Part One: Chapter 13
As might well have been predicted after examining the other two bodies, the third downed scout’s mouth had been sewn shut. Yet the final spectacle didn’t lack a shock of its own, for this man wore the eyes of the first scout, the ears of the second, and his own removed tongue all threaded through by a cord around his neck.
Dragan could feel the eyes on him—and not just those of his column behind. The warriors of Braured were in the woods to either side of him now, he sensed: watching him contemplate their final warning. One more step forward might be all he was allowed before their missiles rained in, or a host several times the size of his own might be waiting patiently around the next bend…or most likely both. He wouldn’t know for sure what was ahead till the moment his men faced it, for he’d sent no more scouts off to meet near-certain death.
" Gavix!” he summoned loudly without bothering to turn back, well aware of the futility of stealth.
“Yes, lord.” The lad had been no more than a few steps away.
“My horse will only hinder me in this muck. Take him to the rear…then stay by your father’s side.”
“And mine too, boy,” added Ûladriss, leading his charger up by the reins. “I doubt this enemy makes use of steeds.”
Gavix nodded and was off with both horses in a flash, leaving his master disappointed. He knows I mean to shield him from the brunt of battle, but he didn’t have to accept it so easily. The DoomBringer turned to Ûladriss: “What say you, marshal? Should we all press on, or should you and I go scouting ourselves?” We won’t fall as easily as the others, my friend…
Before the Haxûdī could answer, however, a strange, whirring noise issued from far out in the woods. Both men tensed as it began, thinking at last to have heard the enemy’s call to arms, but the sound merely continued a few moments more before ceasing as abruptly as it’d begun. Then silence fell again. Evening was fast approaching. Under other circumstances the rush to strike camp would soon be underway, but today Dragan had given his men a choice: “…either sleep under open sky atop this mud, with the last rays of sunlight falling upon your enemies’ corpses—or else rest forever beneath it with them.” That was how sure he’d been of an assault. Yet now…
“Why do you hesitate, men of Braured? We’ve seen your signs and haven’t turned back! Is every one of you craven?” The GrimHelm’s shouts burst through the hot, still air of late afternoon, and every ear that heard them strained for an answer. The moment passed, and others came and went…
And nothing happened. Nothing at all.
Thoroughly disgusted, Dragan spit upon the earth before turning back to his marshal. “Order the column forward. We may even make it out of this damned forest before…”
“Look there!” yelled someone from behind. Dragan snapped his face around to the host then followed the speaker’s gaze and pointing finger back to the path ahead. An old man with a tangled white beard, naked save for a loincloth and thong sandals, was just rounding the bend. He held a spear in one hand and led a young girl forward with the other.
The Haxûdī presence didn’t surprise the man or his companion, yet the elder halted at a relatively safe distance from the column’s head. Meeting the invading leader’s eyes first to ensure attentiveness, he looked next at the child then spoke loud enough for all at the column’s front to hear: “See, my queen? These desecrators heeded none of the signs you commanded us leave for them, and now our sacred wood nears its end. Will you let such boldness go unpunished?”
Although the DoomBringer was puzzled indeed by the odd scene before him, the elder’s brazenness enraged him more: “No…you see here, old man! We care nothing for bloody altars and urns! You could’ve treated with us at any time—but instead your cowards slew my scouts!”
In response to the outburst, the elder simply let go the child’s hand to extend an open palm: a rude gesture that said shut your insolent mouth. “My queen? We await your response. Shall we let them pass?”
Tugging nervously at one of her braids, staring at the GrimHelm through the eyes of a clearly spoiled child, the Queen of Braured pursed her lips to consider the question. “No,” her high-pitched voice came at last, just before Dragan was about to rant again. “Kill them all.”
No sooner had the girl’s words permeated the trees than a volley of arrows, spears, and crazed war cries issued from them; yet this hail didn’t find the famed Haxûdī cohort unprepared. Though some missiles indeed met with the intended fleshy marks, most of them clanged off armor or raised defenses to skid off into the brush on the path’s opposing side, where no doubt more than a few friendly bodies caught the stray deadly shafts. Yet this was only the beginning. Incensed as he was at the old cur and brat of a monarch, Dragan turned his murderous gaze away from their scurrying bodies, allowing them to retreat as he focused on the axe-wielding berserkers charging around the bend in their place. Daemon! cursed Dragan to himself. These men are stout! So close did the frothing vermin resemble one another—with their thick, hairy bared chests, black manes, bushy beards, and crude fur boots and leggings—that he fancied them all having been pulled from the same mother’s womb. This is their elite. Slay them, and the rest shall flee. Trusting the battle behind to his leaders of lesser rank, he shouted for Ûladriss to remain and rally the frontline against this charging swarm.
