By Gerry Torbert
The rugged band of dwarves felt as if they were fighting for their lives as they hacked and slashed their way through the incredibly dense thicket of briars and vines. The largest and strongest of the four, Burin, led the way by slashing away with a mid-sized knife and the sappy, obstinate undergrowth. Agli grabbed the thorny growth with gloved hands and passed them on to cousin Dwalin, who stacked the chocks on the flatbed wagon, while his brother Owin kept watch and drove the cart back to the entrance to the botanical hell to empty it when full.
Owin's eyes were younger and his hearing sharper, which was important in the thick of the Sarumvest. The remnants of the old elven kingdom, it was teeming with vile, tenacious undead; this was their stomping ground, and if they smelled fresh meat, they were hard to deny their sustenance.
"Ya know, ya got the easiest job on the crew, Owin. Ya ought ta try this end of it all," taunted Burin between swipes of his machete.
"No thanks, big man. If we depended on yer eyes, we'd be walkin' around brainless."
"Ahh...yer nearly there, now, little guy!" The rest chuckled at the joke. It wasn't uncommon for a dwarf to find humor in hard work.
Owin could see from his higher vantage point that the thicket went for quite a while yet. This part of the forest was impossible to traverse without having to go over, under, or through it--and under and over were out of the question. The high deciduous trees formed a good shade in the heat of the day, but the work was still grueling and exasperating. A good dwarf never minds hard work, but the constant pricking of the skin by the thorns had a way of getting on your nerves.
But the ever-present danger of a most unfortunate encounter along the way was nerve-wracking as well, especially to the scout. So Owin wasn't too surprised, about midday, to see a faint flickering of the leaves about a quarter of a mile away. Holding a wetted finger in the air to judge the wind, he found none; he watched closely at the area and a sweep to either side to see if his worst dream was true.
"Hey, Owin; get that load movin', kid!"
"Wait a minute, Dwalin..."
The three up front stopped working and looked back. "D'ya see somethin'?"
"Shh..." he said, lifting his hand. "Yeah, I think we got company."
"Get up on the stack o' brush, get a better view."
Owin responded, climbing a little higher. "Yeah, but maybe it's the wind."
"Ain't no wind here, cousin."
"Over there, there might be. Things are different in the woods. I'm still lookin'."
Burin returned to his work. "Better that we talk normal...if there's someone out there, they might take silence as a bad sign."
Agli agreed. "Yeah...Dwalin--look like yer workin' hard, but at the same time get our weapons ready and in arm's reach. Make sure Owin has his, too. Owin--dump that last load behind us, in the pathway, good and thick. My guess is an undead won't risk comin' through a thicket, even if it doesn't hurt; he'll lose too many body parts. Sound like what you guys have heard?"
"Yeah, good idea. I think that's the way it goes, but who can tell, when an undead ain't ate in months, what torture he might go through? At least it'll slow 'em down a little." Dwalin unstrapped and pulled out their axes and swords from beneath the bed of the cart and placed them on the top, where they could get to them quickly.
The four dwarves had been born with a natural courage and stubbornness; they had undertaken the adventure with a singleness of mind; they were blessed with the strength of bone and muscle of their race. They knew that they would encounter this kind of problem, and steeled their constitution with the desire to push on and overcome. They weren't about to give up so easily.
Agli had asked dozens of his friends and acquaintances if they'd like to join his quest. Although some were interested, the few who came along were those he had known for quite some time. Burin, easily the largest and strongest, would be short by human standards, but quite a large and burly Dwarf. He had been a friend of Agli through school and had helped him out on many an occasion.
Dwalin was close to Agli throughout their childhood, getting in and out of scrapes and working on science projects together. Owin always seemed to be following his big brother, always getting told to play with kids his own age and being sent home. But he persisted and soon grew into the group.
Now, he was given the responsibility to scout ahead for his friend and family, and he did it well. He guided Mithy, his favorite mule, to back up the cart far enough to dump the latest load of brush and wedge it all into the pathway while the others continued to chop and try to act normal. They all knew they were only a few yards from a clearing, which could work against them.
Owin drove the cart back to the rest and climbed aboard, looking around to see if the situation had changed. "Anything new up there, cousin?"
"No, Agli...wait a minute...yeah, I see some movement. There's definitely someone, something...about three o'clock...and about nine, too."
