14

The Price of Treachery

The autumn sun had gone behind the peaks, and twilight lay upon Kal-Thax when Theiwar watchers saw a little band of brightly clad dwarves making their way northward. They were obviously Daewar, but there were fewer than a hundred of them, and many appeared injured.

Within minutes, Twist Cutshank himself was on the spotting ledge with Brule Vaportongue and a dozen others. “The plan worked,” the Theiwar chieftain gloated. “The humans cut them to pieces. Those are all that are left.”

“That’s Goldbuckle himself in the lead,” Slide Tolec noted, pointing. “I know him by his floral cloak.”

“It worked!” Twist repeated, a fierce grin parting his whiskers. “Glome was right. The Daewar are defeated. All we need to do is finish the job. Mark their route and get ready. I want Olim Goldbuckle’s head on a javelin tip. With him gone, we’ll have no problem taking over that stronghold of theirs.”

“You mean to ambush them?” Slide asked. He was surprised and a bit shocked at how few Daewar survivors there seemed to be. It didn’t seem right, somehow, that the human horsemen could have done so much damage — could have killed so many. And yet, there they were, no more than a hundred battered, slow-moving Daewar. And no returning Theiwar had reported anything of what occurred after the horsemen returned to the battle. In fact, there were quite a few Theiwar missing, as well.

“Of course we ambush them,” Twist grunted. “That’s part of Glome’s plan. Then we go take over that fortress they’ve been digging. No Daewar will ever again think of being king of Kal-Thax!”

“You really think the Daewar wants to be a king?” Brule Vaportongue asked.

“You heard Glome,” Twist snapped. “Why else would the Daewar have been digging a fortress all these years under Sky’s End?”

Glome himself was not there, and Slide realized that the assassin had been gone most of the day. It was as though he had shown up just long enough to persuade Twist Cutshank to start a war, then disappeared. Brule crouched on the shelf, staring out at the approaching Daewar, and the frown on his V-shaped face was as puzzled as Slide’s own. Still, when Twist Cutshank proceeded to organize his ambush and set out with his troops, they both remained silent. Something was very wrong here, and they both felt it. But they didn’t know what it was, and they knew the chieftain would not listen to their vague suspicions. It seemed the only person Twist listened to, now that he was chieftain, was Glome the Assassin.

By evening light the Theiwar ambushers were concealed along both sides of a narrow draw along which the Daewar must pass. Twist Cutshank crept to a stone out-cropping and watched them approach. They were near now, and the Theiwar’s eyes fixed on the gleaming helmet and floral cloak of the Daewar prince. Soon, he told himself. Soon, the Daewar will be dead.

“I don’t care how many of the gold-molders you kill,” he called softly. “Kill them all, for all I care. Just make sure that prince dies. Whoever’s blade draws Goldbuckle’s blood will have first choice of prizes when we enter the Daewar delves.”

Directly behind him a deep voice growled, “Well, I suppose that’s clear enough.”

Twist spun around, his mouth open. Six feet away, Olim Goldbuckle, bare-headed and without his regal cloak, gazed at him with angry, hooded eyes. Beyond, all along the ambush canyon, Daewar fighters — hundreds of them — were surrounding and containing the surprised Theiwar in their hiding places.

“Twist Cutshank,” the Daewar prince rumbled, “I accuse you of treachery, betrayal, and of intentionally breaking the Pact of Kal-Thax. Do you submit to judgment of the thanes, or do you wish to challenge me?”

With a roar of rage, Twist Cutshank drew his curved, dark-steel blade and launched himself at the prince of the Daewar. His sword flashed downward at the golden, unprotected hair of Olim’s head … and missed as the Daewar dodged aside, thrusting with his bright blade.

Twist felt the cold steel rip through the strapping between his breastplates, and felt the icy fire of it entering his chest. He tried to raise his blade again, but somehow lacked the strength even to hold it. It slipped from his fingers, and he sagged to his knees.

“I kind of thought you might choose to challenge,” Olim Goldbuckle said quietly. With a heave, he turned the blade and sliced, severing the Theiwar’s heart within him. When he withdrew his sword, Twist Cutshank pitched forward and lay still.

Wiping his sword clean, Olim strode back into the canyon and looked around at the captured ambushers. A Daewar guardsman stepped forward to hand him his helmet and help him with his cloak. When he was fully garbed again, Olim raised his voice. “You Theiwar,” he said so that all could hear. “You listen too much to the wrong people. First you followed Crouch Redfire, then you followed Twist Cutshank, and now you must find someone else to follow. Twist Cutshank broke the pact, and now he is dead. Can anyone here tell me why he chose to betray his allies?”

