Wergild: Chapter Seventeen: The Pass and the Rail
Chapter Seventeen of a complete Eberron Novel: The adventurers part ways. Orgok and Tef start back to Castle Otharaunt to confront Lord d'Orien, while Murias, Brig, ad Mith move toward Fairhaven, to give evidence of d'Orien's wrongdoings to the nobility of Aundair.
Chapter 17: The Pass and the Rail
Orgok marched in time to the drum, feeling the plates of his armor bounce. He snorted out to clear his nostrils. His blood was beginning to pump. He’d need it soon.
Gree’gos, his uncle and captain, drew the blade Thanda’ashnik, the clan sword of the Mreesh’nok clan. Orgok drew his own blade.
To his right, Orgok’s second cousin carried the company guidon, a standard of dark yellow, flanked by wide black stripes on each side. On the yellow field of the standard, a stylized cat head looking straight on, also in black.
Otharaunt was just ahead, and Gree’gos barked instructions.
“On my mark, break formation and attack. Column one, break left under Shathis. Column four, break right under Orgok. Two and three, we drive down the middle. For blood and glory!”
“For blood and glory!” the company screamed, certainly a battle cry loud enough to shake the heavens.
The company charged forward, and in his ears, Orgok heard the screams of the terrified occupants of the stronghold. His vision became a blur of battle, but… but the stronghold had been nearly undefended. Time blurred. He stood outside the castle now, and turned to see the company of longbowmen, and hear the whistle of their shafts. He looked down at the arrow in his own stomach. It couldn’t be real. He didn’t even feel it hit. The second one, the one through his upper arm, that one he felt.
He struggled to lift his head, when d’Orien marched Gree’gos out in front of the defeated hobgoblins. The human lifted Thanda’ashnik high in the air, and held the kneeling Gree’gos by the hair, sweeping the blade down into his neck. It took five strokes for the dragonmarked human to sever Gree’gos’ head. It fell and rolled to face Orgok.
The dead eyes stared at Orgok. Facial muscles twitched. Then to Orgok’s terror the lips formed words, barely whispered.
Orgok snapped awake, covered in sweat and trembling. The face of a human beside him caused him to reflexively draw his blade. He looked around the small camp. Mith held bow in hand, and shaft pointed at the warrior.
“Sorry,” Orgok said softly. “It was a dream. I forgot where I was for a moment.”
Mith released tension on the string and put the arrow away.
Orgok reclined and waited for his heart rate to slow.
“Others have told me how wonderful it is to dream, and how sorry they are that I cannot experience it,” Mith said. “Watching you, as I do many nights, I do not think I got the worst end of the bargain.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Our time together is coming to an end, isn’t it?”
Orgok studied the construct in front of him.
“Yeah. We’re going our separate ways, but that don’t mean we’ll never see each other again.”
“In my experience, it usually does mean I never see the person again.”
“That’s a pessimistic view.”
“That’s the truth of my experience.”
Orgok nodded. Just as death and betrayal had been the truth of Orgok’s reality, he could not deny what truths Mith had learned in his time.
“Well, still, we’re together now, and there’s always a chance of us meeting again. And if I don’t get another time to say it, my time with you and Brig has been really good, Mith.”
“I don’t want you to go to Otharaunt, Orgok. I fear you will lose your life there, and I’ll never see you again.”
“I’ve spent some time with you, Mith, and I like you. I’ve spent more time with Brig, and he and I have a lot in common, being under-earthers, but you got to understand, d’Orien took all my kin. All my life before I was enslaved was spent with those people, and that feeling you have about losing me, I got that fifty times over for everyone I knew and held dear. I might die. By Shavarath, I probably will die, but I got to try. My kin deserve as much.”
Mith cast his eyes down.
“I didn’t think my words would dissuade you, but I felt a need to make the attempt.”
“I understand, and I appreciate the thought.”
The two sat silently waiting dawn, and the waking of the rest of the company.
Soon, the others arose, and the procession continued on its way. They were only a day from reaching the Marguul Pass and turning west, back to Sterngate. From there, it would be a swift trip for Tef and Orgok to Passage.
