The Hammer of Hu'Mod part 3
by "Splatter" Joe Solmo
The brother’s camp turned out to be a small cave hidden behind some evergreen trees. Roasting over a fire with a makeshift spit was indeed a deer. Did that mean that the cursed forest was ending and a regular one was beginning if they had found game? Birell wondered.
The brothers all settled in around the fire, plopping down where they stood and Zeeg started to tend to the roasting meat. Skrat sat the farthest from the fire, inside the cave, where he said he had to tend to some things and excused himself. Grian settled down with his back to a log that Moose had dragged over for them to sit on, but it was too far away from the fire for the dwarf. He reached into his pack and took out a hacked up block of wood and started to carve on it.
Birell sat near the Grian on the ground, the fire felt good on her frozen toes, as they began to melt she wished this winter would pass quicker. She examined each of the brothers in turn and found Sreg staring at her again! She stuck her tongue out at him and he looked away. She wasn’t sure why she did that. She regained her composure while chastising her frivolity.
“This venison looks good enough to me.” Zeeg said and stood up, pulling a small knife from his belt he began to slice into the roasting meat.
“About time, Zeeg. I’m not a little mouse like Skrat, I need to eat a couple times a day,” Moose said reaching hungrily towards the roasting deer and with a quick tug and a snapping sound ripped off a leg at the hip with ease. “Warm meat taste good,” he said in between his second and third bites as deer shrapnel flew from his open mouth.
Once he realized he was the only one eating he offered what was left of the leg to Birell in a friendly gesture, which she declined.
“I’ll wait my turn, but thank you,” she said to the large man with the venison loaded smile and turned away before she lost her appetite. Grian chuckled to himself as he shaved off more chips from the block, but Birell caught him. He had just enough time to raise his arm to block his face before the elf’s fist slammed into his wrist. The attack only made the dwarf smiles some more.
Soon everyone had some venison to eat. Birell seeing Sreg sitting close by, asked him about the brothers. He took the opportunity to sit next to the elf by the fire as he finished up his meal. She could smell the forest on him, sweet evergreens and mint. It was a pleasant odor she thought.
“What is it you want to know?” asked Sreg raising an eyebrow towards Birell.
“Where do you guys come from? What is it that you guys do for a living?” She asked and stretched out against the log.
“Well, what’s to say really? The four of us have been traveling together for a few months now through the back country looking at the wonders of the world. Our village was burned to the ground in a raid about half a year ago, so we packed up and started walking. There was nothing left for us there anyway,” Sreg said.
“That’s terrible!” Birell exclaimed.
“Not so bad really, we didn’t have many friends, mostly stuck together. My brother Moose there, he is a mighty warrior. Many people try their luck at wrestling him so we make coin that way, moving from town to town, mercenary work fits us as well. Why Moose has personally stamped thirty-four trolls now, right Moose? Thirty-four?”
With a nod the large brother answered Sreg’s question and smiled, half of his teeth were missing and the rest didn’t look long for this world.
“Stamped?” Birell asked. Grian seemed to start to pay attention to the conversation now and leaned forward to hear the explanation.
“You know, stamp an enemy? It’s when u come upon them in their sleep and take a warhammer or other such blunt weapon and stamp the head into the ground to dispose of them before they can awake and attack,” Sreg told them,
A look of horror washed over Birell’s sharp elf features. “That’s terrible!” she said, shocked.
“That’s still more than a troll deserves and it’s still more humane then meloning him,” Grian said looking in his pack for his ale.
“Melon…ing?” Birell questioned.
“It’s where you would slice an adversary’s head in two, like cutting a melon, not decapitation or skimming the cream as we like to call it,” he said with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
“Not to be confused with melon balling?” Sreg said. “That’s where you remove their…”
Birell interrupted.“I think I heard enough about Moose, tell me about the rest of you,” she said. The brother and dwarf had a quick chuckle.
“Not much to tell really, I am more of an outdoorsman, I like to be in nature, I could spend the rest of my life wandering this world and seeing everything in it, but Zeeg wants to find a place where we can buy a home or something, although I can’t see any of us as farmers. We wouldn’t need an ox to pull our cart though, we got Moose. Skrat, he’s the youngest of us, brothers, and the most secretive, I will let him tell you his story, when he is ready,” Sreg said and stood. “Now I think I am off to bed,” he finished and walked towards the cave entrance.
