An Ill-Timed Battle
Kyl knew it when the first arrow struck. She shouldn't be there. Riding into battle had been exhilarating, tricking the men into thinking she her name was 'Kyle' had been easy. Just drop the voice a register, add a little gravel in the back of her throat, and she could pass as a man, at least as long as she had these heavy clothes on.
In the breaths before the action, battle had disappointed her. She thought it would be more exciting, thrilling even, but it only turned out to be masses of men standing opposite one another and yelling. She didn't participate. It seemed crass and undignified, not something she wanted to be.
Instead she had taken up conversation with the man next to her. In many ways he was more effeminate than she. He was thinner, perhaps a bit pale from too much time indoors, and his skin was about as flawless as it could be after two days of riding and camping outside. None of them had showered, but give him a dress and some makeup and he would have been prettier than Kyl. Well, maybe just.
He wasn't built for war. He told her he was a stable hand. The fact that he knew his way around a horse had earned him a place in the battle. He was happy to help, of course. The kingdom needed all steady hands to fight, and even then Kyl doubted the outcome. This man next to her was scared, she could tell, so she put on a brave face for both of them but inconspicuously touched him lightly on the elbow as a gesture of comfort.
If he had recognized her then, in that tender moment as she let her guard down ever so slightly, he didn't have time to do anything about it. Kyl's hand was still on his elbow as the arrow struck and stole his young life away before her eyes. It pierced his neck, right above his armored breastplate, flaming tip igniting his clothing and sending the horse into a panic.
The rest was chaos.
She shouldn't be there.
Doubts flooded her mind as the troops scattered to make more difficult targets for their foes. Fiery death rained from above her, and she could see return fire bringing the same to the enemy.
No, battle was not what she thought it would be, it was much more gruesome. She wanted to prove a point, that women were just as much of an asset in a fight, but that is not why she came. She couldn't fool herself. Perhaps there were other women, in fact she was sure of it, that could handle the heat of battle. She knew of others that would have thrived and outperformed their male counterparts in this arena, but she was not one of them. Yes, she wanted to prove a point, but her own motivations were far removed from that sentiment.
She broke from her reverie and prodded her mount into the thick of the battle, steeling her nerves and leaning on years of practice with her sword. Endless begging had convinced her father to train her. When he died, she carried on in secret, away from the prying eyes of those who expected her to do what all other women did, especially those in her position. They told her she was selfish for not producing a child, and many times she found herself secretly agreeing with them.
Her sword shone in the pale sunlight. Gentle rays reflecting off of the polished surface, streaking down through the haze overhead and finding its way through endless arrows. She rode on, her mission set, her goal in sight. If she were being honest with herself, she would have admitted that she was terrified. She was terrified and that was why she had to go to war. She was terrified of what kind of life might return to them if the army were to fail, of what the enemy would do to them. It sounded noble and strong to say she was protecting the other women, children, and elderly, but in truth she was afraid for her own life. She chose death in battle over life under the press of man, over life under those unspeakable horrors.
The black tide of oncoming forces washed down the face of the hill, stuttering at the bottom, erecting pikes to break the approaching cavalry. She saw all of this and understood what she had to do before the wave of her own company blocked the view of the enemy ahead. She knew to ride hard and trust that the advancing point would break through the pikes and give her a channel through to the heart of the enemy.
The yelling had become unbearably loud, and she finally yelled along with them, decency cast to the wind. This was war. She was a warrior.
She passed fallen horses, impaled men, and others on the ground struggling to hold onto their life. To her eyes there were more friendly than foe and her heart caught in her throat. They were already losing.
The sea of her company before her began to thin, some fallen and others taking a stand to wipe out as many as possible. The arrow fire had concentrated on them, amplifying the carnage, before it swung away to target another of the advancing groups. Their own archers had concentrated further ahead of them, to reduce friendly casualties, but the enemy didn't seem to concern themselves with this distinction. The burning arrows came down on friend and foe alike.
The last line of men before her either collapsed or broke formation, she didn't notice. All Kyl knew was the enraged face of the enemy wielding a long, sharp pike, feet firmly planted to the ground before her. She reacted at the last second and swept the pike aside with her sword, guiding her horse away from the point, then back with ferocity upon her target. She completed the sweep, bringing the blade back with all her might to gash him across his chest, up through his neck and exiting just below his ear. She couldn't hear his screams over the roar of battle, but her imagination filled in the blanks.
One down, so many to go.
