[Fanfiction] Heirs of Darkness (2nd book) - Chapters 9 & 10

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[Fanfiction] Heirs of Darkness (2nd book) - Chapters 9 & 10

Post by Ommariuolo »

Chapter 9 – Windholme
“We’ll be there soon, friends,” Buldr said with a reverent sound in the voice and rode forward cheering. “Windholme is a border town like Norimar, in terms of landscapes – around them are steppes, mountains crowned with snow and a glowing desert onto which a drop of water never falls. It’s a kingdom of extreme, powerful and enchanting.”
“And will we see women there too?” Goren asked curiously.
“Excuse me?”
Starshine laughed for the first time since the trip had started. “Dwarf women, Buldr Redbeard! Goren has never seen one, as well as me!”
“And neither do I!” Buldr roared. “You don't know it, but the Niethalf’s people are a dying people. Very slow, certain, but still inevitable. Because only a few women are born to our people. Therefore we protect them, hide them, keep them secret so that nothing happens to them, so that they never experience suffering, only love from the person they choose.”
“And you really have never seen one?” Goren asked in astonishment.
“I don’t dare,” his friend replied. “Because I would no longer be able to do anything and be lost. As coarse, blustering and hairy we are us dwarf men, so lovely, beautiful and fragile are our women. A thousand warriors would die for a dwarf woman, just for the sight of her, and especially for a wish she could express. Truly, I would never dare look at a woman. At certain times of the year, when Windholme is celebrating festivities, we dress up splendidly and make pilgrimages to the Palace of the King, where the barred windows and balconies are, through which hidden eyes can look at us, and we go up and down, lay roses down and sing verses about grace. Should a woman ever choose me, then and only then, I would ever dare to lift her veil and look at her, because from then on my heart no longer belongs to me, nor to my will.”
Goren looked doubtful; he didn’t really know whether he should believe the dwarf or dismiss it as a romantic exaggeration. But Buldr looked more serious than ever. He seemed genuinely to believe in what he was told.
And Buldr went on: “This is what drives me, what gives me experience and wisdom and heroic deeds so one day I’ll become worthy of a woman and we’ll have children, including at least one girl, if not two, and thereby giving hope to the people of the dwarves.”
Goren remained silent and stared at the flying mane of his horse. He heard how Starshine came out and he knew, yes, felt, at that moment she was far from the cold consciousness of norcaine and their controlled will and was once only herself: Starshine without veils. His heart beat faster, galloped along the horse. Yet he didn't look around, but stared straight ahead.
“Here it comes out!” Buldr's voice had taken on a cheering sound and he was pointing forward. On the south-eastern edge of the mighty mountains, popped up from their shadows, stood a step-like, big stone city, with hundreds of battlements and towers, terraces and stairs, catwalks and bridges.
“However, Lyraine... was a dirty village, and even more so Norimar,” Goren remarked impressed. “One can see that Windholme is old and has grown over the centuries.”
“Solidly built, never fallen,” Buldr agreed, proud in the shining eyes. “I’ve already told you that for centuries it have been defying the icy storms from the mountains and the roaring swirls of sand from the desert, no draft, no grain of sand can penetrate through the thick walls, and the eternal fires of the chimneys keep the inside warm.”
“Will we be welcome there?” Starshine asked.
“It’s a city of trade, in which the dwarves have even got used to the sight of elves, whether they are light or dark,” Buldr grinned. “Untouched by all wars, Windholme is a world in itself. You’ll see!”

The main street was already crowded because there was only one entrance. It was impossible to ride around Windholme, the rugged slopes, abysses and steep cliffs formed natural barriers. Beyond, the golden edge of the desert spread eastwards, the mighty Windwall Mountains rose to north and west.
Just before they reached the city, Goren stopped and pointed to the narrow strip of desert that flashed between the rocky outcrops and the sky above. A black ribbon appeared there, wavering and flowing, and part of the desert floor wasn’t yellow, but black.
Starshine’s face darkened, and Buldr quickly found himself on the hard floor of the naked truth.
“I think we should hurry up,” he growled.
Starshine’s horse whinnied and shied suddenly, then it rose and she almost fell out of the saddle. “What’s... such abomination!” she cried out as her horse danced around, blowing and snorting, and infecting the others with his nervousness.
But it was no wonder, because hundreds, no, thousands of small black spiders suddenly scurried across the ground, quickly climbed the horse legs and jumped on the rider. The Starshine’s self-control was over, she shrieked and hit violently like most other travelers on the street. The spiders came from everywhere, swarming and scurrying, leaving sticky traces of cobweb and covering everything that moved.
Goren was now struggling because the tiny crawling animals creeped under his clothes and bit him; but the tingling sensation of their scurrying legs alone was uncomfortable enough. Goren noticed how his skin was sticking, as well as his clothes and his hair. His horse shaked his head, his eyes rolled wildly, and it neighed loudly as it stamped on the spot.
Chaos had broken out across the street, people were fighting on the spot or running away screaming. Carts and carriages, drawn by oxen and horses, collided and fell, crashing into the street, and an end to the black, swarming, sticky tide wasn’t yet in sight.
Goren felt the wind whistle down from the rocks, and no matter how hard it was for him, he concentrated and sent a cry for help: What should I do?
Dragon scales break magic, it whispered in his ears.
The shield! Goren could hardly move his arms anymore, everything was so stuck and his fingers slipped off the fastening several times, but then he finally held the shield in his hand. He aimed the outer shell at the spiders, and in fact they split up in front of him and his horse, dodged around him, and flowed together on the other side.
That isn’t enough, Goren thought. I must drive them all out.
He looked up at the sky and tried to remember what Malacay had done in various dangerous situations. If he tried, Goren would see it right before; after all, he had witnessed the life of the primordial body for himself, when he had told him. So many events which his feverish mind could hardly grasp at the time, now he gradually remembered and they learn him to understand.
He still had the flamed ritual dagger, among other things a large ruby was set in it. Malacay had used it once when...
Suddenly Goren knew what to do. He pulled the dagger out of his belt, put it on the shield, and then raised it so that the sunlight fell exactly on the ruby.
The ruby glowed briefly. Then it seemed to explode, firing glaring red rays in all directions. A gruesome, shrill cry rippled the mass of spiders as the rays struck them and set them on fire, melting like snow in the sun.
It only took a moment, so short that no one could grasp it; a bright light and a bang – and then the spook was suddenly gone. The spiders disappeared, and only their sticky threads reminded of the incident.
The travelers slowly came to and looked around, puzzled, as if they had awakened from a bad dream. Horses and cattle had calmed down and stood still again.
Goren hastily stowed the dagger and reattached the shield to the side of the saddle.
“What happened?” Buldr asked, a question that was just being asked everywhere on the street.
“I dont know,” Goren said. “The spiders were gone at once, as fast as they had come.” He met Starshine’s look and swallowed. “What... are you looking at?”
“You know it exactly,” she said.
Goren blushed against his will; he had really thought he was too old for that now, but he simply couldn’t come up against her. She saw through him like glass, as always, and she was angry. But why?
Buldr, who hadn’t noticed it, said in between: “They came from the desert. It’s the sign that Raith is making progress. Don’t linger, friends, we have a task.”
He drove his horse, pushed his way through the chaos, accompanied by swears and curses.
The cobwebs dried quickly and then fell off. Until they entered the Windholme across the bridge, there was nothing left of the eerie spook.

