Harry Bandell, Voltag Grimm, and Yolanthe Nailo sat in Harry’s deserted tavern. No one spoke, though the dwarf coughed occasionally and rubbed his neck. He avoided looking at the other two. His axe, reclaimed from the body of bugbear, leaned against the bar. Harry stared at his hands, folded on the table, and Yolanthe glanced between the man and the dwarf.
The room still smelled of the orc’s blood that had been spilled there two nights before.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Harry. “I was born here, in the room above this tavern. My great-grandfather built this tavern with his own hands. I’ve never been farther east on the road than the crest, and never farther west than the bridge. It was all I ever needed.”
He paused, looked up at the dwarf and the woman, then back at his hands. “This was a happy town. We all knew each other. We helped each other. We raised barns and sheds together. We celebrated together.
“It wasn’t perfect. There were feuds. Teenagers caused trouble. Unwanted children were born in back rooms and maybe a few of them were never allowed to draw a first breath. But it was a good place. Most of us were content most of the time, and that’s a great deal in this world.
“Six years ago the raids began. Orcs, goblins, other creatures, came down out of the mountains or simply rode into town. They stole. They beat those who resisted. They set fires. Some of the women were taken away. We couldn’t fight them. We’re not warriors. The few who stood up to them died. A few died slowly.”
He looked up at the ceiling. “A year later Baltrog rode into town with a few followers,” he said. “He said that he had heard of our troubles, and as an inhabitant of the range he was shocked and disturbed by these outrages. He promised to end the raids. All he asked in return was a small annuity and some say in local affairs. That’s what he said. So the town council accepted. And sure enough, the raids ended. Baltrog even brought some of the creatures who had raided us into town in chains. He recovered some of the stolen goods. He was our hero. Our savior.
“But the cure can be worse than the disease. Baltrog works through magic and force. He is a powerful sorcerer. His helpers are the same sort of scum who raided our town. His ‘annuity’ quickly became a crippling tax, and he disbanded the town council and imposed a martial law enforced by his ‘sheriff.’
“And now the tax beggars us, and we are ruled by monsters. Baltrog uses spies and magic to watch us so we all fear each other. We don’t celebrate together anymore, and we don’t help each other. We sit in our houses hoping the sheriff won’t knock on the door and demand a meal or a daughter. The only place we gather is here.” His hand swept the empty tavern, dingy in the morning light. “And we talk of nothing. Of the weather. Of crops and hunting. Of the glory of the Lord Baltrog. That man even drank the Yollithian wine I was saving for my brother.”
Finally he looked at the dwarf, who looked down to avoid his gaze. “Then you came,” he said. “And you killed Yorg.” He looked at Yolanthe. “And you killed the new sheriff.” He looked back at his hands. “And I helped the dwarf breathe again. And because of these acts, I am a dead man.”
Harry sat silently, grimacing at his hands. He formed them into fists and slammed them down on the table. “But these were the right things to do!” He shouted. He swallowed hard and lowered his voice. “And I would not have them undone.”
They sat in silence. The dwarf squirmed in his seat. He worked his mouth, as if trying to spit out something bitter. Finally he spoke, quietly, avoiding Harry’s eye.
“My name is Voltag Grimm,” he said. “My father is Tolmann Grimm, thane of the Grimm Mountain clan. My younger brother is Rolf Grimm.” He paused, reluctant to speak. “I thank you for your help. I am sorry for the troubles.” He brought his gaze up to meet Harry’s. “Voltag Grimm is in your debt. You need never fear for your life. I give my word.”
Harry stared back. “How can you promise that?” He asked. “Will you live here? Will you be my bodyguard? Will you fight Baltrog and all his men?” He looked around the tavern. “I must leave Oakborder,” he said. “I have to hide. For the rest of my life.”
The dwarf fumbled with something in his belt and came up with a leather purse. He tossed in on the table in front of Harry. “That will help,” he said. “I will protect you until you’re settled.”
Harry picked up the purse. The weight of it surprised him. He opened the drawstring and peeked in. His mouth fell open.
“There must be four hundred gold pieces in here,” he said.
The dwarf made a dismissive gesture.
“I had always heard,” said Yolanthe, “That dwarves hoarded their wealth.”
“You heard wrong,” said Grimm. “And you, why did you help me?”
“I owed you,” she said. “When I had breakfast with you the other day, and told you about the bard in this tavern, that wasn’t me.”
Voltag glared in confusion.
“It was me, my body,” she continued, “But those were not my words. That was not me in my body.”
Voltag beetled his brows and growled, “You lied to me. The elf was never here.”
“I didn’t lie to you,” said Yolanthe. “Baltrog did.”
She sighed. “Let me explain,” she said. “I lived in the forest of Naibultin, hundreds of miles north of here, on the east slope of the mountain range. Thirty years ago, my father was killed.”
“Thirty years!” The dwarf grunted. His brows contracted in suspicion. “Take off your hat,” he said.
Yolanthe pulled off her soft leather cap revealing the points of her ears. Voltag jumped up, knocking over his stool.
“You’re an elf!” He shouted. “A lying elf!”
