Brother Banag, wearing a heavy black robe against the cool air of the fall night, stood in front of the campfire warming his hands. Ever since he had faced Hillel, the false prophet of
these people, he had felt nervous and cold. That accursed prophet bears no stone of power according to what we know, and yet? He must have masked his stone in some manner.
But what manner of concealment is there that’s not detectable by an adept of Belenus? Nonsense. But there has to be something.
He stared at the fire, ignoring the camp noise around him, and searched for an answer, an explanation for what had happened. His mind quailed at what the Master would do to him for his
failure to kill Hillel. He wrung his hands over the flames. There was no sense of power until I cast the curse. Then, power—like a score of sorcerers joined in a
coven, and my curse failed. I’ve had a curse deflected, or returned, but never absorbed as if it were nothing. The trick must be something these Freemen pigs stole from the Old Ones
centuries ago. They’re all thieves and liars, always twisting things to their profit. The very symbol of their god is a gold strongbox. He spit into the flames as his rage
flared up like the fire itself.
The memory of the Master calling him to the tower flashed through his mind. He had feared punishment for some failing until the Master had given him this mission.
The Master had stepped out of the darkness, a shadow in a shadowed room, almost invisible in his black robe and cowl. “You will cross the sea, landing on the coast of Mercia with five score
of Sulisie warriors, half of them archers. There you will be met by Brother Knobu and his group and travel with them to Swineland.”
The Master turned away from him to pick up something that moved on a table set against the wall. “Brother Knobu has started the cleansing of Swineland by planting the sickness on their
ships. He now goes to their capital to spread the disease further.”
He turned around holding a very large black rat which he petted absently. “I have foreseen the Witch of Hawkland’s interference in our plans. You will lie in wait for her with your
men inside the borders of Swineland. Be aware the witch has mastered the bird illusion and now thinks herself a great wizard. So stay back far enough to elude her until it’s time to
The Master reached behind him to set the rat back on the table. “Use the Sulisie archers to strip away the witch’s protection. Then confront her while your men move in for the
kill. She has no hidden ally this time as she had in the Great Forest. With her dead, the disease will do its part, and we’ll wipe out this infestation of filth.”
The Master walked over to tower over him. “I have another job for you to perform first. Since your path northward from Mercia leads near the cave of the so-called prophet,
Hillel. You will detour there and kill him before you head north. After you have killed the witch, you will take what forces you have and join Brother Drogo and the goblin allies I’ve
sent to the western mountains to destroy the Dwarves who dwell there. That will open the western border to invasion.”
Brother Banag turned to see his lead scout standing to one side of the fire. “Well?”
“They have arrived at the inn, Milord. Their scouts checked as far as the border, but not much further. And it was as you foretold, Milord. A small bird flew with them and
circled the area before flying north.”
Banag nodded. “They will cross tomorrow morning, being most watchful once they cross the border. On Freemen ground Captain Tamir will be in charge. He’ll be one of the lead
Always at the focal point of risk, Banag thought.This time the handsome captain will not be so lucky. This time he will join his brother.
Banag turned to his captain, a large Sulisie dressed like all the others in homespun and sheepskins. “Tell your men it’s critical to wait until the scouts leave their first message of safe
passage before they are taken. And I want Captain Tamir taken alive, do you understand?”
“Yes, Milord. He’ll be taken alive.”
“See that he is. What harm comes to him, comes to you.” Banag looked off into the darkness, struggling to grasp the pattern that was forming. “It’s critical that he leave his
message and continue on before we attack the caravan’s flank. You’ve confirmed that the witch turns into a bird and scouts from the sky.” A smile forced its way to his face.
“Not very well, it seems. But she’ll be up there. She must see nothing.”
“The bird will follow the scouts’ path, foolishly making sure it’s safe for them, and not checking the flanks widely. Once they leave the message, she’ll either scout ahead or return to the
caravan. Then, and only then, can we move west and intercept them.”
