“Note: bottling up the power of friendship cannot be achieved by bottling up friends. Must pursue further trials, perhaps prior liquefaction diluted the substance.”
– Extract from the journal of Dread Emperor Malignant II
So, runic trap. Just what my day had been needing. I ran a palm across the transparent pane of force and found it solid. A sharp rap of the knuckles told me it was probably breakable, if I exerted myself. This wasn’t a ward so much a magical pit trap, although one we’d strolled right into.
“Cat,” Indrani hissed. “Now’s a good time to do the Winter thing.”
Was it, though? The panes didn’t mute sound, so I could hear the dwarves running towards us. It was hard to tell their numbers, with all that armour jostling, but I’d wager at least a hundred. I could most likely shatter the back of the trap and leg it with the others back into the tunnels. Except we’d have a dwarven company hot on our heels, the alarm would spread and there was a non-negligible chance we’d end up in more or less the same situation in half an hour, only with having attempted to escape added to our first impression.
“We’re going to talk to them,” I finally said.
“Or you could open a godsdamned portal and get us out of here,” Indrani said. “Like, now.”
“To where?” I said. “Either we go blind, which seems like a very bad idea underground, or we go back. Where the army is.”
“Or we could stay in Arcadia for a bit, until they’re gone,” she said.
“The gate out would lead us back here,” Diabolist said. “I do not believe it likely they will leave this place unguarded after the traps were triggered.”
“Archer, they’ll be curious enough about our presence they’ll want to interrogate us,” I said. “If it really does go to shit, I’ll grab everyone and leg it into Arcadia. But I want to try to talk to them first, at least.”
I caught movement form the corner of my eye, but it wasn’t dwarves. The drow accompanying us had gone still, when the runes shone, but the conversation between the three of us had gotten their attention. We’d been speaking Lower Miezan, so not even Ivah should be able to understand us, but if they were guessing from the tones that might not matters. One of the drow we’d caught on surface said something in Crepuscular, addressing Ivah, who nodded and then turned silver eyes to me.
“They would like weapons, Queen, since we are to fight,” my guide said in Chantant.
“We won’t be fighting them,” I replied in the same. “I’m going to speak with whoever leads them.”
“Nerezim do not negotiate, Queen,” Ivah flatly said. “They take what they want and kill all in their way.”
“It is,” I told the drow. “I am queen of a kingdom, on the surface, and powerful enough they will not seek my enmity for no reason.”
“This is not true of us,” it said. “We will be slain.”
“You’re my prisoners,” I said “Until release or judgement, you are under my protection.”
“They will not care,” Ivah insisted.
“Ivah, you seem under the impression any you have a voice in this decision,” I said. “You do not. It has been made.”
“They will not accept this,” the drow warily said.
“They are free to contest my judgement, of course,” I said. “Though the consequences of that have already been stated.”
Ivah grimaced and turned to speak, but before it could even do that the Mighty Kodrog – no, Bogdan now – made its move. The drow pushed one of its fellow prisoners away and reached for the longknife at Archer’s hip. Apparently after failing with me, it had come under the impression it would have better luck with my companions. Archer gave him the knife, in a manner of speaking. It was only a lending, though, and she clamly withdrew it from the eye socket with a flick of the wrist. The other drow stepped back. Great, now I was going to meet the dwarves with a fucking corpse on the floor. Although, considering their record so far, that might actually raise their opinion of us.
“Tell them this,” I addressed Ivah. “They can die now, or take a chance on the future. There is no middle ground, and I’ve no more attention to spare on this. Akua, if any of them tries to escape kill it.”
“Any?” Diabolist asked.
I met Ivah’s eyes.
“Any,” I confirmed.
My statement that I had no more attention to dole out had not been theatrics: the dwarves were now close enough I could make out the individual steps. They did not come from deeper inside the cavern. The company of a hundred that spread out in front of the trap had been posted near the outer wall, to the left of the tunnel’s exit. Regulars again, I noted, and since now the dance had come to end I finally spared a moment to study dwarvenkind from up close. I’d pictured them as short, stocky humans but evidently that’d been a failure of imagination. There were basic similarities: eyes, nose, brow, lips. But they were the same more in principle than practice. Their skin was so rough and craggy, enough it looked more like some beast’s rough hide. The old tale that dwarves were born when a dwarf ate stones for a year and then spat out a baby fully-formed came to mind. Their eyes were almost too large for those thick faces, with coloured sclera and no irises. Owl-like, I thought, though they had eyelashes. Their strands of hair were visibly larger and thicker than a human’s, their noses flat and broad. The tallest of the lot stood at five feet, though they were much broader of shoulder than any race I’d come across save orcs. The dwarves spread out facing us, shields and hammers at the ready.
