A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
Chapter One: The Last Warrior
Water splashed over his boots as he sprinted along the creek. The narrow body of water ran through the town at a snail’s pace there, but a tall embankment gave the man little room to adjust his stance. It was better than trying to escape out in the open, he reminded himself, even if they were new boots.
Frederic could hear the shouting up above. Mercenaries had come to Ellingsor—one of the largest and best equipped bunch he had ever seen. As he scampered along the levee, he considered that they could likely give Blacklehn’s very army a real fight. But Frederic knew that it would never come to that, for the military structure had empowered the mercenaries so in the first place. He was certain that if he’d gone back to look at who had served alongside the ranks of the army, he would find more than a few who had joined up with the Ebon Hammer.
Blacklehn wasn’t known for its tolerance—not anymore, and not for quite some time. Frederic still remembered the fury with which the minotaurs of the country had been driven away, some with sharp warnings, others with sharper blades. Those who had thought to cling onto the life they had known were driven back, and though Frederic had not seen it firsthand, he’d heard of the storming of Dragontooth Coast as though it was some heroic thing, and not the massacre that it truly should have been revealed to be.
He pictured the minotaurs forced into the dangerous waters, unable to stand against the might of Blacklehn’s human army. There was no reprieve on either side, certainly, for the spears of sharpened stone that jutted out from the waters of the eastern sea like the fangs of some mighty beast were just as deadly as the steel ones that were wielded upon the shore.
Frederic shook his head, wrenching his concentration back to the present. There would be time to muse about where everything went wrong later, or so he hoped. A child’s scream up above pierced his very soul, and he stopped in his tracks, clenching his jaw.
He could have gone back at any time. He could have unsheathed his sword and made a stand, protecting those who had offered him shelter, however unwittingly.
But, racing through the creek, he was forced to consider whether he was truly being pragmatic, or if he was just a coward.
No, he had to remind himself. He still had a duty to hold himself accountable for—a principle that would be undermined had he thrown himself to the wolves. There was no hope of victory in Ellingsor, for Frederic might have been the only competent warrior left standing. And as much as he trusted his prowess in a melee, he knew that the Ebon Hammer outnumbered him greatly, and that they had much better gear to boot. Though he’d carried his sword for some time, and he had used it to cut himself out of trouble more than once, it would not hold up against some of the relics that the mercenaries carried with them.
Frederic blew out an anxious sigh as he raced further along the creek. His blade had no name, and some of the members of the Ebon Hammer were geared head to toe in magical gear—a touch of hypocrisy, the warrior thought, considering who they were rounding up and assaulting as they moved from town to town.
Ellingsor’s second creek flowed into the first then, and when the two converged, it was hard to ignore the water’s increased pace. Frederic slipped from the embankment, leaving his new boots far damper than he would have liked. His focus, though, was on the bridge that crossed along the south end of the town. An arched viaduct comprised of stone, it cast enough shadows that he believed he could take refuge there. After all, it wouldn’t do to charge past the levee, into the open air beyond the town. One of the mercenaries was bound to have a horse, and even if they didn’t, someone younger and more resilient—perhaps with one of those artifacts—would easily be able to hunt him down.
The bridge was his target, he reminded himself. Once he was there, his escape would be complete.
It had to be.
As he made his way, he adjusted how he ran, bouncing from one side of the embankment to the other and back again. With the water rising higher, it wouldn’t do to step into the water again. The wintry bite would soak through then, he was certain, but it would also announce his presence with a splash.
Relief finally reached Frederic when he arrived beside the bridge. Two wide piers held the bridge aloft, though over the years, when the embankment was fashioned, it too lent support. The wide gaps that used to be present behind the piers were narrowed considerably, and the light of day hardly ever reached the center of those hollows.
Frederic kept his eyes trained upon the one on the right, knowing that it would be a tighter squeeze than he would have preferred. Still, it had been a long time since he wore bulky metal armor, and he took solace in knowing a pair of bulky spaulders or a breastplate would give him no trouble that day.
The man paused as he heard a horn blow in the distance. Frederic still wasn’t sure what the tone heralded, but it never felt as though it was a call to disembark. He wouldn’t have trusted that meaning anyway and knew that he’d be shivering in the dark under the bridge until nightfall.
Worse still, before he felt he could climb into the hollow between the pier and the embankment, he thought better than to crawl in the way he was. He wore no shining mail in those days, just sturdy leather armor that would keep him warm through his travels. But his fair skin was apparent around his short beard, and his chestnut brown hair. A quiet growl left his lips as he considered the move he was about to make.
