The Hateful Wars: Chapter Thirty-Two
“Where are your demon lovers now? Where is your Witch Queen?” the yellow-eyed hobgoblin snarled at the half-orc.
“Trust the plan,” Urgush insisted.
Hroth slapped the half-orc a staggering blow across the face as if to waken him from enchantment. Urgush fell backwards, landing hard on his butt. The silver crown fell from his head and rolled along the narrow cliff’s edge. Hroth crushed it under his booted foot. “Time for a new plan half-blood,” he barked.
Urgush pulled himself back up to his feet and thrust a long clawed finger at the menacing hobgoblin, “You’ll pay for that you swollen one-eared sack!” He lifted his shield with the face of the red medusa toward the hulking hobgoblin, intending to petrify him where he stood. The painted serpents on the face of the shield writhed eagerly. Hroth roared, tore the shield free, and tossed it over the side of the cliff. It sailed through the air like a saucer, disappearing into the vale far below. Urgush nearly leapt after it, cursing and spluttering.
“I’m going home,” Hroth announced. He took with him his hobgoblins and a fair number those once loyal to Urgush. Treacherous was the journey. By secret ways and hidden paths, they found their way to their brothers who still made war in the valleys, caverns, tunnels, and hilltops around the forsaken Vale of Grot-Ugrat. Hroth found the goblins there broken and wandering, like kine without herdsmen.
He dispatched ravens to the mountain tribes and clans. He summoned them to hear his words, “Urgush is yesterday’s fart gas! That one led us to the edge of disaster! Hroth is your salvation.”
While Kristryd tightened her circle of death around the Lortmils, Dame Thresstone of Gilmorack tightened her own circle of intrigues. The bitter dwur-wife sought some scandal she might use to denounce her rival, and she paid her spies and informants generously. Through them, she learned that adventurers exploring the Vale of Haradaragh chanced upon the shield of Urgush. Patrols outside Gilmorack apprehended the adventurers when their path strayed too close to the dwarven kingdom. The dwur confiscated all they carried, including the Goblin Shield. The smiths examined it, and one of them presented it before Dame Thresstone, “This is the shield for which our Urgush seeks. There is none other like it.”
Dame Thresstone’s fingers caressed the edge of the artifact. “Not the work of goblins,” she observed.
“Indeed!” the smith admitted. “Forged in Gilmorack and hammered out upon the holy anvil.”
“How came it to be so ensorcelled?”
The smith offered no answer.
“More of Gretyll’s mischief?” Dame Thresstone answered her own question. She averted her eyes from the face of the medusa lest is change her flesh to stone. “You did right to bring the artifact to me. I myself will see it sent to Kristryd in Bennoth Tine.”
That she did not do. Instead, she herself went out to the Vale of Haradaragh under the protection of a private guard of loyal mercenary gnomes and heavily armed lancers and spearmen from the royal guard of Gilmorack. Her soldiers fortified an encampment and pitched her pavilion beneath the ancient mountain. As night fell, they looked warily into the misty darkness, fearful of a sudden ambush. “Surely we have been led into a trap,” they murmured. The fullness of Celene illuminated the night and cast ghostly shadows in the swirling mist. The shadows seemed to gather about the camp of Dame Thresstone and take shape as the spirits of the ancient Flan who once dwelt in those mountains. Then abruptly, from out of the mist, a lone figure stepped.
“Halt! Who goes?” the watchmen challenged.
A half-orc resolved in the light of the torches, swaggering fearlessly. “I am called Urgush,” the half-orc boasted. “I see you recognize the name! Then you will believe me when I tell you I am not alone. If this is some treachery, all your bones will bleach in this valley.”
Dame Thresstone wasted no time with exchanging threats and formalities. She nodded to her gnome afterlings, and they brought out the shield wrapped in black cloth. “Behold, beneath these wraps concealed, we hold the Red Medusa Shield!” the gnomes said. They placed the shield upon a prepared table.
