The Hateful Wars: Chapter Forty-Three
Gilvgola conducted coronation solemnities, sacrificed flocks and herds, and declared a sacred meal. The dwarves swore vows and took oaths to Kristryd in the presence of the Sacred Heart. The feasting went long into the night, and the dwarves lifted many bowls to their queen. Kristryd sat at the head of table with Thane Blackaxe at her right and grey-bearded, sorcerous old Bagbag at her left. Sullen-faced Dame Thresstone glowered dejectedly from her place at the women’s table, two steps lower than the table where Kristryd sat.
As the night degenerated into bawdreaming songs of Hanseath and Wenta, Kristryd excused herself to the privacy of her room. She removed her silver-framed mirror from it’s velvet cloth wrap and spoke into her own reflection, “Hedvyg! Hear me!” The old witch’s face failed to materialize in the mirror, but Kristryd continued. “Hedvyg! I live and breathe! Mine is the sacred anvil of your fathers, and mine is the devilshine book. I am made queen of the mountains without your assistance. You have failed. I am prophecy fulfilled. You are nothing.”
The first faint glow of the new day began to brighten the sky. Kristryd found her way through the austere halls of Hoch Dunglorin to the chamber where the high elf Gallowagn stayed. She tapped softly on the door. Despite the hour, she knew the duke would not be sleeping.
“Does the Queen of the Lortmil Mountains request my audience?” Gallowagn asked with surprise as his servant showed her into his chambers. “Should I not rather request audience with her?” He stood to his feet and bent at the waist in a graceful bow.
Kristryd frowned at the chiding, “I come not as a queen but as a friend.”
“Then come, friend. Sit with me beneath the fading stars and watch the sun rise over your mountains.” He led her to a stone bench on a small balcony outside the chamber. The sun had not yet risen over the mountains. The chill air smelled like rain. Kristryd spoke softly, “We boast boldly at council, but, in truth, I fear for your duchy and all the Uleks. The jebli and euroz come in greater numbers than we have seen before.”
“This much is already known to us,” the duke replied. “Does her majesty seek me now, at this early hour, to tell me what has already been said in the council hall?”
“No,” Kristryd admitted. “I have come to return your gift.” She handed him the silver-framed mirror, still wrapped in its cloth. “I thought I had mastered the art of scrying, but it has mastered me. The magic brings me bitterness and grief, yet I cannot look away.”
“Are you certain? I should think that her majesty will find the mirror all the more useful. For a queen has no true friends, only flatterers,” the duke warned.
“I am certain,” Kristryd insisted. “Your gift has served me well. I used it to build this alliance. With its help I have attained this high station that no dwarfess of these mountains—or any others—has ever before attained. But I will not look on it’s polished face again.”
The duke received the magical item from her hand, “If the mirror has taught you to see the world through the eyes others, then it has been worthwhile and served its purpose.”
“Perhaps it has,” Kristryd wondered sincerely. “But I do not wish to spy on friends, foes, or flatterers any longer. My eyes have grown weary of peering.”
“All things grow weary,” the elf said. “Even the undying elves.”
Striking the Anvil
By the time the sun had risen, Thane Blackaxe had his dwarves preparing for siege. Most had not slept at all; many still felt the effects of the previous night’s merrygodown. Blackaxe sent messengers to the chain of forts that stretched across the ways lest the host come by some unanticipated path. He sent out scouts, ordered supplies laid up, recalled patrols, closed roads and bridges, sent warnings to the villages, and dispatched messengers to allies.
Kristryd sounded the horn of Celene from atop the tallest battlement of Hoch Dunglorin even though she knew that Darrion was dead and could not answer the summons. At her request, Thane Blackaxe sent the dungeon master with a half-dozen strong dwarves down into the depths below Hoch Dunglorin to bring up the anvil from its hiding place. Durgeddin stoked a forge and began smithying. Kristryd took a seat upon a small wooden dais in the open courtyard of the fort. Bagbag hovered nearby. Kristryd’s brothers, Orin and Olin, remained on either side of her, and her son Pegli took his place upon a lower throne at her feet. The dwarves bearing the anvil entered the courtyard accompanied by the fanfare of trumpets. They set the sacred relic down upon a flat stone before the queen’s dais.
