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RiktheRed21

A Chance for Peace

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            When Vilmah had been tasked with brokering peace between two centaur clans out in the dead waste of Desolace, the last thing she expected was for the meetings to take place at the base of a massive waterfall. Instead of grey, dingy dust and dry bones littering the ground, she was welcomed by a gentle glow of greenery and the cries of living beasts. That sound was comforting, but she had to listen hard for it over the ever-present clangor of the huge fall.

            The place wasn’t clear of the presence of death, however. The stink of it lingered wherever the clansmen tread. This place was a haven for them, like Shattrath or Dalaran was for the Alliance and Horde. And just like those grand cities, this place was rife with dirty looks and murderous intent.

            And then, of course, there was the actual dead man accompanying Vilmah. He followed her like a cold shadow, closed-lipped and soft-footed. It was disquieting, but she’d rather have someone to accompany her to this land of hostility, even if it had to be someone like Georgio.

            “Don’t see something like that every day,” Vilmah said wistfully.

            “Not usually.” Georgio spoke little, and so softly it came as a whisper.

            Vilmah scratched one of the scars on her neck. “Where are you from, again, Georgio?”

            “Brill, after the turn. Before, the city.”

            “The city…you mean the capital city?”

            “Yes. I preferred it as it once was, not so as it is now.”

            “I see.” She could understand that. From all Vilmah had heard of the Second War from its survivors, the capital of Lordaeron had been like a fearsome beast no hunter could bring down. The Horde had come close, only to be broken against its dreaded walls and scattered across the northern kingdoms like blades of grass before a gardener’s scythe.

            It had been a city to be proud of. And then Arthas. Her thoughts always seemed to lead back to death eventually. Even in this peaceful place, there was no peace from death. Beyond all else, she felt tired.

            “I think I’ll turn in for the night, Georgio. It was a long ride, and the greetings seemed to stretch on forever…” The ceremonial greetings had been a lavish affair with every respectful ritual possible. And Vilmah had endured them twice, one for each of the centaur clans. Things would be much easier if they worked together. I guess that’s why we’re here.

            “Centaurs are sticklers for tradition. Keep that in mind tomorrow.” Georgio began to slink off towards the circle of tents that marked the moving city of the beast-men. The tents were clearly divided between those stitched of quillboar skin painted red and those of gnoll skin painted green. Centaurs preferred to display their more impressive kills, so Vilmah had learned.

            “Georgio,” Vilmah called out. The Forsaken turned about, his bright yellow eyes burrowing under the orcess’s skin. “You’ve worked with these clans before, right? Have they ever gathered like this without coming to violence?”

            His dead flesh twisted in something resembling discomfort. “Not for years and years, Vilmah Bloodborne. I’d suggest you get a good night’s sleep.” As he slipped into the darkness like a specter, Vilmah promised herself she would do as he warned.

 

---

            “It is a great honor to have you here, Vilmah Bloodborne,” the translator said, his voice scratchy and not pleased-sounding in the least. His master, a grey-bearded and one-eyed chieftain painted with bright-red markings, grunted in his own tongue while eyeing Vilmah as a carpenter measures a length of wood. After, he swept his arm over the wide array of food on his long, tall table. It stretched on for several feet in either direction and was lined with centaurs painted just as red, but more humbly than their chieftain. Vilmah felt half a fool sitting in the high chair while the chieftain and his entourage sat all around her. Georgio sat by her left hand, which made her feel a more comfortable. Not by much, but it counted for something.

            The translator spoke again, “Chieftain Gromul humbly offers this meager meal as a welcome from the Pakan people, ever friends of the Horde.”

Georgio had told Vilmah of the Pakan clan’s history with the Horde. For years they defied the Horde’s presence in Desolace, especially around the coastline area they claimed as their sacred ground. They had been aggressors in a bloody three-way war between themselves, the Horde, and the third party present at this summit: the Komen.

