Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ghost Story

As I've gotten older, I've realised that a lot of what I thought of as memories were no such thing. The first time it happened, it was an odd moment of clarity, telling a friend about a childhood anecdote involving a treehouse. I vividly remember the tree, and to this day, if visiting my childhood home, I could walk you to it.

The thing is, I have never built or been involved in the building of a treehouse, ever.

I'm terrified of heights. It's pretty much the only actual fear I have, and just for a moment, I remembered that the treehouse was never real, and even if it was, I doubt I would have ever gone up in it.

I remember it being huge. Too big really, for the tree, but it needed to be for all the people that were in it. I remember the people; childhood friends and relatives, all of them real people, and most of them lived close enough to the house near the tree that it made sense for them to have joined me there for some childhood fun and games.

Some of the people though, mad no business there, and certainly no business with me. So, it wasn't real, even though it was vivid, and I must have day dreamed about many times after its initial creation in my sleeping imagination.

Then there's my Auntie's house, which for years I recalled had a huge grass slope leading down to it from the street. It was gargantuan, and terrifying; the kind of hill that would halt a charge of a battalion of foot. In reality, there was a small patch of green.

Sure, it was on a slope, but there was no way me and my cousins could have rolled and slid down down it in huge groups, whooping and hollering with unbridled exuberance. They might not all have been my cousins, the dozens of children who joined in our games, but I recognised enough of them, that for years, I thought we had dared the monstrous slope for no other reason than it was there.

There's another memory I really hope isn't real. You see, I'm sceptical, rational, don;t believe in the supernatural and I cannot stand even vaguely superstitious behaviour. It's that very rationality that means I can't quite convince myself this memory isn't real, even though it seems so unreal to me.

Once again, it's back to my childhood. We moved around little as my dad got better jobs and could afford better houses, and when he hit paydirt, he got a mortgage on a brand new semi detached on the outskirts of a city in the Midlands. Everything was new about the area, with the far end of our road being one of the furthest points you could get out of the city centre and still be part of the city.

Our house had been completed only a few months earlier, and the lot next door was for a bungalow under construction. There was no fence or locked gates stopping all the kids who lived nearby from playing on the building site, just a couple of A4 signs and the disapproval of any adults who were not working during the summer days we'd climb scaffolding and jump onto piles of sand.

It wasn't the only house under construction, and on the opposite side of the small green that we used to play rounders on - pile of jackets for home base, and three very randomly placed trees from the other bases - there was a few old houses that were lined up to be demolished to make room for modern housing in the affluent area we'd moved in to.

Like the building sites, there were signs on the doors forbidding entrance. Like the building sites, the signs did nothing to dissuade us from exploring.

I was in infant school at the time, but other than knowing I wasn't in the first year, I couldn't tell you how old I was. A lot of childhood memories have a nebulous position in time though, so the fact that I can't remember exactly when this happened, isn't enough to convince me it did not in fact happen.

There were other people who explored the house. There would have had to have been though; I was too young to plan something like this. My sister was two years older than me  - still is, really - so she might have instigated it, but I think it might have been one of the neighbor kids.

A couple of doors down a family had moved in before us out of Belfast. They had three daughters, Shelley, who was my age, Stacey who was a couple of years younger, so wasn't involved in this, and Sam. Sam was a bit older than my sister, and even as a kid that young, I crushed on her from pretty much the first time I met her.

If any of you bring up that it's probably her fault that I've had a thing for girls with Irish accents ever since, you wouldn't be far wrong.

Sam, although still in single digits age wise herself, had the air of an elder stateswoman with all the kids who lived nearby. She was taller than all of them, even the boys, and her family had moved in before most others on the street. I can't be sure, but it makes a lot of sense that she'd have been the one to suggest breaking in to one of the abandoned houses.

She was old enough that most of the kids would have gone along with the idea, even though the houses were scary, and our youthful imaginations had already started creating the kinds of myths that would ensure we should go nowhere near the property, if they were actually true. The thrill of proving that we weren't scared was another factor, and in my case, I would have done almost anything to impress Sam.

There was another kid there too. I think he was called Matthew. When I was in high school, and for long complicated reasons was back in the same house, I went to the same school as Matthew, and wanted to ask him if he remembered what happened in the house. That first time he saw me though, he looked at me like we'd never met.

"Spooky", you're probably thinking, but I was disastrously uncool through all of highschool, so more than likely it was a simple defense mechanism that stopped him admitting he knew me as a kid. I wanted to talk to him about it, rather than the girls or my sister, because we had never been friends, and I thought I could trust him to tell me the truth,

My sister, being who she is, would have just wound me up, made me out to be an idiot, regardless of whether what I remember happening ha actually happened; she'd just that kind of person. I couldn't ask Sam, because if it was all a figment of my imagination, I'd look like a fool in front of her, and Shelley gre up to be part of the cool crowd, and even though she was friendly enough around our parents, she was more than distant at school. Talking to her even about classes we shared got me a scornful look, so something like this, something so weird... No.

It was sunny when we went across the green, a few distant clouds maybe, but as warm as you wanted a summer school holiday to be. Sam and her sister lived two doors down from us, and if their parents or ours had been at any front facing windows, they would have seen us, opened a window and shouted us back as crossed the road on the far side of the green, admonishing us for attempting something so daft. We wouldn't have been in real trouble though, as we would have been stopped from doing anything actually wrong.

The road was badly maintained over there, nobody lived in the houses, and until new builds were put up, only work vehicles needed to get where we were going. There was no pavement on the side of the road with the old empty buildings. The house we had chosen had a garden wall and a gate with peeling red paint. There had been a latch at some point, you could see the holes in the rotting wood where it had been screwed in place, but without it, a quick push and we were through, walking the short path to the door.

With no one to tend it, the garden had long been reclaimed by the wild plants that filled the nearby fields. With the cows that grazed those fields, the grass was higher than I was. Sam was at the front of our advance party, and she was excited to see that the door was unlocked and partly open.

Was there a reason she hadn't used the door handle? It wasn't really a handle though, a doorknob, old and worn brass. Who knows why she didn't use? Instead she planted her hand firmly on the no trespassing sign that had been tacked to the door and pushed it open.

As bright and joyous as it was outside, it was a shadowy and dust filled inside. The door opened up onto a dim hallway, the living room at the end and a door on either side. The right hand side door was closed. Nobody even touched the door. The pale wood was unremarkable, but no so much that we would ignore it.

We did though, as if that part of the house wasn't even there. On the left, with gloomy light seeping in through small pains of dirty glass, we could see the kitchen. No formica work surfaces or stainless steel wash basin. It was old wood, warped with damp and neglect, a thin veneer peeling from every panel.

The light was so dulled, I couldn't tell you the colours of the cupboards, or the broken mugs that had fallen from them. The broken remains of who knows what crockery littered the floor, but the threat of small cuts on sharp shards would not dissuade us from our mission!

All of us crowded into the kitchen, and it did feel like a crowd, even though there was less than half a dozen of us, and we were all slim. The kitchen in our new house was twice this size! We laughed a little, feeling sorry for the people who had moved on from here, but mostly just being spiteful, like pretty much all kids are. Monsters, really.

It was three floors, with likely a cellar, and almost certainly had a loft too. Not just that, but it was almost as wide as the building we lived in, which was two house, a set of semi detached homes. I couldn't tell you how far back it went, but the kitchen wasn't just small, it was too small. We should have had more room to move.

Shelley saw the spider first, and although it's going to sound sexist, she responded in pretty much the manner you'd expect a young girl to. The scream was a shriek, and she lunged away, colliding with my sister who fell hard against Matthew, who stumbled on something, got his foot caught in between the legs of a chair that had been left on the floor, and went down.

One of the joys of being a child is how much you bounce; bend rather than break, when you hit something. If a grown up had taken the spill he did, it would have meant more than a bruised hip and a sprained wrist. He fell with a thud, and if he had a dozen more years on him, and the extra weight that went along with it, I think he'd have broken that arm.

The sprain was enough for him to start crying too though, joining Shelley, even if his cries were of a more bubbling snot filled nature. My sister helped him up, and the simple brownian motion of people in a confined space had moved me closer to the sink.

It was huge, and white, cracked porcelain, stained with watermarks and soap scum, grime running from the overflow to the drain, and in the bottom was the biggest spider I've ever seen,

I don't mean up until that point, as a child, I mean, ever. I mean bigger than anything I've seen on TV that wasn't a puppet or computer generated effect. I've seen big spiders since, but the kind you see crawling up walls in this part of the world are more leg than anything else, and apart from any initial shock of seeing one when you wouldn't expect it - killed one with a TV remote once that snuck up on me while I was watching Pinky and the Brain - spiders don't really bother me.

Hell, I'd rather spiders than flies, so live and let live is what I say!

This was a horror movie spider though. A huge, segmented body, almost completely hidden by thick hair. Not hidden enough though, and as it moved, lazily trying, no doubt for at least the thousandth time, to find purchase on the smooth porcelain, I could see it's joints slide against each other.

There was something robotic about the movements, like machined joints, working perfectly, smooth metal sliding over worked plastic, but it was definitely alive, and that made it worse. Have you ever seen a spider face up close and personal?

I didn't need to be close, it seemed so huge that it took up the entire front half of the thing. Before I could even take in the details, I knew why Shelley had screamed. Just as languidly as it's legs moved, bits of its face did the same. Mandibles, raising and lowering, as if it was chewing something slowly, but with no bottom jaw, no mouth at all that I could see. Slow, but deliberate, and never stopping.

This is one of those moments that feels so damned cliche as I'm typing, but cliches become such for a reason I guess. It could only have been seconds, but it felt a lot longer.

Gah! I know exactly how that sounds! I swear though, I'm writing exactly what I remember, as much of it as I can, and I promise, I was transfixed by the thing. As I watched, it tried again to move up, and lost its grip, rolling slightly sideways and towards me, exposing more of the face, more of the eyes.

Gravity isn't a slow force, and it didn't have far to fall, no matter how big it was, so I'm talking about seconds passing. The amount of movement I saw though, must have taken minutes; each step with a couple of long, multipart legs, each bite that looked soft but unrelenting must have taken minutes.

