When I first wake up, I’m disoriented. I’m not outside, I’m in a cave-like structure. Faladel and Briareth are nowhere in sight, and for a second I can’t even remember how I got here. Then it all comes back.
We need a plan. Not my strongpoint, but I did try to think of a couple, along with any other information that could help us out. Rolling out of bed, my feet land on the cold stone floor and I wince, scrambling to find my shoes. After finally getting dressed and finding my way back to the main library– I only got lost twice! –I join the others for breakfast. Faladel is there already, but Briareth hasn’t come down yet. The Librarian offers us more sandwiches for breakfast, and I accept happily. They’re pretty good, considering that the person who prepared them is probably insane. After Briareth gets down and eats, we combine our thoughts, and end up with four workable plans that Faladel writes down on a large handy chalkboard the Librarian gave us.
- Convince the Royal family (king, prince or both) to give up on the war. They have the final say on everything since they control the army. The nobles might be unhappy, but it works.
- Convince the Prince and church, pressure the king and nobles into agreeing. With the normal people on our side and the heir to the throne, we can threaten an uprising if they don’t agree.
- Leak the information on the Scourger with the prince’s support, let the king and big nobles take the fallout, and while everyone’s upset, say the killing could end permanently. Go against the church doctrine directly when everyone is divided.
- Same as 3, but work with the church beforehand, and convince them to be on our side, so we only have to take on the king/nobles.
I try to explain to Faladel and Briareth that there is no way the church will work with them to end the war since it literally preaches there is no way elves and dwarves can live together peacefully. I don’t seem to get my point across though.
“According to the Librarian, they seem to be much more a political group than a religion. If they’re out for their own benefit, I’m sure we can work something out.” Is Briareth’s take on it.
Faladel takes Briareth’s side, but mentions that I might have a point. “They’d have to do a bunch of finangling to make their sudden doctrine change seem legit to their masses of supporters.”
“Yeah, but that’s their problem, not ours.” Briareth concludes. Faladel adds an extra note to the fourth plan (Details pending) And then says, “So, which plan do you guys think will work the best?”
“All of them seem impossible.” I admit.
“Two and Four still need help.” Briareth says, “How exactly would we get the church on our side? Blackmail? Bribes? They already have significant political power, and without the war they lose almost all of it. There’s no concrete way to win them over.”
“My favorite is still the first one.” Faladel says, studying the chalkboard. “Somebody once told me that simple plans are the best,” Briareth makes a strange sound, and for a second I think he’s choking on his sandwich, but he’s actually just chuckling. Glancing at Faladel’s purposefully straight face as he continues talking, I realize who it was that probably told him that.
“Plan three just has too many areas where things can backfire.” Faladel continues, “What if we can’t leak the information properly? What if the dwarven population is so blinded by church doctrine that they’re willing to sacrifice a couple hundred soldiers to wipe out the elves? What if the army sides with the king and nobles instead of the prince? We could easily accidentally start a civil war if something goes wrong.”
“If plan three is out, plan four is also out.” Briareth says after he recovers from his chuckling fit. “All those details that could go wrong, plus the lack of knowledge on what to do about the church, just makes it feel like the most unrealistic of the lot.”
“I agree.” I say, studying the board carefully. “I don’t like plan two either because that relies too heavily on the church supporting us. I think we should try to go with one first, and then improvise if things start to get off track. There’s no way any of these are going to work out perfectly. So maybe, if the king and prince don’t want to support us, we threaten to release the information about the Scourger ourselves. Honestly though, at that point they’re more likely to kill us outright.”
“Don’t be so morose, Balderk!” Briareth chimes in. “They wouldn’t dare kill a diplomatic retinue, right?” He glances at me, and then at Faladel. “Right?”
“I have a feeling they wouldn’t care that we’re diplomats, Briareth, not from the way Balderk expected to be treated when he arrived in our court.” Faladel replies.
“They’d totally kill us.” I confirm. “We’re at war. You guys make valuable diplomatic hostages, but even better trophies. We have to come up with a pretty good reason they can’t kill us outright.”
