Excerpt for Magic's Resolve by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Book 3 of Terrath

MAGIC’S RESOLVE




by



Alan J. Garner




Copyright 2018 by Alan J. Garner

SmashWords Edition


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TABLE OF CONTENTS


The Story So Far

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

CHAPTER 43

CHAPTER 44

CHAPTER 45

CHAPTER 46

CHAPTER 47

CHAPTER 48

CHAPTER 49

CHAPTER 50

CHAPTER 51

CHAPTER 52

CHAPTER 53

CHAPTER 54

CHAPTER 55

CHAPTER 56

CHAPTER 57

CHAPTER 58

CHAPTER 59

CHAPTER 60

CHAPTER 61

CHAPTER 62

CHAPTER 63

EPILOGUE


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* * * *

The Story So Far


Wizards’ Goal starts out as Terrath’s caretaker wizard, Maldoch the Magnificent, steals into Carnach and abducts an infant male Goblin. Driven by the prompts of three converging prophecies, he deposits the fated youngling into the care of a retired soldier dwelling in the backwoods. Tylar Shudonn raises Garrich as his own son, instructing him in the arts of war tempered by a strict code of morality.

One fateful evening sixteen years later and Garrich’s world is violently turned upside down when, returning to Falloway Cottage from a day spent woodcutting, he discovers the only home he has ever known burnt to the ground and his foster father callously slain. Burying Tylar in a shallow, unmarked grave, Garrich gives chase and tracks the murderers responsible for terminating his childhood. Overtaking the bandits before they exit the forest, he ruthlessly slays the trio and recovers his father’s treasured broadsword, now his only legacy. Orphaned and directionless, Garrich then curls up into a ball of self-pity.

Reappearing in Wivernbush, Maldoch takes the traumatized youth in hand. Garrich is coerced into journeying with the wizard to the Anarican capital, his eyes opening along the way to a world beyond his sheltered upbringing, including a glimpse of his hitherto unrealized Goblin heritage. While lodging in Alberion Maldoch visits the Prince of Men, cautioning Lindan Holbyant to begin preparations for the looming race war foretold by the ominous prophesies. Leaving the palace, Maldoch discovers Garrich incarcerated after an unavoidable altercation with the inflexible Prince’s Constabulary. Orchestrating an explosive jailbreak, he and Garrich magically abscond to the Stranth plains. Hearing of the escapees, Prince Lindan issues a warrant for the lawbreaking wizard’s arrest.

Following their escapades down Rocky Sheer, including a terrifying run-in with Banshees, the pair finally gain Maldoch’s residence, Earthen Rise, perched atop Outcrop Isle. Garrich is introduced to the spellcaster’s inventive brother, Parndolc, and entrusted to the drunkard’s dubious care while Maldoch goes about his caretaking, which involves mysteriously roaming Terrath for talismans and the champions to wield them. Garrich assists Parndolc in his latest disastrous enterprise; human flight!

Meanwhile, Maldoch’s other brother and nemesis, the evil sorcerer Omelchor, orchestrates the theft of the Horn of Dunderoth from the Elves. Ahnorr, the Grizzly Clan chieftain, orders his son to assassinate the Dwarf King. Maldoch is departing Dalcorne High at the time when suicidal crossbowmen take a potshot at the miniscule monarch, felling him. Uncertain if the grievously struck king will live or die, the Dwarf hierarchy debate and ultimately decided to temporarily empower the academically-minded Crown Prince Dalcorne with the regency.

Changing into badger form, Maldoch makes his way to Bridgewater to confront the Anarican nobles but upon arrival is apprehended after assuming his human guise of Sulca. Ironing out the misunderstanding, he convinces the fractious nobility to pool their resources to fight the coming war and then hitches a ride southwards with the Baron of Yordl to consult with the Elves.

Maldoch’s witch of an ex-wife, Norelda, now Omelchor’s concubine, becomes Ahnorr’s watchdog. Meantime, Omelchor attacks Earthen Rise in skunk form, forcing Parndolc and Garrich to riskily take to the air and forsake Outcrop Isle as their abode is demolished. They rendezvous with Maldoch in Wivernbush to talk strategies. While the wizard hikes to Draesdow Hollow to consult with the dragon shade Soran, Parndolc and Garrich are visited by a strangely naked woman. She soon vanishes just as spectacularly as she had appeared, but not before an instant attraction for her stirs inside Garrich. On Maldoch’s return they go their separate ways again, Parndolc trekking northward to Dwarf country, Garrich this time accompanying Maldoch on his sojourn into the Great Desertland.

Collecting their Troll companion, Maldoch heads the pair for the coast, planning to be picked up by an Elven ship. Impeded by a magically brewed sandstorm the thwarted wizard jumps the party to safety. Opting to reach Gwilhaire Wood by foot they bravely enter Misty Gap, only to be assailed by Mdwumps. The threesome determinedly clash with the numerically superior slug-people, only to have the tide of battle turn when plantimals erupt from nearby Jungular Forest. Garrich is struck down by a Drakenweed poisoned dart and is teleported away to Lothberen by Maldoch, stranding J’tard in the terrible jungle.

When the Elf healer Prilthar is unable to cure Garrich, Maldoch preserves his ward in ice and rides to J’tard’s rescue as the Troll holds the key to the boy’s survival. After returning with J’tard and the life-saving cure-all Tahriana’s Leaf, which is strung around his blocky neck, Maldoch sits in council with the Elves and decides to sail north to recover more charms. He leaves Garrich to recuperate in Illebard, counting on the sea air to restore him to full health.

Visited by Omelchor’s threatening visage, Garrich and Ayron, his Elven minder, flee the seaport by stowing aboard a leaky merchantman bound for Naprise. En route the Lady Luck is subjected to an attempted boarding by the Karavere Coastal Guard, compelling Ayron to draw his bow and shoot the opposing helmsman to aid their escape. Dropped off on the coast, Goblin and Elf make for Conjurers Keep. They are harassed by a magically empowered Rockhound before taking sanctuary in the ruined tower.

Maldoch and J’tard are themselves ambushed by Ogres deep inside Darkling Forest. With the wizard knocked senseless, the Troll heroically defeats the brutish Norg’kthar. Nursing the incapacitated spellcaster, J’tard is captured by a roving Gnome party who transport the Topsiders to Underland.

Ensconced for the winter at Faldhim, Parndolc settles in to enjoy the Dwarf festival of Brumalfest amongst the garrison when the outpost falls to Goblin raiders. Thus commences hostilities between East and West.


Enemy Winter kicks off a month after the capture of Fort Faldhim. At Norelda’s behest Ahnorr tasks his son, Carlaw, to oversee the siege of the Dwarven citadel at Dalcorne High while he pushes the retreating Highland Regiments into southern Carallord.

Freed by their captors, Maldoch and J’tard hike to Draesdow Hollow accompanied by Voh, a Gnome huntress. After his confab with Jeshuvallhod, the wizard zaps Voh with a locater spell and traipses off in search of Underland’s fabled talisman, the Bord Taht’laern.

