Chronicles of Arborell, Copyright Wayne Densley 2008 All Rights Reserved
The first warrior crested the rise as if moving in slow motion. Struggling against the steep slope the Hordim found a footing upon the edge of the plateau, and hauled himself onto its hard stone surface. Captured in the bright light his visage was worn and fatigued, his clothing and armour dusted and scarred. Long weeks on the march had left their mark upon the Hresh, and as he caught his breath he looked long and hard at the three men standing between him and the entrance to Durgoz Hold.
Behind him the others of his number made their own way onto the plateau but there was no pause for them, no respite when the object of their long journey was so close. In a line they formed, drawing scimitars as they ran, not deviating from their intended path as they charged for the entrance to the ruined stronghold.
Standing before them the Men waited steadfastly for the inevitable clash of arms that would see them either dead, or in possession of Shemwe. For his part Mallen watched intently as the Hresh closed upon them. Of the hundreds of warriors that had attacked Callenfrey only a handful had survived the long trek back to the Rift Mountains. As he stood waiting he could count only twelve, but all were large and strong, though each had wounds and burdens of their own to carry. Across one of the warrior's shoulders he could see draped Tomas' fiancee, unconscious but alive, and on another's the emaciated remains of another red-haired woman. At this closer range he recognised her as Enika Torres, daughter to a silversmith who had lived no more than three doors from his own shop. He could not tell if she had survived but he knew they would soon find out.
It was Gremorgan who acted first. Throwing his remaining bags to the ground he called out to the approaching Hresh.
"Ansolon'Denmar, I know who you are! Give over those you have taken and you may pass freely here. Continue on and you shall find yourself at the gates of Hallen'draal sooner than you should."
The Hresh Chieftain smirked slightly but did not falter. He had the advantage of numbers over the Men who stood in his way, but he had lost far too many of his own crue to wish any confrontation here. As was his way he had a plan, and without hesitation he put it into motion.
Deftly Ansolon pulled a small metal canister from his breastplate and depressed a lever upon its upper edge. He waited only a moment, judging when he should throw it before lobbing the device towards the Men. It was Gremorgan who recognised it for what it was.
"Flash-charge!" he yelled to the Caels, "Cover your..."
Before he could finish his warning the charge detonated, an actinic pulse of light and sound erupting from the canister, throwing the three men backwards as the Hresh closed the distance between them. Caught completely within the explosion the Dwarvendim and Kalboreans disappeared in a roiling cloud of dirt and smoke. When it lifted the men lay unconscious, stunned by the power of the charge and unable to defend themselves.
For a moment Ansolon brought his warriors to a halt and looked at the prostrate forms of his enemies. In other times he would have killed them out of hand, but he could not help but admire their persistence. He had felt the presence of their pursuit since the battle upon the Surgis'Ka and had done all that he could to shake them. In truth he did not know how they had come to be here ahead of his own warband, nor how they knew where he was taking his captives, but their appearance now gave him an opportunity unforeseen. Tomas had escaped him once before and it would be the red-haired one that would now stay his hand.
Quickly he ordered one of his warriors to take Tomas, hoisting the Kalborean's limp body onto his broad shoulders as they turned again for Durgoz Hold. Before them lay their way home, and if all went well they would soon find sanctuary once again within the lands of their brothers.
Mallen found his way back to consciousness only to find Gremorgan standing over him. The Dwarvendim loomed tall against the sky, but for a moment he could remember little of what had happened. Only as he tried to rise did his head begin to pound, and unable to resist the agonies that lanced across his skull he fell back onto the stone plateau.
"What in Arborell was that?" he whispered into the air.
Gremorgan put out his hand and helped the Kalborean to his feet. "The Hresh used a flash-charge. A cunning little device that stuns without causing injury. We are unharmed but I am afraid that the warband has found its way into the Hold, and we have once again no option but to pursue them."
Mallen looked to the huge entrance and noticed that the Grievous had gone as well.
"Are we now lost then? Is Shemwe beyond our reach?"
The LoreMaster took the young Kalborean by the shoulder and looked him squarely in the eye.
"Mallen, they have retaken your brother. Tomas is gone."
In a fog of disbelief Mallen could say nothing. It was only as he surveyed the now empty plateau that the truth of Gremorgan's words became clear.
"Tomas. The Hresh have him again?"
The Dwarvendim nodded and then pointed to the entrance to the Hold. "He may be gone but he is not yet lost to us. The Grievous has been taken as well and so to is the shield that protected the entranceway. Whatever is within the mountain is now open to us as well. I say we find out, and get back your countrymen no matter what it takes."
"No matter what it takes." muttered Mallen. All the energy remaining to him had been drained away by the news of his brother's capture, but he also knew that if there was a chance to recover him he would take it. Quickly he gathered up his equipment and began to run for the entranceway.
The two men entered Durgoz Hold and found themselves quickly lost to the shadows of the ancient ruin. Like other delvings of its type the stronghold was old beyond the reckoning of Men, and in its weathered and fractured state it reached into the rock as a series of long chambers connected by a network of passages and defensive positions. Within the dust and broken stone the clear trail of the Hresh made a path straight for the heart of the mountain.
Through wide arched halls and dark corridors Mallen followed the deep imprints of the Hordim. Gremorgan trailed close at his shoulder, watching the surrounding stone for any sign of traps or devices as they ran. It was a gruelling chase, one that left them little choice but to charge through the silent corridors, giving no regard to stealth or caution.
On Mallen's face Gremorgan could see nothing but torment. The Kalborean had lost his brother once before to the Hresh and had embarked on this journey to recover him. It had been through some strange act of Providence that the Caels had found their way into his life, and then to a complete turn in his own destiny. He knew that his fate had been intertwined with that of the Kalboreans, and that the Powers of the World were using the brothers for a purpose that he could not yet fathom. Whatever was now to happen would unfold as another step along a path that had been fashioned by others, and one upon which he now had little control.
Only once did the two men stop to rest within the upper levels of the Hold, and then only for enough time to quickly eat a few pieces of the Nahla cake. In the cool darkness of a debris strewn hallway both ate quietly, the rich spicy smell of the cake spreading about them.
"What are the Hresh doing here, Gremorgan?" asked Mallen softly. "Could there be any other place in the world more ruinous than this?"
The LoreMaster looked to the way ahead and shook his head.
"I cannot answer your question Master Cael. The Hresh do nothing without a purpose but it escapes me as well. I have never heard of a path leading beneath the mountains here, and all logic tells me that we are pursuing the warband into a rather long and dangerous dead-end."
For a moment Gremorgan stared at the ground beneath his feet then turned to Mallen.
"You know Master Cael, it occurs to me that there is one thing in this world that might aid the Hordim, although to find it here would be unusual indeed."
