Chapter Two: Era of Heroes - The Dvergr Kingdom
The mountain range in the center of Yggdra was called Jotunfjeldene despite the fact that the territory was shared with the dvergr. The reason was that the jotnar claimed the entire surface of the region as their own, while the dvergr lived underground and had built their kingdom into the very foundations of the mountains. Thus, there were never any territorial disputes between the two completely contrasting races, and they were actually in a trade agreement for their unique products. The jotnar would sell things that could only be procured on the surface, in exchange for the construction services of the dvergr or their exceptional metal works, which the large jotnar hands could not reproduce.
Since human maps were unable to mark the territories of above ground and underground on paper, the dvergr kingdom was located in the south of the mountain range, based on known trade routes, while the jotnar territory was in the north. However, the former’s area of expanse was represented as bigger than that of the jotnar. It was for the simple reason that humans viewed dvergr more favorably than jotnar, as they had maintained trade relations with them up until the Mad Emperor’s ascension to the throne. Nevertheless, the surface of the entire mountain range was held by the jotnar, who defended them with fierce territoriality. In contrast, the dvergr lived in a fine network of tunnels and underground cities, right below those mountains.
The extermination war had not touched the dvergr at all, although they had terminated the trade agreement with Zenter over it. Humans saw them as their kin, as they lacked the divine beauty and atmosphere the ljosalfar possessed, and rather resembled human midgets who had especially heavy beard growth. Fire jotnar and mountain jotnar were very obviously inhuman, as the former possessed skin that looked like hardening lava, which could burst out in flames when enraged, and the latter were usually around five times the height of humans, despite otherwise looking human. The formido were another issue altogether, as they were the result of a union between humans and ice jotnar over the past two millennia. Their heights usually settled around eight measures, but their extremely light skin tones, with the hues of glaciers in some, and the hardened crystalline growths covering parts of their bodies, such as shoulders, elbows and knees, were telltale. However, their aggressive nature and tendencies to raid the northern borders had put them on the side of those to be exterminated, regardless of their ancestry.
Even if Zenter had targeted the dvergr, its armies would most likely not even have been able to breach the gates leading into their underground kingdom. The entrances were all hidden with optical illusions, special mechanisms or actual earth magic - something very few dvergr were capable of nowadays. Even if they were found, the solid metal or stone they were made of could repel any siege technologies the humans possessed; after all, the majority of those had been developed for them by the dvergr, who knew better than to make them strong enough so that they may be used against their creators.
It was one of these entrances that Nerous and Nimeton had been trying to find for the past two weeks, as they wandered through the Jotunfjeldene aimlessly. Unlike his sister, Nerous had never been to the dvergr kingdom to visit the royal family, with whom his mother had maintained a friendly relation. Therefore, all he could do was walk around with his silver hair and long ears openly visible, so that an observant dvergr scout may take notice of him. Because he did not know where exactly in the Jotunfjeldene the dvergr kingdom was located, aside from somewhere in the south, he could only hope that they were above their realm and would be spotted by guards - in the same vein hoping that guards were placed above ground in the first place.
Nimeton had been captivated by Nerous’ beauty since they first met, and seeing his half-alf features so openly on display after they had been hidden on their travels for so long reminded him of that fact. Alfar were naturally androgynous, and many would agree that Nerous was fairer than many human maidens who were considered beauties. For a second, the boy understood the desire their master had felt when seeing the half-alf lying defenselessly on his sheets.
“Let’s rest here,” Nerous turned around to Nimeton and declared. Shaken from his inappropriate thoughts, the latter flinched and tripped over a rock. “Whoa, careful.” The half-alf grabbed Nimeton’s hand and prevented a painful fall onto the sharp stones that littered their unmarked path.
“Th-thanks,” The boy stuttered and rectified himself.
“This is getting us nowhere. We’ve been going around in circles for the past few days, and no sign of anyone. Maybe we need to go deeper into the mountains?” Nerous said and sat down on an old toppled tree. Their rations were all but gone and while nature’s boon was bountiful, there was little shelter from the weather. Although it was summer, the continental climate meant that nights were chilly and could cause one to catch a cold when not cautious.
Nimeton did not want to sit right next to his friend after his imagination had run wild only moments ago, and stood by, watching the clouds with vigorous interest. Not sensing the turmoil in the human boy’s mind, Nerous looked about, again trying to find the slightest hint of a dvergr gate. To him, everything that remotely resembled dvergr-made structures could have been what he was searching for, but time and time again, he was disappointed to find that they were only rocks that nature had shaped into what the prejudiced eye of a wishful observer interpreted to be chiseled by skilled hands.
