This is a story that I wrote up to accompany a character concept I developed. It's a little on the longish side, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.
The Ballad of Hlofgar
Hlofgar pulled back the hood of his cloak and ran dirty fingers through his equally dirty blond hair. The big Nord let out a long breath and looked to his left to see the others, his eyes showing a mixture of anxiety and impatience. It had been hours already. The twin moons were halfway across the sky, but it wasn’t going to get any darker. They had picked the wrong night for this. Too much light, and too bloody cold. They couldn’t be through with this business quick enough.
Jak returned the look and waved his hand in a downward motion. Just be patient. They all knew the importance of this one, and the potential for disaster. A move too early, and they would just die cold. The timing had to be right.
Hlofgar pulled his hood back over his head and shifted his position a little, careful not to make much noise. His knees were getting sore, and the cold ground didn’t help any. He had put fur leggings on over his leathers, knowing that, despite the extra bulk, he would be glad of the comfort, but the cold and damp were beginning to seep through now. Soon, he told himself. It won’t be much longer now, they’re slowing down.
Several dozen meters ahead of them, at the base of the gentle slope, the old farmhouse was indeed settling down. Having drunk themselves into a near stupor yet again after the success of yet another caravan raid, the orc raiders of the Gharhnar tribe – a rebellious splinter from one of the larger Orsimer tribes – were finally growing sleepy. One of their number had passed out on the front porch nearly an hour ago, a bottle of grog still in his hand.
Still, Hlofgar would wait. The timing wasn’t right. There were still at least three of them awake in the old house - their shadows could be seen moving across the windows in the candle-lit interior, and Hlofgar had been listening long enough that he could tell their voices apart. The one in charge, Moggag gro-Gharhnar, had a funny, high-pitched voice – for an Orc – but he couldn’t hold his grog. He had come outside three times already to relieve himself off the porch, and the last time out he could barely walk. Though Hlofgar was getting impatient, Jak was right.
But it wouldn’t be long now.
The sound of rapping on wood caused Hlofgar to stir suddenly. Had he dozed off? He checked the sky quickly: the moons hadn’t moved very far from where he remembered them being. It couldn’t have been long. He quickly jerked his head back down and looked to his left again. Myra was glaring at him, and Jak was nowhere to be seen. The Nord raised his hands, palms up, his expression one of puzzled bewilderment. Myra just shook her head and pointed behind Hlofgar. Turning to look, Hlofgar could see the team’s leader stringing his bow in silence, having already stuck several arrows into the ground around himself.
This is it, Hlofgar told himself, twisting his head back and forth in an effort to get the blood flowing again. The house was silent now, though most of the candles still burned. That one Orc was still asleep on the porch. He would be the first to die tonight, Hlofgar thought. Or the last, if he’s lucky.
A second knocking sound from behind told Hlofgar that it was time to go. He stood, slowly, feeling the blood rush back into his legs after so much time sitting on the hard ground. He took a moment to walk in place, slowly swinging his arms back and forth at the same time. His entire body was stiff, and the cold had made his leather armor more rigid, as well. A few paces away, Myra was doing the same. She was younger by ten years, and did not seem as bothered by aches and pains as Hlofgar. Your time will come, Redguard, he thought to himself. In the dark, it was virtually impossible to make out her features, but he knew the young woman to be handsome enough underneath her bulky steel armor. She had a figure unlike any he had ever seen on any Nord woman. He smiled to himself at the thought of what her body might be like underneath all of that cold metal and padding, but… this was not the time. He shook his head vigorously to clear the thought from his mind. Focus, dammit!
Myra pulled the shield from her back and drew her sword before walking the few paces over to where Hlofgar stood and Jak crouched with his bow. Her armor made a racket that seemed like it would wake the dead, but nothing stirred in the farmhouse. Hlofgar picked his two-handed axe up off the log where he had lain it several hours earlier and propped it up on his shoulder. “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered. “I’d like to finish my nap.”
Jak smirked, the expression obvious on his pale features, even in this light. “Okay,” he whispered. Hlofgar was a little surprised. Normally, Jak would have been angry at the Nord warrior for drifting off like that, but tonight he seemed… different. Almost disconnected. Maybe he would ask Jak about it later. Maybe it was nothing. “When you’re ready,” was all Jak said.
Hlofgar looked at Myra and gestured toward the house with his free hand, bowing ever so slightly. After you. The Redguard stalked off in that direction, carefully picking her way through the undergrowth, trying to make as little noise as possible, but not doing a very good job of it. When she had gotten far enough away, Hlofgar turned to Jak and said, “I’ve met quieter trolls.”
