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Authors: Ed Greenwood

Dark Warrior Rising

BOOK: Dark Warrior Rising
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.
To Abby,
For all of Taerune's good qualities,
and none of her bad ones
Brian Thomsen, for enthusiasms shared.
Gary Gygax, for mapping the road to this branching.
Jenny, for the tea and the patience.
A sword can do great ill, but the lands hold many great ills, so better, it is, to wield a sword than to have none.
—saying of the priests of Thorar
T
his was it. The moment of punishment he'd been marched to the holy hut to receive.
Orivon stood trembling in the darkness, his bare feet on the cold dirt aching to turn and flee. He might be as tall and as strong as many of the men in the village, but he was still a boy. And right now, here under the hand of the god, he felt very young and very alone.
All he'd done was smash a stick across Aldo's sneering face for calling his mother “old widow.” And then called the stick a sword, and warned Aldo one day it would be. Nor was he sorry for saying that. For, aye, one day
it would be.
In the wavering candlelight, the shadow of the armored warrior loomed over him, nearer and nearer.
Orivon clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. This was it …
“Strong! Aye, you're strong, Orivon Ralla's son. That is good. Ashenuld will have need of you.”
The voice was stern. “Look at me!”
Orivon swallowed and opened his eyes. As always, the gaze of the old bearded priest in the cracked helm and battered armor seemed to thrust right through skin and bone, right through Orivon's own eyes to see inside his very head.
Which made Orivon Ralla's son flush bright red. There were a lot of things he didn't want the Eyes of Thorar to see. His spying on the youngest village wives as they bathed in the Deep Stream back in the woods … trading two fresh-killed tratha to Dahlma the Widow for a long
look at and swift, blundering caress of her deliciously curved bareness, down as far as her hips, as she winked and chuckled … sneaking into the Nightskins' Caves that every grown Ashenuldar sternly said were forbidden … stealing almost-ripe brimmun from Old Larthor's fields …
Unexpectedly, Old Eyes laughed, and swept out a hand as swift as a striking viper to clap Orivon's shoulder. “Grow stronger, Orivon. Thorar has seen you watching the women, and approves. The women of Ashenuld are fair, and more than fair.”
Orivon's face burned, but he knew better than to look away from the priest's gaze. Those ice-blue eyes were like two dagger points thrusting into his, but they were smiling.
“Stay here, work hard, grow strong, and you'll become great in Ashenuld. There will come a day when all Ashenuldar look to Orivon as they look up to Dargar.”
Dargar? Tall, laughing Dargar, whose shoulders were wider than most doorways and whose arms bulged and rippled with his brawn? Dargar who kissed any woman he willed, leaving their men grinning rather than glowering? Dargar who could snatch on a rein and drag a running, snorting lowhorns to a halt from sheer growling strength?
Hah! Not prancepaw likely! Not when—
The priest of Thorar stiffened, and his eyes became two leaping blue flames. His hand tightened on Orivon's shoulder, fingers digging deep like talons.
It hurt, and Orivon tried to twist away, but the old priest was gazing past him at nothing, and starting to gasp, now.
“Blood!” he said hoarsely. “Blood and … much darkness, and the fire of a forge. Great hammer blows, sparks on steel, and … a lash, scourging as hard and as often as the forgehammer! In a cavern so large that castles stand in it! And—nightskins, nightskins everywhere!”
The priest's arm was shaking so violently that Orivon's teeth were chattering as he shook, too, helpless in that steely grip.
And then the Eyes of Thorar coughed, his hand fell away from Orivon, and his eyes were flaming no longer. Clouded and empty, they stared at nothing from above a shaky smile.
“Heh,” the priest said vaguely, sounding old, his voice now as kindly and empty as those of the old aunts who dozed all day by the cauldron in the Moot at the heart of Ashenuld. “Heh-hem. Aye, there will come a day when all Ashenuldar look to Orivon as they look up to Dargar. There will come a day when they will need to.”
“They”? Not “we”?
Orivon frowned at that. The old man didn't seem to notice. He turned and shuffled away, mere bones in ruined armor, leaving the boy staring after him and frowning.
Silence fell. After standing alone in the dimness of the dying candlelight for a time, Orivon turned to leave the hut.
And froze, fear racing icy fingers up his spine.
Floating in the air behind him was a stick. His stick. The one he'd hit Aldo with, and wished was a sword.
For a moment he trembled before it, wondering if it would start to move, and strike at him with no one wielding it.
No. It did nothing, not even when he dared to reach out and take it from the empty air.
Aye, this was his stick. He thrust it back through his belt. His sword. Feeling somehow stronger, Orivon strode toward the light of day, still frowning.
Truly, holy punishments were strange.
 
 
“Holy Olone, that reeks!”
“It will be worse before it's done. Be ready to use your blade; the smell draws the worst beasts of the Dark.”
“Then
why
not have slaves mix it—in the Outcaverns, say? Instead of here, on the very brink of the Blindingbright!”
“It must be fresh, or it avails us nothing. Now stand away, unless you want to help soak the hoods.”
“Phaugh; I do
not.

“Oh? You fail to surprise me.”
 
