November 2022 Newsletter
THE BLACKSMITH QUEEN
They abruptly stopped yelling and looked each other, both leaning back. One sizing up the other and vice versa.
At the same moment, they both asked, “You know?” Then, “How do you know?” Which led to, “Who told you?”
Keran snorted and scratched a scar on her scalp. She had a lot of scars.
“You two,” she complained. “Who cares how you found out? Does any of that matter? I think our real concern should be Beatrix being queen.”
When the pair only stared at her, Keran let out a very long sigh. “So we’re going to play this game now, are we? You can’t seriously be thinking—”
“With the right advisors—”
“Oh, Keeley, come on! I know she’s family and all but you can’t be serious.” Keran motioned to Gemma. “And what about you, nun? Are you just going to stand there and let this happen?”
“She’s our sister.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t even like her!”
“That’s not the point,” Keeley cut in. “She’s family. Our family.”
“Your family,” Gemma muttered.
“I know she’s family,” Keran shot back. “But that doesn’t mean—”
Gemma suddenly raised her gloved hand, cutting Keran’s next words off.
“Can you hear it?” she asked.
“I can hear it,” Keeley said, stepping forward. “Someone’s screaming . . .”
On horseback, he charged over the hill that led to the farm. He held the reins of two other horses, bringing them along with him as he screamed in warning. It took a second for Keran to remember him.
“They’re coming!” Samuel desperately bellowed. “They’re coming!”
Keeley saw the boy she’d rescued come over that hill and heard the words he was screaming . . . and she knew. She just knew.
“They’re coming for Beatrix.”
“They’ll burn this farm down and kill everyone.” Gemma said out loud what the three of them already knew. It was the way of the Old Kings. They left no witnesses to what they’d done, and Keeley doubted his remaining sons would be any different.
“Gemma, the children.”
Gemma didn’t even speak, just ran to the house.
“Keran. Go to the stables,” Keeley ordered her cousin, motioning with both her arms for the boy to head to the stables as well. She didn’t want him riding over the main field in front of the house. “Let the Amichais know what’s happening and let the horses out.”
“You’re worried about the horses?”
“We’ll need those horses to get everyone out of here, and if they’re trapped in a burning stable—”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Keran said, charging off toward the stable.
Keeley reached down and grabbed hold of the steel handle of her hammer. She hefted it onto her shoulder and started to walk across the field. Ready to challenge anyone who came over that hill to attack her family. If nothing else, she hoped to give the children enough time to get away.
But a panicked screech came from the trees on her right and she started running, taking her hammer off her shoulder and carrying it by her side.
She entered the small forest, already knowing what had made that sound, her heart dying a little in her chest. As she passed a large boulder, she saw the wild gray stallion stumble, three arrows protruding from his beautiful neck.
Keeley ran to her friend, reaching him as he dropped to the ground. He landed on his side, the sounds of his suffering tearing through her.
She fell to her knees beside him, dropping her hammer so she could place her hands on his head.
“No, no, no, no,” she chanted, tears filling her eyes.
She examined the wounds to see if pulling out the arrows would help. But even through her tears she knew it was hopeless.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered in his ear.
Kissing his head one more time, Keeley grabbed hold of the ends of two arrows and, after taking a deep breath, she shoved them all the way in and through the stallion’s neck. He thrashed a bit more while Keeley used her body to hold him down, but he soon stopped.
Sobbing, she rested her head against her friend’s body one last time. She knew she had to move. She knew death was coming for her family. Even now she could hear the hooves of warhorses all around, riding toward her family’s farm.
She didn’t have time to wallow in her grief. Especially now . . . with four strangers standing behind her.
Keeley reached for her hammer with a blood-covered hand.
“Now, now, brave girl. None of that,” a male voice said. “Hate to shoot you down before we even have a look at ya.”
She didn’t bother to grab her hammer, but she did wipe the gray stallion’s blood on the head, marking it for revenge, before she got to her feet and faced the men.
They wore surcoats of bright blue, with a jungle cat and swords emblazoned in even brighter gold on the front. One of them held a bow, an arrow already nocked.
“You must be the oldest,” a soldier with short brown hair said. But before Keeley could respond, he quickly added, “Didn’t mean that like it sounded. Just assuming you’re the oldest daughter. The one he didn’t want.”
“Which brother is paying you?” Keeley asked, wiping her still-wet eyes with the backs of her hands.
“The Devourer.” She smirked. “Of course.”
Gemma pushed her sisters and brothers toward the back door. The older ones helping the younger. Her mother was behind her, the youngest babe still attached to her breast. But her mother could do with one arm what many couldn’t do with two.
“Everyone out!” she ordered. “Move!”
Gemma yanked the door open just as the front door was kicked in. Her mother facing the intruders.
“Take care of them, Gemma,” she said, before pulling her youngest off her breast and tossing her to one of the older girls. “Go!”
Gemma pushed her screaming siblings out the door and didn’t look back.
