Killing a demon was almost as difficult as being a man, Joenna reflected as she jerked free her ax from the corpse. Crouching in its vast shadow, she scanned the battlefield, hoping to spot her captain or the banner of their company. The darting figures of men could be seen between the hulking figures of the demons. There! She saw the crimson banner held aloft, its bearer defended by three soldiers. A demon towered over them, smacking the feeble standard down before it struck the bearer in two.
Joenna cried out, then cursed herself as a group of demons broke off from the mass and sprang to the attack, their tattered leather wings darkening her view.
Gritting her teeth against the throb of muscles too long abused, she fended off the first sword. With the backswing, she hacked the leg off the next demon, the huge creatures blocking each other in their eagerness for blood.
Momentum swung her around to face a third, the reek of its breath staggering her as she ducked the poisoned blade. With a sweep of its ragged wings, the demon sprang into the sky. It howled and a chorus of replies answered.
Joenna stumbled back from the waves of sound, both hands flying to cover her ears. The ax-haft she still gripped gave her a nasty knock. “Blue Lady smother me for a fool!”
Across the ruined field, warriors dropped to their knees, hands pressed to their ears. Like her captain, Joenna had stuffed hers with wads of wool, but the sound came on, rattling her teeth and aching her bones.
“Shut up, shut up,” she chanted through clenched teeth. As she swung wildly, she scanned the corpses and stones, searching for her company and hoping they fared better than the poor sots tossed on the points of demon swords. She had been doing this too long now to feel sick any more, or even to feel much sympathy.
Distantly a horn-blast called her back. The demon’s weak wings gave out and it dropped heavily, slamming to the earth in her path. The others shifted away, leaving her to face the shrieker. Its knobbed face split into the parody of a grin, the blood-spattered skin more red than brown.
Snarling, Joenna raised her ax and roared. She roared as if she were giving birth and this monster was the bastard who’d got her there.
For a moment, the beast hesitated, its dripping jaws gaping, and Joenna charged, swinging the ax for all that she was worth and more. Short and quick, she ducked the demon blade and carved into its belly.
The creature gave a horrid scream, and Joenna said a prayer of thanksgiving for the wool which cut the sound. Dark viscera spilled out as the demon struggled backward and fell.
“Come on! Joseph, come!” shouted a hurrying figure.
Thank the Lady, it was the captain! Propping the ax on her shoulder, Joenna leapt the thrashing of the demon’s tail to join the retreat. Grabbing wounded comrades and stumbling over the dead, the scattered army fled. They flung themselves over the ridge of stone, a barrage of flaming arrows fending off the demons in pursuit, letting the soldiers burrow into tunnels too small for demons to follow.
Into the cavern where they had their camp, men straggled by twos and threes. Joenna bent over, hands on knees, catching her breath.
Beside her, the captain stopped to clap her on the shoulder. “Good work, Joseph—if we’d a few more like you, we’d rout those bastards, eh?”
Despite her exhaustion, Joenna snorted her laughter. “There aren’t no more like me, Gavin. You’ve got the original.” She plucked the wool from her ears and wiggled her jaw to clear out that stuffed-up feeling.
He laughed back, pushing the red shag of hair from his face, leaving it red with blood. “Aye, well, if more men were inspired…” he trailed off, his excitement fading. “Gods, I’m sorry, Joseph. I don’t mean…”
She straightened and nodded once. “Aye, Gavin, I know. If every man who lost a son joined battle with us today.”
He lowered his gaze. In a softer voice, he asked, “Have you made your mark yet?”
Grunting, Joenna lifted the ax once more and stroked the smooth wood of its handle. A dozen years ago, she taught her boy to hew logs with this very ax, the weapon now used to avenge him. The head had none of the fancy work some smiths were prone to, but it kept a good edge and was not so large that a boy, or a woman, would have trouble wielding it. Just below that head, twelve notches chinked the wood. She wiped away the new sheen of blood already turning the notches to the dark, aged brown of the rest of the wood. Slipping a knife from her belt, Joenna hesitated. “Two for sure . . . and a leg wound.” Raising an eyebrow at Gavin she offered a smile. “To be honest, the morning’s a bit of a blur, isn’t it?”
