The spring sunshine beams softly down on parched earth. Eddies of dust, whirled into motion by the light breeze, dance and scatter before my eyes. I take a slow, unsteady breath in. The movement sends fire roaring across my chest. I did not even see the spring come, and now, I will not see it bloom in these woods I have loved so well. The orc takes two measured paces towards me, patient. I can hear him move, see the clouds of dust sent running at his heavy footsteps. He is savouring our fall. I cannot look behind me, cannot face my failure. Last night, it rained. The moonlight caught the drops and sent them sparkling to the ground, a million tiny stars scattering across our tents, pooling in shining hollows in the grass and among the fallen leaves. There are always fallen leaves here – a carpet of gold that once I had danced on, had walked hand-in-hand with love on, in one golden summer.
Carried by the breeze out into this unwelcoming place, a tiny golden blossom lies inches from my dropped sword. I do not remember letting the blade fall. As I reach out to it carefully, left-handed, the breeze stirs the flower gently into flight once more, until it comes to rest on the worked hilt. At the sight, something slowly unfurls within my heart that I had not even realised I had held clenched and forbidden for so long. Once before, in caves of stone and under a darkness which seemed ready to swallow all the world, I held one of these blossoms in my hands, and dreamed of a brighter future. It was a gift – a promise of hope that was fulfilled, faith that was rewarded. All this time later, I had almost forgotten what that feeling was like. I had told Belegos that I was searching for a purpose, for myself, seeking out danger to find what I had lost – but as I grasp the hilt of my sword in my left hand, I realise that I was wrong. I had lost hope – even if for a short time, and yet now, at perhaps the last moment it could be expected, I have found it again.
It feels as though levering myself back into a standing position will be impossible, but inch by inch, I force myself forward, until I am stood facing the orc once more. I cannot move my sword arm, so I hold my blade in my left, chin up in defiance. Confused for a moment, it hesitates, before throwing its head back to roar in anger at my refusal to simply wait for death. I cannot force myself to meet it, I simply stand, patient. I have faced down the wrath of the Hammer Lords themselves – no petty orc will force me to cower and shrink back in fear. Furious, it starts forward towards me, and I bring my blade far too slowly into an awkward guard position. At the very least, I will face it on my feet, with my sword in my hand.
It is an unlooked-for reward that fulfills the promise this time. As if somehow bursting from inside the creature, there are suddenly feathered shafts piercing the orc, so that it staggers in its charge and falls, heavily, clumsily, to the ground. I am forced to dodge its forward momentum – the movement brings another wave of blackness to the edge of my vision, and I think that I might fall again. But there is an arm around my waist, and a familiar, reassuring voice calling, “Two here! Quick! Pull them back!”
“Two?” I ask slowly, fighting back darkness to see my old mentor, our captain, supporting me with one arm, gesturing hastily to the reinforcements he led behind us.
“He's hurt, but he'll make it - once we get him to the healers,” he says gently, already towing me carefully away from the field. I am more carried than supported, and he nods grimly, muttering, “As for you, the next time you want to practice your blocks, perhaps you could try using a shield rather than your arms. I am sure I taught you better than this.” I almost laugh, but the jostling run and the sudden security are too much – the darkness clawing at my vision blossoms into night, and I fall into it.