Jaq slowed himself to a jog and turned to face his companion, "Make haste, swordsman," he roared.
Lucas looked up to see a row of stained fangs, locked together in a mouth the size of his entire head. It was a smile, if you could believe it. The way the lynax's lion-esq face contorted in the attempt made him look more like a maddened beast than a happy one. It seemed to Lucas that he was always a mixture of both, especially before a fight. The burning pools of gold that were Jaq's eyes bore his bloodlust well. His mane bristled with excitement.
Facing his head forward, Jaq resumed his sprint, "Been too long since our last bloodletting!"
Lucas couldn't even hope to answer back. The hot wires of overexertion stole his voice and scalded his lungs. It was times like these that made him regret being the lynax's companion. Jaq is creature of immense power and strength, with the equal stamina of an ox. One might suggest his large size would beget a lack of speed, but you would be a fool to think so. Jaq could keep pace with a warhorse, even at full gallop. Lucas had seen it once with a wild Velorian courser on the way here. It was a shame what had happened to that horse. Such a steed would fetch a considerable sum in the horse-markets of Tyril. Lucas would have to live with knowing that it was—according to Jaq—delicious.
Even more astounding than Jaq's speed was his mobility. These alpine paths slowed the lynax by a factor of naught, but that surprised Lucas little. Jaq was every bit as feline as he looked. He was every bit as surefooted and dexterous, evident by the way he bounded these crags with ease. It was almost comical to Lucas' human brain.
The lynax even to this day amazed him. He was a surreal sight, at first glance a monstrosity. He stood three heads taller, and was as broad as an oak tree. Much like the rest of his lynax kin, Jaq resembled a lion that could walk upright, though with a slight hunch. Steely cables of muscle rippled along the exposed bits of Jaq's skin with every movement. He radiated pure strength, and was certainly every bit as formidable as he was strong. Clasped within his hands, or rather front paws, was a massive axe he called a tabar. It was his most prized possession. Lucas could scant remember a time the lynax were without it. It is a mighty weapon indeed. It obliterated morale as easily as it did flesh and bone. Lucas still was not used to witnessing the carnage it could inflict.
Looking ahead, Lucas felt his confidence sink like a sour tonic in his throat. He could see about a dozen of them, surging forth from the patches of forestry. They hollered their war cries and waved their weapons high above their heads. Most Velorians knew them as highlanders and Lucas was no exception. They are also a threat that Lucas has faced before. Averogne's nearness to the Tudor mountains made the occasional incursion inevitable. They loathed trespassers, but spared their greatest amounts of animosity towards Velorians. An idea tumbled about in Lucas' imagination; his Velorian heritage was obvious. He imagined himself chained to an altar, with his throat slit whilst shamans praised obscure gods. Such stories are popular amongst his kinsmen. A common tale told to disobedient children was that of the highlander hex-crones. Lucas remembered it well.
"Hex-crones love the blood of naughty boys and girls," he mumbled to himself.
It was a harmless, yet nostalgic threat. Lucas always wondered if it held an inkling of truth. There may be a wizened crone in the mountains, indulging her appetite in the flesh of a not so innocent child. All because of a chore left undone. Lucas put away the idea. Whatever the case may be, he and Jaq were not supposed to be here. They may find their doom here in this mountain pass, delivered by its resident barbarians.
And why not, thought Lucas. This is their land after all.
Ancient grudges were at play here. Lucas' ancestors were the ones who forced their ancestors into the mountains in the first place. During those times, the Realms of Men were young, and Urzar had faded from the world—war was as familiar as rain.
The highlanders moved like a small avalanche of tattooed skin and muted colors. Some wore maille hauberks, shields, or had nothing on but the pelts of large beasts. There was an air of archaism about them and Lucas found it fascinating—he was ever the lover of history. The highlanders were living relics, unable to exist beyond the binds of antiquity. His mind traced back to a memory from his youth; playing knights with the other noble children of his homeland. During that somewhat harmless game, someone would have to play the role of barbarian. Lucas would force the progeny of the lesser-known noble lines into such a role, and he and his friends would proceed to drive them off an imaginary land. It was quite cruel, and often led to someone running home in tears, but Lucas remembered loving that game. Was his current situation some kind of punishment for it all? Was his life coming full circle into the realms of parody? Who could say, and with that the exiled knight felt smaller and even more insignificant.
Lucas took a moment to ponder his situation further. Why exactly was he charging headlong into a troop of wildmen? Did he well believe his bastard sword and padded maille were enough to keep him alive? Make no mistake; Lucas was an exemplary swordsman, trained by men of considerable renown in his homeland. He could weave a blade-shield in his sleep, with both arms tied behind his back. Even still, was it enough to check the barbarian's ferocity? Determination and relentlessness classed the highlanders—legless or armless, they fought on. They were akin to orcs, the likes of which also called the Tudor mountains home, though indeed less of a threat. To face orcs was to duel with the very forces of nature themselves. He had met many a knight who likened an orc's blows to being on the recieving end of a couched lance. Lucas' body ran cold at the thought, as one experienced in the joust, he could indeed imagine the feeling.
