The Fate of the Dwarves (Dwarves Series #4) by Markus Heitz, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Fate of the Dwarves (Dwarves Series #4)

The Fate of the Dwarves (Dwarves Series #4)

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by Markus Heitz
     
 

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The dwarves are going to battle for the last time.

There has been no word from the courageous warrior Tungdil since the bitter struggle at the Black Abyss. Dragons, magicians, and the cruel älfar have advanced far into the kingdom Girdlegard, ruthlessly seizing vast areas of land. It seems that the dwarves are facing their next battle with very little hope

Overview

The dwarves are going to battle for the last time.

There has been no word from the courageous warrior Tungdil since the bitter struggle at the Black Abyss. Dragons, magicians, and the cruel älfar have advanced far into the kingdom Girdlegard, ruthlessly seizing vast areas of land. It seems that the dwarves are facing their next battle with very little hope of survival.

But then the inexplicable happens; a dwarf warrior dressed in black armor returns from the abyss - with a formidable army in tow. This warrior calls himself Tungdil, and for his most loyal friend Ireheart and his allies, this means a new hope. But soon doubts begin arise . . . Could this really be Tungdil the dwarf, or is this warrior following his own dark agenda? It is a question of the future of Girdlegard - and the future of all the dwarves.

In the final installment of this spectacular fantasy epic, the greatest of the dwarves' adventures begins . . .

Editorial Reviews

Tad Williams
"Weirdly charming, fast-moving and freaky, Bodyguard of Lightning is the most fun you're ever likely to have with a warband of orcs. Remember, buy now or beg for mercy later ... "
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
"... A neat idea and Stan Nicholls pulls it off with great panache ... enough weird sex to keep the tabloids outraged for weeks. You'll never feel the same about Lord of the Rings."
David Gemmell
"Incorporating wall to wall action with undercurrents of dark humor, Bodyguard of Lightning is a gritty, fast-paced novel with a neat twist. The heroes are orcs - though you wouldn't want to meet any of them on a dark night!"
From the Publisher
Praise for the Orcs series:"

With grand scale world building, labyrinthine plotlines, extensive backstory and pedal-to-the-metal action, Nicholls captures adventure fantasy at its very best."—Publishers Weekly"

Incorporating wall to wall action with undercurrents of dark humor, Bodyguard of Lightning is a gritty, fast-paced novel with a neat twist. The heroes are orcs - though you wouldn't want to meet any of them on a dark night!"—David Gemmell"

Weirdly charming, fast-moving and freaky, Bodyguard of Lightning is the most fun you're ever likely to have with a warband of orcs. Remember, buy now or beg for mercy later ... "—Tad Williams"

... A neat idea and Stan Nicholls pulls it off with great panache ... enough weird sex to keep the tabloids outraged for weeks. You'll never feel the same about Lord of the Rings."—Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780316102629
Publisher:
Orbit
Publication date:
08/07/2012
Series:
Dwarves Series, #4
Pages:
800
Sales rank:
95,224
Product dimensions:
8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Fate of the Dwarves


By Markus Heitz

Orbit

Copyright © 2012 Markus Heitz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316102629

Prologue

The Outer Lands,

The Black Abyss,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

The air was filled with the smell of bone dust, ice-cold stone and frosty damp. The thin-armed creature stepped cautiously out of the shadow of a rock and blinked. Ten paces ahead the shimmering made everything on the far side appear hazy. The same as always.

The nameless creature sent a long green tongue over the skin of its doglike face, revealing needle-sharp teeth. With two of its sixteen fingers it explored the short dark fur under the dirty armor, scratched itself and yawned. It adjusted the armor that was pressing uncomfortably on its balls.

It gave a sigh of relief and then another yawn.

On the orders of the Strongest One it had to keep watch from dawn to dusk and immediately report any changes to the quivering vibrations in the air. It was a boring task. Thankless and boring.

After a while it picked up and ate a yellow beetle emerging from under a moldering thighbone on the ground. As it chewed it occurred to the creature that not one of the hundreds of its own kind could remember a time when the air had not shimmered.

It grunted and kicked at the black wall of rock, then strolled up to the edge, trailing an over-long sword. As the rusty brown metal blade scraped against the rock floor, it collected yet more dents and notches.

The creature sat down on the ground next to the shimmering. Yawning, it picked up a pebble and idly chucked it. The air hissed and flashed, for a second turning opaque like murky water and stopping the pebble’s flight. The little stone bounced back and landed at the tip of the creature’s boots. Another sigh. This was a ritual that never ever changed. It was obvious why the pebbles were being chucked: They did not disappear straight away when they met the shimmering.

There had been times when the invisible barrier had simply been an indestructible wall. It would hurt if you ran into it, but nothing else happened. Then, all of a sudden, the wall would destroy whatever touched it: There’d be a crackling flash and you’d be drenched in fire and burned to a fine cinder ash that blew away in the wind. But for about seven world-ages now, the wall had been taking quite a long time to actually kill you. If you were quick and tore yourself back off it you’d get away with a burn.

On the other side the creature could pick out a strange vertical structure composed of metal rings. When the sun stood high there’d be a bright light in the center. Every so often a few small chunky two-leggers could be seen going up to the rings, walking around and then disappearing again. You could just see strong high walls with colorful flags atop square towers, but the shimmering made everything indistinct. The towers were quite a way off.

If it tried very hard, the creature could make out twoleggers walking to and fro on the battlements. They looked different from the ones that marched round inspecting the interlocking iron rings. Bet their job was just as boring—and would remain so until some time in the future the air no longer made waves like on a hot summer’s day.

That was the moment the Strongest One had been waiting for, along with so many others, big and small, two-leggers and many-leggers, screech-phantoms and soul-rippers alike—and the kordrion, of course. Even the Strongest One was afraid of the kordrion—the flying horror was obeyed by all.

When the shimmering stopped a new empire would open up, the Strongest One had told them. There’d be delicious fresh meat and rich pickings for all. The Strongest One before the Strongest One had promised that as well. And the one before that, the Strongest Ever, had said the same.

The creature didn’t believe it any longer, but wasn’t going to let on. You died soon enough if you stepped out of line. A single life was nothing—the Strongest One had thousands of nameless foot soldiers at his beck and call.

Another pebble was chucked, half-heartedly. The large brown beetle crawling out of its rocky hiding place was really much more interesting.

Moving swiftly, the creature grabbed the beetle, pulled off the poisonous mandibles and sucked out the entrails, which tasted of rotten wanko berries. There was a lot of satisfied chewing. The empty beetle case was discarded and the creature bent down. Where had the pebble fallen this time?

Long fingers searching the ground found—nothing.

Curiosity now aroused, it lifted its head and saw the small stone lying out in the sunshine.

Snorting in disbelief, the creature got up and stared: The shimmering had stopped.

It hardly dared to move. Its whole body was tingling. Its nostrils widened to catch new scents. For the first time you could smell the land on the other side without the stupid filter: Flesh, iron, dust, stone—the smells of excitingly different things in your nose. Freedom! Booty! Meat! And untold treasure!

Looking back at the entrance to the underground empire of the Strongest One and the kordrion, the creature knew it had to make its report as quickly as anything, but… It turned its narrow head again, long pointed ears erect. Why not take another look before anyone else turned up? What was the world out there going to look like without that shimmer effect? Might there be some rich pickings to secure for personal use?

You’d have to inspect it properly, or your report wouldn’t be accurate. There was a big chance they’d call you a liar if your description wasn’t specific enough. Liars got treated the same way as the ones who stepped out of line. A very good reason for not racing off to the Strongest One’s lair in the abyss, quite apart from the rich-pickings possibility.

Carefully, one step at a time. Here’s the edge of the rocks now, and then out into the sunshine.

Any hope of a bit of secret pillaging died a death. Those fortress walls couldn’t possibly be scaled. The Strongest One’s help would be needed there. The kordrion’s, too. Tough… Without the distortion caused by the shimmering those square towers appeared even more invulnerable than ever. The creature’s dreams of rich pickings and fresh meat faded fast. The stonemason’s art up there—you wouldn’t get that type of thing back home.

But the creature’s approach had been noted. Vast numbers of weapons were heard rattling. Shouts came from the battlements. Then the dread sound of alarm horns.

This was scary. Best duck down!

Still trying to get a good look at all the colors and the patterns on the banners, the creature turned tail and made for the rocks—but a hefty blow on the back hurled it to the ground. The sword slipped out of its grasp.

It could scarcely breathe. It spat and saw its own green blood! But then the pain flooded through from the wound.

Yowling and whimpering by turns, it clutched at a thin wooden shaft sticking in its back.

From the right-hand side something came hissing, striking the creature in the face, shattering the upper jaw and adding to the torture. The howls grew louder and stopped, suddenly, when a dozen arrows whirred in from all directions.

One arm pierced and anchored to the flank, the creature dragged itself steadfastly on, groaning and spluttering. The Strongest One must get the report and avenge the death. Let the storm break!

Once back in the shadow of the rocks, past the place where the air normally shimmered, everything felt safer. Now the report would be made!

All at once the smell in the air changed.

In spite of all the blood and the mashed nose, you could sense it clearly: It was the smell you got just before a thunderstorm. Invisible energy was gathering, crackling all around.

Shrieking in terror, the creature clutched at the floor of dust and ground-up bones, trying to get a hold to pull itself forward…

The magic sphere flared into being once more, cutting the creature in half at the hips.

One last ghastly scream escaped its throat before it died; the legs convulsed for a time before falling still.

“Praise and thanks to Vraccas! The shield is up again!” Boïndil Doubleblade, known by friends and enemies alike as Ireheart on account of his ungovernable rage in combat, had observed the fate of the thin-armed creature. Putting the telescope down on the stone parapet, he watched the glittering shield that enclosed the Black Abyss. “The artifact seems to be running out of power.” He turned a quizzical gaze on Goda. “Can you tell me anything about that?”

He was standing with his beloved consort on the north tower of Evildam, which had defended these parts for the past two hundred and twenty-one cycles.

Built by dwarves, undergroundlings, ubariu and humans, the four walls of the fortress formed a square thirty paces high and, at the widest points, over fifteen paces thick round the Black Abyss. The structure was simple in form but masterful in execution. The cooperation of the various participators had ensured the creation of something unique, even if the dwarves’ contribution had been the greatest part. Ireheart was proud of it. The runes on the towers praised Vraccas, Ubar and Palandiell.

Catapults installed on the broad walkways, the towers and the levels beneath the roofed platforms could launch stones, arrows and spears when needed; there were enough missiles in store to contend even with attackers outnumbering them by many hundreds to one. A garrison of two thousand warriors manned the defenses of Evildam, ready to take up arms and fight back dark armies.

But for two hundred and twenty-one cycles this had never been necessary.

The creature that lay there in its own blood was the first ever to leave the prison: A dark cleft half a mile long and a hundred paces wide was a blemish on the surrounding landscape and marked where evil would emerge if the magic barrier and the fortress allowed it.

Goda turned to her warrior husband—a sturdy secondling dwarf with such a reputation and so much combat experience behind him that he had been appointed commander of the fortress. She tilted her head to one side; dark blond hair poked out from under her cap.

“Are you afraid the shield won’t hold, or are you hoping it won’t?” In contrast to Ireheart, who was sporting a chain-mail shirt reinforced with iron plates, she wore a long light gray dress, simple and unadorned apart from the gold thread embroidering the belt. Goda wasn’t even carrying a dagger, showing plainly that she eschewed conventional fighting. Her arsenal was a magic one.

“Oh, I’m not afraid of what’s out there in the Black Abyss! It can’t be any worse than what’s abroad in Girdlegard,” he growled, pretending to be offended as he stroked his thick black beard, now exhibiting its fair share of silvery gray. It was a sign of his advanced age. But really he was in the prime of life. Ireheart gave his wife a sad little smile. “And I’ve never given up hope from the day he went to the other side.” He turned his head back to gaze at the entrance to the Black Abyss, over behind the shield. “That’s why I’m waiting here. By Vraccas, if I could only glimpse him behind that shield, I’d be off like a shot to help! With all the strength at my disposal.” He slammed both fists down on the top of the wall.

Goda looked over at the artifact with its impenetrable sphere enclosing the abyss. The artifact stood at the entrance to the Black Abyss and was composed of four interlocking vertical iron rings which formed a kind of ball with a diameter of twenty paces. The metal circles showed runes, signs, notches and marks; horizontal reinforcements connected to the central point where there was a fixture decorated with symbols. And it was there that its power was to be found: It drew its strength from a diamond in which enormous amounts of magic energy were stored.

But the stone was developing defects; each orbit would bring yet another fissure. When that happened you could hear the cracking sound echo from the fortress walls. All the soldiers were aware of it.

“I can’t say how much more it can take,” Goda told him quietly, her brows knitted in concern. “It could give at any moment or it could last for many cycles yet.”

Ireheart sighed and nodded to the guards passing on their rounds. “How do you mean?” he growled, rubbing the shaved sides of his head. Then he adjusted the plait of dark hair that hung down the length of his back. It was showing just as much silver now as the beard. “Can’t you be more specific?”

“I can only repeat what I always say when you ask that, husband: I don’t know.” She didn’t take his unfriendly tone amiss because she knew it stemmed from worry. Over two hundred and fifty cycles of worry. “Perhaps Lot-Ionan could have given you a better answer.”

Ireheart’s laugh was short, humorless and harsh. “I know what he’d give me if we met now. I expect it would be an extermination spell right between the eyes.” He picked up and shouldered his crow’s beak, the one his twin brother Boëndal Hookhand had once carried into battle. He made his way along the walkway. He used his twin’s long-handled weapon in honor of his memory: It had a heavy flat hammer head on the one side and a curved spike on the other, the length of your arm. No armor could withstand a crow’s beak wielded by a dwarf.

Goda followed him. Time to do the rounds.

“Did you ever think we would spend so long here in the Outer Lands?” he asked her pensively.

“No more than I ever thought things in Girdlegard could change like they have,” she replied. Goda was surprised by her companion’s thoughtful mood. The two of them had forged the iron band together many cycles before.

Their love had provided them with seven children: Two girls and five sons. The artifact had not objected to its keeper no longer being a virgin, as long as her soul was still pure. Goda had retained this innocence of spirit. Nothing dark had entered her mind. She had remained free of deceit, trickery and power lust.

The fact that she had abandoned Lot-Ionan made this very clear. Many others had remained with him. She had gained herself a powerful enemy by leaving him. “Don’t you think it’s time to go back and support them? You know they’ve been waiting for you. Waiting for the last great dwarf-hero from the glorious cycles.”

“Go back and leave you alone, when the artifact may burst at any moment? Give up command of the fortress?” Ireheart shook his head violently. “Never! If monsters and fiends come pouring out of the Black Abyss I’ve got to be here to hold them back, together with you and our children and my warriors.” He put his arm round her shoulder. “If this evil were to flood over into Girdlegard there would be no hope at all anymore. For no one, whatever race they belong to.”

“Why stop Boëndalin going back to our people? He could go in your place,” she urged him gently. “At least it would give the children of the Smith a signal…”

“Boëndalin is too good a fighter to be spared,” he interrupted her. “I need him to train the troops.” Ireheart’s eyes grew hard. “None of my sons and daughters shall leave my side until we’ve closed up the Black Abyss for all time and filled it up with molten steel.”

Goda sighed. “Today’s not one of your best orbits, Ireheart.”

He stopped, placed his crow’s beak on the ground and took her hands in his. “Forgive me, wife. But seeing the shield collapse like that, and then seeing how long it took to repair itself, it’s really got me worried. I can easily be unfair when I’m troubled.” He gave a faint smile to ask for forgiveness. She smiled in her turn.

They marched to the tower and went down in the lift, which worked with a system of counterweights and winches.

One hundred heavily armed ubariu warriors were waiting for them at the fortress gates.

Ireheart scanned their faces. Even after all those cycles they were still foreign to him. It had never felt right to forge friendships with a people who looked for all the world like orcs. Only bigger.

Their eyes shone bright red like little suns. In contrast to Tion’s creatures, the ubariu kept themselves very clean and their character was different too, because they had turned their back on evil and on random cruelty to others—at least that was what the undergroundlings claimed. The underground-lings were the dwarves of the Outer Lands…

And even if there had never been cause for doubt, Ireheart’s nature would never allow him to lay aside his scruples and accept them as equals, as friends. For himself, in contrast to how his wife and children felt, they would never be more than military allies.

Goda gave him a little push and he pulled himself together. He knew his reservations were unjustified, but he couldn’t help it. Vraccas had hammered a hatred of orcs and all of Tion’s creatures into the Girdlegard dwarves. The ubariu had the misfortune to look like evil—and yet there was no way round it: They had to work together to guard the Black Abyss.

Ireheart gave the gatekeeper a signal.

Shouts were heard, strong arms moved chains and pulley ropes to set the heavy cogs in motion to open the main door. With a screech of iron the massive gate, eleven paces by seven, rose up to make a gap through which the column of soldiers could march out toward the artifact.

