“I find it hard to believe that everybody in the entire line of towers perished,” Dwelf replied, standing. “Someone must have made it to the capital.”
“But no action has been taken that we know of.”
“It’s only been two days, and the dwarves’ report probably won’t get through until tomorrow.”
Michael began pacing. “Alright. Then our concern is with what the trolls were up to and what they’ll try next.” He crossed the room and sat against his half-circle desk. “I am about to break my promise, Dirk.”
The third man in the room waved a brown-robed arm. “Do not. I know now why you asked me to come hear the Tinker. I will speak of my own volition.”
Michael nodded, and Dwelf looked at Dirk Suel curiously. The shorter man produced a dagger and began twirling it thoughtfully.
“I was born without a name,” Suel said, and looked up at Michael, apparently trying to grin. “How’s that for a dramatic beginning?”
Michael gave a meager smile in response; already this was hard for Dirk.
“Legends tell,” the other man continued slowly as Dwelf resumed his seat, “of a time when trolls lived in the mountains with dwarves, as pupils and servants. But they, stealing the secret of runes, planned a rebellion against their immortal masters. The rebellion was discovered. Trolls were slaughtered and driven in the main beneath the earth, to the lands Beneath, banished forever.
“Little there is in those lands, and less the deeper you go. Mushrooms in the upper caverns, and trees which bear glowing fruit and have their leaves on the Surface like low spreading bushes, what farmers call miserycloth; and for animals, there are blind cave-wyrms and deep-drakes, there are underboars and things like big moles which eat the miner ants; pit-spiders, which you have seen; and there are the ceraf, which are monsters. There is much of metal and good stone and valuable crystals, but these matter less down there, without the possibility of trade. There is water, and drinkable water is very precious; and there are streams and reservoirs of molten stone like water, which is called the lifeblood of the earth. Trolls live in many tribes, warring with each other when they are strong, for food and territory, and hiding from one another when they are weak; and when they are very strong, they raid the Surface for slaves.
“As a rule trolls do not take children as captives, for the journey back is often long and they have need of swiftness. But at times they do treat some of their best captives well, as breeders. So it happened that I was born without a name, of slave parents, into a dark world.”
Dirk paused and fished out a pipe from his robe. Michael got up to open the window behind his chair as the man struck a match.
“I quickly came to realize two things. The first was that I, along with the other few children born of the breeder slaves, could see in the dark like trolls. The second was that, among the slaves, those who made themselves useful to the trolls had an easier time of it, and were often appointed as overseers or better. I became a snitch, reporting on the activities of the other slaves, even before I was old enough to join them in their work. I think they must have hated me, but they tolerated me because the trolls favored me.
“Then, one day, our tribe was discovered by another, larger and more warlike. I don’t know how old I was; still a boy, but more than that I cannot say. We slaves huddled together in our pen and watched the bloody, bellowing battle. Afterwards we were herded together along with a few prisoners and marched to the holdings of our new masters. It was the first time I’d seen any part of the Beneath outside of my tribe’s caves.
“The Beneath is vast – there is more space in those empty gulfs and passageways than in all the lands on the Surface of Quoldohollel. We slept twice before arriving, and we ran most of the journey. Trolls make lanterns out of ceraf droppings, for the humans and the herd animals I suppose.
“Things changed for me then. We, the newly captured slaves, were on the bottom of the hierarchy, untrusted. The other slaves did not welcome us and the trolls worked us hard and punished us harder so we would learn to honor our new loyalties. I no longer had the protection of our masters, and the slaves I’d come with were not slow to realize it. They abused me, whenever and wherever they could without being seen by our new masters. I soon learned the value of hiding sharp objects on my person, defending myself with small movements that left small wounds, just enough to drive away a tormentor, and my sight often gave me the advantage.
“This new tribe was much larger than the one I had been born into, perhaps twice as big. It went raiding quite often, and moved around somewhat regularly, so that I came to understand the Beneath, to know its dangers and gifts, and to imagine what life without a tribe would be like. In my boyish fancy I began to roam free, without the protection and the lash of trolls; but my young judgment knew that such an enterprise would be suicide. I knew next to nothing of the lands above ground; I only knew they existed because of the whispered stories of adult slaves.
“My new tribe also had many more human slaves, and made more extensive use of them. When the warriors went on a raid or ceraf hunt some of the slaves who had been with them the longest would go along as arms-bearers, and the activities of the domestic slaves – mining, drawing water, keeping the blind herds of captured livestock, weaving, smithing – would be overseen primarily by other slaves, with only a handful of troll guards. Looking back, I think that those times would have been the best for an uprising and indeed, groups of new slaves often tried; but their plans were always reported by some snitch looking to curry favor, such as I had once done. Bloody examples were always made in response, often with the victim chosen at random, and the slaves learned quickly not to trust one another. Besides, they needed light and the trolls did not.
