Shadow of the Overlord, chapters 3 and 4
(please keep in mind that these are very rough, unedited versions)
“Hold it steady, Master Dargon,” Jorimund said.
“You hold it bloody steady,” Dargon snapped under his breath. Who needs a bow, anyway?
“Young Master, you cannot hold the bow steady while you breath, especially when breathing so rapidly. Release the string.”
Dargon let the bow go slack.
“Now, follow the steps. Breath in as you draw back, hold your breath while you hold the string to your cheek. Take one second to aim, and fire.”
Dargon nodded glumly, but did as instructed.
Or tried to, at least. He arrow didn’t come within six spans of the straw man which was his target.
“Better, my lord. Better.”
Dargon scoffed. “If missing the broad side of a barn is better.”
“It is. You cannot hit if you do not fire. And you cannot improve your aim if you do not fire.”
He nodded, conceding the point. “Give me a sword and I’ll hack your arm off, but I’m wasted on the bow.”
“Not true, Master Dargon. You’re a quicker study with the sword, that is true. But you only need more practice with the bow. Remember the—”
“I know, I know. Remember the steps. String the bow, nock an arrow, draw with an indrawn breath. Hold the breath while I aim and do not breath out again until after firing the arrow.”
“I have never doubted your memory,” Jorimund said. “Your wit is sharper than any sword.”
Dargon felt certain there was a backhand to that compliment somewhere, but he couldn’t help beaming at the praise.
“Again,” Jorimund barked.
Dargon dutifully obeyed.
He loosed arrow after arrow after arrow. By the time the old Master-At-Arms let him stop, the blisters on his fingers had popped, regrown, popped again, and regrown to the size of grapes and his arm ached so badly he could scarcely move it.
I suppose this is what Father meant when he instructed Jori to work me ‘to the bone.’ With a sigh, he slowly unstrung the bow with his left hand, to avoid doing further harm to the blistered fingers of his right, and put both back in the small shed which passed for an armory here in the Moritz keep.
The oaken boards which passed for walls were splintered and beginning to molder. The inside of the shed stretched perhaps a span and a half and the inner walls were lined with four common bone swords and one supposedly of black torthugra-bone, though Dargon had his doubts about the legitimacy of the claim. there were a dozen wood-and-bone axes, each matched with a shield and the remaining wall was hung with unstrung bows of ash, elm, and horn, with two crafted from diamondwood.
In the middle space of the shed stood four oak dummies from which hung a suit of banded torthugra-bone armor, a massive suite of plates supposedly made from teranthric bone, a basic breastplate of oak, and another of diamondwood complete with greaves, epaulets, and coif.
Dargon hung his bow on its peg and wrapped the string around its length. Turning from the shed, he closed its heavy door and dropped the bar in place, clasping the thick, wooden padlock in its place to secure the bar.
Why do we bother with locking it? he thought, annoyed. It is not as though there’s actually anything of value in there. We don’t even have enough weapons to quell a peasant uprising, much less any real threat.
“Go and get that hand looked at,” Jori said.
Dargon nodded and, as though the Master-At-Arms’ words had caused it, his hand began to throb. Something wet dripped down his palm.
He tried to clench his fist, but the fingers wouldn’t curl past the shape of a sickle. Determined not to look at it, he spun on his heel and marched toward the keep.
Within moments, he was out of the hot sun and into the stone keep. The granite floors were smooth, if bare, but the stone of the walls had numerous cracks and were chipped almost everywhere. At seemingly random intervals, framed canvas paintings hung from the walls.
Dargon couldn’t help wondering why they bothered with decorations when the keep was in such a constant state of disrepair.
His feet followed the four turns and countless stone steps seemingly without his direction, leading him up into the central tower and into the Trevan’s office. His sturdy diamondwood door stood wide open, as it usually did during the day.
Leather-bound books lined the walls and a long marble counter at the back of the room held glass jars of pulpy, meaty things better left uninvestigated. Or so the Trevan always told him.
Even now, with blood dripping from his throbbing hand, however, he wanted nothing more than to go back and explore the grotesquery.
He pulled his attention to the front of the chamber where the Trevan himself sat. He was a large, thickly bearded man in midnight blue robes with kind, glittering gray eyes.
