Orivon Firefist was captured as a six-year-old child by the Nilfghar--the dark elves--who attacked his village by night on one of their surface raids. Fifteen years later, he is a moon-pale, scarred, muscular giant of a man, who has spent his days at forgework for a dark elf family. He is also forced to use his great strength to shift furniture in the grand rooms of their castle. He has been trained (and flogged and ordered about) by the beautiful Tsarnarra, a lash-wielding matron who is icily cruel, but proud of the slaves that she has trained. Through all of this, Orivon's spirit has never been broken. He longs to return to the surface world, even if that means destroying the entire dark elf empire along the way! At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 01, 2008
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Excerpt from Dark Warrior Rising by Ed Greenwood
Dark Warrior Rising
The Towers of Talonnorn
Drink, drink down the juksarr, Let none now moan nor mourn, For we fare forth fast and far At last to bright Talonnorn.
It was as long as four large wagons, yet looked like a tiny insect flitting among the stone fangs of the Outcaverns. Silently it flapped and banked, dodging through the great columns of rock with smoothly scudding familiarity. It was batlike and black, and held its long neck as straight as a lance, baleful eyes burning in the darkness.
It was afraid.
So was its rider, Naraedel of Oondaunt, glancing all about warily and often, crouching low and wrapped in a half-cloak to hide the house targe on the breast of his leathers. For this Niflghar was an envoy of one house, skulking home expecting trouble from others; not a loud, wildly laughing blade of the Hunt cavorting in the air with many well-armed fellows. In lone, swift silence the messenger sped homeward.
Suddenly empty air in front of the batlike beast flared into a warning glow--but the Nifl sat back in his saddle, sighing with relief, as the darkwings under him left that brief flare of magical shieldings fading in its wake, and glided serenely out into the great cavern beyond.
The spires of proud Talonnorn awaited, many lights glowing among six soaring castles, and twinkling here and there in the broad dark swath of lesser dwellings sprawling between them like a flung-down cloak.
Everywhere was beauty and elegance, for the greater glory of Olone demanded such, and all Talonar Nifl worshipped the Kiss of Beauty. Or died.
A spellrobe--young Ondrar, his cruel face raised to watch Naraedel intently--was standing watch in an ornately curved turret on the highest walls of the fortress of Har Vigilant, home to the rival House of Raskshaula. He gazed steadily at Naraedel as the envoy flew overhead, but did nothing. Nor did the warblades standing around him, bannerpoints in their hands. Custom was all in Talonnorn, and where there were gaps in custom, pacts had been woven long ago to bridge those gaps.
The envoy guided his mount lower, banking over the crowded central Araed, where the Nameless lived. Its winding streets were choked with scurrying servants and slaves, heavily-laden pack-snouts and wagons. As usual.
Everyone in haste, but no one getting anywhere all that swiftly. As ever.
Lower still Naraedel scudded, trusting in his wardshield to protect him from darts or things hurled up out of malice or mischief, wanting to see what he could of whatever was unfolding on the streets.
Whips cracked yonder, where overseers--Nameless Nifl wearing the rival targe of Evendoom--were lashing a trudging line of newly arrived slaves to a sale pen. Weak, hairy, repulsively light-skinned humans, all of them stumbling along in drugged obedience in their stinking capturehoods. Hairy Ones, tamed but not trained.
Then the envoy was past, too soon to properly see and know the pattern of the colored scarves knotted along the rope that bound the necks of the slaves together in their long line, that would tell him which slave-takers owned that rather pitiful brawn.
Not that it mattered much; humans were slow-witted and seldom lasted long, being both weak and lazy. Thank Olone that the Blindingbright seemed to hold an endless supply of them.
The next street held rather better slaves: a gang of great muscled and tusked brutes, the gorkuls of the mountains. The weakest of such could match the straining strength of three large humans--and Talonar needed many slaves to do all the things that might otherwise scar them, or make their sleek selves bulge overmuch and mar their strivings to be ever more beautiful--and so please Olone, and rise in Talonnorn.
