The Dwarvenhame Tunnel measured ten leagues east to west, and it covered that distance in an arrow-straight line. The sheer scale of it was so overwhelming that the travelers were unable to find anything against which to set it in perspective, for it was more than their senses were designed to cope with.
Every so often, however, they came up against something which forced them to recognize its magnitude. Like the underground river which poured out of the northern side of the tunnel, fuming and roaring in its rough, craggy bed. Lantern light struck the white-lashed black of the buried water as it boiled and leapt beneath an arched stone bridge, and Bahzell stood for several long moments peering over the bridge's balustrade and feeling the fine, fresh spray on his cheeks.
There were other springs and streams, smaller but crystal clear and icy cold, and fascinating shifts and gradations in the tunnel's walls as it pierced different stone strata. Vertical air shafts flung round circles of daylight on the smooth stone floor at intervals, and Brandark drew up under one of them and threw his head as far back as it would go to peer up at the tiny blue circle of sky at its top. He stayed that way a long time, watching light bounce down the endless stone walls of the shaft, then shook himself and refused to look up any of the others they passed.
Bahzell started to twit him for it, then stopped himself, for he knew precisely what afflicted the normally insouciant Bloody Sword. Looking up and up and up that endless gullet had driven home how many hundreds of feet of stone and earth lay above them, and Brandark Brandarkson was ill-suited to imagining himself as no more than an ant.
Fortunately, they were far from the only people to use the tunnel. The winter conditions outside it had reduced through traffic enormously, but the tunnel itself offered destinations in plenty. The architects had provided for taverns, inns, and hostels along the way, and the tunnel opened out at intervals into vast, smooth-walled caverns, their roofs supported by fluted stone columns. The first the travelers reached housed little more than a place to stop and rest-a single inn, with attached stables, a remount string for Royal and Imperial dispatch riders, and room to draw freight wagons out of the main roadway to rest draft animals. The place looked cheerful enough, but it was still too early in their day to stop for the night, so they paused only to water and feed their animals, then pressed on.
The second cavern, however, housed an entire small town, and Bahzell and Brandark paused side by side in wide-eyed wonder as they saw it.
The stone walls were honeycombed with elaborately carved and embellished doors and windows that looked out over the cavern's bustling floor from what must be homes. The roadway split to pass on either side of the large fountain that splashed and danced at the center of the cave, and cheerful music and bright light spilled from the doorways of several inns. Other doors-much wider, most with stout locks and loading docks-were obviously warehouses; the rhythmic clang of a hammer sang from a smithy where a burly dwarf hammered out a replacement horseshoe for a waiting rider; and everywhere the two hradani looked, there were people.
It took them several seconds to realize there were actually far fewer people than they'd first thought. Perhaps it was the surprise of seeing so many in one place after so long in the wilderness which made the cavern seem filled to the bursting point, but Bahzell thought not. He suspected the answer was much simpler: that he and Brandark knew this thriving town was buried under countless tons of solid rock… and that none of its inhabitants cared. Or, perhaps even more daunting (if that was the word he wanted), that those inhabitants liked knowing all that ponderous weight lay above them like some impenetrable shield.
A dozen or so children, mixed dwarves and humans, raced past, shrieking with laughter as they jostled and fought in some sort of game played with a large, round ball, and hucksters at "open air" stalls shouted enticements at the newcomers to sample their wares. Five or six dwarves and as many humans grunted and heaved as they unloaded crates from a high-wheeled freight wagon at one of the loading docks. They paused to glance at the travelers, then returned to the job at hand, slinging the heavy crates onto wheeled dollies for others to roll off down the aisles of the warehouse. Lanterns hung everywhere, or so it seemed, throwing a clear light over the entire scene, and a cheerful bubble and froth of conversation, hammers, the chantey-like singing of the warehouse men, of harp music from the taverns and the chaffering of shoppers picking over potatoes, garlic, and apples at the grocers' stalls, filled their ears. Nothing could have been less like the dark, hushed habitations Bahzell had imagined whenever he thought of dwarves, and he grinned suddenly at his own naivety. He'd met Kilthandahknarthas, after all, and traveled for weeks as part of his personal bodyguard, and the mere thought of Kilthan's sturdy, loud-voiced cheerfulness in a "dark, hushed" place was ludicrous.