“We’ll check the edges of the shield today,” Ireheart told Pfalgur, the ubari standing next to him. “I wouldn’t put it past these beasts to have dug an escape tunnel. You go one way, we’ll take the other. I’ll start at the artifact. You get along.”

“Understood, general,” the ubari’s deep voice responded, passing on the orders.

They traversed the basin that held the Black Abyss. The sides were smooth and black as colored glass, and steep paths led off to the right and left, ending at the protective sphere.

Ireheart turned right toward the artifact; the ubari led his troops in the other direction.

While Goda used her telescope to inspect in minute detail both the diamond and the structure, which was enclosed in the same kind of energy dome as the abyss itself, Ireheart went over to the corpse of the abyss creature. On this side of the barrier lay the ugly thin legs that didn’t look capable of ever having walked properly in those heavy boots. On the other side Ireheart could vaguely make out its upper body, pierced with arrows. Greenish blood had formed puddles and little rivulets.

“Stupid freak,” he said under his breath, kicking the creature’s left leg. “Your moment of freedom only brought you death.” Ireheart looked up and stared into the chasm. “Did you come on your own when you saw the shield was failing?” he asked quietly, as if the creature could hear him.

“Boïndil!” he heard Goda call, her voice excited.

Something wrong with the diamond? He was just about to turn round to speak to her when he thought he noticed a movement in the darkness.

Ireheart stopped and stared fixedly.

The strength of the magic barrier was making his mustache hairs stand on end. Or was it that feeling of unease?

“Boïndil, come on!” his wife called, attempting to get his attention again. “I’ve got something to…”

Ireheart raised his right hand to show he had heard her but that he needed quiet. His brown eyes searched the twilight for vague figures.

Once more he noticed a slight scurrying movement—something going from one rock to the next. There it came again. And yet another!

There was no doubt in his mind that more monsters were creeping up. Had they sensed the poor state of the barrier? Did they have the advantage here with their animal instincts?

“I want…” he called over his shoulder. Surprise cut off his words. Wasn’t that a dwarf helmet?

“This confounded distortion!” he yelled, taking a step forward. Standing dangerously close to the sphere, such that he could hear the humming sound it made, its pitch varying, he called out in a mix of hope and expectation. “Tungdil?” He nearly laid his hand on the energy screen; then gulped in distress. His throat had never felt so constricted before. “Vraccas, don’t let my eyes be deceiving me,” he prayed.

Then a huge pale claw, as broad as three castle gates, appeared out of the shadows, and gave a thundering blow to the sphere, producing a dull echo. The ground shook.

Ireheart jumped back with a curse, hitting out with his weapon as a reflex. The steel head of the crow’s beak crashed against the barrier, but ineffectually. “The kordrion is back!” he bellowed, noting with grim satisfaction that the alarm trumpets on the battlements immediately sounded a warning to the soldiers to man the catapults. All those drills he made them do were paying off.

The pale claw curled, its long talons scraping along the inner side of the shield, creating bright yellow sparks. Then the kordrion retreated and a wall of white fire rolled in, slapping up against the barrier like a wave and washing all around.

Ireheart retreated, dazzled, stumbling backwards to the artifact. “It won’t hold for long,” he shouted to Goda. “The beasts know it and they’re gathering.”

“The diamond!” she called back. “It’s crumbling!”

“What? Not now, in Vraccas’s name!” At last he could see again: Behind the force wall stood a range of monsters brandishing weapons! “Oh, you fiendish…”

Most were like that creature that had been cut in half; but there were others, significantly broader in the beam, much stronger and terrifying in appearance. No nightmare could have come up with better.

“By Vraccas,” Ireheart breathed, bereft that his friend, Tungdil, had not come, after all. He issued brisk orders to the ubariu, telling them to spread out in front of the artifact to protect Goda. The warriors formed a wall of bodies, iron and shields, their lances pointing forward like so many defensive tentacles. Ireheart turned to Goda and saw that she was touching the shimmering sphere. “What’s happening?” he called.

She was deathly pale. “A piece… of the diamond has come away,” she stammered. “I can’t hold it…”

There was a loud crack, like the noise of ice breaking. They all stared at the jewel. It had suddenly gone a darker color and there was a distinct fissure on its surface. The barrier fizzed and flickered. Layer upon layer was flaking off the edges of the diamond and falling to the ground. It was nearing the end.

“Get back!” commanded Ireheart. “Get back to the fort! We stand no chance here.” He took Goda’s hand and ran with her. In recent cycles he had grown to know the difference between courage and the insanity that used to overtake him in battle. His sons, too, had needed to learn the same lesson. The madness wasn’t something he was proud of handing on to them.

The ubariu warriors kept pace with them, even though they could easily have covered the distance much more swiftly than the dwarves. Goda found it well-nigh impossible to tear herself away from the artifact, but was dragged along by her colleagues.

With a brilliant flash and an ear-splitting detonation the diamond burst apart, the force of the explosion bringing the whole structure down. Parts of the vertical iron circles broke off and flew through the air to bury themselves in the ground several paces off. The ends were glowing. There must have been incredible heat involved.

At the same time—the barrier at the Black Abyss fell!

The maga could clearly see the army of beasts—there was no immovable power to hold them back now. The wind carried an unbelievable stink over to her, a mixture of excrement, stale blood and sour milk. Grayish white clouds of dust and bone meal flurried up like mist in front of the somber rock face. Figures appeared out of the fog.

Behind the army the pale dragon-like head of the kordrion reared up out of the chasm, horns and spikes erect. The four gray upper eyes were assessing the walls of the fortress as if to judge what weaponry might be used against it and its followers. The two lower blue eyes beneath the long bony muzzle were fixed on the ubariu and the fleeing dwarves.

“Vraccas!” exclaimed Goda, who was gathering her magic powers ready for defense. She had spotted a helmet among the first row of smaller monsters—a helmet as worn by children of the Smith.

Then a dwarf stepped forward, head to foot in dark armor made of tionium; glimmering inlay patterns glowed in turn. The creatures all drew back in respect.

In his right hand he held a weapon that was a legend in Girdlegard and the Outer Lands alike, black as the blackest shadow and longer than a human arm. On one side the blade was thicker and had long thin teeth like a comb, and on the other side it thinned out like a sword.

“Bloodthirster,” breathed Goda and stopped in her tracks. Ireheart was brought to a halt. He turned—and froze. Words failed him.

The dwarf in the night-colored armor raised his left hand to lift his visor. A familiar face with a golden eye patch could be seen, but the features were hard and marked with bitterness. His cold, cruel smile promised death. Then he held his weapon aloft and looked to the right and to the left. The creatures responded with shouts.

“Vraccas defend us: He has returned!” whispered Goda in horror. “Returned as the Commander of Evil!”

At that moment discordant trumpets blared out from the abyss, echoing off the bare rock. The kordrion opened its muzzle to utter a furious roar.

I

The Outer Lands,

The Black Abyss,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

Ireheart stared at his friend, so sorely missed and so eagerly awaited, and now there he was at the head of an army of fiendish demons. With his black armor on his back, Bloodthirster in his hand and an icy expression on his face, Tungdil seemed to have found his ideal setting. He belonged.

“But it can’t be,” Ireheart exclaimed, unable to take it in. “That’s not him! May Vraccas be my witness. That isn’t my Tungdil Goldhand!” He looked at Goda helplessly. “It’s not him,” he repeated, as if he were trying to convince himself. “It’s a hallucination—a specter sent to scare us.” As his despair turned to fury he raised his crow’s beak, powerful rage getting the better of him again like in the old days. He was not about to resist the urge. “I’m going to smash it to pieces!”

This time it was Goda’s turn to calm him. “No, Boïndil!” She faced him courageously, taking his face in her hands and staring into the brown eyes that flashed with madness and hot temper. “Hear my words, husband! This is not the time. We must get back to the fortress. Out here we’re…”

Her speech was swallowed by the crashing of the catapults. Stones, arrows and spears were hurtling from fortress platforms and battlements; they flew over the heads of ubariu and dwarves, darkening the winter sunlight and casting shadows on the handful of defenders by the gate, before finding their mark in the ravine.

Metallic clashes rang out as iron spears rained on shields or penetrated helmets and armor; then came the victims’ screams and the thud of missiles landing among the serried ranks of beasts. This was the very essence of battle, overlaid as it was with the intense smell of blood.

Goda knew this was only the beginning. Worse was to come. Soon the defending garrison would be adding their screams to the cacophony of death.

“Come with me,” she begged Ireheart, pressing a kiss on his brow as missiles flew overhead. Smoking firebrands were launched, hissing into the air to burst against the steep walls of the Black Abyss and drench the monsters and the raging kordrion with burning liquid.

Believing Boïndil’s spasm of fury had subsided, Goda slackened her grip, but he pushed her aside and raced over to the enemy lines with a bloodcurdling yell and the crow’s beak raised high.

For the dwarf-woman this was all too fast—she tumbled to the ground. “No!” she shouted in her fright, trying in vain to hold him back. She turned. “Yagur, after him! Keep him safe!” she commanded. Without a moment’s hesitation, the ubariu leader charged after the general to give backup; no easy task given the enemy’s superior numbers.

Goda got to her feet and gathered her magic power so that she could help her husband from a distance.

Ireheart wasn’t thinking anymore.

He was seeing his world through a blood-red mask and the only spot in the whole scene that he could clearly distinguish was the hideous phantom impersonating his best friend, Tungdil. He was not going to allow this vile infamy to persist. You must not be Tungdil! Not on their side!

The ringing in his ears masked the noise of battle. He was so overcome with the need to destroy the phantom and then to hurl himself on the opposing forces that he could no longer think clearly. It was too much for a warrior like himself, whose hot blood surged through his veins like molten rock through underground tunnels. And he did not even want to control himself.

Some of the spears and arrows landed near him, falling short of their intended targets. The soldiers at Evildam were sticking to the letter of their commander’s instructions, even if he himself was acting contrary to his own orders. He was seeking to engage the enemy on open ground instead of running for the fortress to repel the approaching army of beasts from the safety of the stronghold’s mighty walls.

Ireheart found himself less than ten paces away from the enemy. They hadn’t stirred from their positions and were waiting at the exit to the ravine.

Enemy reinforcements clambered out over the bodies of fallen comrades, putting out fires with sand and bone dust. As soon as one creature fell, another ghastly monster took its place. The chasm apparently held an endless number of them. It was a nest of horrors.

As far as Ireheart could see, they were keeping their distance from the false Tungdil figure, as if he were surrounded by an invisible dome of respect and awe. “Whatever you are, I’m going to wipe you out!” he yelled, and with an earsplitting cry of fury he swung the crow’s beak high over his head.

The two blue eyes on the underside of the kordrion’s muzzle focused on Ireheart for a moment and then turned on the black-armored form of Tungdil, who swiveled away from the fighting-mad Ireheart to face the gigantic monster, the runes on his armor glowing.

The kordrion screamed, and it sounded… afraid?

Before Boïndil could reach him, Tungdil had leaped forward onto one of the monsters’ corpses; he jumped onto another close by and used a thick spear jutting out of the body as a springboard to reach a position on top of a huge boulder. From there his path took him to the next boulder and the next until he had passed along to the head of the army as if on stepping stones in a stream. Now he was close to the kordrion’s throat. The cowering beast recoiled, hissing sharply.

Unable to hold back the blow he’d been waiting to deliver, Ireheart released it against one of the monsters racing toward him. This one seemed like a cross between an oversize reptile and a very fat orc, with the arms of a gnome stuck on to its sides. But it was still wielding a sword and shield with aplomb.

The flat head of the crow’s beak shattered both shield and thin arm holding it, then smashed right into the ribcage; the beast fell dead in the dust.

Ireheart held off his next adversaries by whirling his weapon round in circles, liberally dealing out injury and death among them. All the time he ensured that the supposed Tungdil remained in sight. He was steadfastly refusing to assume that it might yet be his battle companion from the past but his confidence was starting to fade. What in the name of Vraccas is he up to?

Suddenly Yagur and the other ubariu were at his side fighting evil’s misbegotten monsters, which in spite of their superior numbers seemed to be holding back, awaiting the order to storm the fortress en masse. Only a few of the creatures were venturing to attack and they paid with their lives. Some arrows, meanwhile, glanced off the huge shields the ubariu carried while others were halted in mid-air, falling ineffectually to the ground. Goda’s magic.

“We’ll have to go back, General,” Yagur insisted, as he sliced his opponent down the middle with a wild sword thrust; Yagur jabbed through the falling body to reach the next oncomer. The second ubariu patrol joined them, strengthening their numbers.

Ireheart looked up at the black-clad dwarf wielding Bloodthirster in both hands to attack the kordrion. The strangely shaped blade cut through the creature’s putrid grayish skin to release a river of blood.

The kordrion emitted a roar that shook Ireheart to the core and almost paralyzed him. The thunder of the creature’s mighty voice all but caused the work of battle to cease and the walls of the ravine shook under its reverberations.

Everything was still…

… apart from the dwarf in the dark tionium armor!

He clanged the visor on his helmet, not caring about the blood streaming over his head.

It is him after all! He was just waiting for the right moment to show us who he is! At the sight of the dwarf’s face Ireheart could no longer doubt this was his best friend returning at last to his side. He had missed him so badly. He wanted nothing more than to believe that this was Tungdil. The heroic and selfless conduct displayed in the assault on the kordrion was typical of the dwarf who had triumphed in the past in so many battles for Girdlegard. And there was probably a very good explanation to account for Tungdil’s completely different set of armor—armor that reminded Ireheart of Djerůn. Time for all that later. Now for the fight!

But when, next moment, Tungdil was bathed in the kordrion’s white fire and swallowed up by bright flames, Boïndil gave up the hero for lost. He knew exactly what those flames would do, even though his experience of them had been over two hundred and fifty cycles previously. Even if the tionium withstood the fire, the heat inside the armor would roast the wearer alive. He remembered finding the body of his twin brother…

“No!” Ireheart bellowed in despair, hacking through helmet and skull of another enemy with the curved end of the crow’s beak. There was a crack and then the sharp point appeared again through the breastbone under the throat. Boïndil hurled the creature to the ground, placing his right foot on its shoulders to pull the weapon back out through the ugly face. “Vraccas, don’t let me have found him only to lose him again so soon.”

The ball of fire spread and swelled to form a cloud in which a black shape could be seen. Tungdil seemed to have survived!

The black-armored dwarf had sunk onto one knee. He held Bloodthirster protecting his face, his other arm at his back. As the flames ebbed away he sprang up and stabbed at the lower eyes of the kordrion, taking it by surprise.

Tungdil managed to hit one of the eyes. It sounded like a leather wine pouch bursting.

Bluish liquid poured out, swiftly followed by a stream of dark-red blood. Veins and sinews tumbled out as thick as a man’s arm; more liquid fountained out of the wound and the creature convulsed with pain.

Ireheart couldn’t believe his eyes: Spraying blood from a gash in its side and the injury on its head, the kordrion was slinking back into the ravine!

The enormous feet squashed dozens of monsters, pressing them into the ground. Bodily juices squirted out in all directions. Then it was gone, leaving a wet trail on the rocks. A final flurry of arrows and spears accompanied it to its lair, then the stronghold catapults fell silent.

Quiet returned, so that the sound of the wind along the battlements and on the slopes of the Black Abyss—not heard amid the noise of battle—was loud in comparison.

Ireheart commanded the ubariu to watch the murky path down into the chasm while he stepped forward, lowering his blood-smeared crow’s beak.

He gestured to the armored dwarf to come down. “Show yourself, so that I may see if you are an old friend or a new enemy,” he called out. He could not control his excitement, but was yo-yoing between joy and suspicion, his belief that this might be his old companion not quite being enough in itself to convince him.

Trumpets blared from the battlements, the great gate was opened and an army of two hundred dwarves and under-groundlings issued out under Goda’s command. They took up their positions behind Ireheart and the ubariu and waited. Ready to fight.

The dwarf that was possibly Tungdil sprang down with remarkable agility, belying the weight of his armor, then ran along the stepping stones until he reached ground level. As he jumped down, a cloud of white dust rose, covering the black metal knee protectors. He held Bloodthirster in his right hand, with the blade resting up against his shoulder. Step by step he approached the band of warriors. The helmet stayed shut.

Boïndil gulped in apprehension, his throat dry. “Visor up!” he barked, his right hand flexing in readiness around the handle of the crow’s beak. The leather grip creaked. “I want to see your face by daylight.” Behind him the dwarves were raising their weapons, as the armored figure continued on his way, impervious to the command.

Now Ireheart could see the armor clearly. It was covered in runic signs and symbols he had never come across before.

A quick glance at Goda told him that the maga was equally bemused. She shook her head briefly, unable to interpret the meaning of the glimmering silver inlay or engravings any more than he could.

What bothered Boïndil was that there was no hint there of allegiance to Vraccas or of any dwarf origins, even if the suit of armor itself had unquestionably come from the hand of a child of the Smith: The work of a dwarf-master smith indeed.

