Els looked up and then up some more, "This isn't a country! It's a mountain range cleverly disguised as a forest."
The little dwarf guiding their horses turned his head slightly--the gesture politely acknowledged Els's words. The dwarf did not speak, which made learning his body language pivotal to their conversations.
"I did not expect to be sent to Mai as my first service to the Goddess." In her bed at Gallis, Els held on to the hope of a punitive expedition into Hokubu for the Massacres. Most of her family did not make it to the Sea Elf ships; thinking about her elf sisters being raped and killed brought rage too close to the surface. She took a deep breath before continuing, "I suppose it makes sense. Hokubu is out of the question or I'd kill a noble here and there, or maybe a hundred of them. How many Hokubu nobles are there anyway? Shin would be no better with the Empress letting Hokubu wormlings slither around like they did not try to exterminate two of the Created races within their borders."
The dwarf stopped and frowned at a signpost. He nudged his claw-pony close enough to kick the post over.
"What did you do that for?" His claw-pony sniffed the ground and followed the scent to a bush. Someone had tossed another signpost behind the bush. "Is that because of us? Is someone hoping we'll get lost? Or trying to misdirect us?"
She got a new gesture. After some thought, she replied, "You're right. Nobody knows we're coming and if they did, they'd know you don't need signs."
The Seven Nations of Guo existed in a state of war; but with dwarves, elves, humans, and dragons co-habiting Mai, full military expeditions into the country were rare. The forest-covered mountains heavily favored elves and dwarves in battle. The human clans had lived in the mountains before anyone uttered the words Guo or Mai and combined the best of elf and dwarf tactics against invaders. Sanity precluded attacking dragons.
"Probably Yun slavers!" The pony's claws extended, clenched, and retracted. Her dwarf guide did not carry any weapons; but claws, horns, razor-sharp teeth, and a perpetual bad mood would make any rider the odds-on favorite in a fight. If it weren't for the dwarf desert tribes to the west of Guo, the pony would still be called a wolf-cat.
"Maybe we could find them." She sighed at his shrug; hunting down Yun slavers was not on the way to their destination. The dwarf seemed to know where she needed to be, which was more than Els could say. The Twins put her on a Sea Elf ship with only a cryptic mention of someone waiting for her. Out on the open ocean, Els realized it was done for her benefit. In her twenty years of training, she grew attached to the town of Gallis, more so than other Steel after years of captivity in Hokubu.
"I shouldn't say I did not expect to be sent to Mai. It actually never crossed my mind," Els explained as they returned to the trail. "Minami doesn't need Swords so recently put into the Goddess's hand. The Dragon Prince is more of an emperor in Minami than the Empress is anywhere in Shin."
The dwarf grabbed a water skin off their packhorse. He handed it to Els and stared at her until she drank. He took a drink when she handed it back before carefully putting the skin in its proper place. The dwarf liked things in their proper place, which meant they rarely got an early start.
"I considered the desert tribes; it would have meant crossing Guo. Or maybe across the ocean to serve in the Forest Nations." The few people Els befriended at Gallis would have found her chattiness odd. Something about the little dwarf's silence made her want to fill it.
"Wouldn't traveling through Chun been easier?" Els tried another surprise question to see if he would let something slip about their destination. Like every other time, her dwarf failed to take the bait.
She narrowed her eyes at his back. A head shorter than any dwarf Els ever met, the width of his shoulders, thighs, and arms would have been impressive on a dwarf a head taller than normal. Elves studying Weaving were less reticent than her little guide, and for a dwarf to be anything short of gregarious did not bode well for his past. Like possibly having multiple younger and older dwarf sisters!
"We could have sailed down the Chun shoreline and come up from the south," she said, feeding him more line. Mai and Chun ran parallel, with Chun hugging the ocean. The countries had a peaceful relationship relative to normal affairs between the Seven Nations. Mai's mountain presence secured Chun from attack, except from the ocean and the Chun/Yun border to the south. The price of Chun's security was ignoring one of the most precious jewels in Guo, Mai's single port town.
Els shrugged and looked around at the mountains again. She hoped they would get to wherever they were going soon, "A town wouldn't be bad either."
