Pjodarr knelt in the snow by the dead havtrol, its bones picked clean of meat. “They are definitely hungry. They killed their own and ate him.” He poked at the corpse. “I wonder if he was already wounded. There had to be some reason they picked him as the weakest.”
“Does it matter?” Gruesome grumbled, shielding his eyes from a beam of the midday sun that poked through the canopy of leaves above them. “One less to kill.”
The shaman sighed and rose to his feet. “It might not matter. They’ve picked up more.” He walked around the corpse and studied the ground.
“Four, maybe five.”
Gruesome roared at the sky. “This is what happens when you do not hunt them, shaman! Instead of three, we now must face eight! Are those odds more to your liking?”
Pjodarr spun to face him, sunlight glinting off his mask. “What are you accusing me of, mighty Gruesome?”
The warrior fixed the old man with a stare. “We will do what must be done.”
“I have never done less.” The shaman returned his attention to the area around the dead havtrol. Gruesome never knew if he used his magic or just his eyes, but Pjodarr had amazing tracking skills. “Yes, they exhausted all their food supplies in the mountains. That’s why they are here in the middle of winter. There wasn’t much fighting amongst them.”
“That means one of them is very strong. Very strong indeed to keep so many in line. Honorless do not get along so easily.”
The old man nodded and moved towards an ancient oak. “They head west.” He paused, face to the sky. Then spun around, eyes wide. “Toward Willowbrook!”
They ran back to the var. Pjodarr leapt upon a small male with the grace of a much younger man, while Gruesome wrestled his bulk atop the unappreciative female. On another male sat Blade in full armor, with only the right side of his face visible above his beard. Whatever injury befell the glorious dwarf when the Great City fell; his shaman went to great lengths to conceal it. The general’s shiny helm was made to completely hide the left side of his head down to his cheek. Dragon wings flared from either side, matching the ornate carvings on his armor and the golden crest on the large shield now strapped to his back. A dragon wrapped around a white tower, the dragon the symbol of House Thurin, the tower for Blade’s family. As general of the First Army, the dwarf had the crucial duty of protecting Northwatch and the rich mines north of it, the source of the dwarf kingdom’s power. Or it had been, before the Great Mountain burned and took all of that away. Blade was now the only member of House Thurin, all other survivors of the cataclysm having joined other Houses. Upon his shield and the shaman’s arm were the last symbols of the noble family, whom most say were brought down by the gods themselves. The old dwarf’s gray beard was split down his chest in two braids, and his hair hung wild from beneath his helm. The bone handle of glorious Tremble, the wide-bladed sjalsword of House Thurin, peered over Blade’s right shoulder, a final reminder of his greatness.
Together with a fourth var carrying their sundry equipment, the trio raced west toward Willowbrook. It was a small village nestled within the Brinnoch Forest, just a day’s ride from its western edge. It was a favorite of the shaman’s and they visited at least once every new moon. Gruesome judged that it would be a few hours before they reached the village and doubted the sunlight would hold. Pjodarr wove them through the thick trees of Brinnoch with ease, the other var simply following him with no guidance needed from their riders. It was one of many traits of the var that Bergsbor found appealing over the horses preferred by Calderans and Anduains. Var ran as a pack. With the shaman as their pack leader, the rest would follow with no need for steering. Even the var carrying goods did not need to be tied to another. The massive hounds were also fierce in battle, usually from being starved for a day or two beforehand. After a victory, they were allowed to eat their fill from the battlefield. Var fared much better in the snowy mountains of Bergmark, and were much lower to the ground than horses. The latter was probably most important to dwarves. Still, var as big as the female could easily carry a havtrol into battle, though most of Gruesome’s people chose to run on their own legs toward their enemies. Var just got in their way.
As they approached the village, their mounts became uneasy. Pjodarr’s male whined, and the havtrol could feel the female growling under him. “There, there, Furgi. What’s the matter, boy?” The shaman patted and scratched his ride’s thick neck. He looked back toward Gruesome and his master. “Something is wrong. Let’s leave them here for now. Help me get their kit off.” With practiced ease, the two removed the gear from all four var. Pjodarr held his hand on each of the furred heads and whispered soothing words into their ears, then nodded at the big warrior. “Do not worry, they will come when called.”
The slave led them through the dimly lit forest, the trees blocking most of the orange light of dusk. He dropped to a knee suddenly. “Look here,” he whispered. “The Honorless were here. All of them, close to this spot.” He stood and fixed his gaze toward the village. It was close, though Gruesome could see no fires through the trees. He knew what lay beyond. A village of only two or three hundred, hunters and gatherers, against eight or nine hungry havtrols? Only the slaughtered remains of men, women and children would they see. Maybe one or two of the havtrols, if the men of Willowbrook were tenacious enough. Gruesome did not remember any being such.
“But,” the shaman said, drawing the word out. “They went no further. They turned north.” He pointed west. “The village is right there, just a few steps away. And they did not go. They would have smelled the flesh of man, of goat and pig. But they did not go.”
Gruesome squinted through the darkness, but Pjodarr’s eyes were much keener than his own. He sniffed the air. There was emptiness to it. The shaman was right; the stench of man saturated the air where humans lived. Even in a village this small, the mix of leather, flesh, oils, steel and sweat should fill his nose. Some of that was in the air, but not the flesh and sweat. Not the smell of life.
“There are no people there, shaman. I do not even smell blood.”
“You mean they are all gone?”
The havtrol shrugged his wide shoulders.
“Could they have known about the Honorless, Gruesome? Could they have fled to safety?” The old man was genuinely concerned about these simple people. “There are no fires, no smell of ash. The havtrols would have gone in there like rampaging beasts and set the whole place ablaze, wouldn’t they?”
