We have something very special for you guys for this weeks Friday reads: a sneak peek at the first chapter of Markus Heitz’s The Triumph of the Dwarves. Heitz is back with a bang with this action-packed return to his best-loved series. Be excited, be very excited!
After decades of occupation by the älfar, the dark elves have been defeated and peace has finally been declared.
But the nations still distrust each other, and when a child is found in the Grey Mountains who speaks the language of the älfar, the dwarves believe this little girl heralds a new threat. And they will be right – just not in the way they thought.
Under the orders of Ireheart, now High King of the dwarves, a small delegation is sent to search for Tungdil Goldhand, the true High King, who many believe dead. Against all odds, Tungdil has survived his mission to the terrifying realm of Phondrasôn. But is he truly the legendary hero of the dwarves, or an impostor at the heart of a deeper conspiracy?
And does he realise that the fiends from Phondrasôn themselves aren’t far behind . . . ?
Elf realm of Ti Lesinteïl
(formerly the älfar realm of Dsôn Bhará)
6492nd solar cycle, early summer
Raikan Fieldwood reined in his horse at the edge of the barely perceptible old crater; this was where the realm of the hated älfar Triplets had been based. His escorts, two men and two women, rode up to him, fanning out to the right and left of Tabaîn’s crown prince. Still in the saddle, all of them in rich clothing and light cloaks, the five surveyed the scene in amazement. They would never have believed such a transformation possible.
‘Good thing I’m not a betting man.’ Dark-haired and tall, Raikan was widely expected to take over as regent when his sickly, older brother Natenian gave up the throne as envisaged. Thus it fell to him to conduct negotiations with the elves who had settled here after their liberation from the älfar.
‘I’d have lost that wager, too,’ said his friend Tenkil Hoge, shielding his eyes and brushing strands of dark hair aside as he studied the scene. The warrior’s chainmail had more than the usual number of metal rings to accommodate his powerful build. He had not wanted to leave his armour behind and had more weapons on his belt than the others, despite the fact this was supposed to be a peaceful neighbourly visit. ‘How on earth . . . ?’
Lilia, Ketrin and Irtan gazed on, still speechless with astonishment.
Raikan thought back to the previous autumn, winter and spring, and the heroic deeds, deaths and victories recent orbits had brought.
Wave after wave of warriors had set out to destroy the Dsôn Aklán and the last of the black-eyes in Girdlegard’s northern region. In the end their courageous fighters had won – but the losses had been horrific.
Afterwards they had begun to demolish the älfar buildings, to tear down the palace mount and to fill in the hole; the elf Ilahín and his wife Fiëa had overseen the works. Now, one sun cycle after the end of Lot-Ionan, the älfar, the dragon Lohasbrand, his orcs and the kordrion, Girdlegard was settling into peace. The human monarchs had been restored to power and chaos had given way to the rule of law.
Although there were still a few princelings and upstarts in the kingdom who needed seeing to, Raikan considered Tabaîn, the granary of the northwest, well on its way to establishing peace and prosperity. Together with his brother, he had been preparing for the planned abdication when Ilahín and Fiëa had invited them to Ti Lesinteïl.
To come to the court.
Raikan had not been aware that the elves, so few in number, had already chosen a king, or that enough of them had arrived to constitute a court. ‘Let’s go over and take a closer look at this marvel.’
The little group turned their horses to take the gentle slope of the broad highway.
You could only guess how deep the crater had previously been if you knew the old stories; this was where the northern älfar had ruled from. By filling in the crater, the elves had now managed to turn the place into a circular dip in the landscape, a good mile wide, but in Raikan’s eyes the real miracle was the flourishing woodland.
The forest treetops formed a rich green, waving sea of foliage into which he and his companions plunged. They seemed to sink to an ocean floor as they rode between trees that were more than a hundred paces tall.
