Eastern Border of the Firstling Kingdom,
Winter, 6234th Solar Cycle
Swirling and dancing like giddy ballerinas, snowflakes tumbled from the sky. Carried by the wind, they scattered over the mountains and came to rest among their fellows, covering the Red Range like a great white cloth.
Snow had been falling for many orbits, and the gray clouds continued to unburden themselves, burying the slopes. Some of the drifts were deep enough for ten dwarves to stand on each other’s shoulders and disappear from view.
From his vantage point on the second highest of nine towers, Boëndal Hookhand of the clan of the Swinging Axes gazed out to the east.
Dressed in chain mail and a thick fur coat to protect him from the cold, the secondling warrior from Beroïn’s folk was standing watch in East Ironhald. The stronghold, built by the firstlings on the eastern border of their kingdom, was protected by twin ramparts as wide as houses that rose out of the mountainside, enclosing eight watchtowers connected by bridges at a dizzying height. Further back, the ninth tower stood alone. A single bridge, broad enough to accommodate a unit of dwarves, led into the mountainside where the firstlings had made their home. The western flanks of the Red Range were protected by another stronghold almost identical in structure. The formidable defenses of West Ironhald were a bulwark against the orcs and other creatures seeking entry from the Outer Lands.
Boëndal, stranded for orbits in the firstling kingdom, was impatient to leave. How much longer, Vraccas? He fought back a yawn. On clear nights, the white slopes shimmered prettily in the moonlight, but Boëndal was inured to the view. Besides, there was something menacing about the glistening blanket of snow. Battlements, watchtowers, and bridges had to be cleared on a regular basis to protect the masonry from its crippling weight. The stronghold had been built to withstand the fury of invading trolls, boulders the size of an orc, and battering rams powered by ogres, but no one had reckoned with so much snow.
“Weather’s coming from the west,” muttered one of the sentries, peering balefully at the sky. His breath turned to miniature clouds that froze against his bushy beard and covered his whiskers in a layer of ice. Sniffing loudly, he walked to the brazier and filled his tankard from the vat of spiced beer that was simmering at the perfect temperature pleasantly warm, but not hot enough for the alcohol to boil away.
In no time, the tankard was empty. The sentry burped, refilled the vessel, and offered it to Boëndal. “With a storm like this, you’d expect the weather to be coming from the north.”
Boëndal clasped the tankard gratefully. On crisp winter nights, warm beer was the best antidote against the creeping chill. His chain mail shifted noisily over his leather jerkin as he lifted his arm to drink. He winced. The wounds in his back were healing nicely, but the slightest movement had him gasping with pain.
The sentry shot him an anxious look. “Are you all right? I’ve heard stories about älvish arrows — they leave terrible wounds.”
“The pain is a reminder that I’m lucky to be alive. Vraccas had his work cut out to save me.” The events of that orbit were vivid in his mind. He and his companions had been riding toward East Ironhald when the älfar attacked from behind. Two black-fletched älvish arrows had ripped through his chain mail, tunneling into his back. The physicians had struggled for hours to stem the blood.
“I owe my life to Vraccas and your kinsmen. They took me in and tended my wounds.” There was a brief silence before he enquired, “How about you? Have you ever done battle with an älf?”
“I’ve fought orcs and ogres, but we seldom see älfar in these parts. Is it true that they look like elves?”
Boëndal nodded. “They’re the spitting image of their cousins — tall, slender, and fleet-footed — but their hearts are full of hate.”
“We should have killed the ones who brought you down. It won’t be easy for your friends with a pair of älfar on their tail.” The firstling shifted his gaze to the northeast. The dwarves’ last hope, the Dragon Fire furnace, was burning in the fifthling kingdom, where Boëndal’s companions were forging a weapon to kill the dark magus, whose tyranny had bought Girdlegard to its knees.
“Tungdil will manage,” Boëndal assured him. “My twin brother Boïndil and the rest of the company will forge the ax and kill Nôd’onn.”
“I’ve heard of Keenfire, but what use is an ax against a wizard?” The firstling’s voice was tinged with doubt.
