The orcs and goblins charged toward Halgrin, roaring and squealing, as the powder cart trundled quickly away behind him. He braced for the impact, bellowing his defiance, but just as the first orc swung its rusty cleaver at him, something dropped down over his arm and head from behind, then pulled tight and jerked him off his feet.
Halgrin squawked with surprise and outrage as he was dragged across the rough ground on his back, shredding his naked skin. He looked down and saw a rope pulled tight across his chest and under his right arm.
The orcs and goblins ran after him, chopping and stabbing at his flailing feet, but they couldn't catch up. He was bumping along too fast. Their attacks did nothing but dig up dirt and grass. Halgrin twisted his head around and saw that the rope was attached to a corner post on the back of the powder cart, and that Grundi and Zarri were reeling it in and looping it around the post as they rumbled along.
"You bastards!" roared Halgrin, spitting out dust and pebbles. "What have you done?"
The two dwarfs just laughed and kept pulling as the slim figure of Laenfel galloped out of the night on Wendt's warhorse and pulled up alongside Halgrin. "Your kinsmen have saved your life, dwarf. Are you that mad, that you would be ungrateful?"
"They have robbed me of my doom!"
"Dwarfs are mad." The elf shook her head and kicked the horse ahead to pace the cart.
After another quarter mile of lacerations and stabbing rocks, Grundi and Zarri finally reeled Halgrin up to the back of the cart, then hauled him over the tailgate.
Halgrin glared at Grundi and Zarri as he lay panting against the stack of powder barrels. "You are both in my book," he gasped. "No dwarf may interfere with a slayer's doom!"
Grundi grinned at him. "We only postponed it, laddie. You don't deserve so quick an end, after what you did."
Zarri laughed. "Ha! Maybe you should miss a doom for each of the deaths you caused. Thatwould be fitting!"
Halgrin surged up, swinging his fist at Zarri's sneering mouth, but the cart bounced over a bit of rough ground and he fell against Wendt instead.
"Easy, lad," called old Kazakin from the driver's bench. "They’ve done you wrong, I'll admit, but you'll have many more chances to find your doom before this war is done. There's always tomorrow."
Halgrin pushed himself upright with Wendt's help and glared at Grundi and Zarri. "It can't come soon enough."
They reached Knifewind Bridge just as dawn was breaking. The other dwarfs were relieved to see that it was empty of greenskins. But Halgrin was conflicted. His longing for a good doom made him almost disappointed that Big Boss Luggo's Waaagh! had not yet reached the span. Charging five thousand orcs and goblins would be an epic doom indeed. At the same time, if Luggo's army had been there, it would mean that they had failed, and all of Ekrund would suffer under the greenskin incursion. It seemed that being a slayer could be a selfish vocation if one wasn't careful.
A better hope for a doom was Stinkfang's boys. The warboss and his mob had fallen out of sight behind the wagon after only a quarter hour or so, and Halgrin guessed they were maybe an hour behind at the most, but Kazakin had said that it would take all of an hour and maybe more to set the specially prepared black powder barrels and attach the fuses so they could blow up the bridge.
"It isn't some human ruin," the engineer had said. "That bridge was built by dwarfs to withstand earthquakes, storms and bombardments. The charges are going to have to be placed just so to bring it down."
So Halgrin put aside his grudge against Grundi and Zarri and worked with them, novitiate Wendt, and the old engineer, while the elf woman - who none of them trusted to be able to tie a knot, let alone set a fuse - watched for Stinkfang's approach from a rise near the Ekrund end of the bridge. She had a hunter's horn with her, and would sound it when the warband came in sight.
The bridge itself was nearly Halgrin's doom more than once. It was a narrow span, only just wide enough for two carts to pass each other, and about fifty paces long, but it was suspended high above the Icewind River, which thundered below them while the wind that gave the river and the bridge its name buffeted them mercilessly, numbing their hands and stiffening their joints as they lowered themselves down to the understructure to place the barrels, and threatening to blow them off every moment.
A single stone arch supported the bridge, bearing all its weight and pressing it into the walls of the gorge. The powder barrels had to be placed where the arch met the walls on either side of the river, and then bound there so the force of the blast would break the stone. This meant a lot of dangling over the abyss at the ends of ropes, and balancing precariously on slanting slabs of stone made slippery with the spray of the river and centuries of lichen growth.
Halgrin slipped several times. Once he was wrestling a lowered barrel into the wedge-shaped space between the span and the wall and it got away from him. He made a grab for it and caught it, only to slip off himself. The rope around his waist stopped him, and he swung out over the drop, clutching the barrel, then lost it as the wind slammed him into the span again, breaking his grip.
