Posted on August 3, 2005 by Monica Valentinelli
Fiction set in the world of Cursed Empire.
Written by Monica Valentinelli
Stone heard her heavily-padded footsteps thunder on the narrow path that wound through the Rarlonn Range. She was an animal, but no less intelligent for her massive size. He could only guess what she looked like. True daylight never revealed her form to him. All his memory could recall were streaks of greasy black whirring past him, hunting him.
Stone felt a pang within his chest and leaned against a crevice. Since he knew no guilt, the pain did not warn him like it should have. The she-beast, if he could call it that, was his. He patted his midnight blue jerkins. Shame colored him as he traced the streaks of red that bled across the fabric. Stone wished it was hot blood that stained him, only it was something else. The last shard of truth he allowed himself to think was that he may have been too old when he approached the Vultures, his bitterness clouded his judgment. Somewhere in the waters of his grief for his slain wife a plan emerged. If justice would not permit him to pick up her sword, then he would wield injustice as his hunting cry. Stone did well enough to find several evil factions, some that considered themselves to be acting solely in defiance of the Empire. Although many enticed him like a newfound lover, the Vultures seemed the most logical. Their high-numbered ranks encompassed many that were very, very young. To their fresh eyes, his age and experience might grant him a boon. Surely, he had the advantage to quickly outlast and outmaneuver children that knew nothing of stained-glass politics.
Stone wandered in his thoughts. His prey had journeyed with him for many days. At times he’d make an extra game kill to feed the animal, but she never ate what he offered her. That disturbed him, that she would not eat his gifts. Pursuing the beast was trouble enough, but he gave his newfound “allies” his word. Stone would pass this test, he would not fail again.
Tilting his head, Stone closed his eyes and concentrated on the oily eyes slithering over his crouching form. He was too vulnerable there, so he started forward. The smell of sweat lifted towards his nose as he twisted through narrow rock crevices. Maybe after he bent the beast to his will he would receive a new name, one worthy of belonging to the Vultures. Stone hated this undue need to prove himself. Half of the members for the faction didn’t have enough worldly experience to lace their jerkins let alone understand what words like “defend” or “homestead” meant. Sure, they could cause harm easily enough. But could they claim that theirs was not a mission for good or for evil? Was their wife murdered and brutalized for human sacrifice? Vengeance had no place in morality for him. It simply was.
The sound of a stone crumbling from the mountain alerted him. Stone peered through the darkness, his body leaning forward to slide past a sharp rock. The glint of sharpened teeth flashed in the moonlight. He spun round, fumbling for his blowpipe. The mountain air forced his lungs to work harder. His chest heaved as he searched for poison darts that hung from his belt like animal pelts. Cursing to himself, his fingers clumsily pushed the dart into the pipe and blew. Stone’s weak breath only moved the dart partway. Looking up, he saw pale blue moonlight bathing in the promise of metal. Had he time to breathe, Stone would have wondered why there were others so close upon him high in this uncharted region of the Range. While he had other knives on him, his thoughts remained on rescuing the poison dart from his pipe. Closing his mouth on the opposite end, he gently sucked air from it to try to dislodge the dart. Unsuccessful, he drew a sharp intake of breath and the dart grazed his dry tongue.
Stone crumbled to the ground in a heap of flesh and bone. His last conscious thoughts were of the beast, wondering if he was good enough for her to eat.
A bearded face loomed over the poisoned Condorian, his face shrouded in shadows.
“What should we do w’im?” the bearded face turned to another face, partially-covered by a large hood.
“Take him back. If he comes to, we’ll introduce him to Taarkyll. If he doesn’t, we’ll bury him in the morning outside of Condar.”
“By the looks o’im, this one sure dunno much.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
The stout men lifted Stone by his ankles and wrists. They didn’t bother to secure him, they had experience enough with factions and their means of harm. They knew this one was a Vulture by the clothing he wore.
Although their prisoner may lack the eyes to see when the sun sets, Dwarves were used to living in darkness.
+ + +
Silence welcomed the Condorian settlement nestled gently against rock and old wood. The small group of sleeping houses was just enough to house a few Condorian families, their descendants, and their meager belongings. Ilieva, the settlement’s leader, allowed her thoughts to wrap around her as she stepped from her open doorway. She gave up sleeping through the night long ago, these people were hers to watch over.
The families lived in exile, far removed from Condar, Rodak or Derve. They did not choose to live there, the mountain hand-picked them. They were merchants, traffickers, and traders in luxury goods, foodstuffs and information. All had a story to tell, some worse than others. A rockslide claimed one party, bandits tore apart another. Long have they been grieved for, even longer have they been forgotten. Until the miners came, dwarves with their pickaxes and knowledge of things buried deep within the earth. Tough yet resilient, Ilieva grew into the mountain ever since her husband died last Lokt. So, when the dwarves came offering a mutually-beneficial treaty, how could she refuse?
Rocking gently on her wooden porch, Ilieva sang her song of grief in defiance of the suffocating silence. She sang of thievery, the dry Yarkun threatened to steal the lifeblood of her farm. Her notes cried of fear. Without crops she would be forced to scavenge for food. This past Lokt hardened her, their carefully-planned food stores had long since been eaten. Lighter notes carried the song to a high pitch. She hoped that Murt would be kind to her and the settlement, aiding her crops and their hunters. The song darkened as her worry grew. It would be worse for them if the dwarves found out the harsh truth. The settlement’s food supply was lower than it had ever been. Not enough to feed her own people. It certainly wasn’t enough to pay tribute to the Dwarves that kept them safe. Ilieva’s voice sung to a muted whisper. They survived nature, goblin, orc, beast, famine, disease, and the Empire. The promise of a new day always kissed her gently. She wasted her precious tears on that hope.
Turning her head, Ilieva sought out the gaping hole that opened at the foot of her settlement. Torches lit a path underground. Some said the hole was an open wound, and one day the mountain would cry out in pain. Others said the Dwarves were a blessing, a people that thrived in harsh conditions bringing hope for the rest of them still learning to survive. Ilieva thought it was a curse, for the death of any Northern dwarf so far removed from their home would surely doom them all. If other Northern dwarves would not come for their dead to bury them in their homeland, who knew when the Darvanne would find them? Or worse yet, Condar learning of the precious mines only to enslave them, dwarf and Condorian alike, in its zeal for riches. Ilieva forced herself to smile, it was a guilty pleasure that they knew nothing of the mining here. Opening her arms, she welcomed the deepening night and thanked the mountain for keeping all their secrets.
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