Karak Azgaraz

MALAHAN

[Travelling by magic in winter, Malahan gains a glimpse of mortality]

Mallaen’en A’llonurhan waded through the snow-swept forest, hunched against the bitter cold. The wind was ringing off snap-frozen branches like chimes, and his breath puffed through his face-wrap in leaden clouds. It was achingly bright. His slanted eyes streamed, melting through the charcoal he’d applied against snow-blindness. The elf was pacing back and forth through the menhirs of a stone circle, stopping from time to time to squint at the sky. Neither sun nor cloud could be discerned overhead, only eye-watering whiteness and roaring wind. He turned on his heel again and blew out a long breath, reciting to himself. Elevation was right, the season was right. He was high on a windswept glacier in the Grey Mountains and here were the standing stones. And though hidden by the encompassing glare, he assured himself that southward in the distance, lay the enchanted realm of Athel Loren itself. There was just one problem.

Back and forth he went, rhyming under his breath, his wolfskin ruffling in the wind.

“Bring ye no iron, no tools of fire-making, come ye at zenith…” he glanced again at the haze overhead and thinned his lips.

“…something something forsaking.”

He sat down miserably in the snow. He would have sworn on his life that he remembered the ritual rhyme when he set out.

Spilling out the contents of his slingbag into the snow, he pawed through them, examining each object with aching eyes. His flint and steel, an animal trap and two metal knives already sat wrapped in hollow stump nearby, though strictly speaking they were steel, not iron. He had also ‘forsaken’ his twine and bone needles, chalk and rope just to be safe. But the stones still stood there dumbly, waiting for something. He added his wineskin to the pile in the snow and tried walking through the stones again. When nothing happened, he spat a creative Reikspiel curse he’d overheard once on the docks.

“Stop that,” said a croaking voice.

The elf swung around, startled to come face-to-face with a haggard looking spriggan. It was peering around the tallest stone with a wretched expression, it’s buds withdrawn and it’s limbs entwined with the bare roots clinging to the menhir. It glared at him.

“Speake notte in the tree-lopper’s foul tongue.” It sounded like fowul ton-geh in it’s alien accent.
“I am … sorry,” said the elf. “I thought there was something wrong with - ”

“There’s nothing wrong with my door!” It snapped, cutting him off. “Save that fools like you keep knocking at it!”

The elf was taken aback. “I … I wish to use your doorway, spriggan. Let me pass.”

“Elfkind may use the doors freely,” said the spriggan begrudgingly. “But get rid of your whistler!”

“Get rid of … my what?”

“Your whistler, your sing-string,” it insisted, pointing accusingly at a thong of leather on the elf’s belt.

“This is a sling.”

“No musical instruments through my doorway!”

“It's not - was it not iron and flint?”

“No!” Spat the spriggan. “It’s musical instruments and paper I can’t stand. I taught you people the rhyme so we wouldn’t have this problem every time.”

“Paper doesn’t rhyme with - ”

“It rhymes in Old Elvish, dimwit!”

Rather than argue, the elf unwound the sling and dropped it in the snow. Showing his hands to the spriggan, he stepped through the stones and instantly into the sweet, warm air of a glade in springtime.
Bathed in bright starlight, three elves sat around a merrily crackling fire. The campsite had a powerful dreamlike quality, surrounded by lush grass and golden woods. This was the londevand, the stepping-off-point. From here, any Asrai could traverse the World Roots, emerging anywhere the melrynn grew.

The elves looked up from their wine at his arrival, greeting him warmly in eltharin. Two were apparently twin brothers, who happily introduced themselves. The other was a strangely ghostly elf, who sat in silent contemplation.

“Summer’s blessings to you! We are Castal Han’ithilliell and Illithrain Dol’halmielle, of Westward-Looking-White-Oak-High-on-a-Hill. This is our uncle Sylvir Del’illnor.” They bowed.

