Now that I’m actually here, staring at the King of the dwarves, I’m not afraid. There is only one option after all, success. Failure doesn’t exist, can’t exist. As long as I believe this, my voice will remain steady. I vaguely notice the dwarves around us fall to their knees, and hope Balderk keep his head enough to remain standing. Formalities, brimming with malice, are exchanged. I explain myself, our quest, using the rehearsed lies. When I’m done, I try to gulp, but my mouth is bone dry. I keep my eyes focused on the King and the King alone, as if I can will him into agreement.
“Sooo…” The King draws out the words, as if he’s savoring their flavor. “Your request is to work together to find a solution that avoids the mutual destruction of both our species?” Disdain drips from his voice, but I continue staring as coldly as I can, hoping to activate whatever eye-power Briareth and Balderk claim I have.
A thousand responses run through my head in a split second. I choose the one I hope is least inflammatory. “We thought that might be amicable to both parties. Surviving is in all our best interests after all.”
The King smiles, and I have a sinking feeling in my gut. I chose the wrong one. “You overestimate how much I care about my soldiers lives, boy.” I nearly frown at the insult. I’m almost certainly older than he is! But I catch myself. I can’t let him goad me.
“Perhaps you don’t value the lives of your soldiers, but you value your own life. Your own comfort. You value your position. Tell me, Your Highness, what has this war given you– Riches? Control? Who’s to say peace won’t give you more of the same?” From the dwarf King’s expression, I can tell I’m not convincing him. I wrack my brains, trying to come up with examples. What can I give him that’s concrete? “There was a time,” I begin, pulling from the history the Librarian gave us “When elves and dwarves were at peace. Imports, exports, the taxes upon them, it kept the elite of both nations wealthy and content.” It’s not exactly a lie, and the king looks curious for a brief second before pulling back on his dismissive mask. Behind him, I briefly notice a younger dwarf, the prince perhaps, looking intrigued. “There was no need to split power into factions to help drive the war. Dynasties held control for centuries with no upheaval.” I continued, remembering how the Librarian described the power dynamics. Surely there’s someone here that the King wishes had less power? Sure enough, the King’s eyes flicker to the side for a second, towards a dwarf in long golden robes that brush his feet. When they meet mine again, I continue. “Dwarves may have forgotten those days, on purpose or by accident, but elves remember them well.”
I hold my breath the few seconds the King considers the proposal, my expectations shattering when he finally decides. “Again, boy, although pretty, your tales underestimate the hatred of thousands of years of war. Nobody here would buy elf made goods, even if they were half the price of dwarvish ones.” I barely hold back my inner opinion. I once knew a dwarf who sacrificed his life for a few handfuls of a precious stone, knowing they’d make him rich when sold to the elite. The dwarf nobles would probably adore overpriced pretty elf baubles with ridiculous taxes on top. The King, from the glint in his eyes and the half-smile on his lips, knows it as well. He’s just enjoying denying me. I take a deep breath in, recentering myself and analyzing the situation. Why? This man just gave up personal profit and a chance to end centuries of war and avoid ‘mutual destruction’ just to foil me? This feels deeper than racial hatred, more like a personal grudge that he’s willing to take with him to his grave, but I’m certain I’ve never met him before. I’ve certainly never done anything that would provoke this sort of irrational response.
I mentally shake off the suspicions. It could be an entirely different reason that caused him to reject my offer. It doesn’t have to be a personal grudge, maybe there are other players at work here that I don’t know about. Either way it’s clear that he won’t agree to anything currently. What I need to do now is convince him that we should stay as guests, and in the meantime quietly solve whatever problem prevents him from agreeing to peace. If it is indeed a personal grudge, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to appease him then. Failure isn’t an option, there are too many lives at stake.
I smile, and prepare my next suggestion. How can we convince him we should be allowed to stick around? Simple, make an offer he needs time to think about. Something unique, startling, something that he can’t dismiss out of hand. Something– but I’ve taken too long.
