Martaloc surveyed the smoking morning. The dried field lay with the wasted warriors of the previous night. Rusty blood and stiff corpses lay strewn about the dusty landscape. Martaloc paced through the bloodshed trying to recall the events of the fray. He stooped over a broken trident laying next to a smoldering fire. The last thing he could recall was pulling his ax from a split skull when the trident came from his side and pushed its way through his bronze armor. He turned and faced its wielder only managing to spit blood in their face before he was forced to the ground and was knocked unconscious from blood loss and fatigue.
He woke bound in a tent of the enemy. Dried blood matted his tattered armor and nauseating waves of pain rolled over him. Through blurry eyes he could see two captors leaning over a small cooking fire stirring a boiling pot of stew. Mustering all the might he had, he stretched the rope around his wrists, loosening them ever so slightly. The ropes dug in and blood ran down into his palms and at last the rope snapped with a soft pop. One of the captors heard the rustle but he was too late. Martaloc was already upon him, burying a knife deep into his spine silencing him while simultaneously trampling the other into the cooking fire. The other struggled but Martaloc held the man’s head in the boiling stew until he fell still. The prisoner pulled the bone knife from the man’s back and wiped the blood from its serrated edge. He stood and grabbed a handful of salt and packed it into his gaping wound. A force of agony overwhelmed him and his head spun with vertigo. He stood, rocking for several moments, threw up and then regained his bearings. He grabbed his spiked shield and hand ax and spotted around the tent for provisions but found only a bag of peaches.
With the fruit in hand, he crept from the tent and into the midst of the enemy encampment. Two warriors strolled through the animal hide tents, their long bows sticking out high above their head. Martaloc bent down and clutched a handful of the fine silt that covered the ground. He then advanced upon them quietly, slowly at first and then closing the final steps quickly. The hastened footsteps alerted one of the guards and his head slowly turned to see a cloud of dust being thrown into his eyes. Martaloc knocked the blind man to the ground and grappled the other, deftly slicing through his larynx with the jagged edged bone knife. The other began to scream but Martaloc had already pressed his thumbs deep down into the man’s eyes before he could finish his sentence. He snatched up the long bow and several arrows and made his way to the enemy warlord’s tent. The torchlight from within the tent cast a grim depiction. A screaming woman lay beneath the hulking mass of the brute, struggling to breath. Martaloc knocked an arrow and sent its deadly shaft into the neck of the woman’s shadow, ending her misery. The warlord stood up, stupefied. But the moment was fleeting. Another arrow entered through the side of the canvas tent and sent a plume of red from his thick neck. He fell and clattered the contents of the large tent.
Martaloc looked around at the empty camp and threw the bow to the ground. He stooped low over a pile of cinders and lit several torches. He walked towards a pair of emaciated horses throwing the torches on the tents as he went. The moonless sky glowed orange as the camp became an inferno. The blood and sweat glistened on Martaloc’s scarred skin. He cut one of the horses loose and mounted the other and rode off towards the previous day.
In the afternoon sun, he kicked the trident over and walked through the detritus of the slaughter. Slashed bodies and destroyed armor lay in crumpled piles. Buzzards circled overhead and several had already landed in the distance. Any survivors had already fled and had either been eaten by fell predators, or died of sun sickness. Martaloc strained his eyes to find some shade, knowing his time left on this blasted heath was waning. The dried field offered little, but far off in the distance a small outcropping revealed itself. He mounted the limping horse and headed out. Its tight muscles flexed heavily as the beast struggled to walk a straight path. It had been two weeks since Martaloc’s troupe had encountered any running water. The enemy cadre must have struggled with the same curse. Across the windswept plain the steed finally gave in from exhaustion and collapsed in a heap. He carried on, on foot, waves of heat cooking him from the outside in. As he approached the brief reprieve from the sun, he drank the last drops from his waterskin. He fell to his knees and crawled into the sliver of shade offered by the dead tree growing from the clump of rock and dry soil. His breaths became laborious and he pulled himself up, back against the rock and laid his shield and ax beside him. He wiped the dried blood from the edges of his mouth and pulled out the two peaches.
The first was soft and ripe, and Martaloc bit into it’s fuzzy skin and tasted it sweet nectar. The fruit was intoxicating and he at once felt numb and relaxed. Carefully he pulled the second peach from the small bag. Its pale green complexion and mushy form stood in the palm of Martaloc’s hand for several seconds before he threw it out onto the baking ground. It was one of many pieces of rotten fruit Martaloc had seen in the past months. Tales of blighted expanses of land were becoming common at the forks in the road that slithered through the country. Deserted caravans were found on a regular basis, almost always with their contents picked clean. And trader merchants guarded their camps heavily against feral aberrations that crept from the dead of night to feed and corrupt.
