Showcase: Running Errant

“How dare ye accost me in this manner!” Koyson Seabourne straightened himself up to his full size of impressive four feet and half an inch, glaring at the human border guardsman – standing at well over six feet – in utter fury. “I’ll have ye know that I’m the Holy Protector o’Shailyya, the Sacred Island o’Silver Apples, an’ I’m also a Guardian o’th’Albinavian Crown. Now!” Koyson let go an imperious sigh and waved his hands before him. “Let me pass so I can sell my animal here to Baron Omrelliug in Murasant!”

The guardsman chuckled. “Dwarf, you –“

Dwarf?!” Koyson exploded and tugged on the axe in his belt. “I am a caidwarf, ye nitwit, a descendant of the great dweorgh Cay who fathered my people! Ye’ll learn what it –“

Instead of laughing, the guardsman whipped his sword out from its sheath and pointed it at the dwarf’s throat. His fellow guardsmen at the border crossing to the Duchy of Anecro followed suit, ignoring the other travelers keen on passing into the duchy. The guards were on edge, as anybody with eyes could know, gazing at Koyson as if he were a spy hired by the heathen Tonomai.

Once the Tonomai had held this area and all of the Raffaghil peninsula, calling it Nuâsdal, but now they’d been driven into their last exclave. Unfortunately that exclave – Gephrat – was right next door, with countless raids and counter-raids between them. Another round could start any day. Baron Omrelliug was a friend who had fought many of these skirmishes. Koyson hoped he’d get to him without any trouble. Except for the current one.

“Now who will learn what, dwarf?” the guardsman said with a dry smile.

Koyson glared at the tip of the sword all too close to his gray-skinned face, then let go of his axe’s handle with a grand motion. “I yield,” he squeezed out between his teeth. “Ye’d better remember this, for’t shall be th’only time the Holy Protector o’Shylaia has ever yielded t’anyone.”

“Ye’d better remember this, for’t shall be th’only time the Holy Protector o’Shylaia has ever yielded t’anyone.”

“Right,” the guardsman grinned at his nearest companions who slowly returned to their own business. The first guardsman pointed his sword at the hulking figure behind Koyson. “You want to bring a dangerous animal into Anecro, dwarf. I can’t let you do that unless you can control it.”

The animal in question chose that very moment to growl, a deep and throaty sound. It was eight feet tall, covered with heavy iron chains and shackles at feet and hand, over strips of leather that crisscrossed its white, shaggy-furred chest. Growling, it exposed its long fangs, darkened and stained from blood. The same stains covered the fur around its elongated skull, as well as the horns sprouting above its red, blood-shot eyes.

“Quiet, ye beast!” Koyson muttered, tugging on the chains. The animal quivered, its muscles bulged, but it lowered its head after a brief moment and uttered a mewing noise. “D’ye see now?” the dwarf turned back to the guardsman. “No mere beast can withstand the strength o’Koyson Seabourne, Guardian o’th’Albinavian Crown, Hero o’the Siege o’ Herkoun! Trust the caidwarf who sailed ‘round the Cape o’ Drownin’ an’ slew a seadragon there, savin’ my ship from the monster!”

“Looks more like that thing’d eat you for breakfast,” the guardsman grunted. (So did the beast, the sound rolling through the air, along with a notable quiver from its stomach.) “All right, let’s keep this moving. You may pass – but I’ll have the constables keep an eye on you, dwarf. One sign the beast’s getting loose, and the two of you will be put to the sword. Am I understood?”

Koyson bristled again but stopped himself from another tirade. “Very well,” he muttered. “I shan’t forget this, human, ye hear me?”

The guardsman shrugged, waved him through. The veins on Koyson’s neck were sporting an unfashionable color of dark gray as he trudged forward, yanking the hulking creature behind him. “Come on, ye beast!”

After a moment, the beast did. It shambled forward, as best it could with the shackles around its feet, past the guard – but not without leaning a bit in his direction. “Growl,” the creature grunted.

Koyson’s eyes nearly popped from his skull, and he tugged fiercely at the chains. None of the guards noted anything amiss, happy to be rid of the strange pair.

“Growl?” the dwarf finally exploded when the beast and he were half a mile away from the border crossing. The road leading to the next village took a sharp turn around a hillside which blocked the two of them from the guardsmen’s sight, and for the moment there wasn’t another traveler anywhere around to hear their exchange. Which suited Koyson extremely well. He would have died had he had to hold his fury inside for a single heartbeat longer. “May the Moonflash take ye, Vobul, did ye have to say ‘Growl’ to the human?! I know they’re oh-so-silly that they’ve never heard of furrag, but they’d surely… Humans aren’t all stupid!”

