Chapter 3: A Destined Fate
A storm broke as the eight men left Tancred’s village. The snow swept horizontally along their path as the wind picked up. Mainard ran as quickly as he could, following the tracks of the other runner as best he could, but they were vanishing quickly from the snowfall. Soon enough the trail was being broken by himself, seven men in tow. Sweat rolled down his forehead and into his frost covered eyebrows. His breath froze on his beard and soon he had to slow his pace in order not to collapse from exhaustion in the long run.
“Mainard.” One of the seven yelled.
Mainard stopped in his tracks and turned about. The man who called him was a few feet off from the trail they had been packing and knelt in the snow. “If you cannot continue, stay here.”
“It isn’t that sir. It’s your woodsman.”
Mainard’s expression became sombre as he made his way to the man. Concealed in the snow and the darkness, his trusted woodsman’s corpse lay frozen. Crystallised blood tainted the snow a dark red from a wound in his shoulder.
“The wound is deep, there’s nothing anyone could have done.” The guardsman said.
“The camp must be nearby.” Mainard remarked, peering into the darkness of the night. The moonlight didn’t help much as the snowfall picked up.
One of the guard drew his weapon at just the right moment as several dark figures burst forth from the snow and shadows.
The sound of metal striking metal echoed through the night as the eight men fought fiercely to defend their lives against an endless stream of foes. They fought for nearly half an hour at which point three of the eight had fallen.
Mainard slew the fifth of his assailants as another came forward, he collided back to back with another enemy as he defended himself.
The enemy could do nothing about Mainard at his back as he too defended a flurry of blows from Gunther’s skilled swordsman.
Moments later, Mainard saw an opening in his foe’s defence and risked an attack. His bronze blade punctured the man’s armour at a weak point in a seam and slid into his body. The wound was fatal, but the risk Mainard took was costly as the man’s dying swing landed a crushing blow to Mainard’s shoulder. The dry snap of a bone echoed through his body as he fell to his knees in pain. The corpse of his enemy dropped before him, blood gushing through the side of his armour. He spun about as the foe at his back kicked Gunther’s dead swordsman away and turned to face the wounded leader.
Mainard attempted to raise his right arm in defence. The pain raced up his shoulder and tore at his mind as his broken collar bone jarred and ripped at the inside of his flesh. He quickly switched the sword to his left hand just in time to parry a downward swing. The powerful blow dented his blade as he fell to his back in the snow. Quickly he kicked at his assailant’s knees and rolled on top of the man as he fell to the ground. He pinned the sword under his knee while he mounted the warrior, and with one arm, stabbed his blade into the exposed throat of his quarry.
Blood spewed from the wound in pulsating bursts as the man’s heart raced with adrenaline, dumping his life out on to the snow with every convulsion.
Mainard rose to his feet, the sole survivor of the ambush as more of Tancred’s men revealed themselves from the darkness of the night. He had no choice. He turned and ran toward the forest. Quick on his heels where his foes, who were undoubtedly rested and eager to end the life of a man that had caused them so much grief throughout the years.
Out of breath, and bleeding from several wounds, Mainard was slow, and knew he would be forced to turn and fight if he was to make it to the forest at all. He reached at a corpse in his path and pulled a bronze axe from one of Tancred’s fallen soldiers. After a few more steps he slid to a stop in the snow and with his left arm he threw the axe at his pursuers. The axe went astray, and was easily deflected, but it at least slowed them for a few seconds, giving Mainard time to catch a bit of breath. He continued for nearly ten minutes before the gap between him and his pursuers became too small to ignore. He stopped and stood to fight. His eyes widened at what he saw.
“Tancred!” he said, his words riding on the steamy breath that escaped his frosted beard. He had no time to ponder as the three men who accompanied his greatest enemy lunged forward. Mainard stepped to the side and avoided a vertical blow while raising his blade to parry a second strike that came at him horizontally. He ducked and rolled between the two and kicked the third in the legs as he came to a sitting position. Quickly he rose to his feet without losing momentum from the roll and thrust his blade into the thigh of the kneeling man before him. The other two came quickly from behind and Mainard leapt to avoid their strikes. He rolled on his bad shoulder and rose to his feet distracted by the pain. They had turned to face him as he held his shoulder with his sword hand, grimacing enough for his teeth to be seen between the red whiskers of his beard.
