16

A Debt of Service

The arrival of the Hylar had transformed the quiet little valley into a bustling, busy place. There were dwarves everywhere: dwarves at work straightening the tipped bridge; dwarves making fires and setting up lean-tos; dwarves tending stock, unpacking provisions, and scouting sentry posts; dwarves on fold-out ladders grooming dozens of the huge, gold-and-white horses; dwarves with nets and hooks retrieving arms and armor from the rushing stream; dwarf women tending dwarf children; dwarf foragers beginning a harvest of hay and wild grains from the fields above the stream; and a very old dwarf with a crutch, who muttered dourly to himself as he padded around here and there, trying to find a quiet place to rest.

Glendon Hawke felt totally out of place among them, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. They had his horse, his arms and armor, all of his clothing except the brief under-kilt he wore … and they had him. A ring of grim-looking dwarves with weapons in hand surrounded him. Nobody had told the man that he was a prisoner, but it was clear that he wasn’t going anywhere, even had his honor permitted it.

The evening breeze had dried his hair, and it fluttered around his cheeks like locks of spun copper as he turned toward a procession of dwarves coming through the ring of guards. One was Cale Greeneye, the one who had demanded and accepted his pledge of service. Following him were a regal-looking older dwarf with fierce features and shrewd eyes, a heavily-muscled younger dwarf who seemed inches taller than most of them, a strikingly pretty female in traveling robes, and the old dwarf with the crutch. There were others, as well, but these held back as the first five approached.

Cale Greeneye looked the man up and down, an ironic twinkle in his eyes, then turned to the older dwarf standing beside him. “Sire, this is the human I told you about. His name is Glendon Hawke … or Sir Glendon, I suppose, though he doesn’t look much like a sir right now. He calls himself a knight.”

“I am a knight,” Glendon muttered. “Not of the orders, of course, but no less a knight. I am a free lance.”

“Sir Knight,” Cale completed the introductions, “this is our chieftain, Colin Stonetooth, my father. And my sister, Tera Sharn. And this is our captain of guards, Willen Ironmaul. The venerable one there is Mistral Thrax. Please tell them what you have granted to me.”

Glendon took a deep breath. “I have pledged you my service,” he said grudgingly.

“Why?”

“Because my honor demands it. You bested me at the bridge, even if you did so by foul means.” Standing very straight, the human looked down at his new masters, accepting his fate. He was at least a foot taller than any of them, even the massive Willen Ironmaul. But his pledge was his honor, and he had given his pledge.

“Right.” Cale Greeneye nodded. “And I have committed your services to my father.”

The chieftain was studying Glendon with unconcealed dislike. Now he glanced at his son. “This … this human is going to teach us to fight? I have my doubts, as I told you.”

“He has skills, Father,” Cale assured the chieftain. “I have seen them.”

“Yes, I know. With lance and shield, on horseback. What else?”

“He told me he has studied every sort of combat. I tested him with simple swords. He disarmed me with one parry.”

The chieftain gazed at Glendon again, curiously. “You disarmed my son?”

“Of course,” the man said. “He doesn’t know how to use a sword. No offense intended, though. He is quick and strong, and can learn.”

The dwarves glanced at one another. Among them, Cale Greeneye was reckoned a fine swordsman — almost the equal of Jerem Longslate, who had never been bested either in trial or in combat.

Colin Stonetooth turned his head, catching the eye of the captain of the Ten. “I should like to see that for myself,” he decided. “Jerem?”

“Yes, Sire.” Jerem Longslate handed his shield and buckler to one of his companions. “Simple swords?”

“For now.” Colin Stonetooth nodded. “Do you agree?” he asked Glendon Hawke.

“I am at your service,” the man shrugged.

“Do you want your own sword?” Cale asked him.

“It doesn’t matter,” the knight said. “The skill is in the hand, not in the blade.”

Cale pulled his own sword and turned it, presenting the hilt. “Then use mine,” he said.

By the time the rest had stepped back, clearing a wide circle, Jerem Longslate had stripped himself of armor and robes. Wearing only his kilt and boots, carrying only his wide sword, he strode forward to face the man who towered over him. “Are there any particular rituals or rules?” he asked.

“None.” The man shook his head. “A demonstration is all that was requested. Just attack me, whenever and however you like.” He hefted Cale’s blade, testing its weight. It was balanced differently than his own. Its weight was forward, toward the point. Well suited, he thought, to short arms with powerful wrists and shoulders. Turning half away from Jerem Longslate, he held the blade upright, gazing at its surface.

After a moment, Jerem barked, “Well, are you about ready? I’m waiting.”

The human didn’t even look at him. “Why are you waiting? I invited you to attack.”