"Check behind us, too."
Burin continued his work, looking back to Owin.
"Must mean they ain't that smart; good fer us, I'd say. We ought ta keep choppin, though."
They continued to chop and clear, this time a little faster and with greater purpose. Owin tossed the brush directly behind them and off to the side, mounding the nasty vines to give more of a barrier. After about fifteen minutes, however, he looked again to the pending attack route.
"Uh, guys...remember talkin' about how they'd only attack if hungry?"
The rest stopped and listened; they could now here the rustle of brush, and in addition, some deep-throated growling.
"I think they're famished, right about now. Maybe we ought ta get up on the cart."
The other three climbed aboard and spread out toward the end of the bushes. Agli turned to the others and came up with a plan. "Alright, dwarves. Use the full length of the axes, because if they are zombies, as seems likely, you don't want to get their blood in your eyes, nose or mouth, let alone an open wound. Three up front; Owin, survey the other three-quarters of a circle. Every time I say 'shift', move quarter-circle to your right, last man take a rest and guard the back."
"Get ugly, brothers. Give 'em head shots and neck shots; try and cut their heads off. Give each other plenty of room to swing. By Khuldul's beard, let's give 'em hell!"
The growling and snarling became louder as the now-visible undead hordes sensed danger. On they pushed, thrusting each other into the bushes. Others climbed over the previous wave, guarded by their bodies from the thorns. The strength of the bushes soon succumbed to the weight of the bodies and the wave sped up on its way to the travelers.
Burin swung true, chopping two heads at once; Agli moved quickly and pierced eye sockets and gaping mouths alike with his halberd; Dwalin slashed his own axe through dusty skin and into neck bones. The carcasses piled up outside the cart, but gave the creatures, which were indeed zombies, more footing.
"Shift!" yelled Agli; Burin moved to the middle, slicing several bodies at once. Owin swung like a dwarf possessed, clearing his side and catching one of Burin's targets as well. Dwalin took to the rear; seeing there was still no threat there, he stabbed his axe to the left and right to make sure Owin's and Agli's piles weren't moving.
Another shift gave Agli a chance to breathe--out of the four, he was less used to hard work. The piles were becoming higher, though, as the weight of the bodies pulled the vines to the ground. Mithy snorted with fear, but Agli patted her cheeks.
Another shift left Burin in the rear, but he refused to slow down. He continued reaching from side to side, helping Agli and Dwalin with their front. But the undead were gaining momentum.
Another shift left Dwalin in front, and with a few well-placed strikes he had the opportunity to look out toward the end of the undergrowth. "What the...there's some kind of crazy guy..."
Another strike left a hole in front of him, quickly filled with the snarling visage of an undead orc rushing forward. Dwalin stopped his run with his axe, but only pierced the thing's neck. Suddenly, the front of an arrow appeared protruding from the Orc's head, a foot from Dwalin's face. The dead orc's eyes rolled together and upward; it belched and gurgled as it slumped rearward, taking a few other zombies with it.
"What the...did you guys see that? An arrow..."
"Hell, no. We're a little busy right..." said Burin, as another shift brought him to the front. Another arrow shot through a human undead's neck; he bent backward and fell on top of two other attackers.
"Well, I'll be..."
Agli's attention was caught by the whirling, twisting figure of a black-clad warrior, running over the backs of the zombies like a tightrope walker over a cobblestone walkway. With one short sword in each hand, he swung down in an unearthly whirling fashion, chopping dead flesh like a windmill. As he reached the dwarves, he turned to one side and ran back over more, cleaving heads with the deftness of a wood carver.
Three more arrows slapped into leathery skin. "I don't know who they are, but let's get ugly, brothers!" Axes, short swords and arrows filled the air; once expecting an easy feast, the wave of undead lost stomach for a meal so difficult to attain, and began their retreat.
"Let's get out of this hell!" yelled Agli. The attackers having fled, the dwarves turned the cart around and guided Mithy over the walkway of bodies, out and over the brush. They reached the high grass and spied the two warriors about three hundred feet ahead, along the edge of woods. They drove Mithy and the cart to them, stopping fifty feet away.
Agli grabbed his axe and nodded to the others to do the same. The four weary dwarves walked to a tall elf and the dark figure, dropping their axes at their feet. "Many thanks to you, friends, for savin' our simple lives. We are now at your service; our weapons are yours."
