His head cradled on his folded cloak, Nurzûm lay on his back and pretended to be asleep. His eyes mere slits, he watched as Durraiz buried her head in Sulmûrz' fetid crotch and slurped noisily of the she-orc's musky juices. "Garn," he thought. "Not much chance they'll invite me to join them!" He tried not to listen to Sulmûrz' groans and whimpers and Durraiz' grunts of satisfaction, but he could not stop up his ears. The sounds of their heated lovemaking were setting him on fire and the itch in his loins was growing hotter by the moment, keeping him from sleeping.
Nurzûm had seen the way that the two she-orcs had been eying each other since the previous night, and he was not surprised when Durraiz left her sleeping place and went over to lie beside Sulmûrz. Pulling away the tattered blanket, Durraiz had straddled Sulmûrz and started grinding her pelvis against the other she-orc's. While he was not shocked by this new development, Nurzûm was disappointed. Though Durraiz had rejected him repeatedly, making it plain that she preferred her own gender, he had thought that perhaps she might eventually warm up to him. Not much chance of that now, he thought ruefully. However, Sulmûrz was another story. He had heard she was not particular and would spread her legs for either male or female. He licked his dry lips as he fondled the hard bulge in his breeches.
The sleeping chamber where Durraiz and her band had been billeted was a spacious one, with pallets only slightly infested with lice and fleas. It was a soldier's bed, and Nurzûm was glad for it; he had seen much worse. Their room was sparsely furnished, with only a few stools, pallets, and a table on which rested an earthenware crock and dipper for water. They had eaten their evening meal in King Thaguzgoth's hall, where the mess was satisfactory, if not varied. The interior of the cave was comfortably cool and dry, its silence broken only by the breathing of the other uruks and the love noises of the two randy females.
Nurzûm had moved his hand into his breeches and was urgently strumming his own instrument when Sulmûrz shrieked in ecstasy and then lay still. Intent upon his own pleasure, Nurzûm was unaware of a slight scraping sound coming from the wall opposite him. Yet he became instantly alert when an opening suddenly appeared in the wall and five cloaked figures stepped into the room.
"What's the meaning of disturbing our slumber?" he growled belligerently as he yanked up his breeches and rose to his feet. A shiver of fear went up his spine as he saw that the five goblins were armed to the teeth. Bows drawn and notched, two of them slipped to the side of the aperture and drew aim on the confused uruks. Another moved to guard the main entry.
"Be quiet, you yapping lout," the leader growled, "unless you want to feel an arrow in your fat gut!"
"Who are you?" Durraiz demanded as she moved to her feet, leaving a trembling Sulmûrz trying to right her disheveled clothing. "Did King Thaguzgoth send you?"
"My name is Mazauk, chief of Prince Ashpar's bodyguard," the goblin answered pompously, obviously pleased by his high estate. "And I know you to be Durraiz, the leader of this band. Prince Ashpar sent me; the King knows nothing about this meeting. The Prince wants to talk to you, so if you will just follow me, I will take you to him."
"What if I don't want to go?" Durraiz answered testily, angry that she had been forced to leave Sulmûrz' warm, quivering body.
"You'll go," Mazauk chuckled menacingly. "Because right now all of you know too much, and if you don't come along with me, we'll be forced to kill you." An evil smile upon his face, he touched his hand to the hilt of his scimitar.
"Prince Ashpar?" Durraiz asked, rubbing her sweating palms over her breeches. "I thought his father had banished him. What does he want with me?"
"The gracious Prince Ashpar has been banished from the court, not the land. Unbeknownst to his father, he is in the citadel tonight and desires greatly to speak with you."
"What about my men? Does he want to see them, too?"
"They will stay here until your return... safely, I assure you. Of course, if word of this meeting should get back to King Thagurzgoth, I cannot guarantee the continuing good health of any of you." The goblin's gaze flicked over the mercenaries and found that most of them could not meet his eyes. He had sized up the small party and was not impressed. "Undisciplined riffraff, useless in a real fight," he thought contemptuously.
