“By the four Winds that’s a welcome sight!” Callindra said, removing Brightfang’s baldric from her back and beginning to unbuckle her armor.
“Greetins, I’m Tallie an you must be th young warrior lass what’s in need of a good soak an scrub.” The maid said, favoring her with a dimple cheeked smile. “Th wine is cold an th water’s hot. I’ll wash yer back an help with gettin yer hair brushed out. Jest get otta that sweat soaked mess an we’ll get ya sommat clean ta wear in th meantime.”
Callindra was already halfway out of her leathers, the pauldrons had been unbuckled and she was struggling with a strap on the breastplate. “Can you get this strap for me Tallie? I’ve been having trouble with it since taking an injury a few days ago. Shoulder is bedamned stiff.”
“Sure an I’ll take th blade out ta be sharpened an oiled if ya like.” The other woman came close, looking very light and sure on her feet in spite of her plump frame. When Callindra snatched Brightfang’s sheath from the floor and clasped him to her chest, Tallie stepped back, her mouth in a surprised O.
“He stays with me.” She said, more sharply than she intended. Shaking her head, she sighed. “I’m sorry, it’s just… I don’t like being parted from him and I don’t allow anyone else to sharpen or take care of him. That’s an interesting accent, what part of the Realm are you from?”
Accepting the change of subject with aplomb, Tallie smiled. “I’m from th Isles of Ravenshir Lady warrior. Nae part a th Realm such as it is really. For all we pay a bit a tribute ta th King now and again, we’re a fierce independent lot ye ken?”
“That’s off the coast in the Drakenmore Sea right?” Callindra asked, letting Tallie unbuckle her armor and help her out of the sweat stained padding beneath.
“Oh aye, not so far from here by ship, but quite a distance nonetheless. Where’d ya get fresh Brightstar flowers this time a year?” Asked Tallie, tugging at the twining vines of the Tiara Jorda had given her.
“That’s a long story – ow!” Callindra winced, “I should have explained, they don’t come out. They’re… rooted in my scalp it’s –OW! Curse it Tallie they don’t come out! It’s magic.”
“Gods an Demons.” Tallie breathed, her eyes wide. “Now that’s a sight sure an it is. Where’d ya come by a thing like tha?”
“It was a gift.” She said, stripping out of the rest of her clothes. “I don’t really want to talk about it. It doesn’t get in the way of brushing, braiding or whatnot.”
“Not ta worry lass. I’ll shut me gob an get ya clean.” She helped Callindra scrub her body with hot soapy water while sitting on a stool before rinsing off and climbing into the tub with fresh herbs floating in it.
Callindra relaxed into water just barely cool enough to touch with a contented sigh, allowing Tallie to knead scented oils into her hair. “You jest lay back an relax lass.” She said, “Have a drink a chilled wine an I’ll be back with a robe fer ya afore th water gets cool.”
The wine was cold, and the bath was hot. She had just had a wonderful scalp massage and in spite of the slight pinching of Jorda’s gift on her head, Callindra allowed herself to slip into a drowsy state of slumber.
A figure entered into her vision from the left side. A man wearing black leather armor stared down at her. “Is she out?”
“Oh aye. Ain’t gonna be movin fer a few hours.” Tallie said.
“Good. You’ve earned your … pardon. I’ll tell them.” The man said, “You have done as you were told.”
The last thing Callindra could see before her eyelids became lead weights was the concerned face of her maid. The young woman’s voice was tinged with worry, even though it was faint and distorted through her drugged haze. “You ain’t gonna hurt her right? That’s what ya said afore. Just gonna ask her about th man what broke some laws right?”
“Yeah.” The man’s voice dripped false sincerity. “Sure, I ain’t gonna hurt the little bitch. Run along to Vex and give him this.” There was a clink as a bag of coins changed hands.
Trumpets blared and drums rumbled; the gates of Gauntlgrym opened to admit the triumphant return of Storgar and the warriors he’d led to stop the advance of Krrakathanak. Some of the warriors had wanted to remove the beast’s head and their leader hadn’t been able to bring himself to deny them. So many of their comrades had fallen in the fight. Their grisly trophy was carried on a stretcher made of six tower shields lashed together and required eight of the strongest warriors to carry.
From his vantage high on the Shieldwall where he waited with his mother, Durrak could feel the very earth tremble with the roar of approval that went up from the assembled Dwarves. Nearly the entire city had turned out into the square between the outer gate and the Shieldwall. In spite of the noise, he could still hear Brenlena’s voice.
“I knew he would be victorious. I knew it in my bones that he would come back to me.” She sounded fiercely proud, but he could also see tears glistening in her eyes.
Durrak himself had no compunction about expressing his joy and relief at seeing his father return. He shouted as loud as the others assembled and tears streamed down his face into the beginnings of his adult beard. Storgar had been gone for six months and there had been little or no word from his party.
