[Fanfiction] Storm on Shaikur (3rd book) - Chapters 5, 6 & 7

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[Fanfiction] Storm on Shaikur (3rd book) - Chapters 5, 6 & 7

Post by Ommariuolo »

Chapter 5 – Blood bonds
The army of Irons and undead fell apart. Arrows and spears swirled towards Ur, while he made the unbeings glow with his fire, then melt. But they bounced off his scale armour ineffectively. It seemed as if he would destroy the whole army within a few moments.
“No!” Ruorim cried. “I’ll not allow it!” He ran to his stallion, which a warrior was holding nearby, swung onto it and galloped towards the army.
The Invincible also turned and stomped back with sweeping steps.
Ur turned to continue the attack as Ruorim drew his flaming sword and pointed it at the dragon. “Back away!” he thundered.
A flash of lightning detached itself from the black sword and hit the scaly chest of the dragon. Ur was thrown through the air and a moan went through the rows of Shaikan. Ruorim spurred the black horse and hurried along the line of the army with raised sword. More flashes of lightning came off and crackled over the unbeings.
On the hindquarters the dark Shaikan turned and stormed back beside the Invincible. Ur had come back again and was flying towards him with his throat wide open. But before he could get too close to the army or Ruorim, the Butcher raised his sword a third time and called out a single word: “Away!”
A thunderstorm broke away from the sword, enveloping the dragon, crackling and sparking. Ur let out a scream, his wings flipped up, and he fell vertically. The ground shook, the walls of Shaikur trembled. In some places, rocks crumbled. Cracks formed when the huge body of the dragon hit with full force in a mighty cloud of dust. His wings sank weakly and spread out on the floor like a large blanket of skin.
When the dust cleared, Ruorim’s mighty figure became visible, who was walking towards the dragon. He had put the sword away, a sinister smile spread on his lips.
He put a boot on a claw of the dragon, put his arm on his knee and carefully stroked his long black mustache. Like a hunter, he inspected the old father as a prey.
“If you dare to break your oath again it’ll cost you your life,” he said calmly, but with a far-reaching voice. “The army, including the Invincible and the dragon guard, is under my protection. And I’m the Shaikan. Do you hear? Not just any Shaikan, but the Shaikan, lord of Shaikur, to whom you are bound by the oath. My blood runs through your veins, just as your essence runs its fiery path through my body. Can you feel it?”
“Yes,” the dragon whispered.
“Yes,” Ur whimpered.
“You know who I am?”
“I know it.”
“To whom are you committed?”
“To you!” the dragon howled like a wounded animal. “Sir!”
His head sank to the ground, steam poured from his widened nostrils. His eyes flickered. The old father humbly crawled in the dust in front of Ruorim.
There was silence on the battlements of Shaikur. Everyone stood rigidly, as if paralyzed. It was as if Ruorim was growing taller, a shadow grew beyond him, the figure of a lean, long-sleeved man with a long white beard, white hair and eyes of the color of cold smoke. A powerful hooked nose dominated the narrow face.
This is my flesh and blood, the shadow said silently, and yet every Shaikan heard it in his mind, son of my sons, Ur, to whom you have sworn allegiance and protection, as you once did to me. Overcome him and a curse will hit you that is crueler than the spell of my soul. And now go! Retreat to where you belong – in your hollow in the mountain until I let you shout again. Because I’ll certainly use your services before this fight is over. Go and wait!
And Ur, the old father, the oldest and most powerful of all dragons, turned away humiliated. Obediently, with hanging wings and dragging tail, he crawled back to the fortress, on the other side of the rock, where the battlements couldn’t reach, and disappeared inside.

“Not the soulless,” Fugin whispered weakly.
The Shaikan didn’t move. The eyes of many had filled with tears, others were horrified.
Ruorim climbed on his horse and approached the gate trotting. “You saw it!” he shouted. “Who continues to doubt my claim? Or have you still not told them, Darmos Ironhand, although you’ve long known the truth? Do you need more than the dragon to betray you, so you can finally see which of us has the true claim to Shaikur?”
All Shaikan turned to Darmos. No one spoke, but everyone’s faces and eyes clearly bore out what they asked to him.
Fugin stood at his side, fingers hooked in the belt near the sword knob.
“I’ll answer you,” Darmos Ironhand said. His voice wasn’t trembling at all, he spoke calmly and loudly. “And I’ll not justify why I waited until this moment! It’s now time, neither earlier nor later, and you should learn it. Then it’ll be your decision what will become of Shaikur. Because this is the truth.” He turned to Ruorim, who was waiting below, without his fearsome grin, mockery or ridicule, but with the serenity of a ruler who returned home.
“Ruorim is the lord of Shaikur!”
Darmos let the words take effect and waited for the last echo to return from the walls. Then he revealed: “A hundred and twenty years ago, Hakon the indomitable ruled Shaikur. He had a twin sister, Hamar, and another younger sister, Merunu. Hakon was a direct descendant of Malacay, in an unbroken male line, as can be seen in our family tree, which has been carefully managed since the beginning. He was significantly great and strong, and a mage, who had inherited from the beginning on the Malacay’s primeval sons in direct male lines. – A hundred and ten years ago, Hakon and Hamar fell in a battle, as it was said when a Circle Mage first attacked another. Their bodies were never found. Merunu took over the legacy and became mistress of Shaikur. Her ten-year-old son Dakim was my grandfather. My father inherited from Dakim and I in turn from my father. My daughter Derata would have been the next in the line of succession, so I knew it, so I knew it all decades. Until... well, until Ruorim forced me to look for the pedigree of the Nortander clan.”
