The Not-so-Magnificent Six
By Gerry Torbert
The morning began with a hearty breakfast cooked by Suzanne; Richard greeted the pre-dawn by knocking on all the doors he could find, recruiting townsmen to help him knock on more. The adventurers were somber and worried, but they were happy to see Owin awake - all were concerned he might try to go off on his own and follow Tao. Perhaps, Thanos thought aloud to Agli, he might be "turning the corner" of a heartbreak.
Darmon helped Suzanne clean up after the meal while the rest were busy gathering their weapons and looking about in Richard's shed for any gardening implement that could be used as such. The Creag was drying the plates when the host thought aloud, perhaps feeling out Darmon's concerns, perhaps expressing her own misgivings.
Suzanne looked out the window at a family next door while washing; they were just awakening and performing daily chores. "You know, Mr. Stewart, not everyone here has a history of fighting. Actually, almost none of them." She then turned to Darmon and added, "They're all good people, though; they raise their families with grace and love, and respect for elders and their neighbors."
He nodded as he turned to the window, as well. "Hae, I can see tha'. More's the reason for us ta double our efforts ta protect good people. Thanos, for one - ‘e's hell-bent on rightin' every wrong he sees, n'matta what cost to ‘imself. Gotta admit it - Elves ‘ave a built-in goodness to ‘em.
It's the people in towns like ‘is, good ones, people ‘at care, who need protectin'. But they're the ones who, sometimes, gotta step up and protect themselves. I just hope it can be done, here."
"I do, too. What do you think of Tao's chances?"
After a sigh, he put down a dish and looked out the window at the same scene Suzanne had just used to give herself the strength and point of view to speak. "I've been told she fights like a demon, givin' no quarter, mindin' not if the enemy's three times her size. She moves through the tops o' trees, quiet as a squirrel, like she's walkin' on a thick carpet. But if they got her husband, Morbagg'l use him against her - I know his kind."
"Well, Richard is trying his best. He's a good man, a good father, a good husband. He juat doesn't know what to do. I've tried to talk to him, but he wants to do it all, to change everything. Do you know what that means, Mr. Stewart?"
Darmon started to answer, but thought for a moment. There was only one time that he tried to change something this big, and as his mind went back to the fight with the wizards he realized that he needed every ounce of help he could muster. "Yae, I know how hollow a feelin' ‘tis."
A little commotion outside caused both to look in the direction of the shed. The crew was finishing their search for every sharp object they could find, and now were loading the cart. "Looks time ta go, ma'am. We thank ya for the breakfast."
"Good luck, Darmon. I think we'll need it. Oh, and by the way..." she said, putting down the last dish and taking off her apron as she made her way to the fireplace, "...this is something I was supposed to lend to you. Thanos said you may need it, although I don't know why." She lifted a poker from the holder alongside the fireplace and blew off a little dust. "It's wrought iron. He said you may need some of that. Some sort of superstition?"
Darmon took it and frowned as he examined it closely. "Well, I dunna if it's supposed ‘a be a weapon or some such. You, Slayer?" he asked, as he touched the poker to the blade.
"Hmmm...wrought iron, it is. The old superstition, or story, is that it can dissipate a ghost. They can't stand the metal. It has an effect on them that not even my Mithril can duplicate. Worth a try, Darmon."
Darmn nodded his head and slipped the poker into his belt. "Yae, blade. Worth a try, it is. After ool, ‘tis the reason I came here, I guess." The Creag nodded to Suzanne again and walked out toward the shed. The dwarf's cart was loaded with implements, but none that would strike fear into the toughest of gardeners, let alone Orcs. He looked to Yngvarr, who held back a chuckle and shook his head.
Dwalin pointed to the forge along the west wall. "Chief, if the folks got enough steel, we could whip out somethin' a little better, pretty quick. We're Khazak, after all, born with smoke an' fire. But it's gotta be a lot ‘o steel, a lot ‘o coal." Burin and Owin nodded and grunted in agreement.
"We'll keep that in mind, Dwalin. Maybe Darmon, Thanos, and I can train the troops; maybe there are a few who have enough experience to help train, as well. By the way, where's Agli?"
Dwalin looked to Burin, who shrugged, but Owin answered. "He talked ta Richard last night, and found the name of the town engineer, or designer, or somthin'. Went ta see ‘im this mornin'. Somethin' about sewers."
Darmon almost dropped his sword. "Wha' the... are yae kiddin' me? Sewers? What...the...hell...does ‘at ‘ave ta do wi' orcs?"
