Battle of the Hills
The king sat in a cushioned chair atop the lowest balcony of the Stronghold's central keep, a thick blanket covering his legs, shutting out the chill of the morning air. Steam wafted out of the kettle that the court page carried to the table, and new wisps sprang from the clay cup as he poured. The king's voice was barely a whisper, but was deafening in the silence of the dawn.
"Some people don't know quite how it happened. How the world became this terrible place, filled with monsters and draks and dead soldiers dogging their steps. It's a tragedy, I tell you." With that the king set his gloved hand around the clay cup and brought it to his lips, blowing the steam away gently before taking a sip.
Feofil blinked his green eyes, unsure of whom the king was speaking to. Very little of his training as a court page taught him how to react to the king's moods, so he opted for the most diplomatic response: "Aye, Your Lordship, it truly is."
Rugolth turned to him, the bright blue eyes piercing Feofil straight through, like he'd been pinioned on two sky-coloured spears. The page froze, barely remembering to stop pouring the tea.
"You're young yet, Feofil. When I say 'some people' I mean those born here in the Stronghold since we first came here. Since the fall of Valdac, since the end of the war. All you know is what we've struggled to create here, and nothing else. There's been little time to truly teach history to our children, settling instead on platitudes and fae tales while we oldtimers try to make sense of it all."
The king looked away, and Feofil took that as leave to breathe again. He carried the teapot back to the platter he'd brought, but before he could pick it up to make his way back out of the opened solar, the king spoke again. "Time for a lesson, I think. Take a seat here, Feofil."
The page blinked, but complied. Leaving the platter where he'd set it, he returned to the king's ironwrought table and took the second seat for himself, sitting in it straight as could be. "I'm honoured, Your Lordship..." he said uneasily, his mind racing for the right words.
Rugolth waved it off, shaking his head. "I tire of all the courtly mannerisms. Your father, Feodn, never minced words, and you'd do well to take after him in every way you can."
Feofil felt his cheeks redden under his black beard. "I do my best to, sir. My father was taken from me when I was quite young."
Rugolth ran his ungloved hand through his beard as he regarded the younger, shorter dwarf carefully. Then he looked out from the balcony, to the east, and began.
"I imagine you've been taught about how the world was before the war. Where the Accords existed as a means for Elsarin and Valdac to resolve conflicts with a minimum of bloodshed. There was war, it's true, but war was what soldiers did. It was something agreed upon, where both sides knew that there would be more than words exchanged over a matter. War happened between warriors, between kings, a game between two master players. The citizenry never saw it, but they cheered for it as they would for their favorite gladiator in a tournament. When all was said and done, the winners were winners and the losers went home."
"But this war was different. The Accords were cast to the wind by our own King. Valdac won the war by destroying Elsarin completely. It wasn't a war for dominion, or a war for resources, or a war for prestige or politics -- those were always been the reasons in the centuries before. This war, however -- this was a war of destruction. This was a war to wipe Elsarin from the world completely, and that's what the war did. Like a game where the winner slits the loser's throat to celebrate his victory. It was monstrous."
"Only it wasn't that simple. The war destroyed Elsarin, it's true, but it also ruined Valdac -- all the money in the Royal coffers was spent, the soldiers were going unpaid, the destruction even backfired and wiped out whole towns in the southern countryside. Valdac was victorious but at the highest possible cost. And in the aftermath of it all came a plague. Something released by the many evils of the war, and it started changing the people who stayed in the southern country. And they thirsted for someone new to fight."
The king looked out from the balcony, his eyes taking in the entire Stronghold as it lay before him, already bustling from the many labourers settling into their work for the day. Feofil listened closely in the king's silence, and heard hammers striking against anvils as weapons and tools were shaped, and heard commands shouted as sergeants put their troops through their morning drills. The sounds wafted up to the balcony as though the wind itself bore news of the people to their king.
"This place belonged to my forefathers, an old fort from centuries ago. With Waldis in the hands of these monsters, we needed a place to fortify ourselves, a place to make our stand. So we brought everyone we could, filled this place near to bursting, and set ourselves to planning. Months and years we searched for a cure to the plague, while those beasts infected with it renamed themselves 'draksar' and railed against our walls, threatening everything we held close. We were prisoners here, barely eking out an existence while our enemies were free to continue ruling the world without."