And here for the first time a tremor crept into his voice, its strong sound faded slightly. Ruorim could almost have been expected to scornfully continue the thread, but the dark Shaikan remained silent.
Darmos continued: “Hakon and Hamar... but hadn’t fallen, were still alive, although seriously injured. For a long time, they had to be looked after in Nortander, and they were in good care so they ultimately escaped the hunting death. Recovered again, they heard about Merunu's takeover of power and decided to stay in Nortander and found their own clan. Because... they didn’t live together as siblings, but as husband and wife, and they had children later. Ruorim is their grandson from male line.”
How breathless, subdued silence follows a first thunder, nothing moved now. Everything was waiting for the next decisive blow, which had long since taken place. Only gradually did the Shaikan become aware of this, and their faces alternated between incredible and stunned.
“No wonder,” Darmos Ironhand continued, “that Ruorim heard the whisper of the ancestors and Malacay’s soul woke up in Goren! And that’s why you have just seen how Ur had to bow and how the shadow of the forefather, the curse of which we all carry within us, outgrew above Ruorim. It looks like Malacay’s will that Ruorim move into Shaikur. If we refuse, we fight the ancestor himself. You understand it now?”
The Shaikan were pale. Everyone looked at someone else that might make the decision. Nobody dared to take responsibility. And Darmos had just given it up to them.
Fugin finally waved Joreb and spoke quietly to him. Darmos stayed away and remained silent from then on, as if none of that mattered to him anymore. He looked like a broken man, his shoulders dropped low.
Then Fugin went to the parapet and looked down at Ruorim. “What’ll happen to Darmos?”
“I have to put him in chains, you’ll understand that,” the dark Shaikan answered. “But I swear I won’t get a hair crook. He’s my blood relative, almost a brother, and I became responsible. We’re particularly closely linked to each other through Goren.”
“I agree. Further: your dragon guard don’t receive command,” Fugin continued. “We’re still the free people of the Shaikan, and only your birthright and Ur’s approval allow you to claim the throne of the fortress. The Shaikan will follow your orders if they serve the people. Your people will behave well, otherwise we’ll chop them in pieces and throw to the scavengers of the steppe.”
“So, it was arranged,” Ruorim agreed. “In addition, I’ll act with everyone who wants to continue to stand by Darmos in the same way as with him: imprisonment, no death sentence. Every single life of a Shaikan is precious, every drop of blood too valuable to be wasted. I’ll not be lord of a fewer bunch of survivors, but of the whole Shaikan people.”
“It’s pleasant for me to hear,” Fugin said and grinned involuntarily. “I like to live for a while and I can make friends with the chains for some time until you’ve acquired the right and it has been recognized by me.” He waved towards Joreb. “Joreb will be at your side. He hates you and quarreled with Darmos Ironhand because he wasn’t allowed to attack you. But he serves faithful as a man of honor to the lord of Shaikur and will mediate for you.”
“I’ll rely on him,” Ruorim promised.
Fugin looked at Joreb, who nodded. The grey-bearded man turned to the Shaikan. “Open the gate!” he shouted. “The lord of Shaikur returns home.”
After a short hesitation the gatekeepers obeyed.

Darmos Ironhand remained motionless, his face petrified as his arms were tied to take him away. He hadn’t spoken a word since the revelation. Fugin, who was loyal to him, was also arrested without resistance.
Joreb assigned accommodations to the dragon riders – right next to the horse stables, on straw wrehouses –, and there was almost a first incident when the soldiers grumbled about it. They were better off outside in the field, they thought. However, Ruorim had the supplies brought in and announced a feast for tonight, for all Shaikan.
“What’s he up to?” Karime asked Joreb as she handed out the new orders for the guards. Hokan Ashir’s army camped outside in front of the fortress. The unbeings needed nothing and would wait patiently until they were ordered to fight.
“First of all, he’ll enjoy sitting on the throne of Shaikur,” Joreb said. “And then he’ll gradually bring the Shaikan to his side and presumably give very precise instructions. He took the fortress bloodless, the best thing that could have happened to him. Now he’s finally in the position of power he has been craving for so long.”
“That’s why he’s still committed to Hokan Ashir.”
“So what?” Joreb replied. “Who would stand up for us? We’ll survive, Karime. Hokan Ashir is just another stone on our path and we’ll kick him off sooner or later. It’s important that the fortress withstand, that Darmos lives and Goren can fulfill his task. As long as Ruorim is here, Goren is at least safe from him. Then everything can change quickly, even for Hokan Ashir.”

Calm quickly returned to Shaikur. The Shaikan were looking forward to the feast after the long hardships, and even if they didn’t appreciate Ruorim, he was one of their own, a direct descendant of Malacay, with great powers. He was entitled to the throne. This didn’t mean that they immediately followed him, but they would tolerate him at least as long as he acted in their sense.
