Acclaimed author Elizabeth Haydon returns with a heartbreaking tale of love and valor in The Hollow Queen, the eighth installment of her USA Today bestselling Symphony of Ages series that began with Rhapsody, publishing June 30th.
CHAPTER ONE: THE FORGES, YLORC
The ring of steel against anvil was always a lovely percussion line for a song, and Sergeant-Major Grunthor was in the mood for singing as he pounded away, shaping the new pick hammer he was making.
The fires of the ancient forges of Canrif, designed and built a millennium and a half before by Gwylliam the Visionary, splashed light over the enormous smithy, adding a dance of shadows to the heat and smell of the place, increasing the Sergeant’s already considerable pleasure. Gwylliam, an ancient king he had never met, was a genuine anus of a human being in Grunthor’s estimation, but an undeniable genius at smithing and architecture. Therefore he thought it only right and fitting to shape his newest song in tribute to the long-dead inventor, whose mummified remains he and his comrades had come upon a few years before, splayed out on a table that was hidden away in the vault of a secret library in the bowels of the citadel the man had literally carved out of a mountain range in what now was the kingdom of the Firbolg, known as Ylorc.
Grunthor threw back his head between swings of the forge hammer and let his glorious bass, often a few notes flat, fill the high-ceilinged chamber with song.
Oh, Gwylliam was a piece o’ shit
But that don’t matter none,
’E liked ta build and loved ta smith
’Cause makin’ stuff is fun.
It isn’t nice ta beat yer wife
Ya shouldn’t if you ’ave one,
But anyone would wanna smack
That bitch that they called Anwyn.
Yen the broadsmith, the Archon responsible for the forges, stood in as close an approximation to attention as the wiry Firbolg body was capable of and tried to maintain a placid expression, when what he really craved was to go to bed.
“Join in, Yen,” the Sergeant instructed as he turned the pick hammer on its side. “That’s an order.”
“Don’t know words, sir.”
“Hmm. Could be a problem, then. Once Oi get the chorus down, Oi better ’ear ya.”
“Hmmm, now—where was Oi?”
“‘Bitch that they called Anwyn,’ sir.”
“Ah, yes.” Grunthor opened his mouth to begin a second verse but, struck suddenly by decorum, he removed the shield from his eyes with great drama and stepped momentarily away from the anvil. He turned and looked furtively around the smithy floor.
“Where’s me pint?”
“Base of anvil, sir.”
“Ah, yep—’ere she is.” Grunthor scooped up the amber bottle, pulled the cork with his back teeth, spat it out, and held it high to the towering ceiling above, adding its shadow to those that were already dancing there.
“’S’only proper we drink a toast to Annie,” he said solemnly. “’Ere’s to Anwyn, dead, again, a third an’ ’opefully final time. You was a worthy adversary, Annie. Well, not really. You was a craven, manipulative nightmare with far more opinion of yerself than you ever deserved. May you writhe in the Vault o’ the Unnerworld in unceasin’ agony for Time Immemorial, amen.”
“Amen,” said Yen automatically.
The Sergeant-Major, who stood fairly close to eight feet tall with shoulders as wide as a one-ox plow, waved the bottle aloft for a moment longer, then downed the contents, following up with a resounding belch that echoed through the smith chamber.
The guards atop the ramparts applauded politely.
Grunthor acknowledged their applause with a tip of the empty bottle, put it back at the base of the forge, then picked up the tool he’d been smithing and held it out for the broadsmith’s inspection.
“Yer opinion, Yen?”
The Archon examined the hammer.
“Not one of your better ones, sir.”
The Sergeant’s enormous amber eyes narrowed. He held up the newly crafted pick hammer to them and inspected it himself.
“You best be talkin’ about the song, sonny. This ’ammer’s a thing o’ beauty.”
The manic light went out of the Sergeant’s eyes, and his face grew solemn.
“Really? The truth now, Yen, no jokin’. This is important.”
The broadsmith signaled silently for Grunthor to turn the hammerhead over, and leaned closer to look at it again. The tool was approximately three times the size of the pick hammers that were routinely produced in the kingdom’s commercial forges for mining and rock climbing in the peaks of the Teeth. Grunthor himself had designed the original model for the routine hammers several years before, and it had become one of the kingdom’s most successful goods of sale, sent in trade around the world. In addition, its contribution to the expansion of the kingdom to new heights, literally, and the mining of the gemstones and rare minerals that he and the Firbolg king, Achmed the Snake, had discovered in the depths of areas unexplored in Gwylliam’s day, was significant.
His expression at the moment could only be described as hurt.
Yen thought carefully and cleared his throat.
“You said big one for smashing.”
“Yeah,” said the Sergeant-Major. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Head too long compared to height. Need to be shorter.” Yen cleared his throat again. “Not by much.”
“’Ow much?” Grunthor demanded.
The broadsmith looked at the head of the tool again. Then he held up his fingers with an infinitesimal gap between them.
The Bolg sergeant’s face lit up again.
“Oh! Well, if that’s gonna make the difference, let’s put ’er back in the forge, then, Yen. Gotta be perfect fer what Oi got planned. Oi guess what ol’ Brenda usta tell me at the Pleasure Palace was true, then. Longer’s not always better. Oo’da believed it? Take yer time, Yen.
“An’ besides, it gives me a chance fer two more verses, maybe three.”
Yen merely closed his eyes.
* * *
Several hours later, when the massive head of the pick hammer had been shaped in proportion to Yen’s satisfaction, and the handle adjusted to accommodate it, Grunthor went down the long hall that was one of the major horizontal air vents for the forges and opened the gated doorway. He stepped out onto the sheltered ledge, into the night wind, and stared westward, over the steppes at the Krevensfield Plain and the rest of the Middle Continent beyond.
What had been a pristine vista not that long ago was now speckled with light and smoke from what the Lord Marshal of the armies of the Cymrian Alliance, Anborn ap Gwylliam, had termed the Threshold of Death.
Grunthor and the Firbolg king had taken great amusement in the melodramatic name, but appreciated the concept nonetheless; Anborn had established a battle line, an interconnected series of fortified encampments that had once been farming settlements, designed to prevent the army of the southern nation of Sorbold from crossing, unrestricted, into the central regions of the Middle Continent. Most of the major provincial seats and army garrisons of the Alliance were positioned in the northern third of that area, and the great gap between the helpless farmers and the bulk of the army was now in the process of being evened out.
Tactically, Grunthor was pleased.
As pleased as one could be when an ally was defending a vast open landmass that bordered an attacking nation quartered in mountains, an enemy with an eye on assets north of that enormous open field.
Not good plannin’ fer our side on the part of the All-God, he thought, watching the last moments of the sunset. Or ’ooever it was what planned it.
Just as the last of the turquoise light left the sky, he felt a shadow fall upon him from behind.
“Good evening, sir. Got a new joke fer ya.”
There was no response, but Grunthor could feel the shadow grow a few steps closer.
“Whaddaya get when ya cross a Firbolg soldier with a Dhracian assassin?”
There was a moment of silence. Then a sandy voice spoke.
“I don’t understand.”
“Either an unbeatable combination of milit’ry might, or the ugliest, deadliest prostitute ever.”
Silence echoed up the vent.
“I still don’t understand.”
Grunthor sighed. “’Ave a seat, Rath.”
With almost no disturbance of air whatsoever, the space on his right was occupied with the thin body of the Dhracian demon hunter, a man with whom Grunthor had had little interaction and even less conversation.
The man who now was the only person in the Bolglands with a chance of killing the adversary for which they were preparing.
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