Excerpt from my NaNo entry - epic fantasy
|Dorn's elbow connected squarely with the bearded soldier, landing a sickening blow to the bridge of his nose. The man reeled back, clutching a ruined face. Dorn stepped forward to deliver a sideways swipe of his sword across the top of the man's skull, sending bits of brain and bone spraying in all directions. As the man fell, Dorn's eyes roamed the battlefield for a new opponent, but found only corpses and his own men within view. Good, he thought. He took the moment of respite to brush sweat drenched hair from his eyes, a motion he'd made a dozen times since the day began. Gods, but he was tired.
There'd been no rest today. The Scrats had attacked half a dozen times already, and twilight was only just falling. They weren't likely to let up now, since the bastards seemed to live for darkness. He made a circuit of the nearly unrecognizable border village, and found it empty save for his own soldiers. And corpses, of course. Plenty of those. He spared a glance to the dead man at his feet, and his eyes widened as he noted the fading silver rune just above the heart. A minor Rune of Strength, marking the man as a Runic Knight, albeit a weak one. No wonder the man had been tough. A well trained Scrat with a strong enough strength rune could not only lift a horse, but throw it as well. Dorn could recall first hand, as he'd been forced to dodge the horse. Even a minor rune was a thing to be respected, as it could easily give a man baring it the edge in battle. Dorn knew himself to be a competent swordsmen, but just the same he was glad he hadn't realized what he was up against while the man breathed, or he might well have second guessed himself into an early grave.
Dorn motioned toward a member of his squad, a smaller man with dirtied robes in place of armor. As the man approached, Dorn pointed at the now still chest of the corpse in front of him, where the rune was still glowing slightly. The robed man, Elgard, shrugged. "Can't catch them all," he said with a weak attempt at a smile. Dorn grunted in response. It was supposed to be the job of men like Elgard, the Runemasters, to handle any Runic Knights they came up against. Or at least let a man know they were out there. Surprises like that could be very unhealthy on the battlefield.
"Captain Dorn!" came a shout from behind. Dorn spun around and found himself just a few inches from the broken nosed, pockmarked face of the speaker, his second in command, Lieutenant Morose. "Scout just reported in," the man said. "Looks like we've got some more fun headed our way."
Dorn nodded, swallowing a sigh. "Numbers?"
"Looks like a full squad this time, Captain."
"Damn," Dorn cursed, scratching the hair on his chin. "This day just keeps getting better and better." He looked over at Elgard, who had been standing nearby, listening. "How you feeling bout this bunch, magic man?"
Elgard turned and considered the surrounding forest for a moment, his eyes closed. He scribed a sloppy rune in the air in front of him with a glowing forefinger, and after a few seconds of contemplation, he shook his head. "Don't feel any rune magic out there, Captain."
Dorn's eyes once more wandered to the corpse at his feet. "Thats what you said last time," Dorn muttered to himself, low enough to go unheard.
Runic Knights or no, this news meant trouble. Though he'd started the day with a full squad himself, he was now down to less than half strength. He considered his soldiers where they lay strewn about the ground, catching what rest they could after the strain of battle. Six swordsmen, three archers, and one country bumpkin of a wizard. Not ideal when facing a full twenty fresh soldiers. He was forced to admit they'd done well so far, but they were all of them exhausted. Even behind the fortifications they'd managed to erect from the ruin of the village, they'd still be at a disadvantage in numbers. Given the choice, he'd order retreat and fall back to lick their wounds. It was a damned shame no one had given him that choice, and he had orders to defend this worthless village to the last man. He shook his head at the waste. At least he could make them bleed for it.
Looking back up at Morose, who stood awaiting orders, he ignored the worry in the man's eyes. "Time?"
"No more than five minutes, I'd guess."
Dorn gave a curt nod and turned to address the sprawled soldiers, his steely voice cracking like a whip. "Alright ladies, off your asses. You've got another dance to attend and it's time to make yourselves pretty." Groans of protest followed his announcement, but every man was on his feet in seconds. "We're about to have us some more visitors." He gestured at two of the ruined houses on either side of the village's single dirt road. "I want three men in both of these buildings, and I don't want to see a hair of you until we've got Scrats breathing down our necks." He turned to face the archers. "You lot, same as before. Stay behind cover, and this time I want them so peppered with arrows they don't stop to think there might be a few more of us waiting to greet them proper when they get here."
"How many is it this time, Captain?" asked one of the younger soldiers, unable to keep the fear from his voice.
"Enough so I might even let you have a stab at one this time, boy." He forced a derisive laugh. "But don't go holding your breath. Now get moving."
Men scattered to their assigned positions. He gestured to Morose, bringing him in close. "This could get ugly," he said in a low voice, well out of hearing of the bustling soldiers. "You stand up with the archers, and find yourself a clear view. I figure I'll walk up a space and give the Scrats something to swing at. Soon as you see me hit the dirt, I want you to sound a retreat and get as many men out of here as you can. Let them have the damned village, and that's a direct order."
"Captain," Morose began to protest, his eyes incredulous, "I-," A meaty, callused hand closed over his mouth, interrupting him. Dorn pulled the man's pockmarked face close to his own.
"Now you listen real close like, Lieutenant, because I ain't too fond of repeating myself." He squeezed the face between his fingers. "I'm not about to let these boys die because I've got some half-brained orders and your bleeding heart couldn't stand to see an old man cut down. You will do as you're told, and when I'm out the way, have the archers cover the men and get the hell out of here. Do I make myself clear?" Dorn released his hold only after the man was nodding up and down against his hand. Morose reeled backwards, drawing in a ragged breath, but Dorn had already moved on. He stopped in front of the wizard. "Elgard, I want you up with the archers. If you've got anything left, nows the time."
