A warrior only surrenders his axes
when he knows he can take them back
with blood as interest.
Within seconds, Elmis had found the lever. He reached his arm into the bookshelf, grabbed a hold of it and turned. The clicking sound was barely audible over the shouts and crashes from the outside. The door began to grate open. Elmis took out his two axes, holding them at the ready. “I lead.” A thrill lit up his entire body. More likely than not, there was fighting to be done, and this would be his chance to prove himself.
Acorn nodded and drew a small dagger from his boot, holding a book in the other hand. Elmis considered giving Acorn one of his axes, but decided against it. He did not want to lead his first charge with only one axe.
As soon as the door opened wide enough, Elmis dashed out. The library was in shambles; books lay all over the floor and shelves had been knocked over, some leaning on others in their distress. Four soldiers stood guard over the librarians while two others created more havoc. They all wore a similar uniform of plate mail from head to toe, their chest plates adorned with the symbol of a bear grasping a snake in its paws. Elmis knew he had seen that coat of arms somewhere before, but he could not recall where. Whatever kingdom, house, or city they represented, they were molesting friends of the Skyborn, and as a Skyborn warrior, it was his sworn duty to kill them.
From across the room, Elmis made eye contact with Simon. He stood in the cluster of other librarians. This was what he had been hiding, but why? Tears rolled down his cheeks as he mouthed something, but Elmis could not make out the words. The soldiers spotted the two Skyborn immediately. The first two charged the boys with swords drawn.
Now his time had come. Elmis had never fought to kill before, but the principles were the same as the sparring he had loved since he was a small child. He smiled at his adversaries and threw one of his axes. The axes had been designed to be as easily thrown as fought with in melee, and this one found its mark in the soldier’s chest, cutting through the man’s plate armor.
Skyborn hand-axes were the envy of weapon smiths the world over, the secrets of their crafting known only to Skyborn Artisans. With proper sharpening and enough force, they could cut through mail, leather, and plate alike. Elmis kept both his axes well sharpened.
Shocked by the blow, the man tripped over the books on the floor and fell to the ground, dropping his sword. The other faltered. Elmis continued smiling, but received only a disgusted look in return. Elmis gave a primal battle cry and the man’s countenance shifted to distress.
“What kind of monster are you?”
Not bothering to answer, Elmis leapt at the man while his guard was down, bringing his remaining axe down on his metal-encased hand. The soldier cried out in pain and dropped his sword. His hand had been torn open by the axe, the metal links of his gauntlet enmeshed in his flesh.
Meanwhile, Acorn scurried from behind Elmis over to the fallen man. He deftly stepped over the soldier and sat on him, pinning him to the ground. After ripping off the half-helm, he took his dagger and, with a grimace, struck a hard blow to the man’s skull with the pommel.
Elmis dispatched the second soldier with a blow to the head. The force of his strike was not enough to break the helmet, but it threw the man’s head around inside of it, knocking him unconscious. Elmis would finish him later. Acorn pushed the body of the first man over and pulled out the axe from the armor, tossing it to his brother, then sheathed his dagger in his boot and picked up one of the swords.
Not yet finished growing, Acorn made the sword appear as if it were forged for a giant. It was of standard make and meant to be wielded with one hand, with a flat hand-guard on the hilt. The blade was long and two edged. The Skyborn usually avoided using swords, favoring their faster and more versatile axes. Acorn had no idea what to do with the monster of a weapon. Elmis would not have done much better with it himself.
The four soldiers guarding the librarians drew their swords and spread out. One of them left in a hurry, leaving the other three to deal with Elmis and Acorn. This set was more cautious. Instead of charging the two boys, they simultaneously crept closer, slowly backing Elmis and Acorn toward a corner. If the soldiers got the opportunity to attack together, Elmis knew he and his brother were doomed. He needed to act before that happened.
Elmis lunged at the closest soldier, forcing him to step back a couple paces. Elmis took the opportunity to move farther away from the corner and Acorn followed.
