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The two dwarves stood above the village below them, asleep in the wee midnight hours. One, the older of the two, had unkempt grey-and-black hair and beard, with many scars across his face. He wore a deep red jerkin with rich gold work on the boiled leather armor on the exterior. These dragon patterns clearly marked him as the clan leader, as though his massive size and clear air of authority did not already. He wore a cape of dark yellow fabric, heavy material designed to keep out the cold of the north wind, and in his hand was the massive axe-hammer weapon, called a miner’s axe, that doubled as a walking stick. The second was slightly shorter, and yet nearly as big as the older dwarf, with flame-red hair tied back in a tight braid behind his head, with a smaller one behind his left ear. This one’s beard was surprisingly minimalistic for a dwarf, with no braiding or plaiting or forks at all. He wore a cloak of thick, dark brown fur and his armor, metal instead of hardened leather, was fur-lined as well. There was no weapon in his hands, only a torch, but a single-edged sword and a throwing axe were tucked in his belt. Though not visible, he also had two knives in his boots, in addition to several hidden in other places. There was a pack, too, full of enough provisions to last many weeks. The red-haired one gazed at the village for a while before he turned away.
“We put this off for too long, Father,” he said, his voice low and harsh. He put his hand on a gnarled tree to steady himself, feeling the sting of the freezing arctic wind on his face. “I cannot be here come daybreak. I guess this is goodbye.”
The other dwarf turned to face his son. “You have the book, yes?”
“I figured that it would be best if you did not have it, so yes. I put it in my pack.” He took a step up the mountainside, but his father’s voice stopped him.
“You know what we have to say. That you are dead, gone for good. You are aware, are you not, Carsten?”
The red-haired dwarf tilted his head just enough that his father could see his cold smile in the torchlight. “I know. And in a way, you are telling the truth. Part of me died. The child, I suppose. As a youth, I would not last two days. Without him, I am so…unmoored, I suppose. I have no idea know what to do or where to go. I am lost in my own home.”
“But you have an idea, do you not?” The older dwarf pressed. “You cannot surely be foolish enough not to have thought about this?”
Carsten shook his head. “No, I gave this journey a good deal of thought, but I do not know if this will work. I have considered being a travelling tinker, but I do not wish people to be watching their silver while I work. I thought about a blacksmith, but I have never had a good hand for that. So…” He patted the sword at his side. “…I decided to be a hunter instead. I know how to track, to outmaneuver, to kill, to skin, and otherwise to take animals. It might not be clean or respectable, necessarily, but I think it is the best I have. And besides, we’re all just savages anyway.” The older dwarf nodded.
“And will they not find you?” He asked. Carsten turned fully now, facing his father.
“If I leave my past far enough behind, they will not. That is why I’m going north, to the Waste-Border.” The old chieftain inhaled sharply.
“The Border? Is that wise, son? You know what they say…” He queried.
“It is as wise as we can get here. None of them will cross the border, since they think it unclean,” Carsten replied. “It is my best chance. Goodbye, Father.” And he turned away, trudging uphill in the snow. A storm seemed to materialize out of nowhere now, kicking up blasts of icy crystals into Carsten’s face, but he barely noticed them for the sting of the tears on his cheeks.
Carsten trudged for hours, using the climb as an excuse to think. His mind was back home already, but he shut them out as a defender might shut out besiegers. He was on his own now. Sigurd, his father, Helena, his mother, Liyani, his sister, Vieg, his best friend, and all of the people that he would almost certainly never see again. Raising the torch and pushing the thoughts away, Carsten moved further up the pass, his heavy boots crunching the snow underfoot. He slid the hood of his cloak over his head in order to keep the biting wind out of his face, even though it was coming from almost directly ahead.