The day passed, and the troupe moved into the Marguul Pass. Two days went by without incident. Mith watched every approaching carriage and caravan, on the lookout for any surprise house Orien might want to spring.
On the second night, Brig was awakened by a rough heel to the side of his head. He sat up cussing and found himself face to face with a mob of hobgoblins.
“Hey, Orgok, you want to start with the oratory?” he said.
A hobgoblin shouted at the dwarf and backfisted him with a steel gauntlet. Brig winced and blinked at the blow, one he considered laughable compared to the bite of a dire bear.
He looked over to see where they held Mith, pinned under the weight of their numbers. He was somewhat impressed that so many had snuck up on someone as alert as the warforged ranger.
Orgok stood quickly, bearing the byeshk blade. The long spears of a dozen hobgoblins pointed at him. He didn’t flinch. Instead he began speaking in his command voice, booming out in guttural goblin.
“This is Thanda’ashnik’tah, my clan’s sacred sword reborn. I am the chief of this tribe, and I demand by our law to speak to your commander!”
A gnarled bugbear immerged, wearing animal skins. Paint and tattoos covering much of his exposed skin.
“I am Ugur’oth. I do not recognize your chieftainship in my pass, little hobgoblin.”
“But you will fight me in single combat, or show your cowardice to your men,” Orgok demanded. “Or, you will set your tribute, and we will pass in peace.”
“Why settle for some of your belongings, when all of them are mine for the taking?”
“Because a coward does not deserve great wealth. If you are so mighty, and I am so weak, then face me. Otherwise, your followers and I will both know your true strength.”
Orgok listened to the slight murmur in the gathered men.
“If I win, your men are mine. If you win, you take all that belongs to my comrades, and they walk out of the pass unharmed.”
The bugbear drew a dagger, and laid open his palm. Orgok repeated the act, and the two grasped hands, sealing the pact in blood.
“What’s going on?” Brig asked Tef.
“Orgok’s going to fight that guy for our freedom, to the death.”
Brig sighed and shook his head.
“Always ‘to the death’ with these guys.”
The hobgoblins backed away from the fight area. Orgok set about putting on his newly acquired armor, hobgoblin forged breastplate, with greaves and bracers of steel.
He slung the bastard sword over his back, and drew his longsword, wrapping his chain around his off hand.
“Are you ready to die?” the bugbear asked.
“I want you to know, I’ll do everything in my power to keep you alive, once you go down by my blade,” Orgok said. “I have no hatred of you.”
“You should,” The burly goblinoid returned with malice.
He lunged in, taking an overhand swing with a crude morning star. Orgok dodged, and wrapped his chain around the morningstar’s haft, but was unable to pull it from the huge goblinoid’s grasp. He sliced with his primary hand, but the bugbear blocked the stroke with a metal armguard. The mighty Morningstar came swinging in again, and Orgok stepped in, catching the wooden haft in the ribs, instead of the spiked metal head against his skull. Still, the blow knocked him back.
The bugbear shook the chain free from his arm and lunged again, tearing the spikes of the head across Orgok’s shin. Orgok countered with a slash from the longsword that sliced a gash across the bridge of the bugbear’s nose. Orgok circled and snagged the chain from the ground, and the bugbear screamed in fury.
The captain of the bandits charged in, and feigned a swing with the Morningstar, only to deliver a kick to Orgok’s stomach, toppling the warrior. Orgok tried to roll with it but took the Morningstar in his back, knocking the wind out of him. The burly bugbear grabbed the breastplate that Orgok wore and drove the head of the Morningstar into his stomach, doing little to Orgok except giving him a moment to gather his wits.
Orgok thrust his longsword into the bugbear’s armpit and twisted the blade. The great bugbear recoiled in pain and hurled Orgok away. Orgok stumbled but kept his footing. When Orgok stepped in again with a quick slash, the bugbear stepped closer, blocking the blade with his Morningstar, and punched Orgok with his gauntlet square in the jaw. The force of the blow rocked his head and he staggered from the impact. The captain wasted no time following up with a stroke from the morningstar, crashing it against the side of the warrior’s head. Orgok retained the sense to jerk to one side, turning a certain kill into a nasty gash on the side of his face.
