Death From the Frozen North

by Adam Janus

 

Thousands of years ago, the elven lords of Thantwilanoria fought alongside humans and dwarves, to stop the encroachment of the demon high lords out of the southern wastes.

A great battle ensued, and the evil armies of the demon demi-god, Zaranoth were defeated, and Zaranoth was banished from earth’s material plane, back to hell from whence he came.

One legion of brave elven fighters cut deeper into the tainted demon lands than any other, the warrior legion of house Timbor, led by their patriarch, Sarel Timbor.

Even after the war was won, the demon hunters of house Timbor hunted Zaranoth’s defeated, earth-bound minions far to the south and east, all the way to the great pyramids of the Ikpycgen desert, and the spired cities of the sultans.

Three years after the war was won, the warriors of house Timbor returned north, through the blasted, evil tainted wastelands, coming home to Thantwilanoria, where they received a hero’s welcome. Many in attendance said, even through the jubilation and celebration, the returning heroes seemed changed somehow. Most argued it was just exhaustion, and the horrors of war, while others whispered that they had become tainted by the very evil they fought so hard to cleanse. While fewer still whispered of demonic possession.

House Timbor was awarded nobility and Sarel Timbor a seat on the elven council of nobles for his house’s heroics during the war, despite the whispers.Over the next few centuries, house Timbor grew in power, outwardly to most, they seemed normal elves, worshiping nature and Illunar, god of the sun and creator of the elves. But behind closed doors, House Timbor guarded a dark secret. Under the cover of darkness, the noble Timborians worshiped pleasures of the flesh, depravity, deviance and the dark goddess of the blood red moon, Zareesha, mother of the banished demon lord Zaranoth.

At this time, Thantwilanoria was open to all the free races of the world. Its markets were open to outside trading, as well as its museums, libraries and amphitheaters. On occasion an outsider would mysteriously disappear, kidnapped for the followers of Zareesha’s blood rites and deviant pleasures.

There was sporadic finger pointing, and accusations, as house Timbor grew bolder, the disappearances more frequent. But the ruling houses refused to believe that the Timborian war heroes were anything but upstanding, productive members of elven society, albeit a bit reclusive and taciturn, but they had endured such horrors during the war, that was to be expected.

Eventually, the finger pointers grew, and the whispers turned to shouts, too loud for the ruling council to ignore, and they called for Sarel Timbor to answer the accusations leveled at his noble house, and its members.

Sarel Timbor answered with spears and swords, and a bloody coup attempt ensued.

Elves fought elves in the streets before the ruling house of Dalinora forced house Timbor to retreat to their walled compound, in the northern quarter of the city.

To avoid any further bloodshed, house Dalinora, agreed to allow Sarel Timbor and his followers to leave the city, under order of exile, never to return.

Sarel expected this, and the following night, under the full red moon, the patriarch of house Timbor and two thousand of his followers rode forth from Thantwilanoria. Stripped of its nobility, and cursed with mortality by the arch elven wizards, house Timbor and the followers of Zareesha went into exile.

Most headed northwest, across the wilds of Brynhalla, and through Graode Pass, skirting the then small human trading outpost of Ravenholt. Legend has it that many in Ravenholt awoke to find loved ones mysteriously missing.

Five hundred of the outcasts, led by Sarel’s nephew, Gilperion Timbor, headed south, to brave the southern wastes, and the great Ikpycgen desert, to return to the lands of the sultans, where pleasures of the flesh and deviance was more accepted.

Sarel led his exiles far to the north, and east, where they eventually settled in the Black Pine Forest, on the outskirts of the Frostbite Mountains. There was an abundance of small human fishing villages and fur trading towns to the south upon which they could prey, and the Timborian elves used their inherent magic, stealth, and mastery of nature to become scourges of the north-eastern coast of Ta-Teharun. They took human slaves for their depraved rituals and rites, and over the years their elven blood became tainted. Only the immediate Timborian family kept their blood line pure, becoming insane and more depraved from generation after generation of inbreeding.

Frost elves, they were called by the humans of the region. Not only because of their homes in the northern climes, but also because of their nocturnal activities, avoiding daylight. The Timborian elves became pale, their adaptability to their surroundings gave them an ice blue hue, while more and more of them were being born with snow white hair.