The fact that everyone else was scrambling not only out of the kitchen, but back down the hall, it could only have been seconds though.

Their footsteps on the floorboards wasn't enough to jolt me out of my observation, but when the front door slammed shut again, I didn't jump a little. I heard them leaving, wailing and screaming, but already tinged with laughter at what had happened. They were on their way out, they didn't need to be scared by the thing in the sink.

I could see them through the window, just about, being as short as I was. They were pushing and pulling each other, trying to be the first away from the house of horrors, seemingly not aware that they were a man down. Being left behind was a common occurrence in my childhood, and even back then, I never even thought to be disappointed by them forgetting me.

The spider hadn't scared me like it had everyone else. I can't say it didn't bother me. Even thinking back to it has my skin crawling in such a fashion that I've brushed my hand down the back of my legs twice, sure I could feel something gentle moving against my skin inside my jeans. I hadn't ran though, I hadn't screamed and fell, [ushing my friends in panic, and that meant I was alone.

I couldn't bring myself to stay in the kitchen though, even if I didn't want to leave the house. It was still moving, and the silence of it was unnerving.

Leaving the kitchen, the door opposite a blank in my memory now; had I tried to open it but found it locked? Had I thought about it all as I turned left and carried on towards the living room?

This room was bigger, and felt more like a part of the house I had seen from outside. The bay windows were made of small panes of glass, like the kitchen, but a lot were cracked and broken. It didn't seem to help the room get any lighter though, but maybe it was just because even more dust seemed to hang in the air.

You've heard the thing about dust, right? It's skin.

I mean, like most great stories, that's not true. It's mostly just dirt particles, and back then, I was too young to have either heard the story, or to have know, macabre as it was, it wasn't true. One thing that did occur to me though, was that dust meant people. Even with a few broken windows, the movement of air wasn't enough to keep this much dust floating eerily through the darkness.

You don't see light. What you see is what light touches, and the amount of particles in the air meant I could see each beam, frozen perfectly in front of me as I stepped on to the thin, threadbare carpet. It seemed that all the light could do, was shine of the dust, as shadow had taken over the rest of cavernous space.

Another couple of steps, each creaking a floorboard as my weight moved and I stopped again, hoping to see my friends through this window, but they had gone by now. The next squeak had my heart in my throat. I was still. Maybe I'd gone on tiptoes to see further, maybe that had caused the squeak?

And when I managed to lower myself down, the floorboard must have moved again against dry wood, and that was what had caused the noise.

If it wasn't me, if the noise was caused by something else, I wasn't alone. I was alone, they'd run off after the spider, and even though I couldn't see where they had run off to, I would have heard them if they had come back in. I would have heard more than a slow repetitive creak of wood moving against wood,

The door would have opened. They couldn't have stayed this quiet. There was four of them, and they would have tried to sneak up, maybe, but the house was old and rotten, and noisy.

The house was noisy, creaking, back and forth, back and forth. Rocking on old wood,

I was alone in a house that creaked, back and forth, rocking.

My breathing was getting heavy, in and out through my nose, whistling, quicker and quicker and I had to turn around to leave, but if I turned around I might see something, rocking back and forth, squeaking on wood.

If I'd have turned left, I would have just ran out the house, probably falling on my way, scraping an elbow on chipped paint and grazing my knee on a door frame or something. To the left was the window, out the window was the green, and just out of sight was my new house, with blue painted walls in my bedroom and familiar He-Man bedspread.

I can think of no reason but a burning curiosity for why I turned right, but that's what I did. Was that creak because I moved?

Everything was dark in the back of the room, maybe red, or burgundy, or maybe even green, but all that those words do is try and cover for the fact that in my head, all I could see was the colour of shadows moving. The movement and the noise came together in a familiar way that still shook me.

I knew what a rocking chair was. It was the item of furniture at Auntie Sue's that I wasn't allowed to sit on because they had it right in front of a glass fronted display cabinet, and I couldn't be trusted to maintain a dignified rock that wouldn't endanger the glass.

I knew that for a rocking chair to rock, you needed to sit in it and make it move.

I knew that wasn't alone.

It was a woman, old and grey, long hair falling over her shoulders and down into her lap. Her hands were on her knees, fingertips and nails just over the bend at the joint. Her feet were moving, the toes on the ground, but the heel rising and falling, pushing up and coming back down rhythmically.

The clothes were grey, her hair was grey, her fingers were grey, but I couldn't see her face.

She was surrounded by shadows, but not so much that I couldn't see the rest of her. Her hair was over part of her face, and I could see the hair clearly, why couldn't I see her face? Did I even want to?

Back and forth, squeaking and rocking, staring out of the shadows at the young boy who had broken into her house. At least, I thought she was, but her eyes were just as lost as her nose and her mouth. Just shadow, blank and unreadable.

It didn't stop, there was no sudden movement. No jump scare that shocked me out of my dumb staring. Back and forth, squeak after squeak, back and forth, squeak and squeak and back and squeak and forth and squeak.

The hands didn't move, the hair did nothing but sit against her clothes and her face. Just the feet, up and down and back and forth.

I moved then, but I don't know why. The spider hadn't scared me, and this was just an old lady, sitting at home, enjoying a warm day in her rocking chair, back and forth a squeak and back, but I have never been more scared.

I didn't fall over on my way out, I didn't scrape skin of a knee or elbow, and I didn't stumble and have to steady myself on a wall with peeling paint, I just got out, and ran, didn't even think to close the door or the gate. Didn't think of anything until I got home and after a few minutes I realised that my sister was in her room - she got the bigger room because she was older, and as a girl, had more clothes, and I hated he for it - with Shelley and Stacey.

Sam must have gone home already, Matthew the same, and no one had noticed I wasn't with them. I wanted to go and talk to them, but they'd left me, and I was angry and cross and terrified, and if I didn't talk to them about it I could play with my figures instead, and it didn't happen.

And I still don't know if it happened. Everything makes sense about it. All the people who went into the house with me are real, and I've spoke to them a lot - never about this - since. The house I grew up in is real, and my dad still lives in it, next to the bungalow that was being built when we were kids.

The green is still there, but rounders is out now as the trees are too big to be bases. The house is long gone, and I have no idea if it was ever there. I remember it though, and it made sense. There was a village before the new money came in, and they did destroy some old houses, I'm sure of that.

The spider couldn't have been real, although I remember it so well.

And who was the woman?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Kny-Fia, Prologue, part two

The two stout ponies were finally showing a sweaty sheen as the midday sun passed its highest point. They'd been on the road for three days now, sleeping under the wagon at night as the animals rested and refreshed themselves, and although noon had only just passed Weraned, was already looking forward to resting again.

It felt like they'd been on the road for roughly sixteen hours, not the five they actually had. His throat was dry, and although there was water aplenty in the wagon, he knew his thirst wouldn't be slaked until he'd blown the frothy head of a beer, and swallowed have a flagon's worth without his lips leaving the cool horned rim.

Just thinking about that made him lick his lips. Salty and boring, prickly form his beard and moustache, and not even remotely refreshing. A white beer is what you needed on days like this. So cold that water formed on the outside of the flagon, forming in little droplets that would run together and drip down, pooling in his fingers as he sat, staring out at the trees and walls, knowing he deserved it after finishing a hard day's work or a long journey.

There'd still be beer when he got back, but three days travelling away from home, meant three days to get back. The Gods had made the world work that way for a reason, he was sure, and no matter how he prayed, they seemed disinclined to change the order of things just for him.

He sighed, furrowing his eyebrows in both frustration and an attempt to keep the high sun out of his eyes.

From the passenger side, a hand slowly made its way over, and thick strong fingers closed around his wrist, startling him. He had known he wasn't alone, of course. He hadn't forgotten that, but sometimes, he got into his own head so much the outside world seemed to be of things that would make jump.

The hand was reassuring at first, but the pressure of the grip built, and he turned his head, "Jongreha, what's the matter"?

"I don't know yet", she replied, "but something is".

He looked around, wondering what on earth she was worried about, They were on the same path as always; sure it was rougher here, thinner with plants trying their best the reclaim the hard dirt in the name of the forest. The trees were closer, but no one came logging in Wild Elf territory.

He tried following his wife's eyes, but he could see they were darting back and forth, up and down, clearly searching for something that wasn't there. "You're starting to worry me now Jongreha", he said, only realising as he spoke that it came out in hurried whisper, proving that something was bothering him too.

"That's the third Iron Root we've passed now", she hissed back, just as quick, just as quietly.

Not only did his brow crease again, but his mouth closed quickly, as he was about to insist that Jongreha couldn't be correct. He'd made that mistake before, when bullheadedness had kept him on a path that would have led to failure and embarrassment, and these days he knew better than to trust his own gut.

He glanced around, head turning to look behind him, to finally take in the path they'd been on for hours, that had all been reduced to a blur by boredom and repetition. The moment he looked for it though, he saw it. Iron Roots. Two on this side, at least one on the other. He'd hardly ever been so close to them, but knew them instantly.

No Wild Elf had ever let them get this far into the forest.

Jongreha watched as realisation dawned on her husband's face, but her mind had been running through possibilities for a few moments already, and she still wasn't sure what all this meant. This was the twelfth year the two of them had made this trip. It wasn't that they knew the Wild Elves, they didn't know the name of even one of them, but they were tolerated, and thought to be trustworthy, so had always been sent, ever since the first encounter on the trail.

Every single time since that first meeting, they'd hear the whistles mingling from above as scouts marked their arrival and sent the word onwards. She had no idea if the Elves were always here, she had never gone far enough to see any structures, but they had always stopped them by now.

They weren't overly aggressive about it, but there was no way to mistake their intent, as they'd drop from hidden perches in the branches, or step out from behind tree trunks she would have sworn were too thin to hide even a willowy elven figure. They always smiled, but they were also intractable, and even the ponies knew to stop as they approached.

Each pony was treated well though, given salt to lick, and stroked lovingly as they traded. Two years ago, when Feldi had died and they replaced her, all of the Elves knew instantly, and each took the time to introduce themselves to Froth who had replaced her. They seemed happier talking to the ponies.

