A Tale by Rhianna and Michael DeAngelo
The three brothers glanced up at the immense flight of frozen steps. The Frostveil was before them, lancing toward the sky as though it meant to attack. But their mountain home was known for its sturdiness and hardiness, not for its volatility.
Einar grunted, thinking that it might have been helpful to have the mountain stir those dark clouds, and possibly chase them away. A storm had been brewing for some time, only it wasn’t the snowy storm they expected at that time of year. No, a distant sound of thunder resonating across the region left the three brothers aware that the weather had been changing, and that their return to the hall needed to be quick indeed.
“It sounds like the sky is about to open up,” Baldur, the youngest brother, claimed from the back of the procession, pushing on their wagon to help it ascend the steps.
“Aye,” Gudbrand said. “And we didn’t even get a warning about it. Perhaps everyone is already hunkered down in the Frostveil.” As he spoke, he looked to the oldest among them, Einar, who tugged their pony up the steps, the wagon close behind it. The eldest of the three brothers was as weary as the rest of them, and he kept his stern, solemn gaze about him.
But as they crested the final step there before the landing, Gudbrand could see Einar loosen his grip on the reins, and he knew they were in for a rest.
“If ye found out a god ate lightning and farted thunder, ye’d want to lock yourself up in yer nice warm hall as well,” Einar teased.
“Gudbrand has a good point though,” Baldur said then. “Someone could have used the one of the whistles to let us know that the weather would be treacherous. We could have hunkered down in a cave and waited for the storm to pass. There’s little hope of us getting up the rest of these steps before the storm takes us over.”
“Yer right, lad,” Einar said. “That’s why we’re going to be stopping here.”
Baldur tilted his head. “On the landing? It’s fairly exposed, wouldn’t you say?”
Gudbrand folded his arms over his chest then. “He means to make a crude lean-to from the furs we’ve already shorn free.”
“That’s right,” Einar confirmed. “And with the wagon blocking the gap between those two right there, we should be able to build a fire right there, and…”
Baldur let his older brother’s words drift off into the night. He was more interested in the area where they would make camp. The landing was at the end of a set of hundreds of steps that led to the Frostveil mountain’s entrance to the Coldwhistle clan. It was often that when Baldur was young, he would head to that spot and let his imagination run wild. But that drew to a stop when the bordering stone around the perimeter of the place had been knocked into the snow far below. The rest of the clan never received any answer for who was responsible, but Baldur suspected it was an older dwarven lad who didn’t like that he was able to find recreation on his own so close to home.
Of late, the platform became a resting spot for dwarves making their pilgrimage to the Frostveil, or merchants bringing wares, or, in their case, for hunters to relax before making a run up the rest of the steps.
Large stones were erected on the platform, making an oblong circle. That strange stone garden, as Baldur came to call it, wasn’t created by any dwarf of their clan as far as the lad knew. In a way it almost became like a holy place to the dwarves.
It seemed odd, then, to see Einar stringing up furs and lashing the wagon to the huge stones. Baldur hummed to himself then, for he knew that there was nothing risking the safety of the pillars. He had seen fights break out between members of his clan there before and watched as hardy warriors were smashed up against the rocks, which didn’t budge. Either they were even heavier than they looked, or they had grown up far beneath where they stood.
Only a short while later, Baldur had to admit, the work that Einar had set to seemed to make a difference. The blustery cold wind seemed to bother them a little less, and the sight of the sparks that the older brother summoned with flint and steel seemed more appealing than before.
“Go on then lads,” Einar said. “Take a seat. I’ll have this fire roaring in a few moments.”
Gudbrand was the first to take his brother up on that offer, finding a new comfortable spot close to where he knew the warmth would be. Baldur took care to place his backpack against one of the stones that wasn’t too far away from the heat and the light, and then pressed up against it, confirming that it would be comfortable.
A knicker from the pony reminded him he couldn’t relax quite yet.
“I know, I know,” he said, hopping to his feet once more. He headed to the wagon and reached into a leather pouch, pulling out some feed for their beast of burden. In that cold region, it was sometimes difficult to find any grass to graze on. The Coldwhistle Clan’s horses were hardy and strong, but they still didn’t like to go hungry. “Ye didn’t think I’d forgotten about ye, did ye?”
When Baldur finished feeding their pony, he turned about to see Einar fetching some items from their wagon. He stood on his toes, until he finally found what he was looking for, and pulled them from the other goods they’d amassed throughout their journey. Einar headed back toward the fire, holding the two hares by their long ears.
“Aren’t we supposed to bring back the food for the clan?” Baldur asked.
“We can’t go along on empty stomachs,” Einar said. “Besides, they didn’t send us any warning about the storm. Fair is fair,” he said with a laugh.
“A worthy trade,” Gudbrand teased.
When Baldur turned to regard the middle brother, he was surprised to see him whittling a long white object. He arched his eyebrow, his lips parting to ask the question that desperately wanted to be asked.
“It’s not one of ours,” Gudbrand said, guessing his younger brother’s intentions before he could speak. “Not one of the clans, that is.”
“It looks just like one of them,” Baldur said.
Gudbrand snickered at the sound of that. “Now when was the last time ye saw one of our clan whistles, eh? I’d say it’s been so long that you barely know it from yer own backside, but I appreciate the compliment all the same. No, this is just one that I’ve been working on for a wee bit. It’s not even in good condition yet.” He brought the stem of the whistle to his lips and blew, sending out a few stray bits of ivory along with a discordant tone.
Far to the east, hidden amongst trees and snow, a lone wolf let a howl fly, and the three brothers couldn’t help but laugh.
“I think ye’ve made a friend,” Einar ribbed.
“Better hope he doesn’t want to be more than that,” Baldur piled on.
“Bah,” Gudbrand waved before setting back to work on his flute. “Just a coincidence, I’d wager. They’ve got their own songs to sing, of course.”
“Not unlike my belly,” the oldest brother said. Einar had the two rabbits skinned, and ready to cook, and he threw their furs back in the wagon before fetching two of three skewers he had on hand in the cart. A few moments later, the fire licked at the meat, almost as though it seemed as hungry as the three brothers. “There we go,” Einar said, groaning as he took a seat close to the campfire. “It won’t be much, but it ought to tide us over until the storm passes by.”
“Ye’d like to think,” Gudbrand said. “This might be one of those slow-moving storms that likes ta linger. We might be here longer than yer two bunnies will be able to feed us for.”
Einar waved his brother’s comment off. “Yer just mad because ye missed yer shots at both. Besides, we’ve got more here in case we’re cut off for longer than we want. I might need help propping up more furs though in case the storm turns to a sturdy snow or a freezing rain.”
“Aye, I’ll help ye then,” Baldur said.
“But not a moment before,” Gudbrand said with a wink and a smile. He returned to his whittling, turning his whistle toward the fire every few moments to see where the ivory needed carving next. He hummed to himself, and looked at his younger brother, shaking the instrument at him to gather up his attention while shaking out the bits that no longer needed to be there. “Do ye know why not everyone knows about the whistles?”
Baldur could tell that it wasn’t a question that Gudbrand didn’t already know the answer to. It was a test, and it was one that he knew he could surely pass. He may not have seen one of the fabled whistles in some time, but he knew very well what they were capable of.
“It’s because all magic comes with a price,” he said then. “Even spells that are cast with good intentions can come with effects the caster might not anticipate. The more people who know about the whistles, the more it could bring unnecessary magic to the Frostveil and the surrounding region.”
Gudbrand chuckled and clicked his tongue. “Spoken like an academic. Ye sure ye should be out here hunting with us instead of throwing yer nose in a book?” He could tell that Baldur felt a bit miffed at that comment, the younger brother sending his gaze to the wagon strapped between the stone pillars. In Einar’s efforts to gather up some food for their impromptu dinner, he had moved about some of their other catches, including the white-furred fox that the youngest brother had slew. Gudbrand hummed and leaned in a little closer toward his sibling. “Go on and tell me: how did it feel to take a life in your hands and feel it fleeting?”
Baldur looked to the fox as though he could see its open eyes. He thought back to the shot that he had taken that had snuffed out its life. His quarry had likely felt no pain, but to Gudbrand’s point, he had felt the warmth in it fade away as he grabbed hold of it. It left a pit in his stomach, even though he knew that such things were necessary for the survival of his people.
“Don’t go on teasing so much,” Einar said. “I remember when ye had yer own problems besides being a bad shot. Don’t be trying to scare him or making him feel ill at ease with what he had to do. It was as the gods decreed.” The oldest brother rose and grabbed the fox from the cart, draping it across his lap when he sat by the fire once more. “What we should do is eat it as well. It’s Baldur’s first kill, after all. Now don’t worry lad, I’ll skin the thing, but eating it is a part of the natural order, and it would mean more of its sacrifice. There is power in taking a life if it is for the sake of good. Sometimes magic is created from the taking or making of life. It can be drawn to it, as that’s when nature is at its most powerful.
“People like to think that magic is this infinite power across our realm, but it’s not,” Einar said. “It has great potential, but unchecked, it could bring ruin to us. If it isn’t used with discretion, magic can use us more than we use it.”
“Here we go,” Gudbrand said, rubbing his hands together. “Another Einar folktale meant to put chills up your spine, and hair on yer chin.”
The elder brother folded his arms over his chest then. “Alright then, Gudbrand. Why don’t ye whittle away at something other than a whistle for a few moments, eh? Tell Baldur the story of Calder.”
“Calder?” Gudbrand asked. “But he brought the Frostveil more power and wealth than any king before him. If yer trying to teach a lesson—”
“Blast it all ye fool,” Einar said. “Ye know that he had his moments.” He turned to Baldur then, the fire aglow in his eyes, almost leaving the eldest brother looking mad. “Calder the Curious made the mistake of overusing the power of the whistles, and he nearly paid the price, not just for himself, but for all of the Frostveil.”
“Alright, ye’ve made yer point,” Gudbrand said. “But ye’ve tasked me with telling the tale, and I’d tell it better than ye anyway, so let me get at it. Ye can barely pay attention to breathing while yer spouting off about yer nonsense, and ye’ve got work to do,” he indicated, pointing toward the fox that needed to be skinned yet. Gudbrand slid his whistle into his pack again and scooched a bit closer to the fire.
“Calder the Curious,” he said, looking to the sky and throwing his hands out wide in a bit of entertaining theatrics. “The dwarven king who almost doomed the Frostveil. This intrepid dwarf believed that the powers of the Coldwhistle’s namesake should not be used just in our times of need, but in earnest. His champions used it to communicate across mountains and through caverns, and to alert those of his clan to the best hunting grounds, or mines rich with minerals and gems, or even an attractive fishing spot. And of course, he reminded everyone often about the song to order a return home. But the songs of the whistles were heard so often that others began hearing the music and understanding their meaning as well.
“Calder was curious, but he was no fool. He was keen to listen to any of the songs that his people would play across the region, and any time he heard a song that would indicate a bountiful return, he made a point to investigate it. Worried for his people, he would ride unattended, with only his great white pony and his grey falcon accompanying him. Calder was a strong dwarf, even by our standards. He wielded a great two-sided axe that no one had ever seen him use, for no one was reckless enough to challenge him. He was a strong, sturdy dwarf, and leaner than most, choosing not to feast when he could just as easily be finding news about the next great pursuit for his people. He was smart, even as far as kings went—to a point, you’ll see. He did not follow the old ways, and he had little respect for the gods, or legends of the creatures of old, even in the rare cases when his people would appeal for him to change.”
“Eventually his people were able to convince him, just not the way that anyone would have expected…”
With daylight still shining down from the western horizon, the icicles that clung to the tree branches set a shimming glow upon the tome he read. The king sat beside one of his favorite trees in the area, the largest of the citraltenn in the area, so named for the tall brown trunk that grew jutted out from the snow toward the skies, and the silver, spearhead-like leaves that grew throughout winter. In the very brief spring, those leaves would shed off the branches, nourishing the land around the Frostveil. New leaves would grow then through an even briefer summer, the leaves quickly transforming from a lush green to a pale gold before looking like a those blades a delicate-handed blacksmith would forge upon every branch.
It was there that the fresh air overpowered the scent of the old book. Calder placed great value on knowledge gleaned from the past, but he didn’t like the smell of the musty old pages. The thought of reading by candlelight like a scholar set a pit in his stomach; just the thought of the stale air in a dwarven library had him sucking saliva back past his teeth.
Beside him, his pony nickered, and he turned to gaze at the sturdy creature. “What is it, Syril?” the dwarf asked. “Do ye hear something?”
The pony’s ears flicked, and he stamped his foot enough to summon forth the other companion the pair traveled with. A screech rang out in the air, and Calder closed his book, looking up to see his falcon, Lialla, diving toward the citraltenn. She spread her wings, gliding to a stop upon the lowest bough above the dwarven king.
“How is it that the two of ye always hear things ‘afore me, even when I’ve got these big things,” he said, tugging on one of his ears.
Almost as soon as he finished speaking, he heard a song upon the wind, and he furrowed his brow as he tried to hear it more clearly. It hadn’t come from one of the fabled whistles of his people, although it was a song that he’d had taught to the clan. Instead, he could hear beautiful voices forming a chorus of it, carrying across the region in a slightly different cadence that haunted him to his soul.
Calder clicked his tongue, letting Syril know that he needed a ride. The pony shifted, sidling up next to the dwarven monarch, and allowing him to hop on.
“Go ahead then, Lialla,” Calder said. “Lead us to whatever is singing that beautiful melody.”
Though it wasn’t a song played by one of the Coldwhistle instruments, it was one that the king couldn’t ignore.
It was the song of a bountiful treasure.
* * *
Syril was careful with his steps, ensuring that his shooed hooves were planted firmly in the snow before he took his next pace forward. The snow was not so cold that day that it had frozen solid, but all it took in that region was a passing cloud lingering over the sun for too long. There was still a small amount of give there in that snow, a crunch resounding every time Syril stepped forth.