            “If this is what the Pakan count as meager, then I hope to be invited to more feasts,” Vilmah said with a smile. The translator seemed unconvinced by her gratitude as he repeated her words in his tongue. Gromul, however, belched a laugh.

            “Small though this may be, you will find nothing near as great on the tables of the Komen. They have always been jealous of our wealth.”

            “Oh,” was all Vilmah thought to say. This was a delicate situation. Her every action could turn either side against her in a heartbeat.

            “Take care with such honest talk at the meeting today, Chieftain,” Georgio’s whispery voice said, “Remember when you last spoke of Komen wealth at one of these meetings?”

            “My chieftain says he remembers all too well,” the translator replied as the grey-bearded chieftain chuckled, “A glorious battle, and many Komen lay dead by his spear.”

            “And many Pakan as well,” the Forsaken replied with a shrug. “It was mine and Vilmah Bloodborne’s understanding that your people had bled long enough on the spears of your Komen cousins.”

            Vilmah gave Georgio a thankful smile. “Yes, and that is what brings us here,” the translator grunted. “And what brings you to us.”

            The remainder of the meal was all pleasantries and humble boasts. At times the chieftain or one of his chief raiders would mention the Komen in passing. Georgio even managed to coax a small praise from the chieftain’s eldest son.

            “The Komen,” he said, “Have proven hard to kill.”

 

---

            Vilmah’s apprehension about this meeting had grown steadily after the feast, and Georgio’s grim temperament did little to ease her nerves.

            “Remember to steer the conversation away from the Second Battle of Tall Grasses,” the undead reminded her for the fifth time that day, “The Pakan are still sore about that loss, and they are like to grow more heated if it is discussed.”

            “Georgio?” Vilmah interjected carefully. The man’s wrinkled grey face watched her impassively. “Why haven’t we discussed the peace terms? Shouldn’t I know what sort of reaction to expect from that? Why all the talk about battles and faux pas?”

            “Because we can control the conversation until the terms are spoken.”

            “What happens after?”

            “One of two things. They’ll either erupt into a full-blown battle then and there, or they’ll simply leave the meeting feeling cheated and sour, but at peace nonetheless. All we can do at that point is hope for the best.”

            Vilmah rubbed her temples irritably. “I think I need some fresh air. How long until the meeting?”

            “One hour. I would be quick were I you.”

            She departed from their shared tent – which Georgio never used, leading Vilmah to suspect he did not sleep at all – and walked around the ring of tents. All around her she saw Komen and Pakan, two sides of the same coin to her eyes. One was painted green and the other red and either used different skins for their tents and clothes, but otherwise they were indistinguishable to her eyes. It made her heart sink to imagine these people, who should have been kin, killing each other for generations.

            “Excuse me, miss?” a voice as clear as running water called after Vilmah. She turned to see a rather small centaur clopping after her. Even more surprising than his voice and size – he was handsome. His long, dark hair was tied back in a neat bun, his eyes were green as grass, and his features were softer and cleaner than the other centaurs Vilmah had met. She noted his green body paint arranged in intricate patterns, a sign of the Komen.

            “What can I do for you?” she asked politely.

            “Well, it is embarrassing,” he said with a strange boyish innocence to his tone, “I fear I’ve lost my favorite quill. It is made from the feather of a thunder bird, about this long.” He indicated with his fingers.

            “A thunder bird? I don’t think I’ve heard of that.”

            “It is native to these lands, and sacred to my people. They are incredibly rare, but we sometimes train them to hunt or to tell when bad weather is coming.”

            Vilmah’s eyebrow lifted. “They can predict weather?”

            “Indeed they can. They can even pass through thunderstorms without fear of lightning. The feather is brown and white, like the hair of a centaur. You haven’t seen a feather about like that, have you?”

            She shook her head. “Sorry.”

            “Ah, it is no bother. I will use a spare for the meeting.”

            “You will be attending?”

            “Oh yes. I am Chief Vlambok’s youngest son, and the most literate. I am Varamor; I serve as translator and scribe.”

