Yikes. Sorry about the profoundly late post.
I let Sir Perceval’s right-hand man, Blake, drag me into the woods by my ankles, doing my best not to give any indication that I was awake and waiting for the man to let his guard down. All I needed was for him to get away from the town, away from the other armored men, and I’d snap his neck. I’d wait until night, sneak back into town, and slit their throats while they slept. And when I came across Sir Perceval, I’d drag him from his bed and out into the street, no sword or armor or men waiting to follow his every order, and I’d kill him with my bare hands.
A scream pierced the air, high and shrill. I gasped. “Victoria!” Blake stopped in his tracks, turned and looked down at me, a stupid expression of shock written all across his face. There would be no surprise, then.
I roared. Blake dropped my legs and stumbled backwards. I scrambled to right myself, and before he could draw his sword, my hands were around his throat, bashing his head against the ground. I didn’t bother to make sure I killed him; I just did it until he went limp, and then I grabbed his sword, knowing Sir Perceval and his men were certainly already bearing down on me.
I was right. I turned just in time to see one of Sir Perceval’s men charging at me, his sword raised high, shouting a battle cry of some sort. I ducked low and rolled under his blade, swinging my sword at his shins. I didn’t cut through his armor, of course, but the force was enough to send him toppling head first into the ground. Before he could recover, I pounced on him, sliding the tip of my sword in between the plates of his armor and straight into his heart.
A heavy blow struck the side of my head, sending me sprawling on the ground, my vision blurred and my ears ringing. Instinctively, I rolled to the side, just in time to hear the sound of a sword rushing through the air and a stifled curse as the sword stuck itself into the ground.
I shook my head and focused on my enemy. Unlike the others, he had a short sword and a shield. Hitting me with the shield had been a stupid mistake; if he’d used the sword, he might have killed me. Instead, he was off-balance and struggling to free his sword from the foot of dirt he had embedded it in.
I grabbed at the his heavy wooden shield and pulled myself to my feet. He pulled back, but he couldn’t match my strength, and with a single yank, I’d pulled him from his feet and thrown him over my shoulder, his sword still stuck into the ground. He held up the shield to try and ward me off, but it didn’t do him any good. I grabbed the edges and pulled, tearing it free from his arm, and then I brought it down on his neck, crushing his throat. “Ought to wear a helmet, human. Neck piece might have saved you.” I muttered. I stood up straight, and an arrow burst forth from my shoulder.
I spun around, glaring. Sir Perceval’s last man was standing next to him, a smug look on his face and a complicated looking contraption in his hands. He calmly turned it over, loaded another arrow, pulled back on the contraption, and leveled it at me. I stumbled backwards a step, the feathers of an arrow jutting from my chest. He kept looking at me with that cocky expression, not even bothering to reload his little hand crossbow, as if I wasn’t made of tougher stuff than that, as if I hadn’t choked the life out of every cocky grot that had ever given me that look before.
Staring him in the eyes, I reached over and pushed the arrow in my shoulder through. The one in my chest, I just snapped off where it entered my skin. Then I started walking towards the man. His eyes filled with uncertainty. He began fumbling with his crossbow, trying desperately to reload it in time to shoot me again.
He couldn’t. I took it out of his hands and smashed it to piece in my grasp. He stood completely still, frozen with shock. “Run,” I growled. “Run and don’t look back, and maybe you’ll live long enough to tell your children of your cowardice some day.”
He ran. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of an armored man pushing women and children out of his way so he could flee from someone without any armor or weapons. But Sir Perceval’s voice cut me off.
“Do you see?” he said to the gathered crowd. “He slaughters without mercy. He taunts the fearful. Can there be any doubt in your hearts that it was black magic that created him? Who knows what souls the necromancer imprisoned, what demons he bargained with, to create this beast?”
“You still won’t fight me, will you?” I said. “You’re nothing but talk without wizards to protect you and men to die from you.”
That got to him. His nostrils flared, and his voice dropped to a low growl. “I am Sir Perceval Roderick of the Westlands,” he said. “Trained by the greatest weaponeers of Freiburg, tutored by the monks of the Athos Monastery, and heir to the Crown of the River King. I am a hero. And you… you are vermin.”
I shook my head. “No hero punches a feller in the back of the head instead of fighting him. No hero decides that a village needs to die because he has a funny feeling that there’s something wrong with them.” I thought about it. “And there ain’t. They’re decent folks, once they stop trying to kill a feller just for being different.”
His lips pulled back in a snarl. “Pick up a sword, you swine, and let us end this. I was made to slay monsters like you.”
I smiled, reached down to pick up a sword as he drew his own. “I was made for something else.”
