The Hateful Wars: Chapter Seven
The wind in her face stole away her breath. Kristryd plummeted, freefalling through darkness. Dizzy with terror, she felt her stomach lurch as she dropped from some great height. From where have I have a fallen? she wondered. She could not remember. The melodious call of a horn came to her, faintly, as if carried on the wind from a great distance. The sound of it pulled her from the dream and roused her before she struck the ground. She woke abruptly, gasping for breath.
A Horn in the Night
Only the light of the handmaiden moon and the starry sky shone through the open window, but dwarves have keen eyes, and they can see in the dark as well as most peoples can see by light of a lamp. Kristryd looked about the small cottage. Nothing amiss. In the other room of the cosh, she could hear trueheaded Bagbag snoring heavily. Did I hear the call of a horn or was that the dream? she asked herself. Or was it just old Bagbag’s snores? As if in reply to the unspoken queries, she heard again the blare of a resonant horn calling in the woods–and merry glad voices too. The horn this time sounded nearer. She rose from her bed in the guest-cosh and gazed through the small open window. Most of the night had already passed. The grove shone dimly under the pale light of Celene. A fine fragrance of cool mountain air chased the sleep from her head and seemed to beck her into the night. After such a frightening dream, she had no aim to return to her sleep. So long as I am already awake, why shouldn’t I walk a bit under light of the moon? she asked herself. She pulled on her soft boots, wrapped herself in a shawl, and went out into the night.
She had not strayed far when she heard again the sound of a horn and the song of laughing voices. As if entranced, she turned in the direction of those voices and made her way among the trunks and shadows of tall roans. Her feet led her up a steep, winding path. The pathway seemed alight with a shimmer of its own. She climbed an ascent until she came to a flat and level clearing nestled among the broad crowns of surrounding roanwood trees. From the opposite side of the clearing came a procession of grey elves clad in silver robes. They carried finely crafted and carved lanterns shining with golden light. The queen herself walked in their midst, resplendent with starlight.
Abruptly a flock of half a dozen flying steeds dropped into the clearing, one after another, gently lighting down on talons and hooves. Kristryd squinted and blinked in amazement, for these were such creatures as she had never seen but only read of in books of zoology at the great library in Niole Dra. The front of the creature appeared as an eagle of immense size, and yet the hindquarters took the form of a horse. Shining flanchards and shaffrons armored the beasts, and their chamframs bore the emblem of Celene. As each beast settled onto the turf, trotting a few paces as it landed, it folded back its great wings, revealing an elven soldier in polished mail mounted astride a saddle on the horse-like back. One of the warriors lifted a horn to his lips and winded it—the same magical sound which had stirred Kristryd from her sleep. The leader of the troop, a tall high elf, removed his helm to reveal long tumbling golden tresses and a face of delicate, almost effeminate, handsome features. That is a beautiful elf! Kristryd observed, privately blushing at her own childishness. The beautiful elf dismounted from the back of his griff and took up the queen into his arms. Yolande melted into the embrace. Kristryd watched, mesmerized, as if she saw a fairytale played out before eyes, and indeed, she did. The other riders, soldiers of the queen’s elite cavalry, averted their gaze, and all the queen’s retinue also lowered their eyes for modesty’s sake. So that’s the Prince Consort Triserron! Kristryd said to herself. A small stab of jealousy pricked her heart.
A century and more before Queen Yolande accepted her appointment to the Blossoming Throne, the lilac-eyed young bellbon strapped a flatchet belt about her waste, wrapped a travelling cloak around her shoulders, and went out into the world. “I go to see the great forests, broad plains, and wave-washed shores of the Flanaess,” she declared. She wandered far from her mother’s domains and from the house of Bellmeadow. In the guise of an adventurer and traveler, she passed from Celene to taste of the wide Oerth.
