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Sunnun, Samhain Tenth-Day, 150-5
(Sunday, November 10th, Year 150, 5th Era)
The King’s Spire - Durial, The Warding Range
It should have been a day of celebration – for the first time in over a hundred and fifty years, a Warden King could finally claim the Granite Throne. But, that victory had come at a high price and Kælig An Órga - “The Golden” - was a reluctant heir to his cousin’s Spired Helm.
He stood in the middle of the wall-walk and gazed solemnly out beyond the parapets above the great gates of Durial - also known as “the Warden’s Spire” - which was the chief peak of the Warding Range. Kæl was tempted to lean against the ancient stones and shift some of the pressure of standing so tall off of his “compromised” leg. That was a term Brìg had coined - Kæl had given the old Dvär-dame a scowl at the suggestion, but it did sound better than “bad”, or “eternally damaged”, or “near-useless”. He would have that “compromised leg” for the rest of his life, the Blood Charmer had told him reluctantly. During his youth, the leg would probably give him little trouble, although it would likely react poorly to any cold or damp weather. But otherwise, it was not an immediate deterrent - a weakness that few ever needed to know about, Brìg had insisted. The last thirty-one days of rest and mourning had helped what of his leg could be healed, but even so, standing straight with the heavy weight of a woolen tabard made Kæl’s knee tremble ever-so-slightly.
Or, perhaps, the weakness in his knee was just an illusion, conjured by his weary mind. Kæl stared forlornly out across the flat plain of dead grass that stretched between the Gates and the distant sea-side settlement of Breekan, and thought of the history that had brought him to this moment.
It had begun with the Elder Plague in the seven-hundredth year of the fourth era, during the reign of his cousin Rohkea, the son of a Kymryan dragon and a Dvären mother. An unknown wasting disease began to kill the trees and other flora of the mountains; it started in the far western edges of the Range and traveled swiftly south through the Ystod Gwyn Mountains in northern Kymry. It proved deadly for Kymry’s Ellyllon, who were bound by blood and magic to the sentient trees of their realm. Matters turned critical when the Elder Queen – Matriarch of Kymry’s three Ellyllian Houses – grew ill after contact with plague survivors from the Ystod Gwyn. Realizing, finally, that this was no ordinary plague, Rohkea launched an investigation and discovered treachery within the Gard Dwfn, or “Deep Guard” – the group of hand-picked warrior-mages who personally guarded the many levels of the Deep Prisons beneath the Range.
A Dvären Gard named Valtar and a dragon Gard named Mair had both been corrupted by the most dangerous of the Deep Prisons’ inhabitants – the Queen of the Unblessed herself, Cailleach the Blue Hag. Mair and Valtar had begun experimenting with the Forbidden Knowledge – with necromancy – and had created the Elder Plague through an unholy combination of rune and blood magic. The resulting pestilence poisoned the earth, starting in their section of the Warding Range, and then traveling swiftly out into the surrounding countryside. This not only killed all flora and fauna on the Warding Range, but the Elder Queen herself; the plague also weakened the wild earth magic and grounding stone-binding that had kept the Unblessed locked in the Deeps for seven hundred years.
Rohkea’s Dvären wife, Pekka - a powerful Rune Binder - took the last of the loyal Gard and waged battle with those of the Unblessed that had broken free of their prison, but hadn’t yet managed to escape the Deeps. Unfortunately, in trying to seal the Deep Prisons’ only point of entry-and-exit from the rest of the Range, Pekka and her Gard paid the ultimate price for their efforts. Ale, Rohkea’s half-brother from his mother’s side, led a mass evacuation from the mountains, after a week-long battle within the Warden’s Spire destroyed the Range’s army. And Rohkea made his last stand on the plague-ravaged plain outside of Durial’s gates, against both Mair and Valtar. From that final battle, only Mair emerged alive.
With the Deeps sealed and Valtar dead, the Elder Plague disappeared. The only Unblessed left within the Range were locked inside their Prisons, thanks to the powerful and valiant sacrifice of the Gard and its Captain. But, the Men of Änglia’s northern moors, which bordered the Warding Range, and all the Ellyllon of Kymry blamed both dragons and Dvär for what had happened. A Great Purge swept across Kymry and Änglia, in which many Aos Sí, Dvär and An Síoraí (“the Eternal” races, of which dragons were a part) were slaughtered by the hundreds, or forced to flee. Most of those who survived found their home in Eíru, as Finvarra – the great Sí King of the Isle – remembered only too well the bloody, persecuted history of his own kin in the centuries before.
