All the dwarves had taken to addressing Durin as Your Highness, Sire, or Your Majesty. He wasn’t actually the king yet, but Missy explained to Ralt since he was the heir apparent, and there weren’t any other contenders, it just made sense to go ahead and use the royal titles on him.
“Besides,” she concluded, wrapping her arms around his neck, “if his story about being Drangor’s son is true, he’s a prince anyway so the titles are his by right.”
“The son of a king,” Ralt nodded, enjoying the feel of her sitting in his lap in the vast chow hall. No one was watching them though, all their attention was focused on Durin, sitting at the head of a wide table at the front of the room. There was a dull roar of conversation in the room as everyone discussed recent events.
Ralt’s eyes narrowed as he studied the figure sitting in the place of honor at Durin’s right hand – Thrgin. The former leader had been missing all day yesterday, probably nursing a broken heart over his sudden loss of power, some said. He’d reappeared early his morning and Durin had promptly proclaimed him his High Advisor. Politically it was an astute move but Ralt wondered if it was wise?
Missy followed his eyes. “Don’t be borrowin’ trouble. It’s none of your concern.”
He smiled sadly. “Durin and I have known each other for years. We’ve fought and bled together. A few days ago we nearly died together. Of course, it’s my concern.”
“Aye.” She acknowledged his point, then her expression changed and became mischievous. “And in a few hours, he’s going to marry us.”
As heir apparent, or prince, or both, Durin automatically inherited all the powers that had formerly belonged to Thrgin. The fact he also had larger, as yet unnamed powers, went unsaid. But one of the duties that had befallen him was the authority to perform weddings, hand fastings as most people called them.
Ralt was constantly amazed at how fast his devotion and love for Missy had grown. It had only been six days and here they were preparing to be married already. And yet, it felt strangely right to him, as if it was normal for him to marry a woman he’d met less than a week ago. A dwarf woman at that!
And a thief too. His lips quirked in silent amusement.
Missy’s larger than normal stature, along with her tendency to speak out when she shouldn’t, had led to her being semi-ostracized in the tribes. Doors that should have been open to her were, literally, locked in her face. In desperation, she’d learned to pick locks and slither unseen through the mines with only the least bit of shadow to hide in. That she was extremely flexible and athletic by birth only magnified her considerable skills. “You certainly stolen my heart,” he joked after watching her pick the lock to a storeroom where she found some cloth for a wedding veil.
His attention was diverted to the main table where Thrgin was saying something. The general hubbub in the room died away as the dwarves hushed each other to hear what was being said.
“. . . ye canna be da king unless 7 tribes accept ye as such, and ye canna be crowned ‘cept at Thangadrim,” Thrgin was explaining peevishly. He seemed to take a certain perverse delight in stymieing the day of Durin’s ascendance to the throne.
Durin shrugged, unconcerned with the niceties of modern dwarfdom. “If ye need more tribes ta make yerselves happy, it makes no never mind ta me. I know who I am.”
“Very magnanimous of you,” Thrgin conceded with barely concealed contempt. “I’m sure there are all sorts of customs we modern dwarves have that are strange to you, and great tales from the First Age you could regale us poor benighted souls with.”
Missy’s lips compressed angrily. “Thrgin is a sore loser. He’s trying to undermine Durin.”
Thrgin’s needling must have gotten to Durin. “There’s one tale ye might not ‘ave heard,” he rumbled.
“Oh, do tell us then Lord Durin.” Thrgin’s voice verged on outright disrespect.
Deal silence fell in the room as everyone leaned close to hear.
“Me father told me, in da early days when men, dwarves, and elves all lived together on the Plateau of Hothir, Shokri, the father of the Shokirin, was told a secret by one of da gods –”
“Whoa! Wait.” One of the dwarves at the front raised a hand. “Wot’s the Plateau of Hothir? Where’s dat?” Others around him nodded agreement.
Durin paused, clearly irritated at being interrupted. “The Plateau of Hothir was a raised plateau in da middle of da Biqah. It sank under the weight of our ancestor’s hate fer each other. Ta-day it’s called Namak Lake, and ‘tis still sinkin’.”
His words created a stir in the room. Everyone except Thrgin looked intrigued.
