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Halgrin scraped the last stubble from his scalp with his dagger, then wiped the hair and blood from the blade and put it away. He had shaved himself bald except for a narrow crest of hair like a coxcomb. Now he stripped to the waist and lowered his head. He didn’t know the words of the Slayer’s Oath, for he had never considered becoming one. Hopefully the god would accept his imperfect vow in the spirit in which it was given.
“Grimnir, father of valor,” he said. “For my shame and the wrongs I have done, I vow to you that I will die in battle, facing the mightiest creatures I can find. I hope, through my death, to redeem myself in your eyes, and that you will find me worthy to enter your halls.”
The pledge said, he rose and picked up his great-grandfather’s axe and the axe that Alethewn Stoutgut had given him, ready to seek his doom, but then he looked at the weapons. A vision came to him. He stood on a mountain of the slain, an axe in each hand. It was glorious, but it was wrong. These axes were the symbols of the pride that had caused the deaths of Olnir Ironhall and all his other companions. They were reminders of his shame. He would not carry them.
He looked at Olnir, still laying where the goblins had killed him, his simple mining hammer hanging from his slack hand, and knew what he must do.
As the rain beat upon his shoulders, Halgrin cut into the cold hard earth in front of the tent with his great-grandfather’s axe until the blade was dull, then switched to Alethewn’s axe and did the same, carving out a hole long enough and wide enough for a dwarf to lie in.
When it was shoulder deep, he heard voices approaching the camp, and crouched down. Had the orcs returned? No, it was dwarfs he heard.
“Dead,” said one. “All dead.”
“The dirty, green-skinned savages,” said another.
“How did this happen?” asked a third.
Halgrin recognized the voices - Grundi Dabirsson and Zarri Brugalsson, Ironbreakers from Karak Hirn, and the old engineer, Kazakin Forgeborn. They had all been part of Thane Redhelm’s company. He stood and pushed himself out of the grave.
“It was me,” he said. “I fell asleep on watch. I let them past me.”
The dwarfs stared at him, shocked to see him. All three were bruised and cut and muddy. Kazakin, the white-bearded engineer, used his blunderbuss as a crutch.
“You survived,” Halgrin said. “How did you escape?”
“Orcs knocked us into the river,” said Kazakin. “The current swept us off. Took all this time to walk back.” He nodded at Halgrin’s naked scalp. “You’ve shaved your head.”
Halgrin touched it self-consciously. “I’ve taken the oath for what I’ve done. I will die in battle.”
Grundi, half a head taller than Halgrin, and bulging with muscles, pulled his hammer from his back. “Aye, you will,” he growled through his red beard. “Here and now.”
Zarri nodded and drew his axe, his black brows lowering. “You don’t deserve a slayer’s doom.”
“Now, lads,” said Kazakin. “No dwarf may come between a slayer and his oath to Grimnir.”
“Grimnir wouldn’t have him,” sneered Grundi.
“Grimnir will have anybody,” said Kazakin. “Besides, he’s more useful alive than dead. We’ll need him to finish the job.”
“Finish the job?” said Grundi, turning to stare at the Engineer. “And how do we do that? There’s only four of us, and Stinkfang’s boys have stolen the powder.”
“Probably taking it to Luggo as we speak,” said Zarri, then laughed. “We should let him. He might blow himself up and save us the trouble.”
Kazakin shook his head. “We cannot rely on such a slim chance. We must get the powder back and bring it to the bridge.”
“But how?” asked Grundi. “How are four of us going to get a wagonload of powder away from a horde of orcs and goblins?”
Kazakin turned to Halgrin, his eyes as cold. “Our slayer will get it for us,” he said. “Or die trying.”
Halgrin lowered Olnir’s body into the grave, then crossed the two beautiful old axes over his dead friend’s chest.
“May Grungni welcome you into his halls, Olnir Ironhall,” he said, bowing his head.
While the others gathered what few supplies they could from the ransacked campsite, Halgrin filled the hole, then picked up Olnir’s old mining hammer. He held it over the mound of earth. “On your grave I swear, brother. As recompense for the greed that claimed your life, this simple hammer will be my only weapon until I find my doom.”
Halgrin lay at the top of a low ridge with Grundi, Zarri and old Kazakin, looking down at the greenskin camp in the valley below them. It was twilight on the night after the massacre of Redhelm’s Rangers. They had tracked the orcs all day, and caught up to them here, a wasteland of rock-strewn hills only an hour or two north of Knifewind Gorge.
“That’s a relief,” said Kazakin, pointing a finger. “They have the powder wagon, and they’ve managed not to blow themselves up yet.”
“Aye,” said Grundi. “But they haven’t made it easy to steal, have they?”