            Only then did Vilmah realize they had been speaking Orcish. “Ah, that makes sense.” She chuckled. “Well met, Varamor. I am Vilmah Bloodborne. You speak my tongue rather well.”

            He inclined his head appreciatively “It is a noble tongue, and I have always had a passion for things from faraway lands.” His green eyes drifted to Vilmah’s left arm. She had grown used to the stares her prosthetic received, but she couldn’t help but notice when Varamor’s eyes moved. They were like emeralds when they caught the midday light.

            “Perhaps later we can discuss our cultures with each other,” Vilmah offered.

            “Yes, I would like that,” Varamor said. “For now, my search continues. A pleasure to meet you, Vilmah Bloodborne.” He trotted off gracefully, scanning the ground as he went. Strangely, Vilmah began to feel better about the upcoming meeting. At least one person there won’t be unreasonable.

 

---

            “My chieftain finds these terms absolutely unacceptable,” The Pakan translator barked not a moment after Vilmah had concluded reading them. The red side of the negotiating table rumbled to life with grunted complaints and insults. Though Vilmah could not understand them, it was plain to see how displeased they were.

            The Komen on the green half of the long table stood quietly around their chieftain, Vlambok. The old centaur’s beard was long, braided, and white as snow, and his eyes were as green as his son’s. Varamor watched Vilmah, his face flushed with sympathy, as he scratched notes on his clay tablet.

            “How can the Horde expect the Pakan to accept a peace that so blatantly benefits the Komen? We would lose our most valuable boneyard, a stretch of field where we harvest our red paints, and half of our bountiful hunting grounds!”

            Vilmah cleared her throat and replied, “That is the only price the Komen will agree to for the lands you fervently argued over in the Desolate War. In return for the boneyard, flower field, and hunting grounds, you will have unrestricted access to Horde ports along the coast and a lump sum payment of sixty thousand gold as blood pay for the lives lost in war.”

            “The Pakan will never sell the lives of our fallen warriors for so cheap!”

            Vlambok muttered something in his tongue, so quiet he made Georgio sound like a Warsong. Varamor had to lean in close to hear and translate. “My father wishes it to be known that Komen lives were lost in even greater numbers than Pakan in the war. The lands we desire will be sufficient to honor their spirits.”

            The red chief Gromul spat on the table, ushering shocked and angry roars from the Komen side. “That is what my chieftain thinks of your dead Komen weaklings.”

            Vilmah glanced at Georgio as the table erupted into cries of hatred. The undead sat deep in his tall chair and cleaned his fingernails. This is ridiculous! I won’t just sit here and do nothing!

            A veiled, green-painted centaur woman stomped across the dividing line of the table and punched a red centaur in the teeth. The two fell over each other in a heap, strong legs flailing and budging the table aside. Vilmah felt trapped when the wooden edge scraped against her chair.

            Chief Vlambok slapped his hand against the table and cried out at his people, though Vilmah could not tell if he was urging them to stop or fight on. She had no such uncertainty about the red chief. Gromul stood with a smug look on his face while his warriors shouted and shoved at the green centaurs.

            Vilmah roared and shoved the table off her chair, sending a few surprised centaurs stumbling away. Then she slammed down on the red and green surface as hard as she could with her metal arm. She felt the wood bend beneath the force of her strike, causing such a crash that every centaur in the room looked at her, aside from those still wrestling on the floor.

            “ENOUGH!” she shouted, “There has been enough blood spilled between the three of us to fill an ocean! And yet here you all stand, you proud and haughty warriors, having forgotten so soon what death tastes like!”

            The red chief grunted defiantly, though not so confidently as before, “The Pakan cannot accept a peace so poor. It would be like pissing on the pyres of our ancestors.”

            Varamor spoke his father’s words calmly, though Vilmah detected a hint of reluctance “We Komen are ready to lay down our spears for this peace. My father…wishes to offer me as a marriage prospect to seal the deal in blood as well as words.”

