Friday, October 13, 2017

Big John IV

Big John opened his eyes and wished he hadn't.
    The sunlight sneaking past the tent flap was blinding. His throat was raw and there was a smell of sweat and blood in the air. And something else.
    Decay.
    Other men lay on linen spread out on the ground all around him. He tried to move and was welcomed by a lance of pain shooting through his back.
    "Where am I?"
    A shadow leaned over him, thankfully blocking the bright light. A sweaty hand touched his face and pried his eye open, the man squinted at him and huffed foul breath his way.
    "Army's tent for the wounded." He made a clicking noise with his tongue. "You're a lucky one alright. Our surgeon took an axe to his skull during the battle. The wounded ain't getting the help they need. Not many pulling through, but you, you have a will to live."
    "Water?"
    "That I can give you. Nice and fresh from the stream."
    Big John raised his head and wanted to grab the flask the man offered him, but another jolt of pain shot through his arm as he moved.
    "Don't worry. I got ya."
    The flask was brought to his dry lips, the water trickling into his mouth. It was good, sweeter than one of Marla's apple pies.
    A pale face and blood-soaked bandages flashed before him. He coughed and spat the water out.
    She was dead. It all came back to him in an instant. The Orcs had killed her and everyone else from Duranham. Everyone but him and his son.
    "Whoa! Take it easy. Nice and slow."
    The flask came back to his lips and this time he swallowed. His throat ached, but the water did him good. He let his head down on the linen, hardpacked earth underneath. He hadn't noticed how tense his muscles were, how much he had strained. Now, he could relax.

"You are a righteous one. Your perseverance is a clear sign that you were chosen by the Gods and they will continue to look over you."
    Big John opened his eyes and was relieved to see that it was near dark out. Only a sliver of the day's dying light slipped into the tent. Not enough to hurt his eyes, but enough to see by.
    The man hunched before him had curly blond hair and clear, penetrating blue eyes. They had a gleam to them even in the semidarkness and their focus never wavered. The man was looking straight at him, a smile spreading across his lips.
    "Water?"
    It had to have been hours since he last drank. His mouth was dry, but his throat was no longer aching.
    "Yes, of course. Even the blessed have need of sustenance."
    The man poured water from a metal flagon into a matching chalice and brought it to Big John's lips. The water carried a metallic taste with it, but it was cool and that was all that mattered.
    "Who are you?" Big John asked.
    "My name is Eddin. I came to look over the warriors of our Faith and to pray for them. I never imagined I would find you though. I knew the Gods had something in store for me, but that I would be the one to find you is a sign of divine intervention."
    A rumbling chuckle escaped Big John's lungs, ending in a gasp as his wounded back protested.
    "What? Do you you not believe in your calling?"
    "It's not that." Big John tried to sit up, but thought better of it and remained lying down. "Truth is, I don't know what to believe in. I'm a woodcutter, no more, no less. I once had a wife and a good life. That is behind me now, but I still have a son, as far as I know, and finding him is my future. Nothing divine about that. I'm only a man."
    "Wise words, my friend. Wise words. But you left out what all men are talking about. They know it and I know it and so do you." Eddin raised his eyebrows at him as if Big John truly knew what he meant. Big John did not reply and after a moments hesitation Eddin continued. "You were in the clutches of Demons and not only did you survive the evils they must have done to you, you managed to escape. Arrows that would have killed any other man - that did kill dozens - struck you down, but here you are, one of only a few recovering from his wounds. You, my friend, have been through purgatory and the Gods have seen you worthy. You are meant for more. You will play a pivotal role in these dark times that lie ahead. That is the truth that I know."
    Big John said nothing and took a moment to think about Eddin's words. He didn't know much about the Gods, but he knew they hadn't been there for him when Marla was killed and the rest of Duranham as well. It did not feel like they had been watching out for him. He had to fight in the Orc camp to stay alive and he only had himself to thank for his survival.
    Even if he did believe in the Gods and their power to protect him. He wanted none of it. Whatever blessing they had given him was too little too late. Marla was dead and that couldn't be changed.
