The lingering warmth of summer was gone the next morning, a biting cold north wind blowing down from the distant peaks carrying with it a thick frost that made the ground underfoot crunch.
Sareth pulled up the thick woollen coat around him as he rode on horse back, a beast having been offered by Freyda, alongside their convoy as they made their way towards the wall of Arkath which loomed higher and higher before them.
Freyda was in the lead, with her two peers Laszlo and Alaric beside her. A little behind them came the Duke Vittorio, riding to see them as far as the border.
Behind them rode about three regiments of paladin knights in full armour with banners flapping from their lances. The convoy itself with the pack train came next and Sareth rode alongside this, keeping pace with Lethos' reptilian mount. The large lizard did not seem to care for the cold weather and its legs and tail were wrapped in furs strapped down by a harness.
Behind them came a detachment of foot soldiers, all of them wearing white robes instead of red and managing to keep up despite the pace set by those on foot. As they drew closer to the wall Sareth could see that it was made of a curious red stone. The seems in the wall were the separate blocks met was so fine that not even a knife blade could be driven between them. About fifty feet up from the ground, small arrow silts opened up and Sareth could the distinct impression that their approach was being monitored.
Lethos took a long deep breath and pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head.
"Cold?" Leanna asked from his other side.
"Relations between my people and the dwarves are not exactly cordial." The dark elf replied. "I do not want them to get excited by seeing me."
Directly in the centre of the wall was a massive iron door, engraved in the visage of a scowling bearded face and buffed to a mirror shine. When they were about ten feet from the gate, Freyda held up her hand to order them to stop and the column ground to a halt; the armour of the foot soldiers clinking as they caught up.
Time dragged on as they waited, staring up at the metal face before them that Sareth irrationally felt was glaring at them in disapproval.
"Discourteous midgets." Laszlo muttered, clenching the reins of his horse. "They make us wait in this cold. I should surely like to chastise them for their rudeness."
"I will mention it to Saint Isabel, but not now Laszlo." Alaric remarked and then frowned. "Besides, here they come now."
There was loud, echoing rumble as if from the turning of tremendous gears as slowly the gate parted and swung inwards. Behind it there was a long stone passageway leading through the middle of a fortress that was part of the wall itself, many portcullis' baring the way forward.
Marching forward from the gate, wadding through the long grass came the dwarves. Sareth had seen an occasional dwarf before, mostly traders and merchants that came to barter in the village near Phenrig's estate but that was no substitute for seeing Shieldguard's for the first time.
Like all dwarfs, they were short and stout, perhaps about half the height of a man although appearing like any other human otherwise. They all had beards elaborately braided, no one type of braid the same and they wore armour only across their shoulders and head. Under this they wore their clan kilt buckled at the waist, blood red with gold stitching creating an intricate pattern down to their feet.
The shield that gave them their name was strapped to their left arm and was the length of their entire body; shaped like an hourglass and engraved with runs around the outside edge.
For a weapon they each held a pick, elegantly shaped like the arching beak of some bird of prey.
They stood straight, their backs stiff and their faces proud; as if the might of all of the dwarfs of Grimheim stood ready to back them up.
Lethos turned his face down and hunched as if trying to be inconspicuous. Atop his lizard mount he failed.
Freyda moved her horse forward into a trot for a short distance and stopped as the dwarves formed a line in front of her.
One of them came forward.
"Speak quickly human." The dwarf said in a gruff voice, giving her a glare from over the rim of his shield. The suspicion and hostility was clear in his voice, not unjustified as the dwarfs could not have helped but seen the army encamped not even an hour's march from their border.
That same wary suspicion was reflected in the faces of the other dwarves as well.
Freyda blows her head in respect.
"May the light of Elrath illuminate your path and the fires of Arkath light your forge." She said to them ceremonially, overload so that the other dwarfs would hear her. A few glances were exchanged by the Shieldguards an there was a mellowing about their manner and the leading dwarf seemed slightly taken aback by her polite greeting.
