The Sack of Norville
By Gerry Torbert
Garlack sat on the stump in his tent, staring at the south wall. A map of Norville, quickly pencilled and coarsely drawn, showed the layout of the streets, the contours of the land and groups of houses. He did one thing well, and much better than any other Oluk military man—he studied.
He dipped a sharpening stone—one he had picked up several years back in a raid on an elven outpost—in the metal tin partly filled with melted human body fat, butchered from one of the unlucky residents of the last raid. He slowly drew the stone along the length of a well-forged and perfectly finished blade, never once averting his eyes from the map. The sword was one of his most prized possessions, and he never let it out of his sight. To him, it represented some of the finer things of life—something that he could appreciate in private; something made with care and pride; something he could attain in this violent, dark, hate-filled society that was indicative of the status he had achieved.
After a half hour of intense concentration, he turned the sword over and adjusted the candle; he shifted on his stump and changed the focus of his concentration to the second map—that of the clans and topography of Anaria—as he began work on the other edge.
The sun moved faster now, or so it seemed. The rays skittered along between the branches and leaves of the nearby treeline, and the subsequent shadows played a nervous, wind-blown tarantella on the outside of the tent. The tent was sewn as a random patchwork of shapes, all mostly tan or brown; several of the panels had colored patterns drawn on them, others were faces or words; one read "Mother" in front of a heart and rose. It was a tent made of tattooed, human skins, and from the central pole, a thick rope was tied at one end, with a hangman's noose at the other.
Darmon sat quietly at the table, across from Jim O'Malley and Richard, all three drinking tea made from a rich blend of heather and native spices, but it was a repentant ghost who stole the show. Jim seemed more comfortable and at ease than before, and felt less danger housing a spectral being than wearing the rugged, slightly tattered set of farming clothes he donned. Between sips of the tea, Sumus spoke more than he had in years.
"Julie, my wife, has noticed. Sumus let me explain it to her, and even left me for times when we wanted to be...alone, you know...I don't know where he went." "That's true, I can't survive, Darmon, without a host, so I found a passerbye, then later wiped it from his mind. I so wanted to become part of the world whose portal Slayer provides, but I knew that I had taken lives, and wasn't worthy."
"That is true, Sumus. It is not my decision—it is the way the portal operates. If there was a good deed..."
"I understand, Sumus. But the facts remain that you did those evil deeds." "Yes, Richard. But the wars—something inside me reached a wall. There was blood, screaming, death; I can't...you can't imagine...." Jim's eyes began to tear, sweat beading on his forehead. Richard put his arm around Jim's shoulders, realizing that this transfer of pain was being felt tenfold by his own friend, yet this was the only way the ghost could relate.
"Jim...I mean Sumus...both o' yae...I knu wha' yair goon thu, believe me. Yae ‘ave ta gird yairself, strengthen yair oon body, yair mind, look a' it as a job, an oc'pation, an' separate th' blood from th' bleedin'. Some can, some try, some never will. It's a trauma, an' it eats inta yair boons, it do. Noo one, an' I mean noo one, is ever nae affected. Dragonslayer can attest." "Somethin' tells me, Sumus, tha' yae'll git yair chance, an' soon, ta bury it all. I truly believe the real Sumus was galliant, thoughtful an' brave, bu' there's a shell now, ‘at ‘e ‘as ta break...hae, swordlady?" he said, as he slapped the metal strapped to his side.
The enchanted weapon hummed ever so lightly, accompanied by a warm glow, as Richard, Jim and, if one could tell, Sumus, could see and hear, to their amazement; it was the first time Darmon had fully accepted her gender reassignment.
They seem to know. People call them "dumb animals," yet there's something within that attaches them to nature, then past her to the affairs of the so-called dominant species. They know.
The night came down with a thud, not the usual squeezing and pushing out the remaining, stubborn strip of light that clings steadfastly to the horizon, carrying memories of a bright day, chasing after the sun as it plunges inexorably to its rest. No, not this day, not this hour, not this pending night. Maybe it was the cloud cover or smoke from the conflagration of hundreds of torches to the east; maybe it was the animals themselves, scattering about for a place to hide; maybe the gods knew what was about to happen.
Not a single bird could be seen flapping a wing or flitting about to look for a late-night snack. Even insects that normally swarm about and feast on the sweat of active people were conspicuous in their absence. A light fog lifted to the east, where the torches glowed in a mass of hate-filled lust for fresh blood grog. A bloody chant filled the far-away air, as the troops stomped their way toward the town of Norville. Yngvarr stood in the middle of the eastern road, leaning over the mighty axe as he drew his stone across the already-sharp edge that reflected an orange glow. Thanos slowed his walk so as not to startle such a formidable man, stopping a dozen steps to his rear.
"Thoughts, O Great Chief? Odds, perhaps?"
"Thanos. Just the man I was looking for. Not in the physical sense, since I'm looking at a bunch of maniacs; a mindless batch of fools; an unsociable lot of miscreants...I could go on."