Keran ran through the stables, unbolting the latches and swinging the gates open. With a yell, she set the horses running out the doors at the front, back, and sides of the building.
She stopped at the last stall, expecting to see the Amichais still there but they were gone. Not even their travel bags remained. She’d been hoping the warriors would help them fight, at least until the children were safe.
Disappointed, Keran ran back toward the front. She passed the boy who’d given them warning.
“You!” she barked at him. “Come with—”
The fist slammed into her face as soon as she’d made it out of the stables, flipping her head-over-ass into the dirt.
With her children out of the house, Emma faced the men who’d stormed into her home. She didn’t bother fixing her clothes. Her right breast was exposed, milk still dripping from where she’d pulled off her hungry baby.
Slowly, making sure she kept their attention, she took a step back. Then another. Attempting to move around the large table where her family ate every day.
One of the men smiled at her. “Don’t worry, luv. You’ll live long enough to see all your children die.”
Gemma started to lead the children straight into the woods behind the house, but she quickly realized troops were coming from that direction. So she turned them west. The lake was big and it would force the troops to go around it to get to the farm.
“Come. Quick,” she urged.
“What about Mum?” she heard one of them ask.
Gemma stopped, held her arms out to halt the children. Then she motioned them behind her, away from the riders she faced.
“Please,” she said to the armed men on horseback. It seemed they’d been sitting there, waiting for them. “They’re just children.”
“We have our orders.”
“I’m begging you, in the name of goodness. Don’t do this.”
Two men dismounted from their horses and walked toward her. She moved back, hoping they would stop. They didn’t.
“Please,” she asked again. “Don’t do this.”
Finally, they did stop, but the way they smiled at her . . .
“You’re one of those nuns, isn’t that right?” one of them asked.
“Never had a nun before,” the other one said.
“Oh, gentlemen,” Gemma sighed. “You disappoint me and my gods, greatly.”
Angus worked his way through the muck of the pigsty. He knew most were disgusted by such work. Most of his children were, but not him. He loved pigs! They were so friendly and funny. Each with its own personality, its own quirks.
So when they began squealing and running—panicking, actually—he knew something was very wrong.
Busy petting one of the pigs, crouched beside the animal before it took off running with the others, Angus simply looked over his shoulder. A unit of archers watched him, their bows nocked, the arrows aimed at him. And he didn’t think they had orders to bring him in alive.
“Oh . . . fuck.”
“Did the Devourer tell you to do this?” Keeley asked, gesturing to the body of the gray stallion. “To kill my friend?”
“He made too much noise. It was like he was trying to warn you.”
Keeley felt pain wash over her again. “He was. He was trying to warn me. And you killed him. And for what? Because the Devourer told you to kill a girl?”
“He’ll be king, you know. And we’ll be rich.”
“If you wanted to be rich, lads, you shouldn’t have come here.” Keeley gave a small shrug. “Actually, the last thing you should have ever done . . . was come here.”
Emma now stood on the far side of the table, staring at the men who’d invaded her home.
“You can keep moving away from us,” one of the soldiers said. “But it will only be worse for you when we catch you.”
“I’m not running,” she told them. “Me old gran would turn in her grave if she ever knew I’d run from worthless cunts like you.”
That’s when they charged. So she gripped the end of the table and lifted, shoved, and flipped it, using the strength she still had from her blacksmith days. Her power sent it across the room, slamming into the men and knocking them to the ground.
Angus dove into one of the cast-iron pig troughs his wife had made for him their first year on the farm. He landed, grabbed the sides, and rolled it over on top of him. Arrows hit the trough and bounced off. He waited for the ping of the last one hitting and then he pitched the trough at the archers.
Hearing it strike its mark, then the barks and gasps of men’s pain, he jumped to his feet and, with a scream of soldier’s rage, Angus Farmerson ran full force into his enemies.
Feet repeatedly struck Keran, hitting her in the sides and legs and back, but she kept her head protected as best she could by curling into a ball.
She heard a male roar and felt bodies land beside her. Lifting her head a bit, she saw that Samuel had thrown himself at two of the men. Now they were down to four.
Four she could handle.
The kicks to her body continued but she waited until one reached her right shoulder, striking and striking again. When the foot pulled back for another kick, she reached out, grabbed it behind the ankle, and yanked.
The man fell and Keran quickly rolled over him. She got to her feet, clearly surprising the men as they stopped their attacks to gawk.
She grinned. The weeks before she’d ever had her first time in the pit she’d been beaten nearly every day, by men and women mightier and meaner than this lot.
Lifting her foot, she rammed it into the face of the man she’d climbed over, enjoying the sound of the crunch and the gurgling that followed.
“All right, lads,” she said, pushing a slightly battered Samuel behind her. “Who’s first?”
Emma ran to the table and yanked free one of the two short swords she’d strapped to the bottom of it.
The soldiers were just attempting to get out from under it, so she stepped on the wood, pressing it down to pin them there—at least for a few more seconds—and swung her weapon. She cut the throat of one, hacked off the arm and part of the scalp of another.
