Fires on the Heath

The ogre captain Broadnose stepped cautiously across the marshy bottomland. From concealment atop a nearby elevation, he had watched sheep crossing here earlier in the day and knew that, while wet, the ground was traversable.

A day earlier, the ogres had spotted the village from the crest of the ridge on the opposite side of the stream. It was a typical village of the Whitemoor, barely two dozen huts, surrounded by a few ragged corrals, with a tangle of drying racks stretching upstream and down. The racks were draped with skins, and a small fish house across a tributary creek belched smoke and smelled of trout. The ogres had studied the place and waited until now, when the hour was after midnight and most of the humans were asleep.

Light still suffused the valley, and thus the raiders had been happy to discover this swampy approach route. They were concealed by an overhang of the riverbank. A bend in the stream blocked their view of the settlement-at least, until the attackers crept up behind the first drying racks.

“We spread out, remember. Hit fast. Every man you see gets killed, cut his head off. We’ll pile up the bodies later. If a woman shows some spunk, kill her too. Some of these Arktos females are real fighters. And kill the babies-that’s important, that’ll make a statement. If a few of the kids and women manage to run off… well, chase ’em a bit for show, but then let ’em get away and spread the word.”

The ogres nodded. They had been following the same plan for several weeks, raiding other villages, so they were primed.

“Spears first-then we get to hacking and slashing,” the burly commander reminded his raiders. They looked at him, tusks bared, broad faces dour and fierce. Satisfied, Broadnose uttered a roar that split the peace of the pastoral vale like an axe blade slicing through a loaf of bread.

His warriors bellowed in kind, and the mass of ogres burst upon the village at a full run, sweeping the racks aside, trampling the partially cured pelts. A large guard dog came charging toward Broadnose, barking, fangs bared, and the ogre leader felled the creature with a powerful thrust of his spear. Next he drew his great sword, swinging it into a bunch of racks, smashing them into kindling.

A human emerged from one of the huts and threw a javelin, the barbed point piercing the thigh of a young ogre. The stricken raider went down with a howl, and Broadnose smashed through a line of racks to confront the brazen human. The man now held a steel-bladed tomahawk, and he slashed the weapon hard enough that the ogre had to pull up short. A single crushing down-swipe of his great sword put an end to the skirmish, however, and the sub-captain moved on. He sought living targets-he would leave the mess of decapitation to his less imaginative followers.

Another Arktos man, a warrior dressed in a heavy leather shirt, carrying a shield and sword, darted from a hut to stab a passing ogre in the flank. Strangely, there were very few humans rushing out of the other dwellings, and all those they encountered seemed to he well-armed warriors. A quick glance showed three ogres lying dying or already dead around the central plaza. Broadnose frowned-this was two more than they had lost in their past five raids combined, and this raid, it seemed, was far from over.

Indeed, a score of Arktos fighters had rallied on a low platform in the middle of the town. Each man held a shield and sword or axe. Although they had cast spears when they first burst from the huts, now they fought in melee order, lining the sides of the little rise and facing outward. The platform was deceptively high, and the ogres were exposed to hacks and stabs from the defenders. The raider captain was trying to think of a plan as an ogre staggered back blindly, blood gushing from his gashed forehead.

“This one is empty!” shouted a young ogre off to the side, emerging from a hut and knocking the frail sealskin structure down behind him. Broadnose saw other raiders kick apart more of the human domiciles, unsuccessfully seeking the victims who should have been cowering within.

“They’re all empty!” A big ogre roared in frustration, cleaving his sword right through one of the Arktos abodes.

Suddenly that warrior toppled forward, and Broadnose was startled to see three arrows jutting from the fellow’s back. Another volley of arrows drew the captain’s attention to the ridge on the far side of the village. The slope was swarming with humans, hundreds of them racing downhill while an equal number stood above and launched a shower of dark missiles into the sky. The arrows rained down on the hapless raiders, and even as Broadnose knelt to pull a dart from his leg he was aware that the archers were skilled marksmen and weren’t hitting their own people. Arrows showered across the ogres, for the most part causing pricks of pain more maddening than life-threatening.

“Rally, my warriors!” cried Broadnose. “Form a line across-”

He never finished, as another arrow lanced him in the right eye. He stumbled, then fell on his back. Kicking and thrashing, Broadnose seized the missile and pulled it out, flailing in blind agony as blood streamed across his face, his vision reduced to a film of angry, viscous red.

He heard the clash of steel against steel, the thudding and stomping of frantic footsteps. A heavy body collapsed across Broadnose, driving the breath from his lungs. Something warm washed across his face, and he recognized the wet stench of fresh blood. He pushed at whoever had fallen upon him, but the lump of flesh was very heavy and utterly lifeless. Weakened by his own wounds, Broadnose could not budge the corpse. He panted in exhaustion and pain.

