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The War of the Dwarves, Page 2

Markus Heitz

  “By the fire of Vraccas,” stammered the sentry, gripping his shield as if a rectangle of wood and metal could protect him from a blazing orb. “Are you sure they’re sparks from Vraccas’s smithy and not Tion’s revenge?”

  “Look!” shouted another sentry, alarmed. “It’s falling! The burning star is falling!”

  “It’s the sun!” a dwarf cried fearfully. “She’s rolled out of her cradle—we need to wake her up!” He brought his ax against his shield, banging frantically.

  The comet, which seconds ago had been no bigger than a coin, grew to the size of a leather pouch. In no time at all, it was larger than a windmill with vanes ablaze.

  With a roar, the comet burned through the cloud, swooping toward the stronghold in an arc of crimson light and bathing everything beneath it—walls, watchtowers, and dwarves—in a strange red glow. In the fearsome heat, dancing snowflakes turned to raindrops and froze where they fell.

  Before the dwarves could draw breath, the battlements, bridges, and staircases were glazed with thick ice.

  “Run for cover!” shouted Boëndal, diving across the flagstones. A sheet of ice had formed on his chain mail, fusing his helmet to his back; it shattered with a high-pitched tinkle.

  Skidding on his stomach across the ice, he grabbed hold of a corner of the brazier and came to a halt. The scars on his back were telling him to be careful, but he cursed them impatiently and gritted his teeth.

  Some of the dwarves followed his example and dived for cover, while others stared at the sky in horrified fascination, unable to move or look away. A few of the sentries, convinced that the sun had fallen from its cradle, banged their weapons against their shields to rouse the burning orb.

  In a shower of sparks, the shooting star sped toward them, screeching and thundering through the sky. Boëndal braced himself for the impact, but the comet swooped over the stronghold and disappeared beyond the mountains to the west.

  But the danger hadn’t passed.

  The tail of the comet blazed red in the sky, showering debris large enough to crush a human house. The dwarves heard a drawn-out whistle, then an ear-splitting bang. The ground shook and trembled like a frightened beast. Plumes of snow shot upward, looming like luminous towers in the dark night sky. The air hissed and angry clouds of moisture rose from the vaporizing snow. Thick white fog wrapped itself around Boëndal like a blindfold.

  “To the stronghold!” he commanded, realizing that watchtowers and battlements were no match for celestial might. “We’ll be safer inside!” Bracing himself against the brazier, he tried to get to his feet; a moment later, one of the sentries was beside him, pulling him up.

  Boëndal lost his bearings in the strange-smelling fog, but his companion knew the way without seeing. They ran, skidding and sliding every few paces until they resigned themselves to crawling and pulling themselves forward on their axes. “Quick, we need to…”

  Boëndal’s command was cut off by a droning from above. He knew exactly what it meant: The battlements were about to be hit by a volley of burning rock.

  There was no time to shout a warning. The fog had already turned a muddy orange, darkening to black-streaked red as an unbearable screeching filled the air.

  Vraccas protect us! Boëndal closed his eyes as a gigantic slab of burning rock hurtled toward him. A moment later, it slammed into the solid stone walkway. Boëndal heard faint shrieks as dwarves in front of him tumbled to their deaths. He couldn’t see where the rock had landed because of the fog.

  “Turn back!” shouted Boëndal, crawling away from the shattered stone. Hampered by his injured back, he longed for his old agility. “To the northern walkway!”

  Flagstones quaked beneath their feet as the colossal towers swayed like reeds in the breeze. Cracks opened in the groaning masonry and sections of battlement plummeted to the ground.

  The bombardment continued as they hurried along the northern walkway to the highest tower. Skidding and sliding, they came to a halt at the bridge. The single-span arch construction was the only way into the kingdom and the safety of the firstling halls. Beneath the bridge was a yawning chasm, two hundred paces deep.

  A gusty wind swept the watchtowers, chasing away the mist. At last they could see the gates leading into the mountain—and safety.

  “Vraccas forfend!” cried one of the sentries, who had turned and was pointing back at the lifting mist.

  The fortifications of East Ironhald were in ruins.