Weylin Mooneye noticed the change even in her secluded chamber and walked up and down expectantly. She blinked as the door opened, then a beam glittered across her face. “At last!”
Ruorim hugged her. “I missed you, my dove,” he said with a smile. “Have you experienced bad days?”
She shook her head. Her wounds and marks disappeared, and she illuminated the dark room with her elven aura. “I underestimated Marela, but after that everything went very easily. I showed myself wounded and half insane, and they believed me. It made them desperate that they couldn’t lift your spell; it didn’t occur to them that there was none.”
“Because your lovely appearance and your tender being deceived them, just like me once.” He laughed softly. “Much was surprising at the time that such a black soul lurked for liberation deep within you.”
She glowed with a sinister smile. “I’m sorry that the attack on Darmos failed.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied cheerfully. “It’s more useful to me alive, and ultimately everything went well.” He bowed his head to her lips and kissed her, his hands sliding over her back, then to the breasts. “I can’t wait to hold your lustful body in my arms after so long without it,” he whispered excitedly.
She shivered under his touch and nestled against him. “I was also very lonely,” she whispered on his ear and wrapped his arms around his neck. “Now nothing will separate us anymore, won’t it?”
“Nothing, my moon-eyed dove. Especially not tonight. The chamber that I have chosen will please us...”

Chapter 6 – See you again
“Goren.” A gentle touch on his forehead, a low voice. The young Shaikan startled and blinked in confusion. It was night in the desert, and the moon was painting shimmering patterns on the dunes. The Highmark began behind it. Shaikur was no longer far away.
“What?” he whispered.
“You had a nightmare.” Starshine dabbed his forehead with a cloth. He was sweating, he was only now aware of it. “What you saw?”
He looked up at her, always fascinated by how different she looked at night. Beautiful on the day, but rather unimpressive, she shone in the darkness in a very special shine, as if a star had taken shape. Every single line was delicately drawn, larger contours wiped softly, and her eyes... so big and dark, yet he could recognize them very clearly. There was a purple glow in them, like an amethyst. She looks like a queen, thought Goren.
Sometimes it was almost painful to just look at her and never touch her. He had often wanted to gather his courage to finally talk to her about everything that was between them. What moved him and what he felt for her. But never a word got across his lips. She was too far for him, a being he could never reach. Like Menor, at least he didn’t want to destroy, and preserve her dream instead of revealing him and experiencing rejection. Everyone had seen that Weylin Mooneye didn’t have much interest for the skinny thief, and so it was with Starshine in regard of Goren.
They were friends, of course, and she was always there for him. But he could never read affection in her eyes, never see a special look that she had spare for him, or even a fleeting touch. She dealt with him no differently than with Buldr... apart from the fact that Goren always said something wrong and promptly got himself a rebuke for it.
Starshine had a much milder mood towards the dwarf. Goren was often referred to as a wooden head by her, he was too young and immature for her, and he did nothing right, in her opinion. That in turn made him angry, and he said words that it would be better not to – which only strengthened her opinion about him. She thought he was fastidious and out of touch with the real world, and there was hardly anything they had in common.
So, she was basically reasonable if she didn’t get involved with him at all, because it simply separated them both too much. And who knew what Starshine had gone through in the Valley of Tears. Maybe she couldn’t bear the thought of being touched by a man. And she certainly didn’t want to go from captivity to the next addiction, with a human who didn’t know exactly where he belonged, was half-eaten inside by vengeance and was full of fear of himself and what was lurking in him. Which came to the surface every day and insisted on being released.
“Goren, talk to me.” Starshine shook his shoulder. “You’re dreaming again.”
“I... I...” Goren stammered. He repressed the image and its associated thoughts. It was foolish to think of such things when there were much more important ones. Why did he always have to feel so boyish and awkward towards her? Couldn’t he answer a question directly once without stuttering or digressing?
He straightened up and rubbed his forehead. “Shaikur is burning,” he whispered. “I see a lot of iron armours and undead. I feel the pain of my grandfather... at least I know that he’s still alive. But there is also Malacay’s shadow over everything, and Ur crashed...”
“He flew?”
“Oh, yes... I could hear the whip of his wings...”
A rattling noise made them spin around. Buldr sat up and brushed his hair. “What’s wrong with you, young people?” he asked. “Do you never sleep?”
“It isn’t so easy with your snoring,” Goren said.
“My dear boy, this isn’t snoring, but keeping away unpleasant things. Always vigilant, huh?”
Goren grinned.
“But seriously,” the red-haired dwarf continued. “What do we have to prepare for? Is there any worse news than the fall of Shaikur?”
“No, Buldr. I always see the same terrible images. The attack is far from over.”
“You learned from the winds that Shaikur fell after a long, bloody battle. Was this the past or the future?”
Goren blinked in confusion. “The... the past... or?”
Buldr slowly moved his head in the negative. “Then you were dreaming of other things now, boy. I think you can see both: past and future. One has happened, the other hasn’t yet. You should be aware of something, Goren. Something that has to do with you directly.”