The King opens his mouth before I open mine, and says “You claim your weapon is magically tied to your lives, which is why you feel so casual entering the hall of the very enemies you were captured by for –what was it, twenty-two years? You look nothing like your proclaimed age, how am I supposed to trust you?”
I blink, mildly surprised by the direction he’s going in. This sort of question suggests he actually is considering the offer on his own. Maybe, in the brief time it took to study him and come up with a new tactic, he’s already rethought his earlier rejection? “We brought paperwork,” I offer, “official seals and such, but perhaps it’s been so long that you won’t recognise them?” Not recognizing them is a legitimate concern in my mind, especially since they were forged by Briareth, but the suggestion is apparently offensive to the King.
“Nonsense! Bring them forth!” He roars, and I nod to Briareth. This time they aren’t on the inside pocket of his tunic, no need for them to be hidden when they aren’t at risk of being stolen. Instead Briareth pulls them out of a small satchel on his side, and hands them over to an aid who delivers them to the King. They all look legit, I made sure of it. Royal Seal lookalike, a scribble that could be my father’s signature, lots of official wordage. I felt a little guilty forging it, but my father would certainly agree with its necessity. In fact, he’d probably have been the first to suggest forging official paperwork, if he were here, so I suppose it’s okay? The King studies our paperwork for a while, I start to grow nervous the longer he takes. I know there is nothing wrong, but if he thinks there is…
“These appear legitimate,” The King eventually says, and I breathe a sigh of relief. But it’s one second too soon. “Unfortunately for you,” He continues, “I have no intentions of stopping this war until all elves are dead.” The room falls into complete silence. The gossiping nobles, the flutter and flap of paperwork, officials who at least had tried to keep up the appearance of working through our talks, even the servants who were quietly going about their duties in the background have frozen.
I glare at him, a surge of anger rising within me. He had never planned on stopping the war to begin with? He had been playing with my emotions, making me believe we stood a decent chance, this entire time?! He didn’t ever really care about any of it? Not saving his soldiers lives, not earning his coffers a nice fat golden boost, not even his own life? I bite my lip, reining in my emotions. He has to be bluffing. There is no way he had called us on our lie about having a similar weapon to his Scourger, and he definitely values his own life. That much is evident from his posturing. Our eyes lock, and I consider him. He has to be bluffing. A narcissistic scoundrel like him would sacrifice his men in a heartbeat, but wouldn’t risk ruining the little paradise he’d set up here. He knows he has to make peace with us, or face his possible destruction.
“Very well.” I say coldly, calling his bluff. “If it’s mutual destruction you want, then it’s mutual destruction you’ll get. Balderk, Briareth,” I jerk my head towards the door, “It’s clear we won’t get any further here.” I twist on my heel and start to head out. I can hear Briareth and Balderk turn to follow me. I take three steps towards the door. Five. He has to call out. He has to. Seven steps, ten, just a few more to the door. Then I hear the magic word.
“Wait!” The King calls. I slowly turn around, trying to stifle my smile. But something is wrong, and my stifled smile dies instantly. The King is grinning. “Whatever gave you the thought that I would just let you stroll out of my kingdom a second time, elf prince?” His voice is as sinister as a storm on the horizon, and far more chilling. “I may not be able to kill you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hold you here indefinitely. Let’s see if you’ve aged at all after another twenty years. Take them to the dungeons!”
“Well,” I summarize after thirty minutes of awkward silence in the dungeon. “That could have gone a lot worse.”
“Or a lot better.” Faladel says glumly.
“We really should have put a time limit on the non-existent weapon instead of just using our lives as a trigger.” Briareth comments, flicking one of the tiny stones on the floor at a wall. “Ah well, lesson learned, we’ll do better next time.”
“Next time?” Faladel asks, while I just shake my head.