Up above, Lialla circled about. Calder looked up and saw his bird of prey there and knew that she was certain he had found what he was looking for. She was likely looking for something to eat or separating herself from the enchanting music that had never ceased once Calder had heard it begin.
As Calder and Syril crested the next hill, the king saw an unfamiliar body of water stretching out before him. A frozen lake had formed, and behind it, against a rock wall, a waterfall that was half-freezing was present as well. He could hear the slow creaking of the water as it made its way down. If it was not for that sound, he would have thought the scene was frozen in time. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and when he hopped from Syril’s back, he lingered there for some time, appreciating the beauty of the place, and the song that seemed to enchant him so.
There were still a chorus of voices that echoed in the area, and Calder was surprised that others from his clan hadn’t been drawn to the place as he had. He hummed as he thought that, as he had slowly been guiding them not to respond to just any call from their whistles, that their enemies could take advantage of their songs. He was always to be consulted first, and he often investigated on his own.
But the choral arrangement of their music was almost intoxicating, and the king felt a warmth in his body that he hadn’t throughout all of winter to hear it.
He was almost content to take a seat there beside one of the trees in the area—not a citraltenn that time, no—they were rare within the region of the Frostveil, and growing rarer still, as none had grown for decades. No, Calder leaned against a beech tree with a trunk that was as white as the snow that surrounded it. Its branches were bare, allowing him to better see when Lialla swooped down and took up a place upon it. She chittered to him with a quick series of tapping chirps that he understood as a warning. Somehow that was all it took for the song to loosen its hold on him, though he could still hear it, rolling over the rock wall where the water cascaded down.
As the sun set just a little bit more, letting its rays hit the waterfall, however, he was enlightened to something new. New light shined behind the water, for a cave had been revealed.
“I’ll be damned,” the king whispered, drawing closer to the place.
The singing within seemed to grow louder then as well, inviting him closer yet. As he came to the edge of the frozen lake, he could better see inside the cave behind the waterfall and understood that the sunlight had cast out in just the right place, illuminating the bounty that awaited him inside. There were valuable crystals inside, he was sure of it.
Before he could take a step onto the ice, Lialla let out a screech that was just discordant enough to interrupt the singing voices. Calder blinked excessively, as though he had just been woken by his retainers for the morning. He shook his head and heard a new song in the distance. It was the call to return home—not a desperate call, but a routine one, for the region could be hazardous indeed when the sun fully set.
As Calder’s gaze alternated between the tall mountain in the distance that served as his home, and the nearby cave that could have represented untold riches, he realized that the song that had come from there had stopped. He grumbled, knowing best what to do, and he was encouraged further by his pony, who nudged him on his shoulder.
“I know, Syril,” he said. “Just give me a moment.”
The dwarven king reached into his satchel, and retrieved a map of the area, doing his best to identify the path that he had taken with a piece of shaved charcoal. He was certain he had never seen the lake or the waterfall before and wondered how it appeared when it did. Nevertheless, he was certain that the way back had been documented well, and he nodded, almost bowing to the cave in a promise to return.
“Alright then you two,” he said to his pony and his falcon. “Let’s get back to the mountain and tell everyone the good news.”
* * *
He returned to the sturdy doors of his hall after the chill of night had begun to freeze the stone steps. Syril had to take extra care to make it up those carved slabs, and by the time Calder had passed through to the main area, his belly was rumbling.
One of his retainers noticed his approach and brought him an ale that still had froth at its head.
“Yer timing couldn’t have been better, Azakai,” Calder said. “Ye been looking out over the steps with yer spyglass again?”
His retainer bowed. “Only as long as daylight would let me. I just caught you at the foot of the steps. After that it was just a question of planning out the timetable and—”
“And ye’ve done a good job at that,” Calder said, clapping him on the back. “Listen lad: I need either you or Joran to summon my hunting party. I need all six of them, ye hear? There’s something important I must discuss with them. Bring them into the silver chamber when you’ve got the lot of them.”
Calder headed directly to the indicated room, throwing the doors open. It had been enchanted as such that the braziers on the walls opposite and perpendicular to the entrance would light as soon as the doors swung ajar—a fact that he routinely forgot about. He gasped a bit before he grumbled, his disdain for magic showing just a bit in those moments. He looked over his shoulder to see if any of the citizens of the Frostveil were out and about that close to the entrance in that late hour, but as cold as it usually was there, most of his clan were already in their homes. All the better, he thought. He wanted them to see him as a courageous leader, and even the slightest flinch could erode the foundation of that image he presented.
The silver chamber was named as such for two reasons. Beneath each of the braziers, a tapestry of chain links fell toward the floor, adding a strange shimmering to the room. The table was also etched with a carving of a citraltenn, a silver substance evening out surface. In generations past, the room was used to prepare for battles. Of late, with less wars to fight, it was used more for counsel.
The first of the Calder’s hunters arrived just as he was laying out the map on the table.
“I see ye were off gallivanting again,” the fellow said.
If he were any other dwarf, such words would have been met with a quick and punishing remark at the very least. Everybody knew, however, that the old dwarf had been Calder’s steward since he was a wee princeling.
“Fograk,” the king said, eyeing the fellow up as though he were offended. His furrowed brow gave way to gentler features then as he smiled, and he walked over to his old friend and gave him a quick hug. “How is it that ye’re the oldest of the lot, and are always the first one to arrive when I go calling?”
“Well,” the old hunter said, steadying himself as he puffed out his chest. “It helps to have one of the closest homes to the great gates. It also helps that I don’t range too far from the mountain these days. I get home and eat my supper and wait for any call that says I’m needed.”
“You’ve earned your rest, friend,” Calder insisted. “How often do I bother you that you need to always be on high alert?”
“It’s never a bother, me king,” the old dwarf said.
They would have gone back and forth for a while then, were it not for the next two hunters that arrived. Two brothers—by marriage, not by blood—hurried into the room next.
“We just received word from Joran,” the one said. “Shall I be bringing my axe or my bow?”
Calder chuckled at the enthusiasm of the second oldest of his captains, a tough dwarf that was only a few years younger than him. “Neither, Gisraen. This meeting is a survey of what you’ve all encountered out in the wilds. I’ve run across something peculiar that I want to see if you have any familiarity with.”
Gisraen took a seat then with a grumble.
The younger dwarf by his side flashed his smile, eager to sit at the table and hear what his king had to say.
Their monarch returned to the head of the table then, ready to deliver his questions as soon as the other dwarves came to the silver chamber. He didn’t offer the others the same deference that he did with Fograk, preferring to keep up with a certain mystique and pecking order.
Still, he wasn’t without his manners.
“What puts a smile on yer face this day, Ragmer?” he asked the other dwarf.
Ragmer, who among all of Calder’s champions was known as the one between everyone else in age, was also the handsomest within the clan—a fact that he was aware of, and which he used to tease just about all the other dwarves he knew, Gisraen most of all.
“Just happy about the timing is all, my liege. A few minutes earlier and I think I would have been in trouble, but I think I had just finished making our fifth little warrior with Kaitedei.”
Gisraen growled and slammed his fist on the table once he heard his sister’s name leave his brother-in-law’s lips.
“Easy, ya damned berserker,” Fograk said to the oldest hunter besides him at the table. “Ye’ll break the damned table.”
Besides Calder and Fograk, Gisraen would be older than anyone else who sat at the table, but his energy for his age helped to keep him looking young. That, and that he kept his scraggly hair covered beneath a bandana that made it look like at any point he could go venturing across a frozen sea to fight against pirates. The warning he received from the even older dwarf was taken with the same energy that he had taken his brother-in-law’s comment. He growled at Fograk’s words and waved them away, bowing his head and closing his eyes to rid himself of all the noise.
The next dwarf to round the corner and walk through the doors of the silver chamber looked like one of the pirates Gisraen would have opted to fight. Wearing a patch that had been fastened to his eye, the dwarf took a measured glance at every corner of the room, ensuring that he was sharp to everyone that was present.
“This must be important if it couldn’t wait till morning,” he said.
“What’s the matter, Volgrem?” Ragmer asked, his tone teasing in jest. “Getting some shuteye?”
“Aye, and you should shut your mouth,” the scarred dwarf said, taking his time to speak just as he had to observe the room. His measured actions and manner of speech had him sounding a little less like a dwarf, and more like the humans they had encountered throughout the years. Volgrem was known accompany the merchants to the bottom of the Frostveil and back out of the kingdom to give them safe passage. Of any of the dwarves at the table, he would probably be the one who spent the most time with the humans.
“Don’t ye worry,” Calder said then. “This won’t be a long meeting, but I still need the lot of ye here to know what ye’ve all seen out in the wilds. After that, ye can get back to your bed and rest up. There’s cold days yet ahead, ranging is getting harder as the weather gets harsher.”
Volgrem nodded and sank into his seat along the edge of the table, a seat meant for one of the two youngest among them.
His counterpart, a dwarven lad with a shorter beard than most, hurried in then, a bit red in the face and nervous.
“Thralni,” Ragmer said then. “We were just talking about how hilarious it was that Volgrem was roused from his bed, but I do believe it may be past yer bedtime.”
The youngest dwarf among them merely smiled at the comment and nodded at each of the other champions there. Thralni knew that he was there more for honorary reasons than any of the others—his father had served with Calder in the silver chamber for some time, but with his passing, the duty fell to him. Still, when the king called for all his hunters, Thralni knew better than to treat it as an oversight.
The final dwarf arrived beside Azakai, and he clapped the retainer to the king on the back as he passed through the doors. Azakai closed those doors behind him, and the final dwarf of the council remained standing there for some time as the other dwarves ceased their conversations and acknowledged his presence.
“I can’t tell if yer waiting for an invitation to sit, or if yer trying to show off some new bumps and bruises, Barranac,” Fograk said.
“It’s both,” the third oldest dwarf said then. He pointed to the dark spots around his eyes then. “This one is from a fight in the tavern, and this one is from some pup who decided to disobey me in the mines. About brought the entire thing down when he went digging where I told him not to.”
“You put him in his place?” Gisraen asked.
“His greedy little fingers aren’t going to be touching a mattock for some time, let alone any gems he thinks might belong to him.”
Gisraen thumped his fist against the table a few times then, ensuring it was far less fierce than before. Fograk sent him a thankful nod a few seconds later.
“Well then, have a seat, Barranac,” Calder instructed then. “Unless ye’ve got a few bruises on your backside as well.” He paused for a few chuckles, learning long before that he cared not whether they were genuine. “I’ll not keep the lot of ye here too long. Were any of ye out in the wilds earlier today, specifically just before sunset?”
His hunters took turns explaining their whereabouts, and none of it lined up with the time that their king was out in the wilderness. They were in the mines, or the tavern that existed within the hall, or had already returned from the cold outdoors.
“What’s this all about?” Fograk asked then. “Is everything alright?”
Calder hummed to himself, tapping his knuckles against the table. “I experienced something strange this evening. I heard someone singing the song that you all would play if you found some sort of bountiful treasure out in the wilds—only it wasn’t one of our whistles, but a beautiful chorus of voices. I followed them out to where I heard them loudest, here,” he said, poking his finger at his map where he indicated it earlier. “There was a waterfall and a lake that had formed, and when the sun hit the waterfall just right, ye could see there was a cave right there behind it.”
“Ye think it was just some dwarven lass trying to seduce ye?” Ragmer asked. “Maybe someone with aspirations of being our next queen?”
“Shut up ye sod and pay attention,” Barranac grumbled. “Ye’re missing the greatest detail of the king’s story.”
The most roguish of the bunch arched his eyebrow after being chastised. “And that is?”
“There is no waterfall or lake here,” Barranac explained, pushing the map closer to the other side of the table.
Fograk leaned forward and nodded then. “That’s right. The river goes off this way.”
“I know what I saw,” Calder insisted.
“And no one would dare to question ye, my liege,” Barranac replied. “But something strange seems to have come to our kingdom.”
“Strange indeed,” Gisraen grumbled.
“Keep an ear out then, would you?” Calder said then. “None of ye were out there today, but I was. I want to make sure I’m not the only one who heard the beautiful music. I’m sure I wasn’t the only durned fool to be sitting out in the cold.” For a few moments, it was quiet in the silver chamber, but then he rapped on the table. “That’ll be all. Get back to the warmth of yer homes or to yer ales. Let me know what ye find out from the other folks in the clan.”
One by one, the other dwarves cleared out, until the two oldest dwarves remained behind. Both still sat in their seats, and when he was content that the others had put enough distance between them and the silver chamber, Fograk looked to his king once more.
“Ye’re going to head there again tomorrow, aren’t you?” his oldest advisor suggested. “And it’ll be whether or not you hear anything from the other lads, eh?”
Calder leaned forward and grabbed the map, folding it up so that it would fit in his backpack again. “Someone is singing the song of bounty old friend,” the king said. “I have to find out if it’s truly a blessing, or if it is a curse that has befallen our kingdom.”
“Are ye looking for someone to tag along with ye?”
The king scrunched up his face and shook his head. “I appreciate yer offer. But if there’s something dangerous out there, it might be better for me to fight it head on. I don’t want anyone to be hurt because I can’t settle my greed from my curiosity.”
Fograk nodded and pressed out his chair. “Understood, my liege. If ye change yer mind, ye know where to find me.”
As his oldest advisor and friend took his leave, Calder wondered if he was making a foolish decision in pursuing the source of the singing. Still, he knew that he would not be able to rest until he learned the truth.
* * *
Calder had one hand on the reins, and one hand on his map, trying his best to follow the path he had indicated the day before. Syril took things at a leisurely pace, never threatening to knock the dwarven king from his saddle.
Without the chorus of voices carrying across the region, Calder wondered if he truly had imagined everything that transpired the day before. It didn’t help that the region looked a little more unfamiliar than he would have expected from a spot that he had ventured to just the day before.
