliath.
In that instance, the blood on her lips tasted no longer of hesitation, but of iron. The man, standing over her, had taken his time too much in killing her. From this, Ahlan knew already what his blood tasted of. She waited for him to position himself above her left flank, and wasted no time. In an instant, she raised the severed horn and jammed it above into the exposed knee of her opponent, piercing through the robes and mail and several layers of flesh and muscle. The man gave an awful unnatural shriek as he collapsed onto his other knee, dropping the zweihander gentlessly onto the ground below his feet.
Blood presented itself generously from the man’s newly open wound, soaking the fabric of his robed cuirass, and the layers of sepulchral soil beneath his feet. She reached for the weapon, calling upon its great weight to assist her in rising. Ahlan imagined that her heartbeat ceased for a moment to allow her the energy to bring herself to her feet with the great weapon. She did, and without hesitation this time, swung with all her remaining force upwards, striking the man’s helmet and tearing off the mask from the face of her incapacitated opponent.
Paying little mind to her thus far handiwork, she raised the zweihander again, this time thrusting the blade into his shoulder and stepping to the side, pivoting a full circle with the grace of a dancer, moving the blade with her as she did. From where she perceived the edge of the weapon came a horrid, improper sound of flesh and muscle tearing amongst the steel of her cruel riposte. All at once her vision turned a flurry of silver. then gray, then white, then red.
And then blue—the boys eyes. Theirs met hers, locked in a gaze unrequited by the metal veil to which Ahlan owed what little life remained within her. The man that had beaten her to the edge of death was nothing more than a boy, Ahlan suspected lesser than seventeen.
It took her one more eternal moment to process what she had done. The boy’s left arm was severed from the shoulder. She wanted to vomit, seeing the broken fragment of metal lodged into the side of this child’s knee, with his arm lying several feet away from its socket. The sight drew her attention to her own shoulder, which was no longer reticent of it’s nerves. Ahlan looked to the ground through the perforations in her helmet, and married her eyes to the blood below her feet. She could no longer tell who it belonged to.
Ahlan was strong. She had killed hundreds of men in her twenty years of life, but nothing could have prepared her for this. She coughed blood, and tasted it. This child had put up a good fight, the best she had ever seen. Anymore suffering than was necessary would be injustice. She knew what must be done.
And so Ahlan stood frozen, only shortly, and took the easiest breath she would ever again take, as the zweihander made its way past her hip one last time. In this eternal moment, she was David.
She closed her eyes with the distance between them, allowing the darkness of victory to embrace her finally and completely, as the blade ran through the heart of her black sun, setting upon her glimmering horizon.
I’ve always wanted to write an action scene, but never really had the confidence or aptitude to do so until now. Action scenes are the hardest for me, as they require specific and appropriate details to remain both comprehensible and entertaining, a balance that I have trouble striking. A lot of the descriptions are inspired by my fascination of fantasy: video games books and movies. The story for this was chiefly inspired by the exploration of the symbol of darkness versus sightlessness in The Stone Angel, and how the two are different. I never really structured this story in an initially then finally format, more, I spliced pieces of motifs and tied them to some overarching themes I had in mind while writing this. I’ll leave you to figure those out. Thank you for reading.
image: n.d. 10/14/18, courtesy; http://oi45.tinypic.com/wl7gac.jpg