No Man's Hand

No Man’s Hand
By
Grover
1/7/2011

Have all you high fantasy fans out there ever wondered about other explanations when it was you read that the Witch-king, demon or whatever the baddie is would not fall "by the hand of man?" I have.

***

Their brave company had accomplished the impossible. The antidote to cure Good King Phillip was in their hands. Now all they had to do was get it back to the Kingdom, but time was not on their side.

The insidious poison Lord Night used to cut down the King could only be slowed, while the antidote could only be made from the same rare flowers that the deadly poison was brewed. It took the intrepid heroes days of hard travel to reach the dread Lord’s keep, and bold action bordering on insanity to enter that terrifying garden of death to harvest those frightful blooms.

Arianna, the Sylvan Archer, keen eyes scanned the night, as the intrepid band rode for their lives. Her cloth long shafts had slowed pursuit, but not stopped the enemy horde. The common goblin solider might be no match for any of the King’s company, but the creatures depended upon their ferocity and near limitless numbers to overwhelm their foes.

In truth, she was but little worried about the goblins. The reason why rode next to her trailing their remounts behind him.

Of all of her dozen companions, John was undoubtedly the most humble. The King’s Stable-master had insisted the young ostler accompany them on their quest. This journey had proved that wisdom many times over. The young man had a way with horses that was uncanny. He could tell from the slightest signs when something was wrong or needed attention before it became a problem. Devoting himself to looking after the company’s animals, he’d been the sole reason why they were able to travel so quickly. They had outpaced and had run the pursuing goblin wolf riders into the ground.

Because their differences set them apart from the others, the two of them had paired up. As part of the Sylvan ambassador’s party to the human lands, Arianna knew out it felt to be …unique.

She lifted her eyes to the starry skies. Goblin’s and wolves weren’t the only soldiers in Lord Night’s army.

If they could just make it to the pass they just might stand a chance.
Switching to her remount on the move, the lithe Sylvan and the young ostler rode as if demons were snapping at their heels.

A half a glass later all their fears came true.

The dragon’s roar shattered the night, causing all who was about this night to cower.

Arianna knew the fearsome bellow was much like that of bats that used the high pitched squeal to find their way in the dark. However no one sane failed to take note that a fearsome predator was on the prowl. While any dragon was a catastrophe, this one was much worse. She’d hoped that he’d been too far away, concerned with the war Lord Night was waging in the north, to summon.

No matter that the goblins had fallen hopelessly behind for the one that was coming was as powerful as any army. Drakar, the dark Lord’s chief general, was on their trail, and he’d never failed his master. Any hopes she had of their company surviving their quest were dashed.

Her arrows were fearsome weapons, but less than chaff against the great dragon. All knew of the many magical protections Lord Night had cast upon his champion. No man could slay the great general was the boast.

When the Sylvan hosts laughed for many of their number were women, they soon learned they should’ve kept silent, as he added even more spells to guard his commander. It was in doubt that anyone besides the Gods themselves could slay the leader of Lord Night’s armies.

However, the pass still offered hope if slim. Its high steep sides should prevent the winged disaster from attacking them until they exited within dubious safety of the Kingdom. That would not stop the Dragon from following them afoot. She knew better than to think he was any less dangerous on the ground than in the air. Nor did she think they could simply outrun him as they did the wolf riders. In the air or on the ground, dragons were fast and deadly.

They weren’t impossible to kill, but for a small company haphazardly put together on a desperate quest to save a dying man, it was all but impossible. None of them had heavy armor given their dire need for haste, nor had they the weapons necessary to pierce the scaled hide.

Hope swelled even larger within her as the first of the company galloped into the canyon-like pass. A faith that turned to ashes as another Dragon howl thundered from the far side of the mountain, where their debatable safety lay.

Not more than a handful of heartbeats later the dread champion himself came into sight. He landed on their side of the pass after flaunting his power to cover the entire ten mile length of the gorge in less time than it took to tell of it.

Arianna reined in her mount, watching her enemy leisurely furl his wings. John waited with her although she fought the urge to command her friend to flee.

Despite the darkness, her keen Sylvan eyes observed their doom. Drakar was at least 15 paces from his dagger filled jaws to his spiked tail. He stood at three times the height of a tall man from his steel clad talons to the razor tipped capped horns upon his head. As if the weapons he’d born with weren't enough, his dread master had provided more enhancing the ones given to him by nature. Even in the night the jewels and precious metals that were stripped from his fallen enemies gleamed from the ornamented claws and horns.

