A Chance Meeting in Darkness
Following the setting sun and moving from shadow to shadow under the reaching arms of the oaks, Jessie acted as though there were unseen watchers every step of the way. Her goal now was the southern cliffs at the base of Torr Baldwin; a cliff face she thought might be tried, if faced first thing in the light of the morning. Jessie knew damn-all about climbing, except for the usual trees and stone cairns and whatnot near the Keep, but she was blessed with unusually keen reflexes, hands strengthened by endless sword practice, and solid determination. If the damn thing could be climbed, she’d bloody well climb it.
As the last rays of the sun flared from behind Torr Baldwin and the early evening darkened all under the trees to deep shadow, Jessie couldn’t help thinking of the last sunset she’d seen, and of Fergus waiting at the end of it. The sudden rush of loneliness was almost more than she could bear. For a moment all she wanted to do was let it all out, all the loneliness, the pain, the grief and sorrow she’d had to hold onto with a brave face for the last month, the month since her parents had, since Lauchlin had, since everyone but her had…
A sudden sound of branches snapping to her left brought her out of herself and her tears, and made her realize how unnaturally still the oaken forest had become. Jessie froze, warned by the absence of normal forest sounds, and how still everything had become, and she left her tears unchecked as she strained to hear in the darkness for some sign of what was going on.
At first, all Jessie could hear was the sound of her own harsh breathing, but as she mastered herself, calmed down and unfocused her eyes, she distinctly heard the sound of metal tap against metal in a gentle chiming fashion. “Loose harness, poor sound discipline. What the hell is going on? There’s no way the bastards could be waiting for me… is there?” Moving carefully lest she stir a rustle of leaves or snap a branch underfoot, Jessie moved closer to the area the sound had come from, circling in on it carefully. Standing with her back pressed against a huge oak tree, she strained to listen, though try as she might she heard no noise at all. Despite the lengthy calm, she became steadily more confidant that someone was out there, standing as quietly as she, and listening just as carefully.
Jessie had just about decided to continue creeping around the tree to try the other side, when a subdued but gravelly voice spoke clearly only two paces in front of her, just on the other side of the very oak trunk she leaned against! What’s more, the voice spoke in the guttural tongue of the Orcs! Although the speaker had an unfamiliar accent, used very complex sentences, and stressed the barking words differently than she had learned, she still could clearly make out what was said.
“Tell me again how you knew she was coming this way, Speaker,” said the first voice she heard. The tone of voice, if an Orc could be granted a personality, spoke volumes about menace and quiet authority. The voice was answered by another quite close that spoke with equal authority, but considerably less bass. “I told you, Lord Raktar, the spirits found her and followed her for me. They tell me the bitch will pass through this very glen at any moment. As soon as our scouts signal she has entered the trap, the spirits will bring enough light into the area so that no one could hide from us. No one at all. We’ll have her, and we’ll finish the job your warriors botched.”
Holding her breath in surprise, Jessie strained to pick out which one of the bastards spoke of calling spirits. It sounded like the voice of the ‘Speaker’ had come from the left side of the tree more than the right. “The bastard can track me! That’s it, his gizzard is going to be my breakfast when the sun comes up in the morning!”
Drawing her broadsword from its sheath in a single smooth motion, Jessie settled her buckler into place on her left forearm and prepared to whirl around the tree. Time seemed to slow down around her, or perhaps her thoughts became faster as her awareness expanded, just as she had been taught. Never focus down, never narrow perception, see everything, feel everyone. She felt her muscles relax, limbering up as the pure rush of honest adrenaline poured through her… and as the rush caught her, she began to ride the flow around the trees. She heard quite distinctly from several paces to her left the cry of a marmoset, when there had been no sound of any wildlife since sunset… and remembered that Orcs used animal calls as signals.