Seventy years later, in Finvarra’s chief city of Kilairn, Kælig and his twin sister, Kionna, were born to the dragon Heulfryn and a female Sí - a Woodwose, or Wild Woman, of the forest. Because of the Purge on Keltær’s mainland, Kæl and Kionna were the first Ddraig - children of a dragon with one of the non-Eternal races - to be born since the fall of the Warding Range. As direct kin to Rohkea and the first-born, Kionna was named heir to the Granite Throne.
Kionna had grown up knowing her duty – to reclaim the Warding Range from the crazed Mair. And so she, her husband, her father, and her brother had set sail with an army of Eíru’s best.
The battle for the Range had been brutal. An army of five hundred had been reduced to three hundred, and of its leaders, only Kæl had survived.
I should be dead, too, he thought; his hands curled into fists of anger against his emerald tabard.
He could have sworn that he had been dead. Kæl absently rubbed the still-tender wound that rode high on his right thigh. The fact that he was standing, breathing, living, was a powerful testimony to the scope of Brìg’s healing blood magick. She alone, a Dvär-dame of nearly two-hundred years, had brought him back to the living; her brother, Dag, had said that the severity of the wound had all but killed Kæl by the time he was found, broken and bleeding on the cracked stones of the Judgment Hall.
Pàrlan, Brìg’s apprentice, could handle what was left in the wake of the Blood Charmer’s work and the jagged holes that Mair’s ice-tipped fangs had left behind were all but scarred over now. Kæl didn’t think, though, that he would ever forget the soul-freezing cold that had pierced into the very marrow of his bones. It seemed, too, that grief reawakened that fiery, blue-cold pain; every time he turned with a joke on the tip of his tongue, only to see that it was now Dag who stood beside him and not Kionna, Kæl could feel ice move beneath his scar tissue and freeze the blood straight to his heart.
The loss of Kionna – his constant companion from even before their birth – cut far past flesh and muscle, and straight into Kæl’s once-untarnished heart. It seemed - especially at moments like this when he felt the weight of his cousin’s kingdom on his shoulders - that the dragon’s magick was still killing him slowly from the inside.
“Oh, there you are,” a familiar alto voice jolted Kæl from his dark reverie and he turned slowly around to watch a curiously long-eared creature huff-and-puff up the last of the stairs. “Broc and Dag are beside themselves…”
The little lass stopped and rested her hands on her knees so that she could take a moment to catch her breath. Kæl raised a thick eyebrow - once a smile would have accompanied such a movement, but now his lips stayed firmly drawn in a neutral line. It was the best that he could manage these days - not quite his father’s infamous scowl, but not his own easy, roguish grin of before. It was something in-between and nothing at all. Kæl, as an archer of no small acclaim in his native Eíru, had long ago learned to observe dispassionately from the background. He now relied heavily on that integral part of himself, to help him tamper down the grief and the harrowing pain that felt like it would ravage his soul straight to the grave.
“You look as if you’ve run the whole way from the Deep, Báine,” Kæl pointed out with just the faintest note of alarm - the last thing he wanted was for one of his precious few allies to fall over from a failure of her heart.
“Oh, gracious, no,” Báine still leaned a hand against her right knee, but lifted her left hand and flapped it at Kæl in a gesture of dismissal. “Just from the kitchens, y’know? I ran into Dag while I was running an errand and he said he was looking for you. He seemed quite beside himself – you know how huffy and puffy that ole’ ax gets when he’s worked up. I thought it best if I find you first.”
“I suppose I should go and get on with it then,” Kæl spoke as if to himself as he turned his head back toward the battlements and squinted resentfully at the pale, but cheerful, midday sun.
“Oh, well...no rush, really...” Báine’s voice trailed off uncertainly.
Kæl had known the wee Púca long enough to know when she had something on her mind – and when she was hesitant to speak her mind. The half-dragon, half-Sí Ddraig glanced at the nervous Sí next to him and offered what he hoped was an encouraging smile.
“Speak your thoughts, Báine,” Kæl cajoled; he had learned long ago to approach the easily intimidated Púca-Coinín, or Rabbit Folk, gently and honestly.
“I miss Kionna,” Báine blurted after an uncertain pause; her dusty-brown cheeks flushed a pale rose and even though she turned her delicately-boned face away from him, Kæl could hear the tears quiver in her voice. “And Laird Torn...and Tiarna Heulfryn.”
He sighed deeply; the weight of the Spired Helm that awaited him below in the Judgment Hall, pressed down on his broad shoulders like a physical force. Oh, how he too missed his sister, his brother-in-law, his father.
