Authors: Jack Conner
THE WAR OF THE BLACK
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Ravening nightmares chased Baleron from sleep.
He shot up gasping, drenched in
sweat, to find
in a small, dark room, propped
on a narrow bed. A hideous face hovered over him, tusked and horrible, and he
shouted in surprise.
The face drew back, its owner
It was a Borchstog, but a Borchstog
unlike any Baleron had ever seen. It was bigger, for one. For another, it was
not bristling with hostility, and something in its face even hinted at
The Borchstog recovered itself. It
held a damp cloth; it had been wiping the sweat from his brow while he slept.
It smiled down at him—not prettily,
no, but it seemed to be heartfelt, and in this place such a thing was
“From the deep pool one comes,” it
said, and its voice was different from any other Borchstoggish voice Baleron
had ever heard. It was . . . soft.
He tried to ask it a question, but
the effort proved too much for him. He grunted something and fell back on the
bed. The world grew hazy for awhile, and terrible beings chased him, drooling,
and he heard Rauglir’s laughter from the darkness. Upon waking he found himself
in the small room once more.
The same Borchstog nurse checked
the bandages on his left wrist.
Groaning, he sat up a little and
tried to see what she was doing. What he saw surprised him, and he moaned
something interrogatively. The Borchstog looked up and smiled again.
a common greeting here. Looking down at the end of his
left arm, it asked, “What think you?”
He stared. For, terminating his
was in fact his left hand.
It had been reattached.
A ring of ugly
and uneven stitches marked the juncture, and the whole mass was swollen and
bruise-colored, and it hurt terribly, but it was there.
He tried to wiggle his fingers.
The Borchstog listened patiently.
. I am the head nurse here and have been
personally assigned to oversee your recovery.”
He mumbled another question. He
felt very woozy. They must have given him something.
“We nurses see to the healing of
our injured slaves—at least, the ones valuable enough to keep,” the nurse
explained. “I had a dwarf in yesterday, for example: an excellent metalworker.
And there’s an elf just down the hall
is very good
at laying charms on works-in-progress. But you’re even more special, you know.
Of course you do. It’s an honor to serve you,
. You’re going to help us win the
War. You may have already.”
He mumbled something.
“That’s right, the War. We have
both Glorifel and Clevaris under siege as we speak, and the other countries are
overrun. It’s only a matter of time.” The Borchstog seemed very proud.
Despair filled Baleron, and guilt;
he’d abandoned his people in their darkest hour. Of course, he reminded
himself, the reason he’d left was because he could do them no more good; his
time would be better spent avenging them. And so he still would, he vowed.
He had to get out of here—had to
get back home. Maybe there was some way he could still help—
gripped him, like an icy claw about his heart. His Doom had triggered that
thought. He knew it.
Father was right,
he thought with a shudder.
How do I know
where it ends and I begin?
Working carefully, he said, “
The nurse frowned,
Glad to assist, she ladled some
water into his mouth from a nearby bowl, and he drank it down greedily. Rank
and bitter, it was the best thing he had ever tasted. Feeling much better, he
wiped his mouth and said, slowly and carefully, “You’re a female?”
She laughed, and he tried not to
cringe. “Yes,” she said. “
is very female.
has over a hundred sons.”
She patted his thigh. “We Borchstogs
have few daughters, but we are large and can fend for ourselves. The males do
what we say or we eat them.”
He cleared his throat. “Did you say
Glorifel is still under siege?”
“For five, six
That sobered him. He’d been
tortured for more than a quarter of a year. “What of Larenthi?”
“Clevaris is the only city left,
and it’s ready to collapse, its rivers poisoned, its gardens aflame. The
Queen’s powers are exhausted, and most of her House
seemed very cheery about all this, as if she didn’t understand that Baleron was
on the opposite side. Though the attitude vexed him, it was good that his nurse
felt on the same side as her patient, and he didn’t disabuse her of the notion.
he said. “Does he still live?”
She scratched her scarred face.
“He’s been in some battles . . .
name . . . but can’t remember.”
“And the other countries . . .
. . . all
of them . . . they’re overrun?”
“Oh, yes. They sent their armies to
Clevaris to break siege. Grudremorq destroyed them. Their homes were
defenseless. The Flame and the Shepherd both sent out hosts to raid and burn,
and the Master sent more. Some of our foes still live, but they run and hide,
they do not fight. The Crescent is fallen. All that is left are two cities, and
Master builds another army, the greatest yet, to bring them down utterly
Dismay filled Baleron. If it were
possible to escape, he wondered if there
he could aid the Crescent. But if he tried, what guarantee was there that he
wasn’t simply carrying out his Doom? He was alive for a reason, after all, and
nothing in his life since Gulrothrog had been an accident, it seemed.
