The Covenant and the Assassin
By the time snows lay deep upon the Kharolis range, the mountain called Cloudseeker swarmed with dwarves, outside and in. The Council of the Thanes had lasted seventeen days, and scribes would be at work for years to come, recording and interpreting all that had been decided.
With the Ten at his back, Willen Ironmaul’s guards positioned at strategic points, and several companies of footmen at his call, Colin Stonetooth of the Hylar could have dominated the proceedings. But he was wise enough not to. This place beneath the peaks, which he had named Thorbardin, would be his clan’s Everbardin, and the Hylar chieftain was determined to keep resentments to a minimum among those who would share its space. So Colin Stonetooth had a huge, seven-sided table crafted and placed on a wide, flat ledge on the shore of the Urkhan Sea, and brought the leaders of the thanes together there.
Each prince and chieftain chose his own place at the table, and Colin Stonetooth was the last to be seated — even after Faze I, Highbulp of Clan Aghar, who was so awed by the proceedings and the presences around him that he did the only thing he could think of to do. He laid his head on the great table and went to sleep.
Olim Goldbuckle chose the bench on the east, with his back to the brightest part of the great cavern, where the Daewar already had significant delvings going on. Vog Ironface of the Daergar chose a southern seat, Slide Tolec of the Theiwar a bench on the north, with Bole Trune of the Klar on his left, and the little Aghar Highbulp snoring on his right, and two benches remained. A heavily bearded dwarf named Grist Stonemill, selected by the Einar to speak for them, took the one on Faze I’s right, and Colin Stonetooth sat down beside the Daewar prince.
The Ten stood behind him, and others moved forward to stand behind their leaders — Gem Bluesleeve and his Golden Hammer guards behind the Daewar prince, Brule Vaportongue and a dozen Theiwar behind Slide Tolec, eight masked figures behind the Daergar chief, a collection of unshorn Klar behind Bole Trune, several Einar behind Grist Stonemill, and a strange-looking little figure called Grand Notioner behind the sleeping Faze I.
“In the place from which we Hylar came,” Colin said, “we used a seven-sided table for matters of council, and none knew why, because only six sides were needed. Now I see that seven is, indeed, the proper number.” He looked from one to another of them. “Reorx attend us here,” he said. “Give us the wisdom that we must have.”
“Reorx attend,” Olim Goldbuckle muttered, and others at the table nodded.
And so began seventeen days of debate and council, during which everything from the name of the place to a list of agreements for public and private use of its resources was worked out.
The Daewar would keep and hold the easternmost shore of the Urkhan Sea, where an arm of it curved around a bend in the cavern. The quartz above made it a brightly lighted bay, the brightest natural place in the immense system. They would claim this shore and the stone beyond it, where they were already delving their city of New Daebardin.
The Theiwar would claim the northwest shore and the stone beyond it, as far as the entrance to the cavern Urkhan had called the first warren. The Daergar would own the south shore where the quartz-strata light was dimmest and would turn their rubble heaps over to the Aghar, who preferred surroundings such as rubble heaps from other peoples’ delves.
The Daewar would have preferred that both Daergar and gully dwarves be as far from them as possible, preferably clear across the sea. But Olim consented, since the bend in the natural cavern would block any view of unsightly digs from the Daewar city.
The Klar, those of them who chose to make homes in the subterranean chamber, would claim and hold the deep regions at the east end of a second natural warren where an arm of the sea had its shores.
Most of the Einar wanted no part of the caverns, preferring shallower digs. Those who did, though, were given leave to affiliate themselves with whichever Thorbardin clan suited them. For the rest, who were now beginning to adopt the name Neidar, which they had heard from Cale Greeneye and his adventurers, a pledge was made. The Neidar would remain outside to tend the fields and flocks that needed the seasons and the sun. In return for supplying the deep lairs with grains, meat, and lumber, they would have right of entry into Thorbardin any time they chose to do so and protection against their enemies by the armies within the stronghold.
The seventh place at the table, henceforth, would be the Neidar seat.
The two largest warrens would be common ground for all the thanes. Leveled and improved by workers using the giant tractor worms, they would be enriched with topsoil from outside — and with the fertilizers that Bardion Ledge, once waste warden of Thorin, knew how to process. The warrens would become subterranean farms.
The Urkhan Sea itself would be common property to all, and Talam Bendiron was already at work designing a system of counterweight-powered aqueducts to do away with such primitive and wasteful procedures as bucket brigades.
Each city would be as self-contained as it wished in such things as forges and shops, markets and housing, town customs and enforcement. But a system of tunnel roads and cable-cart ways would connect all the cities and would have common usage.
Frost Steelbit and Gran Molden revealed intricate plans for a gated entry to the south, utilizing the Daewar’s hinged plug concept and Daergar iron for sheathing, combined by Hylar craft. The new gate would give ready access to the best Einar fields and provide access for metals from the Daergar mines.
It was suggested that a second such gate be placed at the northern end of the underground realm, but that was set aside for later consideration. It was also suggested that the great tunnel the Daewar had bored through Sky’s End might be converted to a trade route — assuming things beyond Kal-Thax eventually settled down enough to allow trade with the outside.
