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The Triumph of the Dwarves, Page 2

Markus Heitz

  This is going well. We’re heading for an alliance. Raikan could not help smiling. “We should be able to do without a few sacks of rye.”

  “I speak of all the elf realms: Ti landur, the Ti Singàlai you refer to as the Golden Plain, and Ti Lesinteïl. All in all we calculate our requirements to be eleven hundred twentners.” Raikan heard how Lilia next to him caught her breath in surprise.

  “How many mouths do you need to feed, Regent Ataimînas?”

  The elf seemed astonished at the question. “I thought the Children of Vraccas knew all about our immigration campaign? We have made no secret of it.”

  “The dwarves send regular briefings to the Council of Kings, but the last meeting was half a cycle ago,” Raikan explained. “There has been a lot to do.”

  “Of course. So you will learn that we have arrived from the south, the west and the east, responding to our Creator’s sign that the threats to our people are now over.” Ataimînas pointed to the door. “This is only one of our many settlements, King Raikan. We are re-forming our race and we shall not, in future, be cutting ourselves off from humans and dwarves as our ancestors were wont to do.” The elf straightened up, his robes brilliant in the light. “I know what reputation goes before us in Girdlegard and I fear it was justified. But in less than a human generation that reputation will have changed.” He pointed to Raikan. “Trade negotiations are the start. If you wish it.”

  Of course I do. Raikan held back from confirming his willingness out loud. “But you still have not said how many elves have come.”

  “Up to the present orbit it will be about ten thousand.” Ataimînas registered the surprise on his visitors’ faces and gave a friendly laugh. “You should see yourselves, young king. We are not here as conquerors. We are merely returning to the place where our Creator formed us. And for that we shall be needing more corn.”

  The chance of a business deal and an alliance was extremely tempting. Raikan ought to be excited. However, he felt undeniable unease about the sheer numbers involved. That many elves in Girdlegard? It was as if Tenkil had left his suspicious attitude behind when he marched out of the hall. Annoying.

  “We will provide extra seed corn for Tabaîn to plant,” Ataimînas went on. “It’s a particular sort of wheat, very high quality. You will guard the crops for us. For that we will pay you handsomely.” He gave a condescending smile. “I shall make you rich.”

  He went on to specify these payments and the price for a twentner of corn.

  Raikan did not even attempt to bargain with him. The amount of gold lay far beyond what he had expected.

  Instead he replied, “I am pleased to be able to assist the elf realms.” After an agreement of this kind it should be easier to put forward his suggestion of an alliance.

  “Let us not waste any time.” Ataimînas made a sign and a hitherto hidden door in the wooden panelling opened to admit two elves.

  They brought parchment and quill; the contract had already been drawn up and only the mutually acceptable details on price and volume needed to be inserted before both parties signed.

  Raikan was aware that he was overstepping his authority here, as his brother had not yet abdicated, but he felt this was an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Tabaîn’s future was at stake.

  “Many thanks,” he said to the elf, as he was handed the completed agreement. “Might I use the occasion to …”

  “Then that business is settled.” Ataimînas looked pleased. “Now let us talk about something else: land.”

  The royal heir was taken by surprise. “I don’t understand. Did you want to purchase the fields for your own type of crop …?”

  “The elf realm in which you and your friends currently find yourselves is to be merged with the other two. We are buying up the land that falls between the regions.” Reaching behind him, Ataimînas drew out a map and unrolled it. The new borders were already marked. “We wish to acquire the part of Tabaîn that lies to the north of landur and goes up to the mountains. The land does not strictly lie between our realms but it would complete our territory to perfection.”

  Raikan realised that the elf was not expecting any objections. This was inevitably going to cause problems. An alliance with the elf kingdom ceased to be a suitable proposition: instead of security, it would only bring dispute. It seemed to Raikan that he had made the whole journey in vain. “I expect you will put this idea to the Council of Kings? Queen Mallenia would be most affected by your plan.”