"Er.. and yours." He said, taking a moment to collect himself. Then he straightened and addressed her in kind. "The dwarves of Grimheim bid you welcome. Now what do you want?"
Sareth kept his eyes on Alaric during this exchange, Xana's warning about the priest not forgotten. The man was merely staring at the lead dwarf with a scowl.
"To be allowed to go to Tor Hrall, to speak with your leaders about a diplomatic matter." Freyda replied and the Dwarf looked between her and the staring priest sceptically, a frown making his beard sway.
"There are rules – always have been." He said and his tone was firm. "A toll must be paid and no more then two battalions of troops."
Alaric's expression became indignant at such conditions.
"Why?" He demanded leaning forward in his saddle. "We are here on a mission of peace, bringing the blessings of Elrath."
The dwarf did not look impressed.
"Bring all the blessings you want but none of those brimstone smelling red thugs." The Shieldguard declared, gesturing with his pick between those soldiers wearing red robes and those wearing white ones.
Freyda did not appear annoyed by these conditions for passage but actually rather pleased, perhaps Sareth wondered, at having Alaric's nose put out.
"I will pay your toll." She said, apparently anticipating a fee for entering. She gestured back and two foot soldiers came forward, carrying two wooden chests between them. These they laid on the ground before the dwarves. They unlocked the lids and pulled them open, the early morning light glittering on the contents; a heaped mix of gold coins and cut gemstones along with two bottles of the finest brandy Havez had had in the packs.
"Is this sufficient payment?" Freyda asked, keeping her tone neutral despite her smile. The eyes of every dwarf widened at the sight of the gold before them and their speaker came forward, picked up a coin and studied it. He even went so far as to bite it to ensure it was real.
"Oh aye, that it is!" He declared, nodding back to his fellows. "Once you have your escort sorted out come forward and you will be admitted through the gate." He turned and two more dwarves came forward to collect the fee.
Freyda looked back over her shoulder at Alaric, who's face was set in stern disapproving lines.
"Alaric. I will return with the prince." She told him.
"I do not like this. They are treating us like servants!" He snapped in reply. "Demanding a toll from the Griffin Empire, the troops of Saint Isabel… barbaric heathens! They should show respect for that which is superior."
"It's their land." Freyda replied.
"They will regret their greed and their arrogance when Grimheim is an imperial province." Laszlo commented dryly and with a strange hunger in his eyes. That earned him a few startled looks but thankfully the Dwarves were too busy carting their fee back into their fortress to notice.
"Keep Laszlo's reigns tight. I will be back as soon as possible." Freyda said and looked back to survey her troops. From them she picked out one formation of Paladin knights and one battalion of Squire foot soldiers, all of them wearing the white robes leaving the majority of the red robed soldiers with Alaric and Lazlo.
"Toodle pip old chaps." Duke Vittorio said in cheerful farewell as Freyda organised her escort. "If I ever get the need for an honest merchant man I'll look up the services of the Ashan trading consortium."
"What's he going to do when he finds out it doesn't exist?" Graug asked in an undertone to Havez. The wizard only smiled
"Come." She said, gesturing to the caravan train behind them. Havez nodded and flicked the reins he was holding down onto the rump of the mare directly in front. Slowly the procession of wagons and men began forward.
"Hold it!" One of the dwarves started, striding up to the lizard mount Lethos was riding. Sareth breathed in sharply as the Dwarf reaches up and pulled the hood back, exposing the dark elves face.
"Ygg-chall scum!" The bearded little man snarled as Lethos managed his most disarming expression. The dwarves all stared at the dark elf and then turned to look with savage accusation at Freyda. The entire caravan stopped and there was a sudden tense atmosphere.
Sareth flinched, resting one hand automatically on the hilt of the Dragon Flame Tongue at his side.
