The Warlock of Hymal - Book 2 - The Fall of Hocatin/C1 Chapter 1: A Castle Full of Questions
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The Warlock of Hymal - Book 2 - The Fall of Hocatin/C1 Chapter 1: A Castle Full of Questions
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C1 Chapter 1: A Castle Full of Questions

It was midday before Nikko and Danuwil stopped to rest. They had eaten quickly and set off very early, following the course of the river along the western shore for many unbroken hours. They had spoken little, although Nikko had more questions going through his head than the nobleman could possibly answer. The biggest question of all was what it really meant to suddenly discover that he was a sorcerer. But he was aware that they were walking through enemy territory, and his already grim view of Hymal had only been made grimmer by Danuwil's assertion that wargriders meant the presence of a larger number of orcs. For that reason, the young sorcerer preferred to remain quietly in the background, rather than distract the experienced nobleman. Danuwil had now taken the lead in their expedition, and had stopped at many points along the riverbank to survey the eastern shore and the plain stretching away behind it through his telescope.

The sun was high overhead, and the two companions had settled onto the grass beside the river to eat.

“The castle is almost due east, I'd say,” Danuwil said, raising the telescope to his eye once again. He turned slowly southward. “But the river flows to the southeast for a few more hours, then turns to the south. From here, we might be able to make it to the castle by nightfall,” he murmured, putting the telescope away. “A long way across an exposed plain, with practically no cover at all.”

“But we can't follow the river forever,” said Nikko, although he was in no hurry to cross the sheltering stream himself. “You said yourself that it goes south.”

“That's true. But the point where the river turns south also looks like the closest point to the hill. It would mean less time on the plain, perhaps many hours less. If we make it to the bend in the river today, then we can try the flatlands tomorrow. Then we might be able to make it to the castle by midday.”

“And we could be back on this side again by nightfall,” thought Nikko out loud. Then, seeing the look of disapproval on the nobleman's face, he said, “Just in case we don't find anything there.”

“Fair enough,” said Danuwil. “Who knows what we'll find there? It would be better to be back on this side of the river before dark. All right, we'll follow the river as far as we can today. First thing tomorrow morning, we cross the plain.”

They made good progress through the afternoon and reached the bend in the river early in the evening. From there, the waterway flowed sedately southward as far as the eye could see, but they were clearly closer to the castle, which was perhaps only a three-hour march from that point.

Danuwil peered through his telescope again, as if wanting to exploit the last light of day to get a final look at their surroundings. “No lights,” he murmured, the telescope pointed toward the castle. “I don't like that at all.”

“Abandoned?” Nikko asked, secretly wondering whether their perilous venture would be worth it only to find an abandoned castle.

“Could be, but I don't know,” the nobleman replied, then added, “That's what we're here to find out. But don't worry,” he added encouragingly. “The castle is still a long way off. We probably wouldn't be able to make out the weak light of, say, a torch from here. Get some sleep. I'll take the first watch.”

It was deep in the night when Danuwil shook Nikko gently to wake him, whispering to the heavy-eyed lad to be quiet. Nikko needed a few seconds to orient himself because he had been sleeping surprisingly soundly.

“Quiet,” Danuwil whispered. “I think there are orcs moving across the river. The wind is at our backs, so they shouldn't pick up our scent, so no thoughtless noises, now. We don't want to give ourselves away.”

Nikko was too stunned for a moment to be afraid. The first thing he had to do was wake up properly.

“If they come too close to the shore, or if the wind turns, then wake me up quietly,” Danuwil whispered. “I'm going to get some sleep. Otherwise, wake me just before dawn.”

The lad was still not fully awake and did not say anything in response to Danuwil's news. When he had finally recovered his senses, the nobleman was already slumbering peacefully beneath his blanket.

