The chill of late autumn is proving to be strong this season. The bite of cold steel proves harsh against the soldiers’ skin, the metal sapping any kind of heat it touches, but the men know better than to take off a piece of armor that could save them if something were to happen.
After the disappearance of the battalion that was stationed at the camp ahead of them, Silas moved Yrsa’s own out to the front line. She doesn’t like being as far away as the ocean while her grandfather is still needed at the capital, but he assured her before she left that the movement was only for a while to give him and the other generals to figure out who to put there permanently. If anything, it was just a reconnaissance mission to see if she could find any survivors.
Yrsa is not hopeful that she will find anything.
The Druk like to ambush from the skies, and they especially enjoy hiding in the tall pines that grow in plenty in Holt. It doesn’t matter if they are a prideful race; they won’t adhere to human standards of honorable fighting. They will do what they want and how they want. In reality, there is a high chance that there will be no trace of the previous battalion in typical Druk fashion.
Another gust of wind whips through the trees, forcing Yrsa to hide her face in the furs around her neck for a moment to avoid the chill as it forces its way through the thick branches. When the breeze pasts, she sighs and emerges once more, focusing on the dirt path in front of her.
They’re not far from the coast, maybe a mile from the edge of the forest. If it was up to her, she’d be far away from the ocean, hidden in the mountains far west of here. She has always hated the ocean and it’s frigid cold, where the wind never ceases. At least in the Hazengaard Range, the hot springs are plenty and the snow melts away to reveal lush green forests in the summer as the sun heats up the land. Unfortunately, that dream is a distant reality from the one she currently faces.
“Do you think there will be any bodies to send back once we get there,” Eiken asks from his horse next to her.
He’s a broad and stocky man blessed with the infamous dark features of their people, as is historically common for the Drengr. In generations past, the Drengr were a people with darker features than the kliida that were near the Thorn River that separates humans from the Elves. Dark brown hair and tanned skin, and most opt for long braided hair and beards, such as Eiken. Yrsa imagines that Silas’s white hair was once as dark as Eiken’s and her own in the years before herself and her mother. The Drengr are a dying people with a single tribe residing in the northern part of the Hazengaard Range, far away from the sophistication of Holt.
“No, and I know that you don’t think so either. You and I both know the Druk don’t leave behind survivors, not without a purpose,” she answers, tilting her head at him to give him a look.
Eiken gives a bellowing laugh as he hears his commander’s words.
“Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth. Damned bastards are thorough with their attacks, I’ll give them that much, but I look forward to the day we drive them from our land permanently.”
“The day will come, Eiken, we just have to be patient, and remember to fight—”
“Like Hell, because today might damn well be your last. Good gods, Yrsa, you’re starting to sound like your grandfather,” he groans after cutting her off, rolling his eyes while he throws a hand into the air. A soft giggle leaves her lips at her friend’s dramatics.
“Sorry, can’t help it. It’s who I am.”
“Well, maybe coming out here is a good thing then. Spending some time away from Silas will give you some to form your own personality.”
She rolls her eyes.
With a click of her tongue, she pushes her horse further to the head of the group. She can just barely see the tops of the tents through the trees, and her anxiety begins to heighten as she wonders what could be waiting for them when they get there. At the age of twenty-three, she has rarely seen the aftereffects of a Druk attack. It was only a little over two months ago that she was promoted to commander and given her own battalion and given her first assignment to lead her men to the now-silent Camp Myric.
Her men follow suit behind her as she slows her horse down when they reach the silent entrance of the fort. No one makes a word as she glances in the treetops and around the curves of the camp, taking in anything that could tip off that there’s still visitors waiting for them inside.
She hears and sees nothing, so she continues on, her men following her.
As Yrsa passes through the stone entrance, her face steels over to hide the horror threatening to spill over as she discovers what was waiting for them inside. Decaying bodies litter almost every foot of the compound, flies and maggots swarming around each and every one of them. Blood stains the tents and wood, and puddles of it still sit coagulated on the dirt ground around the bodies that were clearly tossed there. She continues down the road, trying desperately to keep herself from retching at the horrid smell that drifts up from the rotting corpses. Most have had their stomachs split wide open, their intestines and entrails spilling over in gory messes. Helmets are strewn across the ground, leaving the soldiers’ faces wide open to take in their faces frozen in horror before death.