“Well – my father is there. As far as that is concerned, I’m sure that it isn’t the future.”
“Me too, because if Craig and the others swept him out of Norimar, he would have turned there next. At least that seems to me to be conclusive, because Shaikur has a favorable strategic location, and Ruorim itself is Shaikan. If Hokan Ashir was planning an attack...”
“What are you getting at?” Goren interrupted, confused. “What should I do?”
“Face your magic,” Starshine replied softly in Buldr’s place. “Accept what you carry inside, it’ll help you to organize things. It’s the only way you can face Ruorim, after all he’s a mage.”
Goren grabbed his chest and turned away. “I have the soul of an insane inside me,” he whispered. “And his mana. I dare not let it go. It’ll wake him again and wipe me out. It would destroy everything I want to keep. I can’t allow it.”
There was a silence between them. At some point Starshine continued: “Then let me at least look for a saying in the grimoire that puts Ruorim’s business down once and for all. Otherwise, why do you carry it with you?”
“Why am I still carrying this armour that has served its purpose?” Goren murmured.
The armour Silverflame had shrunk after a magical outbreak on Aonir’s Blade. It now fitted like a glove, but the metal was blind and stained, and it wasn’t particularly protective, but rather as if it was going to fall apart at any moment. Goren hadn’t wanted to take the armour with them, but it knew somehow to prevent him, for not being easily put down.
Starshine jumped up. “Why are you acting like a stubborn kid?” she scolded him. “Will you never grow up?”
“And why are you constantly reproaching me?” he snapped no less angrily.
Starshine turned angrily and trudged away through the sand.
Buldr sighed. “These will be happy days. Couldn’t you two quit arguing for at least a day or a night? Worse than a couple of lovers, really true.”
“Oh, what you’re talking about!” Goren felt him blushing, but luckily no one could see it in the dim light. “What does that concern you, anyway?”
“By Niethalf’s hammer, don’t drag me in, yes?” Buldr raised his hands with a laugh. “It’s me, who have to travel with you, not vice versa. And if you go on like this, I’ll change the direction soon, westwards, to Windholme, where there’re decent black beer and good roast, and I just forget about playing the hero!” He nodded in confirm, sent an emphatic “Hm!”, and then lay down again, turning away from Goren. Shortly afterwards he snored that the dunes trembled.
Goren hit the sand angrily. Then he got up and looked for Starshine.
The half norcaine had climbed a dune and was looking at the sky, the cloak tightly wrapped around her. She didn’t turn when Goren came to her with a groan.
“I’m sorry,” he said as soon as he took a breath. “I’m a coward. I know it’s wrong to block yourself against magic like this. I mean, most people long for it and do everything possible to do any magic. I get everything for free and don’t want it.” He looked at her shyly from the side. “So at least we could look for a spell in the liber sinistrorum.”
“A blockhead, I know.” He was tempted to hug her. After everything they had been through together, it should have been different between them. It was a wonderful night, maybe the last peaceful one for a long time. From tomorrow they were back in the war and had to face new tasks. He didn’t want much, just a little closeness and warm. Rest a little, let themselves fall for a few moments, without any dark thoughts and worries. Gain power from this moment. Just be there for each other. He wanted to tell her that he needed her. That he didn’t want to exist without her anymore. That her incomparable sight in the darkness under the mountain, when they had fled after Glamrig’s liberation towards Aonir’s Blade, had for the first time been revealed and inevitably burned into his mind.
He always had this image in mind when he was desperate or afraid. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and his heart was filled with it. With this image there could be nothing that was insurmountable. Nothing that was hopeless. But everything that was worth fighting for.
Starshine turned and slid down the dune. “Go to sleep,” she cried over her shoulder. “We have to leave soon. And try to don’t dream!”
“I will,” Goren replied. He stretched out where he was standing, gazed a while at the sky and south across the dune sea, which runs in gentle waves, behind which lay dark land. Then he fell asleep, dreamless and peaceful. The last thing he remembered was Starshine’s delicate little shape against the star-crowned sky. Without knowing it, he smiled in his sleep.

In the morning the first rays of sun tickled Goren’s face and he blinked open his eyes and yawned cautiously. He snuggled contentedly in the soft sand; a good place up here on the dune. When he turned his head and looked south, whether the Highmark was already recognizable in the morning light, he suddenly awoke.
Two riders came across the dunes. Scout, presumably, a vanguard... whatever.
Goren hastily slid down a little, and when he was sure that he could no longer be seen from the other side, he hurriedly ran down the sliding sand to the riders. Buldr stretched out, while Starshine still seemed to sleep deeply.
“Up!” Goren whispered. “Someone comes right up to us!”
The two were immediately on their feet; Starshine without transition, like a wolf. They packed things up and crawled up the dune to see which way they could go.
The riders were just coming up over the next dune, the distance was no longer high.
“Look!” Goren uttered, puzzled. “One rider... no, that can’t be. But! There’s only one who is so thin and rides so badly!” Before the others could hold him back, he jumped up and waved strongly with both arms. “Menor!” he shouted. “Hag! We’re here!”
The riders reined the horses in. Then they also waved and screamed, pounded the heels in the horse’s bellies and galloped down the dune. Goren rushed towards them laughing.

