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As the second night with a new moon began, Borim poked his head out from one of the shallower trenches and ran through his mind everything they had planned for when Anzo finally came. Halander was in the bunker, keeping watch. At the first sign of the giant’s approach, he would abandon the bunker and light the oil-caked ground with a torch. After that, their presence known, the giant would surely charge forward, expecting a challenge.
Borim would abandon his trench and get Anzo’s attention while the viatari surrounded the giant from all sides and did what they could to kill him. As long as he kept himself from getting hit by the giant, Borim would be able to maintain Anzo’s attention and keep him from attacking the others. It would be a long battle, but eventually they would emerge victorious—at least, he hoped so. The strategy was one often used by the dwarves against the grattles in the mountains, and it had always been fairly successful.
All they needed to do was determine from which direction the giant would approach. It was dark, especially without the moon. Visibility was limited, but that meant it would be the same for their opponent. Salevari had mentioned during the past month that Anzo typically came from the west, following the river, so Halander’s focus would be in that general direction. Still, nothing was guaranteed.
It was quiet. Hardly any wind blew within the canyon, and the city behind them was asleep. Borim felt his heart beating faster than usual as he once again went over the plan. He wanted to keep it fresh in his mind so that when the time came, he’d be able to do his part without any hesitation or mistakes. He looked to his right and left at the trenches flanking his, where Vandaar, Telaara, and Tessa were lying in wait. He could see their silver heads poking out of the earth, but only just.
A roar broke the silence like a rock-slide crushing a tranquil forest beneath the mountains. Borim tried to pinpoint where it had come from but couldn’t. It bounced off the canyon walls, each echo as vigorous as the first. It seemed to be coming from everywhere.
Borim looked toward the bunker, wondering if Halander would hop out and light the oil. He didn’t think the viatari would. For all they knew, the roar could have come from some wild animal, but he had a sinking feeling that wasn’t the case. He felt his blood start to boil and his muscles tighten. Something was coming.
Another roar, and this time Borim saw where it came from. Near the edge of the northern canyon wall stood a large, dark figure. It leapt into the air, completely out of Halander’s line of sight, and the dwarf watched helplessly as Anzo landed hard on top of the bunker, crushing the small mound and turning it to rubble. A third roar burst forth from the giant as he rushed toward the city.
“Out of the trenches!” Borim yelled. He could hardly register what had just happened. That jump would have been fatal even for a viatari, yet the giant seemed entirely unaffected by the height. He hoped Halander was still alive. The metal plating in the bunker should have protected him, even from such a devastating blow. Still, he couldn’t help but imagine the viatari’s crushed body beneath all that rubble.
“Intercept that giant!”
Borim let loose a war cry, catching Anzo’s attention. The giant turned to face him, only a few steps away from entering the city. He couldn’t make out his features because of the darkness—the oil fields they had spent so much time preparing remained unlit—but he saw the giant was at least as tall as a large oak.
It was clear Anzo was immensely strong, or he wouldn’t have survived the jump from the canyon wall. He wondered if blocking attacks with his new shield would be wise. His regular dwarven shield would have been able to absorb anything that hit it, but as much as he had grown to like Dalyr’s blacksmiths, he didn’t trust their craftsmanship like he would one of his own kin.
Anzo swung his arm in a wide sweeping motion but Borim rolled aside, barely avoiding the attack. Vandaar and Telaara leapt from their trenches and onto the giant itself, doing what they could with swift, targeted punches and kicks while Tessa focused on attacking his legs. It didn’t do much, if anything. The giant chuckled as Vandaar delivered a powerful kick to its head.
“Blades!” the viatari ordered.
Borim heard the sound of steel flying. Now was the time to see if they could kill this giant. He charged shield-first and slammed into Anzo’s knee, making it buckle. Tessa moved to the other knee and sliced through the tendons. Anzo roared in fury as both Telaara and Vandaar jumped higher onto his back and started stabbing and slashing with their weapons.
The dwarf rolled in between the giant’s legs and jumped away before he could be struck. He waited for Anzo to turn around so he could bring his hammer to the giant’s face, but Anzo had already lost interest in the dwarf. Borim tried to recapture his attention with another war cry, but it was too late. The giant’s focus was on the two viatari on his back.