Yrsa tries not to stare too hard at any one thing, clenching her teeth to hide the shaking of her jaw. Eiken walks not too far behind her, taking in the chilling site around them. She knows it is not his first time seeing the aftermath of battle, but it still messes with a person, no matter who they are.
“Poor bastards. Most of them didn’t even know what hit them. Although, I pity the ones who did more,” Eiken whispers as he comes up to her side.
She does not speak for a moment, thinking about her next words.
“When we are done searching, I want to note who is here, if you can.” Her voice is small and tight as she tries to fight off the tears threatening to build on her lower lid. He does not answer.
She comes up to the commander’s tent before stopping her horse and sliding off the side of it, tying the reins to the post next to the tent flaps. She looks up at Eiken.
“Tell everyone to fan out and check each tent for survivors or for information as to what happened. Don’t let a single tent go unchecked. Meet back here when you’re done,” she orders.
He gives a single nod before turning around and shouting the orders at the rest of the men. She blinks once, twice, drawing in a deep breath and holding it for five seconds before closing her eyes and slowly releasing it, readying herself for what she will find.
Her boots crunch as she walks over dried twigs and leaves, pushing away the leather tent flaps. Immediately she is smacked with the curdling stench of decay from the six bodies that are strewn about in various positions, all ripped to ribbons. She continues to walk deeper into the tent, trying hard to not reject the dinner that she had eaten not four hours earlier.
Her eyes drift over each body, noting that they are all lower rank, but in the center, the body of Commander Lucef sits on a chair, slumped against the wooden back of it. A large knife sits embedded into the center of his chest and a large gash has split open his neck, thick blood staining the front of his uniform. Grief crests over her as she stares at the body of the man that she had once called a mentor. The forty-seven-year-old was a fine soldier, and an even better leader, someone that many looked up to. What hurts the most is the thought of having to go home and tell his wife and son that their husband and father is dead. At lease they will have a body to bury; not many have that luxury.
Sighing, she steps forward, resting her hand on his right shoulder before gripping the hilt of the knife and yanking it out. Looking down at the knife, she notices the slightly curved blade, and the Ezkarian gold gleaming off of the script embellished into the blade. Unfortunately, she does not know Drukian, but she has a feeling that it most likely says something about death and flame. Though, she knows that does not matter.
She wipes the crusted blood off on her pant leg before stowing it away into the sheath strapped to her left thigh. As she lifts her head up, streaks of red painted onto the wooden table catch her eye, drawing her attention to them. Her eyes have to squint to make out what it is in the dim tent light, but she eventually is able to make out what it is, or rather, what is written.
She furrows her eyes in confusion, racking her mind to what it could mean, but at that moment, she hears a crack from a branch far above her outside. Her blood runs cold, and eyes widen, realizing what is happening. She bolts to the front of the tent, ripping open the flaps, staring up into the branches of the towering pines.
They’re hard to make out in the near dark of dusk, but she can still see Druk perched in the trees, their wings eagle wide and ready for battle. Her mouth runs dry, chills spreading over her body before she screams.
“Run! They’re in the trees!”
As soon as the words leave her lips, the dark masses dive from the trees, hurdling towards the soldiers milling about, completely oblivious as to what was above them this entire time. Immediately, Yrsa is tackled to the forest floor by the incredible weight of a Druk. A shout leaves her as the air is punched from her lungs at the impact, leaving her breathless. A quick glance reveals a light brown hand clutching her left shoulder, the beast’s claws digging into the leather of her armor.
“Mmm, I didn’t know that the humans let their women lead their armies. No wonder they’re so weak,” he seethes, his breath hot against her ear, making her grimace.
In a swift move, she yanks the knife from her thigh and slams it into the man’s body on top of her. He yells, pulling off of her in surprise, giving her room to flip over and slam her feet into his chest, shoving him off of her. He grunts at the impact, and she wastes no time unsheathing her sword off her hip, swinging the blade towards the Druk’s exposed middle. There’s a dull thud as the blade meets the man’s armored side, but it simply bounces off of him, not even leaving a dent on the metal. Her eyes widen in horror as she realizes that her sword did no damage to a Druk.
