Authors: Murray J. D. Leeder
Son of Thunder
A Forgotten Realms Novel
The Fighters Series
By Murray J.D. Leeder
Proofread and formatted by BW-SciFi
Ebook version 1.0
Release Date: July, 10th, 2008
To Campbell, Roy, and my sister what’s her name (and Alastair too!), for putting me up and putting up with me in Bournemouth for a large portion of the time during which this book was written.
Thanks must go to my editors, Phil Athans and Susan Morris. Also to Steven Schend, Eric L. Boyd, and Ed Greenwood for their enthusiastic furnishing of Realmslorepublished and otherwisewhen I asked for it; to Jesse Decker for the loan of Rask Urgek (a definite case of borrowing the car and failing to bring it back in one piece); and also to Elaine Cunningham for all her help and advice. And finally, thanks to Paul Jaquays, the creator of the Uthgardt, and all the other game designers who have detailed them over the years, without whom I’d have had nothing to play with.
Another bone cracked beneath Gan’s foot.
“Ours wasn’t the first army massacred in this place,” the big hobgoblin growled at Thagalan Dray, one of the few humans sent on the most recent, ill-conceived expedition. Wearing a purple cloak over his scale mail, Dray was one of the Lord’s Men of Llorkh, Zhentilar in all but name. So far as they knew, the two of them were the only survivors.
Dray ignored Gan and bent over to pick up one of the bones.
“Orc,” he said, inspecting a thigh bone. He tossed the bone away and it clattered as it struck another one, half buried in the dirt. “This answers much.”
“What do you mean?” Gan rumbled.
“This place used to crawl with orcs. Sometimes they’d come down and harass our caravans near Parnast. But in recent years the activity has ceased. I think we’ve found the reason.” The whole plain around them was covered with similar bones and rusted scraps of armor and weapons. A massacre had occurred here.
“The shades?” asked Gan.
“As likely a candidate as any,” Dray said grimly. “But there are more than enough threats in this awful place.”
The shades were the reason that Dray and Gan walked the battlefield on the western rim of Anauroch. Lord Geildarr had sent a force of Zhentilar troops into this gods-forsaken strip of moora place called the Fallen Lands. Their orders were to locate a Netherese ruin where the Empire of Shadow was encamped, and to excavate the site to discover ancient artifacts.
But Geildarr refused to commit his own men, beyond a few out-of-favor Lord’s Men to serve as consultants. Instead he recruited humanoidsa local hobgoblin tribe that laired along the Dawn Pass, and some gnolls from the Southwood. This patchwork army never reached the ruin. The Shadovar forces attacked at night when they had all the advantages, and their smoky magic overwhelmed Llorkh’s troops in no time.
So Dray and Gan found themselves trotting through endless dead fields of the Fallen Lands, facing an uncertain future back in Llorkh.
“What will Geildarr do when we return?” asked Gan.
Dray chuckled. “Return? We’d be mad to go back like this. He’ll want explanations, and he’ll want examples. We’ll be hanging from a noose in front of the Lord’s Keep the moment we set foot back in Llorkh.”
“I could return to my tribe,” said Gan, more ore bones cracking beneath his feet.
“And are tribal hobgoblins more tolerant of failure than Zhentarim?” asked Dray. “Perhaps this place is the answer,” he said, looking over the dead plains. “Everyone knows that the Fallen Lands are full of lost magic. If we could stay alive long enough to find some of it, that is. But if we could provide Geildarr with something new, he might forgive us.”
“You say ‘we,’ human,” the hobgoblin said. “If you find magic of such power, why not wield it yourself?”
“The truly useful magic can be unlocked only by mages like Geildarr. Such power would be lost on us. This battle didn’t happen so long ago. Perhaps there’s something here worth salvaging. Geildarr sponsors groups of adventurers to search lost ruins and dungeons for old magicjobs that he doesn’t trust to Lord’s Men like us.”
Gan snorted. “With good reason.”
Dray ignored him. “There’s a group of adventurers Geildarr’s nicknamed the Antiquarianshe often hires them to search ruins and the like. I think they’re somewhere down on the High Moor now. Geildarr’s mad about ancient artifacts, especially things Netherese. Apparently the Fallen Lands were once a Netherese survivor state called Hlondath.” He frowned. “I guess our whole army died to satisfy his hobby.”
