The Search for the Unicorns Chapter Seven

This is the seventh chapter in the story, if you have not read the previous chapter please do so before continuing: Chapter 6 – Seeking The Dwarves

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Here is the Seventh chapter:

Chapter 7


The Dwarf’s eyes widened slightly, but he showed no other sign of surprise. Carla, remembering her feelings on meeting the two Regents, felt that she was here looking at a solid wall of the same stone which made up the mountains.

“So? Well, I am permitted to make decisions as to whether those who seek to enter here do so for serious or frivolous reasons. I must say that this does not sound frivolous. Enter, then.”

He stepped out of the way and allowed them to come in, horses and all. The unicorns at first looked doubtful, but then decided to enter too. Inside was a fairly plain sort of porch, with the walls carved into friezework depicting Dwarves at work in various forms of metal and stonework.

There were also thirty Dwarves as well, armed and armoured, carrying sword or axe and shield. They looked on the travellers with suspicion, and on the unicorns with wonder.

The first Dwarf spoke again. “My name is Vashchi. I will escort you down towards the King’s suite. Whether or not he will see you is another matter entirely.”

Wissagebreht nodded. “I am the wizard Wissabreht, as you know.” He indicated the others, one at a time, with waves of his hand. “I present here the King, Bruderic of Vorholm, his Chamberlain, Lungand, and my ward, Carla.”

The Dwarf bowed politely. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, I am sure. Shall we go?”

“What of the horses?”

“Tether them here, with the unicorns. Someone will come to see that they are fed while you are our guests.”

Carla could feel Yssagarit tensing at these words. “The unicorns are not to be tethered!” she said, surprising herself with her firmness. “They come and go as they will, and are not tied.”

Vashchi looked at her in surprise, then looked at her again, closely. Again she could not read his expression, but there was something strange in it. He nodded. “So be it. The unicorns may come with us.”

So they tethered the horses in the porch, and began walking. Some of the Dwarves carried torches. This was mostly as a courtesy to the visitors. For the Dwarves were capable of finding their way through every hole and cavern in the mountain without the aid of light.

They went through a long series of halls and stairways which were mere tunnels cut in the rock, though with smooth floors. These were followed by a long series of halls and stairways Which were more carefully cut and smoothed. and finally by halls and stairways which were lighted by lamps every so often far along their length. The walls of these latter hallways were decorated by friezework of amazing skill.

The scenes depicted on the walls were from various spheres of Dwarvish life and from various events in Dwarvish history. Carla longed to stop and ask about this one and that one, but did not quite dare.

She then noticed something about the lamps. At first she had thought they were simple oil lamps. But then she saw that they were instead metal holders for gleaming jewels. Jewels which held light at their centre and shed it on the path. She could not contain her curiosity at this. “Wissagebreht!” she whispered, “What are those lights?”

“They are the Lamps of the Dwarves. No one knows how the light is held in them, for that is one of the secrets which the Dwarves do not sell, not for any amount of money.”

Vashchi eventually led them into a spacious room with a number of benches in it. “If you will wait here, I will take word of your presence to the King.”

He bowed and left them.

Bruderic looked around, then went to the door and looked out. “They must trust us greatly; there is no one guarding the door.”

Wissagebreht smiled. “Why bother? We could easily find our way back up to the door through which we entered, but what of it? And if we, or any of us, went blundering about looking for treasure, we would be noticed, and guards called rapidly. Furthermore, they know the byways and passages of this place much better than we. So that even if we managed to steal something and get onto the right passage to the door, they would easily head us off and ambush us.”

Bruderic grinned. “You need not fear, Wissagebreht, I had no thought of thievery.”

The walls of this room were also decorated with scenes from Dwarvish life and history. So ornate were they that the conversation eventually turned to these scenes. Wissagebreht, surprisingly, knew most of the tales behind the scenes depicted. He was therefore able to tell the other three some interesting stories. Even Lungand, for lack of anything better to do, paid attention.