The man’s face stretches into a sinister grin as he stands, pulling the knife from his thigh, tossing it to the ground.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret since I’ll be killing you here shortly, princess. Your human iron,” he starts, gesturing to her hand. “Does nothing against Ezkarian bronze.”
She spares herself a moment to look him over and then whips her head around, taking in the glints of brown that the rest of the Druks are wearing. She realizes that their armor is the reason they are not so easily defeated, why for so long when one of their men died, then of ours fell as well. Briefly, she wonders if she will live to tell Silas.
A guttering yell echoes through the forest and she quickly spins around to find Eiken held in place as two Druks pull at both arms, holding him still as another surges forward, punching his arm through Eiken’s chest.
She stands frozen, unable to do anything but watch as her friend’s eyes go wide before slipping shut, and the Druks drop his body to the ground. It is as if the world around her fades as she stares at him, the sounds of bloodshed muffled as chaos prevails around her, unable to think. The dead unseeing eyes stare back up at her from across the field, and deep cold horror encases her in a frozen blanket, rendering her useless.
A hand on her neck brings her back.
“There’s no saving your men,” he whispers, his lips just barely ghosting past her right ear. “But you, on the other hand, may be of use back home.”
His words waken her from her shock, and she stands straight again. But before she can turn around to strike, a swift hit to the back of her head renders her unconscious, letting her body drop into the arms of the Druk.
Harsh rocking and bumping soon draws her from unconsciousness. There are men shouting and conversing around her, and she can tell that she is laying on wooden planks, the unsanded surface scratching against her cheek. Her eyes fly open as the cart hits a particularly harsh bump, her head coming up and slamming back down. She seethes in pain from the impact and the harsh light of the sun causes her to groan as she opens her eyes.
She first realizes that she is shackled at her wrists to the floor of the cart, steel bars encasing her. It is only her in the barred cart, multiple Druk riding on horseback in front and behind her, chattering amongst each other, still donning their armor. They are walking south along the coast, and in the distance, she can see a fleet of ships out in the ocean with a camp on the beach. Confusion washes over her at the sight of Ezkarian army on the shores where she knows villages and camps are nearby. Are villagers and their own soldiers lying on reports about the state of the camps, possibly being held captive by the Druk to send them, in promise that they would not be harmed? Questions swarm around her mind as the Druk who she had fought earlier ride up to the side of the cart.
“You’re probably wondering where we all came from if your oh-so trusted soldiers said that they were fine. Well, princess, we have very . . . effective ways to hide our numbers,” he rumbles, and Yrsa’s eyes snap up to his own, her eyes narrowing into a glare.
“I swear to the Gods, for every person that has suffered under you ruthless beasts—”
“Now now, if we are hurting them, would they be wandering around the land as they so please?”
She takes a moment to look closer, only to find that the humans are in fact milling about as if everything is fine, like the people that want them all dead are not walking amongst themselves.
“There’s one thing that your precious king forgets,” he starts. “While he has been worrying at the capital about how to defeat our forces, he has forgotten about the people on the edges. This village was on the brink of starvation when we arrived a year and a half ago. In exchange for food and protection, they offered us safe haven on your land.”
“Why would you choose to help them? Your king has vowed to wipe out the human race. You want nothing more than to see us gone,” she seethes, unbelieving of the words leaving his mouth.
A chuckle rumbles from his chest as he sees her anger.
“Because, the only thing the Ezkarian army wants is to see your king and everyone who hates us just as much as we hate him gone. That goes for your army, your generals, the officials, everyone that hates us. We have lived hundreds of years hidden away across the ocean, watching as your royal family has slain every last one of the true dragons. Now if that means that every single human is a sympathizer, then so be it. But we will succeed, and we will show your king that we don’t stop, no matter what. Besides,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “It won’t be too hard, proven by how weak your army has been since the start.”
Yrsa’s eyes have gone wide at the man’s admission. While she was aware of the outer towns and villages struggling, she never would have thought that they would be suffering to where they would voluntarily align themselves with Ezkar. Even their own men, who have been stationed out on the front have given themselves over.
While Yrsa herself has never experienced living on the edges, it would have never crossed her mind to betray her country and king in exchange for anything. She guesses that many of the others used to think the same thing.
