Planks were brought and laid so they might scale their own trench. Then Genia Dare, the queen, gave them all a fierce smile.
"When this sun sets we shall all be free or all dead," she said. "I do not intend to die." With that, she drew her feysword and turned to Carsek. "I must reach the gate. Do you understand? Until the gate falls, five thousand is no better than fifty, for I can protect no greater number than two score and ten from Skasloi slaughter-spelling if they have us 'neath their fatal eyes, and if we can do naught but stand in their gaze. Once the gate is sundered, we can sweep through too quickly for them to strike down. This will be a hard charge, my heroes-but no spell will touch you, that I swear. It's only sword and shaft, flesh and bone you must fight."
"Flesh and bone are grass, and I am a sickle," Carsek said. "I will get you to the gate, Majesty."
"Then go and do it."
Carsek hardly felt his wounds anymore. His belly was light and his head full of fire. He was the first up the plank, first to set his feet on the black soil.
Lightning wrenched at him, and slitwinds, but this time they parted, passed to left and right of him, Thaniel, and all his men. He heard Thaniel hoot with joy as the deadly magicks passed them by, impotent as a eunuch's ghost.
They charged across the smoking earth, howling, and Carsek saw, through rage-reddened vision, that he at last had a real enemy in front of his spear.
"It's Vhomar, lads!" he shouted. "Nothing but Vhomar!"
Thaniel laughed. "And just a few of them!" he added.
A few, indeed. A few hundred, ranged six ranks deep before the gate. Each stood head and shoulders taller than the tallest man in Carsek's band. Carsek had fought many a Vhomar in the arena, and respected them there, as much as any worthy foe deserved. Now he hated them as he hated nothing mortal. Of all of the slaves of the Skasloi, only the Vhomar had chosen to remain slaves, to fight those who rose against the masters.
A hundred Vhomar bows thrummed together, and black-winged shafts hummed and thudded amongst his men, so that every third one of them fell.
A second flight melted in the rain and did not touch them at all, and then Carsek was at the front rank of the enemy, facing a wall of giants in iron cuirasses, shouting up at their brutish, unhuman faces.
The moment stretched out, slow and silent in Carsek's mind. Plenty of time to notice details, the spears and shields bossed with spikes, the very grain of the wood, black rain dripping from the brows of the creature looming in front of him, the scar on its cheek, its one blue eye and one black eye, the mole above the black one . . .
Then sound came back, a hammer strike as Carsek feinted. He made as if to thrust his spear into the giant's face but dropped instead, coming up beneath the huge shield as it lifted, driving his manslayer under the overlapping plates of the armor, skirling at the top of his lungs as leather and fabric and flesh parted. He wrenched at his weapon as the warrior toppled, but the haft snapped.
Carsek drew his ax. The press of bodies closed as the Vhomar surged forward, and Carsek's own men, eager for killing, slammed into him from behind. He found himself suffocating in the sweaty stench, caught between shield and armored belly, and no room to swing his ax. Something hit his helm so hard it rang, and then the steel cap was torn from his head. Thick fingers knotted in Carsek's hair, and suddenly his feet were no longer on the ground.
He kicked in the air as the monster drew him up by the scalp, dangled him so it was staring into his eyes. The Vhomar drew back the massive sword it gripped in its other hand, bent on decapitating him.
"You damned fool!" Carsek shouted at it, shattering the giant's teeth with the edge of his ax, then savaged its neck with his second blow. Bellowing, the Vhomar dropped him, trying to staunch its lifeblood with its own hands. Carsek hamstrung it and went on.
Excerpted from The Briar King by Greg Keyes Copyright© 2003 by Greg Keyes. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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