Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Worth Dying For, Part 1

Worth Dying For
David Hayden
Niobe sprinted through the autumn wood with a grace that would have turned all but the most agile woodland creatures the color of pine with envy. Not far behind her were a dozen furious goblins, incensed at both the ranger’s tricks and how she continued to elude them. She deftly avoided the rotted stumps, gnarled roots and briars that made the footing so treacherous. It was not by accident that she had chosen this path, and her cunning was rewarded by successive shrieks of pain and frustration as her pursuers kept confirming her expectation that they were neither as nimble nor as adept as she in navigating the deep woods.

Normally the howls of frustrated goblins would have been reason enough for at least some grim satisfaction given how much she despised the creatures; but not now, not today. Not when her purpose was so critical, not when those howls so close. Not given the agony blazing through her calves and the pain that lanced through her wounded shoulder every time she fired her bow. These goblins had shown a tenacity she had not seen before from such creatures, as if they were on a mission.
Which they happened to be, but goblins and determination were not words she would have normally associated. Regardless of the potential gain, the creatures tended to be thoroughly lazy and self-serving, well-skilled at avoiding anything that even hinted at the potential of hard work. But determined they were. She had killed or incapacitated more than half their numbers, a full dozen at through the long day. Yet they showed no sign of giving up their dogged, if clumsy, pursuit as the shadows grew long in the waning daylight.
Convinced she knew where their true quarry was, they had chased her with a fanatical intensity that had frankly surprised her. But that alone was of little concern - indeed her entire purpose in the series of ambushes she had executed on the wretched band, the traps and pitfalls she had led them into time and time again, had been to get them to chase her, that she might lead them away from her vulnerable friend. And, she had to admit with a mix of satisfaction and trepidation; her efforts had certainly worked, perhaps too well.

A crude arrow fletched with crow feathers clattered off a tree to her left.  The noise was as sharp a reminder as the burning wound in her shoulder that even with their abysmal aim and primitive weapons, the goblins were still dangerous.

Niobe ducked around the next tree, drawing and releasing an arrow in one fluid motion. One of the goblins was torn from its feet and thrown through the air, the green and red fletching the only part of her arrow that was still visible. She was off and running before the corpse hit the ground, but still heard the embedded arrow snap underneath the dead goblin's weight. Cursing inwardly she drew another arrow from her quiver, her nimble fingers confirming what she already knew – she had just eight arrows left, and at least eleven goblins, howling mad and still after her. Her and the knowledge of where Moonwind and her child were resting safely. Knowledge they would no doubt try to wrest from her with cruel knives and flame, with their natural if twisted inclination for inflicting pain.
Driven by purpose, Niobe ran on.
She passed the foreboding remains of a building in full stride. It stood out starkly against the rest of the wood, despite the forest’s effort to reclaim it. She noted its location, both as a landmark to help keep her bearings and as another potential trap to lure the goblins into. The dull burning in her thighs had turned sharp and blood flowed freely from the wound on her shoulder. She paused to catch her breath, eyes flickering across the tree line for any sign of an enemy. She could hear them well-enough – that was one blessing at least, they were too stupid or undisciplined to keep quiet. But by their noise she could tell they were having trouble deciphering the latest mystery of a trail she had left for them.
Satisfied that there was no immediate danger, she dropped to one knee, placed her bow on the ground, and reached into a pouch on her belt. She drew forth linen bandage, soaked in a heady paste of herbs and strong wine, and tied it tightly around her shoulder with strong teeth and deft fingers. Thin but deep, the wound would likely continue to bleed as she continued to use the arm, but the bandage should help stem the flow at least. There was nothing else that could be done.
Her injury attended to, she picked up her bow and began to run again, away from the path she’d previously taken, long loping strides covering ground while conserving energy. Perhaps if she moved quickly enough, she could outflank her pursuers.
Sprinting in a straight line, a tactic she had explicitly avoided throughout the chase, she soon found herself on more solid ground. A quick survey of the landscape revealed a rocky slope ahead, which she suspected would give her an excellent view of the woods below. The woods the goblins were advancing through.
Niobe ran as fast as she had all day, eager to seize the opportunity, eager to try and balance the odds more to her favor.