The Sacred Heart came forward and laid her hands upon the relic, invoking the favor of the gods. She splashed holy ale upon it to consecrate it and to cleanse it of any lingering taint left behind by the demons who beat their cursed hammers upon it. Then she turned to the dwarves and the gnomes and said, “Let everyone of you present blades and points before the queen and swear them to her service. Durgeddin will examine each one, and I will give each my blessing.”
The warriors came, one at a time, to present their weapons before the queen, swear their allegiance, and then set them before the old smith of Balnorhak. Durgeddin examined each one, ordering this one sharpened, that one straightened, this one tightened, and that one reforged completely. Soon the sound of his hammer on the anvil echoed in the canyon.
Peralay, Xaxalander, and Archosian stepped forward to do the same. “Will you really swear your blades to me? Will Yolande share your loyalties with me?” Kristryd asked her olven friends.
Foppish Xaxalander shrugged. “Why not? We’re all on the same side, right?”
“Are there not two moons in the night sky? Yet they do not compete, one with another. My cousin reveres the reclusive handmaiden, but I prefer bright Luna who dispels the darkness for every nation,” Archosian the Green Arrow added.
“I accept your troth,” the queen smiled. “May both moons lighten you.”
The elves presented their weapons. The old smith took a keen interest in Peralay’s blade, Gnoll-Cleaver. “My grandfather’s work!” he boasted as he examined the blade.
Dame Thresstone watched all these proceedings in stoic silence. Kristryd summoned her to the dais. The dwarfess bowed obsequiously before the queen, but behind her smiling mask, hatred burned in her eyes.
“Dame Thresstone. What shall I tell my father-in-law?” Kristryd asked. “The old fool hurries on his way here to seize my anvil. Seeing that you summoned him, I send you to meet him in the way. Deliver a message for me. Say to him, ‘Your daughter-in-law, the mother of your grandsons, lives. She will show you clemency, but if you will not have it, a she-dwarf will cut the beard from your chin.’”
“I will say no such thing!” Dame Thresstone spuddled.
“Deliver to him my message lest I send him your withered head cut from your shoulders,” Kristryd explained patiently. To her satisfaction, she saw panic in the old blobtale’s eyes.
“But what of the hobgoblin army?” Thresstone implored. “Surely the road is not safe to travel!”
“Pray that Hroth is more long-suffering than I,” Kristryd dismissed the dwurwife. Dame Thresstone set out on the journey with four of Pegli’s Dengar dwarves later that afternoon. Gallowagn also left in haste, along with his son, Grenowin, and daughter, Nevallewen, to return to Tringlee and to ready their city for siege. The ambassadors from the County and from Veluna also left the fort, hurrying to escape before the battle arrived.
Murder Outside the Walls
For three days, villagers and farmers arrived at the fort to take shelter from the advancing army. They brought with them what supplies they could carry in haste. Thane Blackaxe received them all.
On the third day since Kristryd had sent Dame Thresstone on her errand, Evrast arrived outside the walls of Hoch Dunglorin with an army of one hundred and twenty warriors, every one of them a hardened loyal dwarf of Dengar, tough as stone. His greybeards raised a shield wall only a bowshot from the walls. A lone dwarfess left the company and strode to the barbican. Tyren called out from atop the structure, “Who draws near to Hoch Dunglorin in time of war?”
“Lady Thresstone, noble dwur of Gilmorack. I bring a message for Kristryd from Thane Evrast, true undermountain king of Dengar.”
They ushered Dame Thresstone to the inner hold where she addressed her words to the queen, “Your majesty, I have said and done what can be said and done to persuade the undermountain king. He is a stubborn dwarf. You know his head is harder than granite. He will not set aside his pride. Here is what he says, ‘Deliver to me the anvil of Moradin and I will withdraw. If not, I lay you siege this day.’”