He was ending the tale of Daghuwerand. Who bought from the Dwarves the chains which he used to chain the dragon Allefallend, when Vashchi came back. “Which ending do you put to the tale, Wissagebreht? The one which says that the Dwarves, learning of how much gold was in the dragon’s hoard. Demanded from Daghuwerand more than the agreed price. And when he would not pay, they cursed the chains they had made so that the chains broke. And the hero had to slay the dragon and died in doing so? Or, the one which says that Daghuwerand himself, seeing the riches in the dragon’s hoard. Tried to cheat the Dwarves of their rightful due. And that it was this faith breaking which caused the chains to break?”

Wissagebreht looked up. “Why, as to that, I had planned to do what you have just done, to tell them both endings and let them judge for themselves. But since you have told the two endings of the tale, I need not bother.”

Vashchi was still frowning. “Yes,” he said, almost as though the Wizard had not spoken. “Years upon countless years ago it has been, yet the Dwarves have long memories.”

“Indeed,” answered Wissagebreht in a voice which was carefully neutral.

Vashchi looked up again, as though remembering something. “I beg your pardon, I forget my manners. The King will see you now.”

He led them down more hallways until they came to a wide cavern, well-lit with the Dwarvish lamps. At the rear of which was a throne at the top of nine steps. The King of the Dwarves sat on that throne, but he had no sceptre in his hand, rather he held upright a double-bladed axe. They approached the throne, and bowed at the foot of the nine steps.

“Milord King, I present to you these travellers come with a request for the Dwarves. Bruderic, King of Vorholm, Lungand his Chamberlain, Wissagebreht the Wizard, and Carla, ward of the Wizard. Travellers, I present you to His Majesty, King Goral of the Dwarves.”

The King looked down on them. He was old, old even as the Dwarves count years, with white hair and beard on a wrinkled brown face. His eyes were bright, though, and he surveyed them all carefully. At last he spoke.

“Why do you come here, King of Vorholm?”

“I come to commission the making of a memorial to the late Queen Guendatha.”

King Goral nodded. “A very brief answer, King Bruderic. And yet Queen Guendatha has been dead these sixteen years; why a memorial for her now, suddenly?”

“It is a task laid on me by the Elves, in return for which they will remove the curse from our land. The Queen died in strange circumstances. Perhaps she was even murdered, and because of this the Elves have cursed the fertility of our land.”

The Dwarf-King nodded, as though he were merely confirming what he already knew. “The revenge of the Elves can be frightening, can it not? But what sort of memorial had you in mind?”

“They had suggested, and I accept their suggestion, that the manner and form of the memorial be left to your craftsmen.”

Again the King nodded. “And what are you willing to pay?”

“Keeping in mind that the payment will come out of my own resources, and not from those of my Kingdom, I will pay whatever is reasonable.”

“Hmm. Perhaps your own weight in gold?

“‘Whatever is reasonable,’ I said, not every penny that I own or could hope to own. One quarter of that.”

“Three quarters.”

“One third.”

At this point Vashchi broke in. “Your Highness, may I make a suggestion?”

The King, an expression of annoyance on his face, said, “What is it, Vashchi?”

The Dwarf went quickly up the steps to the throne and whispered briefly into the ear of the King. The King sat up straighter and smiled. “Indeed, the very thing.” He turned his face to the travellers.

“King Bruderic,” he continued, “Vashchi has just reminded me of something which might take the place of payment. a small task which requires valiant people to carry it out.”

“And what is that task?” asked Bruderic, cautiously.

“To watch the forge of Dumberlin for one night.”

Bruderic lifted an eyebrow. “It sounds altogether too simple to be payment for such a memorial. What is the trick here?”

“No real trick,” answered the King. “The forge of Dumberlin is the forge at which we make most of our special works. Those with particular spells or made with certain materials. Because of that there is always a hint of magic about the place, which tends to draw certain creatures to it.

“Many of these creatures are mere pests, capable only of hindering the work which goes on in the forge. But there are others which are more deadly. Those who guard the forge therefore, must be people of valor. They must be people who are able to stand against strangeness without flinching.”

“Before I say yes or no, let me consult with my companions.”

