Blood and Stone
Thoril remembered when his mother's wards came to Rockholm, amid much
whispering and shaking of heads. He was too young still to understand what they
meant: the elders who tugged their beards and shook their heads, the matrons who
gossiped and declared that no good would come of it.
He asked his mother later why they acted so, and was met with a long hard
stare. The High Queen of the Dwarves - for she was the wife of High King Faril -
was an imposing figure, austere and almost always stern. "You are to be the next
Thane of Rockholm and King of the Dwarves," she declared. "You should not
eavesdrop, Thoril. It is beneath you."
"But I do not understand!" he exclaimed. "It would be usual, of course, for kin
to foster each other's children, but I know that neither you nor Father has
siblings. Who are these people, and why is everyone upset over it?"
"It is the Lord of Southgard's children," Wiciwen replied after a while with a
That explained much, at least as far as the disapproval went. "We fought a war
with them many years ago."
"Not so many," said Wiciwen. "It was that war which crowned your father, as you
well know. Southgard surrendered, and the terms of peace were that the children
of their ruling house be sent here, so that they may not grow in enmity to the
High King." She crossed her room and sat down comfortably, turning away from
him. "This was what the omens required of us. You will understand."
He did not, at least for a few years. But he was there upon the dais when the
party from Southgard arrived, and two young dwarves walked slowly up the hall
under the gaze of many to bow before the throne. One looked to be a year or so
younger than he - still unbearded - and the other younger still.
"I am Ethilwen Varrim," said the elder, her voice surprisingly steady, and
raised her head as if in defiance. "I come with my brother Erekas, to fulfill
the terms of peace set many years ago." And then, so lightly that he could not
tell whether or not she was being sarcastic, "Does this please my lord?"
"We are pleased," Faril rumbled from his throne. Thoril chanced a glance at his
father, and noted that Faril's face was flushed, and also that Wiciwen was
looking disapproving and indeed angry. He could guess the cause of it - since
the last war had ended, Faril had given himself over to drink and gambling, and
on most days looked more like a tavern brawler than the High King.
"You may retire," said Wiciwen calmly. "Rooms have been prepared for you, and I
shall send for you in the morning. Consider yourself... among friends."
The Southgard dwarves bowed, and the one called Ethilwen spoke again, softly
and a little sad. "I thank you, Lady of Rockholm." Thoril noticed only then that
she had taken care not to name either of his parents King or Queen. An
intriguing person, to be sure, and he found it difficult to imagine that she was
younger than he. He decided to seek her later.
As the arrival of the party from Southgard threw the usually quiet life of
Rockholm into chaos, the chance only came after a few days. He had to stumble
around a while before he found Ethilwen, sitting with her brother in the crystal
gardens, singing a song unfamiliar to him. It did not seem right to walk in
unannounced, so he cleared his throat loudly, and she turned to him, startled.
"I am sorry to disturb you," he began, and cleared his throat again. Ethilwen
looked weary, if anything.
"Is the Lady Wiciwen asking for me?" she said, standing and drawing her brother
to his feet.
"No, no," Thoril hurriedly said. "I just wished to ask... what it was you
sang." It was a terribly inadequate response, but the best he could think of at
the moment. He thought she looked at him with surprise, though it could as
easily have been wariness.
"A song of my home," she said, seating herself again, and looking wistfully
southward. "Of summer."
"You seem sad, then."
She turned to stare at him, her eyes bright with what he would later know as
anger. "I seem sad? How odd! I have been uprooted from my home and thrown into
the fortress of my father's enemies, there to dwell for years. I simply cannot
imagine why I should seem sad!"
Beside her, her brother rolled his eyes and made a few signs, and Ethilwen
grimaced and signed something back. Thoril observed it with interest, noting
down the motions but not comprehending their usage. The boy, seeing his gaze,
shook his head and gestured to his throat.
"He cannot speak," said Thoril. It was a statement more than a question.
Ethilwen nodded curtly.
"His throat was damaged at birth," she revealed. "We use a system of
hand-signs, and it is as well that he has me to translate for him."
"What did he just say?"
A small, wry smile blossomed on her face, the first that he had seen. "'What an
The party from Southgard returned to their home after a week, leaving Ethilwen
and Erekas in Rockholm. He saw much of the Varrims, for Wiciwen liked to keep
Ethilwen around, doing various daily tasks around the Hall, and Erekas was sent
to run errands and carry notes -- something he could do easily despite his
As for Ethilwen, she might have been as mute as her brother. She kept her head
down and her eyes fixed on whatever she was doing, whether it was stitch-work or
gathering clear crystals to be shaped into orbs for Wiciwen. At eve, when she
was freed from her tasks, he would find her sitting in the crystal gardens. She
would speak to him then, and sometimes she would smile or laugh; but in the day
she passed by like a stranger.