  Only four of the nine towers were still standing; the rest had been crushed, toppled or flattened, leaving five rings of masonry protruding like rotten tooth stumps from the ground. The mighty ramparts, hewn from the mountain by dwarven masons, were riven with cracks wide enough for a band of trolls to breach the defenses with ease.

  “Keep moving!” Boëndal urged them. “You can worry about the ramparts as soon as we’ve got to safety. Walls can be rebuilt.”

  He and the others had barely set foot on the bridge when they heard a low rumbling like distant thunder. Then the earth moved again.

  The falling boulders from the comet’s tail had shaken the fortifications and caused the walkways to quake, but this time the tremor was deeper and more powerful, causing walls, towers, dwarves, peaks, and ridges to shudder and sway.

  The Red Range had stood firm for thousands of cycles, but nothing could withstand the violent quake.

  Most of the dwarves were knocked off their feet, hitting the flagstones in a jangling of chain mail. Axes flew through the air and clattered to the ground, while helmets collided with stone. Two of the surviving towers collapsed with a deafening bang, raising clouds of dust that shrouded the rubble.

  Boëndal thought of the vast orb that had passed overhead. He had only one explanation for the tremor: The comet had landed in the mountains to the west, sending shockwaves through the ground. He tried not to imagine what was happening in the underground halls and passageways; how many firstlings were dying, how many dead.

  The rumbling grew fainter, the quaking subsided, and at last it was still. The dwarves held their breath, waiting for what was next.

  An acrid smell burned their throats. The air was thick with dust from the ruined masonry, and smoke rose from scattered fires.

  The fearsome heat had passed with the comet, and it was snowing again. From a distance, the stillness could have been mistaken for tranquility, but it was born of destruction. Death had visited the Red Range and ravaged the firstlings’ home.

  “Vraccas have mercy,” whispered Boëndal’s companion, his voice as sorrowful and defenseless as a child’s.

  Boëndal knew what he was thinking. Dwarves were fearless: They threw themselves into battle regardless of the odds and defended Girdlegard against the invading hordes. Their axes and hammers brought death to the most monstrous of Tion’s beasts, but no dwarven weapon could match a foe like this. “We couldn’t have stopped it,” he told him. “Even Vraccas can’t catch a falling star.”

  Leaning over the bridge, he realized that the base of the tower was seriously unstable. Cracks, each as wide as an outstretched arm, had opened in the stone and were spreading through the masonry. He could almost hear it breaking. “Quick, before the tower collapses and takes us with it!” He set off quickly across the bridge, followed by a handful of survivors.

  They were almost halfway when a large clump of snow struck Boëndal on the neck. What a time to play stupid games… He brushed away the snow and kept walking.

  The second snowball hit his left shoulder, showering him with snow. He whirled round to confront the hapless prankster. “By the hammer of Beroïn, I’ll—”

  Before he could finish, the dark sky opened up and pelted him with clumps of snow. Powdery snowballs hit the bridge, his helmet, and the other dwarves. Boëndal heard a faint rumbling and the bombardment intensified; he knew what it was.

  The mountains, not his companions, had started the assault.

  Boëndal’s stomach lurched as he scanned the peaks around him. Although
the comet had hit the ground many miles to the west, it had called forth a monster that lurked above the dwarven halls. Boëndal had seen it hundreds of times while standing watch in the secondling kingdom. The White Death, roused by the rain and the tremors, had mounted its steed near the summit and was galloping down the slopes. In the space of two breaths it filled the mountainside, crushing and consuming everything in its path.

  Like a vast wave, the snow rolled down the mountain, throwing up powdery spray. Everything before it was toppled, stifled, and dragged on its downward plunge.

  “Run!” shouted Boëndal. His legs seemed to move of their own accord. After a few paces, he slipped over, but someone grabbed him by the plait and he stumbled to his feet. Two dwarves slotted their hands under his armpits and pulled him on. Driven by fear, they stumbled over the bridge, more skating than running.

  Even as the gates swung back to admit them, the White Death reeled them in.

  Hurling itself triumphantly over the precipice, it fell on the dwarves like a starving animal. Its icy body smacked into the bridge, knocking them into the chasm.

