Mountains and plains
The huge herd of animals had sort of stopped and now it surrounded the area with the cave. It was an odd sight but everybody felt safer with them there and Ahravan told everybody that they were to treat the beasts with respect. They did find racoons in the storagerooms and some badgers did decide that the stable was a perfect place to live but the animals were accepted, as long as they didn’t ruin anything. The cooks had gathered and now a huge room was turned into a kitchen, it had ovens and open hearths too, and the smell of food could be sensed from afar. Imh and the others were working hard to keep everybody fed and they sent out riders to gather herbs and bulbs which were edible. Igkhan joined such a group, he had learned a lot about edible plants and he did in fact manage to teach them a few new things. Wenja was spending time with some of the other women there, they were weaving using some sort of primitive but very efficient weaves and Wenja wanted to learn. She was very eager to make herself useful and Rhawan and Ahravan was glad she wasn’t the type of person who demand that others do everything for them. Ahravan was recovering fast but he still couldn’t do much, he got dizzy and felt weak and Rhawan did tease him a bit, although with a friendly tone.
They too had to prepare and Ahravan did sit down with the tribes and the leaders to listen to their tales and try to figure out what they really knew and what was just old superstition.
There were few maps available there, few knew how to read and write and if something was to be kept for the future it had to be remembered. But some did come with useful information and Ahravan did remember it all.
The dead had been buried and the grieving was over now and the life within the mountain became rather interesting. Wenja had gotten used to the routines of the city but this was yet again different. There was unwritten laws and rules and now she did see how they did work in perfect detail. The huge dwarven stronghold was enormous and so complex you easily could get lost if you weren’t a dwarf and thus the children were under constant supervision. There were always somebody following the young ones, and making sure that they didn’t enter the dangerous tunnels. Wenja had already seen the baths, they were a wonder and she had been stunned. The cave in which she and Ahravan had bathed before the wedding had been wonderful but it was very natural, not much had been done to it. The bathing pools here were very intricate, and the enormous cave they were placed within had been carved so that it did resemble a forest, caught in stone. The water did run from one pool to the next in what appeared to be natural little creeks and everywhere there were carved trees and benches and the dwarves had used different minerals when they made the trees so the canopies did glitter and sparkle in different colours.
The water came from springs and it was very hot when it emerged from the bowels of the earth, some were lead off towards the kitchen where it was used to heat food, some did also circulate within the walls of the living quarters, making it pleasantly hot the whole time and then the majority was lead from one pool to the next. The natural cooling did assure that the pools held different temperatures. Most of the time the baths were open to everybody and she was a bit shocked to find out that everybody did bathe together without being shy at all. Some of the members of the clans didn’t bathe like that though, the female dwarves always kept to themselves and had some days and times reserved when they were the only ones allowed inside of the baths. Wenja realized that this was done becauce of their culture, not because they were shy. Imh told her that female dwarves were very proud of their bodies and were also very eager to show them off but since females were few and sought after they had to avoid becoming too tempting. There were countless stories of brides being kidnapped and Imh did tell Wenja that one dwarven noble in fact had tried to kidnap Imh when she was a young maiden, luckily she did know how to swing a hammer.
Ahravan did spend some time in the baths to swim and stay in shape. The water did help him stretch and strengthen the injured thigh and Wenja was very glad that he was getting better. She still had a hard time believing that she had saved him. He often asked her to join him and a few times Rhawan too spent time with her and one of the women of the clans was a very good masseuse and used oils and ointments that made Wenja’s skin even softer than before. Ahravan would bring wine and fruit and then they would just relax by the pool and Wenja was never disappointed when it came to receiving attention. Both Ahravan and Rhawan did their very best to keep her happy and she grew fond of the baths very fast.
But she was curious about the city and one day Imh did take her on a tour of the city, some other dwarves did join them and Wenja was in awe of all the work which had been done there and she realized that the part of the city they now inhabited was just a small part of it, not even worth mentioning. It was like an entrance shed, nothing more.
Imh did allow her to enter the real city and it was breathtaking, huge halls with details and an architecture which was stunning. Somewhere huge gaps in the rocks had been turned into venting shafts and she realized that there were hundreds of levels here. Perhaps even more. Dwarves do dig and dig well and Imh did tell her that this city once had been famous for its emeralds. They had dug deeply into the earth and uncovered huge gems, the size of boulders. But eventually the wealth had run out and the city had lost its important status and became abandoned after some centuries.
Wenja was a bit stunned by that fact, the dwarves seemed to have been a very industrious people and yet there were empty cities and abandoned roads. Imh did seem sad and she didn’t really look as if she wanted to speak but one of the other dwarven females did tell Wenja about the fall of the dwarves. They were few now, too few to be a power to be reconned with, earlier the dwarves had been the most powerful of all the races, they had been many and strong and everybody did depend on their smithing craft and their ingenuity. It had all ended some centuries earlier, with a disaster so horrible most dwarves still refused to even mention it. Wenja didn’t want to pry but the dwarf did take her aside and told of what had been known as the golden plague.
It had started in a city to the far south, at first it didn’t raise any alarms for just a few dwarves were ill and it wasn’t even serious, just some sniffling and aches. Then the disease suddenly took a turn for the worse and it was a terrible and horrifying development. All of a sudden entire cities became infected and sick overnigh, and the vague symptoms had transformed to something out of a nightmare. Many had believed that the gods were punishing them for having been too greedy and many dwarves did abandon their homes and their entire lifestyle and culture to make amends.