Garrich and Ayron hole up for the winter on the Frigid Coast, abandoning the unlivable Conjurer’s Keep and lodging uneasily with a Dwarven hermit. Berolth Grimheart later betrays his unwanted guests to patrolling Highlanders, who surprise and overpower the runaways. Trussed up in chains Garrich and Ayron are marched towards Kahnbri.

When the Dwarfs at Faldhim rebel against their Goblin wardens, Parndolc slips out of the chaotic fort unnoticed before the Westies murderously quash the revolt. The escaped technical wizard opts to resume his northward slog to Dalcorne High. However, first he tracks eastward after deciding to tail the coldhearted Goblin responsible for spearheading the capture of the outpost, determined to uncover whatever diabolical mischief the fiend is undertaking.

Engulfed by an uncommonly fierce snowstorm on the slopes of Humbril Crest, Maldoch and his party are buried. They are spared from freezing to death when the mythical Tahldoreans, the Snow Trolls, dig them out. Their rescuers oddly thaw out a fourth body; a male Gnome trailing the treasure seekers. Managing to talk his way out of becoming the prime meat on their dinner menu, the salvaged spellcaster scares the hulking foragers off before heading his entourage into the foothills, carting the extra Gnome with them.

Going against his mother’s wishes by riding incognito for Serepar to inspect his frontline troops, during his departure Prince Lindan Holbyant witnesses her affair with Starf Dikor, the dashing captain of the household bodyguards. En route to the border town the perilously small party of horsemen come under surprise attack. Unhorsed by an arrow, the youthful Prince of Men escapes with nothing graver than bruised ribs. Captain Dikor and the surviving Housecarls dispatch their assailants. Searching their corpses, Starf uncovers a mysterious underarm tattoo linking the would-be assassins. Resolving to protect his regent, he delivers the prince without further mishap into the safe confines of the Royal High Army encamped outside Serepar. Ishnal Watchtower is demolished by marauding Goblins in the opening gambit of the fated First Race War. Marshal Enoh Toombe conducts the strangest of parleys with the Carnachian horde camped on Anarica’s doorstep, the Elk leader granting the old campaigner time to assemble reinforcements before clashing.

After Maldoch spells their unwanted Trog with the locater incantation, Ogg shepherds the seekers to the towering resting place of the Bord Taht’laern. Compelled to seek help from the hulking natives, Maldoch entrusts Ogg in Voh’s care while he shamelessly drags J’tard off to smooth their next encounter with the Troll’s furry kin. In the wizard’s absence Ogg subdues Voh and scales the column of rock to retrieve the Gnome talisman. He is not alone in his endeavor and surprises a professional thief in the act of pilfering the icon. Outmatched by the hideously scarred Goblin, the hapless Gnome is snatched from the top of the stack by Harkies, the fearsome giant bats responsible for terrorizing northern Terrath.

Losing his mystery Goblin in the snowy vastness of Northwood, Parndolc finishes his many hair-raising adventures by bungee jumping into the besieged fortress of Dalcorne High, injuring himself in the process. Tended to by Highland healers, the technical wizard meets with Crown Prince Dalcorne and reluctantly agrees to devise the weaponry needed to break the siege.

Fending off an attack by starving rattorns, Maldoch discovers the mutilated remains of Robannur. Using dark magics to resurrect the thief’s spirit, he gleans from his conversation with the recently deceased Goblin useful tidings. Finding the Bord Taht’laern beyond his reach, he dismisses Voh before he and J’tard make for Serepar. The wizard gains entry into the local branch of the Free Trade Bank by disguising himself as a common soldier collecting his pay. Ransacking the strongboxes lining the underground vault, his unconscionable larceny is disrupted by interfering soldiers. Cornered, Maldoch manages to evade capture while holding onto the thieved talisman.

Witnessing the successful deployment of his ‘hand mortars’, Parndolc drowns his sorrows in the company of the formerly tee-total Crown Prince. Sobering up, Dalcorne adopts the kingly mantle in body as well as spirit and takes the fight to the Goblins by riding at the head of the maligned Dwarf cavalry, the Highland Grays. Armed with Parndolc’s terror weapon, the pony riders successfully employ hit-and-run tactics against the entrenched enemy.

Enoh Toombe evacuates his prince and the small contingent of Dwarfs to the dubious safety of Stranth Tor. Lindan Holbyant rejects the advances of Marquise Ittoria Coramm. The Strantharian Lancers react to a force of seafaring Goblins making landfall at Gortal’s Cleft. Starf Dikor goes into battle to rescue the reckless Dwarfs as the invaders are ultimately defeated. Lindan chooses to return to Alberion, shepherding the injured Warchief Olab Strongarm and his mob of unruly Dwarfs.

Receiving a communiqué from his father, Carlaw summarily depletes his besiegers by dispatching a large number southwards. He later withdraws his Blackbolts and retreats through Frelok Pass, recently retaken by the Prince Dalcorne’s forces. Dathok, the Grizzly shaman, is left holding the bag when the resolute Dwarfs finally break the siege and rout the Goblins, capturing the Westie supposedly in charge. King Dalcorne passes away on the eve of his hundredth birthday.

In an ironic case of tit-for-tat Maldoch impersonates Omelchor, passing off J’tard as a rebel Troll. The shifty wizard brazenly commandeers passage aboard a Goblin ship sailing in a southerly direction.

General-of-the-Foot Baboth Rayner – placed in charge of safeguarding western Anarica while his superior, Enoh Toombe, marshals his remaining forces on the border with Carallord – finds the enemy host surrounding Serepar like a flood tide strangely gone. Carlaw secretly brokers a deal with the Elk Clan to guarantee the survival of the Grizzlies at the expense of his father.

Garrich and Ayron’s captors are slain by a mysterious Goblin warrior who assumes custodianship of the shackled prisoners. He delivers them to Omelchor in lower Northwood as Norelda flies Ahnorr and his vanguard of Grizzlies over Runatep Torrent, spearheading the spread of the invasion towards the Northern Heights. Brimming with arrogance Omelchor then decides to tramp his retinue northwards.

Warned of a Goblin vessel and its important passenger attempting to slip past Illebard, Hennario launches the Sea Elves museum ship in response to the incursion. The galley successfully intercepts and rams the Otter seacraft. Only then does the horrified Shipmaster realize that the wizard aboard is not Omelchor but in fact Maldoch as the holed enemy ship sinks beneath the waves.


Magic’s Resolve continues the epic saga…


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* * * *

Chapter One


Flung unceremoniously off the side of the overturning ship, his unavoidable dunking in bracingly cold seawater revived Maldoch quicker than a stinging slap to the face from his witch of an ex-wife. Strange that what was probably his last thought should be of Norelda, a person he weirdly both loved and loathed.

