A Mysterious Portent
By Gerry Torbert
Four ‘young’ dwarves sat on a cart, being pulled by a husky little ass named ‘Mithy’; they were a hundred yards from Miss Tao, Yngvarr and Thanos, bringing up the rear with a load of provisions and checking the flanks and aft of the party. It was the first time for a few days they all had a chance to talk alone, and something had been bothering Agli.
“Ya know, fellow Khazak, somethin’s been botherin’ me ever since we got trapped in those briars.”
“Yeah, me, too, Agli” said Dwalim. “Seems our whole trip, our whole adventure, been changed around completely. We were lookin’ for treasure, for mithril, for Khuldul’s sake!”
“Exactly, and it don’t look like we have any power over what we’re doin’.” Agli gnawed in a pensive manner at the last piece of tobacky he had in his pouch.
Burin nodded, gave a little grunt. “Me, for one, I like the fight. All ya brothers know that. But we came for the prize, and we’re roped inta it all. I guess we kinda owe them something, though. Think of where we’d be if they hadn’t come by that briar patch. We’d be a’walkin’ around, lookin’ for fresh people ta eat!”
“Yeah, it’s not the Khazak way, ta turn our backs when someone’s in need. Especially when they helped us, and especially when there’s orcs around.”
Owin shook his head and held the reins with one hand, slapping a fly that just made a journey from Mithy’s butt to his beard, with his other. “Hunhh,” he chortled, “…don’t care for that damned Creag in his fancy skirt. He looks at her one more…”
“Ahhgh…Owin! Give it up, will ya? She’s not only married, but her husband is the reason she’s here, on a trek from Yrrkune, bravin’ orcs and ogres, what not, come on!”
“Don’t care, Agli! You seen the way she looks at me…”
“…It’s usually ‘cause yer standin’ in her way, pup…”
“Ah, shut yer face, Burin! I’ll come back there and settle this…”
Agli stopped his kin in his tracks. “Settle down, Owin! Burin didn’t mean a thing. Ya see? This shift of proiorities has us fightin’ already. Yeah, we’re here for the booty. No, not Tao’s booty, Owin. Mithril. We get that, and it’ll be worth the fight. But not worth us fightin’ over it all!”
Owin grunted. “Yeah, I guess yer right. Sounds like yer still holdin’ out for the Fifth Time, the Renewed Inheritance, Agli. Ya still believe that’s comin’?”
Agli sighed deeply. “Never talk about it much—guess you can say it’s a personal thing with me. And never been one ta wear my religion around my neck, like a bandana or somethin’. But I guess if the first four are true, and they are… ya can figure there’s a good chance we’ll be great a people again.
I don’t know how much of that happens ‘cause it’s been prophesized, an’ how much of it happens ‘cause people believe so hard in the prophecy, they make it happen. Either way, I look for it.”
Dwalim glanced quickly at Agli; his brow, already roaming across his forehead like some wild, unsheared boxwood hedge, furrowed and lifted over one eye—it was a most amazing feature and gave a very direct hint at his thoughts. “D’ya think, Agli… the mithy is a key to the Fifth?”
Owin pulled back on the reins, and the animal named Mithy jolted to a dead stop. His tail slashed from side to side, slapping the lovelost lad in either remarkable foreknowledge of the mention of the Fifth Time, or an answer to the name ‘mithy’. “No, not you, good buddy…”
Agli spit and chewed again, thoughtfully piecing his sentence so as not to over- or under-accentuate that upon which he really didn’t want to comment anyway. “Everything’s a possibility, at one time or another, at one place or another. Maybe holdin’ a grand chunk’o’ the stuff, and knowin’ how ta use it properly, would bring about the good things to lead to the good times.”
Dwalim grunted and nodded. “Even if mithril don’t bring about those good things, it might make people believe in that prophecy, and they’d make it happen. Ya ought ta call it something, Ag. How about The Agli Effect?”
Agli snorted, almost swallowing his wad. Burin chuckled, Owin laughed a bit, but as one, they all three quieted down and stared at Dwalim. He had a way of taking strange things and saying them in ways that were remarkably true; the four of them snorted and nodded. As did Mithy the ass.
