Durin stared at Thrgin as if he’d lost his mind. “A dual? Are ye daft, man? Ye need a walkin’ stick ta git about, we got kinfolk hurt ‘n dyin’ all around us, the giants ain’t dat far away, and we need ta git back ta the mines. We got no time fer dis foolishness!”
He turned to attend to his people but Thrgin’s voice rang out through the trees.
Dead silence descended until the whisper of the wind through the leaves was the only sound. Durin’s fists clenched until his knuckles turned white. He turned slowly.
“I’ll dare anything, you misbegotten fool of a dwarf!” Thrgin tossed his walking stick to the side as if he’d never needed it. “By right of arms from shared combat, I challenge you to a dual for the throne and the crown of our people!” he repeated with a sneer.
Ralt was shaking his head. His Sight was showing strange magic all around Thrgin. “Durin! Don’t do it! He’s not what he –”
“I accept yer challenge, snake tongue!” Durin roared in anger. “As soon as we git me people back ta the mines we’ll fight in the valley where all ken see!”
“NO! We fight now!” Thrgin shouted.
A roar of anger rumbled on all sides as the watching dwarves sided with Durin’s concern for the wounded. Shouts of protest rang out in profusion.
Missy plucked anxiously at Ralt’s sleeve. “What are you saying about Thrgin?”
He tried to shush her as he waited to see what would happen.
Missy’s face clouded with anger. “Ralt Emrys, you answer me right now.”
He sighed in frustration. Without taking his eyes off the confrontation before them, he whispered aside to her, “Thrgin isn’t talking like a dwarf and there’s strange magic all around him. I don’t think it’s Thrgin at all. I think it’s an impostor.”
The dwarves were still protesting loudly. Thrgin, or whatever it was that looked like him, was trying to override them but it was clear he was losing. It was also clear it didn’t set well with him. Or it. Or whatever. Ralt was tense, half expecting the creature to lash out at Durin in spite of everything. He’d spent all his magic on the battle with the giants; he had nothing left with which to help his friend.
“The injured come first!” Durin ordered. “Then the dual.”
“They wouldn’t be injured if it weren’t for you,” the Thrgin-thing sneered.
Ragrak was still advancing slowly up the hill toward them. “Liar! It was ye dat goaded us. They’d not be wounded if’n not for ye. ‘Snake tongue’ the king names ye, and snake tongue ye are!”
“How dare you insult me!” the Thrgin-thing roared in an imperious voice.
Grior arrived beside Ralt. “Wot’s wrong wit Thrgin? I’ve never heard him talk like dis.”
“I don’t think it’s Thrgin,” Ralt said shortly, keeping his eyes fixed on the creature.
Missy answered for Ralt, explaining to Grior what Ralt had told her.
“Half me men are dead or wounded,” Ragrak retorted hotly. “I’ll dare anything!”
A shout of agreement greeted his words and the Thrgin-thing realized it was losing the moment. “Fine,” it sneered disdainfully. “We’ll wait until you get the dwarves back to the mines, then you’ll face me in combat for your foul treachery and the murder of your own kin!”
Grior was shocked. “He must be under a spell or something!”
Ralt’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe.” He spun on his heel and stalked away.
Missy shrugged helplessly at her uncle then ran after Ralt. Try as she might though, she couldn’t get Ralt to talk to her. All during the long trek back to the mines he maintained a stony silence. He helped her onto his pegasus and patted her hand to ensure she was holding on tight but that was the extent of it. When they arrived back at the mines long after sunset, he leapt off his mount, lifted her down then tossed the reins to a stable hand and headed for their rooms. She trailed after him but by the time she arrived he was already deep in study with his spellbooks. Despite the brevity of their marriage, she already knew it was pointless to interrupt him when he was studying. She wandered away and finally fell into bed, alone for the first time since their wedding day.
Durin was also feeling alone. The moans and groans of the wounded echoed in his ears during the trek back down the mountain. He keenly missed Storm’s healing power, although he knew in his heart there were too many for him to heal. He also felt the absence of Ralt’s company. His rapier wit and needling remarks would have taken his mind off his problems, but without them, he seemed unable to stop a smothering darkness from settling over his thoughts. He fell into a brown study that darkened with every step.
His anger at having to continually prove who he was to every dwarf who challenged him had led him to ‘give them what they want’ by attacking the giants too early without sufficient planning. Thrgin’s words might be treasonous but there was a measure of truth in them as well. If he hadn’t let his anger lead him astray, none of this would have happened. He’d made Ralt his High Advisor then refused to listen to him when it counted. His guilt mounted until it threatened to overwhelm him.
Trying to assuage it drove him to stay up all night tending to the wounded, ensuring none of them were left alone, that all of them received care, food, water, and a bed. His body, still aching from the brutal fight with the giants, protested being driven without rest from the long trek back to the mines then more work all night with the injured. By the time morning arrived, he was barely on his feet, his eyes red rimmed from lack of sleep.
