The scene was one Sildane Ariulon had become hardened to in his years in the frontier-lands – the aftermath of an orc-raid. Fifty or more men and women drifted about the burned-out husks of their homes, still too much in shock even to grieve.
Dane spurred his mount forward down the hill into town with his tracker Quaan beside him. His lancers formed ranks and waited.
For years now, they had followed their captain here to the southern steppes from their cold northern citadel to hunt for the orc-tribes that raided down from the mountains. It seemed it had become an obsession with the knight.
The result was always the same – long stretches of wandering the foothills for sign, mixed with wild chases and mountain skirmishes that amounted to little, until at last the coming of winter forced them out of the freezing passes. In the last few years, the lancers had slain hundreds of orcs and perhaps spared a few dozen hamlets and settlements from attack, but more often than not they found themselves as they did this morning: several hours too late, left to follow a fast-cooling trail.
A small throng of children gathered in the street parted to let the pair of riders through, whispering excitedly. Sildane paid them no mind as he passed.
Behind him, Quaan looked all around him, nodding once or twice to passing villagers. A seasoned tracker, he usually ranged the old forest on the western reaches of the realm, guarding its trails. This was his first foray into the borderlands, but he had fought beside Sildane many times in other places and the knight had unexpectedly asked the ranger to accompany him.
A barrel-chested farmer listlessly stamping out the last fires around a stock-pen raised his head as the two men reined in behind him. He looked up at the pair of strangers.
The first was a man of just less than thirty winters in chain mail, broad-shouldered and clean-shaven with short-cropped hair, his almond-colored eyes bright with anticipation. From his saddle-horn hung a shield emblazoned with the mark of the Pale – the band of cavaliers who guarded the Tsaire in the north.
With him was a slimmer, fair-complexioned youth clad in a woodsman’s cloak, hood thrown back with unruly locks of blondish hair blowing into his eyes. He was armored only in a boiled leather cuirass studded with dull brass, a slim rapier at his side.
"Hail, goodman. I am Sildane Ariulon," the mail-clad warrior said, holding up a gloved hand in greeting. "We are sorry to see your loss. I wish we could have stopped it, but we came on the trail of the orcs only yesterday. Can you tell us how many were the bandits?" he asked, leaning forward intently. The dazed farmer squinted up at him, not understanding.
"How many orcs were there in the raiding party, goodman?" the knight repeated impatiently, his steed skittering a step as if it felt unease of its rider. The villager shook his head suddenly as if waking from a trance.
"Twenty perhaps, sire," he stammered at last, struggling to find his voice. "They came just after midnight. They… some rode wolves, sire. It was…" His voice trailed off as he began to choke and cough, his eyes beginning to mist. "They took my… We couldn’t…" The villager drifted off, his throat choked.
Sildane reached down and grabbed the farmer by a handful of his tunic.
"Time for that later!" he said sternly, lifting the stout villager almost from his feet. "What was the livery of the orcs?" the knight urged. "Did they wear the mark of a red hand, like this?" Dane held up his hand with fingers splayed. "Was there a large one among them with a scar over his brow, wearing a necklace of laced bones? In what direction did they flee? Answer me!"
"I - I don’t know, sire. I don’t know," the villager pleaded, his face contorting with grief.
The knight let go of the man suddenly as Quaan gave the warrior’s horse a sharp kick in the flank, causing it to jump sideways a step. The two exchanged a sharp look.
"What is your name, goodman?" the leather-clad youth asked quietly, still looking steadily at the knight, who was visibly striving to calm himself.
"M- Miram, sire," the villager stammered, looking back and forth between the two mounted men.
"How many are your dead, Miram?" the woodsman asked in a soothing voice.
"Missing or stolen?" the leather-clad man continued, looking directly into the farmer’s eyes.
"Eight, sire. Five boys and three girls. My – my Larissa was among them, sire. You’ll – you’ll help us get them back, won’t you, sire?" the stout-shouldered villager asked with difficulty, his voice thick with emotion.
"Of course we will, goodman," the woodsman answered evenly. "Can you tell us in what direction the bandits fled and how long ago?"
The farmer ran a hand over his balding head as he collected his thoughts. Finally he pointed out to the southeast.
"That way, sire. Off toward the far hills, I expect. Perhaps seven or eight hours hence. My Larissa, sire – she’s tall, with brown hair and green eyes. She’s only seventeen," the man managed, looking up hopefully.
"We’ll find her, goodman," the mailed warrior promised suddenly from the side, now seemingly in control of himself.