Wenja was deeply shocked by what she was told. At first the sick dwarves became unable to drink and eat, then their skin felt as if it was on fire, they burned with a vicious fever and the skin started to fall off in huge pieces, having turned all golden in colour. They would vomit blood and bile and then in the end the bodies became all rigid and stiff and would stink horribly. By then the sick person usually only had a few hours left of life and it was gruesome hours for he or she would still be conscious but barely able to breathe.
The dwarf did tell Wenja that the normal thing to do by then was to give the sick person a swift death, in order to prevent prolonged suffering. There was no cure and no hope and just a few dwarves had survived here and there. Some cities had been spared and thus a once great nation was reduced to a mere ghost of what it once had been.
Wenja was deeply moved by this and she understood why Imh refused to talk of it, it had to be an eternal sorrow they never could fully forget.
As they walked through the city Wenja saw wonders she never would have been able to imagine, the huge gardens where food had been produced, the forges where precious metal had been melted into incredible works of art. She even saw one of the sacred sites of the dwarves, they weren’t that religious but they did have some gods and here there were statues of them all. The main god was called Ordnidar, and he was the god of smiths and was depicted as a huge strong dwarf holding a forge hammer in his hand. The statue was so lifelike it was scary.
Wenja did see something in a corner of the sacred room which did puzzle her, it was a statue which was sort of placed there as if it was just stored there but not to be displayed. It was a huge one too, and as she got closer Imh did make a small sound of shock. “By my father’s beard, I didn’t know they had one of those here?”
The other female dwarves did mumble too and Wenja got closer. In the torchlight the statue seemed to be alive, and she was very impressed by the incredible work which had been put into it. It was a giant cat, like the one who now followed Frostfoot and it was even larger and the stoneworker had carved it from what had to be solid obsidian. It was so black it seemed to swallow all light and she could see every hair in its coat and she could swear she felt the smell of a wild beast. Imh did look as if she was truly shocked and the other dwarves did stay back, as if they were afraid of the statue. Wenja did walk around it, the cat was taller than a huge horse and the body was powerful and elegant and also oddly alien. She had no idea of how somebody had been able to carve it and she did reach out and touched one of the massive paws. For a second she was sure she heard a big cat roar in the distance and a shudder went through her.
Imh did wet her lips. “That is the steed of one of the ancient gods, a goddess we dwarves did worship in ages long lost. She was the mother of beasts, the goddess of the earth, the creator of all life. We did honour her for a long time but I guess things did change with the ages and the belief was forgotten.”
Wenja stared at the huge statue. It did seem alive, as if it would awaken at any time and pounce from the pedestal it was placed upon. “What was the name of the goddess?”
Imh sighed. “Suravay, daughter of the full moon. She was a goddess of contrast, forgiving and nurturing but also wild and cruel, just like nature”
Wenja nodded and threw a last glance at the statue, it did almost seem as if the huge carved pupils did follow her as they left the room.
As the days went by the plains seemed to come alive with unexpected survivors, all heading for the dwarven stronghold. Often the leaders would claim to be lead by packs of animals and the city could house thousands of people. The survivors would tell of horrors which made even Ahravan cringe and many had fallen victim to both the small insectlike demons and the huge transparent type. The other more mundane types had also killed many and Ahravan could only pray that the group they had sent off was able to do their job. If not even the idea of trying to get to the cliff would be suicide.
Some said they had seen huge packs of monsters heading due west, that could mean that the dwarves and the two orcs and the men had started their task and Wenja was worried about Floth’bha and the others. Bagir would often sit and talk to her to keep her mind away from the journey ahead of them and she was grateful. He was like a piece of home, of something safe and well known and Ahravan knew that Bagir would protect Wenja no matter what. Ahravan was rather busy now and Rhawan was always by his side to make sure that he didn’t push himself too hard. Ahravan was glad he had his Si’ish there but sometimes the continuous worry was annoying, Rhawan knew that Ahravan was healed by now.
Ahravan had lost his favourite horse and now he had to pick a new one from the herd, he didn’t want a young steed which was untried and potentially unsuited for such an important mission. He was wandering through the herds of horses and Laupir was by his side, he knew every horse they had there and could determine whether or not the animal was good enough for the Ath’ir. Neither of Ayr’esh sons were old enough nor trained enough for this and Ahravan did own several excellent horses but none did stand out the way Ayr’esh had. He was tempted at giving up when he was approached by Yalaih, the young elven maiden did wear a sort of thin veil over her face as a sign of grief and she walked with a sort of heaviness which was rather unusal to elves. Ahravan knew that the grief of having lost her family could kill her, as easily as any sword. Yalaih did bow her head. “Ath’ir. My mother is dead, and my father would have wanted you to take care of his belongings now that she isn’t here.”
Ahravan just shrugged. “I got his weapon?”
