Afternoon – HEVENSDAY, THE FIFTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946
A Murder of Gorcrows (continued)
Ecthelon peered dubiously at the sketches Tóki had made of the ‘runes’ scored into the scalps of the gorcrows, and made his own inspection of the blood-crusted head of each of the dead birds, but was forced to concur that the sketches were accurate.
“Apart from the form,” he said: “the vertical and diagonal lines prove these signs to have been designed to be carved, into stone or wood – or…” a sidelong glance here at the gorcrows, “or whatever else – these marks have no connection with any variant of the Cirth or Angerthas that I have ever encountered. One might conclude them to be the characters of the Morbeth, your ‘Black Speech’.”*
He looked to Marion for confirmation, but the gruff Beorning woman merely shrugged. The two looked over to Tóki. The dwarf knew nothing of such, but blushed before the expectant gazes of these two companions and desperately racked his memories.
“No!” he exclaimed at length. “I remember. Framleiðandi once told me that the Black Speech is scarcely ever rendered in written form. Even the two or three fragments he had ever had described to him only used the runes of the Angerthas or the elf-letters.”
“The Tengwar,” Ecthelon supplied absently. “So this must remain a mystery for the present.”
Fjiar raised the curiosity that the sorcerers should have taken away the gorcrow bodies and hidden them, whilst leaving the body of the young shepherd in plain view on the crest of the ridge. Yngwi suggested that where the callous heathens had no regard for their dying victim, perhaps some affinity with the gorcrows meant they treated them with more respect. But it this was just another thing that would have to remain mysterious. The big dwarf was more keen on returning to the spot where Marion had spied the mule-dropping and pursuing upon their tracks.
Tóki and Ecthelon returned Holvidur to his steading, despite his protests that he wanted to come with the company and avenge his son’s death. They told him to keep to the steading, or remain hard by it, and not even to greet any other strangers. Ecthelon puzzled out how to hitch the mule back to their cart, and the two drove out to rejoin their companions.
Marion, Yngwi and Fjiar had meanwhile gone straight to the intended spot and searched the area more properly. The stony and charred terrain offered no signs to the eyes of the two dwarves, and after a while they relented and just attended to Marion. The huntress ranged silently about, intent on her task, quartering the area and circling right round it. At length she turned back to the dwarves and announced that while she could readily follow the track back north-east in the direction from which the cart (and at least three or four people on foot) had come, she could follow it forwards only a little way before the tracks petered out.
“We’re not interested in where they came from!” exclaimed Yngwi. “We must not waste time in giving chase or we’ll never catch up with them.”
“Can’t you just talk to the land again?” asked Fjiar, as calmly as if he saw people practice such magic every day.
“They already have a lead on us of at least five days. And that was Ecthelon, not me,” Marion gruffly replied. “Dwarves!” she sighed to herself under her breath.
Returning to Dale
By the time Ecthelon and Tóki drove up, Marion had cautiously approved a plan of Fjiar’s. “We’ll form up in a skirmish line thirty paces apart and strike forwards with everyone keeping their eyes peeled for wheel ruts, hoofprints or any other sign of passage.”
Tenuous as this approach was, Tóki’s meticulous gaze got them off to a good start, and once he had his eye in he found himself picking up on tiny signs that impressed even Marion. Ecthelon’s elven sight proved a great boon, and Yngwi also found scuff marks that proved they were on the right track, just as their hopes were beginning to falter after a lack of any slot or sign for over a mile. The route gave Holvidur’s Stead a two mile berth but otherwise proceeded south-west, back the way they had come, before finally veering southwards and rejoining the road to Dale. The company carried on, with wary eyes upon the margins of the road for any sign of cart-tracks leaving it again, until the road split. Ecthelon, Tóki and Marion returned to Dale, but Yngwi insisted on carrying on down the Lake-town road until they could confirm at the wayside inn he knew, The Halfway House, whether their quarry had travelled that way.
