Though Kopan's corpse lay upon the stony ground, his body still warm, the wood gathering party left for the goblin cavern without him, for no one suspected that he was dead. Mistaking his scream of pain for one of ecstasy, the guards had chortled to themselves, imagining their fellow's tryst with the little Haradric wench. Jealous of his good fortune, they whipped the slaves that much harder to assuage their disappointment for not being the ones to plunder her treasures.
Chance had indeed been on the side of Elfhild and Özlem, for, before leaving the underground city, Kopan had told the guards of his lusty plans for the Haradric girl. With a sly wink and an obscene chuckle, he had told them that, should his dalliance be prolonged, they should return to the fortress without him. He would be back in plenty of time for the feast, he assured them, and since he was the Chief Overseer of Slaves, who were they to interfere with his pleasure?
"He must be giving her a good thumping," one of the orcs guffawed rudely as the party went back to the cavern.
"Knowing ol' Kopan and his way with females," the orc's fellow chortled, "she's beggin' for more!"
Back at King Thaguzgoth's hall, the feast was about to begin. The spacious underground chamber had been decorated quite festively for the occasion. Colorful banners bearing the emblems of prominent families of the Kafakudraûg Clan and their allies fluttered down from the stalactites which covered the cavern roof. Stitched onto the bright flags were primitive drawings of animals sacred to the Sand Orcs; fierce wolves, jackals, and vipers to bring fear to enemies and empowerment to those who called upon their strength. Torches blazed from the natural stone columns, fusion of stalactite and stalagmite, which rose up like a forest of petrified trees. Bright flames burnt in great iron bowls which had been arranged in a great circle around the chamber, the billowing smoke being drawn up through ventilation shafts sunk into the roof of the cave.
Their brutish hounds lolling about their feet, King Thaguzgoth and Prince Sakop sat atop cushions upon the large slab of rock which served as the royal throne. Prince Ashpar's place was conspicuously unoccupied, a silent declaration of the King's disfavor. Shaman Dûshatâr stood nearby, dour as ever, his pale eyes watching everything. A blast of horns announced the arrival of lesser Kafakudraûg chieftains and elders, as well as the leaders of the Pauzul and Zaboth. Their pale eyes burning from the blazing amber light, the small goblins kept to the shadows, blinking and squinting like moles in the sun. After the nobility had been seated, the throng of lesser goblins was admitted into the hall. Pushing, shoving, their long arms almost dragging the ground, the disorderly lot took their places at the well-scarred trestle tables reserved for the common goblin.
King Thaguzgoth and Prince Shakop rose from their thrones, and the whole assembly rose with them, standing with heads bowed as the two lords passed by them. Smiling and nodding, the King and his son gazed about the hall with satisfaction, and then sat at the table reserved for nobility, signaling to the room that they could take their places. Earlier that evening, King Thaguzgoth, his vassal chieftains, and the lords of his allies had met to discuss the planned raid upon the Mordorian caravan. Now at the feast, the King announced his intentions to all of the common folk. The crowd was divided, with some eager for the excitement of a raid, and others fearful of provoking the wrath of the Dark Lord. The King also announced that he was changing the law of succession and naming his younger son as heir. These tidings were met with gasps and murmurings, for the sudden change of tradition was alarming to those who favored the elder son.
At a word from King Thaguzgoth, a goblin page struck a massive gong thrice, the signal that the feast had started. Set before the King and his chieftains were platters containing the choicest bustard, gazelle, and other fine selections of meat, seasoned with exotic spices stolen from caravans. The rest of the goblins sated their hunger upon fowl, bird eggs, goat stew, and tough, leathery mutton. In the cups of all, wine flowed like water, and the rowdy sounds of goblins eating filled the cavern chamber. Musicians, already half drunken upon too much draught, struck up lively, but discordant melodies of drums, gongs, cymbals, and horns, while off-key singers regaled the hall with drinking and bawdy songs.
