Many weeks had passed and the summer heat was beginning to fade with autumn near, but already the Dwarves of Forgestone had completed construction of the large stone building that would serve as their smithing facility. Of course they had received great magical help, but it was still impressive. Ten huge forges lined the walls of the main room of the Dwarven facility, amazing Aurei and the people of the town with their precise, but speedy construction. Thorm proudly escorted the large group of townsfolk around the facility, gleefully answering questions and proud of the awe that the speed of construction had generated.
Aurei stood nearby, sweating in the well-insulated room, very pleased that the town had so whole-heartedly embraced the business proposal of the Dwarves. Even the small army of Dwarven masons that had descended upon the town that summer had been met with pleasant curiosity by the usually cautious townsfolk and their good natured attitudes had been returned by the Dwarves to such a degree that it bordered on the supernatural. Now, the masons having left three days ago (after the people of Westmark had thrown a huge banquet for them), the twenty five Dwarven smiths were giving an open house for the people of the town.
Freila Stamplefolt, one of four Dwarf women who had moved here to labor along side her husband and brothers in the foundry, was demonstrating to Leah Flydros the mechanical bellows that the Dwarves had designed for the forges. The girl had really taken to the Dwarves, especially Freila and her sister Tam, which pleased Aurei greatly.
Everyone in town had been very fascinated by finally actually seeing female Dwarves. Too everyone's surprise, they were not gruff, ugly bearded matrons as had been told to them over the years, but were instead all beardless, very fair (though stout), ladies not that different from Elves, Halflings or human women.
"Ye are lucky" Thorm had told her when the Dwarf females had first arrived, "Few outsiders ever see a Dwarf lady. We guard our womenfolk jealously." The four women had fit right in, however, and all were comfortable around the townsfolk.
"Aurei!" Leah called to her from across the room, "Guess what? Freila said I could serve as her apprentice at the foundry!"
"Congratulations! I'm sure she will train you well." She was very pleased that the girl was coming out of her shell after the horror of the massacre.
"I will indeed, Duchess." Freila spoke up with a pat on Leah's back, "She has the interest that fuels a good apprentice."
"Freila, I'm so very glad your people decided to construct your foundry here. It is a definite boon to us."
"And to us as well, Duchess! Long have we wanted to sell to a larger group of people, and this foundry is the beginning of that dream."
"Pardon me ladies." It was the voice of Neal coming from behind
them and Aurei knew what the guard had come to tell her.
"It's my turn?" she asked him.
"You're up, Duchess." He said with a grin, "Pectros said to tell you to wear everything - including the Helm."
"It's so hot though." She protested.
"Battle sometimes occurs in hot weather, Duchess."
"I know." she sighed, "Okay, I'll get my gear on, tell him I'll be there in a quarter hour."
She excused herself from the Dwarves and hurried back to the Keep for the weapons training session. Pectros had done very well the past three months in training the militia, and Aurei had included herself in that training. Today they were taking turns sparring in heavy armor - not the lightweight Drow suit that she had already commissioned the Dwarves of the new foundry to repair after it had been damaged in the battle with the undead giant, but instead a hot, heavy suit of chainmail, complete with an equally heavy full-head helm. Add to that a large shield and a long sword and she was guaranteed to spend at least an hour in the Inn's underground bath house to cool off later in the evening.
Ten minutes later she was suited up and headed downstairs to the training hall, pausing a moment to look out a window at the impressive new tower that had been constructed thirty feet from the Keep by the Bitter Dregs. They had decided to build a tower and open a branch of the Blood Knights order in the town, after hearing of the dangerous beasts encountered earlier in the summer - and then learning of the Dwarven foundry also being constructed. The order had wisely contracted the Dwarven masons that were building the foundry to also construct their tower and had sent a handful of their own masons to guild their work. They had also brought something never seen before by the people of the town and perhaps even by the Dwarves. Golems - not the type used by wizards to guard treasure, but large construction golems made of iron. Twenty of them, all resembling some sort of giant gray colored man, were lead into town by twenty sorcerer 'controllers' on horseback, nearly three months ago. The golems had worked constantly, day and night, each doing the work of a score of men, in shifts of ten.