There was a reason they'd been tolerated though, ever since that first meeting, They'd been on the road for days, Jongreha was sure they were lost, and although he outwardly denied it, she could tell that Weraned had also come to the same conclusion, but it would take hima  few more hours before he'd admit it. She loved him though, and the forest here was thick and beautiful.

She'd been about to point out that ahead of them she was sure she could see an Iron Root tree, and that was when the first Elf had fallen like a broken stick to land in front of them silently, upright, with barely a bend of the knee, and cocked his head in a silent question.

Weraned had frozen up. A dozen more Wild Elves has stepped from the tree line or fallen just as silently to surround their wagon. It was still half full, as they'd only made a couple of stops at the markets and villages that made up their trading partners, before they had become hopelessly lost.

The two Dwarves were both sat barely breathing as the Elves closed in, and it took one of them laying a hand on the canvas cover that finally spurred her husband to speak. "Hey now", he'd started, clearly louder than he'd intended, he nerves on fire.

"You're welcome to look at the goods, like any fine folks who can pay for them, but if you're just after a nosey, I'd ask you to keep your hands to yourselves".

"You rode into our forest, Dwarf", came the reply, with an obvious, sneering stress in the final word, "I'm sure you'll forgive us being wary of intruders and wanting to make sure there's no surprises waiting for us under there".

His voice sounding firmer, more confident as he spoke, Weraned jumping from the wagon as nimble as any Dwarf could, but compared to Elves, it looked like a rag sack full of sticks and mud, "Then let me put all your minds at ease my friends"!

With a quick pull, the knots came loose, and the contents of the wagon were exposed to the sunlight. There were barrels and casks, sacks and boxes, packs and piles, and this was after selling half of it. What there was not, was half a dozen blood thirsty Dwarves armed with cold iron.

"Merchants then", a different Elf said, as a few more got closer to the rear of the wagon, "I wonder what Dwarves might sell that Elves could need"?

Jongreha had been watching with interest, amazed at the situation she found herself in, but spotted an opportunity, and knew she had to take it. "Well, fine folk", she began, "as well as some fine spirits, ciders and liquors, we have worked iron into steel, cut gems to sit in gold and silver ornamentation..." Her patter drifted off, as she noticed a more than a couple of wary glances when she mentioned iron.

She'd heard the stories about the Fae folk and iron, but was never sure just how much truth lay hidden in superstition. Any cut to an Elf would hurt; they were long lived, but not invulnerable. Most cuts would heal quickly though, something to do with the glamour in their blood that kept them going longer than any other living creature. Even Dwarves, hardy though they were were considered venerable once past 500 years, and hardly any would see 800 year's worth of sunsets.

For the fair folk though, if they weren't killed by violence or disease, they were supposed to live forever! And when it came to violence, if you really wanted to kill one of them, you needed iron. The more pure, the better, even though it was harder to keep an edge sharp. For sure, a steel sword was easier to cut them with, but the mixture of metals reduced how deep and how hard the iron would cut.

Whether it was true or not, or at least, partially true, she'd also heard that Elves were just as superstitious of any metal containing iron. True, they owned steel swords and knives, but never worked the metal themselves, preferring to work with more precious materials like silver and gold, that they would imbue with their own magic to make the blades hard enough to hold an edge.

"As for what you might have that we want, well...", she paused for moment, to check if they were as interested as she thought, but damned if their faces hadn't gone back to that cool calm graceful placidess that they were known for, "Iron Root wood is impossible to hold of, and even harder for those of us without your grace and expertise. We could work steel for you, get you blades and arrowheads, more than you could use, and you provide us with handles, shafts, and anything else we can put a blade on."

She knew she had them then. Their faces remained stoic when they looked at her, but there was excitement when they glanced at each other, so she carried on, "We also have a need of furs, fresh meat, vegetables that we can't grow, and as well as steel, we work stone, very fancy stones, if you have a need."

As more and more of them came out of trees, they were openly handling the trade goods now, obviously impressed with the quality of the axe heads, even if they were not an Elven weapon traditionally. There was a bucket of arrow heads though, and they were being passed around, much to the discomfort of Weraned who was clearly trying to keep track of each individual item.

A small gaggle of the Fair Folk had gathered near to her, but must have been speaking their own tongue, as she could make not an ounce of sense from it, until there seemed to be an agreement made through slight nods, and even slighter smiles. A particularly tall Elf approached, and when it spoke, she thought it might have been female, but it was so hard to tell.

All Elves looked the same to her, to all Dwarves from what she had heard. All of them tall and skinny, faces with high cheekbones, and slender upturned noses, pointy ears and long hair, either light brown or white blonde. Even when they spoke, it was hard to be sure which were the males. It might be true that Wild Elves dressed themselves different than the Royal Elves, but all Wild Elves dressed pretty much like other Wild Elves, so even the clothes gave nothing away.

"You should not have come this way, dwarves", there was that tone again, thought Jongreha, there'll be a 'but' coming though, "But, since you are here, since we're here, there seems little point in doing anything other than making the best of it.

"We need arrowheads, knife blades, sword blades, and spear heads. We have no Iron Root to spare at the moment, but we have fine furs, and if you give us an hour, we will load with wagon with meats and fruits, fit for one of your kings."

"You have none now?", asked Weraned, "I do hope that means you'll have some for us later".

"Of course", replied the Elf, "tell us what you need, what sizes, shapes, the job they'll be doing, and in a year, we'll be back in these parts, and we will trade everything you have. We'll throw in more furs and food if you also bring the apple spirit we have tasted today".

Jongreha looked around, and for the first time noticed that one of the small casks had been taken without her noticing. "Seems fair", she said, before her husband started trying to negotiate", Weraned, let them know what we need, and I'll lend a hand unloading, and get details on what we'll be expected to bring back next summer".

And so it had gone. They'd returned home three days later, all the food still as fresh as when they had left, minus the treats they had taken for themselves, The furs were treated with something that made them hard to cut, but when they did work them, they made such fine cloaks and ornamentation, that they could be sold on for triple what they usually asked, and no one ever complained about the price.

The meats were tender and flavoursome, and even a small amount could be used to make a stew that would feed the entire stronghold well. From then until the next summer, the two of them split the work between them; making sure that every item that was going to the Elves was worked to perfection, made even more beautiful with fine engravings and filigree, and that all orders for Iron Root were collected.

Most were to be used with blades to make weapons to sell, and like the furs, each Dwarf knew they'd make more than ever with Elf worked Iron Root shafts and hafts. Some were for personal orders, for the important Dwarves who could afford them, and they would be worn with pride.

As the years went by, every Dwarf could afford an Elven weapon of their own. With the money they were making from selling their trade goods, and how little it cost them in terms of steel weapons, no matter how beautiful they looked, the entire stronghold was more prosperous than it had ever been.

Jongreha and her husband took over the trader's council, and lived the kind of life they would never have thought possible, all for the sake of one week a year on dusty roads, spines getting bruised because the suspension was never good enough. Each year, they grumbled about the trip, but each year it rolled around again, and with a wagon loaded down, they would leave their home, and come back all the richer.

It gave them time to talk, time to plan the parts of their lives that had nothing to do with dusty roads. Time to sleep under the stars, shaded by trees, listening to the wind in the leaves and if they were lucky, a river bubbling along nearby, and by all the Gods, they made the most of those nights.

On each third day, by noon if they'd made good time, and hadn't spent even longer on their bedrolls, they'd hear the whistles of the Fair Folk. The ponies would be pulled up short, and soon they'd see the same, never changing, familiar faces. They had no idea what names belonged to the faces, and had never introduced themselves, but the smiles were more than just polite, they had become friendly and welcoming.

Not today though. Today they were into the Elven wood, and the only whistles were short and discordant; birds wittering to each other, squawking in alarm at things only the birds could see. They were used to being surprised though, used to figures appearing from nowhere, just to watch them jump.

Weraned pulled the ponies to a halt, and she could see him trying to hook something out from under the bench with his foot. She knew what it was, even though she disapproved of him bringin it every year. The toe of his boot caught on cloth and a small bundle was dragged forward.

With one hand still on the reins, he started to unwrap the claw hammer that was always hidden. Ever since the second trip it had stayed under there. It wasn't that the Elves had given them reasons to prepare for the worst, but that didn't stop him worrying.

He always had a steel axe and a short bladed knife on his belt, but the hammer was iron, pure and cold. He kept it wrapped so it was out of site, and if any Elf mentioned it, he had planned to laugh it off, it was just a tool after all, not a weapon, and one that must have fallen under there years ago, totally forgotten about and had a new one forged so long ago he couldn't even remember. He'd practiced that speech in his head repeatedly, but still hoped he'd never need to give. He'd hoped even more he'd never need to hold the hammer as a weapon.

Jongreha wasn't a fool though, and although she always gave him a look each year when he made sure it was still there, she had half a dozen iron tipped bolts for her crossbow hidden under her trews, tucked into her left boot. Watching him grip the wooden haft, knuckles tight, she sighed, and pulled the leg of her trews up, grabbed the small bundle of bolts, and dared her husband to say anything with a withering look.

She needn't have worried, he was so preoccupied with worry, he seemed to barely notice as she pulled the heavy crossbow down from where it was slung near the top of the wagon's cover and quickly pulled back on the string before dropping a bolt into place.

They both jumped to the ground in unison, and started looking around, still unsure just what the hells was happening. There was no way they could track the Elves. They had no idea how long ago they'd been in the area, and even if they had the skills for it - which they didn't - even the best of hunters knew that keeping up with an Elf that doesn't want to be found in the forest was a likely as trapping smoke with a fishing net.

Still, sitting in the wagon seemed like a stupid idea, and if something had gone wrong up ahead, the ponies were far from sneaky, and the wagon was made out of things that squeaked rubbing against things that creaked. On foot it was then, neither of them really needing to say anything.

Neither of them looked like they were keen to leave the path though, even as it thinned dramatically ahead of them, Jongreha dropping back, her crossbow at the ready. It was slow going as they both looked for signs that could lead them to the Elves, jumping at snapped branches, even if they were the ones walking with heavy boots through the forest.

