Presenting the final chapter of our Black Guard fiction by Mike Lee. Read chapters one and two here.
“Our hated foes seek the Ring of Athan amid the ruins of Tor Agral. Find the relic and return here with it; slay any Elf who stands in your way. So commands the Witch King.”
The parting words of Halghast, captain of the Black Guard at the Fortress of Malice still echoed in Rathann Darkmoon’s head as he loped like a wolf through the blasted landscape of the Mournwood. His lacquered black-and-gold armor was scarred by sword-strokes and spattered with streaks of gore, and a long, bloodstained halberd was held loosely in his gauntleted hands. The warriors of Lord Sathras’ warband raced along in his wake like a flock of black storm-crows, flitting silently among the broken and shriveled trees. The severed heads of High Elves bobbed from the dark iron trophy hooks hanging from their belts.
It was growing darker within the Mournwood; twilight was approaching, if such a thing could be said to exist in the Shadowlands. Stars shone above the jagged treetops, but their cold light could not penetrate the deep gloom of the forest floor. They’d lost sight of their foes some time ago; the last survivors of the High Elf war party they’d defeated earlier in the day had led them a fine chase through the wood before finally escaping to the north-east. Many of the Dark Elves had howled in frustration and thwarted bloodlust, but Rathann only bared his teeth in anticipation. He knew where they were headed, and their footfalls, however light, had still left telltale marks through the layers of ash resting on the forest floor. They would lead him unerringly to Tor Agral and the culmination of his quest.
Beltyr, the Witch Elf, seemed to realize this as well. She kept pace with him easily, graceful and silent as a snow leopard. When he glanced her way she would smile hungrily, her dark eyes glinting with malice. She had forsaken Sathras the moment the battle had been won, a clear sign to the warriors that she had little faith in his ability to spill the blood of their foes.
Sathras himself was nowhere to be seen. No doubt he was somewhere behind Rathann, keeping pace at the rear of the warband and plotting his next move. Sathras had fought the High Elves at the edge of the Mournwood for weeks, wasting time and lives to achieve nothing more than a bloody stalemate. Rathann had smashed through the enemy defenses in a brief, savage battle, humiliating Sathras and usurping the loyalties of his warband in the bargain. It was a mortal insult, one that the highborn had to respond to quickly while there was still a chance of reclaiming his warriors’ loyalty. The question was, when would Sathras make his move, and what form would it take?
Suddenly, Beltyr drew close to the Black Guard. She pointed into the distance. “There! Among the treetops to the north-west!” she hissed. “The ruined tower of Tor Agral!”
Rathann came to a skidding halt, his eyes searching the darkening skyline. At first he couldn’t see what the Witch Elf was pointing at, but then he saw it: a dark, knife-like shape, almost lost among the thicket of blackened tree trunks. It was hard to tell in the fading light, but the citadel looked to be more than a mile away.
“It would appear that the citadel has weathered the centuries better than most,” Beltyr said, her silky voice so low that only Rathann was likely to hear. She was near enough to almost whisper directly in his ear; her breath was cold and sharp, smelling of blood or burnt copper. Gooseflesh prickled down the back of the Black Guard’s neck.
“It’s just a pile of stones,” Rathann grunted, though his hands tightened fractionally on the haft of his weapon.
The Witch Elf’s laugh was low and throaty, with an edge like a dagger drawn across a whetstone. “A pile of stones that belonged to your household for thousands of years,” she said. “Tor Agral was your family’s ancestral domain, Rathann Darkmoon. Did you think I wouldn’t know?”
Rathann looked uneasily about. The rest of the warband had come to a halt as well, and Darl Elf warriors were making their way towards him from every direction. “I don’t care what you know,” he growled. “It makes no difference to me or my mission.”
Beltyr stepped slowly around the Black Guard. The long, sharp fingernails of her left hand traced lightly along the curves of his blood-spattered armor. Her full lips were quirked in a sly grin, but her dark eyes were cold and appraising.
“Our master’s cruelty is boundless, is it not?” she whispered. “Do you imagine it was a coincidence that you were chosen for this quest? The Ring of Athan was your household’s most precious possession in the days before the Sundering, and was the source of much of their power and prestige. Your ancestors spent a great deal of blood and treasure – too much, perhaps – to try and reclaim it.” Beltyr reached up and laid a fingertip lightly against the point of Rathann’s chin. “And now it lies within your grasp.”
