A Murder of Gorcrows
- Investigations in Dale-town
In which the Company learn somewhat more of their enemies and the sorcerous ritual they enacted in Dale
- On the Edge of the Waste
In which the Company makes some discoveries about a second, completed ritual
- …And Back Again
In which the trail leads back to Dale-town, and a confrontation with the elusive foe draws near
- The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter
In which our heroes at last beard their foes in the ramshackle back streets of Dale-town
- The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter II
In which our heroes carry the victory in the contest of steel…
- The Battle in the Bluestone Quarter III
In which our heroes take the day, but find the fallen crow-sorcerer to have escaped them
MERSDAY, THE SIXTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946, continued
Once Fjiar had led Yngwi and Tóki off at a run towards Dale-town’s Mountain Gate, Ecthelon took stock of the scene.
Marion the Beorning was battered and bruised, and fixing all her will on the Daleman and the dwarf who had yielded to them. Between the building where Beil’s band had camped and the street outside it were half a dozen fallen dwarves and men. The smoke of the firework had cleared but the street still held a sense of shocked silence, the nearby Dalefolk remaining out of sight except where one or two peeped from the crack of a doorway or from behind a cautiously raised tent-flap, and up the street where a woman and her young son scurried nervously forth to put out the fire where Fjiar’s thrown axe had upset a brazier of hot coals.
The runner Ecthelon had sent for Fjiar and Yngwi in The Black Shaft ventured round the corner, improbably bearing a lidded tankard in one hand. He waved aside the payment that Ecthelon offered, saying he would await Fjiar’s return.
“The name’s Kilfir,” he added. “It’s been my pleasure. Round here we reckon that bad lot had it coming to them, I can tell you.”
Ecthelon deftly bound the hands and feet of the prisoners with one of several hanks of light rope lying around in their own camp, then assessed the injuries of their fallen comrades. He and Kilfir dragged the three that still drew breath back into the building. But neither he nor Marion, nor the three dwarves when they returned, were able to keep them from dying. The mercenary and brigand ‘Captain’ Beil, known to Fjiar the Firebeard for many years, drew his last bubbling breath in the makeshift structure in Dale’s Bluestone Quarter without ever regaining consciousness.
First Questions for the Prisoner
They turned their attention to the sole surviving dwarf of Beil’s band, tying him to a post. Ecthelon looked to the gruff and mighty Marion, but she seemed not to be feeling herself and made no sign of stepping up to get the answers they needed. He let her be. He drew himself up to his full height and stooped over the helpless captive. “One of you said, ‘You were supposed to pull those dwarves in.’ Everything here: the mule-cart, the serving maid at The Black Shaft, the runner who led us here, this was arranged as a trap for us, wasn’t it?” he postulated. “Tell us, who set it up?”
The dwarf spat on the ground and sneered, “Or what? You’ll murder me with bandages like you did to those others?” Ecthelon took a breath and made a fresh start, trying to get the dwarf to confirm that Arfa of Dale was behind it all, but neither that nor any other demand prevailed against the obdurate dwarf.
At length Tóki came up behind the prisoner’s post and gestured Ecthelon aside with a nod. “Maybe you’ll talk to me,” he suggested. “Or maybe you’ll talk to… Mister Flibble!”
The toymaker produced a glove puppet from behind his back, twitched a finger to make the puppet give a little wave, and then used the whole puppet to deliver his fist squarely into the prisoner’s nose. “I’m a reasonable dwarf, but Mister Flibble isn’t reasonable at all…”
He proceeded with a charade intended to convince the prisoner that he was deranged enough to do anything. Where looming height and indeed Tóki’s own striking of blows had little effect on the hardened dwarven mercenary, this play act was unsettling enough to alarm even Tóki’s own compan¬ions. The dwarf’s resolve cracked.