“I’m not sure what you’re complaining about.” I say. “This was actually a pretty good outcome, you must have done a good job convincing them that killing us would be a very bad idea. I’ve never heard the King hold back on executing someone who annoyed him before.”
“You consider this a good job?!” Faladel snaps, getting up from his perch on a pile of hay in the corner of the cell and pacing the room. “The King can just continue on with his plan to eradicate all elves, while we’re so well trapped in here they don’t even feel the need to post a guard by the cell! How are we supposed to convince any of the factions to help us from here?”
“We don’t, but we can escape, right Briareth?” We both stare at the elf in question, who’s now finished flicking stones, and is instead building a little tower out of straw pieces from the pile.
“Hmm?” He says, realizing that both Faladel and I are staring at him. “Oh, that dude from the church you mentioned did something wonky over me and Faladel before we left. Don’t you remember, Balderk? Anyways, I can’t use my magic right now, and who knows when it will wear off.”
My face pales. I was counting on his magic to get us out of here. What are we going to do now?
Briareth though, doesn’t seem to feel the same panic that I do now that I realize we truly are trapped. “What’s up with you Balderk?” He asks, still messing around with his straw tower. “You’ve seemed a little out of it ever since the throne room. Telling Faladel that he ‘must’ve done a great job’ even though you were clearly there with him when he pulled it off. Not noticing that the churchy dude was performing sketchy sorcery at us. Is something on your mind?”
“Nothing much.” I grumble embarrassed. I can’t say I wasn’t listening during the first half of the courtroom discussion because I was staring at the dwarf prince. Or that I was trying to figure out why he looked so damn disappointed as we were led away. Or that I’m still puzzling over why he was chuckling at me of all people.
Briareth abandons his tower and turns to look at me. Something in my voice must have given me away because he’s grinning. “Were you distracted by somebody, Balderk? Did you perhaps see someone in that room you recognized? Somebody special? You were, after all, stationed in this castle for quite a while before your deployment.”
I get what he’s insinuating immediately, and feel my cheeks heat up beneath my beard. “There was no such person! I’ve never been involved with anyone romantically! Not at the castle, and not anywhere else!” Why did that stupidly handsome prince’s face pop into my mind. He may have distracted me with his strange behavior, but that didn’t mean anything!
Briareth is completely unconvinced. Faladel though, has more sense. “Enough with the antics, Briareth, Balderk’s love life– or lack thereof –is none of our business. We have more important things to focus on.” I relax, thankful for his interference.
Briareth sighs, rolling his eyes. “Oh, come on Faladel, you aren’t the least bit curious?”
“As long as this distraction of his doesn’t cause him to zone out again when we’re in a high-stakes situation” Faladel smiles at me, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I see no need to quiz him on his personal life, especially not when he obviously feels uncomfortable talking about it.” I shiver. Did he basically just threaten me with Briareth’s interrogation if I get distracted again? And here I thought he was helping me out.
“More importantly,” Faladel continues, “Is there any way people could be secretly listening in to our conversation to see if we’ll let things slip now that we think we’re alone?”
“Smart.” Briareth mumbles, eyes wide as he glances around the prison cell. It only has three flat stone walls, rusty iron bars up front, and a single pile of straw in a corner, but since Faladel and Briareth are used to magic being used in all sorts of ways, it makes sense that they could be worried about such a thing.
“Not that I know of.” I state confidently, glad we’re finally off the distraction topic. “I’ve done a few guard shifts during my time here, but never heard a whisper about something like that. And I’m pretty certain that’s something I would have heard about. The soldiers here don’t like sorcery all that much, so someone would have complained about having to watch over a spell like that.”
“What if it was installed without the soldiers knowing?” Faladel presses, unconvinced.
“And waste a cleric to keep an eye on it twenty-four seven instead?” I snort. “No way, clerics are too valuable.”
“So, nobody should be listening in on us right now, right?” Faladel asks.
“Yep.” I confirm.
