__________The Following Dark__________
A bloody beginning, hidden trouble and the start of a very bad day.
The dark column of smoke rose over the thick forest, marring the clear blue sky; something burned on the Trade Road. Onar sounded the alarm and the entire patrol lifted their heads, taking in the ominous sight. Nobody waited for orders, they immediately started pushing forward despite their exhaustion after the long mission. Onar heard a few whispers amongst the soldiers, and he could imagine why. They were only a day away from Erebor, but it was too much smoke to come from just a few campfires. Whatever lied ahead would not be pretty.
Shortly after they found the first body. In the middle of the road an older merchant dwarf lay sprawling, three arrows sticking out of his back. Onar carefully pulled one out and looked at the arrowhead and fletching, neither of them distinguishable in shape or material. It was just a regular arrow made of goosefeathers and base iron.
As they closed in they wearily slowed down, all the dwarfs could smell it now: the ash and the unmistakable stench of death. The caravan lay spread out across the road and the ditches, two broken carriages and seven overloaded wagons overturned. The colorful contents had been thrown out, torn, crushed and set fire to. Pieces of colored glass, small ornaments and overturned baskets full of beads had been scattered around, now crunching under the heavy boots of the patrol.
Onar could feel his pulse thudding against thearm-guards. He was on high alert, adrenaline coursing through him. This was somehow worse than orcs and goblins. The merchants and their guards had been slaughtered indiscriminately and with great enthusiasm. Onar looked down on a young dwarrowdam staring unseeing at the sky above. Someone had opened her from the chin down to her groin with one swipe of a large blade, splattering her pretty face with blood. They must have been taken unaware he though, the way the bodies laid it didn't look like they had had time to organize a defense. It was natural to let your guard down this close to the great dwarven city, you were supposed to be safe.
Nothing moved amongst the debris except the smoke dancing and swirling from the many fires. Onar stopped and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, a foreboding quiet laid over the woodland around them like a heavy mantle. The blood on the ground was still fresh. Whoever had dared to attack traders this close to Erebor might still be stupid enough to hang around. But stupid could sometimes be dangerous, as any soldier well knows.
The Captain brushed past Onar and stumped into the hazy wreckage, completely impervious to the unease of his soldiers. He stepped over a dead guard before leaning down to remove the dwarfs necklace, weighing it in his hand before pocketing it. Onar looked away, feeling disgusted. Arrogant, petty and suspicious - Fjalar always played up his nobility but never acted with the honor or benevolence of Hornbor, who had been a commoner by birth. After Commander Hornbor was killed during the fights deep in the Grey Hills the Beta soldiers could only look on in dismay as Fjalar named himself Captain, as they themselves had nothing to say in such matters. None of the other Alphas wanted to be the one to explain to their King how their first Commander had died, so they let Fjalar take charge without objection.
Recruited as the new Captains second in command against his will, Onar had had to trail after Fjalar the entire way back. Being a Beta he shouldn't even be given such a status, and the Alphas in the Patrol made their views known by generally ignoring anything Onar said or did. Now he just tried to keep their patrol from disintegrating over mere trifles, the last week of the journey had been a trying affair for everyone. It didn't help Onar to know he had to face Thorin at Fjalars side when they got back. He would have to choose between telling the truth or reveal his Alpha brothers rookie mistake - an impossible choice in his mind. Loyalty meant everything amongst the dwarves in the Long Patrol.
Now Fjalar let his soldiers mingle about without giving any orders, while he poked in the ruins of the caravan looking for more valuables. Onar gave a few silent orders, signing to three of the Betas to search the outskirts of the area, and the rest that actually paid him any attention to look for anyone still alive. Checking for signs of life amongst the rubble Onar had almost reached the end of the convoy when he heard the sounds. Someone coughing? The sound was quickly strangled but the dwarf made his way towards the source. Not wanting to alert any nearby foes he carefully stepped between the crushed pottery, bits of small furniture and large rolls of expensive cloths littering the last stretch of road. He arrived at the toppled carriage, still attached to the dead horse lying on the ground. Peering in Onar saw it was empty and he scanned the nearby forest for movement. Only a thin veil of spring green crowned the leaf trees but the firs were dark and thick, there could easily be a score of foes hidden right in front of their noses. As Onar stepped closer to the forest he heard another sound from the carriage and he turned back, staring at the crushed woodwork and broken wheel. The backside of the thing was definitely bigger than normal, wasn't it?
