Douglas Niles: Winterheim

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Douglas Niles Winterheim
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Douglas Niles



Two kings

The mountain loomed above the still waters of Black Ice Bay, above the rim of the coastal foothills, above the bare face of the vast cliff spreading west- and eastward from the glacial skirts of the great massif. Though the smooth white barrier, the Icewall, towered a thousand feet above the sea, it was dwarfed by the greatness of that solitary summit, whose majesty seemed almost too big, out of scale.

The peak thrust into a realm of thin air, shrouded in ice and snow even now, during the last month of summer. Other heights jutted skyward to the right and left, but even the lower shoulders of the great massif rose far above the loftiest mountains of the White Range and the other saw-toothed ridges extending across the frost bound polar reaches. These lesser elevations were as mere cubs, gathered around the feet of a great white bear.

This mountain was Winterheim, and as great as it was, it was so much more than just a mountain.

As the ogre king returned here, to his home, he stared at the massif that was also his fortress, the capital of his kingdom. He drew comfort from the fact that this lofty vista, at least, remained unchanged. As he returned from an expedition that had claimed his mother’s life, destroyed one of his two ships, and annihilated a proud bastion of his kingdom, he knew there were few constants in his world, but this mountain remained the greatest of those. For that he was grateful and relieved.

He remained aware that he was still a mighty king, could exercise his considerable power in many ways.

“Bring the prisoner up to the deck,” he ordered, and several ogres of the Royal Grenadiers hastened to obey.

Grimwar was aware of his queen standing nearby, and though he felt her eyes upon him he did not deign to look at her. Instead, his gaze remained fixed upon that immaculate summit.

He heard a hatch open and the rattle of chains behind him, followed by a whip crack and the thud of a body being thrown to the deck. Only then did he shift his head to look down at the human who lay sprawled on the planking near the king’s black whale-skin boots.

The man glared up at the ogre monarch, blue eyes icy with anger, mouth set in a tight line, but the human captive made no sound, even as a grenadier kicked him in the ribs.

“Kneel, slave!” growled the ogre warrior. “Kneel before your new master, the King of Suderhold!”

Instead the filthy, bearded man pulled his chained wrists together and slowly, awkwardly pushed himself to a sitting position. The grenadier drew back for another kick, but Grimwar Bane held up his hand, stopping the attack and allowing the chained human to rise to his feet. The king stared at his captive in frank interest.

The three weeks below decks had not done the man any good-he was sallow and thin, eyes blazing from sockets that seemed to have sunk halfway into his skull during the voyage. He squinted in the glare of the first daylight that he had seen in all that time. His movements were stiff, and he winced in pain as he forced himself to stand fully erect. He was a tall human, though still much shorter than the ogre king, and Grimwar well remembered the fellow’s fearlessness in a hopeless attack, the frenzy with which he had wielded a lethal sword. No doubt the grenadier remembered, too, as a dozen of his comrades had been slain in that savage fight.

Grimwar Bane knew that the humans considered this fellow to be their king and a mighty king at that, and it amused the ogre monarch to see him debased like this. Since this summer’s campaign had been an utter disaster, the ogre monarch had only this lone prisoner to show for his efforts and sacrifice, but the man was a valuable captive, and Grimwar tried to take some solace in that.

“A king, they called you,” Stariz ber Bane declared scornfully, unable to remain silent any longer. The queen addressed the captive as she advanced to stalk a circle about him, glaring contemptuously down as the fellow utterly ignored her leering presence. “Now you will see the homecoming of a real king and a fortress that makes your petty castle look like a hovel on the tundra!”

Grimwar snorted his agreement, once again turning to glance at that massive mountain. The galley glided straight toward the base of the massif, where the plunging cliffs delved right into the deep, dark waters of the Black Ice Bay. The rocky face was smooth there, and as they drew closer the king nodded, pleased to hear the rumble of the massive capstan, the metallic clang as many tons of iron chain began to move. This was more proof of his power: a legion of slaves going to work because the king’s approach had been observed. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the great Seagate of Winterheim began to move to the side.

“There are five hundred of your fellow humans turning those gears,” Grimwar noted casually. “If you were a less important prisoner, you might find your place among them, striving shoulder to shoulder with the mass of them until you die, but no-you are too valuable for that fate. We shall have to find a more exalted task for you.”

The man’s eyes narrowed, and the ogre king was not surprised to note a considerable depth of anger there.

The gap of shadow expanded, revealing the great cavern at the heart of Winterheim. The placid waters of the bay extended into the contained harbor, and as the opening grew wider sunlight spilled inside, brightening the vast, columned terraces of the ogre stronghold. Soon the gate was fully open, and Goldwing, propelled only by a few gentle, easy thrusts of her oars, slid beneath the lofty overhanging arch of stone and into the warm, moist air that kept Winterheim comfortable even during the most frigid depths of the sunless winter.

Stariz strode past the king to the edge of the deck, raising her arms and gesturing to Grimwar, drawing out a thunderous cheer from the great throng of ogres who had gathered to welcome their rulers back home. The king’s subjects shouted from the docks of the waterfront and from the market plaza, the great square surrounding the wharves, the flat surface raised barely a dozen feet above the water level. More ogres lined the balconies of the massive atrium, the great chimneylike column that rose toward the summit of the mountain, providing the citizens of every level with a clear view down to the square and the harbor.

Even in the shadowed heights they stood and chanted their accolades:

“Grimwar Bane!”

“Long live the king!”

The galley eased gently into her slip. After the first roared greeting, the monarch took little note of the cheers or the assembled throng of ogres waiting on the waterfront plaza as the gangplank cranked down to the dock. This was as hollow a homecoming as he had ever experienced, and he felt the losses of the campaign so keenly that at first he could take little pleasure from the return to his great fortress city.

He was bred to this, and he would give his people what they desired. He stalked down the ramp and across the wharf with kingly bearing. To the assembled populace, he looked proud and regal, honored by their presence and pleased to be their ruler. He waved to the right and left and smiled, the gestures and expressions coming automatically, masking the darkness that churned within him.

The trappings of power, as they always did, helped to lift his bleak mood. He saw young nobles thumping their chests with clenched fists, the traditional hail of the bull ogre to his lord. Solid females lined the byways, waving bright pennants, smiling adoringly if his eyes so much as flicked in their direction.

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