[Fanfiction] Heirs of Darkness (2nd book) - Chapters 7 & 8

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[Fanfiction] Heirs of Darkness (2nd book) - Chapters 7 & 8

Post by Ommariuolo »

Chapter 7 – The hunt begins
“What, I have to ride again?” Korben the shoemaker asked in horror when he was told that he might return to Norimar. The young man had recovered a little, his wound healed well, but he wasn’t yet comfortable with horses.
“You made it here, boy, so the way back could be a walk!” Buldr said and slapped his back, laughing.
“Since I was half dead by fear and hurt, so was hardly sensible,” Korben exclaimed coughing.
Goldenbolt whinnied when he saw Goren saddle another horse. “Sorry, old boy,” Goren tried to apologize and reconciled him with an apple. “But I can't take you. Ruorim knows you and what should I do with you in Windholme? Who knows if I can take you all the way... and through the desert to Aonir’s Blade, that should be too much for you. You're over twenty, don't forget that. And I want you to be thirty.” He lovingly patted the mighty neck of the stallion that had grown up with him. “You hold the position here, agree? Take care of grandfather and the fortress.”
Goldenbolt neighed softly and pressed his velvet snout on Goren's chest as if he had understood.
“How can you have a relationship with a stupid animal?” Korben asked naively. “I mean, you're forcing yourself to endure on his back and go wherever you want. It has to pull or haul heavy loads and it patiently endures all the blows. How can you like it? And vice versa?
Goren shook his head, gave another apple to Goldenbolt and went back to the other horse to finish saddling it. “Then, what people do?” he gave back and looked at Korben. “Hag may have given his life for you, and you, in turn, were determined to fulfill his requests. What’s the difference?”
“I have decided myself!” the shoemaker replied.
“Horses do that too,” Goren retorted. “Not all are tameable.”
Buldr attached his travel bag to the saddle. “Korben, you can always choose to live or die. Most of us choose to live, no matter what it was, freedom or captivity, happiness or grief. So it’ll be as long as Aonir's light shines from afar and illuminates us.”
Goren’s gaze fell away from the horseback to Starshine, who was testing the seat of the saddle on her mount. He still wasn’t sure why she was coming along. She was as silent as ever, distant, and yet...
She felt his gaze and looked at him. He could never avoid, as always sank into her dark purple almond eyes that were deeper than a lake.
Goren blinked as Craig stepped in his way and cut the silent connection. “Don’t think that,” the Dracon said softly. “Don't ask for a response from a norcaine, and don't try to get to the bottom. This is not allowed to humans, because too much separates us, not only the Light.
“I’m not afraid,” Goren replied. “And I've seen more than you guess, Dracon. I witnessed the hunt for the dragons and slaughtered them, I saw the first God Emperor climb the throne, and...” he left the sentence unfinished, turned away and continued to work on his horse.”
“Maybe too much,” Craig muttered, “for such a young mind. You have no idea what it means to be young, but you still don’t have enough experience to be wise.”
Goren didn't answer, but put his foot in the stirrup and climbed up. He heard Goldpenbolt neighing one last time as they rode down the aisle to the big gate.

Outside in the early dawn Darmos Ironhand waited, together with the fifty-headed Shaikan army, kitted out with spears, bows, swords, and axes. Goren dismounted and hugged his grandfather. He knew that Darmos was reluctant to let him go and was worried. “I have the shield with me, grandfather, and the ritual dagger. It will be useful when looking for the armour. Wish us luck that we find them.
“Try to send me messages,” Darmos said. “Living in uncertainty all the time is... unbearable.” He pressed Goren hard against himself and then let him go with a heavy heart.
Goren turned around once on the way, when they had already covered a good distance, and saw the Shaikan coat of arms fluttering high up.
“A proud castle,” Craig observed, who rode beside him. “Nothing compared to the norcaine’s obsidian towers, but unique for the humans.”
“My homeland...” Goren murmured. “And yet so far away.”
Menor the Thin took care of Korben the shoemaker, who was clinging to the saddle. “Finally relax! We ride slowly enough, and gradually you should get used to it. I really wonder how you made it this far!”
“I just want to go home,” Korben blurted out between clattering teeth. The infinite vastness of the steppe scares me. I need houses around me, manageable paths, and my small shop which ensures me livelihood. I don’t want more. I don’t understand how you could live like this!”
Buldr laughed resoundingly behind him. “It’s not that bad, young friend, if you only once looked up from awls and toes, soles and leather! What would we need as gorgeous footwear as you make it, durable and weatherproof if we weren't going on adventurous trips?” He accelerated and passed Korben. His heavy red plaits bobbed in time with the galloping horse.