Yolande went first to her kinsfolk. Through many perils she traveled to her cousins that dwelt in Rieuwood and Sunndi. She remained among them half century, learning poetry and politics and the taste of Sunndish lilac wine. Taking her leave of those fair folk, the lilac-eyed young maid crossed to Highfolk and the Vesve Forest where she learned the arts of war and strategy. For two decades she hunted with the rangers of the Gnarley, learning the art of the tracker and the life at camp. After these adventures and more like unto them, she returned to Celene powerful in spells and well-schooled in weapon craft.
Such was the spell of her blossoming beauty that, on her return to Celene, a college of bards dedicated themselves to composing hymns and odes to her name. Moreover, a school of mally suitors followed her about and dueled among themselves for the privilege to court her. Yet more still, a small farnet of pixies followed after her, coaxing flowers to spring up where the soles of her naked feet had tread upon the soil. When Yolande observed how her radiance discomfited them all, she concealed herself beneath a flackard and heavy shawl and only bared her face within the walls of the Faerie Palace and among her own kin in the halls of Bellmeadow.
Despite all these lavish attentions, the Prince Triserron showed himself indifferent to her presence. An adviser to the Blossoming Throne and hero of the realm, the prince frequented Faerie Palace to discuss matters of state and politics with her Fey Majesty Queen Astaranthe, but he never paid the least attention to the Perfect Flower. More than a century and a half her senior, he scarcely considered her a fully-grown elf maid. His indifference set Yolande ablaze, and she plied her best arts and wiles to snare his heart to no avail. He paid her no mind whatsoever. The greater her effort to catch his eye, the less he seemed to notice her.
At a midsummer ball of the Grand Court, in the presence of all, Yolande discarded propriety and bade Triserron dance with her. He could scarce refuse the invitation under such circumstance. The prince obliged the queen’s daughter and led her by the music beneath the moons all that night and until the moons had set and the sun brightened the east. Despite the midsummer magic, he neither swooned over her nor did he genuflect before her. He did not call upon her afterwards, smitten as she expected. His indifference ate at the heart of the fairy princess until she took it for insult and sent him an anonymous challenge to duel with swords over the honor of the queen’s daughter.
Triserron agreed to the duel reluctantly. He did not know the challenger, but he could not refuse the challenge issued under such circumstance as it was. He expected nothing more than to face a green champion, some lovesick suitor jealous over the midsummer dance. Triserron supposed he would clear his name of any wrong-doing, defend the honor of the queen’s daughter, and teach some young elf lad a lesson in swordsmanship. Imagine his surprise when, on the greenfield outside Meadhall, he encountered the Perfect Flower herself with a flatchet strapped to a belt that hung about her slender waist.
Triserron recovered himself quickly, put up his sword, and met steel with the clash of steel. All day, through the night, and all of a second day, the long blades of Yolande and Triserron clashed and rang. A crowd aimcriers gathered around to witness the battle. The contenders dazzled the onlookers with dangerous flourishes and the close conversation of thrusts and parries, feints and strikes. The queen’s subjects loyally cheered for the princess and dutifully jeered the prince, but Triserron took none of it ill. He feigned defeat and let Yolande best him, calling for a barlafumble, but she slapped his face and swore at him, “Tethrin pierce you! Defend yourself or I send you to the halls of the Seldarine.” The sun set, and the battle continued beneath the moons all that night and until they had set and the sun brightened the east. After three days and two nights of it, both prince and princess fell away from one another, exhausted by the fight. Ever after, they never parted until the priest of Hanali solemnized their union.
Kristryd pressed her mission for the Ulek Alliance and did not cease her attempts at persuasion until the queen gave her an answer. The Blossoming Throne cautiously agreed to join Prince Corond’s alliance, casting her lot with the Ulek States, the Kron Hill gnomes, Veluna, and the undermountain kings of Dengar and Gilmorak.
