Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
Bolrakei stood up, her face a picture of contrite apology. She clasped her hands in front of her. “My brothers and sisters, thank you so much for coming today. I know that I’ve made mistakes in the past, but please believe me when I say that I always acted with the best interests of our people in mind—I’ll never stop fighting for all the dwarf clans. I hope that everyone recognizes that and votes accordingly. I sincerely appreciate your support.” She bowed her head and returned to her seat.
“Thank you, Bolrakei. That was a very nice sentiment,” said Pilfni. He pounded his gavel on the table three times. “Now we shall vote. All in favor of Bolrakei’s reinstatement say
shouted the crowd.
Pilfni waited for the noise to die down before speaking again.
“And those opposed?”
Silence dominated the hall. Skemtun frowned, shaking his head in disgust, but remained quiet. He knew that he was outnumbered.
“The clans have spoken The ‘ayes’ have it, and the amendment is adopted. Congratulations, Bolrakei, you are officially reinstated.”
Cheers rose up from the crowd. Bolrakei grinned as she spoke. “Thank you, my friends! I’m pleased for this opportunity to serve my clan again. Tonight there will be feasting in Klora-Kana’s mead hall, and all of the clans are invited. Please, join us and partake of my clan’s hospitality.”
“Thank you for the invitation, Bolrakei,” Pilfni answered. “I’m sure everyone will do their best to attend.”
King Hergung’s councilor remained silent during the meeting. He left without saying a word, returning to the king’s private chambers. The other councilmembers offered their congratulations to Bolrakei, shaking hands, sometimes with a knowing wink in her direction. Most of them left the table to mill with the crowd, and eventually, only Skemtun and Bolrakei remained seated.
Skemtun had not spoken a single word, and now the aged clan leader stared across the table at his rival. His voice was a whisper. “I never thought I would see the day where you returned to power.”
Bolrakei offered him a patronizing smile. “How could you not? Hergung’s madness is incurable, and he will be gone soon. My clan will not tolerate another year of chaos. Our people need a reliable leader—a pureblood who acts in their best interests. It’s only a matter of time before everybody realizes that I’m the best one for the job.”
“Buying votes on the council doesn’t make you a strong leader,” said Skemtun. “It makes you a nothing more than a crooked politician.”
“What do you know, old man?” Bolrakei’s lips stretched into a steely grin, but the smile did not reach her eyes. “In just a few generations, you’ve steered your mining clan into financial ruin. Your power grows weaker with each passing year. And now, with the Vardmiters gone, your clan has the lowest standing in our society. Mount Velik needs more
and it is
clan that will take over the lowly jobs the Vardmiters used to do.
His eyes blazed with fury. “How dare you! My clan isn’t going to clean sewers or sweep up trash. My clan has been mining this mountain for generations—and our numbers are greater than yours. Why don’t you order your people to do those jobs!”
Bolrakei leaned in and crooned, “Silly old goat! While it’s true that my clan isn’t the largest, we are the wealthiest. And unlike yours, my workers are skilled craftsmen. From the fairy folk to the humans, all the races of Durn want my magnificent gems. My jewelcutters make money for me all over the continent. I profit in peace and war. I care not which races are fighting, or even why. Let the humans or the orcs slaughter one another—it makes no difference to me. There will always be a market for my stones. You don’t have enough money or power to stop me.”
“Bah! My people will never consent to this. This is an injustice!” He sat back down, turning his face away.
“Wrong, Skemtun. You have no choice but to follow me. Where can you go? Utan and his rebel Vardmiters have already left—they are comfortably entrenched in the Highport Mountains, and your opportunity to join their little ragtag rebellion has passed. When the Vardmiters were still here, they asked for your help—and you were too afraid to take sides. Your own clan members lost respect for you for that, and the Vardmiters hated you for it. You’re a coward—and you’ve been sitting on the fence for a long time, but now I’m forcing you off of it.”
