In the Company of Ghosts
Telitar Feligrim was sure that his legs would give out beneath him. For all of the rest he had been granted over the past week, one would not have thought that a march over flat, grassless plains could be this traumatic. But this forced quick-march was at the side of mounted horsemen, and the dwarven scholar of lore was their prisoner.
The Udarians, a cruel race of men from the realm of Zoe Meace, resembled ghosts upon shadowy mounts. Their snowy white hair flowed in the breezes that blew eastward toward the cursed ruins. Their skin, so pale that Telitar imagined gazing straight through their translucent bodies, and their eyes, as white as their hair, were enough to make him dream that the dead had again risen to fight on the side of Ryaarth, the shadow sorcerer of Zoe Meace.
Telitar and his companions had been captured at the gates of the ruined city of Glath, where they had traveled to find answers about an arcane relic, the Crystal of Glath. Telitar’s brother, Hendol, a stargazer, and Telitar’s friends, Alufin Antaneum, chief builder at the dwarven palace of Acleron, and Ancor Grelin, a troll-slayer of near legendary status, were sequestered from him, along with a human from Libec named Drestus Persio, who had joined their group in the town of Hemlock Point. He was also separated from another friend, Daelin Thimlock, the bearer of the Crystal.
Telitar’s eyes were tired and his head ached as, all around him, the sound of marching horses pounded loudly in his ears. The Udarians regarded the dwarf as nothing more than a child, not worthy of a second glance. If Telitar was a warrior, he might attempt escape; as it was, he was a loremaster, one of great renown, who would never consider combat. And he was too afraid to attempt escape. The ghostly soldiers had separated him from the others because he could speak Udari, and they would not hesitate to kill him, he was certain.
Daelin had convinced Telitar to go on this journey. Daelin Thimlock, who, until only a month ago, was known to the dwarf community as Thein Daelin, discovered the Crystal of Glath in a shrine outside his home city. Upon discovering the relic, he had inadvertently discovered his true family lineage. When he was told that he was the great, great grandson of one of the finest warriors in dwarven history, Daelin initially denied his heritage. But as the days went by, and the history of the crystal was revealed, it became evident to Telitar that Daelin had to accept his lineal ties, and his responsibility for the Crystal.
Telitar knew the lore. The Crystal of Glath, it was told, was present in two powerful cities, Arkus and White Palace when those cities were besieged and destroyed, their people scattered far and wide. Through a bizarre series of happenstances Telitar had traced, the crystal found its resting place in the Shrine of Acleron, near Daelin’s home city. Daelin had gathered his companions to seek answers at the Lords’ Table in the realm of Rantis, and they had set out on what was expected to be a four-month journey. As they had neared Rantis, however, they learned that the dignitaries they sought had fled to a distant realm. The allies of the shadow sorcerer, Ryaarth, had methodically been taking city after city near the Lords’ Table.
They should have turned back, Telitar thought, but the Crystal was too important. Altering their plans, the company turned west toward the Rill Forest. Upon reaching the gates of the Glath Ruins, the very place where the crystal had been crafted over seven hundred years before, the party was apprehended by the Udarian army, under the direct control of Lord Eyarix Larthelian of Inmarse, an ally to Zoe Meace. At this moment, the companions were being taken to the Lord of Inmarse; for what purpose, they knew not.
Telitar continued to stagger under growing pressure to his legs, feet and knees. They had been walking for at least three hours and the sun had begun to fall from its zenith when the column halted suddenly. The dwarf immediately fell to the ground and rested his weary body. Pulling forth food from his pack, he wolfed down the dried meat. When he drank, the skin was drained entirely of water.
One of the foot soldiers drew close and threw the dwarf a canteen.
"Drink that," he said in his strange tongue.
"Thank you," Telitar answered in the Udari language.
Opening the canteen, he put the spout to his lips and drank. It was water, or at least Telitar thought it was. As he swallowed, the tinny taste sat upon his tongue as the liquid travelled down his throat, warming him deep inside his stomach. Within a minute, he felt as though he had drunk too much ale.
The Udarian smiled, revealing his elongated canines which resembled fangs, and then chuckled as the slightly drunken dwarf handed the canteen back.
"It is called meera. It has a kick, eh?" said the white-eyed, white-haired ghostly figure. Just as Telitar was about to thank him a second time, another Udarian shrieked in his direction.
"Do not speak with the prisoners!"
