Than, I present--well, quite frankly, a non-illustrated story. I doubt any of you have time to read this, as it is literally a book.
At any rate, i saw the clamor for "more stories", so i thought (being the decent person i try to pretend to occasionlly be), that i would post one of mine. I'm posting chapters one through three , which, if any have the interest, is quite enough. If any ask, i'll post more chapters on.
(It almsot one third the length of the entire bible, so i have lots of chapters to post)...
Cheers...and enjoy...feel free to criticize( and i do mean that--i'm not a terribly offendable person...
Of Dreams, Desire, and Destiny
Part One: History of Their Beginnings
All is as it was…
A cold wind whipped through the evening darkness. It wound through the trees, around the trunks, sweeping through their protruding roots. It blew the snow dust lying absent on the drifts, making them to fly in patterns such as the eye could not follow. It passed every obstacle, every tree, every rock, and at last broke out upon the lake. Though the shroud of night was wrapped about all, the waters shone with a brilliance unmatched by even the day, for upon its dark surface there was the light of a thousand stars, each unique in the beauty and light they gave. The lake almost shone within the darkness. How softly, yet how coldly it shone. Within its light there was still a darkness that betrayed its depth, its all-compassing coldness. Now the wind came upon it, plying its dance across the placid waters, whipping small waves about its surface. Even so, it was still beauty.
Yet in shades cast by the trees there was another shade, a shade as unmoving that which overshadowed it. The shade looked as if it belonged there, just as much as anything else. Clothed in robes the color of night, the only truly visible portion was her face—a pale, intent face. It was like the lake, soft, yet cold. Beautiful, yet deep, as if it had traveled to depths unseen and returned, with only the marks it had left as evidence of its journey. And indeed she had traveled far, oh, so far for so long.
She shuddered as the wind caught her in its embrace, flinging her robes about her in a frenzy. She shuddered, yet did not close her eyes, unwilling to let the scene ahead leave her mind. As if it the prodding of the elements, she moved from her place, and walked silently to the shore of the lake. She stopped as the waters closed over her feet and shuddered once again. She knelt and looked once again upon the lake. How long it had been since she had stooped here she knew—yet how long it was.
She stood and set her course with the wind. She stepped upon the surface of the waters and began to walk. Her cloak was wrapped tightly about her, and the hood was low over her face as she walked. Each step was she took slowly, and with a bowed head. Even so did she walk until reaching the center of the lake, and there she once again sank to her knees as in despair. Her face did not change its intent stare, yet a single, unmarked tear slid down her cheek.
Ever her stare stayed on the lake, and still another tear joined the first. She gazed at the lake still, as if in an anguish at its unseen depths. She reached her hand softly into the black water. The stars’ reflection rippled and disappeared. She shuddered still again and sighed, shaking her head. Her hand slipped to the black-bound hilt at her belt, as if to reassure her of its presence. But it wasn’t there anymore. Just as it hadn’t been the last time she’d been there.
Finally, she threw back her head and laughed to the wind, laughed to the stars, the sound of it echoing long over the lake. It was a laugh that was merry; no, perhaps it was not merry to her…perhaps she had found something ironic about it all. Her laugh ended in a smile, a rueful smile, and she shook her head at her reflection in the waters.
“So, it’s all still the same.” She laughed again. “As if I expected anything else.” Her laughing continued, catching the reflections eye again. “Well well, isn’t it good to be alive?”
She stood and tilted her head to one side. “I knew that at least you’d still be here. And I said I would be back, remember? I was right after all. You have not changed, and after all…this, neither have I. Yet, within it all, perhaps you were right in the end? Time will tell, and I have things to do. Though to what end, I cannot imagine.”
She smiled that rueful, bitter smile again as she turned her face to the shore. One perhaps could have thought her mad; maybe one could have been sure of it. For what sort of sane person would talk to a lake, much less walk upon it? Yet one look in her eyes, just one look into her spirit, and an entirely different story would have been seen. If anything, Natalia was perhaps—cold, but not mad.
She glided back across the waters, her eyes intently scanning the shoreline, watching for—something. Her face was for a moment lighted at the sound of footsteps, yet darkened again as a red deer flashed in the darkness and faded into silence.
“Well, what did you expect?” she whispered as her feet found solid ground. “Did you really think that he’d still be here? No, I didn’t, did I? It just all seems so familiar to me. That’s possible,” she breathed as she entered under the eaves of the trees. “I have, after all, not always come here alone. Perhaps it was but a memory of long ago. Yet,” her eyes looked to the heavens from beneath the forest, “I suppose I hoped that—that perhaps He would have brought it to pass for just one last time. Still, if it indeed cannot be, I might as well not lose any sleep over it.”
Of what did she speak? Perhaps one watching could have understood her partly, but likely not entirely. After all, one cannot know the story from the end. One would have to start at the beginning.
The lake still glistened by the night, and the same trees still stood vigil, yet now one would see not one, but two figures beneath their branches. The pair stood close together, watching the waters with a great interest. One was Natalia. Though her face was younger, that was the only noticeable difference; all else about her was the almost the same. The other was greatly different. He was, unlike her, built larger, taller. He was clothed in black robes like hers, but of a finer make. The sword that hung at his side was in like make to her own; that in itself was unusual being that he of a much greater build than she, but so it was. Also, unlike her, he wore no hood such as that which shadowed her features.
The two, strangely, looked to be a perfect match. One would not be able to place why, but there was something, something uncanny that made them match perfectly.
The man looked down at the mists that were beginning to curl about his cloak and wrapped the garment closer around him.
