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The Last Campaign: A Broken Weapon

Short story By: Walter Attridge
Fantasy


A Dwarf must find a new purpose in life, when the world makes him obsolete


Submitted:Oct 27, 2012    Reads: 6    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


A Broken Weapon

By Walter Attridge

The final battle in the land of shadow:

Upon the blasted waterless wastes of the dark lords realm the forces of the last alliance, Men Elves and dwarves had come with war. This was the prophesied hour when the great king would rise and the dark power that had terrorized the earth would be thrown down. But prophecy is not war and what followed was a slaughter. The Dark Lord had long prepared his forces and despite his earlier failures and setbacks had held in reserve a terrible force with which to trap the human king who had risen from a lost tribe of Rangers.

Of that great battle other histories tell the tale as it should be. That when all was lost and the last embers of the Light were nearly consumed by an eternal darkness, the mountain of power exploded and the great ring, source of all the Dark Lord's power had been unmade and that the lord of the dark land was evaporated in an instant and all his forces thrown into chaos and ruined.

In those desperate moments before the end there were many brave last stands, as thousands of orcs, swept ravening from a thousand murder holes and terrible trolls their flesh covered in ulcerating tumors erupting acid and poison gas. But few held the line as bravely as those dwarves that were sent to represent their nation a young powerful group of fighters, brothers and sisters all, they held the line even as the enemy washed over them like a wave of madness and filth.

Arrayed in a circle laying down volleys of blistering fire from their dwarven made firearms so that for every dwarf that fell a hundred orcs paid the price. But even then the defenders still gave ground under the endless onslaught so that the dwarves were cut off and left to die. Leading these last dwarves was Noral of the Hive born, strong and young with a short beard and a strong braid of red hair first of his clan and one of the companions of the great king as he quested for the means to undo the dark lord. Seconds ground to an eternity as Noral watched his brothers and sisters die even as they took the enemy down with them. It was then, when all was lost and all avenues of escape cut off that the orcs slowed their assault hoping to draw out their hated enemies suffering. Leading this siege was a creature clad in blackened dragon scale armor with a terrible great sword. Through its helm burned eyes filled with fanatical loyalty and madness. A dwarf that had betrayed hearth and home and the forge a mad creature that had sold the secrets of the dwarven people to the dark lord. The Apostate

Slowly and carefully this traitor sent wave after wave in focused assaults. Despite their strength and unity the dwarves, these unique dwarven warriors true children of the forge were whittled down, one by one. Before the end when there were only a dozen left Noral charged out. Challenging the apostate to single combat. The dark dwarf laughed mockingly but stepped forward as if to accept the challenge. Then three orcs carrying dwarven rifles stepped out and opened fire. Only the enhancements granted through the dwarven shapers saved Noral from that initial volley. But nothing would have saved him from the apostates blade. That was when the world exploded under all of them and the sky turned to red fire.

In the chaos that followed,the great king rallied his troops and fought back cutting through the disorganized broken orc hordes and fighting to the dwarves rescued Noral and his siblings even as Apostate's stroke fell. Noral tried to press attack but was held back by his companions as new lines and battle plans were drawn. Looking back as he and the remainder of his siblings were evacuated Noral saw the vast majority of his kin dead and knew that the traitor would have survived and vowed to meet him again

Twenty years later...

Ten years to prove the Apostate had lived through the final battle and the cataclysm that followed and ten more to track him into the frozen wastes of the far south. This was a wasteland first burned and smothered from the simultaneous eruption of every major mountain in the north and south of the planet. The land and its settlements covered in smoldering ash and boiling magma, then frozen solid as the sun was blotted from the sky and the cold choked the fires. The devastation spread out over the world growing less and less the nearer to the equator where the volcanoes remained intact. Summer came to an end and in many places there was nothing but endless winter and the choking ashen snow. Nearest to the poles though there was nothing but glacial cold and endless expanses of ice.

It was upon one of those glaciers that Noral came to chasing his prey heedless of the cold and endless wastes. Five of his siblings came with him survivors of the final battle and all sworn to bring the traitor to justice. Unfortunately for them, even though the wastes were death to any natural creature that did not apply to many of the dark lords abominations, creatures bred to survive any environment.