He stared down, sucking air with his guts sinking, as the barrel dropped away to the river and Grundi hauled him back up into position.
Kazakin glared at him from where he was tying off another barrel under the span. "No more of that, laddie," he said. "We haven't many barrels to spare."
The sun was just cresting the peaks of the Dragonback Mountains when Laenfel's horn sounded. Kazakin cursed and looked up just as he was throwing down a bundle of matchcord to Halgrin, who was helping Zarri and Wendt string it along the underside of the bridge.
"More time!" he said. "I need more time!"
"I'll give it to you," said Halgrin. "Pull me up."
Kazakin nodded and waved to Grundi, who, being the strongest of them, had been designated the lifter and lowerer.
"Bring me up too!" called Wendt. "I want to die fighting, not falling!"
"Keep stringing the matchcord," said Halgrin as he started to rise.
"One dwarf can't defend the bridge!" Wendt argued. "It's too wide! You need someone beside you!"
"Bring him up," said Kazakin. "He's right. Besides, he's as useless as an elf with the fuses. I'll come down."
As Grundi caught Halgrin's hand and pulled him over the balustrade, Laenfel galloped up on Wendt's horse.
"They are a half mile away," she said.
Kazakin chewed his white moustaches. "We've five more barrels to prime, and more matchcord to string." He glanced at Halgrin. "You may have to hold them for a bit."
"Good," said Halgrin, untying the rope from his waste. "I'm ready."
He picked up Olnir's hammer from where he'd set it, and marched toward the Ekrund end of the bridge. Behind him, Grundi began hauling up Wendt while Kazakin tied a rope around his waist and made ready to go down again.
"May Grimnir welcome you, slayer," he called.
Halgrin nodded, but didn't look around. Already the others were fading from his mind. All he could think of was the coming battle and the peace that would come with it. Images of Olnir’s spear-pierced body flashed through his head. Today Halgrin would take vengeance on Olnir's killer - not the miserable goblin who had thrust the spear through him, but the fool who had let the goblin into the dwarf camp in the first place, the fool who had fallen asleep on patrol, the fool who had broken Olnir's arm and cracked his skull in a stupid fight over nothing.
After a moment novitiate Wendt joined him and they stood together at the end of the bridge, waiting, as the wind sang around them.
"Another chance for glory, eh?" the young knight said. "My second knightly deed in the space of a day."
"I do not fight for glory," said Halgrin.
"No?" Wendt asked. "Then I have misunderstood. I thought we were the same, fighting for honor."
Halgrin shook his head. "You fight to win honor. I fight because I have lost it. I fight to right a wrong that can only be repaired with my death."
"Suicide?" said Wendt, shocked.
"No," said Halgrin. "Sacrifice. A meaningful death to make up for a meaningless life."
Wendt stared at him for a long moment. "Well, luck to you then, I suppose," he said.
"And to you," said Halgrin.
A cloud of dust appeared over the crest of the nearest hill, through which could be seen the dull glint of rusty armor and the hulking shapes of brutish bodies. Halgrin and Wendt readied themselves as they watched the orcs start down the near side of the hill. There seemed half as many as at the battle of the camp. Only seven big iron-clad orcs lumbered after Stinkfang, and a dozen or so milling, squabbling goblins. Still, they would be more than enough for one bare-chested dwarf armed with a mining hammer and a young knight in patched armor, both exhausted from manhandling heavy powder barrels underneath a windswept bridge.
"Two more barrels to be primed," called Grundi from behind them. "And one last cord to string. Kazakin says five minutes more!"
Halgrin wasn't sure he could hold the orcs for five seconds, but he would try.
"I will aid you with the four arrows I have left, warriors," came the high, clear voice of Laenfel. "But I regret that I cannot join you in battle. Someone must get the news back to Ekrund Fortress, whether the bridge falls or stands, and I am the swiftest."
"How dutiful she is," said Wendt, worshipfully.
"Typical elven cowardice," muttered Halgrin.
The knight glared at him, but if he spoke, his words were lost in the roar that rose from the orcs and goblins. The greenskins had finally seen them, and were storming down the last fifty paces of the track toward the bridge, shaking their choppers and spears.
Halgrin and Wendt hefted their weapons, all else forgotten. Halgrin wanted to face Stinkfang himself, but some of his lighter armored boys were getting out ahead of him, and it looked like they would close first. The goblins, craven little beasts that they were, jogged behind, waiting for the battle to be joined before they committed themselves.