"It was your father, Feodn, who finally convinced me of the truth. Against my orders he took a troop of axemen to the east to capture a Nora shrine that was unused since we'd fled here. He knew the only way we could defeat the plagued ones was to fight fire with fire -- use Nora to create new ways to drive them back. What little we had here was enough to let us subsist, enough to let us continue mining deeper into the earth in search of more resources, but he knew that an open shrine could change our fates."
"My scouts reported that an enemy force was headed to the shrine to retake it. I gathered what men I could and made a hard ride, fast as the wind, to get there in time. Between what was left of Feodn's axe crew and the score of men I'd been able to muster, we were maybe thirty against a strike force of four hundred troops. Immediately I tracked down Feodn, and found him up on the upper summoning platform, surveying the battlefield while his two magisters worked at weaving up some Nora."
"I told him we were retreating. He told me we weren't. I told him the odds, he laughed. 'I'm your king!' I said to him. Laughed at that too. 'Yer Lordship,' he said to me, 'you can be a king in a stone box for as long as you please, but the people need a kingdom, and a kingdom needs Nora.' There was no argument with him then -- I knew when he set himself to something, there was no way to talk him down. And closing the distance was an enemy force that I knew we had no chance against, unless Feodn's magisters had something up their sleeves."
"I shouted down orders to barricade the entrances to the shrine, though I could see some of their blasted flying monsters bearing down on us. One of those krikkinwings was trouble enough, and there were a dozen of them winging our way. Under my breath I made peace with the Holy, knowing that this would be my last stand. Part of me wanted to hate your father for it, but then what he said was true: we would never be able to reclaim any of our country if we didn't use the Nora. So when I opened my eyes, I looked at Feodn, and saw him looking back at me, smiling."
"He gave a salute and said, 'It's been a pleasure servin' with you, Yer Lordship. Look after me boy.' And before I could say a thing, he turned and jumped into the summoning circle just as the magisters finished their work."
"There was a flash of light, and when my eyes started working again, the magisters were both standing next to me, out of breath, barely standing. And looking over the side of the platform, down on the ground in front of the shrine. I turned to stand with them, and before the shrine was now a monstrous wall. Only the wall was moving: I took a step back..."
"When I asked the magisters about it later, they said that without anything they could summon that might be able to help them turn the tide of the battle, they needed to improvise. They'd thought of everything, but then started examining some intact scriptures they'd found hidden in the shrine. What they performed wasn't a summoning as much as it was a creation of something -- combining your father's spirit with the surrounding land to produce the Colossus."
"From where we stood on the platform, we were about at the Colossus' shoulder. As it turned its head, it looked at me. And I could tell your father was in there somewhere -- the strength of will that drove the huge creation was all Feodn. There's no doubt about that. And it stood there for only a moment before lifting a huge leg up and stomping forward, looking to the enemy force as they closed in."
"He knocked aside the enemy's best like they were toys. Their flying monsters were like insects he swatted out of the sky. He must have halved their forces within minutes. The only thing to rival my joy at possibly surviving the day was my terror at the power of such a monstrosity. Terror at the possibilities, and sadness at the loss of a true friend."
Feofil felt the color drain from his face. "Your... " he stammered, feeling tears in his eyes, "Your Lordship, I was always told my father died fighting the draksar. Was that a lie?"
Rugolth looked thoughtful for a moment. "What you should understand, Feofil, is that the magisters thought they could reverse the transformation and bring your father back. And they might have been able to. However, the leader of the drak force that came against us was a brash broodmaster named Akakios. We didn't know this at the time, but out of all those who'd been transformed by the plague, no one took to it more than Akakios. He watched his force being decimated by the Colossus, and threw himself into the fight. Incredibly strong, when the draks are already overpowering in comparison to your average dwarf. I watched the fight as closely as I could -- this Akakios was doing everything he could and not a poor job of it. The monster was cleaving bits and pieces of the Colossus off at a time -- and I decided Feodn shouldn't have to fight him alone."