They had fled there after the death of their master lacking direction and hoping for his return they found nests deep within the ice and brooded. That was until the apostate came among them and rallied the nightmares to attack his pursuers as he traveled ever farther south

Those were dark days as the siblings fought one desperate battle after the next, ever harried ever driven south. When the last abomination was dead and the apostate had no more protectors Noral looked about and found himself alone. The blood and bodies of his brothers and sisters littering the snow in a steady trail. Despair was mitigated by the knowledge that he was closer than ever, and that his family would be avenged.

Finally upon a flat and featureless expanse Noral ran down his prey. The apostate had not made his escape unscathed and as the hive born dwarf approached she saw merely a shadow of his great enemy. Rather than wearing his fearsome dragon scale armor the apostate was bare chested in the polar cold, his sturdy dwarven flesh showing blackened patches of frostbite. His hair was falling out in clumps and as he turned to confront his hunter there was a wild disoriented look to his eyes, the look of a wild creature or of one who no longer sees the real world. The apostate had no arms or armor save gauntlets on both hands, the left was particularly elaborate running all the way up to the elbow. Finally seeing the creature brought Noral's broken heart to a boils remembering the last battlefield and his dead siblings he called out a challenge but the apostate didn't respond.

Noral's words were lost in the arctic howl so he drew out his dwarven made pistol a blue steel revolver made for his thick wide hands and crafted with all the skill his people could muster, far outshining the primitive human equivalent that was more prone to explode in the owners hand than to ever fire straight. Slowly, deliberately, Noral stalked towards his prey content to end this quickly with two shots to the chest and one to the traitors skull. Noral's fault was to want to be close enough to savor the kill. He closed to ten yards and made to level his weapon taking the time to not miss.

That was when the apostates face changed.

That blank distant expression became one of hateful cold triumph as he snapped his left arm level with Noral's chest. The false armored hand fell away on oiled hinges and the now exposed smooth bore cannon barrel let out a thunderous report. The shot hit Noral square in the chest. Thick hides with blubber insulation combined with specially bred subcutaneous plates and triple dense bone managed to absorbed the round ball but not without terrible injury. Broken a pulverized Noral was thrown back coming to rest in a smoking heap in a deep snow drift. Impossibly, still conscious he lay back unable to move his limbs like lead he looked up to see the apostate standing over him, that distant mad look again painted over his face. It seemed that he said something then but it was muffled by the wind and the ringing in Noral's ears beside he was staring off at some distant imagined sight and Noral doubted that whatever was said it was meant for his ears.

What was meant for him was the twin low growls and the steady crunch of snow and ice beneath huge paws. coming into view on either side of the apostate were two tremendous beasts like bears but so white as to be almost invisible against the snowy sky and ground. Their jaws were red with blood from a fresh kill and they were still slavering hungry for more. With a grinding effort Noral slid free hos saperka, a dwarven entrenching tool that doubled as a deadly weapon, and he began the impossible effort of getting to his feet. Impossible for any other dwarf but Noral had been tailor made to exceed even those great tolerances. The apostate took no further notice turning and marching away between his two great beasts. Within seconds he was lost in the blizzard and all Noral could focus on was the approaching slavering red jaws of the bears...

Twenty years later: Deep within the earth Life for the humans continued its downward spiral, even as the fortunes of the dwarves improved.

In the Decade that Noral was hunting the Apostate in the frozen southern tundra he missed the latest disaster to befall the earth. At an undetermined point some shift occurred in the natural order, causing the human dead to rise as mindless shambling zombies who feasted on the flesh of the living. This was most likely caused by the ecological devastation caused by the cataclysm , but some dwarves doubted even this obvious answer...

Smoke and dust, and near endless winter covered the majority of the world and humanity was dying by inches, driven into hiding cowering in small sheltered enclaves their society, which was to have become dominant with the passing of the elves, was now shattered and beyond repair. Into this void stepped the dwarven nation. Dwarves had never desired the surface and had little interest in it now but they felt a purely contractual obligation to save what was left of their human cousins. This and to prevent them from attempting to impinge upon their underground world. The dwarves came to what was left of the human hierarchy, petty lords and would be kings and offered to supply tools, supplies and special equipment, filters and masks to allow the humans to breathe through the worst of the ash snows along with extremely limited leases on caverns where humans could grow specially bred crops using dwarven craft. But they never offered or consented to aid with soldiers or to provide firearms to the humans.