He was vaguely aware of ogres shouting everywhere, but he longed to hear a clarion battle cry, a lustful summons to attack, not these strangled barks of fear, shouts of confusion, even one case of pathetic blubbering. An ogre weeping! He sensed the sounds of battle moving away, the clashing and violence fading, scattering to the winds.

Trying to collect his thoughts, Broadnose began to understand that his raiding party had been trapped. The humans had baited him into this village, then struck with a superior force concealed on the opposite heights. Such trickery infuriated him, but as the pain from his bleeding eye socket seemed to spread through his entire skull he found that he had a hard time concentrating, that his fury and indignation was drowned beneath a rising swell of agony and despair. His awareness became a murky numbness, and Broadnose wondered if he was dying.

But the dying lasted too long, and after a time he heard more sounds, the soft thudding of dead flesh being moved around. Coins rattled, weapons were stacked-scavengers undoubtedly were pillaging the purses of slain raiders.

The wounded ogre felt a sudden sense of relief as the corpse of his comrade was rolled off him. He saw blobs of light, though his unwounded eye did not work well either, failing to provide him with any meaningful shapes. He flinched, grunting, as a sharp tip of steel prodded him.

His ears functioned fine, and he heard the sword wielder speak in a thick Arktos accent.

“This one here is alive. Ya wouldn’t know it for all the blood on ’im, though.”

“Alive’s good enough,” said another. “Tie him up real tight. Let’s take him back to Brackenrock.

Seeing the world with only one good eye took adjustment. Moreen’s vision lacked dimensionality, acuity, and color, when she looked at objects more than a stone’s throw away. When she discussed these difficulties with the old shaman woman, Dinekki could only cluck sympathetically and suggest perhaps the chief-woman should consider herself lucky that she could see at all.

Surprisingly enough, Moreen did consider herself lucky. She really didn’t have time to dwell on her problems. There had been many reports of ogre raids against the villages on the Whitemoor, and she could only hope Strongwind and Mouse, with their hundreds of brave warriors, would be able to hamper or stop the depredations. She rubbed her swollen eyelid-the swelling hardly diminished, and it never seemed to stop itching-and turned to the schematic diagrams spread across her work table.

The sketches showed the outline for the new towers and a gate, as well as a reinforced section of stone wall that would be raised to repair the breach. Fortunately, there were good quarries located on the rocky dells just behind the fortress, and hundreds of Arktos and Highlanders were already busy cutting and hauling the needed stone.

The quarries had been there for centuries and in fact probably were among the reasons the citadel was originally built in this location. Thanks to a clever rail-and-cart system devised by Kerrick, the rock was being moved from the excavation to the work site faster than ever. Even so, Moreen felt a sense of urgency. She rose from her table and walked to the window, looking across the courtyard, blinking to clear her blurred vision as best she could.

Something was moving toward the gap, Moreen saw, squinting to make out a long column of men marching in from the western trail. A few lights sparkled above the file, undoubtedly sun glinting off of speartips, so she guessed these were her warriors, returning home.

Moments later there came a knock on the door, and Feathertail entered. “It’s Mouse-I mean, Strongwind and the warriors, returning from Whitemoor!” the younger woman exclaimed. “And they’ve captured an ogre-they have him chained, marching in the middle of the column!”

“Good,” the chiefwoman replied. “Let’s see what the brute has to say.”

A few minutes later they greeted the returning warriors in the great hall of the keep. The ogre captive was held outside while Strongwind and Mouse entered, both crying out with delight as they saw Moreen awaiting them. She grinned, enjoying the Highlander’s consternation as he gaped at her eyepatch, then tried to recover his manners.

“My lady!” he said, rushing forward, gently kissing both of her cheeks, then pressing his lips to hers in sudden exuberance. She kissed him back, actually enjoying the embrace for a second, before disengaging. Still he held her by the shoulders, looked into her eyes with genuine joy. “I feared I would never see your smile again! How are you-”

“I’m well enough,” she said, breaking away to bring Mouse into the conversation. “I understand that you two have been doing good work-you have brought us a prisoner?”

“Yes, one prisoner. A captain.”

“How much damage did they do before you caught them?” asked the chiefwoman.

Mouse replied. “They had wrecked at least five villages by the time we caught up to them. Generally they were moving up the valley of the Whitemoor River, so we got ahead of them, warned the Arkos at Lone Elk Creek, one of the tributaries farther back in the moors. The women and little ones took flight into the hills, and the warriors joined ranks with us. When the ogres came, we were ready for them and caught them by surprise,”

“How many escaped?” asked the chiefwoman.