The soldier lost his smile and strode away from Telitar. The dwarf was quite stunned by the behaviour of the soldier, having been under the impression all his life that the Udarians, as a race, were cruel and unfriendly. As a lorist, Telitar had travelled the world over, learned many different languages (including Udari) and met many people; yet he never attempted to initiate contact with the people of Udari based on his presuppositions about their demeanour. Now, he briefly wondered if he had been wrong.
Some strange singing reached Telitar’s ears and, when he looked, he realised that the Udarian soldiers were providing the song. He listened with great interest. The sound of the harmonising voices was eerily akin to the sighing of wind and the groaning associated with restless graveside spirits. Their song was a lamentation, the singers consoling themselves for the loss of their homeland, Cron. This homeland was an island where the Udarians had dwelt in sweet bliss since the lands of Lartoria were formed. One thousand years before the arrival of men from over the sea, the Thrairians of Bayscha discovered the craft of creating sea vessels and landed upon the shores of Cron, laying waste to the island paradise. The hobgoblin race from Bayscha had since paid restitution to the Udari people, but they had never released their grip on the island. In their flight to Zoe Meace, the Udarians requested assistance from the Lords’ Table, but were turned away without explanation. When the Udarians came upon Ryaarth, he promised them a permanent home in Zoe Meace. His magnanimous gesture was to grant them the so-called "Deadlands." Since that time, it was with great fury that the Udari conducted their raids of cities in the realm of Rantis.
Telitar’s head swirled with drunkenness. He managed to lay his head upon the soft cushion of his hooded cloak and fell into a deep, restless slumber, stilling the loremaster’s voice in his mind.
Daelin Thimlock rode side by side with the Udarian captain in command of this detachment. The pale-palloured soldier held tightly the reins of Daelin’s mount to preclude his attempt at escape, but spoke at great length with the dwarf, in the common tongue of men, about his many travels over the lower regions of Lartoria. He had asked dozens of questions of the captive, but the dwarf politely deflected them. Although the captain was his enemy, Daelin strongly felt that the man was of honourable stock.
The Udarian column halted to strike camp for the rest of the evening. They had approached the wide Lim River before deciding to wait until morning to find a proper crossing. A severe storm over the past week had swollen the river nearly beyond its banks.
The captain dismounted and ordered some subordinates to assist the dwarf in doing the same. When Daelin had reached the ground again, sore in the thighs from riding, he sat upon the cooling ground and wondered about his friends and their current condition. It had been nearly three hours since he had last spoken with them. Looking around, he saw the mount that carried his weapon; a war hammer which he had named Mearis-Arkus. The name meant "Light of Arkus"; since he was born in Arkus, he felt the weapon’s name should reflect that. Also alongside Mearis-Arkus were both Yrf-kudar, the great dragon battleax, and Shadra-Mor, a decorative battleax. Yrf-kudar, meaning "Hand of Fate," belonged to Ancor Grelin, and Shadra-Mor, or "dreadful darkness," was his friend Alufin Antaneum’s weapon.
The three weapons had been confiscated by the Udarians upon their capture. Daelin hoped that they would soon be released and their weapons returned. After all, they were being led to Lord Eyarix Larthelian in Inmarse and, as far as the dwarf was concerned, they had no argument with him. Even though he was in league with Ryaarth, the dwarves were not at war with Zoe Meace. Therefore, he could see no reason why they would not be immediately released upon their arrival.
As he snacked upon some blackening morels, a strange song had begun among the soldiers. The sound was odd and slightly haunting.
Ancor, Alufin, Hendol and Drestus marched stiffly along the grassy path as the sun drifted slowly toward the hills. The horsemen all around them blocked a proper view of just how large this military column was, but Ancor rightly guessed that it must be near two hundred strong.
Ancor Grelin, one of Orphis’ most widely-celebrated military leaders, had volunteered to accompany Daelin, Alufin and the Feligrim brothers, Hendol and Telitar, to the Lords’ Table in Rantis. When the companions voted on which way they would travel, Ancor had cast the deciding vote in favour of tramping off to the ruins of Glath. Now, in retrospect, he wished he had gone along with Alufin and Drestus. And even though that would have left the tally at three apiece, Ancor was sure that he could have persuaded Daelin to change his vote. Regardless of what had happened days ago, the fact was that they were now captives under the swords of the Udarians.