The sun was dipping before they even spoke again, but the idea of stopping hadn't occurred to them when Weraned spoke, "There's broken branches ahead". Jongreha tried to look around him, but the flora was densely packed and she couldn't be sure what he was talking about. After a long pause, he continued, "I mention this because apart from us, it's looked like nothing bigger than a hare has been through these trees in weeks, and, well, whatever snapped these branches, might be ahead".

He was trying to keep his voice steady, but she knew him too well to fall for that. They both knew something had happened. If any Elves were within a mile of them, any that were alive, they'd have been filled with arrows by now, so deep into the Fae forest they were. If something had killed the Elves, it could have been what had broken the branches, and if it had killed the few dozen Elves they were expecting, two Dwarves had no chance.

"I suppose the only way to be sure is to carry on then", she answered, her own voice so close to cracking she was expecting the words to come out as high pitched squeaks.

He cleared his throat before responding, "Aye", and carrying on, only top stop again fifteen minutes later. "Whatever the hell it was we were expecting to find", he whispered, "I think we've found it".

She stepped around him, and understood. Ahead of them, a clearing opened up, small buildings were built against tree trunks, with even more in the trees themselves. Each of them was a fascinating and beautiful, a marvel of carpentry, but also of function, with wide windows and interconnecting walkways marking it as a village that people lived in.

The scattered Elven corpses, some in pieces, some hanging from branches, out of windows and doorways, faces slashed, stomachs opened, made it perfectly clear that nothing still lived.

*     *     *

Neither of them had been sure before, had had no way to know, but it was there for them to see now; Elves bled blue. At least, these ones did, and there was plenty of evidence in front of their eyes. 

It staggered them at first, the scope and scale of the atrocity. Trying to count the corpses was a daunting enough task, as it looked like every resident of the village had been dragged from their homes, and used as dripping, visceral decorations. The bodies had been so badly cut apart though, that limbs and torsos were scattered so far apart that it would take hours and a grizzly determination to count them all up to get a realistic body count.

This had to be fairly recent though. Bodies were not decomposed. Blue blood still fell in drips from those bodies, and body parts, that had been left above ground level. An occasional bird landed and pecked, pulled something free with its curved beak before taking flight again, but the smell was not so bad as to have attracted flocks of carrion birds just yet.

As they stepped closer, each broken branch and dried leaf sounding like hail on steel to their ears, Weraned spoke, "There's nothing alive here, you do know that." His wife nodded, her eyes darting back and forth, daring the words to be untrue, "So, what I'm saying", he continued, "is that we should probably get back to the wagon."

"If everything's dead, then there's nothing to fear", Jongreha replied. 

"This was too recent. The bodies aren't cold, and that means whatever did this might be close to come back if they hear two Dwarves stomping around."

"I don't think it was one thing", his wife said, close enough know to smell the coppery blood in the air. Blue or red, it turns out, it all smell the same, she thinks, squatting down to look closer at the wounds of a nearby corpse. "This one's been slashed with a long blade, just the one of them, but I don't need to get closer to see that that one", she pointed to a bloody mess half hidden in a small gorse bush nearby, "has been raked with claws".

Weraned looked over, and had to agree. Four long gashes, close together and running parallel to each other had cut the Elf open from throat to belly. No sword did that. "Men or monsters. Man and monsters. If they're close, there's nothing we could to stop them having their fun with us".

"That we can't. There's time for us to make this trip worthwhile though. If they were getting ready to meet us, and I recognise a face or two enough to think these are Fae we usually deal with, they've probably got everything ready for us." Weraned felt sick just thinking about what his wife was thinking, but she was right.

"Forget the furs", she continued, "but if you seen any worked Iron Root, carry as much as you can. Make a sling if you need to. It's not heavy, but bulky. If we each load ourselves down, quietly, we can be back at the wagon by dusk and away from here."

"Gods know where they hide it. If it's up them trees, we're shit out of luck my love". There were ropes and ladders leading up to the wooden balconies, but the chances of them bringing down much were slim indeed. It may have been a cliche, but it was true; Dwarves were not good with heights.

"If anything does come back, there's no way in hell I'm going to be trapped up there", she was looking at the walkways, but her eyes were flicking from corpse to corpse. No matter how hard she tried, the bodies kept coming back into sharp focus. "You start on the east, I'll go west, check each building, holler if you find a stash, or we'll just meet in the middle".

Weraned nodded and stalked away, doing his best to keep quiet, but his steel shod boots made it near impossible to put a foot down without it being heard. Glancing back to keep an eye on Jongreha, he stepped over the torn and bloody body of an Elf, swallowing hard, the bitter stinging taste of bile rising up.

In a day, the smell of this place would attract scavengers. The bodies would stiffen, then bloat. Just being downwind would be enough for him to retch. All he could smell now was the woodland and copper, but he knew why the air smelled metallic, and that was enough to turn his stomach over.

With his heavy boots he toed open the first door, hammer gripped tight in his fist. Inside, he was expecting dark and shadows. Maybe because of the horror outside, he wanted to know that any further bodies he'd find would be cloaked in darkness, not stark and on display.

The glass in the windows was crystal clear though. Large thick pains, with the lead breaking them up into smaller segments, Elves clearly able to work glass as well as they did wood. Every item of furniture inside was elegant and simple, deceptively slender, but he had no illusions that they were also thoroughly solid.

He was sure they could take a beating, because none of them seemed to be where they were supposed to be. Two chairs leaning against a wall, two others on their backs in an opposite corner. The table was wedged into a door leading to another room. A dresser had pushed onto its front, but each drawer had been removed and thrown against a wall that bore the scratches and dents of the collisions.

Some part of his mind knew what he was doing, cataloguing destruction of Elven woodwork when there were clearly more important things going on. He was happier wondering if the beds on the first floor had been thrown around too, than making eye contact with dead elf that had been pinned the fireplace, three spear shafts sprouting from its chest.

If he stopped to think about that elf, about how much he desperately wanted to take a couple of paces forward and gently close its eyes, he might scream. No fear or panic in it, some revulsion though, and a desperate need to let the world know how wrong this was. It would be loud, he knew, and it would carry on until someone stopped him, or he's used every bit of breathe he had in him.

For a second, he was turned towards the stairs leading up, for less than a second, he'd lifted a foot to start walking towards them. In half that time, his eyes fell on the dark blue lines running down the stairs. There were more at the top than the bottom, and he knew that would mean pools of blood on the stairs.

Even thinking about whether it was dried or still wet forced him to swallow a new gush of bile, and he was turning away, from the stairs and the dead eyes. There was nothing to be salvaged upstairs, and if anyone asked, he would speak with rock solid certainty that there wasn't a single thing on the upper floor of any worth. Certainly nothing worth encountering whatever it was that was bleeding down the stairs. 

If he was expecting the fresh air and open space to ease his mind or his gut, he was wrong. It seemed like every dead pair of eyes out here was searching for him now. It was different before he went in, he was sure. Heads had turned on slashed necks to face him, faces torn open had lolled around to fix him with a glare.

They weren't accusing him, there was no anger in those dead gazes, but the passivity of the attention was making his skin crawl. He needed to get away, but Jongreha was still in the first house, and he couldn't disappoint her. He'd be quick, in and out of the next few, if nothing was obvious, they'd write the trip of as a bad experience.

Not as bad as it had been for their former business partners, but the dead weren't able to complain about it, so who knew how bad they felt.

The second house, the third and forth, were all wrecked. Broken pottery and glassware, shattered windows and splinters of looking glass scattered everywhere. Bodies torn up, blue splashed pooling in hollows of collar bones and the bottoms of broken bowls. He was doing his best not to dwell, and for a while, for days afterwards, he would be sure that he'd kept the worst of the horrors at bay, but when he'd wake up sweating and cold, the memories were of dead eyes and open wounds.

Each time he stepped out into the village, he tried to catch on of the corpses moving around to fix him with a blank eyed stare, but they were all motionless. All of them ready for him, looking at him with vacant expectation. He couldn't save them, so what did they want?

He was so happy to escape them that when the door closed behind him after entering another small house, it had already thudded into the frame before he'd had time to put a hand in the was, or a boot, to muffle the sound so the dark haired figure wouldn't hear. So it wouldn't lift its head and start to rise from where it was crouched almost double over another figure.

Even thinking about was proof that he was too late. The head turned, the neck and back started to straighten, and he was fixed with a living, malicious stare. The oval eyes were familiar, the pale skin and elongated ears too, but this was not like any elf he'd seen before. It was smiling up at him, but the baleful anger seemed to stab right into him.

By now he was used to the disdain that the Fair Folk exhibited when looking down on any other race. There was no hatred there, simply because to a Fae, you didn't matter enough to hate. You weren't even so important that tolerating you was a struggle; you'd be in a space for a while, and then you'd go. To an elf, you were seemed less of an imposition as a blink.

This was anger though, white hot and focused. He tried to step backwards, but the door had closed behind him, and his shoulder blades slammed against the hardwood as he moved away quickly. His left hand tried to find a handle, not even considering that he was stood in the way of the door and it wouldn't open with him stood there gawping down.

His right hand had a better plan though, and it relaxed slightly, letting the haft of his hammer drop a little so his grip tightened closer to the end, allowing him a wider swing when the rest of his body figured out what the best course of action was.

There was no time though. The Fae was on its feet, evening moving as slow and carefully as it had. Weraned could see a blade in its hand. Short and flashing, a wicked edge, the blade curved forward to a wicked point, splashes of dark blue covering the metal and dripping to the floor. Before he let himself think about where the blood had come from, he pushed off from the door.

Lifting one foot to plant it against the wood, his left hand flat against it as both pushed, accelerating him forward. His right arm lifted, ready to bring the heavy cold iron head down on any elf flesh it could reach. The Fae was quick though, like oil running down glass, and the dwarf felt the world narrow on him, as he saw that wicked curved knife start its upwards arc towards his gut.

The dwarf wasn't graceful though, and wasn't paying enough attention to his surroundings, the way a warrior would. As the distance between them closed, Weraned's foot landed on the wooden handle of what he would later discover was a fork, and his leg quickly gave way. Trying his best to break his fall, the hammer dropped from his fist and thudded into the floorboards.