The last had gotten to his feet. Emma spun and swung her weapon again. The steel blade she’d created herself years ago imbedded itself in his skin, and fresh blood spurted out, hitting her across the face and bare breast.
She wrenched the sword out and he dropped to his knees, staring up at her as his life’s blood flowed down his surcoat.
He would die soon and she turned to go out the back door, to her children. But she stopped short, realized she couldn’t let it go and spun back, gave one more strong swing of her arm. The soldier’s head flew across her kitchen, landing on the counter where she’d been kneading bread that morning.
There. Emma always liked when things were complete.
Angus swung the cast-iron trough to the right and into an archer’s head. He swung it left, ramming it into the shoulder of another. He sensed someone behind him, turned, and quickly jerked to the side. A blade slid by, just missing his gut, where it had been aimed.
He gave a growl and tossed the trough, making sure it hit another man coming up behind him, and reached out to the one with the sword. Angus’s fingers slid around the man’s throat and grasped his neck, squeezing until he felt bones break under his fingers like kindling.
Dropping the body in his hands, Angus stared at his family home. He knew his children and wife were somewhere, but he made the excruciating decision not to go to them. Not to help them. Instead, he did what he knew he had to do and ran behind the pigsty.
“Not only did you strike the wrong family,” Keeley went on, “but you killed this beautiful animal.” She pointed at the gray stallion. “That was a very tragic mistake. For you.”
“Your horse, was he?” one of them asked.
“No. But he was her son.”
The men frowned, temporarily confused, but the one on the far left, sensing something, quickly turned in time to see the front hooves of the gray mare come down onto him, forcing him to the ground and crushing his ribs into his chest.
Keeley grabbed her hammer, spun, and threw. It collided with the face of one soldier, sinking into the flesh and staying there.
She ran toward it, pulled the hammer out before the body could fall. A sword slashed toward her and she fell to the ground, rolling away from the weapon, but quickly jumped back to her feet.
Flipping the hammer around, so the head faced her, she used the handle to strike the soldier in the throat. Then she pressed a metal lever that rested by the head. A narrow blade burst from the handle and tore past soft flesh and out the other side.
Keeley released the lever, letting the blade retract into the handle, flipped the hammer again, and slammed the side of the last soldier’s head. He went down to the ground and Keeley followed up with another strike to the front, burying her weapon so deep, she finally hit dirt.
Panting, she yanked her weapon out. She walked to the gray mare, facing her head on. She carefully reached up, pressed her hand to the horse’s massive jaw, and rested her head against the mare’s nose.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” she whispered.
The mare let out a long sigh that Keeley felt to her bones, but then the mare was scrambling back and Keeley spun around, faced a new group of soldiers running toward her.
“Run!” she ordered the mare as she raised her weapon once more. But the horse stood her ground, refusing to move.
Every time the two men moved closer, Gemma and the children backed up. She did it again and again until her mother finally ran out of the house, a sword in each hand.
“Where have you been?” Gemma demanded, her gaze locked on the two men. The others on horseback stayed by the tree line, in no apparent rush to move things along. They assumed they had all the time in the world to entertain themselves with Gemma’s family.
“I couldn’t leave until I was done. You know that.”
She did. Her mother was nothing if not obsessive. It could be irritating on a day-to-day basis, but at times like these . . . Gemma loved her for it.
Reaching back with one arm, Gemma wiggled her fingers. Her mother placed one of the swords into Gemma’s hand and the men, who at this point were only a few feet away, grinned.
“You and your mum going to challenge us, Sister? Do you think that’s wise with the child—”
Gemma cut off the head of one soldier, the one that wouldn’t shut up. Then she removed the head of the other while he was still trying to pull his sword from its sheath.
She heard the surprised gasps and cries of her siblings and the startled stomping of the mercenaries’ horses, but she ignored it all.
Even as the mercenaries yelled at her, even as they readied their attack, she kept her focus and tossed the sword back to her mother.
Gemma crouched down and turned the headless bodies over so that both were chest down. She pressed a hand on the back of each, lowered her body a bit, and kept her gaze focused on the grass beneath them. With a growl, she began the chant.
“Gemma,” her mother urged. “Get on with it.”
But Gemma blocked her out. She had to. Even as she heard the hooves powering nearer, she kept her focus.
The chant completed, she quickly got to her feet and faced the killers riding toward her.
Closer and closer they got until the headless bodies moved. . . .
The horses reacted before the men riding them, rearing up, and colliding into one another as they attempted to get away; fighting their riders’ demands to move forward.
As the mercenaries fought to stay on their mounts, Gemma reached for the collar of her white robe and untied it. Loosening it, she grabbed the two sides and pulled hard, ripping the garment in two.
She stepped out of it, and the first mercenary who managed to get his horse under control saw her . . . and stared. In horror.
After a few seconds, he began screaming. Loud enough that everyone could hear. Everyone would know.
“War Monk! She’s a War Monk! WAR MONK!”