Drake and Alec are warriors of opposing armies. They are both deadly, and they are something more than human as descendants of their lines. Better. Drake has strength. Alec has speed.
When they meet, they know only one of them can live.
Unless something happens. Something deep. But if they dare to become allies, they will have two armies hunting them down...
Hello Nifty readers! My name is Albert Nothlit, and I hope you enjoy Winterblade. If you like swords and hot guys, you came to the right place! I got started as a writer by submitting to Nifty, and have since become a professional with several published books under my belt. This story is my free thank-you to all those who encouraged me to pursue my goals, and also to those who may be reading something by me for the first time.
If you like this story and would like to support me, feel free to visit my MLR Press author website listed below. Maybe you'd like to purchase one of my books? Or a dozen?
by Albert Nothlit
Drake woke up at first light the following day, and as soon as he stepped outside the cave to relieve himself in some bushes he realized that he felt physically great. No trace of the wounds from the battle remained on his skin other than faint scars and, on his chest, a patch of pink where no hair had grown yet. Other than that, he felt as strong as he had before the battle. He had a sudden, random urge to punch something but he held himself in check.
When he returned to the cave, he saw Alec was still sleeping. Drake wondered how Alec had managed to do everything they had done yesterday with a broken arm, and nodded to himself, recognizing the other man’s strength. It was best if he left him alone to rest, though. Alec looked like he needed it.
Drake got thirsty, and he realized he was very hungry too. He decided to try and find the small river they had visited the day before and he set out on his way.
He followed the way as well as he remembered, but after a while the trees began to look all alike, especially after he reached the bottom of the hill and began wandering around the tall trunks of the pine trees. He was in no hurry, though, and he kept walking in what he thought was the right direction while enjoying the walk.
The day was clear and bright again, and although it was colder than the day before, walking kept Drake reasonably warm. Overhead, above the tips of the pines, he could see patches of early morning sky and a couple of small, white clouds. Birds were singing in the branches, unseen, and once Drake saw a fox darting away into the underbrush when he came too close. Here and there a tree had fallen or stood at a strange angle, constant reminders of the terrible wrath of the mountain just a few days ago. Drake saw two fallen pines lying side by side before he realized that he hadn’t passed any of them yesterday, and knew he had strayed from the way to the river.
He knew it was in a generally easterly direction, however, and he kept walking towards the rising sun. Soon he saw the terrain was sloping up slightly and the tree cover became denser. Many fallen pinecones littered the ground and crunched softly under his heavy steps. After a while of walking uphill, Drake began to hear the sound of water running. It sounded louder than the river should have been, but he headed towards the source of the sound anyway. He was getting hungrier and hoped to be able to snatch another salmon. He had not seen a single rabbit or other small animal to kill in his entire walk other than the fox, and his stomach was rumbling.
He walked around two particularly thick pine trunks that stood very close together and came suddenly to a clearing in the conifer forest. The sound of the water was much louder—and now he saw why.
He had come to the river all right, but he had ended up much higher up in its course than before. To his right the water snaked along the clearing, glittering with reflected sunlight as it got lost around a far-off bend. He could not see where they had fished the day before and guessed he was a good long distance away from where he should have come out if he had paid attention, but it turned out to be very good luck that he had gotten lost. He had just come across a waterfall.
That was what the loud sound was coming from: the falling water, splashing and foaming before continuing its way downriver. Getting closer, Drake saw that the waterfall was a very new feature of the landscape. The earthquake had torn the formerly gently sloping hillside to his left, and jabbed a part of it upwards in a sharp, cliff-like wall in miniature. Fallen boulders littered the riverside and some had fallen into the water itself during the upheaval. The waterfall was not very tall, maybe twice as tall as Drake was, but it was enough to cause the loud noise and to disrupt the flow of the river.
The terrain feature had another interesting consequence. The salmon that had been trying to get upstream had found their way to their spawning point suddenly blocked. Most of them couldn’t jump the waterfall even if they tried, and their instinct would not allow them to turn around and head back. That meant that there were nearly a dozen large fish swimming around in circles near the waterfall, completely helpless and ready for the taking.
Drake grinned. He hadn’t expected it to be so easy. He stripped naked quickly and jumped into the river before he could think twice about the freezing water. The cold hit him like a fist and some water got in his nose, but soon he was swimming all the way to the center of the river. He didn’t bother about being stealthy; the fish were swimming away from him, but they simply had nowhere to go.
