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The War of the Dwarves, Page 3

Markus Heitz

  Ushnotz flung himself to the ground and drove both boots into the trooper’s knees, smashing the joints. Kashbugg screeched. The noise ended suddenly as Ushnotz dealt a long sweeping blow to his neck. The trooper’s head fell one way, his body the other. This time Kashbugg was dead.

  Ushnotz bent over the corpse, unhooked the water pouch and signaled to one of his underlings. “Here, drink this,” he said. The trooper took the pouch.

  Screwing up his face in disgust, he took a sip. Black water dribbled from his mouth, and he coughed. “It tastes like the smell of troll’s piss, only wor—”

  Ushnotz stabbed him, ramming the dagger into his heart. He watched impassively as the trooper fell to the ground. The blade was still embedded in his flesh. After a while, his eyelids fluttered and he raised his head. The blood stopped pouring from his chest.

  “Well?” asked Ushnotz suspiciously.

  “I’m… I’m alive,” said the orc, his voice a mixture of horror and pain. Then he realized his newfound power. Roaring with triumph, he bared his tusks and brandished the pouch. “I’m alive! The dark water made me—”

  Ushnotz took hold of his dagger, pulled it out of the screaming orc’s chest, and lopped off his head. He caught the pouch quickly and raised it to his lips, draining its contents. Then he hurled it to the ground. He didn’t feel any different, but he was certain of the effect. As a former prince of Toboribor, he deserved to be immortal. A leader like me needs an indestructible army. He decided to obtain more of the water for his troops.

  Leaving the troopers without a word, he lumbered up the slope to survey the enemy camp and wait for an opportunity to attack.

  The northern orcs were gorging themselves on human flesh. Ushnotz, his stomach rumbling, breathed in the smell of roasting meat. He and his troopers had been nourishing themselves on whatever crossed their path—animals, snails, and beetles. Fleshlings were a rare delicacy because the northerners seldom left anything in their wake. The inhabitants of three villages, a small town, and a hamlet had been slaughtered and eaten by the marauding troops.

  Ushnotz was surprised at their pillaging; it was bound to provoke the fury of the fleshling kings.

  The fleshlings on their own weren’t much of a threat—Ushnotz thought them feeble and clumsy—but it was imperative for his troops to reach the Gray Range before the united army of Girdlegard noticed and hunted them down. If it came to a battle, he wanted to be protected by the sturdy defenses of a dwarven stronghold at the heart of a mountain range. With any luck, the other princes of Toboribor would keep Girdlegard’s warriors busy for a while.

  The sun, tired from another long orbit, was dropping toward the horizon. Soon she would retire to bed, making way for the stars to populate the heavens. The time for battle was approaching. Ushnotz bellowed for Runshak and briefed him on the plan of attack.

  Just then the wind changed, blowing a new smell to the hilltop where Ushnotz and Runshak were stationed. They sniffed enquiringly, their broad nostrils flaring until at last they were sure. The air smelled of horses, armor, and sweat—fleshling sweat.

  “They’re coming from the south,” snarled Runshak, turning to face the string of hills to their right. “Confounded fleshlings.”

  The united army! Although Ushnotz could smell but not see the new arrivals, he knew at once that his troopers were outnumbered. Even as he resigned himself to beating a hasty retreat he realized that the enemy was hounding a different quarry. “We’ll wait,” he said.

  “You mean, they haven’t seen us?” asked Runshak, surprised.

  “It’s not us they’re looking for; they’re after the orcs who left those tracks.” He grinned. A few miles earlier, he had decided to stop tailing the northerners and lead his troopers across a river. The fast-flowing water had washed away their scent. Clearly, the fleshling scouts hadn’t thought to look for two separate armies or his troopers would surely have been attacked. He congratulated himself on his guile.

  Runshak growled uneasily and raised his nose to the wind. “The smell’s getting stronger. They’re still advancing; it won’t be much longer until they attack.” He looked expectantly at Ushnotz. “As soon as they’ve started fighting, we’ll jump in and teach those fleshlings a lesson.”

  “No,” said Ushnotz. “The northerners can deal with them. We’ll see how they fare.” He took a silent decision to resume the march that night if the united army proved victorious. It suited his purposes for the soft-skinned fleshlings to believe that this part of Girdlegard had been purged of his race.