“He will pay for that folly with his life and the lives of his followers outside these walls. Even now Hroth descends from the high road into the pass. They will be upon us by sunset,” Kristryd warned.
“Your majesty. I beg of you, by the gods,” Dame Thresstone implored. “If a portion of decency remains with you at all, spare your own kinsmen and your father-in-law, the grandfather of your sons. Offer them truce to take shelter until the storm has passed.”
“Let the mumper renounce his ambitions against us and release his claims on the anvil. I will hear first hear his oath of truce, sworn in the name of Berronar before the Sacred Heart Gilvgola.”
Dame Thresstone’s voice hardened, “So you have murdered them all.”
The Scouts Return
Xaxalander and Archosian followed Peralay and his cooshee dogs to put eyes upon the advancing host and measure their number. They made their way up the vale and onto a precipice above the narrows from where they had elevation to number the ranks of Hroth as they descended. Goblins flowed downsteepy from the high paths, like streams draining into a river. While taking their views from that vantage, an advance patrol of orcs took the road beneath them, cutting them off from safe return to the fortress. With no other recourse or alternate path by which they might return, they agreed to set upon the patrol. Defender and Gnoll-Cleaver flashed and stabbed. Peralay’s cooshee dogs leapt upon their prey like famished wolves upon rabbits. Xaxalander moved nearly unseen, striking orcs from behind and cutting throats before they could turn to flee. Those that did flee returned in all haste to the camp of Hroth and reported to him, “The buggering fairies ambushed us. We saw them retreat back to Dunglorin.”
Hroth peeled back his swollen lips and grinned maliciously. “Maglubiyet has put a sword of vengeance in my hand!”
The elves returned safely to the hoch only hours before the advance troops arrived. Kristryd summoned her court to hear their report. “We saw goblins mounted on wargs at the head of the host. After them came whole tribes and clans of goblinkind, warriors, females, children, gibbering and screaming, beating on drums and sounding horns, and many lesser goblins driven by orc warriors wielding whips. We heard the howling of gnolls. Ogres walked in their midst too, and a few hill giants. We saw three of them from where we stood, but there may have been more. Behind them come the marching ranks of Hroth, all of them armored head to foot, marching in step, with no fear of the daylight. Their numbers are vast, greater than the host at Riechsvale.”
“These walls will stand fast,” Thane Bolor Blackaxe boasted. Dame Thresstone had resumed her station, hovering at the dwarven lord’s side with her hand upon his shoulder, inciting Kristryd’s ire.
“Our task is not merely survival,” Kristryd reminded the war counsel. “We must turn them back, else Tringlee and the lowlands are lost, the harvests are forfeit, and all our efforts for naught.”
“Your majesty,” Peralay spoke in grim dismay. “If we had ten times the number inside these walls, we might then turn them back. This is no raid. The mountains are vomiting up all the contents of their stomachs. Will we fair better than Defile’s End?”
“They outnumber us, and they come fighting for their lives and the lives of their young,” Archosian added. “They are starved and crazed. Why else do they set out from their lairs so late in the season?”
“Because they’ve taken my bait. But perhaps I have dug the hole too deep this time,” Kristryd admitted. “My reign over these mountains may be a short one.”
“Majesty, we are not helpless,” Bagbag assured her.
Kristryd nodded. “Prepare what tricks you have,” she told her trueheaded friend.
“You must hold them outside the walls at least until first light,” Bagbag warned her. Without waiting for further discussion, he hurried from the chamber.
“What of Thane Evrast and his ten dozen axes?” Dame Thresstone persisted. She placed her other hand upon the other shoulder of Thane Blackaxe and shook him gently to emphasize her urgency. She pleaded with the lord of the fortress, “They will not survive an hour outside your walls! Will you abandon them?”
“Yes. I abandon them,” Kristryd replied on the dwarf lord’s behalf.
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Artwork used with permission. Tulikura: Enemy Approaches