Missy nudged Ralt. “Have ye ever heard of such?”
He seesawed a hand in the air. “I’ve heard the name but that’s about it. It was mentioned once, in passing, in one of the books in Gerald’s library.” He wondered at Thrgin’s seeming indifference to Durin’s revelation.
Durin refused to be diverted by the questioning looks being directed at him. He plowed ahead with the rest his tale. “Shokri was told dat not all da gods came ta Gaia, dat some of ‘em stayed behind ta create another world fer demselves.”
This time the buzz was loud and immediate, dominated by scoffers.
Ralt took in the confused, disbelieving expressions around the room and shook his head sadly. “That wasn’t the best story he could have chosen,” he whispered to Missy. “It’s too weird and strange for them to relate to.”
“Even if it’s true?” she whispered back.
“Especially if it’s true. What good does it do? A world we don’t know about and have no way of ever seeing? What’s the point in talking about it? All it does is make him sound crazy.” Ralt sighed in frustration. He focused on Thrgin, watching the crafty expression on his face. “And you can bet Thrgin is going to find a way to use it against him.”
“Then we need to git Durin crowned before Thrgin can do anything ta stop it,” Missy declared.
He glanced at her. “How?”
She got up and held out her hand. “Come on.”
She led him toward the entrance to the mine, then turned aside to a winding set of stairs that went up and up and up until they emerged in an aviary full of pigeons in rows of cages. A cool mountain breeze came in through windows carved into the outer wall of the mountain. She gestured at a table full of pens, inkwells, and slips of paper.
“We write that Durin the Stone Skinned has returned to claim his crown and show us the way to Thangadrim,” she told him. “And we ask every tribe that can come, to come to Shadow Mount to acclaim him and begin the journey. As soon as seven of them arrive he can be crowned Heir Apparent.”
Ralt felt his eyebrows go up. “After that, as Heir Apparent, the only thing stopping him from being crowned in Thangadrim would be if he dies.”
“Aye,” she smiled. “The quicker we send the messages, the harder it will be for Thrgin to interfere.”
Ralt laughed and kissed her. “You’ll make a good wizard’s wife.”
“Ye’ll make a good dwarves’ husband,” she countered teasingly.
He didn’t argue. “Whichever,” he nodded agreeably. “Come on, let’s get started.” He sat down at the table and began writing.
By the time they were done it was nearly lunch and they’d sent over seventy pigeons to the four corners of the world. “If that don’t get it done, nothing will,” Missy declared as they headed back to the chow hall to quiet the rumbling in their bellies.
“I didn’t know there were that many different dwarf tribes,” Ralt commented, massaging his lower back. The chairs in the aviary had been too small, stiff, and uncomfortable.
Grior stopped them just as they were going in. “Where ‘ave ye been?” he snapped, grabbing her arm. “Never mind! Yer ‘ere now. It’s time fer ye ta git married. Come on.”
“My veil!” Missy yelped. Before Grior could stop her, she tore her arm out of his grasp and flew down the hall.
Grior sighed in frustration. “Missy Rivers! Ye git back ‘ere now!”
Ralt was amused. She was already out of sight. “Good luck with that.” He gestured ahead. “I’ll be in there, waiting.”
Grior nodded. “And may ye be a better ‘usband dan I am an uncle.”
Ralt laughed and headed into the chow hall. It had been temporarily converted into a marriage hall. The tables were stacked against the back wall and all the benches arranged in rows facing a small cleared area at the front. A table draped with faded tapestry held the multicolored cord would be used to tight their hands together in the hand fasting. Ralt briefly wished he had some wedding rings like Storm and Lorelei had. It was a more permanent sign of marriage then the cord. He found he liked it.
Durin was waiting for him up front.
“Where ye been, lad?” He looked around. “And where is yer lady?”
“We were up in the aviary sending messages to tribes all over Gaia to come here for your acclamation,” he explained. “It took us all morning.”
I dinna know they had one,” Durin said.
“And it’s a sure bet Thrgin wouldn’t have told you,” Ralt returned sourly.
Durin nodded slowly. “He’s turning inta a real snake, alright. But right now I need ‘em.”
“Yeah, just watch your back,” Ralt agreed.
