fantasy cave with a ruined castle inside, marble staircase and a painting

Chapter 2 of Book 2…

It’s getting down to the wire now, and so I thought I would share another chapter as I get closer to the finish. Just a few more chapters to go, and book 2 will be done. Please note that this is just a draft, and it has not been proofread.

 

   Pompous windbag. Dhuren had tried to be more politic in the past when it came to Pardis, but the noble just had a way of making him feel as if he needed to wash every time he had to spend even a single moment in the man’s presence. Watching him speak to the King brought to mind one of the toads found in the deeper caves. As soon as it sensed itself being watched, it bloated to about twice its normal size and then let out an eerie moan as it deflated. While the toad’s act was for defense, Pardis liked attention. The nobles fat jowls, shiny and flapping, stretched as he drew in breath and Dhuren had to force the laughter back down.

   Pardis was once more droning into Leonar’s ear about the need to fortify their position due to the increased Orc activity. He believed that they should be drawing back, pulling all of their people in closer and leaving the surface to sort its own problems out.

   Dhuren wished for nothing more at that moment than to join Fastil, Brody, and Woodard as they toured the drinking establishments of the city. Sometimes he hated being the responsible one.

   A slight scuffing sound brought Dhuren’s attention to the Human at his side. A glance at Meric, who was standing next to a serene Lady Alyssa, and he could see the worry plain in his face. He could understand, but did not really share in the feeling. He had been dealing with this issue since the beginning of the last Human war with the Orcs. At this point, Pardis was in the minority. While the bilious dwarf was a powerful noble, and did have a bit of sway with some of the more influential Houses, the commoners were becoming restless and more of the noble families were starting to share that sentiment every month.

   The king did have the final say, and would do what he thought was best for his people, but part of making his decisions had always included heeding the voice of all of his subjects. Remaining in hiding might be the safest route to take, but most Dwarves have never been comfortable with running from their troubles. Safe did not always equate to best. They were forced into hiding all of those centuries ago rather than be devastated beyond any ability to recover, but things were different now. They had been able to rebuild their population a good bit, and would also have the benefit of allying themselves with the humans. Most of all, his people were tired of cowering in the dark as the world passed them by. Dwarves were fighters, they could smell a brawl coming, and they did not want to miss out this time.

   Dhuren watched as Leonar closed his eyes and took a calming breath. Biting back a chuckle, he cleared his throat loudly and interrupted Pardis, stepping forward and speaking to the king.

   “Your Majesty? If I may… I would like to request a private audience.”

   Both Dhuren and Leonar ignored Pardis’ spluttering and the grumbling of some of the nobles present, eyeing each other before the king spoke.

   “This would have to do with your guests, I presume?” Leonar could not fully hide the relief at having an excuse to dismiss the others, especially Pardis.

   Before Dhuren could answer, the blustering Dwarf jumped in.

   “Sire, really? This is uncalled for. This… rudeness is just another example of-”

   “Careful, Pardis. You are in danger of insulting a member of the Royal Family.” The King’s rebuke was soft, but the fact that he felt the need to speak was enough to make Pardis sweat. A hush fell over the gathering of nobles present. Leonar was one of the most even tempered King’s in recent memory, but he was notoriously protective of family. And while he was generally very fair in not playing favorites, Dhuren and Fastil had been his best friends all of his life.

   “Forgive me, Your Majesty. I meant no disrespect.” No one in the room believed that statement, not even the Humans. “I was simply trying to remind Lord Dhuren that there is already a scheduled session in progress.”

   Pardis’ could not entirely hide the disdain aimed at Dhuren when he spoke, but the king gave the appearance of not noticing.

   “Which has been filled with nothing that has not already been discussed numerous times. Dhuren, bring your guests to my office.” Leonar was already rising from his chair, effectively ending any further discussion.

 

#

   At Meric’s questioning glance, Dhuren cocked his head in a gesture for the Humans to follow him. The King led them through a door at the back of the council chamber, across the thickly carpeted hall, and into another room. Dhuren let Meric and Alyssa enter before him, and then closed the heavy wooden door once he was inside. When he turned back to the room it was just in time to see the king settle into his heavily padded chair near the blazing fireplace, with a weary sigh.

   “What ever evil being decreed that it was necessary for all official chairs to be made as uncomfortable as possible should have been tossed into the Beshtir Trench.”

   Dhuren grinned at his cousin, hearing the familiar refrain that was generally part of an inside joke between them. If they were alone, he would now be making a comment about the Dwarf’s age and what all of the throne sitting was doing to his posterior.

   Instead, he just got straight to the point, knowing his cousin would not mind.

   “Your Majesty… I would like to present to you Lady Alyssa Camden, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Glendon. She is a true Lady, a capable warrior, and an adept in the Arcane Arts. Her companion, Meric Vettor. A distinguished commander in the last Human war with the Orcs, of which you should be familiar from my reports of that time. He is an honorable man, and someone I call a true friend.”