Arms wheeling desperately, one foot skittering in front of him, the other buckled at the knee, he half turned as he fell, going down heavy on his hip and rump, even with his hands down to soften the landing. He should have been thankful though. If his angry rush had brought him any closer before the fall, the wicked knife in the Elf's hand would have done more than cut halfway through the thick leather of his jacket.

That didn't mean he'd be that lucky twice, and he was already moving. The hammer had landed in front of him, but his legs were kicked out at odd angles, and just getting them in order could cost him vital seconds. He had so few options, so he picked the one more likely to hurt the fiend in front of him, and twisted, kicking his leg out and swinging it towards the Elf's kneecap.

Of course, it missed. The creature just smiled balefully down at him, but it worked in slowing it down, making it take a half step backwards, and now he could move easier, could at least lunge in the right direction, towards the hammer.

Knees and elbows scrabbling on the wooden floorboards, catching on every broken splinter or pottery fragment, he was panicking now, knowing he wouldn't have time, expecting to feel a slash of agony as the Elf sliced deeper this time. His eyes were locked on the hammer, and now, all he had to do was reach out. His world narrowed in focus, hoping against all likelihood that he'd feel the warn handle in his fist before searing pain in his back.

The Elf was silent. He could have been stood over him the entire time, savouring the fear as Weraned's heart raced faster and faster, his breath was ragged, hurried, and loud. Jongreha had managed to kick the door open without her husband seeming to even notice.

She been keeping an eye on him since they arrived. She knew the value of the trading arrangement, and what they would lose without it. Knew that they had to make the best of a bad situation, and was just as sure that Weraned would understand that with time and space away from the bloodbath they had stumbled on. She just needed him to find some Iron Root, and help her get it back to the Hold.

Every time he came out of a dwelling, he looked even more pale and drawn. His scowl was deepening, and his eyes were everywhere except the dead. It looked like he was ashamed to meet their gazes, dead or not. After a few, he was so set on avoiding eye contact, he hadn't even looked at her.

He hadn't even seen what she had, yards distant, and with concerns of her own. She'd thought about opening her mouth, screaming a warning, but the thin figure she had seen crouched inside the doorway could have been on him before the door even closed. She was already running when she heard it thud against the frame. It hadn't been slammed, there had been no panic in it, Weraned had just stepped inside, oblivious.

With knees pumping, she sprinted across the village, hurdling over bodies, or the small sections that remained of them. Flies were starting to build, but she needed her balance too much to push them away, and just ran.

It wasn't far, but took too long. Too damned long before she was there, slowing by necessity, squaring up to the door, ready to drive a heavy boot into it. It probably wasn't locked, but why take the chance. It might have her husband against it, pinned with a long blade through his chest, but why worry about that now.

She needed to get inside, and kicking the door in, or to splinters if necessary, was the quickest way she could think to do it, and still be on her feet to face whatever was inside. As the door smashed inward, she saw Weraned on the floor, on his hands and knees, reaching for the hammer he had managed to drop. Over him, stood an Elf.

It had the long silken hair she was used to, ears like blades struck through it. It was tall, slender, each hand gripping a blade, short and curved, dripping blue onto the floor. It whipped its head around, angrily, but with a beauty and grace only offset by the hatred in its large oval eyes. Was it, hissing? She didn't want to give it time to try and talk, she was terrified that it might speak words softly and without menace, sweet poetry that would disarm her.

While she was still armed, she was determined to kill this thing. Elf or not. It was so close she barely had to aim, and barely had time to, as it turned on its hips to fully face her and was already moving. The bolt was loosed with a barely audible double click, of the mechanism, and the bowstring snapping the air. Even this close, the shot wasn't perfect.

She was panicked, and instead of the eye, the throat, or the heart, she had struck its shoulder. The scream was satisfying though, and made up for the sense of disappointment. She thought that it was trying to roar, but it was too high pitched. It was more a scream, and so piercing she could feel it in her bones.

It wasn't dead, not even down, and that meant it was dangerous. She had kept the other five iron tipped bolts in her left hand, held firm under the crossbow stock, and was now wondering why the hell she had thought that was a good idea. There was no way to transfer one easily to the stock, or keep hold firmly while she pulled the string back. She'd need second, but would be lucky to get one, maybe two before the white skinned Elf was on her.

Weraned had turned around as the screeching had started, had seen Jongreha's triumphant face, realised what had happened, and thanked the Gods without a heartbeat passing. He had been given the extra second he needed, but now Jongreha needed the same reprieve, or she's be slit in two before she had a chance of reloading. He looked at the hammer in his fist, then to Elf's leg, and acted before he gave himself a chance to think his way out of violence.

He was on his knees now, and didn't even need to change his grip to do what he wanted. There was leverage involved in what he was attempting, but if the blow landed, the satisfaction would be palpable. Starting the swing low, claw end facing out, he leaned back to add as much force as he could, and slammed the iron hammer between the Elf's legs.

Even after years of trading, he'd never been able to tell if an Elf was male or female, and had no clue now, but a claw hammer to the soft spot he hoped was there would either of them! He could never remember being so angry, and that fury was pushing the fear to one side with as much force as it was driving the hammer upwards.

As the blow landed, the claw stuck, deep inside flesh and maybe even bone, with a finality that outdid his angry strength, and his arm carried on, leaving the hammer behind.

If Jongreha had though the noise was bad when she had struck its shoulder, it was nothing compared to what her husband had caused. The pain in her ears was too much, and had assaulted her head, meeting in her brain in a pincer attack and made dark spots flash in her eyes. It was now a question of who would recover first, but she didn't have a cold iron claw hammer hanging out of her groin!

Was she smiling? Was that thought what spurred her on? Weraned didn't know for sure, but after the hammer had been torn from his grip, he'd lost his balance again, landed on his back, one leg splayed out, the other trapped under, the ankle twisted passed the point of pain, his hands over his ears. Blue blood was splashing on the ground near him, not dripping, not even running, but splashing, as the Elf staggered.

He looked up and locked eyes with it. Had he thought there was hatred there before? A mild dislike, surely compared to the pure loathing that was directed at him. It stepped, or tried to, lifting a leg so it could turn, all thoughts of Jongreha vanished in favour of seeking vengeance for this fresh injury and insult.

As it turned, a slender thigh was still enough to knock the swinging haft of the hammer, and it screamed again, lower this time, as guttural a sound as it could probably make as a fresh deluge of blood sloshed from the wound. Another half step, and the hammer fell free. He daren't look at it, not wanting to see the viscera that still clung between the claw points, so he started crawling away again and didn't see the Elf fall.

Jongreha had seen it though. Watched as it turned on Weraned, looking for all the world like it had decided that she no longer existed. When she had shot it, she could feel hatred washing over her in cold waves, but no longer. This creature was so focused on correcting the behaviour of the last attacker, it seemed to not even care that it was still in danger from her.

If it was so focused, so much the better for her. As it staggered, she grabbed the string and pulled hard, feeling it dig and cut into her ungloved fingers. As soon as she heard it click, she was reaching down, fingers already hot and aching, and pulled a bolt free from her grip inder the stock, not caring as the rest fell to the ground. She either finished it now, or they'd both be dead. With a soft click, it slipped into the groove designed for it, and before she could aim, her target had dropped from her vision.

Her brows furrowed, and she glanced down to see it fall into the dark blue pool of its own blood. A thigh landed on the hammer, but not the point and it was slumping back, teeth gritted in concentration. She had the shot, but took her time. She couldn't miss this time, not when the chance was there to loose a bolt aimed under its chin, only the palette would be able to slow it before it tore into the brain.

Sometimes though, a second is long enough to give everything away.

It lashed out with its left hand, the hand that still gripped the knife, and although Weraned had moved as far away as he could, not even ten seconds had passed since she had kicked her way in, and was still close enough for the wicked blade to cut easily through the thick sole of his heavy boot. He bellowed, in anger as much as pain, and the blade was red when she saw it again.

She wasn't going to give it a chance to swipe again though, and trusted her aim, squeezing the trigger and feeling the satisfactory thud of the string against the bow.

One last jerk was the only movement of the Elf. A final inch of feathered quarrell was all she could see protruding from it's chin. She sighed out, shuddering with relief. Weraned was still gasping in pain, but for the first time, she heard something else in the room.

She allowed the crossbow to swing down, held only by the trigger and grip, and saw the other Elf.

This one was female. It wasn't the first thing she noticed, but it stuck with her. She was naked, and covered in blood that slowly oozed from dozens and dozens of small cuts. She'd be surprised if an inch of flesh was left unmarked, but the Elf was near silent.

Sure, it was breathing heavy, but considering the noise Weraned and the other thing had been making, there was no way she could have been heard.

She was pregnant too.  Very pregnant, but wouldn't be for long.

That thing had been torturing her as she gave birth. Each contraction would have rushed the blood to her skin as she tried in vain to breath slowly. Each wound would have leaked more and more blood until there was nothing left in her.

Jongreha had never had a child of her own, but had lived long enough to be there for a couple of others. Fully dropping her bow now, she took a few hurried steps, and dropped to her knees, taking the Elf's hand, and squeezing it, inviting her to squeeze back, which she did with gusto.

But that was it. That last squeeze, was it. She couldn't believe it, it was too sudden. There had to still be time, the Elf child could still be born. There would not be another death!

She was screaming herself now, pushing down on the unmoving chest, hoping a heart was in there that could be coaxed into beating again, slapping that fiercely beautiful face, daring the Elf to strike back, to defend herself even. "No. No. No. NO!", she screamed down at her, but whatever fight she had had that had kept her going through the pain had left her, and heavy tears were running down Jonghera's face as she kept repeating the word over and over.

Weraned could hear all this, could see what had happened, but knew the mother was dead. The child had a slim chance though, and even that was only if he was quick, and willing to add an extra cut on top of the methodical brutality already carried out on her.

The body was jerking, but with no life in her, it must be Jonghera. He didn't know how much time he had, and calming her down could take minutes, he had to act quickly, and the first thing he needed to do was already making his skin crawl just thinking about it. He turned back, saw the other dead thing, crossbow bolt jutting out under its chin. In one hand it held a knife that was sharp enough to cut through his boots like they were grass.

There was another one. It had dropped it when Jonghera had shot it, but he couldn't see where it had landed. It might be under the wicked Elf, but he was in no mood to explore that possibility. Hissing in pain from his wounded foot, he scrambled over the body to pull the knife out before the grip was locked by death.