Quill in hand, the Trevan wrote ceaselessly in a large, green, leather-bound tome. The bright red desk was of a stone Dargon didn’t recognize, its surface textured with bumps almost half the size of cobblestones. The Trevan had once claimed the desk was carved from stone pulled from the eastern ocean, though Dargon didn’t see how that was possible. The thing was massive, surely— even now, it its carven state —it had to weigh at least forty, perhaps even sixty stone. What would the original chunk of material have been? A hundred stone? A thousand?
Dargon waited, though with the ache in his hand rapidly working toward a crushing inferno his patience waned quickly.
After a minute, the crimson light of Kaustere reflecting off the eastern sea as it sank toward its home there caused the stone of the Trevan’s desk to blaze scarlet and the youngish man lifted his quill to dip it into the inkwell. Dargon cleared his throat softly.
Face still turned down toward his page, the Trevan glanced up at Dargon with arched brows. “Yes, milord?”
Dargon raised is arm and brandished his bloody hand as though it were a flaming torch. Tiny crimson droplets spattered half the desk, one or two of them soaking into the page of the Trevan’s open book.
The Trevan’s flinty eyes narrowed for an instant, then went wide as he seemed to process Dargon’s meaning. “Come and sit, boy,” he said softly, patting the seat of a chair next to his.
Dargon felt certain the chair hadn’t been there a moment ago, but with the pain in his hand he didn’t fully trust his senses.
After a moment of confused hesitation, he stepped around the desk and eased himself down into the carved mahogany chair, careful not to jar his still-bleeding hand. The seat proved much more comfortable than it looked.
The Trevan pulled a bowl of carved bone from beneath his desk and gently eased Dargon’s hand into it. The healer then pulled a stone pitcher, full of clear water, from the same place and sat it on the desk. “How did this happen?”
“Training.” Dargon’s voice was tight.
“I thought so. I am going to have words with him over this,” the Trevan growled through clenched teeth.
“No!” Dargon snaked his hand out to grip the Trevan’s arm as hard as he could. “Promise me you will not!”
The Trevan stared at him a moment, then nodded. “Okay, Dargon. Calm down.” He pried Dargon’s fingers from his arm. “We need to take care of this hand.”
Dargon nodded and looked down at his ravaged fingers for the first time since training had ended. His stomach surged and he fought his body, forcing the bile back down his throat.
He couldn’t see much through the blood, which covered his palm and fingers. He didn’t have names for the shapes of the popped blisters covering the top two segments of his fingers. Thick, congealing fluid of sickly yellow and rotting green mixed with the blood at the tips of his fingers.
How is this so bad? All I was doing is firing arrows, he thought in some confusion.
The world seemed to swim, spinning around him, and the edges of his vision began go darken.
“Well, this looks a lot worse than it really is,” the Trevan said brightly.
Dargon blinked and his vision cleared. Looking down at his hand again, he squinted. “Are you certain?”
The Trevan smiled and pulled a folded piece of parchment from his robe. He carefully unfolded its contents and dumped them into the stone pitcher, the water foaming at the top and turning dark blue. He lifted the pitcher, his hand high on its handle, and whispered under his breath as he poured the blue water over Dargon’s hand.
Dargon couldn’t hear the words, but guessed at what they were. In many city-states, he had heard, Trevan was merely a title for a scholar, healer, or wise man, but here in Moritz they held to the old ways. The Trevan was, first and foremost, a priest of Trevandor. Some even said he was one of the rare few priests with true healing powers.
Dargon had never seen any proof of that, however.
From the moment the blue liquid touched his hand, the pain seemed to vanish. The liquid seemed to glow slightly, but it could have been a trick of the dwindling light of Kaustere.
As the blood and pus were washed away, Dargon was astounded to find that they Trevan was largely correct. A laceration near the base of one finger bled freely and the remains of several blisters covered the pads of his fingers, but there was little else.
I would swear there had been more than that, he thought.
The Trevan pulled a silk washcloth from his roe and soaked it in the blue— now purple —liquid, then gently wiped the remaining grime from Dargon’s skin.
“You see?” the Trevan said. “Just get this bleeding stopped and apply a salve for the blisters and you should be as good as new by morning.”
“So I see,” Dargon said in wonder, though he could hardly believe it. From the fire of agony in his fingers, he’d been certain the flesh must have been shredded to the bone.
The Trevan held a linen strip to the open cut while patting the rest of the hand dry with another silken cloth. Once it was dry, he wrapped another strip of linen about the cut finger and tied it, then put a paste from a jar hidden on one of the bookshelves onto several smaller strips and tied them onto the pads of Dargon’s fingers.
