The summer was drawing to a close, the weather getting a little cooler and wetter. A new high priest had been chosen in Marnak, one who seemed to have a more open mind, and the People were slowly beginning to lose their fears of the energy beings known as the Colourless. Crenkari and Mikrald, two young scholars who worked in the knowledge temple, had decided to remain in Marnak, to teach the townsfolk as they learnt themselves. They had also set up a shrine in the library to Talri-Pekra, which had begun to see daily visitors. Kandrina and the others had spent the past few weeks preparing for their long journey northwards; to investigate the strange lizard people Nerlarina had called the Li Buqu. They had one stop to make before hand though, in the dwarven villages to the west, where Kandrina's younger sister was studying alchemy.
Remlik lifted the last of the bags onto the cart, and jumped up himself, settling between Kandrina, his old student and a close friend, and the Colourless' spokesperson Nerlarina, who had decided to go with them. He had also managed to convince Dekarem, a talented mage and an acquaintance of his sister's, to accompany them on their journey north of the Serpent Hills. Irritatingly, it seemed the man had brought most of his worldly possessions with him, so the cart they had hired was loaded up with bags full of trinkets and nonsense. Perhaps he could be convinced to leave some of it at the dwarven village when they arrived. "That's everything; let's get moving," he said to Remlika, who sat in the front of the cart to drive the horses.
"Right," she called back, flicking the reins. The horses – two sturdy brown mares – began plodding down the road. The cart began rolling slowly along the road out of Tewen, heading west towards the dwarven villages across the plains. Dekarem began talking incessantly almost the second the cart began moving. The late summer sunlight gleamed off his bare scalp; for reasons known only to himself, he was in the habit of shaving off his hair. Remlik thought it made him look like an egg with a face, but kept his opinion to himself.
"Is it true that you all led the rebellion against the high priest last month?" he asked excitedly as they passed through the town gates.
Remlik nodded. "Though I wouldn't go so far as to call it a rebellion. We just revealed a few truths that had been kept hidden from the public for far too long," he said. "We had a lot of help, anyway."
"I know, you actually got the gods themselves involved! What did you have to do to make that happen?"
"We didn't have to do anything," Kandrina said, remembering how the aspect of Dranj-Aria, the Goddess of Time, had simply turned up outside the Colourless' city with her father and sister. It had been a very odd meeting. "I guess they just decided to help out; after all, the high priest was doing it all in their names."
Dekarem looked at her curiously for a second before speaking again. "It's Kandrina, isn't it? You've made quite a name for yourself; I mean, nobody ever had the nerve to challenge the high priest straight to his face before you," he said excitedly. "Did you really tell him - in front of the whole town - that you didn't believe the gods answered prayers? And then you dared him to hand you over to the Demons?" Before the high priest's disappearance, the Colourless had been called Lightning Demons in temple doctrine.
Kandrina sighed, hoping the mage wouldn't be doing this for the entire journey. She wasn't sure if she could put up with it for the week and a half it would take them to reach the dwarven village. "I did. He got incredibly angry, especially when I insulted him and the other priests at my trial the next day. If I remember right, I called them all pompous and selfish, or something of the sort," she said with a faint smile. The high priest's expression on that occasion had been unforgettable.
Everyone laughed. "What did happen to him in the end, anyway? There's been all kinds of crazy rumours going around," said Dekarem. "I heard that all his acolytes turned against him and sacrificed him on his own altar; but Braklarn seems to be convinced that an angry mob of townsfolk chased him into the hills."
"Apparently the Creator decided to deal with it himself," Remlika answered. "We all went in to confront him in the temple, while everyone was rioting outside, and after a bit of an argument Dranjari called up to wherever it is the gods live, and Vrenid-Malchor spoke so everyone in the room could hear. He said something like, 'You have displeased me. Now you will answer to me for your transgressions.' The high priest almost wet himself," she said in amusement.
Dekarem stared around at them all, clearly impressed. "You mean you actually heard the Creator's voice?" he asked in a hushed tone. "That must have been something. What did it sound like?"