            This ushered new grumbles from both sides, but not all sounded displeased. Vilmah realized she was standing on her chair, her metal arm buried in the thick wooden table. She seated herself, feeling her face flush.

            “Not bad, orc,” Georgio whispered. Vilmah smiled embarrassedly.

            Gromul stroked his greying beard thoughtfully. The room quieted when he prepared to speak. “If we are to agree, my chieftain’s grandsons will owe allegiance to him alone.”

            The green centaurs looked none too pleased at that, but Vlambok merely nodded. Varamor kept his fair face guarded. Vilmah could not begin to imagine what he must be thinking.

            “We shall consider this offer further,” the red translator said, “We shall retire for now to think over the terms and meet here again tomorrow.” By the time he had finished translating, half of the red centaurs had cleared from the long, tented table.

            Vilmah released a tense breath and sank into her chair. She eyed the shattered ruin of the table before her, half aware of Georgio slinking off with a brief congratulation on surviving the first day.

             A shadow fell on her as she lost herself in thought. Vilmah looked up to see Varamor smiling sadly at her. “Today did not go quite as expected, no?”

            “No, not quite,” she replied, “Honestly, I thought it would be worse.”

            He chuckled. His laugh was clear and beautiful, like waves lapping at the shore. “You must have heard some stories about our previous summits. In my youth, I witnessed a hundred brawls between my brothers and Gromul’s sons. But alas, now only his sons attend.”

            “What happened to your brothers?”

            “The war. All but my oldest brother perished, and one of his legs was lamed. Now my sons will be pledged to Pakan should this peace be settled. My father’s blood runs thin.” His green eyes looked forlorn at the broken table, red and green wood chips intermixing like a cataclysm of blood and grass. Vilmah felt strangely guilty.

            A green centaur clomped into the tent, yelling frantically in Varamor’s tongue. The young Komen looked shocked but shouted quick commands with confidence. The warrior ran off at a gallop.

            “Vilmah Bloodborne, the campsite is under attack by quillboar clansmen! I must see to my father’s safety.”

            “Let me help you!” Vilmah shouted suddenly, hopping to her feet. She carried no weapons, yet she could still fight.

            “Very well. On my back!” She followed his directions, and together they raced out into the camp as it devolved into chaos.

            The quillboar had attacked on the green side of the camp, and thus far only the Komen had engaged them in battle. Vilmah spied a pair of spears dug into the earth and pointed Varamor towards them. They both took one up as they raced on to battle. Chieftain Vlambok’s white beard was easy to spot from a distance. He stood surrounded by his fiercest spearmen, who were in turn surrounded by quillboar and their war hounds.

            Varamor shouted encouraging words to his people and led a charge at the quillboar line. The prickly creatures scattered in an instant. Few smaller than a tauren would stand against the charge of centaur, Vilmah thought.

            Once Vlambok was free of his attackers, he embraced his son and clapped Vilmah on the shoulder, saying a few words. “He offers you thanks, Vilmah,” Varamor reported.

            “Tell him to hold his thanks until the enemy is routed.” The green chief seemed to like that. Varamor took a deep breath as they began to charge the enemy once again.

            “I must warn you, Vilmah, I am no talented fighter. My brothers would have been more use here.”

            Vilmah patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t think about that. Focus on the here and now. One enemy at a time. Focus on now, and it will be over before you know it.”

            He seemed to gain confidence at that. The line of centaur grew as Varamor rallied loose spearmen to follow. By the time they crashed against the quillboar line, the young centaur was screaming a warsong alongside his brethren, and his song was the most haunting of all.

 

---

            Night was falling. After the battle, Vilmah walked the field of the dead, seeing quillboar bodies and centaurs painted green scattered everywhere. She looked hard for Pakan markings but found none. Once she thought she had found a pack of them, only to discover that the red was made by splatters of blood.

            “They didn’t even try to aid us,” Varamor said, giving words to Vilmah’s thoughts. “Though what more could be expected from those savages?”

            “Perhaps they didn’t want to cause further panic,” Vilmah offered feebly.