Frederic bent low and scooped a handful of mud out of the creek. His hand shivered once it was covered with water, and he bobbed his head, knowing that it would feel worse slathered upon the rest of his body. In time, he had the muck covering his arms and his hands and clumped onto his face and his neck. It was quick work, and the haste at which he set to his task had him wondering whether he would be able to endure the cold once it set in. He untied the scabbard from his belt then, dirtying up the crossguard and the pommel of his sword as well.
Feeling sufficiently disguised, Frederic climbed into the hollow behind the bridge pier, fighting off the urge to grunt as he struggled with the discomfort of the small space and the awkward position.
When he had finally reached the center of the recess, he allowed himself a deep sigh of relief. He knew that it wasn’t yet earned—that the members of the Ebon Hammer were still about the town of Ellingsor, but he had done all that he could, given the circumstances. The mercenaries were ruthless, built to uncover those who meant to hide from them. And when they set their sights upon their bounties, it was a rare thing indeed for them to fail.
Frederic set his sword between his legs, hiding it as best he could. He knew that if he was found, his sword was the only thing that would make a difference. The members of the mercenary group sometimes scoured towns and temples looking for their prey in solitude while other members of their company led their own inquisitions. If one of the Ebon Hammer happened upon him on their own, he would have to show them his talents with a blade.
He prayed it wouldn’t come to that. Even if he was discovered by a sole hunter, he was in no position to fight. They could easily summon aid, or even attack him on their own with little resistance.
It was all speculative, Frederic knew, and it was enough to drive him mad in his own solitude. He closed his eyes, working as best he could to ignore the distant screams and shouts. He found that more challenging than he cared to admit, for there was some hope in that detachment. If the members of the town were the ones being harassed, he was being ignored. And if he could last long enough to escape from under the gaze of the Ebon Hammer, he could make amends.
He could make them pay.
The nearby sound of a horse snorting rent all the courage from him then, and he clutched his chest if for no other reason than to stay his heart. He heard its hooves clopping upon the stone bridge, and he clenched his jaw hard enough where he worried about accidentally gnashing his teeth together loud enough to give himself away.
They wouldn’t find him, he told himself. He had prepared his disguise and found a hiding spot that none would consider looking within—though he had scouted it out days earlier. Frederic knew that at the center of the hollow, a sunny day wouldn’t shine a light to reveal anything that might be there. And with the dreary, overcast days of winter upon Blacklehn, there was certainly no natural light to be found between the pier and the embankment. Even if the hunter had a relic that could lend some light, the mud would hide him further, and cool his skin. He had heard tell of members of the mercenary group that had acquired enchanted helmets which allowed them to see the body heat emanating off their prey. Frederic was not about to take any chances.
It was all pointless, he reminded himself. With so many of the townsfolk rounded up near the northeastern part of the village, no one would think to search for him there. And he had played his part well in protecting the people of Ellingsor; no one knew that he was hiding out in the town, so no one would have to lie to protect him.
No one, that was, except for his beloved. They had found refuge in a building which had gone unused for some time. Frederic and his wife were careful not to disturb the corner cobwebs, but he knew they had left their presence known by the boot prints they left upon the floorboards. The warrior was surprised to see no one else in the town using the building, for it had served them well, even in their sparing use of it.
All that changed when the Ebon Hammer found them. Frederic and his wife held their own against the lesser-equipped and lesser-trained acolytes. But when grey attire turned to black, both husband and wife knew that it was not some cursory force that fell upon Ellsingor. Still, the pair were not meant to be underestimated. They held their own, fighting back reinforcements, as well as growing fatigue. A flanged mace had caught him on his shoulder, but he rolled it about, turning into naught but a glancing blow. His wife caught the blunt side of a war axe, sending her into the wall between rooms, almost shaking the door off its hinges.
They were outmatched by then, she knew. All it took was a glance in Frederic’s direction to tell him what he already understood.
He could have fought, he reasoned. They could have tried with all their might. But the Ebon Hammer’s elite had broken through the rear of the building.
In the darkness of the building, Frederic only saw a pair of crimson eyes in the shadows before his wife grabbed hold of his shoulder and sent him stumbling through the door to the next room. As tactical as he was, he knew that she hadn’t made an errant decision—the choice had been analyzed as though she were overseeing herself from the heavens, considering all the outcomes before her muscles had moved an inch.
The crescent blade of the war axe cleaved through the door and the wall beside it—another part of her plan, Frederic realized. She had parted ways with her husband, knowing that it was the only way that both could survive.
And despite every part of him protesting, the weary warrior knew that her plan had merit. Against his instincts, he made a choice that enveloped him in regret and shame.
He ran from the building, as fast as he could, knowing that escape was the only hope for finding his wife again.
Frederic heard someone splash into the creek at his side, wrenching him from the recent memory. He had to fight against his instincts to turn and look in that direction. He clenched his eyes shut, doing his best to act as though he was part of the environment, just some debris that had washed into the hollow over the years.
