22

The New Neighbors

Except for the deserted slope north of Sky’s End, which was virtually impassable for humans, the only ready access into the Kharolis Mountains from the east was along a narrowing foothill range extending from Grand Gorge to the Cliffs of Shalomar. North of that, for hundreds of miles, the gorge and its precipitous canyons guarded the mountain range. To the south, the cliffs did the same. And in both directions, encroaching winter was narrowing the approaches day by day.

All of the assaults by outsiders driven by the eastern wars, therefore, had been along a sixty-mile front between the gorge and the cliffs, where several valleys ran deep into the mountains, with pathways beyond.

As the strongest force among the tribes linked by the Pact of the Kal-Thax thanes, the Daewar held the central range, with Theiwar on their north flank and Daergar — defending their mines from other dwarves as much as defending Kal-Thax from intrusion — on the south. Here and there among them, usually wandering the lower slopes, were bands of wild Klar, and there were even some Aghar here and there, driven upward from lower regions. No one had any idea where the Aghar were from day to day, because of the tendency of the gully dwarves to pack up and move every time anyone noticed them.

On this day, things were quiet along the front. Fresh snows lay on the peaks and in the high valleys, and biting winds carried laden clouds eastward. Although the distant plains seethed with humans and who knew what else, there had been no concerted attempts to invade — and thus no real battles — for more than a week. There was some skirmishing, but most of it now was between Theiwar and Daewar troops, or between Theiwar and Daergar, or Daergar and Daewar. Also, a group of Klar, crazed by mercury vapors after a “spirit floating” ceremony in some deep, hidden hole, had tried to attack a Daewar patrol and been wiped out, which had led to harsh words between some Daewar commanders and the Daergar miners who provided the hated tamex — the false metal — to the Klar.

On top of everything else, nearly a dozen dwarves in the reserve lines — dwarves of various tribes — had been found mysteriously murdered in recent days, killed silently, and robbed of some of their garb or armor. Some of the missing items included a Theiwar sloped helmet with face mesh, several kinds of cloaks, shrouds, and kilts, a Daergar iron mask, a Daewar winter mantel. It was as though some assassin were methodically prowling the darkness, collecting a variety of clothing.

Olim Goldbuckle was at a loss as to what was going on, and his counterpart chiefs — Slide Tolec of the Theiwar and Vog Ironface of the Daergar — seemed as puzzled as he was.

It was a minor thing, but troubling.

On this morning, though, there were other things to think about. Daewar scouts came pounding in from the rear lines and pointed toward the high crags where spotters were stationed. Bright signals were coming from up there, and Olim read the flashes carefully, then turned to peer northwestward, shading his eyes. “By Reorx’s hammer!” he spat. “They’ve gotten behind us!”

There in the distance, on the high slopes beyond the Theiwar camps, an army snaked its way down the flank of a rise — hundreds of armored figures astride tall mounts, and many hundreds more afoot, carrying javelins and pennants, all moving steadily toward the widespread defense lines.

“Signal Slide Tolec!” Olim Goldbuckle commanded. “Those people are almost on top of him. Tell him to defend!”

Burnished mirrors flashed in the wintry sun, and even in the distance they could see the Theiwar camps coming alive to face the new danger.

“Who are they?” Olim growled, trying to see details across the miles. “Are those horses? What kind of horses could traverse these mountains in winter?”

Gem Bluesleeve was beside him, squinting younger eyes. “See their armor, Sire! It is like the armor of those knights we met on the plains. And their horses are armored, too.”

“Knights?” Olim squinted harder. “Up here? How did they get here? And how did they get above us? Horses are useless in this season. They can’t negotiate mountain passes in winter!”

“Those seem to,” Gem pointed out.

“Well, whoever they are, the Theiwar see them now. They will deal with them.”