For a second, he was sure the Elf had tried to keep hold, to pull back even, but he daren't think about it. He needed it to be dead. He also needed to be careful. The blade was wicked sharp, and he was pulling it free by the blade!

Thankfully, it came loose, but Jonghera had noticed him, was looking at him quizzically, and when made to move between the female Elves legs, she grabbed at him, panic in her face, "I need to do this Jonghera. She's gone, we can see that, but the child might have a chance, as long as I act quickly".

Her eyes, sharp and dazzling, looked from him to the knife in her hand, "what..."

"She can't push Jonghera, she can't. And if I pull, who knows what I might do, so I'm going to have to get it out another way". Her eyes widened, and her grip tightened, "You need to let me do this. You can't let another life be lost right now. This day has claimed all it's going to, at least while I have anything to do with it"!

He hadn't meant to shout, but the anger was still the only thing keeping him going, and if he got it under control, he didn't know what would be left to keep him moving forward, that could stop him curling up and waiting for someone else to take over and make the hard decisions.

Usually, it was his wife. Usually she kept her cool, talked their way out of, or into, any situation that could come up. She didn't have the anger to drive her though, or if she did, it was directed somewhere else. Maybe she was raging at the world, or just at herself for not being able to do more. Weraned's anger was focused and sharp though, and pushing her back, he went to work.

He was as careful as he could be, but cutting deep enough to free the baby was risky, and the knife handle was small and fiddly, compared to a hammer or a chisel. The child wasn't moving, and he was so close to giving up. So close, he could feel the rage rising, and with it, his attention shifting. Jonghera was right; the world was to blame, the Gods even, for leaving this to two Dwarves who were just out to make some money and enjoy the journey.

What right did the Fates have to put a destiny like this in front of them?!

He slipped.

Just a tiny slip. Just a little deeper than he wanted to. Just enough though, just enough that he made the smallest of cuts on the baby, and it was enough to start it screaming.

That scream was enough for everything else though, and Jonghera was there, helping, moving his blue stained fingers away so she could take over. Enough for him to stop blaming the world and start worrying about what would follow.

Less than a minute later, he was holding the crying, tiny, stained elf in his arms. It was a boy.

*     *     *

There was no need to hurry now, no need to be quiet. The child was crying whenever the mood took it, which seemed to be based on the motion of the wind, or the bowel movements of the foxes nearby, for all the Dwarves could predict it.

If there was anything nearby, they would hear the cries, so best to just get on with things and get home. Weraned had taken to the Elf child, and had found some fine cloth to wrap it in, and a few furs for when it got cold. He had never raised a child, but it all seemed to make sense to him.

After he wrapped it up, he was looking for food and water, wondering what the hell Elves ate and drank. Thankfully, it seemed the family who lived here had been prepared, and he could find milk and other liquid foods in cupboards that hadn't been destroyed. Sniffing them, he could tell that the Elven diet wasn't too far from his own peoples'. 

He dipped the corner of a clean cloth into a jug, and let the little thing suck it dry before repeating the action. Weraned was concerned what affects the nature of its birth could have on it. So much violence and brutality could follow it all its seemingly eternal life. It had been born in blood, and no mistake. Right now though, it was grabbing hold of his fingers, holding the cloth in place, and seemed content.

Jongreha had left him to it, but had taken some time to make sure the child was safe. Her coolness had returned, but Weraned could see in her eyes that she would let no harm come to this child while she drew breath. The slight cut on its arm had stopped bleeding, and the child seemed unaware of the pain that had brought it screaming into the world. 

His wife had put together a stretcher that she could pull behind her, and was loading it with any Iron Root she could find. After completing the search, she had found a good stock of prepared wood, and even some branches that looked like they had fallen from the trees. She had stacked these on as well, explaining that there might be someone out there who'd pay for them.

He had packed a bag of supplies for the child. For Kny. He didn't want to tell his wife this, but he was already sure of its name. Kny. A simple word that meant a lot. If a human had asked him what it meant in common, the closest would be "Survivor", but there was more to it. Not just survived, but thrived, not been shaped by the threat, or made different by the injury. There was strength in the word, not just a recognition of being the victim of something terrible. Kny. It suited him.

The journey back to the wagon was slow going. Weraned could do little to help but carry the crossbow strapped to his back under the pack full of liquid food. He was walking slow, as Kny was sleeping, strapped to his chest, fingers scraping against the hard leather. Jongreha was slower though, and strong though she was, she was sweating heavily and they'd had to stop three times before returning to the path, and finding their wagon exactly where they'd left it.

A quick check revealed a forest creature or two had attempted to gain access to their own food stores, but they'd been unsuccessful. They were starving, and grateful for that, and before anything else had opened a wooden box of dried meat and cheeses, and finished their meal off which a healthy horn filled to the brim with ale.

As they finished off their repast, and Weraned let out a throaty burp, they looked each other in the eye and started to laugh. In unison they reached out to the other, and pulled them close, arms wrapping around their partner. The laughter subsided, and soon tears were running down cheeks. They stayed holding each other though, and were unashamed of their fear and grief.

Eventually, the child awoke, and started to cry, softly at first, but clearly building up to something, Weraned pulled open his pack and started searching for some food, whispering to the child, "Peace, Kny, peace my little one, almost there, just need to find..."

A hand closed on his arm, shocking him for a moment as he looked up into his wife's eyes, "Kny?" she asked.

"Aye", he replied, trying to hide his smile and make himself look guilty, hoping she wouldn't get mad. "The little fella needed a name, and doesn't he just look like a Kny"?

"Weraned", she replied, "I don't know what will happen when we return home, but I love you. Now, Kny needs feeding, and then I've got to unhitch the ponies and turn this wagon around so we can start back." He was shocked, at how easy she had taken the news, but then he remembered her anger when the mother had died, remembered how closely she had held him, only moments ago. She was always the calm one, she would also do what needed to be done, with as little fuss as possible, but right now, what was needed, was for the little Elf to be kept safe.

They'd talk on the way home, and work something out, but home was days away, and Kny was already a part of them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Kny-Fia. Prologue, part one.

The dwarf could feel small flakes of rust come away in his grip, but that did nothing to ease his mind. The bars were still too thick for any of them to bend.

He was appalled by the poor construction of the joints, both of the cross bars, and where the uprights met the stone floor and the roof that was easily several feet above his head. Without his tools though, they might as well have been elven filigree, and he was no master smith.

The lock was a shockingly simply affair. It was too big though, and without something solid to move the inner workings about, it was just as securely locked as a gambling house vault.

"Don't look so down", said one of the other dwarves who had been taken during the raid. They'd never been introduced. "We'll be out of here in time to see the sun come up on a fine day".

"How the...", he started, exasperated, proving to himself that there was always more anger inside, ready to rise up at a moment's notice. "Those", he continued, thick finger jabbing through the bars at the huddled figures around the fire, "are hobgoblins. You know why they took us? You know what they do with dwarves"?

"Well", the other dwarf replied, eyebrows furrowing, "probably going to be one of two things". They raised a hand, one very gnarled and thick finger pointing upwards. "First option would be to eat us, but they killed at least a couple of us when they attacked, so they'll be full for now". A second finger left the heavy fist, "Second, and this is only the better option because we might see sunlight again before we die, is that they'll sell us for slaves".

"Could you try and look like any of this matters to you!" he raged, flecks of spit coating his mustache and beard as he screamed.

"They were with you, weren't they, the couple who got killed? Sorry about that stranger. It's always nice when we get travelling merchants, and I think we let ourselves go a little too much, watches got relaxed, doors weren't left as secured as they should be.

"Folks were wanting to take in the night sky and the fresh air, share some company. We were all looking forward...

"My name's Hezzulin. Snowthane, Silmersdotter, if you want to be official about the whole thing, but most of us aren't", she waved her heavy hand at the other prisoners, most of whom looked asleep or at least relaxed.

"Aye", he replied, "I figured that out pretty quick. The names Thamnat, and if you don't mind me asking,  what kind of dwarf is happy to leave the doors open so they can get some air, look up at the stars, or whatever shit you were talking about".

"The kind, who even half pissed, saw off a couple dozen hobgoblins, which is a damned sight better than your lot managed, stranger, so watch your tongue".

He noticed an edge to her voice that was new, and bit his tongue, remembering how right she was.

*   *   *
Thamnat had heard about the dwarven colony last season, but he'd made his gold long before he had to leave the safety of the mountains. Everyone he spoke to had told him that they were a strange bunch, that worked wood as well as they did metal and stone. 

They lived so far down the mountain, it was practically just a hill with a mine underneath it, but after a bad year, with bandits waiting 'round what seemed like every corner, he needed an easier way to make money. So, he traded what he could for the kind of comforts only the mountains could bring, and thought he'd do fine with the hill dwarves. 

He had pure soft water, filtered to perfection through the stones of the mountains. He had most of it turned into the kind of beer that'd down an ogre, and filled two whole wagons with it; the hill folk would pay a pretty penny for that, he was sure!

All other space was taken up with small, cheap items made by the mountain dwarves that always made him a profit, and he was sure he could ask even more once he played to the hill dwarves' nostalgia.

He hired a few stout lads who were better with their fists than their nimble fingers, strapped an axe or a hammer to each of their backs, and signed them onto retainer. He'd feed and shelter them for the job, then pay them or their family - if they fell in battle - once he was back home. 

By the time they'd found the settlement in the foothills, he only had three guards left, so he'd saved some money there. Not like their families could expect full pay for the job, since they'd died before completing the contract! 

The walls of the colony had impressed him on the approach, going three quarters round the outer buildings, the sheer stone cliff preventing anything but the most suicidal goblin from entering that way. The stone was well worked, topped with metal spikes that were as decorative as they were deadly, and the heavy wooden doors were bound in iron with stone carvings making them even more heavy and imposing.

They were also, surprisingly, wide open.

Dwarves were positioned in towers ranged along the wall, but only one figure per station, and even as Thamnat approached from a distance, he was sure at least one of the dwarves was asleep. Eventually, he was noticed though, and a horn was sounded, followed by many eyes turning in his direction. 

