The elevator continues to move, the dark space crowded with two enormous crates, two dwarves, and one increasingly uncomfortable silence. It’s as if Rala can actually feel the shape of what they aren’t saying, what no-one is saying. The dwarf clears kaj’r throat – a little too theatrically – and turns to look at the indistinct shape of the other dwarf.
“No,” kaj says.
Rala blinks. “…No what, Kah Dahj?”
“No, we’re not doing anything wrong.”
The steady, reverberating clunking of gears beyond the elevator walls is the only sound for a long while.
“But didn’t we -”
“Oh for Wyrm’s sake Rala – what’s the problem here?”
“Well,” Rala takes a deep breath, determined to get the words out. “We signed a treaty with Alsvor.”
“To not sell weapons to the trolls.”
“But now we’re selling weapons -”
Very, very carefully, Rala reaches into one of the broad metal containers, using two clawed hands and a lot of grunting to pull out something broad and round, its edge gleaming even in the low light. “So what do you call this then?”
Dahj was implacable. “Yes.”
“Made of folded ripplesteel, with a tempered cutting edge all the way round and a foot long gemsteel spike!”
“Yes, a shield.”
“And what… ” Rala picked up another item, so heavy kaj’r voice struggled with the words, “what – about – this, then?”
“Yes, armour. It’s clearly a gauntlet, Rala.”
“Oh – yes, clearly,” Rala puffs under the weight, “clearly a dropforged – triple plated gauntlet with – gemsteel claws!”
“As I said, a gauntlet.”
“Dahj – this thing could punch through a steam knight, a Minotaur steam knight, and keep on going!”
“It’s still just a gauntlet.”
Rala stares – then with a quiet snarl heaves the gauntlet back onto the pile. “This,” Rala gestures broadly at the two containers of shining edges, thick plates and gleaming spikes, “this is wrong Dahj! And you don’t need to be a word-mincing kij to see that.”
Dahj bristles, ears back and eyes wide. “A ‘word mincing kij’ am I?”
“I, I didn’t mean -”
“Did you see the Alsvoran ambassador when kaj was here, Rala?”
“Well, yeah, everyone did. Kaj kind of stood out.”
“Yes kaj did – with kaj’r delicate silk clothes and fancy embroidery and gold jewellery. Gold, Rala,” the dwarf sneers, “the metal that children test their claws on! Now would you consider that such a frail, silk swishing, gold-drenched foreigner to be a stand up kaj or a ‘word mincing kij?'”
“Look, I didn’t mean that you were a -”
“And how about Tzin Dhroakn? You remember kaj don’t you?”
Rala shivers, remembering the sight of the troll clan leader walking to meet the dwarf chief. The white fur had gleamed like ice, like a blizzard, the immense creature fully twice as high as any dwarf, yet moving among them so gently. When the Tzin spoke – in perfect kajarun – kaj’r voice was like the distant rumble of thunder.
“And which of those two,” Dahj continues, snapping Rala out of the memory, “the ambassador or the Tzin, who would you call the most kaj? Which one would you least wish to have as an enemy?” Dahj wrinkles kaj’r muzzle. “Do you even know why Alsvor is here?”
“Their war with Echalia, they need allies -”
Dahj laughs, disgusted. “Open your ears, Rala. They need magic. Their lizard queen is dying, she’s almost four centuries old, well past her time. And her magic is dying with her. I’ve heard that in the north the Alvorans pay people to collect old griffin feathers from their nests. They’re desperate for magic, they’ll do anything for more.”
“But,” Rala frowns. “We don’t have any.”
“No,” Dahj’s voice is flat. “But the trolls do.”
“What?” Rala shakes kaj’r head, baffled. How could something so immense, so powerful, so quintessentially kaj, rely on something as pathetically kij as magic?
“When was the last time you went to the surface?” Dahj asks.
