Bowstring and Steel: Ep. 01byIronDragon©
This is a tale set in a fantasy sword and sorcery universe of my own creation. All characters are original. It's going to be an open ended series of adventures as a counterpoint to Solar Wind. This one is a bit closer to home for me, being born of both real life experience and gaming every other weekend between paydays during my time in the service. As with my other tales, sex is present, but doesn't play a central role. I hope you enjoy. :)
Episode 1: Faces to the Fire
'Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen
profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps
of the Rangers.'
I volunteered. That's on me. I knew going into this war that I might not come out alive.
I remembered the story that had made me volunteer for service. It had been passed down for one hundred years by the bards and in books. There were originally two hundred soldiers of the Imperial Army trained by The Battlemaster himself. He said his rank was Sergeant Major, and his name was Jack Parker. He had been drawn to our world by the Emperor's Mage, and once he had been informed of our situation, had trained those he deemed worthy in the Way of the Ranger.
He drilled them constantly until they met his exacting standards in both ranged and melee combat as well as survival skills. He was harsh, yet fair in all of his judgments. He led by example, and they were hard pressed to keep up with him.
He instilled in our ancestors The Tactics, The Creed and The Standing Orders. He decreed Elves should be allowed the same consideration as Humans for selection for Ranger training. He made certain that all of his rules and regulations were written down and followed when the time of his death finally came. He refused to die in bed, and instead stood before the Ogres with bow in hand one final time.
He had arisen from what would have been his death bed and dressed in his combat uniform, which he called his BDUs. He grabbed his bow and quiver, and rode out with twenty of his Rangers to the battlefield outside our Capital at Arathias. He had dismounted, seemingly healthy and fully in control of himself. He had rallied on his last day, and had refused the potion that would have eased his passing. From the recorded history, his last words to the Physician resonated across time. "Fuck you, Doc. If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die like a Ranger should. Hooah?"
He had crouched with his Rangers, waiting in ambush, and as the Ogres approached, he stood and let fly his arrows one after the other along with his fellow Rangers. When he fell, his quiver was empty and his daggers were stained with the blood of the Ogres who had fallen around him. He had been the only Ranger to fall during that battle. He had been brought back to the Keep of Zhalek and given a Hero's Burial. His children and grandchildren attended, and a statue was raised in his honor. His teachings were passed down through the years, and the tide of the war finally turned in our favor to become a slow but steady push of the Giant Kin from our lands.
Now we stand at the end of this century long war. Until our Battlemaster showed us the way, and led through his example, we had been losing to the overwhelming might of the Ogres and Frost Giants. Now we stood ready to end their threat to Arethor once and for all.
There were twelve of us. One squad of Rangers flanked on our left by twenty Paladins of Harsk, and on our right by eight Battlemages of the Guild.
My name is Jonathan Hawke, and I'm an Imperial Ranger.
I looked across the large expanse of Stone's Throw Bridge at where the enemy would be in a matter of moments. When they reached the middle of the bridge itself, we would strike where their numbers wouldn't count for much. We would shoot into their number, and then we would charge in with the Paladins and Battlemages. Our arrows were nocked already, and we were prepared to kill and die for our freedom, and the chance to end this long war that had claimed so many of us.
"What will you do after the war is over, Jon?" Hanelor asked me.
"Long term? Not sure yet, sweety. Short term, I plan to grab the biggest mug of beer I can find and get plastered. How about you?" I grinned. Sure, she was a Paladin of Harsk, and chaste, but that didn't mean I couldn't flirt with her. We had served together as part of the same joint strike team for five years. Under the dulled steel plate of her armor, she was a beautiful woman.
"If we survive, I think I might join you in getting drunk. Gods know it's been too long." She laughed back. We looked at each other and shared a smile. We had saved each other's lives countless times in countless battles. I had made a pass at her once, but she had rebuffed me in favor of her vows. I respected her even more after that, and had apologized. It had been a heated moment after the Battle of Farsight Ridge, and she had embraced me in relief that the battle was over. We had kissed passionately for a moment before she broke the kiss and pushed me back. She apologized as I did, and we had laughed it off.
"You bought the last round after Sullen Gully, Hanelor. This one's on me." I nodded to her.
"Gods' sakes, Jon. Stop flirting with my Sister." Jalin spoke up with a laugh.
