Dweorgaheim (The Kaunovalta Trilogy, Book II)
Published April 23, 2012
Purchase: ebook Dweorgaheim from Amazon
Secure in the company of her new companions, Ally is drawn into the majesty and mysteries of the ancient realm of the dwarves. From the fires and forges of the foundry towns to the incomparable wonders of Ædeldelf, greatest of the cities of the Deeprealm, she follows her destiny, seeking ever to return the ancient treasure that she has been accused of stealing to its rightful owners. Aided by Frideswide, a priestess of Khallach the Stoneteacher; her husband Wynstan, one-time warrior and veteran of the Iron Guard; and Uchtred, an engineer and master metal-worker, Ally delves ever deeper into the ancient underground fastness of Dweorgaheim – and learns to her dismay that regardless of whether they are buried deep in the earth, or deep in her own past, some secrets are best left undisturbed.
Excerpt From Chapter VII:
They joined the slowly revolving throng. Luperio, with all of the easy grace that she would expected from a nobleman of his age and experience, led her through the paces. Hax had never learned any of the dances of folk other than her own; but she had learned those well, and the measures of the Dweorga were simple, mechanical and repetitive compared to those on which she had cut her teeth. She found that she had no difficulty either reading and matching the steps, or following Luperio’s expert lead.
They threaded their way effortlessly through the throng, gliding like gossamer upon the polished stone to the accompaniment of solemn horns and tambours. Hax, who had been trained under her mother’s discerning eye, performed the undemanding manoeuvres flawlessly. This led Luperio – who evidently had a strong opinion of his ability – to draw her into increasingly complex and difficult steps. A tiny smile lit upon her lips as she realized what he was trying to do. She quickened her own steps, matching him without visible effort.
As they paced and twirled, she could not help but think about the last time she had danced – with Breygon, at Bellik’s Rest in the tiny, two-horse town of Bornhavn on the north-road in Zare. There was little to compare between the half-elf and Luperio; the latter was centuries her elder, immensely experienced, a practiced and graceful performer. But he lacked something elemental in his makeup – some strength, either of heart or of purpose, that made Hax feel drawn to the ranger.
To outward eyes, she and Luperio were of a kind, a perfect match. But in her heart of hearts, she felt more akin to the half-elf. It was a puzzle.
Rather than focus on the conundrum at the expense of her footing, she thrust her memories of Breygon into one corner of her mind, and concentrated instead on her footwork. In her childhood, Hax had relied on her native poise and flexibility as a substitute for experience. Now she had both experience and strength. Forty years’ practice with the aulensis had knitted cords of muscle down her legs and up her back. During the frequent celebrations and fêtes at Joyous Light, she had proven herself capable of holding her own with the finest dancers that Eldisle had to offer. Luperio, his background and skill notwithstanding, was certainly not in her class, and he was six centuries her senior. Hax met him, step for step and measure for measure, answering his unspoken challenge with precision, grace, and flare.
The only thing that bothered her were the new shoes that ‘Master Endh’ had constructed for her. She was used to dancing in light slippers; the extra height built into the damnable Dwarf-boots he had jammed her into threatened to trip her at every pirouette. She had to concentrate, feeling for the flagstones with her toes simply to stay erect. It was a minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless. In a way, though, Hax was grateful for the distraction. It helped her keep her wits about her. Rather than slipping into a serene haze, as she usually did while dancing, the ever-present fear of stumbling kept her alert.
This proved to be fortunate, as Luperio, it seemed, wanted to talk.
Hax was taken aback when he spoke. It was a breach of etiquette; according to practice, dancers were expected to concentrate solely on their footwork and their partners. Evidently the ambassador didn’t feel especially bound by custom. That’s good to know, she thought. Maybe there are other customs he’ll be willing to flout.
“I’m surprised to see you here unannounced,” the elf-lord said mildly. It was a weak opening gambit; he had to raise his voice so as to be heard over the throbbing drumbeats and the buzz of the crowd. “I’d’ve expected Kaltas’ daughter to arrive in state.”
“I’m travelling under my own name,” she replied, spinning easily from his left side to his right, “not my father’s…my lord.” It was difficult to both dance and talk. Which of course was why he was doing it.
“A messenger, then?” he asked lightly.
“A private journey, uncle. For study, and for pleasure.”
“It is rare that one of our folk comes to the Deeprealm seeking pleasure,” Luperio smiled, raising a sceptical eyebrow.
“That depends, my lord, does it not?” Hax asked in lilting tones.
“On what one takes pleasure in.” She laughed, doing her best to sound like the addle-pated ninnies that infested the Palace, nattering and flirting. The result sounded more idiotic than engaging, so she twirled closer than was strictly necessary, winked suggestively, and drew a slender finger along his cheek.
Luperio smiled coldly. Grasping her hand firmly, he spun her swiftly out, snapping her arm a little to indicate his awareness of her wiles, and then reeled her back in again. Hax completed the manoeuvre without stumbling, doing her best to appear suitably chastised…which is to say, not at all. It was all part of the game.
It was also, Hax noticed, beginning to get warm in the hall. She was a little concerned about the potential impact of her movements on her carefully-constructed coiffure, but reasoned that anything that had been built by a dwarf was probably over-engineered. Besides, she decided that she would rather sacrifice her hairstyle than embarrass herself by missing a single step. Not one finger’s-breadth would she yield.