Committed already, Jessie knew in her gut that to hesitate, to dither around trying to decide what to do, would doom her with an unknown number of foes around her. She pushed all other cares aside as she came around the trunk of the oak. In her mind, the Speaker was already dead, though he didn’t know it yet, and as her blade cleaved the air on it’s way towards his throat, he barked a harsh word that rose the hairs on Jessie’s spine, and the entire clearing became starkly visible as virulent decayed light erupted from everywhere and nowhere about them.
Revealed within the light, caught frozen to the eye as the pure fire of battle flowed through Jessie’s veins, she saw the expression on the face of the Orc called the Speaker that she was about to kill. His gray leathery skin looked pale in the unnatural light, and twin emerald fires seem to dance in his eyes. He looked not at her, but somewhere off in the space past her left shoulder, totally unaware of what was headed his way. He had still not even registered her presence as she felt his life jetting out upon her hands. Her thin blade thrust into his throat and up into the space of his skull, where the slightest flick of her wrist stirred the brains within into a fine pink froth. As the Speaker jerked and twitched in a standing death spasm, Jessie noted from the corner of her left eye the gray-skinned Orc standing a distance away in the bushes, staring at her with his fanged jaw dropped in shock. Sparing him no more concern than she would a moth, and continuing her intended attack, she withdrew her blade from the Speaker’s throat. She spun in a ground-hugging pirouette to come below and in front of the Speakers’ companion, seeking to bring her blade into a rising thrust that would take him through the heart. “If the head of the serpent is stilled, let the body thrash where it will, but without focus it can easily be evaded. And if I’m really lucky, I’ll get out of this with my hide in one piece.”
As she whirled completely around in a tight spin, fine pink matter flinging off the end of her blade from the force of her spin, the edges of her gray cloak flying wide, she happened to see another figure bathed in the light of the clearing, in the very center of the open area the two Orc leaders had been facing. The figure stood in a rapidly diminishing circle of clear space as the gray-skinned Orc scouts that surrounded her moved in, and with a jarring shock Jessie realized that it wasn’t herself the Orcs were after trapping, but the stunningly beautiful lady bathed in the fell light of the clearing. All in a flash Jessie saw the woman, and recorded as if on a mental list her perfect grace and stance, her flowing blond hair whipping wild and unrestrained, her fine clothing of perfect fit all in a light absorbing black, and her long sword with the slightly curved blade held loosely in her right hand. As Jessie completed her turn to attack, her mind added to the list, almost as a meaningless afterthought, the perfectly clear slanted gold eyes, and the sharply pointed ears that marked the woman as an elf.
Jessie felt overwhelmed by the force of the revelations that kept coming at her in such a lightning quick moment of time, but nevertheless she completed her turn, her mind spinning with the need to understand what she had stumbled into in this clearing, but determined not to shame Fergus’ teaching, and to carry on with her attack as planned. Even so, as she came face to chest with the massive form of the Orc she assumed to be the leader of this group, her timing remained flawless, and she reacted to the massive presence before her as if she fought giants every morning before brunch. Her first blow flowed like all of her movements, and rode in tune with the need of her heart, straight through her wrist, along the perfect angle of her blade and between the third and fourth rib on the left side of the Great Orcs’ chest. The blade punched right through the stiff leather covering as if it were silk, and as the Orc tried to come to grips with the sudden pain that had taken him completely by surprise, Jessie’s supple wrist snapped the blade out and back in twice more to finish the job, once through the right eye, and the last through the center of his throat. She ended her spin with her back against his chest as the blood roared out of his neck in a fountain that spurted clear over her shoulder.
