The Die is Cast
By Gerry Torbert
...A Night of Reflection in Anaria...
The fire crackled as much as it roared; the thick fir branches retained a lot of moisture this time of year, but there were very few trees of a deciduous nature in the northern lands, so you burn what you find. And you may find an occasional cone, bird's nest or lump of snow in the pile of branches, further adding to the excitement. Still, the fire roared with whatever voice it could muster. Not satisfied with the decibel level or with the intensity of the radiant heat, an older man rose from a lath chair and walked slowly toward the huge stone fireplace, seemingly reaching to feel the pile of fir with his feet.
He found the pile and bent forward to pick up a hefty clump of twigs and needles; with a deftness belying his blindness, he tossed the pile exactly where it would do the most good and returned to the chair, nodding with satisfaction.
"Never know how you do that, Torgarr. If I closed my eyes, I'd be on fire in no time."
The old man smiled as he reached for the mug of mead, right where he left it. "You don't know what you can do until you have to do it, Yngvarr. You'd make a damn good blind man; thing is, you'll never be blind. Fire wouldn't bother you much, either."
The Father of the Hafvarrar clan smiled. "Yes, I guess I miss a lot of the pleasantries of life: pain, suffering, disfigurement, the like. I'll get by, old friend."
Torgarr nodded; he didn't mention the comment about disfigurement, nor did he feel slighted. He well knew that if the giant Anarian hadn't stepped in on that battlefield and saved him from a final orc thrust, he would have been more than blind. If he had only known that the arrow he took in his good eye wouldn't have hurt Yngvarr, he wouldn't have stepped in its way; but such are the ways of war.
"I guess that gives you the right to try to kill yourself for the good of your people, Clan Father." "Not the right, Torgarr--the responsibility to do so. I know Norville is a long way from our home, but it's just a stepping stone for the dark ones. They have to be stopped. Kelerak is but a fledgling nation, only a hundred seventy or so years old, so they can't be expected to help." "True, but they still have to skirt Creagland. Don't you think they..."
"No. Not now, not anymore. The Creags are as splintered as they ever were. Ever since he disappeared; without a trace, so they say. The Stuarts can't fight them all; the Caembuehls and Donalds can't keep their swords off each other, the Duffs and Tavishes are too far away to care, the Lewises have their own problems with the Sarumvest. Darmon could rally them all, if only he still cared...or lived."
Both men took another quaff of mead; a wrinkled brow gave Torgarr the floor. "I know he still lives; I can feel it. You told me once before about his losing his head, and it didn't matter." "Yeah, I know it too. Somehow, our lives were intertwined, like the elk and deer, the wolf and eagle. My guess is that he couldn't bear the pain of the loneliness our affliction causes. I think you have to go through one complete cycle of losing your family to Death before it hits you and hardens you."
"Hmm...interesting theory. It seems as though you've been through two, at least. Not that any particular one was any easier than the other; love is forever, and once stricken, it can be hard to accept that you can love another just as much." "Or just as much as the first one, Torgarr. Jonat was his first, and with all he had to go through to save his people, it must have been too much for him. I can't blame him for anything he feels or does, now; not after all he's done. I sometimes wonder if I've done all I can, myself."
"I'd never second-guess your life, if I was you, Yngvarr. You can't take on the world. You've united the tribes, despite our differences. You've spread the word around all of Farland that we're no one to be trifled with. Still, Darmon or no, there's something in the hills around this little town of Norville that seems to be more important than what anyone can put their finger on."
"Maybe that's the reason this Morbagg has been terrorizing the towns along the Northern Teeth. And now you say there's some sort of super Oluk they've created..."
"No, I didn't say that for sure. It's a feeling, one of the kind I occasionally get. A few of my wizardly friends also have had the same feeling, so it can't be just a bad dream. I don't even know if such a thing is possible; but it might explain their successes."
"Even more of a reason to go. If I have to meet this thing myself, I will, or..."
"I'll be at your side, Yngvarr. I have for forty years; I don't intend to stop."