In astonishment, Goren rode into a world he had never seen before. Lyraine hadn’t been a small town, but no comparison to Windholme. It wasn’t uncommon for the houses to have five floors, some of which, when they were close to the rocks, were directly accessible from several levels. Many houses were built in rows along the main street, then there were narrow, tall, pointed buildings with oriels and projections, which had half an alley along the rear, with adjacent stables or warehouses. Roof gardens and courtyards weren’t uncommon, where bushes bloomed in sheltered niches, fragrant herbs and occasionally walnut trees grew here and there. All streets and alleys were paved with cobblestones so no one sank into the mud in bad weather. The water flowing down from the mountains was led into channels, some of which were used for irrigation and some for the removal of sewage. All kinds of goods, fabrics as well as food, wine, utensils, tools and arms were sold at marketplaces. And of course there were many shops with armors, weapons, but also goldsmiths, who offered splendid jewelry in the showcases, guarded by heavily armed dwarves.
Horses moved slow because the streets were just wide enough for two narrow carts, which also had to be shared with pedestrians and cattle that were sold. Mainly dwarves were seen, but also members of every other race, even dark elves and orcs. Only trolls weren’t tolerated here, according to Buldr’s statement; if they wanted to sell or trade something, they had to go to a special location north of Windholme.
“Most of the traders and job seekers come from Nortander, but some also come from Grak, Godemark and even Grimwarg, because we have good relationships with Fastholme. From the areas south of Windholme, travelers or arms vendors are more likely to be found,” Buldr explained. “There are a lot of cities down there, such as Sevenkeeps, Windport, Lyraine, Connach and so on, which are thriving. Here we are, so to speak, on the crossroads between north and south. Should the conflict between the six races ever come again, Windholme will must close its gates and isolate itself in order to don’t be crushed like a grain in the millstone.”
He directed the horse to an inn called The Copper Cup. He dismounted and handed over the reins to the immediately rushing stall boy, with the instruction to drink and feed the horse and to take care to the baggage. Goren and Starshine followed his example and, with Buldr, entered the large dining room, which housed many tables and chairs and almost as many guests on several floors. The room was unusually bright and airy, and there was a relaxed mood. Maids and lads ran around the tables, cleared away or took orders. Nobody paid attention to the newcomers.
Buldr went straight to the counter and drummed his fist on the board. “Hey there! Innkeeper! Here are new guests who are looking for a tasty meal, foaming beer and a louse-free bed for the night!”
There was a rumble and clatter in the back room, then a massive dwarf appeared, whose silver-gray hair was styled in innumerable plaits, as well as its long beard, the plaits of which, however, were linked into a wickerwork, like a spider web. His auricles were adorned with thick rings. His nose glowed red like a tomato, and his eyes sparkled blue like a stormy sky.
“Always with calm, everyone's turn come!” he rumbled, then startled. “Buldr? Is it you, don’t tell me?”
Buldr took off the helm and spread his arms. “To my heart, Orim, old street mugger!”
“Buldr!” the innkeeper roared, came around the counter and hugged the red-haired dwarf. “Who would have thought that! What's going on, did the sea finally spit you out and doesn't let you in anymore? Were you tired of driving seasick from coast to coast?
Buldr returned the hug. “No, it was the smell of your heavenly roast that attracted me here, and the seduction of your malty black beer, which I have been craving for so many years!”
“You should have both, young, and not scarcely!” Orim said moved. “You’re completely emaciated, we have to do something about it!”
Buldr pointed to his friends. “Orim, these are Goren Wind-Whisperer and Starshine, my friends and travel companions. They too are hungry and thirsty and can't wait to enjoy your cook – and brewing.”
The innkeeper looked at Goren first, then Starshine. “Of course,” he said courteously. “Come, I’ll give you a table where you can sit undisturbed and not immediately seen by everyone.” He waved them to follow him and went up half staircase to a single alcove from which one could keep an eye on the restaurant. However, a very drunk dwarf already sat, or rather, was on the table.
Orim nudged him lightly. “Hey, Stump, I need the table.”
“Ish occu’ied,” the drunk babbled. “Brinn’ me ‘noder jug.”
“I said you should go, I need the table!”
“Bu’ youshaid...”
Orim had enough. He grabbed the dwarf, whom he had unflattering called Stump, by the collar, pulled him away from the table and carried him down the stairs where he put him on a barrel.
“Thazz no way kinn’, tre’t so yo’ brozer!” the drunk complained with a threateningly raised finger.
Orim shrugged, pulled a rag from his apron and wiped the table. “I'm sorry. Sit down, I’ll bring you something to drink right away, and a little bread. The roast is ready too.”
“It’s amazing how quickly the innkeeper caught on us.” Starshine said as she took a seat next to Goren. She seemed satisfied with the security of the alcove, because she pulled back her hood and shook her hair from the gracefully curved, pointed ears.
“Orim is an old friend of my father,” Buldr explained. “He has a very subtle sensitivity and can imagine that I didn’t just return to Windholme with non-dwarf companions for the joy of reunion.”
Goren watched the dining room. There didn't seem to be a spider infestation in Windholme, because nobody reported something strange, by the relaxed faces and the lively but balanced gestures.
Meanwhile, Orim was serving up – mug with beer, water and wine, bread and butter, crispy roast pork, the speciality of dwarves, mushrooms and vegetables, with candied fruit. Even Starshine couldn’t resist and served herself with pleasure. The innkeeper sat down with them when they had satisfied the worst hunger and finally took a break. “According to the state of your clothes, you’ve been traveling for a while and haven’t always stayed at inns.”
“You got it, old friend,” buldr said wittily, and lit a pipe. “This is our first comfortable stopover since we departed.”
“Unbelievable! I have a bathroom set up for you and give you three rooms in the back of the barn, they aren’t big, but it’s quiet. Relax as long as you want.”
“We don't have the time, Orim.”
Now the innkeeper became curious and leaned forward. “And what are you looking for here?”
“We need information on the whereabouts of the Silverflame armour, which once Glamrig forged,” Buldr freely disclosed.
Orim stared at him in surprise for a long moment. Then he asked: “Are you crazy?”
“Then it’s the two?” Orim waved his index finger in front of Goren and Starshine.
Buldr shook his head.
The innkeeper span his long plaits and pointed down, towards the barrel. “Stump – he made you crazy, right? Buldr, how old are you? I told you fifty years ago that he’s only a teller of fairy tales, that he just loves to invent stories!”
“But he hasn’t.” Buldr turned to his friends. “Stump – I mean, Aldridge, was a poet, a bard! No one could write such wonderful verses as he did, and he was the most famous teller of Windholme. Everyone listened to him when he made his appearance, they came to hear him even from Grimwarg!”
Orim wrung his hands. “You say it yourself!”
“Stop it, Orim, you know very well that Aldridge has not always been like this. And many of the stories he told are true!” Buldr contradicted him.
“What happened?” Goren asked.
The innkeeper blinked; it almost seemed as if a tear had sneaked into his eye. “A woman,” he blurt out toneless. “He saw a dwarf woman half a heartbeat when she passed by an open window in the palace, and that stole his mind. He performed songs to her every day for ten years, softening stones itself. Whole houses have collapsed, really, because they cannot withstand it! But she turned him down. Ever since... he’s been drinking. It’s a pity.”
“Yes, you can really feel sorry for him,” Buldr growled. Earlier he was such a nice, handsome guy, unlike Orim.”
The innkeeper seemed about to slap him in the face, but then he came back to the subject that interested him more. “What makes you think that the Silverflame still exists?”
“I found a note in an old book in Shaikur...”
“Shaikur? By my ever growing plaits, you were in Shaikur?”
“Yes. Goren is the grandson of the lord of the fortress. And Ur told me...”
“Ur. Ur, Ur who, the dragon? Ur, the forefather?”
“That’s right.”
Orim swallowed dryly. He grabbed Buldr's jug and tipped the contents in himself. Then he pointed his index finger like a spear at Starshine. “And who are you? Nor’s blessed daughter no one knew about, or how?”
“I’m just Starshine,” she said coolly.
Buldr grabbed his friend’s shoulders and shook him. “Listen, Orim, don't go crazy now. Believe me, there is a big world out there, outside these walls of the inn, outside Windholme! The stories that Aldridge told us happen there! Don't just think about your cooking pots and revenues! Every day you hear such and similar stories from your guests, you can't just dismiss them!”
“I don't do it at all.” Orim cleared his throat. “But you’ve to admit that this isn’t something you tell me everyday, Buldr. And I still see you rosy-cheeked and hanging on Stump’s lips in excitement. You've always been a romantic, so it's hard for me to believe that... you, of all people...”
“If you’re looking for adventure, you’ll find it,” Buldr retorted. “But seriously now: where could I find information that says anything on the whereabouts of the Silverflame armour?”
Orim got up. “Not in this inn, unless you try with my drunken brother, who hasn’t brought out a reasonable word for years. Of course, the easiest thing is ask to Glamrig – but stop!” He struck his forehead in surprise. “He has been missing or to for a hundred years. What a bad luck!” Shaking his head, he rumbled down the stairs.
“My father's friend stay grounded,” Buldr murmured apologetically.
“What about your family, Buldr?” Starshine asked. “You told us that it lives here. Don't you want to go see them and ask for help?”
Buldr rubbed his beard. He stayed silent.
Starshine put a hand on his arm. “Buldr,” she said softly. “Your father has long past and forgotten the loss of the ship and the goods. But not yours. Go to him.”
Buldr shook his head. “I can't come and go right away. I can't do it to my mother.” He looked at Starshine. “She’s the only dwarf woman I've ever seen. She’s… wonderful. Loving. I couldn’t bear to see her for just a moment. That would break her heart – and mine too.” He shoved the beer mug over the table. “She’s beautiful, as I told you. No longer a young woman, certainly, but still... something very precious.” He gave a jerk and looked up. “And now I'm going to have a word with Aldridge. You’ll see, Goren, before tomorrow morning I know where to look. Trust me.”
“What should we do meanwhile?”
“Don’t attract attention, if you don’t mind. Use the time to sleep; who knows what awaits us next. Tomorrow morning we’ll discuss at the morning meal.”
“What about the baggage?” Goren remembered.
“It's been in your room for a long time, Orim is very careful. He also has the room keys.” Buldr stood up. “Wish me good luck. See you tomorrow.” He went down the stairs to Aldridge, who was still slumped and snoring on the barrel. He woke him up roughly and dragged him. Then he disappeared from the inn with him.