They met breathless and sweaty, and Buldr almost crushed Menor and Hag in his embrace and sniffed maudlin.
“What a pleasure to see you so well! You have to tell everything about how you went and what’s new!”
“Yes, everything,” Hag promised with a laugh. “The poor horses need a rest anyway. And you’ll also have to tell us a lot, although we already know one thing: the summoning didn’t work, because the sky is clear again and no horrible beings attack the country anymore. Sometimes we were close to giving up!”
“So much disgusting stuff at once, that was the most heinous thing you can imagine!” Menor agreed.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t so happy,” Goren replied, and then he was the first to report, completed by Buldr and Starshine.
Hag and Menor sat there with wide eyes, listening intently, almost like children. They could hardly break loose themselves.
But then it was their turn, and Goren and the other two were no less inquisitive.
“Why is Craig doing this?” Goren finally asked.
“Do you mistrust him?” Hag wanted to know.
“No,” he said quickly. “No. But I’d like to understand him better.”
“He’s a norcaine, what is there to understand?” it escaped Menor, and caught a sparkling look of Starshine.
“Not much more than the elves,” she said poisonously.
“Don’t start, now!” Buldr Redbeard intervened. “Stop bullying each other, at last! You’re friends or not? Menor?”
The young man first made a puzzled, then a troubled face. “Starshine, I’m sorry, really,” he said dejectedly. “I’m not the same anymore. An idiot, to put it bluntly before Hag does it. I really have to pull myself together because after all... there was never anything between me and Weylin, except my illusion. I whine after a dream, which is unworthy even for someone like me.”
“Well, at least you finally see it,” Hag growled. “Hopefully do the terrible verses come to an end?”
Menor ducked his head. “Yes,” he said plaintively. “Is there a mouse hole where I can hide?”
Buldr looked sternly at Starshine. “Do you think Weylin betrayed us?”
The answer wasn’t an easy one. “If she was a norcaine of the Dracon caste I would answer no, Buldr. But I can only say: I don’t know, elves and we are too different. They’re the first creation, we’re the last. Weylin changed from the time when I was no more than Silent. Maybe she felt betrayed by me, or she really explained herself the Valley of Tears and broke. None of us knows who she’s at heart, she never spoke about herself.”
Hag asked. “Why do you want to know that, Buldr?”
“Because we have to plan how we can use Weylin against Ruorim. You might think I was crazy, but I think she’s his weak point.”
“Mm. Possible. You think we can arrive to him through her?”
“Something like that. To do this, we had to know whether she would volunteer or we would have to play them off against each other. Otherwise we can forget everything.”
“And what about Hokan Ashir?” Goren asked. “Half of his army is now in Shaikur. Where is he going with the rest?”
“Raith,” Starshine said suddenly. “Of course, if the necromancer has knocked him out, the way to Lar is almost free – and, moreover, well secured with Shaikur as a bastion and positioning of supplies in the Highmark.” She looked at Goren. “Therefore, Craig is on the way to bring help to Shaikur!”
“Then we should first go to Shaikur as planned and see what we can do from afar,” Menor suggested.
“Not just from afar,” Goren growled. “I go straight into the fortress!”
“You’ll also succeed very easily,” Buldr said and smoothed his red beard. “Your father will be waiting for you eagerly.”
“You could say so,” Hag remarked. “He’ll let you know something, Goren. I just wanted to tell you later, but we’re already doing it anyway. Ruorim told us the following: you must no longer hesitate too long, otherwise your soul will take serious damage. He knows that you’ll be tortured because he can feel it. He said that you’ll soon be unable to endure it, so you’ve to go to him because only he can help you.”
“It’s exactly what Ruorim said,” Menor affirmed. “We save the humiliating rest. What could your father mean?”
Goren grabbed his chest, as he has done so often lately, and a shadow fell over his face. He turned to the side and fought the pain that had awakened by Hag’s words. Depressed and looking for comfort, he stared at Starshine.
“Goren knows,” she said.
“May we know it too?” Menor persisted. “It’s not that we’re completely superfluous. Maybe we can help.”
Goren shook his head. “Nobody can help me,” he groaned. “And certainly not about my fear.”
Buldr held Starshine when she started to go after him. “Let him be,” he said softly. “He’s right, you know.”
“This armour is too tight!” Goren cried desperately. “And the other stuff are too heavy! Why did my father do this to me? He’s a mage, was there no other way for him? Is he too cowardly for what I should do?”
No one knew the answer to that. Everyone looked in one direction.
Until Starshine said: “You must go to him, Goren. Let’s go.”
Hag and Menor packed the horses and took them by the ropes, and they set off.

Chapter 7 – The Iron Lord
“Maybe my plan wasn’t so good, after all,” Wolfolf Grimbold admitted meekly at some point. “They apparently want to let us stagnate here.”
“My patience is exhausting rapidly,” Craig remarked. He stood by the grid and listened. The rest of the prisoners complained and whined, some furiously asked for their release. Others could only be heard pawing and scraping, and some were probably silent forever. He called loudly: “Is someone here longer than three days?”
