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“Oi, stumpy!  That’s a sorry excuse for a beard, short-arse!  What’s the matter, can’t you grow a real one?  Thought you dwarves could just do that.

Wow, this guy picked a really bad time to mess with me.  Can’t he see how much steel I’m carrying?  Anyone with even half a brain knows you don’t insult a dwarf when they’re armed.  I mean really, you don’t insult a dwarf at all if you got any sense, but still …

“C’mon now, Toe, that’s enough.”  Least his friends got more sense than him, maybe they can get him out before I force a readjustment.  I turn slow, giving ‘em all time to rethink their life-choices, maybe even clear out before I get a look at ‘em.  If they got any sense, that is.

“Bloody hell, it’s a lass.  Sot of … bloody ugly lookin’ one, mind.”  Moment I look at ‘em, I can tell they’re drunk, but it’s the one in the lead, the one already swaying my way with a crude leer, who’s really shitfaced.  As he leans towards me I can already smell the liquor on him, don’t even need to catch a whiff of what’s probably some seriously foul breath.  “Nice an’ roomy, maybe, but that face … I’d do ya if you wore a sack on your head, maybe.”

When he grins his teeth are bad as his breath.  “How ‘bout it, darling?  Doubt you get much luck, looking the way you do …”

Slowly I let my breath out, but not to try and calm myself anymore.  I just don’t want my hands to shake while I’m beating the shit out of him.

“Seriously, Toe, lay off ‘er, would you?”  Two of his friends are smirking with amusement, but the most sober-looking of the quartet still seems to have some smarts in him, or maybe he’s just a more decent sort than the rest.  He’s almost attractive, to be honest, but not my type.  The company he keeps certainly wouldn’t help his case.  “She clearly don’t need your shit right now, an’ we got stuff to do.”

“Oh I dunno, this one could factor into that, if she was willing to make a few little concessions.”  Toe, if that really is his name, waggles his eyebrows in a way he must think is inviting.  I’d have to disagree.  “Reckon I might be able to lay my hands on a bag at short notice, if you fancy –”

Grabbing his admittedly large ears with both my hands, I smash his face down into my knee before he can finish that offensive suggestion.  I let go as soon as I feel the satisfying crunch of his nose, and he actually bounces, although I think it might be an involuntary jerk of his body.  Either way, his back straightens out in an instant, and for another moment he stays relatively upright, albeit with his legs still bent into a crouch, while a great gout of blood pours from his mangled nose.  For a moment he stays like that … then he topples backwards and thumps the floorboards hard.

There’s a beat, maybe more than one, when we all just look at each other, this guy’s friends gawking at me in surprise, for the moment ignoring their motionless companion.  I cock my head and then my brow, considering them all for a moment, finally deciding I might as well let this happen.  “I might still be able to find a sack of my own if any of you wanted to have a go too.”

The drunker pair that are left look down at their unconscious friend one last time, then exchange a glance.  They’re starting to get angry already.  Drink’ll do that, of course.  The relatively sober one, on the other hand, just rolls his eyes, like he can already see where this is going and wanting nothing to do with it.

Clearly the drink does as little to help their coordination as their judgement as both try to rush me at once and just get tangled up, almost going down before they can even start.  The larger one, almost big enough to be an orc but unfortunately human, shoves the other off with an angry grunt and he bounces off the wall, barely catching himself before he can fall.  By then the winner of that pointless tussle’s already baring down on me.

I don’t even bother drawing anything, I have no intention of killing any of these idiots and if I did pull one of my axes I know for a fact this would escalate quickly, and I fully intend to keep this under control.  So I just stand my ground as he bears down on me, inwardly tensing but making sure I don’t give it away, even if he was paying attention to begin with.  I let him get close enough I can almost feel his snorting breath and then I crouch and lunge forward fast, taking his legs out from under him before I start to rise again.

My timing is pretty spot-on, I swear Mulden’d be proud of me for this one.  I flip him before he can smash his face into the floor and probably break his own neck for good measure, so instead he arcs over enough to smash down hard on his back.  The impact drives the air right out of him, but more importantly he’s so heavy and moving so fast that it hurts, enough that even in his massively inebriated state it’ll be a while before he can do anything but curl up in pain.  The whole place shakes from the impact, a great cloud of dust shook up from between the floorboards, and given how much weight just landed all at once I’m impressed this shitty old wood actually managed to take it without busting right through.