"Echoing and deep. It seemed as though every word was amplified by the temple walls," said Kandrina, recalling vividly how everyone had cowered at the sound. "Definitely a very powerful voice."
For a moment, the only sounds were the clopping of hooves on the road, and the quiet rolling of the cart's wheels. "I almost wish I'd been there," said Dekarem enviously. "You're probably the only people outside of the temples to have heard him speak."
"At least in this generation, anyway. They say that Chief Morendir's youngest son, Gienkin, heard the Creator's voice once too," Remlik said as he dug through one of the bags in search of dinner. "Although, it's mentioned in several scrolls that he was insane, so that might not be true. The dwarves might know a bit more, if you're interested; since they live longer than we do their records tend to be a little more reliable. I'll ask Worrald when we get there." He pulled a bread roll out and began munching it contentedly.
Dekarem nodded, before launching into yet more questions. "How do you know the dwarves, anyway? I always thought they weren't overly friendly towards us," he said.
"Not true; that's just what the temples used to say to put people off leaving our lands," Remlika told him. "There were dwarves living in our lands - not many, I'll grant you, but a few - until about thirty years ago, when the priests threatened to execute them if they didn't leave. You know Braklarn's sister, Wordarla? She's part dwarf, and the village we'll be stopping at is where her father lives."
"Ah, I always wondered about her; those weird eyes she's got. So, these lizard things; you say their whole lives are based around magic?"
"Almost entirely, yes," Nerlarina replied. "They use magic for the slightest thing, almost without thinking. Even those who cannot cast themselves will use magical objects. Their warriors' swords and shields are enchanted, their houses built with magic; it was most disturbing to us."
"And they have no overall leader of any sort?"
"Not precisely. They do have a matriarch and patriarch, who basically decide who to fight with; but other than that there is no government as such," said Remlik. "From what Nerlarina told us, they lead a rather violent existence, constantly fighting each other for power. The mages in particular tend to duel one another; the Colourless think it has something to do with training, or possibly some sort of hierarchy among the spell casters."
The bald mage opened his mouth to ask yet another question, but Remlika stopped him. "Dekarem, that's enough for a moment. We've already told you everything we know, and some quiet would be nice," she said, glancing back with a smile. "Besides, I was going to stop for the night in a bit." She reined in the horses by a small clump of trees, thinking it would give them a little cover from any rain that came in the night.
Approaching the gates of the dwarven village at sunset several days later, they were hailed at the gates by a pair of weary looking sentries. "Halt strangers… Wait, 'ave we seen y' before? Y' look somewhat familiar," said the dark haired dwarf, leering at Remlika's ebony hair and skin.
"I think you have, we visited last winter," she replied coolly, ignoring his lustful stare.
A wicked grin spread across the dwarf's face. "Aye, now I recall. Y' be the friends of the lightnin' folk," he said. "I wouldn't mind gettin' a little friendlier with y' m'self, missy. I be comin' off duty soon, maybe I could show y' to a little tavern I know…"
Remlik leant forwards. "Actually, we have a place to stay, thanks. Can we go through? Only, it's been a long journey and we're all pretty tired," he said, glancing at his sister.
"I bet y' are. Tell y' what, why don't y come along to the Six Bells inn sometime tomorrow? I'll be waitin' for y', sweetheart," said the dark haired dwarf, winking unsubtly at Remlika.
Keen to get away from the licentious dwarf on the gate, Remlika made a noncommittal gesture and urged the horses onwards to the inn where they had stayed before, the Bucking Horse. It was owned by Worrald, the father of a friend of theirs, and tutor to Kandrina's little sister. A young dwarven boy rushed out to take care of their horses and cart, and Remlik handed him a small silver coin. "You take good care of that cart, and the boxes inside it."
