A Dignified Beard

Richard had never known a few hundred people could make such a terrifying sound. The nobles had gone insane, using their internal energy and magic in a unified scream that left him terrified. However, that wasn’t the end of their celebration. This time, they unanimously decided to toss their weapons into the air. Powerful magic equipment emitted a dazzling radiance as they flooded the sky at different heights…

And then they started to fall!

Richard had no choice but to insta-cast a few ranged barriers to protect these excited fellows. Io and Flowsand similarly busied themselves; if they did not do so, a few unlucky ones would be pierced through by the swords falling from the sky. Each of these weapons was superior-grade, so the little energy these noble youths had could do nothing to protect them.

Every noble that had come on this expedition had at least some level of ability in a fight; even Zim had killed a few imperial soldiers during Salwyn’s siege. They could normally just jump up and catch their weapons, but in this chaotic situation nobody could be sure. After all, a number of these blades in the sky were enchanted to pierce armour easily.

Although Richard’s side was completely chaotic, Firebeard was terrified as well. Hundreds of people had suddenly shouted in unison, the resulting sound completely overwhelming his voice. A few hundred weapons were then tossed into the air, the magical radiance almost blinding him. He could swear on his beard that he had never seen so many enchanted weapons in his life.

Perhaps it was out of nervousness or perhaps it was the sense of threat, but the hand of one of the guards trembled. A loud explosion rang out as the gun in his hands fired, black smoke surging into the air. The boom from the gun was several times louder than Firebeard’s loud voice, even cutting through the cheers of the nobles.

Richard was slightly shocked at first, but that immediately turned into delight. Guns! This was one of his goals in coming to the dwarven kingdoms; the power of guns was obvious.

The nobles behind him had a much larger reaction. Many of them thought they had been attacked, catching their weapons and gathering their energy. Some cast defensive spells, while a small number of timid ones checked if they had any injuries. In actuality, they were at least a hundred metres away from the fortress and the dwarf’s gun had been pointed upwards. At this range, even a perfectly aimed shot would not reach them at all.

On top of the fortress, Firebeard was furiously shouting at the dwarf next to him, “Copperbeard, you useless thing! Why did you shoot… Wait… By my beard, what am I seeing?”

It was then that large groups of cavalry finally showed themselves behind Richard and the nobles. They filled up the valley path in the blink of an eye, countless warriors surging forth.

“There should be at least 3,000 there!” Richard heard someone shout.

A cacophony immediately took over the stronghold, the air filled with the uniquely coarse voices of the dwarves.

“3,000? Quick, send a report!”

“What do you mean 3,000? There’s at least 5,000 here! They still have people coming in!”

“No matter how many there are, I, Blackiron, will crush their skull!”

Many heads appeared behind the crenellations, every dwarf that saw Richard’s army and equipment going wide-eyed. Gigantic gun muzzles quickly replaced these heads.

Richard looked behind himself. There were less than 2,000 warriors here, but because the vanguard was made entirely of cavalry they seemed more numerous than they were. Coupled with the fact that the drunk dwarves hated numbers and loved exaggerating, it was no wonder they would overestimate. The army outside the valley numbered 10,000 anyway. No matter how sturdy this fort was it only held a few dozen dwarves; it would be a simple matter to take it out. However, they had not come here for war.

Every dwarf in the Ashen Plateau was a precious resource.

Richard went ahead alone, only stopping when he was less than fifty metres away from the fort. “My name is Richard!” he shouted brightly, “I am not here to fight, but to drink liquor and make friends! May I know if this is the Anvil of Thunder?”

This caused another flurry of discussion amongst the dwarves. “The Anvil of Thunder are in a mountain to the southwest, three days away. This is Forgefires, the land of the great Toro Anvil’s descendants. Human, if you came to make friends why did you bring so many soldiers? No matter how many you have, you will not frighten the descendants of Anvil!”

Richard smiled, “We come from the far east, and had to cross the entire Bloodstained Lands to arrive here. You must know those lands are filled with bandits and slavers everywhere; without the protection of these men, I would not be able to come here.”

Firebeard hesitated for a moment, “You humans are liars, I don’t believe you! You catch so many of our kin and take them for slaves!”

