by Jeff Blomquist

It brought a smile of pleasure to my face. Please understand that for a Redcap to smile without committing murder or wholesale slaughter is a rare thing, indeed. It does happen, however, it usually is for threat display or preparation as use as a weapon. This time it was for pure pleasure, and not a drop of blood has been spilled.

The reason was quite simple. I am looking at a boot print of a particular potential quarry that I recognize. I gesture to Golden Claws, the troll who presently is in my company. "Remember this one old blood reaver? He gave us a lovely spectacle that afternoon, seasons ago in the Northron Highlands. The sky colored whomuns."

Golden Claws shambled over to where the boot print lay in the mud. He leaned over and sniffed at it. "Arwull!" He exclaimed. "Yawl, dis be da Ammerhand. Ogre sweat and whomun waste water. Sky tyrant at treetop and rising when e pass. E not dropping blood. Eat burnt goat rubbed in white rock. E smells eager, ready for battle but no death threat. Little bit of melted blood of rock colored like ice moon. Big toothed weapon in bear fat. Little toothed weapon in pig grease. Melted rock blood body scales. Sweat drenched in scent of rotting grain juice. About two stone less in mud depth than last we see."

Redcaps do not impress easily, but it always amazes me the amount of information a troll can glean simply from the scent of a track in his nostrils. Hammerhand, the ½ ogre whose track we are viewing, is about one thousand slow heart beats ahead of us on the caravan road leading to Shadowvale. He’s moving with purpose and destination in mind. Melted rock blood is iron, so he wears armor, his weapons he wiped with grease. He ate salted goat and drank beer. He has lost some weight. Good.

We encountered Hammerhand close to a hands worth of winters ago. Golden Claws and I had joined up, he was hunting meat and I was hunting blood. Redcaps consider all other races and beings quarry or prey, except trolls. Since we abstain from the use of fire, it is impossible for us to kill trolls permanently. They slither back together and reform even if dismembered; their wounds knit and heal, and heart beats after taking damage directly to it. How many times does one slay a troll, and what does that mean to our body count status? So we don’t attack trolls, it confuses us. Second, each race mutually admires each other’s skill in bloodletting, slaughter and mayhem. Personally, I feel Redcaps have more finesse, but there is something heart warming about rending an enemy apart by tooth and claw and devouring him alive. Third, frankly I enjoy the company. By custom Redcaps do not hunt with other Redcaps except in very special circumstances. All other races are quarry, but trolls. On occasion I like having another point of view to puzzle out situations. My Brethren would normally frown on this but so discomforting was the news of the opening of the nexus portals and the reemergence of the Immortals into Mid Eurda that they have suspended many restrictions. They concluded that they need more information.

Since it is my season’s cycle of testing and my hunting territory, I was chosen to find out such information. In fact, my testing cycle is postponed until this Immortal issue is sorted out. I was sent out to watch and learn, nothing more. I am to gather information wherever and however possible. I found Golden Claws. He was sleeping, having eaten a small forest bison, and I kicked him with iron-shod boots until he agreed to come along. Since he had eaten, he would not kill impulsively and would usually follow my lead. We headed for the whomun village of Shadowvale.

Remembering back to the Hammerhand. We had been up north hunting in the hillocks when we came upon a band of blue skinned whomuns with short blankets or skins wrapped around their waists, battling a host of dark night creepers about three times their numbers. It was an overcast day, one of many. The whomuns were valiant, but losing badly to the superior numbers. One of them was grappling with an octopus-like contraption. It was screeching and wailing horribly, so who knows what he was doing to it. The sound carried for miles. Golden Claws and I settled down to enjoy the climax and pick out the most promising survivors of the conflict. The scent of blood and smoke from the burning of crops and the wooden caves of the whomuns was heavy in the air. Simply mouth watering!

Then a lone figure wielding a two-handed sword hit the back ranks of the night creepers like a charging bull. He was completely berserk and foaming freely from the mouth, his eyes ablaze. His aura was a bright crimson column of fire. He reaped his way thru the back ranks of the creepers like a farmer scything a field of grain. A full score of armored hobgoblin shock troopers had fallen in the space of mere heartbeats.

The two handed sword caught, firmly wedged in a cleaved skull and helmet and was torn from his grasp. No matter, he whipped out his long sword, unslung the shield from his back, and while he gnashed the top of his shield with his teeth, he slashed his way to the commander of the host. There stood the hobgoblin horde commander and his pet witchdoctor. The witchdoctor’s fell spells reduced the shield to rust, dust and wood shavings. No matter, he crouched low and thrust, an unfamiliar sword attack to the night creepers. The sword caught the shaman under the sternum and lodged in the spine. Still holding the sword, he lifted the witch doctor into the air and as the now silent dark horde watched, he plunged his free hand into the shaman’s abdomen and pulled out his entrails. He used these as a rope. He dropped the witch doctor and sword and looped the entrails around the neck of the shock-paralyzed hobgoblin horde commander. Having lassoed him, he then swung him around and around until he strangled to death. When the body-guard ogre (who had been lured away from his commander) returned to avenge his commander, the now weaponless Hammerhand clasped his armored gauntlets together and swung them like a maul, hitting the ogre’s face again and again until the jaws shattered and the skull fractured.

At this point the horde turned tail and ran. I think some of them are still running. Golden Claws and myself looked at each other, drenched in the sweat of excitement and then stood up and cheered. This probably did not help the morale of anyone left alive on the field except Hammerhand, who seemed to appreciate it. That was how we named him Hammerhand.

I looked at Golden Claws and then the tracks, a sudden thought having galloped across my minds eye. I used my farseeing eye and looked up and down the trail, watching and listening. Nothing.

"What about the Mole?" I queried. "Can you smell him?"

Golden Claws turned in the air, sniffing hugely, his palm to fingertip length of nose searching like a water witches divining rod. He pointed to an elm tree about shoulders height.

"Dat Ammerhands wrist leather mark. Mole scent on it, two journeys of day tyrant."

Sooo… They had clasped bracers in farewell two days ago. He may be along or may be naught. The Mole was one of Hammerhands comrades in arms. He didn’t just battle other whomuns, or even other beings. He fought buildings! Whatever someone built a structure to protect themself, he tore it down. He excelled at it, and had a whole hatful of strategies to employ. His favorite was burrowing under the earth. He would then either come up inside there protective structure or dig under a wall, brace it up with timbers, then take away the earth and set fire to the timbers, the wall collapses, no more protection, and his troops rush in and take over. This is how it was done as explained to me by a hobgoblin I was once questioning. Ingenious, I’ve never murdered a building before. I asked the Elders, but they said stick to that with blood in the veins. Redcaps dip their caps in victim’s blood. Oh, well. His tunneling earned him the name Mole.

Golden Claws and I had encountered the Mole personally; this was long before Hammerhands premier performance. A whomun army was retreating from a siege and more dark hordes were approaching. The Mole had dug a series of tunnels to crawl through and they were interconnected with many entrances. A maze really. He and a few others then waited below to pop up undetected in their midst to raise havoc and slow pursuit of their army. A brilliant plan, but they popped up on us, not the horde. Golden Claws and I were hunting at night in the midst of the chaos when they appeared out of nowhere. I slew one, Golden Claws ripped apart another, but the Mole stuck a dagger in both of us before he disappeared down a hole. Golden Claws was furious. He dug in after him at enormous speed, like a terrier digging after a gopher. I stood at an exit hole, axe at the ready. Then he popped up at a side hole and threw a dagger into Golden Claws side. When Claws went to that hole, he disappeared and came up another hole. Golden Claws was too big for the holes and I wasn’t stupid enough to go in after him. This went on most of the night.

