The Hateful Wars: Chapter Seventeen
“From where has this one come to your lands?” Kristryd asked the duke’s daughter. He was certainly no Celine elf nor grey of Silverwood. She saw that clear enough. A long dandyish coat with polished brass buttons hung draped over his slim form. Boots of striding laced up to his knees. Tight-fitting elbow-length silken gloves concealed his hands and forearms. Colorful scarves like the kerchiefs of the Baklunish harem girls adorned his head. Baubled jewelry dangled from his ears. Trinkets, charms, and precious stones hung from a slender-linked silver chain about his neck. Glittering gems set in rings adorned his fingers. Kristryd observed that he conversed easily with the duke and seemed at home among the nobles in the palace yard at Tringlee.
“Deravnye is from Seltaren in Urnst,” Nevallewen replied. “He is a most distinguished elf.”
Overhearing his name, the foppish stranger turned to Kristryd and the duke’s daughter, executed a formal bow, and introduced himself properly, “To my kinfolk I am Deravnye, but I am simply Xaxa among friends.”
“Xaxa? Is that a name?” Kristryd asked. To her, all elves seemed effeminate, but this one more so.
“It’s a diminutive form. Xaxalander in full. And it is a name among the people of Urnst.”
“It must be a difficult burden to bear such an uncouth string of syllables!” the duke’s daughter flirted with feigned distaste.
“My lady knows that I am an uncouth elf. A rogue, expert treasure-hunter, dungeon explorer, magsman, and adventurer,” Xaxa returned the flirtatious jest.
“Are you one of the bountymen then?” Kristyrd suggested impolitely. It seemed like a reasonable assumption. The undermountain kings had sent embassies to the lowlands to announce a bounty on the scalps of goblinkind. Their solicitations extended even so far as the Greyhawk and, indeed, into Urnst. Inspired by tales of the extravagant wealth of the mountain dwarves, adventurers and opportunists came to the mountains to make their fortunes. Hawkers in the markets of Tringlee made a song of it:
Five crown for ogre’s scalp
Five star for orc’s
Five flower for goblin’s scalp
Five leaf for yours!
Scallywags, thieves, rogues, and ne’er-do-wells traipsed over mountain paths and through the tunnels of the Low Road to obtain the scalps. Most never returned to collect the bounties, nor were they ever missed.
“I came hither for the promise of reward, my lady,” Xaxa conceded. The honey mead in his mug slurred his words. “But I am no mean bountyman. I am a talented professional and a master of my trade.”
“What trade is that?” Kristryd asked. The honey mead in her mug gave her words a tone of unconcealed condescension.
“A professional reconnoiterer. I scale a sheer walls, pick the pockets of dragons, slip unseen past a lidless-eyed fiends, crack the locks of gnomish smiths, stand astride the backs of leaping centaur’s, and creep up unbeheld upon beholders!”
“An adventurer!” Kristryd declared with wide-eyed sarcastic enthusiasm. The Great Xaxalander Deravnye nodded in affirmation.
“Deravnye has endeared himself to my father and all the court,” Nevallewen hastened to the elf’s defense. “He is a rogue through-and-through, but a gentleman about it and a noble personage as well. My father has sent him on one mission after another. In the mountains, he has worked closely with your Thane Blackaxe, fulfilling the dwarf-lord’s bidding and campaigning against his foemen.”
“For appropriate compensations,” Xaxa added. He flashed a devilish smile at lithe Nevallewen.
The elfess returned a coy tilt of her chin and continued his praises, “Twice now he has led brave parties of heroes into the haunted ruins of Grot-Ugrat.”
“And also into the dungeons below, to relieve the temples of their wealth,” Xaxa explained.
How did such as this become favored of the duke’s daughter, Kristryd wondered to herself. She asked aloud, “How is it that you, being a high elf, fought for Thane Blackaxe and our folk at Dunglorin?”
