March 19, 2014 • Kotelgrym
Giemm had just trudged out into the courtyard when the shouting began on the ramparts. The sun was not quite below the horizon yet. Giemm ruffled his feathers, rousing himself, and went to see what the commotion was.
“Key Keeper! Wake the senierro!” the guards were shouting.
Giemm trotted up the stairs, blinking away the last of the sleep lingering in his eyes, and arrived on the ramparts among the frantic soldiers. He looked out across the dusty land beyond, and for a moment, thought he was still asleep and dreaming. Pouring out of the twisted trees was an army, carrying the jagged black hand banner of Iphasto. Giemm’s blood ran cold and he opened his beak, but no sound came out of him.
“Key Keeper!” cried the guards, desperate for orders.
“Sound the alarm!” Giemm squawked. “Reinforce the gate! Wake everyone. Man the cannons. Now!”
As the soldiers scrambled, Giemm sprinted back down the stairs and across the courtyard. He tore through the castillo, cawing, “To your stations! We’re under attack!” He was out of breath when he arrived at the upper floor, and did not waste time knocking on the door. The bird barged right in, drawing a protesting grunt from the Demon who was still asleep.
“Senierro!” Giemm called. “Senierro, wake up!”
“What?” Malstefin growled, sitting up, rubbing his face. “It’s not even sundown–”
“Iphasto has come, senierro!” Giemm told him. “His army is at the gates! What do you want to do?”
Malstefin was out of bed in a flash, pulling on his clothes and stumbling to the doors on the far wall. He threw open one set of them, and the sounds of drums and screaming rolled inside. He went out onto the balcony as he was buttoning his pants, and Giemm watched him go to the rail, looking out across his castle, at the enemy beyond. As he watched, Giemm saw something in his master’s shoulders fall. He had seen it once before, when Malstefin had at last been defeated by Zestir so many years ago, but then the fighting had lasted days. It had not even begun yet, and already the Demon knew he had fallen.
Giemm went to his side at the rail, and looked out across the impending chaos. Iphasto’s army– thousands of soldiers– were descending from the forest, surrounding the castle.
“I have done this,” said the Demon. “This is the retribution because I dealt with the Light.”
Giemm was silent. Malstefin watched his soldiers scrambling in the courtyard below, and when his silence did not break, Giemm said in a hollow voice,
“What do you want me to do, senierro?”
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Malstefin. “We do not have the strength to withstand that army.” He sighed. “Save as many as you can. Tell everyone to get out, however they can. Take the tunnels, take the side doors where there are fewer enemies. Just run. We are finished. Tell them to save themselves, if they can. They have served me well. I will not ask them to die today when there is no chance of victory, and when I have brought this upon us in my own stupid…” He did not have the word for what he had felt when he’d sealed the tenuous deal with Lask’s alkesh, but in his heart, he wondered if it were what hope felt like. Whatever it was, at the sight of Iphasto’s army, it was gone.
Giemm nodded and ran from the room to spread the word. He darted through the castillo, shouting at everyone he saw, telling them to spread the word. He burst back into the courtyard, screaming Malstefin’s orders. Everything was chaos. Kotelgrym was already taking fire; cannonballs and other shells crashed into the walls, sending debris flying. Giemm could see the fear in their soldiers’ eyes, and none of them hesitated when he told them to run.
He stood in the chaos, and looked up to Malstefin’s balcony. The Demon still stood there, like a crimson statue, surveying the ruins of what was once a proud empire. Giemm thought he had never seen such a singular sight of loss. A Warmonger plowed into the bird, making him lose his focus on Malstefin. He squawked at the creature, but she had already fled. Seeing the word was spreading, Giemm rushed back inside, already planning his own escape.
He ran back to the upper floor, breathless by the time he arrived at Malstefin’s door, and panted,
“Senierro! Senierro, we must go.”
Malstefin tore himself away from the balcony and let his servant lead him from the room.
“Come! This way.” Giemm scrambled down the hall, fumbling with his keys. He unlocked a small door and led Malstefin down a tight staircase. The Demon wasn’t sure he’d ever been this way in all his years in the castle.
“Where will we go?” Giemm asked him.
“Wherever we can to get away,” Malstefin replied. “Once we are no longer in danger of being killed, we will decide where to go in the long term.”
Giemm opened another door, and led him down a passage, where he pulled open a door at the end. He peered around the edge of it.
“Just a quick run along the upper veranda in the courtyard. If we can make it to the door on the other side, I know I can get us out.”
Malstefin gave him a nod, and Giemm threw open the door, breaking into a sprint down the walkway. Malstefin followed, running close at his heels. The courtyard was already teeming with Iphasto’s soldiers. They had blown open the gate, and already the stones below were slick with black blood.
