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By Hans-Jrg Knabel

Murdra had just lost what little remained of her dinner as she came hurrying back from the storage cave with Rauter. Now she stood in the kitchen, her armpits drenched with sweat, the bitter taste of bile on her tongue, groping for the wooden leg that she always kept close to hand since Belgors death, right beside the tureens. She gripped the leg with shaky fingers, but it failed to calm her nerves. Theyre comin, she thought, over and over again. Theyre comin! In her mind, the Cleaved Maiden was already a pile of smoking rubble, Belgors leg burnt to ashes. No! Murdra muttered resolutely, pulling the wooden leg to her chest. Aint ever gonna let it go, she swore to herself. No matter what! She gripped the leg tighter and let her gaze wander across the room.

Her customers were huddled in front of the seaward facing window, pressing their noses against the glass, arguing noisily as they strained their eyes to make out vague shapes in the fog.
Sails!
Where?
There! Ten of em, at least!
Cant see no sails.
Are you blind?
That? Those are trees!
I know a tree from a sail, you dolt!
This is getting us nowhere! Rauters voice cut through the chatter. The damn fogs making us restless, right? We should put out the lights. They wont find us with the lights out! Approving murmurs came from the crowd, and the customers hurriedly started to extinguish every torch and candle they could reach.
Why dont you just leave the lights burning? Murdra didnt recognize the voice. A stranger was sitting near the entrance, not far from the counter. She hadnt noticed him before. He was wearing a white shirt with wide sleeves under a smooth leather jacket, and his greying hair was pulled back to a ponytail. On the table before him lay a sabre, sheathed in an ornate scabbard.
Jus what I needed, Murdra thought. A pirate!
Rauter paused at the pirates table. The Myrtanian are coming, he explained. Weve gotta protect ourselves, right?
By sitting in the dark?
They wont find the Cleaved Maiden if we do!
The pirate raised an eyebrow. If the Myrtanians really are out there, they already know about the tavern and where to find it. And if they dont find it tonight, they will tomorrow.
Blood and thunder, youre right, Rauter cursed. So what do we do?
Nothing, answered the pirate.
Nothing? Theyre gonna cut us to ribbons!
Youre no soldiers, the pirate retorted. The paladins will push you around and lecture you about Innos and the virtues of order, but they wont kill you.
Thats not what I heard, Grengar rumbled. He was standing close by, nervously gripping his woodcutters axe.
Idle chitchat, the pirate retorted.
Grengar tried to answer, but someone hushed him.
I hear steps in the courtyard!
The Myrtanians!
Theyre comin!
Thats not the Myrtanians, the pirate said. Thats a friend.
How would you know? Grengar muttered, suspicion in his voice.
We go back a long way, he and I, the pirate answered. I know his footsteps.
Youre lyin , Grengar hissed. A spy thats what you are! You wanna put us at the Myrtanians mercy, but you cant dupe us woodcutters from Stewark! He hefted his axe and planted himself in front of the door. The stranger rolled his eyes and shook his head, but made no move for his sabre. Everyone was staring at Grengar. Murdra noticed his arms were shaking.
The door flew open.