Noral would have gone to find his friend, the now high king of humanity, a king in name only, but the whole nation had gone into a lock down. The undead horde that was devastating the humans also hunted dwarves and they had no desire to risk allowing the mindless hordes across to the under dark, besides there was talk of a special project that had to remain secret. Noral was still a soldier at his very core and he obeyed the command to remain among his own kind, but he found there was no longer any place for him. Nor were there any of his "kind" left. They had been lost in dozens of different "secret missions spread out over years, Noral was the senior and so was held back to coordinate but even from that position he was left ignorant as to both the ultimate goal of the missions and the final fate of his siblings. He was now alone young for his kind at seventy five but old with regret and haunted by old ghosts.

Through these years Noral continued to seek for news of his hated enemy, but the dwarven leadership that once saw the apostate as the ultimate enemy of the forge refused to even acknowledge his existence. Some even whispered in Noral's presence that the apostate may have just been another abomination and not even a dwarf at all. Soon after Noral was no longer welcome among the senior command and he was relegated to the lower chambers. Years passed and his falling out of favor became widely known and soon where he was simply ignored now he was looked upon with contempt and open scorn driving him into meaner accommodations

Sitting there in the guttering light of a few candles Noral sat waiting for the inevitable stomp of dwarven boots, the cadence that would spell his end. Though he was a dutiful and loyal soldier he was not stupid and knew more of his origins than he had ever let on and with that knowledge came an understanding of why his people had looked with such disdain, even though sacrifice and duty were the highest ideals a dwarf could aspire to. Even as an outcast there were those mavericks who still had limited contact and they passed along tidbits of gossip and rumors of dark dealings deep within the earth. Even then he would have sat there and accepted his eventual "retirement" as a good soldier, but there was also a rumor that had soured that last pang of duty and even now he made ready to leave his home.

Upon his work bench were charts and maps detailing two decades worth of wanderings, a winding and nonsensical path that never reveled its ultimate goal but it was a path of contacts and hideouts and Noral meant to track down each one and wring the truth from those who had had dealings with the apostate, or as he was now known as the Witch-smeller. Once the details were committed to memory he burned the evidence and checking his equipment one last time, his last pistol kept from the frozen tundra was at his side he made ready to leave. It was then that Noral heard those steps echoing with purpose through the catacombs. He stepped from his quarters walking to his execution on his feet as a dwarf

It was three dwarves that ultimately came for him. Two he expected the third was a surprise Fiona was middle aged and still hale her beard long and in a single braid hanging between a pair of ample breasts was flecked with gray. Her expression bore the same well worn look of genuine hatred and revulsion. To her Noral and his family were the never born. She bore her saperka at the ready looking for a fight. More than once Noral had imagined the harridan pleasuring herself with that same tool surely he reasoned she could accommodate the wide spade head. Next was Ivan, old haggard, scarred and already drunk he was an old campaigner and officer with a brutal reputation, in war it was necessary for a dwarf to enforce discipline Ivan was the one that executed the enlisted condemned by officers and more than once executed incompetent and cowardly officer. Finally there was Pikel kind worldly dutiful, well traveled and the most tolerant dwarf to ever spring from the deep stone. He was the last of Noral's friends and he had been put there to twist the knife. Pikel was a dwarf to his core and whatever they had told him they had finished with an explanation on how this one death would be for the greater good

"You are condemned" Ivan pronounced without preamble, his voice heavy, even he saw the injustice in this "surrender your weapons and kneel" condemned without real cause, condemned for existing, for being born from a different source, to protect hearth and home. A dwarves duty was to kneel accept his shame and wait for the ax to fall. The contradiction was more than obvious. Noral pulled his last pistol in one clean motion and fired, the round caught Ivan between the eyes.