“Would that any one of them had lived, instead of me,” Kæl’s voice rasped against the crystal winter air.
He regretted the words as soon as he had uttered them; here was little Báine, trying to share in their mutual loss, and he was selfishly voicing his darkest fear, his greatest regret. He knew that Báine had loved Kionna – most especially – with a fierce and passionate loyalty; Kæl also knew that Kionna had returned Báine’s friendship and love in equal measure. He should acknowledge the Púca’s loss, not turn her mourning toward his own secret fears.
He should have remembered, however, that the Rabbit Folk were a curiously perceptive people; even in the midst of her own grief, Báine heard what her new king wasn’t saying.
“You think they died for nothing,” Báine pressed her ears flat against her skull and turned her disconcertingly human face up to meet Kæl’s reluctant emerald eyes.
“I – ” words failed him and Kæl abruptly turned his gaze away from his companion to consider the parapets in front of them.
Báine was patient – ever, always patient – and waited in silence for Kael to choose his words. Finally, he shook his head, as if disagreeing with some internal dialogue and reached out to run a thick, scarred fingertip over a jagged crack that ran from the top of one merlon, down to the very floor at their feet.
“How many of us are left, Báine? Three hundred, maybe, if Brìg can save at least a quarter of the wounded? We’re a kingdom of thee hundred – how are we supposed to build a kingdom from so few?”
“There may only be three hundred of us, but every last one of us is loyal to you, my king,” Báine’s voice was soft against the high, whistling wind.
In many respects, Kæl was humbled by the Sí shape-shifter’s faith in him. In other ways, however, he was inexplicably frustrated by the unwavering purity of her conviction. He reached up and ran thick fingers through his short-cropped hair.
“In the end, what good does loyalty do us? This is a kingdom of ashes, Báine,” Kael stared forlornly out across the flat plain of dead grass that stretched between them and horizon.
A century and a half ago, Rohkea's desperate battle for the Range had torn the fertile earth of the plain; even after almost two generations, the landscape was still craggy and pock-marked. A hundred and fifty years since hadn’t been long enough for the land to forget the fatal Elder Plague, either. The bottom edges of the Range – once thick with evergreen forests – were still bare, the stumps of long-forgotten trees petrified in a mocking echo of the greatness they had once been. The sparse remaining trees – mostly saplings that had managed, miraculously, to take root in the last fifty years or so – were snow-dusted wraiths in the wan winter sunlight beneath the soft mantle of winter’s first snow.
“We need rune binders, builders, craftsmen, masons. Mair left the halls of Durial in ruins – what of the rest of the Range? How much destruction will we uncover in the coming years? And what of the Deep Prisons?” Kæl’s golden eyes turned to consider the Púca standing forlornly at his side. “We all know that part of a Warden King’s duties is to reinforce the bindings on the Prisons every nine years. How weak have the bindings set by the last King become in all this time? Surely some - if not many - of the Sluagh have escaped their prisons. How will we fight them? How will we imprison them again?” Kæl took a deep breath and then shook his head with a gloomy scowl. “I have the Elemental powers of my father – the Earth magick needed to create the Bindings. But, who among us knows the ancient magicks of stone and rune? Not a single one of the Dvär that remain of my sister's army how to anchor my wild magick to these mountains. Without that, we have no hope of containing the Unblessed.”
Báine was silent, sensing that Kæl had more to say. He hesitated only for a moment, before pouring out the rest of his frustrations, his fears, into the quiet midday around them.
“And I have nothing to rule. The earth still remembers the Elder Sorrow – in all these years, the forests haven’t grown back and the plains haven’t flowered. Who would live in such a place? With such a legacy of treachery and death, who would dare to be my ally? Who, outside of those who have fought and bled with me, would dare accept the sovereignty of a half-Sí Warden?”
Kæl turned toward Báine and held out a hand, as if beseeching her to help him, to stop him, to tell him that he was wrong. She could say nothing, though; he wouldn’t let her.
“I may be Ddraig, the son of a dragon. I may even be the cousin of the last Warden King to sit on the Granite Throne. But, I could never hide from the world that I am also the son of a Sí, of the very kith that brought not just this kingdom to ruin, but its allies as well. My very blood damns me.”
He could tell, as Báine’s bright brown eyes stared up into his deeply-tanned face, that she had no words of comfort for him. He even thought that maybe she had nothing to say at all, but as a single tear finally fell free from her long, dark lashes, she spoke.