Halgrin roared a challenge at an enormous orc with a face like a diseased pig. The monster roared back and turned his way, raising a huge chopper at him. But before the orc had taken another two steps, an arrow appeared in its forehead and it crashed down in front of Halgrin like a dead ox, skidding to a stop an inch from his boots.
"Thieving elf," Halgrin rasped, then leapt up on top of the fallen orc to face the one that charged in behind it, swinging an iron-shod club. Halgrin ducked it and smashed the orc’s knuckles as it swept past. The orc howled and dropped the club, and Halgrin flattened him with an overhead smash to the face. Then two more were on him and he was fighting to hold his ground.
Beside him, Wendt was doing the same. He parried an axe smash that nearly knocked him off his feet, then gutted another orc with a lightning thrust to the belly. A third orc fell screaming with an elven arrow in its eye.
A tiny spark of hope flared in Halgrin's chest. Four orcs down already. They might actually do it. They might actually hold them back. But then Stinkfang and the goblins entered the fray, and the spark died like it had fallen on snow.
The warboss stood head and shoulders above his boys, and was wider and thicker too - a huge, mad-eyed behemoth in scrap-yard armor, with an axe that looked to have been made from a fence-post and the blade of a plow. He shoved through the other orcs to the front of the fray and swung the unwieldy chopper at Wendt.
The knight jumped back and tripped over the body of the orc Laenfel had felled. Three goblins were on him before he could recover, and stabbed him in the neck and groin and armpit. He roared in pain and hacked two of them down, but then Stinkfang's axe came down and caved in his head and chest, turning them into pulp.
Halgrin nearly took a club to the back of the head as he stared. The young knight's death had been so sudden, and so inglorious. Of course Halgrin had expected them both to die here, but he had imagined a more fitting end for poor Wendt. He dodged the club at the last second, then shattered its wielder’s elbow with smash from his hammer.
Stinkfang shook the remains of Wendt off his plowshare axe and turned toward Halgrin. Two of Laenfel's arrows thudded into the warboss's filthy armor, but didn't pass through. He kept coming.
Halgrin swept around with his hammer, fanning back the swarming goblins, then charged. Stinkfang slammed down at him with his axe. Halgrin veered aside and the axe bit into the bridge, shaking it. He swung at Stinkfang's side, but his blow rang off the orc’s armor, stinging his hands.
A goblin sliced his shoulder with a spear. Another stabbed his leg. Halgrin swiped at them, driving them back, but more darted in. An orc with a red banner flapping over its ugly head swung a club at him. He barely blocked it. There were too many. He resigned himself to the fact that he was going to die the same inglorious death as Wendt had - brought low by lowly minions instead of facing the biggest and best.
Then a black shadow arced over his head and landed amongst the goblins, lashing out at them with a slim, silver blade. It was Laenfel.
"This is against my better judgement." she said, running the banner orc through. "But we must succeed. Look out!"
Halgrin turned, then dropped flat as Stinkfang's massive axe whooshed over his head. He rolled and swung at the warboss's ankle and won a roar of pain as the hammer smashed home.
Stinkfang hacked down at him again and he dodged. Laenfel cut down another goblin that would have run him through as Halgrin recovered.
"Fight the leader, slayer," said the elf, falling in behind him. "I will guard your flanks."
Halgrin nodded. The shadow warrior's strategy was sound, but he wasn't going to tell her that. He got in front of Stinkfang again, then shot a look back over his shoulder. Grundi and Zarri were pulling Kazakin up onto the bridge. The old engineer held the ends of half a dozen matchcords in his hand.
Stinkfang swung again. Halgrin leapt back, then tried to smash his hands, like he had with the other orc, but the warboss was too quick. His hammer struck only air, and he had to duck another backswing. Laenfel steadied him and chased off another goblin.
"The fuses are lit!" cried Kazakin from behind them. "To the cart! The fuses are lit!"
Halgrin's heart surged with joy. "Now," he growled. "Now I can die!"
He charged forward, swinging for Stinkfang's knees, and cracked one hard on the cap. The warboss roared and slashed at him. Halgrin spun aside and hit him in the thigh.
"Luck to you, slayer!" called Laenfel. "Die well!" And with a last stab at a passing goblin, she sprinted for the wagon.
A few scrambled after her. Halgrin let them go. The others could deal with them. It was Stinkfang he had to stop. If the warboss caught the wagon, none of them would make it off the bridge. He dodged another axe blow and blocked the warboss's path again as he heard the clatter of hooves and the rattle of cartwheels behind him.
