"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.
.... There is more of this story ...