The Wolf and the Lamb
The Coyotes who first met the soldier's line could see Taylor behind it, and drove toward him with single-minded purpose. They didn't do it because they wanted to be the heroes of the Tribe, or because it was important to them to restore Order to the world – they did it simply because they hated him, passionately, intensely, with all their hearts. They'd been holding on to that hatred for a long time, each for their different reasons.
Perhaps one of them had lost sibling to disease or accident. Perhaps another's spouse had starved to death. Perhaps one had seen their friends fall off a cliff, or drown in a river, or bitten by a snake. It didn't matter; anything bad had been that sheep's fault. EVERYTHING was that sheep's fault!
Taylor was the reason. Someone had to be. As primitive as the Black-Faces were, they still considered themselves "good people", and bad things only happened to "good people" for a reason. It felt good for them to believe that, and the priests backed them up. The reason was Taylor. They just wanted to "get him", simple as that.
And if someone was standing in the way of that simple retribution - predator or prey - then they were just an annoyance.
The point of the mob impacted the center of the Akkelahn line first, and Laura the buffalo-girl proved to be a rather deadly annoyance. Blood began to fly. Her axe hacked into three Coyotes on her first swing, the force of it throwing them back into the mass of the Tribe.
She'd thought that would get them to back off, and was surprised when they just kept on coming, right into the death-arc of her weapon, and damn near faster than she could turn it around and swing it the other way. Her battle-axe was un-stoppable – but it was also slow. One dove for her right leg, and would have gotten there if Chirie hadn't impaled him with her sword.
Then, as soon as she began swinging the other direction, more dove in for her left leg. She managed to kick them away, this time, because she got lucky. Swinging an axe required her to keep her feet planted solidly on the ground almost constantly – she wasn't going to be able to do a lot of kicking. The way the Tribe was coming at her, she was going to be lucky to get in another swing before she'd have teeth in her legs. Powerful as she was, she just wasn't fast enough.
But Chirie was. She ducked under the swinging staff of the axe and impaled two of the Coyotes one after the other. Laura was aghast at seeing her there – the squirrel was putting herself in a very dangerous zone. Once Laura started a swing, there was little she could do to stop it, and if the squirrel-girl were to get in the way...
"Chirie! Get out of there!"
"Don't worry about me – I got it! Pretend I'm not even here – I know how you work!"
She needn't have worried, Chirie really did know how the bison "worked", a benefit of training with her - and against her - more often than not. She ducked under the axe when it was high, jumped over it when it was low, outran it, dove beneath it, side-stepped it, twisted herself away from it – sometimes she even used it, pushing herself up into the air by stepping daintily onto it as it went by, or grabbing it with one hand to flip herself over, like an acrobat.
Chirie and Laura became an ad-hoc team. If a Coyote managed to get past by the axe, then it would have to deal Chirie, and Chirie's sword, and Chirie's sharpened foot-claws, and even Chirie's teeth. Being a petite squirrel, she couldn't kill with her teeth – but all she needed was to distract her enemy long enough, and either her claws, or her sword, or Laura's ever-moving axe would finish the job. Bodies began to pile up in front of them.
The entire mob had run up against the defender's line by now, and the roar of battle was all-pervasive. There was no sound of metal-on-metal - only metal on flesh. Growls and howls and screams and shouts in four languages all merged into one, and blood flew in spurts through the air in all directions. It was almost pretty, but for the bits of fur, meat, and bone that flew with it. The soldiers various weapons and the Coyote's mouths were all smeared with blood. The warm and salty fog of it floated all around - everyone could smell it. A lot of life-force was being spilt today.
Horses used their deadly legs and also slashed with heavy broad-swords. Rats preferred short daggers, and they were incredibly fast with them, twisting their bodies in impossible ways. The badger's favorite weapon was a kind of staff with a blade on one end and a club at the other - they liked the feeling of brute-force it gave them - smashing skulls was their thing. Canines had no definable particular edge, but relied on their stamina - they'd be able to keep this up for hours and hours. Rabbits used short-range knives so they could put their legs into action, and the cats... well, the cats used everything.
