“Everyone has gathered, sir,” said the Trév Gállorg hunter as he stepped through the flaps of hide into the hut. “We are ready.”
Daran’s stern amber gaze darted up to the man for only a moment as he rolled up the letter and bound it with a cord. Scratching the address down over one curve of the parchment he then tossed it to the man. “Good. I’ll be right there. Have a courier send that out, will you?” Walking around the cluttered table he took up one knife after another to fix their frogs to his sword belt.
“Of course, sir,” said the hill-man as he caught the scroll and turned to leave. Stepping back he suddenly stopped. “I mean no disrespect, but are you sure you should come with us?”
“Why would I not,” grunted Daran dangerously, his sharp gaze glancing around the room for his bow.
“Well . . . you’re still recovering . . . sir. We can’t –”
“It is a scouting mission, Finnan,” said Daran coldly, cutting the man off. “We’re not raiding Carn Dum. Now go and send that letter.”
“To Bree, sir?”
Daran huffed. “Where else?”
Nodding a curt bow the hill man turned and obediently left.
“Blood and orcs,” Daran cursed under his breath as he rubbed a strong hand over his forehead and up through his shaggy hair. Did they really doubt him? No, his men would follow him anywhere, he knew that. He’d trained nearly all of them, and their skills rivaled the occasional Ranger that rode north to be stationed at the village. But ever since he had been rescued from the keep in Fasach-Falroid only a few short months earlier he had not been the man he once was. Even at a hundred and thirty . . . was it? . . . he had looked like a man in his late thirties, as strong and fit and sharp-witted as any man could be in their prime. But now the years had caught up with him and he had aged significantly, both inside and out. Though still strong and capable, he fought to hide the limp, grey had begun to show at his temples, and he tired easier than he cared to admit. By the gods, he hated it.
Sniffing, Daran stacked the letters spread out over the table, fitting them back into a crude box. She’d been writing more often in the past month than she had since she’d moved to Bree. He needed to know why. Not that he minded, but he had seen the look in her eye when he’d last seen her; helped her battered body into her armour. One of them would would eventually be the death of the other, he was sure of it.
A dry wind raked across his tanned face as he stepped out into the evening. Stretching out his muscled arms he strode out over the plank bridge to where his horse waited with twenty other Trév Gállorg fighters, armed to the teeth and eyes lit with fire.
“You all have your orders,” said Daran, addressing the group as he swung himself into his saddle. “I don’t want any heroics.” A head taller than the tallest hill-man, Daran wheeled his mount around and led the group to the gates heading north, the three scout leaders beside and behind him.
“What of the Angmarim camp down the valley?” asked one man.
“My group is scouting to the south of them, Finnan’s will take the north.” Amber eyes glistened in warning as he looked back to the speaker. “Save the fight for tomorrow, Helgrin. I expect you to keep your men in line.”
Helgrin nodded reluctantly, obviously displeased. Motioning to his group of five, the younger man led them away from the others, heading west. Exchanging a look with the other leaders, Daran motioned with a quick flick of his wrist and he and his five hunters split off, riding east.
The ride to the hill-man outpost was strangely uneventful. The horses hooves echoed like shallow heartbeats against the dead earth and as he and his men left their horses at the small camp a feeling of foreboding set in. There were no scouts to run down as they continued on foot, nor were there ravens to shoot out of the night sky. The only feral eyes gleaming in the dark were his own.
A hand batted his right shoulder, and Daran followed the direction of the hunter’s arm to the hill past the first. The Angmarim camp was still there, and the number of campfires appeared to have almost doubled from the past week. Creeping forward in the shadows, Daran and his men climbed the first hill, just out of range of the firelight, and watched.