As he approached the open gate, he was met by a dozen well built dwarves, each with a two handed long axe, the bearded blades almost two feet in length. Their armour was superb quality, but very muck lived in. As they closed, he could see the axe blades were recently sharpened, and the handles were smoother in places with use. These were more than just guards, they were fighters.

In the middle of their scrum walked an older dwarf, beard and eyebrows mostly brown, but with unmistakable wisps of grey throughout. He also wore armour, but of a much more casual variety, with lose banding and and very finely engraved metal plates that were clearly more decorative than functional. His smile was wide and welcoming though, and he extended both arms as he strode forward, looking ready to lift Thamnat off his feet in a huge bear hug.

Not knowing how to take this, the traveling merchant just went with it, and returned the hug with as much gusto as he could manage, which after two long weeks of mountain passes, was not even half of the affection that was shown him.

"Good day stranger", the elder bellowed, his bristled mouth too close to Thamnat's ear for comfort, "I am Dhunmolirm, chieftain of this rabble, and I bid you welcome to Dak-Bom! Bring your friends inside, rest your ponies, and enjoy a drink with us"!

"Thank you, thank you", Thamnat replied as he pulled himself free as politely as was possible, "My name is Thamnat, and I am a traveling merchant. I have made my way down the mountain, through treacherous paths, fighting bandits, kobolds, goblins and the very elements themselves, to bring you, noble chieftain..."

"And I bet it was a fine journey full of thrilling tales", interrupted Dhunmolirm, "you must slake your thirst and rest your feet so you may do them justice in our hall, in front of our fire". With a heavy and forceful hand, he directed the newcomer inside, his other hand waving to his people to make everyone welcome.

"We are always so glad to find merry wanderers in our midst. Of course, you have a wanderlust about you, I can tell, I can tell! You must stay a while though, explore our fastness, take of our food and drink", he paused for a moment, and Thamnat thought he might be able to get a few words in, maybe even steer the conversation to trade, but before he could even moisten his lips in preparation, Dhunmolirm continued.

"Although our halls may not be so grand as you would find in the mountain halls that I'm sure you're used to, I'd like to think we still have some charm about us!", he paused, again for just long enough to breath in, not even long enough for Thamnat to get his hopes up, "We welcome you anyway, come, come", and he was away, leaving Thamnat wondering where the dwarven whirlwind of charm had vanished to.

Looking about, he could see him, rousing his fellows to lay on the warmest welcome possible, greeting each of his hired hands in turn, as if they were of equal importance to the man who hired them. Was he really this naive? Thamnat couldn't help but smile to himself, thinking he could add a few coins to price of every item in his wagons, and the old fool would think it the best price in the world!

Still, he needed to get things unloaded and set up before then, putting on a show that would appeal to the sensibilities of these yokels wouldn't be too hard, but done right, could make the trip more than worthwhile, assuming he would survive the trip home. "Come on then lads", he bellowed, waving to his dwarves, "let's get this all inside, so we can unload".

"Sorry boss", he was interrupted by one of the drivers, "the guards here are moving us to set up out here, under the shade of the tree is good enough for mountain dwarves, apparently".

There was no mistaking the sense of hurt pride and condescension in his voice, and Thamnat couldn't blame him. Sure, there were traders aplenty in the high country, moving over peaks or through them, but they were all made to feel welcome by their hosts. Dhunmolirm's attitude seemed to be that they were the most honoured of guests, so why were they to present their wares out where the horses would shit.

He looked toward to entrance of the mine that most of these hill dwarves would call home, and saw that although the entrance was smaller than what he was used to, there was still plenty of room to get each of his carts through without any fear of touching the sides.

With brows furrowed to deep lines, he stared at the heavy doors, open to the sun outside, and the shadows within, but spoke to his driver, "then do as the Dwarf says. We'll do ourselves no favours by arguing right now, but I'm going to have a look what's in there.

"Unload carefully, but something about this place has my knee throbbing, and that never means anything good. We may need to get it all loaded again in a hurry, so don't let any of the lads get too comfortable", he was already walking away, but continuing to speak, the driver forgotten, "Too many trees, too much grass. Too, alive".

With no one appearing to care about him anymore - the well armed guards looking a lot less professional as they joined a growing throng of spectators forming around the wagons - he got close enough to the large doors to peek inside. Even with his Dwarven eyes, it took him a few seconds to adjust to the gloom when he had spent so many days under the blasted sun.

Another step, and the grandeur of the entrance hall was fully visible, and damn him if they weren't throwing a party! Although not all were lit, braziers were being fuelled and small groups of Dwarves were carrying platters big enough that it needed more than one of them to do so safely.

The place was filled with tables, but apart from the Head Dwarves' throne, only one other chair was set up, no doubt for the guest of honour, whoever the hell that was, thought Thamnat. They were obviously loved by the Dwarves here, there was an air of celebration you'd find at the returning of a long lost son, rather than survivors returning from a harsh war. No, if that was the case, there'd still be a sadness for all the Dwarves who never made that long walk home.

This wasn't a party put together to appease a warlord either, to make someone happy who had the power, in their disappointed state of mind, to demand death from anyone who failed to cater to a whim. The bustle was cheery, even though they were busy. From bits of chatter he could overhear, the tone was indeed celebratory.

Indeed, he felt bad interrupting, simply to ask what was now obvious to him, but he was a curios Dwarf, and wanted to know who this clan could be so excited to see. Getting a word in to ask the question was tricky though, as every Dwarf in this hold seemed as chatty as their leader, and as eager to interrupt, or just plain talk over anyone who tried to get in the way of their own conversation.

On his second attempt, his attention was jolted elsewhere when a loud shrieking noise interrupted him not even halfway through his introduction. He'd never heard a creature in pain make such a noise, and the panic he felt was clearly mirrored in those around him. Shouts from outside were mixed with clatters and clangs as trays and flaggons were dropped onto the stone floor.

Thamnat wasted no time, and was sprinting as fast as could back out of the door before most of the Dwarves inside had even realised what they'd dropped. With no ceremony, he dropped his elbow and rammed it anyone who wasn't moving out of the way quick enough. His speed and mass making it easy to move even the famously stout figures of Dwarves without slowing.

With one hand on his brow to keep the bright light of the bastard sun from blinding him, he charged through the gap in the doors to see fire and smoke. Short figures were running through it an a panic, and as the high-pitched wailing started again, many of them threw themselves to the ground.

Not him though. He was a business-dwarf, and his livelihood was in danger. He knew where he needed to be, and although it would put him in danger, it was the only way he'd know that the guards he'd hired were working hard enough to earn the pay they'd agreed on. On he ran then, with calls coming up from behind him to "Protect the vulnerable!", and "Rally at the doors! Form lines, you sods, you know the drill"!

Well, they almost certainly weren't talking to him, Thamnat reasoned, there was only one of him, so forming a line would be a practical impossibility. He ran into the smoke as balls of fire rained down, each screaming like a goblin getting its skin pulled off, driving Dwarves away with terror at the noise and confusion.

As he ran, he noticed other figures moving in the smoke now, but far too tall to be Dwarves. Where they human bandits? Elves maybe, keen to take a slice of a what a hardworking Dwarf had earned? Not on his bloody watch.

He pulled the small hammer from his belt. Unlike those that Dwarven warriors were famous for carrying, this looked like a far more subtle affair than the lump hammers that could smash an Giant's skull in. Although certainly well made, it looked more suited to striking a nail that crushing a chest, but he knew what he was about.

You needed a hell of a lot strength, and the space to get a bloody big swing in to use a warhammer that was all about weight and blunt impact. A little thing like this though could break bones just as surely, and the reverse was a hardened spike that could punch clean through Dwarven plate to the much softer flesh hidden below. A killer's weapon, not one for cleaving through a charge of Orcs, one that needed finesse and a brain behind it, more than a thick arm and a barrel chest.

Of course, steady feet and being able to see where you are going are also absolute necessities, but the thick black smoke was now surrounding him. Because of that, he wasn't sure at first as to what he tripped over, but as he struggled to turn his ankle the correct way round again, he looked down and saw the face of one of his guards.

He couldn't even remember the fellow's name. Something beginning with a "B"? It didn't matter now, with a sideways gash splitting his face across the nose and cheeks, he wasn't going to be claiming his pay at the end of this.

Getting back to his feet, he reclaimed his hammer, and turned, just in time to see the wicked and sharp green features of a hobgoblin leering down at him.

Instinct took over. He stayed low, and swung as quick as he could with his hammer, aiming for the kneecap, sideways on.

Almost ready to fall over due to how low he was and how fast he had charged forward, when he made contact, it span him round almost much as it did the Hobgoblin. He wasn't screaming in pain though, was he?! Knowing full well he was going over, he tucked his head and shoulders down and turned into a clumsy roll, but was still able to find his feet again.

He turned quickly, swinging out high this time towards what he hoped was the face of a hobgoblin, but the smoke was making all of this too hard. Too hard to judge distance. Too hard to make out anything like fine detail. Too hard to breathe.

All he did was push smoke aside, but with a ragged breath drawn in, he reversed his swing, looking forward to jarring impact on his elbow that would sting for a day or two, but would be worth it if he buried the spike right in a bastard ear!

The noise was wrong though, a thud, and he felt it down every inch of his arm, fingers almost going numb from the shock, but he held on, held on as hard as he could and pulled back, but there was too much weight now. He must have spiked a shield! Just pulling, at this angle, against a hobgoblin who would have the shield strapped to him would do no good, but he wasn't going to let go, not yet.

Gripping as tight as he could, he twisted his wrist and could feel wood splintering. He even convinced himself he could hear it tearing, he was applying so much force! Another strong pull, and it would be free!

The lack of sensation terrified him for a second, the darkness of the smoke disappearing into blinding light. He tasted nothing, smelt nothing, could hear only a constant high note that no instrument was playing. Where was he? When did it start to hurt, because it really hurt now.

Everything else was vanishing, like the blackness before it, the light was tunnelling away from him, the whine was fading to nothing, but the pain stayed, his only company as he fell forward.

*      *     *

"I suppose you're right", grumbled Thamnat, "but you're still locked in here with me", he gestured to the other dwarves, "and we're not alone, so don't go painting yourselves as perfect warriors".