In the evening they camped in a depression crossed by a small brook, which even carried water because it was partly underground. They had made good progress and Goren was satisfied. He once again enjoyed sitting outside by a fire, with the starry sky above, far from walls and constraints.
The Shaikan, led by Durass, kept themselves away from the riders, set up their own fire and stayed among themselves. It was fine, because Goren still didn't really feel that he belonged to that people. Menor entertained the company with his mouth harp and self-composed songs, occasionally accompanied by Buldr, who was leaning against his saddle and smoking a pipe.
Goren thought it was a good time to ask Craig about his past; after all, they rode together now. “Why do you know so many things, Craig?”
The Dracon poked the embers. The stars were reflected in his dark eyes. He too seemed relaxed out here, no longer so unapproachable. “I’ve already been in this world for a while, Goren,” he answered. For a moment his eyes were lost in the distance. Then he told: “I was there when the Empire invaded Xu and overran my people with war. We lost, and a long flight through the Xu’s north began. Together with the last army, I held humans long enough until the ships were built and we could leave Xu... forever.” He gazed up at the stars. “We had no choice. Either we died on Xu or we survived in exile.” He turned his face to Goren. “You see, I started going into exile very early on, it’s nothing new to me.”
Goren nodded silently. He listened attentively.
Craig continued: “We established a new empire in Urgath and I rose from a simple soldier to a Dracon. And I was there when we landed in Fiara...”
“The second time,” Starshine interrupted him. “The Empire invaded Xu because your people before tried to conquer Fiara.”
“Yes. From south and east. But I wasn’t there the first time because the troops were poorly trained and disorganized. I was just a soldier at the time and didn’t have enough influence so that somebody listen to my warnings.” Craig couldn’t calm himself. “The second time I was there when we landed on the east coast, led by the Fial Darg. This time we believed that nobody could stand us. And it was almost like that. At the climax of the War of the Six Races, the scales tipped in our favor. The liberation of the Renegades seemed near. But then... the Guardians interfered. What was left of us retreated to the east and found Lar.”
Craig told his story emotionlessly, and Goren couldn’t consider him the enemy which he was still basically. Because nevertheless he now supported the people of Light. It was a strange, bizarre relationship; what could also be said of the Shaikan, who for the first time in their history began to choose one side.
“What happened that you estranged yourself from your people?” he asked.
“The final division into castes and the unstoppable ascent of the Archons,” Craig explained. “I’m a soldier, Goren, and I have no problems killing a man in battle. But blood sacrifice... slyness ... greed for power... I reject that. Since I became uncomfortable because of my intransigence and criticism, I was often sent on dangerous missions. The Archons hoped I would find death, but I didn't do the favor. However, it aggravated my difficult position because on my travels I... learned. I couldn't help looking closer at the people of the Light, and I realized what we were missing and why we would never achieve the final victory. I became tired of perpetual slaughter and sacrifices, and I began to feel disgust because I saw no sense in the increasingly escalating rites of the Archons.”
“Why didn't they just force you to Elyn Muin?” Starshine wanted to know. “The duel in the circle of drums: you would surely have got rid of them.”
“They didn't dare,” Craig replied. “I’m the best fighter of my people. No one had ever been able to match me, not even Shar Arduin. When I stood openly against the High Archon and prevented another blood sacrifice, I had sealed my fate and had to endure the ban on myself. Since then I’m wandering through these lands, looking for what I’m missing, what’s this empty inside of me that won't let me rest. This emptiness that alienated me from my people, made me aware of my loneliness.” He looked at Starshine. “Love, warmth and passion never let humans give up. This feeling drives them to the senseless and lets them do things that often seem stupid and nonsensical. They run open to ruin and are ready to sacrifice themselves, even though they’ve already lost the fight. And yet they are the lords of Fiara, and not us.”
Starshine evaded his gaze and brushed her hair aside of the scarred neck. “You'll never learn,” she murmured, “norcaine aren’t made for this.”
But he can doubt, Goren thought, and this is more than others of his people could do, starting with the Archons. He immersed himself for a moment in order to digest the story and classify the chronology. When he realized how old Craig was, over seven hundred years old, he looked up in amazement. “But if you’ve witnessed the beginning of your people, it means you...”
Craig nodded. “Yes. I was created, not born, and I saw my lord Nor when I was delivered to his protection, and bathed in his light and in the glow of his sight, which enlightened me and seeped deep into me, into my consciousness, into my soul, into every fiber of my being. In everything I do, I’ll still serve him forever and try to free him from exile.”
“And yet your revered the god Nor, who created the Spiderbrood by demanding cruel blood sacrifices and requiring the most beautiful girls of the norcaine, which he then transformed into these horrible creatures,” Starshine hissed. “Only because he didn’t have the ability to create like Zarach, but wanted something of his own – and as thanks he put the Spiderbrood at the side of the norcaine in the war which the Fial Darg failed.”