The armies of the thanes would be separate but would be at the common call to defend Kal-Thax against the threat of humans, ogres, or anything else that might threaten. And the Hylar agreed to train the troops in the ways that they had learned.
There would be exploration to determine whether a magma pit could be created to power foundries, as in Thoradin. There would be surveys of places suitable for installation of sun-tunnels and a complete mapping of the natural ventilation system, which seemed to flow from a deep, walled valley to the south — that same valley the Theiwar called Deadfall — with exhausts high above, among the Windweavers themselves.
So many plans and ideas were discussed, so many measures decided in those seventeen days, that hordes of scribes were kept busy just jotting things down for later enscrollment.
And somewhere along the way, Olim Goldbuckle glanced at the tomes of his scribes and turned to frown at Colin Stonetooth. “We have overlooked something,” the Daewar said. “Every thane but one has an assigned place for its delvings. Where will the Hylar live?”
Before Colin Stonetooth could respond, a voice behind him said, “There. There is Hybardin.”
They turned. Behind the Hylar chieftain’s bench, old Mistral Thrax leaned on his crutch. His free arm was outstretched, pointing upward, and the palm of his hand glowed dull red. As though there were no one there but himself, the ancient dwarf muttered, “It is the Life Tree. The Life Tree of the Hylar. There shall be Hybardin.”
He was pointing out across the sea, at the great stalactite standing above the waters, its upper reaches blending into the distant ceilings of the cavern.
“Mistral Thrax has spoken.” Colin Stonetooth nodded. “That will be the home of the Hylar. We will build our city within it.”
Olim Goldbuckle’s frown deepened. “The highest of the deep?” he muttered.
Colin glanced at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” the Daewar prince snapped. “But now I have a question, and perhaps the Hylar have a suggestion about it. We have avoided this subject until now, but its time is here. Who will rule Thorbardin?”
All around the table they went silent, casting suspicious glances at one another.
Colin Stonetooth took a deep breath. It was the question he had dreaded, the one which could bring all their plans down around their ears. No Daewar was willing to be ruled by a non-Daewar, nor any Theiwar by a non-Theiwar, nor any Daergar by any but a Daergar.
“There are no kings here,” Slide Tolec hissed. “Are there any who would be?”
“I am prince of the Daewar,” Olim Goldbuckle noted.
“But not a king,” Vog Ironface rumbled. He turned toward Colin Stonetooth, and for the first time removed his mask. The features behind it were sharp and chiseled, like the face of a fierce fox. “And you, Hylar? Would you be king?”
Colin Stonetooth shook his head. “The Theiwar is right,” he said. “There are no kings here. Nor need there be any. Should the day ever come when Thorbardin needs a king, then — trust Reorx — a king may arise. But that day is not now. I would have Thorbardin governed by pact, not by power.”
“Then there must be such a pact,” Slide Tolec said.
“A sworn alliance,” Olim Goldbuckle mused. “A solemn covenant, forged from our oaths and our honor. A Covenant of Thanes.”
Aside, where a grim and silent group watched the proceedings, one sneered. “No king,” he muttered. “So they say. Yet the Hylar says there may be a king one day. I say that day will come much sooner than they think.”
And around him, others nodded while a few muttered, “Glome shall be king. Soon there will be enough of us.”
Glome the Assassin no longer looked as he had a season past, when for a brief time he had led the Theiwar. He had assembled a collection of disguises, which let him seem to be anything he chose to be. Today he seemed a Daewar footman, with a cloak covering his helm. It was part of the power he held over his followers. He could be anyone, it seemed. And he could go anywhere.
His followers were mostly Theiwar and Daergar, but among them now were a number of rebellious Daewar, disgruntled at the upside-down world to which their prince had led them, and a fair number of Klar, angry at the bullying of Bole Trune. The group was a subversion — a growing, ragtag band held together by a common belief that Glome the Assassin would prevail in Kal-Thax. Not everyone was happy with this council of thanes or with the kind of future their leaders envisioned. Many had been recruited simply by the promise that Glome would wind up in charge here, and that his friends would be rewarded. Never had there been a king in Kal-Thax, but there would be. And great wealth would go to those who made him king.
“Not Daewar,” Glome had told them. “Not Theiwar, not Daergar, not Klar. The king will be all of these … as I am all of these. I will be king.”
“Our leaders do not lead,” a Theiwar growled. “The Daewar prince, the mighty Daergar … even Slide Tolec of Thane Theiwar has surrendered to these Hylar. They give away our rights. They make pacts which will leave us as weak and soft as porous stone. They abandon the old customs because the Hylar have made them afraid. It is time for a king in Kal-Thax. A strong king,”
“Glome is strong,” another muttered. “Glome deserves to be king.”
For now, though, Glome and his supporters bided their time, waiting for their opportunity to strike.
