I do not own any elements of the Buffy or Warhammer universe or characters.
Winter was coming, and it was bitterly cold in Axe Bite Pass. Two ex-farmers, turned brigands by lack of success, hunched down behind a boulder and pulled their threadbare cloaks tighter around themselves.
"Where be the wagon, Hans?" snarled the first brigand in a guttural Bretonnian accent. "A few hours behind, ye said, and we've been here all day."
"Calm yerself, Jens," said Hans, rubbing his hands together. "It'll be here. A rich, fat merchant moving without guards, that's what Samar said. Jus' be patient." Jens's presumably scathing retort was interrupted by a short scream echoing through the pass, followed by a nearby thump
. The brigands exchanged glances, then drew their rusting shortswords and ducked out from behind the boulder. A woman was laying face down in the middle of the pass, her blonde hair a beacon amongst the grey stone of the mountains. Hans and Jens strode up to her, weapons ready. The slow shift of her torso indicated that she breathed, but she did not stir. "How did she sneak up on us?" asked Hans. "We should have heard her coming ten mile away."
"Maybe she's a witch," said Jens, and he raised his sword.
"No!" Hans grabbed Jens's arm. "What if she's a Damsel of the Lady?"
"They're the Lady's chosen, Hans. They don't spend their time falling out of the sky in bedamned desolate bloody passes. She's a witch."
"What if she's not?" hissed Hans.
"If she's a Damsel, I'll not be able to touch her," Jens said patiently. "If she's a witch, though, this'll cut her head right off." He raised his eyebrows at Hans, who reluctantly released Jens's arm. "Right." Jens took careful aim, raised his shortsword above his head--
In a blur of motion, the blonde woman rolled onto her back and kicked at Jens's knees. He fell to the ground with a strangled cry. As Hans swung his own sword, the woman rolled to the side and up onto her feet. Hans slashed at her wildly; she dodged the blow, knocked the sword from his hand with casual ease, then closed and grabbed his wrist in a vice-like grip. The blonde woman twisted and pushed; Hans dropped to his knees facing away from her, his right arm in a lock behind his back.
"I'm not a damsel," the blonde said in Hans's ear. "Now tell me where the hell I am." He scrambled for a response that would satisfy the madwoman, and his arm was wrenched an inch higher up his back.
"Agh! Axe Bite Pass! Axe Bite Pass!" Hans gasped.
"Yeah, thanks, that's a big help," the blonde muttered. "Guess I'm in a different world or something. Great. All right, where's the nearest...town?"
"F-Foothold," Hans said. "In the Dukedom of Montfort."
"West." A fresh burst of pain shot through his arm. "The - the direction I'm facing! A few hours walk, only!"
"Fine," the woman said, and Hans felt a sharp pain on the side of his head.
Buffy stepped over the unconscious thief, and kicked his accomplice in the side of the head - just hard enough to start naptime. She shivered, suddenly feeling the cold wind that howled through the pass. Axe Bite Pass. Well, it was certainly appropriate; the place was just a worn road through a narrow gap between towering grey cliffs. Kind of Mordor-ish, but a few shades lighter. She pulled the cloaks off both the thieves, and after some reflection took their swordbelts, swords and coin purses as well. The weapons were old and rusty, but better than empty hands; she could at least give somebody tetanus. So, stranded in another dimension. Buffy clinched the swordbelts as tight as they could go, to stop them falling off her less-than-ample hips. Find a witch, or whatever passed for a magic-user here, and beat a portal home out of them. Good plan. Short, simple, probably totally unworkable. Buffy sighed, and started walking. The only people she passed on the road to Foothold was a merchant headed into the pass, accompanied by half-a-dozen well-armed guards.
Henri Leroux and Jasson Sabien sat at a table inside the Boar's Breath, trying to ignore the noise and smell of the tavern's other customers.
"What brings you to Foothold?" said Jasson. "And why must we meet in such a place as this? Lord Malcolm would not deny you his hospitality. We don't get many visitors, here at the edge of the realm."
