Elineen rose early that morning and looked out her hut with dismay to see the destruction wrought by last night's visit from the dragon hoard. The hoard had been terrorizing Mordock regularly for the last several weeks and three citizens had fallen prey when their evanesce stones had broken at the crucial moment. Dragging the community soup pot out of her hut to the fire pit, she contemplated its relative emptiness. The dragons had burnt the meager crops the hamlet depended upon for fresh produce and there were precious few vegetables left in the root cellar. It would not be long until their village would be completely decimated and she worried that the help they sent for would not arrive in time. What could be holding them up? Had the citizens of Talos Valley deigned it unnecessary to assist Mordock? Certainly not, Master Karl would never allow that to happen. She only hoped they would still be alive when help arrived.
"Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold..." she recited aloud. Well she thought, as she dumped the last of the peas and a few potatoes into the pot, at least they would not reach "nine days old." It was unusual for gnomes to resort to the continuing community pot but under the circumstance, necessary.
Trolls were known to have started the well known jingle as they were generally too lazy to farm and too slothful to scavenge for fresh food so they just continued to add to the pot until it had been know to boil without benefit of a fire. When that happened, they threw in wild alium bulbs and handsful of salt to cover the odor and flavor. Trolls were none too clean about their wooden trenchers either. They never washed them believing the seasoned wood added to the flavor of the stew.
Elineen thought the only thing that added was trench mouth, her term for the foul odor emanated from a troll's mouth; or she thought it was the mouth but since trolls loathed bathing, it was difficult to know. Filthy creatures, but at least they kept to the forests and left Mordock alone.
The women of the hamlet began to emerge from their huts. The hamlet had been a happy home for many years. Normally the children would be playing boisterous games and the women chattering happily as they went about their chores but now its people crept about on little mouse feet; afraid of their own shadows, they were quick to retreat to the relative safety of their huts at the slightest sound. In the past the opals of evanesce were used mainly as adornment and generally ignored, now the women and children could be seen checking often to see the stones were in place and readily available when needed.
Inod and his crew returned early to the hamlet. They had gone to the gem mines as usual but were working fewer hours and returned unexpectedly at anytime of the day.
More than half the time at the mines was spent covering or disguising the gangue so that others would not discover the mine's whereabouts. The lack of output of their trade stones was causing the coffers to dwindle rapidly and it would be difficult to purchase supplies from Ellipsem for the coming winter months; assuming of course they would still be alive and in Mordock then.
"Elineen," called Inod his shock of white hair gleaming brilliantly in the sunlight.
"Yes?" she acknowledged raising her chin, which set her dewlap to quivering.
"What say you? Shall we call a meeting to discuss what we talked about last eve?"
"The pot is running low and the root cellar too. We've not many more meals in store. Help has not arrived and we must let our neighbors know the gravity of our situation. It is time husband."
"Ring the triangle then" he said resignedly bowing his head as if in shame.
The assembled group little resembled the hamlet of old. Somberness pervaded. The slumped shoulders, sad eyes with drawn mouths were diametrically opposite of their former appearance and there were several more heads of gray among the previously hearty little folks. The village elder took his place at the front of the group and loudly announced, "I've called us together to discuss our plight."
"Aye...it's a sad day...we're beaten then...plight indeed...where to hide is a better idea..." commented some in the group.
"Nay, we're not done yet," retorted Inod firmly. "We've some options still and we need to discuss what we will do. As you know, we are eating now from a community pot and even those supplies are dwindled almost to naught. We will soon be left with nothing but what we can hunt and root out of the forest."
"We've but another three or four days of produce," interjected Elineen. "With meat, we could stretch it to six or eight days but no more."
"So I'm asking for volunteers among the men to hunt for meat and among the women to root for greens in the forest," Inod explained. "I'll go for meat with any who will accompany me and Elineen will go with the women who volunteer. The rest will stay here in the hamlet with the children. Once the food situation is resolved, we must decide what to do next and will meet after this night's repast to discuss our options. Do I have any volunteers?" he asked looking hopefully into the group where several hands shot up.