In the distance, bands of dark figures ran from the Theiwar camps toward the path of the intruders and disappeared over a glistening rise. Olim assumed an ambush was being laid. The Theiwar were very good at ambush. The strangers, whoever they were, were about to learn just how good. Olim smiled grimly as the army on the mountainside marched around a curve and out of sight — directly into a prepared Theiwar defense.

For a time, there was nothing to see. Whatever was happening on the north flank miles away, was hidden from the Daewar camps. Minutes dragged by as Olim Goldbuckle stared into the distance, imagining what Slide Tolec’s troops must be doing to the intruders.

Then, distant but strong on the wind, came a sound, and Olim paled beneath his whiskers. Errant winds gusted, driving curtains of snow across the slanted lands, but on the wind came the sound of marching drums.

The blowing snow drifted past, and figures seemed to rise out of it. Hundreds of armed, armored figures, some mounted high on tall, golden horses. They were well past the Theiwar camps and were closing fast on the Daewar line.

*

Colin Stonetooth paused for a moment as the Hylar cleared the twisting, snow-packed path and emerged into a low, rough canyon between caprock-topped cliffs. Beside him, Jerem Longslate nodded. “Those were ambush signals, all right,” he said. “And there is the ambush, just ahead. There … and there, up in the rocks. They are hiding from us, waiting for us to come to them. Definitely an ambush.”

“Hardly a greeting committee,” the chieftain agreed. He turned and beckoned. When Willen Ironmaul rode up beside him, he pointed ahead. “Those people Cale saw from the promontory. Some of them are in this canyon now, waiting to ambush us. Do you see them?”

“Aye, Sire.” The big guardsman nodded. “I see where they are.”

“I want to talk to them,” Colin Stonetooth said. “Have someone round them up and bring them along. We will go on to where those large groups are assembled, down on the pass.”

“Yes, Sire.” Willen wheeled his giant horse and pranced back to give his orders to the guard companies. “We have found some of our neighbors,” he said. “First section, take a foot company and gather up that ambush. Sections two and three, go have a look at those camps beyond. Gather up whoever’s there and rejoin us over where all those brightly clothed people are.” He circled his arm above his head. “Companies forward!”

“Sometimes your son-in-law sounds just like that human knight,” Jerem Longslate said to Colin.

“Sometimes you do, too,” Colin reminded the First of the Ten.

Jerem shrugged. “Well, the knight was the one who taught us.”

*

Beneath a slanting sun, the canyon lay in silence, only the mountain winds whispering through it. Then there were the echoes of steel-shod hooves on stone, the creak and clink of armor, the sounds of booted feet marching.

“They’re coming,” a Theiwar whispered in the shadowed clefts below the caprock. “Ready?”

“Ready,” other quiet voices responded.

Dark in the shadows they waited, and the intruders appeared at a bend, coming toward them. Slide Tolec frowned, easing forward for a better look. They were dwarves! But what kind of dwarves? And riding horses! They looked like no one he had ever seen — sturdy, dark-maned people with horned or plumed helms, edged shields at every shoulder, and wide, tapered blades at hand. They fairly bristled with weaponry.

Most of the strangers had trimmed beards that seemed swept back, as though they faced a wind. Again, Slide gaped at the tall golden-and-white horses and shook his head in wonder. He had seen horses, but he had never seen dwarves ride them. And such horses! They were half again the size of any horses he had ever seen.

Behind the company of mounted dwarves came footmen, a hundred or more of them, marching in perfect precision as though someone were calling the step. They moved as though a drummer were pacing them.

Slide had never seen such people. Dwarves or not, though, they were intruders. This was no new thane sprung from the Einar masses. These people were from somewhere other than Kal-Thax!

The column came directly below the ambush, and Slide Tolec raised his arm and sliced downward. From both sides of the canyon, a hail of stones and missiles crashed down on the strangers below. Thrown stones, sling-stones, bolts from throwing sticks, and several axes descended upon the intruders like raining death … descended, ricocheted aside, and rattled on the stone floor of the canyon.