Now that Onar looked for it he could see the lines forming the hidden hatch at the back of the carriage. He set his dagger to it and with a grunt he poppet it open and nearly fell backwards as two dwarves tumbled out of the secret compartment. The slight nithul had a russet mop of hair covering most of her face, but he caught a flash of her hazel eyes, wide with fear and shock. Even as they lay tangled on the road the khulz tried to push her behind him, his small frame not much of a shield. Short chestnut hair was plastered to his head by sweat, and his gray eyes locked with Onars. The Beta could tell the little dwarf was prepared to die to protect her. Astonished exclamations pulled him back to reality, as the rest of the patrol had come up behind him to see what he had found. Only too late Onar realized what his nose had tried to tell him all the while: the two survivors were Omegas and worse – they were both in heat, shrinking under the gaze of two dozen soldiers who had been away from polite society for what seemed like years.
A ripple went through Fjalars ranks as nostrils flared at the smell of the two Omegas. Before a single word had been uttered the Alphas of the patrol were already squaring up to a fight, the Captain himself seemingly taken harder by the surprise than the rest. Onar was not inflicted by the powerful urges overtaking most of the Alpha soldiers, but the Betas being in the minority here this could easily get out of hand. Hell, it already had as Fjalars hands shot to the hilts of his weapons, slowly turning towards the closest dwarf with a glare. Onar could see the nonverbal communication passing between the Alphas; their scent was growing ranker. Over half stepped away from their Captain, showing their respect for his claim to the Omegas. But too many stood their ground, staring back at Fjalar with defiance and greed. Trying to catch some of the remaining soldiers attention Onar signed for them to back him, but few even dared to move. A few Betas drifted towards him behind the group, trying to avoid Fjalars attention. The Captain slowly unhitched one of his axes from his belt and shuffled his feet to a fighting stance. Onar realized there was no waiting, he had to act now. He walked up to him and addressed him in a careful tone:
“Captain, we should take these Omegas back to...”
He didn't get to finish the sentence before he was hit with a powerful blow to the head, making him stumble to the ground. Small lights danced in front of his eyes. Fjalar held out his axe as a silent threat – anyone coming closer better be ready to fight him. And those idiots would challenge him too, Onar could see it in their faces. He tried to stand up but his legs gave in. Lying in the dust he resigned himself to whatever would come next. These dwarves had been his brothers in arms, he had protected them with his life on the Long Patrol but apparently he wasn't capable of saving them from themselves.
“I stake a claim.”
The voice cut through the building tension and in the silence that followed a strange dwarf stepped onto the road from the forest. The soldiers stared at him. Was he one of the robbers? Or a hunter? The stranger wore a padded fighters tunic in a patchwork of tattered leathers, and over it two bandoleers crossed over his chest. A headwrap covered his face in the Southern style, a strange garment this far North. His eyes was the only part showing; a golden amber taking in the scene with a serene calmness that made Onar suspect this lad might be crazier then the soldiers. He was facing down over a dozen fully armored dwarves, all mad with the smell of the Omegas. Fjalar measured the stranger with incredulity, clearly coming to the same conclusion as Onar.
“Have you lost your wits lad?”
The dwarf moved towards them, still at a safe distance but it became clear as he came closer that he must be young. Barely reaching Fjalars hight and much slighter in frame this youngling was no threat to anyone in the patrol. Some even started to grin. Slowly the stranger lifted the bandoleers over his head, dropping them to the ground. The lads only weapons were a short blade and a small warhammer hanging from the thin belt that crisscrossed over his hips. This pipsqueak was clearly set on meeting his end sooner rather than later, as he ignored Fjalars question and continued towards them.
“You are soldiers from Erebor?” he asked and continued before he got any answer, “You have the right to back out if you don't want to fight me, I wont judge.”
The Captain was clearly riled by the lads cockiness: “But you are just a dwarfling!”
“I'm older than I look,” the newcomer replied unfazed, pulling the warhammer from his belt and stroking the metal lovingly.
“What do you say grandpa, are we going to do this while the sun is still out?”
“You think you can take me with that puny cutlery?!” Fjalar nodded at the rather unimpressive weapons, but his face had started to redden with anger. The jeers from the stranger was getting to him.
“I think I can take you in any fight, with or without weapons,” the hunter replied before he looked behind the Captain and addressed the rest of the Alphas, “and I'll take on anyone who thinks they have a right to the Omegas. I challenge you to a Hurmel Uhurud.”
The Hurmel Uhurud had been considered old fashioned in the civilized dwarf cities for the past two generations, but it wasn't outlawed as such. There had to be a unanimous vote from all of Erebors Council members to change a law, and they rarely agreed on anything. Thankfully the Omegas living in Erebor these days were free and allowed to choose their own partners, or so it was in theory at least. It was well know the Honor Battles were still fought amongst surface dwarves.