As vicious as the Coyotes were, they'd never trained for actual warfare, so the Akkelahn and Hares held their own, but they were vastly out-numbered. Add to that, many of the Hares who'd come along weren't soldiers of any kind. Their only skill was in hiding, and the time for that was over. They started dying almost immediately, starting with the very old and the very young. One thing Coyotes could do was spot the weak.
Taylor - the cause of all this - began tending the wounded with Lee. He thought it would assuage his guilt, but it didn't help much. He would have preferred to fight, to put his own life on the line, but that would have been statistically foolish. Logic agreed with Backoh's order to stay behind the line, so he did. It was hard.
And "tending the wounded" wasn't the right phrase anyway, there was no time for "tending". The best he and Lee could do was to drag those who had fallen out of the fray, tell them they were going to be all right - regardless of whether it was true or not - and perhaps show them which of their wounds they should apply pressure to. There was no time for further treatment, and they knew there wouldn't be until the fighting had ended.
Even that little bit of care had to be handed out sparingly. There was little use spending too much time making the soon-to-be-dead comfortable. Such arbitrage was a hard lesson on the 16 year old apprentice shaman Lee, and would affect her the rest of her life. She was comforting men and women who were basically already dead and just didn't know it yet. The experience wiped way much of her religious training. Why would the ghosts of men and women be any different? Their blood was the same color, their faces showed the same anguish and fear, they both cried when they realized what was coming... the idea that spirits somehow retained their gender suddenly seemed blatantly ridiculous.
The two commanders - Ben and Backoh - rushed back and forth along the line, trying to keep it even, using Gordon as an equalizer, shuffling him back and forth - he seemed almost untouchable, his staff a blur. But even a Blood and Teeth Master could only do so much.
The couples in both armies wondered, from time to time, how their husbands, wives, and girl-or-boy-friends were doing, but there was no time to look around and find out. That would have to wait until the fighting ended. Only then would they know if they'd ever see their partners alive again. Battle is all about sacrifice, and those who would end up without having sacrificed - were only lucky, not blessed, not supersoldiers.
And even "lucky" is a relative term, because they - on either side - would always wonder, why not me? Why everyone else and not me?
The Akkelahn line was growing thinner as the less-experienced fighters fell. Gaps in the line were appearing, despite the two commander's efforts to plug them. They just couldn't find replacements fast enough, and a squad of particularly burly Coyotes managed to get through.
They headed straight for Taylor. Backoh saw this, and - since he happened to be right behind Gordon - pulled the rabbit out of the line to deal with them, taking his place in the meantime.
Gordon met them and dispatched one right away, before the coyotes realized that the he was even a threat. But three more jumped him. It was too many, even for Gordon, and he had to make his sacrifice: his staff whirled at one and then another - but the third had a clear shot at the rabbit's throat, and went for it. Gordon knew he would. He let go of his staff and barely had time to grasp the black jaws with his hands before they were around his throat and closing down.
Coyotes have very strong jaws. Slowly, despite Gordon's greatest efforts, the jaws began to close. The long, white teeth made contact with his skin, and still they closed, the points of those teeth pressing on his jugular. Instinct took over, and Gordon screamed the scream of a rabbit about to die.
Everyone heard, but most didn't look.
Teesah did. She saw Gordon lying on the ground, a Black-Face Coyote on his throat. The was sure Gordon was dead - or soon would be. She went berserk.
Dropping her sword, she left the line and ran for Gordon. Other coyotes poured through the hole behind her, but she didn't see, or care. Her claws pierced the fur of Gordon''s attacker in either shoulder, and her teeth sunk into the back of his neck. She lifted the Black-Face off of Gordon with her mouth, shook him like a rag-doll, and let him drop to the ground lifeless. Then she turned around and confronted those coyotes who had followed her through the hole she left. There were a lot of them.
