“The Most Holy be praised! He has returned!”
Who? Who had returned? And from where? Durgin tried to rise from the bed where he lay, then thought otherwise as his vision dimmed and bright spots danced in front of him.
A calm voice reached out to him in his blindness. “Please, stay where you are, you have travelled a great journey. You must rest, recoup your strength.”
“Travelled? Travelled from where? The last thing I remember …” His mind cast back to the past. A blinding white light, a woman’s voice. Then a vision of red, a cry shattering the air of the battlefield. Pain tearing through his side. Durgin saw the orc with the axe raised above him.
Too much to deal with. He tried to rub his eyes. The light seemed too bright wherever he was. His hands on his brow were wet and sticky. His skin felt cold, yet there was a burning inside of him that he could not explain.
Still unable to see the other speaker. He wouldn’t accept any sealed packages. “Out with it! Where have I travelled from? How have I ‘returned’? Don’t talk in riddles. I can take it. What happened? Did I lose a leg? Am I crippled for life? Come on, tell me! We know what can happen when we sign up for the service.”
“You did not lose a leg, Durgin. Your body is whole. You will be able to walk and do everything that you did before. But you do not remember what happened? Are you sure?”
“Blast it, man, if I knew what happened, would I be asking you?” Bluster hiding the fear of memory, it was all too confusing for him to focus upon. “Spit it out – am I sick? Are you a healer? Can you cure me?”
He tried to sit up again, feeling a little better, half sitting now and blinking. Looking down he viewed himself more clearly. Checking, he confirmed that his legs were still there. Durgin did not relish living as an invalid away from the field of battle.
Well, he had his legs, the voice was telling the truth. A young man in white robes was smiling beatifically at him. He must be a priest, he guessed, devoted to the healing arts. But Durgin could not remember asking for a healer or dragging himself into an infirmary for treatment. Had he lost consciousness and was dragged in here?
“No, you are not sick, Durgin, but there may be a period of weakness and disorientation after your return. It is temporary. The body has received quite a shock. Returning is a great stress upon the humours and fibre of your body, do not exert yourself too much, please.” The healer’s voice was tinged with concern. But Durgin did not need to be coddled. He was a soldier, and a dwarf, not some lily-livered elfmaid, prone to fainting spells at the slightest sight of blood.
And there was enough blood. His hands were well stained with it. His chest was covered with its carmine stain. It was not his foe’s blood, not the green ichor of the orcs. God Below, what a blow he must have taken to produce this much blood!
“Heh, priest, I am thankful that the Most Holy made me a dwarf! If I would have been a human, that blow would have killed me, I bet!” He couldn’t help but be proud of his resilience, his weakness was demeaning, he needed to fire his spirits up some.
The priest was silent. He just doesn’t want to admit that I am right!, thought Durgin, smug with his own superiority. He shifted up some more, sitting on the (far too high) bed now. Swinging his legs around off the bed, he was ready to get back on his feet.
“Ere, what have you done to my vest, eh?” Durgin said, tracing the rip in the chainmail from neck to groin. “You didn’t have to cut through all my mail! Do you know how much that will cost to fix?” The fire he was looking for to repair his spirits flooded through him now. That priest was going to pay in gold for the damage he had inflicted on his good mail! Such a savage cut through such fine work! A travesty these humans did not understand, a heresy against craftsmanship.
“But, Durgin, I did not cut your mail … it was like that when you got here. I merely carried out the return for you. I have not touched you. You can be assured of that.”
The priest was right. Such a weak, seemingly tender young man would not have the strength to tear such well-made chainmail. So what had happened? He traced down the torn mail, pulling back the equally shredded tabard beneath.
And then he saw the scar. A long, wide scar, from sternum to abdomen, raw and red. New. And then the memory flooded back to him, quenching the fire of his small, selfish pride.
He felt the searing agony as he was almost split in two from the orcish war-axe. Watching his insides spill out in long, slimy loops, a torrent of blood spraying from his split ribcage. Screaming from the excruciating pain, unheard within the clang of weapons clashing and the cries of the dying. His vision dimmed as he strove to see someone coming to save him. Then everything going black.
“Yes, Durgin … now you realize what has happened, and where you have travelled from. You died, and I brought you back to the realm of life. You have returned from the underworld. A miracle of the Most Holy. You were very lucky to receive a second chance of life. You were saved before you had ventured past the point of no return.”
It was too much to deal with. The blackness came once again, this time comforting as it gave him reprieve of the realization he could not accept.
It was the same as it ever was.
Durgin told himself that, over and over. He’d gone down there every week before … no, he didn’t want to end that thought. It was just a cellar. A bit of underground in the midst of the subterranean city. Nothing to be afraid of.