The Captain unfastened his cloak wordlessly, heftet his second axe and moved closer to the stranger standing on the road. It was clear to all that there would be a fight now, there was no going back now. Most of the soldiers took some steps back giving them space, but two dwarves drew their weapons and stayed. Flexing in their sturdy battleworn armor they flaunted their advantage, and it really was an advantage: what they were wearing had been made to withstand heavy blows and cuts from large two-handed weapons. The lads leathers would make him more agile but certainly also much more vulnerable to their weapons, made of sharp steel forged by some of the best weapon smiths in the known world.
The youngling drew a dagger so long it could almost have been a shortsword. Unadorned but clearly well kept the strange blade glinted along the edge, divulging the sharpness of it. In his other hand he held the hammer; a dainty thing compared to the warhammers favored amongst soldiers. It had a longer handle then a smiths hammer, but with a curved nasty point to one end as well as a functional metal bulb at the other. He calmly walked up to Fjalar as if to spark a conversation. The Captain didn't hesitate. With a roar he threw himself at the smaller dwarf, slashing at him with his axes in a flurry of blows that most certainly would have been lethal if not for the lads uncanny speed. He was never where he was supposed to be and Fjalars weapons only sliced empty air. Gracefully he backed off, letting the soldier spend his momentum as he kept backing up. Sweatbeads multiplied on the Captains forehead. He grunted and cursed, getting angrier with every missed swing. Eventually he had wasted so much strength his movements slowed. Onar saw it coming a long way, Fjalar was falling for the simplest of tricks. Slow and tired he now furiously blinked sweat out of his eyes and panted like a dog.
Suddenly the stranger stuck his neck out, offering it to Fjalar. The big oaf took the bait, savagely aiming at the unprotected head with one axe. The youngling caught his arm and in one movement he leapt up, grappling the Captains waist with his legs and swirling himself around the other dwarfs bulk. The patrol stood in shock as the young hunter shoved his blade up Fjalars throat, through his mouth and into the brain, ending the fight in the blink of an eye. In his own head Onar corrected himself. This youngling was not a hunter, he was a warrior - clever and well-trained to boot.
The two soldiers that had hung back rushed forward, more aroused by the smell of blood than the loss of their Captain. Meeting them at a run the warrior dodged the first Alpha and threw out an arm just as he passed him, hooking his hammer into the gorget of the poor sods armor. Launching himself towards the second dwarf the warrior fainted a slash with the blade before his foot met the Alphas knee with a sickening crack. Behind them the first soldier was roughly yanked to the ground by the propulsion. Rolling away from the screaming dwarf the leatherclad stranger sunk his knife into the first Alphas eye socket before he had time to sit up.
Onar had been holding his breath, knowing full well he could do little to stop it. But as two more of his brothers drew their weapons, one of them was close enough for Onar to grab. With the help of his fellow Beta soldiers he bore him to the ground. Unfortunately the other one got to rush the warrior unchecked. Adopting a more careful stand this soldiers shield was protecting his vitals and making it more difficult to reach the weak spots in the armor. He managed to force the youngling back using controlled slashes with a shortsword.
Trying to weave his way into arms reach the lad eventually had to accept he could not get close enough to stab the Alpha. Suddenly changing tactics he dashed forward and slammed himself into the shield with all his speed and weight, before dropping to the ground between the soldiers legs pulling the shield with him. The larger dwarf was forced to either let the shield drop with his opponent or be pulled down with it. His moment to strike the body below him was cut short as the warrior kicked him in the groin from below, making him miss his intended cut.
With a painful grunt he collapsed on top of the shield, the smaller form under him neatly slipping out before the full weight pinned the lad down. He twisted, slid himself over the shield and locked his legs around his opponents shoulders as the soldier tried to roll away. The Alphas sword came up trying to stab the stranger. Dropping his warhammer the youngling grabbed the arm, twisting it until the older dwarf had to drop the blade. With a quick flourish he sliced the soldiers throat open, the sanguine fluid drenching his face and clothes.
They all stared at the warrior as he stood up from his last kill, a demon covered in blood. Picking up the hammer the stranger carefully stepped over the slain and walked towards the Omegas, neatly placing himself between them and the soldiers. Onar got to his feet, finally able to take some control of what remained of the patrol, barking orders loudly and seeing even the Alphas following them with a inward sigh of relief. Glancing over at the lad he saw him crouching by the two Omegas. They were still huddled against the remains of the cart, now looking just as terrified of the warrior as of the Alphas. Ignoring his new charges he still faced the patrol, keeping his eye on every movement.