“I am Mallaen’en O’lonurohan,” he said, relieved to be out of the blizzard. Shaking snow from his cloak onto the grass, he nodded, but eyed the ghostly elf. Privately, he was slightly disturbed to see an elf looking visibly tired. He joined them at the fireside, unslinging his longbow as the young elves began sharing the tale of their journey. They were travelling east to a far-flung Asrai community in forested mountains, apparently accompanying the ghostly elf to visit his birthplace.

“It is good fortune to meet you here Mallaen’en A’llonurhan,” said one of the twins. “It has been lonely going on our journey so far, with only our taciturn uncle for company.”

“Please, call me Malahan.”

“Aha! See brother! Here is another who has also been among men!”

Malahan looked quizzically at them.

“Only those who spend long years among men have the habit of discarding their full names,” one twin explained. “I hear it is because their lives are so short," said the other. "They have too few precious moments to fully commit to politeness and ceremony.”

Malahan shrugged. “It is an efficient practice.”

He listened idly to a long, enthusiastic speculation between the twins on the strange traits of men. Glancing from time to time at the dead-eyed elf, Malahan performed upkeep on his bowstring and supplies, but the natter gradually wore on his patience. Finally, he interrupted, cutting across an absurd theory about human alcohol.

“Gods above, please, enough. My journey has been long and taxing. I welcome your hospitality, but I cannot abide nonsense. Were there none among your folk who had spent time among the humans, to disabuse you of such tall tales?”

There was a chastised silence, as the twins glanced at their white-haired uncle. “Our honoured uncle Sylvir Del’illnor was long and often among humans. Once, our village looked to him for wisdom on their ways, so often did our folk mingle. But since his most recent return, he … he has worn the man-mark too heavily. His mind wanders often. The elders say now we should take warning, and treat no more with humans. Our uncle now asks only to be returned to his hometree.”

“What do you mean, ‘man-mark’? What is that?”

The elves looked at each other, confused.

“Is this not known in your forest?” ventured one twin reluctantly. “That our kin are somehow … burdened by the company of men? It … sits upon them like a weight. Our uncle said it was something like the running of a long hunt, without refreshment, without rest. Sylvir Del’illnor showed it first after six winters in ‘Middenlande’. I .. don’t know what else to call it but 'man-mark'.”

Malahan gazed at the pale elf, realizing that it wasn’t weariness they were struggling naively to describe.

“It is age,” he thought with private horror. “He’s aging”.

One of the twins gestured suddenly, his eyes wide, pointing to Malahan’s shoulder. “It is that! There!”

Startled, Malahan brushed his shoulder. He saw a thread of starlight gleaming, catching a lone silver hair in his slender hands.

“Man-mark,” breathed the elf. He looked at Malahan, his eyes wide. “You said your mission for Athel Loren takes you back into Reiklande … how many winters will it require?”

“Many,” breathed Malahan. “Many.”

DIETER

[Patience pays off when a Skaven accomplice incriminates himself]

With the hiss of mighty bellows, fresh, hot water belched through the grates into the dwarven baths. Clouds of steam boiled up from the great heated pools, beading on the walls and coiling off the bare, pink flesh of the towel-clad clientele. The baths hummed with the rush and trickle of water, muffling the grunts and grumbles of old dwarves percolating in the pools. The air echoed with the slap of bare feet on stone, and the sizzle of herbal vapours cooking off coals.

In a secluded steamroom, two dwarves lounged with a shady-looking man, drinking from tumblers of schnapps. All three displayed tattoos, crude prison-marks on the hands, neck and chest. From time to time, patrons in search of a seat would peer into the steamroom; one look at the trio would convince them to keep on searching. The rangy, fox-like human was speaking in low, urgent tones, trying to convince the dwarves of his latest initiative. The dwarves were thinking deeply, running gnarled hands with heavy rings through their beards.

