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by Hans-Jrg Knabel

Orcs in the Valley of Blood after a battle. It is the same woods were Ethorn VI defeated Lord Tronter.

A heavy cloud of dense, black smoke hung over the Valley of Blood, slowly creeping up the west flank of the White Eye Mountains; higher and ever higher. Murdra eyed it with mistrust. A high wind tore the top of the cloud apart and drove dark swathes from the steep face towards Stewark. It could be her imagination, but Murdra thought she could already smell the smoke. It gave her goosebumps.
Damn war! She tore her gaze from the smoke and trudged to the back of the herb garden. A babble of voices could be heard from the tap room and angry shouts from the courtyard; a sharp cry of pain cut through the noise.
Firenettle and fireherb, Murdra mumbled, brushing leaves and twigs aside. There werent many left. She hurriedly pulled up all she could find and tossed them into her wicker basket. Through a gap in the picket fence, she spied two men hobbling up the road from the Valley of Blood to her tavern. Not more of em, she thought, straightening up. Then she saw another figure in the distance running towards the Cleaved Maiden. Turning around with a snort, Murdra trudged back to the kitchen door.

Thats all we ave left, Belgor said as Murdra entered the kitchen. He was pointing at three wooden bowls half-full with meat broth and a few narrow slices of bread.
Thats stayin ere! Murdra decided as she walked past. We ave to eat, too.
The boy was standing at the table near the hearth, pouring water into ale tankards. The ale had run out long ago, as had the ale from the wagoners stranded at the Maiden because of the war. When Murdra had seized it two days ago, a riot had nearly broken out. The wagoners had protested vociferously, but Murdra didnt see why her supplies should be raided while the ones of the people clogging up her yard should be spared. She had been accompanied by her husband, the boy, and seven burly woodcutters armed with cudgels. A short fight ending with a broken nose settled the matter the woodcutters heaved the barrels from the carts and rolled them into the store. The day after that, they had taken all the food from the carts, but that was gone now as well.
Murdra took an ale jug full of water from the table, unlocked the chain she had secured the kitchen with, and squeezed into the tap room with the jug and the basket. Peasants and woodcutters, wagoners and soldiers were practically piled on top of each other, the stench of smoke, sweat and blood in the air. A pockmarked soldier blocked Murdras way to the stairs. His brow was wrapped in a dirty bandage, his left arm in a sling.
Water? he shouted angrily, shoving his tankard into Murdras face. I need a drink, not a bath!
Out of the way! Murdra hissed, grabbing the soldier by his broken arm and shoving him aside. The stairs were chock full of people as well. Vermin, Murdra thought, shoving her way up to the second floor, heading for the canopied bridge connecting the main building with the stables.

Chaos reigned below. Wagons, oxen and tents were scattered across the courtyard, wagoners and wounded soldiers crowding in between. Four corpses were lying in front of the stables, perfunctorily covered with rags. The stench of ox dung, burnt flesh and decay was overpowering.
In the middle of the throng, a wagoner had harnessed his oxen. He was surrounded by an angry mob.
That cart stays where it is! shouted an angry trader.
Do you really think Im going to wait until Lord Tronter finishes off Ethorn of Setarrif and sends his men to Stewark? the wagoner barked back. Get your tent out of the way, Mill, or Im going to drive my oxen through it!
Just try, and Ill break your bloody jaw! the trader bellowed and stepped in front of the wagoner, fists at the ready.
Thatll ave to wait, Murdra decided and crossed the bridge. More threats and insults broke through the clamor. Jilvie, a young huntress, was scrunched down beside the door to the dormitory. Her face was a mess, spattered with blood, dirt and ashes . Her bow was broken, but she held fast to it with both hands.
Here, Murdra said, holding the jug of water under her nose.
Jilvie looked at her with tired eyes. They they were waiting for us, she stammered. Grom, I her words gave way to sobs. Tears ran down her cheeks. Murdra bent down and pressed the jug into Jilvies hands. Drink, she said, awkwardly petting her on the shoulder. Leaving the girl behind her she turned and stepped into the dormitory.