In the abandoned passage that Elfhild had chanced upon a few days before, the assassins waited, biding their time. The opportunity to strike had not presented itself; the crowd was much too sober. Best to wait until the revelers had given over to draught's raucous spell and lay in stupors under the tables. As she waited, alone and in the dark, Durraiz contemplated the strange circumstances which had brought her, a caravan guard turned outlaw, to one of the desert kingdoms of the dreaded Sand Orcs. Although she tried to reassure herself that her mission would end in success and pockets heavy with coin, she still could not shake the feeling that these slow-moving hours would be the last moments of her life. "Just a case of nerves," she told herself. She looked around at the other assassins waiting in the passage. Like their leader, they were robed in black, their faces masked.
As the night dragged on, Nurzûm peered through the crack in the old door and watched the feasting and merrymaking in the hall. When they had deemed that the crowd was drunken enough not to put up too much of a fight, they decided to act. "Durraiz," he whispered, "King Thaguzgoth has managed to rouse himself out of his drunken stupor and stagger to his feet. He is mumbling rather badly, but it sounds as though he has proposed a toast. I cannot hear anything now; the crowd is cheering too wildly." Nurzûm turned his head to the side and spat in disgust. A few moments passed until the assembly had quieted. "Now Prince Shakop has risen to his feet, lifting his chalice and singing a drunken song." He turned his head to look back at Durraiz. "It is a clear shot, Durraiz. I think we ought to take it."
"Let me look!" Pushing Nurzûm away, Durraiz peered through the crack. She inhaled deeply when she saw the forms of the King and Prince Shakop centered in the narrow opening. "The old fool is making a speech denouncing his elder son. Now is the time for us to act!" she hissed. "Throw open the door!"
The oak door was flung open and Durraiz, Nurzûm and Sulmûrz leapt into the hall, arrows notched and ready, the rest of the assassins behind them. "Kill him!" she whispered in a voice so low that only those beside her heard it. Holding her breath, Durraiz sighted on the King's heart before letting the arrow fly. King Thaguzgoth turned to say something to a lord standing next to him. Much to Durraiz' horror, the arrow missed the king's heart and caught him in the shoulder. Nurzûm released his arrow almost simultaneously, the barb striking Prince Shakop in the mouth as he started to scream for help. The arrow drove through the Prince's mouth and out the back of his skull, killing him instantly in an explosion of blood. Thinking themselves under attack by a larger force, the hall descended into total pandemonium. Terrified goblins shrieked, serving wenches made frantic runs for the doors, frightened slaves scurried about without direction, and drunken warriors staggered, groping for their weapons. Amidst all the chaos in the hall, only the Shaman was unfazed, an enigmatic smile upon his face.
The King staggered and almost fell, but was caught by one of his nobles, who supported him in his arms. "Damn, missed!" Durriaz cursed under her breath and then paused to notch another arrow. She drew back the bowstring, but then she saw one of the King's bodyguards readying his own arrow at the same time. He shot slightly before she did, and as the arrow sank into her forearm, she screamed, her useless hand dropping the bow. There was no chance to cut the King down in a hail of arrows, for his bodyguards had moved to surround him. They had failed!
"Come on!" shrieked Sulmûrz. "We have to get out of here!"
The royal hounds had gone wild at the commotion, barking and snarling, some of them sniffing Prince Shakop's body and then lapping his warm black blood. Though he was close to fainting from shock and pain, King Thaguzgoth managed to get the animals under control. Shaking with anger, he gritted his teeth and barked out the terse command, "They have killed my son! Destroy them! Tear them to pieces!"
"Run!" Durraiz cried, seeing the charging dogs and the guards who followed at their heels. "Or we're dead!"
Keeping their bowstrings drawn, the assassins backed away through the door. Nurzûm slammed the door shut behind them and dropped the bolt. Snarling, the hounds lunged against the wood until the guards beat them back and hacked through the door with halberds. Soon the old wood gave way, broken and shattered boards clattering to the cave floor. The dogs bounded through the opening, their howling and baying echoing through the corridor. The eerie sound seemed to reverberate in the ears of the assassins, the hammering of their hearts and gasping breath combining into a symphony of terror.