The soldier in the middle straightened his helm and spoke, “Okay kids, we don’t have to fight here. Just put down your weapons and we swear you won’t be harmed.”
Elmis glanced over at his brother, who waited for him to lead. Of course these soldiers did not want to fight him. They knew they would lose.
The middle soldier stepped forward again. “Look here, we can–”
Elmis did not wait for the man to finish. Instead, he charged. Two swift blows on either side of the head was enough to bring the soldier down. Acorn’s first attack was not far behind; he thrust his sword, but his strike did not have enough power behind it, and it glanced off the unsuspecting soldier’s armor.
One soldier remained on Elmis’s left. Though he was loathe to do so, Elmis would have to trust Acorn to hold his own. He did not doubt his brother’s resolve, but Acorn wielded a an unfamiliar weapon and had never fought for his life before. To be fair, Elmis realized, he hadn’t either.
The soldier on Elmis’s left made a wild swing at him. He dodged the stroke and caught the blade on the inside curve of his left-hand axe. He stepped inside the man’s reach, and struck the man in the head with the other. The blow failed to fell his opponent, and Elmis cursed the tough helmets his enemies wore.
The soldier battling Acorn grabbed the boy’s sword with his gauntlet and yanked, pulling Acorn closer and swinging his own sword at Acorn’s neck. Instead of ducking the blow as Elmis would have done, the boy stepped in even closer to the soldier and hit him in the head with his book. This stunned the soldier long enough for Acorn to let go of his own sword and grab his adversary’s leg. He pulled up and the soldier fell to the floor.
The soldier battling Elmis jerked his sword away from the axe and tried to back away, but Elmis followed, keeping close so the soldier could not strike him. The man backed up a few more hurried steps until he found himself against a wall. During the soldier’s moment of surprise, Elmis struck. Both axes flew at his enemy’s poorly protected neck. The chain mail there was not strong enough to save the man, and he fell to the ground in a fountain of blood.
Acorn, now on the other side of the room, sat on top of the last soldier, banging the man’s head into the floor repeatedly. Elmis stopped counting at seven. “Okay! I think he’s out already.”
Acorn stopped for a moment and waited. The man did not move. Taking his dropped sword from the floor, Acorn stood up and walked over to Elmis. Some form of frenzy or fear had taken hold, and Acorn shook as he asked, “What now?”
“Now we find out what is going on out there.” They both listened, but the sounds of battle outside had stopped, and everything had become eerily quiet.
The librarians still huddled in a corner on the other side of the library, all their eyes focused on the two Skyborn. Elmis loped across the room to the librarians and held forth an axe threateningly. “One of you better tell us what’s happening.”
Simon stepped forward, his face still streaked with tears and his voice so timid that at times it was difficult to hear. “I’m so sorry, Elmis. There was nothing we could do to stop them. A small army of mercenaries invaded the town several days ago. They told us that if we didn’t cooperate, they would start killing people. We had no choice! They forced us to lay a trap for you leaf gypsies. When you landed and you all came into town, their plan was to burn your leaf, and anyone still on it. Then… they planned to kill every last one of you in the town. Their commander promised that no one’s property would be damaged, but these soldiers were such brutes! They destroyed my library!” Simon’s words devolved into stomach wrenching sobs.
Rage began building up inside of Elmis. They intended to wipe the Skyborn out of existence, but at least one remained who would fight them to the last. He looked at Simon in disgust. “Your library is the least of my worries right now! My people are being massacred outside!”
Another librarian stepped between Simon and Elmis. “He was helping you kids. Try to have a little compassion!”
Elmis stared the man in the face, trying his best to convey every ounce of his continually mounting anger through his expression. He must have conveyed enough, because the man backed down immediately. “You say they have a commander? Who is he?”
Another librarian, a woman this time, piped up, “Commander Michael. He is the one in charge of all this.”
