Portent of the Sword

The great hall called Grand Gather was the heart of Thorin Keep. Here, where ancient ogres had squared out a huge cavern for their deepest lair, the delving Calnar had begun the remodeling and expansion from which Thorin grew. Gone was the blocky, monotonous architecture of the ogres. The only remaining trace of ogre origins was the sheer size of the vast chamber.

Grand Gather had been reshaped by the dwarves into a huge amphitheater with rings of steps rising from an arena floor. It was literally the heart of Thorin, because it was from here that all the later delvings of the city within the mountain had gone forth — a busy, ever-growing sprawl of levels and ways, warrens and roads, shops and stalls, foundries, factories, smithies, and sprawling residential areas — an entire city within a mountain. Select stone removed from the delvings had gone to construct the twenty-story west wall overlooking the terraces — the only exterior wall in the entire city.

Grand Gather was enormous. Its rising rings of steps, serving as seats for assemblies, could accommodate many thousands. But now there were only a few dozen Calnar in the great chamber. High sunlight, shafting in through the great quartz lenses of sun-tunnels in the vaulted ceiling a hundred feet above, made the day within Thorin as bright as the mountain morning above the Khalkist crags. Great ranks of silvered-glass mirrors directed the light, in Grand Gather as elsewhere, so that no part of Thorin was ever dark, except at night.

When Colin Stonetooth entered Grand Gather, striding down the steps on powerful, stubby legs, some of those waiting below stood, and a few saluted. Others didn’t. As chieftain of the Calnar, Colin Stonetooth had little use for ceremony, unless it served a practical purpose. Today there were no visiting delegations to impress, no games or entertainments to applaud. Nothing was scheduled here today, and the message from the captain of guards, requesting the chieftain’s presence here, had been terse and without explanation.

Colin entered through the west passage, the Ten following him as they always did. They had all been out on the terraces and still wore their riding gear. The Grand Council table, a seven-sided table of polished oak wood, twelve feet across, had been placed in the center of the arena with benches around it. The five members of the Council of Wardens waited there, along with several others. Colin was surprised that all four of his children were present, as well as the delvemaster, Wight Anvil’s-Cap, and the marshal of the keep, Coke Rockrend. Beyond the table, big Willen Ironmaul, captain of guards, waited with a cluster of his warriors. They formed a tight ring, some facing inward, and Colin squinted, trying to see who — or what — they were guarding.

At the chieftain’s flank, Jerem Longslate, First of the Ten, muttered, “Something’s afoot, Sire. Coke Rockrend never meets with the council.”

“Neither does Wight Anvil’s-Cap,” Colin pointed out. He raised a hand casually, and the Ten spread out, hurrying to stations around the arena where they could watch the entrances and their chieftain’s back. Never in memory had the Ten been called upon to defend the life of the chieftain of the Calnar, but never did a moment pass when they were not ready to, if needed.

Colin reached the arena gate and paused there, looking from one to another of those waiting around the great table. There were wardens at five of its seven sides. The sixth was his, and it was an old mystery why there was a seventh.

The table had been crafted by a team of master carpenters more than a century ago, but even then the full council — including the chieftain — had only been six. Old Mistral Thrax, who — some said — was more than three hundred years of age, held that the seventh side was in honor of the legendary Kitlin Fishtaker, the dwarf who had stood in the path of chaos on the day when magic was born. But then, Mistral Thrax was full of stories. Only children believed the legend of Kitlin Fishtaker. What dwarf would wander the world, suffering from wounds that never healed, and carry with him an enchanted two-tined fishing spear?

What dwarf would use magic? The very idea was repugnant. Still, Mistral Thrax insisted that there was a realm called Kal-Thax, somewhere to the west, and that Kitlin Fishtaker had lived there.

Colin Stonetooth stepped into the arena and strode to the table. He looked from one to another of his wardens, then held the gaze of Frost Steelbit, chief of wardens. “Well?” he said.

Frost shrugged and turned, indicating the captain of guards, who was approaching the table.

