Luthien's Gamble by R. A. Salvatore


  Half a dozen cyclopians, the leaders of the operation at the Montfort mines, turned dumbfounded stares to the door of their side cave—a door that they thought had been locked—when the man and the halfling casually strode in, smiles wide, as though they had been invited. The two even closed the door behind them, and the halfling stuck a pick into the lock opening and gave a quick twist, nodding as the tumblers clicked again.

  The closest brute scrambled for its spear, which was lying across hooks set into the squared cave’s right-hand wall, but faster than its one eye could follow, the man hopped to the side, whipped a magnificent sword from its sheath on his hip, and brought it swinging down across the spear shaft, pinning the weapon. The cyclopian shifted, meaning to run the man down. But it paused, confused, at the sight of the man standing calmly, unthreateningly, his hand held up as though he wanted no fight.

  Before another cyclopian could react, the halfling rushed between the closest two chairs and leaped atop the table, rapier in hand. He didn’t threaten any of the brutes, though. Rather, he struck a heroic pose.

  A chair skidded from behind the table and one cyclopian, the largest of the group, stood tall and ominous. Like Luthien over to the side, Oliver waved his hand in the air as though to calm the brute.

  “Greetings,” the halfling said. “I am Oliver deBurrows, highwayhalfling, and my friend here is Luthien Bedwyr, son of Eorl Gahris of Bedwydrin.”

  The cyclopians obviously didn’t know how to react, didn’t understand what was going on. The Montfort mines were some distance south of the city itself, nestled deep in the towering mountains. The place was perfectly secluded; the brutes didn’t even know that the battle for Montfort was raging, for they had heard nothing from the city since before the first snows. Except for the prisoner caravans, which wouldn’t resume until the spring melt, no one visited the Montfort mines.

  “Of course, you would know him better as the Crimson Shadow,” Oliver went on.

  The large cyclopian at the end of the table narrowed its one eye dangerously. There had been a breakout at the mines just a few months before, when two invaders, rumored to be a human and a halfling, had slipped in, killed more than a few cyclopians, and freed three dwarven prisoners. The entire group of guards in this small side room had been on a shift far underground on that occasion, but these two certainly fit the descriptions of the perpetrators. The cyclopian and its allies couldn’t be sure of anything, though, for this sudden intrusion was too unexpected, too strange.

  “Now I wanted for me and my friend here, and for our two hundred other friends outside”—that turned more than one cyclopian’s head toward the closed door—“to just come in here and kill you very dead,” Oliver explained. “But my gentle friend, he wanted to give you a chance to surrender.”

  It took a moment for the words to register, and the large cyclopian caught on first. The brute roared, overturning the table.

  Oliver whirled away from the brute on his heel, expecting the move. He scrambled and leaped, flicking his rapier to the left, then to the right, slicing the two closest cyclopians across their faces.

  “I will consider that a no,” the halfling said dryly, falling into a roll as he landed and turning a complete somersault to find his center of balance.

  The cyclopian nearest to Luthien growled and lowered its shoulder to charge, but Luthien pointed toward the trapped spear. “Look!” the young Bedwyr cried.

  The stupid brute complied, turning to see Luthien’s sword rapidly ascending, as Luthien snapped a wicked backhand. Blind-Striker’s heavy, fine-edged blade cracked through the brute’s forehead.

  Luthien leaped over the corpse as it crumbled.

  “I told you they would not surrender!” yelled Oliver, who was engaged with two cyclopians, including one of the two he had stabbed in the face. The halfling’s aim on the other had been better, his rapier taking the creature directly in the eye. Like its companion, the brute had stumbled out of its chair, but had then tripped over the chair, and it squirmed about on the floor, flailing its arms wildly.

  Luthien charged the side of the tipped table, lowering his shoulder as though he meant to ram it and knock it into the cyclopian across the way. The one-eye, outweighing the man considerably, likewise dropped its massive shoulder, more than willing to oblige. At the last moment, Luthien cut to the side, behind the upturned table, and the brute hit the furniture alone. Overbalanced, the cyclopian came skidding by, and Luthien hardly gave it a thought as he snapped Blind-Striker once to the side, into the cyclopian’s ribs.

