The throne room of the Stoutbeard clan of dwarves, like all the other ones belonging to the other clans of Thankul, was ornately decorated. Intricate carvings lined the walls, detailing the long and proud history of the clan. A long part of that history, included in the carvings, was the tales of their dominance in their struggles against the Stonefist clan.
Mirda ignored the carvings, for she knew the truth. The details on them were naught but lies, propaganda meant to fuel the egos of the Stoutbeards. Her clan had similar carvings in their halls, and she doubted they were that much more truthful. It annoyed her to no end, but there wasn't a thing she could do about it.
If she had a choice in the matter, she would not be here. However, it was tradition that a representative be sent in the event of a khane's death, even in the case of their hated foes. She had been ordered to uphold her clan's traditions. Mirda supposed that she could do this much. At least her father wouldn't lecture her about duty any time soon.
"His Highness, the khane of the Stoutbeard Clan, Durrin Stoutbeard, bids you welcome, Mirda Stonefist," a herald announced as she approached the throne.
She ignored the herald and stepped forward, studying the khane. He looked and smelled young for his position, about the same age as her. If it weren't for the tragedy of the recent mining accident, there was no doubt he would not have taken the throne for another twenty years at least. Inwardly, she could remember being told that it was shameful to have to give someone like this respect.
Still, she would do so. "Greetings, Khane Stoutbeard. May the stones embrace you."
"As they embrace us all," he answered, nodding calmly at Mirda.
"We are sorry to hear about your father's passing," she spoke, following the careful instructions she had been given. This sort of thing was not her strong point. "It is a shame that death claimed him as it did."
"Aye, it is, it is," the khane agreed. To Mirda, he seemly slightly saddened, although she knew it shouldn't really matter what he felt. Her father would let her have it if he found out she was feeling sympathy for a Stoutbeard.
"In recognition of your ascencion to khane, I have brought you a sample of the best Stonefist mead." She pulled a skin of their dark mead out of her belt pouch.
"Good," Khane Stoutbeard smiled, "I always have enjoyed the taste of Stonefist mead. Ah, it's the finest mead around." He gestured at the herald, who stepped forward and took the skin of mead from Mirda.
"So," he continued, "On to business."
"Business?" Mirda frowned, wondering what this was about.
"Indeed," the Stoutbeard khane said, "I need you to deliver a message to your clan's khane. I am calling for an assembly of the clan khanes, to discuss a highly urgent matter."
"Very well." Mirda had to guess that this was probably some political ploy. Not that it mattered to her. She'd rather leave that business to the older members of the clans.
"Thank you for your time, then," he said, "May the stones guide your path."
"As they guide yours." Mirda turned to leave, glad to get out of here. Honestly, politics was a headache for her to figure out. At least she could relax with a nice cold drink after this.
Heading for the door, she got halfway across the throne room before everything started to shake. Falling to the floor, she looked up to see the ceiling cracking as the shaking increased.
Everything seemed to be moving slowly. Vaguely, Mirda was aware of the others rushing around the throne room, shouting.
Then the world fell down on her.
Mirda sat up, groaning. The last thing she could remember was the ceiling cracking above her head. At least she wasn't buried, and could move around.
"Ah, you're awake now," a familiar voice said. Mirda looked over to see the Stoutbeard khane standing there, holding up a torch. In the dim light, he looked tired and ragged.
Taking a breath, Mirda wished she hadn't. The air was thick with the smell of blood and dust. And underneath it all, a much fouler scent was there. She didn't know what it was, but between it and the blood it left he feeling ill.
"What happened?" she blurted out, stumbling to her feet.
"What we feared," the khane muttered. A single small rock fell down beside them, punctuating his words with a thud.
"Khane Stoutbeard..." she began, confused.
"Call me Durrin," he said, "No time for titles now."
"Uh...Durrin," she spoke, trying hard not to panic, "What caused all this?"
"The mountain did," he stated, "Damn it all, it's too soon, too soon!" He shook his head, making his beard flop back and forth.
"Soon?" she blinked. She knew the khane had to be feeling as fearful as she did, but this wasn't helping to explain.
The khane sighed. "The matter I wanted to assemble the khanes to discuss was this. Our clan's engineers...they had discovered a number of cracks deep in the tunnels. That...that is what killed my father, which is why I wanted to do this now."
"Cracks?" Mirda asked, thinking hard. The entire city of Thankul was built by the finest engineers that had ever lived. How could the whole thing possibly be coming down now?
"We don't have time to talk about the details, but this is the result," he answered, "Damn it, the dwarves I sent to find a way out should have returned by now."