“Be quiet, you arrogant witch! As long as I have breath in my body, I’ll never bow to your demands.”
A strange smile split Bolrakei’s round face. “You have no choice. Do you truly believe that the clans will remain faithful to a king that sits in his chambers like a frightened rabbit while his kingdom crumbles into anarchy? Hergung’s physicians hover around him like bees, but even they know his days are numbered. Hergung shall not live to rule another summer, and he has no heir who is experienced enough to replace him. The selection of his successor will fall to the council.”
Silence fell in the room. “I am a loyal subject of King Hergung, and I support his rule. You speak treason, woman.”
“I speak truth!” Bolrakei slammed her fist on the table. “By Golka, you are a greater fool than I thought! Are you really loyal to the king? Because he’s going to die, and everyone knows it. Eventually, Klora-Kana will become the most powerful clan on the mountain, and I shall become queen. I am high-born, and no one else has the resources or the power to challenge me.”
“You are not fit to be the queen! You have neither the strength nor the wisdom.” Skemtun crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared.
“Believe what you will—your opinion matters not. I shall be the queen, a queen of legend! All your sour apples shall not sway the clans against me.”
“And what about the Vardmiter rebels? Utan and his people will never follow you. How will you include them in your deceitful plans?”
Bolrakei waved her hand indifferently.
“Meh! To me, the Vardmiters are less than nothing. Those lowly traitors shall bow to me yet.”
“Ha! Such confidence! What if Utan does not agree to your demands? His numbers are greater than any other clan.”
Her stony gaze fixed on him. “Once I become queen, I’ll raise ten legions to march against the Vardmiters. Utan will have no choice but to accept my judgment. The rebels shall surrender, or else I shall slaughter them all—down to the last man.”
Skemtun’s mouth dropped open in shock. “You cannot mean this.”
Bolrakei leaned forward and stabbed her finger in the air. “Yes I do… every word of it. Do not misunderstand me, Skemtun. I
assign workers as I see fit, and your clan shall become the
caste. However, fear not! There will always be dwarves below you. After I crush the rebellion, the Vardmiters will return to Mount Velik
—in chains. They shall be our slaves, stripped of all their rights and privileges. They shall not be allowed to vote, own property, or even choose their own mates. That is their punishment for the havoc they have wrought.”
“You are despicable,” he said.
Bolrakei’s cold eyes met his, and Skemtun saw that she was deadly serious. Skemtun could not even respond. He rose from his chair, turned on his heel, and left the table.
Moments later, he looked back over his shoulder and noticed that several of his own clan members had stayed behind to congratulate his rival. One dwarf even kissed Bolrakei’s ring.
As Skemtun walked away, he was overcome by a great weariness. His anger fell away, leaving only sadness. He reached his quarters and sank down into an old chair. When he glanced up, a shift of light caught his eye. A huge bronze mirror stood in the corner, and Skemtun stared at the old man looking back at him from its reflection. The lines on his face had grown deeper, and a scraggly beard had turned from brown to gray. His hooded eyes revealed deep fatigue and something else—the impotence of his anger.
His clan had been mining this mountain for thousands of years. Most were still dedicated to their ancestral jobs, but some of the clan had already started to clean sewage and pick up garbage. Skemtun had told himself that it was only temporary, but as the seasons passed and fewer men chose the mining pick, he had begun to fear that the tools of the Marretaela would soon be the mop and bucket. Was Bolrakei right? Would his clan become the new outcasts? He felt the walls of Bolrakei’s trap falling all around him.
Would his people be shunned and displaced, treated like outsiders? Bolrakei was right about one thing—with the Vardmiters gone, the lowest clan was now Marretaela, and he had neither the energy nor the resources to challenge her.
Skemtun set his teeth grimly. He knew, in the deepest part of his soul, there was nothing he could do to stop her.
Sela and Brinsop flew through the night. The northern winds blew strong and carried them faster through the desert. By sunrise, they were within sight of the city. They spiraled down to land on the palace rooftop, where Tallin and Duskeye were already waiting for them.