“Moonflash take ye, Vobul, did ye have to say ‘Growl’ to the human?!”

The beast shifted around, slipped one arm easily from its chains and plucked a blood-dripping boar’s leg from the leather straps on its chest. “That is surprisingly accurate,” the creature said in a deep voice, “considering the source.”

“What’re ye implyin’? I’m the Holy Protector o’Shylaia!”

“Exactly,” the creature replied and tore a strip of meat from the leg. Drops of blood went flying, spattering not only over the beast’s fur but also the dwarf’s face. Furiously Koyson wiped it off. “You were the ‘Holy Protector o’Shailyya’ –“ for a moment Vobul’s voice perfectly imitated the dwarf’s voice “ – just a few moments before.”

Koyson took a deep breath, shaded his eyes when he looked up towards his companion’s head four feet above him. “It’s the southern and northern variety o’the name, Vobul, that’s all. If ye’d ever travelled in the region, ye’d know that, ye – rag o’fur!”

“Furrag, Koyson,” Vobul corrected. “My kind are furrag. And I am the one who should be outraged. Chained and treated like a beast… That’s what you call crossing the border inconspicuously?”

“Sure,” Koyson replied self-righteously. “As if anyone’d’ve an iceshard’s chance in th’abyssal flames t’miss ye. Better they think o’ye as some beast, or somethin’. Look, ye’re conspicuous when ye’re asleep – and let’s not talk about yer eatin’!” The last was a shout because more drops of blood were flung at the dwarf, and Koyson had the strong suspicion his companion wasn’t just careless. “Now can we get goin’ t’see Omrelliug an’ bury ol’ Laervald? Or d’ye wanna go huntin’ ‘gain?”

Vobul shrugged, flung the bone of the boar’s leg over his shoulder. “I’ll survive,” he said, then looked with sudden concern at the remaining pieces of meat stuck behind his leather straps. “I hope,” he added before following the dwarf.

As the border guardsman had promised, the constabulary of the next villages had been alerted to the presence of the dangerous beast. Wherever they went, there was sure to be at least a pair of armored constables, bearing the duke’s eagle wing standard on their cuirasses, lances at the ready. Moreover, their vigilance grew edgier the closer they came to Murasant – drifting towards the west, and thus the Tonomai province Gephrat.

At one point, in-between villages, after shaking two very insistent constables, Koyson grumbled, “What is this place? Th’Raffaghilian copy o’ Cayaboré? Soldiers everywhere, can’t take a pee without’em watchin’.”

He looked about, a sneer on his lips, ready for a sarcastic comment of Vobul’s, but the furrag was nowhere to be seen. Koyson muttered under his breath. The nerve of that furrag! A heartbeat ago he’d been trudging by, and now there were only the open chains and shackles on the ground, for anyone to see! “All right,” Koyson rolled his eyes, “there isn’t anybody around, I know.” It was the principle that annoyed him. As well as the fact that Vobul had surely smelled some delicious meal – still walking and probably bleating – in the vicinity. He’d catch it and eat it without sharing any with the dwarf.

Koyson snorted and sat down amidst the dry shrubbery along the rammed-dirt road. Of course he could have walked on. The keen senses of the furrag would have led him straight back to the dwarf – but Koyson had no desire to carry the chains. Instead he plucked a metal bottle from the inside of his leather jacket and took a swig. Biting liquid poured down his throat, the finest liquor from Albinavia. Koyson was about to return the bottle to its pocket when he stopped and scowled at the engraved image of a kneeling knightdwarf on the bottle. “Damn ye, Laervald Spearguard, an’ damn yer gods.”

Koyson stared up for a moment into the blue sky. A few streamers of clouds were trailing through it, promising rain in the next few days. He didn’t like rain very much, which was common for all the dwarven races. All except for the knightdwarves of Albinavia who didn’t live in caverns and mines. The dweorgh Uttar’s descendants had raised villages and cities – and castles – much as if they were human rather than good, honest dwarves.

He grumbled about gods and the depraved knightdwarves who insisted on worshipping the deities.

“All right, all right!” Koyson suddenly snarled to the heavens. “I’ll get to it, ye hear? Bloody gods!” He unstoppered the bottle, pushed his thumb against it and gently dipped the bottle so a few drops moistened his thumb. He shook off the drops onto the ground, muttering, “Take this libation, oh ye gods, t’know that th’liquor’s shared with ye by yer subjects.” Then he quickly sucked the rest from his thumb, before returning the bottle to his jacket, grumbling about gods and the depraved knightdwarves who insisted on worshipping the deities.