            Varamor sighed. “My father will do nothing. It is clear those blood-hided monsters had something to do with this. The quillboar have never been so bold as to attack us with all their strength.” He trotted off towards his father’s tent. “Come, Vilmah. I am certain my father will have a place for you.” Feeling uncertain, Vilmah jogged after him.

            The green-painted warriors were bickering angrily in the chief’s tent when they arrived. Vlambok looked somehow even older than before. Varamor was waved to his father’s side, and Vilmah alongside him. “What are they saying, Varamor?” she asked when they took their places.

            “The obvious. The Pakan are liars and traitors and should be dealt with in kind.”

            And break the peace we came to forge. And here I thought we were so close. Vilmah said nothing, only listening as Varamor translated.

            “Chalwar, father’s prime warlord, says we should attack at once, so to catch them off guard. Gulin, our storm witch, claims this to be folly, as the red brutes would expect such a response. My father urges patience, as always.”

            “What do you think we should do?” Vilmah looked up at his eyes, so full of life, and uncertainty also.

            “I don’t know. My mind tells me that we need this peace, but my heart says we should never bend our legs to those murderers.”

            She understood him. She had felt such pain before. That only made it harder to tell him, “If your people should choose war with the Pakan, I will not be able to help. I came here to make peace, not pull the Horde into war again.”

            “I know,” he said sadly. He continued to translate for her, but the discussion only led around in circles for hours on end. At long last, the green chief beseeched his people to tend to the dead, set sentries in case of further attacks, and hold the peace until morning. “In the meantime, my father will sleep like the dead. I fear his strength is waning, and Chief Gromul knows it.”

            Vilmah departed the tent feeling sore from riding, tired from fighting, and restless with anger. The Pakan are bullies, it is plain to see. Yet I cannot stand against them. Surely there must be something…

            “Orc woman!” a voice called out, thick with the accent of the Komen. Vilmah looked to the incoming centaur, painted green, and carrying a body in his arms. A bipedal body…Georgio!

            “What happened?” she demanded.

            “He found in battle,” the centaur said in simple Orcish, “Quillboar spear in neck.”

            Vilmah examined the wound. A spearhead still lay in his throat. Georgio opened his eyes and saw her, but when he tried to speak he spat green blood in her face. “Hush, Georgio,” she said calmly, “You’re going to be alright. Komen, healer!” The centaur seemed to understand her, and he raced off.

            The undead shook his head. He twisted free of Vilmah’s grip and started scratching something in the dirt. Vilmah read it as he wrote. “Not quillboar…are you saying someone else attacked you?” Georgio nodded. “Who, then? Was it the Pakan?”

            He began scratching out a response, but the Komen returned with a healer, and he scraped mud over his work. Does he not trust the Komen? What happened to you, Georgio?

            The healer took the undead into his tent and gestured for Vilmah to stay outside. It was far too crowded to try and sneak in, so she did as she was bid. If Georgio couldn’t trust the Komen, then he must have been attacked by one of them. But why?

            Vilmah shivered as the night grew cold. She knew one thing for certain: if one Horde diplomat had been attacked, the other would be in danger as well. She made her way to her tent to retrieve her sword and shield. “If they come after me, this won’t be enough,” she muttered to herself as she tied on her swordbelt. If there was one person she knew she could trust, it was Varamor. She made for his tent at a quick pace, keeping to the shadows as much as possible.

            When she arrived, the chief’s son was nowhere to be seen, though the entrance to his tent was guarded. She snuck around to the darkest side and crawled beneath the hide wall. I hope he doesn’t take offense to my intrusion, but I’m sure he’ll understand since it is a matter of life and death.

            The most striking feature of the tent was the finely polished desk sitting in the center, covered with heaps of papyrus and parchment and clay and stone tablets. They were written on in dozens of languages, including Orcish and the bizarre script of the Qiraji Vilmah was somewhat familiar with.

