Such a parody, he observed with his lips pursed. They were a light shade of blue due to the black wine he had downed. Before the attentive watcher the Shadow Court was in session. They were a polychrome bunch, not only in garment but also in skin and stock. These events ware carefully staged, the decor was set for the puppets to dance and play. It would better be entertaining, else he would be so, disappointed. The observer’s mouth twisted in a mockery of a pouting child.
To the far side of the room a big troll, decoratively painted, was gorging itself on the carcass of a poodle. A moredhel, scantily clad, and with coloured feathers coming out from her behind, was sobbing not too far from the munching troll sinking away in culinary bliss.
Closer to the centre of the Great Hall, two long ebony tables were set about the length of the room. Ten hearths lined the wall to keep the stones warm, though they weren’t by far the only decorations the Lord of Geataheim had used. Red, gold and shades of grey had been used to fill the rest of the decor, notwithstanding the illustrious paintings or banners hanging from the dark granite wall. The space in between the two tables, both loaded with saucers of decadent food to the point when the table-legs were at stake of breaking, was taken by a group of musicians and artists moving and playing at a febrile pace. The company was observed intently by the courtiers, lounging in their seats or wherever they chose to reside.
Bruthwal stood to the side, burying his teeth in soft tender chicken meat. His beard was soaked in grease, so were his thick fingers. Once consumed, he tossed the bones to the pile he had been making. A servant had tried to come and clean up the mess he was making, only to be told to leave the bones where they were. Blackhammer was intent of breaking his former record. These feasts were a dull occasion, only food and drink proved to be sufficiently entertaining. Perhaps, when he was drunk enough, his belly full of wine and mead, he would snatch away a human lass and fill her belly with something else.
“Evening, master Dwarf,” Thresh’s voice always sounded like velvet. “Seems you grow shorter and wider every time we meet.” He was dressed in a dark purple robe, a vest of shining black leather and red boots. The elf was far too feminine for Bruthwal to like.
The duergar warrior grunted and tossed another bone at the pile, first feigning as if he would toss it at the moredhel’s outfit. Andulan yelped and jumped from its would-be path. “Wider, maybe. Not shorter.” The dark elf scowled and called him names, only to the amusement of his dwarven peer. Twenty chicken bones on the floor, twenty chicken bones... you take one more and gobble it up, twenty-one chicken bones on the floor.
The artists started a play about a young girl and a wolf. It was a widely-known tale, told to children without fear of them apprehending the true meaning behind the story. The analogy -to adults- was too obvious to ignore. A young maiden being stalked by a big bad... wolf with malicious -but oh so delicious- intent. The moredhel minstrels accompanied the dancers and actors performing the show. Captain Glautur Zulandros turned his eyes to his master sitting on the Blackwood Throne, an intricately crafted wooden seat. The Lord Ruin had bent and twisted the wood so it had taken the desired shape of a throne. Furthermore, the material had been infused with the essence of night, now it was blacker than tar but shiny as if permanently oiled. To his master’s right stood the tall shape of Aginor. Eyeless, not sightless. Glautur knew the myrddraal saw more than any of them here in this hall.
Glautur’s mouth turned stern, his cup was empty so he beckoned over a man-servant. When the slave turned away after handing him a refilled tankard, Glautur noticed man’s back opened by at least a dozen lashes. He suspected the slave had dropped something in the kitchen. His wounds and the blood were a great source of fascination for the Shadow Court and he saw more than one poking at the destroyed skin, hanging from the open gashes.
Aginor’s eyeless gaze flickered across the room. Wherever he rested for longer than a mere moment, he saw the recipient of his attention shudder, as if hit by a cold winter gust. Some resisted at first, but soon enough they felt as if a frozen hand clutched around their heart. The myrddraal was revolved in a swirling aura of black power and fear, though it was eclipsed by the sheer force of his master sitting next to him; leaned in, a hand on his knee and one supporting his chin, his eyes taking in the exploits of the Shadow Court.
His brow rose a bit as he detected his lord and master stand up from his throne and descent from the dais. He felt the pulsating power emanate from Lord Silchas as his heavy steps seemed to thunder into the Great Hall of Geataheim.
“Why don’t we just cast off this charade,” He took them by surprise, no matter what it seemed he always did. Lord Silchas Ruin gave nothing away, and perhaps in the mystery of his hard sapphire eyes it was that lay the source of his power, his authority. A pointed iron crown rested on his head. His eminent likeness, brushed by the master-painter Spardeon -a moredhel artist-, had since the occupying of Geataheim commanded pride of place in the Hall of Portraits. It was indeed a hand of genius like that of Spardeon that had managed to capture the agelessness and strength in the Lord Ruin’s visage. It was the hint of something beyond capture that unnerved many, the image of regal supremacy that swayed people to his cause and side. His face had the strong features of nobility, made apparent in the bridge of the nose, the chiselled chin and brooding eyes. Both the painting and the appearance of Lord Silchas Ruin in the flesh were an image of a man who was king in all but name. The music fell silent as his words fell, their meaning distilled.
Not much later Silchas left the Great Hall which had denigrated into a mess of rutting bodies, a full-blown orgy induced by his intoxicating presence and the careful magical manipulations of the mind. Then again, he had also ordered a plethora of aphrodisiacs to be mixed in with the beverages. With booming strides he walked through the hallways of Geataheim, a satisfied grin on his fair face. They were all his little play-things, easily manipulated and controlled. They all knew it, but every once in a while they had to be remembered. Lord Silchas considered this a very enjoyable way of doing that. As such he saw himself as an extremely generous and most benevolent Lord.
