An Unlikely Alliance
By Ryan Torbert
Palurbol shook his head at Togapol, an obvious attempt at a reprimand. Even the grim gnome's dour look would not hold, however, as Togapol proceeded to make all manner of silly faces at him.
The gnomes prepared their machines for battle, though Togapol was in his usual form, with wise cracks and even pranks that seemed to do naught but slow down the preparations, at least in Palurbol's mind. In reality, Togapol realized that the gnomes worked better when entertained, and they focused when they enjoyed a task. Thus, it was in the best interest of the gnomes, the dwarves, and now the elves to keep the gnomes happy.
Palurbol and Togapol, along with almost a dozen of their brethren, had the weapons ready in mere minutes. Steam whistled through the valves of the undercarriage, brought about by water superheated by the fireatum below. The fireatum, a dwarven concoction of wood, raw materials, and even dried pig feces, burned long and strong as it created the powerful steam that ran the machines.
Large barrels, loaded with bolts half again as long as those of a heavy crossbow, rested on a wheel set to its side to aim at the mouth of the glade. Behind and beside the barrels, gnomes chewed their lips in anticipation as they waited for the enemy to come into view.
"There!" Palurbol pointed as he yelled out, and the gnomes immediately began to take aim. The onrushing force of dwarves and elves charged into the glade from the southern entrance, and the gnomes grinned at the sight of their larger allies alive.
Palurbol's grin was short-lived, however, as the dark force of their pursuers came into view. Behind the dwarves and elves, hundreds of orcs and much larger creatures resembling the orcs ran at a breakneck pace, whooping and hollering at their quarry.
At the front of the dwarven force, Carriag and Rogan ran side by side, the taller dwarf waving his arms to signal his position. Togapol grinned as he looked at Palurbol.
"Guess he thinks we don't see him, eh?"
Palurbol shrugged in response and turned to make sure that the steam weapons were in line with the onrushing force, a dark cloud that promised death.
The gnomes had set up the two wagons corner to corner, splayed out diagonally from the center to create a funnel through which the dwarves and elves could charge. And charge they did, the thundering boots of the heavy dwarves reverberating off the cliff face of the waterfall beyond. The elves, lithe and swift, made no noise save their own shouts of orders as they arrayed themselves at the side of the wagons. The elves set arrows to strings as they knelt in front of the wooden constructs, the shadows of the massive gnomish weapons looming over their heads.
Sorolian stood near Carraig as both commanders shouted orders to their men in their own languages. Sorolian's flowery elven dialect was still firm as it issued forth orders.
"Make your arrows count, proud Ranarim! This dark force invades our home to take our families from our breasts! Make them pay for their very foul nature!"
Next to the elf, Carraig bolstered his own troops, his dwarven language ringing out proud and strong.
"Stand firm, boys! These odds ain't so bad; get your arms ready; these dark ones ain't leaving this here glade!"
Some of the dwarves drew small crossbows and took aim, kneeling side by side with the elves.
As the forces of the Clan of Kain drew up into tight formations with the elves of the Ranarim, the thunder of hundreds of iron-shod boots, formed and cobbled in the dark fortress of Stor-gris, pounded the ground of the dirt path and then the grass of the glade.
Among the dwarves and elves, breath slowed to a deathly calm. Crossbows were set, bows were drawn, and the whistle of the gnomish machines keened above them all. A chill wind bore tidings of the coming bloodshed through the glade, the breeze sent whispers of dark doom as the forces of orcs and mighty Oluks burst into the glade.
Palurbol's small voice miraculously carried through the clearing. The gnome held a hand high to signal his forces to hold their shots.
Palurbol's voice rang out again, breaking the still calm of the lines. Immediately, a sharp whistle sounded, followed by a whoosh of air. At the sound, a large wooden bolt flew from the top of the great barrel of one of the steam weapons, to drive over two hundred feet to thud into the chest of an onrushing orc.