“I saw you take one by the river, early on, then we were hard-pressed for a while. I lost track of you.“ He sighed. “We’re down four men today, that’s only six of us from the troop remaining.” Again, he scrubbed a hand over his face. More red streaked his ruddy cheeks and trailed down into his beard.
Joenna frowned, then turned back to her ax. “Makes three, then.” Carefully, she cut three new notches. Fifteen. Seven more to go to make the total of his years, her son’s life cut short in this damnable war. “That your own blood, Cap’n?” The urge to care for his wound prodded at her conscience but four months of playing her role kept her still.
Gavin stared into his hand. “Aye, it may be. I keep wiping it off, but I feel only the dirtier for it." He stiffened, his glance sharpening. "Oh, Gods.” He turned abruptly, striding away.
Tracking his gaze, Joenna found a small party approaching. Dressed in the dull camouflage of scouts, they walked stooped over, black hair sticking out in tufts from misshapen heads. Heavy swords that would have reached her breast were strapped across their backs. Her stomach knotted when she saw them, but she merely nodded acknowledgement, seeing the slant of exhaustion in their long limbs.
The leader stopped and blinked at her, then gave a queer grin, wide open to show his snagged teeth. “Don’t you run with your captain when the orcs come calling?” His guttural voice grated on her ears, but she stood her ground.
When the orcs come calling. Joenna shuddered and swallowed hard, her eyes dropping for a moment, then she shook her head. “Your mother was no orc, was she?”
“Doesn’t matter to your kind, does it?”
Growling, his two companions trotted off, their long arms dangling dangerous fists.
Joenna gave them a sidelong glance, then faced the half-orc before her. “What’s your name, then?”
“Are we playing at questions?” He shook back his hair—longer than her own, and more comely since she had hacked hers off without a thought to appearance. The face revealed, once he closed his mouth, looked nearly human. To be sure, his nose was over-large and flat, and his eyes a curious dull black, like two cauldrons freshly scrubbed.
Now that she stood still, the aches returned with full ferocity and Joenna groaned, dropping the ax to put her hands at her back. She was too old for this. “Get on with you—if you can’t have a civil conversation, I’ve done with it.”
The half-orc’s fingers twitched and his big nostrils flared as if he smelled magic. His eyes narrowed, then widened over another grin. “Valanor, like the hero of old. My mother read the classics.” He hissed the last word, drawing it out. His mother was a lady, then, and if he had been another son, he would have been a knight riding with the king’s men rather than a scout derided by the very men he served.
Joenna nodded her understanding. “Mine’s Joseph. You know a lad named Loref?”
Pulling himself up almost straight and a good deal taller than she, Valanor replied, “Aye. He rode with the ones who went after the dragon, and died there, I’m told.”
“He was a friend of mine.”
Valanor regarded her, his black eyes unblinking, then he tossed back his head and laughed, the sound raucous and brutal in its bitterness. “Cor—I didn’t think you full-bloods could turn your spite so subtle. A friend of yours? What’s that make me, your brother?” His cackling broke off and he spat on the ground at her feet. With a snarl low in his throat, he spun away and caught up with his kin in long, loping strides.
“What’d they have to say to you, eh? Nothing good, I’ll warrant,” Gavin rumbled, returning with a fresh bandage wrapped around his forehead.
Joenna opened her mouth to answer from her anger and exhaustion, then clamped it shut again when the general stomped up. She dropped a short bow, gasping against the confines of the breastplate which held her too tightly. Breastplate—now there was an irony!
“Captain, Joseph.” The general nodded to each in turn. “Good work out there.”
“Thank you, sir,” Gavin replied, then hesitated until the general prompted, “What is it?”
“Had a thought just now, sir.” He looked off where the half-orcs had gone, a little enclave surrounding a grubby pond where they set about their compulsive bathing. “Demons don’t care for that sort any more than we do, do they?”
The general gave a noncommittal whuff through his graying mustache.
“Well, what if we put them in a vanguard attack, get the demons so bent on ripping them up that we might get an edge on them?”
“You can’t do that,” Joenna blurted, drawing the officers’ keen eyes to her. She floundered, then finally said, “They’re our scouts, sir. Without their noses, we’d not know where the demons are.”
The general snapped, “But we know where the damn things are”—he thrust his arm toward the roof—“they’re at our very doorstep!”