The elf stepped forward and smiled. "My friends, pick them up. You fought gallantly; you'll need them again, if we don't get out of the forest soon! My name is Thanos, of the House of Gloran."
"And I am Agli, descendant of Agralin. This is my friend Burin, and cousins Dwalin and Owin. We've never seen such shootin' as we saw with that bow of yours!"
Owin chimed in. "And you, sir; we've never seen such darin' and courage! You move like some spirit possessed!"
Tao reached behind her head and undid the mask. A wave of beautiful black hair fell around her shoulders and framed an equally beautiful face.
"Thank you, Mr. Owin. And it is 'Madam', not 'Sir'."
Owin's face turned white and his jaw dropped. "By Khuldul's craggy beard! I'm sorry, sir...uh...ma'am... we didn't know... " he said, and turning to Dwalin, "...I think I'm in..."
"...in debt! Yes, Owin, we are in debt...a great debt!" said his brother, grabbing Owin's beard and moustache, pinning his mouth shut. "We all are, Thanos. And we worked up quite a hunger. We should fix a campfire and get some food, eh?"Thanos tilted his head and agreed, looking ascance at Dwalin and wondering just what Owin was going to say. "Yes, by all means. I can find a few rabbits; perhaps Burin and Agli can engineer a fire."
"I noticed some roots and herbs by stream, just over hill," added Tao.
Owin jumped at the chance to get to know the human woman a little better. "I have a hook; I can catch a few fish in the stream. Someone should go with you, anyway, and protect...er...uh, maybe we can protect each other." Tao smiled, knowing which would happen if an assailant drew near; Owin doubtlessly misunderstood the smile.
"Good!" said Thanos. "Maybe Dwalin can stand watch--we need to be careful, even though they have probably lost their taste for flesh for a while."
The six unlikely companions went about their chores, and soon a roaring fire was toasting three rabbits and half a dozen trout sizzling on spits, dripping fat onto a pile of sumptuous roots that were packed around glowing coals. Thanos sat near Dwalin on the north side, Tao and Owin to the south, flanked by Burin to the east and Agli to the west. Thanos tried to loosen everyone up a bit, noting that the dwarves were a little bothered by having to be saved by two lone fighters.
"You know, I have always been impressed by the dwarves of the great Wawmar and their fighting spirit. Khuldul has a great army in Wawmar. You four did well today; not many others would have lasted against such as the undead."
Agli accepted the compliment with a smile. "Well, if not for the two of you, we'd be the dinner tonight, instead of the fish and bunnies!" This was welcomed with a few laughs--even Owin stopped fawning over Tao for a moment as they both chuckled. "We've heard of the elven House of Gloran, and the great things you've done for people. But excuse me if I ask Miss Tao more about the Kunese...these folks are only legends in the great volcano we call home."
Owin sat back a little and waved her, as if to ask her to present her story. He seemed riveted as she told of the training and lifestyle the women had to adopt, leaning into every word and inflection. Dwalin sighed, knowing what his brother was going through; Thanos seemed confused a little, watching both the siblings and their reactions.
Tao mentioned her husband; Dwalin and Thanos both noticed Owin's face droop a little and his head hang slightly with the realization that she was spoken for. After a while, Thanos noticed that she was finished and turned the floor over to Agli.
"Well, Thanos..." he began, almost shamefully admitting their intentions, "...Miss...uh, Mrs. Sung, that is, and you are headed for the mountains for a slightly different reason than us. We think...no, we know...there's mithril in the Teeth; especially right around Norville."
"Mith-ir?" asked Tao, tripping over the word.
Owin dove into the response. "Close, Tao...Mith-ril...it's a magical metal that's formed when a dragon's blood and iron get mixed together. Has magical properties and is beautiful beyond reckoning." This seemed to confuse Tao just a little more, by the look of her furrowed brow. "...it's worth more than gold or platinum..." added Owin, to which he got a nod of understanding.
"Hmm...I have heard of such a possibility. And being dwarves, you are natural miners, and know your metals and ores. So it seems we're headed there for different reasons."
Agli shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, Thanos...why are you going?"