"I didn't know you had such an extensive vocabulary, Chief."
"Hmmpf. Well, being Chief requires a lot of work. It's always best to be one word ahead of your people; it keeps them guessing and lets you continue uninterrupted for a while. I've had a lot of time to read, and one of my favorite books is Tonbarr's Words for the Wise. It gave the word in Farlandish of Anarian, and back again. I assume there's an elven book like that?" "We have great teachers at our disposal. But somewhere, someone keeps records. My father taught me much of the records we kept in the Belendale, before he died in battle."
"Oh. Sorry to hear that. A shame, as Elhil lives are so long."
"Yes, it was, in more ways than one. I don't talk about it, it is done and past. But my brothers and I were young, and an Oluk general made us watch as he killed Father."
"But it seems strange, discussing words when we have thousands of demons staring us down."
Yngvarr realized Thanos wasn't able to speak any more about it, so he decided to change the subject. "Speaking of strange, how are our Khazak friends doing?" Thanos chuckled and shook his head. "You know, I deeply respect the children of Khuldul. They are industrious, loyal, intelligent, good and kind. But at times, they can be...what is the word...?"
"Exactly! This fascination with bodily functions, waste, the whole...well, it is disgusting to many Elhil."
Yngvarr laughed. "Perhaps it's that fascination, or their acceptance of it, which makes them realize what happens to our food it almost as important as the food itself. At least, they linked the mithril in our diet to the spell, through waste. But I do agree, it can become overwhelming."
"Yes, that is true. Do you have any well-chosen, powerful, inspirational words of wisdom for me in the upcoming battle?"
"I've been making more over the last few days. I have about two hundred of them. I assume my best vantage point is atop Mr. Hallerd's house?"
"That is what I'd do. Got potions?"
"As with the arrows, I have been concocting healing potions and poisons."
"Don't get them mixed up. Found a word for all this, yet?"
"Hell. Just hell."
"Yeah. Tonbarr would be proud. Let's get everyone ready."
About two blocks, toward the town, from the Hallerd home, a very strange-looking assemblage of unlikely fighters listened carefully to a small Kunese woman and watched as she sparred with Suzanne Hallerd with a variety of gardening and blacksmithing implements. Tao dodged thrusts and swings of a fireplace poker and retuned Suzanne's attacks with blocks of her nun-chaku. Each time, she explained the importance of maintaining balance and preparing for counterattacks.
Alongside the road, several men worked under Burin's direction, throwing some logs and fir branches on a fire pile about twenty feet long. Flames leapt five to ten feet high and Owin drove a wagonload of peat moss beside the fire, as Twa tossed the peat into it.
As the army of purplish devils crested the hilltop, a signal was given by Agli. Dwalin rode in a cart pulled by an ass, and he followed Owin; he reached back and threw handfuls of heather into the fire as he drove past. The flowers and petals caught fire and burst forth with a gray, steamy fog.
Agli signalled to Tao, who led the pack of townsfolk to the fire. "My friends, feel cleansing smoke of fire as it strenghtens you! Breathe deeply, and hold smoke in long as you can, then take another breath! You will soon feel refreshed!"
The rag-tag gang of cow-handlers and farmers leaned over the fire as the heather caught, and breathed in the pungent odor. Agli bellowed out, "Neahmm a ifreann!" Nothing happened. He yelled again, as the orcs noticed the benign human roadblock and began marching faster.
Agli yelled again, but the people just looked at him, incredulously; they became anxious as the orcs gained momentum. Agli turned to Darmon, who was getting ready to intercept the monsters, yelling for help. Darmon unsheathed the Lady and started walking toward the road, when a cloud appeared over the road, just in front of him. It became thick and completely opaque, and fell to the road within a few seconds, completely blanketing and blocking the view of the orcs.
Darmon ran to the center of the road, joined from the one side by Yngvarr and Richard from the other. Yelps and sounds of confusion pierced the fog as the demons began hacking at themselves in the total darkness... a darkness that now began to cover the entire sky.
Darmon looked around and noticed two old men along his side of the road. Torgarr and Eohacob were kneeling, hand in hand, staring at the ground, their lips moving as they recited a powerful spell that blackened the air around the Orcs and confused their meager minds and sense of direction. Eohacob smiled and turned to the townspeople, but looked up at the ever-blackening sky to realize it was not only due to the fog.
Moonlight and starlight were flickering as objects flew in front of them; the torchlights from the orcs much further up the road mixed with the intense light from the firewall below, illuminating a giant mass of feathered warriors from above; thousands of eagles, presumably with Mountaintop in front, dove into the clouds with reckless abandon. Screams from orcs, who were being savagely pecked and clawed, chilled the air. An occasional demon tumbled out of the fog and rolled helplessly, screaming and holding his face, into an arrow, an axe or sword. Darmon continued to the fire, about a hundred feet away. Agli met him halfway, a look of concern etched on the wrinkles that a dwarf cultivates throughout his long life. "Wae, wot's the holdup, lad?"
