Below him, heading up towards the pass was a great company of men on horses. They wore their beards and moustaches long, and their swords and bows were short and curved. Some wore iron mail visibly, some carried lances, some torches. The leader rode at their head with a lance in his hand, and streaming from the lance were locks of long black hair. Three human heads were impaled on his lance as a standard.
Edward stood watching them with hot tears stinging his eyes, feeling rage rolling through him, deep, red, hot and powerful. He looked around him. The terrain was favorable. They could not get around him to the right or the left. They had bows, but the ravine became so narrow in one spot that they would have to come up one at a time. That would negate their numbers and limit the effectiveness of their archers. If they cared to try him bow for bow, well, he had a full quiver of well fletched shafts and he would wager himself against any of them. There was no fear or hesitation in his heart, and no hope that he would ultimately be successful. There were more than five hundred horsemen that he could see, and he would not be able to kill all of them before he fell of fatigue. "Let my hand grow tired and freeze to my sword," he swore. "I will lessen them somewhat, God willing."
As the horde drew closer at a light canter he selected a shaft from his quiver and took aim at the leader. They had not sighted him yet. He knew he was going to die that day, but there was no sense in wasting it. If he was smart about this he would be able to prolong it for quite some time. Every moment he lived, every moment they died a little more, was one more moment for his little village to live in peace. He wished he had someone he could send as a messenger to warn them of the coming danger, but there was no time for that. They had to be held there or nowhere, and on the whole, maybe it was better that the people live in ignorance, rather than fear. As soon as he was dead, they would have enough of fear before they died.
They were in range, but he waited. It was only a light hunting bow, not a heavy war bow. It would not punch through decent armor. Better to wait until he was certain to hit the bastard in the face. Thirty more paces, twenty more, ten more, now. A deep breath, hold it, and release. The arrow sped straight to its mark, and Edward's practiced eye knew that it would hit before it reached the target. He backed further into the ravine watching carefully. The arrow hit the leader just below the right eye causing the man's head to snap back violently. He swayed in his seat, and then fell with a clatter of arms and armor.
The rest of the throng gathered around him, shouting and looking around to see where the shaft had come from. A few guessed it had come from the pass which they could see only as a narrow, dark passage in front of them. Four riders were sent up the hill at a gallop. Twang, zippp! The first one fell. The other three threw their shields up before their faces and kept galloping. The rest of the horde let out a yell and charged after them. Edward backed further into the alley. The first rider came through alone, moving fast, no doubt trying to ride down whatever farmer or herdsman he thought was hiding in there. Edward saw the surprise in his eyes at seeing a warrior in armor waiting, but it was too late by then. The Tiger crouched, parried the lance and lunged, slaying the horse in one lunge. Before the horseman could reach his sword, he too fell dead.
"Sorry cousin," Edward muttered to the dead horse. "I have no quarrel with you, but I needed the road held, and horseflesh holds better than human."
Two more dismounted soldiers climbed over the carcasses, and died there. The Tiger piled five more corpses in the alley before the enemy stopped coming.
All that afternoon the battle continued off and on. A few times they would rush in, tie ropes to the corpses and drag them out with horses, and then try to send as many horsemen as they could galloping through, no doubt trying to force him back into the open where they could deal with him on their own terms. Every time he would simply do the same thing again. Their weapons, and more importantly their shields, were too light to be effective against his heavier European arms and armor in tight quarters. The first horse that came through always died and blocked off the rest. On foot he was a match for any of them. Each time he fought a handful of them died and the rest retreated, giving him a minute or two to catch his breath. Then they would come again and it would start again. For hours this went on, again and again and again, until Edward thought to himself, "If I keep this up just a little more, I will buy them enough time to go to bed. Better they die in their sleep, never knowing what hit them. I pray these animals are that merciful, Lord."
