Chapter 1: Pointed Ears
I awoke from a dreamless, dark slumber and squinted through the haze. I rolled over onto my back and stared, blinking into the darkening sky. Wherever I was, twilight was approaching.
Sitting took a tremendous amount of effort. When I accomplished this task, an immense pain immediately beset my foggy head. I fought the sudden urge to vomit then grasped my throbbing skull with both of my dirt-encrusted, leather gauntlets. The tips of my fingers that remained uncovered recoiled at a cold and sticky sensation.
Blood! I hadn't a clue if it was my own or if it belonged to someone else. And it wasn't just on my head...it seemed to be everywhere. The ground was riddled with patches of it, and numerous dead bodies accompanied them.
And the smell! To say it was overpowering would be an understatement. By the look of things, this could have only happened within the last day or so. Most every corpse wore the same uniform, the same armor, and had been using the same weapons. Their faces—frozen in the expression they wore at the moment of their deaths—were fair, and their ears were long and pointed.
And everything was so eerily quiet.
My left hand automatically wandered up and over my shoulder. It reached and grasped at thin air. What am I searching for? I retracted my hand to eye it curiously, but my foggy mind yielded nothing.
A shield laid an arm's length away, and I automatically reached for it. I studied its face intently. Its symbols resonated with familiarity, but I could not discern their meanings.
My movements alerted me to other aches and pains, so I took a moment and looked myself over. On first inspection, I found that my clothing and armor was beyond repair. The bloodied tunic that I wore was ripped nearly to shreds, and it hung about my frame in tatters. In its current condition, I could not even tell what color it used to be. Underneath was a shirt of chain mail that was also ruined, the links in many places having come undone. Beneath it all, I could feel the sting and throb of hidden lacerations and bruises.
My head throbbed again, worse than before. I winced and doubled over from the pain. When I opened my eyes again, the sky had grown completely dark.
I was alerted to the sound of nearby movement. I quickly grabbed the blade nearest to me—a flat, double-edged longsword of a spear-skewered man—and began to stand, a difficult feat in my current condition, but one I accomplished all the same. A small group of men came into view a short distance away. They were different from those that had been slain; their skin was patchy and rough, and their ears were rounded instead of pointed. They wore the garb of soldiers: suits of chain mail, leather boots and gauntlets, and black tabards marked with an unfamiliar insignia. There was one taller than the rest that possessed very uncomplimentary facial features. He spotted me first.
"Well, look what we got here, fellas." His voice was scratchy, slurred, and accented. "This one's alive, though that's a nasty wound on his head. Weren't they were all supposed to be dead?" I held my blade in a non-threatening stance, legs not spread too far apart and the sword's tip lowered towards the ground, the strangely familiar shield held lightly in my other hand.
They made their way to me, treading carelessly over the broken and fallen bodies upon the battlefield. The man leading the small group came within two feet of me. He looked me up and down, scowling the entire time. He was slightly taller than me and was in better shape than the rest of his crew. His uniform was filthy, and he carried with him a simple, short sword.
The seconds passed, and he finally snarled in disgust and spat upon my dirt- and blood-stained boot. "You are one of them, aren't you?" he snarled.
"One of…them?" My voice was raspy and whispered. He sneered and spat again, this time in my face, which elicited small approving murmurs and chuckles from his three allies. I wiped off the man's spittle with my shield arm.
"Maybe I should go ahead and pluck off your ears to keep as souvenirs!" He laughed, and his companions followed suit.
"Do it, Brunor!" crooned one of his lackeys between laughs. "It looks like he's about to pass out anyway!"
"Go ahead…try it," I rejoined with my hoarse voice.
The one called Brunor—their leader, it seemed—stepped forward with a grin that revealed cracked and yellow teeth. "A sense of humor! You know, it's a crying shame, because the way I see it," his voice lowered menacingly as he leaned in, "you're in no position to be makin' the wisecracks." He took his blade in hand and waved it dangerously close to my face. "You're alone out here, and you're about to die out here, same as all the rest of your pointy-eared brothers and sisters."