"And we’ll bring back the heads of those orc bastards to decorate your fence-row with as well. Let’s go," he said to the ranger, then with a nod to the villagers gathering around them, the two wheeled and left at a gallop.
On their way out to the waiting soldiers, Dane looked across to the ranger.
"My thanks, Quaan," the knight said, his voice low. "I - I forgot myself."
The ranger laughed lightly, a strange sound in the still morning.
"As a knight of the Pale, your duty is to combat evil and protect the weak," Quaan said with a wry smile, turning to the warrior. "But you’ve always enjoyed the fighting more than the protecting," he added.
"And you always had sharp eyes, you whoreson," the knight said with an embarrassed chuckle. "But by doing one, do we not do both?" he asked. He had always believed that each end served the other. Duty could not be divided.
"Not always, my friend," the ranger answered. "Sometimes you must choose – lest you become a monster yourself. But why are you so interested in the livery of the orcs? Is not one tribe the same as another?"
Now it was the cavalier who laughed, shaking his head.
"An orc is an orc," he said, his eyes suddenly far away. "But there is one in particular that I seek. He is called Ten Hands, for he wears the fingers of ten cavaliers about his neck. In one summer long ago he and his band ambushed and destroyed ten sorties of lancers sent to hunt him down."
"They claim he is seven feet tall, a giant of an orc, though I doubt that is true. He is one of the toughest of the bandits of the south – some say harder than the old gnoll, Swayback. For more than twenty years he has raided these lands, and yet but a handful of men have gotten more than a glance at him."
"Have you?" Quaan asked. The knight nodded intently.
"Indeed," he said with a grin. "He shot my own horse from under me with a sling bullet from a javelin’s throw away two summers ago. Other times he has lingered behind his band on a distant slope, waving at me when he knew I was too ill-provisioned and too far into the hills to pursue further. Ten Hands is a devil in an orc’s skin, Quaan, but I think I have him this time," the knight smiled.
"How do you know this is his work?" Quaan wondered, nodding back over his shoulder toward the burned village. Dane shook his head.
"Just a feeling – few of the other bandits would dare raid this far north into the plains where they might be cut off from retreat. Even so, it was but blind luck that we found his track so near to them – if we ride hard we can be upon them in a few days time. If it is indeed Ten Hands, I will have his hide for the citadel gate."
"Another glory for the Knight of the Pale," Quaan smiled wanly. Dane chuckled as he put spurs to his charger.
"What else has a man to live for?" he said before trotting ahead, giving hurried orders to his lancers. He liked the young ranger, he thought, but he would never understand the concept of honor.
Almost two days of hard riding later, Dane and Quaan lay flat upon the edge of a high ridge, squinting in the early morning light down into the wide valley below them, where the band of dire-riders were heading south.
Already the foothills of the southern mountains were in sight, where the orcs made their home amid deep warrens and slag mines worked with stolen captives. They were sure now it was Ten Hands’ tribe they were dealing with – Quaan with his bow and sharp eye had brought down an orc scout sent back by the bandits to cover their trail.
Upon the brute’s chest they had found a painted death’s head – the mark of the Blue Skull. Now Dane only hoped that Ten Hands was leading this raid.
At this distance though, even Quaan’s sharp eyes could not make out one orc from another. Only three prisoners were left now – they had found the rest at varying intervals along the trail of the bandits, lying in the open, their throats cut.
Quaan, who had never fought orcs before, had not understood when they found the first, a young boy of perhaps thirteen, his hands still bound with leather cord and scarred red from being dragged by a wolf-rider.
"Why would they steal captives only to kill them one by one?" he had asked, choking down bile rising in his throat as he laid a hand on the boy’s cold brow.
The cavalier of the Pale had been impassive, staring down from his mount. He had served in border skirmishes since he was a boy and was used to the ravages of the mountain raiders.
"They know we are trailing," he had answered, his gaze drifting to the south, toward the fleeing bandits. "The boy was weak. He slowed their escape, so they slew him."
"But they are mounted, at least some," Quaan had argued, still incredulous. "They have wolves to carry them; prisoners are valuable as slaves."
"A dire wolf is not a horse, Quaan, and cannot carry the weight of two," Dane had sighed, shifting in the saddle.
"Orcs are vile and slothful – no rider will walk so that a slave may ride. They tie them behind and forget them; if they can keep the pace of the war party, they live, if not, they die. We are lucky: had they had more time, they would have cut him up for the wolves."
After that Quaan had been silent, becoming visibly more disturbed as they found each victim. For Dane it was proof that they were gaining.
Grudging every wasted minute, Sildane would not allow any burial or tending to the corpses. Each time, after the ranger had examined the area and body to gauge how much ground they had made on the bandits, the knight had almost had to pull him forcibly back into the saddle.
