Durin was surveying the progress his dwarves were making on the tunnels when Munur, who had become his page and herald and right-hand man called down the tunnel to him. “Sire! The war mage and ‘is wife have returned!” Ralt’s single-handed defeat of the Titan had forever earned him the respect of all the dwarves. None mentioned his elven blood any longer.
“Good!” He stumped up the tunnel, ignoring the dwarves who hurried to get out of his way. In his youth in Thangadrim, everyone except his parents had scurried aside when they saw him coming. He’d accepted it as his due as heir to the throne and it was easy to return to those old habits now the crown actually sat on his head. He emerged from the tunnels as Ralt pulled a stuffed pouch out of his saddlebags. His pegasus sniffed the air then, shook his head and pranced sideways away from it.
Durin halted and jammed his fists on his hips. “Is dat it? Yer flying pony don’t seem ta like it very much.”
Ralt gingerly set the bag down on a nearby rock. “I don’t blame him. A little pepper goes a long way. Missy and I have been sneezing our heads off ever since we got this stuff. And that’s just from being near it. I can’t imagine what’ll happen when we throw it in the face of those bears.”
“Nuthin’ dem bears will like,” Ragrak said from where he was talking with his lieutenants. “Dey’ll scatter to da four winds, roaring and wailing and crying like a buncha day-old cubs. Don’t get in der way and dey’ll ignore ya like ya don’t exist,” he said confidently.
Durin felt a surge of hope. Fighting one bear in the cave with Storm had been bad enough. The prospect of fighting several dozen of them in close quarters along with attacking giants wasn’t one he looked forward to. If Ragrak’s plan worked, it would eliminate one of the giant’s strongest defenses while strengthening their own hand. “Good! We canna fight bears wit da same tactics we use on da blasted giants and I dinna wish ta lose any more of me people.”
Grior emerged from the tunnel. “Sire! We’ve reached da breakthrough point.”
The breakthrough point was what dwarves called it when they’ll tunneled up high enough underfoot for the remaining ground to be thick enough to support whoever was standing on it, yet thin enough they could break through it a matter of minutes. The breakthrough point of rock was different than the breakthrough point of earth or dirt, and both of those varied depending on the weight they had to support.
Durin nodded at him then snapped his fingers at Munur. “Da other groups will be reaching der own breakthrough points too. Git timbers ta all of ‘em.” He nodded and hurried away. Dwarven tactics relied on digging up past the breakthrough point then shoring up the ground with timbers they could knock out with a single hammer blow to bring the ground down in an instant.
The dwarves standing nearby grinned in anticipation as they heard Durin’s orders.
He turned Ragrak. “We got yer pepper, how do we use it?”
The Captain of the Norlode First Legion pulled out a sling. “Wit dis. Put a small spoonful of pepper in a square of parchment, fold it up, and tie it off wit string. When da bears come at ye, hit ‘em in da face. Da parchment will bust open, spilling da pepper all over ‘em.” He opened the bag of pepper and produced a spoon. He carefully measured out one level spoonful into the center of a small square of parchment. He pulled the four corners up like a handkerchief and tied them together with a short length of string. “Watch.” He motioned the dwarves away from the side of the mountain a dozen cubits away. He whirled the sling around his head then, let loose. The parchment burst when it hit the rock and a cloud of pepper filled the air. A couple of dwarves who were too close suddenly began coughing and gagging, waving their hands in the air as they backed away fast. Ragrak grinned. “Works like a charm,” he bragged.
Durin thumped him on the back. “Right glad I be dat yer brother sent ye ta me, lad, right glad indeed!” He glanced around at the others. “Alright. Ye saw what needs ta be done. Git busy making pepper bags.”
Within the hour, all the dwarves had tunneled past the breakthrough point and pepper bags were distributed to anyone who could wield a sling.
The plan was simplicity itself; Ralt would thump the ground with Shadow Flame to signal the attack. Mighty dwarves with war hammers would hit the timbers holding up the ground at the same time others drove iron wedges into the rock, splitting it open to bring it crashing down. The moment it was down, four dwarves would grab each of the pepper slingers, one on each arm and leg, and begin heaving them up through the holes into the fortress. As soon as they landed and got their bearings, they would target the nearest bears with pepper while the rest of the dwarves scrambled up to engage the giants.