Yngwi and Fjiar marched on without rest until they gained the yard of the inn. They asked their questions about whether anyone had seen a covered mule-cart driven by grey-bearded dwarves – or a man dressed in black, hooded and with a scarf over his face! Even a generous consideration from Thorfin’s purse failed to elicit any information, but Yngwi felt the mannish folk might be close-mouthed with strangers. Fjiar proposed they stay at the inn till the end of the night and win their trust and goodwill. Tales were told and songs were sung, generous services offered, kitchen knives and wood axes sharpened to perfection with Fjiar’s best dwarvish whetstone, and of course a great deal of ale was drunk.
At the close of the evening Fjiar made one last heartfelt plea to be told of anything his friends the staff might have seen. Yngwi judged the audience to have been won over, and was finally forced to concede that there was nothing they weren’t being told. The sorcerers must indeed have returned to Dale-town after their sojourn in the wild.
Earlier that afternoon, even as they drove their cart in through the Trader’s Gate, Ecthelon sniffed at the guards’ previous assertion that no one answering the description had been seen to pass the gates in either direction. Marion pointed out grimly that the guards had only said they could not confirm having seen those people leave town; no one had claimed that they couldn’t possibly have got through unremarked.
“And silence can be bought, if you have the purse for it,” she added, darkly. This only caused Ecthelon’s frown to deepen further.
Tóki went home to the toy shop and Ecthelon and Marion retired to their rooms in Kote’s Inn, and they all passed the night uneventfully.
MERSDAY, THE SIXTH DAY OF THRIMIDGE, TA2946
They met up again at Framleiðandi’s toy shop the next morning and over a long breakfast related the findings of their foray out into the North Dalelands. The old whitebeard listened gravely to everything they recounted about the murderous sacrifice of the shepherd lad and the dark rite that followed, the sorcerer summoning gorcrows to him from across the expanse of the Waste, and the mystifying use of runes that were not of any known Cirth.
When Tóki finished telling all they knew and sat back to light a pipe of the halflings’ weed, Framleiðandi said that the way the gorcrows flew in in dribs and drabs suggested that the summoning spell simply drew all the birds from a certain area, and was probably continued until the ritually significant number of nine gorcrows had answered the call. They summoning spell must also have made them pliant to the sorcerer’s will, given the scribing of the ‘runes’ upon their heads, but Framleiðandi felt the most incisive detail was that the grasses had not sung anything to Ecthelon about the killing of the birds – upon which there was no visible sign of the cause of death. He deduced that they had probably been ‘killed’ mystically, by the sorcerer separating their spirits from their bodies by some power of Necromancy, and either taking them into himself or binding them into some receptacle. If they had already been ensorcelled as his familiars, sent forth to spy over the landscape – whatever they might be expected to see in that empty land – he would have had no cause to kill them.
“So what we really need to know,” he finished, “is what this man did, or still intends to do, with nine disembodied gorcrow-spirits. Why gorcrows? They are nastier and more intelligent than ordinary crows, and lend themselves to spying or the theft of shiny things. But nine of them…”
Having remained silent throughout, Marion at length spoke up. “If he has markings like a gorcrow upon his own skin, he probably works with gorcrows because that is what he is, instead of choosing them for their particular nature.”
Even by mid-morning Yngwi and Fjiar had still not returned to Dale-town, but their companions saw no cause to go haring off in search of them. They set about commencing on a more extended plan of campaign to glean out where the sorcerer and his accomplices might be hiding.
Tóki’s main concern was how to ask people whether they’d sighted Dwîm or Dwîma. He painted up a sign offering a reward for information, but he wasn’t satisfied with the likeness he’d been able to achieve with a brush and paints, and turned to his stronger skill to carve a foot-high wooden puppet into a strikingly good resemblance of the twins. ‘Have you seen this dwarf?’ his sign read, but he hoped to have more success once he took the puppet out onto the streets and started showing it to passers-by and asking them in person.
