The Daewar explorer-spy, Urkhan, had died trying to chart the wonders beneath Cloudseeker Mountain. But in dying, he had given birth to a dream. Now Olim Goldbuckle looked upon the gigantic, dimly lighted cavern that was Urkhan’s legacy, and wondered for the first time whether even he, the prince of all the Daewar, were dwarf enough to make the dream come true.
To eyes accustomed to the contours of mountainsides and the limitations of delves, the cavern was mind-boggling. Even after seeing its wonders a hundred times, it was still breathtaking. Miles wide, its lower perimeter was a series of rocky shores running down to a clear-water subterranean lake. From the east shore, where the Daewar had begun the delving of quarters, the far shores were barely visible, even where the quartz light shafts were strong. But rising above the center of the lake was a funnel-like pillar of stone, widening toward the top where it blended into the great, vaulted reaches of the cavern’s ceiling.
Half a mile high, and wider than that at its top, the stalactite seemed a monumental pillar upon which the entire mountain might rest. In the varying light, the serrated surfaces of the thing glistened wetly, and water dripped from nodules along its sides.
“It is living stone,” Gem Bluesleeve breathed for the dozenth time, gazing in awe at the huge pillar in the distance. “The waters that created it still nourish it.”
“No waters created that,” old Slate Coldsheet rumbled. “It is a god’s work. Only Reorx could have managed such a creation.”
“Reorx had a little help from that big sinkhole between the Windweavers, then,” Olim Goldbuckle said. “Water creates stalactites, and the water must come from there.”
“Where does the wind come from?” Gem Bluesleeve asked, pointing out at the wave-flecked surface of the lake. “In all the days since we moved Daebardin here, the air has never been still.”
“The vents,” Olim Goldbuckle said, then glanced at Gem. “Oh, you hadn’t heard the scouts’ reports? It seems there are natural vents around the mountain’s flanks. They don’t know how many, yet, but one of them is south of here, right in the bottom of that walled valley that the Theiwar call Deadfall. And there are high shafts at the crest. Mica Diamondtoe believes there are upward vents around the sinkhole up there, right at the base of Galefang, and that it is the winds on the Windweavers that create the draft down here.”
“If there are vents that admit the wind,” Gem frowned, “then there are vents that will admit enemies.”
“As we find them, we will grate them.” Olim nodded. “Just as we did the road from Sky’s End.” He looked upward, where the sounds of delving and building were concentrated. Above the east shoreline of the big lake, the cavern walls rose in a series of stairlike levels, and it was here that the Daewar were digging in. Three separate levels of delvings were under way, and more were planned. Everywhere up the wall were Daewar — thousands of them visible at any time — digging away at the porous levels of stone, piercing into the depths beyond the natural cavern, hollowing out cubicles that connected with other cubicles. Places for people to live, places for exchanging goods, places for councils and gatherings — the beginnings of a city.
From the delves, along a series of roads and tunnels, ore carts rumbled, carrying select rubble from the delves to other, distant caverns which would be farming warrens when their fields were perfected. It was in those caverns that Daewar daredevils were harnessing the power of the tractor worms to draw sleds to crush the stone that would be the basis of topsoil when it was completed.
In the meantime, foraging parties were roaming the caverns, gathering tons of edible fungus, various kinds of meat that no one questioned too far, and a dozen varieties of vining fruits which grew naturally in these subterranean realms, wherever there was light from a quartz layer.
“It is magnificent,” Olim Goldbuckle said, surveying his new realm. “It goes beyond anything that any of us dreamed.”
Slate Coldsheet shook his grizzled head, frowning. “This place is big, right enough. But I’d feel better if I knew how people are supposed to live here.”
The others looked at him curiously. “Like people live anywhere else, old one,” Gem said. “By using what we have found.”
“But what have we found?” the old delvemaster spread his arms, turning. “A place. A place with water and worms.”
“And fresh air and sunlight,” Gem added.
“And — Reorx willing — defendable against invasion,” the prince pointed out. “What is bothering you, Delvemaster?”
“Food and fuel,” Slate said flatly. “Oh, our foragers are feeding us now, but those supplies will run out. And wood. We need timber, Sire. We will always need timber, and no forests grow beneath mountains.”
Olim scratched his beard, looking up at the delves. Without timber for beams, they would be shallow and unreliable. Doors would be a problem, as well, and furnishings.
“And rich ores,” the delvemaster continued. “There are no real lodes here, Sire. And no way to reach the rich veins to the south.”
“We can still trade,” Olim told him. “Our road will serve.”
“Fifty miles of tunnel, going the wrong direction? And that isn’t all.” The old dwarf pointed downshore, where long lines of Daewar were operating a bucket brigade. They were carrying water from the lake to the delvings, where it was lifted by ropes. “In Daebardin, Sire, we collected water from above. Cisterns and flows. Here we have to carry it from below. It is not efficient. Your people don’t like it.”
“Oh? They are grumbling, then? And what else don’t they like?”