“We’re lucky that we haven’t stumbled upon any jotnar,” Nimeton commented as he scanned the surroundings. He was a human, and obviously feared the man-eating giants he had been told about as a child. After the recent war, he was sure that the jotnar were not going to be on very friendly terms with humans, either way. A defenseless boy like him would be easy prey for them.
“There’s nothing to fear. Jotnar are generally peace-loving people and I’m with you.” Nerous’ reassurance did lessen Nimeton’s anxiety somewhat, but he still feared that in the heat of the moment, something could happen. Humans were powerless against giants unless they had far superior numbers. It was one of the reasons the attack on the Jotunfjeldene had yielded some success; with a massive offensive, the armies of Zenter had been able to overwhelm the numerically inferior jotnar using projectile weapons and had then proceeded to build forts into mountainsides, which the latter could not enter with their giant bodies. The only reason the empire was able to hold any territories after claiming them from the jotnar was because the latter had taken a defensive stance after the initial loss and had not attempted any recapture campaigns. “Our bigger problem is that we are wasting time,” The half-alf added. “Let’s go deeper. I can’t believe that dvergr are able to hide this well.”
“Oh, you better believe it, boy,” A rough voice suddenly echoed through the area. The two companions spun their heads to search for its source, noticing a man standing on the cliff above them. He had dark brown hair and an extremely long beard, tied into three thick braids. A dark gray barbute covered his head and his brigandine had a rock-like pattern meant to blend in with the background. The man’s hand rested on the head of a two-sided battle axe, as if it was a mere walking stick, and looked down on them with a pair of attentive brown eyes. He was a dvergr.
“Good morning, master dvergr. I meant no disrespect and was only expressing surprise,” Nerous hastily greeted the man standing above them. “My name is Nerous, as you can see, I am an alf.” Once again, he was thankful for his mother’s powerful genes that made him look almost completely like an alf.
“Yes, I can see that. Who is that beside you?” The dvergr asked and pointed at Nimeton. “He looks human.”
“He is Nimeton, my travel companion and a trusted friend. We come in peace and wish to seek shelter with your people,” The half-alf prince explained, his tone and manners completely different from when he talked to his friend only moments earlier. “May I ask for your name, master dvergr?”
“You may, but I may or may not tell you,” The addressee responded with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Taken aback by the answer, Nerous was speechless. A moment later, the dvergr broke out in laughter and walked along the cliff until he came to a slope, from which he descended. Watching, dumbfounded, neither of the two companions said a word, until the dvergr approached them. Only then did they notice that he was about three-and-a-half measures tall, a measure and a half smaller than Nerous. “My name is Eysteinn, they call me Rockbiter.” Dvergr had no last names, but used titles they were given by their parents sometime during their childhood, based on a prominent character trait they displayed. Not questioning how he got the epithet of “Rockbiter”, the two boys paid their respects in bows of varying degrees, with Nerous’ being little more than a nod. After all, he was still royalty.
“We don’t accept humans into our halls. You should know best, after all the things they did to your people,” Eysteinn said and looked at Nimeton disapprovingly. There was no hint of hostility in his eyes, as he did not see the slender boy as a threat; wielding a battle axe that looked like it could split a grown human wearing full plate armor in half meant that he was confident in his skills to handle a situation involving two unarmed boys.
“I owe my life to Nimeton. Without him, I would not have made it all the way here. Not all humans are bad, master Eysteinn,” Nerous argued for the sake of his friend. “He suffered the same fate as I, and we escaped from the human who held us prisoner together.” He did not want to mention that they had been kept as sex slaves by a man who had a preference for little boys.
“Please, master Eysteinn, take Nerous in. If I am to become an obstacle to him being allowed into your halls, then I shall stay behind,” Nimeton stated, to the astonishment of the half-alf. “Nerous, do not worry about me. You are meant for greatness, while I am just another stone to serve as the foundation for your future. You should discard me when I become a hindrance.” The dvergr listened to his words with interest.
“What shall it be?” He asked, urging the half-alf to make a decision.
“No, I will not leave you behind, Nimeton. I will take you along on my path to kinghood, and you will be by my side to witness my ascension!” Nerous announced firmly, his expression befitting of a king’s countenance. Softer, he added, “Never speak such sad words again, my friend.”
“Who are you, boy?” Eysteinn asked, when he witnessed his kingly appearance. Turning to him, Nerous responded with dignity. “I am Nerous Eventyr, son of Queen Ihana Eventyr of the ljosalfar and Isidore Ohm Zenter, of the imperial family of Zenter.” The dvergr’s eyes widened in surprise, as he was able to see the clarity of the half-alf’s eyes and tell that he was not lying.
