26

The Road to Reason

Through the final weeks of winter forges rang beneath Cloudseeker Peak, and the vapors rising above the Windweavers were warm from the fires far below. Though the clans of Kal-Thax had acted in unison for centuries to defend against intrusion into their lands, this was the first time in history that they had actually worked together to achieve something positive, and deep in the heart of the mountain, their combined skills began to show visible results.

To the Daewar’s genius at delving were added the Hylar arts of stonecutting and masonry, and the delves were no longer limited in their expanse. With the introduction of lift platforms, like those invented by Handil Farsight, the difficulty of working from level to level in a dig was almost eliminated. The dark steel of the Daergar proved excellent for the making of rails and cables, and the dwarves began construction of a series of subterranean roads to connect the centers of all the separate towns of Thorbardin and to accommodate cable carts to and from the warrens.

Boats were crafted from lumber brought by the Neidar or traded from the region’s independent Einar, and wharves were chiseled into the slopes of the lakeshore. From there, cables were strung out to the base of the great, living stalactite above the water and fixed there. From here would begin the construction of the Hylar’s delves, working upward through the stone and — eventually — downward from the mountain’s peak through shafts that would later accommodate sun-tunnels.

Most of what would someday exist here was still in the minds and on the scrolls of the crafters, but it was begun and there would be no stopping it.

The thane leaders envisioned Thorbardin as a fortress, a stronghold from which the dwarves could issue forth at will to protect their fields and valleys. No longer could all of Kal-Thax be, simply, closed. It was far too large, and too accessible, for the growing press of outsiders to be entirely kept out. In times long past, when intruders were few, that might have been possible. But now it was not a practical option, and the dwarven people were nothing if not practical. Still, the realm could be held against settlement, and this was the intention of the new covenant.

Some outsiders would get in. Some might journey across Kal-Thax. But with the fortress of Thorbardin dominating the realm, none would take root there.

An option of a different sort was proposed by Tera Sharn and presented by Willen Ironmaul. If the tide of outsiders could not be stopped, they suggested, then why not turn it, as a shield turns a lance?

They puzzled over the idea and how it might be accomplished, and it was Olim Goldbuckle who came up with the answer. “Since we don’t want all those people coming here,” he suggested, “maybe we could give them somewhere else to go instead. Most people — humans in particular — are more likely to follow a road than to cross it.”

Thus, even before the first thaw of spring was felt in the valleys, Cale Greeneye rode out from Kal-Thax with a company of Neidar volunteers to scout the internal ranges, and Willen Ironmaul rode eastward with a hundred mounted Hylar warriors led by his new guard captain, Sand Sakor, and accompanied by Gem Bluesleeve and his Golden Hammer footmen. On behalf of the Council of Thanes, Willen intended to have a talk with whoever was in charge in southeastern Ergoth. The humans who lived there were as beset by the flood of refugees from the east as the dwarves of Kal-Thax were.

During the Hylar migration, they had seen human citadels scattered here and there across the countryside. Homes and fiefdoms to the knights of the lords that governed the land, some of these were no more than manor houses perched atop ridges and rocky hills overlooking the fields and herds of their supplicants. But there was one that Cale Greeneye had seen from a distance and reported. It was a great, walled keep atop a high bluff and was obviously the home of someone important. It sat several miles north of the field where the Hylar had defeated the Cobar raiders, and Willen suspected that the place was the seat of that gray knight who had spoken warning to him on that day — the one Glendon Hawke called Lord Charon. For Calnar horses and sturdy Daewar footmen, the place was not too far away, and the man had seemed to be in charge. Willen decided he would be the one to see.

Two days out from the lower slopes, the dwarf troop entered tilled fields and meadows, with little villages visible here and there among them. A few miles farther and the great citadel was in sight. It was as Cale had described it — a tall fortification of gray stone, with ramparts and parapets where banners flew. It was not a great structure by Hylar standards, but better than most things Willen had seen built by humans.

He wasn’t sure what protocols were involved in approaching a human stronghold to discuss business, but he had observed back in Thoradin that humans were very much like dwarves in their thinking, except for their inability to really concentrate on anything for very long. So he took the direct approach. With his troops at his back, the new chieftain of the Hylar of Thorbardin simply headed for the place and assumed he would be noticed soon.

