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The Dwarves Omnibus, Page 2

Markus Heitz


  The dwarves’ defenses would crumble if the giants were to scale the walls. The cauldrons of molten slag were empty, the cache of stones depleted. For a moment Glandallin’s doubts returned, but a glance at Giselbert’s gleaming figure assured him that evil would be defeated in the time-honored way.

  The mass of orcs stirred and a cheer went up as the ogres approached.

  Marching to the head of the army, the enormous beasts, uglier and more oafish than even the orcs, deposited their grappling irons, the four prongs of which were the length of a fully grown man. They attached long chains to the stem of each hook.

  The apparatus is ill suited to climbing, thought Glandallin. The beasts intend to topple the walls.

  Whistling through the air, three dozen claws buried themselves in the stonework. A shouted order summoned the watching orcs to join the ogres in their tug-of-war. A crack of whips sounded and the jangling links pulled taut.

  Glandallin heard the wall groan softly. The stronghold, built many cycles ago by his kinsmen, was no match for the beasts’ raw power.

  “Quick, bring the wounded to safety!” he bellowed.

  The party of dwarves responsible for tending the cauldrons left their stations and carried off Glamdolin and the other ailing warriors.

  Masonry crumbled as a section of crenellated battlement ripped from the wall. The grappling hook went into free fall amid the showering stonework, killing two ogres and ten orcs. The enemy forces held their ground. Soon the hook was ripping through the air again, poised to sink its claws into the wall.

  This time the dwarves retreated, abandoning the parapet just in time. They took up position in the barbican above the gates.

  Glandallin listened as a large section of wall crashed and shattered on the ground below. The earth quaked and the invading army howled in triumph.

  Good luck to them, thought Glandallin, endeavoring to stay calm. I hope they dash their brains out on the doors. The gateway was built to withstand more than a few paltry grappling irons.

  He peered cautiously over the steel-plated wall. More reinforcements were on their way. Horsemen mounted on jet-black steeds galloped to the head of the army of ogres and orcs. Glandallin instantly recognized the pointed ears of the tall, slim creatures.

  A red glow shone from the horses’ eyes and their hooves struck the ground in a shower of white sparks. Two riders thundered to the gateway and gave orders to the troops. The orcs and ogres set about clearing the pathway of fallen masonry so the assault could start afresh.

  Wheeling round on their horses, the riders found safe quarter from which to watch. One of the two creatures unshouldered a mighty bow and nocked an arrow against the woven bowstring. The marksman’s gloved fingers held the weapon loosely as he bided his time.

  Hastily, the fifthlings pushed boulders over the parapet and onto the beasts below. The enemy flinched, jostling to evade the projectiles, and three of the orcs turned to flee. The archer raised his bow. Before the deserters could take flight, the first arrow, too fast for Glandallin to follow, sang through the air and an orc fell to its knees.

  Already a second missile, uncommonly long for an arrow, sped from the archer’s bow. The second beast perished, shrieking, followed a moment later by the third. The remaining minions took heed of the warning and resumed their work on the pathway. The orcs did not venture a protest at the murder of their kinsmen.

  By the coming of dawn, the path had been cleared.

  The fifthlings marveled at the scene unfolding before their eyes. The sky had brightened in the east, heralding the rising of the sun, yet a thick bank of fog loomed in the north. Its luminous center, a maelstrom of black, red, and silver, flickered with coursing light.

  In defiance of the wind, it rolled toward the gateway, sweeping over the beasts below. The raucous orcs fell silent, huddling nervously together and shrinking away from the fog. Stooping, the ogres allowed it to pass. As if hailing their leader, the riders bowed their heads and saluted the vaporous mass. The shimmering mist lowered itself gently to the ground and hovered in front of the horses.

  Then the unthinkable happened. With a shudder, the first of five bolts on the doors shot from its cylinder. The gateway quaked. Someone had spoken the incantation, delivering Girdlegard into the clutches of the invading hordes.

  “No!” bellowed Glandallin, turning his back to the enemy and leaning over the inner wall to seek the culprit below. “No dwarf would ever…”

  Glamdolin Strongarm. Alone, the dwarf was standing by the doors, lips moving, hands raised in supplication.