“Keenfire has the power to destroy demonic spirits. It says in an ancient book that the blade will slay Nôd’onn and kill the evil inside him. Nature’s order will be restored.” Boëndal looked the firstling in the eye. “We can’t fail, and we won’t. Vraccas created us to protect the people of Girdlegard—and we won’t let him down.” He took a sip of spiced beer and felt the warmth spreading through him. “What of your queen?” he asked to dispel the silence. “Is there news of Xamtys?”
Orbits earlier, the firstling queen had set off on an underground journey through Girdlegard. The five dwarven kingdoms were connected by a network of tunnels with wagons that ran on metal rails. The system, a masterpiece of ancient dwarven engineering, enabled the folks to travel at speed in any direction by means of artificial gradients, switching points, and ramps.
“We don’t know where she is,” the firstling muttered unhappily, pulling on his beard. “She left here for a meeting, not to do battle with Nôd’onn. We’re praying to Vraccas that she and our kinsmen are safe.” He continued to tug on his beard while his left hand rested lightly on the parapet. “I can’t stand the waiting.” He looked at Boëndal. “But who am I telling? You’re here every time I’m on watch: morning, noon, and night. Don’t you sleep?”
Boëndal gulped down the rest of the beer. “My companions are risking their lives to save Girdlegard; I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to.” He returned the tankard to the firstling. “Thank you. It’s given me strength and warmth.”
He pulled his fur cloak around him and gazed at the unbroken expanse of snow. His eyes settled on the gully, the only route into the stronghold from Girdlegard. Secretly he hoped that if he looked carefully he would see his brother and the rest of the company hurrying toward him through the snow.
The most important mission in history, and they had to go without me, he thought gloomily. The wounds in his back and the blood loss had conspired to keep him to his bed, and by the time he recovered, his friends had departed. It was too late to chase after them now.
Boëndal, who was famous for his skill with a crow’s beak, knew his strength would be missed in the battle against Nôd’onn. You wanted me to stay here, didn’t you, Vraccas? He clenched his fists. I expect you’ve got your reasons, but I’d rather be with Boïndil.
Closing his eyes, he pictured his friends.
First he saw Bavragor Hammerfist, the one-eyed mason who liked to drink and sing. Bavragor had tricked his way into the company with customary cheek. Then came little Goïmgar Shimmerbeard, the nervous fourthling diamond cutter whose beard glittered brightly with the dust of countless gems. The company’s leader was Tungdil, the kind-hearted, brown-haired outsider, whom Boëndal and his brother had befriended when he was a foundling with a scraggy beard. The twins had taught him how to be a proper dwarf, and the three of them were very close. After a rocky start, Tungdil had proven himself as an able leader. Boëndal didn’t know much about their new smith, Balyndis Steelfinger, a firstling who had joined the expedition while he was ill. And the fifth dwarf was his twin brother, Boïndil Doubleblade, known as Ireheart because of his hot blood. Boïndil was thickset and muscular with shaven cheeks, a black beard, and long hair that reached to his knees in a plait. Most of the time he seemed a little crazy. His fiery spirit gave him formidable strength on the battlefield, but it was also a curse.
Boëndal opened his eyes. It was reassuring to think that his battle-hardened twin was with Tungdil. Vraccas, lend them your strength.
Wind gusted over the mountains, circling the battlements with a high-pitched whistle, through which Boëndal detected a jangling of chain mail. Someone was hurrying toward them.
He turned to see a messenger running along the battlements. It was obvious from his labored breathing that he had raced to the top of the watchtower to deliver the news.
“It’s over!” he shouted through the snow, his voice swelling with excitement and pride. “The news just arrived from the Blacksaddle. Our warriors routed Nôd’onn’s army with the help of the elves and men.”
On hearing the good tidings, the other sentries abandoned their posts and crowded around the messenger. “Nôd’onn and his demon are dead, and the curse of the Perished Land has been lifted.” He scanned the sentries’ faces and discovered Boëndal in the crowd. “They said to tell you that Tungdil and your brother are on their way. Tungdil wants you both to go to the Gray Range. You’re to rebuild Giselbert’s kingdom for the dwarves.”
Gripping the parapet, Boëndal blinked back tears of relief. For a moment he just stood there, thanking Vraccas with all his heart for helping the dwarves to prevail. Then, remembering the warm beer, he snatched a tankard from the frame above the brazier and dipped it into the vat.