   “Then you are also a friend to me. Welcome Lady Camden, Commander Vettor, and please consider yourselves and your friends honored guests of the Royal Family.”

   “Thank you, Your Majesty. I can assure you, Lord Dhuren has been a most gracious host already.” Alyssa gave a short bow as she replied.

   “So…” Leonar gestured to the two empty chairs and a couch capable of seating two, situated in an arc in front of the blazing hearth. There was a small table next to the king that held an ale pitcher, but it was left alone as Leonar looked at them expectantly.

   Dhuren noted Meric and Alyssa choosing the couch (which, unsurprisingly, happened to be of an appropriate size to be comfortable to a Human) as he took his time settling in the chair next to his cousin, searching for just the right words. He had spoken with Leonar many times about the issue of returning to the surface, so he was not too worried about broaching that subject. He was certain that the king had already decided to put that plan into effect, or else why would he have allowed Dhuren to intervene when the humans became trapped by a large group of Orcs? The issue of the Scepter was another matter all together, though. While he knew that Leonar was of like mind about their ancestor’s mistake in taking the relic, he was unsure how the request to entrust its location to someone not of the Dwarven race would be received. Private discussions between cousins over mead were not the same thing as asking the King to hand over an immensely powerful artifact capable of otherworldly destruction.

   “We all know that the Orcs are becoming more active. We know that they have crossed the mountains in small groups, and entered the Kingdom of Rennick. What I have recently learned from my friends here, is that they have been passing through Rennick undetected and are entering Glendon. We do not know their exact plans, but we do know that they are actively trying to antagonize Glendon into hostilities with them. An attempt was made on the lives of Roderick Marten’s two children.”

   Dhuren did not need to let that sink in for too long. He had barely finished speaking before he could see the flash of anger mixed with grief overcome his cousin’s face. Sadly, Leonar knew all to well the pain Roderick and his wife would have felt if that attempt had been successful. The King’s first-born son had been killed in one noble house’s plot to bring down another, several years ago. Fortunately, the treachery had been discovered and a civil war averted, but not before it was too late for young Venaris. Fastil had been the one to undertake the investigation, and their cousin had been thorough and violent. Dhuren’s fun-loving best friend had completely disappeared and an implacable, vengeful, outraged warrior had taken his place. Being such a close family, they had all felt the loss, and none of them were the same after. As much as Dhuren would like to think that Dwarves were an enlightened people, above the petty squabbles of the other races, the sad truth was that they were just as susceptible to the same flaws.

   “They planned to ensure that there was no doubt who was responsible, and intended to draw Glendon’s attention to the north and a possible invasion. There is some evidence, though it is not conclusive, that Rennick might be involved in some way. King Marten of Glendon has sent Lady Camden and her companions to ask for our aid. Any help we can offer will be appreciated, but they have a specific request that I thought best be made in private.

   “You know the Orc obsession with the Scepter. We believe that they have uncovered information of its whereabouts, or at the least, they believe they have. The clans are uniting, and they are not going to stop this time until the relic is once more in their control. Marten is asking for the location of the Scepter, and any information they might need to retrieve it. He feels that it is better if the Orcs are not the ones to find it. They certainly will not just go quietly back home once it is in their control.”

   Dhuren held up his hand at Leonar’s incredulous look, forestalling any comments until he was done.

   “Meric, Lady Alyssa, and I have discussed it. They realize that handing over that kind of power to near strangers would not really be an option for you. However, we thought a compromise might be open for discussion. You send a… delegation to Glendon, with the intent of opening relations between our two people. This group of envoys could entreat with the intent of coming to a formal agreement between our two nations. In this agreement we, the Dwarven Nation, would request permission to move about their lands on a mission, or missions, to retrieve items of an historic and intrinsic nature. We would, of course, agree to a mutual defense pact and trade relations as we undertake to build a lasting, equally beneficial friendship.”

   Despite the seriousness of the conversation, Leonar had an amused expression on his face as he handed Dhuren one of the ales he had just finished pouring. Dhuren took a long swig and grunted appreciatively as Leonar moved to hand drinks to the others.

   “That was most impressive, cousin. I should appoint you head of this new delegation after such eloquence, but I am willing to bet you have leadership of another undertaking in mind.”

   Dhuren tried to look unassuming, but was sure he did not quite pull it off when he saw Leonar smirk.

   “I would be honored to lead any delegation you chose, Your Majesty. However, it would only make sense for me to lead the mission that will surely benefit from coopera-”

   “Oh, shut up.” Leonar leaned back in his chair and scratched at his receding hairline. Letting out a weary sigh, he leaned forward once more and looked at each of them in turn, finally settling his heavy gaze on Dhuren.