Rathann felt a surge of anger. “What are you getting at, witch?”
Beltyr shrugged, but her eyes never left his. “Only that the Ring of Athan is yours by right, as is the citadel. The relic would restore your household’s power and prestige – and a great deal more, besides.” She nodded to the distant tower. “Think of it: Tor Agral returned to its former glory, like a knife pointed at the heart of Ulthuan. Ambitious highborn would flock to your banner. In short order your influence would rival Uthorin’s, or even Lady Arkaneth’s.” Her eyes glittered hungrily. “And that would be just the beginning.”
The Black Guard found his gaze drifting to the stark outline of Tor Agral, and could not help but feel tempted by what the Witch Elf had said. What druchii wouldn’t? It was only with the greatest effort that he banished such thoughts from his mind.
“I’m bound by oath to the Witch King,” Rathann said coldly, “What I want or don’t want is immaterial. Malekith desires the Ring of Athan, and he shall have it.”
The other Dark Elves were nearly within earshot now. Beltyr studied Rathann for a moment more, then took her hand away and nodded slowly. “The Witch King chose wisely when he selected you for the Black Guard,” she said coolly. “Your loyalty burns as brightly as your hate.”
Rathann acknowledged the compliment with a nod of his own, but the conversation left him puzzled. Was this yet another of the Black Guard’s many tests? The thought only served to stoke his anger all the more.
Struggling to keep his face cold and impassive, he turned away from Beltyr and regarded the approaching warriors. He reckoned there were almost fifty of them left, and there was no way of knowing how many Elves awaited them at the tower. As Rathann considered his prospects, he saw Lord Sathras emerge from the shadows at the rear of the warband. The young highborn’s face was haggard with exertion, but his eyes were pools of pure venom as he glared at the Black Guard.
Rathann pointedly ignored the highborn’s murderous stare, instead meeting the eager gaze of the assembled warriors. “The tower lies yonder,” he said simply, gesturing to the north-west with the point of his halberd. “No doubt the cowards we’ve been chasing have reached it by now and raised the alarm. We must strike quickly, before they’ve had time to organize a proper defense of the ruins.”
The warband responded with nods and hissed agreement. One of the warriors closest to Rathann gave a wolfish smile “What is the plan of attack, my lord?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Rathann saw Lord Sathras stiffen angrily. For a moment, he wondered if the highborn would challenge him there and then. But either Sathras was an even bigger coward than he suspected, or simply had a more devious scheme in mind, for Lord Uthorin’s son held his tongue.
“Plan? I don’t have a plan,” the Black Guard declared, gripping his weapon in both hands. “I’m going to Tor Agral, and I’m going to kill every single High Elf I find there. You can follow me or not,” he said, turning away and breaking into a trot. “Just don’t get in my way.”
Mirthless laughter echoed through the broken trees as the warband fell in behind him, just as Rathann knew they would.
A mile later, Rathann came upon the vestiges of an old road that ran north-south and seemed to march right up to the foot of the tower. The Black Guard turned onto the road without a moment’s consideration, picking up speed as he ran across the old, weathered stones. His attention was elsewhere, plotting the best way to murder Lord Sathras.
The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that the highborn would not act until the battle at the ruins was joined, or immediately thereafter. The loyalty of Sathras’ warband – such as it was – extended only as far as Rathann’s ability to sate their lust for bloodshed and plunder. Once Tor Agral was taken, the warriors would realize that they owed much more to Sathras than to the Black Guard, and then they would belong to the highborn once more. He couldn’t be certain which way Beltyr would go at that point; earlier he’d thought that he could count on her for no other reason than her oath to Khaine, but after their recent conversation he didn’t know what to think.
No doubt Sathras would strike in the midst of battle, when Rathann would be most preoccupied and the murder easily covered up by the chaos of close combat. If he were clever, though, he could turn the tables on the highborn just as easily.
A number of possibilities suggested themselves to Rathann as he ran down the old road, and a plan started to take shape. By the time he heard Beltyr’s warning shout the ambush had already been sprung.