“Strange, isn’t it?”
Natalia did not break her gaze from the lake.
“What is strange?”
“The mist,” he replied. “It does not touch the water at all. Had you noticed?”
Natalia shook her head. “Ah, perhaps I saw it, but no, I did not notice.”
The man smiled in quiet laughter, bringing a smile also to Natalia’s face.
“You find it amusing?” she asked.
“Not so much amusing as that it’s simply so like you.”
“I’m always doing that, eh?”
“Aye, mostly all the time.”
“All the time… that would be a lot of time. I must miss quite a number of fascinating things.”
“Well, perhaps not as much as you think. As I’ve said, you can relax some of the time. You don’t have to be intense about everything.”
“You always have taught me to be focused. I’m simply following your advice.”
“There is a balance.”
“I know, I know. It just seems a waste to not give any one thing my full attention. If I’m going to take the effort to give it thought, I might as well give it more than the bare minimum.”
“It’s a good principle to apply, and you do so often. I suppose that’s why you’ve advanced so quickly.”
They sank into silence again as their gaze turned back to the waters. At last, Natalia spoke.
“Winter will be here soon.”
Drakon nodded silently, his eyes shifting their gaze to the stars. “The north wind will be here soon enough, and with it the winter. We have but a few weeks before us.”
“That’s not much time to complete the preparations. You know them, if they come, they come in the winter. We must make ready.”
“Yes,” Drakon said quietly, “I know them.” His eyes shifted again, but to the east. “If they come it will be from the east, Natalia, just as they always have.”
“I know it well, my friend. I wonder though, can we stand this time? We grow, but so do they. This time…”
“This time we will stop them just as we always have,” he firmly stated. “You know the art of war as well or better than I, you know how we can win again.”
“Perhaps I do know better. Perhaps I do not think we can make it this time. Ah, but silence—I speak nonsense and I know it. Of course we can win again. I just need to think.”
“Think tomorrow; get your rest now, while you can. Tomorrow is another day.”
“No!” She hissed, her breath coming through clenched teeth. “I told you, I cannot sleep!”
“You can sleep. You simply will not.”
“And you know why,” she retorted. “You none better…” Her words trailed off into silence.
Drakon placed a hand on her shoulder. “Please, if not for your sake than for mine—rest.”
She let the hand stay where it was, but spoke quietly. “I ask you, for my sake, to not question me on this. The others, they do not understand. They cannot understand. All they know—” she stopped for a moment—“all they know is that they heard my cries long ago, and never again.” She turned to face him. “Only you understand. I need your support, Drakon, not your counsel.” Harsh words, and proud, yet softly spoken. “So worry not for me. Leave if you will, but if not, stay, and rest. There is no need for the both of us to stay awake.”
“Very well.” He dropped his hands to his sides. “Just wake me before daylight. We still should be back early.”
With this, he kissed her forehead, and turned aside. As he sat down with his back to a tree, Natalia turned back to the lake. There was still a great portion of darkness before the light would come. She attempted to regain her focus on the lake. Whatever fear kept sleep from her mind could not haunt her here, not by these waters.
As fate would have it, Drakon awoke early without Natalia’s urging. He stood and looked around at the pre-dawn world. Laying his eyes on her, still standing, staring at the lake, he just shook his head. It pained him to see her go without sleep like that. Oh, he knew she would seem alive. She would smile, laugh, talk, and speak, yet for all the mirrors she put up, he could always see through them. Not because he really could, but just because he knew her.
Of course she slept normally most of the time, but never without his being near her. This was different; she most often went like this, standing all night long, after a night slept alone. When that happened, she would usually refrain as much as possible from even closing her eyes.
Now he walked over to her, and touched her arm lightly. She jerked around quickly, her eyes alight and her sword half drawn from its sheath. Upon seeing him, she relaxed and thrust it back into the casing.
“You startled me,” was all she said.
“Forgive me. Were you awake all night?” came the obvious question.
Natalia turned back to the lake and hung her head. “Yes. But worry not, I feel no weariness.”
“I know… you never do. But come, sleep or no, we must be back. There is much to do.”
Natalia nodded and straightened her clothing. “Of course, we must go. We’ve been here for too long.”
Drakon placed his arm around her shoulder and the two began to walk back up the woody hill from whence they had come. The darkness was still upon the earth, but it was not as dark as night. It was almost as twilight, a quiet time. They walked long in silence, neither wishing to be the first to speak. It was from their friendship that they could be so silent. It was their close bond that gave them the knowledge of when to speak and when to be silent.
Yet they were different, so different. Drakon was, as some called him, a gentleman. Soft spoken and well mannered, he received respect from all who knew or saw him. He always had the right thing to say, or rather, the correct thing to say. None truly knew him, or where he had come from specifically. All most knew was that he had been there a while, yet as his face betrayed, not too long. In truth, most could never put his age in any given place. For though his features could have been of one in the prime of their youth, his mannerisms and wisdom were of one far beyond the years of a young man. For all this, he preferred to keep the truth to himself. However, these same mannerisms carried over into many areas, including his martial skills. Elegance could describe his technique. Though his size belied that fact, he was, in nearly every area, graceful.
He had come to this place many years before, and had become, in a way, its protector. None knew why. They simply knew that he had come and had protected them. But none knew why. He was obviously a man skilled in warfare, but had given few hints to his past.
Natalia, she was an unknown to all. None knew her, but they remembered how she had come there. It had been recent, so recent that the memories were still sharp and fresh. Drakon had found her in the winter, and had taken her in with the intention of caring for her until she regained her health. Things didn’t go quite as he had thought, and it became obvious to him after one incident that she could not survive without him by her side. And so he had stayed, as a friend, and they were seldom parted for very long.
