The Blood of Ambition

By the double light of Krynn’s moons the raiders converged upon the nighttime slopes of Sky’s End, and Glome the Assassin stood atop a ridge, watching in satisfaction.

As chieftain of the Theiwar of Theibardin, now that Twist Cutshank was dead, he had been able to assemble the tribes of Theiwar to council. Once gathered, it had been an easy accession for Glome. No subtlety had been involved in his becoming chieftain of the Theiwar. A few beatings, a few assassinations, and now he was the undisputed leader of thousands of dwarves who must do his bidding. He had summarily repealed the rights of contest and of challenge.

More than that, his army of invasion now included a thousand or more Daergar from the Thunder Peaks, and a sizeable group — no one knew how many — of wild Klar, erratic and unpredictable but as determined as the rest to have a share in the treasures of the Daewar. It was the reward that Glome promised, in return for their support in the invasion of Daebardin, the stronghold beneath Sky’s End that none of them had ever seen. They had never seen it because no spy had ever managed to get past the Daewar guards. But the growing fan of rubble on the mountainside beneath the Daewar citadel told them that it was by now an extensive delve, and where Daewar delved, there were treasures.

All the clans knew of the wealth of the Daewar. The proud, arrogant gold-molders did more than display their wealth throughout Kal-Thax. They flaunted it. It was in the bright finery of their apparel, the burnished sheen of their armor, the adornment of their ox-carts, in the very way they carried themselves when they walked.

Many Theiwar and Daergar had seen the insides of Daewar pavilions at trade camps, and it was a joke among the other tribes that the Daewar so enjoyed their comforts that no Daewar would travel a mile without a ton or so of carpets, crystal-wear, and gold-inlaid furniture for his comfort while roughing it in the wilderness. A joke, it was, but not one told with laughter. It was one of the reasons that so many of the other dwarves hated the Daewar.

The Daewar were rich, and flaunted their wealth.

For that reason — and because he had convinced many of them that the Daewar intended to conquer them, it had been easy for Glome the Assassin to recruit an army to invade Daebardin. The opportunity to loot the Daewar was promise enough for most of them.

The Daewar had made a fatal error by delving into Sky’s End. Their old citadel on the shoulder of the mountain was small, but it was also well-placed and difficult to attack. Now, though, the Daewar were under the mountain — with only one way out. It was a perfect situation for a successful siege. Their subterranean city would be a trap for them once Glome’s army held the citadel.

If any among the invaders suspected that Glome the Assassin had reasons of his own for this venture — that he in fact intended to make himself king of all Kal-Thax — they were wise enough not to mention the idea.

So now they gathered on the night-dark slope of Sky’s End, thousands of armed Theiwar, Daergar, and a smattering of erratic, fanatical Klar, and just below them were the ramparts of the old citadel of the Daewar.

“I see no guards,” Slide Tolec muttered. “Where are they? There are always guards.”

“And always lights at night,” someone else noted. “The gold people are night-blind. But I see no lights.”

It was true. On the slope below, the spired citadel stood in darkness, silhouetted against the moonlit rubble-fields beyond. Only moon-shadows moved on its ramparts, darknesses among the patterns of red and white moonlight, sliding slowly inward as the moons Solinari and Lunitari crept higher in the spangled sky.

“Is it a trap?” one of the Daergar captains asked. “Do they somehow know we are here?”

“They know nothing,” Glome snapped. “The Daewar are tricky, but they don’t read minds or see in the dark. We have moved only by night since we assembled at the pits six days ago.”

“Then where are their guards?” the Daergar growled, his voice muffled by the slitted iron mask he wore. Some of the Daergar removed their masks at night, when the light did not pain them, but some chose to wear them even then, and the effect was disconcerting when they spoke — a voice coming from a faceless ovoid of dark metal whose only feature was a narrow slit in front of the hidden eyes.

“It doesn’t matter where they are,” Glome said. “Visible or not, they will be dead soon enough. Are the trundles prepared?”

“They’ve been in place since just after sunset,” Slide Tolec reminded him. “And they have been loaded for an hour. You can see them as well as we can.”

The trundles were Glome’s own plan — long, pegged-down nets that spanned a quarter mile of slopes above the Daewar citadel. The nets had been carried all the way from Theibardin and were set in place after darkness fell. Once they were in place, teams of dwarves had begun filling them with stones weighing forty to sixty pounds each. Hundreds of tons of stone now bulged the nets, and the keeper cables were as taut as iron bars.

“Then give the signal,” Glome commanded. “We are ready.”

“Hold!” someone called. “Look!”

Below the trundle nets, there was movement on the slope. At first it was furtive, hidden by shadows. Then into the moonlight ran a crowd of dwarves, leaping and shouting, heading downhill toward the silent Daewar citadel. There were a dozen or more of them — ragged, wild-haired creatures waving various weapons as they ran. Their cries were shouts of hatred, wild war cries that echoed from the slopes.