The orc was thrown back by the force of the gnomish weapons, but he was soon joined by another of his fellow orcs as the twin steam crossbow sounded off. Not taking more than a second, the gnomes turned a crank, aligning a second loaded barrel with the firing steam valve. Another whistle sounded, followed by another, and then a crank. With practiced efficiency, the gnomish steam weapons pushed out bolts with devastating effects, felling orcs in pairs.
After a few volleys, the strings of elven longbows hummed, and the click of dwarven crossbows sounded. The air of the glade, once still with peace and nature, now whistled and whined as the weapons of good felled dark folk by the dozens. The rain of death took a massive toll on the mighty horde, cutting their number nearly in half before it neared the wagons. Unfortunately for the goodly folk, that number still doubled their own.
As the orcs and Oluks neared the wagons, they only stopped their advance briefly to hurl javelins at the mighty gnomish engines of war.
Though the gnomes were partly shielded by the steam crossbows, several still were pierced by the dark, barbed weapons. More than one toppled from the wagons, felled by the mighty barrage.
"Draw up yer lines!"
The call came from Carraig, his massive frame standing out as he whirled his axe high overhead.
Rogan thundered forth nearby, his long-handled axe held up with both hands. Boggur and the rest of the dwarves fell in alongside, and the Wawmar dwarf looked at the approaching force in very real awe. "There's just too damn many of them," Boggur thought to himself as he stood by the side of Grimsley. Boggur banished the thought and shook his head grimly, steeling himself against the dark tide.
Beside the young warrior, Grimsley hid his own nearly overwhelming trepidation behind a shield of faith. His hand slipped under the clasp of his steel-linked coif to clutch the hammered tin coin that hung on a chain above his heart. The coin, an heirloom passed to Grimsley upon his affirmation into the priesthood, also focused the will of his patron, the mighty Khuldul Rockcarver.
The priest recited a prayer of his youth, one meant to instill the strength of the great Rockcarver into his allies.
"Mighty father on high, lord of the hearth and force of our forge, Giver of life and blood and bone. If you this dark day see fit, Imbue your children with strength of arm and will; Guide our strikes, so that we may live well...and die better."
His grumbling prayer over, the priest looked up with new eyes, gray orbs, strong and firm with the strength of his patron. His eyes smoldered like the fire of a thousand forges, even as the dark tide thundered on.
The sheer violence of the orc and Oluk force was a fright to witness. Though seeming to be without a firm, single leader, the orcs were driven by the massive crossbreeds among their lines. The Oluks, spurred on by their own fierce nature, needed no such prodding.
Some of the Oluks ran on like pincushions, studded with slender wooden shafts from the onslaught of missiles from the elves and dwarves. The goodly folk looked on in amazement as the massive Oluks fought on, their wounds pouring blood and ichor. Dried leaves and twigs crunched and snapped under several hundred boots as the comparatively massive dark folk thundered through the clearing to meet their stalwart defenders.
As orc and Oluk met dwarf and elf, broadsword clashed with axe, spear met slender sword, and dark barbed pike met heavy square hammer.
The defenders were well led by the crafty old Carraig and he knew how to use the strengths of his kin. The dwarves, low to the ground and bulky, met the charge at the middle of the line, while the elves formed up the outside wings.
Under the force of the orc charge, the dwarves fell back ever so slightly as they defended. The orcs howled in bloodlust as they saw the enemy falter. However, they knew not the cunning of a dwarf borne of generations of battle, for the heavy dwarves had fallen back on purpose, collapsing their line into a horseshoe shape as the orcs plowed into its center.
Carraig grinned as the orcs followed, and their Oluk superiors shouted for them to stop as they realized the ruse. The intentional backpedaling allowed the outside lines, made up mostly of the Balal elves, to flank their enemies. The elves drove forward with stunning speed, their spears darting and finding purchase, their swords stinging and slashing through dark armor.
While the elves pressed their advantage, the dwarves pushed back in, led by Carraig and Rogan. The former chopped through the orcs' light, wooden shields and armor, severing limbs and bellowing orders as he did.