For a brief moment almost all the noise stopped, then someone gave back. “Who wants to know that?”, and came from another side: “Oh, shut up.” A third announced: “I think I have been here since I was born!” Then the normal noise level resumed.
“What did you want to find out?” Wolfur asked.
“Whether the prisoners are being cared for,” Craig replied. “Now all we have to do is wait for the food to come and we’re outside.”
“Aha,” the blacksmith made while considering another tactic to get free. He tested the anchoring of the staff, the stability of the wall, shook and tugged and finally had to admit disappointed: “Good work of my master. Everything well maintained.”
Craig paid no attention to him, crouched in a somewhat dry corner, closed his eyes and dozed. However, the Dracon was on its feet as soon as it got lighter in the corridor and the clatter of metal could be heard. He stepped as close to the grid as possible and peered outside.
“Hey,” a guard said. “Go back, there’s nothing else for you.”
“All right,” Craig said and took a step back with his hands up.
A troll was tasked with pushing between the bars two bowls of undefinable brown content, plus a small jug of musty liquid.
“Is that all?” Wolfur complained and also came forward.
The troll grunted at him: “I’ll just stuff your mouth with my fist, then you’ll have enough!”
“Come here if you dare, you coward!” the blacksmith snorted back.
The orc guard stared at Wolfur. “By the Blood Drinker, what a cursed freak...”
That distraction was sufficed for Craig. He leapt forward, reached through the grid, caught the guard on the arm and pulled towards him. Before the stunned orc understood what was happening, Craig turned him over and locked his neck with his arm around bars. The watch squeaked softly as the Dracon briefly tensed the powerful muscles and took the air off him.
“What’s that about,” the troll growled. “It happens almost every day, do you learn it? Do you think I’m interested in the bastard there? Kill him, eat him, I don’t care.” He shuffled on with clattering bowls. The rest of the prisoners were now making a lot of noise because the distribution was taking too long. Some cheered on Craig and gave tips on how to deal with the orc.
Craig brought his mouth close to the guard’s long ear. “Do you know who I am?” he whispered hoarsely.
“Sho-should I?” the orc replied with a croak. He tried to move and went limp when Craig tightened his muscles again.
“I’m Dracon Craig Un’Shallach,” he declared. “Your lord, the Iron Lord of Iron Storm, knows me. He wouldn’t be pleased to learn that I was incarcerated down here without his knowledge. So, make sure you report it!”
“You can tell me great stories, norcaine, nobody sits down here for no reason and without justification! I only distribute the food, I don’t care about anything else.”
“Well, then you’re no longer of use.” Craig stuck his other hand through the grid and broke the guard’s neck with a short, hard jerk. He slumped lifelessly.
“Hey!” the troll roared, who just came back. “Are you completely tired of life, man? You’ll be tortured for that, and I can assure you that not even an orc can last that long!”
“Who does that – you or someone with guts?” Wolfur asked defiantly.
“And you’re next!” The troll came closer, while the noise in the dungeons swelled deafening. Before the gray-skinned clumsy creature reached the dead guard, Craig had pulled the knife out of his belt and hurled it into the troll’s throat. The giant grabbed his neck. And with the troll-typical lazy mind, who hadn’t quite understood what was happening to him, he made the fatal mistake of pulling out the knife. A torrent of blood poured out of the wound, which the troll tried in vain to close with his large clawed hands. He staggered along the corridor, tried to flee upstairs, but the forces left him halfway and he fell to the ground.
“Insane!” the prisoner next to Craig roared. “Now they’ll slaughter us all and roast for their feast!”
“Not me,” Craig replied calmly. “And you don’t care about me because you’re criminal.”
It didn’t take long for reinforcements to arrive and before the leader of the patrol could say anything, the Dracon thundered in a commanding voice: “I’m Dracon Craig Un’Shallach, Commander of Lar’s army, winner of innumerable battles, respected friend of the Iron Lord... and you dare to lock me up here? Each of you unworthy belong to Death, who should dare to approach me without the required humility, because I’m far above you and will not defile myself with lower untouchable!”
The orcs, accustomed to orders, actually remained unsettled. “Is he really?” finally someone said from the back row. “Hakkek made fun of it...”
“Hakkek will bitterly regret that he didn’t follow my order to inform the Iron Lord of my presence,” Craig interrupted him. “And you’ll regret it even more if one of you don’t immediately informs your ruler and you others don’t release me and my friend!” He pointed to the orcs’ bodies before his grid. “Above all, finally get rid of this stinking waste, it offends my eyes and my nose!”
The orcs looked at each other, still unsure what to do. Then the leader jerked out. “Let others decide what to do with you,” he declared. “I’m not making a mistake here. No one gave me the order to kill him, so you’ll make report, Shakr, to the ruler’s second adviser, not to that pointed-ear elf – and we’ll bring the two upstairs under the strictest surveillance and wait for the Lord’s decision.”
The orc addressed confirmed the order and hurriedly ran away. Craig and Wolfur were released from the cell and placed in the middle. A good dozen swords, knives and daggers were pointed at them as they went up, accompanied by the curses and insults of the rest of the prisoners.