Yalaih nodded. “Yes, but there is more. Follow me”
Ahravan and Rhawan did follow her to the herd of horses which belonged to the snowbear clan, it wasn’t large but the animals were tough and strong and rather different in both build and temper from what the other elven clans preferred. Yalaih did stop and put a finger in her mouth, she did whistle and Ahravan heard the sound of a horse approaching. Both he and Rhawan did stare with rather obvious shock, the animal which came trotting towards Yalaih was no ordinary animal, it was a so called Gorheg, a unicorn species which lived only in the high mountains. It was a stallion, almost as tall as Flint and the broken horn and scarred hide told Ahravan that this was a warrior. The animal did snort and lowered its head, sniffing Yalaih’s hands and she did feed it a piece of wild carrot. “He is father’s favourite, old now but still strong and he is wise and cunning. Father would have wanted you to ride him to save us all”
Ahravan swallowed. “Will he accept me? They do usually only allow one person to ride them?”
She nodded. “He will accept you, for you are strong, like father. He will protect you, he has faced darkness before”
Ahravan did reach out and the massive muzzle did touch his fingers gently, the animal was pitch black all over but it had a sort of white line going from between its ears to between its wide nostrils. The broken horn was encased in gold, as if its master had tried to embezzle the remains of the unicorns most prominent feature. “What is his name?”
Yalaih did smile, she let her fingers glide through the long black mane. “Kor’ath, it means silver spear”
Ahravan nodded and petted the mighty chest, he didn’t reach higher than it’s flank and he felt impressed and shocked by the power of the beast. A unicorn is not like a horse, they will react very differently and their innate magic can be very strong. “Will you carry me brother?”
The unicorn did snort, then it did touch Ahravan’s chest with the end of the broken horn and Ahravan smiled, a swift almost shy grin. “Thank you brother”
Rhawan was still just staring. “Gods, that is…amazing”
Ahravan nodded . “I do not need a new steed after all, this will do perfectly well”
Rhawan did pat him on the back. “I am becoming envious brother, but I doubt that any creature of darkness will fight Kor’ath willingly”
Ahravan smiled back. “Exactly!”
Out on the plains Balgar and the others had the great river in sight and it wasn’t an hour too early. Over the last days monsters had seemed to sprout out of the ground and they were surrounded on all fronts except straight forward. The dwarf had lead them well, he did keep the demons and monsters away with his magic and it had worked so far but now they were at a critical phase. They had to make rafts, or find boats. Somehow they had to get to safety out on the running waters and here there were no settlements. There were few trees too and everybody were desperately searching for anything they could use. Balgar had lost weight and he did look as if he had aged several decades over just a few days and Geir did realize that the magic did take a terrible toll of the one wielding it. Dwarves aren’t that fond of magic normally but they do have powers and they are great, although rarely displayed. Balgar was a dwarven shaman and thus his status within the clans was high, and he was respected and everybody listened to what he did say. But this was really not something he nor anybody else had ever attempted before and he knew that they had to reach the river fast, or else he wouldn’t be able to keep the shields up.
The river was rather wide and slow flowing at this place, it was not very deep but too deep to cross and there weren’t really a tree in sight. Usually there would be driftwood on the beach and as they spurred their steeds towards the water they did use their eyes and tried to see if there were any logs left by the spring floods. But there weren’t any and Balgar did start to look a bit desperate. Neither of them were capable of keeping the monsters at bay now, there were huge packs of them everywhere and if the shields did fail he estimated that they would be dead within minutes. The ghastly transparent demons were constantly sniffing as if they were about to catch the scent of living prey and the massive ape like monsters weren’t much better, he had to stay strong.
They rode along the river, as fast as they could, the ponies were exhausted and even Resh’kha’s buffalo did show signs of exhaustion. Geir and the other men were terrified by now and regretted having volunteered for the mission but now there was no way back. They were losing hope, the ice had scoured the beaches and left nothing but rock and sand and if they did ride into the water the steeds wouldn’t survive for long, the water was too cold and the animals very warm due to the harsh tempo. That was when Floth’bha did call out, she pointed at a small island in the river, barely more than just a few huge rocks which had been pushed together by currents and ice and against them something was lodged. It was a boat, and not just any sort of boat, it was a ferry. The type people use to transport goods over the river. Balgar did gasp at the sight and Resh’kha did cheer but the two other dwarves did look rather uncertain. “It may be ruined?”
Geir and Than did dismount and walked to the waters edge. “It does look as if it is in one piece, if we can get it lose it may still be floating”
Balgar coughed, he was so very tired now. The spells he used did draw power from his spirit and body and he was close to being spent. “Somebody has to get out there, but the current is so strong”
Geir did smile, there was yet again hope in his eyes. “Not nessecarily no, we do have rope don’t we?”
He did find a roll of strong rope from his saddle and made a noose at the end of it, the dwarves did frown. “Don’t tell me you think you can hit it from here?”
Geir nodded. “I can, we used to rope wild horses when I was a lad, I bet I can get the rope onto the stern from here”
Balgar did roll his eyes and the two orcs did hold their breaths as Geir waded into the water and arranged the lasso. He did aim carefully and Balgar was pale and shivering. The ground did shiver now, the monsters were so very near. Geir did throw, the first attempt was a grand miss, he didn’t even make it as far as to the boat but he tried again and this time the noose did land on the stern rather elegantly. He did grasp the end of the rope and turned to Resh’kha. “Can you make your buffalo pull?”