"Then I'll go see your Prince Ashpar. I hope his draught is good, for I have developed a real thirst." Durraiz kept her voice steady, even when she heard a sniffling sob from Sulmûrz. While she had great reservations, there was really no other choice except to cooperate with Mazauk.
"Prince Ashpar is renowned for his draught and ale," Mazauk returned haughtily. "I'll wager it's a lot better than anything scum like you ever drank," he thought spitefully.
Guards flanking them, Mazauk led Durraiz through the opening in the wall. Once they were in the passage, he turned back and pushed a small, innocuous looking stone into place. With a soft scraping noise, the door slowly slid shut behind them, sealing off any escape.
Despite her bravado, Durraiz was nervous. She did not want to die at the hands of these backwards cave goblins. As she racked her brain, she could think of no logical reason why the prince would want to meet her. She knew it was no carnal attraction, for she had never even seen him! She was no beauty, priding herself more on her prowess with the sword and her considerable strength than she ever did upon her physical charms. Besides, it was obvious that she preferred her own gender.
The group was silent as they followed the twisting, turning path through the cavern. These bastards knew their way in the caverns, but what could she expect? They were in their own territory, and she was not. After a while, Durraiz became disoriented, and knew that the only way she could ever find her way back would be by scent alone. Through a sheer effort of will, she forced herself to be calm, never wanting these inferiors to know that she was frightened.
Why did Prince Ashpar want to see her anyway? she fumed to herself. If he planned to entice her to his bed, his pride would be dealt a serious blow when she refused him. She thought back to the one time when she had ever consented - more out of curiosity than anything - to lie with a male. That had been a disaster, and before the encounter was over, she had slashed his face with a dagger and then stomped out of his den and his life forever. Never again did she seek after other flesh, being content to be what she was, a lover of her own gender.
They came to a set of descending stairs chiseled out of the living rock, and Durraiz knew that Mazauk was leading them into the farthest depths of the cavern. In spite of the coolness of the air, sweat beaded on her forehead and poured from her armpits, saturating her tunic. Ahead of them, she heard the splashing of water, the sound resonating in the tunnel like the rumble of battle drums. When they came to a landing, Durraiz saw that a long, arched span had been built over a narrow chasm. Venturing a glance over the side of the bridge, she beheld a turbulent stream that roiled and tumbled over a series of rocky ledges until it disappeared around a curving bend. More apprehensive by the moment, she was convinced that she would never leave this cave alive. Finally, after traveling through more tunnels that seemed to branch away to all sides, they passed through a narrow opening and came to a large chamber illuminated by torches.
The elder son of King Thaguzgoth was slouched upon a fine carved oak chair, using the tip of a small jeweled dagger to clean underneath his claws. Durraiz noted that Prince Ashpar strongly resembled his father, with a shaggy black mane, long, pointed ears which jutted out from the sides of his head, and gleaming fangs which protruded over his upper lip. Like his father, he, too, sported the treasures of some unlucky caravan - a jeweled circlet of gold rested upon his beetling brow; a golden band was clasped about his left forearm; and necklaces of pearls and rubies draped down over his chest. Though he wore a mantle of fine furs over his broad shoulders, the rest of his clothing was more practical and militant - an iron studded leather brigandine, a skirt of studded leather strips over baggy breeches, and cross-gartered boots.
Prince Ashpar did not glance up as Mazauk and his guards paused at the door and announced the stranger's arrival to the door warden, who motioned for them to follow him. They walked forward, halting a respectful distance of ten feet from the Prince's throne.
"Prince Ashpar," the door warden cleared his throat, "be it known that Mazauk, chief of bodyguards, and--"
"I know who they are!" the young goblin prince growled, suddenly hurling the knife at the door warden, who hastily stepped aside, the dagger whistling close to his head. "If you keep getting fatter, one of these nights you won't be able to dodge my knife so easily! Now fetch my blade, and be quick about it!"
"Yes, Your Highness." Bending to retrieve the knife, the door keeper bowed his way to the prince and humbly presented him with the weapon. "Your guests, my lord?"
