In a deep, steep-walled canyon where a narrow trail cut through the crest of a ridge, rays of the midday sun smote the canyon floor and glinted on the burnished armor, rich leathers, and spattered blood of those who lay there, tumbled and silent in death. Fourteen in all, they lay where they had fallen. Some had been dead for hours, their pooled blood darkening as it dried. But here and there among them were splashes of bright red — fresh blood still steaming in the cold air.
Men walked among them, crouching and stooping as they picked up weapons, pausing to loot the bodies that had not yet been robbed. Nearby, just beyond the trail’s crest, a fire had been built, and other men gathered around it to warm themselves.
“Should have been over in minutes,” a man grumbled, tying fabric around a bleeding gash in his arm. “There were only fourteen of them, and our arrows took down nine before they knew we were here. Five left, and it took us all night to finish them!”
“Stubborn as dwarves, like they say,” another muttered, stuffing steel coins into his pouch. “The little vermin fight like demons.” He glanced around. “Anybody count our losses yet?”
“Seventeen dead,” someone told him. “Few more won’t last the day. Don’t know how many wounded. Twenty or thirty, maybe. It was a mistake, letting the dinks get to the slopes. For that matter, it was a mistake charging down on them after the first volleys. We should have stayed in cover, held a defense, and finished them from a distance.”
“Sure,” the first man growled. “And maybe have one or two of them get clear? Maybe slip away to warn the whole kingdom about us? Lot of good our ambush would have done, then. Use your head, Calik! In this world you use it or lose it.”
“One of the horses did get away, Grak,” a man said. “The one out in front when we attacked. I put an arrow into its saddle but missed the next shot. It was gone before anybody could catch it.”
“As long as its rider didn’t go with it.” Grak shrugged, scowling. “I wouldn’t want to have to tell Grayfen that we let a dwarf slip through.”
“No dwarves,” Calik assured him. “I counted them myself. Counting the first one — the scout — we killed fifteen stinking dwarves and fourteen of those big horses. Wouldn’t have minded keeping one of those beasts, though. Wouldn’t I like to have a horse like that!”
Grak gazed at him, leering. “The day you can ride a dwarf’s horse, Calik, will be the day snails learn to fly.” He turned, looking around. “Do you hear that?”
Several of them raised their heads, scowling. “I hear
As they listened, the sound seemed to grow, not so much in volume as in clarity. It was a continuous, rolling throb that seemed to have a texture of its own. It thrummed in the high sunlight and echoed weirdly off the chasm walls.
“It’s the drums,” Grak decided. “The dinks and their drums, like Grayfen told us. That fair of theirs, it’s beginning.”
Calik stood with his face upturned, his eyes wide. “I never in my life heard anything like that,” he muttered. “It almost sounds like they’re singing. How can drums sing?”
Grak shook his head, as though to rid himself of the haunting, distant sounds. “It doesn’t matter,” he growled. “Except it means we have to hurry. Grayfen wants us at the main camp. Clear up here, and let’s move.”
“Some of our wounded aren’t going to make it a mile, the shape they’re in.”
“Things are tough all over,” Grak snapped. “Pack up! Any who can’t keep up, cut their throats and leave them.”
Grayfen was not pleased with his ambushers. He stalked among them, his wolfskin cape swaying and flowing behind him, and they cringed as his eyes pinned them one by one — eyes as cold and bright as the rubies they resembled.
“Forty-two men lost?” he hissed. “You paid forty-two lives for a puny patrol of fifteen dinks?”
“They fought,” Grak said, then recoiled as Grayfen turned and speared him with those ruby eyes — eyes like no eyes he had ever seen in a human face. “I mean — ” he swallowed and added lamely “- I mean, they surprised us, sir. Some of them got through to us, and … and they fought like … like demons. And those slings of theirs … and their steel blades …” He shook his head, gesturing at the pile of weapons and armor on the ground nearby, salvaged from the bodies of the dwarf patrol.
“They fought,” Grayfen snarled, his voice like a snake’s hiss. “Of course they fought, idiot! Whatever else they are, the dinks are fighters! I may just send you” — he looked from one to another of them — “I may send all of you into Thorin with the first assault. You think you’ve seen the little misers fight, maybe you should see what they do when they’re defending their homes!”