As Ivan fell back Pikel was already finishing swinging his mattock the broad head caught Noral across the jaw a blow capable of shearing away any other dwarves lower face and throat. The same enhancements that saved him in the south turned that blow into an annoyance. Noral would later, after the fight was over, curse himself for his next action, but now all he did was finish chambering the next round and firing low took the kind old dwarf in the throat. Noral's friend was falling when Fiona came high with the flat of her saperka Noral's angle was bad and she caught the right arm in the forearm putting her considerable weight behind the blow pushing the arm into a pin driving Noral against the wall.

"Hive born freak" She spat pressing her momentary advantage with a head butt her hair, now free and wild, whipping forward covering them both. Caught there those gray red tresses covering both their faces. Blood was already running from her broken nose after striking his much harder head. Noral heard the step behind them heard the chambers click into place and strangely the smell of petrol. He knew his mistake knew that dwarves didn't throw away lives in meaningless gestures. There was always a plan.

There were at least three shooters they fired in unison. The rounds tore into him and Fiona she fell back spitting blood. Noral made a break for the cavern the wounds painful but they were surface thanks to more of those subcutaneous patches covering vitals and soft tissue like chain mail. More shots this time all hitting the extremities legs and arms trying to slow him down. One caught the knee the force buckling Noral, he dropped t the ground with a grunt. Fiona was gasping choking on her own blood but she called out "burn it" then came a whir and a steady click. Noral considered turning and firing but instead ran as the flames came roaring down the tunnel the pressure of the burning fuel caught him in the back vaporizing his pack. He was burning. The pain was just starting to run up his back and scalp as the flames took hold but he still ran but not for the entrance.

This far down in the catacombs there were dozens of side tunnels and paths most naturally formed or formed by other non dwarven miners. Many of those paths ran in vertical shafts to reflect the architects non terrestrial physiology such a shaft wasn't too far away. Then Noral, burning, plunged into it, burning, bouncing off smooth stone walls as another gout of flame came pouring behind him...

The pool at the bottom of the shaft was at last 5 feet deep filled with a fluid with the consistency of phlegm with semi solid pockets floating. The flames had been extinguished and the pain was fading from Noral's back. Instinct had drove the dwarf towards this particular shaft and now it drove him to flex his seared legs and back and try to tread through the fluid and reach the surface.

Light emanated from every direction as Noral broke the surface trying to clear his eyes and nose of the viscous fluid. The pulsing florescent light came into view and as Noral began to focus he could see a multitude of membranous cells in the rock wall connected like the chambers of a beehive. Most were empty with broken cells withered and weakly pulsating. Others were shining brightly their semi transparent walls intact and behind was a shuddering movement. Noral felt sickened by the sheer alien-ness of this sight, he tried to focus on possible threats. Allowing his eyes to focus he could see a small island not that far away.

Reaching it Noral climbed ashore and checked his pistol it was fouled with the fluid the rounds in the chamber most likely ruined. The pack was also lost and with it the supply of ammunition He still had his saperka, and tools. From the island Noral searched the chamber spying a small tunnel entrance further ahead

Noral thought the of certain species of fish that when mating season arrived would unerringly track back to where they had been spawned. The feeling he had sitting on that island staring at those hives unsettled him for the similarity to what he thought those fish must feel as they reach their ancestral birthing grounds faced with what was most likely his own eventual spawning ground he had a sudden sympathy for Fiona. He'd known some of the details for a long while. Pikel and others among the elders had told him as much years earlier.
Dwarves are at their heart builders and makers. The work stone and metal wood and cloth and they build beauty and function for themselves and all the people of the world. That they ask for payment and do not give freely or foolishly simply means the difference between a slave and a craftsman who takes pride in their accomplishment. But there is always the desire to build and create for the work itself to not just improve but make something completely new, as well as a desire to exert some kind of control over the process. Life is the ultimate creation the building and shaping of a creature from nothing and then seeing the work that that life will produce in all its long years. But none of the free peoples, human, dwarf, or elf have ever had any control over the making, yes they can choose the time or place or even who they mate with but never control over what is made and what it can accomplish.

But that secret is primal. The process is known and utilized by all living things but they know nothing of the essential secrets of it. So the shapers, as the dwarves tasked with this grand project would come to be called, set out to find those that were themselves primal and as ancient as the stone itself.