Kristryd brought the glad news of her success back to the cosh where she and Bagbag lodged in Enstad. Bagbag clapped his hands together at the news, then asked, “And what of the war plans against the hobgoblin lords at Grot-Ugrat? Do the elves agree to join your father?”
“Nay,” Kristryd admitted. “The queen agreed to no specific action at all, but only to the principle.”
“At least that is something,” Bagbag conceded, his enthusiasm undampened. “Moradin’s Hammer! You have done well Olinsdotter.”
Kristryd and Bagbag returned to Dengar to report their success. For some time, the loose alliance sufficed to police the mountain passes and keep the goblins in check, but cooperation of nations and coordination of forces fell victim to mistrust and antipathy between the races. The entire coalition faltered when the elves suggested that the undermountain kings should fund the building and maintenance of keeps, outposts, and garrisons to protect the overland passes. “The Fey Court of Yolande is more interested in planning festivals than guard schedules!” Bagbag sniffed in disgust. “We waste our efforts squabbling over guard posts and garrisons when we should be taking the fight to the dens of the vermin!”
Some short time later, the alliance teetered on the brink of complete disaster and nearly collapsed under the weight of a grievous insult. The crisis ensued when a party of young hunters from Dengar pursued a raiding party of orcs up onto the surface and down into the Hidden Pass. The orcs shook their pursuers, leaving the wary mountain dwarves wandering and lost among the illusions of the foggy canyon. When they strayed too close to the forbidden city of Enstad, a patrol apprehended the war party and, to teach them a lesson, shaved their beards and sent them back the direction from whence they came. Word of the insult reached the dwarven citadels, and both the undermountain kings called for war, intending to march upon Celene and sack Enstad.
Prince Olinstaad Corond saw his alliance teetering and about to unravel. He sent his daughter back, once again, on an emergency embassy to Enstad to diffuse the situation before it exploded into war. Kristryd and Bagbag hurried to Celene by the fastest routes under grant of diplomatic priority. As they traveled the distance, a dwarven host from Gilmorack mustered and descended into Veluna while another host set out from Dengar and descended into the Ulek Pass.
The fey queen received her dwur friend gladly. Contrary to expectation, Queen Yolande issued an unreserved apology on behalf of her kingdom, written in her own hand and stamped with her own seal. In addition, the elves offered up geld of one bulse of diamonds and gold for each beard they had shaven. Kristryd sent the queen’s apology and the geld by swift messenger to her father-in-law, the undermountain king Thane Evrast. The weight of the bribe and the humility of the apology restored diplomatic relations just in time to prevent a disastrous war. Nevertheless, frosty sentiments between the elves and dwarves kept tensions high. Those tensions compelled Kristryd to remain in Enstad representing the dwarven kingdoms until warmer relationships might be restored.
With the hope of restoring goodwill between their peoples, Kristryd and the queen resumed their daily walks through the gardens of Enstad.
“Before you came here,” the queen said with a look of mischief in her lilac eyes, “I thought all dwarves the same: greedy, pugnacious, stubborn, and petty. You have stretched my measure of your race.”
“Her Fey Majesty flatters me and insults me in the same breath,” Kristryd retaliated, perhaps sharper than she intended. “Before I came here, I thought elves pompous and full of themselves.”
“And now?” the queen asked.
“And now I know it to be true,” Kristryd stated emphatically.
“You are not wrong,” Yolande smiled. “But you are not so different from me as you think. I see within you a spirit from the halls of the Seldarine. How it came to be trapped in the body of a dwarf—for that my mother will have to answer.”
Kristryd shook her head, “Nay your majesty. I live among my people, a dwarfess, the daughter of dwur.”
“That you are,” the queen agreed. “But did you know that when an elf perishes from this world, the spirit of the elf returns again to be reborn?”
“Our priests scoff at such superstitions,” Kristryd admitted. “The souls of dwarves are gathered to the halls of Dumathoin, and the souls of our warriors to the mountain of Clanggedin.”
“From where do you say that your souls come?” the queen asked.