That he was about to die came as no revelation to the trussed up wizard. Plunging headfirst into the abyss, dragged inevitably downwards by the weight of his waterlogged robes, Maldoch thrashed wildly, battling instinctively against his imminent drowning. Managing to right himself, he succeeded only in altering the inescapable. Sinking feet first now granted him an unobstructed view of the carnage overhead. Gagged and bound hand and foot by stout ropes incapacitated him not only physically but magically. Casting spells required the freedom to speak and, if necessary, gesture. Unable to do either consigned the mage to dying alone in an unmarked, watery grave.

It was a moot point anyway. Temporarily powerless, he lacked even the conjuring ability of any predatory sleight of hand confidence trickster frequenting the seedier side streets of Alberion. Above him foundered the stricken Otter merchantman, wallowing upside down like a harpooned whale. Her slayer, a needle-nosed multi-oared rowboat, slowly backed away, bumping aside other objects casts overboard by the capsizing: crates, casks, and corpses galore riddled with arrows. Goblin swimmers rapidly joined the floaters as a constant rain of Elven shafts mercilessly reduced the survivors to macabre pincushions.

Maldoch found a large barrel bobbing at the surface strangely fascinating in light of the pickle he was in. Silhouetted against the strengthening sunlight, the shadowy barrel seemed to sprout...legs! That oddity was followed up by a bout of weirdness in the form of a pole with a curved end dipping into the sea from the galley heaving alongside. Watching the wooden fishing gaff hook the barrel by its “feet” then bend alarmingly under the strain as it hoisted its bulky cargo upwards clear of the water, it struck him that he had just witnessed J’tard being plucked to safety.

Any thought Maldoch entertained of being similarly gaffed was a false hope dashed against the rocks of impossibility; he had already sunk beyond the reach of rescue from the surface.

Below the choppy ocean the undersea world was deceptively tranquil. That serenity infused the doomed wizard and he ceased struggling, reconciled to his looming demise. Half expecting his life to flash before his eyes like an unfurling scroll, disappointment was the order of the day. Nothing flashed. Not even a footnote on a page from a notepad.

Tough to live a life without regrets, it’s even harder to die a death with them. Wizardly arrogance generally left them immune to misgivings, except during times of great stress. With so much left undone, Maldoch started regretting his many failures and conveniently skipped his many failings. He bemoaned letting Omelchor so often gain the upper hand in their eternal tussle; he lamented Parndolc’s stubborn rejection of sobriety; and he bewailed missing the opportunity to fathom Garrich’s unrealized potential. Most of all, he regretted being too busy as Terrath’s watchdog to take the time to smell the tulips – they, not roses, were his favorite flower.

The acute shortage of air searing his lungs made Maldoch rethink the ideal of sacrificing himself for the cause of Good. Dying with dignity reeked of contradiction. There was nothing dignified about departing this life, giving up the ghost without fighting to breathe your last. In fact, the prospect of going to meet his maker did not faze him at all. His intellect welcomed the thought of eternal rest, to be finally done with battling badness. Yet his body rejected the sentence of death and resumed its futile struggles as Maldoch’s composure finally cracked.

I’m too old to die! he screamed in the quiet recesses of his mind.

Sound rudely interrupted the wizard’s swansong. A rapid train of clicks impacted on his senses, unnervingly coursing down the length of his convulsing body as well as assaulting his ears. Maldoch was so startled by the intrusion that he uncharacteristically froze; hesitancy on a spellcaster’s part ultimately led to dire consequences.

An ominously huge shape glided up from the deep beneath Maldoch’s lashed feet. He felt himself lifted by the pressure wave from its scarily close passage. The finned prowler arced over and reversed course, its graceful motion eerily silent.

Halting in front of the concerned wizard, the blunt-nosed orca filled his vision. A single click of curiosity emanated from the whale, followed by a second pulse of determining bio-sonar, the streaming clicks resonating through Maldoch’s stilled form.

While he was doing a fair impersonation of a statue, his ceaseless mind focused on a solitary deliberation: getting eaten by an unfussy killer whale was preferable to drowning, as it offered a mercifully quicker death.

The whale hung in limbo, apparently undecided in its intent. A high-pitched whistle brushed Maldoch’s hearing, confusing him further. Worried that he would drown before the orca made up its mind to munch on him, he drastically goaded the killer into action. Bunching up his knees, the desperate wizard lashed out with a double-legged kick aimed at bruising the whale’s snout and ego.

The effect was immediate, although the response was unexpected. With a swish of its powerful flukes, the killer whale dove underneath Maldoch, tumbling him in its tremendous wake. Spun dizzyingly around, he snatched glimpses of the strikingly patterned black-and-white whale gaining momentum from its speedy descent before doubling back, arrowing towards the expectant wizard. Instead of a gaping maw brimming with yellow teeth set to snatch away what remained of his expiring life, he was subjected to the rounded snout slamming into the small of his back. Swept upwards, pinned against the whale’s nose by the force of its ascent, Maldoch breached the surface moments ahead of his transporter.

Carried aloft into the revitalizing air, he managed to inhale a hasty intake of breath through his nose before the whale arched its back and flicked him off its snout. Tossed into empty space, Maldoch had time only to think that the massive carnivore was impolitely playing with its food before his unplanned flight ended with him splatting onto the deck of the Illebard warship, his potentially bone-crunching crash-landing softened by a pair of unsuspecting Elves providing a welcome cushion.

Sprawled atop the stunned and groaning oarsmen, the wind unfairly knocked out of him, Maldoch flopped about like a freshly caught fish newly landed on the deck. Scrabbling to his knees he fell against the gunwale, gasping to breathe while looking frantically over the side of the galley. The whale was nowhere to be seen. Scanning the debris littering the immediate patch of ocean for any sign of his unlikely rescuer, his searching gaze did come across a common seabird bobbing unconcernedly on the waves, but looking intently his way.

It was a razorbill. Counting himself an amateur ornithologist, Maldoch regarded the bird’s presence as just another oddity in a day so far filled with abnormalities. Plumaged similarly to the flightless southern latitude penguins, razorbills were normally found fishing off the coast of Terrath’s upper eastern seaboard. Dismissing the vagrant as just a windblown straggler, he missed seeing the bird take to the breezy air with a flurry of feathers and splashing water as strong hands seized his arms, pulling him up off his dazed cushions. Squawking raucously, the razorbill circled Woodpecker once before winging its way northwards, the Elves below oblivious to its departure.

Wizard, am I pleased to see you unhurt. You aren’t hurt, right? Speak to me, Maldoch!”

Frowning fiercely, the sodden spellcaster motioned for a little forbearance on the Shipmaster’s part while an obliging Mariner undid the gag silencing him. That started Maldoch on a coughing fit. Lucky for him that gag prevented him swallowing copious amounts of seawater and actually forestalled his lungs filling up; he had been more at risk of suffocating than drowning. Exercising his numbed tongue, he allowed the helpful sailor to cut his hands and feet free of the ropes constraining his freedom before deigning to reply.

“No thanks to your impetuosity, Hennario. Do you know how close I came to perishing just then?”

“But didn’t your magic fling you from the water like a flying fish, thereby saving you?”

