The Hateful Wars: Chapter Six
“Here we are,” Bagbag stated matter-of-fact as he and Kristryd and all their retinue crossed over the stone-arch bridge that spanned the splashing Handmaiden. “I’ve not set foot in this place since before you were born, but nothing has changed,” the old wizard observed. He punctuated the observation with a snort and a wrinkling of the nose to indicate his distaste. Still he straightened his sorcerous hat and smoothed his coat as if to make himself more presentable. Indeed, Bagbag knew that many eyes were now fixed upon their small party, even if those watching remained unseen. The heavy-laden mountain dwarves glanced about fearfully, uncertain of their safety amidst so much fey devilshine. They drew together in a tight clutch and kept their weapons at the ready.
Ignoring the apprehensions of her afterlings, Kristryd breathed deeply to take in the rich scents of the kingdom. Wood smoke from bakers’ ovens carried the sweet and nutty aroma of elf bread on the morning chill. Frankincense, myrrh, and the fragrance of flowers mingled with the peaty scent of the fallen roanwood leaves that carpeted the ground beneath her feet. The princess cocked her head to better fill her ears with the morning music. The occasional piping of unseen pipers, the gentle strings of lute and dulcimer, and the melodic chirp and trill of songbirds all blended together as if in chorus. In the distance, almost imperceptible, the rising and falling of perfect crystal voices, locked in ethereal harmonies, never ceased. Her eyes too took their fill of delights. The perfect architecture, naturally integrated into the roanwood-covered slopes of the foothills, making it appear as if no one lived there at all. She searched all around for some solid pattern to make sense of the city’s layout, but the whole of it seemed as random as the forest floor. Yet, somehow, she sensed symmetry like the petals of a flower.
Once upon a time, the fair city of Enstad was the center of a great elven kingdom that stretched through all the central Flanaess. Only a small slice of that august realm remained preserved here in the wooded land of Celene. Enstad was of such construction and design that one might pass through it without recognizing it for a city. Those who did see past the illusions (which draped it as a heavy veil conceals the face) saw ancient stonework and rare construction built within concentric rings of walls, surmounted by fairy spires. Inside the city’s confines, the elves perched their homes in the high branches of the trees, balanced upon platforms called flets, mostly concealed from the ground. Pleasant homes and cottages, here and there beneath the flets, looked to be part of the natural forest floor, camouflaged among mossy rocks and great logs of fallen trunks. Illusions often draped larger structures to make them appear as if they were not more than a vine-covered gateway into a rock wall or grassy hillside. Most of the city remained open to the sky, without buildings or houses, for most elves took no permanent shelter at all, preferring to spend the nights wandering beneath the stars or gathered around a common fire.
As the small party of dwarves drew closer to the Grand Court and the White Tower, a stately and elegant maiden came out to meet them. She curtsied before Kristryd, and introduced herself, “I am Almerayne, handmaiden of her Fey Majesty.” Kristryd thought Almerayne, with her long auburn tresses, braided with lilies, to be the fairest creature she had ever seen. “The queen will receive you, my lady, in the Grand Court. I am to escort you there.”
Almerayne brought the princess beneath the White Tower and into the Palace of the Faerie Queen, but old Bagbag was not allowed to enter, nor was any member Kristryd’s retinue or bodyguard. The elves have little love for dwarves, and to many of the high elves, the presence of a dwarf in the elven court is an offense. Kristryd eyed the gold-chased silver domes and spires with respect, recognizing craftsmanship to rival her own kinsfolk. She entered the hall of the Grand Court with fanfare and all diplomatic courtesy and looked about her in amazement. Members of the high court of Celene stood at attention on all sides, clad in flowing robes and purfled in sparkling Lortmil gems. Kristryd herself wore her mithril-threaded tabard and a tiara of Dengar upon her head. A life at court had accustomed her to pomp and circumstance; all her life she had lived in palaces and moved among the nobility, but Enstad surpassed all others for beauty and elegance.
Am I inside or outside, in a garden or a hall? Kristryd asked herself.
The Hall of the Grand Court, within the walls of the Palace of the Faerie Queen, followed the same aesthetic principle as the rest of the capital. Unlike the ornate cut stones of Gyrax or the carved arches beneath the mountains or the gaudy opulence of Niole Dra, the Grand Court seemed to have grown from the trees, open to the vaulting sky, neither indoors nor out of doors. The polished Lortmil marble floor (quarried from the Duchy) reflected the sky above like a silver mirror, like a looking glass, like the surface of calm water. Plants and flowers bloomed everywhere, filling the air with intoxicating fragrance. Living fountains played over rocks and marvelous sculptures. Exotic songbirds croodled melodiously.