Balthazar, the Knight of the order Du’Honor, their small company’s leader, rode up to them. Predictably he ignored John. The young ostler had a dissonance about him that brought out the worst in some. Unfortunately, the Knight was one of those. Wisely, John kept out of everyone’s way with the exception of herself.

As the party’s only woman and non-human as well, Arianna was more tolerant of differences. Additionally, although those of Sylvan blood could be just as foolish as any human, their longer lives also gave them the opportunity to learn more of the workings of the Creators. She had her suspicions of the conditions and causes that set her young friend apart.

This time however, the Knight wasn’t here about John. She could tell by his expression that he knew of their grim predicament.

“Who do you think he left at the South pass?” He asked, staring at the terrifying agent who’d broken entire armies his master, Lord Night.

The Knight knew that the Sylvan tribes had carefully watched Lord Night for decades knowing that sooner or later that he would take his conquests to the rich lands of the South.

“Ogre’s are too heavy even for a dragon to carry considering the distance and the necessity for speed.” She replied. “Troll, it’d have to be trolls. If they really wanted to they could hack off parts to lessen his burden so he could carry more counting on the foul things' regeneration to replace the missing parts by the time we run into them.”

“We can handle them.” Balthazar declared after a moment of consideration. “But that’s not the point is it?”

They both knew the trolls only had to delay them. The real killer was there in front of them.

“Well,” The knight sighed, drawing his huge two handed sword. Normally using such a weapon from horseback would be pure foolishness, but Balthazar’s immense fist swallowed up the haft of the blade dedicated to his Deity.

“Someone will just have to buy a little time won’t they.” He stated, dropping unneeded gear from his horse.

“Aye,” she spoke, doing the same. “I’ll try and distract him to give you your best chance.”

It was unsaid that without lance and his plate mail this was very nearly suicide against a normal dragon, if any could be described as such. Against Drakkar it proved only their hopeless desperation.

The knight nodded, tightening his helm and shield.

Drawing the yard long shaft to her ear, Arianna loosed letting the steel tipped death fly though the night.

Powerful enough to penetrate armored knights like so much cheese, it bounced off the craggy plated brow protecting the burning orb of the beast’s eye.

Drakkar gave her a glare as if to say nice try.

However, before the first had struck another arrow sang as it departed her bow. Fifty yards, that’s what she’d given Balthazar.

It was for naught. A veteran of conflicts that lasted longer than a mortal man’s life span, the dragon shielded his vulnerable eyes from her and concentrated on the real threat.

Balthazar.

The dragon’s first torrent of flames went askew as the Knight cut his mount in hard, dodging. But there came a second and a third jet of fiery death. Grimly Balthazar kept charging forward though the blistering assault.

Battle wise, his foe tried to use his deadly spiked tail to sweep knight and charger from their feet, but together they leaped the whipping appendage as if taking a hedge upon the hunt.

Arianna’s eyes narrowed. Busy trying to kill the agile Knight, Drakkar got sloppy. As soon as she released the arrow, she knew it was going to strike true.

Recoiling in pain, the huge dragon gave her hope that it’d been a golden shot, one in a life time though the eye pass the formidably armored skull to the vulnerable brain beyond, fatal.

Hope fled as her keen Sylvan vision saw the shaft caught in the inner eyelid of the beast. Ill fortune or the many enchantments of his dark master had foiled her chance at defeating her foe.

However, it’d distracted Lord Night’s champion.

Sir Balthazar had his chance.

Dashing in, the Knight used his considerable experience to make the most of the momentum. A lance would’ve been much better. With it he could’ve put both his and his charger’s mass into the charge, all concentrated in the lance’s sharp tip, but that was not to be.

Even though she could not hear the words, she knew a prayer to his Deity was on his lips. In answer the blessed blade erupted with a burning light blinding friend and foe alike.

Fiery sparks and arcs of power splashed from Balthazar’s mighty slash running yards across the Dragon’s flank as faith and dark magics collided.

A battle that devotion lost as the Dark Lord's protection held. Drakkar’s scales were discolored and scored by the Knight’s attack, but he still stood.

