Sword of the Ironskin
He could smell them on the wind. Two ogres, a male and female. Not the dozens reported by the villagers, but enough to ignite the fire in his blood.
The Urge rose from his stomach and settled in his mouth with the taste of metal. His empty sword-hand clenched in reflex.
Dismounting his horse, he entered the shattered terrain on foot, following the stony contours of the land toward the source of the scent. Soon he found more signs. A four-toed footprint, a shed bristle. They were near.
As he moved deeper into the wilderness, a familiar pang of bloodlust stabbed his gut. He knew the event grew near. Release would soon be upon him. His heart beat against his rib cage and his breath came heavy. The Urge smoldered through his veins.
It had not always been like this.
Long ago, he had been born a man; a mortal with the same hopes and dreams of any mortal. But the wizards had changed all that.
When famine drove the ogres from the south, the wizards conscripted Mankind to defend their lands. Plucking a handful of humans from the trembling masses, the wizards altered them to fit their needs. They charged their bodies with magic invulnerability, so that weapons of steel shattered against their flesh. They heightened their senses and removed the burdens of hunger and thirst. But the greatest change was to their souls. With a final stroke, the wizards placed a craving in the hearts of the Ironskins.
The desire to spill ogre blood. A compulsion to kill.
The wind shifted and their scent grew strong. His teeth clinched in artificial rage. They were only a few miles to the south. He would be on them by dawn.
He stayed to the shadows of the cliff walls and opened his senses to the night. The darkness hid nothing from his eyes.
In the beginning, the compulsion had been beneficial. The Ironskins had raged into battle without fear, only wanting to feel their swords pass through ogre flesh. But as the numbers dwindled, the desire found release less frequently. Soon, the ogres scattered, the wars sputtered to an end, and a wounded peace settled upon the world.
But the Ironskins continued.
A cold nausea filled his body. The division within him seethed, and he wanted to turn and run, to vanish into the night, but the hunger was too great. He kept moving.
For him, the struggle against the killing urge began years ago.
He had been hunting a clan of ogres who were raiding river traders in the Northeast. On a winter night, with a silent cascade of snow falling from the black sky, he had found the clan camped beneath a stone bridge. There were three families. They fought fiercely, but without effect. A few wide swings of his blade harvested them like wheat. Finished with his task, he had started to leave when something caught his attention. Lying in the red snow, among the scattered piles of severed limbs, was a doll.
An ogre child’s doll.
He had turned and left, but the memory of the doll lying in the blood-soaked snow followed him. Until then, he hadn’t known they made toys for their children.
Hugging the mountain wall, he silently closed the distance between himself and the two ogres. His mind gained the focus of a predator.
Sometimes during these final moments, he would think about the others –his brothers and sisters who also roamed the earth. Enash, Erquad, Eldur, Elon. He thought about each of them in different ways, but mainly he wondered how they met the empty stretches of hunger between the killings. Did they suffer as he did, or had they found a way to escape the compulsion?
The orange rays of dawn speared through the narrow stone canyon, and a morning dew dampened the ground. The air felt heavy with their presence. He was on them.
A trace of smoke –movement beyond a mound of tumbled boulders –the scuff of a footstep.
The slaughter was on. He leaped over the boulders and saw them: An ogress and a young ogre. The female sat upon a block of stone, while the youth, covered in blankets stolen from the village, lied motionless beside a small fire, weakened by either wound or sickness.
When she saw him, the ogress jumped to her feet, wide-eyed and terrified. She was small for one of her kind, standing not quite seven feet. Finger-thick, red bristles covered her head, neck and shoulders. Her lower jaw jutted forward revealing two tusk-like fangs. Slabs of hard muscle sculpted her limbs.
His sword came from its sheath –a solid black blade bearing elaborate serration to its edge. The sword of an Ironskin. He approached the ogres with cautious steps; slowly, like a cat closing on a bird. He did not need to be so wary, but when the Urge took hold, that was how it was.
She raised her open hand and spoke in a growling human dialect.
“Wait, Ironskin! Do not kill us! Think of what you are doing.”
He faltered. Of the thousands of ogres he had slain, none had addressed him in human language. His surprise made the Urge stutter. Blood hammered in his ears. His hands tightened around the grip of his sword. He thought of the families under the bridge. Could they talk? He took another step forward.