Before false dawn we spied the wooden dike, which diverted water to the castle’s moat. Golden Claws and the Grumbling Axe shattered the supports and the entire tunnel complex flooded. We waited, watching the bubbling, spouting holes intently, when we heard a whistle behind us. Two hundred paces away safely stood the Mole atop a small hill, waving a pleasant goodbye. Since dawn was fast approaching we could not pursue and had to find shelter from both armies.

The memory still brings a delighted smile to my face. He had won that round and it had been a fascinating game that had taught both Golden Claws and myself very valuable lessons. 1. Don’t fight an enemy on ground of his choosing. 2. Don’t fight by his rules. 3. Don’t let him get you so angry that you loose control. 4. Don’t take it personal; it’s only a life and death struggle. 5. Whomuns are far more dangerous than they appear. 6. Surviving a difficult failure can teach more valuable lessons than an easy win. 7. Cunning is more important in battle than strength, skill or leadership. 8. Always stack the odds of the battle in your own favor. 9. Watch and learn everything you can about a quarry before you decide to pursue it. 10. Those who fight and then run away will live to fight another day.

So, Hammerhand is headed for Shadowvale and the Mole is probably not too far behind. Something is happening at Shadowvale that would attract the likes of these two. They are part magpie and part vulture, being attracted to great scenes of carnage and large piles of shiny objects. I doubt if Immortals returning through the nexus doors would interest them, but the Immortals could be the reason that these two were converging on Shadowvale. Even more reason to follow them and then wait and watch.

About two miles east of Shadowvale on the caravan road a large number of tents are set up in a large open field. A fair number of whomuns and their half-breed mongrels are milling about. Many changes have taken place. The village, when I first encountered it, was not much more than an embattled encampment made of rude dwellings with a barrier wall. The inhabitants were warriors fighting back the dark races and a few mages, thieves and craft people. The village smith was the initial focus. Very few females, and those there were crucial to the village beyond simple reproductive purposes. Shadowvale was a beachhead of whomuns against the dark creeper tribes, basically an armed fort. It was one of the things that first attracted Redcap attention.

Now changes were evident all over. Heavy casualties had been inflicted on the dark races, not enough to drive them out, but sufficiently brutal to reduce their numbers. Instead of full-scale invasion they are now reduced to occasional raids. A dozen fields now surround the village. Dirt grubbers till the soil, grow crops, and feed the village. At night they shelter safely within its walls. Try as they might to take the village, the night creepers never touch the fields or farmers. Slaves who grow food are more important than a few stringy meals.

I do not bother with the dirt grubbers. No sport there. I don’t hunt sheep. I am far above mere blood letter status. I want quality kills and murders, not just quantity. Besides the farmers keep the warriors well fed and in top condition. The more other villagers perform duties that feed, clothe, and supply the warriors, mages, and adventurers, the more they can concentrate on their own specialties. That way they become more dangerous and lethal and I get a more challenging quarry. This has gone from hunting ground to private game farm and training facilities. The perfect situation for my needs. I hope that the complication of the Immortals returning will accentuate the situation rather than complicate it.

Some kind of festival or celebration is going to take place. Why here, outside of town, I do not know. Golden Claws and I move through the edges of the forest border, watching and listening. My far sight and far speak is working well. Golden Claws has his eyes, ears, and nose; which far surpass whomun and even Redcap senses. We can find a comfortable place in which to settle to watch, well concealed from prying eyes and ears.

Crowds of people are present, laughing, joking and engaged in conversation. A strange trait in whomuns, they converse with no real purpose. Redcaps speak to give orders, issue threats, ask questions, relay information, recite history, or observe ritual and custom. Period. At times rather confining. In a certain way I understand them. Having Golden Claws along allows me discussion opportunities that I am usually denied.

In due time we glean enough information to understand that the whomuns and their mongrels have gathered together for an event called a tournament. This means that all of the best warriors, mages, and what-have-you will compete against each other in skill at arms, the manipulation of occult forces, and other contests of various abilities.

Golden Claws and I turn to each other and smile beatifically, baring our fangs in anticipation. It is a fell and terrible display, and even unseen; it caused shudders and distress in the small children that were over two score strides away. Overhead the sun clouded over momentarily and a raven warbled a feeding dirge. We had come to watch and observe and for out trouble they are going exhibit a spectacle for our entertainment.

Both Golden Claws and I can grasp the concept behind a tournament. Fighting amongst each other to prove who is supreme in skill, strength and ferocity is common in troll kind. Redcaps do not war amongst ourselves, it is forbidden, but that is why we contest in the arts of mayhem and murder, to see who is best. It has become a question of status.

The impressing of females for the purpose of possible mating privileges is another reason for this tournament. Like other animals, whomun and mongrel females usually pick as mates those who display superior abilities a fighting, survival, and providing food and shelter. This is a time for them to show off and display their skills. We both chortled as we watched warriors strut like pouter pigeons, with chests puffed out and an assumed swagger of confidence in their step. I wonder if the females see through such silliness, we certainly do.

Practicing such skills against others sharpens their abilities and makes them far better opponents in times of war, conflict, and strife. It is a nasty, brutal existence, and one must be equally as nasty and brutal as any enemy to be able to survive it. I whole-heartedly approve of this, it make for a much more challenging quarry.

Soon we could point out whomuns who are familiar to each of us. The Great Bear is present and seems to be organizing the throng. He also has a tent open from which he displays pieces of studded leather and articles of clothing. Other whomuns exchange pieces of metal for these garments. The Great Bear, fell warrior of the northron barbarians, stooping to merchandizing and craftwork? How humiliating! It takes away from his wartime. Something does not mesh together here.

I ask Golden Claws his opinion. He looks down, concentrates and then speaks. As he does he points a talon at a mound of dirt in the grass. "Whomuns like ants. Live together, raise and find eats. Work, work, work, build. Make war on other anthills. No make war on selves; kill selves, not enough work, and no food. Different ants do different jobs. Some do many tings. Anthill protect selves, raise young. Serve Queen. Like whomuns."

This is a remarkable speech for Golden Claws. Not the insights, shrewd as they are. Since trolls are large and ugly, whomuns seem to consider them stupid. They are far from it. They are very intelligent when they bother to think. What is remarkable is that he spoke as long as he did. Trolls tend to be rather niggardly when doling out their precious hoard of words.

I considered what he had said and applied it to the Great Bear. True, they live in a community, presumably with rules and laws. Random and frequent slaughter amongst themselves would promote chaos and more killings, weakening the society. The Bear cannot simply kill and take what he needs from within. Raiding other whomuns would be infrequent at best and spoils from the dark creepers seem unsatisfactory to most whomuns. Other ways must be found to feed and equip ones self. By creating leather and cloth garments the Bear can barter these for items that he desires but does not produce. Meanwhile, his sword and axe arms are another service he provides in exchange for goods. Taking this further, all other members of this society provide an excess of skills to others in exchange for goods and skills that the others provide. My head begins to ache, but I think I am understanding. In a twisted, pathetic way it makes sense.

In doing other things, skills, crafts, abilities, the whomuns allow whomun society to grow and nurture itself. They specialize their tasks, thus each grows far better at what they do. The Great Bear shapes garments and sells his sword arm. Doing these tasks he does not have to hunt for food, butcher and clean it, tan hides, make weapons, make tools, grow grain, harvest it, grind it for flour, bake bread, and a score of other tasks. It works for whomuns. Looking at it this way, with Golden Claws insight, one can see that this is whomuns greatest strength, and the threat they pose.

This revelation on its own is of extreme importance. The brethren have limited understanding when it concerns whomuns; since the Great Devastation they have been of less and less interest. That is obviously changing rapidly.

I might as well get comfortable. It appears that it is going to be a long afternoon.