“Each of us has to make sacrifices, Starshine,” Craig said calmly. “I said it already: the people count, not the individual. Even if I can’t approve this ritual, I don’t therefore turn away from my master. Nor is a god, he’s a thousand times wiser than me and can look further and do more things than I can ever do. I don't have the right to criticize his actions until I know all the background and understand his thoughts.”
Starshine replied violently: “But I have the right to choose the Light because I condemn such actions from the outset! Blood sacrifices are always cruel and unjust, and I cannot understand why a god has to rely on them.” She got up, reached for her cloak, and covered herself as she left the fire and wandered out into the dark.
Goren was pretty confused after what he heard. “Thank you for your openness, Craig,” he said. “I don’t want to say that I now understand norcaine better, but it’s a point of view that was previously shut to me.”
“Don’t infer me from others, and certainly not from Starshine,” Craig said. “The norcaine are different in their nature than the humans, although not as fickle.” He also got up. The moon had risen in the meantime and covered its pale skin and long black hair with a silvery sheen. His eyes shone like starlight. It couldn't be clearer what his parentage was; out here at night, with the Silverweaver's eye above him, Craig was no longer a creature of darkness, but a light figure, of stately beauty, cool and perfect. More magnificent than ever human.
“Good night,” Craig Un'Shallach said, merging with the shadows of the night.
“Good night,” Goren murmured, and looked sadly in the direction in which Starshine had disappeared.

Suddenly there was movement in the sand of the lifeless desert. In waves, at first quite soft, then ever higher, like the signs of an approaching storm over the sea. In the sky, the darkness spread like a fine veil of dust, glittering in the sunbeams, which however lost the strength to melt the sand with their scorching heat.
More and more waves rose, ever higher, flowed through the whole desert, circling from Aonir's Blade to the outside. A strange buzzing and humming pressed from the sand, which swelled more and more.
And then the sand broke open like a purulent boil, and millions of spiders came out, scurrying across the ground and over one another on their eight legs, like a black tide. Spiders of all sizes, some only as big as a fingernail, others as huge as a dog. And there was still no end, more and more scurrying, creeping and crawling out of the sand. A huge black carpet spread over the desert, teeming and twitching, and moving toward the land of men.

Far from this place, Ur the fire dragon tilted his horned head. “The second step,” he snorted softly and full of concern.

“There we cross a commercial road!” the shoemaker exclaimed and pointed ahead. “I’m sure it’s the same on which I fled Norimar! It can't be far anymore.”
Goren agreed with him because his keen eyes had spotted other roads and crossroads that were in northwest direction. The separation of the rides wasn’t far off. He looked south, where the vast steppes of the Rift of Truth lay, and further down to the ruins of Lyraine, on which new houses may have been built.
“What is that?” Menor asked, pointing west. A large cloud of dust came towards them on a road.
“Perhaps a commercial caravan traveling to Norimar,” Buldr supposed.
“But we'll meet them first,” Goren said. “What do we do?”
“There will be no difficulties,” Craig Un’Shallach claimed. “The night will soon fall, they’ll camp and we’ll join them. We need all news that we can get.”
“May they have beer!” Buldr sighed enthusiastically.
The Dracon turned to Durass. “Ride ahead, about an hour away,” he ordered. “We’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”
“At your command,” the captain said and gave the signal to the army, which soon left the road and continued riding across the country. The area gradually became hillier and greener.
Shortly afterwards they met the caravan, which was accompanied by a well-armed, fifteen-headed guard. Three of them detached from the line and rode towards the fellows.
Craig suddenly stopped, then called: “Hey! Juldir!” and waved.
The front rider accelerated and he waved too. “Craig! What a surprise!”
“They know each other, that's good.” Buldr was happy. “It makes easier for us to enter.”
The two men pressed the horses together and greeted each other by squeezing the forearms vigorously.
“What a friend, to see you again!” Juldir said. “Where is Amra? Isn’t he with you?”
Goren listened up. He had heard that name in Lyraine when he was enjoying a puck beer in a tavern and traveler’s adventure tales. Amra was a human legendary warrior and adventurer; probably known throughout Fiara and respected as well as feared.
“We separated some time ago,” Craig replied. “He wanted to go to Godemark to look for Lea. I haven't heard from him since then.”
“Yes, I feared this,” Juldir's face darkened. “It’s rumored that he has disappeared. Nobody saw him anymore, that was a long time ago, and he probably didn’t arrive in Godemark – or he travels on very secret paths, which isn’t his style otherwise. We would find out if he was there.”
“Who knows, maybe he diverted,” Craig remarked. “Juldir, do you have a place at your fire for tonight and a mug of beer for my companion, the dwarf Buldr?”