“If the dvergr will not allow my friend to accompany me, I shall go and seek the help of less narrow-minded people,” Nerous continued and motioned to leave, but was held back by Eysteinn’s voice. “Please wait. Excuse my rudeness earlier, but I have my orders in regards of humans. If you vouch for him, I can allow you both to enter, though.” He looked apologetic.
“I promise on my life that Nimeton will not cause you any trouble,” The half-alf stated unhesitatingly. Upon these words, tears welled up in the human boy’s eyes, and he turned away in embarrassment. The two had shared many hardships, but Nerous’ words were an affirmation of their strong bonds that would not be shattered by something so simple. In that moment, Eysteinn was impressed with the half-alf’s fortitude despite his young age and the experiences he must have endured since the fall of Alfheimr.
“I salute your spirit, Nerous Eventyr. I shall personally lead you to the Great Halls of Myrkheimr and request an audience with my king for you,” The dvergr paid his respects and presented his weapon in a salute. His heart had been moved by Nerous, who showed the potential of a great king in his bearings and decisions despite not even being of age. Looking at the human who had earned so much trust from this king in the making, Eysteinn wondered just what their past together had been. However, it was not his place to ask anything more and he began to lead the way to the dvergr kingdom’s entrance.
Following their dvergr guide’s lead, Nerous and Nimeton finally felt like their journey had returned back on its tracks. Eysteinn led them through the mountains for almost half a day, all the while speaking about their surroundings and the state of the world at large. The two boys opted to listen instead of responding, as both lacked insight into the topics the dvergr addressed. Through him, they learned many things from the perspective of those who lived isolated and seemingly apart from the times, watching the world of man sink into chaos.
They soon approached an inconspicuous wall in a ravine, without the hint of a pathway leading up to it. When Eysteinn put his hand on it and spoke a few words in the dvergr tongue, blue glowing runes played across its surface. A gate slid open slowly, revealing an opening wide enough to let three dvergr pass through side by side, but only tall enough for the two boys to enter without having to lower their heads. Most humans would find the ceiling too low to walk in upright, but the small folk did not adjust their gates to fit the size of the large folks.
Yet, first impressions proved to be misleading, as the passage only continued on for a few paces in, where another wall blocked their path. This one, however, was clearly worked and had a well-ornamented surface. Unlike the previous gate, this one had to be pushed open by manpower. Yet, it looked surprisingly easy, despite its thickness, when Eysteinn put both hands against it and swung open the two wings of the gate. A grand entrance hall lay before them; the two travellers were struck speechless by the unexpected sight and the size that seemed fitting for a human palace.
Within the hall were several dvergr guards, and unlike Eysteinn, they were all wearing full plate armor and wielding halberds, watching over the guests with observant eyes. Although the base of their gear was uniform, they each had individually styled parts such as attached talismans, etching and engravings, or additional plating in certain areas to suit their personal tastes and needs. This showed that the dvergr valued personality within their armies as much as they did discipline - despite their unique looks, their stances were all the same and displayed perfect vigilance.
One guard with golden pauldrons, instead of the silver ones worn by all the others, approached them and blocked their path forward. His beard was white and tied into one large braid that almost reached his knees, showing that he was of advanced age. Emerald eyes glanced over Nerous and Nimeton, before coming to a rest on Eysteinn’s, their harsh glint posing the question before their owner gave voice to them a moment later. “Who are they, Eysteinn?”
“This is Nerous Eventyr, of the ljosalfar royal family,” The addressed dvergr responded with a gesture. “Speak to him and you will understand that he is the real deal, Captain Stigr.”
“I can see that he is an alf, at least. We have been ordered to give shelter to their people after the extermination war, so he may enter. But this one is human,” The dvergr named Stigr responded coldly, ignoring the mention of royalty. Nerous was about to protest, but their guide stepped up in his stead.
“Prince Nerous vouched for this young lad with his life, and I have put my trust in him. If anything should happen, it will be my responsibility,” Eysteinn stated resolutely and held a fist to his chest. “Besides, it’s unsightly to be wary of an unarmed boy who looks half starved.” At these words, the captain shot the two boys another frigid glance before making way for them. His eyes suggested that they would be closely watched for the duration of their stay, or until there was no more reason for suspicion, at least. Indeed, he ordered two of the heavy guards to accompany them on their path deeper into the mountain.
At the end of the hall was a flight of stairs, leading up to a large archway. Climbing the steps towards it, Nerous and Nimeton looked around and stared at the reliefs carved into the walls surrounding them, showing dvergr miners holding real diamonds the size of their fists, soldiers in heavily ornamented armor creating a shield wall against an onslaught of dark creatures of lore, and builders constructing the great halls under the supervision of a dvergr wearing a magnificent crown of a silvery metal.
