That had been an accident, and Halgrin was as sorry as anybody about it. Olnir had put a foot wrong earlier that night, as the two of them had slugged it out by the steep bank of the river where Thane Redhelm’s company had made camp, and he had fallen hard on some rocks that jutted from the swift flowing current.
He and Olnir had volunteered to leave Ekrund Fortress with Redhelm’s rangers seven days ago, when word had come that orc Big Boss Luggo Raspgob was marching up from the Badlands with five thousand orcs, ready to help Gazbag and the Bloody Sun Boyz drive the dwarfs out of the Dragonback Mountains once and for all. The only thing that stood in Luggo’s way was Knifewind Gorge, a deep canyon with a raging mill race of a river at the bottom that could sweep away five thousand orcs in an eyeblink, and the only way to cross that river was Knifewind Bridge.
That was why Thane Redhelm and his company were sneaking deep into orc-held territory with a wagon filled with specially crafted barrels of naphtha-laced blackpowder. If they succeeded in blowing up the bridge, Luggo was stopped. If they failed, Ekrund and the Dragonback Mountains might be lost forever.
Olnir had been his best friend since they were beardlings. They had been born of the same clan, grew up in the same hold, and had apprenticed at the same forge, and when word had come from High King Thorgrim Grudgebearer that the greenskins were mustering in Ekrund and all able-bodied dwarfs were needed to stand against the tide, they had traveled together to Ekrund Fortress and volunteered to fight and die in defense of their land and their people. But though the two friends came from similar circumstances, they were as different as night and day.
Halgrin always saw the light side of things. Even in the worst of circumstances he could find something to joke about, or some reason to hope. Black-bearded Olnir was the exact opposite. Even in the best of times he could find something to complain about, and some reason why he was sure it would all go sour before long. These opposing views of the world had been the source of all their arguments, and this wasn’t the first that had ended in fisticuffs, but it was the first where of them had been so badly wounded that they had to see the bone-setter.
Halgrin paused again to peer around and listen to the night. All quiet. He sighed and sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree, then drew out his pipe and filled it. A smoke would calm his mind. He lit the pipe and took a deep draw, flashing back to the argument that had led to the fight. Strangely, it hadn’t been one of their usual rows. Instead, it had stemmed from a part of Halgrin that he liked much less than his generally sunny disposition – his pig-headed stubbornness and greed.
It had been after a long day’s march that it started. Thane Redhelm’s dwarfs had made camp between a thick stand of trees and the deep cut of a swift running river, and were sitting down to a meal of rabbit and trail bread and hearty dwarf ale, when Olnir had started complaining that Halgrin was being selfish.
“You already have an ancestor weapon,” Olnir said, filling his mug from the keg on the back of the supply wagon. “What will you do with another one?”
“I will wield them both,” laughed Halgrin, thumping his chest with his fist. “One in each hand, like a hero from the great days of yore!”
“You’ll cut off your own foot, is what you’ll do,” said Olnir dryly.
The other dwarfs around the fire chuckled at that. Even Thane Redhelm smiled.
Olnir drew his hammer from his belt and held it out. “Look, Halgrin. Look what I fight with. A mining hammer. It isn’t even a proper weapon. Now that you have two good axes, why can’t you lend me your new one?”
Halgrin frowned, uncomfortable, thinking back to the night, two days out from Ekrund Fortress, when Thane Redhelm’s rangers had stumbled upon a dwarf patrol led by the fabled Alethewn Stoutgut, who were getting trounced by a gang of Bloody Sun orcs that outnumbered them five to one. “You know I can’t do that. It was given to me by the great Stoutgut himself, for rescuing him and his lads from those greenskin scum.”
Olnir rolled his eyes. “We were all there, Halgrin,” he said. “And we all saved him. It’s where I broke my good hammer.”
“Aye,” Halgrin agreed. “But it was I who stopped that choppa from cutting off Alethewn’s head. He gave the axe to me. It would be disrespectful to give away such a gift.”
“Fine, then!” snapped Olnir, throwing up his hands. “Keep it! Give me the other one instead!”
Halgrin stiffened and stared at him. “Give you the axe of my grandfather’s grandfather? The axe that slew the great dragon Lattirjarn? The axe that my father said should be held in no hands but mine? Never!”
Olnir sighed. “All right, Gustagsson. I give up.” He shook his head in disgust. “By Grungni, I believe if you had seven axes, you would crawl on your hands and knees before admitting they were too heavy.”
“The trouble with you, Olnir Ironhall,” he said, taking a sip of his ale and gesturing with his mug. “Is you’re so convinced that the world is a terrible, unfair place, that, for you, it is. If you go around snarling at the world, the world snarls back.” He grinned, smug. “If you were to face the world with a smile and a kind word, the world would return the favor, and axes might start coming your way.”
It was then that fists began to fly.
Halgrin woke with a start and blinked around, for a moment completely lost. Then memory returned and his heart lurched. He had fallen asleep on patrol! He jumped up, hands dropping to his axes. How long had he slept? Had anyone noticed? And what had woken him up?
A movement out of the corner of his eye brought his head around. A little hunched shadow was moving through the trees, and there was another beyond it. Goblins! And they were creeping toward the camp! A heavy footfall thudded to his right. An orc. No. Three orcs! Halgrin drew his axes and sucked in a breath to shout a warning to his comrades, but before he could make a sound, a dwarfish bellow of surprise and rage echoed through the woods, followed by the clash of steel and savage orc roaring.