At first there was no answer, then from the guarded lines a broad-shouldered Theiwar of middle years stepped forward. “I can tell you, Daewar,” he growled.

“And who are you?”

“I am Slide Tolec.”

“Then tell me, Slide Tolec,” Olim urged. “Did your chief so hunger for bloodshed that he would carry out a betrayal and plan an invasion? Did he think the Daewar so rich that it would be worth the cost?”

“He believed that you have treasures,” Slide Tolec said. “Many think so. Do you?”

“Not like your leaders seem to think,” Olim snapped. “Was that his reason for this day’s treachery?”

“Part of it,” Slide admitted. “But mostly he feared that the Daewar plan to rule all of Kal-Thax.”

Olim frowned. “Rule Kal-Thax? Why did he think that?”

“Why else would you be delving a new fortress?” Slide glared at his captor. “Oh, we know what you have been doing over there on Sky’s End. We have eyes. We have seen the dumps of your delving. You must be digging out an entire city underground.”

“Delving a …” Olim stammered, abruptly at a loss for words. “You think we are delving a …” He clamped his mouth shut and looked away, stifling a laugh. A few yards away, Gem Bluesleeve stood in open-mouthed astonishment.

Doing his best to conceal his delight, Olim turned back to Slide Tolec. “What we do under Sky’s End is our own business,” he said sternly. “If, as you say, we are delving a fortress city there, then that is not the Theiwar’s concern.”

“It is if you plan to rule Kal-Thax from there,” Slide Tolec said stubbornly. “You can kill those of us you have captured if you want to, but we are only a few. There are many others who will avenge us. And if we die, the rest will know why we died … because the Daewar intend to rule! No Theiwar will ever bend the knee to a Daewar king!”

“And if I told you that we have no such intention, would you believe me?”

“Would you, if you were us?”

“Probably not,” Olim admitted. “Very well. The chieftain who led you in this folly has paid with his life. We came here to protect the Pact of Kal-Thax. We will come again when humans again press the borders, and we will keep coming as long as there is threat from outside. Tell whoever is your next chieftain to expect that and to get used to it.”

“You … you are letting us go?”

“What would it accomplish to kill you?” Olim turned his back and shook his head, stifling a grin of delight. Then he straightened his face, put on his sternest expression, and snapped at his captain, “Gem! Don’t just stand there gaping. We must be on our way.”

Gem Bluesleeve blinked at his prince. “But, Sire, what he said about our delvings — ”

“So, they’ve figured out what we’re doing.” Olim quickly cut him off. “Building ourselves a fortress. Well, we couldn’t keep it secret forever, could we?”

“Couldn’t …?” Gem paused, then squared his shoulders. “Ah … no, Sire. It’s hard to keep a fortress secret.”

*

The slopes remained clear of intruders — it would be a while before humans or anyone else stirred up the courage to try another assault on the mountain realm — and Slide Tolec led a party from the border outpost back to Theibardin, the maze of hollowed-out caves that ran around two of the faces of Cloudseeker, high on the huge mountain’s crest.

It was the home realm of the Theiwar, and Slide had a grim intuition of what they would find when they arrived there. Instinct told him that Glome the Assassin had known, before it ever happened, that the Daewar stragglers had been decoys, and that Olim Goldbuckle was coming to call in force. Somehow, Slide felt, Glome had forseen the fate of Twist Cutshank, had even aided and abetted it.

It was no real surprise, then, to arrive at the Theiwar home lairs and find that Glome and his followers had taken control of the place. Glome had declared himself chieftain of the Theiwar and was proceeding with plans to attack, invade, and loot the Daewar’s new city under Sky’s End. The plan was simple and straightforward. Somehow, Glome had enlisted the help of the Daergar by persuading Vog Ironface that the Daewar intended to take over all the mining in Kal-Thax. With a combined force of Theiwar and Daergar — and as many of the wild, erratic Klar as they could round up — Glome intended to take the old Daewar citadel on the slopes of Sky’s End’s, which was — his spies assured him — the only entrance to the Daewar’s new delvings.

With the citadel held, Glome reasoned, they could lay siege to the underground city until they starved the Daewar out and forced a surrender.

When Slide Tolec and Brule Vaportongue first heard of the plan, they glanced at each other in astonishment. For the first time, it occurred to both of them that Glome the Assassin might truly be insane.

But after a glimpse of Glome himself, his eyes shining with a zealot’s fervor and an avenger’s rage — and surrounded by his hundreds of ardent followers — Slide and Brule wisely decided to keep their mouths shut. Glome was chieftain now, but not like any chieftain who had ruled before.

Glome did not accept criticism, and had repealed the law of challenge. Now, for any Theiwar to speak against the chieftain or his plans, the penalty was death.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям