"I am Steel." "I am Steel." "I am Steel."
The whispers embraced him as he watched Gallis burn. The Emperor's soldiers pretended to be unhappy at what they found in the town, setting the fires in an orgy of relieved rage.
"Hanzo ne Gallis is dead," Alessandra told him.
"They'll find enough courage to desecrate the bodies soon," he said. The whispers grew louder. If he did not head off the swelling anger, action would be taken without thought. He was the only Steel ready to die in Gallis--one more sunrise and he would have been free!
"Are the ships away?" He turned and faced the children.
"Yes," Alessandra replied.
"Some of the families wanted us to go with them," another girl told him.
"They were not called to serve," he said when shame touched the faces of some Steel. "They are parents, sisters, and brothers. They do not understand."
"We'll make them proud!" someone shouted. Had the speaker been older, it would have been necessary to correct him.
"The youngest won't be able to keep up," he said to Alessandra.
"There is more." The Steel stared at him, waiting. "The Emperor must not learn the truth about his destruction of Gallis."
Feral smiles touched every face.
"He must not trust Shin soldiers," Alessandra said. "I only saw Chuutai and Hokubu banners."
He shrugged, "It's time."
They followed him into the trees. Dancing The Leaves. As Steel ready for the Goddess's hand, he moved easily from leaf to leaf. The others could only keep up because he held a steady pace to the gathering. The youngest Steel looked up in awe as he floated down from the tree tops.
"Young ones forward," he said. In seconds, the Steel arranged themselves as he instructed.
He studied the front line and those behind. The number of Steel heralded the storm. The largest pack of wolves in the history of Gallis waited for their first hunt.
"You won't be able to keep up when the Emperor's toy soldiers finally understand what it means for Gallis to take the field." The young ones nodded as a unit. "We want them to run, but their flight must be driven by terror."
They nodded again.
"The commanders will be celebrating their great victory," he said. "You will cut a path to them for me."
"What if we survive?" the youngest girl asked.
He studied her, an elf-human child whose clothing was accented with Minami colors. Raised by elves, she would have learned to dance the leaves as soon as she could walk.
"Make sure they run like dragons are chasing them," he replied.
"And us?" Alessandra asked from the line of older children. Another year and she would have been ready to be placed in the Goddess's hand also; it was unfair to call Alessandra a child.
"The archers," he said.
"Hanzo!" "Hanzo!" "Hanzo!"
Some of them witnessed the archers take down Hanzo ne Gallis, and all the Steel would have heard the story by now. The older Steel had met Hanzo and knew Alessandra was his student. They would make sure the archers did not make it out of Gallis alive.
"Yes!" Everyone stared at half-elf girl. "What's your real name?"
He growled, soul-deep. Called to serve made no difference, they knelt at the sound. No fear in their eyes, but they knelt.
"I am Steel," he said. "And since the Emperor seems to have forgotten, I will remind him what that means!"
The feral smiles returned as the children stood.
The soldiers froze at the battle cry. The hesitation made things easier, not that the young Steel needed it. He walked behind the point of the wedge as they cut through the outer ranks. The soldiers suffered another deadly delay when they realized it was children attacking. He moved around a child. An upward stroke left to right took a soldier in the face; the child drove her sword into the soldier's stomach.
"Gallis!" To the right and across the camp, Alessandra and the older Steel were killing archers.
"Faster!" he shouted. "Do not let them escape!"
The young Steel still had some childish expectations of their leader. The soldiers focused on him as a target.
"A Sword!" A soldier shouted before twin short swords killed him. The soldiers must have thought bringing him down would stop the wave of death crashing into them. "Archers! Take down the Sword!"
The soldiers erred on the side of caution and tried to pin the wedge. They held back from a full assault, waiting for archers who did not come. The Steel adjusted quickly, collapsing the wedge to let the soldiers meet him, reforming it, and collapsing it again.
He moved out of the wedge as soon as the high commander's tent came into sight. The young Steel changed tactics again, forming a line behind him and following as he killed his way to the target. The Steel flowed to the left and right when he broke into the clearing in front of the tent.
"I thought all the Swords were dead," the oldest male in the clearing said.
"I am Steel. You were unworthy of a Sword."