“Good evening,” I smiled.
A few of them spoke in dwarvish, rough accents flowing back and forth quickly, and there was a sparse wave of laughter. One of the dwarves elbowed his way to the front, attired differently from the rest. The armour was much like the one the engineers had worn, back in the other cavern, a cuirass on leather. Said cuirass was covered with runes, though, which I didn’t remember the others being. The dwarf, sporting a thick black beard thrice bound by rings of bronze showing runes of their own, frowned at me and laid a bare palm on the transparent pane. His frown deepened and he barked something in his language at the other dwarves.
“I don’t supposed you speak Lower Miezan,” I said.
His eyes, a ring of deep gold around a pitch-black pupil, moved to my face.
“You,” he said in that very language, though the accent was nearly unintelligible. “Human.”
“Close enough,” I agreed.
He pointed at the drow behind me, finger lingering on the corpse.
“Kraksun,” he said. “Why?”
“Prisoners,” I said.
He turned back to the others and spoke again. One of the dwarves spoke loudly and the entire company shook with laughter. I got the impression that what he’d said was complimentary to neither humans nor drow. Another dwarf, this one’s beard russet, raised a baton of stone and silence took hold. He spoke at the one wearing runes, who shrugged and turned back to me.
“You,” he said. “Prisoner.”
“I want to talk with your leader,” I said, enunciating slowly.
A dwarf left the ranks of the others, bearing a bag of woven reeds, and dropped it to the side of my interlocutor. Who promptly opened it, and took out a pair of rune-inscribed shackles. They weren’t linked by chains, I noted.
“Wear,” the black-bearded dwarf said.
“I want to talk with your leader,” I repeated, forcing patience.
The dwarf rolled his eyes, the size of those making it rather eerie to behold, but he spoke to the one with the baton. Who replied with a single word. Yeah, that one needed no translation. I sighed and rolled my shoulders before plunging my hand through the pane of force and ripping out a chunk. The black-bearded dwarf drew back in surprise, the soldiers moved forward and I smiled once more.
“I want to talk with your leader,” I said one last time, looking at the russet-bearded one.
His eyes flicked at the trap I’d casually ripped open, then back to me. He barked something at our interpreter.
“Who you?” the dwarf asked.
“The Queen of Callow,” I said.
The dwarf looked skeptical. He pointed a finger upwards.
“Callow,” he repeated slowly.
“Yes,” I said.
“Angry horse people,” he said, even more skeptically.
Well, that was one way to describe us. His eyes dipped down to note what I assumed to be my current lack of horse. What, did he just expect all Callowans to be mounted at all times?
“Of which I am queen,” I agreed.
He translated at the russet beard who snorted. He gestured a knock against his temple, the meaning of which I felt safe assuming. Then he shrugged and added something else. Blackbeard turned back to me.
“Speak to Herald,” he said. “But.”
He presented the shackles again. I mulled on that, eventually jutting a thumb towards the people behind me.
“Mine,” I said. “Safe. No touch.”
The dwarf spat on the floor.
“No touch,” he agreed. “Herald choose.”
It was a start. I offered my wrists to the shackles, and the dwarf leaned forward to clasp them closed. The runes – nothing like those I knew, sharper and much more complicated – shone and I felt a binding form. Ah, meant to seal sorcery. Or at least have an effect when someone called on them. Were they assuming I was a mage? It was a flip of the coin whether or not Winter would be affected by those. My ability to call on it was uninhibited, so far. I looked back at my companions.
“Negotiations will proceed,” I said. “Cooperate.”
Archer looked quite displeased, but Diabolist simply nodded. She was the first to come forward when the dwarf presented another pair of shackles, sharing a meaningful look with me afterwards. They weren’t affecting her either, then. Good to know. The drow came forward one after another, each of them moving delicately as if they feared the slightest sudden move would get them killed. They might not be wrong about that, I reflected. It had not escaped my notice than when the drow came forward some of the soldiers discretely put up their crossbows. Indrani was the last, and she shot me a glare.
“We could have legged it,” she said in Kharsum.
“We still might,” I replied in the same. “Day’s not over.”
