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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 24

Shadow Mount Mines, 25 leagues north-by-northwest of Far Point, was only a couple hours aerial ride on a flying pegasus, but on the ground, plodding uphill at the dwarves’ sedate pace, it took all day the first day and until noon on the second to reach their destination. Aside from Grior, none of the dwarfs spoke to Ralt or Durin, even for the necessities of food and drink. Only Eira, or Missy as everyone called her, relented enough to ask for their bowls when they were finished eating.

The dwarfs spoke to each other in subdued tones, their conversation dying away whenever one of them came near enough to hear. They weren’t overtly hostile but they weren’t friendly either. Cautious suspicion was the best that could be ascribed to them.

Durin took it in stride, riding along with barely a glance to the left or to the right but deliberate isolation was new to Ralt. Never before had he been judged solely by his elven blood or the company he kept. His magical abilities had always convinced people he was more human than not. Now though, for the first time since his mother’s ghost visited and renamed him he was forced to confront the truth of his situation and life.

Elves could Asahn, ä-sä’-n it was pronounced, but not cast spells.

Asahn was an old elvish word for imbuing an item they were making with their power. It was an innate gift possessed from birth by all elvish folk, even down to the seventh generation of those who mingled their blood with humans. The dwarves called their version of that power Bârâ, which they pronounced baw-raw’. During those generations, magical power of the variety used by wizards and priests was closed to them. Elven folk could asahn, channel power into clothes, weapons, pieces of art or decorations, potions, food, jewelry, all manner of items as they made them but they couldn’t cast the slightest cantrip.

Ever.

But he was a 5th degree wizard while being only a second generation hybrid. His very existence was an impossibility, like water falling up or the sun shining dark. Such things could not be without the interference of some greater Power. Now and then he’d gently chided Storm for his reluctance to ascribe his Ghibbore powers to his “one god” but now, having to confront that same power at work in his own life, he finally understood Storm’s attitude; it was disquieting to be manipulated like this.

And was it Storm’s “one god” after all? Or one of The Six? Despite his friend’s insistence on there being only one god, Ralt found old habits died hard. The Six, however twisted they might be, were known quantities, familiar and common to all the world. The new Lord of Light, or the Ancient of Days, as Storm named him, was different; mysterious and strange. Perhaps if Storm hadn’t been so angry over the death of his first wife he would have given them more information on his “one god” but as it was, Ralt had very little to go on.

His enforced solitude during their trek into the mountains gave him too much time to brood over it with no answers forthcoming. By the time they reached the mines he’d fallen into a brown study, ignoring everything around him.

“Ho, the mines!” a dwarf called in a loud voice.

Startled, Ralt looked up.

They were winding their way along the floor of a short valley, full of rocks, scrub trees, and a tiny stream meandering back and forth. At the head of the valley, perhaps half a league distant, the trail began switch backing up a steep face to a cavernous opening about fifty cubits above the valley floor. From their angle below Ralt couldn’t see much but it looked as if there might be a flat area in front of the cave. Above the cave the mountain side continued on up and up and up to a distant, snow-covered peak.

Dwarven figures, armed and armored, waved down at them. One of them turned and disappeared into the cave.

Missy, riding next to Ralt, raised an eyebrow at him. “Back with us, elf?” She saw she had his attention and gestured at the mountain towering above them. “Welcome to Shadow Mount. The entrance to the mines, and our home, is inside the cave.” Her voice reminded him of a gentle rain.

He ran an eye over it. “Easy place to defend,” he replied shortly, seeing it the way Storm would.

Missy allowed a faint smile to crease her lips. He was surprised at how beautiful it made her. “Spoken like a dwarf,” she chirped admiringly. “One could forget yer elven heritage when ye talk like that.”

“Or a seasoned war mage,” he returned sourly, his mood sinking once more.

She saw the change in his demeanor. “I meant no disrespect,” she said softly.

He sighed heavily. It wasn’t her fault he felt cursed by an unknown power for unknown reasons. “I know you didn’t, but my elven heritage is weighing hard on me just now.” He emphasized his point by creating a spray of multi-colored lights that danced around his head. “I shouldn’t be able to do that,” he noted, “but I can and I don’t know why.”

Missy frowned at the display. “Keep that down or ye’ll have a thousand spears at yer throat,” she advised him. He nodded and dismissed the fairy lights. “But I see yer point,” she continued. She shifted in her saddle, one of the few dwarfs to have a mount, to face him more directly. “Ye told us ye had powers to help an ancient king reclaim his throne,” she said, refusing to name Durin directly.

He nodded. “So my mother’s ghost told me, but events of the last year have persuaded me there’s more to it than that. Storm’s one god seems to be playing more than one game here.”

“One god? There’s six,” she countered.

He shook his head. “Not according to him, and he should know; he’s from Elder Earth.”

Missy dismissed it with a shrug. “Says him.”

He laughed shortly, then apologized quickly at her wounded expression. “Sorry, but if you’d been with us this past year you’d know he is.”

