Faladel looks more collected than he has in weeks as he demands to see the dwarf leader. Arrogance and entitlement exude from his every pore. I’m rather impressed. I thought, since he seemed to be uncomfortable with lying, he’d be a nervous wreck when he tried to pull this off. If I didn’t know him though, right now I’d think he’s an entitled brat who I’d love to slap some sense into, not a guy who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown a few days ago.
Briareth doesn’t look too shabby either. He almost looks like a proper… something. I’m not actually sure what he’s going for here– private guard? Captain? Regular soldier? –but he looks responsible at least, which is more than I can normally say for him.
Meanwhile I’m a nervous wreck; and I’m not trying to hide it. I’m sweaty, I’m shaking, the rope they tied my hands together with is already chafing from the amount of trembling I’ve been doing. These guys are more than capable of putting two and two together and realizing I’m a traitor, so it would be weird if I was as stoic as Briareth and Faladel. After all, the only reason I’m still alive right now is because I’m in the company of these two.
In fact when we were first brought into camp they did try to take me somewhere else until Faladel, noticing my panic, called out in a cold flat voice “You’ll regret it if you kill him.”
“Why’s that?” The Lieutenant overseeing the group dragging me off sneered.
“He’s one of our retinue. We’ve taken precautions to protect ourselves. If any of us die, you all will pay a thousand fold.” Faladel said cooly. I almost half believed him.
The Lieutenant seemed half-convinced as well. But only half. It took Briareth to finish the job. “He’s dead serious about the thousand-fold thing. You should at least bring the dwarf with us to the General. That way he’ll get blamed with the massacre if you do end up having to execute him, or torture him to death, or whatever it is you do with traitors.” I’m almost offended at the casual way he discusses my death. But I can’t really be offended because it worked. I’m still with them as we’re brought before the General.
After Faladel announces to the General that we’re a diplomatic retinue requesting an escort to Abahak there is a strained silence. As far as I know, an event like this has never happened before. Faladel frostily stares down his nose at the General which is no small feat, since we’re all on our knees.
“Well?” Faladel asks, after what feels like hours of them just staring at each other.
The General startles, and stands up a little straighter. “H–how do I know you’re a diplomatic group? What proof do you have of your legitimacy?” I can almost hear the underlying questions. ‘What if you’re a sorcerer who will wreck chaos if I send you to the capital?’ ‘ What if I send you on and then the king decides that I shouldn’t have?’
Well, at least he’s not ordering our death outright, Faladel seems to have freaked him out enough. I shiver, remembering what being on the receiving side of that stare felt like when I first met him in the elven courtroom. What sort of proof would we have though? The robbers had stolen all of our supplies, and although we’d gotten most of them back, we’d already been searched when we were first taken into the camp. So how will we prove– ?
“We have papers.” Faladel claims. I try not to show my surprise on my face, but it’s difficult. “Your men already searched us, but they missed the hidden pocket on my knight Briareth’s tunic. It contains all the proof you’ll need.”
The General gestures with two of his fingers, and guards come over and untie Briareths hands so they can take off his clothes easier. After taking off his outer coat, they begin going through it, and Faladel sighs, shaking his head. “I said his tunic, not his jerkin. Honestly, your minions are quite incompetent, you should have them flogged. A little pain will help them learn faster. Have them take his tunic off, or it might be easier if you just let Briareth take it off himself. The papers are in his inside breast pocket.”
I’m stunned speechless by his arrogance and casual cruelty. Flogged? Wasn’t he going a bit too far? And not even talking to the subordinates, instead ordering around the General himself? We’re going to be the ones flogged at this rate! But instead of taking offense, the General flushes a deep pink beneath his beard and orders the soldiers. “Take off his tunic!”
Briareth tries to make the task a little easier on them, but since his tunic is longer than his waist, he has to stand up for them to take it off, and then they can’t reach above his head so he has to go down again. Overall it’s quite slow and awkward, and Faladel seems very bored with it all.
Briareth without his shirt on is… more impressive than I thought it would be. It appears that although he’s always goofing off, he still puts in the hours to practice. His lightly tanned skin has toned muscles rippling beneath. Of course, he ruins the effect when one of the dwarves accidentally pokes his armpit when they’re taking off his shirt and he starts giggling.
“Watch it!” He exclaims between giggles, “I’m ticklish!” I glance over at Faladel and see his arrogant exterior crack for half a second as he suppresses a grin. The General, who’s watching his subordinates struggle with Briareth’s tunic, hopefully doesn’t notice.
