The Hateful Wars: Chapter Thirty-Three
The guards posted in the lookout towers atop Mount Abharclamh sighted signal fires. “The hosts muster again!” they told the Undermountain Queen. “Our western watch has lit the signals!”
“What woodness? I must see their movements,” Kristryd insisted. “I would know their numbers and see their disposition.”
“Their wardings blind my spells,” Bagbag protested.
Kristryd and her true-headed friend had only recently returned to Gilmorack to settle affairs, administer matters of the kingdom, and silence the false rumors spread by Kristryd’s adversary. Dame Thresstone’s mysterious disappearance raised questions. Many murmured about Kristryd behind her back and named her a witch. By use of the silver-framed mirror, Kristryd heard what things they spoke of her. Those who murmured against the queen, she removed from position. Some she banished without explanation. So the dwarves of Gilmorack learned to fear and dread her all the more.
Then came this fresh trouble with the host of Urgush, and it puzzled her much. “Does he mean to flee these mountains or merely to raid Gran March?” She rolled out her maps and parchments on the stone tables of the Hall of Scrolls and mused over the possibilities. “Let Yolande hate me as she will,” Kristryd resolved. “I will summon Emolasmairim.” That same day, the queen ascended to the lookout tower atop the slopes of snow-covered Abharclamh. From that great height, her eyes could see Veluna. She fancied she saw even the southernmost peaks of the Yatils. Far to the southwest, smoke yet rose from the signal posts near the Haunt of Haradaragh. She filled her lungs with the cold mountain air, put the horn of Celene to her lips, and sounded a blast. The note rang clear and true and echoed back to her from distant peaks. The effort made her head swim, so thin the air at that height. She sat down by the watchfire and waited. The sun dipped low in the west. Icy mountain winds whipped up the mountain snow. Celene showed not her face that night; Luna offered only a waning sliver of her crescent. The dwarves stationed in the lookout post did their best to make their queen comfortable in their eyrie. They heated water for her and offered her their rations. Darkness fell over Oerth. Kristryd wrapped herself in furs and drew herself closer to the warmth of the fire. As she drifted to sleep, she thought to herself, Perhaps he will not come.
Pursuit of the Horde
In the last hour before dawn, a distant horn sounded on the wind. The lookouts roused their sleeping queen. She lifted the horn of Celene to her lips to answer the call. Then she dressed herself in her shirt of mithril mail and strapped her winged helm to her head. Moments later, a distant horn responded, then closer again, and then came Emolasmairim, lighting upon the watch post. Two other hippogriffs, also carrying grey elves, circled about at the ready.
“I thought perhaps you would not come,” Kristryd confessed. Her abashed smile revealed her grate at seeing her old friend.
“We came as soon as we heard the summons,” Darrion replied from upon the back of hippogriff. “Emolasmairim has flown through the night, and indeed, the magic of the horn shortened the miles by a day’s flight or more.”
“Let your mounts rest,” Kristryd suggested. “They will need strength for the journey. I must have you carry me west, even as far as Gran March.”
By the time the sun reflected bright off the white snow-covered slopes, Kristryd had taken her seat behind Darrion’s saddle. The griffs shrieked with delight as they leapt from the top of the mountain tower. Catching the thin mountain air beneath their great feathered wings, they glided away. All that day, they carried Kristryd and the cavalry officers from peak to peak, resting an hour or so as they needed. By nightfall, they arrived atop Mount Saac where they nested down and waited for night to pass. Early in the morning, Kristryd stood upon the lookout post atop the Haunt of Haradaragh. The dwur told her, “We lit the signal because we saw orcs in the vale mustering under the banner of the Medusa. They passed over the hills, west toward Menawyk.”
The three hippogriffs and their riders set off in pursuit. The red setting sun hung before them over the lowlands of the Marches by the time they flew down from the hills and spied the horde, breaking camp at the shores of a long river lake. The cavalry officers landed their mounts on a broad island in the lake, safe from the reach of orcish scouts and far out of the range of their bows. “The steeds must rest and eat,” Darrion explained. “We have flown them hard these many days.”
“How large do you think the host?” Kristryd asked.
“Not large. I say five hundred, perhaps six hundred,” Darrion estimated.
Battle at Velstar Keep
The riders took to the air before dawn silhouetted the mountains behind them. Under the darkness of the moonless sky, the red glow of burning farms and villages clearly marked out the path the orcs had travelled. By the time the sun rose, the hippogriff riders overtook the raiders and passed overtop the horde. Kristryd observed the orcs loping and galloping across the land, hurtling themselves headlong, it seemed, in the direction of Hookhill. Darrion urged more speed from Emolasmairim, and the griff beat her wings hard.
By noon, Kristryd and the cavalry officers alighted upon the city green and raised the alarm. Those wary men of the Gran March could scarcely dismiss such awesome warning. Hippogriffs were almost never seen in the Marches, nor were Grey Elves ever a common sight. Kristryd, the Undermountain Queen, resplendent in her mithril armor, commanded attention and respect even from the Commandant and the Keoish noblemen at his side. “Prepare for siege!” Kristryd warned. “Muster now and go out to meet this host of orcs before they reach you. Fight them in the open field, or fight them at your walls.”
A force of knights, Gran Marchers, and Keoish soldiers came slow to the muster. The sun had already set before they left Hookhill. They found the orcs already encamped at the ruins of Velstar Keep, not more than ten miles northwest of the city.
