Nekdukarr: Chapter One

DoHeney swayed atop the pile of coiled rope, beaming out at the newly born morning. Crimson-brushed clouds signaled the beginning of their last day at sea. He had enjoyed his first sea voyage, despite the old tales that dwarves, like oil, do not mix with water. The lazy roll of the ship, and the respite from riding, hiking, sneaking and fighting, had eased the fears of these last weeks. He had strolled the decks and joined in the sailors’ bawdy ballads, and even taught them a few of his own.

Crewmen hauled on lines as the ship topped a swell, and DoHeney nodded in admiration at the engineering used to control the massive vessel. These sailors manipulated the sea and wind almost as well as dwarves fashioned stone and steel.

“Beautiful, is it not?” Shay’s voice sounded suddenly over DoHeney’s shoulder.

“Aye. That it is, lad,” the dwarf agreed, squinting up at the rigging as he put away his dagger; three days at sea had not relaxed him that much. “But there’s a thing er two that could use a touch o’ dwarven ingenuity, if ye understand me thinkin’.”

Shay smiled down at him and said, “Perhaps your people have missed their calling all these countless ages. A sailing vessel of dwarven design would be a wonder to behold.”

“Yer right there, boyo,” DoHeney said. “But I’ll wager yer own kind have built many a sea goin’ craft ta make the likes o’ this ol’ tub look like a sow in the mud.”

“No, to my knowledge, there are no half-elfin, Tem-worshiping, magic-dabbling shipbuilders,” Shay said as he smiled and clapped DoHeney on the shoulder as the dwarf cringed at the attempted humor. “But, alas, my mother’s kin no longer concern themselves with the sea.”

As they gazed at the sunrise, the dwarf considered his companion. DoHeney understood neither elves nor humans, and this half-elf confused him doubly. Shay could heal wounds like a priest, conjure fire spells like a wizard, wield a war hammer like a warrior, and melt the heart of any barmaid in the Northern Realms. And although his skills had an air of effortlessness, that air concealed a hidden anxiety.

The wrinkles of worry that lined the priest’s face when he thought himself unobserved were back. Yes, there was turmoil behind those unfathomable violet eyes, but it was not from what had happened to them in or after Zellohar; he was nervous about what lay directly ahead. For, no matter how much Shay raved about the fair city of Fengotherond, the half-elf’s distress increased with each closing league.

And I’m gonna find out why! DoHeney resolved as he turned toward the priest. “Shay, I been meanin’ ta—”

“Stop hanging all over me!”

The loud complaint cut through the stiff breeze all the way from the aft of the ship, drawing smiles from Shay and DoHeney. Avari had finally awakened from her medicated slumber, and from the sound of it, was not pleased at being treated like an invalid.

Sailors a full hand shorter than the woman gave her a wide berth, though whether from her size, the greatsword slung over her shoulder or the murderous glint in her eyes, DoHeney couldn’t tell. She wove a path to the foredeck, gripping the railing grimly and pulling her cloak close to ward off the gusts that threatened to invade her threadbare garments.

“You’re not well enough for this, Avari,” Lynthalsea protested, trailing close behind. Sailors stared at the contrasting women despite Avari’s glares, comparing the tall, muscular human to the slim elfin beauty.

“I am fine, Lynthalsea,” Avari insisted, turning to tower over the other woman. “I’m not going to be sick, I’m just hungry!”

“And how fares our mighty warrioress o’ the green complexion?” DoHeney asked in his usual undwarf-like manner. Quizzing Shay would just have to wait.

“I told her she was too weak to be walking about on deck,” Lynthalsea scolded, “but she refused to listen.”

DoHeney laughed, then glanced over at Shay and sighed in exasperation. Not again! he thought as he watched Shay’s countenance melt into pasty adoration. Whenever Lynthalsea was near, the priest acted like a smitten schoolboy. Fortunately, DoHeney preferred his women a little shorter and plumper, perhaps with some neatly-trimmed muttonchops…

“I just need some food,” Avari said, her voice soft but still strong. “If I could have some…” She looked around at the tinted sky. “Is this sunrise or sunset?”

“‘Tis a beauty o’ a sunrise, lass.”

“Then, if I can have some breakfast, I’ll be fine.” She turned to Shay. “How long was I out this time?”

“Only a day and a half,” Shay answered with a smile. “It would have been less, if you’d taken the medicine before becoming ill. We should be in the city in time for lunch.”

“I hope so. My stomach feels like it’s been empty for a week.” A loud growl from Avari’s midriff declared its own opinion on her enforced starvation.

“Come with me,” Shay offered. “Let us see if we can find something to pacify the beast that dwells in your middle.”