Would Tungdil do that? Would he deny his own people? “Stand and show yourself!” he ordered resolutely, lifting his weapon. “If you are Tungdil Goldhand, show us your face. Otherwise…” Ireheart whirled his crow’s beak round his head “… otherwise I shall smash your face in still inside the helmet!”

The other dwarf stopped in his tracks. Legs wide apart in a supremely confident stance he faced the gathered force, then—in a movement that was neither hasty nor frightened—his left hand went slowly up to his helmet. Bit by bit the dark grating was soundlessly lifted.

Boïndil was breathless with anticipation, his heart pounding. Vraccas, let the miracle have happened! he begged, closing his eyes to make the prayer to his god more fervent still. It was all he could do to open them again in order to look at the face before him. Hearing Goda’s sharp intake of breath didn’t make things easier.

At last he dared open his eyes.

He saw a short brown beard surrounding the familiar features of a dwarf who had certainly aged. But this was a face he would have known among a thousand.

The left eye was hidden behind an engraved patch of pure gold held in place with gold thread. The remaining brown eye was focused steadily on Boïndil. In that gaze Ireheart saw curiosity, little joy and… something else he could not fathom.

Visible through the beard the lines around the mouth and nose had grown deeper and gave the dwarf’s face an authoritative air that many a dwarf-king would have envied. There was a scar running up the forehead from above the right eye and disappearing under the helmet—healed over, but very dark.

Ireheart gave a deep sigh. It definitely looked like his old friend standing before him once more. He took a step forward, but thought he could sense rejection from Tungdil.

“What sort of evidence do you want to prove I’m Tungdil Goldhand?” he asked, loosening the chin strap and tugging the helmet off the shock of shoulder-length brown hair. The scar on the brow went all the way up to the crown. Tungdil cast the helmet down on the ground and shook off a gauntlet to show the golden mark on his hand. “Touch it, if you like, Boïndil. It’s my everlasting souvenir from the battle for the throne of the high king, although I never really had a claim to it.” He stretched out his hand in challenge.

Ireheart passed his fingers across the yellow-gold spot on the palm, then looked enquiringly into Tungdil’s countenance.

The dwarf smiled and it was the old smile! The familiar smile he had so longed to see once more.

“Perhaps I should tell you how you tried to make me believe that the best way to seduce a dwarf-girl was to rub them from head to toe in stinky cheese?” He leaned forward with a wink. “I never used the method. Did you need it with Goda?”

The maga laughed out loud.

“So it’s really you!” exclaimed Ireheart. He dropped the crow’s beak, and pulled Tungdil into his open arms. “By Vraccas, it’s really you!” he exclaimed, his eyes stinging with tears. Nothing could stop the flood of emotion. Such was his joy as he hugged Tungdil that he failed to notice the embrace was not being returned.

Tearing himself loose from Tungdil, Boïndil turned to the dwarves watching him with bated breath. “See!” he called enthusiastically, raising his head so that his words might carry to the battlements at Evildam. “See, our hero has returned! Girdlegard will soon be free of the yoke of manifold evil!” He tapped the black armor. “Ho, Lohasbrand, Lot-Ionan and all the rest of Tion’s cursed issue; expect no mercy now—there’s no escape for you!”

Goda was radiant and wiped tears of joy and relief from her eyes. The dwarf-warriors behind her stared in deepest respect at the hero most knew only from hearsay. A legendary figure had returned to them and had, moreover, just seen off the most terrifying monster ever to emerge from the Black Abyss.

The garrison at the fortress had heard Boïndil’s announcement. Drums and trumpets filled the air, heralding the news through a special melody composed specifically in anticipation of the long-awaited orbit when Tungdil would return. All should learn that the day had come.

Ireheart grinned: “I can imagine some will be thinking the trumpeters have got the fanfare wrong and were intending to send out quite a different set of orders.” He thumped Tungdil heartily on the shoulder and couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. “Let’s go into the fortress and forget about the Black Abyss for now. It’s time to bid you properly welcome. You’ll have to tell us what you’ve been up to, all these long, long cycles. And we’ll have a lot to fill you in on, too.” He bent down to pick up Tungdil’s helmet and gauntlet. Looking him straight in the eye, he told him, “You’ve no idea how happy I am to see you, Scholar.”

Tungdil took his things and half turned, still watching the Black Abyss. “They’ll be back, you know, Ireheart. I took the kordrion by surprise; as soon as its wounds are healed it’ll come creeping out of its hiding place again. And word will soon get around that the barrier has lost its strength. The monsters will form an army and break out again…”

Boïndil pointed up at the massive walls of the stronghold. “That’s why we’ve got the fortress and why we called it Evildam,” he interrupted. “They won’t escape, not a single ugly one of them. And we’ll spike the kordrion all over with our heaviest spears till it looks like a hedgehog and collapses, dead.” He looked over proudly to Goda. “She is now a maga. Our strongest weapon.”

The dwarf-woman had taken a step forward and Tungdil observed her with a strange look in his eye. “You will need her,” he said quietly, looking back at the cleft in the rocks.

Ireheart smiled. “We are more than confident, Scholar. Now you are with us again, nothing can frighten the children of the Smith.” He set off, and the crowd of ubariu, under-groundlings and dwarf-warriors drew back to form a guard of honor to let them pass.

Goda stared at Tungdil as he passed. She had the impression that he didn’t recognize her. His one brown eye had shown no reaction when he had looked her way. And he never once asked about Sirka, she said to herself, her face clouding over. Even if her husband was a pushover, bathed in joy and nostalgia as he was, she was going to be harder to convince. Suspicion had taken hold in her mind.

Goda followed them and the warriors stood guard while they withdrew into the stronghold behind the mighty doors. In the coming orbits, she decided, she would subject this dwarf, whom everyone seemingly held to be Tungdil Goldhand, to closer examination. Even as they entered the fortress to the accompaniment of triumphant fanfares and the acclaim of the troops, she was busy thinking up questions, because if the evil had sent them a false Tungdil there was unquestionably something terrible in store for them all.

Keeping her eyes on Tungdil’s suit of black armor with the mysterious engravings, the dwarf-maga became more and more sure with every step she took that this was not their old friend they were welcoming here. They were letting evil into their midst and were celebrating its arrival!

She looked right and left and up to the towers, where shouts of wild rejoicing could be heard, loud enough to prevent any conversation.

Goda realized she seemed to be the only one in the fortress worried about this Tungdil figure. All the rest were in ecstasy because—despite his not having spoken a single word to them—they were convinced their long-awaited champion had returned to rid them of the evil.

She sighed, and her gaze drifted over to where Yagur, the ubariu leader, stood—and she recognized a similar concern on his face.

Girdlegard,

Former Queendom of Weyurn,

Mifurdania,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

“And here, highly esteemed spectators, here at my left at the end, we have another legitimate descendant of the unique, incomparable and, for countless decades, never bettered, Incredible Rodario!” announced the man in opulent white attire standing on the same stage that normally saw service for executions. If you looked carefully you could still see the odd tuft of hair stuck in dried blood in the notches on the block. Nobody minded.

Or rather, nobody was allowed to mind.

There was not an inch of space in the square in front of the theater known as the New Curiosum. The covered tribune for the nobles and rich merchants or other privileged burghers was also filled to capacity.

Only the tribune’s first row, reserved for selected notables, was still empty. Such dignitaries seldom if ever came to lighthearted events like this, preferring public beheadings, and the punishments and humiliation ordeals usually meted out here.

A pretty young woman sat in the second row. She had bright tawny orange eyes and, covered by a flimsy veil, beautiful black hair reaching down to her waist. She wore a mantle of black wolf fur wrapped round her and held a cup of mulled wine.

Round the edges of the square, stalls were selling various comestibles ranging from hot sausages and sliced pork to waffles and sweet chestnuts in cream. If anyone was cold they could grab a warm beer or a hot mug of wine, served with honey or spiced to taste. White clouds of steam rose from the many stoves in the market booths and there was music and song coming from the inn.

The young woman smiled as she inhaled all these smells. At last there was a reason to be cheerful, rare enough in these times of occupation by Lohasbrand and his henchmen.

“Is there anything else you’d like, Princess Coïra?” asked her companion, who was of an age to have been perhaps a brother. Under his open brown fur coat he wore leather armor, and a short sword hung at his side. His hair was hidden by a flat padded woolen cap that gave him a harmless appearance. That was the intention.

“Yes, I’d like you not to use that title,” she hissed, flashing her eyes in reproach. “You know what they’ll do to you if they hear you addressing me like that, Loytan.”

Her companion scanned the empty front bench. “There’s nobody here to take me to task for speaking the truth,” he answered quietly but firmly. “You are the princess and your mother would be queen of Weyurn but for the accursed Dragon…”

Coïra placed her hand over his mouth. “Be quiet! You’re risking your life, talking like that! They have eyes and ears everywhere!”

In her mind she could see her mother, imprisoned in her own palace, the Ring of Shame around her neck. Every hour of the orbit she was watched, humiliated and robbed of her authority. If the Dragon decided she should die, his servants would pull the ring tight to strangle her slowly until she suffocated. The princess sighed. “Look at the stage and enjoy what the Incredible Rodario’s descendants have to offer us this time, when they choose their best competitor.”

Loytan smiled obediently and turned toward the stage.

The master of ceremonies was pointing his cane to the end of the line. There were no less than eleven men and six women this cycle.

They were all dressed in showy and extravagantly tailored garments. The fabrics chosen were, one and all, scintillating and amazingly brightly colored. And yet the clothes had been selected in each case—coats, dresses, hats and boots—expressly to make each competitor stand out from the others.

The only one who didn’t conform to type was the fellow at the end of the line.

He was the only one the tailor had provided with togs that didn’t fit. Or perhaps he was standing so poorly that everything he wore seemed to crease and sag in the wrong places.

As appropriate for a descendant of the Incredible Rodario, he had brown hair, worn to his shoulders, and a good bone structure, but his cheeks were rather plump and this detracted from the promise of aristocratic features. The goatee beard, a distinctive mark of the original Incredible Rodario, founder of whole dynasties of renowned actors in many regions of Girdlegard, was disappointingly wispy and badly groomed.

“He calls himself—and I admit it’s one of the more predictable choices—Rodario the Seventh! Applause, if you will!” The master of ceremonies raised his arms to encourage the audience, but the clapping was sporadic and died away quickly.

“By all the gods,” said Loytan, amused. “What a miserable figure he makes in the midst of all those peacocks! He won’t even get a consolation prize.”

“I think it’s… quite clever,” Coïra said in defense. She felt some sympathy for this particular descendant of Rodario. He bore a certain tragic charm. “He’s… different.”

“He’s definitely different.” Loytan laughed out loud.” In my opinion he’ll be the first of the last again. Shall we have a bet, Princess?” He smiled at her happily, then something caught his eye just past her and his expression lost its merriment.

A broad shadow fell over them; Coïra swirled round in fear.

Behind them, four of the Lohasbrander henchmen had entered the tribune unnoticed and were making their way to the first row. They had heavy armor hung with discs of metal under their cloaks and their helmets were in the form of a dragon with folded wings. Each wore an amulet on a silver chain—a dark-green dragon scale, the sign of undisputed power in Weyurn. Thus they outranked all except for their master.

Coïra leaned forward searching the crowd in the square until she located the orcs. They belonged to the Lohasbranders and were their devoted servants. There they were, hanging out in one of the side streets, stuffing their faces. Because of the cold, the meat they were eating was steaming. Coïra didn’t want to know whether it was freshly stewed or just very fresh.

The man at the front grinned at Loytan. He was fat and muscular at the same time; his broad face sported a light blond beard. “Did I just hear you say something you’d better have left unsaid? You know the law, Count Loytan of Loytansberg. It holds even for nobility like yourself. Or especially for nobility like yourself.” He gathered a mouthful of saliva and spat at the young man. “But I’ll overlook it for now. I don’t want to spoil the atmosphere.” He thumped down the steps to take his place straight in front, so that his helmet spoiled Loytan’s view of the stage. “I recommend that you are no longer there when I get up to go. If you’re still there I shall be implementing the orders of Master Lohasbrand.” His comrades laughed as they took their seats.

“Here comes the first round, ladies and gentlemen. You love this part of the contest,” announced the man in white. “It’s the quick-fire slander session that starts here in Mifurdania, where the Incredible Rodario had his theater for so long.” He surveyed the audience, hands on hips. “I can see from quite a few of your faces that your great-grannies used to enjoy going to the Curiosum, but going backstage, of course, I mean.”

The crowd loved it.

Coïra restrained Loytan’s hand, which had wandered to the sword at his belt. “Don’t,” she whispered urgently.

He was shaking with anger. “But…”

“You might get him, but the orcs will finish off your entire family. The Dragon will punish everyone, not just the individual—have you forgotten that?” Coïra took her handkerchief to remove the globule of green spit from Loytan’s face, but he turned aside and wiped it on his own sleeve.

“One day nothing will save him from me,” Loytan growled.

The woman released her hold. The danger was over for the moment. “Leave rebellion to others,” she said quietly. “To those who don’t have families.”

He turned his eyes to the stage again. “You mean leave it to that cowardly rhymester?”

“He’s a proper poet, not just a ballad writer, and he’s certainly not cowardly. The writings he puts on Weyurn’s doors at night have done more to change things than any sword or arrow.” Coïra had noted the jealousy in Loytan’s voice, but it was quite unfounded. Loytan already had a wife of his own and Coïra regarded him more as a big brother and protector. She had so far not met anyone to whom she could give her heart and her innocence.

“What he writes brings only death to those that read and follow it,” Loytan retorted promptly. “I can see the tufts of hair stuck in the blood. The poor wretches had their heads cut off for demanding freedom for the kingdom and for your mother.”

“One more word from you, Loytansberg,” threatened the Lohasbrander in front of them, “and you’ll be the next candidate for the block. Enough of your stupid nonsense. Keep your mouth shut or I’ll make sure you never open it again.” His comrades laughed.

Loytan snorted and grabbed his cup of wine, drowning his response in it.

The master of ceremonies continued, “So let the proceedings commence and let the insults fly. Sons and daughters of Rodario, let’s hear what you’re capable of.”

A young woman was the first to take the stage. She’d stuck on a large mustache and goatee beard, and stepped to the front with an exaggeratedly masculine gait. Standing there, she stroked her artificial facial hair and tapped herself proudly on the codpiece. Her gestures took a rise out of all the men and the audience roared with laughter.

Abruptly she tore off the false beard. “Oh, trapping of man’s vanity—away with you!” she cried. “I’m Ladenia and I’m a woman, as you can plainly see, but I’ll be more of a man than the rest of you!” With an impudent grin on her face she walked along past the other Rodarios until she reached The Incomparable One. “They told me you wanted the title and had the best chance because you were so good-looking.” She emphasized the word and fluttered her lashes, “Because you are so clever” (here she placed her hand at her own brow) “and because you sleep with most of the women in the town and they’ll all be voting for you.” She laughed. “But I can see more men than women in the audience: I was better than you!”

The crowd yelled out and laughed.

“You all know the joke about the orc asking the dwarf for directions, but I know one that’s much funnier,” Ladenia told them. “How many of these useless Rodarios does it take to lift up an orc?”

The Lohasbrander leaned forward expectantly, his left hand raised.

Coïra looked over to where the greenskins were standing. They’d stopped chewing and had drawn their weapons. There was a catastrophe about to happen. As soon as the Lohasbrander completed the signal he was giving they would come charging across the square and put a stop to the show. Just because of a single joke. Ladenia had no idea what she was doing.

“So, what do you think?” continued the woman on the stage. “What’s the matter? Does nobody dare to say?”

Coïra was trying to think how she could distract the Lohasbranders without putting herself in danger. It would be difficult because the Dragon’s men would be delighted to have an opportunity to arrest the daughter of the rightful sovereign.

She was opening her mouth to say something harmless, when Ladenia supplied the punch line. “I’ll tell you then: five. Four to hold him fast and one to dig a hole, because otherwise you couldn’t get the orc’s feet off the ground. None of the weaklings would be able to take the weight.”

Coïra saw the corner of the Lohasbrander’s mouth twitch. He dropped his arm. It wasn’t an insult that had to be punished. It wasn’t even a good joke.

Ladenia realized this herself when a leaden silence fell over the audience. She hastily executed a few nifty dancing steps, circled round and then sang a song until the announcer came up and pushed her back.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve seen that at least this female descendant of the great man can’t hold out much hope of the title,” he said, laughing at her performance. “She’s shown us there’s not much difference between singing and pain.”

The man earned laughter for his cutting words and he invited the next contestant to step forward.

One after another they took the floor, launching viciously satirical attacks on their fellow contenders for the title of “Worthiest Successor of the Incredible Rodario,” the most scurrilous contributions being greeted with uproarious applause; only three contestants attempted black humor or even wit, and they did not go down so well with the audience.

Coïra followed what was happening on stage, but kept her eye on the orcs and the Lohasbranders at the same time. She would have liked to be able to enjoy the performances, but the presence of the hated occupying forces spoiled any pleasure she might have taken. As long as she could remember, they had always been there in the background, the ones who served the Dragon.

