HEVENSDAY, LATE AFTERNOON
EVERYONE AGREED TO TOLEÐR’S PLAN OF AMBUSH, but where he himself was the fastest on his feet he had lost too much blood in the fight with the Ironfist dwarves. So it was Yngwi and Tóki who volunteered to play the part of the bait. They left their packs and even their axes with the main force, though Tóki fished his bag of marbles out of his pack just in case, and they wisely kept their shields strapped to their backs as they hurried off.
Toleðr had said for the ones in armour to be ‘the anvil’ but the mail-clad Fjiar and Gymir, his brother in ruthlessness, that they should be ‘the hammer’ to fall on the enemy’s rear, and Thorfinn made no objection. The two left their packs with the rest of the company and took a lantern and a leather sack to shroud it round into the other tunnel.
Thorfinn, Toleðr, Bofur and Mêgrim piled up the packs and set about gagging their three Karghal prisoners and binding their ankles.
“Heigh hooo—” began Tóki in his best singing voice, before Yngwi cut him off.
I know we’re supposed to play blundering idiots, but don’t overdo it! he signed.
The two kept up a more normal banter as they advanced back up the sloping tunnel, faltering only slightly as they got further and further without encountering anyone. They still heard nothing as they neared the last bend where the tunnel would give onto the dished chamber at the foot of the Force of Stone. The glimmer of light betrayed the fact that their enemy were there.
“Yes, all of us, now silence!” came a hissed order in response to some unheard question, and they knew that their approach had been detected.
“I’m telling you I’m bursting. I’ve just got to go right here.” Tóki declared in a stage whisper. He just about managed to suppress a giggle and his fingers flickered, If they come round that corner and we’ve got our breeches down flashing them our arses, that’ll definitely make them chas—
His fingers froze as there came a flurry of noise, big heavy scrapings over stone. The light ahead was blocked out as a huge shapeless shadow was cast into the tunnel, and suddenly there it was! A monstrous thing the size of a cart that practically filled the tunnel, with great claws more than a foot long, a mass of tentacles at its snout and great plates of bony armour growing out through its black fur.
“Run for it!” they each cried to the other, and the pair fled as fast as their legs would carry them, all thought of feigned flight utterly forgotten.
Thorfinn and Toleðr had their group all in order, flat against the tunnel wall just beyond enough of an inside curve to hide them. Mêgrim, no fighter, kept watch over the three prisoners at the back and with a sack ready to throw over the lantern when the enemy neared. Weapons and shields were at the ready, and Thorfinn had briefly drilled them in moving out to form a shieldwall, though Bofur dearly hoped Yngwi or Tóki would take his place when battle was joined.
Fjiar and Gymir lay in wait in the other tunnel, testing the edges on their blades. Both relished the prospect of battle, the proving of skill and the winning of wealth.
“Abandon the plan!” boomed Yngwi’s holler down the tunnel.
“Everybody out!” followed Tóki. “It’s a freaking great giant moldewarp monster!”
“They have a cave mole!” Yngwi interpreted. “A monster of horn and ivory that gnaws the world beyond our deepest delvings.”
“For gold’s sake don’t get stuck in that dead end!” the two kept clamouring as they came, their own pounding bootsteps proof that they were in desperate earnest. They had easily outdistanced the ponderous beast but not slackened their pace one bit.
“No!” protested Fjiar. “Stick to the plan! This is still the best place to fight!”
Yngwi met Fjiar and Gymir at the fork in the tunnel, and stopped to persuade them. “Beggar that!” he that he cried. “They’ll be having that armour back off you, if you even live to yield it up.”
Tóki kept on running down to the others, where he clutched up his battleaxe and ran to get his pack from the pile. Thorfinn directed Mêgrim and Bofur to do the same while he started cutting the ropes from the ankles of the Ironfists.
“Don’t!” protested Toleðr. “We don’t have to run faster than the monster, we just have to run faster than them.”
Thorfinn fixed Toleðr with a frosty look and carried on cutting the bonds.
Toleðr groaned his aggrievement, abandoned the idea and instead raced up to the fork. “Can we wound it – turn it into the other tunnel?” he asked Yngwi.
Yngwi shook his head. “No. It’s covered with bloody great plates like dragon-armour. But Fjiar still wants to fight it.”
Fjiar was just as adamant. “We can’t flee down a tunnel we haven’t even explored. We could be over the edge of some chasm before we know it! Or into a dead end where there isn’t a wedged boulder making the passage too small for a giant monster to get at us!”
“The Karghals are with it,” Yngwi added. “They were there in the chamber before it came at us. Look, I’ll wager my armour to yours: come with us and if we live to tell the tale, you’re a mailshirt up on the deal.”
“No.” Fjiar refused bluntly. “Taking an unknown tunnel is madness.”
Then it dawned on Yngwi. “But we do know what to expect that way. It wasn’t down the dead end, so that way leads to the Empty Pie. This is the route that the riddle in the Devotion is telling us to go!”
“And anyway,” said Toleðr, relieved, “it’s not down to voting. The others are already running…”
Scarcely a hundred yards later the curving tunnel gave onto the Empty Pie, a large open chamber dominated by a depression where segments of the circular portion in the middle of the cave-floor had collapsed. The miners’ name for the place made perfect sense, as the fallen segments looked for all the world like sunken-in slices of pie crust.
“Go round it!" came the cry from behind. “You have to skirt around the Empty Pie!”
Tóki ushered the Karghal captives around the ledge on the left-hand side, making for the far exit. As the others arrived with more lights, they saw that two tunnels came down into this chamber, and a single one led onwards to the north. It was on the threshold of this tunnel that the company downed packs and formed a loose line of battle at which to put up their defence.
Gymir gave little for the chance of killing the monster with bowshot, and clutched one of the oil lanterns ready to throw.
“He’s going to immolate it,” said Toleðr. “Im-mole-ate, get it?”
Fjiar grunted, and took up Gymir’s bow, preferring a slender hope over none at all.
The giant moldewarp surged into the cavern, dragging itself along with its foreclaws almost like it was swimming over the rock.
Bofur and Fjiar loosed but in their haste in the half-light neither struck home. Fjiar fell foul of a split string and his arrow shot wild, straight up into the ceiling.
The others bided their time with lantern, throwing axes and even rocks that they wanted to throw in concert when it came closer. The moldewarp scraped on its belly straight over the lip and down into the centre of the collapsed space. The company held their breath, praying that the ‘pie’ was only half-sunk and that the monster’s weight would collapse it into a deeper cavity, but the only movement was the spray of clinker that it scattered left and right as it shovelled itself across the stone.
There was a glow of light in the tunnel out of which it had come and two dwarves, one hooded and one helmeted emerged at the entrance in the moldewarp’s wake. Fjiar abandoned his useless bow and set off at his best run round the outside of the chamber, snatching out his axes as he went.
Gymir lofted the lantern high in the air, and it clattered into an armoured plate on the side of the monster’s head, but only when it fell to the floor did it break and a splash of burning oil start up beside the creature’s flank.
Yngwi hurled his throwing axe, chipping into the armour on the beast’s brow before glancing away, inflicting no more harm than a hangnail.
Bofur’s second arrow flew true, but merely lodged itself in the armour of the moldewarp’s heaving shoulder. Still the monster came at them, making for the middle where Bofur stood beside Thorfinn. Thorfinn brandished his great sword, but Bofur with only his bow backed away from the battle-line.