Since leaving the port, they stopped at two villages to pick up supplies. They encountered other travelers of mixed race parties, but her guide did not accept or offer any invitations to talk over a fire and some dwarf ale.
Els asked more direct questions about their destination when she first stepped off the Sea Elf Ship. Having arrived in the middle of the night on a ship with no other passengers, the dwarf at the docks had to be waiting for her. He ignored her curiosity and pointed at the horse he brought along. The pristine white mare was an elf steed with desert horse in her lineage. He should gotten her something cross-bred to a mountain goat!
The boredom of the sea voyage made Els glad to be on their way immediately, even if it left many questions unanswered. Who was he? Where were they going? Was that really a claw pony? By the time, she thought to interrogate him they'd silently agreed she would do all the talking.
Thankfully, the dwarf did not intend climbing any mountains to get to their destination faster. Els grew up near the Hokubu Mountains but those were little sisters to these giants. The dwarf wound their caravan through roads and beaten paths around the mountains.
"You're not from Mai," Els declared. "The way you know the roads, I thought you might be. I also considered the desert tribes, but the only tribesmen who leave are Swords and they always return to serve the Goddess among their people."
The female scream cut Els off. Drawing her swords, she leapt from the mare and oriented on the sound before running towards it. The claw-pony overtook her quickly but without its rider. Els nodded--the dwarf didn't have to know how to fight, a claw-pony and a quick release saddle took care of most things that might trouble travelers. Another scream greeted Els as she turned the corner into a clearing. A woman in a white dress stood on a massive rock. Seven men surrounded her, approaching carefully so as not to damage their prize. Yun slavers! Other men lay dead or dying around them.
The woman smiled as Els ran into the clearing, "A Sword of Gallis!"
Men who made their living from the suffering of others dared not ignore those words. There was no chance against a Sword except to attack as a group or run in as many different directions as they could. The men turned around and charged Els. The claw-pony gored a slaver; momentum drove the pony past the charging group as it eviscerated its victim.
Els was not the type of fighter to stand and blunt a charge. She picked up her pace, upping the ante by charging the slavers. Some hesitated at her action, creating the opening she needed. The tip of her sword struck the shield of a slaver, breaking his stride. She thrust the other sword into his neck. Spinning away from him freed the blade. A slaver was behind her, but she was in a pocket with four slavers in a semi-circle to her front.
Double-edged elvin steel composed Els's jian-styled swords. She wielded them like wands, with crisp and sharp movements. The Elf Twins spent twenty years training her-only their second student ever.
Her sword flashed to the left, taking a slaver eye. Els stepped right, ducked, and thrust into the groin of another slaver. No guard! Her body was open for a counterattack, but the slavers could barely follow her movement. She spun behind the newly made eunuch; left and right thrusts ended his misery. The two unwounded slavers caught up to the violence. Stepping away from her, their stance and sword position became defensive. The tactic was a mistake against someone trained to use speed as her third sword.
A slaver jumped on the feint to his eyes. Els moved past him as the attack on his partner momentarily relaxed the other slaver. Els thrust her sword through his eye. The slaver behind her would be turning. She let go of her jian, grabbed the slaver's short sword out of his hand, threw it over her shoulder before pulling her own sword out of his head, and rolling to the right.
If not for the thought Gallis might make an appearance and teach her proper Sword etiquette in combat, Els would have laughed. She did not intend for the slaver's sword to do any damage, only to make the other slaver pause. The slaver was pawing at a cut on his sword arm. Els slashed his throat open. It was her first battle as a Sword so the Elf Twins would probably forgive her for having to chase down the one-eyed slaver.
"There were seven," she said after looking around the clearing. "I know there were seven."
Her little dwarf coaxed the woman on the rock to a sitting position before giving her a water skin. He patted the woman's head to reward her for doing what he wanted. Having been on the receiving end of those pats, Els understood the woman's annoyed glare.
There had been seven slavers! The claw-pony's victim was obvious; the pony looked very unhappy about the blood and entrails on his horns. The slaver Els took as she ran through their charge made two. The eunuch. One-eye. Els thought about the battle for a moment. Take an eye, thrust into a groin, kill one-eye, and spin behind him would have been better. A man recovered from losing an eye faster than from losing what made him a man. The two slavers after killing the eunuch only made for six. Els walked to the other bodies to look for her missing slaver.