Halgrin saw what he meant. The orcs had raised their tents beside a scrubby woods, and left the powder wagon very close to the trees, with the ponies hobbled. To rescue the wagon, the dwarfs would have to drive it through the whole of the camp, and Halgrin counted at least fifteen big orcs eating around the fire, and more than twice that many goblins scurrying amongst them.
“We’ll have to come at it through the woods,” said Kazakin, chewing his white moustaches. “And then ride like the wind.”
“We’ll never make it,” said Zarri. “They’ll be on us before we turn the ponies.”
Kazakin smiled. “That’s where our slayer comes in.” He said. “He’s going to go down to one side and kill as many orcs and make as much noise as possible, isn’t he?”
Halgrin nodded. “Aye. I will.”
“As long as you don’t fall asleep,” sneered Grundi.
“No more of that,” said Kazakin, as Halgrin balled his fists. “Save it for the greenskins.” He edged back from the ridge. “We wait until moonset, when more of them will be asleep, then--”
He was interrupted by a thunder of hoofs coming up behind. Halgrin and the others turned, then dove left and right as a huge warhorse galloped through them, heading over the hill toward the orc camp. A man in a patched tunic and dented armor leaned forward in the saddle, sword and shield at the ready.
“Hoy!” barked Grundi. “Watch your flanks!”
“Stop, you fool!” hissed Kazakin in a harsh whisper. “Come back!”
The rider looked back as he crested the ridge, then pulled up and wheeled around, surprised. “Your pardon, noble dwarfs,” he said, trotting back. “I did not see you.”
“That’s obvious,” grunted Zarri.
“Who are you?” asked Kazakin. “And what do you think you’re doing?”
The rider, a tall young human with keen blue eyes in a guileless face, pointed back over his shoulder with his sword. “My name is Burgard Wendt, knight novitiate of the Order of the Blazing Sun, and I go to challenge the leader of those savages to single combat.”
“Are you mad?” Grundi laughed. “Old Stinkfang won’t give you single combat.”
“Aye,” agreed Zarri. “His boys’ll have you in the stewpot before you can so much as throw down your gauntlet.”
Wendt frowned. “There is no honor to be won in that.”
Grundi and Zarri rolled their eyes at each other, but Kazakin stepped forward.
“You seek honor, knight?”
“Indeed,” said Wendt. “I have sworn upon the altar of Myrmidia that I shall perform three knightly deeds ere I return to my chapterhouse to take my vows.”
“I’ve got just the thing for you,” said Kazakin. “As knightly a deed as you could wish.”
Wendt beamed. “I would be most obliged to you, dwarf. Tell me what I must do.”
Halgrin glared at the knight as Kazakin and the others led him away from the orc camp, explaining about the wagon and the powder and the bridge. He knew what Kazakin was going to suggest to Wendt, and he didn’t like it. He was seeking his doom. He didn’t need any help. The foolish manling would only get in the way.
“Right,” said Kazakin, five hours later. “Here it is.”
They were back at the top of the slope, looking down once again at the orc camp. The moons had sunk below the western hills a short while ago, and only starlight and the low glow of the greenskins’ sunken fire illuminated the scene.
Kazakin pointed at Halgrin and Wendt. “You two go down behind the tents and wait for the signal. When you hear it, start a ruckus. Once you’ve got their attention, we go for the wagon and ride it out as quick as we can.”
“Good,” said Wendt. “And where shall we meet afterwards?”
The dwarfs blinked at him.
“There will be no afterwards,” said Halgrin. “Not for us.”
Wendt’s smile faded. “It seems I will not live to perform my three knightly deeds, then.”
“You will help stop the advance of five thousand greenskins,” said Kazakin. “And save countless lives from slaughter. That is three deeds in one.”
Wendt hesitated, then nodded. “Aye. It is great sacrifice for a noble cause. Very well. In Myrmidia’s name I will do it.”
“Good,” said Kazakin. “Then let’s get to business--“
A female voice interrupted him. “Are you dwarfs of Thane Redhelm’s rangers?”
Halgrin and the others started and looked around. Out of the shadows stepped a slim figure in black, a longbow on her back, tugging down a black scarf to reveal the almond-shaped eyes and sharp-boned features of an elf. Halgrin thought he had never seen a woman so ugly. Wendt, however, stared at her with the glazed look of a bull struck between the eyes with a sledgehammer.
“We are Redhelm’s dwarfs, elf,” said Kazakin, warily. “Who are you?”
“I am Laenfel Silverswift, a scout for Ekrund Fortress,” she said. “Come from the south after spying out the greenskin horde. Why does Knifewind Bridge still stand? I expected to find it destroyed. And where are the rest of your company?”
Halgrin bristled at her preemptory tone. The others did too - all but Wendt, who still made cow eyes at her.
