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By King Ulrik Flamebeard
A high pitched scream echoed through the valley before abruptly stopping. A dwarf rose from the small green corpse, a piece of the rag that the greenskin wore as clothing in his hand as he wiped the blood from the hunting knife. Returning the weapon to a sheath in his pack he silently nodded to the rest of his group. The eleven dwarfs ghosted from the scene of the slaughter as if they were never present; the corpses of the goblins were left for the mountain and its inhabitants to deal with. As one the gaggle slid back into the forest that had hid their positions before hand and headed back towards their make shift camp. As the last left he stopped, not a twig snapped nor a leaf move as he moved quickly for a being his size; looking over the site he gave one last review to make sure none survived and he too entered the forest. Behind him the carrion fell from the skies, flocks of black birds descended upon the slaughter to pick at the fresh meat; their calls could be heard for miles.
Hadrif Greenleaf quickly followed his fellow rangers deeper into the wooded terrain, the leaves upon the trees and floor had begun to turn from the fresh and bright green into a melancholy range of reds and yellows; a sure sign the season had begun to turn towards the autumn. Even covered in the gear he and his fellow dwarfs carried they were near silent as they deftly dodged root and branch on their quick moving march, each one capable of finding their way back to the camp or if need be to survive alone for a prolonged period. Hadrif could not help but smile at his recruits, barely a decade in training and they were among the best rangers this side of the World Edge Mountains. As they approached the camp site they slowed their pace and began to split off into pairs and enter from different angles, each one had their crossbow raised in case something had wandered into the camp â€“ as was the case a few weeks ago when they found a bear devouring their supplies. Now it was their supplies. Bird whistles sang across the open spaced camp each signalling all clear and as one they entered the clearing. Once again Hadrif was the last to enter, his eyes scanning the ageing foliage behind them. Satisfied they had not been followed he too entered the clearing, by this time his group had gotten a small fire going; and with little smoke he mentally noted. All round him his fellow rangers had begun to strip off, many were covered in the crimson pattern of sprayed arterial blood and vomit on their boots.
Looking down at himself Hadrif realised he should do the same and slowly he began to remove his gear. Like the rest of the rangers he carried all he required upon him, a crossbow â€“ a full stocked weapon capable of slaying an armoured man from over a hundred paces away, a large double bladed axe, a number of throwing axes â€“ used for various other purposes as well, a selection of smaller knives hidden about himself, a pack containing numerous implements for cooking and preparing food, a rune stone â€“ used to check the safety of water, rope and a tinderbox. Food and shelter he was taught to find for himself. Removing his light chainmail shirt he felt the wind suddenly caress his near naked torso, only a light cotton shirt protected him against its touch. Quickly moving to the fast flowing brook that passed through the eastern quarter of their encampment he dunked his head under the rippling water â€“ the ice cold mountain liquid snapped his mind into a sudden and clear focus. Withdrawing his head from the brook he shook his head, raining droplets of water back from his beard like a dog after a bath; he unclasped his beard from its bindings and slowly began untangle it as he walked back to his clothing and pack.
Dressing himself he sat down on a rock and began to stroke a bone comb through his beard, wincing occasionally as it encountered a knot of hair. His brown eyes studied his group; the Greenleafs they had been so nicknamed by the locals as in slight insult to those dwarfs who preferred the open mountainside than the confines of the mines below. All present were the scouts for the local dwarf villages in the small section of the mountain range, each range was split into sections and patrolled by different 'squads' of rangers â€“ ranging in numbers from ten to as high as thirty. The Greenleafs were a small group for a small area. Each one had grown up in the surrounding area and had some prior knowledge of the land, Hadrif had just expanded upon that in a number of years of intense training. He knew none could doubt his group on their shooting or combat ability, each one could kill a goblin behind a boulder from a score of paces away without ever being seen and could easily take on an orc in close quarters. Yes hardy dwarfs these, Hadrif thought to himself.
Pulling a pipe from his pack and stuffing some weed into it he sparked the dried leaf into life, taking deep puffs of the pipe he began to blow rings of smoke lazily into the air. It was then he heard them â€“ the boasting. Twin brothers Kadrin and Kerrik Proudvoice stood near the fire, a stein of ale each and toasting one another for slaying the most goblins.
â€œHail brother! You were brilliant, not quite as good as myself I might add, but brilliant none the less. That second grobi you beheaded with great skill and knowledge, bravo.â€? Kadrin put forth to the group, then raising his ale in a salute he took a deep gulp of the liquid before smacking his lips in satisfaction. His brother Kerrik did likewise.