Dame Thresstone unwrapped it warily. She observed how the serpents of the medusa writhed in the presence of their master. “This shield was beaten out upon the anvil in Gilmorack,” Dame Thresstone said to Urgush. “How came it to you, and who enchanted it for you? If you would have it back, speak only the truth.”
Urgush did not seem to hear her. The shield rivetted his attention. His orcish face shone with delight. Tears of gratitude moistened his eyes. With trembling hands, he seized it, held it aloft in the moonlight, turned it over, and examined it’s every surface.
“I have kept my oath, now keep yours, or may your gods strike you according to your word!” Dame Thresstone hissed.
Urgush fit his arm to the straps before replying, “I was there when your anvil yet remained in Dengar. Your hated queen was not but a hated bride, unloved by her husband. A nobody! I led the host against the lower halls while the dwur witch and her warlock untethered its magic and disappeared with the anvil. And you ask me, ‘How did you come by it? Who enchanted it for you?’”
“Do you say that Kristryd stole the anvil from Dengar and made you her mercenary?” Dame Thresstone asked too eagerly.
“Not that one! May Gruumsh grind her bones!” Urgush spat at the mention of Kristryd’s name. “I speak of Gunhyld, the old hag and your warmage. They brought the anvil to Gretyll. Gretyll fashioned the shield; Gunhyld painted it’s face with the blood of victims; Gretyll enchanted it with devilshine summoned from the book.”
“Do not lie to me half-orc. I must have proof of Kristryd’s involvement!” Dame Thresstone pressed eagerly.
“Ask Gretyll,” Urgush suggested. “Release her from her cage. Send for Hedvyg.”
Dame Thresstone tried again, “Tell me Kristryd Olinsdotter and Bagbag contrived this plot with the three witches!”
“If you say it is so,” Urgush smiled, “It is so, just as you have said.”
The Spreading Tale
Dame Thresstone returned to Gilmorack and summoned her counselors and all the globtales of the court. “I am of a mind to take a journey to visit our cousins in Dengar,” she told them. “Disturbing lies about our queen and her trueheaded friend have reached me, and I would see if I might, by means of my efforts, exonerate them of false charges. For it is now noised about that it was they who conspired with the three sisters and the Yatil Queen to steal the anvil from Dengar’s halls.” These things she said as if she appalled at the suggestion and eager to dispel an evil rumor, but in truth, she only meant to spread the tale. “I will speak with Thane Evrast, face to face, and clear the name of our noble queen.”
As she prepared for the journey, Dame Thresstone repeated the tale to all the nobles of Gilmorack. Hundreds of miles away, in the underground fort of Bennoth Tine, Kristryd watched these conversations transpire through the silver-framed mirror that she kept ever at her side.
“Slander and lies!” Kristryd exclaimed as she related the matter to Bagbag. “Treachery and treason! None will believe such shameless fictions.”
“Slander and lies against the ruler of a people are always readily believed by the people ruled,” Bagbag warned. “If she spreads this tale wide, your alliance will surely crumble.”
“We will return the anvil to Dengar at once,” Kristryd panicked. “We must deny these allegations.”
“No daughter! Surrendering the anvil would only imply some guilt. Then the damage will be done!” Bagbag counseled. “Let me consult my books. There may be a spell to silence a slandering tongue.”
Prying and Scrying
Truly I am hated! Kristryd lamented. She wiped tears of self-pity from her eyes. Such was the price she paid for her forays into people’s private affairs and conversations. Daily she passed many hours peering into her silver-framed mirror to search out what advantage she might find in all her dealings. “Look into me and see what other eyes can see,” the runes etched along the frame encouraged. She knew well enough that folk always speak ill of their leaders and criticize their commanders, for she herself had often wagged her tongue against those set over her. How much more so should she have expected her name abused? The first dwarfess to command the army or sit upon the throne of a dwarven kingdom! Was she not a broad target for cruel darts? Nevertheless, that knowledge did not soften the sting of the vicious remarks revealed to her by means of the silver-framed mirror.