She had never seen the Dragon itself, but she’d noted the fear in the faces of the oldest inhabitants of Weyurn when the subject of the winged monster came up. When it first appeared in Weyurn two hundred and fifty cycles ago, the Dragon had laid waste to the kingdom with his white fire and had forced the queen to leave her throne. Wey the Fifth had subjected herself to the Dragon’s rule, not out of cowardice but in order to protect her people.

After that it had been the orcs, the Dragon’s henchmen, who had come to keep watch on activities in the provinces on his behalf. Humans, too, had turned up, willing to serve the Scaly One. These humans gave rise to the present day Lohasbranders, Weyurn’s nobility, devoid of decency or dignity.

Coïra knew that Lohasbrand was intent on taking over the rest of Girdlegard, in order to fill its legendary hoard in the Red Mountains with yet more treasures, but there were too many rivals. Rumor had it that the four enemies had agreed an armistice, but she didn’t think this would be long-lasting. Lohasbrand had extended his sphere of influence until he came up against Lot-Ionan and the kordrion. He’d be sure to make a further attempt soon. She reckoned that was why the guards holding her mother had seemed particularly nervous recently.

Coïra craned her neck to watch the guy calling himself The Incomparable: A good-looking man of about twenty cycles, and the spitting image of the original Rodario, judging from pictures. “He ought to win,” she told Loytan. “He’s got style.”

“And absolutely no chance of success,” he cut in. “Don’t you hear what the plebs are calling for? They want mockery and spite, not clever words and convoluted sentences where you can never tell where the meaning is going.”

Coïra leaned forward in her seat to have a closer look at the actor of her choice. “Where’s he from?”

Loytan consulted one of the flyers that had been handed out. “Here we are, Rodario the Incomparable. He’s from the next-door kingdom of Tabaîn. He apparently runs a theater there and appears in Gauragar and Idoslane on tour.” He looked at the man. “Good figure of a man. For an actor.”

That was exactly what Coïra was thinking. In her imagination he was taking on the persona of the unknown poet who held the occupying forces up to ridicule and scorn and was encouraging the people of Mifurdania to rebel against the Dragon and the Lohasbranders, reminding them there had been a time when their nation had not been oppressed and forced to pay tribute in this way. And he gave them hope for a future in which they would again be free of fear.

He represented a danger to the Lohasbranders and the orcs. He was held to be responsible for at least thirteen killings. It was not just a sharp tongue he wielded.

The Incomparable One from Tabaîn exactly fitted her idea of the unknown poet, on whose head a price was set—a price large enough to keep a hundred Weyurn citizens in comfort until the end of their days; be that as it may, no one had tried to denounce him to the Dragon yet.

Now it was the turn of Rodario the Seventh to win over the crowd with his ready wit. But the very way he moved when he stepped to the front of the stage was enough to tell the audience this was going to be embarrassing. Horribly embarrassing.

“Oy, lad,” someone called out. “Hope you’ve rehearsed a bit this time, or we’ll have you back in the tar barrel and cover you with sawdust!”

“Or dunk you in the privy,” came a second voice. “Then at least you’ll be the champion when it comes to stinking.”

The people laughed and the hecklers were applauded. The white-clad master of ceremonies called for quiet. “Let him make a fool of himself without being interrupted, ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a smirk. “At least he has shown us every cycle so far that he’s really good at that.” He pointed at the Seventh Rodario with his cane. “We’re waiting!”

Coïra hoped for his sake for some distraction to prevent him starting his performance. A lightning strike, a snowstorm, even maybe a house catching fire. She looked at Loytan, who grinned and stood up in order to hear better and see over the Lohasbrander’s helmet.

“Behold the handsome Uncompared…” he started with a quivering voice, and the audience in the front row were chortling already.

“Excuse me, but the name is The Incomparable,” corrected the man himself. His interruption was friendly but assured. “Start again.”

The Seventh Rodario cleared his throat but sounded more like a woman than a man when he spoke. “Behold the handsome Incomparable,” he said, addressing his rival, who gave him a friendly wave and made a winding-up gesture to indicate he should speed up. However, The Seventh suddenly lost all the color from his cheeks. “But like that it won’t rhyme with the next line,” he said, horrified. He scratched his beard feverishly. “What shall I do?”

The audience were in stitches.

Coïra sighed and pitied his senseless courage. He’d be leaving the competition in humiliation and disgrace—and next cycle he’d be on stage again.

Rodario the Seventh went red. The laughter brought him to his senses and he clenched his fists. “There he stands, all long and tall,” he shouted above the noise of the throng. “But he’ll be feeling ever so small. When he sees my act. And that’s a fact.” He gave a hurried bow to the audience and stepped back to join the other contestants.

Loytan looked at Coïra and laughed. “Was that it? That can’t have been the whole performance?”

“I think maybe it was.” She looked at her hero, The Incomparable One, who was grinning to himself. He was enjoying his victory quietly, not making a triumph out of it. This endeared him to her even more. She was surprised to find her heart beating wildly when she looked at him.

People started chucking rotten vegetables and snowballs at Rodario the Seventh. He put up with it just like he endured the catcalls and abuse.

The Incomparable stepped forward unexpectedly and raised his arms. “Stop that!” he ordered the crowd. “He doesn’t deserve to be treated like that. He may not be a word-acrobat and he may not be the best-looking, but he’s still a descendant of the great man himself. Same as me.”

“Are you sure of that?” yelled a woman.

The Incomparable had made her out straightaway and pointed. “Who are you to poke fun at him?” he rebuked her. He no longer had a genial air about him. “You can’t even read or write, can you?”

“It’s enough if I can see and hear this idiot!” she countered. Her response was greeted with renewed laughter.

Rodario looked at his defender, who was just about to make a barbed retort. “Let it go,” he said, smiling sadly. “She’s right, after all.” He brushed the rotten lettuce leaves from his shoulders onto the floor, and shook the bits of ice out of his hair. “I’m as bad at this as ever.”

“Stand tall, you’re a descendant of the Incredible Rodario!” said The Incomparable. In a dramatic gesture he whirled around, swinging his wide mantle effectively—and as he did so some papers fell out onto the ground.

Most came to rest on the stage, but a couple were caught by a gust of wind and wafted out of reach before the actor could grab them.

The same gust blew one of the papers over the heads and outstretched fingers of the excited mob toward the tribune, where it fell directly into Coïra’s hands.

The first line alone, in its extravagant handwriting, was enough for the young woman to know that her wishes had become reality. The text began: “Citizens of Mifurdania, stand up to the evil that comes from the mountains!”

An armored gauntlet grabbed at the paper; the Lohasbrander had snatched it out of her grasp. “Read it out,” he told his comrade, passing him the leaflet. “I want to know what else The Incomparable has prepared in the way of speechifying.”

Coïra looked at Loytan, who understood immediately that what was written on the paper was not harmless scribble.

It seemed even the second Lohasbrander wasn’t able to decipher the words.

“Perhaps I can help?” Coïra offered her services in a flash of inspiration.

The leader of the Lohasbrander turned to his companion, retrieved the paper and handed it back to the young woman. “What does it say?”

Coïra pretended to be reading out the text, inventing some trivial speech sufficiently poor for the Lohasbrander not to want to hear it again from the actor’s mouth.

Hardly had she finished speaking when the Lohasbrander turned back toward the stage. “Load of rubbish,” he said. “No better than La… what’s her name, that girl, earlier. Stupid competition.”

Coïra looked at The Incomparable Rodario, took the paper and folded it carefully. The actor made a deep bow. He didn’t know exactly what she had done, but as the armored men had not leaped on to the stage to arrest him and cut off his head, he assumed she had lied to save his skin.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that was the first part of our entertainment,” announced the master of ceremonies. “A ballot of rotten vegetables and snowballs has decided that Rodario the Seventh will not be taking part in any further competitions. He has withdrawn with dignity. That’s good news for Ladenia, the mistress of Un-wit.” The audience laughed again. The man in white jumped down from the dais and walked over to the Seventh Rodario to congratulate him on withdrawing from the contest. He took out a dried flower from under his coat and handed it to him. “Here, for you, a stink-rose.”

“He’ll have a whole bouquet of those at home!” joked one of the audience. “He can put them in…”

“Am I the master of ceremonies or is it you, Big Mouth? That’s enough now!” The announcer cut the heckler short, waving his cane. “Tomorrow we have performances in the New Curiosum and you can get your tickets at the stall on the square.” He bowed and was applauded for the way he had run the contest. He thanked the audience with a series of theatrical bows.

Rodario the Seventh stood next to the steps looking rather lost with his dried flower. Studying it sadly, he failed to see members of the audience moving bad-temperedly out of the way to make room for a troop of orcs moving over through the market square. Twenty of them surrounded the stage, and four climbed up.

Anyone acquainted with the history of the orcs in Girdlegard would have been surprised to see these particular specimens. The difference in their appearance, it was said, came from the fact that they were from the western part of the Outer Lands and had always been followers of Lohasbrand.

Their height was impressive, and though the ugly shape and greenish-black skin characteristic of orcs showed no change, they certainly didn’t stink the way others did. They looked after their weapons better than in the past and didn’t go about the place yelling and grunting. They were clever and behaved sensibly—all of which made these Dragon-serving monsters much more dangerous.

They clanked and stomped their way over the boards and their captain positioned himself face to face with The Incomparable One. Coïra was horrified to see that he was holding one of the papers in his hand.

“Damnation,” Loytan cursed under his breath. “Your trick nearly worked, Princess.” He placed one hand on the pommel of his sword and with the other took her by the elbow. “Time for us to leave.”

Coïra was about to object. “I…”

“You told lies for the man,” he whispered to her. “What do you think the Lohasbrander will do to you when he realizes? The Dragon has been waiting for an opportunity like this!”

She turned pale and got up cautiously from her seat. Loytan did likewise and followed her to cover her back.

The leader of the Lohasbranders had got up and was looking at the stage. “What’s that, Pashbar?”

The orc held up the paper in his fist. “A scurrilous leaflet in this man’s writing; this criminal who calls himself the Poet of Freedom.” He pulled out his shining jagged-edged sword and placed the blade at The Incomparable One’s throat. “It came from him. Everyone saw it.”

“What?” The Lohasbrander looked over his shoulder for Coïra but saw she had left. “So that’s it!” He drew his sword from its scabbard. “Arrest the actor and throw him in prison. And find the queen’s daughter! She tried to protect him!”

“But…” The comrade on his right was unsure. “She’s a maga, they say, just like her mother, and I…”

“I don’t care what she is,” he shouted furiously. “Find her! And if you can’t catch her, then kill her. The fact that she’s run off is proof enough of her guilt. She and that criminal are in cahoots.” He ran down the steps of the tribune and rushed through the throng with his companions.

The Incomparable Rodario did not dare to move. The sharp blade was too close to his throat, so he had to allow himself to be taken captive. The orcs tied his arms behind his back while their captain stared at him intently.

“So it was you ambushing and killing our soldiers,” growled Pashbar, baring his fearful teeth. “I shall ask Wielgar to let me eat you alive, so I can hear you scream at each bite.”

The Incomparable One wasn’t intimidated. He smiled and allowed the orcs to lead him away.

It had grown eerily quiet in the market square.

As The Incomparable One passed Rodario the Seventh he turned his head and said, “Stand tall, my friend. That’s what’s important, whatever you do. Never forget that. Next competition you’ll make the grade.” Pashbar gave him a shove and he moved on.

Nobody could remember a cycle when two contestants pulled out of the competition within minutes of each other.

And certainly not under circumstances such as these.

II

Girdlegard,

Protectorate of Northwest Idoslane,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

The squad of black ponies was well known in Idoslane’s northwest province and their one hundred and fifty riders were known even better: The Desirers. These armored and helmeted dwarves were associated only with loss and pain in the minds of the inhabitants. The residents of Hangtower, the small town the band was heading for, were no exception.

The name of the unit had no romantic connotations. It had purely practical origins: Whatever they desired, they had to have; no ifs, no buts.

The watchtower bell sounded the alarm and Enslin Rotha, the burgomaster, hurried over accompanied by the town’s leading citizens to receive the dwarf-squad at the main gate. News of their approach had interrupted Rotha’s siesta, so he had hurriedly flung a mantle of rough sheep’s wool over his disordered clothing. He was not concerned with appearances.

“They’re too early,” he murmured, waiting for his fellow councilors to join him before the gate was opened up.

He signaled for the wagon with the tribute to be brought over and positioned himself in front of it. That way the dwarves would be assured at first glance that their tribute was going to be paid, but he could discourage them from actually entering the town.

In spite of the chill, Rotha was starting to sweat. Recent winters had been colder than ever. He saw it as a sign of how badly things were going for the peoples of Girdlegard, although, as the protectorate of the thirdling dwarves, Hangtower had got away comparatively lightly. The regions in Gauragar where the älfar held sway or where they had delegated authority to power-hungry despots were in a more parlous position, it was said. Rotha had no reason to doubt the truth of such rumors. In all probability the details of cruel treatment were spot on.

One of the councilors, Tilda Cooperstone, a long-standing close friend, joined him. She was as tall as he was, with blond hair peeking out from under her cap; her green eyes were full of concern. As were his own. “They’re much too early,” she nodded over to him, pulling the belt of her white bearskin coat tight and putting the collar up.

“My thoughts exactly,” replied Rotha, wiping his brow. It was fear, fear pure and simple, that was making him sweat. It was a wonder the perspiration wasn’t turning to drops of ice.

Cooperstone’s face grew more worried still. “We haven’t done anything wrong, have we?”

Rotha shook his head. “No. All the time I’ve been burgo-master we’ve complied with the thirdlings’ demands. To the letter.” He raised his arm and the gate was pushed open. A cold wind blew in, finding any gaps in their clothing and making them all shiver.

When the gate was fully open they could see the squadron of thirdlings less than one hundred paces off. And this time they were accompanied.

“The älfar!” Cooperstone exclaimed. The black armor of the three tall riders contrasted sharply with the white of the falling snow. Each time a night-mare hoof hit the ground, sparks flew, making the whiteness fizz and disappear.

The älf on the left held a lance bearing a pennant showing a strange rune. The sight of the blood-red symbol fluttering in the wind chilled Cooperstone to the core, though she could not have said why. Terror made not flesh, but fabric.

“Did you think the alarm was sounded for fun?” Rotha bit his lip. The tension was making him behave unfairly toward her. “Forgive…”

She smiled at him. It was a wavering smile. “You are forgiven, Burgomaster.” Cooperstone watched the rest of the councilors take up position behind them. “I saw my last älf about…” she did calculations in her head “… fourteen cycles ago. When they introduced the new squadron commander.”

“I wouldn’t mind if it were something like that,” grumbled Rotha, trying to identify the thirdling riding at the front. “But I don’t think that’s the reason. Their leader is still Hargorin Deathbringer.” The faces of the älfar told him nothing; they were handsome, perfect, narrow, beardless—and cruel. Like all their kind.

The eye sockets seemed empty. That was the distinguishing feature when comparing them with their friendly relations, the elves. In daylight the whites of the eyes turned black as night. They couldn’t conceal that.

He lifted his head and looked at the gate-watchmen. “None of you is to raise a weapon against the älfar,” he called. “Or against the dwarves, either, whatever they do to me or the other councilors.”

The soldiers saluted.

Cooperstone, still looking shocked, studied the burgo-master’s face. “You think they want to harm us?”

“They’d be the first älfar ever to bring us anything good,” he responded. The more the sweat dripped off his forehead or ran down under his clothing, the drier his mouth became. “Let them take us to task for whatever they think we’ve done wrong, as long as they spare the citizens.”

“Very high-minded. But many think we should be fighting for the cause of freedom,” the councilor said quietly, because the leader of the band was close now.

“Stop that. I’ve heard enough!” Rotha stared at her. “You know my views. We would have no chance at all against a hundred and fifty, and even if we did—what then?” He sighed and bowed his head to the rulers of East Idoslane. “They’d send out the next lot and Hangtower would never survive. Freedom isn’t worth it. Those who won’t serve should get out or commit suicide and not force their ideas of heroic death on others.”

Cooperstone gritted her teeth and bowed to the thirdlings and the älfar, who had brought their night-mare mounts to a halt four paces away; in this position she could no longer see what was happening.

Leather creaked, harnesses clinked, the ponies snorted. Sometimes you could hear the rattle of chain mail under the warriors’ black furs.

But neither the älfar nor Hargorin addressed the councilors. And until they did so, the latter were not allowed to raise their heads.

Rotha and Cooperstone heard someone dismount, landing heavily. There was the sound of crunching snow and then regular footsteps approached, announced by the rhythmic clink of metal.

The burgomaster saw iron-tipped boots the right size for a thirdling. And, anyway, everyone said the älfar made no noise when they walked and left no footprints. One of their many scary tricks. He was sweating even more heavily now; the silence was wearing him down and grating on his nerves more harshly than any yells or accusations.