DoHeney’s smile faded as he watched the pair stroll off. If he was ignorant of the root of Shay’s apprehension, knowing the source of Avari’s depression offered no solace. Avari’s self-imposed and unforgiving guilt ate at her confidence daily.

The lass seems all right now, he mused, but she’s still half asleep and probably hasn’t remembered to feel sorrowful yet.

The girl had been through so much lately that none could fault her for her temper. She had taken the guilt of her father’s and Jundag’s deaths, and the responsibility for the safety of the rest of her friends, onto her own shoulders.

She’s bound to snap out o’ it sometime… he thought, turning back to the rail to see Lynthalsea’s troubled gaze tracking Shay and Avari across the mid-deck to the sterncastle.

“Avari is not as well as she pretends,” she said.

“Now what makes ye think that, lass?”

“I can still smell the sickness on her.”

“Really?” DoHeney asked, his insatiable curiosity piqued. “I know yer sight is better’n most, and them pointy ears probably do somethin’ fer yer hearin’, but I didn’t know elves could smell way down to a person’s wellbein’.”

“Elves can’t,” she said with a smile. “Wolves can.”

DoHeney gaped, his awe masked by his disheveled beard. “Ye mean you’ve the senses o’ a beastie all o’ the time?”

“Not all the time,” she answered. “Only when I concentrate and change form a bit.”

As DoHeney narrowed his eyes in skepticism, Lynthalsea sighed and explained.

“When I first contracted my… condition, I had no control over my changes, but during my years in the forest, I gained mastery of my affliction. That’s how I am able to use the senses of a wolf. I merely concentrate, like this.”

Lynthalsea’s hand, presently draped over the rail, began to change. Hair sprouted and thickened as her fingers retracted into short padded toes and her pink nails narrowed into claws. The hairy paw on the end of a bare, slim wrist looked incongruous.

Oh, that’s disgustin’! DoHeney thought, coughing to hide his revulsion. “Quite a trick ye have there, lass,” he managed, his smile strained. “But don’t ye concern yerself with ship’s sickness. That’s the least of Avari’s worries.”

“The least of all of our worries,” she agreed as they both turned back toward the rail.

The morning sky had brightened to a brilliant blue accented with sweeping clouds, the sun smiling down as if mocking their concerns. On the distant shore, a reflection gleamed like a diamond caught in a blaze of firelight. And so was their first glimpse of Fengotherond, the domed city of wonders.

***

Pain…

With consciousness came pain. Not the sharp, isolated pain of a wound, but a dull, all-encompassing ache. As he swam toward wakefulness, the pain became more distinct: arms cramped as they hung above his head, wrists worn raw by rough iron, head pounding, muscles aching with disuse.

Finally awake, he opened his eyes, only to slam them tightly shut in shock. Total darkness; he could see nothing.

He was blind.

But curiosity and a deeply ingrained belligerence won out over his fear. He opened his eyes again and stared hard into the darkness, daring the gods to have taken his sight. After some time he could make out slivers of light outlining a door. From the manacles he deduced that he was in a cell, but he had no idea how he had come to be here. He leaned his head against the stone, letting the cool dampness sooth his pounding head.

Physically he was uninjured, though he had never felt so drained. Curiously, his mind also felt drained, as if caught in a fog. He tried to remember what had happened, how he had gotten here, but glimpsed only vague images.

Another night with too much ale and not enough meat, he thought without a great deal of worry. His stomach protested as painfully as his head. Whatever the drink had made him do, it was bad enough to land him in prison for the night. Time to do something besides sit on this slimy floor.

He grabbed the chains, hoisted himself to his feet, and instantly regretted it. The expected relief of his aching muscles was superseded by a stunning blow as his head hit the ceiling.

What in the name of Hades? He groaned in anguish as he lowered himself back into a half-squat.

His questing fingers met solid stone no more than five feet above the floor. This was not like any prison he had been in before. It was almost like it had not been made for normal-sized humans. A brutish visage flashed into his memory, curved tusks from a piggish snout, only to fade before he could comprehend it. Where the hell am I? he thought, panic rising in his throat.

With an energy born of desperation, he heaved on the thick cast-iron links that bound him. Nothing. Again! Turning around to place his feet against the wall, he strained with his broad back, his shoulders parting the threadbare seams of his tunic. The skin on his hands split, wetting the chains, and a muscle in his back wrenched painfully. Nothing. Gulping breath, his heart racing, he fought to gather his wits, clenching his teeth against the rising panic. Then he began to think.