Welcome to Norville
The town loomed ahead as they crested a hilltop, and Darmon waited for everyone to catch up. They followed the left fork and were soon down Collin Street, the main thoroughfare. Even though it was usually well-traveled, they didn’t expect it to be as deep with wagon and cart ruts—cow hooves would be the normal adornment of roads around this town. There were few people on the road today, and although the party was a strange-looking assortment of cultures, their glance didn’t linger too long.
The houses looked larger than they did when he was here before and seemed to be of amore modern, higher class of structures. Although time clouds many memories, the bar that needed to be there was now little more than a home—a small, unremarkable one at that. There was no sign out front, as it probably had been many years since it had been used as a bar. Signs of repair, such as mismatched coloring of the stucco and new wood-old wood interfaces, let one know that this building had been around, in one form or another, for a while.
Darmon stopped in front of a fairly nice, well appointed house with a white fence and a few flowers planted so as to poke between the newels and slats. A little hand-written sign on the gate read ‘R. Hallerd’; the rest caught up to the Creag, and Thanos asked if this was a person whose ancestors he knew.
“Nae, only met the bartender an’ one other fella. Doubtful it was his pappy’s pap. But this is a nice lookin’ ‘ouse, at the outskirts ‘o town, an’ I got a feelin’ aboot it. Been some carts an’ booted feet along the road here, I’m figurin’ orcs. Gotta be a guy who’s seen somethin’. At least, a start.”
Darmon walked to the gate and looked over it to the window of the house; he reckoned that with a legion of orcs recently using the street, he should tread lightly, so as not to frighten what possibly was an already skitterish populace. A woman noticed them and turned—it seemed to Darmon that she told the man of the house about visitors, and he was right. A tall man, dressed in fairly clean pants and shirt, partly opened the door.
“G’day, sir. The name’s Darmon Stewart; I’ve heard ya been havin’ problems lately, an’ wondered if we could ‘elp.” He looked to Yngvarr, who shrugged as if to approve of his salutation.
The man stepped away from the door and raised a sword, pointing it at the Creag. “L-look h-here, mister. I don’t know who-who your group is, but you’d best be m-m-moving along! We don’t want any trouble.” The sword he brandished had its share of rust and neglect, but what little shine it had, reflected a dance of the sun’s rays that showed, in an instant, how afraid he was. His wife came through the doorway and held onto his arm tightly, half-burying her face in the crook of one armpit as the other one shook. It was easy to see how frightened the people must be, if this was any indication.
Thanos laid his hand on the gate and looked to Darmon; they nodded for him to try. “Mr., uh, Hallerd, I am Thanos, of the House of Gloran. By Tal-Alustiel’s bow, I have sworn to defend all our brothers in this world, against all evil. And it seems that great evil has befallen your fine people. My compatriots would be honored to assist you in your quest for justice and freedom!”
The man’s brow deepened and his head nodded upward and back in a mixture of disbelief and confusion at the high-sounding virtues espoused by the elf. Thanos looked back to Yngvarr, who slowly shook his head to indicate that path of conversation wouldn’t be any more fruitful.
Owin stepped up to the fence. “We got some good jerky. Me pappy jerked up a calf last month, ya might like it; got spices ‘specially grown in the depths of Wawmar, some that ya probably never heard of. If ya got some water for some weary travelers, we’ll just all sit on the grass for a while, eat and drink. Least ways, you’ll get ta sample some good Khazak food that I bet ya haven’t tried. Don’t even have ta talk, should ya not want ta.”
Richard lowered his sword—his muscles couldn’t take much more of the pose, anyway—and his feigned stern gaze softened to that of a man who might crack at any time. “Suzanne, could you get a bucket of water for our guests, and some cups?” She tugged at his arm and looked up into his eyes, but a calming glance and a nod brimming with assurance let her know he felt they would be safe. He handed her his sword; she took it and looked into his eyes, eyes which told her he wouldn’t be needing it. He walked to the gate.
Owin walked to the cart, where Tao had already retrieved the pouch of Dwarven delicacies from the pack, smiling to him in approval of his handling of the situation. To say his heart melted like a soft chunk of mithril on a smithy’s coals would be an understatement. The group dropped their weapons outside the gate and entered, shaking the host‘s hand and introducing themselves. Suzanne arrived with the water, Thanos hurrying to help her with the load, and they all sat in a circle. Hallerd started by passing cups of water around, apologizing about the lack of hospitality. “I’m sorry about this...it’s difficult to trust anyone these days. We can go in...”