Grian and Birell exchanged glances then looked over at Moose, he had fallen asleep halfway through the conversation with the remains of his deer leg still in his hand. With a snort he awoke and started chewing again. Birell noticed that Zeeg was looking at the two of them with interest.
“Now that you have heard our story, maybe you would like to share yours?” Zeeg asked and poked the fire with a stick sending embers floating into the air.
“Well, I am a bounty hunter, hunting an enemy of the elven nation and this is my friend Grian. I, I mean we, followed this criminal into these woods a few days ago and have been tracking him since. We were getting very close when we ran into you. Have you seen anyone else in these woods?” Birell asked.
“Not a soul. Funny for someone who was close to their bounty, you don’t seem in a hurry. What was it about the Akridlands you said earlier? Is that where your bounty is going? Grian, do you make a habit of following your friends into deadly forests? You are the first group with both a dwarf and an elf working together. Sorry if I sound skeptical, but I learned long ago not to trust strangers. Especially ones that are in a famous cursed forest completely unscathed,” Zeeg said.
Birell took a deep breath ready to defend herself and companion.
“Before you get upset let me explain something. My brothers are all I have in this world, and I won’t let anything harm them. If you mean us no harm, then fine, we would enjoy the company, but if you wish evil on us, then I will have Moose squish you two together until you are one creature. I just wanted to let you know where I was coming from,” he said, and then seemed to visibly relax, and even smiled at them.
Birell let out a sigh, “Truthfully I am a bounty hunter after an elf named Karnak, here is the bounty for him,” she said and handed over a scroll. Zeeg examined it.
“Let me see that brother,” came a voice from the cave and Skrat emerged in a leather shirt that was too big for him. Birell guessed it belong to Sreg. The youngest brother sat down next to his Zeeg. He examined the scroll and turned his attention to the elf. “Birell, I apologize for my brothers. They are over protective of me since I am the youngest. I assure you it is safe to stay here with us, at least for the night, and in the morning we can discuss travel over breakfast. It is getting late and I would like to speak to Zeeg alone, if you will excuse us?” Skrat said and motioned for his brother to follow him towards the cave.
“A nice sleep does sound great about now,” Grian said and reached into his pack for his blanket, dumping half its contents on the ground. Birell giggled then decided to get her blanket out as well. As she drifted off to sleep she could hear Zeeg. Hushed whispers reached her ears but she couldn’t make out any of the words, she thought maybe it was another language, but the tone did seem as if Skrat and Zeeg were arguing. She hoped it wasn’t about her and Grian, but she was grateful they were there earlier to save them from the horrid beast that attacked them.
She dared not think what would have happened if they didn’t intervene.
The next morning Birell woke with the sun and stood to stretch out the night’s stiffness. Sreg and Zeeg were not around but Moose was packing up the brother’s gear as Skrat read from a large leather bound book. “Leaving already?” she asked the large brother.
“Skrat says we are leaving with you and the little man,” he said in his baritone voice.
He grabbed some small tin plates and stuffed them into a sack with his large hands.
“With us, really? Why would you do that?” Birell replied and started to pack her things. She shared a quick glance with Grian as he stirred finally from his blanket. His disheveled beard hid most of his face.
“Let’s wait for Zeeg and Sreg to return to explain everything,” Skrat said closing his book and standing. He stretched and walked towards the cave.
“Hey lad, can I see your weapon?” Grian asked Moose. The large man put down the sack he was filling and looked around him for the giant axe. Spotting what he was looking for, he hefted the axe in his large hands once and offered it to the dwarf.
Without too much of a struggle Grian raised the weapon up in the air. He checked the craftsmanship on the handle. “Good, dwarven work,” he said and nodded his approval before handing it back to Moose.
“All weapons I have made by little men,” Moose said pointing behind him. Grian’s eyebrows rose at the pile of steel he saw laying on the ground, a large hammer, two hand axes, the biggest sword he had ever seen all lay ready to be packed.