  “That is so. I fear there will be petty objections. She has a relationship, of course, with the King of Urgon, which makes her a double monarch. This could mean there would be three votes against me.” Ataimînas looked Raikan up and down. “You will be taking my side, I hope.”

  Now the young man understood why the grain price had been set so generously. “I will have to speak to my brother about this.” Raikan tried to avoid a direct answer. “This is a matter of far greater implication than the decision concerning grain supply.” Tenkil’s suspicions appeared to be well-founded. The next war was waiting in the wings, only one cycle after the liberation.

  The elf’s smile was non-committal; gold and silver light was reflected on his handsome face. “Yes, do that, Raikan Fieldwood. I’m sure you will convince him. Who would not want to have the Naishïon as a friend?”

  Raikan recalled that Ataimînas had used this term earlier in their talks. “Forgive my ignorance, but for the last two hundred and fifty cycles there was no contact between our peoples. This title means …?”

  “It would translate in your language as ruler with unlimited powers.” The elf’s manner continued to be friendly. “Ruler over my own people, of course. Not over Girdlegard,” he added with a mischievous smile. “We wouldn’t want any misunderstandings.”

  “Of course not.” Raikan was glad that Tenkil was outside with the horses. His warrior would have launched immediately into an argument. There was a lot to consider on the journey home. An alliance would have to be thought about very carefully.

  “Have you heard about the child they found in the Grey Mountains?” Raikan asked, in an attempt to change the subject.

  “The young girl?” Ataimînas became tight-lipped; he stretched and leaned back slightly. “If you ask me, I’d say Belogar Strifehammer should have killed her. The dwarf and I are of one mind here. I fear, as does he, that the child will prove to be anything but a blessing for our shared homeland.”

  He’ll have to explain what he means. Raikan was about to put forth another question when suddenly a loud shout was heard outside. A whoosh of arrows was followed by further shouts and the whinnying of terrified horses.

  The man soon to be king of Tabaîn jumped to his feet, followed by Lilia and Irtan—but like him, they collapsed back onto the rush mats immediately. The circulation in their lower limbs had been badly affected by the unusual kneeling posture they had felt obliged to adopt. Sitting back on their heels like the elf meant that they had no feeling in their legs; they were essentially paralysed from the knees down. They lay there helpless: easy victims.

  “Tenkil!” Raikan looked over to the closed door, then turned to face the elf ruler.

  But Ataimînas was no longer there.

  And so the times changed in Girdlegard.

  From älfar hero to captive of the rulers and finally to being lapdog of the powerful—or so it seemed.

  But my time will come, it will return.

  For that is what I have learned from time.

  Secret notes for

  The Writings of Truth

  written under duress by Carmondai



  United Kingdom of Gauragar-Idoslane


  6492nd solar cycle, early summer

  “How quickly things change,” Boïndil “Ireheart” Doubleblade of the clan of the Axe Swingers muttered into his splendid, carefully combed, black and silver beard.

  Armoured, armed, and mounted on a black and white p
ony, he was riding into the little town of Freestone, where a cruel massacre had taken place less than two cycles previously. The älfar had taken a fancy to the bones of the local population and had driven the townspeople into the market square and killed them all. They had then used the bones they found suitable for their artworks.

  The town had bled to death that day, but with the destruction of the black-eyes, the settlement had re-emerged as a source of life. The King of the Secondlings, and very recently also titled High King of all the Dwarf Tribes, proceeded slowly through the town’s busy streets.

  It was mostly young people who had come to settle here in the deserted houses. The fields were being cultivated again and had the makings of a rich harvest; the orchards promised a wonderful crop of fruit. The town was flourishing after decades of terror and darkness.

  Ireheart was meeting with the Council of Kings here in the town that had come to stand for the transformation of Girdlegard and the dawn of a new age. The elf Ilahín was also expected at the talks.

  Half a cycle had passed since the last meeting and the ruler of all the Children of the Smith reckoned it was high time everyone got together and exchanged views. It was one thing sending messages, but nothing could replace a face-to-face discussion.