“That’s real mithril,” Eysteinn commented when he noticed the gaze of the two boys. “This is a relief of the founding father of the dvergr kingdom, King Arndorr Hammerfist.” Noticing their wondering expressions, he began to explain about King Arndorr. “It was in an age when the yrch still existed and ruled the natural cave systems under the mountains in the Jotunfjeldene. The jotnar were still a feral race and occupied the more shallow caves at higher altitudes. When the first dvergr arrived in these parts and wished to dig for hidden riches, they were attacked by the yrch. King Arndorr led many expeditions against them and after many winters, was able to drive them from the cave system in which you’re now standing. This was the first step towards creating the dvergr kingdom. By the end of his life, the yrch had all but disappeared from the Jotunfjeldene, and the dvergr had flourished and expanded greatly.”
While explaining, they had passed through the archway and entered a long corridor that seemed to disappear in the distance. Intricately carved pillars lined the path and granted more glimpses into the history of the dvergr kingdom’s birth. All the while, Eysteinn’s baritone voice brought the imagery to life through a tone as steady as a narrator’s trained in lore. Nerous felt as if he was travelling back in time, witnessing the heroic battles of the dvergr against the yrch, feeling the elation at the discovery of crystal veins and mithril deposits deep underground, and sharing in the pride of completing work on architecture that easily put any other race’s to shame.
Thus, the two travellers were given a tour through the history of the rise of the dvergr kingdom, as they neared the end of the corridor. From beyond the archway ahead came the warm lights of fires and the river-like murmuring of a lively town, but nothing could have prepared them for the sight that greeted them. The tunnel opened up to reveal a massive cavern that would have looked like it had no ceiling, if it had not been for the fact that it should still have been bright outside. However, a starry sky greeted them, and it became clear that the celestial bodies were in fact myriads of large luminescent gemstones. Titanic towers, which were actually pillars that held up the sky above, had windows revealing dvergr going about their daily activities inside them. A wide stairway led downwards into the sprawling city constructed all around these pillars, which was brightly illuminated by lanterns that actually utilized crystals rather than fire. The streets were bustling with activity, peddlers selling a variety of goods including craftwork and foodstuffs, people carrying tools and hurrying to and fro, well-dressed dvergr who looked like they were heading to dine with friends. It was a prosperous and peaceful city, more so than any human city was in these troubled times.
It was a sight to behold, incomparable to anything either of the two travellers had seen before. Even though Nerous had memories of how Alfheimr looked before its destruction, and although the architecture of the alfar had a different sort of aesthetic that could not be dismissed, it paled in comparison to what lay before him. While from a human’s perspective both possessed an equal amount of mysticism, in pure splendor and effort that went into its construction, the city of the dvergr was on a different level altogether.
“Welcome to the capital of the dvergr kingdom,” Eysteinn announced with his chest puffed out in pride upon seeing the two boys stare in blank amazement. “Welcome to Myrkheimr.”
The Halls of Myrkheimr would have been considered the ninth of the Eight Wonders of Yggdra, if their compilers - humans of Zenter - could have witnessed their magnificence. Incidentally, the World Tree of Alfheimr had been ranked second, before its destruction, while the city of Zenter had been third, before it was burned down. However, taking the halls as a whole would not do it enough justice; the Starlight Canopy, as the ceiling with the inlaid gems was called, with the massive support pillars a hundred paces tall, could be considered a wonder on its own. Located at the center of the extensive underground city housing nearly a hundred thousand dvergr, which was about a third of their entire population in the Jotunfjeldene, was an even bigger wonder - the royal palace.
Unlike the extensive Imperial Palace in Zenter, which was a city within a city, the dvergr seat of centralized power resembled a castle with its tall, fortified walls. As could be seen in the entrance hall and tunnel that led to the Halls of Myrkheimr, dvergr construction always kept practical defenses in mind. Even then, their inherent artistic values and skilled engineering allowed them to weave beauty into functionality. The palace walls were a single large, partially three-dimensional relief, depicting a layered army wielding arms and banners, their armaments and armors made of real steel and kept in perfect order at all times. Thus, rather than just blank walls, it was as if a large force was guarding the king of the dvergr at all times. The craftsmanship and work that went into this part alone easily matched in magnificence the records of the Mausoleum of Alkaios Ohm Zenter, another one of the Eight Wonders, which held an army of nearly a hundred thousand individually carved marble statues to serve as the deceased first emperor’s final watch.
The glistening armors and weapons on the wall could be seen from afar, as the two boys were led through the city of Myrkheimr, guided by Eysteinn and now followed by four guards. They had increased upon entering the halls, where a hidden guardhouse had noticed their approach and sent more personnel to escort them. Nerous and Nimeton did not even pay notice to that fact, as their eyes were glued on the buildings, peddled produce and the people walking the streets. Among those of the typically small stature of the dvergr, the half-alf spotted some of the tall folks and noticed that they all featured light-colored hair in silver or blonde. They were alfar refugees, the first of his people he had seen since the destruction of Alfheimr.
