Naming Thrgin ‘snake tongue’ in the hearing of all the dwarves had been a mistake, Ralt reflected. It destroyed any chance of ever regaining the sullen dwarf’s loyalty. It also split the Shamir at a time when they needed to be unified.
It was all well and good for Durin to walk out of the pages of history to fulfill their most ancient prophesies, but the dwarves at Shadow Mount had known Thrgin all their lives. Dwarves from the other tribes had known him as well, or at least, knew of him for just as long. Switching their loyalties from Thrgin to Durin was a matter of the heart, one not easily accomplished overnight or a few short weeks. They needed time to get to know Durin, to see him for who he was. Insulting their chieftain in public had undone nearly all the sympathy Durin had garnered.
Ralt stared morosely up at the looming mountain. After a full day on the trail and a night in camp, they were approaching it before noon of the following day. His pegasus could have flown the distance in a single morning, but on the ground he was reduced to the plodding pace set by the dwarves. They were making good time though, they were above the tree line and approaching the base of the remaining glaciers. Ice cold streams of runoff trickled across the rocks in every direction before gathering into tiny creeks.
Before returning to Zered, Gerald had tried to dissuade him from accompanying the dwarves on their expedition. “I’ve known Durin for years,” he argued gently, “and I’ve never seen him so angry. He let Thrgin goad him into an early attack. It’s foolish and he knows it but he won’t change his mind.” He leaned heavily on his staff, for once looking every bit of his age. “I fear the worst will happen up there on the mountain.”
“So do I,” Ralt agreed sadly. “That’s why I have to go.” He paused. “Well, one of the reasons, anyway.”
Gerald knew about Ralt’s mother and what she’d told him all those years ago. He nodded in understanding. “Perhaps your task is done now he’s king,” he urged him.
“He’s not the king until they crown him in Thangadrim,” Ralt countered. “Right now he’s, I don’t know,” he waved his hands vaguely, “the crown prince or something. My mother’s message said I would help a king reclaim his ancient throne, so until he stands in Thangadrim with the crown on his head, I’m not done.”
Gerald had argued more but it was mostly for show. They both knew Ralt was right.
“A copper for your thoughts.” Missy’s voice interrupted his reverie.
He smiled at her as she rode beside him on her own horse. The more he learned about his wife, the more deeply he loved her. It was astonishing, the place she’d taken in his heart in so short a time. He urged his pegasus closer so he could lower his voice. “We’re rushing in where even fools would be afraid to go,” he muttered, waving a hand at the column of dwarves.
Missy glanced around to make sure no one overheard them. “Aye, but try telling him dat.” She rolled her eyes in Durin’s direction.
He snorted. “You know I did.”
Durin’s terse reply to his lengthy argument had been brief and to the point. “I be givin’ ‘em wot dey asked fer and dey deserve ta git it – good’n hard.”
He started to say something when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped around to stare up the mountain.
The steadily narrowing valley between Mount Wainsford on the north and a smaller mountain on the south led directly west toward the same pass Storm and Lorelei had reported flying through on their pegasi. Snow melt from the retreating ice had bared much of the naked rock since then, but in the process it increased the number of places where an ambusher could hide. Durin hadn’t paused for any planning or sent out any scouts; the oversized rocks could conceal any number of giants.
Ralt found himself wishing he had Storm’s sense for approaching danger. He didn’t know if he was being paranoid or not.
Missy saw his sudden apprehension. She glanced around. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head fractionally. “I don’t know. I thought I saw something move up there.” He indicated the rocks above them. “I can’t tell for sure though.”
Durin dropped back from his place at the head of the column to ride beside them. “We got company,” he said shortly, eyeballing the boulders and ice.
“You saw it too?” Ralt asked.
Durin shook his head without taking his eyes from the mountainside. “Nay, lad, but after a while, ye learn to smell danger a’fore it ‘appens.”
The dwarf shrugged. “Maybe so. Not as strong or certain as his, but still der.” He slid Fenris Fang out of its sheath. “Now dees blind fools will get wot dey asked fer.” He spat on the ground.
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Ralt’s head snapped up of its own accord to scan the air overhead. He saw it at once; a huge boulder flying through the air toward them. Then another, and another, then suddenly the air was filled with flying boulders, all heading directly toward them.
“Giants!” Durin roared, pointing his axe at the approaching boulders.
Exclamations of surprise and horror broke out behind them.
Ralt spurred his pegasus to a nearby rock, sheltering by its side. Missy and Durin crowded close as well.
Boulders crashed to the ground all up and down the column. Cries of pain split the morning air as dwarves were crushed under their falling weight or thrown aside from terrible glancing blows, their bodies mangled and torn.
A boulder hit the rock they were hiding behind. Both of them shattered under the impact. Ralt was nearly overwhelmed by a tidal wave of rocks, pebbles, and dust. Missy’s horse was buried under a landslide of rocky debris. She leaped free, hitting the ground in a roll that brought her back to her feet in an instant.
Ralt and Durin’s pegasi flapped their wings frantically to raise them above the cascading boulders. Ralt pulled down on the reins, stretching out his hand. “Missy! Jump!” he called over the noise.
She crouched, then sprang into the air as high as she could. Ralt leaned over until he was nearly falling out of the saddle. Their hands clasped in midair with a meaty smack! He was suddenly grateful for her lithe size and weight. If she’d been any heavier, her weight would have been too much. Instead, he pulled hard, raising himself and her back up. She grabbed the edge of the saddle and scrambled up behind him.
She wrapped her arms around him from behind then screamed his name, pointing over his shoulder at a flying boulder coming right at them.