Amid the ensuing brutality, its owner ringed about by spattered gore, rabid howls of triumph, and groans of horrid death, a wicked smile built its home on the DoomBringer’s lips. He’d not been disappointed after all. Killing was what he breathed for: the only thing he’d never betrayed. The next foe caught a swipe of Dragan’s sword and left his forearm behind, loosing a terrible scream as blood jetted from the wound. Another savage charged to avenge his fallen comrade, only to have his head promptly removed by a magnificent swirl of the Haxûdī captain’s blade.
It was a glorious slaughter.
But of whose side? Dragan indeed fared as well as any who knew him would expect, but as the last assailant within his reach ate mud, the GrimHelm swept his gaze about him…and felt a pang of doubt. The Haxûdī were fighting keenly—maintaining discipline, not backing down—but the enemy kept pouring in: wave after wave, slow but sure in its erosion of the defenders’ human wall. More than a few piled bodies were now Dragan’s own men. This can’t be! he raged inside. Too many already are slain here in this cursed wood!…all because of my own cowardice! Suddenly his eyes fell on Ûladriss. It seemed the marshal had been pegged by the enemy as a key target, for no fewer than five towering brutes had somehow encircled him and—despite the Haxûdī’s superior skill—were pressing the man to the brink with their coordinated efforts. Barging through the throng, Dragan arrived just in time to block a fatal blow aimed at the back of his friend’s skull; then, as Ûladriss caught sight of his captain, the two warriors fell into a deadly dance, fighting side-by-side, engaging in joint maneuvers of their own against the multiple opponents. They ducked and twisted about one another, trading targets after each thrust or slash to confuse the foe and limit their own exposure. Each heedless of his partner’s strokes—several of which came within thumb’s width of friendly skin—the captain and marshal continued on in perfect sync, handing the assault back to their attackers…till at last none remained standing within their circle of defense save themselves and…
The Giant of Braured. Huge as he was—thick as an oak, dwarfing the tallest of his now-slain entourage by a head—the enemy champion appeared suddenly in the fray, slinging around his massive, double-bladed broadaxe as if it were no more cumbersome than a light staff or sword. This bastard rushed Ûladriss first upon entering the defenders’ ring, catching the marshal unaware as the Haxûdī spun back from a final killing thrust. Then, from the corner of his eye, Dragan Saedus beheld a sight of utter horror: the collapse of his friend, Ûladriss Amaten, beneath the Giant’s blow. The shock of that image was as intense as any pain his flesh had ever endured, but as he’d done with all those wounds of the past, now the GrimHelm set his jaw, imbibed the bitter drink that was his agony, and felt the brew stir up a fire of rage in his gut. DIE! he screamed inside at the Giant, over and over again, as he rushed forward to deal out his wrath.
His first cut was no feint this time, as otherwise it likely would’ve been. It was a sweeping arc that rained down with consummate fury; yet incredibly this assault was checked by the amazing strength and speed with which the enemy thug wielded his great axe. A counterblow even more swift and powerful barely missed Dragan as he recoiled in alarm. The Giant boomed with laughter at his adversary’s surprise; and to make matters worse for Dragan—after the next few exchanges ended in him dodging both left and right to avoid the answers to his own strikes—he found himself back in the general melee: once more a target of multiple foes.
An instant later two of these were on him. Dragan leaned back just in time to avoid the pair of sabers cleaving air before his face and began a swirl of his own sword. The initial stroke of his counter took arm and blade from the assailant on the right, and the next was a sharp thrust through that one’s throat. Then, almost simultaneously, the DoomBringer used his free hand to grab the left enemy by the neck and pull the man’s body tight against his own. This one went into a frenzy, struggling wildly to break free…but Dragan merely withdrew his blade from the dead warrior’s neck, shoved the struggling one aside, and—with a final sweep of his sword—opened a huge gash in the second man’s unprotected back.
The Giant barreled forth again but now, having seen the quick dispatch of his fellows, without the previous mirth. Dragan tasted the man’s growing doubt as the flurry came on, and not only did he manage to weather the storm, but with every returned stroke he seemed to gain more strength as his enemy waned. In a desperate attempt to regain control, the Giant stepped in close after a wide swing and thrust his axe’s haft hard into the GrimHelm‘s face. But…to the foe’s dismay, the cracking of Dragan’s cheekbone barely shook the young man, and as Saedus’ son, enraged, answered the attack, the savage faltered and fell backwards over a corpse. Up came the axe held sideways to block the impending slash of Dragan’s blade—yet haft and fingers were severed on impact.
“Wait!” gasped the Giant as Dragan prepared to administer the killing strike. “Hear me…” The brute’s voice sounded strange…much different than it had at first during his cursing. Even his face was somehow altered.