Slide stared down into the chasm. At the instant of attack, even as the stones had rained down, the mounted dwarves had wheeled, separated, and pounded ahead, their tall horses hardly breaking stride as they angled up the snowy slopes. Directly below the ambushers, the canyon floor was a solid carpet of metal shields, covering every part of every intruder. And even as Slide gawked, the shields parted in neat rows, each shield tilting, and a barrage of iron balls whistled upward, driven by deadly, humming slings. Singing like angry hornets, the hail of balls smashed into the shallow caverns, throwing shards of broken stone, caroming this way and that among the Theiwar. There were shrieks and howls, and several dwarves plunged from hiding to roll down the crusted slopes where sturdy shields stopped them and strong hands disarmed them.

Slide Tolec stared in amazement. Once before, he had seen an ambush turned. But never like this! The strange dwarves moved and struck in perfect unison, wasting no effort. It was as though they were fierce, deadly dolls all dancing on a single string. The carpet of shields tilted again, turned to the sides, and a forest of iron-tipped javelins bristled there, held in strong hands on cocked, powerful arms.

Slide saw movement above and glanced upward. The caprock above the far canyon wall was lined with burly figures astride tall horses, all looking directly across at his hiding place. He started to retreat farther into the depths, but from directly overhead a lance point was thrust downward, pinning his sleeve to the stone beneath his arm.

A deep voice called, “You in the holes! Come out, and be quick about it!”

Pushing a thousand or more fleeing Theiwar ahead of them, scattering bands of Daergar and Klar as the wind scattered the drifting snow and gathering them, too, into their herd, wedges of Hylar warriors led by mounted elite guards moved in on the main camp of Olim Goldbuckle’s Daewar army and surrounded it. At a dozen points, Kal-Thax dwarves tried to charge the strangers, to break their lines, but they were repelled expertly and easily each time. There were few casualties in the attempts. Most were simply pushed back, pushed inward until the main camp — a quarter mile square at the head of a promontory looking out at the distant plains — was filled almost solidly with panicked dwarves, staring around in confusion.

Gem Bluesleeve attempted to rally a counterattack by the Daewar, a running wedge of shield-bearers thrown directly at the line of strangers. But the lead shields met lance-tips wielded by mounted dwarves, and the attack collapsed upon itself. Footmen flanking the riders charged forward and drove the Golden Hammer’s best warriors back into the crowded campsite. A hundred yards away, a howling charge by masked Daergar did no better.

Olim Goldbuckle knew a hopeless situation when he saw one. The Daewar leader climbed up on a rock, spread his hands, and bellowed, “Hold!” Then he dropped his shield to the ground, loosed his sword and dropped it, and stood empty-handed and defiant, his fists on his hips. “We are taken!” he shouted, looking this way and that at the solid line of strange dwarves facing him fifty yards away. “We yield! Who are you people, and what do you want?”

Directly ahead of him the line parted and a plume-helmed rider pushed through, accompanied by ten others flanking him in tight formation. The leader reined in his tall horse, sat in silence for a moment facing Olim Goldbuckle, then slung his great hammer and raised his visor. The face revealed there was as weathered and tough as mountain stone, framed by dark, clipped hair and a trimmed, back-swept beard with touches of silver in it. “Name yourself!” he demanded.

Olim squared his shoulders in defiance. “I am Olim Goldbuckle, Prince of Thane Daewar of Kal-Thax!”

Eyes like ice studied him. “Are you the leader of all these warriors?”

Some distance away the crowd rippled as a masked warrior in dark furs pushed through. Without removing the slitted iron mask below his conical helm, he faced the stranger. “I am Vog Ironface!” his hollow-sounding voice called. “I am Chieftain of Thane Daergar of Kal-Thax!”

And on the other side, a wide-shouldered dwarf in bronze-studded leathers stepped up onto a cask and pulled aside his mesh visor, squinting in the sun. “I am Slide Tolec!” he spat. “I am Chieftain of Thane Theiwar of Kal-Thax!”