Navigating the forest proved easy to the extreme; even without daylight, the dwarf knew these woods like the back of his oversized hand, having traversed their dark expanse hundreds of times. The torchlight played across the trees in a frenetic dance of shadows, making the environment seem active, alive even. Carsten suppressed an involuntary shiver; it looked to be a long night. But dwarves were famously resilient and ascetic; in fact, their own name for themselves, Ethilganir, translates roughly to “Children of Stone”. Carsten had scaled about half of the mountain that overshadowed Sveldyhem, his home village, but he doubted if he could go over the other side. The passes of the Outlands often closed at this time of year, and not always naturally. The land was full of dangerous creatures, some of whom moved in with the freezing weather. It was whispered among the seasoned hunters of the passes that there were new creatures abroad, ones that descended on climbers in packs, tearing them to bloody, quivering shreds. What they were was unknown, but their name was whispered in fear by all that had seen their handiwork: Ikjaraci. Specters of Ice. And in addition to this rumored threat, there were still wolves, hungry snow trolls, dragons, faelynx, and of course marauders to be wary of. Carsten stumbled over a stone that was hidden beneath the snow and, grumbling to himself, regained his footing. The torch was dying as the wind kicked up, sending a blast of snow into Carsten’s face. Suddenly, another gust blew the still-sputtering flame out. Sighing, Carsten drew another brand out of his pack and tried to light it. After two tries, he knew that it was pointless; the snow had wetted the wood, making the torch impossible to light. He got up and continued on his trek, his eyes adjusting to the darkness and blinding white wall in front of him. The snow had gotten into his boots, but his thick wool socks kept most of it off his feet. Carsten was close to the top of the mountain, and he moved quicker now, anticipating the end of his trek. The trees were thinning up here, and he could see the craggy outline of Watchtower Point, where his ancestors’ fortress of stone had once stood, long before the coming of the orcs down from the Everwinter Waste to the North. Once these monsters had come to trouble them, the dwarves had left their fortresses above the ground for ones found beneath the earth to protect themselves. And, when the orcs had been driven back across the border of the Waste, the dwarves had returned to their aboveground abodes. Now he was inside Watchtower Point, and he was momentarily sheltered from the wind and snow by the forbidding spires of ruined stone around him. He went to a lancet window carved out of the stone and looked out, hoping in vain to see the pass beneath him. The storm was too intense; even from this high up, he could barely see more than twenty meters down the mountain. He groaned in disappointment. That meant more climbing and sliding and slipping and falling. Oh well, he thought. No one said the trek would be easy.
It turned out that going down the mountain was similar to sledding. The woods were much sparser here, the mountainside icier, and the climb steeply downhill. Or, more accurately, slid while trying to regain his feet. Finally, after nearly slamming into three or more trees, Carsten managed to stand on an as-yet-unfrozen rock and found, now that the world had stopped moving, he could see the pass beneath him. Actually, he could see the snow, ice, and stone that had sealed off the pass. That meant Carsten would have to go around, which could take all night. In addition, the few caves that were between this pass and the one Carsten had to take had occupants, and that meant sleeping in the open, which Carsten would not do. He had seen what happened to those inexperienced or foolhardy enough to do so, or what was left of them. He turned, now hugging the path that led to the next pass over. This trip would be treacherous, as now he would have to cross through a forest of pines to get there, and it was well-known that the woods were home to packs of white-furred wolves. Still, he had no choice, for to avoid the woods would be to take twice the time the journey through them would take, and he knew what would happen if he was still on this side of the mountains come two days. A high-pitched keening interrupted his thoughts, and Carsten looked around. It sounded like the wind, except for one problem: the blizzard had lessened, so it made no sense that the wind would be howling louder now.
Then he heard what sounded like a wind gust on his left, and he saw a puff of snow kicked up by what seemed to be a capricious blast of wind. But he had hunted enough to know better; what he had seen was a downdraft caused by the beat of something’s wings. He kept trudging, but his eyes scanned the snow for any motion. Then the keening sounded again, softer and farther away, and he heard something whoosh behind him. He knew that he was being followed, so he realized that now he had no choice. Carsten spun, his sword leaving its sheath with a loud shiiiing. His hunter’s eyes scanned the snow for any sign of his pursuers, but he could see nothing. The high-pitched call came again, this time from farther up the mountain. There was no question now; he was being hunted by something, and something very, very fast. The dwarf’s eyes narrowed. He was not about to stay here, out in the open, where he could easily be attacked from any direction. Carsten’s eyes scanned the terrain, looking for some cover, any cover. But the only cover he could see was fifty-two meters away, and that was the forest. He could not have made it, even if he ran as hard as he could. The sound came again, but now it seemed to be all around him. Then, he heard something barreling at him from behind, and he whipped around, the point of his sword leading the way in a powerful thrust. It struck something hard, entered with a sickening sliiching sound, and he heard a scream of agony that was not human even by the longest stretch of imagination. Something hit him hard, sending both dwarf and creature tumbling down the mountainside and wrenching Carsten’s sword from his grip. More than once, Carsten felt a hidden stone jab him someplace he would have liked to remain uninjured or had not known he had. Strangely, the creature was not attacking him as they fell. However, when they stopped, he saw why. The creature was a small, dragon-like serpent, about ten feet long and five high, with wings that folded onto its back and long, sharp claws on its front limbs. Its tail ended in a vicious barbed stinger that seemed to contain a venom of some kind, and so he cut it off for further study. It appeared as though the beast was capable of standing on its hind legs, although since it was dead, Carsten could not tell. He had killed the beast with a solid thrust through the midsection, piercing its heart and several other vital organs. The injury slew the beast so quickly that the wound had bled little. The dwarf set his foot against the creature’s side and pulled his sword out of the wound. It relinquished the blade reluctantly, as though the corpse wished to hold the instrument of its demise. Carsten wiped the blade clean on the snow, and had just sheathed it when the keening started again.