"They are already dead, ranger," the cavalier had growled angrily as they left the last captive, a girl no more than twelve, under a tiny grove of elm.
"There will be time for that when we have the heads of Ten Hands and his bandits strapped to our saddles."
Quaan did not answer as he mounted stiffly with a bitter scowl.
Even now, the cavalier could feel him chafing at the memory of the bodies they had left behind, exposed to the wild. He and Quaan had left the phalanx of lancers below, climbing a small ridge to try and spot the orcs and guard against the band splitting to foil pursuit.
The raiding party had stayed together, travelling roughly southeast as Sildane had predicted they would, though several signs had made Quaan think otherwise – the orcs were crafty. Quaan felt his tracking skills had barely been needed at all; it seemed the cavalier could think like an orc.
"Can you count their number?" the knight whispered suddenly to the silent ranger. Even though the orcs were a league away, their nearness made the men unconsciously lower their voices.
Quaan nodded, counting under his breath.
"Eighteen orcs, ten of them on wolves," he answered through clenched teeth. "Three captives – two boys and one girl." His young face was grim.
"They draw nearer to the Creed River. We must ride them down before they cross – on the far bank begins the land of Bel," the knight whispered, getting cautiously to his feet.
"These lands are still in dispute between our Tsaire and the Shah of Bel– it would not be well for us to be found in arms on that side of the river. Also, there are rumors that Bel soldiers are in league with the Blue Skulls – taking bribes from their chieftain, Krang."
"Five Hells," Quaan swore, rising also. "Things are simpler in the west."
"Welcome to the borderlands," the knight laughed. "For now, we must gather my lancers and make for the fords. Come."
Quickly they made their way back down the ridge toward the clearing where they had left the soldiers to rest their horses. As they ducked and dodged their way through the undergrowth covering the sides of the hillock, Dane could see that his companion was disturbed by something.
"Are you well, Quaan?" he asked, catching a young sapling to keep from sliding on a patch of dead leaves. The young ranger shook his head.
"I am worried, Dane," he answered. "The orcs are close to the river, and more than a league ahead. We cannot reach the fords of the river in time to forge an ambush."
"Yes, and what of it? We can yet catch them in the open on a hard charge, or better still, fall upon them as they cross the water. My lancers can put the tip of a spear through a cat’s eye on a full gallop," the cavalier said proudly.
"But they will have more than enough to time to gut all three captives before we cross five spears-length of ground," Quaan replied.
The knight nodded, considering the point.
"You are right, Quaan," he agreed. "But we must hope for the best. If we can be among them swiftly enough, we can save the three. When forced to fight, the Blue Skulls are cowardly. Take heart," he said, grinning slightly. "The gods smile on us – this is the closest I have been to capturing Ten Hands in six years of searching. I swear I will have him."
"But at what price?" the ranger wondered aloud. He put a hand on the knight’s shoulder to stop him. "Dane, there are still three captives that yet live. Getting them back to their families is our first duty. We can capture Ten Hands another day."
The knight spun and looked the ranger steadily in the eye. No man would deign to explain his duty to him.
"What do you propose?" he asked, his eyes daring resistance. Quaan did not flinch.
"You and I will take three of your lancers and break off into the hills to get in front of Ten Hands’ war party," the woodsman explained, drawing imaginary lines on his flat palm of his other hand. "The rest will drop back, following more slowly. When we are close enough, you and I can steal back the hostages in the night, as we did Torquil last winter at Cairn Gap."
Dane paused for a moment, remembering the brigand chief he and the ranger had kidnapped in the darkness from the middle of the bandit’s own camp, carrying him bound and gagged through the snow in his nightshirt past drugged sentries. Finally he shook his head.
"No," he said decidedly. "Torquil was a drunken fool and this is not the Old Forest. Quaan, if the Bel find a mounted patrol in those hills, they will massacre them and send their scalps to the Tsaire on a string. The same for five afoot, even assuming that we could ever manage to steal into a war party of sleeping orcs. Even then, the best we could hope for would be to get the captives – Ten Hands would go free."
Quaan started to object, but the knight stopped with a hand.
"Ten Hands has raided and pillaged these borderlands for years. I have seen entire villages razed by that bastard, men and women staked to the earth and skinned alive. We have him now, in the open, and we are better mounted. We can crush him here and have the captives also if all goes well. Is it not better to risk this now? To achieve two goods at one stroke?"
Quaan did not answer. He shook his head in frustration and turned away. It would do no good to argue; the knight would have his way.
