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Ghurlak waded into the metal-clad tide of dwarfs with a bloodthirsty roar. The stunties swallowed him up at once, racing around the flanks of their fellows to try and get a shot at the orc’s unprotected back. In the space of a moment Ghurlak was completely surrounded by a sea of shouting, chopping, wild-eyed foes. Hammers thudded into his ribs and pummeled at his thighs; axes chopped at his arms, leaving deep cuts in his thick, waxy skin. The pain set his blood on fire. For the first time ever, Ghurlak felt truly alive.
A dwarf pressed in close at Ghurlak’s left and chopped his axe into the ork’s left shoulder; his thick leather. The keen steel blade sliced through the ox-hide tunic like paper and thunked into the thick flesh and knotted muscle beneath. Ghurlak roared beneath the blow, pain and anger flaring into burning battle-lust. He brought the rock in his left hand around and smashed it into the side of the dwarf’s spangenhelm. Metal crumpled and bone shattered beneath the blow; blood spattered from the eye-slits of the stunty’s helm, and the warrior toppled like a felled oak.
By Mork, he’d finally gotten to kill something! This was what being an ork was all about, he thought, as the air shook with battle-cries and blows rained down on him from every side. A dwarf in front of Ghurlak struck him in the chest with a warhammer; a pair, breaking a pair of the orc’s ribs like kindling. Ghurlak gave a wild laugh and brought his stick down on the dwarf’s weapon arm, breaking the bones of the warrior’s forearm, then caved in the stunty’s skull with another blow from his rock.
Ghurlak spun about, sweeping his knotty stick in a wide arc through a thicket of weapons and rounded shields. Everywhere he turned he saw a savage, bearded face, eyes burning with anger and mouths baying for his blood. He bellowed back at them, picking one burly dwarf at random and hurling his rock at the warrior’s face. The foe reacted swiftly, bringing up his shield and deflecting the heavy missile, but in that split-second, while the dwarf’s vision was obscured, Ghurlak dashed forward and brought down his knotty stick. His timing was perfect; the dwarf was just lowering his shield, and the thick, oak club struck him right between the gilt eye-slits of his helm. The warrior’s face disappeared in a welter of blood. He was dead before his metal-clad body hit the ground.
Furious orcish shouts were now echoing up and down the gully as Bagrash’s boyz caught sight of the unfolding battle and forgot all about the Black Orc and his poisonwing hunt. Brandishing their choppas and smashas, howling orcs leapt from the high rock shelf and plummeted like living catapult stones into the melee below. Bagrash howled in fury at his mob deserted him, hurling huge stones after them that only added to the carnage below.
With a chorus of angry cries the dwarfs pressed in around Ghurlak once more. An axe thudded into his right hip, and a mace glanced painfully off his left knee. Something hard clanged off the back of the kettle-like helm, knocking it forward and obscuring Ghurlak’s vision. On impulse he reached up and snatched the heavy iron pot off his head and used it to brain a dwarf who’d gotten his axe stuck in Ghurlak’s thigh. The helm rang like a bell as it struck, knocking the dwarf off his feet.
Each blow fanned the fires of Ghurlak’s bloodlust. As his berserker rage increased, so too did his strength; the pain of his wounds and the thunder of the battlefield coiled his muscles into steel-hard springs. The harder he fought, the more powerful he became.
A great axe thrust deep into Ghurlak’s stomach, disturbing his reverie. The strength behind the thrust was enough to stagger him, and he looked down to see a broad-shouldered dwarf with an ornate, horned helm snarling up at him. The warrior was clad in a heavy, ankle-length scale shirt inscribed with angular runes, and had a steel-rimmed shield of lacquered wood on his left arm. The iron boss of the shield had been cunningly shaped to resemble an orc’s severed head.
Ghurlak spat a gob of blood in the dwarf’s face and aimed a blow with his stick right between the horns of the champion’s helm. The stunty blocked the blow easily with his shield and tore his sword free of Ghurlak’s torso with a jerk of his thickly-muscled arm. Rather than retreating from the orc’s attack, the dwarf charged forward, dropping the point of his broadsword and thrusting it into Ghurlak’s left leg, just above the knee.
