The Sanguine Field
Dawn broke silent over the horizon, bathing the flat grasslands in orange light. The shuffle of anxious feet and the clank clank of assorted weapons and cobbled together armor rang loudly in the early morning. Across the fields, over the heads of his men, Gramm could see them. The Elves.
They had come from the sea. Their ships had surrounded Tal Autem with little warning. The Elves had swarmed from the bellies of their silent transports like wraiths, killing indiscriminantly. Neither women, children, nor the elderly were spared from the arrows and narrow blades that the invaders from across the sea carried with them. The capital fell in less than a day. Gramm had never seen ferocity such as that which the attackers mustered. He had never seen primal fear like that on the faces of the citizens of Tal Autem.
The king and most of his soldiers had managed to escape the city. They got as many citizens out as they could. Now, a massive camp had formed around the town of Hopewell. For generations, the town had been renowned as the location of the best horse breeders in the kingdom. The king’s cavalry rode Hopewell mounts, the nobles bought the fastest of racing horses from Hopewell, and the king himself made sure that his stable was fully stocked with Hopewell mares and stallions.
Horses were the furthest thing from anyone’s minds now. An Elven runner had come from the enemy encampment just after midnight. Oberon, The King Afield, Oberon Prodigal, had a very simple message for the humans: bend the knee or die.
Aelathil had never been a nation of surrender. The generals who had made it to Hopewell told the messenger where he could stick his message and sent him back to his king.
“Gods, I wish they hadn’t done that,” Gramm whispered to himself.
“Done what, sir?” The man next to Gramm in the vanguard was armored only in what looked to be a blacksmiths apron. His only weapon was a smith’s hammer, good for little other than beating metal into shape. It was too small to break through any kind of real armor and too light to take a beating from a sword. Gramm didn’t think that the man would last very long. He’d look out for him, if he could.
I wish they hadn’t sent us out here to die for their pride.
“Nothing, friend. You don’t have to call me sir. I’m not an officer.”
“Oh,” said the man. “Pardon me. With your armor and whatnot, I assumed…”
Gramm looked down at himself. His silver armor gleamed in the early-morning light. The face of a roaring bear was engraved on his chest plate and shoulders. Decorative rents slashed diagonally across his shield. He held a wicked looking axe in his right hand, its twin strapped to his left side. His size and grizzly visage had earned him the nickname “The Bear.” His armor reflected his name, more for the sake of those that fought with him than for himself.
“The armor was a gift. Like I said, I’m no officer,” said Gramm.
A horn sounded across the field. The Elves were on the march. Drumbeats and the calls of the generals filled the air around Gramm. They moved to meet their enemy. Ever since he’d left his home of Graveholm, Gramm had sought battle wherever he could find it. Some people were convinced that was trying to fill the underworld with corpses. That he’d been sent on a mission from some cruel god to turn the tides of battle. The few friends that he had thought that he was trying to get himself killed. His friends weren’t far off, he supposed. He’d lost everything that had ever been important to him nearly twenty years before. The thrill of war got his blood up. Whether he was involved in some small border skirmish, a barroom brawl, or a full scale battle, he only felt alive when he was near to death.
Still, he supposed that he didn’t actually want to die yet.
The closer that the approaching armies got to each other, the more clear that Gramm’s enemies became. Elves were slightly smaller than men, in general. They were thin and wiry, and nearly a head shorter than most grown humans. They were quick, with a strength that belied their stature. All of them that Gramm had seen wielded leaf-bladed spears with deadly efficiency. Most of them let their hair hang to the middle of their backs, with their temples shaved. It was a strange look. Savage.
The men behind Gramm shouted. Screamed at the invaders. They got their own blood up in their own way. For his part, Gramm was much more like the Elves than his own people. He was quiet, calm, collected. So were the enemy. Inwardly, though, he seethed. They had come to his nation, his city, his home and slaughtered their way through the streets. For what? For their king? Their Oberon?
Both armies collided with a roar that only full-scale battle could reproduce. There was nothing like it. Weapons clashing, threats yelled, throats torn raw from screaming in fear.
