The best encouragement is victory.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
The days following the discovery of Thrgin’s death and the defeat of Ashima were so busy Ralt often wasn’t sure if he was coming or going. In the stunning aftermath of Ashima’s rout, he’d contacted Storm and Lorelei to inform them that Storm’s theory about the god’s being unable to attack anyone except their own followers had been verified. In his excitement, it seemed he’d caused Storm and Lorelei some problems because of someone else in the room. He hadn’t heard from them since so he wasn’t sure how much trouble he’d caused. Gerald on the other hand, had been quick to spread the news, leading to Aram calling them with a wagon load of questions, all heavy with theological overtones. Before long, Ralt felt like he was back under Gerald’s tutelage again, struggling to answer an unending torrent of questions. It was a relief when Missy rescued him with news of another dwarven tribe arriving. He quickly signed off in spite of Aram’s protests.
“Whew!” he exclaimed as he shut the cover over the mirror. “He’s as bad as Gerald.”
Missy gave him a brief smile of commiseration then turned back to business. “The Bulgar have arrived from the mountains between Sandy Point and Crendal,” she said. “All of them.”
“All of them?” He sighed. “I grew up in Crendal. As I recall, there’s supposed to be about a thousand of them. We didn’t see them very often but that was the number I heard bandied about.”
She nodded as they hurried out of the mine. “I’d say yer pretty close and Shiyshaq, their chief, is about ready ta tear the doors off the mine to see the king.” News of their victory over Ashima had spread to Far Point, and presumably beyond. Durin’s act of defiance by spitting at the god was quickly taking on mythic proportions. By the time the arriving tribes made it to the mines, they’d heard the story several times over, including that the Stone Skinned one had forged mithril and could find the way back to Thangadrim. Naturally, Ralt’s role in the whole affair was being minimized or left out entirely.
Jabir, the chief of the Dhazak, from the caverns under Fangmount Mountain, had arrived with 600 dwarves two days after Ashima was sent packing and now carrier pigeons had come bearing news that groups from the Kibkak and Mungruddal tribes were only a day away. Grior, installed in Thrgin’s place as chief of the Shamir, had opened up all the unused tunnels in the mines and the earlier arrivals had begun digging more tunnels down in the short valley leading to the mines but Ralt was running out of places to put the new arrivals.
He could hear a booming voice coming down the tunnel from the outcropping he thought of as the front porch. He glanced at Missy. “Shiyshaq?”
“Yep.” She fell back behind him. “Have fun.”
He laughed silently. If he was the power behind the throne, content to be left out of Durin’s growing popularity, she was the power behind him, whispering encouragement and actively avoiding notice. He thumped Shadow Flame on the stone floor with its usual accompanying thunder. “Hello noble Shiyshaq. I’m Emrys, high advisor to King Durin.”
With the arrival of the Kibkak and Mungruddal tribes, under the leadership of Abidan and Rahim respectively, there were now seven tribes assembled at the mines, enough to hold Durin’s crowning as heir apparent – although his final, official crowning as king wouldn’t take place until he led them to Thangadrim.
The seven leaders, along with Durin and Ralt, forged a mithril crown with the Kingdom Stone set in it. When Durin wore it and turned his thoughts to finding Thangadrim, it lit up and pointed the way to the ancient kingdom. To lead his kin there, all he had to do was face the direction the light pointed and start walking. He was sure to find it.
The crowning ceremony was held outside since there were far too many dwarves to fit inside the mines. Even the Fire Cavern was too small to hold them all. Durin stood on the lip of the cave facing the valley with the seven chiefs arrayed behind him, the seven tribes tightly packed together below.
Ralt cast a spell similar to the one Gerald and Alden had used at Storm and Lorelei’s wedding. He wouldn’t have been able to cast if it not for Shadow Flame. The mithril staff was able to amplify and strengthen his spells, granting him power far beyond what he normally would have been able to command.
He held the crown high for all the dwarves to see. “Behold the crown of the High King of Thangadrim! On the head of the true king, the Kingdom Stone set in it will point the way to your ancient home where you can reclaim what is rightfully yours!”
A roar shook the valley as over 5000 dwarves raised their voices as one.
He turned to Durin, stretching his hand to him. “Behold Durin, son of Drangor the Mighty, Third King of Thangadrim; Durin the Stone Skinned, keeper of the Wolf Axe, now to be the Fourth King of Thangadrim!”
Durin lifted Fenris Fang overhead, shouted, “Whelp of Fenris, arise!” and the mighty wolf came boiling out of the axe to stand beside him. Another roar shook the valley.
Ralt held the crown high over Durin’s head. “By right of birth and test,” he proclaimed as he set it on his head. He stepped back. “Behold Durin, Heir Apparent to the Throne of Thangadrim!”
This time the roar went on and on as the dwarves stomped their feet and slammed their weapons against their shields and armor.
Fenris turned his head slightly toward Ralt. Well done, Emrys. An excellent beginning. The great wolf sounded insufferably pleased with himself. The beginning of what though, Ralt wondered?
Durin held up a gauntlet-covered hand. Bit by bit, silence gradually fell. “Fenris Fang says ye all have Shokirin blood in ye. Tell ‘em, mutt.”
Ralt didn’t hear whatever happened next, but thousands of dwarves jerked in surprise as the great wolf spoke in their minds. He felt Missy twitch beside him and smiled down at her. He knew the feeling.