Jerem frowned, then shrugged. He raised his own blade before him, circled two steps to the right, and abruptly ducked and lunged, a movement almost too quick to see. Taking the man at his word, he went straight for the heart … and stopped. Somehow his sword was not where it should be. It was still in his hand, but now pointed off to one side. The clang of struck steel rang in his ears, and something sharp was poking at his throat. It was the human’s blade.

“You see,” Glendon said, critically, “you made two mistakes there. The first was in thinking that I did not see you. The second was that midriff thrust. I hardly had to parry at all to knock it aside. If you intend to defeat a person in combat, you shouldn’t give him such advantages.”

The man pulled back his sword, and a tiny drop of blood trickled from beneath the dwarf’s whiskers. Jerem glanced over at his chieftain. “It was a fluke, Sire. May I try again?”

“As you please,” Colin Stonetooth nodded.

This time the captain of the Ten gave no advantages. With a flurry of whistling cuts and thrusts he attacked the tall human … and found himself flat on his back on the hard ground while his sword spun upward, flashing in the evening sun. At the top of its arc the sword steadied, then fell point-downward directly toward him. At the last instant, a long arm stretched above him and a long-fingered, human hand caught the falling blade.

Jerem rolled away and got to his feet. Glendon Hawke calmly flipped the dwarf’s sword, reversed it, and handed it back to him. “That was much better,” he said approvingly. “If you would like to learn that disarm-deck-and-skewer trick, I’ll teach it to you … after you have mastered some basics.”

Colin Stonetooth spread his hands, looking at his grinning son. “Very well, Cale,” he agreed. “The man can instruct us. What does he want in return?”

“To be released from service when his task is done, and to have his belongings returned to him. He asks no other reward. He said his pledge is bound by honor, not by trade.”

“A noble human,” Colin said, wonderingly.

Glendon Hawke heard the comment. “Nobility, like chivalry, is a condition of knighthood, … Sire. Skill alone is only the pattern of the tapestry, not the fabric. Disciplines of hand and mind must be woven from the heart.”

“We can stop here for a while,” Colin decided. “It will do us no harm to learn what this man can teach us.”

Off to one side of the camp, noise erupted — a flurry of booming sounds that settled quickly into a fast, rhythmic beat. Colin Stonetooth put his hands to his ears, and Cale Greeneye shouted, “Somebody get that kender away from the drums! And while you’re at it, search him! I want my spur back!”

All around, dwarves glanced at one another and shook their heads. Everyone knew about the kender. Through all the history of Thorin, wandering kender had appeared now and then among the Calnar — usually during Balladine, when bright baubles lay everywhere for quick hands to take.

Kender had never been welcomed at Balladine. But no one had ever devised an effective way to keep them out. And, once present, there was no good way to get rid of a kender short of killing him or boring him.

There was an old saying among the dwarves, accepted as just one of those unpleasant facts of life: Kender happen.

“It is a contamination of magic,” Mistral Thrax explained sadly. “The old scrolls tell of it, those handed down by the earliest smiths. It was the god Reorx — they say — who created the powers of chaos, in the form of a faceted gray stone. And all in its path became infected by its evil.”

“Old tales.” Colin Stonetooth shook his head. “Why would the greatest of the gods, the creator of all metals — and maybe the creator of all of us as well — have despoiled the world with …” — his beard twitched as he curled a lip in disgust — “with magic? Surely, Mistral, you don’t believe that?”

The ancient shrugged and turned his palms upward. On each calloused palm a symbol glowed dull red — a Y-shaped design that might have been a twin-tined spear. “I don’t know now what I believe,” he said. “But this is real, and it came from the magical eyes of a human who used sorcery. And I believe my vision of Kitlin Fishtaker was real … and I know the way to Kal-Thax. How would I know the way to Kal-Thax if I weren’t touched by … by magic?”

They sat atop a stone bluff, watching the combat drills in the fields below. The human knight, Glendon, had started teaching Willen Ironmaul’s guards the skills of his craft, and now he was surrounded by fully half the Hylar nation — men, women, and even children — all anxious to learn the arts of strategy and weaponry. Colin Stonetooth noted to himself that his Hylar had come a long way since Thoradin. No longer was the left side of the tools just an occasional interest. Many of the tools they carried now — things like swords and maces — were tools with no other side but the left.

Glendon Hawke might not have been happy with the turn of events that brought him here, teaching the means of combat to hundreds of fascinated dwarves, but he had admitted to the chieftain that he had never encountered students more apt. The Ten had been the first instructed, and Jerem Longslate had learned the sword so well that he could now disarm the teacher one time out of three. They were also learning the fine art of shield-play and the strangely human arts of the lance. The giant Calnar horses had proved surprisingly adept at lance-charging and were learning along with their riders.