Willen Ironmaul was young for his responsibilities but had proven himself many times over. At five feet, four inches in height, he was one of the tallest dwarves in Thorin and had the powerful build of an athlete. With a stubborn mane of thick, dark hair and a beard that seemed to defy trimming, his appearance belied the quiet wisdom of his level gray eyes.

As he approached, those eyes flicked toward Tera Sharn — as they always did when she was present — then returned to Colin Stonetooth. “Sire.” He made the slightest of bows, then squared his shoulders. “I called for this meeting. You were in the fields, and I felt this matter could not wait. I hope you will approve, when you have heard the reason.”

For a moment, Colin was taken aback. He had not known who summoned him, but would have assumed that it was a member of the council. For a guard captain to take such a step was almost unheard of. Still, Willen Ironmaul had earned great respect in Thorin, even among its leaders. Sometimes Colin wished that the big captain’s cool, direct manner of taking charge when necessary might rub off on his own sons. “You must feel there is good reason, Willen.” Colin nodded. “Proceed.”

“Garr Lanfel, the prince of Golash, has sent us a puzzle, sire. The puzzle is here.” Willen turned toward his clustered guards and signaled. The guards stepped aside to reveal a huddled figure in a cloak, sitting on a bench.

“Stand up!” one of the guards whispered, loudly enough for all to hear. At the command, the cloaked one stood. Colin Stonetooth hissed in amazement. It was a man — a human man. Standing, he towered head and shoulders above the armed dwarves flanking him.

Colin Stonetooth scowled at the hooded figure. Only rarely were humans admitted to the keep, and then only on the chieftain’s orders. For Willen Ironmaul to have taken this upon himself, there must be a very good reason indeed, the chieftain thought.

“Show him,” Willen ordered. The guards flanking the man grasped his cloak and pulled it from him. The man’s eyes glared at the dwarves with unconcealed hatred, but he made no sound. His hands and arms were bound with stout cord, and a gag covered his mouth.

“Sire,” Willen Ironmaul said, pointing, “this man was delivered to our guards by men from Golash, by order of Prince Garr Lanfel. He was bound as he is now, and we left him so and brought him here in secret.” Willen stooped, picked up a long parcel wrapped in sheepskin, and laid it on the table before Colin. “Prince Garr Lanfel instructed his men to say that this man is not of Golash. He is a stranger there, one of many who have arrived in recent days. And he was carrying this.” With a sweep of his powerful arm, the big dwarf pulled aside the sheepskin. Within it lay a sword, and Colin Stonetooth’s eyes narrowed as he looked at it. It was no ordinary sword, and certainly not a sword that any human should have had. It was virtually a duplicate of the blade that Willen Ironmaul carried at his back. It was of finest Thorin steel, with the distinctive floral hilt and pommel of those blades made in the fifth-level smithies, for exclusive issue to Thorin’s elite guards. No such sword had ever been consigned to anyone else.

Colin lifted the blade, studied it carefully, and tasted it. Though wiped clean, its burnished steel still carried traces that were clear to the keen metal-sense of a dwarf.

The chieftain’s eyes narrowed still more, and Willen Ironmaul nodded. “Aye, Sire,” he said. “The sword has tasted blood recently. And not just human blood. There is Calnar blood there, too — on the hilt, guard, and pommel.”

Colin Stonetooth turned, his gaze cold as he studied the visible features of the gagged human. Aside he asked, “Your border patrol, Willen? Has there been word?”

“No, Sire. Nothing.”

“There is the horse,” Handil Coldblade reminded them, stepping forth. As wide and sturdy as Colin himself, “the Drum” at this moment was a fierce, younger version of his father. “One of ours, Father. It was found wandering in the lower fields, lathered and stripped of its gear. Saman the Hostler believes it is Sledge Two-Fires’ mount, called Piquin.”

“Sledge led the missing patrol.” Willen Ironmaul added.