Jak just bobbed his head in amusement, but that was enough for Hlofgar. He turned to follow Myra, making much less noise and better speed in his lighter armor. Once he caught up to her, the two warriors placed some distance between themselves, instinctively leaving enough room that at least three grown mean could run abreast between them. Myra’s armor continued to alert every sleeping bandit within miles that they were coming – or so it seemed – but at this point it would make little difference. The Orc on the porch still slept peacefully. Looks like you will get to live the longest tonight, thought Hlofgar. Lucky bastard.
The forest and its undergrowth gave way to short grasses and weeds about 20 meters from the farmhouse. Stretched out behind the house, and to its east, the fields themselves were little more than dense tangles of weeds and saplings now, having been abandoned years ago. In the dark it was difficult to tell one plant from another, but Hlofgar knew what most of them were. Not that it mattered. It only mattered that it was easier to walk here without stumbling, and there were no more fallen twigs to snap underfoot. Even Myra was making less noise now.
At the house, Hlofgar extended his free left arm with his palm facing Myra. He would go up on the porch alone to investigate. The Redguard woman waited obediently, her head twisting slowly left and right, keeping an eye on the windows as the older man approached the door. The final stair let out a long, sharp creak under the Nord’s weight - a grating noise like a rock warbler warding off predators - freezing Hlofgar in place. Hands wrapped tightly around the haft of his axe, Hlofgar held his breath and stared straight ahead, not daring to move. Five seconds passed. Ten. Twenty. Finally, sure that he had not woken the sleeping Orcs, Hlofgar lifted his foot and took the last stair to the porch. At the door, he pushed carefully on the latch, but it did not budge. Locked. Hlofgar peered over his right shoulder at the sleeping Orc. So that’s what you were wailing about earlier. Damn.
The Nord carefully set his axe down, leaning it up against the wall next to the door, and motioned for Myra to come up to the porch. As the woman noisily made her way up the steps, Hlofgar took out a lockpick and tension wrench and began to work the lock. Though the click-click-click sounds of the pick working the tumblers seemed to make all the noise in the world, Hlofgar knew it paled in comparison to the noise Myra made coming up onto the porch in her blasted steel armor. He had told Jak it was a mistake to bring her on this one, but the officer insisted she was the right person for the job. So far, he was wrong on that point. There would have to be a conversation about that later.
Finally, with a louder tink sound, the lock turned freely, following the pressure from the tension wrench. Pulling the pick from the lock, Hlofgar grabbed the latch and pushed the door slightly inward so that it would not latch again after he removed the wrench. Quickly, he stuffed his picking tools back into the pouch they had come from, and stood up, hefting his axe once again. Myra nudged the door the rest of the way open with her foot. Mercifully, it opened with barely a sound, but what greeted them on the other side was something they had not expected: an empty room. Barely furnished, and not a single Orc in sight.
The light in this room was better than it had been outside. Three candles remained lit in the room, and more light spilled through the threshold from the next room, casting dancing shadows on the wall - black caricatures of small tables and the room’s lone stool. Refuse littered the plank floor: empty bottles, scraps of paper, bits of food and discarded bones – the detritus of Orcs returning to their ancient and savage ways. Leading the way with her shield, Myra stepped through the doorway and into the room. Floorboards creaked under her weight, but she did not pause or hesitate. Two more steps and she turned to enter the next room where the light was coming from, and there she stopped. “Look out!” she cried suddenly, half ducking, half crouching behind her shield. Hlofgar heard the distinctive zzzwick of crossbows being fired, and three quarrels immediately slammed into Myra’s shield. One caromed off the shield’s rounded steel frame, skittering to a stop near Hlofgar’s feet, but the other two embedded themselves deep into the wooden braces of the shield’s structure, either penetrating the steel bands or missing them entirely.
For a moment, it was if no one was sure what to do. The unseen Orcish assailants did not move immediately, and Myra stood completely still as if afraid to step out from behind her shield. Then, as if on cue, one of the Orcs bellowed something Hlofgar didn’t understand, and all hell broke loose. Apparently sensing that she was in no position to hold the doorway against the Orcs, Myra bolted for the front door. Hlofgar, hearing the onrushing stampede of Orc feet from the next room, followed her out the door, dragging a small corner table down behind him as he sidestepped out onto the porch. The candle on the table went out as it fell to the floor, spilling hot wax across the floorboards to one side of the doorway.
Ahead of him, Myra had gone all the way down the stairs onto the grass in front of the house, where she was preparing to make a stand, but Hlofgar had a different idea. He wheeled to the near side of the doorway’s exterior and set his feet. Inside, he could hear one Orc skidding on the floorboards, probably having taken the turn from the second room to the entryway too quickly. The Orc’s body made a loud thud as it slammed into the wall, but it was overwhelmed by the stamping feet of others who had not made the same mistake. The first Orc through the front door leapt over the small table, and Hlofgar was ready for him. He stuck the head of his axe out into the Orc’s path, tripping him up in mid-flight, and sending him sprawling down the stairs in a tangle of green arms, legs, and filthy hide armor.