Rogan trudged ahead of his clan leader, a square-jawed nightmare to his dark-skinned assailants. His massive hammer swept back and forth, hurling opponents this way and that. Bones snapped under the impact, and organs burst as the hammer struck home. The orcs faltered before the mighty dwarf, their kin driven back before Rogan's fearsome attack. Behind the warrior, Grimsley stood close, chanting to his patron to bind any wounds that appeared on Rogan.
In no time at all, dozens of orc bodies lay on the blood-soaked soil of the glade. Dwarf met elf as they closed their line like deadly pincers, the orcs caught in between. As one, they turned to face their more cunning and dangerous enemies, the two-score Oluk orcs that hadn't fallen for the ruse.
The Oluks snarled and roared in rage as they watched their lesser brethren be slaughtered at the hands of the elves and dwarves. The massive creatures, the elite of Stor-gris, ran headlong into the mixed force, slashing, hammering, and bashing with ease.
The sheer size and strength of the Oluk orcs forced the first line of Balal elves back. The Balal struggled mightily to keep the Oluks at bay as their brethren with their slender swords worked their weapons in graceful, arcing slashes to slow the dark force's advance.
Karalnaih and Sorolian fought side by side, their weapons working in a perfect union. The Balal female's spiked chain whipped from side to side to keep the Oluks at bay, while Sorolian's curved longsword slashed back and forth to cut wicked gashes in any Oluks that got too close. In between the vicious attacks, Karalnaih jabbed her spear straight out, punching through armor to the sound of guttural grunts of pain and Dark Speech curses.
The elven line continued to fall back under the Oluk advance as the frightful juggernaughts charged on. Though the elves were faster and fought with graceful skill, their strikes merely seemed to spur on the hardy Oluk orcs. The elite warriors of Stor-gris pounded forward, their boots sloshing through a ground wet with the blood of orcs, elves, dwarves, and Oluks alike.
Carraig's hopeful smile slipped away as the tide turned. He cursed with every elf that fell as if they were of his own hearth. With a grim look, his gaze turned up to Rogan. "Well, ma'boy, shore up the lines here, we've gotta' get those elves back to safety."
Rogan immediately set to bringing up the lines, and the gnomes also set to action. The soft clicks of crossbows were followed by the hum of a dozen bolts set expertly from gnomes and dwarves standing atop the wagon behind the force. Though the attackers had to remain aware to not hit their allies, many of their bolts still struck home.
Already loaded crossbows were brought forth, and loaders took back the used ones for reloading as the front line leveled their weapons for another volley. Under the humming bolts, Rogan charged forth, pressing forward to meet the front line of Oluk orcs as the beleaguered elves fell back through the lines. Grimsley stepped to Rogan's side, his much smaller hammer darting in to shatter knees and strike the groins of his monstrous opponents.
On the other side of Rogan, Boggur wiped blood and sweat from his eyes as he frantically set his axe to deflect an Oluk's chopping sword. The blade sunk all of the way into the ground as it whistled by, and Boggur moved to respond. When his axe was set to strike, though, the Oluk had already moved back with uncanny speed. Boggur blew out his damp beard with frustration as he set his axe to defend once again.
Beside him, Rogan struck out, using his hammer much like a spear, and its heavy head crashed into an Oluk's chest. The creature fell back with the power of the blow, then snarled and charged back in for more!
Even the mighty Rogan hadn't expected the sheer strength of the mighty Oluks, and soon enough the dwarves also found themselves hard-pressed to hold their lines against them.
Carraig grimaced again from where he sat atop a wheel of one of the wagons to gain a vantage point over the battle. Beside and behind him, crossbows hummed again, but to little effect as the fight had become closer still as dwarves struggled mightily against opponents nearly twice their size.
As the aging kinsman of Kain watched, the Oluks drove the remaining dwarves and elves all of the way back to the sturdy gnomish wagons that formed a blockade before the cavern in which Carraig's dwarves had been working.