As I had stated earlier, Golden Claws had eaten well so he would not be tempted to ‘cull’ a stray whomun for a quick snack. I had also taken the precaution of procuring magandrota root (a variety of mandrake). I wrapped it in raw meat and fed it to him. To whomuns and most other races it is powerful magic and if used improperly, a deadly poison. To a troll, it slows their metabolism and makes them far less aggressive. It will keep him from getting carried away while watching a combat and ambling out to join the fun. This way the scent of blood will not drive him into a feeding frenzy. If we become embroiled in combat he will not heal as quickly and his reactions will not be as quick. I am confident that this will not happen today; somehow I just feel it.

I look at him, 8 feet of hunched-back power, fortitude and ferocity. His arms hang down to his ankles, tipped by steel hard, razor sharp talons. Liquid black eyes glitter with a preternatural gleam. Wiry, shaggy black hair hangs down, long and loose. Overlarge tusks and fangs fill an over-large mouth. His skin is scaly and covered by a slimy, dripping ichor, which makes him incredibly hard to damage. Worst of all is that which one cannot see. His body has the supernatural ability to regenerate itself, perhaps arcanely so. This means his wounds will knit together scant minutes after being struck. If disemboweled, the entrails slither back into place and reassemble. Dismembered limbs scutter back together and reattach themselves. Only burning them to ashes will kill them, and can you imagine how much wood it would take to burn 45 stone (630 lbs) of troll? His high metabolism, appetite, and water consumption make this ability possible. In repairing itself the troll’s body melts away excess fat. A troll can go from obese to emaciated in a single day. This leads to the mistaken belief that trolls travel in pairs or packs, because so many different looking trolls are sighted in an area within hours of each other. After regeneration the hunger is so dreadful, so vast, and so all encompassing that the troll no longer fears anything, even the threat of fire will not daunt it. It will do anything to sate this awful hunger. This legendary ferocity stems from encounters with trolls in this state.

From what we have gleaned, preliminary contests have been held earlier in the day and have weeded out the have-not’s and want-to-be's in terms of skill. Hammerhand has a bit of a problem getting his name on the lists for competition, but creative verbal abuse, a threatening countenance, and some shiny pieces of metal changing hands seem to do it. This means the whomuns also purchase favors from each other. How utterly Dwarvish.

Speaking of Dwarvish, I can see the Dwarven male and the She-Badger with an area set up for a portable shop. The male has a portable forge and anvil area, and the She-Badger has an area of blankets filled with trinkets to display and obviously sell. At the moment many are looking at the items, but seem to move away when a price is quoted.

The dwarf is demonstrating his skill at armor craft by wearing a splendid suit of his own crafting. It is a hybrid type of armor with chain links behind binding the whole suit together and small bronze plated steel squares that are welded to every third link. This gives armor superior to mere chain but far more supple and flexible than pieces of plate armor. He does wear plate greaves and brassards, armored boots, and chain mail gauntlets. A chain/scale coif completes the effect. It is trimmed in red cloth for decorative purposes.

At the moment he is beating out dents in the Young Lions shoulder pouldrons. The Young Lions shield has also undergone a refurbishing and gleams that gorgeous polished shield color, the red dragon emblem positively glows with a scarlet hue. The Lion is in his customary tight linked chain mail. It is so light and the links are so small but strong that I suspect it is of the Liosalelfar, the light elves. They rarely engage in smith craft, yet when they do the results are quite spectacular. They never sell it, so it either was a princely gift or he found it. Of any other whomun I would suspect them of killing the elf and taking it, but that does not seem to be in standing with the Young Lions character. In self-defense, maybe, but few elves are stupid enough to attack an armed knight hand to hand. Archery and magic are their forte.

It must be hot doing black smith work in full armor. I wonder if displaying his wares is his reason. I guess I wouldn’t blame him with this crowd. For what I have witnessed they are definitely the smash and grab type. It would be stupid though. He’s the only skilled black smith in the area and they went through great hardship and danger to resurrect him from the dead. Whomuns have done far stupider things, so I guess that I should not jump to conclusions.

As I am watching him, he suddenly stands up straight and glares in the direction that Golden Claws and I lay hidden. Nothing is happening around us to draw such attention. Then there comes a crimson flash to his eyes. No mistake, I saw it for sure this time. An unseen spectral hand of darkness reaches out and caresses the heart of every living being at the tournament. Shudders, shakes, and cries of dismay follow. I felt it too, but it only left me with an urge to giggle irrepresively.

I turn to Claws, who has been looking in another direction. "Claws, the blacksmith, did you see it? Did you feel it? Can you discern anything eldritch about him?"

Golden Claws looks at me and then at the smith, then back again. "Claws felt shadow and tickle, dem nightwalker buried in stone ill feel same. Claws no see davargin before, see davargin now. Smell like davargin, feel like…" He trails off.

"Feels like what?" I prompt him.

"Feel like wall built keep Claws out, nothing more."

Staring at the dwarf for several minutes reveals nothing more except that he is as foul tempered and metal hungry as most dwarves. He is making the Young Lion pump the bellows to his forge to make him earn his armor repair in something more than coin.

The She-Badger goes about her business of selling trinkets of interest to one and all. She periodically casts worried glances over at Badgerbeard (the dwarf). I have named him such for his beard is striped in black, gray, white, and silver like that of a badgers pelt. I think she suspects that something is wrong with her husband. Like me, she probably doesn’t know what that is, either.

Other action catches Golden Claws’ attention. "Look, mage shadow dancer!"

I look over to a half-elf mage clad primarily in black with a red sash, headband, and a gorgeous head of long black hair; it would be a perfect trophy scalp to hang at my belt. He is practicing a complicated martial arts exercise with his quarterstaff. The moves are intricate, poetic, and graceful. Potentially lethal too, no matter how simple a weapon it seems. He must have had formal training.

"Shadowdancer?" I query Golden Claws.

"Yawl, e dance in combat wit own shadow. Im Shadowdancer." Very well, Shadowdancer he shall be.

My brethren, who had first scouted out Shadowvale, had told me that a mage fitting Shadowdancer’s description had been slain by an ogre, the same one who had killed Badgerbeard and then had in turn been backstabbed and killed by the wily She-Badger. Now that I think of it, both the Great Bear and the Young Lion had been reported slain. Yet they are still living. For all the trouble they went through to resurrect the dwarf and the bumbling, stumbling way in which they went about it, I’m sure it was not done before. So they really were not dead.

"Amateurs, I am surrounded by amateurs who obviously cannot do a simple killing the right way. Bah!" Then I remember the Witch and the Great Bear and how those profane and obscene healing arts had cheated me out of a rightful kill. From now on I pledge to make sure of my victims with a killing blow. I guess I cannot be quite as hard on the Whomun would-be killers. I still deem them as amateurs, though.

I notice Ringtail and Two-Bloods in deep conversation. They have been making the circuit of all of the new faces in the crowd. Many a purse is lighter or missing. Two-Bloods should have three hands, seeing how busy they have been. Ringtail has lived up to his namesake and has found a number of shiny baubles. He turns over the vast majority to Two-Blood, now Threehands. Too many mongrel races now for only one to be named Two-Bloods, they are him, Shadowdancer, and Hammerhand. One other may join their numbers, but I have not bothered to look closely as of yet. Threehands now seems to be training Ringtail in the fine art of pilfering without being noticed. A goblinoid skill, but seeing the whomuns preoccupation with shinys as a type of power and barter, it makes sense. They seem to stay away from practicing on those from the village who they are familiar with. They (the village warriors and mages) probably know the stunts these two pull rather well.

A sound shaper is making the circuit of the tournament grounds. He has several devices from which he shapes sounds to form lovely melodies. He has a heavy boned facial feature, much like Hammerhand, but not as prominent. It is softer, more muted. Flowing yellow-white locks of straw-like hair further confuses the issue. A short blanket with a criss-cross pattern of colors is wrapped about his waist, like the highland blue-skinned whomuns.