The Black Warrior

Innos preserve us, Murdra thought, clenching the wooden leg to her chest. A dark-skinned warrior with rippling muscles stepped over the threshold. He was wearing heavy leather armour reinforced with bulging iron shoulderguards that left his powerful arms bare. The haft of a mighty, two-headed battle axe protuded over his shoulder. Murdra had seen a dark warrior before, but that one hadn’t had an enormous axe on his back - or an iron gauntlet in his hand dripping blood, for that matter.
Grengar stood his ground. The dark warrior paused. Wrinkling his brow he shot a curious look at the woodcutter and the axe in his hands. “What’s that?” he asked calmly, pointing at the weapon.
“Muh... my axe“, Grengar stammered.
The dark warrior laughed. “That’s badly a hatchet, lad.” He flicked his thumb over his shoulder. “That is an axe!” Paying him no further heed, he walked past Grengar and headed for the other stranger’s table. Grengar’s arms drooped. He followed the dark warrior with his eyes, a helpless look on his face. There were beads of sweat on his forehead.
“Here“, the dark warrior said, tossing the iron gauntlet on the table. A snake, red like the blood oozing out of the gauntlet, was painted on the iron plating. The pirate shot a glance at the emblem. “Blood Adders”, he said.
“About two dozen“, affirmed the dark warrior. “Landed here by boat, down at the beach. I caught one of their scouts putting the screws on some girl.“
“Jilvie?“ Rauter asked, worry in his voice.
“How should I know?“ the dark warrior grumbled. “She puked when I chopped the hand off and fled into the mist.”
“These Blood Adders, they’re Myrtanians, right?“ Rauter asked.
The pirate nodded. „They’re mercenaries. Drurhang’s men“, he said. „Mercenaries with an... unsavoury reputation.“
“What d’ ya mean?“ Grengar asked.

The dark warrior peered at him over his shoulder. “Time to show us what you can do with that little hatchet of yours, lad”, he said curtly. He stepped away from the table and headed up the stairs.
“Give them a warm welcome, my friend”, the pirate called after him, “but wait until a few have gathered in the tap room this time!”
“Yeah, yeah“, grumbled the dark warrior, striding up the stairs. “Yeah, yeah.” He vanished around the corner, but Murdra could still hear his heavy steps on the gallery. A loud crack sounded directly above her, then another. ‘Es bustin’ up my railin’, the dog, Murdra thought, staring sullenly at a chip of wood that had fallen onto the counter.
“No avoiding a fight, right?“ Rauter asked.
“That’s right“, said the pirate. „Anyone with a bow had better head up to the balcony to get a shot at the courtyard. The rest should hide in the stables and attack the Blood Adders from the rear. But wait until you hear my friend crack some skulls. That’ll be our signal.”
The men left the tables. Some followed the dark warrior to the top floor, others headed for the stables. Only Murdra and Rauter remained. The pirate stood up seizing his sabre. “What about you?“ he asked Rauter.
“I’m gonna cover your backs “, Rauter said. “Got my eye on the kitchen door. If one of ‘em sticks his ugly mug through, I’ll hack it right off!”
The pirate nodded. “And you?” he asked Murdra.
“I’m stayin‘ behind the counter“, she said firmly.
The pirate shrugged, then turned around and headed for the wine cellar at the back of the tap room. Murdra heard a heavy thump. He had just barred the double doors to the courtyard. Rauter walked to the kitchen door, turned the key in the lock and checked that it was securely shut. “Don’t you worry”, he said, and joined her behind the counter.

After what seemed to be an eternity, Murdra heard footsteps and the quiet rattling of weapons in the courtyard. Rauter crouched down behind the counter. “You’d better take cover!” he whispered, but Murdra stubbornly remained where she stood. She wanted to see what was about to happen in her tap room. Then it was too late for her to change her mind – the door flew open with a bang, and a dozen mercenaries bearing a blood-red snake on their chests burst into the room. Two had loaded crossbows at the ready; the others were armed with swords and maces. One of them turned towards Murdra with a grin.
“Hey Tock”, he jeered, “take a look at that! She’s even uglier than your last woman!” He swaggered to the counter, laughing, and loomed over Murdra. “No one here, eh?” he sneered. Murdra hastily shook her head. The mercenary laughed again and spat on the floor. „Oh, we’ll smoke ‘em out, all right. All we need ’s a little fire.” His hand shot out and grabbed Murdra by the throat. “See an ugly bastard with black skin and a huge axe pass through here? Or a braggart dressed like a fop?” Murdra didn’t answer. She was struggling to breathe. “Come on – out with it! Maybe we’ll even leave your lousy shack in one piece!” The mercenary relaxed his grip, and Murdra coughed, gasping for breath. Over her head, she could hear quick, heavy footsteps, followed by a loud crack and the sound of splintering wood.
The heavy gallery railing swung down into the crowd. Catching their leader squarely on the head, it smashed him face-first onto the counter. Scrambling, the crossbowmen loosened their bolts, but hit nothing. With a savage cry, the dark warrior leapt from the gallery, felling another man with the heft of his axe.
“I am Gorn!” he thundered, lifting his axe. “Who wants to play?” The mercenary in front of him had no time to reply. He tried to lift his shield, but was too slow. The axe hit his helmet with a clang, dashing him to the side. The remainder of the group beat a hasty retreat, right towards the wine cellar door, where they were met by the pirate’s sabre. In the meantime, Rauter had leapt over the counter and buried his sword in the neck of a mercenary struggling to get free from the railing.
“I love this shit!” the dark warrior roared, bearing down on his adversaries.