The King nodded. “Certainly. Do you wish to come back later with your answer?”

“No, I think if we merely withdraw to a quiet corner for a moment, we can make our decision.”

“Very well.”

So they moved aside, against a wall where a huge and fearsome dragon was carved. Then Bruderic looked at Wissagebreht. “Wissagebreht, I am willing to make decisions about things if I know all the facts. In this case I know practically nothing. Can you advise me?”

“Until Vashchi reminded him of the forge, I think he would have been willing to make an agreement for money. Now, though, I fear that he may well insist on this task, or perhaps one as hard. It has taken his fancy to see the King of Vorholm work for him.”

“Indeed? But what of this forge? How dangerous is it? Is it too much of a risk?”

“It is a risk. However, just as the King said, it is not possible to predict just what must be guarded against. If all that come are the pests he mentioned, then you may well have your memorial at a cheap price. If something more dangerous should appear, then the memorial may cost you more than you might be willing to pay.”

Lungand spoke. “If you take my advice, Bruderic, you will refuse. The Dwarves have little love for us, that is obvious, and it is quite possible that this is merely a trap to kill you.”

Bruderic shook his head. “I doubt that. Most likely it is as Wissagebreht and the King seem to say. A task which could be dangerous, very dangerous, but not necessarily fatal. I intend to accept the conditions.”

“So, then,” said the Wizard. “In such a case, since my advice has led you to accept this task, I shall accompany you to give you what aid I can.”

Bruderic nodded and, despite Lungand still looking like a thundercloud, approached the throne once more. “Milord King Goral, we will accept the task.”

“‘We’?” inquired the King of the Dwarves. “Did I ask that all of you take part?”

“No, but then neither did you say who or how many should, and Wissagebreht wishes to join me.”

“And I too,” said Carla, hardly believing it was her voice speaking.

“And I also,” said Lungand. “Since we are all being fools, I should be one as well.”

King Goral merely nodded, but he looked at Carla. “Carla, daughter of the Elves, do you truly wish to do this? Is it your quest?”

“Milord King,” said Carla, a little surprised that he knew of her connection to the Elves, “It is my quest. I have been a part of it since it began, and I feel it would be hardly right to separate myself from it now.”

He nodded again. “So, then. I shall put the matter of the memorial to my craftsmen, and in the meantime you will be shown to guest quarters. Tonight you shall go to Dumberlin’s forge.”

The Dwarves were as free in their hospitality as the Elves. The main difficulty was that the entertainers. The harpers and the Dwarves who acted out small plays, did so mainly in the Dwarvish language. So the four were unable to understand most of it. Out of courtesy, however, King Goral did order some songs to be sung in the language of Vorholm. It was in this way that they were not completely left out.

One great difference was that the Dwarves did not have clothing on hand to fit the travellers. So they were required to come to the table in their travelling dress. Carla felt a little uncomfortable about this and noticed the Bruderic was feeling somewhat the same. But as the evening went on they both managed to put those feelings aside and enjoy themselves.

When the evening’s meal and entertainment were over, they were escorted back to their quarters to wait for the summons to the forge.

Yssagarit wished to come along with them to the forge. Carla, however, said, “No. This is something dangerous, and it is part of our quest, not yours.”

“And if we come anyway?”

Carla looked around helplessly at Wissagebreht. The Wizard smiled. “Quickfoot, while we would like to have your company, I fear that it would not be safe, not for any of us. Please wait here for us.”

“And if we say no?”

Wissagebreht frowned. “In such a case, I should have to lay a spell of binding on you, and neither you nor I should like that. Will you stay?”

“Oh, very well, then.”, The unicorn snorted and turned away. then all three of them went as far from the four travellers as they could manage.

“Don’t worry, Carla,” said Wissagebreht. “They will come back, once they are over their temper.”

The Dwarvish forges were usually mere areas in the caverns where they set up anvils and furnaces. Dumberlin’s forge had been similar. Until, after a long time of making magical things, it began to attract strange forces and apparitions. One of the first attempts to deal with these strange happenings had been to erect a roof and walls about the forge. This had proven useful only to a very small degree and for a short time, but no one had bothered to remove the roof or walls.

