by Richard Dillio
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Three Ebrons were dead. A fourth Ebron stood but a few paces away, slender longsword held in his right hand and a vicious star-glass dagger in his left.
Grimgottlir, too, held a sword in his right hand, and blood dripped from the many notches that scarred the broad old blade. He held in his left hand a thick oaken shield banded with beaten iron, stout and unadorned. He had slain men in every nation except the Old Empire, and only because he’d never been there. He knew skill and experience when he saw it, and this young Ebron was a seasoned warrior who did not visibly fret over the loss of his companions — he stood calm, yet coiled for action.
The Ocrian plain behind them both was a cracked nightmare of blasted, stunted trees and volcanic earth, the endless gray of a land constantly besieged by the ash of violent eruptions. A cool breeze brushed across the pair as they faced each other, but it was not pleasant; it was electric, carrying the scent of a storm. Another gust kicked up, and the ancient wooden door behind the Ebron creaked.
“Your bandit friends have paid for their sneakery,” Grimgottlir said. “They were wolves. But wolves should know to stay away from a bear.” The words came from within his broad helm and bushy, red-grey beard. The big Rhoed-man was angry, not only at the clumsy, unprovoked attack but that the three had crashed against his shield so ineffectively, wasting their lives. They would go unburied in this hellish land.
The Ebron was tall, and wore no helm. His head was close-shaven, nearly bald, and Grimgottlir noted the wide cheekbones and a strong jaw that clenched in anger. He’d met many Ebron fighters over the years and, while they were pleasant enough in peace, the southern tribesmen were known for their hot-headed, touch-and-go honor. It made them heedless to circumstance.
“You will pay in blood for their deaths, old one,” the Ebron said, proving himself no different in temperament from the rest of his kin.
Grimgottlir rapped his iron sword against the metal edge of his shield.
“Come collect, young pup.”
The Ebron’s composure broke and he moved towards the big Rhoed in a flash, his slender sword shimmering in for the thrust, the surest of kills. Grimgottlir turned the point with his shield and made a probing slash with his own blade.
It met nothing as the Ebron danced back. The younger man was impossibly quick, and the Rhoed warrior waved the iron sword around as if were a hollow stick. They were fairly matched, Grimgottlir allowed, and they squared off, each searching the other for weakness.
The Ebron came in again, sword low, his black glass dagger hidden from view and ready for the unseen thrust. But Grimgottlir had seen this trick before, and decades of experience intervened. Aided by his significant bulk, he slammed his shield into his opponent.
Though tall, the Ebron was lightly armored in leather and mail, and he could never hope to stand up against such a beating. He was shoved backwards and stumbled on the rocky scree. He fumbled his grip on his slender sword, but a tassel held it to his wrist, and he did not lose it entirely. The wind was blasted from his lungs.
“I mean to enter yon cave, young friend,” the Rhoed said, his irritation melting away. “You are brave and skillful. Go home, and fight another day. I will pour a horn in your honor, and wish your friends well in the afterlife.” He added a silent oath to Bael, hoping the brash young warrior would take the chance. He had no stomach for the kill.
The Ebron came to his feet. “I have sworn a mighty oath that I would reach the heart of the Dirge,” he said, clearly winded but still game.
“Then let us go together,” the Rhoed said reasonably, impressed with the young man’s courage. “We could have done so before, had your companions but asked.”
The Ebron shook his head. “It is too late now, old one. I cannot walk in peace with the man who has slain them, and neither will we share the riches of that tomb.”
Another breeze came through, carrying the tang of salt water from the Bronze Sea to the north. The scent of woodsmoke came from yet another direction, probably the Pashary camp that lay to the east. Grimgottlir sighed, and after a moment his shoulders sank with weariness. A lifetime of battle had hardened him to slaying, but he was bound on a special task and it gave him no thrill to fight young men, however skilled they might be.
“I have no wish to add your corpse to the pile I already carry. You southerners are stubborn to the point of death.”
“We must settle this,” the Ebron said, sword and dagger ready.
“It will not be settled,” Grimgottlir said. He gripped his sword tighter, and did not fight the disappointment that threatened to overwhelm him. It always seemed to come to this.
“Then I will—”
The Ebron stopped mid-shout. His weapons came down as he squinted into the gray landscape. Several figures were coming into view.
Grimgottlir turned instinctively, combat forgotten. His old eyes were not as keen as the Ebron’s, but he had seen enough tribesman in his day to know what bore down on them. “Sons of bitches,” he said, sheathing his sword without looking. “Pashary hunters.” He turned back to the Ebron.
“Into the cave, now!” he ordered, as arrows hissed into earshot. Grimgottlir spun, his round shield held steady upward, and several arrows sifted into the wooden planks. One or two shivered off the iron banding like errant darts. An arrow struck his helm. It skidded off, but the screeching of metal tip onto metal helmet made his ears ring.