“Give up.” Tancred said, as he knelt near his wounded man. “You’re never going to make it to the marsh, let alone your village. By now it’s already ablaze.”
“Impossible, your men haven’t navigated through the marsh yet, even if they walked all night they wouldn’t make it that soon.” Mainard rebuked.
One of Tancred’s men came in for an attack and Mainard took a step forward, stepping past the strength of the swing and risking the pain from the man’s arm crashing down on his left shoulder. He grabbed the man’s beard and thrust his knee into his groin. A hollow grunt came from his throat and escaped his lips as a puff of mist while Mainard crushed his foot with his heel. The grunt became a sharp yell of pain as the small bones on the top of his foot splintered into his flesh. Mainard pulled the man’s head down by his beard, attempting to ignore the pain that raced through his right arm as he did so. He brought his bronze blade up through the pit of the man’s arm and across his throat. Arterial spray erupted on to Mainard’s cloak and armour, tainting his already blood soaked clothing an even darker shade of red.
“Defiant to the end. I should expect as much from the son of Clovis.” Tancred uttered.
Mainard could see that these men were close to him, as Tancred’s eyes sunk with sadness at their slaying.
Tancred drew his blade and walked over the fresh corpse of his second man as Mainard walked backward. “You have always been a brave man Mainard. You could have been so much more with me.” Tancred continued forward. “Then again, I doubt I could ever trust a man who could betray his father, so in a way I suppose we were destined to be enemies.”
Mainard simply continued to walk backward toward the forest. It was close now, and he doubted that Tancred knew where he planned to go.
The last guard moved in for an attack and Mainard lunged backward, narrowly avoiding the vertical strike as he himself wound up with his left arm. The man stumbled forward from his momentum and Mainard’s blade came crashing down. Just as it was to crush the spine of his flat footed foe; Tancred’s blade deflected the blow.
Mainard recoiled from the block and nearly fell over the man he almost killed. He regained his footing just in time to avoid another strike from Tancred himself.
“You’re a competent fighter Mainard, it’s a shame such talent has to go to waste.” He said, swinging another quick and accurate blow to Mainard’s body that bounced off the bronze sword.
“You’re getting old.” Mainard quipped, “You used to be much faster.”
“I’m still fast enough.” He said, swiping around Mainard’s defence and carving a shallow gash in his forearm.
Mainard grunted, and moved back, holding the wound with his right hand.
Tancred walked slowly toward him. The next sentence shot out from Tancred’s white braided beard like a spear to Mainard’s heart. “I will at least feel some peace in knowing that the man at fault for my daughter’s death has met his destined fate.”
“I did not kill your daughter Tancred.” Mainard shouted, ending his backward march and standing tall in defiance to the accusation. “I did everything I could to save her.”
Tancred’s last man had walked around Mainard and moved in from the side.
Mainard’s cold blue gaze shot toward his enemy, and with a vitality fuelled by his fury, he struck the wrist of his opponent’s sword arm and severed the hand.
The man screamed and fell to his knee’s holding the bloody stump as the sword and amputated hand landed in the snow beside him.
Mainard quickly reversed the motion of his blade and parried an angry strike from Tancred and used the recoil to return the blade toward the wounded man. He spun it in his hand, reversing the point to face his rear and drove the bronze sword deep into the chest cavity of his tenth victim of the night.
“No!” Tancred yelled, swinging several clumsy angered attacks at Mainard who easily deflected and sidestepped them.
“I’m leaving.” Mainard said, as he turned to run.
“Like hell you are.” Tancred whispered to himself as he picked up his fallen guard’s sword and threw it at Mainard’s back.