“Why make camp here when they might have pressed on to the city?” Kristryd asked herself. She and the elves made hasty strategy with the men of Hookhill while the orc shamans carried out some unholy rituals under the dark sky. Bonfires illuminated the ruins of the keep, and fairy fire spells danced about.
As the sun rose, the cavalry officers of Celene led the attack from upon the backs of their screeching eagle-headed horses. The terrified orcs imagined that all the cavalry of Celene had fallen upon them. Seasoned warriors, they did not flee. The baleful creatures took up positions in the crumbled stones and dug themselves in around the ruins to hold their ground all that day. Many fell under the attacks and sorties of the brave men of Hookhill, but the orcs had the greater number and the better ground. The men of Gran March wearied themselves against the host.
The mounted knights created a tight perimeter, intending to contain the orcs until more reinforcements could arrive. The reinforcements had not yet come when the sun set on Nerull’s Night. Then the ghosts of Velstar Keep moaned on the wind. The orcs feared the ghosts more than they feared the men of the March. Fleeing in panicked terror, they broke through the perimeter, slaying horse and rider that stood in their way. The knights dared not pursue the orcs in pitch darkness, thus Urgush and his tribe escaped back to the mountains.
The court at Hookhill proclaimed Kristryd heroine of the March, and she received from the commandant a banquet in her honor. “Now I appeal to you again,” Kristryd said to the commandant and to all the council at Hookhill. “If you will not join our alliance, at least patrol your own foothills. Do not let these killcows and gundyguts replenish themselves by raiding your lands. I mean to starve them in their holes.”
The commandant agreed and swore an oath to it.
The Tale of Velstar Keep
Back in the Hall of Scrolls, Kristryd held counsel with Bagbag and Father Furduch. The undermountain queen queried her counselors, “What did these raiders seek? To lay siege to Hookhill? Does Urgush think he has the strength to fight the lands of men?”
“Nay, not with half a thousand strong. A force that small would not last long. Surely he went to raid and steal, rustle, pillage, and sack for goblin meal,” Furduch speculated.
“Here is the pitchkettle. If only to raid, why drive so deep into Gran March?” Kristryd asked. Her finger traced out the route on the map she had spread across the stone table.
“Hookhill was never his objective,” Bagbag announced ominously. “Urgush sought only the haunted keep where you found him.”
“What does Urgush seek inside that haunted keep?” Father Furduch asked.
Bagbag tapped his finger on the location of Velstar Keep. “Remember Dregrak the Cruel?”
“Yes,” Kristryd replied. She knew the tale. Dregrak was a powerful orc shaman who once united the orcs of the Lortmil Mountains. “I grew up hearing the stories. But Dregrak is long gone from the world.”
“Long gone. Yes he is. But this Urgush fancies himself Dregrak redux. That is why he went to Velstar Keep.”
“Cryptic hints will not avail. Speak your thoughts in plain told tale,” Father Furduch waved his hands to indicate his impatience.
Bagbag ignored the gnomish priest and addressed his tale to the undermountain queen, “More than a century past, before you were born, the noble Velstars had a reputation as summoners. They took their devilshine secrets and left Keoland lest the Silent Tower sniff out their sorcery. They built Velstar Keep when Hookhill was yet a clapboard outpost of the Lion Throne.
“In those days, the orcs came down out of the mountains to raid Gran March every spring and fall, as sure as the late rains and the early rains. The Lord Agilmir employed his secret arts and summoned an abyssal fiend to ward them off. They say he sacrificed his own father to coax that nightmare up from the abyss. In exchange, the fiend promised to do the summoner’s bidding, or so he made it appear. In truth, he deceived Agilmir. The fiend subdued the goblins of the mountains and took command of them. He empowered a lowly orc shaman as his agent, and he placed this Dregrak over the orcs as a shaman-king.
“Now the fiend turned against the one who summoned him up. He demanded the sacrifice of Agilmir’s twin daughters in exchange for his continued service. The nobleman refused to pay the wages. The demon sent Dregrak and his host of orcs down from the mountains to take the prize he desired. They overran the March and laid siege to the keep. Dregrak slew the Lord Agilmir and sacrificed the two daughters in an evil ritual. He bound their souls as undead in Velstar Keep.”
Kristryd shuddered. “From where did you learn such a wretched tale?”
“The tale is often recounted by Gilvgola. She it was that slew the shaman and banished that fiend. Besides, all these things transpired in recent times, scarcely more than a century past,” Bagbag explained. “And if you would know the truth of it, I have discerned some missing pieces of the tale from my studies in Gretyll’s book.”
“A story such as that? A mouse calls up a cat! And you think it wise to play with summoner’s arts? You’d burn that book if you were smart!” Father Furduch snorted, pinching his nose as if in disgust over some noxious smell.
“If the gnomes have no desire to see an end to this war, I will do so at once,” Bagbag replied with placid condescension. “But if you would see our enemies defeated and my lady’s vows fulfilled, then I use what weapons the gods vouchsafe with me.”
“I still do not understand,” Kristryd protested. “What did Urgush want at the haunted keep?”
Bagbag tugged at his white beard thoughtfully, “Some forgotten secret. A portal perhaps. Or perhaps just a name. Urgush grows desperate. I must travel to the ruins myself and learn what can be learned.”
Based upon Michael Trezevant Smith, Ruins of Velstar Keep (Wizards of the Coast: Living Greyhawk GRM1-04), 6.
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Artwork: Bolvag ICE MERP 3112