"They were my guards," the woman shouted. Els nodded, picking out the two dead guards easily enough. They accounted for three more dead slavers; not bad, considering Yun slavers thrived on greater numbers. Two slaver bodies were a mystery. Knife kills? The guards' knives rested in their sheaths.
Els glanced at the woman's sleeves. It was unthinkable that a human Mai woman could have killed the two slavers. Through a misunderstanding of dwarven female roles, the Mai clans prohibited women from touching weapons. The Mai human clans modeled themselves after dwarven clans, but one of their founding clan fathers must have been incredibly stupid. He thought because dwarven women were rarely seen they must be ... Actually, Els didn't know what he must have thought. Telling a dwarven female what to do was a far more dangerous proposition than calling a dwarven male with older and younger sisters a coward.
Following her footprints, Els tried to solve the mystery of the missing slaver. She worked her way back to where she killed the first slaver. A set of tracks showed the missing slaver running past her, but they stopped in the middle of the road.
"That doesn't make sense," she grumbled, walking to the rock. The dwarf's tracks also crossed the spot so he might know.
"Did you see a slaver run past you?" she asked him.
"My father will be glad you came along when you did," the woman said. She was pretty in an ethereal fashion: dark brown hair, pale skin, and thinner than an elf. The woman's eyes followed when Els leaned to the right.
"You're a Seer," Els said, staring into the grey clouds of the woman's eyes.
"My name is Mindra," the woman told the dwarf as he inspected her closely for wounds. "I'm fine."
Since Mindra brought the total number of Seers in known history to three, Els had found the reason Mai needed a Sword of Gallis.
"She's fine," Els told the over-solicitous dwarf. As with everything else, he ignored Els until he made sure the Seer was proper.
"Don't even think about it!" Els snarled when he got up from the rock and moved towards her. He pointed to her swords and stuck his hands out for them. "What do you think you're going to do with them?"
He looked at the bodies, made a wiping motion, and a sheathing motion. Els started and checked behind her. The Elf Twins' anger was something to see, but it didn't hold a candle next to Gallis's rage at unclean steel being sheathed.
"They're elvin steel," Els said. "They won't rust."
The dwarf stuck his hands out farther.
"I could do it myself." Els's tone of voice might have meant something if she weren't extending the swords out to him. The dwarf took a cleaning kit out from a pocket and sat down. "What about her knives?"
Mindra's lack of reaction answered the question of who killed the slavers.
"A knife-fighting Mai woman." Els studied the Seer. "Are tall dwarves going to make an appearance too?"
Els's shorter than normal dwarf did not react to the jibe.
"So how does a woman prohibited to touch weapons learn how to kill swordsmen with knives?" Els asked.
"They were hardly swordsmen," Mindra replied with a shrug. "Just good enough to make numbers mean something."
"I fought them, darling." Els shook her head. "With the size of their party, they were good enough not to be bested by a knife fighter."
"Someone was sent to me." Mindra's tone closed the subject.
A Seer would have an advantage, but there was no mistaking a steady killing hand. Exceedingly rare were the people who could have trained Mindra: a Sword or possibly an elder elf. Els could not see the only other possibility training one so blessed by her creator.
"What do you See?" Els asked. "I've read and been told the stories, but they never say what you actually See."
Mindra's smile was tiny, reminding Els of her dwarf's gestures. "I see what the Lady willed, wills, and wills to be."
And for Els that answered why no one would ever write about what Mindra saw, "If you can See, how did you get ambushed by Yun slavers?"
"My father is the Mountain Bandit," Mindra replied.
Els narrowed angry eyes at the dwarf, "You're going to bury Mindra's guards. Deep graves. They deserve it!"
Mai had no central government. The elves were a few hundred years from deciding on an Elf Queen's Hand for the mountain country. Dragons only listened to the Goddess or Rising Sun. Dwarves were dwarves. The Created races not having a leader was understandable, but humans, who couldn't seem to do much in a group without someone being bossy, had only clan leaders and those were shouted down in their get-togethers. The Mountain Bandit was the closest Mai came to a national leader.
