Prologue: The Grey Guard, A Tale Begins

Road signGrumbul sat under the dense canopy of the Harloeg forest, the flames of his small camp fire flickered in the falling light and cast dancing gloomy shadows across the great trunks that surrounded him. It had not been a good day, and here deep within the ancient forest he was assured of little peace this coming eve.

To make matters even worse his beard was damp and he had a horrible feeling there might be things crawling in it. His armour clung to his sturdy frame, although now it was almost unrecognisable in its battered form. He carefully released the leather straps he had used to bound his great shield to his forearm, and with sorrow he turned it to catch the light of the camp fire. The myriad of nicks and scratches were as nothing to the terrible rend in the heavy steel at the base of the shield that bore evidence of his recent trials, and a deep sigh escaped him.

Carefully placing the tattered shield across his lap he removed a small pot of salve from his backpack before pulling off the heavy gauntlet that covered his right forearm. Even his ancient knotted features could not hide the wince of pain as the matted fibres of the gauntlet’s internal leather glove pulled against the congealed blood of the deep wound that stretched from wrist to elbow. A bad day indeed…

WeathertopIt had all begun two days before when rumours of a large troll camp had reached Grumbul. The chance meeting with a somewhat bedraggled trader near Ost Guruth had been enough to peek his interest and having learnt as much from the unfortunate man as he could, he had set off in search of the encampment.

The marshes of Harloeg had not made his progress any easier, the retching stench that permeated this land harassed his senses relentlessly and it had not been long before his meagre rations had succumbed to the dampness.

It seemed to Grumbul that he had been stumbling through the marshes for a lifetime, desperately searching for a clue as to the exact whereabouts of the troll camp. The ever worrying prospect that he may have become hopelessly lost began to prey on his mind, and it was only by sheer luck that a gap in the entwining mists had allowed him to spot the treeline ahead.

Ost GuruthSurging on with a newfound hope Grumbul had finally found the firmer ground of the forests that formed the eastern edge of Harloeg. However with the sun now disappearing rapidly, his progress through the great forest was slowing, and fearful of missing a vital clue he decided it was time to take rest for the evening.

Thus after lighting a small camp fire and with the temperature now dropping at an alarming rate Grumbul finished applying the herby salve to the wound in his forearm. Only then did he take a long swig of the great skin of ale he had carried, and as the earthy drink re-vitalised his weary muscles he felt himself relax. Alone and in the middle of this dark forest Grumbul shivered as he prepared for a long night.

View over HarloegAlthough he had travelled far from the marshes to the west to make his camp, he knew that out here away from the safety of the towers and outposts he would make a fine target for the beasts that truly called this place their home. As if sensing his thoughts the night was suddenly pierced with the piercing howl of a wolf pack in the distance, Grumbul knew that sleep would not come easy this eve.

As he sat back against a gnarled trunk behind him his thoughts slipped away to the recent meeting with his friends Barick, Hanrik and Raaw. It had been a brief encounter, and one of the few times the small group had managed to meet up in recent weeks. Still it had been a grand adventure they had set upon, and the memories of Minas Eriol and their victory over the renegade Dourhands were still fresh in his mind. Now alone and in a land where one mistake could end his life he truly missed his friends and the company they brought him.

HarloegAgain a sound, not far away this time, broke Grumbul from these thoughts and he grabbed his axe from the ground beside him. He found himself holding his breath and for a few long moments the pounding of his heart and the rush of blood through his veins hindered his senses. Fighting to regain control of his body Grumbul forced himself to relax. Purging the dangerous tension from his muscles he struggled to listen far into the night and eventually pin-pointed the sound, the wolf pack had made a kill, nothing more. He could hear the elders of the pack with their distinctive guttural howls calling the rest of the pack to the kill and Grumbul knew that with their bellies full they would be unlikely to bother him this night.

 Laying his axe at his side, he leant back once more and allowed the weariness of the day’s travels to envelop him. Sleep, not such a good thing in this place, was after all not far behind.

The crashing sounds echoed through Grumbul's weary mind, but still he slept on, twisting his tired body to remove the annoying disturbance of his peaceful sleep. Beautiful and dangerous HarloegBut louder the noise became until the very ground around him trembled. Frustration and anger were his first thoughts as his mind slowly crept back to the world around him, but as the first hazy glimpses of the forest came crashing back to the forefront of his mind these feelings were overtaken by fear and panic.

Staggering uncertainly to his feet, the light of the now dying campfire forced his eyes to blink away the cobwebs of sleep, and Grumbul felt the dread of evil rise in his heart. Almost blind as he struggled to shake the dreams from his mind he leant down, desperately fumbling for the haft of his axe.

