Just before dawn, the red-haired woman sprinted through the grassy fields and fading darkness, bound hands held out before her. As she moved, she scanned back and forth, looking for any kind of edge—a sharp rock, a bent nail, a bit of glass—that would let her free her hands.
Behind her, she could hear the faint hoofbeats of her mounted pursuers, even over the rhythmic pounding of the surf rolling in off the ocean far below the sheer cliff on her left. Normally, she enjoyed the endless water, but today she couldn’t spare a glance at it. Instead, she had to find a spot to make her stand.
Amid the seemingly endless grasslands, a large hump loomed in the pre-dawn glow. Immediately she veered toward it, knowing the high ground was her only chance for survival. On the flats, they would run her down for sport and leave her dead in the tall grass.
Hoots and shouts sounded behind her as the bandits spotted their escaped quarry. They had come across her while she was at camp yesterday, catching her out of armour and just far enough away from her sword to make the difference between resistance and surrender. She still hadn’t made it easy, though, injuring three of the brigands before they had subdued her.
Learning from that painful lesson, they had bound her hands and feet. They had thrown her over the back of a horse where she had listened to the ragtag group, clad in stinking leathers and fur scraps, argue over whether to sell her or make her their camp slave all through the day’s ride.
She, of course, had no intention of allowing them to do either. After a bowl of cold, thin gruel eaten under guard, she had been tied to a stake in the ground while most of the filthy bandits had gone to sleep, promising a final decision in the morning.
That’s when she went to work.
They had hammered the wooden spike firmly into the ground, but she had nothing but time and endless determination, and eventually, even the stoutest restraint gave way with enough effort. It had been a good weapon, too—the lone dozing bandit guard had found that out when she had come up behind him and plunged the dirt-crusted point into his throat, cutting off any warning cry in a gush of warm, gurgling blood. For that death, she figured they would torture her, then kill her—slowly.
Only a few dozen paces from the hill, she risked a glance back to see the half-dozen men riding their shabby horses at a full gallop toward her, closing the distance with frightening speed. The sight spurred her onward, and she reached the base and began climbing, ignoring the stab of pain in her side from the hours of running.
The hill surprised her—it wasn’t earthen, as she’d expected, but a large pile of rocks heaped up in the middle of nowhere. The grass that should have ringed it was gone, the dirt packed down by what looked like hundreds of feet over the years. The mystery of the rock pile deepened when she reached up to gain a handhold—and nearly impaled her palm on the point of a rusty dagger wedged between two rocks, its blade pointing skyward.
There was another weapon next to it, a short sword, its blade also sticking up. And another blade, this one a short-handled axe. In fact, as the sun edged closer to the horizon, its brightening light revealed that the entire upper half of the rock pile bristled with weapons of all kinds—swords and knives, maces and axes, polearms, spears, and shields—all pointing upward.
She couldn’t have asked for a better battleground than if she had created it herself. Snatching the dagger from the rocks, she kept scrambling up toward the top. When she reached it, she turned the blade around and sawed at the rough ropes around her wrists. They parted, freeing her hands just as the bandits reined in their sweaty, panting horses at the base of the hill.
“Circle ’round and start climbin’—she ain’t gettin’ off this hill alive,” the leader, dressed in slightly better furs and a broadsword strapped across his back, said as he dismounted. He raised his voice to a shout. “You hear me! You drew Black Hand blood last night—there’s only one punishment for that! Spilling yours!”
The woman stared down at him in silence, flexing her hands to restore the circulation. Again, she had no intention of allowing them to do that.
“You sure we should go after ’er on a Bladebarrow?” one of his men asked. “You know we’re not—”
He was interrupted by a clout from the leader that sent him sprawling. “I don’t give an airman’s piss what them dung-eatin’ clans say! Now get up there and get ’er!”
Meanwhile, she cast about to see what weapons were available. The hilltop consisted of a relatively flat, open patch of rocks encircled by sharp rings of upthrust steel. A sturdy-looking spear with a tattered, red pinion rose into the air near her, and she pulled it free and considered it for a moment, then dropped it on the ground next to her. Still holding the dagger, she grabbed a rusty longsword, grimacing as half the handle disintegrated in her hand. But there was no time to change weapons again—the first of the bandits was upon her.
