My new job has ended up taking up a lot more of my time than I first thought.
Then Halo 4 came out.
Then I was hit by writers block.
Some of you might find the violence in this chapter a little graphic, so be warned.
Chapter 15: First Blood
The relative warmth of Rohan compared to the ice cavern struck Sparrow with a near physical blow as she stepped back through the shimmering portal, Éowyn a step behind. That shock, coupled with the echoing crack of the Demon Door closing behind them, distracted them for a moment, and it wasn't until she heard the drawing of a bow-string that Sparrow looked up to see a dozen heavily armed riders surrounding them in a semi-circle. Her eyes instinctively snapped around to where her horse stood with her sword, shield and gauntlets sitting tantalisingly just out of reach.
"Wildmen of Dunland." Éowyn warned, fear creeping into her voice, "Allies of Saruman."
"Keep behind me." Sparrow advised, feeling the weight of the Archon's Fury in her hands, and turned to face the strangers, "I have no quarrel with..."
"Tha may be, but Aa've a quarrel wi any whee stands wi Rohan." their apparent leader spoke, his accent so thick it was almost incomprehensible, "They stole my peoples lands, drove us into the hills, and they hev the nerve to caal us bandits?"
"None of those who now live committed such an offence, or were offended by it." Sparrow looked for some way to diffuse the situation before it went any further; while she was sure she could handle the riders with ease, she was not sure she could do so while also preventing any harm coming to Éowyn. "You fight them now because it's all you know. Enough blood has been shed; let it end."
"It will end when Edoras lays in ashes," The Dunlending bared his ragged teeth, "an the blood of Théoden lays spent upon the ground!"
"As you wish." Sparrow closed her eyes as she felt the augment crystals in the hammer she held come to life, flames enveloping the head, "What blood is split now is on your hands and your hands alone..."
The first archer let fly even as the last word crossed her lips.
Without her gauntlets, Sparrow was unable to blend her Will, but that was not to say she was incapable of wielding the power. Lashing almost instinctively, she unleashed a blast of Force Push, shattering the arrow in the air and unsaddled the rider even as she started to move towards her nearest opponent. The war-hammer left a bright, burning trail in its wake as it arced through the air, the power of the augments it containing turning it into something more than a mere weapon. It struck its target with enough force to cleave through armour and shatter bone, sending the Wildmen tumbling from his mount, his tunic smouldering.
Sparrow didn't give the others time to react; she cast a quick blast of Confusion even as she continued on over the back of the rearing horse. Landing hard upon the stony ground, she let her momentum carry her round into a forward roll, letting her spring back to her feet in front of her next opponent. Without the time to bring the hammer round for full effect, she simply rammed the head into his chest as hard as she could. There was a sickening, wet crack as his ribs and sternum gave way, puncturing both of his lungs and taking him out of the fight as he started to drown on his own blood. But Sparrow didn't even slow down, leaping over his shoulder to land atop her next target. The man was somewhat surprised to find his head caught between her knees, but his surprise died as she twisted her hips sharply, snapping his neck like a dry twig.
Ridding his body to the ground, Sparrow used the momentum it gave her to dive under the path of a hastily loosed arrow, its razor sharp edge slicing through a few stray strands of hair as it passed less than an inch from the nape of her neck. Back on her feet, she feinted left and dodged right, narrowly avoiding the hooves of a rearing horse, then ducked under its riders sword. She responded with another quick blast of Confusion, aimed at the horse rather than its master. The animal stood stock still for a moment, then fell over sideways, pinning its riders leg under its mass as it continued to stare into nothingness.
The battle had lasted only a few seconds, but already her opponents, skilled fighters to a man, were starting to react. Those with arrows ready let them fly, while others drew swords or raised clubs and axes. The air around her became a storm of flesh and metal that she was forced to work harder to dance through. More than once she felt the burning agony of steel piercing her flesh, each cut and knick a distraction she could ill afford. She swung her hammer round in wide arcs, the flaming head shattering bone and searing flesh. Screams of pain filled her air, while the sick, roast-pork like scent of burning flesh assaulted her nostrils. Her mind momentarily flashed back to the vision she had seen during the fighting at Helms Deep, of the inevitable fate that awaited her should she embrace the darker impulses that had laid low her ancestors kingdom.
It was a momentary distraction, but a distraction none the less.
Seizing his opportunity, the leader of the Wildmen struck out at the back of her head with the hilt of his sword. The blow would have killed or incapacitated most seasoned of warriors, and even to a Hero like Sparrow, it was jarring and made her knees buckle. A booted foot swung up and caught her in the gut, driving the air from her lungs and making bile rise high in the back of her throat. A hail of fists, feet, elbows, and bludgeons rained down upon her exposed back and neck, forcing her to her hands and knees. With her vision growing increasingly dim around the edges, Sparrow reacted instinctively.
