A Voice in the Dark

The Hateful Wars: Chapter Fourteen

Thomas Kelly

The fastaal shouted out orders in the elven tongue, assuming himself the commander of the situation. Likewise, the dwarven officers shouted their own commands in their own tongue, each one assuming himself the leader. Arrows punctured flesh, dwarves and elves clutched at wounds, and savages leaped toward them with thirsty blades.

As the chaos of the battle erupted around her, Kristryd seemed to float above it, as if observing these things happen to someone other than herself—as if playing war in a child’s game. The curious detachment had dreamlike quality. Despite the darkness all around her, her dwur eyes could clearly discern the orcs leaping from behind the stones and dropping from hidden alcoves above. So this is how it ends, here on the Low Road, as it ended for my miserable and unhappy husband, she thought to herself. Her thoughts turned to her three sons. Shall I leave them as orphans?

Kristryd Takes Charge

After only a moment of hesitation, she took charge, ignoring both the Celene officer and the long-bearded dwarven warmen. With a natural ease like one long accustomed to the battlefield, she shouted orders in elvish and dwarvish as the need demanded. Her clear-toned voice resonated above the din of battle. “Form up! Wall of shields! Hammers and axes between!” she commanded in the dwarvish tongue. “Archers aim low, drop the first ranks first,” she commanded in the elvish tongue. “Spellcasters! Light spells, magical arrows, and a wall of fire on the flank!”

Both the elves and the dwarves heeded the voice in the dark, for they had already grown accustomed to her translating on behalf of one another. The dwarves raised a wall of shields, hammers, and axes against the onslaught. The elves loosed away volleys of arrows, striking the first wave so that the second stumbled over them. Archosian employed cantrips to create light spells that revealed the enemy, blinded their eyes, and outlined them in fey light. The sturdy dwur wizard Bagbag threw down spells of power worthy of warmages. Nothing struck fear into the orcs as much as Peralay’s dogs. The cooshees silently leapt at the orcs, ripping at throats. Dothmar and Peralay followed quickly with Concluder and Gnoll-Cleaver, both blades naked and unsheathed, flashing in their hands.

If any foe struck up a conversation with Fastaal Dothmar, Concluder struck twice in reply, putting in the last word. If any orc’s ugly head strayed too close to Peralay’s reach, Gnoll-Cleaver removed the offensive hairy bulb from its shoulders. The battle ended swiftly with the orc host falling back in retreat and cooshees, elves, and dwarves in full pursuit.

Bagbag Lost

They chased the Red Fangs for most of a day, cutting them down as they overtook them. The pursuit, however, seemed to wind about endlessly. The fleeing orcs lead them no closer to the Karrak Bowl. The pursuers stumbled into traps, concealed pits, flame-strikes and wicked contrivances left behind by the fleeing orcs until nearly every member of the troop had some injury to show. Nor had their number escaped the initial battle unscathed. The wounded needed attention, both elves and dwarves, and some fell feverish from poisoned barbs. The whole enterprise became distasteful to all parties.

During of the pursuit, Bagbag lagged behind. His old legs could not keep up the wild pace. By the time the party realized their wizard missing, they had already traveled miles beneath the earth. Kristryd insisted on going back to search for her trueheaded friend. She offered to take a few mountain dwarves to find the wizard, but the fastaal feared separating the party. “Surely he has fallen in the tunnels, slain by the orcs,” he reasoned.

“Then I will find his body, carry it out over my shoulders, and bear him all the way to his tomb in Khundrakar,” Kristryd insisted.

“I will go with her. My cooshees will find the wizard’s scent and lead us to him,” Peralay offered.

“And I too,” Prince Archosian hastened to add, his thirst for adventure not yet slaked.

“Nay,” the fastaal objected. “If any harm befall Kristryd or Archosian, how shall I walk again beneath the boughs of my lady’s wooded realm? Tell the dwarves to take us out from beneath this mountain.” He assured the elves still eager for vengeance, “Another opportunity will come. We shall yet fulfill our oaths.”