He called out to Lialla, instructing her to find the nearest source of water. She screeched in response, taking off into the sky. If she flew any higher, Calder mused, she would have disappeared from his view.
The king heard her distant cry then and knew that he was on the right path.
Only a few minutes later, he spotted the lake, with the frigid waterfall behind it. That day was a bit more temperate compared to the freezing cold of the day before. He could hear the waterfall rush a little more fiercely, and he could see bits of mist rise from the rocks that were smattered down below.
Calder patted Syril on the side of his neck, soothing the pony before he hopped from the saddle. His chain mail links rattled as landed on the ground, setting its own strange music about in the area around the lake.
“Ye sound like yer playing the tambourine,” the dwarven leader heard, then.
Turning on his heel at once, Calder had his hand behind his back, ready to pull the axe out before him. When he saw Fograk there, however, he dismissed the thought.
“I thought I told ye I didn’t need ye to come along,” he said to his old friend.
“Aye, and I remember a good many times as ye were growing up that doing the opposite of what you wanted me to do saved your hide.”
Calder sighed. “I only acted the fool I was because ye never let me get away with anything.”
“Ye weren’t king yet,” Fograk said.
“I am now.”
“Aye, and yer still acting a fool.”
“Just wait,” Calder said. “Ye’ll see.”
With an eager gleam in his eyes, the king hurried to the side of the water, peering past the waterfall to see if he could identify the cave. With the steadier flow of water, he wondered if it was better disguised then.
Unwilling to wait for a change in the orientation of the sun, Calder stepped onto the ledge beneath the cliff, sidling toward the area behind the waterfall.
“My liege!” Fograk cried.
“Just wait there,” Calder said. “And make sure Syril doesn’t try to come rescue me or anything.”
The old hunter moved his own pony up a bit, clicking his tongue until the two horses were side by side. He reached out and grabbed the reins, ensuring he had a firm grip on both equines. Then, he turned his attention back to his fearless leader.
Calder slipped behind the waterfall then, enough of the chill river water splashing down upon him that his hair was soaked, and his chainmail emanated a cool feeling. The king didn’t care though, gnashing his teeth together as he pounded his fist against the stone wall where he was certain he had seen a shining treasure, and from where he was sure he had heard the most delightful, enchanting music.
After several more minutes of slamming the stone with no sign of victory, he conceded, laying his forehead against the stone. “Damn it all to hell,” he grumbled as he made his way back along the ledge toward solid ground. “Not a word of this to the other hunters,” he indicated to his friend.
“My king, let’s focus on getting ye out of the cold before we worry about painting you as mad to the rest of our friends.”
Indeed, Calder was already shivering by the time he stood beside the lake once more. He rung out his beard as best he could and swept his hand through his hair until he was certain he was rid of most of the excess water, but he still felt a fool.
“Perhaps we could light a fire to dry you off a bit,” Fograk suggested. “I’m sure ye’d feel better riding without any ice water dripping down yer back.”
Calder waved his hand then. “I’d sooner be rid of this place. It mocks me with its mere presence.” As he drew close to his pony, Syril seemed to taunt him as well, stepping away from the drenched dwarf. “Now listen here, you,” he grumbled, narrowing his eyes as he put his intent on every word. “It’s been an arse of a day, and it’s only been a few hours, ye get me meaning? The sooner ye get me home, the sooner ye’ll be rid of me.”
Syril snorted before he bowed, pushing against the king. Calder rubbed his steed’s head and moved up along side him. He could tell the pony had to deal with a bit more extra weight from all the cold water, but Syril didn’t protest any further.
As Calder settled into the saddle though, the horse and its rider both found something to be more uncomfortable with.
Out from the rocks, where he had just been, a large black serpent appeared, slithering out from the cracks. Calder felt the pony’s body go rigid, and he knew Syril’s muscles were ready to send him off into any of a dozen different motions. The dwarven king meant to speak some words of encouragement, and to pull the reins toward the forest, but he found he couldn’t budge. The mere sight of the snake seemed to paralyze him. He had only rarely seen snakes in the region of the Frostveil, and never one of that size.
Just when he felt motion in his fingers, and tightened them around Syril’s reins, the black serpent coiled and rose into a striking position.
The pony moved before the king could.
In an instant, Syril bucked, sending Calder rolling out of the saddle, and off the pony’s backside. As Calder thumped to the ground, he could hear his frightened steed charge off into the woods. As irritated as Calder was, he understood. The serpent was frightening indeed.
But it would be no match for the dwarven king’s mighty axe, he knew.
“Me king!” he heard Fograk say.
Calder was only concerned with the creature that now threatened his life. He grunted as he rose from the ground, pulling his axe from behind his back before he had his feet steady beneath him.
But when he was ready for battle, he could see no foe before him.
Calder looked about, and when he turned enough for Fograk to see him, he looked quite mad indeed. His face half-covered in snow, his hair and his beard frigid and frozen, he appeared as a strange beast to his friend.
“Where did he go?” he cried.
“Syril?” Fograk asked. “He went off to the forest, my liege.”
“No, no, not Syril,” Calder grumbled. “Where did the serpent go?”
The dwarven leader’s words had conviction behind them, but Fograk hadn’t seen the slithering creature, the sight of it blocked by Calder.
“Bah,” Calder said. “It likely retreated back to the rocks, or it found a gap to sneak beneath the ice on the lake. Blasted thing. If I see it again, I’ll bury me axe between its eyes.” He sounded more and more incensed as time went on, and when he turned about, he noticed that he was at odds with his situation even further. “Where is Syril?” he wondered. As he spoke the words, he realized what had happened, and he drew his gaze toward the forest.
“I’ll head off your pony,” Fograk said. “If I’m able to, I’ll usher him back the other way.”
Calder grumbled, swatting the layers of snow off his face and his head. “I never liked ‘im anyway,” he called out as Fograk took off to the north and disappeared within the trees.
Left alone, the king sighed, feeling quite a fool for not being able to replicate the events of the day before. Had he been on his own, perhaps he would have felt less embarrassment, but to go to such ends in front of one his most trusted friends and advisors left him feeling vulnerable, like he had lost his mind.
He shook his head. There was no way he had just imagined what was going on the day before. Calder was close enough to feel the music to his core, and he was certain that he could see past the waterfall into the cave within.
The dwarf hummed then. What was this silliness? Calder was not one to believe in magic. Even the old legend of the Coldwhistle clan’s eponymous instruments sounded more like heartfelt puffery than he cared to admit. Yet, here he was, standing before a frozen lake and an icy waterfall that everyone had claimed hadn’t existed, pounding on the rock wall that he imagined being an opening into a cave of riches.
He had never felt more ashamed.
The dwarven king turned about then, heading into the woods as well. If Fograk couldn’t wrangle Syril, perhaps the pony would be more willing to listen to an old friend.
Before he drew into the forest, beside the tall conifers and leafless birches and beeches, a call cried out overhead. Calder looked up seeing his falcon and knew that he wasn’t as alone as he thought. He waved to Lialla, letting her know he had spotted her.
Calder marched through the forest for some time, shivering with every step. There was no sign of his most storied hunter, or of his horse, and he could only see his falcon above every few moments when he stood beneath barer trees.
It was after one of those skyward glances, when he looked down, that he spotted another who traveled through the forest. A mighty stag, his furry winter coat giving him more presence, snorted at the sight of the dwarven king, a cloud of steam leaving its muzzle.
Calder’s heart shuddered. The massive animal had a rack of antlers that looked like a shelf of daggers, and as it stamped its foot, the dwarf wondered if a battle was inevitable. He slowly brought his hand back to grab up his weapon again.
But it was not that double-sided axe that the deer needed to be worried about.
Calder grasped his whistle in his other hand, and quickly brought it to his lips. With just the one hand, he covered the first few tone holes. The next moment, he deftly played a tune that tavern bards would be proud of.
The stag’s muscles grew taut, but it didn’t know what to prepare for. It wasn’t until it heard the hearty flap of Lialla’s wings that the deer knew what it needed to content with.
“Silg syr!” Calder cried out, sending instruction to his falcon.
Lialla dove past the branches of the many trees that made up the thick canopy, her talons leading. She aimed for the stag’s head, but it bowed down, offering up only the many sharp antlers instead.
When it was clear that the falcon wasn’t planning on retreating away again, the deer took that option instead. After ensuring that it had room to maneuver, the stag galloped forward, charging into the woods behind the dwarf.
Calder growled, knowing that without his mount, there was little hope of catching up with the deer. Still, he had to try. Perhaps Lialla, already fast in pursuit, would be able to sink her claws into the animal’s backside and induce a spasmed response.
The jog that Calder continued with had his body warming up enough that he forgot about the frigid water that had covered him shortly before. And as the stag kept him running in that direction, he had forgot about the cold altogether. Indeed, his arms burned from the heft of his axe, but the dwarven king knew that there was no running with it burdened upon his back.
Despite the animal’s quicker reflexes and speed, Calder emerged from the woods not far behind it. Still, it was far enough back for him to watch in awe as it leapt, nearly clearing the lake that formed. It splashed into it not far from the other side of the lake, and quickly hoisted itself onto dry land again, resuming its escape.
Grumbling, Calder cried out to his falcon to surrender the hunt. There was no hope in trying to keep up with it, and even if Lialla did manage to sneak out in front of it, the creature’s willpower worried Calder for the sake of his bird. He whistled—that time just sending out a noise through his lips, and a moment later, the falcon landed on his upturned arm.
“It was a gallant try,” he told the falcon. “We’ll get another try later.”
Almost as soon as he finished speaking though, he heard something he had given up on. The song of bounty was sung again, once more by a chorus of beautiful voices that were so loud it send a shiver up Calder’s spine, and set gooseflesh upon his arms, even though they were covered by warm sleeves.
“I knew I wasn’t blasted crazy,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
As he gazed at the waterfall, he watched the sunlight fall upon it. Behind the streaming water, sparkles reflected, and a hungry grin stretched the dwarven king’s lips.
“I’ve got a new task for ye, Lialla,” he told the falcon.
She didn’t wait to hear his command. Spending that long with the dwarven monarch, the falcon knew what sort of things he was interested in. As courageous as she had been with the stag, she leapt off Calder’s upraised hand, and flew toward the waterfall. At the last moment, she darted to the side, dancing around the water, and slipping behind the falls, into the cave.
“Ye were telling the truth,” Calder heard then, a voice seeming closer than the king thought possible.
When he turned to regard who spoke to him, he was surprised to see Fograk there, Syril in tow.
Calder furrowed his brow. “What, ye thought I was having a go at the lot of ye? I told ye this is real,” he said, absentmindedly gesturing toward the waterfall and the cave.
Lialla screeched, and that time, she came charging through the waterfall, muscling past the frigid flow. A second later, she landed on the side of the king’s hand, and dropped a treasure that she found within.
As Calder moved his hand, Lialla flapped her wings and took to the air once more, landing in the lowest bough of a nearby tree, watching as her master observed her prize. The king brought his gloved hand in front of him, and he could hear the two ponies crunching into the stone with every step, but he couldn’t wrench his gaze away. A subtle grin stretched into a wider smile, for there in his palm, he saw something that proved he hadn’t gone mad.
“Well, that’s something ye don’t see every day,” Fograk said.
Calder turned, letting the sunlight land on the opal that Lialla must have plucked from the wall of the cave. Little flecks of burnt umber danced within the dark violet, mesmerizing the two dwarves. Though it wasn’t a large gemstone, it would still fetch a competitive price from any merchants.
“Ye know what this means, don’t ye?” Calder asked, raising his voice over the sound of the singing that continued throughout the area.
Fograk nodded, forgetting for a time to respond to the other dwarf who still couldn’t look away. “No more worrisome winters where we might not have enough food in our larder.”
“Well, that too. But I can tell the rest of the hunters that I haven’t lost me senses.”
“Not unless I have, too,” Fograk agreed.
When the song to return home sounded in the distance, the two dwarves were left wondering just how long they had stood there admiring the jewel. Syril snorted too, pulling them even further from their trance.
“Back home we go?” Fograk wondered.
Calder nodded. “Aye, with a new story to tell.”
* * *
Pacing himself, the dwarven king leaned forward, spreading out the map once more with a flick of his wrist. The next moment, the beautiful opal was displayed as well, right atop the cave he had indicated on the map the day before.
Nearly all the dwarves leaned forward, but Barranac practically crawled atop the table to get a better glimpse of the beautiful gemstone.
“Where’d ye get such a thing?” the occasional foreman asked. “Not from our mines, certainly.”
Calder arched an eyebrow as he reached out once more, lifting the opal. It revealed the spot on the map that he had asked about the day before.
“It’s just like he said yesterday,” Fograk explained. “The two of us headed out into the wilds, into an area with a lake that none of us has seen as of a few days ago. I thought our king had gone mad—no singing, no cave, certainly no treasure. But then, just as the sun hit the waterfall just right…”
“The wall blocking us from the cavern inside was gone,” Calder finished. “And my falcon was able to find us this beautiful little gem as proof of it.” The king leaned back and folded his arms over his chest. “We’ve got a bounty waiting for us out there in the wilds. It didn’t want to be found, but we found it.”
“It only shows up at a certain time every day,” Fograk speculated. “Ye’ll hear the singing, and then the pathway opens up behind the waterfall. But before then, it looks like any other place out in the cold.”
The pair of dwarves looked at the other members of their council, watching them communicate without their words. Their gaze fell to Thralni, who looked to them instead.
“What is it lad?” Calder asked the youngest among them.
Thralni nodded enthusiastically. “I was out ranging not far from there. I thought someone here might have been playing a joke on me, but I heard the singing too.”
Furrowing his brow, Fograk leaned on the table then. “Ye were trying to see if there was any treasure ye could get to ‘afore the rest of us.”