Raikan was enchanted by the interplay of light and shade, the various hues of leaf, bark and bud. The air smelled like honey, exotic spices and incense. His senses were aroused and entranced.
‘I have never seen trees with blossom like this,’ said Tenkil, sounding suspicious. ‘Or ones that grow that fast.’
‘I can’t object – they hide the horror that lay beneath it all.’
Raikan started to feel very positive about their coming visit to the elf court. He was sure he would return to Tabaîn with extremely advantageous agreements.
Secretly he was quite ready to make pacts with all three elf realms. It would put Tabaîn ahead of Gauragar and Idoslane. It was true that a new era was being launched in Girdlegard, but Raikan did not trust the ruler of United Kingdom of Gauragar-Idoslane, Queen Mallenia. She might be a powerful and determined leader but he did not approve of her chosen lifestyle. What kind of a monarch sets up with an actor, of all things – and one known to flaunt an open dalliance with a maga, at that?
Raikan did not think Mallenia would attack him, but considered her moody and unpredictable. To have the elves on his side would make a good impression. His own people would be reassured, too. He wanted his country to be safe; that was all.
The Tabaîn delegation made their way along the winding road flanked by the mighty tree trunks.
The woodland was flooded with light; moss and ferns covered the floor but there was no dense undergrowth. From time to time, Raikan noticed animals watching the riders. The wildlife sensed it had nothing to fear from these humans.
‘Over there on the right,’ said Tenkil. ‘Looks like the elves haven’t been quite as thorough as we thought.’
Raikan turned to catch sight of an imposing sculpture of unmistakably älfar origin: it was composed entirely of bones. It portrayed the upper body of a powerful warrior, rising up to launch himself on enemies. Woodland creepers had almost covered the horrifying work of art, growing tight across the bone surface.
‘The ivy will soon pull it down,’ said Raikan, shuddering. The älfar are being eliminated, together with everything they created.
The five riders reached a wide clearing containing a dozen or so stone-built houses and a colossal tree at its centre, spreading its branches as a natural shelter over the settlement. Raikan tried to work out how deep the tree’s root system must go to support the weight. The houses were grouped in the soft shade, each constructed like a small fortress but with playful decorative elements that stopped them looking like a giant’s discarded building bricks. The carved blocks were painted in various shades of green and decorated with swirling ornamentation. Vegetation on the walls ensured the buildings blended perfectly with the surroundings.
Tenkil was already concerned. ‘If you wanted to take this settlement you’d have to fight house to house.’
Raikan did not take the remark amiss. The warrior had long fought the enemies of Tabaîn; he always viewed any location from a strategic aspect rather than observing it with peaceful eyes.
There were elves, male and female, on the streets, smiling at the newcomers. Raikan reckoned there were at least forty of them walking around. He signalled to his escorts to stop. ‘I thought only a handful of elves had come to Girdlegard.’
‘More than that.’ Tenkil exhaled sharply. ‘Many more.’
‘But they’ve no weapons.’ Raikan smiled at his friend. ‘They won’t harm us.’
In the middle of the little settlement, at the root of the tree, stood a large house, a hundred paces square, with a curving roof a good fifty paces above their heads. Four long balconies, ten paces wide, were placed at intervals along the front.
The construction was mostly wood and the beams had been artfully carved; countless white lanterns decorated with red runes dangled in the light breeze. Two enormous black banners with glowing white designs hung all the way down to ground level where they framed a massive, bronze double door, inscribed with yet more runes.
‘Elves are the fastest builders I’ve ever seen,’ observed Tenkil, his tone implying that he did not believe things had been done in an honest and straightforward way.
That’s enough of that. Raikan was about to reprimand his friend when the door opened and an elf in wide, dark green robes emerged, carrying a tray with a carafe and five goblets. His short black hair was combed back severely, showing his slightly pointed ears; the dagger in the belt around his slim hips was as long as his forearm.
He approached the delegation with steady steps.
