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The Fate of the Dwarves, Page 3

Markus Heitz

  “No!” Ireheart bellowed in despair, hacking through helmet and skull of another enemy with the curved end of the crow’s beak. There was a crack and then the sharp point appeared again through the breastbone under the throat. Boïndil hurled the creature to the ground, placing his right foot on its shoulders to pull the weapon back out through the ugly face. “Vraccas, don’t let me have found him only to lose him again so soon.”

  The ball of fire spread and swelled to form a cloud in which a black shape could be seen. Tungdil seemed to have survived!

  The black-armored dwarf had sunk onto one knee. He held Bloodthirster protecting his face, his other arm at his back. As the flames ebbed away he sprang up and stabbed at the lower eyes of the kordrion, taking it by surprise.

  Tungdil managed to hit one of the eyes. It sounded like a leather wine pouch bursting.

  Bluish liquid poured out, swiftly followed by a stream of dark-red blood. Veins and sinews tumbled out as thick as a man’s arm; more liquid fountained out of the wound and the creature convulsed with pain.

  Ireheart couldn’t believe his eyes: Spraying blood from a gash in its side and the injury on its head, the kordrion was slinking back into the ravine!

  The enormous feet squashed dozens of monsters, pressing them into the ground. Bodily juices squirted out in all directions. Then it was gone, leaving a wet trail on the rocks. A final flurry of arrows and spears accompanied it to its lair, then the stronghold catapults fell silent.

  Quiet returned, so that the sound of the wind along the battlements and on the slopes of the Black Abyss—not heard amid the noise of battle—was loud in comparison.

  Ireheart commanded the ubariu to watch the murky path down into the chasm while he stepped forward, lowering his blood-smeared crow’s beak.

  He gestured to the armored dwarf to come down. “Show yourself, so that I may see if you are an old friend or a new enemy,” he called out. He could not control his excitement, but was yo-yoing between joy and suspicion, his belief that this might be his old companion not quite being enough in itself to convince him.

  Trumpets blared from the battlements, the great gate was opened and an army of two hundred dwarves and undergroundlings issued out under Goda’s command. They took up their positions behind Ireheart and the ubariu and waited. Ready to fight.

  The dwarf that was possibly Tungdil sprang down with remarkable agility, belying the weight of his armor, then ran along the stepping stones until he reached ground level. As he jumped down, a cloud of white dust rose, covering the black metal knee protectors. He held Bloodthirster in his right hand, with the blade resting up against his shoulder. Step by step he approached the band of warriors. The helmet stayed shut.

  Boïndil gulped in apprehension, his throat dry. “Visor up!” he barked, his right hand flexing in readiness around the handle of the crow’s beak. The leather grip creaked. “I want to see your face by daylight.” Behind him the dwarves were raising their weapons, as the armored figure continued on his way, impervious to the command.

  Now Ireheart could see the armor clearly. It was covered in runic signs and symbols he had never come across before.

  A quick glance at Goda told him that the maga was equally bemused. She shook her head briefly, unable to interpret the meaning of the glimmering silver inlay or engravings any more than he could.

  What bothered Boïndil was that there was no hint there of allegiance to Vraccas or of any dwarf origins, even if the suit of armor itself had unquestionably come from the hand of a child of the Smith: The work of a dwarf-master smith indeed.

  Would Tungdil do that? Would he deny his own people? “Stand and show yourself!” he ordered resolutely, lifting his weapon. “If you are Tungdil Goldhand, show us your face. Otherwise…” Ireheart whirled his crow’s beak round his head “… otherwise I shall smash your face in still inside the helmet!”

  The other dwarf stopped in his tracks. Legs wide apart in a supremely confident stance he faced the gathered force, then—in a movement that was neither hasty nor frightened—his left hand went slowly up to his helmet. Bit by bit the dark grating was soundlessly lifted.

  Boïndil was breathless with anticipation, his heart pounding. Vraccas, let the miracle have happened! he begged, closing his eyes to make the prayer to his god more fervent still. It was all he could do to open them again in order to look at the face before him. Hearing Goda’s sharp intake of breath didn’t make things easier.