He shouted a battle cry in a language I didn’t understand and charged at me, his sword held overhead to cleave me in two the moment he got into range. But he was angry and not thinking, and it was easy to sidestep around him. I swung my sword at him, hoping to startle him or knock him off balance, but something strange happened. My sword connected with his armor and sparks flew.
I drew back in surprise, and he turned to face me, a grin on his face. “I need no mage to beat a creature like you, beast. It will take more than your mundane weapons to break through the enchantments that protect my armor.” He swung his sword at me, and I barely dodged in time, a cut opening up across my chest in the blade’s wake.
Now that I think about it, the human’s arrogance probably saved my life. If he hadn’t told me that weapons weren’t going to be any good against his armor, I would have kept trying, tiring myself out until I was easy prey. Instead, I tried something different.
I danced about him, staying just at the edge of his reach with the sword so that he had to chase me. If we were moving, I’d outlast him. I didn’t have to carry a heavy sword or a couple dozen pounds of plate armor. Soon, he was starting to show signs of slowing, and I made my move.
I let him swing one last time and when I dodged the blow, I dropped my sword and punched him in the face with all my might. He stumbled backwards, his hands slipping from his own sword.
I hit him again, laughing and taunting him more to keep him unfocused than anything else. “Come on, human! Fight me! Maybe that’ll teach you to wear a damn helmet!”
He got his hands up to block my punches, and my fists clattered uselessly of his gauntlets. And then he returned a few blows of his own, and before I knew it, I was flat on my back seeing double.
Getting punched in the face with gauntlets hurts a lot worse than you would think.
Soon he was on top of me, spitting curses and punctuating them with blows. I did the only thing I could think of to defend myself. I reached up and wrapped my fingers around his throat. I squeezed as hard as I could, all the while he clawed at my hands and face.
Just a few seconds passed, but I became aware of a crowd gathering around us. Some of the villagers, Ethan and Willem and Victoria and a dozen others whose names I could only half-remember, stood over us, watching and judging, like the gods the humans like to believe in. Sir Perceval reached out a hand to them, and I realized that if they wanted to kill me, there’d be nothing I could do about it. There were too many of them, and I was flat on my back, pinned by a man in heavy armor. Even if they waited for me to kill him, I couldn’t stop them all. And they’d just seen me fight five men and win. They wouldn’t make the mistake of assuming I was dead.
It was Ethan who spoke. He looked down at Sir Perceval’s outstretched hand, and looked into the dying man’s eyes. “Two strangers came into this village,” he said. “They were both monsters, but only one of them decided that he had to kill us.”
He turned his back on the scene and began walking away. The others followed behind him.
* * *
I don’t know how long I laid there, not doing anything but hurting. My shoulder and chest burned from where I’d been shot by arrows, my every muscle ached, and my entire head felt like one giant bruise. But I would survive. Part of being made for fighting and winning means being made to survive.
It was already starting to go dark by the time I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled towards the inn. I opened the door, but this time, the gathered crowd was already silent as I entered. They parted before me, and there was an open spot waiting for me at the counter, a plate of food and a tankard of ale just sitting there.
Willem and Victoria were standing there, and I noticed for the first time that the whole left side of Willem’s face was bruised. One of the bastards must have struck him. That was probably why Victoria had screamed.
I sat down, slow and stiff, and didn’t say anything. It was Willem who spoke first. “We made a plate for you,” he said. “It might be cold by now, but we could heat it up for you, if you like.” He frowned. “Might not be a good idea, though. It’s lamb. When you try to heat lamb back up, it tends to dry it out.”
“It’s fine the way it is,” I said as I reached for the tankard of ale. I thought about it for a second, and then added, “Thank you.”
Willem smiled, nodded, walked away to tend to some other customer. Victoria came up and gently poked the wound in my shoulder. I hissed, not at her but at the pain, but she jumped all the same. She was only scared for a second, though. “You ought to have somebody clean that for you and put some bandages on it. I can do it, if you want. My mommy taught me how.”
“That’ll be good,” I said. I didn’t know if it would be. I’d never have anyone clean and bandage my wounds before. The gods know the wizard certainly never did it.
Ethan came up to me then and put a hand on my good shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me and then looked away said it all. I nodded and said, “I know.” He turned red, like he had when I’d first beat him in a fight so many months ago and just said, “Good.” Then he turned and walked back to the table he’d been sitting at.
Things picked up inside the inn after that, people laughing and joking and making a lot of noise. Another tankard of ale, and I joined in, boasting about all the men tougher than Sir Perceval I’d beaten and trading bawdy songs with the men who worked the fields and vowing that so long as the villagers kept ale and food in my belly, they’d have nothing to fear from delusional madmen.