But the Orc’s momentum had pulled Hlofgar to the left and forced him out of position to face the next attacker. The Nord wheeled around low to get his defenses up, but it didn’t matter. An arrow sprang from the Orc’s bare chest, and sent him spinning off to the side, howling in pain. Two more Orcs came through the door, one right behind the other. Hlofgar was ready for these, but they were on him too quickly to be able to do more than parry their repeated blows at first. Yet another Orc, and then still another, even larger one came out behind. This fourth one was clearly Moggag. Badly outnumbered in a confined space, Hlofgar knew he had to do something to change the situation, and fast. To his left, Myra had come up the steps and quickly dispatched the defenseless Orc Hlofgar had tripped, but in doing so she had also ensured that Jak would not have a clear shot from his position in the woods.
After a particularly wild swing from one of the Orcs, who were apparently still very drunk, Hlofgar saw his opening. He quickly backed off a few paces, and then vaulted over the porch railing to the ground below. Amazingly, the one passed out Orc was still there, having not stirred at all during any of this.
Now alone on the stairs, Myra began to back down to the grass again, deflecting blow after blow with her shield. One of the Orcs - a woman, Hlofgar realized - shot over the railing as well, and began to move in on the Nord, bellowing Orcish curses at him. Out of the corner of his eye, Hlofgar saw Myra stumble over the dead Orc on the steps, nearly falling over backward. But the opening must have been exactly what Jak was waiting for because as she recovered, another arrow whizzed over her head and took the closest Orc in the belly, easily penetrating the studded leather armor he wore. The wounded Orc stopped and doubled over, holding up the two remaining Orcs behind him. After a couple of seconds, during which Myra had deftly removed herself to the base of the stairs and taken up a new defensive posture, the Orc finally straightened up and let out a blood curdling scream, which was swiftly cut off when a second arrow landed with a thwack in the side of his chest, doubtlessly puncturing a lung. Moggag shoved his wounded clan member aside like a rag doll and charged down the steps at Myra, waiting until the last second to aim a single massive uppercut at the Redguard with his giant two-handed sword. Although prepared to receive the blow with her shield, the force of the huge Orc’s charge sent the woman, who was less than half his size, sprawling. Myra shrieked in pain and fright, her arm probably broken now.
Hlofgar’s foe, though fierce, was simply too drunk to be able to fight effectively. After only a brief exchange of blows, the Nord worked the Orcish woman into an exposed position. A single backhanded slash with his axe nearly removed the woman’s right leg at the knee, and drove her to the ground. Following the momentum of the first blow, Hlofgar drove his next blow into the center of her back, cleanly severing her spine, shattering several ribs, and destroying vital organs with a single fatal blow. The rebel never stirred again.
Recognizing that Myra was no longer an immediate threat, the Orc leader and his one remaining soldier – another woman – turned their attention on Hlofgar. Getting a good look at his other attacker for the first time, Moggag gro-Gharhnar let out another of his ridiculous high-pitched shrieks. “You?!” he bellowed, his voice a mixture of surprise and anger.
Bracing himself for Moggag’s charge, Hlofgar nodded his head. “You knew this day would come, Moggag,” was all he said before the Orc charged. Unlike Myra, Hlofgar was large and strong enough to be able to trade blows with the rebel band’s leader, and he held his own with little trouble. He could smell the reek of alcohol on Moggag’s breath, and the woman struggled to right herself after each ineffective swing. It would only be a matter of time, Hlofgar knew. But then something unexpected happened: a shock of pain shot through Hlofgar’s lower back. He staggered backward, not understanding what had just occurred, and reached to his back with his left hand to find an arrow shaft stuck there. Jak missed? he thought incredulously.
Moggag stepped back from Hlofgar and laughed aloud - a whiny, nasally sound. The other woman, herself not knowing what had just happened, was not so quick to gloat, however. She steadied herself and leveled a thrust directly at Hlofgar’s chest. Flinging his axe up with his right hand alone, Hlofgar managed to deflect the blow, but the effort took him off balance and he collapsed to one knee right in front of the woman. The woman, who was only wearing her smallclothes, Hlofgar realized, was not expecting the deflection, though, and staggered forward. As Hlofgar tried to reel his huge axe back into position again, the tip caught her across the belly, cutting a wide red slash. She tumbled to the ground in place, screaming in pain as she tried, literally, to hold herself together.