A weapon was drawn slowly, then something swished through the air. To the right next to him there came a grinding sound followed by a gasp.

There was another swipe and blood poured down onto the fresh white snow. The head of Councilor Cooperstone rolled between his feet and Rotha cried out in horror. At the same moment the decapitated body of the woman crashed full length to the ground.

He could hold back no longer, he had to look up.

Hargorin Deathbringer, a dwarf of impressive stature, had thrown back his mantle to take better aim. In his right hand he held a long-handled hatchet whose blade was covered in blood. His chain-mail tunic with its metal discs was splashed now with red, and the tattooed visage and black-streaked tawny beard had blood spatters, too.

The reddish-brown eyebrows joined in a scowl as the dwarf noticed Rotha. “Who said you could raise your eyes?” he barked.

The burgomaster opened his mouth to speak, but words failed him. He saw that the saddles of the night-mares were empty. There were no footprints around where these brutalized former unicorns were standing. So it was true what they said! Meanwhile, the pennant with the cruel but fascinatingly beautiful runes flapped from the pole attached to the saddle.

“Let him off, Hargorin,” said a soft voice next to his left ear, and Rotha jumped. The breath that had wafted past his nose had smelled of nothing, nothing at all. “A weak human! Loss and fear have robbed him of his senses and are making him stupid.”

Rotha was about to turn but his legs would not obey him. The älf had moved behind him soundlessly and the gods alone knew where the other two had got to.

Hargorin wiped his hatchet clean on the dead woman’s clothes. “If you insist, Tirîgon,” he said, crossing his arms. “He’ll want to know why I took the councilor’s life. You tell him. It was on your orders.”

“She was guilty,” the voice whispered into Rotha’s ear. It sounded like it was a different speaker this time. “Cooperstone was in league with a condemned murderess and revolutionary. Stupidly, she was related to her as well. Foolish indeed!”

“A fairly far-flung family relationship, though,” said one of the älfar, and this time Rotha thought it must be the third of them, speaking on his left side. “Did you not know, perhaps, wretched human?” Rotha croaked out a No and stared at Cooperstone’s head. One eyelid hung down and the dead woman’s final gaze seemed to be intended for him. He carefully covered it with snow. He couldn’t bear the sight of his murdered friend.

Hargorin gruffly told the assembled Hangtower notables that they could lift their heads. “I see the tribute is ready. Good. We expect nothing less of Hangtower.” He put the hatchet back in its holder on his back and then gave a sign; five dwarves dismounted and came to join him as he approached the wagon. They inspected the chests and sacks filled with coins and gold bars.

Rotha finally managed to stop himself shaking and turned around. The älfar were standing in the gateway, talking. He saw they were two males and a female, but could not begin to guess their ages. If they had been humans, he’d have said not more than seventeen cycles, but they were certainly more mature than that.

What struck him was the similarity of their faces. The burgomaster assumed they were siblings. The female älf was robbed of any feminine attributes by her armor; your attention was drawn to her fascinatingly graceful, balanced features. Any male opponent would immediately be distracted by the sight of her—and would meet his death at her hands.

The älfar carried long slender swords on their backs. Rotha noted the solid parrying staves that stuck out, right and left; double-bladed daggers were fastened on their thighs. Their armor had a metal reinforcing band running the length of the spine. One of the men had a store of metal discs the size of the palm of a hand just above the buttocks; the woman had the same, attached to her upper arms. Perhaps for throwing?

The female älf came away from the group and approached him with a disarming smile that seemed reassuring—until he saw the black eye sockets. Any admiration for her beauty turned to fear.

“Firûsha is my name,” she introduced herself in melodious tones. Rotha bowed to her again, as if she were a queen. If you thought about it, that’s just what she was, for him. She decided who should live and who should die. She decided whether the town should perish or thrive. “There is a task. It is not aimed at Hangtower and its citizens but, all the same, if anyone should stand in our way, be he courageous or simply foolhardy, then the town will not survive to see the morrow.” Firûsha’s voice had remained friendly. “We wish to be taken to the family of the woman councilor, as quickly as possible. You will take us there, weak man.”

Rotha gulped and choked. His throat was more constricted than the eye of a needle. “What—”

“No, burgomaster. Not what,” she interrupted him kindly, and placed her gloved forefinger on his lips. “Where. Take us there. Hargorin and his soldiers will carry the tribute away now.” She brushed the cap from off his head and stroked his brown hair. “You only need to be afraid if you don’t follow my instructions.”

Hargorin had swung himself up onto the driving seat and was driving the wagon out through the gate. One of the älfar mouthed something and the thirdling nodded. He left the town, the escort squadron stand surrounding him, and the dwarves moved slowly off.

The three night-mares stood snorting outside the gate, their red eyes fixed on the sentries. Now and then they would run their tongues across their muzzles, displaying vicious incisors.

The men drew back. No one wanted to risk being bitten or even torn to pieces. There were terrible stories about these älfar mounts. It was said they ate humans alive if they took the fancy. And that was one of the relatively harmless fates reported.

Meanwhile Rotha strode ahead, acting as guide for the älfar triplets. All the time he was thinking of how he could perhaps help the councilor’s family without getting anyone into trouble. It was a decent family: A big one.

“She has three daughters and two sons,” said Firûsha, as if she had read his thoughts. “Her mother lives with them. And her half-sister; that’s right, isn’t it?”

Distressed, Rotha nodded. There were no secrets. The only thing he could do was to stretch out the walk through the alleyways. He prayed to Palandiell that the news of the three merciless murderers would get round quickly enough for the family to have escaped.

“We won’t let ourselves be taken for a ride, burgomaster,” one of the älfar said, laying a sword blade on Rotha’s shoulder. “Try it and we’ll be coming knocking at your own door.”

“No,” stammered Rotha. “No, not that! I swear we’ll reach the house any time now.” Tears ran down his cheeks as he rounded the corner and pointed to the large house to which he was bringing death in threefold form. What else could he have done?

The älfar walked silently past him and he leaned against the wall, his legs unable to support him. Firûsha went first and her brothers followed her. One by one they pulled out their daggers and made for the entrance.

The älf woman knocked on the door, while one of the brothers disappeared up a side alley to reach the back of the house and the second launched himself upwards to land on the sill, vaulting on to reach the balcony, from where he made it onto the roof to enter the house via the chimney. At the same time, Firûsha kicked the door open.

Enslin Rotha sobbed when he heard the screams. He put his hands over his eyes. He couldn’t bear to look.

Yet those awful screams of the dying, echoing round the narrow lanes, burned their way into his brain, forever reproaching him.

Hargorin guided the wagon away from the town; the Black Squadron surrounded their leader and the valuable tribute.

For today’s orbit their destination was not far from Hangtower. They were due to go to Morningvale, a village in thirdling thrall. Hargorin had been granted possession by the älfar because of his loyalty and he had been grateful to receive it.

Here stood one of his strongholds, Vraccas-Spite.

It had taken fifty cycles to build it exactly to his specifications. It had no equal anywhere among the dwarf realms—or rather, in what remained now of the dwarf realms—for the strength and thickness of its walls. The älfar had been very impressed and surprised by his fortress, but he had explained to them that collecting the tribute tax wakened covetousness in others and the treasure had to be protected. There was no arguing with that.

When the squad turned east, rounding a small wood, the stronghold came into sight. At its highest point it was over thirty paces high, proudly displaying to travelers precisely who ruled this tract of land. And anyone who knew about dwarf-runes would be able to see that the incumbent hated all dwarves apart from the thirdling folk. From afar, the inscription on the castle wall promised all other dwarves death and destruction. Elsewhere the chiseled devices contained general vilifications. To the ignorant they might look like decoration, but any child of the Smith happening on these runes would be incensed and would attack immediately. Hargorin grinned in satisfaction as he admired his home.

Smoke billowed up from the chimneys of the houses and the shacks surrounding Vraccas-Spite. The human residents of Morningvale had sought the shelter and warmth of their own dwellings. He left them in peace. There was no urgent need for them to be doing the forced labor they owed him. He was distracted by the sound of cloth tearing on the cart behind him. He had heard it clearly even over the noise of the ponies’ hooves.

Hargorin turned his head and looked at the sack that had torn because of the weight of its contents. He couldn’t afford to lose a single coin. He would have to make good anything missing from the tribute and that went against the grain.

He was even more surprised to see a crossbow bolt sticking out of the sack.

“Keep going straight ahead into the wood,” a woman’s voice ordered.

Hargorin was certainly not going to do that. Instead, without warning, he hurled himself to the right. A whizzing brought a dull blow to his left shoulder. He only felt the pain a moment or two later.

The dwarf cowered down to get protection from the side of the wagon, but the horses, terrified by his swift movement and the sound of the arrow, whinnied wildly and bolted, leaving the reins trailing in the snow. They galloped up against the ponies in front of them, veering round to overtake them, the wagon swaying uncontrollably. Then they changed direction and headed for the trees, exactly the course the woman had demanded.

The thirdlings riding alongside watched in alarm and spurred their mounts to keep up with the runaway horses. The bloody shaft jutting out from Hargorin’s back showed them that it was no accident that had sent him reeling from the driving seat.

“Rebels!” he shouted, pulling himself along the side of the cart. “At least one of them.” Despite the pain, he swung himself onto the open part of the cart, landing on a chest. He drew his long-handled hatchet and plunged its cutting edge into the sack where he thought the woman was hiding.

In the meantime two dwarves were trying to get their ponies in front of the horses so that they could grab their reins, but the petrified animals were going too fast. One by one the members of the Black Squadron fell back, leaving the speeding cart still heading toward the wood. Hargorin was on his own.

The hatchet blade had met something hard and there was a dull moan. The sack fell forward and, surrounded by fragments of wood and silver coins, a young woman tumbled to the floor. The dwarf presumed the rebels had put the wood in the sacks to create a space for the archer woman.

Hargorin recognized her immediately. “Mallenia,” he snorted with satisfaction. “So the Black-Eyes were right to be suspicious of Hangtower. You were there.” He took another swipe at her but she ducked to one side. The blade sank into the wood immediately next to her.

Mallenia, descendant of the famous hero Prince Mallen of Idoslane, aimed a kick at the thirdling and hit him in the chest. “The orbit will come when I will kill the älfar just like I’m going to kill you today, Hargorin!” she called out. “Freedom for Idoslane, Gauragar and Urgon!”

The dwarf fell back onto another sack, the crossbow bolt burying itself deeper into his flesh and emerging the other side, making a bump in the chain-mail shirt. He could feel that something had been severed in the shoulder joint; groaning, he let his arm hang down.

“The thirdlings and the älfar will be shown no mercy,” she threatened passionately. “You’ve inflicted too much suffering on us all.”

The chest Hargorin had been standing on opened up and a masked figure stepped out in a shower of coins. Holding a saber in one hand, he placed its blade at the thirdling’s throat. “Stay where you are!” he commanded.

“You coward!” spat Hargorin. “At least have the courage to show your face like this murdering bitch.”

“Fighting oppression and killing occupying forces puts us in the right, dwarf-scum!” muttered Mallenia. “It’s you who are the murderers!”

Suddenly she spotted the Black Squadron galloping after them through the snow; they had not given up their pursuit by a long chalk. No thirdlings willingly resign themselves to failure, and this elite unit of the Desirers would be the last to think of doing so. In contrast to most other dwarf folk, they were excellent riders who had been perfecting their art for more than a hundred cycles. Because the other children of the Smith preferred not to use ponies, the thirdlings had the upper hand on the battlefield. This had been proved painfully time and again to the humans and dwarves who opposed them.

“We don’t have much time left,” she said to her companion and opened another of the chests to release another masked figure. The lock had jammed, preventing him from freeing himself from his hiding place.

The horses rushed along the narrow woodland path, clouds of snow rising in their wake. They had hardly reached the shelter of the trees before seven tree trunks came crashing down onto the path behind them to prevent pursuit. Anyone wishing to give chase would have to slash their way through dense undergrowth. This had all been prepared in advance and worked a treat.

The man got out of the wooden chest and went straight to the driving seat, fishing up the loose reins and taking control of the horses while the other man continued to hold his weapon at Hargorin’s throat.

Mallenia clambered over to the thirdling and sat on the sack next to him. Her eyes scanned the wrinkled face of her captive; then she pulled a blanket over her shoulders. She was wearing only thin clothing instead of protective armor—a considerable risk, given her mission, but that could not be avoided. Otherwise she would not have been able to hide in the sack. Her long blond hair was gathered in a braid. Black knee-high laced boots each had long-handled daggers strapped to them, and she held a small crossbow, which she aimed at Hargorin.

“And now what?” asked the thirdling with contempt.

“Now we’ll take the tribute somewhere safe to distribute to Idoslane’s citizens at a later date. It belongs to them, after all. And not to you or your overlords,” she retorted heatedly. “You’re nothing but an occupying force here! You deserve death. You’ve no right to a single coin!”

It seemed Hargorin wanted to say something, but then thought better of it. He looked at the man with the saber, then dropped his voice. “Whatever you do, think first of your own family,” he whispered to her suddenly.

A shudder of fear went through Mallenia. His words had not sounded icy or arrogant, but like an honest warning. Probably a thirdling trick to intimidate and confuse her. She laughed out loud to show she did not believe him.

He frowned. “So when you were inside that sack you won’t have seen Councilor Cooperstone die?”

She shook her head, her fingers gripping the crossbow.

“I had to kill her on the orders of the älfar, and she won’t be the only victim in your family. The älfar are out looking for them.”

“The älfar?”

“And not just any älfar. The Dsôn Aklán came to Hangtower to wipe them out. Three siblings: Threefold viciousness and threefold cruelty.” Hargorin’s brown eyes were staring intently at her. “I’m not allowed to say, but they’re out to kill anybody connected with Prince Mallen’s line. It doesn’t matter how far they have to travel to do it or where they have to go. But they claim it’s your deeds, your insurgency, that is the cause for this persecution and slaughter. They want you to lose your support base among the people of Idoslane, Urgon and Gauragar. Your mission will fail and the land’ll never be free. Not as long as the älfar are around.”

Horrified, Mallenia stared at Hargorin’s face in front of her. In her hiding place she had been unable to hear anything when her relative was killed other than dull murmurs, and she had likewise seen nothing through the slits in the sacking. She gulped. “I don’t believe you,” she said waveringly and aimed a kick at the shoulder where her crossbow bolt had struck him. “You thirdlings are all liars!”

Hargorin gritted his teeth to bite back a moan, then cursed out loud. “To Tion with you, you bitch! Don’t believe me, then! I don’t care.”

“Watch him,” she told the man with the saber while she went up to the front. “How far is it now?”

“We’ll be out of the woods soon. Our people are waiting over there,” he explained, pointing to the light area ahead that marked the way out of the dark trees; figures could be seen moving around.

“Excellent,” she murmured, clapping him on the shoulder. But she was not able to enjoy her triumph over the Desirers, for Hargorin’s words to her had fallen on fertile ground. Mallenia did not know what to do. Ride back to her family? Or go on ahead with the men?

The wagon soon left the shelter of the wood and the driver brought it to a halt near a group of two dozen riders.

They cheered Mallenia and started to unload the treasure. The Desirers would have to follow twenty-four different trails to retrieve the coins and gold bars. They would have no chance at all on their short-legged ponies, in spite of their riding prowess.

The tall woman was handed her padded armor with its engraved coat of arms of the family of Prince Mallen of Ido. As she put it on, her thoughts were on the heroic deeds of her ancestor, who had taken arms against Nôd’onn and the eoîl, risking his life more than once for the sake of Girdlegard. He had been a true and high-minded champion of justice, and she would continue his work until their people were free of the älfar and their cronies. She attached her short swords to her weapons belt, threw a hooded cloak around her shoulders and mounted her white steed.

Mallenia rode next to the cart on which the thirdling was being guarded. There was a pool of blood by his shoulder wound, dripping through the boards onto the snow.

“What shall we do with him?” the guard asked.

She considered the dwarf at length. “Kill him. Anyone who works with the älfar deserves to die,” she said after careful thought. Then she spurred her horse to take her back to Hangtower. She wanted to help her family and prayed to the gods she might arrive in time. “We’ll meet in four orbits’ time in the usual place,” she called, and disappeared behind a clump of trees at the edge of the forest.

The tribute money had been distributed and most of the messengers had left. Four of them were stowing the last of the sacks behind their saddles when the sound of approaching troops alerted them. The Black Squadron were coming up fast.

“Run for it!” the man guarding Hargorin shouted to his colleagues. “I’ll take one of these horses…” But he was suddenly kicked and sent flying back against the lid of the box. As he fell, he drew his saber, swiping it from right to left in an attempt to slit the dwarf’s throat, but the blade met resistance…

The dwarf had fended off the blade with his hand! Blood was gushing out of the cut and running down his beard, but Hargorin’s eyes sparkled and he had a malicious grin on his face. He kicked the box and turned it over. Then, while his adversary was trying to regain his balance, he jumped up and punched the man in the face with his bloodied fist. The latter groaned and fell into the open chest, the lid banging shut on top of him.