Soon she was crouched behind the ridge, with a clear vision of the hollow below. A group of five of the goblins was spread out searching for her amongst the tangled brush. She could hear several others arguing a few hundred feet back.
She sighted the goblin that was the in the middle of the hollow; it was still well within the range of her powerful bow and dropping that one would cause sufficient confusion about where she was to let her sneak away again. A devious grin crossed her lips as she sought to calm her breathing for the shot.
Hot waves of agony shot through Niobe as a crude arrow sliced through her leg, just above the knee. She released the bowstring in surprise and her arrow flew wide of the mark, forever lost amongst the brambles. She tried to stand, stumbling and off balance, startled and in pain, to face the unexpected threat.
A squat goblin, its foul features even more distorted by the proud grin its jagged yellow teeth formed, was just twenty feet from her. It pulled another arrow from a ragged quiver, concentrating to try and fit it onto the bow. Even distracted by the pain and balancing on one leg, Niobe didn’t need anywhere near that much time to string a single arrow. She drew one from her quiver, strung it, and let fly in one fluid motion. She felt some satisfaction as the missile pierced through her attacker’s shoulder, pinning the shocked goblin to the tree. It pulled weakly at the protruding shaft, its strength gone as black blood poured from the wound. Niobe notched another arrow and tried to regain her focus.

Around a tree to Niobe’s left charged a second goblin with a patchwork shield and a jagged spear extended to impale her. She was unsure of whether the screech it issued forth was supposed to be a challenge or a cry of triumph at locating her – goblins were just noisy creatures and their noises were all blurring together for her. Niobe waited until it was just a few strides away before she exploded into action. She batted the spear’s tip up and dropped to her knees, drawing forth one of her long knives as she went. The surprised goblin pitched over her suddenly low form.
The collision of its head against the dense forest floor stunned the creature, and a quick slash of Niobe's knife ended its life.
Still kneeling, she slashed at the hem of her tunic, quickly cutting a strip of the linen to bandage her wound. She tied it as tight as she could without cutting off the circulation, but knew it would continue to bleed. It was too deep, and she did not have the time to properly treat it. Just nine goblins remained, but from the angry cries she heard from the woods below, she did not doubt they would continue to chase her, and the blood trail she was going to leave would make hiding her trail any easier.
With no other options, Niobe forced herself to stand. She tried to limp away, but the injured leg betrayed her after just a few steps. Anguish washed over her and she collapsed to one knee. A burning cold pierced her stomach, not another arrow, but rather the loss of hope, as tangible as if it had spilled out of her wound and joined with the lifeblood running down her leg. She climbed over the great trunk of a fallen tree, gasping in pain, for air that would not come. Despair engulfed her – she had failed.
In that instant she almost did. Distracted by her grief, she did not react to the snapping twig to her right with the speed of the seasoned warrior she was. Niobe barely managed to bring her bow up between herself and the rusty blade swung by the goblin that bore down on her. There was a sickening crunch, and though the ebonwood held, she knew the bow was ruined. Her bow. Her father's before her. The bow that had been wielded by one of her blood for fully ninety years. And now, because of a moment's lapse in discipline, it would never shoot again.  
  Rage drove Niobe's swing. Rage augmented by purpose and years of training, but mostly blind, furious rage. The heavy limb struck the goblin's forearm, and it shrieked in pain. Bones gave way to the dense wood and the crude sword dropped to the ground as the creature dropped to its knees clutching the shattered limb arm. The shrieking ceased as Niobe's return swing caught the stunned goblin underneath its jaw, the force of the blow lifting it bodily from the ground. The goblin fell, twisting awkwardly, and lay still amongst the leaves.
A second goblin charged her from the left, a rusted ax brandished above its head. Niobe dropped to one knee and thrust the end of her bow hard into its gut. The creature stumbled backward, falling, arm flailing as it sought a hold but found none. Niobe was upon it, snarling, before it even hit the ground. Her long knife hissed from its sheath and slashed across the goblin's throat in one swift, primal stroke. A look of confusion crossed the creature’s face for the briefest of moments before the light fled from its eyes.
With the immediate threat removed, the reality of the situation dawned on her. Deprived of her deadliest weapon, she had little chance against the more than half-dozen foes that remained.