"They don't respond, Darmon! I used the phrase, ‘neahmm a ifreann'; did I pronounce it right?"
"Hae, ya did, lad. Maybe it needs a Creagish lilt." He ran to the gang of people, some who were walking toward him. He repeated the spell, time after time, with no result except for some sceptical looks.
He turned to Agli, but noticed the cloud of fog starting to break up. "Damn. Morbagg's got a counter spell. Bastard!"
The orcs continued their charge, some falling over the fallen ones, some leaping over others. The eagles flew off, their element of surprise and cover now gone. Darmon ran to help Yngvarr, but the swell was too great. Even though the eternal champions cut paths through the crowd of beasts, the mass continued around them. Each orc who felt confident his hack or stab hit its mark continued past the two chiefs, ignoring the almost immediate healing that occurred. It didn't hurt that an arrow was sticking out of both Darmon's and Yngvarr's neck, pumping elven healing potions into their bodies.
But soon, the sounds of war were overtaken by the screams of the townsfolk as the orcs hit them. Helplessly attempting to ward off the vicious monsters with household implements, they were mostly pushed aside or knocked down in their haste and aggressiveness. Darmon and Yngvarr turned, during a slight lull, to see the orcs smashing the resistance quite easily.
Suddenly Darmon ran to one side and yelled to Yngvarr, "Yng! Quick! I think I got the answer!" The Anarian knew that when Darmon gave him that look, he'd better follow his lead. The two ran along the flank of the orc army, slashing everything in sight; attacking from the side and rear gave them an advantage of surprise. The Anarian and Creagish war-whoops helped their cause as well, and many of the orcs turned to meet them, leaving the town's native defenders alone for the moment.
The mass of town fighters, several already well beaten, a few dead, backed off the best they could, helped by the distraction. Now only twenty or so feet downhill, they watched with terror as the orcs turned their attention to the chiefs, one of whom called out, his hands cupped around his mouth, toward the cow wranglers.
"Caonnag' lomnochd!!!" went the call. Darmon looked to Yngvarr as they both dispatched foes, and yelled, "Need yair big mooth, friend!" He turned and called again—"CAONNAG' LOMNOCHD!"
Yngvarr bellowed out as well, and the dwarves added their voices. "I dunna knu why I dinna think o' it, ‘till now! ‘T'is dairk! The otha spell's for the daytime! Gagan MacMann's family names! They're wha trigga's it at night!"
"Well, I'll be! And look!" Yngvarr pointed to the fire.
The orcs, now having turned to the chiefs, ignored the townmen for a moment—their mistake. Immediately, the people began to quickly rip their clothes off, partly due to the spell, and partly due to the swelling of musculature on each part of every man and woman. Pumped intensely, looking like body builder professionals, each one took on a determined, almost pained scowl as they began walking toward the front line.
What happened next was almost as much of a surprise to Tao, Twa and the dwarves as it was to the orcs. One by one, an orc fell to a shovel, rake, axe, pick, or staff as the town rebelled and dealt death to the once-fearless devils. And one fireplace poker struck fear into the hearts of quite a few orcs as they stared in disbelief at a beautiful and naked angel of death, weaving her way through them. Satisfied that the folks of Norville had things well in hand, Darmon turned toward the next wave - that of a powerful platoon of the Red Skull Oluks. They were well known to anyone who had fought the beasts; to those who hadn't, they would just as soon never have seen them. All manners of skulls of opponents—human, dwarven, elven, troll-- you name it—were hollowed out, adorned in the most gruesome manner, and used as helmets, if they were large enough, or if smaller, cut and fitted to use as facial masks. Many were built without the decency of stripping away dead flesh, eyes or hair; these were the ones that induced the most shock value in their foes. Some Oluks were drenched in blood grog, repeatedly, allowed to dry between coats, and reeking of putrified skin.
Darmon and Yngvarr took a stance about six or seven feet apart, to divide the wave of twenty feet in width in thirds. From the rear came the four Dwarves, tending to the outer Oluk flanks and forcing them inward. While the cries of battle behind them raged and assured that the town people were holding their own, the six men braced for the charge. Finely forged Khazak axes sang their deadly steel-song as they tore through flesh, tendon, and cartilage alike, often breaking the cheaply-forged and sulphur-laden metal swords swung from above. Stroke upon stroke, an Oluk sword clanged harmlessly off of the metal-clad shields of the shorter Wawmar fighters. Time and again, scream following scream, a hapless Oluk tottered on remnants of legs and tripped on residuum of gut-cord as he rolled to bloody fate, victim of dwarven under-fighting.
Thanos continued to fire deadly poison arrows into the green flesh of the rear ranks of the Oluks; by the time they had worked their way to the scrimmage, the potions had done their deed, and the ones who had not fallen were in deep pain and suffering, easily removed from consideration. He also carefully switched to healing potions when one of Darmon's band needed it.