The next ten or twelve, she couldn't keep count, enemies she approached fell with similar success. Her arm was steady, her blade sharp, her mind falling into that familiar rhythm her father had taught her so long ago.
She didn't see who threw the lance, didn't fully register that it had lodged into her horse's hindquarters until the beast bucked to the right beneath her. She made mental note to hold onto her sword, but to keep it away from her in an attempt to prevent self-harm. The horse began a slow counter-clockwise spin, but with it's rear leading, pulled on by the momentum of that terrible lance.
Kyl leaned into the spin, slipped her feet from the stirrups, planted her hands on the horse and pushed off with all of her might. She gained separation and watched as her friend of these past few days fell away, adding it's own scream to the cacophony of the fight. She wished it didn't have to end that way, but chances were that now she wouldn't make it out of this alive either.
The ground met her in a rather unkind manner. Her bulky armor prevented her from tucking in her shoulder fast enough to begin a roll, so she smashed into her side and crumpled under the armor's weight. Her left shoulder felt ruined, but intact, and somehow she had managed not to impale herself with her own sword while still holding onto it through her dramatic fall. This quick examination came to an end when she saw footsteps approaching and raised her sword to deflect a second attempt on her life. Her attacker, apparently unprepared for any resistance from his prey, lost his weapon in the clash and Kyl was able to bring her own sword back around to spill the contents of his stomach onto the darkened earth. She rolled, regained her feet, and took down two more approaching enemies before she was able to survey her situation.
It wasn't good.
She resolved not to analyze further as it would only serve to bring her down from the soaring heights of adrenaline that she felt. Instead, her feet turned once more up the hill and she almost brought her sword down on one of her own. She saw the same shock and despair in her fellow soldier's eyes that she had felt. This fight would not be won.
"Follow me," she yelled over the thrumming battle, "we need to get to the crest of the hill."
There was a split-second hesitation, but he followed her as she began climbing once more into the fray.
"Why the top?" He called ahead to her.
"That's where we can release him," she said as she swung her sword into another foe. "It's our only hope." She was lying, but didn't feel much remorse over it. It was true that it was her only hope, and having a second soldier would greatly improve her odds of making it to the top, so she let the lie stand.
The two figures climbed through the ranks of the advancing horde, breaking the enemy before them like water on the rocks. Kyl wondered whether or not she could have made the climb alone. Blood fell on the hill, staining mud where grass once grew. Bodies fell on the hill, one on top of another. Two soldiers among many were not noticed as they broke through one enemy after the next, driving through a seemingly endless mob.
They reached the top before they knew it. Almost as a sign, they fell through the last line of the enemy at the very top as the relentless horde marched onward down the hill, crushing Kyl's army to a pulp. Ahead of her now, down the opposite face of the hill, were only the archers and a desolate enemy camp. Smoke billowed from the ashes of the previous night's fires. Flags fluttered in the breeze, pointing in the direction of the battle, providing a soothing counterpoint to the roar behind them.
"What now?" The other solder asked. Kyl realized that she hadn't even looked at him before. She didn't even know his name.
Without a word, Kyl opened a pouch on her belt and removed a small flask. She saw the confusion and questioning on her comrade's face, but offered no explanation. This time was for her. It was for her and her father. She gently removed the cork from the bottle and knelt in the mud on the very crest of the hill.
She turned to face the great city, still on her knees, and removed her helmet and veil, gaining a gasp of shock from the other soldier at the realization that she was a woman. She didn't care anymore. It was all over anyway.
"Father," she said, tears rolling down her face to join the blood and mud. "I'm sorry I couldn't save them. I tried to stop it. I only wish that you were here. You could have won this fight."
She tipped the flask over, letting the black ashes within fall to the earth. Some of the dust caught in the wind and wisped out over the battlefield. It gave her hope. It was like a sign from her father. Even though this might be the end, we must all go out in glory. We cannot lie down and submit. We cannot let them take what is rightfully ours without putting up resistance, even to our death.
"Is that him?" The soldier asked, pointing at the now empty flask. "Is that the King?"
Kyl rose and nodded her head. She replaced her helmet and gathered her weapon. "He always wanted to be buried on this hill."
Understanding overcame the soldier and he bowed down to one knee. "I had no idea, your grace, please forgive me."
"Get up soldier," Kyl said. "There is still a battle to be fought. Even though we have no hope, we must fight. We must resist to the death, to protect our way of life, to protect our loved ones."
"To the end," the man said, standing and smiling at his Queen. "My sword is yours to command."
"Good." Kyl turned away from the battle and into the advancing troop of archers. "Let's do something about their artillery."