Some among the Nameless went masked--as the ruling crones of the six ruling Houses did, while all Talonnorn pretended not to see theirwrinkles and sagging withering--but the truly maimed or deformed were slain and burned, or driven forth into the Wild Dark beyond the Outcaverns, so as not to offend Olone.
Naraedel sighed inwardly. Talonnorn was a vain and ruthless place, but it was home.
In truth, he liked most the scheming traders and struggling shopkeepers of the Araed, who mumbled prayers to Olone but spent their lives seeking to stay alive and a few stones to the better. He understood them, even if every alley bristled with knives and every tavern housed a waiting succession of brawls, with only the rogue priests and potionbrewers who healed for stiff fees getting rich.
It was the murderous whims of life in the house compounds that made him shiver.
The envoy sighed again, casting a regretful glance at a particular roof below: the tavern called the Waiting Warm Dark, where he'd much rather be heading.
Perhaps later ...
Then he straightened and unwrapped his cloak to proudly display the Talon of House Oondaunt, and used his spurs almost gently; his steed was already gliding, banking sharply and sweeping its wings back so as to dart through the narrow, waiting opening between the two guardspires.
The tingling of the inner wards was still raging through Naraedel when the first brutal probes of the Oondaunt spellrobes' magics flooded into his mind, sending him reeling back in his saddle, eyes rolled up in his head and lip bitten through.
A gentler homecoming than usual.
"Voices down," Urgel muttered warningly, leaning forward over his drinking horn and pointing warningly at the feeble flicker of the hear-not shield on the table in their midst. It had been old when he'd bought it, and that had been long enough ago that Urgel's hair had still been lush and thick. "What we speak of is as much treason as if we were invoking the Ever-Ice with every breath!"
Tarlyn rolled his eyes in disgust. "Gel, this is the Waiting Warm Dark, not a Kissers' temple. I mean, look around you! Who here would dare go to any High House to tell them about us? Hmm?"
The subterranean tavern around them was quiet just now, which meant that most of the loungers on its stools--as opposed to the Nifl decorating the floor--were gowned pleasure-shes, winking hopefully at the handful of Nameless clustered around their usual table. Beneath those gowns were the brandings, piercings, and deep body sculptings--holes right through sleek bellies and torsos--that drove most Nifl rampants wild. Those charms would, however, stay hidden until tally-stones enough--rather more than the rampants around the table had to spare--were proffered.
The shes knew Tarlyn and the others, of course, and weren't really expecting these particular rampants to pour out gems enough to tug at nipple rings or ring rows of little bells set into flanks, but a pleasure-she has to keep in practice somehow ...
Most of Talonnorn knew Tarlyn, if only by reputation. He was handsome even among Talonar Nifl, the very elegantly smiling image of a "prancing rampant." His pair of two tiny horns that all Nifl males have at their brows were exquisitely twisted and arched--and polished to a high sheen, with his hair sculpted back and away to display them. His eyes and jaw had the strength of command, and yet his mouth was as soft and sensual as that of the most yieldingly desirable Nifl-she. His wits might be a trifle thick, but that mattered not a whit to the lusty Talonar shes he was so skilled at "servicing," from alleyhips here in the Araed to ladies of the grand Houses. He almost never stopped smiling.
Many in Talonnorn knew Urgel by sight. A maker of masks for aging crones--every one of them beautiful, and most of them magically augmented with the minor glamors he could cast--he never took off the mask he was wearing now. He took care that as few Talonar as possible knew it had been magically bonded to his skin, after his face had been ravaged by magical fire hurled by a spellrobe hired by a rival. He hoped no one knew that his knife had slashed out that wizard's throat, diced the mage's brain, and burned it in a back alley brazier. The spellrobe had been a prominent member of House Dounlar--and all of the Houses were more than accomplished in matters of vengeance.