After thinking hard for five minutes straight, I’ve got nothing. Faladel tried to toss out a couple of ideas, but none of them were any good. Briareth though, looks like he might have something. When I ask him what it is he hesitates. “Well… it’s kinda unconventional, and morally gray, and would need some really good acting to pull off.” He glances at Faladel nervously.
“From the looks you’re giving me, I’m probably not going to like it.” Faladel sighs, but then gives in. “Tell us.”
“We bluff. The way Balderk describes his actions points to him being arrogant and self-centered. He’ll probably only talk to us if we appear just as powerful as he is, if not more so. We say that we have a similar weapon of mass destruction available that is tied to us magically and will go off if any of us die. Since the dwarves don’t seem to know much about elven magic, they’ll probably fall for it. Instead of a poison gas, we can say it’s a magical strain of plague or something. We’ve never used it before because we don’t want to wipe out all dwarves from existence, or maybe it would cause quite a bit of harm to us as well. But if we’re threatened, we’ll use it. That sort of thing.”
“Threaten them with a similar weapon…” I muse. It’s clever, I have to admit. “That could work, but what if they try to call our bluff?”
“Well then, we’re dead.” Briareth says simply. “And so are the rest of the elves. And a couple hundred dwarf soldiers.”
“No pressure or anything.” Faladel adds on sarcastically. “You’re right, Briareth, I don’t like it. Especially since I’ll be the one trying to pull it off. But I don’t see any better option either.”
“Wait, why can’t we just have Briareth pull it off? Am I missing something?” I ask.
“It’s because Faladel is the highest ranking member of this expedition. He’s going to be expected to do most of the talking.” Briareth hesitates and adds on, “Well, we could disguise his identity I suppose…”
“Briareth, I was imprisoned for 22 years there.” Faladel cuts in, “If we try to disguise me, and my cover happens to go up in flames because a random guard recognises me, the whole peacemaking operation could be blown. I can’t let that happen. I’ll do the lying, it’s the best way to ensure we don’t die right off the bat.” He sighs. “Be honest you two, what do you think our likelihood of succeeding at this is?”
“At making peace in general, or everything going according to the plan and making peace that way?” Briareth responds immediately.
“Making peace and surviving,” Faladel confirms, “even if we go terribly off-plan. I’d put us down at somewhere below twenty, but above ten.”
“Forty-three point nine three percent.” Briareth says grinning. “What?” He asks, staring at our shocked faces.
“First, that’s nothing to be happy about. We’re still more likely to die than not to die.” I reply. “Secondly, why is that number so high? And so specific?”
“Ehh.” Briareth shrugs, and continues grinning. “What can I say, I have great confidence in our improvisation abilities. I also like choosing deeply specific numbers for no reason. It makes me seem smarter.”
“If you say so.” I turn away, going to ask the Librarian for more of those sandwiches.
“What about you, Balderk?” Briareth calls after me.
“Two… no make that three. Three percent!” I call back.
We’re insane to try this. But at least we’re insane together.
The rest of that day is spent packing extra supplies and resting up before the next leg of our journey. The Librarian is happy to help us after Briareth rolled a 20 for persuasion, pulling supplies from hidden rooms all over the Library and his tiny hut. After one more day of rest, the Librarian uses some strange magic to teleport us, Myrddin, and all our stuff, almost all the way to the front lines. Apparently, his spell was limited by distance, which is why he couldn’t teleport us directly to the dwarven castle’s Great Hall, but I am still more than impressed. He probably cut over a month off our travel time with that one spell, although it appears to have taken a lot out of him. At first I suppose that this is why elves didn’t travel like this all the time. Too exhausting. But then Briareth asks Faladel what the spell the Librarian had used was, and when Faladel can’t answer, I realize that they don’t use it because they probably don’t know it.
“I have no clue what that illusion spell was either.” Faladel admits. “I’ve never read or heard of anything close to that powerful. It’s probably some sort of relic of the old Elven capital, Meyan.”
“That city that we saw images of?” I clarify.
“Yes. Well, probably yes.” Faladel answers. “The Librarian could have just been messing with us, using the images of a different city or an entirely made up one. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“You’re just upset that he wouldn’t let you talk.” Briareth claims, grinning. Faladel opens his mouth, probably in protest, but I quickly change the subject before they can get into another bickering match.