The huge Anarian shook his head--to a blind man, a headshake is silence; to Torgarr, it spoke loudly and clearly. "You can't do that, old friend. You're needed here." " Don't add foolishness to your list of self-destructive tendencies, Clan Father. Abjorn is a good son, and an even better Clan Father in the waiting. What better way to test the mettle of your son than to give him reigns in relative peace?"
"True. But how will you..."
"...don't forget Hagon O'Konrad. He's your best soldier, and he'll have several troops with him. We'll stay back; you'll never know we're there, until you need us."
"Can't stop you, I guess. Just be careful. I can arrange..."
"...it's done, Yngvarr."
The Father of the Elk Clan smiled and let forth a little laugh. "I should have known. So it is said..."
"...and so it shall be." They toasted each other with the remaining mead; Torgarr's mug clicked Yngvarr's with a resounding thud; he never spilled a drop.
...From the Depths of a Hollow Volcano...
The copper disk wobbled a little on its spindle, held mostly in place by a thin strand of horsehair from a wooden framework overhead. Almost four feet in diameter, it was hammered flat with the painstakingly precise and incredibly repetitious determination that marked the lived of the industrious dwarves of Wawmar.
The disk was one of three, the only ones of their kind. The thin metal gave them a miniscule rotational inertia and enabled them to spin when acted upon by certain outside forces; the fine hair suspension added to the delicate nature of the mechanism; the rare metals imbedded in the copper when it was being forged gave it purpose. The young dwarf studied its tendencies from a chair nearby. He wrote a few notes on paper bound into a book, then turned over a large sandglass; he would repeat the actions all through the day, as he had done for the past two years. The much larger wooden clock along the wall of the outpost ticked quietly as the weights suspended by fine chains descended imperceptibly--it was used to gage time while he slept.
Few people on the continent of Farland were lent to such a level of determination, dedication to learning, and dogged stubbornness. Such was the plight, no, the legacy of one of the Clan of Agralin.
Agli had inherited his forbearer's temperament, his inquisitiveness and intelligence. This time, he hoped it would pay off.
Each of the discs was housed in an anteroom beside one of the three outposts that were built long ago atop the extinct volcano that had become home for thousands of dwarves, and an incredible legend in its own time. The plates consisted of dissimilar metals of varying electric potential, enabling them to move according to changing electrical currents in the atmosphere as well as what Agli believed to be perturbations in the energy created by the spirit world. The various densities of the metals made them react to placers of metals underground and in the surrounding mountains that lined the Northern Teeth. The normal rotation of Núrion itself could be mapped and calculated by the reactions of the delicate instruments. And a little bit of the strangely enchanting metal known as Mithril was strategically pounded into the carefully-planned matrix of copper. This would, he theorized, locate lodes of the rare and highly-sought-after prize.
He spent countless hours studying the notes and the interrelations of the positioning of the discs; after subtracting the differences of their azimuths, adjusting for known climatic events, even compensating for assumed theological and spiritual changes noted by his priest of Khuldul, he was on the verge of narrowing his search to the only true prize he sought.
With his book and quill pen in hand, he ventured out into the brisk autumn air, so thin and chilly even on such a sunny day as this. He walked along the path that had been carved out of the very upper lip of the mountain by countless of his and other clans toward the second outpost. As he approached, his cousin Dwalin Rockfoot arose from his chair and greeted him at the door.
"Any change, Agli?" He handed the elder dwarf a fresh mug of heavy ale, brimming with foam.
Agli smiled and nodded as he entered the room; his smile broadened as he took a quaff. "Yes, little one. The movements seem to be stabilizing, at last. Even after compensating for everything else, they are beginning to point in a direction I hadn't even though of."
"Really? What part of the discs?"
"gulp...slurp...ahh...The mithril lobes are all pointing in the same direction, or actually, converging on a point far away. I adjusted the spindle holding the horsehair so that even the torsion on the fine hair would be eliminated. Now, I just have to coordinate the three directions and see where the lines cross on the map."
"Wow. Real exacting stuff. Good thing you're doin' it, cousin. I couldn't begin ta...Oh! That reminds me. I finished your staff."
"Ahh...good, Dwalin. Let me see it."