White-garbed archers sheathed in gleaming mail rose from cover along the roadway and let fly a furious hail of white-fletched arrows into the warriors’ midst. The volley scythed through the Dark Elf ranks, piercing their light armor with fearsome ease. Warriors toppled to the ground, clutching at the white shafts jutting from their chests.
Rathann had spun at the sound of Beltyr’s cry, and the unexpected motion saved his life. Two arrows glanced from the curved front of his breastplate, while another struck a barbed flange on his right pauldron and ricocheted away instead of burying itself in his throat. A heartbeat later a fourth arrow struck his mail skirt, punching through the steel rings and the thick robes beneath before burying itself in his right thigh. He roared in pain and anger, and his cries were answered by fierce shouts from the road ahead as a large force of High Elves raced from the forest and charged at the stunned Dark Elves.
He had underestimated his foes, Rathann thought furiously. Instead of cowering amid the ruins of his ancestral home, the sons of Aenarion had chosen to take the battle to their foes and strike at a time and place of their choosing. A quick look behind him told the Black Guard that nearly a third of the warband was dead, and the rest were stunned by the lethality of the attack. Only Beltyr seemed unfazed by the rain of arrows. The Witch Elf drew a pair of wicked-looking fighting knives from her girdle of brass skulls and charged at the archers with a blood-curdling shriek.
With a savage cry of his own, Rathann reached down and tore the arrow free from his leg. He snapped the white shaft with a convulsive clench of his right hand and tossed the broken wood aside. The pain was intense; he let it rage through him like a fire and hurled himself at the onrushing Elves, his halberd whistling through the air in an interweaving pattern of deadly arcs.
The Elves saw Rathann coming and hefted their long spears. When they were less than twenty paces apart the attackers hurled their missiles and then reached for the swords sheathed at their sides. The Black Guard knocked two of the spears aside with a sweep of his halberd; the rest flashed by overhead and fell among the Dark Elf warriors behind him. Rathann heard more screams, which only served to stoke his rage even more.
The Black Guard and his enemies came together in a crash of wood, steel and flesh. With a furious battle cry Rathann splintered an Elf’s shield with a fearsome blow, then followed up with a swift, underhanded blow that sliced the warrior from groin to breastbone. He pulled his weapon free from the foe’s collapsing body, planted his right foot and then ducked, swinging the halberd in a brutal arc just below knee height. The keen blade severed legs and smashed knees like an axe chopping through kindling. The stink of spilled blood hung heavy in the cold air.
A High Elf warrior crashed into Rathann, smashing the Black Guard’s face with the curved surface of his shield. The blow stunned him; Rathann felt blood pour from his nose and mouth, but he didn’t yield a single inch. Instead, he shoved back with the haft of his halberd, catching the High Elf off balance. As the warrior staggered backwards he chopped his sword down at Rathann’s neck, but the Black Guard brought his halberd around and severed the foe’s sword hand at the wrist.
Another sword blow struck Rathann on the left thigh; the keen edge failed to cut through the metal rings, but the impact was enough to spin him half around and send a hot spike of pain lancing up his leg. The High Elves were rushing past him on either side, eager to come to grips with the demoralized warriors farther down the road. The arrows had stopped hissing into their ranks from the right side of the road thanks to Beltyr’s attack, but if the stunned Dark Elves did not recover swiftly the ambush could well break their nerve. A retreat at this juncture would be a fatal mistake.
With a wild yell Rathann recovered his stance and made another wide sweep with his halberd, causing the High Elves near him to pull up short. He advanced on his would-be attackers, slashing and stabbing at every one he could reach. One High Elf tried to lunge at him as he pressed forward, but overextended his guard and had his throat slashed open instead. The rest gave way as the Black Guard moved forward, retreating down the road a step at a time to stay out of reach of the lethal pole arm. The sudden change in direction spoiled the charge of the High Elves in the rear ranks, causing them to momentarily pile up on the road. Rathann knew he could not hold all of them off for very long, but every second that passed gave his warband time to recover and fight back against their hated foes.
Rathann hacked and slashed at the shields raised before him, chopping through steel rims and sending splinters flying with each blow. Each stroke was stronger and more deadly than the one before, fueled as they were by his mounting hate. The High Elves tried to parry his blows or launch attacks of their own, but the halberd gave him the advantage of a longer reach and greater power, which momentarily confounded the enemy warriors. Behind him, he heard a savage druchii war cry, then another, followed by the clash of swords as the warband began to rally. Another few seconds, and the tide might begin to turn.