"You're right," I conceded with difficulty. "I'm...alone. The odds do seem…to be in your favor." The throbbing of my head and my other bodily aches mysteriously began to subside.
"So we're agreed!" Brunor announced. I narrowed my eyes as two of the men to the sides of the leader advanced, swords at the ready. "Get him!"
The approaching two attacked in unison. Without thinking, almost as if an unseen force guided my actions, I reacted. I singled out the man to my left and spun to the side of his sword as he jabbed it towards me. I put my weight behind my shield, bashing it into him and, with my other arm, grabbed the hilt of his sword while he faltered, and relieving him of it. As he dropped to the ground with a cry of surprise and pain, and I kicked his falling body towards his companions. They all separated as he collapsed between them.
"Get up!" snarled Brunor at the weaponless man "You two!" he yelled at the others. "With me!"
They came all at once, to which I replied by swinging my sword about in a wide arc. They all took a step back, and one even managed to trip backwards over the fourth soldier, still weaponless and on the ground. With a mysterious boost of energy, I surprised all of them by leaping between the two still standing and coming blade down atop their tripped-up companion. I rolled away, avoiding a backhand sword slash from their leader.
Brunor charged at me as I stood and regained my footing. I raised my shield to defend from a follow up overhanded attack. The force of the blow rattled my pained body, but I somehow retained my footing, shaky as it was. He swung at me again, and this time our blades met and locked. He leaned forward, his foul breath violating the space between our faces. I narrowed my eyes and pushed him away. His other still-standing lackey marked this as an opportunity for attack and came at me, sword raised. I quickly went down to one knee and raised my blade into his advancing body. I used the momentum from his attack to vault him over and behind me, and he slipped from my impaled blade like butter as he fell lifeless to the ground. I stood once again face the group's leader.
"Two down…do you wish to tempt fate as well?" I asked through haggard breathing. He growled and rushed me again. My weariness was returning, but I easily side-stepped to the right of his extended blade and knocked my shield into his fast-approaching face. He crumpled just like the first of his group had. I stepped on his chest and rested the tip of my sword right beneath his chin. The blood of two of his men remained on my blade, and it mingled with the dark liquid running down from his mouth.
Brunor spat red-flecked spittle at me, and smiled nastily. Before I realized what was happening, the first soldier came at me from behind and grabbed at my sword arm. While I struggled to maintain control of the weapon, Brunor rose back to his feet. The man behind me grabbed with his other hand at my shield arm, effectively immobilizing both of my upper limbs. Brunor advanced again, ready to end me once and for all.
I was ready to end things too.
Using the man behind me to support my weight, I rose up off my feet and kicked forward; both boots connected with the leader's chest and pushed him to the ground once more. Then I fell backwards into the other man, which caused the both of us to topple over. He impacted the ground with an "Urk!" I quickly rolled off him, anticipating another attack. However, his body had gone still; just beneath him was the slightly upturned blade of a fallen, pointed-eared soldier, which had pierced his back.
I walked over to Brunor, who lay holding his pained breastbone. "How could you…do that…to my men?" he wheezed. My head began to throb again. I worked hard to keep my vision from swimming, trying to focus on Brunor's sneering face.
"I thought the odds were in your favor," I reminded the unfortunate man.
He scoffed. "Well, aren't you going to kill me too?"
My head. "I…I haven't decided yet."
"Lost your nerve already? You really are a funny one. Hey, are you listening to me, pointy-ears?"
My grip began to falter, and I dropped my sword to the ground. My shield arm sagged, and my eyes finally lost their focus. I took a stumbling step backwards, trying my best just to remain standing.
Brunor stood slowly and cautiously. When he saw that I was no longer able to fight him, a wicked smile grew upon his cracked lips. "You had your chance." He raised his sword for the final, killing blow. My shield suddenly felt so heavy.
A close, shrill whistle suddenly pierced the air. I watched in shock as an arrow buried itself into Brunor's head. I dropped to my knees, my reserves entirely drained. Before I blacked out completely, I could discern three figures on horseback surrounding me where I lay.