Sisters of the Cohort Ch. 01bySoebek110©
Mikael groaned as he emerged from his hide tent, his joints still aching from the previous day's hike. He clambered out into the cool air and let the breeze wash over him, the sun's warming rays just beginning to cover the land. A faint sparkle of frost dusted the grass and dirt around his campsite, and he took in the beauty of it even as he started to shiver from the cold.
He was behind schedule. That weighed heavily on his mind as he surveyed the valley that lay before him, the blue sky brightening as morning was truly birthed. That there was good reason for his tardiness did not change the fact that he was still late, and if he didn't make it to Gertham before sundown he would miss not only the inauguration of the new merchant king, but the work -- and thus coin -- that would go with it.
He had maintained a harsh pace through the Glacier Mountains, traversing more distance in a few days than many would consider possible in a week. Shortcuts and an aptitude for the outdoors leant themselves well to time-saving, and it was with that thought in mind that Mikael had decided to spend the afternoon in a small outpost town's tavern two nights ago. He had thought only to linger there a few hours before continuing on his way, hopefully restarting his journey in time to gain more leagues before darkness fell - but that was before he had met the serving girl.
He did not regret staying the evening after that, and neither, he suspected, did she. An exceptionally pretty young woman, their night of passion was an incredible experience, but it had nevertheless set Mikael back. Attractive girls had often delayed him, and this had been no different.
He shook his head and ran a hand through his messy hair, sucking in a lungful of the icy air before turning back to his tent. There he immediately set to work packing the items away, and before long the entire campsite had been condensed into a pack no larger than his head. The charms on the tent that saw it shrink in size when stored away still held strong, and Mikael thanked the Gods again for his chance encounter with the witch who had scribed them for him.
He grinned as he set off, his boots crunching on the ice-brittle grass. That night had been another such example of his willingness to indulge the carnal desires of a gorgeous woman, and again it was one that, though he did not regret it, had certainly cost him. Mikael, employed as a messenger between two merchants, had been sent with utmost urgency, his pay minimal but with a substantial bonus were he to arrive within two days. That bonus would have been enough for him to retire for the rest of the season and enjoy himself, indulging in all the luxuries of summer without the need to work.
Yet the Gods were never so straightforward, and he had stumbled upon the witch's abode late on the first day. Needing somewhere to sleep he had knocked on the door, and, trying to ignore the sheer beauty of the woman who greeted him there, enquired as to a spare bed. She had ushered him inside with the promise of a mattress, yet later revealed to him that she had not been entirely honest; she had only one bed in her home, but he was quite welcome to share it with her. Three days on, late but well-satisfied, Mikael had left her house, the charmed tent in his possession. It had been a gift, one Mikael had been left with little choice but to accept; the ferocity of the witch's demands he do so matched only by the vigour with which she had spent the previous three nights riding him.
He had missed out on the bonus, of course, confronted at his destination by an irate merchant who -- though grateful to receive the package -- was less than impressed with the celerity of its delivery. To Mikael, however, the delay was worth it -- the tent had proven to be far more valuable to him than the few months he would have spent relaxing had he ignored the witch's house and earned himself the bonus.
That thought lingered in his mind as he trudged down the dirt path. The frequent unforeseen encounters he enjoyed with the girls he met on his journeys may have set him back more times than he could count, but in the long run things usually worked out for the better. He paused on the winding track, a cold shock of wind blasting him as his mind pondered the thought. He could not, in fact, recall a single occasion when his choosing to spend time with an eager young woman had left him in a worse position overall than if he had rejected such an opportunity.
He smiled, never having truly identified such a pattern before, and mused as to what fortune he might now gain. He had not, after all, seen any benefits from his night with the tavern girl -- apart from the obvious ones, of course - and though her rapturous moans had been enough to make the whole experience worthwhile, he could suddenly not shake the feeling that bigger things were to come.
With a wry smile he set off once more, his leather boots finding grip easily on the icy path. He was dressed almost entirely in leather armour; the only part of him exposed was his head. Suicide, he had always been told, but he had found himself a more able fighter with his vision unimpeded by a helmet, and he had not been killed yet.