“The architecture of that old city was really interesting.”
“Well we don’t always live in trees.” Briareth replies, shrugging. “Are you really that surprised by it?”
“Not that, it’s just that the palace’s structural layout and building style reminded me of the dwarven palace. When I was first enlisted, my training was completed with castle duty. The way the walls arched to a ceiling, the stones interlocked in patterns on the floor, the hallways’ paths through the castle, it felt like a mirror.”
“Huh…” Faladel walks in silence for a little bit, thinking. “Maybe they had the same designer so that visitors wouldn’t get confused?” He eventually offers “I noticed there were dwarven diplomats there, so if the layout was similar it could help prevent people getting lost if it was a very large building.”
“Or they were just the same as a sign of solidarity,” Briareth offers, “or they had the same designer who had a creative block and couldn’t come up with a second design, or, or, or. There are tons of reasons why they’d be the same, none of them really important.” He finishes.
We continue walking, the sun rising steadily in front of us, and setting against the mountains behind us. Four days pass, and we gradually adjust our course, heading a bit more south so our trip to the capital will be more direct when we turn ourselves over. The conversation continues to be stifled though, with only brief– almost forced –moments of mirth. It’s so much more tense and awkward than it was before we visited the Librarian. It’s almost a relief when we meet with scouts for an elven encampment, a reaction that I’ve certainly never felt for elf soldiers before.
They’re practically openly hostile to me, which surprises me. It really shouldn’t have, after all we are at war, but I suppose the casualness of how I was treated at the capital and how the Librarian received me so warmly threw me off guard. Even the bandits, who’d been the first elves to treat me with open hostility since I entered their territory, at least treated Faladel and Briareth the same way. Suddenly being discriminated against because of my species feels jarring. All those suspicious glares, being mocked behind hands for my height, literally having people talk over me and ignoring me in discussions that I should have been involved in, someone went so far as to suggest I should sleep in chains so I wouldn’t run off! I was livid with frustration by the end of the night.
And the most aggravating part? Faladel and Briareth were treated the opposite way. The elves didn’t just respect them, they were actually worried for them. People who barely knew them kept querying about their health, encouraging them to eat up, and wondering if this mission was too dangerous, or, for Faladel specifically, too trauma provoking. “We can’t lose you again, Prince.” Was an often repeated phrase.
“Nonsense. The kingdom can survive without me. Meanwhile, if I succeed, we won’t just survive, we’ll finally be able to thrive.” Faladel’s repetition of some version of these words appeased some, but not others.
“But we need the Mithrandirs.”
“You make a far better future king than anyone else who showed desires for the throne in the twenty years you were gone. These past two years have proved it.”
“The king and queen won’t be able to suffer your loss a second time.”
“It’s better if someone else were to go in your place.”
With each reply, I could almost see the stress building up on his face. I thought he might go along with them, abandon Briareth and I and have someone take his place. But instead, he just smiles and simply tells the people who continue to badger him.
“This is something I have to do. Not just for you, but also for me.”
That shuts them up.
But as the sun goes down, I notice him wandering outside his tent, mumbling quietly to himself. When I walk up to him, I see bags under his eyes, stress wrinkles on his forehead, a worried frown, and I realize something. He can’t sleep. Although he’d appeared so collected earlier, the weight of their words, the stress of this mission, it’s taking a severe toll on him. He seems like the type of person who’ll always blame himself. Who wants to plan everything out, work through every step before taking action. Based on the background he’s had, constantly preparing for the weight of a throne, having people watching him all the time, a need for perfection in every action, it’s no wonder he developed that sort of personality. But in this situation where our basic back up plan is ‘improvise.’ and he’s supposed to take a pivotal role? No wonder he’s stressed!
“Breathe Faladel.” I say, he startles, like a surprised horse. I reach up to touch his shoulder, trying to speak to him like I would to a spooked farm poney. A low, calm, soothing voice. “Focus on what you can physically control, and leave everything else up to everyone else. You, Briareth, and I are a team. We can take care of ourselves, you just have to keep up a persona of confidence till after we’ve bluffed. The future after that will take care of itself.” Faladel glances at me, visibly forcing himself to relax, a half smile coming onto his face. His eyes don’t smile though, so I try for a bit of gruff humor.