His feet trod leadenly upon the stone steps, wincing at the slightest sound echoing in the blackness. Deep breath. He’d made it this far. Durgin again focussed upon the fact he’d done this many times before. Nothing had changed.
It was the same as it ever was.
He couldn’t help it, but his eyes searched the darkness. Nothing to be found, yet within Durgin’s heart, his soul, he knew there was something beyond his sight. Waiting. Watching.
Encompassing false night, enclosing stone, pulse races, breath panting. This was stupid! He berated himself. It was in his blood, the darkness, the rock. All part of his dwarven heritage. He forced himself to relax. There was nothing in the darkness. Nothing was waiting for him. He had to believe his eyes, no reason for fear. Just a cellar, nothing more.
Nothing more. Alone in the darkness, Durgin closed his eyes, repeating that calming mantra within his mind. Alone in the darkness.
A sound. A sound stifled in the gloom, making a mockery of his mantra. Durgin was not alone in the cellar.
Eyes still closed as if looking would make it fact, Durgin’s hand slowly crept to his belt, the hilt of his knife. Spinning around, knife slicing through still air, he confronted the blackness. It would not take him back to the grave without a fight.
“God Below! Durgin, what are you doing?” Freyla was shaken, shocked to confront her husband threatening her with his knife.
The knife dropped with a metallic cling-clatter.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry” he almost sobbed, inwardly ashamed of his unusual emotional display. “I didn’t mean it; I didn’t know it was you.”
“But who else could it be?” Freyla said as Durgin drew her into his embrace. “There isn’t anyone else in the house.”
“I know, I know. You and I, alone. It’s just …” Durgin released his arms around his wife, his hand opening and clenching into fists, over and over. Freyla searched his face with concern. “It’s from … what happened before …” her voice trailed off. He looked into her eyes, they shone with care and pity, and she told him “I understand.”
You love me, he thought, but you don’t understand me. No one does.
This couldn’t continue. Here he was, once a dwarf admired by his colleagues for his strength and courage, now reduced to a quivering wreck that had drawn a knife on his wife. Durgin was ashamed of his fall from grace, such a shadow of the warrior awash with the youthful idealism that he was invincible, that he was somehow destined to survive where all others would die.
There was truth in that prophecy; he had survived. Just it wasn’t as he had pictured it, not triumphant and glorious in battle, but defeated and harrowed by a stalking spectre.
He’d wished they had left his body for the crows, not even attempted to bring him back to life. What sort of blessing was this, what gift? To come back and remember the icy chill of Death, and knowing that it would return?
The knowledge of that had turned his life around. No longer did he live as if he would live forever. He knew how fragile his mortality was; he’d already lost it once. The realization that Death was closer than a shadow; he could feel its frozen grip as other people went about their lives, could see it in every scrap of shade and darkness, and he now understood the proverb “Ignorance is bliss”.
His fellows didn’t comprehend his plight. Durgin had approached a comrade in arms from the war. Varak was an old soldier, a veteran of many battles, semi-retired as he worked upon his brewing, occasionally serving a tour of duty in the ever-present war with the orcs.
“Take a seat, try some of this. New blend. Using black rye from up north and a bit o’ local hops I found growing by the water.”
The stein was full of a dark brew, slopping some of the rather prominent foam off the top onto the bar.
What if it’s poisoned? Spoiled? What if you get drunk and someone waylays you on the way home?
He tried to block out the thoughts, and sipped the ale slowly. Rich and mellow, with a pleasant aftertaste. “It’s good, Varak. Should enter it in the contest this year.”
“Thinking so. Seems like a good brew. Now, what’s yer problem, Durgin? Ye said ye had a problem ta talk over with me.”
“Did you hear about what happened to me, Varak? After the last battle?”
“Ye returned, right? Came back from the dead?” Varak was nothing but blunt.
“Yes … just now, nothing seems like it is the same any more. Everything feels different, and I worry about everything. I don’t want to die, again.”
“Laddie, everyone dies at some point. Ye just got lucky to have another run at life, ye know?”
“Is it really that simple? To just say ‘Well, I’m back, things continue as they always have’? It doesn’t feel that simple.”
“Quit brooding over yer death, Durgin! Just get on with life. Think about it this way. Every time ye are in battle, ye are one moment away from dying. Sometimes ye take a grievous wound and ye get patched up by the healers, and ye go out again. This is jest a wound to ye, even if ye died from it.”
“Look, it’s NOT just like a wound. It’s different. I don’t think like I used to.”
“That’s ye choice, Durgin. If ye want to make a big deal over dying, that’s up to ye. If I were ye, I would forget about it, and get on with things. Anyway, ye never need ta be afraid of Death. The priests say that when ye die, ye go ta a place where the ale flows like water and there be feasting day after day. Why worry, just LIVE! Worry about the hereafter here after, heh. Have another ale.”
