I originally wrote this for an anthology submission, the guideline being that the story had to deal with the personification of DEATH. I don't think I leaned into the theme heavy enough, and ultimately ended up with a war story. Still, I like the world and characters of The Orendotsky Bear and would like to revisit it in the future.
Ana marched forward. The battlefield around her a fresco of corpses marked by arrows and blades. She had marched for seven days and seven nights. The small elderly man in the distance nodded to her. For seven days she lived when she should have been dead.
Orendotsky Palace loomed over her. A spired shadow of stone and glass. Cries rose up from its gate. The rebellion, her rebellion, were storming the palace.
And they were all going to die. Just like she had.
The old man inhaled from his hookah, pale smoke billowed from his nostrils. He stood over the body of an Orendotsky soldier, running a finger along the blood slick blade.
When the Orendotsky Bear fell, Ana would die.
Smoke billowed from tubes and pipes that protruded from the old man’s back. The smoke twisted and whorled, forming faces caught mid scream, only to fade once more. The old man tilted his head toward her.
Your people fail, his voice like droplets of dew spoke in her mind. The old man’s mouth did not move. Hurry.
She marched. Her boots crunched the snow beneath her. It fell lazily, resting on her shoulders, mixing with the white of her leopard skin cloak.
The clangor of metal grew louder. Then the boom of a battering ram against thick oaken gates. This was their final push. They’d known it weeks ago. The rebellion marched forward, even as Ana had fallen.
And still, she could not let go. She had to see it to its end. The bodies around become fresher, until they steamed with the warmth of life they’d lost. They old man inhaled, the smoke whirling into his nostrils. The pipes upon his back sputtered, gouts of mist rising from them.
“Must you follow me?” Ana said, her voice low, nearly a whisper.
I will collect your promise soon. The old man, who she knew to be Death, spread his arms to the battlefield. There is much to collect here.
Ana had heard many stories of Death. From the people in the south, to the westerners who thought it a pathway to a paradise, but to her it was Neiz. The spreading of black frost, the oncoming storm, the one and only truth. Neiz came for all, whatever name or form it took, it was the inevitable.
Neiz inhaled from his hookah, I want to see you keep your promise.
“How could I not?”
Neiz titled his head, his eyebrow rising in a curiously quizzical expression.
She continued forward. Ana had thought on it, the deal they’d made, she lived to kill the Bear. But if it were done by another’s hand, then maybe…
The rebels were clustered before the gate. They held shields over their heads as the Orendotsky soldiers rained down arrows from the high wall.
One of the rebels, Igin, turned to her. “You, join the others…” he trailed of, recognition widening his eyes. “Ana, it can’t be.”
She surveyed what remained of her troops. Not much. An arrow struck a man working the battering ram. He collapsed, and another tried to pull him beyond the arrows’ range, to where Igin and Ana stood. Another arrow whistled through the air, piercing the chest of the second man. They both lay on the ground moaning. The others kept working the ram, but there wasn’t enough of them and they couldn’t lower their shields.
“This your idea, Igin?”
Igin straightened, “they would have butchered us if we stayed on the open tundra.”
“They already butchered us.”
“But there forces were retreating to the palace. We pressed on, harrying and taking out as many as we could. We couldn’t let them regroup, we couldn’t let them get behind the palace walls.”
“And did they?” Ana asked.
“Some, but we dwindled their numbers. They haven’t had a proper rest, a proper meal, in days.”
“Neither have you.”
Igin ran his hand over his thick unkempt moustache, “if they recouped and marched on us on the tundra, we wouldn’t have had a chance.”
“A handful of men can defend these walls.”
“We had to try. After you fell…” Igin seemed to regard her, seeing her again for the first time. “You once said even Neiz couldn’t keep you from seeing Orendotsky’s head roll.”
“I meant it.”
“I fear it’s for naught.” Igin turned to the palace, craning his head to see the wall’s top.