“What?” the young dwarf replied. “No! I was trying to find the cavern so I could prove our king right. I even made a few makeshift flags so that I could lead us back to it.” He began sorting through his pack to prove himself. A few moments later, he had dumped out a dozen climbing pitons that had red cloth tied around their hoops. “See? I just couldn’t figure out where the durned singing was coming from. I think I was too far east, and the music sounded like it was coming from right atop me—or underneath me.”
Calder hummed then as his features softened. “Well, it’s neither here nor there. I know how to get ta the lake, so we don’t need yer flags. But what we do need is your expertise. All of ye have experience with certain things. Gisraen, ye have the means to lock down the cavern once we’ve found our way inside it. I don’t need any other dwarves in the area deciding they want to explore it before we deem it safe. Barranac, that means bringing you inside and making sure it’s stable. If it flows underneath a stream or a river, I want ye there to help us check for instabilities. If we can mine it, ye’d be the one to tell us. Ragmer…” Calder said, arching his eyebrow. “I don’t trust ye here with all the clandaughters if we’re gone that long,” the king teased, bringing about a fit of laughter from the others in attendance, even the often-surly Gisraen.
“In all honesty,” the king went on, “if there do be voices coming from within that cavern, it might be good to have someone who can help us discern where they come from, and who they might belong to.”
“Volgrem,” Fograk said then, “if they belong to someone with sinister intentions, having a hunter who is an excellent shot would come in handy. And Thralni.” Fograk paused then, trying to think of what the youngest dwarf could offer up. His father was a merchant by trade, but he was also an outstanding hunter, neither role being quite inherited by his son. Thralni was more of an explorer, which Fograk thought might come in handy in the cave. “We could use yer, eh, yer flags, I guess.”
Thralni chuckled and rolled his eyes.
“So, what’s the plan then?” Ragmer wondered. “Are we headed there now?”
“Get the mud out of yer ears,” his brother-in-law said. “It only opens at a certain time of day, and that time has surely passed by now.” Gisraen grumbled, annoyed by the dwarf he spent more time with than he cared to.
Fograk nodded. “We’ll be headed out there tomorrow, as a group, straight from the hall. Calder knows how to get there, and we can’t have any of you lot getting lost along the way.”
“For now,” Calder said, “go back to your homes, get some more ale in ye, and be well rested. We don’t know what’s waiting for us in that cavern—but I mean to find out.”
“Dismissed,” Fograk said, tapping his knuckles against the table.
The dwarven council rose from their seats, and departed the silver chamber, just as they had the night before. And, just like then, Fograk was the one who remained behind.
“I’m sorry if I doubted ye,” he said to his king, “even if it was for just a moment.”
“You have nothing to apologize for, my friend,” Calder replied. “For a time, I was even doubting myself. Go on then. I’ve got to stretch me bones a wee bit more. Get some sleep, and I’ll see you as the dawn rises.”
Fograk nodded and went along his way, knowing that his companion had much to think about. It was a tiresome job leading the clan, and there was likely more that the king had to do before he could earn his own rest for the night.
Before Calder could think about shut eye or his other duties, his gaze fell once more to the opal on the table. He hummed, the song of bounty reverberating within his chest, as he gazed at the gemstone—one of many, he was certain.
* * *
Calder and the council rode across the region the next morning, just as the sun was reaching its apex. Sturdier ground beneath their mounts meant a careful approach to the new lake and the waterfall.
Six ponies marched forth, following behind a large, saddled boar. Volgrem rode that one, a descendant of the boar that had gouged out his eye nearly two decades earlier. Long before, he learned that his porcine mounts hated following behind any other beasts of burden, so wherever Volgrem traveled with his fellow clansmen, he led the pack.
His king called out behind him, angling him this way and that along the path that he knew would bring him to their destination. Before long, they had arrived—long before the sun would set to the appropriate height to illuminate the cavern and allow them inside.
Calder and the others made an event of their arrival. Thralni’s pony had lagged for some distance for a reason, for it had been tasked with carrying several smaller casks of ale. By the time those kegs were sitting on a blanket atop the snow, a campfire had already been started halfway between the icy waters and the forest.
Several of the dwarves nearby were singing, roasting foods that they had brought along for the trip or gathering kindling for the fire. If they were going to have to wait, they could at least make a good time of it. The lot of them talked about what they were going to do with their newfound riches—what belonged to them of their finder’s fee, that was. The rest of it was meant to enrich the clan, to ensure that the winters in the years to come did not feel so harsh, and to broker treaties with neighboring kingdoms and factions. Truly, the dwarves of the Coldwhistle clan felt as though the winds of fortune were about to change.
As the sun dropped into place, the choral arrangement of their song of bountiful returns left Calder and his hunters with chills.
The king and his oldest friend were the first to look to the waterfall, and they watched as the stone façade there seemed to fade away. The others with them followed their gazes, and watches as magic removed the rock wall behind the water.
For a time, there was a great eagerness that fell over the area, and the dwarven hunters felt closer than ever to their treasure. But then, almost at the same time as one another, two of the dwarves readied their weapons. Volgrem, the one-eyed ranger, leveled his crossbow toward the aperture that had opened in the rock wall. His boar noticed his apprehension, and trotted to his side, his hair standing on end as he looked for danger. Behind them, Gisraen grumbled, and pressed his fists into the side of his thighs, where he had two objects situated on his belt. When he brought his hands up again, rows of spikes were present above his fingers. He moved forward even quicker than the boar did, it seemed, for he had overtaken Volgrem as the dwarf closest to the waterfall.
“Ye won’t need those,” Fograk said then. “At least, not out here. The voices are coming from inside the cave.”
“Ye’ll forgive me if I’m being extra careful,” Gisraen called back with his gruff voice. He approached the water side then, just before the ledge that Calder had sidled along the day before. “Didn’t ye say there was some sort of beast?” he cried out.
“Aye,” Calder said, drawing closer. “But that was before the wall opened up and we could see the sparkling gemstones within. I think it is safe to go inside.”
“As you wish, me liege,” Gisraen said. He was the first of the council to begin moving along the ledge, balancing himself by jabbing his spiked gauntlets into the grooves of the stone.
One by one, others in the group joined him.
Fograk, taking his time, turned to Thralni, and nodded. “Before ye join us inside, make sure the leads on the ponies are secured. We don’t want them running away while we’re in there—especially if we’ve much treasure to bring back to the hall!”
The youngest dwarf swallowed away his tension as he returned the nod. He was eager to venture inside with the rest of them, but knew not to rush, else he would be looked at unfavorably. He grabbed the reins of Fograk’s pony then and set to work.
As the other dwarves prepared themselves at the water’s edge, Volgrem rubbed his boar’s head, just above his snout. “You stay out here and protect the horses, Rondak. If anyone but us tries to take them, tear off their leg, yeah?”
The boar snorted in reply, but turned its head, rubbing one of its tusks against Volgrem’s leg instead. The one-eyed hunter chuckled, knowing that his trained boar could have easily gored him if he had wanted to.
When the path was clear, Volgrem joined his companions, moving closer toward the cave entrance.
Gisraen was already inside. The sunlight did indeed shine into the place, crystalline formations catching its radiance and spreading it across the floor and the ceiling. As Gisraen’s brother-in-law, Ragmer, lit a torch, even more of the place was soon aglow.
“Will ye look at that?” Barranac said. “Most of the walls are covered in these crystals, but behind them, ye can see the jewels this place hides. Look at those.” He pointed to the wall that jutted out closer to the entrance, which had accepted more torchlight across its surface. “I don’t know if the crystals are magnifying their appearance, but those are largest gemstones I’ve ever seen outside of our mountain.”
Gisraen showed a toothy grin for the first time since many of those in attendance could remember. He had lost a few teeth in scuffles with other dwarves throughout the years, including one of his lower ones near the front. Still, the other hunters could tell he was excited.
“After we take care of this place, we’re each going to have our own mountain, Barr,” he said to the occasional foreman of the Frostveil.
Before anyone could react to his statement, they heard another of their group cry out, and turned to see Thralni take a tumble as he stepped into the cavern.
“You blathering bumblehead,” Barranac snapped. “Blast it all, ye fool. One wrong move in here could bring the whole place down. We know there’s a river ‘at runs above our heads.”
“And a bit through here,” Ragmer said, pointing down toward the floor as more torches were lit and illuminated the place. “It’s still as can be though, and the reflection… It looks like glass.” The handsome dwarf hummed to himself. “I’d like to bring Maya Stonetree here,” he said. “She’s always wearing those skirts, and I’d bet this reflection would give us a good look at her bum.”
Almost as soon as he was done speaking, he felt Gisraen’s fist land in his shoulder. “Ow! Ye’re still wearing your spikes,” he protested.
“Aye,” the berserker said. “Ye think I forgot?”
Behind them, Barranac laughed. “Don’t bother thinking about any other dwarven lass than yer wife, Ragmer—especially Maya. Once she popped out her little one, she stopped wearing those shorter dresses. My best is you’re wearing kilts more often than she is these days.”
“I’m just glad he’s not wearing one today,” Volgrem teased.
“Why’s that?” Barranac wondered. “Trying to do whatever you can not to lose the other eye?”
All the dwarves in the cavern laughed then, even those who the joke had targeted.
All except Calder.
The other members of the council noticed that their king had grown quiet, and they looked to him for his leadership. He pointed toward the back of the chamber that they were in, where a small passageway was not as illuminated as the rest of the room.
“Do ye all hear that?” he asked. “The singing’s grown softer. Whoever it is, they know we’re here now.”
His closest advisor nodded. “It’s like they’re trying to lure us in,” Fograk agreed.
“Let them,” Barranac said. “Whether it’s a human or a giant, they’re no match for the seven of us.”
“Ye fool,” Volgrem said. “It’s not just one person. Can’t you hear it? There are multiple voices. And ye just told them how many we are.”
“Bah,” Gisraen said. “It’s just like with all the crystals in this place. It’s just one lady whose voice is bouncing off the walls of this oddly-shaped place and creating this strange pattern.”
“It’s not a woman at all,” Thralni said then, during a lull in the conversation. The lad said his piece with such conviction that everyone looked at him at the same time, waiting to hear what he had to say. “Look,” he pointed toward the ceiling, and the large, menancing crystals that jutted down from there. “We’re in the maw of some ferocious, icy beast.”
The dwarves looked at one another, then, a little worried that it could be true.
“Yer a good storyteller, Thralni,” Fograk said. “May ye keep that sort of wide-eyed imagination through all yer days.”
Though he was disarmed a bit by the words of kindness, Thralni still lingered a bit toward the entrance to the cave. He felt a chill run up and down his spine, and he knew that it wasn’t from the beauty of the song that they all heard.
The dwarves took their time to investigate the room and found more than enough gemstones embedded into the walls of that section of the cave to be impressed and hopeful that the fortunes of the Frostveil were about to change. Barranac carefully tore pieces of crystal away from the walls and ran his hand along the uneven stone behind it. With a nod, he seemed pleased with their discovery.
They found that the water that was on the floor also covered a layer of ice that had gone solid some time before. It was just slippery enough that the hunters had to take care as they crossed from one side of the chamber to the next.
The time came for them to scout deeper into the cavern. Gisraen, squeezing his fingers into tight fists, splashed onto the icy path, and delved into the darkness. Ragmer was close behind him, holding a torch up high.
The next room was larger, and they could see that there were no more crystals present. The icy river continued along, catching the torch’s radiance better than the earthen floor did, but it still didn’t offer up much light. Even when the remaining dwarves brought another three torches into the chamber, they couldn’t see much.
Barranac hummed as he investigated the walls of the room. There were some minerals in the walls there that were a bit more impressive than the ones they would fine in their mine beneath the mountain, but only in trace amounts. And there didn’t seem to be any other gemstones there like there were in the front chamber of the cavern.
As Ragmer returned to the path, he could hear Gisraen gasp in front of him. He hurried his pace, and stood next to the armored berserker, the pair catching the first glance of the woman who resided in the cavern.
Sitting atop a rock that overlooked the glassy river, the woman looked to the water, admiring her reflection. She ran her fingers through her raven-black hair, the luxurious mane hiding her visage above and below the water. It also stood as a stark contrast to the white dress she wore, lines of lace seeming to lend it an almost scaled appearance.
They realized that once she had fallen under her gaze, the singing had stopped. The song’s pull didn’t seem to end however, and the dwarves shuffled forward.
The woman never seemed to acknowledge the dwarves, turning as she stood. She stepped from the stone then, sending a small splash of water into the air, and then she slowly entered the darkness at the rear of the room.
“Careful lads,” Calder said. “Something’s not right here.”
The hunters didn’t respond, entranced by the woman they could not see. But when Calder grabbed Fograk by his wrist, the old dwarf shook his head, as though he was waking up from a dream.
“We’ve got to go get the others,” the dwarven king insisted. “She’s got her spell over them.”
“Aye, my liege,” Fograk said.
Together, the pair made their way from one dwarf to another, shaking them from their trances. Calder realized that it took more work to wake them, all except for Thralni, who remained in the rear of the chamber.
“We’re resistant to the song, Fograk,” the king called out. “We’ve heard it more than these lads have.”
As Fograk made his way to the front of the new chamber, he could see that another corridor led off into one more chamber of the cavern. That time it seemed to slope downward ever so slightly, but it might as well have been a chute to a prison cell.
“Come on, ye louts!” the old dwarf said, doing his best to shove back the heavily armored berserker at the front of the group. He gave up then, focusing on the enthralled dwarf at his side. “I’ll wake up you. You wake up your brother,” Fograk growled as he gave Ragmer a hearty shake.
The handsome dwarf blinked his eyes as though he had just woken up from the deepest sleep.
“What happened? Where are we?” he asked.
“I don’t have time to deal with ye,” Fograk said, grasping the other dwarf by the shoulder and shoving him toward Gisraen. “Wake him up, or he’s never going to get out of this durned place.”