The big warrior had no answers for him. Pjodarr walked toward the village and Gruesome followed. He heard the crunch of Blade’s steel-covered steps behind him. “It is so still and cold.” The shaman’s clear voice floated back to them.
When they stepped past the first hut, they saw Willowbrook as it was created by its founders. The natives of Sudmark, or Grunland as the humans called it, were simple folk, their homes little more than shelter from the elements. In the plains, they would actually dig a hole in the ground and build stone or wood walls around it to hold a roof, with fur curtains to hide the dwellers. They only slept there, their lives spent outside mostly. Here, in the forest, they built lean-tos against the wide trunks of the great oaks, but still arranged them in the circular pattern of their people. In the center would be a large hall, where the village would congregate and share meals. The havtrol understood their desire for community, his own people being similar. But this land was a stark contrast to the massive stone cities built by the dwarves, each building a testament to its architect’s glory. Already, the dwarves had transformed the northern ranges of the Deerleg Mountains to resemble their once great empire.
But Willowbrook seemed completely deserted. Nothing moved. No cat prowled the night, no fire peeked from the cracks of the little huts. Not a single snore, grunt of human mating or whisper of voice, all the sounds Gruesome associated with a human village at night. The air was still as death. Only a faint musty smell caught his nose.
Pjodarr pulled back the curtain of animal furs and stepped into the hut. He poked his head out and waved Gruesome in. The big havtrol had to squat to get through the low opening. An old woman lay peacefully on a bed of blankets.
“Does she sleep?”
The shaman shook his head and knelt by the still form. He touched his fingers to her breast and pulled them away, rubbing them together. “Blood. She was stabbed through while she slept.”
“I do not smell it. She must have died some time ago.”
Pjodarr shrugged. “I cannot tell. But if she died some days ago, why has no animal claimed her? No sign of worm or maggot?”
“Was she a witch? Killed by the villagers and left here? No beast of Fjur would dare eat the corrupted corpse of a witch.”
The old man shook his head. “She just looks like an old woman. Dark magic deforms the body and soul, true. But they leave their marks long before death. No, she was killed while she slept; her fire stepped out with care.”
Gruesome looked at the small circle of stones in the middle of the hut. True to the shaman’s words, the fire was deliberately stamped out.
Blade grunted in anger behind them. The dwarf never made a sound, unless while fighting. The slave jumped to his feet and bolted past the havtrol. The big warrior followed, to a most disturbing sight.
Blue lightning crackled from Blade’s sword as the old Warshield called upon the power of Bodr, the glorious war god. It arced around him, charring half a dozen tiny white bodies. They looked like hairless rats, eyes pale as if blind. They swarmed from some of the other huts toward the dwarf.
“Master!” Pjodarr called and thrust his arms forward. Wind rushed past him, hurling some of the creatures through the air. They simply righted themselves and charged toward Blade again. The dwarf hacked at them with his sword. Gruesome roared and leapt onto a mass of the hideous beasts. He stamped them underfoot and smashed their little bodies with his hands. But the rest of the vermin simply ignored him and continued toward the general. Sharp roots poked from the dirt at the shaman’s beckoning, stabbing a few of the albino rats, but many just squeezed past them. None of the things made a sound, even as they died. They continued their onslaught of the dwarf, climbing up his armored legs. A dozen of the creatures crawled around on him. Flailing shield and sword wildly, Blade fell on his back and a dozen more covered him.
Pjodarr rushed to his master, but fell back with a cry as the Warshield unleashed a spray of lightning from his entire body. The slave held his right hand painfully and looked at Gruesome. “Help him!” The havtrol scrambled to the dwarf’s side, clawing little bodies off him. Lightning flashed again, but Gruesome snarled back the pain. As many as the dwarf killed, double that number took their place. His arms swung in a panic. The edge of the great sword sliced easily into the havtrol’s unprotected left hand. Gruesome rolled backwards and watched in horror as Blade became a mass of writhing, pale flesh. The things completely covered the dwarf.
“Master!” Pjodarr shouted to the night. “Master!”
Soft, blue light cascaded over them, coming from the village’s center. There, just a few yards away stood two figures, one tall and lean, draped in chain armor from head to toe, a large sword held in both hands in a warrior’s stance. The other was only a few inches shorter and leaner still. The clothes weren’t visible under a dark cloak, but the face was that of a young man. His eyes squinted in concentration as his mouth moved in a rush of whispered words. In his right hand, he held a staff of black wood. The blue light emanated from something set atop it.
As one, the white rats stopped moving. Blade lay motionless beneath their still bodies. Then their noses all twitched in the air, and every one of the vermin moved slowly toward the young man, until they completely encircled him and his friend. Gruesome moved his hand to the hammer on his right hip. He looked to Pjodarr. The shaman was crouched just a step away, singed hands trembling. The sorcerer waved his left hand over the ugly creatures, and then whipped the staff over his head in a flash. Gruesome started as all of the tiny, white forms exploded in a small shower of dark blood. Not a one of them even twitched afterwards.
The young man looked down at his clothes, as if to make sure none of the blood spattered his own dress, before walking toward the three of them. The light from his staff dimmed and vanished. His armored companion followed diligently, weapon at the ready.
“Hello,” the young man said softly in norovid, the language of humans from Bergmark. His accent was sharp, unlike any Gruesome had heard from Calderan or Anduain. He held his left palm out, and Gruesome could now see that his hair was short and blond. The thing on his staff was some sort of cloudy-blue quartz, carved in the shape of a skull. The wizard nodded to each of them and fixed them with a wide smile. “I am Tarac. It is a pleasure to meet you.”