“Tell the men to stop trying to force the gate. Focus on staying alive, but make a show with the ram. Make the Orendotskys think we’re still trying to take down the gate.”
“You have a plan?”
Ana looked to the archers, “I need three soldiers. Hulga, Dremlin, and Arstof.”
“Dremlin fell on the tundra, and Arstof… isn’t whole.”
“Just Hulga, then. We’ll clear a path for the battering ram. Tell the men to be ready to break down the gate. No shields, no distractions. When the archers start to fall, the gate has to come down.”
“Yes, sir.” Igin called over a man and started relaying the orders.
Neiz stood behind Igin, Ana could see him over the old soldier’s shoulder. Neiz smiled, taking a long drag on his hookah.
Hulga towered over Ana, a spear and shield on her back. They both had thick coils of rope with grappling hooks on the end. Together they made their way around the castle, crouching low among the mounds of bodies and banks of snow. The archers on the wall were focused on the main gate, they knew there wasn’t much of the rebellion left. An attack on the wall seemed folly, and it likely was.
Arstof waited for them, he crouched beside a mound of the dead. The older man stood, straight backed, and Ana saw what Igin had meant. Arstof’s arm was gone. Severed at the shoulder. A dozen spears were embedded in the ground beside him. He had insisted on helping, and though he might not be able to climb a rope, he could still throw a spear.
Ana and Hulga nodded to him, then approached the east wall. It was out of sight of the main gate. As they approached a guard passed on the wall overhead. He must have seen them, he leaned over the wall’s lip to squint through the falling snow. And Arstof’s spear pierced the man’s neck, sending him toppling backward. Someone would notice that, and then archer’s would be on the wall and Arstof would have to retreat from throwing distance lest he be riddled with arrows.
They twirled their grappling hooks, hurling them into the air. They arced over the wall, and with a screech of steel on stone, took hold on the merlons. They began to climb, pulling themselves up the wall.
Shouts from the other side. Another man looked past the wall, and a moment later Arstof’s spear struck him. Ana made out pieces of muffled shouts, “kill the spearmen,” “cut the ropes.” They climbed faster.
An Orendotsky soldier began sawing at the ropes, while a pair of archers scanned the ground for the “spearmen.” The first archer didn’t see the spear that struck him, but the second let his arrow loose. A moment later, another spear struck that man down.
“How many spearmen are out there?”
“Do they have a reserve?”
Ana’s lips twisted into a smirk.
More archers, but they crouched next to the merlons, fearful. Another spear struck the man sawing at Ana’s rope, then the one sawing at Hulga’s went down.
The archers let their arrows loose.
“I got one,” an Orendotsky said.
Ana reached the top of the wall, her hand over its lip. A sword raised over her head, ready to strike, but a spear sent the man spiraling backward. She pulled herself up.
Ana was on the wall.
An archer turned, knocked an arrow, and loosed. Ana spun, the arrow thudding into the shield at her back, and drew her blade. She ignored the archer and instead charged toward the man raising his blade to strike down the still climbing Hulga. The blade thrust for Hulga’s head, but Ana’s own sword forced it away. Before he could bring the blade around for another swing, Ana hooked her arm around his neck and spun him to face the first archer.
An arrow pierced into the Orendotsky soldier. The archer lowered his bow, mouth agape. Too late he turned his head to the sound of a whistling spear, it pierced his throat, a gout of red splattering across the smooth cut stone.
Another man charged Ana, but Hulga was there with her spear. She tangled his legs, sending him sprawling, his helmet tumbling away. She stomped on his head, brain matter and skull fragments scattered across the stone.
An archer screamed at the sight, fleeing.
Three remained, and they raised their bows. Ana and Hulga had unslung their shields, and now they stood shoulder to shoulder, shields up. They marched forward as arrow thudded into their shields of wood and steel. Twice the arrow point pierced through, threatening Ana’s face. Still, the two women marched.
One of the archers began to back away.
“Hold!” Someone shouted.
“There’s only two of them,” said another.