"I know about my guests, you fool! Now go back and guard your door! You are not of any other use!" Prince Ashpar looked towards Durriaz. "Come closer."
Surrounded by the guards, Durraiz cautiously walked forward and knelt down upon one knee, her right fist against her left shoulder. The salute was sufficient homage to the tribal leaders of her clan, but she was uncertain what was appropriate for the heir of the Desert King. Tense and apprehensive, she thought about the poor fool at whom he had thrown the dagger, and wondered if Prince Ashpar was usually this foul-tempered.
"You are Durraiz." Prince Ashpar stifled a yawn. "Be at ease and take a seat." He motioned to a stool by a large table near the center of the chamber. "The servants will soon be here with refreshments." The young prince nodded to Mazauk, and the bodyguards retreated to a respectful distance along the cave wall, where they folded their arms across their chests and awaited the prince's further pleasure.
"Thank you, Your Highness," Durraiz replied, bowing her head as she took a seat.
Sauntering to the table, Prince Ashpar drew up a chair and sat across from Durraiz. "I know you are wondering why I called you here tonight." Interlacing his fingers, he gave her a calculating smile.
"Yes, Your Highness. I was." Durraiz took a furtive look around the cavern, and then folded her hands in front of her. She wondered briefly if she should have cleaned the dirt from beneath her nails before this audience.
"The burden of responsibility weighs heavily upon the head of a regent." He sighed heavily, shaking his head back and forth. "If you want to know the truth of it, I have a modest business proposal that might interest you."
"My lord?" Durraiz leaned closer, unsure if she had heard the young prince correctly.
"I will come to it, but first I will explain my position," he answered as he stroked the golden chain that led from his earlobe to his pierced nose. "My father, King Thaguzgoth, has been ruler over our clan for many years. I will say that he has done an admirable job." The Prince riveted Durraiz' eyes with a piercing stare before he continued. "However, his abilities are not what they once were, and he is fit no longer to lead the folk of the Kafakudraûg Clan. His mind and health are deteriorating rapidly, probably the result of his excessive consumption of draught, although," he laughed, "some swear that he caught the pox from one of his concubines. Rots their bodies and brains, you know."
"Your Highness, I am sorry," Durraiz offered, hoping that her tone was appropriately sympathetic.
"You do not care, Durraiz. You know you don't, and I didn't expect that you would," the Prince interrupted her, laying his long, expressive ears back against the sides of his head. "You just want to find out why I brought you here so you can go back to swiving your lady friend." He held his hand up when she opened her mouth to protest. "I cannot say I blame you there. She does have her charms, and I assure you that you will return safely to her loving embrace after we conclude our transaction."
"Your Highness is most gracious," Durraiz bowed her head, scarcely knowing what to say. She was afraid of this young ruler, who was far more polished and subtle than his doltish father. With her brusque manner and ignorance of court protocol, she must seem like a backward oaf to the Prince.
"Aye, I know that I am gracious, generous and open hearted," he chuckled, "a giver of good things to those who do my bidding. Now, Durraiz, would you like to be one of the recipients of my generosity?" From out of his cloak of fur and skins, Prince Ashpar drew out a small leather bag and set it down on the table with a heavy clink. Opening the sack, he reached in and drew out a handful of golden coins, spreading the gleaming pieces before him on the table. A gleam of satisfaction flickered briefly in his yellow eyes as he saw the unmistakable look of avarice on the she-orc's face.
"My lord, I do not know what to say," Durraiz fumbled for words as she leaned forward, spellbound by the yellow coins gleaming in the torchlight. She had never seen so much gold in her life!
"Say you accept, Durraiz," the Prince urged, his voice a silky purr as he pushed the coins towards her.
"What do you want me to do, Your Highness?"