Without saying anything more he rummaged through his pack and found a tightly wrapped cloth. Carefully the Dwarvendim lifted his Dirge-compass from its bindings and opened it before him. To Mallen's surprise the entire hall about them brightened to the intense light that shone forth from the small device. The reaction on Gremorgan's face was clearly illuminated as well.
"By the Powers, Master Cael. There is indeed something down here, and by the hand of Providence it remains active. If we hurry this chase may not yet be over."
Quickly Gremorgan re-wrapped the compass and shouldered his pack. "Put your nose to the trail Mallen. At the end of these tracks we will find a way to your brother."
Mallen could not understand what the LoreMaster meant but he trusted him completely, and in the light of a small orb conjured by the Dwarvendim he followed the Warband's footfalls further into the root of the mountain.
For an hour the men chased down the Hordim, and as they ran through the dark spaces the air about them became heavier and more humid. Ahead of them the Hresh kept to a single path, one that found its way through a succession of large halls and ancient corridors. Mallen kept focused to the trail but he noticed also the incursion of large stalagmites that grew out of the Hold's flooring, oozing up the sides of high vaults and spreading in wide cascades of frozen crystal from the walls. In the light of Gremorgan's orb the crystalline flows glistened and sparkled as they passed, a rainbow of colour highlighting how much the natural world had encroached upon the ancient delving.
Within this alien world of shimmering stone the two men gave themselves no time to rest or falter. The Hordim moved with no concern for going unnoticed, and upon their clear trail Mallen found himself charging forward, Gremorgan urging caution but just as anxious to find Tomas and the captive women.
Through the quiet chambers the men ran, pausing only to examine the body of a dead Hresh that had been cast to the side of a long corridor. From their first glance it was evident that the Hresh had been killed, his throat cut and his equipment spoiled from his body. One piece of clothing remained though, and its coloured markings were not the same as the Denmar Hresh they were pursuing.
"This is not one of the warband, is it?" asked Mallen.
Gremorgan nodded his head and tested a blood stained piece of cloth between his fingers. "No Master Cael. This is indeed a Hresh of the Tomsk Kraal, and he has been executed here probably because he was following the main Denmar warband when they first entered these halls. You have no doubt noticed that the tracks you have been following go both ways. Both down into the mountain, but also the other way, following their path back to the surface and the lands of Men beyond. The politics of the Hordim are as complicated as our own and it would not be unknown for the Kraals to keep tabs on each other. I would say this fellow got a little too close to the Denmar and paid for it with his life."
Mallen stood and caught his breath for a moment. "How much farther?" he asked.
The LoreMaster took out his Dirge-Compass and turned to the way ahead. "Not very far." he said simply, and the two men began to run again.
As they descended the ground slowly changed. Soon they found shallow pools of water and wide falls of stone edging the path, obscuring and then obliterating the smoother surfaces of carved stone walls, only to be replaced by the rougher edges of a network of natural caverns. It was at the bottom of one of these caverns that the men found an end to the trail left by the Hordim, and the objective of all their long weeks of travel.
Within a small untouched chamber of black crystal a platform had been raised more than five metres high, shining and smooth in the shadows. Upon this imposing dais a wide circle of dark stone stood upright, intricately carved as an intertwined sculpture of tree branches and vinery. Within the space encompassed by the ring its interior roiled with a thick undulating mist, and from within its vapours Mallen could hear voices, although he could not understand them.
Gremorgan placed his finger to his lips and bade Mallen to silence. Carefully they backed away from the ring before Gremorgan spoke.
"This is a Gate, Master Cael, a way to connect two points and travel between them without the expenditure of either time or effort. Such Gates are rare indeed and I have no knowledge of one here within the Durgoz Hold. And yet here it stands and it is still active."
"But who is on the other side?" asked Mallen.
"Guards probably," replied the LoreMaster. "A Gate is not an easy thing to open and you cannot be completely sure where it will take you, or when it will close. I would say though, that the voices we can hear are Hresh stationed by the Gate to ensure no-one else comes through until it closes itself down. If we are to make use of it we will have to do so now, but you must understand Mallen, that there is a chance this device could take us anywhere in the known world. A simple step into the mists may leave us with months of travel to return to the lands of Men."
The young Kalborean looked to the swirling mist and knew what he had to do. Drawing his sword he walked forward as Gremorgan readied his axe. Somewhere on the other side of the Durgoz Gate he would find Tomas.
In the moment the Kalborean stepped into the swirling mist he ceased to exist. Although his consciousness remained intact it was as though he had stepped into a void, one that stripped him of any senses, leaving him twisting disincorporated in a nothingness from which came no sound or brush of air upon the face. In this strange emptiness he paused, but only momentarily, for from somewhere outside of his own thoughts he began to feel a presence, one that pulled firmly at his consciousness, propelling him deeper into the limitless void.
Within this nothingness his speed increased, accelerating quickly to a velocity that left his thoughts scattered in the void behind him. In the maelstrom Mallen swirled and spun like a leaf in the wind, the power compelling him forward, until there was nothing in the emptiness but the terrible rush and an absolute helplessness to do anything about it. It was a ride that left him vertiginous and numb, but it was a ride that ended in a fractured second as he returned to the real world.
Tumbling out onto a wide shelf of rock Mallen lay still, his head reeling from the headlong rush of his transit through the device. Prostrate and helpless he could do nothing but watch as Gremorgan attacked the two sentries guarding the great ring of stone. Before either could turn the Dwarvendim descended upon them, cutting down one, then the other in a succession of deadly blows with his axe. For whatever reason the Hresh were standing sentinel at the gate, but their attention had been focused upon the wide plains beyond, not at the possibility of others making their way through. Surprise made the combat quick and Gremorgan did not pause once the fight had ended.
Quickly he ran to Mallen and hauled him to his feet. Standing on the stone platform the Kalborean found himself looking out over a vast plain, covered with tough grasses and suffering the first effects of a cold winter. To the north he could see fresh falls of snow against the horizon and above him the bluest sky he had ever seen.
"Where are we?" he asked in a whisper.
"Gremorgan raised his eyebrows and smiled. "It is a good question Master Cael. I cannot say exactly; but seeing snow in the north, and the Great Rift behind us in the south, provides a strong clue that we have found our way into the lands of Perdition. This is Horde territory Mallen, probably the homelands of the Denmar Hresh themselves. We must tread carefully for here we are interlopers in a realm that will not suffer us kindly."
Mallen turned and looked to the south. There the mountains of the Great Rift were little more that a dark haze spread upon the horizon, only a few indistinct peaks any semblance of the vast mountain range they had journeyed beneath. The Kalborean could not fathom how they had been transported here, but in his heart he knew that only with the help of the LoreMaster could he ever get back.
As Mallen steadied himself Gremorgan searched the plains beneath them for a sign of the warband. The stone ring stood upon a hill that commanded a view of the desolate land about them and it did not take long to find the Hresh.
"There," he shouted as he pointed just west of north, "The warband is now ten strong and encumbered by the weight of their captives. If we make haste we will have them by nightfall."
