Adversaries

Artenu, or Art to his squad-mates, had signed up for The Grand Army of The Impending Dawn, not because he believed in ‘A unified human nation on Arbor’, but because doing so would finally get him out of that backwater village he grew up in. Sure, the drills were a pain and food wasn’t great, but he’d seen so much more of the continent than he would have, and had made some true friends. It was very difficult for Art to see them killed, as they had been not one hour previous to now. The wide expanses of his continent tour were now reduced to a cold, wet and wretched forest. The canopy was so thick here that, though the moon was bright, he was unable to see much at all. He could feel the pools left from the evening’s rain splash onto him as he pressed through the foliage. They found their way beneath his armour, setting in small, chilled dams on his skin. His muscles tell him he’s been running all night, and yet he feels like he’s only left the site of battle a moment ago. He takes a moment to breathe, leaning up against a cool boulder.

They had come in so fast. Riders from the local militia. Resistance to General Yu’s ‘unified human nation’. The scouts hadn’t reported anything, and so The Grand Army had only set minimal watch, allowing most to get some much-needed rest after a long week’s march. Art was asleep when he heard the horns of warning sound, and even as soon as he awoke he knew they blew too late; already the sound of battle was around him. Quickly donning his armor as best he could, he grabbed his sword and ran out into the fray. It was a scene of carnage and disarray. The local militia, riding atop the horses they were famed for, were pouring through the camp, trampling tents and chasing down runners. Some carried torches and were setting everything they could find alight. To Art, everything looking like dancing silhouettes against this backdrop of fire. The whinnying of a horse made him turn just in time to see one of his friends, a grumpy but well-meaning old sod named Arbuckle, pierced in the back with a spear. The force of the blow sent Arbuckle reeling forward, collecting Art on his way down. For a moment, Art just lay there with the dead weight of Arbuckle pressing down on him. A little voice was telling him not to move, to stay hidden; but then he head Aruckle groan, felt his insides becoming outsides where the spear had pushed right through. Art struggled to push him off, managing only to give himself enough room to wiggle out. He got to his feet and tried to make sense of the scene. Another of his friends, Jon from Ardale, lay nearby. The screams of Sigor the cook were pouring out of a man on fire, stubling around not twenty meters away. Art didn’t know where to look, but his frantic search landed on the forest; from here illuminated by the full moon, and not five-hundred meters from the edge of camp. Art didn’t even pause to think of the ramifications. He ran.

Even as deep into the forest as Art now was, he could still hear the sound of the conflict. The clashes and cries were much softer now, and he couldn’t help but wonder if that was because he was so far away, or because all of his comrades were either dead or dying. The sound of movement nearby draws him to the present. He presses himself against his boulder and peers through the gloom, wondering if one of the militia had followed him. The lack of moonlight made things difficult, but he did spy a humanoid figure pressing through the bushes. Although he was without his horse, Art recognised the shape of the newcomer’s helmet – it was a member of the local resistance. Instinctively, Art’s hand goes to his scabbard but it was found wanting. He must have dropped his sword when he was bowled over back in camp. Quietly searching the forest floor, Art discovers a fist-sized stone. He grabs it and holds it to him as he sits against his boulder. He wants to leap up, charge the bastard and crush his skull. That’s what Commander Arlo would have wanted of him, he was sure. But he just couldn’t force his muscles to move. Instead he sits there, shivering quietly, clutching his rock.