“No, that wastrel, Arfa of Dale, didn’t set anything up,” he scoffed. “He just did what the Ironfist twins paid him to do, with a purse of that painted man’s silver. Same as the Captain and the rest of us.” When asked where Dwîm and Dwîma were now he said they were probably still up in the Lonely Mountain, the last place Beil’s band had known them to be, or wherever the two Ironfists had driven the painted man’s body, when they took off with him and his crow through the back of the shelter.
Shallow Grave: the Revelation of Eldi’s Demise
Shortly after this Fjiar stepped in, bearing a tray with five lidded tankards of The Black Shaft’s fine stout. After finally receiving his original, interrupted pint of stout from Kilfir and paying the man his immensely generous two shillings, it had occurred to Fjiar that it would be well worth another penny to have him fetch a further round of drinks. Kilfir had duly obliged.
Yngwi and Marion, who was both pained and somewhat distant, dragged the bodies of the fallen off the street and out of sight inside the makeshift building. The area slowly began to return to a semblance of normality. Meanwhile the companions made a thorough search of their victims’ possessions and the building they had occupied. They pragmatically took the smattering of coin their victims had owned, with Tóki’s pragmatism stretching so far as to take a gold tooth from an owner who no longer had any use it. Fjiar found a suit of armour that one of the dwarves must not have had time to don when the fight ensued, which he took to be a specimen of the smithcraft of the Blacklock dwarves from the utmost east of Middle-earth. But none of Beil’s band’s possessions had any bearing on the sorcerous sacrifices or the whereabouts of the Karghal Ironfists.
Then Ecthelon’s sharp eye fixed upon the packed earth floor beneath some crates the ruffians had been using as seats. Only crudely concealed, he spied that the earth there had been patted down with shovels only recently. He pushed the crates aside to reveal an area of disturbed earth four or five feet long and about half as wide. Fjiar started on seeing this and almost spilled his pint. “The grave of another child victim!” he gasped.
The mattocks and shovels about the place were not just the usual trappings of a band of dwarves, but had had a darker and more particular purpose. Fjiar and Yngwi took up tools and soon opened the shallow grave. They discovered the body not of a child but of a dwarf on whom both skin and beard had been grotesquely scorched in many places by red-hot knife blades. A rope gag was still bound about his mouth.
“We know him,” said Fjiar grimly. “He is Eldi son of Ranver, from the kitchen of Thorfin’s mansion.”
“But we were there just four days ago, and nothing was amiss.”
“The grave is fresh, and he appears to have been dead only a day or two.”
“Then our warnings to Thorfin were in vain,” protested Ecthelon. “But it seems from this torture that these ‘Ironfists’ must pursue some overwhelming grudge against Thorfin and his house.”
“Or the torture was for a specific reason,” suggested Tóki, “like learning a password or some such.”
Talking to the Neighbours
At Fjiar’s request, the ever-willing Kilfir called together a handful of the more notable people residents of the street. Beil’s band had not been good neighbours since they forced out the original owners of the plot and took up residence a few weeks ago. They kept strange hours, and drank and often brawled amongst themselves throughout the nights. The locals were not surprised, and not a little satisfied, to see the thugs meet a bad end; but they remained alarmed at the sheer bloodthirstiness of the fight on their very doorsteps.
“Marion may have been the first to throw a punch,” conceded Tóki, confirmed by a silent shrug from the Beorning woman, “but they were the first to draw weapons. They brought this on themselves.”
Fjiar regaled the neighbours with a speech, saying that the company had vanquished a scourge of the community, bringing justice down upon the men – and, regrettably, dwarves – who had not merely been thugs and bullies but who had taken, tormented and murdered innocent children of Dale. To those who were willing to see it, he showed the body of Eldi as proof of the crimes of Beil and his band and the depraved individuals whose coin they took. His audience were fully impressed by the enormity of these crimes and pledged whatever assistance they might offer.