At last, the piece ended. Luperio twirled his partner to a graceful coda, and the pair joined the general rumble of approval for the orchestra. Hax’s applause was entirely genuine; the musicians were unquestionably experts, with a flair for improvisation that she would not have expected to find among the stolid Dweorga. She had, she found to her surprise, enjoyed the exercise. Where some of her kinfolk claimed to find drum rhythms boring and repetitive, Hax found them exhilarating, even arousing. It was more than a matter of hearing; she could feel the varying inflections added by the musicians, the subtle transformations in tone, the syncopation of tempo, like distant thunder in her breast.
Hax shot a cautious glance at Luperio; his colour was high, but his breathing appeared steady. He was applauding calmly. Good. The rhythms had roused her blood, and she was ready, eager even, for more.
As the applause died away, the orchestra leader called something out in the dwarven tongue. To Hax’s consternation, several of the floodlights swung towards her, pinning her and Luperio like bugs to a felt board. Hax glanced at her partner, and saw that he was concentrating, an odd smile twisting his lips. After a moment, her translated. “The chief of the musicians extends his welcome to the fairest of guests from the fair realms. He wants to know, what dance would you like to try next?”
Hax blinked, taken aback. What did she know of the dances of the Dweorga? “I’ve no idea,” she whispered. “What do you think?”
Luperio’s eyes glittered; she could tell that he was enjoying her discomfiture. “He didn’t offer me the choice, young lady.”
She felt a thousand eyes on her. Hax expected to feel panic, but oddly felt nothing but giddy elation. Circumspection be damned. She was her mother’s daughter, and Aylanni’s grand-child. She was Kaunovalta.
They want me to pick a dance, do they? Her heart was still thudding, and she tasted iron. The fey spirit had taken hold.
She glanced at the ambassador, smiling tightly. “How good do you suppose they are?” she asked in as neutral a tone as she could manage. She had decided to lay a trap of her own, and could not let him guess what she had in mind.
Luperio’s eyebrows went up. “You heard them yourself. I’d imagine they could manage just about anything. Why?” he asked, suspicion dawning in his eyes. “What did you have in mind?”
It was Hax’s turn to smile sardonically. Turning to face the bandmaster, she cried out, “Æthnes cýththu æt Trepudio Vesanum?”
The effect on the Dwarves was electric; scattered applause, shouts of encouragement, and a general clearing of chairs and bystanders to afford the pair more room.
Luperio smiled indulgently as he attempted to work his way through her fractured Dwarvish. Then the last two words sunk in, and he blanched. “Young lady…Allymyn! You can’t be serious?” he murmured. To his credit, his voice did not quiver; not quite.
“This was your challenge, my lord,” Hax replied, fixing him with her gaze. A sliver of steel entered her voice. “The choice of weapons is mine. I have chosen. Pick up my gage, or cry mercy, and quit the field.”
Luperio looked shocked for a moment, as if he had caught an unexpected glimpse of something alarming. Then he shook his head, chuckling quietly to himself. He was trapped, and he knew it; and worse, he knew that Hax had done it on purpose. He had been played.
“Very well,” he whispered. “But take pity on an old man, you little minx.” He bowed elaborately, adding, “If I go to the Long Halls as a result of dancing with a beautiful maiden half her age, my devoted wife will throw my corpse on a dung heap.”
“One-quarter her age, my lord, at most,” Hax whispered innocently through her smile. “And unless I miss my guess, she’s likely to do that anyway once I’m finished with you.”
“Oh, she’ll let me live a little while longer, I think.” The elf-lord’s cheek twitched, as if he were trying to suppress a grin. He took Hax’s proffered hand and led her slowly into the exact centre of the open floor. The gleaming lights followed them. “Not that she’s especially fond of me, you understand,” Luperio continued, a hint of irony in his tone. “It’s just that I’ve never told her where the key to my strongbox is hidden.”
“If she hasn’t found it by now, then she’s not a worthy wife,” Hax replied with a saucy grin.
“Oh, she’s found at least four decoys,” Luperio laughed. “She’s very persistent. But the real key remains hidden.”
“Then you are a worthy husband,” she answered with a twinkling eye, but a respectful nod.
“I’m delighted you think so,” the elf lord said drily. “Your esteemed father would be disappointed if you danced the Trepudio with someone you didn’t hold in decent respect.” There was a peculiar glint in his amber eyes.
“Did I mention,” he went on, “that Kaltas and I were once comrades-in-arms? That we fought back to back at the Priory, at Duncala, along with that grubby myrmidon, Sylloallen Avarras?”
Ally frowned. She hadn’t expected Syllo’s name to come up. “What are you driving at, sirrah?”
Luperio grinned nervously. “Just that your poor father would be heart-broken if his daughter were to kill me on the dance floor.”
“He’s forgiven me worse sins, my lord,” Hax whispered, fixing him with her gaze. “And death is the debt that we all must one day pay.”
Luperio bowed. “Well…I suppose there are worse ways to go.” He held out his right hand, palm forward.
“Indeed.” Hax clasped his proffered hand in fingers toughened by four decades of sword-play. “Hold hard, uncle. And do try to keep up.”
Luperio looked as though he were about to reply, but before he could speak, the music began. In a moment, he had no breath to spare for speech.