There are deep places in the earth. Places where there are still remnants of the old ones. Creatures that came here from well... someplace else, came here for their own reasons and shut themselves up for those same reasons. As the elves cavorted and the humans made war above the dwarves explored the deepest depths of their realm going down to where vast black oceans lie still and calm beneath a sky of diamond silver and stone. Then they went even deeper to where the beating heart of the world is and its blood flows full of molten stone. There they found the ruins of cities and evidence of great machines that harnessed the terrible force of the worlds heart and where these builders harvested minerals and riches no dwarf could imagine. An in finding they searched all the harder until hidden away in some forgotten warren they found the builders of those ancient cities asleep and dreaming their strange dreams.

So the legend goes that when the explorers found these builders they woke them by accident and as will happen when one wakes a sleeping creature that creature lashes out in shock and fear. The next expedition who found the charred and mangled remains of the first party understood this and approached the now awake old ones with another tact.

They offered trade....

And the old ones accepted.

There was a uproar in the hall of the elders as they debated this new course. Some called it blasphemy others simply an inevitable path on the road to knowledge. Being pragmatic the elders decided to make a test case fifty soldiers grown with these new techniques with the promise of more to come. To the dwarven mindset the war to come would would be apocalyptic and last for decades, they took no stock in wizards prophecies, omens, and even less in the promise of a human king that would do anything positive for dwarven mansions. They planned to take the long view and dig in.

The dwarves that would go to live among the old ones,to learn from them and then to do their work were called the shapers and of the hundreds that went only a few were ever seen again and they were to put it mildly changed by what they saw. Noral was not a shaper or really much of a craftsman so he never understood how he was made, and he had never met an old one but the shapers explained what had been done to make him the greatest of dwarven weapons.

The last of those weapons sat there on that tiny island, staring up and around, when he noticed movement above a sort of fluttering inside the stalactites. Sensing danger Noral reached for his pistol and remembered the fouled maybe ruined chambers threw the thing down. As it clattered on the hard stone the fluttering above intensified and a shape dropped down before Noral with a deep droning buzz. Weaponless the dwarf held his ground but felt an odd sensation of calm as if it knew there was no threat.

It was large, bigger than Noral with a body like a solid black bee combined with A hard spiny carapace like some deep sea crustacean the surface of which rippled with outward purple shimmers. several pairs of wings ran along its back.

On three pairs of legs ending in pincers it shuffled left and right and then scuttled quickly to stand directly in front of the dwarf. As it did the head of the thing came alive with a brilliant array of colors cascading and blinking along the short tubular stalks that made up its otherwise featureless face. finally it raised one pincer and poked him sharply on the forehead drawing a drop of blood which it carefully brought to its face stalks.

After a long moment of deliberation the thing stepped back losing its aggressive posture and With out any further contact the thing sprung back into the sky and reclaimed its perch on the ceiling. No words had been exchanged but all the same Noral fell to his knees, the full implication of this interaction sinking in. Wanderer or sentry or simply a hermit. This creature, the dwarf instinctively knew was more his kin, now with his siblings dead, than any pure born dwarf that lived. Not being a creature given over to exaggerated introspection he soon rose and set about finding a way out. There was no further sounds from the old one resting above. Noral didn't even think the creature was even watching him.

A small flat tunnel was found and the dwarf began the long arduous task of squeezing his rather wide frame through it pushing his gear ahead inch by inch, foot by foot and mile by mile for what to his estimation was a little over two days. Emerging from the path his back and front bloody he entered a large natural cavern with a rushing river close by. All around there was signs of habitation, small docks and fishing stations cunning cut from the stone itself. A dwarven settlement would pose a problem but when Noral inspected the tools, orc made jagged and ugly though well made, haphazardly strewn about he decided he would have to move quickly. The orcs were a mostly dead species, former servants of the Dark Lord they were almost wiped out in his fall and the human and dwarven purges that followed, and they were a favored food of the ravening mindless undead that now stalked the earth.

Noral considered following the river along its bank, his own innate sense of direction told him from which direction the orcs had made their nest an that was opposite the flow of the river. The dwarf looked searched the orc camp and managed to find a hidden worn raft set aside to be broken down for usable wood, It was in bad shape and might not survive the trip but it was a better option than jumping in or being run down by the orcs who would smell his presence once they returned.