Wrapping his long, black cloak about himself as another gust of wind whipped up the mountainside, he readjusted the pack on his shoulders and gritted his teeth. Despite the brightening sun and his steady descent, he could swear it was actually getting colder. A wave of wariness ran through him, and his nerves set on edge.
He mentally made note of the two longswords sheathed at his waist, able to be withdrawn in a moment to confront any possible foes. A shortbow was strapped to his back, too, and whilst he preferred melee combat by far, he was no novice in the art of shooting. If this cold did signify some present danger, he would not be caught unprotected.
Indeed, Mikael was an exceptional warrior. Of normal build, he was often underestimated, mistaken for a run-of-the-mill foot soldier and overlooked in favour of the larger, more ferocious-looking mercenaries. He stood a couple of inches over six feet tall, and his messy hair was unkempt but not unclean. Broad-shouldered, he looked strong for a normal man yet paled in comparison to the barbarians who made their way down from the frigid northern wastes in search of work. There had been more than one occasion Mikael had been forced to put one of those barbarians in their place, fed up of ignoring the abuse that inevitably came from a low level mercenary when they felt they held the upper hand.
Yet despite his relative lack of impressive size, he had never been short of work. Whilst he may not have always been picked first by the most eager merchants, he inevitably ended up in a job -- and on a dangerous journey it was Mikael's caravan that would reach its destination unscathed.
The main portion of his coin came from protecting caravans against bandits and other dangers of the wilds, and it was in the outdoors that Mikael particularly excelled. He had an affinity for it; born and raised by a merchant couple, he had spent his youth on the back of the travelling caravan, amongst the wares his parents sold. Mountains, forests, deserts and tundra had all passed by as the party traversed the land, moving from kingdom to kingdom and exposing Mikael to a different culture in each city they came to.
But it was the very nature of their business that had brought an end to Mikael's pleasant childhood and thrust upon him the realities of a cruel, vicious world. Late one night, when the caravan had set up camp, bandits had attacked, slaughtering the guards and dragging Mikael's parents to their leader. Mikael had hidden in one of the wagons at his mother's urgings, and could only watch as the raiders struck down his parents, his life torn apart in a fleeting moment as the mother and father he loved were killed before him.
The bandits were not sadistic. They did not torture his parents. They merely wanted to take the goods that his parents would not give up, and though Mikael could be at least partly calmed by the knowledge that his mother and father had not suffered, it did not quell the fire that burned in his spirit.
He had spent the next few years in relative quiet, however; having stumbled to the nearest town, he was taken in by the local tavern owner who employed him as a barkeep. He was well looked after, and treated as an employee might expect of generous patrons, but he yearned for something more. Desiring the wandering life of his parents, he had longed for the day he could raise the coin to become a warrior.
That day came when the tavern owner died. He was left some coin as a reward for his service, and with it he purchased his first sword. And with that he left, striking out on his own as all bonds were severed, seeking to become what he had long desired to be.
Not that his time in the tavern had been wasted; far from it. It was there he learned the value of trust, and how to judge a man's nature without so much as a word. It was in the tavern, too, that he was first welcomed into the arms of a woman, and his education in the carnal arts was frequent and well-received. His fellow tavern workers were all female, and each took a special interest in furthering Mikael's horizons, instructing him in the arts he found such pleasure in today.
But that time had passed. He was alone now, and though he knew he would be welcome in that tavern any time, it was a world away. He had no idea if it even existed anymore, or whether any of the girls still worked there. Despite only being a little over twenty-four summers old, years had passed since he left that place and struck out on his own. In that time he had matured, grown into the more than capable ranger he was today, and it that was lifestyle he knew now.
He snorted as he remembered his past, his memories flooding back as they often did. He had tried at first to block them out, before he came to realise they were a part of who he was. It was the memory of his parents' deaths that had driven him to this life, and it was their memory that kept him there -- he'd be damned if he'd let bandits kill anymore innocent merchants whilst they were under his protection.
