The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 1

Dronkhar gasped, and his step faltered. He stumbled down the loosely packed gravel of the hill-side, clutching his hand to his side. The bruised sohntar paused and pulled his hand away from the wound, grimacing at the blood coating his palm. He’d been on the surface for too long. The essence of stone had already begun to fade away, replaced with the weakness of common flesh. He shut his eyes and focused on calming his mind, putting the bear’s mighty roar out of his memory.

Despite the pain, Dronkhar pressed his hand firmly against the gash and stumbled on. In the afternoon light he recalled the rush of battle. Though surprised and facing a foe many times his size, he’d given far better than he’d received. If his power hadn’t been sapped by the extended stay on the surface, he would have come away with some nice slabs of bear meat and a furry new cloak.

Dronkhar paused again when he reached the bottom of the hill. He turned his head and listened intently for sounds from behind. A breathless moment passed, with the bloodied warrior’s heartbeat thudding through his ears as he sorted through the noises of the wilderness.

Convinced that pursuit was still some ways behind, Dronkhar staggered toward a copse of trees, seeking cover from unfriendly eyes. From the top of the hill he had spied the lights of a distant town. As lances of pain tore through his body, he decided to risk a venture toward whatever civilization lay ahead. If his wound wasn’t tended soon, the blood loss would end any hope he had of righting the wrongs done to him. Hoping that his Baelrock pursuers would avoid a non-sohntar settlement, he limped on, driving himself forward by force of will alone.

Day stretched on into evening, and shadows lengthened across the ground. The sounds of crickets and other creatures filled the air, uncaring for the figure trudging through the trees. Dronkhar lost track of time as the growing darkness enveloped him like a warm blanket. He could no longer feel his wound, and everything seemed masked by a red-tinged haze. He’d set as straight a course as possible toward the lights of the town, but once in the forest, all sense of direction had failed him. Only the iron perseverance of a Bloodfire warrior kept him staggering on.

Light glittered through the trees ahead, and Dronkhar quickened his step, hope seeping into his heart. His destination lay within reach. As he burst through a thicket of undergrowth into the light beyond, the dregs of disappointment swallowed the glimmering warmth within. No town sat on the horizon. No aid, no rest, only the sputtering glow of a dying fire. Dragging himself forward, the sohntar crossed the sparse clearing and sat noisily on a small crest in the middle of the meadow.

Observing his surroundings with a weary eye, Dronkhar noticed several colored strips of cloth scattered on the ground and bits of food near the remains of the fire. From all appearances, this was a gathering spot for a festival or party. The town must be close. With renewed determination, Dronkhar staggered to his feet, and a burning jolt reminded him of his wound’s presence. Grimacing as he bent, the sohntar gathered a pair of the longer cloth strips and bound his chest as tightly as possible. He turned toward an opening in the forest wall but snapped into full alert at the sounds of crashing underbrush behind. Two dark figures burst into the clearing, cursing and growling in low, harsh voices. Shielding their eyes against the fading light above, they noticed Dronkhar and advanced, a cruel gleam in their gazes.

“So, we find you at last, little bird,” the leading figure said in the sohntar native tongue. His accent betrayed his Baelrock lineage. “You’ve led us on quite the merry chase.”

Dronkhar frowned and turned to face his pursuers. Assessing his opponents intently, his only reply was to loosen the axes at his side. He drew his weapons purposefully and settled into a battle stance.

The second sohntar, covered in matted hair and reeking of some deep foulness, grinned madly at Dronkhar. “Oy, mate. Looks like this one hasn’t lost enough blood yet. Leaves us a trail for miles and miles and still wants to shed some more. Wouldn’t want to disappoint him now, eh?”

The leader of the hunters chuckled, and the pair pulled long hook-bladed knives from their belts. They shared a glance and moved forward, each circling to a different side of their prey. Dronkhar kept his body centered and watched his opponents advance. Muscles tensing, he waited for the perfect moment. He was outnumbered and wounded; tactics would have to compensate for lowered reflexes and strength. His enemies paused, arrayed on opposite sides of him, and seconds drifted past. Finally, Dronkhar saw a flicker of intent in the leader’s eyes as the cowardly Baelrock summoned the will to attack.

Dronkhar leapt without warning, sweeping his foe’s knife aside with his left axe even as he brought the right crashing down upon the sohntar’s head. The axe bit deeply, cleaving the Baelrock’s skull nearly in two. Bracing himself, Dronkhar pivoted hard on his heel and hurled his other axe at his startled foe. Pain flared through his chest as he released, his wound protesting the violent movement, and the axe strayed from its mark, striking the sohntar in the shoulder.

The surviving Baelrock wrenched the blade from his flesh and hurled it to the ground with a curse. Snarling, he advanced on his prey, fury and rage overcoming his natural fear of the bleeding warrior. He charged and thrust his knife forward, seeking to impale his enemy in a single thrust. Dronkhar expected such a crude display and spun to his left, lashing out with his right hand to grab his foe’s wrist. He struck with his left fist and smote the hunter’s elbow. A sickening crack resounded through the meadow, and Dronkhar sneered as the Baelrock screamed in anguish.

The knife fell to the ground as the hunter struggled to free himself from Dronkhar’s implacable grip. Another driving punch to the Baelrock’s face dazed him, and he could only look on in horror as Dronkhar stooped to pick up the knife with his spare hand.

Dronkhar glared at his broken opponent, and the pain, the battle-rage and the anger that had been growing since his betrayal flowed through his gaze. “The earth reject you,” he growled as he drove the knife hilt-deep into the Baelrock’s belly. He held his foe until the life drained from his eyes and then limped over to the first corpse. He tore the axe free and crossed the clearing, locating his other weapon by the light of the fading sunset.

After cleaning both blades on the pristine grass, Dronkhar turned back to the path out of the clearing. A wave of dizziness washed over him, and a searing pain lit in his right shoulder. He reached up to touch the fresh wound and sighed, realizing that his spin had been too slow. The Baelrock’s knife had found its target. Looking about for more strips of cloth, the red haze flooded his vision, and he sank wearily into darkness.