"Ya gotta go, ya gotta go!" came a voice from the road. Agli trotted up the dirt path with a roll of paper in one hand, a shovel and a leather sack in the other. "Sorry about the sack, guys. I can pay fer it. But we have ta know how the sewers work here, and Mr. Grool's job is ta make sure they're clean an' ta know where every one of ‘em is. He wrote it all down, with some drawings, too." He handed the roll to Dwalin, and sat the sack down. "Owin, what did ya do with the diviner?"
"What the White Bear's ass are you blabbering about, Khazak? Do you know what a mission we have here?" Yngvarr was almost as upset as Darmon. "All you can think about is poop? What are you guys smoking, up there on that volcano?"
Burin put his hand on the much taller Anarian's shoulder to calm him. "Now, Chief, he does this everywhere we go. No worries, mate."
Owin was returning from the Dwarf's cart with a four-foot long forged fork, handing it to Agli. "Now, gentlemen, don't fret. The incidence of - uhh, certain valuable ores - in these mountains can be measured by how it collects in the sludge in the bottom of the septic system. It's heavy and scarce, but if my theory is right, it makes its way to the food, being washed down by heavy rains, then ends up in poop. Which is what I have in here..." he said, as he opened the bag. The wave of nauseous odor escaped like a starving cat from a crate, careening outwards to assault olefactories with abandon.
"Arrrgh! Agli, what the..." yelled Darmon as he stapped back, as did everyone but the four shortest; they stepped forward, leaned in, sniffed and nodded approval. Owin held the fork out with both hands on the one end, pointing the other end away from the bag.
"Okay, Agli. It's zeroed."
"Good. Now swing it around, slowly, slowly..."
"Oh my goodness! What is that smell!" gasped Suzanne, walking out to the shed with her apron still intact.
"Sorry, Mrs. Halerd. In just a moment, we'll know if it's..."
Darmon looked to Yngvarr, who looked back; he then glanced down just in time to see the fork being wrenched out of Owin's hands, clattering to the ground. "By the eagle's beak...did you do that, Owin?"
Owin looked up, then to Agli's dropped jaw. He finally forced out an answer: "It...it just happened. Just like Dwalin said it did at the rim of Wawmar, Agli. It's mi..."
"HOLD! Don't say the word! You never know what crow's listening. Yeah. There's some around here, all right."
Agli bent over and picked up the diviner, handing it back to Owin. "Here. Put this back. Hide it and secure it. Not a word, anyone." Then turning to Darmon, he apologized. "I'm sorry I wasn't here, but I went to Mr. Groot long before anyone awoke, and I'm ready to help now. It's just somethin' we four had to know, and it seemed like the right time."
"It's alright, Agli. Does ‘is mean ‘ere's mi...the stuff...in the mountains?"
"Yes, Darmon. I can feel it..." Slayer shone with a yellow light along both of his - or her - cutting edges.
"Yeah, I guess yae would. But we gotta get going. I think we're meetin' at the central stockades?"
As they started to wheel the cart away toward the road, Suzanne cleared her throat. "Excuse me, but is someone...?" as she pointed to the bag. Agli took it around back and dumped it before he left.
The old cart rumbled down the dirt road into the town of Norville, toward the stockades. There were quite a few gathered along the fences and beneath the roofs of the open-air buildings; Thanos whispered a dumbfounded "Oh, my..." as he assessed the possibility of finding a fighting force among them.
Most were drovers, and as such had spent time in the saddle. But down from their mounts and walking upright, they didn't seem at ease on the ground. A few carried what they were told, gardening implements - doubtless they answered Richard's call to bring arms with the reply "But all I have made of steel is fireplace pokers and a hoe!" A few had bows and a minimal amount of arrows, presumably for hunting; one man had an old, rusted axe that was probably given to him by his grandpa. All in all, it looked as though the job would be an uphill climb.
Yngvarr began by introducing himself as the Clan Chief of all Anaria, to which he received startled looks and a few nods of disbelief. It was seldom that a person of such renown would come to their town, not even to discuss terms of stock purchases - Norville was, despite its size and importance to food production, a backwater town. When he introduced Darmon, however, the Creag received more than his share of stares and surprised looks. The stories of Darmon's disappearances and tales of his many deaths were of legendary status.
One man seemed to be a little more obsessed with the Creag; he was a man of six feet and a hand, of rugged build and face lined by many years of driving obstinate beasts to their demise and eventual culinary fate. He stared at Darmon intently, often taking his eyes off him long enough to stare at Slayer, who vibrated ever so slightly.
Yngvarr explained the townspeople's plight. "You're in their road. Something is wrong with these Orcs. I've fought the demons many times, for more years than I'm prepared to say, even to remember."
One man, short, pudgy and a little too laid back, asked "I've heard tell when they fight, they take people, like us, and slaughter them whole, even drink their blood. All they seem to want is cattle. That's bad enough, but at least only a few of us are missing."