Teesah had been fighting for survival, as a soldier in the Akkelahn army. That was over now, and she just fought, period, with no weapons other than those she'd been born with. Her claws slashed and cut, her teeth punctured and ripped, and saliva drooled copiously from her always-open mouth as she became the instinctive killing-machine of her animal center. There was no training involved in her fighting now, but she wasn't even aware of the difference. She wasn't aware of anything at all. There was no time for conscious awareness. It was all unconscious. She was a cougar - not a soldier, and Killing was her purpose.
While working up to the line again, she reached behind herself without looking and slashed open the gut of a Coyote coming up behind her. How did she know? She wouldn't have been able to say. She had no special warning, it just happened. Over and over and over like that - behind, to the side, in front, everywhere.
She worked her way back up to the hole she'd left in the line of soldiers, but didn't stop. The line had no meaning anymore. This was about her and her enemies, and that was all. There were Coyotes in front of her as far as she could see, a solid wall of them. Good. More Killing. Good.
The other Akkelahns could see Teesah in action now, and they all knew what she was, even if they had no idea how she got that way. Teesah was single-handedly clearing a path through the mob.
Laura watched too, and sensed what had happened. She let out a roar, overcome with her version of the same instincts that had over-taken Teesah. Being a bison, Laura's roar was LOUD. The other Akkelahn's - even the Hares, took it up. It was infectious. Most of the predators dropped their weapons and began to fight as their species dictated, rather than how they'd been trained.
The prey members of the Army had no "inner killing machine' - but they could see, hear, and to a certain extent even feel what it was like. The snarling and howling and growling of so many predators was getting to them too - but not in the usual way. Because these predators were their brethern. They had nothing to fear from them.
Perhaps the discipline of the Army was breaking down, but its soul was not.
One by one, the prey began to enter into an almost serene state of concentration - everything else blotted out, only the fighting remained. Survival was put on hold. Time seemed to slow down for them, the air seemed to grow clearer, unimportant sounds seemed muffled - as though underwater - while noises that had meaning to them stood out clearly. Even smells became more distinct.
For the predators, it was like giving in, but for the prey, it was like getting in, into a frame of mind, into the flow of each moment. It felt like fighting in syrup, or in a dream, where the dreamer knows what he should be doing but just can't seem to get his body to move fast enough. One of the Hares sliced through three throats with a single swing of his obsidian knife - it would have been four, if he hadn't needed to take the time to also stab another coyote in the gut because he was getting too close. It was almost easy - except for the damn syrup slowing him down.
The Akkelahn line moved forward, but dissolved at the same time. The army was no longer composed of soldiers obeying commands. Each soldier became an individual, a single instance of stimulus and response, all the different kinds in their different ways. The two commanders, Ben and Backoh, prey and predator, could only watch. It was obvious what was happening, and they didn't wonder why.
Because they could feel the same thing pulling at them that all the rest of the Akkelahn army felt, but they resisted the impulse. They couldn't afford the luxury of giving in. They were commanders. With no one left to command. They stared at the chaos in front of them, and then looked at each other, with no particular expression on their faces, then they too gave in, and literally jumped into the fray.
Only Lee and Taylor, tending the wounded, retained their rational, civilized minds. But after a moment, only Lee was left. Taylor couldn't stand it anymore, and unsheathed his sword. Not nearly a Blood and Teeth Master - but a very accomplished disciple, he too ran forward, and was lost in the mob. It was only the second time in his life he had actually killed, but he'd be damned if he was going to let all the wounded and dead suffer for his sake without risking something. Everything.
Lee saw, but continued on with her work. The clashing mob diffused around her - but didn't touch her. To the Black-Face Coyotes, she simply wasn't a threat. To the Akkelahn, she was a comrade, and even in their blood-lust, the predators could sense that. As everyone fought around her, she seemed to be surrounded by an invisible barrier of non-violence.