As Lucas continued his stride, he noticed he was getting closer to Jaq. Why was the lynax slowing down? A sudden panic threatened Lucas' senses. If Jaq had found something dangerous enough to make him think twice, then it was time to begin worrying. It became clear when Lucas saw the three javelins hurtling towards the lynax overhead. It weren't quite enough to bring the lynax down, but Jaq was without armor, save for his matted trousers and red sash. A clean shot to his heart would end him. The thought made Lucas' head heavy. Without the lynax Lucas would be good as dead.
The exiled knight girded his reflexes out of impulse. Jaq seemed to make no effort to try to evade them. What was he planning? Lucas thought of lending him a blade-shield, but parrying all three at once was impossible. Nay, the lynax had better have a plan, or else Lucas was spending tonight in the Vortex.
Quick as vipers, Jaqs arms lashed out—his axe whipped about him, air sucked around its head as it did so. A heartbeat later, Lucas could thrice hear the sharp tink of metal smack metal. The pieces of three javelins clattered against the ground nearby. The sight sured Lucas' confidence, and reminded him of exactly what kind of warrior Jaq was. It would take much more than that to slay him.
The highlanders were only a few strides away now. Lucas felt his blood boil and vigor return. Damn the consequences, he would fight or die, as he always knew he would. If need be, he would wade through fords of blood and bile, cutting and slashing his way through hell. So long as Jaq was by his side, he would fight. The exiled knight cleared his mind, and ripped his sword free of its scabbard.
Lucas invoked the treasured moniker of his home, "Vinterlands!" and charged with even greater intensity. Two highlanders armed with spears threatened Jaq's left flank. Lucas interposed himself between. He began weaving a blade-shield, leaning into a high guard, and making ready to direct it. Lucas then heard air suck around something large, followed by a moist crunch. The noise made him wince with discomfort. His skin crawled and he noticed the surprised looks of the two highlanders before him. For no reason he imagined Jaq crushed by a massive boulder. Nay, the lynax had cleaved a highlander in twain, presumably with little effort. Such was the size of the tabar, and the strength of its wielder—it sundered armor and body with equal ease.
In his peripheries, Lucas could see the severed upper half of the highlander flop onto the ground. His bloody face was frozen into a look of pure terror. The lynax bellowed, "Marhu Kal'akai!" and continued his gory work. Lucas recognized Jaq's obscure battle cry, though its meaning escaped him. The survival rate of his foes dropped to nil upon hearing it, of that Lucas was sure.
Death followed in the lynax's wake, it was time for Lucas to deal his own. The two highlanders grasped their spears and made to charge him. Lucas noted the considerable height of the leftmost highlander. He pressed into his left flank, aiming low. The tall one's retaliatory thrust rebounded off his blade-shield, and Lucas followed through. The tip of his sword bit deep into the tall one's right upper thigh, parting muscle and biting into bone. Lucas ripped his sword free with a twist, creating a wound most appalling. Large bits of the highlander's flesh hung loose, along with chunks of fatty tissue. The blood flowed like wine from a bunghole.
The tall one lashed out with his right arm. Before it could connect, Lucas threw himself backward into a roll, and came upright not a moment too soon. The short one had advanced; his spear had come within a hair's breadth of Lucas' face. Had Lucas not then flourished his blade to parry, he would have lost an eye.
The tall one's leg wound made him slow to assist his comrade. Lucas would need to use this time well. Luckily, the shorter one's reflexes were quite poor, as was his skill with the spear. It was over in a moment, as Lucas wound through his guard and skewered him through the neck. Blood mixed with spittle and tears; the highlander whimpered as he died.
The taller one's wounded leg unsteadied him. It slowed his spear thrusts—with every step, his face crumpled with pain. The highlander howled what Lucas was sure were insults, though in his own grating tongue. Lucas noticed within his words what sounded like a name; were these two brothers? Could it be that this entire force was one clan? It would not surprise him. According to his tutors, the highlanders always teetered on near extinction. What forces they could muster came from small communities with little outside influence. A dark fear yanked at Lucas' brain and images of the destruction of his home illuminated his mind's eye. He imagined vineyards burning and hillside castles toppled over. The women and children of all ranks spirited away into the Tudor mountains, never to be seen again. This fear warped into an odd hatred directed at the highlander before him. Even in exile, Lucas would defend Veloria. He tried to find the humor in laying down his life for a nation that would sooner hang than thank him.