    Big John furrowed his brow and grimaced. "I've heard enough for now. I'm tired."
    "Yes. You should rest and think about what this mean to you."
    Eddin left and with him the day's light reached its end. Big John had made up his mind, but the Gods were stubborn and remained in his thoughts. Even though his head would not come to rest easily, his body needed more energy and soon he slept.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Grim V

    "Today was a good day." Grim rubbed his aching shoulders, sitting around a fire.
    "When will you start teaching me to fight with a sword?" Kruzz raised his tusks. "I can't use a staff with two hands, so I thought a sword would be more natural.
    "Yes and no." Dax threw another log into the crackling fire, sparks flying past the trees of the near forest into the night air,. "A sword would be more natural for your one hand, but you would get too accustomed to a certain style of fighting. You would get set in your ways and wouldn't evolve if it felt too comfortable. It is my intention to prepare you for any situation and make you work for it. I believe challenging you is the right path for you to grow into your potential."
    "What our wordsmith is saying is that you never know when you have to fight and what weapon will be at hand. I've been in battles where I stormed into the fight with an axe and ended up with two swords. It's good to know how to fight with different weapons and especially how to fight against them as well."
    Grim emptied his waterskin, wishing it were ale instead of water. A memory of pain tingled along a scar on his shoulder. Most things could be used as a weapon if the situation called for it. A piece of a shattered clay pot had given him that scar right before he killed the mother wielding it. Right before he turned to her broodlings. He could still smell the smoke in the air, feel the sting of it in his eyes.
    "Grim?" Kruzz tilted his head and looked at him as if he were drunk. "You alright?"
    "Fine. I'm fine. Was just thinking about stuff better forgotten." Grim shook himself, scratching the still tingling scar.
    "You looked like you were far far away. Wait! What was that?" Dax turned and peered into the darkness.
    "I don't hear..."
    "Shh!" Grim quieted Kruzz to listen.
    He did not make a grab for his weapon yet. He only tried to hear what Dax had heard. It was possible that the know-it-all had better instincts when it came to this. He had spent years with the Elves after all.
    The fire crackled as all else was silent. Grim remained as still as Dax, a sharp glance at Kruzz told him to do the same. Another crack shot through the night, but it didn't come from their fire. It must have been a branch off in the woods.
    The three of them had set up their fire a bit further away form the rest of the settlement. Grim and Dax had taken charge of Kruzz's training and they liked to keep to themselves. Now they were on their own and didn't know what was coming their way.
    It could just be an animal or it could be a band of humans. Silently, Grim removed a short blade form his boot, the leather grip was smooth and comfortable in his hand, better than the rough grain of the wooden sword they had been practicing with, which he placed his other hand on. Dax already had his fingers curled around his staff and Kruzz was following suit.
    A rustling of leaves made Grim tense. There could be no mistake. Something was out there. Dax didn't hesitate and slid from the light of  their circle into the dark woods without a sound.
    More snapping of twigs and rustling of leaves meant whoever or whatever it was, was coming closer. Grim turned to have the fire behind him, to not be blinded. There was a shape coming into the gloomy light. It was huge, too big to be a human and definitely not an animal.
    It was an Orc. Grim's muscles relaxed a bit, but he held on to his dagger, just to be safe. It was a really big Orc.
    "Ho!" The Orc said and raised his giant hands. "By my mother's teats! You're Orcs."
    "So we are." Grim grunted. "Who are you? Where are you from?"
    "Name's Brock! Brogdah Clan! This the Turak settlement?"
    "Yes, it is." Dax appeared behind Brock, leaning against a tree.
    "Whoa. Where'd you come from?"
    "Just being cautious. There is a conflagration in the making."
    "Cautious? Conflagration?" Brock seemed to be tasting the words as he made the sounds for them nice and slow.
    "He means he was being safe. There's war afoot." Grim had been spending too much time with Dax. Not too long ago he would have looked just as dumbstruck as Brock.