I turn and nudge Golden Claws, who is staring, fascinated at Fairhair for some inexplicable reason.

"That one Claws, what does he smell like?" I point out the sound shaper to him.

Golden Claws puts his nose into the air and inhales deeply. Luckily, the wind is blowing in our direction, however slightly. It still takes him several minutes to catch the scent.

"Aruwl, e be wit ogrish blood. Not much, more little than Ammerand is dare dough."

So he is a half ogre. It’s not surprising. Many ogres and their spawn are fascinated by music, riddles, and story telling. It actually enthralls them. I’ve seen an ogre sit down in the middle of a battle to listen to a rather stirring war chant. Everybody in his ranks let him do it. It's just rare that we see one of ogrish blood that is talented enough to shape sounds themselves. Usually their skills are related to weapons and bloodshed.

I turn back to see why Golden Claws was staring at Fairhair with such a fixed fascination. At the moment, I can see nothing amiss or out of the ordinary. He has approached Badgerbeard, presumably about getting his leather armor repaired. As with the previous conversation with the Great Bear, he becomes reluctant when a price is quoted. He seems much as he had appeared before, clad in a tattered leather armor vest and bracers, and loose trousers. A long sword is at his belt and that square, target sized shield is at the ready.

"What is it Claws, what do you see?"

"Awrughl.. Claws not sure. Somting is der. Somting touchez im. Dark blue aze around im."

I shift my vision to ethereal and immediately see what he means. It is faint, but it is there. I wonder what happened to the command by the Spirit World Entities that he was to return and spread the word of Galen the Owl and the Lady Silence. I have not noticed any public oratory, no rituals or ceremonies, not even stories by the firelight. I’ve noticed a few whispered conversations with certain of his cronies, but that was about it. I don’t think that was what the Spirit World Entities had in mind. Immortal strength is based upon the intensity of the faith of the worshippers. The more worshippers the better, even if some believe less than others.

The Mastiff Mage is sitting apart from the others. He has some sort of gaming area set up next to him, but currently he seems to be engrossed in the task of memorizing his magical glamours, which he plans to use today. He has his spell book in front of himself and is oblivious to all around him. Mages must commit the words of a spell to memory each day. When they use or cast the spell, reciting it word perfect as the trigger to call forth and direct the occult power, the spell is erased from the mages memory and must be learned again for casting purposes, hence the book. He is wearing his familiar green robes that are reinforced with pieces of leather armor. A new twist to his ensemble is a full-visored helmet of antique design, lacquered green. Since I had overheard that he would compete in the quarterstaff event, this may be to limit the chance of concussion. Mind damage from a blow is disastrous to a mage. I also notice that he has iron shod his quarterstaff to do more damage and reinforced it with fine wire to prevent splintering of the shaft. He is progressing well, this one.

Finally, I notice a new comer to the host of familiar faces. He carries a staff and wears a leather vest with studs. He moves well, with a fluid grace, an economy of motion rarely seen at events meant to show off ones abilities in outlandish displays. He seems to be the type that can immediately mix in and find rapport with any crowd or group he approaches with an easy humor and rough and ready attitude. He is no slouch at attracting the attention of females (Ringtail and Threehands, in their non-acquisition of shinies mode, have not been doing too badly in this respect either. The problem is in order to impress the females; they are spending almost as much as they steal.) A power touches him, yet I am not completely sure what that power is. He seems at complete harmony with his surroundings, and draws power form them, especially in the wilderness setting. He has an alien, reptilian cast to his eyes, not a bad feature; it gives him that otherworldly cast while still being quite familiar. He spars a bit with quarterstaffs with the half-elf mage, Shadowdancer. His reflexes are lightening quick. Very well, I shall call him Viper. How fitting.

Finally, the Great Bear ambles up and declares that the first contest will be that of magical manipulation and targeting. A nice, flashy beginning for the tournament it is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Three contestants are entered, yet only Shadowdancer and the Mastiff Mage take part. It must be something with the qualifications. I notice that the contestants must hand over three shiny pieces in order to compete. Sooo… They not only must have skill to compete, they must also have wealth (as whomuns gauge it.) This doesn’t seem quite right. Is not the idea to find out who is most skilled in each category, rather than who has collected enough baubles to buy their way in? Oh, well.

The mages must cast mystical bolts of power at a spinning, moving, target about 20 paces from their position. It dips, spins, and whorls almost of its own volition, but it is attached to a control mechanism by way of wire over a tree branch. In this event the half-elf mage, Shadowdancer, seems to gain the upper hand. His bolts are almost delicate in nature, like a stiletto blade or perhaps a rapier, but his control is superlative. He strikes the target again and again with unfailing accuracy.

The Mastiff Mage seems to be in trouble. He has far more raw power at his disposal, but his ability to control it seems limited. Perhaps controlling such greatly enhanced force is still new to him, or he may have made a conscious decision to choose pure power over precision and accuracy. Many warriors have made the same mistake. Incredible power on impact is very satisfying but it means very little unless one can hit ones target.

Either way he falls behind Shadowdancer. He gambles everything on one last, tremendous burst of power and releases a bolt that would have scorched the skin off of an ogre. He misses the target, (just barely) but the blast hits the tree trunk. It completely removes the bark off of that side of the tree, and splinters fly everywhere. When the air has cleared, there is a scorched, blackened hole in the tree about two inches deep. Even though he has missed, the crowd gives him a resounding round of applause. They both move over towards the awards presentation. My eyes are not on them, however, they are on someone else.

Moving away from the crowd towards the tree, Viper sidles up to the blast mark. Murmuring words of comfort as one would to a wounded comrade, he makes a few passes with his hand over the damaged area, sap flows and in seconds new bark begins to heal over the bare spots and the scorched hole. Checking to make sure no one noticed him, he then saunters back to the main area where the crowd had gathered.

Since I had been watching Viper, I did not see what the Great Bear presented to the Mastiff Mage and Shadowdancer. Perhaps I can glean such information later on in the tournament. I ask Golden Claws if he had noticed anything of what had been awarded but he had been watching others at the moment.

"What caught your attention, Claws?" I query him.

"Stomtin stink ere. After Ammerand enter, otters talk to Big Bear and otter big tooth users. Dey den go to Ammerand, den to Lion, den to Fairhair and Treehands. Stomtin about troing match. Wat dey tro? It big tooth fight next. ‘And and Sound-shaper, it look like Ammerand make deal wit red eyed dwarf to get shiny to play big tooth and den get rock blood scales fix. Red eye get lots and lots of work today. Get paid wat Ammerand wins."

I puzzle over Golden Claws strange and convoluted speech. For what I do understand of this, further complications are being issued into what we thought was a straightforward tournament of skill. Now I think what Claws said is that others are trying to get contestants to willingly lose a match. It seems incredible. Not only do they lose esteem but they also lose out on the prize money and the money that they had to pay to enter in the first place. This makes absolutely no sense what so ever. I am going to have to watch very closely in order to find out what is going on.

The two-handed weapon event is pitting Hammerhand against the Sound Shaper. The match is quite straightforward but I can easily predict the results. Hammerhand, an experienced mercenary soldier, is wielding a two-handed sword that is a full seven feet in length. The Sound Shaper is game, however, and doesn’t just roll over and give him the match. It is a lovely display. They are given the option of how the bout should proceed be it to first strike, to first blood, until one yields, or to the death. Golden Claws and I are hoping for to the death, but sadly it is only until one yields. Nothing brings out the true spirit of a warrior than putting one’s life at risk. Then one digs down deep and finds those last reserves, that last flash of inspiration, that last desperate lunge which foretells the difference between being food for the crows or living to sip life’s sweet nectar another day.