With the help of the golems, the Dwarves had not only completed their own construction quickly, but were able to put up a three story square tower at the same time, as well as join the tower to the ducal keep with a thick defensive wall along with a covered pathway between the two on top. The Golems had even been used to modify the water system so both new buildings (which stood very close to each other) joined the magical plumbing system that had been constructed many years before. Then they had loaded up the unused stone and extra materials into a large convoy of carts and sent them back to Forgestone. The Golems, their controlling wizards and Bitter Dreg masons had left the same time as the Dwarf masons and the town awaited the arrival of the inhabitants of the knightly order. For now, though, it stood empty, an impressive stone construction, that, along with the foundry, made the town seem more militarily secure.
Aurei hurried down into the training hall, to find Brolen helping
a rather angry looking Krys stand up. The girl was drenched in
sweat and pulled her arm free from the guard angrily, then,
greatly favoring her left leg, hobbled over to a bench, carrying
a heavy helm similar to Aurei's own.
"He cheated!" She said to Aurei, glaring at the guard who was mopping his own sweaty brow with a towel.
"There is no fair play in battle, Krys." he told her in a matter-of-fact voice.
"Remember that when you order something for dinner at the Muddy Boot!" she snapped, plopping down her helm next to her.
"Aurei, these helms are horrible! You can't see out of them!"
"You're not used to them yet.", Brolen interjected.
"I don't plan on wearing one again." Krys countered.
"Relax, both of you.", Aurei said to the feuding duo, "Watch me get humiliated by Pectros instead, that'll cheer you up. Where is Pectros, anyway?"
"Oh!" Brolen snapped his fingers, "I forgot to tell you - the leaders of the Blood Knights just arrived. Pectros is seeing that they get something to eat before they meet with you."
"Maybe I ought to go over and see them." Aurei turned to head back over to the Muddy Boot, but Pectros came through the main door at that moment.
"Not so fast, my dear Duchess." the captain of the guard said his voice muffled within his helm, "You have a test to pass first. Get your helm on and let the beatings begin."
"I'll try not to hurt you too bad." she quipped back as she put the heavy helm over her head. She turned as best she could so she could see at least a sliver of Pectros and the Great Hall through the tiny eye holes of the great helm.
"Be on your guard!" the Captain of the Guard warned, holding up his unsharpened long sword and shield as he closed in on her.
Aurei pivoted back on her heels, falling into three months of training as she waited for his advance. Suddenly he moved in right in front of her, her view of him through the slit-like eye holes disappearing. She quickly tried to position the helm so she could see him, only to have the helm resound like a bell from Pectros' swing.
"That was easy!" he tormented her, moving to her left, again out of sight.
"Stand still!" she snapped around, swinging her sword at his last position and connecting only air.
"You have to anticipate your opponent's next move." the captain said, slamming his blunt sword down hard on the top of her helm again, causing her ears to ring from the sound. Aurei flashed around, swinging her sword low, but his shield was there, deflecting the blow. His sword came up from below this time, hitting the bottom of the helm and sending the helmet sailing off her head, much to Krys and Brolen's amusement.
"You're right, Aurei!" Krys said laughing, "This is enjoyable."
"Game over!" Pectros said, waving his sword in her face.
"Not so! You only knocked my helm off, now let's see how you fare, face to face."
The guard yanked his helm off with a big grin, "You're on."
He swung his shield abruptly in a move to knock her off-balance. But the girl's sight was restored now and she simply stepped backwards, then used her shield's edge to force his shield lower then he intended. She swung quickly at his exposed head, checking the power she put into the swing so as to not hurt him, but she had nothing to worry about, for the Guard Captain had his own sword up to deflect the blow. He tried a quick spinning reversal, attempting to disarm her, but she disengaged, shielding her left side like he had taught her.
"Good!" he said, but at the same moment his sword shot straight
out aimed at her chest. She spun left, her shield against her
chest, causing the sword to glance off. Continuing the spin,
she saw him position his shield for an anticipated assault to his
upper body, as she suspected he would. Instead, she flexed low,
sweeping her leg out as she came around and gracefully catching
the man off balance. Back he fell, his arms and legs
pin-wheeling as he crashed down onto the stone floor.