“Kionna believed in you, your Majesty. She would have never named you heir with her dying breath if she hadn’t. And for that alone, not a single one of us has died in vain.”
Keskiviikko, Giblean Thirtieth-Day, 151-5
(Wednesday, April 30th, Year 151, 5th Era)
Palinius, Capital City of Änglia
“No, no, no, I will not,” Kivi Journeyman stomped resolutely around the corner base of the city’s seawall; her heavy-toed boots kicked up the chips of stone and mortar that littered the grassy knoll.
“But, Äiti -”
“No ‘buts’!” Kivi didn’t even bother glancing over her shoulder at her determined companion.
She threw up her right hand and shook her head; her thick, shoulder-length hair glinted a coppery blonde in the setting sun. She stopped next to one of the many scaffolds that towered over the knoll and bore silent testimony to the extent of the reconstruction that was being done to one of Palinius’ most sea-assaulted walls. She peered up toward the saffron-streaked sky and pursed her lips in irritation.
“The seawall will be reinforced in a matter of weeks,” her companion crossed his bulging arms over his equally bulging chest and dug his heels stubbornly into the spring-softened earth beneath his boots. “And then what will you do? You’ve all but single-handedly turned Palinius into the most fortified city in Keltær!”
“Work always comes, Seppä,” Kivi finally graced her fellow Dvär with a dour, side-long glance.
“Work has come now,” Seppä insisted, his voice starting to heat ever so slightly in anger.
“No,” Kivi’s frost-blue eyes turned quickly away, but Seppä saw the calculated look that flashed briefly across her broad and winsomely proportional face.
The black-haired smith took a deep, steadying breath.
She’s as stubborn as her mother ever was, he thought.
"Äiti,” Seppä addressed Kivi again and this time, his tone was level and persuasive. “It is a great honor that is being offered. You heard the Warden’s messenger - there are only two master masons among the Range’s Dvär. There are not enough to rebuild Durial, nor is there one skilled enough to lead such a noble endeavor.”
“I have only been at my craft for ten years,” Kivi remained seemingly unmoved, but Seppä could see enough of her profile to notice the way her eyes narrowed, as she was wont to do when turning over the angles of a blueprint in her mind.
“You first picked up your mother’s mason’s mallet when you were but fifty-one years old. You’re a young and thriving lass of eighty-three now. Remove your three years in captivity and you have been at your craft for twenty-nine years.”
“My mother was Kivi-Mestari and it took her forty-five years to claim that title.”
“And you have your mother’s skill. Better, even, I would say.”
“Flattery does not become you, Seppä,” Kivi finally lowered her gaze from the dying sun sinking below the crenelations above them and turned to stalk toward the garrison door forty or so paces away.
“’Tis mere fact, Äiti, and you know it,” Seppä followed with dogged patience.
“You shouldn’t call me Äiti,” Kivi had fought with Seppä about her hereditary title for ten whole years, so the argument was well-worn and she knew by now that she wasn’t going to win.
That didn’t stop her from reminding her Dvären elder ever so often that she was still uncomfortable with the fate that her mother had left to her.
“Your mother did not Twice-Name you for the idle satisfaction of her own hopes and fears,” the sturdy smith followed his red-blonde chieftain across the newly growing grass. “The line of Kivi Torni survives in you, Päällikkö. You are Äiti if you wish it or not.”
“Are you done nagging me, you gray-bearded hag?” Kivi pushed the heavy oak door in front of them open; her expression was sour, but she still held the door open dutifully for the older blacksmith.
“As a matter of point, no I am not,” Seppä smiled winningly at her as he passed her by; he had wider shoulders than most of Änglia’s men and had to turn to the side slightly in order to fit through the width of the door frame.
Kivi followed with far greater ease.
“You cannot lie to me and say that you do not long for home, or for justice,” Seppä continued as he waited for Kivi to pass him; the two then made their way up a steep flight of stairs. “To rebuild the Warding Range would forge an alliance between the Dvär of Durial and Kivi Torni that would be near unbreakable. Their new Warden now holds the allegiance of the Bronzeblade, Emberfist, and Oakthane Kin - such a force could easily help you reclaim the Highcountry.”
“And what would this new Warden King want in exchange for such a campaign, I wonder?” Kivi retorted dryly; Seppä saw her eyes flash in the light of a passing torch and he suddenly realized that he had lost his argument.
There was a long, expectant pause before the smithy replied reluctantly:
“He would probably ask for a betrothal. An alliance by marriage between the Granite Throne and the Horned Crown would triple the wealth of both Kin, and successfully unite all of Ælbian under one rule.”