It was a grim night, with not a star in the sky. Nikko could barely see his hand before his face. The darkness made the noises coming from the other side of the river even eerier. The lad could almost believe that he heard the rasping language of the orcs, barked orders, grunting responses. With both hands clenched tightly around the magic wand, he could not stop himself from trembling in the sinister blackness. How could he get caught up in a mess like this again? Wasn't it only recently that he had sworn never again to set foot in Hymal?

He had no idea how long he sat like that. Perhaps only a few minutes, perhaps hours. But a bloodcurdling howl suddenly ripped through his body and jolted him violently out of his trance! He shook his head to clear his mind, and pricked up his ears. He heard another howl, this one from much further away. Almost paralyzed with fear, the lad wondered whether he ought to wake the experienced nobleman.

“A wargrider,” he heard Danuwil suddenly whisper. “Sounds close to the shore. We need to move further back from the water. Quietly!”

The first howl must have woken Danuwil, Nikko realized, and he followed the nobleman as he crept slowly away from the riverbank. It was some minutes before Danuwil stopped again, when they had moved a good distance back from the river.

“The wind is still on our side,” Danuwil said in a low voice. “But those damned wargs have a better nose than an orc. We can count ourselves lucky if the wind doesn't give us away tonight.”

“You don't think we were spotted?” Nikko asked, a miserable quivering in his voice revealing his terror.

“No,” the nobleman replied. “They may not like water, but once they scent prey, there's no holding them.”

“Then they weren't searching for us?”

“No, I don't think so,” Danuwil said, trying to sound reassuring. “A patrol along the river, I'd say. Perhaps a scouting party. Don't worry. Try to get to sleep, Nikko. It's still an hour or two until dawn. I'll finish your watch.”

The nobleman woke Nikko perhaps an hour after dawn. To the north and east, where their route would take them, the sky was heavily overcast. To the west, however, the sun managed to find a gap in the clouds, dowsing the flatlands in that direction in a more inviting light.

They ate quickly and in silence, and Nikko could not stop thinking about the events of the previous night. Then they made their way back down to the river, where Danuwil took out his telescope and scrutinized the plain on the other side.

“The riverbank looks clear,” he said. “But I can't be sure about the plain. The grass is too high, and I'm sure there are a lot of hollows. Orcs might have concealed themselves there. I can't make out any kind of flag on the castle. I have to say, it doesn't look good.”

“Then why take the risk?” Nikko blurted before he could think his words over. The question must have sounded like an indictment.

“Master Nikko,” the nobleman replied in an almost fatherly tone, “we are on a mission. Do you really think that reporting an abandoned—no, a most likely abandoned—castle would be enough to satisfy his Serene Highness? But I'll grant that you're right, at least as far as you are concerned. You, like me, are in the service of his Serene Highness, but as one capable of magic, you would face no punishment. You would be too valuable for that … and too dangerous. I, on the other hand, could not show my face in public again, not in Hocatin, nor even in Zundaj, which would be far worse.”

After a short pause, he went on, “I have to find answers, Nikko. My path leads to that wretched castle, but I cannot force you to follow me there. Nor would I want to.”

Nikko did not have to think for long before deciding to go with the nobleman. It was not only the grim prospect of having to wander for days, alone, through Hymal. It was also that he did not want to let Danuwil down. At some level, he had grown used to the companionship of the odd character, and here in Hymal, his experience was enormously useful. More useful than in the mountains , Nikko thought, and could not suppress a smirk at the recollection.

“Without me and my wand, you wouldn't stand a chance,” he joked.

“Let's hope you won't have to use it,” Danuwil replied coolly, his eyes fixed on the distant castle.

They had crossed the shallow river and been on the march for some hours, wading through waist-high grasses that swayed with the wind like waves on the water. The ground was pocked with hollows overgrown with grass, and these slowed them down considerably. The sky was almost entirely overcast, with barely a sunbeam finding its way through and only a dim light illuminating the broad plain.