To keep her talking, he brought up
something she’d said that puzzled him: “You said the nurses treated your . . .
slaves. What of the injured Borchstogs? Don’t they need healing?”
“Not in Krogbur. Here the strength
of our Lord is at its greatest. It’s here where the strands of His web cross
each other, and one of His children who is wounded need merely bask in His
power, and he is healed.”
“Your kind must like this place
then. Is it to replace Ghrastigor as his fortress?”
She shrugged. “Not privy to
Master’s designs is
. I do know, yes, that He
has planned long for this, for the raising of His Tower.
And you helped bring it
about. You must be very proud.”
Catching him by surprise, she
pinched the small finger on his left hand. He yelped.
“Is well,” she noted. “Feeling has returned.”
Later, when exhaustion tugged him
back down into slumber, he dreamt that his left hand bristled with wolf fur and
attacked him. Claws extended from its fingers, and a snapping wolf mouth had
opened in the palm. Rauglir’s laughter chased him.
nursed him back to health
over the next few days, putting salves on his abrasions, giving him medicines
and potions to drink, applying poultices, removing and replacing bandages.
Slowly, he began to recover, though he did not know to what end.
In the beginning he would ask her
why he was being seen to, why he was being made well, but she never had an
answer—it was not her place to
and she didn’t—so
gradually he quit asking. He thought he knew without being told: the Dark One
was ready to use him again.
For the thousandth time, Baleron
thought about killing himself. But he remembered Elethris telling him that
Gilgaroth had made him a sword that could be used against its maker, and he
telling him he could yet sway the
war in the Light’s favor, and he hesitated. Yet if he did end himself, he might
be reunited with Rolenya. To see her, he might risk eternal damnation. He
dreamt about her, and his dreams were not brotherly. He longed to feel her
embrace, smell her hair,
her body to him.
Just as often he dreamt of Rauglir.
Creatures mocked him in his slumber and hounded him so that he got no rest.
Soon he dreaded sleep.
Something was wrong, he felt, wrong
—with his body, with his
mind, he did not know.
He was suspicious of the hand.
Sometimes he would hold it up to the light and stare at it. He would flex it
and twist it; it obeyed him. The fingernails were growing back, the scars
fading and the cuts healing, faster than normal thanks to
potions. Just why had Gilgaroth forced him to cut it off,
ordered it reattached? The Dark One did nothing without reason.
What bothered Baleron nearly as
and the other Borchstogs’
conviction that he was
Surely they were wrong. Gilgaroth might use him as a tool, but he hadn’t been
born to be that tool
. It was merely an
accident of circumstance that he was the sort of person the Wolf needed to
further his designs, someone who could have access to the nobility and sorcery
of both Havensrike and Glorifel.
Otherwise, why Baleron?
Why not a human that already served the dark powers?
entered the room and said brightly, “You’re awake.
Master invites you to the Feast tonight.”
“Your Master . . . wants me to come
She nodded happily.
Stranger and stranger
And strange it was.
The Feast was held in a huge high chamber, the Feasting
Hall, the most bizarre dining hall Baleron had ever seen, and he’d seen dining
halls in numerous palaces from four out of the six Crescent States. The domed
stretched high overhead, so wreathed in smoke from torches and braziers and
pipes that it was nearly impossible to see. The long wooden dinner tables were
tiered on a sloped floor, somewhat like that of a theater, but where the stage
would be was in fact a sunken pit—a sand-floored arena, in fact.
Borchstogs roared and laughed and talked at their seats or standing up.
Their din shocked the prince, used to the silence of his hole. Most of the
Borchstogs seemed to be chiefs of their broods or cities. They engaged each
other in braggadocio and fights and contests of various sorts. Two stuck pins
in a thrashing elvish captive, chained to a wall. They gambled on who could
make her scream the loudest. A group of Borchstogs sat around a table littered
with gore; they competed to see who could assemble the best musical instrument
out of the provided body parts: a flute with a thigh bone; drums with skin
stretched tight over a pelvis; a stringed instrument with spine, ribs and
The creatures’ smell repulsed
Baleron, which surprised him; he thought he’d become accustomed to their stench
by now. But there were so
and the smell so concentrated.
Growling wolves, pets or companions
of the Borchstogs, lounged under the long wooden tables or fought each other
for scraps and bones. Many wore spiked collars with chains attached; others
Huge steaming platters on silver
and golden dishes of raw-looking meat (which Baleron did not want to inspect
too closely) lay in large quantities upon the tables, and the Borchstogs picked
at them with their fingers and ripped at them with their teeth. A few
experimented with crude forks, though more than one of these wound up in
another Borchstog’s eye.
They drank wine or mead from
slopping, jewel-encrusted goblets, and Baleron wondered if they’d share. He
could use a drink.