Eventually, the soldiers get the papers out, and manage to successfully deliver them to the General. “Finally.” Faladel mutters, as the General unfolds them and reads their contents. I glance over at Faladel curiously as the General studies them. When did he have time to get the papers? I don’t remember his father ever handing us anything like that. Faladel’s face, however, remains in that calm, confident, mask. He doesn’t even seem to notice my questioning gaze.
“These look legit.” The General eventually announces to the room at large.
“You’ll be sending us onwards to the capital with a retinue of guards then? So we won’t be continually accosted when we travel?” Faladel raises an eyebrow expectantly. “I’d hate to have to deal with any more of these tedious delays.” He says it so naturally, like the guards are an expected service to us, not basically arresting us.
“To keep you in check.” The General corrects him after a brief hesitation. Briareth visibly snorts. I flinch. I know we’re supposed to be like, intimidating the General. But insinuating that his guards can’t keep us in check is not what we need right now.
Luckily the General ignores the not so subtle insult. A small muscle twitches in the corner of his mouth, but that’s his only response. If I were him, I’d be really fed up right now. A little intimidated, but more angry both at the insults and at the fact that I’m freaked out by two elves in the middle of a caravan of my own soldiers.
“Are we done here?” Faladel presses, I flinch again, but the General doesn’t explode. The papers must really have impressed him. Or maybe the entitled-brat version of Faladel is just that scary.
“Yes. That will be all. Your group will leave at first light with twelve of my men. First Lieutenant!” The dwarf in question straightens. “Find these three an unoccupied tent close to the center of the camp.”
“Respectfully, Sir, what if none are free, General, Sir?” The Lieutenant questions hesitantly. I roll my eyes for the poor dude. He must be a newbie, probably a lower noble brat. Obviously he isn’t experienced with the army hierarchy yet. You never talk back to someone higher up on the food chain.
“Kick a group of privates out then!” The General explodes at him, finding a convenient place to target his anger. “These diplomats need to be where we can monitor them, where we know they won’t run from! If that means some poor baby has to kiss his blankie and fireside spot goodbye for the night–” The general continues to rant like this for almost five minutes. Faladel’s expression clearly shows his disdain at the outburst. If he were to open his mouth right now I’d be almost certain the words coming out of it would be ‘how uncouth’ or something similar.
“Sir, yes, Sir!” The Lieutenant shouts when the General is done, and quickly turns to make his way out. But the General halts him.
“Sir?” The man– no, boy –says, innocently. I almost feel pity for the sap. He has no clue what’s coming.
“Latrine duty for a week.” A week only? Nobles really do get it nice. Anyone else would have gotten a month for the same offense.
“B-But Sir–!” the Lieutenant protests. He really is a slow learner.
“Should I make that two Lieutenant?” The General says coldly, turning away from him.
“No, Sir!” The boy exclaims and hurries out. Within five minutes he’s back, panting, to lead us to our campsite for the evening.
Once he’s run off somewhere else, Briareth relaxes instantly, plopping down on the floor. “Geeze Faladel! Flogging? You might have gone a bit far there.” He exclaims.
“Just a teensy bit over the edge.” I agree.
“Keep it down you guys! Someone might still be listening!” Faladel hisses in an undertone. Both he and Briareth stare at me, asking with their eyes if it’s possible we’re being spied upon. I shake my head.
“There’s too much going on in a big camp like this to have someone assigned to eavesdrop on us. Not unless the General is super suspicious, but then he’d definitely wouldn’t have agreed to send us over to the capital first thing in the morning. He’d have delayed it somewhat, said he was convinced but had to wait for orders from higher up, or reinforcements so he could spare the personnel to accompany us.”
“So we did pretty well then.” Briareth confirms.
“Besides the numerous times we could have died. Yeah, you guys did wonderfully.” I say flatly. “I thought that snort would kill us Briareth!”
“What can I say, it felt like the appropriate reaction at the time!” Briareth exclaims. “And hey, we’re not dead, so I think it worked!”
“We’re not out of the woods yet.” I warn.
“We’ve only just entered them.” Faladel confirms. “Once we get to the capital, I wouldn’t expect down time like this. If it’s anything like the elven palace, it’s safe to assume you’re always being watched.”
“Sounds about right.” I mutter, remembering my own time assigned there. “Although with that stare Faladel, you’ll probably fit in just fine.”
“Aside from the fact that he’s a head taller than everyone else in the room.” Briareth adds on.
Faladel ignores Briareth’s height jibe and instead asks me “what do you mean my stare?”
“Oh come on Faladel, you can’t be that forgetful.” Briareth cuts in. “That stare that you always do. You know where your eyes get all cold and beady-like.”
“Yeah, you did it in the throne room too when we first met.” I add on, “It felt like you were peering into my soul and didn’t like what you saw.”