"Aye sir, I'll do just that," said the boy, staring at the coin in wonder. He led the horses into a nearby stable as the small group entered the tavern. Unlike the first time they had visited, the bar was reasonably calm. Quiet was out of the question of course, as it was packed with drunken, rowdy dwarves enjoying ale and cards at the end of the day. But at least there was no brawling going on tonight. Kandrina spotted her father instantly, and made her way across to him through the crowded room.
Harndak looked up as she approached, hazel eyes shining in the lantern light. His dark hair was now liberally streaked with grey, matching the close-trimmed beard he had grown since leaving Marnak. A little of his muscle looked to have run to fat, but the strong, broad shoulders he had developed through years of working the forge remained. "Kandrina, how have you been? Come and sit down, Polinde's just gone to get drinks," he said, sliding across the wooden bench to make room for her. "Did you have a good journey? I wasn't expecting you tonight, thought you'd be arriving tomorrow."
Kandrina took a seat next to her father, running her fingers through her hair. It had been a while since she had last brushed it, and it was getting slightly itchy. "The journey was fine, the weather held so we managed to travel quicker than we were expecting. Who is Polinde?" she asked, wondering what her father had got himself into now.
"Polinde is the prettiest barmaid in the village, and a very good friend of mine," replied Harndak with a shy grin, looking across the table at the woman who approached. She was round faced, yellow haired, and looked good natured. She set down the drinks she carried and took a seat on his other side. "Poli, this is my daughter Kandrina," he said to her.
"Tis a pleasure to meet y'," said the woman, smiling across at Kandrina. "I been hearin' a lot about y' from y'r father n' sister. She be out the back, mixin' up some potions with Worrald. I reckon she'd be right pleased to see y', if y' wanted to go through." She pointed to a door in the corner, just to the side of the bar.
Realising the two of them wanted a few more moments alone, Kandrina made her excuses and headed through to the back room. She had just shut the door behind her, blinking in the steam that filled the room, when she heard a loud squeal, and someone ran up and grabbed her around the waist with such force that she staggered slightly. "Hello Enkarini," she said, guessing who was squeezing the air out of her. She waved to someone standing near the shelves along the back wall, assuming it to be Worrald, the alchemist and bar owner she had met briefly on her last visit to the village. He waved back cheerily before turning back to the shelves, seeking out ingredients.
"Kandrina, I missed you! Come and see what I'm making," said the little girl, her green eyes sparkling with excitement as she pulled her older sister over to the stone cauldron at the other end of the room. A light blue vapour was rising from the potion inside. "It's a cleaning potion, you just pour it onto something and it cleans off all the dirt," she said.
Kandrina leant over to look. The potion was bright blue, and bubbled slightly, giving off a faint smell of lavender. "That sounds handy, we could have used that when we had to clean up Father's workshop," she said, smiling at her sister. "So how many potions can you make now?"
"Nine, I learnt two more since I saw you in the magic mirror," said Enkarini with a huge grin. "Worrald showed me how to make this one earlier today, it's nearly done now."
"Aye, tis almost done simmerin'. Y' need to crush up some of these 'ere leaves and add them, they let the potion evaporate when it's done its' job," said Worrald, coming back from the shelves with a handful of large, round, yellowish leaves. Enkarini set to work crushing them with a stone in a bowl, and Worrald turned back to the cauldron. "Tis good to see y' again, Kandrina. Y'r sister be comin' along nicely with her studies. Very talented, she is. My daughter's been showin' her some stuff to do with makin' magical artefacts, n' she seems to be pickin' that up quickly too. Does talent like this run in y'r family, do y' know?" he asked Kandrina.
Kandrina thought for a minute. "I don't know. If there's any alchemical or magical talent in the family, it must be several generations back. Most of the family have been blacksmiths, though I think a few on Mother's side were weavers," she said. "Is it usually something that runs in families?"
Worrald shrugged. "Sometimes, sometimes not. Twas just my curiosity, really," he answered, watching Enkarini empty the crushed leaves into the potion and stir it thoroughly. "Well done lass. That should be about ready, I be thinkin'. I'll put the fire out, y' go on up to bed. We can test it out on the breakfast things in the mornin'," he said, winking at the little girl.
