The relationship between dwarf and elf always was going to be tenuous, even more so when the elven race separated into two races – Druchii and Asur. But when the Druchii led a raid upon a dwarven convoy did the relationship shatter and start a turn of events that caused the two greatest races to fight one another to almost extinction; something both have never really gotten over.
The War of the Beard raged for nearly a thousand years both sides hrefused to give in and the battles were bloody, the climax of the war was the Battle of Three Towers at the elven city of Tor Alessi; it was here that the elven Phoenix King Caledor II was slain by the dwarven High King Gotrek Starbreaker. Gotrek took the Phoenix Crown as compensation for the loss of life and the insult his people has suffered, he then secreted himself inside the walls of the dwarven capital of Karaz-a-Karak. The new Phoenix King was forced to retire from the Old World with his race to defend from yet another Druchii raid under the Witch King, leaving the dwarfs the rulers of the Old World – until the Time of Woe for the sturdy beings.
But not all elves followed their king’s orders, many had become too entwined with the Old World and when the order came the hrefused to return and instead fled into the depth of the ancient forest known as Athel Loren. They abandoned the ways of the Asur and instead lived in harmony with the wood which was in fact alive, the denizens of the wood were spirits and ancient beings; many embraced the elves and enjoyed the improved protection they elves gave. Others were not quite so inclined to share and many became hateful towards the elves, who now bore the name Asrai, and shunned them. Problems hit the Asrai and their companions of the wood, including a betrayal of many of the woodland spirits leading into a bloody period of their time; and their first true dealings with humankind in the form of Bretonnians. Once again elven kind faced their once allies – now enemies – in the form of dwarfs. In the Imperial year of 1350, a one Grungni Goldfinder led an expedition into the woods from the Grey Mountains; he was repulsed by the combined forces of elf and spirit before Grungni was finally slain. This battle is well recorded in the dwarven Dammaz Kron and by the elven mages, with many grudges being written in dwarven book that day. And all know dwarfs never forget grudges.
For the umpteenth time in the past hour Algrim Forkbeard glanced down at the receding mists of the Grey Mountains and wondered if their approach had been noticed. It wasn’t as if a marching column of dwarfs was a thing that could easily be hidden or move swiftly and the march though the winter snow didn’t help. But Algrim thanked the gods that the mountain mist gave good cover for his approach. Look forward down the mountain path again Algrim spied a dwarf running back up towards him, one of his scouts. As the ranger reached his lord Algrim waited a few minutes to allow the dwarf to get his breath back.
“Greetings Lord Algrim.” said his scout rather formerly.
“Greetings Ungrun. What word of the path head?” replied Algrim.
“It looks good m’lord. We made it to the forest edge with no sign of the elgi, Skalf even managed to enter a few feet into it’s edge without any danger. I think we will be undetected, m’lord.”
“Good, good. How much further is it to travel?” Algrim asked, behind him the column of dwarfs had stopped; many reaching for ale or pipes in the brief break they had.
“About three miles sire, a few hours travel at best.” answered his scout. Scratching his beard thoughtfully Algrim looked once more down into the mist, even now small patches opened within its dense form revealing the high, white snow capped tree tops of the wood known as Athel Loren.
“Then we will camp here tonight. On the morrow we shall march into the elgi home and right the wrongs done unto us.” he finally said with a firm belief stamped into his words. “You and your rangers are to spread out along this road, I don’t want any surprises tonight.” Nodding the scout quickly bowed and once again took off down the mountain path, from their hiding places two more rangers slipped out into the light and followed. T isn’t right a dwarf liking above ground more than below Algrim thought with a shake of his head, then turning to the musician to his right he issued the order to break for camp to be passed quietly down the ranks. With once last look at the hidden wood he turned and marched his way back up the sloping path to choose the best place for his tent.
* * * *
Norreisa slowly walked through the trees that lay spread out in the sacred grove, her long thin fingers delicately trembled along the rough bark of the great wooden giants. Even with her eyes shut she could walk through the tangled mess of roots with ease and without fear of catching one of them, as well as her eyes being closed her breathing was deep and slow. It was as if she was sleep walking. Under the shut lids of her eyes a slight glow could be seen, Norreisa wasn’t asleep but was communicating with her very surroundings – the wood. She was a spellweaver of the Kel-Isha kindred and here in the sacred Glade of Woe she felt what the wood felt; each movement and each drop of snow, the time of years past, she knew where her kind were and where the spirits of the forest dwelt. She felt the great Oak of Ages where her lady and liege now slept through the winter, she could feel them inside its massive trunk and the guards outside. The sensations were as if they were her own, it was like she was the forest then suddenly something changed. Out on the borders of the wood near the Grey Mountains she felt something, something that didn’t belong there. It was only for a fleeting moment and wasn’t long enough to see what the being was but she felt something of a black cloud gathering and she began to concentrate on the area near to Pine Crags more.