Resh’kha did snort but she did attach the rope to the animals horn and strangely enough the massive beast seemed to understand what this was about. It turned around and started to put its weight into it and there was a creaking sound coming from the boat. There was a risk that they would tear it open like this but they had to try. The buffalo did use all its strength and suddenly the ferry did come loose, everybody grasped at the rope and with the help of the animal they did manage to pull it to the shore. It was in good shape, no boards were broken and it was dry on the inside but the rudder was bent and the mast broken and it was not exactly made for long journeys. Such ferries were usually attached to a pulley system and dragged back and forth across a river so it didn’t need to be very complicated and this was a primitive one. But it did float and Floth’bha and Resh’kha did step onto the ferry and managed to lower it a bit on the side close to the beach. Balgar was close to fainting now, and the air around them seemed to shiver as if on a warm day. Geir did smack the horses across the arse and the animals did jump on board. The ponies were a little harder to get on board but they did manage with the help of a huge rock. The buffalo was the hardest to get onboard, but Resh’kha did speak to the beast and finally he did jump, surprisingly high and with an elegance nobody would have anticipated. The ferry was heavily loaded now, and Resh’kha and Floth’bha did use all their strength to push the ferry back into the stream. It wasn’t even a second too early for suddenly the shields did fall as Balgar did pass out and they heard an unholy roar as the monsters did see them. A wild hoarde of beasts did storm towards them but the water did stop them and Geir did take a deep breath of relief. The other dwarves did take care off Balgar and Resh’kha did kneel down by his side. The ferry had no cabin or anything, it was just a flat boat deck and they tied the animals to the remains of the mast. It was barely room to move around them and the dwarves did look uncomfortable. Resh’kha did stare at Dharan and Kulkar and her eyes were a bit nervous. “Will he wake up again?”
The two did shrug. “Yes, but it may take time”
Resh’kha did make a grimace and she did point towards the horizon. “The river won’t be this slow and wide everywhere, and this ferry is already too full. We risk capsizing”
The dwarves did shudder, dwarves are not fond of water at all since they are incapable of swimming due to their heavy build and body shape. “We just have to stay in the middle of the river at all times, it shouldn’t be too hard?”
Floth’bha did sigh. “The rudder is ruined, she is pulling to the left all the time and I think the keel has a damage too, it wants to spin around its own axis. We have to do something, there is still a long way to go”
Dharan shrugged. “What do you suggest? We aren’t boat makers!”
Geir had to smile, those words were the truth for sure, dwarves and boats just didn’t go well together. “You have to find something to replace the rudder, break the darn thing off, it will only cause problems”
Resh’kha did stare at the remains with narrow eyes. “No, I have a better idea, we can use the wood, all we need is a strong pole”
They all did look at the remains of the mast but it wasn’t long enough and Floth’bha did keep an eye on the banks, the monsters did follow them, howling with anticipation and anger. They had to fix the rudder fast, or else they may drift ashore. Osbord had taken a seat at the bow of the ferry and he was staring down at the water. “There could be something in the water, everybody, do keep your eyes open!”
Resh’kha did shiver, the beasts were horrible this close up and here they didn’t have a huge group of warriors to fight with them. They were on their own and the beasts did try to enter the water again and again but it looked as if the water did burn them somehow and they did retreat with howls of disappointment and rage. The ferry wasn’t moving the way it should, the weight of all the horses and ponies and the people did make it sluggish and the damage to the keel made it spin every so often. The dwarves were a bit green in the face and Floth’bha did look as if she was suffering but they did stay by the bow and kept their eyes fixed on the waters, hoping to find something useful.
Resh’kha knew that they had many days of travel ahead of them and she just hoped that they could ditch the crippled ferry eventually. The river did a wide half circle and at the bottom of the turn they saw what they had been hoping for, several long branches stuck between the boulders which made the river bank at the site. Geir did use the lasso again and after a while the men had managed to create something which could function as a rudder but it wasn’t very efficient nor very elegant. They had just tied it to the remains of the old rudder attachments and it did take a heck of a lot of strength to control the ferry this way.
But it did take them to the middle of the river and now they did see that there were monsters also on the other side of the river, drawn to them by the heartstone. Balgar was still unconscious and everybody were dead tired since they had been awake for days now. The ponies and the horses had laid down and Resh’kha did shrug and sat down by the new rudder. “I can steer for a while, the rest of you, get some sleep. We need it, I don’t think the river will change much for several hours yet”
Floth’bha did grin at her and caressed her cheek swiftly. “Good idea, we need some food too, I will try to prepare some”
Geir and the other men were almost asleep on their feet and as fast as they had managed to eat some dry bread and cheese they laid down to sleep. There was barely room for them there but if they laid down next to their steeds the animals did help keeping them warm. Resh’kha did dread the night though, it would be very hard to see anything and the ferry was as easy to manoeuvre as a sheet of spilled oil.
They did enjoy the peace for a few hours, then Floth’bha did take over the rudder to let Resh’kha rest and now the banks were teeming with all sorts of bizarre beasts. There would be no chance at making landfall and they had little feed for the horses and Geir suggested that they found some string and started to catch some fish for themselves, and perhaps river grass for the animals.