“But sure, one like the other!” the soldier laughed and didn’t seem to be in the least surprised at the colourful fellowship in which Craig was. “Follow me, I introduce you to the Kolom, the trade master.” He turned the horse behind and galloped back to the line.
“Did you ride with Amra?” Goren asked stunned, while they followed Juldir.
“We had the same path for a year or two,” Craig replied. “What's so amazing about it?”
“You amazes me,” Goren admitted sincerely. “Although you have professed to be loyal to your people and on the dark side, you’ve been supporting the Light for many years.”
“I’m traveling as a school student,” Craig growled. “You must know your opponent if you want to defeat him.”
“But of course, I understand,” Goren said and nodded reassuringly, but he couldn't completely suppress the irony in his tone. “Yes, sure.”
“This is the first time that you understand something so quickly,” Craig remarked.
Goren wanted to burst out laughing, but he swallowed it. He knew that Craig was serious about it, or at most amazed; the Dracon had absolutely no gift of humour, and he knew nothing about irony. And that is precisely why the young Shaikan admired this man, who had recognized his imperfection and therefore had sought for what was missing, or at least to learn to understand it. For this he even took exile and the respect of the Archons. But even if Craig Un’Shallach thought he was still completely on the side of the dark, he changed himself. He had long since gone out of school because he had learned a lot and accepted it from the people of Light – goodness and forgiveness, for example. And even if love was strange to him, there had to be a reason that he had fathered a half-blooded one. He had given this child to the care of his wife, who had been married through line marriage, and who lived in Shal, the capital of Lar. As soon as he spoke of his daughter Nightsong, a strange glow came into his eyes. Goren had no doubt that he missed his little daughter and longed for the day he would see her again. He had also admitted that he was glad to know Nightsong in safety; on his wife, he claimed, could rely, she was faithful and still loyal to him. Their marriage was childless, but despite everything harmonious – if you could relate the word to the norcaine.

Kolom, the trade master, seemed to be satisfied that Juldir guaranteed for the strangers, and he literally thawed when Menor the Thin asked him about Humrig the Expert.
“Are you the ones who saved him and his family from the Lucien?” he exclaimed, beaming of joy. “I ask you to be my guests, sit by my fire, eat and drink as you please – and I’ll not accept a Goblet for it!”
Kolom knew that Humrig was currently traveling to Nortander, but he promised to send him greetings as soon as he met him.
It was a happy evening, a pleasant distraction from their troubled thoughts. Craig stayed aside, as was his style, and also Starshine hid her face half under the hood. Buldr knew how to cheer the companionship up with amusing stories, and Menor didn’t miss the chance to borrow a lute and chant.
When it was already dark, Goren took two mugs and walked over Starshine, which sat quietly on the other side of the fire, turned away from the camp, where no one was. He handed her a mug and sat next to her. For a long time they remained silent. Then goren said softly: “It’s you, Starshine, who excludes herself as a stranger, who think that they regard you as a flaw. None of us do it, neither your friends, nor these traders, nor anyone else.” He felt for her hand and pressed it briefly. “Take as much time as you need. But don't waste your whole life postponing the time ahead of you.” With that, he got up and left her.

Very early the next morning, when the night gave way to the first dawn and the traders were still in a deep slumber, Craig woke the fellows. “Come on, we have to keep going.”
Menor sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Shouldn’t we move in Norimar with the caravan? You heard that they carry out strict controls.”
“Korben knows a side entrance. Right, little shoemaker? The path of the smugglers.”
The shoemaker turned pale and red alternately. Then he lowered his eyes and nodded silently.
“So,” Craig patted Menor's shoulder. “Come on, you skinny miserable, help the shoemaker on the horse and go ahead.”
Juldir was already on his feet and guarding the horses when the fellows came to him with sacks and bags.
“You leave so early?”
“Yes, Juldir. It’s better if we ride to Norimar separately. All the best for your future journey.”
“You too, Craig. Maybe we’ll see in the city. I think everyone is moving there right now, eh? I’ve met a lot of familiar faces along the way, but yours was really the biggest surprise. According the rumour, Ruorim had finally caught you.” The man, he might be middle-aged, grinned. “But of course I didn't believe it.”
“I’m not yet destined to die, Juldir,” Craig replied. “I saw in a vision that I would return to Lar and rule there.”
The man stopped, then laughed. “You? To that remote reign? Of all places, in Lar? When should that be, at the end of all things?”
“After the Convocation,” replied Craig Un’Shallach unmoved. “I saw Nightsong by my side, she had grown up to be a beautiful young woman with white hair, and I heard her singing with an incomparable voice. Great things will happen, friend, that will not leave anyone untouched.”
