The captain of the guard stood his post on the highest tower of the central keep, looking down upon his men on the outer walls, then out to the Wound, as was his habit in this part of the day. He kept his dark brown hair long and tied in a knot behind his head, and his full beard he allowed to flow out over his broad chest. It was a rare sunny day, the kind that soldiers would offer to trade wall duty just so they could get out and enjoy its warmth. The captain frowned, and squinted his eyes as he tried to make out a movement in the distance. Some of his men on the wall reacted as well, pointing and shouting, confirming that he’d not just imagined it.
“Tormal!” he called, shouting down to his lieutenant on the wall. “What do you see?”
The one called Tormal had broad shoulders and blond hair kept in many braids, which moved as he turned his head to answer his captain. “Trolls, sir, and goblins! Looks like an army of sorts, approaching the walls. I see some that look like leaders, but no captain stands out.”
“Strange,” muttered captain Stiling, “we’ve not seen any sign of their gathering, nor heard of any new leaders rising up. Looks like we’ll need to increase our sorties and rout them out of their holes again—after this rabble is dealt with.” He turned to the young page nearby, and said, “Ready the trebuchets, and use flaming shot. We’ll shatter their mass before sending out troops to clean up the rest.” The page nodded and ran off to deliver his orders.
Captain Stiling looked down to the wall, where lieutenant Tormal had ordered his men to defend the ramparts with heavy crossbows and ballistas, and it seemed that everything was ready. They would smash the enemy, first with engines of war, and then hand to hand.
Suddenly the sun went dark, and the temperature seemed to drop with the coming of shadow. He glanced up but could not tell what blocked the sun’s light—he saw only scattered clouds across the sky, and the leading edge of the sun’s limb from behind shadow. Turning to another page, Stiling said, “Go to the lore-masters and see if we were due for an eclipse. They should have warned us this was coming. It may be harmless, but it sometimes spooks the animals.” That page ran off, and Stiling again returned his attention to the mass gathering beyond the wall.
The goblins and trolls had lined themselves up in wide parallel rows, and stood just out of bowshot—though they would soon learn that the range of Dwerden engines was considerably greater than that of crossbows. The trolls appeared to be shouting and pointing up at the sky, which caught Stilings’ notice, and he looked up again to see what had their attention.
Just then, the shadow over the sun pulled away, and brightness and warmth shone down on his face, but blinded him for a moment as he shielded his eyes from its glare. There came to his ears a whistling sound, then a wave of wind pressed down from above, and an ear-piercing roar shattered the quiet air. Stiling cried out in pain and fear, clapping hands over his ears, as he crouched in the shadow of a battlement.
Then he heard the flapping of massive wings, and the shadow that had covered the sun revealed itself: a great wyrm, easily a hundred feet long from nose to tail, landed heavily upon the tower where Stiling knelt, its giant claws digging into the stone of the rampart and leaving deep scars of crumbled rock. Cries of terrified wardens filled the air, but captain Stiling did not notice, for his own terror threatened to overcome him.
Taking a breath, he steeled his nerves and stood, facing the great dragon. Its thick scales shone red and black in the sun, gleaming like burnished bronze. Its claws were black ivory, and bony spikes of the same hue protruded from around its massive head and along the ridge of its spine. The dragon looked down at him. If it could have, Stiling thought perhaps the wyrm would have smiled at the small thing facing up to it. But he squared his shoulders and shouted, “Wyrm! Go back to the caves whence you must have crawled, and feed upon your goblin slaves. Victory here will not come without cost, or without pain. For our weapons can pierce even your thick scales, and our aim, as you will find, does not often miss.”
A rumble came in waves from the great monster’s throat, and Stiling realized that it was laughing. But before he could wonder about that, it opened its mouth and spoke. “Little man, save your words. I have no fear of your weapons, not even your great engines of war which are no doubt being trained upon me as we speak. But before we test the strength of your weapons against that of my scales, let us speak. For I have in mind that perhaps I do not need to destroy your city, if you are wise enough to heed my offer.”
Stiling replied, “Speak if you will, wyrm. I have no doubt that any offer you make will be unpalatable to our taste, but I will listen.”