Balthazar didn’t fare as well. He’d given it his all, but now he was vulnerable. An opportunity the Dragon didn’t pass up as his fearsome talons ripped though the air.

The holy blade’s bright light was extinguished. Arianna had no need to wait for her night vision to return to know the brave Knight had met his end.

The great tragedy was that the sacrifice wasn’t going to be enough.

Her keen hearing could still pick up the signs of the rest of their company fleeing down the canyon like pass. The Dragon would catch them between his hammer and the anvil of the trolls.

She didn’t need to count the few shafts remaining in her quiver. Even if she had it brimming over full, it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop Drakkar. She’d taken her best shot and failed.

Resolutely she put another shaft to bow. What would it be this time? Maybe a gust of wind from nowhere would ruin her shot? Or perhaps it would be some other chance happening as the protective spells thwarted her best efforts.

That would not keep her from trying. A good man’s life hanged in the balance. Even more lives were dependent upon him since King Phillip was the only ruler able to pull together an alliance to confront Lord Night. No other was trusted or was as capable as the man lying near death after being taken down by treachery.

Using all of her hard won skills, she loosed the grey goose feathers to fly yet again.

The Dragon flicked his head aside denying her another chance at perhaps his only vulnerability. He’d dealt with archers of her skill before as well as knowing who’d hurt him.

Still, having to protect his eyes slowed him buying yet another few seconds for her companions to try and fight their way to safety. Mentally she calculated her remaining arrows against the time he would suddenly charge forward chancing that she would have no time to loose another arrow. She stepped up her rate of fire so that she would have only one last shot, one last chance at the end.

Then John burst out of the pass trailing the exhausted remounts behind him!

Trained cavalry horses, they fanned out into a wedge advancing on the monstrous opponent.

“No!” She wanted to shout, but it came out as only a whisper.

In that strange way that life endangering stresses had, she could see his heart and soul within his eyes as he glanced back at her with his usual sad smile. In that timeless moment, the truth was impossible to hide.

This wasn’t a brave sacrifice of a man for his brothers or a selfless act of heroism. It was compassion. Like a woman giving her last breath away so that her loved ones would live, so did John as he rode out unarmed. In that instant she knew her guesses about him were correct.

Among her kind, such as he were the only males that could serve the Great Goddess. They were rare and revered individuals that had exceptional and unusual combinations of talents and strengths. He had the essence of a woman in the vessel of a man, a holy one, a T'thir.

However, if she didn’t expect John’s reckless charge neither did their foe.

Taken aback, the Dragon stopped his advance. The terrifying general of Lord Night’s armies took the same stance he had when Balthazar made his own ill fated attack.

She stood in the stirrups as her sharp ears heard John whistle the bugle call for the charge. Despite their fatigue, the well trained horses spread out in a rough line abreast formation their hoofs thundering as they surged forward.

Arianna held her breath seeing the telltales of the huge beast preparing to unleash his fire.

John sounded another whistled command that had the storming horses suddenly scattering like dandelion seedlings upon the wind. Again Drakar angrily eyed the equines and the single rider, but she could see the instant when he decided they weren’t a threat. Besides, he was aware that he had limited time to finish off the Company, and even he didn’t have a limitless supply of dragon-fire to spit at his enemies.

Drakar once more advanced on the pass.

She readied her last arrow for her final stand, while she sighed. True, John was now on the wrong side of the pass with Lord Night’s horde bearing down on them all, but he had the remounts and enough supplies that he might be able to work his way home. That anyone survived this night was going to have to be sufficient.

Arianna could only pray that the young ostler would find peace. Even in the sacred relevance her people held the T’thir, their lives were hard and often short. It was no easy thing to contain the essence of one thing in a vessel meant for another. And yet from that pain came wisdom and insight that enriched the all the Sylvan peoples.

Then to her horror the young fool circled back around to charge the mighty commander of Lord Night’s Armies again.

Tired and exhausted, most of the horses made their escape too terrified of the huge carnivore to do anything else, but flee. However not all, for three faithful equines took station with John running back headlong into certain death.

Again they broke off before coming into range of its terrible claws and fangs. This time Drakar pounced after them irritated by their impudence. The rocky ground trembled as did she. Beyond a doubt the dragon could run them down, but fate favored the ostler again as he used the ground to his best advantage. Yes, the Dragon could chase them down, but every step brought more time for their brave Company to make their escape.