- - -
Only a select few were allowed in Lord Silchas Ruin’s personal quarters. And a hunchbacked creature by the name of Garn was one of them, his function practically demanded it he be able to reach his lord and master at any given time. Skulking through the main room he recoiled when a shadow played tricks on him, seemingly bringing a stuffed monstrosity back to life.
“Don’t sully yourself.” The Lord Ruin’s voice came from his personal library. Garn muttered an apology while stealing forward, his ugly mug peeping in the dark room. It seemed Lord Silchas did not require light in order to read.
“My Lord, I have had reports coming in that demand your attention.”
Two eyes momentarily flared up brightly red due to Garn’s unpopular choice of words, before returning to their regular colour. They disappeared once more in the darkness. A moment later, the tall figure of Silchas stepped from the shadows. The hunchback cleared his throat.
Garn nodded, he felt a bead of sweat trickling from his face. The spy-master always felt so tiny in Silchas’ presence, but the master paid well for good information. And he had served him loyally for he knew that if he turned from the service of the Lord of Geataheim his life would be forfeit. At least a dozen were jumping to take his place. “We have apprehended some thieves selling weapons from your stock here and from one of the Burrows.”
Silchas frowned. “Were they adequately handled?”
Garn chuckled maliciously at the pun. “Oh yes, their hands were cut off and nailed to their heads. They’re currently on display just outside the gates.”
“Good, justice is swift and true in my domain.”
The hunchback continued, ticking off another item from his mental list. “Next there have been reports of a group of slavers grabbing young farmhands and farmer’s daughters along the border.”
The Lord Ruin pondered for a moment, bringing his armoured hand to his face in a pensive manner. “I’ll dispatch Rannoc and his bandit borderswords. Best fight fire with fire.” However, they would be helped by a number of myrddraal, the nightmares would be key in coordinating a suitable response to trespassers. And their cruelty would make sure examples would be set. The carcasses hanging from the trees along the edges of his land needed replacing, surely.
The hunchback took a perverse pleasure from imaging the fate of those he betrayed to Lord Silchas. Something inside him got excited to know he held a part in their demise. The Lord Ruin was aware of this: Garn was a most wicked creature, rotten to the bone.
“Then...” he stammered, “there have been some worrying reports coming from the mountains. An old goldmine has been recovered. It still contains ore.”
“How is this worrying, Garn?”
“They’ve been... keeping what they found for themselves. However, it seems that their greed has become their undoing. People have been disappearing into the deep. The messenger spoke of flames in the dark and a voracious beast awakening daily.”
Silchas stared at the spy incredulously. “They would steal? From me?” His voice sounded surprised, disappointed even as if a great wrong had been done to him. The traitors would pay. However, Silchas was in fact calculated, his supposed indignation at the injustice merely an act to appear sanguine. “Where is this horror in the mountain?”
“A fortnight’s ride to the north, your malevolence, at the village of Crestenfall.”
So that’s where the thieves lived. “Be gone, Garn. The Castellan will see to your payment.” The hunchback stalked from the room, dragging his foot.
- - -
The sun rose just above the battlements of Geataheim’s black wall. The defence works of the fortress were near impregnable, the recently finished siege engines reminded of crouched insects ready to jump or sting, their jaws and stingers aimed at whatever enemy would dare approach. The sentries manning the walls were just black figures painted on the pink morning sky.
They had assembled in one of the courtyards, tension and excitement tangible in the crisp air. Behind them the central holdfast rose skyward, like a big black clenched fist shaking angrily at the heavens. The company consisted solely of mounted companions and was a mixed unit of humans, moredhel, half a dozen myrddraal and a detachment of Axebitten on large ponies, led by Bruthwal.
Osserc felt the sun prickle his pale skin. He had been bred and raised inside the depths of Geataheim and as such was sensitive to the sun’s rays. They simply irritated and stung a little, though it did not bother his skill or focus. He was also the only orc riding a horse. It was a massive mare, bulky enough to support his size and weight, and docile enough to be ridden by a kobold without protest. He looked around, his pale eyes squinting. In total, they were close to a hundred he estimated. Not all of them were soldiers, there was a small group of huntsmen and trackers among their number.
The pale orc exchanged a meaningful look with the dwarf, who seemed disinterested, and Captain Andulan who temporarily looked up from the moredhel sluts listening to his vain heroics. Osserc spat the ground and grunted at the servant clutching his reins. “Back off.”
The Lord Ruin appeared from the immense black steel door, his gaze hitting home like shards of ice before his assembled party. He was dressed in light combat gear, a fur cloak hanging from his broad shoulders while the first gleams of sunlight beamed off of his jagged iron crown. In the centre of the courtyard stood a large warhorse. It was a vicious beast known to have bashed in three skulls of stable-hands while they were merely going about their business. It was this murderous horse that was the Lord Ruin’s mount, naturally. The beast could only be ridden by Silchas, and did not permit anyone’s touch but his.
Bruthwal, hungover as only dwarves could be, placed his pursed lips on a silver-inlaid horn and blew. His face turned first red by the effort, but quickly changed into green. It was clear from his grimace that he had barely contained puking in front of Lord Silchas. There was no telling how their lord and master would have reacted; he might have laughed or he might have obliterated Bruthwal where he stood.
The enormous gates of Geataheim opened, the hinges cracking violently as the armoured company filed out, pouring into the land like a black serpent. Scouts fanned out into the country while Silchas turned his horse and wheeled it about at the head of the column. “We ride!” Shouted Lord Silchas Ruin his fist put up toward their direction. A moredhel lieutenant from the rearguard let his voice whip as well. “Forward, you maggots!”.