As the war band drew closer, Durrak’s voice faded away. He saw the way his father walked; as carefully as a mountain cat stalking prey. His eyes were searching the crowd, never stopping for more than a moment anywhere and his right hand kept straying to the hilt of the massive blade strapped to his back. Something was wrong with him.
“Mother. Do you see that?” Durrak asked.
“Your father’s triumphant return! This is a day that will be written in the annals of the Caverstorm family.” She said, her voice vibrating with pride. “Nothing can spoil this moment.”
He quieted, deciding to allow her to enjoy the feeling. He didn’t feel her elation or triumph though. All he could feel was dread. The memory of the Moragainnag’s arthritic finger pointing at him made Durrak shiver. Something was happening and this homecoming was central to it. He was central to it.
A blast of foul air raced up the valley, alarm bells tolling in its wake. Vast black wings blotted out the sun and a roar of pure rage and hatred shook the very stones under his feet.
“To the walls! Battle stations! Secure the city!” Brenlena shouted.
Storgar turned towards the vast dragon, massive Greatsword raised in both hands. His battle standard flying above his head, snapping from the end of a war spear. Behind him, the doors of their mountain fortress slammed closed. The sound boomed, a death knell for the brave warriors outside as the dragon landed on the outer wall.
“YOU INSOLENT WORMS WILL PAY FOR YOUR TRANSGRESSION.” The dragon’s terrible voice drove Durrak to his knees, tears of sheer terror rolling down his cheeks and soaking into his beard. “YOU DARE TO BRING MY LIFEMATE’S HEAD BACK LIKE A BATTLE TROPHY AFTER YOU MURDER HIM WHILE HE SLUMBERED.”
Durrak could not stay to listen. The overwhelming force of the monster’s presence drove him deep into the mountain. He ran without thought and when he came to himself it was because of the intense heat of the Adamantine Forge. A thought exploded into the forefront of his mind.
“Maegera!” He shouted, “We need you!”
“IS IT TIME AGAIN?” The Demon of the forge rumbled. “IS IT TIME FOR THE WAR AGAIN?”
“Yes!” Durrak cried, “There’s a dragon outside the gates and it’s going to kill my father and –“
“TINY DISPUTES AND MEANINGLESS FIGHTS MEAN NOTHING LITTLE MAGGOT.” Maegera interrupted him. “YOU WILL KNOW WHEN THE WAR BEGINS, FOR THE WORLD WILL BURN.”
“No, you must help!” Durrak said, fear making his voice shrill.
“I AM NOT YOURS TO COMMAND LITTLE MAGGOT! YOU DO NOT SEND ME TO FIGHT YOUR ENEMIES. FIGHT YOUR OWN BATTLES OR DIE TRYING.” The massive demon tilted its head to one side as though listening, “SOMETHING CALLS…”
A swirl of black butterflies in a profusion of different sizes swirled around Maegera’s horned head, thousands of them dancing on the currents of superheated air that surrounded him. One of them floated down and Durrak reached out to touch it, confused in spite of himself. The butterfly’s wing cut his hand to the bone and he could see they were made of unimaginably thin sheets of metal.
“Maegera. Bringer of fire and destruction. I summon thee with the power granted me by thy father and thy mother. I summon thee by the power of the blades I have forged. I summon thee with the promise of rest until the War begins again.” A voice boomed hollowly through the Adamantine Forge.
“YOU DARE REQUEST MY PRESENCE ONCE AGAIN?” Maegera rumbled. “I THOUGHT I HAD KILLED YOU THE LAST TIME YOU SUMMONED ME FORTH FROM A DWARVEN KINGDOM.”
“Belach, the greatest smith to put his hand on a hammer don’t get killed by his forge fire! Felix is still bitching about me stealing you last time ain’t he?” The voice asked, barking a laugh. “This ain’t a request or a theft anyway. It’s a gods damned summoning.”
Twin loops of chain made from something that looked like ice exploded from the swarming cloud of butterflies, one catching around each of Maegera’s huge black horns. He leaned back, almost seeming to gather himself to strike out, his wings mantling like a hawk about to take flight and with a flash and flurry of razor sharp black winged butterflies he simply disappeared.
“FIGHT YOUR OWN BATTLES LITTLE MAGGOT.” His voice echoed throughout the chamber, even after his body faded away. “THE WAR IS COMING AND YOU MUST FIGHT OR PERISH.”
The heat of the Adamantine Forge faded and Durrak shivered in the chill that descended swiftly on the chamber. He saw an opening beyond where Maegera had been standing moments before. One of the strange metal butterflies was floating into a passageway that he could just barely see. With determination to survive, he made his way into that tunnel.