Thursday 9 October 2014

Gleaming Blood

Blood trickled down the shaft of the arrow and on to the arrow head that was gleaming so cheerfully in the light of the fires. The child would love to wrench it free, yet fear and pain kept it, and him, firmly in place. He was slumped forward over the remains of a table whimpering, calling out to his mother to save him, the rest of the arrow protruding from his back where it had struck him. His calls went unanswered, barely audible as the fires around him grew hotter and fiercer. They drew closer with each passing moment, belching thick smoke that blurred his vision and shortened his breath. His heart raced, pumping the blood from his wounds out onto the floor. The sticky puddle of crimson it was creating slowly creeping toward his feet. He was helpless and he was dying. The arrow had come close to completing its mission, it was loosed with the intention to kill and it had almost done so. The boy had no idea what was going on. Too innocent to understand hatred, too young to be staring death in the face, too fragile not to break under the weight of war.

The soldiers had descended quickly; the small village of Ortholt was ill prepared for such a ferocious advance. They were murderers all, clad in thick armour, wielding instruments of death, killing indiscriminately. Man, woman or child; all would fall, none would live. Ironic that the arrow lodged in the child’s back had been one of the few fired in defence, woefully missing its target yet still managing to find a suitably fleshy host. The soldiers moved fast, burning everything as they went, destroying everything as they went. It was over quickly, the sounds of battle had been fleeting as there was little resistance. A few villagers had hidden away but the fury of the fire and the ferocity of the attackers had taken its toll. The soldiers had left; the survivors were desperately searching for loved ones, for any life, clinging to a hope.

A young woman, no more than twenty years of age was hunting for her parents in the debris, she had been travelling back from the market when the attack had started, she had heard the battle, she could see the flames but she could not will her horses to travel any faster, the last part of the journey to Ortholt is a long winding descent from the hills above. At all times she could see the horror unfolding before her but she could do nothing to assist. By the time she had reached the outskirts of Ortholt the war party was leaving from the opposite side of the village. She remained stealthy shortly after their departure as she had had no wish to be counted amongst the dead. Her parent’s house was empty and burning, she searched frantically, calling out their names in the hope that she would get a response. She wished they had fled, yet seeing the carnage around her feared the worst. As she ran down the main street her attention was caught by a terrible sight. Bodies strewn all over the steps of the town hall, it looked as if the villagers had tried to make a stand there. It was the biggest building in town. Maybe people were still alive inside, alive and hiding.

She rushed up the first few steps only to stumble on a lifeless outstretched arm. Falling forward she steadied herself on the steps in front of her, scrambling up the stairs on all fours. Straightening herself up as she reached the top of the steps she came to a halt once more. The entrance hall to the building was thick with smoke; the back end of the town hall was on fire. She pulled her dress up to cover her mouth in a vain attempt to stop her from choking. She pressed on, moving into the building, the mingled stench of burning wood and flesh was stinging her nostrils. She began calling out again as she made her way through the main hall. She had never seen such carnage, it was impossible for her to believe that the twisted forms that appeared out of the smoke were once her neighbours and friends. She tried to push it from her mind but the more she searched the less lightly she thought it that she would find her parents alive. The building was starting to groan and shift, the fire would soon consume it totally. She was searching through the back rooms when she came across them, slumped together in a corner, her mother and father. Her mother had both her arms wrapped around her father whilst he had one of his arms around his wife’s shoulders; in his other hand he clutched a bow. It looked as if they had been the victims of the same fatal blow as a deep ridge had been cut across both their torsos. It appeared that they had fallen back in unison to die in each other’s arms. She knelt in front of them, gently patting and caressing their faces in some pathetic attempt to rouse them from their slumber. Only a god could wake the dead though. Leaning into them now she whispered of her love for them and assured them everything would be alright. They didn’t care though, they were together and beyond emotion.

The fire rampaged behind her and the building finally started to succumb to its fate. She heard the ceiling beams crashing to the floor in the room behind her; it shook her out of her grief long enough for her to collect herself. She started pulling at her parents arms in the hope that she could drag them to safety, but she was weak from the smoke and it seemed they were not keen to leave one and others embrace. She pulled with all her might only to find herself on her back empty handed. Again she tried but to no avail, this time only managing to pull one of her father’s rings free from his fingers. She cried out in frustration, following her cry was another, weaker but still a cry. She got to her feet and turned to look for the cries origin, she could see nothing. She went back to her parents, kneeling by them once more and kissing their cheeks, she assured them she would return for them.

As she moved out of the room and into the next she found her way barred with broken furniture. She stopped to try and see a way round, behind her she could hear more beams falling and something heavier give way as if the very ceilings themselves were starting to fall. She lashed out at the makeshift furniture barrier; kicking it hard with her foot. It gave way with a yelp. She scrambled over a table, only realising when she was on the other side that the yelp had originated from a young boy who was now trapped under it. She pulled him free with ease, the arrow that had skewered his body had snapped so that the tip now dangled down against his small limp body. The room was surrounded by fire; she could spy a window on one side. She picked up a stray table leg and used it to put the window through, all the time trying not to let the fire catch her clothes. She scooped up the now unconscious child and rushed to the window. She hadn’t realised how far from the ground they were, she would have to drop the boy out as there was no chance that they could both get through together. She did this; feeding his legs through the window first then holding his hands whilst she twisted him so as to avoid any more damage to the arrow and wound. As she loosened her grip and he fell landing feet first but dropping to the floor lifeless. She followed him out landing almost on top of him, and then dragged him away from the building as it groaned, struggling to hold itself up. When she was at a safe distance her thoughts turned to her parents once more. She wanted to go back in but she could see the building shifting, she took a step closer only to see the roof disappear and plummet into the building. The walls bowed under this collapse and promptly started following suit. Her parents would share the fate of many Ortholt inhabitants that day and be unceremoniously cremated. She cried; tears rolled down her face making streaks on her smoke stained cheeks; she was delusional, thinking she had failed them.