Every part of Elmis’s soul was calling for blood. He had to find this commander and kill him. He would avenge the dead and champion the living. Barr would be proud. Their enemies would curse the day he chose the path of the warrior. “Where is this filth?”
The door to the library burst open and several men armed with crossbows rushed in. They quickly leveled their weapons at the Skyborn and took aim. A man without a helmet stood behind them all with his hand raised.
Acorn led this time, diving for cover behind a half-fallen shelf. Elmis followed suit just as two crossbowmen fired. Their bolts flew too late, imbedding themselves in books on the floor. Some soldiers made to pursue, but their leader stopped them. “Hold it, you half-wits! They can’t escape the building, and we have all night. We need only reason with them.”
Elmis tightened his grip on his axes, not in the mood to be reasoned with.
He gazed out and examined the man in charge. He wore armor like the others, but his head was completely bare, even of hair. That would make him easier to kill. Instead resting at his hip, his sword was strapped to his back. Just from the hilt of the weapon, Elmis could tell it must be enormous. He had a stature that matched it too, being taller than anyone in the room, and one of the tallest men Elmis had ever seen. This could only be Commander Michael himself. He motioned to them under the fallen bookshelf. “Come out now. You aren’t achieving anything by hiding under there.” He waited for a response and did not get one. “Look, I promise that if you come out, you will not be harmed.”
Acorn spoke from right beside Elmis. “Then what will happen to us? You’ll let us go?”
The man paused, as if he had not considered this. A terrible liar, it would seem. “I’ll take you to the commander and he’ll decide.” Elmis had been wrong, then, this beast was just another lackey.
Acorn turned his body around and poked his head out. “How do we know this commander won’t just kill us?”
“I don’t know,” replied the Captain, “but I do know that I don’t want any more dead soldiers, and if you resist capture we will root you out and kill you. If you let us take you, no one needs to die. I don’t think you’ll get a better offer than that.”
“We would rather–” began Acorn, but Elmis covered his mouth.
“How can we trust you not to shoot us as soon as we leave cover?” Elmis asked.
“You have my word as a soldier. Any man who fires upon you will die by my blade.” He made this declaration as much to his own men as to the Skyborn.
Elmis tried to look into his adversary’s eyes, but could not see well enough from behind the bookshelf. He stood out of his hiding place and dusted himself off. If he wanted to find their commander, this might be his only opportunity. “We’ll go with you, then.”
Acorn stood up as well. “But Elmis! What about our parents?”
Elmis stared the captain directly in the eyes and responded to his brother. “This is the best chance we have at living through this. Mom and Dad are with Barr; they’ll be fine. Perhaps they can negotiate for our lives after all this.” He knew he could not lie well either, but his performance seemed to convince the bald man. Acorn knew better, but he said nothing. Elmis walked forward and set each of his axes down in front of the soldiers. He wasn’t sure how he’d kill the commander, but he would have to do it without them.
Acorn seemed to understand. He laid his sword next to the axes, placing the book he carried with it.
“I should just shoot you right now,” said the Captain. Several of his men readied their weapons, waiting for the command.
Elmis froze. Four crossbows were pointed at him alone, and he had stepped too far away from the bookshelves to dive for cover again. “There must be no honor among the Landborn.” His life lay in the hands of this armored monstrosity.
“Ha! Honor!” barked the soldier. “You, a sky raider, talk of honor. Do your people find honor in slaying farm folk and peasants? Do not presume to lecture me on honor!” He motioned for his men to lower their weapons. “Restrain them. If they resist, kill them.”
Two men cautiously approached the brothers with ropes to bind their hands. Acorn looked to Elmis as if to ask, “Are you sure?” Elmis nodded, and they submitted their hands to their captors.
“I’m glad you have seen reason. I cannot bear to kill children.”
The crossbowmen tied the boys’ hands behind their backs.
Elmis was furious; first this man had insulted the honor of the Skyborn, and now he considered Elmis a child! He had left his childhood behind two days ago. “We never tire of killing scum like you.”
