The warrior squeezed through the trees, following the hoof prints in the mud and fading snow patches. Beads of moisture rolled down his scuffed leather breastplate, dripped off the hood of his black cloak, gathered in his beard. His breath escaped in white billows to whip away like lively ghosts in the thin mountain air. His breathing, the delicate crunch of his boots, the sigh of a morning breeze through the branches just starting to leaf out in the earliest heartbeats of spring. Sunlight splashed down in lemony pools.
The smallest crumple of leaves drew his attention to the left. And there it stood against a backdrop of currant and juniper. A giant. Unseen for centuries even here in this most spirited of forests. Silver fur sparkled in the dawn sun, and golden antlers spread off its head like the crown of a massive, leafless tree. Its hooves were like polished gold boots. It nibbled at some young pink primrose, long brush-like tail swishing to and fro, shimmering like copper weave. The warrior unslung his bow and knocked an arrow. He drew and the bowstring sang. The huge stag looked up suddenly, white eyes flushing red with alarm. Just in time to see the arrival of its death.
Dragging the deer on a makeshift sling, the warrior found his way back to the trail he’d been following, considering the luck at spying the deer’s tracks. Or was it luck? Things tend to happen for a reason. Either way, it meant venison for a while. While the warrior had been dressing the deer, clouds had swept in as they do in the mountains and soon fat drops of rain were falling through the trees and smacking the cowl of his cloak. Morning trudged along and, despite the rain, birds chattered from the trees and bushes. The warrior took heart at the birdsong and the thought of a hot meal of fresh meat waiting for him when he stepped off this mountain.
The music stopped abruptly, leaving only the anxious tap of rain against the tree branches. The warrior stopped, dropped the sled, and pulled his bow off his shoulder. A dozen swordsmen exploded out of the bushes from all directions, bellowing war cries and waving swords and daggers.
Like twin bolts of lightning, two arrows slashed through the air, spiking two of the attackers in their left eyes and dropping them like stones. The warrior knocked another arrow while whirling to his right and pierced another attacker in the throat. Continuing to turn, he killed a fourth attacker with a fourth arrow then dropped the bow because the other eight men were closing in. Men he didn’t know nor care about. Men who certainly didn’t know him. For if they did, they wouldn’t be anywhere near these mountains.
Slowly, he drew his double-edged daggers with golden handles and wavy two-foot steel blades shimmering with an ivory light. Etched into the flat of each blade was a simple feathered wing.
He charged at the two attackers before him and slashed with such ferocity that the blades hardly slowed through armor, flesh, and bone. As each man slid into two separate pieces, he spun, parried a sword stroke with a thunderous clash of his right dagger, and took off another attacker’s head with the left blade. Still moving, he closed the distance on swordsman number five. The attacker’s battle cry became a thick gurgle as the warrior slipped a wild sword thrust and drove both daggers in with a two-handed strike to throat and gut.
The swordsman clutched frantically at his ruined throat, panic and pain in his eyes. The warrior shoved him roughly to the wet ground and danced toward the last three attackers, daggers whipping so fast they whistled through the air. The left blade caught an attacker full in the face, cleaving him with enough force to shear most of his head off at the nose. On the right, the swordsman decided too late that his participation was ill-advised and tried to peel away from the assault. For his efforts, only half his neck was sliced neatly by a black, winged blade. He flopped to the ground, blood pumping out in a torrid eruption that foamed and spit as his last breaths left his lungs.
The last attacker quit charging and squared up for a proper swordfight. The warrior flicked his blades and they buried themselves to their ivory hilts in the man’s chest with enough force to knock him back near the bushes he’d first crept from.
Hot plumes billowed from the warrior’s mouth. He walked over to retrieve his daggers and stood over the dying man, just watching for a moment with a strange mixture of disgust and sorrow that angered him. The man grasped for the warrior, who reached down and pulled out one dagger with a spew of steaming blood. He slit the man’s throat to end his suffering before yanking out the second dagger. He wiped both blades on the man’s heavy trousers, stood up, and sheathed them.
The sound of a bow being drawn spun him around. He snapped his cloak with a whip crack and deflected the arrow sizzling toward him. There at the tree line, a thirteenth man trying to knock another arrow. So fast did the warrior cover the ground between him and the archer that the man fell back against a pine and gasped as if confronted by a ghost.
But he quickly sat up and hid his fear behind a snarling grin. Looking around at the bodies of his comrades, he nodded his head appreciatively and chuckled in a way that sounded more like a growl. “Nicely done,” he said in a long-dead language and with a voice like metal and rock being ground together. “But it is not enough. Not nearly so. Master is coming. And master is no mere man who will walk into your blades like an idiot lamb to slaughter.” His eyes were huge and completely black.
The warrior stared down impassively, the ancient Sumerian words, the black eyes, making clear now what squatted before him.
“He will destroy everything,” the demon-infested man snarled.
From beneath his cloak, the warrior unfurled the concealed wings that had protected him from the arrow. They snapped open wide enough to reveal white feathers shining like the inside of seashells. The warrior’s eyes lit up white within his hood as he closed the wings around the man like a fence.
“This cannot be!” the man cried. “An angel! Who are you? Tell me!” He flung a hand in front of his eyes to shield them from the white fire now blazing out of the warrior’s hood. The move provided no protection and the man twisted in anguish as the white fire enveloped him, reducing him to a pile of ash that a chill breeze began to scatter along the wet ground.
The warrior’s hood went dark. As dark as his mood. He whipped his wings shut with a thunder crack.