"Dear noble sirs of the mountain, I am but a simple trader." Lethos began into the uncomfortable silence. "I mean you no harm." He leaned back quickly as a dwarf held his pick-axe directly in front of his face.
"Not a word from you, dark elf."
"He speaks the truth." Freyda said reassuringly to the ruffled dwarves. "He is just a merchant with me to see his wares."
"With a Minotaur taskmaster?" One of them asked sceptically, gesturing towards the towering Adrastos who was not paying attention to the dwarves at all.
"Aggh just search him and his packs Olaf." Another dwarf called over, busy helping bring the two chests of treasure inside the fortress. "He's not the first one we let in who was a little fishy anyway. And yah didn't complain about that rotting wizard a few days ago."
Olaf, if that was his name, grunted and then gestured with his pickaxe for Lethos to get down off his mount. Lethos complied and the Dwarves methodically began to search his clothes, others going through those packs of personal belongings on the cart. Sareth held his breath eyes wide; knowing full well that Lethos carried with him at all times several dozen verities of poisons and daggers. If those were found their entire mission would be jeopardised.
Yet the dwarves found nothing, not even that special dagger Lethos had picked up back in the encampment.
Catching Sareth's startled look, Lethos smiled and winked at him.
"He's spotless." Olaf the dwarf was eventually forced to admit and grudgingly stepped side. "Alright you can go on through but we'll be watching you dark elf, so no funny business."
"I bow to the wisdom and generosity of the mountain lords." Lethos replied, remounting his reptilian beast. Once again the procession began forward towards the gate unimpeded.
"Ok, how did you do that?" Havez demanded, leaning across to whisper to the dark elf as the gate loomed high above them.
"Trade secret." Lethos replied with his smile widening into a grin. As they neared, the various portcullises that ran the length of the tunnel that marked the entrance to dwarf land rising up out of their way with the grinding of gears coming from above. The tunnel was made of the same red stone as the rest of the wall, engraved with a pattern of runes that ran across the curved ceiling and almost seemed to form pictures. It was wide enough for them all to ride their mounts through along with space for those on foot to walk on either side.
Freyda lead the way confident, pointedly ignoring the side corridors that branched out to either side where small grounds of armed dwarves stood watching them as they rode past.
Sareth's attention however was distracted. He turned in his saddle to one of the dwarves who was escorting them through the tunnel.
"Excuse me." He began and the small man looked up. "But I heard one of you say you let a rotting wizard come through before."
"Oh aye, that one." The dwarf replied making a disgusted face. "Pale skinned bugger he was. But he paid the toll so we had no cause to complain."
Leanna, who had been riding nearby, apparently came to the same conclusion that Sareth had.
"A necromancer?" She asked.
"Yup." The dwarf confirmed, completely ignorant of the intense unease that was settled on the faces of those around him. "Had a funny sounding name…. Arant…Aron…" He fumbled trying to remember and pronounce it at the same time.
"Arantir?" Leanna asked with a note of fear in her voice. The dwarf clicks his fingers.
"Ah aye lass that was it! Arantir!" He chuckled, running his fat fingers through his blonde beard. "Said he had business with the Stonefist Clan. Can't see why myself, hard headed bastards, the lot of them.
Sareth only heard his diatribe peripherally. Arantir was here already? There could be only one reason for him to make a journey into Grimheim and that was to retrieve the Shantiri crystal, there was nothing else of worth here. He still did not know what function these crystals might have but Arantir's willingness to come after this one verified Raelag's assertion of the crystals worth.
Were they too late? Did the necromancer have the crystal already?
"There is no reason to assume that." Xana told him silently, speaking to him with her mind. "All we know is that he's been here, beyond that nothing has changed."
Sareth mused over it as their company neared the end of the tunnel and eventually decided that she was right. If they learned more in Tor Hrall then they could change their strategy.
The land beyond the Wall of Arkath did not look much different from the other side, the same grass and thick trees leading up a narrow gully into the mountains. Once beyond the wall however they were hit a bitingly cold wind that struck them full the face.