They spent a long time searching the battlefield. Orc skeletons by the hundreds covered the barren ground. Near the center of the field they found a small ancient ruin, little more than a few broken and fallen walls concealing nothing of value. Curiously, amid the nearby dead lay the cracked exoskeletons of two umber hulks, and what they guessed were the bones of a giant snake. But any weapons of interest were broken or rusted. Dispirited, Gan and Dray limped home.
Soon after, Gan noticed something glinting in the distance and pointed it out to Dray. “A trick of the light,” Dray said, but as he studied the flash, he judged that it was the distinctive shine of metal. He and the hobgoblin raced toward it to find a most curious discovery.
“Tymora smiles today!” cried Dray. A collection of weapons and armor lay strewn across the dirt or half buried. All counted, at least twenty items awaited discovery.
“Nobody lost these weapons,” Gan said, looking down warily upon their find. “They were thrown away. Probably for good reason. They’re cursed, maybe.”
Dray picked up a small silver helmet with an unfamiliar emblem on the side, then he dropped it into the dirt. “No, not cursed,” he said.
“Perhaps they were so damaged that someone wanted to get rid of them,” the hobgoblin offered. But the equipment, though covered by layers of grime, looked to be in fine condition.
“Or perhaps Cyric or some other power placed them here for us to find.” Dray attacked the pile, throwing aside shields and hammers. At the bottom, buried in dirt, he uncovered a battle-axe, heavy and with a huge head of glimmering steel.
It was a weapon to inspire confidence and intimidate enemiesa leader’s weapon. How many foes must have fallen to its thick blade? What battles had it seen? Gan could sense its age and its value, and he wondered what great heroes must have clutched it. Though the hobgoblin had only the faintest conception of such things, he wondered what dim forgotten age must have spawned it.
Dray anxiously rubbed off the dirt and then smiled up at the hobgoblin. “Does this look like a weapon someone would just throw away?” he asked. But as the Lord’s Man went to lift it, he found the axe was beyond his strength, and he dropped it with a thud onto the ground.
Gan cast Dray a glare as he mishandled the weapon, then reached down and scooped it up himself, comfortable with its weight. A stiffness filled the hobgoblin’s muscles as he held it, and a smile crossed his ugly face.
Dray inspected it closely as Gan held it up.
“Dwarven manufacture, I think. And look, it’s probably been here for years, and there’s no damage to the blade. I bet there’s some dweomer on this.”
“You think Geildarr will like it?” asked Gan.
“Well, magic weapons aren’t really his favorites,” Dray said, “but considering that if we stay here too long we’ll probably be eaten by leucrotta or slaughtered by shades, I think this may be just the thing to save our skins.”
“What kind of leader is Geildarr?” asked Gan.
“What do you mean?” asked Dray.
“Is he a strong ruler, worthy of service?”
“I suppose so,” Dray said.
Gan looked at him more closely. “You say that if we give this axe to Geildarr, he will let us live? Grant me a place in his service?”
“What did I just say?”
“I just wanted to be sure,” said Gan. Before Dray could react, Gan brought the axe down in the middle of Dray’s head. The axe smashed his skull and cleaved deep into the soldier’s chest. The purple cloak around Dray’s armor snapped free from his shoulders and fluttered to the ground.
The hobgoblin dislodged the bloody axe from Dray’s body and examined it. He snatched up Dray’s cloak and used it to wipe the blade clean.
“A fine weapon, indeed,” he said, tossing the gory rag aside. But something felt wrong. He felt unworthy of wielding the axe. It was for a hero of the epic sagas, not for him. Steel such as this could lead armies.
It must be taken to one sufficiently worthy.
Till I find him, Gan promised himself, I wield it on his behalf.
With the axe clutched tightly in both hands, he set off for Llorkh.
Vell the Brown tried to recall the last time he was at Morgur’s Mound. He had been so very young back then. On this visit, he was met by distant feelings and scraps of memory. He recalled the roar that arose from the tribe as King Gundar stood before the altar, raising the great ceremonial axe above his head. In his mind, Vell saw his parents standing straight and attentive, gazing up at the cairn nestled amid the Crags. Because of all the stories his parents had told him, and all he had heard in the songs of the Thunderbeast skalds, he knew the cairn was the tribe’s ancestor mound. Morgur’s Mound was the most important place to any Thunderbeast, even one who had never seen it.
Surmounted by menhirs and within the rings of the outer mounds, lay the altar mound. It was here, said the skalds, that Uthgar died fighting Gurt, king of the frost giants. Other tribes claimed that this cairn held Uthgar’s mortal remains, but Thunderbeast legend held that no body was left behind when Tempus elevated Uthgar to godhood.