Grior was also driven to the brink of distraction, but in his case by shock and betrayal. How could Thrgin change so completely so fast? True, he’d been upset when Durin came in and suddenly took over, displacing him from his position of power but that didn’t excuse treason and lies. He didn’t believe it was an impostor either. Ralt might be a wizard but he was an elf too, and elves just didn’t understand dwarven folk. No one could impersonate a dwarf for long, certainly not one as widely known as Thrgin.
He snagged a bottle of rum and wandered through the mines, drinking and drifting further away from others, looking for solitude. He had no wish to be present for the dual between Durin and Thrgin. Durin was the king but Thrgin had been his friend all his life. His heart was so torn he couldn’t bring himself to watch. Better to drink and pass out until it was over.
The morning after their return to the mines, Ralt knelt next to the bed where Missy was sleeping. He kissed her gently. She stirred sleepily and he kissed her again. Her eyes fluttered open and saw him. She started to smile, then she remembered and clouded over.
“I’m sorry for last night,” he apologized. “Something is dreadfully wrong with Thrgin and I need all the magic I can muster to find out what it is.”
“Ye could have told me that last night instead of ignoring me,” she said.
He took the chastening without complaint. “You’re right. I have no excuse. Please forgive me.”
Her eyes widened at his ready acceptance of her rebuke. She smiled, snaking a bare arm out from under the sheets to draw him to her. “I forgive ye,” she breathed against his mouth. She kissed him briefly then pushed him back with a stern expression. “But don’t ever do it again or I’ll show ye the other side of marriage.”
He stared at her thoughtfully. “That sounds vaguely ominous or maybe not so vaguely. Very well then, your warning is one I’ll heed.” He disengaged from her and stood up. “But for today, I need you to back me no matter what I do or say. Durin and Thrgin’s lives will depend on it and maybe ours too.”
She threw off the bed covers and sprang to her feet. “Did yer studies tell ye anything new,” she asked as she dressed.
He shook his head, pacing while he waited for her. “I still don’t know what’s wrong with Thrgin specifically, but I’ve learned of several possibilities, each one more unlikely than the next.” He began counting them off on his fingers. “One, he could be possessed by a demon.” She gasped. “That’s probably the least likely, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it if I were you.” She nodded and he continued. “Two, it could be an impostor, someone pretending to be him. Now that I’ve studied it though, I don’t think that one is very likely either.”
She tightened her belt and began sliding her knives into their sheaths. “Why not?”
“In order for someone to take his place, they’d have to know almost everything about him, otherwise they’d slip up by not knowing something he should know or something similar. They’d have to know so much about him it would have to be someone who’d been around him for years. That would mean one of your fellow dwarves.” He held up a quick hand to forestall an explosion from her. “But the magic required to pull off such a transformation is beyond anything any of them could manage, so it can’t be one of them.” She nodded, mollified. “Since there’s no one else who knows him well enough to pull it off, I don’t think it’s an impostor. I could be wrong, but again, I don’t think it’s likely.”
She finished dressing. “Any other possibilities?”
“Yep.” He held up a third finger. “He could be under a powerful magic spell of some kind, a very powerful spell. In fact, it’s so powerful I don’t think even Gerald is strong enough to cast it. Besides that, it’s complicated. It would take days just to set it up.” He sat on the side of the bed.
Missy sat beside him. “Yer friend was only here fer a day or two.”
He nodded. “Which brings me to number four, and this is the one you’re not going to like.”
She sat up, watching him closely. “Go on.”
He sighed. “It’s possible that sometime during his travels, Thrgin may have discovered a magic potion or wand or something that makes him so strong he feels like he can do anything. If so, it could have gone to his head. He’s already mad at Durin for taking over, his judgment is clouded by jealousy. It wouldn’t take much to convince him to use it.” He chewed his lip. “But it would mean Thrgin is in his right mind, more or less, and doing this of his own free will.”
Missy nodded sadly. “Aye.” They sat quietly for a moment. “How long would that kind of magic last?”
Ralt shrugged. “Given how eager he was to fight Durin right away, I’d say probably not long. Not more than a few days.” He smiled wanly at her. “But unfortunately, all things considered, that’s the most likely possibility.”
“Meaning, he really is guilty of treason,” Missy added slowly.
“I’m afraid so.”
Grior took another slug from the bottle. It was three quarters empty and he no intention of stopping until the rum was all gone. He waved his torch drunkenly. He’d wandered into unused portions of the mine where no lanterns were lit and had to light a torch to see. Shadows danced on the walls and it reminded him of the eldritch power that had stirred the Fire Cavern when Durin forged mithril.
“To Vic-to-ry! For kith and Ken! For-ev-er-more! Mith-ril Pow-er! Mith-ril Pow-er! Mith-ril Pow-er!” he chanted, trying to remember the rest of it. He laughed at himself and took another slug from the bottle.
With his head turned up to drink, his foot struck something soft and heavy. He tripped and fell face first on the stone floor. The bottle flew out of his hand and shattered. “NO!” he cried in despair as he saw the rum spill across the stone floor.
He cursed at whatever he’d tripped over, never thinking to blame himself for not watching where he was going. He crawled unsteadily to the torch then turned around, plopping himself on his backside to see what had caught his foot.
He found himself staring at Thrgin’s dead face.