The road dipped low into a shallow ravine as it followed the valley river. Slowly the earth rose on either side as the wagon descended. I stirred in my seat as a slight breeze carried the faint trace of blood through the air. Likely a few hours old, not sharp enough to have been recent but the scent still lingered.
The wagon jostled over the rocky road as I reached quietly for my sword and glanced towards one of the other passengers in the wagon. She gave me a slight nod as she put her hand on the bundle next to her. The other passenger held aloft a torch that banished away from the encroaching darkness that surrounded us. I reached behind me and tapped the driver on the arm. There was only a brief grunt of a response before he flicked the reigns.
There was a moment of quiet with only the sound of wagon wheels to break the silence. When the wagon slowed to a stop I glanced ahead to see a rough barricade of wood blocking the path and a collection of men that stood close by holding spears, swords, and torches.
“You're trespassing,” someone shouted.
“This is a public road,” countered our wagon driver.
“Not anymore it ain’t.”
There was a collective chuckle from the group blocking our way.
“By order of the Lady Gwenyth of Valley, this road is to remain public for the use of her citizens.”
“There ain’t no high and mighty lady of anything,” countered one of the men.
“Besides there ain’t nobody else here. So how bout you hand over our tax or you and yours get a beating.”
“Don’t be an idiot!”
From where I sat, I could see the men across the way were becoming impatient as more than a few drew swords, the sound of the metal echoed throughout the ravine. Sensing the inevitable rise of conflict I reached out with my mind to summon aid. It was easier now ever since I was pulled from the mine, and it was more than just bats that would respond.
By now the ambusher had moved closer intending to surround us. Not that I was worried. They were attempting to cage in their death and death is bound by no one.
I stood and drew my sword.
“Put down your swords,” I commanded.
“Shut up bitch!”
“If you make this hard I am not going to bother restraining my men,” commented the group’s leader. A couple of his goons jeered.
I ground my teeth in anger and willed the aid I had summoned to move. A low menacing growl emanated from the shadows that caused a slight stir from our would-be attackers. Some turned while banishing torches to illuminate the dark shadows.
“Lay down down your weapons and you live. Refuse and I will not bother to restrain my thirst.”
“I thought I told you-."
A large wolf lunged out and pulled down one of the attackers. Two others joined in to tear into the man. My fangs elongated at the smell of blood as I leaped down from the wagon. A swarm of bats descended to fill the ravine with their shrieks.
"By the goddess!"
My blade whipped out and sent a head rolling into the dirt. I charged the next one before he had a chance to react to impale him on my sword. He jerked in surprise as I slid my blade free. Another of the highwaymen moved in to engage me. I countered his initial attack easily while sidestepping around to let one of my summoned wolves go for the kill.
For a moment I surveyed the carnage around me. The driver of the wagon was busy trying to maintain control of the horse in the face of the mounting chaos around us. The other passengers that have acted as my guardians thus far were engaged with subduing the remainder of the highwaymen that have thrown down their weapons.
The one I have dubbed the leader of the group had managed to retrieve a torch from among the fallen. He was whispering a prayer to the goddess, the words thought faint and difficult to hear over the sounds of the skirmish were like a hot wind that brushed past me. Ignoring the prayer and radiant pain it emitted, as I approached the supposed leader.
“Yours is the third such group I have had to root out from hiding,” I commented, “Some of these men here will go free tonight to spread word back to your thieving dens, and wretched hives. I will not tolerate any who freely steal, and murder from the innocent.”
“Please! By the Goddess have mercy!”
A flicker of flame ignited and died at my feet. I paused only slightly at the brief conjuration of fire before dismissing it as a minor concern.
“No, you will have no mercy tonight.”
I dashed forward to grab the man and he swung the torch he held like a shield in front of him. I leaped over him and allowed a cloud of bats to swarm over him. Like a frantic beast, he swung his sword wildly. With a smooth swing of my blade, I smote off his arm before reaching out to grab him by the throat and slam him to the ground.
“Tonight you die,” I hissed as I lowered my fangs to his throat.
His screams echoed through the ravine as I drank. In terror, he tried to throw me off, but I held fast till he weakly fluttered then went still.
I dropped him and turned to the remaining survivors of the fight that huddled against each other. Casually I pulled free a rag and wiped the blood off my sword before sheathing it. The bats dispersed to the skies as I let the wolves feed off the dead that remained.
“Is everything secure,” I inquired.
“Yes my Lady,” replied one of the passengers that had accompanied me. She sheathed her sword and bowed ever slightly as I made for the wagon.
“Then deliver the punishment and let them go free.”
“As you wish, my Lady.”
She turned to our captured prisoners. There were three of them that had wisely attempted to surrender I noted as I pulled myself back up into the wagon.
“By order of Lady Gwenyth of the Valley you will be sentenced to lose your left hand,” the woman announced, “if you are found guilty of the same offense again your lives are forfeit.”
There was a brief struggle as my followers moved to carry out the punishment. A low collective growl from the wolves that had gathered stifled the resistance.