"Don't worry, First Marshal. I promise not to deflower her... unless she wants me to." I laughed at my other old friend in the Paladins of Harsk. Jalin was a grizzled old veteran of a hundred campaigns who had joined the Paladins after his wife had died. His children were grown, and he knew nothing but combat. He figured he would die with a sword in his hand, facing the fire of battle. I liked and respected him.
"Blasted Rangers." Jalin laughed. Our people were talking amongst themselves in low voices while we waited. All of us sharing quick glances but keeping the majority of our attention on the pass over the far side of the bridge.
We chose the bridge for our killzone instead of the pass because the bridge was narrower. Fewer Ogres or Frost Giants would be able to cross at a time.
"I can handle him, Brother Jalin. I am not so easily tempted." But even as Hanelor said it, she threw me a wink and a smirk. I raised my eyebrow at her, and she grinned at me.
"Hawke, if I have to tell you one more time to stop flirting with the Paladin, I will bring you up on charges." Denna said, and I winced. Our Commanding Officer, Captain Denna la Cyr, noblewoman and a damn good Ranger was also very jealous of her 'boys', as she called us. Everyone knew that she was with our Second, Lieutenant Halas Wolfbane. It didn't take a seer to figure that out.
"You jealous, Denna?" I turned and blew her a kiss in full view of her lover, who glowered at me. I looked at him and chuckled. "Gods, Halas. I was joking. You take everything way too seriously."
Halas was a good Ranger, and under his very strict code, there was a good Elf. They wouldn't make it after the war, unless they both left Arethor. She would return to court and probably be married off to any nobleman who would have her, and Halas would return to his Elven kingdom to the south. Probably to take a wife there. But that was only if we survived this battle.
One of the reasons I joined the Rangers is that the Rangers don't care what Race we are. My Half-Elven heritage was plain to see in my emerald green eyes and pointed ears, while my black hair was from my Human father. Another giveaway was the stubble on my face. All full Elves, male and female are blonde, and can't grow facial hair, whereas all full Humans have dark brown, red, or black hair. All blonde Humans on Harthis have at least some Elven blood in them.
I was accepted in spite of my mixed heritage. I stand 6 feet even, and I weigh a solid 170 pounds of wirey muscle. My form fitted green, black, and brown leather armor was done in the camouflage pattern taken from The Battlemaster's combat uniform from centuries before. It helped hide us in the forests in which we fought so we could ambush the enemy. I ran my hand back through my short cropped hair.
"Here they come!" Ranger Calvin Crane shouted. He pointed, and we saw them coming down from the pass towards the bridge itself.
"I guess they'll call this one 'The Battle of Stone's Throw'," said Hanelor.
"Then let's make it the last battle of this fucking war." I cursed, and I didn't care. This was fight and win, or lose and die. Vel'shorek, the last surviving Frost Giant Commander, had rallied his Frost Giants and Ogres for one final charge toward the Capital. The only way from their staging area to Arethias Castle was through us.
"Hold, Rangers! Wait for optimal range!" Denna shouted. She had an arrow nocked, just like the rest of us.
"By Harsk, they're armored!" Jalin swore as they came into full view. He was right. From head to toe, the 10 foot tall Ogres and Frost Giants were encased in steel plate.
"Rangers! Aim for their eyes!" I shouted and raised my aim to where I knew it would penetrate the eyeslits in their helms. All my brother and sister Rangers adjusted their aim to compensate.
They advanced when they saw us, picking up their pace to cross the bridge. I did a head count as they came into view. "Two hundred enemies approaching." I thought about us twelve Rangers, twenty Paladins of Harsk, and the eight Battlemages set to unleash their own brand of hell on the enemy. Forty against two hundred. The odds were nearly even, but still stacked in our favor. I smiled.
As they entered range, Denna shouted "RANGERS!" We shot our arrows as fast as we could draw, nock, pull, and shoot. One per second. Our first volley took down the lead ranks of Ogres as they started running across the bridge. Our second volley took down several more ranks. By the time our quivers were empty, we had taken down seventy of the enemy force. Their bodies littered the bridge, but the remaining Ogres and Giants just kept charging.
The Paladins drew their broadswords as one, closed the visors on their helms, and advanced with shields locked in the Phalanx.