Raikan did not consider it fitting to accept the refreshment while still in the saddle, so he dismounted. Tenkil, Lilia, Ketrin and Irtan followed suit.
A slight breeze travelled through the trees, setting off the gentle sound of bells fastened in the branches, giving the occasion a ceremonial atmosphere.
The elf bowed his head and proffered the drinks. ‘Welcome, humans from Tabaîn. My master is delighted you have accepted his invitation.’
‘We thank you.’ The riders each took a goblet.
It was delicious from the first mouthful. The water tasted pure and more refreshing than anything the heir to the Tabaîn throne had ever drunk before. He could not place the faint aroma but it left a pleasant cooling after-effect in the throat.
When they had returned their empty goblets to the tray, the elf smiled at them. ‘Step this way, please. My master awaits.’
Raikan followed the elf, keeping an arm’s length or two behind. ‘Ketrin, you stay with the horses.’
The blonde girl nodded and gathered the leading reins in her hand.
Tenkil looked up. ‘Guards. Nine bowmen. They’re standing in the shadow of the second balustrade.’
Raikan would have been surprised if this had not been the case. ‘Let’s assume they’re there for our protection.’
So that meant yet more elves here in Ti Lesinteïl. Where are they all from?
Tenkil let out a coarse laugh. ‘Oh, yes. Like the spies hidden in the woods, the ones aiming at us as we passed?’
Raikan did not answer. He had not noticed the elf-soldiers in the woods. His friend’s remark ruined his cheerful mood.
They passed through the double doors into a large, bare hall that smelt of incense and flowers. On the walls there were symbols as well as stylised pictures of landscapes and birds. The colours shimmered as if liquefied metal had been used to varnish the images.
At the far end of the hall, an impressive figure of an elf with brown hair knelt back in an uncomfortable-looking posture on a platform with mats of plaited reeds. He wore an elegantly-cut robe of white fabric woven through with gold and silver threads. Rays of sunshine fell in from three directions from skylights, turning the elf into a figure of light. He kept his ringed hands open, resting on his thighs, as he directed his gaze to the visitors.
Raikan was surprised – he had only met Ilahín and his wife Fiëa, and thought that he was the king. But Ilahín was nowhere to be seen, nor was the sumptuous throne Raikan expected.
The simplicity of the surroundings was as surprising as the unknown figure sitting in front of him. Who is this?
Their guide bowed and spoke in the elf tongue.
‘Let us use human language,’ the ruler interrupted in a sing-song voice, cutting the words sharply.
‘It is impolite. Raikan might think we had something to hide.’ The elf made an elegant gesture with his right hand, less inviting than commanding. Raikan nodded and moved to comply but Tenkil grabbed him by the arm.
‘I’m not kneeling down for anybody,’ he muttered; the emptiness of the room made his remark audible to all.
‘The elf ruler is also kneeling.’
‘He can do as he likes but I’ll only bend the knee when I’m dead. I’ve fought enough battles in my time not to–’
That’s enough. Raikan glared at him. ‘Then go outside and wait with the horses.’
Tenkil opened his mouth to object but saw sense. He turned on his heel and left the hall.
He’s been at war too long. Together with Lilia and Irtan, his remaining two companions, Raikan went over to the raised dais and knelt down at some distance from the elf, resting back on his heels in a similar posture. The ruler exuded an aura of power and self-assurance. The gaze from those bright grey-green eyes spoke of superiority.
There had not been much time for practising diplomacy in recent cycles and thus the young Tabaîner felt unsure of himself; he had no idea how he was supposed to conduct himself when faced with an elf ruler. There was nothing in the books. I’ll wait and see.
The bronze door closed with a metallic clang as loud as a gong. The sound reverberated and then bells started to tinkle through the fading echo. Nothing happened for quite some time. They sat opposite each other and waited.