“Ha!” The dwarf grabbed his long-handled hatchet, ran across the wagon and took a leap that landed him directly onto one of the four messengers. The hatchet blade struck the man’s neck and his body fell into the snow, letting Hargorin take his place in the saddle. Without a moment’s hesitation he turned the horse toward the next opponent and hit out with his weapon.

The man could not parry the powerful blow, and his sword arm was severed between wrist and elbow. The heavy blade edge carried on its trajectory; fatally injured in the back of the neck, the dying man fell to the ground, spattering blood from the wound as if trying to write his own name in the snow.

The last two men made off but Hargorin took aim and hurled his ax after them with a wild shout. The weapon hummed through the air and split the spine of the messenger on the right. He fell at full gallop without a sound, somersaulting over and over.

“You shan’t escape,” the dwarf promised his last opponent and raced his pony after the man.

When he reached where the dead man lay with the hatchet in his back, Hargorin leaned down and picked up the weapon. Laughing, he tapped his horse’s flank with the flat end of the hatchet; the horse surged forward.

Hargorin soon overtook the messenger, who was zigzagging his mount in an attempt to shake the pursuer off, but to no avail. The terrified man even tried cutting the ropes securing the money sacks, one by one, to lose weight and gain speed, but it was no use. After a skillful piece of deception and a nifty feint to the right, Hargorin came level with the man and landed a blow powerful enough to slice through reins, armor and clothing. With a scream the last of the messengers fell out of the saddle backwards and crashed onto the snow-covered earth.

The thirdling brought his mount to a halt and turned. He saw that the Black Squadron was approaching, some through the forest and others skirting the woods to the right and left. His injured shoulder was throbbing badly and his hand was hurting, but it did not matter as long as he could still move the fingers. The bones and tendons were untouched.

Hargorin let his snorting horse trot up to the man he’d just unseated, who was swaying on his feet, arms raised in surrender.

“What is that supposed to mean?” the dwarf exclaimed angrily. “You won’t fight for your life?”

“I want to do a deal,” he groaned.

“Is that so? What are you offering?”

“Spare my life and I’ll tell you where our secret rendezvous is,” he coughed, dropping his hand to press it against the wound in his belly.

“You’ll betray your leader, the heroine of Idoslane, to save a life to be spent in shame and disgrace?” laughed Hargorin. “What makes your life worth so much more than hers?”

The man moaned and struggled. It was not an easy decision. “But I have a family,” he mumbled in distress. “Four children and a wife—they all depend on me. I can’t leave them on their own. Not in these times.” He sank onto one knee as the dwarf came up closer to him. “Please spare my life and let me return to them!”

Hargorin looked down from his saddle and saw the honest concern and despair displayed on the man’s face. “What is your name?”

“Tilman Berbusch,” he answered.

“And is it a long journey back to where you live?”

He shook his head. “No. I should be able to get there in spite of the injury. I’m from Hillview.” Tilman tried to catch his breath, but his injuries made it difficult. “The secret places are in…”

Hargorin lifted his hatchet and split the man’s skull before he could finish his sentence. There was a crack, and blood poured out of the cut and out of his mouth and nose. When the thirdling pulled the blade out again, the lifeless corpse fell back.

“I shall look after your family, Tilman Berbusch from Hillview,” Hargorin promised, all malice gone from his voice. He steered his horse round the body, back to the wagon and the Black Squadron. “Vraccas, forgive me. You alone know why I do this,” he whispered, before rejoining his troop.

This orbit had cost him dear and his fortune would be plundered for it. The älfar always insisted on full payment, so he would have to make up the losses from his own coffers.

Hargorin raised his brown gaze westwards, where a dark cloud of smoke drifted up to the sky.

The Dsôn Aklán were finishing off their work in Hangtower, it seemed.

Mallenia took a look behind her and recognized a unit of the Black Squadron coming round the edge of the wood. She was far enough away from the dwarves. The Desirers no longer presented a danger.

But when she looked ahead, her heart sank. A huge cloud of smoke was billowing up from Hangtower; a sight that made deadly sense in light of those words of Hargorin Deathbringer.

She spurred her horse on to greater speed still, taking it back off open ground to the road to gain time.

The town gates stood wide open and several bodies—which, as she slowed her horse, she saw to be those of the sentries—lay out in the snow. A raging fire was crackling and hissing, a hubbub of voices reached her ears, and the horse snorted in fear.

The guards had been killed with precise stab wounds. The decapitated body of a woman lay in the middle of the path. Mallenia could see it was Tilda Cooperstone. Her eyes filled with tears and she was overwhelmed with hatred and apprehension, prompting her to make her way hurriedly to her relative’s house. Although she already knew she was too late.

The streets were filled with people shouting and lamenting, clutching their possessions; some were carrying their children while others were gathering what was most necessary or valuable, loading it onto horses, donkeys or oxen, and heading out of town.

Fire was out of control in the part of town where Cooperstone’s house had stood. The building was in the middle of the inferno.

Mallenia stopped, while a stream of fleeing townspeople swept past her, some blindly bumping into her horse, which danced nervously on the spot. No one was fighting the flames—perhaps they had tried but been forced to give up the attempt. Without a miracle the whole of Hangtower would be razed to the ground.

Her thoughts were racing. She had not known Tilda well but had liked her open and generous spirit. They could not have met more than ten or so times altogether and Tilda would have had no inkling of the plan to steal the tribute. And she had been killed before the älfar could have known anything at all about the robbery. It was her ancestry alone that had sealed Tilda’s fate.

The punishment that had been meted out to Tilda and Hangtower was unjustifiable. Totally unjustifiable.

Mallenia did not have any illusions that the älfar cared about justice. They were out to destroy all descendants of the house of Mallen and that was all. In that, at least, Hargorin had spoken the truth.

Somebody grabbed her right foot and the stirrup.

“It’s you, Mallenia,” said a man whose face she did not recognize at first under the soot and burn marks. His woolen coat and boots had been destroyed by the flames, as if he had been walking through the fire itself.

“Enslin?” she was about to dismount, but he stopped her with a gesture.

“Run! The Dsôn Aklán are still here,” he cried, fear in his voice. “They’re searching for you.” He pulled at the horse’s harness, turning the animal round to face the open gates. “You have to stay alive, Mallenia. Get away, keep up the resistance and never give up, do you hear? I was a fool not to support you all.”

“I…” She ran her eyes over the picture of the fleeing masses, about to lose all they had in the world, everything they had built up over previous cycles. Her struggle seemed pointless to her now if it dragged innocent victims down with it.

Rotha patted her leg, his badly burned hand leaving a damp mark on her boot, and she thought she could feel the heat his body exuded. “The älfar and the thirdlings are the true enemies of our people, not you,” he urged her to understand. “You are the only hope left to us. If you die, all is lost.” He gave the stallion a slap on the rump and the horse lunged forward. However hard she tried to rein it in, Mallenia could not slow it down. The confusion and noise in the alleyways, the screaming, the smell of smoke and the crackling of the fire had overwhelmed the animal’s senses.

Mallenia left Hangtower feeling more vulnerable and cast-down than ever, in spite of the success of the mission and her victory over the Desirers. Even the triumph she had scored over their leader. It was all fading fast.

III

The Outer Lands,

The Black Abyss,

Fortress Evildam,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

Boïndil sat in the lamplight with a broad grin on his face, watching his friend stuffing himself with food. “So they didn’t give you anything proper to eat on the other side?” he joked. “No one does rock-barley and gugul mince like Goda. Am I right, Scholar?”

They had withdrawn from the noisy company and were sitting in Boïndil’s personal chambers. The walls were hung with weaponry and shields and one side of the room was covered with various maps of Girdlegard. The table they were sitting at had a detailed plan of the fortress displayed under a sheet of glass. The room spoke of attention to detail, strategy and combat readiness, such as befitted a general.

Tungdil had taken off his tionium armor and was wearing a dark beige garment decorated with runes and symbols; his brown beard was still trimmed short, as always, but now it was thicker and showed a distinctly silvery streak on the right side. His long brown hair was dressed close to the scalp with oil and hung down loose at the back. He stopped chewing. “You keep staring at me.”

“Can you blame me?” laughed Ireheart, reaching for his tankard of beer. “I haven’t seen you for two hundred and fifty cycles!”

“And now you want to know everything in a single evening by dint of staring yet more wrinkles into my face?” Tungdil countered with a smile. He took his own tankard to drink to Ireheart’s health, then noticed what was in it. “Is that water?” he said in disgust, pushing the mug away. “Is there no brandy here for a warrior? Are all your soldiers drunkards, then? And why didn’t they give me black beer like you?”

Boïndil put his drink down in surprise. “Last time we met you were being more careful with alcohol.”

“More careful?” Tungdil looked confused, then his brow cleared. “Ah, I know what you mean.” He took a long draft from his friend’s tankard, not replacing it on the table until the last drop had been drained. He slammed it down on the table, wiped the foam from his lips and gave a resounding belch. “That’s better.” He grinned broadly.

Boïndil observed his friend, winked and broke into laughter. “That’s the way! While we’re at it, tell me: What do you think of my daughters and sons? Goda introduced you just now.”

“The spitting image of their father. And that’s meant as praise,” Tungdil replied with a laugh. “No, seriously: You can be proud of them. I’m sorry I can’t remember what they’re all called, but one of each seems to have inherited their mother’s magical gift. That’s quite something! And the two sturdily built boys will be fine warriors. I saw them using a combat style that’s a mixture of ubariu and dwarf fighting techniques. That makes them unique!”

He had the air of being uncomfortably affected as he continued. “Forgive me mentioning it, but the three others are not true to type… quite different…”

Ireheart was affronted. “What do you mean?”

Tungdil seemed to search for the right words. “I’m sorry to say so, but they’re all…” and he frowned, “… they’re all better craftsmen than you! Their stonework is excellent.” Then he exploded with a mischievous gale of laughter.

Boïndil joined in, mightily relieved. “Yes, have your little jokes, go ahead.” He looked happily at his friend. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you are back with us. I nearly didn’t believe it was really you. You looked… so somber and dark, standing there in your armor at the head of the monsters’ army. As if you were… one of them.” He waited tensely to see how his friend would take that.

Tungdil looked down and touched his golden eye patch with his left hand. “A lot has happened, Ireheart,” he answered, his voice deep, and altered now. The mirth had disappeared and shadows returned to his countenance. “Much has happened to me, and it has changed me.” He regarded his one-time fighting companion. “I must ask you to make allowances for everything you may find strange in my behavior. You will have your doubts…”

“Me?” Boïndil laughed outright and called to one of the soldiers to bring a jug of beer. After a moment’s thought he changed the command: He asked for a small barrel of beer and a bottle of the best brandy. The dwarves have a saying: Memories and worries need beer. “How could I…”

“You will doubt me, Ireheart,” Tungdil whispered mysteriously. “And I was at the head of that army you saw me with.”

Boïndil did not know what to say, so he just stared back at his companion.

Tungdil took a deep breath as if the memories were causing him physical pain.

They waited in silence until the door opened and the drink was served to them. Wordlessly, they each drained their next tankard, then Tungdil forced himself to speak.

“I have done deeds, Ireheart, that no one would believe. No one who knew the Tungdil I once was. But to survive in the places I have been, searching for a way out of the demonic world, I had to do these things.” His voice was hoarse and he was staring straight through Boïndil, through to another world. “There are creatures, my friend, which can inflict the most terrible tortures on their victims. To get them subject to my will I had to be even worse.” He touched the runes on his tunic. “Believe me, I was worse than them.” He reached for the bottle.

Boïndil looked his friend over; he appeared strange, very strange. “Do you want to tell me about it?” he said finally, pouring himself a brandy. “Or…”

Tungdil shook his head. “In good time. I have lived too long in the darkness. Allow me to adjust to the light of your friendship.” He cleared his throat. They drank a toast to each other. “So, what’s new in Girdlegard?”

“Did you hear nothing on the other side?”

“No. There was no communication as long as the shield was in place.” Tungdil started to drink more quickly now, and when he emptied the tankard he refilled it more generously each time. “You spoke of Lot-Ionan. Walking through the corridors here in the fortress I’ve picked up the odd snippet. Sounds worrying.” He poured himself some more beer. “They spoke of a Dragon in the west, the kordrion in the north and the älfar taking over in the east. How much of this is true?”

“All of it, Scholar,” sighed Boïndil. “Girdlegard is no longer a safe haven.” He stood up and went over to a small table where more rolled-up maps lay. He selected one and spread it out in front of his friend. “Lot-Ionan has lost his reason. That’s what they all say. He has overrun my homeland, the Blue Mountain Range, taking it from the secondlings. He’s driven them out with his magic arts. Any refusing to leave were killed outright. He’s collected famuli around himself and, if you ask me, he’s preparing for war.”

Tungdil stared at the lines on the map. “Against the kordrion?”

“No. Against the Dragon Lohasbrand, who has taken over in the Red Mountains, after driving out the firstlings. As far as we know there’s only a handful of that tribe holding the pass in the west to fight off the monsters from outside.” Boïndil pointed to Tabaîn and Weyurn. “They have to pay tribute to the Dragon. The Scaly One has found humans willing to be vassal-rulers under him. They call themselves Lohasbranders. They rule as if they are noblemen and have regiments of orcs doing their fighting.” Boïndil pulled at his beard. “Yes, the pig-faces have got much smarter, or at least the ones the Dragon brought into Girdlegard. It doesn’t make life any easier.”

“By all that’s infamous!” Tungdil exclaimed, thumping his fist down onto the table so violently that the bottle and tankards jumped.

Ireheart’s eyes narrowed. “Infamous? How do you mean?”

Tungdil waved this aside. “Carry on,” he said grimly.

“In the east the älfar have erected their towns again…”

“The älfar are back?”

Boïndil nodded. “But they’re different ones. They came in through the High Pass after Lot-Ionan had banished the secondlings. They’re led by an old acquaintance of ours: Aiphatòn. Do you remember him?”

“I do. And I’d never have thought he would imperil Girdlegard.”

Ireheart nodded. “It took us all by surprise when he led the black-eyes back to their old haunts and waged war on the elves and the others who had helped the pointy-ears in the old days. Well, you can’t really call it waging war. There were only about forty of the pointy-ears left at that stage.”

“The Elves were wiped out…?”

“No. Most of them were slaughtered, but the rest disappeared. Nobody knows where they went. There are various rumors about their end. I don’t know all of the stories. But you won’t see any elves in Girdlegard.” Boïndil scratched his nose. “The thirdlings have made an alliance with Aiphatòn and they rule in the east over most of what used to be called Idoslane. The älfar hold sway in the former human kingdoms of Gauragar and Urgon in the north and east.” He noticed that Tungdil’s gaze seemed to go straight through the map. “Is this all too much for you?”

“Go on. I can take more pain than you think,” his friend replied angrily.

“So it’s just the north.” Ireheart tapped the map. “Here, the Gray Range. Queen Balyndis… You know who she is?”

Tungdil nodded absently as though she were a matter of no concern to him.

Ireheart was surprised there was not more of a reaction to the name Balyndis, but he carried on with his report. “She holds the Stone Gate with her remaining fifthlings and takes arms against the kordrion and his brood. It’s a long struggle, though, because the beast keeps reproducing. No one understands how that works, because there’s only this one adult.”

“Yes, well, that’s something you wouldn’t know: They don’t need a female,” Tungdil explained. “They can all lay eggs, so that makes them a real plague. On the other side, too. Unless you get them under your own control.” He leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. His eye was focused on the ceiling. “It’s incredible. I come home after two hundred and fifty cycles, exhausted from the constant battles I’ve had to fight. I’m desperate to find a quiet corner. But there’s more turmoil here than there ever was on the other side of the magic shield.” He kicked the underside of the table and this time the tankards and bottle toppled over. Boïndil tried to stop the spilled brandy affecting the lines drawn on the map. “So there’s nobody in the whole of Girdlegard man enough? What about the long-uns? Does it have to be me again? Have I got to raise in anger the weapon I heartily wished to chuck into the depths of Weyurn’s lakes?”

Ireheart gave an embarrassed little cough. “I forgot to mention that Weyurn isn’t a land of lakes and islands anymore. When Lohasbrand came to Girdlegard he dug a massive passage and all the water escaped through the tunnels. The Dragon must have caused other leaks as well…”

With a wild roar Tungdil sprang up from his chair, grabbed hold of the corner of the heavy table and flung it, one-handed, across the room to hit a wall seven paces away. The solid wood broke as easily as if it had been rotten timber.

Boïndil watched his friend open-mouthed. No normal dwarf, however strong, would have been capable of that feat.

Tungdil gave a groan and put his head in his hands, sinking back down onto his seat and cursing in a language that Boïndil did not understand. Runes on Tungdil’s tunic started to glow softly.

The guards came rushing in at the clamor and turned to their general. He waved them back out. There would be talk.

“D’you see?” groaned Tungdil through his hands. “That’s what I meant when I said there would be doubts. You’re wondering how I managed to chuck a heavy table around like a sack of feathers.”