She put forward her wrists, and with that last clasping we were all officially prisoners. Blackbeard drew a circle on the transparent wall then pressed his palm against the rune that formed inside it. It came down without a sound. From the corner of my eye, I’d glimpsed Akua watching him work eagerly. Never one to lose an opportunity, was she? The soldiers swarmed us after that, though at least they put away their weapons first. I was guided forward in a surprisingly gentle manner, though I stopped when I heard Indrani raise her voice.
“No you don’t,” she hissed.
One of the dwarves was tugging at her bow, eyes half-closed. I looked for Blackbeard was he’d melded into the crowd. Another dwarf raised his hammer when Indrani pushed away the one trying to get at her bow, speaking loudly. Every dwarf around us turned.
“Archer,” I called out.
She turned to me.
“Cat, they want to take-”
“I know,” I said. “Let them.”
“You know they keep shit like this,” she said. “And the Lady will kill me if I lose it.”
“I’ll get it back,” I said. “I promise.”
“You’d better,” she growled.
Lips thinning in anger, she took out her bow and shoved it forcefully in the dwarf’s arms. The soldier almost toppled, looking furious, though his companions laughed. Another one was eyeing the sword at my hip, so I smiled blandly and took it out. Hammers rose again, but I presented it by the hilt. The dwarf blinked, but took it anyway. If it’d been goblin steel I might have felt a pang, but this was just a sliver of Winter. I could recall it to my mantle at will, what did I care who held it? We were taken deep into the cavern in a procession, surrounded by soldiers. The vanguard, I saw, had made camp here. Tents of cloth that were charmingly small dotted the place, while makeshift ramparts of piled stones had been raised around siege engines and supply wagons. At the centre of the camp I glimpsed a large dais of stone, a high seat upon it. Anyone important enough to warrant that was worth talking with, I mused. The first hiccup arrived when I was taken toward that dais but the others were not. I stopped, to the displeasure of the dwarf escorting me. I pointed at Akua.
“She comes with me,” I said.
The dwarf made a face, blatantly not understanding a word I’d said and rather displeased I was talking at all. He tugged at my wrist, but it would take more than a pushy dwarf to move if I did not want to be moved. My escort barked out in his language until Blackbeard returned.
“Why you not move,” he asked impatiently.
I pointed at Akua again.
“She’s coming with me,” I said.
He shook his head.
“Prisoner,” he said.
“She’s my handmaiden,” I lied.
The dwarf blinked, looking confused. Didn’t know that word, huh?
“My herald,” I said.
“You human,” he pointed out.
Was he implying no human could possibly be important to have a herald? Good to know the High Lords had a superior even in matters of bloody-minded arrogance.
“Human queen,” I reminded him.
He still looked unconvinced, but must have decided arguing wasn’t worth the trouble. An order had Diabolist taken aside from the others and brought to me.
“Your Majesty,” Akua said, bowing to me.
Quick on the uptake, Diabolist. Sometimes in the wrong way, but there was a reason I wanted her with me when speaking with whatever fancy beard was in charge. We were escorted the rest of the way to the dais without any further trouble. The seat was facing the other way, so it was the dais itself that earned a second glance. Roughly hewn stone, and I was pretty sure a single piece. Handhold were carved into the sides. Had they carried this here? Lots of trouble for a seat. We were brought in front of the high chair, where a full two hundred of those heavy soldiers from earlier was waiting in silent stillness. The seat, I could not help but notice, was empty. I glanced at Blackbeard.
“… am I supposed to talk to the chair?” I asked.
Big eyes stared me down without a word.
“That’s a no, then,” I muttered. “I’ll wait.”
Not long after the rows of soldiers parted for a pair of dwarves, which seemed promising to me. The first was the tallest dwarf I’d seen so far, and the first without any armour. He wore cloth, dyed a green so dark it was nearly black, though I didn’t recognize the style or the cut. It was wrapped and knotted in layers over layers, heavy enough it might actually slow an arrow. His beard was dyed as well, in the same colour, and his eyes matched. The hair was black, though, long and braided. The staff in his hand was crooked thing of wood with trinkets of some strange metal hanging off the end, softly chiming as he walked. The other was one of those Archer had called deed-seekers, and his chest was so thickly covered in skulls the armour could not be seen beneath. Some of those were human, I noted, but most too large for that. I even glimpsed dragonbone among the multitude, though that struck me as the result of grave robbing rather than fighting. There were few dragons left on Calernia, and the death of one would have resounded across the continent. Blonde of beard and hair, his face was covered with either an exceedingly thick black tattoo or pristine face paint. The shape was a rat’s head and fangs, though the horns sprouting out made it clear it was not just any ratling. The two of them came to stand before the dais, though they did not touch it, and the deed-seeker cleared his throat.