“Then it’s time to re-evaluate the plan.” Faladel says. “And figure out some way to get out of this cell.”
Three weeks later, we’re no closer to getting out. Nor do we have any semblance of a good plan for how to prevent all those innocents from being slaughtered once we do get out. Being stuck in here really limits options on what we can do. Briareth still hasn’t gotten his magic back. The guards are cautious when they approach us, and unwilling to talk. We aren’t even entirely certain it’s been three weeks, but Faladel estimates that they’re feeding us twice a day at the same time they swap out the torches. And although it’s been a while, that schedule sounds about right to me.
“Good news, Faladel, Balderk!” Briareth breaks through my bored musing. “The bars are weakening! I was right about this whole place being run down, rust has eaten through about half of the bars already. I bet they haven’t used the place in decades, so nobody bothered with the upkeep. It definitely won’t take more than two years to melt through them with acid.”
“You mean peeing on them.” I say dryly, completely unimpressed with our brilliant escape plan.
“Whatever works.” Braireth shrugs. “Hopefully the file will last the entire two years. Otherwise, it could take way longer.”
“Problem is,” Faladel says grumpily, finally sitting up and joining in the conversation. “We don’t have two years, much less way longer! For all we know, we’ve already failed and everyone else is dead!”
“There’s no way the battle lines would have changed that much in just three weeks, Faladel. To eradicate all the elves, the king needs them all on the other side of the mountain range.” Briareth says comfortingly. “We have at least another month, even if the king started issuing orders immediately after we were imprisoned. Right Balderk?”
“I’m on Faladel’s side here Briareth,” I stretch my hands up and yawn. “Didn’t you just say two years at the earliest? There’s no way we’ll get out in time if we just keep hacking at it with your file.”
Briareth glares at Faladel and I. “Well at least I’m trying to do something about it instead of just waiting around for ‘the sorcery to wear off’ like you guys! That stuff could be permanent, you know.” Faladel glares back, opening his mouth to argue, but I beat him to it.
“Woah, woah calm down.” I raise my hands peaceably, “We’ve had this conversation before. Briareth, we’d love to help, but you won’t let us use the file because we might break it, and we’ve already wracked our brains so many times they’re probably addled by now. Faladel, just because we aren’t doing anything productive right now doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doomed. Getting on each other’s nerves won’t help anything.”
Faladel groans, and collapses onto the pile of straw. “Logically, I know that, but I just feel so useless!”
“Well how about we calm down and play some games to pass the time. It’s not like we can do much else.” I suggest.
“Fine.” Faladel acquiesces. “Although I don’t know how you can stand to be so calm in here, Balderk.”
“When I think of the alternative to this,” I say, “being locked up is actually pretty nice. I was expecting us to all get promptly executed after negotiations broke down even with the threat of the non-existent super weapon going off. So, what shall it be, I-Spy? Or Straw Towers?”
“Add me in and make it Charades,” Briareth says, plopping down beside us. “I’ve filed as much as I dare to today. And since I suggested charades, I get to go first.”
We all agree, and then Briareth begins to mime. He fakes taking off his shoe, and makes me chuckle as he hops around trying to regain his balance. Then he reaches inside the ‘shoe’ and mimes pulling something back. Faladel snorts.
“That’s too easy Briareth, the fake sole that you hid the file under! Do something trickier next time.”
“Correct, Faladel, but really,” Briareth retorts. “It’s surprisingly hard to think of things I’m sure both you and Balderk can understand. I have to pull from our experiences together, or I can’t be sure that we’ll all know what I’m talking about.”
“Let me try.” Faladel says, getting up. Briareth obliges, taking his old seat. Faladel looks deep in thought for a few seconds before beginning. First he draws a vaguely rectangular shape in the air, and then mimes opening it, running his fingers along something inside.
“A book?” Briareth offers, Faladel silently gestures for him to continue, but I snatch the opportunity away. “The book we were looking for for the Librarian! I don’t remember its name, but it’s that one book isn’t it?”