  “Silence!” Glandallin bellowed. “Can’t you see what you’re doing?”

  His shouts fell on deaf ears. The second lock glowed brightly, illuminated by the runes. The bolt creaked back.

  “He’s been bewitched,” muttered Glandallin. “The fog has infected his mind.”

  The third bolt left its ferrule and shot free.

  At last the custodians of the gateway stirred. Springing to their feet, they darted down the staircase, racing to put a stop to the treacherous magic before it was too late. The fourth bolt drew back. With one bolt remaining, Glamdolin was still standing unchallenged on the pathway.

  Time is against us, Glandallin thought grimly. “Forgive me, Vraccas, but I have no choice.” He gripped his ax and hurled it with all his might and fury at his comrade-in-arms.

  The blade sliced through the air, spinning, then plunged sharply toward the ground. Glandallin’s aim was unerring and the ax drove home.

  Glamdolin groaned as the weapon struck his shoulder. Blood spraying from the wound, he stumbled to the ground. Watching from above, Glandallin sent a quick thanks to Vraccas for guiding his blade.

  His relief was short-lived. Death had come too late to prevent the traitor from achieving his terrible purpose. The final bolt shot back.

  Slowly, the colossal gateway opened. The vast slabs scraped and dragged across the ground, as though reluctant to obey the treacherous command.

  There was a grinding noise of stone on stone. The chink became a narrow channel, which widened to fill the breadth of the path. Time slowed to a crawl as the gates swung open. One final creak and for the first time in creation the path into Girdlegard was clear.

  No! Glandallin stirred from his paralysis and hurtled down the steps to join Giselbert and the remaining warriors defending the gates.

  He was the last but one to take his place in the doorway. Already the others had closed ranks and were holding their shields in front of their bodies, their axes held aloft.

  Shoulder to shoulder they formed a low wall of flesh against the tide of orcs, ogres, trolls, and riders. Forty against forty thousand.

  The enemy hung back, fearing an ambush. Never before had the gates opened to allow their passage.

  Glandallin’s gaze swept the front line of monstrous beasts, shifting back to survey the second, third, fourth, fifth, and countless other grunting rows, all poised for the attack. He glowered from under his bushy eyebrows, forehead furrowing into a frown.

  Giselbert lost no time in reversing the incantation. At the sound of his voice, the gates submitted to his authority, swinging back across the pathway but moving too slowly to stop the breach. Giselbert strode behind his troops, laying a hand on each shoulder. The gesture was a source of solace as well as strength, calming and rallying the last defenders of the gates.

  Trumpets blaring, the riders ordered the attack. The orcs and ogres brandished their weapons, shouting to drown out their fear, and the army advanced with thundering steps.

  “The path is narrow. Meet them line by line and give them a taste of our steel!” Glandallin called to his kinsfolk. “Vraccas is with us! We are the children of the Smith!”

  “The children of the Smith!” the fifthlings echoed, feet planted firmly on the rocky ground beneath.

  Four dwarves were chosen to form the final line of defense. Throwing down his shield, the king took an ax in each hand and led the surge toward
the enemy. The dwarves, all that remained of Giselbert’s folk, charged out to slay the invaders.

  Ten paces beyond the gateway, the armies met. The fifthlings tunneled like moles through the vanguard of orcs.

  With only one ax with which to defend himself, Glandallin struck out, slicing through the thicket of legs. He did not stop to kill his victims, knowing that the fallen bodies would hinder the advancing troops.

  “No one gets past Glandallin!” he roared. Stinking blood streamed from his armor and helm, stinging his eyes. When his ax grew heavy, he clasped the weapon with both hands. “No one, do you hear!” His enemies’ bones splintered, splattering him with hot blood. Twice he was grazed by a sword or a spear, but he battled on regardless.

  The prize was not survival but the closing of the gates. Girdlegard would be safe if they could stave off the invasion until the passageway was sealed.