Hulga thrust her spear without lowering her shield. The blade sliced the archer’s arm, he stumbled back. Ana had grabbed one of Arstof’s spears, and now she thrust out as well. A slice here, a cut there, and the archer’s were stumbling back. One grew angry, with a cry he drew his sword and charged. Ana thrust her spear through his throat, it protruded from the back of his neck.
She kicked his body off the end of her spear. The other archer’s turned and ran.
“They’ll send more,” Ana said.
“We have time,” Hulga’s gripped tightened and loosened on her spear, “they’ll have trouble believing there are only two of us.”
“Good, better that they think we’re a squad. Anything to relieve pressure from the main gate.” Ana moved to the other side of the wall, the courtyard below bustled with activity. “They’ll be coming soon. Maybe if we can get Arstof—“
Ana rushed to peer past the wall. Hunched over on his knees was Arstof, two arrows protruding from his chest.
A pit formed in her stomach. Is there a point to this if they all die? Neiz plucked a feather from one of the arrows. She looked away, and there Neiz stood atop the wall, kneeling down to caress one of the Orendotsky’s insignia. She had worn that insignia once, draped over steel plate, marching through the snows to the west.
Neiz exhaled smoke and it swirled around Hulga’s ankles, small spectral hands clinging to her fur boots.
“Come one,” Ana said, “we have to keep moving. We need to disrupt those archers so our men can break down the gate.”
A squad formed in the courtyard below and began making their way to the parapet. They were coming for the rebels. Ana and Hulga took off at a run, darting along the wall to where the archers were concentrated on firing at the battering ram. Two archers didn’t see Ana’s and Hulga’s striking shields, they went toppling over the wall, arms cartwheeling uselessly. Thudding crunches resounded from the impacts.
The other archers twirled, aiming their bows at the two intruders. Both Ana and Hulga let their spears fly. Two more archers went down. Their shields were up as a cascade of arrows whistled past, their shields sang a war song with each collision. The two charged, drawing their swords, and closed the gap between themselves and the archers—who were forced to draw their own blades.
The archers weren’t prepared for close combat, all they had were blades, no shields, and were lightly armoured. Ana struck, digging her blade deep into on man’s chest. Another stabbed at her side, the blade sparked as it hit the steel of her chest plate. She thrust the hilt of her sword into his face, sending him reeling with a bloody nose.
The Orendotsky archers charged. They tried to rush the two women and overwhelm them. But Ana and Hulga had their shields up, and shoulder-to-shoulder on the narrow wall path they were an immovable wall. As the Orendotsky tried to pry their shields away, the rebels lashed out with their blades, cutting streaks of red into the archers.
Booming resounded up the wall, and the gate creaked and groaned.
Men in the courtyard began shouting.
Ana stabbed, a man stumbled, knocking another behind him and the two fell in a tangle of limbs.
Hulga thrust with her shield, but an archer had gotten around her, his blade dug deep into her thigh. Blood pulsed from the wound, too much blood. Hulga whirled, striking him in the throat with her shield. His larynx collapsed, and he gurgled, struggling to suck in air.
More shouting from the courtyard.
Hulga wavered, struggling to stay on her feet.
Ana marched, her blade a whirlwind of steel. Red arced through the air, bone cracked from her shield, and men cried out as they were struck down.
Hulga fell, ashen faced, panting, beads of sweat on her brow.
A thunderous crack, a screech of steel. The gate collapsed. She heard men cry out below, followed by the clangor of steel. The rebels charged into the courtyard.
Ana tore a length of fabric from her tunic and bound Hulga’s wound. The big women wheezed, but a smile played at the edges of her lips.
“We did it,” Hulga grabbed Ana’s arm, “almost there, Ana, we’ve nearly done it.” Hulga’s grip loosened, and her eyes closed. Her chest rising and falling with the faintest of breaths.
Ana held Hulga’s hand. “We’ll do it, I promise.”