It was a howling gale, chilled by the snow on the peaks above and whistling through the narrow stone passages.
Lethos' reptilian mount shivered despite the furs it was wearing in the face of that wind.
"Sar-Elam's toenails that's cold!" Graug proclaimed, pulling his thick fur cover tighter around himself. Havez himself, who prudently had exchanged his orange silk robes for thick leather and fur before they had set out, drew in his shoulders and frowned.
"Tor Hrall is two leagues up the mountain." The escorting dwarf told them. "Once you get over the ridge you will be able to see it. Don't deviate from the path up away from the wall or as you approach the city. If you act odd you're more then likely to end up with a body full of harpoons." He made a sort of jabbing motion with his pick for emphasis.
"Understood." Freyda replied simply and nudged her horse into a canter, her escort moving up to follow after her as she started towards the gravel filled ravine.
The climb up the steeply slopping mountain to the high plateau above was slow going; the path winding back and forth around rocky pinnacles that stuck up from the foothills like jagged crocodiles teeth.
The higher they climbed the colder it got, as if they were moving closer towards the source of the wind coming from off the mountaintops.
The soldiers in their armour and their leather undershirts were definitely feeling the cold, the metal of their grab clattering against itself as they shivered. Even Adrastos seemed slightly torpid, moving more sluggishly then usual. The only once who seemed not the slightest bit affected by the cold was Xana. Hardly any environment affected her.
"Think those dwarves are still watching us?" Havez asked across to Lethos, glancing back at the wall of Arkath. They were nearing the top of the ravine now and from this height the wall seemed small, a thin barrier marking the border. Beyond that a green carpet of fields and forest rolled endlessly away to the southern horizon.
"Of course they are." The dark elf said in a resigned tone. "Their harpooners are probably hidden among the rocks ready to hurl a javelin at us." He grinned. "That's their favourite time of long range weapon. They don't waste time with bows and arrows when they can forge spear heads."
Sareth began to develop a very uncomfortable sensation between his shoulder blades and he could almost imagine he was seeing hidden furtive moment behind every outcropping of stone they past. He did his best to tell himself it was all in his mind but he still felt jumpy.
At about noon they reached the top of the ravine and came out onto the top of the cliff and from this vantage point all of the jagged country of Grimheim was laid out before them.
Mountain range rose and fell, crisscrossing so much that the land was little more the succession of tight valleys running between the peeks. Sareth found himself picturing a colossal clawed hand reaching down and tearing its talons through the ground to make those valleys. Those deep valleys where the only places where there was any greenery, mostly pine and spruce and over evergreens.
Above these came the snow, thick drifts piled as high as files and giving the land a lumpy sort of appearance. Occasionally there were a few dusted trees and rock but apart from that it was all snow and ice, covering the land to the distance northern horizon.
"Only the dwarves could find such a land homely." Lethos sighed, pulling his hood back up perhaps to protect his pointed ears from the cold. To Sareth it seemed strangely ironic that the worshippers of the dragon of fire would make as their homeland a frozen mixed land of mountains, valleys and tundra.
The border city garrison of Tor Hrall was not hard to locate. Its spires, made of that same curious red stone, jutted up out of the nearest valley perhaps two miles away. Sareth supposed it had to be that close in order to keep the Wall of Arkath fortress supplied with food.
There was a path beaten towards it through a short ravine free of snow and Freyda directed their column onwards.
It took them another hour to reach the city but when they did it was a sight to see and even the sober Adrastos gave a snort of approval. Known as the gateway to the Dwarven Kingdom, Tor-Hrall was a major centre of commerce and it showed. The gates of the walls were beautifully engraved and lined with gold and precious jewels and as they swung wide to admit their column they were welcomed by the sight of rich vibrant market.
This was the first time Sareth had been to a dwarven city but he had read about them extensively so knew what to expect. Other races built up and out when they constructed settlements but the dwarves built down into the earth. Their towns resembled concave bites that sank deep into the earth connecting the cities on the surface with the more extensive complexes deeper down.