At present, whenever the forge was to be used, armed and armoured Dwarves had to stand guard outside to keep away the things attracted by the magic. Some came out of curiosity, and were only nuisances which might get in the way at a time when the work inside required great care. Others were of the sort to play wicked little tricks on the smiths or anyone present. While others still, more wild and unpredictable, might attack those in the forge or nearby. Most of the lesser ones would be frightened away by the mere presence of guards. Others could be shooed off without great trouble. But some of them might well try to kill or injure.

All this information was passed to them by Vashchi as he guided them to the forge. He appeared to be quite merry about the whole thing, and seemed to cherish a small and barely concealed hope that things would go badly for them.

The forge appeared to consist of a squat stone house, with a roof of thin slabs of stone. There was a chimney at the furnace end, and smoke was already coming out of that. With a smile that was almost a smirk, Vashchi said, “A good night to you, and good fortune be with you.”

The King of the Dwarves had sent shirts of chain-mail and shields to the four. Along with the message that he hoped these would be helpful during the night. Carla found the mail shirt to be heavy and uncomfortable. But when she suggested taking it off, Wissagebreht gave her a look which said that she was being foolish, so she left it on. She did, however, dispose of the shield as being too much of an interference with her sling.

For the first part of the evening, nothing happened at all. Carla was just about convinced that they would have no difficulty at all when she saw something white out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head, but it was gone.

Wissagebreht shook his head. “It is beginning.”

Across the cavern, a pale greenish face began to appear on the wall. Its strange eyes surveyed the four, then it disappeared. A pack of shaggy black dogs with eyes like orange fire trotted out of nowhere and came toward the forge. The dogs then spotted the four and sat down on their haunches, with their tongues lolling out. Nothing attempted to attack them yet. But strange shapes appeared and glowered at them.

“Wissagebreht,” asked Carla, “could you not drive these off with spells?”

“Why, I suppose I could. But the magic I used to drive them off would attract other, stronger things which would need stronger spells to drive them off. Until, in the end, the things which would come, would overwhelm us. Oh, I can use little spells to assist in the work, but nothing large. We must do this mostly without magic.”

Something like a pale bat swooped down at them, fluttering back up into the darkness as Bruderic brought up his sword. It swooped back down again, but on the third time around, Carla was already swinging her sling. Once, twice, she whirled it round her head, then let go. The stone went straight through the batlike thing, scattering it into pale, cloudy chips which drifted to the ground and disappeared.

Slowly but surely, more and more strange creatures crept out of the darkness. There were more batlike creatures, some of them flew, some of them skittered or even hopped across the floor. Then came snakes which wriggled across the cavern floor toward them. There were also swarms of gnats, and many other such creepy-crawly and sometimes slithery things. None of them proved dangerous. A sweep of a sword, a stone from Carla’s sling, a stroke from Wissagebreht’s staff, and they were dissipated.

All this time the pack of dogs sat watching and waiting. Then they were given a brief respite. The dogs sat quietly watching them and waiting as the four panted for breath.

There was a clattering across the cavern floor and they looked up to see a pile of bones lying there. The bones moved, rattling together. Suddenly, there was a complete skeleton standing up and advancing toward them. followed by another and another and another, nine in all.

Carla’s heart pounded, and she wanted desperately to run from here, to find a hiding place until this night should be over. But Bruderic was standing fast, and Wissagebreht did not appear overly concerned, so she swung her sling again.

Her first cast missed badly. But her second one smashed full into the skull of one of the skeletons, knocking it free from the neckbone. The skeleton dropped, and began feeling around on the floor with bony fingers. Carla took up another stone.

Her next cast smashed ribs in one of the other skeletons. The next one she missed altogether. As she took up another stone, she saw that the first skeleton had found its skull and replaced it again, and had rejoined the advance. They were close now, and they reached out with bony hands towards the four.