The ogress spoke again. “Elon begs you, put down your sword.”
Elon. He remembered that name better than he remembered his own. Elon, first among the Ironskins, Mightiest of the Mighty, his Warrior-Queen. Her name reverberated through his memory like a great bell ringing in a starless night.
Several moments passed and he did not move, he did not descend upon them, he did not slay them. The Urge rose like a cresting wave, crushing in on him from all directions, compelling him. Then it crashed against the bulwark of his will. A strange calm flooded over him. His breathing gained a strong, even rhythm, and the hatred that bound his chest and burned his throat, for the first time he could remember, vanished. The killing urge had been stifled.
“Where…,” his voice cracked. “Where did you hear that name?”
The ogress sighed and relaxed visibly, her arms falling to her sides.
“I knew her,” she said.
The words came to him like gibberish. It made no sense for an ogress to be speaking to him in human tongue. It made no sense for her to invoke the name of Elon. But for her to have known Elon –to even have survived an encounter with her – was ludicrous. No living ogre could make such a claim.
“Yes, I knew her,” the ogress repeated, seeing his disbelief. “She traveled with us for many years.”
“Impossible,” he whispered.
The ogress shook her head. “No, Ironskin. It is the truth.”
The tale was absurd. Yet, a strange hope sprang into his heart. Had Elon
shattered the wizard’s spell? Had she pulled free?
“She broke the spell?” He asked, lowering his sword. Although he was still ready to split the ogress in half, he was in control of the impulse. He had mastered it for the moment. It was a triumph he had never before experienced and he relished it.
“Yes, Ironskin. She broke her chains,” the ogress said. “She defeated her desire to kill.”
He suddenly felt as if he were on the edge of a great discovery. The key to his prison was about to be handed to him by his enemy.
“The same way you do now,” she answered. “By denying it. By using your will to fight it.”
The ring of truth was in her words, but he wanted more than that.
“Surely she had some talisman or enchantment to aid her,” he said. “No,” the ogress shook her head. “She had only her will.”
His muscles became rigid. He did not like her answer. It meant there was no secret release, no counter spell to pry the want from his soul. It was just him versus the hunger, his will against the overwhelming desire to kill. It meant there was no escape.
Yet even as despair filled his heart, he stood before two of his enemies and did not kill them. He wanted to, but he knew the want was false. He could see it in the distance, separate from himself, a grotesque caricature of hate.
He forced himself to sheath his sword. The Urge slipped another notch.
The young ogre moaned. The ogress turned and knelt beside him. From experience, he knew the child was in the receding stages of the plague. Judging by his color, he would probably be ready to travel in a few days.
He stood across from their small fire, feet rooted to the ground, shoulders collapsed. The compulsion flowed around him like water over a stone.
The few moments of denial he had mustered pushed him beyond his limits. And
Elon had supposedly lived among them? “Where is she now?”
The ogress placed a moist rag over the youth’s forehead. He released another moan and mumbled something in ogre tongue. Without looking up, she answered him.
Another impossibility? Or had he known it all along? The Ironskin closed his eyes and breathed.
“Tell me all,” he said.
The ogress moved to the other side of the flame and sat down.
“We were trapped far to the north, trying to make our way back to our homeland,” she began. “Many human warriors pursued us, but gave up when we crossed their borders. Only one continued. We knew what she was –we knew we could not stop her. But she never attacked. She just followed us. One day, she walked into our camp. I remember thinking how small she seemed for one so mighty. She told us that we should not fear her, she would kill no more ogres. We had little choice but to believe her.”
The ogress dipped the rag in a bucket and dabbed the child’s forehead. She was
deep within her memories, barely noticing the Ironskin.
“For the next five years she was our guide and protector. She taught us many things about humans, including their language. At first, she tried to lead us south, to our homeland, back to our dens where we belonged. But things did not happen that way.”
The morning light warmed the mountain walls around them, and in the distance a desert bird sang a greeting to the sun.
He had control. He could look upon the ogress without gnashing his teeth, without wanting to butcher her. She no longer seemed like a monster to him.
“What happened?” he asked her.
She lifted her eyes from the dying flame.