Goren and Starshine looked around a little in Windholme as long as it was day. “It’s actually true, you don't see dwarf women anywhere, not even here,” the young Shaikan finally noticed. “They also keep married women behind closed doors.”
“It isn’t unusual,” Starshine noticed. “Among norcaine it’s also common for women to live in seclusion. I never saw my father’s wife leave the house.”
“Did she just accept your presence?”
“Of course. However, we lived in a neighbouring house, my mother and I, like slaves. She had to work hard and I had to help her as soon as I could stand.”
“So there is a significant difference,” Goren remarked. “The dwarves only marry for love, norcaine never.”
“Love wasn’t given to us, as you know, and there shall be a reason,” Starshine retorted. “Look at Craig, what happened to him just because he rebelled against it.”
“Yes? I think that he has become a hero, and I admire his willingness to break free from the strict bonds and tradition of his people, to learn, to develop. It was his own and free decision.” Goren glanced sideways at Starshine. “A life without love, Starshine, what is that? Especially I wouldn’t enter into a covenant with a woman. I don't know why you strive so hard... no, that's wrong, I can guess it, and maybe I can even understand it a little. But that's because it's not right.”
“Oh, yes?” She stopped and glared at him. “Explain yourself in more details!”
Goren also stopped and took advantage of the fact that he was more than a head taller than she was, to give his words more emphasis. “You hide behind being a norcaine because it’s a convenient excuse for you haven’t to show any feeling! Maybe you’re ashamed of your human half, I don’t know. But I know one thing: you cannot deny what you are, and the more you get into it, to feel nothing and only let yourself be guided by your mind, the more lonely and unhappy you become! Certainly, if you have feelings, they can be hurt, and if you love someone who breaks your heart, it’s cruel. But you’ll survive it! And then you go on. I can enjoy a sunrise and being close to my friends. I don’t want to hide from everyone else just because I’m scared they could hurt me! They can only do that if I allow it. And so what! Then I'm just not perfect. But I live, you understand? I don’t just vegetate there, driven by duty and honor, and I’m not afraid to face challenges that threaten my heart!”
He was a little scared of how much had gushed out of him, but it was full. It had to pour out what had been boiling in him for so long. Starshine had listened to him in silence, and now he closed: “And that's exactly why, Starshine, you’ll never win over us and become Eo’s rulers, because you aren’t there with passion and love, because you don’t believe and hope!”
“I belong to the Light,” she said.
“Then behave like this, finally!” he snapped at her angrily and trudged further, furiously trembling before her, simply through the streets without looking left or right.
After a while she came to his side again. She said calmly: “Why do you always want to change me, Goren?”
He was feeling rather miserable now and was glad that she was taking the first step, even though he had behaved so badly. “I'm sorry,” he apologized. “I went too far. I said things to you that –”
“It’s all right,” she interrupted him. “There were things in your inner garden that kept you busy. You were honest and I can’t blame you for that.”
“But you can laugh, Starshine,” he said sadly. “And you're angry with me often enough. You’re very different from Craig. You’re what he gladly would like to be.”
“And you’re and remain a blockhead,” she retorted and turned into a side street. She had disappeared so quickly that it was impossible to follow her.
Goren cursed himself, the trip and the whole world.