She had also surprised Drakon with her knowledge, for indeed, her years had not then exceeded fifteen such winters, yet she obviously knew much. Within a surprisingly short amount of time she recovered from her illness and began training under his guidance.
She knew much in the field of military tactics, and as to where she had learned—she hadn’t told Drakon completely. And even when Drakon had first begun to train her with the sword, it became apparent that she had already been schooled in this area; not to his expertise, but to a notable level. The years she had spent there only increased that skill.
Now they reached the top of the hill, and looked through the breaks in the trees at the fields below. Nestled beneath them was a neat array of housing and farmland spreading for a ways over a green valley. In between the tall houses lay cobble roads, all connecting to a square in the center. It looked to be peaceful, the perfect haven of rest. Drakon smiled. It was his task to keep it that way. Natalia looked far less impressed, but than again, a raise of her eyebrows was an extensive compliment.
“Is it not perfect?” Drakon asked, tilting his head towards her.
“It is quiet.”
“And that is what you like.”
She nodded her head and smiled faintly. “Yes, that is what I like.” Her eyes strayed to the woody hills beyond the town and stayed there.
“What is it?”
She turned to face him again. “It is nothing; I simply wish to be home.”
“As do I,” he affirmed.
Together they descended into the valley. Dawn had come, but the heavy clouds shrouded its gaze and prevented its warmth from reaching the two.
Drakon walked slowly, as though thinking deeply. The valley stirred memories, and he cast his thoughts to how long it had been since he had first arrived. He remembered every detail. He remembered how the first night of his stay the attack had come. It had been a gruesome affair. They had come from the east—raiders, that is—but curved to the north of the village. Than they swept down the hillside. It was in the fall, and all was still green in their path.
Had he not been there, the small soldiery of the place would have been swept away. But as fate had it, he had been in the right place at the right time. Quickly he had organized the men and set them in a qualified formation. The attackers were not prepared for a professional warrior such as him. They were cruel, barbarous, and had raided and fought simple people, maybe even soldiers on occasion—but never a professional warrior. It was only after they saw some sixty of their own fall before his sword that they realized their poor timing. It took another two hundred before they got the point.
To spite the defenders, they set the hill afire in their retreat, and the damage was such that only grass grew on the slope, no trees. And they always came back. Again and again. Villages to the west and south had all been overrun, so theirs was the sole focus of the raiders. They attacked every winter with such monotonous regularity that it had become a part of the valley’s general culture. Even so, they continued to hold the upper hand; at least, until Natalia came.
He remembered picking her from ground and bringing her back. He remembered their first sparing match, how she had surprised him. He remembered that though she looked fifteen, she seemed thirty. She seemed not simply mature, but rather aged—old beyond her time. He remembered questioning her on this and many things. She told him some, some she told him later, some she implied, and some he inferred. Whatever the case, she was, simply put, brilliant. Her tactics were superb. With a small, almost negligible force, she, in the last several years, had defeated three much larger forces. They made a good team: she the general, he the warrior.
She did not garner respect; she commanded it. She had a strange mix of charisma and brusqueness that he could never figure. Her speech was often direct and scathing, but she could inspire with her words. She could light a fire in the eyes of her listeners. She could bend their hearts towards her with her words. Yet he knew not how.
Things simply were. Things were simply as God willed them to be.
One day in a life…
Damn it! Nothing but rain, rain, bitter rain, and God-forsaken villages! Why Hargrada has sent me to this place I cannot fathom. There is nothing worth taking—nothing! The only inhabitants this far north are rule-less barbarians. We burned six of their miserable villages recently—that was a bright spot, but only a small one. They were no challenge. I don’t think I shall ever forgive him for sending me to this place.
The two walked into the town, and strode softly on the stone roads. It was still early, and though some were awake, most were sleep. They were a familiar site, Natalia and Drakon, as they often walked in the early morning. Any that saw them bowed slightly as they passed by—some of fear, most of respect.
The road winded about the village, and their path twisted ever before them in the fog. As the road continued to twist, drops fell from the sky, fell from sloping roofs that stood above them. Natalia drew up her hood, but Drakon left his head uncovered. The rain was cold, and the wind came harshly with it, bringing the breath of the north to their faces.
The rain fell harder, yet it drove away the morning mist, and their path became clear of clouds which had beset it; still they changed not their pace. They didn’t mind the elements greatly, for they were simply a part of life, just as much as the sun that lit their days or the stars that illuminated the night. Even so, it was a relief to reach the inn.
Though the village had long been bereft of visitors, the inn was still kept open as a sort of gathering place for the common folk. Aside from that, it gave permanent residence and sustenance to both Natalia and Drakon. The proprietor had offered two rooms, but after the earlier mentioned event, Drakon thought it wiser to share a single chamber.
The said proprietor called a greeting as they passed up the stairs, but it went unanswered save for an abstract wave from Natalia. As soon as they reached the door to the room, she flung it open, walked in, kicked her boots off, and collapsed on a chair sitting in the corner. Drakon entered with a slight deal more gracefully, and only walked quickly to the window. The room itself was rather Spartan—a bed, two chairs, a desk, fireplace, and window being the only items of notice. He opened the shutters to a biting wind, so quickly slammed them shut.
“Not such a fine day, is it?” Natalia commented from her seat.
“Not really, no.”
“Ah, just think, soon it’ll be a blizzard, not rain. Won’t that be the day. It’s been far too long since winter graced us.”