"I like this place no better than you," Henri growled. "But it is unobstrusive." He stared around the crowded tavern, looking for anyone sitting too close or looking at the two disguised knights. A short man in a hooded cloak was huddled in a corner, a knot of young men were laughing raucously at the bar, but no one was looking at the two men.
"If it makes you feel better, those idiots at the bar are squires. Mingling with the lowborn makes them feel powerful, I suppose," said Jasson.
"As you say. I came to ask you to return."
Jasson shook his head. "My vision bade me serve at Foothold until summer arrived. I cannot abandon my quest."
"We need you, Jas," Henri said, leaning forward in his chair. "We need all the trustworthy knights we can gather."
"To what end?" said Jasson, taking a sip of his mead and pulling a face at the taste. "King Louen is dead, may the Lady carry him to his rest, and he has a male heir who has completed his Quest. Do you plan to challenge Randulf for the throne?"
"Randulf has refused the crown!" said Henri. "He says that the Lady appeared to him in a vision, that his destiny lies elsewhere." Jasson set his cup down, and scratched at his chin.
"Then the Enchantress will name a successor," said Jasson.
"She has not been seen since last winter," said Henri. "There are whispers at Court, and many knights have come to the city - to mourn, they say. Their numbers worry the Chancellor of the Treasury."
"His age makes him fearful," said Jasson, waving a hand dismissively. "No knight would dare go against the Enchantress's will. In any wise, the Grail-touched have a substantial presence in the capital, do they not?"
"They will only act on the Enchantress's orders. And my fear is not for the throne, but the powers behind it. Already there are whispers of the power the Dukes would wield without a King to rule over them. There is talk of a Regency Council, to rule the land until a successor is named."
"And you fear that the Council might simply never end." Jasson frowned. "Perhaps the Chancellor is right to fear. Who talks loudest of a Council?"
"Parravon is one, but I believe he desires only stability. It is Lyonesse and Bastonne that worry me. They are without dishonour, yet I fear they would have a King later, rather than soon..."
Henri trailed off as the tavern fell silent. Bells were pealing outside, not once or twice but continuously.
"It's the alarm!" one of the squires yelled. "The castle is under assault!" Out in the street, there were screams, and the sound of pounding feet. Henri rose to his feet, shucked his cloak and unstrapped his sword from his back. Jasson stood as well, drawing his belt knife and a long dagger tucked in his boot.
"Shall we fight our way through to the castle?" Jasson asked.
"I fear we are cut off. Let us see what manner of enemy we face." As the two knights strode towards the door, the man in the grey cloak stood and drew two shortswords. Now that the man was standing, Jasson could see that he had the build of a boy.
"Do not risk yourself, child," Jasson told the boy. The cloaked figure shook its head, but before anyone could speak further the tavern's sturdy oak door was knocked from its hinges with a great crash-whump
. The figure standing in the doorway was tall and pale, with red eyes that gleamed in the lantern-light. It wore an antiquated cuirass and held a long sabre; as it grinned at those inside the tavern, it showed two long fangs.
"By the Lady!" Jasson said softly. A blood-drinker!
"Henri Leroux--" the vampire began, but was cut off by two sudden events. Henri and Jasson bellowed war-cries and ran forward to stop the creature at the door, as the grey-cloaked boy took aim and hurled one of his shortswords clean through the vampire's neck. The creature reached up and broke the blade away with one hand, then had to raise its guard as Henri hacked at its knees. It turned the blow aside, and riposted with unnatural speed. Henri had overextended, but Jasson knocked the vampire's sabre away with his long dagger, and swiped at the creature's sword hand with his belt knife. The vampire jerked away from the blow, and cut at Jasson's neck. Jasson blocked the blow with crossed dagger and knife, but the vampire continued to bear down. Jasson faltered and would have fallen, but Henri brought his sword around in a half-crescent and lopped off the vampire's hand at the wrist. The creature gave an animalistic shriek of pain, and darted back into the street and away.
Jasson stepped back from the door, breathing heavily. "My thanks, Henri."