The Weaver, Tanith, was the first Mountain Bandit. The elf, being fond of half-elf children born with Weaving power, journeyed to Mai to train a protege. Unfortunately for Yun, his apprentice looked more human than elvish. Early in the Yun slaving trade, a dwarf female child had been taken, and thus the strictest Yun laws prohibited selling a member of the Created races. While half-children were not specifically covered by the laws, Tanith ensured Yun leaders mended the oversight when they sued for peace.
Mountain Bandit was an honorific conferred by Yun due to Tanith rewarding his mixed-race army by insisting they take everything that could be carried back to Mai. Elves joined Tanith's campaign to rescue one of their own, but dwarves and humans gleefully partook in Yun's sacking.
Thinking an army would be helpful in retrieving an artifact from the nation of Yao, a Sword of Gallis resurrected the Mountain Bandit title years later. As Yao was the largest of Guo nations, Els could not fault the Sword, even if the human and dwarf clans decided, in case the Goddess ever needed another Mountain Bandit, someone should fill the role forevermore.
"A knife-fighting, human female Mai Seer who happens to be the daughter of the Mountain Bandit!" Els shook her head. "There were seven slavers when I ran into the clearing, but only six of those are dead. Did you see or See where the last one ran off to?"
"So where does one go for these ignore people lessons?" Els asked as they rode out of the clearing. "It's not something they teach at Gallis."
The dwarf finished cleaning her swords, led their pack animals into the clearing, made sure Mindra was comfortable on her horse, got on his claw-pony, and headed south. At no point had Mindra or the dwarf answered or acknowledged any more of Els's questions. If it hadn't been for the last twenty years dealing with the Elf Twins, Els might have found the situation frustrating. Not to mention, Gallis would not appreciate one of his Swords throwing a tantrum.
"Oh, look--more mountains. Goddess! And they're covered in trees!"
Els found it amazing that a mute dwarf could be a more interesting conversationalist than someone who could speak. Mindra's repertoire of things to say was limited to versions of 'Prepare the path for him'. Els hoped he, whoever HE might be, appreciated how much Mindra worried about everything being perfect for his arrival. Els tried to satisfy her curiosity about him, but Mindra only talked to herself about HIM.
"I must admit, Mindra," Els said. "Your father is an innovative thinker."
The dwarf turned to stare at Els.
"It's a very impressive wall! Your dwarven brethren have obviously outdone themselves." Els raised her hands as if to deflect his glare. "But, usually people build a wall around something like, I don't know, a town or a castle."
Els doubted a larger open space existed in Mai. The plateau was an obvious choice if someone wanted to build ... a wall. "Does he plan to put something behind his, very impressive, wall?"
Building a wall fit to defend the Imperial City of Shin in the middle of nowhere was laughable. Except, a dwarven-constructed wall that armies could throw themselves and fail to breach was not something people ever laughed at.
"I prepare the path," Mindra replied, meaning absolutely nothing to Els. Maybe someone behind the wall could answer her questions coherently. Not the Mountain Bandit though, Mindra's insanity was clearly hereditary.
"How did he pay for it?" A more reasonable question, Els thought. "I've heard of other projects this size, but except in Minami the expense is prohibitive."
As a group of riders came out of the gates, Mindra prompted her horse into a run. Els edged her mare beside the dwarf's claw-pony. She looked down at her guide and raised an eyebrow to get an answer.
"Hmmm," Els bit her lower lip at his gestures. "A couple of Mountain Bandits in a row from a clan which has been hoarding the spoils of their raids since Tanith's foray into Yun. But why? There had to have been some harsh winters.""
The dwarf pointed to several members of the group surrounding Mindra. Elves. Dwarfs. Humans.
"The Mountain Bandit plans to unite Mai," Els said.
The dwarf shook his head and pointed to Mindra and a man who reached out and pulled the Seer into a tight hug.
"Queen-Daughter," the elf woman said as Els dismounted. The title surprised Els, until she remembered the Seer.
"I prefer Els."