He spun back. Against human opponents, the Ocrians preferred to loose their arrows in volleys, so he knew they had precious few seconds. It was then that he saw the young Ebron, shaft jutting from his left side, trying to spring the door. It was stuck fast.
Grimgottlir closed the distance between them and the Ebron stumbled backwards to get out of the way. The Rhoed hurled his mighty frame against the aged wooden timbers of the door. They rattled under his bulk, but held. With gritted teeth and one final heave, he crashed the door inward.
“Go,” he shouted, and half-threw the injured young warrior past the threshold. More arrows peppered the cave entrance as he shoved his way into the tight confines of the rocky enclosure, and one arrow managed to slip through the open door. It struck a rock and careened off into the inky blackness.
He could hear the gravelly-voiced shouts of the Pashary hunters who pursued them, and their colorful curse words floated across the rock-strewn landscape. Grimgottlir snorted at their tenacity, and threw his entire body into the door to close it. The wood of the frame split, and a cascade of sharp, volcanic rocks came down to seal the entrance. The door creaked, and further splitting sounds told him that no one was getting through this entrance without several hours of hard labor. He waited for a moment, listening to the tribesmen fuss over the sealed entrance, but as he suspected they soon gave up, and their voices faded away as they headed back to their camp. They would be sure to rob the dead first. Grimgottlir made an oath for their departed spirits, and hoped that robbery would be the only humiliation they should suffer. The Pashary possessed some truly grisly funerary rites.
Grimgottlir’s shield slipped from his grasp, and he all but collapsed to the stone floor. A small amount of light, its source unknown, beckoned from the throat of the cave. It illuminated the dark-skinned, sweat-sheened face of the young Ebron. It was a face tight with pain from the arrow, which had been snapped off in the ensuing tumble. But he did not complain, and the Rhoed found himself impressed by the young bandit.
“You wanted in,” he said after catching his breath. “Welcome to Cayel’s Dirge.”
* * *
The two men sat in silence for several minutes, and Grimgottlir used the break to examine the cave. Memory came to him in waves: the creaking groan of the cave door as he and his brother wrenched it open, decades ago. The musky scents of mold, of mildew, of mushrooms, of things left to rot in the earth. The dampness of the air, thick with menace, that made his lungs feel heavy. And above all that, the terror of flight as the nightmare chased him from the gloom of the cave. He let out a breath to clear the disturbing thoughts.
“We are not opening the door from this side, and you’d best tend to that arrow,” Grimgottlir said, without looking at the Ebron. He kept his voice down; the dim light practically guaranteed they were not alone in the cave.
The young man jerked as if waking from a daze. “I... I am fine,” he said.
The silence lingered, and Grimgottlir could sense the man had more to say.
“You saved my life. Why?” he said at last, with plain bewilderment. He began to pull off his leather and mail breastplate the arrow had punctured, and it mercifully came free without a struggle. His green undertunic was soggy with blood, and a deep breath elicited a series of wet coughs. He spat a serious mouthful of blood onto the stone.
Grimgottlir pulled off his helmet. Were the light better, the Ebron would have seen a mane of red hair, and would have perhaps rethought his initial estimation of the Rhoed’s age. His beard was mixed with gray, but his face was ruddy from exertion and unlined, his green eyes bright in the dim light. He radiated raw strength.
“Why?” the young man asked again.
“A man took a chance on me when I was young,” Grimgottlir said. “What is your name?”
Silence again followed, and Grimgottlir knew the young warrior was mulling it over. But he relented, as he must. “Dhakirr.”
The Rhoed extended his hand in the warrior’s greeting, meaning to clasp forearm to forearm. “Grimgottlir. They call me The Bear.” Instinctively, Dhakirr reached for the outstretched arm, but hissed in pain as the movement pulled at his ribs. His arm dropped, and he coughed up another mouthful of blood.
“Right,” Grimgottlir said, reaching into a pouch at his side and pulling out a small phial. Neither man said so, but the big warrior knew that arrow was in his lung. It was only a matter of time, and he had no wish to carry another soul on his conscience. He set the phial down. “Do you still have your dagger?”
“Why?” Dhakirr asked, his suspicion plain.
“Unless you want me to dig it out with my sword,” he began, with evident patience, “your dagger seems like the best option. Or would you rather leave it in?” He noticed the glint of shiny, purple-black glass behind the Ebron’s back, and he took the dagger without waiting for permission. Dhakirr did not protest.
“Every fool knows to leave the arrow in until it can be removed by a healer, old man. I’d rather not bleed to death in this cave.”