This time, they did not bother with stealth. Instead, he could clearly see four miniature wakes of ice surging toward him. Carsten unlimbered his throwing axe and eyed the nearest creature as it approached. When it was thirty paces away, he whipped the axe as hard as he could at the beast. It spun end over end with a queer whistling sound before impacting the beast with brutal force between the eyes. It stopped in its tracks, shuddered, pitched to one side, and went limp. But Carsten had no time to remove the axe; the others were there in moments. His sword had barely cleared its sheath when the second beast attacked, knocking him off of his feet. The claws raked across his mail shirt, shrieking and sending up sparks. Before a second blow could be struck, Carsten drew a long, sharp hunting knife and, ramming it into the dragon’s side, slashed from left to right. The beast screamed in pain and toppled off of him. A third came at him, trying to pin him again, but Carsten rolled to the side and grabbed the hilt of his fallen sword. The beast turned, and the dwarf delivered two quick slashes across the beast’s neck, cleaving head from body. The fourth beast came at him in a rush, knocking him flat with its left wing. It pinned him with the claws of its foot and raised its other limb above its head for a killing blow. But it, too, relinquished its crushing grip with a howl of pain. Carsten had drawn his second hunting knife, a small dagger, and stabbed it between its first and second toes. The beast fell back, writhing, and Carsten grabbed its neck, pinned its head, and thrust a third knife under its chin. Its cries were cut off, and the dwarf stood slowly, surveying the scene.
There was surprisingly little blood, given that he had just killed four seven-hundred-pound dragons with two knives, an axe, and a sword. He pulled his axe out of the one dragon’s head, grimacing at the mess the dragon’s gore had made of it. Sighing, he sat down and set about the painstaking task of cleaning it. The sword was not exceptionally messy, but two of his knives were in a similar way to the axe. They were splattered in all sorts of nasty dragon bits, which Carsten’s gloved hands had a difficult time getting off of them. Before he sheathed them, though, Carsten cut one of the beasts’ teeth out, adding it to a necklace of teeth and claws he wore about his neck and outside his jerkin as mementoes of his toughest kills. Still, it had gone surprisingly well, all things considered. Carsten returned the weapons to their sheathes, and then turned away from the miniature battlefield, leaving the bodies behind. Let those trained-dragons idiots stuff that in their collective pipe and smoke it, he thought angrily. Some of the Outlanders, as incredible and stupid as it might seem, were actually under the impression that one could train dragons. Carsten himself had stopped believing in such fairy tales a long time ago, seeing as all of those creatures he had encountered had unceremoniously tried to eat him or rip off his head. They would be gone by morning, he mused, looking back at their still bodies; nothing dead ever lasted long in the Outlands. Then he turned and kept walking.
He made the forest by approximately two in the morning. The storm had not yet ceased completely, and Carsten deemed it foolish to climb up into the trees, as he might fall out during the night. So, with no other option and little joy over the course of action he had been forced to take, the hooded dwarf plodded on. Surprisingly, no wolves attacked him, and he did not hear so much as a howl. Perhaps tonight would be peaceful after all. The trees crowded densely around him like unmoving and yet simultaneously forbidding sentries. He pulled his hood tighter around his head, his eyes scanning the woods for any movement.