Coming to the purpose of this gathering, Fjiar asked the good townsfolk what they might know of their unwanted neighbours, and particularly the ones who hired them. Between them they could relate a handful of visits from disreputable-looking greybeard dwarves, but couldn’t say whether these were Dwîm and Dwîma themselves, and they had no knowledge of any black-garbed ‘painted man’. It seemed the crow-sorcerer’s comings and goings must have been made only by means of the covered mule-cart, and that he kept as low a profile in the Bluestone Quarter as he previously had in his room at the Docks Bow drinking hall. Nor did the locals know anything of the outsize crow that the companions had seen upon the fallen sorcerer’s breast.
The companions wondered whether the great gorcrow, that seemed to caw orders to someone out of sight just before the sorcerer’s body was dragged into the cover of the cloud of smoke, could have changed its skin to become the man whom they never saw, but whose voice was heard to complain about ‘an army’ having been pulled in.
A Talk at the Toy-shop
At length, leaving the bodies of the fallen for the Dale-town authorities to dispose of, with Yngwi staying to explain events and to watch over their prisoners, Tóki led the other companions back through the streets of Dale to Framleiðandi’s toy shop.
Relating everything about their recent encounter, he asked his mentor whether any Shadow-sorcery offered the power for a man to change his skin to take the form of a gorcrow.
“Is it really true that in the Battle of the Five Armies there was a man who was a skin-changer, who took the form of a bear to slay the king of the goblins?” he asked.
Framleiðandi said that yes it was true, though he said no one seemed to know what sort of a magician he could be. Ecthelon saw that Marion was not of a mind to enlighten them, so he spoke up himself. He had been an archer amongst the Woodland Host in the Battle of the Five Armies, and had seen the destruction wrought by the mighty bear with his own eyes. He added that the skin-changer was Beorn, now the leader of a new folk west of Mirkwood, but the ability to change his skin to that of a bear seemed unique to Beorn himself. Ecthelon mentioned that the Beornings generally held little love for dwarves, at which Fjiar got his dander up and made a few choice comments. The others shot worried glances Marion’s way, but the Beorning axewife was frowning into the fire on the hearth, making no sign of having even heard.
It seemed unlikely that the company had crossed the path of another such singular individual as Beorn. Framleiðandi said, “If I heard of anyone else claiming to have a magical power of skin-changing, I’d reckon he was a liar. And if there seemed to be any truth in it, I’d reckon it was all deceits, even if there was real sorcery in the trickery and illusions behind them.” Everything he’d ever heard was consistent that no power of magic ever afforded anyone the ability to fly, even the great elven wizards of the ancient days.
Ecthelon nodded in confirmation, and added that the elves held it to be a misdeed to use any power of enchanting appearances deliberately to deceive.
“Aye,” said Framleiðandi with a look at Tóki, “and as I taught you, such is like to lead into the Shadow. But at any event, it seems your crow-sorcerer is more given to necromancy, the disposing of souls. That wouldn’t be possible with regular creatures, but perhaps gorcrows have a little of the devil in them which gives a necromancer something to work with.”
“Necromancy as in The Necromancer, who was driven out of southern Mirkwood with his tail between his legs five years ago?” asked Tóki. “Could it be he?”
“Well I doubt that, as no tale ever associated him with gorcrows, even if they’re not unknown in Mirkwood. But necromancy is a rare thing even amongst sorcerers, so it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of some connection.”
A thoughtful silence descended, marked only by the puffing of Tóki’s pipe and the slosh of ale in the bottom of Fjiar’s latest tankard.
“Did you hear that?” asked Marion after a few moments. But no one had heard anything, and Marion could not or would not say what she thought it had been. “Forget it,” she muttered, and fixed her gaze back on the hearth.
To the Mountain, and the Revelation of Bofur’s Disappearance
Returning to the immediate situation, the fact that Beil’s band had taken Eldi son of Ranver proved that the foe’s attentions lay on the Mansion of the Dathrins. The company decided to return there without delay, even though the sun had already dipped beneath the ridge of the Lonely Mountain above them. They collected Yngwi and concealed the bound and gagged prisoners under blankets in the bed of their own mule-cart, with Eldi’s stiffened corpse for grisly company. Ecthelon drove the cart, and was passed through by the guard on Dale’s Mountain Gate without incident.