“Just so!” Gavin matched the general’s fervor.
“And we need a change of tactics. This may be the very thing. Good thinking, Gavin.” He gave the captain an approving smile, tight-lipped and regal, then ruffled his mustache, staring toward the scouts and nodding to himself.
Across the room, Valanor hitched a thumb in their direction, gesturing to his comrades as he told his tale, the new joke some full-blood had tried on him. Joenna, despite her age and uniform, felt her cheeks flush. She gritted her teeth, then said, “Sir?”
“Mmm?” A gray eyebrow arched at her.
She took a deep breath. “These half-breeds—they’ll need a leader, someone brighter than they are to bring this thing off.”
“Mmm.” The general frowned, flicking his glance to Gavin, then around the cavern to the other commanders minding the battered remnants of the army.
Joenna, too, looked to Gavin, noting the sudden pallor of his wounded face. “I was thinking, sir, that you’ll not like to waste a good officer on this, and I know I’m no officer at all—and not like to be—“she chuckled, hoping to strike a note of humor, and failing, she plunged ahead—“but I’ll do it, sir, if that’s your will.” For her son's sake she stood firm.
“Joseph,” Gavin muttered, “it’s suicide,” but the general focused down his long nose at her, mustaches bristling.
“You raise a point,” he mused. “You do raise a point.”
“Please, sir,” she glanced toward the scouts. “What better way to avenge my son?”
“Yes, yes.” He looked her up and down, frowning at the top of her head, but nodding at the heft of her ax. “Good lad, your boy. Keep the rabble together, eh, Joseph, and if you win through, there might be a commission in it for you.” He slapped her shoulder and she hid her wince. “Meantime,” he drawled, “Get some rest, we’ll work out the details. Come, captain.”
She bowed again as they drew away, Gavin looking back at her for a moment. The general leaned over to him and whispered, “What’s the name of Joseph’s son?” as they left earshot.
At last, Joenna flopped on her aching buttocks and loosened the breastplate. Her breasts underneath seemed to protest their freedom almost as much as they had protested the close-quarters. She drew a long, shaky breath and lay back, pillowing her head on her sack of worthless belongings. They’d tell her the plan some time, and probably tell her troops when they kicked them out of bed for the assault—why bother to warn the rabble? Her mouth tasted sour, and the backs of her eyes throbbed to the pulse of her heart. Tomorrow, she would lead the half-orcs in a feint against the demons, hoping to kill her seven, even if she never again notched her ax. Tomorrow, she would die.
* * *
The thought was still in her mind as Gavin introduced her to the company that she would lead, with the general looking down his nose at the lot of them. The half-orcs, awakened early to this news, glared at her from their kettle-black eyes. They squatted on their haunches, long arms dangling, long fingers working into fists and back again as if they sought a throat to close over.
“And if we don’t?” said Valanor. “If we refuse to follow that”—a sharp gesture at Joenna—“to this slaughter?”
“You shall be ignoring a direct order and I shall have you slaughtered by your own army. They may be only too happy to comply. Have I made myself clear?” the general said, the three feathers of his golden helmet bobbing over his shoulders. “I am giving you the unprecedented opportunity to die with an honor you do not deserve, and to see that our forces win out.” He pivoted on his heel to give Joenna the benefit of his regard. “This charge shall be known as Joseph’s Charge. Best of luck. We’ll be an hour behind you.” He gave a stiff nod and left them.
“You’re a brave man, and a good soldier,” Gavin murmured close to her ear. “Lady be with you.”
Straightening, Joenna found thirty glaring half-orcs shifting before her. A few glanced toward the archers whose job it was to be sure they followed orders, then back to her, baring their sharp teeth.
“What’s it to be, frontal assault? Shall we bother with swords, or will that only make it harder for the demons to rip us to shreds?” Valanor loomed over her.
Joenna hefted her ax and propped it on her shoulder. “Blue Lady, there’s got to be a way through this,” she muttered.
“Yeah,” cried a harsh voice, “kill the general!”
The dark mass stilled as the archers drew their bows, searching for the joker. “Who said it?” called a sergeant. “Point him out, or we’ll open on the lot of you.”