Thanos told how he was going to rid Núrion of injustice, his speech filled with high-sounding ideals and his take on the present situation in that area. The dwarves were unaware of the full extent of the devastation of Norville's economy but were always willing to fight an orc.
Burin responded with a pledge to which the other three heartily agreed. "Well, with what ya did today, Thanos, we would be happy to join ya on our way to the ore fields. Seems like it can't hurt ta have four strong Khazak by yer side, eh?"
Thanos looked to Tao, who nodded approval. "I think we'd like that! There is none better beside you in a fight than the Nowgol! We Elhil learned that long ago."
The talk ran around the circle for a while, until the meat, vegetables and herbs were gone. Tao stood, as well as Owin in courtesy, and took her leave from the rest, wanting to get a well-deserved rest. She walked away from the site, and Owin said "I'll take the first shift of watch." He walked halfway from the fire to Tao, unrolling his blanket and sitting in the grass.
Burin nodded and belched; "Wake me up when yer sleepy, Owin. I'll take the second one." Agli opened his roll near the fire and claimed third.
Thanos reached for the last leg of the last rabbit; Dwalin started to stand, but the elf reached for his arm and motioned him down again.
"Give me a second, Dwalin."
He bit into the meat and shook his head toward Owin. Speaking in whispers, he asked "Is Owin well?"
Dwalin chuckled. "Yeah, he's as well as he gets. He's in love."
Thanos stopped and asked, "In love? Tao is married, and a human!"
"Yeah, Thanos. That generally stops the physical love that can happen. But the heart still has a way of talkin' when the head tries to stop."
The dwarf continued. "Owin had a woman, and they were betrothed. But her pappy was a pretty nasty guy, and he stopped it. Owin was ready to give her his life, ta do everything he had to make her the happiest woman alive. It devastated him."
"Ahh...so he is… what do the humans call it… rebounding?"
"Hmm...guess so. I'll have ta talk to him. He doesn't want to stand in the way of such a true love. But it's gonna devastate him again."
"Hmm...a true love...maybe standing in the way of a true love...a paradox, is it not?"
"Yeah, but for now, it's good fer Tao to have someone ta watch her back, and make her feel at home, I guess. Get some sleep, Thanos."
***A Dream and Reality***
The sweet young lass looked longingly into the massive Creag's orbs as she backed up a foot, the fine Slaughbaethan wool of her arisad brushing against the castle wall. She grasped his hand and guided it to her waist as she concentrated on his bright gentian eyes. His heart thumped in his huge chest; faster than it had for the last hundred years; harder than it had since he last battled with the huge claymore that now clanged to the stone flagging of the courtyard; truer than he had felt since his beloved Jonat first caressed his cheek.
"Darmon...it's been years...it feels like centuries since I've seen you last." Her face changed as he stared into her grass-green eyes; she now resembled someone he knew long ago, but thought he had forgotten; he didn't seem to care.
They grew closer, her arm running along the length of his, from wrist to shoulder; exploring, beckoning, suggesting stories that he knew she would be well equipped to tell in great detail.
She looked demurely at his chest and found the pounding of his blood to be every bit the aphrodisiac she hoped it would.
He reached for the laces along her back, tugging at first on the knot with a slight, boyish grin; her smile dared him to untie it; he complied with the deftness of dexterity one can only accomplish in a dream...
"Darmon...we have company..."
One eye opened to see a bearded giant leaning over him, the familiar face flickering in sympathetic cadence with the sporadic campfire. The other eye joined in, as Yngvarr shook his shoulder, then lightly shook his head off, to the left, where he had heard something.
"Damn, Anarian...I was just about to unlace her dress!"
"Shh...cool yer kilt, Creag. Something over there..." The big man pointed toward the woods with his axe. Darmon instinctively reached for Slayer; he found her warm and slightly vibrating.
"...her name was Darla, Darmon..."
The eternal champion winced and shook the cobwebs from his head as he raised himself on one elbow and looked to the woods. Yngvarr was crouching and moving quickly to the other side of the now-smoldering campfire, quieter than even the faintest pop of the coals.
The first sound was unusual, to say the least. A whirring of wood and clacking of a chain started faintly, then louder as a dark shape sped toward the Anarian. But with the speed that belied his advanced age, he raised the staff-end of his axe and caught the weapon in mid air--it wrapped itself around the wood and swung wildly; losing momentum, it plopped to a heap harmlessly near the fire.