And the darkness spread as the ritual proceeded. The flood of spiders subsided, but another plague woke up and spread. Scythe Runners, huge insects with powerful scissor arms, flowed full of hunger and lust for murder from the desert. Wherever they smelled live, blood-filled meat, whether warm – or cold-blooded, they rushed at the prey with metallic shrill screams, and if they didn’t catch them straight away, they rushed them on nimble legs until they gave up exhausted, and then they circled the victim and tore it in pieces with their terrible blades.
The Scythe Runners made no difference whether it was human or animal, orc or troll, dwarf or elf. Woe to those who ventured too close to the desert at that time. Hardly a horse could escape these deadly, persistent beings, the shrill screams of which made the blood freeze, and those who believed that they were safely resting in their homes in bed, was still haunted by nightmares.
The third step had been reached, and the summoner's voice rose to the higher pitch.
Unbroken, not swaying and not lingering, Raith the Black continued the ritual.

Goren and Starshine had to be patient for two days until Buldr finally showed up on the morning of the third day with news.
“Aldridge is deplorable,” he began. “It would have been much quicker, but when he was sober he was even more useless than drunk. It was already a day before I finally got him to have all five senses together. But then he was hard to stop. He was about to go with us just before we came to you until I told him we had no use for a drunkard. Since then he has been sitting at home crying. Well, maybe I did him a favor.”
Goren impatiently drummed his fingers on the table top, and Buldr hurried to continue: “We went into an ancient collection of documents that only the learned and quirky bards like Aldridge know about. A shambles and even more dust, I can tell you! But Aldridge was able to cope with dreamwalking security. One thing you have to give him: he may have drunk his mind, but not his memory. However, as it turned out, all the armour are actually lost.”
“You already said that in Shaikur, Buldr,” Goren said impatiently. “Do you want to tell me now that the travel was in vain?”
“Probably,” Buldr admitted sheepishly. “However: there are many old ravines in the Windwall Mountains that are no longer in use. One dates from the time of the War of the Six Races. If the Silverflame lasted anywhere, then Glamrig took it there before the ravine was closed and sealed.”
“So we don't know what we're getting into,” Starshine noticed.
Buldr looked unhappy. “Hold that I’m crazy, but I think the armour is there. After everything I hear about Glamrig, who is one of the oldest of our people, he was very proud of his work. He might not have been able to prevent what happened to the other armours, but he certainly wanted to keep the Silverflame for posterity and for himself as a memento. It’s his masterstroke, there is no doubt about it, and it holds many memories for him.”
“No news about Glamrig?”
“No. Nobody believes that he’s still alive. However, he would also be very old. It may be that he retired to die somewhere back then. It’s not easy for an old warrior if he’s no longer fit to fight.”
Goren leaned forward. “Do we have any chance of finding that ravine?”
Buldr nodded. “There’re only very old plans that no longer correspond to the current state because many passages have been buried or closed. But they could provide a clue so that we can find our way at all. Aldridge knows a crypt in which earlier ceremonies were held to honor Niethalf. There the access to the old mines is situated.”
“Then we shouldn't stop, but set off,” Starshine suggested.
“What do we do with the horses?” Goren asked.
“I handed them over to Orim's care until we returned,” Buldr replied. “We should only take what we can carry with us when it comes to packing. The rest’ll also be kept by Orim.”
“I’ve already packed everything together,” Starshine said.
“Me too,” Goren declared. “I have nothing to leave here. I paid Orim in advance; grandfather gave me enough Pennies and Falcons.”
“Very good,” Buldr said happily.