Whatever the magnificence of the hall, and whatever the beauty of Maid Almerayne, it all dimmed in comparison to the perfect beauty of the queen. Yolande rose from among the blossoms and leaves of the polished gnarlwood throne and extended her scepter to the dwarven ambassador. At the queen’s side stood an elder olven mage who, in his own way, reminded Kristryd of her trueheaded adviser Bagbag. So even the queen of the elves keeps a wise mage at her side, Kristryd thought to herself .
The queen spoke in a voice deep and cool like water in hidden mountain pools, “You are welcome here Olinsdotter, ally and Friend’s Daughter. Not long ago, your father received my own ambassadors, though I think he liked not their words. Ever the loyal friend to Keoland, he was not easily bent to join my cause.”
“Now my father begs her Fey Majesty return the favor,” Kristryd knelt before the queen. “Join our cause against the goblinkind who infest these mountains. Lend us your spearmen, swordsmen, bowmen, and knights to purge all evil from the Lortmil Lands.”
“Purge all evil?” the queen laughed, dismissing the notion. “And who then shall purge the purgers? Here in Celene, we walk the path of Balance. Were not the euroz and jebli in these mountains long before the dwur folk dug their mines? Was not Grot-Ugrot a holy place to their kind from before the age of men?”
“Your Majesty,” the old mage at her side interrupted the queen. “It would not be politic to refuse the overture outright. But let us send to the bearded ones a few companies of archers and spearmen, such as might be necessary, lest we give offense.”
“Your Majesty,” Kristryd objected, “Not for the dwarves, but for an alliance of dwarf and man and gnome and halfling and elf. Have not the high elves of Ulek cast their allegiance with us already, every one of them loyal to the Light? Even your noble cousin, the Duke Gallowagn, has promised his troth. So too your kinfolk from Silverwood. They send their sons into danger. And what of the little peoples of Prinzfield and the woodsmen of Courwood and the gnomes of Treehome? Shall they be sacrificed for Balance?”
Now the queen’s gentle smile faded from her lips, and it seemed to Kristryd like sunlight fading behind grey clouds. “Walk with me,” the queen commanded.
She stood and extended her hand. Kristryd took the Perfect Flower’s hand, rose to her feet, and followed Her Fey Majesty into a nearby garden of fragrant spices. As they passed out of the hearing of the others, Queen Yolande spoke in a tone confidential and gentle, “I remember when your mother came to us Olinsdotter. My mother, Her Fey Majesty the Queen Astaranthe, gave your mother a powerful blessing. If she had kept that boon for herself, there might have been a second daughter for my mother and a sister for me. I was jealous.”
“We are grateful for the kindness of the elves,” Kristryd said awkwardly, unsure of how to reply to such a confession.
Yolande smiled warmly. With her smile, the summer sun suddenly shone through the leaves and danced upon the rippling waters of the Handmaiden River. “My diviners say that fate favors you,” the Fey Queen said. “I am glad that you have come.”
“Your majesty flatters me,” Kristryd stammered, blushing despite herself. She felt awkward as a schoolgirl mooning over a handsome young dwarf. “I have been sent by the dwur lords of the mountain kingdoms. I only seek an alliance between our peoples for the sake of opening the passes and cleansing the mountains.”
“I have seen more centuries than you my daughter and have perhaps acquired more wisdom,” Yolande cautioned. “I have never seen an alliance of our peoples that did not quickly sour.”
“We dwarves have a saying,” Kristryd replied, “‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend.’”
The queen favored Kristryd with half a smile, and they walked on a while in contemplative silence. They passed by a hidden pool of crystal waters guarded by giggling nymphs. Kristryd averted her eyes and looked down at her feet.
“Tell me daughter,” the Fey Queen sighed. “Have you ever heard the legend of Esmerin?”
“Yes, your majesty,” the dwur ambassador replied thoughtfully, “It is a children’s tale of a mythical kingdom, a hidden land, where halflings and stone giants dwell in peace together.”
“Yes,” the queen laughed—a sound that reminded Kristryd of water splashing over stones. “Surely a fonkin’s myth,” the queen agreed mirthfully, “For how could it be that such extreme opposites should dwell together peaceably? Imagine the short ones riding on the shoulders of giants! The clever with the slow-witted!”
Kristryd frowned at this. Does the queen mock me and my people? Pulling herself up to her full dignity, the dwarf princess glared into the queen’s beautiful lilac-colored eyes and objected, “We dwur-folk are neither slow-witted like giants nor do we seek to ride upon the shoulders of the elves. We only ask you to join us in clearing the roads we mutually share and in defending the helpless.”
The queen smiled, “You misunderstand my words and mistake my meaning.”
Princess of Bellmeadow and the Lion Throne
Kristryd had been the obvious candidate to make the embassy to the elves. Among all the folk of Dengar, only she and Bagbag knew the tongue of the elves, and only she and Bagbag could claim to have had previous dealings with elves.
Half a century earlier, when the kingdom of Keoland asserted itself with imperialist ambitions, her Fey Majesty Astaranthe spoke boldly about what must be done to preserve Celene and the lands of Lothromenoron. Then she relinquished the Blossoming throne and sailed for Lendore.