Roaring, Ghurlak kicked at the dwarf with his right leg. He hit the champion’s shield squarely and managed to knock the burly dwarf backwards several feet before his mangled left leg gave way. Ghurlak fell heavily onto his wounded knee with an angry grunt, and the dwarf champion’s bearded face split in a savage grin. The stunty bellowed something in his guttural tongue as he raised his shield and charged right back at Ghurlak.
Cold winter sunlight shone on the edge of the dwarf’s broadsword as he chopped at Ghurlak’s thick neck. The orc parried the blow with Bagrash’s helm; sparks flew as the dwarf steel raked along the crude iron helmet. Ghurlak followed up with a sweep of his knotty stick, but the champion blocked the blow with his own shield and thrust his sword at the orc’s face. Ghurlak felt the keen steel edge score his right cheek and then slice a notch out of his ear. Laughing, Ghurlak swung Bagrash’s iron helm and smashed it into the dwarf’s right elbow. The champion’s iron scale sleeve absorbed most of the blow, but the warrior shouted in pain and faltered for a brief moment.
That was all the opening that Ghurlak needed. He surged back onto his feet, feeling bone and gristle crackle beneath the skin above his left knee, and began to rain a flurry of heavy blows down onto the dwarf champion. His first stroke rang off the dwarf’s helmet, snapping off one of its tall, pointed horns; the second thudded powerfully into the champion’s right shoulder. Something cracked; whether it was the dwarf’s collar bone or his knotty stick, Ghurlak didn’t know and didn’t care.
The dwarf staggered beneath the powerful blows. Ghurlak pressed his advantage, swinging at the champion’s face, but the warrior managed to block the stroke at the last moment with the edge of his shield. The champion fell back, shaking his head to try and clear it, but Ghurlak was on top of him the entire way. Each blow was stronger and swifter than the one before it as Ghurlak’s battle-rage increased. Cracks appeared in the wooden surface of the dwarf’s round shield, and part of the metal rim had been torn free. Ghurlak’s stick was notched and battered in a dozen places, but the orc didn’t notice. He could think of nothing but battering down the dwarf’s guard and crushing his skull, and each blow the champion managed to knock aside only stoked Ghurlak’s bloodlust even further. With a bellow of rage he hurled the iron helmet at the dwarf; it crashed into the champion’s shield and buried itself into the curved face with the sound of splintering wood. The sudden weight pulled at the dwarf’s shield-arm, dragging it downward and exposing the champion’s head. Ghurlak’s knotty stick whistled down in an overhand blow and caught the dwarf on the forehead, smashing the helmet to pieces and snapping the orc’s club in half.
The dwarf reeled beneath the blow. His helmet fell away in pieces, and blood poured down his forehead and into his deep-set eyes. Ghurlak saw his opening and pressed forwards with a bloodthirsty snarl. He was so fixated on finishing the fight that he failed to see the great, black shadow spreading across the gully floor around him until it was far too late.
The noise of battle and the scent of spilled blood had succeeded in stirring up the great poisonwings of nearby Wyvern Peak in a way that shouts and hurled runts never could. As the fight raged in the gully, a half-dozen of the leathery-winged beasts had taken flight from their mountain caves and circled high overhead, searching for likely prey. Now one had settled on Ghurlak, falling out of the sky like a hawk and seizing the orc’s shoulders in its claws.
Ghurlak had no idea what had hit him. One moment he was about to finish off the dwarf champion and the next he was face-down on the gully floor with what felt like a full-grown aurochs standing on his back. Stabbing pains lanced into his shoulders; something like a sword-point raked against the side of his leg and sent waves of molten pain pulsing through his upper thigh. Then he felt a sharp jerk and watched the gully drop away beneath him as the wyvern leapt back into the air. Ghurlak howled in frustration as the beast snatched him away from the fight.
The orc twisted in the wyvern’s grip, trying to turn about and give the monster a good kicking. Ghurlak managed to tear his right shoulder free, but the wyvern let out a hissing screech and clamped down even harder on his left. Bone crunched as the monster’s thick claws punched through Ghurlak’s chest; the orc dangled from the wyvern’s grip, high above the gully, but now Ghurlak was able to peer upwards at the monster’s bony, v-shaped ribcage. Bagrash’s iron helm was gone, but Ghurlak still clutched the splintered end of his knotty club. Without hesitation he pulled himself upwards with the muscles of his pinned shoulder and drove the pointed end of his stick into the wyvern’s chest.