Mallen could not see the Hordim, but he took Gremorgan at his word and followed as the Dwarvendim made for the edge of the stone platform. In the bright light of day the two men descended a winding stairway cut into the side of the hill, finding another landing and then the remains of a road that led northwards. Immediately Gremorgan took to the path and together they began their sojourn into the lands of the Denmar.
Upon the hard ground Gremorgan and Mallen ran. It was a state of existence that the Kalborean had become accustomed to, the endless fatigue of the chase, the hurried meals of Nahla Cake and the continuous searching for sign as they hunted the Hresh. In this fashion the day passed slowly from clear skies into dusk, the lands about them opening up as a windswept tundra of frozen ground and clumps of stunted grasses.
Under a darkening sky Mallen followed the trail left by the Hordim. Safe within their own lands the Hresh had divested themselves of any pretence of stealth or concealment, and the footfalls of the warriors were clearly marked upon the trail and in the surrounding grasses. About them the landscape proved empty, and strangely it was nothing like what Mallen had expected. In his mind's eye he had imagined the lands of the Hordim to be barren and tortured, a scene of roiling fumes and steaming lava pits. Instead he had found solitude and an overwhelming sense of isolation. Upon the broad tundra it felt as if they were alone, travelling within a world devoid of life, and in the grip of a clinging cold that could not be escaped.
From the north the winds blustered in a constant ebb and flow of chilled air, that arose from the permanent ice caps before them and which found no warmth on their journeys across the flat plains. All about him there was nothing but the tundra and he could not help wondering where the Hresh were going. If anything they seemed to be passing further into the cold desolation of the plains.
"What is their plan Gremorgan? Why are they not making directly for their homes?"
The Dwarvendim stopped in his pursuit and took a moment to catch his breath.
"As I have said Master Cael, the machinations of the Hordim are unknown to me, but you know that what the Denmar Hresh are doing is not in the interests of the Clavern'sigh. I can only assume that for the moment they wish to remain unnoticed here as much as they had desired to in the lands of Men."
Mallen was about to ask more of the LoreMaster but Gremorgan turned and began to run once again. Quickly they passed over the plains, keeping a heading that ran slightly upon the shoulder of true north. Finding the Hresh was their only concern and by the first glow of twilight both came to a quiet halt near a wide spread of scattered boulders. Gremorgan motioned Mallen to the ground and both men crawled into a space between two large stones. Beyond the outcrop the Kalborean could see the Hresh, camped around a small fire and organising themselves for the coming night. To one side sat Shemwe, Tomas and Enika Torres.
"Can you see how they are?" Mallen whispered.
Gremorgan stared intently into the gathering darkness but his attention was focused more on the Hresh, and particularly the Grievous, who sat chained to a rock only a short distance further from the fire.
"All are alive," he answered, "and that is something we can be thankful for."
Mallen looked at the Dwarvendim and pointed at the three captives. "When shall we recover them? I believe that they will be best taken in the dark of night, whilst the Hresh sleep."
Gremorgan shook his head and drew back from their vantage point so that he might sit with his back to the cold stone. When Mallen had found a position next to him he took a piece of Nahla Cake and handed it to the Kalborean.
"You know the capabilities of the Hordim, Mallen. Even as we sit here they will be organising their camp, setting sentries and ensuring their captives are well secured. In the dark they have better eyesight than ourselves and I doubt we will be able to find a path to your brother undiscovered. For us there must be a harder and more dangerous course of action. If you trust me Mallen, you must hold your need to retrieve your brother until the first light of dawn. Then you shall have Tomas and he shall finally have back his fiancee. More importantly we shall all be alive."
The young Kalborean moved to argue the point but Gremorgan put his fingers to his lips and bade him quiet. The Hordim were no more than fifty metres from where they sat, and as they would not be able to light a fire of their own he knew it was going to be a long, cold night.
Mallen did not like it but there was nothing else to be done. Without Gremorgan at his side there was no way he could rescue his brother, and the LoreMaster would not be swayed. In the darkness he waited, watching the night sky revolve upon its axis as Elanna and Shabel journeyed from the eastern horizon to their resting places in the west. In the camp there was little movement, only the infrequent shuffling of the guards as they changed watches any indication that there was anyone awake at all. It was a quiet night broken only by the cries of animals in the distance, and the smooth rush of Kreel as they circled about the plains looking for an easy kill. Mallen was not surprised that the flying reptiles left the Hordim well alone.
Dawn came as a wash of colour that spread across the eastern horizon, growing brighter until the first sun of morning rose into the sky. The Hresh were already about, the rituals of their morning completed before the sunsrise that heralded the new day. Behind the rocks the Dwarvendim and Kalborean lay patiently, watching the Hordim as they prepared to break camp. It was only as the warriors were forming to move out that Gremorgan finally moved himself.
"Do you trust me Mallen?" he said quietly.
Mallen nodded but he could not know what was to happen next. He was expecting a fight, and although it would come, it was not in a manner that he could have foreseen. Before the Kalborean could stop Gremorgan, the LoreMaster rose from the stone outcrop and walked boldly towards the assembled Hresh.
"Ansolon'Denmar!" he shouted into the blustering winds. "I know who you are, and I know the purpose of your deskai. Hear me Oera'dim, for there is an assassin in your midst, and treachery follows in his shadow."
All the Hresh turned at the sound of the Dwarvendim's voice and began to run for him, but their Chieftain called them to a halt and instead answered Gremorgan's words.
"I can only say that you are a persistent vehmin, Gremorgan of the Grand Circle. Yes, I know of you too, but you have me at a disadvantage for I know not your purpose here. Speak quickly LoreMaster. In these lands we do not suffer Men to walk freely."
Gremorgan pulled his axe from its sheathe and dropped it onto the hard ground. He called for Mallen who also rose and stood at his side before he continued.
"I know of your purpose in the lands of Men and I am here to tell you that your chosen path cannot succeed. The spark that gives Men life is different from your own and you cannot use it to sully the River of Life. It will not work. I am here to tell you of a different path, one that will take the Word of Command out of the hands of the Clavern'sigh. You can be free Ansolon'Denmar, you need only listen to me."
The Hresh warrior smirked but the LoreMaster knew altogether too much of his plans and purpose.
"Why should I trust you stone-eater? My crue has been all but destroyed but I have what I need. These red-haired vehmin are my captives and I will do with them as I wish."
"True," answered the LoreMaster, "but heed this carefully. I may know of your plans but I am not the only one. The Clavern'sigh knows also of your intent for they have placed a shadi amongst you, and it waits only for the opportunity to kill you all."
Without waiting for the Hresh's reply Gremorgan walked forward and pointed at the Grievous.
"Come Sil," he said firmly, "it is time that you show yourself for what you truly are."
