The Old King's Crown
King Rugolth's condition worsened. The priests began visiting him once a day, each day applying new blessings and prayers; and each day, the blessings and the prayers seemed only to maintain his poor condition. Despite their best efforts, word of the king's failing health spread across the Stronghold.� When word finally came to the outposts, Father Thomroy ended his long crusade to be by the king's side. He began with the greatest and most ancient spells known to the dwarves, spells long forgotten by the magisters and mages. They were old rites that hadn't been practiced in ages, spells that were said to work miracles. And, for a time, they restored the king. He returned to his throne and all was well in the Stronghold. But, as the months passed, Rugolth's weakness returned and the priests resumed chanting old spells.
One evening, as Thomroy was finishing his invocation of Al'Mara, the king placed his hand on his shoulder.
"That'll do," he said, "Tell Feofil to come in."
"Now, hold on, we haven't finished Al'Mara prayer or the Light Sister's praise."
"No, that's enough for tonight. Bring in Feofil, would you?"
Thomroy got to his feet, brushed a light coating of dust from his robes. King Rugolth was sitting up in his bed, his body slumped forward. His gaunt face was tilted to one side and facing Thomroy, his darkened eyes sagging and peering wearily at the priest. For the first time, since Thomroy could remember, the king had no fight in him. Thomroy took a book from his robes. The pages were yellow and frayed along their edges, but the font remained clear. The language was older than both dwarves, the tongue lost with the Separation; parts of it regained by the students of K'thiras and taught to the priesthood. Thomroy turned to a familiar page and began reading the arcane symbols aloud.
"Thomroy, you bloody old Garu. What are you reading now?"
"This is the Light Sister's praise. I'm reading it in your name, so she'll give you strength."
"I told you to stop," said Rugolth, "You're disobeying the king's orders."
Thomroy continued. He called to the guardian angel, Al'Mara, and praised her for her strength and benevolence, her shining light and her guiding wind. He praised her for her children, who were moving through the evening sky as he spoke. He asked the guardian angel for her strength, asked her to lend the smallest amount to King Rugolth, so that he would see another morning.
Thomroy asked again for her strength, pleaded with the Light Sister.
"I'm finished. Al'Mara will carry you through the night."
"That's good to hear," said Rugolth, "Maybe she can carry me through tomorrow, if she's got the time."
"We can ask her to stay in the morning. Since you don't want any more incantations tonight, I'll take my leave. I'll be sure to let Feofil know you want to see him."
Thomroy returned the book to his robes and made his way for the door.
"Thomroy," said Rugolth, "I appreciate what you're trying to do."
"I'll go for Feofil right away," said Thomroy.
But, he wasn't sure why. It was a sudden sense of urgency. He needed to hurry, because there was little time left. He didn't know exactly what spurned this need for alacrity, but as he left the room he felt uncertain. Would Al'Mara carry him through the night? Did the old spells do anything? He wasn't sure now, and maybe that was when his sense of urgency flared. As Thomroy moved down the hallway, he couldn't help but run.
When Feofil entered the king's chambers, he moved as if the room would shatter beneath his feet. He had pulled his robes up, so that they wouldn't drag along the ground. He watched Rugolth as he moved, making sure he did nothing to disturb him. The king's body was slumped against a small pile of pillows. His nose whistled and occasionally he snored. Feofil moved slowly to the chair beside the bed and eased himself slowly into it. He sat there for a moment and then, finally deciding to wake the king, cleared his throat. Rugolth didn't jump, as Feofil had anticipated, but opened his eyes. He let out a heavy sigh, his frame rising and falling with the breath.
"You called for me," said Feofil.
"I did," said Rugolth, turning to face Feofil as he spoke, "I think it's time you and I had a serious talk."
Feofil knew what the king wanted to talk about, but he asked anyway. Maybe it was just business as usual. Something about the king's face, and the way he spoke, told Feofil that it wasn't.
"The Stronghold will need a king. I've been thinking about it lately. They need someone who knows what to do, someone who has seen the throne from a king's eye, who is accustomed to the day to day tasks.
They need someone who can make the tough decisions, without second guessing."
"Did you plan on retiring?"
"It's a little late for retirement," said Rugolth, "Come now, Feofil. I've known you for as long as I can remember and I know you're not one to dance around these kinds of things. That's why I put you here in the first place."