Aldridge was waiting for them in front of the inn. Goren felt sorry for the run-down dwarf, who tried very hard to look sober and to make a good impression. He was unusually shy, which only emphasized his small, large size. Aldridge led them along the main streets through winding, sometimes steep and crooked alleys to the west side of the city. It had rained the previous night and the stones were wet and very slippery. The dwarves and Goren swung with their arms and often had to hold on to the walls at the sloping spots, while the nimble-footed Starshine, as if she didn’t touch the ground, passed them by.
Since the last dispute they hadn’t talked to each other much and didn’t go out of their way. Goren felt more insecure than ever. There were worlds between them; she was also a few years older than him. She was right – another would be better for her. What should she do with Goren, who had yet no experience or knowledge? Several times he was tempted to ask her why she had come along at all. But he remembered a long-gone dark, rainy night of revelation, when the mages’ war raged down in the valley and Starshine on the top of the hill had said that they was obliged to Goren.
He would gladly release her from this duty. After escaping from the Valley of Tears, Starshine had paid off this debt – if you could call it that at all – more than once. Maybe he would insult her with it; he just knew too little about the norcaine, but he didn’t think it was right that she, finally freed, subjected to another constraint.
On the other hand, Goren couldn’t imagine that one day she would no longer be there. Therefore he was silent. Rather she should be angry, maybe not talk to him anymore for the rest of the trip than not be with him at all.
“What are you thinking about?” Buldr asked.
“It’s all so confused,” Goren murmured.
“Indeed.” Buldr pointed east. “The sky is getting darker, you see? Raith is making progress with his work.”
“I dreamed of insects tonight...” Goren murmured. “Huge armored beings with scissor-like hands that attacked a herd of hormuls and tore them in pieces... they came out of the desert and ran towards the human land...” His eyes were slightly dim in memory of the nightmare. “I was awake the rest of the night because I could still hear their shrill screams...”
“We must simply succeed,” the dwarf grumbled.
They reached a very old part of the city, as one could see from the weathered, moss-overgrown walls, and the wear down path, also covered with moss and fern. The stone steps were bent and crooked, the houses decayed and have long been abandoned. Aldridge led them between two old gardens, which must once have been magnificent parks, but whose trees were now intertwined with ivy and grow looped; the grass was waist high and there were no longer any walking paths.
A wrought iron gate stopped them, but it was already so rusty that it could easily be pushed open without a key, because the lock broke off and fell apart on the floor. Aldridge took the torches he had brought with him from his bag and lit them.
“You’ll find enough torches in the corridors,” he declared. “Now, go into the crypt and at the end you see the door that leads you into the mines.” He handed Buldr a bulky old key. “Don't lose it, it's the only one. Lock behind you again. And if I can give you some advice: let rest whatever is down there.”
“Well, Aldridge. I thank you.” Buldr hugged the older friend. “You could write a story until we get back, how was it?”
“Yes,” the bard said timidly. “Maybe I really could. Orim’ll definitely give me paper and pen. I don't have anything anymore...”
“I'm looking forward to reading it.” Goren said comfortingly as he squeezed past him down the narrow, high steps. He had considerable difficulties not to lose hold with his big feet. It was pretty cool and dark below, because the rocky ridges towering like frozen ships already covered a large part of the sky.

Aldridge watched them until they disappeared into the dark maw of the crypt. He waited a good hour before the entrance, but they didn’t come back. Apparently Buldr and his strange friends were actually on their way to the secret old mines – or part of them, because there were many here under the mighty mountains, according to legend. It was said that powerful forts lay hidden beneath the northern Windwall Mountains, filled with treasures and powerful things that Isgrimm, one of the Circle Mages, had accumulated there. Occasionally he should still visit these fortresses today, on paths known only to him.
Yes, it would be a good story. He should really get to work. And then maybe give a little hand to Orim. His poor brother had spent enough of it with him.
Aldridge took a deep breath and slowly climbed the steps again, and for the first time in a long time he was looking forward to returning to the city’s life.
When he turned into the main street someone tripped him on the way. With a bottle in his hand from which he took a deep gulp and then held it out to him.
“A sip too, little man?”

Chapter 10 – A thief in prison
“So that's how it looks, friends,” Wolfur Grimbold closed his report, meanwhile quite struck by the many beers and schnapps, of which he had thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of having guests. “Thus I have settled here and I can’t complain about lack of business. Basically, I even take advantage of Ruorim's presence, because he has commissioned quite a few weapons and so far seems quite satisfied. He pays me well too.”
“By using burgomaster’s treasures, I assume,” Menor said mockingly.
Wolfur grinned. “I don't care, Beanstalk, because if you ask me, only the name changed, but not the rulers. All the burgomasters here acted quite arbitrarily, according to what I hear. They could afford it, because new job seekers come every day, and trade is booming.”
“And now are you ready to support Ruorim?” Craig asked.
The hairy orc snorted through his nose. “That bastard, whose blood was spit out by Zarach himself? And his vicious dog sneaking through the alleys at night and doing unspeakable things to his victims? Of course not! Whatever you're up to, I'll be there! Out of obligation towards Goren, because where would I be without him?
“Well.” The Dracon seemed satisfied. “You’ll be a valuable help to us, Wolfur. Let's go to sleep now, and tomorrow we'll start infiltrating Norimar.”