Durgin put his hand over the stein. “I can’t just forget and live on as I have before. I tried, but it didn’t work. I see Death everywhere. I feel like I am being hunted. That Death is angry at me for cheating my fate. That I should be dead and somehow, that it’s wrong for me to remain alive.”
“I dunno about that, Durgin. I ain’t a priest; I’m just an old soldier. But I can’t force ye to do anything, jest offer my advice ta ye. I hope ye find yer answers.”
He left Varak’s bar still troubled. But the matured dwarf had given him an idea. Durgin hadn’t been the most devout of sorts, he attended temple mass regularly, but as a soldier, it had been a minor part of his life. He hadn’t really wanted to think about anything beyond his simple life of warfare. It was all so very distant, so meaningless compared to the mundanities of life.
But his situation now was far from mundane. Perhaps they would have the answers he sought.
The priest was far younger than Durgin expected, a youth of perhaps fifty years. But he must have had something special within, to receive the obvious respect and honour that the lesser ministry showed him.
He got to the point. “I’ve come back from the dead and I feel displaced. Nothing is the same any more, and I keep worrying about Death creeping up on me when I’m not expecting it.”
The priest nodded, listening. “Why do you feel this way? Do you resent coming back from Death? Have you thought about returning there?”
Rather hollowly “Yes. I know such a thing is forbidden by not only our faith but our culture. The legends of the dwarven undead, those of our people that took their own lives and returned to unlife. But I fear that I will hurt our people more if I remain alive.” Thinking back to when he had almost stabbed Freyla.
“Legends aside, think about what you would be doing if you left this life untimely. Your friends would be shocked and hurt; your clan would be shamed and weakened with your loss. And what of your wife, who would grieve her husband not once, but twice taken from her in quick succession.”
Freyla. He couldn’t do that to her. She’d already had to deal with the idea that he had died and come back, and to die again, a shameful death which would leave their family in disgrace?
“You’re right. I can’t do that. I’ll have to think of something else. Thank you …” Durgin hesitated to call this fellow “Father” due to their age difference.
“Call me Kelldan.”
“Thank you, Kelldan.”
The priest, Kelldan, patted him on the shoulder. “Be at peace with your situation. You have been given a second chance. Not everyone gets that. Take it as the gift that was given and enjoy your life. Don’t dwell on what might have been.”
Strange. The priest almost echoed Varak’s sentiments. But even though he understood what they tried to advise him, it would not settle within his heart. It was just words to be listened to, to nod along to and agree with, but not something that would take root within his soul. He needed something more, as the fear gnawed upon him like a starved rat.
It had been a painful time of reflection, assaulted every which way by terrors within the darkness, the fears upon his mind. He had hammered out a solution. Durgin didn’t know if it was going to work, but he’d already lost life itself. What else could he lose?
At the break of dawn, the crows circled slowly over the battlefield. The besieging orcish warbands infested the plain like mushrooms after winter drizzle. Clustering around the unassailable entrance to the dwarven city underground, hammering the defenders every single day until they finally broke through.
But today the rules would change.
“I’m tired of being hunted. If I am going to die, it will be on my terms, and I will face it as a warrior, not skulking and hiding from my enemy. I will die as I choose, and I choose to die in battle.” Durgin spoke these words to nothing living, addressed to his unseen stalker that dogged his steps every moment. He’d left orders implicit that if he died, he did not want to return. He would die a hero’s death, impaled on enemy spears, hacked apart by enemy axes, taking down as many enemies as he could before he succumbed to the pain of his wounds.
Durgin focused not upon his own death, but the deaths of his people. The screams of pain he had heard on the battlefield, the visages of corpses fixated in torment. How the orcs had attacked and killed his people for generations, raiding settlements and preying upon caravans. Someone was going to pay today for those crimes. Whenever he felt the tiniest whisper of fear, he replaced it with images of hate and anger. It would consume the chill of fear with its searing heat.
The red tide of battle-madness overtook him, and he cared not for anything except the glory of mayhem and violence. Durgin rushed into the warband’s camp without any of the arising orcs comprehending what was happening. They didn’t have much time to organize as the bloodthirsty dwarf lay about with his two-handed axe. Spears flashed and axes slashed in retaliation but the maddened dwarf took no notice of his own wounds as he again attacked the warband. Nothing in their experience helped them deal with this bizarre assault; the dwarves were known for their tactics and caution, not this crimson frenzy of death that this crazed fighter expressed.
The secret to warfare is morale. Although well-disciplined, the orcs broke rank and routed, abandoning their camp to Durgin and his blood-drenched axe. Such terror and panic he inspired within them. He pursued the retreating host and one of his prey slipped and fell amidst the gore of the campsite. Axe raised high, Durgin prepared to bring it down upon the prone orc.
