A tale of Milgol Ironwill and his nemesis
“Migol! Here!” Gador gave the slab another shove, but it remained motionless. The rock was too heavy.
“Help me!” he cried. Some more rock fell from the ceiling, narrowly missing Gador’s head. He barely noticed it.
Migol arrived, slamming into the hunk of rock that Gador was trying to move. There was a grinding of stone on stone, but still the slab refused to move. A tongue of flame in the room beyond leapt high for a brief moment, and Gador saw Migol’s face in shadowy relief. He was scared. They both were. If Milda was in that room…
Just thinking about Milda gave Gador an extra burst of energy. With one gargantuan surge of strength, he pushed against the stone with all his might, a yell of desperation escaping him as his muscles strained. There was a deep grinding, a sudden shutter, and the stone fell in backwards, landing with an ominous thud of finality.
Migol was in the room instantly. “Milda?” he turned on the spot, searching the dust-ridden air.
Gador staggered in behind him, his entire body weakened from his exertion. He was nearly ready to topple over in exhaustion, but he forced himself to stand as best he could, and examine the room. He prayed that he wouldn’t find anything, and his prayers were answered; Migol found her instead.
“Here!” he cried, lunging through the clouds of dust that billowed in the room. Gador stumbled after him, slipped on something, and fell to the floor with a crash.
It took him a moment to collect himself. When he did, he noticed that he was lying in something wet. He spat the substance out of his beard, and tasted the horrible metallic taste he had been dreading: blood. Dwarf blood.
Gador struggled to his feet and found Migol a short ways away, crouched over a small figure. Gador felt his heart give a small stutter of fear. No… surely not…
As if with a mind of their own, his legs carried him forward, and then dropped him to his knees by Migol’s side. And there his worst fears were realized.
Migol was holding the body in his arms, tears splashing onto her still face, her glassy eyes staring past him, fixed on a point that was no longer there. “Milda,” he whispered, his tears choking his voice. “Milda… Milda…”
Gador was beyond tears or speech. He only felt numb. It struck him as wrong; he should feel something. But all he felt as he stared at his sister’s face was a blank emptiness. There was a void in his mind where Milda had once been.
Gador’s eyes traveled over his sister’s body, the blood still slowly seeping from her wounds, her pallid face which had once been so warm, and fixed on the wall behind her. There was something there: a faint smudge of soot, perhaps. But it was too regular, too defined. Gador leaned closer, struggling to see through the dust…
The imprint of a hand, outlined in a cloud of black. The ink and ashes still warm on the wall.
Gador drew back violently, sucking his breath in as only one word raced through his mind: “Blackhand!”
He must have spoken the name out loud, for Migol looked up and saw the mark upon the wall too. His visage went from sorrow to rage faster than a falling boulder. “Blackhand!” he thundered, leaping to his feet. “They have done this! Those cowardly drimgalams! They dare not confront us openly, so they send The Night Wind to strike behind our backs. To strike at our families! At… At…” Migol sank to his knees, subsiding into grief. He could not finish.
Gador rested his hand on Milda’s face, and gently closed her eyes. The void within him was beginning to fill, but not with what it had once held. Rage was beginning to course through him. As he stared at the terrible symbol upon the wall, fury took him, slowly, surely. Gador welcomed it.
“They must pay,” he said, the quietness in his voice surprising him. “The Blackhand must answer for what they have done.”
Migol was silent now, his tears gone, but he did not reply.
“The Night Wind has slain our sister in her very home! We must end this.”
“No,” Migol said. His voice was so controlled, and yet so forceful, that Gador’s rage cooled instantly. Migol always had that effect on him. He was a natural leader. “I know the Night Wind,” Migol said. “We have met before. I will end this. But you,” he turned to Gador, his face burning with suppressed wrath, “you must keep our families safe. The Blackhand have grown strong indeed to strike us here: you must keep the watch. Let none slip by.”
Gador grasped Migol’s arm. “There are others to guard the gates. I can come with you.” He looked at Milda’s face. “I must come with you.”
“No,” Migol said, gently this time. “This is my fight. I am head of the house. This is not your battle.”
Gador felt his rage returning. “It became my battle when The Night Wind entered this place. It became my fight when she drew her blades, and used them to snuff out the brightest light in my life. This is my fight, Migol, and I will see The Night Wind dead by my hand.”
Migol stood. “Your death cannot be by my word. I am the elder brother. You will stay.”