“Why you little ... little …”  The remaining prick falters, suddenly unsure how to continue the insult, his addled brain clearly not up to the task.  It sure doesn’t say much for his chances in the one department that counts right now.

“Little what?  Little bitch?  Little shit?  Little goblin?”  I arch my brows as I spread my arms wide.  “C’mon, they’re just your speed, you must be proper stupid if you can’t even think of those tired little cliches.”

His eyes bug right out of his head as he goggles at me, snarling through gritted teeth so hard a little spittle sprays from his lips.  That’s got him really good and riled.  “You … fuck you!”  He whips his hand inside his jacket and then fumbles for a moment, frowning now as he starts to have trouble finding what he’s looking for.  I can’t help rolling my eyes.

Growling, he pulls something out at last, and he must be genuinely frustrated because I hear something tear when he drags his knife free.  He’s furious and drunk and clearly a moron, but he also has a blade, and only an idiot wouldn’t take that seriously.

It’s amazing enough he doesn’t just faceplant and stab himself on the first step.  Instead he rushes me and this time I tense up properly, dropping into a ready stance and watching his approach with proper caution.  His balance is good enough given his intoxication, but the attack itself is absolute shit, so badly telegraphed I don’t even have to think about reacting to it.  I sidestep his embarrassingly clumsy lunge in the same moment that I trap and turn his knife-hand, wrapping my other hand over the top and twisting.

He’s not a particularly big man, at best he’s got maybe thirty pounds on me and he’s slow right now, I barely even need to bother applying any real pressure as I bend his arm out of true, and the pain’s enough to cut through the drunken haze.  He drops the knife almost immediately, and I could just give him a good hard punch in the face and put him on the floor, make him think about learning some manners when he sobers up again, but I’m pissed off now.  So I keep twisting, and his scream is high when I snap his wrist.  He drops like a whimpering stone as he curls into a ball like his winded friend.

“Whoa, okay, hold on …”  The sober one raises his hands in a placating gesture, taking a step back as I turn to him.  He doesn’t seem any more of a threat now than he did before, and despite my mood right now I don’t feel like doing anything to him anyway, but I’m not about to show it.

“Your friends are a pond-scum, you get that, right?”

“I do, I do indeed.”  He takes another step back, then stops as senses someone stood behind him.  He straightens up but keeps his hands where they are, breathing in slowly as he looks at the ceiling mere inches above his head.  “Oh shit … okay, seriously, I don’t want any trouble, I swear …”

“You all right, Thel?”

“Not right now, no.”  I growl through gritted teeth, the question bringing me back to where I was before.

“Need some help?”  While the first voice is a deep bass rumble that surely must belong to a truly huge man, the second’s a gravelly snarl with quite a jagged edge to it, something that seems almost designed to set teeth on edge.

The boy – and that’s all he really is, now I look at him, he can’t be more than twenty at most, barely old enough to get up to this kind of shit, really – turns around now, much tenser now after hearing that second voice, and it’s not at all surprising, really.  What he sees surely doesn’t help, he might just shit himself right here.

Brung’s not really a lot to look at, since he’s not much over three feet tall and skinny as a bunch of sticks in a skin-suit, one that’s pretty scaly and picked out in various shades of green.  Even so, goblins have the kind of reputation that goes well ahead of them, for better or, more usually, worse, so his diminutive size does nothing to dull his implied threat.  His bright yellow glare, genuinely seeming to glow in this relative gloom, is fixed on the boy, even if he really has to crane to meet those wide eyes.

“We’re happy to finish what you’ve started, if you think it’s necessary.”  Being a dwarf like me, Dumoli’s a good deal smaller than his booming, resonant voice would suggest, but he’s as intimidating as his tiny friend even so.  He lets his massive hammer thump to the floor, head first, as clear punctuation, and the boy visibly twitches at the sound.

“No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.  Reckon this is done.  I could still use a hand with something, mind.”

“Really?”  Brung flexes his oversized claws, as if he’s itching to commit atrocious murders, but I know for a fact he’s playing up to the role.  “What about walking piss-stain here?”