“Not many,” Strongwind said. “They were running south, away from the nearest villages.”

Mouse nodded. “We killed half of them in the village and chased the rest when they scattered. Most of those we caught and killed. I think a few of them evaded our patrols and vanished into the Glacier Peaks. I presume they’ll make their way back to Winterheim from there. We posted scouts along the foothills to keep an eye out for them coming this way, but I think we’ve had the last trouble from these ogres, at least for this year.”

“This prisoner-what does he know?”

“He has been reluctant to talk much, my lady,” the young Arktos man explained. “He was the captain of the raiding party and knows more than he will say. Shall we bring him in?”

Moreen glanced to one side, saw that Kerrick had. come into the hall and now stood nearby with Dinekki and Bruni. The Axe of Gonnas hung on the wall behind them.

“Yes,” she said. “I will talk to this ogre.”

Moreen was momentarily blinded as the outer door opened, then the sunlight was blocked by a large shape that filled the portal. She heard the tromping of feet and finally made out the hulking image of the ogre standing heavily guarded about twenty feet away from her.

Moreen’s first impression was that the creature did not look exceptionally frightening. Undoubtedly the four chains, each secured to a ring around the prisoner’s neck and held by a stout warrior, served to reduce any sense of menace. But it was more than that. This ogre’s shoulders slumped, and though he was much taller than she, the foul creature seemed somehow to be looking up at her, confused and frightened. One of his eyes was covered by a blood-crusted patch. There were other cuts in his leather tunic and dried blood all over him, on his clothing and limbs.

“What is your name?” she asked curtly.

“I am called Broadnose, captain of the Shield-Breakers.” His voice was deep, but more of a rasp than a rumble, and his accent was guttural.

“You were the leader of these killers?” Moreen demanded. “You must be a great warrior to kill mothers and the babes at their breasts. And old grandfathers, who could barely lift a cane against you!”

She was surprised to note a look of injured pride on the tusked, jowly face. “I followed orders of king,” the ogre captain said. “He bade me to cause fear.”

“To cause fear? Not to steal or take captives?”

Now the ogre looked a little shamefaced. “I failed. Your Mouse-Warrior caught me in a trap.”

Moreen was perplexed. The ogres had raided human settlements for generations, but the objective had invariably been plunder, treasure, and slaves. Why would they change their tactics now?

“Why did the king want to cause fear?” Kerrick asked, drawing attention to himself. The ogre prisoner’s eyes widened slightly at the sight of the slender, golden-hair figure.

“Why, to make the humans afraid, Lord Elf,” Broad-nose replied. “To…” He looked down at the floor. “Just that. To make you afraid.”

“Your king is a mighty lord, is he not?” Dinekki clucked the question as she hobbled forward, holding a finger to her lips. The ogre’s one eye narrowed suspiciously, as he warily watched the old woman.

Abruptly the shaman waved her nimble fingers, and the ogre’s jaw fell slack.

“Mighty king!” he declared, looking at a place over the old woman’s head. “I beg your forgiveness for my failures! What is your command?”

Moreen realized that Dinekki had cast some kind of spell, an illusion or charm that had abruptly transported the ogre-in his own mind-to a different, imaginary council.

“Do you know where I am?” asked Dinekki, her voice somehow booming out of her frail chest. Even the chiefwoman blinked, looked close to make sure this was still the thin, grandmotherly cleric.

“Yes, lord-you sail to Dracoheim!” Broadnose replied.

“Do you know why I sent you inland, told you to cause fear?”

“Indeed, Your Majesty. You wanted me to distract the humans, so that you could see…” Broadnose blinked suddenly, shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts.

“Ogre!” thundered Dinekki. “Your king asks you a question!”

“Your Majesty-forgive me!” gasped the prisoner, his face growing pale. “You would see the Alchemist… give him thirty days to work!”

“Explain to me. When will I return from Dracoheim?” Still the old cleric projected, somehow, the aura of a bull ogre. Broadnose nodded, eager to please his imagined liege.

“You have promised that you will return for me, here at the citadel, in fifty days.”

“But that will not happen. I have changed my mind,” said Dinekki, waving her hand dismissively. “Instead I desire that you cease making war upon the humans. In truth, you are tired, are you not? You need to sleep. Your hosts will show you to a bed, where you will rest and heal.”

Moreen watched as Broadnose wavered, his chin drooping forward to his chest. His eyes closed and he let loose a deep, ragged snore.

“Bruni, will you lead the ogre to the deep cell? You men, make sure the door is reinforced,” she instructed the brawny warriors holding the chains. “He is to be given the same rations as everyone else.”

The big woman took charge of escorts and the drowsy ogre, who sleepwalked along at his shuffling gait, while the others watched Dinekki, impressed. Kerrick grinned, and Moreen couldn’t help but smile.