Ragmer did as he was instructed, confused as he was.
“Why aren’t we going after her?” Barranac wondered, the mine foreman a bit less bewildered by what had happened. “She’s the one whose been singing about treasure, isn’t she? And she led us here.”
“Aye,” Ragmer said as he gave his brother-in-law a few taps on the face. “And we know the ice can hold.”
“She jumped right down on it,” Barranac said.
“Yeah, but the petite thing weighed less than the helmet atop yer head,” Fograk said. “We’ve got a bad feeling about this, and we’re heading back to the hall.”
The chorus of voices sang again then, seeming more powerful than ever. It wasn’t just a song that resonated within the cavern, but a symphony.
Once again, the dwarves were enraptured, except for Calder and Fograk.
Gisraen crunched into the ice, his heavy boots helping him not to slip as he moved into the corridor. And with the path made behind him, Ragmer had a steady way placed before him as well.
Fograk growled. “Blast it all!” He made his way forth but couldn’t hope to stop the dwarves who made their way into the corridor. As he shuffled his way past them, he landed on an unadulterated strip of ice, and slid the rest of the way, all hope of being able to stop the procession gone from his mind. He cried out as he moved along and grunted when he was well out of sight of everyone else.
“Damn whatever gods showed me this place,” Calder growled. By the time he had shaken Thralni out of his stupor again, most of the other dwarves had shuffled onto the icy path forward and were in the corridor. He couldn’t stop them, but he knew that Fograk was still in his right mind. “Are you alright down there?” he called out to his friend.
After far too long a delay for his comfort, he finally heard his closest advisor call out again.
“It’s too dark to see down here. I’ve got a bad feeling, me liege. I’d get the lads out of here if I was you.”
The thought of leaving any of them behind had Calder ready to spit. He reached forward, grabbing Barranac by the collar of his tunic, and tugged him back, just before he stepped too far into the corridor. The foreman fell to his backside, getting a fair amount of cold water on his britches.
That surely woke him up.
“Gah!” he cried. “I didn’t think I’d be going for a swim today!”
“Yer lucky I didn’t drown ye meself,” Calder called out as he reached Volgrem. His hands slipped though, and he could feel the frigid cold begin to press through his gloves. It was somehow colder in the cave than outside of it, and he wondered if some dark magic was to blame.
It was too late to stop them anyway, he realized. They had reached the next room, which seemed impossibly large. Calder could hear his grunts and groans echoing to the far reaches of the place.
“Ye punch Gisraen right in the face, Fograk,” the king ordered. “Whatever it takes ta get him right.”
Sure enough, the oldest hunter’s fist bounced off the berserker’s nose, and Fograk waved his hand from the pain of such a hard blow. Gisraen’s eyes flashed, and he shook his head, barely cognizant of the punch he’d just received.
“Why is it so durned dark?” he wondered.
Before long, the company of dwarves were roused from their dazes once more, some nursing bruises, while others dealt with soaked boots or backsides.
With the dwarves in their right mind again, they were able to sweep their torches higher toward the ceiling—which they just couldn’t see—and toward the floor, which illuminated them to a new revelation.
“It’s all water here,” Ragmer said. “It’s just one big frozen lake.”
Calder plucked the torch out of Thralni’s hand then, sweeping it back and forth along the ground. He gnashed his teeth together, knowing that danger had beckoned them into the place. As he moved the light source about, he noticed that its flames, still flickering powerfully, seemed to burn less bright.
“Cursed magic,” he grumbled.
Fograk was by his side again, nodding while he too wore a concerned expression. “And there’s no way this ceiling could have rose this high on the outside, even if we descended a few feet or so. There’s something foul at play here.”
Even though they were no longer ensorcelled by the woman and her singing, they still felt compelled to venture forward. If it was great evil that had called them there, it needed to be extinguished.
One of the dwarves, Barranac, lost his footing and nearly fell to his face. “Damn it. Watch your footing, lads,” he said. “There’s a fallen stalactite or something that I must have tripped over here.” The foreman grumbled as he spun about. He knew that he should have known better. He was always fumbling around in the dark beneath their mountain. Scouring through the foreign cavern should have demanded the same caution.
When he lowered his torch, however, he was shocked back into an upright position, gasping from what he saw. The other dwarves nearby could see his uncharacteristic fear and drew closer to his spot on the lake. When they brought their own torches together, they spotted what had left him so uneasy.
A gnarled hand, decayed and greying, jutted out of the ice.
A chill ran up Barranac’s spine, for he was better prepared for that decrepit limb, and was able to follow it through the ice into the shadowy water below. He was still able to see the preserved body of the drowned warrior that was frozen in time below. Only a few flakes of skin were missing from the fellow’s face, but his eyes had long before lost their luster, colorless orbs seeming to stare up at the world above.
Following their compatriot’s gaze and noticing the thing that gave him such a fright, the other dwarves of Calder’s council fanned out and spotted other bodies beneath the surface. They could hear at least one of their jaws chattering then.
“We’re standing atop an icy graveyard,” Ragmer said.
“Steel yerselves, lads,” their king ordered. “Keep a cool head and we’ll be out of here and back in our homes before long. All we have to do is…”
Calder’s words trailed off, because as he spoke, and his men brought their torches together, another object in the rear of the chamber could be seen. Although it was only an outline at first, when his hunters turned, Calder was able to make it out a bit more clearly.
Thrashed against some rocks, and frozen just as much as the corpses beneath the ice, was a large longship. Despite their fears and their apprehension, the hunters couldn’t help but let their admiration of the workmanship overtake them for a moment. A dragon’s face had been carved into the prow, and when the torchlight flickered against it, it almost looked as though it was preparing to spit out a pillar of fire.
“How’d such a beautiful thing get down here?” Ragmer asked.
“Who cares?” Gisraen replied. “The important thing is that it never got back out.”
“This place is cursed,” Volgrem said behind them. “We need to get out.”
Not one of them protested his reasoning, and together, they turned back to the direction they had entered from.
A scattering of light shined down the sloping corridor, the sun casting its rays further into the cavern as it descended closer to the mountains. Each of the dwarves in the cave wondered if their way out would be closed off to them if too much time had passed.
Even though the group of them were looking toward the exit, none could say with any certainty how or when the woman in white arrived there. She blocked their path, and with the new eeriness in the room, it froze the breath in their mouths as they took account of her.
Closer than they had been, they were able to see the harshness of her skin. The light behind her seemed to wash over her, leaving the splotchy spots and bruises more prominent than they would have seen with her torches. As she raised her gaze to meet the dwarves’ stunned stares, they could see that she wasn’t an ageless beauty, but a hideous witch. Her skin was pale and tight, drawn back so that she looked as though she was wasting away and perhaps already dead like those poor sailors trapped beneath the ice. It was her eyes, however, that the hunters were most fearful of. Black and soulless, looking upon them, the dwarves knew for certain that they had happened upon something dark and demonic.
As though she knew that their fears were beginning to pour out of them, she allowed her lips to part. A devilish smile filled with sharpened teeth greeting the dwarves, and she licked her lips with a thin, long tongue as if she had already tasted the rising emotions in the cavern.
A strange giggle entered the chamber, though it sounded like it came from all around the dwarves, and not specifically from the witch. The giggle, strange as it was, grew stranger then as it began to undulate as though it came from underwater.
The next moment, the witch slipped beneath the ice, as though it was never there to begin with. They heard not a splash, nor a cry as she dropped, but they could feel the fear welling up in their throats.
Even though they knew that they needed to race for the exit, awash in their emotions and their morbid curiosity, they were frozen in place. Beneath them, they could hear the ice cracking, and far behind them, another sort of rattling and clinking.
“Something’s not right, here,” Gisraen ventured.
“Nothing is,” Ragmer clarified. “We need to leave.”
As the dwarves brought their torches closer together again, they watched as shadows danced on the wall closest to them, almost as though their torchlight was farther back in the room than it should have been. They watched as unnatural figures ambled all around their group, raising bent and crooked hands toward the ceiling.
All at once, they heard the ice shatter, and they could feel the stability beneath them wane. Dead hands reached up from the ice, before the bodies of the drowned men gained life and hauled themselves from their watery graves. A mix of taller, hulking fellows and smallfolk like the dwarves were present, and the king’s hunters wondered how they would have come together.
“Steel yourselves,” Calder said, grabbing hold of his mighty axe for the first time since they had entered the cavern.
“They’ve got to be illusions, right me king?” Fograk wondered. “The serpent and the stag you mentioned yesterday, they both seemed like magic—like they weren’t there.”
“I’m not willing to bet against them being real,” Calder said.
Fograk was shaken. “These are just magic spells meant to test our resolve. Surely the dead are meant to stay that way.”
As one of the shambling, drenched corpses approached the group of dwarves, Gisraen swung out with a heavy fist, his spikes pressing through the damp clothes and waterlogged flesh of the undead. It sent out a horrifying moan as it flung backward, back into the darkness.
“They feel as real as any fellow I’ve ever hit before,” the berserker said.
Soon, the dwarves realized that it wasn’t just a few sailors that had found their way to that unfortunate crypt. Out of the shadows of the place, a horde of the shambling dead appeared.
“Get out of here,” Gisraen demanded. “We’ll hold them off while you start making your way.”
“They’re everywhere,” Barranac said with a gasp.
“Then cleave them in two and be done with it!” Calder growled. “Back up until they’re right on top of ye, and when ye’re at the exit, make a break for it.”
The hunters did as they were instructed, readying their weapons, and slashing at anyone who drew too close. As Ragmer fumbled at the short sword on his hip, Volgrem fired his heavy crossbow, a bolt reporting with a loud thud as it landed in the chest of a nearby walking corpse. The one-eyed hunter growled as he set his weapon on the ground and pulled back the cord to arm it once more.
Blind as he was in one eye, he didn’t see as a drowned man lunged out of the shadows, and thrust an old, rusty dagger into his shoulder. Volgrem howled out, partly from the pain, and partly because he could smell the terrible scent of death on the warrior who had attacked him. His dominant arm ached, and he couldn’t push the drowned man off him to reach for another weapon.
A hearty war cry rang out then. Barranac swung out with a military pick, and his aim was perfect, for the curved metal sank into the undead warrior’s skull, ceasing its attack at once. With a shudder, the frozen dead relinquished its hold on its weapon, and its legs gave way beneath him. Barranac had to fight to hold onto his pick, but finally, the corpse slid off, and crumpled to the ground. Even though there was no blood present from his attack, the mining foreman gagged a little to see the blow he’d delivered. He shook his head then, looking to his friend instead.
“Ye alright then?” he asked Volgrem.
“Ye get back there then. Ye can cover us from anywhere with ye’re crossbow. Ye don’t need to be this close to the front lines.” He could see his companion’s healthy eye go wide then. Barranac turned and swung out with the blunt side of his weapon, delivering a crack to another dead man’s head that had him tumbling into yet another walking corpse. “Well, go on then,” he pressed. “I don’t want to be here another moment than we have to!”
Together then, the dwarves worked as they were meant to, protecting one another as they exercised a tactical retreat toward the tunnel. One by one, they moved along, ensuring Calder knew that he wasn’t about to be the last one through. He grumbled and grunted but knew any excessive protest would just have his lads inviting more danger upon themselves than they should have.
The crunch of dwarven boots into the footfalls that Gisraen had made in the icy stream beneath them resonated seven times then, as the company of dwarves escaped the risen dead.
At the top of the ramp, the dwarves held for a breather, ensuring that every one of their clan had escaped the horrors below. Barranac was the last one to reach safety, and he turned about at the last second to swing his pick. He miscalculated the distance to his foe, however, and only managed to lop off the corpse’s nose. Barranac sucked in a gasp through clenched teeth. Though he knew that such an injury would have him rolling on the ground, the dead warrior cared not. Barranac nodded then and prodded the warrior with the head of his pick instead, knocking the corpse over. The dwarves could hear the rattling of bones and armor as the corpses rolled down the ramp.
“If ye don’t mind, me liege,” Barranac said, “I could just as soon forget about all the gems and jewels in this forsaken place.”
Calder nodded. “As could I. Let’s find our way out of this damp cave and forget we’ve ever seen the durned place.”
Together, the group hurried through the narrower chamber toward the bright area of the cave that was filled with crystals. They thought they could hear the waterfall churning a little harder then, but they realized it was a different, more unfamiliar sound. Barranac and Ragmer turned about, ready for whatever new horrors would scurry out of the shadows.
But as Ragmer lowered his torch, he could see that their opponent was not above, but below.
He turned about, stumbling over his words for the first time that any of the other dwarves had heard.
“There’s some—there’s something coming!” he warned, unable to better identify the dangers that encroached on their group.
Some of the dwarves who had already made it to the crystal chamber hurried their steps, hoping that they could get out of the way of their kinsmen. But Fograk and Gisraen saw the shadow slithering beneath the ice, and skidded to a stop, ready for battle.
Bursting up from the frigid water below, the black serpent that Calder spotted while he was atop Syril’s back the day before sent shards of ice in every direction. Fograk shielded his eyes, but when he was able to see again, he realized that his king hadn’t gone mad the day before and wasn’t imagining the serpent.
Calder shivered at the sight of the thing, for it was even larger than it had been in the light of day. Iridescent black scales shined the torchlight back at the dwarves in the chamber, and even the sunlight that managed to pierce through the watery veil outside the cavern danced along the serpent’s body, sending sparkles dancing on the walls.
The dwarven king noticed the creature’s black, soulless eyes then, and he understood that the creature and the woman who had lured them into the horrible place were one and the same.
Gisraen didn’t care what the serpent was, or where it came from. He hopped forward, sending a fierce hook toward the creature. Though the black serpent reflexively danced away, it wasn’t quick enough, and two of the three spikes on Gisraen’s gauntlet slashed a deep cut across its neck.