Two-handed weapon combat seems slow and ponderous. The weight and length of the weapons give such a dual a stately, almost dignified measure to each swing. The impacts, however, are stunning and the clash of crossed swords echo across the fields. Then it is over. Hammerhand crosses swords in a feint and then whips it back under the Sound Shapers’ guard and swats him smartly on the ribcage. He turned the blade flat at the last moment, but I am sure the blow comes close to breaking some ribs. It could have been worse, much much worse. With that the Sound Shaper yields.

The prize for winning this event is shiny metal pieces and a pretty polished blue stone. I find it disappointing, but Hammerhand seems to be pleased. He then goes to Badgerbeard and gives him some of the winnings, and then promptly gets his armor repaired. Curious.

Meanwhile, shiny metal pieces are being exchanged all about the crowd. It seems that these whomuns will make predictions on the out come of an event, and if their choice is victorious, then the loser’s backer pays him. If there is a favorite to win the favorites backer will offer a greater amount of metal pierces to a smaller amount of metal pieces. They call this giving odds. How appropriate, how odd.

To Claws and myself, this is tempting fate and angering to the spirits of earth, sky, water, fire, ice, darkness, light, the otherworlds, and the ether, just to name the primaries. This is arrogantly presumptuous, not to say insulting, especially to the presumed loser.

"You are going to die anyways, so I might as well make some money off of your corpse." Is what they seem to be saying.

The Great Bear announces that a treasure has been hidden somewhere on the grounds and that it is for the keeping to whoever finds it. Immediately there is a scurry about by the crowd in general, then some lose interest and the buzz of activity dies away. I believe either Threehands or Fairhair had found it, but I cannot be sure. My thought is that it simply kept the crowd busy until the officials could set up the next event.

Ringtail comes up to the She-Badger asking the price on a shield. She quotes him a price and he blanches. He then asks the price on a daily rental. Badgerbeard retorts that he will have to repair a damaged shield rented or not, so the cost is still high. Ringtail retreats without renting. He must have spent more on impressing the females than I thought. He then comes back promptly with a sword, which had not been in his possession beforehand, and requests a trade in. He gets a day’s rental and Badgerbeard gets an obviously purloined weapon.

At this point it becomes obvious that sword and shield is the next event. It seems that Badgerbeard and She-Badger have sponsored both Hammerhand and the Young Lion in this event. Obviously they are making sure one of their favorites will win.

In the preliminary matches, Hammerhand is paired against Fairhair while the Young Lion is paired against Ringtail. I see Threehands speaking to Hammerhand and the Young Lion, separately. I hear his words, but do not understand them. They are vague, misleading and couched in metaphor. I think he is saying that if they deliberately loose a match, then he will pay them equal to what the purse is.

Why would he do that? Oh I understand now. This is what Claws was talking about. If they make bets with people with large sums against the favorite, and then the favorite loses, then he makes a huge profit on the wager. I give him credit, even though I find the practice repulsive, he schemes with the labyrinth complexity of a dark elf.

I also better understand the dwarf’s motives. If events are being fixed as I heard one whomun mutter, then by repairing the armor of those he sponsors in between bout, he is fixing the odds back in his champions favor.

Hammerhand now faces Fairhair. Fairhair puts up a fine defense. He is a skilled swordsman and uses that square shield to good advantage, but his leather is in tatters. He faces an opponent who is a veteran, whose armor is in repair and heavier, and who uses his weapon and shield in combination together as both being part of the greater whole. Fairhair uses his sword and shield separately, each an entity unto itself. He does try to level the playing field by making Hammerhand chase him and thus become winded. In this context it makes sense and is a good strategy, but it doesn’t work. The playing field is not level and Fairhair stumbles and loses speed. This gives Hammerhand a chance to catch up and administer the blows that end the conflict. Bruised and bleeding Fairhair yields the field of battle.

Next the Young Lion is matched against Ringtail. This is a one sided match. Ringtail is only fleetingly familiar with sword and shield and his armor is minimal at best. He has speed, courage recklessness, and agility. He is facing a fully armored knight who had probably been born with sword and shield in hand (obviously a difficult birth for the mother). Although the heavy armor should slow him down, it doesn’t. The Young Lion has sparred in and worn it every single day until it is like a suit of clothing to him. Let us say that he wins and leave it at that.

The bout between the Hammerhand and the Young Lion is truly inspiring. They are evenly matched, each with different strengths and weaknesses. The Lion has a full suit of armor; Hammerhand is heavily armored only in the critical areas. Hammerhand is a skilled veteran; the young knight jousts and practices daily. Hammerhand has the strength of his ogre heritage; the knight has the speed of youth. Both use sword and shield in skilled combinations. They parry, feint, slash, thrust, cleave, and riposte. It is marvelous. Even with the magandrota root Claws is getting agitated. It goes back and forth over the field again and again. Finally the telling blow is when the Young Lion scores off Hammerhands’ shield, so that he raises it slightly as he strikes at the Lion. The Lion catches the blow. Raises the tip of it so that it is almost horizontal to the ground, and then thrusts low just past Hammerhands’ shield where it tapers to a point, it slides past and scores. Wonderful. The best match so far.

The Young Lion is awarded shiny metal pieces and a polished colored rock. He then runs to the smith to get his armor repaired. So did Hammerhand. Now I understand Badgerbeards’ ploy. He gets a part of what they win and they spend the other part of their winnings getting their armor repaired. When he started the day no one could afford his prices. Now he has a captive clientele simply by sponsoring them and giving them the edge of superiority thru armor. It negates match fixing, pure and simple. Clever. How dwarvish.

The quarterstaff competition is next. As they wait for the event to begin, Threehands challenges one and all to a game of chance. I am unfamiliar with the usage as he is applying it. He has pieces of a birch bark like substance with pictures on them. They are piled in a stack. The stack is then mixed. Each piece has an assigned value. Each participant then is given so many pieces; they then may choose other pieces or keep what they have. The idea is that the combined value of the total peices is the goal, with the highest value winning. All players, hoping that he is the one with the winning combination, then set wagers. Threehands wins, of course. I suspect subterfuge, but I see nothing amiss.

I try to explain it to Golden Claws as I understand it, but he is completely mystified. I think he believes I am making this up, however he has no other explanation and he does see metal pieces changing hands. The concept escapes him, and he puts it down to another whomun eccentricity.

I do see a fair amount of hushed whispers and cloistered conversations going on. The event, as I had said, is the quarterstaff, and those participating are Shadowdancer, Viper, and the Mastiff Mage. I had seen Shadowdancer and Viper in head to head conversation. Even with my clairaudience, I cannot make out but a mere word or two of the conversation. Some agreement seems to have been reached and they are calling them to the field of honor.

The quarterstaff is a simple, inexpensive and highly underrated weapon. It is only a straight, stick of wood about two fingers thick in width and anywhere from eight to twelve hands in length. Usually it is made of a hard wood such as ash, maple, or oak. Sometimes it is bound and shod in iron to increase the striking force. One holds it at the center with both hands and then the user strikes out with either end in quick, snake-like strikes. It is not as brutal, not as satisfying in the bloodletting as the Grumbling Axe, but when it is in the hands of an adept, it can be deadly due to the speed of multiple blows and its defensive capability. A good staff wielder can block with it as well as a target sized shield.

Shadowdancer and Viper square off and then begin with exploratory blows, gauging each other’s ability. Then a quick flurry in and out by Shadowdancer, and Viper is struck. It looks wrong; he should have stopped that easily. A rather preannounced attack by Viper is blocked. It was so evident by his shoulder movement that even a sun blind goblin would have seen it coming. Then Shadowdancer darts in, a "thwack, thwack, thwack" and it is all over. He didn’t even get one block in. The match is over. Shadowdancer has won. I thought that Viper would have given a better fight, I was sure of it.