Telaara and Vandaar continued attacking with reckless abandon, unaware of the danger they were in. Borim, familiar with the berseker’s rage that his people often fell into during battle, knew what was coming.
“Get off,” he cried. “Telaara, get away from him! Vandaar, pull back!”
Before he even finished his sentence, however, the giant bucked and twisted suddenly, shaking his attackers off. With a lightning speed that belied his size, Anzo grabbed the two viatari who had been flung into the air and threw them into the darkness. Borim didn’t see where they landed, but he was at least sure they hadn’t been killed. Anzo had thrown them hard and far, but he’d seen viatari suffer worse injuries.
He expected the giant’s focus to turn to him and Tessa next, but Anzo had lost all interest on anything but the city. His eyes were fixed on Dalyr, whose inhabitants had woken to the sounds of battle.
“We should pull back into the city and join their warriors,” Tessa said. “We’ll have strength in
The giant roared once again. Borim shook his head. He knew they had very little time left to do anything on their own before the giant went straight into the city, and they would not get a chance like this for another month. They did not have another month. Not wanting to waste any more time thinking, Borim jumped onto the giant’s back as he stood back up. He grabbed onto something that felt like hair and held on tightly as Anzo lurched and moved forward. He heard Tessa yelling for
him to let go, to come back, but her voice died away as the giant moved forward into the city.
He tried hitting Anzo with his hammer as he held on, but it didn’t seem to have any effect. He might as well have been swinging at a block of diamond. With a heavy heart, knowing he had failed, Borim could do nothing but hang on and watch. Many of the guards in Dalyr stood ready in formation to fight—it was clear they had never expected Borim to succeed—but Anzo simply barreled through them, crushing any who stood in his path. The viatari’s attacks left the giant with multiple
wounds, but they were shallow and he didn’t seem to feel them.
Buildings crumbled as the giant passed through, and from their ruins he picked out several unconscious viatari and placed them in a large basket he had tied around his waist. Sometimes the giant wouldn’t even knock down a building to capture the viatari but would simply pluck them from the streets as they ran around in a panic. Borim could hear those who had been captured sobbing and screaming for help.
Their terror concerned Borim. The viatari were gifted with extreme strength and speed and the ability to create illusions. And yet, this single giant was tearing through an entire city of them and collecting them as if he were picking apples in an orchard. He wondered if perhaps holding onto Anzo was a bad idea. If all of Dalyr really couldn’t defeat this monster, what chance did he have doing it alone?
He shook his head. No. Everyone in Aleganthia was depending on him to obtain aid from Dalyr, and to do that, he had to defeat Anzo—even if it cost him his life. He had no choice. He had to keep holding on. It was his duty.
Anzo continued his attack on Dalyr for another hour, which felt like a lifetime to the dwarf hanging on to his back. Borim’s arms were numb and cramping, but he only tightened his grip as the giant jumped a great distance back onto the canyon wall and began climbing. His body jerked back and forth with each movement, thrashing the dwarf the entire time.
Once he had cleared the cliff wall, Anzo was off. The giant sprinted through the forest, past the Granian River, and on through the desert. The cold wind of the night roared past Borim’s ears, battering his aching body.
It was pitch-black in the desert. Borim couldn’t make out any of the dark masses he saw. They could have been sand dunes or mountains or a forest, for all he knew.
He hung on like that for the rest of the night, nodding off every now and then but managing to maintain his grip. Dawn approached, and as the sun lifted itself over the horizon, Borim got his first glimpse of where Anzo was taking them.
As far as he could tell, he was still in a desert-like area, but the land was not as dried up or harsh. Small bushes and trees were scattered across the earth, and mountains loomed overhead in the distance, dark and menacing. He shuddered as their shadows touched him—so different from his own Silent Mountains. By their height, he figured they were approaching the Ul’ner mountain ranges—they had to be.
They weren’t headed toward the mountains proper, though. Rather, Anzo ran toward a strange rock formation that looked like it was growing out of the mountains. Borim thought it resembled a giant hand dragging its fingers through the earth.