"Mine to you, Jas." Keeping one eye on the doorway, Henri glanced at the youth in the grey cloak. "And to you, boy. That was a mighty throw!"
"Henri, listen," said Jasson. From outside, they could hear footsteps. A large group marching in time. Henri turned to the squires huddled near the bar.
"Arm yourselves as best you can, and try to act like armsmen of Bretonnia - not a sewing circle of dewy-eyed maidens." The grey-cloaked boy let out a short bark of laughter, but fell silent as something struck the front of the tavern with a thunk
. Henri eyed the wall, with its two large windows covered by thin deer hide to let in light. There was another thunk
, and then a halberd slashed through one of the hides. Through the tear Henri could see skeletal warriors carrying ancient polearms, crowding around the tavern and cutting at its front wall. The halberds began to develop a rhythmn, a steady thunk
"They're cutting themselves entry points, so they don't have to enter one by one," said Jasson.
"Their master is a cunning one, and strong, to command them so," said Henri. "There's more than one vampire abroad tonight." He raised his sword in a two-handed grip, and stood before the left-hand window. "I've no taste for being hacked down from behind in a stinking peasant street. Let us hold this place."
"If only my quest had been to find the worst mead in the kingdom," said Jasson with a chuckle, moving to stand between the open doorway and the right-hand window. "I would be supping from the Grail even now."
"If that had been your quest," said Henri, watching the skeletons clearing the windows. "You would have died in a drunken stupor within a week of your beginning." Jasson opened his mouth to reply, but instead blinked as the grey-cloaked boy went to stand before the right-hand window.
"You had a lucky throw, boy," said Henri. "That does not make you a knight." The grey-cloaked figure shrugged and shook its head. Jasson went to speak, but the first wave of skeletons began to enter the tavern, and the two knights were absorbed in the battle before them.
For a few minutes it was grim but simple work, careful blows to knock heads and limbs from the walking dead. The undead's halberds hampered them in the close quarters, and once the weapon arm was removed the rest was easy. Jasson was aware of the boy fighting beside him, making surprisingly short work of the skeletons. After twenty or thirty strokes, the boy's rusted shortsword shattered. Before Jasson could say or do a thing, the boy had yanked a halberd from the nearest skeleton, and begun to jab the haft into the undead throng, shattering joints and snapping spines. Jasson smiled at the youth's ferocity, and tried to ignore the burning in his arms as he cut the hands from a skeleton and knocked it backwards into the street. The three of them fought on, two knights and a hooded boy, until the street was empty save for quiet piles of bones. Sweat dampening his skin and running into his eyes, Jasson turned and grinned at the youth, who was holding his thid halberd of the night.
"Well done, lad. You've got a better arm than the Duke of Brionne!"
Something laughed outside the tavern, dark and bloodily amused. "Well fought, good knights," said a male voice from the darkened street. "I must commend you on disarming
Sarin. A salutary lesson on the limits of immortality."
"Begone from this place, night-beast!" Henri shouted through the window. "Or we'll spit you through the heart and leave you for the sun to roast."
"Ah, Sir Leroux," the voice drawled. "You are there after all. Excellent. I had hoped not to have come all this way for nothing."
"Your trip appears fruitless," said Jasson. "The garrison will be here any moment, to put some distance between your head and your shoulders."
"The castle garrison? Oh no, they're quite distracted," the voice said silkily. "But I must admit, your position appears solid. A pretty problem, yet I see a solution for both of us."
"I suppose you'd like us to step out and bare our necks," Henri said sourly.
"Oh, no," said the voice. "Nothing of the sort. I propose single combat, with your continuing safety this night the prize."
"Don't do it, Henri," Jasson said urgently. "A vampire will take you apart in a duel."
"Oh, no," the voice interjected. "I have no interest in Sir Leroux, save the orders I am bound to obey. My challenge is for the lady with the strong right arm, whose blood...mmm...smells like autumn wine."
Henri glanced around the tavern. "You want to fight the tavern wench?"