Menor woke up in the bright sunshine, stretched comfortably and yawned. It was good to sleep in a bed again, even if it didn’t smell particularly fresh. It was amazing that the blacksmith had so much space at all. On the other hand – he had spoken of good merit and could therefore afford to claim an entire house and thus to have his peace. Even better for Menor and Craig, who found safe shelter here.
They spent the morning exploring the whole city, memorizing the streets with all the alleyways and possible escape routes, and observing the rhythm of the patrols and their strong men. Finally they parted; Craig wanted to go to the White Pony, Ardig's inn, and see Korben. Meanwhile, Menor was loitering near the north gate to find out if it was already open. He arrived at the inn around lunchtime, and shortly thereafter Wolfur Grimbold.
Korben the shoemaker was in conversation with Craig and was almost scared to death when the huge hairy ork sat down at the table and grunted and asked for a mug of beer and a decent plate of stew.
“Gradually the matter seems to be fun for you,” Menor said grinning and patted the shoemaker on the shoulder.
“Which matter?”
“The heroism. Imagine if Norimar is liberated and it turns out that you had a significant part in it – well, I would like to bet that you are guaranteed a high office, if not that of the burgomaster!”
Korben eyed Menor suspiciously, but there was a strange glow in his eyes. “You make fun of me.”
Menor shook his head. “Not remotely, Korben. You’re from here, a born Norimar citizen. Seize the opportunity, because you’ll be able to motivate a lot. We’ll already rescue all, until the residents will understand that they are free. If you do it cleverly, you and your brother, golden times will dawn for you.”
Korben swallowed clearly audible. “You mean... really...”
“But yes!” Laughing, Menor raised the jug. “I think you deserve that for your bravery, after all you were in Shaikur and treated as a guest! People’ll eat out of your hand.”
“Before we celebrate Korben, we should perhaps turn to the task of how to free the prisoners,” Craig suggested carefully. “And how we can start an uprising.”
“I can help you with the uprising,” Ardig remarked, who had just come swaying with a full tray and, with a sigh, put it down in front of Wolfur. “These stinking soldiers make me poor because they plunder my supply and pay nothing. As an innkeeper, I’m good at spreading rumours.”
“I can also incite some people,” Korben said. “Everyone knows me everywhere, so I can move well around the city.”
“The north gate is still closed,” Menor threw in because it was just suitable.
Korben nodded. “I know. But there was still no opportunity. I'll have it done by tomorrow, I promise.” He looked at Craig. “I can show you a side access to the prison, which is used to remove corpses.”
“If I can make a suggestion,” Wolfur said munching, since he was already eating his second plate of stew and had the fourth tankard refilled. “I can freely move in – and out myself because, as locksmith, I repair bolts and grids. Some of the dungeons are quite dilapidated, and some prisoners have already tried to escape. That's why Ruorim asked me to take care of it.”
“I’m surprised that he lets you work freely and, above all, pays you,” Menor said.
“It depends on me,” the orc grinned. “I’m the only blacksmith far and wide, and he’s having a hard time trying to force me to do anything. He also has a weakness for my pretty exterior. He likes that I’m misshapen because he assumes that I hate everyone and everything because of that. You won't believe it, but in fact he’s always friendly with me. He even offered to ride in his army with my capacity as blacksmith.”
“You might want to think about that,” Craig said seriously.
“I’m my own lord and serve no one, never again,” Wolfur replied. “And Ruorim has no future. Goren won't give up until he put him in jeopardy, I know that. It won't take a year, I tell you. Maybe not even for an autumn.”
“All right then,” Craig Un’Shallach said in conclusion. “This is my plan...”

“Hey, where are you going?”
Wolfur Grimbold paused when the sentries blocked his way. He was just about to enter the well-guarded entrance to the prison on the stairs of the burgomaster’s house. There was also direct access inside the house, but Ruorim didn’t wish to see anyone in it, apart from the servants and his closest confidants. So no one could just sneak in.
“What does it look like, man?” the orc growled angrily. He raised his bag of tools. “You seem to be new to the service, that you don’t know me, because I’m the blacksmith, and I repair locks and bolts in your rotten tomb down there, and broken grids. If I don’t do that, you’ll soon have no more prisoners, is that what you want?”
“Let him pass,” the second sentry growled. “I know the blacksmith, he’s fine. He’s in Ruorim’s services and has free access.”
The man stepped aside. But with his hand he held back Menor, who was wearing a leather apron that was much too large and a hood with a turtleneck. “Not you!”
Wolfur looked angry. “This is my lad, fool, don’t you see it? He must help me if I have to forge something down there, which is why I have a small chimney, anvil and bellows with me. Should I do everything alone?” He raised a hand as the sentry wanted to start. “But well, let’s leave the boy here, meanwhile he should sit down in a tavern and drink beer, and you’ll help me down there!” He pushed Menor's hood slightly to the side and showed a black, blistering spot on the cheek of his lad. “And if you don't hurry or are too slow or do something wrong, it sets a pair of slap in the face, until it goes smoothly. All right?”
The sentry flinched as if it had burned itself. “Get out of here,” he growled. “I’m going to check what you’re doing down there every now and then, if it takes too long, I’ll sound the alarm, understand?”
“Yes, yes, it's fine.”
“And I’ll check everything closely – every single lock, bolt and grid!”
“All right, blockhead.” Wolfur pushed the man aside and then stomped down the steps; it was so wide that it filled the entire corridor. Nobody could get past him.