Through the scarlet sea of rage within his mind, he saw the whimpering creature for what it was. A scared, pitiful being, afraid to die, begging and pleading for mercy against implacable destruction. He remembered when it had been him, watching the axe smash down to split him in two, when his life had changed forever. For this orc, it would change too; it would end, as his life had.
Would it take away his memory of Death, would it keep away the dread spectre, to snuff out this life, confident in the knowledge that he was alive and this orc was dead?
The frothing sea of carmine stilled in his soul, replaced with the tranquil subterranean lake of home. He couldn’t kill this helpless enemy. He still hadn’t achieved his purpose, but this death would achieve nothing.
“You’re coming with me, my prisoner.” Snatching some discarded rope from the hastily-deserted camp, Durgin bound the orc’s hands behind his back, his prisoner was meek and compliant. “Move it, we are going back into the city. No tricks or you lose your head, got it?”
The orc nodded quickly, waves of terror overwhelming all else in his dark eyes. As Durgin frogmarched him home he took stock of his captive. The orc was young, probably barely an adult, if that. First war, he imagined. Probably some half-trained errand boy to the warchiefs and their more experienced men. But he knew that Durgin was serious about his threat, as he shook and quivered with dread, still remembering the gore-spattered dwarf’s rampage.
After taking the secured orc into the city, into his home, he asked the orc and himself, “Now, what am I to do with you?”
The priest intoned the Last Rites over the body as it was carried to the crypts. Final resting place for the honoured dead. Many had come to see the funeral, not necessarily because of the popularity of the deceased, but for the precedent; something new in the ageless static serenity of the dwarves.
Durgin could not stop the tears flowing. Let them see and wonder, he didn’t give a damn what they thought. Khadak, always young in Durgin’s eyes, gone. A mere thirty years as his apprentice, cruelly stolen from him.
“Damn you, you bastard. You couldn’t get me, so you took HIM!” Again he spoke to Death, hovering somewhere over his shoulder.
Durgin reminisced over his old captive’s life. He’d taken the orc to his forge and with great distrust, trained him as his smithy worker. The strong back of the orcish people was a great boon within the forge, and Durgin was delighted to find out that his captive had a great finesse in his long slender fingers. Very gradually his distrust faded and he allowed his prisoner to forge things for himself. Soon enough, the boy had tried some techniques of his own devising, things unknown within the dwarven smithing community, such as the use of molds and alloying techniques drawn from knowledge of the upper world.
After many years of honing his skills, the orc was granted a dwarven name, he had no name of his own; not mature enough to receive one in his former culture. Durgin took responsibility for him and adopted him as his son, finally trusting the newly named Khadak within his house. Over the years, the orc had shown a cheerful sense of humour and a caring nature to Durgin and Freyla. Even Varak, ever distrustful of his long-time enemies, made an exception for him. Some people remarked at the strange nature of it all, seeing Durgin and Khadak after some late-night drinking, arm-in-arm and singing loudly, staggering back to an exasperated Freyla.
There were some that still looked a wary eye at the orc walking around town, but the trade guilds had ratified his status in the community. Khadak had become journeyman in the metalworker’s guild and therefore technically, by the rules of the city, a dwarf. This was not a precedent per se: some particularly gifted humans had been offered similar positions, but it was the first time that an orc had been named such.
The new journeyman had opened up his own shop; as was customary for the transition from apprentice, backed by Durgin’s gold and reputation. Khadak had found his love; he forged beautiful jewellery and figurines from precious metals. He had quite a following in some of the younger, more progressive dwarves who could look past the green skin of their smith and focus upon the startling wonder of his creations.
Then it was all over. The orc feeling his age upon his shoulders but far too quick compared to the long-lived dwarves. To watch his former apprentice shrivel up and shake from time’s decay. Old before his time, while Durgin had barely altered in the last thirty years. Now he lay at rest; Khadak, meaning “the firebrand” in dwarven; had finally burned out.
Kelldan, the priest, came to him as the pallbearers went ahead of the procession to inter the orc’s body within the sacred dwarven vaults.
“You know, he would not have had this life if you had not spared him, on the battlefield. He had a short life but I think his life with us made him happy, do you not agree, Durgin?”
“You’re right. He was happy with us and I was well pleased with him. But it’s not fair. He’s gone now and Death has had another victory against me, taking him away.”
“Death claims us all, Durgin. Eventually. But you have learned the lesson of Khadak’s life. He was given a second chance, and he lived life to the fullest. Have you been tormented by your resurrection since he came back?”
“Why, no … there was just this big ungainly orc in my smithy. I didn’t have time to worry about death; I was too busy getting him into line.”
Kelldan smiled. “You didn’t return from the dead when you walked from the battlefield, you returned to us when you brought Khadak into your life. And that life will always be with you, in your memories of him and within your heart.”