In the Lair of the Bloody Handed
Part Five – Savage Battle
The men from the village had gathered just outside of it, in the fields, carrying spears and knives with stone blades, and simple bows. With them were a number of the great cats that Nhaqosa had seen earlier, snarling creatures with their stocky tails slashing through the air. Nhaqosa took his band of hardened fighters and occupied the centre of the gathering. There, armed with weapons of steel and good armour, he felt they could do the most good.
He began to limber up, stretching his limbs in preparation for the fight, while around him his companions went through the same routine. A low murmur ran through the men of the village. Nhaqosa could feel their nerves, their fears. It wasn’t as if his companions didn’t feel the same, Nhaqosa knew, only that they were better at masking it.
The wait did not last for long before a much larger band of men began to drift out of the forest, from east along the river, and into the clearing around the village. They were a mixed group, mostly humans who looked no different than the men of the village, but they included in their number another humanoid group that Nhaqosa had not seen before. They were taller than the men they accompanied, though not to Nhaqosa’s height. In contrast to his barrel chest and broad shoulders, these people were thin and spindly, appearing to be all arms and legs. They had covered their faces in ochre paints that formed hideous displays and had spiked back their hair with red mud.
“Painted Ones,” Tolvir told Nhaqosa after the minotaur had pointed them out. Nhaqosa could hear a trace of fear in the old man’s voice. “They are cruel, cunning and utterly without mercy, as well as being the ancestral foe of my people. Keturhi has taken to consorting with them, a sign of just how far she has sunk into depravity.”
The enemy band came to a halt after emerging from the forest and stared across the clearing at the small group arrayed against them. They began to ready themselves for battle, with shouts and chants, slapping spears against hide shields or beating at their chests. Among them, one blared away on a simple horn, one taken from some creature. The villagers responded in kind, psyching themselves up for the inevitable.
“You should show them how it is done, boss,” Lakach suggested dryly.
Nhaqosa chuckled. He shook out his shoulders, planted his legs and tossed back his head, letting vent forth a mighty bellowing roar that carried above all other noises and echoed through the trees. Birds fell silent at the sound of it and both bands facing off from each other ceased their activity. Nhaqosa raised his heavy maul and pointed it towards the invaders.
“I think that got their attention,” Lakach noted.
One of the enemy, a man with a dark, thickly braided beard, responded by stepping forward and plunging his spear into the ground. He beat at his chest with his fists, howling as he did so. As Nhaqosa watched on, the man’s body began to shudder and ripple and change. Fur spouted across his frame, dark fur, while his fingers elongated into claws. Even his face warped into something that appeared to show the resemblance of a bear, taking on a bestial aspect.
Nhaqosa looked from the man-beast over to Tolvir, sharing the surprised expressions of his companions. “What was that?”
“That is how we survive out here in the wilds, with all the dangers and beasts it contains,” Tolvir explained.
One by one, other men of both bands began to follow suit, changing and taking on aspects of various animals. Some seemed akin to bears or cats, others boars or stags, being a melding of man and animal, with horns and claws, fangs and hooves and fur. Various howls and screeches rent the air, coming from throats no longer entirely human.
Tolvir did not change, remaining in his natural, human form. He stood before the others and raised his arms, staff gripped in one hand, staring intently across the clearing at the gathered enemy. From among them emerged a man much as Tolvir, carrying a staff but with less grey in his hair.
The two men locked eyes on the other, neither budging. Small gusts of wind swirled around them, and the grass rippled and twisted, while the air chilled then warmed back up again. Nhaqosa sensed that the two were locked in a contest of wills, and the first that broke would no doubt hand the advantage to their opponent in the upcoming battle. That Nhaqosa was determined would not happen to Tolvir.
“That’s the one we want,” he told Lakach, stabbing a finger towards the man with the staff out in front of the enemy.
“I see him, boss,” Lakach replied. He raised his crossbow to his shoulder and sighted along it, taking careful aim. He squeezed on the trigger and the quarrel whistled forth, across the clearing, to punch into the man’s chest. He dropped like a stone, and as he did, all resistance to Tolvir fell as well.
The sky darkened as threatening grey clouds came roiling across it, shrouding the sun from view. The winds picked up, swirling about, causing the crops to ripple and the trees to sway, moaning as they shed leaves and twigs. From the sky a light patter of rain began to fall, not heavy, but a foretaste of more to come.
The earth heaved and from it roots snaked forth, to wrap about the legs of the enemy. The grass thickened and lengthened, entangling them and impeding their movement. Birds darted out from among the forest, swooping down to harass the faces of the enemy with claws and beaks. Howls and shouts broke out from the foe, of rage and anger at the forces of nature that Tolvir had brought down upon them.
