An Unlikely Alliance
By Ryan Torbert
Rogan proved to be true to his word, and the bodies of the two fallen soldiers of Wawmar were laid to rest on the outskirts of the camp.
Though proper rites were followed and Khuldul's blessing administered by Grimsley, Boggur couldn't help the feeling of anxiety that gnawed at his stomach. He couldn't help but to feel responsible for the deaths of the two dwarves. Worse yet, he knew that he wouldn't be able to return the bodies to their families in Wawmar.
Boggur had known all of the soldiers in his charge from when they were no more than adolescents in the tight-knit community of Wawmar. They had grown up together, and Boggur now longed for those times of innocent youth; instead he looked down on the still poses of two of his friends, friends that promised they would, and ultimately did, lay down their lives for Boggur.
The young soldier wiped moisture away from his brown eyes as he watched the final burial. He chewed lightly on a strand of his red beard as his fellows turned away from the scene.
Once again, Rogan's hand clamped down on Boggur's shoulder, and the taller dwarf turned the young soldier from the scene. Boggur likened Rogan's heavy hand to the weight of his friends' deaths, as they, too, crashed down on his shoulders.
Boggur gave the larger dwarf a thankful nod as he and Rogan followed the other dwarves of Wawmar into their new temporary home.
"Let's get you boys something to eat."
The massive encampment of the Clan of Kain did, indeed, have some of the finest ale and food that Boggur had ever tasted. The freshly killed game, with boiled roots and tubers and a dark ale, proved to be the staple of the dwarves' diet. Boggur, Grimsley, and the others took to it in no time.
Boggur marveled at the tremendous fare that the Clan had achieved, considering that they never really had a permanent home.
In all walks of life in the camp the Wawmar soldiers felt right at home, even though their environment was now completely different. They found that craft tents were set up throughout the camp for brewers, butchers, blacksmiths, fletchers, wood craftsmen, and many others.
The camp was very well regimented with several different companies of hunters and cooks that provided food for much of the Clan. Boggur, thinking the Clan to be a warlike band of dwarves, found himself to be quite wrong. The camps held just as many female dwarves as males, and was set up much like a small city, albeit a wandering one.
The females of the camp tended to house, home, and garden through the camp, as the males were soldiers, hunters, and craftsmen.
The gardens of the camp consisted of massive wooden wagons with several feet of dark soil. Rows of potatoes, turnips, carrots, and squash dotted the wagons, and were unloaded and planted when the Clan got to their newest site. Typically the Clan tried to stay close to the clear waters of the Loghrain river for the use of its now icy waters.
Even in the immensity of it all, Boggur and his fellow soldiers found their place nicely over the days and weeks of their stay. Grimsley found a church of like beliefs at which to speak his prayers. Formgin apprenticed with an ironsmith, hammering his days away. Davin had even caught the eye of a young dwarven lass whose whiskers weren't even long enough to scratch his chin when he kissed her.
Though the soldiers became happy, or at least satisfied with their stay, they all still held to the hope that someday soon they'd make their way home.
As the first snows began to fall, though, their hopes grew dim.
At the beginning of winter, more than a month after the Wawmar dwarves were taken into the camp, the Clan of Kain began to stir. Nearly half a dozen scouting and hunting groups had returned to camp, increasing the already massive number of dwarves within the camp.
As each returned though, no others were dispatched. It was as if Carraig drew his forces in to prepare for a move, or something else.
Boggur was in no way surprised when Rogan called him forth to a meeting in the elder Kain's tent. The night was white with snow, though only a thin dusting lay on the still temperate ground. Boggur huddled under his cloak as he made his way through the quiet camp to the main tent of Carraig.
Arriving, the young soldier was guided by flickering light shining forth from the tent. The sound of many voices was soon to follow, and Boggur found his way inside the opening.
This was no meager feat, as the tent was filled to bursting with dwarves and several gnomes. Rogan stood a full head taller than any within the tent's confines, and Carraig, who stood by his side, was half again as wide.
Carraig didn't even miss a beat as he nodded in greeting to Boggur. The elder Kain seemed to be in the middle of a very agitated conversation. He pumped his fist in the air and cast about stern looks of conviction.
"That's why we go now; this is our only chance! We can end this once and for all, but if we wait, we could be drifted in under feet of snow. You all remember what the winters are like up here; now's the time!"
Carraig pointed an accusatory finger at the gnomes.
