27

Tharkas Pass

From the flanks of Sky’s End, Cale Greeneye and his company wound north and west through steep-walled canyons and vast valleys hidden within the high Kharolis, where whole villages of Einar turned out to gape at this strange band of explorers led by dozens of dwarves mounted upon huge horses. Most of the people of these mountains had never seen horses before, and none had seen horses like the Calnar breed.

Those who traveled with them were just as remarkable. The Hylar were strange to the Einar and seemed wise and worldly. But others were obviously Daewar by their golden beards and bright clothing, and there were even a few Theiwar in the group — young adventurers who had joined the Neidar scouts as much out of boredom as anything else.

For many of the remote Einar, it was a strange idea — that people of various tribes and cultures could blend as a group and join in a common cause. Many also were fascinated by the name the adventurers had adopted for themselves. Neidar. Knoll-dwellers, or hill-dwellers. For the pastoral dwarves, oriented as all dwarves to the comforts of home and hearth, it was a rich name — a name that spoke of living preferences. A far better word than Einar, which meant only unaffiliated.

At each encounter, Cale told the Einar of the planned fortress of Thorbardin, located beneath Cloudseeker Mountain, and extended the invitation of the Council of Thanes to those who cared to join in the great venture — to affiliate themselves with whichever undermountain tribe appealed to them and become part of Thorbardin. He also told them that, for those who chose to stay on the land, rather than under it, their herds and crops would bring good prices in trade at Thorbardin, where such basics as food and fibers were much needed.

At each morning’s departure, Cale looked back at the people with whom they had stayed the night, wondering what his passing through would bring about. Many, he was sure, would go to see for themselves what was going on under Cloudseeker — out of curiosity, if nothing else. Some would choose to stay, to join the Daewar, or the Theiwar, or Daergar, to be a part of the great undertaking that was Thorbardin.

A task of monumental proportion, the chance to be part of something grand … the opportunity to craft and to build, to work with stone, metals, and timbers, to use tools to one’s content — all of these would be great temptations to any dwarf, and Cale understood that. He wondered how many thousands — or tens of thousands — of new residents Thorbardin would have by the time he and his company returned, just from what they had told people as they journeyed through the land of Kal-Thax.

He almost wished he could be in the subterranean caverns to see the reaction of those Einar who came to look. They would be astonished at least. They would gape and gawk in wonder as new ideas smote them from every side. Just as Glow Coppertoe, who had been Daewar all his life, was astonished in the early days of the exploration when Cale had sat his mount at the rim of the Grand Gorge and said casually, “This will need to have a bridge built across it.”

To the Daewar, the idea of building a bridge across such a chasm was startling. But then, historically the Daewar were delvers, not builders. And they had never seen Thoradin.

Willen Ironmaul was off to the east, establishing a diplomatic relationship with the humans there with the idea of building a road northward. It was the mission of Cale Greeneye and his Neidar to determine a route for the road. If Willen succeeded, humans would soon be at work, grading and crowning a way from the plains of southeastern Ergoth to the breaks where the heights of Kal-Thax began. But they would go no farther than the Gorge. Humans would not be able to span such a canyon, to build such a bridge. But dwarves could, if they knew how. And the Hylar, who had been Calnar, knew how.

Cale mapped a route under the very slopes of Sky’s End and up across the first pass into the heart of the mountains, heading northwest. In the distance, Daewar lore said, was a pass at a place the Daewar called Tharkas. Some of the Einar they met verified that. Some had actually seen it — a deep cleft between almost unscalable heights. And beyond were other lands — human or elf, or both, none were quite sure — where refugees from the eastern wars might settle in and make new homes … and from where, in the words of Olim Goldbuckle, trade might flow once they got settled.

No human would ever settle in Kal-Thax. The Covenant of Thanes made that clear. But then, why would humans want to settle in the dwarven high country if they could find places suited to humans just beyond?

To Cale, as to all of the Council of Thanes, it seemed the perfect solution to the problem of refugees piling up on Kal-Thax’s eastern border. Simply build a road across Kal-Thax and let them use it. No one really cared if foreigners traveled through Kal-Thax, as long as they minded their manners, left the dwarves alone, and didn’t pause too long in the mountains.

So, let them cross, and let them settle the lands beyond. Who would mind that?