In many ways, the dwarves surprised Glendon. As they learned, they adapted their new skills to their own circumstances and often improved on them. One example — the sudden wheeling of a rider to pick up a footman, then charging into battle with each dwarf clinging to one side of the high saddle, hammers or axes swinging in great arcs — had come as close to killing the knight as any tactic he had ever seen. Had he not dived facedown into the dust the first time Willen Ironmaul and a guardsman demonstrated that, he was sure he would have been beheaded.

The field below the bluff rang with the clang of steel on steel, an energetic counterpoint to the ringing of hammers on anvils off to one side, where dwarves were shaping new shields crafted after Glendon Hawke’s own. There were also bits of armor in the making and sturdy axes suited both to woodcraft and to war. Some of the craftsmen were also beating out battle-helms more suitable for outdoor wear than the old delving helmets most of the Hylar had worn.

Colin Stonetooth watched his people moodily. They were changing, becoming a nation unlike the Calnar from whom they had separated. He hoped the differences would not one day bring their downfall. As a tribe, the Hylar were becoming more formidable by the day, under the tutelage of the somber human knight. But, as with the Calnar of their origins, they were not a prolific people. A male and female who wed tended to wed for life and rarely produced more than three or four children.

We are becoming fighters, Colin Stonetooth thought, watching. Let us not become so enamored of our new skills that we put too much trust in them. No matter how dangerous we are, one by one, we are not destined to be numerous.

As though reading his mind — a tendency the old dwarf had developed of late and which Colin found startling and distracting — Mistral Thrax said, “Yes, we have a destiny. I do not see it clearly, but the new skills will aid in it.” He stared at the marks on his palms, looking puzzled, then muttered, “In Kal-Thax. Our destiny. Not to be all, or even most, but to lead … others?” He shook his head. “I do not understand, my chieftain.”

“Nor do I,” Colin admitted. “Tell me more about the old scrolls.”

“They are very old,” Mistral Thrax mused. “Several centuries, at least. Perhaps more. And some of them speak of that mystical gem, the faceted gray stone. They say that Reorx himself created it and placed it on Krynn. It was delivered into the keeping of a human king.”

“Why?” Colin’s brows went up in outrage. “A human? Why a human? If Reorx had done such a thing, why not give it to dwarves? We are the primary people of this world, after all.”

“They don’t say why.” Mistral Thrax shook his head. “But they do say that the humans lost the thing.”

“Well, of course they did! Who would trust any human with anything of importance? Even a god should know better! At least, no self-respecting dwarf would ever actually try to use such powers.”

“Gnomes set it free,” Mistral Thrax said. “At least, so the scrolls say.”

“Gnomes? That’s even worse than it being in the hands of humans!”

“Oh, they didn’t get it. Gnomes can’t do anything right. They just set it loose, and since then there has been magic on Krynn. So the scrolls say.”

“And this?” Colin indicated the marks on the old dwarf’s hands. “You think it comes from that?”

“The legends of the scrolls tell of Kitlin Fishtaker, a dwarven spearman who traded river fish to the humans of that place. They say he was there when the gray stone was released and tried to knock the thing down with his spear before it could get loose. The stone punished him. He was permanently contaminated with magic and became an outcast because any who touched him also would catch the disease.”

“Folk tales,” Colin Stonetooth rumbled.

“Maybe.” Mistral Thrax shrugged. “But I saw Kitlin Fishtaker in a vision, and I saw the man who couldn’t be seen in the attack on … Thoradin. And the eyes I pulled from his head were not eyes. And now I, too, am contaminated.”

“And so we wander across the vast lands in search of a place we have never seen, called Kal-Thax.” Colin planted his chin on his fists moodily. “It’s just as well, I suppose. After what happened, I could no longer stay there, and all the rest here came with me by choice. So, having somewhere to go is better than having nowhere to go, even if the place we aim for is only a legend itself.”

“Kal-Thax is there,” Mistral Thrax assured him. “In those mountains ahead.”

“I see no mountains,” Colin snapped.

“But you will, my chieftain. I see them already … more clearly, sometimes, than I see what is around us here.”

On the wide field below, Glendon had his charges lined up in double rows, facing each other. He raised a hand, stepped back, and several hundred Hylar — men, women and children — began happily pounding away at one another with padded swords and shields.

Castomel Springheel drifted through the defenses of the Ten to appear beside Colin Stonetooth. Grinning his delight, the kender surveyed the drill field. “They’ll never believe this back in Kendermore,” he told himself. “Dwarves going to knight school! I wouldn’t believe it myself, if I wasn’t right here to see it.”

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