"Of course," the elf replied. "My name is Elin. These are my companions, Bet and Alis."
"No men," Els asked. There were male elves in the encampments behind the walls, but none stepped forward to greet her.
"It was decided I should be given this responsibility," Elin replied. Els nodded as she studied the wall from the inside. Responsibility, the elf woman said. Elin must be one of the remaining candidates to representing the Elf Queen's will in Mai. For a Seer, a Sword, and a candidate for the Queen's Branch of authority to be behind the same wall, Elin had to be the frontrunner.
"The Elf Sword," Bet whispered to Alis, who shushed her.
"Yes, I am." Els had spent a long time away from the company of elves. The Twins explained the likely reaction to a full-blood elf being called to serve as a Sword of Gallis. It might have mattered to Els if being born to serve were not more appropriate to her circumstance.
"The Seer," Els said.
A group of dwarves slowly approached her guide-- a claw-pony was truly a rare thing. Her little dwarf grabbed his reins and approached Els's mare. He walked off with their mounts and packhorses, with the dwarves following closely.
"That's a claw-pony!" Alis gasped. "He's taking them towards the horses!"
"It's fine," Elin said. "They're bred to dislike horsemeat."
Els laughed, "But they're bred to favor fucking horses. The two can't breed, but the little guy took what he wanted, whenever he wanted it."
"That's a desert mare?" Elin asked.
"I guessed," Els replied.
"They're trained to accept a claw-pony's attentions," Elin blushed.
"I'm sure that's an easy lesson for both sides," Els said with another laugh. "Fuck her, don't eat her. If you fuck him, he won't eat you."
"I wonder how that works with a stallion," Bet said. The elf women stared at each other for a second before howling in laughter.
The elf women led Els to a large tent. Someone, her little dwarf probably, had placed her packs in front of the entrance. The women waited for Els to finish taking advantage of the bathing water before continuing their conversation.
"The Seer," Els said as she sat down with a bowl of grapes and pitcher of cold water.
"If she is not stopped, she'll unite Mai under a single banner," Elin said.
"How do the elves feel?"
"A Seer!" Alis's voice exalted. "The Lady's creature!"
Els and Elin nodded together. Elves would be the first to gather around a banner held by the vessel of their creator's will.
"The dwarves and humans are going to be problems," Elin said. "For the same reasons."
"I don't understand."
"The clans," Bet said.
"I thought the dwarves were like elves," Els said. "We accept the dominion of the Elf Queen in Minami."
"The Dwarf King in Minami is also considered their ruler by the dwarf clans, but--" Alis shrugged. "Dwarves don't have anything like the Queen's Hand."
"The Mai dwarves have as much interest in uniting as Rigva did in being crowned King of Dwarves," Elin said. "Which is to say, none at all."
"Has anyone asked the Seer how we can resolve that issue?"
The elf women looked at each other before staring meaningfully at Els.
"Can anyone make sense of her gibberish?" Els shook her head in frustration.
"She is very focused on him," Bet said carefully. "No criticism of the Lady's creation, but she seems to worship him."
"Do you know who she is talking about?"
"Her brother, Marsh," Elin said. "It couldn't be anyone else."
"Why?" Els took a large drink of water.
"If he were the Mountain Bandit, all the human clans would follow his banner," Elin explained.
"He's that charismatic?" Els asked.
"Well," Alis blushed. The other two elf women gave Alis a few seconds to stew in her embarrassment before smiling. Human and elf was the most common crossbreeding, making Alis's blush curious. Els stared at her causing deeper reddening. Alis's blonde hair and elf pale skin set off the blush perfectly.
"Marsh has a dragon admirer," Elin said, pressing her lips together so as not to laugh. "A black one."
That was beyond rare-- and black dragons were known to be amongst the most temperamental.
"You were spending too much time with him," Els said. "A dragon will let you play with their treasure so you can admire it from up close."
"But they don't want you to keep it," Alis sighed.
"How does Marsh's father feel about his son's popularity?" A little more information should be enough. The cushions were calling for Els to enjoy her first comfortable sleep in weeks.
"The Mountain Bandit was raised by a dwarven clan," Elin replied. "He had a younger and older dwarf sister."