The other three at the table didn't want Talonnorn to know or notice them. Tall, slow-tongued, amiable Munthur was their "strongfists," whose punches could break necks or bestow senselessness in an instant. Wry-tongued old Clazlathor was a rogue spellrobe--something none of the High Houses liked to think existed in Talonnorn, or wanted to see visit their city for even a single breath, given how swiftly some spellscould be hurled. Handsome and soft-spoken Imdul was the sort of viper the Houses wanted cleansed out of the Araed, so they alone could control certain vices; he was a poisoner-for-hire, a forger, and a buyer and seller of stolen items. Just now, the goblet in his hand should have been adorning a table in the private chambers of the Lord of House Maulstryke, which was one of the two large and secret handfuls of reasons why he was smiling.
"Nifl have always pondered great changes in Talonnorn aloud around tables like these," he murmured. "So long as we plot nothing specific against any House, I see nothing wrong. Why, even Lord Evendoom has spoken of turning to coins, as some cities do, and away from gemstones as currency. The metal's sturdier."
"Yet, so?" Clazlathor growled. "Gems I love the feel of, gems I know the worth of; tally-stones I trust. Any fool can set slaves to stamping out endless coins, making mine worthless--but he who sends slaves gemmining is a fool."
"A murderous fool, aye," Urgel agreed. "Or a slaver with too much brawn in his pens to be able to feed them all."
"Some have done just that with slaves," Imdul murmured, "so as to be able to heap up gems enough to buy themselves a name."
"Huh," Munthur grunted. "More fool them. Willingly stepping into all that sneering and poisoning--beg pardon, Imdul--and daggers up backsides?"
"All of that very rarely goes on within Houses," Imdul told them, "unless the family is already doomed, and collapsing. Houses have too many foes outside their own ranks not to stand together. A Nameless who marries into them, if not personally useful, may well be allowed nothing more than a place inside the door--but some Nifl spend their lives striving for such advancement. If they find meaning and worth in it, who are we to cavil?"
"We're the smarter Nifl who waste no time at all on such hollow achievements," Urgel replied, draining his horn and looking around to find a serving-she to bring more aehrodel. The tallspout on the table seemed to have gone empty. Again.
Clazlathor cradled his goblet in both hands, shook his head, and snorted. "Can't see a House that'd be willing to let you join them, Gel. Or me. Or any of us."
"Be not so sure," Imdul purred. "Some crones play long games indeed, assembling skills and bloodlines among their servants and wellnigh ordering matings. After all, an oriad can always meet with a convenient accident after the breeding's done."
"Quite so, quite so," Urgel said soothingly, for smiling Naersarra was at his elbow, holding up two full tallspouts with a questioning smile. "Both," he told her gently, and by way of thanks received a warm and almost bare bosom in his face as she leaned forward to set them on the table. Inhaling her warm, faintly musky scent, Urgel grinned to himself. There were worse taverns in the Araed than the Waiting Warm Dark, to be sure.
"Me," Munthur rumbled unexpectedly, "I worry about Raskshaula's tamperings with yeldeth. I don't want to end up eating poison, with one of them smilingly holding out the cure--in small doses that I have to pay and pay and pay for!"
Tarlyn chuckled. "Have you ever seen a yeldeth cavern? Hot and damp and all aglow, walls thick with the stuff--yellow-green growths like fried brains, look you--dripping with sticky rose-blue slime! It'll put you off yeldrau and dethen for a while, I tell you!"
Clazlathor regarded the plate by his hand, well-sprinkled with dethen crumbs--and they'd been round, firm, good loaves, too--rather sourly, looked down the table to where Imdul's empty bowl of yeldrau stood, and then asked, "And just where, Tarlyn, did you discover what fried brains look like? Or taste like? And were they Nifl brains, or gorkul wits, or ... ?"
"I believe I'll have another bowl of yeldrau," Imdul observed unconcernedly, and Clazlathor recalled that the poisoner had finished his first bowl of the soup with swift and eager enjoyment.
Tarlyn laughed. "No, I'll not say! Yet, Munthur, you I will answer: If ever what you fear comes to pass, I'll do what many will, I'm sure: turn only to eating meat, and drinking beast blood to slake my thirst."
"Oh? Saving the Nifl-she breast milk for late dining?" Clazlathor asked the low ceiling overhead slyly, and the table exploded in laughter.