Gramm’s shield collided with the face of an Elf with no helmet. Her nose exploded in a shower of red spray. When she stumbled back, Gramm slammed his axe into the top of her skull. Like a scythe through tall grass, he cut through the Elves nearest him. The young man with the blacksmith’s hammer fell almost immediately. Gramm roared and chopped his axe into the neck of his killer, nearly decapitating him. The Elf fell to the ground gurgling and leaking blood.
Though the battle raged, a stillness came over the soldiers surrounding Gramm. A haunting howl cut through the morning air and the Elves parted like waves before the bow of a ship. From between their ranks came a monster straight from the depths of the deepest, darkest hell. It stood nearly half again as tall as Gramm, who was one of the tallest people that he knew. The creature looked like some demented mix of wolf and bull, with the teeth and eyes of the former and the snout and horns of the latter. It had hands similar to a man’s, with only three fingers and a thumb. Instead of feet, it walked on cloven hooves that shifted the earth beneath it. It howled again, this time right at Gramm.
The Elves near the creature took up a chant. “Angaari! Angaari! Angaari!”
It roared again and charged, swinging a club the size of a small tree. Gramm fell to the ground hard to avoid the swing. He heard the club whistle over his head as it missed him by a finger’s width. The man next to him wasn’t so lucky. The bones in his arm and chest must have disintegrated with the force of the blow. He was thrown over the heads of his comrades, screaming.
Gramm rolled to his feet before the massive creature turned its horned head back in his direction. It swung the club again, too quickly for Gramm to dodge. He got his shield up in time to save his head from being caved in. White hot pain shot up his arm and he was knocked backwards onto his back. He tumbled three times before coming to rest on his back, dizzy and winded. He looked down to his shield and blanched. The steel had shattered, along with the bones in Gramm’s left arm. He gulped down air and did his best to stay conscious.
Get up. Keep fighting. You’re not dead ‘til you’re dead.
The monster let him stagger to his feet while the Elves kept up their chant.
“Angaari! Angaari! Angaari!”
The thing stared Gramm down and howled to the sky, shaking its massive, black-furred arms in what it was sure was a victory cry.
Gramm cranked his arm back and threw his axe. It flew, head over handle, until the blade buried itself between the creature’s eyes. Its cry stopped immediately. It looked back to Gramm and snarled, yellowed teeth dripping with drool and blood. It took one step forward. Then another. Then it fell to the ground, sending tremors in all directions. The Elves stopped chanting.
They attacked him quickly. Just two at first, then the rest that had been watching the spectacle. Gramm tried to pull his second axe from his belt, but his left arm was mangled and his right was in poor position to pull the axe from the other side of his body. He managed to punch one of the Elves in the temple before they were on him.
With the butts of their spears and their feet and fists, they knocked him to the ground and pummeled him. He curled up as best he could and tried to protect his neck and face. It didn’t matter. They hit him relentlessly, giving him neither room to move nor a chance to breathe. His arm quickly became one of many broken body parts. Fingers, toes, joints, ribs. The Elves broke anything that they could reach.
The word sliced through the noise of the beating that he was being given. The Elves stopped immediately. Someone rolled Gramm onto his back with the toe of their boot. He cried out from the pain that came forth from every inch of his body, but found the strength to open his eyes. A man stared down at him. A man. Not an Elf. He was clean-shaven, with long hair the color of tree bark and a silver circlet on his head.
“Do you know who I am?”
Gramm tried to respond, but succeeded only in sending a mouthful of blood rolling down his cheeks and into the grass. He coughed, spraying even more into the air.
“No, I thought not,” said the man. “My name is Oberon.”
Gramm tried to sit up, to get his broken hands around his throat.
Fire. Everywhere. He screamed and stayed still.
“This one has spirit. Bring him with us.”
Two pairs of hands lifted Gramm under his armpits and forced him to stand. They ignored the screams that ripped themselves from his throat, with a fresh gout of blood and vomit. In front of him, through the haze of agony, Gramm saw a slaughter. The men. His men. They were dead. As far as he could tell, everyone who hadn’t surrendered had been slain. Some were crying and yelling as they died in the field, some were being carried by a pair of Elves, just as he was.
The battle had taken minutes.
Oberon, the King Afield strode ahead of Gramm, repeating the same lines that he’d said to Gramm to anyone that he found living.
I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.
Again, there was only blood.