The men immediately got busy doing that and the dwarves did help them, Balgar was still not awake and Resh’kha was worried for him. They would need his skills later, if they were to leave the river at all the shields had to be put up again. The river was getting more narrow and wilder and now both Resh’kha and Floth’bha had to stay by the rudder, it was getting darker and they had to keep an eye on the river all the time to avoid rocks. Kulkar had taken up seat at the bow now and he was shouting orders for the two orcs to tell them where to steer the boat. It was back breaking work, the boat was fighting them at every turn and it was so heavy and sluggish every manoeuvre had to be started way ahead of the actual turn. The three men wanted to help but realized that they simply weren’t strong enough for this. Only the two female orcs had the immense strength needed to be able to control the vehicle.
The men did fish instead and caught some fish and by using the small iron anchor which still was in place they managed to pull some river grass up onto the deck. The horses were hungry and ate it without complaints and thus everybody were busy. But after yet an hour or two it was pitch black and now the river was turning into rapids. And worse even, it was getting so narrow the monsters had no problems seeing them, which was bad for some of the more humanoid shaped nasties had started tossing rocks at them.
The horses got scared and rocked the boat quite literally and Resh’kha was getting desperate. Balgar had to wake up now, they needed his help and she did shake the dwarf but he did only moan and he was a bit grey in the face. Resh’kha started to worry that he was dying, that he had used too much of his lifeforce keeping them safe so far. The two other dwarves did share her opinion, they didn’t say so but she saw it in their eyes, a certain hopelessness and she could only pray that the beasts didn’t hit the ferry with something large.
Geir and the other two men had brought their bows and now they used them for all that they were worth but the arrows did little damage and if anything they only made the beasts more angry. The darkness didn’t bother them at all and Floth’bha didn’t have much strength left, the ferry was leaning more and more to the side and the situation was dire. Resh’kha did shout to Kulkar and asked the dwarf to look out for huge rocks, if need be they had to run the ferry aground again, in the middle of the river. She was leaning over the shaman when he suddenly opened his eyes and she squaled and tried to back away but he grasped her by her ears and pulled her head down with amazing strength. Suddenly the aging dwarf kissed her, Resh’kha did freeze and didn’t manage to push him away and suddenly she felt how a surge of sheer energy raced through her, she gasped and the dwarf did let go, he smiled faintly and his eyes did glow, a weak light which was dying as she watched it. “It is yours now sister, use it well”
Then Balgar did take a deep breath, held it and let go and went limp. Resh’kha did sit up, like hit by lightening, she felt odd, light headed and confused and she almost screamed. She saw colours surrounding every thing around her, bright transparent bands of colour like thin veils and they danced around everyone and everything. It was both beautiful and terrifying and Dharan came rushing to her, grasping her shoulder. “I was afraid of that, he spent all that he had didn’t he? But you are the one to lead us now, he gave you his strength and his abilities”
Resh’kha did swallow hard. “Why? Why me?!”
The dwarf shrugged. “You are strong sister orc, and you are brave and a pure soul. Not many of those around these days, he saw that you were worthy. You may hide us now!”
Resh’kha just blinked, feeling utterly lost. A female shaman? There were many female shamans among the orcs but they were trained from birth and were never just tossed into it. She felt herself tremble. “I don’t know how?!”
Dharan tilted his head. “Use your heart, listen to what it tells you. It will guide you”
Resh’kha heard the hard crack of a rock hitting the side of the ferry and she did bite her teeth together, the beasts were all that intelligent were they? She closed her eyes, listen to your heart? That wasn’t all that easy now was it? She had to shield them, what had Balgar done? He had carried a sort of amulet hadn’t he?
She did open his shirt and yes, there was an amulet there. She picked ut up with shivering hands and to her astonishment it felt warm in her hand, like it was alive. “I have no idea of what you are, but hide us, please!”
The amulet glowed slightly, then a sort of glowing dome did spread from it and it did cover the entire ferry. But strangely enough the monsters seemed to lose sight of them and disappointed roars could be heard all over the banks. Resh’kha did hang onto the amulet as if it was a lifeline and she felt a tingling in her hands and arms, as if it was draining also her. Floth’bha did fight with the rudder and she was sweating. “Brilliant, we can steer differently now, but the ferry is not going to make it much longer”
Resh’kha did get up, the horses and ponies were stomping and her buffalo was snorting. “You are right, but I think we may be approaching a small lake, there could be islands there”
Geir did stare at her with awe. “Let us hope so, we need to rest, we all do. And we need to go over the plans again, without Balgar I am not so sure that we can follow the original one. Not to sound harsh Resh’kha but you are untrained and that jewel is very dangerous now”
Resh’kha did nod. “I know, I know damn it. But what else can we do? We have to lure as many monsters as possible into that forest, and there is no other manner but by land or river”
Geir did frown, his eyes were distant. “I wonder…”
The river was mostly rapids now and the old ferry did barely hand together, the twisting and turning made it spring several leaks and it was getting heavier by the minute. Even if they were shielded they couldn’t go ashore, the beasts weren’t that stupid and everybody were pale and terrified. The ferry did spin and swing and turn and Than and Osbord did hang over the side puking their guts out, or so it seemed. But suddenly the river did turn rather abruptly and what lay ahead of them was indeed a lake, it was long and rather narrow but a lake and lo and behold, there was an island there, a bit ahead. Floth’bha did almost roar. “Grasp whatever you can find and row!”