“Not at all, Mr. Hallerd. This grass is soft, the sun is bright, and our legs are weary. From what we heard, you people been through a lot lately, and we don’t blame ya a bit!” Owin was enjoying his new post as speaker of the group, and knew Tao appreciated him more for it.
Richard took a jerky strip from the pouch that was being passed around, finding it quite tasty. “Being a beef man, Mr. Owin, I might ask you for the recipe to the herbs for this. But as for our troubles here, we don’t understand what is going on. We’ve never been a targeted area for orc sorties in the past. They usually don’t want beef, from what I’ve been told—just human, dwarf and elven flesh—that, and domination of everything that walks.”
Yngvarr frowned and stopped chewing. “What, you mean they came and took livestock? Darmon...?”
The Creag shook his head in surprise. “Not like any orc party I’ve ‘eard ‘a, if that’s all they took. Thanos?”
“No, nothing comes to mind. They usually make a blood grog...oh, please forgive me...” He noticed Suzanne cringing, her stomach almost turning. “Perhaps they’re using it for food.”
“No, that wouldn’t be all they would take. Can’t be using it to feed horses—they eat horses! But they must be feeding something.”
Owin nodded, “True, Yngvarr. But what? And this leader who sent his crow ta see us at the campfire…”
“Morbagg?” asked Richard. “One of his orcs mentioned his name the last time they went through here.”
“Yeah…Morbagg…that was the name the crow used, wasn’t it? Morbagg, of the Blood Tooth. Nice name for a family, I guess. Since when does an orc, even an head orc, use things like a crow ta spy on people?”
Agli grunted, “Hmmff…right ya are, Owin. An’ how many orcs use magic ta do their dirty work? Ever heard of that, Thanos?”
“I imagine there are orc wizards, but few and far between. Any race of people can develop mastery over the planes and move things with their minds, and make…”
He stopped dead, and everyone looked at him, perhaps realizing he stumbled upon something. “Go on, Elhil…”
“…make something to whom, or what, he has to feed beef, Agli. What that something is, I have no idea.”
“Close enough, eh, Creag?”
Darmon nodded. “Hae, yae, chief. I had friends, beings who ye may call ‘fiends’, generations ago, the Yuan-ti. No, they ain’t legends—they’s real, as real as this jerky I’m eatin’. They war moonsters, yae, moonsters, but their lineage goes way back. This thing that eats beef, maybe Morbagg’s sorcered ‘imself up a moonster, some kinda beast, on the sly. Why he’s tryin’ ta keep us outa his business, an’ i’ ‘tis. Hae, Yngg, hae.”
“Close enou’ fer me, First in Line.”
Hallerd gasped. “Chief…Yngvarr…Creag…First in… You two might be the Immortals who Walk?”
“It’s what they call Yngvarr and Darmon Stuart. A legend, true, but here you are, flesh and blood!”
Darmon shook his head and looked quite weary of what had become of a simple pest elimination job. He looked to Yngvarr, who nodded as well—he was tiring of it all, too. “Roll with it, brother…”
Darmon smiled. “Yae, Richard. ‘Tis us, in the flesh. We can throw tall tales aroond the campfire some time, but for now, let’s focus on the Blood Tooth. Ya gotta have some old army types aroond here, maybe some who retired an’ started a ranch. Where’s yer protection?”
“We have none. We move cattle and some grain. No one’s ever attacked us before.”
“Ya got nae fortifications?”
“No, just our houses.”
“Farland, Zealand, Kelerak,…?”
“No one wants to help, it seems. As long as we’re supplying food to the south, leave it alone, I guess they figure.”
“Well, maybe you’ll have an ally in Anaria, even though we’re a little far off. We don’t want Orcs runnin’ loose anywhere near us. And I assume the Elhil feel that way, Thanos?”
“It seems I’m the only one from the Belendale who has taken any interest in this situation, or if there were others, I’m sure we would all be of the same voice.”
“Don’t you have a time of your life when you have to go on a quest and prove your worth, to become an adult, or something?” asked Richard.