As though at a signal, the three men stepped forward, striking. Carla swung her sling again and again, sometimes knocking a leg or foot or arm loose. But each time the skeleton would grope about for the missing part, replace it, and come on.

The men were having similar difficulties. Any skeleton which they cut down with a sword would grope about, reform its parts, rise slowly, and rejoin the fray.

Carla noticed something else, however. Bones which were broken did not knit, but remained broken. With all her force she flung a stone, which shattered a skull completely. The skeleton fell and groped for the skull, but could not find it.

Lungand appeared to have discovered this by himself. For now the ground before him was a litter of shattered bones. Bruderic, too had destroyed one skeleton, chopping until there were not enough whole bones to form and fight.

At that very moment, one of the last skeletons came directly toward Carla. She could no longer pay attention to the battle the others were fighting, but must fight her own fight. Her first stone missed altogether. But her second smashed some ribs and apparently knocked the spine out of place. The bony figure fell, writhed a little, and then began to rise. Carla was already whirling her sling, and let fly another stone.

This one smashed a shoulder. The skeleton staggered. Then it regained its balance and kept coming, groping for her. She backed up, but she no longer had space to swing her sling. She began reaching for her dagger. But at that moment Bruderic stepped quickly sidewise. Brutally, he struck backhanded into the skeleton, smashing it to the ground. While it was down, he struck again and again, smashing the skull and several other bones.

He looked at Carla and grinned, but said nothing. She was angry at him for helping. Angry at herself for needing help. But she knew that she couldn’t have fought the skeleton all alone, so she forced herself to smile at him.

None of the skeletons were still whole, but some of the bones were still moving on the ground. The party smashed and hacked at them until they seemed no longer dangerous. Then straightened and waited for what would come next.

The dogs still sat watching the four with their orange fire eyes. They had not long to wait. Shortly an armoured figure came marching across the cavern. The armour was rusty, in some places no more than a thin film of red. But the sword in its hand was bright, brighter than it should be, and there was something ominous in the sheen of it. The Helmet had a crown affixed to it. This crown matched the crown which had been painted on the shield. The shield seemed to have escaped the general rust and corrosion of the rest of the armour.

As it came nearer, Carla saw that there was no face under the helmet, only a grinning white skull. For some reason, it seemed even more frightening than the skeletons they had just disposed of.

They stood staring for a long time, until the figure had covered half the distance between them. Finally, Carla managed to bring herself into action. She swung the sling around her head and released a stone. The stone glanced off the rusty crown but did not cause the foe to stop or even slow.

She took another stone, calmed herself as best she could, and threw it. This one went into the bony eye-socket. This time the apparition checked its movement forward. The head turned slightly in her direction. When it began to move again, it was coming straight at her. She noticed briefly that the men had spread out a little further from her. Then there was nothing at all but the Skeleton King in rusted armour marching steadily toward her. She judged that she had time for one more stone before it was too close, and she whirled her sling again. She missed badly, and at that range she ought not to have missed. She took another step back, putting another stone in her sling.

It was useless, she knew, but she had to try. Then Bruderic was chopping at the Skeleton King from the right. Wissagebreht was striking at the figure from the left. With Lungand attacking from the rear. When the first blows fell on it, it turned to defend itself and raised its sword to attack.

It moved slowly. It raised its sword and struck so slowly that Bruderic was easily able to interpose his shield. Carla saw the shock on his face as the blow hit his shield, and he staggered back and went down on one knee.

The Skeleton King, however, was not able to take advantage of Bruderic’s fall. For the other two had redoubled their attack on him. He turned again, striking at Wissagebreht. The Wizard, having seen what had happened to Bruderic, did not attempt to parry the blade with his staff. Instead he skipped backward as the blade swept by.

By now Bruderic was up again, and moving in. The armour of the skeleton King was being battered to pieces now, but he still moved as well as ever. The men had discovered the way to attack was to step in and strike. Perhaps strike several times, until the King turned to them. Then they would move back fast. Quicker than the King could move, while the others were striking again at his back.

Carla suddenly realized that she had a stone in the sling and was doing nothing. Picking her moment, she cast her stone again. It glanced off the armour, with no effect.