Notching an arrow, Nurzûm turned to face their pursuers in the narrow tunnel. Unleashing three barbs in rapid succession, he managed to kill two of the yapping hounds and one of the guards before backing down the hall and then turning to run.
Sulmûrz, her sallow face pale with fear and worry, looked frantically at Durraiz, whose wounded arm was dripping blood. "My lady," she gasped as she supported the wounded orc, "it won't be long now! You can make it! Just a few more yards and we'll be safe!"
One of the assassins was already at the unlocked iron door and was pulling it open. Standing beside the entry, his bowstring drawn taut, he waited until the others had gained the sanctuary of the cavern beyond. As he was backing towards the doorway, an arrow through his throat dropped him in his tracks. Rolling the body out of the way, Nurzûm jumped through the opening and slammed the door behind him.
"That door will hold them for a long time," he gasped as he collapsed against the door. "At least long enough for us to make our escape." Nurzûm sounded braver than he really felt. "Now let me see that arm," he told Durraiz, who leaned against the side of the cave for support. "That has to come out!" He shook his head.
"Go on," she told him through gritted teeth. "Do what you must."
Nurzûm looked at the wound and was relieved to see that the barb was protruding on the other side of her arm. Being careful not to hurt her any more than he had to, Nurzum cut the shaft off a few inches from the wound and then pushed the arrowhead out the other side of her arm. This caused the wound to start bleeding again, and Nurzûm dabbed at the black flow with his none-too-clean handkerchief. He poured water from his waterskin over the wound, cleaning it as best as he could. Tearing off a strip of material from his tunic, he wadded it up and placed it against the wound, tying a strip of cloth over the pad. "This will staunch the blood until we get to a safer place."
Panting hard, the assassins paused to catch their breath. All around them was darkness and silence, the only sound that of their heavy gasps for air. Bolstered by a stiff drink of draught, Durraiz felt steadier. "Things were too close back there," she thought, "and we were fortunate to lose only one of our number. Of course, with him dead, that means more gold left for the rest of us." She grinned to herself. They had just come to a long corridor with passages that veered off to either side. The others waited, looking expectantly to her for direction.
"Nurzûm, you are our map expert and have studied the maps which Prince Ashpar gave us." Durraiz looked to the other uruk, who smiled, obviously pleased at her confidence.
"See this mark?" Bending down, Nurzûm pointed to a symbol painted low on the cave wall. "According to the Prince's maps, the corridor marked with this symbol leads to one of the cave's exits. We go this way," he told her confidently. "If all goes well, we should be out of this cave by dawn, our pockets much richer."
The assassins' steps were brisker as they followed Nurzûm and Durraiz down the gloomy passage. Even Sulmûrz, who was by nature a coward, brightened at the prospects of escape. "They will never catch us now," she gloated. "We have too great of a head start on them! I can think of ways I could spend all that gold!" She licked her lips, already seeing the realization of her lifelong dreams. "All the meat I can eat, and no more having to hustle for it! Whole cellars filled with draught, ale and wine, and slaves to serve at my beck and call! Handsome boys who worship me and live to fulfill my every desire! Golden girls whose blue eyes are filled with passion and whose thighs are like warm honey! I tell you, Durraiz, I'm going to enjoy life at last!"
"We all will!" Nurzûm added enthusiastically. Then suddenly he halted in his tracks as a shadowy form stepped out of one of the intersecting passages ahead. His bow always at the ready, Nurzûm trained an arrow on the figure. The others fingered the hilts of their swords as they waited breathlessly for the command to attack.
"Please do not be alarmed," the jovial voice announced. "You have nothing to fear. It is only I, Mazauk, servant to Prince Ashpar."
"Well, you don't have to skulk around like that, jumping out and surprising folk! You could have been one of the King's guardsmen," Nurzûm growled as he lowered his bow. "I could have killed you if you hadn't spoken up when you did!"