Purely by accident, while colonizing their new home, the frost elves stumbled upon a slumbering white dragon, sleeping atop a clutch of unhatched eggs, deep within the Frostbite Mountains. Taking this as a sign of fate, and a gift from Zareesha, Sarel’s direct descendant, Garel Timbor, and his sorcerous warriors fell upon the dragon’s lair.

At the cost of many elven lives, the dragon was enslaved, her eggs nurtured, and her knowledge extracted by frost elf sorcerers, before the wyrm was sacrificed to their dark goddess. Without the influence of their mother, the dragon hatchlings were raised to serve the frost elves, molding their minds and bending their wills over the course of hundreds of years, until they reached maturity.

This the Timborian lords kept secret, not only from the rest of the world, but from most of their own people, a secret known only to those of pure Timbor blood, and the dragons’ sorcerous handlers.

Those who remembered the fight in the dragon’s lair, who were deemed untrustworthy, were silenced, permanently.

Of course there was a rumor here, a sighting there. Occasionally a frost elf renegade, not of the same mind set of their people, would escape out of the Frostbite Mountains, seeking their own destiny.

But who would believe the insane ramblings of a decadent frost elf? Most were hunted down and lynched for the crimes perpetrated by their people, their warnings un-heeded. Rare sightings were passed off as wayward eagle rider patrols out of Ravenholt, which had grown over the centuries to become the largest open city north of Brynhalla.

After all, there had not been a confirmed dragon sighting north of Kothopia for thousands of years…

Until now…

* * * * *

Like vultures circling a carcass, six dragons circled the burning city of Ravenholt.

They soared on the early spring currents, spiked tails slowly wagging behind them, as if swimming in the chill pre-dawn air. Snow-white scales reflected the roaring fires beneath them that burned so hot even stone melted. Two leviathans remained on the ground, leveling buildings with their tails and fiery breath, and feeding at will.

Frost elf warriors, mounted atop great, saber-toothed polar bears, rode through the ruined north gate unchecked, their curved swords dealing death—women, children, the old and infirm, they spared no one.

On the eastern side of the city, in a partially collapsed temple dedicated to the nature goddess Trinia, two yet lived.

One, a human named Bron Straker, was clad in partially scorched eagle feather cloak, and black riding leathers of an eagle warrior. The leather breeches and boot of his right leg were burned away, exposing red, blistered flesh. In places, the leather had painfully melted to his skin.

He knelt before his dead avian mount, the flesh and feathers of its underside and tail scorched by dragon fire.

The other was a magnificent male eagle called Screech, its valiant handler ripped from the saddle and torn asunder in the initial attack.

Initially, eighteen eagles, the pride and joy of Ravenholt’s military and the last of their ancient breed, had taken to the skies in perfect phalanx formation. They sped their way north, to gather information on the advancing frost elf army, and to give Ravenholt’s military leaders and militia time to prepare the city’s defenses.

Led by three wooly mammoths with huge tusks, the invading force was easily seen from the air, as it thundered across the tundra. Fierce, white-haired elves and their polar bear mounts scouted the land ahead of the horde, and protected its flanks.

Aiming for the Timborian royalty, and frost elf generals riding the great mammoths, the eagles and their warrior handlers swooped in for the attack.

They never saw the dragons coming.

Their scents and presence cloaked by dark magic, and guided by their warlock riders, the dragons descended from the clouds at breakneck speed, slamming into the unsuspecting eagle ranks with claws and teeth, killing seven of the giant raptors instantly.

Bred to combat dragons since before recorded history, the remaining birds recovered quickly. Instinct took over as they regrouped and went on the offensive. Their brave handlers drew enchanted swords, the rune-covered blades folded hundreds of times during the forging process, and heat tempered harder than dragon scales. These magnificent weapons were handed down from generation to generation of eagle riders.

Sentries atop Ravenholt’s walls and watchtowers cheered as the eagles quickly brought down two leviathans in their counterattack, the overcast night sky briefly lighting up with wyrm fire and wild multi-colored sparks from eagle rider swords and iron shod eagle talons impacting dragon scales.

But their jubilation was short lived. The dragons’ superior size, savagery and fiery breath won out over speed and agility.

Several dragons, broke away from the fight, and turned their attention to the city below. They leveled the north gate, creating access for the charging frost elf army. This done, they began eliminating the resistance, incinerating soldiers and civilians alike, seeking out ballistas and catapults before engulfing them in fire, and feeding ravenously on the terrified population.

Bron’s grievously injured mount exerted the last of its energy, and life, valiantly carrying its injured rider to safety, closely followed by the riderless Screech, and a hungry dragon.