I’ve seen those eyes before…
The GrimHelm sensed this change had neither come from the Giant fearing death nor the savage’s vanquished pride—still he shrugged it off all the same. “Speak quickly!” he shook violently, fighting to restrain himself. Several Haxûdī ringed their captain now to offer him protection, yet he itched all the more to be away. Ûladriss…
“He summons you to him,” declared the Giant, cutting off Dragan’s thought. “Go now by the swiftest road! Heed me not, and you’ll suffer a fate much worse than mine. The witch shall inflict a never-ending torment upon you!”
“That you’ve already done,” declared Dragan, his mind turning once more to the fallen marshal. “Now speak the name of your master!”
“Tiramas Vendhane,” came the response. “The White King.” And although those words seemed the last of the Giant of Braured, only as Dragan brought his death did the man’s face and eyes again become his own.
Was he insane…or am I? The White King, after all, was long dead by Dragan’s own hand. Again, he shoved such thoughts aside. Ûladriss…
Scanning the ground for his marshal’s body, he came up short. They drew me away. Damn them all! And to make his heart sink even deeper, the struggle about Dragan rushed on toward what seemed an eminent rout of his men. “You’ll not hear us mewl, rats!” his defiant roar boomed through the din. “Is this ragged ilk all Braured has to offer?”
What answered the DoomBringer this time was not a brash old man’s grating voice but rather a single, clear blast from a hunting horn, filling the air above the noise of battle; and following that sharp note was the same whirring noise heard earlier: except it was much closer now, almost in their midst…growing steadily louder…and bringing with it the bitter day’s final stroke.
Streaming into the fray came a host of disgusting little creatures, their blue, scale-like skin stretched over small but defined muscles, and their large heads sporting random clumps of filthy gray hair between spots of baldness. Every one of these dwarfish creatures wielded a square wooden buckler and a small but wicked hatchet, and they wore only a leather wrap around the groin for clothing. Their faces were disgusting to look upon. “Imps,” breathed Dragan, mouth agape. So my fear was grounded after all…
The imps made their abodes in the gnarled roots of lesser oaks, deep in dark and barren Ûnath: the forest capping the northern expanse of Ost. The old tales claimed the creatures had once been dwarves but were banished by their own kind, cast from the great halls beneath Gorm Vûdoc for some treachery against the dwarven king, Ûlufund the Mighty. Denied passage to the south, the rebels were sent to starve in the region stretching between the mountain and the Realm of Dolras. Foreseeing their demise, some elected to retain what honor they could by taking their own lives; the others—either too craven or too in love with life for suicide—survived by dining on that yielded by the dirt and decomposition of the forest floor: worms, maggots, and the rotten flesh of rodents. They longed to chisel rock, to carve stone, to form marble into their likenesses—yet there was hardly even a pebble to be had, for only dirt, clay, and torment awaited them in the soft strata beneath the grade of the forest.
Dwarves have little skill in erecting dwellings from various resources, only in creating them by delving into that which already exists. So the outlaws turned to the trees to make their homes: the only things in the forest with strength, with a backbone. But they found the trunks of lesser oaks too small for domiciles, and thus the dwarves burrowed down into the earth and made their homes beneath the dome formed by the tangled tree roots. There they brooded in isolation and became a community of necessity only, having no great hall to fraternize within and no great deeds to recount. Over time, the dank ground, the darkness of the forest, the softness of the earth, and the inadequate food supply transformed the hearty dwarves into smaller, contemptible creatures. They lost their honor, their dignity, and their love for things of beauty—themselves becoming the antithesis of it.
Imps were unknown to most of the peoples between the Great Ocean and the Sea of Ûlumond, and those who did know of them disdained them utterly. Even the clans of Braured, uncouth as they were, would never treat with such. Yet my mother does, Dragan thought bitterly, and myself by proxy, it seems. Perhaps it’s best that my captains won’t live to realize it. Coming back to the moment, the Bastard of Domal spit blood and—sucking in a deep breath—opened his mouth to shout a command to his men.
But the order was never issued: for at that moment Poltoros, on a steed black as night, came charging headlong towards Dragan. The lich’s face was shielded by a silver death mask—his own, ironically—and he wielded a flail in one hand: its morning star dangling by his horse’s flank. His maroon cloak fluttered in the wind, shedding off from its edges what seemed as black flames…or perhaps the void of death. Dragan held his weapon parallel to the ground, bracing himself, intent on cutting the approaching animal’s leg asunder. Yet just as the GrimHelm slashed at his target, the horse bounded over his blade. Poltoros swung the flail, sending its spiked ball soaring down…down…
…and smashing it into the skull of a Braured clansman whose dirk had been inches from Dragan’s neck.