About to contradict the Ship Lord, Maldoch decided against it. There was no need spoiling a great story with the truth. Preserving mystique was paramount in his line of business, as a wizard’s reputation had to remain unblemished. Omelchor was exempt from that rule; evil was, by its very nature, already tarnished.

Maldoch did however exercise his wizardly prerogative to berate wrongdoers. Shrugging off the helping pair of hands which assisted him to stand, he lashed out at his rescuers. “What possessed you to take up ship ramming? Is historical re-enactment the latest craze in hobbies now? If so, I suggest limiting it to playing with model ships in your bathtub.”

Joining the Sea Elves gathered midships about the ungrateful wizard in time to hear his tirade, Oswol protested loudly. “Magnificent One, we had no idea you were the wizard aboard that Losther ship.”

Perplexed by the intruding Elf, Maldoch confessed, “I’m not so good with names, but I never forget a face. I don’t recognize yours.”

“I am master of this vessel, even though I am semi-retired.”

That explains your lousy driving. Maybe you should consider becoming fully retired. Until then, get back to captaining this boat, skipper, before I lose my temper.”

Offended by Maldoch’s condescension, Oswol brushed against Hennario’s shoulder as he turned away, grumbling to himself, “And he’s the good wizard?”

While Oswol stalked back to the stern, the Shipmaster defended his actions. “Lookouts reported it was Omelchor shipping south.” Leaning toward the salvaged spellcaster, dripping wet with sarcasm, Hennario stared vacantly for a moment before murmuring, “Have you done something different with your hair?”

“I trimmed my beard, that’s all. Obviously that fooled your sentinels.” A fearful thought struck the wizard’s mushy mind. “There was an Otter warship keeping station with us. It’s not been sighted since we swung landward, away from that last storm. But I bet he’s somewhere out there.”

Hennario reacted indifferently to the threat. “A lone corsair won’t cause significant trouble,” he said. “If he didn’t founder in the earlier gale he’s sure to be hightailing it out of the area. If the sod is foolish enough to loiter hereabouts, the nearest patrolling Elven warship will send him to the bottom. Just out of interest, where were you bound?”

“Troll country.” His offsider forgotten until now, Maldoch slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand before blurting, “How’s J’tard? I watched you fish him out of the drink.”

“Uncomfortably wet,” grouched the Troll, vigorously rubbing feeling back into his wrists as he hobbled into view, towering over the relieved Shipmaster. Steadying himself against the gunwale, he clacked his tusks in annoyance. “This much water definitely doesn’t agree with me, Magnificence. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to feel sand between my toes again.”

“You nearly did. I hear the seabed is quite sandy in these waters.”

Dry sand,” the Desertlander needlessly specified.

“You’re too picky, J’tard.” Slipping his mantle of Terrath’s guardian caretaker back on, sodden as it was, Maldoch clapped his hands and began issuing demands. “Hennario, first order of business – fetch me a towel and change of clothes.” Nobody took a bedraggled wizard seriously. “Next, turn this rowboat around and make for home port. And don’t spare the seahorses!”

“What, no gratitude for rescuing you?”

“Considering you were the one that sank me, thanking you is definitely out of the question.”

Nudging him with his elbow, J’tard bent to whisper sardonically in Hennario’s pointy ear. “Cos we were doing so well before you showed up.” The Shipmaster did a poor job of stifling a laugh.

“Glad you find the situation so funny, gerent. When you’re done chuckling steer this dinghy back to Illebard quick smart. I need to collect Garrich.”

The smile faded from the Elven leader’s face. Maldoch instantly picked up on the unhappy shift in mood. “What’s the bad news you have to tell me that’ll worsen my already crappy morning?”

“The Losther you left in my care is....” His words trailing away to awkward silence, Hennario rubbed the back of his neck and tried again to spit out the bitter reality. “The truth of the matter is he’s...sort of...”

“Don’t make me reach down your gullet to drag out the truth, Hennario. What’s happened to the boy?”

Cringing, the old Sea Elf grudgingly revealed, “He’s kind of gone astray.”

“Either Garrich is where I left him, in your possession, or he isn’t. Which is it?”

“He’s missing,” Hennario sheepishly admitted.

You’ve lost him!” Maldoch exploded, throwing a sopping wet fist into the air, spraying water droplets everywhere while suspiciously clutching his right arm tightly over a bulge against his belly.

“Lost is such a strong word. I prefer mislaid.”

The wizard grimaced, folding his other soaking wet sleeve across his equally saturated chest. Sharp-eyed as Elves were, Hennario missed spotting the bundle Maldoch was cradling within the folds of his dripping cloak. “Tell me everything.”

Hennario fully unburdened himself, divulging everything he had pieced together concerning Garrich’s worrying disappearance. That revelation amounted to very little, other than the Goblin and his Elven minder were last reliably seen in one of the port’s unfrequented backstreets.

“Were they being hounded by anyone?”

The unknowing Shipmaster’s shrug was most uncomforting. As was his next statement. “I had Illebard searched from top to bottom, Magnificence. There was no sign anywhere to indicate what befell them.” Coming on the defensive, the guilt-ridden Elf snapped, “They simply vanished, Maldoch. It’s not like I misplaced them.”

It doesn’t matter what you label it. The fact remains you have no idea of their whereabouts. Garrich is missing and lost with him is any chance I may have had of restoring lasting peace to Terrath.”

* * * *

Stepping on to dry land improved J’tard’s outlook on life immeasurably, while doing nothing to gladden the sourpuss he escorted. Grateful to have the solidness of stone underfoot, the Troll shrewdly walked in Maldoch’s shadow as they cleared the dark confines of the boathouse. Behind them, Oswol was busy shouting orders organizing Woodpecker being hauled ashore on rollers to be scrupulously inspected for bow damage following her close interaction with the Goblin merchantman. The Elves placed great importance in caring for their elderly.

Rage radiated from the wizard in palpable waves, clearing the quay of passersby with greater efficiency than a stout stick. Not that Maldoch refrained from swishing his staff for effect, sending a timid fishmonger scurrying for cover behind baskets of sea bream and spotted sea trout freshly netted that morning.

Hennario wisely parted company, citing the excuse of resuming his duties as gerent. Partway making amends for torpedoing the wizard and his giant companion, the Shipmaster had divers salvage their meager possessions from the upturned wreck, floating crucial minutes before sinking to the cold, airless depths of Galinorf Bay. Gladly reunited with the irreplaceable Maker Staff, momentarily as forgotten as J’tard had been, it took Maldoch by surprise seeing the Troll gratefully accept being returned the flint-headed spear gifted him by the cousinly Wyvurs. Long had the Desertlander griped how the elongated stabber was a poor substitute for his broken club, smashed in two blocking an Ogre’s superhuman blow earlier that year. Even as J’tard had hefted the lighter shaft in his hands once more, the spark of satisfaction fired his intensely black eyes.

“Without Garrich we’re well and truly buggered,” Maldoch muttered crossly into his poor excuse for a beard, paraphrasing his crotchety brother.