At the council table, Cullom Hammerstand, warden of trade, pulled a rolled scroll from his belt and placed it on the oaken surface. “Heed the words of the human prince, Garr Lanfel, Sire. He said this man is not of Golash, but is one of many strangers recently come. Garr Lanfel is an honorable man, Sire … for a human. His warning bears out these reports of the past several weeks. Large bands of humans have been converging, both on Golash and on Chandera. They come quietly and blend with the humans there.”

“Many people are adrift these days,” Talam Bendiron noted. As always, the tap warden was cautious about reaching conclusions.

“Many are adrift,” Cullom Hammerstand agreed, “but not this many.” He unrolled the scroll, squinting at it. “By our agents’ estimates, Sire, these ‘little bands’ converging on the neighboring realms now total several thousand human males, all of them well-armed, and all arriving just in time for the fair of Balladine. Also, in Golash they say the strangers speak to all who will listen, spreading vicious lies about dwarves. They seem to be doing all they can to spread a hatred of the Calnar. And a name is used often among the strangers. The name is Grayfen. Our agents suspect he may be a wizard of some sort.”

Colin shuddered slightly, as did most dwarves at the mention of sorcery. Magic existed, but it was considered an abomination. “Only in Golash?” he asked. “What of Chandera?”

The trade warden ran a finger down his scroll, read farther, then looked up. “Bram Talien of Chandera reports strangers, as well, Sire. Though not so many.”

“All of this, and this” — Willen Ironmaul indicated the sword at Colin’s hand — “are why I felt we should meet here today.”

“I agree with Willen, Father,” Handil said. “Balladine is at hand.”

“And I,” Tolon added. “I fear that evil approaches.”

“Evil.” Colin repeated the word. He waved toward the human prisoner. “Release his bonds. Let’s hear what he can tell us.”

Strong hands removed the cords and the gag. The man rubbed his hands, glaring at them.

“Do you speak our language, human?” Colin Stonetooth asked.

“I speak my language,” the man growled. “But not to dinks.”

“To what?”

“Dinks. Filthy dwarves.”

One of the guards shook his head, amused that this disheveled human, who smelled as though he had never in his life had a bath, should call dwarves filthy.

“You have heard what has been said, human.” Colin stood, facing the man. “What is your name, and how do you come to have this sword in your possession?”

“My name is Calik,” the man snapped. “And what I have is my own business.”

“What happened to the Suncradle patrol?” Willen Ironmaul demanded.

The man glared at him, tight-lipped.

“Who is Grayfen?” Handil the Drum asked.

The man’s eyes narrowed with hatred, but he said nothing.

Cullom Hammerstand looked up from his counting-scroll. “How many of you are there, and what do you intend?”

Still the man stood in silence.

Willen Ironmaul glanced at his chieftain. “With your permission, Sire, I might persuade this creature to talk to us.”

The man glared at him contemptuously. “It would take more than you, dink.”

Colin Stonetooth sat down. “Help yourself, Willen. But try not to damage him beyond repair.”

Aye.” The captain of guards nodded. Stepping away from the table, he removed his weapons and armor and strode to a clear area in the arena, clad only in kilt, shift and boots. “Send him to me,” he said.

The guards pushed the man forward, and he balked. “What is this? One man, unarmed, against dozens with swords?”

“No weapons,” Colin Stonetooth decreed. “And no one else will touch you. Only Willen.”

“He wants to fight me? One puny dwarf? So I kill him, then what? The rest of you kill me?”

“If you defeat Willen Ironmaul, human,” Handil snapped, “I will ask for your freedom. Father?”

“Agreed.” Colin nodded, turning a disinterested palm.

Again the guards hustled Calik toward Willen. When he was past the table, they gave him a shove and backed away. The man hesitated for a moment, then grinned wickedly at the unarmed dwarf waiting for him. The man stood almost a foot taller than Willen and was strongly built, with long legs, long arms, and burly shoulders. “I’ve killed a dozen real men in the pits,” he hissed. “I’ll make this quick, dink.” His grin widened, and he spread his hands as though in embarrassment. Then, abruptly, he crouched and lunged at the dwarf.