"Palurbol, you know as well as I do what these passes will look like in a few weeks. Even if we do get out, what we're looking for might be buried under the white stuff."
The gnome acquiesced and acknowledged the point with a slight inclination of his strangely-shaped head. Carraig obviously took the nod as a request for him to continue.
"This could spell the end of our fellows' dying at the head of the Stor-gris war machine! It could mean avenging your family, Palurbol."
Another dwarf in the crowd grumbled and bellowed back at Carraig.
"Bah, it's just an old grandpa's tale, Carraig. You're a fool to believe it."
Rogan shot the dwarf an angry stare, but Carraig patted the massive dwarf on the shoulder in an effort to calm him. The elder Kain looked to the dwarf that had spoken out.
"It's a story told to me by my pa, and his pa before him, in that you're right. I'm believing that there's truth to it, and I'm willing to take the chance to find out. If it isn't true, well then we're back where we started. If it is, then that'd mean that we could finally be out of the shadow cast by those deep darkies in the south. It'd mean peace! It'd mean freedom and that we wouldn't have to send an armed guard to take our women to the river. I know that one thing's for certain: the meaning of the poem isn't a lie. And, you should know as well. Think about it!"
The dwarf that had spoken up, firm in his opposition, merely threw up his hands and stalked away. Carraig shrugged at his departure and looked about at the assembled dozen or so figures.
"Well, I'm going. We leave in two days' time, with several of our finest, and our gnome friends here."
He looked at Boggur, suddenly grinning again.
"What do you say, Boggur Tidlesmith? You speak for Wawmar here; is the fall of the dark folk strength in the Hinterlands not worth a little trip into deeper woods?"
Boggur flushed as all eyes turned to him. He gulped down a lump in his throat but nodded at Rogan's reassuring smile.
"It is indeed; and Wawmar's dwarves are with you."
Boggur started at his own voice, as if wondering where he had gotten the conviction that rang out with his words.
The grins on the faces of the dwarves and gnomes in the tent bolstered Boggur's confidence, and he grinned in turn.
He just wished that he knew what the hell they were looking for.
As Carraig had promised, a contingent of over two dozen battle-ready dwarves left the camp of the Clan of Kain within two days of the meeting.
Palurbol's gnomes followed close behind, leading two large wooden wagons pulled by mules. The wagons' cargo was covered with thick blankets, leaving Boggur to guess at the goods underneath.
The gnomes carried small picks, hammers, and slings, but were lightly armored in comparison with the dwarves.
After Boggur had explained his decision to his fellows from Wawmar, many voiced their disagreement, especially young Davin. The soldiers were loath to lose their leader and anchor in this place that was still foreign to them. Though many, like Davin, had developed lives of their own in the camp, they all still felt that Boggur was the one that kept them together.
At first, all of the soldiers demanded that they go with Boggur. It took a full day of arguing his point to drop that number to one: Grimsley.
The priest insisted that he stay with Boggur and represent the Wawmar church of Khuldul Rockcarver as they marched alongside the Clan of Kain.
The pair of Wawmar dwarves cantered along atop their ponies beside Rogan and Carraig, the latter having donned a shirt of hammered steel rings over top of his light hide shirt. A broad, double-bladed axe was strapped at an angle to the elder Kain's back, its handle jutting out just above his right shoulder.
The force, though small, moved slowly as the wagons rolled to keep pace. Boggur asked Rogan during the trip what was on the wagons, but the larger dwarf deflected the questions with a smile and gave a very cryptic answer.
"Let's hope that we don't have to find out."
Boggur simply nodded, though he wasn't in any way satisfied by the answer. Grimsley, however, wasn't timid about expressing his opinion.
"You've got to at least tell us where we're bound. An excursion is an excursion, but we need be prepared."
Boggur nodded with the priest, knowing full well how the young dwarf felt.
Grimsley's grandfather had died during the siege of Wawmar by the forces of Stor-gris, so he was right to want to be prepared.
Rogan nodded as well, and shrugged.
"You're right, of course. See, this all goes back to the last major run-in that we had with the dark forces of the south. Not long ago, the Clan had to take flight from a massive force that came out of the dark fortress of Stor-gris. Their numbers were just too great, though they were mostly just simple dark folk."
Rogan spat out the word with distaste. Carraig, at his side, muttered an oath as his friend continued.