The sound of breaking sticks made everyone alert until Zeeg stepped out from behind a large tree. Sreg was a few steps behind, holding his bow in one hand. Skrat stepped out of the cave and motioned to Zeeg. The oldest of the brothers walked over to Skrat and they put their heads together.
Moose had the entire camp packed by the time Zeeg and Skrat finished their rather heated discussion. Birell and Grian took the time to pack up their stuff too and tried to find their location on a map Sreg carried, who was very tight lipped about the reason the brothers were going to follow the dwarf and elf. Grian was a little nervous about it, after all if they knew what he was really chasing these brothers could capture him and turn him in to the nearest dwarf for a reward. In all honesty though, the dwarf didn’t think it was very likely they would do it.
Zeeg walked over to them and smiled. “Can I talk to you two, over there?” he said pointing to the trail the followed to get here.
“What did Moose mean when he said you guys were coming with us?” Birell asked. “My brother Skrat, says he had a vision. He thinks you two are doing something important and says we may play an important role in whatever it is. Sometimes he can take himself too seriously, but since we don’t have a better place to be anyway, he has convinced me to ask you if we could tag along, at least for a while. Look, I know you don’t know us very well, but Skrat is hardly ever wrong when it comes to his craft. If he says we should do it, he has my support and as the eldest brother the rest will listen to me,” he explained.
“Well lad, what we are doing is our own business, and yes we haven’t known you long enough to trust you. Now we appreciate everything you have done for us, but where we go could get pretty dangerous, and I couldn’t ask you boys to risk your life to help me or Birell here,” Grian said.
“May we can have a minute or two?” Birell asked Zeeg.
“Sure, I’ll be back with my brothers,” Zeeg said and headed back to the camp.
“I think the extra weapons might come in handy on this journey, and I think the youngest one is mage,” Birell said to the dwarf.
“You are probably right about the kid. That’s why I wanted to get away from them. What happens if he sniffs out who I am? I could be signing my death warrant,” Grian replied.
“Well honestly I don’t know what it is, but you seem to have a way of getting people to follow. I am still not sure why I chose to do so, but hear I am, and now the brothers too. Maybe it’s your god’s doing, I don’t know,” she replied.
“I didn’t ask you to join me, or them for that matter,” the dwarf said raising his voice a little. “This is my fight, and I wouldn’t ask anyone else to risk their lives for it,”
“I know, Grian. Regardless we are here, and willing to help,” she said.
“Aye, you are, but will they be if they knew what I was really doing?” Grian questioned.
“I don’t know, Grian,” she said. “Let us at least get out of this wood before making the decision.”
With a sigh the dwarf looked up at the elf. “Okay lass. Until the end of the forest.” Grian ran his fingers through his tangled beard. With one more glance at Birell he headed back toward the camp.
When they got there the brothers had everything packed and ready to go. Sreg was flexing the wood of his bow to string it, he looked up and smiled as the elf returned to camp. “Well what did you decide?” he asked her.
She walked up to him and in a low voice responded. “At least till the end of the forest,” she replied.
“I am glad,” he replied. “Maybe you can show me some elf techniques for forest survival. It couldn’t hurt to learn something new.”
“If we have the time, I would be happy too,” she replied and found herself smiling. Grian cleared his throat behind her.
“If the lady pleases, may we head out?” the dwarf said.
Birell looked around and saw that the whole camp was waiting on her and Sreg. She blushed and nodded towards the dwarf. What is wrong with me, she thought. First I follow this strange dwarf on some holy quest, now I’m smiling like an idiot at some human! Maybe I should head home, I have been away from my people too long.
Sreg headed towards the trail. “I’ll scout ahead,” he said and disappeared into the forest without a sound. Birell had to admire how at home he seemed in the forest. Most humans don’t move that silently or feel that at ease. Maybe that is why the man interested her, he moved more like an elf than a clumsy human.
The rest of the group headed out, with Zeeg taking the rear guard. Birell followed Grian who cut in front of Moose because he couldn’t see anything in front of him. Skrat followed behind Birell, carrying a large backpack filled with what looked like mostly books and some scrolls, if the rectangle bulges meant anything.
Most of the morning passed quietly as the group wound its way on the game trail. The pyros trees started to give way by midmorning to more natural plants like elm and maple, interspersed with the shade of an evergreen or two. The entire party’s relief was apparent as they began to lower the weapons and made idle conversation.