Around midday, they approached the bare hill from the southwest, the ruins of a small, gray-stone castle at its summit, its best days long past. Everything was quiet, and the old walls, from down below, looked lifeless. The crumbling masonry appeared unmanned, and the partially collapsed keep carried no flag.

“We should look for the road that leads from the pass to the castle on the northeast side,” Danuwil said. Although the castle gate was directly above them and clearly unguarded, the hillside was extremely steep.

It took them a quarter of an hour to find the road up, and they followed first toward the north then eastward around the castle walls, which were overgrown with moss and grass, until they were finally able to approach the crumbling gate from the southeast. In the dilapidated stonework, small bushes and patches of ivy inexorably spread their roots.

Slowly, cautiously, Nikko and Danuwil crossed the lowered drawbridge, one rusted chain of which had been severed and now hung slack from its opening above the arch. The gate itself looked like it had been destroyed by brute force and now stood wide open, but there was nothing welcoming about it.

“A grand reception,” Danuwil quipped. “Still, better than orcs around the walls.”

“Are you sure no orcs are here?” Nikko asked nervously.

“Almost certain,” the nobleman answered. “If orcs held the castle, then it would be barricaded during the day, or they'd at least set a guard. Besides, the beasts are nomadic. I don't think they have any sense for the protection offered by a castle. But it is not unlikely that they overran the place. I would say they have since moved on.”

“Do you think we'll find any signs here? Anything to say what happened?” Nikko was still afraid that a horde of wild orcs would attack them any minute.

“No,” said Danuwil. “But we have to try regardless.” Slowly, his longsword at the ready in his right hand, he stepped through the archway. With his left hand, he signaled to Nikko to stay behind, and only waved him inside when he was standing in the center of the bailey.

“Dried blood,” the nobleman said. There was resignation in his voice. “Everywhere. Do you see it?”

“Yes,” said Nikko with disgust. “But where are all the bodies? A lot of men must have been killed here, right?”

“What do you think orcs eat?” said Danuwil and he laughed cynically.

The courtyard was a picture of devastation. The castle looked like it had been a ruin for a very long time, but all around was splintered wood, shattered pitchers and torn cloth. And dried blood, everywhere.

“The expedition was here,” said Danuwil as he inspected some of the wreckage more closely. “You can still see the insignia of Hocatin or the crest of the guild on some of the scraps of cloth.”

Nikko had noticed that, too. But they found no more signs among the rubble, nor any usable items. The cursed orcs had destroyed everything and thoroughly plundered the place.

“We'd do better to get out of here,” Nikko warned. “Searching the whole castle will take hours or even days. I'd like to be back over the river before sunset.”

“I know what you mean,” Danuwil answered gently. “But the castle is probably safer. I doubt very much that the orcs will return. Unless they catch our scent, that is.”

“You want to spend the night here?” Nikko said in a loud voice, getting upset. “Why? If we hurry, we can still make it back over the river in daylight.”

“The wind has turned, Nikko,” the nobleman said, as if to an apprentice. “It's coming from the north. If we head southwest now, things could turn out very badly for us.”

“Then where are we supposed to go?”

“Against the wind, as a general rule,” Danuwil said. “But we'd probably be safest inside these walls.”

“I don't want to stay in this blood-soaked castle,” said Nikko defiantly.

“All right,” Danuwil sighed. “But let's at least climb as high as we can up the tower. From up there, we'll certainly get a better idea of how things stand.”

Nikko had no objection to that, though he would have preferred to leave again immediately. But he was also curious enough to want to look out over the expanse of the flatlands. What might lie off to the east of this strange country, he wondered as the two of them made their way up the crumbling stairs inside the tower. Were there villages here brave enough to survive despite the orcs? Or even towns? Maybe there were even orc-towns.

When they came out on top of the castle keep, which looked far from stable, they were first able to get a better overview of the castle itself. The gatehouse and the walls were the only structures still more or less intact. The main building and outbuildings, by contrast, were mostly derelict, while the northern half of the round tower on which they were now standing had already collapsed, and what was left looked extremely insecure. Still, the remaining part of the uppermost platform offered good view in all directions.