Els sat up straight.
"He plans to fulfill his daughter's vision by dying gloriously in the coming battle."
"What battle?" Els grabbed her sword belt and sprang to her feet.
"Mai has borders, Elf Sword, but we're barely a nation," Elin said with a dark smile. "Yao and Yun have raised a mercenary army. Zhun and Zhao left a couple of cities grossly undefended to contribute funds. Even Chun has enriched the coffers of Yao to ensure Mai does not become a nation built in the image of Minami."
Els studied the map hanging on the wall for the thousandth time in two months. The mercenary army had to cross a lot of mountain country to get to the Bandit Plateau.
Dark Rose, the black dragon, did not make it an easy march either. A pair of young, pony-sized, gold dragons seemed to be in Dark Rose's care. The little golds like to play on the roads the mercenary army needed to use. Stopping the Bandit's attempt to unify Mai might have made the other Guo nations desperate enough to attack if only the golds were trying to slow them down. Dark Rose, the golds, and the golds' mother, who couldn't be far, was too large a butchering if the army managed to win through. The dragons and dwarves of Mai would fall upon the army like an avalanche. The Guo commanders elected to be patient. The Mountain Bandit's only true allies were the elves, the Bandit's foster dwarf clan, and a handful of human clans.
If only Marsh were the Mountain Bandit! Els felt like kicking over the chessboard between the Mindra and her brother. It would be too undignified to yell at them for behaving as if winning the game was their only worry. Marsh could not fool Els--he understood the numbers facing them. Mindra was a different story though. Els traced the path the army was following from the Mai border to the Mountain Bandit's precious wall. What did Mindra See that eluded Els?
The black dragon's last bit of work cost the army three days. She lay in the middle of a mountain path for a nap. Dark Rose was large enough the army had to wait or find a way around her. They were about to send out scouts when the dragon flew off.
The timing of everything! The female dwarves evacuated the encampment behind the walls as soon as the Seer and elves spread the news of the invading army. Dark Rose suddenly stopped her harrassment of the enemy. Someone was arranging things!
Els circled the wall on the map with a finger, "If we just had enough people to hold the wall."
"What?" Marsh said. Elin, Alis, and Bet sat up when Els turned to look at the room's occupants. The Seer kept concentrating on the game board.
"The wall," Els said, turning back to the map. "I wish we had enough people to defend it."
"Why?" Marsh asked. He was a fine warrior, but not in the class of his father and lacked a strategic mind. Marsh would need a military advisor if he lived to inherit the Bandit title from his father.
"Your father didn't build his wall in the middle of nowhere like I thought," Els said. "A boy dwarf learns to use a particular tactic against girl dwarves. He'll pick up a big rock, one of his mother's cooking pots, or a buckler to block the punches, kicks, and clubs. Being a dwarf, he won't choose something large enough to hide completely behind. He'll throw punches back even if it means getting hit, but his object is to outlast the tempest."
"You know a lot about dwarves," Elin said.
"I have good reason to be fond of male dwarves." The extended silence after the words caught her attention. Els turned to see everyone watching her. She was gripping her sword hilts tightly. Taking a deep breath, she let go and smiled.
"The Mountain Bandit thinks like a dwarf," Els continued after turning back to the map. "Laying siege to a dwarf fortress is a bad waste of years, but your father is human, Marsh. He couldn't build a fortress where a dwarf would or hunker down for a century behind his wall, so he did something better."
"The Lady wills it to be," Mindra said, finally moving one of her pieces. Everyone ignored her.
Els put her finger on a spot on the Mai and Yun border, "Crossing here would give an invading army the shortest trip between the border and the wall. It would still take them a month to get here. Raze them, and it'll be two or three months before they see the wall. They'll need to start the march in the spring so we're talking the beginning of summer before they can attack. Four or five months to get through the wall before they have to retreat."
"Why so short a siege?" Marsh asked.
"How would you like to spend winter outside the walls?" Els spun and smiled at him. "You're not a general, Marsh, but even you can understand that an army would do very badly in Mai snow."
Marsh stared at the map for a long time before speaking, "A Mai city."