He herded a few of the salmon toward the shallower waters of the river, trying to stop his teeth from chattering. He got ready, and when one of the fish made a sudden jump out of the water, trying to leap over him, Drake made a grab for it but lost it. The fish were slippery. It was just a matter of time, though, and he spooked them enough for another salmon to try the same leaping trick. This time he was prepared. He managed to grab the writhing fish briefly and knock it backwards. It went flying and landed on the ground, too far away for it to get back into the water. It was easier than the day before, even. Time to eat.
He had laid the dead fish aside and had dressed again when he first heard the noise. He was about to start gutting and cleaning the salmon, but he heard it nonetheless, a sharp crack like a dry twig snapping, even over the noise of the waterfall nearby. It had come from the forest.
Drake put the big fish down and stood up quietly. He remembered the wolves from the day before, and kept the knife he had been using ready in his hand. Then he edged forward into the tree cover, his ears alert.
Once inside the forest gloom, it was easier to listen for strange sounds since he was further away from the waterfall. Soon enough, he heard a faint rustling as of shuffling steps further uphill. He followed the sound, and picked up the pace when he heard a sharp clank of metal on metal. He had thought it was an animal stalking around, but now he knew it was a man hiding from him. He kept going uphill, almost running, and soon saw a shape ahead dodging through the trees.
“Hey!” he yelled, as the figure reached the top of the small hill. A pine tree had fallen nearby creating a hole in the canopy, and sunlight fell on the man as he crossed the clearing. Drake saw the glint of metal armor and the massive bulk of a strong Hunter. His heart beat faster in surprise. “Stop!”
The man looked back at him, saw him coming fast, and tried to run away. Drake put in a fresh burst of speed and began to close the distance very quickly. The other man was burdened by his armor, and it was slowing him down. When Drake saw his quarry try to vault over the fallen pine and trip, he knew he had him.
Drake sprinted the last few steps to the fallen pine and stopped just short of it. The man turned around on the ground on the other side of the trunk, his armor all muddy from the fall, and tried to wrench a war axe out of his belt but it was stuck. Then he noticed Drake was a Hunter, and his struggling stopped.
“Easy,” Drake said, putting his knife away. “I’m on your side.”
The other man hesitated, then nodded jerkily and stopped trying to get his war axe out of his belt. As he stood up, Drake saw this man was older than him. He was also filthy, and his beard was stained red in places with what had to be dried blood. The smell of him was awful.
Drake jerked his head toward his side of the tree. “Come here. Tell me your name, and any news you have of the battlefront.”
The other man hesitated, but ended up obeying Drake’s authoritative command. As he rounded the fallen tree, Drake saw the broken shaft of a silver arrow sticking out from behind the man’s left shoulder. The metal plates underneath the shaft were stained with dried blood, and fresh drops were still dripping from the wound a little at a time. The man left small splatters of blood everywhere he went.
“Your name,” Drake repeated.
“I am Brand,” he said. “I fight… I fought under Commander Jorn.”
His accent was strange; he must have come from far away to join the search for the Winterblade. Drake saw Brand give him an appraising glance, trying to gauge whether he was a threat. Drake did the same. Even with a warrior of his own kind, Drake made sure to stay on his guard. What Alec had said about them being bloodthirsty brutes was true in many cases. You could never be too careful.
When Brand noticed Drake’ brand tattooed on his arm, he nearly jumped out of his armor.
“You’re a Commander!”
“My name is Drake.”
“Commander Drake? You… you led the first charge at the foot of the mountain!”
“Yes. I also know Jorn’s men were kept as a reserve, and now you say you are one of them. You should have seen more of the battle than I did. Tell me where we stand.”
Brand looked down, fingering his axe subconsciously. “It was slaughter. After the forces were joined, it was chaos. Everybody was fighting on all sides, but very soon it became clear we had lost. Men were dying everywhere, and the arrows and blades kept coming… Commander Jorn ordered us forward when he saw our main force was all but gone. He told us to rush into the fray and die with honor.”
Something about the way he said it made Drake suspicious.
“What happened then?”