  There were things that needed saying. Preferably over a tankard of black beer. He turned his pony off the road and through an entrance over which the banners of all the kingdoms fluttered. The name on the sign read proudly House of Heroes.

  The sound of hooves clattering over the cobbles was magnified by the half-timbered walls of the inn yard.

  Two human soldiers standing just inside the entrance noted the dwarf’s emblem and saluted with their spears. The one on the right yelled out the name of the new arrival to inform those within.

  “Is that really necessary?” Ireheart grumbled. “Shouting right in my ear? Noiser here than on all the battlefields I’ve fought on. Enough to make a dwarf go deaf.” The soldier gave a shamefaced grin but did not dare respond.

  The dwarf slid from the saddle in front of the barn, had a good stretch and patted the pony. “You’ve done me proud. But I still don’t like riding.”

  Ireheart had decided not to come with a retinue. An experienced warrior like himself had no need of an escort; they just held you back. The journey from his kingdom in the Blue Mountains had been a long one but a single rider will always find fodder and stabling for the night as well as a good meal, black beer and a bed.

  Ireheart tossed his black and silver plait back over his shoulder and reached for the crow’s beak hammer that was fastened to the saddle. At that moment, the inn door flew open.

  Out came Rodario the Incomparable, Urgon’s king, new to the status of ruler. He was the descendant of the original and greatest actor in the land. He wore a dazzling white robe with brightly embroidered motifs and a black belt; draped round his shoulders hung a brown shawl with pictures of mountains stitched in green. His aristocratic features were enhanced by a short pointed beard and an audacious moustache and he wore his well-groomed brown hair in curls.

  “O most glorious among the glorious,” he called out in an exaggerated manner, spreading his arms wide in welcome. “Behold, here he is, small of stature but with the heart of a giant …”

  Ireheart looked him up and down. “What in the devil are you wearing?” He yanked the crow’s beak out of its fixture and shouldered it with a grin, the rings on his chainmail clinking as he did so. “A dressing gown?”

  “This, you ignoramus, is the height of fashion in my country.” Rodario, king of Urgon and lover to both Mallenia and Coïra, twirled around theatrically, letting the skirts of the garment fly out. “It’s my own design.”

  “Ho, has it slipped your mind? You’re not on the stage any more. You sit on a real throne and you’re supposed to be a ruler, not just play the part of one.” Ireheart stroked his beard. “And you’ve put on weight. They’ll have to make the throne wider.”

  “There we have it, politeness personified in a dwarf.” Rodario put his hands on his hips and laughed. “What a fine exchange of pleasantries!”

  “You called me small of stature, didn’t you? You were asking for it.” Ireheart went up to the one-time actor and held out his hand in greeting. “But I’m still glad to see you, King Rodario the First.”

  As their fingers touched, the man inclined his head, free now of any teasing expression. “An honour to welcome you, my friend, High King Boïndil.”

  Smiling at each other, they clasped hands warmly and then went inside together.

  “When did you stop shaving the sides of your head? You look different.”

  “There was never any time.” Ireheart did not indulge him. He’s an actor and he’ll always be one. I’m not here to chat about hairstyles.

  The high-ceilinged hall had been decorated to host the coming meeting of the Kings’ Council and black-haired Ilahín stood waiting. He was wearing a garment like Rodario’s, but the white was less dazzling and without ornamental embroidery. Ireheart thought the elf looked much more dignified than Urgon’s king.

  Armed guards wearing the colours of the various rulers stood in the corners of the room. They were equipped with short shields and short swords; their task, to work together to protect the lives of the monarchs.

  The innkeeper and his servants had gone to a great deal of effort and had even hung floral garlands at the windows; the whole place smelled faintly of the sugar soap used to scrub the floor. Add to the mix the fragrance of roasting meat—food was being provided—and the atmosphere was welcoming.

  Ilahín nodded to the newcomer. “Greetings, High King. It is good to see that you have arrived safely.”