The first to notice the dwarves were villagers at a little place where thatch-roofed huts crowded along what seemed to be the beginning of a road. At first glance there were no people visible, either in the village or thereabouts in the crusted fields where the melting snows had left gray-white patterns atop the dark mud beneath. No one was stirring, but there was smoke above the huts, so Willen had a trumpeter blow salute, then led his troops right into the center of the place. Here and there shutters parted, and doors opened a crack. Shadowed eyes stared out at the short, armored creatures perched on the tall horses, then shutters slammed and doors echoed to the sounds of bolts being dropped into place. From somewhere a flimsy arrow — like a quarrel from a badly strung crossbow — arced in the sunlight and glanced off Willen’s helm.

He raised his shield and quartered around in his high saddle. “Here, now!” he roared. “There’s no call for that!”

Somewhere nearby, a great squawking and flailing erupted. It sounded like foxes in a chicken coop. At one flank of the dwarf troop, a shutter opened momentarily and something flew out, bouncing harmlessly off the armor of Sand Sakor. Sand looked down at the fallen object, then looked up at his chieftain. “It’s a potato,” he said in disbelief. “Somebody threw a potato at me.”

Gem Bluesleeve strolled forward to ask, “Would you like for us to haul those people out where we can see them?”

“Go away!” a muffled human voice called from within one of the huts. “Go away! There’s nothing here for you!”

And another voice, even more muffled, said, “Hoodlums! Can’t they just leave us alone?”

And another, “Wait, Mullin! I don’t think these are the same hoodlums. Look how short they are. Do you think those might be dwarves?”

“Dwarves don’t ride horses, idiot!” the first voice chided.

“Are those really horses? How’d they get so big?”

The sound of chickens in panic came again, then stopped. Willen shook his head. “We mean no harm!” he called. “We’re just passing through. We’re looking for the home of Lord Charon.”

“You see?” a voice insisted. “They’re the same ones. The hoodlums looking for Lord Charon.”

“They can’t be the same ones. Those were bigger and their horses were shorter, and besides, those already know where Lord Charon is.”

“Then these are more of the same.” The voice rose again. “Go away and leave us alone!”

“Rust!” Willen growled. “All right! We’ll go away! Just tell us if that citadel ahead is Lord Charon’s keep!”

“Of course it is,” a querulous voice snapped. “What else would it be?”

“Thank you,” Willen Ironmaul said. He flicked his reins and headed out of the village.

Behind him, the hidden voices chattered, “I tell you, Mullin, those are dwarves!” “Nonsense! Why would dwarves come here? And what would dwarves want with Lord Charon?” “Well, I think it’s more of those same hoodlums from Xak Tsaroth.” “There aren’t any dwarves in Xak Tsaroth, it’s a human city.” “Then maybe the hoodlums are getting shorter there.”

“What do you suppose that was all about?” Sand Sakor wondered.

“I can probably tell you what it was about, if you want to know,” a high voice said from below.

Willen glanced down and frowned. “You!”

“Of course I’m me,” Castomel Springheel assured him. “I’ve been me most of my life, except maybe the time when that old mage turned me into a goat for a day and a half. I wasn’t quite myself then.”

The kender was trotting along happily, almost under the hooves of Willen’s great horse, Shag, and was carrying a brace of chickens. “If you’re looking for Lord Charon,” he said, “that’s his stronghold up there on that hill. But then, if you’re looking for the Tariff Overlord’s people, that’s where they are, too. Except they’re outside. Lord Charon doesn’t invite them in.” The kender’s brow lowered in disapproval. “They steal anything they can get their hands on.”

“Like someone else I’ve met,” Willen snorted.

Cas glanced up at him. “Who?”

“Never mind. Where did you get those chickens?”

“What chickens? Oh, these?” the kender glanced at the birds dangling from his hands as though surprised to find them there. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I was just thinking about supper, and sure enough, there were some chickens just waiting around. I don’t suppose they belonged to anybody. If they did, they didn’t say so. How about letting me have a ride on your horse?”

“Absolutely not!” Willen rasped. “I prefer you down there with your hands full of chickens.”