Nightfall came, and the attacks slackened. He cut strings from the clothes of the fallen and made tripwires across the path so that he could not be surprised. Anyone who caught one of them would knock over a stack of abandoned arms and the clatter would alert him. His position was probed three times during the night but he held.
"If I can but hold out until dawn, they will have one more peaceful night. Isn't that worth a night of vigilance, Lord?"
At dawn the attack renewed in earnest, and for three hours he had no rest. He had not been wounded, yet, but he now knew what was meant by a hand freezing to the sword. His forearm and right hand had cramped until he could not release his grip on the hilt of his sword. "Thank-you for that, Lord." He laughed grimly. "Else, I think I would have dropped it from exhaustion."
They left him alone for about an hour, and it was all he could do to stay awake through that hour. His blood quieted and cooled, and the wind came whipping through the pass and chilled him even more, and his head nodded and his eyelids drooped, but still he stood his ground. There wasn't much else to do.
At about noon he heard something above his head, just a little scrape of something over the rocks. Glancing up he saw the toe of a boot sticking over the edge of the ravine and knew that he had been flanked. Someone yelled in front of him, and he looked to see a warrior with a beard down to his waist charging with upraised sword. He took the blow on his shield, and ducked low, lunging upwards under the ridiculously small round shields these heathen used. His blade went through his enemy's body and he lifted him up bodily over his head and tossed him behind him. He could feel the two arrows from the two archers above him stick in the lifeless carcass before he dropped it. He snatched up a fallen lance and threw it, killing one of the archers. The only other weapon at hand was a rock so he threw that at the other one, before he had to defend himself against opponents behind and in front. Before he had tried to select the narrowest parts of the ravine to fight in, but now he had to find the widest parts, places where he would have room to turn and maneuver. It was death to face enemies directly in front and behind. He set his back to a wall under a slight overhang and fought it out, attacking very little to the left, mostly covering himself with his shield. It looked like only five of the enemy had been nimble enough to scale the cliffs and come at him from behind, so he concentrated on killing those first. He got three before the enemies on the other side, discovering that they could not get him past his large, three-cornered shield, decided to push him. So they hit his shield in a rush, knocking him off his balance so he ran into the other warrior's swords. They cut him, and cut him deep before he despatched them. One had stabbed through his chain mail leggings, cutting a deep gash across the front of his leg. The other had knocked his helmet askew, rattled his head, and cut his nose so all he could taste was blood, streaming down through his moustache. There was no time to think about that. Before those two fell he was already turning and leaping back to avoid a second rush like the first one.
"This is it, Lord," he whispered. "I can't guard two sides to save my life, so I'll keep my face to the front until I feel cold steel between my shoulder blades. Then I'll probably have my face to the mud and won't care anymore."
The rush came at him as he said this and he leapt nimbly back to avoid it. The front runners in the wall of human flesh coming at him were not so nimble and they tripped over their fallen friends. Edward was on them in a second, killing the ones who were trampling on their struggling comrades, and making sure to despatch the ones on the ground before they could get up. He cried out and split a helmet with a single stroke, from crown to chin. Rage filled him again, battle lust erased all his pains and fatigue and he attacked like his namesake, bulling into the first two men, and driving them back on the ones behind them, hacking lustily, singing lustily, smiting and striving and hewing like a man possessed. He drove them back, killing any who couldn't flee, until he chased them out into the clear light of the sun. They fell back shouting in dismay and he stood out in the open, blinking at the brightness. Something was knocking at the door of his mind, very urgently, but he could not attend to it. All he knew was that it didn't stink so badly of mud and dead men out here. Then he remembered that he was in the open. He heard the swish of arrows, rather than saw them as he turned and ran back into his lair.
"The Tiger waits in his lair. Come and get him, if you dare." He chuckled like a boy. One of the dead had a wineskin on him, and he poured it on the wound in his leg, relishing the sting of it, and how it made his heart pound and his head light. He had a terrible thirst, which he quenched with the snow that lay untouched outside his narrow battleground, until he heard the steps of men advancing cautiously into the ravine and he laughed with joy. "Come, friends. Let us dance." He realized that he had not been stabbed in the back. There was no one behind him. He never found out what had happened to that second archer.