Near the east perimeter a wild-haired figure in uncut furs and wrapped boots pushed past others of his kind to face the line of shields. “Bole Trune!” he shouted, snarling in rage. “I am Klar! I lead Klar of Kal-Thax!”

Somewhere in the crowd, a small, quavering voice was raised. “Where Highbulp?”

“Dunno,” another answered. “What want Highbulp for?”

“He s’posed say who he is,” the first voice explained.

“Let Highbulp sleep,” another suggested. “He don’ know who he is half th’ time, anyway.” Then that voice rose higher, “Aghar! This place, whatever! Highbulp’s name Faze I or somethin’!”

The armored, mounted dwarf with the plumed helm and swept-back whiskers looked around, surveying the thousands of encircled beings before him. “You are many tribes,” he said. “Do you war upon one another here, or just upon strangers?”

Olim Goldbuckle gritted his teeth, scowling at the armed one. There was a quality about the strangers — and particularly about this one — that annoyed him, but at the same time puzzled him. They seemed more aloof than hostile, more curious than combative, but he had seen them effortlessly throw back every attack made against them. “We war upon whom we please!” the Daewar roared. “Now you know who we are! Who are you?”

“I am Colin Stonetooth,” the stranger said evenly. “We are the Hylar. We are new-come to this realm, but we have come to stay. We claim equal rights and will defend them if we must.”

“Intruders!” Vog Ironface shouted, his voice echoing through his slitted mask. “You are not of Kal-Thax!”

“We are of Kal-Thax now,” Colin Stonetooth said, his voice deep and level. “We have made due claim, and the territory we hold is ours.”

“You are not part of the pact!” Slide Tolec called, his broad shoulders hunched as he pushed closer to the line of shields. “Kal-Thax belongs to those who defend it!”

Colin Stonetooth inclined his head, looking down at the angry Theiwar. “And what is this pact?” he asked.

“A treaty! A covenant of thanes, to defend Kal-Thax against intruders.”

“Against what intruders?” the Hylar prodded.

“All intruders!” Vog Ironface snapped. “You and all the others!”

“We are not intruders,” the Hylar said, slowly. “We came here, yes. But now we are here, just as you are. What intruders?”

Olim Goldbuckle shook his head, not liking the logic of the newcomer but understanding it. The strangers were indeed dwarves, and if they had laid proper claim to territories here — which he somehow was sure they had — then they were part of Kal-Thax, like it or not. Finally, in the silence, he raised his arm and pointed toward the far plains. “Those intruders,” he said. “Especially the humans! They are out there and they threaten Kal-Thax. We are allied in its defense.”

“Then we, the Hylar, will join in your pact.” Colin Stonetooth nodded. “For those humans out there, we have no more love than you do.”

“You will help to defend Kal-Thax?”

“Of course we will,” the Hylar assured them. “I wonder, though … exactly what is it that we must defend?”

“Kal-Thax!” Olim Goldbuckle tipped his head, staring at the Hylar. “These mountains are Kal-Thax.”

“And you allow none to pass through?”

Pass through? Those are mostly humans out there, Hylar. Humans do not ‘pass through.’ Humans invade! They encroach! Wherever humans get a foothold, eventually there will be none there but humans.” Olim Goldbuckle spread his hands. “Our people learned that, long ago. If humans get into Kal-Thax, they will stay.”

Colin Stonetooth gazed around at the highland vistas. “Humans cannot live in mountains like these,” he said. “We have dealt with humans, too, and we know them. They are not trustworthy, on the whole, but these mountains need no defense against them. Humans would starve here.”

“There are valleys in Kal-Thax,” Olim said, stubbornly. “They would settle in the valleys and build colonies. They would multiply and expand. In the end, they would try to wipe out the dwarves. That’s how humans are. They must be kept out of Kal-Thax!”

“There are many kinds of defense,” Colin Stonetooth replied. “I have seen great tides of wanderers out there, on those plains. Even the strongest dam will break if there is not a controlled release … a way for the flow to pass beyond. Has that been considered?”