The mountain dwarves unrolled their maps and consulted their charts. “If we go return the way we have come, we may find him yet,” they told Kristryd, “But the shorter path to the surface lies ahead, not behind.”

Kristryd considered the options. This section of the Low Road was remote, far from the main thoroughfares, and few dwarves had walked those back alleys in recent centuries. They might find a friendly gnome village that could assist them—there had once been several nearby—but that hope seemed thin at present. Most of the tunnels near the Karrak Bowl had been orc and goblin nests for many years.

“Go back to the surface. Follow these dwarves,” she told Dothmar. “They will lead you and your people out of this maze. With Ulaa’s help, the hunter and I will find Bagbag whole and hale, and we will catch up with you.”

The Hunt for Bagbag

The fastaal could not prevent her. Still he refused to let Archosian on such a dangerous errand. Kristyrd took three of dwarves of Ulek. Peralay and the cooshees went with her too, the sylvan dogs leading the way. The small rescue party moved quietly, hoping to avoid attracting attention. Kristryd wanted to call out for Bagbag, but she feared her voice would call down the orcs or something worse.

Ancient hardhewers cut the tunnels through which they traveled by widening natural fissures. The way sometimes opened broadly but more often constricted into narrow passages where only two or three might walk abreast. Intersections, cave mouths, and the entrances to dark tunnels opened from time to time on the left and the right. At points the ceiling above rose so high they could not guess it’s height, but at other stretches of tunnel the elves had to stoop low. All along the party had to step carefully, checking for traps as they went. 

Peralay motioned for a halt.

“Have the dogs caught scent of him?” Kristryd asked. Peralay shook his head and pressed his fingers to his lips, urging silence. The cooshees cocked their heads, twitched their ears, and looked back in the direction from which they had come. Kristryd held her breath and strained to hear. The air seemed still and heavy, like the enveloping darkness. She could hear no sound but the hammer of her own heart.

“Something follows after us,” Peralay whispered. In soft tones, Kristryd translated the warning to the others. The dwarves concealed themselves in nooks and crannies and held their weapons ready. Kristryd gripped at the haft of her spear. Peralay hid himself behind a shoulder of rock; his cooshees crouched low at his command, ready to pounce. Presently, a light appeared bobbing in the darkness—not the light of a lamp or candle but a magical light. For a few moments, Kristryd hoped it might be Bagbag come to find them, but as the light drew closer, she discerned the silhouette of a tall elf.

“Prince Archosian! You insufferable son of a fonkin’s strumpet! Did you defy the fastaal to follow after us?” Peralay stepped out from behind the rock, smiling at the mischief.

The young elf shrugged. An oafish grin spread across his face.

“Come with us now then,” Kristryd instructed. “We’ll make it right with Fastaal Dothmar later. But you must put out that light.”

A Call from the Darkness

They went on together for nearly an hour. At an intersection of ways, Peralay and his dogs surprised three orcs who were too distracted with setting a snare-trap to hear their approach. Peralay slew two before they had a chance to react; the cooshees slew the third no less efficiently. When the echoes of that brief scuffle subsided, Kristryd thought she heard a distant voice call out.

“Hush! Did you hear that?” Everyone stood still, straining to listen. A moment later, the voice called again.

“That’s him!” Kristryd exclaimed. “He must have taken the wrong turn and fallen into a trap.” Bagbag’s cry for help sounded faint and weak. “He is injured I think.”

“The voice comes from this tunnel-way,” the keen-eared hunter indicated the way with a nod of his head. “The cooshees like it not,” he added. The whines of the dogs communicated their objections.

“Bagbag! Where are you?” Kristryd hazarded a shout, speaking in the old dwur tongue. The sound of her voice echoed backed to her.

A moment later, a faint reply, “Help me daughter!” They set off in the direction from which the voice seemed to emanate. The path climbed sharply and, after some distance, opened into a broader cavern. The air smelled strong but not of orc stench. Some other stench.