The battle continued again until nightfall, sometimes with a break of an hour or so. Maybe the enemy was deliberately trying to make him let his guard down. Perhaps they were just arguing about what they should do next. Each time the fighting lulled, the urge to sleep was even fiercer. By now they had to have realized they were fighting only one man. He couldn't understand why they didn't just rush him and finish him off. Surely they had to have at least a few men who knew how to fight.
"Lord, I don't know how much longer I can continue this. Soon, I am going to fall asleep, and then they will kill me anyway. At least I won't have to stand on my feet anymore."
Nightfall came and something crashed in front of him. Someone had thrown an earthenware jar into the ravine. He must have been asleep. The next instant he heard voices, and more jars crashing, and then everything became bright. He realized what was going on only very slowly as his exhausted mind came into full wakefulness. Of course, they had thrown wine or oil jars into the ravine and lit them on fire hoping to smoke him out. The wind was tearing through the ravine, sending foul smelling smoke into his eyes and mouth. He crouched as low as he could to get somewhat under it, and wrapped a rag over his eyes, and held his ground.
"At least now I can't go to sleep," he coughed. "Should I thank you for that, Lord?"
The fire was uncomfortable, but it burned for only about twenty minutes. Even before it was completely out, he heard the footsteps of the enemy and roused himself for one last battle.
"Whatever happens here, Lord, this is the end. You cannot ask me to keep going on like this. I can barely see, I can barely stand, I can barely lift this sword. If you could see your way to let one of them get lucky with a lance or a sword, I would be eternally grateful." For some reason this struck him as hilarious. "Eternally grateful! Of course, eternally." When the enemies reached him he was laughing uproariously and running at them like a bull.
Many times that last night, he felt like he could not go on. Every time they would draw back to collect their dead to make room for another attack, he would listen to them shouting angrily at each other outside his tunnel and he would sway with weariness, knowing, not thinking but knowing, that the next assault would be the last one. He knew he could not lift his sword for another stroke. He knew the next time a shoulder hit his shield he would fall on his back and be stomped mercilessly into the mud. And he would probably be so grateful to be able to lie down at last that he wouldn't even mind.
Then they would attack and he would lift his sword and lunge for their faces. They would hit his shield and he would fall back, and then thrust forward as he had been trained, his heavier, more solid shield knocking their shields and weapons aside, making room for his thrusts. The way would get bogged down with the dead, and they would pause and drag the corpses back out while he would recover and have time for more despairing before the next attack. How long this went on, he never knew.
Then he woke up. He was sitting against the wall with his sword still cramped in his nearly useless hand. The daylight was bright, the dead were stacked around him. He leapt to his feet in a panic and rushed through the ravine, thinking to find his enemies bearing down on him. But he was alone. He could see their trail as they headed back the way they came, a much diminished band. Far off, miles in the distance, he saw them riding away, and he could not tell how many of the horses had riders, and how many did not.
"I suppose they must have given up and decided to go by a different route. And I must have fallen asleep waiting for them. Well, that's good, Lord, because it means now I can sleep." With a sigh, he laid back down, and was oblivious in a second.
Four months later, Lady Celia received a messenger at her husband's castle who told her that her brother had returned to the family's home, and that he would be making a trip to see her very soon.
"How did he seem to you?" she questioned the old family servant who had brought the news.
"Very well, Lady. He was sorely wounded during his travels, but he will not say how."
"Thank you Peter. He will tell me, though."
However, to her surprise he never did tell her. He never told a living soul, except his wife when in God's good time he married. He refused a position as the King's advisor, and instead retired and spent his time training the young squires who came from all over Christendom to learn skill-at-arms from his hand. He never again fought in any war, but lived out all the rest of his days in perfect peace.