“Hold, Laird—wait ’til we all get there!” the leader called out. But it was too late—the face of the one called Laird was flushed with rage as he crested the hilltop. He approached her with a decidedly odd gait, and that’s when she recognized him—he was one of the men she had injured during their attempt to capture her.
“You recovered enough to climb up,” she said in mock surprise, readying the dagger. “After that punch that left you mewling on the ground, I didn’t expect you to walk for a week.”
As planned, the taunt made him even madder, and he charged straight through the field of weapons at her, mace raised high overhead to brain her with one savage swipe. She waited right where she was, both blades at the ready.
As the last second, close enough to smell his rancid breath, as he started to bring down his pitted mace, she stepped aside and thrust the dagger point at his face. The tip sank deep, and she let it go as his momentum carried him past her. He slowed to a shuffle, the mace dropping from his hands, and fell to his knees as the rest of the bandits reached the top of the rock hill. With a despairing groan, Laird toppled over on his side, revealing the dagger hilt jutting from his eye socket amid a stream of blood and clear fluid.
“Damn yer eyes!” The leader drew his broadsword in a hiss of leather and steel and barked, “Spread out, alla you! Surround ’er and kill ’er!”
The other five men obeyed, drawing cudgels, short swords, daggers, and one even pulling what looked like a chopped down halberd off his back. Splitting into two groups, three on one side and two on the other, they worked around her until she stood in the center of a circle of six course men and their crude weapons—
—which was exactly how she wanted them.
At that moment, the sun broke over the horizon, its bright rays illuminating the top of the hill and the combatants on it. The two men on the leader’s right flank took the light full on, its brightness making them turn their heads and squint their eyes for a few heartbeats.
She only needed one.
Snatching up the nearby spear, she aimed and let it fly, catching the blinking man on the right square in the gut. He whoofed in surprise, then fell backward, still staring at the ash shaft of wood protruding from his belly. He got off one strangled scream as he tumbled down the hillside in a crash of steel. Even as she moved to follow up that strike, she knew by both those sounds that he wasn’t coming back up again.
The rest were taken by surprise at the sudden, shocking attack. Their moment’s hesitation would cost them dearly.
His fellow bandit had turned to look in horror as the speared man fell down the hill. He turned back just in time to see the woman upon him, her sword slashing at his neck. His panicked wail was cut short by the blade slicing through his jugular, letting a wide spray of blood go as she drew the sword back. He gobbled in terror, dropping his spiked club and clapping both hands to his neck in a useless attempt to stem the crimson tide flowing through his fingers. Turning a beseeching look on his leader, he fell to the ground, his mouth opening and closing as the last of his life’s blood stained the rocks around him.
“GET ’ER!” the leader roared, stepping over the man’s body and raising his own blade while the three other bandits charged at her from all sides. This was their standard tactic, to surround a foe and press in with club and steel until the target was overwhelmed and crushed beneath their weapons. They had used it on her the day before, so she was familiar with it—and how to parry it today.
Crouching down, she lashed out with her sword in a wide arc, aiming at vulnerable knees and shins. The first one she hit yelped in pain and stopped so suddenly he pitched forward onto his hands and knees.
She seized the moment to lunge at him, though not quick enough to avoid a blow on her back that hit hard enough to crack a rib. Another swipe of a blade nearly stabbed her in the face, coming close enough to open a cut under her eye that stung with her sweat. Still, her unorthodox attack had left the others confused for another precious moment.
Pushing the pain away, she used her sword as a skewer, hitting the prone man under the ribs as he tried to rise, and shoving the blade in deep. He sucked in a surprised breath and grabbed the blade in both hands, his eyes widening in disbelief. Wrenching the sword away from her, he staggered back, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.
Sensing an attack coming in from her left, she tried to twist out of the way, but felt a line of fire score along her side. She pulled away and turned to see the leader draw back his sword and grin wolfishly at the bloody blade.