Golden Caws draws in a huge draught of air through his nose and says, "Somting shtinks, Claws smells not toot." Not toot is his word for lie or deceit, not truth. So, Viper let him win? Why?

The next is the Mastiff Mage against Shadowdancer. Up to this point I had not felt any magic being cast, and Golden Claws did not smell any, so I assume that it is prohibited in this tournament. They do not do it now either or at least not such as we can detect.

The battle is fast, furious, and far more satisfying. Up and down the field, back and forth. Quarterstaves flailing with deadly accuracy, blocked by ingenious blocks, parries, and counter beats. The Mastiff Mage now makes an infinitesimal mistake and opens up his defense. The Shadowdancer strikes home, using a thrust gripped farther down the staff for added range. Not a common strike, but effective. The Shadowdancer wins, but it was a difficult victory for him and he is breathing hard.

He is presented with an amulet that throbs of eldritch power. They do not tell him what it is or what it can do, but he will figure it out. He is a mage and that supposedly is their specialty in their crafts and study. I recognize it, but I doubt if he will pay the price I ask in order to find out. It could be interesting though. I will keep this in my minds stored vault of knowledge, just in case, for bait.

The next event is that of the sword, alone, no shield. Golden Caws and I are literally drooling, our mouths watering with anticipation. A full hands worth plus one have entered. Fairhair, Threehands, Hammerhand, Ringtail, and the Young Lion. The sixth is not yet in the area. I see a figure entering the far side of the tournament area. The walk looks familiar. As he comes closer, my far-sight recognizes him. It is as I had expected, the Mole has finally made his entrance.

He is trudging along stoically, road weary, but an eager glint to his eye.

"Better late than never." I nudge Golden Claws and point.

He turns, peers with narrowed eyes, and then sniffs. "Yawl. It da Mole. ‘Im gonna fite wit building? Me no see one!"

I smile again. So does Golden Claws. I can see the Great Bear shudder suddenly and look up, somewhat alarmed. He felt that? Well good. We both owe him at least a maiming, probably worse, but not today great one, not today.

The Mole soldiers on up to Hammerhand and they clasp each others fore arm in greeting. They are shield brothers, as I have stated before. Hammerhand then takes him over to the Great Bear and I assume they get him to put his mark on the combat rosters. There is an officialness to the Great Bear that I had not noticed before. ‘Officialness?’ Is that a word? Well, it is now! I just created it!

It takes some time getting the roster ready and there seems to be a great deal of interest in the line up sequence. Mean time the Sound Shaper is strolling about the grounds, blowing air into a hollow wooden pipe with holes in it. The sound is not unlike that of a meadowlark or a sandpiper, but it seems to tell its own story. He is given a few metal pieces for his trouble.

The Mastiff Mage has returned to the gaming area he has set up and is engaging Viper in a contest using those strange pieces of bark with symbols on them. Is this a runic spell-casting contest? I sense no magic being released and neither does Claws. Whomuns are so strange! No matter, they seem to enjoy it. After a short bout of drawing, redrawing, and position the pieces, Viper concedes. He hands over a silver piece. It does not seem to be Vipers day.

Threehands ambles up to the She-Badger, his most winning smile on his face. Oh, oh, he’s up to something. He then seems to pull himself up short and then approaches Badgerbeard. He must have some proposition in the offering. He usually does. He just doesn’t want to approach the lady without first having leave granted by her mate. Courteous, I had noted that trait in him before. He does have a sense of style; I give him that.

Badgerbeard the Dwarf is busy repairing a piece of armor. He has no time for niceties. He waves Threehands off and directs him to talk to his mate. Clever of Threehands. Now that he has formally been given leave he can approach her at any time. I remember that piece of dwarven etiquette. If he had done so with out his leave, he probably would have thrown his hammer at him. Dwarves are extremely protective of their women. Not that they can’t handle themselves, especially in the rough and tumble, but there are so few dwarven women that all males are very touchy when it concerns strangers. Especially potentially dangerous strangers, like Threehands.

They go off together and I assume from what my clairaudience picks up that another wager is made. Dwarven women must be more daring than the men. The usual method of parting a dwarf from his precious store of metal, be it shinies, weapons or tools is to pry it away from their cold, dead fingers which are wrapped around it. I know. How does one think that I won the Grumbling Axe?

They come back and a handshake seals whatever bargain they have made. The crowd is getting restless, and is now in fine spirits. The bouts of the preliminary matches are released. Ringtail and the Young Lion are paired against each other and then Hammerhand again against Fairhair. Threehands will then challenge the winner of Ringtail’s and the Young Lion’s bout, then the winner of that bout will challenge the winner of Fairhair and Hammerhand’s. It seems to be skewed for five contestants. But what of the Mole? Perhaps he did not get on the roster fast enough to be entered. Maybe the changes have not reached the tournament master of ceremonies as of yet. Oh, well. At last the matches are beginning. I hope to see a lot more blood spilled this time.

The match between sword and shield is far different than that of simply using sword. Long swords and broadswords are the weapon of choice. I’d like to see a short sword used, but the contestants seem to prefer the advantage of a longer reach. Too bad. In the hands of a master a short sword is devastating, especially if they get in close and stay there. Then the long cutting and cleaving sweeps of the big weapons are too slow and lose their effectiveness and the short quick stabs and thrusts of a short sword come to bear with deadly effect. But, no short swords, mores the pity, one can also wield a shorter and lighter weapon longer and more quickly.

The sword match begins; their stances are far different from sword and shield. That method is more face on, leading with the shield and shield side foot, leaving the sword back at the ready. Ringtail has a heavy long sword, with a better reach than the Young Lion’s broadsword. He has to stand at an oblique angle to the knight to control the heavy weapon’s swing. The knight is using a different style. The body is completely sideways to his opponent, giving a narrow head-on target to Ringtail. He is relying on thrusts as well as cuts and chops. His sword is out-stretched, as opposed to Ringtails weapon being in the back foot hand, this negates the longer sword’s reach and the longer arm on Ringtail.

The match is to first blood. It is fast and furious. Ringtail is faster and more agile than the heavily armored Young Lion, and uses it for all it is worth. He is darting in and out, and making long retreats and then rushes in suddenly. He blocks and parries well, keeping a few body blows from drawing blood. The knight is implacable, and keeps to a slow steady advance. He mainly blocks and then ripostes, being content to let Ringtail carry the fight to him. Ringtail’s bravery and recklessness assure this.

Then, when Ringtail is winded from swinging the heavy sword and from his excessive movements, the Lion strikes. He charges in with a double high right, left slash and as Ringtail’s sword moves up to the double blow to block, the knight feints the second blow, changes up and thrusts. The point strikes home on Ringtail’s leg, and the Lion wins the match and withdraws.

How excellent! Claws and I are getting an in depth study of all of these fine warriors fighting techniques. It is also letting us know who are the most proficient warriors in the group. This will prove invaluable to the hunt.

Fairhair and Hammerhand are up next. Hammerhand advances to the field first and Fairhair is out of sight for the moment. Hammerhand is at ease, breathing slightly hard. He has already fought two matches, and blood is oozing from several small wounds. He has great strength and wields his heavy military long sword effectively. As I said before, he is a seasoned campaigner. Fairhair’s training is more like that of a duelist, so this should be interesting.

Now, finally the crowd parts and the Mole heads out onto the field. It seems that there has been a change in the lineup. The Mole and Hammerhand are comrades, but this will not keep them from both giving it their best effort. The Mole, like Hammerhand, tends to favor shield and long sword, but he is quite adaptable. He uses a more eastern style that favors lightening fast strikes at the neck, arms and legs. More of a slash and cleave style. It is very controlled and what it lacks in flashy display it more than makes up in economy of motion.