The dragon’s head snaked forward on its long neck, lowering down to Stiling’s level, so that its eyes were just above his head and gazing down on him. Its voice rumbled like rolling thunder in the distance, and Stiling felt the vibration in his bones. “Know then, o Dwerden, that your doom is nigh, and that of this city. But if you would save yourselves, heed my words. I have come seeking an ancient relic, a thing out of time immemorial that the Dwerden keep in this place. It is a small thing, and word has come to me that even your people no longer have any use for it, therefore it must have little value to you. And if you would give it over to me, I will leave your city unharmed, its walls standing and gates unbroken. And I will take my army back with me, so that no threat will remain on the plain before the city. So then, would you give me this trivial thing—this thing with no value to any save myself?”
Stiling paused, then said, “What is this thing which you seek? For I cannot promise to give a thing of which I have no knowledge. If what you say is true, it may not even be in my power to find, let alone give.”
The dragon’s head pulled back, and it replied, “Ah, but that is where you are mistaken! For I already know where it resides, that is unless your people have moved it. But once on a time, it abode in the very throne hall of the lord of this city. It is the Hammer of Torald Stonefist, and it has not been used in living memory, so I must assume it remains still where it was last recorded to be.”
Stiling stepped back. “Aye, I know the Hammer, or of it. Though you shall not find it in the lord’s throne hall, it may be found yet within the city walls. But answer me this, dragon: why do you want the Hammer? For I recall the stories of old, and it was Torald himself who slew one of your kind centuries ago. It seems to me that you could want no good thing by getting the Hammer for yourself. Perhaps you wish to prevent it being used against you? Do you have plans which the Dwerden might play a part in preventing? For I believe that I can see your mind in this, wyrm. Your deception is laid bare.”
“Deception?” roared the dragon, and Stiling once again cowered back against the parapet behind him as the dragon’s voice shattered the air. “Who are you to claim you know the mind of a dragon, worm? You take pride in calling me ‘wyrm’, but you yourself are less than the least of crawling things in the earth. You Dwerden dig and you pry into things of which you have no business, stealing the wealth of the world from those who were born to it. Small wonder that my kind did not wipe you from the face of Aerde in times past, but we heeded not the whispers of your race that came to us then. And now…”
“And now,” Stiling interrupted, rising again to face his foe, “your kind no longer has any real power in Midgard. The few of you remaining are hardly able to propagate your race, while my people grow from strength to strength as the years go by.”
The great dragon roared again, lifting its maw to the sky and splitting the air with its thunderous voice. “Insolence!” it shouted, looking back down upon Stiling. “How dare you speak out of turn, worm?” Stiling dropped to his knees, covering his ears as he wept in pain from the dragon’s thunderous voice. The dragon’s voice quieted as it said, “I came to parley, not trade insults with an insect. Either bring me the Hammer, or summon your lord to speak with me so that I may treat with someone who can accept my offer.”
Stiling looked up and replied, “There is no lord here who would treat with you, dragon. Now begone, or face the wrath of the Dwerden of Sár-Vordhr.” Then, turning to Tormal down on the outer wall, he shouted, “Ready your aim!”
Tormal nodded at the order, and Stiling saw several of their war engines had been turned to point up at the dragon. Turning back to the monster, he said, “You have given us time to aim our weapons, wyrm, and now your decision must be made. Depart this city, or perish here. This will be your only warning.” He raised his arm, preparing to give the signal to loose the arrows of war.
But the dragon, laughing once again, drew a deep breath, and as Stiling dropped his arm and the massive arrows sprang forth from their steel-wound machines, flame hotter than a thousand Dwerden furnaces shot forth from the dragon’s open maw. Stiling was incinerated in an instant, without time even to cry out. The wall upon which he had stood began to glow, then melt, as the heat bore down upon it. The great stones and mortar ran like wax as the wall collapsed.
The dragon roared again as it was struck by the armor-piercing arrows of the Dwerden, but it did not stop its attack. It took wing, leaping into the sky, then turned back toward the city and gave forth another blast of searing flame upon her outer gates. The gate towers collapsed in moments, and the stone and iron gates fell inward, smashing and scattering the wardens that had gathered behind it, preparing to issue forth and fight the goblins and trolls.
With the destruction of the outer wall and gate, and crushing of the city defenses, the dragon’s army charged into the gaping hole and began its bloody work. The dragon itself, seeing that the Dwerden would be unable to regroup their forces, landed on the outer rampart near another tower to observe the assault. The wardens on the wall nearby fled in panic, but the dragon paid them no heed.
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