  At last he dared open his eyes.

  He saw a short brown beard surrounding the familiar features of a dwarf who had certainly aged. But this was a face he would have known among a thousand.

  The left eye was hidden behind an engraved patch of pure gold held in place with gold thread. The remaining brown eye was focused steadily on Boïndil. In that gaze Ireheart saw curiosity, little joy and… something else he could not fathom.

  Visible through the beard the lines around the mouth and nose had grown deeper and gave the dwarf’s face an authoritative air that many a dwarf-king would have envied. There was a scar running up the forehead from above the right eye and disappearing under the helmet—healed over, but very dark.

  Ireheart gave a deep sigh. It definitely looked like his old friend standing before him once more. He took a step forward, but thought he could sense rejection from Tungdil.

  “What sort of evidence do you want to prove I’m Tungdil Goldhand?” he asked, loosening the chin strap and tugging the helmet off the shock of shoulder-length brown hair. The scar on the brow went all the way up to the crown. Tungdil cast the helmet down on the ground and shook off a gauntlet to show the golden mark on his hand. “Touch it, if you like, Boïndil. It’s my everlasting souvenir from the battle for the throne of the high king, although I never really had a claim to it.” He stretched out his hand in challenge.

  Ireheart passed his fingers across the yellow-gold spot on the palm, then looked enquiringly into Tungdil’s countenance.

  The dwarf smiled and it was the old smile! The familiar smile he had so longed to see once more.

  “Perhaps I should tell you how you tried to make me believe that the best way to seduce a dwarf-girl was to rub them from head to toe in stinky cheese?” He leaned forward with a wink. “I never used the method. Did you need it with Goda?”

  The maga laughed out loud.

  “So it’s really you!” exclaimed Ireheart. He dropped the crow’s beak, and pulled Tungdil into his open arms. “By Vraccas, it’s really you!” he exclaimed, his eyes stinging with tears. Nothing could stop the flood of emotion. Such was his joy as he hugged Tungdil that he failed to notice the embrace was not being returned.

  Tearing himself loose from Tungdil, Boïndil turned to the dwarves watching him with bated breath. “See!” he called enthusiastically, raising his head so that his words might carry to the battlements at Evildam. “See, our hero has returned! Girdlegard will soon be free of the yoke of manifold evil!” He tapped the black armor. “Ho, Lohasbrand, Lot-Ionan and all the rest of Tion’s cursed issue; expect no mercy now—there’s no escape for you!”

  Goda was radiant and wiped tears of joy and relief from her eyes. The dwarf-warriors behind her stared in deepest respect at the hero most knew only from hearsay. A legendary figure had returned to them and had, moreover, just seen off the most terrifying monster ever to emerge from the Black Abyss.

  The garrison at the fortress had heard Boïndil’s announcement. Drums and trumpets filled the air, heralding the news through a special melody composed specifically in anticipation of the long-awaited orbit when Tungdil would return. All should learn that the day had come.

  Ireheart grinned: “I can imagine some will be thinking the trumpeters have got the fanfare wrong and were intending to send out quite a different set of orders.” He thumped Tungdil heartily on the shoulder and couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. “Let’s go into the fortress and forget about the Black Abyss for now. It’s time to bid you properly welcome. You’ll have to tell us what yo
u’ve been up to, all these long, long cycles. And we’ll have a lot to fill you in on, too.” He bent down to pick up Tungdil’s helmet and gauntlet. Looking him straight in the eye, he told him, “You’ve no idea how happy I am to see you, Scholar.”

  Tungdil took his things and half turned, still watching the Black Abyss. “They’ll be back, you know, Ireheart. I took the kordrion by surprise; as soon as its wounds are healed it’ll come creeping out of its hiding place again. And word will soon get around that the barrier has lost its strength. The monsters will form an army and break out again…”

  Boïndil pointed up at the massive walls of the stronghold. “That’s why we’ve got the fortress and why we called it Evildam,” he interrupted. “They won’t escape, not a single ugly one of them. And we’ll spike the kordrion all over with our heaviest spears till it looks like a hedgehog and collapses, dead.” He looked over proudly to Goda. “She is now a maga. Our strongest weapon.”