He’d rather settle for just drinking the liquor. Unfortunately he’d made a promise to its previous owner, and Koyson was a dwarf who honored promises spoken over a friend’s dying breath. How he wished he didn’t! How he wished that damn Vobul wasn’t always so good at remembering these promises! Especially the one that had brought them into Anecro in the first place. “Damn ye, Laervald Spearguard,” he repeated, knocking on the second metal bottle under his jacket. The only spirits in there were the ashes of the knightdwarf from Omrelliug’s castle in Murasant. A friend who’d fought and died by their side.

For a while he watched the clouds. And then he suddenly sat up frowning. The furrag hadn’t come back yet! “What the abysses –“ The furrag wasn’t one to just forget about his friend, not even with a lot of tasty sheep around. Well, he didn’t forget for very long, anyway.

“Ye’ve not run into a sheepherder, have ye?” Koyson grumbled and headed into the direction where he supposed the furrag had gone.

At that exact moment, Vobul would have given the entire carcass of a wild boar if he had a mere sheepherder on his trail. Everything had gone perfectly for a while – he’d slipped off the chains, which had begun to chafe anyway, and he’d left Koyson behind whose nagging had also been chafing. Why ever did the furrag keep travelling with the dwarf? Oh, yes, caidwarf, how forgetful of him. He’d grinned at that thought, a sight that would have sent a village population rushing for their pitchforks. For some reason he liked Koyson, and it wasn’t the life debt he owed the dwarf.

More important things drew him onward. Sheep, to be exact. Morsels of pure, bloody goodness wrapped in wool. What they’d bought at the occasional butcher’s in the villages hadn’t been fresh. Leastways, not as fresh as Vobul liked it, and now there was this nice herd of sheep a mere half a mile away.

So he’d gone there, had stayed out of their wind – his scent wasn’t familiar to the local sheep, yet they could usually tell a predator -, and he’d gotten to the herd quickly, run in, grabbed two sheep under each of his arms and broken their necks with quick twists of his wrists. He’d sat down on a rock, happily chowed down, separating a few legs with slashes of his claws to store them in his leather straps, and then…

Then an arrow had sprouted in his right arm.

Vobul had yelped, fallen backwards from the rock and done his best to spot the attacker. He’d expected a sheepherder, or maybe a constable. Instead Vobul had seen three men in unfamiliar armor, dashing over the grassy field towards him, two of them swinging curved swords – very unlike the straight blades employed by the duchy’s constables – and the other fitting a second arrow to his bow. “This can’t be happening! Tonomai?!”

The next heartbeat, good sense had taken over, and he had dashed off. Furrag could run fast – easily outrunning humans (and sheep) at short distances, but they had to rest quickly. Surely that would prove enough to convince those Tonomai (what were they doing in Anecro?!) the chase was useless!

It hadn’t worked. The Tonomai had stayed on Vobul’s track, no matter how he’d tried to evade them. He’d led them away from the road where Koyson was still waiting, yes, but otherwise he hadn’t managed to shake them. If anything, he’d attracted more of them. Vobul wasn’t that good at telling humans apart, but some of his pursuers seemed notably different from the others. Especially the female human who’d shown up about half an hour after the initial encounter.

Now Vobul was hiding within a circle of bushes on a hilltop somewhere. Maybe he’d actually gotten closer to the road again? Maybe gotten Koyson into trouble?

“Maybe the dwarf should help me!” he growled.

“Maybe the dwarf should help me!” he growled. “Drúol swallow you, Koyson!”

The next heartbeat made him regret ever complaining. Speaking softly was difficult for a furrag –thus his voice carried down the hill, towards the Tonomai. They stopped, one swung his bow toward him, and Vobul darted from his concealment. The female shouted something urgent in her native tongue.

He didn’t think about charging the humans. They were sentient beings after all, and yet – his claws could dispatch them quickly.

Or maybe not.

Bright blue light flashed through the air, sizzled with the crackle of ice very close to him. Cold assaulted him, blasted him, as if a glacier had decided to melt right on top of him, back in his icy homeland.

Vobul yelped, lost his footing, fell.

Some guttural sounds came from the Tonomai behind him.

And the next thing Vobul knew was that very glacier closing around him, its cold embrace enfolding him, encasing him. He remembered that Tonomai had only female clerics, and that one of their primary weapons was an ice spell, and then… came darkness.

“Stupid rag o’fur!” Koyson shouted, pausing only to take another sip from the Albinavian spirits. He didn’t pour a libation now, and why should he have done so in the first place? Good caidwarves didn’t care about any gods! The gods had forsaken the dweorghs and didn’t care a bit about their dwarven descendants either. They should rot in their abysses or abodes or whatever they called it!

Koyson hadn’t found Vobul yet. Oh, sure, there’d been clear signs of his passage. Half-eaten carcasses of two sheep, for one thing. Angry as Koyson was, he had realized that Vobul would never have left anything more than bones behind if he hadn’t found trouble.