"Take that!" she said, comically putting one foot on his chest and holding her blunted sword as if to chop off his head, "Yield, sir!"
Suddenly she heard Krys shout out something and a moment later something crashed into her back with great force, sending her tumbling over Pectros, who was looking up at something behind her with a very surprised expression on his face. She managed a rather clumsy roll in the heavy chainmail , coming up in a squat with her shield held over her head as she'd been taught. She wasn't sure if the rear assault was part of the training exercise, but what she saw when she looked at her attacker took her completely by surprise.
His eyes were the first thing she noticed. They were glowing
fiery red and seemed to be filled with fury. His skin was a
rather drab gray color, though his features were sharp and quite
handsome and by his white brow and short white hair, she knew at
once that her attacker had to be at least partially Drow.
"Hey!" she managed to say before his attack came upon her. He wore dark gray plate armor that was scratched and scuffed in many places yet had a bright red cross painted on his breastplate. But the focus of her attention was the massive Great Sword that he swung at her with all of his fury, aiming to take her head off.
She ducked, her extreme quickness saving her head. The Great Sword cut deep into her upraised shield, cutting it in half as if it were made of parchment, as well as slicing through the chainmail covering her arm. She gasped at the flash of pain from her arm, but had no time for any other response, for he had somehow turned his slash into a great looping overhead cut. She dove out of the way, rolling quickly to her feet as his sword took a chunk out of the stone floor. Pectros was frantically trying to crawl out of the middle of the assault, and Krys and Brolen were yelling for the ducal guards.
With a snarl, the gray skinned knight swung his sword right then left like a massive sickle, and she scrambled backwards out of the path of the whistling sword, blood dripping from her arm.
"Who are you!?" she challenged, but that seemed to only make him angrier and he lunged forward with a sword chop aimed at her right shoulder. She had no choice but try to parry with her unsharpened practice sword. The blow was deflected by her blade but the impact nearly knocked the Long Sword from her grasp. She desperately tried to think of something to do to stop the insane attack, but before her mind could formulate anything, he suddenly used the heavy pommel of the sword as a club and caught her hard on the chin, making her bite her tongue. His foot shot out, connecting with her belly, thrusting her back into the wall. She tried to get her sword up in time but his blade slammed down on her sword, knocking it from her grasp. With lightning speed, his hand shot out and closed around her neck. A second later she was being choked as he held her off the floor with one hand while his other hand held the huge two-handed sword. Red dots flashed across her vision as he cut off her oxygen and she felt herself blacking out.
Wow he's strong, she thought wishing she could at least know who he was before she died.
"ELEAZAR!!!" A man's deep voice screamed from right behind the knight, "IN THE HOLY NAME OF YESH, RELEASE HER OR BY THE ALMIGHTY I WILL CUT YOU DOWN RIGHT NOW!!!"
Aurei felt herself falling, hard to the floor, gasping for air, her windpipe crushed by the knight's grasp. She tried to draw in breath, but her throat would not let air pass. Wide-eyed in panic, she gagged and coughed, but already an older human man with the same military haircut as her attacker and also wearing plate armor with a red cross painted on the breastplate was kneeling beside her, terrible concern on his kind face.
"Can you breathe?" he asked, and she shook her head.
"In the name of Yesh be healed!" he immediately said, gently touching her crushed windpipe with his gauntleted hand. A flash of light and immediately the sites of her wounds began tingling, while her throat seemed to burn as if it was now on fire. She took a deep ragged breath, thankful that the passage was clear. The older man gently set her head down on the cool stone of the floor.
"ARE YOU INSANE, ELEAZAR?!" the man turned in a flash to the red-eyed knight who stood there, his fists clenched, barely controlling his anger.
"She was about to kill that guard." he responded, pointing at Pectros with his sword.
"We were sparring!" The Captain explained, and Eleazar just snorted in disgust.