“Chantant?” he asked in that same language.
I wiggled my palm.
“Lower Miezan?” I tried.
The dwarf nodded.
“You stand before the Herald of the Deeps,” he announced. “Name yourself.”
Akua replied without any need for prompting on my part.
“I introduce Her Majesty Catherine Foundling, Queen of Callow and Sovereign of Moonless Nights,” she said, sketching a bow.
The deed-seeker cocked his head to the side.
“I am Balasi, Seeker of Deeds,” he said. “I will translate for the Herald. You may kneel.”
I smiled amicably.
“I do not kneel,” I said. “My attendant will do so out of respect.”
Akua elegantly did so under the emotionless eyes of the dwarves, rising just as fluidly. Balasi turned a bronze gaze to Blackbeard, who still stood at my side, and spoke in their language. The dwarf replied in length, then paused and quickly tacked on something. The Herald’s lips quirked in amusement, Balasi laughed outright.
“I feel like I’ve heard that one before,” I noted.
The deed-seeker inclined his head.
“Even a lizard can eat a tadpole,” he said.
My brow rose.
“Guess you had to be there,” I said.
Which I had been. I did not smile.
“It loses in the translation,” Balasi said. “The words… even an idiot can bully a dimwit?”
Ah, charming. We were going to get along great, I could just feel it.
“I take it the dimwits are the drow,” I said.
“You have taken some of the kraksun prisoner,” he acknowledged. “A matter of great hilarity to us.”
“I did notice you haven’t bothered, so far,” I said.
The dwarf bared his teeth.
“Only children pet vermin,” he said.
About what I’d expected out of them, though it was still jarring to hear it spoken out loud. The casual dismissal of an entire race as pests. Not that the drow are any better, I thought. There was little difference between cattle and vermin, when it came down to it. The Herald spoke softly, addressing his translator, who then turned to us.
“His Eminence would know why you have come to the Everdark,” he said.
My instinct was to answer, to establish some kind of relationship, but this was diplomacy and not an evening at the tavern. If I fielded all the questions myself, I was implying myself to be on the same level as the Herald’s translator. Which was something I needed to avoid, if I wanted to be considered an interlocutor and not a curiosity. I held my tongue and let Diabolist speak in my stead. It was, after all, why she was here.
“Her Majesty sought to raise an army of drow to war against her enemies on the surface,” Akua said. “We were unaware that the Kingdom Under intended to invade when we began our journey.”
“You are aware now,” Balasi said. “You will be allowed to depart unmolested. Your prisoners will remain, as they may know useful information.”
“A decision perhaps premature,” Akua replied. “It seems our interests may have fallen in alignment.”
The deed-seeker fixed her with a steady look.
“Callow intends to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom Under?” he said, very mildly.
“Callow is willing to pursue its interest so long as they do not contradict those of the King Under the Mountain,” she smoothly replied. “We would consult with you to ensure such an unfortunate turn of events will not come to be.”
“You’re not human,” Balasi thoughtfully said. “Some sort of spirit, bound in service. The kingdom you claim to come from is not known for such pacts.”
“The world ever changes, Seeker Balasi,” Akua smiled. “New eras demand new methods, lest we be left in the dust.”
“You’re a long way from home, Callowans,” the dwarf said. “Stumbling into matters beyond your understanding. To presume to even speak of them is a dangerous kind of arrogance.”
“You are correct, Seeker,” the shade said. “We are a long way from home. With little love for those who dwell here, and a mind open to fresh opportunities. It would be a sad thing to turn a blind eye to mutual profits without good motive.”
I left her to it, my eyes drawn to the Herald’s staff. The trinkets, in particular. It was a subtle thing, but there was power to them. They were no simple decoration. My eyes narrowed. Not, not the trinkets themselves. Something inside them, bound.
“The shackles do not bind you,” the Herald of the Deeps said in perfect Lower Miezan.
The other two went silent as I met those eldritch green eyes. I called on a sliver of Winter and tore off one of the shackles like it was made of parchment, runes struggling impotently.
“They do not,” I agreed.
“You are not human,” the Herald said.
“I was,” I replied. “Then I murdered a demigod and stole his power.”
“And so you come to the Everdark,” the dwarf said. “Seeking yet more.”
“I have a great many enemies,” I said. “Enough it might be said we share a few.”
The Herald smiled, slow and mean.
“I offer hospitality to you, Queen of Callow,” he said. “Let us eat, drink, and talk of murdering gods.”
Well, now they were speaking my language.