| Grom waited in the open and silent front corridor of the castle. He had not bothered to go through the agonizing process of piecing together his plated armor. Although the hefty metal would better protect him from fatal blows, his lighter layer of leather was much lighter and provided him with a free-range of motion and mobility. He stared upward at a thin-slitted window across on the opposite wall. A single star twinkled and fought to remain in a sky that would soon be filled with the sun’s warming glow. Grom pried his eyes away from the single flickering candlelight and nodded his head toward the advancing Ragefist.
“How much longer until we’re ready to go?” Ragefist asked, his fingers tapping against the handle of the sword at his side.
“We’re still waiting for Garz to get cleaned up. Trust me, the time spent waiting is well worth the effort of scrubbing away his stench,” Grom said. He made a disgusted face, wrinkling his nose and curling his lips at the thought of Garz’s unsavory smell.
“So you know this dwarf? Was he really from your village?” Ragefist asked.
“Unfortunately, everything I’ve told you is the truth,” Grom answered. He drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Garz’s family worked in the same mine as my own. He was born into Clan Steeltooth, which has always been closely associated with Clan Greystone. I guess you could consider him my cousin.”
“Then why so much hatred toward him?” Ragefist asked, scratching his helmet-less head, “Is it because he’s a thief?”
“Have you ever heard of rivalry among relatives, lad?” Grom asked. He waited for Ragefist to nod before continuing. “Garz always treated me like his younger brother, and I don’t mean that in a protective and loving way. I never understood why, but I became the butt of all his jokes. For the longest time, Garz was bigger than me, and he could get away with being a jerk.”
“If your clans were so close, then he must have cared at least a little,” Ragefist said, “It couldn’t have been that bad between you two.”
“Oh yes it could! You don’t know how nasty he can be. Why else do you think he became a thief?” Grom said, turning his head away and sneering toward the ground.
“Maybe I don’t know how things were between the two of you. I only have one question for you. Why are you bringing along someone you despise?” Ragefist asked.
“I can’t answer that, lad,” Grom said, raising his glance back toward his companion, “Maybe I’ve come to learn that people can change if you give them a chance.” He leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes. An image of his friends, forever molded into stone, danced in his mind.
“There’s no need to worry! I’m ready to go!”
Grom and Ragefist turned in time to see two guards escorting Garz on either side down the corridor. The dirt and filth that once covered his face and hands had been washed away. His copper beard rested against his chest, split into two long braids tied ff at the ends with straps of black leather. His once somber and uncaring eyes looked about with a renewed excitement and joy.
“Thank you, gentlemen. You may return to your posts,” Grom said, directing his words toward the two guards. The armored men bowed and marched off down the hall, disappearing from sight. Grom eyed Garz up and down. “You don’t look too prepared for the journey. Don’t you have any weapons in case we find the bandits or get attacked along the way?”
“I was taken prisoner and thrown into an empty cell,” Garz said, breaking off into a coughing fit. He looked as though he wanted to split another nasty stream of mucus on the ground, but he thought better of it and swallowed hard. Ragefist wrinkled his nose and groaned in disgust, but Garz ignored him and continued his thought. “Do you think they’d let me keep any of my weapons or other possessions? You’re a captain of the guard, so you should know the rules better than anyone.”
Grom responded with an annoyed grunt. “What did you have before the guards took you into custody?”
“Nothing,” Garz replied, letting out a belly-shaking laugh.
“I see now why you don’t get along,” Ragefist mumbled under his breath. Garz turned toward him and gazed upward with questioning eyes. Ragefist cleared his throat and turned toward Grom. “If you’d like, I could get him some sort of blade. The castle storerooms are stocked full of unused weaponry.”
“Yes, go ahead and see what you can find,” Grom instructed.
Ragefist bowed his head and walked down the silent corridor, shaking the stillness with each clomp of his metal boots scraping against the stone floor. When the sounds faded away, Grom and Garz remained alone in the quiet castle hall.
“So,” Garz said, his words traveling down the length of the hall, “Are we eating breakfast before we go?”
* * *
The three set out as the sun’s first glow appeared in the eastern sky. The horizon seemed to come alive with radiance as if some treacherous wizard had cast an illusion across all of creation. They followed the southern road out of town, which was the same path the bandits had reportedly traveled. They walked on in silence, save for the occasional burp, fart, or rude joke from Garz.
“Hey Grom! I’ve got another one!” Garz shouted in an excited voice. Neither Grom nor Ragefist answered him, but he continued anyway. “What were the monsters doing at the dinner table?”