In that instant the camp turned to chaos as the insane Hresh went berserk. Screaming in a blind rage the Grievous broke its chains as if they were string and swung them in a wide arc towards the LoreMaster. Caught by surprise the nearest Hresh was torn apart by the flailing ends of its restraints, but the Grievous was not going to wait for the warriors or men to attack it first.
Thrusting its fists into the hard earth the disfigured and tormented Hresh began to change. As if it was drawing earth and stone into its own body it used the material to grow and expand. In a matter of a few heartbeats the creature stood five metres tall, a swelling and distorted form that looked down at Gremorgan with murder in its eyes.
"It is a dweo'gorga." the LoreMaster yelled at Ansolon. "A shape-shifter sent to infiltrate your warband and destroy you all. Stay clear or you will die."
To Gremorgan's dismay the Hresh did not fall back. Instead they rushed the giant, scimitars drawn against the massive limbs of the shape-shifter. It proved a futile gesture, the warriors insignificant against its growing bulk, and giving them no heed the shape-shifter charged at Gremorgan, the Hresh swept aside as it ran. With one crushing blow one of the Hordim was smashed to earth and before its rage another two of the warriors died before the LoreMaster could take action.
In a searing explosion of light a ball of energy erupted from Gremorgan's hands. It was a sun in miniature, burning brightly against the softer light of the day. All retreated before its blinding glare except for the creature. It stood heaving and striking out with its now clawed hands, but it did not know what was about to happen.
Without warning the ball of energy flew towards the dweo'gorga, enveloping it tightly in its powerful grasp. Paralysed within the encompassing sphere the creature struggled to escape but Gremorgan could not let it live. Holding his arms before the burning power of his magic he looked the shape-shifter in the eye and chanted.
:oel viis emur a'd u sa' nuul:
Like a thunderclap that erupts out of a clear sky Mallen could feel the air about them break and contort to the power of Gremorgan's words, his body serving as a conduit, channelling a rushing energy that erupted from the Dwarvendim's hands, reaching out and enveloping itself firmly about the struggling form of the Shape-shifter.
In wonder the Hresh stood quiet as the energy conjured by the LoreMaster tore at the body of the dweo'gorga, lifting it into the air so that it hung defenceless before them. In desperation the creature changed form again, this time mimicking the diminutive form of the Faeyen girl, Sil.
At the sight of the girl Mallen ran forward but was stopped by Gremorgan with a quick wave of his hand.
"Do not be fooled by this creature Mallen. Sil is long dead, and now her killer is about to be brought to account."
Before them the dweo'gorga twisted within the vice-like grip of Gremorgan's magic, and as it came to realise that it could not free itself it stopped struggling and looked towards the Dwarvendim.
"Why do you do this LoreMaster?" it cried pitifully. "Am I not your friend, and your only true ally here?"
Gremorgan did not answer. His focus was concentrated on controlling the power of the Word he had conjured, and it took all the strength he had to stop it from erupting outwards and destroying all the Hordim around him as well. In reply he drew the power into a tighter embrace, holding the girl-creature all the firmer.
For Sil there could be no escape. The LoreMaster had used the Word of Dissolution upon her and its power would not ebb until its job was done. As it held the girl in its hold the Word began to delve deeply into the creature's form, searching out the spark of existence that was its life-force. In a tearing jerk the girl's body opened up, and for just an instant a bright speck gleamed in her ragged chest. But it was for only an instant. With an agonising scream the creature's spark evaporated and with it so did her body. When the EarthMagic receded there remained nothing but a thin vapour that dissipated quickly into the winds, and for a long moment nobody moved. It was Tomas who broke the silence.
"Mallen, get me out of these stinking ropes so I can see to Shemwe!"
The Kalborean moved to oblige but a gesture from Ansolon had his remaining warriors already moving to intercept him. They did not attack Mallen though. The Hresh Chieftain knew he was standing before the wielder of a power that could remove him from the world with just a few words, and for the first time in his life he felt fear.
"What is it you want of us LoreMaster. You have the Word of Dissolution at your command, why do you not use it?"
Gremorgan stood before the Hresh, power still coruscating in a sparkling aura around him. It seemed that at any moment he could do exactly what the Hordim feared, but it was not his intention nor his want.
"I am not here to destroy you Ansolon'Denmar. I am a servant of the Silvan Tree and I now do the bidding of the Powers of this world regardless of my prior allegiances. They have given me a greater mission and I have come to this desolate place to tell you that you must be a part of it."
The Hresh shook his head and looked to the north. "There is nothing that I can give that could aid the wielder of such power. In this world I am a chattel to the Clavern'sigh, and although I plot against them it would seem they already know my intent. It can only be a matter of days before another assassin will find its way to my side."
Gremorgan moved closer to the Hresh and gestured towards the Hordim's captives.
"It has been foretold that you must take me to the Horns of Gorgoroth. The task of doing so has been placed in your hands Ansolon, but I must ask that these captives be released to my companion and then returned safely to the Lands of Men. The Caer'dahl has divined that their lives will not end here, and I do not know the consequences if you act rashly towards them. I have the sense that they also have a part to play in this endeavour, even if it remains hidden from us. Make it your duty to see these things done and you may yet see the downfall of the Clavern'sigh."
Ansolon did not wish to hear the words but he could not refuse either. Although he had only heard rumours of the dissolution he had just witnessed, he knew enough to know that the Word required not only knowledge but the proper place to invoke it. Spoken in the Hall of Creation the Word of Dissolution would remove the Oera'dim from the world, and in its wake leave nothing but wisps of vapour to mark their passing. The fact that the LoreMaster had been able to use it on the dweo'gorga, and keep its wild need to destroy bound to just that creature was a testament to the power inherent in the Man himself.
In the end however, it was his duty to his Kraal that compelled his agreement. He was a Chieftain, and with that came the responsibility to do what was necessary to ensure the survival of the Denmar. Under the Word of Command uttered by the Clavern'sigh his brothers had been turned into nothing better that slaves, and he would do anything to save them from such a fate. If the vehmin truly had a plan to bring down the power of the Mutan he would be at his side no matter how much he hated his kind.
"And what is your mission LoreMaster? The Horns of Gorgoroth are the birthing place of the Oera'dim, sacred to all and undefiled by the presence of Men. What can you do there that could not be done in the halls of the Clavern itself?"
Gremorgan smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"My task has not yet been revealed to me. You know as well as I that the Powers do not give a Being in their servitude such knowledge until it is needed. A Caer'dahl came to me in the night hours and commanded my obedience, giving me only the task of finding my way to the Horns. The mission shall be uncovered only when I reach them."
Turning to the Hresh he gave over his hand. "We are both servants to the whims of greater powers than ourselves, Ansolon'Denmar. What say we carve a destiny for ourselves that will shake the halls of the Clavern'sigh to their foundations."
The Hordim hesitated then took the LoreMaster's hand in return.
"You have my oath, Gremorgan Hedj. May we not live to regret it."
