The dwarf stood on the road leading down to Oakborder. It was not a big town, maybe a hundred buildings. Most lined the main road that the dwarf stood on. Some backed onto the lanes that branched off the road into the slopes on either side. There was only one other road of significance which led off the main road just inside the village proper, ran up the slope to the right, then looped back to join the main road mid village, forming the only major intersection. In the middle of that intersection was a small public square that was home to an old oak tree. The road that led up and along the slope was dotted with finer homes than those below. It was obviously the prestigious address in the village. The dwarf noted that the forest that surrounded the village changed from coniferous trees higher up, in the area he was standing, to deciduous trees further down, just about mid-way through the village.
Now, in the fading light, the village was almost deserted. The glow of candles, freshly lit, could be seen in windows. Dinner fires were being started and soon the smell of cooking would come from every house. It seemed a cozy place, a nice place to ply a trade and raise a family.
But that is not for me, thought the dwarf. It would do no good to think about a life that he would never have.
He checked his weapons. His axe was on his back, upside down, the handle just visible above his right shoulder. Its head was sheathed in a leather pocket on his backpack. He could reach his right hand up and yank the axe free, bringing it over his head in a deadly downwards swing. In his left sleeve was a dagger. His belt had two small push-daggers sheathed in it. There was a sling in his jerkin pocket. He carried a sap made of a leather bag filled with lead shot in his other pocket.
Everything was in place.
The dwarf touched the pouch he wore on the thong around his neck for good luck and began to walk down into Oakborder.
By the time he entered the village proper the smell of roasting meat was beginning to seep from various households. On another evening the scent would have made his mouth water, but tonight he had no stomach for food.
He passed no one on his walk to the tavern. When he passed Keep’s Lane he glanced down it and was glad to see that someone had removed the body of the orc.
He came to the door of Harry’s Tavern and stopped. He listened carefully. He could hear the sounds of voices within, the clink of tankards and the occasional laugh. The usual sounds of a tavern. But was there something else? The soft twang of a lute string being tuned? A voice humming a melody? He could not be sure but the more he listened the more he convinced himself the sounds were there.
He pushed open he door and stepped in. There were two tables occupied by working men, both near the bar. The fat barkeep, Harry, stood behind the bar. When he saw the dwarf he dropped the bottle in his hand and froze. The dwarf scanned the dark corners of the room. There was no one there, though at one table a bottle of something brown was set up with a few glasses. There was no musician and he could no longer hear the lute string.
The dwarf crossed to the bar. The drinkers sitting at their tables watched his every step.
“I hear that there was a bard here last night,” he said.
“A bard,” repeated Harry. His eyes flicked to the unoccupied table with the bottle on it, and back to the dwarf.
“An elven bard,” said the dwarf. “He may have been travelling with a woman.”
“A woman,” said Harry. Once more his eyes flicked to the empty table.
The dwarf was about to continue his description when a thought rushed into his head. Stupid, he thought. So stupid.
He stepped back from the bar and spun towards the table in the corner, bringing his right hand up to the handle of his axe.
The light in corner of the room shimmered and three forms started to solidify out of the air. They were all sitting around the table. The middle one was a man, or at least man sized. The one of the right was very small, and the one on the left very big. Another orc?
The dwarf decided to go for the big one first and as he pulled the axe out of its sheath he began his charge. Within his first two steps, before he was up to speed, he had his plan formulated. The axe would be over his shoulder on the next step and swinging down and to the right by the time he got to the table. He would aim for the large form’s neck and hope to sever it cleanly, carrying the swing on into the man. He would deal with the little one after that.
Another step. The axe was up and coming down. He brought his left hand up to the handle, gabbing it a bit higher than his right hand. The left gave a small pull and twist to direct the blade in an arc to the right, down through the big thing’s neck.
The last step. The axe was coming down. He could now see that the big figure was an orc, or at least part orc. The blade was headed in a perfect swing towards the orc’s neck and the beast had yet to move or raise a hand to defend itself.
The dwarf slammed into an unseen wall. The axe hit it first, sending a shock of force up his arms. Then his body hit it. His nose cracked and he lost sight for a second. His shoulder felt twisted out of joint. He hit the ground, seeing flashes of white light in the darkness.
When his sight refocused he found himself looking up at the orc’s foot coming down on his throat. He tried to roll away but the orc was too fast, pinning and choking him. The dwarf reached both hands up to grab the foot, and pushed at it weakly.
The orc laughed and said, “Not so strong.”
In fact, the dwarf was not using anything like his full strength to push at the foot, but he made a show of exertion. Then he slipped his right hand into his left sleeve, pulled out the dagger, and slashed at the inside of the orc’s thigh, cutting the femoral artery just below the groin. A gush of blood poured down on the dwarf’s face.
The orc’s smile faded. He took his foot off the dwarf’s neck and stumbled back.
The dwarf rolled onto his right side and got up into a crouch, the dagger held at arm’s length in front of him. The orc had backed up to the wall and was clutching at his thigh. Blood squirted between his fingers. The dwarf could now see the other occupants of the table. The little one was a wrinkled gnome with a malevolent gleam in his eye. The other was a man with short white hair and expensive clothes. He was smiling gently.
Still holding the dagger at arm’s length, the dwarf used his left sleeve to wipe at the blood on his face, both the orc’s and his own from his broken nose. He did not want to hazard a glance behind him, but he imagined that he could back up to the door without being stopped. The other occupants of the tavern were no fighters. He began to shuffle backwards when he remembered his axe. It lay a good five feet away to the left. Could he leave it?
As he hesitated, the orc called out in a panicked voice, “My lord! I need healing!”
“I think not,” said the white-haired man quietly. Without taking his eyes off the dwarf, he made a small gesture at the orc. The orc’s lips fused shut then disappeared entirely. His mouth was gone. The orc’s hands flew to his face, tugging at where his lips had been, but as soon as he raised his hands the blood began to pour out of the cut in his thigh. In a frenzy of fear the orc thrashed and clutched at himself, losing strength all the time. His blood was spreading rapidly across the floor. He slumped against the wall, trying to scream without a mouth and trying to stop the last ounces of his blood from pouring out.
He had no success at either.
The dwarf decided to abandon the axe for now.
He began once more to back up. The man stood up and pointed at him. There was a rush of blue light from his finger that hit the dwarf like a cold wind. The dwarf felt his limbs go numb. His breathing became laboured and he felt, though it made no sense, as though he were drowning. He felt himself slipping into an unnatural blackness. The last thing he heard was the chuckle of the gnome.
When the dwarf was unconscious the white-haired man walked over to him and looked down. Then he looked at the orc, who lay dead, slouched against the wall. Finally he looked at Harry, who stood, pale-faced and trembling, in the farthest corner of the bar.
“I’d like the town to come to the square tomorrow,” he said in his quiet voice. “At dawn. Women, children, everyone.”
He turned to the gnome. “Dinner?” he asked.