A prominent hiss rang out in the cavern, and the serpent froze for just a moment. Though the creature had a serpent’s body, the dwarves could see the somewhat human face, drawn back as though a snake was wearing a mask. The creature’s hooded head had rows of white apparent there too, reminding the hunters of the woman’s appearance when they saw her.
For a time, it seemed as though Gisraen’s blow might have been all that it took to slow the serpent down, but as the seven warriors looked on, they watched as her chest expanded.
None could expect the devastating magic that came barreling out of her unhinged jaws then.
As though a blizzard had rolled through the region southeast of the Frostveil mountain, a cloud of snow and ice ripped past the serpent witch’s jagged teeth. Each of the dwarves felt that harsh cold then, but it was Gisraen who felt it fiercest. The other hunters watched in horror as he froze solid, unable to move or even cry out in protest.
The terror gripping their hearts only grew as she burst forward. As though she was an iron bolt fired from a ballista, she flew forward, crashing through Gisraen’s torso, shattering him to pieces.
Howls and cries rang out as the strongest, most aggressive of them had fallen. Ragmer’s jaw hung ajar, and tears welled in his eyes then. Before he realized what he was doing, he flung his torch forward, and grabbed his sword in both hands, rushing toward the witch who killed his family member.
It was too late, for she already dove back into the water beneath the ice. It seemed that wherever water was present, she could find an escape.
Despite the cold that gripped each of them—an icy shroud that threatened to steal away their breath and their energy—the dwarves shook off their discomfort and their pain, looking to either escape or fight to their last breath against the serpent.
She burst through the ice again, that time between all the dwarves, who felt they couldn’t attack without a sense of dread overcoming them.
Calder stepped forward, leveling his axe. “Damn it ye water witch,” he growled. “Why, by the gods, are ye killing my clansmen?”
The serpent allowed a smile to curl her lips, and she drew nearer still to the dwarven monarch. “You woke me, dear dwarf,” she replied. “You woke me, and I am no fool to the power of songs. I’ve brought many a fool to my lair, all with an ensnaring voice. They’re all greedy in one way or another. And they all meet a watery grave. This, you see, is where I keep my collection. But one thing I’ve always lacked is a king.”
Nearly all the dwarves then lunged forward, leveling swords or axes or picks. But just as before, she sank beneath the ice, a haunting, watery cackle filling the brightened room.
The hunters watched as the black figure swam through the water below, gripping their weapons until they creaked in protest. Even beneath them as she was, the witch knew exactly where she needed to be. Once more, she rose from the frigid water, that time behind Calder.
Though it seemed she tried to catch the king unaware, he felt her presence, and swung back with his mighty axe. She danced away, and breathed deep, her serpentine chest billowing with the power of a freezing blizzard once again.
Before she could finish inhaling the cold from within the cave, a loud click resonated through the area. Her eyes shifted, finding the furthest dwarf in the room. Volgrem raised his heavy crossbow, pushing past the pain that burned in his shoulder. The quarrel had already been fired, and as the witch focused her gaze, she spotted that bolt soaring across the room.
It was too late to dodge it. The projectile sank into her throat, and she lost hold of the frost breath that would have sealed the dwarven king’s fate. A terrible screech emerged from her snake-like lips, and she withdrew back into the cold water below.
“Get out of here lads,” Fograk urged then. “We’ve got a chance now!”
At the back of the cavern, Barranac showed his eagerness to take that order. The dead had shambled up the icy ramp in the next room and swelled in the corridor behind them. He tossed his torch in the chamber, hoping to scare the frozen warriors away, but it only showed the dwarves how many the witch has amassed in her collection.
“How many are there?” the mining foreman muttered.
The undead warriors seemed to shake off more of the frost and the clutch of death with every passing moment. Whereas they had dragged their feet before, their pace had increased, and they began to swell through the previous chamber.
“Quickly!” Fograk said again, hurrying everyone out of the cavern.
Barranac didn’t need to be told a third time—and Fograk didn’t intend on offering up another warning. The miner looked to the walls as he was passing, knowing that he was leaving a substantial treasure behind. But as he could hear the dead’s watery growls behind him, he knew that he valued his life far more.
He watched as one dwarf after another leapt through the exit of the cave, no longer hoping to sidle along the earthen ledge. They only hoped that the icy lake would hold their weight. Barranac shouted as he passed through the freezing curtain of water that flowed from overhead, streams dripping down past his helmet and soaking his hair and his beard and his clothes. Somehow, despite his hearty leap, when he landed, the lake was sturdy enough to bear his weight. He watched as the rest of his companions slipped and slid their way toward the snowy ground beyond the lake. Barranac, too, was eager to have solid ground beneath him once more.
Between the dwarves, a collective breath was sighed, for being in the fading sunlight, they felt far safer than they had in the cave.
A screech rang out, and a shadowy figure shot forth from the cave like a bolt of black lightning. The dwarves knew it was the witch, but Barranac never saw her coming. Outside of the cave, she didn’t descend through the ice as she did inside. Instead, she crashed through it, breaking up the icy floe at once. Most of the dwarves had already made it the banks, but Barranac slipped beneath the water, gasping before he was completely submerged.
Knowing that he and his hunters were in trouble, Calder reached into his backpack, and pulled a thin white object out into the open. The dwarven king rarely played any music on the fabled whistle, but in those moments, it was as though he were a virtuoso in music. He placed the instrument to his lips and blew out a deep tune that indicated that danger was in their midst.
Almost at once, Calder had second guesses about his decision. It would take too long for anyone to rescue the adventurous dwarves. He knew his hunters would tire long before the dead. And with the undead army beginning to spill out into the open, a horde of them tipping into the water.
The encroaching army drew near and swelled in numbers, but they were not the only ones present who meant to endanger the members of the Frostveil. All at once, the witch burst from the ice once more, on the other side of the lake but drawing closer.
Another crossbow bolt soared out from Volgrem’s weapon. Having acclimated to the sound, the serpent only let her gaze fall upon the flying missile for a moment. She slithered out of the way and withdrew back into the ice once more.
That time, when she rose, it was right behind Volgrem. He looked about, studying the ice to see which way he could look to find the sea witch.
It was too late though, for she already had what she wanted just out of reach of her.
Volgrem was too weary to discard his bow, and with the broken floe breaking apart, he knew that he didn’t have the solid ground he needed to help him reload the blacksmith. Worse still, he was certain he could feel the witch’s breath behind him, the scent of decay invading his nostrils.
The one-eyed warrior turned, just in time to see the creature lunge forward.
With a shriek leaving her lips, the witch dug her long, bony fingers into Volgrem’s eyes. On reflex alone, he dropped his crossbow and grabbed hold of the monster’s arms, but there was no hope of pushing her back. She was deceptively strong, and she kept pressing further, her other fingers wrapping around the dwarf’s head as she lifted him off the ground. Before long, Volgrem stopped resisting. A sinister, toothy smile showed on her face as she threw the dead dwarf to the snowy bank.
Rearing her head back and looking to the sky, she roared out in triumph. Blood coated her hands, but it was the crystals of frost that caught the attention of the dwarven king not so far away.
Calder looked on at the beast, horrified of what she had accomplished in so little a time. Two of his best hunters—and important fixtures to the clan—had been dispatched so easily. His heart contended with many emotions. He felt sorrow for his lost friends, rage against the fiend that called them there to enact her horrors, and fear that he could not hope to lead his other companions out of the nightmare that wrapped its hands around them.
He shook his head, reeling his focus back into the moment. Those crystals of frost on the serpent’s face were telling, he knew. She wasn’t just looking skyward but inhaling another breath of cold air. Without Volgrem’s crossbow, the dwarven king knew that there was nothing that could reach her—nothing that could stop her in time to prevent another devastating attack.
A thought crossed Calder’s mind then. A weapon may not have been what was needed in those moments. Earlier, she had reveled in the opportunity to give a soliloquy. Now, after proving her might, perhaps…
“Why?” he called out again, just seeing a pause in her actions. “If ye wanted a king, ye could have just taken me any of the previous times I was here. Why the tricks? A great and powerful creature like yerself could have destroyed anything that came near.”
The serpent witch stopped inhaling that cold breath, just as Calder had hoped. She slithered through the water, faster than he would have liked, but he lowered his axe instead of raising it, even as she brought her head closer to his. The serpent-like features faded away, leaving her harsh human features there instead. As the strands of her pale hair moved aside, Calder wondered if it was by some cruel magic, or if it was a well-timed passing breeze. Her darkened eyes seemed to sparkle as she considered the question.
“What could be better than watching a look of happiness fade into one of sorrow?”
Calder let the question spin in his mind for a moment before he latched onto the true meaning of her words. She wasn’t asking the terrible question about what she had done.
She was telling the dwarven king what she was about to do.
The dead that she had collected spilled out of the cavern, no cares about the icy pool below. They didn’t rise out of the water or try to swim, but he could see as they walked across the floor of the lake, some standing tall enough where their heads peeked up out of the frigid water.
Calder’s hunters readied their weapons, expecting to fight to the death against the witch’s army of evil. Each of the walking corpses passed right by the dwarves there at the lake, their aim drawn instead toward the Frostveil.
The dwarven king felt his heart twist in his chest knowing that he had doomed not only the seven of his clan who had ventured to the cavern that day, but perhaps all his people. After so storied a history, he was devastated by the thought that they would be slain by one avaricious endeavor.
Calder knew that there was nothing he could do to stop the dead that shambled toward the shore, and toward the place that he called home.
But perhaps he could save his companions at the very least.
“Why would you collect the bodies of drowned men?” the dwarven king asked. “Surely you could eat them and sate your appetite.”
“Oh, but my king,” the witch said, “some appetites are sated in other ways. I like to look at pretty things. Some are pretty…for a time, before their flesh begins to grey and spoil. But here, in this place, the cold and the water keep them pretty. And my appetite is never satisfied enough with that. That is why my collection is always growing.”
Calder heard a distant song played on one of the Coldwhistle clan flutes, and he quickly recognized it as the song of reinforcement. While his trusted hunters seemed to bubble over with excitement, he could feel his heart aching even more.
Any allies who came to their aid were bound to perish as well. He knew that they were bound for the end of their days.
On reflex, he reached for his pocket, pulling out his own bone flute, and bringing it to his lips.
Before he could play a song of warning for the people from his clan, the witch spun around him, nearly drawing close enough to enclose him in a coil of her thickened black scales.
“Why bother trying?” she hissed. “Your clan will fall this eve, and you shall be the centerpiece of my newest collection.”
Calder froze for a moment, feeling the pain of her words ring through him. He began muttering under his breath, and she reveled in the difficulties the dwarven leader experienced. The witch coiled closer together, until could hear what words he spoke.
“Whoever Ylva is, she can’t help you now,” the creature whispered into his ear.
The dwarven king looked up then, arching one of his eyebrows. A one-sided grin stretched his lip, and he waited for the moment that the witch realized that he had a plan.
He didn’t use the whistle made of bone to play a song, but instead pursed his lips and blew out a shrill tone that would call on another ally. Before the witch could understand what was occurring, Calder swung out with the flute like it was a shortened staff. Incensed, the serpent witch dodged out of the way and slid backward, taking in the deep breath that she had failed to inhale before.
The dwarven king’s eyes went wide, for he knew the effects of the devastating attack that she prepared. But his counterattack was already in full effect.
Lialla dove down upon the area around the lake, gone quiet except for the fluttering of her wings as she stopped herself from slamming into the ground. As the serpent witch cocked her head back to take in a cold breath of air, she was met instead with the sharpened talons of the falcon who fought for her king. The bird’s claws sank into the blackened eyes the monster opened wide in fear. She thrashed, but it was too late.
Calder was ready to throw a cheer into the air.
But he realized it was too soon to celebrate a victory.
The witch breathed out an errant breath, releasing all the cold air that was stored in her body. Frigid white powder took to the sky, catching the falcon before it could escape, icing Lialla over completely. She careened to the lake then, shattering into pieces as she struck the icy surface.
Though he had lost much that day, Calder found himself grasping at his heart at the sight of his beloved bird’s demise. His feet wobbled beneath him, and it took every effort he had to ensure he didn’t fall to his rump or pass out from the wave of emotions that overtook him.
The dwarven king gnashed his teeth together then, steeling himself as he moved to ensure his falcon’s death was not in vain.
While the witch still thrashed about, swiping her clawed hands out to try and slash any dwarves who dared to move too close to her, Calder moved away from her. None of his hunters wanted to risk a battle with the monster even with her sight stolen, and indeed, their king urged them to the other side of the lake to ensure she wouldn’t harm them by any means.
But there was one dwarf who Calder waved closer instead. Fograk gripped his hand axe tight enough that the protest of the handle sounded more like a warning that it would snap in two. The king pulled his advisor close then.
“Ye’ve got to aid the approaching army, my old friend,” Calder said. “Steer them away from the army of the dead. Ye’ve got to save our clan.”
Fograk’s lips parted as he began to protest, but when he saw his king’s stern gaze, and he received a steady shake of his shoulder, he knew there was no convincing their leader otherwise.
Sure enough, Calder turned back toward the cave and blew his whistle, running across what little sturdy ice was left until he reached the rock wall.
The witch turned toward the sound, her face a horrible image being seen by the other dwarves who remained on the lake. Blackened blood dripped from her torn eyes, leaving her looking even more horrifying than before.
Calder whistled again just as he slipped behind the frigid waterfall. When he looked back through the watery veil, he could see as the serpent slithered across the snow and onto the ice, a ferocious hatred urging her onward. A cold chill ran up his spine, for it seemed as though losing her vision didn’t do much to douse her rage.
As he ran further into the cavern, he heard a loud crash behind him, and spun about to see her wobbling off the rocky wall at the entrance of the magical cave. She smashed into crystal formations and stalactites as she slithered about as well, sending out a bloodcurdling screech as her frustrations became apparent.