They found quarters for the night at the Stone Dwarf Inn, whose landlord flatly refused to allow Kaeritha and Bahzell to pay for their lodgings. Nor would he allow Wencit to pay for his… although Bahzell suspected that the rates he charged the rest of their company more than compensated for his generosity. Not that the possibility particularly bothered the hradani. The Order of Tomanak was paying for this trip, and all the cold nights they'd spent in the wilderness since Sharna's abortive ambush attempt had saved its coffers more than enough to square accounts.
Still, the unaccustomed ease of the day's travel left both him and Brandark with unexpended energy, and they set out to explore the cavern with Kaeritha and Vaijon for company. Kaeritha had been here before and slipped easily into the role of guide, but it was all as new to Vaijon as to the hradani, and he stared around in frank curiosity.
At first, the inhabitants of the town-which they called Tunnel's End-stared back at the two hradani with equal curiosity and an edge of nervousness to which Bahzell had become entirely too well accustomed. Aside from his ears, Brandark might almost have escaped notice, but no one could possibly overlook Bahzell Bahnakson or mistake him for a human. He'd stripped off his poncho to show his surcoat and left his great sword and arbalest at the Stone Dwarf, yet more than one person eyed him askance anyway, and he snorted with wry, bitter humor at the familiar sight of mothers chivying children out of his path.
"D'you think they're thinking as how I'd like to eat 'em raw, or should I be cooking them first?" he asked Kaeritha, and she looked up quickly at the mingled amusement, bitterness, and resignation in his voice.
"Some of them are certainly ready to expect the worst from any hradani," she replied after a moment, "but most of them-?" She shrugged. "I'd guess it's no more than an automatic reaction to something they've never seen before. I remember how we used to feel when I was a child and armed retainers rode through our village. It didn't matter whose colors they wore, or how peaceable they were. That first sight of them always sent a bolt of terror right through you, because they had swords and we didn't, and if they'd wanted to…" She closed her mouth, dark blue eyes grim, then shrugged again. "It's natural enough, I suppose. Which doesn't make it any easier for you, I'm sure."
She reached up to thump his armored shoulder gently, and he smiled at her.
"Aye, well, I suppose there's a bit of something to that," he said. "And truth to tell, it's no doubt as well for parents to be prudent. Better safe than sorry, as they say, and especially where children are concerned."
"No doubt," Kaeritha agreed, then cocked her head sideways at him. "And do you have any children, Bahzell?"
"Me? Children?" Bahzell looked down at her in surprise, then laughed. "Not a child-and not likely to have one, either, now that himself's been and drafted me as one of his blasted champions."
"The job does seem to eat up your time, doesn't it?" Kaeritha said with a chuckle.
"Aye, it does that. But would you mind my asking why you wondered such?"
"Oh, I don't know. The tone of your voice when you spoke about parents and prudence just now, I suppose. I think you'd make a good father, Bahzell."
"Ha! I've seen what Mother and Father've had to deal with, Kerry my girl, and I've no mind at all, at all, to put up with such myself. And especially not daughters."
"Oh?" Kaeritha's eyes glinted challengingly. "And is there something inferior about daughters, Milord Champion?"
"Nothing in this wide world, Milady Champion," he replied. "It's naught but that it's always seemed to me that daughters are after being the gods' revenge on a father, y'see." Kaeritha cocked an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "He's always all a-twitter lest his little girl be meeting someone just like he was as a lad, and not a bit of sleep does he get thinking of it," he explained with a slow smile.
"I… never quite thought of it that way." Kaeritha spoke very carefully, with the air of one suppressing a bubble of laughter. She cleared her throat, then went on in a determinedly normal tone. "But you do have nieces and nephews, I suppose, don't you?"
"Oh, aye. More than I'd care to be trying to count," he assured her. "Wencit's the right of it when he says my folk're after being less fertile than humans, but we live to be as much as two hundred, so we've time for big families even so. Father's past a hundred and twenty now, and my mother only a few years younger. Between them they've brought five sons and six daughters into the world, with nine of 'em still living and me the next to youngest of the lot. Last count, I was up to ten nephews and eight nieces, but my sister Maritha and my sister-in-law Thanis were both after being in the family way again, so I've no doubt the total's gone up since."
His voice had softened, and he smiled again, this time in memory. Kaeritha returned his smile, but there was an edge of old sorrow in her eyes.
"I'm glad for you," she said quietly. "My own brother and sister-" She twitched her shoulders and raised a cupped palm, then made a pouring motion. Bahzell nodded and laid one huge hand on her shoulder as he recalled the brief, bitter history she'd recounted in Axe Hallow. She touched his hand with her own for a moment, then inhaled sharply.