Alufin Antaneum looked upon his companions, worry lining his brown-bearded face. They were headed toward Inmarse and the dwarf was positive that this event spelled ill fate for them. His best friend for the past one hundred years was riding with the captain of this column and Alufin was worried for him. Daelin was no warrior and he normally shied away from great responsibility, yet when they were captured and asked to reveal their leader, Daelin immediately identified himself, even though it had been Ancor who had led them since Acleron. Alufin was not quite sure why Daelin had done so, but he felt nervous for him nevertheless.
Secretly, Alufin harboured resentment toward the others for voting against him. He had wanted to travel to Aweowne, following the advisors who had fled the Lords’ Table and its dangerous atmosphere. Drestus, the lone human in a party of dwarves, had been the only company member to vote with him and that left him distraught. He had had very foul feelings regarding a trip to the ruins of Glath; this situation they now found themselves ensconced in had proven that he had been right. But all that mattered not. They needed to escape, and quickly. If the rumours were true about the Udarians, they would be sacrificed to some blasphemous deity. If they were somehow lucky enough to avoid that disaster, there was still the matter of trying to convince the traitor Eyarix Larthelian that they were travelling to the cursed Glath Ruins merely for pleasure. They dared not reveal that they carried the Crystal of Glath.
The scholar Hendol Feligrim watched the faces of their captors with much curiosity. Their pale appearance was certainly striking enough alongside the white hair and white eyes. It was only upon extremely close observation that Hendol the stargazer realised that they were graced with fangs. Probably to drink the blood of their enemies, he thought grimly. While this prospect frightened him, he was much more susceptible to the terrible thoughts of what hideous treatment his brother, Telitar, would receive at the hands of their exsanguinating captors. Being the stargazer supreme of Orphis, Hendol was not used to being taken into custody. Since he had been on this quest for knowledge, he had so far been in the hands of captors four times; the first time, at weapon point in the realm of Genhale to the north of Orphis, his home. The men of Genhale were considered friends to the dwarves of Orphis, yet when they met with the governor in that region, he accused the party members of spying and sent them under armed escort back to the country’s border. In the village of Hemlock Point in the realm of Rantis, the men of that small town found it necessary to kidnap both him and his brother in retaliation of an event that occurred over four hundred years ago. The grudge of these people was such that the dwarves were nearly slain before their companion, Drestus, arrived to release them. The third abduction happened when the company had been travelling through the Rill Forest. As they reached Nod Lake, the men of Rade, well-known for their extreme paranoia of outsiders, took them captive. They only departed the forest safely after his brother challenged the men of Rade in their ancient custom. Drestus then defeated their champion in hand-to-hand combat, granting them release.
Now, they were helplessly being led to the Lord of Inmarse, a former Lords’ Table advisor who had betrayed the council by providing secret information to the enemy. Generally, Hendol handled dire situations well. His quick-witted brand of humour usually kept his spirits high. With the fate of his only brother unknown, however, Hendol found it very difficult to remain optimistic.
Drestus, the only human in the company of six, rested next to the others at the break in their travel. The horsemen had dismounted and were watering their beasts. Drestus drank deeply, wondering what fate awaited them. As he watched the apparitionlike captors and recalled their involvement with the shadow sorcerer, Ryaarth, he thought back to the reasons he had left home in the first place.
When the men of Nara-Poc, commonly referred to as the "Rivermen" in his hometown of Ageminda, quietly stole across the Grippen River and laid waste to his village, razing it and pillaging everything, they left Drestus nothing. The Nara-Pocians had slain every last Agemindan and departed back across the river. The men of the neighbouring town of Troon Fields formed hunting parties to drive any remnant forces back into Nara-Poc, but it was already too late. Drestus, having been in the north visiting his sweetheart, also arrived too late to help. When he had returned, the village of Ageminda was no more. Resolving to travel to the Lords’ Table to request an imposition of will upon the Rivermen for their crimes against Ageminda, the man from the realm of Libec could not know that this road would cross and intertwine with the road of the dwarven party.
Yet, here he was, travelling with them in captivity to a castle in Inmarse, and toward an enemy he had never known. He gazed again at the Udarian soldiers and wondered as to their state of mind. They were far away from home, doing the bidding of an evil mage, and now were subservient to a maimed former advisor to the Lords’ Table. When one of the soldiers peered toward him with his white piercing eyes, Drestus shuddered and looked away. From the tales of the Hastin Mar, a horse master with whom the party had stayed briefly, the Udarians were capable of untold cruelty. Drestus wondered if they would bear witness to such atrocities.