“I don’t know, what?” Ragefist grumbled, humoring the dwarf.
“They were goblin down their food!” Garz blurted out like a child unable to control himself. Mad laughter followed, yet his companions held their tongues. “Come on! Don’t you get it?”
“We get it, Garz,” Grom reassured his kin, hoping that his acknowledgment would somehow silence him.
“I know a ton more! My father used to tell me them all the time. You know what sort of guy he is, Grom. He’s always good for a laugh!” Garz shouted, slapping Grom across his back.
All hopes for silence had dissipated with the shades and specters of the night.
“What lies south of Oneria?” Ragefist asked.
His words caught Grom off guard. He had forgotten the tall young man had been traveling along with them. Garz’s tendency to fill the air with spewing filth drowned out the thought of the silent human.
“There are mostly mountains directly south of here. If we keep along this road, we’ll come to a fork that either goes into the mountains or to the west around them,” Grom answered.
“Which way do you think they might have gone?” Ragefist asked. A lack of comfort and impatience fell in drops off of each word.
“How am I to know, lad?” Grom said. His words came out a bit too quickly and too strong for his own liking, and he paused a moment to calm himself before continuing. “If they plan on taking the stolen cart the whole way, they’d be crazy to lead it up the path into the mountains. The road upward is too narrow and rocky in places to get it very far.”
“If it were me stealing this card,” Garz began, breaking their short reprieve from his talking, “I’d leave the cart somewhere along the road. That way anyone that followed might give up and quit their pursuit.”
“That has to be the dumbest–” Ragefist began, but he froze as they rose over the crest of a small hill.
In the valley below, pieces of a broken-up cart littered the ground. The carcases of twin noble stallions rested beside one another like two lovers sleeping without a care. The sheets they laid upon were painted scarlet, poured from their second, new gaping smiles below their chins and above their chests. Their sleek white coats appeared like a shadowy gray.
“You were saying?” Garz said, finding vindication in the bloody massacre.
“What could have caused this?” Grom asked aloud. His eyes raced from side to side, taking in the entirety of the scene. He’d seen his share of bloodshed, but that was two years ago. Back then the last two bodies he saw were not these defenseless animals; the bodies were of his friends Prescott and Cloey.
“It’s like I told you before,” Garz said, “The bandits set this up on purpose to get us to turn back.”
“They maimed the horses to make their point?” Ragefist sputtered out, still visibly shaken by the sight of so much blood. The horses looked like dried skeletons, and their black eyes bulged, almost sticking out of their skulls. “You can’t tell me they’d go to such an extreme to get us off their trail.”
“Whatever happened, they aren’t here anymore. That means we need to keep going,” Grom insisted, moving ahead down the hill.
“Where are we even going?” Ragefist piped in, rushing after Grom and grabbing hold of his shoulder. Grom stopped and glanced upward at him. “They could have gone off in any direction.”
“Not necessarily,” Garz said between labored huffs. He hacked and spit a slimy glob of snot to the side near a broken wheel. “If they traveled on foot, they would need some place to hideout. Their base of operations must be nearby.”
“I hate to sat it, but he’s probably right,” Grom said, allowing his eyes to travel down at the dead horses again. Prying his gaze away, he started back down the path.
“Where are you going? We can’t be sure which way they went!” Ragefist called out to him.
“I’ve got a hunch,” Grom muttered and continued onward.
“Come on, boy! No use staying here with the pretty horsies,” Garz said as he stopped past him.
“My name is Ragefist!” he shouted. Garz held up his arm and shook his hand in a dismissing manner. Ragefist sighed and jogged to catch up. “And I’m not a boy!”
Within the next several hours, the mountains became visible in the distance. Grom felt strangely uplifted by setting his eyes on the rocky rise of ground. Somewhere far beyond the reach of his keen dwarven eyes existed his home, Jimstown. Just how long had it been, he wondered. After all the wondrous cities he had visited since leaving, he could barely recall the layout of the mines. They had to have changed somehow over the years. The more he thought of home, the further he sank beneath the weight of the pangs of sorrow.
“Is something the matter?” Ragefist asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Grom replied, startled awake from his thoughts. He saw Ragefist staring down at him, and his watchful gaze made him uncomfortable. He finally sighed and shook his head. “I was just thinking that it has been a long time since I’ve actually been up in the mountains.”
“Almost five years if I remember right,” Garz said, counting each finger on his right hand.
“Five years,” Grom whispered, returning his attention to the mountains. Five years without eating his mother’s hot meals. Give years since last working in the mines. Five years spent away from his kind and mingling in the cities of men. While he fought to save Feldos from evil, his former life remained frozen in his mind, forgotten until Garz’s dramatic emergence.
