The Assassination of Zecalo Bronzeflower
In the high tower of dwarf fortress Tearguard a single candle spilled cheerless light out into the night. An ancient dwarf lord looked out upon the dark forest below. All his lands conquered. All the battles fought and lost. It was then he swore allegiance to the demon king, and his people hated him for it. The pain of it tore at his chest. If only he could give them hope, not for themselves, but for the rest of dwarven kind. He reached for his heart and dug into his coat. There he plucked out a tiny bat. He walked to the window, bat in hand, and whispered into the creature’s ear. He released the bat into the night air and spun around as the tower door crashed open.
An elf strode into the tower, noting every object with his black-ringed eyes. His name was Lord Zecalo Bronzeflower, master of the forest below the mountain and faithful servant to the demon king. It was distasteful that he share the fortress with this vile dwarf, but his foolish brothers below could not yet accept the wisdom of his rule. Until then they would contend with his justice. Bronzeflower finally cast his eyes at the poor, dusty dwarf before him.
"I see you’ve made a home for yourself in the tower, Duregar," said the elf. "The rest of the fortress is a shambles. Do tell your people to clean up, or the master might find a new custodian."
Duregar stared into the elf’s dark eyes and said, "It is said that the master dislikes the human race, Zecalo. It is rumored that you are part human, is it not?"
Zecalo tugged a strand of his long black hair, his lip quivering nervously. Clearly shaken, he barked with rage, spun on his heels, and slammed the door behind him. Duregar sighed. All hinged now on the free dwarves’ reply. His reports on the master’s intentions had helped them so far, at least to avoid total annihilation. Bronzeflower was getting too close. If he learned of Duregar’s treachery, no amount of blackmail could stay his hand. If there were any hope for the free dwarves and their human allies, Zecalo Bronzeflower must die.
Far away, across the swift eastern river, a young messenger dwarf ran as fast as he could across the walls and trench-works of the frontier. Warlord Anvilheart plucked his beard as he watched him come from the stone keep he made his home away from home. The guards let the boy inside. He knelt before the Lord and held before him a small cage. Inside was a bat. Anvilheart gently took up the cage and stared at the creature inside. It could only be from his cousin Duregar, bearing news of the enemy.
"What news does the traitor bring?" came a voice from behind.
Anvilheart released the bat. "Hold your tongue," said the dwarf. "Every message my cousin sends saves a hundred of your men, and kills a thousand goblins."
The dwarven warlord stared up at the man strapped into armor of metal and leather. He resented King Uron deeply. The king of men knew nothing of the subtleties of war. He had promised no quarter for demon king Tremoda’s slaves, leaving no alternative for the legions of elves and dwarves under Tremoda's control but to choose between the goblin lash and the human sword. Now Anvilheart must use his cousin Duregar, fill him with false hope, and in the end take his life.
King Uron paced across the stone room impatiently. "Well?" he shouted.
Anvilheart stared out the narrow window at the fire-blasted trenches beyond. "My cousin is in danger. The evil elf Bronzeflower is beginning to suspect his treachery. We must make a mission to preserve his life."
Uron gestured wildly. "You don’t propose to rescue this dwarf? A warlord that watched a hundred human villages burn?"
"Not to rescue," said Anvilheart. "He is too valuable where he is. No. I have decided to kill the elf."
"Bronzeflower?" shouted King Uron. "You would assassinate an enemy general in war time? Ridiculous!"
The human king glared at Anvilheart and stormed out of the room, stopping at the door only to shout, "You will have no help from mankind in your foolish quest. I will leave backstabbing to the backstabbers!"
The dwarf collapsed into his stone throne. He had expected the human’s response. Perhaps he wouldn’t need them. It certainly would have been easier with them, for everything now hinged on the ability of the poor oppressed elves to trust a dwarf. It would not be easy. From his base at Tearguard fortress, his cousin had been the witness to many atrocities in the forest below. Now Anvilheart must make promises to these sorrowful creatures, promises he could not keep.