“As you say, I am an adventurer,” Xaxa explained as he held out his mug refill from a passing serving maid. “Many times I have set out in pursuit of adventure with such colleagues. I feel akin to halfing, dwarf, gnome, half-elf, and man—even orcblood if they be true. You cannot be long bigoted against companions that daily save your life. Today a dwarf saves my life; tomorrow I rescue a halfling, and on the morrow after that, the halfling saves the dwarf. The adventurer’s circle of life.”
“I did not know that ‘adventurers’ could be so noble-minded. I thought them all mercenary, rogue-hearted, bandits, and low-born.”
“You thought right!” Xaxa laughed. He lifted his now filled mug of mead as if in a toast. “By the gods’ own word! Mercenary, rogue-hearted, bandit, and low-born. Describes ignoble Xaxalander Deravnye, jot and tittle.”
“But you are not lowborn. You are a grey and the son of a noble ancestry,” Kristryd objected. “Else I doubt the Lady Nevallewen would countenance your presence.”
“Very true,” Nevallewen sniffed.
“Tis not the duke’s daughter who must countenance my presence, lady dwarf, but yourself,” the rogue said. He sipped at the beverage and explained further, as if it was a matter of small consequence, “The Fey Queen has summoned me. I am to travel with you and your company when you return to Enstad.”
Kristryd made no effort to conceal her surprise. “That may be, and little have I to say. But before I return to Enstad, I attend a council of war at Hoch Dunglorin. For that reason my father and I have come to the duchy.”
Six in the Willow
The days of Patchwall drew near, and the mountain air felt cool and fine the morning that they set out. Kristryd and Bagbag rode in a wagon drawn by a team of sturdy mules. Prince Corond accompanied them with a troop of dwur from the Royal Army. Xaxalander Deravnye walked beside the wagon, keeping up a lively conversation with the dwarfess. She quizzed him for news of the distant lands and how things stood in Greyhawk and Urnst. Xaxa told her all he knew of the goings-on and what gossip came from all those northern parts.
Seeking some new topic on which to converse, Xaxa asked her, “Why has the prince moved this council from Havenhill?”
Kristryd looked over her shoulder and set her eyes on the back of her father’s helm. The old warrior strode at the head of the troop, armed for battle and wielding a great axe, like a dwarf half his age. Turning back to Xaxa, she explained, “The Krons, the Celenese, the Velunese, and the dwur of Dengar and Gilmorack desired a location more central to their nations.” Then she added in a confidential whisper, “Tis not the long journey to Havenhill they object to as much as my father’s heavy-handedness.”
“That may be, lady. I have heard tell,” Xaxa admitted, nodding towards her father. “But would he be a worthy dwur prince if his hands were lightsome?”
“I didn’t think I was going to like you Xaxa, but you have grown on my affections already,” Kristryd laughed. “The gods did not short you on charm.”
“I don’t like him, my lady,” Bagbag offered his unsolicited opinion without lifting his eyes from the book arresting his attention. He shifted his body so that his back faced the friendly chattering elf.
At times they came upon the grisly sights of war. The reeking impaled bodies of orcs and goblin heads stuck atop spikes adorned bridges and crossroads as garish warnings to others who might think to travel those routes. Likewise, when the goblinkind overran their enemies, they nailed the victims up on trees in grotesque poses as a warning to others. The desecrations inspired only more blinding wrath and vicious oaths of vengeance. On the second day out from Tringlee, the troop came upon one such place of sorrow where six corpses dangled upon ropes, hanging from the arms of an old willow that overshadowed the road.
“Take them down and raise a cairn over the bodies,” the prince ordered.
A team of dwarves set to work gathering stones. Xaxalander Deravnye sprang effortlessly up the tree. Pulling a long knife from where he carried it in his boot, he cut the ropes free and gently lowered each body to the ground.
“How have the goblins grown so bold so soon?” Kristryd asked.
“By Moradin’s bristling beard! These were peasant folk of the Duchy. Villagers. Shepherds. Not warriors,” the prince observed. “The Duke will hear of it!” Kristryd looked upon the corpses dispassionately. So much death she had already seen that such sights scarcely moved her.