Halgrin launched himself forward and pounded through the trees, as all around him the orcs and goblins did the same. A goblin saw him and angled his way, shrilling and raising its crude spear. Halgrin smashed its face in with a backhand and ran on, dread dragging at his guts like a lead brick. He had fallen asleep! He had let the greenskins past his position! He had endangered the camp!
A running orc charged toward him. Halgrin stopped short and veered, getting behind it, then cut it down with a swift one-two. The sounds of battle grew louder as he leapt its body, and he called to the ancestor god Grungni that the dwarfs had had some other warning, or that there were only a few greenskins.
But as he burst from the trees into the clearing by the river he saw his calls had gone unanswered. A full score of orcs were raging through the camp, smashing and killing, while a seething carpet of goblins swirled around their legs, waving spears and curved daggers. Half-dressed dwarfs fought desperate battles before every tent, and more lay hacked to pieces on the ground before the fire.
To the thane’s left, Borek the bone setter defended his tent with an axe and a surgeon’s saw, trying to fight off a big orc and a throng of goblins. Halgrin cursed and ran to help. Olnir was in that tent, and defenseless – all because of their foolish fight. He had to protect him.
Halgrin smashed into the backs of the goblins, severing spines and heads with his two magnificent axes. The rest of the puny greenskins turned, shrieking and stabbing, while the orc continued to press Borek back toward the tent. Halgrin shattered goblin spear hafts and bashed their daggers from their hands, but the unaccustomed weight of his second axe threw his balance off and he stumbled into a rusty blade, taking a cut over his eye.
Beyond the goblins, the orc kicked Borek to the ground, then crushed his skull with an enormous spiked club and started for the tent.
“No!” cried Halgrin.
Halgrin ducked, then buried his grandfather’s axe in the side of the orc’s neck. It howled, dark red blood spraying from the terrible wound, and lashed out as it died. Its club caught Halgrin on the top of his helm and he went down, sparks exploding behind his eyes and the world going black. The last thing he saw before the dark waters of unconsciousness closed over him was the remaining goblins swarming through the door flap of Borek’s tent and shrilling with glee.
When he woke again, Halgrin wondered if he’d been buried alive. It was dark, and there was a crushing weight on his chest, and a smell in his nose so foul he thought he must be in a mass grave. Then his vision cleared and he found himself face to face with a dead orc. That accounted for the smell, and the orc lay on top of him, which accounted for the weight. He turned his head to try and see out from under the enormous carcass, then had to close his eyes to keep from vomiting. His brain felt loose inside his skull, like a cannonball rolling around in a tin bucket.
After a moment he mastered his nausea and opened his eyes to a scene of ruin and death. All over the campsite, a cold pre-dawn rain beat down on dead and dismembered dwarfs and greenskins, and sizzled on the embers of a fire-blackened tent. He wondered for a moment if the dwarfs had by some miracle won the battle, for he could hear no orc grunting, nor any goblin gibbering, but then he saw Thane Redhelm lying dead in the middle of a ring of butchered greenskins and knew they had not. Were any dwarfs alive, they would not have left their leader’s body lying in the mud like a dead dog.
Halgrin slowly worked his way out from under the orc, then dragged his axes out after him. As he waited for another wave of nausea to pass he saw that he was the only one still armed. Dwarf and orc alike had been stripped of armor, weapons and gold. The supply wagon and the wagon carrying the blackpowder barrels had been taken too. Stinkfang’s band had killed and looted and moved on. Halgrin, hidden under the fallen orc, was the only dwarf they had missed.
That thought sparked another and he looked up, turning his head toward Borek’s tent. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one alive. Perhaps the goblins had seen Olnir lying in his cot and thought him dead already. Halgrin pushed to his feet, then swayed unsteadily as the world spun around him. When he recovered, he picked up his weapons and crept toward the tent, then pushed aside the flap with the head of his grandfather’s axe.
“Olnir?” he whispered. “Do you live?”
There was no answer from within. He edged forward and ducked inside. Three dead goblins lay on the floor of the dark tent, their heads caved in, and for a moment a candle of hope kindled in Halgrin’s chest, but then he saw a larger shape near the tent’s back wall and the flame guttered and died. It was Olnir, lying on his back with a snapped off goblin spear through his heart, and his old mining hammer hanging from his limp left hand, while his broken right arm hung useless in a sling at his side.
Halgrin sank to his knees before his dead friend, dropping his axes and lowering his head to his chest. “I did this,” he said. “All of it. It’s all my fault.”
A sob escaped him. Everything that had happened that night could be traced back to his greed and stubbornness. Had he done what anyone else would have done and lent Olnir one of his axes, they would not have had their fight, and if they hadn’t had their fight, Olnir wouldn’t have cracked his skull and broken his arm, and if Olnir hadn’t cracked his skull and broken his arm, he would have been on patrol with Halgrin, and Halgrin wouldn’t have fallen asleep and let the orcs past his position to slaughter the camp.
With a cry of self-hatred, Halgrin snatched his dagger from his belt and pushed it through his thick brown beard to his throat. It was a cruel joke that he who had killed all the others through his foolishness still lived. Well, he would fix that. He would make the massacre of Thane Redhelm’s company complete.
Then he paused.
No. Suicide was a coward’s death, a shameful death. He had already shamed himself enough. There was a better way to die, a way to give his death meaning, and to restore his honor.
He moved the dagger away from his neck and raised it to his head. With his other hand he grabbed a lock of his long hair and pulled it taut, then cut it off at the roots.
2009 Feb 26 11:10 GMT