Mindra nodded happily--daddy to build the wall and big brother to build the city. Dwarves, humans who thought they were dwarves, elves, dragons, mountains, and a fortress city. Els wondered what Mindra thought needed that much protection.
"They'll be here in a few days," Mindra announced, which was welcome news to Els.
"Why do you play chess?" Els asked Marsh. "It's not like you can beat a Seer."
Marsh gave Els a curious look, as if confused by her words. He moved a piece without looking at it, sat back, and raised his hands as far away from the board as he could.
"I am part of the All," he told Els.
"Of the All, I can only see what the Lady willed and wills," Mindra said.
Elin, Alis, Bet, and Els looked at each other when Mindra and Marsh became engrossed in their game again. Els walked around the siblings to stand beside Elin.
"What does that mean?" Bet asked.
"I'm not religious." Els's words stunned the women. "Not in a scholarly fashion anyway. I was only up to basic religious training when the Hokubu Massacres began. My captors didn't bother furthering my education. At Gallis, Elseth and Elsath trained me."
"The Elf Twins." Any rounder and Els could have used Bet's eyes as plates.
"Yes," Els replied. "A vast majority of their lessons involve swords. The ones that don't are about their father, Tanith."
"Believe me, I know more about Tanith than he probably does. A day-by-day accounting of Tanith crossing the ocean to visit the Forest Nations. And I mean, day-by-day! Tanith guiding the first Dragon Prince to Minami. The worst stories are about Rising Sun teaching Tanith to Weave. Did you know that if someone shows great Weaving potential, they aren't taught to Weave? Instead, they are told the story word-for-word and must learn to Weave from Rising Sun's lessons. If you tell the stories from sunup to sunset every day, it takes two years!"
"It probably takes longer if the student is trying to learn," Elin said. Els watched the elf woman's mouth; even a hint of a smile and Elin would be in for a long afternoon of sword practice.
"Maybe the little dwarf will know what the Seer meant," Alis suggested. Els closed her eyes and fought down the sigh. Alis had made another play for Marsh's affections, only to be carried off by the black dragon and dropped in lake. It took her a week to get back to the Bandit Plateau. Blocked on the human side, Alis turned her eye on the dwarves and settled on Els's guide as her next seduction.
"Is it the claw-pony?" Els asked. Alis was not the only female interested in her dwarf. Females of his kind surrounded him until they evacuated. Now, a company of the male dwarves followed him everywhere he went. His only private time was bringing Els meals and cleaning her tent.
He took such good care of her that Els felt obligated to play matchmaker. Alis was pretty and from Els's experience a good lover. Her little dwarf would enjoy himself immensely. Considering the claw-pony, he should be able to escape any entanglement with a minimum of scratches.
There were only two buildings within the wall's perimeter. In Mai, the dwarf worldview stamped most aspects of human life, but as humans were wont to, they mixed in customs from other Created Races. Every dwarven fortress had communal baths, so it was not surprising the Mountain Bandit wanted that edifice built at the same time as the wall. The baths would have been finished sooner than the wall except for their decorative style; even elves were impressed with the representation of forest lakes and streams.
Marsh's home was not built with the same permanency as the baths. An unallied human clan leader wanted to gain his daughter's agreement to a match with Marsh and sought to make her comfortable. Unfortunately for everyone involved, except Marsh, Dark Rose did not favor the girl--the dragon did like to rest on the house's roof though. The Mountain Bandit preferred living among dwarves, but Marsh and Mindra preferred the human habitat.
The elf women followed Els to the basement level of the house. The stairs had lost some of their stability in the recent days from the number of dwarf meetings being held in the largest basement room. Els was curious about the assemblies, especially with her dwarf being co-opted to facilitate them. The dwarves seemed touchy about the meetings so asking about them was not an option.
As the elves turned the corner, a dwarf rolled through the meeting room door and into the wall.
"What are they doing in there?" Alis asked.
"I wish I knew," Els replied. The dwarf got up on shaky legs, only to plant it again face-forward. "Maybe there's a couple of dwarf girls in there playing a game of who can roll daddy the farthest."