"Kill my father. My brother, too, if you can get him." Prince Ashpar smiled. "Do not look so alarmed, Durraiz. My brother is weak, and his assassination will be a simple matter. He is a supercilious fool who will be easy prey for your renowned swordsmanship. My father, now... I tried once to poison him, but he has a stomach like iron. Oh, he became ill, and I know he suspected me, but what could he do?" He shrugged. "Of course, after that, he made it more difficult. Now his cupbearer samples everything that he eats or drinks before allowing him to partake of it." The Prince's ears pricked forward slightly, giving him an inquisitive appearance. "Well, Durraiz, what do you have to say?" He casually swept his hand over the spread of gold.
"My lord, may I be honest with you?" Durraiz asked hesitantly, and waited until the Prince had nodded his head in the affirmative before continuing. "Your sire is heavily guarded, my lord, and there are not enough men at my disposal to carry out an assassination," she told him, having difficulty taking her eyes from the stack of gold. Though his offer was tempting, the inherent risks of his proposal were daunting. She wondered briefly why Prince Ashpar did not do his own killing.
"I value honesty, Durraiz, and I am glad that you have told me of your concerns, but you need only a few men to carry out your mission. It only takes one skillfully fired arrow to kill a king." Prince Ashpar picked up one of the coins and held it to the light. "Beautiful, isn't it? Do you know what you can purchase with just one of these? A good dagger, perhaps, or some bauble for Sulmûrz. With this hoard, you and your sweetheart would be set for the rest of your days."
"Prince Ashpar, your offer is more than generous, but I have another question, if I may." Durraiz was far from being convinced, and the Prince's assurances had done little to assuage her concerns.
"Certainly," he nodded, his ears lowering slightly.
"Why did you choose me for this particular task?"
"A perfectly natural question, Durraiz." The Prince gave her a tolerant smile. "When my informants told me of the arrival of a party of uruk-hai, I became curious and asked them some questions. I know that you are mercenaries, offering your swords to the highest bidder. I am sure that my offer is far more lucrative than anything that my tight-fisted father would ever pay you. Ironic, isn't it?"
"What, Your Highness?" Durraiz stared blankly at him, not comprehending his meaning and totally out of her league.
"My father will give you a pittance to go out and perhaps die for him, while I give you a small fortune for killing him. I think that is humorous," Prince Ashpar chuckled, running his finger over one of the golden coins. "And it gets even better, Durraiz. Since you are an outsider, no one will ever suspect you of plotting to kill the king." The blame will also fall upon you if the plan falls through, he thought slyly.
"My lord, I never thought of it that way." Durraiz cleared her throat. "If I accept your offer, when would you want this, ah," she paused, thinking of how to word the dirty deed, "delicate matter attended?"
"Soon, Durraiz, very soon." Prince Ashpar leaned back in his chair, knowing that she was wavering.
"If I may ask, my lord, why the haste? I can see no reason for hurry. Do you suspect some threat from your father or brother against your own life?" she asked, a puzzled expression wrinkling her low forehead.
"I have not told you all, Durraiz," the Prince replied warily. "My father has always favored my younger brother, who is a weakling, listening to his own circle of friends and not taking sage advice. He is not strong enough to rule! My father plans to name him as the next king, when I, as firstborn son, am the rightful heir to the throne!" He paused, waiting for Durraiz' reaction, but when none was forthcoming, he continued.
"Everything will soon come to a head, Durraiz, and I will be unable to prevent it without your assistance." Prince Ashpar's eyes were imploring as he looked at her. "Two days hence, my father will hold a great feast to announce the changing of the laws of succession and the naming of my brother as his successor. At this same feast, my father will announce something far more destructive to the clan even than the dominion of my incompetent brother."
"And what is that?" Durraiz asked, her feeling of confusion deepening.
"To understand my concerns, you must know the recent history of my people. A few years back, my father was raiding the Great One's caravans coming up from Nurn. He was doing rather well, too. He might have been able to continue for a while, but his greed outstripped his reason, and he became careless, raiding too often and taking too much." He glanced at Durraiz, who was listening intently. "The Great Eye can tolerate a little pilfering, but when the King's predations became too costly, He struck quick and fast, like the desert viper. His forces ambushed and trapped many of my father's raiders, killing great numbers and subjecting those who surrendered to unthinkable degradation and torture."