Arriving at the Front Gate of the Lonely Mountain in the full dark an hour later, Fjiar announced their business to the dwarven guard there, revealed the prisoners and declared that they were taking them to meet with justice for the murder of a dwarf of the Kingdom of the Mountain. The guardsdwarves nodded them through with grim approval.
Thorfin and most of his household were in the main hall of the Mansion when they arrived, and Fjiar and Yngwi related events around mouthfuls of a much-needed late supper. Thorfin said that Eldi had disappeared three days ago, the very day after the company had been there and warned everyone to vigilance; he had gone to purchase supplies in Dale-town and had not returned.
“But this is not our only bad news,” Thorfin added grimly. “We have not seen Bofur since first thing yesterday morning.”
“‘Those dwarves’!” Ecthelon exclaimed. “We have presumed all day that whoever said ‘You were only supposed to pull those dwarves in,’ was referring to a trap for ourselves, or for Yngwi, Fjiar and Tóki , at least. But they must have referred to ‘pulling in’ first the cook and then this Bofur!”
It seemed that when put to the hard question, Eldi the assistant cook must ultimately have talked, and his testimony must have turned the foe’s attentions to Bofur Ironhand. The company tried to think what might make Bofur so important. He was a brewer of potions, a maker of fireworks and – of course! – the member of Thorfin’s company who had unravelled the Door-magic of the secret Vault in the mines. That Vault had been the goal of Dwîm and Dwîma when Thorfin’s company had crossed them the first time.
“Double the guard!” urged Ecthelon.
Thorfin sent a runner immediately to Garthar, the acting captain of his guard whilst Fjiar was otherwise engaged. He was directed to strengthen the defence at Minehead Town’s great gates, protecting the entrance to the North Spur Mines.
As for Bofur himself, it could only be hoped that his lore of Door-magics was valuable enough to the foe that they would need to keep him alive.
“Hold on,” cried Fjiar. “His lore of fireworks! The smoke-bomb that one of those dogs used against us, which right there at the time someone called them an idiot for doing, it must have been Bofur’s own work!”
Tóki, who had even recognised the smell of the smoke-cloud as being like the smells of Bofur’s workshop, inwardly cursed himself for never making the connection.
The Revelation of Marion’s Plight
With the company’s warning Thorfin to vigilance on Sunday, four days earlier, he had directed the most able associates of his household, Bofur Ironhand and Toledur son of Mankar, to investigate the possibility of plots against them. Making such enquiries had probably exposed Bofur to the foe. Toledur sadly could not say where Bofur’s enquiries had taken him, and did not know whether he had ventured down into Dale-town.
“But on Trewsday,” he said, that being the day before Bofur had last been seen, “it was almost as though he was drunk, or maybe hung over, staring into space and asking questions to which he should already have known the answers, like: ‘Remind me, where did we get the Great Ward Key from again?’ It was as though he wasn’t himself—”
“Like Marion has been, ever since the fight!” hissed Ecthelon. Marion, drinking alone down on the ale-benches away from the others, showed no sign of having heard him.
“We heard the sorcerer shrieking something in a crow’s voice before the rest of us could even see him,” Ecthelon continued, Tóki nodding his agreement. “But it seems she must have been placed under some sorcerous curse!”
In a whispered conversation Ecthelon and the dwarves agreed that they could not let Marion know their true plans. Within her hearing they should say the opposite of what they really intended and, Fjiar suggested, they should encourage her to drink herself into a stupor.
A Dwarf, drugged
It was long after midnight when the company took their rest following their extremely long and eventful day. But they were woken again before two hours had passed by the runner back from Minehead Town.
Bofur Ironhand had been there, just hours ago. He had said he had urgent questions and had gone into the supervisor’s office with Garthar. After Bofur left Garthar had been found slumped insensible in his chair. Of Bofur, and of the Great Ward Key to the North Spur Mines, there was no trace.