“One raid brought back more than just human slaves, but gnomes as well. This excited me, for beyond my own people and the trolls I had seen no other talking race. I thought them dwarves, of whom I had heard other slaves sometimes speak. But gnomes live too in the Beneath; it was their country before the trolls were exiled there. They prefer to live close to the surface, where there is still a little light for growing mushrooms, and rely on cleverness and speed or strength of numbers to survive against the trolls. They’re also excellent climbers, as I was soon to learn. Their spirits were not resigned to a slave’s life; they told stories of freedom as if it were more real than a memory, and I knew they would return to it as soon as the opportunity came.
“Sometime after this the warriors were late returning from a raid. We could tell because the trolls who’d stayed home were exhibiting signs of nervousness – the longer the warriors were away, the greater the chance that some other tribe would come upon them unprotected. I was young, strong, assigned then to mining, and three of the gnomes were there also. During the course of the digging I suddenly realized that the gnomes were gone and spotted them high in a corner of the cavern, where they had discovered a small crevice leading to an upper gallery.
“I had been skulking around in the dark almost from the time I could walk, at first spying from the shadows and then avoiding vengeful blows later. It was a small matter to take advantage of our human overseer’s dependence on his ceraf-dung torch as the gnomes had done; I had not realized it at first, being accustomed to life in captivity, but we had no troll taskmaster that day.
“What comes next is of little use to you in the present circumstances, Michael of Lyhn,” Dirk concluded. “The gnomes let me come with them, and though five times we nearly perished from lack of food or water and once almost ran into a ceraf lair, we eventually found our way to Crack-at-Redfall, a city of gnomes that lies in a rent in the surface north of the Cold Hills, above Wichaden. From there I made my way to the lands of men, being as it seemed about the same age as those who had seen twenty summers.”
There was silence in the room for a short while. Dirk got up and tapped his pipe gently on the windowsill to empty it, then blew the brief-glowing ashes out into the night like so many fireflies. Michael shivered; the room had grown chilly and he had forgotten to keep the hearth blazing.
“I had no idea,” Dwelf said finally.
“Most of the adventurers here are… abnormal, if you listen to enough of them, and most because of something not quite so obvious as your mixed heritage, my friend,” Dirk answered, addressing Dwelf but looking sidelong at Michael. “Sometimes I wonder if that’s not why Michael hires us – we know not to ask questions.”
Dwelf chuckled. Michael crossed his arms and smiled slightly. “Apparently the political situation in the Beneath has changed dramatically since you were there.”
Dirk nodded. “None of the tribes I saw were close to large enough to field an attack of the kinds Michael and the Tinker witnessed, and I never saw pit spiders being used as they described. That means many tribes are cooperating or, what’s more likely, they’ve been joined under a warlord.”
“My mother survived the Reign of Tears,” Dwelf added. “Under Kuneth trolls spilled out onto the Surface as one army.”
“But that time their invasion was preceded by colossal feats of magic – the destruction of Lamendrell, the Breaking of the Locks – kingdoms surrendered practically without a fight because they believed Kuneth’s powers limitless,” Michael pointed out.
“So a warlord then, but not a mage. A troll?”
“What about the Fading?” Dirk asked.
“What about it?”
“What if that’s your preceding feat of magic?”
“Consider it. Kuneth died because trolls turned on him during the Great Rebellion, and the army fractured back into tribes and returned to the Beneath. But the source for Kuneth’s power was never found, and it surely wasn’t innate – he was merely human, or at least the histories make him so. Perhaps the trolls found it.”
“But trolls can’t cast spells,” Michael countered. “Only elves and mages could have done what Kuneth did, and it certainly wasn’t elves.”
“They can make runes,” Dwelf put in.
“Crude runes,” Dirk qualified. “They’re used fairly commonly in the Beneath, but never made with much skill that I saw.”
“Wait, wait, slow down,” Michael said. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves. We know that more than one tribe attacked the Watchtowers, and in a well-planned fashion. We don’t know why, though the difficulty of the undertaking coupled with the use of slaves on the train implies purpose beyond a mere raid, and better than fair intelligence of the Surface. But we have no evidence that the Fading is related any more than we do that a second Reign of Tears is coming. Personally I think that if someone could use Kuneth’s power he or she would merely stamp on the mages like Kuneth did, not try to steal their power.”
Dwelf and Dirk were quiet a moment. Both looked troubled.
“As you said,” Dwelf answered, “taking the Watchtowers and attacking the train are too difficult and elaborate undertakings to have been mere supply raids. If a leader strong enough to unite the troll-tribes has risen, he is on the warpath, with Kuneth’s powers or without. We would be fools not to begin looking for an invasion from under our feet.”
They debated the point for many more minutes, and Michael’s unease grew all evening. Before going to sleep that night he dispatched several riders to learn whether trolls still held the Watchtowers.