“Correct.” Faladel grins. “In conclusion, Briareth, just choose something a little further back in our history together. Or something that wasn’t important.”
“My turn!” I exclaim before Briareth can retort and get himself and Faladel into another argument.” I frown, to myself, wondering how I’m going to represent this.
“Is it something that upsets you?” Briareth says, already invested in the game.
I shake my head, and then put my wrists together behind me, turning around so they can see. I mime trying to pull them apart and then shake my head.
“Manacles?” Briareth offers.
“Rope bindings?” Faladel suggests. I shake my head again and continue on with the scene, faking reaching into a pocket and pulling something out. I wiggle my fingers around a bit, unsure exactly how this part works, and then pull my wrists apart.
“Cutting through bindings?” Faladel guesses. “Escape?” I shake my head at both of them.
“It’s the lockpicks we don’t have.” Briareth exclaims, suddenly getting it. “Although you don’t just wiggle them to make them work, Balderk, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
“Clever, very clever, Balderk” Faladel muses.
“Thank you,” I say grinning. “I try.”
“You know what we should have done?” Briareth comments. “We should have stored the lockpicks in Balderks beard! Then I wouldn’t have forgotten them back in Heronmal!”
I’m horrified by the suggestion. “But what if they ruined my beard? Or get stuck in it permanently?!”
“We can always cut off the beard to get them out.” Briareth continues, oblivious to my growing terror. Faladel smoothers a chuckle.
“You won’t touch my beard!” I proclaim, clutching it protectively
“Exactly!” Briareth agrees wholeheartedly. “No dwarf would even think to search you there. It’d make a great hiding place for lockpicks!” Faladel isn’t even trying to hold back his chuckles anymore, causing Briareth to glance over at him strangely. “Are you okay, Faladel?” He asks.
“No.” Faladel says honestly, still chuckling although it almost sounds more like he’s crying. “I’m not okay. We’re locked up here, terrorizing each other and picking fights and playing games when our friends and family could be dead or dying. I know this, and yet I still find you accidentally traumatizing Balderk hilarious. I play games instead of coming up with better escape plans. I pick fights to get my frustration out, and do absolutely nothing productive!” His voice ends in a shout, but then he lets out an aggravated sigh, slapping his hand on his face and leaning back onto his section of the straw pile. I belatedly realize that he actually is crying, tears dripping out beneath his hand.
The situation suddenly feels ten times more awkward. I glance at Briareth, who’s already staring at me. I shrug helplessly, and he moves forward, awkwardly patting Faladel’s shoulder. “Hey, if you really want to do something that much, you can take over filing tomorrow. I can coach you on how to do it.” He suggests comfortingly.
“Weren’t you already imprisoned for far longer than this?” I offer up. “Just pretend this is a repeat of that.”
I see Briareth wince, and realize that might not have been the wisest thing to say. But, instead of lashing out again, Faladel just sighs and tries to explain it to me. “Being imprisoned with nothing to do, no hope of escape, and knowing everyone believes you to be dead is a completely different experience from being imprisoned with friends knowing that something terrible will happen to those you love if you don’t get out in time to stop it. This feels worse. So. Much. Worse.”
He sits up again. “I’m fine now, Briareth. Sorry for the outburst.” He looks– I’d almost describe it as ashamed of himself. Briareth moves back, giving him a little space. Faladel’s eyes are slightly red, but other than that he appears the same as he always does. Calm, not quite confident, but self-assured at least. He smiles, and I wonder if this is just another mask. Like the one he put on in the throne room and before the general. If internally he’s still the desperately stressed and panicking man I saw earlier. If the fear that he showed that one night at the elf encampment and the panic he showed just now is his normal state, instead of this almost confident prince before me. After all, there’s no way he could possibly switch his mood that fast. I frown softly, studying him.