Mallen did not wait to find out what Gremorgan and the Hresh were talking about. His brother lay no more than twenty metres from where he stood and he was not about to ask for anyone's permission. Running for Tomas he brushed aside the one warrior that stood in his way and quickly cut the ropes that kept him bound. Stiffly at first, Tomas rose and steadied himself.
"Well you took your time." he said smiling.
Mallen laughed and hugged him, not quite understanding how they had once again come together. Tomas however, was not so sure what was going on.
"What is Gremorgan up to? Something particularly clever I should imagine."
Mallen looked to the earnest conversation between the two and shrugged his shoulders. As long as there was no violence at hand he had other concerns. With Tomas at his side he quickly made for Shemwe and Enika Torres. Shemwe was conscious but her companion proved difficult to rouse. Her drawn features and shallow breathing a sure sign that she was near death.
Tomas cut Shemwe's bindings and rubbed her hands to try and return life to blue-tinged fingers.
"Shem, I am sorry." he whispered. He could think of nothing else to say. The time it had taken to recover her had been a torment that had left his fiancee ragged and emaciated, barely gripping to life even as she lay in his arms. But at a moment when she should have looked to her own well-being Shemwe had no thought except for her friend.
"See to Enika, Tomas. I will live but she needs help now. Do not let these creatures take another friend from us."
Tomas turned and found Mallen working on Enika, and he could see that she was faltering, desperately close to taking her last breath. Beyond his brother Gremorgan stood talking with the Hresh and it stirred something primitive within him. The source of all their woe stemmed from the machinations of the Hresh Chieftain, and he could not abide the Hordim to live. Quickly he rose, grasping the scimitar of one of the fallen Hresh and advanced upon Ansolon'Denmar. In his heart was revenge but Shemwe's words could not be left unbidden either.
"Gremorgan," he called loudly, "Enika Torres is in need of your help. Tend to her quickly whilst I have a few quiet words with the Hresh."
The LoreMaster saw hatred burning in the younger Kalborean's eyes and he stood between the two. Ansolon'Denmar had seen the same thing and waited silently, more than ready to defend himself.
"Tomas," Gremorgan answered. "There has been enough death in this endeavour. Drop your sword and return to Shemwe. It may pain us all but we need each other now, whether we like it or not."
"Need them!" Tomas shouted. "Those murderers have killed hundreds of our number and driven defenceless women to the point of death. We do not need them, we only need kill them."
The Dwarvendim grabbed Tomas by the arm and stayed his advance. Pulling him to the side he whispered roughly in the Kalborean's ear.
"You are right Tomas. For what they have done they should all die, but think before you surrender yourself so easily to the needs of vengeance. You stand in the heart of the lands of Perdition. There is no human settlement for two hundred leagues, and no less than the Great Rift itself stands between us and our homes. It is only with the help of the Hresh that you will be able to return to the realms of Men alive. Think on it before you raise that scimitar my young friend. Will it do any good to rescue Shemwe only to lose her again because of an ill-temper?"
Behind them Mallen had risen from Enika and his face was drawn with worry. "Gremorgan, you are needed here. Enika is failing."
The LoreMaster turned from Tomas and made his way to Mallen's side. Kneeling beside the frail women he took her hand and tested her pulse, though one look was all he needed to determine she was only minutes from death.
"Mallen, go to my bags and look in the bottom of the largest. It is where I held the white powder we used to heal Tomas. There is none left but search the inside anyway. See if you can find even a few grains. They shall be all we need if they can be found."
The Kalborean ran for Gremorgan's bag as the Dwarvendim dug a small piece of Nahla Cake out of his pocket. Looking around he yelled at the nearest Hresh to bring water, and with Ansolon's nod the warrior gave over a water bag and a shallow dish. Gremorgan busied himself with the dish and cake, crushing it to a paste into which he poured a small amount of the water. It was only when Mallen kneeled at his side with his bag that the LoreMaster set to work on Enika herself.
"I am afraid Mallen, that the powder is not the best medicine for the girl. She has no broken bones or torn flesh, instead her death will come from malnutrition and fatigue. The powder cannot help her with such afflictions. It can however, give her the few hours she needs to pull back from the edge. What did you find?"
Mallen gave over a small pinch of a powdery residue, collected from the inside corner of the LoreMaster's bag. Gremorgan smiled and carefully placed the few grains under her nose. With Enika's next laboured breath the powder disappeared and its effect was immediate. In a spasm Enika's body stiffened and arched upwards, her arms flailing at her side as if some great agony had overcome her.
"What is happening?" cried Tomas. He had heeded the LoreMaster's words and had thrown away the scimitar. "Is she in pain?"
Gremorgan looked at the girl and shook his head. "No, there is no pain here. She is in the midst of a terror that will last for some hours. Remember Mallen what I said about the medicinal power of the powder. It heals but it also bolsters the will of the sufferer to survive. Enika has been placed in a private nightmare of her own creation, and while she uses the last of her resources to fight whatever confronts her in her dreams we are going to give her the means to heal properly."
Carefully he took the dish filled with the now liquid Nahla Cake and poured some into a small vial. Motioning Tomas and Mallen to hold the girl still he called to Ansolon'Denmar to hold her head. The Hresh had been standing close, intently watching what was going on and without thinking he complied with the LoreMaster's command. With Enika still he poured the Nahla into her mouth. Gagging against the strong taste of the ad-hoc medication, it took two attempts to empty the vial as she swallowed, but as with the powder the effect was immediate.
Like a soporific the Nahla swept through her body, putting her to sleep and withdrawing the terrors of the powder. As her body relaxed the Men let go of her arms and the Hresh laid her head to the ground.
"What must we do now?" asked Mallen.
Gremorgan began to fill another vial with the liquid as he answered. "As with Tomas we must wait a day for the full effects of the powder and the Nahla to do their work. It will be better that Enika have one more dose of the Nahla before dusk, and Shemwe could do with some as well. It will be both sleep and the regenerative power of the cake that shall bring both back to a state where we can travel."
Gremorgan handed the vial to Tomas and he went back to Shemwe. For a time they talked and then Shemwe took the liquid. Within moments she too was asleep.
As the women slept Gremorgan pulled Mallen aside. He had something for the Kalborean and he needed it to remain secret.
"Mallen," he began, "I am afraid that we must now take different paths. You have found your brother, and he in turn has found Shemwe. Finding your way back to Kalborea can now be your only concern. For my part I have a new mission that requires I head west, to a place known as the Horns of Gorgoroth. What I shall do there is for the Powers of this world to arbitrate but it is a task for myself alone, you cannot go with me. Your place must be with your brother and the others."
Mallen did not understand for he had heard nothing of the LoreMaster's agreement with the Hresh Chieftain.
"You cannot leave us here Gremorgan. Once you are out of their sight the Hresh will kill us."