Briefly closing his eyes to collect his thoughts Onar took stock of the situation. This youngling had won an unfair fight against four fully armored and seasoned soldiers, who undoubtedly should have showed more self control. He imagined what the King would say when he heard of this debacle. Loosing good dwarves to a joust over Omegas was a disgrace, and the injured fighter would be facing prison or worse. As for the dead, having broken the soldiers oath and even engaged in an unsanctioned Hurmel Uhurud, the fallen Alphas would be left in the forest for the crows to feast on. Their families would have no graves to mourn by. Not having your bones returned to the stone meant your soul was doomed to wander the surface, forever lost to the Gods and to your loved ones.
A rustle in the nearby trees made them all turn as a human man lead three horses onto the road. He nodded to Onar and his men as if wandering into a road filled with bodies and burning caravan wagons were an everyday occurrence. He confidently walked towards the blood-drenched warrior and his newly won Omegas, hailing him.
“I could only catch one of the horses, I found another that was badly burnt so I put it out of it's misery. The rest has either been taken by the bastards or fled as fast as their hooves could carry them.”
The lad nodded solemnly and the tall man walked over to the Omegas handing out the reins of the sooty horse without a saddle. They looked up at him in horror.
“It is the only horse I could rescue from the caravan. Here.” Proffering the rains with a smile had no effect, they just kept staring at him. He sighed.
“Does my face scare you little ones? It is just a burn.”
“Just a burn” was however a bit of an understatement. The skin on the right side of his face shined red and angry against his olive skin, nothing of the ear remained and the surface tightened in places as if it had melted. The Omegas eyes moved from the bad burns on one side to the mangled ear on the other side, roughly cut off with a blunt blade a long time ago. Still, his almond shaped eyes glinted with mirth and the corners of his mouth was permanently turned upwards. Without the burn he would've been handsome, with high cheekbones and eyes a remarkable shade of light green. The raven black hair on the untouched side of his head had a silver streak going along the scalp closest to the burn and was sleek and well kept, and his clothes distinctly less rough then his companions scruffy attire. But all the smiles in the world could not comfort the Omegas at this point, the khulz put his arm around the slighter nithul protectively. Giving up on the Omegas the man lead the horses over to the young warrior and bent the knee, speaking too low for Onar to catch any of what transpired between them, and he finally had to pull his gaze away - he could not afford to loose the attention of his patrol at this time.
Not giving any of the soldiers time to think he had organized them into groups and having them scouring the nearby forest for survivors or any clues to the identity of the assailants. They day had wore on and if they didn't get started on the return within a glass they would have to spend the night by the road. Onar was determined to avoid any more confrontations, and he had the injured soldier to think of.
He told the rest of the men to gather the bodies, and as they started to pull them towards the forest the stranger stood up.
“Where are you taking them?”
“Into the forest.”
“There is no need, we have an extra horse you can use. Take them home.” the lad offered. Onar realized he didn't understand what had to be done.
“They won't get buried. They have broken too many laws by fighting you.”
The youngling glanced at the men, who all avoided eye contact. “But..,” he seemed to think for a moment. “... they were only trying to protect their beloved leader?”
His voice was persuasive and Onar understood what he was trying to do. The soldiers hesitated with their fallen comrades carried between them. His brothers were staring at Onar now, everyone hoping for a different outcome.
“True...true that.” Onar said though he wasn't sure he could pull this off. The stranger ventured on.
“So seeing that the dear Captain, who... - clearly thought he was saving the Omegas from a cruel fate – had been defeated, they get so torn by grief they went momentarily mad”.
Nobody who had met Fjalar would find the word “beloved” a believable description, least of all the King. But Onar was thinking fast. Nobody at home would WANT to know the truth, or at least they would want to pretend it hadn't happened. So this might actually work though Thorin would never be fooled by it, but he might just let it pass for the sake of the families and more importantly: the reputation of his soldiers. It was worth a try.
“You take the words out of my mouth. But as you surely realize, we would need you to come with us to Erebor to bear witness before the King and the Council.”
The warrior seemed to consider Onar before he made a decision.
“I will agree to that. We can tie the bodies to the horse Tork found. It isn't the most appropriate way of returning fallen soldiers but it should get us back before nightfall.”
The relief amongst his men was palpable. Making quick work of it they unceremoniously rolled the dead in cloth from the wagons and then lashed and tied them with various ropes from their packs. The burned man came over with a decent length of sturdy twine, and before long they had attached the cocoons to the horse. They all got on their steeds though the dwarf with the shattered knee was tied to a fellow soldier as they had given him what little they had left of poppy milk. The Omegas, seemingly too scared to sit with the human, was placed in front and behind the warrior. Onar sent one scout ahead to warn the King of the fate of the caravan, giving him the least tired steed.
And so they set out on the last stretch of road to Erebor, the Alpha soldiers on their tired ponies sat the pace while the two strangers and the Omegas on the horses followed close behind, surrounded by Betas.