“And you're probably on the way to one of these things.” Juldir pressed his arm. “Farewell and peace, Dracon Craig, and may your paths remain as unusual as they already are. As long as there are righteous like you, I’m not worried about Eo.” He nodded to Goren. “Also for Shaikan big things are coming. Hold on and believe in yourself – above all else in you, young dragon blood.”
“Thank you,” Goren said. “I’m just getting to know this world.”

In the early morning they caught up Durass and his army, and Craig signaled to stop. He turned to Goren. “Norimar is no longer far away, and it’s better if we split up now. Ride west around the city and then turn north to get to Windholme. Buldr, will you find your hometown?”
“With my nose ahead,” the red-bearded dwarf answered. “Good luck, Craig. Menor, you’re responsible for bringing Hag and Weylin to safety.”
“It will be fine,” Menor said faithfully, in his always confident manner.
“When we have done everything in Norimar, we’ll ride towards you with the army,” Craig said. “To the edge of the desert. Somehow we’ll meet. We hope that Hokan Ashir will not block our way.”
“Now I have to find the armour, before I can make my way into the desert,” Goren said. “My best wishes accompany you. Take care of yourselves!”
“Like you on yourself.” Craig raised his arm in greet, then continued with Menor, Korben and the army towards Norimar.
Goren remained silent and sad for a moment. Now the story take its course.
“You humans, with your senses for dramatic,” Starshine said, leaned forward in the saddle and pushed him lightly into the side. “I don't know what fool Craig seen in you.”
“The same as you in Goren, I might think,” Buldr said good-naturedly. “They are like children who need to be protected and loved. You can’t avoid them, and it’s exactly why they are the lords of Fiara, and not us, or you, or the elves... or even the dragons, who were the first to notice it.” He winked at Starshine. Proud norcaine, you’ve never completely removed the cloak of Silent – don’t worry so much. Everyone does what they choose, for whatever reasons. For my part, I’m looking forward to seeing my home again and being able to contribute to the dwarves in this conflict. And you’re there because you hate Raith, representing all norcaine, especially the Archons, and all mages on top. And because, like me, you never let friends down, dark elf or not.”
He drove his horse and galloped towards the hill in the west.
“What is worse,” Starshine sighed, “when he’s drunk and talks a lot or when he’s sober and talks too much?”
Goren grinned. “Come on, let's go.”

Chapter 8 – Meeting in Norimar
Craig steered east around Norimar to take up position on the hills. A Shaikan who had rode ahead as a scout returned with the message that he had found a good place to camp. “Ruorim obviously used it successfully before us, so we should not miss this opportunity.”
In fact, the traces of a camp were unmistakable: charred fireplaces, pressed down bushes, trampled ground and lots of hooves – and boot marks.
“Do you think he will be on the lookout for other thieves like him or for soldiers from the Highmark?” Menor asked to Craig.
The Dracon shook his head. “Not yet. Highmark doesn’t send troops to a single city so quickly as long as there is peace in Norimar and neither dwarves nor orcs are deployed. First of all, everyone will wait and see what happens next: whether Ruorim thinks about staying longer or finally leaving again. The latter is likely because everyone knows that he’s still in Hokan Ashir's services. It’s only when the occupations last too long and the tribute fails, for example, that Highmark rulers will take action.”
“So for sure he feel safe down there,” Menor growled.
“Largely. Of course he’ll expect resistance, but not by a Shaikan army and outside help. Apart from you, if he caught and recognized your friends.” Craig dismounted and crouched on the edge of the hill to look down at Norimar.
“Hopefully they’re still alive,” Menor muttered as he led the horses away and tied them to the others.
Craig waved to the young shoemaker. “Come here, Korben. You two too, Durass, Menor. Let’s take a look.”
It looked peaceful down there. Everything seemed to go its normal way; there was nothing threatening to discover. As if everything were as usual – no change. The only exception was the coat of arms of the patrols everywhere, which bore the symbol of Ruorim's dragon riders – the black dragon on a red background.
“How many may there be?” Craig considered. “A hundred? More?”
“I guess more,” Durass said after a while of watching. “Ruorim had more than four hundred when he moved against Raith, which core span one hundred men; he doesn't always have the others with him.”
“Hokan's army was almost devastated, as far as the living are concerned,” Craig continued. “After everything that Korben told, it was a night ambush, which otherwise doesn’t correspond to Ruorim's style. He likes to demonstrate his strength to overcome the opponent’s courage. But not in this case. Ruorim could only be arrived here with a handful – less than a hundred.”
Menor's eyes widened. “An act of desperation!”
“Exactly. The sleeping, peaceful, neutral, Norimar had never expected anything like this, so the plan worked. Now he’s plundering the city, bringing the wounded back on his feet and adding conscripts to the army. That means, we have to count on resistance, but some will take the opportunity to switch sides. Ruorim also didn’t find what he was looking for, namely the Niethalf’s armour.” Craig rubbed his beardless chin. “I would say that our chances aren’t so bad. The Shaikan are better than any other human soldier, aren't they, Durass?”