Smiling, the Trevan pushed aside the pitcher and bowl and eyed his handiwork. “How does it feel?’
“Good,” Dargon said, a bit suspicious now. He peered deep into the healer’s shining eyes for several moments. “Trevan, what was that light in the solution you poured on my hand?”
The Trevan’s eyes widened slightly. “Light? What light? I can only guess you must have been seeing a refraction of the light of Kaustere.”
“I’m not so sure. Are you certain it’s nothing you did?”
“Of course,” he said with a laugh just a bit higher pitched than usual. What could I have done?”
“Well, you are a priest, after all.”
The Trevan laughed again and this time it was genuine and mirthful. “Few priests, of any god, are granted real power, milord. Most of them are sorcerers and charlatans.”
“But they say you are one of them,” he blurted, shocked with how direct he was being.
“Not only is that presumptuous, Young Lord, but that question is a rather rude one. Priests do not flaunt such things.”
“And yet, you’ve done so enough for people to talk about it.”
In the Verdant forest far to the south of Moritz, beneath the eternally green canopy where the light of Kaustere never touch, Rintalas stood with his hands raised. His green eyes darted from axe to pick to spear to arrow, he counted more than twenty of the bearded gnelwyn surrounding him.
He dropped the twin blades of giant bone he held in his hands, they stabbed into the loamy forest floor less than a handspan from his toes.
Too late to flee, too many of them to kill, he thought in frustration.
A pair of the diminutive creatures in the third rank from him conversed openly in the Gnelwyn language. Clearly they didn’t expect a ‘savage’ from the other side of The Spine to understand their language.
“What do we do? Since the dragons came our prisons are overflowing. Is there even room for another?”
“We’ll make room,” said the second. Between the higher— though still low, by his reckoning —voice and thin, silk facial hair, he expected this was was female.
Dra-guns? he thought. What in the name of all the gods is a dragon?
“As you say, Sureeka,” said the first in his gravelly voice. “Bind him,” he added in a shout.
A few of the gnelwyn broke off from the rest. They searched him roughly, relieving him of every weapon he owned, including the tiny iron knife he kept hidden in his right boot to choruses of “oooooh,” and “ahhhh,” when the others saw the rare metal weapon.
The tiny blade was probably worth more than their homes were.
Once fully disarmed, his hands were pulled behind his back and bound in a length of black cord which looked as though it were made of a multitude of vines braided together.
Within minutes, they were marching to the east, away from the rising orb of Kaustere. He tested the bonds by yanking his hands apart. After a dozen tries, all he had to show for his efforts were aching shoulders and raw wrists, with a trickle of blood leaking into his left palm.
Damn, he thought. How am I going to get out of this? I have work to do.
Rintalas took a deep breath to center his mind and looked around him. He was surrounded by four ranks of gnelwyn warriors. Although most of them looked almost identical to him, the nearest one to his right seemed older than the others, his beard gray and grizzled and lined marring his face, particularly around the eyes and over his wide, angular forehead. Like the others, he wore his hair long and pulled back in a tight, thick braid. His clothing was plain, but appealing. Rintalas appreciated the natural, woodsy green of the vest and the dull, bark-like brown of his breeches. Under the woolen vest, this gnelwyn wore soft linen of midnight black which covered his arms down to the gray leather gloves and his feet were booted in soft black doeskin.
It was an excellent choice for stealth, Rintalas was forced to admit.
The gnelwyn’s face was grim and he stared straight ahead.
An itch in the back of his mind forced Rintalas to act. He leaned toward grim-face. “Hey, Grim,” he whispered. “Mind telling me where we’re headed?”
Grim-Face kept marching, eyes straight ahead, as though he hadn’t heard.
“Hey, Grim,” he whispered louder. “Come on. Talk to me. It isn’t as though I could hurt you. I’m bound here.”
“Shut. Up,” Grim growled between clenched teeth.
“You know, that’s an awfully kind suggestion, but I think I’ll have to pass. You see, I came here for a reason and getting captured by you lot is rather far from that reason. So, since you’re keeping me from my job, you might as well give me some information.”
The gnelwyn to his other side turned to glare him.
He shrugged. “I know. Prisoners aren’t supposed to talk. I’ve taken a few prisoners myself in my time. But see, the whole silent thing doesn’t work for me. So how about we have a chat?”