“We’re not talking about a vault or a strongroom here,” murmured the man, guesting with wiry arms. “These caravans are barely guarded. There are so many starving wolves out there, no one wants to risk the journey just for a few extra francs. I’m not saying famine," he purred, dropping his voice. "But put it this way; conditions would be ripe for distributors of fine quality cuts, to set new, progressive prices.”

“Say we worked with you again, Wengel” growled one dwarf in flinty Reikspeil. “Say we believed that the return would justify causing a damned food crisis in our own city … don’t you think they’d recognise their own stolen cattle at market?”

“Ah,” beamed Wengel. “That’s where I come in. You’d be selling meat, not cattle. I’ve got a little bolt-hole we’d use to house the herds for the winter. Just when the snow starts to melt, and ten thousand hungry dwarves are salivating for a nice cut of steak, in you march with mule-train of fresh-slaughtered stock. You’d beat every other trader through the Pass by weeks, and set the price you like.” He clicked his fingers.

“What bolt-hole are you talking about?”

“Well, that’s my business.”

“If you’ve got somewhere safe enough and close enough to the city, that’s an important -”

“Look, keeping the cattle is my risk, Drolli. It’s my plan, my gang and my bolt-hole. All I ask from you is a sellers’ license at the end of winter. That’s why it’d be an 80-20 split.”

The dwarves looked scandalised, but before they could break into haggling, a clear voice cut dramatically across the steamroom.

“You have a rat in your ranks, gentlemen.”

The criminals' heads turned. A young man had swaggered into the sauna, dark, wet hair plastered around his face. He was holding his towel in place around his waist, and was bandaged at the hip, knee and shoulder. Otherwise, he wore only a rakish grin.

“Do I know you?” snapped Wendel, his teeth bared.

“You do actually. Dieter Von Kadler, at your service.”

The dwarves looked at Wendel, who shrugged. “Means nothing to me.”

“So what the fuck are you doing here,” growled Drolli.

Dieter laughed. “I asked myself that quite often recently, but as it turns out, there really is nothing like hot water for healing. Physicians orders, mate,” he said, seeing their baffled expressions. “I took an injury in battle and could hardly put weight on my right hip.” He demonstrated with a few tender steps. “Much better now, as you can see.”

Druki stood up. He was head and shoulders shorter than Dieter, but probably twice the heft and menace. They circled each other slightly as the man carried on his monologue.

“Hot water is also best for mulling over information,” said the man with emphasis. “Really letting the pieces simmer together. Because there's something that has bothered me all these weeks, something I heard in an interrogation.”

Druki stopped. He had their attention now.

“Not many Thanes see the value in keeping thagaraki captives. You’re lucky here to have Thane Thunderstone. It turns out that one of the creatures in his dungeons was a messenger, roughly speaking. Of course they'd hardly ever know anything about their masters plans, but they sometimes know things - for instance - about dead-drops, where where coin is exchanged for information from human accomplices.”

He shook his head, taking a step towards Wengel.

“Hard to imagine the sort of scum willing to do deals with these creatures.”

Wengel stared beadily back at him, mouth curled into a sneer. “What’s your point, boy?”

“The point is the dead-drop! So interesting! Where could it be? Somewhere close to the fortress surely, no more than a day or two from a settlement, and accessible both from the Copper Road and underground. And I thought; ‘If I were an accomplice to these things, I don’t think I’d even want my lowest, foulest criminal mates to know about it’. As I see it, even the most snake-bellied filth would have to think before crossing that line. So then; somewhere it’s not too suspicious to visit, ideally a place you could stay overnight in order to get a private moment. And it occurred to me, I actually know a place just like that.”

He pointed dramatically, enjoying the captive audience.

“A place you and your pack of bandit cunts sent us, hoping we'd be fucking killed. Zanbar!”

There was a faint look of recognition on Wendel's face, but Drolli interrupted the flow.