“Uh, three years ago. When I was caught stealing claimed ore. They gave me two days beyond the door.” Two days out in the frozen wasteland, above the rock, under the sky. Rala shifts uneasily, feeling the absence of the toes kaj’r had lost to frostbite. “It was cold.”
“Yet the trolls live out there, even lay their eggs out there, in that cold. How, Rala?”
“I don’t -”
“It’s the bluemoss. It’s always warm. They line their nests with it, and it keeps the eggs warm while they’re away hunting.”
“That makes no sense,” Rala’s nose wrinkles. “Why doesn’t it freeze?”
“Magic. Like griffin feathers, the moss is full of it.”
The elevator gears rumble on. Rala stares at nothing.
“The trolls use it for their eggs? And Alsvor – is that what their expedition was for last year? To take the moss?”
Dahj’s expression is hard to read in the dim light. “They were looking for magic, they found it.”
“They couldn’t have known they were eggs, though, right?” Rala shivers violently. The wind had been so cold. What would that cold do – ?
There’s a bark of harsh laughter from Dahj. “Would it have made a difference if they knew? These are a people who pay orc children to climb into griffins’ nests. Where do you think they draw the line?”
Rala looks at the crates again. “So they made us swear not to provide weapons to the trolls.”
“Yes. Instead we’re selling the Tzin as many not-weapons as kaj wants, as many as kaj can carry. And we’ll keep on doing it until kaj tells us to stop.”
The gears rumble loudly and the elevator comes to a stop with a clank.
“We’re here,” Dahj puts two hands on the nearest crate, ready to heave it on its metal wheels as soon as the lazy kij controllers lower down remember to lower the counterweight and open the wide stone bulkhead to the outside world.
The door starts to move. With the rasping hiss of stone on stone, the bulkhead begins to lift. As soon as wind begins to whistle through the crack, four white claws slide through and an enormous hand grips the rock. With a rush of movement the door is thrust up, revealing a world of blasting white and howling cold, billowing around the immense black shadow standing in the doorway, holding the door up one handed.
“You,” the voice booms, “are late.”
“I,” Dahj tries to talk through chattering teeth, raising kaj’r voice over the wind. “Our humblest apologies, Tzin Dhr-”
“Ivan is not Tzin Dhroaka. Ivan is Ivan. You bring the weapons.”
Rala coughs, “I – um, we, brought, your, um, shipment of -”
The shadow takes a step forward, one hand idly bracing the door as the rest of the immense figure leans inside, filling the elevator and towering over the two dwarves. Rala can’t tell if the whiteness is a covering of snow, clothing, or just fur. A hand as broad as a dinner plate plucks a gauntlet from the top of the heap, turning it over thoughtfully.
“This good,” Ivan announces.
“I, we are pleased that -” Dahj begins, but doesn’t get far.
“For this, and continued shipments, Tzin Dhroaka gives you two thirds of all food hunted for next six years.”
Both Rala and Dahj gape in surprise. The word of a troll is stronger than steel – you could claim it from any troll, anywhere, with no proof required nor asked for. After all, who would dare try to lie to them?
“Two thirds?” Rala says, “Surely that’s too much, you’re too kind -”
“Not kindness.” It’s too dark to see the expression on that face, but the voice is harsh. “It is not needed. There are no children to feed.”
Both dwarves stare in silence as Ivan reaches one immense paw around a crate, lifting it up and passing it back, another looming figure reaching out of the thick whiteness to take it. It must have been only a few feet away, yet neither dwarf could see barely more than a shape, and both suddenly wondered how many others were out there.
Ivan picked up the other crate, tucking it under one arm and standing up to fill the space again.
“Tomorrow, you will not be late,” Ivan states, before letting go of the door, the stone slab slamming back down to flood the dwarves with darkness and silence again.
Eventually, Rala clears kaj’r throat. “Kah Dahj?”
“Y… Yes, Rala.”
“They’re – Alsvor – they’re not going to know what hit them.”
“No. No they won’t.”
This micro fiction was co-written with Lex Wills.