His back to his boulder, Art could no longer see his adversary, but he could hear him in the still, night air. It seemed as if he were stalking closer to Art’s position, moving with trepidation. Art grips his stone more tightly, his entire being focused on tracking the movements of the unseen soldier. That’s likely why he didn’t notice the barun until it roared. The great bear charged toward Art, axe drawn, saliva flowing from its bear-like maw. The militiaman was immediately forgotten and Art scrambled to his feet, too late, to get out of his path. The barun collides with Art and the two go tumbling. Art feels as if he’s been run over by a horse; he aches all over, but he can’t just lie there. He hears the barun beginning to right himself, growling with frustration. Art scrambles to his feet; he is still holding his stone, and he raises it in the air as he turns to get his bearings. Before he can orientate himself, he is caught up by the massive arms of the barun and pressed against a tree. Art closes his eyes and lets out a yelp; he hopes only that the barun would kill him before he ate him, as he’d heard many stories of the their kind feasting on the still-screaming bodies of their victims. But death did not come. Nor did devouring. Art opens his eyes to see the barun holding him against the tree with one arm, his other wields the great axe; but the barun was actually facing out into the forest. He was peering through the trees as if looking for something. Art lets out an involuntary short cry, more a squeak really, and the barun turns on him, teeth bared and angry. Art gets the message – no sound. The barun turns his eye back to the forest around them, slowly releasing his hold on Art. For his part, the human is now peering through the trees as well; what was the creature looking for? Art gets his answer when the forest behind them seems to move of its own accord, rippling like water. A troll. They possessed supernatural camouflage when moving slowly, and Art is witnessing it come out of this camouflage to attack. Art does the only thing he can; he screams. One of the troll’s great, clawed hands reaches out to tear at Art’s face when it’s pushed aside at the last moment by the barun’s axe. The four-armed troll, towering over both human and barun, lets out a cry that would curdle milk. Art collapses backward instinctively and the barun fills his space, interposing himself between Art and the troll. The latter raises itself to full height and shifts its weight, ready to pounce. Art does not stay to watch the confrontation unfold, turning and sprinting deeper into the forest.

As Art runs, he can once again hear the sounds of battle behind him. This time it is the roar of the barun and the shrieking cries of the troll as they crash through the trees. Art glances back in a futile gesture to see what is happening through the gloom. A bad idea, as it meant he doesn’t see the steep decline only steps ahead. Down he tumbles, bending foot and arm. When he reaches the bottom he knows that he has sprained his ankle, and hopes that there was nothing else twisted or broken. For the third time tonight, Art is lying on his back on the ground; he takes a moment for himself. He can still hear the melee crashing through the forest nearby, and though it seems he is clear of it, he decides it’s best to keep moving. Rolling over in order to right himself, Art sees a familiar shape. About seven meters away, trying to conceal himself under a large bush, lay the militiaman. Art hadn’t seen what happened to him when the barun came charging in, but it seems like he ran and hid. The militiaman is looking at Art as well, and for a moment they just stared. Art realises that he has dropped his stone somewhere, probably in his tumble. He carefully feels the area around him, no sudden movements, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. His hand happens upon a fallen branch and Art slowly begins to rise to his feet. The militiaman crawls out of his hiding place and slowly stands in response. Art reveals his branch, and is happy to see that it’s thick enough to do damage and free from any leaves or offshoots that might slow his swing. Art is unhappy, however, to see the militiaman draw his curved sword – he’d obviously managed to hang onto his. The pair does not move, and Art can see their breath in the cool, night air catching a little of the moonlight that filters through the canopy. Art is trying to decide if he should attack first,  wait and fight defensively, or just run, hoping he isn’t cut down. All options seem fraught, and so he just remains still in indecision.

Eventually, he doesn’t need to make a choice at all. The barun re-enters the scene; Art had not been paying attention to the sounds of the barun’s battle with the troll getting closer to his own confrontation. The barun is flying through the air, knocked or perhaps thrown by his larger opponent. Even in this dim light, Art can see that the barun is injured – trolls are dangerous creatures, able to take on a dozen armed men, and this lone barun is not faring well. That’s likely why it was trying to escape the troll when it collided with Art. The barun may have succeeded as well, were it not for that collision. Art can hear the troll moving somewhere in the forest around them. He wills the barun to get up; to save him again like it had earlier, but he does not move. The militiaman does, however; he runs to the side of the barun, checking to see if it still lived. Then the militiaman stands, sword at the ready, hoping to fend off whatever left the barun in its beaten state. It seems that Art is forgotten. He runs. Without thinking, without guessing, he takes his opportunity. He half believes that the troll will leap on him and cut him down, but he is willing to take his chances with the one creature he can’t see, as opposed to the two he can. He isn’t far away when he hears the cry of the troll behind him. It has decided to move on the barun and his ward. Art will be safe afterall. He just had to keep running.