“Yes, sir,” Grak muttered, keeping his eyes downward. “Only …”
“Not me,” a man behind him whispered. “By the moons, I won’t go in there with the first wave! I’m not that kind of fool.”
Grak turned, wanting to silence the man, but it was too late. Grayfen had heard. Wolf-hide cape flaring, he straightened to his full height, seeming to tower above even the tall Grak. The ruby eyes glowed with an evil light from beneath arched brows the color of his silvery mane. He raised an imperious finger, pointing past Grak. “You!” he hissed. “Who are you?”
The man didn’t answer. Paling, he started to turn away, then froze in place as Grayfen commanded, “Hold!”
Grayfen glanced at Grak. “That man,” he said, still pointing. “Tell me his name.”
“Sir, that’s only Porge. He meant no disre — ”
“Enough!” Grayfen cut him off. “Porge. Face me, Porge.”
Ashen-faced, Porge turned to face Grayfen. Cold sweat formed on his brow as the ruby eyes bored into him. The stiff finger was still extended, pointing at him.
“What kind of fool are you, you wonder?” Grayfen’s voice turned silky. “The kind who questions my command, it seems. A shame, Porge. You might have survived assault on Thorin … if you had held your tongue.”
Beneath the constant throbbing of the distant drums, another sound grew. As though the air were charged with lightning, a sizzling, crackling sputter emerged among them. Grayfen’s pointing finger and ruby eyes didn’t waver, but, as the sound grew, a slow, smoky light seemed to extend from the finger, a lazy beam that approached Porge languidly, then sprang at him and wrapped itself around his throat. Porge gagged, struggling to breathe. His hands clawed at the constriction on his throat, but there was nothing there to grip … only the smoky band of dull light. Porge gasped one last time, and his breathing stopped. His eyes bulged, his mouth gaped, and he seemed to hang from the light as his legs went limp.
For a long moment, Grayfen held him there, letting all the others see. Then he snapped his fingers, and a louder snap echoed it, the crack of Porge’s neck breaking. Grayfen lowered his hand, and the body sprawled on the ground like a tattered doll.
“Get rid of that,” Grayfen said contemptuously. He turned to Grak. “I accept that the dinks surprised you,” he said. “You had not faced them before. Now you have. Remember what you’ve learned. Rest your men now. The drums are speaking. Tomorrow we move into Golash. From there, we go to Thorin.”
Men were lifting Porge’s body to carry him away. Grayfen glanced at them, then at the pile of dwarven armament nearby. “Get rid of those, too,” he said. “We don’t want to be seen with dink steels. They would be recognized.”
Grak cleared his throat and nodded, glancing down at the fine dwarven sword hanging at his hip. It was of Thorin steel, exquisitely burnished, point-heavy in the dwarven fashion but razor-edged and beautiful. It was the kind of sword a man might spend a lifetime acquiring, a sword worth a small fortune anywhere else in the world.
As though reading his mind, Grayfen said, “The dinks have fine wares, Grak. Far better than they deserve. But we will change that. The treasures of Thorin will buy a thousand such swords. The treasures of Thorin …” As he spoke, Grayfen’s ruby eyes went distant. It seemed to Grak that the magic-man was speaking not to him at all, but only to himself. “The dinks!” The soft voice became a hiss of purest hatred. “The scheming, selfish, arrogant dinks! We shall see soon enough who deserves the treasures those little misers hide in that dwarf-lair of theirs.”
Grak was a callous and brutal man, but something in the mage’s words and in his tone made the raider’s flesh creep. Never in a long, cruel life had he heard such pure, malevolent hatred in a voice as when Grayfen spoke the name he had given the dwarves. “Dinks!”
Others beyond Grak had heard it, too. When Grayfen was gone, striding toward the main encampment of raiders in the hidden cove above the Bone River, some of the men gathered around their captain.
“What … what do you suppose made him that way?” Calik whispered, awed.
“I don’t know.” Grak shook his head. “He hates the dwarves.”
“So? Who doesn’t? Misers and thieves … why should they have all the best things?”
“He hates them more than anyone.” Grak shook his head again. “Something happened, between him and them. I don’t know what it was, but I think it was at the same time that he gained his magic.”