Giemm was fast approaching the door, the key already in his hand, when all of a sudden, a cannon ball came crashing through the wall behind him. It sent stones flying, beating against his back, flinging him forward. The bird coughed, pushing himself up, and looked behind him to see the walkway had been blown away with part of the wall. Malstefin was no longer behind him.
“Senierro!” he screamed, scrambling to the rail.
He spotted the Demon in the courtyard below, heaving himself out of the debris, coughing in the dust and ash.
“Senierro!” Giemm shouted to him, then ducked as a spear came whizzing at his head.
Malstefin glanced at the melee around him, then back up to the veranda where Giemm waited. The bird saw him gauge the distance, trying to determine if he could make the jump from the courtyard. Giemm could see the defeat in him, even before he bellowed,
“Go, Giemm! Get out–” A warmonger leapt for him, and the Demon had to pause to tear its jaws apart. When he looked back up to see Giemm still gawking helplessly, the Demon’s face turned to a mask of rage over his terror as he roared, “GO!”
Giemm stood for a second longer, watching as his master was swallowed in the fray. He knew he could do nothing to help him. Tearing his eyes away, Giemm raced to the door, opening it to go sprinting down the staircase into the tunnel below. He collided with a Warmonger as he rounded a bend.
“Ack, Jana!” he squawked, freeing himself from her.
“Where is the senierro?” asked the Warmonger.
“He got trapped in the courtyard.”
Jana and her companion Throcko fell silent.
“Go!” snapped Giemm, ushering them down the tunnel. “We must get out of here!”
Seeing Giemm had reached the door, Malstefin turned to face the bloodbath in his courtyard. He knew there was only one way out left to him. The Demon roared, setting himself alight with his fire and made a break for the shattered front gate. He blasted through the enemy soldiers like a hammer, ripping them apart, scorching the life from them, tearing their throats out with his own teeth. He was like an animal, impervious to their bites and swords. His bulletproof hide still held, but Malstefin knew it would not last long in these conditions, not after the hungry winter they had endured.
He tasted blood and metal, but fought like a wild creature, tearing through the ruins of his castillo, breaking from the gate with at least twenty enemy soldiers clustering to hold him back. He broke free for a moment and sprinted, getting just a little ways up the dusty road before the Runners caught up with him. Their beaks stabbed, and already the Demon could feel them beginning to nick his tough skin. He flailed, knocking them back.
Where will I go? he thought in the bloody haze. What is left for me now?
For a moment, he thought perhaps he would die. After more than six hundred years, perhaps it was time. As the Warmongers hauled him to the ground, he caught a glimpse of the sun– a final sliver of light in the west. That was all that was left.
I will run to the sun, he thought, Perhaps it will keep its promise. What have I left to lose?
With a roar, a burst of fire exploded from him, blasting his attackers back long enough for him to scramble up from the ground and take off again, sprinting for the trees. The enemy was hard on his tail, snapping and clawing, anything to impede him. He stumbled, and could feel the Warmongers’ teeth beginning to pierce him, but he pushed on, driving himself into the fading light.
Giemm opened the hatch up on the ridge and peered out to make sure there were no enemy soldiers nearby, then pulled himself out. Jana and Throcko emerged behind him. They were perhaps a half mile from Kotelgrym, and as he looked back, Giemm could see the pillar of smoke rising into the falling night, and the hungry glow of the flames. Jana and Throcko stood with him for a moment, perhaps united in the sense of despair that came from seeing the castillo fall, the place that had served as their home for centuries.
As he watched, Giemm saw a blur of red break loose from the front gate. Even in the mayhem, he recognized Malstefin. The Demon was battered already, fighting like a wounded beast to free himself. Giemm’s stomach clenched as he watched him struggle free of his attackers, only to be hauled back to the ground before he could get more than five steps. The Demon roared, blazing and kicking, tail flailing and striking. He broke free of the pack and fled toward the trees. A Warmonger lunged for his back, sending him staggering, giving the others time to catch up.
That is my king, thought Giemm as he watched the heaving red mass of Malstefin’s back shift and strain as he struggled against the enemy. That is the one who ruled the world. That is the one who called me by name, when others thought I was nothing. He deserves a better death than this.
“We should go,” Jana hissed, nodding toward where Throcko was already heading away.
Giemm could not seem to tear his eyes away. Malstefin was ripping his attackers apart, breaking through them into the trees, but even as he disappeared into the shadows, Giemm could see another band of Runners and Warmongers barreling from the battlefield after him.
“Come on!” Jana cried.
Giemm stared after the place where Malstefin had vanished, thinking perhaps he would never see him again. After the span of another heartbeat, the bird turned away, and left the smoke behind him.