    "Ah, okay. That's why I'm here actually, my Elder sent me. Gwarr is done with raiding. He wants to gather a horde and show the humans what we Orcs are made of."
    Kruzz leaned forward, brow furrowed. "What happened? Why would he stop raiding?"
    "Humans lead a cavalry charge against us and trampled many grunts to the ground. He's no longer out for revenge on behalf of the Griklog Clan and what happened in the mountains. Now it's more personal."
    "The Brogdah Clan was defeated?"
    "We had to retreat. Gwarr did't like it, but he said it was the best tactical decision. I would have kept on fighting, but Gwarr ordered us back, leaving some of the wounded behind." Brock balled his fists. "Now, I want revenge for my brothers more than ever."
    "But what does it mean for us?" Kruzz asked looking from Grim to Dax. "How will gathering a horde effect us?"
    Dax scratched the back of his head. "Gwarr will send messengers to all the clans and every Elder will have to decide if they will send their grunts to his aid or not. It will be like in the Great War against the Elves. There will no longer be a question of what this conflict with the humans will bring. If our Elder says we must aid him then that's what we'll have to do. Every one of us."
    Grim scowled and put his blade back into his boot. War. He knew it had been coming, but now it was closer than ever. He did not envy Worg's position as Elder, but was glad that it was not his own choice to make.
    He still remembered the screaming and the fear from so long ago. If it were up to him, he would not return to that life, but if he was ordered to go to war. Then so be it.
    At least, that's what he was telling himself.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Rud III

    Rud wiped his hands on his trouser leg, damp earth rubbing into the cloth. The three graves in front of him now held four bodies and a key. Swindon and Podd had wanted to bring Adam back to camp on the night that Rud had saved them, but he had known that there would be too many questions.
    The questions had come anyway and Bron had paid the price for asking them. For now, Rud kept Bron's demise a secret, letting the rumor spread that he was sick and didn't want to be disturbed. Not even Swindon and Podd knew the truth.
    Rud couldn't help wondering if Bron had been right to worry about the spring and the water's effects. Had he overreacted by killing him? No. It had to be done. Bron would have gotten in the way. He would have had the authority to seal off the spring and let no one near it if he thought it was a danger to others.
    It was no danger though, Rud knew. It was water sent from the Gods that would give every man the strength and vitality they needed to fight the Orcs. Rud was sure of it, just as he knew that he was the one who would have to spread the Gods' gift.
    Boots scraping the ground of the path to the spring pulled Rud from his thoughts. Swindon and Podd appeared as if from the rock itself. The twilight of dawn making the entrance to the path even more difficult to spot.
    They were both carrying a barrel on their shoulder, the added strength of the spring water making it an easy task. "Two barrels filled with the finest water there ever was." Podd placed his barrel on the grave his brother was sharing with a key and one of the men they had first found in the cavern.
    "So, where should we hide them." Swindon put his barrel down as well and turned, undoing his trousers laces. "I think it should be close enough to camp for us to be able to refill our flasks when we need to, but disguised so they aren't easy to find. In a bush or something like that." He said while taking a piss on one of the other graves.
    "Actually, we won't be hiding them. We'll be exchanging them with the current water barrels of the camp." Rud smiled.
    Podd's jaw dropped and Swindon turned back to them, spraying Podd's boots. "Watch where you point that thing or I'll cut it off!" Podd's hand moved toward his blade in an instant, white knuckles clenched around its grip.
    "Calm down!" Swindon said as he pulled his pants up and laced them shut. "What do you mean, Rud? You want everyone to drink from the spring?"
    Rud was still eyeing Podd with his flushed cheeks. Had Bron been right to worry? Yes. But it had to be done. "We need more men like us, Swindon. Men who can be cut down and keep on fighting. The conflict with the Orcs is getting worse. Soon it will be a full-blown war. This is only the beginning of what needs to be done for us to be victorious."
    Podd still had his hand on his weapon, but his fingers were starting to relax. "I can see the benefit in that, but what about the Captain?"
