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Embers of Black - Chapter Thirteen

Patrick Braddock
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Bitter cold hung in the air as dark storm clouds blocked out the moon, throwing the wind-blasted tundra into near total darkness. The wind howled with berserker fury as it scoured the plains for any spark of warmth to steal. From the dark clouds above, a light snow had begun, being driven on whirling eddies by the lustful winds.

A pair of faintly glowing red eyes tracked the motions of the wounded figure, reading the scant traces of heat working their way out of the limping figure's clothes. A heavy body, covered in hair thicker than a human's, shifted slightly, easing into a position to draw the heavy-bladed axe that hung at its side should the need arise. So far, the creature had been content to watch and wait.

The wounded one below paused in its flight, head cocked to the side, listening. The hidden watched listened, as well, trying to catch what had caught the attention of the one it spied upon.

Carried faintly on the frigid wind came the keening howls of a pack of winter wolves, no doubt having found the trail of blood the one below had left as it fled. Where the wolves prowled, their masters would not be far behind. The wounded one knew this as well as the one who watched, and tried to run, but ended up making only a staggering hobble before collapsing in the snow.

Growling to itself, the watcher rose and sprinted towards the fallen figure, motionless now on the snow. This was the first time it had ever done anything like this, thwarting the will of the winter wolves' masters. Yet it wouldn't see the wounded one be torn to shreds when it could do something about it.

As the creature approached the motionless body, it saw what it had been expecting. A soft white cloak was wrapped loosely around a body covered in furs, yet what struck the watcher was the night-black skin the color of night and the shock of snowy white hair. It had seen elves before, but it had been long indeed since it had seen one such as this�

When it was a few steps away, the creature saw the elf, a female, open her eyes and look at it, her hand clutching the hilt of a slim-bladed sword at her hip.

"No, elfie!" the creature said in broken Common. "Me no hurt. Come. Get you fixed." But the elf's eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed to the ground.

Fearing it might be too late, the watcher picked up the unconscious elf, hefting her over its muscled shoulder. Casting around for somewhere to hide, the watcher saw that the only means of escapement and, hopefully, concealment lay along the path the elven woman had been running.

Ducking its head against the wind and ignoring the approaching howls of the winter wolves, the creature sprinting as fast as it could, the weight of the elf slowing it little. After a hundred paces, the wolves were very close indeed, nearly within sight.

Suddenly, the ground broke away under the watcher, spilling it and its burden down a frozen streambed. Tumbling to a stop, the creature scooped up the battered elf and howled in victory. Not more than a dozen paces was a small cave, hollowed out by the river that flowed through the stream during the warmer months.

Knowing that it would have to fight the winter wolves, the watcher hurriedly entered the shelter of the cave, setting the bleeding elf as gently as it could on the ground and draping its own cloak atop her to keep her warm. Then, the creature turned back to the mouth of the cave, slipping the axe from its belt and holding it in a two-handed grip.

For a long moment, there was no sign of the wolves. Hoping that some god had given a blessing and that the keen-nosed wolves had lost its trail, the watcher relaxed slightly. That's when the first white-furred shape burst through the cave mouth.

A snowy coat covered an emaciated, unhealthy-looking body that was twice as large as a normal wolf. The lips on the heavy muzzle were pulled back in a rabid snarl, baring knife-sized teeth. A malevolent intelligence glittered coldly in the glowing red eyes.

The black iron halfmoon blade of the axe whipped out, catching the wolf in its mouth and shearing off its bottom jaw before crunching through its neck, sending jaw, head, and body tumbling further into the cave.

The second and third wolves were faster and smarter. One rushed the watcher, earning a slash that gouged out an eye, but its comrade slipped past its foe's defenses, latching dagger-like teeth onto the watcher's left arm, the momentum of the wolf sending it tumbling backwards.

Black blood seeped around the wolf's muzzle as it chewed through flesh and muscle, powerful jaws doing their grisly work. The watcher's right hand seized the beast's throat, squeezing and pulling steadily back. With a wet ripping sound, the wolf's throat came away in the iron-fisted grip.

Standing shakily, the watcher met the attack of the blinded wolf, but its one-eyed coordination put it at a disadvantage. A fist to its head sent it spinning, slamming into the cave wall with bone-crushing force. A moment later, the wicked black axe went spinning after it, sinking deep into the beast's skull. Whimpering pitifully, the wolf's legs twitched as it died, its claws scrabbling on the cave floor.

Grunting in pain, the watcher tore long swaths from its shirt, using the strips to bind its mauled arm, which was bleeding heavily. When it was finished, it retrieved its axe, slipping it back into its belt before hauling the wolves' corpses deeper into the cave.