On the ninth day out from the last Einar settlement, wending their way among peaks and crags that became higher, rougher, and more forbidding with each mile northward, the explorers came out on a high, grassy shelf and caught their first glimpse of Tharkas Pass. Spring had laid its first touch on these climes, and a soft haze lay in the hollows beneath snow-capped peaks that receded into blue distance. But beyond the farthest visible slopes rose a mammoth, saw-toothed ridge of mountains, standing above the marching peaks the way the eastern Kharolis peaks stood above their foothills.

To the mountain-dwelling dwarves, an unreachable summit was almost unthinkable. Like the Hylar, the children of the tribes of Kal-Thax learned to climb as soon as they learned to walk. But now the explorers paused in awe, staring at the mighty wall that was the north border of Kal-Thax. It seemed to run from horizon to vertiginous horizon, losing itself in the maze of steep peaks that flanked it. Only at one point was it broken — by a deep, slanted rift as though a huge axe had cut away a wedge of it.

“Tharkas Pass.” Cale pointed and turned abruptly at the melodious voice that responded from the slope above him.

“That’s what dwarves call it,” the voice said. “We have another name for it, but not many dwarves can pronounce it — or want to.”

Cale and those with him squinted, their eyes roving the forested slope, and then there was movement there, and Cale’s eyes brightened as he raised a hand in salute. “Eloeth!” he called. “We meet again!”

The dwarf felt he would never get used to the way these elves could appear and disappear, camouflaging themselves and blending into their surroundings. Where moments ago there had seemed to be no one, now the wooded slope above the shelf was alive with slim, graceful creatures clad in leathers and weaves that were the colors of the wild lands.

Two of them he recognized from an earlier meeting — the slant-eyed Eloeth and, not far behind her, the somber, smoke-haired male called Demoth. Both carried bows, but while Eloeth’s was slung at her shoulder, Demoth’s was at hand. He held it casually, but the notched arrow was ready to draw and release.

“Cale Greeneye,” Eloeth said, returning his wave. “Your company has grown since last we met. How fare the Hylar? I have heard you found your Everbardin.”

“You have heard?”

“We hear many things,” she said, perching on a broken tree just yards away. “For instance, we hear that the drumbeater dwarves have allied with the tribes of Kal-Thax and now are seeking an alliance with the humans of eastern Ergoth.”

“Not so much an alliance.” Cale frowned. “More like a joint project. We might build a road.”

“Through Tharkas Pass?”

Cale gazed at the wall of peaks in the distance. “Where else? A road that dead-ended at those mountains would do no good.”

“And do you know what lies beyond Tharkas?”

“Some other land.” He shrugged. “Someplace where humans might go, so they won’t need to bother us.”

Eloeth shook her head slightly. Cale couldn’t tell whether the expression on her face was a smile or a grimace. “Other lands, indeed,” she said. “That ‘other land’ is the home of my people. It has been, ever since some of us began to drift away from Silvanesti. Do you think that we want those you will not allow in Kal-Thax? The western forests are not a dumping ground for dwarves’ spare humans, you know.”

Cale stared at her, at a loss for words. It had never crossed his mind — or anyone else’s, apparently — that there might be people beyond Kal-Thax just as reluctant to absorb hordes of refugees as the dwarves were.

“Well?” Eloeth prompted.

“Well … we have come this far to see Tharkas Pass. I would like to see it.”

“Don’t you think you have come far enough beyond your own lands?” Demoth challenged, striding down the slope to stand beside Eloeth. Behind them other elves — hundreds of them, it seemed, changed positions subtly, backing the challenge.

“This is our land!” Mica Rockreave bristled, at Cale’s flank. “We have joined in the Covenant of Thanes, and you people are the trespassers here, not us. Kal-Thax is ours, and Kal-Thax goes all the way to Tharkas Pass.”

“Does it?” Eloeth smiled knowingly. “Who says so?”

“Olim Goldbuckle said so,” Cale put in, trying to wave down the short-tempered Mica Rockreave. “The Daewar have made a map of Kal-Thax. The boundaries are clear.”

“Dwarven maps are like dwarven minds,” Demoth purred. “They claim everything and clarify nothing. Realms are not bound by lines on maps, dwarf. Realms extend to the reach of those who control them and no farther.”

“Dwarves control the lands from the south plains to Tharkas Pass,” Cale explained. “At least, that’s how it is supposed to be.”

“Dwarves are — ” Demoth started, then subsided as Eloeth raised an elegant hand. Cale turned to scowl at Mica Rockreave and put a finger to his lips. The last thing the young Neidar wanted to do, on a scouting mission, was to start a war with the elves.