Everybody grasped planks and buckets and whatever they had which could be used and the ferry did slowly oh so slowly head towards the island. Resh’kha felt a desperate hope, the water had to carry them to the island and suddenly the ferry did jerk and shot forth again, picking up speed as if something had grasped it and towed it towards the shore. Resh’kha felt hot, as if there was fire burning near by and she gasped and shuddered. The ferry did hit the beach with a crunch and then it did give up its spirit, the vehicle did dissolve itself into its original materials, planks and boards and they all jumped into the shore as the entire thing was reduced to a pile of rubble. Resh’kha did stare at the sad remains of the ferry, they weren’t that far from land here and it was shallow so they could cross but first of all, warmth and food and rest.
The island wasn’t large, perhaps five hundred meters long and a couple of hundred meters wide at its largest and it was covered with boulders and a patch of dense and low forest, most likely an almost impenetrable shrubbery with thorns and whatnot. The men grasped what they could salvage from the ferry and started building a fire and the dwarves did carry Balgar’s body to the edge of the small forest. They did sing the whole time, something low and sad and very sombre and Resh’kha wished that she did understand the words. They treated their deseased brother with a lot of respect and Resh’kha did walk over, carefully to make sure that she didn’t break any taboos. Dharan did smile at her, he did wash Balgar’s face and rebraided the hair and the beard. “He knew he wouldn’t make it, even when we left Othanar”
Resh’kha did frown. “How come?”
The dwarf did fold Balgar’s hands over his chest. “He was sick, not even the elven healers could fix it. But he had to go, he was the only one with the strength to awaken the heart stone. Only an experienced shaman is capable of doing that”
Resh’kha did feel a surge of intense sorrow. “Oh, I didn’t know…I…”
Dharan tilted his head, the long braids of his beard did clink since there were beads attached to them. “Do not mourn sister orc, he lived well and he did die well. The ancestors will welcome him to their halls for sure. We have to finish what he started”
Resh’kha did nod. “But what was ailing him?”
Dharan did lift Balgar’s tunic and Resh’kha did gasp, the skin she did see covering the dwarf’s abdomen was almost like stone, hard and grey and odd in texture and blood was oozing through cracks. “It is a curse, one that lays on our race and none other. We come from the womb of the mother earth and sometimes she bids us return to her embrace. This is the result, we turn into…stone”
Resh’kha did wet her lips. “But…how is that even possible?”
Dharan made a grimace. “We do not know, and it strikes very randomly and is very rare but there is no cure for it, if you get it you will eventually die”
Resh’kha did swallow. “I am…so sorry”
Dharan just smiled. “Don’t be, we will lay him here, cover him with rocks and let nature reclaim his body. It is as it should be”
Resh’kha did nod and returned to the now warm fire. The men had tied up the ponies and horses and Resh’kha stared at the western bank, it was filled with beasts and she felt them now, cold souls, devoid of feelings except hunger and hatred and she shuddered. There was as if she did feel a voice in the wind, a sweet and seemingly beautiful voice but she could sense the vemon in it, like poison hidden in rich honey. There was something out there, and it was after the jewel, and it wouldn’t stop at anything to gain it. She closed her eyes, fighting the urge to just leave, she had a mission now and a meaning and she couldn’t abandon it, even if she felt like it.
The mountains were a formidable barrier, forming a wall from west to east far north and few if any knew exactly what was beyond this very tall mountainrange. The area in which the cliff was supposedly positioned was almost in the middle of the mountain range, but it was in itself surrounded by wilderness. Here deep canyons did cut their way through a naked and very barren landscape mostly dominated by rocks and ice and snow. Few signs of life could be seen here and yet it wasn’t desolate. Life did exist here and always had. To the west of the valleys which were known by the people to the south there was an area hidden between two almost vertical mountains. From a distance they did look as one and the same and the deep valley they hid couldn’t be spotted unless you came really close to it. The valley had once been carved by ice, slowly and steadily digging into the very bedrock, tearing out chunks of the earths bones like some giant relentless mole. It had left a huge u shaped valley which was very deep and very dark and it didn’t look very inviting at all. Here the sun rarely shone and waterfalls did make the naked rock glisten with moisture.
It was open in one end, the other blocked by an enormous scree and a narrow lake lay in the middle, its waters black like tar. One should imagine that such a foreboding place would be devoid of life but it wasn’t. On the eastern bank of the lake several huts were erected, rocks were used as their base and the ribs of enormous beasts carried the roofs, made from hides covered with peat and heather. The huts were hard to see from a distance and thin ropes of smoke did stretch towards the skies. The small village was surrounded by a circle of tall standing rocks, they did look ancient and they were. The centre of the village was a very large hut, the hides forming the roof was kept up not by ribs but by wooden rafters and skulls and bones and other objects did adorn the outside of it. The stench of rotted meat, faeces and unwashed bodies was strong there, and some skinny dogs did scurry around, desperate for a scrap of food.
Inside of the great hut several figures were gathered, hunched together over the oozing bonfires, it was hard to see in there for there was little light and the wood used for heating rather raw, it gave sour smoke and little more than that. A discussion was happening, harsh barking words were being growled across the fires and many a hand lay on primitive weapons made from bone and flint. Only a few there owned things of metal and these objects were revered as if they were a godsend. The people within the hut weren’t human, their origin lost in the mists of time. They were short and stocky and yet not of dwarven descent, their bodies covered with thick hair and their limbs thick and powerful. All wore little clothing if any and the faces were dominated by heavy brows and a very large nose. Some were decorated with tattoos and others had used paint and they all wore small amulets woven into their hair.