Sreg wandered into the party on and off throughout the morning reporting back to Zeeg. There was a stream not too far ahead where he suggested they take a break before crossing the wood. Birell tried to get a chance to talk to the scout, but could only get a quick glance from him before he darted back ahead of everyone and disappeared.
Twenty minutes later they were sitting at the edge of the stream. It was about eight feet across, but not very deep. Birell watched as small fish darted between the sparse rocks in the current. They sat and looked at the map Sreg had. It showed the stream near the edge of the forest. Soon Grian and Birell would have to make a decision about the brothers.
She tried to get a moment with the dwarf to discuss what he was thinking, but without making it obvious they were hiding something there wasn’t any room to have a private conversation.
“Birell, I noticed there was a set of foot prints that crossed here. I would image it’s your quarry. They don’t look very old,” he said pointing in the mud on the bank of the creek. She examined them. They did look like the same prints she was following days earlier.
“Less than two hours,” she said as she pointed to another print just to the left of her bounty’s set. What are those?
“It looks like a Hunter is tracking him as well. Is you bounty good alive or dead?” Sreg asked with a crooked smile.
“I would prefer alive, but I will take what I can get,” she said and turned towards the group. “My bounty is near, but not alone. A Hunter is following him. Less than two hours ago they crossed.”
“Then let’s go,” Grian said and shouldered his pack. The rest of the group stood and got ready to depart. Within a moment they were on their way splashing through the steam. Sreg stayed close now, it was too dangerous to be out there alone.
Birell questioned what she would do with Karnak is they rescued him. She had really gave up on chasing him down and now just wanted to help the dwarf. She would have to either let him go, or kill him so that she could continue with Grian. Life sure was a lot easier when she was just a bounty hunter chasing local small time crooks. When she took the position of master bounty hunter, when her mentor retired, she found herself thrown out into the world looking for serious capitol crime offenders. Murderers and rapists were her world now, not tax evaders. She sighed as she mourned the simple life she had known. What kept her going with the dwarf when she could return back home?
Grian turned towards her as they made their way through the forest. “What ya gonna do lass?” he asked her in a whisper.
“I will cross that bridge when we get to it,” she replied.
“I wish there was a bridge, now my feet are cold and wet,” he said with a wink. He walked next to her now, as the game trail widened a little. “Whatever you decide, thanks ya for yer company,” he said.
Birell smiled down at the dwarf then glanced up to the trail ahead. A scream came from the forest. Without hesitation Sreg darted into the woods, Birell chased after him. She watched as the brother move nimbly through the undergrowth, dodging branches and fallen trees with ease. She even had a near trip up as she followed him, but he never missed a step.
Another scream assaulted her ears, this one not of fright, but of pain, and a lot closer. Sreg honed on the sound and adjusted his direction. Birell saw the brighter daylight ahead and knew the sound was coming from the clearing. From behind she heard the rest of the party approaching. She wondered why her senses didn’t pick up the Hunter as she slowed to a stop. Sreg was standing at the edge of the clearing.
She walked up beside him and looked into the clearing at the carnage. There was blood everywhere, but not just blood. So many pieces she couldn’t tell what was what and the only way she could describe it was meat. There was meat everywhere. Bits of hair, entrails, and other assorted pieces decorated the blood filled clearing. There was no sign of the Hunter. Birell dropped to her knees from the weight of the horror in front of her. No one should have to die that way, not even Karnak, if it was him.
Sreg took a step into the clearing and looked around slowly. “The creature has left,” he stated also in disbelief. What could he say?
The rest of the group came crashing through the woods, weapons drawn until they saw the sight before them. Moose dropped the tip of his Warhammer down and placed a massive hand over his face. Soon his body shook with sobs.
Grian walked out into the middle of the carnage and turned back towards Birell. “Is this him?” he asked her, but she just kneeled there in shock.
“Lass. Is this Karnak?” he asked again.
“I…I don’t know,” she said and tried to compose herself. The ring she had found had Karnak’s name on it, but somehow she didn’t really believe he was dead. Could someone have stolen the ring and then died? The corpse she had found near the temple was old. She stood and took in the site one more time. “He always carried a dagger with a gold handle. Some kind of family heirloom,” she said with a vacant expression.
Grain glanced around the carnage trying to not let the smell get to him. The inside of people should never be smelled, he thought. He bent down and saw a knife tucked into a scabbard attached to what was left of a belt.
With a quick kick from his boot he pushed aside a piece of the victim to clear it away. He reached out and grasped the knife with his hand and wiped it clean on his pants. He held it up for Birell to see.
“Gold,” she said.
“I bet that’s worth a pretty penny,” Sreg said.
“Shiny,” Moose said looking out from between his fingers.
“It wasn’t even drawn,” Grain said. “He didn’t have time to even draw a weapon before that thing killed him,”
“Those Hunters move fast. You guys are lucky we were there to help when they were tracking you. This could have been the result for you as well,” Zeeg said.
“But where is it now, brother,” Skrat asked and glanced back into the forest.
“Hopefully sleeping off its meal somewhere,” Grian said as he made his way back to the forest’s edge.
“Oh, it doesn’t eat those it hunts,” Skrat said as he turned back towards the party. “The Hunters don’t need to eat. They are magical creatures, invented by the insane wizards of the North Tower ages ago. Once their masters were dead it was said they went feral, hunting in packs with an insatiable bloodlust. No one knows how many there are or how they managed to make it to this forest from the North Tower. It is said in some circles that a powerful mage can contact them and channel their bloodlust towards one particular person. Is it possible the elf kingdom did that to find Karnak?” the youngest brother asked.
“Absolutely not,” Birell said offened.
“I am sorry, I was just trying to make sense of this, sometimes I speak out loud when I shouldn’t,” Skrat apologized.
“Not a problem, but no elf would mess with that kind of magic. The taint alone would corrupt the very fabric of what makes an elf,” she explained.
“Well looks like someone sent it after him, otherwise it would have attacked us too. It had to know we were close by,” Skrat said.
“Well let’s just be glad it’s nowhere to be found,” Grain said.
Sreg helped Birell to her feet and she thanked him.
“What now elf?” came Zeeg’s voice as he approached. He looked at the mess in the clearing in disgust. “Moose, dig a grave. We can’t just leave this laying around,” he said. Moose sighed and dropped his hammer where he was and walked over to a fallen tree. He snapped off about six feet of it and started dig into the ground with it. It didn’t take the mammoth man long to make progress.
Grian and Birell exchanged glances with each other. It was time to make a decision about trusting the brothers. She wanted to spend more time with Sreg, the human that moved like an elf intrigued her. Even if Grian decided to not trust them she could stay with Sreg, she really didn’t owe the dwarf anything.
She watched Grian as he helped gather up what was left of her bounty. His crazy quest to bring magic back to the dwarves was really no business of hers, but at the same time she felt drawn to the dwarf. Who would have thought even a year ago that someday she would be partnering up with a dwarf for anything? It was insane.
“Hey, are you okay?” Sreg asked her putting his hand on her shoulder.
“Yeah, I just didn’t expect this. It’s like he exploded,” she replied.
“It was pretty gruesome, just put it out of your mind,” he said.
“I don’t need you coddling over me, I can take it,” she said and pulled out from under his arm. She helped them clean up the mess that was Karnak and dump it into the deep trench Moose had made in the ground. She was surprised how deep it was in such a short time. Moose was a monster of a man though.
She looked at all the brothers one at a time, and couldn’t find a familiar feature among them. Moose was gigantic, heavily muscled with a broad face. Zeeg, the eldest, was muscled too, but in a different way. His hair was curly black, and kept short. Moose had blonde hair cropped almost to the scalp.
She look at Sreg, he was made of lean muscle with long reddish brown hair and green eyes. His features were nothing like the other two, and then there was Skrat. He was eighty pounds soaking wet. A frail frame with nearly no muscle to speak of. He had blond hair as well that was shoulder length. How could all these people be related?
“I am sorry, Sreg, I didn’t mean to burst out at you,” she apologized after placing the last of Karnak’s corpse in the trench.
“Its fine Birell, I understand. What will you do now that your quarry has met his end? Return home with his dagger as proof, maybe?” Sreg asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” she replied.
