A new story from Vraeden! If you are new around these parts, Vraeden gave us the excellent “The Long Road Home” story last year which is also worth a read. But I won’t continue to yammer on so you can get on with the new story, “To Stand Against the Darkness”. Enjoy!
They had been on the run for almost three days.
No rest. No reinforcements. No hope.
The horde of goblins and orcs seemed endless. The company had been raised to fight off a small band of marauders. What they didn’t know was that the enemy numbered six times six dozen.
Those men and elves who had volunteered soon found themselves driven from the field, far from their homes. Scattered and broken, what was left of the militia splintered into parties that fell easy prey to the orcs.
One group retreated to an old farmhouse, its inhabitants slaughtered by the agents of Mordor. Their bodies rotted in the sun, but none were pierced by sword or spear. The black boils of the Necromancer’s plague covered their skin. Their faces contorted in agony up until the final moments before their death.
“We’ll make our stand in the barn,” their leader said, his voice weary from fighting and running. “Make every arrow count, boys. This may be our end, but let’s take as many of them with us as we can.”
The other eight murmured their assent. All but one.
He turned into the corner, shamefully wiping the tears from his eyes. A young lad, he didn’t expect his life to end this way. Not like the others, some of whom had seen two or three score summers pass.
The boy was a stablehand, not a fighter. He had been recruited mostly for his riding prowess and to care for the horses. Like several others in his village, he volunteered out of youthful exuberance with the promises of an easy campaign, but his training with sword and bow was sorely lacking. He thought of his mother and father. Of his little sister and brothers. Of the wife and children he would never have.
All of them knew the orcs weren’t far behind. They built a fire and cooked the last of their rations. The men passed around skins of ale, which burned the boy’s throat. They drank disease-ridden water from the poisoned well, which was cool and refreshing, despite the stench of death that hung over them.
Just after nightfall, the orcs came, laying siege to the small farm. There were almost five score of the beasts, when they really only needed a fraction of that number.
The nine men fought bravely, and died bravely. All but one.
He awoke the next morning. His hair was matted with blood. His tattered leather armour was covered in gore and vomit.
His arms were tied. His ears rung. Fever wracked his body. One leg lay limply to the side at an odd angle. It hurt to move or even breathe.
“It’s awake,” he heard in a harsh, guttural voice.
“Why, yes, it is.” The second voice was just as deep, but it was calmer, but at the same time, more terrifying.
The boy could only open one eye. The other was swollen shut.
“How many of you are left?” the second voice asked. Its speaker came into focus. The orc was massive, easily seven feet tall, with broad, muscular shoulders and a menacing scowl. Its armour was dented and beaten. Its face was scarred and grotesque.
He tried to speak but could only cough up more blood, both on to himself and his captors.
The orcs laughed.
“Men are weak,” one of them sneered. The boy looked up just enough to see the heavy mailed hand strike. And then the world went black again.
It was dusk when he came to again. He was still restrained, his arms tied behind his back to a post of some kind. The enemy must have carried him away with them as they waged their war of terror against the farmlands.
The voices of orcs surrounded him. His body still ached. He was still covered in blood and filth. It would be so easy to close to close his eyes forever. But he knew he could not give up. Not yet. He fought back the darkness and opened his one good eye.
A fit of coughing brought him to the attention of the orc warband.
“Where did the others go?” It was the same orc as before. This time it approached alone.
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
“Tell me and I’ll give you some fresh water,” the orc said.
“I don’t know,” the boy repeated.
“How many of you were there?”
“I don’t know,” his head was spinning. “Maybe a hundred.”
“That’s better,” the orc said.
He felt something press against his lips. A splash of water flowed into his mouth, and he tried to swallow as much as he could. Still, he couldn’t help but spit some back up.
The orc laughed, then drank some himself.
All he could hear was the pounding of blood through his veins, and despite being tied to a post, he felt as if the world was spinning. He collapsed, caught only by the ropes which bound him.
When he was six, his older sister died. Separated in age by little more than a year, they adored one another. One day, she caught a fever and was unable to keep any food down. She became dehydrated and died in a matter of days. He was nothing short of devastated at her passing.
In his delirium, he dreamt of her.
“Come along, little brother,” she said gently. “It’s time.”
“I cannot,” he replied. “There is something I must do first.”
The two stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. She was just has he remembered. He feared that she would disapprove, but instead she smiled knowingly.
“Will it hurt?” he asked finally.
“No; you just close your eyes and go to sleep.”
“I’ll be with you in a little bit,” he reached out and squeezed her hand.