Drakon shook his head. “I’m fine without the cold. I prefer…”
“Warmth,” she finished. “And I don’t. It’s fair enough that you get your half year, than I get mine, eh?”
“Yes, I would say that’s fair enough.”
A brief exchange, just as many of theirs were. Knowing the other as well as they did, they rarely needed a long conversation to convey their feelings. Yet on some occasions they did have long talks; mostly on days like this. A snow they could use, but a rainstorm such as often beset these regions was no time to be out.
After a few minutes of fruitless attempts, Drakon managed to light a fire in the hearth, and the glow of it cheered the drab room. He turned to the desk where Natalia was setting up a chess board.
“What?” she queried, raising one eyebrow. “Not as though there’s much else to occupy ourselves with; at least, not until the worst of the storm blows over.”
“True.” Drakon rubbed his hands together rapidly to warm them, and sat upon the unoccupied chair. Natalia had already chosen white, so he set the black pieces on the designated squares. She was fond of playing the whites for the first move advantage they offered. She always preferred to attack rather than defend. Within a few moments the game began.
It didn’t take long for Natalia to begin her offensive, giving Drakon no other option than to elaborate in a defensive position. Thus having his forces restricted, Natalia found the space and time needed to bring forward supporting castles and pawns. While her pieces attacked the right of his army, Drakon shifted his king to his left, bringing forward a castle next. Her one advance momentarily checked, Natalia began an advance down from her right. Finding him unwilling to engage her vanguard, she pushed forward with three pawns another square before halting, than sacrificed a bishop and rook from the right to back the spearhead.
At last forced into action, Drakon initiated the bloodbath and exchanged for three pawns; two of her own, one of his. Not daunted, Natalia brought a bishop through the strait opened by the battle, positioning it behind her remaining offensive pawn. While he moved to counter this threat, she attacked on his right again. Forcing two of his pawns for one of hers, she brought a castle through the channel, backing it with a queen and pawn.
Drakon chose to forgo capturing her castle in favor of securing his left by positioning another bishop in range of hers. And on it went, move for move, until the scales finally weighed heavily in Natalia’s favor. Capitalizing off of an oversight, she moved a piece ahead and stayed there. With that advantage, she attacked and took his center, splitting his forces in two. This accomplished, it was only a matter of time before she tipped over his king.
Drakon sat back with a heavy sigh, analyzing his loss.
“You gave me the advantage too early,” Natalia offered, resetting the pieces as she went. “If you cannot go on the offensive, you simply cannot win.”
“Perhaps. No, of course you’re right. You usually are.”
“A safe assumption to make.”
Drakon picked up his king and twirled it randomly in his fingers. “Still, overconfidence is counterproductive.”
“Overconfidence being the word. It does one well to know their parameters. Have you ever found me to overestimate myself?”
“Well, there was the time you were convinced you could out-spar me,” he replied, a small smile on his lips.
She looked thoughtful for a moment. “You could say I was convinced that in time I could out-spar you.” He simply kept smiling until she laughed and threw up her hands. “Alright, fine, I did think I could out-spar you. I suppose I did overestimate myself slightly—slightly—in that case.”
Drakon set the king down on the board. “I’m sure that took you enough effort to say.”
Natalia said nothing.
“But I still maintain that the way I can defeat you in combat is why I cannot overcome you in our matches.”
She raised an eyebrow, and he continued.
“I fight in a different manner than you strategize, and it unfortunately bleeds into my own tactics. The same applies oppositely as to why you still cannot defeat me in hand to hand combat.”
“How so?” she asked, looking less than halfway interested.
“I’ve instructed you on it many times, have I not?”
“You have, once or twice. You also have told me that you found little wrong with my style.”
“Nothing specifically wrong, just faulty against me. The same offensive tendencies that serve you so well in strategy or against a lesser opponent are the specific thing I specialize in combating. Namely, the way you attack me is the way I get my advantage.” He flicked the king piece lightly, causing it to tip over.
“You too attack.”
“Yet only when the situation suits me, not over the whole. But again, there is nothing wrong with your style, it is simply non-effective versus certain opponents, just as mine is non-effective versus a master of the same fashion.”
“So there is no way I can defeat you?”
“I didn’t say that,” he replied, bringing the king back to stand aright, “and you will find the needed methods soon. There is a way around everything, and as long as you look for it long enough, you will find it. That’s the primary principle that guides your strategy and combat, is it not?”
She nodded. “Finding the weakness that is always there.”
“Aye, and I have the advantage of having fought many with a style not unlike yours, whereas you have only fought my methods in me.”
“But such is life, and it goes on.” She walked to the window and opened the shutter. “The rain has lessened, and the wind is passing.”
“Than we can be about our duties.”
Their duties—the reason they had free stay at the village, and the reason men bowed in deference as they passed by. As peaceful as the village seemed, it had a besetting plague, namely, the aforementioned raids. The reasons why were long shrouded in legend or myth, but as far as the old could remember, the raiders were a remnant of a once greater army that once roamed the land. It had been engaged by a superior force and scattered, but some large remnants stayed together.
There were rumors that a city had been established by the said remnants, and that from the city they raided far and wide over the surrounding area. Whatever the case, many details were missing from the tale, for it had passed long ago. More immediate on most people’s minds were the raids enacted on their valley. Drakon had arrived in the village the very day of one such attack, and his quick action had saved most all from a sanguinary fate (as by this time, the raiders cared little for the village as a possession, but only for an object of revenge which they came around to once a year).