  He would never admit as much to Runshak, but Kashbugg had been right in one respect. The battle of the Blacksaddle had weakened his army. It was time to change tactics, but Ushnotz knew how to develop his own strategies without a jumped-up trooper telling him so.

  “We’ll stay out of sight. The fleshlings won’t know we’re here, and they’ll head south. As soon as it’s safe, we’ll march north and find more of that water—enough for all of us. No army will be powerful enough to defeat us and when we’re ready, we’ll claim the lives that we spared tonight.”

  He turned his head, looking over the fat-encrusted surface of his epaulette. His yellow eyes focused on the troublemaker’s corpse and he grunted contentedly. Kashbugg and the ill-fated victim of his experiment with the water would be the only troopers to die that night.

  Prince Mallen was waiting with his cavalry fifty or so paces from the brow of the hill.

  The enemy was camped on the other side, watched by two of his scouts who were crouched on the hilltop, assessing the size of the army, which had been known to them only by the boot prints on the ground.

  Mallen had decided to hunt down the fleeing orcs and bögnilim and put a stop to their pillaging. From what he had seen over the past few orbits, the beasts had lived too long already. They left nothing but carnage in their wake.

  The first of the scouts crawled backward down the hillside to make his report. “Two thousand of them, Prince Mallen. They’ve been feasting, by the looks of it, and now they’re dozing around their fires.”

  “So there aren’t five thousand as we thought?” said Mallen, sitting upright in the saddle. His mount snorted gratefully, glad of the shift in weight. After a long ride without any rest to speak of, the horses were wearier than the men.

  Until that moment, the wind had been blowing toward them, but now it buffeted them from behind. The air was mild and smelled of the coming spring.

  “The ground was muddy, remember,” said the scout. “The soil is soggy with melting snow; you sink deeper than usual. Besides, the green-hided beasts are bigger than us and their armor is heavy.” His eyes swept the rows of horsemen. “Two thousand of them, Prince Mallen—no more than two thousand and no fewer.”

  The Ido flag, carried proudly by one of Mallen’s riders, was fluttering in the wind, betraying the southerly change. Mallen cursed. Orcs had an excellent sense of smell and could sniff out their victims from a distance; they were bound to detect the waiting men.

  Mallen’s finely crafted armor, engraved with the insignia of the Ido, gleamed in the light of the setting sun. He unbuckled his old-fashioned helmet from his belt, set it on his head and fastened the chinstrap. His careful handling of the headpiece showed his respect for the royal crest, which had been in his family for generations, surviving the centuries unchanged.

  His riders, seeing the prince’s blond hair disappear beneath his helmet, prepared themselves for battle. Mallen heard the clunking of weaponry and jangling of armor behind him and gave the order to attack.

  “Archers to the front,” he said resolutely. “Advance to the hilltop, but stay out of sight. Foot soldiers go with them.” He turned to the right. “First unit ride in and attack. Slash, jab, and do whatever you can to bait them—but turn and flee as soon as they fight back. The dolts will follow, and we’ll be waiting for them. Don’t let any escape.”

  He nodded briskly, and the first 150 riders charged up the hill, exploding over the crest and careering do
wn the other side to blast through the enemy camp like a hoofed gust of death.

  Eyes closed, Mallen listened to their progress. He heard pounding hooves, cries of terror from the orcs and high-pitched screams from the cowardly bögnilim. A moment later, swords met with armor and shields.

  The clamor intensified. One hundred voices became a thousand as the excited beasts threw themselves wildly on the small band of riders who had ventured foolishly into their camp.

  The thundering horseshoes grew louder, accompanied by shouts and jeers from the pursuing beasts.

  Mallen raised his arm, lifting his sword high in the air. He heard the archers nock their arrows and level their bows.

  The first beasts had yet to crest the hill when Mallen brought his sword down sharply and three hundred arrows soared through the air, falling steeply over the hilltop and raining vertically on the startled wave of orcs and bögnilim.

  The first flurry was followed by a second and a third. Mallen listened in satisfaction to the beasts’ dying screams. Meanwhile, the riders galloped back and took their place among the ranks.