“Can’t walk two miles without –“ He stopped to stare at the footprints in the dry grass. Somebody had come by a very short time ago. Somebody who apparently had issues with Vobul. Wherefore it was only natural for the dwarf to whip out his axe.

Nobody – nobody – would assail Koyson Seabourne, hero of more than a thousand tales, unaware!

To his dismay, no foes stormed from any hiding place. Koyson snarled, whirled his axe about before his chest. When that brought forth no enemies – nor any applause -, the dwarf set his jaw and followed the tracks. They were fresh, so Koyson made sure to stay low. Not a problem for any dwarf, even when his gray skin and the steel of his armor stood out from the faded green of the grass.

This part of Anecro was hilly, the ground swelling and drooping every couple of hundred feet. It made for effortless concealment – which applied to both Koyson and any potential foes. He could separate three tracks of footprints in the grass by now.

His axe would take care of any foes. Better than Vobul’s claws. Why did that damn furrag not want to use his claws? “Oh, I cannot hurt any sentient beings,” Koyson mocked Vobul’s words. If the furrag ever made up his mind to be sane and defend himself, he’d be helpful. But no, he had to always look for a peaceful solution, no matter there rarely was any around.

“Leave it to a dwarf to solve –“

The words died on his tongue. There was another noise around the bend of a hill. Instantly Koyson dropped to the ground, his legs curled down to send him leaping at a potential foe with his axe leading the way.

Humans probably thought they sounded gruff, as long sa they knew no dwarven tongues.

To his axe’s dismay, the foe didn’t show himself right away. Instead he chattered on in a language full of vowels and trills (that humans probably thought of as gruff, as long as they knew no dwarven tongues.). Koyson grimaced. He didn’t understand a single word, and, really, he’d been forced to spend way enough time with humans to know their language. Provided they spoke meantongue, praying to the gods that stupid Laervald had worshipped.

This man and his companion didn’t speak that tongue, and a very easy explanation was only a couple of miles away. Tonomai. Had they lost their way, crossed the border without noticing?

Naaaah! Koyson rolled his eyes. These fellows could never have crossed a border as tightly patrolled as Anecro’s without noticing. Which meant… A raid, least of all.

Sincerely, Koyson hoped this wasn’t an invasion with hundreds of troops following them. In general, he didn’t mind human affairs much. Unfortunately he’d heard way too much about the Tonomai and their Unholy Assault four centuries ago. There was that legend of the Last Stand at Alguarnadón, humans and dwarves fighting together against the onslaught, and…

“The Moonflash take ye,” Koyson grumbled. Alguarnadón was a pretty damn good reason to hate the Tonomai. From what his father told him, an ancestor of theirs had fought there. An’ I ain’t gonna f’rget ye, great-great-whatever-grandpa.

Hating his devotion to duty and ancestry or any such crap, Koyson leapt out from his hiding place, swinging his axe ahead of himself.

Vobul was surprised to find a way back from oblivion. A glacier was supposed to freeze one to death. Thawing would only release another meal for your fellow furrag, not somebody alive enough to complain about being eaten.

Not that anybody was snacking on him. He was rather certain of that.

Vobul blinked. Melting ice flew from his eyelids, and he became aware of fresh pain in his jaw.

But light hit his eyes. Instead of the blinding glare of ice sheets reflecting the sun, there was the bleached green of grass dried in summer’s heat – and very much a northern summer’s heat. Scorching heat blazed at the parts of his body exposed from the ice. Plenty was still clinging to his lower body, his legs and part of his torso, including several pieces of meat that would be nearly inedible now, frozen and devoid of life’s warmth as they were.

Barbarians! And they were nearby. Humans. Tonomai. Vobul remembered seeing images of them in paintings – most of them depicting the Reconquest of the Raffaghil peninsula in the past decades -, and the five men walking about the small valley between softly sloping hills wore the same armor as the men in the paintings. And those who’d hunted him before.

Memories surfaced as if gradually released from a glacier. The hunt, the priestess… He saw her, five feet away from him, half bent over a human wrapped in chains. Her gown was slashed at the legs so she could run when required, but heavy jewelry hung over her chest, sure to slow her down. Vobul’s predator instinct was awake already, and he wondered how many heartbeats it would take him to catch her. No! he recoiled in disgust. I don’t eat sentient beings!

 “How long will it take, your highness?”

Vobul blinked. Those words had been spoken in meantongue rather than the Tonomai language. Why would the Tonomai speak a foreign language amongst themselves?