 
His mother had been surprised to see the stick in his belt, but awed and pleased when Orivon had told her about how it had returned to him, and what the priest had said.
He did not mention, to her or anyone, what the Eyes of Thorar had said about the hammer and castle and Nightskins. Somehow he knew the old priest wouldn't remember having said those words. Which meant they came from the god to Orivon Ralla's son, and were for him alone.
He had to remember them—all of them, in the right order—and try to find out what they meant.
Blood! Blood and much darkness, and the fire of a forge. Great hammer blows, sparks on steel, and a lash, scourging as hard and as often as the forgehammer! In a cavern so large that castles stand in it! And nightskins, nightskins everywhere!
Orivon knew what nightskins were: cruel and evil monsters, though they were more beautiful than the fairest maid of the village. They had soot-black skin and lived in caves—and what was that great cave full of castles, but a cavern behind and beneath the Nightskins' Caves he was forbidden to go near? The nightskins came out of their caves only once or twice in a lifetime, to slay and to snatch Ashenuldar. Many of the cauldron-aunts said they ate humans, and “came up” only when they were hungry enough to dare seeing the sun.
“Dark elves,” the priests called them, and said they called themselves something like “Naefell,” but to the Ashenuldar and folk all around in the land, they were nightskins. The Murdering Ones.
Tall they were, these nightskins; as tall as the tallest men of the village, but thin. As sleekly curved and fine-featured as the most delicate young maids, both their hes and shes. Their swords were as long and curved and thin as they were, and they wore leather armor that clung to them more like tavern dancers' costumes than real war-plate. They moved like tavern dancers, too, the tales all said, swift yet always graceful, like the shiny-winged darters in the air above ponds on warm evenings: here and there, leaping eyeblink-swift, over there, as soft and as easy as drawing breath.
And when the dark elves came, those who fought them died, and young humans disappeared.
The nightskins gnawed on human bones as they sat in their caves full of jewels, some in Ashenuld said. Bah, other villagers disagreed, there were no jewels—and no human bones, being as evil sorcerers turned all the lost humans
into
more nightskins, to be their servants …
The tales couldn't all be true, and villagers swiftly got red-faced over who was right and who was wrong.
Frowning, Orivon went out after sunset, to the dying fire at the Mootcauldron, to talk to the old aunts about nightskins.
 
 
“The noise you hear is my warblades being sick. Must this—this stink continue? I—”
“Have them arm themselves, over on the ledge there, by the wardshield. It won't be long now.”
 
 
Old Aunstance shrugged her shawl more tightly around her, for the night had turned sharply cold, stars glittering overhead in a clear sky. The dew was dripping from the kettles hanging beside her head, far from the hissing, dying fire under the cauldron. “Nay, Dertha, you've got it wrong!” she snapped. “'Twasn't the year they took Arblade Fletcher!”
“Oh, now, Aunstance! Just when was it, then, if your mind is so bright and clear on the matter?”
“'Twas the year they carved up old Piers Gaunt!” Aunstance replied triumphantly, wagging one wrinkled finger.
Orivon sat as still as a statue just beneath it, not daring to stir or say a word for fear the aunts would remember him, and retreat to their usual guarded mumblings. They'd been talking like this for a long time now, remembering bygone nightskin raids of fading years, voices rising and eyes catching fire as they remembered the dead and gone, lost loves and foes and rivals. Rocking back and forth in their shawls for warmth, getting louder as they came alive again, recalling younger years and feuds long laid by.
Orivon listened, learning much—and becoming stone-hard certain that he'd learn more about nightskins while they talked on freely than if they remembered he was there. Some of it might be fancy, of course, but …
So nightskins called themselves “Nifful,” or something like that, and they were elves—dark elves—who had black skin and white hair, could see in darkness, and lived underground.
Deep
underground, in cities that stood in huge caverns.
In a cavern so large that castles stand in it! And nightskins, nightskins everywhere!
Y-yes. Orivon shuddered, seeing again the flaming eyes of the old priest.
They took humans as food, or slaves, or both, raiding out of their caves to do it. They were the reason the men of Ashenuld all had swords, and practiced using them, and they were the reason every stump-and-stone fence in the village had prickly redthorn growing in it: the thorns and berries were deadly poison to nightskins, and made their flesh melt at a touch.
Dark elves had raided Ashenuld more times than the old aunts could agree on, and—
“Those weren't old rags on Dunstan Ghallow's gate, Maraude!
They were nightskin hides—all shriveled and not much to look at, aye, but skin he'd cut off dark elves with his own sword before his dogs ate the rest!”
“Aye, ate the rest and died!”
“Ho, now!
Ho,
now, Maraude Gyntly! Died they did, yes, one after t'other, over four-and-ten years following! Of old age, they went, not of eating elves!”

Hah!
A lot
you
know, Dertha Bucklebody! Why, those dogs gobbled and tore like I don't know
what
all! Worst he'd ever seen them, Nars said, and then lay down whimpering and just died!”
“Oh, Nars
Boldwood
! He'd lie about his own name to his own mother, he would! Don't be heeding a word Nars Boldwood says; not a
word
!”
Several of the old aunts cackled agreement, wagging bony fingers at each other.
Something moved behind Orivon, a shifting as soft as a shadow. Then Dertha Bucklebody's hoarse chucklings ended in an abrupt, solid
thupp
sound, a wet and heavy thud that made Orivon look up.
In time to see old Aunt Dertha's head, withered jaws parted in a look of staring surprise, leap from her shoulders.
Behind her shaking, spasming—and now headless—shoulders, Orivon saw a face.
A face—liquid dark eyes in a face that was blacker than the night around it. A
pointed
face, with features as fine and as beautiful as anything he'd ever seen, that looked back at him, over the bloody sword that had just beheaded Dertha Bucklebody.
… and grinned cruelly.
A man started to shout nearby, but it twisted into a scream—and the night all around Orivon was suddenly full of shouts and screams. Men were running, a sword clanged on something, and a falling lantern exploded and caught a line of washing alight.
Orivon sprang up. In the flare of flames black figures were darting everywhere. The old aunts were sprawled and butchered, and men of Ashenuld were running, too—most of them fleeing into the night.
BOOK: Dark Warrior Rising
11.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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