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Last Defense

War forever changes the world. Men, cities, and societies may rise or fall based upon a single passing judgment, and the heroes of one society may be the scourge of another. In the end, the only remaining defense may be a good offense.

A wild northern wind blew through the moonlit trees, forcing its way amongst the twisted limbs and ancient boles. The gale tossed the small outer branches and leaves about with a rushing moan; below, the mighty branches and trunks barely acknowledged the gusting presence of the stiff breeze in their timeless, unwavering stance. Howling as though angered at the silence of the trees, the wind blustered south over seemingly endless waves of forestland, until at long last, as it neared the southern border of the mighty woods, the wind broke from the trees into a large clearing.

Perfectly circular and barren, with stumps dotting the muddy ground, the clearing rose at its center to a round little hill. Atop the hill, looking small and crude, sat a wall fashioned from tree trunks, their sharpened tips, still white from the cutting, thrusting angrily into the night sky. Within the wall were a number of rough wooden cottages, shut tightly against the wind and the night, the dusky moon above providing the only light to the few armed men keeping watch into the clearing.

Outside the wall, a man wrapped in a plain brown cloak shivered as he paced around the top of the hill, his watering brown eyes carefully scanning the walls, the clearing, and the ever-present trees. He paused and tightened his cloak with his right hand, the chain mail shirt beneath jingling faintly with the motion. His left hand, gnarled and scarred as though burned by some fire from long ago, dangled near his sheathed sword. The man cursed and muttered to himself, “When did the world get so cold?” as he pulled the cloak’s hood up about his gray-haired head. A cold breeze whipped over the man, and with a shrug and a cough, he again pulled tight his cloak and pressed on into the night.

At times during his journey the man would stop and peer at the walls, running his right hand over the rough bark and examining gaps between the boles. At one such time he stooped down with protesting knees to inspect a gap large enough for a young boy to slip through. “Farmers,” he growled, “they should keep to the dirt and leave the building of fortresses to soldiers.” Unfortunately though, he admitted to himself as he regained his feet, he did not have nearly enough soldiers and far too many farmers. He had hardly finished this thought when he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder from behind.

The old man became a blur of motion. He swung about, his right foot extended and kicking the legs out from under the person behind him. At the same moment, his right hand swept his broadsword from its sheath and brought it slicing down to a halt within inches of the throat of his assailant.

The fallen man eyed the quivering point of the polished blade and said judiciously, “You always were too fast for a human.”

“And you, Sneak,” growled the armed old man, “were always too cocky for your own good.”

The man on the ground threw back his head and laughed. His shining blond hair fell about his shoulders and over his deep green cloak, revealing elegantly pointed elven ears. His eyes glimmered with mischief.

“You just don’t appreciate a good joke,” he said, wagging a finger in the old man’s direction.

“I also don’t appreciate people who leave me when they’re supposed to be protecting my back.” The old man’s dark eyes glinted in the moonlight as the sword inched closer to the elf’s slender neck.

“That was a long time ago,” the elf laughed. “Surely you’re not still holding a grudge against an old campaigning comrade such as myself? We were the closest comrades for over twenty years, regardless of the strife that has come between our peoples since then.”

The man snorted, and his sword remained steady.

“At least let me stand up, Orthus. It’s cold down here, and besides, I have an extreme aversion to large pointed objects.” The elf looked up imploringly at the old soldier, eventually eliciting a grunt from the old man before he stepped back and sheathed his sword in a smooth, practiced motion.

“You’re not worth the bother, Sneak. It’d take me at least an hour to clean your blood from my blade.”

“I’m happy to see you, too,” the elf said breezily as he stood with a fluid twist of his body. Sneak then made a show of fastidiously brushing the dirt from his dark green jerkin and pants.

A young voice from above interrupted the scene. “Stand away from the Colonel, you on the hill! Move an inch and I’ll spit you on this arrow!”

Orthus sighed and looked up toward the top of the wall. Above the spikes of the wooden battlements, the white oval of a face could be seen in the gloom. “Hart, I certainly appreciate your coming to my aid; I believe, however, that I can handle this sneak thief. Go back to your rounds.”