“We’re it,” said Grundi, turning a hard eye on Halgrin. “The rest were killed by orcs, in their sleep.”
“And the powder to blow the bridge is with them,” said Kazakin, pointing over the hill. “We won’t be able to finish the job until we get it back.”
The elf woman stared. “You are going to attack the orcs? Just the five of you?”
“Don’t have much choice, do we?” growled Grundi.
“It will be a great sacrifice, lady,” said Wendt. “A noble deed done to save thousands.”
Laenfel looked north over her shoulder, ignoring him. “I am due to report the greenskin numbers and disposition to Rogrum at Ekrund as soon as possible. I was to let nothing turn me from my path.”
The dwarfs looked at each other, not liking where this was going.
“Better go then, eh?” said Zarri, hopefully.
“But the bridge must fall,” she continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “You cannot be allowed to fail.” She turned back to them, her face set and grim. “I will stay with you.”
“We wouldn’t want you to put yourself out,” said Kazakin.
“Shouldn’t go against orders,” grunted Grundi.
“I thank you for concern, friends,” said Laenfel. “But I must risk it. I will fight by your side until the bridge falls.”
“You honor us with your presence, lady,” said Wendt.
Halgrin and the others moaned.
She squatted down among them. “Now,” she said. “What are your plans?”
Kazakin sighed. “Right,” he said. “Here it is.”
A short while later, Halgrin and Wendt crawled on their elbows toward the greenskin tents. The camp was quiet now but for the rattle of orcish snoring and the shifting of the few goblin guards who huddled around the dying fire.
“How noble Lady Laenfel is,” murmured Wendt. “To risk her life and mission to help us. Truly, I have never met a more beautiful, honorable--“
“Stow it,” grunted Halgrin. “Do you want them to hear us?” Why were humans so fascinated with elves?
Wendt looked up toward the camp, then shrank down again. “My apologies,” he whispered. “I was overcome by admiration for--“
Wendt grunted, but fell silent at last.
They reached the back of a filthy tent. Halgrin rose to a crouch and readied his hammer as Wendt drew his sword. Now they must wait for Kazakin’s signal, which would tell them the others were in position.
Halgrin smiled grimly. It would be a fitting revenge to do to the greenskins what they had done to Thane Redhelm and his company - to fall upon them and kill them in their sleep. Of course, the orcs and goblins weren’t the ones who were truly responsible for the massacre of the dwarfs, but tonight Halgrin would lay that villain low as well. That contemptible fool, Halgrin Gustagsson, would meet his end here, and at last make amends for his negligence and incompetence, for his stubbornness and greed. He couldn’t wait to begin.
The signal came – the harsh call of a mountain hawk. Halgrin’s heart thudded. He stood. Wendt joined him, murmuring a short prayer to Myrmidia.
“Knight,” said Halgrin. “Make a door.”
“Aye,” said Wendt.
The novitiate slashed through the tent’s leather wall with a single stroke. Halgrin slipped silently through the cut and looked around. Three orcs slept within. Halgrin raised Olnir’s hammer and crushed the nearest’s skull before it could open its eyes. A second grunted quizzically, and Halgrin smashed its face in with a back swing. The third struggled up, groping for its cleaver, but Wendt jumped in and ran it through the neck. It sank back in a fountain of blood. Halgrin nodded. Three dead without a sound. But the time for stealth was now past.
“Ready, knight?” he asked.
Wendt nodded grimly.
They stepped together to the door flap, took a deep breath, then charged out of the tent into the firelight, roaring at the top of their lungs.
“For Redhelm and Ekrund!” bellowed Halgrin.
“For Myrmidia and the Empire!” shouted Wendt.
The carpet of goblins that slept around the fire leapt up, shrilling in surprise as they grabbed their spears and daggers. But Halgrin and Wendt were already amongst them, bashing heads and chopping through chests and arms. Half a dozen died in seconds, and more ran screaming for the shadows.
The rest recovered quickly, however, and the next moment Halgrin and the novitiate knight were fighting for their lives, while questioning grumbles came from the surrounding tents.
“Come out, you green cowards!” cried Halgrin. “Come meet your doom!”
Sleepy orcish heads poked out of tents and blinked around to see what the noise was about, then roared and burst out, charging toward Halgrin and Wendt, axes and cleavers held high. Halgrin shot a glance toward the powder wagon as they came, and was relieved to see Kazakin cutting the ponies’ hobbles while Grundi climbed onto barrels in the back and Zarri took a seat on the driver’s bench and flicked the reins.
Then a huge orc blocked the view, slashing with a massive cleaver. Halgrin jumped aside and the heavy blade chopped a goblin in two. Another orc loomed on his left, swinging a club. Halgrin ducked and struck back. Beside him, Wendt reeled as an axe blade glanced off his pauldron. A goblin gashed him with a dagger as he recovered.