The two birds winged their way through the ruined city streets using the thick haze from the roaring fires and their smaller size and agility, to navigate their way through avenues too narrow for the hulking wyrm to follow, as its wings and tail battered and destroyed buildings in the effort keep up with its intended prey.

Bron’s back arched as he sobbed in grief and agony. His long brown hair hung down around his head, obscuring his face.

Tearing its gaze from the smoky sky, visible through the ruined roof of the temple, Screech hopped over debris toward the grieving human, nudging him with its beak before speaking in its own, clicking, cawing language that was understood by all eagle riders.

“Get up human,” said the eagle. “The wyrm that pursued us from the sky is still searching for us, I sense its vile presence.”

Somewhere in the distance a building collapsed, sounding like distant thunder, rolling over and drowning out briefly, the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying.

Bron looked up at the bird looming over him, tears had cut rivulets through the soot and ash covering his face, he could not hold the eagles piercing gaze, for shame, and quickly turned away before replying.

“All is lost—my wife, my child, my kin and my city.” He drew his muscled forearm across his face, wiping away tears and soot. “Leave if you wish, bird. Save yourself. “

In reply, the eagle dipped its feathered head, and nudged Bron again, this time hard enough to knock him over. “I do not wish to save myself, human. I too have lost my home, my mate and my brood.” Anger flashed behind the raptor’s dark eyes as its temper flared. “I am the last of my kind, as are you eagle warrior, and I will not go down in the annuls of history as a coward that died while cowering in the temple of a human god like a rat.” The bird hissed, while Bron pulled himself to his feet, despite the pain in his right leg.

“And who is left to write this history, eh?” Bron dragged his sword from its sheath, and used it for support, leaning on it like a cane. “No one!” Bron spat through gritted teeth, in answer to his own question. “No one is left to tell the tale because we have failed them. Who will know?” His voice trailed off to a whisper.

“We will know, and when we stand before our makers, they will know.” Before continuing, the bird took a step closer, iron shod talons clicking on the rubble. “Will you be able to hold your head up proudly when you meet your maker, human? Or will you hang your head in shame, your vow to protect your city and your people unfulfilled by your refusal to fight to the last, your failure ringing through eternity? It’s your choice, but I choose to die in the air, not in a dragon’s belly, or as a pile of ashes on the ground.”

Bron adjusted the grip on his sword, clenching it so tightly that the knuckles of his right hand turned white. He briefly considered striking the bird as the eagle’s insults rang in his ears. The heat of shame he felt in his face was replaced by anger. The archaic runes etched along the length of his blade glowed and pulsed, reflecting the human’s rage.

“Let your fear and sorrow fuel your rage,” goaded the eagle. “Use it to guide your sword arm, to avenge your perceived failure.”

As Bron shook with barely contained fury, the eagle cocked its regal head to its right.

“Prepare yourself human, a dragon approaches.”

A short second later, the pair felt an almost imperceptible rumble beneath them as the leviathan stalked closer. Boom…boom…boom…boom…occasionally followed by a short pause and the intake of air in short bursts as the dragon tried to sniff out its prey.

Leaning in close to Bron’s ear, Screech whispered some last minute advice.

“When the wyrm finds us, stand perfectly still. It is hunting for food, not kills. Do not act, only react. It will think you are paralyzed with fear.” The eagle raised its beak to sniff the air before continuing, its soft breath rustling Bron’s hair. “A dragon’s night vision is so good it can see the shadows of shadows. Its day vision is equally proficient, but like all creatures possessed of night and day vision, the varying depth of shadow and patches of light from the fires and rising sun will make it impossible for it to focus on us both if we move from shadow to light. When you react, let your instincts guide your actions and be precise. If the battle drags on, the beast will incinerate us. I will take care of the sorcerer on its back.”

The great bird once again lowered its head to nudge Bron in the chest, this time companionably. “Remember, human, you are an eagle warrior, and a dragon slayer,” it said before hopping away, and taking to the air, and the deep shadows of the partially collapsed, high-domed ceiling of the temple.

Muscles taut, standing perfectly still, Bron waited, the seconds feeling like hours.

Finally, after several agonizing minutes, the reverberations beneath his feet ceased, and the dragon’s massive, reptilian head appeared above the ruined eastern wall of the temple. Its eyes, easily as big as Bron’s head, flicked back and forth between the eagle perched near the roof, atop a partially collapsed support pillar, and the human, standing stock still on the ground.