The Orendotsky retreated deeper into the palace. Ana marched to a lower parapet, and her soldiers finally saw her. Many grew silent, some whispered prayers, and others spoke of the Leopard who could not be felled.
“It’s not over,” she called to them. “It’s not over until the Bear and all his cubs are dead.”
They cheered, bloodlust in their eyes. That was all they needed. The Leopard returned to them, and now they stood within the Orendotsky’s palace, its soldiers retreating. The rebels were beaten and bloodied, stomachs empty, limbs tired, but now they were fueled on faith.
They charged into the palace, searching out those that remained, killing all that bore the Orendotsky Bear.
Ana marched through the main hall. Massive double doors, stained glass embedded within, shone with the setting sun’s light.
She knew he would be waiting beyond those doors. He who had once bounced her on his knee, a child, and told her stories of the wilds. He who she had yearned to please while bearing the mark of the Bear.
She swung the doors open. The grand throne room was empty, light spilled in from the setting sun. The very top domed with stained glass, the floor slick marble tiles. And there he sat, the Orendotsky Bear, upon his throne of ivory and gold. He bore a cloak of bear fur, the bear’s head resting at his shoulder, its mouth open in a wordless roar. Orendotsky was a burly, barrel-chested man with dark hair that merged with his bramble bush beard.
His sword, unsheathed, rested across his knees. He smiled at her. She hated the flood of resentment that flowed into her. The feeling of embarrassment, mocking.
“Little doll,” he said. He had always called her that, a pretty thing. “You’ve finally come back to me. You made your point. Stop it. Now.”
“No? Funny. Funny how now it’s no. But not when I gave you luxury. Not when I made you the most powerful Orendotsky in the east. Then, it was yes.”
Ana was silent.
“No words? How far will you take this, is humiliating me not enough?”
Ana raised her shield and readied her sword. She scanned the room, his Imperators—personal bodyguards—were not there.
Orendotsky tilted his head. He seemed amused. But Ana could see the fear behind his eyes. Orendotsky raised his sword and took a step forward.
They circled. Slow measured movements, each waiting for the other to strike. Neiz took a long drag on his hookah, amusement shamelessly displayed on his features.
Don’t take too long, he said.
The Bear struck, trying to overpower her with his height and weight. Her shield took the blow, and she darted in with her sword, clipping him on the cheek. A testing strike from the Leopard.
Orendotsky growled, deep and guttural. He grabbed the edge of her shield, trying to pull it away. She thrust with her blade, he parried, and in the moment her arm went wide he slammed his forehead into hers.
Ana reeled, stumbling back. Black dots danced before her eyes. He reached out, fingers twisted into a claw, and grasped for her throat. A sliding cut streaked red across his hand. He pulled it close to his body. Ana thrust with her shield, putting her weight behind it. He stumbled, lost his footing, and fell.
Take your prize.
Ana thrust. Her blade dug deep into Orendotsky’s chest. She twisted, watching as agony and realization played on Orendotsky’s face. This is what she wanted. This was why she gave her soul to Neiz, for this moment. To see the pain of her father twisted on his face, to see the realization that his little doll was so much more.
Igin’s boots clomped through the grand hall. They were stained black with blood. Men ran at his side. They all froze as they entered the throne room. Sprawled on the tiles lay Orendotsky, the Bear himself. And beside him, on her knees, was Ana clutching the sword that pierced his chest. Her head lolled, her chest still.
“She did it,” Igin whispered. And then louder, “the Leopard killed the Bear.”
The rebels stood in silence. Hulga, aided by two others, approached Ana, knelt, and whispered a prayer. Others did the same, bowing their heads to her.
One of the men approached Igin and said, “what of the Imperators?”
“Let them run, there’s nothing they can do now.”
“One of the servants says they left with a boy.”
The soldier took in a breath. “He is of Orendotsky’s blood.”
Igin brushed his moustache, looked to the sky, and then to Ana. “Find them, kill them.”
“Sir, even the boy?”
“In Ana’s own words, it’s not over until the Bear and all his cubs are dead.”