The two said nothing more as they made their way down the ridge to the wide switchback where the lancers were waiting. Dane quickly issued orders and the riders set off at a gallop.
Ten Hands, mounted on a wolf as large as pony, turned his grizzled head in surprise as the sound of a human war cry broke the late morning quiet.
The huge orc was old for his kind, having seen more than forty winters. His knotted arms and apish head carried many scars, including one that stretched from his ear right down to the corner of his fanged mouth, lending him an even more fearsome aspect. A ragged shirt of chain hung from his brawny shoulders, cinched with a wide leather belt from which hung a crude, curved iron sword. Around his neck in a wide necklace hung the yellowed bones from which he took his name.
Ten Hands and his raiders were close to crossing the river into safety – already the fords were in sight. He was glad for it – this raid had gone badly. They had ventured too far from the hills, wanting to strike deep into the unsuspecting human settlements.
The first village they attacked had yielded good loot and captives – Ten Hands plan had been to then unleash a chain of ravages, raiding from village to village, each bringing him closer to the hills. He would then drive his captives before him on treasure-laden wolves, too far south for the Tsaire’s riders to catch him.
But only one day after their first raid, the cursed riders had appeared. They had dogged them day and night, forcing them to kill all but the strongest captives as they fled. Still, he had not expected them to follow this far, into the very shadow of their enemies in the south.
Squinting his porcine eyes in the distance, Ten Hands’ crooked lip curled back over sharp fangs as he understood. It was the warrior Yellow Hat, so called by the orcs for the bronze helm that he wore, with perhaps fifteen men. The riders were breaking from the trees to the east scarcely a half-league distant, charging hard toward him and his raiders.
The human was fierce and bold for his kind; Ten Hands had run from him many times to escape with his captives and loot. So he was willing to follow even into the land of the Bel now? It would be his doom, the huge orc laughed.
The old warriors taught that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; the northman did not know that a patrol of Bel soldiers waited even now on the far side of the river to guard the orcs’ crossing.
Behind Ten Hands, his bandits drew their weapons, but there was fear in their eyes. Caught here in the open, they feared the humans with their strong horses. They looked to the old bandit for the sign to disperse and flee, to seek escape across the river in twos or threes.
"Stay together and wait for my order!" he snarled back at them in the orc-tongue. "You scum, hold the captives," he growled to two of the orcs without wolf-mounts as he cut the leather thong that bound the hands of the bedraggled girl he was leading. She stumbled and fell, exhausted, but still struggled to rise.
Ten Hands grinned crookedly, showing a row of needled fangs. She was the strongest of the captives and would sell for much gold when he could get her back to Krang. The girl’s slave-price might make up some of the loss of this ill-fated raid.
Ten Hands reached into his saddlebags and drew out the carved tusk of a mountain ram. Ride to your death, Yellow Hat, he thought as he raised the horn in the air. Grinning wickedly, he drew it to his scabrous lips.
Dane, whipping the mottled flanks of his warhorse with the trailing ends of his reins, cursed as he heard the winding of the horn and knew then that he had ridden into a trap. Looking toward the river through the slits of his visor, his heart fell as he saw sunlight glint off a score or more of spear tips.
Bel riders were spilling down the shallow slopes from the trees of the opposite bank, making straight for them. It was true – the southern fiends were in league with the orcs. They had been lying in wait on the far side of the Creed.
Sildane hesitated for a moment before yelling out orders over the thundering of hooves. If the Bel caught them in the flanks, they would be cut to pieces. As one the phalanx turned away from the orcs, not stopping their charge, to meet this new threat. The lancers set their boots securely into their stirrups.
As Dane had expected, the wolf-riders off to his right fanned out to surround them, waiting to pull down riders on the fringes after the initial clash. They were caught between hammer and anvil. Defiance rose in his heart; Sildane sounded his war cry once more as the dwindling ground between the two cavalries disappeared.
The two forces met almost in the middle of the river, where the water was perhaps knee-deep on a man. The clash of metal on metal rang out amid the scream of horses and men. Dane drew down on the lead rider of Bel, angling the point of his spear for the dark-haired warrior’s dull silver breastplate.
He absorbed the impact of their clash, feeling his own lance bite deep as the spear of the enemy angled off his shield. The Bel rider yelled and lurched back, his fur-trimmed steel cap flying from his head as he splashed into the river. Dane’s spear was jerked from his hand, the ensorcelled tip lodged in the warrior’s armor.
Water flying, Dane wheeled his charger in the river as the fray thickened about him, reaching down for his broadsword in its scabbard hanging from the saddle of his mount. His hand had barely grasped it when he glimpsed movement from the corner of his eye. He looked down to see a charging orc brandishing a spear splashing toward him, the wicked tip of the weapon aimed at his knee.