The Wyvern let out a furious shriek and seemed to stagger in mid-flight, is wings beating furiously. Hot, red blood spattered onto Ghurlak’s face, and with a snarl he yanked the stick free for another thrust. That was enough for the wyvern, however; it opened its claws and shook the orc loose with a hissing screech, its wings beating frantically as it struggled to remain aloft.
Wind whistled past Ghurlak’s ears as he plummeted back to the gully floor. He rolled over as he fell, looking down at the swirling, struggling figures below, and tried to aim for the largest knot of dwarfs he could find as he crashed back to earth.
Cruarc came upon the battlefield just after sunset, as the pale moon rose in a frosty crescent above the peaks of Black Crag. The Druchii glided soundlessly over the icy stones of the mountainside, his hooded black cloak and blackened armor rendering him nearly invisible in the deep shadows of the winding gully. The Druchii was so preoccupied with the perilous situation unfolding around Black Crag that he didn’t notice the hacked and bloodied corpses until he was nearly standing in their midst.
Cruarc hissed a silent curse at his carelessness and faded back into the deeper shadows of a large boulder, his hand going instinctively to the sword hanging at his hip. He listened for several long moments, straining his keen hearing for the slightest sound of movement, but heard only the faint keening of the mountain wind. When he was convinced that there were no scavengers lurking about, Cruarc edged forward and surveyed the chaotic tableau spread across the gully before him.
The Druchii counted the mingled corpses of more than two dozen combatants: a mix of orcs and dwarf Oathkeepers, from what he could determine. It looked as though the dwarfs had stumbled into an actual orc ambush; several of the warriors had been slain by heavy stones, no doubt hurled from the rocky shelf some sixty feet above. Of course, several of the orcs had been slain by the boulders as well, but it still amounted to tactical brilliance coming from the greenskins. He would have hardly credited them capable of such a thing.
Cruarc was one of a handful of Druchii abroad in the orc-infested lands south of Thunder Mountain, keeping an eye on the Witch King’s interests in the region. Malekith had gone to great lengths to unleash an overwhelming orc Waaagh! against the dwarfs, and it was a crucial element of his plan to conquer Ulthuan. Prodding the orcs to war wasn’t difficult, as the Druchii knew; the trick was keeping the greenskins fighting only the dwarfs, rather than lashing out at anyone within reach.
So far, Cruarc and his fellow agents had been successful in keeping the Waaagh! moving in the right direction, but as the orc horde grew and its victories mounted, the challenge of keeping the warbosses in line grew more difficult. Already, several powerful orc warbosses where scheming to challenge Warlord Grumlok as leader of the Waaagh!, including one of his most powerful enforcers, a fearsome Black Orc by the name of Skargor. Operating in the valleys and ravines around Black Crag, Skargor was busy pressing every orc he could find into his service, building a powerful warband to topple Grumlok. Cruarc doubted that Skargor would succeed at the attempt, but its success or failure hardly mattered. As soon as he tried, other warbosses would see their opportunity and make their moves as well, and the entire Waaagh! would come apart at the seams.
And Skargor was close to challenging Grumlok, Cruarc knew. He’d watched as the enforcer had sent emissaries to a number of the most powerful warbands in the region, summoning their bosses to a gathering at his camp. Unless Cruarc could figure out a way to derail the meeting, he felt sure that Skargor would win over the warbosses and have the strength he needed to openly challenge Grumlok. So far, however, the Druchii didn’t have much in the way of ideas.
What he needed was a catspaw; an unwilling pawn who could interfere with Skargor’s plan without revealing any involvement by the Druchii, and he needed to find one before dawn.
A grating rumble echoed through the gully; for a moment Cruarc thought a boulder had come loose from the slopes above and was grinding its way across the stone, but then the sound tapered off into a deep-throated sigh. The Druchii crouched, blending once more with the shadows as a misshapen figure stirred atop a pile of flattened corpses.