“Normally, you’d be right.” Grimgottlir shifted to a kneeling position. “But we are not leaving here without more fighting, and I need you at your best. Or close to it. If we leave this in, you will die.” He gripped the stub of the arrow shaft that jutted a finger’s length from Dhakirr’s ribs, and carefully cut the tunic from around the shaft. The light was barely adequate to the task, but this was not the first arrow he’d removed from a living man under less-than-ideal circumstances. He steadied his hands.
“This will hurt,” he said as preamble. Pulling on the shaft, he levered the arrowhead out with the glass dagger. Blood spurted over his fingers, and the Ebron let out a pitiful groan, but he did not shout.
Grimgottlir grabbed the small phial, cracked the wax seal, and brought it to Dhakirr’s face. The Ebron didn’t argue, but just drank.
“What was that?” he asked after a moment of heavy breathing. “My chest feels aflame.”
“A healing draught.” Grimgottlir looked at the empty phial, then placed it in his small hip pouch. “It is powerful magic, and not cheap,” he added. Such powerful incantations rarely were.
He noticed Dhakirr take another deep breath as the potion’s strong magic went to work on his ribs and punctured lung. A visible tremor passed through his body.
“It will take a moment,” Grimgottlir said, with an outstretched hand. “Do not rush, or you’ll throw it up. I do not have another.”
Dhakirr exhaled, then leaned back against the rock and closed his eyes. “As you say.”
“Why did you come here?” Grimgottlir asked, after a moment. “This cave is dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous place on the Plains.”
“It’s a long story, Rhoed. Grimgottlir,” he corrected, then coughed. More blood came up, but thinner this time. His body was healing, the magic of the small phial’s contents doing its keen work with speed.
“We have time,” the big man said. “And I saved your life, after your band tried to slay me. It is not too much to ask for an explanation.” He glanced over to his young companion, remembering a similar conversation decades before as the kind-hearted Elephon had drawn him out, while they waited in front of Broadshield’s fortress before the battle.
“Treasure,” Dhakirr said.
“I see.” Grimgottlir said, trying to master his irritation. Had he been this stupid when so young? He put his helmet back on. “Do I need to be concerned about you?”
“In what way?”
“A moment ago, you swore to kill me.”
“Yes,” the young man said, unable to meet the green eyes of the warrior. “I did. But... . we seem to be in a different situation.”
Grimgottlir nodded. “Let us reach the exit together, and sort it out afterwards.” He was hugely relieved, but he was careful to keep it from his voice.
Dhakirr made a measured shift to his feet. He was clearly woozy, but that would pass as he got moving. The big Rhoed likewise levered himself to his feet and picked up his shield. Several arrows stuck out from the wood like so many porcupine quills, and he snapped them off with one casual sweep of his bear-like hand.
“I don’t know why they call you ‘The Bear,’” Dhakirr said, careful to keep his voice quiet. He dusted off his breeches. “You are the calmest Rhoed I have ever met.”
Grimgottlir chuckled, but did not respond. Instead, he motioned with his shield. “The exit is this way.”
“How do you know?” Dhakkir asked, as he buckled his pierced leather and mail armor back into place.
“Because I’ve been here before.”
* * *
Without speaking, the two warriors made their way through the twisted cavern that was Cayel’s Dirge. The passage was cramped, cracked and crumbling from rot and time, but it radiated permanence and the doom of a grave. Occasional loose rocks shifted under their feet, but otherwise the path was solid and easily trod, and opened up the further they went.
Grimgottlir noticed the red light grow stronger, more orange as they made their way in, indicating it was from fire or lamps. There were people down there, he was certain.
“You are not the first person to have ideas about plundering this tomb,” Grimgottlir whispered. “If they will let me pass, I will do them no harm. What I seek is further in.”
“What is it you seek?” Dhakirr asked, as he adjusted his grip on his sword. He was almost fully restored now, the magic having done its swift work, and his agility let him take the downward path with ease.
Dhakirr stopped. “Against whom?”
Grimgottlir stopped also and, arm stretched out to his side, hunched down. The light of several lamps was now spilling into the passageway, and he sought to catch a glimpse of the inhabitants. It was different from how he remembered, all those years ago.
The passage curved around into a large, constructed wooden platform that ran into a high cavern. From there, loose and rickety-looking stairs led down to a small, open space. In that space were several man-made items, including tables, two rough cots, and a small fire pit. A stack of barrels and casks lay off to the right, and a shelf holding various foodstuffs was on the left. All of these things were new, or at least new to him.
Leaning over one of those tables were two figures, and Grimgottlir instinctively recognized their diminutive frames as belonging to Emperials. They were clad in black robes, and they spoke together in hushed tones, occasionally referencing a large, unrolled scroll that covered most of the table. Various glass and metal implements lay scattered about their feet and the table itself.
“Mages,” Dhakirr said, the distaste evident in his voice.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dillio