Just because I’m chomping at the bit to get this book published, here is a snippet to release some steam.
Astrid Says Hello
Moving through the winter woods at night was the perfect meditation for a Knight of the Well. With a heavy cloud cover subduing a nearly-full moon, the forest, covered in heavy snow, was a world of black and deep gray.
Just before she called on the magical energy known to her as the Well, Astrid cast off her heavy furs and buried them under snow at the base of a tall pine. She wouldn’t need them now. They would just slow her down.
Her eyes, turned from hazel to black by the magic, no longer needed light to show her the way. The magic was all she needed to ward off the cold.
The crackling of icy branches in a light, midnight breeze prickled her ears. She was hyper-alert for the signs of the men she hunted. She made no sound as she crept along, far from the well-worn trail.
It turned out she didn’t kill all of the mercenaries hired by the evil son of Protector Lungu to murder innocents. Some of them remained to honor their contract, even though Astrid had killed both their leader and the man who hired them. They had taken to the woods to regroup and make plans to finish their work.
It wasn’t quite respect, but Astrid had some appreciation for how the men stuck to their principles. The real problem was that those principles were so very wrong. Men like them had to be stopped.
That was a Knight’s job.
Be ever and always the champion of right and good. The tenth tenet of the Knight’s code came to mind just before she caught a whiff of smoke.
The camp was close. A few silent footsteps later, she heard them. Crouching low and nearly on all-fours, she crept up to the edge of the clearing where the men made their bivouac.
They kept two on guard duty. Smart.
They had built crude log huts in the circular clearing. Astrid counted six structures arranged in a regular, six-sided pattern. How many in those huts? At least two per hut, she guessed.
Smart again. They could exit their dwellings and face any possible threat from every angle.
Astrid drew more energy from the well as she waited to strike. She found her opportunity when one of the night watch decided to move.
He stomped his feet as he came, trying to use motion to stay warm. Astrid made herself part of the shadows as the man approached.
Astrid pounced like a snow leopard when the merc was six feet away. Her shoulder hit him in the chest, driving all the air from his lungs. His grunt was cut short by an arm that snapped his neck before his body hit the ground with Astrid on top of him.
She dragged the body back into the woods quickly. But the second watchman knew something was wrong. He’d heard something, but the snow muffled the sounds of killing.
It took him a few seconds to realize his companion was gone.
“Shit,” he exclaimed.
Astrid charged across the clearing as the man put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
She ran in to kill the man by instinct, but when the camp exploded with motion, she discovered that wasn’t really the best move. Astrid found herself at dead-center of the hut arrangement. At least she was behind the buildings. She stopped short as men exploded into the clearing.
Time to change up the plan, she thought.
Their fright and confusion gave Astrid two or three precious seconds. She jumped eight feet from a standing position on top of the nearest roof.
Another jump sent her sailing high above enemy heads. On the way back down, she put her rope weapon to work.
The egg-shaped, steel dart shattered the skull of the nearest mercenary as Astrid landed in a spinning crouch. The line wrapped back around her waist as she continued the motion, rising to extend her leg.
The heel of her boot slammed into the jaw of the foe beside the first kill. His head nearly spun around in a three-sixty. He was dead before he hit the ground.
She was impressed by how they came at her with cold, professional fury. It wasn’t until she killed three more that they broke discipline and started shouting insults.
“I’m gonna kill you, bitch!” a man screamed as he charged forward.
“Anyone can dream,” Astrid shouted back.
She lunged for him and let the rope slide down along her arm. He dodged to the outside of the rope’s arc and tried to run Astrid through. She simply continued the motion and the steel dart came up and around to crush his head.
Astrid jumped over his body as she let the line wrap her abdomen again. She casually slung the rope over her shoulder and drove her fist into the chest of the nearest merc. She felt the sternum crack. By the geyser of blood that exploded past his lips, Astrid guessed broken ribs had torn through his heart and lungs.
She sidestepped the gore, spun and delivered a backfist that unfortunately, missed. This guy was fast. He managed to slash at her arm with the sword. The blade bit deep, cutting into the thick muscle of her bicep.
She managed to pull the arm into her body, but it wasn’t much use for a few seconds while the Well energy healed her. It didn’t matter much.
Astrid ducked another sword strike that tried to take off her head. She brought the edge of her foot down on the knee of the man who cut her arm. The leg snapped sideways and he fell screaming.
