“Damn grœnn naðr!”
Halvard swore under his breath as he sat up and felt his spine re-align itself.
He uttered another series of curses until he stopped mid-sentence. Holmvé might
have heard him. For a two hundred and sixty-year-old dwarf, she had truly incredible hearing when it came to words she didn’t like. Slowly he lifted one leg out of the bed, and then another. Every bone in his body ached. If stumbling through the sewers the night before had not been bad enough, no amount of scrubbing had been able to remove the smell of dwarf waste from his skin. His hair especially still smelt faintly of the sewer tunnels.
“At least I shot the little rat,” he muttered to himself and stood up. A loud click came from his shoulders as he did so. “Agh! Sweet mother of Amma!” He howled.
Shit! Halvard winced.
As he walked out of his room towards the stairs, he heard dozens of rushed
footsteps from the street outside and shook his head. Still looking for those bloody goblins, idiots.
Holmvé looked up at him from the bottom of the stairs with a strange expression on her face, a mixture of disbelief and panic.
“What’s wrong?” When she did not reply instantly, Halvard ran down the stairs and took her hands in his. “Holmvé, what’s wrong?”
Her breath made frantic gasps and it took a while before she could reply.
“The red plague, it’s—”
She did not need to finish her sentence. Halvard realised that he could hear the
sounds of bells in the distance.
“This morning, they’ve started cordons in the south tunnels,” Holmvé whispered,
her hands shaking. “What are we going to do, Halvard?” “Where is Eilíf?”
“She went to the markets this morning, she isn’t back yet…”
Halvard was surprised to feel a complete sense of calm suddenly take over from the initial panic.
“Lock the doors, don’t let anyone in unless it’s Eilíf or me.”
“Don’t go out there!” Holmvé begged, refusing to let go of his hands.
“I have to, Holmvé. I need to find Eilíf and I’ll need to go back to the garrison.” “What if you get sick!?”
“Holmvé,” Halvard knelt in front of her and held her face in his hands, “it didn’t take me last time. It won’t this time.”
It was another few minutes before Halvard could prise her hands off him and make his way out the door. As soon as he heard the heavy bolt close behind him he ran as fast as he could down the street, one hand on his sword, the other held up at shoulder level to push aside any dwarfs who should try to get in his way.
The panic outside was palpable. Nobody was walking. He was forced to jump out of the way more than a few times as a number of terrified ponies bolted past him, followed by their owners, half way down the tunnels trying to chase them down through the crowds. He recognised the possibility of a stampede and did his best to stay by the walls were the crowds were less packed. He kept running until he reached the grand plaza, where he spat in disgust.
Every single stall was surrounded by hordes of panicked dwarfs, as they scrambled over one another to buy or steal as much food as they could. If the soldiers had been called, then they had not arrived. The entire plaza was a mass of heaving bodies.
“Shit!” Halvard cursed, unable to hear himself over the noise.
Behind him, Eilíf grabbed hold of his arm and held it tightly. The basket in her
other arm was half filled with food.
“Get back home!” Halvard shouted at Eilíf over the din.
“We need more food!” Eilíf shouted back. “What if we’re trapped for weeks like
“This won’t be like last time! Now go!”
“What about you?”
“I need to get to the garrison.”
Eilíf nodded and ran. She clutched the handle of her basket with both hands. Suddenly the screams grew louder and a massive section of the crowd surged to
the left of the plaza. Halvard ran forward as he saw a small dwarf woman get knocked to the ground in the stampede, unable to get back up.
“Get out of the way!”
When the dwarfs would not let him through, he began to push and eventually punch his way through. Even then it was all he could do to not also be knocked to the ground against the collective strength of the crowd. He reached the woman and stood between her and the stampede, unable to help her to her feet without being crushed alongside her. Like a flock of birds, the crowd abruptly changed direction, and he was able to reach down to pull her up from the ground. As he dragged her up by her arm, she screamed. There were several red bruises on her face and arms.
Without time or space to be gentle, Halvard wrapped one arm roughly around her waist and shoved his way back through the crowds. Behind him he heard the horns of the city guard, and once again the crowd pushed and shoved him from side to side, reinvigorated with panic. There was nothing he could do except move with them like a piece of wood caught in a maelstrom.
For a brief moment, a gap in the crowd opened up beside him and he pushed his way towards it. After another few steps, he broke through the crowd to the edge of the plaza.
“Alright, you can let go now,” Halvard wheezed. The woman’s arms gripped around his neck so tightly it was hard to breath. When she let go, he saw the large imprint of a boot down the side of her face. Her left eye was so swollen she could barely see through it. He held onto her arm until he was sure she could stand on her own. Her hands trembled like leaves.
“Can you stand?”
“Y-y-yes. Thank you!”
She burst into tears and tried to hug him. Halvard quickly stepped back and
muttered that he had to leave.
The crowd behind him had already calmed a little, as the city guard forced the
crowd to disperse bit by bit. Like a wave, the crowd split apart down the middle and Halvard saw what had caused the stampede.
On his knees, blood around the edges of his mouth a young dwarf was knelt on the ground in the middle of the plaza. Round red patches covered his skin and his face had a dazed look. He tried to stand, only for his knees to buckle and he fell back down to the ground. One hand raised towards the guards and the crowd, he pleaded for someone to help him, but nobody moved. The guards all lowered their spears towards him.
“What are you doing?” The woman tried to hold him back as Halvard walked towards the dwarf, but Halvard shook her off. Nobody else stood in his way as Halvard walked towards the dwarf and knelt down next to him.
“Help me!” The dwarf begged, barely able to speak through the blood in his mouth. Halvard didn’t even flinch as the dwarf began to cough violently and specks of blood hit his face. Before the dwarf could collapse face down onto the floor Halvard caught him and held his as gently as he could. The was nothing he could do. The red plague had already destroyed the dwarf’s lungs to such a degree that no healer would be able to save him.
“It’s alright,” Halvard lied and stood up with the young dwarf in his arms. “I’m going to take you home.”
Relief washed over the dwarf’s face and he buried his head against Halvard’s shoulder, completely unaware that Halvard was walking slowly in circles.
“Thank you! Thank you,” he mumbled, as another cough wracked his body. “Where do you live?”
“The west tunnels,” the dwarf groaned.
Halvard nodded calmly and continued to walk slowly in a circle. “Family?” “My sister, she’s sick.”
Again, the dwarf began to cough, though this time Halvard noticed small lumps of lung tissue mixed in with the blood. He’s near the end.
Halvard carefully knelt down on the ground and rocked gently from side to side. “Why have you stopped?” the dwarf gasped in panic.
“I’m tired, I need to sit down for a while. Don’t worry.”
The dwarf nodded. His face relaxed and he closed his eyes. Each breath drew longer and more desperate than the last. With a small shudder, the dwarf’s head curled back and his spine arched. Both hands twisted in on each other like dead spiders.
“It’s all right, it’s all right. You’ll be home soon.”
Halvard repeated himself again and again until the dwarf took one final, long pained breath, shuddered, and went still.