"Ah, then we have our first problem solved. You're a good people and I knew you could be counted on!" Inod said with feeling.
"Ladies, fetch your baskets and let us go while the light is high," Elineen said holding her own basket up high.
Huddled downwind near the edge of the forest, a group of trolls listened to the plans being made by the gnomes. It was not often Mordock was left to a few women and children these days and the dragons would be grateful to know the hamlet lay unguarded. Grateful enough to leave the trolls in peace to enjoy their slothful lives. With haste, they trudged stealthily off toward the center of the forest where they hoped to find the remnant dragon hoard digesting and resting from their night's foray.
Elineen and her friends had wandered a good piece into the forest as they had already foraged and used most of the edible tubers and herbs within a league of their hamlet. They chatted as they worked; planned the dishes for the wild purple carrots and yellow onions they found in plentitude and discussed how to preserve them in case help did not arrive soon.
Then Elineen spotted a rambling vine climbing the nearby trees. Adorned with small purple flowers it was growing in indiscriminate profusion.
She called to Stelata, her nearest neighbor; "Do you see that vine yonder?"
"Yes, oh El, I think it's sweet root!" she replied excitedly.
"I do believe we're in luck," cooed Elineen, her dewlap all aquiver with excitement as she strode purposefully in the direction of the subject vines with Stelata close behind.
Upon closer examination, their fondest hope was granted. Indeed, they had happened upon a good size patch of sweet root, a solid elongated tuber with sweet orange flesh. They set to digging with much energy and in no time, others of their group joined in the task. A short while later they were rewarded with all the sweet root, wild onion, wild carrot and herbs their over laden baskets could hold. One of the ladies spotted some late berries and sang out the discovery bringing many hands to make short work of stripping the vines to fill their larders.
"The light is beginning to lower," announced Elineen, "I think we should start for the hamlet."
Her announcement was met with general agreement and the women began rearranging the vegetables, fruits and herbs to better carry them with minimum of bruising to the goods as well as to themselves.
As they started in the direction of the hamlet, the cacophony of beating wings could be heard. The women scattered for the cover of low growing bushes and large boulders behind which to crouch while searching desperately for their opals of evanesce that they rubbed vigorously.
No sooner had the last Mordock woman vaporized into nothingness than the dragon hoard could be seen winging its way inexorably toward Mordock and the unguarded women and children left there while the foraging crew hid in helpless terror.
The men, lead by the town elder, Inod, were also beginning their return with a few pheasant, a partridge and two rabbits when they heard the rhythmic beat of dragon's wings. With daggers of fear in their hearts they rubbed the opals of evanesce on their belt buckles in time to avoid being seen by the seven dragons winging their way to Mordock and the unfortunate women and children who stayed behind. The young boy who had helped Craven Justice find wood several years earlier had grown into a fine responsible young man. Chaby, being the oldest boy left in Mordock, decided to fetch firewood for he was sure it would be needed when the hunting and foraging parties returned. The forest was rife with wildlife and edibles and his people were expert in finding what they needed so a repast was in the offing and the firewood pile was low. As he dropped the last load of wood onto the pile near the hearth, he failed to notice the opal drop out of his belt buckle and roll under one of the logs. He began setting the wood under the spit. Chaby added kindling and dried grass so it would light easily then struck the flint. The grass caught on a spark and he began blowing gently to coax the spark into a flame. Fanning the smoke with a small piece of wood, it was not long until there was more flame than smoke then the kindling caught and the fire was soon burning brightly. It was not until then he heard the now familiar sound of dragon's wings beating overhead. He had been so intent on getting the fire started he had not heard them approaching and now they were in plain sight. He quickly reached to his belt buckle to rub the opal of evanesce only to discover it was gone!
"There!" said the dragon leader. "I told you we would catch them off guard one of thessse daysss!" he added exultantly.
"I sssmell food," said Crooktail whose tale was bent as if broken while still in the egg.
"Sssusstenance!" enthused Cockeye swooping down toward Chaby who was dashing as fast as his short legs would carry him toward his hut. A forth dragon swooped down with talons extended to catch the back of Chaby's vest but the thongs in front tore from the eyelets and the dragon flew away with only the vest and not Chaby.
