Rangosh bit down and tore off a hunk of meat with his teeth. He chewed, thoughtfully, for a few moments.
‘Then we have to kill ‘em’ he said, swallowing. He looked at the Red Bandit before him, trembling slightly.
‘What’s the matter?’
Then Rangosh remembered that he was eating the body of one of the Bandit’s companions. He smiled, revealing teeth stained with viscera. It was one way of keeping discipline in the ranks and, frankly, he liked the taste.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, heaving himself upright. Muscles glimmered in firelight, as did the iron chains around his wrist and he stretched, assuming his full height. The Red Bandit trembled a little more. ‘I’m full.’
The Elves were doing something. Rangosh was sure of that. He wasn’t entirely sure what, but it didn’t matter. This was his territory. He’d smashed enough skulls to make this land his own to want to protect it from anything. They could be planting seeds to make it a verdant forest...they still didn’t have the right to do it. This was his land.
There were half a dozen of them. Moving with that eerie grace all the elves had. It was as though gravity had relinquished its claim on them; they didn’t move so much as float. Feet scarcely seeming to touch the earth. It was almost beautiful, Rangosh thought, but beauty had long ago ceased to be relevant to him. It was difficult to care about beauty after having been a slave. After having been beaten and bloodied every day. Being wrapped in a chain so large you could barely move while wearing it. It’s why he carried it now - the chain; it was his weapon. The mark of his servitude made the means of his liberation and finally, the proof of his conquest.
He raised a hand. Crossbow bolts exploded from the stillness of the night. The Elves dropped to the earth. Not so graceful now, Rangosh grinned. He stepped out from his hiding place, behind the boulders which surrounded the clearing the elves had chosen to explore. He knew what they were looking for—godtears. They were here, alright. He’d sensed them as soon as he’d come near this place: they called to him, made his blood feel full of fire. So, who thought they were mighty enough to come here and take Rangosh’s power from him? Did they not know what he’d done to claim the godtears he’d already consumed? Had they not heard of the Skullroad? He’d paved the Broken Plains with the bones of his enemies. And now they thought they could simply dance through his lands and take what belonged to him?
The rage was building in him. He could feel it. It was an old friend, an old companion. It had kept him alive so many times; even when his fur was matted with his own blood, when his spine could be seen through the torn flesh of his back, when he’d felt death snake its fingers around his heart...the rage had kept him going. Had pushed the pain back, back and away. It felt good, the rage. These elves would find out what that rage meant, soon. The ones in the clearing between the boulders might be dead but there were others. He could smell them. Strange scent, elves, it was like...the inside of those caves you sometimes found out in the Broken Plains...the old places. The places which had been preserved by the auspices of wind and time. Elves had that smell. The children of the gods, some called them. Godkillers. That’s what they called themselves.
Rangosh didn’t like elves. He didn’t like most things. They were all just one more obstacle he’d need to overcome to rule the world. They called him a tyrant. Good; he was a tyrant. He liked that word. It meant he was feared. And they should fear him. He was going to bring the world before him and make it grovel.
And then he saw someone step out of the darkness at the opposite side of the stone circle. Tall...tall for an elf. No, not just for an elf. Tall for anyone. The figure wore a mask and carried a long sword, curved with the precision only an expert smith could achieve. Rangosh knew who it was. He’d heard the stories.
Finvarr. The Warden of the Glades. The Whispering Death. The Ungrateful Son. So many names. More names than even Rangosh had earned. That rankled a little. But it didn’t matter. He’d take more than a name from him tonight. Take it with rage and sinew.
‘Rangosh!’ said the huge elf, his sword describing a glittering arc around him as he made practice cuts in the air. The elf’s clothes were like liquid darkness, moving with him as though a second skin. He was a shadow come to life. Even Rangosh was impressed. For a moment.
He joined the elf in the circle, dragging the vast spiked chain behind him, the chain that bound him and now slew his enemies. Dust spat and snarled into the air as the spikes dug into the earth. Light ached in Rangosh’s eyes, for a moment. The elves had brought torches with them, illuminating the circle and playing on the sweat trapped in the minotaur’s fur.
‘Rangosh. You came, then. I had expected nothing less. You have a reputation, of course. But I am the Warden of the Glades. These godtears are mine now. Leave here, and I will let you live for a little while longer.’
He felt the rage again. Starting to burn now. Burn like acid. Outside the circle, Rangosh could hear the sounds of struggle. Finvarr’s other elves had descended on the Red Bandits. But it didn’t matter. Not really. This was all that mattered. Rangosh hefted his chain.