  The young Bedwyr cleared the jumble and squared his footing, facing evenly against the largest brute, who had retrieved a huge battle-ax.

  “One against one,” he muttered, but in truth Luthien figured that this particular cyclopian, seven feet tall, at least, and weighing near to four hundred pounds, counted for one and a half.

  The two facing Oliver, neither holding any weapon, gingerly hopped and skittered from side to side, looking for an opening so that they could grab the miserable rat and his stinging blade.

  Oliver casually shifted and turned, poking his rapier’s tip into grasping hands and seeming as though he was truly enjoying every moment of this fight.

  “And I haven’t even drawn my second blade,” the halfling taunted. One of the cyclopians lurched for him, and he responded by sinking his rapier through its palm, the tip sliding several inches deep into the brute’s forearm.

  The cyclopian howled and grasped its wrist, falling to its knees with the pain, and the movement temporarily trapped the rapier. Quick-thinking, Oliver drew out his main gauche, but he found that the other cyclopian was not coming for him. The brute had rushed to the side to retrieve a nasty-looking ax.

  In it charged, and Oliver sprang atop the shoulders of the kneeling cyclopian and squared to meet the attack, eyes-to-eye.

  The halfling sprang away, though, as the kneeling cyclopian reached up to grab at his feet and the charging brute launched a wicked overhead chop.

  The descending ax missed—missed Oliver, at least—and the attacking cyclopian groaned as the head of its kneeling fellow split apart.

  “Oh, I bet that hurt,” the fleeing halfling remarked.

  Luthien pivoted to retreat from a sidelong swipe. He went right down to one knee and lurched forward in a thrust, scoring a hit on the advancing brute’s thigh.

  It was a grazing blow, though, and did not halt the giant cyclopian’s charge; Luthien had to dive forward in a headlong roll to avoid the next swipe.

  He came up to his feet, spiraling back the other way, and scored another hit on his opponent, this time slashing the one-eye’s rump. The monster growled and spun, and the heavy ax knocked Blind-Striker aside.

  “Remember not to parry,” Luthien told himself, his hand stinging from the sheer weight of the hit. He raised his sword in both hands then, and hopped back into a defensive crouch.

  “We told you that you should surrender,” Luthien teased, and in looking around at the carnage, the large brute could hardly argue. Three of its comrades were dead or dying, a fourth was blinded, struggling to regain its feet and swiping wildly at the empty air. Even as the largest brute started to yell out a warning, Oliver stuck the blind cyclopian in the butt as he rushed past.

  The blind brute wheeled, turning the wrong way around, and was promptly knocked flat by the cyclopian chasing Oliver. The charging brute stumbled over its falling companion, but lurched forward in an impromptu attack, swinging with all its might.

  Oliver skipped aside and the ax drove deep into the upturned table.

  On its knees, off balance and fully extended, with its blind comrade grabbing at its waist, the outraged cyclopian had no leverage to extract the stuck blade.

  “Do let me help you,” Oliver offered, rushing up and slipping his main gauche into his belt. He reached for the ax, but shifted direction and thrust his rapier through the cyclopian’s throat instead.

  “I changed my mind,” Oliv
er announced as the gurgling cyclopian slipped to the floor.

  Luthien’s sword went up high as his monstrous opponent brought its ax overhead. The young man rushed forward, knowing that he had to move quickly before the huge one-eye gained any momentum. He slammed hard into his adversary. Blind-Striker struck against the ax handle and took a finger from the brute’s right hand, and the attack was stopped before it ever truly began.

  Still clutching the sword hilt in both hands, Luthien spun to his right and took a glancing blow on the hip from a thrusting knee. Luthien kept his back in close to the brute as he rotated; he knew that this routine would bring victory or defeat, and nothing in between. He dropped his blade over his right shoulder and bent low, then came up straight hard, slicing his blade right to left.

  Blind-Striker caught the one-eye under its upraised left arm, tearing muscle and bone and nearly severing the limb.