  The dwarf-woman had taken a step forward and Tungdil observed her with a strange look in his eye. “You will need her,” he said quietly, looking back at the cleft in the rocks.

  Ireheart smiled. “We are more than confident, Scholar. Now you are with us again, nothing can frighten the children of the Smith.” He set off, and the crowd of ubariu, undergroundlings and dwarf-warriors drew back to form a guard of honor to let them pass.

  Goda stared at Tungdil as he passed. She had the impression that he didn’t recognize her. His one brown eye had shown no reaction when he had looked her way. And he never once asked about Sirka, she said to herself, her face clouding over. Even if her husband was a pushover, bathed in joy and nostalgia as he was, she was going to be harder to convince. Suspicion had taken hold in her mind.

  Goda followed them and the warriors stood guard while they withdrew into the stronghold behind the mighty doors. In the coming orbits, she decided, she would subject this dwarf, whom everyone seemingly held to be Tungdil Goldhand, to closer examination. Even as they entered the fortress to the accompaniment of triumphant fanfares and the acclaim of the troops, she was busy thinking up questions, because if the evil had sent them a false Tungdil there was unquestionably something terrible in store for them all.

  Keeping her eyes on Tungdil’s suit of black armor with the mysterious engravings, the dwarf-maga became more and more sure with every step she took that this was not their old friend they were welcoming here. They were letting evil into their midst and were celebrating its arrival!

  She looked right and left and up to the towers, where shouts of wild rejoicing could be heard, loud enough to prevent any conversation.

  Goda realized she seemed to be the only one in the fortress worried about this Tungdil figure. All the rest were in ecstasy because—despite his not having spoken a single word to them—they were convinced their long-awaited champion had returned to rid them of the evil.

  She sighed, and her gaze drifted over to where Yagur, the ubariu leader, stood—and she recognized a similar concern on his face.


  Former Queendom of Weyurn,


  Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

  “And here, highly esteemed spectators, here at my left at the end, we have another legitimate descendant of the unique, incomparable and, for countless decades, never bettered, Incredible Rodario!” announced the man in opulent white attire standing on the same stage that normally saw service for executions. If you looked carefully you could still see the odd tuft of hair stuck in dried blood in the notches on the block. Nobody minded.

  Or rather, nobody was allowed to mind.

  There was not an inch of space in the square in front of the theater known as the New Curiosum. The covered tribune for the nobles and rich merchants or other privileged burghers was also filled to capacity.

  Only the tribune’s first row, reserved for selected notables, was still empty. Such dignitaries seldom if ever came to lighthearted events like this, preferring public beheadings, and the punishments and humiliation ordeals usually meted out here.

  A pretty young woman sat in the second row. She had bright tawny orange eyes and, covered by a flimsy veil, beautiful black hair reaching down to her waist. She wore a mantle of black wolf fur wrapped round her and held a cup of mulled wine.

  Round the edges of the square, stalls were selling various comestibles ranging from hot sausages and sliced pork to waffles and sweet chestnuts in cream. If anyone was cold they could grab a warm beer or a hot mug of wine, served with honey or spiced to taste. White clouds of steam rose from the many stoves in the market booths and there was music and song coming from the inn.

  The young woman smiled as she inhaled all these smells. At last there was a reason to be cheerful, rare enough in these times of occupation by Lohasbrand and his henchmen.

  “Is there anything else you’d like, Princess Coïra?” asked her companion, who was of an age to have been perhaps a brother. Under his open brown fur coat he wore leather armor, and a short sword hung at his side. His hair was hidden by a flat padded woolen cap that gave him a harmless appearance. That was the intention.

  “Yes, I’d like you not to use that title,” she hissed, flashing her eyes in reproach. “You know what they’ll do to you if they hear you addressing me like that, Loytan.”