  “Ride!” he shouted. “Death to the beasts of Tion! Ride!” Opening his eyes, he took a deep breath. “For Ido and for Girdlegard!” He reached back to tap his horse with the flat of his sword, and they galloped away.

  The whinnying steed was joined by five hundred others. The prince’s cavalry poured over the hill in a stream of glittering silver. The drumming of two thousand hooves shook the earth, striking fear into the hearts of the approaching beasts.

  The orcs and bögnilim turned tail and fled, but there was no escape from the onslaught of spears, armored horses, and steel. The stragglers were the first to die; the rest were trampled a few paces later. The air was wet with green blood, but neither the screams of the dying nor the sight of the wounded could slow the riders’ advance.

  He could have waited for us,” grumbled Boïndil Doubleblade of the clan of the Swinging Axes. The secondling warrior was making his way to the surface with incredible speed. “The cavalry has attacked; I can hear the horses.” He gripped the metal rungs with his powerful fingers, climbing hand over hand. The only light in the shaft came from chinks around the doorway. It was barely enough to illuminate the ladder, but Boïndil—like all dwarves—was accustomed to seeing in the gloom. “What if the long-uns finish them off before we get there?” he said anxiously.

  Tungdil Goldhand, climbing behind him, tried not to laugh. He knew that his friend was desperate to fight. The hot-blooded Boïndil, known to his kinsfolk as Ireheart, pursued his enemies with a vengeance and was bent on waging war. “I had a word with Prince Mallen; he promised to leave some for you.”

  Ireheart snorted, his long black plait swinging across his back. “You shouldn’t make fun of me,” he called back grouchily, climbing faster than before. He let out an excited shriek. “I think they’re right above us; I can smell their stinking armor!” The weight of his chain mail, shield, and axes seemed not to bother him. One hand was already reaching for the door; a moment later, he found the bolt and opened the hatch. He poked his helmed head tentatively into the open.

  “What can you see?” panted Tungdil, whose muscles were tiring. “Any sign of the orcs?”

  “We’ve died and gone to Vraccas’s smithy,” whooped Boïndil. With a bloodcurdling “oink”, he catapulted himself out of the shaft like a dwarven cannonball. “Stand clear, you little runts, I’m coming!”

  Craning his neck, Tungdil looked up and saw the secondling silhouetted against the light. He seemed to be brandishing both axes as he flew through the air. Tungdil turned back to the others. “Quick, after him!” He hauled himself out of the shaft.

  He hadn’t expected the situation to be good, but it was worse than he had imagined. He was standing in an encampment of shrieking bögnilim and angry orcs. Tungdil’s notion of the eternal smithy was rather different.

  As soon as he was clear of the shaft, he reached behind him and drew his ax from the sheath on his back. The diamond-encrusted blade glittered fiercely in the crimson light of the dying sun.

  At the sight of Keenfire, the orcs pulled up abruptly, grunting and shuffling back. They knew they were dealing with no ordinary warrior. Every beast in Girdlegard had heard how Tungdil Goldhand had slain the dark magus and sliced the demon in half with a glittering blade.

  Crafted by the best dwarven artisans, with a blade made from the purest steel and forged in the fieriest furnace, encrusted with diamonds and inlaid with precious metals and tionium, Keenfire was a weapon of untold power and strength. The beasts were right to be afraid.

  Summoning his courage, an orc stepped forward to challenge its bearer. He swung his cudgel with a snarl.

  “Ah, a hero,” growled Tungdil, dodging the blow. He hoisted Keenfire above his head, whirled round, and drew the ax across the orc’s belly. The blade sliced through the fat-smeared armor as if it weren’t there, spilling green gore and intestines. The disemboweled orc groaned and toppled to the ground. Tungdil raised his ax. “Any more takers?”

  The orcs shrank away and hollered for their archers.

  The dwarves behind Tungdil seized their chance and clambered out of the shaft. Soon there were thirty of them standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle, weapons hefted and ready to counter an enemy attack.

  Meanwhile, Ireheart was rampaging through the hordes. He darted and bounded between the orcs and bögnilim, felling beast after beast. Tungdil lost sight of him, but he could hear the secondling’s frenzied laughter as he baited the enemy by oinking like a runt.

  Glancing up, Tungdil caught sight of Prince Mallen’s cavalry approaching from the north. The riders were charging down the hillside in a line measuring five hundred paces across. Beasts and bögnilim were trampled to the ground.