“Three cheers for the dwarves!” he shouted excitedly. The others joined in and helped themselves to beer, the last of the sentries picking up the vat and draining it enthusiastically so that nothing would go to waste.
“Three cheers for the children of the Smith! Three cheers for the dwarves who killed Nôd’onn and banished the evil from our lands!” shouted Boëndal. The sentries banged the hafts of their axes against the battlements, clinked tankards, and downed the last of their beer.
The messenger smiled. “There’ll be plenty of time for celebration when Her Majesty is home. I’ve seen the proclamation: She wants us to feast and make merry for three orbits as soon as she returns.”
“I’ve got nothing against that kind of order,” laughed the sentry whom Boëndal had talked to earlier. He stepped back to his post and winked at Boëndal. “You should get some sleep. The messenger said your brother is safe and well.”
The worry was gone, replaced by tiredness. A mantle of fatigue weighed on Boëndal’s shoulders, and he longed for his bed. “Yes, I suppose I should get some rest,” he said smilingly. He took a last look eastward, imagining where his brother might be. “At least all the suffering was worthwhile. Tungdil and the others have been through such a lot.” He filled his lungs with cold air. It tasted somehow purer and better than before. “Do you know what’s strange? I always thought Tungdil would do it, but now that it’s actually over . . . I suppose it takes a while to digest.”
The sentry nodded. “I know what you mean. It’s like setting out every orbit to fight a dragon, only to wake up one morning and find that he’s dead. I don’t know how you celebrate a thing like that.” He rested his back against the tower and smiled. “Although a bit of drinking and feasting won’t go amiss.”
“I wonder what will happen to Girdlegard,” said Boëndal after a time. “Maybe we’ll see a new era of friendship. With the elves and the dwarves on the same side, we’ve never been more united. A victory like this could put a stop to our feuding.”
A look of skepticism crossed the sentry’s bearded face. He rubbed his nose doubtfully. “And rabbits might fly,” he said in a low voice.
“Girdlegard would be stronger if we were united,” countered Boëndal. “Tion’s beasts have been plaguing our borders for cycles. Just because Nôd’onn has been defeated doesn’t mean our kingdoms are safe.” He smiled at the sentry. “It’s not as if we’d move in with them or anything— perish the thought! I’m just saying we ought to talk to them, maybe meet with them every cycle. It might help us get along.”
The sentry burped and spat over the wall. A blob of saliva flew through the air, turning into a tiny ball of ice as soon as it left his mouth, and plopping into the snow-covered fortifications below. “I suppose so,” he said hesitantly. “But the high king can take care of it. I don’t want to meet any pointy-ears. They’re too —”
“Arrogant? Conceited?” suggested Boëndal.
“Girly,” said the sentry, pleased to have found the right word. “The humans think the elves are so creative, so arty, but what’s the point of being arty if you can’t defend your forests from an älf?” He thumped Boëndal on the back. “You and I are made of rock. We’re the opposite of girly. The pointy-ears wouldn’t have stood a chance at the Blacksaddle if it hadn’t been for us.”
Boëndal was about to venture a different opinion when he glimpsed something in the distance. He peered through the snow: A comet, no bigger than a coin, was shooting toward them from the east, blazing a trail through the sky.
“Look,” he said to the sentry. The comet was getting closer and closer, changing from white to pink as it hurtled their way. Suddenly it flared up, dazzling them with bright red light, then burst apart. Nothing remained except a cluster of crimson dots that faded and were swallowed gradually by the dark night sky.
Boëndal was reminded of spattered blood.
“Was it a good omen or a bad omen, do you think?” asked the sentry uncertainly.
“Well, it didn’t hit us,” said Boëndal dryly, “which in my book makes it a good omen. Maybe Vraccas sent a spark from the eternal smithy to . . .”
Just then a second comet shot into view. Whooshing toward them from the east, it arced through the sky, falling toward the firstling kingdom. This time it didn’t burst apart.
“By the fire of Vraccas,” stammered the sentry, gripping his shield as if a rectangle of wood and metal could protect him from a blazing orb. “Are you sure they’re sparks from Vraccas’s smithy and not Tion’s revenge?”