We Rangers collapsed our bows and sheathed them in our rear belt holsters before drawing our twin long daggers strapped to our thighs. Our shining steel blades were sharper than razors, and would slice through the enemy faster than a wraith's claws. We took up position to charge as soon as the Paladins had the enemy engaged.
When the Paladins engaged, we sprinted for them, jumping onto the back rank of Paladins' backs and leaping at our enemies with blades drawn and flashing in the morning sun. I slashed through the neck of one Ogre beneath his helm, kicked off his chest and leapt at my next target. I sank both my blades into the Frost Giant's chest, and rode his body down before leaping into the air again. "RANGERS!" I shouted as I became a whirlwind of doom upon them.
We were joined by the Battlemages, their fists glowing with their combat spells as they leapt at the Ogres and Frost Giants as well. They sliced through the enemy's armor more swiftly than any blade, and struck with precision against their targets. I saw several Paladins fall and a couple of my brother Rangers, but we kept charging and killing. "FOR HARSK AND JUSTICE!" Jalin shouted to his remaining Paladins, and they gave no ground to our advancing foes.
I saw Ranger Kavorn vo Stell fall when a Frost Giant backhanded him off the bridge, but I leapt and avenged him, slicing through the Giant's neck with both blades and severed his head. I would tell Denna after this was over and we would retrieve his body. No Ranger would be left behind.
I turned and saw the Paladins break Phalanx and take individual Ogres, making short work of our enemy. The Ogre and Frost Giant ranks had mostly broken, but they still outnumbered us by a hefty margin.
A quick glance showed Hanelor being driven back by two mace wielding Ogres, and her shield was getting pounded hard. I sprinted for her closest attacker, and slid under his legs, slamming my left hand dagger up into his groin. He screamed and collapsed to his knees I I slid forward and rose to my feet. I sliced his throat that was now at eye level, and he fell over dead. Hanelor let out a laugh and thrust her broadsword forward into the remaining Ogre's gut, disemboweling him.
Then I saw him. Vel'shorek was coming forward with his massive hammer in hand. His blue skin was mostly hidden by his heavy plate armor that he seemed to wear like a summer tunic. I saw him catch a Battlemage in mid leap and throw the man off the bridge. Hanelor and I looked at each other and nodded. We then turned and sprinted at the Giant together.
"RANGERS!" I shouted to get Vel'shorek's attention and give Hanelor the chance to get behind him to strike. He swung his hammer at me with a speed I wouldn't have thought possible. I barely dodged the blow which sent stone chips flying from the surface of the Bridge itself. I slashed downward at his exposed arm as he started to lift his hammer, and gouged his wrist. He screamed a guttural roar and then it was cut off. A look of surprise showed on his face and he looked down to see his own blue blood coating the Paladin's broadsword now sticking out of his chest.
Hanelor had severed his heart from behind, and she rode him forward as she removed her sword and the Giant Commander fell dead on his face.
The remaining Ogres and Frost Giants heard their Commander scream, and saw him die by our hands. They charged us, and we sprinted to meet them. Our Rangers, Paladins, and Battlemages pursued them and cut them down from behind before most of them could even reach us. Hanelor and I were pushed back as we fought them hand to hand and blade to blade. We finally broke free enough to sprint forward and engage on our terms. Our strikes were deadly, and soon the enemy was broken. True to their form, the Ogres and Frost Giants had fought to the last.
We breathed heavily and I found Denna kneeling over the body of Halas. He had died to protect her.
I placed a hand on her shoulder. "He died a Ranger, Denna. Kavorn went over the side, so we'll need to retrieve his body as well."
She dried her tears and stood. "No man left behind, Ranger. Hooah?"
"Hooah, Denna." I answered.
Denna sent two Rangers to retrieve Kavorn's body. We had lost four Rangers, while the Paladins had lost eight of their own. The Battlemages had only lost two, and they helped us gather our dead for return to the Capital and Burial with Full Honors.
I sat on the low battlement of Stone's Throw Bridge and took a swig from my canteen. Hanelor removed her helm and sat next to me. I handed her the canteen and she took a long gulp before handing it back with a smile. "Thanks, Jon." I noted her short cropped dark brown hair with a smile. Cut to military fasion like mine. Her bright blue eyes were heavy lidded with fatigue.
"Anytime, Hanelor." I said. I saw the two rangers return with Kavorn's body, and set him beside our other dead.