Not much happened between the time where Carsten entered the forest and when dawn broke across the eastern sky. For the dwarf, it was possibly the gladdest time in his life; the sun meant the night’s killers would hide for the day, only to return when darkness fell. He had walked all night without rest, and now he would have to keep travelling at a good pace if he was to reach another village before nightfall. Still, with the sun out, the Outlands were not so terrible, and Carsten was almost beginning to enjoy himself, nearly lost in the scenery. The snow lay over everything in a white blanket of tranquility, undisturbed save for his own footfalls. What bitter irony that war might come any day now, Carsten thought morosely. Most people he would meet on this journey would not know who he was, and that was probably for the best. As the son of a clan leader, and the eldest at that, one might think him due a little respect. Plus, his mother was a wood sprite, possibly explaining his affinity for woodcraft, as opposed to most dwarves’ taste for blacksmithing and metallurgy. But a life of respect and tranquility had not been his family’s lot for nearly six hundred years, ever since the Sundering Wars. In those infamous conflicts, Carsten’s clan, the Brownbeards, and another family, the Shatterhands, had disowned their clans and taken the side of the Outcast Races led by the dwarves and dark elves (but including gremlins, goblins, Serpent-men, minotaurs, and others) against the Free Races led by their Council (light elves, most other dwarves, men, and several Faerie families). However, the renegade clans lost the War, and paid a terrible price for their rebellion. The Free Races gave to each of their clans a type of weapon called Masterwork, a weapon that, among other things, was virtually unbreakable and extremely sharp. The renegades had been stripped of these weapons (and their right to places in the Assembly) and been exiled to the Outlands. However, one of the races had taken the exile further. An elite division of the human forces, called the Huntresses, swore a blood oath that they would kill every male heir in Brownbeard clan, the elder and leading family, before they reached the age of thirty-five. Dwarves who reached this age were named (as dwarves were not born with their final surname) and the rights of an adult member of the clan. That particular oath proved difficult to fulfill, as once a dwarf reached thirty-five, the entire clan was sworn to defend him or her to the death. Carsten, as his father and grandfather had, would have to serve an exile until they passed their thirty-sixth year. He pushed these thoughts aside as he noticed the tree line thinning. Now he was out of the woods, he thought, with a berating half-smile at the awful pun he had just made. Adjusting his pack, and setting his eyes on the next peak rising above him, Carsten began his ascent.
The storm seemed to have subsided for the day, and Carsten was climbing like there was no tomorrow. But there were many tomorrows left for him, and he would probably spend them hiking up mountains as well. These particular peaks were famous for sending inexperienced climbers either home in defeat or to a frigid grave. Carsten, however, had climbed mountains since he could walk, and he was almost enjoying this. The scenery in the Outlands was phenomenal, if one could stop trying to survive long enough to take it all in. The sun shone on the whole of the land, with no cloud to cover anyone from its rays. Not that Carsten was unduly worried about sunburn or heat; after all, one could stand outside in naught but one’s undergarments in the Outlands on a sunny winter day and have nothing to fear but the odd stares your neighbors would give. The sunlight was by no means harsh, although it brought with it the benefit that it kept the wolves and the ikjaraci at bay. However, it meant that other travelers would see him moving, and that could mean trouble if they were of a mind to interfere. But these thoughts were only momentary concerns as he made up the last mile and a half to the pass, seeing as he was the only living thing moving for miles. In addition, he had not gotten this far by worrying about such things.
Temgard Pass had not closed, as Carsten had hoped it would not. In fact, the snow had barely covered the paved road that stretched through the pass. He found that now he was on a paved road, he was more at ease. Cutting across the mountains had proved intelligent, as now he was seventeen miles from his village. However, he knew he needed rest soon, and he knew that the nearest village was two more away. As far as the eye could see, no man nor beast moved save himself. Carsten shrugged, adjusted his pack and the axe on his back, and set off down the road.