As Migol turned and disappeared into the dust once more, Gador pressed his face to Milda’s, his eyes closed. “I promise you, sister: I will find The Night Wind, even if it means defying my brother. I will hunt her down and slay her, even as she has slain you. You will be avenged.”
“I take none with me. Their absence will be discovered if I do.”
“Your absence will be discovered, Migol,” Forun said. “You’re the head of the house. They will know if you disappear.”
“I will spread about the rumor that I am mourning. It is what would be expected.”
Forun put a hand on Migol’s shoulder. “It is expected, friend. Do not pursue this course. Mourn your sister; that is right.”
Migol raised his eyes to Forun’s face. “I do mourn Milda. Do not mistake my words for anything else.”
“This is not how she would have wanted to be remembered.”
Migol looked at Forun for a space before replying. “I have to do this. The Night Wind has to be stopped, otherwise we may soon have to mourn another.”
Gador had heard enough. He leaned forward across the table the three of them were sitting at. “Migol’s right, Forun. She has to be stopped. She will kill, and continue to kill, unless she is put in her place.”
Migol glanced at Gador. “And your place,” he said, “is by the gate. No one gets through. You are not to go with me; I have already lost a sister. I do not intend to lose a brother as well.”
Gador looked at Migol, not replying. They both knew what the other was thinking.
“Yes, brother,” he said at length, dropping his eyes. “I will stay.”
“Then I must go,” Migol said, standing. “I must find The Night Wind before she reaches the walls of Blackhand, or all will be lost.”
“Winds at your back, friend,” Forun said.
“Expect me on the last day of Sun’s Fall,” Migol said. “If I have not returned… then you know my fate.”
Gador watched as his brother turned and left, exiting the place where they sat. Forun glanced at him. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
Gador’s eyes didn’t leave the doorway where his brother had disappeared. “You’d be a fool if you didn’t,” he muttered. “I mean to follow him. She was my sister as well.”
Forun sat down, a concerned look on his face. “It’s not what she would have wanted,” he said. “I knew Milda well. Always caring, the most cheerful and heart-warming creature I ever saw.”
Gador smiled despite himself. Every dwarf gained a second name when they came of age, and that had been hers: Milda Warmheart. How appropriate it had been.
Forun put his hand on Gador’s shoulder, perhaps to make sure he was listening. “She loved life. You know she did. Paled at the slightest mention of death. Why, I remember it took her years before she’d even eat meat. Insisted on living off of beans. She wouldn’t have wanted this, Gador. It’s bad enough that Migol has gone off to kill The Night Wind before the ashes are cold, but to have both her brothers go? No, Gador. She would not have wanted that, I know.”
Gador closed his eyes and sighed. “There are some decisions that we must make,” he said. “And then there are others that are made for us. I must do this. I follow my brother.”
The family of Blackhand had been at war with Migol’s clan for years. Until now, the war had always been firmly political, the violence being limited to scuffles in the tunnels and minor death threats. It seemed that now, things had finally escalated. Milda Warmheart had been the sister of the varagt, the clan leader. Her death showed that the Blackhand was not afraid to aim high.
This was one of the reasons that Gador stuck closely to the shadows as he followed his brother, Migol. The other reason, of course, was that he knew the kind of rage Migol was capable of. He preferred to save that until after The Night Wind was dead.
The Night Wind was not easy to track, and not only because no one knew her true name. Everyone was scared stiff of her and refused to talk, even if they knew something. She had never been seen, never been caught, and never, ever been survived by one of her targets. And she was the Blackhand’s to command. Anger them, and you were as good as dead. And with the death of Milda, everyone knew it.
How Migol had gotten his information therefore, Gador would never know. He had walked into a tavern serving as a front for a Blackhand listening post, and walked out half an hour later. Now he was in one of the West Tunnels, making for the fortress of Uldamor, Gador behind him, unseen.
Gador was uneasy in the long tunnel, and for good reason. They made excellent locations to murder someone. The tunnel was long, and with the war, someone used it only once a week, or less. No screams would be heard, no body found, until it was too late.
Migol apparently did not share his concern. He had been walking for nearly two hours, his pace never varying from a fast trot. When he suddenly stopped and stood perfectly still, therefore, Gador knew something was wrong. It didn’t take him long to find out what.
Gador had just drawn his axe when a black shadow seemed to hurdle out of the tunnel wall itself, and collide with Migol. The two dwarves tumbled across the floor, fighting savagely.
As Gador leapt from the shadows to intervene, he could see that the assassin held a long dagger, and was repeatedly trying to plunge it into Migol’s chest. Migol had no weapon drawn, but he was still able to block the assassin’s every blow with his arms.
