A faint breeze filtered through the young oaks at the edge of the forest, gently rustling the spring leaves. The recent rain had soaked the forest floor, and I ghosted through the trees, picking my path to avoid the underbrush. I caught the scent of burning wood, and I reached over my left shoulder, pulled a pile-pointed arrow from the quiver across my back, and fitted it to my bowstring in a single practiced move. The creatures I was tracking had to be close, and I had to be careful.
My job was to find them and report back to my mentor. She had been very clear about that, and had lectured me about the dangers of striking out on my own. It didn’t matter that I was better with my bow than she, although she knew far more of the magical art than I could manage. My mentor could blend with the forest so well that no one could track her, and her swords were death to anyone who dared to face her.
I had spent four turnings mastering my bow, and I had been in my share of fights. I had a sword, but I had nearly died five moons ago when I tried to fight an orcish warrior with it. Had my mentor not arrived at the last moment, the warrior would have smashed my skull with his mace. She healed me with her spells, and then lectured me for the next tenday.
A stick snapped somewhere ahead of me, and I stepped behind a tree trunk to wait. Another snap, and then came a series of thumps as someone began hacking on a dead piece of wood. I risked a glance, and I caught sight of an orc some thirty paces away. He was cutting up a downed tree limb with an axe that was two thirds my height.
The creature gathered an armload – for him – of wood, slipped the axe into the sheath on his back, and walked toward the edge of the forest. For such a large creature, he was nearly silent as he walked. I took careful note of that, and I followed him at a distance. I moved a few feet, stopped to listen and look around, and then I moved again.
I was almost to the clearing when I heard a feminine scream. Resisting the urge to rush in, I moved closer using every bit of cover I could. My clothing, from the soft leather boots, to the cloak I wore, was designed to both protect me from the elements, and to allow me to remain quiet in situations like this.
As I approached, I could smell more wood smoke, and roasting meat. A group of tent poles were visible above the underbrush at the forest’s edge, but for only one tent. A female screamed again, mingling fear and outrage, and I heard the orc laugh and say something in their guttural tongue. I knew a few words, but not the ones he used.
Crouching down, I carefully parted the limbs of a bush, and looked out over the orc’s campsite. The orc had a handcart, which had made it much easier to track him. No draft animal would serve such a master, so orcs usually pulled the carts themselves. He’d used freshly cut poles to erect his tent – and to also construct a crude tripod upon which he’d hung his victim. A large pile of firewood lay near a roaring fire with a rack of jerked meat next to it; the creature’s intentions were clear.
The female, I could see her clearly from forty paces, hung by her bound wrists, with her feet an arm’s length above the ground. She wore a filthy and tattered tunic that hung to her knees. What drew my attention the most, though, was that she was a half-breed. I’d heard of orcs breeding with humans, and even elves, but I’d never seen them in the flesh. Her skin was nearly the same sickly green as her captor’s, but her form looked to be more human than orcish. She had their trademark tusks, but hers were much smaller.
The orc pulled a large knife from the scabbard on his belt, and my stomach clenched. In one quick motion, he neatly sliced the tunic from her body and tossed it aside. Her form was definitely more human; her breasts appeared to be somewhat small, and her musculature was well defined, but not bulging. I judged that she was about my age, within a turning or two. She had a tuft of dark hair at the junction of her thighs that matched the mop of unruly hair on her head.
She barked something in orcish, and the orc laughed and growled back at her. Then, he pulled his loincloth aside, baring his prod. It was about average for an orc, and it was fit to split her open. He reached down and caught her flailing legs, and lifted them upward and outward.
The girl screamed desperately as she fought, but the orc was over twice her size. He stepped forward, pressed his member against her crotch, and began to push. Her screams of terror became a wail of agony, and then I was moving.
There was no such thing as a fair fight, and I had no intention of giving this orc one. I took four steps to my right to position myself right behind him. I planted my feet, raised my bow, aimed for the base of his skull – and drove my arrow directly into his right shoulder.
The orc roared in pain and rage, released the sobbing girl, and whirled to face me. I nocked another arrow, aimed and fired, and this one flew into his gut just above his belt. He grinned, showing me a mouthful of rotten teeth and his yellow tusks. Reaching over his back, he drew his battleaxe. “Little elf, you make good food with little bitch.”
There was no way I could escape him now; he could easily run me down if I turned my back. I had hurt him, but he would not succumb to his wounds until after he’d cooked and ate us both. The other hunters had talked about being too eager with a bowshot. Breathing, and even a heartbeat, could throw off a shot.
The orc started moving, and I nocked what I knew would be the last arrow I’d get to fire. I drew back the string, bringing my left hand up beside my ear. I squinted over the arrow, locking my gaze on my target. I took a breath, let half of it out, and opened my left archer’s fingers. The wooden shaft scraped over my bowstave, and a faint blue glow suffused the fletching as magic flowed from the bow to the arrow. It hissed through the air between us, and the iron point drove itself home just under the creature’s chin.
