Moonlight fell from a cloudless night sky, softly illuminating the ancient trees of Everwood. Emerald leaves shone in the semi-darkness, their waxy surface giving them a hazy, glowing appearance. A rich scent was present as well, an earthy smell that always surfaced after heavy rainfall. The moss-blanketed forest floor was spongy with water, and every step taken over its soft ground was preserved in a near-perfect print.
Varynn had to choose his steps carefully; picking through underbrush, sliding over the damp bark of fallen logs, and all the while preventing the crossbow clutched tight in his hands from ever touching a surface. He moved with grace through this environment of nature, decades of familiarity granting him the skills that kept him as swift and dexterous as a thief in the dark alleys and broken back-streets of Port Hragr. A thick bolt was loaded already into the heavy crossbow, the head’s wide razor-edges glinting silver every time they entered a shaft of moonlight that penetrated the high canopy.
The hunter’s prey was within sight, a great antlered beast that had evaded him for most of the week, and for the fourth time Varynn dipped into a stealthy kneel and swung the heavy crossbow with practiced ease up and into position. They were on a small hill, the edge granting Varynn near-invisibility among the underbrush. He took aim, heartbeat accelerating, adrenaline surging through him, but he halted his shot when he saw the elk suddenly stiffen, ears perked, and large head swiveling not towards Varynn but something on its opposite flank. The hunter could not stay his hand for curiosity for long, but it had surprised him that the beast would notice something else.
Several seconds passed and Varynn began to press again against his crossbow’s steel trigger, but he quickly jerked it away and sank back into the shadows as the elk lurched forward and fell. A volley of arrows had torn through the underbrush, some thunking into low-sprouting tree boughs yet still with a solid dozen peppering the elk from neck to rear. Scarcely a whistle was able to escape its throat before the elk fell to the ground, twitching slightly.
Varynn’s mind flared hot with rage at this steal, and wondered at the identity of this group. The hunter knew that no one adept at the craft would require such a volley for one game, but he had known certain military patrols to use such methods and it was a favored style of the orcs that had recently found Everwood to be a suitable home. The latter proved correct a moment later as guttural cheers cut through the forest like a knife. Orcs poured from concealment granted by the trees and surrounded the elk, clapping each other’s shoulders and yanking viciously from the fallen beast their serrated arrows. Donning armor of boiled leather plates, the orcs appeared to be armed as a small warband.
Varynn loathed these creatures; he knew of the advances of Vistamo’s empire, and even though it was never formally recognized the orcs were warriors of the encroaching warlord. In this area alone there were at least a dozen of them that Varynn could see. More of them were emerging from the trees while those that had killed the elk hoisted the bleeding carcass onto their broad shoulders. Varynn prided himself on his ability to load any crossbow in the blink of an eye—a feat scarcely shared throughout the countryside, and he might be able to pick-off two? Maybe three? Four, perhaps, if the brutes could not find him with haste.
The hunter moved back further into the brush and watched, focusing his attention on the orcs down below him and all the while keeping an eye on the carried elk. This unfortunately meant paying little focus to the area around him—especially the orc that had crept up behind him. When Varynn spun around at an ear-splitting battle-cry emanating from behind, the crossbow he swiftly leveled was torn from hand by a thick iron gauntlet and its twin smashed hard into his face, shattering the cartilage of his nose and peppering the forest floor with blood.
Varynn was dazed. The world had gone into a blur, and it took great effort for him to draw the skinning knife from his belt. He heard the orc throw his crossbow, heard the whistle and crack as its hair-trigger fired the loaded bolt into a tree, but he could not make out the direction in which the brute had tossed his precious weapon.
Varynn lunged forward with the knife, fast enough to catch the creature by surprise and carve into its chest and ribs. The orc roared with pain and backed up several steps, its hands rising to try and staunch the flow of blood. Varynn took the opportunity to bring his own hand up to wipe the blood from his face. His eyes darted this way and that for any signs of the crossbow, and all the while his heart beat in his ears like a drum
And then he spotted it.
Half-buried under the large leaves of a nearby bush, the polished steel of his crossbow’s relaxed bow glinted in the moonlight. The hunter started for it, heart leaping, but the sharp sound of something metal being pulled from its sheath forced Varynn to throw himself once more to the ground. A curved scimitar, its length hammered from layered steel and blade jagged and serrated, appeared from out of nowhere and slashed directly where the hunter’s midriff would have been. The orc gave a howl of anger and brought his lethal weapon back, gripping its handle in both hands before coming at the prone Varynn with a powerful downward slash that would have taken off the human’s head.
Varynn’s knife flashed up and just managed to deflect the heavy scimitar to the side. The orc brought up a booted foot and stomped down, catching Varynn squarely in the chest and knocking the wind out of him. Stars were beginning to pop into Varynn’s vision. His mind was working fast on what to do. He was trapped on his back, his crossbow thrown to the side, with an orc grinding its foot into his chest and bringing its wicked sword up into the air once more. He could hear the others from below bellowing in response, most likely coming up to see what was making such a racket. If the scimitar did not kill him, most likely a barbed arrow would.