Menor breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the damp, darkened room below, and rubbed his cheek. “That itches to death! What did you grease me with?”
“Soap and ash. As a thief you should actually know it, Menor!”
“I was a thief, not a beggar, my dear Wolfur. And what do we do now?”
“Work, my dear, that’s what I’m here for, because if I don’t offer anything to the man up there, we’ll get in trouble.”
Menor turned pale. “I... should work? Are you serious?”
“That’s why I took you with me.” Wolfur grinned, put the little chimney down and lit it with a torch. “You can look around until I have enough embers, but then we have to get to work.”
“All right”. Menor scurried down the aisle and looked through the bars into each cell. In front of one he paused a long time and had to bite his knuckles to avoid shouting. Then he ran on to the end of the prison, checked thoroughly possible escape routes and weak spots, and finally scurried back to Wolfur just as the basin was glowing hot. The blacksmith pressed the bellows into his hand, showed him what to do, and then went to work.
Menor secured on all sides and then said softly. “I found Hag! He lives, but is passed out or asleep. He didn’t notice me. He looks terrible, all smashed.”
“At least one good news; that he’s still alive, I mean,” Wolfur grumbled between two hammer blows. “And Weylin?”
“She...” Menor cleared his throat. “She isn’t here.”
“It isn’t good.”
“Right, but maybe Hag knows something about her.”
Menor heard someone coming down the stairs and eagerly actuated the bellows. He whined: “Don’t hit me, master, I’ll do it, master, everything you command, you see, I’m very hardworking...”
The soldier watched them for a while with a grim face. Then he strode along the prison, checking all the bars and locks. “How much time do you need?” he asked the blacksmith.
“Not long, maybe as long as I need to eat half a meal, then I finished for today and I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Well.” The man pulled away again and Menor breathed a sigh of relief. The next moment he let out a plaintive cry when Wolfur gave him a rad on the head – albeit gentle – because he had forgotten to push the bellows.
“Everything has to look very real,” Wolfur grumbled, grinning cheerfully.
Menor rubbed his head, glared at the blacksmith grimly, but then hurried to do his duty.

“The traders stay longer than expected,” Craig reported at the next meeting. “It means that Juldir is still in front of the south gate and can still be useful to us. We shouldn’t let too long pass, now. Korben, what about the north gate?”
“Geez, that, well, I couldn’t yet –”
“My goodness, should I do it?” Menor cried angrily. He sat sunken; working with Wolfur had brought him to the physical limit of fatigue and he had already complained extensively about sore muscles.
“No,” Craig disagreed. “You’re needed elsewhere. Korben, I expect you do the job tomorrow, otherwise you’ll have a serious trouble with me.”
Sir burgomaster,” Menor added caustic. He had to work off on someone because he felt so miserable himself.
Korben shifted uneasily on his chair. “There’re always so many henchmen who keep a close eye on the gate... I have to climb up to the bolt –”
“Don’t tell us, just do it,” Craig interrupted him. “You won't do a hero by doing nothing.” He noticed this with a sidelong glance at Menor, who immediately stopped rubbing his arms and feigned indifference.
Korben bit embarrassed his lower lip.
The blacksmith enjoyed to his heart’s content. He hadn’t had so much fun in his life, he claimed. “This pays wage for the long, sad years in the Valley of Tears, and all the more how much I owe Goren.”
Craig leaned the elbow on the table and rubbed his forehead resignedly.