He thundered toward me at a full run, and I scrambled to the side and nocked another arrow. His mouth opened to roar at me, but he gurgled, and a gout of blood flowed out instead. Stumbling to a halt, he turned toward me, lifted his axe, and then fell forward onto his face.
“That was close,” I muttered as I looked around. Breaking cover was a bad idea, especially if the orc had friends. He didn’t, for the moment, at least, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Are you going to cut me down, or take over for him?”
“What?” She spoke the human tongue?
“Free. Me.” She switched to the trader’s tongue, known by nearly everyone in the land.
“Oh. Yes. I was looking for his friends.” I used the human’s speech.
I walked up to the girl, who was regarding me with mingled suspicion and dread. A thin line of blood flowed down her thighs from her groin, and I grimaced at the sight. I drew my sword and stepped up close to her.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m cutting you down. Now, get ready.”
“What...” she began.
I slashed at the rope, and a blue glow flashed along the sword’s edge, easily parting the rope. The girl yelped as she dropped to the ground in a heap.
“You idiot,” she barked. She rolled to a sitting position, and started to massage her legs and feet.
“I thought you knew to land on your feet,” I said with a shrug. “Can you not walk?”
“He had me bound hand and foot until he strung me up to slaughter. So no, I can’t walk right now.” She groaned and shifted. “My ass hurts, too.”
“Why?” I looked around again for signs of more orcs. They had to be around somewhere.
“He stuck his prod in there,” she explained. “It still hurts a lot.”
I looked down at her. “I can heal you a little, but you have to walk. There are more orcs around.”
She grunted and stood up, wincing as she worked out the soreness in her joints. “I can take care of myself.”
Facing her, I took in her appearance more closely. She was clearly a half-breed, as I’d seen, but her features were more human than orcish. I glanced down at her breasts, which were firm and definitely human, with dark areolae capped with large nipples. She sighed, and I met her yellow eyes. They were not friendly eyes.
“Are you going to stare at my teats, or are you going to do something useful?”
“Maybe I should just leave you to the orcs,” I snapped.
“I told you, I can take care of myself.”
“Fine.” I sheathed my sword, and turned to retrace my steps. I caught movement off to my left, and I turned my head to look. Three orcish warriors topped a hill two hundred paces away, and I looked at the girl. “You’d best be about it, because the orcs will be here very soon.” I started off toward the trees – I had no intention of being anywhere close when the dead orc was found.
“Wait!” The girl hurried after me. “Wait for me!”
I ignored her, and broke into a trot as I reached the trees. I could hear her stumbling along behind me, and I stopped after a short time and turned to face her. “They will be able to hear us for leagues because of you. Can’t you move quietly?”
“My feet hurt, and I don’t have shoes,” she hissed. “Or clothes.”
“If we don’t get away from here, they will kill us.” I pointed back the way we’d come.
“I can’t go faster, or quieter.”
I sighed, bent down, and scooped her into my arms. She was heavy, but I thought I could carry her until sundown, and it was after highsun now. I started off again, taking a different route to a stream I’d crossed earlier. I had to hide my trail, or the orcs would find us.
“Why are you doing this?” She’d put her arms around my neck to steady herself, and she looked at me closely. “You’re an elf. Why do you care about me?”
“My mother was human,” I said in a low voice. “My father was an elf.”
“I bet you do.” I stepped around a deadfall, and started downslope toward the stream.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You are also half human.” The footing was treacherous on the slope.
“My mother was like you,” she replied. “So, I am a bigger abomination.”
“I didn’t say that about you.”
She fell silent for a time, and I focused on walking with her in my arms. Her body was warm, and she showed no shame at being unclothed in my presence. Of course, the humans were concerned with such things; elves were more comfortable with their bodies. The humans spoke of elven sexual rituals involving many people at once, but that wasn’t the way of the elves I knew.
Of course, the elves I knew wanted little to do with my kind, anyway. The humans were no better, and my family had retreated to the forest to live in relative peace. My elven grandfather was the exception – he’d found me a human mentor, and gave me the weapons and armor I carried. I could use the elven magic in them, although my talent with spells was more limited.
The slope down to the stream was steeper than I remembered; my knees nearly buckled when I stepped on a rock and then back down to the mossy ground. The girl was heavier than I’d thought, and I was losing my strength too quickly.
Then, we heard the orcs calling out to each other – they had found our trail! We reached the stream itself, and I looked upstream and down, while I tried to think. There was no way I could outrun them now, with or without the girl. Our only chance was to hide ... and then I saw it. The stream had undercut the bank a short distance downstream, and a curtain of vines and the roots of a half fallen oak tree shielded the bank.
I stepped into the water to hide our tracks, careful to walk on rocks and not the sandy bed. The water near the cut was chest deep, and the girl floated as I dunked her in the frigid water. I pushed through the roots, shoved her onto the muddy shelf at the back of the tiny cavern, and turned to arrange the roots and vines to conceal us.
The orcs arrived as I pulled back into the gloom of the undercut. The first appeared fifty paces upstream, and then a second a scarce ten paces away. I heard two more splashes downstream, but I dared not move to look in that direction.
We were trapped.