Sighing, she turned and looked down...and nearly gagged. The half-crushed body of the herald lay behind her, blood spilling partly across the floor. She was about to look away when she saw it. Lying there, just past the outstretched hands of the dead herald, was the skin of mead, somehow still intact despite the disaster.
Bending over, Mirda scooped it up and put it in her belt pouch again. For all she knew, she might need it later. She said a silent prayer for the dead herald, and then turned back to the khane, who was looking at nothing in particular, apparently paying her no heed.
For a minute, the two stood there silently, waiting. Finally, the khane spoke, "Ah, blast it. We're going to have to go hunt down a way out ourselves."
"How?" Mirda asked.
"The only way we can," he told her, "Poke around until we find it. Follow me; I should know these tunnels better than you."
She nodded, and they set off towards the one exit. If she remembered correctly, this was one of the side passages that led deeper into the Stoutbeard tunnels. Hopefully it circled around to a way out.
Mirda was beginning to get impatient. They had been walking for what had to be a quarter of a day, and there had been no sign of any other survivors, nor did they seem to be making any headway in finding a way out. There had been at least half a dozen dead ends, and even the khane...or Durrin, as he repeatedly insisted on being called, was looking more and more frustrated.
"Damn it, this is no good!" he finally said, after they reached yet another dead-end chamber, sealed by fallen rock. He leaned against the wall, scowling in the dimming light. "The torch is about to go out, and it looks like we're trapped for now."
"What do we do?" Mirda asked.
"We wait," he sighed, dropping the torch to the ground with a clatter. Raising one booted foot, he stomped the thing out.
"Now we can't see!" she protested.
"Ah, but we'll have more air to breathe," the khane stated, "Best sit down and get comfortable, we could be here a while."
Trying to stay calm, Mirda felt her way over to the wall near the other dwarf. She didn't know what she was supposed to do.
"So then," the khane began, "Might as well talk a bit, while we wait. So, why did they send you to meet me? I know you've got plenty of older brothers who could have delivered that mead."
Mirda wondered how much the Stoutbeard khane knew. She knew she'd be reprimanded normally if she went spilling her clan's plans. However, this was not a normal situation, and she didn't really care either way.
"It was disrespect," she told Durrin. It struck her as odd that she had started to think of him by his first name. "To show how little they cared about you."
"Ah, politics," he grumbled, "I never was good at that stuff." He suddenly chuckled. "Honestly, I was kind of wondering if they were actually going along with the old marriage joke or something."
Mirda shook her head. While she was not the most fond of her clan, she had always disliked that old joke about the Stoutbeards and the Stonefists. It was really insulting, claiming that their feud meant they should probably start marrying each other.
Suddenly, the real meaning of what Durrin had said hit her. "Wait...no! I wasn't going to marry you!" she sputtered.
"I know, I know," the khane laughed, "Figured I might as well have a little fun."
"Whatever," Mirda muttered.
"Look, it's not like you're the fondest of your clan yourself." Durrin chuckled again for some reason. It wasn't like he could see her scowl, so that wasn't it. "If you were, you'd have been arguing against me from the moment you woke up."
Mirda couldn't help but laugh at that one. After a brief moment, Durrin joined in. It was almost enough to make her forget about what they were dealing with. Almost. Even so, she had to admit she felt more relaxed now.
"See, you proved it," Durrin finally said, "I suppose I never exactly saw eye-to-eye with my father either. Of course, I knew I'd likely take the throne someday, so I just put up with it. I figured I could change things once I got there. Of course, doesn't look like it matters now." Even though Mirda couldn't see, it seemed like the khane was looking at her. "So what about you?"
"Our khane is my father's brother, so I have...had a different problem," Mirda admitted, "As the youngest in my family, I never got to do anything important, but my father always berated me for not doing my duty." He'd have berated her now, she knew, if he heard her talking to a Stoutbeard. She suspected Durrin knew it too.
"Heh, sounds like you had it easy." Mirda really was starting to dislike not being able to see Durrin's face. It was hard talking to someone in this darkness.
"Not really," Mirda grumbled, "I couldn't do anything without talking to my father, the khane, or one of the other clan leaders first. Most of the time I sat in my room and just read books."
"Ah, I take back what I said." Durrin coughed slightly, sounding oddly loud in the silence. "Sounds like we both had it rough, right?"
"I guess," Mirda said.
"Guess our clans really were dumb," Durrin commented, "I know my father kept telling me to trust in the stones, but also said never to trust a Stonefist. If they had done it the other way, we might not be in this mess."
"True," she murmured, not really wanting to talk about it. She hated to admit how bad their ways had been, as she still had tried to take some pride in being a Stonefist dwarf. However, she knew that they had done a poor job. It was no wonder the other clans made fun of them.