But he stops.

Something seems wrong. It is his fault the barun wasn’t able to escape the troll. Then, when Art was about to be eaten, the barun saved him. For the militiaman’s part, he had a steel blade to Art’s glorified twig; he could have cut Art down easily, really. Yet he stayed his hand. And what was the militiaman doing hiding in the forest anyway? Art considers whether he was a deserter, realising concurrently that, technically, that’s what Art was. He’d run when his squad-mates had needed him, hopeless odds or no. He’d run when the barun needed him. And now again. Art turns, stick in hand, and runs back. If he was going to die, it wasn’t going to be shivering alone in a dark forest. It wasn’t going to be running away.

When Art arrives at the scene of the battle, the troll is holding the barun in the air, one arm holding each of the barun’s limbs. Art can’t see the militiaman, and doesn’t care to look for him; instead he uses his speed and momentum to launch himself off a small rise and throws his full weight onto the troll. The collision winds Art, and when he clatters to the forest floor he struggles for breath. It seems to work however, as the barun is dropped as well. The barun is much quicker at recovery than Art, standing soon after. The troll circles as Art slowly gets to his feet, stick pointing outward. There is a scramble of forest litter behind and they are joined by the militiaman, still with his sword. It seems he’d been knocked aside by the troll looking for the bigger meal of the barun. The three face the one. There is a stillness as each prepares for what is inevitably to come. The barun glances at his allies, each standing a foot behind, and then back at the troll. Art thinks the barun is trying to tell him something, but he doesn’t get the time to puzzle it out; the barun roars, shattering the silence, and leaps forward at the troll. The suddenness of the action catches the troll by surprise, and the barun manages to get between its four slashing claws, embedding his axe in the troll’s shoulder. It cries out, and the humans take their cue. The militiaman slashes wildly at the right arms of the troll, stopping them from eviscerating the barun. Art, knowing his stick would have little effect on the troll’s thick hide, instead turns it into a spear and begins stabbing at the creature’s eyes. He does feel something give way beneath his blows, but is knocked away by the troll’s flailing arms. The militiaman, to his credit, has managed to find a thinner part of the troll’s hide in the pit of its arm, and has driven his sword into it.  The barun hacks again and again, turning the troll’s chest into a waterfall of red. The culmination of the barun’s attacks is the severing of one of the left hands of the troll, which it had raised to defend itself. The troll stumbles backward under the onslaught and leaps deeper into the forest, fleeing the scene. The sound of it crashing through the trees fades with its distance.

The barun roars again, but a moment later is on his knees. This time both the militiaman and Art go to his side. In the filtered light of the moon, Art can clearly see the barun has taken a lot of hits from the troll. His arms and chest are lacerated, and one half of his face is matted with blood. Art thinks he may even be missing an eye, but it’s difficult to tell. The great barun breathes laboriously, spits out a wad of gore and holds a sudden flare of pain at its side. He stays doubled over on his knees for another few minutes, his breath slowing until finally he breathes his last. Art and the militiaman stay with him the whole time. There was nothing that could be done for the barun, but it would have been wrong to leave him. He deserves the companionship of allies at his end.

The first light of dawn illuminates the tops of the trees when the barun is finally covered over. Art and the militiaman had been digging for what seemed like hours; the barun was large, and they hadn’t a shovel between them. They weren’t going to leave him to be picked apart by scavenging wolves or birds however. Their task done, Art and the militiaman consider each other. Art pulls the militiaman’s sword from the ground nearby – it had been tossed to the side after it was discovered it made a poor digging implement – and handed it back to its owner. The militiaman nods. Art responds in kind. The pair leave the grave of the barun; one east, the other west.

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