“By the magic of this mirror,” the undermountain queen confided in Bagbag, “I spy easily upon whoever I will. But I would not be spied upon so easily myself. What charms can be laid upon me to protect me from prying eyes like my own?”
“Already I have enchanted you and surrounded you with thick walls through which no eyes can peer,” Bagbag assured her. “But when you employ the magic of the silver-framed mirror, those walls must necessarily be set aside. When you spy upon others, know that you are then most vulnerable to be spied upon.”
“That lesson I have learned already,” she admitted.
Conversations with Hedvyg
Some time earlier she reached out with the magic to find Hedvyg. Immediately the witch appeared in the mirror looking back at her with keen gleaming eyes. The scowling white-bearded face so startled Kristryd that she nearly dropped the mirror. If the face had once been fair and kindly, the long years had chiseled away all comeliness.
“Looking for me?” Hedvyg asked in the old dialect of the Lortmil dwur.
Kristryd recognized her from her dreams beneath the Moonarch and from her adventure searching for Bagbag under the mountains. Recovering herself quickly, she asked, “How is it that you see me and that I see you Hedvyg?”
“You gaze into your toy mirror; I peer at you by my scryer’s pot,” Hedvyg explained patiently as if schooling a young dwarf in reading lessons.
“You were seeking me?” Kristryd asked. She shuddered involuntarily.
“You have things that belong to me daughter,” Hedvyg spoke with honeyed voice. “A book taken from my sister and an anvil that belonged to my grandfather.”
“I’m sure I do not,” Kristryd objected. “I have nothing that belongs to you or ever belonged to your sister, but I do keep Gretyll in a bronze cage that cannot be opened. I will put you on a cucking-stool like unto it if you try to hinder me.”
“Hinder you?” Hedvyg keaked in the manner peculiar to witches. “Olinsdotter, why should I ever hinder you? Am I not the one who set you to your task?”
Kristryd shuddered again and put the mirror away, wrapping it back in its cloth. I shall never use the mirror again! It was not the first time she made that promise to herself. She found that, so long as she tried to resist the urge to peer into the mirror, the desire grew keener within her until she succumbed to the temptation. She soon found herself consulting Hedvyg by way of the silver-framed mirror.
“I too will serve you Olinsdotter, and declare you my true queen,” the third sister promised. “Only surrender to me the book and the anvil, and I will use them in your service.”
“Your sister Gunhyld lent her spellcraft to the goblins. Your sister Gretyll summoned fiends and slew all the noble dwarves of Gilmorack. And you have dallied with the undead,” Kristryd replied. “I do not want your service.”
“Gunhyld hated the elves. Gretyll loved Iggwilv’s pets,” Hedvyg shook her head sadly to indicate her disapproval. “But I? I am for the glory of old Balnorhak, even if it be remembered only among the dead.”
Hedvyg laced all her words with magical charms and honeyed tones. Under the powerful enchantments of the witch’s petitions, Kristryd felt herself sway. I only want to please this noble dwarfess, she thought to herself, and to do her bidding, whatever it may be. But then she would shake herself and mentally scold herself, Fool! You are falling under a witch’s spell. Ashamed at her own weakness, she put the mirror away again, vowing not to look in it further or let Hedvyg speak to her again. Some few days later, however, idle curiosity, a craving, or something else, drew her back to gazing in the scryer’s mirror, and eventually, to find Hedvyg’s face in the mirror again.
“Your numbers dwindle. Why waste the blood of dwarves when orcs are happy enough to kill orcs. They are all mercenary. For small payment, they will betray one another,” Hedvyg counseled. “They will serve you for horses’ flesh!” Kristryd sent half-blood agents to hire goblin tribes for the price of horse flesh.
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Featured Artwork: anastezja The Ladies of Grace Adieu