“I’m fine.” Faladel repeats, smiling at me. I don’t know how, or if, I should voice my question to him, but I’m saved from having to make an awkward reply by the steady thump of people coming down the steps around the corner.
We all freeze, exchanging glances. It’s nowhere near time to change the torches. Nobody should be down here for a few more hours at the least. Not once in our three weeks in this cell has the routine changed.
Five dwarves in uniform turn the corner, marching in step to our cell.
“What’s this all about?” Briareth asks the one in the front as he approaches.
The dwarf considers him for at least five seconds before deigning to answer. “You’ve been summoned.” he says crisply, before unlocking the door with a key off his belt. “You will come quietly or face the consequences.”
Briareth glances at Faladel and I. I shrug, uncertain whether we should follow them. “It can’t be much worse than staying here.” Faladel mutters. So we go along with the guards, up the stairs, and out into the main courtyard. Instead of being blinded by sunlight, we are embraced by cool night winds. Glancing up, I see the stars twinkling brightly. I frown at the beautiful sight, how did we get our days and nights so mixed up? Were the guards intentionally messing with us? But we have more important things to focus on. Instead of going to the Great Hall, where all official summons take place, the guards are leading us into the keep, where the royal family lives. A royal summons at night? And one not taking place in the Great Hall? When we weren’t expecting to see the outside again for years? Something isn’t right here.
I hesitate, wanting to warn Faladel and Briareth, but a sharp blade pokes into my back. “Keep going.” A gruff voice demands. I stumble forwards, entering the keep. We climb past the first floor, the second floor, from my memories of times spent working here I know there are seven total. I grab onto the back of Briareth’s shirt and he glances back at me as we climb stairs past the third floor. I try to convey with my eyes that something’s wrong. He frowns, but shrugs. I’m not sure if that’s a “I don’t know what you’re saying” frown, or a “Something might be wrong, but there’s nothing we can do about it” frown. He turns back to glance ahead of him as we stop on the fourth floor and exit the stairwell. I see the bookstacks and realize that this is the private library. Nobody ever goes in here, it’s reserved for the King and his family, but they never use it. I always got creeped out when I had to pass it, all those abandoned musty books, never to be read again. It’s even more creepy now that I know we aren’t supposed to be here.
The guards– if that’s even what they really are –lead us confidently through the bookstacks, their boots barely making a sound on the thickly carpeted floor. We wander for what seems like ages before halting in front of an ancient tapestry. The guard in the lead, the one who had unlocked our cell door, pulls back the tapestry to reveal a hidden door. It shines in the light of the lantern one of his subordinates carries, the only non-dusty object in this whole library. The lead guard unlocks it, and we enter.
It’s a nice enough room. Simple, compared to the rest of the palace, but comfortable. It probably used to be a study before it was hidden away behind the tapestry. There are plenty of bookcases here, a lovely oaken desk with a two chairs, a small fireplace, and three cots in the corner that look like they were moved in quite recently. Briareth and Faladel finally seem to realize that something is wrong.
“What, exactly,” Faladel says, putting back on the regal facade he’d adopted in the throne room, “are we doing here? This doesn’t appear to be a regular summoning.”
“His Highness has summoned you.” The lead guard stubbornly repeats, I stare at him. Now that we’ve halted and I have time to look at his face, it seems familiar. Do I know him from somewhere?”
The door opens again and a new voice calls out, “You can drop the act Blix.” and the dwarf Prince, Yaluda Gewalt, enters. My mouth drops open. What is he doing here? Did he– I hesitate to even think it –break us out of the dungeons? But why?
The leader of the guards, I suddenly realize that he must be the captain of the prince’s private guard, Smedigan Blix, grins slightly.
“Well I’m not wrong am I? Your Highness did summon them.”
“Why exactly–” Faladel presses “Were we summoned?”
The prince turns to look at us, his stunning golden eyes dead serious as he says
“I need your help killing my dad.”