It was the shouting that woke him, though they seemed unfamiliar and distorted. He opened his eyes and looked upward into the dense canopy of yellowing leaves which choked off all but a few rays of the late-afternoon sunlight. The air was heavy with the metallic scent of spilled blood, though it appeared the battle was now over and lost. The shouting continued but seemed to be far off and moving away further. He tried to sit up but his head throbbed, apparently from the same injury that had caused him to be laid flat on his back alone in the middle of the woods. He touched his brow expecting to find a bleeding gash across his forehead, but only found a large and tender lump. He tried to recall what happened after he and the others had been sent into the woods to suppress the mercenary crossbowmen.
He had followed orders obediently as always, charging the archers until he and his company were almost upon them. The enemy archers retreated into the woods but he and the others continued their pursuit though the briars and brambles slowed their advance. A volley was loosed at them as they neared the far edge of the woods and he turned to see one of his boyhood friends fall with two crossbow bolts jutting from his shoulder. Beyond that he could recall nothing.
Though it only made his throbbing head ache more, he sat upright and prodded around in the fallen leaves that blanketed the forest floor for his weapon and shield. He could find neither. He wondered which of his company had taken them and if they had perhaps discarded their own inferior equipment in the trade. He stood, took a moment to recover from a passing dizziness, and began a broader search of the area. He hoped to at the very least find a shortsword or a dagger, but nothing had been left behind this time. There were no other bodies of slain friends or foes to loot, not even his boyhood friend who he had seen fall to their archery.
He could make no sense of it. If the attack had failed, he would have been killed outright by the enemy or taken as one of their prisoners. He considered that he might have been mistook for dead and spared the coup-de-grace, but then where were the other casualties? Maybe the invaders had already disposed of the dead by burial or burning or whatever else might be their custom, but had the battle been over that long? He was not sure how long he had been unconscious, but could imagine nothing short of intervention by the gods that could have allowed him to be overlooked by his enemy once and perhaps twice.
Then he wondered if the attack had somehow succeeded, however unlikely. Could it be that all but he had continued the charge, even his boyhood friend? A seasoned veteran of the wars had once told him that the common warrior is often the last to learn that a battle has been won or lost. Maybe things had seemed far worse than they had actually been. One moment ago he believed the gods favoured him, and now he believed he had failed. The sounds of the shouting were now only distant echoes, but he knew he had to hurry and catch up to them so that he would not be thought to be a deserter and face the judgement of a coward.
He emerged from the southern edge of the woods as the sun dipped lower toward the westward hills. He knew nothing of tracking beyond the rudimentary skills that any boy from his settlement might learn through osmosis. All around him he could see the devastation of battle upon the landscape. The tall brown grass had been trampled flat as is always the case when an army or even part of an army moves through an area, but just as he had noticed in the woods, no evidence of the slain or their equipment had been left behind.
He looked for tracks that might lead him to the rest of his company. Though the Great Rains had not yet begun in earnest, a recent shower had softened the sunbaked clay. Tracks were in abundance, but it was impossible to tell which ones went which direction.. Human tracks mixed with horse tracks, dwarf tracks, cart tracks and orc tracks seemed to meander and mingle in all directions as though every army in Taltos had passed through that very spot. He looked skyward as the waxing moon rose in the east. He listened for the shouting, but could no longer hear it.
He began walking westward, becoming increasingly aware of how quiet the world could be when one was not accompanied by an army. It had been a long time since he had noticed the sound the grasses made as they wavered in the breeze or the chirps of the numerous birds and insects that came out after nightfall. As he became more acclimatized to his surroundings, he caught himself thinking back to his own childhood and how he wanted to one day travel to every part of the world he had ever been told about; and perhaps even to a few places nobody knew about. Too quickly he grew up though,, and he followed his two brothers and his best friend into the army as he was expected to do. Since then he had been many places far from home, but now that he thought about it, those places all seemed the same.
The night air was fresh and cool. Nowhere was the smell of burning villages or pyres, nor the stench of death and the dying. Those smells usually were carried by the wind miles away from the battle. Also absent was the odor of the army itself. With no wives or mothers around to daily instill upon them the importance of cleanliness, most common soldiers would simply try not to smell any worse than the one next to them. Eventually, everybody just gets used to the stink and so nobody notices it until the campaign is over and the army returns home to the discerning noses of their women-folk.
Soon he came to a creek bed that still had an ankle-deep stream running through it. Though it was hardly a bath, he decided to stop and try to wash away some of the accumulated mud, dust, dried blood and grime. Not compelled to put his wet gear back on right away, he rested by the stream and started picking through his tiny cache of marching rations for something palatable. It was then that he heard the rustling and clatter of somebody approaching him from behind.. Naked and unarmed, he knew that neither fighting nor fleeing were options. Slowly he turned around to see the silhouette of a tall cloaked figure with a pointed helm standing about twenty steps away from him. The figure took a few more steps forward, raised a bow, nocked an arrow, but did not shoot.
He stood, deliberately letting the figure see that he was unarmed, not knowing whether the figure was friend or foe. The figure finally lowered its bow and began walking toward the creek bed. It seemed totally oblivious to him though he was sure he had been seen. Kneeling to fill its waterskin at the stream a mere ten paces away, the figure looked up and turned its gaze right to him, or rather through him. Behind him a rabbit bounded from its hiding place only to be pierced by an arrow. The figure corked its waterskin, stowed its bow, collected its quarry and casually started back toward whence it came.