In the east, where the clouds had grown heavier, the sky was gray and the air hazy, and to Nikko's disappointment he could not see very far in that direction. In front of him stretched an endless expanse, the pale green of the grasses of the flatlands merging ominously into the misty gray of the cloud-filled sky.

“Curse this miserable weather!” Danuwil muttered. “If only I knew whether any parts of the expedition had moved eastward. But in haze like this, you can't even hazard a guess, let alone actually see anything.”

“What was the expedition actually looking for?” Nikko asked.

“Minerals,” said the nobleman flatly. “Of course. What else?”

Danuwil swung his telescope from north to west to south. What he saw to the south made him shake his head. “Look at this, Nikko,” he sighed and handed the telescope to the lad. “There in the south. See it?”

Nikko could make out little more than black dots. Many, many black dots, not unlike a busy anthill. And smoke. “What is it?” he finally asked.

“Just an army of orcs,” the nobleman said sarcastically. “Don't worry, plenty for both of us.”

“That's a lot of orcs …” the lad murmured. “Well, I guess that puts our route to the southwest out of the question, doesn't it?”

“You can say that again,” Danuwil replied. “Do you have any idea how lucky we were yesterday? The wargriders we heard were probably scouts for that army.”

Nikko realized how close they had come to death the night before. But it did not surprise him. He'd cheated death so many times in recent weeks, right there in Hymal.

Danuwil had taken back his telescope and turned it onto the road that led off to the northwest.

“Well, well … what do we have here?” he said suddenly, sounding interested. “Nikko, take a look at that.”

Nikko took the telescope and focused on the place that Danuwil pointed out, and could make out a small group of orcs moving along the road in a northwest direction. Damn it!

“Nine orcs,” he said in disbelief. “Not an army, but now that direction is blocked, too.”

“Look again!” the nobleman replied excitedly. “Six orcs and three prisoners. Get your magic wand out, Master Nikko. They're ours!”

Before the lad could say another word, the nobleman was already running down the steps inside the keep. There was nothing left for Nikko to do but to follow the temperamental noble.

Danuwil ran until he had crossed the drawbridge, then slowed down to a brisk walk. Nikko, however, was already out of breath and was having trouble keeping up with Danuwil and his new-found stamina.

“Come on, Nikko!” Danuwil urged when he noticed that the young sorcerer had fallen behind. “We have to catch up with those cursed orcs before they vanish into some bolt hole.”

Nikko wanted to protest. Not only because of the fast pace Danuwil was setting, but because he thought that confronting the troop of orcs was far too dangerous. But then his thoughts turned to the helpless prisoners. The orcs would surely kill them and probably also eat them. We're the prisoners' only chance of survival , he thought, trying to justify their recklessness in tackling the orcs.

After a short distance they reached a place where a track to the north branched off the northwest road. The nobleman stopped and examined the many footprints trodden into the soft earth.

“Orcs are such a clumsy race,” he said, shaking his head. “The fresh tracks look like they come from the north and turn into the road to the northwest. Hmm …” He lifted the telescope to his eye. “They've got a good start on us. We'll have to get a move on if we want to catch up with them before sundown.”

“Where do you think they're going?” Nikko asked, trying to suppress his doubts about the rescue.

“The small valley where they first ambushed you,” said Danuwil. “I'll bet you my sword they plan to creep into some corner there and wait for nightfall.”

Then Danuwil set off in pursuit. He only stopped once, when it began to drizzle. He looked up at the sky in concern, then hurried on again.

They had been following the orcs for several hours, and it was late in the afternoon. The drizzle had transformed into heavy rain that was slowly but steadily turning the road to a long mudhole, obscuring the orcs tracks.

“Have we lost them?” Nikko asked, when Danuwil suddenly stopped. He was not sure what answer he wanted to hear.