The alfar living among the dvergr all looked well kempt and despite having lost their home, they did not look downtrodden. Without exception, they moved about with purpose, some carrying bags or tools, while others were deep in conversation with the dvergr they walked alongside. For a moment, overwhelming relief and happiness washed over Nerous that he had to stop. After finally witnessing the state of his home, he had expected the worst, thinking that the few surviving alfar scattered were all either slaves to humans or refugees treated with contempt by the other non-human races. Seeing that his brethren were doing well in such an unlikely place caused him to choke up with emotion.
“What’s wrong?” Eysteinn noticed that Nerous had stopped and turned back around. Nimeton understood very well and responded in his companion’s stead. “There are many alfar who have found peace with you here.”
In surprise, their dvergr guide followed the half-alf’s gaze, seeing the alfar that looked like they integrated into their new environment. “It’s only natural, our people had great relations before the war. In fact, I was here when your mother visited our current king, Eileifr Steelbender, with your older sister.” He was speaking to Nerous, who spun his head around at these words.
“You knew my mother and sister?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I knew them, I only saw them when their procession entered the city and walked through the streets to the royal palace. When I saw her, I knew that she was the queen of the alfar, and the little girl by her side must have been her daughter. It has been more than fifteen winters since, but I will remember that day as one of the greatest in my life. I witnessed your mother’s goddess-like beauty, which put even the greatest gem ever cut by dvergr hands to shame.” Eysteinn looked like he was reminiscing of better times, as a melancholic expression had appeared on his weathered features, but he quickly pulled himself out of it. “Sorry for prattling on. Let’s go.”
Hearing of his mother and sister, Nerous was reminded of the fact that the latter was most likely still alive. The one saving grace of alfar sold into slavery was that they were generally expensive - as long as the seller knew his craft - and that they were treated fairly well by the buyers. After all, he had never been beaten or had to starve, unlike lesser slaves he had seen on his journey since his escape. He knew that Lahya was a strong girl and would find a way out; most likely she had already escaped long before he had, and was on the run as well. Despite the size of Yggdra, he was confident that they would meet again, as their natural lifespans would allow them to survive many human eras to come.
Even though there was a strong urge to stop and speak with the alfar refugees, Nerous withstood it and continued along the main road that led them to the gates of the royal palace. There was a deep moat surrounding the citadel, seemingly disappearing into infinite darkness below, which had not been visible from afar. Standing so close to the ornamented walls, the fully equipped army of statues could be seen in its glistening glory. If one were to approach even closer, it would become evident that every single dvergr’s face was individually cast and crafted, making them even more lifelike.
“The faces you see here belong to the men and women who lost their life in the service of the kingdom, or performed great heroic deeds for which they deserve to be remembered,” Eysteinn explained. “Since we have enjoyed peace for a long time, only a handful have been added over the past few decades.” Nimeton wondered what they would do once the wall was completely full, but he did not voice it, as an important-looking dvergr in full armor approached them.
“Who do you bring before the king, Eysteinn?” The guard with platinum pauldrons asked, flanked by two others wearing gilded armor. It was clear that they were royal guards, their gear neat and uniform, unlike the border patrols’. The one standing before them was a captain, although he looked higher in rank than Stigr.
Before their dvergr guide could answer, Nerous stepped forward resolutely, wearing a regal expression that was not beneath a powerful king’s - despite the fact that he held no power, political or military, and did not even possess any land. For the third time of the day, the half-alf’s name and titles were stated, and thinly veiled surprise played over the faces of the dvergr. However, it was not as easy to convince the royal guard, tasked with protecting the king, of his identity, as it had been those before them.
“What proof do you have of your claim, Nerous Eventyr?” The captain asked, looking over the two boys with a gauging gaze. Their appearance did not suggest that the half-alf in question could produce any heirloom or recognizable possession that proved his bloodline. In fact, Nerous had expected to sooner or later meet someone who would not so easily trust him, even if there was not a hint of falsehood to be found in his words.
“I have no proof other than my own memories and can only rely on the trust of those who choose to believe me. I do not claim, I am,” He responded, calmly and in a tone as if he was making a simple statement about the weather. “At the fall of Alfheimr I was too young to be recognized by the alfar you have under your protection now, so they cannot attest to my identity. Those who would know have all died, killed before my very eyes. However, if you were to choose to doubt me, not even another attesting to my person would sway your opinion.” Truly, Nerous had no means to prove that he was alfar royalty, other than through persuasion. His bearings were completely different from one of low birth, but a person could not be judged through that alone. “I only wish for an audience with your king to thank him for his kindness in taking in alfar refugees and giving them a chance at life. You may bring me before him in chains, if you fear that I may pose a threat.”