Vaeyemue stretched, the ever-present whip in her hand slicing the air with a soft sigh that would have passed unheard elsewhere in Talonnorn.
It was always quiet in the yeldeth caverns. The edible fungi muffled all sounds, and grew so fast that slaves had to be sent out when weariness slowed their picking; only fresh fingers could keep up with the sprouting blooms. Slaves were fed raw yeldeth, but probably ate it withno more enthusiasm than most Nifl would if what ended up on their platters had been kept from wines and sauces and the cooking brazier. Amraunt, now; even raw, those mushrooms were pure pleasure on the tongue, and rare and small of course--and as far as a Nifl belly could get from soft, nourishing, yet nigh-tasteless yeldeth.
Hmm. Up in the Blindingbright, she'd heard, the Hairy Ones dwelt amid a bewildering variety of edible plants, and ignored most of them. Oriad-witted creatures!
Or perhaps, as Vaeyemue had thought more than a few times before, they were simply so stupid as to not realize the plants could be eaten--and never think of exploring or experimenting with what grew so abundantly at hand. She looked down the cavern at scores of them intently plucking, twisting, and peering--seeking blooms of just the right hue--and shook her head. They seemed intelligent enough. But then one could never tell with humans.
Ugly and hairy and pale, yes, but they could imitate Nifl speech and gestures and even--albeit gracelessly--mannerisms.
"So they watch and hear us," she murmured aloud, "and remember. And are clever. Yet such imitations have their limits. After all, it's not as if they're Niflghar."
"Is this the best the raiders could find?" Brylyaun's lip curled as he watched the line of sagging humans being unhooded and lashed by bored Nifl overseers; most of them toppled hard to the ground after only a stroke or two. "Every run it seems worse! Is the Blindingbright running out of Hairy Ones, that our take is such ... dregs?"
Orellaun chuckled. "I recall your grandsire saying almost those exact words, while standing looking out this window. I think we all believe slaves were bigger, better, and stronger when we were young--and must have been roaring monsters before that! Yet Talonnorn manages to struggle along, as Houses rise and Houses fall, and slaves beyond numbering work and perish and are devoured and replaced, ov--"
"Over and over and over again," Brylyaun interrupted, in perfect mimicry of Orellaun's grandly declaiming tones, and they chuckled together.
The younger Nifl stopped first, shrugging and turning away from the window. "Well, all the Houses would fall--and Talonnorn itself dissolve into a brawling, lawless way-market of slavers and traders--if everwe ran out of slaves. Thank Olone they're mindless, endlessly replaceable fodder."
"Yes, but are they endless?" Orellaun said, still at the window. "This seems a matter no one bothers to debate, when it should concern us all!"
Brylyaun frowned. "Well, they certainly breed fast enough, up in the Blindingbright!" He strolled back to the window. All of the slaves were down, now, with the overseers bending and untying their throat collars from the line, and retying them to floor rings, for the drenching to come. "We raid and we raid--and there they always are, grubbing the earth of their 'farms' and living one day much as the next, making no effort to improve their ugly bodies, or even to keep themselves clean!"
"Well, why would they? They know not Olone; they can have no inkling of devoting themselves to the Holy Way. Not that their grotesque bodies can ever achieve much beauty, no matter how they strive--but the reward of ascending to Olone is not only unknown to them, it's not offered to them!"
Brylyaun's frown deepened. "Indeed. Sometimes I forget that Holy Olone reveals Herself to Niflghar, not to all. It must be strange indeed, to be a gorkul or a Hairy One, and not know the Kiss of Beauty! Do they feel Her radiance, do you think? Or can't they feel Her?"
Orellaun shrugged. "I know not, but offer this point: There are Nifl who do not worship Olone. Even here, in the Araed--to say nothing of entire cities who cleave to ... other worship."
Brylyaun shuddered. "Evil, perverted Nifl, the priestesses say."
"No doubt." Orellaun's voice was wry. "And all of them delicately reared shes who've seldom ventured into the Araed, let alone outside of Talonnorn--so that they know so much of the world."