“Yes, sir,” the voice replied from above, disconsolate.

“One of your mighty warriors, colonel, sir?” laughed the elf.

Orthus grunted and spat out an angry, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you here? Why now, after ten years – and after the defeat of your people? The elves are supposed to be gone from these trees.”

“Always so suspicious – just another human trait, I suppose. I don’t believe I’ll ever understand …” The elf’s words slowed and faded as Orthus’ hand drifted towards his sword hilt. “Of course that’s not what you asked about, was it? Trust me, Orthus, I have the very best of reasons to be here. I have news for you, news for which I’m sure you’ll wish to reward me later. In fact –“

“What news?”

“Why, news of a mutual friend of ours whom you haven’t seen in many a year. Someone I know you’ll want to see immediately – particularly considering the unfortunate circumstances under which you parted. I saw the mage –“

“Varin. You’re talking about Varin!” The final words were shouted as the soldier’s right hand clenched into a fist. The left hand twisted and jumped, its warped fingers curling spasmodically.

“Why how perceptive of you, old friend. Indeed, Varin de Mar is camped scant miles away at the southern border of the Sacred Trees. It would appear he means to … meet with you on the morrow. Perhaps he regrets your past disagreements and has come to offer his apologies. Perhaps he wishes to atone for his misdeeds. Considering the short lifespan of your species, I had thought that …”

The elf babbled on as the man stood frozen, glaring into the trees at the edge of the forest as though he believed he could pierce the ancient gloom to see the old enemy whom the elf had named. Varin de Mar – Orthus still had nightmares about the last time he had seen the wizard he had once considered his closest friend, nightmares of how he had nearly died in a ball of flame which Varin had sent forth from his magical staff as Orthus was fighting demonic creatures who later proved to have been Varin’s allies. Sneak had been there as well, disappearing during the battle and Varin’s attack but later returning to pull Orthus from the flames and take him to the nearest human encampment for medical treatment. That had been the last Orthus had seen of Sneak until this very night. Finally Orthus shook himself and turned to the elf, saying flatly, “I don’t buy it.”

Sneak paused in his rambling long enough to look hurt, then began again. “Why Orthus, my friend, how could you disbelieve me? I know how highly you humans value old hatreds! I would not wish for you to let an opportunity for the revival of your relationship with Varin de Mar to pass, and considering our own years of camaraderie, I thought I might forewarn you. Why, I only –“

“No. It’s too neat. I’ve not seen you for years, yet here you are, without any good reason, in lands that your people have lost in battle. Not only you but Varin as well – or so you claim. What are you really doing here, Sneak?”

The elf grinned then tossed back his head, his mane of hair falling smoothly behind his shoulders as he laughed. He lowered his gaze and stopped to look evenly at Orthus, eye to eye. With a mischievous smirk he queried softly, “Why not find out for yourself?” With barely a pause, he turned on his heel and sprinted for the edge of the clearing, his steps silent and swift, his motions of fluid grace.

The soldier cursed and, with a momentary glance at the dark walls behind him, raced after the shadowy figure already losing itself amongst the trees. Breathing quickly from the long sprint, Orthus cleared the final stumps and plunged into the darkness of the woods.

The wind cut off abruptly as Orthus entered the trees, the sudden silence as shocking as a shout in a temple. His mail shirt jingled and his sheath’s leather slapped his leg noisily as he forged ahead, glancing about as he ran. Ahead, a dim form raced along on noiseless feet. Orthus wasted no breath on shouting; he instead increased his pace until he was nearly sprinting again. Fallen twigs, branches, and layers of leaves crunched and snapped under his feet. His breathing developed a heavy rasp and pain shot through his knees.

Orthus cursed his failing body and fought to hold his pace. His foot caught on a branch and he stumbled. Lurching forward, he began again, forcing the repetition of left foot, right foot, repeating this basic mantra to block out the pain from his legs. Grunting and snarling, he forced himself back into the chase. He locked onto the shadowy form of the elf ahead of him. Silvery blond hair gleamed dully as Sneak glanced over one shoulder, and faint laughter drifted back to Orthus as the elf increased his pace.