Because the speaker was no Tonomai. He now appeared in Vobul’s line of vision – the furrag couldn’t move his neck, and he forgot his problems when he saw the man. He wore the armor of the duchy’s constables, along with a flap on his shoulder that showed the laurel of Castle Omrelliug. Omrelliug? Yes, we’re close to Murasant, but… “Your highness?” the man repeated, unconsciously tapping his feet despite his subservient demeanor.

“Treason among our friend’s constables?” Vobul wondered.

The priestess shivered. Annoyed by the interruption, or –

A knife flashed in her hand, down into the chained human body before her. The body made a garbled, sputtering noise, as if a gag held back his scream. It was over soon, the priestess’ knife moving quickly – down the chest? Vobul couldn’t see, had to guess. More than that, he had to fight down the hunger gnawing at his inside, with the smell of fresh blood in the air. Something glowed, icy blue, up from the body, into the priestess’ knife and her arm.

“Your highness, please,” the constable insisted, much less politely.

“Yes!” the priestess hissed, as she whirled about as sharply as her knife had done. Vobul could see her face, so full of rage, wrath, and lust, her eyes gleaming red. So much like a furrag female! “It will take no much time now. Move sideways!”

The constable stepped aside, his hand slinking to the handle of his sword, while he watched the priestess stride towards the center of the clearing. On the ground something the size of a trunk gleamed like a diamond, looking like a flower bud. The priestess sank to her knees before it, spread her arms, one holding the knife. The constable made a small noise in the back of his throat – uneasy about having to wait or what was happening here?

The priestess was wielding magic. Not just any but blood magic, using the life force of her victims. Most species reviled blood magic, supposedly the darkest and most destructive. Furrag were different, as everything in their lives was associated with flowing blood, including magic. But this victim hadn’t been slain in combat as was proper, and he had been chained up. As was Vobul… He flexed those muscles free from the ice, meeting cold, metal resistance. Yes. The victim had been chained as Vobul was, too.

Blood magic – which could also work with delicious furrag blood, he realized.

“No much time,” the priestess repeated, embracing the diamond flower bud. Blood-red light streamed from her, the drops on the knife splashing into the diamond. The diamond’s surface quivered, so did the priestess, and then… Then the flower bud opened, folding back its petals. Inside the bud there was another diamond, a ball roughly two hands wide. It was glowing, too, pulsating in red like the pulse of a living beast. “The bomb,” the priestess whispered. “It is ready.”

The constable chuckled. “Enough to level Castle Omrelliug.”

“And more…” The priestess coughed, convulsed, turned her still blood-red eyes to Vobul, and the furrag knew exactly what she was going to say. “Much more blood than expectful for the bomb and your baron.”

“All the better,” the constable grinned and smiled at Vobul.

The furrag instantly squirmed against the chains. They were moving closer around him with every bit of ice melting, about to fit his body perfectly. But he was a furrag, stronger than any human being, surely he could break chains intended for the weak smallings!

Surely…

A dwarven axe can be a beautiful sight to behold when whirled by a master. The way it catches the sunlight, the way it twirls and sings, the way it gleams toward its rightful target.

For some peculiar reason a certain Tonomai soldier wasn’t able to respect the artistry in the axe’s motion. Oh, it might have had something to do with the axe digging into his chest through the armor.

But was that reason enough to disrespect a true master of the dwarven axe?

Three Tonomai had been walking past the hill where the dwarf had been hiding, one of whom now incapacitated by such minor injuries as broken ribs. If Koyson had let such troubles impede him, how would he ever have gotten past the Cape of Drowning?

He leapt over the body of the first Tonomai, wrenching his axe up in the same motion. Both his opponents raised their curved swords into a barricade of sharp blades – which Koyson evaded by driving his feet forward, transforming his assault into a feet-first plunge. Oh so slowly the blades turned down toward his chest.

Too slow as the dwarf skidded past the humans – his axe jutting out, hooking one of the curved blades and jerking it along.

When Koyson landed, the Tonomai sword flew past, clattering rather ownerless to the ground. The dwarf wasn’t one to ignore the plight of a good blade, swept it up and sent it flying at its previous owner while rolling back to his feet. The curved sword only distracted the pair of Tonomai.

A good reason for a fight!

One yelled what sounded like an insult to dwarvenkind in general. “Thank ye,” Koyson grunted, planting his feet into the ground, tucking his chin down so his helmet was pointing toward the Tonomai. Just going on the hatred of an ancestor five centuries remote was silly – but an insult by a Tonomai today, now that was a good reason for a fight!

He launched himself at the humans straight out, his axe spinning with the fury of an enraged caidwarf. It slashed into the raised arms of the now unarmed human, cut deep into his arms and sent him backward with a loud cry.

Unfortunately, the other Tonomai had enough mind left to swing his own sword into the dwarf’s shoulder. Pain lanced through him, made him miss the right moment to roll out the leap – and Koyson collided heavily with the Tonomai soldier whose ribs he’d broken.