"But surely their holy teachings ..."
"'But surely' nothing. Do your elders tell you all, or just what they think you should know, and no more?"
Brylyaun blushed, his obsidian-dark skin going pale. "Well, I am young--as they constantly remind me."
"And I am older," Orellaun said dryly, "and have ... seen more of what is out in the Dark."
The younger Nifl turned, so sharply that it was almost a challenge. "And if I saw all of those things, right now, it would change me how, exactly? Spare me the claims it would drive me mad, or kill me outright. I hope you know me better than that."
"I do." Orellaun turned away from the window, where hot oil was dousing the slaves, and their frightened screams were rising. "So they would probably just make you weep, and tremble, and wet yourself as you stopped believing in Olone, and the Holy Way. There is more to life than the endless pursuit of beauty--or should be."
Brylyaun started to tremble, and suddenly snatched at the hilt of his sword.
Only to discover it missing.
It was in Orellaun's grasp, and raised warningly against him--as was the older Nifl's own blade, in Orellaun's other hand.
"Blasphemers move faster," came the dry explanation.
"Why is this one walled away from the rest?"
"On various occasions, six other slaves have been put to work alongside him. All ended up in the Rift."
"What? So why not hurl him in, and be done with the trouble? A rebellious slave is the start of--"
"Yes, but this rebellious slave is the best forgefist in Talonnorn. Olone spew, he's the best firefist in Talonnorn!"
"Oh. So worth the six, and more besides. I see. 'Forgefist' I know, but what's a 'firefist'?"
"Forgefist is anyone who can work metal, firefist is one who can create new things with it, knows metal through and through, can temper and taper and make tiny and intricate things--and make it all seem easy. This one works fast, and it's superb work. House Evendoom has the finest swords and locks in the city because of him."
"Hmm. So, can we see this wonder?"
"From this side of the Rift should be safe enough."
The Master of the Forges led the way through no less than three magical barriers that flared and faded into tingling slumber at his approach, and along a narrow track between the glowing heat of the Rift and tall heaps of ores. When he came to a certain height of rock, he stopped and looked across the river of molten rock. His gaze was cold. "There: Orivon Firefist. As good a firefist as there is."
The Nifl trader looked, crooked an eyebrow, and said slowly, "Well ... he's a bit of a brute, now, isn't he?"
The Master nodded. "Watch."
"Who are those two?"
"His owner, the Lady Taerune Evendoom, and the overseer assigned to that part of the Rift: a gorkul slave we call Grunt Tusks."
"He's glaring at them like they're hated enemies he's about to carve up in battle!"
"He always does. Watch."
The trader chuckled. "Ha. That look earned him a taste of the lash, of course."
They watched the slender, graceful Nifl-she wield her long lash with skilled viciousness, slicing deeply into the rippling shoulders and arms of the human slave. His glare never wavered, even when she spun the lash across his face, slicing it deeply as well.
Unflinching, the human kept his burning gaze on her, ignoring the gorkul's heavy studded goad--and the burly, snorting tusker wielding it--completely. Through the dripping blood, his eyes bored into those of his owner, even when she spoke sharply--just what she said was lost in the clangs and crashings of forgefists at work, up and down the Rift--and struck him across the face again and again.
The gorkul moved in to join the relentless whipping, clubbing heavier blows onto the firefist until at last the human was driven to his knees.
Whereupon the Nifl-she, obviously tired, let her lash fall and stood gasping and trembling, obviously struggling to regain her temper. They glared at each other, owner and slave--until she abruptly took something from her belt, threw it to the blood-spattered stone in front of him, and turned away.
"Healing magic," the trader said. "Repairing the valued possession she's damaged."
The Master of the Forges, who had seen this so many times before, merely nodded.
The gorkul lingered to watch the slave seize the means of relief, but Orivon Firefist made no move to take it up. On his knees in his blood, unbroken, he glowered at Grunt Tusks until the overseer shrugged, spat, and turned to follow Lady Evendoom.
The human slave glowered after them. Defiant.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Ed Greenwood