  Her companion scanned the empty front bench. “There’s nobody here to take me to task for speaking the truth,” he answered quietly but firmly. “You are the princess and your mother would be queen of Weyurn but for the accursed Dragon…”

  Coïra placed her hand over his mouth. “Be quiet! You’re risking your life, talking like that! They have eyes and ears everywhere!”

  In her mind she could see her mother, imprisoned in her own palace, the Ring of Shame around her neck. Every hour of the orbit she was watched, humiliated and robbed of her authority. If the Dragon decided she should die, his servants would pull the ring tight to strangle her slowly until she suffocated. The princess sighed. “Look at the stage and enjoy what the Incredible Rodario’s descendants have to offer us this time, when they choose their best competitor.”

  Loytan smiled obediently and turned toward the stage.

  The master of ceremonies was pointing his cane to the end of the line. There were no less than eleven men and six women this cycle.

  They were all dressed in showy and extravagantly tailored garments. The fabrics chosen were, one and all, scintillating and amazingly brightly colored. And yet the clothes had been selected in each case—coats, dresses, hats and boots—expressly to make each competitor stand out from the others.

  The only one who didn’t conform to type was the fellow at the end of the line.

  He was the only one the tailor had provided with togs that didn’t fit. Or perhaps he was standing so poorly that everything he wore seemed to crease and sag in the wrong places.

  As appropriate for a descendant of the Incredible Rodario, he had brown hair, worn to his shoulders, and a good bone structure, but his cheeks were rather plump and this detracted from the promise of aristocratic features. The goatee beard, a distinctive mark of the original Incredible Rodario, founder of whole dynasties of renowned actors in many regions of Girdlegard, was disappointingly wispy and badly groomed.

  “He calls himself—and I admit it’s one of the more predictable choices—Rodario the Seventh! Applause, if you will!” The master of ceremonies raised his arms to encourage the audience, but the clapping was sporadic and died away quickly.

  “By all the gods,” said Loytan, amused. “What a miserable figure he makes in the midst of all those peacocks! He won’t even get a consolation prize.”

  “I think it’s… quite clever,” Coïra said in defense. She felt some sympathy for this particular descendant of Rodario. He bore a certain tragic charm. “He’s… different.”

  “He’s definitely different.” Loytan laughed out loud.” In my opinion he’ll be the first of the last again. Shall we have a bet, Princess?” He smiled at her happily
, then something caught his eye just past her and his expression lost its merriment.

  A broad shadow fell over them; Coïra swirled round in fear.

  Behind them, four of the Lohasbrander henchmen had entered the tribune unnoticed and were making their way to the first row. They had heavy armor hung with discs of metal under their cloaks and their helmets were in the form of a dragon with folded wings. Each wore an amulet on a silver chain—a dark-green dragon scale, the sign of undisputed power in Weyurn. Thus they outranked all except for their master.

  Coïra leaned forward searching the crowd in the square until she located the orcs. They belonged to the Lohasbranders and were their devoted servants. There they were, hanging out in one of the side streets, stuffing their faces. Because of the cold, the meat they were eating was steaming. Coïra didn’t want to know whether it was freshly stewed or just very fresh.

  The man at the front grinned at Loytan. He was fat and muscular at the same time; his broad face sported a light blond beard. “Did I just hear you say something you’d better have left unsaid? You know the law, Count Loytan of Loytansberg. It holds even for nobility like yourself. Or especially for nobility like yourself.” He gathered a mouthful of saliva and spat at the young man. “But I’ll overlook it for now. I don’t want to spoil the atmosphere.” He thumped down the steps to take his place straight in front, so that his helmet spoiled Loytan’s view of the stage. “I recommend that you are no longer there when I get up to go. If you’re still there I shall be implementing the orders of Master Lohasbrand.” His comrades laughed as they took their seats.

  “Here comes the first round, ladies and gentlemen. You love this part of the contest,” announced the man in white. “It’s the quick-fire slander session that starts here in Mifurdania, where the Incredible Rodario had his theater for so long.” He surveyed the audience, hands on hips. “I can see from quite a few of your faces that your great-grannies used to enjoy going to the Curiosum, but going backstage, of course, I mean.”