Fire At Dawn
Chronicles of the Free People – Book One
Chapter 1: A Call for Help
A crack of thunder and a brief flash of lightning that slashed across the skies signaled the start of a race of desperate measure. The gray clouds were lit by the lightning, steadfast and unyielding while the steady rainfall that fell from them was cold and miserable. In between the flashes and the bone-shaking rattle of thunder, a figure stole along the shadows of the trees as best it could. Ahead the shadows ended with the start of a long, wide field that had been stripped bare by ranchers more interested in the feeding of horses and cattle than in providing cover. Also ahead sat the guards set out to stop such a figure from passing over this field on its way to solicit help. It had been nine days since the start of the mission, all of them filled with rain and danger and this would prove to be the last obstacle.
Under the light of the next flash, the figure could be seen more clearly as that of a young man, not yet past twenty-two or twenty-three. There was a look of determination on his face, as well as a look of certain nobility and grace. He stood poised at the edge of the trees and waited for the last bit of lightning to fade. As soon as the pitch returned to the sky, he left his cover and ran. He never saw the one guard who had wandered away from the rest until he crashed into him with a resounding clatter of weapons and armor. As the burley guard cursed and yelled, the man leapt to his feet again and ran with all the speed he could summon.
He raced headlong across the open field. The sound of his pursuers grew louder behind him as he dashed across the open country. Ahead of him loomed the first line of trees that made up the ancient forest that men called Despair, but was called Wraithwood by the elves. He cursed himself repeatedly for thinking it would be better going on foot. A horse he thought would have been too large a target and far too noisy for slipping past the sentries. How he wished he had taken that horse now.
He pushed himself harder hoping that the deep tangle of the forest along with the unsavory tales of sudden death that supposedly lived within its dark branches might delay the Orcs a bit, just long enough for him to put some distance between them and bring him some safety. Swiftly he ran on, trying not to dwell on the imagined dangers ahead as opposed to the very real danger moving closer and closer, almost nipping at his heels. Leaping over long fallen tree trunks and across the small streams that crossed his path the man could smell the changing air of Wraithwood.
“Finally!” he thought. “Finally, a bit of safety to hold on to!”
Running into the first line of trees he could hear orders being barked behind him. The voices were gruff and harsh.
“Don’t lose sight of him!” shouted one voice.
“Capture him or it will be our own heads that lie on the block!” answered another.
He paused long enough to chance a look behind him. The sight would have made lesser men tremble, but there was too much at stake here.
There, running furiously towards him, a dozen or more well-armed and desperate Orcs who were beginning to cross into the wood. Not all Orcs were foul creatures that embodied everything that was evil in the world, but these were not all Orcs. These Orcs were as tall as men were, yet they weighed more. They were strong, yet not very smart. The name given to their race by men, “Orc”, had come from ancient text that had been found countless years before. It had been used to describe some horrific creature of the past, so the ones who found the writings thought that these creatures must be the same and so the name stayed with this race. Where the name came from did not really matter to the man at the present moment as he watched them rushing towards him.
Their ominous red eyes glowed from under their furrowed brows, like burning coals looking to set fire to some waylaid soul. Some ran with swords drawn while others handled the long spears of their ancestor’s favor. He also saw that these Orcs were not the typical shorter and heavier Orcs that filled the caves of Dagorath near his home. These Orcs were tall and powerfully built as well. These Orcs were the bodyguard of the sorceress.
“Anatomy be put aside,” he thought, “If I don’t shake these despicable creatures soon, it won’t matter what type Orcs they are.”
Once again he pushed past the tight muscles that signaled his legs would soon give out and ran into the ever-growing darkness of the forest. His name was Veern and he was a most valuable member of the Dagorian military as well as the crowned Prince of Dagor. As he ran, none of that mattered. The deeper he went the more tangled it became. Moreover, always the sounds of the Orcs echoed in his ear.
“He went this way!” cried one.
“No! He passed through here!” replied another.
Suddenly, as if the ground ceased to exist he found himself falling. With a bone-wrenching thud he was on the ground, tumbling furiously down a ravine that seemed to have no ending. Branches snapped as he rolled over them sending rocks, dirt, and other debris flying in all directions as well as a cacophony of sound that could lead a blind man to his location. When at last he reached the bottom he staggered to his feet. His back burned from the dozen or more scratches and punctures he received in his fall, but even worse, he could tell by the sounds above him that at least two Orcs had now fallen right behind him. Their curses filled the air along with the other sounds. The man drew his sword and waited in the gloom.
“This is one Dagorian that’s not going to be an easy capture.” he thought.