Ecthelon took it upon himself to better familiarise himself with this mannish town and all its neighbourhoods, and actually went out to run through the streets like a watch recruit in training – though an elf of Mirkwood had far more grace and fleetness of foot than a mannish levy with a pack of rocks on his back.
Marion started to go through the taverns of the waterfronts, using her great lungs to belt out rousing songs of heroism, and to impress upon any witnesses that she – and a reward of Thorfin’s silver – was deserving of any tip-off they might not otherwise share.
Fjiar and Yngwi stoically hiked their way back up the Lake-town road from The Halfway House, passing below Ravenhill and into the Dale by midday. Then Yngwi led the way off the Merchant’s Way and up the rough track to the steading of Arfa of Dale.
Asked whether any of his horse-trader and wheelwright friends had known anything of the movements of Dwîm and Dwîma, he blathered on at some length about his diligence in pursuing everyone he knew, without success and all at his own expense—
“Still your lying tongue!” bellowed Yngwi, sensing evasion. He cursed the man roundly, grabbing him by the shirt and demanding to be told the truth. Barely shorter than the Daleman and twice as wide, Yngwi made full use of his physical presence to demand the fawning Arfa tell him everything he knew.
“I did ask around!” protested Arfa. “I wouldn’t lie to you about that—” Yngwi waved away the bluster and urged Arfa on. He seemed to be telling the truth when he said that no one had had that cart come in for repairs or made any other sighting of the dwarf twins. But the previous morning, a dwarf who’d heard that he was asking around had come out to his farm, and offered to double Thorfin’s offered reward if Arfa would tell the company nothing, but instead send word to him if they returned to Dale.
Yngwi had to lean on him again before Arfa gave up the name of this dwarf, Foron.
“Foron? Foron son of Jidli! Foron Forktongue, more like. He has crossed our path before!” Arfa nodded, adding that he was to send word to a barmaid called Alys in the up-market inn, The Black Shaft, on Fountain Square.
Yngwi laid into his man one more time, repeating his threats of violence to Arfa’s person if Dwîm and Dwîma – or Foron – were to find out anything from him. (“You really will be ‘Arfa’ man…”) But, subsiding a little, he also impressed upon the man that Thorfin and his dwarves of the Mountain were on the side of right, and the outlander dwarf twins were thieves and child-killers.
Yngwi and Fjiar met up with the others at the toy shop, and the five lost no time in making their way to the Bluestone quarter and Fountain Square in the centre of the town. Approaching cautiously they satisfied themselves that The Black Shaft did not appear to be under any watch from outside. Yngwi announced his intention to go in there, and the others split into pairs to keep a watch of their own. Tóki chose to hide in plain sight, peddling toys to passers-by and Marion feigned interest in his wares. Ecthelon watched inconspicuously from another corner, but Fjiar fretted at his side, looking daggers at every patron coming or going from the inn.
Ecthelon murmured, “If you can’t be any more casual—”
“Aye, you’re right!” grunted Fjiar and, before Ecthelon could finish speaking, launched himself forward.
Yngwi had made his way half way round the main room of the inn. He made an imposing figure of a dwarf, but the lute in his hands gave onlookers a reason for him to be there. None of the patrons paid him any more attention than might be expected at the prospect of a tune, and he in turn satisfied himself that neither Dwîm and Dwîma nor any of their known accomplices were in the place. He had just called a barman over and asked whether Alys was working there this afternoon when a resounding crash came from behind him as the doors were slammed open.
Fjiar stood framed in the doorway, his hand upon the head of his great axe. “Get me a beer!” he hollered, and glared around the room inviting challenge.
Moments later, Marion spied a very ordinary–looking potboy sidling out of the side door from the kitchens and heading out into the square. He made for the nearest corner at a pace just shy of an open run. Marion strode after him, and when she rounded the corner herself she saw him in full flight up the main road northwards through the heart of the Bluestone quarter.