Dragon Stone part 2

Dragon Stone...continued from part 1.

     The leader of Dragon’s Breath, Rus, sat before a fire talking to the warriors. His honey brown hair was neatly combed and tied at the nape of his neck. He kept his scruffy bread short. It was the fierce dark eyes and quiet competence that won his reputation. Rus groomed Rollo from a gangly adolescent to a skilled warrior, ready to take a place within Dragon’s Breath. The covenant was his family, and Rus was like a father.

     Rus paused at the sight of Rollo, eyebrows raised. “Six days? Not bad.” Barbarians were light with praise. Doing well was expected and rarely drew comments. Rollo felt pride bloom within his chest from the attention. Rus turned to the others. “Come, the Jarl awaits.” They filed out of the open door into the daylight. 

     Six days? Mariel tricked him out of the last healing day! But it appeared she was right about the meeting. He hoped it was worth losing that last day.

     Rollo found his sword near the door. He was surprised his fingers worked well enough to strap it on. Pain bit at his hands. He paused in the doorway, focusing his will, then took his first step into the light without support. 

     For a moment, he thought he died again, but it was just the sun, the wind, the birdsong prickling his nerve endings. Pain howled through his head. Half blind, he forced his legs up and down, each step bringing him closer to the central longhouse. His covenant mates waited at the door, watching. His success added to their honor. They entered as a unit, Rollo at the end of the group. He stumbled into the doorframe, grunting, before pushing his way inside, thankful for the gloom. Sweat soaked his clothing, reminding him of the cool water near the lifestone, of Mariel and her words. “Din, be with me,” he prayed.

     All eyes in the large room turned on him. 

     “Six days,” Rus said to the room at large. Murmurs and nods of approval followed.

     The Jarl stood in front of the hearth. His blonde hair was streaked with gray. One wouldn’t guess at the futility of the situation looking at the dogged determination he held on his face. The crushing defeat promising to annihilate the barbarian race, and many others, loomed on the horizon. The vast orc and zombie army pushed against the borders relentlessly. They knew the brutal truth. The Jarl never tried to hide it or water it down. Yet he held a posture of conviction, of unwavering faith. No matter what it took, how long it took, they would find a way to survive. 

     The Jarl caught Rollo’s eye and nodded. It was a high mark of admiration. “The trap is planned. Men walk the walls of the Old Keep, and the orc army advances. We need volunteers to lay the trap. The risk of death is high, but those who go have a slim chance of escape. Who here is willing?”

     The room stilled as one warrior looked to another. Many had suffered regeneration. It wasn’t something taken lightly. 

     Rollo thought of what’d it be like to be free of the pain only to embrace it soon after. Yet he would do anything to save his people from certain extinction. He sighed. Bearing those initial days again was overwhelming to consider. He couldn’t take it! Not so soon. But it would come again, eventually. Their situation was grim. At least the pain meant they still lived. The orc and zombie army wouldn’t have them so easily. Rollo smiled and raised his hand. Panic fluttered in his chest, but his will beat it down, the relentless will of a barbarian.

     “You?” the Jarl asked. “You’re just out of the stone’s embrace.”

     “Yes, but what more is pain to me? I’ll die to keep another unhindered with pain, the better to safeguard the homeland we have left.”

     The Jarl nodded. “You have the true spirit of war. What brothers will join this hero?”

     More raised their hands, three from Dragon’s Breath. 

     Rus slapped Rollo on the back, grinning, before realizing the mistake. “Sorry. I wish I could join you, if only covenant leaders were allowed on death missions.” 

     After the pain wracked him, Rollo noted the wistful look in Rus’ eyes and knew he spoke the truth. “The city is more important. If the lifestones are destroyed…”

     “I know. The city must be protected at all costs.”

     “It’s the only way we can endure the vast tide of the enemy, by regenerating. They won’t dwindle us down to naught with their hard earn kills.” Rollo joined the death squad in an anteroom. The Jarl explained the mission, then sent the volunteers to pack while others prepared to haul wood shavings and barrels of god’s tears. They marched out. 

     Arriving at the secret entrance to Old Keep by midday, they crawled through the stone tunnel into the outer fortress. The warriors who hauled the carts emptied them, clapped Rollo and the others on the back. “Kill them good.” They smiled at each other. One looked around at the strong outer walls. “Too bad we can’t hole up here. This place is more secure than the city.”