“Aye.” Durin pulled out a small bag that clinked with the sound of metal. “After Javan’s men had that run-in wit the city guards, he brought Storm a bunch rings and gems as a way ta thank him. Storm asked me ta hang on to it.” He handed it to him. “Mebbe ye ken find some rings in der like he and Lorelei used at der wedding.”
Ralt took it with a glad laugh. “I was just wishing we had some!” He dug into it eagerly. He quickly found one that fit him and three Missy might be able to wear. He gave the bag back to Durin. “When she gets here I’ll see which one fits her.”
“Which one what?”
He turned to see Missy coming up the middle aisle in the room. He held up the rings and briefly explained what they were for. She was fascinated. “They git married on Elder Earth like this?”
“That’s what Storm says. And their custom is one man, one woman for life. None of this multiple wives stuff,” Ralt added.
Her face lit up. “Hey, I might like that Elder Earth place!”
Ralt and Durin laughed together. “Just like Lorelei and Krista,” Ralt smiled at her.
Dwarves began filing in and sitting down. Ralt gave all the rings back to Durin except for the two he and Missy would exchange. He asked Grior to hold them until it was time.
Ralt was a newcomer to the mines but Missy was known to everyone. That, plus the fact it was the first time a prince had presided over a hand fasting, was enough to guarantee they all wanted to be there. Then they could tell stories to their grandkids – “Yep, I was there when Durin the Stone Skinned performed his first hand fasting as our new King.”
Durin, aware of what must be going through their minds, fished through his pockets until he found a folded scrap of paper.
Ralt was curious. “What’s that?”
“Da wedding vows Storm and Lorelei used.” He waved it at him. “Aram printed a buncha copies of ‘em and I grabbed one.” He looked a question at him. “Do ye mind?”
Ralt grinned. “I don’t mind at all. Thrgin might have a thing or two to say about it though.”
“Thrgin can kiss my –”
“We’re ready, Your Highness,” Grior interrupted politely.
Later, recounting the wedding to Storm and Lorelei through the magic mirror, Ralt could tell Lorelei was pleased as punch. “That’s great! The more women who know we don’t have to share our husbands anymore, the more they’ll insist on it.” Missy was grinning ear to ear. “Even they are sometimes a jerk,” Lorelei muttered with a dark look at Storm.
Missy leaned forward and pretended to whisper to her. “They’re men. They can’t help it.”
Lorelei giggled. “You know, I think you and I are going to get along just fine.”
Durin, Storm, and Ralt exchanged pained looks. “Mebbe I should stay a bachelor da rest of me life,” the dwarf mused.
Ralt clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “Nope. You have to have some royal heirs before you kick the bucket. Gotta continue the line and all that, you know.”
Durin snorted but didn’t argue.
Storm used his lack of response as a chance to change the subject. He updated them on Torvin’s revelation that they were being followed by a priest of Tartak who, incredible as it might seem, was working with a priest of Adrammelech.
Ralt furrowed his brow. “Whoa. Wait a moment. Wasn’t there a priest of Tartak in Far Point? Pu . . . Pu something?” He cudgeled his brain for the memory. “Pünon!” he exclaimed triumphantly.
“Yes, there was,” Storm agreed slowly. “I’ve wondered about him too.”
“And we got attacked the moment we tried to leave the inn,” Lorelei added. “Just like we’ve been getting attacked every day since then.”
“But why does Adrammelech need someone ta spy on ya?” Durin wanted to know. “Can’t he do dat ‘isself?”
“You’d think so,” Missy added.
Storm shook off the gloomy mood that was developing. “Okay, enough of this.” He looked at Ralt and Missy. “You two go enjoy your honeymoon and leave the worrying to the rest of us until you get done.” He shifted to Durin. “And you, Your Majesty,” Durin snorted, “have fun planning the invasion of Mount Wainsford.”
The dwarf nodded. “We’ll be ‘aving giant brains for breakfast a’fore ye know it.”
Ralt shuddered. He’d seen Durin do that once before and nearly lost his own breakfast in the process. “Can’t we just kill them and be done with it?”
“Spoken like a true barbarian,” Storm chortled.
They all broke into laughter.