They seemed to be making little progress. The King was still moving as well as ever. Despite gaping rents in his armour, and smashed bones of the skeletons on the floor. Carla continued to throw stones whenever there was an opening. While the others continued to strike and strike. Desperation on most of their faces now. Wissagebreht alone looked calm, his face only going grim as each blow of his staff landed.

Bruderic took a desperate risk, stepping in to choose his spot carefully and hew at an armoured thigh. The King staggered a bit. But then he turned. As the King turned, he swung a backhand blow towards Bruderic. Moving back and ducking at the same time, then falling flat on his back, Bruderic barely avoided the blow. The King stepped forward, ignoring the others, to raise his sword and strike down again. Bruderic managed to roll aside just in time. Sparks flashed from the sword of the skeleton King striking the stone floor.

Now the King was no longer able to ignore the others, but turned to face them. Bruderic came to his feet again and stepped back into the battle. He began striking again at the same thigh, though not such a heavy blow. This time when the King turned on him he was able to dodge back more easily. Lungand suddenly appeared to realize what Bruderic was attempting. Then he also struck at the King’s thigh. The Chamberlain was larger than Bruderic, and his blow fell heavier. The armour parted, as did the bone beneath.

When the King moved now, his right leg dragged, and it was much easier for the three men to avoid him. Again and again one of the men would strike at the King’s thigh, and at last the armour parted and the leg fell away. The skeleton King fell sideward and rolled to his back.

But the battle was not over. The King still swung his sword at anyone in reach. Leaving the men to hew at his arms, leaping in and out quickly as he was facing someone else. When half his right forearm fell away, he dropped his shield and rolled to take up the sword in his left hand. He was swinging it with little less skill than he had shown with his right.

Without the shield to hinder them, the men were more able to move in and strike more easily. During all this time, Carla did not take part. The sling was no weapon for this sort of work, which required constant chopping until a bone gave way.

When the left arm fell away, the King continued to thrash about. Wissagebreht knelt suddenly beside him, out of reach of his severed left arm. Then he put a hand on his chest, and said something quietly. The skeleton subsided into stillness.

Bruderic recovered his breath enough to be curious.

“What was that?”

“I said, ‘Be at rest, King.’ in his language.”

“You know him?”

Wissagebreht looked up. “I knew him. It is a long tale. If there were a time and place to tell it, I would. But this is neither.”

His voice forbade questions. His eyes glittered for a moment, and Carla thought he was weeping. But he stood still.

“I thought you said you dared not use any spells,” said Lungand.

The Wizard shook his head. “That was no spell. Not rightly, anyhow. How do we stand?”

Wissagebreht himself was unwounded. Bruderic had a small scratch on his right temple, Lungand had a more serious cut on his right forearm. After bandaging Lungand’s arm, Wissagebreht looked at Bruderic’s wound. By that time it had already stopped bleeding. So the Wizard only wiped up the blood and declared him a fortunate young man.

Bruderic looked around. “How much longer do you think we have to wait?”

“It is past midnight. Before long, the worst of the danger should be over.”

“If this was not the worst we can face, do you think we can survive?”

“If we do not allow ourselves to be defeated before the battle is fought. What would you do? Flee this fight and save your skin?”

Bruderic stiffened. “I am no coward!” His eyes blazed.

“Good. Early morning can make cowards of the best of us. If we stand here worrying about what may come next, we are likely to flee at the sight of a mouse.”

There was a flat stone outside the door to Dumberlin’s forge. So Lungand and Bruderic spent a few minutes doing what they could for honing the edges of their swords. The armour of the Skeleton King, though rusted and old, had still dulled and nicked the blades. While there was little to be done about the nicks, they could rectify the dullness.

For a long time, nothing happened. Then there was another crowd of the batlike things. Which were rapidly dissipated and driven off. During all this time the dogs still sat on their haunches and watched.