Pulling its gargantuan head back and down, the dragon slammed its horned skull against the already weakened granite and marble wall in an awe inspiring display of power, creating its own entrance, and showering the interior with dust and stone shrapnel. The temple groaned in protest as its crumbling foundation threatened to topple the entire building around them.

Through it all Bron held his ground. He could taste his own blood as it trickled down his face, and into his mouth, from the many nicks and cuts inflicted by the tiny stone missiles sent flying throughout the cavernous temple.

As the dust cleared, the behemoth came into view, directed by an armored sorcerer seated between its folded wings. The frost elf scanned the shadows above in search of the eagle, while silently mouthing the words to a spell.

With deliberate, almost feline ease, the dragon stalked toward the motionless human, huge head held low to the ground, flattening its serpentine neck like a cobra’s. Its forked, snake-like tongue flicked out of its bloodstained maw, savoring the salty taste of fear that rolled off the terrified human in waves.

But the wyrm sensed something else, something unfamiliar boiling below the surface, permeating and mingling with the fear. Curious, the dragon flicked its tongue toward the human again, not noticing the deadly intent burning in its prey’s eyes.

As the leviathan’s tongue flicked mere inches from Bron’s chest, close enough for him to smell rotten meat and sulfur on its breath, he reacted.

His sword arm sped by revulsion and adrenaline, he sliced through the dragon’s forked appendage like it was hot butter. The severed slab of meat fell to the floor with a wet plop.

Surprised by this sudden burst of violence, the dragon pulled its head back as its mouth filled with blood.

Bron acted on pure instinct, bellowing in defiance as he stepped below the beast’s rising head and swung his sword upward, from right to left. Sparks flew as the razor edge of his ancient blade cut through the scales of the dragon’s neck, neatly slicing through the soft flesh beneath, severing veins and laying open the creature’s wind pipe. Blood and noxious fluids flowed from the gaping wound, igniting as they rolled across the floor like liquid fire.

Unable to draw breath, or breathe fire, the desperate, injured dragon slammed its head back down in an attempt to crush the puny human.

But Bron had already stepped aside. Drawing his sword over his head, the eagle warrior hacked down on the dying behemoth’s exposed neck, cutting through scales and bone. His blade passed clean through, ringing on the stone floor. He cut an inch deep into the granite, numbing his arms to the shoulder.

The wyrm’s tail lashed in a final death twitch, bringing down another section of the exterior wall, further compromising the temple’s already crumbling structure.

As Bron’s first stroke fell, the eagle leaped from its perch. First flying around the high -domed ceiling, passing in and out of shadow, hoping to disorient the dragon’s sorcerous rider, before folding its wings in and taking a nosedive directly at the warlock.

Finishing his incantation, the frost elf cast a black bolt of energy directly at the speeding eagle. Dipping its head, the raptor passed beneath the bolt, feeling the searing heat along its back.

Before the spell caster could ready a defense, Screech was on him. As Bron’s final stroke fell, the eagle slammed into its unfortunate target. Iron shod talons punctured the mage’s breast plate and skull, killing him instantly and tearing his broken body free of the harness that held him securely to the dragon’s back.

As quickly as the fight had started, it was over.

Bron stared at the dragon’s lifeless body through a blood red haze as he pulled his sword free from the stone floor. Battle madness and blood lust began to fade, replaced by the pain of his forgotten injuries, and a throbbing in his head from adrenaline hangover.

Wasting no time, the eagle unceremoniously dropped the limp frost elf corpse to the floor, and hastened to Bron’s side.

“We have to take to the air, now,” stressed the bird. “The wyrms are aware of their brethren’s demise. They have sensed their clutch mate’s mental death howl.”

Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, Bron painfully swung upon the eagle’s back, instinctively grabbing for the absent retainer straps, ripped from the saddle and still connected to Screech’s previous, unfortunate rider.

“Keep your feet firmly in the stirrups, hold on tightly with your legs and anticipate my movements,” instructed the bird. “Recall your bareback training. I will not let you fall.”

Nimbly hopping on the dead dragon’s back for a launching point, the raptor spread its wings and did one final lap around the ruined building, picking up speed before shooting out through the gaping hole in the roof.

“What do you plan to do?” asked Bron as they ascended into the smoky haze that obscured the dim light of dawn. “Fly right into the maws of several waiting dragons?”