The man strode over and punched Elmis in the face. The metal of the gauntlet against his cheek was cold and unforgiving.
“Just because I don’t like to kill children does not mean I have qualms about punishing them when they misbehave, especially the children of barbarians!”
Elmis thought to reply, but held his anger in check. He could bandy insults with the man all day, but it would get him nothing but a bloody nose. Surely he would have a bruise on his face soon from the strike. He fell silent and let the soldiers lead him out of the library and into the night.
The rain had gotten harder, and it wasted no time in soaking through Elmis’s shirt. He had left his coat back at the library. The sound of droplets bouncing off of armor, clothes, the cobbled street, and the bald head of the captain made a symphony of water that distracted Elmis from reality. It was so hard to think of what to do next, but so easy to be mesmerized by the rain. He needed to regain his focus.
He thought about how he would free his hands. Nothing came to mind immediately. He cast about for any sharp objects carried by the soldiers. The only thing he could use would be one of their swords or perhaps a crossbow bolt. He would have to steal one or the other, which would not be easy, especially if he wanted enough time to free himself. He would have to defeat all of them with his hands tied behind his back. However much he liked the sound of that, he knew he could not do it, even with Acorn’s help. They might even use Acorn against him if he tried to fight.
He looked at his little brother, who furiously examined the ground. His long brown hair had fallen in front of his face and was now dripping wet again. He wished he could see into his brother’s mind. Whatever Acorn was thinking, Elmis might never find out. Perhaps seeking out the commander was more than he could expect of himself. No. No task was beyond him. He would slay Commander Michael and become a legend among the Skyborn. No one would scoff at the name of Alzabar after this night. He just needed to escape his bindings.
Elmis must have fallen out of step, because the soldier directing him shoved him forward. “Move it, you barbarian!”
He stumbled forward a few steps. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a sharp movement: Acorn’s hands. He was signaling. A simple gesture, just the two hands laced together with the index fingers pointing out. It meant “move forward.” Without questioning why, Elmis kept stumbling forward, pulling the soldier with him until he was ahead of his brother.
“Hey!” shouted the soldier. “Watch yourself, boy!”
Acorn was no longer in Elmis’s line of vision. Did Acorn have a plan? If so, then what did it entail? He did not care. At least it was a plan. Each one he came up with ended with both of them dead. What had Acorn thought of that he hadn’t? And why did he have to move forward? The gesture was fitting, though. The two had devised the hand gestures while hunting. His intention was to find and kill the commander, and Acorn had realized that.
Elmis must have forgotten where he was again, because he tripped on the doorstep of a small building as their captors shoved them inside.
A soldier picked him up again. “What are you? Blind?”
Elmis grumbled a reply he would have said out loud in other circumstances. He was led into the building, a person’s home by the look of the furnishings. They entered the living room, where a fire burned in the hearth. On top of a red throw rug in the middle of the room, a desk had been set up with a small stack of papers and a stationary set. Behind the desk sat a dark man. Though pale of skin, he was clad in dark leather armor and he wore a purple cape. He had close-cropped, black hair and a well-trimmed beard that seemed to be a shadow on his chin. When the small procession of soldiers and prisoners entered the room, he stood up from his seat. He wore a long, curved sword at his hip. “Who are these children, Captain Sebastian, and why aren’t they dead yet?”
As the commander spoke, Acorn gave him the forward gesture again. The Captain began to answer, but Elmis stepped forward, right in front of the desk. “I am Alzabar, warrior of the Skyborn, and I am not dead yet because I have bested your soldiers in combat!”
Michael was speechless for second, then he adopted a playful and superior tone. “Then why, may I ask, Alzabar, have my soldiers captured you?”
Elmis wrested his bonds out of the grasp of the soldier behind him. “We made a deal.”