Durass replied proudly: “You should know that, Dracon, you’ve been in Fiara long enough and know the history of our people, which got its name from the norcaine.”
“Upright captain.” Craig kept his eyes on the city. “The walls look stable and there is always someone on the way. The south gate is open, all others are closed.” He pointed to a group of rocks on the east side. “The whole city is hollowed out. Korben, is there access to the smugglers path?”
“Yes, sir,” the shoemaker replied. “I’m sure Ruorim has no knowledge of it, because it’s used only rarely and for other purposes. Norimar charges only a small amount and prefers to secure its share directly on the market from every sale. One of the burgomasters once blocked the access to the city, but his successor opened it again for secret meetings. His wife was pretty quarrelsome and even more jealous, so he had to leave the town to be undisturbed.”
“And it remained that way?”
“Every burgomaster had his preferences, sir, and some wanted to keep an escape route open.”
“Why do you know about it?” Durass asked suspiciously.
Korben grinned. “The door is in a tavern, sir captain, and it happens to be my brother’s. But even so, every native who is born in Norimar in the second, third or even older generation knows about it.”
“Surely Ruorim will interrogate people,” Menor objected. “They’ll blab about.”
“No,” Craig disagreed. “He’ll not question the common people. What for? He feels safe as long as everyone is afraid of him.”
He slipped a little off the edge and rose. “So tonight, as soon as it gets dark, the three of us will sneak down there and get into town via the smuggler path. Durass, when we’re ready, I’ll give you a sign. You’ll recognize it when you see it. Then you attack, through one of the nearby gates.” He looked at Korben. “You make sure it’s open. I don’t care how you do it, but you certainly don’t have to put yourself in danger – because we’ll provide enough distraction.”
“Don’t worry, I'm going to make it,” Korben promises. “The north gate has no portcullis and only a simple bolt. I can loosen it unnoticed so a horse can enter the gate with its hooves. But it's narrow, only one rider can pass, so you’ve to be careful and very fast.”
“That's fine,” Durass said.
Craig looked satisfied. “The caravan has arrived this evening. If we’re lucky, Juldir and his protective force may enter the city. If not, it’ll be camped somewhere nearby and will be there quickly. He’ll support us in any case.”
Menor rubbed his hands together. He seemed unable to wait.

In the dark, Craig, Menor and Korben crept down the other side of the hill, using the withered but still high grass as cover. The land around them was calm, only a faint crackle and crunch indicated that small animals were out to look for seeds and insects. Now and then a night bird scurried over their heads. The sky was clear and the stars sparkled and twinkled. The moon hadn’t yet risen, which was an advantage.
Menor and Korben had to be led by Craig, who had no difficulty in finding his way in the dark and avoiding treacherous holes or stumbling blocks. Menor hissed because the shoemaker’s teeth chattered so loudly; he shivered all over. Korben had sounded so brisk and brave this afternoon, now he was by no means so venturesome.
“As a thief you were a real loser,” Menor whispered in his ear, and Korben replied: “Th-th-that's why I became a sh-sh-shoemaker.”
The moon was just rising when Korben finally found the tunnel's hidden entrance among the rocks. Craig seemed close to losing the patience, which didn’t help calm the shoemaker. But finally he sighed in relief. Torches and flints were stored in a niche; everything was taken care of. Which wasn’t surprising, if this tunnel was mainly used whether by the high men of Norimar or by other shady people.
Craig was the first to enter the tunnel with the torch, then Menor followed, and Korben pushed the boulder back in front of the entrance.
“I haven't seen anything like this in a long time,” Menor whispered, his eyes shining with enthusiasm. “It's like homecoming!”
The passage was narrow and just as high as Craig, but dry and easy to walk on. They progressed quickly, and finally they heard noises, voices and laughter and bustle from afar.
“Let me go ahead!” Korben whispered, pushed past Craig and took over the torch. “Hold back until I give you a signal.”
The passage ended in a staircase that led up to a narrow door. Korben pushed a cover aside and peeked through the gap.
“Ardig!” then he called softly. “Hey, brother, do you hear me? I’m here!”
Menor listened intently, and finally he heard a choked cry. “Korben? Are you there? By all gods and demons, where in the world are you from now?” A scraping and scratching, something was pushed aside, then the door opened and the two brothers hugged. “Korben, I thought you were dead! Mariela is still bawled her eyes out - thank the Good Weaver who has given you back to us! And you’re not a ghost, but made of flesh and blood, I can feel it!”
“I'm not alone here, Ardig, and you shouldn't cause a stir,” Korben whispered and cleared the way for Menor and Craig.