“Rust and tarnish!” Glome swore. “Those Klar … what do they think they’re doing?”

“Who knows what Klar think?” a Daergar warrior rumbled from behind his featureless mask. “But they will ruin everything.”

“No, they won’t,” Glome decided. “Slide! The signal!”

Slide Tolec put a short trumpet to his lips and blew a blast, then another. All up and down the net line, dwarves raised heavy axes above the keeper cables, and when Slide’s trumpet sounded again, they sliced downward. With a crash that grew like thunder, the nets collapsed and tons of stone plunged down the slope, picking up momentum with each yard. The dust that rose above the landslide was a dense cloud, billowing upward in the garish light of the moons. Beyond it, the thunder of falling, crashing stone drowned out the screams of the dozen or so Klar trapped ahead of the fall.

Again Slide Tolec sounded his trumpet, and the battle cries of thousands of Theiwar and Daergar rose above the tumult of falling stone crashing down upon the Daewar citadel. A torrent of dark shapes on the mountainside, Glome’s army charged down the rock-scoured slopes, following after the chaos they had unleashed.

Parts of the citadel still stood, broken spires thrusting skyward in the moonlit dust, but there were great holes in the structure where walls had fallen under the torrent of stone, and the Theiwar, Daergar, and remaining Klar poured through them, fanning out to occupy the old stronghold of the Daewar. Shouts of “Kill the Daewar!” rang and echoed, then died away in confused silence. Somewhere a querulous voice called, “Where are they? There’s no one here!”

For more than an hour, in angry silence, the invaders searched level after level of the Daewar’s mountainside city. They found nothing. The place was completely deserted. Not so much as a rug or piece of furniture remained.

It was by tracing the tracks of the ore carts back into the stone of Sky’s End, that they found the sealed gate where the fresh delving of the Daewar had begun. It was a circular slab of solid granite, twelve feet in diameter, set into the neck of a tunnel.

“The delvings.” Glome the Assassin decided. “They have completed their new city under the mountain and withdrawn to it.” He pointed at the granite slab. “Bring it down,” he commanded. “The Daewar are on the other side.”

They brought out their tools and set to work. Outside, beyond the wrecked walls of the old citadel of Daebardin, daylight came and went and came again as determined dwarves chipped away at the edges of the plug gate. Finally, though, it was loose and they attacked it with prybars. After a moment, the thing teetered outward and fell as dwarves scampered aside, then drew their weapons and poured through the opening.

Beyond should have been an underground city, a city filled with Daewar and Daewar treasures. Instead, there was only a tunnel — a huge, track-floored tunnel that receded southward toward the heart of Sky’s End.

A cluster of dark-blade-wielding Daergar turned to stare with blank, iron faces at the leader of the Theiwar. “So they are here?” one of them hissed. “Where, Theiwar?”

“Deeper,” Glome decided. “The Daewar prince said they were delving deep. We must follow this tunnel. Their new city is ahead somewhere.”

“It had better be,” a Daergar rumbled.

Mile after mile the tunnel ran, deeper and deeper into the stone core of the mountain. Almost featureless, except for widened caverns at regular intervals, where the telltale marks of pulled spikes — where cart-track had been pulled up — spread into double pairs. Here, in the Daewar’s delvings, the ore carts had been able to pass, laden carts rumbling outward, empties heading back into the mountain. With something like awe, the Theiwar studied these marks, as they studied the precise chiseling of the walls where stone had been removed a few feet at a time to bore the tunnel.

The huge tunnel, driving straight into the heart of a mountain, was impressive. It was not a thing beyond their understanding — many Theiwar were fair tunnelers — but it was a feat far larger than anything they had ever attempted, and the farther they went the more they realized the enormity of what the Daewar had done. If this mighty tunnel were no more than a road leading to their underground city, then what must the city be like?

After a few miles, dome’s army began to shrink as individuals and small groups, mostly Theiwar, held back, waited for the rest to pass, then quietly turned and went back the way they had come. It had occurred to many of them that if there were a city at the end of this road there must be far more Daewar than anyone had thought. The idea of attacking a tribe that outnumbered them, on its own ground, gave many a Theiwar second thoughts about the whole venture.

Few of the Daergar turned back. Driven by the intense, single-minded stubbornness of natural miners, the Daergar would go on, and some of the wild, erratic Klar with them.

Far into Sky’s End, Slide Tolec noticed that the Theiwar were far less numerous than they had been, and he edged aside, looking back along the great tunnel. Pretending to adjust his boots, he knelt beside a wall while the mixed army — still several thousand strong — marched past him.

When they had all gone by, he stood and glanced around. For a second he thought he was alone, then a shadow moved nearby, and a familiar voice said, “You, too, Slide Tolec?”