“I intend to accomplish our original objective, to wreak havoc and cause chaos among the invaders’ ranks,” answered the eagle gruffly. “If we can distract them long enough to allow even one refugee to flee and seek aid, then our deaths will not be in vain.”

Once again the heat of shame colored Bron’s soot and gore covered face. He noticed the dragons had widened their circle around the city, surveying the surrounding countryside, searching for escapees.

Two behemoths spiraled down over the ruined temple of Trinia, investigating the cause of death to one of their own, while another broke away to pursue the eagle and rider now speeding their way northwest.

Bron tried, without success, not to look down at the burning city, its citizens lying dead and dying in the streets. Pockets of resistance still remained, but few and far between. Mounted invaders atop their saber-toothed white bear mounts pointed to the skies in his direction. His will almost quavered again as he tore his horrified gaze from the carnage below to focus on the dragon racing across the sky to intercept the fleeing pair.

Unable to utilize its fiery breath at high speeds, for fear of incinerating itself, the leviathan aimed to smash directly into the smaller, more fragile eagle.

At the last possible second, Screech banked its wings, rising just enough for the winged giant to pass beneath them. The eagle then went into a nosedive, descending on the lumbering dragon from behind before it could turn, and landing directly between the leviathan’s outstretched wings. Screech’s iron shod talons sunk into the wyrm’s hapless rider, pinning the frost elf sorcerer face down to its back.

Bron leaned forward and slashed down with his sword. He felt his weapon grind off the beast’s spine as his slashing blade opened a gaping wound on the dragon’s back, which quickly filled and spilled over with blood.

Roaring in pain, its movements becoming uncoordinated due to the damage to its spinal cord, the injured wyrm tried bringing its head around on its long neck, huge jaw snapping open and shut.

Bron met the snapping jaw with steel, swinging his sword with two hands, cutting roughly through the creature’s bony snout. His blade rang almost lyrically as he withdrew, scraping along teeth and bone.

Disengaging its talons with an audible, wet popping sound, Screech once again turned northwest as the grievously injured dragon, its bat-like wings flapping out of sync, tumbled ponderously toward the ground.

“Hold on human,” the eagle said over the roar of the wind. Picking up speed, they quickly outdistanced the larger, slower dragons.

Bron held his face up to the cold, moist morning air, his hair flying wildly about his aching head, and his eyes watering with the force of rushing air.

The warrior’s feeling of invigoration was short lived though as he saw the smoking ruins of the farms and homesteads outside the city proper. Rage once again welled up inside him, as they raced closer to the frost elf royalty and military command, their silken black banners, bearing the red moon insignia, flapping in the wind.

Unchallenged, they looked down on their conquest from the foothills that overlooked Raven’s valley.

* * * * *

Aganariel Timbor felt invincible, seated high atop his black wooly mammoth mount, surrounded by his personal bodyguard of axmen and war sorcerers, casually looking down on the ruined human city of Ravenholt, as his elven reavers raped and pillaged at will.

Shielding his light-sensitive eyes from the rising sun, Agnariel noted a pair of dragons break from formation, and swoop down on the eastern quarter of the city.

Looking to his hooded personal sorcerer, who stood behind him on the platform built over the mammoth’s back, the frost elf king impatiently nodded his head in the dragons’ direction.

Unlike the sorcerous dragon riders, who where armed and armored in traditional frost blue, Timborian magic users stood out, preferring to wear flowing, blood red robes trimmed in black. The sorcerer bowed before replying to Agnariel’s unspoken question.

“I have sensed the loss of another wyrm my lord,” answered the spellcaster. His eyes down, he didn’t notice the fleeting look of annoyance flash across his lord’s pale, frost blue face.

Before Agnariel could ask his next question, the answer shot up through the smoke in the form of eagle and rider.

All watched eagerly as another dragon broke formation to engage the renegade eagle, confident that the giant reptile would rend the bird to shreds, ending any resistance.

They watched the eagle dodge the dragon’s clumsy attack, then turn on the offensive. Sparks flew as the eagle warrior’s blade made contact with dragon scales once, and then again. A collective gasp of disbelief escaped their lips as the raptor disengaged itself from the injured beast, and headed directly at them.

“The human must be mad or suicidal my lord, surely he does not intend…” The sorcerer never finished the thought as Agnariel lost his composure, and backhanded the stammering elf across the face, sending him flying off the platform, to the ground below.