A sudden eruption of wings caused Mikael to whirl, his hands blurring to the sheaths of his swords. Hundreds of birds had taken flight behind him, a tree emptying its branches of the darting black streaks. He let out an amused sigh as the tension dissipated, and though he remained watching a moment longer to ensure there truly was no danger, he relaxed.
He resumed his journey; he had a long day ahead.
Mikael exhaled a sigh as he caught sight of the river. Heavy winter rains had swelled it, and with a sinking heart he realised he would have no chance of crossing in the few daylight hours he had left. Gertham was merely beyond the next set of hills, yet the closest crossing point that would remain usable in these floods was another half-day away.
He sat down on a nearby rock with a grimace, curses racing through his mind. He had really needed that coin; had really needed to reach the town before night fell and the guards were hired. The deepening gloom merely served to sour his mood even further, and it was a long time before he hauled himself upright from the boulder on which he was perched.
He looked around; dark was settling over the land now, and no habitation appeared nearby. It looked like he would be camping overnight once again, and so with one last glare at the river he set off towards the trees.
It did not take him long to locate a suitable clearing. It was not far from the path, yet he was hidden and largely sheltered. A small fire would not easily give away his position, and he could be fairly content that any bandits would not find him there. Setting down his pack, he collected some wood, and before long had constructed a small campfire in the centre of the site.
A sudden noise in the trees beyond his vision caused him to freeze, and his senses raced into alertness. Listening, he heard the noise again, and his heart began to thump in his chest as he realised it was the sound of numerous, shuffling footsteps.
He could not hide; it was too late for that. He had built a fire in the hope he would not be discovered, but whatever lurked beyond the shadows cast by the flames knew full well that he was there. He remained still, trying to ascertain the direction of the noise, and its cause.
Cold ice surged through his veins as a figure lurched into view, a shield held clumsily in one bony hand, a ragged sword in the other. A skeleton! his mind shrieked, his own twin longswords in his hands before he had time to think. More of the shambling dead appeared behind the first, and Mikael was sure he could hear cackling from nearby.
A crunch sounded behind him, and he noted with dismay that yet more of the skeletons approached from behind and to the sides; he was completely surrounded. Silence hung heavy in the air bar the crackling of the fire and the ungainly footsteps of the approaching dead, and still Mikael was sure he could hear maniacal laughing.
He clenched his jaw, weighing up his moves. He would have to fight his way out, but even that seemed futile. Lumbering as his foes were, sheer force of numbers would bring him down, and despite his exceptional combat prowess Mikael knew he would lose. With a surge of pride he realised he would not allow himself to simply lay down his weapons and be killed - he would destroy as many of these abominations as he could before he went.
His warcry pierced the night, and he attacked, his swords a blur as they arced towards the nearest skeletal warrior. It raised its own sword lightning quick, and Mikael threw himself sideways to avoid the lethal slice. These foes were not mere walking bones; their shambling gait was a façade.
Almost instantly the other skeletons burst into action, their shuffling replaced by a clatter of tattered armour as they charged towards Mikael. He propelled himself back to his feet with a powerful shove from his forearms, and ran to the centre of the clearing. They approached from all sides, and he began to whirl in place, a deadly dance initiated, his swords slicing the air as he prepared for the clash of weaponry.
His foes reached him in silence, and the clashing of their swords rang out through the chill clearing. His grunts of exertion sounded alone in the battle, and as his swords cut through his enemies' bones they collapsed without a sound.
He was more prepared this time, and his opponents were not finding him easy to bring down. The maniacal cackling had ceased as the first warriors reached him, though Mikael could not be totally sure it had not restarted given that his thoughts were more focused on not being killed.
He dodged a sword thrust, swerving to the left, and his own blade arced upwards. It cut through ribs, the skull of his foe exploding in a shower of age-old dust, and he spun instantly to face his next attacker. His first move was parried, the following blocked by the skeletal warrior's shield, and as he readied himself to strike again he was felled by a blow to the side of the head. He collapsed to the ground, dazed, and barely had the presence of mind to roll away in time as swordtips punctured the earth where his body had been but moments before.