Ardig, an older edition of Korben with more weight on his body, turned pale when he saw Craig and stumbled back, eyes wide. “Hirin's curse, Korben, have you gone crazy? Don't we already have enough trouble with Ruorim the Butcher, do you want to hand us over to the dark ones?” He grabbed a knife that was lying on a barrel and held it in front of him with a trembling hand. "D-d-don't get too close, I'm very good with the kn-kn-knife!”
“Undoubtedly to cut bread,” Craig said, took the knife from him and pressed it against the wall. “Calm, man, and don't scream. I'm not doing anything to you, I'm a friend.”
“Exactly!” Korben said proudly. “He’ll sweep Ruorim out of the city!”
“W-what?” Ardig looked at the three in turn with flitting eyes. “You’re crazy, all together...”
“Hey, innkeeper!” A commanding voice roared from the back of the dining room. “Where are you, lazybones? Should I get my beer myself?”
“Dear heaven, may Shanna protect me, everything is about to break...” Ardig waved his finger at Craig's nose. “Don’t budge, understand? The whole tavern is full of dragon riders, if they discover you, they burn my house and cut me into strips! Korben, take care of your friends, I'll be right back.” He grabbed a mug, poured beer from a keg in no time and hurried into the tavern.
“Will he betray us?” Craig asked.
Korben looked up at him. “He’s my brother!”
“He’s quite scared,” Menor said, who had positioned himself between two large wine barrels and peered through. “Yes, the room is full of roaring henchmen, who behave rather obscenely towards the maids. Some residents are also there, but largely they brood over their beer in silence.”
“Really, you don’t have to worry, Ardig is a pain in the neck, but he’s after all a innkeper. Apart from that, he’s quite fine,” Korben protested. He took a sausage from the hook, asked Craig for the knife and cut off a few pieces, moreover he took a loaf of bread from a basket and broke it into three pieces. “Eat, friends. I’ll get another beer quickly, because it may take a while before we get out of here.” He put on an apron, fetched three jugs and tapped beer. No one paid any attention to him from the dining room.
Menor eagerly grabbed the beer and tasted it. “What do we do now, Craig?”
“We get as much information as we can,” the Dracon replied, while he must overcome himself to don’t try a piece of the deliciously scented sausage. “We’ll have a look around Norimar tonight, and tomorrow we’ll try to find out if and in which prison Hag and Weylin are.”
“During the day?” Menor asked in astonishment.
“Of course, it’s not so noticeable if we hang around near the burgomaster’s house.”
“That makes sense.”
Korben meanwhile helped his brother, who could hardly keep up with the service. Menor briefly considered whether he should try to be a bartender to get information, but then rejected it. At least there was the unlikely, but not excluded, possibility that one of the henchmen present was in the camp at the time when Goren, Menor and the others tried to reach Ruorim.
Craig squeezed somewhere between a barrel and the barrier so as not to be seen.
Shortly before midnight the tavern became a little quieter, and Korben found time to get to the fellows. “I didn’t find out much,” he announced. “It looks like we’re dealing with no more than a hundred henchmen, of which at least forty are new, so uncertain about their loyalty to Ruorim. He hasn't been seen for days, but Enart Twohanded, who must be a nasty guy, do the job. There’re probably not many in prison. Ruorim executed most of those for whom he no longer had any use. He regularly gets the others to be interrogated.”
“The armies ratio should therefore be fairly balanced,” Craig remarked. “Is the caravan here too?”
“Yes, and as you expected Juldir had to stay outside with his people. However, it isn’t far from the south gate. The traders will only stay two days, then move on.”
“By then we’ve done our job, Korben. Will you still do that with the north gate? I must could rely on you!”
“I promise it, sir. After all, I want to see my city freed.”
Ardig came to them. “Quick, they’re completely drunk now. Go along the counter, right here is a door through which you can get into the nearby barn, and from there onto the street. Have a good time, and good luck with the liberation of our city!”
“Go first, Menor,” Craig demand to the former thief. “Should I be stopped, so continue as discussed, I’ll find you.”
Menor nodded. Then he grabbed a basket of bread and carried it in calmness, strolling between the staff, along the counter to the other wall, put it there and disappeared through the door. Craig grabbed a medium barrel and heaved it onto his shoulder so his face could no longer be seen from the tavern; he had closed the cloak at the front so that nobody could see his guise immediately. Like Menor before, he took a measured step and reached the door unchallenged.
Shortly thereafter the two stood on the street. Craig pulled the hood over his head and left the cloak closed. Menor didn’t need to pretend anymore, here he was in his element. He strolled down the street where people were still walking; mainly drunk. As a skillful thief, it wasn’t difficult for Menor to act inconspicuous, almost invisible. He mostly stayed outside the light of the torches and oil lamps and moved swaying slightly, as if he too had looked a little too deep into the jug.