“I doubt that they've left the road,” Danuwil assured him. Despite the rain, he took out his telescope and peered down the road ahead of them. “I can't see much in this miserable weather. But it can't be much further to the valley. They're probably already sheltering there.” He paused for a moment, lost in thought, then said, “A few minutes ahead, the road starts to dip. It looks like we're almost there. From here on, we whisper!” The nobleman pushed on, Nikko close at his heels.

After a few minutes, the road did indeed dip into a rocky glen with dense trees and undergrowth. The rain was hammering down, hampering their visibility further, but the place could well have been the other end of the small valley where Nikko had fallen into the orcs' ambush three weeks earlier. He was not able to shake the memory of his first encounter with the beasts, and how it had almost cost him his life.

As they made their way deeper into the valley, Nikko felt every second as if the wild orcs would come storming out from behind the rocks to attack them. In his mind's eye, he saw savage maws tearing at his flesh and razor teeth gnawing his bones. Only the wand held tightly in his right hand gave him some hope that he might escape this place alive.

Voices! In that rasping language! Had they been spotted? Even Danuwil, who was normally so sure of himself, was taken by surprise and pressed himself against a large boulder at the edge of the path. Nikko, trembling, did the same.

A moment passed, but it felt to Nikko like an eternity of terror. Danuwil gestured to him stay back, which was fine with Nikko: he was almost rigid with fear. Then the nobleman edged cautiously toward the voices. A few minutes later, he returned.

“They look like they're arguing,” he whispered. “That's enough of a distraction. Now is a perfect moment to attack. Follow me, but watch your step!”

Nikko had to summon up all his courage to overcome his paralysis and follow the nobleman. They moved toward the sound of the orcs, and then Nikko could see them. Two of them carried crude axes and were standing somewhat apart from the others near a large rocky outcrop. Four more, wielding clubs, were arguing in their hideous language. Beside them, the three unfortunate prisoners sat in the mud, their hands tied tightly behind their backs.

Danuwil positioned his shield with its silver gryphon, and silently drew his longsword. “Listen,” the nobleman whispered, his tone unyielding. “I'm going to sneak as close as I can to the four squabblers. When I'm close enough, I'll give you a sign, and you kill the other two with your magic wand. Then I'll take care of the four with the clubs. Understood?”

Nikko nodded, and Danuwil began to edge toward the four orcs near the prisoners. When he was as close as he could get behind one of the beasts, he looked back at the young sorcerer and nodded. That was the sign!

Nikko needed a moment to gather his nerve. Then he aimed his wand at one of the two orcs standing apart. The orcs camp was dim in the pouring rain, but a glittering bolt lit it brightly as it killed the enemy creature in a concentrated blast of power! An angry grunt from the second orc mixed with the dying shriek of its compatriot. Another scream told Nikko that Danuwil's blade had claimed its first victim.

Nikko lost no time taking aim at the other axe-wielding orc, which stood frozen in fury. A second lightning bolt hit the ugly beast's head, which promptly exploded.

Shouting came from all sides. Danuwil fended off the blows from two of the three remaining orcs, blocking one with the shield, parrying the other with his sword. The third orc cursed and screamed at Nikko and raised his huge, spiked club in the air. With a completely unexpected swing, he brought it down, smashing in the head of the prisoner unlucky enough to be sitting at the creature's feet. The orc let out an ugly grunt, almost a laugh.

Nikko was momentarily paralyzed at the orc's abominable violence. Crushing the skull of a bound prisoner … Nikko could not understand that. It made him angry, but he wasn't fast enough. The orc still landed several quick strikes, battering the two remaining prisoners, before Nikko's wand finished off the beast. Were the captives still alive? Or had all their efforts been in vain?

In the meantime, Danuwil had managed to cut down a second orc while he skillfully blocked the other's blows with his now badly dented shield.