If something was there she would find it.
* * * *
Before morning had truly broken the dwarf army was on the move, the lazy, pale smoke of their nights camp site drifted off into the cold winter wind. It took just over an hour but as the sloping pathway split one leading further down the Grey Mountains the other led to the eastern most entrance of Athel Loren and this is where Algrim Forkbeard now stood, glaring down at the large trees as if daring the inhabitants to appear. With a contemptuous snort Algrim began the walk down the slope towards Ungrun and his rangers waiting at the entrance of the wood, their crossbows raised and loaded. Beside Algrim was his army, over two hundred and fifty dwarfs; each one clad in heavy plated armour bearing a shield and either an axe or hammer. Knowing where he was going Algrim had ensued the use of any missile weapon other than that of the rangers, without clear flatlands he doubted they’d be worth it. Instead he had invested that money in armouring his clansmen, as well as the revered longbeards. These ancient warriors marched without word unless it was to complain about much more or stronger or greater something was back in their time, whilst he dared not voice it Algrim was slightly annoyed with the grumbling of these older beings – but was happy to have their experience and axes with him. He himself was the single most heavily armoured dwarf present, plates of heavily engraved and worked gromril encompassed his sturdy form; runes of his peoples so called magic were etched into its surface making it more than capable of withstanding a blow from a troll. In his mail clad hands he held his family’s heirloom the Axe of Dali, a weapon so old it hailed from the time when elf and dwarf traded in friendship but during the War of Vengeance it had earned the name of Elgi Drung – or Elf Vanquisher – and no elf who faced the dwarf wielding it had lived. A flash of a bright colour drew Algrim’s eyes to the right and he had almost forgotten about the beings who wandered in a loose group away from the army, slayers. The dishonoured dwarfs had heard of his plans and joined in hopes of repaying debts or finding death, either way the dwarf lord was glad they were there – it meant any large beast they encountered would have it’s hands full. Then finally there was his bodyguard, a small detachment of hammerers; the best fighters of the dwarven race. Their stoic forms marched in perfect unison and even in their heavy armour they were more than a match for almost anything they should meet in the woods.
As the column reached the bottom of the slope Ungrun left his group of rangers and approached Algrim,
“Good day sire. There has been nothing yet, no sign or sound of anything alive has been heard all day.” he reported
“Good. Then lets not waste what little time we may have. Shall we?” With that Algrim gestured forward for Ungrun and his scouts to take point, the lightly armoured dwarfs moved quickly into the undergrowth and entered the woods; their almost silent movements were followed by the thumping of two hundred and fifty sturdy dwarven boots upon the twig covered floor. Upon entering under the arching branches it was as if they had entered an entirely new world, all round them was dark – even the dwarven underground eyesight failed to penetrate the gloom very far but from what they could see they wasn’t quite so sure they wanted too. All round them were trunks of trees that rose high into the darkened canopy, the circular wooden columns were bigger than many of the stone versions that supported the roof back home in their underground city. The branches of the oversized trees stretched over the floor and intertwined with one another so much it was impossible to tell which branch belonged to which tree, others drooped close to the floor like age had caught up with them. From the floor great roots burst from the snowy ground like a sea creature rising from the waves for air before they dove right back into the hardened earth, from places all around the great wooden giants the creatures of the forest froze at the new comers. Small animals froze in the process of digging their winter provisions up in fear of these new creatures coming to thieve their stash, others looked upon them from high above; beady red eyes glinted out of the darkness before vanishing but what unnerved the dwarfs the most was the sound. Or the lack there of. Not a single sound came from the forest, it was as if death held its home there, many quickly found themselves wondering the intelligence of the campaign.
Algrim felt the same as his men but he had sworn to wipe out the grudges in the Dammaz Kron or die trying, thinking fast he muttered about the dark and as if he had been slapped across the face his head stopped dead. Turning to the hammerers beside him;
“Get the lanterns out. That should help.” And maybe it’ll help morale Algrim thought to himself. Moments later the order had been passed down the line and each regiment of dwarfs were bringing out lanterns of all shapes and sizes, some were closed boxes in which a candle was housed, some were little more then a candle sat atop of a flat sheet of metal but some were the rare and ancient glow globes. These gems were etched with runes that would give off a light, they were the same type of stones that lit the passage ways inside a dwarven city and it was rare to see any – let alone the amount Algrim’s group had – outside a dwarven city. The darkness receded quickly leaving a large area of light encompassing the dwarven contingent so much for stealth thought Algrim as he decided they had enough light and once more took up the march, the rangers pushing on slightly in front but close enough to be seen by the closest dwarf. The dwarfs had entered Athel Loren.