He ducked and turned, coming up behind the bugbear. He tossed his sword and chain, and drew the byeshk blade. The bugbear seemed unimpressed and pressed the attack. Orgok heaved a mighty two-handed swing, catching his opponent in the ribs, and cutting deep. The bugbear seemed stunned by the attack. Orgok pressed the attack, quickly swinging upward, knocking the morningstar back, then thrusting forward, into the bugbear’s chest.
The captain coughed blood, and toppled to his knees. He looked up at Orgok, unable to comprehend defeat at this lesser foe.
“Murias, can you save him?” Orgok asked.
Murias sprang to action against the fallen captain. He closed his eyes and chanted softly. Soft blue light gathered at his hands, finally spreading over the bugbear. When he was done, the priest turned his attention to Orgok.
“You’re very good at getting yourself beaten nearly to death,” Murias said, examining the wounds.
“The trick is to stop at ‘nearly’,” Orgok admitted.
He slumped to the ground, while a band of hobgoblins stood by, wondering what to do. One finally approached.
“We are yours to command, Orgok.”
Orgok looked at the hobgoblin warrior, then addressed the priest.
“Once you get me patched up, will you have any strength left to heal the captain there?”
“Enough to bring him to consciousness, I think.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
The bugbear arose from his unconsciousness, under Murias’ healing touch. Orgok stood over him.
“I have beaten you, Urug’oth. You are now mine to command. You and your men are servants of the Mreesh’nok clan. I demand one year’s service. This is your quest. You and your followers will go to the village five miles north of the Gathering Stone, where my people were. You will find out what happened to them. Every last one of them, do you understand? And you will send word to the north.”
“Do you come from a temple in the north, Murias?”
The priest nodded, “In Wyr, in the kingdom of Aundair.”
“You’ll send word to the temple of the Sovereign Host in Wyr. Do you understand your task, Urug’oth?”
The bugbear nodded.
“Now get out of my sight, before my great mercy for you falters,” Orgok bellowed.
The bugbear gathered himself and shambled off, his warriors in tow.
Orgok lay back on the ground and gave a great moaning exhalation.
The five companions sat around a table in a familiar tavern just outside the stronghold of Sterngate. They sat in awkward silence. The sand fell through the hourglass, and finally it was time for them to board the lightning rail.
Brig stood up, hefting a large supply of materials he’d purchased. It would be the first time he’d have to work on any magical item since he’d met up with Orgok. Two days on the rail, undisturbed. He looked forward to it.
He stood up and gave Orgok a hearty handshake.
“Good luck, chief,” he said with a wide smile.
“Good luck to you, Brig. I hope to see you again soon.”
He repeated the handshake with Mith.
“If it’s in my power, I’ll see you again,” he promised the warforged.
“May the Sovereign Host watch over you, warrior,” Murias said strongly. “And may you watch over the girl.”
Murias looked into Tef’s eyes, and all words failed him. He pulled her into his embrace and held her silently.
“Thank you for everything, Murias,” She said, almost in a whisper.
Brig left, as had been planned, with Murias and Mith. Tef and Orgok would come up to the station later. Even though they would all be on the same lightning rail, they wouldn’t be able to be seen together, if they hoped to keep up any kind of deception.
The trio loaded their horses on the stable cart and took seats in a plush coach cart.
Mith stared out the window at the stronghold.
“What am I supposed to do for two days?” Mith asked.
“You have seen firsthand the power of the Sovereign Host, but I fear I have neglected to tell you of its wondrous nature,” Murias said loudly. “Since there is time aplenty, I would be honored to enlighten you in the ways of my order.”
Brig sat on a bench facing Mith and Murias, but was engrossed in his own work. He pulled mortar and pestle out, and began concocting. Hours slid past and he arranged some time in the dining cart, where he used the stove to boil some ingredients down. When he was finished, he poured the syrupy concoction into a small vial and returned to his seat, where Murias still preached to Mith. Brig wondered if warforged ever got bored, and if so, if Mith would have the wherewithal to tell Murias such.
