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Song of the Drums

Here on the outer shelves of Thorin, lush meadows crowned the gigantic, stair-step terraces carved into the slopes of soaring mountainsides. Vast fields of grain formed curved mosaics, vivid patterns of color in the late morning sunlight cresting saberlike peaks to the east. On the lower terraces, the fields were hues of gold and deep red where early crops ripened. Above these were patterns of rich pastels, and higher still – where the rising terraces flanked floral gardens – were greens as deep and rich as emeralds.

Here, more than anywhere else in the realm of Thorin, the landscape and the creature-works had the look of ogre about them. Not like the brutish, dark lairs of the ogres who yet lurked among the wild mountain passes, far beyond the neighboring lands of Thorin, Golash, and Chandera, but the solid, regimented design of ancient times when the ogres — some said — had ruled all the lands of the Khalkists.

It was in the scope and breadth of the terracing, in the precise spacing of the rising ways between terraces. Not in memory or certain lore had ogres dwelled here, and while ogres still were seen from time to time — lurking on the distant slopes — they and their kind were not the original builders of Thorin.

The ogres now were primitive, often savage creatures, wild in their ways and in their surroundings. But once there had been ogres of another kind. Ancient ancestors of the huge, brutish creatures of today, those ogres of the distant past had hewn mountainsides to their liking and had delved their cold, monotonous lairs into the very hearts of the peaks.

So said the wisest among the short, sturdy, energetic race that now occupied Thorin. This had once been the home of ogres. But the ogres fell from power and lost their skills. Over time, what might once have been a great civilization had deteriorated into savagery. What they left behind was theirs no more, the ballads said. Delvings belong to those who live within them, who hold and improve them. Thorin belonged now to the Calnar, by right of habitation and tradition.

Thorin now was Thorin-Everbardin, home of the Calnar.

On the outer shelves, the look of ancient ogre craft remained because the Calnar had found no need to improve it. The vast, rich meadows ranking the slopes of the highest peaks of the Khalkists served the purposes of the dwarves very nicely. Crops, flocks, and herds were rotated from level to level with the seasons, an enterprise as bustling and busy as the foundries and crafters’ halls within Thorin itself, deep in the stone heart of the mountain. Not in memory had the Calnar — the people known to their neighbors of other races simply as “the dwarves” — known famine.

Now midsummer’s harvest was proceeding in the lower fields and among the orchards and vineyards that flanked them. Now the drums had begun to speak on the sentinel crags above.

Colin Stonetooth, riding out from Thorin Keep to inspect the harvest, heard the talk of the drums and drew rein to look upward, knowing the distances would show him nothing of the drummers. Thorin was vast, and they were far above and far away. Yet their drums floated the muted thunder of the Call to Balladine on the bright air of morning, and the sound was good to hear.

Handil would be up there with them, of course. It was always Handil’s great vibrar that spoke first, setting the deep rhythm of the call. Colin Stonetooth squinted against the high sun, and his eyes sought the monolith of the First Sentinel. There, at the top of that mighty spire, was where Handil would be. Though he could not see him there, Colin Stonetooth envisioned his first son — strong and sturdy, his kilt rippling around his knees, his dark hair and trimmed beard giving him a feral look as he slung the great, iron-bound drum that was of his own crafting. The vibrar, designed and built by Handil, was like no other drum when it struck the first thunders of the Call to Balladine.

Thinking of his eldest son, Colin Stonetooth felt the play of emotions that Handil always aroused in him. Though still young, Handil had the breadth of chest of a seasoned delver, shoulders like the knotted boles of mountain pines, and powerful hands on arms that rippled with strength.

At three inches over five feet, Handil was not as tall as Willen Ironmaul, Thorin’s captain of guards, but nearly so, and his bearing was as imposing as his father’s had ever been — erect and sturdy, powerfully muscled, with the natural grace of a born rock-climber. His features were strong, chiseled planes in a wide face framed by a mane of dark hair and back-swept whiskers, trimmed short in the Calnar fashion. Solemn, thoughtful gray eyes set wide apart above high cheekbones seemed always to see the world and all within it as objects of curiosity.