“Umm, what?” Faladel asks.
“That is a very good way of describing it, Balderk. Much better than where my brain was going. I was going to say frozen hawk face, but yours sounds way cooler.”
We continue trying to describe to Faladel how his face looks when he’s pulling what Briareth has dubbed “The Entitled Prince Act” But Faladel just doesn’t get it. He can look confident, he can look cruel, but he just can’t replicate the look of ‘I’m staring into your soul and disapproving’ on demand. Which means he probably actually felt that way when speaking to the General. Rather freaky. I just hope he manages to pull out that attitude when we’re at the dwarven palace. Otherwise we’re probably not going to last long enough to convince anyone that we sincerely want peace.
When we get up the next day, we’re immediately hustled out of camp. Apparently the General didn’t want everyone to know what happened, so he got us up way before the crack of dawn to get us out. We travel for nearly a month longer, in which we get to know the guards pretty well. Faladel keeps up the pretense the entire time, except late at night when any of our guards who aren’t asleep are on duty. Then is the time that we truly talk about things. It’s a bit nerve wracking to have to continuously play such roles, but I try to think about it as practice for how it will work in the castle.
Since Faladel has to put up a persona of the arrogant prince all the time, and Briareth has to act like his guard, it’s up to me to get close to the other dwarves. Not an easy task, since to them I’m a traitor. But a month is a month, and I eventually get some of them to crack when they ask me why exactly I went and helped the elves. I was eating lunch with them, because it would break cover if I was always eating with Faladel and Briareth. But when they first addressed me after two weeks of hanging out with them constantly, I nearly dropped my spoon in my stew.
After explaining what exactly I’d overheard my commander saying that caused me to go to the elves, I watched the other dwarves’ faces morph into different expressions. Some looked baffled, others stunned, and some suspicious. Over the next week however, they all grew to accept it, and some even asked for more details, like how we hoped to make peace. I felt a little guilty, lying to them about the fake little superweapon that Briareth and Faladel cooked up, but it certainly seemed to convince them that our cause might have a chance.
We can see Abahak’s customary smog clouds when we’re still hours away, the view of the city itself still blocked by the rolling hills. The sorcery the church uses to protect the city keeps the dust from the burnt coal trapped in the nearby atmosphere, poisoning more than a few districts. Of course, the palace itself is kept clean, but the rest of the city suffers from the lack of light and fresh air. Once we enter the smog, almost all of us, our guards included, break out into coughing fits. It’s been years since I’ve been here, and getting used to the foul air again isn’t easy. I can’t believe some guards actually enjoy the stuff. It takes Briareth the longest to get over his coughing fit, he’s still not over it by the time we enter the city proper. One of the guards attempt to comfort him.
“Just hold on, buddy.” The guy, I’m surprised to realize that I never learned his name, says. “The palace air is cleaner. Once we get there, you’ll be able to breathe all proper again.” As another guard, this one named Jagin, nods with his friend, I realize just how comfortable these dwarfs got after I opened up to them about some of my experiences with elves. It’s like they never realized, like I’d never realized before that long ago day, that elves are people too.
When we arrive in the city proper, our procession through the streets is less than welcome. The high cobblestone houses and walls loom over us, making me feel trapped after all those weeks of rolling hills and endless forests. The citizens are no more friendly than their city. They shut up as our guard of soldiers come close, but break into hushed conversations as soon as we pass. I can guess what they’re talking about. For most of them, this is probably their first time seeing elves, and here are two right in the middle of their city!
The castle is impressive as it was when I first saw it, high stone walls, far taller than any of the buildings around them. Dwarven guards are constantly watching the gate and barring almost all traffic in and out of the official grounds. Certain merchants are allowed in, maybe a few nobles visiting from their town houses, but no peasant gets past them. The gate opens easily for us though, Faladel riding through, tall and proud, like he does this everyday, his coughing fit long gone. As soon as we cross the stone wall, the noise of the marketplace is distinctly muted. Although we’re in the very heart of the bustling, smog-filled city, sunlight burns down on us and bright green grass flourishes alongside the cobblestone paths to the separate buildings that make up the castle. It’s a far cry from the dusty, crowded roads right outside where there’s not a blade of grass in sight. Our group of guards leads us along the largest route, right towards the main section of the castle, where the nobles stay, the feasts are held, and the king has his audiences.