The Iron Lord was a large, stately orc with an astonishingly dark green skin color, and he knew how to dress, because it had a precious black armour which was covered with finely combed winter fox fur. His clever, hard eyes glowed yellow-green. “I didn’t want to believe it, old war companion, what was brought to me there.” He greeted Craig as he rose from his throne and shooed the guards away with a brief wave of the hand. “What are you doing here so unexpectedly and unannounced? And then accompanied by the murder of my unforgettable little Pedrakk?”
“That’s a long story,” Craig said. “I hope you want to hear it because there’s a special reason for my presence.”
The Iron Lord eyed Wolfur intently. “I was then told that he had been killed while fleeing and was torn apart by wolves. In my pain I accepted it and later hardly surprised that master Grek was becoming rapidly wealthy. They wanted to prevent me from interrogating him and at the same time earning a lot of money from him. I should give your master a job as a money advisor.”
The blacksmith, who was almost a head taller than the big orc, dropped to one knee. “I put my life in your hand, my Iron Lord, and keep my neck under your sword. But let me tell you beforehand that I loved little Pedrakk like my own son and that I had never been able to do anything to him. What reason would I had, because I was received so benevolently by you and received a high rank and protection?
“I assumed at the time that someone else paid you better and might promise you a special position,” the ruler replied. “I have known for a long time, and I knew back then that Pedrakk fell victim to an attack by his own brother. It was my oldest who feared my affection and the promised throne, because I preferred Pedrakk to him. It was my mistake not to believe him capable of such a cowardly murder. The fool didn’t dare to approach me, instead the defenseless child. He hoped that my favor would turn back to him if the rival were out of the way. I already had legitimate reasons why I wanted to exclude that cowardly wimp from the succession!”
Wolfur blinked in astonishment, which be noticed by the Iron Lord. “Ah, I see you’re really clueless about who was behind all of this. And I’m almost inclined to believe you, because at least your master sold you and earned from you for a long time. That wouldn’t have been possible if you hadn’t been used. I also have to admit that I basically don’t think you’re able to plan and carry out a murder of my child. Neither understood – still emotional. Even then I had doubts. I know you loved Pedrakk and he trusted you. But not to his brother, which he also told me. But who listens to a child? I paid dearly for my mistake, but I’ll not commit another.”
“Thank you,” Wolfur said relieved and bowed his head deeply.
“Tell me what you know, blacksmith, and then I’ll express my judgment.”
Wolfur reported what Craig had also learned, and the Iron Lord's sparkling eyes narrowed.
Craig, who was only half-listening, suddenly noticed a fleeting movement behind a tapestry and instinctively grabbed the belt – but he was still unarmed. “Wolfur!” he shouted. “Quickly, the other side!” He sprinted towards the Iron Lord, overcame the last distance with one jump... and knocked the surprised one over. He felt a short, sharp stitch on the ear when a heavy arrow, fired from a crossbow, whizzed past and brushed him.
“Someone doesn’t waste time there,” he exclaimed when a hail of arrows broke out. The orc and the norcaine hastily sought cover near the throne. Craig wiped the blood from his cheek and hissed: “Huh, if I miss something from the ear, then nobody survives!”
“Not again!” Wolfur roared beside himself. “You won’t use me a second time!” And then he started like a battering ram when the first swing of arrows died down and the attack came from all sides.
The Iron Lord drew his sword and threw a dagger at Craig. “Here, unfortunately I’ve nothing more to offer. In my own throne room I don’t usually walk around armed to the teeth.”
“It’s enough for me,” the Dracon growled. “My anger is weapon enough. Nobody attacks me from behind with impunity!”
“Blacksmith!” the ruler cried when Wolfur was grabbing an orc, hurling it around and throwing it at two others. “Slow down, let’s leave something to us!” Together with Craig he threw himself into the fray, while the alarm had already been raised outside.
The fight was over when the loyal ones of the Iron Lord arrived. Most of the assassins were dead, but some could even be arrested wounded.
The Iron Lord turned to the captain. “Arrest Azzigul immediately and bring him here – alive! Get rid of the others, I’ll deal with them later.”
He turned to Wolfur and held out his heavy hand. “With this you’re free, blacksmith, and your innocence is proven for me. You fought bravely and protected your lord. I have a letter issued for you, so you can move anywhere from now on. Take this and thank you.
Wolfolf was so moved that he silently shook Iron Lord’s hands and then let go when he saw his ruler’s slightly grin of pain.
“At the time, I sensed that there was still someone,” the Iron Lord continued. “But I would never come to Azzigul. For so long he was a loyal and devoted friend, and he comforted me in my pain for Pedrakk’s loss. I trusted him and he waited patiently for a second chance. You’d been in a lot of trouble, friend Craig, if his attack had been successful. Azzigul recognized the favorable moment and acted quickly. This time he probably planned to sit on the throne himself after my firstborn was so quickly knocked down. After all, he didn’t betray Azzigul, I have to accuse my offspring of that. He certainly hoped for a late revenge.”
“Yes, I think so too,” Craig agreed. “But now I hope you have something decent to drink and eat for us and we can finally talk in peace because my matter is very important – and urgent. You can deal with Azzigul later in detail.”
“Everything you want, friend, and you, blacksmith, also join us. Said what is on your heart, you’ll find open ears.”