When he looked around cautiously, there was no sign of Craig Un’Shallach, but Menor was certain that he was close by. As norcaine, he had the ability to merge with the night, protected by the Silverweaver, whose shining eye was now high above the city.
In the meantime, patrols crossed Menor, but they paid no attention to a thin, apparently drunk young man who clearly had no weapons with him – at least not a heavy one like an axe, sword or bow.
As strange as it seemed, the city of Norimar was safe at night; no trader currently needed to be afraid of being found the next morning with his skull broken and robbed in some stinking back alley. Light burned in many houses, and Menor could hear female voices, chuckles and other noises that suggested tender encounters. Life went on as normal; for the residents it was probably just a move from one yoke to the next. Only a few charred ruins testified the attack.
Menor suddenly stopped when he heard a noise that was unusual for this time – metallic hits. He followed the sound and came close to a market place, where he made out a glow, a smoldering brazier, and sparks flying from shaped metal. The hissing of a bellows joined the metallic sound.
A blacksmith at work, Menor thought, at this hour? What's going on?
He crept closer, taking advantage of the shadow of the house, and discovered a giant blacksmith at the forge who was working on a shield. In front of him a tall, sinewy man with the coat of arms of the dragon riders paced up and down. He moved like a nervous, lurking cat, and on his back he carried two crossed swords. Enart Twohanded, Menor thought, and he shuddered involuntarily when he heard the husky, cold voice of the man.
“How long will it take, blacksmith? I don't have all night!”
“Be patient, henchman,” the smith growled.
Menor was taken aback. That voice... he had heard it before, he was sure. But where?
“I don't usually work at this time of the night, I'm just doing you a favor, so don't interrupt me at work!” the smith continued.
“Yes, that’s fine,” Enart Twohanded grumbled. “But the shield needs to be ready so I can hang it back in place before he notices!”
“I find it amusing that a killer and child torturer like you first steals the shield for things that I don't want to know about, and then is afraid of his master.”
“That doesn’t concern you!”
“Just don't get nervous and don't dare to pull your swords, otherwise I’ll ram my hammer through your big mouth into your guts!”
Menor blinked. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. The two seemed so busy that they didn't notice anything around them, and he dared to sneak closer. Finally he could see the blacksmith's face more clearly in the faint glow, and his heart leapt with joy.
“Are you ready soon?”
“Yes, if you leave me alone!”
Further blows boomed through the night. Then the blacksmith lifted the shield and examined it from all sides. “He’s like before, there’s nothing more revealing about it.”
“Excellent! Give it to me,” Enart asked.
“First you give me my wage,” the huge orc, hairy from top to bottom, replied. “With night surcharge, of course.”
“You may want to consider how many more orders you want to carry out,” Enart said with a dangerous undertone.
The blacksmith was not in the least impressed. “I’m not my master’s doggy, you bootlicker, and if you don’t pay immediately, it will be very uncomfortable for you here in Norimar, I promise you!”
Gnashing his teeth, the henchman paid a few coins into the Blacksmith's hand, grabbed the shield and hurriedly left.
Menor immediately hissed from his cover: “Wolfur! Hey, Wolfur Grimbold!”
The blacksmith turned slowly and glared at Menor, who dared to venture into the flickering light of the embers. He grinned and spread his arms. “It’s me, Menor the Thin! Do you remember? The Valley of Tears? Goren Wind-Whisperer? You in chains?”
Wolfur Grimbold hesitated. Then the light of knowledge spread on his rough-faced orc face, which looked even more barbaric due to the hair. “Of course!” he roared and instantly dampen his voice when menor panicked, hissed "sch-sch!" and excitedly waved his hands. He grabbed the former thief and almost crushed him on his hairy barrel chest. “Beanstalk, how much I looked forward to seeing you again and in the best of health! Tell me, how goes it? Where’s Goren?”
Menor coughed and groaned, he went pale and had to hold on to Wolfur until he had enough air in his lungs and strength in his legs. “Goren has things to do elsewhere, but I’m here to free Norimar – and I’m not alone.”
In response to this keyword, a mighty figure broke out of the shadows and pulled the hood back.
“By Zarach’s claws!” Wolfur Grimbold burst out in astonishment and seemed close to bowing. “Craig Un’Shallach, I don’t believe it!”
“Oh,” Menor made disappointed. “You know each other?”
“No,” Craig said.
“Of course,” Wolfur said. “Every member of the dark people knows the big Dracon! Who else should it be? But you have to tell me all in peace. Come on, I live right here in this house, you’re definitely hungry and thirsty. You could sleep with me too, but first I have to know everything!”
“And we have quite a few for you, friend Wolfur,” said Menor and slapped him on the shoulder, laughing, almost breaking his wrist.
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