            She spied all sorts of writing utensils as well. There were styluses for the clay tablets and chisels for the stone, inkpots and quills of every color imaginable, and even metal-case fountain pens. The collection was laid out neatly, showing pride in something uncommon among Varamor’s people. It brought a smile to Vilmah’s face. And then she noticed a prominent feature: a great brown and white feather marked with little frills of green.

            “Thunder bird…” Vilmah muttered quietly. He had said it was lost, yet here it was. Curious, she sifted through some of the writings, focusing on the Orcish script. There were many poems, and all of them mournful. Some even made Vilmah’s heart stir and her eyes blink to hold back wetness. The saddest of all spoke of the pain of loss. The loss of love.

            “I lost you to red storm, my love…” she read aloud.

            “And to red storm my vengeful heart is cast.” Varamor’s voice made Vilmah jump. “That was the hardest for me to write, but I made myself write it over and over, in every language I knew how.”

            “You…you were in love, but the war…”

            “Yes, the war. It took everything, as wars do. But it was the Pakan that did the taking, and the Komen that gave all. You saw them all today. You saw all of Gromul’s sons, hale and healthy.”

            “But not your brothers.”

            “Nor my sweet love, Leyanah. She was named for a gentle spring flower. But flowers do not live when the red storm comes.” His green eyes were glassy before he shut them.

            Vilmah shifted uncomfortably. “I…I’m sorry.”

            “You have no reason to be. It is the Pakan who should be sorry, but the truly guilty never are.”

            “There is still a chance for peace, Varamor. You know that, don’t you?”

            “No. I gave up on that dream when my spring flower was taken from me. Now all that is left is war. The only true chances for peace are in your death, or that of your enemy.” His fine, mournful features now appeared sinister in the low light. But above all, he looked desperate.

            “Why did you attack Georgio?”

            “I’ve known the undead for a long while. He is dutiful, and his heart is closed. He could never be convinced, so I had him was silenced.”

            “Convinced of what?”

            “That my people are not afflicted by the same evil as the Pakan. But you, Vilmah, you could bring the tale of what you’ve seen here back to Orgimmar. You could tell all the Horde that the Komen are a people worth fighting for. I could never hope to win a war against the Pakan myself, but that will not stop me from trying.”

            A horrid thought crossed Vilmah’s mind. It hurt even to think it, but she had to ask. “The quillboar, that was you as well?”

            “A simple enough trick. You’ve seen the Pakan tents with quillboar skin and needles. The red savages have done the same to us with gnolls in the past.” He shook his gnoll-tooth necklace pointedly.

            Vilmah glared. “You brought your own people to harm…”

            “There was no other way! My father would do anything, even sell me, to prevent further war.”

            Vilmah eyed him desperately. “Don’t you see what you’re becoming, Varamor? This warmongering…you’re becoming the very thing you hate so much!”

            He shook his head sadly. “There is no other way. I had hoped you would see.” He walked to the entrance of his tent and dropped a totem on the ground. Vilmah started after him. “Varamor, I won’t let you—”

            A shock ran through her body and she fell back from the entrance. The centaur looked at her pitifully. “Don’t try to struggle against the storm, Vilmah Bloodborne. It only hurts worse if you do.”

            Vilmah drew her sword. “Release me, Varamor!” she shouted, but he was already galloping away. “Varamor!” She swung her sword, only to feel the shock again, this time driving her arm numb. She gasped. The air was growing thin around her; she could not breathe.

            Desperately, she tried to push through the invisible wall with her metal arm, but the shocks made her heart flutter uncontrollably. She flung herself back and gulped what air she could, feeling her vision fog up.

            Her thoughts went to old friends, old enemies, and old kills. She saw smiles and skulls and blood. She heard cries of friendship, cries of hatred, and cries for mercy. Guilt tugged at her like a bird’s talons. Guilt at failing, and at leaving people behind that she’d sworn to help. She felt guilt for not stopping those who hurt her friends, and guilt for killing those that did not deserve to die.

            Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Just close my eyes, and the guilt goes away…

            Her eyes flashed open. She spasmed for breath that would not come, but she forced herself to focus. Focus on one enemy, then the next…

            She grabbed the nearby desk to help herself up and clumsily spilled half of its contents to the floor. She picked up her sword and threw it at the totem, but the invisible wall stopped it short with a crackle of lightning. Vilmah nearly fell over with the effort but supported herself on one knee. Her hand brushed a feather.

            Thunder bird! She thought desperately. The brown and white feather looked only like a smudge of colors in her hand as she crawled her way to the tent entrance. She gripped the end of the quill and pushed the pointed tip through. The wall crackled around the feather, and she felt the hot numbness take hold of her arm, but the feather did not stop. The tip touched the totem’s surface just as she faded to black…

            Light came rushing back, and air filled Vilmah’s lungs. No breath had ever tasted so sweet. Her eyes refocused, and she saw the totem was knocked over. She tested the air of the tent entrance and found she could pass through. She gathered her sword and shield and sprinted clumsily. She was no huntress, but she could see the freshest tracks led through camp towards the massive waterfall.

            She spotted Varamor and a small warband at the start of the hill road and knew she could not catch up to them before they reached the summit. With bows in hand, they have a perfect vantage point to rain death on the Pakan. And when the red centaurs take up arms, the sentries in the Komen camp will have no choice but to take up arms as well.

            Vilmah knew she had to reach the top before that happened. She sprinted to the base of the hill, found the driest stretch of rock, and began climbing. The road up to the top was long, roundabout, and winding. She knew that from her long ride down to the camp. The climb up was straightforward, but it would take a great deal of strength to outpace centaur legs.

            I have no other choice. Dawn will break before the reach the summit. She would just have to rise faster than the sun.

 

---

            She clawed up the last few feet, her heart a lump in her throat, as the sun’s first light brushed her back. Her muscles were jelly, her fingers covered in cuts and blisters, her metal arm was almost too heavy to carry, and her lungs were stretched thin from breathing hard, but she was alone at the top. I made it in time.

            She seated herself with her sword in her lap, as was the custom of a Blademaster. She steadied her breath and let her stamina return. As she waited, she listened to the thrum of the waterfall, as she had all night long. She felt the sun lick at her neck, and the sweat pour down her brow. She felt alive. Nervousness faded away as the quiet of battle took hold in her mind.

            Varamor crested the hill with a bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. When he spotted Vilmah, he gaped at her like a guilty child stumbling into his parent. She stood, blade in hand and shield strapped to her metal arm.

            “I’m giving you one last chance, Varamor,” she called out to him, “Go back and give peace a chance.”

            “I must do this, Vilmah. For my people.” His warband climbed the hill and took positions around him, bows trained on Vilmah. She lifted her shield and hoped her plan would work.

            “If you want to prove yourself, fight me alone.”

            “I am no great fool to think I would have a chance against you alone, Vilmah Bloodborne. Else I would have dealt with you more directly before.” He called a command to his warriors and they advanced in three groups of two, two from the sides and one directly.

So much for that idea. Time to improvise. The flankers drew bows and loosed while the direct charge readied their spears. Vilmah ducked down and lifted her shield over her head.

            The arrows flew faster than lighting. Two ricocheted off her shield, while the others bit through flesh. One scraped by and did not stick, but the fourth dug into her leg. She growled and leaped forward to meet the spearmen. Seems I am the fool who stands against charging centaur now, she thought dimly.

            Her shield caught one spear and she grappled the centaur into the other as the second spear sliced open her arm. Her sword arm fell limply, so she bashed the two centaurs with her shield to incapacitate them. Then she used their bodies to cover herself from the other warriors’ arrows. They circled her, but she kept herself covered in every direction. She felt like a beast caught in a trap, but the bowmen dared not come any closer.

            “I’ll give you the same honor you gave me, Vilmah,” Varamor said, “Throw down your shield, and I will spare you.”