Cursing through gritted teeth, Lucas slammed his boot-heel into the tall one's wound. The highlander screamed in agony and dropped to one knee. The last thing he saw was Lucas' sword ram through his left eye and into his brain. The highlander's good eye rolled into the back of his head, his jaw slackened, and he toppled over like a leaded fish. Lucas allowed his sword to slide free of the eye socket as he did so. It was exemplary blade-work.
Relief and satisfaction filled Lucas' heart. He savored the small victory. Both highlanders lay dead before him, and he was without so much as a single scratch. He made a hasty glance to his lynax companion, and immediately wished he had sooner. A lowly highlander was the wheat to Jaq's scythe. The tabar flew down like a comet, slicing through bearskin armor, and sending his head flying. The lynax roared in triumph. Other mutilated corpses laid about him. Jaq created them wherever he strode, like some god of slaughter.
It seemed the majority of the highlanders had gone to swarm him. Lucas had been with Jaq long enough to know such tactics were foolhardy at best. Jaq's wide sweeps could behead a horse, even several if he were desperate enough. Man flesh was of little consequence to his bestial strength. Not for the first time, Lucas combed his mind for any memories of learning about Jaq's race, and found nothing. All he knew was what Jaq had told him, which was very little.
Lucas could see that Jaq bore a few wounds, though none too serious. Two spear-tips stuck out from his flesh, their shafts absent. If the lynax cared, he gave no sign—Jaq was indomitable as always. He had seen Jaq run through many times, with lungs punctured and flesh torn. No matter what, the lynax fought on, with his claws or teeth if he had to. Lucas understood it little, but was glad to let it be during a battle.
A group of four highlanders approaching Jaq formed a wall of shields. Spears readied, they charged the lynax. It was a decent stratagem, but Lucas knew it was no use. Jaq made two quick barking noises—Lucas assumed it was laughter—then he crouched low. In a single leap he cleared the shield-wall, and as he landed, Lucas could see the wicked smile on his face. Jaq's muscles roiled as he leaned into his strikes. The tabar rolled through the highlander flesh like a salvo of cannon. Broken screaming bodies and shattered shields went flying with every swing. It was glorious.
Lucas longed to continue watching, but his part in this ruck was far from over; he took tally of the situation. Three more highlanders ran towards him from his left, hatred burning in their eyes. Froth streamed from their mouths as they snarled and spat curses. Lucas turned to meet them, and offered a few curses of his own.
The first sent a rusted hand-axe rebounding off Lucas' blade-shield. Before he could strike again, Lucas clove half of his lower jaw off. The highlander reeled back in agony; Lucas' following death-stroke smashed through his skull.
The second, though smaller than Jaq, was a brute of a man. In his hands, he carried large pickaxe that he swung about with glee. All Lucas needed was an opportunity—the third barbarian was closing in fast. Opportunity arrived when the brute slammed the pickaxe into the ground. The fool not only missed him, but also lodged his only weapon into the hard earth beneath his feet. Lucas followed through with a lunge aimed at the brute's neck, feeling satisfied as it hit home. The barbarian let out oafish screams as he scrabbled at the open artery. Blood erupted from the gaps between his fingers. Lucas left him to flop about on the ground.
The last highlander stopped short before rearing back to toss a javelin. It would have spitted Lucas had he not hit the ground rolling. From his crouched position, Lucas leapt forward aiming for the highlander's head. The highlander's hand flicked towards his waist to an arming sword. Both their blades connected midair. Lucas rebounded off, and took a second to size his opponent. The furs he wore were bright and fresh, lacking any of the hallmarks of second hand use. His arming sword gleamed, and the curled design of its guard and pommel denoted its quality. Scales of dark iron flowed from his neck, covering his upper arms and chest. Before Lucas could assess him any further, the highlander met eyes with him and yawped. His eyes blazed with fury. Lucas came at him sword first.
The two crossed blades like ancient enemies; this highlander possessed the skill of a veteran. They scored one another with glancing blows. Lucas bled from two on his face and one on his left hand. The veteran bled from two gashes on each forearm.
Lucas began to recognize the highlander's fighting style. Back in his youth, his father had him spar with a serjeant from the Norric League. It was during one of his campaigns to patrol Veloria's northern coast. The old soldier played his sword-tip like a whip, with quick twists of his wrist that worked around Lucas' guards. At the time, it seemed more annoying than effective. It abused Lucas' focus on ripostes and encouraged him to overexert himself. He felt like a trout chasing a lure, and lo and behold, taking the bait meant death.