That done, it sat beside the elf and waited, blunt fingers stroking the blood axe blade as it fervently hoped that the wolves' masters would miss the cave into which their pets had disappeared.

Soon, deep, gutteral voices called out in a harsh language, a language the watcher knew well. Calling to the wolves. Closer and closer the voices came, most of their words carried off by the wind.

With astounding fury, the windstorm turned into a full-blown blizzard, the tortured winds whipping into a frenzied gale, the snow falling in thick waves.

Expecting the wolves' masters to come crashing into the cave at any moment, the watcher crouched, its axe now in its hands once again. Moments passed, turning into long minutes. After nearly an hour, the watcher finally relaxed, slipping its axe in its place.

Drawing a heavy dagger from it boot, the creature fell to butchering the wolves, skinning and gutting the animals. When it was done carving up the meat, it buried the entrails in the back of the cave in a shallow hole it dug. The meat got set aside as it turned its attention to the skins.

Using broken sticks and rocks, the watcher wedged one of the skins over the cave entrance, which was small enough that the wolf pelt blocked out most of the snow. Soon, the snow had piled against the makeshift door, sealing them in. Knowing the snow would trap in heat, the watcher nodded to itself, pleased with its handiwork.

Making a pile out of some of the driftwood that lined the cave, the watcher got a small fire going with a piece of flint and its dagger. Once the fire had warmed the cave enough, the watcher laid down a wolf pelt near the fire.

Taking its cloak from the elf, it tore it into strips, setting them aside. Next, it removed the elf's own cloak and furs, revealing a dark mail shirt and pants. The shirt had a rent in the right side, showing smooth ebon skin broken by a ragged gash.

Muttering to itself, the watcher pulled the chain shirt over the elf's head. Then, it moved to her feet and pulled off her boots and then her mail pants. Lastly, it cut away her underclothes with its dagger before setting the naked elf on the white fur of the wolf pelt.

With competent skill, it cleaned her wounds, thick gray fingers spreading a gooey ointment on afterwards. Pulling a clean bit of wool from the sack at its belt, the watcher bound it to the elf maid's side with the strips town from its cloak. Her less minor wounds got treated first with water and a rag, then with the pasty ointment.

When it was finished tending her wounds, the watcher wrapped her back in her cloak and the furs she had worn over her armor. Satisfied she would be warm enough, it set its waterskin near her in case she woke up thirsty later. Then, trying to stifle a great yawn, it wrapped itself in the last wolf skin, curling up beside the fire and falling into a deep slumber.

Consciousness returned slowly, like a smooth peddle that skipped just out of reach whenever Maezinessa got close. Marshalling her concentration, she finally seized wakefulness with a deathgrip, forcing herself to awaken.

Eyes opening slowly, she surveyed as much of her surroundings as she could without turning her head. It seemed she was lying on her back in a cave, a fire flickering on her right side. The combination of the fire and her wrappings made her almost uncomfortably hot.

When she tried to push her way out from under the bedding, her right side twinged horribly, sending a shuddering wave of pain through her body. Moaning softly, she lay back, resting for a moment to regain her strength.

Gritting her teeth, she pushed what she recognized as her own cloak and furs off of her. The cold bite of air against her bare skin caused her to gasp and sent a shiver down her spine.

Turning her attention to herself, she saw that someone had stripped her of her clothing and possession and had tended her wounds, even bandaging the gash from an orcish axe in her side.

The soft sound of snoring came to her from a mound covered in another white pelt that lay across the fire. Spotting her discarded swordbelt, she snatched her slim longsword from its scabbard, standing up stiffly. Making her way around the flickering flames, she carefully pulled back the top half of the pelt with the point of her longsword.

A bare-chested orc lay sleeping face-down on the ground, its head pillowed on its beefy forearms.

Quickly, Maezinessa backed away, looking around for some means to escape. Her keen ears caught a change in the orc's breathing. Slowly, it rolled over, sitting up and blinking blearily. When it had cleared the sleep from its eyes, it focused first on the sword being pointed at it, then the naked elven woman wielding it. Concern flashed across its heavy-browed face.

"Elfie, be careful. No want you to hurt yourself. Have to fix you once already, Korg did." Ponderously, it got to its feet, glancing once at the point of the slim blade facing it before pushing it aside. Moving in close to the elf, it said, "Come. Sleep. Rest. Heal." With that, the strength went out of the elf maid, her body going slack. The orc was quick and caught her before she could fall, lifting her into its arms like a child and carrying her back to her pallet.

Setting her down gently, it tucked her cloak back around her, though leaving off the fur wrappings. Seating itself beside her, it took her hand in its own, giving her a fatherly pat on the head.