Gador leapt to the battle, his axe raised, the war cry of the Felgar echoing off the tunnel walls. The last action proved to be a bad decision.
At the sound, the assassin disentangled himself from Migol with all the swiftness of ale pouring from a mug. Gador only had half a second to block the dagger that appeared out of nowhere as his momentum carried him right over the assassin. He felt a sudden punch to his ribs, landed a moment later on the hard stone, and felt his axe leave his hands.
Dazed, Gador was only aware of the sounds of battle. Metal clanged on metal. Stone was ground underfoot. Grunts echoed off the walls as Migol and the assassin fought. By the time Gador regained his breath and looked up, Migol had won, and had the assassin pinned to the stone floor via the point of his sword.
Gador scrambled to his feet, his ribs stinging painfully. “Should we kill him?” he asked as he collected his fallen axe. “Or maybe press him for information?”
Migol turned his head, thinking. “Neither,” he said after a moment.
“What do you intend to do then?”
Migol did not raise his sword. “I intend to let him go.”
It was a moment before Gador found his voice. “Let him go! He just tried to kill us, Migol. If you let him go, there’s no telling how many others he will kill in their sleep.”
“He’s failed,” Migol said calmly. “It is unlikely the Blackhand will employ his services again, now that he’s been discovered.”
“Unlikely?” Gador echoed. “You want to leave this up to chance? And what if you are wrong? What will you say to the family of his next victim?”
Migol raised his sword without warning, and brought it down, the hilt striking the assassin’s head. The dwarf fell limply to the floor, unconscious, but still very much alive. Migol then turned against Gador, and in an instant, had him pinned to the tunnel wall.
“Wars are not fought between soldiers, little brother, but between leaders. If I had killed that assassin, another would have come. I save no one by killing a mere pawn. Only by removing the pieces of value is the game won.
“And you; you have followed me, against my orders. I told you to guard the gate.”
“And you knew perfectly well I never would.”
“I had hoped that a little more sense had lodged in your head since the last time you disobeyed me, brother.”
“Sense?” Gador repeated. “I just saved your life! If that was but a pawn, how do you think you will fare against The Night Wind?”
“A lot better without you to worry about,” Migol growled, letting Gador go. “Now I tell you for the last time: leave. Keep our cities safe; leave this to me.”
“You know I will not leave you.”
Migol thrust his face to within an inch of Gador’s. “Did you know our sister so little? Is this how you would honor her memory? If she were alive, she would never want you to seek vengeance.”
“If she were alive,” Gador said calmly, “there would be no need for vengeance.”
“Do not defile her name with your need to satisfy your own heart,” Migol hissed. “Killing The Night Wind will not bring her back or alleviate your suffering.”
“Then why do you do it?” Gador spat back.
Migol didn’t answer. “This is not what she would have wanted, Gador, and you know that. For once in your life honor our sister without thinking of yourself. Go back.”
With a final shake of Gador’s leather jerkin, Migol stood, and turned away. Without another word, he resumed his fast pace down the tunnel, and was soon consumed in the darkness.
After a moment, Gador picked himself up. If anything, Migol had deepened his resolve to follow him. It was true that Milda would never have wanted any of this, and part of Gador’s mind hated himself for continuing. But the fact that Migol knew that as well and still sought The Night Wind was far more worrisome to Gador. His brother had always been the selfless one. This sudden need for revenge was not like him, and Gador was afraid it would get him killed.
Unbidden, he saw Milda’s face again. She was smiling, happy. His heart turned cold when he thought of what she would say if she could see him now, bent on another’s destruction. But Migol needed him. Nothing could persuade him to go back now.
It took nearly a week for Migol to track down The Night Wind. There were narrow escapes, more tangles with agents of the Blackhand, and much searching, but eventually he tracked her to the very outskirts of Uldamor, Blackhand’s fortress, in an abandoned council hall.
Gador had remained hidden from his brother all this time, resolved to enter the fray only when The Night Wind was found. The element of surprise can be everything in a battle, and if she was focused on dueling Migol, she would never expect an attack from behind.
Dwarven council halls were semi-circular shaped, consisting of benches that rose up to the ceiling, and fell to the floor below to end in a flat space or kvesta, usually reserved for the offender. It was not the best place for hand-to-hand combat. Especially if The Night Wind was at the top of the benches.
Migol entered the kvesta, Gador keeping well behind him in the entrance hall. He would attack when The Night Wind was distracted.