The small man nodded, already in motion. "I'll give you what I can, Captain."
Dorn grunted. "I'll be scouting just up ahead. You have your orders. Get it done, men." There were affirmative sounds from the men arrayed about him. Dorn walked forward through the village, stopping just outside the ruin of the village wall. He put his hands to it and pushed, testing its soundness. Satisfied, he leaned his back against it and prepared himself to wait. Just out of bow range of his squad, but still within sight. Perfect. He didn't have to worry about any last minute heroics from men rushing to his aid; these boys were too scared, too tired. Morose would watch him die, sound the retreat, and they would run. More like than not they'd all be cut to pieces anyways, but at least he could give them a chance. The alternative was to disobey orders, and he'd be damned if that was a habit he was going to start now. He was too old, and besides, it was a bad precedent for the men. Young men like that were impressionable. Far better to show them how well a man could die.
He was distracted from the rambling of his thoughts by the sound of marching men. He watched, more bemused than afraid, as the enemy squad rounded a bend in the dirt path through the forest and came into view. Then he started swearing. Leading the way, shirtless, runes glistening in the deepening twilight, marched two obvious Runic Knights. Each was tattooed in at least five sinuous brands; strength, speed, sight, others he didn't even recognize - he'd never seen any stronger. He had to bite back a hysterical bout of laughter. I'm gonna gut that worthless little wizard, he thought, drawing his blade. Right after this lot kills me.
The Scrats saw him now, and one of the Knights leading ordered a slow to their march. They approached, clearly wary of a trap. Dorn stood casually, sword in hand, his back still resting against the hard stone of the village wall. Sick of the suspense, he stepped forward. "Well aren't you a pretty bunch, all gussied up. It'd be a shame to send you home without a turn or two." He held up his blade. "Who'll be first?" One of the Knights, expressionless, began to signal the archers grouped behind to fire, but the other Knight restrained him. The Scrat stepped forward towards Dorn. With deliberate care, the man drew an enormous broadsword off his back, the blade a full hand across. He took a step towards Dorn.
"You picked a bad place to rest, old man," the Scrat said.
"Wasn't really looking to rest, sunshine."
"Good." replied the Scrat, and struck. Dorn had seen men move fast in then past; he'd even seen a speeded Knight a time or two. He'd never seen anything rivaling this. The man's speed was almost obscene, the huge blade blurring faster than thought could follow. Well honed reflexes were all that saved him from being sliced in half by the first pass, as he somehow managed a parry. The force of the blow sent him flying onto his side a good ten paces back and left a notch in his blade the size of his fist, but he'd managed a parry. He was proud of that. The Scrat covered the space separating them in two bounding leaps and brought back the huge blade for a killing blow.
"Looks like you'll be resting after all," the Scrat said, a smile playing across his lips. Before he could bring the blade down, however, there was the hiss of a loosed arrow. The Scrat looked up, surprised by the sound, just in time to catch a metal arrowhead in the left eye. Blood gushed like a geyser as the arrow pierced through the man's skull and lodged itself in his brain. His oversized blade clattered to the earth as he uselessly brought both hands to his face and tried to pull the arrow free, before falling over a moment later, dead.
It took Dorn a moment to realize he was still alive, and only then did he look back at the man who'd fired the arrow. One of the bowmen had rushed forward, against orders, and now stood staring at the Knight his shot had downed. Dorn shook his head in frustration. Should have let me die, boy. Well shot, but stupid. Now they'd hunt down every man here, sure as sure. They can't stand to see one of their precious Knights fall. He turned back to the enemy squad, who, as predicted, were now enraged. The remaining Knight already had his men assembled for the charge. Dorn only had a moment for reflection before the enemy was flying towards him. No time to stand, he raised his notched blade and readied himself as best he could from where he lay on the ground. Damn, he thought, as he prepared to die for the second time in less than a minute, but that had been a pretty shot.
The ground shook like a gong just struck. The charging Scrats toppled to the ground on unsteady legs, and even the Knight was forced to stop and brace himself. Between Dorn and the enemy sprawled on the road in front of him stood a man in tattered silver robes, thick with ash and grime. His hands grasped the top of a wooden staff, the end of which was now buried in the ground in front of him. For a moment the man stared directly into Dorn's eyes, and the captain, a veteran as jaded as any alive, was struck by a sadness so profound it took his breath away.
Forlorn eyes at last broke away from Dorn's, and seemed to take in the entire battle scene arrayed before him in one paralyzing sweep. "This ends. Now," the stranger said, his soft voice laced with melancholy. Then he began to sing. It should have been laughable, a man bursting into song in the midst of a battle, but no man on either side was laughing. All watched, transfixed where they lay, weapons tumbling from limp hands. The tune seemed to have no specific words, but instead brought strange images into Dorn's head, foreign concepts he found difficult to understand. All thoughts of violence drifted away as the haunting melody began to take further hold on all those who heard it. After only a short time, Dorn's eyelids began to grow heavy. With a Runic Knight lying only a few feet away, with the border of his mortal enemy mere yards from where he had fallen, Captain Dorn fell into a deep slumber. For the first time in a life full of unyielding strife and violence, he dreamed the dream of peace