Dwalin excitedly got up and opened the back door; he walked to the small forge behind the outpost and retrieved a strange instrument from the anvil, bringing it into the room. "Is this what ye been a'lookin' for?"
He handed Agli what appeared to be a wishbone of about ten pounds weight and four feet in length; one arm was of pure copper, the other of a zinc-tin alloy. One the lone arm was a spot of brilliant blue-silver metal. "Ahh...good forgin', and not an easy task, Dwalim. An' ya didn't fall off the rim doin' it!"
Dwalim half-smirked, half-chuckled at how he acquired his name; his youth was replete with incidence of tripping over things, falls, cuts and bruises. His mother was accused of beating him for some misbehavior until some of the other clansmen noticed that the young boy just didn't have the balance of others--a dangerous failing in such a vertigo-inducing place as Wawmar. "Well, can ya test it?" He pulled out a piece of mithril from his pocket and tossed it a few feet to one side.
Agli grasped the wishbone as if he was prepared to make a wish; but his face was flushed with surprise as he began to shake with the strain of restraint. The instrument forced his strong arms toward the nugget, and soon it was pointing directly at it. He released one arm and the concentrated power ceased; he took a deep breath from the effort and smiled. "Well done, cousin. Agralin himself would be proud!"
Dwalin nodded at the compliment. "So, any idea where we're headed?"
Agli nodded. "First look at the geometry shows the lode is located somewhere near a little town named Norville. Nice, pleasant place; fishin' village, big cattle trade, some Creags and Gaels from Zeland live there. Looks like we just might find somethin' special in those hills." "Hmm...seems like a long way...been lots of raids from the dark ones in this area, so I guess we ought to be careful."
Agli took another sip of ale, then thoughtfully stroked his beard. "Yeah, I heard somethin' like that. Maybe we can get a few of Burin's finest to come along; say, maybe an axemen, a pikeman, maybe a cart and an ass."
Dwalim nodded. "I have a few connections, and a few people owe me favors. Maybe I can get things together in the next few days."
"That sounds good. I'll start planning what instruments I'll need. There's been more than one dragon slain along the Teeth in the past few centuries; guess we'll find out where, if we're lucky. Where there's dragon blood, ya know, there'll be mithril."
...Warming by a campfire near the Sarumvest...
...and Delphius said "I haven't yet begun to fight... not the best thing to say in such a circumstance, eh?... Geck raised his club, not knowing what he was getting into... they went at it, sword moving at blinding speed, but club still demanding a great deal of respect...
Darmon smiled and shook his head, eliciting a little chuckle. "Ol' Delphius 'adn't learned a thing since he got 'is tail kicked in Daven, 'ad 'e?" He leaned his head back a little and gazed at the images of the battle in the sword; they were true and crisp, gleaned from the soul of 'Ol Delphius' himself, his soul now resting peacefully in the alternate universe, the metal matrix, the world of those cursed who were given a second chance.
Darmon had always enjoyed the stories woven by Dragonslayer. Its hammered crystalline body housed the mind of a true story-teller; the mithril additives that were forged deep in the blade, either by an incredible intelligence or by amazing coincidence, bridged an ethereal gap to a vast repository of cursed, damned, or just unfortunate souls.
The fire flicked a little with the cooling fan of a rogue breeze, gently nudged by the anger of a few stray crackling sparks. Darmon lowered his head slightly and gently rested Slayer against his head. "Sorry, 'ol friend, dinna mean ta interrupt...ya got me attention..."
...heh...no worry, 'old man'... the soldier ducked, barely grazed by an old oaken trunk that had seen countless battles... Geck groaned as the momentum of the swing twisted him into a dangerous position... Delphius thrusted with all he had, but Geck managed to move just enough to change a stab to a mild graze...
The sparks began again, hissing and cracking from the bottom near the coals; but now from the top, near the uppermost piece of wood. This was highly unusual, as the wood was dry when he stoked the conflagration; he looked to the tops of the trees, trying to see movement in the leaves against the almost-black sky. He saw none--now his concentration was broken.
...they both stepped back to gain footing...they realized tha...Darmon--what is it?...
...it's the wind, Darmon, nothing mo...