  Until this hour his ax had defended him faithfully, but now the magic of its runes gave out. Glancing to his right, Glandallin saw a comrade topple to the ground, skull sliced in half by an orc’s two-handed sword. Seething with hatred, and determined to fell the aggressor, Glandallin lunged once, twice, driving his ax into the creature’s belly and cleaving it in two. A shadow loomed above him, but by then it was too late. He made a last-ditch attempt to dodge the ogre’s sweeping cudgel, but its rounded head swooped down and struck his legs. Bellowing in pain he toppled against an orc, severing its thigh as he fell, before tumbling onward through the army of legs. He lashed out with his ax until there were no more orcs within his reach.

  “Come here and fight, you cowards!” he snarled.

  The enemy paid him no attention. Fired by an insatiable hunger, they streamed past him toward the gateway. They had no need of stringy dwarf flesh when there were tastier morsels in Girdlegard.

  Trembling with pain, Glandallin rose up on his elbows. The rest of his kinsfolk were dead, their mutilated bodies strewn on the ground, surrounded by scores of enemy corpses. The diamonds on Giselbert’s belt sparkled in the sunlight, marking the place where the fifthling father had fallen, slain by a trio of ogres. At the sight of him, Glandallin’s soul ached with sorrow and pride.

  The sun rose above the mountains, flooding through the gateway and dazzling Glandallin with its light. He raised a hand to his sensitive eyes, straining to see the gateway. Praise be to Vraccas! The gates were closed!

  A blow from behind sent pain searing through his chest. For the duration of a heartbeat the tip of a spear protruded through his tunic, then withdrew. He slumped, gasping, to the ground. “What in the name of… ?”

  The assassin stepped round his body and knelt beside him. The smooth elven face was framed by fine fair hair that shimmered in the sunlight like a veil of golden threads. But the vision bore a terrible deformity; two fathomless pits stared from almond-shaped holes.

  The creature wore armor of black metal that reached to its knees. Its legs were clad in leather breeches and dark brown boots. Burgundy gloves protected its fingers from grime, and its right hand clasped a spear whose steel tip, sharp enough to penetrate the fine mesh of dwarven chain mail, was moist with blood.

  The strange elf spoke to the dwarf.

  At first the words meant nothing to Glandallin, but their morbid sound filled him with dread.

  “My friend said: ‘Look at me: Sinthoras is your death,’ ” a second voice translated behind him. “ ‘I will take your life, and the land will take your soul.’ ”

  Glandallin coughed, blood rushing from his mouth and coursing down his beard.

  “Get out of my sight, you pointy-eared monster! I want to see the gates,” he said gruffly, brandishing his ax to ward away the beast. The weapon almost flew from his grip; his strength was ebbing fast. “Out of my way or I’ll cut you in two like a straw, you treacherous elf!” he thundered.

  Sinthoras laughed coldly. Raising his spear, he inserted the tip slowly between the tight rings of mail.

  “You are mistaken, my friend. We are the älfar, and we have come to slay the elves,” the voice said softly. “The gates may be closed, but the power of the land will raise you from the dead and from that moment on, you will be one of us. You know the incantation; you will open the door.”

  “Never! My soul belongs to Vraccas!”

  “Your soul belongs to the land, and you will belong to the land until the end of time,” the velvety voice cut him short. “Die, so you can return and deliver Girdlegard to us.”

  The spear’s sharp tip pierced the flesh of the helpless, dying dwarf. Pain stopped his tongue.

  Sinthoras raised the weapon and pushed down gently on the battered body. The final blow was dealt tenderly, almost reverently. The creature waited for death to claim its prey, watching over Glandallin’s pain-ravaged features and drinking in the memory.

  Finally, when he was certain that the last custodian of the gateway had departed, Sinthoras left his vigil and rose to his feet.


  Enchanted Realm of Ionandar,


  Spring, 6234th Solar Cycle

  A volley of raps rang out as the hammer danced on the glowing ore. With each blow the metal took shape, curving into a crescent as the iron submitted to the blacksmith’s strength and skill.

  Suddenly the jangling ceased and a pair of tongs swooped down and tossed the metal back into the furnace. The blacksmith gave a grunt of displeasure.