â€œSkill and knowledge?â€? barked a second dwarf, Thoek Lightfoot from what Hadrif could see. â€œHe wouldn't know skill if it came up and slapped him around the face!â€? the joke brought a round of deep laughter from the lounging rangers and crimson to the faces of the twins.
â€œOh and you would Thoek? Wasn't it you who missed that boar last week and my brother who brought it down?â€? Kadrin said with a smug smile on his face. To this Thoek had no reply but to glower at the celebrating pair. Hadrif shook his head and signed softly. The twins worked great together and with the group â€“ when they wanted to but it was their arrogance that was their downfall; and usually leads to a near fist fight. Tapping the ash out of his pipe on a nearby rock and stowing it away once more he forced himself to his feet and towards the fire.
â€œRight young beardlings.â€? he said, his words held a meaning that all recognised instantly â€œInstead of arguing over who was the best or killed the most like a bunch of urk may ye'selves useful; go gather firewood and food â€“ someone get some of that water on the boil I fancy a stew tonight.â€? The dwarfs muttered but obeyed the commands of their leader, a few dispersing into the woods to pick up wood for the fire whilst others busied themselves with fetching water and unpacking the equipment for the nights meal. As the moons steadily rose into the night sky the huddle of dwarfs sat and spoke softly, or as softly as the harsh sounding language of Khazalid would allow, about random topics â€“ ranging from the best ale to the worse warlord of the greenskins. Hadrif mean while sat quietly and listened, mainly he smoked his pipe and sipped his ale. That was until of ranger mentioned a name that had haunted his family and clan for centuries; the orc warlord Azclaw Ironback. For a while he listened to the stories of the infamous deeds of this fell being but as the rangers began to move into the realms of the more fanciful deeds, Hadrif spoke. His voice cut across the rest, silencing them with a few words. Staring into the fire he began to tell his tale.
â€œAzclaw Ironback is worse than you think, and I should know as I've seen him. A full two heads taller than any other greenskin on the field he was, his muscled form was clad in iron plates â€“ mainly stolen from out people â€“ and gripped in his huge paw was a cleaver that constantly crackled with green power. Aye, a fell one indeed he was.â€? He spat into the fire, the saliva sizzled and the flames spat back. The rangers looked at their leader, his old features looked like wounds as the red light from the crackling fire played across them.
â€œHow do you know him Hadrif? I heard he was slain by an unknown warrior nearly two hundred years passed.â€? At this the old dwarf barked a laugh,
â€œTwo hundred years? Nay boy. T'was longer than that, nearly three by my reckoning. It was the battle of my former home, a mine not far from these hills. My clan had found the abandoned mines a century before hand and after a bit of cleaning â€“ there were a bunch of squigs living there â€“ they settled into it and began to dig once more. No dry mine was this, oh no. The mine was bursting at the seams with gold, gromril and silver â€“ we were rich. Then he appeared. First t'was taken as mere rumours, there had been no orc sightings for our period there but soon our caravans were being attacked. Wolf riders or orcs upon those vicious boars swooped down from the hills and raided them before fleeing once more; so we took precautions and now each train was guarded by iron breakers and the like. This was our first mistake.
Our best warriors were out with the convoy when they struck. Our small defences stood no chance and we returned from the trip to find out families defiled in ways you would not think possible, or still living ones nailed to solid stone and left to either die to be eaten. The orcs ran though our home, ransacking it for signs of treasure but none could be found â€“ my father, the master of the mines â€“ refused to expose the secret places and was slowly cut to pieces for this.â€? Hadrif chocked, tears welling in his eyes as he recounted his pain; the rangers could do nothing but not look him in the eye. â€œWe fell upon the orcs with vengeance and anger borne strength, they stood little chance against us sons of Grungni in their sated state and few survived. That warlord was one of the few that did. By all accounts he should have died that day, he was badly wounded before fleeing; alas it appears he is required by his gods. But there will be a reckoning.â€? The last few lines were an oath, as hard as stone and everlasting as the mountains.
â€œBest get some sleep lads, those grobi earlier were just the fore runners. I expect we'll see the true horde soon enough, war is coming and our people need to know of it.â€? One by one the dwarfs settled into their sleeping sacks before passing into the realm of dreams. Hadrif was the only one left, as the last dwarf slipped into slumber the old dwarf barely managed to stifle a sob; clutching at the amulet about his neck he swore that Azclaw Ironback would fall and if not by Hadrif's own hand then by his actions. And once more he renewed his oaths of vengeance against the green skinned race.