Migol walked to the middle of the kvesta and stood still, scanning the tops of the benches. Gador waited in the shadows.
“I know you’re here, Evena.”
Gador blinked. Migol knew The Night Wind’s name?
A voice drifted down from the benches, cold, but curiously soft. “How did you find out, Migol Ironwill?”
“I study my enemies. The Blackhand concealed your identity, but they could not hide the little girl I once taught to use the sword. Evena Fairwind. That was your name, before Blackhand found you.”
There was a pause. “And you think to unsettle me with this knowledge?”
“No,” Migol said calmly, “unless of course you have forgotten who you once were. That would be unsettling in the extreme.”
Soft laughter reached Gador’s ears. “You always played the game with your mind, Migol. It has served you well.”
“This is no game,” Migol said, a slight edge to his voice. “Do you know what you have become? What you have done?”
“I know I have changed. Evena Fairwind died nine years ago with my parents. The Night Wind is all that remains.”
Migol climbed atop the first row of benches. “Why, Evena? Why have you chosen this path?”
A figure moved out of the shadows at the top of the benches. Gador stifled his gasp of surprise as he saw the figure, illuminated from below. The Night Wind was clothed in black, a black veil obscuring her face. Black leather was her armor, sewn with thin plates of metal. Two long knives hung at her hips, and her hands, covered in black cloth, rested on their hilts. A cowl was drawn over her head, and combined with the veil, nothing of her face could be seen, save for a deep, velvety blackness. Gador had not been seen, but he moved deeper into the shadows nonetheless.
“This path chose me,” Evena said, a slight quiver to her voice.
Migol ascended the second row of benches. “You know that’s not true, Evena. No path chooses us. Not one as dark as yours.”
“Mine did,” Evena breathed. “Blackhand came. My heart was empty. He filled it with hate, hate that has fueled me ever since.”
Migol moved up to the third row. “It’s not too late, Evena. You can end this, now.”
“I am no longer Evena! The person you once knew is gone. Gone, Migol! I died that day nine years ago. Who I was stayed behind in that burned down home. Who I was escaped through the tears I shed. She’s gone. Blackhand created me, and it is them that I serve.”
Migol took a step down. “I believe you,” he said quietly. “Not because any of what you say is true. But because the girl I knew, the girl I trained, could never have done the crimes you have committed. Do you see them at night? Your victims? Alver? Vorad? Keldar? … Milda?”
With a cry of denial, Evena leapt at Migol. No one could possibly leap from such a height, but she did, falling towards Migol with her blades drawn. Migol side stepped her, drew his sword, and leapt after her. They landed on the kvesta, blades locked.
“They were targets,” Evena hissed, as they each tried to break the lock. “Names on a paper.”
Migol spun backwards, breaking he lock and evading Evena’s counterattack. “They were people, Evena,” he said. She leapt forwards, but he deflected her blow. “People with lives. No one is just a name on a paper.”
“I was!” Evena screamed. She rushed at Migol and let loose a furry of slashes, but they were all blocked by Migol’s shield. She ducked his sword and retreated out of range. “My parents were! They were targets. I was a footnote. That’s all I ever was. That’s all anyone ever is, in the long passage of existence.”
Gador caught sight of Migol’s face in the glow of a torch. It was filled with anger and sorrow, but not hate. “Alver was a blacksmith and a friend. He had a wife and two daughters. His metals were worked with precision and love. The children of Vurag came to him at the end of the day to watch the metal flow in the trough. He would show them how to work the metal. And when you killed him, the people of Vurag mourned in the square. A great man had been lost.”
“He was a name supplying the enemies of Blackhand with weapons. I did what was necessary.”
Again Evena leapt forwards, and again Migol deflected her blow downwards, this time sending her crashing to the floor. He did not press his advantage.
“Vorad was a herder. He was the youngest of two sisters and two brothers, and he was thought delicate of heart and mind. In reality he was the kindest and wisest man I ever knew. He played the old songs on his flute when the children asked, and when there was a dispute to settle, his word was respected by all. When he was found murdered in his bed, his brother swore vengeance on you and set out for this very place.”
“He was a spy, inciting the people against Blackhand. I killed him quickly.” Evena scrambled to her feet and threw a hidden dart at Migol. He blocked it with his shield, even as she charged him a third time. This time he side-stepped her and knocked her legs out from under her with his foot. She fell to the floor.