“Not if we get you first,” snarled one of the crowd, and the half-orcs drew together as the archers advanced. Beyond them the mass of the army, sharpening swords and checking the buckles on their armor, paused to watch. Even so few half-orcs, with their agility and strength, could make good that threat, tearing into the army until all thirty were dead.
Bowstrings drew taut, arrows nocked, and the soldiers behind stood at the ready as the half-orcs fingered their swords, weighing the odds.
At their head, Valanor kept himself still, addressing his comrades. "Think, would you—better to die on the field than in this cave."
The dark group swayed as if they weren't so sure.
A crew pushed through the army, carrying the barrel of rotten meat they used to keep the scouts in line. Its stink preceded them, and the half-orcs recoiled, giving ground before the archers.
“Enough!” Joenna shouted. “Enough, we’ve got a job to do.” She sharpened her glance toward the archer-sergeant, who offered a curt nod, and swung his men away, providing the opening for the company to move out of the cavern. They gulped in the breeze across the caves, the fetid barrel brought behind as an encouragement, then they scrambled up the steep slope toward their death.
* * *
Above, the air reeked of fire and blood, and the unmistakable sickly stench of demons not far off. At her back, the half-orcs retched and gasped for breath. Thirty young men, the age of her own boy, marred by the hideous orc features. Their knuckles whitened on their sword-hilts just like any other men. “There’s got to be a way.”
Close by, Valanor snorted. “Don’t fool yourself, full-blood. We face the one army or the other and you get the glory when we’re dead—twice as much for volunteering to serve with us. As appealing as it sounds, killing the general would only confuse the issue.”
“Aye, killing the general. Pity we can’t kill theirs.”
“You know how they fight, better than we do, I’ll warrant. They’re like insects, one leader dies and another takes its place with a damnable shriek. They don't wear feathered hats to tell us who's in charge.” He tossed his shaggy head, growling low in his throat.
As they started the long trudge up the slope, the archers taking their places, Joenna turned over in her mind the events of the previous day. She had cut down one demon, and another came, leaping up with that shriek. “But they can’t all fly,” she mumbled to herself.
“They’ve all got bloody wings, but can’t none of them fly more than a few feet straight up.”
“Those’re the ones that shriek, though,” she said, hesitating, looking to the field. Dawn’s light began to creep over the shapes of the dead. Somewhere across the field, the enemy hunched down, waiting. “The shriekers are the leaders, I think, not just one of them, but any one of them. We kill one, another takes his place and they fight on like nothing’s happened.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” Valanor snapped. “And it doesn’t matter anyhow to a company of the dead.”
But the idea took form, and Joenna waved away his despair. “Do they smell different?”
“The ones that can fly, do they smell different?”
“They all reek like a week-old murder.”
“Come on,” she tipped her head toward the battlefield, then faced her surly crew. “You lot stay a minute, and keep low. Come on,” she urged Valanor again.
With a shrug that rolled from one shoulder to the other, he followed, crouching among the rubble as they shifted their way through the corpses and scorched trees. In moments, they came to the site of yesterday’s stand, where Joenna slew the shrieking demon. “This one,” she pointed. “Does it smell different than the others?”
Losing his grin, Valanor glanced at the wreck of the demon, and his face in the vague light looked pale. She, too, looked down where the flood of fluids and intestines clogged the path. To her, the thing smelled much the same as a live one. It hadn’t had enough time to rot in the short hours they had been sleeping. Catching Valanor’s eye, she grimaced. “Sorry. Hard to imagine what it’s like for you, with that sensitive nose and all.”
His eyes narrowed and he bent over the demon’s head, then over that of her first victim. Immediately, he rose again, his throat working as if he fought down bile.
She set a hand on his arm. “Gods, I am sorry, mate.”
Snarling, he shook her away, then leaned in close, taking a sniff of her and baring his teeth. “You’re a lying, stinking bastard like the rest of them—woman.” Joenna jerked back from him, catching her breath.
Valanor advanced and she dared not move again, dared not reveal them before they were ready. “Aye, this sack of stink smells different. Rotten, with a hint of evil a little sharper than the rest. He does, but so do you.” He shot out a long finger, the claw scratching her breastplate. “You smell like baby-making and kitchen-cooking and stitching on a pillow. Paugh! Somewhat funny about you I thought yesterday.” He tapped his blunt nose with a hooked nail. “Just the sweat, or the blood, or what, but now I see it, you bloody liar. What if I go back in and tell your man? Your Gavin, is he the reason you’re here? No, I’ll take it to the general, if he’d hear me”—a cackle passed his curled lips—“Maybe that’d give us time to get out of here without all of us losing our necks.” He rose away from her, still hunched, and started to turn.
