Dark skies masked their movement, giving them the appearance of shadows flashing across the clouds. Their destination still several miles away, the riders called to each other in whooping shouts, their voices cracking and booming like thunder.
She stood on the wall as she had every three nights for the last two years. The others saw her as young and still green. There had been a few skirmishes she'd been involved in, but nothing that could be considered her blooding. She shivered as the wind came up, hugging herself and stamping her feet to try and keep warm. Her leathers would defend her but they did little to warm her.
She looked in to the cloudy dark sky, looking for something she wasn't sure what it was. A feeling of dread made her shiver again, fear creeping up her spine. Then she heard them. The steady whumph whumph whumph of giant wings beating the air.
"Miri!" she called down to her comrade on the ground. "Dragons!"
Miri stared in to the dark, searching for the sign she was sure Keredith had heard. Whumph! Whumph! Whumph! The beating of the air grew louder and closer.
"Aye," Miri breathed. "Dragons." She ran the several yards to the signal bell faster than she'd run any distance in her life. She reached up and yanked on the thick rough rope, ringing the bell for all she was worth. "Dragons!" she called.
Torches lit the village below. Torches lit the way to the treasure they sought. Riches for the beasts and flesh for the riders. Confident in their ability to lay waste to the village before any true resistance could be raised, the riders coaxed their mounts into a slow, leisurely circling dive toward the ground. The slaughter would be fantastic.
The militia roused quickly. They'd trained for this. They'd drilled and practiced and sweat and bleed for this. Now they waited. Waited for the moment. The moment when the dragons would be upon them and they would fight with all their will and strength.
Miri surveyed the lines of archers, the first defense against the winged beasts and their decrepit riders. She hoped they would be able to thin the flyer's ranks some before the fighting began in earnest. The rest of the fighters, young and old alike, waited behind those lines, huddled behind walls and makeshift bunkers. Swords, spears and pikes gleamed in the firelight, grim faces already streamed with sweat. The waiting was excruciating.
"Here they come!" yelled the archer's commander. "Ready! Take aim! Fire!"
A volley of fifty arrows flew from the bows, the archers ducking down to let the second line rise up, aim and loose their shafts at the oncoming dragons. Miri watched as the arrows flew home, most of them glancing off the beasts armored hides. She heard some cries of pain, though. Some of the archers had aimed not for the beasts but for the riders. It would do little good, Miri knew. The riders didn't fall to a few arrows. It would take fire and salt and what few acids they could muster to truly kill the riders.
The archers were able to loose two more volleys each before the dragons were on them.
"Attack!" her commander called out, his voice cracking with strain.
The flesh fought back because that was what the living did. They fought because life was in them. They fought because the unliving frightened them. So be it. They were food. Let them be food.
The riders dismounted quickly, their blackened weapons slicing at the living with wild abandon. They had little worry of being killed by the flesh. The flesh would all die eventually. And then the feasting would begin.
Swing, duck, slash, punch, kick, swing again. Three of the living went down in a matter of seconds. More fell like wheat before a scythe. Blows fell on the bodies of the unliving to little effect. Some of the living had lit their weapons aflame. It mattered little. The unliving feared fire, but not enough to stop their progress. The flesh would die.
The creatures kept coming. The dragons were trying to set the people and the buildings alight. It was simply luck on the part of the people that stone didn't readily burn. Thatch could be and would be replaced. The rest would stand. Blackened, perhaps, but it would stand.
Keredith swung her blade in quick, sharp arcs across the front of her body, trying to keep the three abominations from flanking her. Sweat clouded her vision but she didn't need to see very well to know where the enemy were. Their moans and growls were enough to let her know they were seconds from breaking through her defense.
There was a thump and a whoosh as someone threw lighted oil at her assailants. Their growls turned to screams as they ignited and burned. Keredith saw her opening and dodged around the creatures and ran to find some oil of her own.
The flesh was fighting back. The flesh was winning. The flesh had learned to keep its fear in check. This was unexpected. The unliving thrived on the fear. The fear drove the living to panic and the panic sweetened the meal. Something had happened. Something had gone horribly wrong.
All around the smell of burning rotting flesh rose in to the air. The dragons had retreated. They could easily flame the living but they knew their masters preferred the meat unchared. The smell was wrong. The fight was wrong. The flesh was wrong. It had gone wrong.
Still, the unliving fought. What could they do. The living were their cattle. The living had to die to feed them. That was how it had alway been and would always be.
Miri slashed at her attacker with a lit blade, severing the creature's hand at the wrist. It dropped the dirk it had been threatening her with and screamed. The pain caused it to run at her and she drove the point of her short blade in to its belly, slicing upward as they closed the distance between them. The creature flopped to the ground, howling. Miri stepped on half of its chest and hacked at its neck with her blade. It took several seconds, but Miri was able to behead the thing and move on.
And move on she did. By now the remaining fighters had opted for some form of fire. Mostly oiled blades lit in flame, but also a few torches and many thrown flasks of flaming oil and pitch. Miri had chosen the flaming blade. It allowed her to remain quick while hurting her opponents with every strike almost no matter where she hit.
The creatures were thinning. There were still too many of them to think the fight was over, but it was slowing. Miri had more time to breathe between each engagement. She saw Keredith fighting her own battle a few yards away and then saw another creature closing on the girl, trying to flank her. Miri moved, her already tired legs burning with the effort. She crossed the distance quickly and came up behind the second creature. Rather than try to turn it, Miri simply pulled her flaming blade across its throat from behind. The sword bit deep and cut through three-quarters of the creature's neck before it had a moment to react. It didn't even have time to scream. One final pull of the blade and Miri jumped back as its head flopped to the ground. She then slashed at Keredith's other enemy, attempting to take its legs from beneath it. She knew this would be an effective ploy on a living creature but didn't stop to think how one of the unliving would fare.
As it turned out, not well at all. The creature still tried to crawl at Keredith, but she had the upper hand now, her blade falling quickly and repeatedly on the creature's skull, smashing it to bits, brains flying everywhere.
A cry went up in to the night. The unliving were done here. They had to retreat. The dragons moved to the perimeter of the village, gouts of flame penning the flesh in. Flaming arrows flew. Most of these were ineffective, though a few found their targets in escaping unliving. The screams of the beasts and their masters filled the night as they rose in to the air, flying away from the rout as quickly as their wings would carry them. The flesh had won this night. There would be others. And the flesh would lose. In the end the flesh always lost.