Calder thought to hold still, as quiet as he could be, and to venture a chance at sneaking out past her, but he knew it would be too much of a risk. Instead, he looked deeper into the cavern, toward the darkened corridor that led to where the dead and lay frozen beneath the ice. Blowing out a silent sigh, the dwarven king lifted his whistle again.
Biting the musical instrument between his teeth, Calder brought his hands to his head, and covered his ears. He blew out the loudest, most discordant note he could, all while running into the darkness.
As he finished playing his maddening song, he uncapped his ears, and kept down his path. But when he heard silence behind him instead of a scream or the sound of the witch slithering forth, it was as though a cold hand had gripped his heart.
Calder’s eyes went wide, and he rolled to his side. It was just in the right amount of time, it seemed, for a blast of cold air came barreling forth, the witch intent on freezing the dwarven king for her collection, even if she could no longer enjoy the sight of it.
He sat there in silence for a time, letting his eyes adjust to the darker part of the cavern. The dwarf caught his breath as well, working as hard as he could to remain quiet despite his fatigue and his fear.
“I don’t need to see you,” the witch hissed. “I don’t need to hear you. I can smell you. I can taste your fear.”
As she spoke, Calder looked to the ground, searching for anything he could to make a noise ring out in the corridor that would muffle the sound of his footsteps. His heart sank further then when he saw the broken pieces of one of his hunters there. Gisraen’s head was still in one piece, but in shattering him, the witch’s magic had somehow left him frozen in ice perpetually. The powerful berserker looked as though he had been fashioned out of glass.
“I’m sorry, me old friend,” Calder muttered under his breath. “But by the gods, I’ll avenge ye,” he went on, invoking the deities that their clan believed in, but that he never truly called on before then.
The dwarven king leaned forward, finding another chunk of ice that looked to be a frozen section of Gisraen’s backpack. He scooped it up and heaved it across the room then. As it landed, it rang out, just as Calder had expected, but it echoed a dozen times in the strange cavern. The dwarf hadn’t expected that.
Neither did he expect the witch to dart through the corridor without care or worry. She smashed her way through an earthen pillar where a stalactite and a stalagmite had met, sending chunks of icy stone flying everywhere as well.
Narrowing his eyes, Calder skittered forward, grabbing up one of those bits of debris. He heaved it at the serpent, watching it slam against her scaly back. She flexed as it struck her, and turned about, screeching across the corridor sounding more like a banshee than a witch. Calder had already slid away though, stopping against the other wall.
Above her head, another large stalactite hung, and the dwarf knew what he had to do. Grabbing up another large stone that he was sure he could heave, he aimed right for the base of the hanging spike. With all his might, he flung it forth, a resounding crack reporting. The witch’s body spasmed at the sound of it, but she couldn’t move fast enough to avoid the falling earthen spear.
It collapsed onto her, and scratched her scales, but it only seemed to incense her further. Calder’s eyes grew wide, and he turned to his side, scrambling toward the ramp that led further into the cavern.
“You are in my domain!” the witch shouted. “I will feast on your bones and keep your skull as my trophy!”
The dwarf knew that he needed time. As much as he didn’t like the idea of slipping down the slope, the crunch of his footsteps in the ice at the ramp’s center would provoke the witch yet again. His heart pounding in his chest, he let his hands guide him down, until the reached the frozen lake within the cave.
Calder slung his pack forward, fishing through it to find what he needed. As dark as it was, he couldn’t see a thing before him, and running into the shadows wouldn’t win him a victory against the witch. Sight was the only advantage he had over her. He knew that he needed to bring his back.
He spilled out the contents of his pack, jerking upright when he heard his flint rattle onto the floor. Silence in the narrow corridor behind him left Calder’s teeth chattering. Still, he found the small hunk of stone, as well as the loop of steel he needed, and the torch that would bring the light back to the cave.
Steadying himself, Calder looped his fingers through the steel, and held the stone and above the torch. Then, anticipating the noise he knew would summon the witch, he blew out one last breath. The king set to work then, slamming the fire striker against the flint, sending sparks flying. Even when he heard the shriek of the witch in the corridor, he kept at his task, until he had fostered the flames upon the head of the torch.
With the light roaring to life again, he could see further into the expansive chamber, including the bow of the massive longship that was caught up in the ice. As he turned, he also spotted the witch, struggling to make her way down the ramp.
Calder sprinted forth, leaving his pack behind. It took a few steps to get proper footing beneath him, as the ice there was far slicker. He used that momentum when the witch tumbled into the chamber though, for a slide across the lake was far quieter than his awkward footfalls.
“You’re still here, my king,” she said, in an almost singsong voice. “I’ve known this place while I slumber. You think I don’t know when something is here that shouldn’t be?”
The dwarven leader hunched low, as though she really could still see through her shredded, black eye sockets. Even from afar, he could see the sickly, dark blood that careened down her angular, pale cheeks.
He puffed in a breath of air, and looked about, wondering what else he could do to escape the trouble that he was in. Beside him, one of the drowned warriors she had risen lay dead again, a crossbow bolt stuck in its head. Calder shuddered to think that any moment, it could sit up again, and come after him. But as his torch crackled, and the serpent witch jerked her head in his direction, he knew that the corpse would be a temporary salvation instead.
Calder lowered his torch, setting the flames upon the dead fellow’s body. Once it fought away the last bits of dampness that clung to it, and the bitter cold, the torch crackled upon his body. With a larger surface area, the fire crackled much more.
The dwarven king ran along before the witch slithered in his direction.
Hearing the sizzling flames, the creature furrowed her brow. She knew that something was amiss, then, and she breathed in, sucking the chill from the large chamber. The next second, she blew out another vile cloud of icy air. The frost nearly blew out the flames on one of her dead playthings, but it persisted.
Far from that spot then, Calder leaned against the bow of the longship. As he lifted his torch, his breath was taken from him, for that far in the chamber, he could see that she had collected many ships over the years. The cavern went on far beyond what he had expected, and he wondered if she had risen all of her dead, of if there were some still slumbering in the ships, and beneath the ice farther back in the room.
He shook his head. Calder couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by such thoughts. All that mattered was escaping the witch—or dispatching her.
Watching her slither closer, and remembering how hardy she was, he didn’t know how possible it was. But as he leaned against the longship, his axe rattled against the long-frozen wooden base.
Before he could be found, he kicked a hunk of stone across the ice, allowing it to slip into the broken segment of the lake and plunge into the water. The witch slowly glided toward it, sinking beneath the icy layer, as she had done so many times before.
Calder turned about and hoisted himself over the railing of the longship. While she was underwater, he knew that was his best hope to move away from her. The damp and rotten wooden planks creaked under his weight, and he winced to hear it. Knowing that she wood know for certain where he was after he surfaced, he sprinted forward, until he reached the bow of the vessel.
Just like he had expected, the witch emerged from the water, furious from having found nothing beneath the ice.
His shoulders rhythmically rising and falling, Calder prepared himself. He made sure that his grip on his axe was firm, and that the cold hadn’t dulled his strength. He remembered those he had lost and knew that it was his feelings of covetousness that had led them down that dark path. He used it all to empower him.
With one mighty swing of his axe, he cleaved through the head of the prow on the longship. It fell from the raised vessel, crashing to the ice below.
The witch moved at once, slithering to that part of the cavern, slashing with her long claws, hoping to catch the escaping dwarf. But when she felt nothing there—not with her hands, and not in presence either—she knew the mistake she had made. She didn’t hear the torch pass, but she heard it fall at the ground by her side.
Calder leaped from the bow of the ship, with his axe raised high into the air. With one mighty swing, he cleaved his axe into the witch’s head, a sickening crack resounding louder than her singing had across the region near the Frostveil.
The dwarven king’s hold on the axe was the only thing that kept him from slamming into the ice at full force, and he tumbled when he could not pull his axe from his foe. When he came to, and looked up, he was surprised to see the witch looking down on her, a vicious snarl etched on her face.
As he adjusted, he saw in the flickering torchlight that her hideous scowl was not one she could control. The axe had done its part and slain the beast.
Another crack rang out, as the ice beneath the witch gave way. She fell into the water, her body stuck in a rigid pose, and as she sank beneath the surface, she seemed to look pleadingly at the dwarven king.
Calder froze for a time, until he realized his axe would sink beneath the ice as well. He reached out but missed his chance.
The weapon that had ended the witch’s life was lost to him.
Without the monster’s magic there in the cavern, a great rumble shook the walls and the ceiling around him. Calder looked to the ceiling, grabbing his torch for a better look. Sure enough, stalactites and chunks of rock began falling from above. He hopped out of the way just before a large piece of stone crashed into the ice where he had stood. Another huge piece of falling rock careened toward the longship, smashing through the planks there.
Even though the witch was defeated, danger still surrounded Calder.
He began forward again, sprinting through the cavern as fast as he could. He only stopped to scoop up his backpack again, hoping that nothing spilled out as he took hold of it, or when the witch slid through the area. Even if it did though, he knew it was a worthy sacrifice.
Moments later, he climbed up the frozen ramp, stomping through the footfalls that had been pounded into place by his hunters earlier. Never slowing, he breathed deeply, sharp, cold breaths running through his lungs. Once more, he stopped closer to the top of the ramp, taking hold of Gisraen’s frozen head. As macabre as it was, he didn’t want to leave such an important part of one of his hunters to remain behind in the haunted cavern.
That chamber, as narrow as it was, was far more dangerous than the one that he was in. With chunks of frozen stone falling there as well, there was less room to dodge falling stalactites and stones. Still, he managed to spin out of the way or pace himself just right to avoid any damage. And before long, he passed into the crystal-filled room.
Calder’s eyes went wide, for the veil at the exit looked different. It wasn’t just highlighted by the water that cascaded off the cliff. Instead, it looked like frosted glass began sliding over the aperture. The magic of the cavern was fading, and he wondered if without the witch, it would ever open again.
Tossing his torch to the side, the dwarven king grabbed hold of Gisraen’s head in both hands and sprinted forth as fast as he could. He leapt through the hole, feeling as though he had jumped through a frost spider’s thick web. A second later, he was splashing through the waterfall and crashing through the already broken ice upon the lake, though he held Gisraen’s head above his own all along the way.
He emerged from the water with his body drenched in the cold. His hair and beard were soaked through, and as he labored toward solid ground. Climbing out of the lake, the dwarven king shivered and chattered his teeth. Despite his discomfort, he knew that he didn’t have time to waste. The witch may have been defeated, but an army of the dead were still on their way to the home of his clan. Although he was just one dwarf, he would do anything he could to aid his people.
As he wrung out his beard and swept the water from his hair, he looked to the campsite he and his people had set out earlier that day. All the horses were gone, the only mount left being Rondak, Volgrem’s boar, who had pulled him out of the lake and lay on top of him.
Calder’s heart ached again knowing that his curiosity had led to the deaths of two of his greatest hunters. He sniffed and closed his eyes, allowing a deep sigh to leave his chest.
When he opened them once more, he assessed the situations once more. All the horses were gone, he understood once more, realizing that it would make his travels to the Frostveil that much more difficult. He began to curse under his breath about Thralni, the dwarf meant to tie the ponies to the trees there. But then he remembered seeing them the first time they had escaped the cavern, and he realized they had only recently been cut loose, probably to spare them from the witch’s undead army. He shook his head, upset that he had let his emotions paint Thralni in a poor, unfair light. He was a good lad, thrust into a situation that none of them should have been in.
Calder whistled as loud as he could, trying to see if he could summon Syril to his side. The pony was nowhere to be seen, even as he made his way to the campsite. He looked to Rondak but knew that none of his people could have rode atop the boar the way that Volgrem had. He wondered if the boar would even allow him anywhere close to the fallen hunter.
Standing beside the smothered campfire, Calder swung his pack off his shoulder, and emptied all the contents from there. He took hold of Gisraen and placed what was left of him in the pack before he hung it from a low branch of the nearest tree. There was no time to give his hunters a proper burial, but the king refused to allow them any disrespect that he could otherwise avoid.
Just as he finished stringing up the backpack, he was startled by an equine snort. He turned to see Syril there, his pony looking as beleaguered as he was. He bowed his head, knowing that their hunting trio had been broken up. Syril and Lialla didn’t often spend time with one another, but they were aware of each other. The sight of her fall, along with the rest of the chaos that unfolded, may have taken its toll on the poor horse.
“Ye’ve earned a rest, old friend,” Calder told his pony. “I just ask you for one last thing. Help me get home. I need to save our people.”
Syril nudged up against the dwarf, almost as though the request was not one that he had to ask in the first place. Calder hopped into the saddle then, trotting his mount carefully until he could feel the sturdiness of the ground beneath them.
As they moved along, the dwarven king passed one last glance at the cave that had lured him into danger, and almost become his tomb. Just as it had the days before, the entrance faded without the sunlight beaming down upon it.
Calder wondered if it would ever open again.
* * *
Riding across the snow field that led to the great steps of the Frostveil, Calder saw a great many of the undead strewn upon the ground. Not many of his clan appeared to lay with them, and his heart swelled with pride and hope. But as he saw the torches and lanterns that lined the steps toward the top of the mountain, he knew that not everything had worked out for the dwarves of clan Coldwhistle.
Nor would it.
The horde of drowned warriors didn’t seem to need the witch’s magic anymore, for they climbed, slow and steady, toward Calder’s home.
The king didn’t know how many of his people had fallen, or how many had retreated, and as the sun faded away, and a light fog covered the area, he couldn’t tell just how bad things had become.
With Syril becoming tired and uncomfortable, the dwarven clan leader could tell his fraught pony wouldn’t have the strength to bear his weight up the steps. He hopped out of the saddle and scampered up the steps on his own.
Without any weapon, Calder knew that he couldn’t do much. But as he reached the rearmost walking corpses, he never hesitated. He grabbed one by its tattered cloak, and tugged it sideways off the steps, the corpse silently falling from that great height. When the other undead warrior turned to look at the dwarven king, Calder was already moving again, charging forth to push that foe off as well.