“It seemed the best way to get him to open up,” the shaman said genially, waving a hand dismissively.

“Nice work,” the chiefwoman agreed, then grew serious. “But this Dracoheim! Again we hear of that place. Clearly, that is where this terrible weapon is crafted.”

“This Alchemist was also mentioned by Long-Swim Greatfin, the thanoi,” Kerrick noted. “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he is some kind of lord in that place. Undoubtedly he is the one who created this awful weapon.”

“The Alchemist will make another weapon, I fear, and the ogres will return here before summer’s end,” Moreen stated grimly. “We cannot count on being so fortunate again.”

“I agree,” Kerrick said, “but there is some hope, in that Grimwar Bane will not return here for fifty days. That gives me some idea of how far away Dracoheim is and how long it will take the Alchemist to complete his task.”

She peered at him knowing how important he was to her, to all Brackenrock, and yet she had to ask the question. “Do you think you could find this Dracoheim?”

“I’m not sure. According to the thanoi, it’s west across that sea-that same body of water he called the ‘Dracoheim Sea’. That suggests that the island is fairly large, but I don’t know how big the sea is. We might find it right away, and we might look until the Sturmfrost catches us.”

She nodded, thinking of the dangers. Clearly, she couldn’t ask him to risk his life alone.

“Can you take me there?” Moreen asked.

The elf smiled thinly, with as much confidence as he could muster.

“I can try,” was all he said.

“It’s madness!” Strongwind Whalebone declared, pacing around the room in agitation. At the chief-woman’s request the others had left, leaving the Highlander king here alone with Moreen and Kerrick. “You’re still injured-you can hardly see! You don’t know what you’ll find on this island, Dracoheim! Why, it’s sure to be a stronghold of ogres, as well as whatever dark magic this Alchemist fellow has worked.” The king glared at Kerrick, who had been observing the one-sided conversation without taking sides.. “You tell her!” Strongwind implored.

The elf shrugged. “Can you think of one time that I, or anyone else, has changed her mind after she decided to do something?”

The Highlander king snorted and stalked a few steps away before whirling back to point a finger at Moreen.

“Then, by Kradok, I’m coming with you-and a half dozen of my best warriors!”

Kerrick shook his head and held up a placating hand. “We’re taking Cutter, remember, and it will be a voyage of many days. We can’t take that many people.”

“That’s not the only reason,” Moreen said, surprising the elf-Strongwind, too, judging from the look on his face-with her calm demeanor. She gazed at both of them earnestly. “I know we can’t treat this mission as invasion. Stealth is our greatest ally, and a small group is our best chance of being stealthy.”

“I will leave my warriors-but I insist on accompanying you!” The king stared at Kerrick. “Surely you can take three in that boat!”

The elf nodded. “Three, or even four, yes, we can manage that.”

“But the third cannot be you,” Moreen declared sternly, then softened her tone. “Think about the risk. You, the king of all your people, in all their strongholds, perhaps lost forever.”

“The risk is as great for you!” Strongwind retorted. “Your people depend on you! You should be the one to stay-let the elf and me take a pair of veteran warriors and go look for this Alchemist! What if you don’t come back? What happens to Brackenrock?”

“I won’t send any of my people to do something too dangerous for me to try myself,” she replied. “If I don’t come back, my tribe is safer here than they have ever been, and for the first time in generations, we have allies.” She gazed at Strongwind so intensely that the king fidgeted, and ran his fingers through his coarse beard. “Loyal, true allies, who will see that even if Brackenrock falls, the ogres will ultimately not gain mastery over all the Icereach.”

“But, Lady-you are no assassin!”

Moreen lowered her eyes. “I hope this mission doesn’t call for that, but if it does, if this Alchemist must die so that my people can live, I will do what must be done.”

The king looked defeated. He went to the chief-woman, placed his hands on her shoulders, and looked down into her eyes. “May Kradok, and Chislev Wilder, and Zivilyn, and all the gods watch over you. But I insist that I come along-you must not leave me behind!”

She sighed, then smiled grimly. “All right-I guess you’re as stubborn as I am. You will come with us.” She hugged him, and he looked over her head, met Kerrick’s eyes. “We need a fourth. Who is to be the fourth, then?” he asked.

“I should like to go.” Mad Randall spoke from the doorway, then took a few tentative steps into the room. The berserker was almost shy in his manner, and as always Kerrick was struck by the incongruity of his neat appearance, his calm demeanor-when not engaged in battle. “That is, if you’d have me?” he asked, hesitantly.

“I think we need someone exactly like you,” Kerrick said, and the crew of the Cutter was set.


Обращение к пользователям