The two Orcs rolled to an undignified stop just a few meters from where he stood. It seemed they pulled half the ravine wall down with them and this was the one bit of redemption Veern would receive that night. The larger of the two was on his feet immediately while his fellow attacker remained mired in dirt and branches where he had landed. Veern was pleased to see he carried the long spear. There was not enough room to use such a weapon effectively and the young man knew it and knew how to use this to his advantage. The long hours he spent in training would finally pay off. As the Orc lunged, thrusting his weapon at him, Veern easily sidestepped it and sent it burrowing into a tree. Then with a quick swipe of his sword and a flashing spray of crimson he saw the Orc’s head fall from his body spewing its vile dark blood. Before the Orc’s head hit the ground Veern had his attention on the other who had managed to extradite his large frame from the tangle of wood.
“Stand up!” he demanded. “Stand up and show me what you’ve got!”
As the foul creature slowly rose to his feet, Veern could hear the sounds of more Orcs rushing down the embankment. A cruel smile played about the Orc’s lips.
“Well, let’s just see how brave you can be man-thing.” he hissed.
“Your companions will see it beast,” he sneered, “but I’m afraid you will not!”
With this said he deftly lunged, driving his sword deep into the monster’s chest and piercing what little heart lay within. Above him the sounds of the rushing Orcs grew louder as they became entangled in the brush, another chance at escape for the Prince presenting itself.
Immediately he found himself running once more. As he raced lightly along the ravine he had the feeling he was being watched. He paid little heed to it thinking it was just more of the tricks the forest of Wraithwood played on one’s mind during the night. Just ahead he could make out a slight break in the steep wall of the ravine and he plunged into it. He found himself running along another ravine, with walls even steeper than the other had. As always, the sounds of the Orc host remained right on his heels.
The ravine suddenly opened before him, leading him into a bowl shaped area. All around him the walls rose almost straight up, smooth and black, with no foothold to be found. The forest remained away from this area and in the absence of trees the moon shone brightly into the pit. As the sound of the charging Orcs drew nearer he settled himself to his fate.
“It seems I too have failed you father.” he thought. “But I’ll spill full buckets of Orc blood before they take their prize.”
Once again he readied himself and prepared for the inevitable end that he now faced.
The Orcs spilled into the bowl before him less than a minute later. From their midst the leader of their group came forward. The Orc’s name was Rushta, the Commander of Sage’s personal bodyguard. He had crossed swords with Veern before in brief skirmishes, with neither owning a clear-cut advantage or skill over the other.
“You thought to escape us by running to the shadows of Despair?” he bellowed. “I knew you to be a fool Veern, but this is even more foolish than I expected of you!”
The huge Orc stood before him. He stood a bit over six feet tall and weighed more than three hundred and forty pounds with very little of that weight being fat. His arms were heavily knotted with muscles, as were his legs. His skin was a shade of pale grey and several black tattoos adorned his body.
“Take just one more step Rushta.” Veern replied. “The Sage will lose her captain of the guard this night!”
The Orcs around him began to prod Rushta. “Go on captain!” they cried. “Show the man-thing what happens to such insolence! Show him Orcish power!”
Rushta hesitated, for he knew well the skills in battle that the man had honed through the years since he first lifted a sword. He knew he could defeat Veern but not by rushing blindly into the battle.
“Yes Rushta, show me.” the prince said in a mocking tone.
As Veern stood crouched waiting for the assault, he suddenly became aware of the silence around him. It was a cold and deadly silence, the eerie kind that gives birth to nightmares. The very forest itself seemed to shrink back from it and the night grew even darker as black clouds covered the moon’s meager light. As he looked into the faces of his attackers he could see that they were now aware of it too. He saw a few of them backing away as frightened children do. Sensing a chance to draw first blood he darted forward and grabbed hold of Rushta’s sword hand, but before he could bring his own sword up the big Orc pushed him away with a stiff forearm.
“Fool! There is so much you still don’t know yet!” he spat out. “And now I fear you’ll never get to know it.”
As he spoke, the Orc had been backing away with the rest of the brutes. Veern looked at him in surprise.
“Stop speaking riddles beast!” he said. “Have you come to fight or was your plan to simply try to frighten me to death?”
The whole company of Orcs had backed into the ravine again. Their eyes remained wide as they slowly backed up. As Veern stood up it seemed the entire forest stood poised to suddenly burst into the cold, black pit.
“You’ll be dead without me raising a finger.” Rushta yelled as he and the others turned and ran. “My mistress will be very pleased at this news.”
As these last words rang from his mouth the forest exploded as thousands of screaming bats flew from the darkness of the trees and out across the bowl. They were large black creatures and their leathery wings and high-pitched squeals filled the air with a thunderous sound.
“By all that is holy!” cried Veern as the flying beasts knocked him back to the ground.
Within seconds, he found the air around him gone as the bats furiously circled him taking it with them in their flight. His consciousness began to leave him from the lack of air. His eyes closed and he began the long tumble towards the black abyss of unconsciousness. As he slipped away, he could hear the screaming of the Orcs as they fled through the pitch of the night, followed by the piercing sounds of the bats as they swooped after their prey.