At these words, the royal guard captain looked taken aback, his eyes fixed on Nerous’ absolutely serious ones. Then, he seemed to realize something and tilted his head slightly. “I feel like I have seen you before... a long time ago. By the side of Queen Ihana Eventyr, a small child.”
“No, that was my sister, Lahya Eventyr,” Nerous responded truthfully, not attempting to abuse the hazy memory of the captain to gain an advantage. “I was not yet born at that time, more than fifteen winters ago.” For a moment, the dvergr went silent and gazed at the half-alf, before finally closing his eyes.
“I cannot know whether you are truly Prince Nerous Eventyr or not, but I can say with conviction that you are not a bad person. I shall speak to the king and ask for an audience. Please follow me,” He continued as he opened his eyes again. “And we will not put you in chains, do not worry.” Adding with a slight smile, he turned around and signaled for Nerous and Nimeton to come along. The guards that had accompanied them so far turned away and proceeded back to their positions, with only Eysteinn remaining by their side.
The interior of the palace was not decorated in luxurious but meaningless items, as human ones were, but featured rich engravings and reliefs adorning every pillar and wall. The main hall saw two rows of statues in different attires lining the red carpet. Some were in armor, others in scholarly drapes, while there were even ones looking like craftsmen, such as a blacksmith wielding a hammer and a stonemason carrying a brick and a spatula. However, one feature they all shared were the crowns sitting on their heads, each unique to the person; they were the monarchs of the past. The two boys expected that Eysteinn would begin to introduce them, but he remained silent, wearing an expression of solemn pride at the sight of the statues.
Soon, the royal guard captain led the visitors into a room with an almost rustic looking sofa and a stone tablet tea table. Dvergr handiwork was made to last for ages, so their furniture was no different. Nonetheless, the clean cushions were soft, more so for the two boys who had been sleeping under the open sky for the past few weeks, ever since leaving Theoron’s abode. Sitting down, they heaved a comfortable sigh and leaned back, causing Eysteinn to look at them in amusement. The captain left to see the king and request an audience for the two, taking the solemnity he exuded with him. It was not long before the three began to chat again.
“Yes, we dvergr are not a hereditary monarchy. A high council consisting of the greatest people in every field elects the king when the former one dies or steps down. It was a rule King Arndorr set, when he felt that his children were incompetent,” Eysteinn responded to the question regarding the statues and the differing occupations they seemed to depict. He then returned to the topic regarding the fact that very little luxury could be seen all around the city, despite dvergr being known for unearthing immense riches from the bowels of the mountains. “Humans call us greedy, because we seem to have an inexhaustible supply of precious metals and gems. But it’s them who take those trinkets for payment most willingly. To us, those aren’t worth much, since we have plenty. We only dig for more and craft for personal enrichment. There is enough silver, gold or platinum for many generations to come to play around with. The rough gems in storage are piled into mountains, waiting for artists to cut them into the unique shapes they envision.”
Nerous was deeply impressed with the ideology of the dvergr kingdom; the plenty brought on by the trade with other races - up until recent years including the humans of Zenter and the alfar - meant that there were none who had to starve. Enrichment of one’s mind was more important than of one’s pockets, as artistry, not luxury, was viewed as the highest form of self-expression. Every dvergr was an artist at heart, including those who spent most of their lives digging deeper into the mountains to find more riches. There were those who expressed themselves in the tunnels they dug, the pillars they carved, the tools they shaped with their hands and the walls they laid. It was similar to but also different from how the alfar had lived in Alfheimr; in a society where housing could be created from the nature that surrounded them and food grew in abundance, none were homeless or had to starve either. But while dvergr valued personal enrichment in craftsmanship and handiwork, alfar weaved songs and stories, and grew art through nature.
Before visiting Myrkheimr, the half-alf prince had had the same impression of dvergr as humans had; that they were isolationists who carved out the bowels of the earth for the last specks of riches just to hoard them greedily. His view of the small folk improved on every turn, the more he learned about them. Eysteinn told them that in the various phases of the kingdom’s history, different kings were valued. Such as when a great cave-in happened and the previous king passed away, a digger had been elected as the successor. Under his guidance, the caverns of the entire kingdom were reinforced, and there had not been any incidents since. On another occasion, a blacksmith’s unique crafting technique netted him an election, whose genius revolutionized tool making among the dvergr as a whole.