Cruac watched in amazement as an orc rolled heavily off the bodies of a pair of dwarf Oathkeepers and came to rest on the gully floor. The greenskin was fairly small for one of his kind, weaponless and clad only in the ragged tatters of an ox-hide tunic. His muscular body was covered in gruesome-looking wounds, and both his legs were twisted at odd angles relative to the rest of his frame, yet the warrior still lived. The Druchii knew that he shouldn’t have been all that surprised. In his experience, orcs were too stupid to actually succumb to their wounds; they either died outright or their broken bodies stubbornly managed to knit themselves back together.
Cruarc drew back deeper into the shadows and studied the orc runt with narrowed eyes. After a few moments, he had put together the beginnings of a plan. All he had to do was sound like a greenskin to pull it off.
With a grunt, Ghurlak tensed the muscles of his neck. Vertebrae popped dully as they were forced back into place. He felt a throbbing sting in his midsection; fumbling about with his right hand, his fingers encountered the rim of a dwarf spangenhelm. Growling, he pulled the spiked helmet free and tossed it across the gully.
The moon was just rising, painting the mountains with icy radiance. Belatedly, Ghurlak realized that night had fallen, and worse, the battle was over. The last thing he remembered was the shocked look on the faces of the two Dwarf warriors as he crashed into them. The memory made him chuckle – and then a strange, garbled voice spoke to him out of the darkness.
“Runt!” the voice said. It sounded thin and reedy, almost like the voice of a half-starved goblin. “Get up! Mork commands you!”
Ghurlak’s eyes widened. “Mork?”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I?” the reedy voice replied.
Ghurlak frowned. He tried to sit up and find the source of the voice only to discover that both of his legs were broken. Gritting his teeth in concentration, he started with his right leg, tensing his muscles and pushing at the broken bones with his right hand to force them back into place.
“You don’t sound much like Mork,” he growled suspiciously. “You sound more like a gobbo with his head fulla snot.”
A rock crashed into the side of Ghurlak’s head. “How do you know what I sound like?” the voice snapped. “I’ve never talked to you before, have I?”
Ghurlak had to admit that Mork had him there. Mork was the cunnin’ one, after all – cunnin’, but fighty. “What you want, Mork?” he said, popping his right ankle back into place and working his foot in a slow circle.
“Go get your boss, runt,” Mork commanded. “Tell him there’s going to be a big fight up at Broken Knife Pass at first light. If he and his mob aren’t there, I’m…” the voice hesitated. “I’m gonna smite him.”
“Smite?” Ghurlak frowned.
Another rock smacked into the back of his head. “Like that, only bigger,” Mork answered.
Ghurlak went to work on his left leg, shaking his head slowly. “Bagrash ain’t gonna do it,” he said sullenly. “He don’t wanna scrap no more. He just wants ta kill poisonwings.” As he said it, Ghurlak felt his blood start to boil again. A big fight at Broken Knife Pass? The idea burned in the hollow space behind his eyes.
Suddenly he whirled about, looking for the source of the voice, but he saw only darkness. His eyes widened. Could it be? Was Mork really talking to him?
Slowly, he drew his broken legs underneath him and tottered upright. Ghurlak’s scarred hands flexed eagerly. “Bagrash won’t scrap, but I will,” he said, his lips pulling back in a bloodthirsty snarl.
“You and what mob?” Mork said. His reedy voice echoed from the stone walls of the gully, seeming to come from every direction at once. The words dripped with scorn. “You’re just a runt.”
Ghurlak’s eyes narrowed. “Izzat so?” he growled. “You wanna see how Ghurlak scraps?” Belatedly, he realized he didn’t have a single weapon to hand. He looked about hurriedly and saw a pair of Black Orc bodies splayed face-down nearby. Ghurlak stomped forward and snatched up their choppas. The feel of the iron hilts in his hands set his veins afire. He raised the two weapons skyward and bellowed with rage.
“You watch me, Mork!” he thundered. “I’m gonna show you a scrap like you never saw before!” Ghurlak whirled and dashed off down the gully, heading for the caves at the foot of the mountain where Bagrash and his boyz could be found.
Cruarc watched the runt disappear out of sight and smiled, taking a drink from his water flask to ease his aching throat. This was going to be easier than he thought.
Chapter Three - Battle at Broken Knife Pass ►
◄ Chapter One - Sticks and Stones