The LoreMaster shook his head and looked towards the warriors. "They are many things Master Cael, but they have a sense of honour that is important to them. Their Chieftain has given his word and that oath will keep you safe. Although it is a strange thing we are now allies, standing against a far greater enemy. These Hordim are now bound to us in a common cause and whether we like it or not we must make the best of it."
Mallen was not convinced. He trusted the LoreMaster but he was not as sure as Gremorgan about relying on the honour code of the Hordim for their safety. He moved to protest but Gremorgan was not finished. There was something that Mallen would need if he was to make it back to the lands of Men, and the Hresh could not know of it.
"Before I call the Hresh over I must give you something, and it is imperative that you keep it to yourself."
Quickly he turned his broad back to the Hordim and reached into his tunic pocket.
"Remember the Gatheringstone, Mallen? With it I was able to search out the ghosts of the Surgis'Ka and reach into the memories of the Dragon near Meshaal. It is a powerful talisman that has one property little known to most who might use it. That property will take you back into the lands of Men but you must listen carefully."
Handing the device over he waited as Mallen placed it into his own clothing.
"Do you remember the tpesh we hid within near the Forests of Meshaal? The one that gave us sanctuary as the Dragon came to rest? Do you have a clear picture of its interior in your mind?"
Mallen nodded even though he did not yet understand.
"The Gatheringstone has the ability to gather memories and the remnants of life itself, but it also remembers the places a traveller who holds it has visited in the past. If you stand in a similar place, say another tpesh here in Perdition, and say the right Word of power it will take you, and whoever might be within the tpesh as well, back to that previous place. Think of where you wish to go, say the Word and it will take you there. But be mindful Mallen, that it can only do this if there is a strong connection between the places you wish to travel."
"And what is the connection here?" Mallen asked.
Gremorgan looked to the Hresh and smiled. "The Hordim built the tpesh in a time long before Men came into the world, and although the shelters appear simple in design and function they all have one thing in common. Each has a small piece of stonewood buried at their core. All stonewood is connected, no matter how far the distances between them, and this makes them particularly reliable for the use of the Gatheringstone. Believe me Mallen, the connection between all the tpesh is strong, we need only find one and you will be back in safer lands."
"And what is the Word that shall activate it?"
Gremorgan lent closer to Mallen and whispered in his ear. The LoreMaster could not afford to utter the Word aloud, its power too unstable when spoken in the open. Caution demanded that it should remain a secret until such time as it was required.
"Remember the Word Mallen. At that time when you need its power most it will be ready for you."
Calling to Ansolon, Gremorgan gestured to Mallen for silence on his possession of the Gatheringstone. When the Hresh was at his side the LoreMaster changed his tone completely.
"Ansolon'Denmar, this is Mallen Cael of Callenfrey. His brother is Tomas Cael and the two women are Shemwe Sandofel and Enika Torres. These four are under my protection and from this time forward they are your responsibility as well. You are coming with me to the Horns. What I need is two of your warriors to take them to the nearest tpesh, preferably one further to the north."
Ansolon's forehead furrowed at the request but he did not care to question the LoreMaster. Instead he called to two of his fellow Hordim who presented themselves before him.
"This is Hallan'Denmar and Gehdru'Denmar, brothers of my house and Chiefs in their own right upon my passing. To them shall be given the task of taking your countrymen to tpesh'erenthel. It stands no more than fifteen leagues to the north, and although I cannot see why it must be so, they shall guide them until they succeed, or death takes them."
Gremorgan looked the two warriors over and nodded his approval. They were powerful Hresh and good enough for the task.
"We shall go our separate ways at first light then. Mallen, you must see to the needs of Shemwe and Enika. If all goes well overnight we shall depart at sunsrise.
It could not be said that in any reasonable measure the night went well. From the north a blustering gale lashed at the tundra, and the full chill of the encroaching winter descended upon the camp with a vengeance. Huddled around a small campfire the unlikely allies looked at each other across the struggling flames and wondered quietly how they had come to such a pass. Overriding all their hatreds and discomfort however, was the surety that the Clavern'sigh knew what the Denmar Hresh had been attempting and that they would not allow such disobedience to go unpunished. The dweo'gorga may have failed but it was certain that new dangers could not be far away.
Mallen sat close to Enika and tended her until the small hours of the morning. The aid given by Gremorgan had worked a marvel upon her, and although she was still weak her life had been returned to her. He had no doubt that by sunsrise she would indeed be fit to travel. As he looked about the fire he wondered on what the Hresh must be thinking. Somehow the LoreMaster had turned them to his cause, but centuries of animosity could not be erased so easily. He determined in his own mind that these creatures were now allies, but he would not trust them, and he would not expose his back carelessly to them either.
In the face of this uncertain truce Tomas had settled down, his attention turned instead to the tending of Shemwe and to catching up on all that had transpired since her kidnapping from Callenfrey. It was a tale of fire and death, and of the endless march that had left so many of her fellow captives cast aside. The night passed quickly in the telling of her long torment at the hands of the Hresh. To tell it whilst the perpetrators sat at the same fire gave it an unreal quality, one that left them all wondering where their strange alliance might ultimately lead them.
At first light the Hresh broke camp and each party of travellers prepared to go their separate ways. For the Hordim it was the start of another day, one that begun with the setting of the moons in the west, and the ritual of the enkara. Quietly the Men and Women of the South waited and then said their own goodbyes. For Mallen it was particularly painful. The LoreMaster had become a trusted friend, a comrade through many battles and trials.
"It does not bode well that you will not be with us Gremorgan. Are you certain that you wish to stay in this desolate place?"
The Dwarvendim smiled and extended his hand. "Sometimes we do not choose the paths we must take Master Cael, but I will tell you that I fully intend to return to the lands of Men. When I do you will be the first stop on my way home."
Mallen shook the LoreMaster's hand and smiled, although it was both half-hearted and anxious in its delivery. He had found Tomas and Shemwe only because of the skills and equipment brought to the chase by Gremorgan. All would have been dead but for his intervention, and he was not sure how they would survive when reliant upon the Hresh instead. As he looked about the gathering parties he knew that he would now have to return to another state of mind, one where he would need to rely upon himself alone.
As the suns of morning rose from the vast tundra in the east Gremorgan and the remaining Hresh moved off, their path leading them directly for the western horizon. In mists and blustering wind the figures soon were lost to the expanse of the cold plains, and Mallen and Tomas were left alone, but not completely.
At their backs the two Hresh stood quietly, as inscrutable as any Hordim and showing no warmth or regard for the Kalboreans they would now have to guide northwards. For a short time they all watched the others recede into the mists then turned to their own task. Tomas helped Shemwe to her feet and Mallen did the same for Enika. The night had worked a great balm upon the two women and both stood ready for the day's hard road ahead. Without any word Hallan'Denmar turned northwards and began to trek into the dissipating fogs of the morning. The Kalboreans followed and Gehdru'Denmar took up the rear.