"We sought refuge in the massive forest stronghold of the elves, a place they call Lutanium. Well, they turned us back, and we've been moving ever since. While we were there, though, we found proof of a document that we'd been searching for for some time. With the lore that our ancestors instilled in us, this document could contain the details of what can destroy the nearly impenetrable fortress of Stor-gris."
The bald dwarf looked at Boggur and Grimsley, his eyes wide with excitement.
"We're bound to get that document."
Carraig grunted and nodded in agreement. He pulled on his reigns, and his pony stepped slightly closer to the trio of dwarves. He looked far ahead as he spoke, as if he could even see what was about to happen.
"See boys, the elves are under attack by Stor-gris. The dark folk have ushered forth from their stone fortress and have come after us and the elves both. The Ranarim elves have been pushed back into their forest homes and won't even notice us traipsing right through their territory."
Grimsley was slightly taken aback by the clan leader.
"You're not for helping the elves, then?"
"Pah! Why would I? Cursed elves didn't give a damn about us when we needed refuge. And you shouldn't care either; why, do you not remember how the elves for years did not help your people during the great siege? We're not for wasting our good dwarves to save their pale hides!"
Grimsley just shook his head, as if saddened by the Clan leader's distaste for the fair race. While the dwarves of Wawmar had indeed defended their dwarfhold against the forces of Stor-gris while the elves bickered, it was the elves who finally came to their aid. Were it not for them, Wawmar might not be the powerful hold that it was today, after rebuilding for decades.
Carraig, not a simple dwarf by any means, noticed the silence of the Wawmar dwarves, and his eyes softened.
"Don't get me wrong boys, they have their worth. But the elves have their own customs and cares; they don't mind for our ways. Trust me, they want our help even less than we want to give it."
Boggur nodded, though he was hardly satisfied, especially when he looked to Grimsley. The priest was wise beyond his years and cared for all races, not just dwarves. He looked saddened by Carraig's attitude.
Carraig let the argument go and guided his pony aside to continue the trek. The group headed south and west, following a worn path, though not one that looked to be designed. The grasses and underbrush seemed merely to be matted down by the thundering boots of many feet, making a bumpy road for the wagons. The gnomes cared little, joking and bantering with their dwarven allies all the while.
Boggur thought that they were an odd bunch, with their jovial, almost childlike cheer. All save Palurbol were actively telling bawdy jokes, or poking mild fun at their more robust allies. The gnomish leader, meanwhile, looked on with a level stare, not sharing the joy of his fellows.
Once, nearly a day and a half into the trek, Boggur chanced a conversation with the brooding gnome. He sauntered up to the smaller figure as the others prepared cook fires and tents for the night's repast.
"Hello there, mister Palurbol. I hope the journey's treating you well."
The gnome looked up from where he had just tethered his pony and gave Boggur a look of confusion. He took time to respond and, when he did, it was in a broken form of Khazdun, or dwarven. Boggur immediately noted that it was his second language.
"Greetings, Khazak. The journey does nothing to me; I undertake it. And, I'll be well when we are done with this."
Boggur was uncertain if the gnome seemed standoffish due to his accent, or if it was just his nature. Shrugging, Boggur tried another tact.
"So, those wagons are some charge. You and your fellows have quite the responsibility, what with what's under those blankets."
Palurbol's brows furrowed in anger as the gray-haired gnome put his hands on his hips.
"I assure you, Khazak, we have no problem with wagons. Keep to your charge, Wawmar-one, and leave us to ours."
Boggur waved his hands in an attempt to stop the gnome, but Palurbol had already turned and stalked away in anger. Poor Boggur was left to merely shake his head in wonder. He scratched his chin as he tried to figure what he had said to anger the gnome.
The very next day, Boggur asked Rogan for some insight into the gnome's reaction. "Well...you've got to understand what Palurbol's gone through. The elder gnome spent much of his life fighting against the trolls in the low hills. He's lost a son and a daughter to that generations-old war. Then, just when he thinks that things can't get worse, a force from Stor-gris comes through and burns his whole village to the ground. Palurbol there was the only one to make it out of that village alive. We found him soon after. He was wandering, just talking nonsense and wandering. Carraig almost had to beat him with the flat of his axe to get a reaction out of him. Since then, Palurbol has been devoted to our cause: the fall of the western darkies."
Boggur nodded and glanced over at the gnome as Rogan continued.
"Palurbol brought in all of the gnomes that are with us today, and they're worth their weight in silver, trust me. Little fellows know how to work dwarven weapons of old, technology long lost in Wawmar, and they've developed them into something new and powerful. Not to mention the fact that they raise the cheer around here."