Tears flowed freely as she stood, more out of anger and grief than the pain. There were seven goblins left. Seven were too many. Normally Moonwind would have crushed such vermin without a second though. But still weak from the birthing, such a feat was beyond her. It had fallen to Niobe to drive the foul creatures off, or lead them away. The outcome of their cruel hunt was in her hands, and her weakness had doomed a dear friend. She staggered away, adrenaline coursing through her veins once again, barely aware of the moss beneath her boots or the branches that scratched her face, the pain locked in a far corner of her mind.
A short while later Niobe ducked behind a cluster of oaks, listening for the sounds of pursuit. The angry back-and-forth seemed distant enough that she dared to peek out from behind the tree to confirm no foe was stealthily approaching. As she should have been doing all along.  Convinced that she had bought herself a brief respite by doubling back across a shallow stream, she tore open her healer’s kit to deal with the fresh wound on her leg.
There was no time to be delicate about it, so she just cut off the drenched bandage and tore the blood-soaked leg of her breeches off just below the wound. Mercifully, the sharp edge of the goblin’s arrowhead had just grazed her; she shuddered at the thought of the difference the width of a finger would have made. The cut was still deep though, too deep to just bind it. Blood trickled from the wound with each beat of her heart.

She pulled a small leather pouch from her kit, opened it, and poured the fine powder within onto the wound. Pain struck her like an angry bull, her senses reeling from the self-inflicted trauma. There really was no way to properly prepare oneself for the shock of the chitosan salts; the more grievous the wound, the stronger the reaction would be. She clenched her eyes shut against it, the inside of her lids intensely bright as her brain translated the sharp, stabbing waves of pain into colors.  

The pain ebbed slowly. How long it took before she was able to open her eyes, she was unsure. Instinctively, for her mind was still reduced to operating on the most primal level, she took a thick bandage from her bag and began to wrap the wound. The wound which, angry and crusted with dried blood, no longer wept in time with her pulse.  It would still bleed, but not as greatly as before.

As the pain diminished and the adrenaline flowed through her, Niobe shook off the hazy sensation. She had no time to go into shock. She stood, tentatively, and was relieved to find she could at least put weight on her leg again. Knowing that every moment she was not moving brought her enemies closer, she hobbled off.

It wasn’t long before she heard the goblins shouting again. She had managed to move fairly quickly given her injury, and was using the terrain to frustrate their tracking efforts, but it was only a matter of time until they inevitably caught her. She tried to increase the pace at which she hobbled, but only managed a short distance before the limitations of her injury became clear. She paused a moment to consider her very limited options.

Her hand fell to the pendant at her neck, as it often did of its own accord when she was troubled.  A simple bit of horn, it was one of her most treasured possessions, a gift from the friend she now struggled to protect. Many precious memories were associated with that pendant and that friend, the most cherished of which was the memory of her own daughter’s birth. Her eyes grew damp at the thought of her only child, that it was very likely she would never see her again. She bit down on her lip, focusing on the discomfort to keep her mind from plummeting into the depths of emotions that dwelled within.  
She breathed deeply, taking in all of the smells of the forest that gave her so much joy to simply walk in. Her eyes closed gently as she basked in the glory of the crisp autumn air, the scent of the fir and spruce, and the rough smell of the earth.  Her eyes opened, cleared of sorrow, and she took in the sights of the wood as well.
One who was unfamiliar with the wilds would not likely have found the beauty in this place that Niobe did. This was no picturesque glade where moonlight reflected off a crystal clear murmuring brook, or a pristine mountain vale with a breathtaking view. The image of this random part of the forest in which she had happened to stop would never grace a castle wall in the form of a tapestry; it was simply too raw for the average mortal to appreciate.

There was an oak, old and sickly, with splintered limbs amongst the stand of hearty birch. It was a question of how long and not whether the wind would bring it down and the worms would turn it to rot. The once mighty tree would one day be returned to the soil from which it sprouted.

And there further to her left, lay the remnants of the trunk of another tree, massive but decayed beyond recognition as any particular species. But even there amongst the eroded remains, there was life. Not just surviving despite a foundation devoid of life, but propagated by it. Along the entire length, mushrooms and moss flourished. The roots of plants, and indeed the tiniest of trees, had bored their way into the carcass of soft wood.  Niobe felt the presence of life all around her. She was acutely aware of the perspective she had been granted. And she understood the path that lay before her.
Despair had descended on her like a wolf spying what seemed like a vulnerable fawn, had been confronted by the great host of strength within her, and had decided to move on to less challenging prey. This one would be nothing but trouble.

Using her ruined bow for support, she limped off with grim determination to find a place to make her final stand.She did not have to travel far before she found it.

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