At least Durrin was friendly about the whole thing. It was odd, realizing that a member of the clan that had fought with hers for so long was more open-minded than any of her kin. It figured that it took the whole world falling on their heads to find someone she could agree with.
She still didn't know what to do. All Mirda could think of was to just follow the example of the Stoutbeard khane and wait quietly. Sooner or later, someone had to come.
Stretching, Mirda had no idea how long they had been waiting in the darkness. Neither of them had said anything. While she had no idea what Durrin was thinking, she had to admit the situation looked grimmer by the minute. There had been no sign of any other dwarves, despite the fact that a large part of the tunnels they'd traveled through were still uncollapsed, even if damaged.
The air was beginning to get slightly stuffy. Morbidly, she wondered if the other dwarves had ended up trapped in even smaller chambers, and suffocated. The thought of dying so helplessly made her shudder. She hoped someone came soon, or else...it scared her more than anything she had ever known. Compared to this, she'd prefer to be involved in clan politics any day.
"So, doesn't look like anyone is coming," Durrin commented, eerily reflecting her thoughts.
"No," she said, not trusting herself to stay calm. Mirda wanted to flee, to struggle, to fight this creeping fate, despite knowing that it would likely only hasten the end.
"Might as well do something worthwhile, then," he chuckled, "Didn't you pick up that skin of mead back in the throne room? I kind of want to taste it."
"Uh...no, I didn't," she lied, feeling her blood run cold.
"Hey now, don't tell me stories," Durrin complained, "I can smell the stuff in your belt pouches. Why wouldn't you want me to taste it?"
"Do...do you really want to spend your last moment drinking mead?" Mirda raised her voice, trying to come up with a reason not to give it to him. Part of her said it didn't matter at this point, a growing part she was trying to ignore.
"What, is the mead poisoned or something?" Durrin laughed.
"It...yes," she admitted, looking down. The crux of her clan's plan, to assassinate the khane before he had a chance to even really begin his rule.
"Oh, so that was it," the khane said, "Well...I can't say I blame you. Still, I guess this makes it easier."
"Easier?" she asked.
"We're going to die either way," Durrin explained, "We might as well die doing something worthwhile. So, pass me the mead."
She sat there, thinking about it. Something worthwhile...now, looking back, it seemed like nothing she'd done had been really worth it. Mirda had always tried to be dutiful, but it had never gotten her anywhere. All of it, leading up to this moment, when there was nothing she could do any more.
"Uh...hello?" the khane asked, "Are you still alive?"
Was that why she was afraid of dying? She'd never seriously done anything worthwhile in her life, and now it was too late. She was stuck here with the khane of the Stoutbeards, with no one else coming, and no way out. She didn't see anything that she could do.
Then it hit Mirda; there was one thing she could do, one final act. It might not amount to anything, but it was better than waiting for death.
"Alright, I'll give you the mead," Mirda said formally, "If you do something for me in return."
"Oh, really?' Durrin asked, audibly shifting closer to her.
"As representative of the Stonefist clan," she began, keeping her voice formal, "I now offer a treaty of peace with the Stoutbeard clan."
The other dwarf fell silent for a moment, clearly caught off guard. Mirda had no clue what he was thinking. All she could do was wait for his answer to what she had proposed.
Finally, he spoke. "As thane of the Stoutbeard clan, I accept your offer of a peace treaty. May it last until the mountains fall upon our heads."
Mirda knew the irony of the age-old oath. She supposed it was fitting, that after the mountain had done just that, that such a peace was made. Maybe it didn't make up for all that she and her clan had done, but at the least it made her feel better. Even if no one else knew it, she'd done what no one else from her clan had dared to do. The centuries-old feud between the clans was ended.
"And now a toast, to the new peace," she declared, pulling out the skin of mead. Opening it up, she took a deep drink, emptying about half of it into her mouth. It was nice and cool, sweet and thick. Despite that, she could still taste the faint bitter flavor of the poison in it. Somehow, knowing that her clan had failed to hide that fact made her feel better.
She handed it over to Durrin, who took the skin. Mirda heard him take his own drink, and then a dull thunk sound as he flung the skin away. The sound was strangely distant, as if it were farther away than it actually was.
"It really is the finest mead around, isn't it?" Mirda asked, closing her eyes. She felt very tired now, relieved that it would soon be over. She briefly wondered if this was an effect of the poison, and if it really was this fast-acting. If so, it was just as well, as it saved them both the trouble of dying slowly.
"Ah, that it is," she heard Durrin say weakly, "That it is."
Author's Note: This was originally a submission for an anthology contest I entered. It didn't make it, but it got some fairly good praise, so I figured it was mainly a case of me being out-written. So it's going up here, so you can enjoy!