Both went to the ground in a jumble of arms and legs, too confused for the dwarf to bound right back to his feet. All he could do was buck up his back like an untamed stallion, hoping his armor would be enough to repel any attack.

Half right, half wrong. One Tonomai ducked for his lost sword, the other smashed his blade with full force into the dwarf’s back. Luck had him strike a solid steel portion of Koyson’s back armor, only inflicting more pain. Which served to enrage him more.

“Alguarna-bloody-dón again!” Koyson yelled, exploding from the ground, splaying his arms wide – a dagger materialized in his left hand, its sharp edge intended to slice meat off a roast, but instead it cut Tonomai flesh. With his right hand, Koyson smashed his axe’s broadside into the face of the second standing human, breaking his nose with a satisfying crunch.

“For Alguarnadón!”

Both humans yelled, broke off their attack for a moment, while Koyson flipped in the air, brought his feet under him. Just in time for the human whose flesh he’d nicked to slash his sword up at him – and Koyson smashed his axe down onto the swinging blade, pinning it to the ground. Which left his other side wide open for the other human.

The dwarf swung himself across the first Tonomai, wrenching his axe free and bringing it up. Oh, yes! Sudden resistance met his blade, first splintering armor, then soft flesh. Sputtering sounds evaporated from the Tonomai who had foolishly followed the dwarf’s flight in order to slice him open – only to suffer the same fate himself.

He fell down on the other Tonomai who was trying to raise his own weapon. Koyson wasn’t one to ignore such gift occasions. He smashed the butt of his axe into the human’s throat, then quickly followed up with his dagger in the same spot.

Slowly he rose and shook his head. The entire fight had lasted only a few heartbeats. Oh, yes, surprise had been on Koyson’s side but – dammit – had he been good, or had he been great?

The Tonomai with the broken ribs made a gurgling noise.

“Oh,” Koyson grumbled and remembered just who had gotten him into this fight in the first place. He shook his head and kneeled by the single surviving Tonomai. “Ye’ve been vanquished by Koyson Seabourne, human,” he said. “Now take me to yer leader and the bloody rag o’fur, understood?”

The Tonomai draped over the dwarf’s shoulder coughed up blood. Koyson grimaced. “I didn’t hit ye tha’hard, ye fool!”

Apparently the Tonomai didn’t believe the caidwarf and insisted on spewing more blood, spattering it over Koyson’s armor. “Will ye stop that?” Koyson complained. The only response was more blood, not even the foreign Tonomai words.

Koyson grunted, dropped the human to the ground. “Ye’re no good f’r anybody,” he declared and kicked the convulsing man for good measure. The Tonomai grunted, that was all. Unlike the previous two occasions, he didn’t try to crawl in a specific direction – which Koyson had guessed to be the meeting place of the humans.

The Tonomai sighed, spluttering noise amidst the blood. “Kill… me…”

“Kill… me…”

Koyson stared at him. That was the first time he’d thought he’d recognized any of the human’s words. “D’ye mean’t?” he asked. The man was dying, that was sure. Bloody annoying, as far as Koyson was concerned.

Then his axe spun down, sinking into the Tonomai’s throat. The body convulsed once more, relaxed, let go of bladder and guts. His lips were twisted into a sweet smile of release.

“All right,” Koyson muttered, hefting his axe. “Give yer one god my regards, an’ all that.” Just marvelous. Laervald Spearguard’s dead, and he’s still landing us in trouble. The landscape didn’t look any different than it had before. Hills running into other hills, leaving the odd valley between them. They all looked the same, dirt and splotches of grass dried by the sun.

Vobul had to be somewhere ahead. Koyson hoped so. If not, the Tonomai had been too stupid to find his way around here. Humans. What else could a good caidwarf expect from them?

Vobul found some give in the chains on his right arm. The ice was almost entirely gone from his legs – he could move them as far as the chains permitted. Why was the metal so tough? It didn’t shatter as metal should after freezing. Ah, Vobul, this is not true glacier’s ice. It is magical as are the chains.

The constable – from Baron Omrelliug’s staff, according to some of his comments – was watching the furrag, glancing over to the gleaming blood-ice ball in the diamond flower. Its pulsating gnawed on Vobul as much as his stomach did. He had no interest in feeding his own blood to that ball – especially when it was a bomb intended for a friend like Omrelliug!

Remember the give in the chains! Yes, that was the way to go. Force your right arm to loosen the links, that’s right.

“Soon…”

The priestess was breathing deeply, staring at the diamond ball. She was exhausted from her blood magic, recuperating before she could repeat the deed and charge the ice bomb with more blood. Furrag blood.