“We encountered another Ironskin.”
He saw the scenario unfold like the petals of a steel flower. An image appeared upon the landscape of his mind. Two unstoppable forces, colliding.
“Which one?” he asked.
“A man named Erquad.”
Erquad, the Blood Bather. A zealot among zealots. Even in the early years, Erquad’s taste for the killing had made his presence unpleasant. Of all the Ironskins, he was the only one to celebrate the obsession. Their battle must have been magnificent.
“He killed her?”
“No,” the ogress said. “Elon would not let him near the clan. At first she tried to reason with him. She wanted him to feel the way she did. She even begged him. But he would not stop. They warred for many days. In the end, Elon took his head.”
“An Ironskin killed by a blade? Never!” he protested. “We cannot be harmed by force. No weapon of steel can loosen our heads.”
“Your blades are not made of steel, Ironskin,” the ogress noted.
It was true. The swords of the Ironskin were forged from a substance not of the Earth, an enchanted material far denser than steel, but lighter than the wind.
“If Erquad did not kill her, then how did she die?”
She looked at him with confusion. “Do you not know? Have you not already guessed?” She stood and turned her back to him. “Once she realized….about the sword. She fell upon her own blade.”
The fire crackled and died leaving a small mound of glowing coals.
So that was the key to his escape. Death by his own hand. Death by the blade that had butchered thousands. The wizards must have designed it that way. An Ironskin could be killed only by another Ironskin –or by their own blade.
“Do not mourn for Elon, Ironskin,” the ogress said, misinterpreting the cast of his features. “She was elated after discovering the path to her death. She could not wait to free herself from the spell. We all knew the torture she had suffered. She had shared her thoughts with us often.”
He could say nothing. He kept thinking of what Elon had endured, hour after hour, living among the creatures she was driven to kill. Her strategy was plain and brilliant. She knew her will was stronger than the Urge. She had hoped to overwhelm it, to suffocate it with constant denial. Eventually, it would gnaw itself to pieces and she would be free.
In a way, her plan had worked.
The ogress continued. “When she died, her body dissolved into dust, as did her black sword. The wind took them away as if they had never been.”
He digested the image. Somewhere in the cold depths of his awareness, he had already known all of this. The spell which made the Ironskins also joined them. Somehow he knew every word she spoke was true.
“What happened to the rest of your clan?” He asked.
She looked over at the youth.
A hollow wind blew through the canyon. He was going to walk away. He was going to let them go. He had the power. They would live.
“Be gone from here within three days,” he said. “If I leave now, I believe I can
control myself for that long. If not, the distance will give you time to escape. I cannot
follow you beyond the border. You will be safe in your own land by then.”
The ogress nodded slowly. Her tale had summoned painful memories.
“I had hoped you to be as strong as Elon,” she said. “And you are.”
He was going to bid her farewell and wish her luck, but the young ogre interrupted him. Through his feverish dreams, the boy had heard them talking and awakened.
Unnoticed, he had grabbed a stolen axe from beside the fire.
A pathetic war cry boiled from his sick ogre throat and with the axe raised above his head, he charged.
The Ironskin could have side-stepped the attack. He could have disarmed the child with a wave of his hand. For that matter, he could have let him shatter the crude axe against his invulnerable flesh.
But he did not.
The sight of an enraged ogre, fangs bared, yellow eyes blazing, was more than he could fend. In a crashing deluge, he became the Urge. He became the killing. His sword appeared. It cut through the morning air and passed through the boy. It rose and fell again, gashing the stunned ogress from shoulder to hip. The violence of the blow flung her backwards into the boulders.
Satisfied, the compulsion withdrew, leaving him alone in the aftermath. He looked around, barely aware of what he had done. The boy was dead, but the ogress still drew breath. He knelt beside her and lifted her in his arms. He realized that he had never before touched an ogre with his bare hands.
She looked up at him, her breath shallow, the coldness of the end filling her opened body. She raised a knobby hand to his cheek.
“Don’t cry, Ironskin,” she said.
After a time, he buried them beneath a mound of stones and returned to his horse. He headed north, but he had no destination. For in the quiet part of his soul, in the place where secrets lay sleeping, he knew that the ogres were no more. Now, there was only him.
Him, and his sword.