With the one who could oppose Tolvir down and no recourse of their own to battle it, the enemy had but few options remaining. With a load roar they took the most obvious one and broke into a charge, full long towards the village in an attempt to get to Tolvir and halt his powers. The charge was limited in its full effectiveness as some were trapped by roots and others slowed by entanglements. As they ran, a number tripped up as they charged forward, tumbling to the ground, as the uneven and shaking earth threw them from their feet. Even so, they still had the edge in numbers. Arrows whistled towards the charging enemy, causing some to stagger and fall as they were struck, but those in bestial form were much harder to bring down than a common man. Lakach shot off another quarrel from his crossbow, striking the lead figure, a man who had the features of a stag and the speed to boost. As if but a minor irritation, he bounded on, barely slowed by the quarrel lodged in him. Lakach discarded his crossbow and drew his short sword, readying to meet the rush.
The defenders of the village sprung forward to meet Keturhi’s force as they drew near, accompanied by the great cats who raced on ahead. Nhaqosa and his band followed them, sticking close together so they could fight as a unified, supportive formation.
The cats were the first to meet the enemy, leaping up at men and Painted Ones with prodigious springs from their powerful legs. Vice like jaws latched tight onto throats, not merely crushing but severing flesh and bringing forth great gushes of blood. Claws tore and scratched as they sought for purchase as the cats brought their victims down to the ground.
Then both bands of warrior met with a roar and a crash, men slamming into each other with ferocious intent, using fangs and claws as much as spears and knives. Screams rent the air as men went down from the blows and soon blood soaked the ground as all around the wild combat rolled, men tearing into each other with bestial fury.
One of the foes, being a man with short, coarse fur across his body and a head reminiscent of a boar’s, complete with curling tusks, charged towards Nhaqosa. The great maul swung in an arc and smashed into his side, shattering his chest and battering him aside to fall in a crumpled, broken heap.
In the centre of the rolling melee, Nhaqosa fought with a cool, methodical efficiency, working as a tight knit unit alongside his companions, standing out in stark contrast to the individualistic nature of those around them. While their foes had advantages in their charged forms, in terms of strength or speed, toughness or natural weapons, the former gladiators knew ever trick that the arena could teach on how to survive, and more had been picked up and honed to a razor’s edge though their travels. Deception and trickery, mobility and lightning strikes all came into play. They were aware of each other as well, and when one got into trouble, another was on hand to intercede and rescue them. At the heart of it all stood Nhaqosa, a towering juggernaut of strength and destruction as his maul rose and fell with methodical, brutal regularity. None of the enemy could match him for strength or size, even the bulkiest of the changed humans. The former gladiators, with Nhaqosa at their head, cut a swathe through the enemy.
The Painted Ones, of a kind not used to partaking in such stand up fights, wavered in the face of the fierce resistance and the destruction wrought by Nhaqosa’s band, then broke and ran, fleeing back into the forest. The humans, on the other hand, did not. They stayed and fought and died with an indifference to their own lives that Nhaqosa found hard to understand, seeking to only take down as many of the villagers with them as they could. When at last they had been finished off, more than a few of the defenders lay dead among them, and not a one there who remained on their feet had been left unmarred by cuts or scratches.
Tolvir started moving among those who still lived, lending aid to them to help speed their recovery. The survivors who could stand started to collect the bodies of the dead. Those of the Painted Ones were unceremoniously tossed aside into a pile for later disposal. The humans, both attackers and defenders, were laid out side by said, along with the bodies of the great cats that had fallen. It struck Nhaqosa as most unusual, and curiosity piqued, he approached Tolvir.
“You treat those of your kind who attacked you with the same respect that you do your own?” he asked of Tolvir as the man tended to a broken arm on one of the village defenders.
“They had no choice in the matter,” Tolvir explained, resting his hands upon the broken arm. “Their minds had been bent by Keturhi so that their own will had been taken away and all that remained was to serve her commands. They were friends once, even family, members of other tribes that have fallen to her, and so we mourn them as well.”
“If she is such a threat, then why have not the tribes come together to deal with her?”
“It is difficult,” Tolvir replied, sighing as he did. For a moment about his hands their swirled a faint green mist which seeped into the arm of the man he tended. The man flexed his arm, nodded, and got up. “No tribe wants to leave his own village and family when no one knows who will be attacked next,” Tolvir continued explaining. “Nor do we know where Keturhi even is half the time. We could gather the tribes, make a strike, only to find that she has moved while we gathered and attacked an undefended village in the meantime. So we stay where we are and slowly, one by one, we are devoured. It does appear that our turn has come now.”
“Do you know where she is now?”
“Roughly, but the knowing is of little help, for she is surrounded by many warriors, too many to defeat by ourselves.”
Nhaqosa smiled with grim resolve. “Tell us where she is and we will deal with the rest.”
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