"Perfect? Nah, you've got me there." She smiled, easily, and that alone infuriated the merchant, who was so deep into his personal woes he couldn't understand why no one else wanted to join him. "Like I say though, good enough to fall back quickly away from the smoke. 

"Clever enough to start dropping bolts into the hobgoblins before we had to stop because your lot was still in there protecting the wagons. 

"Stupid enough to run back into the smoke because you and your lot was still in there". She was still smiling, but Thamnat could see a curl to the corners that was at his expense.

"Yes, well, thank you and all, but it doesn't look like you did me much good, or my men."

"You're very welcome", Hezzulin replied, sounding far too genuine for Thamnat. "Don't worry though. Just because we weren't great at charging into burning black smoke, doesn't mean we're not going to come and sort this mess out. He was due home yesterday, and and no doubt already on his way to us".

"He?", Thamnat asked, "One dwarf is coming, and you think that'll solve all our problems"?

"Kny-Fia's special", she replied, a note of admiration in her voice, "and he won't be coming alone. He'll make sure everyone's ready, and then plan some daring rescue, and make his entrance like we'd all be dead without him".

"Knife ear? A fucking elf is coming to rescue us?!", Thamnat hadn't even realised that he'd dropped into common when he'd heard the derogatory word, so often spoken in common in taverns the world over. It was only when he heard Dwarven again that the thought struck him.

"You keep talking like that, and the 'us' you think's getting rescued, might not include you". Thamnat turned to see a Dwarf standing a lot closer to him than he was comfortable with, and tried to back away from his growled threat. Heavy iron bars stopped him moving directly way, but he slid along them until he felt his shoulder hit a dead stop.

"You know", Hezzulin said, "we hear a lot about how you high and mountain dwarves don't get along with the Elves, but down here, close to the trees, you learn to be a bit more forgiving. 

"I promise you this though, you say one more fucking bad about him, I will be the most unforgiving bitch you ever did lay beady, black little eyes on. Am I fucking clear"?

There was cold hard steel in her voice now, sharp as cut glass with not a thousandth of inch worth of give in it. "Brukhed, leave it", she continued, and it was only when he turned back to the other dwarf that he realised - his attention being so focused on Hezzulin - the one called Brukhed had followed him as he tried to move away, and there was no other direction to go.

With a gruff exhalation of breath, far too close for comfort, he turned a little and backed off. When Thamnat looked back towards Hezzulin, she too had moved away a little, and it was only then he realised it had been a few seconds since he'd inhaled. As much as he tried to do it quietly, to cover his fear, he was sure even the hobgoblins by the entranceway could hear him clearly.

After a few big lungfulls, he started to calm down. There wasn't much he could do other than that, and nowhere for him to go to get away from the clearly mad Dwarves who had such affection for a knife-eared bastard who apparently was coming to save a bunch of Dwarves out of the goodness of his heart.

He knew Elves. Had to deal with them, once. Thankfully, it was only the once, as they were cold as silver and if you weren't one of the fair folk, they'd see fucking you over as a duty. In his case, he'd say they enjoyed it a hell of a lot too. This entire endeavour, from start to finish, when he met this bunch of tree Dwarves, was going to go down in history as one of his worst business decisions. Right then, at that precise moment, he'd leave every wagon behind and the other Dwarves be damned if he could just get the hell away from here and return to the comfort of several thousand tons of stone above his head. 

When he heard the click, he didn't even think about it, but the grumbling and growls from the cave entrance changed pitch, and he knew something was going on. He turned his head just in time to see the movement that made him piss himself a little.

From the unworked stone of the cave roof, a figure dropped to the uneven floor. It was tall, at least six foot, with arms slightly out for balance, it's dark brown cloak billowing up as the air lifted it. 

When he landed - Thamnat being fairly sure that's what a male Elf looked like - it was onto his toes, and his knees bent only a little to soften the landing, leaving him upright and imposing. Before the cloak had fallen back to his calves, each hand moved with quicksilver speed and was holding an axe. 

Thamnat didn't have much time to admire the one in the Elf's right hand, as he quickly pulled it back low before the cloak could drop any further and get tangled up. The underhand throw may lack the strength of lobbing from above, but it was quick as all hell!

Details became clearer then. One of the hobgoblins was already dead, a couple of inches of feathered wood all that was visible of the crossbow bolt that had hit it dead straight in the ear. The axes were dwarven made, each with an extended bearded blade and the kind of detailed engraving that could only be worked by the finest dwarven smiths. The elf had drawn them from what Thamnat guessed were custom sheaths, each with worked leather to keep the blades safe, and toughened hide that would stop the handles from slipping loose but allow them to be pulled free fairly easily.

Oh yes, and a second hobgoblin was dead now too. The axe blade had made contact with its pointy chin, but not stopped there. The length of the blade meant that the end of it was sticking out the green skinned forehead. It had cut the monster neatly in two, halving nose, palete easily, probably giving the hobgoblin a snake's tongue too.

Thamnat could only guess that this was the knife ear they'd been talking about, and so far, he was impressed. Might actually shake his hand, if the fairy would deign to touch him. 

There's be time for that though, because the elf wasn't done yet. The remaining axe had somehow managed to jump from the left hand to the right, but did not appear to have bothered using any of the space between, it was done so quickly, and the elf was running.

He covered the space in a second, maybe two, and fought from low down, the axe whipping out in a thigh level slash that opened the thick muscle up, right down to the bone, but without getting lodged. The cut was so close in fact, it didn't even leave a groove in the hard surface.

As he struck low, he flung his left leg wide and planted the ball of his right one into the ground and pivoted on it. This was the first time Thamnat saw him from the front, even for the briefest of moments, and was surprised to see that all the clothing the elf was wearing looked dwarven, and even more shocked at how short cropped his brown hair was!

The third hobgoblin was bellowing in pain as it fell, the leg simply giving way and buckling as he tried to hold it, to keep the thick dark blood from gurgling between the long taloned fingers. The knife ear was stood next to the last upright hobgoblin, who seemed totally fazed by the recent and bloody events. It seemed to Thamnat that the creature was staring directly into his eyes for answers, as if the merchant was the one responsible somehow, and would answer for these crimes. 

With a slight sidestep to take into account his reach, the elf whipped his blade upward in a long arc, having spun the blade in his grip just enough that the edge was pointing upward. With a smooth wet sound it swung upwards, only stopping when it was lodged halfway up the hobgoblins face. The blade had caught it under the chin, and momentum and strength had carried it up just past the ear canal before it had gotten wedged.

Looking sidelong at his handiwork, the elf let out a little sigh, then pulled the axe back down and the hobgoblin dropped with it.

"That's what happens when you try to show off", Hezzulin shouted near to him. He turned his head and saw all of the captured dwarves watching raptly through the bars at the spectacle.

"Come on!", he replied, "that first throw was superb! Do you know how close I got to the bone on that cleave"? Seemingly without thinking about it, he swung down and cut three quarters through barely moving hobgoblin, who was laying, drenched in its own blood.

"And don't you got thinking that I didn't mean to go all the way through this fucker's neck, I just couldn't be arsed risking the blade against the bone, and you know it!" He was wiping the thick blood off the blade as he spoke, scraping it away on the chest of a fallen hobgoblin, before he slipped the hatchet back into its sheath.

Thamnat was impressed with the design; the blades were held in place near the bottom of the thigh in a toughened leather holder, worked with intricate designs, and firm enough in shape to hold the blade, but with plenty of room to slip it free. The axe handle was leather wrapped at the top, but it was the length below that that was held in place with a curved horn that had enough give that would allow it be drawn very quickly, but again, hold it firm until it was needed, much closer to the hip.

"Oh, I'll give you that one", replied Hezzulin, "saw that one a mile off, short arse. But I know you meant to take that thing's face off clear. Probably hoping to make Ragnirlun over there retch". She flicked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating a dwarf who Thamnat had to admit did look a little pale behind his whiskers.

Leaning down, he grabbed the handle of the hatchet that was buried in the face of the second hobgoblin to fall, and with a with a quick pull, it came free. "Lost some momentum is all. I thought I was standing a bit further away and could fully extend my arm, but I had to bend at the elbow, and it took away some of the leverage", with a couple of wipes, the second axe was clear of gore, and he slipped it easily into its sheath. "Keys"?

"Crossbow bolt", replied Hezzulin, "which I have to admit was a nice shot. I bet you were up there for ages planning it all, waiting until one of them was turned round just right."

Leaning down to pull a small metal loop of keys from a dirty rope around the hobgoblins waist, he continued, "Nah, only just got in position, and the rocks were loose. Didn't want to hang around too long and risk something falling. Catch." He threw the keys and they saile between a couple of bars into Hezzulin's waiting grasp, and she was soon unlocking the old and rusty lock.

Coming from down entranceway, Thamnat could hear the unmistakable sound of a fight, "I'm guessing they're with you?" He nodded his head in that direction as he stepped out of the cage.

"Aye, didn't want them starting too early and getting these poor bastards all excited. They'll hold position for now, just keeping the hobs busy until we nip in behind them and help with the killing." He reached under the back of his cloak, and with a quiet click, pulled a crossbow out and handed it to Hezzulin. "If the rest of you want weapons, you'll have to find them lying around somewhere. She's the only one I trust with that."

As she took it, he was also passing over a quarrel with at least a dozen bolts left in it, but her eyes lit up when she took in the fine craftsmanship on display, "I've missed you", she said.

"I know you made it, but it's only a bloody crossbow Hezz! Notice you didn't seem as enraptured when I showed up and saved the day!"

"Oh, don't worry you fat bugger, I missed you too", she said, a chuckle in her voice as the elf leaned down and kissed her tenderly on the lips. Dropping the quarrel, she reached up to take the back of his head to hold him close.

Thamnat's mouth was gaped open at the sight, his stomach turning in revulsion, when he noticed the shape of Brukhed who had managed to silently move until he was stood right at his elbow, and spoke softly, but with a sharp edge to his words, "They've known each other since they were kids, grew up together. If you're thinking of making a point about this, I'd remind you how bloody dangerous he is, and how angry Hezzulin can get".