“Murias, give him a break. If he had ears, they’d be chewed off by now. Here,” the dwarf said, presenting his companion with the vial.
“What is it?”
“It’s something I made. It’ll make you more eloquent, when we go to face the Royal folks.”
“You made this for me?” Murias asked, astonished. “Thank you.”
Brig started to pull leather and other items from his bag to work on his next project.
“What’s that for?”
“There’s not a good Dwarven cobbler between here and the Holds, it seems, so I’m going to make the most comfortable shoes ever seen, all for me, because I damn well deserve it.”
“Would you like to hear about the Sovereign Host?” Murias offered.
“Did you do this to Tef when you were traveling with her?” Brig asked, not looking up from his work.
“No,” Murias admitted.
“That’s why she continued to stay in your company,” Brig said, looking up and smiling.
It was meant as a lighthearted barb, and Murias took it as such, but turned a worried eye out the window, as the landscape rolled by at galloping speed.
“Forgive me. I’m just trying to keep my mind off of Tef and Orgok. I fear without my guidance, and healing, they are in deep peril.”
“Well, there’s only one thing I know for certain about Orgok. He simply refuses to die. When all his kin starved around him, he survived. When the teeth of a clawfoot were crushing down on his throat, he survived. You’ve seen the rest. He might not be the most patient fellow, but I think his heart’s generally in the right place. And you know Tef better than me. But I got a feeling that she needs to see this to a conclusion as bad as Orgok. If you want to assist them, why not offer up a prayer to the Sovereign Host?”
Murias smiled at his short friend. Brig was an easy dwarf to like. He nodded and walked forward toward the dining cart.
When Murias was out of earshot, Mith leaned forward.
“Thank you, Brig.”
Brig smiled and nodded.
“So, where do you want to go when this mess is settled?” Brig asked, after a few moments of silence.
Mith sat thinking for a bit.
“Are you familiar with Xen’drik?”
“Only that it’s the continent south of us. And that it would take a boat to get there.”
“There is supposedly untold wealth and ancient artifacts there to be discovered by intrepid explorers.”
“I guess settling down in Zilargo doesn’t catch your fancy, then?”
“Not really,” Mith admitted.
Murias returned from stretching his legs, and sat down again.
“We were just discussing what to do when all this was over,” Brig said.
“I find this travel fascinating, although I could stand a good deal less of being jumped by brigands, and a more comfortable place to sleep than the ground.”
“No one ever wants to just settle down somewhere quiet, do they? It’s like a disease, like some weird bug you get. Once you get hooked on travel and adventure, you just want more and more,” Brig went on.
Murias watched his mild tirade with amusement.
Tef presented her papers to the attendant at the station.
“I’m Ashnalla Heath, and this is my captive. We have horses as well.”
The attendant made no odd looks or questions. He loaded their horses and escorted her to an otherwise empty carriage cart.
“I’ll see that food is delivered. Will you need armed men as well?”
“Four should do, I think,” she said.
The attendant walked off, and Orgok shot her a look.
“If we’re going to do this, we should do it convincingly,” Tef whispered. “Just follow my lead and we’ll be fine.”
Orgok felt less than ‘fine’ about putting his fate in the hands of this kid, as he saw her. He settled warily into the leather upholstered bench of the carriage. It’s rich, almost decadent detail made him no more at ease.
“Is this the lifestyle you’re used to?” he asked softly.
She glanced around at the carriage and nodded. Orgok conjured images of her, spending years in pampered comfort. He had focused his rage toward such folk for years. Now, he couldn’t imagine what was so important that she’d willingly bring herself into the violence and grime of his world. Orgok had the memory of forty-nine of his loved ones driving him. What could be so powerful that a young woman would give up her station, with all of its comforts? He didn’t know if it was within his right to prod her on such matters. Still, the question ate at him as the shudder passed through the cart.