Enkarini hugged her tutor and sister, and disappeared through the door back to the bar. Kandrina and Worrald followed her, and saw Dekarem, Remlik and Nerlarina sitting near the darts board discussing something heatedly. Kandrina glanced around, noticed Remlika standing at the bar, and her father still ensconced in his corner with the yellow haired barmaid. She followed Worrald across to Remlik's table.
"I'm telling you, it's too easy," Dekarem was insisting. "What they need to do is divide up the board, so if you hit say the top of the outer circle you get more points than if you hit the bottom of the same circle."
Worrald took a vacant chair. "Discussin' darts, are y'? I hope y' not plannin' to change the rules on us overnight, tis the only game I ever win anythin' on," he said, grinning around at them.
"Dekarem was just saying he thinks it's too easy to get a high score. He's only annoyed because I beat him four games in a row," Remlik said, dark eyes twinkling with mirth. "Anyway, how have things been here? I just saw Enkarini going upstairs, how are the alchemy lessons going?" he asked.
"Aye, things be goin' well. The lass is a natural talent, she be far better than I was at her age," Worrald replied. "N' Wordarla says she's never seen anythin' like it. She be teachin' the lass how to make magical bits and bobs, y' see," he told the others.
Remlika returned, carrying a tray loaded with a wide selection of glasses and tankards. "Yes, Wordarla's just been telling me. She's behind the bar," she said by way of explanation, placing her tray carefully on the table and dropping into the chair next to Kandrina. She took a glass of blood red wine and continued. "I'd like to see if her talents extend to spell casting sometime." She sipped at her wine, losing herself in her own thoughts.
Kandrina looked carefully at the drinks on the table before selecting one. She had very little experience with wine and ale, so she wasn't entirely sure what she liked or disliked. Being unsure about the colour of what Remlika was drinking, she chose a tall slim glass that contained a deep golden wine. She took a small sip, and found it tasted incredibly sweet. She took another sip, and felt a warm fuzziness spreading through her body. "What's this stuff called?" she asked.
Worrald answered her. "Tis honey wine, lass. Comes from the forests to the far west, very rare too. Rumour 'as it the Diyrae 'elp to make it, though I be disinclined to believe that. Keep to 'emselves, they do."
"Dee-ray? Who are they?" Remlik asked, wondering if they were some obscure band of dwarves.
Worrald chuckled. "Not dee-ray, Diyrae. They be the folk what live in the forests out west. Very strange lot, from what I hear. Pleasant enough neighbours, so long as y' keep out of their way, y' know. Not like the bunch up north y' be headin' off to visit next. What we've heard of 'em from the lightnin' folk," he nodded to Nerlarina, "they be a right nasty lot. Why is it y'r goin' up there, anyway?"
"We think it's about time we started exploring more of this land, and finding out about the other races that live here," Kandrina replied. "Besides, I have a personal score to settle with them. One of their mages killed my brother, and I'd like to know why."
A stunned silence fell across the table. Remlik and his sister knew about her brother Perlak, but had not expected Kandrina to be so open about it. For a few moments, the only sounds were the fizzing of Dekarem's ale, and odd snatches of conversation from the nearby tables.
"So y' goin' after one of their mages, are y'?" Worrald asked, scrutinizing her closely. When Kandrina nodded, he rose from his seat. "Wait 'ere, I'll be back in a bit." He left the bar, disappearing into the back room again.
"If you intend to confront one of their sorcerers, it is likely they will challenge you to some form of combat," said Nerlarina in her crackling voice. "As your friend, I would warn you against it. However, I am aware of your kind's sense of family connections. I assume you have some kind of plan?"
Kandrina was spared answering by Worrald's return. "What was that about?" she asked, curious as to why he had suddenly rushed off.
Worrald looked over his tankard at her. "Just forgot to check the fire, lass. Don't want stray embers lightin' up the whole inn, do we?" he said with a slight wink. "So, who wants another drink before bed?"