All unanimously voted to give him a free stay in the place in exchange for protection; to their great fortune, he accepted the offer. The raids had not stopped with his presence, but with him they were not so overwhelming in most people’s minds. Natalia’s arrival was also a stroke of luck, and her tactical expertise soon became invaluable.
In essence, they were the people’s guardians, respected icons. So it was that as they stepped out from the inns threshold, those passing made a slight inclination to their robed figures. As earlier said, some bowed of respect, some of fear. The respect and fear was not so much separate emotions as mixed, for the two evoked mixed reactions.
While Drakon was easier to simply respect, the people found it harder to give the same to Natalia without a twinge of nervousness. Not that one should blame them. For though a slight figure, she was intimidating in her own way. The tendency for her hand to almost always rest near her sword escaped few, and her strikingly pale face gazing at them intently from beneath a tattered black robe and hood enhanced the picture. Not only, but she had a reputation of being terrible in anger. Of course, once she began to speak their fear disappeared, for she could be as amiable (or cutting) as she wished to be.
Today, however, the mood was mostly respect.
The roads were quite busy by this hour, and the village veritably sang with life. A hammer on red metal, men calling their wares, women hanging their washing on lines, children screaming in their play, a horseman trying to weave down the road, all these and many more contributed to the sights, smells, and action of the morning.
Now, on this morning, their duties consisted not of saving the village from hostile attackers, but in training to do so. The barracks was their destination of choice for this task, and they found it shortly. The said structure was a reasonably impressive sight, its height reaching above most other buildings that stood about. In front of the front gate was a broad, unpaved courtyard, and into this muddy mess the two strode.
There were already seven men present, one being the captain of the guard. All told, almost two hundred trained guards were within the village, and enhancing their martial skills was Drakon and Natalia’s task.
“Commanders!” The captain snapped to attention.
“Captain,” Drakon returned. Natalia inclined her head slightly in greeting. “I see the others are not yet here.”
“They’ll arrive presently, sir.”
“Very well,” Natalia affirmed, pulling a gauntlet onto her right hand. “Let us begin.”
The training went in segments of hours and men. First ten for a time, than another ten, and two more. Being that the four absent men had just arrived, Natalia took charge of them first, and Drakon to the captain. Their methods of training differed, so they would switch halfway through, letting the men have an even balance of both methods.
Natalia set eight men to spar in pairs, and took one to spar with her. The remaining man was to watch Natalia and the other guards match. Both Natalia and her opponent were using wooden weapons, so she felt it her prerogative to not give him much leeway. They exchanged a series of six blows before she struck him with three rapid slashes.
After several minutes of this, the watcher took his place, and the same ensued. Soon she took another pair, and on it went. Drakon on the other hand was having an extended match with the captain. He was a worthy soldier, practically the only real man with any officer training— a leftover from the last Nassian patrol to make it out this far. He had used to make the calls before Drakon’s arrival, and he was still partly bitter over the loss. But true to his training, he made no fuss about it, keeping his personal issues out of the public eye.
Though he was by no means a poor swordsman, Drakon found only small difficulty in continuing to strike him time after time. The captain would parry a few blows, but one would always slip through no matter how hard he tried. Fortunately, Drakon did more teaching than actual sparing; to him, the fighting was only to prove what one had learned, not the learning in itself.
And so went the day, and one group after another come for their turn. At last, the last bruised group of soldiers half limped out of the barracks ground. It was late afternoon, and the all activity was winding down. The wind which had been long absent once again reasserted itself in full force, and with it came the rain. In spite of the increasingly hostile elements, neither Natalia nor Drakon left the courtyard. Both were long soaked through from the steady drizzle, and their garments were soiled from the mud that lay beneath their feet.
Drakon strode over to a pole standing nearby and drew his sword from the sheath that lay against it. Natalia began to walk towards him, a naked blade already in her hand. Drakon turned and relaxed into a defensive stance, his own weapon held in front of him, the tip aiming slightly towards the ground.
He called out to her over the tempest.
She smiled and drew her sword up by her neck, the blade facing Drakon, than halted directly in front of him. For a moment they stood in the pouring rain, the one facing the other.
Suddenly, Natalia lunged, making a rapid stab at his figure. As Drakon deflected the blow she continued to move forward, slashing at his left. Drakon exchanged her quick blows with his own, waiting for his opening. Finding it, he ducked one sweeping blow and thrust forward. Natalia pivoted in the soil, avoiding his first attack while simultaneously bringing her sword back for another try. Drakon stepped back and waited for her next assault, his position the same as when he had started.
Natalia moved again, beginning with a slash for his left shoulder. This he blocked, and shoving her arm back, followed with an overhead attack. Natalia parried the heavy cut, turning its direction to the floor and lashed out with her foot, catching him in the chest. He fell full in the mud, his sword still grasped in his hand. Natalia stabbed downward at his prostrate figure, yet again he deflected her attempt. Shifting to his knees, he lashed out at her legs. She leapt over the blow. She brought her sword around her back and swept it underhand at Drakon as he rose, upsetting his balance.
Rather than fall again, he stepped back a few paces to regain his balance. Natalia chose this opportunity and leapt forward with her sword grasped in both hands. Drakon braced one foot behind him and met her charge head on. He turned aside her blade with his own and rotated, allowing her to stumble past. With no sure footing in the mire, she fell to her knees.
Turning and standing, she found Drakon in the same place and pose as when they had begun. She stopped for a moment, as if considering her options than sprang again, but viciously hurled her sword in front of her. Drakon skillfully deflected the missile and Natalia snatched it from the air, still running. She sliced at his left twice, than leaned far back to avoid his return stab. Undaunted, she slashed again and pressed forward, locking their blades.