Durin gathered with his dwarves in the tunnels below the giant’s fortress. Many of the tunnels were interconnected during their mining efforts and his voice boomed hollowly through them. “Dis be da day, lads. Dis be da day we begin ta reclaim wot is rightfully ours. Too long we’ve hidden away and been looked down on, too long we’ve worked for udders, too long we’ve ‘ung our heads in shame and begged fer scrapes. No more!” His voice thundered through the tunnels, booming and echoing. “Today, we take what we deserve. Attack!”
Ralt brought Shadow Flame down, rocking the mountain with its thunder, wondering yet again what it was he’d helped set in motion.
Durin stepped forward with a roar, not waiting for the hammers to bring down the nearest timbers, using Fenris Fang to cut them in half, sending the pieces spinning through the air. The dwarves standing on the shoulders of their fellows, aimed iron wedges at the rock overhead and swung hard with their own hammers. The sound of rock splitting in multiple places was loud in the confined space. A moment later the roof collapsed with a thunderous, deafening roar. Rolling echoes told of similar collapses happening elsewhere in the mountaintop fortress. Sunlight flooded the tunnel in spite of the heavy cloud of dust billowing up. An instant later, dwarves holding one of their fellows by by the arms and legs, swung them once then heaved them up through the hole in the ceiling.
Durin roared with eagerness for battle. Smoke billowed up out of his mighty axe and he leaped on Fenris Fang’s back. “Git me up der, mutt!” Fenris crouched then, sprang through the hole overhead. Durin rolled off him and whirled around, taking in the scene with a glance.
Bears were already wuffing and roaring from the stinging pepper in their eyes and noses. Others, too far away to be aware of the danger, were rushing forward but the doughty dwarves all over the fortress stood their ground, hurling pepper bags at them as fast as they could reload. The giants, standing on parapets to peer over the walls, were turning to see what happened. They’d expected any attack to come from outside. This attack, coming from behind them, already inside their fortress, had caught them by surprise.
Durin bellowed with joy. “We got ‘em, lads! We got ‘em! Attack!” Dwarves boiling up out of the ground from dozens of holes, let out a mighty roar and followed their king into battle.
Durin rushed past a wailing bear, brushing fruitlessly at its nose, to attack the first giant he came to. He swung Fenris Fang in a sweeping arc, slicing through flesh and bone. The giant bellowed in pain and lurched sideways as his leg was suddenly unable to bear his weight. He crashed into one of his fellows and they both went down. Durin laughed and leapt forward, sweeping Fenris Fang back and forth in powerful swings. Moments later he was joined by other dwarves, chopping the giants into bloody bits. Around the fortress, the same tactic was being played out everywhere he looked, with similar results each time.
He paused to watch Ralt striding through the battle unconcerned with anything around him. The wizard marched up to each bear in turn, standing carefully out of their way as they thrashed around, waiting momentarily until the opportunity presented itself, then swinging Shadow Flame like a club. Every time the globe on the end connected with a bear, their heads ruptured in an explosion of blood and bones and brains. Their bodies dropped to the ground, twitching spasmodically in their death throes. Durin chuckled to himself, remembering Ralt’s first battle when he’d thrown up in reaction to killing an enemy wizard. Now he was dealing out death as casually as swatting flies.
He put the wizard out of his mind and swung around. There were still plenty of giants and they had recovered from their initial surprise and were hurling boulders they’d stacked in piles along the walls. The inner part of the fortress was big, built as it was for frost giants, but so many dwarves were still pouring in from the tunnels that the giants couldn’t miss. Every boulder they flung took a heavy toll in dwarven lives. Durin ground his teeth in anger and leapt to the attack.
His anger was nearly his undoing.