The Prince looked away, his eyes staring vacantly into space as a slight shudder rippled over his body. "The Master of All was not content with an overwhelming victory that eliminated the threat of our raiders. No, He sent a force of great war uruks to hunt and destroy the remainder of our folk. They scoured the caves, even massacring the females and the young imps who did not escape. My father, like the coward he is, fled with a group of his followers, concubines, and children into the mountains, where they scattered in all directions, managing to elude their pursuers. It was not a pleasant time."
"Your Highness, I had heard rumors of this tragedy," Durraiz added, feeling uncomfortable at the Prince's sorrow.
"Everything you heard was true." Prince Ashpar sadly shook his head. "We were homeless, hated, shunned by others, for none wished to invite the Great Eye's displeasure. The Kafakudraûg Clan are not the first occupants of these caverns; no, the first residents far outdate us. These caves were populated by the Pauzul, a race of weaker goblins whom my father soon subjugated, forcing their chief to pledge fealty to him as overlord." He smiled at Durraiz. "We allowed the Pauzul to stay here, but deep in the caverns, where they survive by hunting small subterranean creatures and fishing in underground streams. They are a strange folk, with black, misshapen bodies and huge, pale eyes that glow faintly in the dark. There is even a sub-race of them who are called the Zaboth, bizarre creatures whose skin is white as moonlight, glimmering with a phosphorescent sheen. Both races seldom venture out, for they are almost blind in the light."
Prince Ashpar glanced up as a serving wench placed a jeweled decanter and matching goblets upon the table. As she bent to fill the Prince's goblet, her huge, greenish breasts almost spilled out of her low bodice. His eyes glittering, the Prince stared down at the ponderous mounds. Lifting up his glass, he saluted her and then poured the liquid over her breasts and began to lap it up. When he was finished with his sport with the giggling wench, he slapped her on the rump, sending her on her way, and then turned back to Durraiz.
"Now, my friend, back to business," he chuckled, noting with amusement that Durraiz looked slightly embarrassed by his dalliance. "In a fortnight, our spies tell us, a rich caravan will be making its way from Nurn on the Northern Road, bringing tribute for the Eye. My father plans to lead a raid upon this caravan, and has ordered his vassal lords of the Pauzul and the Zaboth to join under his banner. Imagine a host of raiders composed of inexperienced youths and half-blind hobgoblins led by a chieftain who is not in his right mind!" The Prince shook his head. "The whole plan is doomed to failure before it ever begins."
The heir to the Kafakudraûg Clan toyed with a small emerald on the jewel encrusted goblet. "This caravan is heavily guarded by those huge brutes of war, the uruk-hai. My father, egotistical fool that he is, has closed his ears to reason, ignoring all protest. After all those months of wandering, my folk have come back, only to die. I won't have it!" He smashed his fist down on the table, startling Durraiz and sending the wine decanter bouncing. "Do you see now, Durraiz, why the King must die, so that my folk might live?"
"Aye, Your Highness, there seems to be no other way," she replied, wondering how she could ever be successful in assassinating the heavily guarded king. "But how can I ever get close enough to kill him?"
"There is a way, Durraiz, which you will understand after I show you the maps." Prince Ashpar picked up a few gold coins, placing one on top the other. "My plan is foolproof, but you will learn about that later. Now let us drink to seal the bargain." He smiled and lifted his goblet. "To our partnership!"
"Aye, our partnership!" Durraiz soundly clanked her goblet against his, the force sloshing the wine over the rim. As she looked at the ruby droplets which had splashed out onto her hand, she felt a shudder run down her spine. How much they looked like blood!
Peering out through a small, unnoticed crack in the cave wall, a pair of pale green eyes beheld all that had transpired between Durraiz and Prince Ashpar. Everything was going according to plan. The astrological signs were in accord; the auguries were fortuitous; the reading of the entrails of the bustard was favorable. Soon King Thaguzgoth would be dead, and a strong King would rule in his place!