The next night, on the shore of the eastern river, the dwarves loaded a raft with weapons. Bilgold oversaw the operation. He was a wide dwarf with a thick beard. It was he who would head the mission across enemy lines, deep into the forsaken forest. "Careful!" he shouted to Dwan and Barl as they loaded the fist-sized glass globes, splashing with green liquid inside. The dwarf captain Bilgold jumped on the raft and used a pole to push it away from the edge. Together, the three dwarves paddled for the far shore.
Fireballs streaked across the night’s sky. They crashed into the forest on the far side of the river, a barrage to distract the goblins from Bilgold’s mission. It was a harrowing ride. Nightwings patrolled the sky, and as they reached the shore they heard the unmistakable howls of beakdogs on the move. The dwarves dragged the raft ashore and covered it with branches after dividing the weapons and filling their packs. The woods were scary, dark and deep, and they had leagues to go.
Bilgold led the dwarves around the crumbling outposts, the goblins slumbering inside. Tremoda had clearly let his defenses down after his campaign to conquer the world had stalled, but Bilgold’s true secret was the map. His master had provided him with the location of every enemy position along the river. It was amazing, the goblin’s lack of discipline. The dwarves crept between two dozing trolls and into the open woods beyond.
Beyond the frontline the dwarves encountered few enemies. The forest itself had a dreary, undead feeling. Every tree seemed to reach for them. The wood had murder in its heart. Its soul was dead. "Steady, dwarves," said Bilgold. Dwan saw motion in the bushes. He pulled his sword and stepped forward. An orange shape dropped down from the tree behind him. Barl shouted and Bilgold spun around to see a tiger woman holding a claw to Dwan’s throat.
The animal woman was starved and ragged. The bones of her ribs and hips were clearly visible. "I will kill you all, one by one," said the tiger woman.
"Hold, friend," said Bilgold, holding out his hands. "We do not soldier for Tremoda."
The animal woman’s eyes went wide, "You will not say that name!"
"To the underworld with Tremoda!" shouted Bilgold.
The tiger woman released Dwan and backed away. "Come," said Bilgold, "What is your name?"
"I am Amlia" said the tiger woman. "Quickly, we must leave this place. We have caused too much of a disturbance already."
The dwarves trotted through the woods after the tiger woman. All around them they heard the goblins laugh as they tormented their victims. Amlia led them into the giant knot of an ageless tree. "You must wait here until morning," she said. "The elves here trust dwarves no more that goblins. I will plead your case to them. Then we shall know whether or not you will stay alive." Barl made to speak but Bilgold silenced him. The tiger woman made a quick gesture with her claw and bounded away into the wood.
The dwarves rested uneasily under their web of branches. The forces of Tremoda had captured the forest less than a year ago and it was already a place hopelessly lost to evil. Dwan pointed to something moving in the trees, something dancing like a broken puppet. Bilgold slapped his hand down and peered forward. The creature moved closer, dancing on cloven feet, its head was the skull of a goat. A foul blendec. The monster stopped its prancing and stared directly at them through hollow eye sockets. Bilgold closed his eyes and feared the quest was lost. When he opened them the creature was gone.
Bilgold awoke with a wooden spear at his throat. "Good morning little princes!" came the voice of the elf above him. His growling faced looked almost like a fleshy skull. The sad bunch around them didn’t appear much better, half a dozen elves all half-starved.
"You seek to kill Lord Bronzeflower," said Bilgold. "We can help you!"
The elf snorted. "The same Bronzeflower that lives in your dwarf fortress? The elf butcher who sleeps in his quarters across the hall from your own lord Duregar, the scheming dwarf whom is the architect of our misfortune?"
Bilgold liked this elf. Sparse blond hair fell across his fierce animal eyes. He seemed just desperate enough to take the mission. Behind him Bilgold could see the tiger woman on the lookout for goblin patrols. The dwarf knew he must choose his next words carefully. There wasn’t much time left.
"We are free dwarves," said Bilgold, "enemies of Tremoda, with the knowledge and weapons to kill your foe. We have come here to offer you a plan that cannot fail, a fool-proof scheme that will deliver the enemy into your hands!"
The elf stared down at the dirt-smattered dwarf. He could be a spy from the mountain. Then he thought, grimly, they would not send a spy to such a wasted settlement. He bent down and pulled Bilgold to his feet. "My name is Talaver," he said, "and Bronzeflower is my enemy. Every week he comes down from the fortress to collect our young men, never to return. He has killed many of my friends. If you give me the opportunity, I will be the tip of your spear."