Beast-wise a wan smile touched her lips as she realized, John was using the predator’s instincts against itself. Tired and no doubt hungry from its forced march like flight, the temptation to feed was great.

A roar of Drakar’s displeasure shook the mountain as he twisted, like the serpent he resembled, back to the pass where she waited.

Her shaft notched and ready she calmed herself preparing to spend her life in the service of her companions. Using her knees, she backed her mount further into the pass. Constrained, focusing on her enemy, she still prayed that John would make his escape. It saddened her that none would believe or maybe even ever know of his incredible bravery. No bards would sing of this. Just possibly, all their scarifies had been enough, but none of them would ever know for soon they would be journeying to their next life.

The Dragon was just entering the mouth of the narrow pass. Now his size worked against him in such close quarters. Now was her best chance. She slipped off her horse, although she was nearly as good an archer horseback as afoot. Nothing could be left to chance. Touching feathers to ear in one smooth draw, she prepared to loose.

Although Drakar’s bulk blocked the pass, from between his legs she saw John had wheeled around yet again. In an outstanding display of horsemanship he leaned over at a full gallop scooping up a weapon from the battleground.

No longer was he unarmed. Balthazar’s holy blade was clenched in his fist. That alone awed her, for it was said the blessed weapons would not tolerate the hand of one unworthy. There were more miracles as a pure silver light shined from the sword, a sign of clear approval from the Deities above.

However, once again it was John’s eyes that captured her. Despite the distance between them and the darkness even with Sylvan sight, she saw the peace and a tranquility that he’d never had before. Always alone, and hunched over from the accusing sneers of even their own Company, all that was gone.

He’d made his decision and found peace.

The bowstring hummed in its eagerness even as her muscles complained. Arianna shifted her aim as she made her own choice.

A grim smile crossed her face before her arrow struck Lord Night’s minion, a perfect shot.

He half-reared in surprise causing loose rocks to tumble from the pass’s walls. Startled he stopped, touching his stinging snout gingerly.

It was all so ridiculous, she couldn’t keep from laughing. There he was the insanely dangerous Drakar rubbing his muzzle like some dog that'd been too brave sticking his nose into some burrow where it shouldn’t have gone. Last and not least, there she was standing before him all but defenseless after wasting her last shaft.

All because she was giving a boy, who’d probably never held a sword before in his life, a chance at saving them all.

Even the Beast himself couldn’t resist the humor.

“Now you and all of your companions die!” His gravelly voice rumbled like an avalanche.

Why not she asked herself. Slinging her bow, she drew her fighting knives. Less than useless against a dragon, but if one was going to foolish why go halfway.

“It is a good day to die!” She shouted back defiantly.

A silent pray to the Goddess graced her lips because she refused to give her killer the satisfaction of knowing her fear.

The enormous predator gathered himself to pounce, but there behind him was a silver spark. She knew she should be watching the dragon, but instead she had eyes only for that sliver of light that grew ever closer. Slowly it became larger and brighter recklessly weaving though the dread general very legs. Like the silver lining behind dark ominous clouds it gave her hope.

Then John, having to hold the huge sword in both hands, drove it into the armored chest of the dragon.

Time stopped as Drakar looked down at the metal blade that’d skewered him. All the protective enchantments and magics proved useless against one small human.

Then the world exploded into light and fire as all those energies were released.

***

150 years later

Arianna closed the book she’d been reading with a sad smile. So pretentious of the author to claim it as the definitive book about what was known as the War of Night, when he’d been born a hundred years after the last battle was fought.

Her carriage creaked and swayed as it made its way down the pass road. Touching the book’s cover with her aged hand she smiled. Not even Sylvans lived forever, although she could understand how the much shorted lived humans might think so. Still it was amusing, how despite the facts that they refused to see.

It was so hard for them to grasp that a nobody had slain a foe that the mightiest of heroes had fallen before. It was even harder for the author to understand the true import of the battle on that night. So many humans still found the very idea of a T’thir anathema, and refused to even consider one had saved them all.

Shouts came from the carriage driver and other travelers as they spotted the horses sacred to this high valley. On either side of the carriage they ran as if escorting it inside. Arianna's smile grew wider. The silver coated animals were the descendants of the very horses that accompanied John on his charge and had escaped afterwards into the mountains. Inbreeding and other health problems somehow never touched the beautiful fleet footed equines.