“Listen lad,” he said calmly, still lounging like a predator on the sauna bench. “This has been entertaining, but fuck off now, or we’ll fucking kill you. If you don’t, we’ll cut you up and leave you in here for the cleaners to find.”

Dieter smiled tightly. “Your kinsmen don’t allow weapons in here.”

The criminals hooted with laughter, and Drolli produced a knife from under his towel. He rolled it around in tattooed hands.

“Our folk are also too polite to be checking under another dwarf’s towel. You’d be amazed what you could smuggle in here, lad.”

“You know, that occurred to me as well.”

Dieter let his towel drop, raising a gleaming pistol. He stood there naked, pointing it at the frozen criminals. All his playfulness was gone.

"Careful mate, you’re still outnumbered," drawled Wendel.

"Only if these fine dwarves feel like risking a bullet. I don't need them. Just you.”

An edge of uncertainty crept into the bandit's expression, and his eyes flicked sideways to the sweating dwarves. He chuckled, feigning confidence.

“It’s a matter of honour ain’t it, always is with dwarves. Druki and Drolli are my mates. There is honour among thieves, you know.”

“Is that the saying? Are you sure?”

The dwarves looked doubtful, neither moving towards Dieter.

Dieter leaned towards Wendel. Though buck nude, his expression was fierce and deadly.

“What I recon is, these fellows didn't know about your little side business with the thagaraki. Maybe that puts your plan about food shortages into a different perspective. Now, of course you deny it and it’s only my word against yours. But even so, it all shifts the balance a little as they weigh up whether to risk a bullet for you, doesn’t it?”

He gestured with the pistol as he spoke, and Wendel’s eyes followed the barrel, muscles taut and trembling. He played a last desperate hand, stuttering as he spoke.

“This is a f-fucking bath-house! It’s t-too damp in here for that thing to fire!”

“Yes, that occurred to me too. I’d say it’s about 50-50."

He cranked the hammer with relish. “But really, how lucky do you feel today?”

WILLIAM

[William sees a bright side of mundane priestly duties]

Candle lights bobbed and glimmered in the darkness, like angler fish lures in the deep. Swimming out of the icy cold below, the lights gleamed off the carven steps and spiral markings of the cavernous chamber. The lanterns creaked gently on their long poles, swaying with each step as the clan Illuminators ascended the stairs from the Upmost Gate. Following behind them, his scarf and cloak gathered tightly around his face, came a Warrior Priest of the Empire of Man. He sniffed glumly.

The dwarves led him through a vast hall of columns, where the winter wind shrilled through artfully sculpted tines of stone. Gradually, they approached the great yawning arches, through which snow was lightly falling from a pale sky.

“An honour to guide you king-sworn, from deep stone to high stair,” intoned the Illuminator in his careful, gravelly Reikspeil. “Unto the door, as Thrimbrakul came to Wolfgang and renewed the Old Friendship of Dwarves and Men.”

William gritted his teeth through the rest of the ritualised farewell, impatient to be away from the stuffy old dwarves. His efforts to learn about weapon-smithing had been politely rebuffed for weeks, despite maddening hours of entreaty in the lightless city below. Never mind his personal heroism at Battle of the Frugelhorn, or that dwarven craft had sacred significance to his order; for his gracious endurance of days on end with only dim dwarven candles to see by, he deserved any trove of secrets he could possibly ask for.

Hurrying away, he crossed below the towering arches and down a great expanse of steps. Spread out before him in the crook of the mountain’s arm, the trading post of Steptown sheltered in the mighty fortress courtyard. After the ringing silence and echoes of Karaz Azgaraz, William slipped into it’s crowds and clamour like a warm bath. Winter vegetables, butchers’ cuts, woodwork and furs were hawked alongside fine metal items with ingenious workmanship. Stern-eyed vendors displayed trade tools, silverware, wondrous clocks and polished crossbows. Signs everywhere read; ‘Dwarven Crafts; Commissions Only’. Nudging through the haggling flocks of merchants and middlemen, William spotted a small group of burghers. They were evidently waiting for him, one immediately pointing and calling out for his attention; “Holy father! Holy father!”