"DO YOU REALIZE WHO YOU JUST NEARLY KILLED?" the older man was right up in the gray skinned Elf's face, yelling inches away from his nose, "THIS IS THE DUCHESS! DUCHESS BUGLEY!!! SHE RULES THIS DUCHY AND YOU WELL NIGH KILLED HER!!"
"I could not have known that - you never mentioned she was a dark elf."
"Can you see why we didn't mention that? Never in my wildest dreams did I think you would react so violently, Sir Eleazar!"
"Who would expect to find a Drow in the Northlands?" he looked at her with great disgust and hatred evident in his gaze, "What is she doing up here? This is no place for such a thing as her!"
"Eleazar! Have you no control over your prejudice?"
"Not when it comes to her kind."
"Then go and wait outside this chamber until I summon you. You belong in chains for your actions. Have you forgotten your vows? Courtesy to all women?"
"She's no woman -- she's a Drow." He nearly spat the words out, but stormed from the chamber, Krys and Brolen, stepping out of his way as he pushed some of the ducal guards out of his path as he stomped out of the room.
The older man knelt down beside Aurei, who simply laid there enjoying breathing again.
"Duchess Bugley, I cannot express to you my deepest remorse at the assault on your body by Sir Eleazar."
"He doesn't like them, does he?" She said in a hoarse whisper.
"No, it is the thorn that pricks his flesh."
"Who are you? Who is he?" She slowly sat up, rubbing her arm.
"I am Alvis Ray, Second Grand Master of the Order of the Blood Knights one of three chief lieutenants of Saint Kinnis, who sends his blessings and regards to you and your people. He that tried to kill you is one of my best Captains, Eleazar, known by many as Greyskin."
"He's partly Drow himself, isn't he?"
"His mother was a Faesidhe Elf, captured by the Drow and greatly abused by them. He was born as a result of some of that abuse, if you understand what I mean. Then his mother was tortured and killed by the matron of the noble house by whom she had been enslaved. He will not tell anyone how he managed to escape that hell to get to the surface, but he joined our order as a young adult and - until tonight- has served bravely and nobly. We knew he hated Dark Elves due to what had happened to his mother, but I had no idea that he would react like this. Had I known, I would have selected another Captain to command this branch of our order."
"You mean he is to be the commander of this branch?"
"I foolishly thought that exposure to you would help him overcome his hatred of his paternal line."
"I'd say he failed."
"Duchess, we will certainly replace him, unless…"
"Unless, what, Sir Alvis? He is unstable."
"Yes, my lady, I agree. But he is a most capable knight and this event will greatly affect his status in our order."
"I'm sorry to hear that. But what can be done?"
"I think he needs to overcome his hatred and rage and that you perhaps could help him do that."
"Unless he kills me."
"I don't think he will try anything like that. He is a very honorable knight and now that he knows who you are, he won't try anything like that again."
"Duchess, one of the most important parts of training as a Paladin is to overcome things that control you. For Eleazar, it is anger and rage. If you indeed wish to be trained as a Paladin, for you it would be fear."
"I'm not at all sure that I want to be trained, especially by him. So you are asking me to let him stay as the leader of this branch of your order?"
"Yes. I don't ask this without strong faith in Yesh that Eleazar won't misbehave toward you again."
"And if your faith is wrong and he does attack me again?"
"Then my own status in the order will be in jeopardy. It is too important to me to risk it on someone I did not think was worthy of trust."
Aurei stared at her feet for a moment, considering it.
"Oh, alright. But I tell you this, Sir Alvis, I will NOT put up with a hothead in this community. If he loses control again, I will have him in the dungeon; do I make myself clear?" She was somewhat surprised by her terse tone to the powerful Knight, but he responded with a respectful bow.
"Lady Aurei, I swear by the blood of Yesh that upon my honor, I will guarantee the conduct of Sir Eleazar."
"I hope so, sir." She stood up on shaky feet and went over to where Krys, Brolen and Pectros waited. "Go talk to him and see if he is willing to act civil toward me. If he agrees to do so, I will overlook his action today."
"You are most generous, Duchess." the knight bowed and hurried out of the chamber to discuss the incident with his errant knight.
"I'm beginning to think I made a terrible mistake by asking them to come here." she told the others as they sat on the bench and waited.