7

Night of the Last Moons

No human knew what lay beyond Grand Gather, nor had any ever guessed the extent of Thorin. For what lay beyond the big cavern was most of Thorin. The visible face of Thorin Keep, the flanked gates, even Grand Gather itself, were only the antechambers of a huge complex where most of the Calnar lived their lives without ever seeing the world outside their mountain — or having any desire to.

Deep within the mountain, beyond Grand Gather, was an entire city built around a huge, cylindrical shaft that was the heart of Thorin. At the bottom of the shaft were the smelters, where vast, glowing fires never cooled. Above, at the next level, were foundries set in a circular cavern whose center was the great shaft. Above that, another “ring” cavern had been delved, with a ceiling that sloped upward toward the center shaft. Here were the forges of Thorin, a hundred feet below the grand concourse which was the city’s central district.

The great airshaft rose through this, up and up, ringed by delved caverns at regular intervals. Near the central shaft at each level were markets and stalls, shops and storage rooms, the quarters of wardens and marshals, and the manufactories where large implements and structures were assembled. Beyond, in each ring level, were the homes of the people of Thorin.

As the day of Balladine approached, Colin Stonetooth led an inspection tour of all central levels and nodded his approval. “We have always known that the day would come when Thorin would be threatened,” he told his wardens. “It is for this reason that nothing beyond Grand Gather has ever been opened to outsiders. Our greatest strength lies not in what others know of us, but in what they don’t know or even suspect.”

Tera Sharn, following along with her brother Tolon, shook her head. “Those people out there, waiting for the Balladine … they haven’t been enemies. They are our neighbors.”

“Some of them,” Willen Ironmaul corrected. “Have you looked out at the valley, Tera? I have. Never have I seen so many humans before. There are thousands of them, everywhere one looks. If every human in Golash and Chandera were there, it would not account for half that crowd.”

“I have seen,” Tolon Farsight breathed. “And I do not like what I have seen.”

“But Chandera and Golash are there!” Tera persisted. “Their banners fly above their caravans as always. They are at the front of the assemblage.”

“With many strangers just beyond,” Bardion Ledge, the waste warden, reminded her.

“Their banners are there,” Cullom Hammerstand agreed, “but where are Garr Lanfel and Riffin Two-Tree? They have not come to the gates to hail us, as they did in past years. Not even Bram Talien has come, seeking ale and news. It is strange, at least.”

“Ominous,” Tolon said darkly.

Tera Sharn lowered her eyes, still shaking her head. “I hope there is some … some harmless explanation.”

“I hope so, too,” Colin Stonetooth laid a gentle, powerful hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I pray to Reorx and all the covenant gods that tomorrow’s dawn will bring nothing more than the opening of a fine Balladine.”

“But until we know,” Willen Ironmaul muttered, “we keep our tools to the left.” The captain of guards turned to Wight Anvil’s-Cap, delvemaster of Thorin. “Are the inner gates prepared, Delvemaster?”

“They’re as ready as a thing can be that has never been tested,” the old dwarf growled.

“Tested?” A thin smile spread the whiskers on Colin Stonetooth’s face. “Wight, if you can devise a test for something that, once fallen, can never be raised again, I’d like to see it.”

The delvemaster was not amused. “Reorx grant us that they are never needed.” He shrugged. “Thorin would never be the same, ever again.”

“Reorx grant that none of our … defenses … ever are needed,” Colin agreed. “All the same, though, when the gates are opened tomorrow, I want everything in place, just as we have planned.” He raised his head, listening. Here in the higher levels of Thorin-Heart, the great ventilator shaft carried sounds from the outside world. The Balladine drums, which had continued to sing since Handil’s first stroke on his vibrar, rose in a crescendo of distant thunder, then stopped. The echoes died, and silence hung over the great peaks above Thorin.

“The moons have risen,” Tera Sharn said. “The call is done. Tomorrow begins Balladine.”

Beyond him, throngs of Calnar were coming and going on the public way. Almost everyone in sight carried a tool of one kind or another. Even the women and many of the children were armed.