Dust kicked up around two short sticks, attached to each other by a short chain.
The huge Northerners looked to each other incredulously with widened eyes for a second in disbelief, then Yngvarr looked back toward its origin and Darmon quickly turned to survey the other three-hundred degrees of possible attack routes.
The twang of a bowstring often only precedes the flight of an arrow by mere hundreds of a second; the speed of thought of a sentient sword is instantaneous. Slayer pulled Darmon's arm upward to intercept the trajectory halfway around the circle, and the arrow soon lay split in two beside the wooden weapon. Darmon turned to the almost silent sound, the feel, of a body twisting and turning through the air toward Yngvarr; as it landed five feet from his giant friend, the axe head whisked toward it, stopping its motion inches from a black-clad person who was doing everything in its power to stop, as well.
Convinced that this was another day, albeit a strange one, in the park for Yngvarr, Darmon leapt to his own crouch with his back to the clan chief, holding an ever-vigilant hunk of finely-crafted steel in front and awaiting the next arrow.
"C'm oot, c'm oot, whereair' ye air..." he taunted; his peripheral caught a glimpse of a more direct, lumbering and now noisy attack from his left. "Northeast, old man..."
Yngvarr leapt to his feet, at the same time planting a boot right from where he retracted the axe, and swung the fearsome weapon to his right to deflect the first of several axes. The deflection was strong enough to rip the dwarf's own from his hands; it adopted a lazy arc and landed near the other two implements of war.
The second arrow met the same fate as the first, while the stealthy, sinister and original fighter righted himself and took a stance of self-defense. The archer walked into view, holding his bow in the ready position as the dwarves stopped their charge.
"Hae, stop ye should...I heartily suggest ye come oot and talk 'is over...we can ool discuss yair problems, as well as yair military failin's, oot 'ere, whair we can see ye. If ye doon't, it won't go well fair ye."
The figure in black sheathed its two short swords and slowly walked to its place around the campfire where Yngvarr motioned; three dwarves walked from the shadows and sat on the rocks, and one walked to sit by the strange, dark one. The last, a field-dressed elf, walked toward Darmon, who motioned with a sweep of his hand to a place across from the others. Darmon held out his hand and received the long bow, which he placed on the ground by his adversary.
"Now...whose idea was it ta come burstin' in on two old men, just mindin' their own business? Not real hospitible, would ya agree, my Greagish friend, and not fittin' the reputation o' the elves?"
"Nae, na'at ool. Nice pattern o' attack, but four sides would'a done better."
"We were just..."
"...not finished. Me guess is 'at yair lookin' ta ambush someone else 'oo's attacked ya afore, else reasonably smart ones woulda jus' come inta the fire circle an' identified themselves...wha' say, old one?"
"Aye, lad. Not the way an Anarian makes friends and influences people. Yer lucky, you know."
"We didn't mean any..."
"...still not finished, and we're the ones with the weapons, now. We didn't have to let you live. Woke me friend up from a good, lusty dream, eh, brothah?"
"Hae, clan chief. Just aboot ta make me move, an' I was. Ahh...she was sweet. Reminded me of so many women I..."
"Please, sir! She doesn't have to hear such talk!" The young Dwarf placed his hands over the sinister fighter's ears.
"She? 'Bout time we meet. A woman?"
The dark one reached behind her head and untied the mask. As she pulled it off, she shook her head and a cascade of silky, sleek black hair fell down around her shoulders. "Yes, large one. I am Sung Tao-Oh, of Yrrkune. I am Kunese."
"Huh...Kunese...ever heard of a Kunese, Darmon?"
"Hae, of legend. Ever hear of a woman fighter, Yngvarr?"
The elf gasped. "Darmon? Yngvarr? By the feathers of the Great Swan! By the throne of Tal-Allustiel!" He looked toward Tao, but she simply looked back with a very confused countenance. He looked to Agli, who shook his head in disbelief.
"Hae, Darmon, Yngvarr...we stand accused."
"But...but you are hundreds of years old, by now, and not a drop of elven blood in your veins! Then the legends are true!" he said to the dwarves.