Drakon pushed down with his superior strength, slowly bringing her to her knees. Than, he twisted and kicked at her hand, ripping the weapon from her grasp and flinging her to the ground. Before she could rise he brought his sword to her neck.
Natalia just looked at him for a moment. She reached up and flicked the blade with her ungloved fingers, than pushed it to the side, taking the hand he offered her. Reaching her feet, she flipped her sword from the ground with her foot, catching it as it flew.
“Enough for one day?” Drakon was leaning on his sword, looking both content and exhausted.
Natalia nodded. “Aye, it is enough.”
And they both stood for a time, regaining their breath. At last, Natalia ceased to lean upon her sword, and wiped it with a cloth before returning it to the sheath.
“Come, let us go.”
When they reached the inn, they entered quite a different atmosphere than when they had first left it. The haze of pipe smoke filled the room, carrying with it came the scent of a roaring wood fire. Tables had been set all throughout the room, and each chair about them was filled with smoking, eating, or drinking men. Indeed, it was the place to relax after a hard day’s labor, and all enjoyed it to the full.
Drakon was instantly uneasy in these surroundings. Environments such as this were simply against his grain. He quickly excused himself and left to his room, leaving Natalia to fend for herself. Unlike him, this was her element. She had the natural ability to adapt to most any surrounding, and this was no more a challenge than anything else. Within a few moments she had removed her cloak and hung it by the fire, then mixed with the merry crowd. After sending a meal for Drakon, she ordered her own and settled to enjoy the moment.
It was a good few hours of drinks and carefree conversation before she left the room, a chorus of farewells following in her path.
She entered the room quietly, guessing Drakon might be already at rest. A correct assumption, for she found him in one of the chairs, his feet kicked up upon the rough desk.
It is kind, she mused, that he should always leave the bed for me.
She sighed silently and took out the ribbon she had plaited in her hair. Than kicking her boots off, she lay back on the bed for the first sleep in over two days.
It was late in the night when she awoke. Her eyes adjusted slowly to the soft light, and as they did, she saw Drakon sitting in a chair close to her bed. His head was hung low, for he was in a deep sleep, but in his two hands he held one of her own.
She closed her eyes and smiled strangely. She was asleep again in minutes.
He who fights and runs away, lives to run another day…
We have heard word of a village to the north, a prosperous, well-defended valley. I hardly think it worth my while, but it’s better news than anything I’ve heard in a miserable month. Besides, the captured barbarians have promised to step lead the attack so long as we follow—if they want to kill themselves first, that’s fine with me. Nothing worth keeping from their land, anyways. Nothing but scattered villages full of savages and one or two poorly designed cities. No matter, we march to the valley.
The days passed over at an even pace, just as they always did. A week, two weeks, and than the first snow. It came within the night and kept falling for three days. Finally, once exhausted of their load, the clouds lifted higher in the sky, forming a bastion of dark grey as far as the horizon reached. All was quiet.
Drakon awoke slowly, and sat up in the bed. The fire had long gone out, and but charred pieces of wood remained. He quickly pulled on his cloak and boots, eager to be fully dressed in this freezing weather. He blew upon his hands and on pulled heavy leather gauntlets. His path took him to the door, and he buckled his sword belt about him as walked. Casting one last look at the empty room, he shut the door and took the stairs to the ground floor of the inn.
Declining a breakfast, he strode out into the chilled world. Everything glistened, everything shone. Spears of ice hung from the eaves of every house, and every window was fast shut. His breath was visible as he paced back and forth upon the town center, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. His duty remained here, but he was deeply concerned.
Natalia had left inn before the last night. When he asked where she was going, she only gave him her typical answer. He shook his head. It only happened after a poor night, but they had been coming more and more frequently. There was nothing he could do save hold her hand as she tossed, nothing but try to give comfort to her tormented mind. He would never wake her—not unless she screamed. He had to let things run their course and hope for the best.
A light snow began to fall. He brushed the flakes off his cloak and continued to pace.
Even as snow fell upon the valley, so did a heavier fall come upon a single line of footprints that led far into the wilderness. The footprints would soon be covered, but it mattered not to Natalia; she knew the way. She walked slowly, as if uneager to take the road she did. The strong wind had blown the snow from her path, and it lay piled in great mounds underneath the trees. Yet she walked beneath the sky, defying the snow that fell.
Let it fall, she said in her heart. I care not. And in truth she did not care. She cared about very little at the moment.
The wind picked up its fury, and the already thick fall was blown about in a fury, yet she seemed not to notice. Perhaps she drew the cloak a little tighter about her, or perhaps she pulled the hood lower over her face; nothing else. In spite of any moves she might have made to warm herself, one hand ever remained near the hilt of her sword. She had learned, even before coming to the valley, the value, the necessity of being ever ready. That is why she would turn with drawn sword upon a sudden, if even familiar voice. She didn’t allow herself the chance.
The breath of the heavens ever increased its speed, and ever more violent were its gusts. Yet she smiled. The hand that stayed near the hilt now grasped it, and drew it from its casing. She couldn’t afford the blade sticking in case of need.
She absently twirled the silvery blade as she walked. In spite of the heavy gauntlets and cold she could still move nimbly. Her eyes now strayed to the right and to the left, as though looking for something.
Where is it?
She cracked a small smile, the same as she had smiled upon awaking within the night weeks ago.
These paths they do not tread for that very reason. Perhaps they have forgotten?
Still she walked forward with the wind. She had come this far for a purpose, and could not simply turn back.