She didn't even notice. It didn't matter. Only the wounded and dying mattered, and nothing had any relevance for her but them.
And as the battle raged on, more and more things lost relevance for Lee. Everything she had ever been taught that made people "different" began to fall away. First it had been Male and Female - because what difference did that make when someone was wounded? Then Predator and Prey - they were all fighting for the same cause. Then Friend and Enemy - and she began tending to the wounded and dying Coyotes, too. They were in pain. Their fighting was done. What difference did it make which side they'd been on, now that they were dying? And finally - her transformation into Shaman complete - even the difference between Living and Dead lost significance.
They were ALL dead. Even her. Always had been. Dead from the moment they were born. It was only a matter of time. And Time was just something people made up, to explain why everything didn't happen all at once. Really, it was meaningless too.
The tide turned.
The Akkelahn - each of whom had been surrounded on all sides by Coyotes, with more awaiting their chance - now found themselves fighting only four or five at a time. The Coyotes began to hesitate, to wonder what was going on.. Unfortunately, it was a poor time for them to pause and reflect, and a great many of them died just as they were beginning to question whether it was worthwhile to continue fighting. It was becoming obvious that The Order of the world was not going to be restored by this battle. What did that mean for the future? There was little time to think about it and survive - not when their enemies seemed so... focused.
Their numbers continued to thin.
And good thing too, because Tristan had just about exhausted the last of his energy. He hadn't done much B&T training - or even exercise at all - for years now, so even in his animal-wolf state, he only had so much to give. He had to keep trying though, especially now, as a group of six Coyotes ganged up on him. They could smell his exhaustion. The wolf was weak.
He still twisted and snapped with all the speed and might he could muster - but it wasn't going to be enough, and in the depths of his mind, he was beginning to realize it. The Coyotes grew more bold, they moved in closer, the knot of them getting tighter.
Up to now, he'd been "in the flow", like the rest of the prey species, but seeing his boyfriend - his love, his partner - in danger did something to him. True, Taylor was a sheep. Prey.
But he was also a ram, and finally, that took over. He dropped his sword, lowered his head and ran for all he was worth at the cluster of Coyotes.
The backbone of the Coyote he smashed into snapped, but that didn't stop him. As that Coyote fell on top of Tristan, pushing him face-down into the ground, Taylor continued running right over the top of them both, smacking into the ribcage of the Coyote who'd been in front of the wolf and sending her flying. Her ribs collapsed like dry twigs from the impact of Taylor's horns, shredding the lungs and puncturing her heart. She was dead before she hit the ground.
That had used up the last of Taylor's momentum, but he turned around in a flash, just as a Coyote tried to go for his throat. Taylor butted him in the head and bashed his skull in. The remaining three Coyotes stared at him for a moment - and Taylor stared back - then they fled.
A lot of other Coyotes had been watching him - their prime target after all. And when they saw their brothers flee from the ram's wrath - that was it. It was time to go. They too fled. Almost instantly, all the remaining members of the Tribe - little under a hundred of them - abandoned the fight, some running, some limping. A few on their hands and knees.
To hell with The Order. The Order was gone. Apparently there was to be a New Order. So be it. And even a Black-Face Coyote won't die for nothing...
Taylor caught his breath and just stood there, in the sudden silence, uncomprehending. It was happening to everyone now. The prey shook themselves out of their trances, and the predators remembered who and what they were. The enemy was gone. The had won. But there were no hurrahs, no hooting for joy, no slapping of backs. They had paid a price for this.
And slowly, the individual people - no longer an Army because an Army needs a purpose - began shuffling among the wounded and dead, looking for friends, lovers, and partners.
"Can... can you get his guy offa me..." Tristan grunted.
Hearing that voice brought Taylor back to the here-and-now. "Sure, Tristan. Here..."
"What the hell happened, anyway?"
"I saw them all around you. I guess... I guess I charged."
"I guess you did. Hey - you're my hero now..."
