The bard walked down the street strumming,
There was a fight in Avonsdale,
A skirmish of monsters,
The marshal rode north,
To deal with a ghost,
Haunting the woods and,
So the king’s man came,
So the king’s man came,
To find Owen West,
And deal with the rest,
Or put the town to flame,
West and his men,
Stood their ground,
Against the crown,
Playing a dangerous game,
And they fought to the last,
And they fought to the last,
The bard kept walking strumming and working on his song.
And so we stood.
The stage was set.
The pieces were in place.
There was no going back from here.
Eric and Ben finished changing. We were a ragtag bunch before but I could see some hesitation on the men’s faces across from us. I was flanked by two large werewolves. One a deep brown, different from Eric’s red hair, and Ben turned a course grey speckled with black and brown.
The two black werewolves snarled when they saw two of their own kind.
The momentary surprise of Skein’s face melted away, his hand held high holding his men at bay.
I gripped my staff I could hear myself breathing. Morgan looked poised as ever. She held a stolen sword in one and dagger in the other. Anna was next to her. The vampiress had a pair of knives and she assured us that was all she needed.
And yet his hand held.
I could barely stand it. The second that hand fell and the men rushed forth there was no going back. We would be rebels. We’d be taking arms against the king. It was bad enough when it was just me, but there was no hiding for the others anymore.
And then his hand fell.
The men charged. Skein’s two wolves were far faster and sprinted ahead but they were met by Eric and Ben. The four beasts snarled and snapped at each other the group of them ending up in a pile of teeth and claws.
So now there were only 40 men to deal with. Instead of trying to meet them head on the three of us darted into the alley next to the Inn. Once they made their advance I set off the signal.
“Now!” I yelled hoping they would hear me.
Sure enough, Bardo led a militia of townspeople armed with farming tools and whatever weapons they could find. They crashed into the back of the king’s men and split the forces now half fought the townsfolk and other half fighting us.
The alley was narrow and only a few men could attack at once. Morgan and I could keep them at bay.
“Anna,” I asked, “we’ll hold them. Take out Skein. If we take him we can force a treaty.”
But, something happened that I never quite expected.
The vampire froze. The cocky, annoying vampire suddenly looked scared.
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“Please Owen,” she begged, “don’t make me.”
Well, that changed things.
“Fine, stay here with Morgan,” I said and grabbed the vampire her cloak, “If something happens to her vampire. I’ll come for you next.”
“She’ll be fine, warden.”
I dashed around the back of the Inn and cut through the back door, and saw my bow on the table with a plan forming.
I picked it up and grabbed an arrow, nocking it as I ran. Skein was still there on his horse watching the werewolves intently. If anything he looked mildly amused as though this was taking longer than he thought.
I stepped into the doorway raising the bow and drawing the string till my finger touched the corner of my mouth. My gaze never left Skein’s face. I focused on it until it was all I could think about, as though I was hunting a stag in the woods.
I let the arrow fly. It spit from the bow with a thwap and shot towards the marshal. It would end now.
Except just before the arrow struck its mark Skein’s hand snatched it from the air. He looked in my direction and smiled. That wasn’t the worst part though. The arrow disappeared into a black flame.
Things could never be easy. I picked up my staff and walked toward him. Skein got dismounted and drew his sword.
“Finally,” Skein said, “the Ghost of The Grey Woods. I admit I’ve been anxious about this meeting. The soldiers won’t stop talking about the man hunting them down in the north woods.”
“Well, I hope you’re not disappointed.”
“Please, this has been entertaining. I expected to be done already.”
“You have other towns to torment?”
“I do have a schedule to keep.”
Skein was a hair taller than I was, and thin, but strong. He carried himself as he knew was better than everyone else, but if the stories were true he was. He also wore no armor just a black tunic and Ravengard’s purple rave emblazoned in it.
He moved with far more grace than the soldiers. He made a hand gesture, but it was no use. I tugged the iron coin out that hung on a leather thong showing the man it was no use.