“The goblins have grown only bolder since Grot-Ugrat,” Bagbag answered her query. “A survivor called Hroth has made himself their warlord. He has rallied together ten tribes of his kin and made them take oaths of vengeance. From each warrior Hroth demands a token of fealty in the form of a severed ear. They give him their oaths and their left ears.”
“They maim themselves?” Xaxa asked from where he still sat perched in the willow. “Why stop with one ear? Let Hroth ask the whole head! That would save us the trouble.”
The dwarves ignored the jest. Prince Corond and Bagbag joined the others gathering stones to raise the cairn. When it was over, the prince sat down next to Kristryd and wiped the sweat from his face with a dirty hand. “It seems to me,” he confided in his daughter, “That we have only managed to stir up the stirges’ nest! These wars may break us all.”
Kristryd offered no reply, but she observed that Xaxalander listened in on their conversation from his perch in the willow. Few things escape the sharp ears of the elves.
“All our efforts go amiss,” the prince complained. “We pay a price in lives higher than I would suffer. Too many brave axes have gone out to fight and returned piled on wains. We should be driving goblinkind out from their holes, but we’ve only united them.”
“May the blessing of Durin’s Maker be upon us. I am under the weight of my oath,” Kristryd replied with cold indifference. “I must see the matter through.”
Some miles further on, the troop came upon a lone orc-blooded man. They tied his wrists with tight ropes and set him before the prince. “We found this loathsome one in the way,” they said. “Surely he knows the truth about those strung up duchymen.”
“I beg you lord! I am a man of the duchy m’self and loyal to the duke as any man. By no fault of mine does the orcblood run in me veins,” the man protested, but his protestations earned him the booted kicks of the prince’s soldiers.
When the wars began, half-orcs enthusiastically volunteered their swords, as if they could prove their loyalty by fighting their mountain cousins. The commanders of Prince Olinstaad’s Royal Army forbade it. “We have our hands already full of orcs and goblins, and we do not need these orc-bloods behind us, stabbing us in the back,” the generals said.
Prince Olinstaad Corond looked on the bound man with some ruth. Most dwur think not much a humans and even less of halfmen, but the prince was a cultured dwarf of learning, not a mountain bumpkin dwur. “If you’re a true man of the duchy, what brings you so far into these mountains?” the prince demanded.
“I had vineyard. Now its burnt by those who fear me kind. I fled, as we all do. But there is not a one of our mothers who chose the sire, my lord. Why should we be punished of our father’s sins?” the orcblood complained.
“Orcblood is bad luck,” Bagbag called impatiently from where he sat in the wagon. “You and yours bring us all bad luck.”
“And offend the gods!” Kristyrd added with a note of piety.
Prince Corond waved the comments away and asked the prisoner, “We hear of one called Urgush. They say a halfblood like yourself. Tell us what you have heard.”
“Have I heard more than me lord has heard? Rumors and tales only,” the man insisted. His piggish eyes shifted fearfully from bearded face to bearded face.
“What rumors and what tales? Speak or lose your tongue to my knife and never speak again,” the prince warned.
The man sighed with resignation and stammered, “The halfblood summons the tribes and promises ’em hope. He gives ’em keen-edged weapons, fine armor, and such, all surpassin’ the art of goblin smiths. The shamans name ‘im Urgush the Bold, Urgush the Terrible, and Urgush the Agruwer. They paint ’emselves in the blood of victims with the sign of Red Medusa. They say, ‘There ‘as been none like him since Dregrak the Cruel!’”
“All this is known to me already,” the prince growled. “Speak better.”
“Me lord … I know not more than others. Me father’s blood grants me no secrets.”
“Have you a name?” Xaxalander interrupted the interrogation.
Corond glowered at the intrusion, grumbling, “What matters his name?”
The orcblood replied, “I be Billy Lockes of Gliddensbar. Me vines were of Harrington.”
“Lies unfitly spoken!” Bagbag announced from atop the wagon. “Would a halfblood own property in the duchy? I think not.”