"That would indeed have been a most unfortunate accident," Mazauk chuckled. "Now we need to hurry," he told them, turning serious, "for Prince Ashpar is worried about your safety, fearing that you had become lost in the caverns. He has sent me back to see to your wellbeing."
Mazauk turned and hurried down the corridor, the uruks following in his wake. They had journeyed about a furlong down the passage when they came to a large cavern.
Nurzûm was hesitant to continue. "I didn't see this on the map," he protested, stopping and peering into the darkness.
"Oh, but I assure you, my good fellow, we are going in the right direction. You must have misread the map." The assassins could not help but catch the unspoken smirk in the goblin's words. "Come now. You'll soon be amply rewarded for all your efforts."
"Rewarded for our efforts?" Durraiz asked suspiciously. "But we did not kill the King, only his younger son."
"My earnest Durraiz, we know that already," Mazauk told her, his voice condescending. "The Prince's spies are quite efficient, and we received the news shortly after the first arrow was fired."
"Are you sure Prince Ashpar plans to abide by his part of the bargain?" Nurzûm cocked an eyebrow.
"Of course!" Mazauk sounded offended that the Prince's honor had been questioned. "He would have preferred that you would have killed the King, but he is happy with what you have accomplished. You have eliminated his chief contender for the throne. The King's other sons are mere imps and will be dealt with in time." Mazauk turned his head and looked down the corridor. "Now unless you want to stand here all night discussing the finer points, we need to be going. The Prince awaits you." He motioned for them to follow him, and walking swiftly, he led them deeper into the large cavern. Suddenly they no longer saw him.
"Where did he go?" Sulmûrz wailed, frightened. She reached for Durraiz' hand, needing to feel the comfort of its warmth.
"The bastard disappeared down some rat hole," Nurzûm growled, grabbing for his sword.
"Stop where you are!" they heard a harsh voice bark out. "Drop your weapons and don't try anything tricky! You're surrounded!" The arrogant voice seemed to echo from every direction, making it impossible for the assassins to locate their attackers.
"Damn!" Nurzûm cursed. "We've been ambushed!" He thought of lunging forward in the direction of the voice and trying to take as many with him as he could before falling to the sword or arrow. He knew it was hopeless, though, for these damn little cave dwellers were in their own territory. Instead he dropped his sword, the metal clattering to the stone floor.
Along the perimeters of the chamber, torches suddenly burst into flame, illuminating the vast cavern. As the assassins watched in horror, goblins poured out from behind stalagmites and surged towards them. Leaving their perches high on the cave ceiling, others slid down stalactites and pressed in from behind. The conspirators were soon disarmed, bound with their hands behind their backs and led away down a side tunnel.
"Ah, my friends," Prince Ashpar greeted them from his throne-like oaken chair when they were taken before him. "Well met. You are just in time."
"For what?" Durraiz challenged.
"To pay a little visit to my father," the Prince chuckled.
"You bastard! You betrayed us!" Nurzûm bellowed, shaking with anger. A spear butt to the back of his head sent him reeling to the feet of the Prince. Terrified, Sulmûrz began to wail.
"That wasn't a nice thing to say," Prince Ashpar chided him. Turning to the guard beside him, he ordered, "Now get this filth on his feet. He still has some use to me."
"Why?" Durraiz demanded angrily. "Why didn't you just kill the King and your brother yourself?"
"Think, Durraiz, and maybe you'll figure it out." The Prince smiled at her. "Even if you are mixed with the race of Men, I think you do have some intelligence."
"You planned all along to blame the assassination on us, didn't you?" She glared at him.
"You could put it that way, Durraiz. Of course, my father will believe that you were seeking vengeance upon him for taking your two slave girls for himself. I had been planning to kill the old fool for months, but no opportunity presented itself. Then you came along." The Prince's beady eyes gleamed. "You had a motive for getting rid of him, and therefore are an excellent alibi for me. Now shall we be going? We do not want to keep His Majesty waiting, do we?"