The soldier made to grab Elmis’s hands again, but the commander motioned for him to stop. “He’s not going anywhere.” He gave a nod toward Acorn. “And neither is he.” The soldier holding Acorn’s hands let go as well. Michael addressed Sebastian, “Is this true, Captain? You made a deal?”
“Yes, Sir,” replied the Captain, staring at the floor. “I just thought, since they were only kids, and we could have lost a few more men before we captured–”
Commander Michael slammed the desk with his fist. “We lost more men? This was supposed to be a smooth operation, low losses. Enough died fighting the adults, and you’re telling me these two children have added to our body count? Where are you men trained? A nursery?” He considered his words a moment. “Obviously not, otherwise you’d have more experience with children!”
The Captain’s posture straightened from stiff to rigid, making him seem even taller. The fire next to the desk made his shadow dance on the far wall. It was obvious he had been scolded for something like this before, and he knew how to deal with it. Still, his face flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. “Bentley came to me a few minutes ago, Sir, saying that there were some sky raider resistors in the library. I brought a small band of men armed with crossbows. When I arrived, these two were bullying the librarians, and there were five dead soldiers. I did not want to lose anyone else, so I promised not to kill them, and they surrendered. I thought you would know what to do with them.”
Commander Michael was still visibly irritated, but less so. “I do know what to do with them, Captain Sebastian, and you should as well. You were ordered to kill every last sky raider, even the children. These two are no exception.” He sat back down in his chair, the case settled.
Things were not going well, and Acorn still had not done anything. Elmis had to stall them. Not sure what else to do, he started by saying what he had been burning to since they left the library. “I am no child!” The outburst did not even make the soldiers pause, so he continued. “Does it give you pleasure to kill children? Is that why you insist I am one?”
The soldier to Elmis’s right cuffed the back of his head. “You will speak to the commander with respect! Sky raiders have killed more children than he.”
“Silence!” Michael commanded. “I can speak for myself.” But he did not speak with his words, just his eyes. They were brown, yet cold, unfeeling. They had seen horrible things without blinking, and would do so again. After an unnerving moment, he spoke again. “I serve whoever pays, and I do whatever they pay me to do. I am a soldier, and I know how to take orders. Whether I like them or not is of no concern.”
So they were mercenaries. Now he could recall where he had seen their insignia. These were men of The Order of Brent, some of the best and most well-established mercenaries in the region. He had never fought them before, but he had heard tales of them. Elmis met the Commander’s gaze with his own, steely stare. “You are old enough to know better.”
The Commander chuckled. “You are a pompous one, aren’t you?” He began fiddling with a pen. “I must admit, you sky raiders train your fighters well. You fight hard, fast, and to the death.” He set the pen down for a moment. “Which brings me to a question: if you are a sky raider warrior, where are your axes?”
One of the soldiers presented the axes to Commander Michael. “I have them here, Sir.”
The Commander took them and examined them. He gestured with one at Acorn. “And what about yours? You have not said a word since you got here.”
Acorn remained silent.
The captain answered for him. “He had none, Sir. He was using one of our own swords, and he was carrying this book.” He tossed the book that Acorn had been fighting with onto the desk in front of the commander.
“Hmm. I’ll be keeping these.” He lifted the book to eye level. “The Path to Bræ’s Gate. Never read it. I hope it’s good.” Michael set the book aside with the axes. “One thing puzzles me, Alzabar. It is said that a sky raider warrior is more disposed to give up his life than his axes, and he is trained to fight to the death. Many did so today, in fact.” Elmis felt the rage that had been waiting inside of him flare up again. “So, my question is, why did you surrender? You must have known that we would kill you anyway. Are you a coward?”
Elmis turned a dangerous shade of red, and once again his soul yearned for blood. “I am no coward, Michael.”
The commander stood up again, startled. “How do you know my name? Did one of my men tell you?”
In his peripherals, Elmis saw Acorn dive into a roll across the floor.
“I know your name, Michael, because I am here to kill you.”