A drop of blood blinded Lucas in his right eye for not even a heartbeat. It was exactly what the veteran highlander needed. He redoubled with an assault of swipes. It pushed Lucas' blade-shield to its limits. To chance even a blink could end the exiled knight's life, but he had to do something. The veteran drew from an endless pool of stamina, as each successive blow felt more powerful than the last. It had then dawned on Lucas that he had felled four men in near rapid succession. The thought added to his fatigue. This wasn't good at all.
There had to be an edge, some kind of aspect of this he could use. His tutors called them killing-points. In most ways, they seemed equal combatants, only the fatigue from the sprinting and killing brought Lucas a step lower. Lucas' emotions swam in his mind like bilge. It was a volatile mix between worry, anger, and annoyance. "So that is it then. This is where I die?" he though bitterly. It was something he could not stand for.
All Lucas had done for the past year was fight...
He fought under the streets of Blackwall.
He helped repel the raiding party of Ivgarn Grimfang.
He foiled the machinations of Thom the Black.
It would be late in the day before he would die, and not to such a foe as this!
Grasping his blade firmly with both hands, Lucas set both his feet wide. He held his blade parallel to the ground and reared back to strike. The highlander veteran shot him a grim smile and prepared himself as well, holding his arming sword above his head. Without wasting a moment, Lucas stepped into his swing, twisting his body into the blow. The highlander whipped his blade around to stab Lucas in his exposed face. The two warrior's eyes met for the last time.
At the last moment, Lucas leaned hard into his rear leg while throwing his head back towards his right. The veterans arming sword cut into the flesh beneath his left ear. The exiled knight's sword sliced diagonally across the veterans face. A shocked yelp left his lips as he staggered back, attempting a blind and desperate parry. Lucas kicked him hard in the chest for his troubles.
The veteran hit the ground hard, his scale armor slapping together like coins in a purse. Lucas stabbed down into his neck, severing the vital artery. It was over. The veteran highlander thrashed and screamed in defiance. The bloody froth in his mouth spattered with every passing syllable. He stopped moving not long after, but Lucas skewered his brain through the eye for good measure.
Lucas looked about, and felt relief. The highlanders were in full retreat, unable to match the fury of the lynax or the skill of the exiled knight. They ran without weapons, and even discarded bits of armor for good measure. Lucas threw his head back and took a long draw of air; he relaxed his shoulders as he exhaled. I am alive, he thought. Good. To fight, and live to fight again; a smirk of pure irony formed on Lucas' face. There was something silly about the idea of a life filled with battle. To prance along the precipice of death—at one point he believed there to be no finer fate for a Velorian knight. Now, as an exile, and with the lynax at his side, he fought for fighting's sake, and for nothing else. Before any further rumination on the matter could form in his mind, Lucas' hand darted for his wineskin. As he uncorked it, the scent of pure bliss filled his nostrils. Lucas quaffed the nectar of his homeland, and waited for that pleasant dryness to take him. He was not left wanting, "At least the wine is good," he said aloud. "Good and dry, as wine ought to be." A craving of bread and cheese came to him.
While sporting a smile only Lucas could register across his face, Jaq swaggered over to him. His tabar rested across his shoulders. Blood gleamed up and down its shaft and along its head, dripping down to stain his sash even redder. The bits of flesh tangled in the lynax's mane made him look as though he dunked his head in a barrel of strawberry jam. Jaq's wounds looked serious in some places, but the exiled knight knew better. The lynax was fine, and in that moment, Lucas felt like laughing. Anyone else would scream at the sight of this lunatic monster, yet here he was smiling back.
Jaq's thunderous voice tumbled from his chest, "I like these mountains."
He dragged out each word, sounding almost drunk. Lucas let out an exhausted chuckle, but before he could retort, the blare of a horn echoed nearby. The lynax's face snapped to its exact direction. The skin around his snout curled and relaxed as he sniffed the air. His weighty exhales were akin to that of a massive set of bellows.
"The feelings are mutual it seems," Lucas replied, a bitter smile on his face.
Lucas recognized the type of horn. Around the site of its sounding, there would be more highlanders. The lynax would very soon have much more to fight. Lucas' head felt heavy again at the thought of losing the lynax in another skirmish. As unlikely as it was, it was a concern he could not ignore.
"How long again until we reach the Gates of Orzhal?" Lucas' voice was more like a faint whisper. He hoped with fleeting sincerity, that their destination was over a nearby hill, opposite of the sound of conflict. It was nice to dream.
"Four days." Jaq mumbled. His gaze had never left the direction of the horn call.
The hand, or paw, which kept his tabar steady on his shoulders flexed tighter around the shaft. Lucas could feel Jaq's low growl even from where he was standing. In the same distance, he could hear the faint sounds of war cries and that of many moving feet. They grew louder with every passing moment.
"Oh, good," said Lucas, sighing. "Wonderful."