Zecalo Bronzeflower looked across the pit at the young elf who was holding his sword out in an amateur manner. He knew he had been bitten by the sakra-serpent. No expense could be spared for safety. Zecalo must end the opponent’s life before venom did. Time was more dangerous than the boy’s sword, and he must strike soon before the goblins think him weak. The boy’s fearful expression began to droop. His knees began to tremble and Bronzeflower was on him.
After a few artistic swings, Zecalo went in for the killer blow. The boy dodged out the way and sliced Zecalo’s chest, his sword cutting into the hidden armor. Zecalo swung around and pinned the boy to the ground. The boy’s eyes were alive with hate. "Death to Tremoda," screamed the elven boy, "and death to Bronzeflower!" The arena was suddenly silent. Zecalo pushed his sword through the boy’s chest with all his strength. The crowd went wild as Bronzeflower stormed out.
Duregar sat at his desk looking over the latest reports of the conflict. He had been lucky to intercept the blendec’s report before it fell into Zecalo’s hands. The dwarves were here, and Bronzeflower’s days were numbered. The door flew open and in the frame stood Duregar’s nemesis, sweating, dressed in the armor of a gladiator.
"This is your doing, you dwarven bookworm," screamed Bronzeflower.
"I told you your arena staff was too easily bought," said Duregar. "It was probably one of the goblins that bet against you." Of course he had thought of it himself, but he had rejected the idea. Sabotaging the arena was the obvious approach. However, as Bronzeflower’s living presence seemed to prove, it was hardly the best angle.
"It’s about time to collect some new fighters," said Duregar. "Maybe the exercise will ease your mind."
Duregar put his finger on the trigger of the miniature crossbow under his desk. It would be a shame to end it this way. There was too much left to do. The poison dart would kill him, true, but it would be the end of Duregar as well. He would be thrown into Bronzeflower’s gladiator pit most likely, such was the simplicity of goblin justice.
"I think I will go for a ride, bookworm," said Bronzeflower, "and when I return, there will be some changes made around here!"
Quietly the elves suffered, forced to live in log cabins beneath the branchless trees. Above them, high in the mountains, hung the fortress Tearguard and the goblin garrison that haunted them. Talaver walked down the muddy street, bowing his head as he passed a goblin soldier. He carried a large sack disguised as a bundle of firewood. Talaver smiled to himself. It was Bronzeflower’s law that they burn trees for warmth. If only he knew what this parcel truly held. The elf conspirator stopped next to a grass hut and spoke the password. A pair of orange claws appeared and drew back the curtain. "Amlia," said the elf.
"You have them?" asked the tiger woman.
Talaver entered the low hut. The animal woman squatted in a circle with three hungry elves. They were the chosen ones, picked among the desperate for a mission of revenge. Talaver met their mean stares and dumped his package out. Two crossbows and a dozen glass balls spilled onto the floor. One of the balls cracked and a green liquid leaked out, steaming.
"Don’t touch it!" shouted Talaver.
Amlia signaled for silence. After a time, one of the elves spoke. "How do we use these?"
Picking up one the crossbows, Talaver said, "You aim across this sight, and press the trigger." He picked up one of the balls. "These are hurled. The glass shatters against the skin, scratching it, and the poison inside gets in the blood."
The elves nodded in understanding. Talaver and Amlia took the crossbows. The elves left the hut one by one and scattered into the woods. They all knew the meeting place, the site of the ambush. Bilgold the dwarf had guaranteed that Bronzeflower would come down the mountain this morning, no doubt to seek more fodder for his elven death matches. Talaver smirked. He would get more than he bargained for.
The elves waited at a bend in the road where Bronzeflower’s chariot would have to slow to navigate the turn. This was their plan, and as the beak dogs approached it seemed as if it might work. As the chariot made the turn, Talaver stepped out of the bushes into the road. The goblin driver shouted and pointed as Talaver lifted the dwarven crossbow.