First Council of Dunglorin
Thane Bolor Blackaxe of Hoch Dunglorin offered the ambassadors and masters of war his hospitality and his wise counsel, but in those days, no one’s counsel went heeded. Each nation looked after its own interests to the detriment of the whole. The members of the alliance bickered over policy, strategy, and authority.
Kristryd reviewed the reports. Control of the surface territories shifted back and forth between the allies and the tribes in skirmishes and pitched battles. Warbands made sudden and unanticipated raids and ambushes all along the lowlands and in the mountain passes. Canyon walls echoed with the sound of snarling kobolds, shrieks of goblins, the screaming war cries of orcs, the roars of hobgoblins, and the blore of gnolls. All the tribes moved beneath their own peculiar heraldry and shields, but those of the North Lortmils also flew the Red Medusa.
Even the strong presence of Prince Corond could not make peace between the haughty elves, the peevish mountain dwarves, the ridiculous gnomes, and the others assembled for the council. After eight days of deliberations, the exasperated prince stormed out of the hall and set off to return to Gyrax. He left charge of the proceedings in the hands of the Duke Gallowagn’s son Grenowin and the Raoan priest from Veluna while Kristryd and Onselvon attempted to represent the interests of Celene. Despite Grenowin’s prestige and the Raoan priest’s eloquence and diplomacy, neither seemed to have a head for war. They only managed to add confusion to an already established strategy of chaos.
Kristryd observed the males arguing at counsel with distaste. Fonkins and hoddypeaks! If Yolande was here, they would all heed her and do her bidding without objections, she thought to herself. At the very least we need a strategy. The Lortmil Mountains occupied thousands of square miles. The task of purging even one mountain seemed impossible, how much less possible a whole mountain range and all the tunnels beneath it.
After twelve days, the counsel adjourned. The various embassies and statesmen departed and returned to their own lands. Kristryd and Bagbag set off with Onselvon and the Celenese delegation, for the Queen of Celene had summoned her to report on the proceedings and attend to several matters. Xaxalander traveled with them to fulfill his own summons to the queen.
Not many days after the councilors of war had left the strong-walled fortress of granite stone, a strange visitor arrived at Hoch Dunglorin and demanded audience with Thane Bolor Blackaxe.
“I seek a dwarf,” the skeletal old man in the weathered grey cloak hissed. The albino-white skin of his face and hands betrayed Suel heritage.
“Well you have found one!” Thane Blackaxe said with gravel and suspicion his voice. “And I’ve got a whole fortress full of dwarves here, so unless you can be more specific, I’ll be of no further help to you.” Blackaxe regarded the bony hawklike features of the man’s face and thought to himself that the stranger bore too much resemblance to a wight he had once faced off with while exploring a forsaken tomb. “The seneschal will give you a meal and a coin or two, then you will be on your way. We don’t take up beggars and freeloaders here. Don’t you know that we are at war?”
“The dwarf I seek is called Bagbagotiouk Silverstonecutter,” the wight said, drawing out the ‘S’ sounds of the name Silverstonecutter like a snake’s hiss.
Thane Blackaxe felt the hair on his arms and neck bristle at the malicious sound of the albino’s voice. “There’s no one here by that name, nor have I ever heard tell of such a one!” Blackaxe lied, but he did not know exactly why he felt compelled to conceal the truth.
The old man whispered softly through yellow teeth, “When you see him again, please tell him that I came looking for him. Tell him that Mohrgyr the Old seeks to consult with him.”
“I don’t care who or what kind of lich or undead thing you are,” Blackaxe menaced. His right hand gripped the hilt of the magical dagger tucked into his belt, and his guards stepped closer, hefting their weapons. “If I see you again, I’ll have you thrown in the dungeon.”
“Tell him,” the wight said as he turned to leave. The old man passed through the gates and set off into the mountains. Blackaxe dispatched two trackers to follow the creature and to see where it went. The trackers returned six days later and reported, “We followed him as you said. He joined two others like him on the road. We tracked the three of them all the way to the gates of Grot-Ugrat, but we dared not enter the cursed city, nor did we see if they emerged again.”
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