By the same token it was said that none had ever been broken by the hand of Man. While one might offer to carry a rider, ill luck bedeviled those who tried to steal one away. However that did not stop the foolish humans from trying and adding to the stories of the bad fortune that came from their efforts.

Stepping off the carriage when it halted at the small way-station in the valley, she stopped for a moment remembering how it’d been that night they had raced death to reach this pass. Around her, footmen scrambled to unload the carriage’s luggage while her human attendants urged them to be careful with the lady’s baggage. Stable hands, at the inn, took charge of the horses while the driver stretched his legs.

Ignoring the bustle of activity, she made her slow way down to the small inn that served the way-station and the shrine here in the valley. Checking in didn’t take long, but she truthfully had no idea if she would even need the room. Sylvans not only lived much longer than humans, but tended to stay relativity active until their last breath.

Walking down the path from the inn, the shrine was easy to find. Just after the war she, herself, had planted the silver birch here to mark where John the young oslter, her friend, had fallen. In the years since, the tree had grown tall and had become famous in its own way.

A tear touched her eyes as a mismatched butterfly flew by. Half-male and half-female, one wing bigger than the other, it wasn’t alone. The whole shrine was graced with the beautiful flashes of color from them. She’d heard that even birds nesting within the shrine's high branches often shared the same characteristics.

Part male and part female, they were proof of the holiness here. Despite that some humans claimed it was contamination of the magics released here and needed to be cleansed. Something that would never happened since this place had been given by Good King Phillip himself to the Sylvan peoples at their request.

A young priestess of the Goddess hurried up the path to help her, but Arianna waved her away. Despite that she was helped to a bench among the flowers.

A small smile and head bob from the young one showed she understood and thankfully left Arianna there alone with her thoughts and memories.

Their brave company had made it back with the antidote in time to save the King. Using the treachery as a rally, Phillip had indeed put together the alliance to oppose Lord Night and his armies.

However, almost all missed the part of poor brave John. While the Sylvan peoples were aware of the danger the tyrant from the North posed, not all wanted anything to do with a war. One despised human ostler changed all of that. A T’thir giving their life against the threat meant a great deal. Having one of the revered and protected of the Goddess slaying the dread champion and incidentally proving that She, Herself, was behind the cause was yet another.

Every Sylvan capable of bearing a weapon came forward. Seeing their response, other nations felt embolden and also joined the cause. Many a terrible battles were fought, but in the end Lord Night and his armies were defeated. What she was sure of was that with out John’s sacrifice the death and destruction would’ve been much worse.

A sad smile crossed her lips as her eyes closed. It was during those horrendous years, that she’d first seen the silver horses of the valley. Every single surviving member of their brave company had their lives saved by one of the gleaming equines.

Not once, but twice she’d been saved herself by one of the fleet footed ones. The first time was after she’d been unhorsed in the terrifying running battle of the Three Armies, while the second was after being wounded in the forlorn hope of the Lost Woods.

Now she was the last of them all. So many friends and companions had gone before her into that last night. However, at the passing of each, a gleaming silver horse had appeared.

`A tear ran down her cheek. Arianna knew her own end was near. Despite protests from her family, she decided to save John’s horses the journey. Besides, there were places she wanted to visit one last time before closing her eyes that final time.

And now she was here.

A warm, moist muzzle nudged her cheek. Smiling, she looked up knowing what she would see.

One of the silver ones stood there swishing their tail as if irritated at her tardiness. Upon their back was a young, smiling woman holding out her hand to help Arianna mount.

A biting retort was on her lips. An old woman had no business leaping bareback as if she was a youngling. However, she found herself reaching out anyways.

Her breath caught as her hand that grasped the other was no longer that of a Sylvan nearing her ending. It was a slim and strong one in the bloom of youth.

Laughing, the woman a horseback gestured again with her hand.

Wonderingly, Arianna looked up into the woman’s eyes. A shock of recognition ran though her. Standing, she happily took the other’s offer resisting the urge to look behind her. All things change, and it was time for her to move on.

Joyfully with a laugh, she mounted, as her friend wheeled the argent equine about.

Laughing together, the two friends raced across the valley into the setting sun.

The end.


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