An Encounter on the Track to Wykyrie
TARL GRUDFFYTH RAISED his left arm just in time to ward off the blow from the bushwhacker to his left. As the attacker's blade deflected harmlessly off Tarl's leather bracer, Tarl drew his scimitar from his belt and in a single fluid motion slashed at an assailant on his right, deeply slicing from him from hip to shoulder. The attacker crumpled backward, dead before he hit the ground. The scimitar's momentum spun Tarl around, and its blade arced downward until it literally cut the right leg out from under the attacker on Tarl's left. The man toppled over, stupefied as he clutched at his severed limb.
Tarl ignored the bleeding man and charged two new foes who were directly in front of him. The older of the two had already drawn his broad sword and was edging toward Tarl, leading with his extended sword. Tarl focused on his opponent's eyes, seeking a clue as to where the leathery man would strike. The man divulged nothing as he matched Tarl's stare and briefly circled, as if to lead Tarl toward his younger comrade. Without breaking eye contact, the man deftly lunged at Tarl, who parried the man's thrust and then countered with a slash of his own, which his experienced assailant gamely blocked. While Tarl and the veteran traded thrusts and slashes, blocks and parries, the older man continually tried to lure Tarl toward the younger man, and, in an accented rasp, barked orders to his young compatriot, urging him to attack Tarl. But the teen stood paralyzed, his mouth silently opening and closing, fishlike, as he gawped at the torso Tarl had just cleaved open. Tarl forced the veteran back with a flurry of slashes and a side glance revealed that the dumbstruck young man was now staring over Tarl's shoulder to the site of the initial attack. Seeing the teen's eyes widen, Tarl ducked, and a dagger flew over his head and lodged fatally in the throat of older attacker. The teen screamed in horror and bolted into the forest.
Tarl turned to address the dagger thrower, who turned out to be the bushwhacker who had started the melee just moments before. Blood from the stump of the man's leg soaked the ground, but as Tarl closed on him, he defiantly launched another dart which Tarl easily deflected without breaking stride. The bloody, immobile man then grabbed his sword and held it up to block Tarl's imminent attack. Both men knew it was a futile effort, yet something that had to be done. The bushwhacker did not cry for mercy or quarter, and on his pale, creased face, Tarl saw a look not of fear, but of resignation and determination to fight until the bitter end. It did not take long. Tarl's first slash dispatched the lame man's sword and his second dispatched the man.
That left only the young man who had fled into the bush. Tarl plunged in after him, tracking with skills he had accumulated over a lifetime. He smelled the sap as it ran from branches broken by his fleeing quarry, he felt the insects stirred up by hasty flight and heard the plants rebound to their natural positions after being pushed aside. The young man was quick and agile, but not used to traveling through dense woodland, and he was panicked. Within a few minutes, Tarl saw him, scrambling up a gnarly old oak tree in an attempt to hide.
Tarl slid his scimitar into his sash, grabbed a low branch with both hands and lithely swung his legs over a limb, his light scimitar barely hindering his ascent. The young man cast his sword at Tarl as he pulled himself up, but it bounced harmlessly off a branch, leaving the lad trapped and defenseless. When Tarl looked up, the lad's fresh, pink face was not, as he expected, terrified or quavering, but was rather like the drawn face of the dart-throwing bushwhacker; resigned, determined. The young man kicked wildly at Tarl, trying to knock him from his perch, but Tarl drew his blade and calmly parried the kicks, opening a gash which dripped blood on him as he closed. As Tarl reached back to deliver the final blow, his quarry pushed off from the tree and, without making a sound, dove head-first to his death.
Tarl gracefully alit from the tree to consider the grotesque twist of the young man's blued and broken neck. Tarl squatted heavily, raised the lad's arm and wiped the blood from his brow with the boy's sleeve. He sighed and reflected as he cleaned his blade. There was the possibility that other attackers would set upon him shortly, but he considered that unlikely. If any were present, they either would have helped or fled by now.
But there were the corpses to deal with. Tarl was fairly near the town of Wykyrie, and he knew enough about town-folk to know they abhorred death by violence. Certainly, he had acted in self-defense, but what if the victims were Wykyriens or had friends or relatives in the town? Who would believe a rustic druid, just in from the wilderness? No, Tarl knew little of Wykyrie, but was determined to avoid its warders if he could.
And he knew how he could. He dragged the body of the young man back to the three other corpses near the track. Then he took a deep breath and howled at the rising moon. He waited a moment, then howled again. This time, a chorus of wolves answered. No matter how many times he did this, it still gave him chills. His howl sounded more wolf-like than the real thing, if that was possible, and in his wild home of Hibyrnn, it rarely failed to trigger a response. In a few minutes, he howled again, and the responses were now close, very close.
Tarl peered into the woods and saw the lead wolf as it stalked through the forest, stealthily approaching the corpses. As the bristly grey wolf drew near, it locked eyes with Tarl. The big male was confident and clearly the leader of the pack, but it could hold Tarl's gaze for only a few seconds before it curled its tail between its legs in abject submission. It whimpered plaintively as it sniffed at the breeze which wafted off the four piles of fresh meat. When the wolf was convinced Tarl meant no harm, it bounded forward and tore into the corpses, with the rest of the pack quickly following. Tarl watched for a few moments as the beasts gorged on the warm flesh, tearing sinews, crushing bones to get at the sweet marrow. Within a few hours, there would be nothing left but the swords and a bloody stain on the earth. Any Wykyriens who happened upon the remains would explain away the deaths as a wolf attack; unfortunate, but nothing too unusual in these parts.
Tarl walked away, turning around toward the wolves to say, "Remember who gave you this feast." The alpha wolf looked up for a moment, blinked, then stuffed its snout back into the abdomen of Tarl's first victim. With that, Tarl walked a respectable distance away, and, knowing he had nothing to fear from the wolves, tried to fall asleep. But there remained a problem; he still had no idea who had tried to kill him, or why.