“Roschk ul Ravast!”
as he passed. Several dropped to their knees
before him, and one even shouted something that sounded like, “Take my soul!”
This Borchstog offered him a dagger and bared his throat.
Baleron took the dagger. His guards
did not stop him. “If only you were all this accommodating,” he said, and slit
the demon’s throat.
Borchstogs cheered the sacrifice,
and wolves began gnawing at the dead one’s still-twitching body.
Grimacing, Baleron continued on,
and his guards led him down toward the arena. Would he be shoved into it?
Gilgaroth sat on his great black
throne on the other side of the sunken arena. Dressed darkly, his living shadow
had been drawn about himself so that his fiery eyes blazed from the darkness,
as if charcoal clouds passed twin red suns. One of his armored hands stroked
the neck of a massive wolf to his left. To either side of him lay one, an
impressive form of beast Baleron had heard call
Gilgaroth’s crowned, veiled head
swiveled in Baleron’s direction, and Baleron’s guards stiffened, then shook
themselves and hastened to lead their prisoner down the stairs to the bottom
row, immediately overlooking the arena. There were already some Borchstogs
seated there, and by their wide girths Baleron judged them to be leaders of a
large Borchstog city. His guards chased them off and shoved him into the place
where they had been.
The guards remained standing, protecting
Baleron lest one of their feral brethren attempt to put a blade through his
back, whether in bloodlust or amusement.
or not, they
Baleron glared up at the Dark One,
who inclined his head to him in a silent acknowledgement. Baleron did not nod
Gilgaroth raised a hand, and the
wild throng stilled. All save Baleron’s guards quit their pursuits and sat down
“All hail Lord Gilgaroth,” they
chanted, and not dully either. He was their father, their god, their reason for
being. What would it be like, Baleron wondered, to have such clear purpose and
“We have an honored guest tonight.
Raise your cups and toast Prince Baleron, my Champion, for he has delivered the
heads of many of my enemies—and he will deliver more still.”
The Borchstogs raised their
goblets. “Prince Baleron!
continued the Dark One,
shall end this stalemate that has trapped me here for thousands of years. We shall
go forth into the world, and make it our own!”
They cheered lustily, hooting and
banging on the tables. Baleron clenched his teeth.
benefactor, let the games begin!”
Baleron had not noticed before, but
there were large, barred doors set into the sides of the arena. Two of these
slid away with a groan, and a pair of corrupted, monstrous Giants stormed out
into the pit on opposite sides. Both their faces and forms were nightmarish,
and without preamble they flew at each other. The Borchstogs howled in delight
as the towering creatures struck with an earthshaking crash.
It was a short and bloody fight.
The one with the pincers sliced killed the other one, but in its dying moments
the fallen Giant bit the victor, injecting it with a deadly poison, and the two
twitched out their lives side by side on the ground, until they lay utterly
Several rithlag attended the Feast.
Gilgaroth indicated one, who descended into the arena, where it reanimated the
dead Giants and, like a puppeteer, made them dance and make merry. Musicians
played eerie stringed instruments as the dead things cavorted. The Borchstogs
hooted and laughed.
Eventually the rithlag sat down and
the Borchstogs shouted out, eager for the next act, which was not long in
Baleron did not bother to hide his
disgust, but as the fights went on, he couldn’t help but become engrossed in
the sheer spectacle of it all. The thundering giants and monsters . . . the
blood, the noise . . .
He saw sights undreamt of, terrors
that defied his imagination. One fight showcased a monster the like of which he
had never seen. It resembled a giant squid, but it floated, hovering above the
ground. It could spray a red cloud to confuse its enemies—in this case, a host
of wraiths, the demonic spirits chained to Gilgaroth’s will. Like living
shadows, they assailed the great squid-thing, tearing at it with ghostly claws.
It pulsed with eerie lights. The wraiths shrieked and howled, and the watching
Borchstogs clamped their hands over their ears. The squid’s tentacles lashed
like whips. At times it snared one of the phantoms and shoved the ghost into
its maw. Ultimately the squid was destroyed, ripped apart by its enemies’
talons, and the wraiths ascended to hide above the layer of smoke that obscured
The next fight featured a
Grudremorqen fighting a gaurock, one of the giant Serpents. The Grudremorqen
and the Serpent battled furiously, one with fiery sword, one with venomous
fangs. Finally the Serpent knocked the sword away and drove at the demon. The
Grudremorqen grappled with it, and they wrestled about on the blood-soaked sand
until finally the burning claws of the demon gave blackened death to the
gaurock, and the latter’s death throes shook the Hall.
And so it went. Many times Baleron
blanched, but he couldn’t deny the allure of the barbaric, the primal. Still,
he tried not to watch, but one of his guards jabbed him with a crude fork every
time he mashed his eyes shut. And then, at last, Baleron discovered why
Gilgaroth had brought him here tonight.