Hammerhand uses his great strength in his attack, but not recklessly so. He delivers smashing attacks to the Mole’s defense. The Mole is a fine swordsman, but he is superlative with sword and shield and seems to be missing the shield now. Although Hammerhand is wounded, the Mole has walked from beyond the green hilled horizon and seems to be foot weary. An interesting point is that both the Mole and Hammerhand are very heavily armored around the feet and lower legs. It may have something to do with the enemies that they fight. Finally, Hammerhand smashes through the Moles defense and scores a clean hit. The Mole yields courteously.

Now, Fairhair returns. He was inside a tent. Coming back onto the field, I can see fresh bandages under the shredded tatters of his leather armor, his checks are flushed with a bright red ring, and his eyes are preternaturally bright. He has been to a healer, of that I am sure. I did not hear any rules against it, but I have yet to see any other contestants utilize one although a few have been having their armor repaired. The Lion’s armor is in better repair now than it was at the start of the day.

He moves out to face Hammerhand. The others (the knight and Threehands) by my reckoning should have gone next, but I’m not running the show. The Moles late arrival seems to have confused matters. Hammerhand seems just as willing to get this bout out of the way now while his blood is still up.

The bout this time goes better for Fairhair, but not to the point of victory. He is in and out and moving about more, and trying more innovative attack styles. He is using a wavy bladed flamberge long sword. Some feel that the wave pattern inflicts more serious cuts and slashes. Although I’ve never seen this proven, it does lend a certain pizzazz to the style. Hammerhand eyes him like a wounded bear reguarding a hyperactive hound. Wait for it, come closer, wait for it, come closer, wait for it, NOW! He swings heavy handed once and Fairhair's blade spins up out of his grasp and into the air. He attempts to recover it and is spanked by the flat of Hammerhand's blade. He is still empty handed and after retreating and a few more well aimed blows of chastisement, he yields.

The next combat is the Young Lion and Threehands. It is a battle between opposing viewpoints as much as a difference in combat styles. The knightly Lion is upholding honor and law, and fights with the confidence of the righteous and just. He uses the same attack style as he employed against Ringtail, and his knightly training, traditions, and armor are his shield. From what my brethren had communicated to me, he also has a blood debt to pay Threehands for. It was a cowardly back attack by him and his band of rogues when the Lion was wounded. He was left to die. His face (before he dons his helmet) says that he has not forgotten.

Threehands is the opposite end of the spectrum. A jolly, but lethally unpredictable rogue, he relies on speed, surprise, and specialized training that targets critical weak points in his opponent’s defense and armor. He fights by no rules, nor is he constrained by custom or conduct codes. He does not fight above his limits, he certainly will not stay to fight if he is losing, and utilizes a blade whirling flourish that is consistent with his flamboyant character. Currently he is missing his chain vest, so his armor is a few pieces of leather. He also has not yet fought a tournament round today, so he is fresh. The Lion has had his armor repaired again.

The Young Lion roars and charges, Threehands lives up to his newest nickname, for his sword flashes so quickly in so many angles that he seems to have three weapons flailing and striking. He holds his ground for 30 heartbeats, but the Lions ferocious attack and willingness to allow minor strikes on his armor in order to force home a more deadly attack makes him change strategies. He begins a savagely fought withdrawal, which then hastens to a speedy retreat. Again, as with others, he attempts to tire the knight by making him give chase. As before, the uneven ground betrays him. He stumbles, takes several strong sword strikes, and yields.

The Lion lives by his code of honor, he allows Threehands to remain breathing rather than striking him down for past insults. I know I would have struck him down. I of course, would not have given him a fair fight in the first place. After all, I am a Redcap, Lord of the Slaughter.

This leaves Hammerhand and the Young Lion as the final contestants. In a surprising move, they both remove their armor and give it to the dwarf to repair. I puzzle over this for a few heartbeats and then remember that since the dwarf sponsors both combatants, further damage to their armor would be shinies out of their prizes and would not be cost effective, either. The dwarf is more than content, he is also busy with a vice and a draw file, resharping numerous swords that are now nicked and blunted.

The combat between the two is a recounting of their now familiar styles. The knight is unwounded and has a spring in his step since he is free of his heavy armor. Blood and fluids seep from a number of wounds on Hammerhand. He also seems to be relieved to be free of the encumbrance of his armor. The two close in combat. There is no running or chasing in the forthright style of these two. It is a classic clash of arms, superlative swordplay, a chess-like maneuvering, precognition of your opponent’s next move as much by instinct from use and practice as by watching and testing your opponent’s actions. In the end it is the wounds on Hammerhand that defeats him. The Young Lion emerges victorious.

It was an excellent combat and both Golden Claws and myself are nearly delirious with enthusiasm. Amazingly, no one notices the noise we are making. The roar of the crowd must be drowning us out completely. It is amazing that Claws is not running in to try to participate even with the drugs and a full stomach.

The Young Lion is presented with many pieces of silver, a colored polished rock, and a set of silver studded combat bracers. His face is glowing with delight over his considerable achievement.

The next event really is not one. It is an archery tournament, yet the only one here with the skill of bow and arrow is Threehands, by default he is awarded the prize. The crowd feels cheated however, and its angry growl convinces the Great Bear to allow Threehands to put on an archery exhibition. He shows his considerable skill by hitting the target almost dead center again and again. I store this with my other pieces of memory lore. I certainly do not wish to be caught out in the open in front of Threehands when he has his bow in his hands. I would be riddled with barbed three-foot shafts before I could close with him. His marksmanship does much to pacify the crowd, and he moves into the official’s tent to collect his prize. Even with my far-sight I cannot see what he receives, more the pity.

The next event is a duel of daggers. Both Golden Claws and myself perk up at this. The archery was of certain interest, but no conflict, no clash of arms, and no blood. It is boring and disappointing. Dagger work is a completely different style of combat. For dagger work, one comes face to face with ones opponent. One does not have the luxury of distance. Many times dagger work involves grappling, hand blows, kicks, and other brawling techniques. True dagger work goes beyond this vulgar display and works a combination of stabs, cuts, slashes, and thrusts. One usually does not over commit ones self completely in an attack for it can leave one vulnerable. Footwork and maneuverability are critical. Since it is a small weapon, precision and accuracy becomes crucial.

The dagger event has three contestants. It appears that all three will fight at the same time. The Great Bear seems to be sponsoring Hammerhand this time. I wonder why. His armor has been repaired. The other contestants are Shadowdancer and Threehands.

The battle royal starts off with a jockey for position. The three move about, brandishing their weapons and leaping to and fro with little real effect. After several minutes with little effect there seems to be some agreement reached between Shadowdancer and Threehands. They both converge on Hammerhand, one from each side. Hammerhand does keep them at bay for a while, circling to the far side of whoever is closest so one can only come at him at a time. Eventually they pin him between them, so he abandons all caution and launches a full fledge assault on Shadowdancer. He does manage to wound the mage, but not enough so that he yields. Threehands then is able to get several attacks in from behind, so Hammerhand is forced to yield. He had not had any healing done on himself throughout the tournament, I do not know if these two have had any, either.

This leaves Shadowdancer and Threehands. Threehands ends it rather handily. There is a flourish to a flurry of attacks, and then the mage yields. Threehands is presented with a rather ornate looking dagger that radiates magic. He looks extremely pleased with himself. He then quickly moves towards the She-Badger with his new acquisition. I think he wishes to know what it is. I assume this means that the She-Badger has some skill in the lore of ancient and arcane items. She tells him she will have to research her tomes and then get back to him with an answer.

The final match of the day is an Insult contest. Golden Claws and I are somewhat taken aback by this, we were hoping for something more bloodily climatic, but we are willing to sit it out. The contestants for this bout are Fairhair, Threehands, and Hammerhand.