Handil resembled his father, they said, and Colin Stonetooth was pleased at the comparison, though he could not see it himself.

Of all his sons, Colin Stonetooth thought, Handil was the one best equipped to become chief among the Calnar. A natural leader — even in his early youth, Handil had always chosen his own course and others had always followed — the young dwarf had an inborn skill with tools of any kind and a cool, thoughtful manner in all that he did.

Yet Handil had never displayed the slightest interest in chiefdom. He seemed devoid of leadership ambition, preferring instead his crafts, his tinkering and inventing, and — above all — the music of the drums.

Since his early youth, Handil had been called Handil the Drum by all who knew him, and he seemed perfectly content with the name.

Colin Stonetooth gazed upward, hearing the drum-talk grow in volume and complexity as more and more drums joined in — the harvest song of the Calnar, rumbling and rippling among the peaks. Its rising echoes drifted back to add texture to the call. The Call to Balladine it was, reaching out beyond the peaks and the slopes, out toward the human realms of Golash and Chandera. The people there would hear the song, and they would pack their goods and come. Within a week they would be arriving, and their encampments would fill the valleys below Thorin. It was the custom of the Calnar, the midsummer Balladine. And it had become the custom of their human neighbors, as well.

It would be a time of trading, of exchanging news and views, of wrangling over borders and trading prisoners, of settling disputes and renewing pacts; a time of feasts and contests, or bargaining and barter; the time when humans of two nations came to Thorin to trade for the wares of dwarven foundries and forges and to listen in awe to the deep, haunting rhythms of dwarven mountain music. It was the Balladine, and the drums were the call.

Colin looked forward to it, as he always did. It was diverting, once a year, to see the valleys below Thorin thronging with the frantic, always impatient crowds of human visitors. It was interesting to visit their pavilions, to see what works the strange, tall creatures had produced since the summer before. Colin would not bargain with their weavers and grain traders, their spice merchants and wood builders. He would leave business to Cullom Hammerstand and his barterers. But there would be occasions to trade tales with Garr Lanfel and Bram Talien, and maybe to set out good dwarven ale for that old scoundrel Riffin Two-Tree, and see who could drink whom under the table.

Regular association with humans, Colin felt, could drive a reasonable person to insanity. But once a year, it was pleasant to visit with those who had become friends.

Colin Stonetooth nodded to himself, then looked again toward the First Sentinel as the drums increased their volume. Handil might have no interest in governing, but the lad could make the mountains sing when he decided to.

Handil the Drum! Colin Stonetooth shook his head, frowning. Among the Calnar, no person could tell another person what he must become, but there were times when the old chief wished that he might yet take Handil by the shoulders — as he had when the youth was younger — and shake some higher ambition into that mysterious mind of his.

Still, there was plenty of time. Though his mane and beard were streaked with frost, Colin Stonetooth was yet a mighty dwarf, his mind clear, and his sturdy body as strong as any ox. There was no hurry about succession.

Handil would be married soon, to Jinna Rockreave, and marriage might change his ways.

“It comes of associating with humans,” he muttered to himself. “Sometimes I feel as impatient as those short-lived creatures.” In his own good time, Handil would decide what he would be. And if not Handil, then there were others of the chief’s blood who might yet prove themselves. There was Tolon, who might yet outgrow his dark moods. And Cale, if ever he could clip the wings of that elfish spirit of his and plant his feet on the mountain stone where they belonged.

Cale Greeneye, Colin thought, and frowned. Cale Cloudwalker! What names my sons acquire!

Future chieftains? The thought troubled him. A chieftain must be rooted in the clan, for the chieftain is the clan. But Cale Greeneye had roots only in his dreams of far places.

Tolon troubled Colin even more. Brooding and intuitive, Tolon kept his own counsel, living always within himself so that it was hard to tell what course he was likely to take. But it was clear that Tolon had no liking for outsiders. In particular, he deeply distrusted all humans, though many of their human neighbors had become valued friends to Colin.

Thorin relied upon trade, and therefore upon friendly dealings with neighboring realms. But how friendly would those relationships someday be if Tolon Farsight were chieftain of the Calnar? A chieftain might make small mistakes, but he must never make big ones — the kind of mistakes that would bring disaster upon his people. To Tolon, his father’s willingness to accept outsiders was a dangerous thing. But to Colin, Tolon’s distrust of humans was ominous. Such distrust could result in a cessation of trade, and trade was essential.

