Copyright © 2012 Alistair McIntyre
No, no, no! This wasn’t how it was supposed to go!
Erlendr moved as fast as he dared, concentrating on not breaking his camouflage. Easier said than done with his mind racing even faster than his feet. Sweat poured under his studded jerkin, despite the coolness of the night. He looked around anxiously. They could be anywhere. With his heartbeat thumping in his ears, he doubted he’d even hear the enemy until they were already on him. In the dark of night west of Caer Benowyc, the lone Hunter jumped at every creeping shadow, at every rustle of leaves.
All he’d wanted to do was emulate the great Hunters of old, the ones who the elders spoke of so reverently in the inns of Jordheim. Men and women who loosed a thousand arrows without a single miss, so many masterful lone enforcers whose names would live forever. Was it too much to ask to join those ranks? Erlendr hadn’t thought so, but now knew the truth.
The legends of his profession had never run from a fight in their lives, slaying Hibs and Albs without a tinge of fear. At the docks near Benowyc, Erlendr had found his first opportunity to write his own name amongst the greats, to earn his place in Valhalla. Instead, he’d fled as if his life depended on it.
Because it did.
The stealthers of Albion would certainly be stalking him now. Fear now competed with panic. One side couldn’t even bear the thought of unstealthing just to cast his fading enhancement spells, but the other side fought frantically to convince him to break stealth and race into the forest, a flitting phantom in the dark. Caught between the two options, he struggled on, every sinew pulled taut by abject terror.
A tower came into view as he crested a small hill. Wary of additional enemies emerging from the stronghold, Erlendr kept to the trees on the left, maintaining a safe distance from the stone structure. Just past the tower, he found a pair of trees that would suffice as cover while he made himself visible to cast a spell that would bolster his deftness. Bright moonlight cast a deep shadow from the trees. Relieved, Erlendr allowed himself to breathe a little easier, to step a little heavier.
A twig snapped behind him. Before the inexperienced Hunter could even twist his head in response, twin points of savage pain pierced through his back. Held in place by blades, Erlendr was helpless to defend himself. He couldn’t move! Oh, but could he feel. As the weapons withdrew from his back, powerful poisons ravaged his entire being. Agony bound every muscle, leaving Erlendr too scared to even twitch.
Then the unseen assailant forced a sword through the back of Erlendr’s thigh, severing his hamstring. Through the amazing pain, endless hours of training finally bore fruit. With a single word, a hound materialized and grappled with the enemy, snarling and snapping. Erlendr hobbled away, hopping mostly on his good leg as debilitating poison coursed through his veins.
Ignoring his discomfort, he stopped after ten paces and produced his astral bow. The heirloom from his father felt light as a feather, yet strong as a vendo as Erlendr carefully nocked an arrow. Even in the moonlight, he could make out the crimson stain lying in a wide trail from his feet back to where the Infiltrator wrestled with Erlendr’s protector.
Feeling like he had the upper hand, the Hunter drew his bowstring and aimed at the Infiltrator. Trembling as he held the bow tense, Erlendr barked a single-worded command. His dog leapt out of the way, anticipating the Hunter’s arrow. As his fingers loosened, he felt as if a frost stallion had just kicked him in the chest. His arrow sailed high and wide. Erlendr looked down and saw an arm’s length of an arrow shaft protruding from his own chest. Confused, the young Norseman silently observed the field before him. A Scout casually left the cover of a nearby tree. Erlendr hadn’t even seen him.
The Infiltrator cut open Erlendr’s dog’s throat as the canine lunged furiously. The man’s hands glimmered with blood as he and the Scout both turned to Erlendr. Peeling away from the pair, the Hunter staggered drunkenly away, no longer hurting physically, but feeling as if he was trudging through thick quicksand. He fumbled at his belt, trying to free his one healing potion. The vial made no noise as it landed in the grass.
Erlendr glanced over his shoulder again. The stealthers were closing in slowly, probably wary that the Hunter could rapidly fire off another arrow, perhaps with more luck this time. Little did they know that Erlendr couldn’t even lift his bow. The weapon just dangled idly in his hand.
Why didn’t the Scout just shoot him and get it over with, end his life with some small semblance of dignity?
Looking ahead now, Erlendr saw a shadow shimmer briefly. His already slow pace ground to a halt in the face of yet another Infiltrator. This one wore an evil grin and didn’t care that Erlendr could see him. With no recourse, the Hunter stood helpless as the Saracen darted forward with lightning speed and drove a poisoned dirk into his good leg. With the moan of a dying animal, Erlendr toppled backwards to the soft grass.
Staring up at the stars, the Hunter watched as one, two, and then three dark forms peered down at him. He didn’t care anymore. He was no Viking. There would be no Valkyrie coming to usher him on to the gods he so fervently served. It was over.
Or it should’ve been. Why wouldn’t they just finish him off?
The poisons did incredible damage over time, destroying his organs and opening weeping wounds all over his skin. The sadistic trio just wanted to watch him bleed out. What a sad way to die.
Desiring to pass on with stars before him, Erlendr opened his eyelids for what he thought could be the final time. Peacefully slipping towards his fate, the Norseman didn’t even react when an enormous, bright red blade shot through the chest of one of the Infiltrators. Erlendr casually observed his other two assailants stand motionless, as if asleep, while their compatriot suffered three quick flashes from the great red sword. The man collapsed silently, dead before he struck the ground.
Now a blur of movement rippled across Erlendr’s view. A pair of red axes sliced through the night, and right through the wrists of the impotent Scout. His shield fell from his grasp as he let loose a terrible shriek. Erlendr lazily rolled his head to the side and saw both of the Scout’s hands lying on the grass. The rest of the archer’s body quickly followed suit.
By now the third defender of Albion had started to run away, probably desperately trying to slink away into the shadows. Instead, he crashed to the ground after Erlendr’s savior launched a pair of throwing knives into his back. The dying Hunter watched impassively as the Shadowblade sauntered over to his prey and removed the Infiltrator’s head with one deft swing of his axes.
A Shadowblade who wielded both a sword and axes equally well. Erlendr would never have guessed he’d have witnessed such a sight. This must truly be one of the great legends of Midgard, one worthy of stories and songs. He waited for his rescuer to come to his aid, to cure his poison, but the short Norseman just turned and started walking into the night.
“Come back,” Erlendr cried, his voice ragged.
The Shadowblade turned his head slowly and glared at the downed Hunter, before continuing on his way.
“Don’t leave me here,” Erlendr pleaded. “You can’t leave me here.”
He can’t just leave me here.
The Hunter rested his head back in the grass. Staring up once more at the night sky over Albion, stars filling his sight, Erlendr gasped his last.