Durin nodded at something Ralt couldn’t hear. “Ye are descended from Achor but from Shokri also. Therefore, I declare the breach between the two branches of our people healed and all of ye are Shokirin henceforth and forevermore! Extend ta each other the hand of kinship!”
Another mighty roar washed over the valley as the dwarves turned to each other as brother and sister, kith and kin. Watching their celebration and pride, Ralt couldn’t help but wonder once more what it was he’d helped unleash.
It is too late now, Emrys. Your foot is set on the road and there is no turning back.
Started, he looked up and found Fenris Fang staring straight at him. No turning back, he asked silently?
No. You and Ghibbore Storm have started an avalanche that cannot be stopped. You must run with it or be crushed by it.
Ralt sat pensively beside Durin at a hastily constructed council table, turning Fenris Fang’s words over his mind. He didn’t care for the avalanche analogy the wolf used. It reminded him too much of the very real avalanche he, Durin, Storm, and Lorelei had barely survived last year outside of Mount Coldfire. It wasn’t an experience he was eager to repeat. The analogy suggested very tiny actions on their part had triggered something so big and dangerous that the only thing they could do was to ride it out. But avalanches, by their very nature, were wild and unpredictable. Once started, they became uncontrollable. The slightest misstep could be fatal. Fenris Fang had even said as much, ‘run with it or be crushed by it.’
He looked up with a start. Everyone was staring at him. “What?”
Ragrak leaned forward. “His majesty wants ta attack da giants again but after our last attempt I’m not sure it’s such a good idea.”
“We’ve three times da numbers now as din,” Durin answered shortly.
“It doesn’t matter,” Ralt interjected to stop the argument he saw developing.
They both looked at him. “Wot’s dat supposed ta mean?” Ragrak asked.
Ralt sat up in his chair. “It means we’ve started something that can’t be stopped. Either we run with it or get run over by it, but either way we don’t have any choice.”
Silence reigned around the table for a long moment as the assembled leaders considered his words and their import.
“Dat ain’t very cheerful,” Rahim snorted. The Mungruddal chieftain was a hardened warrior of middle age, in the prime of his life.
Ralt shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to be cheerful. He asked my opinion and I answered. Follow my advice or not, it’s up to you.” He leaned back again, ignoring the dwarves to stare moodily at his untouched cup of hot mulled wine, slowly turning lukewarm in front of him. The worst of it, he reflected, was that it hadn’t sounded like Fenris Fang talking to him. It sounded like someone talking to him through Fenris Fang. Was it Storm’s ‘One God’? Or was his own mind playing tricks on him? He sat chewing it over as the conversation ebbed and flowed around him.
Durin thought his young friend was starting to sound every bit the wise old wizard. His pronouncement that they’d started something they couldn’t stop had a bit of the storm crow ring to it but it fit in perfectly with his own plans. “We dinna succeed last time ‘cause we let ourselves be ramrodded by Ashima. Wit him gone, we ken make some plans dis time.”
“He’s not gone,” Grior argued. “He just left here.”
Durin waved it off. “Play yer words games wit da mage here if ye like, but as long as he ain’t bothering us no more, dat’s all I care about.”
Dwarven laughter rumbled around the room. Even Grior laughed.
“Gonna spit at him again?”
“Second time is always easier,” Durin grinned. There was more laughter. He let it go for a bit then banged on the table with the flat of Fenris Fang. “Listen, Ingold is tearing itself apart wit der civil war between Alaric and Jeffery. If Carrzulm tries ta muscle in, der won’t be any way west except by Crater Lake and their bilious tolls over da bridges. Killing da giants will let us open a new trade route through da mountains. Add our mithril to it and we’ll be da richest, most powerful people in Gaia.”
There were answering grins around the table.
“What about Thangadrim?” Abidan was the youngest of the gathered chiefs but he had a solid head on his shoulders.
“Keep yer armor on, lad. I’m gittin’ der.” Durin got a sly look on his face. “I want everyone of ye and as many of yer tribes as ye can git ta forge two items of mithril; a weapon fer fightin da beasties between us and our home, and sumptin’ ta sell or trade. We’ll use da new weapons ta help us kill da giants, din use ‘em a second time on da road home.”
Ralt half-listened to Durin’s proposal. The dwarves were eager to try their hand at forging mithril. They were equally eager to reap the rewards from selling such valuable items. Combining the two goals into one as part of retaking Thangadrim was smart thinking on Durin’s part. He roused himself to thump Shadow Flame on the floor, shaking the chamber with its thunder. He was immediately the center of attention. “His majesty’s plan is an excellent one. Let’s see if any of you can forge a weapon as mighty as the one he did.” He twirled Shadow Flame overhead just in case any of them missed the point. “May the best dwarf win.”
Missy leaned over to whisper in his ear as a hubbub broke out around the table. “Ye sound like a wise old sage but ye don’t look as if ye enjoy it.” She was worried. “Are ye alright, my love?”
He took her hand in his, lacing their fingers together. “Fenris Fang is more than it seems. Either that or someone is using it as a way to talk to me.” He glanced up as he said it. “I don’t know which and either way, I don’t like what I’m hearing.” He repeated what the great wolf had told him then added, “Killing the giants may be the easy part.”
Missy was startled. “The easy part? What could be harder than killing giants?”
His eyes were dark with foreboding. “I don’t know. That’s what worries me.”