* * * *
The trees felt a presence, the wood was ancient and sentient; even the small sprites that made their home within the bark of the great oaks and elms knew there was something there. Something that harmed them before, something that would harm them again. An enemy.
Norreisa’s eyes shot open as she released herself from the spell and the wood, the thing she had spotted before turned out to be more than one; in fact it turned out to be several hundred. Panic gripped her as she quickly slipped between the roots of the trees and made towards the gathering of mages. Many turned with startled or puzzled looked written upon their faces as the young spellweaver entered the hall without ceremony.
“My Lord Arhuan, there is a force that has entered the wood. They entered the eastern entrance at the Pine Crags. .” Norreisa breathed, more of the mages wore puzzled looks at her command. It was spellweaver Arhuan who approached her;
“Are you sure?” he asked, his voice as smooth and soft as a babbling brook.
“Yes M’lord, the bearded ones have entered our realms once more. Nearly two hundred of them and they are heading towards the Kings Glade as we speak.” retorted Norreisa, her words drew gasps from many of the mages present; others snorted. One stood up from the back;
“And how do you know this?” he snorted in disbelief
“From the forest. I was communicating with it when I felt something, it was only briefly but it didn’t belong. Then I took a closer look and discovered a war host had entered our realms. I don’t believe they have gotten far but it’s only a matter of time…” she said before her heckler interrupted her
“If this is true then why have none of the spirits or waywatchers appeared to us? Why is it only you know?” he challenged. Norreisa was about to reply when Arhuan stepped in once more;
“Now Lusean, calm down.” then turning to Norreisa, “He does have a point though, we have heard nothing of this. Would not the dryads have appeared?” As she opened her mouth to speak Arhuan raised his hand and stalled her , “But we cannot ignore this. Lusean and myself will go and see if what you say is true, Oceion here will send a waywatcher to check with their own eyes. We shall not be caught unaware.” Norreisa nodded and watched as the mages split off to do their duty, with a sigh she sat down and prayed to Isha that the dwarfs would never find the Kings Glade.
* * * *
High above the ground a dark shadow moved along the branches, speed was at the essence but even as fast as it was it was nought but a blur among the blackness. Ythil swept quickly over the branches, so quickly in fact his feet barely graced the wood before they were onto the next. Ever since his old friend Oceion had told him of a threat to the forest no less than an hour ago did Ythil move swifter than a great eagle in flight as he sprinted across the trees of Loren, for anything to get this far into the woods undetected was near unheard of but with it being winter the forest was slow and weary. In this season it was up to the elven people to protect their home and the forest from such things but this was the first time for a long while that anything had gotten beyond a few hundred yards into the woodland. Deftly he leapt from his branch with nothing but a squeak of wood and caught a dangling vine mid flight , using his momentum he swung himself over the path way and onto the branches leading towards the Pine Crags; he was moving across the branches again before he had even landed silently among the animals there. He was but another shadow.
Ythil dropped to the forest floor as he reached the Pine Crags forest edge and it appeared the spellweaver was correct. They did have company. Expertly he ran his fingers over the floor, the footprints were dwarven; the heavy tread and short step was a give away and it appeared there was more than one. Well over ten score Ythil thought and heading towards the kings Glade as said. Standing erect he pursed his lips and gave three short sharp blasts, moments later a small grey bird drifted down from the treetops and landed upon the waywatchers out stretched hand. Raising the bird to his lips he softly began to whisper something into its ears then with a flick of his wrist and a single caw the bird was gone, Ythil watched for as long as possible then turned and began to follow the tracks of the dwarfs.
* * * *
Algrim muttered as he adjusted himself within his armour as best he could, despite it being the depths of winter the amount of armour he wore was stifling and the trees about him seemed to just swallow the cool air. For over an hour now they had wandered in near dark apart from the occasional flash of sunlight that spilled from a gap in the canopy, not that he minded the darkness but this wasn’t like the cool caverns of the mountains. Not at all, this was a darkness that swallowed all and help things; things that hid and things that hadn’t seen a creature other than an elf in centuries. It was these Algrim was wary of, more than once he had spotted a number of red eyes peering back out the darkness at him only for them to disappear whenever the light was shone that way. Around him his army marched in near silence, only the occasional chatter drifted forward before it was swallowed by the closed air; there was now noise but it was less animal like and sounded more like a voice. “Go back. You’re not welcome here.” Algrim thought he could hear it say, and he wasn’t alone for many of the dwarfs in the ranks had heard the same.