    "He's sick. Everyone will have had some water before he's back on his feet and when he has a drink himself he'll be as good as new and will see why we need to use the spring to our advantage." The lie came with ease.
    Swindon pondered this for a moment, but nodded his assent in the end. The three of them went back to camp and made sure that the two barrels were lined up to be used as the day's drinking water. They had agreed to let the spring water spread through camp naturally without anyone making a connection to them immediately. Once everyone or almost everyone had taken a sip, then Rud would inform them of what it was they were drinking.
    As the camp stirred and slowly came to life in the morning light, Swindon and Podd went to the training grounds to keep at their regular routine. The lack of a good night's sleep was nothing to them after having had their fill of the spring's water.
    Rud was making his way through camp as he noticed some heated activity near the mine's entrance. His heart pounded in his chest. Bron had been discovered, it couldn't be anything else, he was certain. Rud retraced his steps mentally to be sure there were no clues leading to his guilt.
    With a calm he did not feel, he made his way to Bron's office. Hushed words were spoken between the guards on duty. They didn't seem to know what to do. At Rud's arrival he saw fear in one man's eyes and relief in the other. A spare glance let him see the door of the office, it was open and was marked by dried blood.
    The fearful guard turned away, not making further eye contact with Rud, while the other cleared his throat to speak, but couldn't utter a word. Rud made a show of seeing the door and widening his eyes in shock. "What happened here?"
    The relieved guard finally managed to speak. "We don't know. There's a lot of blood. It's everywhere. We found the office like this at first light and didn't know what to do. The door was open and there was so much blood."
    "Is Captain Bron alright?" Rud hoped his concern sounded genuine, although the guards seemed so flustered they probably wouldn't realize he was faking it.
    "I don't know. He's not there and we haven't been able to find him anywhere else in camp. He's gone."
    "Gone?"

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Kruzz VI

It no longer hurt as much to walk around. The first couple of days his legs had screamed at him for every step he made. Kruzz cursed them for their weakness and then himself for having let himself slip down the path of defeat. But most of all he cursed the loss of his arm.
    He sometimes woke in the middle of the night and felt it tingle from his fingertips all the way up to his elbow, but when he tried to massage some life into his limb with his right hand he grasped at nothing but air. He cursed his mind for not understanding that his arm was gone.
    As he neared the fighting pit in the early dawn, he saw grunts of the Griklog Clan, his clan, get ready for war. Traglok was taking all the grunts of their clan that would follow him to go kill humans. Maybe they would be able to take back the mines and their camp, maybe not. Either way, Kruzz yearned to go with them, but as he had been before, not as he was now. He cursed them all for leaving him behind.
    "Morning, Kruzz. How's the cursing going?" Grim stood in the middle of the pit, wooden sword in hand and a shield on the ground next to him. Dax sat next to him cross-legged with two staves resting on his knees, scowling.
    "It's going well enough." A slight tug at the side of his mouth almost turned into a smile. A reflex of old that he did try to suppress, but the bitterness came rushing up inside him, drawing his lips back into a grim line.
    "I still don't think it's the proper thing to do. Sure, anger can have its uses, that's how I got him up on his feet again, but now I think it would be better for him to be more focused on better things. Let him get back to full strength with positivity and serenity." Dax raised his eyebrows and tusks in unison, looking at Kruzz hopefully.
    Kruzz knew he meant well, but Grim's suggestion helped more than he would let on. Grim had told him to curse everything that annoyed him, deny none of his emotions, just let them reign free. It was the Orc way and anger would fuel his determination. Grim was sure that it was what he needed most and Kruzz couldn't deny the strength he took from it.
    "I think you're just moping around, because I suggested something and it's working." Grim flipped the shield up from the ground and caught it in his free hand, laughing out loud. "Your not always the smartest, you know."
    Dax stood up and tossed Kruzz a staff, "I'm quite capable of conceding my own short comings, Grim. I'm just inclined to believe otherwise and think a different tack would be the wiser course."
    Kruzz wanted to curse Dax for his weird way of saying things and for always thinking that he knew everything better, but he didn't. Dax had helped him when he needed it most and he wouldn't be standing here, once again with staff in hand if it weren't for him.