Denna spotted us and came to sit on my other side. She took her canteen and drank deeply. "Hell of a fight, Jon." She said.
"Yes it was, Denna." I agreed. "They never stood a chance against us."
"Hooah, Ranger." She smiled a sad smile and tears fell from her eyes.
Hanelor and I stood to leave her to her grief. I knew Denna, and she wouldn't want anyone comforting her. We walked forward a ways from our friend and I turned to her. "When we get back, I know I'll probably never see you again."
"I'll be going back to the Monastery, it's true." She said. She gave me a sad smile and a look of longing in her eyes.
I couldn't stop myself and stepped forward until we were closer than before. I touched her face and my fingers traced the scar she'd gotten at the Battle of Western Sky River, where I had first saved her life. Her gauntleted hand came up and covered mine as she leaned into my palm. Her eyes closed and I saw a single tear roll down her dirt covered face. I leaned forward and kissed her lips for the second time in our lives, and she threw her arms around my neck. We clung to each other, neither one of us wanting to let go.
I was in love with her. I realized it when I saw that this was the last we may ever see of each other. "I love you, Hanelor."
"I love you too, Jon." She whispered into my neck.
"There you two are." Jalin said with a smile as he walked towards us. In spite of him approaching, Hanelor didn't let go of me.
"Hello, Jalin. We've won." I said as I held Hanelor close. She finally turned to look at him and disengaged our embrace.
"Yes we have, haven't we? All these years of war, and we won it with a final skirmish." He grinned widely.
"We have, Brother. I quit." Hanelor stunned both of us with her declaration.
"Hanelor, what do you mean?" Jalin blinked rapidly several times as he tried to process what she had just said.
"I mean I'm resigning. I was never in Harsk's service by choice, and you know it. I've done my duty to Harsk and the Empire. The war is over now, and I choose my own path from now on." Hanelor crossed her arms over her steel breastplate.
Jalin considered what she had said, then nodded. "Can you wait and resign after the victory celebration and awards ceremony? You're both going to be honored for killing Vel'shorek, you know. I will hear your Final Confession and take your Resignation of Commission afterward."
She looked at me with that same longing look from before. "Only if I can break my vow of chastity before I resign."
Jalin looked at us both, and his eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Hanelor, I am going to walk away for about an hour or two. What you decide to do in that time is between you and Jon. I know nothing, and I have already forgotten what you just said." He smiled at us and turned around to walk back towards our joint unit.
Unlike most Paladins who had been trained from early childhood in warfare and service to Harsk, the War God and Meter of Justice, Jalin was already an experienced soldier when his wife had passed from this life. He found the solitude and Brotherhood of the Monastery of Harsk comforting, and had easily learned their spells of healing.
"You would throw away your Commission to be with me, Hanelor?" I asked.
"I would, Jon. I love you, and nothing is going to change that. I cannot serve Harsk any longer when He would have us deny our love. I wasn't sent to the Monastery by choice, though I have fulfilled my duties tirelessly since I became a Paladin. I will continue to protect the defenseless and help everyone I can, but I can't do that in service to Harsk if it means losing you." She poured her soul out for me, and I took her in my arms again.
"You won't be alone in that, Hanelor. I think it might be time for me to move on as well. I love being a Ranger, but I love you even more." I admitted. We broke the embrace and looked at each other. I smiled and motioned toward the camp.
Hanelor grinned and we walked quickly back to where our camp was set up. It would take at least an hour for the wagon to get here to collect the dead, and we needed to wash ourselves of the grime of war. I showed her the secluded spring off the stream running near the camp and we began to undress. Hanelor slowly unlatched her armor piece by piece until she was down to just her chainmail suit and tunic with trousers. I pulled off my leather armor, quiver harness, and belt, putting everything neatly in a folded pile. I watched her remove her boots, trousers, and tunic as I removed my boots and leggings.
When I saw her naked body for the first time, my breath caught in my throat and I got hard instantly. She was beautiful. Athletically built and femininely muscular. The definition in her arms and legs did nothing to detract from her beauty. She saw my response to her nudity and blushed fiercely as she looked down shyly. I moved towards her and took her hand in mine. She looked up into my eyes and smiled as she stepped into my arms. We kissed as our bodies touched for the first time skin to skin.