Daelin sat upon the ground, wriggling his toes and looking inside his boots for wedged or hidden pebbles. A shadow engulfed him suddenly as the crunch of shoe upon sand sounded. Looking up in silence, the dwarf saw the Udarian captain standing over him. The man stared down upon the dwarf with a stern face, yet there was intellect behind his icy glare, the white irises hinting at the slightest droplet of compassion.
"You will now answer the question," the Udarian captain said in his queer accent. As before, he was using the common tongue of man. Daelin’s throat tightened. Turning, the man began to bark orders in the Udari language. In response, two soldiers rushed to the area nearby and began to build a fire. Another began preparing a meal. Turning back to the dwarf, the captain locked his eyes upon Daelin. "You eat with me."
The statement was said as if it were an order to a subordinate. The captain sat upon a small stool and folded his pale hands, leaning forward conspiratorially.
"Why were you travelling to the ruins?" the captain asked.
Daelin hesitated. He was not sure if the captain was attempting to learn information before they reached Inmarse for the purpose of using it against them.
"We were trying to find our way to the coast... to Zoran... that is all," answered Daelin nervously.
"The coast?" questioned the soldier.
"Yes," Daelin said. "Zoran."
"Why to Zoran?"
"We were going there... to charter a ship," Daelin said.
"Where were you to sail?"
Daelin searched the face of his inquisitor for a clue as to where this interview was going, but the man’s visage was stony.
"We were going to the land from whence came our human companion’s ancestors," Daelin said convincingly.
The two soldiers had completed the building of the fire and the other began cooking the meal. The scent of the meat was unrecognisable to Daelin, but it smelled delicious, nonetheless.
"What were you to use as currency?" asked the captain suddenly.
"Currency?" Daelin stalled for time.
"For the charter," the captain said.
"Oh," Daelin answered as if he had not comprehended the question. "We have―" then the dwarf suddenly cut himself off, feeling quite uneasy about the query. After a very brief hesitation, he continued. "We have a charter already purchased."
The captain had a quizzical look come over his features.
"You said that you were going there to charter a ship. Now, you tell me you go there, but that the charter is already bought. Which is the truth?"
"We... we... " The captain held up a swift hand to halt his words.
"If you are having difficulty answering the question, it is because you are hiding something."
"No, we―" began Daelin insistently.
"There is no sense in this," the captain cut him off again. "I know you are lying. It is not a question."
"But there is much to―"
Again, the captain held up a hand, accentuating the action with a slow shaking of his head.
"No... more... lies," he said with emphasis upon each word. "What are you hiding?"
Daelin finally resigned to the fact that this captain was much too smart for games and lies. Crossing his arms, he frowned.
"I cannot say," the dwarf stated defiantly.
The captain closed his mouth slowly over his long fangs and looked away.
"You are going to be taken before Lord Eyarix," the soldier said without glancing at his prisoner. "I cannot tell you what he will do when you lie to him. But I can assure you that it will not be pleasant. He knows things about people... things hidden in your mind. If you lie, he will know. And he will punish you."
"Why do you take orders from the likes of him... or Ryaarth?" asked Daelin, forcing the captain’s squinted gaze back upon him.
"What say you?" he asked as his face drew closer toward the dwarf.
"I... was... " faltered Daelin.
"We take orders from our Lord Vggdracyl... not from Eridach or Inmarse," came the growling voice of the Udarian. The sudden flaring of his nostrils and the burning hatred in his eyes filled the dwarf with dreadfulness. "The honour of serving my country and my lord are deep in my heart. You first dare to insult me by lying and then by questioning my loyalty?" The Udarian’s breath was upon Daelin’s cheek now as the captain continued to lean closer.
Daelin acquiesced. There was no point in further angering the soldier. It was obvious that the Udarians acted in their own best interest without considering their alliances; at least, the common soldier did. Unmoved by Daelin’s attempt at concession, the captain stood slowly and pulled a long kris dagger from a hidden sheath. Clenching his teeth rudely, exposing his prominent, gleaming canines, he spoke in a dangerous tone.
"I thought that, perhaps, we deal with dwarves in a different way," he said in a low voice as he pointed the blade in Daelin’s direction. "I thought that the dwarves were more intelligent and compliant. But I find that I am wrong."
Daelin’s eyes widened as the captain took a threatening step in the dwarf’s direction. The nervous dwarf bowed his head subserviently waiting for the anticipated blow. But it did not come. Slowly raising his gaze, he saw that the Udarian had strode away from the area.
What did he mean, "Deal with dwarves in a different way?"thought Daelin. And why did he not strike me?