"Kill him!" the high commander shouted. None of his sub-commanders moved, but five others did--personal guards wearing uniforms from noble families instead of the Chuutai or Hokubu colors.
Shin commanders and their personal guards would have attacked en masse, even if they did not believe the stories about Gallis. The five guards advanced in separate groups: the three who wore the same uniform held back to see what they faced while the other two moved forward immediately. The two died, and he was among the others before any realized-- the stories were true.
"Sammel!" the oldest commander gasped as three sword strokes took down his personal guard. The sub-commanders died before they could draw steel. "Spare..."
"No mercy for Sammel worshippers in Gallis."
The young Steel had a final duty--getting him out of the camp, "Steel, retreat!"
He stood on the bridge. There wasn't enough Steel left to both pursue the Hokubu soldiers with a significant force and also chase the remaining Chuutai back to the Imperial City.
The commanders' deaths had the expected result. The soldiers stopped working together above the company level. The loss of the youngest Steel meant the remaining Gallis survivors could use slashing passes to cut a company from the retreating army and whittle their enemy to a panicked flight.
The Hokubu broke first. They headed north at the fastest pace they could maintain, but to make it home they first had to cross the bridge. It took a delicate hand to bait a frontal attack though. Too much Steel on the bridge, and the soldiers would not risk going through them.
"I didn't expect you to survive the attack on the commanders," Alessandra told the half-elf girl.
"No archers responding to my arrows."
"That's a very... pretty bow.""
"It's even more special than that."
"How can there be something more special than an elf Sung bow?" Alessandra asked.
He turned and stared at the girl. Anyone who had seen an elf would have recognized her heritage. He looked at the bow.
"Would you like to touch it?" she asked him.
"Is it true?" Alessandra asked. "You can hear the song if you put a hand on the wood."
"Dragons don't sing very well," the girl replied with a smile. "It sounds more like an avalanche than a song."
"A dragon sang the bow!" Alessandra whispered.
"For my elfin grandfather," the girl said, ignoring Alessandra to stare into his eyes. "Grandmother says the dragon was very pretty, almost dainty. If it weren't for the dragon and elf problem, I might not have been born."
He turned around.
"Her name was Autumn Leaves."
"Dragons have the prettiest names," Alessandra said.
"They're here," he said. "Remember, the horses."
"Yes," the half-elf replied. The horsemen could force a path with a charge.
The Hokubu stopped outside the girl's range. She had given them plenty of opportunities to take that particular measure.
"This is the last of the distractions." Alessandra moved to his right as she spoke. He extended his sword out to her; she drew one of her own and created the necessary space between them. Notching an arrow, the half-elf girl took position behind and between them.
"I'd like to have taken my time with them," the girl said.
"You're not here to avenge the Hokubu Massacres," he told her. The girl was Steel, but the Hokubu attempted to exterminate all elves and dwarves within their borders.
"They didn't try to kill off dragons," she said.
"Not even Hokubu are that stupid," Alessandra quipped. "These cowards won't attack, even with only three of us on the bridge."
"They don't have a choice," he said.
The Hokubu soldiers were struck with the same fear-born hesitation, but, this time, it did not cost them any lives because the Steel behind them were coming in slowly. The choice was simple -- the three were fewer than those approaching from the rear. The girl's bow sang when the Hokubu decided and the Steel closed in fast from behind. Committed, the Hokubu had to continue the charge on the bridge as their horses died.
He looked behind him when the arrows stopped flying. Alessandra laughed at the the girl's impertinent shrug. Without horses, it took much longer than he expected for the Hokubu to finally get to them.
The girl's arrows flew over the heads of the front line. Alessandra was the first to strike as the Hokubu did everything they could to avoid his sword. He knew the pressure would be on Alessandra's side so they took position in the middle of the bridge. Alessandra pressed forward by force of will and sword, folding the line towards him.
Neck. Inner thigh. Cleaving through a bowel. Backward step to make space. Neck. Grab the sword as the soldier fell. Duck. Upward thrust into the armpit.
Alessandra and he stepped back. The Hokubu bodies acted as a barrier. He could see fear on the soldiers' faces as Alessandra casually wiped her swords clean and waited for another wave.
The half-elf girl laughed as her bow sang its avalanche again.
"I guess the Emperor was right not send Shin soldiers," Alessandra said as they walked through the open gates.