“Many of them don’t like it here,” Slate told him. “Gil Gemcrust and his weavers are upset because there is nothing to weave. The artisans wear gloomy faces because the forges are cold. The woodcrafters … most of them are there in the water line because they have nothing else to do. And not an hour ago I heard Winna Redthread complaining that the only grain left in the stores is oats.”
“Winna Redthread!” Olim spat. “That female would be desolate if she didn’t have something to complain about.”
“It is the delvers, too, Sire. And their families. There is much discontent. They say people are supposed to delve into mountainsides, not from the bellies of mountains. They say people are supposed to live inward from outside, not outward from inside.”
Olim Goldbuckle felt a growl coming on, and stifled it to a rumble in his throat. Leave it to a gray-headed delvemaster to burst the bubbles of dreams! Impatiently, he turned away. “We’ll think of something,” he said.
It was a logging crew, outbound through the great tunnel, that found the remains of the Theiwar and Daergar who had died fighting each other beyond the iron grate. Hundreds of bodies littered the siding cave, and others beyond. The Daewar wandered for a mile or more, gawking at the fallen dwarves, then turned around and went back to report.
Gem Bluesleeve led a company of warriors to investigate, all the way back to the north slope of Sky’s End. There he found the wreckage of the citadel and surmised what had occurred.
Olim Goldbuckle listened to the reports with his council, then sent parties to remove the bodies in the passage and to reseal the tunnel at its far end.
“Sky’s End is behind us,” he told the council of thane elders. “We came from there to here and will not go back. We will find other ways to the outside. We will explore the paths of Urkhan. If there are not suitable routes from these caverns, then we will drill our own routes, just as we drilled our passage here.”
Late autumn lay on the Kharolis Mountains when Daewar explorers probing upward broke through into some old, nearly deserted lairs of the Theiwar — lairs that had been worn out and largely abandoned, high on the south shoulder of the peak called Cloudseeker. A few Theiwar were there, and a few Daewar fell to stones and dark blades in the first moments of penetration, but the defense mounted by the Theiwar was pitifully small. In this entire cave system, only a few hundred Theiwar remained, mostly women and children and the very old. But among them at the time were some Theiwar leaders arranging for food supplies. The Daewar troop that followed the delvers through, led by Gem Bluesleeve, subdued and disarmed them with little effort.
And it was then that Olim Goldbuckle learned that the human intruders had regrouped and attacked again out on the eastern slopes.
Along a wide front, up through the foothills from the plains, thousands upon thousands of humans now mounted an invasion upon Kal-Thax. Pushed westward by the dragon war in the east, shunned and harried by the organized realm of Ergoth, new hordes of humans — and other races among them — had found themselves blocked by the domains of the dwarves and had reacted as humans do. They had fallen back, milled around in confusion until there were enough of them massed there, then they had organized themselves and attacked.
With only the Theiwar, Daergar, and Klar to patrol the eastern borders of Kal-Thax, the invaders had pushed far into the passes, farther than they ever had managed to go before. Taking advantage of the latest war between Theiwar and Daergar — with Klar intervening on both sides — the humans and their allies had established a cordon from Grand Gorge to the Cliffs of Shalomar and begun a series of bloody raids against the dwarves.
A tenuous treaty stood now between the Theiwar and the Daergar, linked in their defense of Kal-Thax against the outsiders. Most of the warriors of both tribes were on the eastern slopes, fighting.
“Rust!” a thunderous Olim Goldbuckle roared when he heard this report. “Rust and tarnish! Daewar, to arms! The Pact of Kal-Thax calls!”
Before him, three Theiwar captives stood in wide-eyed awe, staring around them at the immense cavern to which they had been brought blindfolded.
“What … what is this place?” Slide Tolec asked finally.
At his arm, a Daewar guard grinned. “It may be your last, best hope, Theiwar,” he whispered. “If we do not beat off the outsiders this time, you and your kind had better hope that our prince will allow you sanctuary in New Daebardin.”
The war that raged along the east slopes of the Kharolis range was more than a war. It was an ongoing clash between the stubborn, immovable determination of the dwarven nations who had sworn in the name of Reorx to allow no outsiders into Kal-Thax, and the desperate, irresistible drive of thousands upon thousands of displaced creatures who had nowhere else to go.
The first Daewar company to pour down the slopes of Cloudseeker to reinforce the ragtag army of Theiwar, Daergar, Klar — and, now and then, even clots of terrified Aghar, the reclusive gully dwarves, caught up in a skirmish — ran headlong into the fury of a band of ogres fighting alongside humans. Outnumbered a dozen to one by the Daewar, the ogres yet managed to decimate the company before taking to their heels. In that one clash, seventeen Daewar died and four others were wounded. Five ogres were killed, one captured, and none knew how many were injured.
From their towering captive, Gem Bluesleeve learned that the ogres had fled a place called Bloten, driven out by a dragon seeking a base from which to fly against elves in the east.