Bronzeflower’s expression was of astonishment and hatred. Talaver aimed at his devil heart and pulled the trigger. A misfire! The dwarves had not told him how to load the cursed machine. He threw the weapon down and pulled his knife. Bronzeflower reached for his bow. While the evil elf was distracted Amlia charged out of the woods carrying two of the dwarves’ glass orbs. She hurled a ball at the chariot and it exploded in a cloud of liquid and vapor.
An arrow shot out of the mist and struck Amlia in the head. Talaver ran back to the trees in the confusion. There he met the others and turned back to see Bronzeflower and the goblin charging after them, swords drawn. There are more of us, thought Talaver, but all we have are these useless dwarven weapons. How can we stand against two swordsmen? The elves left the glass bombs in the dirt as they split in all directions and ran into the forest.
Dread knight Bronzeflower took a few more steps before he planted the tip of his sword into the earth and sank to his knees. The goblin turned to see his master fall. The chariot driver rolled the elf over to inspect his wounds. His skin was blistered here and there where vile dwarven liquid had touched his skin. The elf struggled to sit up. He lifted his cloak to reveal a messy wound in his side. Pieces of glass were still there, where the dwarf weapon had done its work.
That night Talaver watched his village burn. Goblins ran to and fro catching the fleeing elves and rounding them up into the center of the scorched settlement. Failure, thought Talaver. He could do nothing more for his people save ease their pain at life’s end. He stood up from the bushes in which he had been hiding. As he walked toward the center of town the goblin captain spotted him and shouted for the guards. Two goblins seized him by the arms. He kept walking forward, his eyes filled with hate, staring straight at the captain’s face.
"Welcome home, assassin," said the goblin. "Show us to your dwarf masters and your village dies without pain."
"They go to the river," said Talaver through clenched teeth. "You might yet catch them." Tears fell from his cheeks as he searched the crowd of elves for a familiar face. He did not feel it when the blade fell across his neck.
"Lord Bronzeflower is dead, master," said a dwarven slave.
The traitor Duregar lifted his head from a pile of charts he had been scribbling on. His scheme had worked, his most dangerous enemy laid low. Now he must survive the repercussions. He dropped to his feet from the high stool and walked toward the slave. The servant dwarf was shaken under his watchful eye. Duregar regarded the damage this war had done to his once-proud people.
"Tremoda knows of this, of course," said Duregar.
"Yes, master, the demon king has sent his agent, Lord Voidler, to capture the assassin," said the slave.
Voidler, thought Duregar, undead general and Tremoda’s chief executioner. I must act quickly. "We will not wait for the general. Dispatch my personal guard and bring the assassin to me at once!"
The three dwarves made haste for the river. Torches crossed their path many times as goblins beat the bushes, hunting them through the night. As the sound of the rushing water came closer, Dwan waved his arms and pointed. They had reached the waters near the place of their first crossing. Barl gave the hoot of a night bird. He had found the raft under its hiding place beneath the branches. The other two ran to his side and they began to push the raft toward the water. Something sticky covered the logs, but Bilgold thought nothing of it. They were almost home free.
First Barl jumped aboard, then Dwan. Bilgold climbed aboard and nearly slipped again on the slick surface. He looked at his hands and found them covered in thick black grease. A whistle blew in the forest behind them. "Jump for your lives!" screamed Bilgold and dove into the water. Dwan and Barl look at each other in confusion. A line of bright lights shot up from the forest, and a second later flaming arrows fell across the raft.
Flames erupted everywhere. Bilgold waded around the flames, desperate to find his dwarves. Soon it became clear there was no hope for them. He dove back into the water and was quickly swept away. The next moments were unclear, torches, the calls of angry goblins, and a thick net. He was dragged out of the water and beaten badly. He heard the yapping of beakdogs as he was thrown into the back of a chariot then into a dungeon cell.
Duregar waited in his study as the prisoner was brought to him. It was unfortunate that he was still alive, but he could order his death with Voidler on the way. A knock came at the door. A goblin opened it and pulled a battered dwarf inside, his hands bound behind him. "Leave us," said Duregar. So this is the dwarven commando, he thought. Brave. But how much does he know?
"Tell me, dwarf," said Duregar. "Why Bronzeflower? Why not myself?"