"But at least Tomanak and Kontifrio saw fit to send me to Seldan and Marja," she said. "And thanks to them, I've got at least as many brothers and sisters as you do, and a whole crop of nieces and nephews of my own. It's a good thing, isn't it? Knowing the family is there, even if you can't be with them as much as you'd like?"
"Aye, it is that. And I'm thinking it's a good thing another way, too." Kaeritha looked a question at him, and he flicked his ears at a mother who was hurrying two children out of his path. "It's knowing how I'd feel were any of mine threatened as makes me patient with people like that," he told her.
"I can see that," she said, "but it's different for me. Partly, I think, because people don't tend to think of me as a 'threat,' I suppose, but even more as a reflection of my own childhood. Because Seldan and Marja gave me a family of my own, I know what my mother endured when Father's death left her alone with three children. And it was knowing that that sent me to Tomanak in the first place, to try and make a difference for some other Kaeritha and her mother."
She brooded in silence for several seconds, then shook herself and looked around, as if taking her bearings.
"Ah! Here we are," she said. "I wanted to show you this place because I know the owners. One of their sons was with a trade caravan that ran into trouble in Rustum last year. He was hurt pretty badly and hauled off to be held for ransom, but the Order caught up with the raiders. I was headed this way on another matter, so I escorted him home afterwards and met his family." She smiled. "I think you'll like them. Come on."
She led the way through an arched doorway between spotless glass shop windows that seemed to glitter and dance in the lantern light. It took Bahzell a moment to realize that the sparkling radiance came from the neat rows of gems laid out on a background of black velvet like fire-hearted stars, and his ears twitched in surprise when he did realize it, for there were no protective iron bars. Nothing lay between those jewels and any potential thief but a fragile layer of glass, which suggested the shop's owner had a far stronger faith in the goodness and honesty of his fellow men than Bahzell did.
But perhaps the shop owner wasn't quite that foolish after all, he reflected. Large as Tunnel's End seemed after so long in the wilderness, the shopkeeper probably knew all of his neighbors by name. Worse, any stranger who tried a smash-and-grab would have only two ways to run-east, or west-and the Dwarvenhame Tunnel offered no convenient side roads or places to lie hidden while the pursuit thundered by.
The shop had been designed to accommodate humans as well as dwarves, and even Vaijon found it a comfortable fit. Bahzell, of course, did not, but then he'd found very few buildings which were a 'comfortable fit' for him since leaving Navahk, and he'd become almost accustomed to it. What he had not grown accustomed to was the sudden ticking sound which surrounded him-a quiet sound, almost hushed, that still managed to be somehow thunderous in the sheer multiplicity of its sources.
Clocks. Scores of clocks, of all shapes and sizes, ticked and tocked about him. Pendulums swung, ornate hands inched around illuminated faces, biting off precise intervals, and cuckoos hovered behind closed doors, poised to burst out and proclaim the hour. Nor were clocks all that ticked, for watches lay on their own beds of velvet in glass cases, and each produced its own tiny part of the all-encompassing harmony.
Bahzell and Brandark stared at all the moving hands, then grinned at one another in delight. They'd known what clocks and watches were long before leaving their homelands, and they'd seen several of each, since, but they'd never imagined seeing so many in one place. Nor had they been prepared for the artistry which had been invested in them or for the sheer fascination of watching the intricacy of their function in action, and Bahzell chuckled as he realized every one of them was set to precisely the same time. Despite his own lack of exposure to them, he doubted that even dwarves could make this many timepieces all keep exactly the same time, and his grin grew as he pictured the proprietor running around his premises every morning resetting his inventory.
"Yes? How can I hel- Kaeritha!"
The deep, pleasant voice pulled Bahzell back from his thoughts, and he turned as quickly as his cramped surroundings allowed. A dwarf, shorter even than Kilthan but with the full head of hair Kilthan lacked, came bustling from someplace in the back. The newcomer stood for a moment, beaming at Kaeritha, and then hurried forward and hopped up onto a footstool to throw his arms about her.
"Kerry! By the Stone, it's wonderful to see you again! Where have you been, girl? And what have you been eating? Not enough, whatever it was, I see! You're thin as a rail! Haynath will skin us both if you don't come home with me for supper!"
"It's good to see you again, Uthmar," Kaeritha replied, hugging him back, "and I'd love to have supper with you-if there's time. But I'm traveling with friends, this time, and our business is fairly urgent."
"Is it, now?" Uthmar leaned back to look up at her, eyes glinting golden in the lamplight as he smiled. "So urgent that you want to explain to Haynath that you didn't have time to join her for even one meal? Have you gotten that brave since last year?"