With a wild yell one of the High Elves leapt forward, catching Rathann’s halberd against his shield and aiming a vicious cut at the Black Guard’s left knee. He blocked the attack with the butt of his pole arm just in time, but found himself driven back a step by the sudden assault. A second High Elf saw his opening and rushed in as well; his sword stroke rang off Rathann’s right pauldon and struck a glancing blow off his wrist that left his whole right hand numb. Snarling, he thrust at the second attacker, driving the point of his halberd under the High Elf’s chin and spearing him through the throat. Yet no sooner had he fallen than a third warrior took his place, stabbing furiously at Rathann’s midsection.
Roaring in anger, the Black Guard leapt backwards. The High Elves let up a triumphant shout, but the move was intended merely to give Rathann enough room to swing his halberd in a fierce, decapitating swing. Two High Elven heads leapt from their shoulders in a fountain of blood, while a third was dashed to the ground with half his helm crushed in. The press of attackers reeled back once more, shocked by the ferocity of Rathann’s counterattack – and then Beltyr came shrieking out of the woods on their left flank, her eyes wild and her muscular figure gleaming with fresh blood. She stabbed a surprised High Elf through the left eye with one of her poisoned blades, sending him writhing and screaming to the ground, and the rest of the ambushers turned and fled down the ancient road.
Rathann howled like one of the damned and set off after the fleeing High Elves with Beltyr and the rest of the Dark Elves right on his heels. The Witch Elf raced past him, her dripping blades held high and the name of Khaine on her lips, and caught up with the closest High Elf. Screaming in savage joy, she plunged her blades into the fleeing warrior’s back. The foe collapsed with a shriek. As Rathann caught up with Beltyr she was still stabbing the fallen High Elf, lost in a frenzy of slaughter.
The High Elves fled straight down the road, towards the ruined citadel. Rathann forced himself onward, oblivious to the searing pain in his leg. The tall tower loomed up from the trees ahead, silhouetted in a flash of distant lightning.
The enemy left the road abruptly, cutting right through the charred wood. Within moments the Black Guard found himself racing past worn, tumbled stones that might once have been part of the citadel’s wall. Then up ahead Rathann saw the retreating warriors pull up short beside an enormous ruin of collapsed stone and broken statues. In the center was a tall, pointed archway, still intact amid the surrounding destruction. There, in the shadow of the tower’s former gateway the High Elves made a final stand.
Rathann saw the High Elves form ranks before a tall, commanding figure clad in gleaming silver armor. A silver helm decorated with upswept eagle’s wings rested upon his noble brow; an elegant, rune-etched blade was clenched in his gauntleted fist, and a silver-edged shield marked with a rearing dragon was held close to his chest. The High Elven prince was a mighty figure, a fierce, defiant hero, but none of that mattered to the Black Guard.
What mattered to him was the thin, gold chain about the prince’s neck, and the glinting ring that hung from it.
The prince was surrounded by a retinue of archers, all of whom drew back their bowstrings at a command from their leader. Rathann let out a wild yell and broke into a full run, closing the distance as fast as he could.
His rage propelled him forward into a storm of hissing arrows. One hit his breastplate, just above the heart, and snapped in two; another flashed past his head close enough to tear a furrow along his left ear – then the third punched into his left pauldron, piercing the steel plate and driving deep into his shoulder. Rathann staggered for half a step, roaring at the sudden flash of pain, but he gritted his teeth and continued his charge. His vision narrowed to a red tunnel, centered on the prince and the relic about his neck. Seconds later he reached the wall of High Elven shields and struck them like a thunderbolt.
Halberd raised high, Rathann took a single step and leapt at the wide-eyed warriors. His boot struck the top edge of the shield held by the High Elf in front of him and drove it backwards against the warrior’s chest. His weapon flashed down, chopping through the helm of the High Elf to the Black Guard’s right, then a swift return stroke smashed the butt of the halberd into the face of the warrior in front of him. Blood spurted from the High Elf’s broken nose; he staggered backwards with a choked curse that turned into a scream as Rathann’s halberd bit deep into his neck.