  Boëndal’s shouts were drowned out by the roaring, thundering beast. His mouth filled with snow. He clutched at the air until his right hand grabbed a falling shield, which he clung to as if he were drowning.

  His descent was fast—so fast that his stomach was spinning in all directions. He had no way of orienting himself in the snow, but the shield cut through the powder like a spade.

  Tiring of the dwarf, the White Death dumped him and covered him over. The weight of the cold beast’s body pushed the air from his lungs.

  A little while later Boëndal blacked out. Night descended on his consciousness and his soul was ready to be summoned to Vraccas’s smithy. At least it would be warm.


  300 Miles North of Mt Blacksaddle,

  Kingdom of Gauragar,


  Winter, 6234th/6235th Solar Cycle

  A rivulet of sweat left his greasy hair, slid down his forehead, and slithered over his soot and lard-slathered skin, zigzagging past clumps of solid dirt. It ran down the bridge of his green nose, dribbled onto his upper lip, and was licked up greedily by his thick black tongue. His vile mouth stayed open as he panted for breath, exposing the full length of his tattooed tusks, a sign of high rank. His vast jaws twitched.

  “Runshak!” he thundered, gesturing for his henchman to join him.

  The troop leader, putting on a burst of speed to overtake the column of marching orcs, left the path to reach the mound where his chieftain was waiting.

  The long march north had started at the Blacksaddle, where the orcs had been defeated by an alliance of dwarves, elves, and men. They were heading for their new homeland in the Gray Range: Eight hundred and fifty torturous miles still separated them from the Stone Gateway at the border with the Outer Lands.

  For now they were intent on destroying their cousins, who were somewhere on the road ahead.

  Runshak marched up the slope and came to a halt in front of his chieftain, the great Prince Ushnotz, one-time commander of a third of Toboribor, the southern orcish kingdom. “Are we catching them?”

  “Look,” boomed Ushnotz, pointing to a flat expanse of grassland amid the rolling hills. The field, a mile and a half across, was scarred with thin black lines—narrow channels cut by melt water that ran toward the eastern corner, seeping gradually into the soil. Although the field was grassing over, the trees and bushes were still bare, offering little protection from the wind—or shelter from enemies.

  Hordes of tiny black figures had taken up residence on the usually peaceful land.

  Runshak estimated their numbers at more than two thousand. They had set up camp and were going about their business as if they had nothing to fear. Dead wood and branches had been stacked in large pyres from which smoke was rising in thick black columns, clearly visible in the cloudless sky.

  Ushnotz raised a hand to his massive forehead, shielding his eyes as he focused on the activity below. Most of the milling figures were orcs; the others, shorter and less powerful, bögnilim. What they lacked in stature, they made up for in speed, but bögnilim were cowardly creatures that had to be whipped into shape. “Northern orcs and bögnilim,” he grunted scornfully. “An alliance of fools.” The northern orcs, summoned by Nôd’onn to secure the human kingdoms, had demonstrated a fatal lack of discipline at the Blacksaddle, scrapping like wolves, while Ushnotz’s troopers, no less ferocious or powerful, obeyed his orders like well-trained dogs. The orcish chieftain despised the northerners, but bögnilim were worse. “Prepare to attack. We’ll strike when they’ve filled their fat bellies and they’re snoring by the fire.”

  Runshak nodded and charged down the slope, barking orders at the pack leaders, who relayed them in similarly boorish fashion. With a clunking of armor and jangling of chain mail the mighty army of five thousand orcs rearranged itself into smaller units. The archers made their way to the back; those bearing spears and lances stood shoulder to shoulder at the front.

  The orcish chieftain followed the preparations approvingly, his thick black lips curling back to reveal his magnificent tusks. He was well pleased with what he saw. A growly laugh sounded from his throat.

  He took a deep breath and let out an almighty roar. The shuffling and stomping came to a halt. Nobody said a word.

  “Nôd’onn broke faith with us and abandoned us to our fate. The fleshlings think we’re going south, but our route will take us north—to found a new kingdom,” he proclaimed, confident that the prospect of a new homeland would make them forget their tiredness and spur them into battle. He drew his notched sword and pointed at the enemy below. “Nôd’onn’s northern lapdogs are in our way. We had to flee our homes because of those cretins. Destroy them, and the Gray Range will be ours. We’ll be in our new kingdom before the fleshling soldiers are in sight of the peaks.” He laughed malevolently. “I hope they send their cavalry after us—we could do with some meat.”