It turned out that the village was twenty miles away, and it was much larger than Carsten’s home. It took him a full five days to reach it, and he was low on supplies and patience by then. Five days out in the cold of this wilderness could easily mean death to the inexperienced. The environment of the Outlands was harsh and unforgiving, and many of its inhabitants reflected this paradigm. Still, the village seemed warm and welcoming, and Carsten would take full advantage of their hospitality. In fact, it was almost a small city, with nearly six thousand inhabitants. The red-haired dwarf raised his hood before he entered the town, his ice-blue eyes scanning the street. He did not know who might be watching, but everyone in the Outlands knew to keep a close eye on suspicious characters. There was no telling who might pay for such information later. According to the signs on the sides of the road, the city’s inns set up shop in the western corner of town, something complicated by the fact that Carsten had entered from the southeastern side. In that part of the city, the market sprawled, with bawling shopkeepers hawking their wares to bystanders. Many of these people were not there to buy the things that they would come home with that day. Most of them never even looked at Carsten as he moved through the marketplace, and those that did almost immediately looked away. Not that his surprised the dwarf; after all, his armor was battered and pitted from hard battle, and his jerkin was splattered with ikjaraci blood, although it looked a lot like dirt. In addition, his cloak was weather-beaten, definitely having seen better days. These were not like him; they had forged for themselves a likeness of wealth here, and thus they believed themselves above everyone else. He smirked. Knowing their own elevation, they chose not to associate with everyone else. Many of them lived shallow, isolated lives, longing for something more. How ironic that those who had more than everyone else should be less because of what they believed made them superior. But he was not here to provide social commentary, and he moved on, shutting out the calls of the salesmen around him.
“Jerkins! Fine dwarf-made leather, only seven enuva!”
“Spears, axes, swords! Finest in the Outlands!” Carsten doubted that, as the dwarves’ weapon-craft was only rivaled by their skills in siege engineering. Most people said that no one else could make weapons even close to what his kin could do. From the look of those weapons, they would not take a few good hits from his own single-bladed war sword.
“Provisions! Food that will last you weeks.” Carsten ignored them. He was almost…ah, yes. There they were. He looked up at one of the inns, eyeing it disdainfully. He had seen more structurally sound sand castles. Another was similar; the third smelled like a cross between a deceased and rotting swine and a skunk that had baked in the sun too long. The fourth did not impress him, but it did not put him off either. He flicked off his hood, hesitating momentarily. Then he saw the sign, crude and handwritten in human runes: Rooms for Rent. That made up his mind; he opened the door and stepped inside.
As Carsten’s eyes adjusted to the darkened interior of the inn, he saw that he had been right. The inside might not be swanky in any sense of the word, yet it was clean and serviceable, and that went a long way to softening his feelings toward the innkeeper. Tables and chairs sat in sporadic locations around the room, and its inhabitants reflected the randomness of the inn. The food smelled excellent, although that was just a side benefit to a clean sleeping area. Carsten had eaten near-raw meat before, and while it was disgusting and unpleasant by almost any measure, dying by starvation was worse. He looked forward at the innkeeper, a thin man with short gray hair and brown eyes. A pretty, blond young woman was working behind the counter with a heavyset man wearing an apron. They looked so much alike that he knew instantly that they were siblings. The old man met Carsten’s eye and nodded. The dwarf came over and sat at a wooden chair, though his arms did not reach the counter quite right.
“Hello,” the old man said, looking at Carsten. “What can I do for you?” Carsten smiled. Everything about this inn appealed to him; it was efficient and clean, with only enough to get by but enough to be homelike.
“Sir, I have been travelling for a good while now, and am very tired. I need a room for the next two days. Could you provide that?” The man nodded.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “It’s ten enuva a day. Meals are six.” Carsten rummaged around in his belt and picked out a sack of coins.
“Thirty-six,” the dwarf said. “I want you to have the extra. I shouldn’t need it.” The man nodded.
“Fair enough,” he said. “Hilda will show you up.” The young woman nodded, stepping out from behind the counter. She gestured for Carsten to follow her, and he did without complaint. She fished a ring of keys out of her pocket and unlocked the second door on the left.
“Here,” she said. “It’s not fancy, but you’ll be able to sleep at night.”
Carsten nodded, stepping into the room. “You clean all these?” He asked.
Hilda nodded. “My mother and I do,” she replied. “My brother and father keep the kitchen and bar up and running.”
“And where does your meat come from?” Carsten asked. She shrugged.
“If we can get it, from hunters. It’s usually tough and not worth half what we have to pay, but what can we do?” Carsten processed that information momentarily.
“I am a hunter,” he said. “Is the work good here?” She shook her head.
“You’d best move on. There are too many hunters in these parts. You’d probably be better off if you move north.” Carsten nodded.
“I will wait a few days to decide,” he said. “Thanks.” She closed the door, and Carsten stripped of his pack, cloak, and armor. The jerkin and his boots and socks were next, and that left Carsten in a loose linen undergarment. He flung himself on the bed, pulled the covers over himself, and slept.
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