The fools. What do they think is beyond their valley? They forget from whence they came. Save the captain, Drakon is the only one among them has ever been beyond this cursed divide.
Suddenly she stopped. Her strange smile changed into a look of resignation.
“At last,” she whispered to the wind. There before her rose a small, thatched shelter. It was perfectly round, and curved to a dome at the top. No snow rested on upon it, no, not even if the heavens let forth all they could muster would the dome be overshadowed.
She strode up to the side, and began to run her hands along it. In but a moment she found what she needed, and a door opened for her. She stepped in and closed the door, then leaned upon it. Her eyes danced merrily about, lighting as they rested on the pool of steaming water that rested within the exact center of the structure. Resting both her hands on the thatched wall, she pushed herself softly forward. She walked to the pool and knelt beside its waters.
“Than all is how it was.”
Natalia sighed heavily and stood. It had been a long time since she had been here. Almost four years. She looked up at the ceiling.
She kicked the ground and began to pace. At last she stopped, noticing she still grasped the sword in her hand.
“Good God,” she muttered and tossed it to the side. She removed her cloak and threw it with the sword, followed by her robe and any other articles of clothing. She stepped into the pool and walked until the water reached her neck.
Natalia closed her eyes, reveling in the memories that came with this secluded place.
Drakon had long ago retreated to the inn—food and fire’s call was hard to ignore, especially on days like this. Frothing ale and a hot meal played its effect happily on him, and before long he found himself sitting before the fire, his feet kicked up on a stool. Slowly his eyes closed…
A sudden scream ripped through the homely air. Drakon awoke in a confusion, the silence of sleep suddenly torn by the terrible sound. Than came another noise, this of a many-throated shout.
“Good God!” he gasped, and dashed for the door.
The proprietor called as Drakon ran, saying, “M’lord! What—”
“Get upstairs!” Drakon roared, and than was gone from the door. More screams now filled the air, and mingled with them the hoarse, mocking shouts of many men. One such crossed Drakon’s path as he ran, swinging a torch and spear wildly—screaming all the while, naturally. Drakon sliced first the spear, than the torch in two, finishing with their bearer. His eyes swept furiously to the left where the majority of the noise seemed to be, and found scores of men charging through the narrow alleys and into the square. Fires were already springing up from some many houses in their path, and screams echoing dully from within told of much more.
Drakon broke into a light run, meeting them head on. He vaguely saw from the back of his vision other figures dashing to battle with him, but paid them no heed. He reached the first within seconds, and slipping a stab in under the man’s guard, threw his sword at the next. He withdrew the weapon as the man fell to the ground, still running. As the next approached he feinted right, than sidestepped left, striking again and laying another to the snow.
Now he was dashing full across the square, desperate to employ his arms at the burning, screaming cottages. Another leapt from the side, sword raised. Drakon ducked and turned in the snow, lashing out and striking the attacker a swift blow as he passed. More shouts came from the alleys directly ahead, and yet more shapes appeared.
He speedily halted as a huge man brandishing an axe broke from the alley and lunged for him. Drakon parried the heavy blow, turning its momentum to the ground and pinning the axe with his foot. The raider responded with an incredible hit form his fist, sending Drakon sprawling backwards into the snow. Dazedly, he scuttled backwards as the raider swung again. A miss, but too close for comfort. Than, just as the man raised his axe again, a second figure appeared and hacked the man to the floor.
“Commander!” the figure cried, offering Drakon a hand. “What in all hell is—” and he cut himself off to parry a blow from an approaching raider.
Drakon scrambled to his feet and cast his eyes about the square. Scores of raiders were streaming in, but now were being met with the rallying soldiery of the village. Thirteen buildings were ablaze, and figures came streaming from them, laughing coarsely and carrying torches. Horror passed briefly over Drakon’s face as he realized the screams from within the buildings were now silenced.
He drew back his sword and hurled it fiercely at one torch-bearer, pinning him to a doorway. Picking an axe from the earth, he did the same to another dashing from the same door. More shouts rang our from behind, and he turned to see dozens more entering the town center from the north-east. They ran, screaming, shouting, roaring, into the backs of the village guardsmen. With that sight swelling his blood, he moved forward and dashed towards the nearest ragged line of raiders, snow flying in his path. Nearing it, he leapt over the first spears to land upon their owners. As they fell under his weight he slashed about with his weapon, felling some and causing some to draw back. Landing on his feet, he caught a spear from a falling soldier and with it swept aside three like weapons being thrust towards him.
More and more came streaming to him, scattering and gathering and circling about him. So began a battle within the frozen square. The guardsmen could not aid him, so entangled were they in their own battles. He fought surrounded, yet unwavering. The wind blew upon the heavens, and snow fell heavy about him as he held to his weapon in an iron grip. With that deathly cold brand he whipped the air about him into a resonating fury, and all that came upon him were met by its sting.
And so he battled, with all the ferocity of the cornered warrior he was. Again and again his blade found its mark within his foes, and too many times did an ill fated man fall to the snow. Yet he could not stand alone, for even as they fell, so did his own blood fall to stain the glistening white floor.
Three scores lay shattered before his sword, and another three hedged him in on all sides, rushing madly at him in sporadic groups. The deadly spears came from every side, pressing the bedraggled warrior hard. His faith began to fall within him, for he had seen through the press for a moment, and saw that the guards were pushed near. Fires were springing up from houses all about—the air was filled with the dreadful ringing of alarm bells, the shouts of men, and the screams of women.