Halgrin cursed. He was ready to die, but he would feel better about going to Grimnir’s halls if he knew the others had rescued the powder wagon first.
Another orc pushed in, swinging an axe. Halgrin blocked it and dodged the club of the second, but the first orc’s cleaver was coming straight at him. He wouldn’t escape it.
An elvish arrow sprouted from the cleaver orc’s eye. It stumbled, bellowing, and the axe veered to the side. Halgrin took advantage and smashed the orc’s kneecap. It fell into a cluster of goblins. Another arrow thwacked into the neck of the orc with the club. Wendt’s foes were similarly pierced, and the knight cut them down as they howled and scrabbled at their faces and chests.
Halgrin was reluctant to thank an elf for anything, but in this case, he had to admit Laenfel had saved their mission. The wagon was still weaving through the campsite and had not picked up any speed. If the orcs killed Halgrin and Wendt just then, they would have turned and seen it.
Then, they did see it. As Halgrin and Wendt faced another wave of greenskins, Stinkfang’s ugly, broken-tusked head pushed out of the biggest tent and looked around. Halgrin shouted a challenge to draw his attention, but it was no good. The warboss spotted the retreating wagon. He roared and pointed after it.
The orcs and goblins looked behind them, and Halgrin and Wendt made them pay for it, chopping and smashing at the nearest, but the rest broke away and ran for the wagon.
“After them, knight!” called Halgrin.
He and Wendt chased the greenskins, hacking down stragglers as Laenfel’s arrows whistled overhead and dropped a few more. Beyond the mob, Halgrin saw Zarri crack his whip over the ponies’ heads. The wagon picked up speed, rumbling for the edge of the camp, but then, disaster!
As it steered around the last tent, the back right wheel struck a hidden boulder. The wagon stopped dead, the ponies rearing and squealing as the dwarfs flew forward. The wheel was dwarf-built, so it didn’t shatter as a human wheel would have, but the cart was stuck, and the greenskins were closing fast.
“Come on, knight!” Halgrin rasped. “Hurry!”
At the wagon, the dwarfs recovered. Kazakin knelt on the bench and blasted a muzzle-load of gravel at the oncoming mob while Grundi and Zarri stood on the barrels, readying their axes.
The Goblins swarmed in first, climbing the wagon while the ironbreakers hacked at them and Kazakin bashed around with his blunderbuss. Then the orcs hit. The first nearly swept Grundi and Zarri off with one sweep of its axe, but they leapt the blade and chopped him down.
“Straight through!” Halgrin called to Wendt.
They slammed into the greenskins, scattering goblins and smashing orc spines and legs, but Halgrin didn’t slow to fight. As the orcs fell, he bulled through to the wagon with Wendt right behind.
“Kazakin! Whip up the ponies!” cried Halgrin, and ducked below the wagon’s bed to put his shoulder to the axle. “Come on, manling! Push!”
“Pushing wagons isn’t knight’s work,” said Wendt, as he helped Grundi and Zarri hold off the greenskins. “I must fight!”
“It’s hero’s work, curse you!” barked Grundi.
“Get under!” snapped Zarri. “We’ll hold them!”
“Very well,” said the novitiate reluctantly, then crawled in beside Halgrin as clash of battle rang above them.
Kazakin’s whip cracked and the wagon edged ahead as the ponies strained. Halgrin and Wendt heaved, and the blocked wheel ground against the boulder, rising toward the top, but then stopped and sank back.
“Again, Kazakin!” called Halgrin.
More whip cracks, and the wagon inched forward.
“Together,” gritted Halgrin, and he and Wendt pushed with all their might.
Again, the wheel rose up the sloping side of the boulder, but this time it crested the top, then all at once dropped down the other side.
The dwarfs cheered, but as the wagon bounced forward, Halgrin and Wendt were exposed and prone, with greenskins all around. Halgrin rolled aside as an enormous axe chopped down at him. He swept around with his hammer and hauled Wendt up, jerking him back from a goblin’s spear thrust. They backed after the wagon, keeping themselves between it and the greenskins.
Wendt grinned. “Now this will be hero’s work,” he said.
“Not for you,” said Halgrin, shoving him toward the tailgate. “You have two more knightly deeds to perform, remember?”
“But--“ said Wendt.
Grundi grabbed him by the collar and hauled him aboard, cutting him off.
“Sorry, manling,” said Halgrin. “This is my doom, and mine alone.”
He raised Olnir’s mining hammer and shook it at the oncoming orcs. “Come on, you filthy green pigs!” he roared. “Come die with me!”
Chapter Three - Shatterskull ► ◄ Chapter One - Shamed