"I shouted for my men to break open the barricades and join the fight -- try to harry the broodmaster so that Feodn could take care of the rest of the force. I led them into the fray, leaping over the crushed and bleeding bodies of the first draksar that tried to fight the Colossus, and swung full-bore into the first thing that moved, working my way towards the center of the fray."
"Apparently someone wised up and sounded a retreat, just as I got within swinging range of the broodlord and his closest guards. I locked eyes with Akakios, and I heard him shout at me over the din of the battle: 'Enjoy your victory, greybeard! We shall unite Valdac once again, and all your stones will become dust before our might!'"
"As he said this, the Colossus brought a big fist crashing into the ground, intent on crushing Akakios where he stood. But when he raised his fist, the broodlord grabbed onto his hand and was running up his arm. The Colossus swatted at his arm, like trying to shake off a rodent, but Akakios was too quick. The draksar jumped off Feodn's shoulder and buried his swords in the Colossus' chest. Then he went falling through the air, only for his last flying monster to snatch him up just before he hit the ground and carry him off, as all the ground troops did their best to limp away. I remember the Colossus looking at its chest and brushing the swords off like we would brush thorns out of our skin."
"We didn't pursue. We killed what stragglers we could, but then settled to burying our dead and sending for reinforcements so we could fortify the shrine anew. Meanwhile, the magisters went back up to the circle to begin the ritual to reverse the transformation. I was there at the circle when they did it, when they said the final words. Another flash of light, and the Colossus was gone, just a pile of rocks on the ground. And in the middle of the circle was Feodn. I rushed to his side and saw a smile on his face. But he wasn't breathing. Either the magisters were wrong from the start about bringing him back or Akakios simply damaged the Colossus too much and there was nothing they could do."
The king's gaze came back to the present, and he looked at where the court page sat, white-knuckled hands clutching the arms of the ironwrought chair. Tears painted small paths from the younger dwarf's bright eyes, but his jaw was clenched, his own look locked on the horizon, far away from where he sat with the king.
"Why tell me now, Your Lordship?" The question was simply stated, though there was nothing simple about the empty feeling in Feofil's voice.
"Telling the truth of your father's death would require discussing the Colossus. I swore all the soldiers that came with me to secrecy so the magisters could work at perfecting the transformation, so that we would have the Colossus as a weapon against the draksar without having to sacrifice a dwarf every time we summoned it."
"Your father was my right hand, my lieutenant in the army, and a great friend. He asked me to look after you, and that I've done. But you lost a father and I lost a confidant, someone to assist me in leading the people. Dark times are coming, and I need that someone again." The king paused, looking away from Feofil to take a deep breath: "Telling you the truth of your father's fate comes before asking you to take his place as my assistant."
Feofil was shocked. He looked back at the King again, submitting himself to those blue eyes that looked back at him softly. A thousand questions rammed against his mind, of his father, of his responsibilities, of the war� how much was he lied to while growing up? What kinds of lies were told to the people of the Stronghold to keep them peaceful? Was it really possible to take Valdac back from the draksar?
One question silenced all the rest, spoken in Feodn's voice, followed by his roaring laugh, a memory from Feofil's youth, when all the questions of the world were directed to his father: "Does it really matter? I'm a soldier, son. I go where ordered, do as king and commander direct. I don't ask why, only how."
Then there was no question. He got up from the chair and set his right fist to his chest in salute, and knelt before Rugolth. He kept his eyes locked on the king's blue gaze as he spoke:
"I'll serve as my father served, Your Lordship. His dream was to regain Valdac and its glory, and if he cannot see it through himself, I must do so, as his son."
He watched as the King rose from his chair, drawing the blanket away from his legs with his gloved hand while the other came to rest heavily on Feofil's shoulder. A smile broke through the king's grey beard, and the page felt his shoulder squeezed tightly.
"Then to your feet, boy. There's work to be done." Rugolth's ungloved hand now hovered before Feofil, extended to help him stand, and the page clasped it and stepped up.
They had a kingdom to reclaim.