  His troopers grunted and snarled excitedly, pounding the hafts of their spears on the ground and banging swords against shields.

  He raised his arm and the noise stopped abruptly. The silence was broken by a question. “Couldn’t we march past the northerners instead?”

  Ushnotz, who had excellent hearing, knew at once which of the five thousand troopers had spoken the treasonous words. Kashbugg was a troublemaker who took after his father, Raggshor.

  Raggshor had met his death shortly before the battle of the Blacksaddle in circumstances not dissimilar to these, after questioning the wisdom of laying siege to a mountain. Ushnotz had thought him an excellent tactician, but criticism—especially when voiced in public—was not to be tolerated. Besides, Ushnotz made the decisions and he always knew best. He had killed Raggshor on the spot, and he was contemplating a similar fate for Kashbugg.

  “Silence!” he bellowed, throwing back his head in an intimidating roar.

  The display made little impression on the offending orc, who stepped forward, sword in hand, shield raised defensively. “Why not march past them and get there first? We can occupy the halls while they dash out their brains on the gates.” He stood with his legs apart, bracing himself for the blow that was bound to follow. “It’s time we did things differently, Ushnotz. After what happened at the Blacksaddle, we’re not as strong as we were. Maybe if you’d listened to my father, we’d be back in our kingdom by now.”

  Several orcs grunted approvingly.

  For Ushnotz, the interruption was unwelcome: The sweet smell of victory had soured, replaced by the reek of rebellion. He drew himself up to his full height, bared his tusks and tensed his muscles. Then he took off, bounding down the slope, and thundering to a stop in front of Kashbugg.

  “I’ve got a better plan,” he snarled, squaring his shoulders. There was a nasty glint in his yellow eyes. He made a feint with his sword; then, ducking beneath Kashbugg’s raised shield, he whipped out his dagger, rammed it into the trooper’s
armpit and pierced his heart. Green blood gushed from the wound and the insolent trooper thudded to the ground. “My plan is this: Kashbugg dies first, just like his know-it-all father at the Blacksaddle.” He glared at the others, challenging them to object. “Anyone else want to talk tactics?”

  He wasn’t surprised when no one stepped forward. The real shock came a moment later when the dead orc stood up. Kashbugg reached to his armpit and touched the wound with his claws; it healed straightaway.

  Ushnotz got over his confusion faster than Kashbugg, who was clearly amazed to be alive. He rammed his sword horizontally into the injured orc’s torso. The trooper sat down heavily and stared at the blood. He still showed no signs of dying.

  “I’m sick of your troublemaking!” shrieked Ushnotz, grabbing him by the collar and dragging him to his feet. “How dare you defy orders? I told you to die!” The notched sword cut into the trooper’s torso, but the damage was far from fatal. Kashbugg opened his mouth, dribbling blood and saliva; then he laughed.

  Straightening up, he gave the chieftain a shove. “Tion has made his choice. Why else would he make me immortal? My father’s death must be avenged!” He raised his shield and sword. “Tion wants me to lead the orcs to victory; the northern kingdom will be mine!”

  “Why would Tion favor a boneheaded simpleton like you?” growled Ushnotz, preparing to fight. None of his troopers dared to take sides: Orcs were always arguing, but this was different. “You’re hiding something, aren’t you?”

  “He drank dark water from the ditch!” called one of the troopers.

  “It was hallowed water; I knew as soon as I saw it!” said Kashbugg, thumping the leather container on his belt. “I filled my pouch with it.” He struck out at the chieftain, who blocked the blow and smashed the hilt of his sword into his face. Kashbugg stumbled backward, groaning.

  “Dark water?” barked Ushnotz. He had noticed it as well: murky puddles on either side of the track. Nothing would have induced him to drink it.

  “It’s the blood of the Perished Land,” said his challenger. “And I, Kashbugg, was elected to find it!” He sprang forward, swinging his sword.