Orthus groaned, knowing he was too old for this; his instincts nagged at him as well, screaming that something was not right. He shook his head briefly and pushed all thoughts aside, focusing his attention on the simple task of keeping up with the elf. Stride by stride he went, eyes straining to pick out safe places for his feet, his breath finally settling into a deep, regular pattern. The years seemed to roll back as his stride lengthened, and he began to gain slightly on the sprinting form of the elf.

The chase went on and on for miles, deep into the gloom and silence. The fleet-footed elf’s taunting laughter was always ahead of the soldier; in the still calm of the trees, the laughter stood out as the only sound besides the jingling of Orthus’ chain mail and the crunch of leaves beneath his feet. His face was intense in its concentration, his eyes darting between the forest floor before him and the dim form of the elf in the distance. A fierce grin spread across his face as he saw that he was drawing closer to his target, the elf just crossing the top of a small hill. The grin vanished from Orthus’ face, however, as he himself topped the rise – the elf was nowhere to be seen on the other side. Orthus slowed to a jog and visually searched the surrounding forest, his instincts coming back full force and telling him with growing certainty that he was being led into a trap.

Suddenly, his eyes fell upon a flickering glow directly ahead. Habits born of years of campaigning brought his slow jog smoothly to a silent walk and his right hand to the hilt of his sword. Here, then, was the trap; the elf had meant to lead him here at a full run, right into Varin’s camp. Knowing the mage, a painful death would have soon followed.

Orthus grimaced as his crippled left hand again began to twitch spasmodically. He stroked it into a quivering peace with his other hand as he gazed toward the wavering firelight. “Well,” he muttered to himself, “it seems a shame to waste this fine chance that Sneak’s handed me.”

Easing his sword from its sheath, he began to creep through the boles of the trees, slinking from shadow to shadow. He inched closer to the camp, every sense strained into the night for some sense of what lay ahead; the trees were silent, however, keeping their secrets to themselves. After a time, his ears could pick out the crackling of the fire; a short time later he could see it and also the still form that sat in profile nearby.

Orthus gasped and sank back into the shadow of a hoary old trunk as he studied the figure by the fire. Robes of heavy blue cloth enveloped the seated man’s form. One long-fingered hand slowly stroked a crystal pendant which hung from a long silver chain about his throat. The head was hooded, but the man seemed to be studying the pendant intently as it caught the firelight and split the glow into jagged glimmers. Across the lap of the robed figure lay a long wooden staff, heavily engraved and tipped with a copper ball that seemed not to reflect the firelight at all; instead, there was a strange glow deep within the ball that appeared to gather the light into itself.

Orthus nodded and his left hand twitched again – this was Varin without a doubt, exactly as he remembered him. He studied the rest of the camp. A bedroll lay nearby as well as a tin plate that held the remains of the mage’s dinner. A set of saddlebags were the only other objects in immediate view. Beyond the edges of the circle of firelight stood a large, dark shape that Orthus took to be Varin’s horse. Further, Orthus could pick out the dusty path that led toward the village. Satisfied with his reconnaissance, the soldier faded back amongst the trees. When he could no longer hear the crackling of the fire, he began to work his way toward the road. He moved until he judged that he was behind the seated man’s back, and then he halted.

A grim smile from years past played across the old man’s weathered features as he ran his quivering left thumb down the edge of his blade. He nodded and sheathed the weapon. Kneeling, he folded down the upper portion of his right boot, revealing the hilt of a dagger. He loosened it in its sheath, stood, and looked intently about him. A nearby moss-covered rock, about the size of his hand, elicited a satisfied grunt from the soldier’s throat. Moving on cat’s feet, he picked up the stone and began to slip through the shadows back toward the fire. When he could see the back of the mage, still sitting by the fire, he stopped.

Orthus’ breath rushed in and out powerfully; the blood sang in his veins as it hadn’t for years; his limbs felt limber and yet taut with power. His right hand trembled as he drew his sword and leaned it against his leg, the point sinking loosely into the forest loam. Hefting the rock once more, he threw it far into the trees to Varin’s left. The mage’s head jerked up with the crashings of the rock, and Orthus, his sword leaping to hand, roared and charged confidently into the camp.