She had miscounted and now she was surrounded. There were closer to twenty men in the camp.
“All that man meat,” she thought. “Those huts must be smelly.” The incongruous thought made her stifle a giggle. The joy of combat sometimes made her feel silly.
The would-be decapitator, emboldened by a false sense of security, lunged in again. His sword sliced into the leather of her chest piece as she turned to the side. She felt the blade cut into the flesh above her left ribs, but she was lucky. The blade didn’t sink into anything vital.
Astrid smiled as she locked eyes with the unfortunate soul. She saw the entire fight like a game of chess where she knew every move.
She planted her right foot behind her and ducked as another man tried to take off her head. The cut on her arm was fully healed, so she reached out as the sword nearly parted her hair.
Grabbing the man’s arm, she continued the swing towards the enemy directly ahead. The sword gave him a second, gory red smile across the neck.
Now, Astrid had a sword. The shocked attacker simply let it go when he realized his own arm had killed one of his friends. Astrid killed him with an elbow that caved in his forehead.
She hadn’t fought with a sword for three years. She’d vowed never to do so since her family sword was taken by Minister Kostoff.
That was a stupid vow. Swords were fun.
She’d taken nearly half their number. That’s what it took for them to show caution.
“I don’t know what the fuck you are,” one of the bigger, meaner-looking men said. “But we’re gonna rip your guts out and decorate the trees.”
Astrid rose from her battle-crouch, rising to her full six-feet. She pointed at them with the tip of the sword.
“You sir,” Astrid declared. “Are a sick little shit waffle. It will be my pleasure to put you down.”
The man bellowed and charged forward. She blocked his overhand strike with her borrowed sword. He was trying to split her in half.
Astrid simply brought the rope off her shoulder and swung out low. The line wrapped around the middle of his leg. When she pulled, his foot came up to where his face was and he hit the ground hard.
She didn’t have time to kill him, but she saw how the back of his head slammed into the frozen, rock-hard ground. He would be no good for a while. She put him on the list.
She crouched down quickly as men closed in on her from all sides. Uncoiling her powerful legs, she jumped ten feet into the air to land outside of what had become a scrum when the men ran into each other in her sudden absence.
“Oh, come on,” Astrid laughed, taunting them with the sword. She hung the rope dart back over her shoulder. “Aren’t you supposed to be tough guys? This is a comedy show.”
That seemed to do the trick. Rage took them. They untangled themselves and charged her. She counted two seconds before the wave of men broke over her.
Astrid planted her feet and cut a hole through the charging line. She cut a head in half, then brought the sword around to take an arm. She silenced the screaming with a ridge-hand to the neck.
The circle of men around her was much smaller now. She lost count of the small injuries she took to get close to them. At one point, she held a man in a deadly embrace, using him as a shield as his alleged friends tried to kill her. They ended up killing her shield instead.
Soon, there was just astrid and three men. One of them was the guy she had pulled to the ground with her rope.
“Hi there,” Astrid said to the big man. “Usually, the men I sweep off their feet are too shy to come back for more.”
Someone attacked while Astrid taunted, and then there were just two men left and another man leaking steaming blood into the snow.
The two remaining enemies came together shoulder-to-shoulder.
“You and me,” the smaller man said. “Let’s kill this bitch.”
“You first,” the big man said to his friend.
That’s when he did the unexpected. As they both charged forward, the bigger man grabbed the smaller and threw him at Astrid. She stumbled as she brought the sword across his neck in an awkward, close-in swing.
The falling body knocked her off balance as the big man came in with a lunge. Astrid dropped the sword. In a flash, she brought her left palm across the broad side of the blade and her right palm against the other side. It was a leverage strike usually used on a punching arm, but it did the trick.
The sword, wrenched from the attacker’s grasp, spun off into the woods. Astrid smashed the shocked look of his face with a backfist. She finished him with a the edge of her hand on the back of his neck as he fell.
It took her nearly an hour to drag all the bodies to the center of the dwellings. She smashed the makeshift buildings with her hands and feet, then piled the debris atop the pile of corpses.
It was hard finding dry kindling under all the snow, but the resulting bonfire was entirely worth it.
“That’s about twenty more items off my ‘to-do’ list,” Astrid said as the flames warmed her. “But my task list is very long.”