Thanos remarked, "That is the problem. They don't eat cattle, and they certainly don't sell them to make money."
"Then, what are they doing with them?"
Owin spoke - he had become more at ease as a speaker, even a leader at times, and even without the presence of a Kunese woman to impress. "We have found they're feedin', trainin', and breedin' a whole new type of warrior. Warriors we'll soon find out about, if we don't defend ourselves."
Yngvarr, Thanos and Agli looked at Owin as if he was daft, or in the least, his story was ill-timed. But Burin quickly looked to deflect the crowd's rising distrust. "Owin...ya wasn't supposed ta tell ‘em about that...remember?" A wink on the sly and Owin gave a look of fear that lent him creedence.
The crowd murmered a little, talking lightly among themselves and nodding. Owin's ruse seemed to work—little did he know how right he was—and the townsfolk seemed a bit more interested. All except for the large man staring a hole in Darmon. Slayer vibrated with a bit more fervor, then addressed her owner with a voice that was meant for only Darmon. "To your left, old man. There's something wrong with that man in green pants and a plaid shirt, Darmon!" The appelation itself got the Creag's attention, and he looked on the sly; the man looked away, with a little too little finesse. "Hae. Slayer. Good girl. I think I have to talk to him..."
He whispered in Owin's ear that he had to take care of something; he then turned and walked to the man and looked directly into his eyes.
What he saw was a blank stare, not even capable of focus, on the surface; below, barely perceptable, was a stare of helplessness and a pleading soul. "Slayer?"
"Yes, Darmon. I see it. Someone trying to get out."
"Darmon's the name, good man. Do yae ‘ave a minute ‘o yer time?" he asked, motioning to a nearby tree. The blank stare nodded, and the covered townsman appeared nervous.
They walked to the tree and Darmon looked around to make sure they weren't causing too much of a scene. Owin and Yngvarr continued to lay it on thick, aided by Thanos' elven observations. "What do yae wan', being? Do I know yae, or is ‘is just a coincidence?"
Cold and chilling was the answer; even on a warm morning, his breath could wilt the daisies growing around the perimeter of the short, well-groomed maple under which they stood. "You can't be alive. It's been centuries."
"If yae knew anythin' aboot mae past, the curse, yae'd know I canna die. Just like you, I guess?"
"Aye. I'm accursed too, Darmon. I did things wrong, but did them my way. I don't deserve to roam the other side of you all, poking my nose in one person's life after another. People have killed before. Why am I so despised by the Fates?"
Darmon looked around and saw no one looking at them, and ascertained he still had some time before anyone became interested in their side discussion. "Yae never know, Sumus. Fates are a ticklish lot. But I reckon there's more'n one ghost floatin' aroond here."
"No, they've paid their dues. I'm it."
Darmon fingered the end of the poker as he brushed his kilt from folded arms to hands on his waist. The townsman noticed. "That hurts, a lot. I'll just take someone with me if you use it. I've done it before."
"I'm sure yae ‘ave, Sumus. Yae ‘ave a long history o' torture, death, an' the like.
The townsman's eyes darted around, partially to look for an end to the death-grip on his soul, but also as a plea. "Leave ‘is one be, Sumus. Maybe if yae start off in another direction, a door will open for yae."
"Foolish to think so, Creag. It can never change for me. But this one bores me..."
The eyes of Thomas Siliman rolled back; he shook his head, lost balance and fell into Darmon's arms. Another townsman caught the action out of the corner of his eyes, and he started to them with a yelp. Darmon could almost "see" and feel a discharge of impulses leaving Thomas' head and almost hear a sick laugh.
Another man shook slightly across the gathering, and he slowly turned and walked back, trancelike, to the row of homes from where he came. Thomas shook his head and looked around. "Where am I?" he gasped.
"Yae'r ‘ere at the meetin', mon. Yae dunna remember?"
"No, nothing since..." he looked around to the crowd gathering; one man offered a flask of water, to which he availed himself; as he swallowed and wiped his chin, he stuttered, "...two days ago..."
But just like clockwork, Dwalim burst, "Just what we were told! The orcs ‘a got some kinda mind trick, and they're usin' it on all of you! This is how they started in Farland wilderness, not far from here. We need your help...no...YOU need to gather together and train! These orcs have ta be stopped!"
The townsmen's collective murmers were lounder and more affirmed, as they looked to each other and nodded approval. Yngvarr and Thanos wondered how they would whip them into shape. The Khazaks wondered how they would beat the hoes and rakes into shields and swords. Slayer wondered how she could reach such a tortured soul as Sumus, if ever such a thing could be done. Darmon wondered what a ghost's curse would mean to him...