Burin burst out with excitement; "Yeah! The legends told in Wawmar, of two humans, cursed to live the life of immortals for single-handedly killin' dragons, leadin' a band of dwarven warriors ta defeat the hell-bent dark forces, fightin' for justice an' liberty, befriendin' the dreaded Yuan-ti, defeatin' a force of mad wizards...stories my pappy told me when I was a knee-child. We all thought you were dead!"
Darmon looked to Yngvarr and followed a smile with a chuckle. "Everywhere yae go, brothah! Nowhere ta escape, I tell yae!"
Yngvarr chuckled. "Gotta be that kilt, young one!"
Darmon looked to Agli and retorted "It's not all...I mean, it's not as..." He looked back to the chief, who gave him a raise of his eyebrow; he turned back to Agli and said "Yae, ya pretty much got 'at right. For a while, we both been in scrapes an' thought we were dead. Been, wha', three, four centuries?" Yngvarr nodded, looking up to the stars as if he was counting them all.
"So, now 'at's over, identify yerselves!"
Thanos took the floor. "I am Thanos, Elhil of the House of Gloran. I was accompanied by Tao, and we in turn met the dwarven adventurers by chance just a day ago, along the woods of the Sarumvest. Tao and I were, indeed, cautious of a band of thieves from the trip."
Agli stepped forward and joined in. "I am Agli, a descendant of Agralin. These are my cousins Dwalin and, over there, Owin. And this is my longtime friend, Burin.”
"Hmm...Agralin, eh? Never met the ancient dwarf, o' course, but few alive ain't heard of his accomplishments. So...being from an engineering family, I doubt you're going north to fight the dark forces." Yngvarr punctuated the comment with a contemplative wipe of his thumb along the edge of his great axe, staring into the blade as if he was talking to it.
Agli looked to the others; Burin nodded. "Fair enough. We're headed ta the teeth. Mithril."
Dragonslayer hummed slightly and a soft blue glow emanated from his edge. "Easy, Slayer," comforted Darmon as he patted her blade. To Agli, Darmon cautioned "'E gets a bit fussy when mithril is mentioned. Part of 'im, ya know."
Thanos suppressed a slight gasp, as did Tao.
"Yae, it's true; 'e's just a little more'n a sword. A'n you, Thanos; wha' business yae got there?"
The elf closed his gaping jaw and collected himself. "I am going to Norville to help in the great fight against the dark forces. I have dedicated my endless life to fighting evil everywhere."
Yngvarr snickered slightly. "My friend, that's quite a fight. I admire your tenacity, though. The side of good can use an archer like you. Pretty accurate, wouldn't you say, Darmon?"
"Heh...'e 'it the edge of Slayer twice. Good shots."
Thanos bowed slightly. "Many thanks, clan..."
"...because Slayer let you, Thanos...because he let you..." said Yngvarr, with a deep, cautioning look.
"Hae, true. Now we come to the lass. Tell us, Tao, why yair so far from 'ome."
"Birds fly far from the nest; some to mate, some to seek food, some for refuge."
"...some for revenge, dear lady..."
The six newcomers gasped as one at the voice from the sword. "Now, blade...ya dunna 'ave ta pry. Dun know why, bu' Slayer 'as a way o' figurin' things oot. Revenge is a good reason, lass. An' it's good ta 'ear a lady's voice; it's been a long time."
"Humpf...no more than half an hour, brothah."
Tao blushed as the dwarves chuckled. But she regained her composure and told her story. Slayer listened intently, his glow changing to a light red of anger as she finished.
Yngvarr sighed and rose from his seat, handing her nunchaks back. "Well, 'tis a sad story, indeed. Seems as though we're headed to the same place, but for different reasons." He picked up the axe and handed it back to Burin.
Darmon handed the damaged arrows to Thanos.
"Sorry aboot th' arrows. 'Ope yae can make new ones."
"I can. But tell us, why are you two going there?"
Darmon and Yngvarr both stopped, staring at the elf as if to question his right to ask. Darmon looked, and Yngvarr half shrugged. "Okay; the Chief 's goin' ta 'elo stop 'em; they're 'eaded for Anaria."
"And Darmon's goin' ta chase a ghost." Darmon gave him a quick look with a crooked frown of light disgust, but nodded.
Agli chuckled, more to relieve any tension than for humor. "Ghost it is, then. Good as any. Five motives. Eight people. My kind of odds. Let's get some sleep."