Fists clenching and unclenching in frustration, Lord Timbor screamed down at his battle sorcerers. “I have lost half my dragons this day, and you make feeble excuses!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he vented his insane fury on the assembled spellcasters. “Your warlocks have flown six dragons into oblivion!”

Tagnariel Timbor, Lord Timbor’s general, and younger cousin, as well as Agnariel’s chief rival for the frost elf throne, shouted a warning to his king from his own wooly mammoth mount. “Agnar, you need to dismount now!” He pointed at the feathered missile and its human rider bearing down on them, leaving the slower, pursuing dragons far behind. Tagnariel then turned to his archers and battle mages. “Archers, fire at will, sorcerers, prepare defensive spells, protect your king!”

Glancing sidelong at his rival, angry at the use of his childhood nickname instead of proper title, Agnariel drew his curved sword and faced the hurtling eagle. His confidence grew as he felt protective magic begin to ripple around him.

“You would like that, wouldn’t you cousin?” The king muttered aloud, spitting the word cousin as if it tasted bad. “For my people to see me leap out of danger’s way in some undignified manner. Not this day, Tag. You will not steal my thunder. Today I carve my niche in history.”

* * * * *

“Brace yourself human!” Screech yelled back to Bron, as its acute, binocular vision picked up the waves of magic rising like rippling heat tendrils from the hot coals of a forge, and surrounding the frost elf king. Screech’s trained sight also noticed that the spell was not complete, and the casters would not have time to finish the incantation before impact.

Extending its talons, the eagle felt the protective spell give way, almost as if hitting water at high speed to snag a fish from the river.

Passing through the invisible barrier, Screech’s right leg made solid contact with Agnariel Timbor’s breast plate, as the elf tried to twist away. Even blunted by protective magic, the force of impact sent the elven monarch hurtling from the back of his mammoth, and broke Screech’s leg like a dry twig.

Worse than that, the raptor felt the elf king’s razor-edged blade drag along its underside, and a crossbow quarrel puncture its lung.

Momentum carried the bird and its rider past the assembled frost elves to the edge of a small stand of pine trees, where it hit the ground with bone-jarring force, sliding across snow and muddy earth.

Even though the jolt was cushioned by the body of his mount, Bron was stunned, and not aware of the full extent of the eagle’s injuries. He used his sword, still gripped in his right hand, to stand woozily on unsteady legs. His entire body aching, he shook the fog from his brain, and stared down at the prone eagle, noticing the red mess spilling from its abdomen.

“I am the last of my kind Bron Straker,” rasped the dying bird in a barely audible voice, using Bron’s name for the first time. Dark red blood flowed from its hooked beak and nostril holes. “Do not let the death of my race be in vain.”

Bron continued to stare in dazed disbelief, as the light faded from the proud bird’s fierce eyes. Then, the harsh reality of his situation slowly sunk in.

“This is where I am going to die,” he said out loud.

But for some reason, he didn’t feel the way he would have thought he should feel. No fear, no regret, and no panic about his current situation or sadness welling up from deep within. Just cold, calm rage.

Hearing shouts in a language he did not understand, and the accompanying footfalls of those issuing the shouts, Bron gripped his gore-encrusted sword, and slowly turned to meet his death.

Looking up the slight rise he and Screech had just slid down seconds before, he saw at least a score of archers, crossbows and longbows leveled at his chest, and twice that number of foot soldiers, frost elf axmen, spreading out in a semi-circle as they advanced down the hill, finely crafted, double-bladed axes in their gauntleted hands. The remaining six dragons now circled above, awaiting their orders.

* * * * *

Dabbing blood from a gash in his forehead, suffered from his collision with the now dead eagle, Agnariel Timbor looked down into the slight depression at the pathetic human, and briefly admired the man’s tenacity. Scorched from dragon fire and bleeding from at least a dozen injuries, the warrior from Ravenholt still stood, ready to battle to the last.

“Take him alive,” ordered the frost elf king. “I will enjoy torturing this one at my leisure.”

As he spoke, the human’s head snapped up, and their gazes locked briefly. Agnariel could see the fiery determination in the man’s eyes as he suddenly charged his frost elf attackers. The cornered prey had turned on the predator.

* * * * *

Even though he didn’t understand what was said, the imperious, pompous tone in the frost elf’s voice set something off in Bron’s head.

Growling incoherently, like a feral animal, his vision waving in a red haze, the human laid into the surprised elven elite. Wielding his sword with both hands, the berserking human hewed through foes like a lumberjack hewing through saplings.