“Soon,” the word escaped her mouth like a lost trail of smoke in the chill of Robhovard.

“Soon,” the constable repeated and grinned at Vobul.

Soon, the thought crashed through the furrag’s mind, the stupid dwarf had better make an appearance! Why else do I drag him around with me?

Koyson flattened himself against the hilltop, the very moment he heard the Tonomai language sound uncomfortably close to him. Hah! Who needs keen hunting senses when he’s got a brain? He crept higher, peeked between two rocks. The valley beneath was small, holding four men, a woman and a chained furrag. Koyson couldn’t help but grin. So he wasn’t the only one who thought a rag o’fur in chains was the best kind of furrag.

His grin died when he saw the female human rise with a knife in her hand and walk determinedly towards Vobul.

His eyes darted about, caught the two guards at each end of the valley. Koyson scowled. Flinging his eating dagger could take out one of the guards – maybe. They had helmets, so he couldn’t be sure, and he didn’t want to waste his axe on a throw like that. There had to be some other way, some –

There was a gleaming thing in the center of the valley, a thing that cried magic to anybody whose eyes had burst in a mine shaft collapse. It looked dangerous. Very dangerous, in the way it pulsed and glowed, trails of it wafting toward the woman.

Koyson never was one to ponder options. He saw an opportunity, and he took it.

He swiveled his head about, bones cracking into place, then he jutted his chin firmly into his chest armor, folded his arms and axe just under it, and gave himself a push.

Like a rolling boulder, Koyson tumbled down the soft slope, gaining speed with every turn, and grinning madly.

The priestess was a foot away from Vobul. The two Tonomai were closer. And his arm was about to slip from the chains… He had to grab the woman quickly, wrest the knife from her hand, use her as a shield. Surely her subordinates wouldn’t attack her! Then he could extract himself from this situation without any bloodshed. The woman only had to come a little bit closer, just a little bit…

At that exact moment something distracted the Tonomai guards by Vobul’s side, something that sounded like a screaming landslide. The humans – including the priestess and the constable – looked up the hill behind the furrag, staring at a spectacle they’d never seen.

Vobul had, though. All too often.

A spectacle for humans. A familiar nuisance to Vobul.

His arm flew free from his chains, claws springing free, and Vobul grabbed for one Tonomai sword – not the human, of course. He yanked the sword free and slammed it at the blade of the second guard. Yes! Metal clanged against metal, the second Tonomai’s eyes flew in a dumb stare to his blade as the it was torn from his hands.

A dwarven landslide rushed into the clearing, bouncing over the rocky ground – then flying, extending itself into a leapfrogging Koyson, his axe preceding him toward the priestess.

Vobul flung himself forward, dug his free claws into the chains deeply and yanking. The Tonomai shouted something. The chains over one leg loosened, and he kicked (unintentionally catching one Tonomai’s side and crushing his ribs). More metal links splayed open, flew away under his pressure, and –

He saw Koyson arrive at the priestess. The dwarf crashed into her, the axe slicing flesh for good measure, slamming both of them into the ice bomb. Koyson bounded up from the ground instantly. The priestess, though…

An inhuman scream tore through the air.

She was yelling, the glow of blood and ice rushing from her head, through her upper torso. Everything – she, the diamond flower, the bomb inside – was pulsating, frenetically, faster and faster…

Koyson yelled happily and launched an axe-swing toward the nearest man (wearing a constable’s armor?!). “Meet Koyson Seabourne and be vanquished!”

The man drew his sword, swirled it about in showmanship that proved his excellence with the weapon. Yes, that was a foe Koyson would cherish besting!

He jumped up, twirled his axe, allowed his blade to meet that of the human – no sense wasting showmanship, right? The man responded with an attack of his own, so ferocious that Koyson had trouble beating it back. All right, a bit more attention, please, he told himself (and couldn’t help noticing the other enemies running away, along with a horse no longer tethered and neighing in terror).

Too much distraction. The constable’s blade broke through Koyson’s defense, stabbed into his armor – the dwarf twisted around, so the armor plates deflected the brunt of the assault, but the plates dug deep into his flesh. He slammed his axe up, the broadside heading for the constable’s face.

No doubt the axe would have smashed the human’s nose. Then the dwarf could have leapt down, battering his helmeted head into the human’s torso, mowing him to the ground. No doubt about that – but Koyson never got to that part.

“What are ye doin’? Moonflash take -“

Instead of winning glorious combat, he found himself swept from his feet, dangling at the end of a white-furred fist and very much flying away from the scene of battle. “What the –“ he yelled, then shrieked instead, “Vobul, ye flea-brained rag o’fur, put me down! I’ve got Alguarnadón t’avenge!”