The Raft held and Noral drifted downriver without incident eventually surfacing through a small outlet into the misty and unfamiliar surface world. Abandoning the raft along the beach Noral climbed a sheer cliff face to find a sparsely forested valley somewhat untouched by the ashen snows that were choking the world. Making camp he plotted his next course: Pursuit of the apostate was now a pipe dream he saw that now. His enemy had either been welcomed back to the forge or he was plotting with just the right corrupt elders, either way he would be protected and Noral had killed enough dwarves now to last him a lifetime. The only other place he might find welcome now was the far north, where the high king might still reign, his realm trapped behind the bitter cold and the heavy choking soot. That realm was many hundreds of miles away and through the most treacherous of terrain but it was the only option he had so Noral shouldered on his gear and made north.

Fate in its infinite wisdom had other plans...

Weeks later...

Trudging through a dense forest using moon and stars to determine direction, wisely avoiding most human contact. The dwarves now elevated place economically with the humans had led to a great deal of bitterness and envy that could easily be taken out on a lone vagabond. Lone travelers and small groups were mostly fine Noral traded work for food and news of the outside world but villages or large caravans were a death sentence, as were any contact with other dwarves. Coming to a small brook Noral noticed that he had stumbled upon a grisly scene.

There was blood running into the river from a torn away lower half of a human the intestines legs sunk into the mud. Footprints led way into the tree line and just as Noral was about to start making a wide arc to avoid trouble he heard a female and all too human scream coming from the other side. Of course he considered simply ignoring the calls for help but even if Noral was not a real dwarf he was hardly a coward and he trudged across the brook and bringing his saperka to bear sprinted for the source of the screams. What he saw gave even the veteran soldier pause.

The Zombie was practically a giant seven foot at least and wider than a draft horse with more muscle. Its flesh was just going pale but the head was blue with bulging burst blood vessels and wide bulging eyes the color of blood its throat was a swollen mass of scratched and torn flesh. In one hand it still held half a human corpse which it idly brought to it mouth ripping a huge chunk of flesh away from the chest like a mutton leg. The source of the screams was a pair of human females the first tall and broad with a worn gingham dress and apron, her hair hidden under a scarf along with an impressively manicured and long beard that many females of the forge would have been envious of. She was standing in front of another female this one frightened and hiding her head as if that would help against this giant. Neither stood a chance against this giant so Noral stepped in.

Charging, he stabbed the entrenching tool's spade head into the zombie's broad leg right at the knee joint the driving the point right to the tendon. Then Noral tore the blade across letting the serrated edge sever all the other tendons. The creature made no reaction, mindless and unable to feel pain but there was no way up the joint could physically support that much weight so the zombie rumpled to one knee. Finally aware that it was being attacked the hulking thing lashed out with a backhand that caught Noral in the chest the force of it sending the dwarf flying back. It then turned back to the human's.

Shaking off the blow and the fall, Noral got back to his feet and charged this time jumping on the things back stabbing down at the base of its neck. The blade wen t in but not deeply enough so the dwarf planted his foot on the spade and pushed while leaning all his weight there was a tearing sound and then a dull crack and the zombie collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, keeping his footing the dwarf managed to yank the saperka clear and wipe the gore on the zombies own tunic. Sparing a moment for the human women Noral approached trying to see if either had been scratched or bitten though he thought they might be safe. The lager female he one with the attractive beard was the first to speak.

"He was our strongman" she said her eyes focused on the corpse her voice distant, shocked. "He was allergic to bees but was never smart enough to stay away from the things we were doing laundry and I guess we weren't paying attention" it had been a while since Noral had had contact with humans but he knew that they often blamed the closest and easiest thing near them. He knew he had to leave before this woman decided to take her grief out on him. He made to leave when the female grasped his shoulder her grip admirably strong even through his pads. "Why did you help us?" He had no answer to that and it felt foolish to say that it was the right thing to do.

"I can help you bury him if he was your friend and if that was his custom" it felt like a cold thing to say but the woman seemed relieved to hear it. The other female, really only a girl, came and standing a head taller than Noral bent and hugged him.