  Mallenia, in heavy armour as always, was already seated at the table studying news bulletins; she was concentrating so hard that she did not notice Ireheart come in. Rodario went over to interrupt her but the dwarf held him back. “Time enough for that. Let her finish reading.”

  Ireheart was handed a pitcher made of carved tusk ivory. He raised the black beer in toast to the assembled heads of state, all without removing his crow’s beak from his shoulder. “To Vraccas and the Council of Kings. May the road home be less dusty.”

  He emptied the tankard in one go and called for the next, which Rodario obviously noted.

  “Now then, Actor; we’ve got one of your women sat over there. Where’s the other one?”

  Mallenia’s blonde head jerked up from her papers, her eyes narrowing.

  “Don’t make me think your mind has suffered from your many battles,” she said with a spiteful smile.

  Ireheart swapped the empty mug for a full one. “Am I wrong?”

  He gazed at Ilahín with innocent eyes. “Tell me I didn’t say anything wrong?” He pointed his tankard at Rodario, slopping a little foam over the top as he did so. “He won’t dare to. Her sword is bigger than his.”

  The elf tried hard not to laugh.

  Voices from the gate announced the arrival of Sangpûr’s Queen Astirma and of King Natenian of Tabaîn. From the sound of hooves it seemed both of them had come with large retinues.

  “Wonderful! Let’s go and greet them.” Rodario was visibly relieved. He left the room.

  What a little coward. Ireheart laughed into his beer. “So the only ones missing now are Coïra and Isikor from Rân Ribastur.”

  Ilahín shook his head. “The maga won’t be coming. She’s sent me a sealed letter giving her point of view in her own words.”

  “Aha,” said the dwarf and went over to his seat at table. The banner of the High King hanging from the balcony above made it obvious where he was intended to sit. Ireheart put his crow’s beak aside now and the heavy iron weapon with its curved prong crashed on to the floorboards. “So why’s she not coming?”

  The elf took his seat next to Ireheart. “She wants to continue investigating whether there are other magic sources. She has discovered our own has failed.”

  Ireheart raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Dried up?
” That gave him enough of a shock to require more beer.

  That meant the only known and accessible source was in his own realm, the Blue Mountains. It was guarded by his wife Goda and their three children.

  He was worried less about security than about how difficult it would be for Coïra to get the energy she needed to draw on for her magic. Less of a problem in times of peace than it had been when Girdlegard was threatened with attack.

  “There’ll be new ones. There always have been,” said Ireheart, to reassure both of them.

  Ilahín did not seem troubled. “It is better this way. Anything that’s been under älfar influence for such a long time may have changed nature. That’s why Coïra is keen to find a new, pure source of previously untouched energy. Sitalia will help us find one.”

  “True. Let’s put our trust in your goddess. Vraccas wouldn’t be any good. He hates magic.”

  Queen Astirma and King Natenian came in, accompanied by Rodario and a number of guards and a few courtiers.

  The queen was still quite young even by human reckoning, and her tanned skin and bleached hair showed she spent much time in the open air in the desert. She wore the lightest of clothing with a transparent cloak of woven silk over the top.

  Brown-haired Natenian, whose sweeping robe, the colour of corn, hid his fragile frame, had to be led in. He had difficulty staying upright in spite of his stick and the people guiding him. The man was coughing and spluttering and dragging his right foot, although he was hardly older than Astirma. It was no surprise to Ireheart that the king intended to abdicate in favour of his younger, healthier brother.

  Mallenia collected her papers together and nodded to the new arrivals as if they were soldiers checking in for a campaign briefing. She had never been one for elaborate etiquette rituals among equals, as Ireheart recalled. One of her better points.

  “We can make a start. Isikor has sent a message,” she said, showing a letter hung with several seals to demonstrate its authenticity. “He writes that the weather prevents him from attending in person but says his vote, where needed, should go with the majority opinion. Always for the benefit of Girdlegard.”