No, the successor ought to be Handil. Handil the Drum.

Irritated with himself for daydreaming, Colin Stonetooth straightened in his saddle, flicked the reins of his great horse, and headed downslope at a trot to inspect the lower fields, miles away. Behind him, the Ten wheeled in perfect formation to follow. In their bright steel and rich-hued leathers, they fairly glistened in the high sunlight, and bore their bannered lances proudly. Each was mounted on his own tall, gold-and-white horse, each animal a perfect match for their chieftain’s own mount.

High above, on the outward wall of Thorin Keep, Tolon Farsight — who was often called Tolon the Muse — stood on a shadowed balcony and watched his father and the ten selectmen of his honor guard as they pranced their big horses down the long incline toward the second ring of fields. Beyond and below, the realm of Thorin spread in majestic beauty, stepping away to the shadowed valleys of the Hammersong and Bone rivers, then rising beyond toward the spike-crested Suncradles, westernmost peaks of the Khalkist range.

From the Sentinels above, but seeming now to come from everywhere, the drumcall rhythms grew and intertwined until it seemed that the very mountains throbbed to the deep, haunting music. Forty-one times — forty-one summers — Tolon had heard the Call to Balladine. Like the seasons and the landscapes of Thorin, like the comfortable delvings within the mountain’s heart, the drumcall was part of his life and had always been so. Never twice the same, yet as unchanging as the mountain crags themselves, the Call to Balladine was as familiar to him as the sun over the peaks. Yet now he sensed a new tone — not in the rhythms themselves, but somehow in their echoes or the way they carried on the air. Something more sensed than heard, it had a dark, prophetic undertone to Tolon’s ears. A deep frown creased his dark brow.

All his life, at each midsummer, Tolon Farsight had listened to the Call and observed the gathering of realms which followed it. At Balladine, the humans came — humans from Golash and Chandera, and often others, as well. Nomadic tribes from the plains beyond the Suncradles came sometimes, drawn by the drums and by legends of the glory of Thorin … and often, Tolon knew, drawn by their envy of the wealth of the dwarves. But for whatever reasons, each summer they came, and sometimes others came as well. Ogres from the high passes would lurk beyond the Sentinels, listening to the drums. Even elves had come, on occasion, though not in recent years because of the dragon wars. It was the nature of the Balladine. No two times were exactly alike, but never did it really change. Often at the height of Balladine the visitors in their encampments would outnumber the dwarves of Thorin by ten to one. Often, at the contests and the trading stalls, there was strenuous argument. Sometimes there were incidents — a minor riot, a fight over some trinket or over how a contest was won. There was the inevitable thievery, the usual squabbles, the occasional knifing or angry duel.

But these were just part of Balladine. They were the predictable results of too many people, of different persuasions and different races, intermingling freely. Seldom were the consequences serious, and the human chiefs of Golash and Chandera seemed as determined as was Colin Stonetooth himself that nothing irreparable harm the tradition of the summer fair. They were human, of course, and hardly to be trusted, but they seemed to be in concert with the dwarves.

Yet, now … Tolon shivered slightly and pulled his woven suede robe — human-made, by some weaver in Golash — tighter around his broad shoulders. He turned, strode to the alcove behind the balcony, and pushed open the iron-framed door set in the stone arch. He hesitated for an instant while his eyes adjusted from daylight to fireglow, then called, “Tera! Are you here?”

Soft, padding footsteps sounded, somewhere beyond the outer room, and an intricate tapestry parted on the far wall. The person who stepped through, a young dwarf woman, had the same dark, swept-back mane and wide-set eyes as all of her brothers, but was otherwise as unlike any of them as they were unlike one another. As with most females of her race, she was shorter by several inches than the males in her family, standing barely over four feet in height. But where her father and brothers had wide, strong-boned faces with high cheekbones and level eyes, Tera Sharn’s features were like their mother’s — softly tapering cheeks, a small, slightly buck-toothed mouth above a stubborn chin, and wide, almost-slanted eyes beneath arching brows … eyes that missed very little and that could look very wise when glimpsed unaware.