The cursed ones racked up foes as if they were sunken shots on a billiard's green; one at a time, they fell to a sword and axe. In one instance, Darmon's left arm was severed at the elbow; luckily, he had the wherewithal to grasp it under the upper arm and stab the overly-zealous beast, with the help of Dragonslayer's ability to leap from his hand to finish a job. Darmon yelled to Yngvarr and Burin, who moved more to his side to close the gap so he could drop back and repair himself.
Hurrying rearward to give himself some room and time, he plunged Slayer into the ground so that he could place the arm back on the elbow and rip out Thanos' latest healing arrow, plunging it into his skin just above the joint—only to realize that in his haste, his left hand was facing to the left. Realizing the severity of the situation, he quickly grasped his sword and re-severed the arm; the yelp of pain, augmented by his realization of what he had just done, further strengthened by the ridiculousness of the predicament, caused Yng and Burin to whirl around to see what was wrong, coming close to taking slashes themselves.
After ten or so seconds, Darmon rejoined the fray, swinging the Lady with renewed vigor. "Everything alright, Darmon?" asked Burin.
"Don' ask, friend" yelled Darmon. "Yae'll only laugh yair'se'f silly, an' get stabbed."
The Red Skulls were slowly losing, beaten back now in mass, and giving ground as the townsfolk approached, having taken care of their foes. As they turned to run, a wall of fire ignited behind them and flames leapt high, blocking their exit. They turned, confused, and charged the townsfolk. But this time, the dwarves turned to follow them, attacking them from behind and pinching them against the naked ones.
While that battle began anew, a man walked forth between flames, followed by an even larger Oluk, and a behemoth of a giant Oluk; the first donned leather pants and vest, but an added cloak and hood marked him as Morbagg; the second was certainly a well-trained and commanding individual; the third was a giant Oluk. Yngvarr clanged his axe against Slayer.
"I've got Garlack. We have history, and he wants Anaria." Darmon nodded, noticing a strange glint of light from the axe as the two metals collided; he ignored it, and turned to Morbagg.
Morbagg threw a fireball Darmon's way, bellowing, "So, ‘old man', eh? Knew ya was a liar, right from the start!" But the fireball was met with another thick fog, with rain pouring down in sheets. The ball fizzled to steam.
"It's yer chance, Groll! He's the enemy! He's been hiding here to attack us!" With that, the monster turned to Darmon and screamed a roar that curled the hair on the back of the neck of almost everyone there. He turned to his left and started charging Darmon.
Darmon adopted a wide stance and felt a stabbing pain in his right shoulder muscles; he turned and saw an arrow protruding from it, and felt a warmth, almost immediately, throughout his entire upper body. Looking toward Richard's house, he nodded to Thanos, who was atop the roof and already notching another arrow. Slayer drawn, Darmon reached back to begin a Highland Whirl, creating a spherical cutting edge all around his body, when the monster quickened his pace by what must have been fivefold. In a blur, it had Darmon by the neck and high in the air; Groll slammed him to the ground, with a force that would have disembowled a normal man. But a thick mat of feathers appeared under him, courtesy of Eahocab, cushioning him and billowing ten feet high in a most comical display.
Darmon dizzily took his feet, the monster hidden from view for a few seconds. Groll drew a great breath and blew the feathers away, drew another and roared again, sounding a charge anew. But Darmon held Slayer vertically and in front of him, her broadside presented to the behemoth as she began to glow and hum. Groll stopped and stared at the images of promise in her blade—the faces of once-tortured people and beings, now at rest and calm—and began to grow calm himself.
"GROLL! Do NOT stare at the sword! He's a demon, and he wants your soul! Listen to me!!" yelled Morbagg, as he waved a dark cloud spell over Darmon's weapon.
Groll wrenched his gaze from the placid pictures, and once again sped up and ran for Darmon. This time, Twa, hiding from view, suddenly appeared between the two. "Groll—my friend, my family—please stop! This is not you! You are no killer!" Groll stopped again, in mid stride.
To one side, Torgarr wove a spell of happiness, of complacency, and cast it over the Super Oluk, whose face twisted with the look of incomprehension and disbelief. "Family...my people. But Morbagg said I will be a great fighter, have gold, people will fear me. You gave me...you cannot give me...You are not family..." he said as his voice trailed off in a morass of confusion.
Behind Twa arrived Owin and Tao, having dispatched the initial charge of orcs and left the townspeople to clean up what was left of the Red Skulls. Morbagg noticed, and began to put two and two together. "So, the little Kunese girl...and the crap bucket boy... aww...that's nice. Ya been a pain in my arse long enough. Tryin' ta turn my Groll, my creation, against...ahhh...too damn clear now. Ta hell with you, skirty boy!" he said, pointing to Darmon. "Let's see ya stop this!"
He thrust his arm in the direction of Twa, releasing a necklace and letting an amulet drop to the bottom of the chain. Chanting a few words, a bolt of purplish lightning issued from his fingers and shot toward Twa, hissing and screaming with the entrapped voices of a thousand tortured souls. But Owin screamed "NO!" and stepped between the spell and Twa; it caught him on the shoulder and knocked him ten feet backward to strike a tree. A second bolt let loose and struck Twa full force in the chest, and knocked him down, with arms, head and legs twisted in sickening angles from the force.