"No," said the grey-cloaked boy, in a strong but feminine voice. Henri stared as the boy pulled his hood back, revealing bright-blonde hair and delicate features. "I'm cool with a challenge," the lady said calmly. "As long as you tell your little baby vamps coming in the back door to nick off."
"My apologies," the voice said. "They have an unfortunate tendency to act on their own initiative
"My lady," Jasson said desperately. "I cannot allow you to do this. Please, let me fight in your stead."
"That's fine, except for the part where it's stupid." The lady sighed. "Look, I guess you've got a whole code of chivalry thing going on in this place. So just close your eyes and hum real loud, while I knock this creep's head off."
"My underlings have withdrawn," the voice said. "We shall fight in the street, where all may see."
The blonde lady stepped out through the torn window-hide before Jasson could stop her, halberd propped on her shoulder. She walked to the centre of the street, and looked up at one shadowed rooftop.
"I'm not fighting with this crappy axe-on-a-stick," she said firmly. Something moved on the rooftop, and a man-sized form dropped down to the muddy street. It was a vampire, shorter and stockier than the one Henri had wounded. This vampire wore no armour, only a black shirt and trousers, and carried a longsword in each hand.
"Which would you prefer?" he said calmly.
"Left hand," the lady said after a moment, and the vampire raised its arm and threw the blade at her. Jasson tensed, ready to leap at the vampire for its craven attack, but the lady snatched the weapon out of the air with ease. She swept the slender blade through a series of slashes, and then settled into guard. "First blood, or death?" she called to the vampire.
"First blood," he said, and bared his fangs. "One does not eat a doe in one sitting."
"One does butcher annoyingly talkative vamps, though," the lady said with a smirk. Jasson shook his head in disbelief. What manner of woman was this, unfazed by mortal combat with a creature of the night? "When do we start?" the lady asked.
"Now," said the vampire, and he lunged, faster than Jasson's eyes could follow. There was a clang-scrrch
as the swords came together and scraped apart, and then the duel began. The vampire was a daunting foe, faster than any human and with what Jasson thought might be centuries of experience. It did not tire, constantly shifting direction, style and speed of attack without any sign of fatigue. Jasson knew that it would have totally outmatched any Knight of the Realm, that it would have killed him or Henri in the first exchange.
The blonde lady was better.
It took Jasson a while to see it, for his eyes and mind to adjust for the blurring speed of the duel and begin to watch the actual swordplay being performed. The lady was always in guard before the vampire could strike again, always perfectly balanced as she followed through with a stroke. Watching the vampire carefully, Jasson saw the tiniest of openings in the foul creature's defence. To a swords...woman...of the lady's calibre, it had to be blindingly obvious. Yet she refused to take it, counterattacking only where it was expected, striking at the vampire but not exploiting its weaknesses. Jasson slowly realised what was happening. The lady was stalling. Perhaps for the arrival of the garrison, perhaps for the sun. He smiled, and lost himself in appreciation of the fight before him. In the half-light that the tavern's ruined windows spilled onto the street, vampire and lady were fighting a duel of two masters of the sword.
"Blessed of the Lady," Jasson murmured.
"Aye," said Henri. "Or some fell creature in disguise." Both knights winced as vampire and lady locked their swords overhead in the classic prolonged engagement. Both bore down on the other, blades scraping together. One heartbeat. Three. Seven. At nine, the vampire disengaged and stepped backwards, the lady not taking the opportunity to strike.
"You play with me?" the vampire snarled. "Me?
"Sorry, it's a bad habit of mine," said the lady. "Playing with my food before I eat it." She bared her teeth, showing her own small canines to the vampire. There were distant sounds now, screams and hoofbeats. The garrison was on its way. The vampire attacked again, sacrificing technique for a little more speed. The lady parried without exertion, did not riposte. The distant hooves were drawing closer. Another exchange, and the lady blocked with such force that the vampire staggered backwards. She followed it, taking the offensive for the first time, and in a blur of steel the vampire's head flew off his shoulders. Sword still outstretched, the lady watched the corpse crumble away. "First blood."