The Druk turns away from her after he realizes that Yrsa has nothing left to say, silent now that her perception of her people has shifted. As they draw closer to the costal village, people start to peak out of their homes and look up from their tasks as the winged soldiers ride by. Many stare in awe at the chained girl in the cart, while others sneer as they catch sight of the royal insignia engraved into the front of her armor. Some of the Druks wander off to different stall, conversing with the villagers. Some smile to them and even children run up to a couple, encasing them in giant hugs. Yrsa’s face twists in confusion at how a child could even look at a Druk without fear, let alone giving one a hug.
Her attention shifts to a little girl holding a stuffed animal in her arms while standing next to her mother as she converses with another, the girl’s eyes gazing wide at Yrsa, her mouth dropped open.
“Mama look. There’s a girl in the jail cart.” Yrsa can just barely make out what the girl says as she tugs on her mother’s dress. The mother looks away from her conversation, her smile disappearing, and a scowl immediately replaces it. The woman grips her daughter’s hand.
“Don’t look at her sweetheart. She’s a traitor,” the mother explains, making Yrsa’s heart sink.
Is this truly how the people think about the army? Even as they are fighting for Holt’s survival, has the army strayed so far that the people don’t see them as help anymore?
She scoots herself back into a corner, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them before hiding the bottom half of her face in her knees.
The group continues forward through the village towards the docks where multiple tall ships wait. The Ezkarian fleet is designed with dark, almost black wood with massive red sails, making them near impossible to miss on the blue sea, but Yrsa knows that it just makes them that much more of a threat at night.
Humans and Druks alike are busy loading and unloading ships, hauling barrels and chests to where they need to go. They converse between each other as if there is nothing different between them, as if they are friends. She has never even entertained the thought of potentially being friends with the race that is trying to wipe them out. The gleam of the sun off of red, black, and gold wings makes her heart skip. Since the start of her service in the royal army, it has been engraved into her mind that at the slightest sight of wings means to fight, but she has no sword to protect herself from this predicament.
Her heart begins to pick up as the cart draws near the largest ship where it sits tied in the back, the mast towering enough where it blocks out the sun. The cart pulls to a stop in front of the ship where two Druks stand in waiting at the entrance.
“Commander Izek, it’s good to see you back in one piece,” the one on the right speaks first. He appears much younger than the Druk next to her, looking to be in his late twenties. His golden blond hair reaches his shoulders, the top half tied back out of his face as it glints in the sun. His skin is deeply tanned, and his eyes are a deep blue. The wings behind him are the same color gold, almost blinding in the sun. The dyed white leather of his armor pairs nicely with the gold plating that she now knows is Ezkarian gold, the metal that can withstand human swords.
“It’s good to see you as well, Alistair. I take it that the ship has been kept in good condition,” the Druk that captured her, Izek answers.
“Of course, sir. She’s ready for the journey home.”
“Excellent. Now, I do have something special that I want you boys to take care of while I’m getting things ready for tomorrow morning,” Izek answers, and their attention turns to Yrsa, still chained to the cart.
A wicked smile stretches across Alistair’s face and his head tilts slightly to the left as his eyes roam over her body.
“My my, Commander. What did you find out there in the forest?”
“The woman who was leading the battalion to check on the camp that we destroyed.”
“A woman leading,” Alistair questions, unbelieving as he looks back at his superior.
“Oh yes. I think she will be . . . rather entertaining in the Arena back in Vyrik. I reckon Lord Thace will find her enjoyable since she actually managed to drive my own dagger into my thigh when I encountered her.”
Yrsa’s heart plummets at the mention of an “arena.” Could they actually be barbaric enough to have a coliseum to show case their bounties? She knows that in generations past in the far regions west of their peninsula many different species would part take in the slave trade for gladiator shows, but they have long since been outlawed in Holt and the Elven Empire.
“I think Lord Thace will appreciate the gift for his shows, but it’s a shame that pretty face will be scarred before anyone can have fun with her,” Alistair coos, reaching a hand between the bars. Yrsa snaps her teeth at the fingers reaching for her, just barely missing the tips of them. He yelps in surprise, eyes wide in shock before they narrow.
“You wretched whore,” he growls, nose flaring. “You’ll regret doing that.”
She doesn’t care: she will be damned before she lets one of them touch her willingly.
Izek rolls his eyes at his subordinates actions, handing a key to Alistair and turns his horse around to go back into town.