The elder Carraig watched helplessly as his kin, dwarves that he'd spent years and decades alongside, were cut down like so many stalks of wheat. The elves fared no better, and soon enough no more than half a dozen of the dwarves' fair-skinned allies stood alive.
Carraig looked from side to side atop the wagon, and his mouth dropped in surprise. Tears of anguish streaked freely through dried blood and dirt as the sturdy dwarf locked eyes with the wide-eyed, vacant stare of a dead gnome... Palurbol.
"No! Damnit.... stupid, cursed beasts!"
Carraig cried out as he knelt beside the gnome, lifting his head to search his eyes for any life. None was to be found, and Carraig's tears began anew as he thought of those who had followed him without question, only to meet their ultimate demise. Carraig lowered his head as he knelt with Palurbol. His wide body shook with sobs.
The voice brought the elder kinsman back to the realm of the living, where some of his kin still fought for their lives.
"Carraig, we're pressed back against the wagons! We...."
Boggur's voice trailed off as he saw Palurbol's body. The young dwarf sniffed away his own tears at the sight as Carraig held the broken little body. Carraig's visage turned to stone at Boggur's arrival, however, and he stood from the gnome's body to look at the wagon atop which he stood.
Boggur looked on with concern, and even reached out a hand to grasp his leader's shoulder.
"Carraig, you alright?"
The younger dwarf was taken slightly aback at the older dwarf's grin. It seemed more than a little bit out of place on his formerly grief-stricken face.
"Alright, ma' boy....I got a plan."
Grimsley gasped in pain as a sword cut down on his arm, nearly severing it at the elbow. Even though the strike stopped on his bone, the cut was so jagged that the priest immediately knew it would be irreparable. He fell back just in time, as a massive hammer swung by in a horizontal arc, taking the priest's attacker full on in his massive chest.
The Oluk orc stumbled back at the blow, its ribs cracked, and it fell to the ground struggling to draw breath.
Rogan stepped over Grimsley protectively, his hammer whistling through the air with uncanny speed and nearly unearthly power. The mighty dwarven warrior looked down at the priest with a nod, and Grimsley noted that he bled from dozens of wounds over his muscled body.
"This is it, priest. Stand fast and die well; we'll do the Rockcarver proud."
Grimsley nodded firmly at the massive warrior's words, and he struggled to get to his feet. Though no more than a handful of dwarves remained, they would fight to the death, and Grimsley vowed to stand with them in their final battle.
As the priest struggled to his feet, however, his eyes widened in disbelief, for not ten paces away, a large barrel sizzled by, leaving a trail of steam where it made contact with the blood-soaked ground. Grimsley's eyes followed its trail to its source. There, atop one of the wagons, were Boggur and Carraig, readying another barrel to throw. The dwarves suffered horrible burns in spite of the cloths that they used to heft the barrels, which had only moments ago powered the mighty steam crossbows that the gnomes had put into use.
The two dwarves rolled the second barrel down, and it toppled right into the midst of nearly a dozen Oluk orcs. The orcs watched it come and snorted at the weapon's obvious lack of effect. Carraig's voice bellowed above the din.
The bald dwarf looked up to his leader only momentarily to nod in understanding. He switched hands with his main hammer and deftly slipped loose a heavy throwing hammer, taking aim at the barrel. Without a second's hesitation, Rogan hurled the missile, and it spun end over end to thud into the barrel.
The powerful throw split the copper tank, and its pressurized contents immediately spilled out.
The steam seared the skin of the surrounding Oluks, singeing through armor and shield alike. The steam also served to spin the barrel about, creating a whirling weapon of scalding hot destruction among the mighty Oluks.
As the creatures snorted and snarled in pain, Rogan turned to the next barrel. He raised his arm back to throw but was tackled by a massive Oluk, who bore him to the ground. The muscular dwarf managed to cry out as he wrestled with the larger orc.
"Get the second barrel!"