Dane yelled and lifted his leg out of danger. His steed reared and whinnied fiercely as the spearhead sank deep into its flank. A hurried oath escaped the knight’s lips before the charger skittered on the slick stones of the riverbed, then fell, dragging Dane with it.
The horse kicked wildly for a moment, then lay still on its side, trapping the knight beneath the surface. He held his breath as he struggled to free his pinned leg, seeing nothing but swirling brown water around him.
Not far away, Quaan watched Dane go down, but could not get to him. Having no lance, he had stayed toward the rear of the charge, and so he had been one of the first to have his horse dragged down by the dire wolves of the orcs. Bleeding from a ragged cut over one eye, the young ranger was now using a fallen orc’s curved blade to fight, his own rapier having snapped as he slew one of the giant wolves.
He breathed a quick sigh of relief as he saw two lancers manage to drag their spluttering captain out from under the water. He turned back to the battle, struggling to reach the hostages being guarded by two orcs on the fringe of the battle.
For now the brutes did nothing to harm them, but their crude iron daggers were drawn and ready. Quaan fought a few yards closer until suddenly three more orcs blocked his path.
Dane thanked his two soldiers, blowing water from his nose, then took stock of the battle as he felt hurriedly below the churning water for the hilt of his sword still trapped beneath his slain courser.
His cavaliers had fought well – to a man the Bel had been unhorsed and less than ten were still in the fight. More than half of the giant wolves had been slain, as well as their orc riders.
Of his men, two still had their saddles, but they had lost eight lancers to the fangs of the wolves and the spears of the Bel. Most of the rest were wounded.
Dane was pleased with the valor of his men, but their plight was still grim. Now they were all but dismounted, and still outnumbered by the remaining Bel and orcs.
Dane’s hand found the hilt of his broadsword on the slippery rocks and he grunted as he drew it out from beneath the dead animal. He looked around wildly for Ten Hands.
The huge orc was several yards away, still atop his giant wolf. He snarled and looked about him as he jerked his scimitar free from the skull of a dead lancer. Ten Hands was disgusted by how weak their allies, the Bel, had turned out to be. They had fought badly, even for humans.
More than half the swarthy, dark-haired southmen had been killed in the initial clash, and the rest were fairing poorly on foot. The black gods must be laughing now, the orc thought. Even Yellow Hat had escaped drowning after his horse fell on him.
Now the human was hacking his way through the fray, struggling to get closer to him. The trap had not worked. Ten Hands spat an orc-curse and decided to cut his losses – he would leave the worthless Bel and his remaining raiders to deal with the last of the lancers and Yellow Hat as best they could.
Wheeling his gigantic wolf, the bandit loped toward the tiny knot of hostages kneeling on the ground in front of their guards, Gruush and Ral, two of the younger orcs who had come with him on this raid. Pulling up short in front of the two, Ten Hands shouted down at them.
"Get those two on their feet and head for woods," he ordered harshly, pointing toward the two human boys. The slaves, exhausted from three days of forced marching, were too weak to worry with also – their eyes were glazed and empty.
The older girl was different – she was strong enough to be valuable in the mines or even sold to the Shah of the Bel for his harem. Ten Hands snatched her lead rope from the guard’s filthy, black-furred hand.
"I will take this one," he said, jerking the girl violently to her feet. "Make for the west for a few leagues before you turn into the hills – Krang will boil you down for candle-fat if you lead a band of humans back to the caves," the old orc warned.
He knew it was probably pointless - Gruush and Ral were fools. They wouldn’t make it two leagues if any lancers were on their trail. Ten Hands did not care one way or the other.
As the two orcs started off for the southwest, prodding their captives in front of them, Ten Hands reached down and pulled the girl up onto the wolf’s back, throwing her over the saddle in front of him. The wolf would not be able to carry them both very far, but it would be enough to get them away from the battle and past pursuit. Ten Hands dug his heels into the wolf’s lean flanks and pointed it toward a narrow spot in the fords.
In the thick of the fighting, Quaan was still battling with one of the orcs, having quickly dispatched the other two. Parrying wildly, the ranger caught only a glimpse of the hostages being split by Ten Hands.
"Dane!" he called out as the curved blade of his opponent nicked his shoulder. "The captives! They are escaping with the captives!"
The knight of the Pale was still knee-deep in the river near the far bank, having just felled a Bel soldier with a strike to the knee. He looked up suddenly at Quaan’s call, narrowly escaping a clumsy spear thrust from the prostrate rider. Cursing, he struck the Bel again until he lay still.