As had been the case on so many other days the hours of daylight were spent moving, walking at a measured pace towards a horizon that was as alien as any Mallen or Tomas had seen before. About them the tundra had flattened, its terrain a cold, hard plate of frozen ground where the only anomalies of note were large upthrusts of stone that appeared infrequently upon the plains. Tall and jagged, the stones were immense in scale, set within the chilled earth as if they had been pushed through the impenetrable surface by some great power beneath.
With their knowledge of the terrain the Hresh used these massive stone fingers as navigating points, and soon the order of the party changed as the two warriors conversed on the best way forward. For the Kalboreans there was little to do except follow on, and watch closely that there was no treachery in their actions.
To their credit the Hordim did not push the party at any speed, and mindful of the weak condition of the women they kept their pace easy upon the cold ground. For the better part of a day they moved northwards in this unhurried fashion and by the morning of the second found themselves upon a ground undulating before them in an endless series of shallow hills. By the time they had travelled deep into this new landscape Shemwe and Enika had recovered most of their strength, and with that their Hresh guides increased the speed of their advance.
Quickly the party made its way further into the lands of Perdition. Before them the ground swelled like a vast ocean, frozen in time and just as cold. Upon these hills Hallan and Gehdru led the Kalboreans until they came upon a wide ridge of stone. Here Mallen recognised the weathered outline of a crater, although he could not tell what had created it. Carefully the Hresh negotiated a path through a narrow gap in the fractured rock and then came to an abrupt halt.
"We have travelled enough." Hallan said in a guttural voice. "Wait here until we return."
The two warriors moved to return back through the narrow path in the stone but Tomas stood in their way.
"Where are you going?'' he asked suspiciously. Mallen waited at his back, unsure also as to the motives of the Hordim.
Gehdru'Denmar smirked at the two Kalboreans, seemingly unmoved by any thought of the men as a threat, but Hallan raised his scimitar to the south and for the first time looked them directly in the eyes.
"For the past day we have been followed by a scouting party of Morg. They are a long way from their kraalim in the Dead Forests and they will not be alone. We will keep watch for any further sign then return. Do not worry yourself with the nature of our motives vehmin. We are concerned only with getting you safely to tpesh'erenthel and then being rid of you."
Tomas weighed the likelihood that the Hresh were telling the truth but the Hordim were inscrutable. In the end he decided that if their guides did desert them he would not mourn their absence. Quickly he stepped aside and the Hresh moved for the pathway without a further word.
"What do you think?" Asked Tomas once the Hresh had gone. "Will we see them again?"
Mallen shrugged his shoulders. "I cannot say. Their faces give no clue to their thoughts, but if Morg are on our trail it is best that we know it for sure. Come Tomas, let us find some food for the girls and get what rest we can."
Together the brothers moved back to Shemwe and Enika and found the last remaining pieces of Nahla Cake that they had brought with them. With the absence of the Hordim the Kalboreans relaxed quickly, talking easily as the day moved inexorably towards evening. It did not pass the notice of Tomas that his brother had taken a liking to Enika. He could not say if it was an inevitable bonding that came with the danger they now found themselves, but there was something in her presence that drew Mallen closely to her and he was glad of it. For far too long his brother had been focused only on survival, whether it be now, or in their lives before, and he knew it had hardened him in his expectations of what life might offer. Mallen was a survivor but it was a state of mind that was hard to overcome. He recognised Enika as the balm that might finally soften his brother to the world, and he could see it only as a good thing.
For a while they talked, mostly on what would happen when they reached the tpesh, though only Mallen knew of the key to their return to Kalborea. He had taken the LoreMaster's words as a bond and had said nothing about the Gatheringstone. Instead he enjoyed the company of his brother and their new female companions. For the first time in many days they had a moment of rest and it was a quiet that was difficult to resist. Within the wide, cratered depression there came a measure of shelter from the winds, and as they waited for the return of the Hresh all fell slowly into sleep.
Mallen felt as if he had only closed his eyes when a commotion along the path brought him back to wakefulness. Immediately he was on his feet, kicking at Tomas to wake as he reached for his weapons. From beyond the jagged gap in the stone he could hear running, and it was full of urgency.
In the half-light of the pre-dawn he readied himself, his brother also reaching for a scimitar as the women rushed to find weapons of their own. Before any could fully awaken however, the two Hresh rushed out of the shadows, a growing cacophony of shouting and yelling echoing from the path beyond. Hallan was in the lead, behind him Gehdru. From the second Hresh's shoulder there protruded two arrows.
"We found the Morg," shouted Hallan, "but I am afraid there are a few more than we had anticipated. If we are to survive this day we must run."
Without another word he scooped up his equipment and motioned the rest of the party to do the same. Pausing only to speak for a moment with Gehdru he pushed the Kalboreans northwards.
"Where must we go now?" shouted Tomas.
"To the other side of the crater. If we can get out of sight before the Morg make it through the pass we have a good chance they will not follow."
Neither of the men could see why the Morg should not continue their pursuit, but they had no time to ask. At the run the party made for the other side of the crater. In its fullest breadth it reached more than four hundred metres in extent and it took some time to traverse. Only when Mallen had made it to the other side did he take the time to look back, and it was then that he saw Gehdru, still waiting at the gap and armed with two scimitars.
When all had made it over the crest in the crater's jagged wall Hallan came to a stop and gestured for them to wait. Carefully he climbed back to the lip of the ridge and watched as a terrible scene unfolded. Curious, both Mallen and Tomas crawled up beside him.
"What is Gehdru doing?" Mallen whispered.
"He is waiting for the Morg." answered the Hresh simply. "He is injured and would only hamper your escape to tpesh'erenthel. He is instead going to ensure that the Morg do not follow."
The Kalboreans did not see how a lone warrior could withstand the assault of the other Hordim, but as Hallan did not move from his vantage they had no choice but to watch what was about to happen.
From out of the narrow gap the Morg poured into the crater. Standing at its opening stood Gehdru, and as each small creature appeared he hacked them down, cutting and tearing their flesh until a pile of bodies filled the gap's threshold. From where the men lay in hiding they could hear the screams and the frustration of the injured, but the Morg could not be stopped. From the crest above the crater wall small black figures began to appear, sliding down the steep scree slopes and onto the harder ground of the crater floor. As they fell Gehdru advanced upon them, slicing at them with his scimitars and throwing their own spears at any who might attempt to close with the warrior.
Carefully and methodically the Hresh continued the slaughter, using his strength and skill to cut down as many of the diminutive Hordim as he could, but as the battle's intensity increased the Morg were able to form an effective resistance by sheer numbers alone. Forming into a battle unit, a group of more than a hundred of the creatures closed in upon Gehdru and for all his skill he fell beneath their number, disappearing within a tangle of dead bodies and flashing blades.