Tao screamed and ran to Twa, catching a last-second smile and several words as he passed. Her sobbing stopped quickly, though, and her features turned dark and solemn. She threw back her hood and pulled out her katanas, threatening, "Now feel the might of all the Kunese of Yrkune, bastard!"
Morbagg grinned and pulled back his arm again, but Groll turned and yelled, "NOT HURT FAMILY!" He started a charge toward the wizard. His speed once again blurred as he almost flew to Morbagg, and he took the full force of the psionic blow, lavendar fire splashing around him and turning to white blasts. Stunned, he took two more astral fireballs as he slumped to his knees, then to the ground, face first.
At that moment, three bulky forms crawled quietly from a sewer cleanout hole just ten feet behind Morbagg, each proudly brandishing a fine Khuldul-blessed axe of Wawmar-forged steel—each equally reeking from the underground trip through standing sewage.
Now, running over Groll's body and using it as a ramp, leapt a black-clad angel of vengeance, whirling and twisting as her short swords swung deadly arcs. But before they met Oluk meat, the wizard stepped back at the same blinding speed as did Groll, and he deflected one sword to the air and caught her other wrist with his other hand.
James O'Malley and Richard Hallerd joined the scene, trotting uphill from the remainder of the fighting near the bonfire. James stumbled to his knees, reaching out to Richard, but collapsed before he could be caught. A cloudy figure, however, pulled itself from James' body and began to fly toward Morbagg. The sorceror now freed one hand from Tao's grasp, but stepping back to balance himself, he was floored backward by three axes slicing his knees from behind. A shrill scream and laugh sounded out, though, as Sumus knifed through the air and ripped through Morbagg's body. His screams echoed those of Sumus, as a part of his own soul freed itself and left his body.
Tao pushed away from the hideous sight as Sumus circled in the sky and cut through the night air to pierce his body and carry away first the spirit of gluttony, the spirit of greed, then lust, envy, pride, sloth, then wrath, then one screaming spirit mass—the remainder of Morbagg himself. Turning in mid-air toward Dragonslayer, the soul raced toward the steel. But icicles sprung all along the blade as it rang as if it had been struck with a blacksmith's hammer; the soul split in two, the parts leapt with two screams to fizzle to a few sparks in the air.
"Never in a million years, demon!"
Sumus then alit to the ground, just a few feet from Darmon. His body was a shimmering spirit, but there was a difference; one that Darmon and Slayer could see.
"We see it, Sumus."
"You are ready."
Sumus leapt lightly toward the sword, and dissappeared into the fine, polished sheen of her steely skin; a warm, yellow glow issued from her.
"Well, look who's come to call! Yngvarr o' Hafvarrar, clan of the Elk! Weak-kneed fool of the great Northern mountains! Kind of thought I might find you here!" Garlack snorted and chuckled an evil grunt as he pulled a fine elven-forged sword from the sheath on his back. He walked to his right, for a few steps, then turned to walk slightly backward in the same circular direction, twisting and whirling the blade a few times. "A little far from your chosen home, eh, Anarian?"
Yng smiled sarcastically, moving to his right and maintaining a circle with the Oluk commander, his axe across his body, top right to low left. "Garlack, the picker of bones! The scourge of the pigs! Leader of vermin! How nice to see you!" He turned to walk backward as well, faking a harmless thrust toward his foe to test him.
But Garlack was up to the challenge, meeting his thrust with a sharp retort to Yng's axe. The Anarian's weapon rang, but with a singing sound that changed by an octave as it waned. A blue light glinted within the axe, surprising Garlack. "Easy, boy. We have time..."
"So, another fancy weapon! Seems you and the Creag need an advantage. Does not matter to me in the least, you know", he said, in a most peculiarly clear and refined speech. "Slash for block, parry for thrust, eye for eye," he said.
"Tan Lee Nah Sohook, chapter three, I believe. You didn't finish the quote."
The two continued their circling and testing of each other. "So, a Northman who is well read, eh? Didn't expect that from hillbillies who worship wild animals!" He punctuated his comment with two very fast, short slashes that slid off the head of the axe.
"Nor I, from a parasite that eats rotten body parts. How do you live with yourself, pig?" The chief made a quick thrust to move his foe back, enabling him to steal a quick glance over his shoulder—in time to see a giant lifting his friend by the neck.
"I have quite the collection: ‘A great leader must stay ahead of his foes, but farther ahead of his charges'. Tan Lee must have fought the Anarian Squirrel Clan, or something as foolish and stupid." They continued their dance—this time, Garlack was facing the other fight, and saw Twa face Groll. He grimaced and laughed, taunting "Won't be too long, Elk Boy, until a large, stupid monster begins to eviscerate his foes."