The blade tumbled through the air and struck true; its bronze tip protruding from Mainard’s right pectoral muscle. His already broken collar bone now erupted from the new open wound. Mainard stumbled and fell forward from the momentum but rose to his feet as quickly as he could. He continued running as the skeletal bare branches of the Fey forest became visible through the snowy night.
Tancred’s eyes widened as he saw the forest appear from the darkness. “You’re mad Mainard, is this how you think you’ll warn your village? You’ll never make it alive.” He yelled, stopping in his tracks at the horrific sight of the Fey woods; the echoes of whispers already emanating from its shadowy depths. “Even if it weren’t for the evil within that forest boy, you’ll die from your wounds before dawn.” Tancred watched as Mainard disappeared within the dense trees. “Good riddance.” He muttered, turning away from the forbidden place with fear pulsing through his veins.
Mainard took his first steps into the forest with eyes wide, but soon the darkness overcame his vision and he was forced to walk with one hand in front of him. It seems as though the vision he held in his youth did not follow him into adulthood. He was as blind as Tancred and his father were those twenty one years ago. It did not take long for the voices to assault him, and it took all his will to shut them out and fight the fear that rose in his chest. Soon he saw the will-o’-the-wisps and collapsed from the relief of sight and exhaustion. He looked down to the forest floor and was astonished to see small flowers and fern sprout through the snow wherever his blood fell. He gathered his strength and rose to his feet, moving forward a few steps before leaning against a tree and reaching to his back to remove the blade that was still lodged there. He took several deep breaths before pulling on the blade with all that remained of his might. He could feel it grinding against his shoulder blade as it passed out of his body and tumbled to the forest floor below. A small patch of flowers blossomed over it where it landed in the snow. He trudged forward, plants pushing their way through the blood soaked trail that he left behind him.
“Oh, I remember that sword.” a voice came from all directions. “Can’t be the same owner though, can it? You beings live such short and useless lives. Look at yourself, such a fragile thing.” it said as a vine from a nearby tree reached out and seized his legs.
Mainard grunted, and fell to the snow, flowers and other plants erupted from beneath him and nearly engulfed his body as he attempted to rise to his feet.
“The forest wants you.” the sprite said, as he finally revealed himself, a small man floating just before Mainard’s face. The eerie sound of crackling ice emanated from the sparkles that floated down from his tiny feet. “Oh! I remember you now! The boy! You caused quite a ruckus a while back. Didn’t I tell you never to return here?”
Mainard attempted to speak but couldn’t.
“No no no.” he shook his head mischievously “All I want from you is that stone on your father’s sword. It can’t be from here.” he pointed, the motion of which tilted his posture as he floated in the air.
Mainard shook his head.
“What? A dying man won’t even part with a useless object? You won’t need it where you’re going.” he snickered.
Mainard shook his head once more as he rose to his feet.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he said, flying circles around Mainard.
Mainard clumsily swiped at the faerie with a bloody hand.
“Hah!” he yelled, easily evading the swing. “You’re not going anywhere. You don’t want to give me the stone? I’ll make sure you never see the light of day again! And at the same time…” he laughed, smugly smiling at the cleverness of his plot. “I’ll get a whole statue made of that stone!”
Mainard’s eyes widened as his feet no longer obeyed his command to move forward. He looked down to find that his hide boots had become marble stone and a bright white fire burned up his legs. Everything it consumed along its path gave way to the smoky white stone. He gasped, frantically trying to move with no avail.
“Hahahah!” the faerie erupted into a sinister laugh that echoed through the forest.
Mainard’s gaze shot to his fingertips as they burst into the unnatural flame. His hands became consumed and before he could do anything, his elbows also turned to marble. He looked down and the flames had reached his hips and climbed steadily up his stomach. Mainard put his arms out just before his shoulders were enveloped and shot his head back as he screamed in anger and terror. His echoing roar was abruptly cut short as the silver flames crawled down his throat and the iris of his eyes became hollowed pits. The forest once again became silent, its newest addition; the petrified husk of a desperate warrior.