Those fiends flagged behind many of the other undead warriors that were farther up on the steps, and Calder knew that he would have to sprint the entire way to catch up to the rest. He panted as he ran, his boots tapping against the much-trodden stone, the snow and ice on the structure long expelled. Fatigued as he was, the dwarven leader didn’t look up in time to see that one of his foes had turned around—not until a moment before it lunged at him.
Calder gasped, holding the living corpse back with his hands. Though it seemed to be naught more than a withered husk of what it had been when it was alive, the warrior had a certain heft to it. Calder knew that if he didn’t push forth with all his strength, it would be him falling from the steps. Whether or not they could survive such a plummet, he knew that he could not.
Chomping at him like a vicious wolf, the walking corpse pressed him further and further back. Calder was weary. He was weak. The day had taken its toll on him. As he lost ground, he felt himself bump up against the lantern on that side of the steps. He felt the stand it was on falter, and then crash as it fell from its spot.
His heart pounding in his chest, Calder pushed back with everything he had. As he looked up, the corpse’s brown, emaciated face began to take on a bluish hue. Calder could feel that he was beginning to overpower his foe. And then, as though the witch’s magic had failed it, the undead warrior gave up altogether. The dwarven king nearly charged off the other side, stopping his momentum just in time to prevent himself from tumbling off. The corpse, on the other hand, toppled like a child’s doll, never trying to stop itself from taking that plunge to the ground far below.
With renewed spirit, Calder resumed his ascent up the steps. Perhaps enough time had passed, or the dead had traveled far enough away from the witch’s magic for it to be sustained. All hope of those possibilities faded away as he neared the platform near the midway point of the rise. The dead were still present in force, and it seemed that it was only the members of Calder’s council who still guarded the way up toward the mountain.
The remaining four dwarves looked exhausted. Barranac stood behind Fograk on the stairs beyond the platform. He no longer had access to his military pick, which looked to be embedded in the skull of one of the undead who lay sprawled out between the pillars.
Fograk swung his axe with abandon, hoping to scare the dead back, but he couldn’t accomplish anything of the sort. The witch’s playthings cared not for any of the danger they encountered.
Below them both, on the platform, Ragmer and Thralni fought with fiery passion. While most of the dead seemed to be concerned only with climbing the stairs, a handful looked as though they deemed the two dwarves there to be worthy of attention. Ragmer wore a handful of stab wounds, dark crimson stains upon his yellow tunic. He still fought with rage beyond what any had seen in the time that they had known him.
“For Volgrem!” he cried, burying his sword into one of the monster’s legs, setting it off balance. “For Calder!” He pulled out his blade before slashing it through the creature’s abdomen. “For Gisraen!” he cried, louder than any other war cry that could be heard on the mountain in that bitter cold night, just before he thrust his sword up through the corpse’s throat.
Thralni watched on, impressed by his companion’s prowess and determination. Every few moments, when it looked like a walking corpse drew too close to a distracted Ragmer, the youngest of the hunters darted forward, and dug his knife into a thigh or calf, ensuring they’d do more shuffling than walking.
When Calder arrived at the platform, his hunters spotted him and rejoiced, even amid the battle. Barranac grabbed hold of a torch fastened along the side of the steps, and leapt past Fograk, using it as a new weapon. Thinking that the flames might have frightened the undead, he was surprised to see them fighting harder. It was as though they were invigorated by the threat of once again fading into oblivion.
Calder furrowed his brow then, understanding what sustained the drowned warriors, even in the absence of the witch.
“Douse the torches and the lanterns!” the dwarven king cried. “Any light source ye have, extinguish it!”
Barranac, just entering the fray again after a long hiatus, seemed remiss to relinquish his weapon so soon. “They burn just like anything else, me king. And our lights are the only thing helping us see in the fading light of day. Why should we do such a thing?”
“The witch might have brought these poor sods back, but it was the sun and our torches that kept them going.”
After Fograk pushed a few of the undead back, he smashed the nearby lanterns with his axe, letting the candles fall far to the ground below. Thralni ran from one part of the landing to the next, extinguishing the braziers there as well.
Just as had happened with the walking corpse on the stairs leading to the platform, the skin on their foes began fading to a dusky blue—just as they had looked when they were trapped beneath the ice in the cavern. They slowed, and Ragmer was able to greatly outpace the horde that still were present on the landing. The dwarf began to flag then as well, no longer as threatened by their presence.
Barranac took the time to catch hold of the shambling dead and heaved them off the side of the platform.
“Don’t throw them off,” Thralni said then. As his companions risked looking at him and offering strange glances, he nodded enthusiastically. “If anyone goes scouting, a torch might reanimate them.”
Barranac saw the logic in that, and changed his strategy, pushing them closer to the center of the platform. He avoided their bites and their weapons where he could, but more than one slashed him even in their slowed state.
One by one, the fallen warriors fell again. Upon the steps, Fograk fell to his rump, tired beyond belief as the undead there tumbled down the steps.
Calder fell to the ground beside one of the stone pillars there as well, and the other surviving hunters joined him there. For a long while, everything was quiet. Calder gasped, then, when he felt an unexpected touch at his side. When he turned to see Syril there, nudging him with his muzzle, the other four dwarves couldn’t help but let go of a subtle laugh that covered their sadness and their solemnity.
The dwarven king took in a deep breath and wiped the cold perspiration from his brow. Burdened with the responsibility and the blame of what had transpired, he bowed his head.
“This is what comes next, lads. We’ll hold no feasts or vigils, at least for a short while. We’ll avoid any sorts of flames until morning, preferably before the sun thaws out these poor lost souls. Tomorrow, we’ll begin the work of taking these old warriors from our land and finding a new place for them to rest—somewhere deep, where the light of a flame cannot ever find them again.”
The hunters nodded, one after the other, but otherwise sat in silence. Beaten and tired, and feeling the tremendous loss they had encountered, their emotions almost had them passing out.
Calder looked to the east, where he knew a pair of his hunters had lost their lives. And though they meant much to him, he also pitched a glance toward the bottom of the steps, knowing that those dwarves who had come to aid them from the mountains had suffered and paid the ultimate price as well.
His heart aching, the dwarven king held his hand over his chest. Surprising even himself, Calder began to sing.
“Through valleys deep and roads long, I pray my love ride hard and strong.
Spirits inside, hear my voice guide, my clan home where they belong.”
Mountains are full of a thousand voices,
Of stone and snow and sacred earth,
Singing songs of brave spirits defending,
These frost-covered lands of our birth.”
The other dwarves who had partaken in the surprising adventure with him joined in as well then, but he was more surprised to hear, during a shift in the song, that a great deal of his people had joined in from their hall at the top of the steps.
“Ride hard through the night, my hunters,
O’er the hills and valleys wide.
Let my voice be your light in the darkness,
Return home to your place at my side.”
All of the hunters there could do nothing to stay their sadness and their dejection then. Barranac, close to Ragmer, grabbed the weary, aching dwarf, and pulled him close.
Calder looked down again, wiping a tear from his eye. Another fell, unable to be stopped in time, and it fell toward the pocket on the king’s tunic. When he followed its trajectory, he found that it had fallen on the whistle there.
It had played such a tremendous role in what had transpired. If they had not used the musical instruments so liberally, perhaps the witch would have never summoned them in the first place.
The dwarven king pulled the instrument out of his pocket and held it out to his allies.
“About these whistles,” he said.
* * *
A large thunderclap rang out, and Baldur jerked upright. Einar was too busy sharpening his sword to notice, he thought, but Gudbrand had looked at him throughout his talespinning. Baldur leaned forward a bit, and after quickly swallowing his embarrassment, thought to ask a question to deflect from the reflexive movement.
“Did any of the dwarves ever return to the cave try and obtain the riches they had left behind?”
Gudbrand leaned back against the pillar then. “Some of the dwarves returned to the waterfall, long after the dead were good and buried. But just as it had been before, there was no cave to be found. The people of Clan Coldwhistle were all warned as well that the place was off-limits for mining and the sort.
“Calder didn’t head to the place for some time, haunted by his decisions and all that he had lost along the way,” Gudbrand went on. “But the king realized that he had to live with what had happened, and he had to celebrate the bravery that was exhibited along the way. He named the lake there Falconrend Lake. With the she-serpent defeated, it seemed to grow larger every few years. There’s a citraltenn tree there, the first that had grown in many years, after the Coldwhistle clan had thought the last of them had grown. Calder thought that it was Lialla that brought about a new generation of those trees when she melted into the ground.”
“What do you think happened to Calder’s axe?” Baldur asked.
“Well, it seems as though the cave behind the waterfall was connected to many other places. My guess is that it’s at the bottom of the sea somewhere. Maybe it’s still stuck in that witch’s skull.”
“What about the whistles?” Baldur pressed. “You said he was going to tell his warriors about the whistles.”
Gudbrand chuckled at the eagerness of his brother’s attention. “Calder became our most pious king. He began respecting the old ways. He grew fearful of magic and began praying to the gods. He issued a decree that the whistles only be used in times of great need, and that their secrets be guarded from all future clan members, except for those chosen to carry them—his surviving warriors, or a family member of one who had fallen. Whenever one of them fell ill or grew too old or passed away, a descendant of their choosing inherited the whistle thereafter.”
Another clap of thunder seemed to shake the sky, and the brothers could see the lightning that danced atop the clouds. It was enough to rouse Baldur to his feet, the youngest brother looking about the area where the dead had come so close to their ancestral home. For a moment, it was almost as though Baldur could see the old dwarves of legend, resting there with them.
The dwarf chuckled then. “Wait a wee second. An army of the dead, a sea dragon that turns into a woman, a woman that turns into a wolf… You old thunderheads are filling me head with nonsense on my first hunt. What do you expect me to believe next? Is our king really a rabbit?”
His brothers looked to each other with widening eyes before they looked at him. Gudbrand looked all around as though to ensure no one else was around on that dreary night. “Now that you know such a thing, little brother, the king will have ta decide whether ta throw ye from the top of the steps.”
Einar scoffed and snorted. “Might there be some exaggeration to the legends? Perhaps. But little brother, ye’ve led a short and sheltered life so far. The world is larger than we can possibly know, and you must always be on the lookout for things you don’t understand.”
“Aye, but they’re only stories,” Baldur said. “Shouldn’t we—”
Another loud thunderclap sounded out, but that one was accompanied by the brightest bolt of lightning the trio had seen, and they were surprised to see it hit the top of the mountain.
Gudbrand and Einar glanced at one another again, and Baldur quickly realized the difference between a look of mock concern, and a real one. When a deep rumble began shaking the area, Einar hopped to his feet.
“That wasn’t thunder,” he said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Gudbrand agreed, passing a glance up the steps. It was too dark to see anything and long before, the lanterns had died out. “If that’s what I think it is…”
“What is it?” Baldur wondered.
Einar hurried to the wagon and tied a rope to its side. “Come on then lads,” he bade. “We need to tip this thing over and lash it to the pillars here. They’re strong and sound, and they’ve been here longer than Frostveil Hall.”
“What’s going on?” Baldur pressed, concern mounting in his voice. He helped every step of the way, but they could tell that he was worried beyond what he had at any point in their travels.
Einar grabbed his youngest brother and sat him down in front of the wagon then. “We’ve got snow coming down the mountain, lad. The only thing that’ll keep us safe is what’s on this ledge, so ye stay right here, understood?”
Gudbrand and Einar sat beside Baldur then, each of them wary of the growing tremors beneath them.
“Ye think it’ll hold?” Gudbrand asked his older brother.
Einar nodded, but the other two dwarves could tell that even their usually stoic sibling looked shaken. “The ropes are steady, and the cart is built of sturdy lumber.”
Baldur’s eyes went wide then, and he rose from his seat in front of the fallen wagon.
“What are ye doing?” Gudbrand cried.
“We’re all durned fools!” Baldur said. “We were so caught up in stories and thunderstorms that we forgot about Dale!”
As the youngest brother raced away from the carriage, Gudbrand hopped to his feet, despite the fast-encroaching danger. Their pony stamped its feet on the other side of a few of the pillars, and it took some work for Baldur to convince it to turn and walk toward the carriage.
Baldur’s eyes went wide as he turned back toward his brothers, for he could see the huge frozen landslide, and he wondered if there was any hope of the wagon holding against the phenomenon.
Pushing forward with all his might, Baldur pushed the pony forward—but not fast enough to avoid a panicked kick, that sent him backward a few feet. The dwarf thought to nurse his new injury, but all he could think about was the mound of snow racing toward them. As he stepped forward, he could feel his already bruised leg give out underneath him.
Neither of his brothers noticed his delay in returning, too busy grabbing hold of Dale’s reins and wrestling him to the ground. But as the carriage violent shuddered behind them, they knew that time was running out.
Baldur tried to sprint forth, even right through the fire if he had to, but it was no use. His leg as numb, and not responding to him the way he would have hoped. He turned about then, hoping that he could find another means to protect himself. A moment later, he stood in front of one of the pillars.
Even though he was a young dwarf, he was still burly. His shoulders pushed out beyond the tall stone monolith.
He had just begun thinking about that when the blast of snow caught hold of him. All it took was the smallest bit to knock him from his perch high above the region below the Frostveil.
As he careened from the landing, the last thing he heard were his brother’s cries. He couldn’t understand what Gudbrand was saying, nor did he believe it mattered, for he could only contend with the alternating visions of light and darkness.
And eventually, darkness won out.
Latest posts by Michael DeAngelo (see all)
- Character Art – Alicia Mane - September 20, 2023
- Sci-Fi Anthology Promo – Background Noise: and Other Stories - September 20, 2023
- LitRPG Promo – Father of Constructs: The Janitor Killed the World Boss - September 19, 2023