By any standard, Tera Sharn — only daughter of Colin Stonetooth, chieftain of the Calnar of Thorin — was a strikingly beautiful dwarven maiden, and in recent seasons there had been no shortage of highborn young dwarves coming to call. Of late, it was unusual to find her without Willen Ironmaul or Jerem Longslate or some other strapping suitor lurking nearby.

She was alone now, though, and she paused, gazing at Tolon. Something in his tone had sounded worried … almost ominous.

Tolon Farsight nodded at his sister and gestured. “Tera, come to the balcony. Come and listen.”

Curious, she followed him through the open door, which closed behind them on weighted hinges. Sunlight had found the stone parapet of the balcony and reflected on the glittering pattern of metallic particles in its polished surface. Tera shaded her eyes, looking around.

“Listen,” Tolon said. “Tell me what you hear.”

She listened, then shrugged. “I hear the drums,” she told him. “The drums of Balladine.” She looked around. “Is there something more?”

“Do the drums sound strange to you?” He frowned, gazing past her, concentrating on the muted, complex thunders of the dwarven music.

Again she listened. “They sound strong. Strong and sure. I recognize the voice of Handil’s drum among them … and others, too. They speak well this year.” Again she glanced at her brother. “What is it, Tolon? Do you hear something that I don’t?”

“Maybe not,” he conceded. “I may have imagined it.”

“What did you imagine, then?”

“It sounded as though … I don’t know, maybe it was just odd echoes. But for a moment it sounded … well, as though the drums were saying good-bye.”

*

Haunting and powerful, seeming to build upon itself minute by minute, the call of the drums echoed outward across Thorin, reaching for the realms beyond. A drum … a dozen drums … a hundred drums, one by one, by twos and fives, joined the mighty voice of the Call to Balladine. As the high sun reached its zenith, it seemed the very mountains absorbed the intricate, commanding rhythms and throbbed with them. Today was the first call. They would call again tomorrow, and the day after that, and each day until the harvest reached the middle ledges. Then would begin the great fair of the Calnar, the time of Balladine.

High above Thorin Keep, on the platformed cap of the First Sentinel, Handil the Drum leaned into his music, corded shoulders rippling in the sunlight as his mallet beat a steady rhythm for all the rest to weave their beats around. Slung from his shoulder, cradled under his left arm, the mighty vibrar boomed and throbbed its invitation. Its voice at each stroke of the mallet rolled like thunder and seemed to make the very mountains dance.

Beyond him, where trumpeters and lookouts manned the parapets, Cale Greeneye — youngest of the brothers — leaned casually on a narrow railing above dizzy heights and gazed off into the mountain distances, letting the music of the drums pulse in his blood while he dreamed of faraway places.

In misted distance, beyond the valleys of the Bone and Hammersong rivers, beyond the far, rising slopes, clouds drifted among the peaks of the Suncradles. As he often did, Cale Greeneye — called by many Cale Cloudwalker — fantasized that he might harness such a cloud and stand upon it, feel it rise and flow beneath his feet, carrying him off across strange, distant lands to places he had never seen and could not even imagine.

Nearby, a trumpeter glanced around, gazed at the chieftain’s youngest son for a moment, then nudged a lookout. “The Cloudwalker is off again,” he whispered. “Strangest thing I ever heard of. Why in Krynn would a person ever want to travel?”

“Not the only strange thing today.” The lookout frowned. He pointed westward, into the hazed distance.

“What do you see out there, Misal?”

The trumpeter squinted, shading his eyes, then spread his hands. “Nothing. Why?”

“That’s just it,” the lookout said. “The patrol from Farfield was due this morning with the border reports. I’ve never known them to be late, but as far as I can see — and on a day like this that’s at least twenty miles — there isn’t a sign of them.”

Cale Greeneye glanced around, overhearing the words. It was odd. Sledge Two-Fires was a seasoned scout and not one to be late finishing a patrol circuit. And Cale had friends among the perimeter guards. His eyes lighted. Maybe it would be a good idea, he thought, if someone went to look for them.

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