The giant slowed down as he approached the strange rock formation. He walked past the fingers of the rock-hand into a cavernous space lit by a single large fire in the middle. Cages lined the wall opposite from where they entered, and some even hung from the ceiling, next to long stalactites. Other things hung from the ceiling as well. Flesh swinging on iron hooks, Borim realized. He didn’t want to think of where the flesh had come from.
Anzo walked to the cages against the wall and knelt down, opening his basket full of viatari.
“Yes, yes,” the giant chuckled. “Good haul. Yes. Good pickings.” He began putting them into the cages by groups of three. Borim counted about twelve captured viatari. He was surprised to see that Drathanar was among them, his hair wilder than ever but his eyes no longer menacing. There was a real fear in them as he was shoved into a cage with two other viatari.
Finally, unable to hold on any longer, Borim let his cramped hands relax and he slid off the giant’s back, crashing hard onto the ground with a groan, his plate armor taking most of the impact. He sat there, dazed, gripping his shield and hammer, unable to stand. He wanted to stand, knew he had to, but his legs wouldn’t obey. Nor would his arms, which tingled painfully as blood flowed through them once again.
Anzo turned around as Borim hit the floor, and the dwarf finally got a full view of the giant he had failed to kill.
He was almost completely naked, wearing only a loincloth—though that by itself was large enough to cover Borim’s body entirely. Muscles rippled under his tightly drawn flesh. The giant seemed to be made almost entirely of muscle. Strange markings in orange paint covered his blue skin along his calves, chest, and face. A long mane of fur went down the length of his back from his head. Tusks jutted out of Anzo’s jaw, making it so his mouth was always open in an ugly smile. His tusks were long and yellow, and his eyes leered down at Borim, slightly intelligent but certainly not like those of a dwarf’s or viatari’s.
“Try escape?” Anzo asked, his voice like gravel pouring out onto metal. “Not today, little cousin. Today you stay.”
Borim couldn’t do anything as the giant wrapped his large, meaty hand around him and tossed him into an empty cage. The last thing the dwarf heard before his vision went black was a lock clicking into place.
A crowd formed around the plaza as long, thick tables and huge kegs of ale were hauled through. Thuradin and the others were dragged in front of the forming crowds where they could get a clear view of what was happening. Thuradin expected to see Stürn and the man he would face preparing weapons for a dual. Felix had said this would be a test of strength, and he assumed that had meant a dual to the death. Instead, he saw the long tables placed in front of them, the kegs of ale following close behind.
Stürn looked uneasy. He too had thought this challenge would involve fighting. Thuradin doubted the Enurg’en had imagined any other possibility. He certainly hadn’t.
Felix walked over to the man who had issued the challenge and demanded an explanation. The man replied smugly in words only Felix understood. Thuradin watched the viatari return to Stürn’s side and relay whatever new information the man had given him. Stürn frowned, obviously troubled by what had been said, and began to protest, but Felix raised a hand to stop him. A few more words were exchanged, and then the viatari was making his way back to join the others.
“What’s happening?” Thuradin asked.
“It appears I misinterpreted what the humans said before. They indeed want a test of strength, but not through combat, like I originally thought. They are having a drinking contest. I imagine the first person to collapse is the loser. It’s probably better this way—after all, Stürn is a dwarf.” Felix grinned at these last words. Thuradin guessed he imagined the humans would be flabbergasted by the dwarf’s drinking ability.
“This is bad,” he said, snapping Felix out of his daze.
“Stürn isn’t a drinker. He’s notorious in our Kingdom for nae being able ta keep his drink. He had a lot of confidence winning the competition before because he thought it would be combat. Now look at him—”
Felix turned to look at Stürn and seemed to notice for the first time the lines of worry on the dwarf’s face, lines which became more pronounced as he glanced at his opponent—a huge man, thick with muscle.
The man wore simple trousers for the competition, leaving his chest bare and exposing his many scars. He seemed to be proud of them as he pointed each one out and showed the crowd, nodding as they cheered him on. Veins popped out of his shaven head as he looked down and grinned at Stürn, who looked no taller than a child compared to him.