Richard did not mind the dwarf’s brashness, “Not all of us. The Anvil of Thunder is working very closely with us humans; if they are willing to believe us, why would Forgefires not? I believe a friendship stands to benefit both of us. Of course, if Forgefires rejects these friends from far away we can go look for the Anvil of Thunder too.”

“How can a tiny tribe like that compare to the powerful Forgefires?” Firebeard spat out, “We are a kingdom! However, us becoming friends is not up to me. That has to be decided by the King.”

Richard said, “Good! Then take me to His Majesty.”

“But your soldiers must remain outside!” Firebeard shouted. Seeing Richard’s army still growing, he was slightly flustered. He had never seen such an enormous in his entire life; even put together, Forgefires only had a few hundred thousand citizens. The dwarf was no fool; he knew that someone who could lead such a big army was definitely powerful. Richard definitely qualified to meet the king.

“No problem.” Richard immediately got his troops to halt and find a suitable place outside the valley to set up camp. In the meanwhile, he sent someone to the caravan in the back to have them speed up. All the items meant for trade with the dwarves were there, and with a chance to meet the king Richard was confident that they would come to an agreement.

He then brought his followers and seven noble delegates as well as ten Archeron warriors, following Firebeard into the fortress.

A short distance behind the stronghold was a passage dug into the mountain; this was the only way to Forgefires. The path was surprisingly long; so far was the other side that even Richard couldn’t see to the end. It seemed like this tunnel crossed straight through the mountain.

The passage was five metres wide, but it had an extremely low ceiling that was less than two metres tall. Richard had to be careful; with his boots on, he would knock his head into the top if he didn’t pay attention. Io and Olar needed to keep their heads bowed, while Gangdor could only make it through by hunching. Human warriors above level ten were normally well over two metres tall, so even the Archerons suffered terribly.

Tiramisu just stayed behind with the rest of his men. The huge fellow was over three metres tall, so he would only be able to crawl through the passage.

Of course, this height was no problem at all for the dwarves who were 1.4 metres tall on average. Even Firebeard, someone considered tall and sturdy amongst the dwarves, was only 1.5 metres. They could all show their power to the limit here.

They only made it a few hundred metres through the passage before Gangdor started to feel like his waist had gone crooked. Richard had accidentally knocked his head a few times, while the others fared even worse. This passage showed Richard exactly why the glorious human empires could do nothing against the dwarves in the mountains. These tunnels dropped the humans’ power by a third while amplifying the dwarven guns greatly. A formation of just three or four dwarves firing simultaneously would fill the passage with deadly power that left one with nowhere to hide. Even a saint of Faelor would be left bleeding profusely as long as the attack was from within ten metres.

Firebeard said it would take a day’s journey to make it all the way to Forgefires Stronghold, the capital of the kingdom. The city was built on top of a volcano nearly a millennium ago, the mountains nearby completely emptied by the dwarves constantly digging through them. The lava flowing underground had made the place a natural furnace, allowing them to smelt metal endlessly. All sorts of ores were produced within Forgefires, so the kingdom was famous for its smithing within hundreds of kilometres.

This area was rich in obsidian, repeated smelting and forging turning it into one of the best materials for both weapons and armour. The best goods of the dwarves were practically all made from this metal.

Forgefires Stronghold had over ten thousand residents, with all the elite warriors of the kingdom present here. The rest were spread about the thousands of square kilometres of mountains nearby, many working in the mines.

Things went fine along the way. Richard kept conversing with Firebeard and the dozen-odd other dwarves, gaining a good understanding of Forgefires and even striking a friendship with them. They felt he wasn’t quite bad, quite liking his beard. The only thing they felt pity for was that his facial hair was too short; in Firebeard’s words, a beard had to reach one’s waist at minimum. Only then would it be dignified.

Richard obviously wouldn’t keep a beard that suited dwarven tastes, but he had never expected the one he did to help him earn their friendship. Of course, the barrels of premium alcohol he’d brought along had great effect as well.

The first passage was about three kilometres long. Once they came out on the other side, they walked a full day through a valley and passed through two more tunnels to reach Forgefires Stronghold.

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