“I can hear it in your voice, Seppä - all of this sounds quite wonderful. A Dvär-maiden’s dream and a pragmatic solution to the ills of our Kin,” Kivi stopped briefly on a landing and turned her body squarely toward Seppä. “But you forget - the Ddraig knows nothing of our culture or our ways. If I were to create an allegiance to the Warden King through service or through marriage, I would never truly rule Kivi Torni as my mothers before me. I would either be voiceless as his queen, locked safely away in Durial, or I would be his regent, powerless to rule my Kin as my own.”
Seppä’s old heart broke a little at the look of fear, defiance, and horror that flickered across Kivi’s face like the flames on the wall beside them.
“I will not free my people from the grasp of one greedy old Dvär, to place it in the hands of another – half-blooded or not.”
“The Ddraig have always been honorable -” Seppä tried to rally his last final hope, but Kivi dismissed it with a contemptuous snort.
“That’s what was said about the Ironforges, too,” her blue eyes flashed as cold as a northern glacier before she whirled on the heel of her boot and stormed angrily up the next flight of stairs. “And they made orphans of my nephew and niece.”
Seppä sighed heavily - there was no reasoning with Kivi when she was like this. His heart sank at the thought that the best chance his conquered people had was slowly burning to ash in the fire of their last chief’s bitterness. The two traveled in silence up the winding stairwell, through a maze-like stretch of empty hallways, and up into the warmer, more populated levels of Palinius’ main keep.
This had been Seppä’s home for ten years - it was here that Kivi had finally settled, in the hopes of making a stable life for the twin Dvärlings left in her care. Ten years, Seppä had worked at establishing a reputation as a master smith, which wasn’t hard, since he had been such long before his exile from the wild Highcountry. But, he had been ever restless, ever hopeful that Kivi could heal her desecrated soul.
He could not imagine - nor did he want to - what she had endured at the greedy hands of Synkkä, lord of the treacherous Silverhelm Dvär. Yet, it was in times like this, when he tried to reason with her and tried to persuade her to see the necessity of forging an alliance with any of the other four Dvären Kin, that he secretly feared the grace of spirit that she had inherited from her half-Dvären father had been forever erased by Synkkä’s lust.
All Kivi ever heard when Seppä tried to talk of an alliance, was that any such thing would destroy her hopes of freedom. Seppä knew that for all the time that had passed, for all of Katrikki’s Ellyllian healing, Kivi deeply feared Dvären men and the power that they could wield over her.
And she was right - an alliance with the Warden King, with any son of the Dvär (even if only in part), would most likely result in the subservience of her ancestral authority. The Kin of the Isles and of the Highcountry had been left largely forgotten by their Lowcountry cousins.
The Ironforges of the Western Isles, and the Stonesmiths of the Highcountry, had answered the call of Warden Rohkea during the Elder Sorrow when the imprisoned Sluagh had broke free of their enchanted prisons beneath the Range. But, of the unmarried Stonesmith sons and daughters who went to Rohkea’s aid, not one ever came back home to Kivi Torni. Any chance that the other Dvär had of knowing more about their northern Kin had died in those distant mountain halls.
Those that remained in Kivi Torni honored the memory of Rohkea. Kivi’s own mother had remained ever hopeful for the rise of a new Warden King. But, Seppä remembered Äiti Taavi’s solemn explanation for why they did not do more to help the Dvären Kin who had been displaced and persecuted after Rohkea's death- her reasoning was the same as Kivi’s:
No daughter of the Stonesmiths wished to give up her birthright. They enjoyed the freedoms of a matriarchy, which contrasted sharply with the patriarchal culture common to the rest of the Dvär.
Seppä had been born and raised to respect the power and privilege of all Stonesmith women. Theirs was a peaceful society, a quiet Kin of carefully understated wealth; unlike the other Dvär, there was little inequality between the expectations of men and women. Seppä was proud of his people and was proud to call himself a Son of Harmaa, of the founding mother of the Stonesmith Kin. He was proud to swear fealty to his young, bright-haired Äiti.
But, he was beginning to wonder if the world was changing too rapidly for the Stonesmiths to survive as they had for centuries. What sacrifices would Kivi have to face, in order to save her people from the utter subjugation of the maurading Silverhelms? And how long would they all have to wait, wander, and wonder before she finally swallowed her pride and sought the alliance that they all so desperately needed?
Tiarna - “Lord”
Äiti - “Mother”
Kivi-Mestari - “Stone Master”
Päällikkö - “Chieftain”
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