Durin was focused straight ahead and didn’t see the giant coming at him from the side until a huge foot kicked him through the air. He slammed into the side of a stone building with bruising force and fell heavily to the ground. If not for his armor he’d have already been dead. As it was, he was dazed and blurry, trying to focus through the pain. He raised his head and saw the giant heading for him. He rolled aside as the giant hurled a boulder the size of a horse head at him. It exploded into fragments as it hit the wall over his head. Rubble and debris rained down on him. He shook his head to clear it and nearly fell over. He staggered around the side of the building, trying to put some space between him and the giant to give himself another moment or two to gather his wits but the giant pursued him relentlessly. Dwarves always fought best against giants by getting as close to them as possible but his dizziness would make it impossible for him to maintain the agility that was imperative in battle. He shook his head again to clear it and this time he did fall.
He fell backwards.
The giant wasn’t expecting it and stepped over and past him before it could stop itself. Durin rolled toward it and brought Fenris Fang around as hard as he could right on the giant’s heel. The great axe bit deep and the giant let out an unearthly howl of agony. It automatically lifted its injured foot while Durin kept rolling toward the other foot which he also attacked with Fenris Fang. The giant, already off balance, bellowed as it crashed to the ground, shaking the stones under Durin as he made it to his feet. Remembering Ralt’s victory against the Titan, Durin dashed forward to bury his axe in the giant’s forehead.
The monster jerked as if struck by lightning. Durin yanked his axe out, unleashing a river of blood but the giant was still alive, fighting to get up despite the blood streaming into its eyes. Durin leaped off the giant’s chest and spun around, bringing Fenris Fang about in a great sweeping blow to the side of its head. This time, the giant stiffened for a moment, then flopped back on the ground, shaking in its death throes.
“Durin Giant’s Bane!”
Durin glanced up to see Ralt pointing his staff at him, yelling above the noise of the battle. The surrounding dwarves immediately took up the chant, timing their blows to the words as they stomped the ground and attacked the remaining giants. Durin knew the value of moral in achieving victory. He sprang up on the body of the dead giant and thrust his bloody axe into the sky. “For Durin and Thangadrim!” he roared.
“Durin and Thangadrim! Durin and Thangadrim! Durin and Thangadrim!” they responded, turning it into a battle cry. He leapt off the giant and led them in the final attack on the remaining frost giants. Within minutes, the last of the monsters fell beneath the sheer number of grim dwarves hacking them to pieces.
A mighty bellow issued forth from the throats of the victorious dwarves as they danced and waved their weapons in the air. Durin wove his way through the ranks, being pounded on the back every step of the way by cheering dwarves. He scrambled up on the outer wall where all of them could see him.
Another cheer split the air.
“Giant’s Bane! Giant’s Bane! Giant’s Bane!”
Durin grinned at his people. He spied Ragrak standing in the crowd and waved him up to the wall to stand beside him. “Me cousin who showed us ‘ow ta defeat da bears, Ragrak!” he bellowed at them. They raised a mighty cheer.
Ragrak, stunned at the king’s ready attribution of their victory to his help, waved his hammer at them.
Durin gestured for Ralt and Missy to join him as well, along with Grior. They climbed up beside him. “War mage and me High Advisor, Emrys Giant’s Bane! The right lovely battle maid, Missy Rivers! Chieftain of the Shamir and uncle ta Missy, Grior the Noble! Munur, son of Grior and me Court Herald!”
The assembled dwarves cheered at each name as he called them in turn.
Then, he flung his arms wide to include all of them. “Sons and daughters of Shokri, heirs ta Thangadrim, me family, kith, and ken fer all time!”
Their answering roar shook the mountain.
From the far north came a deep, almost inaudible subterranean boom.
Durin’s eyes widened in surprise. “Thangadrim has answered us,” he bellowed. The dwarven warriors had felt and heard it too, they went wild at his words, leaping, yelling, and laughing in triumph.
Ralt turned north, leaning on his staff. He squinted his eyes as if by sheer will he could see across the leagues to find the cause of that unearthly rumble. Despite Durin’s optimistic words, he didn’t believe for an instant it had anything to do with Thangadrim. Something had changed in the world, he could feel it, something that had nothing to do with the dwarves and their ancestral homeland.
But was it a change for good or ill?