The boy doesn’t move, but his eyes swivel to me all the same, and I can see the plea in them.  It’s not quite pathetic, in truth the kid’s mostly just being smart about his current situation.  “I’m really sorry about my … gods, I can’t even believe I gotta call these idiots my friends.  They ain’t, really.  I shouldn’t even be here.”

“So why are you?”  I don’t soften my own glare, wanting to really drive this home.

He looks at me for a moment, and I wonder if he’s thinking of deflecting, making himself look better than he really is, maybe hoping to get out of a beating himself.  Or maybe not.  When he finally replies he seems to deflate, and it’s more embarrassment than resignation.  “I’m here to help put the idiot with the broke arm to bed.  He lives here.  The other two idiots are just along for the ride, cuz they’re his mates.”

“But not you?”

“Gods, no.  I really didn’t have any choice in the matter.  The idiot we’re putting to bed is my brother.”

Looking at Brung and Dumoli, I see the dwarf roll his eyes while the goblin looks ready to spit.  I simply let out a heavy sigh and beckon my friends to join me.  “Yeah, sure, okay.  Blood can be a shitty deal, I get it.  Just keep him under control in future, yeah?  He might not be so lucky next time.”

To his credit, the boy stands his ground well enough while Brung pushes past his leg, but at least he has to good sense to move out of Dumoli’s way when he hears that great big hammer dragged up off the creaking bare boards again.  He shrinks back to press himelf against the wall and conspicuously looks away from the weapon as Du lets it settle across his shoulder and gives him a sidelong stink-eye in passing.

They both step around the downed trio with due care, which I guess is a small mercy really, given how they could just as easily have put a boot or two in while passing and I’m not sure I’d really object.  Du watches me as he approaches, and he doesn’t need magic powers to read into what I’m still feeling, it’s probably writ large across my face.  “What is it?”

“Just come with me.  There’s no time.”

He frowns deeper at that but I don’t give him time to ask any more as I turn back down the hallway in the direction I was rushing from before I ran into these morons.  If the sorry brother has any sense he’ll wait for us to be gone before he makes any effort to collect his chastised sibling.  If he has real sense he’ll cut his losses after he’s got the idiot some tending at one of Brigid’s temples and find a better class of company for his future days.

Leading the way round the corner, I don’t slow until I’m at Yulla’s door again, looking back over my shoulder to see they’re both falling back, watchful now.  I pause just before the threshold.  “What?”

“What happened?”

I follow Dumoli’s gaze down to the floor just outside the door, now beneath my feet.  There’s a pattern of blood drops leading out into the hall from here, although it peters out before long.  It’s warning enough, though.  Most wouldn’t even see it in this light, but dwarves and goblins both have strong nightvision, for us it’s clear as day.

“I don’t know.  That’s the problem.”  I push the door open the rest of the way, much as I did when I arrived.  When our first night back in the city went to shit.

They’re slow following me in after I duck inside.  They both know Yulla, they met her last time we came through, but they’ve not been here yet, their own friendship with her and her daughter’s still pretty new.  I wait just inside the main room, which serves as living room, dining room and den for its inhabitants, even a kitchen given there’s a little nook in the corner where the hearth doubles as a hob and makeshift prep-station.  Space is at a premium in this building, through the only other door there’s a single bedroom and a window that opens onto the street below.  No bathroom to speak of, instead the slops in the bedpan bed have to be tipped out the window every morning.  If you want to wash yourself living in a place like this you have to go elsewhere to do it.

Even so, Yulla and her four year-old daughter Drin made a really good go of making a pleasant, cosy life for themselves here.  Made, past tense.  You wouldn’t recognise the place looking at it now.  Even though they’ve never been here before, Du and Brung can both tell this place is in a truly wrong state the moment they enter, their eyes going wide immediately.

“Fuck …”  Dumoli lets his hammer settle again and it stays mostly upright, tilting a little on the stud on its top but standing well enough.  Brung’s dropped onto hands and knees already, getting as close to the floor as he can, which is close indeed.

The whole place has been turned upside down.  Not a single piece of furniture or belonging has been left undisturbed, and a lot of it’s been smashed outright, some only good for kindling or mattress stuffing now.  There’s no light in here, but then there’s no means to produce it now, the oil lamp’s been smashed and the candles scattered in what might’ve been a search or might simply have been some kind of manic outburst of senseless destruction.  I mean I just can’t make sense of it, there’s no real reason for this.  Yulla’s not the type to actually need to hide something anyone would go to this kind of trouble over.