“Help me! Please! Hurry!” Bagbag called again from the darkness ahead.

Kristryd frowned at this. Ever we go further, but never does his voice seem closer. And how does the noble blood of Balnorhak plead for himself so piteously? “We are deceived,” she said of a sudden. “A light! Quick! Archosian, give us your light.”

“We should turn back,” Peralay advised. The cooshees growled with alarm, the hair of their napes stood on end.

“Too late. Something draws near,” Archosian announced as his light spell blazed forth and sent the darkness fleeing.

“Look at this!” one of the dwarves said with dismay. A painted blue eye gazed from upon a standing stone set in the middle of the way. “Gnolls! We have wandered into their dens.”

Leucrotta-1e“Look at that!” Kristryd pointed to an ugly creature that stood leering at them a stone’s throw up the path. “What in the six-hundred sixty and six levels is that?” The creature’s head resembled the head of a giant badger, its body that of a stag, its tail like that of a lion, and its legs ended in sharp cloven hooves. Glittering, unblinking eyes fixed upon her. Fleshy lips peeled back to reveal malicious sharp bony ridges where one would expect teeth. More surprising still, this abomination spoke aloud in a dwur voice and the dwur tongue, “Help me daughter!” The voice no longer sounded to Kristryd like the voice of trueheaded Bagbag, not now that she could see the hideous face of the mimic.

Gnolls

Archosian’s magical light also dispelled the shadows which had concealed a pack of gnolls. Barking and snarling, they rose out from their hiding places along the way. Kristryd estimated not less than a score. The dog-faced creatures brandished weapons and beat them against wooden shields. They raised their hackles and circled about, each trying to push another forward to the attack. None dared be the first. They hung back cowardly behind the weird creature, for their hopes had rested in a clever ambush, now foiled.

“You recognize this blade, don’t you dogs?” Peralay taunted the gnolls. The high elf hunter held Gnoll-Cleaver aloft above his head. The bare blade glowed with a hungry magical shimmer in the presence of its favored victims. The hated sword intimidated the gnolls, and Archosian’s magical light, stinging at their eyes, added to the intimidation. For a moment, Kristryd wondered if the dogs might withdraw. Not so. The beast lowered its head and pawed at the ground like a bull preparing to charge. Then it sprang. The gnolls followed quick after, baying and yelping with excitement. The sound of their gibbering and eager hoots chilled the blood.

“Stand fast,” Kristryd commanded. There could be no thought of flight. She raised her shield and set her spear to meet the onrush. The leucrotta stopped short, letting the stupid gnolls take the brunt of the collision. One of them impaled himself on Kristryd’s spear; the spearhead punctured his abdomen and slid up to the heart. The weight of the gnoll’s body wrenched the weapon from her hand. A rain of blows, blades, and cloven hooves came quick after. They fell hard and fast against her shield and helm, knocking her down to the ground. She felt cold iron bite her flesh.

The cooshees leapt silently at the leucrotta while Peralay’s blade went slash-slash-slash, greedily devouring gnoll flesh. Acclumsid with fear, Archosian stabbed and jabbed, scoring small hits with Defender. He had no more cantrips or spells to offer. The three Ulek dwur fought like cornered beasts to defend their prince’s daughter. Two of them interposed themselves between her body and the monstrous dogmen while the third pulled her back up to her feet.

Two cooshees tore at the leucrotta’s legs, the third hung from the creature’s torn neck by its teeth. The leucrotta screamed in pain and terror. It bucked and leapt and flerked about to shake the dogs. Meantime Gnoll-Cleaver feasted. Five, nay, make that six, gnolls already lay on the stones, quetching and bloodied.

From further up in the cavern came the sound of more howls and the cackling yelp of more hyena-headed monsters—more packs on the hunt. The baying of their brethren encouraged those still standing to press on all the harder. They fought to finish the job before the others arrived lest they be forced to divide the spoils. There are too many of them, Kristryd thought to herself as she stepped back from the fray.