When all of the articles of the covenant had been debated and the final arguments resolved, Colin Stonetooth had a forge set on the shore of Urkhan’s Sea, and dwarves of all the thanes gathered for the Hylar ceremony of binding and bonding. Ingots of seven metals were heated on the glowing coals, and a great anvil was wreathed in the woods of the stone. Atop the anvil, the ingots were laid one upon another, so that their shape was the shape of a star. Then, one after another, the leaders of the thanes struck with hammers, bonding the metals together into one single artifact.
Colin Stonetooth’s was the final blow, and his hammer rang echoes from the distances of the subterranean land. When he raised the hammer after striking, no ridge or seam remained on the surface of the joined ingots. There upon the forge lay a perfect fourteen-pointed amulet, smooth and gleaming from perimeter to perimeter.
“It is a covenant,” Colin Stonetooth intoned, and around him the others echoed his words. “It is a covenant … covenant … covenant.”
“Joined in seamless bond,” Colin said, and the voices around echoed, “Bond … bond … bond.”
“The Covenant of Thanes,” Colin said. “Thanes … thanes … thanes,” the voices echoed.
“A solemn pledge of all here gathered. A covenant of the forge … forge … forge … forge.”
“The Covenant of Thorbardin!” He laid aside his hammer, and the vast distances of the mighty cavern whispered the echoes, “Thorbardin … Thorbardin … Thorbardin!” With his calloused bare hand he picked up the hot amulet from the forge, turned, and strode to the lapping shore. With a heave, he threw the amulet far out over the water, and a puff of steam arose where it sank beneath the waves.
“Forever,” Colin Stonetooth whispered. “Thorbardin forever.”
When word came to the old fortress on Sky’s End that the Hylar would move one last time, Tera Sharn — now round-bellied with the child within her — assembled her belongings and began the loading of packs as the Hylar people waited for their escort. It was nearly fifty miles through the great tunnel to the place her father had named Thorbardin, they said. It would be a long, dark journey, but she was prepared. Her child would be born in Everbardin.
Other arrangements had been made, though. It was more than an escort company that arrived at the north end of the tunnel. Willen Ironmaul came with most of the Hylar guard and a string of Calnar horses pulling Daewar carts. It was Colin Stonetooth’s desire that his people should make the journey to their new home in comfort, and it was Willen’s desire that his wife, carrying their child within her, should ride in ease and style.
One last time, then, the Hylar people packed their goods and their belongings and set out for the place which would be home.
“The last journey,” Willen promised Tera. “Everbardin is found, and your father waits there for us. The Hylar will not move again.”
“The last journey,” she repeated. “It is well, my love. And the other people? They are there, too?”
“The thanes are bonded,” he assured her. “Only Colin Stonetooth could have managed it, but manage it he did.”
Despite its immensity, the great central cavern of the lake now teemed with activity. Dwarves were everywhere, it seemed: dwarves planning, delving, firing up forges, hauling stones and ores; dwarves huddling together in thought; dwarves arguing and squabbling; dwarves with hammers, bores and chisels. The cavern sang with the music of doing.
The Daewar were superb delvers, but had little of the arts of construction. The Theiwar knew the uses of bracing and the laying of walls, but knew little of tunneling. The Daergar were miners and could trace the patterns of stone better than any of the rest. The Hylar were skilled at invention and at the directing of light, wind, and water. Little by little, though, as they wandered about one another’s digs, the skills began to blend, and the great natural cavern began to be a constructed place, suitable for a mighty stronghold.
Colin Stonetooth had gone with Wight Anvil’s-Cap to see the stone-cutting methods of the Daewar, then had left the chief delver there, taking notes, and had strolled away to look at the scrolls where Talam Bendiron was showing a cluster of Theiwar how to channel water into their lairs. Beyond, the Hylar chieftain inspected a glass furnace where mirrors were being crafted and sun-tunnels planned. Then he strolled on, accompanied only by the Ten, and paused at some distance to gaze out across the lake, where the great stalactite stood above the distant waters like a pillar supporting a world. His eyes rose slowly, following the contours of the huge, living stone monolith as it widened in the distance above. It was an awesome sight, like standing beneath an enormous mushroom, and he nodded. “Mistral Thrax was right,” he said. “It is where the Hylar belong. My people will be comfortable there.”
“Aye,” Jerem Longslate agreed. “It is the Life Tree of the Hylar.”
“The heart of Everbardin,” Colin muttered, then gasped as a javelin seemed to blossom from his breast. Thrown by a strong arm, the shaft pierced him through, its thud drowned by a chorus of shouts as a flood of dwarves raced from shadows below the stepped cliffs to fall upon the Ten.
“Defend!” Jerem Longslate roared, drawing his blade as he unslung his shield. Beside him, Colin Stonetooth sank to his knees, his hands clawing at the javelin in his chest. His lips moved, but no sound came from them.
“Ring and defend!” Jerem shouted, deflecting another javelin with his shield. “Our chief is down!”
The Ten gathered around their fallen leader, shields up and blades at the ready, as the horde of attackers hit them like storm waters on a rocky shore. Shouts of “For Glome!” and “Glome the King!” rang in their ears, and their Hylar blades lashed out and came back dripping blood.