  The cyclopian’s ax banged off its shoulder and fell to the floor. The brute stood a moment longer, staring blankly at its wound and at Luthien. Then it staggered a step to the side and fell heavily against the wall, its lifeblood pouring freely.

  Luthien turned away to see Oliver tormenting the blind cyclopian, the halfling darting this way and that, poking the helpless creature repeatedly.

  “Oliver!” Luthien scolded.

  “Oh, very well,” the halfling grumbled. He skipped in front of the brute, waited for its flailing arms to present an opening, then rushed in with a two-handed thrust, his rapier sliding between cyclopian ribs to find the creature’s heart, his main gauche scoring solidly on its neck.

  “You really should grow another eye,” Oliver remarked, skipping back as the brute fell headlong, dead before it hit the floor.

  Oliver looked at Luthien almost apologetically. “They really should.”

  • • •

  A hundred feet east along the mountain wall from the side cave Luthien and Oliver had entered, Katerin O’Hale came running out of a tunnel in full flight, more than a dozen drooling cyclopians close behind.

  The woman, her sword dripping blood from her first kill inside, started as though she meant to run down the road toward Montfort, but turned instead and rushed at a snow berm.

  A spear narrowly missed her, diving deep into the snow, and Katerin was glad that cyclopians, with one eye and little depth perception, were not good at range weapons. Elves were much better.

  Over the berm she went, diving headlong, the brutes howling only a couple of dozen feet behind her.

  How they skidded and scrambled when Siobahn and the rest of the Cutters popped up over the lip of that banking, their great longbows bent back! Like stinging bees, the elvish arrows swarmed upon the cyclopians; one fell with eight arrows protruding from its bulky chest. A handful managed to turn and run back toward the mine entrance, but more arrows followed to strike them.

  Only one cyclopian limped on, several arrows sticking from its back and legs. Another bolt got it in the back of the shoulder as it neared the cave, but it stubbornly plowed on and got inside.

  Shuglin the dwarf and a host of rebels, mostly human, but with several other drawfs among them, were fast in pursuit. Soon after the blue-bearded Shuglin dashed into the cave, the wounded cyclopian shrieked a death cry.

  Behind the berm, Katerin squinted against the glare off the white snow and looked to the west. The door of the side cave was open again, just a bit, and an arm waved up and down, holding Oliver’s huge hat.

  “No need to fear for those two when they are together,” Siobahn remarked, standing at Katerin’s side.

  Katerin looked at the half-elf, her rival for Luthien’s attention. She was undeniably beautiful, with long and lustrous wheat-colored hair that made Katerin self-conscious of her own red topping.

  “They have more than their share of skill, and more than their share of luck,” Siobahn finished, flashing a disarming grin. There was something detached about her, Katerin recognized, something removed and superior. Still, Katerin felt no condescension directed toward her personally. All the elves and half-elves shared that cool demeanor, and Siobahn was among the most outgoing of the lot. Even their obvious rivalry over Luthien seemed less bitter than it could have been, or would have been, Katerin knew, had her rival been another proud woman from her homeland.

  Siobahn and her band filtered over the snow berm, following the others into the mine entrance. Siobahn paused and waited, looking back at Katerin.

  “Well done,” the half-elf said as she stood among the cyclopian corpses, her sudden words catching Katerin off guard. “You baited the brutes perfectly.”

  Katerin nodded and rolled over the banking, sliding to her feet on the other side. She hated to admit it, but she had to, at least to herself: she liked Siobahn.

  They went into the cave side by side.

  Much farther down the tunnel, Shuglin and his charging band had met with stiff resistance. A barricade was up, slitted so that crossbows could be fired from behind it. Cyclopians were terrible shots, but the tunnel was neither high nor wide, and the law of averages made any approach down the long and straight run to the barricade treacherous.

  Shuglin and his companions crouched around the closest corner, angered at being bottled up.

  “We must wait for the elven archers,” one man urged.

  Shuglin didn’t see the point, didn’t see what good Siobahn’s band might do. The cyclopians were too protected by their barricade; one or two shots might be found, but even skilled elves would not do much damage with bows.

  “We got to charge,” the dwarf grumbled, and the chorus around him was predictably grim.