“I suppose… you’re right there, Scholar!” the dwarf agreed. You did it with one hand! That’s quite something.” He made an effort to appear jolly. “You wouldn’t have been able to do that in the old days. That would have improved our chances with the pig-faces: Orc shot-put!”

Tungdil took his hands away from his face and looked at his friend. Round the golden eye patch thin black veins were disappearing into the skin. The word älfar came into Ireheart’s head. “I can’t explain,” said Tungdil tiredly. “Not yet. I need you to trust me.” He stretched out his hand. “Will you do that? I swear I will not abuse your trust and I shall not disappoint you; I swear it by all we have shared in the past!”

Boïndil took his hand after hesitating a moment. He assumed it would be the best way to help his one-time comrade-in-arms. If Tungdil could be sure he had a dwarf by his side whom he could trust he’d be certain to find his feet faster and soon be his old self again. What happened to you? “By all we have shared,” he repeated the formula. “Ah, I’m sure Boëndal would be delighted to see you again.”

“Boëndal?”

“My twin brother!” exclaimed Ireheart in surprise. First Balyndis, now Boëndal.

Tungdil hit himself on the forehead. “I’m sorry; my memory is still swimming in the dark.” He stood up, picking up the tankards that had survived their flight through the room. He filled them with black beer, handing one to Boïndil and keeping the other for himself. “When will I see him?”

“See who?” asked a baffled Ireheart.

“Boëndal, of course,” he replied, happily. “Now that you mention him I can picture his face.”

“Tungdil, my brother is long dead.” Ireheart’s lips narrowed. What horrors have you gone through that you could have forgotten all that? How much has your mind suffered? Is it to do with that scar on your head?

Tungdil stared at the floor. “Forgive me. It’s…” He sighed.

“What about Sirka? Have you forgotten her as well?” Ireheart could see by the expression on his face that Tungdil had no idea who he was talking about. He took him by the shoulders. “Scholar, she was one of the undergroundlings! She was your great love! You mean to say you could forget something like that?” He stared in his friend’s one eye, searching for an explanation, an excuse, an answer. The eyelid closed before the brown eye could divulge any secrets.

Tungdil turned his head away. “I am sorry,” he repeated in a hoarse whisper. With a jerk he shook off his friend’s hands and walked over toward the door. “We’ll speak again in the morning, if that’s all right. I need more time…” His boots crushed the fragments of the shattered table.

Ireheart got the impression that he was about to say more, but he opened the door and left without saying another word. “By Vraccas, what has happened to him?” he repeated under his breath, as he searched in the mess of splintered wood for the map of Girdlegard.

The map was useless, the brandy having destroyed the painstaking work of the cartographer; names and contours were blurred and illegible.

Boïndil put his head on one side and looked at the heading: Girdlegard. The alcohol and the swelling of the paper had turned the word, with a bit of imagination, into Lostland.

“How true,” he muttered, casting the map to the floor again. An opaque turquoise jewel caught his eye. He’d noticed it on his friend’s belt buckle. It must have come off when he had pulled his table-throwing stunt.

Ireheart picked it up and started after Tungdil to hand it back. It was valuable. Gem cutting was not one of his strong points but he knew enough to be able to estimate the jewel’s value. Smoke diamonds were extremely rare.

“I’m getting forgetful, too. I didn’t tell him about the fourthlings. Or the freelings.” Two more reasons to disturb his friend again before he went to sleep.

It all still seemed like a joke on the part of Vraccas that the realm of the fourthlings, smallest of the dwarves and presumably least well versed in the arts of fighting, should have managed to repel all invaders. The thirdlings had waged campaign after campaign against them but had been unsuccessful. The freelings had been able to resist conquest, too.

“He’ll be surprised to hear that,” he told himself as he pushed open the door to Tungdil’s chamber after knocking several times. “Ho there, Scholar! I’ve got something of yours here. You’ve been throwing expensive diamonds around, did you know?”

Tungdil was standing with his back to the door and did not seem to have noticed him come in. He had removed his tunic, thus unintentionally giving Boïndil a full view of his bare back.

The skin was criss-crossed with scars.

Some were small puncture marks, others were long, reaching round to the front, narrow and broad, some of them jagged, some smooth, some caused by weapons, others made by teeth or claws. The scars had destroyed the tattooed runes and images.

Boïndil took a deep breath. His own body bore witness to sword fights and battles but what he saw here was uniquely terrible. He knew his friend to be a skilled fighter, so could not imagine what foe he must have faced to have these injuries. What would a warrior have to fear from combat with the kordrion?

Tungdil had still not noticed him. His head was bowed and he seemed to be staring down at his own chest. Then he threw a bloodied cloth into a bowl of water; he stifled a groan, and then a glow appeared before him.

Boïndil put the jewel soundlessly onto the chamber floor and withdrew swiftly from the scene.

He had disturbed his friend and witnessed something no one was intended to see. The dwarf left those quarters of the fortress and tried to combat the doubts in his mind by humming a tune. But he could not wave his qualms away, being particularly troubled by the appearance of those black veins around the missing eye. An insistent niggling suspicion made him want to lift that eye patch. What was it hiding?

Goda and Boïndil were sitting in the assembly room where the officers normally held their strategy meetings and discussed the guards’ patrol rotas. A scale model of the Black Abyss and the fortress was displayed on the table; every detail was repeated here in miniature, enabling exact inspection routes to be specified.

“We shan’t need that anymore.” Ireheart touched the glass globe that had represented the barrier. He lifted it off and placed it aside. Then he carefully removed the model of the artifact as well. He stared at the rocks, deep in thought.

“You waiting for the kordrion to show up?” Goda teased him. “The model still matches reality in that respect: No sign of the monsters so far.”

“I was wondering whether we can risk carrying out our old plan,” he replied, running his hand over the edges of the Black Abyss. “We break off the edges here and fill it all up with low-grade iron and other metals. Then nothing else can get out to attack Girdlegard or the Outer Lands. A plug to keep in the evil.” He glanced over to his wife. “What do you think? Would it be possible with your magic to get the abyss to cave in? But I know your famuli aren’t ready yet to give the support you need.”

Goda stroked Boïndil’s back. “I might be able to do it, but it would take all the energy I have. I’d have no magic left. And the amount of molten metal we would need would be massive! Where would we get it all from?”

“The ubariu would supply it. They’d bring it from all the corners of their realm if it meant ridding themselves of the threat from the Black Abyss.” Boïndil went over to the small table and poured out a cup of water for them both. “I’m afraid the monsters would dig through stone. They’ve waited more than two hundred and fifty cycles and they’re confronting us with an army such as they had on the orbit when the barrier was first erected. Without the shield they would have overrun us.”

Goda sat down. “You don’t think your own fortress could withstand the hordes?”

“In the long run?” Boïndil shook his head. Tungdil’s hints had sent shivers down his spine. “It doesn’t bear thinking what will come crawling out of the abyss if we don’t act soon. The kordrion would not be the worst of our worries.”

“Who says the worst thing isn’t already here among us?” she said in a low voice. She had not intended to speak the thought out loud, but her tongue was too quick. She looked down at the cup in her hand.

Ireheart had heard her words, of course. “You have suspicions about Tungdil?”

“I don’t believe it’s the genuine Tungdil we’ve welcomed here inside our walls,” she responded firmly.

“It is him,” Boïndil insisted resolutely, but he avoided her eyes.

“How do you know that? How can you be sure? Because you drank together yesterday?” Goda sighed. “I wish for your sake that it is our Tungdil and not an illusion sent by some dark power to trick us. But I think his behavior is so different…”

Boïndil gave a mirthless laugh. “He’s spent many man-generations in a world devoid of anything except killing, pain and violence. Do you think he would come back to us with a broad grin on his face and cracking jokes all the time? That would have made me suspicious,” he defended his friend. “If it had been me I’d probably have gone completely mad.” He looked at her. “Tungdil faced the kordrion all on his own! He did it for us!”

“It could have been agreed in advance,” she objected.

“The beast lost an eye and its side was ripped open! It didn’t look pleased!”

“But if there was a greater purpose? Like the conquest of Evildam? The kordrion has eyes enough to spare.”

He snorted and waved his arms in the air. “Goda, you turn round everything I say with this… conspiracy phantom theory.” Boïndil clucked his tongue, at a loss for words. “You are a maga. Why not cast one of your spells to check him out?” He stared at the model in fury and tried to organize his own thoughts. He was angry that Goda was, in effect, raking up his own doubts instead of calming his fears. And he had been so convinced about having his old friend back.

“I already did. When I introduced him to our children,” she said, to his amazement. “And I…”

There was a knock at the door and a fully armored Tungdil appeared on the threshold. He saw at a glance they had been quarreling, however much they tried to hide the fact by their smiles.

“I’m too early, aren’t I? Didn’t we arrange to meet up?” he asked, entering the room. He took a seat on the other side of the table and looked at Goda, giving her a steely look, as though he had listened in to what she had been saying about him; then he turned to Ireheart, his voice warm. “Nice model,” he said, praising the reproduction and winking. “Are there lots of little monsters in there, too?”

Boïndil laughed, relieved. “We’ve got a few pennants somewhere. But we’ll have to find them first. Who’d have thought we’d be needing them so soon?” He gave his friend a quick run-through of the plan to seal up the ravine once and for all, so that nothing could ever escape again, large or small.

Goda kept out of the discussion and contented herself with observing Tungdil. She wanted to provoke him into betraying himself. In her view this was not the old celebrated hero but a piece of refined trickery, a clone of Tungdil. It was her responsibility to unmask the deception. But her steady gaze bounced back off him like a sword blade from a good suit of armor.

“The shafts and caves immediately below the abyss are deep and convoluted,” Tungdil explained. “There’s not enough metal in the whole of Girdlegard and the Outer Lands together to fill them up. But plugging the top of the ravine makes sense. That can’t be attempted, however, until you’ve destroyed the army they’ve got lying in wait down there.”

“The army you’ve led to us,” Goda interrupted.

“I was its leader. It would have come to you anyway. That’s different.” Tungdil was remaining remarkably calm, Ireheart thought, remembering his violent reaction the night before. “I have spent cycle after cycle making a name for myself among the monsters of the abyss so that they would trust me and accept me as one of their own. That was the only way eventually to get to be their leader. A leader even the kordrion obeyed. For I knew full well the orbit would arrive when the barrier would fall and I wanted to be in the first ranks. As a thirdling, an ordinary child of the Smith, they would have torn me to shreds. And they nearly did at the beginning.” With every phrase his words sounded darker and more threatening until he cleared his throat and removed the menace from his voice. “I let them believe I would lead them against you. It won’t be long before they recover from their surprise and they’ll be mounting another attack, more hate-filled than before.”

“Evildam will be able to repel them,” Ireheart said with all the conviction he could muster.

“It won’t be enough, my friend. I know what’s in store.” Tungdil looked from Goda to Ireheart and back again. “You need an army, a huge army, able to swarm down into the upper chambers and tunnels, fighting the beasts in their lairs, while the preparations are in hand up here to fill in the ravine. And a magus. You’ll need a powerful magus.” He looked at Goda. “There’s no other way.”

She had noted the change in his tone. “So you’re not going to help us?”

“What makes you assume that?” spluttered Boïndil. “Of course he will!”

“She’s right,” said Tungdil calmly, placing his gauntleted hands together as if in prayer, or as if he were keeping some tiny creature captive between his palms. “I’ve fought all my battles and have no further desire to be a warrior.”

Ireheart’s mouth dropped open. “You’re joking, Scholar!” he exclaimed. “Don’t take me for a fool! Don’t joke about something like this! So many people have waited for you, putting all their hopes in you to drive injustice out of Girdlegard. Humans, elves—wherever they might be—and dwarves. Your own folk await you!”

“I know,” Tungdil countered. “But I made no promises to anyone about returning to save them. I was able to thwart an initial attack on your fortress and have warned you about the extent of the threat you face. Now you know what you have to do. I shall do no more.”

“It was a different story last night!” Ireheart was near despair. “You said yourself…”

“… that I had returned home to find peace and quiet.” Tungdil finished the phrase, resentment in his tone. “That was all. And I said I needed more time, to—”

“Which home did you mean, Tungdil Goldhand?” Goda intervened, ready with her next test. “Tell me: Where is your home? Back in the vaults of Lot-Ionan? That’s long gone. Or do you long to return to the freelings in their underground realm, besieged by the thirdlings? Or do you want to go back to Balyndis, your first love? Or perhaps you feel like going to the undergroundlings to spend your twilight cycles?” She gestured toward the window. “Isn’t it rather the case that you are at home in the land whose tunnels lead to the Black Abyss? By far the longest part of your life has been spent there. That fits the picture of a homeland best, don’t you agree?” She stood up. “It would be all the same to me if you were just to disappear.”

“Goda!” her husband bellowed, horrified, but she went on regardless.

“Perhaps you don’t dare accept that you have doubts about him, Boïndil. But I am paying close attention to the doubts I have. What use to us is this Tungdil in his wonderful armor if he’s not prepared to act?” she said aggressively. “By Vraccas, this can’t be Tungdil!” Goda cast contemptuous looks at the one-eyed dwarf. “The Scholar would have done anything and everything in his power to put an end to the misery afflicting Girdlegard. If those had been your first words I would never have become suspicious.” She leveled her index finger in his direction. “You are not Tungdil, so get back to the Black Abyss where you came from before you undermine the morale of our troops. I’d rather have them thinking that you went away again in secret and that one orbit you will return a second time!”

She turned away, shaking Boïndil’s hand off. Then she left the room.

Ireheart watched Tungdil, who appeared to be unmoved by the accusations. There were no protests, no objections. “Say something, Scholar!” he begged. “For the sake of our creator, the Divine Smith! Say something to dispute Goda’s words—something to let me believe in you. To let us all believe in you! You have no idea what effect it will have on the remaining dwarves and humans if you withdraw in this way.”

Tungdil got up, walked around the table and stood in front of his friend for three long moments, then placed his left hand on Boïndil’s shoulder. Then he went out through the door to the corridor.

“That’s not an answer!” Ireheart cried out angrily. “Come back here and give me an answer.” He followed, rapidly catching up with Tungdil and grasping him by the shoulder, trying to force him to turn around. But he was not able to move the dwarf.

Boïndil felt his fingers tingling, and then a shock that knocked him off his feet, hurling him back against the wall. He fell to the stone floor with a groan.

Stars and sparks were dancing in front of his eyes, and he could make out his friend’s face leaning over him in concern. “I’ll fetch a healer,” came the voice, distorted now. “You should not have done that, my hot-blooded friend. But never fear, you’ll soon be fine again.”

As that final sentence echoed in his ears, Boïndil lost consciousness.

Tungdil made his way to his chamber.

The upheaval caused by Boïndil’s collapse had settled now. The healer who had been summoned assumed the commander of the fortress had suffered a simple fainting fit. Perhaps too much celebrating the night before.

Even if the odd person thought there was more to it than that, nobody saw any connection with Tungdil. Not openly, at least. And when he came round, Ireheart had not said anything that could throw suspicion on anyone in Evildam.

As he turned a corner, Tungdil came face to face with a dwarf-woman.

Judging from the slim young face she was not yet many cycles of age, though the skin was as tanned as that of a shepherd. She wore a beige tunic embroidered with thorn wreaths, the front only loosely fastened, showing the white shirt beneath decorated in a similar manner. Tungdil’s gaze slid over the figure; he saw a shaved head and light blue eyes.

“You are Tungdil Goldhand?” she asked, unsure of herself.

“And you must be one of the undergroundlings,” he said. “Taller than a dwarf-woman and smaller than a human.”

She nodded and came a step closer. “I am Kiras.” She lifted her face so that the light from the lamp illuminated it. “They say that I look very like a forebear of mine,” she said, expectantly. Her eyes were fixed on Tungdil’s eye. “I’m wearing a garment made to be like hers. For you.”

Tungdil furrowed his brow. “What’s that to me?”

“Can’t you guess?” Kiras’s hopeful expression changed. “I had been so looking forward to giving you a surprise. If you can’t take her in your arms now you are back, I hoped I would be able to soothe your pain. I am one of Sirka’s descendants.” She gave him a radiant smile.

“That’s all I need,” muttered Tungdil bad-temperedly. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings or to insult your bloodline, Kiras, but I can’t remember her. I don’t remember what she looked like and I don’t remember loving her. Much of what I experienced in Girdlegard in the past has been wiped from my mind.” He looked at her intently, as if the sight of her could bring back his memories. “No,” he said finally. “No, I still can’t see her even if I look at you.”

Kiras gulped, her huge disappointment obvious. “Then let me still bid you welcome in her name, Tungdil,” she said, moving to embrace him. “It doesn’t matter whether you remember or not. I am her message to you. The love you shared…”

But the warrior drew back, evading her arms as if she carried a fatal contagion.

“No, Kiras, don’t,” he commanded darkly, his voice dimming the light in the corridor. “I don’t want you to touch me.”