  “Get back, Boïndil!” he shouted anxiously. Behind him, the last of the dwarves were clambering out of the shaft: Tungdil’s troop of a hundred warriors was complete.

  “Aren’t you coming?” called Boïndil cheerfully from somewhere in the scrum. His voice was barely audible amid the sound of buckling armor and the shrieks of the dying beasts.

  Tungdil gripped the haft of Keenfire with both hands and squared his shoulders. His eyebrows knitted together in a determined frown. “I’m coming,” he murmured softly. Then he raised his voice to a shout. “Drive them forward!”

  His warriors let out a fearsome battle cry and fanned out, brandishing their hammers and axes as they threw themselves on the startled beasts. Tungdil and Keenfire led the attack. Nothing could stop the formidable blade as it sang through the air, slicing shields, hewing armor and chain mail, severing limbs, and killing strings of orcs with every blow.

  The dwarves carved a path through the hordes, undeterred by the stinking blood and the vile smell of their enemies’ grease-encrusted armor. Green gore splashed from gushing wounds, and dismembered limbs thudded to the ground to be trampled underfoot by the indomitable dwarves. Soon the warriors at the rear were clambering over enemy corpses, but they pressed on regardless, determined to free Girdlegard from the pestilent orcs.

  The resistance soon dried up. The bravest beasts died in combat, while those of a less courageous nature fled at the sight of the grim-faced dwarves.

  “After them!” shouted Tungdil. The strategy paid off: Driven forward by the dwarves, the orcs and bögnilim collided with their comrades, who were running from Mallen and his men. The beasts were doomed.

  Swinging his ax, Tungdil took aim at a couple of orcs. Even as the blade swung toward them, the beasts keeled over, felled by an invisible hand. To Tungdil’s astonishment, Ireheart popped up from behind the corpses. He was soaked with the blood of countless orcs and his eyes were glinting dangerously.

  “I was wondering where you’d got to,” he said cheerfully. “What kept you? Don’t tell me you were having trouble with the runts.”

  “I was yelling at you to come back,” scolded Tungdil, shaking his head.

  “Oh,” said Boïndil. “I
assumed you were talking to them.” He pointed to the fleeing beasts. Sighing contentedly, he contemplated the battle. “A good end to the orbit, eh?” He raised his gore-spattered axes. “Come on, we’re not finished yet.” Suddenly a shadow crossed his face. “To be honest, scholar, it isn’t much fun without my brother. The two of us would have wiped the floor with the runty little beasts. The next twenty are for him…” He charged off, bellowing ferociously at the top of his voice.

  “His fiery spirit will be the death of him,” murmured the dwarf next to Tungdil. Soon he too was slashing his way through the orcs.

  Please, Vraccas, prayed Tungdil. Don’t let Boïndil come to any harm. He dropped back a few paces and placed the bugle to his lips, playing a sequence of notes that Mallen would recognize as a signal that the dwarves had arrived and were closing in from the opposite side. There was a danger that Mallen’s archers would loose their deadly arrows at the dwarven warriors, who were hard to spot from a distance, especially when surrounded by orcs. He waited for Mallen’s bugle to reply, then caught up with the rest of his company, and launched himself into the fray.

  The dwarves were still fighting at sundown and Mallen’s infantry joined the action, which didn’t please Boïndil at all. Some of the orcs and bögnilim were intent on escaping, but Mallen was ready for them, and the attempt to leave the battlefield was blocked by a unit of riders with lances.

  By nightfall, there was barely room to step around the corpses and the channels of melt water were awash with green blood.

  The dwarves and men met on the southernmost hill above Prince Mallen’s camp. The prince turned his horse and cantered over to Tungdil, dismounted and held out his hand. Save for a nick in his forearm and some damage to his armor, he seemed to be unscathed. “Tungdil Goldhand,” he said respectfully. “Praise the gods for your safe arrival.”

  It wasn’t often that an ordinary dwarf was greeted so courteously by a human king. Tungdil grinned and took Mallen’s hand. “Another decisive victory for the men and the dwarves.” They gazed down at the battlefield; every last orc had been destroyed. “The good folk of Gauragar can sleep easy tonight.”