Colin Stonetooth angled across the way to where a hand-wide trough, hewn from stone, ran for several feet along a wall between two buttresses. Clear water flowed through the trough, emerging from a three-inch hole in one pillar, disappearing into a similar hole in the next. The chieftain cupped his hands, dipped some water, and drank, then muttered an oath as a three-inch iron ball rolled out of the upper hole and along the trough, showering him with droplets of spray. “Rust!” he said. “I wish the tap warden could come up with some better way of maintaining his aqueducts.”

Another of the iron balls emerged, rolled languidly down the trough, and disappeared into the lower pipe.

“They work, though,” Tera Sharn pointed out. “The water is always clean.”

At the same time that Colin Stonetooth and his advisors were inspecting the dwarven city’s defenses, Handil the Drum and Jinna Rockreave stood atop Thorin Keep, watching the moons rise above the mountains. Wrapped in furs against the cold, they watched Solinari edge above the crag, and Jinna slipped her hand into Handil’s. “Will nights always be so beautiful?” she murmured.

He smiled down at her. “I promise it, my love. Always.”

“Oh? You can keep such promises, then, Handil Moonraiser?”

“Of course I can,” he chuckled. “With you beside me, there is nothing I can’t do. I’ll show you.” He pointed upward, toward the dark silhouette of the crag below the white moon. “Watch, just there. In a moment, I shall command a red moon to rise, to follow the white one into the sky.”

“Silly,” Jinna giggled. “Lunitari always rises there in this season.”

“Just because it always does, that doesn’t mean I didn’t make it happen this time, just for you.”

“I see.” She snuggled closer beside him. “And for how long will you have these marvelous powers, Handil Coldblade? Long enough to see us married, I hope?”

“Longer than that,” he assured her. “It is my intention to please you, my love, for as long as we both shall live.”

A red glow began to form above the dark crag, where wisps of steam-cloud danced in the mountain wind, rising from the hidden warmth of Thorin’s great central shaft. Gently, Handil released his hand from hers, and unslung the Thunderer from his back. With deft hands he unwrapped the big vibrar, letting its polished surfaces catch the moonlight. He handed its wrap to the girl and removed his mallets from his belt.

“I began the song this year,” he said. “It is only right that I help end it.”

Slinging the great drum under his left arm, he raised his mallets over its forward head, hesitated for a moment, listening to the song of the drums atop the Sentinels and the nearby slopes, then lowered them in a quick, soft tattoo on the drumhead. Instantly, the vibrar came to life, its deep voice floating outward on the air to join the song of the drums, swelling in volume as he blended his rhythm into theirs. The air above Thorin Keep seemed to throb with the powerful voice of the Thunderer, and the Sentinel drums responded, their voices blending in vast harmonies. Further drums, here and there on the slopes, added counterpoints to the fabric of sound.

Gradually, as the red glow brightened beyond the crag, Handil increased his tempo and his volume. The very mountains seemed to come alive to the sound of singing drums, and as the red moon appeared, adding its light to the white light of Solinari, the vibrar and all the other drums swelled to a crescendo that crashed and echoed among the slopes of the Khalkists. With a final tattoo of salute, Handil ceased his playing and muted the big drum under his arm, in exact synchronization with the muting of all the others, all about.

The echoes died away, and there was only the sound of the wind in the peaks.

Handil put away his mallets and replaced Thunderer’s wrap. “It is done,” he said, quietly. “With the sunrise tomorrow, it is Balladine.”

“Balladine,” Jinna echoed, turning to look westward, down the long rank of terraces. Out there, in the upper valley, hundreds of fires winked in the night — far more than she had ever seen before. “Balladine, and our wedding, yours and mine. Moonraiser mine, let it be all of that, and nothing more.”

“Anything for you,” he assured her. “For as long as we live.”