Rogan smiled as he followed Boggur's gaze. The Wawmar dwarf nodded at Rogan as he turned from the gnomes. Though intrigued by the little folk, he vowed not to bother Palurbol again unless he needed to.
After nearly five days of travel with no real contact, the group rode into deep woods, and the path grew rough. The gnomes bickered constantly about the wheels of the wagons, though they seemed to be built for quite rocky terrain.
Carraig, at the lead of the troupe, found himself at odds with his own memory more than once. Rogan's memory proved to be clearer, and the tall warrior guided his leader along the winding paths of the dense forest. Several Ts, Ys, and curves in the path marked their journey as the group of dwarves and gnomes guided their wagon among the trees. More than one member of the group claimed to have spotted figures dashing through the shadows or leaping from bough to bough in the trees as they traveled.
Boggur just considered it to be nerves, that is, until he saw something out of the corner of his eye. A figure, long of limb and pale as the harvest moon, stared back at him with a finger to his lips. The figure was gone just as soon as the dwarf had seen him, and he left Boggur wondering if it had simply been his imagination. In any event, the Wawmar soldier held his hammer across his thighs for the rest of his travel through the forest, and his eyes darted about in search of the strange figure. The minutes turned into hours, and the dwarves and gnomes broke north by the sun, following Rogan's lead and Carraig's prompting. The troupe broke into a wide clearing just after midday. The line of trees on either side of the path widened and spread out around a wide glade. Sun shone down through the leafy canopy above, and the center of the glade was fully illuminated by the direct light of the warming orb above.
Though the air bore a chill, the sun brought a good deal of heat to the center of the glade. To the north, at the furthest end of the glade, a massive cliff rose above the line of trees, stretching several hundred feet into the sunlit sky. A narrow stream of clear water cascaded down the cliff's surface to thunder into the wide and shallow pool below.
After casting an appraising look about the clearing, Carraig nodded with grim approval. He looked at Boggur with a wink.
"This is the place."
The elder clansman turned from the site of the clear waterfall, to look at his clan fellows, the Wawmar dwarves, and the gnomes.
"Alright then, boys, bring the wagons about, and let's get to work!"
The Clan of Kain set to work with fervor, more than willing to work doggedly on a task until it was complete, as dwarves always did. The gnomish wagons were pulled into the clearing and unhitched at the northern end, just to the south of the large, clear pool. The wheels were locked by the gnomes with wooden wedges, and the ponies were tied off to graze not far away. Watches were set about the area, and the dwarves dug themselves in for a lengthy stay.
Not far from the clearing, in a copse of tall trees that filtered light from the moon above, a golden-haired elf furrowed his thin eyebrows in frustration. He tapped a slender finger against his fair-skinned chin as he looked at his fellow elf, a brown-haired elven woman.
The female elf was a member of what was called the Balal order of the Ranarim. The Balal fighters were fierce warriors who took to life away from the main home of the Ranarim. They were typified by their savagery and their penchant for fighting with multiple, exotic weapons. This young Balal fighter boasted a wickedly barbed shortspear and a spiked chain with points that jutted out every several inches. The female met the male's glare with one of her own as he pondered. Being a scout captain among the Ranarim, the male, Sorolian, had sent out his fellows to follow the odd dwarven and gnomish contingent that had shown up in the woods.
Now the female warrior, Karalnaih, had returned with news that not only were the smaller humanoids traipsing through the elves' territory, but they had set up camp! Sorolian nodded as he apparently came to a conclusion.
"Very well. I've not the faintest idea why the Nowgul are here, let alone why they plan to stay. But, these look to be from the wandering clan; I'd not risk the ire of their fellows if the Nowgul don't plan to be here long."
The female warrior shifted slightly, showing how she felt about the situation. Sorolian immediately noticed the tense grip with which she held her spear.
"We'll watch, and only watch for now. We must find out why they are here. With the dark folk forces pressing to our south, we cannot risk taking on a new enemy to the north. Who knows, perhaps the Nowgul are merely lost."
Karalnaih grimaced but heeded the words of her captain. With a nod, she turned and set out along the tree line again, shadowing the trail that the dwarves and gnomes had taken not an hour before.
Sorolian sighed as he watched the elven woman's lithe body pass through the woods with barely a sound. He knew her frustration, for everything that the scouts had reported pointed to the fact that the dwarves knew exactly where they were headed, and weren't soon to leave.