            Vilmah growled back ferally, “You’re lying. You can’t have me live to tell the Horde you were the aggressor. If I die, you can claim the Pakan did me in.”

            “You are as sharp of mind as you are with sword. But that won’t—”

            “VARAMOR!” The chief’s son whirled around as the green chief himself thundered to the top of the slope, his own noble guardians in tow.

            Varamor gaped at him and said a word Vilmah recognized, the Komen word for “father.” The two screamed back and forth, but Vilmah could not follow their conversation. She focused on binding up her wounds in case she needed to defend herself again.

            Vlambok approached Varamor carefully, his arms outstretched. Varamor was weeping now. He screamed another word Vilmah recognized and wheeled about, charging towards the cliffside with his bow at the ready. He screamed the same word again and again as he readied his arrow. His bowmen looked uncertain, but at a word from the chief, they threw down their bows and knelt. Varamor never slowed.

            Vilmah sprang into his path, her shot leg throbbing painfully. Her wounded arm still hung limply, so she left her sword behind and readied her shield. Varamor charged straight ahead, his green eyes turned to a vile shade of poison where once they had been grass. All around her became the thundering of hooves and the crash of the waterfall.

            He screamed his warcry and aimed a shot at Vilmah. The orcess ducked down and the arrow thudded into her shield. She charged forward and slammed the shield down with all the strength she had left. The force of his leg hitting the wood and metal splintered her shield and yanked her metal arm clear off her stump, but Varamor went down in a heap. Then Vlambok’s guardians ran in and held him down with their strong forelegs. All the while, the chief’s son screamed in agony his word of desperation, and Vilmah felt only pity and pain.

            “LEYANAH!” he yelled as his legs, bent and broken, flailed in the air.

 

---

            Chief Vlambok came to visit Vilmah in her infirmary bed two days later. By then, she had told Georgio all of what had happened, and the undead could manage a few grunting words. Mostly he said “Damn.”

            Vilmah stood shakily with a crutch when Vlambok entered the tent. He waved for her to sit, and he himself knelt alongside her. A new translator stood to say his words in Orcish.

            “My chief says that his heart weighs heavily on his son’s downfall. But he thanks you as well for putting an end to his scheme.”

            Vilmah lowered her head humbly, not feeling particularly praiseworthy. “I am sorry for your losses, Chieftain. Will the Pakan listen to further offers of peace?”

            “That is a more difficult matter. Word has gotten out of what young Varamor intended, and the Pakan curse the Komen name with much fervor. They demand we turn over Varamor as prisoner to face Gromul’s justice.”

            Vilmah looked at Vlambok, shocked and apologetic. “They’ll kill him…”

            “Yes, my chieftain knows this. Yet what alternative exists? To go to war?”

            “That would not end well for anyone.”

            “Exactly as my chieftain thinks. But what kind of man is a chief who betrays his own son to his death so that his winter days might be peaceful?”

            Vilmah had no reply to that. There is no right answer here. In every direction pain ways, only in some there is less pain than others.

            But Vlambok watched her expectantly. Desperately, even. She saw the same painful hope in his eyes that she saw in his son’s. He needs my answer. He cannot make the choice, so he asks it of me instead.

            She took a deep breath. “Chieftain, I only came here with one goal: to make peace. At times to reach that goal one must first make war. I know it seems like trying to go west by walking east, but nothing in life is straightforward. We can never tell if we are walking the right way, but we keep on because to turn back is to give up.

            “Varamor turned away from the path, but you still have a chance to keep your people from straying. You can still try.”

            His nod was slow and painful to watch. His head fell, and he seemed to grow a hundred years older all at once. Vilmah’s heart ached worse than her wounds.

            “My chieftain thanks you for your words, Vilmah Bloodborne. The peace talks will resume tomorrow. He gives you his word.”

            Vilmah shrank back onto the furs and tried to rest, but her mind would not quiet. Georgio sat up in his furs and looked at her with his wrinkled, grey face.

            “Damn,” he said.

            “Yeah,” said Vilmah. “Damn.”

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