Brule Vaportongue stepped from shadows into the dim light of Slide’s oil-wick. “You have realized it, too, then?”

“Realized what?” Slide snapped the words. The half-Daergar dark-seeker had startled him, and he resented it.

“That it is time to leave this place.” Brule shrugged. “No Daewar fortune awaits us here. Only death. This road is not the entrance to a city. It is exactly what it seems. A road. The Daewar built it, and the Daewar have gone where it leads, and Glome the Assassin is going to his death.”

“You fear the Daewar?” Slide sneered.

“Not as much as I fear my half-kin.” Brule shrugged again, not reacting to the taunt. “I know the taste of the stubbornness that drives the Daergar. It is what Glome played on to get them to follow him. But I know a thing about that stubbornness that even Glome does not know.”

“And what is that?”

“The blood call of the Daewar,” Brule Vaportongue said, “can be opened, but not closed. My half-brothers there” — he waved in the direction the dwarven army had gone — “seek the blood of the Daewar. But if they are denied it, they will find other blood. The Daergar are like their blades. Once drawn, they will not be sheathed again until they have tasted blood.”

Thoughtfully, Slide Tolec gazed down the tunnel where the sounds of Glome’s invasion were fading. Then he adjusted his pack, weapons, and belts and turned away. “I’m tired of this,” he said. “I’m going home.”

“Good choice.” Brule Vaportongue nodded and fell into step with the Theiwar.

Glome’s dwindling army was twelve miles into the heart of Sky’s End when it reached the second blockade, a grating made of four-inch-thick bars of forged iron, beaten together in hammer welds.

Glome pounded on the barricade in a rage. “Cart track!” he shouted. “Rust and corrode the Daewar, they’ve made a gate of cart track!” Panting in frustration, he gestured angrily, “Open it!”

Other Theiwar and several Daergar came forward to peer at the gate, holding up torches. The light shone through the grating, gleaming on metalwork beyond where a pair of cable winches sat, beyond reach as were the spike-locks which sealed the gate to its deep slot in the cavern floor.

“We can’t open this,” a Daergar said. “It can only be opened from the other side.”

“Then cut it!” Glome roared.

“With what?” the Daergar asked, his voice a silky purr as he turned to face the Theiwar leader. “We brought no forging tools. No steel chisels or saws, only delving tools. You said that was all we would need.”

“Well, I didn’t know about this!”

“You didn’t know about a lot of things, Theiwar,” the Daergar purred. “You have wasted our time.” The blank iron mask turned slightly away then back, and Glome barely got his shield up in time to catch the dark-steel blade slicing toward his throat.

“Defend!” Glome shouted, blocking another cut with his own blade. “The Daergar have turned on us!”

In the blink of an eye, the big tunnel was a tumult of clangs and clatters, shouts and screams as dwarf attacked dwarf, hundreds on each side, their shadows huge on cavern walls in the murky light of fallen torches.

Glome dodged and parried, hampered by the fighting all around him. He thrust, cut, and spun, shield and sword flashing alternately as weapons and defense. All around him, Theiwar and Daergar were locked in ringing, mortal combat, and bright blood pooled on the tunnel’s stone floor. For long minutes Glome stood his ground, clearing space around him again and again, his booted feet treading the bodies of fallen allies and fallen enemies. Then he was borne down under a concerted rush of Daergar, with Theiwar defenders piling onto them from behind.

The battle raged before the mute iron gate, then spread back up the tunnel as dwarves fled, and other dwarves pursued. Hundreds lay dead in the howling darkness as blood-washed torches sputtered out, and a time came when the darkness was a silence as well.

The echoes faded northward as the battle continued there, going away, and in the wide cavern before the Daewar gate, nothing moved except the flickering small flame of a dropped lantern.

Then there was movement. Fallen bodies piled on the floor shifted, and shifted again, and a head was raised cautiously. For long moments the figure was still except for a blank, featureless face turning this way and that. Then he pushed bodies aside and climbed out. From helmet to boots he was drenched with blood, even the slitted iron mask dripping gore. Across its eye-slit was a deep furrow where it had deflected a sword cut.

He stood, looked around at the silent death littering the tunnel, then turned to the iron-bar gate and growled deep in his throat. With a curse he pulled away the mask from his face and flung it aside, then stooped to find his shield and blades.

The Daewar would pay for his humiliation. Someday, they would pay. Let them think — for now — that Glome the Assassin was dead. Let them all think that. They would learn otherwise some day. It was not the way of Glome the Assassin to die. It was his way to kill.

Through murder and manipulation, Glome the Assassin had become chieftain among the Theiwar of Theibardin, and being chieftain had given him a dream.

Glome intended to be king of all Kal-Thax, and it didn’t matter to him who he had to kill to get there.


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