Soon all the dragons were on the ground and headed for the hut into which Chaby had disappeared. Crooktail thrust his big yellow-fanged head through the doorway expecting a tasty morsel and found...nothing. "What'sss in there...What do you sssee?...Have you got him?...Let me in there..." the hoard was pushing and jockeying for position to get a share of the boy. He was small and wouldn't go far as food but he'd be a tasty tidbit.
Crooktail, whipping his big ugly bulge-eyed head back and forth, backed out of the hut with a bellow of thwarted rage, "Aaaccckkk! It'sss magic. There'sss no one there! Aarrgghh!" he bellowed again. The dragons stuck their head through the door one after the other not quite believing their mate.
"You ate him," accused the leader.
"You didn't share," accused Cockeye.
"A glutton to the end...always looking out for himself...one of us should have gone first..." came the bitter accusations and complaints. Muttering and shushing the dragons began exploring the rest of the hamlet and finding nothing to eat became bitterly enraged.
"Thisss will teach them," declared the leader and a great flame leapt from his gaping mouth setting Chaby's hut ablaze instantly.
The people hiding within ran for the door and out of the hut, Chaby, his mother and his little sister who accidentally rubbed her wristlet and apperated as she was running for the forest.
The dragon leader spotted her and in one great leap was upon her and snapped her up in his terrible jaws.
Her agonized scream was cut short as the dragon chomped down on her small soft body once, twice then swallowed her whole. Chaby who was standing at the edge of the forest witnessed the horrid death of his beloved little sister and was forever changed.
More children became visible in the tumult and were snapped up, torn apart by two or more of the beasts fighting over them or trampled and crushed under their huge horny, gnarled feet then eaten.
The hoard, in a frenzy of anger and bloodlust, set fire to most of the huts and stomped and smashed what would not burn.
It took only a few short minutes for the despicable hoard to raze the hamlet and lay Mordock's families to waste.
Only a few of those left behind escaped death but none escaped the horror.
Still, help did not come.
Craven, in none too fine a humor at the antics of the shaggy beast could not believe what he was seeing. The scribe was squatted down on his haunches and apparently in deep conversation with a bug! No...not a bug, even worse, a black widow spider! "By the dragon gods, the man has taken leave of his senses!" muttered Craven only half to himself. At this pace, he thought it would take another ken to get to the Red Gryphon Inn. He could see the twin lookout towers in the distance and was more anxious than ever to begin drumming up business for his wrestler. Mentally rubbing his hands together, he began forming a plan to promote the scribe as a...
"Wrestler of Men"Challenge the scribe, a formidable foe
By Craven Justice
He's not too bright and a little slow
But wrestle him in the pit, if you dare
And he will win if you fail to take care
I'll wager on him, though he's not the best
Wager against me as you send men to test
His skill and the strength of the mighty heart
That beats in the chest of this stripling upstart
In his mind, Craven set the words to music and thought it would be a good way to entertain while piquing the interest of would be challengers and their promoters.
Turning around Craven saw the spider waddling off into the forest with a gemstone clutched in her back legs, which made his greedy heart lurch.
"What in the name of all that is holy made you give a spider that stone man?" Craven demanded indignantly.
"To tell its queen that it is time to repay an old debt," said Odan," but I can reveal no more to you. As you know, that would be forbidden."
"Harumph!" replied Craven. His ear still smarted from the blow from his bolo and the scribe's cryptic answer only added to the bard's black mood. Rubbing his throbbing ear absently, Craven came to a decision.
"Scribe, I am going ahead to the inn to prepare the way. I will attempt to drum up interest in wrestling matches with you and by the time you arrive, I will have several matches set up and wagers in place. In the event we don't have time to talk before you go into the pit, just remember, we must lose the first matches," reminded Craven. Odan nodded noncommittally in response.
Shaking his head in disbelief at the simple mindedness of the scribe, Craven struck out on Chorea, his spastic gaited mount, for the Red Gryphon Inn and the promise of the gold his avaricious heart desired.