The Black Guard jerked the weapon free in a welter of blood and kicked the dying High Elf onto his back. A sword slashed at him from the left, hammering his pauldron hard enough to snap the shaft of the arrow still embedded there. For a moment the world disappeared in a blaze of white-hot pain, but his anger still sustained him, keeping him from slipping into unconsciousness. He lurched forward, away from the sword-blow and towards the Elven prince, while behind him the pursuing Dark Elves fell upon the enemy with shrieks of pure bloodlust.
Growling like a wounded animal, Rathann forced his vision to clear just as he reached his foe. High Elf archers retreated in every direction, dropping their bows and reaching for the short swords at their belts, but the prince merely raised his shield and prepared to receive the Black Guard’s charge. Snarling, Rathann swung the halberd in a devastating overhand cut, but the prince’s sword flashed in a quicksilver blur, sweeping the blade of the weapon aside and lashing out in a blow that nearly took off the top of the Dark Elf’s head. Heedless of the narrow escape, Rathann pressed his attack, feinting at the prince’s sword wrist with the butt of his weapon and then slashing at his foe’s face. But the prince’s shield was light as a serpent’s scale, effortlessly stopping the halberd’s crushing blow.
The High Elf prince’s darting blade flashed once again, ringing against Rathann’s breastplate and then sweeping low to carve through the Dark Elf’s mail skirt. The enchanted blade tore through the steel rings like rotted cloth, but managed only a shallow cut just above the Black Guard’s knee. Rathann took a quick step back and brought his halberd down in a devastating overhand blow, but once again his enemy’s shield turned aside the blow with ease. Rathann saw the counter-blow at nearly the last moment; he hurled himself backwards just in time, causing the enchanted blade to smash into the front of his helmet instead of taking off the top of his head. The magical steel carved through the metal and wood with ease, destroying the helm and cutting across his forehead down to the bone. Hot blood poured down onto Rathann’s face, blinding his left eye. Shaking his head fiercely, the Black Guard thrust at the prince’s face, but once again, the rim of his magical shield turned the weapon aside. This time, however, Rathann noticed something: the enemy hero was swift and skilled, but when he blocked any attacks directed at his head he let the edge of his shield rise past his eyes. For that fleeting instant, the prince couldn’t see him.
The ring around the prince’s neck called to him; the ancient relic of his house taunted him, fanning the fires of his rage. With a shout, he lunged forward, leaving his neck exposed. The prince took the bait, and very nearly killed him; Rathann got the haft of his weapon in the way just barely in time before the sword sliced off his head. He lunged, driving the point of the halberd at the prince’s eyes, but once again the rim of the shield rose like an impenetrable wall and knocked the blade skywards. At that instant, with the prince blinded by his own shield, Rathann swept his halberd down in a curving arc and severed the High Elf’s left foot.
The prince toppled with a scream, blood pumping from the terrible wound. He landed on his shield, and Rathann swept forward, stabbing downward and transfixing the High Elf’s throat. The Black Guard pressed his full weight against the weapon’s haft, forcing the prince’s body backwards until the point of the halberd bit into the ashen ground and pinned the dying warrior in place. Rathann leaned against the weapon, gasping for breath, until the prince’s body went limp.
He was dimly aware that the fighting around him had dwindled, but he paid it little heed. Blinking blood from his eyes, Rathann bent slowly and reached for the chain about the dead High Elf prince’s neck. It came free with a single, sharp tug, and the druchii straightened, raising the Ring of Athan to his eyes. The relic was an intricately engraved silver band, etched with strange, flowing runes that confounded the eye. He could feel the ring’s power through his gauntlet like a chip of glacial ice, and at that moment Beltyr’s seductive whispers made terrible, dreadful sense. He was still staring at the ring’s gleaming surface when he heard the Witch Elf’s voice in his ear.
“Guard your back, Rathann! Sathras is here!”
Suddenly alert, the Black Guard whirled to find the highborn and a pair of wounded Dark Elves approaching. Beltyr, her white hair stained with red and her face covered in gore, stood close by his side, her knives held ready. The ground leading back to the archway was carpeted in bodies. No quarter had been asked and none given; the High Elves had been wiped out, and nearly all of the Dark Elf warband as well.
Rathann gave the highborn a wolfish smile. Sathras had miscalculated. And then the Witch Elf’s poisoned knives sank into his back.