He waited a few minutes, dressed himself and followed the figure from a distance, trying to rationalize why he had once again been unseen. Was it magic? Was he invisible? Was he a ghost! The third possibility weighed heavily on him and he began to wish the shadowy figure had attacked him just so that he would know he was still alive and of this world.
Soon he was overlooking a small encampment of elves. Their race was known for their keen eyes and ears, and their rangers were among their best. The cloaked scout presented the rabbit to a superior, giving no indication that he had seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. The camp went about the business of cooking meals and deploying sentries as he watched with growing curiosity and concern.
Then without warning a shrill scream came from the other side of the small clearing and a hideous mob of creatures enslaved and twisted by the Isiri surged into the elven encampment. Swords and scimitars flashed in the moonlight, arrows whistled through the air, and an Isiri javelin flew right toward him, driving itself deep into the tree trunk he was taking cover behind. He hoped that his own comrades had been better prepared than the elves, or that maybe the Isiri had not found them yet.
Though he was tired, he ran as fast as he could in the same direction the dark elves seemed to be advancing toward. From behind he could hear the shouts, curses and cries of anguish as the two factions of elves and dark elves tore each other apart. He kept running until his legs grew tired and his lungs burned from the exertion of the uphill climb. Once he reached the top of the hill, he could see the fires of a rather haphazardly-arranged bivouac in the valley below. . Wanting to give them ample warning about the advancing Isiri, he charged down the hill with renewed strength. It was not until he was nearly in the middle of the slumbering company that he realized he was amidst the same mercenaries he had fought earlier that afternoon.
“ISIRI!” he yelled, hoping to rouse the entire camp even if it was at the cost of his own neck. Some great hero or other had once told him that an enemy of an enemy can be an ally, and right now he needed allies. Nobody in the camp stirred. Even the muscle-bound giant of a Hakirian that was posted as sentry declined even so much as to raise an eyebrow as he shouted a second warning. Again there was no response. Helpless to prevent their slaughter and not wanting to witness more bloodshed, he left the mercenaries to their unpleasant fate.
The moon was descending now, and there was a ring around it. The air was damp with the promise of rain. He trudged on, climbing hill after hill until he could go no further. The sky grew lighter in the east and the birds began singing again. A small outcropping of rocks in the middle of a large meadow seemed to him as good a place as any to get a few hours of sleep before turning round and retracing his steps back eastward.
No sooner had he reached the rocks than he heard the sound of thunder or what he thought was thunder. The rumbling was steady and came from all around. The noise grew louder and louder until it seemed to shake the earth itself, and then he saw the standard-bearers coming out of the morning fog in the south. To the north, a second army was forming up in ranks and preparing for a charge. From both directions horns and wardrums sounded. Warriors chanted trying to embolden themselves and mages began incantations. War-engines creaked and rolled into position and large winged beasts circled overhead.
The sun rose and shone golden across the meadow which still glistened with morning dew. Rabbits, field mice and all the other small burrowing denizens of the meadow scurried in all directions as the fog slowly lifted, knowing that their home was about to become another bloodbath.
There seemed to be no end to it. . For as long as he could remember the wars had been going on, and it seemed now that they would go on forever until there was nobody left to fight them. He had once thought the world was more than big enough for everybody to live without having to fight one another for more land. He had seen enough in his lifetime to know that it was the land that suffered most. Soon this meadow would be trampled flat, scorched, littered with bones and broken weapons; worthless to nobody except carrion eaters and necromancers.
He stepped out from the rocks and shouted a curse at the top of his lungs, though he doubted either of the two armies gathered spoke his native language. Though he himself had been a willing participant in the same sorts of ignorant brutality he was now so judgemental of, he could not ignore his new insight and watch his world self-destruct.
Nobody saw or heard him.. They charged toward each other and toward him like a great thundering rock slide and soon he would be buried by their foolishness and greed. As the two roaring masses collided around him, his final wish was for one last chance to make amends for perpetuating this war and a chance to pursue his dream of a lasting peace among all the people of the world. Then something struck him above his right eye and he fell, spinning and spiraling into the darkness.
It was more shouting that woke him, not the roar of thousands of warriors greeting their deaths, but the warcry of an orc nokhan. He scrambled to his feet quickly, almost bumping his head against a low branch. The afternoon sun barely shone through the yellowing leaves overhead . He placed his hand on his throbbing brow and felt a small trickle of blood. “You should watch for trees.”, spoke another voice in orcish. He took a few seconds to recover from the dizziness and then collected his axe and shield. It had all been a nightmare or perhaps a foreshadow of things yet to come. Whatever it was, he had brought back with him a new purpose in life There was still hope to change the world as long as he did not give up on the dream..
One day there would be no more bickering warlords, no more petty kingdoms with artificial boundaries, no more long bloody campaigns, and no more killing for the sake of killing. Some day there would be only one people, one nation, one clan... ruled by one khan.
Gurgh wiped the blood from his eyes, raised his axe above his head and charged toward the mercenary archers. This was no longer an ordinary war for Gurgh. This was the reven to end all revens.