Reluctant to reopen an old wound, J’tard nevertheless asked, “Haven’t you a backup plan? In business, as in life, it pays to have more than one option to counter any contingency.”

The scowl Maldoch threw back over his shoulder answered that foolish query. His responding scorn only confirmed the unpalatable fact. “In this instance I don’t have the luxury of a spare easternized Goblin waiting in the wings. That boy was it. Upon him was pinned all the hopes of the Fellow Races. Lock, stock and ale barrel.” Now he quoted Dwarven sayings.

Quickening his pace, the leggy Troll pulled alongside the irritated mage. “Don’t you mean the Eastern Realms?”

“No, J’tard. I meant everybody. Garrich was the key player. Without him, all the races face bleak times. A darkness spreads over Terrath from which few, whether Trolls or Goblins or whoever, will emerge unscathed.”

J’tard thought better on commenting how daft it was heaping all your dung in the one bucket; he didn’t think Maldoch would appreciate a Unihorn dealer’s proverb. Instead, he posed, “You’re talking as if Garrich is no more. There’s no proof of foul play. He’s merely…absent.”

Maldoch gazed incredulously at his speculative companion, his glower undiminished. “You think Garrich upped and left Illebard of his own accord?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“So you agree that he was abducted.”

“That is the general consensus. Hennario thinks he was taken. You know Garrich better than I. Could he have decided to leave Illebard and slipped away unnoticed?”

He was firmly told to stay put and keep a low profile until our return.” Maldoch’s statement rang hollow even as he spoke the words. Garrich had gone AWOL in Alberion and landed himself in a heap of trouble as a result of his wanderlust. Who’s to say that fool boy hasn’t done a repeat performance? considered Maldoch.

Taking the deceitful wizard at his word, J’tard theorized, “Perhaps Omelchor magically divined his whereabouts and spirited Garrich away.” Maldoch grunted his acceptance of the notion. “But why snatch Ayron too?” continued the speculating Troll. “Abducting the kid’s bodyguard makes absolutely no sense. I know I hate carting extra baggage.”

Hearing himself veer off topic, J’tard returned to his original point. “If your baddie brother wanted Garrich slain then surely he would have performed the dastardly deed then and there. There’s no point kidnapping someone just to kill them elsewhere. Meaning Hennario’s searchers would have found their corpses.”

The moping wizard abruptly stopped in his tracks. His long legs carrying him forward several more strides, J’tard backtracked as soon as he noticed his wizardly wingman lagging behind. Stooping slightly, the intrigued Troll watched Maldoch’s gloomy countenance brighten for the first time in days.

“What is it, Magnificence?”

“You’re absolutely right, J’tard. I let rage blind me to the prospect that Garrich might be alive.” He left unsaid the possibility Omelchor had nabbed the boy just to torture and kill him at his leisure. Better to concentrate on the hopeful than dwell on the hopeless.

“Do we go and find him then?” proposed the Troll.

Snorting irreverently, Maldoch rejected the suggestion. “He could be anywhere in Terrath. It’d be like looking for the proverbial conifer needle in a pine forest.”

“We can’t just abandon him!”

“I have no intention of forsaking my investment, J’tard. We merely have to approach his whereabouts from a different angle.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“You guys are so easy to lose, as demonstrated by Hennario. Rather than waste valuable time searching for Garrich, we will seek out his abductor instead.”

J’tard gulped nervously. “You want to go looking for Omelchor himself? The very wizard whose been dogging our heels since we left home.”

Maldoch refrained from pointing out that his wayward brother had been a thorn in his side a lot longer than that. “We’ve been reacting to his plays all this while. It’s about time he was put on the back foot. That involves outwitting him.”

You haven’t managed to do that so far,” criticized J’tard.

“Omelchor’s been lucky, that’s all.”

“He’s had an extraordinarily long run of luck.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side, Troll.”

“If I wasn’t then I wouldn’t be standing here getting pissed off at you, Maldoch!” Calming down, J’tard came full circle with his thinking. “Which brings us back to the burning question – do you have any idea where Omelchor currently lurks?”

“I can make an educated guess.”

When wizards’ reticence met his query, the peeved Troll growled, “Care to share it?”

Maldoch selfishly did not and was off and running next. Well, walking fast actually. J’tard trailed after him, groaning as they hastily strode along the docks. Another boat ride was on the cards!

Tramping along the wharfs, Maldoch curiously swept past the berthed elements of Illebard’s merchant fleet, avoiding too the handful of Squadron warships moored farther along the immutable quay. In the distance, bobbing in the haven waters of Sanctum Cove, youngsters enthusiastically manned miniature sailboats, honing the seafaring skills that would stand them in good stead in their adult years. The flitting white triangles failed to distract the Troll hot on the cagey wizard’s heels, a sinking feeling developing in the pit of his stomach.

His broad feet slapping on the perpetually damp flagstones, the pitch of J’tard’s weighty footsteps lightened along with his sense of impending doom when Maldoch veered off the quay, opting for the dry, cobblestoned slope linking the wharfs to the township. Guessing their destination, the Troll challenged Maldoch outright. “Don’t tell me you’re going to wheedle Hennario for another freebie?”

“Okay, I won’t.”

“Won’t wheedle him for another freebie?”

“Won’t tell you that I’m calling in another favor from the Shipmaster.”

Grinding his tusks in disagreement, J’tard said, “I realize Hennario told you to name anything you want as recompense for him nearly drowning us. But I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

Of course he meant it!” grumped the wizard. “He wouldn’t have said it otherwise.”

“He was just being polite, Magnificence. It’s what people say when they’re feeling guilty.”

Never much bothered by guilt, neither was Maldoch prone to politeness. “Then he’ll regret making that offer,” he promised, turning left this time, stepping over the open sewage runnel draining into the harbor. Hiking up a side street, he swung left again before traversing the length of an innocuous looking lane, at the end of which an unmarked paneled door, brightly decorated blue with green insets, stood out atop a formidable wooden stairway. Grabbing hold of the unpainted handrail with his free hand the undaunted wizard bounded up the steps two at a time.

Wondering where the tireless oldster found his energy, J’tard sucked in his lack of enthusiasm and climbed the stairs. He reached the landing at the summit moments after Maldoch rudely barged into the hilltop office, leaving the piebald door ajar. Wheezing like a clapped out Unihorn, the broad-shouldered Desertlander ducked through the smaller doorway and followed the unmistakable racket of voices raised in annoyance that led him down a short hall. There he found a second door flung wide open and the impolite wizard locked in word-for-word combat with a feisty, if unremarkable, Elf maiden. Hunting about for Hennario, he glimpsed him using his desk, piled high with stacks of paper, for cover as he reclined restfully in his chair. J’tard thought he spied a smirk of amusement creasing the corner of the old salt’s mouth.

“Father only just got back!” shrieked Gabrionel

Cleaning out an ear with a wiggle of his finger, Maldoch wiped the dirtied fingertip on his sleeve and cruelly remarked, “I can see why you’re still unwed. Any male who marries you will be gaining a fishwife.”