Raikan was forced to suppress a yawn. Because of the incense and the harmonious tones of the bells he found the atmosphere in the room increasingly relaxing. Although sitting on my heels like this is getting less comfortable from heartbeat to heartbeat. He felt the tension leave his body.
That was apparently what his host had been waiting for.
‘I am Ataimînas, regent of Ti Lesinteïl and Naishïon of all elves. As I see it, Tabaîn has sent me its coming monarch.’ He placed his hand on his breast at heart level. ‘I am honoured.’
‘The honour is mine.’ Raikan felt flattered as he shifted uncomfortably; his feet and ankles were tingling. Before long this posture would make his legs go to sleep. ‘You have created a miracle here.’
Ataimînas gave a grateful smile. ‘Maga Coïra and our own humble gifts have worked together to ensure the horrors of the past are well and truly buried and forgotten.’ He spread out his arms. ‘Let us speak of the future, young king. That is the only thing that matters now.’
Raikan agreed. ‘How can Tabaîn be of assistance?’
‘By providing corn.’ Ataimînas placed his hands in his lap, where the jewelled rings sparkled and shone. ‘The elf realms are in the process of re-forming and there has been little opportunity to pay attention to agriculture. During the course of the next ten cycles we intend to source the corn we need from the fields of Tabaîn. From what I hear, your harvests promise to be plentiful, as usual.’
This is going well. We’re heading for an alliance. Raikan could not help smiling. ‘We should be able to do without a few sacks of rye.’
‘I speak of all the elf realms: Ti Âlandur, the Ti Singàlai you refer to as the Golden Plain, and Ti Lesinteïl. All in all we calculate our requirements to be eleven hundred twentners.’ Raikan heard how Lilia next to him caught her breath in surprise.
‘How many mouths do you need to feed, Regent Ataimînas?’
The elf seemed astonished at the question. ‘I thought the Children of Vraccas knew all about our immigration campaign? We have made no secret of it.’
‘The dwarves send regular briefings to the Council of Kings, but the last meeting was half a cycle ago,’ Raikan explained. ‘There has been a lot to do.’
‘Of course. So you will learn that we have arrived from the south, the west and the east, responding to our Creator’s sign that the threats to our people are now over.’ Ataimînas pointed to the door. ‘This is only one of our many settlements, King Raikan. We are re-forming our race and we shall not, in future, be cutting ourselves off from humans and dwarves as our ancestors were wont to do.’ The elf straightened up, his robes brilliant in the light. ‘I know what reputation goes before us in Girdlegard and I fear it was justified. But in less than a human generation that reputation will have changed.’ He pointed to Raikan. ‘Trade negotiations are the start. If you wish it.’
Of course I do. Raikan held back from confirming his willingness out loud. ‘But you still have not said how many elves have come.’
‘Up to the present orbit it will be about ten thousand.’ Ataimînas registered the surprise on his visitors’ faces and gave a friendly laugh. ‘You should see yourselves, young king. We are not here as conquerors. We are merely returning to the place where our Creator formed us. And for that we shall be needing more corn.’
The chance of a business deal and an alliance was extremely tempting. Raikan ought to be excited. However, he felt undeniable unease about the sheer numbers involved. That many elves in Girdlegard? It was as if Tenkil had left his suspicious attitude behind when he marched out of the hall. Annoying.
‘We will provide extra seed corn for Tabaîn to plant,’ Ataimînas went on. ‘It’s a particular sort of wheat, very high quality. You will guard the crops for us. For that we will pay you handsomely.’ He gave a condescending smile. ‘I shall make you rich.’
He went on to specify these payments and the price for a twentner of corn.
Raikan did not even attempt to bargain with him. The amount of gold lay far beyond what he had expected.
Instead he replied, ‘I am pleased to be able to assist the elf realms.’ After an agreement of this kind it should be easier to put forward his suggestion of an alliance.
‘Let us not waste any time.’ Ataimînas made a sign and a hitherto hidden door in the wooden panelling opened to admit two elves.