A ring of bones at the edge of the mounds, great thick bonesincomprehensibly large and set rigidly in the groundwere the bones of the Thunderbeast itself: a great behemoth lizard of legend and the totem spirit of the tribe. Some of the bones had been damaged or removed over the decades by vandals or enemies of the Uthgardt, but few dared disturb so sacred a site, protected as it was by magic and curses of old.
Atop a pike in front of the altar mound stood the skull of the Thunderbeast. Its empty eye sockets gazed out at visitors as a solemn reminder that although the place was held in reverence by all Uthgardt, the Thunderbeasts were closest to it. In turn, said the Thunderbeasts, they had the closest relationship to Uthgar, and he to them. As if in proof, the altar mound itself was shaped in the form of a great behemoth.
As a child told of these things by his parents, Vell had felt a swell of pride that had never been equaled. He loved his tribe and felt a deep connection to its history. While in his youth, his young heart had felt as if it might explode with the feeling.
Vell tried to dredge up those memories in the hope of finding the same feeling now. He reached into the past to try to silence his fears of the present, and he wondered how many others of his tribe were doing the same.
For most people of Faerun, this day was celebrated as the feast day of Highharvestide, but to the Uthgardt, the day had a different name and significance. This was Runemeet, the holiest day of the year, most often celebrated with a Runehunt: a campaign against a ritual enemy. But this year, chieftain Sungar Wolfkiller had declared that the entire tribe should travel to Morgur’s Mound for a rare ritual.
Word had gone out to all outlying clusters of the tribe, and now all were assembled at Morgur’s Mound. Even the druid Thanar, green-robed and thick-bearded, had reappeared. Nobody knew how many years had passed since he had left the tribe to patrol the wilds, and no one had made contact with him since. In all, some six or seven hundred warriors, and just as many women and children, crowded the foot of Morgur’s Mound. Their tribal relation was evident in the black hair and blue eyes of most all who were assembled.
Not even King Gundar, during his auspicious rule, had dared send out such a decree. But then, he had never needed to.
The gathering was joyous, but all present knew a strong tribe would have no need for such a ritual. The Thunderbeasts also knew they were not a strong tribe. As soon as they had arrived, they had met with the Sky Pony tribemore frequent visitors to Morgur’s Mound than the Thunderbeasts. The Ponies had been cordial and friendly, agreeing to Sungar’s request that they stay away from the mound while the Thunderbeasts were assembled. King Gundar would have never needed to voice this concern. The Sky Ponies were almost as in awe of Gundar as his own tribe.
As the last light faded on Runemeet, the tribe stood within the bone boundary at the foot of Morgur’s Mound. Atop the altar mound stood Sungar, just as Gundar had in Vell’s memory, but without the traditional axe. Alongside him stood the ancient, thin-skinned Keirkrad Seventoes, the white-haired shaman of the tribe, and the Thunderbeasts’ other priests and druids. Only with all of their combined might could they accomplish this ritual.
“Thunderbeasts!” shouted Sungar. “The beast is our guide, our light. It is our route to Uthgar, and it is our route to ourselves. It represents all that we are, and what we should be. King Gundar is with the Thunderbeast now, and I know that he will help us find the answer we seek.”
A cheer went up from the assembled tribe at the very mention of Gundar. For many Thunderbeasts, Gundar and Uthgar were held in nearly the same regard. Whatever kind of leader Gundar’s successor Sungar would prove to be, he would never escape Gundar’s shadow.
As black clouds swirled overhead, and the residual light was finally extinguished, Sungar marched down the mound and stood with his warriors, signifying that he was one of thema message he always tried to project. Keirkrad, dressed in ceremonial white rothehide, turned to face the assembled tribe. He was so old that he could not summon his voice beyond a weak rasp. Only those standing closest heard him call upon the tribe members to focus their attention on the mound and lend something of their own souls to the ritual of communing.
“The Thunderbeast lives in all of your hearts. Now, you must let it free,” he concluded solemnly.
With that, Keirkrad turned toward the altar stone, his head bowed and his arms extended. Specks of light coursed between his outstretched fingers and those of the other priests. A greenish ring of magic flowed between them, pulsing and glowing, lighting up the night with divine energy. The assembled Uthgardt stood straight and tall as the area filled with the crackle of magic, raising the hairs on their necks and arms, and releasing strange vibrations beneath their feet. The magic drifted to the bones at the mound’s edge and set them trembling, the crackling rising until its crescendo crashed like thunder off the neighboring crags. Vell clenched his palms tightly and felt them fill with sweat.