“Half elf,” said Yolanthe quietly. “The half elf that saved your life.”
“My mother was human,” continued Yolanthe. “She died when I was a baby. Please sit down.”
Voltag reluctantly righted his stool and set it farther away from Yolanthe. He sat down with ill grace.
“I don’t remember her,” Yolanthe said, “But my father tells me she was beautiful. My father raised me on a small lake, in the Pineshadow valley. We lived trapping and hunting. He raised me in knowledge of the woods and taught me the languages of the trees and mountains. He taught me the way of the bow, and how to craft my own weapons. We came to town perhaps four times a year, for supplies, for the odd piece of news, but otherwise we lived alone and free. My father said he needed no other company since my mother died.
“I was very happy.
“One day my father went to check the traps, and he did not return. I waited three days, then I followed our trap line. I tracked his movements. He had followed the line until the farthest point from our camp, but then, instead of following the line back, his tracks led deeper into the forest. I followed them. His prints showed that he had started to run, towards something or away from something, I could not tell. After many miles the tracks crossed a path, one of the paths that leads from the road to a waterfall where young people sometimes came to play.
“There had been a fight on the trail. My father had been attacked, and he had fought. There was the blood of several creatures sprayed on the leaves. I saw footprints of orcs, beasts, and men. But my father’s footprints stopped there.
“I spent two days widening my search from that point, but could find no trail. So I went back to our cabin. Baltrog was there waiting for me.
“He told me he had come to speak to my father. That they were old friends. He seemed genuinely worried when I told him of my father’s disappearance and he promised to organize a search party. In the meantime he invited me back to castle, to be his ward. I had no desire to leave the woods, to live in a great stone box, but I said yes, and packed my things and followed him.
“I know now that he controlled my mind, put thoughts in my head and words in my mouth, so that I obeyed him even as my will rebelled.
“At first we lived in a castle on the east side of the mountains, in the town of Luganton.”
Yolanthe paused. She remembered her first sight of the castle. It had only been a mile from the edge of the forest that covered the mountain range, but the trees that led to the edge of the plain had all been cut down. Their stumps still stood as mute testimony to a way of life she could not understand. Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone cut down a tree? Denude a forest for a better view? It had made no sense.
Life in the castle was just as odd. Baltrog had assigned her a small but pleasant room in one of the towers, but she became so claustrophobic on the first night ran from the castle and found refuge in the barn, sleeping in the hay in the loft over the horse stall. When Baltrog found out he indulged her and so she had slept there every night, and every morning she had run the mile to the forest to smell its air and commune with its trees.
“When he found out my skill with the bow, he arranged to have a master archer come give me lessons. I trained six, seven hours a day. And I hunted, and practiced my forest skills. Baltrog was supportive of my training. And once a week he told me that his men had yet to find my father, but that they were still looking.
“I missed my father, but it was not a bad life. Not the life of the forest, but as good a life as a person can have in a stone box.”
Yolanthe paused. “I thought he was a good man,” she said.
Harry grunted. “You were fooled. Like all of us,” he said.
“It was almost two years since I had arrived at Baltrog’s castle,” continued Yolanthe, “That he told me to pack for a short trip. He told me to bring my bow and arrows. We spent three days riding to the city of Tzanasport.”
She remembered the city, much bigger than Luganton. This was a walled metropolis, all stone buildings, smoke, and the clamor of a thousand voices. The streets had been filled with elves, dwarves, humans, half-orcs, gnomes, haflings, and people she could not place. The open-air market had sold goods she had never seen nor dreamed of and the air smelled of spices, excrement, and the crush of diverse races. Temples to strange gods belched forth incense and chants. She had seen a man lying in the street, perhaps dead, while passers-by stepped over him as though he were not there.
She was terrified.
Baltrog brought her to an expensive inn where she was given her own room. She spent a sleepless night there, listening to the sounds of the city, while Baltrog went out on some unspecified business. She had finally fallen into a fitful sleep full of strange dreams just before dawn.
“Once we were there,” she said, “He took over my mind for the first time.”
It had happened in the morning. She was awake, as was her custom, at first light and was eating the strange food that the inn’s servant had brought to her door. Her neck hurt and there were drops of blood on her pillow. Before she could investigate the source of the blood she had felt the room tilt and change colours. She had been terrified, but the sensation had not lasted long before she slipped into a dream-like state. She knew what she was doing, she could interpret her surroundings, but she had no will of her own. She felt as though her mind had fled her body and now watched her as she went through motions that were dictated by some outside source.
“I took my bow,” she said, “And aimed out the window of the inn. I stood, at the ready, for hours, not in control of my self. And then, late in the morning, I heard a procession coming down the street towards the square that the window looked out on. The procession was in honour of the mayor of the city, an old man whom the city-folk seemed to love.
“He stood on a riser in the square to deliver a speech. The people cheered and clapped as he spoke.
“I killed him. A single arrow, through the throat, aimed to spin his body so that the flight of the arrow could not be backtracked.
“It caused a panic in the square. People screamed and ran. The man’s guards did not see where the arrow came from and they panicked, running into the wrong buildings.