...no, there is no wind, Slayer...we're at the edge of the Sarumvest...remember, the Lewis clan?...undead?...something's afoot...
The sturdy Stewart clansman grabbed the slab-o-steel in a vice-like grip, raising and wheeling on his heels in a direction that his highly-tuned inner senses led him. Standing just fifteen feet away, illuminated by the changing angled and intensity of the campfire was a very alive figure--one he knew from a long, long time ago; one whom he never thought he'd see again...
"Y...Yngvarr!? What the blinkin'...? You're alive?"
"Darmon? Darmon Stuart? I might be askin' you the very same question! No one's heard from ya in years! You're still alive?"
A huge grin shot across the former first-in-line's bearded mouth as he extended his right hand, grasping the larger Anarian's elbow and clutching the back of the Chief Clansman's neck with his left. Yngvarr reciprocated; after a moment of renewal, they 'shook elbows' again and walked to opposite sides of the fireplace, sitting on firewood.
"Hae, alive, if ya kin call it that, Northman. Been 'a wanderin' keepin' away from the clans for a while, jus' enou ta watch an' lissen, but not...ya know...an' you?"
The long-haired Chief shook his head, nodding in understanding. "Darmon, Darmon...come on, man; ya gotta get over it all sometime, somewhere, somehow, brotha. It's the cards ya been dealt. Just like breathin', man...it's somethin' that comes with life, somethin' that is sure ta happen, just like the sun comin' up."
Darmon's gaze lowered to the fire--the sparks had subsided and the flame was uncommonly steady. "I get enou o' preachin' from Eohacob, me wizard-friend. I know I gotta bring it all back in line, no doubt. Maybe 'at's why I'm oot 'ere, sittin' by a fire, talkin' to me sword..."
"Ahhh...Slayer...sorry, I almost forgot...how are you, repository of the cursed?"
...good, cursed one...
...Slayer?!...another can hear you?...
...yes, Darmon...the cursed, the eternally oppressed, I hear them all...
"...always has been quite a weapon ya have there, Darmon. Getting' back to me, I took the reins of Anaria and united the clans for good. Figured if I gotta live a long time, I may as well do something with my life. We've become quite a force in the north now, but there's something brewing in the Teeth. Torbagg feels it..."
"...so does Eohacob...he's been a'worryin' aboot somethin' now for months, but 'e canna put 'is finger on it. Is 'at why yer 'ere, Chieftan?"
"Yeah, I guess...somethin' in the air, somethin' going on. I felt I had to get out here and see for myself."
"...umm...okay, ol' friend...someone else might buy 'at..." Yngvarr Hoffvarr, huge warrior of the North, timeless legend blushed slightly and nodded a lowering head. "Hae, 'lad', there's the rub. I can't send my men out to handle it, knowing they may not come back. I'll always be back; I won't take as many with me, though."
"So, 'at's wha' it's ool aboot fair ye, ol' friend? Ya never been one ta hide 'hind'o yer own men, fer sure."
"Yeah, true. But there's no one you can even hide behind if you wanted to, Darmon, with the clans of Creagland splintered. So why are you here, yourself?"
The man who fought a dragon, Orcs by the score, Drow, wizards, ghosts and undead was stopped by a simple question. He looked back to the fire, perhaps looking for an inspiration, perhaps looking for a quick answer, perhaps hoping for some more sparks to change the subject. He looked back into the Clan Chief's eyes. "I thought I knew, big one. I thought me purpose was clair as a still pool. Now, I'm na' convinced. Made it's for ta reconcile wi' somethin' someone I ne'er really defeated; somethin' 'at took part o' me soul, I guess. Na' as glorious or selfless as yerself."
"Ahh, dragon snot. Everyone's got a demon of some kind. Maybe that demon's been on your back all this time, steering you the wrong way, standing in your path. Maybe your people have the same demon; it would be one hell of a force in the North to unite them with mine. Ghost, eh?"
Darmon looked startled. "Hae...'ow'd ya know?" A smile. "Been there, prince. Been there. Norville?"
"Aye, Norville. Whiskey?" he said, handing a flask to Yngvarr, who returned one of his own.
"Aye, young one. Mead? A toast to what awaits..."