“Demoth is right,” Eloeth said softly. “Not in a hundred years or more has their been a dwarven patrol exercising presence this far north. You are eighty miles beyond the natural limit of Kal-Thax where people live and use the land. This is all wilderness out here, and just beyond that pass lies the enchanted forest we call home.”

“And beyond that?”

“Beyond?” She shrugged. “All sorts of places. Human realms, mostly. Western Ergoth is nearest and largest. Why?”

“Just curious,” Cale assured her. “But I would still like to see that pass. Do you object?”

“I suppose we can show it to you,” Eloeth said, standing. “It won’t hurt for you to see it.”

“Thank you,” Cale Greeneye bowed slightly in his tall saddle, then turned another frown on Mica Rockreave and those around him. “Just be still and let me handle this!” he whispered.

“But these elves are …”

“These elves are going to show us Tharkas Pass. Come on. Let’s go.”

Cale was astonished at how quickly they covered the miles up to the great pass. Following the hidden ways and traveled trails of the elves, most of which he would never have known were there except for the sight of throngs of silent-footed elves trotting along ahead of him, they seemed to bypass all of the rough places and travel only the best paths. The sun of Krynn was still in the sky when the party climbed the last rise and entered a huge, magnificently walled cleft in the mountain ridge. For a mile they traveled between wide-set stone steeps which climbed into the high mists, then the path angled downward slightly and — abruptly — the walls opened out.

The view was breathtaking. The path curved downward, following natural slopes — downward and away to lose itself in distance. And beyond, spreading to the limits of vision, was a tremendous, forested plateau, a solid carpet of new-greening trees that rolled away toward the horizon. From the mouth of the pass the forests of the elves seemed to begin several thousand feet away and to go on from there forever.

“Beautiful,” Cale breathed, climbing down from Piquin’s high back to stand beside Eloeth. “That’s where you live, huh?”

“That is the place we call home.” She nodded. “From where the forest begins, as far as you can see.”

“From where the forest begins?” Cale pointed. “Down there?”

“That’s right.”

Cale smiled delightedly, then turned, facing his own companions, and raised sturdy arms. “On behalf of the Council of Thanes and the people of Kal-Thax,” he roared, “I hereby claim all the lands we have traveled, to and including this place where we stand, as part of Kal-Thax. Kal-Thax extends to this point!” He unslung his hammer, drew an iron spike from his belt and knelt. With one resounding blow he drove the spike into the stone of Tharkas Pass.

Demoth was beside him then, spinning to face him, his bow raised threateningly. “Stop that!” the elf demanded. “What are you doing?”

Cale stood and gazed at the elf levelly. “I have done what you yourself suggested. I have just clarified what dwarven maps — and dwarven minds — claim. Everything behind us is Kal-Thax, by right of my claim and my stake.”

Demoth stared, still holding his bow tensed. “You can’t do that,” he said.

“I just did,” the Neidar pointed out. “And if you have any doubt of the reach of those who claim the realm, then please notice that we have reached here with your blessing. And if you raise that bow, elf, I swear I will feed you my hammer a pound at a time.”

“Demoth!” Eloeth was there, pushing down the male elf’s hands and his bow. “Let it alone! It’s only a claim, and means nothing unless it is ratified and enforced.” She turned to Cale. “Clever,” she said. “You obtained my warrant that this place is beyond our homeland, so you have taken nothing that we have a right to defend. You are full of surprises, Cale Greeneye of the Hylar.”

“Of Thorbardin and Kal-Thax,” he corrected, “though I — and my friends — are more Neidar than Holgar.”

“What?”

“It is a manner of speech. It means we prefer the outsides of slopes to the insides of them. But I have one more surprise for you, if you will permit. On that pack horse are two kegs of good ale, and we have the haunches of a mountain bison. If you and your company will share a fire with us this night, I’d like to hear how the wars go in the east.”

“But what of this claim business?”

“Oh, that’s all done. I’ve made the claim on legitimate grounds. I suppose it’s up to my leaders, and yours, to get together sometime and decide what to do about it.” He turned again, gazing off across the distant forest. “Western Ergoth lies beyond, you say? Where?”

She pointed northward. “There, and westward beyond the forest.”

“The new road might have to be longer than we anticipated,” Cale said. “But it could serve elven purposes, too, you know.”

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