Unlike the alfar, whose monarchs changed very rarely and of whom little governing was required, the dvergr ones brought fluidity into the entire society. Nerous’ mother had been the queen since times immemorial, and little had changed within the alfar, even after the arrival of the humans on the continent over two thousand winters ago. Maybe it was because of Alfheimr’s location and the powerful magic wielded by its people in the past that they never developed a keen sense of defensive functionality in their architecture. The dark races that had been stalking the continent had not even been worth mentioning in alfar history, as they had never posed enough of a threat that turned into a war meriting songs of heroism.
“The king has agreed to grant you an audience,” The guard captain returned and announced, interrupting the three in their sharing of stories and information. Following his guidance, they walked through the halls of the palace and came before a large door, flanked by two heavy guards. Pushing them open, the captain led them inside.
The throne room held a modest beauty just like the rest of the palace. The tall ceiling supported by pillars fitted with numerous nameplates carved on various materials, was illuminated by three massive chandeliers utilizing the same glowing gems used in the lamps in the streets of the city. The names on the pillars belonged to the people who died in the service of the kingdom, their presence in the throne room a constant reminder to the monarch that the fate of many lives rested on his shoulders.
Flanked by Eysteinn and Nimeton, who in turn were flanked by two royal guards, Nerous was guided by the captain. He maintained an air of dignity, while trying not to appear haughty, approaching the end of the hall where a lone dvergr sat on the richly ornamented throne. He was without a doubt King Eileifr Steelbender, and as with all of his folk, his age was hard to judge. His long moustache was tied into braids using golden rings, while his beard was left open, hanging down all the way to his silver belt. His attire was one that belonged to a militaristic king, as opposed to those of the craftsmen or menial workers displayed in the statues in the entrance hall. His mysterious hazel eyes watched over the approach of his guests, not betraying any premature judgment upon their outwards appearance.
It seemed that there was no custom of kneeling before their king for the dvergr, unlike with human leaders, who reveled in the submissiveness they demanded of their subjects. Then again, asking of warriors in full plate armor to kneel at every turn was not very efficient, and would result in many bad knees over the course of a long career. Thus, neither the guard captain nor Eysteinn kneeled, and instead bowed to pay their respects. Following their example, Nimeton’s bow was lower, owing to his status as a guest who was only reluctantly allowed in. Stepping forward, Nerous put his right palm to his chest, his left hand on his back, and lowered his head with his eyes closed, performing the customary greeting of the alfar.
“Step forward, young alf,” Eileifr said, his voice soft despite the almost harsh-sounding demand lacking all honorifics. Not minding it, knowing that the dvergr king did not yet believe his identity, Nerous did as requested. When he was at the bottom of the three steps leading up to the throne, Eileifr stood up and looked into the half-alf’s eyes from almost the same height, staring for a long time. “You got your mother’s eyes...” With an almost melancholic whisper, he finally spoke. For a moment, Nerous did not understand what he meant and an expression of surprise played over his features. Coming down the steps, Eileifr continued, as he had to look up. “Have you grown, my boy. Must be your father’s blood in you.”
“Have we met before?” Nerous grasped the meanings behind the dvergr king’s words and asked in confusion. Alfar had an exceptional memory, and half-alfar generally inherited that trait; thus, he could say with certainty that he had never been to Myrkheimr in his childhood. Furthermore, before the age from which his memory began, he would not have been taken on a journey into the Jotunfjeldene.
“I came to Alfheimr to celebrate your birth, so of course, you wouldn’t remember. That was the last time I saw your parents, too,” Eileifr explained, looking up at the half-alf warmly. The sadness in the depths of his eyes deeply affected Nerous, who was once again reminded of the fate of his people, the death of his parents before his eyes and his separation from his sister, at the time his last bastion of hope in the world of man. Tears appeared in the corners of his eyes and he involuntarily wiped them away, noticing that he had begun crying.
“I’m sorry, I must have reminded you of many bad things,” The dvergr king quickly said when he saw the half-alf’s tears. “Come, let us sit down and talk of brighter things over a meal.”
On a long wooden table that looked like it had been carved from a single large tree trunk, Nerous and Nimeton found the luxurious abundance of food they had come to know from meals their former master had pleased himself with almost every day. However, unlike the case of that particular human, there were more people attending the feast; a female dvergr with silvery hair, and a child with dark blonde hair, had joined them, and Eysteinn remained with them in the background - until the woman suddenly addressed him.
“How’ve you been doing, Eysteinn? How’s the border watch?” She asked, a hint of mischief in her tone and demeanor. “Still as boring as ever?”
“It’s always been boring, but more so since you left to become the queen. But at least it’s become quieter,” The dvergr border guard turned guide to the two boys responded, in no way sounding like he was speaking to the wife of his king. However, what would have been considered disrespectful by humans only earned him laughter from the woman.