“That is when they let the mountain loose on us. The tremors, the roar… everything was confusion, and the earth began to shake, and before I knew it the fight had moved on, and I had fallen into the river. My armor weighed me down and carried me downstream but I managed to swim back ashore. By the time I made it, though, everybody else was gone.”
Drake nodded. The way the man had described the fight made sense, but Drake knew this river would be even shallower upstream, at the battlefield. A warrior in armor might be hindered by the water, but not carried off. The man was lying. He was obviously a deserter.
Drake hated deserters. He hated cowards. He tried to keep his anger in check, but he couldn’t control the slight flash of his eyes when his hatred surged. Deserters were worse than enemies, worse than rats. All who received the armor made a vow of loyalty. They all knew the penalty for desertion was death.
The deserter saw the look in Drake’s eyes and he paled, knowing his lie had been exposed. He stepped back fearfully and took out his war axe in a desperate, insolent gesture. Drake was aware that he had no armor himself, and only a small skinning knife in his hand. It made no difference.
“You can still die with honor, Brand of Jorn’s company,” Drake growled. “Put the weapon away.”
The deserter spat at Drake’s feet.
“I’ve been watching you, Commander Drake,” he said. He made the honorific sound like an insult.
“Watching me?” Drake asked, unmoving, giving the impression that he either didn’t see or didn’t care about Brand’s hostile display.
“You’re with that Guardian. The young one. I saw you yesterday, at the river. You didn’t see me. At first I thought you were going to make short work of him, but after the wolves attacked I was confused. Then I saw you help him.”
“I owe him my life,” Drake said, his voice flat.
Brand snorted. “They slaughtered our brave warriors like sheep. And you’re letting one live!”
“Brave warriors,” Drake said, smiling dangerously. “Like you?”
He had struck a nerve. The deserter twitched, and his face turned red with anger.
“What are you saying?”
“Only what is obvious, deserter.”
Brand’s eyes flashed with anger. “I’m not a deserter! It was a lost cause! We were doomed; you didn’t see, you were there in the thick of the fight, didn’t see how everyone was dying. They would hit you once and you went down, and didn’t get up. We didn’t have a chance! And when they came at us from the sky, those silver weapons of them flashing—I had to run! I had to! There was no point in staying just to die!”
“No point other than honor,” Drake said.
“You’re still alive,” the deserter answered.
“Do not compare yourself to me,” Drake warned him. “You know my name now. You know of my fame, of how I have fought before. You know how many Guardians I have killed.”
Drake took a step forward to mark his words, and to his satisfaction the other man cowered back slightly, gripping his axe all the tighter.
“W…we can still make it right, though,” Brand said. “The forest is swarming with Guardians further north, and they’re getting closer every day, but if we take one of their own as hostage they might let us pass. We can get away then, we can go back to base camp and regroup. I tried to cross once, but they almost caught me. They are setting up a perimeter and combing the entire forest for the weapon, and for any survivors, enemies or not. They will not leave until they find the Winterblade. If we don’t run, they’ll be here very soon. But that one, the one you helped, he could be our way out. That’s why I came. I wanted to talk to you. It’s two against one now, we can take him. He’s hurt, I saw. We can take him and leave!”
Drake just looked at the coward. He was surprised at how calm he was, even now that this deserter had confirmed what he had suspected all along: the Guardians were coming, and he was going to die. He realized he didn’t care, as long as he could go out fighting. But he owed Alec, and he was not going to betray him. The certainty of his conviction surprised even him. He would not betray Alec. Not even for his life.
The deserter, though, was another matter.
“Brand of Jorn’s company,” Drake began, “As Commander I mark you as a deserter to our cause and strip you of your rank, your armor and your life. You have shamed us all with your cowardice. Surrender your weapons, and die.”
Brand looked at Drake as if he had gone insane.
“Surrender your weapons. Now.”
“But… you’re helping them! You’re the one who turned against us! You lying, turncloak son of a bitch! I’m going to take you out, then go after that pretty boy you’re so fond of!”
Without warning, Brand hefted his war axe and charged.
Drake was ready for him.
With a sprint of mad energy, Brand raised the axe over his head and brought it down in front of Drake with all the explosive strength of his massive arms. Drake saw it coming. He side-stepped in a blur of movement and, turning, delivered a one-handed blow to the back of Brand’s neck with his own hand stretched out like a knife. The blow, added to Brand’s incredible momentum, made him lose his balance. The axe missed and sank deep into the ground, making Brand crash down in a clank of metal plates.
