CHAPTER ONE

LESS THAN A DEMIGOD

I

Not today.

He could remember looking up in places like this and seeing-

duck the arrow

-seeing the natural orange stone walls around him, silent and unthreatening. The little plant life there was struggling peacefully, content with whatever water its roots mined from the ground, daring to try to survive-

survive! and duck the arrow

The scaly or feathery creatures scampering away, utilizing shadows behind rocks. But not today. The plants always put forth some miraculous growth to be seen and admired and wondered at, and the little animals taking flight or scuttling into holes always came back: attentive, but not fearful.

come back! attention! fear!

But not today. Today the rocks, instead of tuning out and sitting as part of the Earth, screamed warnings of what was around the corner. Today the birds did not come back, knowing what was in store for them. Today the flowers-

duck the arrow!

-existed in a stalemate. Not dying, but not growing.

Today the sky was brighter and more intense; the clouds projected themselves like flags.

It was a battle chant. The Earth sensed a war, and was afraid. It answered-

duck the arrow!

-and he heard.

Sinraed dodged it and dove away from the danger staring him down. He leaned against a rock and looked up at the wooden gatehouse of the fortress-the fortress which had just become his enemy's.

He watched his troops-his meek sixteen-scamper to either side of the trail. Many of them stepped away from his position: they took the escape route.

Sinraed, on the other hand, was trapped. Trapped between the Orks who would kill him at first sight and the door which had just been shut in his face. Should I try it? Was this their plan all along-to get us wedged in here just to kill us?

No-that wouldn't have made any sense. The Orks had plenty of chances to kill us seventeen Elves before, and the Orks, timewise, are desperate. They would have killed us hours ago.

Still, he hesitated to knock on the gate. Perhaps only some of the Orks had planned for this-they would only need the gatekeeper to be in on it.

He tried the gate anyway. Three booming knocks, and immediately one of the hinged loophole covers swung open and up. A guard stuck his head out. He took a split second to perceive this Elf at the door, then sent a crossbow bolt in Sinraed's direction. It plummeted to the dirt, narrowly missing the Elf's foot.

"That was a warning shot." A malicious grin spread across the guard's face. "Now go get killed." Then he turned, keeping the loophole cover open, and yelled, "Attack! Battlements, everyone!"

There were four others in the hollow by the gatehouse with Sinraed. Soon, very soon, the Orks would close in from all directions; the four waited, staring intently at their superior. "Captain?"

In a second, Sinraed realized he had one choice. He drew his sword in a flash and signaled for them to follow. Taking what could be his last breath-the breath before the plunge-he tore away across the path.