There was no pain – just an icy flood that poured into his body and stole away his strength. Grunting in shock, Rathann gripped his halberd and tore the weapon free from the prince’s corpse, but his legs buckled beneath him. He sank to his knees, the halberd nearly twisting from his grasp.
Beltyr pulled her blades from Rathann’s back and walked up beside him. A slender hand reached down and plucked the ring from his grasp. The Witch Elf walked over to Sathras with her prize. She glanced back over her shoulder at him, favoring the Black Guard with a cruel smile. “A pity you would not listen,” she said with a high, maddened laugh. “Oh, the things you and I might have accomplished! The elders of Khaine’s temple have foreseen it: the Ring of Athan will plunge the Shadowlands into a storm of blood and fire, all to the glory of our god! But Malekith would hide the ring away in the fastness of Naggarond, and that cannot be allowed.”
The coldness was rising through Rathann’s body, reaching for his heart. His legs and lower body felt like lead, and his arms were growing weak. He fought back against it with all his will, summoning up all the hatred he could muster. He could not fail like this! He would not! He had given his oath to the Witch King, and he would not be denied!
Beltyr handed the ring to Lord Sathras, who accepted it with an expression of naked avarice. He failed to see the Witch Elf’s disdainful look as she stepped past him. “You had your chance, Rathann,” she said with a sigh. “If you will not take advantage of the ring’s power, Lord Sathras most assuredly will. It’s a pity you won’t be around to witness all the wondrous and terrible things that the future holds for our people.”
Sathras tucked the ring into a pouch at his side and drew a long, saw-toothed dagger from his belt. “Don’t listen to her,” he hissed. “I want you to linger for as long as you can, Rathann. I want what’s about to happen to last for a very, very long time.”
The sight of the ring passing into the callow highborn’s hand was too much to endure. Rathann closed his eyes and felt the rage burning in his chest. Slowly, deliberately, he forced his right arm to move, and the halberd straightened.
Sathras paused, his expression faltering. “I thought you said he’d be paralyzed!” he snapped.
Beltyr gave the highborn a look of pure contempt. “He has enough poison in him to incapacitate three druchii, much less one.”
Sathras turned pale. “Then why is he moving?”
Using his halberd for support, Rathann drew himself to his feet. His blood was boiling, sending waves of agony rippling through his body – but the Witch Elf’s venom was burning away as well. With every passing moment he felt his strength returning – and Sathras could see it as well. The highborn turned to his two surviving warriors.
“Kill him!” he cried, and the two warriors rushed forwards, drawing their blades.
Rathann let them approach, biding his time and summoning up his hate. At the last moment, just as they committed themselves to the attack, he brought up his halberd in a blurring, underhand arc. One of the Dark Elves doubled over with a scream, clutching at his spilled entrails. The second came to an abrupt halt, his courage having fled, but before he could retreat the Black Guard spun and drove the point of his halberd into the warrior’s chest. He pulled the blade free of the dying Dark Elf in one swift motion and advanced on the wide-eyed Sathras.
“Stay away from me, you damned fiend!” the highborn cried, fumbling for the sword at his hip. “I’m the son of Lord Uthorin! If you strike me down, your life is forfeit!”
Sathras had managed to draw his sword half-way out of its sheath when Rathann’s halberd chopped down, biting into the juncture of the highborn’s neck and collarbone. The heavy blade sheared through the bones of his ribcage and buried itself in the noble’s heart.
“You forget, I’m a servant of the Witch King,” Rathann said through clenched teeth. “I have no life to give. And I am but following the orders of my master, whose word is law. He told me to find the Ring of Athan and slay any Elf that stood in my way, and this I have done.”
He sank down beside the highborn’s corpse, realizing after a moment that Beltyr had disappeared into the darkness. No doubt she would seek her revenge against him, but that would be a battle for another time.
The Black Guard reached down and pulled the relic free. Once more he held it up to his eyes, then stood and glanced up and the dark ruins that surrounded him. He looked upon the ancestral seat of his household and was surprised to find that now he felt nothing at all.
What need had he of wealth or power? He had his hate, and that was enough.
WAR Stories ► ◄ Chapter Two - No Mercy, No Surrender
2009 Dec 09 11:33 GMT