Lunging forward, Joenna caught his arm and yanked him down. Both landed hard on the slimy stones. Valanor knocked her away, sweeping the sword from his back, his teeth bared as he crouched over her. Joenna flipped up her ax, catching his blade and turning it, a new and unintended chink appearing through the stain.
Hooking her feet on a stone she yanked herself downward and out from under, ramming aside his sword with the flat of her ax. Despite his strength, the half-orc was a scout, not a soldier, and Joenna smiled.
With a heave, he flung her off again, propelling himself back toward the line.
Joenna dove, the ax ahead of her, catching his ankle and toppling him even as their archers took aim.
She pushed herself up beside him, proving her conquest to the rearguard as she faced him. “Watch yourself, you bloody bastard!"
His cauldron eyes glinted fire as his lips twisted. "Will I be the next notch on your ax, oh mighty woman? You do your captain proud."
She lowered her weapon, arms shaking with the rush of fighting. Mastering herself, she whispered, "It’s not Gavin I’m fighting for, it’s my son. Don’t you see?” She wiped back her hair, matching his fierce expression.
His face, inches from hers, looked more wrong than ever, the heavy single brow furrowing down in his disgust. “Oh, aye, nobility, honor, sacrifice. I know all about that from those accursed stories my mammy tossed aside. I think she died from the shame of it, or maybe from the sight of me, as if it were my fault the orcs took her, my fault what they did to her.” His fist rapped against his narrow chest as his voice moved into a hushed wail of unanswered pain.
Joenna snatched his fist, the hairy strength of it captured by her two small hands. “What they did to me,” she said. “To me.”
After a moment, Valanor let out a breath through flaring nostrils. He swallowed, his shaking fist twisting in her grasp, but not yet applying his strength to freedom.
“The orcs came to my house, too. I never seen a brute so awful, not until this war. That raiding party, they broke and beat and took what they would.” She gave a short, nasty laugh. “Look at me, Valanor. I make a better man than a woman—I’m so ugly, no man would take me to wife. But I was good enough for orc-bedding, wasn’t I? My parents cast me out. And there I was with child—this gangly, screaming little baby.” Dropping his hand, she scrubbed tears from her face. “And I thought two things as ugly as us, we might as well love each other.” Her chin rapped against her breastplate as she wept, her ragged hair flopping around her face. Cursing herself, she fought the tears, drawing long breaths, snorting like an ass.
Nearby, Valanor breathed in little gasps. After a long time, he said, “Loref. He was your son.”
“He’s the reason you fight, the reason you’ve got those notches in your ax.”
More calmly, the tears trickling away at last. “Aye.”
“He was like me.” His voice became a hot breath across her damp face.
Joenna faced him fully. “Aye,” she said. “Like you.”
They sat beneath the growing light, surrounded by demon filth, and Valanor stared at her from his dull-black eyes, so like her son’s. “You’ve got a plan, haven’t you? You’ve thought of something.”
“I don't think it'll save us, but it may cause confusion enough that the others can win. Valanor—“she took a deep breath and expelled it, along with the grief she could not afford—“it may be enough to show those bastards you’re not to be spat on.”
A grin started at the corner of his thin lips. “I doubt it.”
She sighed. “Me, too, but at least we’ll know we did our best. We'll have to convince the company.”
“That we will.” He cocked his head at her. “What’s your name, Loref’s mother?”
“So, Joenna’s Charge.”
“Naw.” She touched the head of her ax. “Better to call it, Half-orc’s Revenge.”
The troop had few complaints—any plan was better than what they’d been ordered—and they fanned out around Joenna and Valanor. Quickly, closely, they began their advance. They rippled over the stones and bodies like a shadow not yet dispelled by the feeble light of day. It felt like miles, jogging over the rough ground when the demons rose up, shrieking before them.