“You insult my daughter, Maldoch!” growled Hennario, rising from his sheltering chair.

“Oh, pull your oars in, Shipmaster. Before I’m compelled to make you sit.” Maldoch’s command, just shy of a bellow, quivered with wizardly authority.

Gabrionel’s overprotective father settled back down, glancing uneasily at his riled daughter as she unflinchingly continued to chastise Terrath’s eminent caretaker.

“I haven’t even had the chance to pull Father’s boots off before you’re putting him back at sea. He must attend to his paperwork, not lollygag about on another fishing trip.”

“Where’s his catch then?”

Gabrionel paused mid-word, her mouth slack-jawed like a dead fish.

“Your father’s catch,” Maldoch repeated with exaggerated slowness. “Surely he must have caught something for the table. He’s been away how many days?”

“A little less than a week.”

“And he’s got nothing to show for it? Well, either Hennario is a poor excuse for a fisher-elf or his catch stands right before you.”

Gabrionel squinted hard at Maldoch, her slanted eyebrows arching in response. Gauging that he wasn’t jesting, she directed her narrow-eyed stare her father’s way. Hennario only shrugged helplessly.

“That’s right, girlie. He landed a wizard and a Troll, a feat he needn’t have bothered doing if he hadn’t dunked us in the sea to begin with!”

“That was simply a case of mistaken identity,” countered the accused Shipmaster, “for which I’ve profusely apologized.”

“Now’s the time to make it up to me,” said the wizard, skillfully netting Hennario. “I’m in dire need of a boat ride up north.”

“You’ve just returned from the northlands!”

“And I wish to head back up there.”

“Forget your purse or something?”

J’tard coughed meaningfully behind his raised fist. His unsubtle interruption was a timely reminder that a wizard’s business remained his own affair.

Choosing to ignore the snipe, Maldoch carried on. “Only this time I need to make landfall on the eastern coast. Tell your daughter not to get her knickers in a twist. Secrecy is the catchword for this trip. Therefore, I’m not commandeering your person again. I aim to journey unnoticed and having Illebard’s head Elf on deck will draw unwanted attention my way.

“So, Shipmaster, exactly what vessels have you northbound for Naprise?”

“Gabby, be a good girl and fetch the shipping manifest from the harbormaster’s office.”

“No need to. It’s on my desk,” she answered waspishly.

Adopting a straighter posture in his chair, Hennario peeked around one of the neatly stacked wads of parchment awaiting his signature. “Oh, so it is.” Sending Gabrionel to fetch it, his fingers clawed for the huge leather-bound book as she deposited it in his lap. Flicking through the stiff pages, he calculated today’s date and promptly foundered; he was still leafing through the parchment records of the comings and goings of the harbor traffic when Gabrionel swooped in, nudging him aside.

“As fine a sailor as you are, you’re a hopeless bookkeeper, dad,” she muttered, thumbing through the pages at a brisker pace. Finding her goal, she flattened the crisp pages of the opened book with her hands, tapping insistently at the dates recorded at the top of either page. “There, in black and white – yesterday’s and today’s arrivals and departures.”

Scanning the listed ships, Hennario announced, “Bad timing, I’m afraid, Maldoch. Two merchant vessels set sail for Naprise only yesterday. They aren’t due back for a couple of months.”

“I can’t wait that long,” grouched the wizard. “Is there any ship departing today?”

Reading the adjoining page, Hennario’s reply was unhelpful. “Just a merchantman bound for Nhern on the morning tide. Nothing sailing in your direction.”

“Honestly, males!” huffed Gabrionel. Snatching the manifest away from her father, she turned over two pages then slammed the weighty book back on the desk under his nose. The stacks of incomplete papers wobbled precariously. Stabbing the new page with her fingertip, she waited impatiently as her father perused the details.

Lifting his eyes from the page, his whisper betrayed his surprise. “Merainor actually authorized to send more?”

“A messenger dispatched by the queen rode down out of the foothills on a Garvian the day after you went fishing. Aborlath is organizing the transports now. I’ve penciled in ships and dates. All the order needs is your stamp of approval.”

“What reply did you give her?”

“Nothing. The verbal message from the queen stated that her compliment was marching down here for embarkation immediately. They’re due to arrive any day.”

Illebard’s ruler openly fumed. “Merainor didn’t even make it a request this time!” he blustered.

“As the female in charge, that’s a queen’s prerogative, Father. We are hers to command.” Gabrionel sounded bitter, her tone strangely edged with envy. “By the way, Merainor commands that a company of Mariners joins the Lothberen detachment. That way all of Elfdom is represented.”

Unable to contain his curiosity at mention of Terrath’s only Queen any longer, Maldoch butted in. “What’s this talk about the Wood Elves?” A great one for keeping others in the dark, he detested when a blackout was imposed on him.

Redirecting his attention back to the wizard, Hennario reported, “You’ve lucked out. It seems your wish has been granted. Merainor’s feeling generous and sends another detachment of archers and cavalry in support of the Eastern Realms. She expects me to transport them up to Naprise. You can catch a ride with the convoy when it ships out in within the week.”

“No berths sooner than that?”

“That’s the best I can manage at such short notice.”

“You command the biggest fleet of sailboats in all of Terrath. Surely you can spare one for my personal transportation.”

I have Elvish waters to safeguard, Maldoch. While the Corsairs are not our equals at sea, there are enough longships to pose a serious threat to Illebard and Nhern. Alongside that, I’m obligated to bolster the human flotilla, not that you can call the Karavere Coastal Guard a navy. That’s two coastlines I’m expected to patrol. This war is stretching my resources thin.

“On top of all that there’s the day-to-day running of Illebard. Sure, Gabrionel handles more than her fair share of my workload-” Hennario smiled appreciatively at his hardworking daughter – “but this is still my town to oversee.”

That included the distasteful task of deliberating what punishment to mete out to the Mariner that had decked him. Cooling his heels in the town brig – naval jargon extended to life ashore for the Sea Elves – the offender was facing serious consequences for not only striking his superior officer but blatantly disobeying a direct order. Admittedly, the Shipmaster could not fault the Elf for acting as he saw fit. Hennario himself tried to do likewise when he aimed to wing Oswol with a well-placed arrowshot. Saving Maldoch had been foremost in his mind at that instant; a heroic desire he now questioned as the wizard resumed provoking him.

“What about the warships I saw tied up to the wharves.”

“Reserves,” replied the unwavering Shipmaster. “As it is, some of those will have to escort the convoy north.”

Hennario’s steadfast refusal to supply a water taxi fell on deaf ears. “You owe me the hugest favor,” the wizard persisted.

“In the past I’ve always bent over backwards to accommodate you, Maldoch. However, Merainor is my sovereign queen. In the command stakes she outranks you by a wide margin.”

Prepared to deliver a stinging verbal riposte in the guise of the Shipmaster laughingly turning royalist, Maldoch thought better of it and quit antagonizing Hennario. “I guess me and J’tard will just have to content ourselves with seeing the sights of Illebard while you ready Merainor’s runabouts,” he sulkily conceded.