He fought with the desperation of the damned, with the strength of someone who has nothing to lose. Dead elves piled up around him as he dodged and weaved through their defenses, taking many hits but refusing to relent.

With every deadly stroke of his blade, Bron thought of a lost loved one—his wife, his son, and his parents, all the good people of Ravenholt who lost their lives this day. All the while keeping Agnariel Timbor in his sights, the source of his ire, and cause of his pain.

As the frost elves continued to fall from the human’s ferocious attack, a red-robed sorcerer appeared on the hill, and began to mouth the words of a spell. The mage’s high-pitched crooning became a rhythmic wailing that sent chills down Bron’s spine. Axmen retreated, gratefully, as he continued his peculiar incantation, leaving the savage, blood-covered human alone amongst their dead.

Knowing he was doomed if the sorcerer finished his spell, Bron desperately shouted a challenge to the frost elf king in the common tongue spoken throughout the continent of Ta-Teharun. “You need foul sorcery to bring me down, frost elf pig? Is that pretty sword at your side just decoration?” Bron bellowed up the hill. “Is there none among you who can face me in honorable combat, or has all the honor been inbred out of your vile race?”

Bron saw anger flash across Agnariel’s face and spat up the hill, punctuating the insult.

Holding his hand up, stopping the sorcerer’s incantation, Agnariel responded in broken common. “I am not bound by hollow, baseless codes of honor embraced by the lesser races. We follow no moral creed. Honor and morality is a weakness possessed by the Illunar elves, that weakness is the only reason you humans have been allowed to thrive, and overpopulate this earth. That same weakness allowed my ancestor, Sarel Timbor, to ride forth from Thantwilanoria in exile. Thantwilanoria will feel the consequences of their weakness, as you and yours have felt them today.

“Sounds like a lot of fancy excuses, thrown around by a cowardly fop of a false king!” Bron responded. “Human kings earn their thrones through the strength of their sword arms, not some questionable blood claim. You are a cowardly dog, and your victory will be short lived.”

Some of the assembled soldiers were visibly angered by the insults directed at their king and their lineage, but Agnariel also noted a large number of thinly veiled smiles, and the paranoid king had to wonder if there was already a plan to usurp his throne.

“Allow me to part this filthy human’s head from his body, Agnar!” This from Tagnariel, who spoke loud enough for most of the onlooking elves to hear, subtly showing up his cousin once again.

Now, Agnariel would have to accept the human’s challenge. Some among them already looked to Tagnariel as the stronger of the two, and the king’s refusal after his cousin’s acceptance would be political suicide. It would seal Agnariel’s fate, thus paving the way for a coup.

Glaring at his cousin, Agnariel drew his sword, while making a mental note to get rid of his rival as soon as possible. “I accept your challenge human,” he said, and smiled as cheers erupted from his bloodthirsty soldiers.

Shoving Tagnariel out of his way roughly, the king gracefully slipped his white, fox fur cloak from his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground, revealing the signature ice blue armor and chain mail of the Timborian elves.

“Hold my cloak, Tag.

Now it was Tagnariel’s turn to be embarrassed, as he subserviently bent to retrieve his older cousin’s discarded garment.

Bron shrugged off his own scorched, eagle feather cloak, and spun his sword on its wrist thong as he watched his opponent saunter down the hill.

The elf moved with catlike grace and speed, also spinning his sword, while pulling a broad, curved black blade from his belt. The edge was crusted with a noxious green substance which could only be poison.

Bron circled to his right stepping over frost elf corpses, taunting his adversary as he moved. “It would seem your rule is more fragile than you think, eh, pig?” Bron grinned wolfishly at his own humor. “Political climate a bit stormy?”

Agnariel answered the taunts with steel, attacking with magically enhanced speed, so fast that Bron barely had time to parry the overhead slash aimed at his head. As their two blades met with a ringing clash, the elf swept his knife in front of him from left to right. Bron used his greater bulk and strength to push the elf back, feeling the poisoned blade cut through his leather vest, but not reaching the skin of his chest.

Anxious to keep the elf on the defensive, Bron launched an offensive flurry—slashing and hacking, back and forth, up and down, while keeping his feet moving, trying to gain the higher ground.

But Agnariel was skilled, he expertly parried and dodged, giving ground, but not retreating, all the while keeping his poisoned blade poised to strike, waiting for an opening in the human’s ferocious assault.