“I noticed that you didn’t tell him about the dwarven horse that got away.”
The camp of the intruders was large, sprawled across the bottom of a huge, washed-out cove above the east bank of the Bone River. It was separated by broken lands and by a rugged, seldom-traveled rock crest from the tribal lands of Golash, south of Thorin’s outer fields. A hidden place, it held little comfort for the hundreds of humans assembled there.
And now, in the evening when the distant drums of Thorin could be heard like deep, chanting voices in the still mountain air, the camp was a dark, cold place. No fires were lit, nor would be again. That was Grayfen’s command. Smoke from cooking fires the morning before had almost led to discovery. It was the smoke that the dwarf scout had seen from atop Crevice Pass that had sent him hurrying back toward his patrol to report. It was because he had seen it that the patrol of dwarves had been ambushed and massacred. The intruders had orders from Grayfen not to let word of the encampment reach Thorin. Such an encampment would be investigated by Calnar soldiers, and the mage’s plan would be foiled before it began.
In the gathering darkness of the cove, Grayfen made his way through the sprawling camp, unseen except by those he wished to see him. The sun was gone from the sky, and the two visible moons had yet to climb above the towering, saber-tooth peaks of the Khalkists. Only the stars in an indigo sky gave light now, and it was not a light to penetrate the shadows of the cove.
Passing among the groups and clusters of his collected people, Grayfen was only a shadow among shadows — to them. But he could see them plainly, and as he made his way toward his private quarters — a circular, slab-stone hut with a low, tapering roof, surrounded by a perimeter that none but he could cross — he studied them, assessing their readiness. Six hundred fighting men he had assembled, and each of them had recruited others. Now there were thousands.
Their weapons and equipment were a motley mix of the trappings of every nomadic culture he had encountered in two years of recruiting beyond the mountain realms. There were dour Cobar among them, huddled in their own tight groups, their woven garments bristling with quilled bolts for their crossbows and the heavy hand-darts they favored. There were burly marauders from the Baruk tribes, Sandrunners from the northern plains, hill-dwelling Flock-raiders, evil-tempered Sackmen and many who fit no particular group. There were hard-bitten fugitives from the agrarian lands to the east, refugees from the fringes of the Silvanesti forests driven out by elves — and, some said, by a marauding dragon — and a hundred kinds of wandering mercenaries willing to fight anyone’s battles for a share of the spoils.
Two things bound them all together as a single force — the promise of riches when Thorin was taken and their fear of Grayfen. In recruiting, the mage had touched each of them with burning fingers and stared into their eyes with those featureless ruby orbs that were his eyes. And having touched them, he had the power to kill any one of them — anywhere — at any time he chose.
This, then, was the force that Grayfen the Mage, whom some called Ember-Eye, had amassed for his assault on Thorin. These, and his agents already at work among the people of Golash and Chandera. He was satisfied. The Balladine was beginning. The dwarves — the
Thorin would be his, and every dwarf within his reach would pay painfully and finally for the pain that lived within him each day of his life.
Grayfen made a sign with his hands, strode across the forbidden perimeter around his hut, and stepped inside, into a darkness that was not dark to him. He saw clearly in the gloom, as brightly as he saw everything — in brilliant, burning shades of red. Closing the portal behind him, he went to a plain, wooden pedestal in the center of the room and knelt before it.
With a sigh, using the thumb and first finger of each hand, he removed his eyes, easily plucking them from their sockets. Immediately, the fiery pain in his head subsided, and he rested there for a moment, letting the familiar relief of it wash over him.
With a muttered incantation, he placed the two ruby spheres on the pedestal, stood, and shuffled to his sleeping cot — a blind man groping in darkness. He found his cot and lay down upon it, wishing for real sleep … wishing that, for a few hours, he could be as blind as the empty sockets beneath his brows.
He was blind, but still he saw — as brightly and relentlessly as always. He saw the ceiling of the hut above the pedestal. He saw what the ruby orbs saw — always that, and never less. They lay in gloom, glowing faintly, staring at the ceiling, and the first sight in his mind was that ceiling. The second sight, captured within the orbs and always present, was of a ragged, bleeding dwarf with a slender, double-tined javelin in its hand — like a fishing spear, except that it hummed to itself and glowed with a crimson luster. As always, in his mind, Grayfen saw the image of that wounded dwarf — and as he saw it, it hurled its glowing javelin at his face.