Before long, everyone had either left or gone to sleep, and the only ones awake were once again Willem and me, Victoria sleeping in the corner. But he wasn’t focused on cleaning like he had been so often in the past. Instead, he poured himself a tankard of ale and sat down across from me. “Is it true what Sir Perceval said?” he asked. “Did… did the necromancer…”
I just nodded. Willem took a deep breath and sighed.
“Ork, I know you to be a good person. Quick-tempered and boastful and a little too eager to solve your problems by acting without thinking, but no monster would have spent these past few months in the village with us.”
“The wizard made me,” I said. “He told me to do things and I did them, but he never… he couldn’t just order me around like the living dead he kept as servants. I chose to do the things I did.” I turned to look at Willem, frowning. “Some of them because I didn’t know any better, but some of them because I enjoyed them. I like fighting,” I said. “I like fighting loudmouths who think they’re better than everyone. I like the look on people’s faces when they realize I’m the biggest and strongest feller around. And if that makes me a monster…” I trailed off, stared at the green skin of my knuckles, my hand, wrapped around the handle of the tankard. “Well, then I guess I’m a monster.”
Willem shook his head. “You’re not,” he said. “You’re… Sir Perceval came to our village once before, a few months back. That’s when he and three others went to slay the necromancer. I suppose you would have met him then.” Willem was silent for a moment, and I turned to look at him, uncertain what point he was trying to make. “He was brusque, then. A very to-the-point fellow. Not unfriendly, exactly, but very much in the habit of putting his business first and being personable second. But he kept saying that slaying the necromancer was important because he’d been preying on the countryside. It wasn’t about glory, or good and evil, or anything like that. It was about protecting people.” He paused again. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that Sir Perceval died a monster, but something changed him. He wasn’t always like that.”
I didn’t have any kind of response to that. It was strange to think that someone could change that much.
“Ork,” Willem said softly. “You can’t stay here. The villagers… they won’t all understand. You have to go.”
I didn’t say anything. I had already figured that I wouldn’t be able to stay, not once the villagers learned about my past with the wizard. And if a man like Sir Perceval would take the time to try and hunt me down, then there would be others coming after me, or others coming to find Sir Perceval. Maybe that one soldier of his I’d let go would go and raise an army, and then what would I do?
Victoria interrupted my train of thought, running and up and shouting, “No!”
“Victoria, go back to sleep!” Willem said.
“He can’t go! He needs us, and he protects us!”
I smiled at that. I didn’t need anyone, and I didn’t really protect them. I just came and ate and drank, and they came to me and talked and asked for help. No needing, no protecting.
“Your papa’s right,” I said. I mussed her hair. She was a good kid, Victoria. “It’s better for everybody if I left, at least for a little while. Maybe I can come back again someday.”
“But where will you go?” she asked. Tears were starting to well up in her eyes, and damned if it didn’t tug at my heart a little to see her crying over a feller like me.
“I don’t know. Out. Around. As far as my feet will take me.”
“Will you come back?”
I looked at Willem. He shrugged. “Maybe,” I said. “At least, I’ll try.”
She didn’t say anything to that, and then all of a sudden she threw her arms around me, or at least as far as the spindly little things would go. I put my hand on my back and gently patted her. She was a good kid.
“Will you do me a favor?”
“Don’t let them call you Ork anymore. That’s what men like the bad wizard and Sir Perceval want to call you, but don’t let them. You need a new name.”
I chuckled softly. “And what am I supposed to call myself?”
“How about Mr. Tusky? ‘Cause you got tusks.”
I laughed at that. “How about not? How about just Tusk?”
She nodded. “That’s okay.”
Willem came around to us and gently picked her up. “Come on, Victoria. Time for bed. Let Tusk have some peace before he goes to sleep.”
“Okay,” she said. “Good night, Tusk!”
I smiled. “Good night.”
Willem carried her up the stairs, and I sat there drinking my ale and trying to decide whether to spend the night in the inn, or to head out into the wild as I was. I stretched my muscles, feeling every little twinge of pain and tenderness in them still. Better to sleep in the inn, I thought. A good rest, and then I would gather my things, say my goodbyes, and find some new place with new people.
I chuckled. Someplace new, with people who would look at me suspiciously and try and fight me and wind up flat on their arse.
That would be a good laugh.
That’s the end of “Fighting and Winning!” Unfortunately, there will be no update on Friday, as I will be travelling to attend a wedding. Be back on Monday for the beginning of my next story, “The Shadow at the Edge of the Frame!”