Time passed slowly, like the melting of snow in spring, time in which he listened and thought, but never found an answer. He hummed an ancient tune for wont of something better to do, wondering at his recollection of the melody when more substantial memories were denied him.

The door burst open with a glare of light, startling him awake. A thousand questions swirled through his mind, but he could only stare at the hunched figure until the door slammed. He had forgotten that he had a voice. All he gained from the encounter was a greasy haunch of half-rotten meat. He threw the foul fodder away—he was not that hungry yet—then immediately lunged after it, wrenching his arms and causing his wounded wrists to weep bloody tears. The meat might be rotten, but he could sharpen the thick bone to make a crude weapon.

He cursed his own stupidity. He did not yet know where he was or how he had gotten here, but if he was going to get out, he would have to start using his head.

***

Iveron Darkmist’s alabaster eyes squinted from behind the demon helm, the glare of winter dawn torturing his dark-attuned vision. Frigid mountain winds tore through the folds of his cloak, chilling him to the bone. Despite these discomforts, the Nekdukarr smiled; his plans were coming together. The raiding missions were a great success. Many of the farms between Zellohar Keep and the city of Beriknor had already been stripped. The humans in this area had been at peace too long; they did not take the first signs of invasion seriously.

Which, of course, is to my advantage, Iveron thought.

He watched as the long file of troops trudged into the courtyard of the keep. All were heavily laden, some with small struggling bundles. Iveron smiled again; although live prisoners required extra effort, to the Nekdukarr they were the ultimate treasure, fodder for his foul supplications to Mortas. But the more important spoils were the astonishing quantities of food and clothing for his ever-expanding army. New troops poured into Zellohar, swelling his forces daily. The surrounding mountains harbored orc, goblin, ogre and even troll dens. All it took to lure them into service were promises of slaughter, booty and regular meals.

Iveron estimated his food stores to be sufficient for several weeks, more than enough time to complete preparations for the ceremony that would launch his campaign. Four of his most adept squires worked day and night on the tedious engraving that was required, chiseling runes into the floor of the specially designed chamber. He would inspect their work before committing himself to the ceremony, of course; an error could release horrors beyond even Iveron’s control. Once the preparations were done, all he needed were the gems.

The cornerstones, he thought, recalling the dwarvish term for the four enchanted stones.

A deep growl reverberated in his throat as his gauntletted fists clenched. He would have laughed aloud at the irony if it was a laughing matter. The incredible power of the very gems the dwarves had used to imprison him in Zellohar, had been his. But now, due to the incompetence of his troops, only two of the four original gems remained within his reach. What began as an irritating kink in his plans had mushroomed into a threat to his whole campaign.

Crimson fire flared in the eyes of the gruesome demon helm as his boots clacked back and forth along the battlements. Below, his tired troops hushed their chatter and resumed their labors with new vigor. They had seen him like this before, and someone usually ended up quite nastily dead as a result.

I must have all four gems! he raged impotently. But how to assure that the job is done right?

His options were few. He could abandon his stronghold and recover the lost gems himself. Although tempting—he would be able to wreak his personal revenge upon the thieves—Iveron knew it was impossible. Nekdukarr were shunned throughout the Northern Realms; he would be attacked on sight. And if his sisters visited in his absence, they would discover his plans, realize that he had deceived them, and bring his scheme before the Council of the Ten Clans as their own. He depended on the success of this war to shut his sisters up for good. Once he had the power of the cornerstones and the might of Clan Darkmist at his command, he would demand a seat on the council.

Could he send the dragon, Phlegothax? No. The thieves were last reported en route to the city of Fengotherond, and even a dragon could not breach that city’s defenses. Besides, the beast was still surly after being wounded by the rockfall in the lower caverns. Fortunately, the troops that fell into the gorge with the collapse of the bridge had quelled the beast’s insatiable hunger, but he was not ready to test its temper yet.

Iveron’s pitiless gaze swept his cowering, inept subordinates; if the dolts had captured the thieves, he would not be in this mess. He had an urge to let the rage flow from the demon helm resting upon his brow, but even as the power began to rise, the rational corner of his mind suppressed it. Reducing one’s troops to lifeless puddles of goo was not good for morale.

His rage once again locked away in a corner of his twisted mind, the dark paladin directed his thoughts along more lucid paths. He despised having to depend on anyone, but there was no choice; he would rely on the assassins he had sent after the thieves. The Shadowknives were competent, born to kill and baptized in blood. And they knew the consequences of failure. But a disturbing question still hung in the back of Iveron’s mind: what if he could not recover all the gems?

“Impossible!” he said, immediately rejecting the thought. He would regain possession of the cornerstones, and with them, ultimate power.

Nekdukarr: Chapter Two