Grimacing, he pretended not to hear them. He altered course, ducking low and crab-walking alongside a moving cart, peering through the bodywork. He could see the townsfolk moving towards him, searching the crowd. Sidestepping a Bretonnian envoy and two surly porters, he hustled down an alleyway and onto the next street. Down the road, he knew of a filthy tavern where he could wait out the pursuit.

Even outside the main fortress gates, the little trading post of Steptown was protected by the walls and patrols of Karaz Azgaraz. In the decades since the richest ores and jewels had dwindled, the city had turned to an increasingly broad trade with the lands of Men. Steptown had blossomed from few wagons and tents at the foot of the entrance, into a rickety but prosperous town. Unfortunately, very few priests had reason to make the dangerous journey up Grey Lady Pass; when not on his fruitless trips to see the Guild of Smiths, William had spent much of his winter dodging endless requests to officiate marriages, solemnise wills and provide spiritual counsel to squabbling couples. It was precisely the sort of work he took up the hammer to evade.

Suddenly, one of the suppliants popped out of an alley ahead of him, her head swiveling. He swore as she spotted him and started to holler. He went to bolt in the opposite direction, but it was no use. The rest of them were appearing behind him, cornering him in the street. A pair of plate-armoured dwarven sentries watched with amusement as the gaggle closed around him, breaking into an excited chatter.

“My ox is going lame father, he needs yer’ blessing!”

“Me lad won’t say his prayers father, won’t ye come set him right?”

“Me old nan was buried last winter father, but ain’t no one said proper prayers yet!”

As the light snow swirled overhead and candles were kindled in the foggy windows, they dickered back and forth.

“I am a warrior priest, not your bloody town vicar,” he growled, but they couldn’t be dissuaded.

Losing the bare reign on his temper, William was about to unleash a particularly vulgar outburst when he spotted a bundle of gleaming weapons in the arms of one of the burghers. The grubby, soot-stained lad was clutching a leather roll of gorgonite shortswords, their etched, geometric blades not yet scabbarded. Almost lost for words, William dropped the argument and nudged through the crowd. He ran a hand over meticulous runic inlay.

“Where did you get these, friend,” he asked in wonder. In weeks, he’d barely been allowed to see such a fine weapon, let alone handle one in the street.

“I work at old Coalbelly’s Smithy,” said the fellow. “I’m takin’ ‘em down to be scabbarded.”

“Your master sells these? He’s willing to sell to humans?”

“Aye father, why ever not?”

“I was told that that ancient custom forbade the sale of runic weapons, save to dwarves.”

The apprentice laughed. “Oh aye, but these aren’t rune weapons. They ain’t even dwarf-made, on account of I made em’.”

“You made this?”

“Me master says I’m not fit to make horseshoes, an’ he sets me to makin’ the swords on account of swords ‘not bein’ fit for dwarves to wield, let alone forge.’”

Looking at the pure condition of the steel, William’s mind turned over.

“Could you make me a hammer of this quality?”

The apprentice laughed again. “Quality? I’m almost embarrassed to let folk see em’. I'd give it a go father, it’d sure be a welcome change from these old things. Only the strain is, my nuptials are approachin’ and I’m on extra duties to afford the trappings. So I’m afraid I couldnae commit …”

The townsfolk burst simultaneously into exasperated crosstalk, surprising the sooty fellow. William raised his hands and smiled to quiet them. He'd suddenly discovered a mercantile streak.

“Now hold on there, hold on. I see a brewess, a chandler and a herdsman here, all useful professions to supply a wedding. Perhaps someone would like to stake the lad’s time, and in exchange some choice prayers could - ”

Ferocious bidding began at once.

LUDOLPH

[Who pays the Pied Piper?]

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