They brought parchment and quill; the contract had already been drawn up and only the mutually acceptable details on price and volume needed to be inserted before both parties signed.
Raikan was aware that he was overstepping his authority here, as his brother had not yet abdicated, but he felt this was an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Tabaîn’s future was at stake.
‘Many thanks,’ he said to the elf, as he was handed the completed agreement. ‘Might I use the occasion to . . .’
‘Then that business is settled.’ Ataimînas looked pleased. ‘Now let us talk about something else: land.’
The royal heir was taken by surprise. ‘I don’t understand. Did you want to purchase the fields for your own type of crop . . . ?’
‘The elf realm in which you and your friends currently find yourselves is to be merged with the other two. We are buying up the land that falls between the regions.’ Reaching behind him, Ataimînas drew out a map and unrolled it. The new borders were already marked. ‘We wish to acquire the part of Tabaîn that lies to the north of Âlandur and goes up to the mountains. The land does not strictly lie between our realms but it would complete our territory to perfection.’
Raikan realised that the elf was not expecting any objections. This was inevitably going to cause problems. An alliance with the elf kingdom ceased to be a suitable proposition: instead of security, it would only bring dispute. It seemed to Raikan that he had made the whole journey in vain. ‘I expect you will put this idea to the Council of Kings? Queen Mallenia would be most affected by your plan.’
‘That is so. I fear there will be petty objections. She has a relationship, of course, with the King of Urgon, which makes her a double monarch. This could mean there would be three votes against me.’ Ataimînas looked Raikan up and down. ‘You will be taking my side, I hope.’
Now the young man understood why the grain price had been set so generously. ‘I will have to speak to my brother about this.’ Raikan tried to avoid a direct answer. ‘This is a matter of far greater implication than the decision concerning grain supply.’ Tenkil’s suspicions appeared to be well-founded. The next war was waiting in the wings, only one cycle after the liberation.
The elf’s smile was non-committal; gold and silver light was reflected on his handsome face. ‘Yes, do that, Raikan Fieldwood. I’m sure you will convince him. Who would not want to have the Naishïon as a friend?’
Raikan recalled that Ataimînas had used this term earlier in their talks. ‘Forgive my ignorance, but for the last two hundred and fifty cycles there was no contact between our peoples. This title means . . . ?’
‘It would translate in your language as ruler with unlimited powers.’ The elf’s manner continued to be friendly. ‘Ruler over my own people, of course. Not over Girdlegard,’ he added with a mischievous smile. ‘We wouldn’t want any misunderstandings.’
‘Of course not.’ Raikan was glad that Tenkil was outside with the horses. His warrior would have launched immediately into an argument. There was a lot to consider on the journey home. An alliance would have to be thought about very carefully.
‘Have you heard about the child they found in the Grey Mountains?’ Raikan asked, in an attempt to change the subject.
‘The young girl?’ Ataimînas became tight-lipped; he stretched and leaned back slightly. ‘If you ask me, I’d say Belogar Strifehammer should have killed her. The dwarf and I are of one mind here. I fear, as does he, that the child will prove to be anything but a blessing for our shared homeland.’
He’ll have to explain what he means. Raikan was about to put forth another question when suddenly a loud shout was heard outside. A whoosh of arrows was followed by further shouts and the whinnying of terrified horses.
The man soon to be king of Tabaîn jumped to his feet, followed by Lilia and Irtan – but like him, they collapsed back onto the rush mats immediately. The circulation in their lower limbs had been badly affected by the unusual kneeling posture they had felt obliged to adopt. Sitting back on their heels like the elf meant that they had no feeling in their legs; they were essentially paralysed from the knees down. They lay there helpless: easy victims.
‘Tenkil!’ Raikan looked over to the closed door, then turned to face the elf ruler.
But Ataimînas was no longer there.
The Triumph of the Dwarves is out on February 8, 2016.