‘You talk a lot, Elf. You’re in my lands. Get out.’
‘You won’t accept my offer? I assure you, it is offered to very few. I extend it only once, and only to those I consider worthy foes.’
‘You don’t accept?’
Finvarr leapt, the torch light spun into a dizzying halo by his armour and blades. Rangosh reared back, arm raised to shield his eyes, felt the razor pain of the sword across his chest. Bellowed. Lashed out with a fist but Finvarr was too fast, much too fast.
‘First blood,’ the elf observed, quietly.
The fight had been going on for some time now. Rangosh was bleeding from a dozen wounds. None were as bad as the first slice across his chest, still burning and making turning to follow the elf’s relentless movements difficult, painful. He was being worn down. He knew it. Deliberately sliced apart. First a cut across his thigh to make him slower. Then a cut along his arms to make raising them hurt. It was the kind of precision he expected from elves. He’d not even got close to Finvarr, the elf was too fast, a sinuous razor slitting him every time he lunged forwards and slashing him as he staggered back.
Beyond the stone circle, the battle hadn’t ceased but it had quietened. The survivors seemed to have agreed on a truce and now masked, elven faces and the distinctive crimson hoods of the Red Bandits could be glimpsed just beyond the circle of light as the two huge champions clashed.
Rangosh could feel the desperation growing in him, competing with the rage. If the rage diminished the battle would be over. He knew it, could feel his body screaming it at him. Without the rage, he was just a bleeding sack of meat. on the point of collapse. Finvarr darted in towards him again, the blade seeking to sink into Rangosh’s stomach and finally finish the battle. More by instinct than design, he turned his body at the right moment, letting the blade miss his ribs and, as he did so, flung his fist forward in a dull but powerful jab. Perhaps it was just luck, perhaps the elf had grown too confident, but it caught the Warden of the Glades on the chin and sent him reeling.
The minotaur, finally seeing his chance, let loose a rumble of triumph and struck out with the chain that had, until this moment, been only a burden. It wrapped itself around the elf’s throat, snapping taut. Finvarr fought to break the chain, smashing his sword uselessly against it.With the deliberation of a fisherman, Rangosh began to reel the chain in, dragging the struggling elf toward him. The speed and artfulness of the elf’s movements degraded into a series of staggering steps and grasping motions as he sought to try and wrest himself free of the chain’s grip. By now Rangosh was laughing, the sound like thunder echoing in a deep bowl.
‘Bleed me, would you Elf?’ he shouted, screamed, demanded. ‘I am the tyrant of these plains. These are my godtears. And now, I’ll break you.’
As the elf neared, he levelled the sword at his captor, trying to stab the now triumphant Minotaur, trying to force him to drop the chain. Instead, Rangosh grabbed the blade in his enormous fist. Finvarr tugged, desperately, trying to free the blade from the enormous fingers encircling it. Blood spewed down the vast hand but Rangosh just fixed the elf’s eyes with his own as the blade slithered back and forth, sawing at the flesh. With a single movement, an unconscious flexing of titanic muscles, the blade broke in two. Rangosh’s other hand began to wrap the chain’s slack around his foream until the elf’s face was level with the bloody ruin of the minotaur’s chest. Leaning down the beast whispered something into the elf’s ear, and then, with the remnants of his bloody left hand, punched outward.
A moment later, he threw Finvarr’s limp body out of the circle of light and stone and screamed at the sky.
The elves hurried back towards the safety of the glades. They carried their leader on a makeshift stretcher, though even as they ran they could see him heal. The broken bones in his ribs popping themselves into the correct order, reconstituting themselves as broken fragments grated back into place. Godtears did not allow for mortality; they scrubbed it from a body as effectively as a fishwife scrubbed scales from a mackerel. Long before they reached the glades, Finvarr was walking at the head of their number again. He did not speak, did not reassure his followers that he was renewed. He simply moved through the shadows, gathering the light to him and masking himself as they imitated him.
As the welcoming sight of the forest’s treelines spread out before them, one of the elves approached Finvarr. Bowing her head, reverentially, she said:
‘Forgive me sire, but, I feel I must ask. What did the minotaur say to you?’
Finvarr inclined his head, slightly, to the left. He watched her for several moments, as she struggled to hold his gaze. Finally, the Warden of the Glades responded, his voice made strange and distant by the mask he always wore upon his face:
‘He said that we were brothers and that one day, we would make the world tremble together.’
The elf stuttered her next question:
‘And then, little one, he pulled my heart from my chest.’