Ralt gritted his teeth. It was time to test the promise he’d seen in Shadow Flame when Durin forged it. He stabbed it like a spear at the monstrous boulder. The mithril staff hit the boulder with booming clap of thunder. The boulder exploded into a million tiny pieces, each one covered in flames that burned them up before they hit the ground.
Missy’s arms tightened around his waist. “How’d ye do that?” she gasped in his ear.
“Later,” he promised over his shoulder.
Giants on the slopes above them were still raining boulders down on the dwarves. The element of surprise was over though, and the doughty fighters were easily dodging the incoming missiles. The flying debris created each time one of them hit the ground, was harder to avoid. Bodies littered the ground and more staggered around bleeding profusely.
Durin was flying low over his people shouting for them to retreat. Some of them were already pulling back, staggering under the load of carrying their wounded companions. It was clear to everyone that attacking uphill against the giants was suicide. Retreat was the only way for them to stay alive.
It was a bloody retreat though.
The giant shouted with glee at the sight of the fleeing dwarves. They came leaping down the mountain in pursuit to crush them beneath their feet. They caught up easily and the battle was joined.
The dwarves were doughty fighters and gave back as good as they got, swarming the giants to cut them down. Ralt cast spell after spell at them until his power ran out then flew low on his pegasus to strike at them with Shadow Flame. Missy leaped out of the saddle behind his back to land on their shoulders, hacking and slashing at them with her daggers, then sliding down their back when they tried to get her.
Durin was everywhere, hacking at the giants with Fenris Fang. He’d called out the great wolf as well, who tore at them with his teeth then dissolved into smoke when they tried to grab him.
Thrgin also gave a good account of himself, rushing to and fro to rally the dwarves. His war hammer was soon covered in blood and gore. In spite of his advancing years, he seemed indefatigable.
Despite everything, it was still a retreat. The giants had killed too many of them in the initial attack, there were too many wounded, and there was no time for the dwarves to regroup and plan a strategy. They ran until the giants caught up with them, fought to drive them back, then turned and ran again.
By the time the giants finally gave up their sport, nearly half the dwarves were dead or dying.
Ralt landed beside Durin and vaulted off his pegasus. Their fighting retreat down the mountain had brought them back into the upper reaches of the forest, providing the dwarves with valuable cover. It was a large part of the reason the giants had finally stopped.
He surveyed the scene.
It was grim.
Wounded dwarves lay everywhere, being tended by their companions. Some of them died before their bandages could be wrapped around them. Others moaned and groaned in pain. Some were propped up against logs or tree trunks but most lay on the uneven forest floor covered in dirt and dust. A trail of bodies littered the ground from the site of the ambush down to the treeline.
He grabbed a discarded pack and opened it. Inside were the usual supplies each dwarf carried, including a package of bandages and ointments. He took it and hurried to the nearest casualty. His arm was broken in three places. Ralt pawed through ointments and potions until he found a green ointment labeled pain. He began spreading it on the broken arm.
The dwarf sighed in relief as his agony began to subside. He pried his eyes open. “Thank ye, wizard. I could scarce think straight.”
Ralt nodded. “Lay still. I have to set that arm before the salve wears off.”
The dwarf nodded. “How bad be it?”
“Broken in three places that I can see,” Ralt told him. He reached for some nearby sticks and began applying a splint to the broken arm. The dwarf yelped once when he pulled to straighten the arm so the bones would set properly, but that was the only noise he made.
“You led us into an ambush, pretender!”
Ralt paused in his work and turned.
Thrgin was angrily confronting Durin. All around, dwarves stopped what they were doing and turned to watch them.
“Ye led a near mutiny against me!” Durin was equally angry. “Dismissed da need fer plann’, led ‘em in a war chant,” he waved at the dwarves around them, “dat almost brought da roof down on us!”
“Because you were too cowardly to do anything about the giants!” Thrgin was practically nose to nose with Durin.
Ralt sat back on one heel frowning. There was something wrong with the way Thrgin was talking.
“Caution only seems like fear ta da foolish!” Durin roared, refusing to back down. “I gave ye exactly wot ye demanded, and dis is da result of it!” He waved an arm at the wounded.
Some heads nodded as the listening dwarves considered his words.
Ragrak hobbled up the faintly sloping ground toward them, using his war hammer as a crutch. “Durin be right,” he opined heavily. “Ye led us ta git swept away by our hearts instead’a listenin’ ta our heads.”
“Did your pet wizard enspell him to say that?” Thrgin accused Durin.
Ralt leapt to his feet in anger.
“HOLD!” Durin’s voice was like thunder in the confines of the trees.
Ralt froze, gritting his teeth in fury at Thrgin’s unfair accusation.
“That’s a pretty good leash you’ve got him on there,” Thrgin sneered.
“I’ve none on a leash, ye prattlin’ fool! But dis is between ye and me!”
Ralt’s eyes widened as he suddenly realized what was wrong with the way Thrgin was talking.
Before he could say anything though, Thrgin stepped back in triumph. “Yes! It is!” He lifted his voice to carry to all the dwarves around them. “I accuse you of incompetence, of the inability to command, just like your father!”
Durin was taken back. “Me father?” His voice was incredulous. He looked around in confusion. “Wot ‘as he got ta do wit anyting?”
“His incompetence led to the downfall of Thangadrim! You’re just like him! Dangerous and headstrong!” Thrgin stabbed a finger at him. “You’re not worthy to be king! And I challenge you for the throne of Thangadrim!”
Bedlam broke out all around them. Even the wounded seemed to have forgotten their pain in the surprise of the moment.
Thrgin drew himself up formally. “By right of arms from shared combat, I challenge you to a dual for the throne and the crown of our people! A dual to the death!”