On early evening Menor the Thin crept out of Wolfur Grimbold’s house and mingled harmlessly among the hurrying people. At that time, when the first dark streak appeared on the horizon, the city was busy again before the evening rest. The traders dismantled their market stands, the last purchases were made, craftsmen closed their shops, children were called home. The first oil lamps were ignited in the darker northern areas of the city, where there was rarely a glow of light, while in the southern part the last rays of sun bathed the houses in a soft light. Today, however, the mood was a bit bizarre, because a hot north wind blew ash as if an entire country had been set on fire somewhere. In the last few days there had been such strange ash rain from clouds that were driven out of the desert. The distant dark band on the horizon had now turned black, surrounded by a red border, and travelers coming from Nortander or Windholme reported strange events. There was talk of a flood of spiders, and one was told of the gruesome Scythe Runners who were spreading everywhere. The desert itself was said to be largely covered by incessant ash rain.
Craig and Menor knew what it meant. Raith the Black came on; the time was running out. They could only hope that Goren could arrive at Aonir's Blade in time with the armour.
“What will come next?” Menor asked shuddering.
“Blood rain,” Craig replied shortly. “And soon storms. The later he arrives, the more difficult it will be for Goren to cope.”
“How many steps does Raith need at all?”
“The Fial Darg are the seventh people. He has to walk as many steps. I believe that he’ll soon be at the fifth.”
Menor rubbed his throat uneasily. “May Zerbo the Cunning help our friends...”
Even here in Norimar, which was a few days’ travel away, the effects were now noticeable, although not as dramatic as in the desert. The paths to Windholme may soon become impassable if the negative magical currents spread more strongly.
However, nobody paid any attention to it; even Ruorim’s henchmen didn’t care, because it was their master’s job. All they wanted was to squeeze out the people and let them go.
The patrols barely got through this afternoon and took up positions at the liveliest corners. In the meantime, they picked out one or the other of those that seemed suspicious to them, or whose appearance they just didn’t like.
Menor knew his way around very well. No one paid any attention to him when he reached the burgomaster’s house. Next to the second side entrance, which led into a lane through which the dead were taken away, there was a barred window embedded in the floor without panes. It served as a light well and for ventilation. Menor now honoured his nickname "the Thin" by squeezing between two bars and – bow. He had taken a good look at the grid beforehand and measured it. It was going to be tight, but it fit through. Skilful and flexible like a snake, he wriggled through it and glided silently to the floor on the other side. Then he had to stop and rest his pounding heart; he hadn’t done anything like that in a long time. But he was satisfied, his body was still ready for use, as he was used to.
Then he crept along the corridor until the musty smell of the dungeon hit him. Only one torch burned in the middle of the prison. Menor took quite a while for his eyes to get used to the dark. Then, he recalled the dungeon’s map and the dimensions according to the steps he had taken. To found the right cell blindly, all he had to do was to count exactly.
He groped his way carefully, paused every few steps, and listened. Everything was quiet. He continued along the cells...
... and then Menor’s heart sank into his boots when he suddenly felt a knife on his throat and a voice hissed close to his ear. “This is something completely new. Prisoners who break out – yes. That makes sense to me. But free ones who want to break in? That amazes me a lot.”
“It... it isn’t what it looks like...” Menor burst out and slowly raised his hand. “Do you recognize me? I’m the blacksmith’s lad and have already been down here, last a few hours ago! You know, I forgot my tools, and if my master finds out, he’ll kill me, most certainly, and I’m far too young to die, you’ll surely find that too –”
“By the Master of Fight, be quiet, freak!”
But Menor didn’t even think about it. He whined and complained: “Oh, and everything went so well at last, and then I’m a fool, a fool, a foolish fool who forget the tool! How could I – I’m lost, forever and ever, I ask for forgiveness, cut my head off immediately so that the suffering will end ...”
“I should do it,” the sentry growled. “But first I’ll lock you up and then we’ll consider what we do with you.”
“Oh, yes, lock it up, that’s good, because then there’s a grid between me and my master, and there’s nothing he can do to me if he comes to redeem me –”
“Redeem you? What do you mean by that?”
“Well, you’re going to ask for a few silver pieces for my release, right?” Menor exclaimed outraged. “I should be worth that much to you, so at least it’s me! And what do you think, how the master will go crazy if he has to give something to you and get me back... because he’ll pay, that’s for sure, after all he needs me. He won’t find a new lad that quickly, and because he urgently has to come to work, because he won’t even kill me, maybe just punch a small hole in my stupid skull...”
“Mmm,” the sentry did, and Menor saw a greedy glint in his eyes. He had brought him to a good thought. “Well, I’ll lock you up now and we’ll see. It’ll not be possible to avoid saying something to the captain as soon as he comes back, but Ruorim doesn’t necessarily have to find out. He doesn’t have to be burdened with everything.”
“Quite my argument,” Menor beamed with delight and plucked a few cobwebs and crumbs from the man’s uniform. “I also always say that superiors don’t have to know everything that can be regulated among ourselves. You could of course just let me go, which would be best, if – all right, all right, was just a small, stupid thought, I told you already, I’m not the smartest.”
The man was about to unlock a cell and menor sighed with relief. “Oh yes, that’s good, a cell right here in front. Unimaginable if it were one of those back there, especially the second to the left, have you looked at them carefully? Just dirt and dung, and tons of rats... brrr, I hate rats, you too? They nibble at you... and the man in there has such a strange glint in his eyes, I think he was somehow poisoned by the rats and is now becoming himself... but... hey, what are you doing? Where do you want to take me? But don’t... no, you couldn’t do that! No, I don’t go there, I’d rather die!” Menor clung desperately to the grid and resisted being dragged on. He cried out when the guard hit him on the fingers with all his might and let go. In the next moment he was dragged down the aisle by the soldier and thrown into the damp, actually most stinking cell.
“See you.” The sentry grinned at him from gaps in his teeth. “Now you can enjoy the rats, silly dimwit.”
He went away whistling.

Menor waited until everything was quiet again, apart from the occasional moaning or snoring of one or the other prisoners, then he crawled to Hag and shook his shoulder gently.
“Hag! Hag, wake up, buddy! It’s me, Menor!”
It was only after a long shake that he managed to bring his friend to. Hag blinked up at him with swollen eyes, then knowledge entered his look. “Menor...”
The former thief sighed with joy. “Hag, I’m so glad to see you... you look terrible, more dead than alive.” He helped Hag to sit up, grimacing in pain and moaning softly.
“No wonder,” he groaned. “Ruorim doesn't exactly soft with me.”
“What does he want from you?”
“Originally he wanted to find out where’s Goren. But now it seems that he just enjoys torturing me because he can't get to Goren. He doesn’t want to believe that we separated.”
“What did you tell him about Goren?” Menor asked worriedly.
“Nothing, Menor. He has heard nothing from me, and he now knows that he’ll never hear anything, no matter what he does to me.” Hag changed his position with a groan. “I have survived the Valley of Tears, thus this is just a walk.”
“Why doesn’t he kill you if you are of no use to him?” Menor said confused.
“Maybe because he thinks Goren will come as soon as he learns of my captivity,” Hag replied. “And I said it already, he likes to wreak revenge on me.”
Menor scratched his nose. “How does he might know that Goren is still alive?”
“I think he can feel it. He has no idea about the Ur’s spell. But he’ll suspect something like that, because Goren has been keeping away from him for so long. Malacay hadn’t done that when he got the power over Goren.” Hag giggled with a croak. “It’s a very bad guy, Menor. Sometimes he’s exceptional polite and courteous, gives you food and drink. And in the same way, with a friendly smile, he then smashes your brain out of the skull.”
Menor swallowed. Now he had to ask the question that had been on his mind for so long. “And... Weylin?”
Hag shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since they sorted us out. No idea how long ago it was, I lost all sense of time. I don’t know when it’s day or night down here.”
“He... he took her with him?” Menor said hoarsely.
“Yes. He wanted to use her powers as healer. He may have killed her because he used up all her powers. I’m sorry, Menor.” Hag timidly touched his arm.
Menor clenched a hand to the fist. “No...” he blurted out through clenched teeth. “I don’t think shs’s dead. She has survived the Valley of Tears and you say yourself that this is a walk against it. Weylin is much stronger than we think. She could handle it. And I’m sure she’s already working on a plan for getting you out of here.”
Hag nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, certainly you’re right.”
“Are you just saying that to comfort me?” Menor asked in a harsh voice.
Hag looked tired. “No. I can’t imagine that she could... be dead. I just don’t want it... I feel responsible for her. Because of me she got into this situation. I wanted her to flee, but she couldn’t make it...”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Hag, it’s not your fault at all.” Menor retorted. “You had no idea that Ruorim would invade Norimar. You were not her bodyguard, and even if you did, you did your best. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
Suddenly life returned in Hag. “I agree,” he said in surprise. “What are you doing here anyway?”
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