As the building fell in on itself and flashes of hot air rushed at her she pulled the boy further to safety. A few of the other survivors had made their way towards the young woman. There were only a handful of them. Together they all moved away from the village as the fires consumed it. The young woman’s attentions were once again back on the little boy, she tore off his tunic to better explore his wound. As she felt around it with her fingers he opened his eyes and greeted her with a look of sheer agony. She stared at him briefly then pulled him close and said “We died today; on this day, we died”.

          Reven stood, leaning against the deep-set window frame looking out onto the courtyard. It had been raining for almost two weeks now. “It’s as grey and dull outside as it is in here”, he exclaimed, turning to look at Manarco who was busy picking dirt from under his finger nails. His comment was met with a wry smile. They had been stationed at Fort Augress for nearly a month without seeing any action. Reven’s unit had been commanded to bolster the garrison already stationed there but he thought it to be a waste of his men’s fighting prowess. The war between King Uthgar and the upstart Lord Viscerrias had stretched on for over 20 years. The loss of life had been great and at long last it looked as if the King was finally getting the upper hand. The war had started as many do in a quest for power, or to put a finer point on it, Viscerrias’s quest for Uthgar’s power. Since Uthgar’s ascension to the throne he had many critics. This fact alone seemed to be enough to weaken his standing with the people; a King that would allow criticism of his actions must either be weak or a fool. Many of the Lords and Ladies who had once aligned themselves with Uthgar swiftly defected when Viscerrias had declared his intentions to take the throne form the King. The Kingdom was divided, the loyalists rallying in the south of Erath, whilst the rebels settled in the north. Many lives had been lost and all life in Erath had been tainted by the war.

Reven himself had lost his parents and very nearly his own life at the tender age of six. If Brieny hadn’t saved him he would have shared his mother’s fate and burned in the fires of Ortholt. His father had been killed in battle and he had very little recollection of him. In fact he could barely remember his mother, or even his youth in Ortholt before the attack. Brieny, with a few other survivors had taken him to the monastery at Greenfield where the monks had used their arcane ways to bring him back from the brink of death. He couldn’t recall any of this; Brieny often talked of it though. He still bore the scar from where the arrow had pierced his back and punched through his chest. He kept the arrowhead as a memento on a chain round his neck. This scar though paled in comparison to the scars the monks gave him. They had to carve runes into his very flesh to keep him alive. He bore them proudly and had little choice as they covered the vast majority of his body. The medical act of rune-writing on flesh had been outlawed decades before as the recipient would usually lose their mind but under the circumstances on that fateful day the monks had little recourse. And aside from that fact, Reven had no ill effects from the runes. He was of sound body and mind, gifted in the art of war. He had in fact gained some small measure of fame for coming through so many battles unscathed. He had left the monastery at the age of thirteen to join the Kings army. Several years later he heard that the Greenfield monastery had been raised to the ground and the monks slaughtered by Viscerrias’s renegades. He’d known that his saviour Brieny had left shortly after him but he couldn’t help but feel sad at the thought of all those good men lying dead at the hands of Viscerrias’s scum.

Army life suited Reven though. He had worked his way through the ranks steadily and worked hard to understand the arts of combat and tactics. He had held the title of captain for a little over a year and his company had gained infamy amongst the enemy for their lightning attacks and devastating charges. They had been branded ‘The Elite’ by their peers, well known for their ferocity in battle and their unwavering support of the King. They had tested their mettle many times and had never been found wanting. But now they were stuck here in Fort Augress waiting for the enemy to make their move. Reven was sure that they would see battle whilst at the fort. It was the northern most outpost of the King’s Army and as such was usually under constant attack from Lord Viscerrias’s forces. Reven had a feeling that once the rain ceased the fighting would begin. Something needed to happen soon, he had just over sixty men under his command and every one of them was starting to get salty. They lived for battle and glorious victory and it had been so long since the sounds of thunderous battle rang in their ears. Manarco was Reven’s second in command; they had fought many battles together and shared an unspoken respect. And now they sat guarding this decaying fort from non-existent enemies. It seemed unbelievable to them that in this world so full of horrors that they had not had to ready for battle once. No marauding host of orcs, no rabble of ogres, what was the world coming to!

Manarco could take no more, “How do you fancy a walk?” he asked, “Let us not sit here stewing our brains in ale. Let us embrace this foul weather and wander”. Reven turned to him smiling, “How you remain so upbeat in the face of such dire boredom is beyond me. Come then, let us go. Maybe we will come across some foul beast worthy of our swords”. The last part of the sentence said with a hint of sarcasm that Manarco seemed to enjoy. They both made their way down the stairs, checking the straps on their armour as they went. Even though it had been so quiet at the fort they would be foolish to venture out unprepared. Reven bristled with weapons, two swords; one hung on each hip, he wore a brace of knives across his chest and one tucked in each boot. A shield was slung across his back, obscuring from view his bow and quiver, the companies’ emblem of the screaming fanged skull emblazoned across it. He looked ready for battle and rarely removed all of his weapons, constantly feeling ill at ease in this time of war. Manarco, by contrast, was relatively lightly armed. He carried one huge two handed sword that he sheathed across his back and a dagger he wore at his side. He had named the sword Arkanus after the god of war.

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