Still on the floor, he swept out with his swords, severing the feet from two warriors who had strayed too close, and they exploded in shards of bone as their bodies hit the ground. He pushed himself back to his feet, narrowly avoiding a vicious thrust from a rusty polearm, and jinking to the side to avoid another.
He was being slowly overwhelmed; for every enemy he cut down another two took its place, their approach slow but implacable as they moved in on him. His circle had been reduced in size considerably, and he had next to no room to manoeuvre. Before long he would be killed; he would simply not have the space to avoid the weapons of his foes.
An axe crashed down from his left, and Mikael ducked, feeling its serrated edge pass over the top of his head. He thrust outwards with his left sword, feeling it cut bone, and dust filled the air as his attacker collapsed, but it was too late. His opponents had closed in too tightly, and as another warrior fell to Mikael's striking blades a third thrust its rusty dagger straight towards his chest, and he knew in that moment that he was going to die.
In a split-second the blade pierced his leather armour, its point sending pain shooting through his body, and just as it was about to puncture his skin it... stopped. The skeletal warrior collapsed to the floor, decapitated, even a body raised from the dead unable to function without a head.
A beautiful woman stood before him, her striking green eyes sparkling in the firelight and staring straight into his. Long, obsidian hair shimmered behind her as she whirled, and twin longswords not unlike his own glinted in her hands.
Without a word she spun behind him, her blades slicing through the cold air and cutting down yet more warriors as they approached. His momentary reverie broken, he joined her, his own swords raising in time to parry two attacks from separate foes, and with a twin thrust both skulls were obliterated.
A loud, angry scream sounded from the trees, and the skeletons stepped backwards, out of the range of Mikael's blades. He hesitated, unwilling to follow them, and he watched amazed as they slowly crouched to the floor, leaving themselves open to attack. His muscles twitched, raring to step forwards and destroy the unnatural beings.
The woman hissed a warning to him. "Do not move; it is a trap. Stay where you are."
Mikael complied, the woman's words winning out over his instincts, and he stood still, his swords raised but unmoving, his eyes roving over the skeletons as they knelt on the ground.
A sudden blast of chill air rocked him, but he did not fall or stumble. The night around him seemed to grow thicker, and the flames of the fire -- which still burned despite the commotion -- were dulled as if by fog.
A figure stepped into view to Mikael's right, and he turned his head. The woman behind him turned, too, and Mikael followed her lead by facing the newcomer outright.
He was bedecked in flowing black robes, the hood shrouding his face in a darkness that seemed to radiate from him. To look upon that twisted figure was to feel the heat sucked from your bones.
A thin, raspy voice filled the glade. The sound of death. The sound of undeath. It quivered with rage and hostility, its unnatural shrill seeming to cut to Mikael's core. "You dare defy me? You dare destroy my children?!"
The figure raised his hands and the skeletal warriors stood once more. They did not approach, however, merely readying their weapons with an ancient creaking and freezing in place.
"Lay down your staff, necromancer," the woman beside Mikael called out clearly. He was impressed; there was no fear in her voice. He knew that if he spoke the opposite would certainly be true.
The dark wizard laughed. "And why would I do that, when it will be so much more fun to destroy you!"
He raised the twisted length of wood in both hands, and as the woman next to Mikael charged forwards with a speed he did not think possible, a black bolt seared out from the gnarled staff. It blasted towards Mikael, impacting on his chest with an ethereal scream that seemed torn from a thousand long-dead spirits. He let out a cry of his own as pain wracked his body, the hands of those multitudinous ghosts clawing at his mind, and collapsed to the ground.
The feeling faded in an instant, vanishing as quickly as it had arrived, its presence fleeting but no less traumatic for that. He lay on the floor, shaking, and only slowly became aware of the silence that now filled the glade. The skeletons had collapsed and the malefic figure lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, black blood oozing out from underneath the necromancer's vile robes.