"This is Claire," the the bearded woman said, "and I'm Rita" and she knelt and hugged the dwarf. They buried the giant with Noral doing most of the work but he didn't mind he was too focused on Rita and how struck he was with her beauty.

The two women belonged to a traveling carnival, Claire was a dancing girl who worked after hours and Rita was part of what she called the human attractions, but Noral knew was just a freak show. At first he was insulted for Rita that she should be lumped together with deformed or mutilated humans, the worst being a mutated under-human, long limbed and twisted by radiation and chemicals savage and confined to a cage most times. But Rita was as pragmatic as a dwarven female and she explained that being on display for gawking crowds was a small price to pay for the freedom of being able to travel and the protection that the close knit carnival provided, and she wasn't required to be a whore.

Noral was introduced to Malcolm the carnival boss and soon enough hired on as a worker. The dwarf's strength and technical skills were a good combination. The offer was made for him to join the attractions as a performer. There was no skill required, just the willingness to wear motley and to do a few flips and falls to entertain the children. But Noral had little interest in being a performer and no desire to stay with the carnival longer than a season as they traveled north, and he found Rita's company very pleasant.

A season turned into a full year as the troupe as far north as the arid plains of Desert and then back south. Noral told himself that he was searching for proof of the witch-smeller who had been seen along many of the same settlements and towns the carnival traveled through. But those sightings were years earlier and the trail had gone cold. In truth Rita had made Noral much more willing to stay but he wasn't ready to admit that yet.

Three years later the dwarf found the courage to admit to himself why he wasn't heading north and he married Rita in a small ceremony presided over by the entire carnival. After that what started as a diversion became a life. There was no chance of them ever having children which suited them both just fine and as the years passed Noral even started to take part in the attractions enjoying sharing a career with his wife.

50 years later...

Noral had just finished burying his wife when the messenger came galloping furiously into the camp. Malcolm's grandson, now leader of the carnival met with Noral in the wagon he had shared with Rita, a cramped worn thing that he had always enjoyed since it was tight like the caverns he had been bred in. The boy Malcolm the third was kind and pleasant offering his condolences and telling how much Rita had meant as a performer and a mentor to the younger members of the troupe. All of which was true and a source of pride for Noral as well but Dwarves were never sentimental and even now without Rita the carnival seemed like a group of strangers that he was eager to get way from. Truthfully, Noral had never been much of a performer and as a worker he always demanded money for his skills, more than any of the bosses ever wanted to pay. None of Malcolm pleasantries included a desire for Noral to remain.

There was a clamor as the messenger arrived directed to Noral's, and the dwarf and Malcolm the third came out to meet him. The dwarf recognized the heraldry immediately and when the human dismounted the dwarf dropped to his knees and pulled the boss down next to him. Knowing he had found the right dwarf the human removed his helm and pulled a proclamation from his satchel declaring in a loud voice.

"Noral of the Hive born, friend and companion to his majesty, the high king of the human nation recalls you to his service. But no that he acknowledges your past friendship and no bond does he put on you to heed this summons, will you come?" The dwarf rose and nodded in assent, his mind aflame with wonder as to what the High king might need of him in the frozen wastes of the north. They had always known his movements and whereabouts the dwarf realized and had waited until this time, when he was free of obligation and alone again. His friend had let him have his life and now needed him.

Gathering his few meager possessions, his pack, old charts saperka and pistol, he took a few sketches and a a watercolor of Rita strong and beautiful and squeezing into his mail and armor which didn't quite fit so well anymore he exited and with help mounted the heralds mount riding in the front where he could hold on considering his frame and without any further words to any in the troupe they rode off towards a King who was now so desperate he needed a broken weapon

On high ridge overlooking the camp a lone dwarf and two humans watched Noral ride off into the north. The men were simply thugs disposable and utilitarian. The dwarf wore well traveled leathers and a thick cloak covering his prosthetic left arm. His hair was a thick nest of wild hair shot through with streaks of gray His face was tattooed with vertical lines of dwarven runes of protection and his eyes had a haunted insane stare. Already plans ran through that fevered mind inspired by the open and unprotected villages and towns laid out before him. When the Hive born returns he will find things much changed... Thought the dwarf with a wicked chuckle

The End





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