Castle at the exit of the gorge of penitents (lower left).
The room was just as tightly packed as the others. At least two wounded were lying on each bed. Others were sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls. Moans and wails filled the room. Grom was lying on the big oak table in the middle of the room he was unconscious, and missing a leg. His blood was dripping down onto the floor, forming a large puddle.
There you are, said Danken, the healer, putting down the saw. His face and apron were covered in blood.
All there was, Murdra replied and pressed the basket into his hand.
Lets hope that Ricklen will be able to find the healing herbs I need in the Orc Forest, Danken said, and turned to Craglan, the grandmaster of the rangers guild. An arrow shaft was jutting out of his side; Murdra grimaced in disgust.
Ricklen is a good lad, Craglan moaned, coughing. He wont disappoint you.
Danken studied Craglans wound intently. You broke off the arrow, he said, musing. Danken shook his head sadly. If the ribs are broken, the marrow will enter the blood, and you will develop fever and die - or a cyst will form and you will live.
Damn paladins, Craglan growled, his face contorted with pain. Someone must have told them about our plan.
Murdra had an inkling. The butchers knife in Gonters back flashed across her minds eye, the hooded figure vanishing among the trees of the Orc Forest. But she held her tongue.
Keep talking, Danken said absentmindedly, pulling a large pair of iron tongs from his bag. Oh, Murdra gasped. She hurried towards the door, but Danken grabbed her arm and gestured her to hold down Craglan.
They lured us into a trap at the exit of Hunters Gorge, cutting us of from Ethorn and his men, Craglan said while Danken held the tongs into flames of a torch. This was four days ago! No one would have thought the battle would drag on for so long! No one!
It is said that Lord Tronter received some help from the continent after all, chipped in a soldier sitting on the floor near Craglan.
Some say, General Lee personally led the battle in the Valley of Blood, an archer added.
Rubbish! Craglan cried out as Dankens tongs touched the broken arrow. He convulsed, but Murdra pressed him down with all her strength. Rubbish! he cried again, as the arrow tip scraped against his ribs. He then slumped down in an inert mass.
Out cold, Murdra observed, and relaxed her grip.
Better that way, Danken said and tried to twist the arrowhead. Craglans eyes popped open, and he gasped. Dammit, Murdra thought, tensing.
General Lee, said Danken absentmindedly, twisting the arrowhead a bit further. The grandmaster of the rangers guild clenched his teeth and was obviously trying to distract himself from the pain by focusing on the healers words. How how could he possibly have assisted Tronter so quickly? Its impossible. Besides, his voice broke off, and he took a long rattling breath, hes got his own problems up there. In Myrtana.
What about Ethorn? Danken asked, wiping the sweat from his brow.
We just saw him from a distance, Craglan answered, and groaned in pain. He had auxiliary troops. Men from Torgaan. If someone saved his neck, then it was the black warriors from the jungle isle. It is said they need no hope to win and there's been no hope to be had here for a long time.
Danken gave Murdra a signal. Now, he hissed, grabbing the tongs with both hands. Murdra pressed the grandmaster against the floor with her entire weight. Danken pulled. Craglan screamed, and slumped down again. Thats it, Danken said, holding up the bloody arrow tip.

Murdra had enough she had no problems slaughtering chickens and goats, but surgery made her queasy. Gotta get out of here, was all she could think about, and she burst through the front door of the dormitory, back to the canopied bridge. She grabbed the railing and took a deep breath. Below, the wagoner and the merchant were rolling in the mud, brawling.
Murdra watched them for a while, until her attention was drawn to a young man in light armor running through the gate of the Cleaved Maiden. He stopped, and doubled over to catch his breath. Straightening up again he yelled: Victory! We won the battle!
Silence fell over the tavern yard. All eyes were laid on the gate and the young soldier. Even the squabblers interrupted their tussle.
Ethorn of Setarrif has defeated Lord Tronter in honorable combat, the soldier shouted, still trying to catch his breath. The Myrtanian governor and his generals grace the cages in the Gorge of Penitents. Ethorn is King of Argaan!
No one said a word. Then a single voice proclaimed: Long live Ethorn VI! Long live the king of Argaan! More people joined in, and then the entire courtyard was awash with cheering.
Murdra thought she could smell smoke again, but this time, it didnt feel threatening. Hm, she said, relieved, and plodded down into the kitchen.

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