Varin made it to his feet, hands gripping his staff. He turned to meet Orthus, strange words issuing from the depths of his hood. The copper ball on the staff began to pulse with a ruddy light as Orthus reached the man. His blade rose and fell in a deadly arc aimed to cleave the mage from shoulder to groin; the old man stumbled, though, as his blade met no resistance. It passed completely through the mage and became lodged in the loam as Orthus’ momentum carried him forward.

Cursing, Orthus slid to a stop before the fire and spun into a low crouch, his right hand sweeping the dagger deftly from his boot top. His sword still stood upright, its point deep in the forest floor, its blade gleaming in the firelight. Still trembling with battle-readiness and adrenaline, his eyes darted about, looking for some sign of what had happened to the mage. The depths of the forest gave no clue, their darkness and silence complete. Turning, his gaze fell upon the mage’s camp gear. Grunting, he poked at the tin which still lay by the fire. His dagger passed effortlessly through this, too, as it vanished before his eyes, followed into nothingness by the bedroll, saddlebags, and the dim shape of the horse in the woods. Only the fire remained, crackling to itself in the oppressive silence. Orthus remained ready, unsure of what to expect.

A familiar laugh rang suddenly from the trees. Orthus leapt to his feet and searched the surrounding gloom, unable to determine the source of the laugh – it seemed to be coming from the very trees. “Sneak thief!” he bellowed. “Show yourself!” The laughter continued for a moment, then staggered to a halt.

“Oh, colonel, sir,” called the elf’s voice. “Can’t you let a man enjoy a fine jest?” The laughter began once more.

Orthus cocked his head, searching in vain for the direction from which the elf’s voice had come. The laughter echoed throughout the campsite, reverberating off the trees. It was as though the elf’s laughter rang forth from every direction. Shrugging at his futile effort, Orthus addressed the nearest trees.

“Jest? This is a bit elaborate for a practical joke – even for you. What did you hope to gain by this?” The old man’s breath rasped in and out as he wound down from his adrenaline rush, easing his combat stance and awaiting a reply. His knees began to once again complain about the abuse of the night chase. Finally the elf’s laughter died down and he regained enough composure to answer.

“I gained nothing but a fine laugh, dear colonel. But my people … Ah! My people gained much.” Orthus’ head snapped about, eyes narrowed to slits.

“Your people? What are your people doing here? They signed a treaty with Overlord Liandross that –“

“A treaty!” bubbled the elf with mirth. “As though words on paper – words written at sword-point, no less – could bind us! The Sacred Trees are and have been our friends from the birth of this world, from a time before the race of man existed. Your paper words mean nothing to us.”

“But your people are scattered, your king dead, your Erl Houses burned. Why are you here? What can you be thinking? Our armies will simply finish what they began in the plains. You can’t –“

“Do not tell the elves what they can and cannot do in the Sacred Trees, old friend.” The elf’s voice was no longer light and laughing but instead cold and hard. “Observe!” echoed his voice from the trees.

The fire blazed up higher and higher until it towered over Orthus’ head. Among its flames a darkness appeared, the darkness of the trees. At its center was a vision of the clearing he had left not long ago, the village visible at the top of the hill as though seen from a great height. Orthus gasped as he saw the dead bodies lying within and outside of the walls, not a living soul to be seen as flames were busily consuming the huts and the walls that had failed to protect them. The laughter from the trees surrounding Orthus began again, and the fire flared and then vanished in the same manner that Varin and his encampment had earlier disappeared.

The old man stood with his head bowed in the midst of the silence, both hands trembling uncontrollably. With a sudden shout he snatched his sword out of the clinging loam and ran through the trees to the path. Sword held high, he charged down the path in a desperate, stumbling run toward the faraway orange glow that lit the trees. The elf’s laughter followed him as the trees swallowed both his form and his shout in their ancient darkness. After a time the glow at the end of the path, and then the path itself, vanished. The solitude of the forest was complete.


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Last Defense, by Paul Cales, © October 2003