Too late, a monstrous figure, the shape of death itself loomed afore him as it burst from behind a great oak just to Grumbul's side. Panic struck hard and relentlessy, the adrenaline surged through his veins as he leapt back, only just managing to snatch his battered shield from the ground as the ground shook and threw him to the wet, leafy forest floor. Attacked by a trollThe lumbering troll roared a cry of battle, so loud and so fierce that for a moment Grumbul lay prone on the ground, his ears ringing with the sound as it slammed into him like a physical force.

His eyes now accustomed to the dark fed his mind with more terror. This was no ordinary troll as his father's tales had told, this was a giant! Clad in iron plates and a wickedly crafted helm this was a nightmare from the very depths of Mordor. Talons of bone were part covered in evil scraps of steel that no armour would turn aside. Jaws open and glistening with cruel teeth threw the spittle of death from the creature as it once again roared its battle cry at the prone figure of Grumbul.

As it lifted its giant armoured feet to crash into the ground he felt for the first time in his life, the dread of death itself. The giant moved frighteningly fast, with the last blink of slumber bringing the true reality of this nightmare afore him, Grumbul raised his shield high. Claws enshrouded in steel and with the force of a falling tree crashed into it, the already dangerously compromised armour buckled and was bent in two around his arm and the pain tore through his entire body. Angered at the defiance of the dwarf, the troll prepared a final blow that would crush Grumbul's skull into the forest floor.

It was then the melody came, a sweet music flowing with an uplifting dreamlike quality as if the land itself had chosen to sing it's song of battle. It was enough time for Grumbul to scramble back, Duskhis fingers clawing into the earthy ground as he endeavoured to put some distance between himself and the monstrosity.

Pain overwhelmed him, the twisted metal of his shield dug deeper into his arm as he used it to lever himself backwards over the mossy ground, twisted shards of rendered steel pierced his skin and the blood flowed freely. Exhaustion, fear and agony crashed over him, tugging him into unconciousness, his eyes flickered and he saw true terror as three more ghostly grey shapes emerged from the mist enveloping the trees around him. Yet that music, that sound came louder, washing over him in waves of calmness and serenity.

 His mind could take no more, the dread grey ghosts drew forward as the troll raised it's arms and bellowed its anger. Grumbul slipped away from conciousness...

Grumbul would never know the terror of that battle, for indeed the three ghostly shapes he had seen before hope faded from his eyes were none other than his dear friends Barick, Hanrik and Raaw. Having learnt from the man-folk in Ost Guruth that their companion had left for the dread marshes of Harleog they had followed in pursuit.

There was one among them, a minstrel, Barick as he is known amongst his friends, that knew of the dangers of that foul forest and with the help of Raaw, a well travelled and knowledgable dwarf, they had tracked him to the best of their ability to the edge of the marsh. The Forsaken InnOf course few dwarfs can travel without a footprint or three, but in a marsh there is no such ease of following such a sturdy race. Lucky for them, and indeed for Grumbul, they had Hanrik, who could smell even above the stench of the marsh, the fine ale that Grumbul carried on his back. No sleep had been allowed, and even swigs from their own ale had been forsaken as they had run, wet and tired, to seek their friend.

It had been Raaw, a master of the axe who had heard the echoing bellow of that foul troll in the forest, and it was he who had led his tired friends crashing through the undergrowth just in time to see Grumbul stumble. The cleverness of Barick, with his distracting melody, and the rushing bodies of Hanrik and Raaw as they leapt upon the troll is of course a tale for another day. But it was they who saved poor Grumbul from a terrible fate that night and it was they who took turns to carry the old dwarf many miles to the Forsaken Inn far away in the Lone Lands, and it was they who tended to his wounds for many days after. A hefty price they paid for the room I might add, and as you know dwarfs are not eager to part with their coin.

Thus was born a bond, an oath if you will, of trust and friendship and all such things that make one happy and safe. Many an ale was drunk, and many a story told and heard in those days spent at the Forsaken Inn. Most important for this story was of course Grumbul's terror at the ghostly trio that had emerged from the mist. His friends found it mighty funny as you may well imagine but it goes to show that not all things that come out of the dark are bad.

There are many more tales of these friends, and of their friends, and of friends of their friends. But this was how The Grey Guard came about (with an ale or five). There is much trouble one can get in on one's own, and sometimes that trouble is better shared...

Text edited but not changed and pictures added by Winagrim.

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