More yells and clashing weapons could be heard from the courtyard. Murdra stared at the mercenary whose twitching body was slumped over the counter, and the pulpy mass that used to be his head. She felt bile rising again in her throat. Gotta get out of ‘ere, she thought, hurrying to the kitchen door and scrambling at the lock. As she pulled the door open, a shadowy figure leapt at her out of the fog. Murdra swung the wooden leg, hitting her assailant’s helmet. He stumbled, and Murdra hit him again, this time right on the nose. The mercenary fell to his knees, bleeding, trying to focus his eyes on Murdra. She mustered her strength for a final blow, but her attacker grabbed the leather straps of the peg leg and tore it from her grasp. Murdra fled through the kitchen door, up the path behind the Cleaved Maiden. Looking back, she could barely make out the wooden fence of her tavern through the fog, and the muffled sounds of combat faded into the distance. As she paused for breath, the realisation hit her – she had lost Belgor’s leg. Gone. Forever, she thought bitterly. An’ I wanted to save it. It was too late now: behind her, she could hear footsteps and angry cursing. ‘Es after me! Murdra thought, stumbling off the path. She hurried up the hill leading to the forest, and soon reached the first trees.
As she ran past a large boulder, someone grabbed her and pulled her to the ground. She tried a scream, but it was stifled by a strong hand firmly clamped over her mouth. As her startled eyes came into focus, Craglan’s familiar face took form before her. The master of the rangers’ guild put a finger in front of his lips. She could hear the snapping of twigs further down, then a patch of fog billowed away, revealing her pursuer. Craglan lifted the finger from his lips and pointed it at the mercenary. The brief hiss of arrows cut through the night, then all was silent. The man teetered, toppled over, and tumbled down the hill. Craglan lifted his hand from Murdra’s mouth. “Are there more on your tail?” he whispered.
“Don’t know”, Murdra stammered back. She listened for any signs of pursuit, but all she could hear was the screams in the distance.
“It’s gone. Forever!” she yelped.
“What’s gone?” asked Craglan.
“Belgor’s leg”, Murdra sobbed. “I dropped it, in the kitchen. I wanted to save it, I swore I would, and now it’s gonna burn with the Maiden!”
“I don’t think so”, replied Craglan, rising. “Listen!”
Cheers could be heard coming up from the tavern. The fight was over. Murdra scrambled to her feet and hurried back down the hill. As she came through the kitchen door, she found the pirate standing behind the counter. He was examining Belgor’s leg.
“This is yours, is it not?” he asked. Murdra nodded, resisting the urge to rip it out of his hands. “That’s some impressive workmanship” he said, handing her the leg with an approving nod. She took it reverently and ran her fingertips over the wood. Every nick and notch was in place, just where it belonged.
“King Ethorn ordered it made. For my late ‘usband”, she said.
“I see.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Murdra.”

“Diego”, the pirate said, and shook it.

Not a pirate

.
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