The two contestants were presented with large, empty tankards. A loud, high-pitched horn blew from somewhere behind the crowd, and the contest began. Both the man and Stürn quickly filledtheir tankard to the brim with their first drink and downed it just as quickly. Stürn still looked discouraged about the odds of him winning, but now that the competition had begun, it didn’t look like his doubts would keep him from trying.
He held his opponent’s hostile glare as he filled his tankard a second time and chugged down the contents. Not once was eye contact broken.
Oblivious to the mental battle being waged between the two contestants, the crowd cheered and placed bets on who would win. The cheers turned into chants for the man, and the chants grew in volume as Stürn began to slow down and sway in place. The man took the opportunity to spur the crowd further and raised both hands up into the air. He gave a mighty roar before downing his fifth drink.
Thuradin stamped his foot in frustration. He was helpless. There was nothing he could do that could help Stürn get out of this situation. All he could do was watch.
“You should have picked me,” Dragos muttered. “I wouldn’t have succumbed so easily.”
“If we had picked you, defeat would be certain,” Felix replied curtly, more than annoyed at the current situation.
The crowd chanted incessantly, but their confidence and excitement faltered as Stürn regained his balance and began to consume the ale faster and with more vigor.
His opponent saw this change in composure and began to drink faster as well, but he couldn’t last. Thuradin could see the effects of the alcohol already taking hold of the man’s mind and body. Before long, Stürn had regained lost ground and was now even with the man in the pints of ale consumed. But unlike him, he showed no signs of wavering.
Silently, the crowd watched as the short figure downed tankard after tankard of the town’s ale. Someone his size shouldn’t have been able to do such a thing. The amount of alcohol Stürn had consumed was much more than his body weight. The spectators murmured amongst themselves. The stranger should have blacked out by now, but he didn’t even look tipsy. Suspicion spread through the crowd as they wondered at the dwarf’s endurance.
Thuradin and Felix glanced at each other.
“How is he doing that?”
“I cannae be sure . . . But I think he’s using his power as an Enurg’en ta heal himself from the effects of the drink.”
“I thought so. That is not the smartest thing to do. Look at the crowd. They grow suspicious. I would advise your companion to be careful; we do not want to start a conflict here.”
“And how would ye like me ta relay that message?” Thuradin said. “Ye should’ve warned him earlier when ye had the chance. There’s nae a thing we can do now but watch. We just have ta trust Stürn’s judgment and be prepared for whatever consequences may follow.”
Stürn’s opponent swayed heavily. The man brought a newly filled tankard of ale to his lips, gave Stürn one last look of pure hatred, and crashed onto one of the tables, smashing his head on the corner before reaching the ground. If the alcohol hadn’t rendered him unconscious, the impact with the table certainly had.
The crowd was ominously silent. They watched Stürn carefully as he finished the contents within his tankard and walked back to Thuradin and the others. Thuradin grit his teeth as theEnurg’en walked normally, with no indication of intoxication at all. There was no heavy breathing from having to fight the effects of the alcohol, no stumbling around as he made his way back. It
looked to everyone present as if he hadn’t consumed a single drop of ale.
Stürn frowned as he sensed the tension in the air. He glanced around and noticed for the first time the crowd watching him with suspicion in their eyes. Thuradin hurriedly pulled him toward the rest of the group before the Enurg’en could do anything else and put a finger to his lips. Felix took a step forward and said a few words in a loud, clear voice, which, Thuradin guessed, announced that they would now take their leave. Taking Felix’s lead, they turned to go.
Then one of the spectators said something. Thuradin had no idea what it meant, but soon more people were saying it until the entire crowd had joined in and chanted it angrily. The group stopped in their tracks and turned to face the humans. The viatari glanced nervously at one another as they listened to the angry crowd.
“They’re calling us cheats,” Felix translated.
“Is that bad?”
“No matter what I say now, I cannot convince them otherwise,” the elder viatari muttered to himself. He glanced at the dwarf. “Yes, it is very bad. In their eyes, we just cheated our way to victory. Humans do not appreciate being fooled, especially by strangers, especially on their own land. We have just made a dangerous enemy. We need to run. Now—”
They all turned to run but found their way blocked by a group of heavily armed guards.
“Form pairs,” Felix ordered. “To the roofs!”