“A bit harsh of punishment from her ladyship,” came a shout from atop the ravine.
Mounted on horseback was a small trio of men in heavy war gear.
“And who are you?” inquired one of my men.
“Would be rescuers,” came the reply, “though it appears you don’t need it.”
One of the armored horsemen removed his helm and placed it in his saddle. He looked to be towards the end of his middle years with only a few streaks of grey in his hair and trimmed beard.
“We are emissaries from the Church of the Goddess, Holy Knights of the Order of Saint Allen, and we ask in whose name do you carry out this punishment?”
Heads turned in my direction though I kept quiet as considered the group in front of me. After a brief moment, one of my followers gave a reply.
“The Lady Gwenyth of the Valley.”
“And where might I find her?”
“She sta-,” started woman the woman next to me before the driver of the wagon interrupted with a shout.
“She rules from the castle that overlooks the valley, good sirs.”
“The one from which the Dark Lord reigned?”
“Aye, the very same.”
This elicited a muttered comment from one of the other members of the trio that I couldn’t hear. Their leader gave a nod in response and turned back to face us.
“We wish to send a message to her Ladyship.”
“Very well, we will send word to her immediately if you grant us your leave.”
There was an unsettling sound of a sword being drawn and I whispered to one of my followers next to me, “Prepare to fall back.”
“We would send the head of her pet blood drinker back to her.”
The leader of the small trio pointed his sword directly towards me, and I responded by pulling my own free.
“An unwise message to send,” I openly commented.
“We would not let the scum of the Dark Lord to walk freely.”
The leader raised his sword skyward as he shouted, “In the name of the Goddess of Light, kill her!”
At his words, a flash of light illuminated the ravine to blind and burn me. My wolves howled and my bats swarmed in front of me to block out the accursed light. Quickly I dodged to the side as a greatsword slide through the space I just occupied. I swung my blade out only for it to clatter harmlessly off the armor of my attacker.
“Protect me, my Goddess,” came the prayer.
A fierce cutting wind of radiant heat came hurtling from his spoken words that buffeted and burned. Angrily I hissed and attempted to charge forward to eliminate the source of the hated pain and burning words. Instead, I was thwarted as another member of the trio moved in to ward me off.
As I retreated a few paces to put up space between us I could see the last member of the trio was single-handedly holding off my mortal allies from interfering with my fight against these holy knights. This was no easy fight I realized. These were professional combatants with years of experience under their belts, not the usual rabble I have had to deal with lately.
“You will regret this I promise,” I muttered.
“I give my life to vanquish evil, your broken promises mean nothing.”
I raised my sword to block the next sword swing only for the other man to take advantage of the opening. Bitter intense pain racked my body as the blade cut into my flesh.
“Our weapons are divinely blessed. Our victory is as sure as the rising sun.”
Not wanting to waste words on a useless taunt I called out mentally for aid. A group of wolves suddenly launched themselves at the duo that attacked me. I leaped back from the fight as one of them turned to speared a wolf down with his sword. His partner sprinted after me raising his greatsword.
It was obvious there was no way I was going to win this fairly. These men were the perfect counter to my darkened gifts I had received in my undeath. I needed a new edge.
Rolling to the side to dodge another strong swing from my attacker, I grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it in his face. He flinched backward and I took advantage of the opening to bull rush him.
The two of us toppled to the ground in a difficult frenzied scramble. Somehow in the fight, I managed to get my hands around his helm and I ripped it off. He tossed me to the side and reached for his sword. I spun my sword around quickly and cut open his face.
I barely had a moment of respite before another of the holy knight launched himself at me. His sword catching me by surprise as it cut through my sword arm as I attempted to block the attack. The radiant pain engulfed me as I rolled out from underneath him. My missing arm felt like it had been burnt off. I fumbled briefly to grab my sword with my other hand and this time parried the heavy blow from my armored attacker.
“I will kill you! I will kill you for holy blood you have taken,” spat the knight angrily.
“Not if I take yours first!”
He leveled another swing as I danced out of reach. A wolf leaped out to grapple with his leg and I sprinted forward with my sword as I aimed for the base of his neck. Blood splattered through the air as he cut down the wolf. He turned in time to see my blade bite into his neck.
I pulled out my sword and scanned the ravine for the last holy knight. I spotted him as he mounted his horse took off into the dark.
Angrily I sent my wolves to hound him as he fled. They gave a howl that echoed ominously, signally the beginning of the hunt before they gave chase.
“My Lady are you okay!”
Two of the prisoners had fled during the chaos of the battle, leaving only one behind, and I could see that at least a couple of my followers were supporting heavy injury. I also felt ravenous for blood.
“Stay back,” I cautioned, “I need to feed. Bring me, someone!”
I clutched at the stump of where my arm had been as I glanced towards the night sky. Was this the night the Goddess had chosen to turn her back on me? Or had she done that long ago already?
The prisoner was tossed at my feet, and I held him down even as he pleaded for mercy. Earlier I might have released him, but now his blood would have to serve to satisfy my dark needs.