Off to our right, I see young soldiers practicing outside the guardhouse, and feel almost disconnected from reality. It wasn’t too long ago that I was also stuck doing drills for hours on end before patrolling uselessly the rest of the day. Things look a little different now that I’m an outsider– the captain more strict, the movements more urgent– but I suppose times have changed a little. It has been a decade since I was here, finishing up my training to be shipped to the front lines. But, with only a little imagination, I can still see myself among them, endlessly drilling movements. It doesn’t feel real, that I’m here now, walking down this path, risking my life for the opposite of what I trained for, two elves at my side instead of dead at my feet. It was my own choices that led me here, but looking back at my younger self, I almost can’t believe how far I’ve come.
Lost in my thoughts, I don’t even fully realize that we had dismounted and stabled our horses until we’ve already passed through the large bronze doors leading to the antechamber of the Great hall. Glancing forward, into the Great Hall itself, I can see that there isn’t a feast going on, but that doesn’t mean the room isn’t busy. The King and some of the nobles are pouring over paperwork. Servants are constantly going to-and-fro fetching documents or delivering news. As soon as we step foot inside with our retinue of guards the announcer– who’d probably been handed a slip of paper revealing our identities without me noticing, shouts.
“An envoy from General Wigbert,” His voice falters, but he quickly continues “With Elven diplomats–” I can almost hear every eye turn in our direction at the word ‘Elven’ and gulp nervously “Prince Faladel Mithrandir, his Guard Briareth Herbalar, and their Guide Balderk Ungart.”
“You have Royal Permission to approach!” One of the advisors near the king shouts back. Our group moves closer, and the dwarves who accompanied us here fall into a kneeling position, right hands over their hearts, soldiers expressing their loyalty to the crown. I instinctively move to join them, but Briareth elbows me gently, causing me to hesitate. He and Faladel aren’t kneeling. Of course not, they don’t owe the dwarven King fealty, they would be demeaning themselves if they kneeled. I gulp nervously. If I kneel, I might embarrass them. If I don’t– well what? It feels odd not to kneel, as that was part of my etiquette training in the castle. But I’m a traitor now, outed in front of the entire court because of that stupid announcer, nobody actually expects me to adhere to the rules anymore.
Faladel dips into a perfunctory bow, deep enough to show respect, but quick enough to show that it was just that. Respect for the King’s position, nothing more. Briareth follows suit, and I attempt to mimic it, growing hot at the ears as I imagine the stares and whispers. But once I stand back up, straight and stiff as a board, I take a chance to do something I’ve always wanted. I look straight at the royal family and observe them while Faladel begins talking. The King, Reginald Gewalt, is old. Very old. Probably the oldest looking person I’ve ever seen. His hair, what remains of it, is pure white, and his skin appears to be nothing but wrinkles, but his eyes are still clear, cold and sharp enough to cut oneself on. I find myself quickly glancing away, but his voice draws me back. It’s colder than ice, and far more grating. He’s questioning Faladel, and where I would falter and stutter, I watch the prince keep his cool, responding calmly to the King’s implied threats. This feels surreal.
Just weeks ago, the prince was terrified of this. I was terrified of this. But nothing has happened. Things appear to, in fact, be going rather well. The King and his ministers are studying us, slight frowns on their faces, as if they’re actually believing our story of the elves having a similar weapon to the Scourger. Nobody has called for our execution yet. Faladel and the king are conversing directly, not quite peer to peer since the king remains seated, but close enough. Briareth and I haven’t said anything, aren’t expected to say anything. So, working up my courage, I glance over at the next member of the royal family, the Queen, Friedalein Gewalt, who’s sitting at the opposite end of the table. She’s not even paying us any attention, fiddling with one of her bracelets. Her eyes are vacant, and it’s almost like she isn’t entirely present, not that she could change the outcome of this meeting much even if she was. I’d heard rumors her health declined after the assassination of her daughter, but I’d always assumed it was her physical, not her mental health. I must have been wrong, because even though she’s obviously healthy enough to be at the meeting of officials, she’s not fully here. I allow my eyes to flicker back towards the King’s side of the table, to land on the single heir to the dwarven throne.
The Dwarf Prince, Yaluda Gewalt, is every bit as handsome as I always heard. His beard is neat and trimmed to a point, his black hair a shiny wavy mass halting just below his shoulders. His eyebrows are thin but highlight his clever golden eyes which are sharp, but at the same time somehow soft. His long straight nose, likely never broken in his life, ends right before a pair of full lips, stained a deep red from the liquor in his cup. He is so handsome I almost want to call him pretty. My eyes flicker up to his again, and I lock gazes with him. His lips curve into a small grin and he raises his glass slightly in my direction, almost like he’s toasting me. I feel my ears redden and quickly glance away, embarrassed to have been caught staring. I think I hear a soft chuckle from his direction, and then realize that during the time I’ve been observing the prince, the room has fallen into silence.