Martaloc’s eyes became dry and his vision blurry; he coughed phlegm and blood. He sucked on the peach pit a little longer and then spit it into the dirt. He peeled the packed salt from his oozing wound and the air tingled across it. Settling himself, he stuck his dagger in the ground and removed his horned helm and placed in atop the weapon. He glanced up at the scorching sun and reckoned it would only be another hour or two before it was overhead and his precious shade would be all but gone. He pulled another blade from his hip and cut a small section of leather from his tunic and placed it behind his head, between his skull and the rock. He leaned back and closed his eyes. Whether from exhaustion or blood loss, Martaloc fell quickly asleep and his breathing slowed.
“Its no use…”
“It’s no use at all, is it?”
Martaloc blinked through bloodshot eyes and found he was not alone.
“A warrior’s grave for a warrior, huh?” The old man cackled. “It’s all the same for you: fighting, killing, destroying. So many different ways to harm one another, yet all seeking the same goal… power.”
Martaloc stared at the man.
“Power, wealth. Pitiful power and worthless wealth. All trite. You’ll never learn will you? I suppose not. Here you are, and you still cling to your life of bloodshed and depravity.” The old man cast his gaze out into the dry waste and waved his frail hand. “And all this! All of this! This is what you fight for. Lines in the sand. Barren fields. Dried river beds.”
Martaloc caught the gleam of a bronze choker around his neck. He carried a tall staff and rings and medallions of crystal and tree limb hung round his wrists.
The old man paused and caught his breath. He lowered his voice and stared back at Martaloc, “And now the gods have ceased to answer your prayers.”
Martaloc glanced at the edge of the shade, slowly creeping towards him.
“While we struggle to preserve all that is good, you fight for all that is bad.”
The shade steadily crept closer.
“Ever warring you are. Ever searching for the ripest glade. To pick and pull all that you can from it. Ever reciting dark words, pulling life from all around. Blackening, ruining, defiling…”
Closer and closer.
“And now you search not for power, but for survival. The dark sun looms overhead and the gods have turned their backs. And what now will you do? War… War is your answer. The land bleeds black and still you fight.” The old man pulls a waterskin from his cloak and takes a long sip.
The shade was at Martaloc’s feet.
“It’s no use,” and the man turned his back on Martaloc and departed.
In the quiet evening the old man returned to his hovel and took of his shade screen cloak and set his staff in a corner near his bed. He strode across the room and sat near a cold pile of ash and placed some dry timbers into the hearth. He whispered quietly to himself and a small flame flickered and went out. He strained his voice again and it ignited and cracked softly. The hermit place a pot of water onto the fire and stroked his wiry beard.
Outside he heard the howl of some feral prowlers engaged in killing some lesser beast. Then at once the howling ceased and the night became silent once again. He stood and drew the cloth curtains over his windows and placed some vegetables into the pot. He slowly stirred it and stared into the embers.
The fire began to grow and crack more loudly and the glazed eyes of the hermit stared longer still. And all at once and without mercy, the door to the hutch suddenly burst inward and splinters were sent sailing into the room. The horn-helmed figure stood in the doorway, blood dripping from his weapon and his sweat steaming in the cool night air. The warm glow of the fire danced in the dull reflection of his armor.
Terror seized the old man and he lunged for his staff across the room. He snatched it from the corner and wheeled round just in time to see Martaloc’s shield plunging down on him, crushing bone and severing sinew.
Martaloc leapt and punched with the shield into the upper body of the aged man. The iron spike drove itself clean into the man’s chest and out his back, shattering his shoulder blade into several pieces. Martaloc pinned the man to the bed with the shield and swung with his keen ax into the man’s face. The blade went low and glanced off of the bronze collar. The old man spasmodically struggled to free himself from his impalement but was unable to push the towering figure off his person. On the back stroke, Martaloc spun the weapon round and struck again with the blunt wide of his ax. The dead weight of the heavy blade crashed into the bronze collar and collapsed it into his throat, crushing the old man’s windpipe.
Inaudible screams and a gurgled whistle was all that came from the man’s mouth as he fought to expel the blood from his lungs. Martaloc stood up from the bed and stared at the dying man, his shield still holding him down.
He sat down near the fire and stirred the contents of the pot. He sipped a little from the ladle and put more timber on the fire. Then he strolled across the room and stood over the entrapped man. He yanked his spiked shield from the man’s broken body, spraying blood up onto the wall and ceiling. Blood poured from the canyon in the man’s chest and dripped onto the dirt floor. The night was quiet once again.
Martaloc’s clear voice broke the silence in the room, “Good…? Bad…? I’m the guy with the ax.”