There were five . . . no, possibly six hundred Angmarim and orcs camped in the bowl of the valley. There were no siege weapons, but Daran was sure they were on their way. Weapons, placement of shrines, number of visible priests were all taken into account. An argument could be seen at the head tent and the Angmarim captain threw a little boy to the ground, pointing east. Scrambling to his feet, the little boy took up the bow that had fallen from his hands and scurried out into the night, the laughter of Angmarim filth lending speed to his legs.
Daran squared his jaw and for a moment, closed his eyes. It disgusted him. He still remembered what it had been like to live under the terrifying hand of Angmar, but he turned away with his men, knowing there was nothing he could do. Hopefully the child would return after the next day’s battle, alive and free once the Trév Gállorg forces burned the enemy camp to the ground. Motioning to his men they slinked back down the hill and began the jog back to the outpost.
The outpost not a hundred yards away, a pain shot through his leg, the wound having never quite healed. Masking his stumble, Daran ducked down, and to his surprise an arrow whizzed past where his head had been. The hunters reacted instantly. Three gathered around Daran and two vanished, the sound of a not-so-distant scuffle the only giveaway to their location.
Grabbing the arm of the youngest of the three, Daran shoved him forward towards the outpost. “Get — ” The rest of the words never left his mouth as time seemed to slow around him. He could see him, the boy. Daran’s hardened amber eyes met the fearful blue orbs that fixed on him, the child’s arm trembling as the arrow shot out of the bow. It was poetic, really. The flight of the iron-tipped arrow sounded more like the exhale of a sigh as it sailed past the young hunter’s head, nicking his ear. Daran had just enough time for an enigmatic smile to carve up his mouth before the projectile pierced into his chest with a sickening thud.
Then time caught up with them. His eyes still locked on the child hidden behind the far patch of rocks, Daran gasped and dropped to his knees. The young hunter cried out in surprise, his hand flying to his split ear. Turning as Daran fell he darted to catch the man by his shoulders lest he fall on the arrow protruding from just above the heart.
“No, NO!” shouted the young man as the others ran to Daran’s side. “Get it out of him!”
“Don’t,” growled Daran, the taste of blood in his mouth as he grabbed one of the hunter’s wrists. “I-I’ll just die faster. Take me,” he managed, struggling for a breath. He motioned to the outpost and blinked. Opening his eyes he saw the boy was gone.
His vision began to blur as the hunters carried him down the rocky path. The youngest hunter sprinted ahead of them and Daran coughed a chuckle at hearing the boy’s panicked voice. More blood. He felt himself being lowered onto a pallet, and it seemed strange that the shouts and worried conversations were muffled to his ears. He knew he was going to die as the strength ever so slowly drained from his limbs, but did they have to rush about as if their efforts would change the inevitable? He coughed a few jokes, but all he got in return were distressed looks and grumbled responses. Could they not even give him a fake chuckle or two?
“A — a quill.” The thick, garbled words clawed their way up his throat.
The crowd around him fell silent, frozen and unsure until a shadowed figured pushed it’s way though. Daran felt the quill in his hand and a parchment tacked to a board appeared, propped under his chin, just within his vision.
I wanted to write this myself before the grim task was handed to the healer. You always teased that one day my luck would run out. I seems that is today. It appears you were also correct about my pride, for I am enraged that I must die such an inglorious death. You should have taught marksmanship to the enemy so that my death would have come more swiftly. The healers do not seem to appreciate the morbid jokes I am making. I suppose you would not either, though I know that if you were here I would at least be humored by your smile. Thank you for my life. For the meaning you gave it, and for the meaning you made me find on my own.
Always yours, Ge’bar
Swallowing, he let the quill fall from his hand. With that done a small weight lifted from his mind, as if there was nothing left he had to do. The murmur of voices began again, strained and worried. He just wanted silence. Why did they stress so? But it would be over soon, he told himself, and maybe finally . . . finally he could rest. There was only one he would miss, but where he was going, he knew he’d care not. Yes, no more swords and enemies or sleepless nights fretting over the ones he loved. Just a long-awaited, blissful rest.