"No, but I have gotten cowardly enough to hide and let you explain it!" she said impishly, and he laughed a deep, booming laugh. He let her turn him, still laughing, to view the others, and his laughter stopped suddenly as he saw Bahzell and Brandark.
"My word!" he gasped. He stared at them for several seconds, then hopped down from the stool and walked over to them. He stood with his hands on his hips, leaning well back to peer up at them, then walked around Bahzell in a complete circle, muttering under his breath.
Bahzell shot a glance at Kaeritha and cocked his ears in question, but she only smiled in reply and shrugged, then folded her arms and watched Uthmar patiently. The dwarf came closer to Bahzell and reached up to stroke a mail sleeve, shook his head, and made a small clucking sound.
"Axeman work," he said. "Karamon of Belhadan, wasn't it?" He darted a sharp look up at Bahzell. "I'm right, aren't I? It is Karamon's work, isn't it?"
"Aye, I'm thinking Karamon was his name," Bahzell agreed. "A wee short fellow, like yourself, but with hair red as fire."
"Ha! I knew I was right!" Uthmar crowed, and tapped his prowlike nose. "I've one of the best eyes in Dwarvenhame, if I do say it myself, and Karamon does good work. Very good work. Not but that we couldn't've done better for you, Milord!"
"No doubt," Bahzell rumbled. He looked back across at Kaeritha, eyes twinkling with amusement, and she stepped forward to rest a hand on the dwarf's shoulder.
"Bahzell Bahnakson, be known to Uthmardanharknar, the proprietor of this shop, senior partner of the firm Uthmar and Sons, and husband to Haynathshirkan're'harknar, who happens to be the senior alderwoman of Tunnel's End… and an excellent cook. Uthmar, this is Bahzell Bahnakson, Prince of Hurgrum, and the newest champion of Tomanak , and these are our companions, Brandark Brandarkson of Navahk, and Sir Vaijon of Almerhas."
"You!" Uthmar was pointing at Bahzell with a huge grin. "You! You're the one in the song, aren't you?"
"I-" Bahzell began, but the dwarf was already humming, and the Horse Stealer heard choking sounds from Vaijon and Kaeritha. The two humans glanced hurriedly away, looking anywhere but at the Horse Stealer, but Brandark only cocked his head, ears pitched forward in innocent attentiveness, as he listened to the melody of The Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand. The glare Bahzell shot him should have reduced him to cinders on the spot, but he returned it with the bland smile of a man in whose mouth butter would refuse to melt.
"It is you, isn't it?" Uthmar demanded happily at last, and Bahzell gritted his teeth. But then he made himself smile and nodded.
"Aye, in a manner of speaking. Not but what you'd not want to be believing all you hear." He shot another glance at Brandark. "Like as not the sot who wrote it all down was drunk as a lord," he added.
"Oh, I don't care about that," Uthmar assured him, waving one hand airily. "Heavens, it's actually a pretty silly song, don't you think?" He sniffed. "The lines of the third stanza don't scan at all well, and that forced rhyme in the fifth-!"
He rolled his eyes, and Bahzell's ears flicked straight upright. His lips twitched for an instant, and then he laughed out loud.
"Oh, aye, a very silly song," he agreed enthusiastically, grinning wickedly at a Brandark whose studied innocence had just become a thing of the past.
"Yes, well, but the point was," Uthmar said, "that Silver Cavern sent word you'd likely be coming this way, and Clan Harkanath specifically said you've a line of credit."
"Did they now?" Bahzell watched the dwarf cautiously. He was only slightly surprised to hear Kilthan had sent word up the tunnel that he and Brandark were on the way, for Master Kresco had promised to pass that information on to the Silver Cavern dwarves via the relays. But he was a little surprised Kilthan had mentioned anything about lines of credit.
"Oh, they didn't tell just anyone," Uthmar assured him, "but my sanitharlahnahk-" He paused and frowned. "Um, that would be my wife's sister-in-law's second cousin on her father's side the way you'd say it, I think. Is that right, Kerry?" He looked questioningly at Kaeritha, and she shrugged.
"Uthmar, you know no one but a dwarf can possibly keep your clan and family relationships straight. If you say it's your wife's sister-in-law's second cousin, then that's what it is."
"Oh dear." Uthmar frowned for another moment, then shrugged. "At any rate, my sanitharlahnahk is married to Kilthandahknarthas' sanhanikmah." He looked at Bahzell as if that should mean something to him. The Horse Stealer glanced at Kaeritha, who shrugged again-helplessly-and then looked back down at Uthmar.