The vile wind of their voices slapped back the attackers, but the troop shifted and swirled around her. Instead of attacking, Valanor and Joenna threw themselves under the first swords. They dodged and sprinted and Valanor sniffed. Wherever he pointed, there they struck.
The company plunged in with them, knocking aside the demons as best they could, crying out to block the sound of demon shrieking. One demon leapt up, flapping, over and over, its voice howling out the commands. Three of hers went down in the first strike and Joenna set her jaw against the dread.
Rather than driving straight on, Joenna’s force moved as if at random, following the whims of Valanor’s nose. The shrieking filled her ears and echoed inside her aching skull. Grimly she followed where the half-orc led.
Joenna’s ax defended him, cleaving the arm from this demon, slicing the leg of another, until he could finger a shrieker and they set-to and brought it down.
The half-orcs swirled around them, slaying the marked ones, themselves falling beneath the poisoned blades, this one hacked in two, that one crushed by talonned arms. The gray of the scouts vanished beneath a wash of red. The distant sound of horns announced the army's coming—if any of hers would be alive to see.
A great demon sprang up before them, outspread wings heaving to get it off the ground as it shrieked. Its lashing tail caught Joenna broadside and she tumbled over the ground, sprawling with her ax underneath. “Blue Lady,” she cried, as the demon thudded down again.
The demon leapt away, a wail of pain escaping it. Demon blood spattered Joenna’s face as she rolled and snatched up her ax.
Bellowing, it snatched toward Valanor, slapping aside his sword at the cost of its own fingers. It lunged again, the half-orc scrambling across the ground.
Matching its bellow, Joenna buried her ax in the demon’s side. She slammed to earth as it spun around, and its sword bit into her shoulder.
The demon’s head filled her vision, its fangs dripping as it gaped over its prize. The head reared back for another shriek and dove toward her.
With her off-hand, Joenna whipped free her knife and rammed it home into a smoldering eye.
Blood spurted, obscuring her vision, then the breath whoofed from her lungs as the demon collapsed on top of her.
For a long time, the world went silent. Joenna thanked the Lady for this reprieve, promising to visit Her temples the first chance she got. She struggled to drag air into her lungs past the steaming corpse that covered her.
Thunk! Thunk! The sound penetrated her fog, and Joenna cracked open her eyes. Thunk! The steady sound of an ax into wood. “Loref?” she croaked.
The weight bearing down on her fell aside and he stood over her, ax in hand, shoving the severed demon from her chest.
Letting the ax-head rest beside hers, Valanor bent down. Agile, hairy fingers stroked the blood from her eyes. “Praise the Gods, you’re alive!”
“You, too,” she managed, sucking in great breaths. “Like to smothered me, that beast.” She moved as if she could rise, but Valanor plucked the wool from her ears.
“Listen!” He shouted.
“Can’t hear a damn thing.” Joenna slapped her ear with her right hand. The left hand only twitched numbly.
“No shrieking! They’re retreating from us, a bunch of half-breeds, before the damned army even got here!” His laughter sparkled with hope, echoing the horns which drew the army past. Valanor leaned in closer. “You’re wounded. Joenna, I’ll get you to the surgeons.” He bent to gather her up.
Slapping his hand she rattled, “Don’t. They’ll know.”
“Aye. They’ll send you home to get over all this, you fool woman.”
She shook her head. “How many?” she asked.
“How many what?”
“Demons I killed.”
Tilting back his head, Valanor considered. “Five.”
“Then I’m not through yet.” She shoved herself into a sitting position, his arm hovering near her. “Don’t haul me from here like a fragile woman. If you want to be useful, raise me up like a man.”
“But you’re wounded! Surely this battle is honor enough.”
Joenna shook her head again. “I’ve two more notches to carve, my friend.” Then she grinned up at him. “Valanor, hand me my ax.”
E. C. Ambrose writes adventure novels inspired by research subjects like medieval surgery, ancient clockworks, and Byzantine mechanical wonders. Joenna's adventure continues, and is joined by two other novellas, in the Tales of Bladesend. Other published works include Drakemaster, the Dark Apostle series, and the Bone Guard archaeological thrillers. Her next adventure will be interactive superhero novel Skystrike: Wings of Justice, for Choice of Games. She lives in New Hampshire where she creates wearable art clothing when she isn’t climbing the walls at the rock gym.