These were leaders, and they were the strongest of males.
The discussion was heated, shouts were heard and some did make threatening gestures but they didn’t attack each other, it was against the laws and would be seen as a loss of all honour. The cause of the discussion was one of them, the leader of the largest of the clans of the people which called themselves Akk’u. He was not the tallest of them but he was strong and relatively young and his arms and legs bulging with muscle. He did look very angry but he didn’t say anything, it wasn’t his time to speak. He had said what he had to say, now the others would make the final descision.
The oldest among them was the leader of the Rk’ha clan, they were not many but strong and fierce and good hunters and they received great respect. The old male was covered with tattoos and his hair was thin and white but the deep brown eyes were sharp and piercing and he raised a hand. The others did fall silent immediately. “We have heard your voice Bothal,. And you have spoken well. Your tale has been tested among us”
Bothal was looking down at the ground, his heart was beating fast and his jaw were clenched. He had been so sure of himself, the spirit had spoken to him often, told of great things, of great power. If they did what the voice said there would be things of metal for them, and much game and riches. They would never have to starve again.
Old Ch’ka shook his head. “You speak of a spirit, of a voice asking us to do things which we never before have considered. A spirit which bids us to leave the lands of our fathers and kill those who are different.”
Bothal did nod. “Yes old one, we will be richly rewarded”
The old male did stare at the younger one with narrow eyes. “And your men, have the spirit spoken to them? Have they seen signs?”
He swallowed hard, shook his head. “No Ch’ka, it is only I”
The old leader turned around and his face was stern, almost angry. “Our people belong here, the mountains are our land and in our blood. The spirits we know, all of them. This spirit of yours is false, an evil force”
Bothal did hiss. “Nay, it is salvation, it is help”
Ch’ka frowned. “So you say but our hunters have seen terrible beasts, moving to the sun lands, and the land is trembling. You have been fooled young one, there is no such force, no such spirit. Beware of the voices in the night for they speak naught but evil. If we do as it bids our people will die”
Bothal growled. “You are fools”
Ch’ka crossed his arms over his chest. “We have spoken, you have heard. No such thing will happen, go back to your tribe, tell them to stop listening to these lies. You will be exiled should you come here again”
Bothal spat on the floor. “You are a fool old man, the voice is stronger than all of us”
The old leader caught his eyes with his own gaze. “We are sons of the mountains, our ways are set, there will be no change”
Bothal did run out of the hut and kicked aside one of the dogs, rage was visible within his face. He hadn’t expected to be treated thus, like a mere cub. No, they would pay for this, the voice would make sure that he would be chief of all the clans. Ch’ka did leave the hut, the younger male could be seen walking up the path away from the village and he mumbled to himself. Bothal was young and fiery and stupid like a muskox in heat. Nothing good would come from listening to him, he was strong in body but not in mind and Ch’ka would talk to the shaman, if there were evil spirits in the mountains they would sacrifice blood and meat to the gods and beg for their protection.
The village did become quiet as the day turned to night, their people had very good night vision and an excellent sense of smell and the huts had very little lighting. They used some hollowed out stones in which they poured fat but otherwise from that the hearths were dead at night. Burning a fire at night was a bad omen and not something they would do. The smallest hut was in the end of the village, it was solid and well made but not very remarkable. It was the womens hut and this very evening one of the females was busy. She was gathering hides and her short flint spear and also some small bags with herbs. It was dark soon and she had to be gone before the sun was completely gone.
She didn’t speak to the others there, they ignored her as they ought to and she made a grimace and crawled out of the hut on her knees. Unta was in her twenty fourth summer and she had yet to carry a cub, the others there saw her as cursed. Most had several by the age of ten and seven and she had never born a new life at all. But the moon did make her bleed each month and this time it had come earlier than normal, her spirit was too strong they said, it fought the spirits of unborn children and forced them to leave her womb. She couldn’t stay there as she bled, it was a bad omen and she had to go to the hidden hut where the women lived when the moon days were upon them. She sighed and found her way through the rocks and bushes, she was light of foot and rather lithe in build, her heavy forehead furrowed with worry and her dark eyes filled with sorrow. She had mated with many males and yet nothing did ever happen, she was too fierce they said, or too weak. One of the other, she wasn’t sure. She did see in the darkness and found the hidden path. The men didn’t know where the hut was, it was forbidden to them to even speak to a woman during her moon days for everybody knew that the woman’s spirit was so strong during these days that it could devour that of a man and make him no man anymore.
Unta grunted, she had last lain with Kruad, he was a strong warrior and hunter and handsome, he had sired many cubs and he had been good, very good. Unta did grin thinking of it, a male who pleased the females was blessed by the gods, and would leave many offspring. But Unta didn’t bear cubs and nobody respected her, even if she was a good tanner and good with the spear.
The hut was simply a small room underneath a heap of peat, invisible unless you knew of it and it was only the grown females who knew of its existence. No male was allowed near it, and if a man did happen to enter it the spirits would make his manhood rot and fall off. Unta knew of several males who deserved that fate.