“Our god, the Father of the Dwarves,” Kristryd explained, “Fashioned us secretly of iron and mithral upon the Soul Forge. He heated the first of our kin in the fires that burn at the heart of the world. He shaped every dwarf according to his desire and made us his sons and daughters.”
“Go on. Say more,” the queen sounded curious.
“I’m not a priest nor a loremaster like Bagbag,” Kristryd demurred. “They say Moradin forged Durin and his sons long before there were yet elves and men, before gnomes and halflings. No other god knew of the deed, none suspected what Moradin had done. When the other gods learned of it, they protested, and they demanded that Moradin should destroy us. But he hid us away until the time we should emerge in Oerth.”
“You say he forged you like a smith forges the shoe of a horse?” Yolande laughed. Her irreverence irritated Kristryd.
“As he draws each form out from the furnace, he holds him aloft in his tongs, and he blows upon the molten form to cool it. With the breath of Moradin, the soul of life enters the dwarf. Then Berronar nurtures us and sends us to the womb.”
“And this is what the dwarves truly believe!” the queen mused. “Many are the differences that divide our people. But tell me, would a dwarven queen hold the same sway over her people as I hold over mine?”
“Nay your majesty,” Kristryd admitted, “A she-dwarf rules only if her husband rules, and only so far as he allows. I am the eldest child of my father’s house, but my brothers will take his throne after him and all the inheritance too. Though I married the eldest son of the thane of Dengar, my husband’s younger brother will take that throne, and there shall be nothing for either me or for my sons. A dwarfess is only so strong as the dwarf to whom she is wed, and as he falls, so does she.”
“No so for the elves. Despite what differences distinguish male from female, we regard one another evenly. Queens are as common among us as elven kings. I hold absolute sway and all authority is vested in me.”
“What power does the Prince Consort command?” Kristryd asked.
“The Prince Consort commands my heart.”
Shortly before the midsummer festival in the common year four hundred and ninety-eight, the queen invited Kristryd for another walk in the garden. This time her majesty spent no effort on pleasantries or small talk, “I have commissioned the Prince Consort to travel to Tringlee and Jurnre to negotiate new terms. We create a trade alliance that will maintain the passes apart from the ambitions of the undermountain kings and your father’s house.”
Kristryd staggered. Her mouth fell open to object, but no words formed in her reeling mind. Had she heard the queen correctly? She stood awkwardly gazing up into Yolande’s lilac eyes, stammering to form some reply.
The queen spoke again, “I am sorry for it, for your sake, but the decision has already been made. Our peoples came too close to open war last spring over too small a matter to endure such an alliance.”
Kristryd snapped her mouth shut and fell silent. Her heart sank. Her face flushed with anger and her features hardened like stone. Without another word, she turned and left the queen’s presence in fury. Black thoughts swirled in her head the whole way back to the cottage where Bagbag waited to hear her report. “Nine hells!” she raged at Bagbag, slamming the door and kicking at a chair. “Surely we have been utterly deceived!”
Kristryd’s trueheaded friend retreated before her fury. Kristryd continued her tirade, “The fairy witch betrayed us! Berronar smite her!”
“Daughter! Calm! What transpired?” Bagbag held his hands up in front of his face as if to ward off a blow. He thought her tantrum unbecoming the stoic dignity of dwarven royalty, but Kristryd cared not for the restraints of decorum.
“Yolande sent her gods-damned bed-toy to our allies! She means to cut us out of the alliance. That fairhead drossel made sport of me! She has broken faith with the dwur, and she takes away our allies with her.” Angry tears stung at Kristryd’s eyes. Her voice cracked and sobbed, “I want to go home!”
“Not so my daughter,” the wise old wizard counselled. “Your job here is not finished. Your father needs you here in Enstad now more than ever!”
Artwork © Yogurt, “Elf_gril” Used with permission.
Read the next chapter: Druid’s Defile