The dragons exchanged pleasantries, and then both lay down on the warm cobblestones and went to sleep. Sela and Tallin greeted each other briefly.
“Hello, Tallin.” Sela nodded politely.
“Good day, Sela,” he replied, raising his hand to his collarbone as a gesture of respect.
“Is the prisoner ready for questioning?”
“I prepped him, but he refuses to cooperate. Other than the kudu oil, we found nothing else of interest in his belongings. I saved his saddlebags in case you wanted to check them yourself.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I have everything I need. Please lead the way.” Sela grabbed her dusty rucksack and flung it over her shoulder.
“Before we go—are you hungry? The prisoner can wait, if you would prefer to rest a little and eat,” said Tallin.
She shook her head. “I could certainly use a hot meal and a bath, but no... I’ll interrogate him first.”
Tallin nodded. “Follow me, then. The smuggler is being held under guard in my private quarters. I kept him separated from the other prisoners, as you requested.”
The two dragon riders left the ramparts together, walking into the castle through the rooftop entrance. Although he preferred sleeping outside in the desert, as Tallin’s official duties had increased, he stayed more often inside the city walls. He now had a permanent suite near the roof, with a giant open window so he and Duskeye could leave directly from their quarters.
As the pair passed through the hallways, servants stopped what they were doing and bowed respectfully. Two guards stood watch at the door to Tallin’s room. They opened it as Tallin and Sela approached, closing it firmly once the riders had passed inside.
Sela looked around, taking in the room. It was the first time she had been inside Tallin’s new quarters. They were huge, spotless, and sparsely furnished. A sheepskin bedroll lay in one corner, tied neatly with a length of twine. There was a table in the center of the room, along with two wooden stools. A clay pitcher and bowl for washing sat on the ground. In one corner, there was a workbench with the beginnings of a rough wood carving. The floor underneath the bench was littered with shavings, but otherwise the space was immaculately clean.
No pictures hung on the walls, and there were no draperies—none of the luxuries that were common throughout the rest of the keep. Due to his status, Tallin could have ordered anything he wanted to decorate his rooms, and the king’s finance ministers would have paid. Despite this, he chose to keep his rooms devoid of any ornament.
Decades ago, in the midst of the Dragon Wars, Sela had discovered Tallin and Duskeye hiding in the desert, living an ascetic life. Tallin had joined the dragon riders willingly, and fought to protect Parthos during the war, but he never expressed desire for any spoils. He had always seemed content with so little… and had always preferred his solitude.
In all the years he’d lived in Parthos, Tallin had never taken a mate, even though there were plenty of women who would have happily shared his bed. He was a handsome man, and his dwarvish blood kept him looking youthful. Sela wondered if he would ever accept a partner into his life. Tallin never discussed anything personal with her—he was intensely private and had always been so.
She walked over to the bench and picked up the carving. It was the Sun Lion—a creature of legend. Under its right paw, there was a radiant globe. Under the other paw, a dragon’s egg. The back remained unfinished. The myth of the Sun Lion was an ancient legend, and one she had heard countless times when she was a child.
Before the war, her extended family would gather by the fireside. The storytellers would come forward and tell their tales. Even the smallest children knew the legend of the Sun Lion.
The great Sun Lion dwelt in the heavens, creating light by pushing the sun across the horizon with his mighty paw. In the evenings, the Sun Lion covered the sun disk with the blanket of the night sky. Then he would rest.
At the beginning, mankind was happy and offered sacrifices and gifts to the Sun Lion. However, the races of Durn grew greedy and restless. They wanted more light than the sun could give, and they stopped worshipping the Sun Lion.
The Sun Lion grew angry, so he covered the sun, and the land was left in total darkness for five days. People panicked in the endless night. Plants withered and died. Dragons’ eggs remained unhatched in their desert caves. Entire clutches were lost to the freezing cold.