The night passed quietly for Veern. A single shaft of sunlight piercing the clouds awoke him the next morning. He remembered falling face first and passing out where he lay. However, oddly enough he found himself no longer in the pit and propped against a tree. Stranger still he saw what appeared to be food next to him. He gingerly examined the offering with a light touch and a sniff.
“Yes!” he thought, “Freshly cooked meat!” He was even more stunned to find a wine sack hanging from a limb above him. “By all the gods I know, I owe someone a debt of gratitude.”
He stood and checked himself. His tunic and buckskins were tattered but still wearable. He still had his chain mail and sword, but his shield was gone, as was his helm. He then turned his attention to the food. The meat smelled good although it was not cooked enough for his taste. The wine was dark and strong smelling.
“I wonder,” he thought “if these are gifts from wood-elves or dwarves?”
If it were dwarves, surely they would have stayed and made camp with him, for some of them were quite sociable. “No, not dwarves.” he said to himself. Wood-elves are scarce in these woods, and not the type to serve meat. “Probably not elves either.”
He sat down and thought of who else it could have been. He still had the uneasy feeling of being watched, and he soon concluded it would be better to eat and think as he continued in his quest. He quietly and quickly ate the food, took a long draught of the wine, and then shouldered the wine sack. At the next stream he would empty it and fill it with water, much better for his task ahead than wine.
All day long Veern walked through the forest towards his destination. He could tell that the sun was high in the sky yet the woods remained locked deep in their shadows. As he walked, the young man thought of his journey so far. His thoughts for some reason seemed harder to organize.
“Let’s see,” he spoke softly to himself, already a hint of the madness the forest could produce in his words, “it took three days in making my way from Bandashar to the Dagorian Pass.” A sigh escaped his lips. “How I miss the warmth of those days and the sweet smell of the meadows of my home in Dagor.”
“Now then, six more days to skirt around the Red Mountains without going through the accursed pass.”
He felt a shudder pass through him as he recalled passing within a league of the Caves of Dagorath. The caves had once been the home of the dwarves, and indeed he had visited them as a child. The Dwarven city was named Northstone. They were brightly lit then, clean and warm. His last visit however, was as a soldier in a regiment of horsemen in service of his father’s army. The sorcerer Dagorath had claimed the land as his own, driving the dwarves away and destroyed the city. His foul demons took control and the cave city changed to a malignant, festering blight in an otherwise beautiful landscape.
“Those days were grim ones indeed.” he recalled. “The beginning of our troubles it seems. Even the sorcerer seemed satisfied with the singular conquest and the acquisition of the caves. Then he died, and his apprentice came into his power. And a host of trouble followed her.”
Moreover, it was true. Before that time the lands were filled with peace. The Orcs had been driven back during the Orc Wars and the dragon lords were at peace with men. It seemed then that nothing would ever spoil the Eden that was his home. With a shake of his head, his thoughts turned back to his present position.
“Concentrate now mate.” he commanded himself. “I entered Despair yesterday, so that makes 10 days since I left.”
Veern walked at a steady pace all through the morning, stopping occasionally to get his bearings or take a sip of his wine. He was not sure exactly who it was that left it, nor if they would be so inclined to leave it again. After all, one could not expect aid from unseen providers every night. Besides that, what reason was there for the aid? As the day grew towards its inevitable end, Veern began to look for a suitable place to spend the night.
He found a spot under a huge oak and sat against the old tree. As a final shaft of sunlight worked through the leafy boughs above him, once more his thoughts returned to his home. His father had sent him on this quest with a heavy heart, knowing it would be filled with danger. Nevertheless, he also knew that only a member of the Royal House would be able to return with the help they needed. His thoughts meandered back and forth becoming more unorganized. He thought of the Orc ambush. He was close to the end of the pass of Dagor when it happened. That was where his race from the Orcs had begun. He was sure of it and yet unsure.
His thoughts returned to the present as he noticed the stillness that had once again claimed the forest. He looked around the tree cautiously at the faint rushing sound that was coming from the growing darkness. As had passed the night before, the air was once again filled with the screaming bats. In addition, as had passed the night before, Veern again fell prey to a sudden unconsciousness. But rest on this night would not be as peaceful as it had been the night before.
“May the gods protect me.” he muttered just before he once again slipped into the dark swirling abyss.
That night he was tossed and turned in his sleep by dreams that took hold and ravaged his senses. Hideous creatures groped at his body, poking and prodding him. Some sniffed at him while others tore at his clothes. They cut strips of his flesh, ate them before his horrified eyes, and then lapped at the blood that ran from the cuts. He remembered praying for an end to this madness, but none came. The demons seemed intent on keeping him alive to feast on over and over.