Taylor helped Tristan get up, and they stared around at the other staggering survivors. The ground was red with blood - everywhere. Most of their fur was, too.
"Gods..." Tristan said, his writer's eloquence failing him.
"Yeah," Taylor agreed.
Laura got through the battle with only a few puncture wounds in her legs from Coyote teeth. Chirie didn't even have that - no Coyote had touched her. She was completely covered in blood, however, soaked through, dripping where she stood. Her fabulous squirrel-tail was so heavy she couldn't hold it up, and it dragged on the ground behind her, leaving a crimson trail. She went looking for her cougar-woman partner, Cinpah, while Laura similarly tried to find Backoh.
Both couples were re-united. A little worse for wear - but reunited.
Gordon had re-joined the fight once his death-shock wore off, and he also found his wife Teesah. One of her ankles had been torn open, so she limped painfully, and Gordon did what he could for her until either Taylor or Lee could come and do more. He considered himself lucky. There were a lot of forlorn-looking Akkelahn walking around who'd lost someone important to them.
Ben was one of them - or soon would be, anyway. He found his husband Dick amongst the wounded, where Lee had dragged him. Dick was in bad shape, chunks of flesh missing from various parts of his body. He was holding his intestines in with one hand, while the other pressed against his neck, trying to slow the bleeding there. He'd faded so much by the time Ben found him that he was barely conscious, and unable to talk. Ben could see that he wasn't going to make it, and knelt down beside him. Dick couldn't speak, but he could see. Choking noises came from his throat when he saw Ben.
"It's okay... it's okay, don't try to talk sweet-heart... it's okay..." He tried his best to appear comforting while his heart broke. It sounded trite. This was not the time for small-talk, or polite conversation. It wasn't even the time to sound comforting - Ben had only moments to say whatever he was going to say before Dick would never hear his voice again. It was time to say important things.
"...I love you."
Through the gasping and choking and the rattling of blood in his lungs, Dick's eyes told Ben everything he needed to hear: I know.
It physically hurt to see his husband in such pain, so from all the things Ben wanted to say - he felt like he could talk for days, if he had the chance - there was only time for two. And he'd said one of them already. Now there was only one left, and he hoped it would make Dick feel at least a little better - because it would shatter Ben's world -
"It'll all be over soon..."
'It' being Dicks life. Ben had really only meant that his pain would end soon, but as he heard his own words, it occured to him that, yes, it would "all" be over soon.
Dick's entire life. Would end. Here. Soon. Those words had a disturbing - and unintentional - finality.
Dick looked into Ben's eyes with his last conscious thought - and Ben would wonder for the rest of his life what his lover was trying to say.
"Here," Backoh said, sitting down with Ben beyond the range of the firelight that night, "You should eat something."
"Take it away."
"I know you don't want it - but you really should eat."
"Dick... Dick is..."
"I know. I saw. I'm sorry..."
Up until now, Ben had been feeling nothing but empty and desolate. That's why he'd been sitting there looking out into the blackness of the night. It, too, was empty. Nothing there. Blank. He'd been there for five hours, ever since he'd finally left Dick's side, sometime that evening.
But hearing Backoh's few and simple words made him choke as the meaning of his partner's death - the meaning that he'd been holding back without knowing it - engulfed him. It wasn't so much that he was alone now, that he'd never be in Dick's company again. It was simply knowing that Dick had suffered and died - and there had been nothing he could do about it.
It seemed... unfair. Ben's chest spasmed with silent sobs.
And Backoh sat there, as if taking over the staring into the darkness while Ben cried. Backoh had never realized that a man could love another man that much. It was a revelation. In the future, he would feel stupid about being surprised like that.
After awhile, he said, "I'll leave this here - you should eat - and I'll check on you later, Ben. I'm sorry about your husband."
"Thanks," Ben said. Something in the tone of the cougar's voice made him feel better. He would still grieve for awhile - but eventually, life would go on, and he knew it. It was just that... life... would be different, now.
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