     Rollo rubbed his temple. “True, but we can’t risk bringing the lifestones out into the open to move them.”

     “At least we’ll get some use out of the place. I laugh every time I think of how we fooled the enemy. They really believe we’re all holed up in here.” The barbarian chuckled. The sound came out flat and dry. It was hard to find humor after so many days of dread, when the other races had given up and ran like cowards.

     “I wonder if the stupid zombies will carry the fire back to their main camp.” Rollo patted a barrel. “Not even zombies can survive this burn.”

     Rollo watched the barbarians manning the turrets, drawing the orc army closer with their facade of an occupied keep. The orcs’ catapults launched stone boulders into the wall, cracking it. The defenders wouldn’t have long. 

     The death squad spread wood shavings along the outer courtyard of the fortress, protected by the walls, before pouring god’s tears. Once lit, the magical liquid would burn for hours. Not even water would put it out before it was spent. They retreated into the stone keep. Rollo passed a half full cistern, and considered trying to return to it when the fire started. He might not burn, but he would surely boil. Not pleasant. He continued on to a thin wooden ladder leading into a bell tower, and climbed. He hacked the ladder from the landing. It fell to the floor far below in a splintered heap. “Perfect.” 

     Rollo sidled over to the window, checked the damage on the outer wall, and then looked to where the others would be hiding in wait. He removed flint and steel from his pouch and lit the nearest torch. Using it, he lit the other three in the corners. The stone room grew warm. He watched the deterioration of the outer wall as the sun sank low on the horizon. 

     The wall collapsed near the gate. A troop of twenty zombies and three orcs rushed through the gap. 

     He watched the wall, waiting. No more entered. 

     The enemy troop stopped short just inside the outer wall. The orcs sniffed the air and looked around. The zombies stood rock still. Rollo smelled their rot from his high perch. Something was wrong. Why didn’t the rest of the enemy’s army enter? They had only one shot.

     Rollo leaned his head out of the opening and shouted to draw attention. “Quickly, move to the back. We’ll hole up in the cellars. Those stupid orcs will never get us in there!” After yelling the words into the yard, he ducked his head, hoping they didn’t catch sight of him. He peeked over the top.

     The orcs hunched low, and walked cautiously toward the keep. It wasn’t working. 

     A guard from the turret ran from the side and threw a spear into the back of an orc. The other two stopped and stared at their dead companion. One shouted, and the zombies started back to the wall, toward the guard pulling a sword from its sheath. 

     This was bad.

     Taking up Rollo’s plan, someone called out from inside the keep. “This way, hurry! To the cellars while our guards distract them.”

     The orcs bellowed. One pulled a horn from his belt and blew a horrendous, loud call. The army poured through the gap in the wall. They advanced into the fortress, filling the yard.

     Rollo rang the bell. It was time.

     The orcs and zombies didn’t pause at the sound. 

     They advanced the keep, heavy foot falls with the occasional sound of steel on steel filled the air. He grabbed three of the torches and dropped them one by one onto the broken ladder below. The flame rose high. Billowing smoke rose, filling the bell tower. Rollo coughed, his body racked with pain. He leaned out the opening, gulping the fresh air. Smoke stung his eyes and he blinked away the tears. In the yard, fire had spread through the soaked wood. 

     Orcs scampered, shrieking. Zombies fell to pieces as they marched in fire. An orc, waving arms engulfed in flames, ran for the gap in the wall, only to smack into an entanglement of bodies clogging the exit. Another, smarter, headed for the gate but its metal chain had melted just enough to tangle. 

     Rollo smiled. The trap was successful. The enemy never suspected a death squad. Barbarians kept their use of the ancient lifestones secret from the other races. 

     There was one thing left to do. Die.

     Rollo coughed from the smoke. It stung his eyes. He couldn’t find a place free of it. Sweat broke out on his body, soaked his clothes and dripped down his face. The heat was rising. Rollo wondered how hot it had to be to melt that thick chain, and what that kind of heat would do to him. 

     Climbing onto the ledge, his hands wiped the water from his blinking eyes. He wanted to see this. Leaning forward, Rollo jumped, hands before him as if he’d fly over the carnage. The flames rushed toward his face. He thought of Mariel’s sweet song. 

     Blackness spit him out near a large reddish stone shaped like a dragon. Light hit his eyes, burning pain. Every breath was relentless torture.

     “Sleep now,” a woman’s voice said. “It’s too soon.”

References: Barbarian, Orc, Zombie

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