The blood’s the worst of it, though.  Brung’s already picked up on it, I’m sure – my own sense of smell’s no better than Du’s, but our goblin friend could probably track the traces around this room blindfolded.  He’s already probing the few clear spots left of the cheap rug to inspect it.  It’s not a lot, not really, but enough to worry me all the same.

“They’re not in there, are they?”  I can’t quite be sure if Dumoli’s asking me a genuine question or simply hoping he’s stating a fact.  I follow his gaze to the entrance to the bedroom, where the door would likely be gaping wide if it was even still attached.  It’s as dark in there as it is out here.  Just as chaotic too.

“No, they’re not.  They’re not here.  I already checked.  That’s why I’ve been so long up here.”  I told ‘em I’d only be a few minutes, I was coming directly up to collect Yulla and Drin so we could get something decent to eat as a group, celebrate getting off the road for a little while at last.  They came up to check on me after the first half hour passed, most likely.

I pored over this place pretty extensively once I’d made sense of what I was even looking at and found the blood.  Once I saw that I had to check every inch of the place I couldn’t already see, making sure there weren’t two bodies buried somewhere under all this mess.  I particularly dreaded finding something small in here …

Nothing.  Either they didn’t find what they were looking for and took both of them in the hopes of getting the location out of her, or … I don’t know if I want to think about the other possiblity, because that would mean that whoever it was came for the girls themselves.  Which means all this was just done for the hell of it.  And that’s a scary sign all on its own.

Looks like Dumoli’s following much the same train of thought I am, and come to the same conclusion given how deep his frown’s become.  “What … why … I don’t understand.  Why would anyone want to take Yulla?  She’s a barmaid for Mithra’s sake.  And Drin?”

“Brung?”  I don’t say what I’m asking for, truth is I don’t even know.  I just hope he’s got some kind of idea of his own here.

“Smells like orc.”

Dumoli grunts.  “Bollocks.  Orc raiders?  In the middle of the city?  They almost never do this out in the country, any more than your lot do.”

“No, just one.  Not alone, mind.  Rest smell human.  Maybe a half dozen, can’t be sure.”  He looks up now, face like a stone, impossible to read.  “Blood’s all Yulla’s, Drin wasn’t hurt.  Not a lot of it, either.  Still alive.  Both, presumably.  Fact that’s almost guaranteed.”

“How’d you figure that?”  Du asks after a moment.

“Worth nothing dead, are they?”

Gods … I drop into a crouch myself, wanting to put my head between my knees and vomit all over the floor even though there’s nothing in my stomach right now to do it.  I take several deep breaths, trying to clear my head and failing badly.  This is so fucked …

“We gotta find ‘em.  Gotta find ‘em now.”  I look to Brung again.  “Can you track ‘em?”

“Blood stops right outside the door, Thel.  Means the wound wasn’t major, must’ve mostly stopped bleeding when they carried Yulla out.  No trail now.  And smells like half the city out there.  Wouldn’t know where to start.”  There’s no more regret in his voice than his face, but I know full well he’s capable, it just doesn’t show.  Brung’s as expressive as a stone.

“Shit.”  I straighten up, surprised at how steady I am on my feet given how I’m feeling right now.  I brush the bangs out of my face and they drop right back again and I just wanna scream.  I was right, this is so fucked.

“What you think?”  Brung’s looking to Du now, who’s squeezing his hammer’s handle tight enough in both hands for the grip leather to creak.

He looks around the room one more time, still frowning deep, and finally lets out a heavy sigh as he swings the hammer back up onto his shoulder.  He’s quiet for several moments before he turns to me again.  “I haven’t got the first fucking clue.”

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About the author

Bren Grigori

Bio: Aspiring author looking to make a career out of doing something I really love. An unapologetic geek who loves movies, comic books, science-fiction, fantasy and horror. Influences include Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Joe Abercrombie and Alastair Reynolds. Also fascinated by tabletop RPGs even though I never really got the chance to play when I was younger, so there's a lot of D&D and the like in my worldbuilding. Don't know much about this whole online self-publishing business, so I'm open to any advice on offer. Any help getting some attention will be appreciated too.

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