"True," said Bilgold, "you deserve to die, a traitor to your own kind. Bronzeflower is something else, a symbol of the evil Tremoda uses to strike terror in this world! Soon you will all see him in hell!"
"Master," said a slave from the doorway, "Lord Voidler’s nightwing has landed on the tower. He will be down directly."
Duregar looked at Bilgold, desperate for answers. Then the commando winked. The blood ran from Duregar’s face. He knew! How, thought Duregar, could they send someone who knew I had betrayed the demon king? His thoughts raced, but all the time he knew what must be done. He pulled a dagger from the sheath near his heart and jammed it deep into Bilgold’s gut. As the dwarf died, he tried speak, but all that came up was blood.
A knock came again at the door and Duregar went to open it after slapping something into the dead dwarf’s mouth. In the doorway was a hulking suit of armor with a bare skull floating inside the helmet. A skeletal hand clutched Duregar by the shirt and pointed toward the dead dwarf. "What is the meaning of this?" asked the wraith.
"He tried to kill me!" cried Duregar. "He smuggled a blowgun inside his mouth."
The evil ghost released the dwarf and went to inspect the corpse. Duregar allowed himself a quick sigh. The plan had worked almost too easily. If there was a way to be rid of the rest of these evil spirits the war might yet be won. The phantom straightened itself and spoke.
"You can explain yourself to Tremoda, when he arrives," said the ghost.
King Uron was furious. The enemy forces had tripled in strength since the assassination. The rumors had been confirmed that General Voidler himself had taken command of castle Tearguard. An invasion now would be almost too costly to consider. The king stared down at his dwarven counterpart, warlord Anvilheart.
"Your adventure has cost us enough," said the king. "We must attack."
"My cousin tells me that Tremoda himself will arrive soon," said the dwarf. "The end of the war is near at hand!"
"Fool! He used your men to eliminate a rival," said Uron. "You let your love blind you!"
"Uron, it is we who use," said Anvilheart, "for in killing Tremoda himself, Duregar will certainly lose his life."
The dwarf released a bat into the night’s sky.
The dwarves capitulated and surrendered their fortress, and the elves were conquered as well. For the elves in particular, a cruel overlord was elevated from the subjugated population. Aside from the general tortures inflicted upon them, their were also torments geared specifically at perverting their racial/cultural lifestyle, and these should have greater effects, whatever those effects might be ultimately. An elven village was also burned as a punitive matter after the assassination.
The elves had a general further mistrust of the dwarven civilization or even race after the cruel occupation began. It shouldn't just be an all or nothing thing whether or not somebody is going to attack or befriend you, and half-way situations like this where a little work is required should probably be the norm, even if the overall circumstances aren't so negative.
Having to choose the right critter for the job was an occasional theme. The dwarves, selected themselves, sought to recruit the desperate elves (and animal person) for their suicide mission, Tremoda sent the subordinate Voidler out to handle the assassination aftermath, and the elf leader even chose who would get the two crossbows.
The dwarf leader Anvilheart was living in exile. Having this kind of status recognized and made semi-official within the context of historical figures being pushed around as things happen would be good.
There were some general instances of rules of warfare -- the downside of not leaving escape routes for enemies, the ethics of assassination for different entities, and the notion of what it might mean to kill a highly placed enemy.
There were nightwing aerial patrols and other patrols, and the notion of the quality of a defense and the general discipline of an army came into play. There was a distraction to cover for a small operation, a map for the operation and various ambushes, with and without scheduling information.
Ancestry is used for blackmail (due to a superior's racial hatred), a traitor kills a friendly prisoner who could blow his cover, and there was a secret meeting with a password.
The tradition of being a serial offender at messing with your gladiation opposition is carried on in the story.
There was an instance of concealed armor and also a miniature crossbow hidden in the desk.
The story contains talented animal messengers. The bats must have communicated their whispered messages in some way that their dwarven destinations could understand. A great mystery.
The demon's name was considered taboo by certain critters. A critter from the same group only defiantly shouted death to the demon when his own death was absolutely certain.
The story had a horrible green liquid. Tar was also used during an ambush to catch a couple of dwarves in fire.