Feofil said nothing. Rugolth continued to speak.
"I don't trust Talgar with this responsibility."
"You promised the throne to an Ironfist descendant. He is the only one who can take the throne after you."
"Talgar can lead a war band to victory. He is a good dwarf, a strong warrior. But, he wouldn't make a good king. He understands what an army needs, but not a nation."
Feofil stood and began pacing around the bed. Rugolth watched him. The young dwarf had grown up right before his eyes, had learned his place as his advisor. He knew the dwarf better than any other. Feofil knew much about how the kingdom worked, had even taken over the command of their outposts in Maljara. He understood what needed to be done and when; when an outpost was overrun with Kanen, he knew when to back away, when to strike, when to reclaim it. Feofil knew where to put resources at what time. He knew when his men needed rest and when they would fight best.� It came naturally to Feofil, Rugolth thought, the art of leadership.
"He doesn't understand what the people need. Not like you."
Feofil turned to Rugolth.
"Do you understand what you're saying?"
"That I want to put my advisor on the throne? That I want to go against my word and turn on the Ironfist family? I would rather put someone on the throne that can handle the power. You have proven your ability. You have what it takes to rule. Talgar has proven he doesn't."
"But, you promised to return the throne."
"A pox on promises! Talgar will run this kingdom into the ground. And I'll be poxxed if I give the Stronghold to the Inquisition."� His weak frame heaved as he spoke.
"I can't just take the throne. I have no claim to it."
"You've got more of a claim to it than Talgar. You could keep the Stronghold alive."
"I am not an Ironfist," said Feofil, and he walked towards the door.
"Feofil, please! Consider what I've said. The Stronghold could use a king like you."
Feofil bowed to Rugolth.
"I'll give you my answer in the morning."
And with a final nod, Feofil left the room.
The morning was cold and gray. The peaks of the Ironfist Mountains hid behind blankets of heavy clouds and a light fog rolled over the Stronghold. The air was heavy with water, but nothing fell. Feofil hadn't slept that evening. He had watched the silver light filter through the gray sky, only half aware that its rising meant morning. The night was filled with tossing and turning, staring out the window at the moon, returning to his bed, and then returning to the window. The clouds slowly enclosed the moon, bringing its light to a single beam, and then blotted it out completely. And the whole time, he thought of what Rugolth said.
The throne belonged to the Ironfists and the Stronghold was theirs. But, what if Rugolth was right? What if their descendant wasn't ready for the throne? Perhaps Talgar could rise to the title, becoming a kingly dwarf as he took the crown. Perhaps that was how dwarves became kings, maybe they just learned as they went along. Or, he thought, perhaps certain dwarves were not meant to take the crown. Maybe Talgar would undo what Rugolth had spent years to build. But, who was to say that Feofil could be king? When the sun was a vague grayness in the sky, Feofil decided to return to the King's chambers. It was time to give his answer.
As he moved through the hall, he saw a small group of squires huddled along one side. They muttered to each other, pausing only to salute Feofil as he passed, then returned to their huddle as he continued. Several dwarves were gathered around the king's chamber. Servants and maids, soldiers in their formal attire, priests and magi, all were gathered around the entrance. They spoke to each other in grim tones, wearing dark looks on their faces. One soldier looked to Feofil and jumped to attention.
"The king's advisor! Make way! Let the poor devil through!"
Feofil stepped through the crowd and into the chamber. Talgar and Gedden stood over the king's bed. Gedden was in full armor, his golden helm in his hands. Talgar was staring at the figure in the bed. The figure was pale, his eyes closed tight. His arms were crossed over his chest, the tip of his beard resting on his wrists. The figure didn't move.
"Ol' Thomroy found him this morning," said Gedden, his gruff voice wavering, "He said the king refused to finish the rites of Al'Mara last night. We think that's what did it."
"Yes," said Gedden, "He must have passed sometime in the evening. I guess he didn't want Al'Mara lugging him around anymore."
Gedden sputtered, and then brought a hand to his face. Feofil saw the tears dribble down his beard.
"But I was talking to him last night. He seemed fine."
"Well, he's in Al'Mara's hands now," said Talgar, "And now the Stronghold needs a king."