*

Mistral Thrax did not hear the drums end their call. At three hundred and eighteen years, Mistral Thrax was at least half a century older than any other Calnar, and he needed his sleep. It was his custom — and had been for as long as anyone could remember — to put away his scrolls when the light from the sun-tunnels began to dim, pick up his crutch, hobble the thousand yards from his cubicle to the Den of Respite, and shuffle to a table in the back, where “Mistral’s bench” always awaited him.

Sometimes it was Clamp Sandhaul who brought the old dwarf his half loaf, pot meat, and ale, and sometimes one of the young dwarves who tended table in the Den of Respite. Sometimes, when he was there, even Lobard Alekeg himself served the old lorespinner. But whoever did the serving, the service was always the same — a half loaf, pot meat, and a mug of cool ale. No one in Thorin could recall Mistral Thrax ever having anything else for his supper.

And always, at the lighting of lamps, Mistral Thrax finished his ale, put down a steel coin, and shuffled out of the place, leaning on his crutch, for the thousand-yard walk home to his bed.

Rarely did Mistral Thrax dream these days. Every dream a dwarf might dream, he had dreamed long since and put away. But on this night, his sleep was troubled, and the dreams came — dark, murky dreams that made him toss and fidget in his sleep. Troubling dreams … bits and pieces of scene and sound: metal ringing against metal, people running and screaming, stone walls dripping red with blood, blood as bright as the pair of disembodied red eyes that seemed to glow around and through each sequence. He turned, pulled his blanket tighter around him, and tried to push the dreams away.

They faded, then began again. In a chaos of confusion, people ran and scampered around him, turning to look back with frightened faces. Then there were bloody blades ringing against scarred, dented shields, and blood … blood, and bright, glowing red eyes that seemed to float tranquilly through the havoc, seeing everything. A muffled crash as huge stones dropped from a ceiling, thumping into place across a tunnel way with a finality that said they would never budge again. He seemed to be looking at the sealed tunnel, and those red eyes were beside him, seeing what he saw, then turning away.

And beyond the sealed tunnel … somehow he could see there, too, and what he saw was thunder — shattered stone crashing down, burying everything beneath it, dust rising from rubble — then darkness and silence, as still as a grave.

Mistral Thrax thrashed about in his sleep, frightened and troubled by the dream but unable to awaken. The dark nothingness was as ominous as the chaotic visions that had preceded it, and in the darkness was … something — a shadow, standing as though awaiting his notice, as though seeking permission to speak.

He tried to focus on the shadow, and it seemed to him that it was a dwarf — not Calnar, but a dwarf of some other kind. The dwarf was injured somehow, and bleeding from cuts, but seemed to ignore them. In his hand, glowing slightly, was a two-tined fishing spear.

“Speak,” Mistral Thrax said — or dreamed saying. “Tell me what this means.”

The injured dwarf gazed at him sadly from the shadows, then said, “When the future lies in the past, Thorin will be Thoradin. The exile will seek Everbardin, and many will follow. The way to Kal-Thax is west, Mistral Thrax. South and west. You will know the way.”

Mistral Thrax tried to speak, but the stuff of dreams held him silent. The suffering phantom seemed to come toward him and to touch his forehead gently with the tip of its double-tined spear. “One needs eyes to see what cannot be seen,” it murmured. “Do not be blind to the one whose eyes are not his own.”

The image faded, and abruptly Mistral Thrax was awake, shivering under his blankets. In the dimness of his stone-walled room he looked about, trying to understand. Thorin will be Thoradin? Thorin was home. Thorin-Everbardin — Dwarfhome, always. Home and hope were the same word to the Calnar, and the word was Thorin.

Why had the vision spoken of Thoradin? Thoradin was past tense — a sad, melancholy word. Thoradin — home that once was … lost home … lost hope.

Hope, though … hope was a thing of the future. Yet the vision had spoken of the future lying in the past … and of carrying the past to the future. Those who seek Everbardin. … What could it mean, to seek always?

The way to Kal-Thax is west.

Mistral Thrax sat up, rubbed his eyes, and hugged his blankets around him. He felt very cold. Just a dream, he told himself. It was only a dream. He could not have really seen Kitlin Fishtaker.

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