“Look!” shouted another sentry, alarmed. “It’s falling! The burning star is falling!”
“It’s the sun!” a dwarf cried fearfully. “She’s rolled out of her cradle—we need to wake her up!” He brought his ax against his shield, banging frantically.
The comet, which seconds ago had been no bigger than a coin, grew to the size of a leather pouch. In no time at all, it was larger than a windmill with vanes ablaze.
With a roar, the comet burned through the cloud, swooping toward the stronghold in an arc of crimson light and bathing everything beneath it—walls, watchtowers, and dwarves—in a strange red glow. In the fearsome heat, dancing snowflakes turned to raindrops and froze where they fell.
Before the dwarves could draw breath, the battlements, bridges, and staircases were glazed with thick ice.
“Run for cover!” shouted Boëndal, diving across the flagstones. A sheet of ice had formed on his chain mail, fusing his helmet to his back; it shattered with a highpitched tinkle.
Skidding on his stomach across the ice, he grabbed hold of a corner of the brazier and came to a halt. The scars on his back were telling him to be careful, but he cursed them impatiently and gritted his teeth.
Some of the dwarves followed his example and dived for cover, while others stared at the sky in horrified fascination, unable to move or look away. A few of the sentries, convinced that the sun had fallen from its cradle, banged their weapons against their shields to rouse the burning orb.
In a shower of sparks, the shooting star sped toward them, screeching and thundering through the sky. Boëndal braced himself for the impact, but the comet swooped over the stronghold and disappeared beyond the mountains to the west.
But the danger hadn’t passed.
The tail of the comet blazed red in the sky, showering debris large enough to crush a human house. The dwarves heard a drawn-out whistle, then an ear-splitting bang. The ground shook and trembled like a frightened beast. Plumes of snow shot upward, looming like luminous towers in the dark night sky. The air hissed and angry clouds of moisture rose from the vaporizing snow. Thick white fog wrapped itself around Boëndal like a blindfold.
“To the stronghold!” he commanded, realizing that watchtowers and battlements were no match for celestial might. “We’ll be safer inside!” Bracing himself against the brazier, he tried to get to his feet; a moment later, one of the sentries was beside him, pulling him up. Boëndal lost his bearings in the strange-smelling fog, but his companion knew the way without seeing. They ran, skidding and sliding every few paces until they resigned themselves to crawling and pulling themselves forward on their axes. “Quick, we need to . . .”
Boëndal’s command was cut off by a droning from above. He knew exactly what it meant: The battlements were about to be hit by a volley of burning rock.
There was no time to shout a warning. The fog had already turned a muddy orange, darkening to blackstreaked red as an unbearable screeching filled the air.
Vraccas protect us! Boëndal closed his eyes as a gigantic slab of burning rock hurtled toward him. A moment later, it slammed into the solid stone walkway. Boëndal heard faint shrieks as dwarves in front of him tumbled to their deaths. He couldn’t see where the rock had landed because of the fog.
“Turn back!” shouted Boëndal, crawling away from the shattered stone. Hampered by his injured back, he longed for his old agility. “To the northern walkway!”
Flagstones quaked beneath their feet as the colossal towers swayed like reeds in the breeze. Cracks opened in the groaning masonry and sections of battlement plummeted to the ground.
The bombardment continued as they hurried along the northern walkway to the highest tower. Skidding and sliding, they came to a halt at the bridge. The single-span arch construction was the only way into the kingdom and the safety of the firstling halls. Beneath the bridge was a yawning chasm, two hundred paces deep.
A gusty wind swept the watchtowers, chasing away the mist. At last they could see the gates leading into the mountain — and safety.
“Vraccas forfend!” cried one of the sentries, who had turned and was pointing back at the lifting mist.
The fortifications of East Ironhald were in ruins.
Only four of the nine towers were still standing; the rest had been crushed, toppled or flattened, leaving five rings of masonry protruding like rotten tooth stumps from the ground. The mighty ramparts, hewn from the mountain by dwarven masons, were riven with cracks wide enough for a band of trolls to breach the defenses with ease.
“Keep moving!” Boëndal urged them. “You can worry about the ramparts as soon as we’ve got to safety. Walls can be rebuilt.”