The buildings were constructed around the edge of the pit in rings that made levels, each one being delegated to a different purpose. The upper most rings were filled with markets, stalls and warehouses and shops.
Beneath them were what looked like rows of living quarters with windows opened out to look down into the pit which so far as Sareth could see had no bottom.
Perhaps somewhere down there might be the Shantiri crystal.
"You'd think they risk flood and landslide with something like this." Havez remarked as they entered, walking over a floor that was an extensive mural with elaborate rune like patterns.
Lethos shook his head.
"Not the dwarves. Nothing they build ever falls down unless you've got siege weapons." His tone was strangely admiring.
They dismounted from their beasts which were stationed in an easy accessed pen and then on foot they proceeded down several flights of wide stone stairs, the dwarves of the city giving their armed party a wide berth. There were curious glances coming from almost every direction.
The chamber they were led to was probably a general audience room and while individual members of the deputation were allowed inside their foot soldiers were told pointedly to remain at the door. The two armoured dwarves with axes made that very clear.
Like the rest of the city it was engraved with runes on nearly every wall, no one surface the same as another. Braziers were burning on rectangular pillars that lanced from the floor to the arched ceiling above, and along the walls intermixed with long banners that bore the emblem of the clan..
A long stone table that was attached to the floor ran the length of the hall and at the far end was a throne like seat, two more large braziers burning on either side of it.
Standing just before was a dwarf and Sareth knew instantly that he was the clan leader. He couldn't say how he knew, he just did.
The dwarf was average sized for his race, brown skinned from exposure to the sun and red haired, almost orange. His hair and beard were done up in several long braids entwined with green silk ribbons.
He wore chain mail and shoulder guards but the rest of his attire was made of furs with the pelts styled to match the red of his beard.
"Wulfstan, the clan leader of the Winterwind Dwarves." Lethos muttered to Sareth in a confidential tone. "That one over there is his half brother, Rolf."
Sareth glanced over to see a second dwarf standing off to one side. The two of them were clearly brothers there was no mistaking the facial resemblance.
Rolf's hair however was jet black and his hairline had receded back. He wore full armour and a thick fur cape down his back which looked like it had once been the pelt of a bear.
Freyda inclined her head to the two dwarves and Wulfstan smiled and bowed back. Rolf only glared at the humans in his court with obvious animosity.
"Well now lass, what brings you all the way from sunny Talonguard?" He asked and Sareth found himself liking the sound of the dwarves voice, for no reason he could rationally explain.
"Lord Wulstan, I am Freyda of her majesties Imperial armies."
"Well that's a relief, if you weren't then I'd have made a mistake and I like to avoid those whenever I can." A few humans chuckled and there was a general relaxing of tension.
Rolf shot a disgusted sidelong glance at his brother but Wulfstan ignored the look.
"My lord." Freyda carried on. "We are here to extradite a young prince Andrei of our realm who was kidnapped by a renegade Duke and then taken into your territory, and to bring the traitor, Duke Duncan to justice."
Wulfstan's expression did not change but there was something about the way he looked at her, pity mixed with wry amusement.
"Little Andrei….kidnapped?" He asked with a shake of his head. "Lass, someone's been spinning you a tall yarn."
Freyda looked up at him in surprise and confusion as well she might.
"And besides, if your gonna go around charging an old friend of mine with despicable acts like that, you ought at least let him answer the charges." He paused to call back over his shoulder. "What do you think?"
"Couldn't agree more, my friend." A new and clearly non-dwarvish voice said and out from around the back of the stone seat strode a man with short length brown hair and a green cloak. Freyda drew in her breath shortly and Sareth certainly understood why.
Sareth had seen the man's face before while growing up, often on posters in travelling merchant caravans.
Duke Falcon, the man who supposedly kidnapped the prince.