  Shuglin peeked around the bend, and nearly lost his nose to a skipping bolt. By the number of quarrels coming out and the briefness of the delay between volleys, he figured that there must be at least a dozen cyclopians on the other side of the barrier. Three times that number of fighters stood beside the dwarf, and twenty times that number would soon filter in, but the thought of losing even a few allies here, barely into the mines, didn’t sit well.

  The dwarf pushed his way back from the corner, coming up to a man who carried a great shield. “Give it to me,” Shuglin instructed, and the man eyed him curiously for only a moment before he complied.

  The shield practically covered the dwarf from head to toe. He moved back to the corner, thinking to spearhead the charge.

  A cyclopian groaned from behind the barrier. Then another.

  Shuglin and his allies looked to each other, not understanding.

  Then they heard the slight twang of a bow, far down the tunnel ahead of them, and behind the barrier another one-eye screamed out.

  Shuglin’s powerful legs began pumping; he verily threw himself around the corner. His allies took up the battle cry and the charge.

  “Silly one-eye,” came a voice with a familiar Gascon accent from beyond the barrier. “One poke of my so fine rapier blade and you cannot see!”

  A quarrel skipped off Shuglin’s shield. A man flanking him took a hit in the leg and went down.

  Hearing swords ringing, the dwarf didn’t pause long enough to look for an opening. He lowered his strong shoulder and plowed into the barricade. Wood and stone shook loose. Shuglin didn’t get through, but his allies used him as a stepping-stone and the barrier was quickly breached. By the time the dwarf regained his wits and clambered over the rubble, the fight was over, without a single rebel killed or even seriously wounded.

  Luthien pointed to a fork in the passage, just at the end of the lamplight. “To the left will take you to the lower levels and your enslaved kin.”

  Shuglin grunted; Luthien knew where the fighting dwarf wanted to be. Shuglin had been in the mines before, but for only a short while. The dwarf had been taken prisoner in Montfort for aiding Luthien and Oliver in one of their many daring escapes. He had been sentenced to hard labor in the mines as all convicted dwarfs were, along with two of his fellows. But Oliver, Luthien, and the Cutters had rescued the three dwarfs before the cyclopia
ns had had the chance to take them down to the lower levels.

  “And where are you off to?” Shuglin wanted to know, seeing that Luthien and Oliver weren’t moving to follow him.

  Luthien shrugged and smiled, and turned to leave. Oliver tipped his hat. “There are many smaller side tunnels,” the halfling explained. “Look for us when you need us most!”

  With that heroic promise, Oliver scampered off after Luthien, the two of them going right at the fork, back to the narrow passage that had led them here from the guard room. They had indeed found many tunnels leading off that passage, several of which sloped steeply down. The main entrance to the lower mines, where the dwarfs were kept as slaves, was to the left at the fork, as Luthien had told Shuglin, but Luthien and Oliver figured that if they could get down lower in secret, they could rouse the enslaved dwarfs and strike at the cyclopian guards from behind.

  They did make their way down and in the lower tunnels found a score of dirty, beleaguered dwarfs for every cyclopian guard. Though battered and half-starved, the tough bearded folk were more than ready to join in the cause, more than ready to fight for their freedom. Pickaxes and shovels that had been used as mining tools now served as deadly weapons as the growing force made its way along the tunnels.

  Shuglin’s group, rejoined with the rest of their allies, including Katerin and the Cutters, found their reception exactly the opposite. The main entrance to the lower mines also housed the largest concentration of cyclopians. They fought a bitter battle in the last room of the upper level, and predictably, the large platform that served as an elevator to the lower level was destroyed by the cyclopians.

  Using block and tackle and dozens of ropes, Shuglin and his dwarfs quickly constructed a new transport. Getting down was a different matter, and many were lost in the first assault, despite the fine work of the elvish archers. Once the lower chamber was secured, the group faced a difficult, room-to-room march, and there were at least as many well-armed cyclopians as there were rebels.

  But there were as many dwarf slaves as both forces combined, and when Luthien and Oliver and their makeshift army showed up behind the cyclopian lines, the defense of the mines fell apart.

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