She rolled out her pelts and put on the belt holding her rags in place, they made some soft rags from the bog cotton which grew on the large marshes, they were to be buried after the moondays were over and no man could even see them. Unta was in pain, her cramps had gotten worse over the last years and she knew that she soon would bleed no more, she was an elderly woman and as a childless one she would receive little respect. Her fate was to grow weak and frail while being ridiculed by everybody. It was a harsh fate and she had grown bitter and angry as a result of this, it was her only defense.
The darkness was complete and she did fall asleep, at least she was better at making soft pelts than anybody else there. She slept soundly but suddenly she woke up, a sound had disturbed her rest, a horrible sound which made her curl up in fear. It was screams, bellows and roars and she trembled and grasped her amulet with a trembling hand. What was this? She was trembling but pressed her face against the cracks in the door, it was made from hides and covered with grass, the cracks were few and narrow but she saw. She saw fire raging towards the skies and dark figures running around, horrible screeches were heard and her heart did almost stop. Her people was being murdered! And the murderes were others like them? She bit into her thumb to stop herself from screaming, if anybody saw her she would die too. The huts were burning, oh the spirits would be furious, you never used fire at night, it would scare the ancestors away and leave you unprotected. There were evil forces out there, drawn to blood and death. She curled up in her furs, not daring to move, clutching her tiny amulet so hard her fingers were almost on the verge of breaking, she had no concept of what she had just seen. The screams did stop, now she only heard distant voices, triumphant. She heard the huts collapsing and her eyes were surprisingly dry, she found that she was unable to cry.
Unta did lay there shaking with fear for several hours and she didn’t dare to peek out again until daylight did pierce the door.
Unta didn’t know what to do, she was alone and confused and frightened but she had to see if there were others down there, alive. She had survived fights before, males would often fight over women or a kill or between the clans but they did never kill females and cubs. It wasn’t right, it would make the ancestors mad at you. She gathered her courage and left the hut, instinct did fight her upbringing, she wasn’t really to leave the hut until she had stopped bleeding but this was not a normal situation. She grasped her pack of food and water and gathered her courage. She did sneak her way back to the village, there was just ashes left of the huts, and dead bodies, some burned and others just slain. She saw their chief with his chest pierced by a spear and she recognized the patterns on it, it was made by somebody of Bothal’s clan.
Everybody were dead, even the dogs were slain and the women had been caught within the hut and had burned alive. Unta did wail, a thin piercing sound which shocked her for she hadn’t known that her throat could make such noise. She felt the taste of ashes in her mouth and she fell to her knees, what now? She had nowhere to go, her clan was gone! She could just as well let the lake drown her for she was not going to make it on her own. She wept until the ground around her was wet and she was trembling. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of her people. She managed to get up onto her feet, she had to leave before the killers returned. But where was she to go? What reason did she have to live?
She jerked when she heard a sound, it came from the large hut and she was convinced that it was an evil spirit, out to eat her soul. But the sound came again, a sort of strangled cry and she walked over, very slowly and with a cooking rock in her hand. Behind the ruins there was a small pit used to prepare hides and something moved underneath the scorched hides it did contain.
Unta did swallow hard, poked at it with a stick and a grunt could be heard. It was no spirit, it was somebody under there and she grasped the hides and pulled them aside. It was old Ch’ka and he was horribly burned. The skin of his face almost gone and both eyes were ruined, the teeth naked since the lips were burned away and yet the old male was alive. Unta did whimper, the sight made her want to retch but her stomach was empty. The old male did gasp. “Who?”
The voice was garbled, the mouth and throat damaged and yet he managed to speak. “Unta”
The old leader moaned. “Good, you are a strong woman”
He did heave for air. “Go south, warn eternal. Evil is waiting, the goddess daughter must use the…path of the leopard”
Unta felt her heart racing. “I…I am but one…no warrior I…”
The old male did gasp and exhaled and went limp and Unta did realize that he had kept himself alive just so he could say this. Unta fell to her knees, hiding her face within her hands. She tried to make sense of it all but it was impossible. In the end she realized that he was right, she had to go south and she got up and started to salvage anything she found which could be useful. Ch’ka had a metal knife and she took it, trembling. Normally a woman wasn’t allowed to touch metal at all, it was said to scare away the spirits of her unborn children. But Unta was barren and so it didn’t matter now did it. She did find the pits where they stored food, flat cakes made from ground up dried meat mixed with fat and berries. She did fill a sack and she found some clothes which had been hung out to dry. Her mind was numb but as long as she did act she didn’t have to think about anything.
An hour later she was on her way out of the valley, following paths only her tribe knew of and she didn’t look back even once, the valley was cursed now. Innocent blood had been shed there and she didn’t want to attract angry ghosts. Unta was used to hunting, to following the males so she was light on her feet and fast and she knew the hunting area of the tribe as the back of her own hand. But south? She had to go east to get south due to the mountains and she knew of what Ch’ka had spoken earlier that day, the valleys to the east had become filled with darkness. She was terrified but she knew she had to do what Ch’ka had asked of her.
She did caress her amulet, the tiny goddess figurine was old and followed through her bloodline for a long time, passed from mother to daughter. The wide hips and enormous breasts a symbol of the power of women, if the goddess indeed had a daughter it was Unta’s duty to help, it was a sacred calling. She grasped a stick and picked up her pace. She had no idea of how far it was, of the dangers she may encounter but she was determined. She was dead to her people now, her clan destroyed and her blood would die with her. She didn’t have anything to lose, no, nothing at all.