He had never fought like he did now.
Every fiber of his being was strung to its limit, threatening to give in at any given moment, at any careless movement, but he could not pay any attention to that. He had his hands full trying just to survive another move at all.
The darkspawn were horrors.
Some tall and broad, others short and stocky, all perfectly disgusting with their putrid, discolored skin and the stench of death and disease they carried with them, their limbs seemingly impossibly connected to another and wielding with brute force and even some skill their crude but menacing weapons, all the while shrieking, growling or snarling at the men fighting them. Their numbers were infinite, or seemed so to Nicolas who barely had the time to see one before a second, third and fourth were also upon him, beating at him with their spiked clubs or rusty swords. He could not keep count of how many he had felled with his mace, but knew only that his muscles ached from lifting and swinging the weapon countless times, again and again and again, battering it against a mass of bodies and haphazard armor alike, sometimes feeling the reverberations of a broken bone or a crushed skull before withdrawing for the next swing.
At one point, the short Genlock in front of him fell down suddenly, the point of an arrow piercing through its throat for a moment before a gush of dark blood oozed out to cover the wound. Another time, one of the Wardens cut down a Hurlock coming towards him with its sword raised high. It was the woman, Genevieve, and she did not even spare Nicolas a glance before blocking another enemy attack with her sword, her white hair spattered with blood and dirt.
Nicolas did not know how long the fight had lasted when he felt a shift in the flow around him. It was a subtle change, like a soft summer breeze carrying first the sweet warmth of a field and then the fresh coolness of a lake, but it was as if the world had turned. Somehow, the onslaught abated, slowly at first but then increasingly noticeable, as Nicolas found he suddenly had the time to actually beat down each enemy and seeing them die at his feet before having to turn to the next one.
It was then that he realized that the battle was over. Sure, as he looked around the field where the two armies had met, he could still see plenty of darkspawn assaulting the remaining soldiers, but they were not the seething mass of rotting grey and black bodies that had first charged them. They were distinguishable.
As, unfortunately, were the soldiers.
On the ground lay the remnants of the small human army, broken armor and broken limbs sprawled over each other and the fallen enemies, the small patches of visible dirt flecked with gore. Not far away from him lay a soldier, his skull crushed by something heavy and blunt – a club possibly. Beneath the blood-crusted, tangled brown hair Nicolas could see the white bone and the grey mass that been covered by it. One eye hang loosely from its socket, staring blindly on the darkspawn under him. It was Alec.
Nicolas felt his stomach churn and empty, sour bile burning his throat as he spewed what little food he had had there, and as he kneeled on the ground, spitting and cursing, he felt the weight of the day on his back. He felt tremors. His limbs, his muscles, everything was heavy and shivering with fatigue and the many hours of slaughter and struggle to survive. Even breathing felt like an effort. His hand, fingers still tightly gripping the handle of the mace, was fixed in its tight grasp and he wondered briefly if it could ever be straightened out again. And still, he was alive.
Then he heard the faint, impossible sound of a blade slicing through air and lifted his weapon hastily, half-turning where he was squatted.
The Hurlock loomed over him, growling fiercely as it raised its bloodied blade for a second assault, bringing it down with a speed and force that Nicolas knew he could not block, not from such a vulnerable position. All he could hope for was a swift death.
But death did not come to him. It came to the Hurlock, delivered by a broad, big sword straight through its torso, handled by an all too familiar soldier whose weariness faded for a moment as his gaze met Nicolas'.
"Alive" he said, the words merely whispers, like willows in a summer breeze. "You are alive."
"Thanks to you" Nicolas managed, struggling to get back on his feet but needing to reach out for Julien's supporting hand to do so, only then noticing the red stains on the armor and the clothing underneath it. "You're hurt."
"So are you."
Indeed he was. Not only were there numerous small cuts, but he could also feel the throbbing pain of bruised muscles on arms and shins. But more distressingly, there was an injury he had not noticed earlier. It was a cut, just above his hipbone. Shallow, but long and not very clean. The edges were rough and whether the dirt in the wound was because of the weapon or because of the fighting, it was not good that it was there.
Nicolas touched the sore area hesitantly, winced at the pain it caused and cursed. No, it was certainly not good.
"Do you think we should… regroup?" he asked Julien, looking again across the battlefield. Not very many men remained, and even fewer soldiers, but there was only a handful of darkspawn still standing and even as Nicolas watched they fell, one after another.
"Probably" Julien agreed, and so they began making their way across the field, across muddied ground and the bodies of the fallen. Some darkspawn were not entirely dead, forcing them to stop and remedy the situation, but every human they saw was long since dead, long since gone to the Maker and beyond any helping hand, either to heal or speed up an unavoidable death.
After what seemed like a small eternity they reached others. Some five hundred men had marched from their camps that morning. Now, mere hours later, no more than fifty remained. All wounded. Aside from himself and Julien, Nicolas saw only four other survivors from their garrison, none of which he knew very well.
"I should probably take a look at that."
Seemingly out of nowhere, the lean mage who had been one of the Warden instructors of the Fortalan garrison, appeared by Julien's elbow. He was tired to the point of exhaustion, that much was clear from his pallid face and the lack of any emotion in his voice. But as he raised his hands to Julien's arm, Julien shook his head.
"It is not a bad cut, cleaning it will suffice. Please help Nicolas instead, if you can."
The mage muttered at this, clearly having enough energy to feel insulted, but his mutterings came to an end as he turned his attention as requested.
"Remove the armor" he said, "and try to sit down somewhere. Now."
Nicolas, having wanted to protest, bit down on his words and did as asked. Now that he was aware of it, the wound seemed to burn its way through his body, hot and foul, and he gritted his teeth as he unfastened the straps that held the armor together, glad at the unexpected help from Julien who looked unusually concerned.
He sat down on the ground, a small patch of grass not stained by the carnage around them and tried to focus on breathing. The mage returned, fatigue replaced by intensive concentration. He had brought water – from where? Surely there was no stream here? – for Julien, and used a wet cloth of his own to dab softly at Nicolas side. Distractedly, Nicolas thought it was strange for a mage not to use a spell or some sort of concoction. Surely there must be something useful, for the pain if nothing else. Alcohol would do the trick, and it would clean the wound effectively, though of course it would hurt unimaginably.
"What would cause that?" he heard Julien ask, but it sounded strange, as if the man was somewhere far away and not right in front of him. Or was he? Somehow, Nicolas could not focus his gaze at where he thought Julien had been. It was as if thick mist was seeping in all around them, obscuring his vision.
The mage said something in reply, but Nicolas could not make out the words. He swayed, tried to get hold of something in order not to fall down, but his fingers found nothing but air. For the fraction of a moment he thought he saw Julien's face, eyes wide open with worry and surprise, and then he was lost.