Nikko ran to the prisoners and found, to his relief, that two of them still lived. They were hurt, certainly, but not dead. But at the sight of the shattered head of the third prisoner, a bloody mass swelling from his fracture skull, Nikko could only turn aside and vomit. When he'd recovered, he slid the envoy's dagger from its sheath on his belt and set to work cutting the prisoners' bonds.

“Let me do that,” the nobleman said, gasping for air. He had just dispatched the last of the orcs. “Your small blade will take forever.”

With his longsword, Danuwil quickly sliced through the ropes binding the prisoners. Nikko looked around. The battle-seasoned nobleman had beheaded the last orc, Nikko saw, and a grim smile crossed his face. Until now, he had only feared the orcs. Now he hated them.

Without warning, he heard the sound of grunting. Curses? Orders? More orcs! Had they miscounted? Six lay dead on the ground. Danuwil also looked surprised, but then they saw the entrance to a cave, partly concealed, that the two axe-wielding orcs had probably been guarding. Furious shouting spilled from the dark hole.

“Take cover!” Danuwil bellowed, doing his best to protect himself and the young sorcerer with his shield. Then Nikko heard a whirring noise. Thock! Thock! Danuwil's shield took several arrows, but it saved both their lives.

“Damn it!” the nobleman swore. “Here's the plan. I cover you, and you get those two to safety. Understood?”

“What?” Nikko was in panic. “How? Where?”

“No time,” Danuwil hissed. “Now!”

The valiant nobleman dashed toward the entrance to the cave, his shield raised. As if in a trance, Nikko stuffed the magic wand into his belt and took each of the prisoners by one arm. The earth underfoot was so muddy and slippery that he had no trouble dragging them behind a boulder. He heard more arrows burying themselves in Danuwil's shield.

A tumult rose from the direction of the cave: grunting sounds and Danuwil cursing. Nikko crept out from behind the boulder and could hardly believe what he saw. The nobleman, swinging his blade in a wide arc, was keeping half a dozen large orcs at bay. At the same time, he retreated slowly. More orcs poured out of the cave … now there were a dozen or more! He had to help Danuwil; that much was clear. But he had to get the two prisoners out of the line of fire first.

Feeling overwhelmed, Nikko returned to the two men, but was shocked to see a black arrow jutting from the neck of one of them. Although a gurgling noise came from the man's throat, he was clearly beyond help. The other prisoner, a youth taller than Nikko but not much older, was unconscious, but looked only lightly injured. Nikko heaved him up and slung the youth's left arm across his own shoulders. He dragged him a short distance further along the road, toward the pass, before depositing him beyond a large rocky outcrop off to one side. Then he raced back toward the cave to help Danuwil in the battle.

There were dozens of orcs now, milling in front of the cave, and several ran off along the road that Nikko and Danuwil had just come along from the castle. Probably following the nobleman , Nikko thought. Blast it, what was he supposed to do now? Rain was still pouring down, and it was impossible to see more than a stone's throw in any direction. He had no idea where Danuwil was, but it seemed likely that there were now dozens of orcs between him and the intrepid nobleman. Should he have stayed with Danuwil after all? But if he had, he would have drawn the attention of the orcs to himself and the prisoners. He cowered in fear behind the boulder where the other prisoner had just gurgled his last breath. What was he supposed to do now? Accursed Hymal! He'd felt all along that their journey would end in another disaster.

He took a few deep breaths, then made the only choice that seemed to make any sense. He did not know exactly where the nobleman was, and in any case there were too many orcs along the path in that direction. Danuwil was experienced, well equipped and probably uninjured. But the prisoner they had freed was helpless, and the orcs seemed to be focused on the other direction. So Nikko crept back to the vulnerable young man he'd left behind the rock outcrop beside the road.

He was still unconscious, but moving a little. Blood was running down his face, and his bare torso was covered with bruises. Nikko took him by the arm again and began to haul him slowly along the road, away from the orcs, in the same direction in which he had run for his life just a few weeks earlier.

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