It was as though the man had run into a wall — into it and over it. There was a thud of colliding bodies, then Calik was on the floor beyond Willen, tumbling and skidding. He raised himself, shook his head, and blinked. Then, with a shouted curse, he launched himself again, towering over the dwarf, hard fists swinging.

Willen met the man halfway, went in under his blows, and delivered a jarring punch to his midsection. Even as the man gasped, the dwarf was behind him, kicking his feet out from under him, and several solid blows rained on him as he fell.

Untouched and unshaken, Willen Ironmaul stepped back. “Are you ready to talk to us, human?”

Enraged, Calik got his feet under him, rushed, whirled, and aimed a lethal kick at the dwarf’s head. Strong hands blocked his leg, twisting it, and Calik fell on his face. Willen Ironmaul twisted the man’s arms behind him, ground his face against the stone floor, then stood and delivered a judicious kick to his ribs. “Now are you ready to talk to us?” he asked. “Everyone is waiting.”

Calik’s response was a sudden kick that caught Willen in the side and sent him staggering back. Snake-quick, the man pressed his advantage with a rush, a knee to the dwarf’s face, and a two-fisted blow to the back of the neck that might have killed a human. Willen went to his knees, seeming dazed, and the man threw himself onto him, trying to bear him down, to get a killing hold on throat or spine. But the dwarf who had seemed dazed suddenly was upright beneath him, lifting. In an instant, Willen had the flailing, writhing man above his head, and with a heave he threw him across ten feet of empty floor.

Calik lit, rolled, and crashed against the side of the council table. Before he could move, Willen was on him, pummeling, punishing and bruising him. Calik screamed.

Willen felt small, strong hands pulling him away. Tera Sham’s voice said, “Willen, please! That’s enough!”

He let her pull him back, breathing deeply to clear the battle-rage from his head. She was right, of course. The man lay groveling on the floor, obviously defeated. Willen turned toward Tera and heard a gasp as her eyes looked beyond him. Calik was not through. With a shout he came upright, grabbed the sword from in front of Colin Stonetooth, and raised it over his head. When it fell, slashing downward, its bright edge barely missed Tera. Willen pushed the girl back, out of the way, and waved off the dozen or more armed dwarves who were rushing toward him. “Stay!” he commanded. “The human has made his choice.”

Willen ducked aside from the maddened human’s second cut, dodged the third, and went in under the fourth. In the blink of an eye, Calik was bent over backward, the sword still waving in his hand, and Willen’s short, massive arm was around his neck. With his other arm, the dwarf locked the man’s shoulder … and pivoted, twisting.

The sound of Calik’s neck breaking was almost drowned by the clang of the dropped sword falling from a dead hand.

Willen stepped away, letting the big body slump to the floor. He looked toward Colin Stonetooth. “He chose not to speak, Sire,” he said.

“It is a bad omen,” Tolon Farsight muttered.

“A bad business,” Handil agreed. “Humans — even those friendly to us — won’t like dwarves killing humans.”

“I had no choice,” Willen Ironmaul told him. “You saw it.”

“No, it was his choice,” Handil agreed. “But there will be anger.”

Guards hurried forward to drag Calik away. At the council table, Frost Steelbit stood. “There are many questions, Sire,” he said to the chieftain. “But the first of the questions faces us now. With what we have seen, and what we might guess, do we continue with Balladine this year?”

Before the chieftain could answer, his second son, Tolon Farsight, pushed forward. “Cancel the Balladine, Father,” he said. “This business is an omen. Thorin is in danger from humans. It is best to barricade and guard, and let no human approach this season.”

“The people of Golash and Chandera are our friends,” Colin pointed out. “They have not threatened us.”

“Humans threaten us!” Tolon growled. “Does it matter which ones? I say bar them from Thorin. The danger is more than the gain.”

Colin Stonetooth gazed around at all of them thoughtfully, then shook his head. “Balladine is as important to us as it is to our neighbors,” he said. “We need the humans’ goods in trade, just as they need ours. Let the call continue, let the plans proceed. But” — he stood, turning away — “we shall be very careful this time. Very careful indeed. Tell the people to look to the left side of their tools.”


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