The young undergroundling stood facing him, bewildered and shocked. She let her arms drop to her sides. “You are rejecting not only me, but Sirka herself in me!”

“Forget me. And pray to your god that you carry more of her in you. My inheritance is death.” He stared at her, then walked round her to his rooms as if she were a piece of furniture in his way.

“But… I have a letter she wrote to you!” She reached to take a sealed parchment from her belt, holding it in an outstretched hand.

“Then burn it, or do whatever you like,” he suggested, without turning round.

Kiras looked at him as he walked along the corridor. “This can’t be happening,” she whispered in disbelief. Slowly she lowered the hand holding the ancient letter. The lamps regained their former brilliance as he moved away into the distance.

“Didn’t I warn you?” Goda had witnessed the incident from the shadows, the meeting between the undergroundling and the hero of the dwarves having been no coincidence. It was but one of many tests that would follow.

“How can he leave me like that?” Kiras asked angrily.

Goda watched the dwarf go, then put an arm around the undergroundling’s shoulders to console her. Because it is not the real Tungdil. Everyone will see that soon.

Tungdil returned to his rooms, pulled off his gauntlets and placed them on a wooden chest. When he went to unfasten his armor, one of the runes, the one on his right breast, started to glow in warning.

“There’s probably a very good reason why you didn’t announce yourself when I came in,” he said, facing forward. “You could make up for that mistake now. Because if you don’t,” and Tungdil laid his right hand on the grip of Bloodthirster, “I might assume you have come here with unfriendly intentions.” He did not turn around, but just listened to the sounds and trusted in his armor.

There was a person standing behind him, likewise in armor. Metal clanked and a weapon was being drawn. “You are correct in your assumption,” said the deep sonorous voice of an ubari. “But only if you refuse me answers to my questions.”

This time Tungdil turned and looked at the warrior sitting next to the desk, waiting.

It was the ubariu’s leader, who had escorted him, Boïndil and Goda back to the fortress from the artifact. Now he stood three paces from him, extra-long sword with its reinforced tip held diagonally in front of his body, the blade pointing down. His red eyes were focused on Tungdil attentively. He was nearly twice the height of the dwarf and the muscles in his upper arms were rippling with tension.

“What questions might an ubari have to put to me, Yagur?” Tungdil asked simply. “Or have you been told to put them under someone else’s orders. Her orders, perhaps?”

Yagur did not respond to the insinuation. “I know the legends about you and the general, Tungdil Goldhand. Nothing is further from my mind than to insult you with a lack of respect on my part,” he began carefully. “But I am not the only one who has doubts about you.”

“And you thought if you hid in my room and threatened me with a sword that I’d be happy to tell you anything you wanted to know?” observed the dwarf, his one brown eye flashing with malice. “You’re due a surprise there, Yagur.” Slowly he lessened his grip on the weapon at his side. “What will you do if I stay silent? Try to bribe me? Beg me to talk?”

The ubari warrior lowered his head and took a step forward. “I can loosen tongues,” he threatened.

“Believe me when I tell you that you won’t get a chance to interrogate me against my will.” Tungdil nodded toward the door. “Go and tell Goda whatever you like. I don’t care if you lie to her. I won’t tell on you.” He opened the fastening on his weapons belt and laid it aside. Bloodthirster came to rest beside the gauntlets.

Yagur approached him. “If that’s the way you want it,” he said bitterly. His broad hand stretched out, pointing the sword at the dwarf’s throat. “Don’t try to resist. I’ll take you somewhere we can talk without being disturbed.”

“I don’t think so.” Tungdil did not move back, but allowed the ubari to clutch him by the collar. He suddenly placed his right hand on the warrior’s hand, holding it fast. With his other hand he aimed a blow at the attacker’s forearm. There was a crunching sound as the elbow fractured and the arm was ripped off. Blood poured out of the ugly stump.

Before Yagur could recover from the shock, Tungdil had dropped the limb, drawn the ubari’s own dagger and plunged it into his neck. The huge fighter could do no more than utter a rattle, collapsing onto the flagstones and letting his sword fall.

“You’ll have to speak more clearly, Yagur. I can’t understand what you’re saying.” Tungdil stared pitilessly at the dying creature.

The door burst open and three more masked and heavily armed ubariu forced their way into the chamber.

The dwarf drew his head down into his shoulders, a cruel smile playing around his mouth. Thin black veins appeared from nowhere, radiating out from the eye patch and covering his whole face as if with a spider’s web. “Let me guess: You are here to ask me questions,” he said with malice. Two runes on his armor started to glow, throwing their golden light onto the attackers. “Let’s hear them. But beware of my answers!”

The ubari stopped where they stood—then the alarm sounded. The trumpets gave the dreaded warning that signified the approach of monsters storming out of the Black Abyss to finish what the first wave had not achieved.

Tungdil straightened his shoulders, boundless arrogance in his expression. “You have a choice: Do you wish to die here in my chamber or out there on the battlefield?”

IV

Girdlegard,

Former Queendom of Weyurn,

Mifurdania,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

Coïra scuttled from one shadow to the next. She chose the town’s narrowest alleyways to avoid the orcs. The creatures never dared go down these lanes because they could only walk single file between the houses, so it was the perfect place to ambush hated enemies!

The guards seemed to have given up searching for her, convinced she must be back in her palace on the island known as Lakepride, but the Lohasbranders had got their heavily armed orcs to patrol the streets to intimidate the townspeople and bring home to them how powerful the Dragon was.

The situation in Mifurdania was extremely tense. The competition to select the most worthy person to follow in the footsteps of that fabulous actor of past renown, Rodario the Incredible, had attracted a large number of spectators, so the town was filled to bursting with visitors. And a popular freedom-fighter had been arrested after a number of the detested occupying forces had been killed. Even now calls were being made to the populace in leaflets issued from his very prison cell, encouraging them to resist and promising better times to come. A dangerous state of affairs.

There was talk in the taverns. It was said that liberation was on its way. But none of the townsfolk spreading the news in low voices over beer and wine had any idea that Coïra was keen for rumor to turn into reality. The people’s hero must not be allowed to die.

The young woman knew that freeing Rodario the Incomparable from his cell was not a purely selfless act on her part. At last she would have an opportunity to speak to the man she admired so much, not just for his poetry and courage, but also for his dazzling good looks, wit and charm. Thus her heart was beating faster than usual for several reasons. Apprehension about the coming attack on the prison was only one.

Coïra approached the eastern gate’s high tower where the Dragon had ordered anyone infringing his laws to be incarcerated.

The number of prisoners had grown in recent cycles, so the tower had been extended upwards. This had led to the nickname Reed Tower, because the slender edifice would sway from side to side in a strong wind, losing the occasional stone from the battlements, which could come crashing down through the tiles of neighboring roofs below. If they put you in one of the top levels your life was more or less forfeit.

Coïra took a deep breath and looked up. Probably they would have put The Incomparable in one of the highest cells. She would have to fight her way up and make sure that no one was able to raise the alarm, or that would mean disaster for herself, too. Her magic arts would help in some measure, but she only ever had sufficient power for a few spells before she had to return to the source near the palace to renew her energy store. This made a maga like herself vulnerable.

“They should come up with an energy source you could carry around with you,” she said to herself, scurrying over to the tower’s entrance.

Listening at the sturdy door she could hear nothing. She tried peering through the window grille but could only see a curtain. There was a light in the guardroom. That was all she could ascertain.

Coïra felt her blood pounding in her ears. So much was unknown and she had to confront it all. How many orcs are sitting there? she wondered. On normal orbits there would only be half a dozen guards, but now? Given the state of the town, perhaps three times that number.

She drew her sword from underneath her mantle, gathered her magic powers and prepared herself for a spell that would send the guards to sleep. She had tried it on humans often enough, but could not gauge how the green-skinned warders would react.

Pulling her shawl over mouth and nose, Coïra pressed down the door-catch and leaped into the room. “Don’t move…” she cried, then fell silent.

The room was—empty.

Seven tankards stood on the table, all of them full. You could see the remains of a meal: Chewed chicken bones, crumbs and odd bits of vegetables were strewn on a large platter.

Coïra closed the door and crossed the room carefully. Perhaps the warders had gone up to bring the prisoners their food?

Her tortoiseshell eyes caught sight of a board next to the stairs with a row of hooks intended for bunches of keys, all of them empty.

More and more peculiar. The longer she stood there trying to figure things out, the stronger her conviction became that someone had got there before her.

She ran up the steps to the first floor, weapon and spells at the ready.

Arriving at the first-floor landing she saw the cell doors hanging open. Did the Poet of Freedom have friends brave enough to free him despite the overwhelming numbers? She smiled at the thought. She continued running further up the stairs, finding cell after cell open and empty. Her disappointment at not being the one to liberate The Incomparable only lasted a second. What mattered was that he was free.

She hastened down the stairway again—and found herself face to face with Rodario the Seventh.

He was just as shocked as she was and even gave a little yelp of fright. His dagger clattered to the floor.

“What are you doing here?” asked the young woman.

Rodario looked bewildered and picked up his weapon, wiping it on his cloak and holding it ineffectually, then putting it away with an embarrassed air. She saw at once that he had no idea how to use it. “Probably the same as you,” he stammered, seeing the sword she was carrying. He pushed the hair out of his eyes. “I’m here to free The Incomparable.”

Coïra laughed. “All by yourself?”

The man frowned, looking hurt. “Of course. I wouldn’t want to endanger anyone else.” He glanced past her over to the steps. “Where is he?”

“We’ve both arrived too late. He’s already free.” She found it so touching that this skinny figure of a man, with no physical prowess, a contender fresh from humiliating defeat on stage, had turned out intent on fighting off the orc guards to free a rival, the favorite. This Rodario possessed none of the The Incomparable’s charisma.

Rodario smiled all over his face. “Oh, thanks be to Samusin! All the better!” He seemed truly relieved. “Then the two of us can get away from here together, then.” He watched her and obviously he liked what he saw. That was all she needed!

Suddenly they heard deep voices outside, the clank of armor and the stomp of heavy boots. It must be a guard unit back from patrol.

“There’s only one exit to the tower,” she whispered to Rodario, extinguishing the lamps. “Quick, hide!” He was about to run up the stairs to the first floor, but she grabbed his sleeve. “No, don’t head for the cells. It’d be making things far too easy for the guards.” She pushed him into a dark corner by the weapons stand, following him into the little niche, pressing herself against the wall where the shadows helped to conceal them. Maybe the guards would rush straight past.

The door burst open and an orc entered the room. Hardly three steps in, he was already bellowing out orders and pulling his sword out of its scabbard.

Eight of his soldiers stormed up the stairs with him, while four stayed down in the guardroom to secure the entrance. They lit the lamps.

Coïra knew a fight could not be avoided. And it would have to be won quickly before the other orcs came back down.

“I’ll be needing you, Rodario the Seventh,” she whispered in his ear. He was utterly transported as her breath played on his face.

“Anything you ask,” he said eagerly. Unfortunately, not very quietly.

“Over there!” called one of the orcs excitedly. “In that corner!” He drew his sword; the other three followed suit and moved in to the attack.

“Didn’t you do well?” Coïra said sarcastically under her breath as she prepared to use magic against the guards. Four yellow spheres the size of marbles flashed out of her left hand to hit the four attackers. As the spheres burst, the orcs’ heads were enveloped in sparkling glitter.

Two of the creatures simply collapsed, but the others showed no effects.

“It’s Coïra Weytana!” one of them yelled up the stairs. “The daughter of the maga is down here! Quick! Come and help us!”

“Go on, do it again!” said Rodario, brandishing his dagger. “Send them to their deaths!” He dashed up willy-nilly to the nearest orc and stabbed away.

Coïra was supremely conscious that The Seventh was neither good-looking nor articulate nor a trained fighter. His hurtling attack was so obvious that even a blind man would have seen it coming and could have taken action to avoid the blade. For a warrior, the clumsy assault did not constitute a challenge, merely an annoyance.

Accordingly the orc counterattacked with contempt. It reached for one of the tankards, stepped nimbly aside and walloped Rodario on the back of the skull as he stumbled through into thin air.

Groaning and losing his balance, the man tipped forward and spread his length on the table. The remaining tankards scattered, crashing to the floor, beer foaming in all directions…

Coïra drove her sword at the orc nearest her. He parried at the last moment as the blade came close to his throat. Grunting, he pushed the sword away, launching a thrust of his own.

The young woman held her sword against his, but the strength behind his thrust nearly forced her to open her fingers. Her hand and forearm went numb. She would have to try a different sort of defense, even though she had wanted to avoid this.

She let off a lethal spell. Crackling red lightning bolts sizzled out of her eyes to hit the orc in the face. His skin boiled and blistered, his eyes melted and vaporized to tiny spots the size of a pea, and he plunged screaming to the ground.

The orc who had felled Rodario threw his knife at the maga. She used her skills to hold the whirling blade suspended in the air. A thought and a short formula were all it took, and the metal glowed red hot.

Coïra sent the glowing ball back to the thrower, who was unable to duck out of its way; it tracked his movements! The molten steel slapped against his neck and burrowed its way through the skin. The orc tried to wipe it away in his panic, burning his fingers to the bone. Intense pain made him pass out and fall to the floor.

Loud commands rang out and boots came clomping down the stairs.

Coïra ran to the table and grabbed the befuddled actor by the collar, pulling him upright. “Come on, you sorriest of all the sorry ones,” she shouted, slapping his face to bring him round.

Rodario rolled his eyes and grinned at her vaguely. “Well done there, Princess.”

“Yeah, can’t say the same for you!” she ran to the door. “Out of here!” she ordered. “Or do you want to stay and fight the greenskins in further glorious battles?”

“But I don’t know which way to go,” he whimpered, holding a dagger in each hand. Two orcs came bounding down the stairs and stopped on the threshold.

Coïra sighed. She had suspected this would happen. “Come with me then. I’ll keep you safe, even though it should really be the other way round. You’re the man, after all.”

“I know,” he called glumly, making for the door. “The hero is supposed to rescue the princess, not vice versa.”

“Right! Remember that for next time,” she replied, running through the narrow lanes back to the place in the wall where she could slip through and where Loytan was waiting for her. With two horses. One had been intended for The Incomparable, but now Coïra found herself shepherding The Incomparable’s pale imitation through Mifurdania. “This is simply not fair, gods,” she murmured, turning her head to look at the actor.

He kept stumbling over his robe, then dropped his dagger and got down on hands and knees to look for it among the rubbish. Coïra had to pull him along.

They ran along in the shadow of the city walls without being pursued. The orcs were expecting her to be heading for the gates.

All of a sudden a form appeared out of one of the alleyways, holding a lantern in his left hand and obviously waiting for them.

Coïra recognized The Incomparable!

She ran up. He had a bloodied graze on his face and his right eye was swollen shut—evidence of orc and Lohasbrander attention. He held out his hand, first to the breathless man, then to the young woman. “I wanted to thank you both for what you were trying to do for me,” he said quickly. “I shan’t forget it.”

“Come with us,” responded Coïra, hoping he could not hear how loud her heart was beating. He had not let go of her hand. “We’ve got horses for you…”

The Incomparable shook his head. “I can’t leave Mifurdania. There are so many people to whom my words may yet give hope. Now more than ever.” He made as if to kiss her hand. “And I’ve still got to win my title.” He nodded to Rodario and it seemed to Coïra that they were exchanging silent messages. “Take my friend with you. He’s in more danger than I am. There’s nobody in the town that would give him shelter and his face is very well known.”

Rodario the Seventh gave an unhappy smile and played with the seam of his left sleeve.

Another wave of disappointment swamped Coïra, but she promised, “I will,” conscious of her desire never to let The Incomparable go. Instead she must drag this idiot along with her while her dazzling champion stayed behind doing heroic deeds. Without her. So unfair, gods!

She bent forward and breathed a kiss onto The Incomparable’s cheek, then went off, taking Rodario with her.

“What a man!” said the actor delightedly. “What wouldn’t I give to be like him?”

“And what wouldn’t I give if you were?” she added quietly, blushing. She was ashamed of herself for the mean remark, but Rodario didn’t appear to have heard.

They reached the secret door in the town wall, an ancient one from the days of the old Mifurdania, whence spies could have been dispatched during a siege to find out the enemy’s plans. Few people knew of its existence but Coïra had been shown it by Loytan. The Lohasbranders did not know about it. And who would want to show it to them?

Coïra looked for the mechanism, while Rodario kept a lookout for any orcs.

“Oy! You down there!” The shout from above caught her by surprise and then an armored night-watchman leaned over the parapet to get a better look. “What are you up to?” He ran along till he came to the next set of steps, coming down with his pike raised, pointing down toward them, ready to stab.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Fate of the Dwarves by Markus Heitz Copyright © 2012 by Markus Heitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Markus Heitz was born in 1971 in Germany. He studied history, German language and literature, and won the German Fantasy Award in 2003 for his debut novel Shadows Over Ulldart. His Dwarves series is a bestseller in Europe. Markus Heitz lives in Zweibrücken.

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