Throwing off his helm for a better view, Dane looked across the river and saw two orcs with their captives retreating west. To the right of them, Ten Hands, carrying a third prisoner, was barreling straight for the river, his wolf-mount gathering to leap the waters at a point not far away.
"Erik! Seth! The captives!" Sildane called out, running along the river-bank, to the two lancers who still had their saddles.
The two riders were already on their way, however, galloping across the open field toward the orcs fleeing on foot.
The orc-raiders looked over their shoulders for an instant at the soldiers bearing down on them before shrieking and bolting in different directions, abandoning their captives. Within moments, the orcs were ridden down.
Dane sprinted along the bank, struggling to get in front of the dire wolf and head off Ten Hands escape. On the northern bank, the wolf gathered its legs and lurched forward, easily clearing the breadth of the river.
On the other bank, Dane dropped his sword and dove forward. He landed on his side just in front of the wolf’s forelegs as it came down, the beast’s body crashing into his mailed chest with the force of a charging bull. With a yelp, the wolf came down a rolling, snapping tangle.
Ten Hands and the girl were pitched forward, flying through the air for several feet until crashing onto the grassy bank. The girl rolled for a yard or more and lay still; the orc-bandit landed flat on his back, stunned.
When the blur of Dane’s vision cleared, he found himself on his back with the dire wolf atop him, snarling and grasping for his throat. He struggled fiercely to protect himself as the claws and fangs of the beast shredded the cloth insignia covering his armor.
As the knight fought with the wolf, Ten Hands rose unsteadily to his feet and took in his situation. Shaking his gnarled head, the orc shambled toward the captive girl not far away, who was just regaining consciousness.
He dragged her to her feet roughly, slapping her to get her moving, then turned and started up the shallow rise toward the woods, looking back with a snarl at the knight struggling with the wolf.
As Dane strove to push the fanged maw of the wolf away from his neck, the beast bit down hard on his gloved hand, shredding through the tough leather. Crying out, the knight fought down the pain and forced his hand still deeper into the wolf’s mouth, as if reaching for its stomach. The wolf shook its head violently and bit down, but its fangs clanged harmlessly on the meshed chain mail covering the knight’s forearm and elbow.
Choking, the wolf now struggled to get away, but it was too late. Holding the wolf at bay with his mailed arm tangled its maw, Dane fumbled with his other hand for the poniard clasped at his belt until his fingers closed about the pommel. A few moments later, the knight stood wearily as he dragged his arm from the dead beast’s jaws.
Wiping sweat and blood from his eyes, the knight looked back to the skirmish. Though but five of his lancers, plus Quaan, were still on their feet, the remaining orcs were now scattering, having lost their nerve once their leader fled.
The Bel still fought, but his men were steadily forcing them back into the river now that the odds were evened. The two boys from the village still knelt in the field where they had been left, too tired to move.
Dane stepped closer to the water and called across the river to the ranger, who was battling shoulder to shoulder with two of his lancers.
"Quaan," he called, cupping his hands. The ranger acknowledged him with only a quick glance across the river. "I go now for Ten Hands – when these Bel dogs are finished, do not follow. Get our wounded further away from the river in case more patrols appear. I will catch up with you once I have the bandit’s head!"
The ranger, still engaged with the Bel, made no reply as Dane turned, scooped up his fallen sword, and jogged up the slope where Ten Hands had fled, his face set in a grim scowl.
Dane entered the shade of the trees and looked about, searching for the bandit’s track. The floor of the wood was covered with fallen pine needle and sparse grass, leaving ample sign of which way the orc had gone. Dane followed.
The knight tried to press as hard as he could, but he was winded from the battle and cut or bruised in five different places, slowing his pace. Still, after an hour or so, he felt he was closer. He even thought once that he could glimpse movement far ahead. Encouraged, he shuffled quickly out of his chain mail hauberk to move faster.
The knight stepped up his pace, loping when he could, and then walking at intervals. Soon the ground rose steeply and the trees became more sparse as the orc turned into the foothills. The track then turned to follow a tiny brook almost narrow enough for a man to step over.
Dane had followed the brook for less than an hour when he heard a faint sound. He instantly froze and dropped to a crouch. Up ahead, he could see that among the trees was a clearing, but from the angle of the slope, he could see no more.
Perhaps he had caught the old orc in a halt, he thought, then cursed as he suddenly felt a cool breeze on the back of his neck. He had to be careful now, lest the orc catch his scent.
Cautiously, Dane crept as close as he dared. When he was twenty feet away, he sprang up and dashed forward.