“That’s all right,” the kender said happily, glancing around. Behind and flanking the mounted Hylar, Gem Bluesleeve’s foot troop had been keeping pace. Now, though, at a hand signal from Willen, all of the Daewar had veered aside and were streaming off at an angle to the left, disappearing by threes and sixes into a ravine that wandered between fields. “Where are they going?” When no answer came the kender shrugged. “Well, if those people can run like that, with all that armor on, then I guess I can’t complain.”

The hillside below the citadel looked like a travelers’ camp. There were cook-fires, and tents, and a makeshift corral with a dozen or more horses in it. At a glance, it seemed there were several hundred human males camped there, and that they had been there for a while. On the parapets above, where pennants flew, liveried guardsmen patrolled.

“Those are Lord Charon’s household troops,” Cas Springheel chatted, pointing a chicken-laden hand toward the heights of the citadel. “Lord Charon isn’t very happy about the Tariff Overlord in Xak Tsaroth sending all these people out here to collect taxes, so he doesn’t let them in. But at the same time he doesn’t want to drive them away because the Tariff Overlord of Xak Tsaroth is recognized as a legitimate civil authority in Ergoth, though Lord Charon personally considers him a buffoon.”

“So what are they doing?” Willen asked.

“Nothing,” the kender said, trotting along beside the large horse. “It’s kind of a standoff.”

“Humans,” Willen muttered, shaking his head.

Trumpets sounded then, atop the citadel, and Willen knew that they had been noticed.

A hundred yards from the citadel, the mounted column of dwarves halted. The guards atop the tower had doubled in number, their heads and shoulders visible against the sky, but no weapons were being brandished. They seemed to be just watching. The high gates of the keep remained closed. But in front of them, on the hillside, were nearly a dozen mounted humans in heavy armor, and a broad, double rank of armed footmen — hundreds of them — with pikes and longaxes. As the dwarves halted, a rider stepped his mount forward from the center and gazed at them. Without turning, he bellowed, “By the gods, I think these are dwarves!”

“I assure you, sir, that we are dwarves. We are here to call on Lord Charon, and since you are not him, I advise you to stand aside.”

“Stand aside?” The man seemed astonished. “Stand aside? Do you know who I am, dwarf?”

“No,” Willen admitted. “Who are you?”

“I,” the man drew himself up in his saddle, almost parting the layers of armor at his midsection, “am none other than Shamad Turnstreet, deputy to the Overlord of Tariffs of the city of Xak Tsaroth. And you dwarves,” he pointed an accusing finger, “are liable both for the general tariff decreed for the rural provinces and for special penalties as border-crossers and illegal aliens. If you don’t have the money, I am authorized to seize your horses, arms, and valuables.”

“About the time the moons rust over, you will,” Willen said evenly. “I am Willen Ironmaul, Chieftain of Thane Hylar of Thorbardin and Kal-Thax, and I am here to see Lord Charon on official business for the Council of Thanes. Now stand aside.”

“Impudence,” Shamad Turnstreet spat. “I do not take impudence from dwarves.” He raised an imperious hand. “Seize these creatures!”

The other mounted humans rode up beside him, loosing shields and lances, and the line of footmen spread for a charge.

“You are making a mistake, Shamad Turnstreet,” Willen called. “Consider yourself warned.”

“Insolence!” the human roared. He lowered his face plate. “Forward!” he ordered.

The footmen closed ranks and charged. Just behind and looming above them, armed riders lowered their lances, raised their shields, and charged, closing on the line of footmen who spread to let them through.

“If that’s how you want it,” Willen muttered. He signaled, and his troop spread into spearpoint formation. “Hammers and shields,” he called, and swept his arm forward.

With a resounding crash and din, the two lines met. Lances and pikes glanced off dwarven shields as the spear formation of dwarves swept through, and as each point was deflected a heavy hammer descended casually — almost delicately — upon the headgear of its wielder. In seconds, the entire dwarf troop was through the line of humans, wheeling about in precise coordination to survey the field behind them. Everywhere were sprawled, tumbled men rolling around in confusion, holding their heads in their hands, getting to their knees to search for their dropped weapons. In the distance, eleven riderless horses pounded away toward the outlying fields. Delighted laughter floated down from the high ramparts of the citadel on the hill.

“I told you people to stand aside!” Willen Ironmaul shouted. “Now let well enough alone!”

But up on the hillside above, an outraged voice shouted, “A fluke! It was a trick! Regroup and attack!”