The next day was a blur. The orcs seemed to be taking great pleasure in his distress.
Only the one orc ever asked any questions. The others beat him repeatedly, although the leader always stopped the others short of truly injuring him further or striking him too hard in the head.
They taunted him with cruel insults and promises to kill his family. They cut his skin, and licked the blood from their blades. They ate the remains of his companions in front of him. They threatened to cut his limbs off, or worse.
His only solace were the periods of darkness which came more and more frequently. The fever seemed to be getting worse, and none of the orcs offered succor. Or a merciful death.
It was near midnight when the large orc returned to him. It asked many questions. When the boy answered, it gave him water and even some bread rations to eat.
The orc wanted to know things that the boy didn’t know. But he talked anyway. Even if he didn’t know the answer, he would make something up. Nothing too lavish, always plausible. He tried to remember his lies. He gave his name as one of the men who had died on the first day, so if the orcs decided to hunt down his family, they would not find his mother and father or his siblings.
Their conversation lasted well into the night, until exhaustion and fever claimed him.
On the third day of his captivity, the orcs were much less abusive. They still beat him, but it seemed that the fun was gone.
They moved again some time in the night; when he awoke, the boy found himself tied to a tree trunk. He coughed up more blood, and tried to sit up in his soiled greaves. He had given up hope for a rescue, knowing that even if others among the Free People were to find him, the orcs would kill him rather than let a prisoner return to his home. Only an iron will he did not know he had kept him alive.
The inquisitor stopped by when the sun was at its zenith.
“They want me to kill you,” it said in a mocking tone. “Your companions were so tasty, my orcs want more man-flesh.”
“Then kill me,” he whispered. An excruciating pain ran from his head to his toes. His neck burned with an intense fever, which seemed as if it would never break.
“I think I’ll keep you for another day,” the orc said, its voice smug with scorn. “Your suffering entertains me.”
“What do you mean, they’re ill? Get the shamans to heal them!” the large orc thundered.
He was fading in and out of consciousness. The pain and fever were more intense than the day before, if that were even possible. Still he hung on, determined to outlive his torturers.
“They were the first ones struck down!” another orc cowered. “Two can do nothing but flop to the ground. The others can barely stand!”
The boy smiled to himself, and then passed out again.
When he awoke the next time, he knew it would be the last.
He opened his eyes as best he could to see the large orc sitting across from him, its snout barely an arm’s length away. A greatsword lay across its lap. Its breathing was heavy and laboured. Open sores and oozing pustules covered it’s skin.
The boy had them, too. Only his were covered with mud and filth and blood and the wounds inflicted by the beatings at the hands of the orcs.
“What have you done to us?” it wheezed.
“Nothing you wouldn’t have done to me.”
The boy could barely move, but out of the corner of his eye, he could see the camp was littered with dead orcs and goblins. Those waiting to die wailed in agony. The air stank of decay and disease. Yet, it smelled sweet to him.
“I am one man,” the boy said softly, his voice triumphant. “And I have felled your company, orc.”
“There are thousands more ready to take my place,” it replied, equally defiant.
“I don’t want to kill them.” He coughed and spat on the ground in front of the orc. “I only wanted to kill you.”
He raised his head one last time to see the orc hunched over, its eyes empty and lifeless.
The the boy took one final, deep breath then exhaled slowly. All of the muscles in his body relaxed. The pain all went away.
And he passed from this life into the next, where his sister and ancestors awaited him.
They found him a couple of days later, his bloated body still tied to the tree, sitting across from the great orc who had been infected with the same pox. The soldiers of the Free People burned his body in a pyre separate from the diseased pile of orc carcasses they found. The last of the orc raiders had finally been destroyed.
The men wanted to bury him as was their custom, but the elves said his plague-ridden body would only infect the earth for years to come, so powerful was the Necromancer’s taint.
No one ever knew his name.
Many leagues away, his family spoke of him in hushed tones as the son and brother who went off to fight a band of orcs and goblins and never returned. His mother’s heart broke and his father retreated into his shell, vowing vengeance and retribution. A generation later, with no wife or heirs, he was forgotten.
By all but one.
The elf who cut him down and gently lay his corpse on a pile of tinders remembered the bruises on his body and his broken bones. The way he had propped himself up in his bonds, using his last moments to stare down the great orc he had slain without a sword.
And the peaceful smile that not even death could wipe away.
For a thousand years, until she finally boarded a ship to take her into the West, she sang to anyone who would listen a haunting song–a song of lamentation and sorrow and strength and victory–about a nameless boy who fought back against the armies of Mordor in the only way he knew how.
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