“See, you whoresons!” he said to the remaining pair of thugs. “She bleeds just like anyone else! Now let’s blind ’er, gut ’er, and leave ’er for the thrice-damned crows!”
They spread out again, intending to flank her and take her down. The woman backed up across the clearing, reaching behind her for a weapon, any weapon.
She found something far better.
The gut-skewered bandit was still stumbling around, keening in pain as he plucked ineffectually at the yard of cold steel through his stomach. The woman grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him at his former allies.
The two henchmen recoiled, weapons held out to ward him off. The mortally-injured bandit reached out to the leader, who shook his head as he cocked his blade back and unleashed a mighty swing, severing the man’s head from his neck. The fountaining body fell to its knees while the head bounced on the rocks, nearly touching one of the other bandits, who looked like he was about to faint.
The gruesome distraction allowed her to leap to the side and grab the first weapon she saw, a large, two-handed battle axe nearly as tall as she was. Its blade was longer and narrower than a standard war axe, taking up a good third of the haft, with a vicious point at the end of the sturdy steel. It felt good in her hands, like it had been waiting on this hill for her the entire time.
Brandishing it, she held it ready and faced the remaining three. A trickle of liquid dripped onto her cheek, and she flicked her tongue out to taste her own blood. She nodded at them. “Come on then, and die like the rest.”
“Badur, go left,” the leader ordered. “Kyast, go right. Forward on my signal. She can’t take all of us at once.”
He was about to find out just how wrong he was.
The two men spread out, Kyast mindful of slipping in his dead compatriot’s blood. The woman divided her attention among the three, but knew the others wouldn’t move until their leader did. He was the key.
When they had circled out far enough that she could barely see the two in her peripheral vision, that was when she moved.
Charging directly at the leader.
The point of the odd axe blade aiming straight for his heart.
He brought his broadsword down more quickly than she expected, chopping at the axe head hard enough to knock it toward the dirt. With his guard down, she rode the blow out and redirected its momentum, swinging the haft around and slamming it into his forehead.
Drawing the battle axe back, she smashed the butt into his face, breaking his nose and front teeth in a spray of blood. His sword forgotten, the leader reeled backward, helped on the way by her booted foot in his chest. With a scream, he tumbled down the hillside much like the first man, snapping off blades as he fell, until he lay sprawled at the bottom, a bloody mass of steel and flesh.
She turned to the remaining pair of bandits and raised the blood-spattered axe. The two glanced at each other, then turned and ran down the hill as fast as they dared. Reaching their horses, they vaulted onto their backs and clapped heels to sides, galloping away until they disappeared over the horizon.
The red-haired woman looked around one last time, making sure there were no more enemies to kill. Only when she was sure of her victory did she let the axe fall to the dirt and check her wounds. Her side had bled freely during the fight, but was already clotting. A bandage would help with that. The fractured rib would also heal in time. The cheek slash she could stitch up later.
Wincing, she picked up the battle axe and headed down the rock hill to the bandit’s horses. A nearby groan caught her attention. Glancing over, she saw a blood-stained hand clutch weakly at the air. She warily strode toward it, axe held loose and ready in both hands.
Incredibly, even with a half-dozen blades piercing his body, the bandit leader still lived. He stared at her with his one good eye, the other a red ruin. “Please…” he whispered, “Please…”
She bent over him. “All the while you thought you were going to kill me. But the truth is, I was just looking for the right spot to kill you.”
The flame-haired woman straightened up and raised her battle axe. “This is more than you deserve,” she said as she brought it down across his neck.
With the bandit leader’s head freed from his shoulders, she wiped the blade clean, noting that she would have to get it cleaned of rust, and walked over to the sturdiest-looking horse—not coincidentally, the one the leader had been riding. She mounted it and grabbed the lead of the second best-looking one, then turned and rode off, backtracking along the bandits’ trail.
After all, she thought, I have to go get my armour.
* * *
The Warrior is the second of the nine EMBERWIND Classes we’ll be unveiling over the coming months. You can play as the Warrior as an alternate class for Rath in our free Hero variant DLC for EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia or learn more about her on the the Warrior Class page.
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.