Desiring to finish what the ornery wizard had started, Hennario fired a parting broadside. “If you’re in such an all-fired hurry magic yourselves northwards.”

“Don’t go there,” interceded the Troll. “He’s painfully shy when it comes to casting spells.”

“Magic is to be employed only when necessary and in this case it’s not warranted.” Desperately grasping at straws, Maldoch mused, “Faerhoc’s bound to have a spare ship floating around his harbor which he can lend me.”

“Feel free to hike over to Nhern. By the time you get there my fleet will be underway.”

Everybody’s outsmarting me lately fumed Maldoch. “We’ll wait,” he finally decided, “providing you put us up in some decent accommodation.”

J’tard seconded the poorly phrased request. “I’ve had enough of shacking up in painfully small ships cabins.”

Pondering the demand, Hennario swallowed his slighted pride and magnanimously offered, “If it’ll shut your gob, Maldoch, you’re welcome to bunk with us.”

“Father!”

“Hush, Gabby. We have ample space up at the house.”

“The townhouse?” scoffed the unthankful wizard. “If memory serves me correct, there’s hardly room to swing a ship’s cat inside that matchbox.”

“I’ve had new lodgings built, a sort of private getaway on the outskirts of town. The holiday home should be more to your liking, Maldoch. It’s roomier and situated on the topmost hill of Vista Range. The view of the harbor is spectacular.” When the wizard’s only response was an uninformative snort, the miffed Shipmaster groused, “You could show some appreciation.”

“For putting us up?”

“That…and rescuing you.”

“It’s all covered by the same deal.”

“I’m not referring to saving you two from that sinking wreck. I’m talking about liberating you from your captors. J’tard confided in me how the Losthers saw through your ruse.” Maldoch glared daggers at his hulking companion, who unapologetically returned the glower. “I believe you were in quite a pickle before my timely arrival,” continued the gleeful Shipmaster, tightening his own net around the simmering wizard. “Don’t you owe me, in spades now?”

Grasping the unhappy spellcaster by his shoulders, J’tard grinned and spun him around, marching him out the door and down the hallway before he said something Hennario would regret. Chuckling as he steered Maldoch down the stairs, the Troll basked in more than the afternoon sunshine when he remarked, “And you wonder why Omelchor constantly stays one step ahead of you, Magnificence?”


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* * * *

Chapter Two


Time in the perpetually shaded depths of Northwood dragged interminably for the two prisoners, even for the supposedly timeless Elf. Unending days monotonously traipsing along narrow game trails which twisted randomly through the unchanging treescape kept them both down in the dumps. Sparse rays of sunlight filtered earthwards from the evergreen canopy, picking out patches of low shrubs amid the struggling groundcover. The hazy shafts of brightness were welcome oases, dappling areas of moist, emerald shadow with fleeting touches of warmth. Even well into springtime Northwood retained its chill greenness, the stiff trunks beneath the spiky-leaved boughs never feeling the brush of daylight at ground level. It was like being trapped in a bottle of colored glass, the diffuse light within permanently tinged green.

The Elf in Ayron would normally savor the woodland experience, relish being immersed in foliage. However, the uniformity of this forest of pyramid-shaped trees, the sameness of it all, unsettled him on a primal level. Gwilhaire Wood at least exhibited variation; ornamental maples rubbed barked shoulders with stately oaks, sturdy elms flourished alongside denser ash. Here, in this crowded timberland, dozens of species of pine grew together. It was a standardization of tree-plan that was esthetically unappealing to anyone with a green thumb. Highland maxims played in his bored mind. You’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all. Goblins had their furs; Dwarfs had their firs.

Garrich found the Forester’s unrest, which was plain as day, mildly amusing. To him the regularity of Lothberen, exhibiting its own green tranquility, appeared as boringly alien as the Dwarf woodland. Then again, perhaps homesickness prejudiced his thinking. No tract of trees could compare favorably with Wivernbush.

Using his hands as scoops, Garrich scraped together an armful of the springy pine needles matting the forest floor. Molding the rusty orange, faintly aromatic pile into a serviceable cushion, he patted the top flat then wearily slumped upon his makeshift seat. Ayron flopped beside him, planting his bony bum on the ground without bothering to reshape the seating material shed by the encompassing conifers. It was a subtle indictment of the differing mindsets separating their ethnic backgrounds; Goblins remade the world around them according to their wants and needs, whereas Elves opted to live more harmoniously with their natural surroundings.

Both were grateful for the respite from their trekking. As were the fatigued warriors hunkering down around them, scattered through this dense copse of Ponderosa Pine like mites. Steadily swelling in numbers as more and more fighters raced upcountry from the riverside beachhead established by the witch Norelda, the Goblin war party operated on the same arrogance that drove their terrible master. Omelchor swaggered through Northwood like he owned the place, lending his minions a measure of the unbridled confidence all spellcasters exuded.

Garrich gazed after the wizard, stalking amongst the tightly packed trees while conferring with Ahnorr. Glancing over at the youth, the chieftain of the Grizzlies glowered fiercely; he didn’t bother to hide his intense dislike of the tame Goblin. Dhrac crossing his line of vision reminded Garrich how the slayer, commanded by Omelchor, continued running interference, shielding him from Ahnorr’s simmering animosity.

“How far do you think we’ve walked today?” Garrich whispered to Ayron, drawing his careworn cloak about him, the frayed hem as tattered as his hopes.

“Does it really matter?” griped the Elf, gingerly readjusting the wads of material stuffed inside the cruel leg irons in an effort to reduce the soreness of his chafed ankles. Slogging unsolicited through Dwarf country was fraught with enough dangers without the added discomfort of skin rubbed raw. “Every stride we take in this forest of firs is another misstep into misery.”

Ayron certainly looked miserable, his travel-stained Foresters garb caked indelibly in the dried blood of the luckless Dwarf whose head he bashed in to spare Garrich the bother. Those bloodstains, long since turned rusty brown and now bordering on black, were partnered by spatters of springtime sludge which clung to the Elf’s garments as tenaciously as the specks of mud dirtying his scraggy blonde locks. Given no opportunity to launder clothes let alone bodies, the captives smelt as ripe as their unwashed captors. Perhaps that was fine and dandy for all Losthers, but Ayron was a principled Elf with standards! Sniffing under his armpits, which reeked of stale sweat and seal blubber, he wrinkled his nose in disgust at himself as much as the pongy company he was forced to keep.

Garrich did sympathize with Ayron’s discomfort. His own ankles ached terribly from hefting the accursed shackles he continued wearing as punishment for punching Omelchor’s nether regions. Despite the penalty paining his legs, Garrich understood he had got off incredibly lightly for momentarily incapacitating the mastermind behind the invasion.

Watching Dhrac sauntering about with his father’s prized broadsword, the scabbard slung insolently over his shoulder, ignited anger in Garrich. He unconsciously clenched and unclenched his fingers. Picking up on his travel companion’s envy, Ayron remarked, “That leaf has already blown away on the wind. You missed any chance to stick him ages ago.”