“It has been considered enough!” Vog Ironface shouted. “Are you … you Hylar with us or not?”

“We are here to stay, if that’s what you mean. No humans or anyone else will drive us out. We seek Everbardin here, in Kal-Thax.” Colin Stonetooth leaned forward in his saddle, gazing from one to another of them. “Do any of you question that we can defend what we choose to defend?”

There was no answer to that. Of all the dwarven troops standing cordon along the eastern flank of Kal-Thax, nearly a third were here, ringed and helpless, held hostage by a few hundred strangers with strange skills.

“Then so be it.” Colin Stonetooth nodded. “We do not want war with people of our own kind. You, Olim Goldbuckle! I ask your pledge of peace and a council of Thanes. Do you agree?”

Olim shrugged. “I agree,” he said.

The Hylar turned. “You, Slide Tolec! Do you also agree?”

The Theiwar squinted at him, hating him but helpless to contest his will. Then he spread his hands. “I agree,” he said.

Colin turned to Vog Ironface. “And you? Will you show me your face and agree to what I ask?”

“I will agree,” the hollow voice rumbled. “But I will not blind myself for your pleasure.”

“A dark-seeker,” Colin muttered curiously. Then he nodded and turned toward the wildly clad Klar. “And you, Bole Trune of Thane Klar?”

The Klar seemed taken aback at the idea that anyone would ask for his promise. But he shrugged. “I agree,” he said. Turning, he scowled fiercely about at others of his kind. “My word is given! I kill any Klar who breaks it!”

From somewhere, deep in the crowd, a wavering voice offered, “Highbulp prob’ly ag … agr … go’long with that, too, when he wake up. That okay?”

With a gesture, Colin Stonetooth backed his mount away, and the line of shields withdrew, companies of Hylar moving in perfect unison to a tattoo of drums.

Olim Goldbuckle frowned. Drums! So these were the ones! He snapped his fingers, and a Daewar picked up his sword and shield and handed them to him. “You called for a Council of Thanes!” he called to the Hylar leader. “When and where?”

“When the passes are blocked by winter,” Colin called back. “But first” — he turned, scanning the foothills below the line of defense — “I believe we could give those people out there something to think about until spring.”

Without waiting for a response, the Hylar leader wheeled his horse and headed eastward at a trot, his ten bodyguards flanking him purposefully. Behind him, companies of mounted Hylar spread and followed in a widening spearhead formation. Hylar footmen formed precise companies and followed, trotting along behind and among the mounted units. Within moments the Hylar army had become a deadly wedge of armed dwarves, banners aloft and drums singing, heading for the camps of the humans on the ridges below.

Olim Goldbuckle looked after them, then slung his shield and raised his sword. “Well, you heard him!” he roared. “Let’s go chase some humans!”

Within moments the hundreds of Hylar in the lead were followed by thousands of Daewar, Daergar, and Theiwar, with bands of Klar running and howling along their flanks. By the time this wall of dwarves reached the lesser slopes, entire camps of human intruders were scurrying about in panic, turning to flee to the plains beyond.

In the highlands camp, only a few dwarves remained — a tumble of gully dwarves heading for cover, a few stragglers from other tribes, and a cluster of a hundred or so armed figures watching the assault from above.

These were a mix of kinds — mostly Theiwar, but with some Daergar among them. They clustered around an individual who might have been anything. Silently he had mingled with the others of all the camps, unnoticed except by those who chose to follow him. Though his face was obscured by Theiwar mesh, the clothing and armor he wore were an odd collection of Daewar, Daergar, Theiwar, and even Klar garb. He could have passed through any of their camps unnoticed, and had.

Now he stared after the receding Hylar force, and his eyes burned with hatred. “I do not agree,” he muttered. “Glome the Assassin will not be herded like those sheep, by a band of strangers.”

Glome had plans of his own, and no one, not even these strange Hylar, were going to stand in his way.

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