He and the others had barely set foot on the bridge when they heard a low rumbling like distant thunder. Then the earth moved again.
The falling boulders from the comet’s tail had shaken the fortifications and caused the walkways to quake, but his time the tremor was deeper and more powerful, causing walls, towers, dwarves, peaks, and ridges to shudder and sway.
The Red Range had stood firm for thousands of cycles, but nothing could withstand the violent quake.
Most of the dwarves were knocked off their feet, hitting the flagstones in a jangling of chain mail. Axes flew through the air and clattered to the ground, while helmets collided with stone. Two of the surviving towers collapsed with a deafening bang, raising clouds of dust that shrouded the rubble.
Boëndal thought of the vast orb that had passed overhead. He had only one explanation for the tremor: The comet had landed in the mountains to the west, sending shockwaves through the ground. He tried not to imagine what was happening in the underground halls and passageways; how many firstlings were dying, how many dead.
The rumbling grew fainter, the quaking subsided, and at last it was still. The dwarves held their breath, waiting for what was next.
An acrid smell burned their throats. The air was thick with dust from the ruined masonry, and smoke rose from scattered fires.
The fearsome heat had passed with the comet, and it was snowing again. From a distance, the stillness could have been mistaken for tranquility, but it was born of destruction. Death had visited the Red Range and ravaged the firstlings’ home.
“Vraccas have mercy,” whispered Boëndal’s companion, his voice as sorrowful and defenseless as a child’s. Boëndal knew what he was thinking. Dwarves were fearless: They threw themselves into battle regardless of the odds and defended Girdlegard against the invading hordes. Their axes and hammers brought death to the most monstrous of Tion’s beasts, but no dwarven weapon could match a foe like this. “We couldn’t have stopped it,” he told him. “Even Vraccas can’t catch a falling star.”
Leaning over the bridge, he realized that the base of the tower was seriously unstable. Cracks, each as wide as an outstretched arm, had opened in the stone and were spreading through the masonry. He could almost hear it breaking. “Quick, before the tower collapses and takes us with it!” He set off quickly across the bridge, followed by a handful of survivors.
They were almost halfway when a large clump of snow struck Boëndal on the neck. What a time to play stupid games … He brushed away the snow and kept walking.
The second snowball hit his left shoulder, showering him with snow. He whirled round to confront the hapless prankster. “By the hammer of Beroïn, I’ll—”
Before he could finish, the dark sky opened up and pelted him with clumps of snow. Powdery snowballs hit the bridge, his helmet, and the other dwarves. Boëndal heard a faint rumbling and the bombardment intensified; he knew what it was.
The mountains, not his companions, had started the assault.
Boëndal’s stomach lurched as he scanned the peaks around him. Although the comet had hit the ground many miles to the west, it had called forth a monster that lurked above the dwarven halls. Boëndal had seen it hundreds of times while standing watch in the secondling kingdom. The White Death, roused by the rain and the tremors, had mounted its steed near the summit and was galloping down the slopes. In the space of two breaths it filled the mountainside,
crushing and consuming everything in its path.
Like a vast wave, the snow rolled down the mountain, throwing up powdery spray. Everything before it was toppled, stifled, and dragged on its downward plunge.
“Run!” shouted Boëndal. His legs seemed to move of their own accord. After a few paces, he slipped over, but someone grabbed him by the plait and he stumbled to his feet. Two dwarves slotted their hands under his armpits and pulled him on. Driven by fear, they stumbled over the bridge, more skating than running.
Even as the gates swung back to admit them, the White Death reeled them in.
Hurling itself triumphantly over the precipice, it fell on the dwarves like a starving animal. Its icy body smacked into the bridge, knocking them into the chasm.
Boëndal’s shouts were drowned out by the roaring, thundering beast. His mouth filled with snow. He clutched at the air until his right hand grabbed a falling shield, which he clung to as if he were drowning.
His descent was fast — so fast that his stomach was spinning in all directions. He had no way of orienting himself in the snow, but the shield cut through the powder like a spade.
Tiring of the dwarf, the White Death dumped him and covered him over. The weight of the cold beast’s body pushed the air from his lungs.