The Grand Court of Celene assembled at Enstad to decide between the contending heirs. They chose Astaranthe’s daughter the Princess Yolande of Bellmeadow, a fey wizard and accomplished warrior, to lead them in the conflict against Keoland. Yolande reached out to Ulek provinces and formed a coalition to stand against Keoish aggression and tyranny. She raised an army of elven warriors and placed it under the command of her consort, the noble warrior Triserron.
Triserron took to the field and, in a series of short engagements, forcibly expelled the garrisons of Keoland from the east side of the mountains and pursued them through the mountain passes. With the cooperation of the Ulek lands, Triserron drove the men of Keoland back across the Kewl.
Princess Yolande prepared the coalition for a reprisal and bitter war with Keoland, but the reprisal never came. Instead, Keoland withdrew their claims and acknowledged the sovereignty of Celene and the Ulek states. In celebration of her sweeping victory, the Grand Court elevated the princess to the title of queen over the realm making her simultaneously the first queen of the newly independent nation of Celene and the sixteenth queen in the hereditary line of that dynasty of the Grey Elves.
These dramatic events transpired while Kristryd remained isolated in Dengar. They were recent history indeed when she arrived at Enstad on embassy for her father’s alliance and on behalf of the undermountain kings.
Elves are never in a hurry, and they seem to delight in trying the patience of shorter-lived peoples. Yolande took several weeks to reach a decision during which she frequently summoned the dwur ambassador for further consultation. During those weeks, Kristryd divided her time between wandering the groves of Enstad, taking in the delights of Celene, and enjoying long conversations with Her Fey Majesty. She did not realize how unusual it was to be so-favored by the queen, so she thought less of it than she might have if she had known how many ambassadors never received audience at all. The queen walked daily with Kristryd through the gardens of Enstad, plying her with questions about all things dwarfish, about Keoland and Niole Dra, about her father’s realm and the Ulek Alliance, about Dengar, Gilmorack, the death of her husband, the welfare of her three sons, and whatever else came to mind. It seemed to Kristryd as if the queen would thoroughly know all things about her but reveal little of herself.
The elven mage, Onselvon, once remarked, “Never has her majesty the queen shown as much favor to one of another race as she has for you Olinsdotter. Truly you have been set apart among your people.”
Bagbag also remarked, “You have done well my daughter. You have captured the queen’s heart and sealed the alliance for us.”
On a whim, Kristryd once asked the queen to look at her silver-framed mirror and see if she might instruct her in its magic. Yolande recognized the mirror at once. “The craftsmanship is noniz, but the magic within it was written by my kinsmen in Lothromenoron. To make the magic work, you must do as the inscription says: ‘Look into me and see what other eyes can see.’”
“I know what it says, but what does it mean?” Kristryd pressed.
“The mirror can only show you what another sees, while he sees it. The magic will work only so long as you truly look through the other’s eyes,” the queen explained.
“Your explanation is not less cryptic than the riddle itself,” Kristryd complained.
“It’s not a riddle,” the queen said. “It is empathy. The foundation of love and all that is good. You must truly look through the other’s eyes, not from the outside, but from the inside. Try it on me. Imagine that you are me, looking at you. See what I see, how I see it.”
Kristryd looked into the mirror, trying to imagine that she was the fey queen looking through the fey queen’s beautiful lilac-colored eyes. At first she saw only her own reflection as she might expect, but slowly the mirror clouded and the perspective changed. As if she peered through Yolande’s eyes, she could see herself holding the mirror and gazing into it. She looked not as she imagined herself, neither as pretty as she would have hoped nor as stately. The noble princess of the Lortmil Mountains, proud mother of three royal sons, prestigious ambassador of the Ulek Alliance looked like a dwarven child, like a schoolgirl, like a little girl playing at being grown up, fairer than most dwarves by the queen’s standards, but merely a dwarf. Kristryd put away the mirror and complained, “Such condescension!”
“You see. That’s how the mirror works,” Yolande said with even tone, unmoved by Kristryd’s wounded ego. “You saw through my eyes. But surely the reflection in the mirror also reveals that I count you as a friend.”
“Am I now able to peer through your eyes whenever I will,” Kristryd asked as she wrapped the velvet cloth around the magical item.
“No. Not through my eyes. I allowed it this once for a school lesson, but an elf learns to shield herself from scrying.”
“Then I have no choice but to remain in Enstad until her majesty reveals her decision.”
Notes: The queen’s handmaiden, Almerayne, is introduced in Christian J. Alipounarian, “Return to the Undercity,” (Wizards of the Coast: Living Greyhawk COR5-12). The story of Queen Astaranthe’s abdication and succession is told in “Celene,” Bill’s World of Greyhawk online at http://billg350.tripod.com/celene.htm.
Artwork: The Fey Queen by Aharon.
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