The five remaining Orc scouts, originally focused on the elfin woman in their midst, stood looking towards the apparition that had appeared without warning in front of their leaders. They stood and stared in shocked horror at the thin figure cloaked all in gray that stood, holding a bloody blade in a casual position near its’ side. A vast shit-eating grin played across the figures’ shadowed face as a geyser of blood roared over her with the death rattle of their powerful Chief. The fearful apparition proceeded to calmly step through the torrent to reach out to them with that terrible, flickering blade…
Jessie watched in profound disappointment as the five Orcs fled into the darkness of the woods, howling like beasts gone mad. With a flick of her wrist, she scattered blood in a line across the clearing, before wiping her blade clean on the undershirt of the huge Orc that lay dead at her feet. She spared a thought to Fergus’ gift, knowing the fine wool cloth of the Cloak to now be sodden with the Orc blood she had stepped through in her eagerness to engage the scouts. As she pulled the dead Chiefs’ shirt out to clean her pommel properly, she spotted the gleam of a heavy gold plate a good two hands across lying upon his gray leathery chest. It was attached by crude gold bolts to a thin piece of cured hide and bound directly to the skin by several brass pegs that pierced deep into the Orc flesh, holding the leather permanently fixed over the center of the heart. From the look of the peg work, the medallion had been mounted only recently, for there was still rough scar tissue around the wounds. With a feeling of disquiet, Jessie realized that if she had been coming straight on instead of twisting in from below, her swords’ thrust would have been blocked and the blade probably broken by the two-inch thick metal of the plate. Sheathing her cleaned sword, Jessie drew her skinning knife and cut the large medallion free, as token proof of her work here tonight. Just for a whim, she used the edge of the knife to gouge the side of the medallion. To her surprise, it cut deeply into the soft metal, scribing an inch deep cut that showed solid gold all the way through. Jessie realized she held in her hands more gold than her parents had ever seen, and she had cut it off a dead Orc’s chest. The damn thing must weigh a good fifteen pounds if it’s an ounce!
Putting aside the sudden mystery of what an Orc was doing wearing solid gold stuck to his skin, Jessie turned towards the strange woman, knowing that if the lady needed help, that must come first. She was startled to see the previously steady lady kneeling in the clearing, head bowed in evident exhaustion. Jessie quickly moved to the woman’s’ side, in time to see the growing pattern of blood spreading under the woman’s’ lowered face. This close, she could clearly see under the fading spirit light the sharply pointed ears and fine features that proved this was no ordinary lady, but one of the legendary Elven race. With a harsh cough, the woman raised her fine porcelain features, and gazed into Jessie’s’ eyes with eyes of the purest metallic gold, and in that moment Jessie felt a quickening in her heart and a sudden ragged draw in her lungs as if she had just ran a league. The sheer physical presence of the Elven woman’s’ gaze was nearly overpowering. “Damn me, but she is gorgeous! Now I understand what all those old legends natter on about! Maybe granther didn’t make up every story!”
As the Elven lady visibly gathered her wits and her strength, she gasped out “Please!” Incongruously, instead of a gentle or sophisticated accent, she spoke in a fair rendering of Borderlander slang, with a gutter accent reminiscent of the harsh Orc tongue that made Jessie wince.
“I need to get away from here, before they come back! The bastards mean to catch me and gut me, and if I’m to see the next moon, I’ll need time to bind this closed and recover my strength. I don’t know who you are, young man, but please get me away from here! If I die now, the whole thing will unravel! Lord Garolithene must be warned…” and as the voice trailed off into a whisper, the golden eyes rolled back into her perfect head and the beautiful Elven lady passed out cold in Jessie’s’ arms.
Jessie wasted no time at all in her haste to find the Elves’ wound. Rolling the Elf onto her back, she rummaged around the waist of the strange black garments, seeking a seam to get a better look at the wound. In her hurry, it took her longer than it should to notice that there was no seam at all, and the fabric appeared to be all of one piece, from neck to toes and fingertips. Indeed, there was even a cowl woven into the neck of the garment, so that if the hood were worn up, only the face of the Elf would be exposed to the eyes of potential searchers.