With his eyes shut, he relied on his other senses to assess the situation. The bridge ran from north to south, and there was hardly any sunlight to speak of anyway that day. The member of the Ebon Hammer—it had to be, he knew, for nobody would forego an escape on a horse—likely looked under the main arch of the bridge but wouldn’t have bothered with the small cavities behind the piers.
Frederic heard the fellow walk forward, splashing into the creek without a care. A moment later, he detected him on the other side of the bridge, ensuring that no one hid behind the pillars there.
The warrior’s heart skipped a beat when he heard a torch’s flames crackle as the hunter approached the hollow. Frederic clutched his sword tighter and had to remind himself not to stress the leather handle enough to make a noise. How he wished he had pulled the dagger from his boot then. He found himself in an awkward position, but he was certain that he could have flung it forth with ease, catching his pursuer off guard. The sword wouldn’t reach on a sidelong thrust, and there was no possibility of a lunge in his constricted setting.
Still, as the torch crackled louder upon the hunter’s investigation, Frederic considered his options. Did he keep to his ruse, pretending to be a part of the environment? Or did he make one last stand, knowing that he needed to kill the mercenary quickly and without mercy?
The horn resounded in the distance again, and the hidden warrior could hear the sudden turn the mercenary made. Frederic still didn’t know what the horn meant, but the hunter beside the bridge moved with enough urgency that it had to mean something of interest.
Unable to climb back up the embankment, the mercenary hurried down the creek toward where the ground leveled out.
Frederic finally took a glance in that direction. True to their name, the members of the Ebon Hammer wore darker attire, their mail tinted black or grey depending on their rank, he surmised. The departing hunter wore a dusky grey with a hood pulled up over his head. Perhaps an inquisitor of a higher rank would have found the skulking warrior beneath the bridge. Frederic could only work to count his blessings in silence as the hunter left his sight. A few moments later, he could hear the horse whinny as its rider returned to it, and together they returned to the northeastern part of town. Frederic only let an audible breath leave his lips when he heard the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves fade into the distance.
The unseen warrior stared off into the western fields, the creek running steadily through them. That morning, a frost had touched some of the crops that were grown there—onions and radishes that Ellingsor would sell further south as the colder weather moved in. The frost had dissipated then, even with the cool breath of winter in the air, but Frederic knew that it would return that night.
He thought to burst from his hiding spot then. With the Ebon Hammer converging on the opposite side of the town, perhaps he could race for Tiltham Forest in the distance, losing anyone who might have been looking for him in the thickets of the place. It was a dream, and a foolish one, he told himself. The hunters would track him down and drive him out of hiding, even if he only aroused their suspicions late in his fateful exodus.
No, he would have to wait there, uncomfortable and cold in his hiding spot, until daylight faded from the area, and he could hide beneath a velvety black sky as he departed. He would be left instead with his thoughts, the cramp fighting its way to his leg, and an empty belly.
Struggling against his discomfort, Frederic brought up an arm, and leaned his head against it, hoping it would alleviate some of the pain he felt in his neck. To sleep would be another foolish endeavor, for in his position he would never find true comfort. And the longer he closed his eyes, the more prevalent the memories of his failures became.
The people of Ellingsor could swear until they were blue in the face that they didn’t know that Frederic D’Aprile was present in their town. That was the rub of dealing with the Ebon Hammer. They forged their own semblance of the truth out of suspicions, dark desires, and lies. It just so happened that in this occasion, they were right, and they likely sensed it. The warrior was nearby, and they would torture the townsfolk to get the answers they wanted, even if they weren’t sure why they were making false confessions.
Frederic steered his thoughts back to productive ones: the escape set before him, the preparation for his meeting with members of the Ebon Hammer, and the punishment he meant to inflict upon them.
He wasn’t their typical prey. Frederic didn’t have one of the many gifts that people in the country had which found them persecuted by their countrymen and the bounty hunters. He couldn’t even cast a lick of magic.
But he knew people who could. He had served with them in Blacklehn’s military, and broke bread with them while he led his own pursuits. Frederic was a friend to people with the Strain, which left them different, changed—dangerous, the king of Blacklehn and his closest advisors would say.
And while Frederic’s closest allies with those gifts or curses had already been taken by the Ebon Hammer, the warrior had a nose for finding others like them. He knew that there were greater dangers than exceptional humans or dwarves or elves, and he had a talent for bringing people together. For him, they were the only hope for Blacklehn in the years to come, when those worse things came knocking at their door.
He meant to bring together a new band of heroes, even as those who had potential were persecuted and forced into hiding. He meant to bring hope back to the land where he had grown up, back to the country that he had fought to protect against such vile acts of evil. He meant to make a stand against the Ebon Hammer, to put them down once and for all.
Another scream rang out in the distance.
It was going to be a long night.
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