Turning back to Grim-Face, Rintalas just caught the ghost of a faint smile which transformed instantly back into a grim scowl.
Progress, he thought.
“Come on. Anybod-”
Something wide and hard slammed into the back of his head, cutting him off and knocking him to his knees.
With muddled thoughts and swimming vision, he looked around in a daze. A think bead of something warm and wet trickled down the back of his neck.
Hmmm, he thought. Perhaps silence would serve me better just now.
Soft, grim chuckles surrounded him.
Slowly, the haze over his vision cleared and his own rugged leather boots came into sharp focus. In retrospect, and he should have foreseen it, his rough cow-hide boots and deep green, doeskin leggings made him stick out like a wolfhound in a fox den in this place. Of course, the silken tunic and furred vest didn’t help either.
For the first time, Rintalas looked past the gnelwyn at the forest around him and couldn’t help but marvel at it. He had never actually been to the Verdant Forest before. He’d thought he had been prepared for the reality of the place.
The dark trunks of trees glistened in the darkness, some smooth and some with bark grittier than sand. All reached hundreds of spans into the air where their leaved branches formed an impenetrable canopy overhead. The forest floor was black, with not a glimmer of light, yet Rintalas felt certain it was very near midday. His internal sense of time was generally flawless. Nevermind that he hadn’t seen the light Kaustere in over a week.
How do plants thrive on the forest floor without the touch of the Crimson God? he wondered.
Between the steamy moisture in the air, the black vines wrapped about tree trunks, and green ones hanging from the branches, and the plethora a vermin, insects, and snakes creeping, crawling, and slithering through the fauna convinced him that the Verdant Forest was no true forest, but rather a living jungle.
Had it been misnamed, all those centuries ago? Or had something changed this place? Could it have something to do with.. what was the word the gnelwyn had used? Dragons?
But how? What power in the world could alter the very landscape?
Away from the path, the jungle grew denser, the trees closer together and the vines and fauna proliferated more than usual. The path, however, grew wider, with the shrubbery and vermin reducing the farther they traveled, almost to the point of vanishing altogether.
Without warning, the path widened further until the trees vanished, leaving perhaps a hundred spans of open ground before the rocky slopes of the Spine of the World mountains. The gray stone towered over the trees, utterly dwarfing them.
The towering walls of rock trembled, shook, then began moving toward him! Slowly but steadily, and shaking all the while, they moved toward him and the troop of gnelwyn.
By Gaeia’s hammer! he thought. What is this?
A narrow gap appeared at the center of the moving wall of stone, small rocks and a mist of dust falling into it as it slowly widened, revealing a dark, empty chasm beyond.
A sharp jab in his back urged Rintalas forward, while the wall of stone continued to move toward him, gap widening like the jaws of some massive predator.
“What is this?” he asked, voice trembling.
Something struck the back of his head again, but not nearly as hard this time. Taking the hint, he clamped his mouth closed and let himself be herded into the darkness.
Within a dozen steps past the still-moving wall, his eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness and the massive cavern around him took his breath away.
Where did this place come from? he wondered. Gnelwyn are not dwarves. They are many things, but skilled miners and expert stonemasons are not among them.
Prodded by his escort, he walked the center path through a forest of dark pillars, each one decorated with an engraved face. Most of the images were narrow-eyed and stern, but one to his right had wide, bright eyes and a mouth turned up in a joyous grin.
The walls around the cavern were too distant to make out, but they seemed to sparkle in the slivers of crimson light arcing in from beyond the doors. Only then did he realize, truly realize that the moving wall of rock was, in fact, a set of massive double doors. It was a well-known fashion of the dwarves to build gates into their mountain cities out of the natural rock itself with minimal alteration so as to make it as indistinguishable from natural stone as possible.
The inside of the doors, though! They were engraved with images of great tunnels being mined, incredible structures being built, and metals being cast. The images were inlaid with sparkling gems and jewels and even spots of metal in a few places. Some grayish metal inlaid a dwarven hammer and a bright yellow metal formed a circlet around another dwarf’s brow.
“Incredible,” Rintalas breathed.
“Move, elf,” said a rough gnelwyn voice with another jab to his back.
“Only half,” he grumbled under his breath. It wasn’t worth another clout on the head to express his displeasure about his parentage being confused.
He started forward again at a quicker pace than before. Whatever awaited him in the depths of this mountain, it had to be better than how the warriors had treated him so far. Didn’t it?