There was a shuffling sound over across the way where the wall was hid in shadows. Out of that darkness came a strange shape, then another, then another. They were tall. Taller than ordinary men, and they were wrapped in old, mouldering funeral shrouds. Their faces were covered, but they seemed not to need eyes to know where they were going. Carla, by main force, prevented herself from giving more than a tiny squeak. But she noticed that both Bruderic and Lungand were pale.

Wissagebreht spoke. “Hold fast! They can do naught to you if you stand up to them!”

Carla, still shivering with fear, whirled her sling and cast a stone. It smacked full into the chest of one of them, who stopped a moment, then advanced again toward her. Bruderic stepped forward, evaded a groping hand, and struck. The walking corpse, severely wounded, stopped and stepped back a pace. The other two halted beside it.

For a while, then, they stood facing each other, each group waiting for the other to move. A feeling of fear began to wash over Carla. A knowledge that if the walking corpses attacked, they could not be defeated. They were dead already; how can the dead be slain?

Wissagebreht spoke again. “Hold firm, all of you; the fear is a part of them, and if you give in to it, they will have won.”

Carla focussed on what the wizard said. She managed to hold herself from running, but how, she never knew. The fear continued, however it was easier to fight now.

At last the walking dead stepped back, and back, and back. When they were beyond the row of watching dogs, they stopped and waited. The fear emanating from them was weaker at this distance, enough so that the four could stand it more easily.

Thus matters stood for some time. Nothing new came forth from the shadows, and Carla began to hope that perhaps the worst had passed.

There was a scraping and slithering in the shadows. Something which sounded as though several metal chains were being dragged across the stone floor. Then, into the light thrust a large greenish head. Followed by several feet of sinuous neck, then the body, and at last the tail. It was a dragon!

The jaws were about as long as Carla’s arm. Its skin was covered with green scales. A pair of large rolling eyes were set back on its head. The body of the dragon was about the size of a horse. But there was nothing of the horse in that reptilian body. The long slender neck, or the tail which rolled and twisted for half again the length of the body. The four legs had clawed feet, and the claws tinked and chinked metallically on the stone floor.

The dragon did not breath fire. But something dripped from his fangs and when spots of it hit the floor, they smoked and hissed fiercely. The dogs seemed to sit up in anticipation.

Wissagebreht took a deep breath. “So. Now we see battle indeed.”

Bruderic said nothing, merely hefted his sword and shook a kink, real or imagined, out of his shield-arm. Lungand muttered:

“Dwarves and dragons and dungeons dark!

Ye harpers who sing of heroes, hark!”

It was all too much for Carla, and she wanted to run away, weeping. Wissagebreht spoke quietly. “Move out, now. We need room to face this foe. Like the Skeleton King, he can see only in one direction, but with fang and claw he can strike out in several ways at once. And if he rises up on his hind feet, be careful not to let him fall on you!”

They were moving now, out and away from the forge, spreading out. Carla cast a stone from her sling. The stone hit the dragon’s right shoulder and dropped away, unnoticed. ‘So,’ she thought, ‘the body is invulnerable. What can I do?’

The head swung around, looking straight at her. Fear fell on her, and she was about to run when she felt Wissagebreht’s hand on her shoulder. “There is no flight from this one. That is what he wants.”

With the touch of the Wizard’s hand her fear lessened. Despite the huge eyes as large as dinner plates staring at her. That brought her an idea and she put a stone in her sling. Meanwhile, the dragon turned its attention to Bruderic, who was carefully advancing from its right. She swung the sling and cast and it seemed for a moment that it would go straight and true. Then the dragon struck like a serpent at Bruderic, its jaws opened wide. The stone went harmlessly over its head.

Bruderic just barely quickly enough, dodged aside. While at the same moment Lungand was rushing in from the other direction. Who began striking at the armoured side. Carla in the meantime had taken another stone, and again she cast it. Again, just at the last moment, the dragon moved its head and the stone glanced harmlessly off its cheek.

The battle raged thus for some time. With the men moving in and striking. Then dodging the dragon’s return blows of claw or tooth. Nor were they always completely successful. Lungand took a dreadful gash down his leg so badly that he could barely walk. Wissagebreht had to leave Bruderic to fight the dragon alone while he used some minor spells to stop the bleeding and begin the healing.