"Will the nobles' soldiers interfere?" the half-elf girl asked.
"The Shin nobility hasn't strayed far enough to stand against Gallis," Alessandra replied. "Most of the Hokubu nobles have probably left the city."
"Not all of them!"
"The one whispering in the Emperor's ear is still here," he told them.
"Can I kill him?" the girl asked.
He turned around, only the very oldest Steel and the half-elf girl remained. "There will be some Shin nobles who will make a show of standing with the Emperor."
"Their swordmasters," Alessandra said.
"They'll be in the throne room," Alessandra said. "The Chuutai headed towards their barracks and there won't be many left after we dig them out."
He stared towards the docks. The Steel waited.
"The Emperor," he said looking at Alessandra and the girl. "If we finish the Chuutai and any of us survive, the Emperor and the Hokubu will run."
"If we kill the Emperor, the Chuutai will run," Alessandra said.
"Can I kill the Hokubu and their pet Emperor?" the girl asked him.
He turned and walked towards the Chuutai barracks.
Okugata Kinjo needed a chair. If she were in Minami, everyone would understand a woman bearing a difficult second child should be given whatever she wanted. Really!
"You don't look well," Lord Kinjo said.
"It's the smell of blood!" she whispered. "The baby is also practicing sword strokes. Don't you dare smile, Ginaz!"
The upward curl to Swordmaster Ginaz's lips was only perceptible to those he served and served with. No one remembered the smile prior to Okugata Kinjo's first joke about her second child and sword practice in the womb.
"I'm glad our son is not here," Okugata Kinjo said, instantly sorry as the Swordmaster's smile faded. He was prohibited from doing his duty of training the Kinjo heir. Of everyone, Swordmaster Ginaz had been the most surprised by Lord Kinjo's decision.
"Maybe if we ask the girl politely she'll let me leave," Okugata Kinjo suggested. "She seems nice enough, and it's been some time since she killed anyone."
"She already killed all the fools," Lord Kinjo said.
Okugata Kinjo leaned against her husband as another wave of dizziness struck her. "I shouldn't have come. The baby's time is too close."
"Now?" Lord Kinjo's voice took an edge. Swordmaster Ginaz put hands on his swords and stepped towards the girl.
"You will not stand against the Child, Ginaz!" Okugata Kinjo hissed. Considering the difficulty of her second pregnancy, she was glad not to have converted to worshipping the Lady, like her husband.
"I was only going to do as you instructed, Okugata." She raised a suspicious eyebrow at his words. He smiled again before continuing, "See if the girl would understand about your delicate condition and let you pass before you added birth blood to all she and the half-elf archer spilled already."
Okugata Kinjo looked at the body of the archer. The girl was too young to have died such a death. She had been struck by at least twenty arrows. No judgment of the Child's will of course, just the Emperor's insanity!
"I was raised in Gallis, Okugata," Ginaz said. "The girl might only be Steel, but I wouldn't face her swords yet."
"The idiots should have learned after the first girl killed the archers," Lord Kinjo said looking around the second level of the Throne Room.
Okugata Kinjo stared up at the dead bodies of the Emperor's archers. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't believe it. Not even if you told me the girl was a Sword."
"Even a Sword couldn't have done that," Ginaz said. "The males won't touch bows, though the females are as good as elves with them."
"Believe me, an elf could not have matched the girl either," Okugata Kinjo said.
The Emperor had gloated over his trap. The messenger who told him about the Steel breaking into two groups was the last person allowed into the throne room before the Emperor gave the order for the archers to kill anyone entering. Always the Gallis battle cry was forgotten. The girl shouted a moment before entering the Throne Room.
The power of it. Legend! Holy! Okugata Kinjo froze, fearing the judgment which the word brought when used in battle. The archers held their hand too. Long enough for the girl to get inside, and then she danced the leaves. Or the arrows in this case.
Okugata Kinjo would have sworn she heard a rumble as the girl's arrows found their targets. The archers recovered as the first of them died. The only thing that prevented a massacre of the nobles was the girl stayed near the center of the throne room. The nobles gasped when the girl stepped on an arrow shot at her and took to the air. Skipping, floating from arrow to arrow, her bow sang. There were too many archers for her to survive, but she did not fall until she made sure no one else would be met by the Emperor's arrows.