The blood seemed to be seeping directly through the black cloth, pulsing in tune with the woman’s’ heartbeat, and welling up from just below the left collarbone, and yet Jessie could find no sign of a blade mark or puncture at all. Yanking down the throat of the garment to better expose the wound, Jessie was too tired to be any further surprised when the fabric stiffened in exactly the same way Fergus’ gift had when she had aired it out, and stopped her movement cold. Taking a cue from her own cloaks’ behavior, Jessie gently pulled down on the collar, and the slow movement was completely natural as she pulled the cloth down to expose the shoulder.
“Damn me! It’s not a puncture, it’s a cleave!” As the pressure of the strange garment was removed from the shoulder, the blood bubbled heavily from the deep gash that had clearly smashed the Elf’s collarbone and almost severed the entire arm from the shoulder like a cows’ shank. Her first instinct was to grab her own cloak and tear a strip from the bottom to begin binding the terrible wound, but as Jessie grabbed the hem of her cloak the thought crossed her mind that the fabric was bone dry, which seemed odd for some reason she couldn’t quite grasp at the moment. Whatever the cause of her momentary lapse, however, she remembered that the cloak was more to her than a garment, that it was all she had by which to remember Fergus. Looking wildly about the clearing for something to bind the wound, her tawny eyes lit upon the huddled bodies of the Orcs lying at the foot of the tree.
Scrabbling over on all fours in her haste to get to the nearest body, she grabbed the blood soaked wool robe the first slain Orc wore, and ripped it from his torso in a harsh twisting movement. The body flopped about obscenely as she stripped off two more layers of heavy wool, before coming to an undergarment that had not as yet encountered any blood. Cutting the wool in strips right off the body with the edge of her sword, the scrawny chest of the Orc was revealed to the fading light of the clearing. Every hands-length of exposed flesh showed terrible scars, raised ropy masses of tissue that shone black against the gray leathery skin. Her first thought was that this Orc was no stranger to fighting, despite his thin chest, until she looked closer at the scars and saw that they were in patterns, patterns whose significance was completely alien to Jessie. Her lips curling in disgust, she turned her back on the sight of self-mutilation behind her. “If that’s what it takes to get the spirits to notice you, it’s glad I am to be putting my faith in my own wits and guile.”
Taking moments more to root around the base of the tree, she gathered some dry moss and scurried back to the Elf, and stuffing the wound with the moss, she quickly bound it as best she could, using stout fallen branches to help tie the entire left side of the Elf to keep it from moving at all. The Elf’s face seemed to clear just the slightest as the wound was bound, but she showed no immediate signs of waking.
Jessie turned her thoughts to what to do next. Climbing a cliff face in the dark with a limp body slung over her shoulder was out of the question. But maybe, if one of the dead Orcs had some rope, she could climb up with a rope, and haul the Elf on up after. With a snort, she thought, “Yeah, and maybe I’ll just be riding a winged pig on up there and save myself the trouble!”
Checking her harness as she stood, the little voice that was pestering her that something was out of place finally shut up when she noticed that her cloak, which she had worn while stepping through a fountain of blood just minutes before, was totally dry. Grabbing a length of it and holding it up to better look in the dim light filtering down through the branches, Jessie could see that the gray cloth was completely free of any stain, with not even the slightest drop of black blood to mar the weave.
Shaking her head at the overall weirdness of the evening, Jessie made sure that the Elf’s wound was properly bound, and that she seemed to be resting and breathing steadily. Then she strode over to the two bodies, and systematically began stripping them of anything that might be of use on the trail, starting with the skinny chested scarred Orc called the Speaker. The only items the Orc had worn other than woolens was a series of leather straps criss-crossing the arms and waist, from which hung dozens of small pouches of lambs’ wool, each drawn tightly with thinly sliced leather thongs. Not feeling like taking the time to check each one, Jessie carefully untied each belts’ knot and pulled the entire mass from the Orc, piling the lot to one side. She doubted there would be anything she could identify in the pouches, but there must be a good twenty yards of strong leather straps in the pile, if they were spliced all together.