  “What do you think you’re doing, Tungdil?” the waiting man demanded impatiently. Eiden, a groom in the service of Lot-Ionan the magus, stroked the horse’s nose. “The nag can’t wait forever, you know. She’s supposed to be pulling the plow.”

  Tungdil dipped his hands into a pail of water and used the brief hiatus to wash away the grime. The dwarf wore leather breeches and a brown beard clipped close to his chin. He was naked from the waist up, save for a leather apron. Running his brawny fingers through his long dark hair, he shook out the sweat and let the drops of cool water trickle across his scalp.

  “The shoe would never have fit,” came his brief response. He pumped the bellows, producing a tortured hiss like the breath of a wheezing giant. The air breathed red-hot life into the glowing coals. “Nearly there now.”

  He repeated the procedure, this time to his satisfaction, and fitted the shoe to the nag. A foul-smelling cloud of yellowish smoke enveloped Tungdil as the iron singed the horny sole. He dunked the shoe into the pail, allowing the metal to cool, then held it to the hoof again and drove nails through the holes. Setting the hind leg down gingerly, he retreated hastily. The animal, a strong, broad-backed gray, was too big for his liking.

  Eiden sniggered and stroked the plow horse. “How do you like your new shoe?” he asked her. “The smith’s a midget, granted, but at least he knows his stuff. Just watch you don’t trip over him.” He hurried from the forge and marched the horse toward the fields.

  The dwarf stretched and gave his powerful arms a shake as he strolled to the furnace. The groom’s jibes did not rile him; teasing, affectionate or otherwise, was something he was inured to, having grown up in Ionandar, the only dwarf in a human realm.

  He stood more chance of finding gold by the wayside than encountering another of his kind.

  All the same, I should like to meet one, he thought. His gaze swept the orderly forge, taking in the rows of tongs and hammers hanging neatly from the walls. I’d ask about the five dwarven folks.

  The light in the forge was dim, but Tungdil liked it that way because it brought out the beauty of the fiery coals. He worked the bellows, chasing sparks into the chimney as he fanned the flames. For a moment his face lit up as he imagined the glowing red dots flitting through the sky and taking their place in the firmament to shine brightly as stars. It was the same satisfaction that he derived from letting his hammer bounce up and down on the red-hot metal. Do real dwarven smiths do things differently? he wondered.

  “Why is it always so dark in here?” Without warning, Sunja, the eight-year-old daughter of
Frala the kitchen maid, appeared at his side. A bright child, she was refreshingly untroubled by Tungdil’s appearance.

  The dwarf’s kindly face creased from ear to ear. It was astonishing how quickly human children grew; the girl would soon be taller than he was. “You’re as bad as cats, you children, sneaking up on me like that! I’ll tell you all about it if you help me heat the iron.” He tossed a lump of metal into the furnace.

  Eagerly, the fair-haired girl joined him at the bellows. As ever, he pretended to let her take over, allowing her to believe that she was compressing the firm leather pouch with her strength alone. Soon the metal took on a reddish glow.

  “Do you see now?” Reaching forward with the tongs, he gripped the nugget of iron and laid it on the anvil. “It’s not for nothing that I work without light. A blacksmith needs to know when the metal has reached the right temperature. Left to slumber in its toasty bed of coals, the iron overheats, but raised too soon, the brittle metal can’t be forged.” Tungdil was rewarded with an earnest nod. The child looked exactly like Frala.

  “My mother says you’re a master blacksmith.”

  “I wouldn’t go that far,” he protested, laughing. “I’m just good at my job.” He winked at her and she smiled.

  What Tungdil didn’t mention was that he had never received instruction in his trade. Watching his predecessor at work had been all the training he’d needed. Whenever the man set down his tools, Tungdil had seized his chance to practice, mastering the essentials in no time. Now, thirty solar cycles later, no job was too big or too difficult for him.

  Lost in their thoughts, Tungdil and Sunja watched as the flames changed color: first orange, then yellow, red, white, and blue… The glowing coals sputtered and crackled.

  Just as the dwarf was about to inquire what Cook would be serving for luncheon, a man appeared in the doorway, black against the rectangle of light.