"Oh pox all, Talgar," said Gedden, "Would you let the poor dwarf rest?"
Talgar moved away from the bed, toward Feofil. He took Feofil by the shoulder and led him toward a corner of the room. When they were out of earshot, Talgar began to whisper.
"You know what this means, don't you? Rugolth was going to give the Stronghold back to the Ironfists. But, he didn't know how things would turn out, did he? He didn't know my brother would fall in battle."
Feofil listened carefully, staring into Talgar's eyes. His stare was filled with an intense purpose.
"Euan was a better ruler and I was a better fighter. Do you understand?"
"I could fight a hundred Draksar and lead a hundred dwarves against them. But, what if we had a problem that couldn't be solved with battle?"
Feofil began to answer, but stopped.
"I had always planned to give the throne to Euan when Rugolth died. But, now things are different."
"What do you mean?" asked Feofil. But, he knew all too well what Talgar meant.
"I mean I can't be king! Are you dense? I'd be a terrible king!"
"Then who will take the throne if you won't?"
Talgar leaned in and whispered.
"The dwarf who won us our part of Maljara and kept it. I think everyone in this Stronghold knows who should be king."
The Mouth of Sheoul roared and another plume of ash flooded the sky. Fury M'alta covered her face instinctively, and then clawed through her belt for her elf-cloth. She pressed the green silk against her mouth and began to breathe. She could smell the forest in her nose, along with the faintest smell of sulfur. She took a few breaths from the cloth, and then looked at her guard. Two Furies stood behind her, sword in one hand and green cloth pressed to their faces with the other. Their shields were on their backs, latched in place by small grooves in their armor. Two archers stood behind them, their elf-clothes tied around their faces like veils. Each had an arrow nocked and ready. M'alta motioned for them to come in closer. The ground beneath them rumbled as another roar bellowed from the Mouth. M'alta felt the blast scorch the back of her neck and she knelt down to protect herself. The Mouth had never made so many blasts, in such rapid succession. One of the archers pulled her close, shouting above the roaring wind.
"We've come far enough!"
M'alta removed her elf-cloth to reply. As she shouted, she could taste the ash in her mouth. They were like warm cinders.
"Tell the others. We're turning back now."
They both motioned to their compatriots and began to trek down the steep slope. As they moved, another furious blast shook the ground beneath them. One of the Furies stumbled, began to fall. M'alta caught her by the arm and pulled her against the rocky slope. She gripped her with one arm, pushing the elf-cloth to her face with the other. They sat against the slope, waiting for the shaking to stop. M'alta could feel it in her bones, the shockwaves rattling through her plate armor and into her chest. She focused on her breath, tried to keep from passing out. The world around her became a blurred mess of night sky and fiery ash. She clutched the Fury's arm with all her might, kept hold of the world that was slowly slipping away. And then, the shaking stopped.
She saw the other Fury, with her arm wrapped around M'alta's waist. She saw the archer that had warned them to leave, clutching the other archer in her arms. The archer was staring up at the Mouth, her eyes wide. M'alta turned away, to look in the same direction. A figure stood at the Mouth, taller than any elf or human M'alta had ever seen. On his head were two magnificent horns, which towered an arm's length from his head. Vicious spines protruded from his chin and his face, forming a kind of crest. His skin was a pale red in the moon light and a bloody red in the fire light from the cavern. His chest and legs were covered in a black stone armor that gleamed in the light. His eyes were two fiery embers in his twisted skull.
They had never seen him, had only heard stories from captured Nefari. They were tales of horror and of madness, things muttered incoherently to half-listening ears. They were the deepest and the darkest of nightmares, things no sane mind could conjure. They were only tales of a demon. Until that night, no elf had ever truly seen the Demon Prince Maxxarek. And in that moment, he was more than the insane ramblings.
The elves ran. For the first time since she could remember, M'alta was afraid. No training could calm her mind. She needed to run away. It didn't matter where she went; she needed to get away. The night was filled the sounds of frantic footfalls, as the party stumbled down slope. A low roar rumbled from the Mouth of Sheoul. As M'alta ran, the roar gripped her mind. It was laughter. Maxxarek was laughing at them. The sound stayed with her for many seasons, just as clear as it had been before.