Turning her attention to what she had come to think of as the body of the big Chief, Jessie noticed for the first time what the huge dead Orc still gripped in his taloned right hand. “Oh, my…” she breathed aloud, startling herself with the words, as she looked upon the mighty weight of metal for the first time.
The item the Chief gripped was clearly an axe, in that it had an identifiable grip, handle, widely curved bit and opposing spike. However, this was no axe meant for cutting down trees, and Jessie had never seen anything fashioned of metal as flat out breathtaking as this piece. Jessie didn’t even notice that she had already put the axe into a mental box labeled ‘holy shit’ instead of a box labeled ‘tool’ or ‘weapon’. She pried the haft from the grip of the Orc, noting that the handle was long enough for her to wield the thing with both hands, and wrapped with alternating lengths of black and white leather strips. The wrapping seemed new, not yet worn smooth with sweat or blood. The whole damn thing was made of solid metal, possibly steel or some other treated alloy. Whatever it was, there was clearly a faint etching or tracery over every exposed metal surface, but Jessie could not make it out clearly in what dim light the overhanging branches provided. The thing seemed to shine with a strangely distorting glaze like a layer of honey over the steel. Jessie braced herself when she pulled the axe up into a ready position, and noted the weight was quite a bit more than even the great sword of her father, but perfectly balanced by the steel spike at the base of the handle.
Jessie stood staring at the axe in her hands for a long moment, unsure what to do next, but she knew she had little time to decide. From the direction that the five Orcs had fled, sounds of movement crashing through the underbrush told her clearly that she was about to have company, and a lot of it.
Looking about the clearing, Jessie saw that there was no way she could erase the signs of activity, but she could do her best to remove signs of her own presence, and get the elf and herself out of there before the Orcs arrived. Thankfully, the unnatural light had completely faded away after the death of the Speaker, so there wasn’t anything specific to draw the Orcs here right away. They had fled in a panic, and with any luck, they would have lost their bearings in the dark, and would take time to retrace their steps. She stooped over; grabbed one of the discarded layers of wool the Speaker had worn, and wrapped the head of the axe with it. Stepping over the Speakers’ body, she grabbed the mess of leather thongs and pouches, and finding one strap loose enough to drag out, she used it to tie the cloth over the axe head, and strap it over her shoulder. It would be a pain if she had to run, but it would at least leave her arms free. Scooping the rest of the stuff into her pack, along with the massive gold medallion still attached to the leather backing, she grabbed some branches to begin sweeping away her tracks.
Looking around, she started to feel lightheaded, as she saw no signs of her passing at all. Not even where she clearly remembered standing under a bloody shower as the big chief had died! Moving across the clearing to rejoin the unconscious elf, Jessie paid close attention to the track she must have left through the heavy ground clutter the first time, and again saw no sign of her heavy booted tread. However, halfway across the distance from the big Orc and the elf, Jessie did find something she hadn’t been looking for, or expecting. A large, damp sodden mass of leaves and mud, about three feet around, leaving the sharp scent of fresh blood on the air. No sign of where the puddle came from, but Jessie knew that she had found where all of the blood that had drenched her cloak must have gone to the first time she crossed.
Putting the worries of the cloak behind her for the moment, along with all her other concerns, she knelt down at the elf’s side, and picked up the fallen sword. She noted that it was very light and strangely curved towards the tip, but had no time to examine it further; her curiosity would have to wait. Seeing no sheath for the blade, she wrapped it up in a scrap of bloody cloth and tied it up. It would have to be slung with the axe or it would just get in the way. Slinging her awkward bundle of sharp pointy things over her right shoulder and strapping it onto her pack harness, she then knelt down, and carefully picked up the elf and rolled the woman over onto Jessies’ left shoulder, and then lifting with her legs, got her arm and leg firmly gripped so all the weight rested on the shoulder blade.
Taking one last look around the clearing, Jessie had to shake her head at the bodies and blood, and grinned a very wide carnivore smile. “This will leave the Grayskins something to talk about, and that’s for sure!”