The Hateful Wars: Chapter Three
After the winter rains ceased, the old wizard announced that he would make yet another trip back to the court at Gyrax and on to his home at Khundrakar. Kristryd declared, “This time I shall come with you, for half a century has passed since I have seen my father and my brothers or looked upon the halls of my childhood.”
During Bagbag’s frequent absences, Kristryd pined for conversation with her mentor, tutor, ward, and trueheaded friend. She kept herself busy enough with matters of court, overseeing the education of her three sons, and conducting herself according to the pleasantries and protocols of dwarven aristocracy, but in Bagbag’s absence, she felt alone among the thick-headed mountain dwarves. She often wished she had never left her father’s halls in Ulek.
Bagbag shook his head emphatically, “Nay my lady. Unless Thane Evrast grants an escort. The roads are safe no longer, and all the ways through the mountains fraught with peril.”
“I know the perils well,” Kristryd rejoined. “I need no escort.” In truth, she knew that Thane Evrast would not provide her an escort, for she had often begged it of him, but the old king guarded over his widowed daughter-in-law jealously.
Absence of the Lion
“The ways are not safe as they were when you first came here as a young bride-to-be,” Bagbag countered. “Our clans have lost the ways to sons of Gruumsh and the wretched hobgoblins of Grot-Ugrat.”
“My father is not to blame,” Kristryd’s eyes flashed with anger. Several decades after she arrived in Dengar to become the bride of Grallwyn Evrastson, her father Prince Olinstaad entered an alliance with the fair folk of Celene, with Duke Gallowagn, and with the people of Jurnre. “Come, let us drive the lion from our lands,” they said, and they banded together to oust the soldiers of Keoland from all their domains. These things transpired during Kristryd’s absence, and she liked it not. “Had I been there, I would have advised my father to follow a different vein,” she said. “Not that he would hear the words of a dwarf daughter.”
“Your father had no stomach for the matter either. He had little choice. But what is done is done.”
In times gone past, when the orcs and goblins of the Lortmils emerged from their holes to raid villages or lay ambush in the mountain passes, the soldiers of the Lion Throne quickly drove them back and thinned their numbers, keeping the mountain passes safe for commerce and travel. The newly organized Ulek states lacked the centralized power to police the Lortmil Mountain passes and defend the numerous and remote mountain villages as the Keolanders had done for so long. In the decades since the Lion Throne withdrew their troops and abandoned their garrisons, the goblins had grown bold indeed. Ambushes had become increasingly frequent with each passing year, threatening safe travel through the mountains and hampering trade. Hobgoblins had entrenched themselves at strategic points along the mountain passes, forcing travelers to pay ransoms for their lives.
“It’s no fault of your father’s nor anyone’s fault,” Bagbag agreed. “But your father must be persuaded to act against the growing menace before he loses the Principality to the goblins as happened in Perrenland. The villages in the foothills now suffer raids. Greater numbers of hordes spill forth from the mountains every spring. Indeed, Gruumsh has blessed them with astonishing fecundity, and now they look to expand into the lands about them lest they starve. Their raiders have even entered into the field lands of Gran March and Veluna.”[i]
“If the roads to the west are so unsafe, we will travel through the east. The gnomefolk come and go freely as they please,” Kristryd insisted.
Bagbag shrugged to indicate that her argument failed to persuade him. He countered, “Last spring, raiders descended from the mountains and found their way into the Kron Hills. They carried away crops, livestock, whole flocks, and even the shepherds. Pillagers descended last autumn into the fields of Veluna and stole away harvests and livestock before the Knights of the Hart could muster.
“Likewise, on the east, orc tribes in the Suss forge treaties with their mountain cousins. Tales say that twice they have sacked the fords of Celene, twice driven back by spear, shaft, and sword, but at the cost of no small spilling of the fairy blood.”
“Wise friend. I thank you for your council and the news of the lands,” Kristryd said evenly. “But I will accompany you just the same, and I go without any escort of Dengar dwarves. We go, just the two of us.”
The Perilous Road
The widowed princess kissed her three sons farewell and promised to return before the winter rains. Her regrets lingered over young Pegli, for she was enamored of him—his shy smile and his curling locks, and he only entering now the third decade of life had not yet shown whiskers on his face.
With only a baggage mule to walk alongside them, Kristryd and Bagbag set off on the daunting journey, despite the protests and angry condemnations of Thane Evrast. For all his bluster, her jealous father-in-law did not dare prevent her lest it be said in Ulek that he held the prince’s daughter against her will.
Kristryd, Bagbag, and a single donkey loaded with their things, passed through the great underground gates that seal up the kingdom of Dengar, crossed over the long arching bridge which spans Durin’s chasm, and then stopped and waited for the gatekeepers to open the portal by which they could pass through the barbican. After a time, the dwarves at the post gave the order, and the door swung open. Kristryd felt her heart hammering away inside, and an unanticipated thrill rushed through her body. I feel like a prisoner about to be released from the dungeon! she thought to herself.
The two travelers stepped out onto the subterranean thoroughfare called the Low Road, a network of intersecting tunnels, natural caverns, carved chambers, and snaking watercourses originally cut to connect the undermountain kingdoms of Balnorhak and Gilmorack. The first many leagues of their way led through guarded tunnels and winding caverns kept safe by regular patrols and garrison stations. Dwarves of Dengar and feisty gnomes protected those main routes, but the travelers had not journeyed many days when the watchmen told them, “No passage beyond this point. The snowmelt and spring rain has flooded the lower tunnels and driven the goblins up from below, and all the tunnels beyond here crawl with them.”
“As I feared,” Bagbag sighed. “We would be wise to turn back.”
“Foolish or wise, we will persist,” Kristryd insisted.
“Your majesty. We have no choice then but to turn aside and make our way overland,” Bagbag lamented. They did so, and after a day’s journey, they emerged from the mountains by a wide cave. They had need to backtrack several miles before starting their way upon a narrow path atop a frightening cliff that looked down into a steep ravine. Dozens of caves dotted the opposite side of the ravine, and from more than a few of those dark holes tell-tale wisps of smoke rose. “The mountains are pregnant with orcs and about to burst,” Bagbag shuddered.
Kristryd looked across the ravine at the sinister-looking hovels and wondered if she had not been a fonkin to ignore her trueheaded companion’s counsel. Surely the orcs are watching us, even now, and they will fall upon us as soon as darkness comes. She gripped the haft of her spear tightly and looked about as they walked. Berronar watch over us, she prayed.
The attack came after the sun had dipped beneath the western hills, just as the travelers began a steep descent to the floor of the boulder-strewn ravine. An arrow struck Bagbag square in the back and dropped him to the stony ground. Another arrow pierced the rump of the donkey, sending it bucking and rearing and tumbling to its death. Kristryd dropped to a crouch and raised her shield just in time to block another arrow.
An orcish war scream froze her blood. It echoed off the canyon walls and found answer from similar cries further along the ravine. Kristryd scrambled backwards, under cover of her shield, seeking better cover as more arrows clattered against the stones around her.
[i] Kirt Wackford, “Geopolitical History of Keoland,” unpublished manuscript version, 26.
Read the next chapter: The Early Allies