    Keeping silent, Kruzz began to go through the motions with the staff. Dax had shown him a routine of movement that helped you focus and strengthen your body and sense for balance. Balance was something he needed most. When fighting, actually when moving in general - Dax had explained - the body had to move in certain patterns to stay balanced. Two feet standing apart, knees bent and arms spread brought you into a simple balanced position, but if you were missing an arm, you ended up with too much weight on one side. Shifting your stance and bring more weight on the opposite leg could bring you back into a balanced state.
    Kruzz cursed inwardly every time he felt himself wobble, struggling to stay on his mark, but he was getting better at it. His body was learning what to do and began to compensate for the weight differential on its own. The more he moved, the more he learned.
    "You warmed up and ready?" Dax tapped his staff on the ground three times.
    Kruzz twisted out of the routine movements he had been taught and spun his staff at Dax in response. The older grunt parried and tried to knock Kruzz off balance by pushing harder and harder. Kruzz stopped putting pressure on his staff and let himself get pushed back, spinning his body to the side to let Dax pass him.
    "Good!" Grim shouted as Kruzz jumped aside from one of Dax's blows. "Your opponents will always think you are weaker, because you're missing an arm, but strength isn't everything."
    Dax caught a swing of Kruzz's staff right before it touched his temple. Kruzz leveraged his weight to pressed against Dax's staff to no avail.
    Dax grabbed his staff with two hands and held against the pressure. "Trying to match your opponents strength when they have two arms against your one is futile. Unless you are significantly stronger you will lose balance and..."
    With little effort he shoved Kruzz aside, but Kruzz used Dax's shove to spin around and whack his staff against Dax's shin.
    "And will have to use the fact that your opponent underestimates you to your advantage." Grim finished for him, tusks spread wide."
    Kruzz felt his lips twitch and settle back into a line. It wasn't every day Grim could beat Dax with words, but it wasn't enough to fully break through Kruzz's shell. Not even the added bonus of Dax jumping up and down from the blow to his shin helped.
    The first bout in a best of five against Dax went to him. So far he had always lost three to one or less. He was starting off on a good foot today and he had made sure that Dax only had one good foot left.
    Kruzz lost two in a row, won the fourth and again lost the last match. Although he didn't beat Dax, he felt as if he had improved and that was all that mattered. He knew that Dax was still holding back, giving him time to adapt to his deficiencies, as he called it. Kruzz cursed himself for letting Dax take it easy on him, but he could accept it, for he knew that Grim would not.
    So far he had never scored a hit on Grim. Kruzz did not curse himself for that. It was his challenge. At the moment, everything he had to do and learn was a challenge, but beating Grim was the challenge above all others. It was only made harder by having to wield a staff against sword and shield, but he would learn to wield others weapons with one hand too when the time was ripe.
    Grim was as tough as ever, blocking every swipe of Kruzz's staff with shield or sword. He mostly stayed on the defensive to let Kruzz try to get in some strikes at first, but at some point he would switch into an aggressive stance and Kruzz would find himself hard-pressed trying to back away or block incoming attacks.
    It was their third bout, Kruzz having lost two. He spun with his staff, Grim parrying the strike to his right side with his sword. Kruzz used the pressure of the parry to pivot the staff and strike left, which Grim caught on his shield. Kruzz backed away a step and turned as if to try another spin attack. It was a feint. Instead of following through he sprung forward with the staff slicing through the air, going for Grim's left side again.
    Kruzz's own left side was wide open with no arm to protect himself. Grim's sword lashed out to thump against Kruzz's ribs with it's dull edge. Kruzz felt the pain and gasped, but also felt his staff slide along the rim of Grim's shield and thump against something hard.
    "Ouch!" Grim shook his head, a red spot at his temple marked where the staff had hit him. "You got me."
    "You got me first." Kruzz had dropped his staff to rub at his side. "But I did get you right after. It doesn't count, but it's improvement." And then he smiled.