The hunter kicked out in a last-ditch effort, and his leg, through the will of whatever god was listening, somehow managed to connect solidly with his would-be killer’s other knee. Varynn would have to live with the bruise—the orc’s leg suddenly giving out was the only way he could escape from the situation alive. The scimitar’s downward slash swerved off-course as the beast fell to the ground, and Varynn wasted no time in scrambling to his feet and rushing for his fallen weapon.
With the grace of an avalanche the man lunged for his crossbow. His hand clenched the familiar stock, he pulled the welcome weight into position on his shoulder, and in a flash had the cord drawn and the small metal bow straining with tension. His opponent was off-balance, and Varynn reached into his case of bolts.
The orc never knew what hit it. The heavy quarrel, fired from only seven feet away by an expert marksman, shot forth like a falcon diving at prey. The orc fell slowly, as though still unsure as to how it had died; first collapsing to its knees, and then falling face-first into the spongy moss-blanketed Everwood floor.
Varynn hardly had time to revel in his victory however. Almost as soon as he had turned away from the slain scout an arrow plunged, quivering, into an adjacent oak tree. Orc cries came from every direction, with the brutes closing distance to Varynn fast.
But the hunter was ready.
A thick steel bolt shot through the neck of the first beast up, its death-cry gurgled as it fell back. The second and third received the same welcome, their bodies falling to the ground as more came forth behind them. When Varynn had reloaded for the fifth time, his target was only a few paces away and his hasty shot just managed to blast through its stomach. And then they were upon him, too close to allow reloading of any speed, and the hunter was forced to drop his crossbow to the ground.
Dipping into a crouch Varynn snatched up the scimitars of two dead orcs near him, feeling their balance in his hands. The hunter spun up like a whirlwind, his left blade cleanly slicing through leather armor while his right weapon parried the downward slash of another orc’s battleaxe before whipping around and taking its throat. Those two fell away, giving room for Varynn to stand completely before ducking under the swing of a third orc that came rushing in which a flail. The spiked ball swished harmlessly through the air, but its owner’s knee came snapping up to clip the hunter in his cheek.
Varynn was lucky that the blow had not torn skin. Bringing his head back up the hunter stabbed out with his right sword towards the orc’s hands while its opposite carved in from the left against the unprotected ribs. It too fell, writhing with pain, but Varynn was already engaged with another two attackers and was unable to end it swiftly.
More and more poured in, and soon the blood was beginning to pool up in the already over-damp ground. Varynn took more than his share of hits, but just when the orcs were beginning to overwhelm him, just when their weapons were getting within inches instead of feet, just when he was seeing, walking with bare delicate foot upon the Everwood floor, the comforting visage of his beautiful goddess, he would clench his hands, grind his teeth, and fight with the primal fury of a cornered animal.
And odd happenings began to occur as well. It seemed as though nature itself was on Varynn’s side, aiding in his purge of the plaguing orcs. The hunter had delivered a front-thrust kick into the chest of one enemy, causing it to stumble back and knock hard into a large dead tree. The tree chose that time to fall, creaking, whining, as its thick trunk pulled from the ground a huge portion of soil and rock. Many orcs were buried under the tons of wood, boughs breaking bodies with effortless ease. Varynn was rattled by the great tree’s fall, but it seemed to have taken with it the remaining orcs. Pinned beneath thousands of pounds of splintered wood and grunting with pain, they glared directly into Varynn’s eyes before he systematically disposed of ease and every one.
Dropping the blood-drenched scimitars that had whitened his knuckles and protected his life against impossible odds, Varynn searched around until finally finding and lifting back up his heavy crossbow. He attached it to his back, slipping its leather sling over his head to rest on his shoulder.
Then the hunter advanced forward, hopping over the lower branches of the fallen oak and sliding over the higher ones, and slowly, deliberately even, walked down from the hill towards where he had first spotted the orcs. There he saw one left, an orc warrior attempting to pull itself along the ground with only its hands. Its legs were mangled—most likely from the giant tree’s fall—and Varynn advanced upon it.
“Roll over,” Varynn commanded, using his own foot to roughly toss the orc onto its back. Once more he pulled from his belt the skinning knife, its blade glowing with an unearthly tint from the moonlight, but did not bring his weapon down just yet. Instead, he turned towards the carcass that rest only a few feet away.
The elk, its hide punctured by the volley of arrows, was lying were its killers had dropped it. Although in a heap, the antlered beast swelled Varynn’s heart with joy. He strode up and carved into the beast, cutting a chunk from it. Holding the bloody meat, Varynn held his arm high and could feel his stomach rumble at the sight of such a prize.
Varynn walked over to the orc on its back and brandished the meat fiercely in front of it. At first the brute seemed not to understand, and was too busy trying to look both defiant and crawl away at the same time to put much thought into what the human was holding anyway. But the meaning was made clear for it by the hunter.
“That was my kill!” he shouted, a primal roar that shook the orc to its very core. He was waving the elk-leg in his left hand while turning the knife in his right. “My kill!”
He thrust forward, feeling the pain from the battle pour out of him in one single strike.