Dane stumbled into the clearing, sword held high. The ground in the clearing was hard packed dirt with only sparse patches of green close to the edge of the brook. At first, he was stunned – the clearing was empty. Then the slowly drying trickle of blood creeping across the ground caught his eye.
Following its path upward, the haggard knight gasped hoarsely. The crooked trail of red led to the unmoving form of a girl sprawled on the earth, half-closed eyes staring upward.
Her homespun shirt and skirts were shredded to rags, baring her left leg, which was bent at an odd angle, ending where her slender foot was nailed to the hard ground by a crude iron dagger hammered right through her flesh. Dane ran to her side and knelt roughly.
She still lived, though her breathing was ragged and shallow. Her ashen face was covered with grime and her auburn locks were matted with sweat and dirt, but Dane could still see a spark of life in her glazed eyes and he was amazed.
Though still barely a child, the girl was tough – a fighter. She had not been broken by the abuse of the orcs, by the harsh pace of their retreat when all the rest had been slaughtered one at a time for slowing the escape of the bandits. Now Ten Hands had staked her out here to die – a last cruel insult. Dane hung his head, biting back tears of rage. The orc had escaped.
"It’s alright, girl," he whispered. "I’m here. Rest easy now. We’ve got to get you out of here. Stay still now."
Dane looked toward her bruised and bleeding limb, steeling himself to free her from the spike and stanch her wound. He wished fleetingly that Quaan had come with him - the ranger was a healer who could do much with only herbs and plants.
If Sildane could stop her blood loss, she would yet live, but unless he got her back down to Quaan soon, she would never walk on that foot; she might lose it entirely.
He looked up as she moved, turning her head to look at him, as if only then realizing that he was there.
"Help me," she whispered, her voice listless and weak. She was losing blood so fast. Dane carefully brushed a wisp of hair back from her eyes, unable to speak. Grimacing, he looked away, toward the stream for water.
There, close to the bank, his eye fell upon a smeared patch of dark crimson, darker than any human’s blood. Dane’s heart suddenly leapt in his chest. He looked around hurriedly at the clearing.
Here and there near the stream where scuff marks, signs of struggle. Looking back down at the girl’s hands, understanding glinted in his eye. Her fingers were wet with blood – orc’s blood.
It seemed that when Ten Hands had stopped here the girl had somehow managed to wound him, probably stabbed him with the very knife now plunged through her foot. And it had not been long ago. The girl was indeed a scrapper, he thought.
"Ten Hands, girl," he whispered urgently, leaning close to her face. "How long since he was here? When did he do this to you? Can you tell me? Is he close? Can you hear me?"
"Te- Ten?" the girl breathed, frowning, her eyes searching. "What?" She was close to delirium.
Dane fought down rising emotion struggled to keep his voice calm, soothing.
"The orc, girl. How long has he been gone?"
The girl merely groaned and lay back, shaking her head weakly. Dane slapped his fist against his knee in frustration. That orc-blood was fresh - Ten Hands was close, perhaps less than a league away and fast making his escape.
Dane cursed silently. This was no act of sheer malice. Her wound would slow the bandit: it was a cold design to gain time, knowing any pursuer would stop to aid her.
Dane could feel the brute slipping away; it was a burning coal in his throat. But the girl was bleeding, dying in front of his eyes. He wavered in a half-crouch, undecided. Perhaps, he thought suddenly, if the orc were truly that close…
"Five Hells", Dane whispered to himself, quivering with the rage within him. "He will not escape me - not this time."
The knight knew he was making a desperate gamble – if he could not run down the bandit and return soon, the girl would die. But to be so close and not make the attempt was more than he could bear. His countenance grim, Dane put a hand on the girl’s brow and whispered a promise to return.
Sildane ran like deer through the tangle of underbrush, heedless of the thorns and branches tearing at his skin and clothes. His heart pounded in his chest as he caught sight of each new patch of blood on the ground; they drove him forward like a scourge.
He caught Ten Hands less than a quarter-league away, coming upon the orc as the bandit crouched beneath a scraggly oak to rest, thinking himself beyond all pursuit. The gnarled, grizzled head of the brute swung around in surprise as Dane burst upon him, screaming out of the woods.
The knight brought his blade down with both hands in a murderous sweep as if to cleave the orc in two. Ten Hands snarled in reply, bringing his orcish scimitar up to catch the force of the blow, then turning it nimbly to slash across the human’s unprotected belly.
Dane cursed as the notched edge slid across his ribs, drawing a wet crimson line, but the wound was shallow. Too close now to bring his heavy broadsword around, he smashed the pommel into the orc’s snout-like nose, exulting in the crush of soft bone. The orc dropped back against the trunk of the oak, blinded.