A great bolt of lightning, as thick as a tree trunk and blinding to look at, joined heaven and earth for one terrible moment, hurling those assailing Sparrow backwards. A deafening crack of thunder echoed off the nearby cliff face, striking all in the vicinity with a near physical force in its own right. The Wildmen reeled under the sudden and unexpected attack, dazed and shaken by their first real taste of Will. A scream filled the air before Sparrow could take advantage of their disorientation, and she looked round to see Éowyn struggling to defend herself with nothing but one of the wooden practice swords. Her opponents axe hacked away at the hard wood, sending jagged splinters flying in all directions even as Sparrow raced to intercept. Others blocked her way, and she found herself forced to knock them aside with the pummel of her hammer even as Éowyn lost her footing and fell to the ground. The Wildman stood over her, axe raised high, ready to split her skull in two, but the young Shield Maiden's body worked far faster than her mind. Gripping the all but useless wooden sword with both hands, she thrust it upwards with all the strength she could muster. Leather and flesh gave way as the jagged wooden point sliced upwards strait and true, the splintered tip piercing the man's heart. A look of utter surprise flashed across his face even as the light of life dimmed to nothingness in his hazel eyes. His body slumped forward, impaling itself even further on the weapon that had killed him before falling to the side, the axe dropping from his lifeless hands and landing in the grass with a soft thud.
Sparrow had no time to contemplate her friend's situation as she once again found herself face to face with the leader of the Wildmen, his massive sword already stained by her blood from where it had cut her across the arms and back. His eyes were full of amusement and hate, like a wolf savouring the coming death of a wounded bear. But, much like a wolf, he had forgotten that a bear is at its most dangerous when wounded. He lunged forward, relying on his longer reach to get inside her defences. But he had failed to take into account Sparrow's strength, which due to her Heroic nature, was far beyond that which her build might otherwise imply. Parrying the clumsy thrust, she spun round, travelling the length of the deflected blade even as she brought her war-hammer round in a wide arc. Leaving a comet-like trail of golden flame in its wake, the ancient weapon seemed to burn the very air as it went. There was a loud crack, followed by a dull, muted thud as the Wildman's skull shattered under the blow. His jaw snapped clean off even as his left eye was popped clean out of its socket. He was dead before he had time to register the blow, his body dropping to the ground like a felled tree.
Faced with the death or disabling of their comrades, the last two of the raiders jerked their horses round and spurned them away, kicking and shouting at them to hasten their escape. But Sparrow was in no mood to allow them to get off so easily. Grabbing a dropped axe with one hand, and short-sword with the other, she took careful aim and flung first one, then the other. The deadly projectiles scythed through the air straight and true, each catching their intended victims square in the back. Mortally wounded, the riders slumped forwards in their saddles even as their mounts struggled to carry them to safety.
An odd stillness came over the hillside, broken only by the receding thunder of the two fleeing horses. Sparrow took several deep breaths, working hard to lower his heartbeat and regain full control of her body now that the red-mist of battle had passed. Looking around, she saw that Éowyn sat on the fallen tree that they had tethered their own horses too, unable to take her gaze off of the man she had killed.
"Your first?" Sparrow asked, getting only a faint nod in response. She sat down beside Éowyn, her voice calm and void of any condescension or mollycoddling, "I was seventeen the first time I took a life, just after I started out on my quest to kill Lucien Fairfax. A bandit named Tharg and his gang were attacking travellers on the road to the town of Bowerstone, and I didn't have time to wait for the guards to deal with it. I was young, reckless, and more than a little cocky, having just discovered the truth of my lineage. So with a rusty old mace I had found in the ruins of the old Heroes Guild and a pistol that was probably more of a threat to me than anyone I pointed it at..."
"What's a pistol?" Éowyn asked, her voice somewhat distant.
"It's...kind of like a small crossbow. I've not seen or heard mention of any since I arrived her from Albion. I don't know if they have made it this far yet, which is probably for the best, all things considered. Anyway, thus armed, I set out to deal with Tharg and his band all on my own, and I very nearly got into a lot of trouble. Their camp was easy enough to find, which should have been my first clue that something was amiss, but I was too full of myself to see the trap I was walking into. Four of them dropped down out of the trees, surrounding me, weapons drawn. Now they were slavers, which meant that, if they took me alive... well, you can probably imagine what they would have done to me. But I didn't think about that, not until later when my blood cooled down and I started to look back at what happened. It goes without saying that I overcame them, but even now I can still see the face of that first bandit who stood before me. He was no older than I was, thin, his cloths little more than rags, probably driven to banditry in order to survive. But I shot him, right here, between the eyes, without a second thought." Sparrow tapped the bridge of her nose, "He was dead before he hit the ground, but I had already moved on to the next target. It wasn't until that night, when I stopped to make camp on the road to Bowerstone, that I realised the enormity of what I had done. I was physically sick when I remembered the look of fear on his face as he squared off against me, and the fact that he had been so terrified that he had lost control of his bladder."
"How do you learn to forget?"
"They fade, over time; new faces replace the old, and are in turn replaced. But that first one... I can only speak for myself, but that boy's face will remain with me until the day I die. I think it's important that we remember them, less killing becomes too easy."
To Be Continued...