The cry was heard, but no dwarves were in a position to do anything about it... save one. Boggur looked to the barrel in desperation and then grimaced at his own hammer, one not well served for throwing. Shrugging, the dwarf leapt from the wagon and sprinted towards the barrel, passing bewildered Oluk orcs.
Diving forward, Boggur slammed his axe home into the copper barrel and cried out in anguish as the barrel's contents seared his skin. The dwarf stumbled away from the barrel, clutching his face in agony. The barrel, however, did its job, spinning about and searing the skin from any Oluk within range... and there were many.
As Boggur stumbled back, Carraig leapt down from the wagon. The elder kinsman ignored the pains of his burns as he drew his axe yet again and raised it high.
Carraig led the charge, and Soroloian, Karal'naigh and the few remaining elves and dwarves ran alongside. Spear and sword, hammer and axe rained down on the bewildered Oluk orcs, dropping any remaining foes like reeds flattened by rushing water.
The barrels of steam had served to break the Oluk lines, and Carraig's charge served to clear up any of the rest. In mere moments the tide of the battle had again turned, and only the dwarves and elves remained alive.
The pitched battle at the elven glade was to be called "Sorolian's Stand" by the elves...or "The day we saved the elves' butts!" by the dwarves. They were soon to find that their battle was one small one of many fought throughout the vast elven forest that day, and over many days thereafter.
The army of Stor-gris had come in force, and the Ranarim were sorely pressed to drive them back. Only through a will of iron and knowledge of their homelands were the elves able to stem the tide of dark folk that flowed into their forests.
In the elven glade, the few remaining survivors of the battle rested and regrouped among the wagons as the birds of prey began to float overhead, eyeing the carnage below. Karalnaih wrenched her hand back from Grimsley and the priest sighed and shook his head at the stubborn elven woman.
"I can at least bandage it, woman! Your wound will fester if not taken care of."
Karalnaih issued a glare that would brook no argument, and the dwarven priest grumbled as he got to his feet and stumped away. His stump of an arm hung awkwardly at his side and he overcompensated for the missing part by leaning as he stepped away from the fierce elven woman.
"Remind me never to offer that one help again!"
Sorolian, knowing the independent pride of the Balal fighters, turned and smiled at the priest's frustration. The much taller elf put a comforting hand on Grimsley's shoulder as he neared.
"Not for that one, perhaps good priest. But be sure to know that all the rest of our people appreciate your talents in mending wounds. We'd all be lost to infection and lack of blood if not for your arts!"
Grimsley grunted, satisfied with the notice, and turned to Boggur. The priest's heart skipped a beat whenever he looked at his friend, who now wore a blood-soaked rag over the area where half of his face had been scalded away. Grimsley had done all that he could, but, much like the priest's own arm, some wounds just could not be healed with the power he possessed. The fire had left Boggur one good eye, Grimsley was happy to see, and the young dwarf watched the scene below with interest.
The injured remnants of the Ranarim scouts and the Clan of Kain contingent waited and watched the cavern below, into which Carraig and Rogan had delved more than an hour ago. Though none would admit it, many in the clearing feared that something had happened to their mighty leader and his stalwart companion.
Though still none would admit it, a collective breath was finally let out as the curses and bellows of the hearty Carraig could be heard from the depths. Seconds later, a torch came into view, and soon enough, the two dwarves stepped out of the cavern.
"Damn rats and such... all over the place! And streams runnin' this way and that under the ground; it's impossible to tell which way is which."
He beamed a grin from ear to ear.
"It's a good thing we don't have to go back down there, then."
Carraig held up a meaty fist that was clutched about a long bronze scroll tube. The tube was etched from end to end with symbols and scenes, and stoppers filled each side, keeping the tube's contents safe.
Sorolian merely shook his head, not understanding.
"That's what you came here for? I knew not of its existence here...how you knew of it may be a story for another time. For now... what is it?"
Carraig grinned again as Boggur reached down to help him and Rogan climb up the steep decline.
"This, my pointy-eared friend... is the key to the fall of Stor-gris."