Thoril barely noticed when the rhythm of his days had changed. He began to look
forward to the time when the miners returned to their homes, when the torches in
the tunnels guttered. Then, he would go to the small niche where the helicites
glittered like diamonds and the crystals dazzled the eye, and Ethilwen would
always be there. She spoke of home: of how the tunnels were deserted and the
halls were empty of feast and fire, and only a few dwarves remained.
"Most of our workers have come here, to Rockholm," she said quietly. "To serve
the High King."
"But that's wonderful!" he exclaimed. "Does that not mean you can speak to your
people whenever you wish here?"
Her face was calm, still, shuttered. "They left Southgard," she said.
"Southgard nurtured them, raised them, gave them all it had, and they left
because some fool won a war and called himself King. They are not my people. I
have no friends here."
For a long moment he was lost for words, hearing her say what nobody -- not
even his mother -- had yet dared to say of his father. But there was truth in it
also, for Faril's habits grew worse year by year. He bowed his head for a
moment, and at last he said, "I am your friend."
He saw her smile again. "I know," she murmured, and slipped her hand into his.
As time wore on, Ethilwen grew less melancholy and less wary. The years had
passed as if on wings, and she was now nearing her majority. She looked
different from the wispy slip of a girl she had been, and was now a hearty,
strong dwarf woman. But her quick tongue and mind had not deserted her, though
she seldom showed it.
Thoril was now the silversmith's apprentice, as it was custom for all young
dwarves to take on a trade, regardless of their future plans. He found it
interesting, though the company of the cranky old smith was not a pleasant
thing. He did the work assigned him by day, and drank and reveled with his
friends by night.
At evening, there was always the rock garden. Over the years, it had been many
things for them: a place to spill sorrows and frustrations, a meeting place for
friends -- a place for lover's trysts.
Ethilwen was not there when he arrived, which was odd in itself -- she was
usually there before him. He sat amid the crystals and waited, but when she had
not arrived in an hour, he grew restless and decided to search for her. He made
his way up to the Hall, nodding and smiling at the cheery dwarves passing the
other way to the taverns, until he suddenly heard the sound of his mother's
"And where -were- you last eve?" Wiciwen, sounding even colder than usual.
"Out, my lady." That was Ethilwen, her voice as expressionless as only she
"Out is not enough. Where were you?"
"At the taverns." That was a lie, and Thoril drew his breath in sharply. She
had not been at the taverns, and neither had he. They had been in the crystal
garden, surrounded by brilliance and forgetting briefly the world beyond it.
A pause, then Wiciwen's voice again, trembling slightly. "You lie. I know where
you were. I know what you were doing. How dare you?"
"How dare I what, my lady?"
"Do not play the fool!" Wiciwen cried, and there was the sound of something
breaking. "How dare you approach my son, how dare you sully him with the blood
of traitors and beggars, dwarves with not a chipped stone to their names --"
"If we speak of blood, then the blood of my people is more honourable than that
of a drunk brigand and a madwoman who dabbles in herbs and crystals!" Ethilwen's
words were shrill now, piercing. He flinched, in part because he knew that the
words were directed at his house, and by extension himself as well.
A low laugh from his mother; she sounded almost amused now. "A madwoman? I
think not, girl. How do you think I knew where you were and what you were doing?
And I tell you now: wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be watching. Now
A door slammed sharply, and suddenly Ethilwen was running down the corridor,
her breath coming raggedly. She stopped short when she saw him, then turned and
ran the other way. With a muttered curse, he chased her down Granite Way,
ignoring the stares of dwarves who stopped to look, and finally caught her near
the mine shafts. She struggled briefly, before he dragged her down into the
darkness of the mine.
"Has it occurred to you that she might be watching? Now?" she demanded of him.
It hadn't; but he said, "I don't care," and kissed her anyway, and it was she
who pulled away.
"She lied," she whispered fiercely. "She lied. My house was one of kings and
"You could be a queen, you know," he said to her. "Stay here, when your
wardship is over -- they can't stop us forever. We'll find a way, somehow--"
"I -will- be a queen someday," she declared. "But not -your- queen, Thoril. Not
some ornament upon your throne. I will be High Queen, and rule Southgard, and
see my people flourish. And they will rue the day they used Southgard so."
"The dwarves need a High King," he responded, rattled by her audacity. "Not a
High Queen. So it has always been!"
A little laugh. "And look what your search for a High King got you."
He stiffened. "They are my people," he told her. "I must take their part."
He felt her sigh, felt the little flutter of breath against his cheek as she
drew away, untangling her fingers decisively from his. "So must I," she said,
and there was an unspoken farewell in her voice.
Winter came, and with it the celebrations, most of them involving large
quantities of brandy. Thoril quaffed with the best of them, and tried to forget
his troubles. He would have succeeded, if not for the drinking game.
The dwarves had many drinking games -- one of his father's favourite was to
have several dwarves hold another and pour brandy down his throat, until such
time as he cried out for them to stop, and the dwarf who continued the longest
was accounted the victor.