"And?" he said encouragingly.
"Why, that makes us almost brothers!" Uthmar exclaimed, waving both hands in the air. "That's why he asked me to take special care of you-and your friends, of course-if you should happen to stop off in Tunnel's End."
"Take care of us, is it? And just what were you having in mind in that regard?" Bahzell asked politely.
"Well, it's plain enough you're not in need of armor. Not-" Uthmar sniffed "-that I couldn't have fixed you up with some much superior to old Kara- But that's neither here nor there! You've adequate armor, and I'll assume you have weapons as well?" He looked expectantly up at the towering hradani, who nodded in confirmation. "I thought so. I thought so! But I'll wager there's one thing you don't have, Milord Champion, and that's a first-rate watch!"
"A watch?" Bahzell blinked. "And what in Tomanak's name would such as I be needing with a watch?"
"Everyone needs a good watch, Milord!" Uthmar asserted. "If you've never had one, you can't begin to imagine how much more efficiently it lets you organize your day! Anyone who works to a schedule needs one, and especially mariners!"
"Mariners?" Brandark's ears cocked sharply. "Why do mariners need watches?"
"For navigation, Milord-for navigation!" Uthmar shook his head. "A seaman must know precisely the right time to take his position sightings. That requires the finest chronometer he can get, and with all due modesty, there's not a finer timepiece in all Norfressa than the ones in this shop."
He waved an arm to indicate his ticking wares, and Brandark followed the gesture with intent eyes.
"Really?" he murmured.
"Assuredly, Milord. Most assuredly. And, of course, he'll need a good sextant, as well, and it just happens that Uthmar and Sons markets the finest Crystal Water Cavern optical instruments and sextants."
Bahzell could almost feel his companion's palms beginning to itch, and he gave the Bloody Sword a stern glance, then looked back to Uthmar.
"It's honored I am that you should be thinking of us, but I'm thinking we'll do well enough without such, and it wouldn't do for us to be spending Duke Jash^an's credit for aught we don't need, so-"
"Oh, but it isn't Duke Jash^an's credit," Uthmar broke in. "It's Kilthan's."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said it's Kilthan's. He set up a credit line for you himself."
"Did he, now?" Bahzell murmured, and his eyes began to twinkle.
"My, my. Wasn't that kind of old Kilthan," Brandark said.
"Now, now, lad. Let's not go coming all over grasping. I'm thinking Kilthan had more in mind than to be turning two greedy little boys loose in a candy store."
"Then he should have said so," Brandark argued. "I mean, he does know us, Bahzell. Do you think for one minute he doesn't know how telling us that would affect any self-respecting hradani?"
"Aye, like as not he does-or should. But that's not so much the point as-"
"Oh, come now, Bahzell," Kaeritha interrupted. "Brandark's completely correct. Anyone who's ever met the two of you-well, him, at least!-must have known what he'd be letting himself in for."
"Anyone who met me?" Brandark demanded in injured tones, and she laughed.
"Unless all those books we're lugging around belong to someone else named Brandark Brandarkson!" she shot back, and Brandark made a fencing master's gesture to indicate a touch.
"Now just the both of you be holding on-" Bahzell began, only to be interrupted yet again, this time by Uthmar.
"I really could make you a very nice price on one of my finest watches, Milord Champion. And perhaps one for your illustrious father? And a clock for your mother?"
Bahzell paused, mouth open, then closed it with a click. As Brandark had said, he was a hradani, and the hradani habit of returning home from uninvited visits with odds and ends which had somehow gotten into their pockets was a strong one. Of course, it went against all tradition to actually pay anyone for those odds and ends, but under the circumstances…
His eyes strayed back to the beautifully illuminated faces of the gold- and silver-cased watches, and he felt that centuries old acquisitiveness tingling in his bones.
"You were saying as how old Kilthan set up a credit line?" Uthmar nodded. "And what sort of limit was he after putting on it?"
"He didn't," Uthmar said with a wicked little smile of his own. "I can't imagine how he came to be so forgetful. But, there-he is getting on a bit in years, you know. Still, he's also a kinsman. Don't you think I owe it to him to teach him not to be guilty of such oversights in the future?"
"No doubt you do, no doubt you do," Bahzell murmured. He looked back up at Kaeritha, then glanced across at Brandark and grinned. "Now, then, Uthmar," he said, "just exactly how much were you saying these watches of yours were costing?"