After Iron Lord had listened the whole story, he was amazed and thoughtful. “How do you do that?” he asked Craig. “Always get into such situations? You have a small argument with Ruorim the Butcher, and you’re already involved in the Convocation War and have to do with the Shaikan at the same time?”
“Why else would I travel across the country if not looking for such matters?” Craig replied dryly. “Should I rather withdraw as a retired, like you?”
The Iron Lord laughed. “Do you hear it, blacksmith? Craig learns humor! But tell me something else, friend: why are you so committed to Shaikur – and stand against your own ruler?”
“It’s not so simple, Iron Lord.”
“Do you enjoy Shaikan’s trust?”
“They don’t know that I’m here. But Goren trusts me, yes. And I think he’s of great importance for the fight against the Circle Mages. And the fight affects us all! That’s why I sent messages to Highmark, Nortander, Windwall and Finon Mir.”
“Ah! No half things. Do you seriously believe that the six races will gather again? Or didn’t you inform Lar?”
“I can’t inform Lar, you know.” Craig leaned back. “Goren is an amazing young man. He told me about his mother and her big dream of bringing the races together to save the world from the madness of the Circle Mages. This plan wasn’t so wrong. The Convocation War is in a crucial phase. If Hokan Ashir succeeds in permanently occupying Shaikur and making it his new bastion, he’ll go to Lar next. And then to the Highmark, and from there further south before he turns to the difficult, confusing country of the north.”
The Iron Lord thought. “We could also leave it to the other Circle Mages.”
“Then we’ll soon be faced with exactly the same situation, only at some other place of Fiara. We now have the opportunity to get rid of one or two grandmasters, so we use it. We cannot take on everyone at the same time.”
“You would move against Raith?”
“Of course not. But I won't stand by his side either, but stay out of it. I am loyal to my people, but Raith as an archmage – this idea makes me shudder. I don’t want any of the insane immortals having so much power as rulers of Eo.” Craig's face grew dark. “I haven’t only experienced once what power greed can do. You were also involved in the War of the Six Races, Iron Lord. Are you not afraid that Eo could perish if Aonir’s power transfers to only one of the Circle Mages, let alone to all of them?”
“Certainly, I have it. We all became slaves, whether we have one ruler or many. And who knows, maybe they would start the creation again and we all become disused.” The Iron Lord waved a servant who poured wine. “And you come to me because we are old war companions?”
Craig nodded. “You once promised me a favor, and I think I added one today. Sooner or later Azzigul caught you. Now all conspirators are out of the way and you no longer face any danger.”
“Mm. Let me think about it, Craig. Of course, it can’t be in my interest that Hokan Ashir settles in Shaikur. But I have to weigh everything first before I decide.” He rose. “It’s getting dark, anyway. Be my guests. Let yourself be bathed and relax well. Tomorrow morning I’ll announce my decision.”
Craig nodded. “I thank you, Iron Lord. We’ll leave tomorrow, no matter how your decision is made, and start looking for Goren.”
Wolfur, who had been restless all the time, looked at the Iron Lord unusually shyly. “I have a request.”
The great orc ruler understood immediately. He was familiar with the inner life. Nothing about him looked clumsy and primitive, or just justified by fighting. He was a ruler through and through. No wonder he had been sitting on the throne for so long. He was a thoughtful observer and had a cool mind. And he knew exactly what was going on in an orc, even if he was a furry freak like the blacksmith.
The Iron Lord exposed bare fangs. “Wait a moment for your letter to be ready. Your master still lives exactly where you left him, just a little more magnificently. You’ll be amazed. He’ll definitely be happy to see his former apprentice, who has become a successful blacksmith. Bring him something appropriate.”
Wolfur grinned too. “Sure, sir. Thank you for your advice and permission to visit him.”
Craig also got up. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Wolfur. I gladly accept your offer for a bath, Iron Lord, and hope for a few amenities.”
“You’ll lack nothing and I’m sure we’ll be able to fulfill all your wishes, Dracon Craig, because I’m now a wealthy man.”

Wolfur Grimbold was back in the morning, relaxed and in a good mood. Craig didn’t ask him about the adventures of the previous night, and the blacksmith didn’t reveal anything. But he couldn’t resist to do a remark: “You look pretty balanced, not as uptight as usual. Have you had a good night?”
“Absolutely,” the Dracon replied and was also unwilling to say more about it.
The Iron Lord greeted them soon after, and his expression bode well. “I have discussed with the old Osal, the head of the shaman, and he’s in favor of yours. I can send a vanguard with the Blade Knives tomorrow, and the infantry will soon set off. I can spare about a thousand men and I’ll come along myself. I’ll not miss it! In my place, Osal will keep an eye on everything as long as I’m away. Do you agree?”
“Of course,” Craig said happily.
Wolfur also beamed. “Goren will be amazed when we tell him that!”
“Excellent. I have already provided you with strong and fast horses, better than the poor horses you came on. Your weapons have also reappeared. The stocks are just being packed.” The Iron Lord raised his hand in salute. “See you at Shaikur and I’ll swear off the Blood Drinker if this isn’t going to be a historic day!”
“May Nor’s light guide you,” Craig Un’Shallach said.
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