“Serves you right. Don’t poke your fingers into a wild animal’s cage; you might lose one.”
Izek trots away, leaving Yrsa with Alistair and the unnamed Druk. Alistair lets out a low growl, turning to the Druk.
“Take her inside and make sure she is locked up correctly. The last thing we need is for her to get loose,” he commands, looking at Yrsa with distain. He hands him the key before stalking away.
The expressionless Druk looks at Yrsa, taking a second to study her, taking in her current state. She takes him in as well. He’s he appears to be slightly younger than the other, in human years anyways. Physically, he does not seem to be a day over twenty-five. His deep red hair is cropped short to his scalp, letting only the tops of it retain its length. While Alistair has golden wings, this one’s are a dark red, near the color of fresh blood. Without the sun, Yrsa is certain they would be as black as night.
He walks forward, the sound of his thick soled boots thudding against the wood of the dock as he steps towards her. The matte black of his armor blends in with the back of the ship, and in this moment, she realizes that he is an example of the Druks that are used as scary stories for children at night.
Her body tenses up with fear as he unlocks the door of the cell, pulling it open before standing in the doorway. Her heart is thundering in her ears as she waits for him to say something, any kind of command or the go ahead to get out of the cell, but she receives none. Maybe he is waiting for her to make a mistake, to give him a reason to hurt her, to give the excuse that she moved without command. His eyes never stray from her, this face still blank as he waits.
“You need to come forward so I can unlock you from the cart.” She startles at the sound of his voice. He is so much quieter compared to the others, and she wonders if she heard him at all or if it was just her imagination. She blinks once, twice, before moving forward. The metal chains clink together as she holds her arms out so he can unlock the cart’s chain from them, eyes hard as she waits for it to all be a trick to draw her closer so he can hurt her. But to her surprise, he does no such thing, only gently grasping the chain to bring it closer to him before letting it drop. He steps back, and she takes it as her cue to step out.
It proves to be difficult to move around with closely bound chains, and her struggling must be rather obvious as a hand softly grasps onto her bicep to help steady her. She spares a quick glance up to the man, meeting his forest green eyes. He has to be at least a foot taller than her five-foot-five stature to be towering over her so easily to where she has to crane her head up to meet his eyes.
He says nothing, instead retaking her chain and goes to walk up the boardwalk to the ship.
Anxiety manifests quickly as it causes her hands to shake and a cold sweat break out across her skin, even as most of it is still covered by her uniform. The gravity of her situation is quickly dawning on her, knowing without a doubt that she will be taken under the deck with the other prisoners, if there are any at all.
She does her best to ignore the commotion of other Druks on board as they bustle about carrying items to and from places, but she guesses it seems easier because of the sheer panic clouding around her. It’s not hard to focus on the back of the man’s boot as he quickly leads her through the crowd towards a black wooden door. Thankfully, she remains wholly ignored by the crew.
He pushes open the door, revealing a deep and dark underbelly before he continues down steep steps without hesitation. Immediately Yrsa is overwhelmed by the thick stench of urine and feces filling the main hold, and as fresh air rushes past them into humid heat, she knows that it’s only been made worse. Without a doubt, there are others down here, taken from their homes to be used in Ezkar.
Faint light filters through gaps in the floors above, casting dim shadows around them. While Yrsa struggles to make out what sits around her, the Druk is able to navigate soundly in the near-dark. She’s confused as to how, but it doesn’t take her long to figure out that he can see in the dark. She wonders if it’s just him or if the others can as well.
She is lead to the back of the main holding, the Druk stopping at a spot next to the starboard wall.
“Sit,” he commands, and Yrsa quickly complies. While he has done nothing to harm her, she is not about to test how far her luck will go.
He kneels down and grabs another chain that sits bolted to the floor of the ship, bringing it up to her wrists and latching it to her manacles, just like the cart she was in. The Druk stands up soundlessly and turns to leave.
“Wait.” The words leave her lips before she even realizes what she’s done. He stops, and she can’t help but be appalled that she would say anything to him, but she’s dying to know one thing. “What’s your name?”
The man turns his head slowly, and even in the dark, she can see the vivid green of his eyes.
“Falkor. My name is Falkor,” he gives, and the sound of his boots still echo in her ears even as they’ve faded into the wood surrounding her, leaving her in the darkness.
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