Faril, whether out of negligence or simply because he was too drunk, had
dragged Erekas into one of those games. Several burly dwarves, similarly drunk,
had poured a good deal of alcohol down his throat while he struggled and gagged,
and were exclaiming to themselves what a strong youngling this was, forgetting
that Erekas was mute and could not cry out if he tried.
It took a while for what he was seeing to penetrate the hazy fog that clouded
his vision; then horror stabbed Thoril and he rushed forth and dragged the
dwarves off Erekas, yelling something incomprehensible. Erekas was unconscious
by now, head lolling weakly upon the ground. Thoril picked him up and turned to
leave the hall, only to meet a furious Ethilwen.
"Give him to me," she said.
"I can carry--"
"Give him to me. And leave my sight, you and all of your ill-gotten kin." She
said this loudly, clearly, for all the hall to hear, and many dwarves (those who
were not too drunk to notice) grunted and put their hands to their axes.
Ethilwen ignored them, gathered Erekas into her arms and carried him, for all
the world as if he were a doll.
Later in the night, Thoril was woken by a frantic hand on his shoulder. He
stirred, blearily opening his eyes. "Whazzat?"
The dwarf who woke him was not one he knew. He was very young, and very
frightened, pale as a sheet. "My lord," he stammered. "My lord, the king is
It was like a bucket of cold water poured upon Thoril's head. "What? -How-?"
"The king is dead, my lord. We don't know!"
Thoril scrambled up and rushed to Faril's room. The dwarf king was sprawled
atop his bed, face discoloured. A cup lay spilled on the floor, and a pitcher
rested on the nightstand. He picked it up and smelled it gingerly.
"What's this?" Thoril demanded, gesturing to the pitcher.
"His mead cure, my lord. For when he's had too much to drink. It's a herbal
remedy -- "
"Who brought it to him? Tell me quickly!" He knew the answer, but he had to
ask, had to know for certain...
"Ethilwen Varrim, lord."
With a curse, he ran out of the room, the protests of the young dwarf echoing
behind him. He should have known, should have guessed... should have prevented
it. Too late now. Always too late. Oh, Ethilwen, he thinks. You should have told
me of this. How long had you been preparing?
He found her at the stables, mounted on a pony. "Tell me you didn't do it," he
said. His voice sounded strange to him. "How could you do it? After all these
"Years of bitterness," she retorted. "Stand aside, Thoril."
"So you flee like a thief in the night. What of Erekas?"
"Dead." The single word fell like a stone from her lips. "Dead by -his- hand,
as certainly as if he had taken an axe to him..."
"You lie." His mother's words, coming from his lips. "Where did you get the
crotamine? Not this night, I think. Nobody in Rockholm would have given it to
you. You had it from before. Who were you going to use it on?" He drew his axe.
"Whatever we had, it could never be enough. There is blood between us."
"There is blood between us," she agreed, looking down on him from atop her
mount. "As for the crotamine..." She hesitated a moment, then glanced away. "I
had meant it for myself, once. At first. Before you changed my mind. But it
could never have been enough. Stand aside, Thoril."
He stood his ground. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear the sentries
running towards them, no doubt searching for Ethilwen. "No."
"Stand aside, or I'll trample you."
He saw her turn her mount towards him, urge it on, and his heart seized up in
fear. He could not have moved if he tried. Instead, some distant part of him
wondered what death was like as the hooves rose into the air, bore down on him
--passed over his head, landing with a clatter on the stone of the tunnel. He
heard Ethilwen's sharp voice ring out once in a command, and the pony began to
gallop in earnest. Then, she turned a sharp bend and was gone from his sight.
He stood alone in the empty tunnel, his axe in his hands, and found that he
could feel not a thing.
"Hail the Thane!" cry the dwarves assembled below, bowing one and all to the
one who sits on the rough stone throne. These dwarves were all of Rockholm --
the workers from Southgard had found it prudent to flee soon after King Faril's
Wiciwen stands beside the throne, her quivery voice sounding in the hall.
"Thane, you say," she cries. "But the omens have spoken! I say to you, dwarves
of Rockholm, that soon we will give you a King! And we will defeat this
Southgard that dares to crown a wench, and show them once more a king's
The rousing chorus sounds from the hall. "A king! A king!" they cheer. "Long
life and health to Thoril Falgirn! May he lead us to victory!"
Thoril raises his hand for silence, and knows what he must say to lead them,
knows what they wish to hear from him. "I hear you," he says. "I know your
grievance! It is not right that there is now one who styles herself Queen of the
Dwarves -- this same one who slew the King my father -- and I shall see justice
The resounding cheer shakes the foundations of the hall, and Thoril looks
southward from his high seat, south over the Basin to where Southgard must
stand. And if it is a flash of bright eyes that he sees, or a soft laugh that he
hears and cannot banish from his mind, only he will ever know.