A door in the arena slid open,
The Borchstogs had been clamoring
and crying in the intermission between bouts, but now, overcome by curiosity at
what new marvel waited their pleasure, they leaned forward, red eyes a-goggle,
breath catching in their throats.
Baleron watched, too, but his gaze
Shortly the darkness in the doorway
stirred, and, to Baleron’s surprise, a beautiful woman was ushered out of it
and into the arena—an elf, he saw by her slightly pointed ears. Dark hair
cascaded down her shoulders and over the creamiest, whitest skin he’d ever
seen. Clear blue eyes, moist now, gazed out defiantly from her angelic,
delicately-boned face. Full red lips refused to tremble.
Baleron gasped. It could not be . .
It was impossible.
Some sort of trick, he told
himself. It had to be.
He sat up in his seat when she was
ushered out into the arena, prodded by a scarred troll carrying a spiked pole.
She looked lost and scared, but her back stayed stiff and her eyes forward. She
didn’t spare a glance for the bloodthirsty crowd.
Baleron shouted her name, but his
voice was suddenly coarse.
he told himself. And yet, he wanted so desperately to believe.
But she’s dead! I saw her body. I . . . did
more than just see it. Gods help me, I did.
The last time he had seen her, or
at least seen her form, had been in
But that had been a trick of some sort, it made no sense otherwise. So then the
last time he had
seen her body
was in Havensrike. Surely Rauglir, possessing her form, had not escaped
Glorifel and made it all the way here without being caught or killed . . . but
what other explanation could there be?
A trapdoor slid away, slewing sand,
and a ten-foot pillar thrust up through it into the arena. Though she
struggled, the troll tied Rolenya (or whatever she really was) to the pillar
none too gently.
Evidently fascinated by her, the troll kept
poking and prodding her with its fingers.
She bore it all stoically. Her
eyes were very blue, and very hopeless. Gone was the fire that had led her to
stand up to Ungier. Gone was that spark of rebellion and mischief. And yet,
there was something in her eyes, some light,
ember, that Baleron remembered, that had been missing in Rauglir. It was a
, a telltale of her soul . . .
Despite everything, he began to
Tears stained her high, pale cheeks
and glistened on her red lips. Her long black hair hung in sweaty tangles down
past her swan-like neck. She wore a beautiful if less-than-new dress. Dirt
smudged her ivory skin in a dozen places. Yet, Baleron thought, she was as
lovely as ever. He longed to hold her—as a brother, as a lover, in whatever way
But it could not be
it just could not be, no matter how much he might wish
otherwise. How big a fool did they think he was? He’d already met one false
Rolenya. He had seen another when
changed. What was more, he had been regularly conversing with a ghostly Rolenya
in his pit until they moved him to the hospital wing. This, then, must be
another forgery. The real one was dead, her body encasing Rauglir still, unless
the demon had been driven out by the body’s demise. And even Rauglir had
admitted that her soul now dwelt in the ephemeral flames of the Second Hell. So
why did Gilgaroth expect him to believe that this could be she?
The Dark One watched him all the
while, calculating, and Baleron returned the look with what he hoped was open
Rolenya, if it were she, shone like
a moonlit diamond in this smoky, foul-smelling chamber, a chamber full of
grease and blood and baseness and primal urges. She shone like an angel.
The Borchstogs drew back in their
seats, awed by it, by her Grace, and a hush fell over them.
At last her eyes found Baleron.
Surprise filled her face. She shouted out to him, and his heart swelled, but he
couldn’t have returned the greeting if he’d wanted to, and at the moment words
failed him completely.
She seemed sad to see him here,
like her a prisoner of the Shadow, yet he thought he detected a secret joy in
her to see him again, under any circumstances.
Baleron shook his head, unable to
“Rolenya’s dead,” Baleron called
across to him, having to force the words from the obstruction in his throat.
“It’s true,” said the figure that
looked so much like Rolenya, issuing the words in a small voice that still
managed to carry to his ears. To everyone’s ears, he imagined. “Bal, it’s me.
Really . . . it’s me.”
“How?” he challenged. “How could
this be possible?”
forged for her a new body,”
the Dark One said
Into it I poured her soul.
released her from Illistriv.”
Baleron paused. That
be plausible. Gilgaroth had
spawned races, had raised mountains. He could forge one small body.
“I don’t believe you.
would you do such a thing?”
I need your loyalty, Baleron. I need for you to do my bidding. For HER
sake you shall.”
So angry at this that tears began
to roll down his cheeks, Baleron shouted, “You bastard! You can’t
this to me! You can’t!”
Seeing his tears, Rolenya sobbed
true! It’s me.” Her voice grew small, lost, confused: “Unless this is a dream .
. . some strange dream. Is it? Could it possibly be?”