She changed the subject abruptly. “How many names have ye?”

“Hmph?”

“When ye first introduced yerself ye said yer name was Ralt, but when we took leave of yer friends, the Nameless one,” she nodded at Durin, “called ye Emrys. So, how many names have ye?”

He lifted an eyebrow at her sharp memory, then gave her a condensed version of his new name and it’s origin on Earth.

She eyed him thoughtfully. “Always ye keep coming back to Storm being from Elder Earth.” She paused. “Ye be a strange one, Ralt Emrys. Nice, but strange.”

The line of dwarfs started single file up the switch back trail to the cave just then, putting a halt to further conversation. Ralt savored what little they’d had though, it was the most any of them had said to him since leaving Far Point. The last 20 cubits of the path had been turned into a narrow hallway, open to the sky, by the addition of heavy iron plates on the downhill side. Iron doors at the top of the trail, open at the moment, could be shut in case anyone tried to attack up the narrow trail. It reinforced his initial impression about how easy the mine would be to defend.

By the time he reached the top and made it through the gate, Grior, first in line, was already speaking earnestly to a group of dwarfs, gesturing at Durin and Ralt. Their expressions ran the gamut from interested to frankly hostile. Ralt dismounted, surprised at his lack of stiffness. When he’d first driven the wagon with Krista’s body he’d been stiff and sore by noon the first day, although he hidden it from his companions, but now his body was used to it. He dropped lightly to the ground without so much as a twinge.

He found himself standing next to Missy as she dismounted. Durin was a bit taller than average for a dwarf, but she was over half a span taller than that, her head coming to just over Ralt’s shoulder. Granted he was only average in height himself, but it was still impressive for one of her short race. He glanced down at her and unexpectedly found himself savoring her face and features.

She looked at him and he quickly averted his gaze, embarrassed without quite knowing why.

To give himself something to do, he examined the small outcropping they were on. It was bigger than he’d thought, nearly 30 cubits wide and maybe half that deep. From the inside, the lip that looked natural from below, was rough-hewn stone, shaped and fitted by dwarven hands to create a protective wall they could stand behind to defend their home. Three small catapults and two ballistae stood on wheeled platforms. They could be rolled up to the wall, fired over it, then pulled back for reloading without being seen by any enemy attacking from below.

Toward the back of the outcropping, it gave into a large mine shaft, flanked by iron doors that could be closed and barred in case of trouble. The tunnel, lit at regular intervals by lanterns, disappeared deep into the mountain. Many of the dwarves were leading their horses into it, their hooves clip clopping on the stone floor.

The dwarves deepest in the tunnel suddenly began standing aside to let someone pass. As the figure came closer into the light, Ralt could see it was a gray-haired dwarf with deep lines of age carved on his craggy features, leaning on a walking staff. His white beard, dangling almost to his knees, moved in time with his steps. He stepped onto the small plateau and all the dwarves bowed.

Missy poked him in the side so Ralt bowed too.

Durin, however, stood unmoving.

A rumble of anger at his disrespect made the rounds of the assembled dwarves.

The old dwarf raised a hand the noise died away. He listened intently as Grior spoke rapidly to him. He nodded when he was done then stomped over to confront Durin.

“I’m Thrgin,” he rumbled without waiting. “Lord of this place. Grior,” he nodded back over his shoulder, “tells me ye claim ta be Durin the Stone Skinned, keeper of the Wolf Axe.” His eyes flickered over Fenris Fang.

Durin shook his head. “Nay. I am Durin, Son of Drangor, Third King of Thangadrim. I don’t know nuthin’ about the stone skin bit. I was asleep during that part.”

Thrgin nodded sagely. “Of course, of course.” He ran his eyes over Fenris Fang. “Mithril,” he noted. “And powerful.”

When Storm had first acquired his power as a Ghibbore he’d been forced to shade his eyes every time Durin brought out the great axe. Later, Ralt had taught him how to control his Sight, turning it on and off at will, but until then, it was so powerful it hurt to look at it. Ralt switched on his own Sight, then immediately had to turn it off again to keep from blinding himself. The axe was still as strong as ever.

“I’d like ta believe ye,” Thrgin told him, “but there ‘ave been too many pretenders to da throne over da centuries. We can’t take chances.”

Durin nodded. “I understand. Grior said there was a test.”

“Aye.” Thrgin lapsed into silence for a moment, his eyes assessing Durin. Satisfied, he told him, “If ye take it and fail, the price is yer life. This here,” he stomped the ground, “is the point of no return.” He stepped back. “Once ye go past that point, there’s no backin’ out.”

Durin promptly crossed the invisible line on the ground. “I’m Durin, Son of Drangor, Third King of Thangadrim,” he grated stubbornly. “Now tell me yer test and I’ll take it.”

Thrgin shrugged armored shoulders. “So be it.” He turned to Grior. “Give them a place to sleep, then bring them to the Fire Cavern in the morning.”

He looked at Durin. “Ye’ll be told then what yer test is, and ye’ll pass it or die!”


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