Once, then, Grayfen had been truly blind … before the double-pointed spear that took his eyes gave him new ones and the power that went with them. Once, years ago and very far away, in a place called Kal-Thax, Grayfen had known the darkness. It was a dwarf who had blinded him. Now it would be dwarves who paid the price.
Kalil the herdsman had spent the day driving his flock up from the meadows above the Hammersong, and as the Suncradles swallowed the light of full day, he chased the last ewe into the pen and closed the gate. Though his legs ached from the day’s work, Kalil was pleased. The flock had grazed well on the rich meadows. They were fat and frisky, and their wool was prime.
Far up the mountains, the drums had begun their call. Balladine was at hand. Tomorrow, Kalil would select the best animals from his herd and take them to the village, to join the trek from Golash to Thorin. Trading should be good this year; he knew the Calnar needed wool and mutton. Even after paying his trade-share to Garr Lanfel, Prince of Golash, Kalil expected to have a purse bulging with dwarven coin — and maybe a bit of dwarven steel as well.
Securing his gate, Kalil turned toward his herdsman’s shack and was nearly there before he looked up and stopped, startled at what he saw. In front of his house stood a tall, gold-and-white horse, head-down and streaked with sweat. It was clearly a dwarven horse — no one but the dwarves bred and used the huge, white-maned Calnar horses. It wore a saddle of dwarven design, richly studded with steel and silver, and its loose reins dangled from its headstall.
Quickly, Kalil glanced about, his hackles rising, half expecting to see a Calnar soldier nearby. Like most of the humans of the Khalkist realms, Kalil accepted the dwarves of Calnar. He looked forward to trading with them, and he didn’t mind mingling with them — on their lands — during the Balladine. But, like most humans, his regard for the Calnar was tempered by a deep-seated dislike born as much of envy as of the difference in their appearance from his own.
The dwarves were rich. He had never encountered a dwarf who wasn’t rich. The dwarves made steel, and they used steel, and there was — it seemed to Kalil — a certain arrogance in the casual way the short, stubby creatures displayed their wealth. It made him feel very poor by comparison.
They were ugly little creatures, to Kalil’s human perception, and they were arrogant and obviously selfish, since they seemed always to be wealthier than anyone else. The idea of a dwarf being here — at his home — irritated him as much as it startled him.
But there was no dwarf around. There was only the huge, tired horse standing in Kalil’s dooryard, and he approached it cautiously. “Ho!” he said when it turned its great head to look at him with intelligent eyes. “Ho, stay! Easy now, good horse … stay.”
When it neither bared its teeth nor backed away, Kalil picked up its reins and rubbed its muzzle with his hand. “Good horse,” he crooned, noticing that the bit in its mouth and the studding on its headstall were of fine silver. He looked further. From withers to flanks hung a skirt of delicately worked mesh, with a fine saddle atop. Kalil’s mouth dropped open. The saddle was smeared with dried blood, and the shaft of an arrow jutted upward from its pommel.
For a moment, Kalil had considered trying to return the horse to the dwarves of Thorin for the rich reward they undoubtedly would pay for a strayed animal. But now he changed his mind. To take a dwarven horse to the dwarves, its saddle covered with blood and a human-made arrow embedded there, would be worse than foolish. It would likely be the last thing he ever did.
He decided he wanted nothing to do with this horse. Still, its trappings were of the finest dwarven craft. The steel parts alone were worth a small fortune in human realms.
Glancing around furtively, Kalil set about relieving the horse of its burdens. Saddle, bridle, headstall, and mail skirt he removed, along with the pack behind the saddle and the saddle blanket, which was of fine, woven suede. He carried his prizes to his hay shed and hid them there. Tomorrow he would bury them — or most of them — to be recovered later.
When he came out, the horse was still standing beside his house, nibbling at his thatch roof. “Here!” he snapped. “Leave that alone!”
The horse backed away, staring at him, and then, as though it had tolerated all the human company it cared to, it turned and trotted away, up the hill.
“Good!” Kalil breathed. “Good riddance. I don’t need Calnar horses here. Life is trouble enough, without dwarf trouble.”