The door opened and Els's dwarf stepped into the hallway. He nodded to the elves before propping the fallen dwarf against the wall. The little dwarf brushed wood splinters from the other dwarf while whispering to him. The other dwarf shook his head hard. Els's dwarf shrugged and pulled the dwarf forward. He got behind the groggy dwarf and shoved him back into the room. Els's dwarf studied the remains of the door and the pieces which had flown off it. A hammer and nails appeared in his hands; he set to work diligently on repairing the door.
There was still a gap in the door when Els's dwarf closed it behind him. A chubby arm reached through the hole and felt around until it found the last piece of wood. The sound of hammering shook the elves out of their reverie.
"All the dwarf women left," Elin said. "There can't be any dwarf girls in there, so it should be safe for you to take a look, Bet."
Bet snapped around to glare at her.
"Unless a dwarf girl was days away from becoming a woman," Alis pointed out. "With so many potential husbands around, a mother might leave her daughter behind with daddy."
Everyone took a step away from the door.
"One of us has to go in there," Elin said. "And you are a Sword, Queen-Daughter."
They jumped as a dwarf exploded through the door. He hit the opposite wall so hard he stuck in place long enough to groan before sliding down onto his head. After another groan, he toppled over.
Stepping out of the meeting room, Els's dwarf did not look happy about the damage to his recently repaired door. A number of dwarves stuck their head out of the doorway to look around. Two of them smiled and waved at Alis.
Els looked at the pretty elf, who shrugged, "It's cold at night!"
"It's the middle of summer," Els replied smiling.
A dwarf ran out of the room and kicked the fallen dwarf. Confusion from hitting the wall wasn't enough to stop the dwarf on the floor from pulling his attacker down. They rolled around the floor punching each other to the cheers of their dwarf audience. A third dwarf ran out and jumped on the two, not to stop them but to join the fray.
Ignoring the action, Els's dwarf looked at the door of another room in the basement and turned to study the remains of the door behind him. A large hammer appeared in his hands. He waved a couple of dwarves over to him. They lifted him up so he could hammer away the portions of the door that still hung onto the doorway.
"I don't think Marsh would like that," Bet said when the little dwarf started working on removing the door from the other room.
"I'm sure the little guy cares," Alis said. Something about her voice made Els turn to look at her. The innocence on Alis's face was difficult to take seriously.
"What do you know?" Els asked, only to get a dismissive shrug in response.
The door fell over onto the little dwarf. He maneuvered the door on its side and wedged it behind the three wrestling dwarves. Using the door, he rolled them back into the meeting room. Aligning the door correctly, he attached it to its new home.
"Dwarf!" Els called when he was done.
"I can't believe you still don't know his name!" Alis said. "You traveled all this way with him."
"He's mute!" Els said. "I couldn't get his name when we were traveling together. I've also been very busy since I got here. Not to mention, you want him to spend his night warming your naked body and you don't know his name either."
Alis shrugged in response. Els felt a guilty though; Alis was right, she needed to learn more about her guide. The dwarf stood in front of them but seemed anxious to get back into the room. Els told him what Marsh and the Seer had said. Alis asked if he knew what they meant.
"The First Creation. The All. The Dark Creation. The Created Races. And individual creations, such as Swords, Dark Sacrifices, Dragon-Souled, and Seers," Els translated from the dwarf's gestures. "Everything about the All was willed to be when the Goddess created it. The entirety of it is too much for the Seer to understand, only the later creations and their affects upon the All can be Seen, but those are ... If there were no Mindra, no dwarves, no elves, and even no dragons, Marsh would still be."
The dwarf spun around and walked back into the meeting room.
"That's a very strange dwarf!" Bet said finally.
"How old would you say he is?" Elin asked.
"Pretty young," Alis replied. "Two hundred years or so."
"Considering the Elf Queen watched humans come down from the trees, mountains can be pretty young for us," Elin said. "Dwarves can live a lot of life in two hundred years. The claw-pony shows he's well traveled. Don't forget, we learned from Rising Sun but as the first Created race, dwarves were taught by their creator."
"He's still strange!" Bet said.
Els nodded and waved for the women to follow her back upstairs. Her dwarf had explained the Seer, maybe Mindra could explain the little dwarf.