For a moment the Kalboreans said nothing. The Hresh had fought a courageous and futile battle though Hallan seemed well pleased with the outcome.
"What is it you are not telling us Hallan?" Mallen whispered to the warrior.
The Hresh looked at the Kalborean and slid down the edges of the ridge. When he hit hard ground he sheathed his blade and hoisted his pack upon his shoulders. Only for a moment did he wait for the others to ready themselves then he spoke.
"The Morg are spiteful and lazy creatures. They will not pursue an enemy if there is a chance they can first find out where they are going. Gehdru put himself in their path so that he would have a chance to kill as many of them as possible. Enraged by the loss of their brothers the Morg will not kill, instead they will set to torture and spend time at it. My brother Gehdru is not dead. He will have been subdued and bound, and when the main units of the Morg arrive he will be put to torment, their hope that he will give up our destination, and in doing so make their pursuit easier."
Both Tomas and Mallen looked at each other, each undecided as to whether they should be appalled at the callous use of Gehdru, or grudgingly impressed at the bravery of his sacrifice. Neither wanted to think what was going to happen to the Hresh, but both knew that he had saved their lives.
"And how long shall he hold out under such torment?" asked Mallen.
Hallan cast his eyes to the sky, its blue vault darkening now towards evening. For a moment he paused then turned to the north.
"The Morg are skilled at what they do but Gehdru is stronger than most. He will resist the Morg's efforts and not succumb until mid-afternoon. By that time they will have lost patience, and as the information they seek will not be forthcoming they will kill him. Only then will the Morg return to the hunt. If the True Witness looks kindly upon us we will have reached tpesh'erenthel before then and Gehdru's sacrifice will have been worthwhile."
The warrior took a moment to stand in the cool wind and then motioned for all to follow. In the growing light of the new day they went carefully forward.
Under a dome of brilliant blue the small party ran into the north. At the lead was Hallan, alone now in his mission to take the Kalboreans to tpesh'erenthel. Behind him his charges ran, keeping pace in the cold air as he navigated his way towards the Hills of Erenthel. Within the smooth slopes of the ancient mounds would be the tpesh they sought, and although he would say nothing he knew what they were going to do once they were there.
Eight hundred seasons had passed for Hallan'Denmar in the long course of his life, and in that time he had learned many things. It was with the Living Book at Shalamai that he had been told of the Gatheringstones. The ancient Hresh, who all the Denmar had known simply as the old Book, had lived since the Great Insurrection and much knowledge had been passed to him over the years. Not the least of his knowledge was the Lore surrounding the talismans and devices of the Fallen Masters, and of those artifacts Hallan had spent much time learning of the powers they gave to those who were privy to their secrets. Prudently the old Book had not given him the Word that would activate them, but he had explained what each could do. If these vehmin had one in their possession it would be a boon worth the dishonour of killing them for.
It was a thought however, that he quickly discounted. He was sub-chief of the Denmar now that Gehdru had fallen to the Morg, and he had greater responsibilities to consider. Duty required he follow Ansolon's orders to the letter, and although it pained him to do so he would complete the mission. In his mind though, the thought lingered, discounted and withdrawn but there nonetheless.
Behind him the Kalboreans kept pace, the morning air cool and crisp as they ran. Soon the plains returned as a wide, perfectly flat expanse, but ahead the grey silhouettes of a higher range of hills rose into view. These were the Hills of Erenthel and without stopping the party made a line directly for the highest point in their dark undulation.
By midday the hills had risen so that their great slopes obscured more than half of the horizon. By early afternoon the party stood at their base, and it was only then that Hallan brought them all to a halt. As they caught their breath he pointed towards the loose, rocky slopes.
"Here are the Hills of Erenthel. Within a saddle of ground between the two highest points of their rise can be found the tpesh you seek. I will take you to the entrance of the shelter and then my task is done. Once you have entered do not come back out."
"Why not?" asked Tomas.
"Because vehmin, my orders are to deliver you to the tpesh safely. Nothing has been said of any protection being offered once that is done. If you come out of the shelter I will kill you and leave your bodies to the Kreel."
It was a threat that Tomas did not appreciate, and although he was well disposed to test the Hresh's mettle he held back. Mallen interjected quickly to change the subject.
"How long will it take to reach the tpesh, Hallan? If you are right the Morg will now be on our trail once again."
The warrior nodded. "If we begin now we will find the tpesh within the hour. The hills are widespread but the highest of their range is close."
"Then we should start now." spoke Shemwe. "The sooner we are out of these lands the better it will be for all."
Stopping only to recover their breath the party were soon climbing precariously across the slopes of the ancient hills. Long ago the Hills of Erenthel had lost any vegetation that might have held them together. Now nothing more than broken stone and grit the slopes proved to be a moving mass of rock that had to be negotiated carefully. Hallan knew what he was doing however, and by a process of the careful use of boulders and old pathways was able to find a way onto the upper ridges of the Hills. From there they moved carefully, and it was as they climbed higher that Mallen began to notice the signs that others had trodden the same paths. Soon it was undeniable that other Hresh had followed the same trail only hours before.
Hallan noticed Mallen's scrutiny of the trail and paused. "Yes, there have been others here. I fear that we may not find the tpesh abandoned, and because of it we must go all the more carefully."
The morning wore on and the winds grew stronger. Soon a strong bluster had taken hold of the hills, sending plumes of fine grit billowing across the stony ridges, obscuring the trail and blinding the party in their advance. Only Hallan could find his way, and in the grip of the blizzard of rushing dirt and dust the Kalboreans were forced to take hold of the Hresh as he guided them along the narrow paths.
Buffeted by chilling winds, and stumbling against the loose, unstable terrain their climb into the Hills proved a tortuous route, one that eventually brought the party to a sharp ridge of jagged rock. Here Hallan again stopped and climbed up the ridge to peer into a wide depression that spread beyond. All of the Kalboreans followed him, finding vantages between large upthrusts of stone where they could also survey the open area ahead.
Cradled between two high points of land lay a wide saddle of bare earth. At the centre of this saddle stood the domed roof of a small tpesh, but any elation that might have been felt at its discovery disappeared at the sight of the huge Horde encampment that surrounded it. Filling the entire plateau lay the tents and activity of at least six hundred Hresh, and at all sides more were filing into the camp. Mallen looked to their guide and he could see the Hresh smile.
"What are we to do now?" he whispered to Hallan.
The warrior shrugged his shoulders. "It would seem that we have a problem, but do not worry I will think of something."
Mallen slid down the face of the ridge and then helped Enika. They were now no more than a few hundred metres from the tpesh, and between them and safety stood an entire Hordim army. As he waited for Hallan to make his way down from the ridge he wondered where Gremorgan was, and felt all the more keenly his absence. As the wind cut across the crumbling slopes he looked to his brother, and realised that their safety now depended on the trustworthiness and intelligence of an enemy warrior. In truth he did not know what to do.
End of Episode 15
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