The Sorceress

“Flee daughter! Flee or die!” a voice said in the old dwur tongue. Kristryd spun about, expecting to see another mimic at its pranks. Instead she saw an old dwur-wife in a noblecoat, white of hair and beard, eyes shining in the magical light. The old woman lifted an open hand to reveal a palm full of fine sand. She set it to her lips and blew the sand into the air, “Sleep!” Kristryd felt a drowsy wave of magic pass through her body. She shook it off. All around her, the gnolls dropped to the ground and heaped upon one another fast asleep. The dwarves set upon the sleeping gnolls to insure they would never wake. Peralay switched to his bow, nocked an arrow, and sent it into the hindquarters of the fleeing leucrotta. The arrow sank deep, nearly to the fletching. Another arrow followed for good measure.

“Who are you and from where have you come?” Kristryd demanded of the dwur-wife as she retrieved her spear from the body of a gnoll.

“No time for chatting, bellbon,” the old dwarfess said. “Those dogs will be on your scent. Go back the way you came, and I’ll delay them by dweomer-craft. Hurry now!”

“But who are you?” Kristryd asked again. “How are you here?”

“No time!” the other dwarves insisted, pulling her away. The yammering of the hunting packs drew nearer. “Do as the old woman says! We must flee!”

Peralay called back his dogs. The four dwarves and the two elves hurried away from the dens, running as hard as they could without abandoning their equipment. Kristryd found the going sore hard, for she had forgotten her wounds. After some distance, and hearing no sound of pursuit, they stopped to rest. She stumbled weekly and sank to the stones. Blood soaked all her shirts and covered her hands. Peralay helped her bind the wounds and also those of the others. Even the cooshees limped and whined from their pains.

They dared not tarry. They hoisted up their things and prepared to set off again when Peralay cautioned, “Someone comes. From the footfalls, I say a dwarf. Perhaps the old woman?” Everyone froze. They had not long to wait. Bagbag came stumbling down a tunnel, huffing and puffing from the effort.

“By Moradin’s beard! He still lives,” Kristryd exclaimed. “Blessed be Ulaa!”

“Blessed be Ulaa,” Bagbag agreed, sinking down to the tunnel floor, wheezing to catch his breath. “I have passed through many hazards, but I have solved a vexing riddle.”

“What riddle, father?” Kristryd asked, taking the old dwarf’s in her arms, she clutched his head tightly to her blood-sodden bosom for joy and relief.

“This dweomer-craft that has so confused our way!” he explained as he recovered his breath.  “Tis not the work of orcish shamans as we supposed. Tis Balnorhak magic put to ill-use by an old sorceress of our people. By Bocob! I have seen her with my own eyes!”

“We too have had the pleasure of her acquaintance,” Kristryd mused. “She saved our lives.”

No Ordinary Child

Kristryd’s party emerged from the mountains and found the encampments of their companions in the valley below. This time the camps of the dwarves, the mountain dwarves, and the elves were not separated so far as before, and all these shared the last of their provisions together. Archosian took a seat next to Kristryd at a campfire where she sat among a circle of mountain dwarves. Firelight gleamed on the stoic eyes of the dwarves as they silently studied the elf prince, but Kristryd welcomed him and poured him a cup of steaming hot broth from the kettle over the fire.

“You survived your first real battles Green Arrow,” Kristryd observed.

“Only by hiding behind Dothmar and Peralay,” Archosian admitted as he sipped at the blashy broth. “But you proved your worth young one.” He spoke in the elvish tongue for her ears only, “I marvel that Fastaal Dothmar heeds your commands! Now I better understand why my cousin loves you so. You are no ordinary dwarfess, no ordinary child, nor an ordinary person at all.”

“Does the queen indeed love me so?” Kristryd asked.

“By the Lady Goldheart, she does!” the young elf swore. “And many tongues have wagged over it, for there are few among our own folk, much less among the other peoples  wandering Oerth, who enjoy the queen’s confidence as does Kristryd the dwarfess.”


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Featured Artwork: Melf Brightflame.

 

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