During this time, Carla finally managed to hit her mark. The dragon roared frightfully as the stone smashed its eye. He suddenly turned to this pest which had been flinging futile stones at him. It then leaped at her with a tremendous roar. She saw the white and pale green underside of the dragon coming down on her. Barely remembering Wissagebreht’s warning in time, she turned and ran.

The stone floor shook under the weight of the beast, and Carla turned her head to see what had happened. It had come down just where she had been standing, and the head was striking out for her. She leaped forward, outdistancing the strike by a little. She would have kept going except that she ran into the wall of the forge.

She fell back from there, half senseless, and only the sounds of fighting behind her forced her to her feet. When she got up, she found that Bruderic had run up to the prostrate dragon and thrust his sword into its side with all his force.

The worm threw back its head and gave a tremendous bellow, then turned to strike at the young King. Bruderic was dodging back already. But even that might not have saved him had not the loss of one eye hindered the dragon’s co-ordination. As it was, in his haste to pull back Bruderic stumbled and fell. As he scrambled to his feet, the dragon bellowed again, then turned and began dragging itself away.

Lungand was striding forward purposefully, but Wissagebreht laid a hand on his arm. “Let be! He is leaving, let him go!”

Bruderic was now standing, looking at the sword in his hand. The blade was blackened and corroded, no edge to it at all. He laid it to the stone but at the first stroke it broke, falling to powder as he stared at it.

Wissagebreht looked at it, then at Bruderic. “Dragon blood. Did you get any of that on yourself?”

Bruderic looked at his hands, then at his armour. There were a few splashes on his armour and in those spots the metal was already falling to pieces.

“No, I think not.”

“Good. It would be painful, at the very least.”

Bruderic looked down at the remains of his sword. “What will I use for a weapon now?”

Wissagebreht chuckled. “That does you credit, young man. There are few who fight and gravely wound a dragon who come away so unscathed.”

“But my sword!”

“You may not have noticed, but the night is over. At least, it is so nearly over that I doubt that we will see any further difficulty. Look!”

The dogs, who had sat there all night grinning at them, got up, turned, and trotted away.

“Then we have won!”

“Essentially so, yes. We have a little time to wait, though, so be patient.”

Bruderic stood quiet a moment, then suddenly seemed to remember something.

“Uncle,” he said to Lungand, “when the dragon came, that was the first time I remember you speaking poetry.”

The Chamberlain thought for a while, not understanding. Then suddenly he realized what Bruderic had been referring to. He smiled, a little grimly. “As a boy, I learned a lot of poetry. In the past years I have had little time to do so, but I have a good memory. And it seemed appropriate.”

The Royal Dwarvish company came out to the forge to survey the party. King Goral looked down on the four. With bright eyes he was surveying the state of their armour. He looked over Lungand’s leg, the bump on Carla’s head where she had hit the wall, and Bruderic’s empty scabbard. “It was a busy night, then?”

Wissagebreht nodded. “A busy night, and I think we have well earned our wages.”

“Oh, yes, I believe you have. Milord King of Vorholm, let me offer you our hospitality again. At least until you have rested yourselves.”

Bruderic nodded. “I thank you, King Goral. And what of the memorial?”

King Goral smiled. “Now that is not something to be finished overnight. I promise delivery to you in your capital city in three weeks’ time. Will that suffice?”

“It will suffice.”

“Good. Then Vashchi will show you to your rooms. Rest well.”

They rested for most of the day. In the evening, the King sent a new sword for Bruderic, along with a new mail shirt, and an invitation to come to dinner.

Dinner was good. Though the four were still tired enough that by the middle of it all of them were yawning. All save for Wissagebreht, who continued to regard everything around with mild amusement.

In the morning they departed once more, with good wishes from the King and from Vashchi.

That was Chapter Seven. Please let me know what you think by emailing me at [email protected]

Or if you want to wait, I can email you a pdf of the complete beta in a month or so once the chapters have been released.

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