   “You and I have talked about venturing from the caves on many occasions, and I do believe it is time. I think we have enough support to make this work, but I will still have trouble from Pardis and his ilk.” Leonar’s eyes were now on the fire crackling away in front of them. “I will call a session of the High Council tomorrow, announce our plans, and work to get as many of them on our side as possible. Lady Camden, I would like you to be nearby so I can call you in when I am ready. You speak for your King and can offer reassurances on his behalf. Your words bind him to agreement, correct?”

   “That is correct. Though, perhaps we can discuss any reassurances that might be required, to avoid as many nasty surprises as possible. We are here asking for assistance and are prepared to make allowances for such, but I must also keep my kingdoms wellbeing in mind. We did say mutually beneficial. I am only prepared to go so far.” She looked him straight in the eye and her voice was firm, though respectful.

   Whether it was because she was beginning to understand the Dwarven people, or it was just her normal personality, Dhuren could not tell yet. Either way, she could not have taken a better approach. Dwarves admire fortitude, and his cousin was the epitome of a Dwarf.

   Leonar smiled at her and tipped his head in a appreciative nod. “That is all that we ask. And may I say, I believe your king has made an excellent choice for an ambassador.”

   Alyssa smiled and gave the King a gracious nod.

 

#

   The fierce scowl on the Dwarf’s face, as he wrestled with the deadly lizard-like beast that was easily the size of a horse, was almost life-like. The artist’s skill at sculpting was like nothing Meric had ever seen. He was examining the marble statue as he waited near the council chamber for Alyssa and Dhuren to finish. There were a few Dwarves moving up and down the hall, but most just passed through, and none gave him more than a brief glance. Nerves and a desire to get moving were making it difficult to stand still. The long, wide hallway he was in had decorative benches set several paces apart, with more examples of the craftsmanship he was currently studying standing between. Many were of Dwarves locked in combat with various creatures, including Orcs and Goblins. Some depicted lone animals, only a few of which were recognizable to him. There was even one of a human archer, though the face (mostly because of the eyes) was just a bit off somehow. Also, for some reason, the sculptor had made him very slender and had given him slightly longer, pointed ears.

   His appraisal was interrupted by the council chamber’s doors swinging open. Alyssa was the first one out, and even though she had a serious expression on her face, Meric could tell from her eyes and body language that she was happy. Or at least satisfied with the outcome. Any doubt was dispelled when Dhuren followed right after her with a grin that his thick beard could not hide. One more Dwarf came out with them and then shut the door. He was, by far, the oldest Dwarf Meric had seen yet. Visible wrinkles and a snow-white beard that almost swept the ground, framed a contented visage as the elder came along with the others.

   Alyssa stepped up to Meric’s side, slipping her hand into his, and turned to face the two accompanying her. He could almost feel her excitement, though she was doing a good job of hiding it from anyone observing them.

   “It went well?”

   Dhuren answered Meric’s question for them.

   “It did. There was opposition, but no more than expected. Alyssa had most of them eating out of the palm of her hand. We will be departing tomorrow with an official delegation to meet with King Marten, and I will be taking some of my men along as well, hopefully, to join yours in procuring the Scepter.”

   Meric’s glance at Alyssa showed her blushing at the compliment, but smiling as well. She squeezed his hand once and nodded at their friend.

   “We were able to satisfy most of their misgivings, and it appears that a great many Dwarves are tired of hiding from the Orcs. They plan to aid us with defense against them, and getting the Scepter into safe hands.”

   Meric did not even try to hide the relief he felt at this news. As difficult as the war he had fought in was, that had been only one clan with minimal reinforcements. He had not been optimistic about their chances with all, or even most of the Orc clans joining the fray. Now, with the Dwarves supporting them, they had a real chance. It was not a guarantee, nor would it be easy, but now they had real hope that they could win.

   “Meric, this is Master Wovis. He is the Master Archivist for the Dwarven kingdom. He will be supplying us with the location, maps, and any other information that we might need to retrieve the Scepter of Maris.”

   The old Dwarf stepped forward as Alyssa spoke his name, and clasped forearms. The grip he applied to Meric’s arm still had plenty of strength in it.

   “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Commander Vettor. I look forward to delving into this mystery with Lady Camden. It has always been an area of interest to me. Now, I hate to take your lady away from you, but we have a lot of work to do if you are leaving tomorrow.” The raspy voice was so soft that Meric was just able to make it out.

   Wovis turned after receiving a nod from Meric and started off down the hallway. Alyssa hurriedly brushed a kiss across his cheek, and after squeezing his hand one last time, she joined the elder Dwarf. He could hear her asking about the Archives before they were even a few paces along. Meric smiled at the retreating duo, and shook his head. He had a feeling that if things all worked out in their favor, they would be making a return trip to Doanimar and its library. He took a breath and then dismissed any thoughts of the future, and why he already assumed they would be together in it. There would be time for that kind of reflection later. He turned to find Dhuren grinning at him.

   “So… you ready for a celebratory drink?”

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