"It has to be a Sung bow," Okugata Kinjo said. As the girl fell, she twisted so the bow would rest on top of her body.
Everyone stared at Ginaz as he laughed. "A half-elf girl called to serve and wielding a Sung bow!"
The entire throne room seemed to shudder as people tried to move farther away from the girl kneeling at the entrance. Unlike the archer, she still breathed. The bodies of swordmasters attested to the nobles' reason for fearing the girl.
"If she hadn't been exhausted, they wouldn't have gotten to her either," Lord Kinjo said.
"A year from being placed in the Warrior's hand," Ginaz replied with a nod. "Shin swords were modeled after the ones the Elf Twins wield. The girl isn't wielding Shin swords though."
"Yes!" Okugata Kinjo clapped her hands. "There was something about her bothering me. Those swords are like yours, Ginaz."
"No, Okugata," Ginaz said. "Mine stand somewhere between Shin and the Twins' swords, which I have only seen from a distance. The girl's swords are exact matches."
"She is Hanzo's student!" Lord Kinjo's shock was obvious. He looked from the girl to the Emperor.
"If it's true, his adopted mothers had a hand in her training," Okugata Kinjo said.
"The swords speak for themselves," Ginaz replied.
"Why is she hesitating?" Lord Kinjo asked, looking at the Emperor again. "If the Emperor finds out he's got someone connected to Hanzo within reach, he'll order everyone to attack her."
"How do we stand, my Lord?" Swordmaster Ginaz asked.
"I will not forsake the Lady for a Sammel worshipper." Lord Kinjo's reply made Okugata Kinjo gasp. "Arrangements have been made for our son. If the Emperor gives that order, get my wife to the docks, Ginaz. Her parents will give her sanctuary in Minami."
"I will not..." Okugata Kinjo started to say but stopped when her husband turned. Her teeth clicked. "I will obey my husband."
Okugata Kinjo looked at the ceiling and sighed. The bad part about being so pregnant was that, when her husband acted like LORD Kinjo, she was unable to enjoy it in the privacy of their bed chamber or the baths or, considering they were stuck in the throne room, a corner.
"Without the Sword prayer, she'll bleed to death soon enough." Ginaz stared at the Emperor's personal guard. "They'll wait for her to die."
"Lady!" Lord Kinjo cursed. "She's keeping us here."
He said the words too loudly. They spread like wildfire around the room until the Emperor and his guards turned to look at Lord Kinjo.
"Kill her!" the Emperor ordered, standing up from his throne. His guards jumped down the steps. They froze before heading towards the girl. They stared past her. The girl turned her head, closed her eyes and listened for what the guards saw.
"Too late, Emperor!" The walls echoed the glory in her voice.
"Oh!" Okugata Kinjo was not the only female to make the sound as the boy... No! As the man entered the Imperial Throne Room.
"And the last Sword of Gallis comes to die at my feet," the Emperor shouted.
"Swords died at Gallis, I am Steel," the Steel looked at the girl. "The Emperor is still alive?"
"Shikaku." She nodded towards a Hokubu noble and his guards.
"Sammel's dogs," the Steel said studying them. "The Goddess is kind."
"We are the Daggers of Gallis," one of the Hokubu guards challenged.
"My duty is not with you... yet," the Steel replied. "But if you say that again, I will gladly kill you and your leash holder first."
"No," the Hokubu noble said.
Lady Okugata smiled, if the noble's guards were assassins, their hatred of Swords and Steel could provoke them to foolishness.
"Let the boy be," the Hokubu noble instructed his guards.
"Mas--" The Emperor realized his mistake too late.
"Finish it, wormling," the Steel said. "I'm sure everyone knows who you serve: the Hokubu, that noble dog keeper over there, and Sammel."
"He lost them," Okugata Kinjo said looking at the Emperor. Her husband and Swordmaster Ginaz nodded. No Shin noble would openly stand with a worshipper of Sammel, not with someone called to serve the Goddess standing in the room.
"Accept the Goddess's embrace, little sister," the Steel said to the girl.
She stared up at him, "I would have been legend! Alone!"
He knelt down until their eyes were at the same level. She collapsed into his arms. He lay her down gently, folding her clothing into as neat a state as they could achieve with what she had put them through. The last thing he did before standing was close her eyes.