Fairhair and Threehands take the field. Then Hammerhand walks out, turns around abruptly and retrieves his two handed weapon. The Great Bear booms out that he doesn’t need any weapons for this event. The Hammerhand points over to Threehands, who is sporting both long sword and newly acquired dagger and growls "He’s armed!" He then takes his place next to the other two.

Both of us are still more than slightly bemused by this insult contest. It is a war of words, yet they are not fell words of power or arcane skill. They are said to curse each other, but these are not the curses that take on a life and power of their own, to cause bane and baleful hardship and injury to their victims. Since they use not the songs of secrets and power, nor the songs of origin, I conclude that they are merely aping the skills of the fell mages and enchanters in pale imitation and cheap pretense.

I myself have used insults to taunt, to inflame, and to enrage. It is a double edged tactic, though, for if the enemy is of so little worth that one must verbally revile and demean them, why would one bother to hunt it in the first place? Yet they are not Redcap, so our distain is proper. A pretty paradox.

This seems to be different. It is totally for the enjoyment of the crowd and despite the weapons, there is no real ill intent cast to and fro. To be honest, both Golden Claws and myself are lost by their use of nomenclature. How some of these statements are considered insults is beyond me. Fairhair’s rather feeble "You Suck!" has me pausing for thought. Accusing one of a quick inhalation of breath? This is an insult? Maybe it means he was taken aback. Golden Claws rumbles that it could be accusing the other of infantilism, like a suckling babe, since manhood is a point of honor amongst many of these. That could be. It does make more sense.

Certain insults we do understand. The ones which questions the other’s legitimacy of parentage, sexual perversities, and genetic and species makeup of ones ancestors are old chestnuts even by our standards. A few are so good that both Claws and myself wish that we had the skill of scribing sounds in stone or on wood for posterity, they are that good.

The crowd chooses Hammerhand as their insult champion. His ogre and human mix have given him great exposure to a wide variety of taunts, insults, and abuse. He is gifted by award a stone set in an amulet that throbs and pulses with spirit world power. Interesting. Fairhair makes some crude jest and in response Hammerhand chases him with his two handed sword. Even from here we can see he does not mean it. It is simply a way of his saving face. I have noticed this in many lower life forms. Rather than blood spilled in each conflict, rituals are evolved to allow interplay in non-lethal terms.

Whomuns have used this one tactic before. If a whomun (usually male) oversteps his bounds with certain verbal abuse and knows it, he has two options. He can turn it into a full-fledged confrontation with the possibility of violence, or he can good-naturedly flee from the approach of the offended one, giving him honor back by retreating. This way both sides are satisfied.

The chase breaks off suddenly when Fairhair loses an amulet of great value to him. Others come to help find it and then are waved off so that they do not trample it into the tall grass and mud. The She-Badger then comes to help him. Finding small pieces of precious metal is part and parcel for a dwarf. The She-Badger does find the amulet and Fairhair is so overcome with relief that he embraces her. Badgerbeard is not paying attention or Fairhair would have paid dearly for such an action. Is this another sign of that which is different about him?

At this point the tournament seems over. The Mastiff Mage is still looking for opponents in his arcane game of skill. Viper and a few others are still milling about. The dwarf is finishing up what few minor repair tasks that he has and then begins to pack up his equipment, bank his fire box, clean his tools, and the score of other rituals that a good craftsman must under go in order to remain and be a good craftsman.

I wonder at what the real purpose of this tournament was. Something does not sit well with me. The entertainment and the seeing of whom is best I can understand, the manipulation of events for profit makes less sense. I shrug it off to whomun peculiarities. Still it seems that there was some deeper purpose here, some invisible hand guiding and controlling the events that took place today, and I feel I am missing it completely.

Golden Claws seems equally mystified as he points my attention to the main tent; where some type of increased activity is taking place.

It seems that a prize was left over from an event that did not take place. It is a magical scroll, with a spell of power inscribed upon it. The Great Bear brings it forth and announces that it will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. This is a process (I explain to Golden Claws) in which the persons interested in this item call out how many shiny pieces or other items of value that they are willing to give for it. Then others have a chance to top it. It ends when all but one bidder withdraws from the process, having decided that the price was too dear to be worth the price asked. Claws asks me if this is another form of whomun gambling, and to be honest, I am not at all sure.

The bidding process seems to be going rather briskly between the Mastiff Mage and Threehands. I was not aware that Threehands dabbled in the arcane arts, so either he has special plans for this scroll or he is representing someone else in the bidding process. He may buy it for someone and then demand favors in return.

Suddenly, Threehands simply picks up the scroll in question and attempts to make off with it. I do not know if the numerous successes that he is flush with today has emboldened him to such an extent that he feels that he can openly commit such a theft and get away with it, or it is that he has finally taken leave of his senses. Either way the absolute arrogance in which he commits such an act cannot be allowed to occur without some type of response.

It doesn’t. I needn’t have wondered about this. Viper and the Mastiff Mage spring into action like the released coils of a well-oiled trap. Now I can see Viper in his true, freely responsive combat form. He is quite awesome to behold. Between him and the Mastiff Mage they assail Threehands from both sides. Both are using quarterstaves. Threehands is an excellent warrior with his own bagful of nasty tricks, but he has almost no chance in which to put them into play. He quickly opts for a defensive battle, blocking and then withdrawing as much as possible. They are both on him, "Thwack, Thwack, Thwack," I can hear the impact of the staves from here. This is finally getting serious.

The Mastiff Mage moves in order to block off Threehand’s escape, and attacks from his blind side. Viper moves in for the kill. His eyes are gleaming with intense, reptilian concentration. Weapon up at the ready he stalks slowly in for the kill, like a constrictor approaching a hypnotized mouse.

The Mage will not be cheated of his chance. He uses a trick that worked well against me. He hamstrings from behind and as Threehands whirls to confront him, the Mage smashes three blows against head, neck, and shoulders. It will be only moments now, and a flurry of blows will reduce Threehands to a pile of quivering over-tenderized meat. Good-by Threehands, you have finally over-reached yourself!

It is not to be. Shadowdancer moves in and forbids Viper and the Mastiff Mage from killing Threehands. Fairhair is close behind him. The Mastiff Mage retrieves the scroll and begins to move off. Viper stays, locked in a contest of wills with Shadowdancer. His eyes flare at the affront of being cheated of his rightful prey. Then Shadowdancer says, "Remember our agreement," and Viper abruptly withdraws. It must mean more to him than the simple satisfaction of snuffing out Threehand’s existence.

Looking at the Mastiff Mage engrossed in the scroll now in his possession, I am struck by a revelation. The real reason for this tournament was not for entertainment or for determining the most fell warrior in the group of champions. Someone or something desired that certain items of arcane efficacy fall into the possession of these villagers. Probably not the Great Bear, himself, as the barbarian would not have any interest in articles of and arcane nature. He is the front man or patsy, I think. Great forces conspired here to set these items in their hands. I must become far more vigilant and discover what each of these items is. I paid little attention during the awards ceremony; this was a grave mistake on my part.

Yet, the day has been exceptionally enlightening. I have gleaned much information for the council of brethren. I have observed first hand the individual combat techniques of almost a score of potential warrior-prey. I have had insights into their strange and obtuse social behavior. All shall aide me in the coming hunt. Golden Claws and I have enjoyed ourselves hugely, even without rending victims into multiple pieces. A strange thing for a troll and Redcap to admit. Golden Claws and I gaze at each other, the potential opportunities are exceptional. We have learned so much about our quarry, identified their strengths and weaknesses, probed their behavior patterns, even defined their personalities (such as they exist.) This will make their downfall, eventual ruin, disillusionment, and death far sweeter when I deal them the final blow. Golden Claws and I smile at each other, and a cloud passes over the sun. The smile of a troll, the smile of a Redcap. I remember, and continue to smile in anticipation of the eventual bloodletting.

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