An itch at the back of his mind said he was missing something. That pig of a witch doctor has unsettled me, recasting that accursed prophesy. Always the same—the
least among them will lead them to victory. The Child of Derision! Nonsense! It’s as the Master says, no more than a peasant’s dream of freedom. Still, there was urgency to the
prophet’s words, as if the time of the child was nigh.
Banag shook off the feeling. Peasants always dream that one of their own will rise up and free them from bondage. But slaves never revolt. They have not the will for it or
they wouldn’t be slaves.
Banag looked to the sound of the voice. Uric, the acolyte, stood in the tent door. “Is there anything I can do, Milord?”
“Bring me a cup of wine. I’m cold.”
Faolan wondered why the man at the top of the steps was angry, but bowed anyway as he stopped at the bottom.
“Welcome, Faolan Blacksmith, I am Borka, Chief Steward to Clovis, King of Hollow Mountain.”
When Faolan straightened up, Borka gave a quick bow in return. “And I must thank you personally for saving my son’s life. What the fool was doing following the trade mission to your
campsite in these dangerous times…” He shook his head, then turned toward the doorway behind him. “If you will follow me, King Clovis would like to speak to you.”
“Don’t be too hard on Gutter, Borka, he saved our lives,” someone said behind Faolan as he and Badger went up the steps.
“That boy will be the death of me yet,” Borka muttered as he opened the door and stepped aside, leaving more than enough room for Faolan and Badger to enter.
The hall was nearly as large as the one at Hawk’s Keep, although the ceiling was not arched but flat. Light came in through a large square hole in the roof with round pillars at each
corner. An old man sat in a chair by the fireplace. Several older men stood around him dressed in clothing that would befit a wealthy merchant of Bar Krouth—trousers with a matching
split-tailed coat over a vest and shirt with a ruffle at the neck. None of these men wore the wide brim hats common in the city. Instead, their long hair was pulled back in a woven
braid that hung down their backs.
“Come forward, Faolan Blacksmith,” the old king said in a cracking voice. “You are welcome in our court.” As Faolan walked forward, the king continued, “We were just discussing the
reward needed to balance the scale for your actions.”
Faolan stopped in front of the king and bowed again. “I deserve no reward for doing what anyone would have done.”
A hint of amusement crossed the king’s face and his head tilted to one side. “Are you saying that the lives of five Accetani have no value?”
“No, Your Majesty.” Faolan shook his head emphatically. “But doing what one should doesn’t rise to the level of deeds worthy of reward.”
The old man’s eyes went from dwarf to dwarf around him. “We are a close and suspicious people, but we have lived as allies with the Freemen since our arrival in the Hollow Mountain.
Since you will not name a bounty for the lives of our people, we offer you instead a prize we consider of great value—adoption into the Accetani clan.”
“I would consider that a great honor, Your Majesty.” Faolan bowed.
The king nodded slowly. “Then henceforth, Faolan Blacksmith, you may pass through the gates of Hollow Mountain unchallenged. If you dwell among us, you may join the blacksmith’s guild
and learn the secrets of our metal working, which have been passed down generation to generation since first our people dug in the earth for metal.”
“Your Majesty, as one of the Accetani Clan of Hollow Mountain, I will honor and keep secret all I learn.” Faolan looked at the men standing around the king. “And if I have any
knowledge which I might share with our people, I will gladly do so.”
The middle-aged dwarf to the right of the king stepped forward. “I am Medwin, Captain of the Guard. Can you teach our people the use of the bow?”
“Certainly.” Faolan nodded.
“We have always defended our home with ax and shield. We don’t fight in the open world. However, this new enemy has attacked our air vents,” Medwin’s finger pointed up, “firing arrows
down on our people. We put men to guard the vents, but the cowards stand off and fire arrows at them, killing many before aid can arrive. We’ve made bows, but ours are no match for
theirs in distance.”