Couplings clanged together and the conductor stones crackled hot sparks as the massive iron beast known as the Rail Coach heaved itself and its unimaginable burden slowly forward. Orgok tensed at the first movement. He felt the gentle swaying as the cart began moving forward. It creaked and groaned like a ship on the waves, and the sensation that he was gliding along in a galley on smooth seas was unmistakable. A strange confusion washed over him, with such familiar sensations now coupled with the luxury of the cart. There no whips, no reek of sweat, only the rich scent of fine leather, and the gloss of the polished hardwood floors. Even the view of passing trees and the Seawall Mountains to the East proved that he was not cutting a wake across the Straits of Shargon. Although he’d ridden the lightning rail before, packed like cattle into a freight cart, that memory was long removed from his present life.
“Are you alright?” Tef asked.
Orgok realized his feelings were playing themselves out on his face. He gave a crisp nod.
“Just old memories.”
“We’re both haunted by them, I’m afraid. Worse, I fear the sting of those memories won’t fade even after Ekhenas d’Orien gets his comeuppance.”
“What is it that’s driven you to risk all this, Tef?”
“This is my penance.”
“For what? What sin merits such a punishment?”
She laughed lightly.
“When I assumed the role of Lady ir’Othar…,” she paused, unable to speak her shame. “Lord d’Orien told me that I could claim her true nature by… by consuming her flesh. I remember the first night he brought the specially prepared roast for me. I became ill. But this continued night after night, and what at first made me choke, I soon came to savor, thinking that little by little, I was really and truly becoming the lady that I could only hope to play at. For years, that perversion gnawed at my conscience. The spirit of the girl would haunt my dreams. The world reacted to me as a sweet and beautiful young lady, blossoming into womanhood, but I knew I was a monster. I had become the very creature of legend, eating the flesh of a child, and stealing their life. It was true, those twisted legends of the changelings. I was that morbid beast.
“Then, as Lord d’Orien brought suitors for me to court, I knew the time was coming near, that I would be given charge of Otharaunt. D’Orien would use me like a puppet, as he had my whole life, and I would comply because he knew what I’d done. So I ran. I fled, hoping I could make amends for my sins.
“And you and Brig, you wonderful, stupid men… You fed me clawfoot. That taste is so clearly engrained that I will not, in all my life, be able to wash it out of my mouth. It wasn’t the flesh of the child he fed me. It was dinosaur. My crime was lifted. I was not a cannibal, although I’m not sure that’s what you’d call a changeling eating a human. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t consume human flesh. D’Orien only wanted me to think I had.
“Now though… Now I understand something more horrible. It doesn’t matter what I ate. It only matters that I thought I was eating human. And by the end, I was more than willing, eager even, to consume the meat laid before me.
“I walked down a very dark path, led by a very vile man. In some ways I was perverted, but in many ways I was complicit in the act. I am still the one who signaled d’Orien when the soldiers of Otharaunt marched south to defend against brigands crossing the Wynarn, and still the one who signaled him again when your forces arrived at the gates.”
“Those actions led to the death of three Aundair nobles. I’ll probably be put to the stake for it. But I’d rather face that than the years of guilt.”
Orgok sat in silence. His eyes wouldn’t meet the young woman’s before him. There was nothing in his customs or experience to deal with such a situation. A part of him yearned to reach forward and snap her neck for her participation in his company’s defeat, but it seemed like punishing a sword for the swordsman’s thrust.
He could see her eyes welling up with tears, and it made him so uncomfortable his skin nearly crawled. The only action that came to his mind was so against his military bearing that it defied reason. Still, he took it. He moved next to her, put his arm around her, and held her. He looked around the cart. The armed guards she’d requested would only come back to relieve her to rest. No one would see. No one would know but her.
The miles rolled past, and the Seawall Mountains drifted away, to be replaced by the rolling hills of Easter Breland. The Railcoach’s conduit turned West and eventually north, skirting the west side of Lake Brey. Forests and farmlands fled past, unceasingly. After only a few short days, Orgok could see the blue line of Lake Galifar and knew the city of Passage couldn’t be far off.