“Your mother worried about you daily,” Garz began, “Don’t think that word never spread to Jimstown of your deeds. We heard all about the dark elves and the dark knights and all those other dark things you fought like a damned fool. It’s a mirable you managed to live through it all.”
Grom wanted to spin around and bash Garz’s head open, but he somehow kept his temper under control. Even though his words were derogatory, Garz only said what Grom already knew. He began to wonder how his parents and other family members were getting along without him. On the day he set out to see the world, he remembered the look on his mother’s face. Her warm brown eyes lost their glow, and the color of her face went from its deep red to ghostly white. As Grom traveled own the mountain path, he turned to see his mother wave and then bury herself in his father’s arms.
“They actually told me to go find you and watch over your sorry ass,” Garz said, a sense of purpose surfacing in his voice, “The funny thing being that you were the one saving my ass from rotting in that dungeon.”
Grom opened his mouth with the intention of calling Garz what he was–a dirty, no-good, lying thief. Instead, only a sharp exhale of warm breath escaped. Grom’s head drooped, and he stared at the ground as they continued forward.
They talked little as the day progressed, and despite strong and loud complaints from Garz, they refused to stop for a rest and a meal. The sun began its slow drop across the darkening sky, and the mountains continued to rise in front of them. They walked up and over many rising hills, keeping exclusively to the road. No sight of anything human crossed their path, which in itself seemed unusual to Grom. A normally heavily traveled road to Oneria devoid of carts carrying merchant’s goods seemed almost unheard of at any time of the day.
“How much further do we have to go before we can get something to eat? It’s a crime to starve a dwarf!” Garz shouted, his pace slowing to a halt.
“We’ll stop when we reach the edge of the mountains,” Grom said, trudging on.
“Why can’t we stop now?” Garz insisted, refusing to take another step, “Come on, Grom, only for a few moments. We aren’t going to reach the mountains until the sun goes down.”
“Maybe he’s right, Grom,” Ragefist said. He stopped his march and rubbed his neck. “We’ve been walking all day. We could all use a short rest and a bite to eat.”
Grom continued walking a few more paces before he gave way to their pleas and the burning in his legs. Ragefist and Garz followed him off the side of the road toward an old tree stump. They all fell down near it, and Garz snatched Grom’s pack, throwing it open and searching through it for food. He pulled out something wrapped in a white linen cloth and unwrapped it to reveal half a loaf of bread. Without so much as a word to Grom or Ragefist, he bit into the loaf and began smacking his dry lips and chewing on his food with his mouth wide open.
“That’s disgusting!” Ragefist shouted, yanking the bread away from Garz. He tore off a chunk where his teeth marks lined the fresh food and tossed it into Garz’s lap. “This food’s for all of us! How about showing some manners for once!”
“Bah! You humans and your proper etiquette,” Garz grumbled, still digging through Grom’s bag. He unearthed a leather skin and tugged the cork free. Lifting it to his lips, he drew in a long gulp and coughed as if he had tasted poison. “Water? What kind of dwarf brings water along on a trip?”
“One that wants to be sober and awake,” Grom replied, taking the waterskin from Garz’s greedy hands. He took a sip, savoring the cool taste in his mouth before swallowing. He handed Ragefist the water in exchange for the bread, and they sat in silence as they ate their meager meals.
“What do you know about these bandits, Garz?” Ragefist asked at length.
“I don’t know anything,” Garz answered.
“Something is telling me not to believe you. Why else were you found near the scene of the crime? There’s something you’re not telling us,” Ragefist said, not taking his eyes off of Garz.
“I came to Oneria to find Grom. Sure, I thought about fattening my pockets a bit in the process, but I wasn’t involved with those men’s work. I came across them trying to steal from the carriage, and before I could say anything, they left me to be taken away in shackles,” Garz said, staring back at Ragefist. The human’s accusing eyes failed to soften or show acceptance. “I swear that’s the truth.”
“Either way, we still need to find them to put a stop to any further problems,” Grom said, recovering the rest of the bread and sticking it back in his pack.
“And just where are we supposed to find them, anyway?” Garz asked, falling onto his back and staring up at the blue-black sky–the color before night and after the day. “The only thing we know for sure is that the carriage and horses didn’t survive the trip. If they’re even still alive, what’s to say they’d follow the road?”