Drake was on him in an instant. He drew his knife and threw himself on top of the struggling deserter. He slashed at his throat, deep enough to cut the windpipe, and jumped back to his feet, knife still ready.
Brand was choking on his own blood as he brought his hand up to the wound. Red spurted between his fingers when he tried to stand up, struggling under the weight of his armor. Drake waited, every muscle ready. He needed to find the right opportunity, and he would only have one chance.
Brand took his hand away from the cut in his neck when he got back on his feet. The blood had stopped flowing. As Drake watched, the wound knitted itself shut, and the skin became whole again. Brand laughed.
“Is that all you have, Commander Drake? A light stab with a toy knife?”
Brand tried to yank his axe out of the ground, but the arm with the arrow shaft in it didn’t help him. He tugged again, and managed to shake the axe loose. Drake had been waiting for him to do just that.
Drake rushed at him, knife in hand, and got inside the axe’s range before Brand could lift it and strike back. He stabbed Brand in the stomach, expertly driving the knife’s blade between two metal plates and past the leather, deep into his flesh. Brand grunted in pain but held his ground. He kicked Drake savagely in the knee with one mailed foot, with such force that Drake heard the knee pop out of place. There was a sickening crunch, and his left leg was suddenly useless.
Brand jumped away from him, and Drake fell to the ground facedown and rolled away an instant later, coughing up dirt. His shattered knee hurt like hell. He missed the downward slash of Brand’s axe by no more than a finger’s breadth, and he kept rolling, giving his knee time to pop back into place. Brand yanked his axe out of the ground again and came for him, his breath steaming in front of him in the cold morning air.
“Is that it?” Brand taunted him. “Is that all you got, Commander?”
With a slight pop, Drake felt his knee slip back where it belonged. The pain in his leg vanished immediately and he knew he was ready for the counterattack.
Brand did not seem to notice and he charged again at the fallen man, lifting his axe over his head.
“I’ll chop your head off!” Brand roared, his heavy armor clanking like the chains of death itself.
But Drake knew the timings of his axe strokes by then. He jumped onto his feet so quickly he surprised Brand, but the axe was already coming down and the coward couldn’t stop the bone-shattering blow. But Drake did.
Drake drew back his right arm and then shot his fist forward with all the strength he had. His right fist slammed into Brand’s mailed chest, killing the other’s momentum and adding its force to the strength of the blow Brand was delivering. Drake felt the bones in his hand break with the impact of the sledgehammer punch as it crashed into the place just to the left of the deserter’s chest, but he also felt the armor plates sink deep into Brand’s pectoral muscles and knew the impact had gone straight to the man’s heart. He heard a rib crack.
When the punch slammed into his chest, Brand was so stunned he dropped the axe, both his arms still lifted over his head in the downward motion of the axe blow. His eyes glazed over as the punch stopped his heart for an instant, and then he shuddered as the beat started again. But in that second of stunned motionlessness, Drake caught the falling axe with his left hand, hefted it and then swung it in a murderous diagonal cut that caught Brand right in the base of the neck where he had no armor to protect him at all. The razor-sharp blade bit straight through flesh and bone, and came out on the other side spraying blood everywhere.
Drake felt the warm blood droplets as they fell on his arm, and saw Brand’s headless body fall to the ground like a sack. The head rolled away, down the hill. Then the beard got tangled in a bush and the head stayed there, its surprised eyes still open.
Drake sunk the axe down into the ground, balled his hands into fists, and roared. He felt the bones in his right hand mending themselves, fusing cracks and torn tissue, and by the time he was back to his fish all the pain was gone. He was filthy with blood and dirt, but he felt exultant. A kill always made him feel that way. He had chosen not to take the axe or the armor of his opponent and leave everything as it was. The weapons of a deserter were said to be tainted and should not be used.
Instead he brought the fish back to the cave, still uncooked, and tossed it at Alec’s feet. Alec was already up, but he was startled by Drake’s sudden appearance and his bloodstained clothes.
“I brought lunch,” Drake said.
A new chapter of 'Winterblade' will be published every week!
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My latest book, 'The Wind Whispers Madness', is out February 1st 2015, published by Damnation Books! Link below:
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