“But the important thing is that I didn’t kill him. It was my skill, yes, my bow and eye, but not my intent. Baltrog had taken over my mind and used the knowledge of my body to kill that man.
“A year later Tzanasport accepted the Baltrog as its protector and he moved his retinue there.”
Harry sighed deeply. Voltag knitted his brows and glared at the floor.
“I didn’t understand what had happed for more than a year,” said Yolanthe. “But then it became clear. Baltrog used me as a tracker, as a spy.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “As an assassin. He did so for the next five years. Every year there were more and more occurrences. Then, more than a year ago, I escaped. Or so I thought. But he had set another trap for me.”
She looked at the dwarf. “And he used me to lure you to this town.”
Voltag stared hard at her. “How do we know you’re not controlled by him now?”
“After he left my mind,” she said, “I went to my cabin, retrieved my good bow, and then tracked you here.”
“Tracked me?” snorted the dwarf. “I cover my tracks where ever I travel, as stealthy as a fox. And I walked on a stone road. Tracked me indeed.”
“You spent an hour at the campsite, staring at the fire,” she said. “Then you packed and headed towards this town, sticking to the right side of the road, in the shade. Two miles outside the town you left the road to wash in a stream. You spent a lot of time on your hair and beard. You put on some sort of perfume and you carefully cleaned your teeth and nails.”
The dwarf made a blustering noise and looked away, embarrassed.
“I came to make up for having led you here,” Yolanthe said. “And I saved your life.”
She did not tell him how she had picked up her ferret and carefully examined its squirming body until she had found a tattoo, hidden under the fur on its back near its tail. It had been in the shape of an eye surrounded by flame. She had considered killing the ferret, but instead had put it in one of her bark-skin buckets and left the cabin forever. The ferret would be able to chew its way out in a couple of hours, long after she was gone.
The dwarf grunted. “And how will we know when he takes control of you again?” he asked.
Yolanthe looked away. “I don’t know,” she said. “I know when it is going to happen. I have a few seconds notice, but I don’t know if anyone else can tell.”
“Well,” said the dwarf, “I think I’ll . . .”
Someone pounded on the tavern door. Voltag jumped up and grabbed his axe. By the time he was on his feet Yolanthe had already drawn her bow and nocked an arrow pointing it at the door. Harry sat frozen with fear.
“Company,” said Voltag.
The pounding came again, more insistent.
“We’re closed!” shouted Harry.
“Harry!” came a low, rich voice through the door. “It’s Tom Irontone. I’m here with the town elders. We need to speak to you.”
Harry stood up and began to walk to the door, but the dwarf pointed at the ground, a sign that he should stay still. He gestured for Yolanthe to follow him and he crossed to the door. His axe in his right hand, Voltag used the fingers on his mutilated left hand to count down from three. At the end of the count he flung open the door and stood in the frame, his axe at the ready. Yolanthe stood behind him, aiming over his head at whatever might be outside.
The blacksmith stepped back in surprise, bumping into the twenty or so village elders that stood behind him. Voltag scanned the crowd and the buildings behind them. Seeing nothing suspicious, he said, “What do you want?”
“To talk,” said the blacksmith. “Just to talk to Harry.”
Harry came up behind Yolanthe and put his hand on her shoulder. She lowered her bow and stepped to the side. He stood behind the dwarf, easily looking over his head. The dwarf did not move, blocking access to the door.
“What is it, Tom?” Harry asked the blacksmith.
The big man blushed and stammered. “We’ve been talking, Harry,” he said. “And we think, well, we think you should leave the town.”
“Leave,” said Harry.
“You understand, Harry,” said the blacksmith. “It’s not you. It’s the trouble that will come. The new sheriff is dead, because of the woman. And the dwarf is alive, because of you.”
The dwarf growled.
“When the Lord Baltrog returns,” Tom continued, “He’ll punish us terribly if you and these people are here.”
“And what will he do when he finds out you let us escape?” asked Voltag.
The blacksmith had no answer, so he turned to the crowd behind him, but they just muttered and lowered their eyes.
“Or are you thinking of holding me here?” Voltag asked more loudly. “Are you?”
Now even the blacksmith could not look up.
“I thought not,” said the dwarf.
“What are we to do?” cried an old woman from the back of the crowd. The crowd shuffled but no one answered.
“The problem is not me,” said the dwarf. “It’s not the woman. And it isn’t Harry, who is more man than all of you put together. The problem is this Bald-dog. He has turned you against each other. He has broken clan and family.”
“And what can we do about it?” asked the same old woman. “He has magic and creatures. We’re just poor townspeople.”
Other elders joined their voices in support of the old woman’s sentiments. “Yes,” they muttered. “He’ll kill us all.”
They fell silent under the dwarf’s glare.
The dwarf beetled his brows and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I’m going now,” he said, and stepped out of the doorway. “If this man is hurt while I’m away, the entire town will know the wrath of Voltag Grimm.”
He swung his axe onto his shoulder, a movement that caused a few of the elders to leap backwards. Then he began walking downhill, back towards the square. The crowd parted hastily to let him pass.
“Where are you going?” cried out Harry after him.
The dwarf did not bother to look back. “To kill Baltrog,” he said, and kept walking.