Skein scowled, “Well, I should have suspected as much. It’s been too long since I’ve crossed arms. I could use the practice”
He leaped forward with inhuman speed and I was just barely able to parry his blow. He nearly forced me from my feet.
My worst fears were true. Skein was a demon. A full-fledged one, and the likely source of the demonspawn I’d fought earlier.
He attacked again. This time with a ferocious combination with each blow just barely blocked by my staff. Once I was too slow and he slashed my cloak.
I attacked this time. My staff became a blur and struck blows that would have caved in the chest of a normal man but Skein turned them aside. He moved like a dancer across the floor. His movements were focused and strong. It was all I could do to keep his sword from running me through.
Finally, I stepped back and rushed again this time knowing he’d black but I ran past him on purpose drawing a small iron blade from my belt and threw it as I spun towards him.
I was just a breath too slow. Skein dodged the iron blade, but it did cut the tunic. He seemed impressed.
“I can’t tell you how long it’s been since someone’s gotten that close,” he said, “I can see the legend has some merit.”
All I could think was what Anna did to make that legend grow. I was just a man, but she saw to it that the king’s thought some beast stalked the woods.
He started at me again, a flurry of attacks. My staff caught the blows. Luckily, the rowan wood was enchanted or only a sliver would remain.
My staff was the only option at this point. The rowan wood might cause enough pain to take him down. At this point, I was less worried about capturing him and more worried about survival.
I heard a roar of pain and looked over to see Ben go down. The large grey wolf was already starting to shrink to his human form. Eric was trying to hold off both of the werewolves. The townspeople were nearly broken. Morgan was trying to rally them. Anna helped Eric against the wolves.
Things were looking bleak.
“There’s no harm in surrender,” Skein said, “give up now and I’ll only take the heads of you and your compatriots. I will spare the town.”
“I’m afraid my friends would rather keep their heads where they are.”
“Fair enough boy. I will keep you alive long enough to watch the town burn.”
I launched at him, feinted low, and he bought it, so I swung high hoping to connect with his chin, but he caught the staff.
Normally, a member of the Fain would be writhing in pain if touched by Rowan wood. It’s one of their few weaknesses. But Skein seemed fine.
“Oh I see,” he said as though he read my mind, “You were counting on the Rowan wood putting me down. I overcame that weakness long ago. I’m afraid you must do better.”
I had nothing else though.
I watched behind Skein. The townsfolk were dropping one by one. Eric was down now. Anna managed to take out one of the werewolves and she retreated to Morgan’s side. They were surrounded.
I couldn’t think anymore. Skein was better trained with a sword. I learned to fight in the woods. And I was bigger. I yanked on the staff. Instead of pulling the staff from Skein’s hands, I pulled him towards me, avoiding his blade. I pushed my head into his chest and shot down and grabbed him behind the knees, and I drove him to the ground.
There was no more thinking. I straddled his chest and I wailed on him. I would make him feel at least some of the pain he caused.
I didn’t give him a chance to speak. I just kept hitting him.
I yanked the iron coin from around my neck and stuffed it into the demon’s mouth. The iron burned against his skin, and I held his mouth shut. He flailed against my body, but I kept my weight on him. In a few moments, he should be dead.
I underestimated his strength though. He wrenched and arm free. He had a knife with a blade as dark as a moonless night. Demonsteel. I’d only seen it once before.
He stabbed me in the thigh and it was like lightning going through my body. I let go immediately. I could hardly move.
“Stupid boy,” Skein spit the coin out.
He stood, leaving me in the dirt.
“Your friends first, and then we’ll finish this.”
I watched him walk towards Morgan and I could do nothing about it. I watched in horror as Anna grabbed her wrist and bit her.
Oh god, she was turning her.
I could barely watch.
Anna burst forth from the skirmish towards Skein. He reached for her and she spit the blood in his face.
Skein screamed. Of course, Morgan’s blood was blessed.
Anna ran past him, grabbing me by the cloak. She lifted me and started running.
“No,” was all I could manage.
“The battle is lost Owen,” Anna said, “we have to get you out of here.”