All up and down the slopes of the Kharolis Mountains, dwarves were fighting against humans, ogres, and — beneath the Cliffs of Shalomar — even some squadrons of goblins. The dwarven lines held day after day, but Olim Goldbuckle of the Daewar, Slide Tolec of the Theiwar, and Vog Ironface of the Daergar all knew that they could not hold for long unless they could somehow turn from defense to attack. Autumn lay upon the mountains, and the advancing ices might give the dwarves a brief reprieve — but only if they could hold the invaders east of the frontal ranges. If the outsiders made it into the high mountains and found shelter in some of the deep valleys hidden there, then by spring, Kal-Thax would be indefensible.
It was Olim Goldbuckle’s captain, Gem Bluesleeve, who led the first assault down the slopes, hoping to break the cordon.
With three hundred Daewar and a hundred each of Theiwar and Daergar behind him, Bluesleeve — leading companies of his elite Golden Hammer guard — attacked downslope in phalanx pattern, and the humans there, mostly wild Sackmen from the northern plains, found themselves faced by a moving wall of iron shields from which naked blades flicked like snakes’ tongues. For a moment, the humans held the line, but only for a moment. Flanked by howling, slashing Klar, the phalanx punched through the human defense and spread into a broad wedge of swords and shields, marching across the bodies of fallen foe.
In disarray, the Sackmen fled down the slopes, and the dwarves pursued … and ran headlong into something few of them had ever seen before.
Running as though from death itself, the mass of humans spread across the rising plains and disappeared behind a line of tall, ominous figures — fighters of Ergoth, armored from head to toe, sitting upon armored horses, and bringing long lances down for a charge.
On the open ground, the dwarves were no match for mounted Ergothians led by knights. More than a third of Gem Bluesleeve’s command fell there, before the rest escaped back up the slopes. The line of armored riders pursued only as far as the rising ridges and stopped there. But one of them raised his faceplate to call after the Golden Hammer, “Stay in your mountains, dwarves! Defend yourselves there if you will, but do not bring your problems to us!”
Below the retreating dwarves, the armored ones turned methodically and began sweeping the plains, turning Sackmen back toward the mountains.
Atop a spire, Olim Goldbuckle watched the rout and shook his head sadly. “We have lost our one advantage,” he told Slide Tolec. “Those people do not want our enemies any more than we do. Kal-Thax is lost, and there is nowhere to turn but to the deeps beneath the stone.”
“We Theiwar have no deeps,” Slide said. “What of us?”
A few feet away, a featureless mask turned toward them. “Nor do we, Daewar,” the voice of Vog Ironface said, sounding like hollow thunder. “Unless you think we can defend mineshafts.”
Olim looked from one to the other of them, then fixed his level gaze on the Theiwar. “You once told me that you believed we were creating a fortress,” he reminded him. “Do you remember?”
“That was a trick,” Slide frowned. “You let us believe that, to divert us from what you were really doing.”
“Nonetheless.” Olim shrugged. “We now have deeps, and there is room there for Theiwar” — he glanced aside, dislike plain on his face as he looked at the dark slit in front of Vog’s eyes — “and even for Daergar. The Daewar will not be the ones to break the Pact of Kal-Thax. But the deeps we have found are ours, and only Daewar shall rule there.”
The Daergar started to answer, then stepped back with a gasp as the air behind Olim Goldbuckle crackled, and a figure appeared there — an ancient, tattered form leaning on a two-tined spear. Eyes that were like darkness gazed out from beneath a mane of silver hair. The phantom shimmered, varying from translucent to almost transparent. It seemed to stand before them, but its feet didn’t quite touch the ground.
“The highest of the deep shall rule,” a cold voice whispered. “Only the highest of the deep.”
Olim stared at the apparition. It was the figure from his troubling dreams. “You!” he muttered.
“Yes,” the cold voice said, then seemed to be talking to no one at all. “Delve the deeps of dwarvendom. Those who rule have yet to come. You will know them when they do. You will know them by the drum.”
Dumbly, Theiwar and Daergar gawked at the apparition. Then Olim Goldbuckle choked out, “Who, then? What drum?”
The figure turned slightly and became transparent. “That drum,” it whispered, still turning, toward the plains beyond the mountain slopes. “That drum.” It turned a bit more and was gone.
Yet on the freshening east wind, sweeping across the seething plains below the Kharolis Mountains, there was a sound. Faint with distance, far beyond the massed confusion of invaders below Kal-Thax, still it was there, and they all heard it.
The rhythmic, heartbeat sound of marching drums.
The dwarves weren’t the only ones who heard the distant sound. Down through the foothills, marauders turned their faces eastward, and out on the plains a rank of Ergothians wheeled and rode away, seeking the source of this new thing.
Gem Bluesleeve saw his chance, and he took it. At his command, hundreds of Daewar stormed down the slopes, with Theiwar and Daergar at their flanks. Confused and surprised, and without the Ergothians behind them, human companies on the slopes turned and fled. Within hours, the Golden Hammer had established a defense perimeter below the shoulders of the high peaks.