But it was now, even as his hope failed, that a fierce cry of challenge was raised from beyond the circle in which Drakon was hedged. A spear flew hard into the back of one soldier, followed shortly by three more. Others turned, but were met with the same fate as their fellows. Natalia strode brazenly across the crimson snow, flicking weapons from the snow at every step. As they flew upward she caught and launched them at Drakon’s attackers. Her countenance burned with as deadly a cold as did his blade.
The soldiers were thrown into confusion, and in their uncertainty Drakon seized his opportunity. He leapt at the wavering line and slashed heavily at the bewildered men. Caught between the two warriors, the line broke and fled, some into the hedges of spears intended for their foes.
Natalia ran to Drakon’s side, and together they turned to the raiders that still stood. A score routed before the two even reached it, and the another held for only a moment before following suit. Drakon, still in a fury of the battle, reached to the ground for a spear, the adrenaline barely allowing him to feel the pain his wounds were causing him.
More raiders dashed into the square. Some halted in shock at the red snow ahead of them, and others gazed upon the bodies of several scores lying about the ground. Their hesitation lasted not for long, and they advanced again, albeit shaken.
Drakon darted forward with both the spear and sword in his hands. Reaching the first cluster, he thrust his spear under their own and forced four weapons into the air. This achieved, he pushed hard, sending the men flying back into their fellows. Natalia slid into the gap cut about with her own blade, forcing the break throughout the company, splitting it in two. Drakon dashed on through the press and to the second approaching group. The men, caught in the confusion of fear, cried aloud and charged him.
Almost twelve of those barbarians fell gasping to the ground within seconds as he lithely danced among their ranks, and ten more fell by his short, slender blade almost before they realized what had happened. The remaining companies of raiders halted as the routing survivors of the others raced past them. After but a moment of indecision, they too broke and ran.
The two warriors rested a little space, gazing about them. It was than that they noticed that the square was suddenly quiet. Almost eighty guards also stood still, looking about at their fallen foes. Even the bells had ceased tolling, and the screams had silenced.
Yet from this silence a faint sound was heard slowly rising from the woods. As it neared, it could be distinguished as many voices singing—voices singing within the noise of ordered marching. And as the wearied warriors leaned on their swords, gasping for their breath, a great line broke from the forest and onto the open hillside.
It was four men deep, each well-armored and in perfect rank and file. A banner flew over them—a red helm on a black field. Behind them another line came marching, singing all the while.
Drakon looked to Natalia, but no words came. She was still breathing heavily, but when she found her breath, she turned to Drakon.
“Run!” She grasped his shoulder and began to pull him back towards an alleyway. “Run, just bloody run!”
“What do you mean!?” he screamed, jerking from her grip. “I cannot—”
“Look at them!” she whispered fiercely. “Just look at them!”
He did, and hope died within him. What looked like two thousand soldiers were marching down the hillside, horsemen trotting along the flanks.
“You can’t fight that!” she said, quietly. “None of us can.”
He grabbed her arm. “What of the people?”
“What of them?”
“It’s our duty to protect them.”
“Don’t you see it!?” she fairly shouted, careless for the bewildered eyes of the four score guards standing near. The fury of battle was still upon her, and her words came careless. “We can’t do anything! I don’t plan on dying now; maybe soon, but not now! So lets go!”
“How can you just leave like this!?”
“How?! It doesn’t take nine years of military training to know that eighty novice guardsmen and two wounded officers cannot stand versus—THAT!” and she gestured furiously to the approaching lines.
“Don’t give me that!”
“Than don’t ask me! All I know is that if we’ll die with the rest of them if we stay here!”
“I—I can’t just leave them!”
“Listen! They probably aren’t even going to harm them, but they sure as hell will if they have burn the whole place down house by house because we’re fighting every damn step of the way!”
The two turned to the captain.
“Sir,” he repeated, speaking to Drakon, “what are your orders?”
Drakon did not answer, so Natalia spoke for him, saying:
“Lay down your weapons.”
“You’ll do as she said,” Drakon said in a hoarse, despairing voice.
“And what of you?” the man retorted. “Are you going to just leave us?”
“What do you want us to do, man?” Natalia said. “We—” and her voice was overrun by a shout from the guardsmen—the first line had entered the square.
“Do what you wish,” Natalia said softly, “but do not meddle in my affairs. Come along, Drakon.”
She turned and disappeared into an alleyway. Drakon looked desperately after her, than to the thousand-strong company of soldiers quickly closing ground towards them. Finally, with one last glance to the army, he dashed after Natalia.
They left the village and raced through the trees with a speed borne of desperation. For almost an hour they ran, not once looking back or speaking. Sorrow and anger pushed them and sustained them beyond their initial weariness, but even that was soon exhausted. Presently Drakon pitched forward into the snow. Natalia turned back to him and dragged him to a tree.
“Very well,” she breathed, “take a moment.” He weakly smiled his thanks.
“Natalia,” he said, suddenly noticing a poorly-bandaged wound in her side, “you didn’t receive that back…back there?”
“I was hunting…” she answered, smiling grimly.
“All at once?”
“Why do you think I’m bloody wounded?” she gasped.
Drakon deigned not to answer and pulled himself to his feet. Natalia nodded approvingly. “Aye, let’s go. We head west.”
With one last pained look in the direction of the village, Drakon nodded and began to run again.
“Make for the divide,” he said as they ran. “If they wish to follow us, they can’t follow us there!”
“Like hell they can’t!”
“We’ll go to the second pool.”
“That’s bloody suicide,” she muttered under her breath, but didn’t dispute his decision. “Just don’t die on me, eh?”
Funny things DO happen--just never when you need them...