Garrich bit on his stinging reply; needling the Elf gained nothing, other than fleeting satisfaction. It left his mounting frustration unappeased. Stuck in the slayer’s distasteful company these past few weeks further served to convince him that he was no match for Dhrac’s ferocious speed. Whether naturally fast or magically enhanced by Omelchor’s tinkering, the blindingly rapid assaults carried out by the assassin, always ending in death for his foe, severely intimidated the swordsman in Garrich.

Swordsgoblin, he silently amended.

Long since disabused of any notion of being Anarican, the maturing youth realized that the slow passage of captivity was turning him more Goblinlike every day. In looks he mirrored his captors; garbed in loaned furs, his unkempt hair and straggly black beard completed the transformation. Inside, he could scarily feel his heart hardening. Subjected to the pitiless savagery of Goblin warfare, Garrich’s psyche had thrown up a protective emotional wall shielding him from the worst of the ugliness he witnessed. While desensitizing him to those brutalities, it did not make him immune. Garrich was still sickened by the horrors committed by the invaders against Dwarf patrols randomly encountered. Only yesterday he had feebly looked on as the three survivors of the most recent skirmish were unkindly put to the sword, powerless to intervene while those responsible gleefully tortured the Highlanders to death prior to beheading them.

Thankful for his sense of revulsion staying intact, though diminished to reduce psychological scarring, Garrich vowed never to descend fully into heartlessness and become the callous killers many of his warlike kinsmen obviously took delight in demonstrating.

Glumly fingering his lank locks, Ayron groaned. “What I wouldn’t give to bathe in a hot pool. I’d even turn carnivore for a day just to run a comb through my hair.”

Garrich echoed the sentiment. “Tylar would roll over in his grave to know that I actually want a bath,” he said. “Damn, I could murder a hot meal. I’m fed up making cold camps.”

Maybe your pals will have the next Shorty they shanghai light a fire before they gut him.”

“They aren’t my pals, Ayron. I’m just as much a victim here as are you.”

“Rubbish!” scoffed the Elf. “You mightn’t realize it yet, Garrich, but look about. Losthers abound everywhere. You are akin to a pig in muck. I, on the other hand, am a rosebush amongst nettles.” Ayron then muttered, “And to boot, Elves are an endangered species this far north of Gwilhaire.”

“We are both prisoners of circumstance,” asserted the Goblin.

“Only if circumstance goes by the name of Omelchor.”

“Quit your griping, Ayron. Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t helping.”

“And just what would be helpful?”

You two dying,” interrupted an unfriendly voice from behind. One of the warriors assigned to shepherding the prisoners leaned over, his shaggy head uncomfortably between them. The animal bones macabrely braided into his raven hair rattled as he flashed his pointy, yellowed teeth in a humorless grin “But the chief will settle for making your worthless hides useful. Waterskins need refilling. There’s a stream back aways. Now shift your sorry carcasses.”

* * * *

Immersing the neck of the waterskins into the sluggish current, Garrich pulled a face. Run-off from the spring melt farther upstream, the water was naturally chill. Likewise, Ayron grimaced when he plunged underwater one of the handful of sheep bladders’ heaped on the bank beside him, air bubbles popping to the surface before floating teasingly away. The Elf’s displeasure stemmed not entirely from dipping his delicate hands in wet coldness; handling animal innards – even organs dried, stitched and waterproofed with resin for daily use as drink holders - was repugnant to him.

Unbeknown to his Goblin compatriot the Forester harbored genuine thoughts of escaping via the watercourse. Betting that the goon in charge of the watering detail had undersold the stream, Ayron counted on finding a fast-flowing river after picking their way through the bewildering maze of mossy trunks. Clambering over logs slickened by damp and encrusted fungi, he took care not to wantonly tread on the pink and white wood sorrel flowers poking out from clover-like leaves prettying the sparse clearings in the otherwise drab forest floor. His boorish guards were not so botanically minded, crushing underfoot the delicate, five-petalled blooms. Garrich himself exhibited scant regard for his environs, stamping flat the wispy fronds of feathermosses dividing the boles. Fully prepared to abandon his fellow prisoner to his fate, he reluctantly threw out that ambitious impulse upon sighting the pitiful excuse for a waterway.

Wading into a riot of spring colors, a sight for sore eyes after the depressingly green forest, not even the sweet lavender blooms of wild geraniums or striking yellow of buttercup-shaped marsh marigolds lifted Ayron’s spirits as his sharp hearing picked up only the muted gurgle of slow-moving water. Trudging clear of the field of blossoms through a thicket of onion-tasting meadow garlic, the fragrance of the wild mint leaves lining the stream banks failed to please the disconsolate Elf as he gazed somberly at what only could be described as a trickle.

Disappointingly narrow and shallow, the tributary creek looked barely ankle-deep as it lazily babbled through the meadow of wildflowers hemmed by guardian spruce.

Perhaps it was for the best. Even when the waterway surely widened and deepened downstream, a swim wearing shackles in frigid mountain water was unadvisable. If the desperate escapee wasn’t dragged down to the bottom by the combined weight of iron and waterlogged clothes, then hypothermia would sap his strength; drowning would be inevitable. Assuming one could elude getting stabbed by the ever watchful guards.

Spying a patch of watercress within arm’s reach, Ayron decided to pluck a bunch of the pepper-flavored leaves to enrich his currently bland vegan diet. The flat of a blade meanly smacking the back of his hand changed his mind. Resting the drawn sword against his fur-padded shoulder, the unfeeling guard clicked his tongue reprovingly before nodding to the unfilled waterskins lying flaccid in a patch of trampled sweet grass.

“Reduced to being water boy,” grumbled the Elf, rubbing his smarting wrist. Yanking out the cork bung of his next waterskin before irritably shoving the neck beneath the surface, he wisely refrained from further comment.

Pushing down the stopper of his own filled waterskin with the heel of his hand, Garrich tossed the bulging bladder ashore. Plopping onto the bank, it squelched like a landed trout. “Better a live slave than a dead protestor,” he quietly soothed.

“Death might be preferable to whatever nasty end awaits u-” Before Ayron could finish uttering his gloomy thought a bellow overrode their exchange. Turning with the Elf, Garrich caught sight of Dhrac storming across the meadow like a whirling tornado. Swinging his pike like a scythe, the heads of the decapitated wildflowers erupted skywards like garishly hued geysers. Petals wafted on the disturbed air trailing Dhrac’s destructive passage, absurdly lending a carnival air to the spectacle.

Stomping to a halt before the laidback guard, the plainly rankled slayer seethed dangerously. Jamming his gauntleted hand at Garrich, he barked demandingly, “Who ordered putting the kid to work?”

“The chief did, actually. What’s it to you, Dhrac?”

Plenty, numbskull,” he snarled. “He is Omelchor’s guest, not a piece of meat to be worked to death! Ahnorr has no right.”


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