“Vorad’s brother was Keldar. He was a warrior, but a warrior with a heart. He kept the old tales alive, even when no one else believed in them. He knew bloodshed, he knew suffering, and he knew their full weight. He wove stories for the children that warned them against war and fighting. He was the mightiest dwarf for miles, and he was known as one of the greatest peace-makers to ever live. It took three of you to bring him down. His body was never found.”
“He died well,” Evena said, getting to her feet. “But he was an old enemy of Blackhand, and was dealt with accordingly.” She did not attack Migol again, but rather stayed out of reach, slowly circling.
Gador got a better grip on his weapon. This was it. Any moment now, they would clash for real, and he would have his chance.
“And Milda?” Migol asked. “Do you even remember her? She bandaged your arm when Belor hurt you in training. She brought you stew when you were sick. She walked with you when you were alone. She comforted you when you were sad. What do you remember of her?”
Both dwarves stopped moving and stood still, watching each other.
“I remember,” Evena whispered, her face impossible to read, “that she was there when my parents died. She dried my tears. She held me close. She sang to me until I fell asleep in her arms.” She was speaking in a monotone, as if she couldn’t stop. “And when I woke, I remember what she said to me: she said it was a terrible thing that had been done. She said how the people who had killed my mother and father were bad, and how they had to be stopped.”
Gador had heard enough. He stepped out of the shadows. “And I’m here to fulfill that wish,” he said. Evena whipped around even as Gador launched himself at her, axe held ready.
He was no match for her. She side-stepped him neatly, landed a blow on his arm, twisted away from his axe, snuck under his guard, and sliced both daggers across his chest. The wounds were not deep, but they seared like fire and caused Gador to fall to the ground, his axe gone from his grip. Evena knelt on top of him, her knives pressed to his throat.
Migol spoke before she could move another inch. “There was one thing more that Milda said.” Gador couldn’t understand why his voice wasn’t hurried.
Evena paused, listening.
“Blackhand drove it from your mind with their ill whisperings, but I was there too. I heard. Milda said the men who had killed your mother and father had to be stopped, to be made to see what they had done. Not to be killed.”
Evena flinched, and Gador saw why: the tip of Migol’s sword had appeared right next to her throat. He could kill her in an instant.
“Do you know what you have done, Evena?” Migol whispered. “Do you know the light you have robbed the world of? Who is to measure the worth of a life? Who are we to say who must die and who must live?
“We are not nearly smart enough to pass judgment on any life. Milda understood that. She never wanted to kill those men that ruined your life, Evena. She wanted to stop them at their core, make them see that no one is just a name on a page.”
Migol reached down and pulled Evena up so that she had to look right at him. “You have ended lives, Evena. Even the darkest person has a story to tell, something to impart. Even the lowest dwarf is far more valuable than any amount of payment. No single word can ever describe a person, no paragraph or volume can show truly who he is. All we can do is catch glimpses of people, of how rich and full their lives truly are. This is what you have taken from the world.”
Evena dropped her blades. They clattered against the stone floor of the kvesta, and then lay still, unnoticed. Evena still stood over Gador, and he could feel her legs against his, trembling. Gador waited. Would Migol now end The Night Wind, the one who had taken so much life without a thought as to what it meant?
Migol lowered his sword. “You have taken much from the world, Evena. If anyone deserves to die, it is you. But even one as dark as you, whose heart is corrupted and mind twisted; even you do not deserve death. For even you have a life, and every life is precious, no matter how dark.”
Evena returned with Migol and Gador. She renounced the name of Blackhand, and laid bare the family’s dark dealings. With so much evidence, the dwarf clans united against Blackhand, and drove them from their caverns without a drop of blood being spilled.
Evena of course had to go into hiding. She had killed too many people, hurt too many lives. She would never be safe among those that knew her, no matter what Migol told them. She left one day, shortly after Milda Warmheart had been laid to rest in stone, and was never heard from again.
Gador never found it within his heart to forgive The Night Wind for what she had done. She had struck at his friends and family too often for that. He counted her as dead though, slain by Migol on the floor of the kvesta. All that remained was a dwarf who had once been lost: Evena Fairwind.
They were never friends. But Gador saw the change Migol’s words had wrought in her, and he knew that she was truly sorry for what she had done. No amount of remorse could undo the deeds, or make the pain of them any less, but Gador knew that Milda’s wish had been carried out: The Night Wind had been stopped.
On the day that Evena left the dwarves, she left also the name of Fairwind. Evena Fairwind had too much darkness within her, too much pain and suffering. It was Evena Fairwind who had created The Night Wind, not Blackhand. She took instead a different name, a name that both Migol and Gador approved of: