“I don’t like this, not at all.” Nundro mumbled for possibly the hundredth time that morning. He knew his brother, Gundren, had heard him even if he chose not to respond. Gundren hadn’t responded to the complaints the last dozen times so why change now? Stubbornness after all wasn’t solely a dwarven trait but as a race the mountain folk excelled where others merely practiced. Gundren was older by nearly a century, his beard a hand-span longer and hints of grey starting to show on his chin. The elder dwarf was resolute in his decisions and wasted little breath on matters he could not change. A trait newly picked up since the happenings of the last few months. Nundro wished he would respond though, even with a grunt or something, just to make it known that they were both in agreement.
Nundro Rockseeker had never seen their destination – Cragmaw castle. Current seat of power of Targor Bloodsword. Gundren had been held captive under the castle’s last leader, the bugbear King Grol, before that liege fell by the hands of adventurers. Gundren was rescued but not before his family legacy – the Wave Echo mine – fell into the hands of the cragmaw. The map that Gundred carried led the goblinoids to the cave and to Nundro and Tharden respectively. Tharden had been killed swiftly whereas Nundro was kept alive for whatever information he had, little as it was. Gundren still blamed himself for this turn of events. After all, the elder dwarf felt if he had never been captured Tharden would still have been alive. Nundro felt that unfairly he was still being shamed by not having the good sense not to die alongside his brother. After all what other reason could their be for Gundren’s reserved demeanor since that day?
“All I’m saying is that if we pay the ransom we’re legitimizing Targor’s rule. I know you feel you ‘owe’ these adventurers but they chose their lot. They left us remember?! You offered them a respectable life and they spat in your face by leaving.”
“It wasn’t like that Nundro. You’re still not seeing the whole of the thing. Adventurers aren’t like us normal folk and someday you’ll understand that.”
Nundro opened his mouth to argue but snapped his jaw shut at the site of Gundren’s palm in his face. The elder dwarf was signaling him to be quiet and surprising even himself he obliged. Ahead of them in the morning fog loomed the ruins of Cragmaw castle. The damp morning air clung to the stonework and the smell of mildew and rot assaulted the senses. The once mighty and foreboding walls now lay crumbling in an effigy to decay and goblinoid short-sightedness. The only change from Gundrens last time spent here were the many red banners hanging still from spears driven into the grounds. The broken jaw filled with sharp teeth showed this outpost and being Cragmaw territory. Most intelligent creatures knew to stay away. But one look at the heavy bag Gundren carried proved – to Nundro at least – that his older brothers sense of duty outweighed even his common sense.
“What’s to stop them from just killing us and taking the ransom?” Nundro whispered as if his words alone would give the cragmaw ideas.
“Honor.” was the only reply he received.
“Honor?! What does that even mean to these…these…vermin?” Nundro had raised his voice higher than he felt wise and heard the snarling barking of wolves in response.
“Honor is what it is. Targor has it or at least wants it. The pact was made and he’s not our enemy anymore. He has his sights set elsewhere.”
“Alfheim you mean? We’re letting him hunt elves so we can feel safe. Tharden would be so proud that that’s what he died for.” Even as the words escaped from between his clenched teeth Nundro knew he had gone too far. Tharden had always been the most moral of the three brothers but his death was still too fresh to be used as such a spiteful weapon. Nundro felt the shame of his actions without even having to see the hard expression on his brother’s face.
A retinue of hobgoblins in ceremonial dress filed out of the broken gates of Cragmaw castle. Their long pointed ears snapping to and fro picking up on background sounds of the morning forest. If Nundro didn’t know better he thought they were expecting an ambush. The irony was not lost on him. Each hobgoblin carried a long spear with a short cragmaw banner attached. Their armor, peicemail as it was, was shined and well-maintained. The small, beady, deep set eyes locked on the dwarves and Nundro could swear he felt the hate radiating from their gaze.
The hobgoblin furthest to the left started stamping his spear on the ground in rhythmic bursts. Soon the others followed creating a primal music not unlike that of the dwarven war drums back in Stonehome. To this music their leader, Targor, marched out with an air of superiority about him. His snub nose lifted high as if the scent of the dwarves assaulted his senses. His eyes focused on everything but them as if they didn’t bear necessity to even acknowledge. His matte yellow skin had the pallor of a festering infection and his teeth were of a matching hue. He hobgoblin dared a smile as the prisoner was pushed out from the gates crashing down the stairs. The elves feet were bound closely so he could barely regain his balance and his hands were behind him so he could not break his fall. Nundro could see venom in the eyes of that elf and it chilled him to the bone.
At once the stamping beat ended and Targor broke the silence. “I’d welcome you in Gundren but I hear you’ve already been given the tour. I take it you have our pledge as discussed?” The sneer on the hobgoblin’s face made Nundro’s blood boil and it took all his control not to reach for the small handaxe he had tucked into the back of his belt. Nundro was stunned though by the miniscule, weak voice that slid from his brother’s lips.
“We have the pledge Lord Bloodsword. You honor us with your hospitality.”
It wasn’t until this moment, hearing his brother cowed and reverent to that monster, that Nundro truly realized how bad things had gotten.