Yngvarr felt it was time, and swung the axe handle in an uppercut, just clipping the Oluk's chin; he further gained ground with two long steps, arcing the axe head back and down, then back up toward Garlack, presenting him with his side, the narrowest of his surfaces. The axe head began to hum—no, to sing—a wordless chant in a light voice, while flickering light along the two cutting edges. Yng spun the head several times, creating a blinding sworl of colors.
"I suppose your axe sucks souls, much like Darmon's sword?" he asked, continuing the egotistical repartee. "Don't look to do me any favors—I'll live mightily for an eternity in Vornoth's caves." He rubbed his chin where the axe handle left a red mark.
"I really don't know, Garlack" said Yngvarr, now facing the other fight, watching a fireball slam into Twa. "...but you seem to be quite concerned with the outcome of our friends. In Anaria, we call it 'doven vid forviding', or, if you read Tonbarr,..."
"...death by confus..." began Garlack; he barely got it out when he had to fend off a surprise charge from Yngvarr. Two thrusts and a sweep of the axe were barely deflected by the elven steel, as Garlack tried hard to maintain balance while retreating.
"Yeah, confusion..." said Yngvarr, as he smiled and nodded at the point of an Oluk ear laying on the ground.
Garlack fumed, but smiled and raised the sword again. "Damned ear was in the way, anyway. I'm lighter, faster now. Let's see you stop THIS!" With that, he began to unleash a series of finely-practiced thrusts and slashes with the obviously light, strong and durable Elhil weapon. Ygnvarr had seen some of these swords—folded many times during the forging process, the individual layers were extremely thin and constant, almost like gold leaf. It took finely trained artisans months to establish the primary ingot; just as long to achieve the crystalline structure. The moves so deftly made by the Oluk were so well planned and executed that it was all Yngvarr could do to avert disaster. As it was, he received dozens of slashes and slices on his face, head, arms and chest. "You simply have to tell me where you found such a magnificent weapon!" quipped Yng as he backed off and Garlack took a breather.
"A captain of the house of Gloran; pulled it from his cold, dead hands in the Belendale, years ago. Some kind of records keeper, in a temple or something. Killed him as his kids watched. A sweet way to go, doncha think?"
Yngvarr gnashed his teeth and clenched the axe tightly, as he realized what battle Garlack was talking about. He brought the axe up in front of him, keeping his adversary in view, and glanced at it; the cutting edges were crimson and lightly vibrating, and Yngvarr detected a feeling of vengeance and anger. Surprised, he realized that the lack of ability to speak was replaced by its ability to emote. "Okay, brother...here's where you get your chance..." Yng whispered.
He slowly brought the axe down to an angle and extended toward Garlack, who recognized it as a salute, the same kind that boxers give each other in the beginning of the final round. Garlack winced, though, when he saw the light, from the still-huge bonfire, reflecting in the polished surface, playing on the face of the Anarian—not a single scar or cut was visible, and a light wind blew the once-blood dust from his cheeks. The sword was slowly drawn across the red edge of the axe in a song of respect, while the axe glowed slightly in understanding.
"Well, it appears that I am going to have to cut your head off to win, Yngvarr!" "Indeed, Garlack. Give it your best!"
The conversation began, smartly, with a sixte and septime by Garlack to block lunges by the Anarian, who disengaged with a whirling motion to re-engage the line. They held at salute, realizing both were actually excellent fencers. "Assuming, I am, that your vaunted collection of books includes Fer-du-lunge by Kale's Francoise Luperme? You must have read it front to back!" "Complement well received, large one. I get so few opportunities to use it, with the dearth of fencers in my charges. You must have read it as well."
"Wrote it. Francoise is my pen name, and I've had a lot of time. Here's Chapter Six, if you're interested!" Beginning with an attack au fer, a swirling block, he swept Garlack's blade aside, followed by a feint to the inside line and spinning toward the inside as well on the balls of his feet, performing a neuvieme (whirling his blade behind his back as he presented his back, in a most dangerous and carefree manner, as he passed); as Garlack turned to follow the flow and re-engage, Yngvarr spun and planted the axe severely and directly on his zyphoid process; Garlack's momentum drove it deeply into his lungs and heart. Yngvarr fell to his back, Garlack's blade between the Chief's arm and chest, the Northman pinning it, but at the expense of slicing himself against the blade. But the rear of the axe handle was well planted in the ground, with the Oluk bent over Yngvarr and rapidly losing blood. From a distance, it looked as if the result of the battle was quite the opposite from what had occurred. They stayed there, locked in mid-strikes and accepting the silent realization that their battle had reached a conclusion.
Thanos saw the thrusts and, through smoke and imperfect flickering light, thought he saw Garlack delivering a telling blow. He leapt off the roof, his job there finished anyway, and ran full-tilt to the site of the fight. As he approached, he was surprised to see Garlack at death's door, with the Anarian laying on the ground, covered with Oluk blood.
Garlack managed a chuckle, but it sounded more like a gurgle. "With an... axe... never would have thought... Slash for block...parry for thrust...eye for eye; I forgot... rest of... quote, Yngvarr...Francoise...?"
"Steel for soul, Garlack."
"Figures. Collection... in my tent... it is yours now... been my honor..." With that, with the dull, focusless gaze that accompanies the creak of the hinges of Hell and a welcome smile from Vornoth himself, he passed; a frown crossed Yngvarr's brow, and his eyes welled a bit, having been touched by what was, indeed, a very strange and enigmatic man.
"Chief - are you okay?"
He pushed Garlack's body to the side, stood up and grabbed the sword from his grasp; it bit into his flesh, but with all the potions he had taken so far, the cuts closed immediately. He handed the sword to the Elf. "Here, my good friend. This should be familiar."
Thanos began to cry, but staidly caught himself, wiped his eyes and cleared his throat. "Many thanks, friend. I never, in an eternity, thought I would find this, and I gave up a long time ago. My mission has now come full-circle." He reached out and grasped his friend's arm, hand-to-elbow, then shook it emphatically. Breaking the clasp, they walked to Darmon's side of the road.
Tao was sitting cross-legged with Twa's head on her lap; she sobbed quietly as she rocked lightly back and forth, reciting something from a Kunese death ritual. Owin sat with her, his shoulder burned and clothing charred, but his hand on her shoulder.
The townspeople were looking through the pile of clothing for their own. Darmon sat on the road surface, both hands on Slayer's hilt in front of him, staring at her blade. He saw the usual inhabitants—scores of people from Death Downs, Aiden O'Limm, several card players, various others from his journeys, a tall dragon, a smiling Twa and Sumus; the latter was looking back, with a smile and relief etched on his face.
"Groll is waiting, Darmon...?"
"Of course. He was redeemed, too." He stood and walked to the hulking mound that, not long ago, found, saved, and lost part of his new friends and family. He laid her across his heart and left them alone for a few minutes.
Yngvarr walked to Darmon, extending a shake, hand to elbow. "Everything okay? Sumus?"
Darmon nodded. "Hae, he dealt the death blow, whilst Miss Tao locked ‘im up. He an' Groll'r now in the blade. Garlack?"
"Gone. Jus' gone, is all. I'll never meet a man quite like him."
Torgarr and Eohacob stumbled toward their friends, and accepted steadying arms, as their energy was all but spent. They were gaunt, as if they had concluded a marathon race, their hair gray and eyes sunken; panting and shaking from the effort, they nodded approval of the fight.
Tao sat with Twa's body in her arms, smoothing his blood-matted black hair, part of her remembering their perfect love, while part of her hoping he would rise and grasp her in his arms once again. Owin held her, holding her from falling over. The three dwarves sat in a circle around them, and around that, Darmon, Yngvarr, Thanos, Suzanne, Richard, James and the two wizards sat in the final ring. No one left until dawn, when the townspeople, who fell asleep by the bonfire, awoke and began dragging the invaders' bodies onto the fire. Twa's body was covered and Tao was carried, sleeping, into the Hallerd's house, where breakfast was begun.
Tao got some more rest and joined them for the meal, which was solemn and respectful because of her loss. But bellies needed to be filled; everyone gave her space and waited to see how she would rebound. In keeping with Kunese philosophies, though, she began to come out of the shell she was in.
"Owin, how is shoulder today? Was much damage; can Thanos help?"
Owin lifted the patch of cloth, winced at the burned flesh and put it back down to cover the damage. "I'll be fine, Miss Tao. Thanos gave me some healing potion. Just a scratch, as we Khazak say."
Darmon passed some pork to Yngvarr; as he reached for it, he pulled it a couple of inches from his grasp. "Nae, brothah, not ‘til ya tell us wha' ‘appened ovah there."
Yng smiled and nodded. "To make it short, Garlack was a most refined gentleman of the swordplay arts, and a very avid reader of mostly everything he could get his hands upon." "The sword he had rightfully belonged to Thanos' father, and Thanos can now take it safely home, to achieve some sort of much-needed closure. He bequeathed his collection of books to me, and that's the first thing I intend to retrieve. I'll need a pack horse, if someone has one to spare, Richard, and I'll have one of my soldiers return it in a few weeks."
"Ya whooped ‘im wi' yair axe?"
"Yes, Darmon. And not just any axe." He reached behind him and brought it forth over the table. "Seems you're not the only one with a weapon that's alive and can think. My good man doesn't talk, but I can feel everything he feels. And he was the main reason I came out alive. Now, you, First in Line." The axe glowed a calm shade of blue.
Darmon cut the pork and put down his knife, first drinking milk from a mug. "Groll ‘ad the best o' me, at fairst, bu'..." and looked to Tao, who nodded that she was ready to hear it. "...Twa did ‘is best ta save ‘im, an' Owin, ‘is best ta save Twa. Bu' Tao fought Morbagg, an' Sumus ran through ‘im, releasin' the seven sins an' ‘is own soul. ‘E's sufferin' in one o' Vornoth's caves, ‘bout now. He'll be thair forever. I know Sumus an' Groll ‘a earned their home for eternity, court'sy o' The Queen of Swords." He looked to Tao for approval of the story, and got a nod. "Do ya have a name fair yair new trav'l'n friend, Yng?"
"Thinking ‘Thanos' might do well...?" The elf smiled.
Richard buttered some bread as Suzanne sat and began to eat. "I have a few horses, myself, Chief, and think Blaze would do you well." He looked to Suzanne, who nodded approval. "We also feel that, if Miss Tao would feel comfortable with it, we could lay Twa to rest, with the rites of the Kunese, right where he now lays. We'll build a fence around it, place a rock and care for the site as long as we live." He looked to Tao.
She nodded and wiped a tear; Owin put his bad arm around her and winced again, and she took a deep breath. But she suddenly showed some distress, and got up to run into the bathroom. Suzanne went after her, and returned in a few minutes to the table.
"Well, it seems Miss Tao has more to remind her of Twa than she expected." She looked around as, one by one, they nodded and smiled. Owin was as white as a sheet.
Thanos asked Richard, as he downed a mug of tea, "Mr. Hallerd - does the fine town of Norville seem, to you, satisfied in their ability to protect itself, or will you need further help?"
"Actually, Thanos, I have a rather large, open, unused field about a quarter mile east. I was thinking of planting fir trees and heather. A good plan, if the need ever arises again."
"And what about you, Agli? Will you still be on the quest for mithril?" asked Thanos, between bites of egg.
Agli pushed his plate back and put his elbows on the table, his hands folded and supporting his chin. "I think the boys and I have come too far, done too much, ta go home." He looked at each of the three, who each nodded in the affirmative. "I still think we're close, and it all stems on going uphill, following streams."
James, while listening, picked up a muffin and cut it in half, but in the midst of buttering one side, stopped and wrinkled his brow in thought. "You know, there was an old man... I used to spend a little time in Moonlight—you know, Richard, that little town just north of Norville, or maybe it was a part of Norville, or, whatever... had a little blacksmith shop, the smithy sold horseshoes, stuff like that. I'd spend a Saturday morning there, in the fall, warmin' my hands, drinkin' his coffee, talkin' about stuff, people gone by, things that..."
He looked up and noticed everyone waiting for him to get to the point. "...Ahem... anyway, this old man would wander in. He picked up some provisions, you know, bread, butter, soap... the owner, Hank Murphy, his dad bought it and Hank ran the store once his dad passed on, turned the back of it into a forge, sold some goods on the side. Anyway... where was I... Oh, this old man came in once in a while, name of Payden McMohr, or somethin' like that. He'd stay a couple of hours, but he always seemed to get tired pretty quick, and have to leave with his purchases. Strange, but Sumus, when he controlled me, would sometimes think of that place." He looked around again as everyone stared.
James was quite the story-teller, but apparently often went astray and rambled a bit. "Well, uh, I guess, you might start with that guy. Follow the river north, then it branches to the west; take the north fork again, then it branches to the east; then take the north fork again. The town is a little dump, but has an inn, and ya might run into this guy, maybe he can tell you if you can find that old town site. Legends have been told about it."
Agli's eyes widened; he looked to each of the dwarves, who had the same reaction. Dwalim muttered, "Gagan McMann...Payden McMohr...what's this legendary town called, James?"
"Uh, Abutt, Arbow, something like that. I don't know - legends never get written down."
Agli broke into a broad smile, slapping Dwalim and Burin on the back. "Guess we know where we're gonna go!"
Tao was returning from the bathroom; she approached the table, shaking slightly, and said, "It sounds fun."
The dwarves stopped rejoicing and Owin said, "Ya can't be serious, Miss Tao. Yer in no condition..."
"Now, pardon, Sir Owin, but who can protect Khazak friends better than Kunese warrior? And who better than me, to know if I will hurt child? And owe debt to you, for trying to save Twa." She bent over and gave Owin a kiss on the cheek that left him flushed and speechless.
"But, may want to go with Yngvarr to orc camp. May help to free last Kunese men, so they can return home. Know how felt when husband lost...even if returned for only brief few days."
Suzanne reached over and grabbed her hand. "Tao, have you thought of a name for...him?...her?"
"I think 'Twa' sounds like a good name, and we'd all be honoring his memory," said Owin.
Yngvarr rose from the table, his axe still in hand. "I think I can help, Miss Tao." He walked to her and held out the axe. "May I? Or may he?" Tao nodded without knowing what he was about to do; the chief gently lowered the axe head to touch her belly—the axe turned a pink on one blade, and a blue on the other. "Ahh...better think about a boy's name and a girl's name, Tao...you have twins!"
A cheer went out, and Tao was speechless as she hugged Owin. When things quieted down, she thanked Suzanne and Richard for taking care of Twa's remains. "No, thank you, Tao...", insisted Suzanne, with a sideways wink to Richard; "...we're very interested in trying out something new...heartwind!"