Now even angrier than before, Moggag’s eyes widened and he lurched forward toward the wounded Nord, swatting the axe out of Hlofgar’s hands before he could bring it around to defend himself. Moggag brought his arms around for another blow, but Myra’s sword caught him across his upper right arm, stopping him in his tracks. Wheeling to his side to face Myra, the massive Orc tried to bring his sword up to strike at her, but faltered, the gash in his arm leaving him unable to properly swing the huge blade. Myra scowled and brought her own sword around again, slapping Moggag across the face with the flat of her blade. The insult only enraged Moggag further. He dropped his own sword and reached for a dagger with his good hand, determined to avenge both the insult to his honor and the imminent death of his mistress. Myra, with the dead weight of her shield still strapped to her useless left arm, was having trouble getting the right leverage to use her sword, but struck out at Moggag anyway. The Orc managed to parry the blow with his dagger, but Myra struck again, this time catching his left arm just below the elbow with the point of her sword. Now unable to fight with either hand, Moggag let the dagger hang limply from his hand and simply glared at the Redguard. “Finish this, coward,” was all he said.
Myra took a single step toward the big Orc and pulled her arm back for another thrust, but the blow never came. Instead, the woman arched her back and clenched her jaw, dropping her good arm to her side and letting her sword fall to the ground. Blood bubbled out of her mouth as her body seized up, shuddering. Behind her, another Orc – the one from the porch, Hlofgar realized – twisted the sword, and yanked it out of her back, letting Myra’s body fall to the ground. Moggag let out a wheezing laugh, “Well done, Umugol,” he said. “Now kill this traitor over here, and let’s be done so I can go back inside and drink a healing potion.”
The one called Umugol straightened up, looked Moggag squarely in the eye, and said in a completely sober voice, “As you say, Moggag gro-Gharhnar.” With a single step forward, Umugol slashed the tip of his sword across Moggag’s throat, spattering blood everywhere.
In pain and completely bewildered, Hlofgar looked around him wildly. Where the devil is Jak? The Nord pulled himself over to where his axe lay, not two feet from the still-screaming Orc woman, but Umugol got there first, and stood on the blade while he mercifully ended the dying woman’s suffering.
When he was finished, Umugol turned and regarded Hlofgar in silence. “What is going on here?” Hlofgar asked, trying to keep pressure on his wound to reduce the bleeding, but the Orc ignored him. He tried to shout, “Jak!” but the effort made him cough and sputter. This was bad, Hlofgar knew. Very, very bad.
“I’m right here,” came the reply from Jak’s familiar voice a few seconds later. Hlofgar propped himself back up on his knees and looked behind him. There was Jak, his bow slung over his shoulder again, a sad look on his face.
“Jak, what in the Eight Divines is going on? Kill this guy!” Hlofgar hissed out.
Instead, Jak crouched next to Hlofgar, balanced on the balls of his feet. “That’s not what’s going to happen here, Hlofgar,” he said.
Hlofgar shook with anger and spat at his former superior. “What are you saying, Jak? This is no time for your sideways talk.”
The younger man let out a long breath and looked Hlofgar in the eye. “I’m saying we know it was you. These rebels broke the pact, but we might have let them alone if they hadn’t been raiding supply caravans. Caravans carrying provisions, weapons, and armor meant for our soldiers. Our brothers in arms, Hlofgar. And how did they know which caravans to raid? Because someone was telling them. Someone who knew exactly which caravans, when, where, and what they would be carrying. The only trouble is, outside of the logistics troop, very few people have access to that kind of information. And none of the logistics troops ever leave the fortress. So the general sent Umugol here to find out who it was.”
Hlofgar sputtered again. “So you’re saying this whole thing was about me?”
Jak nodded. “You were the objective all along. I still had my doubts, but Moggag was kind enough to confirm it for me before he died.”
The Nord slouched a little more, and put his right hand on the ground to steady himself. He looked over at Myra’s body, lying in a pool of her own blood. “What about Myra?”
Jak glanced over at Myra, then back at Hlofgar again. “Myra was dealing moon sugar on the side. She was a liability. That’s why we brought her along. If she had survived she would have been arrested within a few days, anyway.”
Hlofgar nodded his understanding, then slowly reached for the dagger at his belt. Neither Jak nor Umugol made a move to stop him. “Will you give this to my boy?” Hlofgar asked, drawing the Elven blade from its sheath.
One last time, Jak nodded at his longtime squadmate. He reached out and took the dagger from Hlofgar’s hand, then stood. After a look to Umugol, the officer stepped past Hlofgar and walked toward the old farmhouse. He didn’t want to watch his friend die, and he already knew the sound was one he would never forget.
Hlofgar straightened himself up as best he could, closed his eyes, and drew one last, lingering breath through his nose, savoring the night air. It’s bloody cold out here.