"Don't worry, elfie. You let Korg take care of you. He no let you get hurt." For some reason, Maezinessa found that oddly comforting, and before long, sleep had reclaimed the wounded dark elf.

The scent of food finally brought Maezinessa back from unconsciousness. A thick, meaty smell mixed with several unknown herbs hung in the air. Her eyes flickered open and the elf saw that the orc, Korg, was busy fidgeting with a small pot he'd hung over the flames using a tripod made of bones.

Seeing that his patient was awake, the orc's face spread in a toothy grin. "Hungry, elfie?" he asked in his deep, gravelly voice. Maezinessa nodded, making Korg's grin grow even broader. "Dat good. I make a nice stew for you. Wolfies gonna eat you, but now you gonna eat wolfies." The orc chuckled to himself.

Holding her cloak tightly around herself, the drow maid sat up carefully. The pain in her side was mostly gone, replaced by a stiffness as the wound healed. Her mind turned over her last memories, of leaving the hidden cavern that she and her sisters-in-arms had used as a base of operations, venturing out to scout for the orcish army. The party of orcs that had caught her unaware as she lay in the snow, watching the main body moving across the plains, the short fight that ended up with more than a few of them dead and a terrible wound in her side. The cold-filled flight across the tundra, trying to lead the orcs away from her comrades' hiding place before she died. Then�waking up here.

From across the fire, Maezinessa studied the orc as he tasted the stew, then shaking his head and adding a pinch of something from a sack at his belt. He was as tall as most of his kind, with a thick torso and powerfully-muscled arms. His skin was a pale gray color, and the hair on his arms and head was the color of shining steel. The sloping brown and the two small tusks that jutted from his lower jaw gave his face a primitive quality, but his eyes and the set of his mouth gave him a decidedly friendly demeanor.

The drow turned her eyes around the cave, nothing her pile of armor and clothing, as well as a pile of bones and several small piles of meat. "Where are we?" she asked, her voice wavering slightly.

"We be in a cave," the orc said, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. He tasted his stew again and nodded in satisfaction. "Dere be a human town near here. Orcs no find it yet, but Korg think he might be able to take you dere."

That gave Maezinessa a pause. "Aren't you an orc?"

"Just 'cause Korg be an orc don't mean he one of dem orcs." He fetched a small tin cup from his sack, pouring some stew into it and holding it out to the elf maid. "Eat, elfie. You gonna need your strength if we be going anywhere."

She accepted the cup from him with a nod of acknowledgement, sipping from it gingerly to avoid scalding her mouth. Blinking in surprise, she swallowed and took another sip. The stew was good!

Catching the look on her face, Korg looked pleased. "Korg be considered good cook among some. Him glad you like his stew." He reached across the fire, covering up her shoulder where her cloak had slipped off. "Korg sorry he had to cut your clothes off, elfie. Him was worried about you and didn't want you to die here."

Maezinessa smiled at him. "Don't worry, friend Korg. I'm certain we can think of something." Her words left the orc beaming across the fire at her. "What happened? Out there, I mean." She gestured vaguely with her hand. "I remember falling in the snow�and then I woke up here."

Her companion nodded. "Korg was watching you, saw you fall. Didn't want you to get eaten by da wolfies or let da masters find you, so him pick you up and carry you. Found cave here and killed da wolfies. Was glad da masters didn't find, would have been hard to kill dem."

The elf nodded, taking that in. "I'll have to leave soon. I wasn't supposed to be gone this long."

Korg pondered for a moment. "Korg go wid you. Him good wid axe and can cook good stew," he said proudly.

The drow's lips twitched into a smile. "I believe you. But I don't think you will be welcome with my friends."

The orc frowned. "You go back wid da black elfies? Dem s'posed to be wicked, but Korg no tink you be wicked."

"Something like that, yes." Maezinessa shifted uncomfortably.

"Korg go wid you anyway." His face hardened into a look of determination. "Even if you tell him no, Korg no gonna let you die out dere. Him good tracker, can follow you on da snow."

While she doubted that the orc could follow her if she didn't want him to, she knew she owed him more than to leave him out to die on the tundra. "Alright," she said quietly.

Satisfied, the orc nodded. He lifted the pot from its place, ignoring the heat of it as he refilled her cup. "Dere. You finish dis and den you sleep. When you ready, we go find da dark elfies." He blinked. "Korg not even know your name."

"Maezinessa," she said.

"Mae�uh, Maez, uh�" The orc scratched his head. "Mae. Korg call you Mae, okay?"

The dark elf smiled. "Alright, Korg. Call me Mae."

Korg smiled happily at her before lifting the half-empty pot to his lips, gulping down a swallow of stew. "Eat, Mae. We sleep tonight and tomorrow, we go."


Embers of Black - Chapter 13 © Patrick Braddock

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