Determined to wear the elf down, or shatter his sword, Bron continued to batter his smaller opponent, until the elf went down on one knee, holding his sword up before him in a desperate attempt at defense.

Seeing his opening, Bron stepped in and swept his sword low, aiming below Agnariel’s upraised weapon, only to feel his blade cut through nothing but air. It had been a ruse.

The elf leaned back and brought his sword down on Bron’s blade, pinning the tip to the ground, while crossing his left hand over, cutting deep into the bicep of the human’s right arm.

Bron felt the blade tear through his flesh and muscle, cutting tendons and ligaments, rendering his sword arm useless, his sword falling from his limp grasp to dangle from its wrist thong. He could feel the poison coursing its way through his blood stream, at first tingling, then burning. His legs suddenly felt weak, and drawing breath became difficult as his chest began to constrict. He took a couple of staggering steps backward before falling to his knees.

Sheathing his sword and dusting himself off, Agnariel watched as the poison took effect. Almost as if strolling through a rose garden, the frost elf approached the dying human, bending over and grasping his hair with his right hand, and placing the bloodied blade of his knife to Bron’s neck, leaning in close he whispered:

“After I kill you, I will have my necromancers reanimate your filthy, lice-ridden corpse, then I will tear your spirit to shreds and hunt down your soul, and deliver it to Zareesha myself, to torment for eternity in hell.”

Hatred burned in Bron’s eyes as he slowly slid his left hand up his thigh, and met the frost elf’s gaze. “I’m not dead yet, pig,” he growled. With Herculean effort he brought his left arm up.

Protruding from between his pointer and middle finger was a short, sharp push knife, carried by all eagle warriors, primarily used to cut away the saddle straps in a hurry if need be. The blade punched through fine chain link, into Agnariel’s abdomen, between his belt and breast plate.

Bron twisted the blade, searching for the elf’s vitals as the first arrow hit him in the chest. He fell back as Agnariel sought to hold in his bowels, a look of shock on his pale blue face.

Through a blurry haze, Bron saw Tagnariel Timbor’s arm fall, and another arrow hit him in the shoulder. He fell to his back, reaching to the sky with his left hand.

In his delirium, he thought he saw the ghostly image of an eagle before everything went black, and Bron Straker, last of the eagle warriors of Ravenholt, breathed his last shuddering breath.

* * * * *

Far to the south of Ravenholt, under the protective boughs of the great pines bordering Raven’s Valley and the outskirts of the Graode Mountains, Argemon the blind seer stood facing the burning city of Ravenholt.

His aged, milky white eyes turned to the sky as if seeing. At his side was a woman, cowl pulled over her chestnut brown hair, covering her pretty face and captivating dark eyes, which were moist and red around the rims as if she had been crying. In her arms she nestled a child, a boy, no more than a year old, contentedly sleeping in his mother’s safe arms.

“He will never know his father,” commented the woman softly.

Argemon reached out and stroked the boy’s dark hair, guiding his gentle hand as if he could see. “He will know of him Shianna,” the old man responded, turning away from the valley, and turned his sightless eyes to the sleeping child. “They will sing songs of your father’s heroics, Grom, son of Bron.”

Argemon put his hands on Shianna’s shoulders. “You saw the dragons were widening their circles over the valley, searching for survivors. If not for your husband’s heroics, we and our precious cargo would never have made it out of the valley. It’s almost as if he knew,” the old man finished softly, as if talking to himself.

“That does not make it any less painful, Father,” Shianna responded, turning toward the woods and the rest of the refugees from Ravenholt, elders, woman and children mostly.

They walked in silence for a little while, before reaching their despondent comrades and their cargo. Argemon leaned over and whispered in his daughter’s ear.

“You need to be strong now Shianna, not only for Grom, but for them,” he said, nodding toward the hundred or so escapees from Ravenholt, and pausing before continuing. “And for the unborn daughter you now carry in your womb.”

Shianna snapped her head around, eyes wide with surprise from the revelation. “Are you sure, Father?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes my dear. Now, let’s get started. We have a long day, and perilous journey before us.” The old man then started walking down the trail that led through the wooded foothills of the Graode Mountains, sweeping his gnarled staff before him.

Most of the refugees were unaware that, buried beneath the dried food, medical supplies and water skins of the small, mule-pulled supply wagon, packed with warm furs and hay, were fifteen unhatched eagle eggs.

 

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