Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off: Shadow of the Raven by Matthew Ward
Shadow of the Raven by Matthew Ward
This is an excerpt provided by the author for the Grimdark Magazine Battle-Off Competition
We heard the next attack before we saw it. Dark voices boomed from the alleyways, their harsh cant rolling across the bridge like a wind gusting straight from Otherworld. The rhythmic thunder of booted feet underpinned the song, a sonorous march that shook the timbers of our barricade, and cast a shadow onto even the stoutest heart. Droshna had grown bored with our defiance.
Quintus clambered to the barricade's crest, and set his back to the bridge. "Hold your positions!" he bellowed. "You turn tail now, and you'll answer to me!"
No sooner had he spoken than tall warriors, clad head to foot in battered plate and ragged chain flooded the distant bank. Their black shields were bereft of heraldry, and their blades gleamed with sickly green light. These were not the wretches we'd already faced, but fallen legionaries – the finest warriors in our enemy's service.
No battle-cry sounded the legionaries' advance, nor any other obvious signal. The pitch of the chant deepened, and they swept onto the bridge, shields raised high to protect against our crossbows. Quintus swore, his curse beneath the clamour, and readied his sword.
Our previous attackers had slowed as they reached our barricade, daunted by the fight to come. Not so the legionaries. They picked up speed in the final approach, as if they could sweep us aside through brute force alone. Timbers shuddered as the first of them began to climb, and black blood flowed as the defenders hacked down.
To my right, a praetorian swept two legionaries from the crest, all the while screaming a challenge to those on the slope below. It was answered at once. Strong hands fastened about his shins, dragging him downwards. The challenge became a scream of terror. The praetorian abandoned his axe, scrabbling for purchase on the timbers. I grabbed for him, my fingers closing around his. Then the praetorian's hand slipped from mine, and he was gone.
With each second that passed, our situation grew more desperate. The legionaries rarely fought as individuals, but as part of a coordinated assault. They attacked one section of the barricade merely to provoke a weakness in another as the defenders moved to counter. We all but lost the leftmost span in the first few minutes. The sergeant in command had sent the bulk of his warriors to help Quintus' embattled centre and the fallen, scenting opportunity, threw themselves at denuded flank like men possessed. I saw the chanting mass crash home, and knew with sickening certainty that I'd never get there in time. I searched desperately for someone who could. "Jamar!"
The big man understood. He always understood. His next strike swept a legionary over the barricade's ramshackle rampart. Then he was running full tilt for the endangered flank, the heavy Thrakkian axe dangling from his hand as if it weighed no more than a feather. He arrived just as the fallen assault reached the crest. The axe gleamed as it left his hand, spinning end over end to bury itself in a legionary's ribs. A second fallen hacked down. Jamar knocked the blow aside with his armoured sleeve, and heaved his attacker over the edge.
I reached Jamar's side soon after, what remained of Quintus' pitiful reserve of wounded praetorians at our backs. It wasn't going to be enough – a blind man could have seen that – but it was all we had. The only fleeting upside to the situation, was that I'd seen nothing of Alfric. Though there was still unfinished business to settle with my brother, I was just as glad not to attend to it.
A screech of tortured wood split the air. Desperate screams and a rumble of timber on stone followed close on its heels. The rampart trembled beneath my feet, and the barricade's leftmost span collapsed, dashing its defenders to the roadway far below. A dozen dead, at least, in one moment of misfortune. Worse than that, the fallen now had a clear path to the barricade's rear. Someone had to plug the gap.
"Go!" Jamar planted a palm against my back, and shoved me in the direction of the breach.
I hit the ground running. The first legionary didn't even see me coming – he bellowed his last as my blade severed his spine. Alerted by the dying scream, another fallen rounded on me. I twisted the sword free, and swept it out – first into a hasty parry, and then into a desperate back-cut that dashed my attacker to the cobbles.
Three more legionaries stood between me and the breach. These unhappy odds soured further when my previous opponent, still clinging to life, grabbed my ankles. I hacked down, half-severing my captor's head, but the damage was done. A sword hissed down towards my skull, too swift to parry. I flung myself backwards, and the blow sliced only empty air, but my heel snagged on a corpse, throwing me off balance.
I'd have been done for in that moment, but for Jaspyr and Fredrik. Moving with all the grace and fury of their flesh and blood counterparts, the bronze lions burst from the mist and bore my attackers to the ground. As the lions' metal claws shredded the legionaries' armour, I glanced towards the marketplace to see Arianwyn watching me pensively. I waved to show her I was unharmed. Then I caught my breath, and went back to the fight.