Just as he thought he was going mad Ungrun came jogging towards him, with a bow he met his lord;
“Hail sire. A couple more hundred yards ahead of us is a glade. It’s open to the skies and there’s no trees. I’ve had a quick look and could see no danger, might I suggest we rest there for a moment m’lord?” offered Algrim’s master scout. Nodding thoughtfully Algrim approved of Ungrun’s forethought and agreed, within moments the formation was moving again. They entered the glade and Algrim saw that Ungrun’s assessment was correct, there was no danger. Slowly the units began to break up and many moved into small groups, the noise of ale barrels being cracked open and the smell of pipes being lit assaulted his ears and nostrils; the smell and sound drew a smile to his worn face. Turning to his guard he nodded to them to join in, all but two immediately floated towards the ale and pipe weed. Algrim stood studying the patch of open ground they stood in. On all sides the thick trunks of the trees had formed a perfect circle, not a single tree stood within the glade, not even a sapling; this was something that concerned Algrim. Even above him the perfect circle of the canopy did little to alleviate the feeling that was beginning to muster in his breast, frowning he looked down at the floor and kicked the snow covering the ground. The rock hard earth jarred his foot earning itself a muttered curse from Algrim. The frozen ground was packed with leaves under the snow and thick bladed grass; nothing special. Maybe I am being a bit paranoid thought Algrim and with a little huff he turned and joined his fellow dwarfs near the fire they had somehow managed to light.
The noise of their drinking grew until they forgot where they were, the ale sloshed about in wooden tankards and great rings of thick grey smoke were puffed out as each dwarf tried to outdo the previous one. Algrim was half way through a tale involving his grandfather and a dragon when a moaning swept through the clearing upon the wind, instantly all froze as the noise rolled around them like thunder pealing across a stormy sky. Then as quickly as it came it went. A silence had now descended upon the dwarfs, occasionally punctuated by a cough here or there but it was utterly shattered by Ungrun.
“Sire! Sire!” he bellowed, kicking up sods of snow as he rushed across the white covered floor.
“What? What is it Ungrun?” Algrim tried not to sound desperate but wasn’t quite sure he managed it.
“It’s Morgrim sire.” Then at the questioning look upon his masters face he added, “He’s gone. Vanished.” Algrim was taken back by the news, he stood there staring stupefied at the ranger;
“Show me.” was all he could mutter before he followed the scout to the edge of the forest where Morgrim had been stationed. Lying there in the grass was a tankard, the alcoholic contents had stained the pure white ground a pale brown colour but of the owner there was no sign; only the dwarfs heavy prints marred the snow and there was no sign of blood. Algrim frowned as he surveyed the scene, his eyes scanned the floor looking for anything then he scanned the tree line. Turning to Ungrun;
“Make three search parties, you have an hour then we leave with or without him. The elgi will just pay more.” he said through gritted teeth, taking one last look at the trees he stormed back towards the mass of dwarfs barking orders. Behind him Ungrun began to form the search parties, three dwarfs in each – one with a light, one with a crossbow and one with his weapon drawn; each was to stay within sight of the other parties at all times. With that the three groups ploughed back into the enclosing darkness of the forest.
As they entered the gloom once more the bright lights of their lanterns seemed to shrink, the pool of light barely enough to encompass the three dwarfs in each party. Their harsh voices called for their comrade only for the sound to be returned or swallowed by the wooden jungle, but no sign of the ranger or his capturer. For an hour they bellowed and moved as far as they dared into the thicket of the wood but their searches came up empty; finally with one sorrow filled look Ungrun scanned the track they had left some hours ago and stepped back into the glade.
High above the edge of the glade a shadow sat watching with keen eyes, his eyes danced from group of dwarf to group of dwarf; counting and calculating their numbers and strength. A noise beside him drew his gaze, a bound being with a face full of hair screamed uselessly into the gag across his mouth; anger blazed in his slate grey eyes.
“Shush dwarf. You will die soon enough. But not before you have proven your worth.” uttered the shadow in a silky voice, then returning his gaze back to the glade he watched as they packed up and left; entering the Forest of Loren even deeper. Not for long he thought. As the last dwarf left the glade Ythil stood and looked at the captured dwarf; with a smile upon his lips he kicked him off the branch they he was perched upon.