“What then?” Skrat asked, putting his book down. “Is it time for you two to come clean about what you are really doing out here?”
Grian and Birell exchanged glances as everyone grew quiet. Even Moose stopped filling dirt into the shallow grave. Zeeg, the oldest brother came to stand between Skrat and the elf.
“What are you talking about Skrat? You said they weren’t a danger to us.” He said putting his hand on the pommel of his sword.
“Relax brother. They are not a danger,” Skrat said then turned towards Grian, who placed his hand on his weapon. “You will have to forgive my overprotective brother, he hasn’t the mind for talk and see’s every problem as a fighting situation,” Skrat finished.
“There is no reason for a fight,” Grian said, facing Zeeg. Moose came to stand behind the dwarf.
“Stop this now. If they are hiding anything, it’s their business. Have we told them everything about us?” Sreg said getting between Zeeg and the dwarf.
“Watch your tongue brother,” Zeeg said. “We have enemies.”
“Exactly my point. Everyone has secrets. Why don’t everyone take their hands off their weapons, take a breath and talk this out?” Sreg said and looked to Birell for help.
“Grian take your hand off that thing,” Birell said. The dwarf didn’t budge. She waved her hand in front of his bearded face, but to no avail. Zeeg hadn’t relaxed either.
“Ugh. Men, I swear. It doesn’t matter what race you are all idiots,” she said and slapped Grians hand away from his weapon. He turned to look at her.
Sreg pulled his brother’s arm away his pommel as well. “There, now everyone relax,” he said and let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding.
“No smush little man?” asked Moose.
“No Moose, do not,” said Sreg.
Everyone relaxed when Moose shrugged his shoulders and walked past them to sit on a fallen log.
“Does this secret endanger me or my brothers?” Zeeg asked.
“No,” Grian said.
“Then it doesn’t matter. Let’s talk of it no more. What shall you two do now that Karnak is no more?” the eldest brother asked.
Birell turned towards Grian. “I think we can trust them,” she said. “But it is your secret, your choice.”
“I still have business in the Akridlands. I will continue to travel there,” Grian said to them all.
“What could you possibly want out there?” Sreg asked.
“Our secret, remember,” Birell said with a smile.
“Right,” he replied.
“Let me take a guess, shall I?” asked Skrat as he pushed past his brothers. “You seek the Keystone?”
“How did you know?” Grian said in shock.
“What is this Keystone?” Sreg asked Birell.
“In all honesty I do not know. This is Grian’s quest,” she replied.
“The Keystone can unlock any locked item, magical or not. It is said to reside in the red rock castle of the desert folk. What purpose could you have for such an item?” Skrat asked, intrigued.
“That is my own business. What do you know of these desert people?” Grian asked.
“Well for that you would have to answer my question,” he replied.
“Okay, okay, how about we just share some information so that this doesn’t go on all night,” Birell said to Sreg.
“I agree with the elf,” he said.
“That’s because you want to bed her,” Zeeg said.
“That’s beside the point,” Sreg said loudly.
“What!” Birell said.
Grian shifted the weight of his pack on his back. “With or without your help I am going into the Akridlands to find this Keystone. If no one wants to help me then I will go on my own. Let us move away from this sight of slaughter if we must have a conversation,” he said.
“Very well, let us move to the border of the forest, it cannot be that much further,” Skrat said. “Take this time to think over your options here, all of you, and when we reach the edge of the forest we will make up our minds.”
“Agreed,” the dwarf said and started to walk. The rest fell in line behind him in sullen silence. Zeeg made Skrat walk behind him, farthest from the dwarf and elf, except for Moose who took up the rear guard on this leg of the journey. The mountain of a man constantly watched over his massive shoulder for any danger from the rear as they traveled to the edge of the forest.
It didn’t take them that long to find the trees thinning out and the plants to be turning brown. The forest ending in seven lines of pine trees, as if planted as far they could see to the left and right. In front of them was dried and dying grass land that ran for about a mile, then in the distance they saw towering red rock mountains. Those mountains belonged on the far side of the Akridlands according to Sreg’s rudimentary map. That must be where the red rock castle was, thought Grian.
“Well here we are…” Sreg said. “Now what.”
“I guess it is time to make a decision,” Grian said.
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