Shamad Turnstreet had directed the assault but had not taken part in it. Now he sat his saddle on the slope above, waving his arms in rage. “Attack!” he called. “Attack!”

Reluctantly, his troops got to their feet, picked up fallen weapons, and reassembled themselves, this time in a spearpoint formation as the dwarves had done before. All the humans except their leader were on foot now, but the charge they leveled at the dwarven ranks bristled with deadly points and blades.

Willen’s troop touched reins, and the tall Calnar horses spread and reformed, an outward-curving line like open arms waiting to greet the assault. And abruptly, there were no riders in any of the saddles. Each Hylar clung now alongside his mount’s shoulder, shield placed to protect both horse and rider.

Gawking in confusion, the human rush slowed for a moment, then regained its force. Battle cries rang out, drowning the voice of Shamad Turnstreet, who was looking past his troops at what was behind them.

At the moment the human line hit the dwarven defense, Gem Bluesleeve’s Golden Hammer hit the human line from the rear, crushing the charge against the Hylar line as a pestle crushes orestone in a dwarven miner’s mortar.

Again, no dwarf was touched by a blade, and again every human in the attack was rapped sharply by dwarven hammers. This time, the blows were less delicate. Some who fell would not get up again without assistance.

The dwarves backed away disdainfully. “Pick up your wounded and get out of our way!” Willen ordered the humans. “We have business here, but it isn’t with the likes of you!”

It was all too much for the blustering Shamad Turnstreet. With a cry, the Deputy Overlord lowered his lance, spurred his mount, and thundered down the hillside, directly at the exposed back of Willen Ironmaul.

Shag’s ears turned at the sound, and the Calnar horse sidestepped as the human’s lance flicked past the dwarf. In an instant, Willen dropped his shield and hammer, braced his booted feet against the saddle’s foretree, and leaned out, his strong hands closing on the armored shoulders of the human as he hurtled past. With a heave, the dwarf wrenched the human loose from his saddle, dropped him clattering to the ground, and fell atop him. Willen rolled the man over on his belly, squatted atop him, and methodically removed his weapons, his helmet, his back-plate, his gauntlets, and his armor skirt.

Gathering up all these implements, Willen stepped away and said, “Tariffmaster, go back to the city where you belong. For the inconvenience you have caused to representatives of the Council of Thanes of Thorbardin and Kal-Thax, I hereby levy your horse and your armor as taxes. Now get away from here before I decide to collect further tariffs.”

Roars of laughter rang down from the ramparts of the citadel. It sounded — and looked — as though the entire household were up there now, taking in the show.

When the tax collector from Xak Tsaroth had gone, half-naked and followed by a stumbling, wretched band of associates, the gates of Citadel Charon opened and knights rode out, parting to make way for the gray knight Willen had met before — Lord Charon himself. The human rode to within a few yards of Willen and stopped. “Greetings, Sir Dwarf,” he said. “That was a lively entertainment, though you have thoroughly humiliated an official of the Ergothian realm.”

“Official?” Willen gazed at the man. “That was only a hoodlum. Lord Knight, I am here as a representative of — ”

“I know.” Charon nodded. “I heard. And what is the business you wish to discuss?”

“A road,” Willen said. “A common road, a joint venture by Ergoth and Kal-Thax. A road northward, through the pass at Tharkas to the lands beyond. A road to help you get rid of the refugees who plague you and to keep them from spreading into Kal-Thax.”

“A road,” Charon said. “Well, it is a thing we can talk about … along with the price of dwarven tools and whether those big horses of yours might interbreed with plains stock. But before we sit to table, Sir Dwarf, I have a question.”

“Sir?”

“You humiliated those buffoons from Xak Tsaroth. Oh, I don’t mind, personally. Turnstreet plays at chivalry, but he is, as you say, nothing more than a hoodlum. But tell me, Sir Dwarf, had that been me who attacked you … would you have played such games with me?”

“No, sir,” Willen said seriously. “I would never play games with you, Lord Knight. It would be far too dangerous. Had you attacked me, I would have killed you as promptly as I could.”

Not far away, Castomel Springheel was foraging happily through the remains of the hillside camp. He had somehow come into possession of Shamad Turnstreet’s hammered breastplate and had thought of a fine use for it. If he could find some fat or a little lard, the iron shell would be just the thing for frying his chickens.

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