“Come and greet your uncle, Yngvildr,” The queen turned to the child behind her, who complied, waddled over and hugged Eysteinn. It would appear that he was the brother of the queen. Wide-eyed, both Nerous and Nimeton stared at him, who returned the gaze with a delighted smile while petting his niece’s hair.
“Don’t mind it. Just because I’m a member of the family of the woman who happened to marry into royalty, who happened to be elected because of his suitability rather than his lineage... you get the picture. I’m but Eysteinn Rockbiter, a gravel-crunching border guard,” He waved off the entire issue. It had become very clear that the dvergr did not have a rigid social structure, and unlike with the emperor of Zenter, the king was not revered like a god.
“My name is Ragnhildr, they call me Mithrilhair,” The queen introduced herself. “Even though it was only because as a child I hung around a dig site, played where I shouldn’t have and caused a small cave-in, in which a mithril nugget caught in my hair. There is the saying that names make the people, and I think everyone calling me Mithrilhair made my hair go gray, even though I’m not that old.” Her explanation elicited a knowing grin from Eysteinn, while Eileifr watched the introduction with amusement.
In turn, Nerous and Nimeton stated their own names, finishing up the round of introductions. Familiarized with each other, they began to eat the prepared feast, which featured traditional dvergr food such as various types of cheese, smoked hams and freshly baked bread. There was grilled lamb, mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables and other dishes that were similar to human cuisine. Maybe because of the similarity in their lifestyles, the dvergr and humans had been in good relations up until the Mad Emperor’s emergence.
It was the first warm meal in weeks and the two wanderers could barely hold themselves back from digging in with reckless abandon. Nerous, especially, had to maintain a dignified air - or so he thought - until he witnessed the table manners of the dvergr royal family. Judging from their architecture and attitude towards superiors, it should not have been surprising to find that they did not live like human high society and observed strict etiquettes during meals. In short, they used their hands when it was more convenient, and chomped down with little regard to how people viewed them. Speechlessly, the half-alf and human boy watched the display that one would normally expect to see at a tavern. However, there was a sense of familiarity in it, and they both preferred it to the stiffness of an official banquet. Soon, they followed the example and helped themselves to the meal.
“So, you’re here to seek shelter, right?” Eileifr asked, when he reached for a drink.
“For now,” Nerous responded and turned to look at the dvergr king.
“What do you plan on doing?”
“I want to rebuild Alfheimr. With the death of those who tried to continue the Mad Emperor’s work, man has no reason to persecute our kind any further. But with the turmoil among them, no official stance has been chosen and the status quo is just being maintained,” The half-alf explained, showing that he put much thought into how to realize his ambitions. “This civil war may continue for many winters, maybe even tens of winters. I will gather influence among the free folks in that time.”
“So you plan an alliance between those the humans wronged in the war?” Ragnhildr asked. “I believe you will be able to gather many talented people to follow you in that endeavor. Especially the jotnar will look for revenge. After the alfar, they were hit the hardest.”
“But I want to create an alliance not just between the free folks, but also with those humans who stood by our side and refused to follow the mad orders. Alexis of Aegae and Galeno of Rhamnus are powerful lords who opposed the Mad Emperor and defended the jotnar,” Nerous proceeded to elaborate his future plans. “I believe they can become our allies.”
“Indeed, Countess Alexis is a good friend of ours and Aegae is the only fiefdom of Zenter we are still in a trade agreement with,” Eileifr interjected, confirming that the human in question also possessed connections to the dvergr. “She may be of great help to you when you want to gather influence among man.”
“By your grace, I would like to remain here for a while, and study the affairs of the world first. Since the fall of Alfheimr, I have not had much opportunity for self-improvement.” The request and slightly bashful admission netted a friendly laugh from the dvergr king.
“Of course, you may stay here for as long as you wish, my boy. That also applies to your friend.” Being so suddenly mentioned, Nimeton flinched in the middle of biting into a piece of lamb meat. He had been listening intently while eating, not expecting to become the topic of the conversation, when they were speaking of the future of the non-human world. “Thank you, Your Majesty!” He expressed his gratitude after hastily swallowing the food in his mouth. Amused, Eileifr nodded his head in a benevolent gesture.
Nerous watched the exchange with a feeling of content; he had stepped onto the road to redemption with this. For now he could breathe easy, but he knew that the timing for his return as the king of the alfar would be very important. As long as the humans were at war with their own kind, he could work to solidify his claim, but once there was peace, he had to make his move as quickly as possible. If the new leader of the humans proved to be another Mad Emperor, Nerous wanted to be ready with all the free folk behind him; if it were somebody who sought peace on the continent, he could then bargain as an equal and demand an inviolable agreement for the future.
But for now, he could grant himself some respite.