“Have you never faced goblins before?”
“No.” The king waved his hand. “There were goblins some distance from our old home which we left a generation ago to seek new mines. But this land has always been free of them.”
Faolan looked at the men’s worried faces. “Goblins, I’ve been told, live in caves and only hunt at night. They are masters of traps such as caught your people, and only attack when
they have a great advantage. Are you sure it was goblins that fired arrows into your vents and attacked your guards?”
The men looked at each other. The king shook his head slowly. “Until we recovered the bodies of the goblins you killed in rescuing the trading party, we had never seen our
enemy. They always ran before our war party arrived.”
The memory of the farmers he had rescued in West Mercia last year rose in Faolan’s mind. “The people of West Mercia have been plagued with goblins of late. I suspect that dark forces
have sent a tribe of them here to drive you out of Hollow Mountain. However, the same dark lords who bred the goblins there also bred orcs. They will fight during the day, although
they prefer twilight or night.”
“Both orcs and goblins?” The king leaned back in his chair with his head tilted to the side. “I’ve never heard of them fighting together.”
“Not together.” Faolan shook his head. “But they will fight for the same master.” He looked around at the men. “I’ve some experience with scouting and fighting, and it
tells me that we’re facing continuing attack until we find their lair and wipe it out.”
The king leaned forward in his chair. “And you’ll stay and help us in this fight?”
“I’ll stay. Your fights are my fights. Besides, the enemy you face now, if not stopped, will soon threaten the freeholds in this area.”
The next morning Faolan showed the carpenters how to choose the right yew trees for their bows, and loaned them his for a pattern, even though it was somewhat larger than a dwarf could
wield. He also explained the importance of swords in a shield wall. But the young dwarves who showed up that afternoon to learn how to fight orcs and goblins were only carrying
shields and axes.
Faolan put his hands on his hips as he stood in front of the assembled men. “The ax and shield are excellent weapons—for a shield wall in a tunnel—but in the open against orcs…” He
shook his head. “They’re taller than I am and you’ll need spears to hold them back. Then you’ll need a sword if the wall is to hold.”
“I have a sword.” One of the young dwarves stepped out of line and drew his weapon.
One glance told Faolan it wasn’t a broadsword. Other than size, the broadsword and the claymore were similar, wide and sharp on both sides with a two-handed grip and a short point on the
blade. The dwarf sword was much thinner and only sharp on one side, with a much more pronounced point. Also, the hilt was not designed for a two-handed grip.
Faolan held out his hand. “May I see your sword?”
“Yes, sir.” The young man reversed the blade to present the sword hilt first.
It felt much lighter than his broadsword as he bounced it in his hands and it was very sharp. Also, the hilt had a pommel in the shape of a four-sided pyramid. Instinctively, he knew
the sword was designed for close in combat, which would be the way dwarves would normally fight. As he handed it back, he noticed runes on the blade between the fuller and the edge.
He pointed. “What are those?”
“My sword’s name.” The dwarf smiled. “Clarimonde. It means ‘bright protector’ in your language.”
“Aptly named.” Faolan returned the sword. When the dwarf had fallen back with the others, Faolan looked them over. “Our fighting will be in the open, where a shield wall rarely
lasts long. Also, you’ll be up against orcs. They’re big and strong, and their skin is wild-boarhide tough. Your axes will do the job in single combat. But if we’re to
protect the archers behind the shield wall, it has to hold. That means spears, then swords to hold them off.”
Faolan held back the smile trying to escape because of the sad looks on their faces and the way their hands went instinctively to their axes. “But bring your axes as well.” Relief
flashed through them like a cool breeze. “Now go round up spears and swords. Then meet me back here in an hour.”
The twenty archers who showed up on the target range while he was waiting for the infantry to return also carried axes and shields and he couldn’t help shaking his head. The new bows
wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow, but he could teach them how to stand and aim. “Get a bow and line up in front of the targets.” He waved at the line at the front of the range.