“I’m not sure,” Grom admitted as he tucked the waterskin away and closed his backpack. He gathered the strength to stand and threw his pack over his shoulder. “I know of a few caves around the path into the mountains. There’s a chance they are using them to hideout.”
“You can’t be sure of that! Those caves have been empty for as long as I’ve known about them,” Garz protested.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Grom said, heading back toward the road. He stopped a moment and peered over his shoulder. “Are you two coming or not?”
Ragefist rose with a little difficulty but stepped up beside Grom. Garz dragged himself to his feet with a groan and staggered forward. He leaned in close to Grom and breathed a sour stench in his face. “I hate you.”
Grom ignored the criticism and led them along the road once again.
Before too long, night came upon them, hiding the world in darkness. The tiny sliver of the crescent moon provided just enough light to help guide their way. After an arduous journey, their tired legs finally reached the fork in the road. The way into the mountains rested in front of them along a rockier, barren ground. The road rose upward into the lower cliffs of the mighty mountain, home of the dwarven villages and mines. Grom stopped and inhaled deeply.
“I missed the smell of the mountains,” Grom said, a slight smile creeping over his face.
“Then why’d you leave in the first place?” Garz asked. His words bit with sarcasm, and Grom did not answer.
They started up the twisting path, keeping their eyes alert for any sights of movement. Grom reached back and pulled his axe free of its straps along his back. He never became fully adjusted to his new weapon. Nothing could replace the axe that fell along with Astaroth over the side of the dark mountain. He shook his head, trying to force the unpleasant memories into his unconscious.
“If these bandits really are hiding somewhere around here, wouldn’t they have men guarding in case meddlers like ourselves show up?” Ragefist pointed out, clutching the handle of his sheathed sword with his left hand.
“You better keep your voice down just in case they’re out there listening,” Garz said, looking up at the overhanging peaks and ledges. His head darted from side to side as if he expected a hail of arrows and rocks to fall upon their heads.
“The first cave opening should be just around this turn,” Grom said. As he moved around the sharp curve, his feet froze in place, and he stared forward with wide eyes.
“What’s the hold up?” Garz asked, nearly colliding into Ragefist.
“What in creation has happened?” Ragefist uttered.
Two dead bodies laid sprawled on their stomachs in pools of red. The thick liquid crawled through the cracked ground, inching toward Grom’s feet. They both wore the same long black cloaks and hoods that the bandits had been described wearing. A pair hands rested on the ground beside their bodies, severed and pale. One hand still clutched a silver-bladed dagger as if it could somehow jump up and scare them away.
“Who would have done such a thing?” Ragefist asked, color leaving his cheeks.
“I don’t know,” Garz said, horrified eyes foxed on the severed right hands. He gulped hard and pried his eyes away. “The dwarves often cut off a thief’s hand, but they would never do something like this.”
A shout from within the cave roused their attention. Sounds of struggling and an agonizing cry followed. Before their legs allowed them to move, another bandit staggered out of the cave, screaming and covering a handless stump with his mask in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. The young man, who looked no older than Ragefist, searched for any form of help, and when he stopped Grom, he stumbled over the bodies of his brothers and fell to his knees in front of them. He attempted to speak, but his words came out as a weak gurgle as he collapsed onto the ground with a sickening crack.
Ragefist knelt down and placed his fingers along the bandit’s neck. Lowering his eyes, he sighed and shook his head. “He’s dead.”
Grom’s body began to shake with that familiar feeling of fear. Three dead bodies covered the ground in front of him, and even though they were thieves, their lives needed not be taken in such a terrible manner. Grom fought in a breath and pushed forward on lead legs. He couldn’t hear Ragefist or Garz following behind him; he could only hear his own shallow breathing as he came upon the cave entrance.
Before his eyes, another body fell to the ground. The scene played out in slow motion in his mind, and a feeling of deja vu overtook his mind. As the bandit cried out and plummeted to the unforgiving ground, Grom remembered the man that kidnaped Queen Anne and his murder at the hands of Renant. Instead of a dark elf cutting the evil man’s throat, a man clad in think black armor stood with his back turned. He clutched a massive and elaborately carved axe in his right hand, and he dropped the bandit’s hand from his left.
Grom watched and waited for the man to turn around. He felt as though he were caught in the endless space of a nightmare, floating out in the darkness above The Blackened Isle. There stood the man that killed his friends. There stood the man that attempted to cover Feldos in eternal shadows. There stood the man that Grom thought to be dead.
The man turned, and Grom stepped back, startled at what he saw. A skeletal face stared across the room, deep-set black eyes piercing into Grom’s soul. The man raised his axe up and took a step forward.