“No, Mr. Hallerd, there isn’t anything set in stone that we have to follow, although I think it is something that is sorely lacking. Perhaps, should I find enough of us who believe in such a thing, we will pursue a religion of our own, focusing on it.”
“Getting back to the point, Mr. Hallerd, how many are you, the townspeople, that is? Are there some willin’ ta take a stand against these orcy types?”
“Well, Owin, although I’m considered the town ‘mayor’, or the one everyone asks what to do all the time, I don’t think anyone knows, really. We don’t tax the populace, we don’t fix the roads, we hadn’t had to police the area, we…”
“Where’s the sewage go?” asked Agli.
“Uh,… well… uh… in trenches and stone pipes, to a large cistern, where we lime it and cover it. We all take turns.”
“Oh.” Everyone looked to the descendant of, probably, the first Civil Engineer on the planet, a little strangely. “Well, everybody poops. Civilized folk do somethin’ with it.”
It took a bit of stammering amid blurbs of silence to regain the conversational momentum.
“Well, uh, as far as the number of men, possibly ten thousand people total, maybe one thousand men of middle age. But nobody really has stood up to them. I don’t really know if we can do that.”
“Arrgh…Khazak poop! Anyone can defend ‘imself, ‘is clan, ‘is way o’ life. All ya need is someone ta show ya how.” Darmon accentuated the rambling with a swig of fresh water, and received a “Hmmmpf…” and nod from an Anarian who also knew the way to train militia.
Richard nodded, but it turned to a shake of his head after a few seconds. “I’m sure you both know how to train troops, Mr. Stuart, but there are only a few who have ever fought a lick, and those skirmishes were border disputes and rarely drew much blood. We’re cattle people. We know meat, we know cows, we know how to raise them. Period. Most of this part of Farland know little of the cattle world, and don’t need to. I doubt if you can find many swords among them all.”
Burin sighed. “Although we brothers came here for a different reason, our lives have become a’twined all up, and we owe our partners a great debt of gratitude. Bein’ Khazak, we know how to fight from the womb…” and got three nods of agreement and harrumphs in chorus… “pardon me use of the ‘womb’ word, Mrs. Hallerd… but we’re willin’ to help in any way.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, Burin, why did you come to our town? For beef?”
“Mi…” he partially blurted, then looked to the other three, who nodded, “…Mithril. We believe it’s in the hills to the north. But don’t tell anyone.”
“I’m sure few here even know what it is.”
Suzanne felt confident enough to speak, and also felt that her counterpart was not represented. “Miss Tao… you’ve been quiet so far. How do you feel about what must be quite a long journey?”
Tao smiled, finally addressing another woman for the first time since the trail. “When journey from A to B, may only reach C. But C may be what you want, and what you need. Feel this place is C.”
“Are you getting’ the feel that your husband’s here, somewhere, even captured by the Blood Tooth, Tao?”
“Yes, Yngvarr. Twa and I worked together to make feelings travel over many days walk. It is deep and true, and has guided me to here. I can feel him, stronger than before. It is called ‘Heart Wind’, and is part of marital training.”
Suzanne reached out and held her hand. “I think it’s beautiful. Perhaps when you are reunited, you could teach Richard and I…heart wind.”
“Would be most honored. And will be most honored to try teach people how to fight. But none can fight like kuni-do…is years to train. Can help, though.”
Dwalim glanced to Owin at the mention of Heart Wind, noticing his shoulders slump to the posture of a man who realizes that he fights for true love by fighting truer and stronger love. But he saw in the glint of his eyes a little pride in Tao, and felt he may be working through his crush.
The conversation continued for another half hour, with the Hallerds getting to know Darmon’s group better—perhaps a little too well, as evidenced by a simple bird, pecking away at some seeds under a tree nearby. Suzanne noticed it initially, remarking that some of the birds have been more friendly and used to people nearby. Thanos pried, “Is it that bird, beneath the apple tree, to whom you’re referring?”
“Yes…that one. It seems to be watching us. But that’s simply silly, isn’t it? A simple…”
“…No! Not so, Mrs. Hallerd!” Thanos glanced toward Darmon. His own glance was directed to a bird he at once recognized.
“Kantor’s crusty beard! The damned… Morbagg!”