“We’ll begin with how to stand.”
There were knots in Faolan’s stomach as he and Captain Medwin led the company out the gate and into the forest in the late afternoon two days later. The bowmen were eager, but still wildly
inconsistent, and the shield men untried. The shadows were long and the forest silent as the company marched down the trail to the path leading up to the vents.
Once into the trees, ten shield men and ten bowmen stopped with Faolan while Medwin led the other half of the company up the mountain to a large outcrop of rock where they could see all the
vents. “I want you in a triangle defense while I scout around.” Faolan pointed at a small clearing a few steps off the trail and pointed to the ground. “Right here. Shield
men on the outside, archers inside. That way you can respond to an attack from any direction.”
Once they were in formation, he and Badger went into the trees, listening and sniffing the breeze as they went. They had not gone far when Faolan heard sounds off to the side, near the
trail up the mountain. They moved slowly and carefully through the trees with Badger in the lead until they were just off the path, then waited. It sounds like an orc trying to
sneak through the forest, he thought as he drew back his bow. Or a clumsy dwarf, he concluded as Gutter came into sight pushing his shield through the brush.
Faolan released the tension on his bow and stepped out from behind the tree. “What are you doing out here?”
Gutter jumped and half drew his ax as he brought his shield up. Then he sighed and his head dropped. “I can’t very well repay my debt to you by lying around the house when you’re out
Faolan’s mouth opened, but nothing came out as he realized the boy was outside when it shouldn’t be possible with guards on the gate. “How did you get out of the mountain?”
Gutter laughed. “I know ways to get out nobody knows about.”
“We’ll talk about that later. Right now, I have to get you up to the defense line.” Faolan turned and started up the hill. “Badger, check the area for me, please.”
Gutter fell in behind him and followed, a little less loudly than before. When they approached the area where he had left his men, an arrow flew by, high and wide. Faolan shook his
head and then yelled, “What did I tell you about seeing your target?”
Faolan knew whose arrow it was the moment he stepped into the clearing, the dwarf with the red face. They’re all older than I am, yet I feel like I’m herding children
again. He put his hands on his hips. “I may be ugly, but I’m nowhere near as big or ugly as an orc. So wait until you can see what you’re aiming at before you let loose.”
He waved Gutter ahead. “Get inside the circle and stay there.” Then he turned and headed back down the mountain in a large, back-and-forth search pattern. There were signs of
passing going both directions, but nothing that clearly identified whether dwarf or orc.
When he reached the trail that led to the trading area, Badger was waiting. They went to the goblin mantraps where he had rescued the dwarves and examined them. The traps were
ingenious. Large nets had been spread under the trees with hidden ropes on wooden pulleys. The trigger had been a large, flat piece of wood placed over a small log so that it would
tip when stepped on. Anyone who came down the trail would have tripped it.
Faolan saw signs of goblins around the site—threads from the rags they wore as clothing and footprints—but the dwarves had trampled any chance of trailing them back to their cave. He and
Badger might be able to pick up their trail in the morning, but he suspected that once the goblins got near their lair, they would set up false trails and traps. Night was coming on fast,
so he and Badger headed back to his men on the hill. He lit the recall signal torch as soon as he got there. When the others arrived, they headed down the mountain to the gate.
It was dark by the time they reached the entrance, and the sound of the gate closing echoed as they marched through the torch-lit tunnel to the cavern.
That night Faolan dreamed he was at the battle of Tower Farm again, and Gutter was there to lead him and the others through the tunnel to the barbarian’s camp. He awoke just as King Ragnon
led his men out of the tunnel behind the enemy. But, that’s not what happened. He sat up in his too-short bed. The dark wizard and his men came into the cavern
under the tower through the tunnel.
He found Captain Medwin in his quarters eating breakfast, and said, “I have a plan.”