“You can burst into tears, or whatever you elves do to cope with stressful situations after we’ve lied to their faces. By then, more than likely, it won’t matter.”
Faladel offers a soft chuckle. It doesn’t last long, but it’s there. I turn away satisfied, and head back to my tent. I’m not great at emotional support, but no one can fault me for trying.
My last thought before I fall asleep is that I put the dwarven court in the “they” category and grouped Faladel, Briareth and I in a “we” category. Even though the other elves didn’t seem to feel that way at all. Even though I never thought I would. I’ve somehow grown close to those two over the past weeks.
In the morning, Faladel seems a bit better. It doesn’t look like he’s slept at all. But I note with satisfaction that his smile feels more genuine as he says goodbye to the people we’ve met. Briareth however, is absolutely devastated. Not because he’ll miss the soldiers, not because he isn’t looking forward to the adventure ahead– I’m almost certain he feels the opposite –but because he’s having to say goodbye to Myrddin.
There are lots of tears on all sides. Briareth, Myrddin, even some of the spectators get into it. Promises are made that he will survive and come back to Heronmal for her. Honestly, I’m not sure whether to laugh, cry at the ridiculousness, or just turn away from it all and ride ahead on my own. As it is, I just sit back stoically on the pony the elves reluctantly provided me, and wait for the waterworks to be over with.
At first the ride together was pleasant. It was certainly a lot better than the atmosphere at the elf outpost. But after four days of hard riding and no sign of the dwarves, even though we should be in dwarf territories by now, Faladel has worked up all of his stress again. And Briareth is still depressed at having to part with Myrddin. Apparently he doesn’t connect with every horse that easily, and his new mount has -in his own words- “no spunk”.
So, to try and distract them both, I start spouting off nonsense.
“You know dwarves used to have magic too? Not just sorcery but the elven version of magic.”
“Yeah.” Briareth says, confused. “The Librarian mentioned as much. What about it?”
“Your magic comes from within, yes?” I press, still not quite sure where I’m going with this.
“Yes…” Briareth trails off. “Sorry, if you’re trying to make a point I’m not getting it.”
“I think I do!” Faladel exclaims, finally beginning to pay attention to the present again instead of worrying about the future. “you’re wondering if you have any magical potential, right Balderk?” Briareth glances my way, intrigued. Faladel’s excitement is probably spreading to him.
“Uhh… Sure I guess.” I say. I mean, if it works?
“I’ve memorized a couple of ways to test.” Faladel is now very excited. “I don’t have the magical power to pull them off, but I can teach Briareth how to do it when we set up camp for tonight!”
“Great.” I say, more than a little lackluster. I’m kinda curious about the results, but not at all enthusiastic to have a klutz like Briareth try some weird magic-detecting technique he’s never used before on me.
When we’re done with supper, Faladel teaches Briareth the words and gestures to use, and tells me my part of the spell. It takes a couple of tries to work, and feels more than a little strange to me, but eventually a purple light glows in my palm. Faladel shrieks in delight and then proudly announces that I have above average potential.
“So I’m certainly no dud, but I’m also not a genius the likes of which the world has never seen.” I summarize.
“Yep!” Faladel is way too happy with this. “If we can succeed in making peace, you could come back to elvish territories and train your magic there! I know a couple of schools who would be delighted to teach the first dwarf foreign exchange student in our known history.”
“Sorry Faladel,” I say, standing up and making my way over to my bedroll. “I already have plans for peacetime. I’m going back to my farm and my family.”
“Not everyone is as obsessed with magic as you are, Faladel.” Briareth grins as he heads off to bed. Faladel stays up a little longer, thinking his own thoughts, before he joins us.
In the morning we find a path, fresh hoofprints marking it, heading back west and a little north. It’s the first sign of sentient life we’ve seen in days. Following it, we reach a dwarven campsite, and turn ourselves in.