"Not so fast, dung-breath," Halgrin growled.
A goblin shrilled gibberish to his right, and Stinkfang looked over. The little horror was pointing to one of the spitting fuses, which was crawling along the side of the bridge, woven through the balustrade. Halgrin took advantage of Stinkfang's distraction and smashed his jaw. The warboss stumbled back, roaring, and knocked Halgrin sideways with a backhand, then barked orders to the goblins.
Halgrin cursed. The scampering fiends were trying to put out the matchcords. He ducked away from Stinkfang and chased after them, knocking one off the bridge with a swipe, then crushing the skull of another.
Stinkfang came after him, slashing with his axe. Halgrin dove away, then rolled up to attack another goblin who was hacking at a fuse with a dagger. As he knocked it aside, the sputtering flame disappeared over the edge of the bridge, following the matchcord as it trailed down toward the barrels strapped to the supports.
On both sides of the bridge, goblins pointed over the side and shrieked with fear. Halgrin turned and saw Stinkfang stopping in mid-stride to look left and right.
"That's right, orc," Halgrin laughed, grinning savagely. "Whether you kill me or not,
A glint of fear showed in the warboss's tiny red eyes, and with no warning he turned and ran for the Ekrund end of the bridge.
"No you don't!" shouted Halgrin, and sprinted after him.
He swept his hammer at Stinkfang's ankles and knocked his feet out from under him. The warboss went down with a crash of armor and lost his axe, then tried to scramble up again. Halgrin jumped on his back and struck at his head. With a clang, Stinkfang's heavy helmet spun away.
The huge orc rolled and snarled, grabbing behind him with one massive hand. Halgrin smashed his fingers with the hammer and he howled, but then caught Halgrin in both hands and held him over his head, making to throw him off the bridge. With a roar of rage, Halgrin swung down with all his strength and caved in Stinkfang's skull, spraying brains and gore all over, and snapping the haft of Olnir’s hammer in two.
Then, as if the blow had been a trigger, huge fiery explosions rocked either end of the bridge, shaking the whole world, and as Stinkfang toppled backwards, Halgrin still clutched in his dead hands, the bridge fell with him.
Halgrin watched in vertiginous wonder as the two ends of the bridge sheared off in a cloud of flying debris while the center dropped toward the raging torrent below, turning slowly but remaining intact. As he fell, he looked toward the far end to see if Kazakin and the others had gotten away before the blast, but just then a piece of masonry struck him on the forehead and the world went dim.
The last thing he felt as the blackness engulfed him was a horrendous impact, and the cold embrace of water.
In the endless night of death, something struck him on the cheek.
"Wake up, slayer," someone said.
Halgrin frowned. Did Grimnir slap the new arrivals to his hall? Was it some sort of initiation?
"One of you sit on his back and pump the water out of him," said the voice again.
Halgrin's frown deepened. That didn't sound like anything he expected Grimnir to say.
Someone turned him on to his chest and a heavy weight was dropped on his back. He coughed and heaved, and a stream of water spewed painfully from his mouth. The pain made him blink and then open his eyes.
"He's alive after all," said a cold female voice. "You dwarfs are hearty folk."
Calloused hands rolled him back over and helped him sit up. He looked around. He was on a muddy bank of a river. Orc and goblin bodies floated by in the current. Some had washed up on the shore. Kazakin squatted down in front of him, smiling.
"Good work, laddie," he said. "You killed Stinkfang, and kept those little green menaces from snuffing out my fuses."
"We saw that final blow," said Grundi, grinning from behind Kazakin. "Well struck."
"Aye," said Zarri, joining him. "We've decided to dub you Shatterskull because of it. Halgrin Shatterskull. Has a nice ring to it."
Halgrin groaned and hung his head. This was the worst thing that could have happened. He was supposed to have died. Now he would have to try and kill himself all over again. What a paradox Grimnir had set for his chosen. A slayer could not simply lower his hammer in the middle of a melee and let himself be killed. The god would not accept into his halls he who had not tried his hardest. A slayer had to fight to the best of his abilities, and yet if he did - and if he won and lived, then really he had failed, and would have to suffer the agony of his shame until he could find another foe that might be able to give him the death he craved.
"I don't want a name," Halgrin said at last. "I want to meet my doom."
Kazakin chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, lad,” he said. “There's always tomorrow."
Check out our Choppa fiction here ► ◄ Chapter Two - Shorn
2009 Mar 27 00:47 GMT