The furrag wasn’t in the mood to answer, and Koyson was becoming unpleasantly aware of the nearest hill’s rocks rushing towards him. “Higher, ye louse-ridden –“

For once, Vobul was too slow in reacting – or was he? – and the dwarf’s helmeted head banged straight into a rock.

The magical diamond was exploding. Slowly. Vobul heard it, the crackle of a glacier expanding faster than was natural. He knew the sound too well. Tendrils of ice were slipping from the diamond, freezing, shattering what they met, transforming a sunbaked valley into a sheet of ice.

Outrunning a glacier shouldn’t be difficult! How would his friends back at the village laugh at him –  right now, it wasn’t ridiculous at all. The glacier was expanding behind him, while he was racing up the hill, Koyson in one fist.

Screams were following him, but they were cut short. The ice swallowed them.

Further, faster!

Chilly air caressed his back. Vobul ran on, used all of his speed and then…

Then he fell down, panting. His muscles were spasming, he couldn’t move, not one bit.

Chill. Cold. Cool.

Home.

Death.

No. Not yet. Not yet dead.

Not yet dead…

Vobul closed his eyes, tightened his grip around the dwarf and crawled forward. The cold was around him, but he could fight it. Ice crystals were forming on his fur, so familiar, so deadly. He couldn’t stop. Koyson. Stupid caidwarf. Couldn’t have stayed back. Move. Keep moving.

The furrag had no idea how much time passed. His body had transformed into a single pain by the time warmth shone down on him, and a horse was whickering nearby. He couldn’t see – his eyes were encrusted with ice – so he trusted his nose to guide him. Somehow he slung the dwarf over the scared horse’s back, and he didn’t remember anything of the next moments. Or hours.

“The horse?!” an irate dwarf kept nagging.

“Well…” Vobul pressed out between munches of tasty horse flesh. “I was hungry.”

“Really? What a surprise!” Koyson shouted. “Weren’t there any sheep around for ye t’eat? Ye jus’ had t’pick a li’l horsey that never hurt nobody!”

The furrag chewed intently on the bone so he didn’t have to answer.

As it was, Koyson kept on shouting about the fate of the “poor horse” and ignored the fact that it was Vobul who was carrying the saddle on his back, with Koyson on it. Really, how ignorant could the dwarf be? Something that tasted this good just couldn’t be left uneaten!

They reached Castle Omrelliug outside of Murasant right before nightfall. The baron came out to find his old comrades in arms collapsing to the ground. “What happened to you?!” Omrelliug shouted as his men poured out of the gate. And were rather keen to attack the shaggy monster of a furrag. The baron yelled at them, “Weapons down! That’s a friend!” The constables weren’t too ready to obey, so Omrelliug snorted and plucked Koyson from the saddle. The caidwarf protested, of course, that this was no way to treat the Hero of Shyamalain, Protector of –

“Shut it,” Omrelliug told him. “Shima Lyar threw us out on our asses.”

“Shut it. Shima Lyar threw us out on our asses.”

Koyson glared at him. Vobul smiled as he unslung the saddle.

“Now. What happened to you?” Omrelliug folded his arms before his chest. Caidwarf and furrag told him, and the baron grimaced. One of his own constables a traitor? Conspiring with the Tonomai to destroy the castle? “Anybody else,” he said wearily, “and I’d laugh at you. Friends, let us talk about this tomorrow. This sounds bad. Like there’s one more of Koyson’s tales about to unfold.”

 “First things first,” the caidwarf in question muttered and plucked the second metal bottle from his jacket. “Laervald Spearguard. A fool of a knightdwarf, but a bloody good friend.”

Omrelliug and Vobul both lowered their heads, their eyes watching Koyson expectantly.

“No, ye don’t!” Koyson grimaced. “One o’ye two’ll do this, not –“

Neither the human nor the furrag made any motion.

“Moonflash take ye both,” Koyson said, then walked to the edge of the castle moat. Flowing water. In the open. Where the sun could shine on it. Disgusting. “Knightdwarves!”

He shook his head, unstoppered the bottle and upended it over the moat. The ashes of Laervald Spearguard fell out, joined the waters of the moat. “Ye better be happy now, Laervald. Ye c’n defend th’castle f’rever now, my friend.”

“Forever,” Omrelliug said solemnly. “As in life, so in death.”

Koyson shuddered at the sight of dwarven ashes merging with flowing water. “Whatever. Can we go inside and eat now?”

“Can we eat now?”

“I second that!” Vobul said with sudden eagerness.

“What a surprise,” Koyson grumbled, then shook his head, pulled out the first bottle and drank from the Albinavian spirits – after pouring a libation to Laervald’s gods. He shared it with his two friends who did the same, and then…

Then Vobul’s dreams of a full pantry with plenty of fresh meat came true.