The knight leaped forward but was stopped by the orc’s clawed foot. Ten Hands kicked out viciously, throwing Dane heavily to the ground. The orc then fell on him, fingers clawing for his throat.
Dane gasped as the bandit’s grip tightened. The veins in his neck bulged from the pressure. His vision was filled for a moment by the orc’s snarling visage before everything turned blood red.
A sharp ringing filled Dane’s ears, but above it he could hear the orc’s gravelly voice. The knight knew enough of the orc-tongue to make out the bandit’s growling.
"Yellow Hat," the beast panted in the harsh orc-tongue, his fangs gritted with effort. "You have the heart of an orc."
Praise for a worthy enemy, Dane guessed, but to him the words were bitter as drops of pitch. A blaze of fury rose up in his chest and he redoubled his struggle.
As the knight strove to break the orc’s iron clutch, his hand scraped across the edge of a stone perhaps twice the size of his fist. His reaching fingertips fumbled for it for a moment, but could not grab hold. He arched his back suddenly to get closer to it. Ten Hands bore down harder with his crushing grip; Dane could feel himself slipping into darkness.
With all the force he could muster, the knight brought the jagged stone up and smashed it into the beast’s shaggy ear, then once more as the grip on his throat loosened, allowing air to gush back into his lungs. The orc’s snout frothed with hot blood, which rained down onto the knight.
Ten Hands grunted as Dane pivoted his body, throwing the orc to the side. The knight scrambled to his knees to grapple with the bandit, turning aside the brute’s hairy arms as he struggled to gain a purchase. Stunning the monster with an elbow to his heavy jawbone, Dane was able to get behind the orc, his arms locking around the brute’s corded neck.
Heedless of the deep scratches the bandit clawed into his arms, Dane braced his legs and bore down with all his strength. He put pressure on the back of the orc’s head, forcing it toward the bandit’s chest as its neck stretched over the knight’s forearm held tight under its feral chin. Dane gritted his teeth and gave one last effort.
The knotted muscles in the orc’s neck strained for an instant then went slack with a wet cracking. Dane dropped the body, which twitched for a moment then lay still.
Dragging himself to his feet, the knight reached unsteadily for his fallen sword. Grasping the bandit’s head by a scruff of lank hair, he raised his blade, expecting the familiar rush of victory to wash over him, but it did not. As the stroke fell, his heart felt cold and black within his chest.
Dane stumbled into the clearing several minutes later, clutching in one hand the head of the orc bandit, which still streamed blood.
He needed only to look at the girl to know that she was dead, her lifeblood spread out on the ground from her pinned leg like blanket. In his heart, he had known she would be when he left.
His fury spent, the knight slumped to his knees at her side in a daze, letting the bandit’s head roll carelessly to one side. He carefully brushed a wisp of hair back from her cool brow.
A glimmer of light from her throat caught his eye. When he looked closer, he could see a tiny amulet of silver that he had not noticed before hung from a delicate chain about her pale neck. Larissa, it said. Dane hung his head in a mix of grief and exhaustion, as several voices swirled in his head.
Your duty is to combat evil and protect the weak. Sometimes you must choose between them. Quaan’s words as they had left the girl’s father came back to him. Indeed, he had made his choice, and the girl had paid for it. But his choice had had nothing to do with his duty, not really.
You have the heart of an orc.
Sildane laughed bitterly now as he understood what the old bandit had meant and how true it was. Only an orc would have left the girl to pursue an enemy for vengeance.
No, Dane thought sadly, not even for vengeance. For something far more base.
He simply knelt there with eyes closed for a long time; unable to find reason to do anything but sit here with the girl and his grief. All his life he had lived by a code which had given him reason to live and breathe – but he had failed it or perhaps it had failed him. It didn’t matter.
He knelt there by her side for a long time, until night fell, revealing a wash of stars above him like white tears.
The sound of soft footsteps broke his reverie. He looked up to find Quaan standing before him. The ranger had disobeyed orders and followed. He looked from the girl to the head of the bandit and back, then met the eyes of the knight. No words were needed.
"Come, my friend," the ranger said softly. "It is done. We can do no more."
He rose and made ready to carry the girl back down to the river, and then on to her father. Sildane did so for the only reason that he could think of – because it was his duty.
Bio, E-mail, and URL: "I am a native Texan who has lived and worked in Russia and Central Asia for the last 5 years. Although an avid reader, I am new to the 'web'. This is my first submission of any kind and would appreciate any feedback anyone can give me."
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